Remembrance

 

 

Dramatis Personae

 

 

New Imperium Diktat: Grand Moff Gene Rytor

 

War Cabinet

 

Minister of War: Sector Admiral Gaius Adonai (Human male from Empress Teta)

Head of Fleet Operations: Sector Admiral Stan Sanders (Human male from Eriadu)

Commander, Ground Forces: Field Marshal Rodin Kaler (Human male from Coruscant)

Commander, Logistics Support: Fleet Admiral Jann Percy (Human male from Commenor)

Commander, Jedi Operations: Grand Master Alyx Misnera (Human male from Varnus)

Commander, Special Projects: Admiral/CEO Walt Amason (Human male from Bonadan)

Executive Officer, Research and Development: CEO ‘Silverfox’ K’bail (Trianii male from Brochiib)

 

*                                              *                                              *

 

Chief Cast of Characters

 

GM Xar Kerensky (Human male from Varnus) – overall Jedi Grand Master

GM Alyx Misnera (Human male from Varnus) – acting Grand Master of Division Affairs

 

JM Jacob "Jinx" Skipper (Human male from Renastatia) – Deputy Grand Master

JM Mathis "Billbob" Organa (Human male from Alderaan) - Chancellor

JM Gaius Adonai (Human male from Empress Teta) – Overseer of Defense and Military Affairs

Adept Atridd Xoan (Human male from Coruscant) - Head of Special Ops

JM Kiz Thrakus (Human male from Corellia) – Kensai and Head Instructor of Combat

Adept Vynd “Delta 1” Archaron) - (Human male from Coruscant) – Warden and Academy Dean

JM Nico Flygras (Human male from Cyagar) – Former Deputy Grand Master, currently in a coma

 

Bren (Lasitus) (Human male from Golron VII)

Templar Nadia Ispen (Human female from Coruscant)

Crusader Rynn Mariel (Human female from Kryos)

Adept Ralagos Akala (Togorian male from Togoria)

 

General Maarek Stele (Human male from Kuan)

Colonel Rivian Donitz (Human male from Ziost)

Ex-Imperial Sovereign Guard Kir Kanos (aka. Jac Railler) (Human male from Coruscant)

Cozeeke (CO-ZK Multipurpose Droid belonging to Jac Railler)

 

Icis Novitaar (Human/Ka’jeat Traveler from Kajarn)

Angol Moa - Oldest of the Travelers

Moa Gault - Father of Icis Novitaar.

Noa Rintor (Traveler as Human male) – Traveler assigned to Epsilon Sector

Malduke (Ancient evil Traveler sealed in Galbagos Nebula)

 

Jedi Adept Kurt (Former Jedi Warden – now AD agent)

 

Dr. Erim Vannik (Human male from Varnus)

Rydon Kerensky (Human male from Varnus)

Illiana Nakotov (Human female from Varnus)

 

Ret. Diktat/Sector Admiral Arfann Dogar (Canoid male from Canis)

Fleet Admiral S’cill Shokfer (Bothan male from Bothawui)

Fleet Admiral Caramon Majere (Human male from Coruscant)

Quat (Human male from Coruscant) – Aide to Diktat Rytor

 

 

*                                              *                                              *

 

The Warlords (Shok’Thola)

 

Altima (Humanoid male from Had Abbadon - Supreme Warlord) Former name: Elan Mossin

Sado (Human male from Tython)

Zalaria (Elerian female from Merinama)

Kronos (Human male from Ondos) Former name: Thule Vionin

Asellus (Human female from Notron) Former name: Onrai

Raftina (Crinn female Queen Mother)

Akargan (Human male from G’rho)

Velius (Human male from Kashi) Former name: Jarthanis (Guardians of the Breath)

Strife (Human male from Palawa) Former name: Kijiras (Chatos Academy Paladins)

Elidibsatianouka (Duinougwuin male from The Graveyard of the Dragons)

Calvernic (Human male from AD galaxy)

Queklain (Alien in Human male Rofel’s body)

Nimrod (Elerian male from Merinama – deceased)

Mordachus (Human male from AD galaxy – deceased)

 

*                                              *                                              *

 

Active Altarin'Dakor Characters

 

Naguis'Vox'Donn (Human male, COM of the Grand Crusader)

Naguis'Vox'Donn (Human male, COM of the Cataclysm)

Naguis'Vox'Donn (Human male, COM of the Ascendancy)

 

Naguis’Dakor Alona (Jedicon female under Strife)

Naguis’Dakor Chele (Jedicon female under Stife)

Naguis’Dakor Moyabi (Jedicon male under Akargan)

 

*                                              *                                              *

 

Titan-class Battleships

 

New Imperium – Grand Crusader, Cataclysm, Ascendancy, Nimbus

Akargan – Overlord, Warhawk, Extinction, Exterminator

Strife – Eternity, Abyss, Oblivion, Maelstrom

Asellus – Dark Sun, Vertigo, Nightlord

Velius – Violator, Defiler, Tormentor

Calvernic – Invasion of Light

Kronos – Death Wing

 

*                                              *                                              *

 

Military Personnel

 

Command, Task Force Crusader:

Command, Task Force Cataclysm:

Command, Task Force Ascendancy: Fleet Admiral Tam Eulicid (Human male from Rendili)

Commodore of the MC-120 Darkstar: Admiral Jingo Yatai (Human male from Coruscant)

Commodore of the ISD Stormwatch: Admiral Aaron Melvar (Human male from Bakura)

Executive, R&D Division: CEO Trident (Human male from Ammuud)

Executive, R&D Division: CEO Kasei Sarthik (Trianii male from Brochiib)

 

 

*                                              *                                              *

 

Inferno Squadron Roster

 

Inferno One: Maj. Salle Darl (Human female from Kolath)

Inferno Two: Gren Pabos (Human male from Renastatia)

Inferno Five: Kikitik (Sigman male from Sigma)

Inferno Nine: Narm Greyrunner (Human Male from Abregado)

 

*                                              *                                              *

 

 

Jedi Division Roster – 54 active members

 

Grand Master

 

GM Xar Kerensky (Human male from Varnus) – overall Jedi Grand Master

GM Alyx Misnera (Human male from Varnus) – acting Grand Master of Division Affairs

 

Jedi Council

 

JM Jacob "Jinx" Skipper (Human male from Renastatia) – Deputy Grand Master

JM Mathis "Billbob" Organa (Human male from Alderaan) - Chancellor

JM Gaius Adonai (Human male from Empress Teta) – Overseer of Defense and Military Affairs

Adept Atridd Xoan (Human male from Coruscant) - Head of Special Ops

JM Kiz Thrakus (Human male from Corellia) – Kensai and Head Instructor of Combat

Adept Vynd “Delta 1” Archaron) - (Human male from Coruscant) – Warden and Academy Dean

 

Former Council Members:

JM Nico Flygras (Human male from Cyagar) – Former Deputy Grand Master, currently in a coma

Adept Gui Sun Paan (Human male from Tatooine) - Head of Special Ops – (KIA at Battle of Varnus)

 

Other Memberrs:

Vykk Olyronn, Draken Ar’Kell, Colin Moore, Sim Zaphod, Junor Brajo, Varanus Templar, Satai Dukhat, Roger Macreed, Neres Warjan, Mrax Satai, Rilke Darcunter, Eric Donos, Aethar Daemonstar Nadia Ispen

 

 

Prologue: Aftermath

           

 

            The first time he regained consciousness, it was like rising from the depths of a dark ocean, light slowly filtering down to where dark creatures resided. The light slowly grew brighter, expanding and glowing until only white light filled his vision, rippling like surface waves in front of his eyes. That light resolved into several brighter spots, occasionally broken by dark shadows that danced in front of them. Memories floated just beyond reach, refusing to come. Even thoughts appeared only briefly, quickly disappearing again, like a wisp.

     Those overhead shadows became outlines of figures, people. A dark figure whose face was covered by a mask loomed above, his arms reaching downwards. Voices came to his ears, but were muffled, impossible to make out. Where am I? What’s happening? The thoughts were fleeting, ephemeral.

     The vision narrowed, and gave way to darkness again.

     Dreams came, the dreams of deep sleep, making no logical sense yet seeming very real. In them he was fighting against something or someone, trying to get towards a certain goal – a person, an event. In others, he was running, escaping the conspiracy of an evil, corrupt entity that only he dared resist. In his dreams he was always fighting or running, and each time, the circumstances were different, but held a strain of familiarity, like he had witnessed all this before.

     The next time he awoke, he felt cool air rushing into his lungs, filling him with a refreshing sense of life. He opened his eyes, but closed them again immediately; there was something touching them. Something liquid. Oddly though, his eyes weren’t burning. He opened them again, and saw a greenish blue blur all around him. He blinked, and then he could make out the tube snaking its way down to his mouth, and the glassed-in walls of the cylinder he was floating in. Blurred shapes moved around outside his tank. He was in a bacta bath. Funny, how that familiar sense reassured him. He floated there, naked except for his underpants, tried to look down at himself. His body felt numb. Fresh, life-giving air continued to flow through his nose and mouth. Probably mixed with a high dose of oxygen, too. He was being treated for his injuries.

     The crash. Suddenly memories came rushing back. Kamren Thansil. The duel. And before that, Rann Wosper and Tanya Vinikoro, plunging to their deaths in the streets of Vectur. His own fighter, diving downwards, the ground rushing up to meet him, knowing this would be his final moment…
     Sleep came again, but this time, the dreams were real. He relived that moment, watching Rann and Tanya die, feeling the helplessness, the anger, and the terror of knowing that he was next. The shame and denial, and the desperation. In his dreams, he yelled at them to pull out, to wake up from the trances they’d been placed in. But every time he was too late. They were gone. He had failed.
     Maarek Stele awoke once more, and this time, he was in a room, lying in a relatively comfortable bed. As his eyes opened, the familiar white walls of what had to be the palace medbay greeted him, along with the smells – sanitizing liquids, freshly-washed linens and sheets, freshly scrubbed and dried air filling his nostrils with each breath. Also familiar were the sounds – the steady beeping of monitors, the more random beeps of anomalies and alerts, and the whirring of medical droids and their synthetic voices.
     Two blobs at the end of the bed resolved themselves into Maarek’s legs. His feet were there, too, sticking up out from beneath the thin white sheet covering his torso and legs. Experimentally, he wiggled his toes; all ten of them were still there.
     At his sides were his arms, and he raised them up to look at his hands. Still there. Ten fingers, too. So he was still in one piece. There was pain, though. In his legs, in his shoulder, and along his side. He blinked, and the rest of the medbay recovery room came into slightly better focus. Was something wrong with his eyes?
     “Ah, you’re awake.”
     A dark-skinned man with gray hair dressed in doctor’s garb stepped in front of the bed. Maarek recognized Doctor Erim Vannik, chief physician of the Royal Palace, immediately. He looked tired; there were dark bags under his eyes. Maarek couldn’t imagine how many injured he must have treated during the battle, and since.
     “How do you feel?” Vannik asked, looking down at him.
     Maarek had to swallow before he was able to speak. “I’ve been better,” he croaked. He felt like he’d been run over by a tank. His throat was dry.
     “Here. There are some things we need to go over,” Vannik said, offering him a cup of water.
     Maarek gingerly took the paper cup in his hand and took a careful sip. “I’m sure. How long was I out?”
     “Ten days,” Vannik responded, pursing his lips together. “You were in a coma for seven of those. I wasn’t sure you were coming out.” He put his hands on his hips and gave a grim smile. “Don’t worry, the battle was won. Obvious, that, or we wouldn’t be here otherwise. Or perhaps it would be better to call it a stalemate. Anyway, we’re safe, for the time being.”
     The words made no sense to Maarek’s ears. A million questions ran through his mind. “My squadron…” he began to ask.
     “They’ve tried to get in here a few times, but Medbay has been on strict visitation rules. There’s still the fear of AD agents hiding somewhere inside the palace. There have been a few incidents.” He gestured to a piece of paper on the tray hanging off the side of Maarek’s bed. “They did drop that off for you.”
     Reaching over, Maarek set down the cup and took the paper in hand. It was a card, full of well wishes and signed by the members of his squadron. The surviving members. He eagerly scanned the names. Salle Darl. Gren Pabos. Narm Greyrunner. Also Kikitik – he’d managed to eject safely after being shot down.
     Some names were missing. Bast Vlagen. Rann Wosper. Tanya Vinikoro. Maarek closed his eyes. When he opened them again, the room seemed to sway a bit in front of his eyes.  He suddenly felt lightheaded.      
     “What’s my prognosis?” he asked.
       A pair of nurses passed behind Vannik, pushing a mobile bed containing another patient, clad in white sheets. Vannik shook his head after they’d passed.
     “You were in bad shape. Two broken legs, a shattered bone in your upper arm, four cracked ribs and a collapsed lung. Three of your vertebrae were damaged and required surgery. All that’s healed now, or at least on the mend. It’s your head that’s giving us the biggest problem.”
     Vannik gestured upwards, and Maarek followed his hand to a mirror built into the ceiling over the bed. He gave a start as his saw his reflection. He was bald! Or, at least, his head was completely shaved. A thin scar ran from the top of his head down towards the back, passing out of sight.
     “You’ll find another scar about eight centimeters in length running horizontally back there,” Vannik explained. “There was a sizeable piece of transparisteel lodged into the back of your skull. Gave me a bit of trouble, digging that out.”
     “Why am I getting so nauseated?” Maarek asked, feeling along the back side of his head. Sure enough, there was an obvious crease there.
     The doctor didn't reply for a while. He just stood there, looking thoughtful, and his eyes held a hint of sadness that Maarek could detect.
     "Well?" Maarek asked. He didn't like waiting in suspense, and from the look of Vannik, the news was bad.
     Finally, Vannik blew out a long sigh and shook his head. “I don’t know how to tell you this, Maarek, so I’m just going to say it. You suffered serious brain damage from the crash. That’s why you were in a coma. Now you’re suffering from an acute kind of vertigo. Spacer’s vertigo, some call it. Your whole brain’s out of equilibrium. I operated directly on the brain to try and repair the damage, and after that didn’t work I even used an experimental new drug which I inserted directly into your cranial cavity. We’ll have to wait and see how effective that is. And by the way, I did have to shave your head for the procedure, of course. Your hair will grow back, but as a side effect from the medication I injected…” He shrugged. “Well, let’s just say you’ll probably go bald earlier than you normally would have.” He reached up and rubbed his own head, where his curled, graying hair was thinning, and had receded about a quarter of the way back along the top of his head.
     Maarek shook his head, then glanced back up at his reflection again – a little too fast – the world started swimming again. “So…” he began, then waited for everything to settle again. “Are you saying this dizziness may not go away?”
     “I can’t say for sure. I’ve done all I can do to treat it, and there is a medication you’ll need to take that will help you get around to at least a limited extent. With the medication, you’ll be able to walk and probably live a normal life, maybe even travel, as long as it’s on a large transport or freighter. With time, you might even be able to ride in an airspeeder. But I’m afraid that’s as far as it goes. Sooner or later you’re going to have to face it, Maarek: You’ll never fly a fighter again.”
     Before he even realized it, Maarek had forced himself upright and swung his legs over the side of the bed. His mind was numb with shock. Better to tell a man he was dying and be done with it – this was worse, far worse. This couldn’t be happening. Not to Maarek Stele. He could not stop flying! He had to get out of here!
     Suddenly the world swam again, far worse than before. Everything tilted, like the room had suddenly turned itself sideways. Desperately Maarek flailed about with his arms, trying to catch himself from falling. He heard a thud and felt his head bounce off the floor painfully. Suddenly he was looking up at the bed, and at Vannik, who was stepping over him, cursing loudly.

     “Blasted fool! What do you think you’re doing?” Vannik’s voice rang dimly in his ears. “Nurse! Get some help over here!”

 

*                                  *                                  *

 

            Personal Quarters

            Royal Palace, Varnus

            2040 Hours

    

            Rynn Mariel, standing in the refresher’s shower unit, hung her head low and let the falling water pour down onto her head and down her body. The heat soaked into her skin, warming her, filling the air with a thin cloud of steam. Her dark auburn hair – now only extending down to her neck – was plastered onto her scalp and against her face, an unusual sensation. The rest of her once waist-length hair lay in a waste basket in the living room, cut away – just as a part of her had been cut away.

     Tears occasionally welled up, falling down to her cheeks where they merged with the stream of falling water and were gone, as though they’d never existed.

     Why did he have to die? The thought pressed in on her mind, just as it did every few moments, unanswerable, inescapable. It wasn’t fair. The battle had been over. He hadn’t deserved it. He’d had so much potential…

     The door chime to her quarters sounded dimly above the water pelting her scalp.

     Oh, the galaxy was cruel place! Why did life keep going on so easily, as if nothing had even happened? Derek had been her friend, one of the only ones left in the entire world. Didn’t everyone understand that? It was as though something had been stolen from her very soul. Her heart clenched like a fist, the despair inside overwhelming.

     Knees buckling, Rynn sank down to the shower floor and collapsed there, the water still pouring down over her. What was she to do now? How was she supposed to react? Derek had been like a brother to her, had replaced the brother she’d lost five years ago. Now the pain of both losses had returned together – with a vengeance.

     The door chime sounded again. Why don’t they just give up and go away?

     She continued to sit there, unable to fight the sense of loss and despair that overwhelmed her. She felt bone-weary, as though her strength had been sapped, all drive to continue on lost. What was she going to do now? She had no place left to go. Her whole family was dead – and now Derek, too. The world had changed around her, and everything she’d cherished was gone, now. Nothing was the same anymore.

     The door chimed a third time. They were persistent.

     Reaching up, she pulled the lever that would stop the flow of water, and it trickled to a stop, then she opened the door and hit a small, waterproof comm unit just outside the shower. “Just a minute,” she called out. Thankfully, the device would carry her words outside.

     Forcing herself upright, she grabbed a plush towel next to the opening and gave herself a quick pat-down, then took her bathrobe from its hook and tied it around her. “Who is it?” she asked.

     “It’s Jinx,” came the reply over the comm.

     “Come in,” she said, breathing a sigh of relief. It was the only person she could have hoped for. And she knew she could use the company right now. She made into her quarters’ sitting area when the door slid open.

     Rynn’s living area was well furbished, far more than she’d ever needed it to be. There was a plush, sectional sofa in the center, a large work desk in the corner, and a gigantic holoscreen on one wall, which she hardly ever used. Despite its luxury, she had only sparsely decorated, including some holo images and trinkets featuring some of her favorite animals. She’d studied some of those species, what seemed like a lifetime ago.
     “Hey.” Jacob Skipper stood in the doorway, looking at her with his kind, concern-filled eyes. He wore a dark jacket, and the one white lock in his dark hair shone in the entrance light. Most of his facial injuries seemed to have healed since the battle, restoring his natural, handsome features. “I thought I would come check on you. Is it a good time?”
    “It always is,” she said, smiling.
     Jacob grinned slightly. His eyes told Rynn that he’d noticed her new look, and that he approved. He took a couple of steps into her rooms, but paused as his boot landed on a piece of paper lying on the rug just inside the door. “What’s this?” he said. “Looks like a note.” He picked it up, turning it over in his hands. “It’s for you. From Bren.”
     Rynn quickly crossed through her sleeping quarters to Jinx was waiting. Jinx gave her the letter and she sat down on the edge of the sofa. Jinx sat down beside her.
     “Well, it looks like they’re finally letting people in and out of the palace again,” he said, making some small talk. “I’m still waiting to hear from Alyx what we’re going to do next.”

     She nodded absently. Thumbing the letter’s seal aside, she opened the paper and scanned the handwritten note there.

 

     Dear Rynn, it began:

 

     Words cannot express how sorry I am for what has happened. You must know that this is all my fault. If you cannot forgive me, please do not hate me for it, at least. I have done terrible things. I have killed again, and I took pleasure in it. Great pleasure. I can never atone for the sins I committed, nor can I bring back that which was lost forever. So I must leave now. I cannot remain; to do so would be a threat to the palace, to you, and to everything the Jedi and the New Imperium stand for. I have to find my own way. I have to find myself again. Perhaps we will meet again. Until that time, farewell.          Bren

 

     The note fell from her fingers as she finished reading the last line. Shaking her head in disbelief, she leaned over against Skipper, seeking his warmth and comfort, the tears beginning to flow freely once more. His arms encircled her gently. “Poor Bren…” she heard him whisper.

     “Oh, Jacob,” she sobbed, burying her head in his chest. “He was only a boy. He was only a boy!”

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Diktat’s Office

            Senate Complex, Tralaria

            1700 Hours

 

            The doors to the office parted abruptly, admitting a man of medium size and build, with shoulder-length hair tied behind his head, but otherwise quite unremarkable features. His appearance suggested no more than thirty years of age, and he was dressed in the uniform of one of the Senate Complex cleaning staff, but the arrogant swagger he used as he entered belonged to no humble janitor. The fact that he could even deign to pose as a lowly servant still amazed the Diktat to no end.     
     The visitor came to a halt on the plush carpet resting in front of the Diktat's massive desk, a rug emblazoned with the New Imperial symbol - the former Imperial crest encircled with laurel leaves - and crossed his arms.
     “What do you think you’re doing, Rytor?" Queklain snarled.
     Gene Rytor forced his expression to remain neutral. It would be premature to show his hand so hastily. He continued sitting in his plush, opulent seat, the bulk of the dark wooden desk between him and Queklain, though that distance was hardly reassuring. The Warlord didn't have to touch Rytor to kill him. "What are you talking about?" he asked, feigning innocence.
     The Warlord's eyes were full of contempt as he stared down at him. "What’s this I hear of the fleet structure changing? Of putting Zalaria in charge? About using Nimrod’s Titans as our command ships? This isn’t what we agreed upon!”
     “I think it’s time to rethink our strategy,” Rytor told him. He folded his hands on his desk, upon which saw stacks of papers to sign, data pads to read, his computer terminal, and a flask full of fine Correllian brandy. It was the brandy he could use most, right now. The papers held no good news; economies collapsing all across the New Imperium, casualty and damage reports from the military, refugee statistics and requests for aid from virtually every world in the NI. Pressing as they might be, he couldn’t afford to focus on all those at the moment.
     Queklain waved his comments away. "I don't care what you think," he countered, his voice menacing. "You obey me. It seems you have forgotten yourself, Rytor. Too much power corrupts the mortal mind far too easily."
     Rytor fixed his gaze ahead, forcing himself not to think about his aide, Quat, or the soldiers moving into position outside, or of the carefully-laid plans he'd been working on for months to rid himself of the Warlord's iron grip. He knew that Queklain could probably read his mind. He forced anger into his voice, focusing on everything that enraged him about the unwelcome Warlord’s presence, hoping his quarry would take it as indignation. He’d been a spy once, himself, and misdirection had always been a vital component of his arsenal.
     "I have done everything necessary for the good of the New Imperium," he said, laying his words out clearly and carefully. "You never told me what you intended to do with us. I've done the best that I could. And despite all of your plans, Nimrod took nearly all of our territory. We had next to nothing left - he was on our very doorstep. If not for some miracle by which he was killed on Varnus, both they and we would have fallen on the same day and the New Imperium would have been finished! We may still be, considering the damage we’ve taken. Half the population wants to leave the sector! And all of this no thanks to you at all."
     There. That was it, the trigger had been set. Now, how would the Warlord react?
     He didn't have to wait for long. "You insolent fool," Queklain growled. He raised a hand, and Rytor felt something tighten around his throat. He gagged involuntarily, but when he tried to suck in more air, nothing came. He put a hand to his throat, trying to remain calm. Now would be a good time.
     "You've defied me for the last time," the Warlord continued, staring murder at him as Rytor continued to gasp - ineffectually - for air. His lungs were beginning to burn, but he tried his best to keep his face straight. What was Quat doing? Burn the man!
     "I have been lenient with you, but you did not appreciate my kindness. I told you I could replace you any time I wished. Now that time has..."
     Queklain broke off at the same instant the pressure on Rytor's neck vanished. Suddenly free, he took a couple of deep breaths - and was, at that moment, truly thankful to be alive.
     Snarling, Queklain spun around and ran for the exit. In that instant, a full squad of stormtroopers came rushing through the doors, their blasters trained on him, and the Warlord came to a sudden halt.
     "That's far enough," Rytor said loudly. Fairly confident he wouldn't pass out - his vision had started to dim a little, near the end - he stood up. "You are hereby placed under arrest for the murder of Secretary Ken Brucmack and the attempted murder of myself."
     Queklain turned back toward him as the troops fanned out and formed a rough circle around him. They kept their distance, though, at least few meters - they'd been briefed on who they were dealing with. Who was to say that the Warlord was truly incapacitated even inside the bubble of anti-Force he was in? Even Rytor had had doubts.
     "Very clever." Queklain locked eyes with Rytor and smiled. "A Null Sphere. Doubtless you obtained it from Zalaria's forces?"
     "Actually, this one was in a treasure vault discovered on Moro, some years ago," Rytor said. "The Jedi Division was kind enough to let me borrow it."

     Quat finally entered from behind the soldiers, moving around them to the desk and producing the actual Null Sphere from one of the drawers inside. He’d had it activated remotely, by an assistant unaware of its purpose, keyed to flip a switch after a certain key phrase had been said. Rytor had wanted to take no chances with the Warlord’s Danger Sense.

     “Stay close to him, Quat,” he told his aide. If that Null Sphere failed for even a second, he knew they would all be dead.
     "So what do you plan to do with me?" Queklain’s voice held what seemed to be genuine mirth. Well, perhaps this would wipe the smile off his face.
     “I had already compiled enough evidence against you to convince our security forces you’d killed Secretary Brucmack," Rytor announced. "But now, being caught in the act of attempted assassination of the Diktat himself…” He shook his head. “We’re in times of war, my friend. That is high treason, and traitors may be executed summarily without a trial. Wartime rules.”
     “
You fool. Do you really think you can kill me? You will die, Rytor. Your pitiful rule is at an end."
     Rytor smiled, dismissing his idle threats. “I think not.” They had to be idle. He was betting everything on this.
     He stood and walked around the desk, coming within only a few meters of his quarry, whose hands were even now being shackled behind his back by the increasingly confident guards. Rytor stepped even closer, letting his voice drop to just above a whisper.
     “I’ve heard that it’s your immense Force power that grants you Immortality,” said Rytor. “I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I have thought long and hard about this little dilemma that I’m in. And I’ve been wondering; what happens to a Warlord if you kill one after taking that very Force from him?”
     He thought he saw something in the Warlord's eyes, then. Could it have been fear? If so, he recovered quickly. “It won’t work, Rytor,” Queklain said, his voice dripping venom. “It was a good idea, but I will always return. And rest assured I will skin you alive when I come back for you.”
     “We’ll see. I'm willing to take that chance,” Rytor replied stoically. The truth was, it was his only chance.
     The Warlord suddenly became stone-faced. His eyes, however, still bore holes through Rytor. He said nothing else. Rytor waved to the guards, already turning to pour himself a drink.
     “Take him away.”

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Battlefield Plains

            Planet Morodin

            1,003 Years before the founding of the Republic

 

Joren Xun, High General of the Followers of Ashla under the Galactic Alliance of Free Systems, ascended the small hillock that had been the epicenter of the battle. Here, closer to the planet’s northern pole, the normally fetid jungles of Morodin gave way to more temperate climates. The broad, grassy valley with gently sloping hills all around had been the perfect site for what had unknowingly become the biggest battle of the war – what they had begun calling the Great War – to date. A battle that Joren and the Followers had won.

     Around him lay the bodies of tens of thousands of warriors on both sides, spreading outwards from the central point that Joren now approached. The dead and dying lay all around him, their blood staining the grass red and soaking into the dark earth beneath. The moans of the injured wafted through the air, but there were far too few physicians to help. It was a horrendous scene – but they had won it. The Morodin had been freed from their slavery by the cruel Altarin’Dakor Warlords that had held them captive here.
     He finally ascended the hillock and looked down in satisfaction at what lay there. Surrounding him were his top men, including gray-headed Warmaster Vane, his armor chinked and outright melted in some places; Bladesmaster Brincan, with two hypersabers attached to his belt; Joren’s own personal aide Dorcan, who was skilled in over a dozen alien trade languages and schooled in half a dozen methods of Force instruction; and also a few dozen of Joren’s other high commanders, all seasoned veterans, warriors who had been fighting this war all their lives. They had trained from birth to fight the Altarin’Dakor and defend the galaxy.
     “Dorcan,” he called out, removing his helmet to let the breeze dry his scalp. “Send a message to the Council of Grand Masters. Tell them the new technique is a success.”
     The young warrior saluted and eagerly ran off towards the communications substation. The Council was, of course, scattered into secret locations all throughout the galaxy – otherwise should a Shok’Thola find their location, he could suddenly appear and kill of them in one place – but the Council had to be informed of this. It was a discovery of immense proportions. It could alter the course of the war.
     Two of the Altarin’Dakor Shok’Thola, Hashmalum and Mateus, had been defeated this day. Along with them was an army of their so-called Jedicon. Today, at long last, they had turned the tide of the war. The word itself – Jedi – had been invented by the Followers during the course of the war to denote the galaxy’s defenders. Joren would not allow the Altarin’Dakor to usurp that name any longer. He and the Followers were the rightful denizens and defenders of this galaxy. The Altarin’Dakor were the invaders, no matter what they or any media outlet said.
     Still, Joren could not think on it long, this day. The excitement was palpable; he himself felt giddy with elation despite a lifetime of brutal combat. His tactic had actually worked. After twenty-five hundred years of fighting the Altarin’Dakor, the Alliance had finally discovered a weakness in the Shok’Thola, a way to neutralize their Immortality, their most valuable weapon. Now Joren and his army had slain two Shok’Thola in one battle, and this time the deaths were permanent; he could tell by the horrible expressions on their faces as they’d finally met their doom. They’d known they were dying for the last time. Joren had no pity for them whatsoever; they deserved far worse than they had received.
     But there had been a terrible cost to both sides. Joren had taken over twelve hundred Jedi warriors into this battle. He’d emerged victorious with less than four hundred remaining. At such a rate, the number of Followers would steadily dwindle and become more rare in the galaxy. Still, these four hundred now knew the secret to defeating a Shok’Thola. This was a victory unlike any other they’d seen in the war.  With the key to killing the Warlords in their grasp, the end might finally come within Joren’s own lifetime.
     “This is a great victory,” Vane spoke up, voicing Joren’s own thoughts. “You led us well, Joren. Your father would be proud.”
     Jornen nodded his appreciation, his stark white hair swaying around his head. His own father had been High General before him, and had died fighting the forces of the Shok’Thola Asellus. Jornen had sworn to follow his father’s footsteps, and finally find a way to stop the dreaded Shok’Thola. To think that he had actually succeeded was almost too much to believe. He turned and clasped arms with Vane. The Warmaster had been like a second father to him. This victory would never have been possible without him.
     “Black ashes!” someone exclaimed.
     Joren felt the presence immediately, and spun around. There, standing directly in the center where the two Warlords had fallen, was a figure clad in golden armor. He’d simply appeared out of thin air – Joren had felt nothing before this moment, and still felt nothing through Ashla itself. The space had been empty before, and now it was not. That fact, and coupled with the golden armor – he knew it could only mean one thing – made his stomach knot up inside of him. Suddenly, all thoughts of victory vanished.
     “Fall back! Get away!” The shouts of soldiers began to reverberate throughout the regiment as men and women fought to gain their distance. Joren stood his ground, transfixed. Could this really be it? Was he facing the supreme leader of the Altarin’Dakor, right here? He was simply standing there, immobile, like an apparition. There was no indication that he was real at all.
     “It is Altima,” Vane rasped, his voice nearly a croak.
     Then, as they watched, the overlapping golden flakes that composed the figure’s armor began to pull away from the head area, folding in on themselves and dropping inside as though the armor itself were alive. Shadowtech, he realized with a disgusted feeling. The helmet virtually melted away, revealing the face of the enemy he had learned about even as a child. He braced himself for what he was about to see…
     He was completely taken aback. Was this really Altima? The figure had the face of a young boy! There wasn’t a single hair on his head or his youthful face at all. Joren would’ve wagered that he wasn’t a day over eighteen years of age. “Is this really…?” he began to ask.
     “It’s him. Believe it,” Vane shot back, his voice filled with something Jornen had never heard before. Horror. Jornen glanced at him, seeing a terror he’d never witnessed on the warmaster’s face before.
     Altima stood there, face devoid of any expression whatsoever. He didn’t even blink. Joren had heard a legend that no one had ever seen Altima’s face and lived to tell about it.
     “This is it,” Brincan said beside him, his voice dripping with ambition. “This is our chance. We can dispatch him right now and end the whole war today!”
     Joren began to nod, but stopped short when he heard Vane snort loudly.

     “Don’t for a moment underestimate who this is. My grandfather was part of an elite division of warriors that was ambushed by Altima,” the grizzled Warmaster said. “He was one of only two survivors of the attack. They used an Eolid Scanner to get a reading on his power level at the time.” He paused, took a deep breath. “They said it registered at over a million before the scanner blew.”
     “What!? I don’t believe it!” spat a livid Brincan. He glanced at the slim, golden figure standing in the center of the Followers’ formation, still unmoving. “That’s… That’s impossible, even for him!”
     Joren blinked and swallowed hard. Eolid scanners were the most powerful and accurate scanners known. They were rare; almost all had been destroyed during the war to date. But Jornen had never even heard of a power level that high before.
     “We are all going to die today,” he heard someone whisper behind him.
     Jornen steeled his nerves and forced authority into his voice. After all, it was only one man before them. He had four hundred Followers with him, all experienced warriors. No Shok’Thola would face that many at once, especially now that their weakness had been discovered. This Altima had made a mistake.
     “It doesn’t matter how powerful he is,” Jornen announced, feeling his confidence returning. “We have superior numbers. And we have the technique. Now is the time to act. We end this war today!” He heard a rumble of assent, and felt the bravery in all those around him rising up. “Followers, with me! Lend me your power! Attack now!”
     Drawing deeply on Ashla, Jornen sent all of it barreling out towards the golden figure standing there, but not in any kind of physical or energy attack. It was a ripple through Ashla itself, a technique that could touch a person’s very soul, and the only way they’d discovered that could disrupt whatever it was that gave a Shok’Thola his Immortality. As he moved, he felt hundreds more around him doing the same, their powers combining with his, their attack concentrated and focusing with one another’s. Jornen had always surmised that the Warlords received their powers and abilities from a source outside of themselves. Through experimentation, he had discovered this technique. Now four hundred Followers of Ashla attacked as one, their combined efforts focusing on the one, single target in front of them.
     The attack fell as one on Altima, the same way it had when it hit the other Warlords, and stripped them of their Immortality. Their shocked faces had been proof of the attack’s success.
     The attack fell on Altima, and nothing happened.
     Jornen blinked in shock. Why hadn’t it worked? Altima was still standing there!
     A hubbub broke out all around them as warriors broke all protocol, swearing oaths and expressing the sheer disbelief that Jornen felt. This was impossible; it had been their only real weapon to use against a Shok’Thola. What had gone wrong? Wasn’t Altima a Shok’Thola, like the others?
     Suddenly a high-pitched scream filled the air, and he heard Brincan shout “No, Fostican!”
     From behind Altima, a young warrior rose into the air, his glowing blade overhead, a battle cry emanating from his throat. He landed just behind the golden figure and struck downwards with all of his might. The blade crashed off of the being’s armored shoulder to strike the Warlord directly on the neck. Everyone held a collective breath.
     Then Fostican went wide-eyed and backed away, his face a mask of sheer terror. Where his blade had hit the armor, the golden flakes were warped and melted, but there was no mark whatsoever on the side of Altima’s neck.
     “Nightmares of Tython,” Vane whispered.
     “It… It can’t be!” someone screamed.
     Then Altima’s eyes began to glow with an inner light, and the corners of his mouth curved upwards in a smile. Slowly, he raised his left arm from the elbow down, bringing his hand up until his palm faced the sky, fingers spread wide.
     Suddenly there was a flash, and a corona of white enveloped Altima, rushing around him like a whirlwind, banishing all color inside and turning the Warlord into stark black and white lines. Jornen stared at it in dread fascination, frozen in place. He’d seen such halos around Shok’Thola before, but never like this. It extended at least ten paces away from his body. Loose stones, weapons and even bodies began to float free in the air around them. Warriors all around them began to flee, running wildly to get away from the monstrosity in front of them.
     A ripple of light shot out from Altima, flashing across the ground and spreading out to the edges of the valley in an instant. Jornen blinked. What was that? he wondered. A Sphere of Projection?
     Then the air exploded around Altima, and Jornen’s last thought ceased in a flash of pure light.
     The explosion expanded to the valley’s edges instantaneously, consuming everything within.  The Followers surrounding Altima were vaporized, and the other warriors on the battlefield were blown to pieces, unable to escape the field of destruction. Earth blasted out with a force bordering on the relativistic. Skin peeled off of bodies, followed by muscle and bone that was pulverized into thousands of fragments. Body parts flew in all directions before being incinerated in the bright fire that burned away everything within the entire valley. The surrounding hills melted away, the ground collapsing in a crater as large as the valley was wide. The conflagration rose into the sky, burning away the very atmosphere creating a swirling vortex kilometers wide.
     Then in an instant, Altima was gone. As he disappeared, a flash shot deep into the planet's crust, and in its wake an explosion of fire, earth and magma blasted out of the planet, doubling and redoubling as it expanded like a shockwave from the epicenter where the blast had occurred. Massive cracks shot across the surface of the world, reaching across both hemispheres, filled with the glowing matter deep resting within the world, riddling the surface like a cracked egg.
     Finally, half the planet simply exploded away, blowing a shockwave that rent the other half into massive chunks that spun out into the void, and all that remained of the planet Morodin was a wreath of fire and rock that slowly expanded outwards, its mark on the galaxy lost forever.

     Fleet Admiral Jann Percy watched in stunned silence as the Holo winked out of existence. Everyone in the room maintained that quiet for a long moment. He glanced around at the faces, still transfixed by the ancient recording that had filled the bulk of the Grand Crusader's briefing room. Sector Admirals Stan Sanders and Gaius Adonai, the two fleet commanders, were there, along with most of the War Cabinet - Field Marshall Rodin Kaler, Jedi Grand Master Alyx Misnera, Admiral Walt Amason, and of course, their host - Zalaria.
     Percy shook his head in disbelief. All he had said, “who is this Altima that everyone keeps talking about?” That had turned into over an hour of lecturing and viewing of holorecordings from eons past. Now he truly wished he’d never asked.
     “We've seen enough." Gaius stated, crossing his arms in front of him. "What was the purpose of this exercise?”
     “Getting to know your enemy,” Zalaria said, eying him sharply. She stood in the center of the room like a professor teaching her students - or possibly a commander briefing her troops, about to send them into battle. The air of authority around her was nearly palpable, and Percy had been able to tell from the moment he'd walked in who was assuming command of the situation.
     "It looks more like you're trying to get us to surrender," Rodin Kaler said, staring darkly at the woman.  "If he's that powerful, then what's the point of trying to fight? We could defeat the entire Altarin'Dakor army, and it wouldn't even matter."
     "That's precisely my point," she argued. "We must ultimately deal with Altima himself or we will lose this war no matter what."
     "And how do you propose we do that?" Misnera chimed in.
     "I am still working on a strategy for that," she said.
     Percy suppressed a groan. If she didn't even know by now, then what chance did they have of winning at all?
     "I have another question for you," Misnera continued. "What’s wrong with Xar? Why isn't he involved? Just what are you trying to do here without him?"
     She paused. "Xar is... unavailable. He's taken a leave of absence to deal with his grief."
     "At the perfect time, I see," Misnera countered, surprising Percy with his accusatory tone. Had something happened between him and Kerensky?
     "Maybe we should rethink our whole strategy about this war," Kaler broke in. "We've just won a major victory, but it cost us dearly. The enemy have pulled back. There is no public support for this war whatsoever. The politicians are foaming at the mouth, saying we should sue for peace."
     "You all know that is merely wishful thinking," she said. An awkward silence filled the room. They all knew she was right.
     "Then maybe it's a good time to leave Epsilon Sector," Kaler said, dragging his words out carefully, even menacingly.
     "Out of the question!" Zalaria snapped.

     “Why not?” Kaler demanded, looking equally as angry as she, now.

     She shook her head once, roughly. "Our only choice is to fight! This sector is the doorway to the rest of the entire galaxy. From here on we must take the battle to the enemy. To not take advantage of this lull would be a fatal mistake. That is why we are regrouping our forces. With these Titans, and the ones I have sent for from Altarin’Dakor space and Nimrod’s renegades, which we will inevitably track down, victory will become a strong possibility. We will begin an immediate plan of offensive action to invade Altarin'Dakor space, beginning with the Mizar System."
     A chorus of dissent rose around the room, but cut off as Gaius' clear, commanding voice pierced the air, claiming everyone's attention.
     "Just a second," he said, stepping forward. The Sector Admiral was straight-faced, his posture erect, his voice authoritative. "You are not in command of the New Imperium, nor of the New Imperial Navy."
     The eyes Zalaria turned on him seemed dark pools that reflected the light shining from around her.
     "This decision will be made collectively, and will be taken to the Diktat for his approval," Gaius continued, not backing down one centimeter. "The New Imperium will not allow this war to destroy everything that we were founded on and that we stand for."
     Percy felt a chill run over him as the two continued to stare each other down, both figures totally expressionless. Zalaria stood there like a dark angel, her gaze sending chills through him even though she wasn’t looking at him. She was horrendously beautiful. It was uncanny, like she wasn’t even real. How could anyone resist her?

     Finally, Zalaria smiled.
     "May I remind you, my dear Gaius," she intoned, "that eighty percent of the New Imperial Navy's firepower is now comprised of Altarin'Dakor vessels. We control roughly three-fourths of what was originally considered New Imperial territory. And you are on a ship filled with more than six million trained Altarin'Dakor warriors, expanding to over fifteen million if you include all the forces in this one entire system. But of course, all that is irrelevant. I could destroy this entire fleet myself so quickly no one would ever realize they were dying. Therefore, my dear Gaius,” she said, her eyes flaring, “if I so chose to take control, I could do so immediately and without any opposition. So some respect in your tone would be immensely wise." She inclined her head towards him in what might have been a deigning gesture, then continued after a moment. "However, as you say, we are a democracy. In order to placate my gathered allies here, I will consult with the War Cabinet and the Diktat, and we will decide together what to do. Is that sufficient?"
     Gaius remained still for a long moment, the silence stretching as everyone watched and waited. Then, finally, he stepped back and gave a nod.
     "This meeting is dismissed," Misnera spoke up, standing. "We all have important things to do. I'm not wasting any more time."
     As everyone began to file out, Percy watched them, keeping a sharpest eye on Gaius, as well as their mysterious and intimidatingly powerful host. He hoped that they could keep her in check. In the past two weeks everything had changed for the New Imperium. Now they were in very real jeopardy not just from without, but from within as well. Gaius seemed to have enough nerve to stand up to her and keep her from taking over. That made him feel a bit better about it.
     But what could even Gaius possibly do? After all, he was only a Jedi Master. Compared with her, that meant nothing at all.

 

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            Royal Palace Cemetery

            Vectur, Varnus

            0900 Hours

 

It was a cold day on the planet Varnus.

     It wasn’t the weather that made it cold. Autumn was still just setting in, and the dry air was merely cool by Varnusian standards. Of course, foreigners always seemed to feel it was colder here, even in the warm seasons. A gust of wind swept Xar Kerensky’s cloak behind him, but it wasn’t the wind that made it cold, either.

     It was the stark white tombstone standing in front of him. That was what made it cold.

     Lying beneath that stone was someone he’d cared about more than anyone else in the world. Someone he’d poured his life into. Someone he’d thought had a grand destiny.

     Now he was gone forever, and nothing could ever take his place.

     Xar looked around to the others, the gravestones marking the resting places of the Kerensky Royal Family. None of them held any actual bodies. First were the ones representing his father, Nikolas, and his mother, Sofiya, both killed during the devastation of Varnus. Next to those were the stones marking Ulric, his elder brother, and Natasha, his elder sister, also killed in the attack. Finally, off to the side was the gravestone of Aron, his uncle, killed by Dasok Krun, and whose body had also never been found. There were far more gravestones than there should have been. Too many of them had died early deaths. Now he was the last living member of the family, save for his brother Rydon, who had become no relation to him at all now, in truth.

     A thin layer of ash from the city’s fires still covered most of the gravestones like a dusting of snow. The sound of demolition machinery and crews filled the air, echoing from between the city’s buildings and even around the palace itself. Clean up from the battle would take a long, long time. Complete restoration might never occur at all. Economies had collapsed all throughout the New Imperium. Perhaps this time it would be just too much for the hardy Varnusians to bear.

     The sound of hobbled footsteps padded on the hard ground behind him. After a moment, a man leaning on a single crutch came up beside him, his head shaved completely bald, his free hand stuffed in the pocket of his overcoat as he gazed at the Royal Burial Grounds.

     Xar gave no greeting. He hadn’t wanted any visitors, this day. How had this man been able to find him?

     After a long moment, the newcomer broke the silence.

     “I’m done. I’m out,” Maarek said.

     Xar didn’t respond. The man’s status didn’t concern him any longer. Instead Xar wondered when it would be his turn to join his family and ancestors here in this graveyard. By all accounts, he should be dead already. He was supposed to die on Varnus two weeks ago, but fate had, impossibly, been altered. He was alive, even though he shouldn’t have been. He had no destiny left, now. How much longer could he hold on? Life was… meaningless now.

     “Did you hear me? I’ve turned in my resignation. Court-martial me if you want; I’ll be already gone by the time you can. I’ve had my fill of all this,” Maarek said, disgust in his voice.

     Xar stared straight ahead. He understood what Maarek was saying. Yet he was somehow unable to feel emotion for the man. How could his own problems compare with what Xar was faced with? Did he even know?

     “Go ahead,” he said finally, turning to the side. His words sounded hollow even to his own ears.

     A pause. “That’s it?” Xar could feel the other man staring at his back.

     Finally Maarek’s sad voice came to his ears. “I used to look up to you, back then. Now… Now I don’t know what you are.”

     Xar said nothing more. After a few moments, he turned and looked back. The man was already gone.

 

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Varnusian Productions Presents:

 

 

Royal Palace

Vectur, Planet Varnus

1200 Hours

 

Varanus Templar made his way through the near-empty palace corridors.
     It was eerie, seeing these hallways once so bustling and full of people, now sparsely-populated and quiet, his footsteps actually echoing off the walls. Many of the refugees that had taken shelter here had been moved on, either back to their homes or to some planet that offered better opportunities and protection than here.
     Most of the rubble had been cleared from the palace already, though there were clear visible signs of the damage that had occurred, and repairs would be long in coming. Walls had gaping holes in them, some leading right out onto balconies or into open air, and had yet to be barricaded off. Floors had huge chunks blown out of them, or massive cracks splitting the once polished tiles. Glowlamps, tapestries and decorations had been destroyed by fire and explosions.
     At least the bodies had all been removed, and blood no longer stained the floors where he walked. Some of that had been blood he'd shed; some of it had been his own.
     The world had been turned on its head in the span of the last two weeks. On the brink of its destruction, the New Imperium had somehow survived, yet were still within the shadow of their enemy, the Altarin'Dakor. The official story was that their leader had been killed and a cease-fire arranged. Rumor said that the Altarin'Dakor had inexplicably surrendered, though Varanus wasn't sure if that was true or not.
     Now all the AD forces had retreated, but were still up there in orbit, hovering like a menace. Rumors said they were under NI control, or were at least working with them. But how could that be, after they'd nearly been wiped out just two weeks ago? It was unthinkable. The mere thought nearly drove him mad with anger.
     Varanus burned with the desire for revenge. He could still see Amleth, his mentor, the man who had recruited him into the Jedi Order, rushing headlong to attack that monster. He hadn't stood a chance. So what if Nimrod had been killed? His forces were still there. How could they just sit here and not attack? Every single one of those heartless, kriffing AD deserved to die.
     Days ago there had been a mass funeral service, a makeshift graveyard set up in what used to be one of the palace's larger courtyards. There had been so many bodies. Even though only the Jedi members were buried there, it had taken all day. Varanus had helped dig the graves himself. The names on that list - those he would never forget. Gui Sun Paan.  Ken Nandos. Val Ricaud and Huan Knor'lian. Sturm Brightblade, leader of House Ar'Kell. And Amleth Uiara - leader of House Vortigern, Varanus' closest friend. More than half the whole Order had been killed. Initiates now outnumbered the higher ranks more than two to one. What were they going to do now?
     He could still remember yelling for Amleth to stop, while cursing himself for not having the courage to step out there and face certain death himself. How could he be dead? How were they going to kick that brutal dictator Tains off of Sinorel, now? How was Amleth going to take his birthright and avenge his parents' deaths? How could Varanus ever take his place, fill his shoes? It wasn't right! The AD had to pay for what they'd done. They had to!
     He quickened his pace, mind racing as he ascended a flight of stairs, heading towards his destination. He passed few people in the hallways - most of them were workers cleaning up, anyway - and he returned no greetings as he passed. More things had happened, faster than he could comfortably deal with, and it would still take him some time to process.
     He'd seen a Holonet news report this morning. Apparently the network - wiped out by AD scouts to disrupt communications - had been restored, and the first reports were coming out. Apparently what had happened at Varnus had extended all across the territory taken by the Altarin'Dakor, meaning that many of the captured worlds were now in the process of being freed. But the cost - the sheer cost of it! The First Fleet had been decimated, completely wiped out. The Second Fleet was heavily damaged before the attack on Tralaria had been called off. Over three-fourths of NI space had fallen before it was all over. Now Sector Admiral Arfann Dogar - War Coordinator for the entire NI Navy - had suddenly retired, removing himself from public life, and in his place Sector Admiral Gaius Adonai, a member of the Order himself, had been elected to take his place.
     Abruptly Varanus realized he'd reached his destination - a set of wooden double doors set into the side of the hallway in front of him. He knocked, waited a moment respectfully, then entered.
     The main conference and briefing room in the palace had been severely damaged in the attack. As a result, the Jedi Council was meeting in one of the palace's many convention and banquet halls. A massive chandelier dominated the air, hanging from the ornately-carved ceiling, worked in gold and crystal, with glowlamps blazing all around it. A polished wooden table sat directly underneath, in the middle of the tiled floor and shaped in a large circle, behind which sat the current members of the Council. Along one side was the leadership of House Ar'Kell - Varanus' own house.
     The new leaders, he reminded himself. Paladin Vykk Olyronn was there, having survived a special mission along side Grand Master Misnera, and beside him sat Paladin Draken Ar'Kell, the former Quaestor that had come out of semi-retirement to assist in rebuilding the house. Also there was Crusader Colin Moore, who had been captured by the AD, and Knights Brajo, Zaphod, and Dukhat. Varanus moved over to take an empty seat next to them at the end, and with a start realized that this was everyone in the house that was at Knight level or above. Their losses became all the more evident. It hurt, badly.
     As he sat, Grand Master Alyx Misnera, sitting at the central point of the angled table, gave him a nod. "Welcome, Varanus. We're just getting started. As you are probably now aware, gentlemen, all the commanding officers of House Ar'Kell are now assembled in this room." He let the comment hang in the air for a long moment, giving them ample time to consider the ramifications of his statement.
     The members of Ar'Kell glanced at each other, and Varanus saw more than a little unease and wariness in their eyes. He looked away, instead focusing on the Council members sitting there. It kept his mind off the lack of having Amleth there.
     Aside from Misnera, there were four other Council members present, two on each side of him, in truth the only active Council members remaining. Two of them - newly-raised Jedi Master Jacob Skipper and Adept Atridd Xoan - had just been appointed two weeks ago, after the battle. Xoan was Head of Special Operations, filling Paan's place. Skipper was now Deputy Grand Master, the Grand Master's right-hand man. But did that mean Misnera, or Kerensky, who wasn't here?
     Also present were Masters Kiz Thrakus - Kensai and Head Instructor of Combat, and Vynd Archaron - Warden and Head Instructor of Curriculums.
     Noticeably missing aside from Grand Master Kerensky were Master Mathis Organa, in the honorary Chancellor Position, and Master Nico Flygras, who still hadn't come out of his coma, and wouldn't be going anywhere anytime soon.
     Finally Misnera continued, breaking the temporary silence. “Thank you all for coming. First of all, some housekeeping. As you know, Houses Aurora and Castellan are officially closed. They were already practically closed even before the battle. Now we don't have enough command officers left to run them."
     The comments were met by a round of nods throughout the room.
     "The reason why I called you all here today," he continued, "is that some changes are going to have to be made. I want your input."
     "We may need to rethink the whole way the Division is run from now on," Thrakus added, speaking up. "Including the structuring. We've lost a lot of members. In addition, the bases of both remaining Houses - Ar'Kell and Vortigern - have been destroyed. Ar'Kell's was lost in that fiasco on Jengar during Balfin's release. Vortigern's base on Ravick was wiped out by the Altarin'Dakor. Neither House currently has a home outside of the Royal Palace, here."
     Misnera picked up where he left off. "So, gentlemen. The question we have is, should we also close Ar'Kell and Vortigern and eliminate the House system entirely?"
     A ripple of shock went through the Ar'Kell members present. Varanus felt a stab of panic. Ar'Kell, gone? They couldn't! It was part of who he was! Ar'Kell members had bled and died to protect the palace just two weeks ago! How could they even consider closing the house?
     "I can see that none of you are very keen on the idea," Misnera said. "Speak your mind, but give it consideration before you do."
     The Ar'Kell members exchanged glances. Varanus caught eyes with Vykk and shook his head. After a moment of quiet deliberation, in which the Council members sat patiently, Vykk turned back to the Grand Master.
     "Grand Master, the Houses have always been the backbone of the Jedi Order," he said. "It's what gives us our strength and our sense of belonging, of duty."
     "You know where I stand," Draken added. His last name, after all, was the name of the House. "I wouldn't give up on Ar'Kell no matter what you decide. No disrespect intended."
     "I understand. But the Houses are a product of the past," Misnera countered. "We have to look to the future, to what the New Imperium and the galaxy needs. There's no reason you can't be as dedicated to the Order as you were to the Houses." The Grand Master folded his hands on the table and sighed. “I don’t know, gentlemen. I’d just as rather close all the houses and have just one Division. Let it all go.”
     "Sir, please don't!" Varanus found himself speaking up. All heads turned to look at him. He felt a flush of embarrassment, but forced himself to continue.
     "The houses are our time-honored tradition. Without them, how can we be a Jedi Order at all? There is so much history in both Ar'Kell and Vortigern," he explained. "Even Grand Master Kerensky - even you, Grand Master Misnera - were once members of Ar'Kell, weren't you? Why, without Ar'Kell, there would never have been a Jedi Division - maybe not even a New Imperium!"
     He cut off as he noticed a slight smile on Misnera's lips. The Grand Master glanced at each of the other Ar'Kell members in turn. "You all concur on this? You are sure?"
     The other members all nodded vigorously.
     "We of course anticipated that you would want to protect the House system. But we also wanted to get your opinions before we discuss the changes that need to be made. Things cannot remain as they are. We'll keep the Houses."
     Everyone visibly relaxed, including Varanus. But Misnera wasn't finished.
     "But from here on," he said, "until this conflict is resolved, out of necessity the Order must be run more like a military organization. Here is what we have decided. For now, the houses will be less autonomous - more like divisions of the Order. The command structure will remain the same, but the houses' primary purpose will be as cohesive units following the direct instruction of the Council. The roles will comprise strike team, police keeping, and support roles for the military." He held up a hand. "I know that being a Jedi means more than just policing and fighting. There is the study of the Force, diplomacy, training and teaching. But those will have to wait until after the war. After that we will reconsider reinstating the houses as before. There are still bases on Kolath and Ilfaygin that haven't been damaged that could be used in the future."
     He looked around at the members gathered. "Those are my terms. Are you willing to agree to them?"
     Varanus found himself nodding reluctantly, along with everyone else. The loss of Ar'Kell's autonomy hurt, but he was glad to keep the House, at least. You had to change with the times. He would try and do that, now that Amleth was gone.
     "We didn't expect to return to Jengar, anyway," Vykk added in. "We know we have to move on. We're here for whatever you need, sir. Just call on us."
     "Thank you Vykk," Misnera said, sincerity in his voice. "That's all I need you from you, for now. Dismissed."

    After the Ar'Kell members left, Alyx sat with the others in silence. Moments later, the doors opened again, and this time the remaining members of Vortigern filed in and sat where their Ar'Kell counterparts had moments before.
     If Ar'Kell's remaining strength had been dismal, Vortigern's was actually worse. Quaestor and Paladin Roger Macreed was still there, having survived the ordeal onboard the Desolation with Alyx, and Paladin Neres Warjan had survived the battle on Varnus, as well. But there were only two Jedi Knights - Mrax Satai and Rilke Darcunter - who together with the others comprised the upper ranks, the fighting force of Vortigern. Virtually everyone else was still at Guardian or below.
     Again Alyx comprised them of the situation and pitched the same question he had to the Ar'Kell members. Did they want to keep running their House, on a skeleton crew and with less autonomy, or just let it go entirely?
     They discussed it, but in the end, Vortigern's members were just as adamant as Ar'Kell's had been. Their House was a mark of pride. They would fight as hard to keep it as they had to defend the palace from the invaders. Even Jinx chimed in; as Alyx knew, he had been a member of Vortigern for years and had hosted their base on Ravick.
     Once they were finished, Alyx told them the same thing as before, laying out the rules for the way he planned to run the Division until the end of the war. They accepted, however reluctantly, and filed out as he dismissed them as before.
     Four leaders in Vortigern. Seven in Ar'Kell. No, it wasn't just dismal. It was catastrophic. He shared a glance with the other Council members present: Atridd, Jinx, Kiz, and Vynd. Even the Council was half its former strength, and there was no lack of tension there, either.
     "Sir," Jinx spoke up once the House members had gone. "There's something I need to talk to you about."
     "What is it?" Alyx asked.
     "Alyx, I don't want to be Deputy. My place is as a soldier. Let me go back to Vortigern and to my people. Look at how much they're hurting. We need to recover from what happened." Beside him, Atridd glanced down and shook his head.
     Alyx sighed again. "I agree, Jinx, but we need someone to fill the position. We can't just leave it open while we wait and hope Nico wakes up. Besides, you will still see action." He caught Kiz and Atridd's eyes as well. "If we're like a military, then you members of the Council are like generals. We don't have enough Jedi anymore to spare you from combat. Besides, you'll have time to take care of your people here. It'll be a while before we figure out what we're going to do next, especially before we're ready to attack again.
     "Xar and Zalaria want us to attack Mizar immediately and chase the AD back where they came from," Atridd said, drumming his fingers on the table. "What do you think about that?"
    "We aren't going anywhere," Alyx countered flatly. "We’d have to rely completely on the AD forces in orbit. Some of them were stationed at Mizar. Are they going to kill their own comrades? Are our men going to join forces with them after they killed so many of us? That’s why all the AD have been restricted to orbit. I don't trust any Jedi and Jedicon in the same room not to kill each other, much less fight on the same side. So no, we aren't going anywhere for a while. We have to take stock of ourselves, recover and rebuild before moving on."
     "But Xar..." began Xoan.
     "Xar hasn't been heard from in two weeks," Alyx cut him off. "If he can't perform his duties then he shouldn't be in charge. And if he doesn't even care anymore, then he doesn't need to be Grand Master."

     "That's a dangerous thing to say."

     "It's the truth.”
     “Xar aside - with all due respect, sir - Zalara is the one we're going to have to face, eventually.” Thrakus gave him a flat stare. "She's the one in charge. Quite literally."
     "
Not quite. Gaius has the guts to stand up to her, and so do I. Even if it kills me in the end." He let that comment hang in the air a moment.
     After a minute of stark silence, it was Vynd who finally spoke up. "It might, you know," he said.

*                                  *                                  *

Royal Palace Hangar

Vectur, Varnus

1535 Hours

Salle Darl was upset. She had just come back from a trip to the palace medbay, but just like before, the guards there had politely refused to grant her entry to the floor at all.
     Again.
     She had nearly given her life defending Varnus, and now they wouldn't even let her down to sickbay? It wasn't like she was going to attack someone!
     She stalked back through the corridors, heading for the pilot's hangar, her dark braid swaying behind her. All she'd wanted  to do was visit the commander. She didn't even know his status! The last she'd heard was that he'd woken up, but they still weren't allowing any visitors. They said he'd suffered some serious trauma in the crash. What if he didn't even know his squadron mates cared about him? What if he was all alone, feeling abandoned?
     Things had been kept tight ever since the mysterious end of the battle. At first they wouldn't even let anyone in the palace. They'd claimed that there were Jedicon still running around. But if the AD really had surrendered, then why would there have been such danger that they wouldn't even let anyone in? She was a soldier, for Kolath's sake!
     After that, everything had gone downhill, fast. The First Fleet had been blown to bits in the battle, and reports said the Second Fleet hadn't fared much better. Captured AD ships hung in orbit, and rumors were growing every day that NI troops would be working with them from now on. But how was that possible? Those people had shot down Bast, Rann and Tanya, not to mention thousands of other NI pilots! How was Salle supposed to work with them?

     What was the point of the whole war, then? Why had they fought so hard, only to turn around and fight with them? How could they expect NI soldiers to stand next to the enemy they’d just previously had in their crosshairs? Someone had better explain things a bit better. Instead of celebrating a last-minute victory captured from the brink of defeat, the NI was in a state of shock. Troop morale was the lowest she’d ever seen it. Everyone was confused.
     She shook her head; she hoped Commander Stele recovered quickly. They were going to need his help rebuilding Inferno, and keeping the fleet's pilots together. If anyone could do it, she knew Maarek could.
     Could he have already left medbay? If that was the case, perhaps he was in his quarters in the palace's pilot barracks. She quickened her step, heading into the hangar section. She would have to pass through there to reach the living quarters.
     She emerged into the main hangar, a vast open area done in the gold and royal blue colors of the Royal Varnusian Palace. The hangar was virtually empty at  the moment, except for a few service technicians in orange jumpsuits looking over the fighters and other craft  resting there.
     TIEs of various makes and models hung from the racks overhead, as though hovering there above her. She noticed her own Avatar, one of the few survivors of the battle. There were scars and burn marks all across the fuselage, but she relished each and every one of those. Her fighter had personality. They'd been through a lot together.
     Salle started to head for the turbolift that would take her up, but a noise coming from one of the service hangars made her pause. The locker room was that way, as well. There shouldn't be anyone in there at the moment; those pilots on duty were already out making their patrols, and it would be hours yet before they changed shifts.
     She entered the service hangar, which held various equipment used for moving and repairing fighters, and also a parking area for airspeeders used by the Defense Force. To the left was the entranceway for the pilots' lockers and showers. She heard another sound from there, like a locker door being slammed. Then, a second later, a figure emerged.
     Maarek Stele limped out of the locker area, a crutch under one arm and a large duffel bag in his other hand. When Salle saw him, she gaped in shock. The commander was bald! It looked as though every step pained him. Had this been why she hadn't been allowed to see him?
     When Maarek saw her he stopped abruptly, stared at her blankly for a moment, then turned and started walking again.
     "Commander!" Salle called out, rushing to catch up with him and saluting crisply. "Are you all right? Did they discharge you? But you're still injured!"
     "They can't fix what I've got, Salle," he said. She blinked at the bitterness in his voice. He glanced at her, then looked away, as if he couldn't bare to look at her. His eyes had looked distant, haunted.
     Limping up to one of the airspeeders hovering over the floor, Maarek tossed his duffel bag onto one of the fenders with a grunt. Then, with his free hand, he reached in and pulled out his military jacket, which he'd probably procured from the locker. Then he leaned his crutch against the speeder as well, then held on to the vehicle for a moment, eyes closed. He took a deep breath, then straightened and threw the jacket over his shoulders.
     ""Sir... You're leaving?" Salle asked incredulously. "But... But why?"
     Maarek shrugged his arms into the jacked with some effort. "Don't make this any harder than it already is," he said. He took his crutch under his arm again, grabbed his bag and continued back towards the open hangar.
     "You weren't even going to tell us, were you?" she said, coming up alongside him. "How could you just leave and not even tell us?"
     He paused, turning back towards her, and she gave a start at his eyes. They were haunted. Those eyes had seen far too much death and destruction. His grim expression fell, and he just looked sad.
     “I've turned in my resignation, Salle. I sent in a transfer request that the squadron be placed under your control. You're to be promoted to Major and Squadron Commander. You’re in charge now,” he told her. “Inferno is yours.”
     He turned again before she could reply, leaving her open-mouthed. He had given her command of Inferno?
     "But sir!" she protested, following after him. "We need you now more than ever!"
     "I can't kriffing fly, Salle!" he said, exasperated. "I can't even stand up straight."
     "But you can't just leave! Surely there's a way to help you..." She reached out to grab his arm.
     He jerked suddenly away as soon as her hand made contact. "Please! Don't touch me," he said. He looked as if about to stumble, then caught himself. She moved instinctively to help him again, but stopped just in time, seeing his wary look at her.
     "Salle," he said, straightening once more. "You are more than capable. I have full faith in you. Put the squadron back together. Give it your best. I..." He looked away. "I can't help you anymore."
     "But surely one of the Jedi can help you! Have you tried them?"
     "This is beyond them."
     "Then maybe the Altarin woman... The one with the Grand Master..."
     "Forget it!" he barked, making her jump. "Xar doesn't care about me, and that woman of his cares even less, for sure!"
     He turned again, and she continued to follow him out into the hangar, thinking of something to say. What could she say that would change his mind, that would stop him? He turned into the turbolift and hit the button, then stepped inside when the doors opened.
     She started to follow him, but he dropped the bag and held up his hand.
     "I'm sorry," he said. Then he touched the controls, and the doors closed.

    The doors opened again, and Maarek stepped through, hefting his bag. His shoulder ached, and that blasted crutch dug into his other armpit, rubbing his skin raw. He was miserable. But, he might as well get used to it. Things weren't likely to get much better.
     He knew that Xar wouldn't lift a finger to help him. The man hadn't even looked at him when Maarek told him he was leaving. And as for that woman... Well, Maarek had never even met her. But he was bloody well sure that she couldn't be bothered enough out of her precious day to help someone as insignificant as Maarek Stele.
     No, it was time to get out of here. He patted his pants pocket with his arm, feeling his bottle of meds there. Hopefully they would be enough to see him passage somewhere. Maybe back home, to Kuan. His mom and dad...
     Vannik had told him he was lucky to be alive. Maarek didn't agree. What was he going to live for, now? At this point, he couldn’t even travel on a frigging freighter without his meds, much less pilot a starship. So what was the point? He might as well have become a decoration on the streets of Vectur, just like Rann and Tanya were.
     He started down a service corridor that led to the civilian hangar areas. From there he would buy passage on a ship heading out of Epsilon Sector. And leave all this behind. He had emptied out his quarters, stuffing everything worth taking into his bag. He’d only returned to the lockers to get his jacket.
     There was someone standing in the corridor. Maarek stopped short. Something felt wrong.
     The figure was smaller in stature than he was, so he knew it had to be a woman. She was wearing a white robe, the hood pulled up to obscure her features. The lighting was dim, here, but he could make out a pair of small tattoos on her cheeks.
     It looked like he wasn't going to make it out of here, after all.
     "You are Maarek Stele?" the Jedicon asked in accented but passable Basic.
     "Yes," he said, seeing no reason to lie. He knew he couldn’t run – he didn’t have the desire to, anyway. He just felt… tired of it all.

     "Are you going to kill me?" he asked.
     She actually laughed, a sound that shocked him to hear. Her voice was pleasant to his ears, like music chimes sounding in concert. She reached up and pulled her hood back. Maarek was shocked to see that she had blue hair, a deep azure shade. It extended down from her head, curving outward around her ears, then back down to the base of her neck, trimmed neatly. Her face was thin and supple, her eyes blue as ice. The tattoos were actually very simplistic, a simple line moving down each cheek, cutting back sharply, then forward again to meet at her chin in perfect symmetry. Her skin was pale, and looked flawless.

     She was surprisingly beautiful.
     “Do you remember a man named Victor?” Her voice jolted Maarek out of his gaping episode. It took him a moment to realize what she’d said. Why was a Jedicon here for him, and who was she asking about? He struggled in his mind to remember.

     Victor… That’s right. The Victor from Arcadia, in the Mizar System. A name he didn’t think he’d ever hear again, and so had tried to forget. A name that had changed his life, in more ways than one.
     “What about him?” was what he asked her.
     She smiled disarmingly, and he found himself distracted once more. “I am Naguis’Dakor Alona,” she said, “a Jedicon in the service of Victor. You once flew a prototype fighter called the Archon for him. Victor would very much like for you to fly the Archon for him again.”
     Maarek’s breath caught in his throat. Those were words he’d given up ever hearing, a time that he’d put behind him out of sheer necessity. Could this be for real? Could it be that his fate had suddenly changed, just like that?
     He opened his mouth, a dozen different questions on his tongue. He wanted to know why Victor was contacting him now. He wanted to know what Victor wanted from him, and why he was being given the chance to fly the Archon again.

     He wanted to immediately tell this woman yes. Then a feeling of hopelessness hit him. Vannik's words came rushing back, inescapable. You will never fly a fighter again. Maarek wasn’t even sure if he could ride in a space carrier. Piloting again was just a pipe dream.
     He took a breath, trying to free the sudden tightness in his chest. “That’s… That’s impossible now,” he said.
     But Alona was far more perceptive than he’d given her credit for. She stepped closer, letting her voice drop so that no passerby could accidentally hear – only the two of them.
     “I know of your injury. Don’t worry, Maarek Stele. The Archon system bypasses regular pilot functions and links directly with the brain. Even with your present condition, you would still be able to fly it. Do you not remember? The Archon is controlled by your mind, not your body.”

     As he processed her words, hope began rising up again. No, he hadn’t forgotten what it was like to fly the Archon. Scarcely a day had gone by the last two years without his thinking about it. He’d felt his whole life was over if he couldn’t fly again, but what if what Alona said was true? He’d still have a chance. And the truth was, he wanted to fly the Archon again more than anything else in the world. He shook his head in disbelief. “Why me?”

     “Victor was very impressed by your skills. He is very interested to meet you again. Will you accept his offer?”
     Maarek didn’t want to waste any more time giving her the chance to reconsider. He had to take this opportunity. He would risk anything to fly again, especially the Archon. It felt like his whole life, his whole future, was like standing on the edge of a cliff, trying to decide whether or not to jump off and take a leap of faith.

     What would everyone think? That he’d switched sides? But to fly the Archon again… Anything was worth that. "What are you flying?" he asked.
     "I have a small ship in the hangar ahead. It is cloaked, so no one can see it."
     A small ship. Kriff. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his meds, giving the bottle a rattle. "I don't think I can make that," he said, feeling his brief glimpse of hope falling away.
     "You won't need those.” She gave him another one of her charming smiles, sending his skin tingling. “I will put you in a deep sleep. You will awake at our destination. I promise, you will be fine," she said.
     He looked back up at her, and meeting those beautiful eyes, he believed her.
     "Will you come with me?" she asked.
     He nodded, this time without hesitation. “I’m ready. Take me to Victor,” he said.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Velanon Shores, Great Ocean

Varnus

            1920 Hours

 

Xar Kerensky sat on the shore, his bare feet in the sand, watching the breaking waves coming in. The setting sun glinted off the waters, an orange ball of flame reflected in the breakers that crashed just a stone's throw away. The sky above was painted in vibrant blues and purples, turning abruptly to bright oranges just above the horizon.
     Xar wore a loose-fitting, comfortable white shirt and black trousers. His shoes sat nearby, and it felt good to have his toes in the cool sand beneath him. The wind blew in the scent of the sea, stirring a sense of longing in him, a desire to be away from this place, away from the cares of the world. That breeze ruffled his hair, and felt strange on his face, with two weeks' growth of beard on it, now. Some things hadn't been important enough to worry about taking care of.
     No, what was important was what lay in front of his eyes.
     Zalaria walked along the shore, the waves barely reaching up to lap at her feet and fill in her footprints in her wake. They touched them gently, reverently, as if aware of the privilege that they, out of all the ocean's waves, held. Without a moon of its own, Varnus’ oceans held no tides, meaning the ancient beach’s sands dropped sharply once in the water, but otherwise were well-established and stable.

     His wife wore a long white dress of soft, thin material, leaving her shoulders bare, dipping halfway to her bosom, where an ornate turquoise necklace rested. Her gown swayed regally out behind her, stirred by the evening breeze as she walked.
     She was so beautiful. And she was carrying his child.
     Her appearance suggested that she might be twenty-five, though every time he looked he couldn't be sure if she wasn't even younger. She was tall, but not too tall. Thin, but not too thin. It was still too early for her to be showing that she was with child. In fact, she was still perfectly proportioned for most species' ideal specimen of a woman. Immortality had given her face and skin a perfection that no other woman could hope to match. Xar knew that there was no one else in this galaxy - or any other for that matter - who could match her. And she was his. The thought still sent a chill through him. It wasn’t because he was entitled; no man could ever deserve her, really. No. It was because she had chosen him. He still could not understand it. He could only appreciate it, and thank the Force itself. She was the only thing that allowed him to keep his sanity, keeping him from falling into a black hole of emotionless nothing, after all that had happened.
     Zalaria was making her way towards him. Her dark hair was tied back behind her head, and her dark eyes held his as she approached, eyes that he never tired of staring into. How had he ever doubted her? It was another failure of his for having done so.
     She finally reached him and, wordlessly, sat down next him on the sands. They sat there for a long moment, watching the sunset, and Xar pretended that they were completely alone together, on a deserted world, far from any concerns or responsibilities.
     “Why the long look?” she asked suddenly. Her voice rang like soft music in his ears.
     Xar glanced at her and saw her looking over at him, knowing that her all-penetrating gaze, coupled with their Bond, could see what other eyes could not. For as captivated as he was, it couldn’t completely fill the hole that had opened in Xar’s heart. But she would keep him alive; she had to. She was all he had, now.

     For Xar, everything had changed. Everything he'd worked so hard to achieve had ultimately turned out to be utterly pointless. He understood, now. History was simply a repetition of the same events, played out by different characters with different names, with only slight variations in the circumstances. But Zalaria - she stood outside of history. Immortal, unreachable. He had been given a short life to enjoy her presence, a span of time blessed beyond measure. He had nearly thrown it all away. He shouldn’t even be sitting here, now, talking with her.
     She continued speaking, catching his attention once more.
     “I have accelerated the development of our son," she said.
     He looked at her again, intrigued. "What do you mean? With the Force?" he asked.
     She nodded, staring back out towards the horizon. "It's relatively simple. I can safely shorten the amount of gestation time by approximately half without affecting the baby adversely." She paused, letting him digest that information before she continued. "That means he will be born in less than five months. That is all the time that I need. After that, I will of course immediately heal and be fit for what needs to be done.”
     Xar shook his head in amazement. She continued to demonstrate feats that he'd never even known were possible. He had a brief thought; he wondered if she'd ever had children before. Twenty-five thousand years was a very, very long time. She'd lived countless lifetimes before Xar had even met her. She could have millions of descendents already by now. But he didn't care about the past. His wife - and his child - were the only things that meant anything to him, anymore.
     Nothing else mattered. Not the New Imperium, not the Order… Nothing.
     "What's wrong, Xar?" she asked.
     He knew that she was prying for information. He'd been subdued and removed for the last two weeks. The bouts of emotion came and went, waxed and waned. Derek was dea. He was dead – or at least, he should have been. He now doubted everything he'd once stood for, everything he'd believed in.
     He sighed. “Let’s go. Let’s get out of here,” he said. Maybe they could just run away. Who was there to stop them? Who could stop them? Others could prosecute this pointless, endless conflict. Xar had experienced enough war and pain for any number of lifetimes.
     Zalaria smiled at him, though he could see a sadness in those eyes. “We both know that is impossible, Xar.”

     He knew it was; but that didn’t make it any easier to keep going on. Xar had lost all sympathy for the plights of those around him. He understood it still, of course, at some level. He supposed that deep down inside he was still feeling emotion. But for some reason he couldn’t bring it to bear. It was as if he didn’t enough strength, or maybe the will.
     “But… I heard our son say it,” he said softly. “We’re going to win this war with the Altarin’Dakor. The New Imperium doesn’t need me anymore.”
     She seemed to consider a moment. “No, Xar. Now history has been altered. Who is to say that things won’t play differently now, and that your help might be needed to win? You would be abandoning your duty and condemning the New Imperium to its fate.”
     Her argument sounded weak, and he suspected even to her, as well. “What if I die?” he countered. “How can I help our son then?” Their son – from the future – had said he needed Xar’s help. And Xar wanted to help; it was all the more reason for him not to stay here, where he could simply get himself killed – again. For if he had no destiny now, then there was no guarantee Xar wouldn’t die tomorrow, or the next day, or the one after that. Any fluke could occur at any moment, and Xar would be gone, erased from existence, and – soon enough – memory as well.

     Was this how normal people lived their lives, worried that death could come at any moment?
     Zalaria reached out and stroked his cheek – his beard, now – with the back of her hand. “Since when were you afraid of death, my love?”
     He looked at her seriously. “When I met Nimrod.”

     She shook her head. “It’s not that, Xar.”

     He looked away; he knew she could feel his emotions inside, that she could sense what he was thinking. She knew that it was something deeper, inside. But how could he explain it? He didn’t fully understand it, himself. Why didn’t anything matter anymore?
     “Come with me to the Grand Crusader,” she said suddenly. “I want you to see it. Many things are happening. We are now more fully equipped than ever before. I could use your help in leading the people.”

     “What good would I do? I’ve lost all credibility to the people.”

     “That’s not true. You can be a bridge between my people and yours.”

     He shook his head. “I’m not the only one. Maybe they don’t need reconciliation. Maybe they just need to fight.”

     She let his comment stand for the moment. Zalaria probably thought as he did; Xar had learned much from her. He knew he had changed a lot since meeting her and traveling into AD space. His philosophy, his outlook on the war, had changed. Well, things had changed again, recently, this time thanks to her twisted dictator of a brother.
     “You know that Gaius Adonai has been chosen the new War Coordinator for the military,” she said, speaking again.

     “So?” he asked.

     “The other Fleet Commanders might resent his being chosen over them. There are several that are higher-ranking, or longer-serving.”
     “What they think doesn’t matter,” Xar replied tersely.

     “And you don’t care? Gaius is one of your men.”

     Xar shook his head. “That was a long time ago. Gaius is his own man, now. He can take care of himself.” Suddenly he realized just how much she was pressing him. Trying to get to the core of what was bothering him? He eyed her warily. “What’s this reversal? Suddenly you’re the one worried about others’ opinions?”
     She smiled playfully, as though he were catching on to a game they’d been playing. “I’m provoking you, yes. I have to get an emotional response at some point, my love.”

     He forced a laugh. “I’m not a puzzle to be solved,” he said.

     “Maybe you are.”

     “I’m not.” He glanced down. “Very well. I’ll consider it.”

     For a moment they sat in silence. He could feel her eyes on him. As always, it felt as though his every thought were open to her, yet he could sense very little from her. He’d gotten better at it, and thought he could pick up on her emotional state. But to her, he was like an open book.
     “You’ve stopped caring,” she said suddenly.
     He gave a wry grin, looking back off towards the horizon. The last glimmers of the sun were just slipping down beyond the horizon. “Why should I? I’m supposed to be dead,” he said.
     “I don’t want you talking like that.”
     He said nothing more. The sun was gone, now, yet the sky was still full of orange light. It made her skin all the darker. More rich. More beautiful.
     “So what’s in this thing for you?” he asked after a while.
     “In what? The war?”

     He nodded. It was something he’d begun to contemplate lately, during his times alone. He no longer doubted her intentions to help him, or the NI. But he had yet to truly decipher her reasoning for it. “Why do you even care?” he asked. “Why give up Immortality and virtual godhood to help a ragtag band fight an impossible battle?

     She laughed, and he looked at her, surprised.
     “Deep questions, my love. Rare, from you. You realize that now I have Nimrod’s fleet and territories. If I wanted, I could take command of the Return and conquer your galaxy.”

     He looked at her. In the waning light, her beauty took on an ephemeral look. Her eyes were dark pools that drew his gaze and captured him there. He knew she was telling the truth. He could imagine it quite easily, in fact. She could be the sole ruler of this galaxy, and all its denizens would worship her.

     “So why don’t you?” he asked, half serious. “I’ll be at your side. We can run things our way. Stop all this mindless killing.”

     She gave a wry grin. “The thought is tempting, Xar. But it would merely delay the inevitable.”
     He gave a start. “What do you mean?” he asked.
     “The Shok’Thola, Xar. Why do you think there were only thirteen of us left when we began this so-called Return? There used to be many of us, you know. Things were more… balanced… in the beginning.”

     “What do you mean?” he asked, not sure where this was going.

     She shook her head. “Some died due to warfare, of course. Endless conquests against one another. But even that wasn’t enough. Eventually, the others fell into madness. They were… eliminated.”

     He stared at her for a moment, speechless. What did she mean, eliminated? By whom? And why would all the Warlords eventually go mad? Was there some weakness, some illness he hadn’t known about? Or…

     Something else, he realized. Could it be… time? He had never really thought about the consequences of living for a thousand generations. The inevitable creeping by of centuries, millennia…
     “You can never get enough, can you? he said.

     She gave a small, yet sad smile. “Monotony, my love, is a force as powerful as time itself. Once you have experienced everything that a living creature can experience, more times than you care to remember, nothing can interest you, nothing can stimulate you anymore. The inevitable result is insanity. No, Xar, that is why the Shok’Thola are so driven, so obsessed.” She hugged her arms around her body, and he was shocked to see what might have been her first moment of weakness in front of him. She closed her eyes for a moment.

     “Those of us who have survived this long have done so only by sake of our obsessions. Each of us has found a way to cope with the hunger within, yet we all know that it will eventually win out. Unless we conquer more, consume more. Just like the thing that gives us this curse of Immortality in the first place.”

     Curse? Xar stared at his wife, wishing he could do something to help. It was hard to understand, hard to think of Immortality as a curse. He couldn’t believe that she could have that, and more power than anyone else in the universe, and simply wish for death. Looking into her eyes in the dim light, he could see the sheer weight of age behind them, and the raw desire for an end to it all. A permanent end.

     “I’m… sorry,” he managed. He reached over and took her hand in his. “I never realized how horrible it must be.”
     “That’s not the half of it, Xar.” She looked away, taking her hands back into her lap.
     “What do you mean?” he asked.

     For a long time, she didn’t speak. He watched her, as the nightfall came. The dark sky gave way to pinpricks of light that shone overhead, and he looked up, noting the familiar constellations he’d memorized in his youth. Without a moon, night on Varnus was pitch-black, but the sky overhead was magnificent. Soon the Galbagos Nebula would be clearly visible, a violet backdrop to a carpet of thousands of stars overhead.
     “My one goal is to be free,” Zalaria whispered.
     Xar looked back down at her curiously. She was barely visible, now.
     “Free,” she continued, “of this thing which binds my very soul in its grasp, which dominates every pulse of my heart. Even now, it wants me to destroy.”
     “Destroy what?” he asked.
     She looked at him with haunted eyes. “Everything,” she said.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Personal Quarters

            Royal Palace, Varnus

            1740 Hours

 

            “Enter,” came the voice from the speaker. The door clicked as it unlocked.

     Icis Novitaar strode into Mathis Organa’s quarters, which also served for what passed for an office for him. It was one of the rooms that had been lucky enough not to be vandalized by Jedicon during the battle. Icis’ own rooms had been a mess.

     Mathis' room was on the east side of the palace, where the exterior slanted downward, meaning that one wall in his room slanted down, as well. Fragrant smoke filled the air above him, moving slowly towards the open, slotted window near the ceiling, where it passed outside the palace.

     The setting sun shone orange rays through those windows, bathing the room in a warm light.

     Mathis brought a stick of tabac to his lips, took a draw and blew another puff of blue-gray smoke up into the air over his head. “What can I do for you?” he asked after a moment. His long hair was tied behind his head, and his perpetual grin was present once more.

     "Taking up smoking now, are we?" Icis asked him testily. "Adding another vice to the list?"

     "Absolutely. Would you care for one?"

     "No, thank you." Icis had enjoyed certain luxuries, once. But that was before he'd lost his ability to touch the Force. Without being able to detoxify poisons, he wasn't about to put harmful substances into his body. Funny, how with immortality gone, he was trying to preserve his years as much as possible.
     "I've smoked on and off for years," Mathis said, flicking ashes off the end into a small basin in front of him. "This helps take the place of... other things."
     "That's what I came to talk to you about," Icis replied. "As you know, my shipping company is actually a front for smuggling operations."
     "You don't say."
     Icis fixed the man with a stare. "I've come to be aware that certain supplies of Ryll spice have been funneling their way to dealers from which you have been obtaining the product."
     "Your point being?"
     "My company is feeding your spice addiction, Mathis. I won't stand for that."
     "You're not my mother. Besides, I've got it under control now. Kiss off, Icis."
     "
Ah yes, I heard," Icis replied. "I heard there was an... incident. On the Stormwatch."
     "
The Crinn were everywhere. I saved the ship."
     "So I heard. You have my thanks for that," Icis said, meaning every word of it.

     Mathis gave him a flat look. "I hear things, too. Like things haven't been going so well in your company lately."

     Icis cleared his throat to keep from coughing from smoke irritation. If Mathis thought him perturbed by the question, so be it. "I've had to do some house cleaning,” he admitted. “Things will be more efficient, now. Some things are being cut out. This supply of spice is one of them.”

     “It doesn’t matter to me. Like I said, I’m pretty much over it.”

     “So you’ll be returning to active duty, then?” Icis asked.

     “Don’t know. Ask your buddy Xar. He’s not exactly knocking my door down, asking me to come back.”

     "Perhaps you should try talking to Xar yourself about your issues between the two of you. Have you considered that might help you recover?"

     Mathis flicked more ashes into the basin. "What are you, Icis, my bloody psychiatrist? Are you playing conscience for everyone in the palace, now?"

     Someone needs to, Icis thought. Instead he said, "Something's wrong with Xar, Mathis. He's getting darker. Can't you feel it? Someone needs to talk to him that he can trust."

     "Sorry, mate. That's not my concern. I’m just the Chancellor. An honorary job. Do you know what my job description is? ‘To take care of the Palace grounds’. That’s a tall order considering what we’ve just been through, don’t you think? I’ll be quite busy for a while."

     "Are you saying you don't care about him anymore?" Icis said, ignoring his attempts to change the subject.

     Mathis glared at him. "Why should I? Xar doesn't bloody care about anybody. Including you," he added, pointing a finger at Icis. "We can all burn, for all he cares. You'd best leave him alone to do as he wants."

     "He's misguided."

     "Judging from the woman who's guiding him, I don't think that's an irrational statement."

     That’s the truth. No one wanted Xar away from Zalaria more than he did. Still, Icis knew Mathis didn't really mean what he was saying. The man had idolized Xar, once. He'd given him command of his own Jedi House, stepped aside to let Xar take the forefront.

     "I've got my situation under control," Mathis said. "No thanks to you - or him."

     Icis nodded and slowly stood up. The truth was, he’d come here to evaluate the man, and he’d seen enough. Mathis was bitter, but he seemed to have his wits about him. At this point the Division needed every able body they could get hold of. And right now, with tensions high and tempers flaring between the Council and higher ranks, someone needed to try and put things back together. This war wasn’t over; far from it.

     "You should consider trying to fix some of the problems you've caused," Icis said. "We could use your help, where we're going." He turned to leave.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

 

Maintenance Bay

ISD Vindicator

Hyperspace

 

The swirling sky of hyperspace spun outside, sending bluish light through the small viewports onto Salle Darl and her companions. Their Avatars hung from their racks, both their internal and external routine inspections completed. Salle was perched on top of her craft's fuselage, inspecting where the body met the port solar panel. Everything looked good. The other three members of Inferno Squadron sat clustered around a small table nearby, the lights overhead dimmed, their conversation quiet.
     Over the last week, things had happened fast. Her promotion and transfer of the squadron to her command had been completed, and new orders had come in quickly. They had been assigned to the ISD Vindicator to escort Sector Admiral Gaius back to Tralaria, where he would be instated as the new War Coordinator. After that was to take Inferno to Tralarian surface to rebuild the squadron.
     She remembered blasting off from Varnus with Gren, Narm and Kikitik, watching the palace and the city receding below her, the devastation still clearly visible. She'd wondered if it was the last time she would say goodbye.
     It had been strange, flying with the squadron without Commander Stele. She wondered if he'd already left Varnus, too, whether he was feeling any better. Salle jumped off her fuselage and landed smartly on the deck and started towards her comrades.
     "Major Darl?" came a voice from the bay entrance. She turned to look, and saw an officer approaching. He had the insignia of a Colonel on his crisp uniform, a thick but neatly trimmed beard on his face, and an accent from somewhere in the Outer Rim that she couldn't quite identify.

     “I’m Colonel Dunn, Wing Commander onboard the Vindicator. Welcome aboard.”

     “Thank you, sir,” Salle replied. “It’s a pleasure to serve with you.”
     "Likewise.” He glanced over at their fighters. “I wouldn't bother polishing those rust-buckets anymore," he drawled. "You won't be needing those much longer."
     "Sir?" she asked. Her squad mates came up behind her, curious as to what the commotion was.
     “I hear your squadron has been assigned the new, modified TIE Avatars,” the commander told her. “My congratulations.”
     Salle felt a rush of excitement, and looked over at her squadron mates. Gren stood gaping, Narm looked flustered, and Kikitik - well, she couldn't read his expression, but his antennae were twitching, at least.

     “You mean, the ones with AD tech in them? The ones with the beam weapons?” Gren asked.

     “Those are the ones.”

     “Sir, how did you hear about this?” Salle asked.

     “I just received my orders from Tralaria,” the Colonel replied. “They want Inferno working with us here on the Vindicator for a while. The ship is to be refitted with a new fighter compliment. Almost exclusively the new model.”

     “Seriously? How could they have built so many so quickly?” Gren exclaimed.

     Colonel Dunn looked at him reprovingly, doubtless noticing the breach of verbal protocol. Inferno had been run a bit more lax than most squadrons were used to. “Apparently they’ve been in development in a top secret location. Someplace separate from the starfighter manufacturing facilities on Rhiannon. Nobody knew they were building them.”

     “That’ll help even the score,” Kikitik said through his vocal translator.
     She turned back to the commander. "Thank you, sir," she said, feeling slightly overwhelmed. First command had been given to her, and now this…

     “Well, that’s all I wanted to speak with you about. You might as well make yourselves comfortable here – you might be here a while.”

     With that he turned and left. Salle walked back over to the table, where the others were sitting down.

     "I don't know, Salle," Gren called said. “How are we going to find enough good – much less living – pilots to full out the squadron again? There are only four of us left.”

     Salle picked up a datapad from the tabletop and pointedly handed it to him. "I mean to make Inferno strong again, Gren. Here's a list of potential candidates. I've been scouring the lists of top pilots in the various wings. Most of them are from the Second Fleet, since the First suffered so many losses at Varnus. We'll be doing interviews as soon as we arrive."

     Salle was serious about her new duties. She would do the best she could to fill the gap left by Commander Stele, even if she could never completely fill his shoes.

     “We all have faith in you, Salle,” Narm spoke up from his spot at the table, his voice soft but full of meaning. It was as if he’d heard her thoughts, her quiet self-doubts. “If anyone can put us back together, you can. I saw it in how you kept our flight together, and I knew there was a leader inside of you. You’re going to be a great commander.”

     “We’ll see. I’m going to have to prove it,” she told him candidly. “Let me know how I did after the war.”

     Narm smiled. “I will. Provided we all make it that far,” he said.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

Makpelah

Planet Che'kvalum (Hidden Sanctuary)

The Altarin'Dakor Galaxy

 

Strife stood in the shadows of Sado's laboratory. The dim lighting only partially revealed the rows of machinery, the vats containing forms obscured by the opaque liquids inside. Strife didn't know what kind of abominations, what manner of amalgams Sado was currently working on. He didn't care. His alliance with Sado was limited to one subject alone.
     "What have you found?" he asked.
     "The same thing the last time you asked," Sado replied, not turning away from the device he was currently peering into. "You expect something new so quickly?”

     “I cannot wait forever.”

     Sado looked up at him. “A thousand generations I have dwelt on this. For twenty-five millennia I have sought the deepest secrets of the Power. Patience is necessary.”

     “Time is running short,” Strife said. “You said so yourself.”

     “Yes,” Sado said, grinning suddenly. “The end of all things is near. The End of Dreams. So tell me my friend. What do you think we can do? How do we free ourselves from our little dilemma? From onset of madness derived from overwhelming boredom?”

     “Don’t mock me,” Strife warned him. “Be thankful you have one of my power as an ally.” It had taken him a long time to be convinced of Sado’s reasoning. A long time. In fact, Strife had needed to have an epiphany of his own – realizing half the truth himself before Sado had accepted him, revealed everything he’d discovered about the true nature of the Altarin’Dakor.

     He remembered their conversation quite well.

     “When one becomes a Shok’Thola, his or her fate is ultimately set along a path with only two eventual options,” Sado had instructed. “One is, of course, death.” He held up one finger and stared at it for a moment. “Either by choice, by insanity, or from one of our rivals, it doesn’t matter. We will be consumed, forever.”

     He paused, and let silence hang in the air for a long moment. Eventually he held up a second finger. “The second is to become Altima. The new Altima, actually, which is what happened to our current incarnation when he was chosen instead of me.”

     “But becoming Altima would mean becoming insane as well,” Strife countered. “Losing everything that we are.”

     “Which is, ultimately, a form of escape as well,” Sado added, grinning slightly. “But for the sake of argument, let us avoid that particular option for the moment. Our true goal is real death, and to avoid the destruction of our very souls. But that cannot be attained without separating ourselves from our source of Immortality.”

     “We can sever the connection with the Entity.”

     “Yes, but this simply negates the Immortality itself; there is still, however, a connection that has been made and has not been severed. What we Shok’Thola long for is what the so-called Jedi themselves instinctively possess.”

     “Transcendence.”

     Sado nodded vigorously. “Ah yes, to become one with the Power itself. This is our dream. In our youth we were fools, choosing Immortality at the cost of our very souls, not thinking of the price we all must eventually pay. Yet no one in their right mind would want to live forever, not like this.” He held up his arms to illustrate the point.

     “Ironically, in a moment of lunacy we all gave up that which we now desire most. But no, what I refer to is a complete separation from the Entity. That can only be accomplished in two ways: hiding ourselves in some way that the Entity can no longer find us, and then die… Or secondly, destroying the Entity, whereby we all become mortal and live a normal life… and die.”

     “Destroying it is impossible,” Strife countered. “Energy and matter cannot be created or destroyed. The same is true for life energy.”

     “Ah, and therein lies the conundrum,” Sado explained, excitedly, “Which brings us back to my first point: how to disestablish the connection by which we received our very power?”

     “I don’t know,” Strife answered.

     Sado smiled. “That, my friend, is the problem I’ve been working on for the last thousand generations.”

     That had been the end of their conversation. Strife had analyzed every word, every nuance that had come from Sado, but he was no closer to discovering the solution now than when the conversation had taken place.

     “Give me something substantial,” he said now. “I didn’t come all this way, take all this risk, just for a review.” Visiting Sado in his sanctuary had required traveling through the Gate. A large time and resource commitment, and he would not let this man waste his time. He was tired of dealing with Sado’s insanity. Was he falling even further into madness?

     Finally Sado seemed to come around. He smiled slightly. “Very well then. I will share what the Power has revealed to me. As you well know, the Return has suffered a number of surprising, early setbacks. This has annoyed Altima greatly.”

     “What does Altima care about the Return?” Strife asked. They had both surmised that Altima was not particularly interested in whether the Altarin’Dakor re-conquered their home galaxy or not.

     “An astute observation,” Sado replied. “Perhaps he is looking for something.”

     “Looking for what?”

     “That is what we must discover. We must continue to sow confusion and chaos among the Shok’Thola. Go to this group opposing the Return. Continue to… assist… them. We must force a confrontation with Altima. Only then will his true purpose be revealed.”

     “And how will that help our goals?”

     Sado smiled again. “That has yet to be revealed, but it is all I know. That is what I have foreseen. Now you should go. There is little time.”

     Strife turned to leave. He knew that there was nothing else to be gained from staying here. Sado’s predictions were always true; he was the only Shok’Thola who had eschewed the lust for strength and focused on the Unifying Power. If he was right, then the end of all things was approaching. He had much to do, and for all the time they’d waited, it appeared that time was now running out.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            NI Senate Complex

            Tralaria, Tralar System

            1600 Hours

 

“Ah, do come in,” the Diktat told his visitor.
    Gaius Adonai moved over in front of the room's massive desk and folded his hands behind his back. He wore his ceremonial uniform, now white like that of an Imperial Grand Admiral, completely with shoulder tassels and a spattering of medals and commendations he'd received during campaigns with the NI. He dark reddish hair was close-cropped and just starting to show the first hints of gray.
     He watched as, on the other side, Gene Rytor - dressed in robes reminiscent of an Old Republic Chancellor - took out a flask of fine Correllian brandy and poured a generous amount over the ice resting inside a crystal goblet on his desk. He poured another in a second goblet and then, setting the flask aside, took both glasses in his hands and made his way around the desk.
     To your new position, War Coodinator." He handed Gaius a glass. "My congratulations to you." He brought the goblet to his lips and took a long sip.
     "Thank you, sir." Gaius took a cautious sip of his own, glancing around the room. He and Rytor were the only two present except for Quat, the thin, middle-aged man who was Rytor's aide, standing aloofly in the corner.
     Today, however, the back wall panels behind the Diktat's desk had been pulled away, revealing transparisteel windows that looked outside. The Diktat's office was high enough in the Senate Complex to see over the surrounding buildings, and a panoramic view of the ocean filled the scene, whitecaps cresting off endlessly into the distance. Cruise ships rested out there, private yachts or touring vessels for wealthy patrons. Closer in, a white sandy shore held swaying palm trees and sporty bars for off-duty personnel.
     It was a relaxing view, symbolic of the idyllic world that was the NI's capital, yet far too soft for the likes of Gaius. He'd spent too much time in the cold darkness of space, lately.
     "Apologies that Sector Admiral Dogar could not be here to pass the baton personally," Rytor said. "As you know, he had gotten quite introspective lately, and thought it best to retire quietly."
      "And what of the other fleet commanders?" Gaius asked, turning towards him. He preferred to get straight to business. There was much to discuss. He'd only just learned that both Fleet Admirals Caramon Majere and C'sill Shok'fur, both task force leaders in the Second Fleet, had taken a large part of their fleets and personnel, along with hundreds of thousands of civilians, and left New Imperium space. "How was this decision reached?" he demanded.
     Rytor sighed. "It was a decision based on pragmatism and timing. I'm sorry you weren't when it was made, but it wouldn't have changed anything."
     "They committed treason," Gaius said flatly.
     "No, we reached an agreement," Rytor said. "We had countless demands from civilians for transport out of the New Imperium. As you know, we're not exactly the most desirable place to live, at the moment." Rytor glanced at him, and at Gaius' nod, he continued. "We couldn't stand up under that kind of pressure for much longer. Majere and Shok'fur both volunteered to escort those who wished to leave out of the New Imperium. They also took the remnants of their fleets. though they left behind some of their forces to help us."
     "They led a mass exodus out of the NI," Gaius countered. "They've weakened our military presence."
     "By an insignificant amount. Compared with the Titans we now command, they were as good as useless. We've restructured the Navy into three simple task forces, each led by one of our new Titans."
     "That's the whole problem," Gaius said. "We truly are at her mercy now, aren't we?"
     "Unavoidably, you are correct. I won't mince words with you, Gaius. We are in a desperate situation."
     Gaius shook his head. He still couldn't believe that the two fleet commanders had left. They had been latecomers to the NI, and had never wanted to lose their autonomy of their own fleets. "Those two wanted out long ago," he said. They never could fully accept integration of their fleets within the NI. They still wanted to maintain control."
     "I don't disagree with your assessment. I had to deal the hand I received when I took this position." Rytor lifted his glass and drained the rest of its contents in one gulp.
    Gaius just stared into his own goblet, swirling the ice and liquid around for a moment. He repressed the urge to throw it across the room. He realized it wasn't Rytor he should be angry at. There had, in fact, been little choice, as he'd said.
     "Why did you choose me?" he asked finally. "You know I am not afraid to challenge authority and voice my opinions."
     "That's precisely why I like you," Rytor replied. "But it wasn't just my decision. The whole Cabinet voted on it. You had the most votes."
     "And why not Stan? He has more command experience.”
     "Experience aside, you were the right choice. You are a Jedi, for one thing. And you do have more experience working with Altarin'Dakor crew and vessels than anyone else."
     Gaius considered that. It was probably true. He hadn't wanted to step on any toes with his promotion. But at any rate, what was done was done. He hadn't asked for the position, after all.
     "I will need an update on our strategic plans for the NI," he said.
     "Of course. That's why I wanted to brief you personally before we discuss our next strategy." Rytor turned to his desk, where he produced a small remote. He tapped a button, and a set of doors descended over the panoramic windows, shutting out the light from outside. Then another key activated a holoprojector built into the room's ceiling. A map of the New Imperium appeared in the air, obscuring Rytor's aide, Quat, who was still over by the wall.
     "Let's look at the overall theater," the Diktat said.
     It was pretty dismal. Almost all of NI space except for a swath down the center had been captured by the Altarin'Dakor. Now that Nimrod's forces had been defeated - inexplicably, he might add - those territories taken by the enemy were technically back under NI control. But truth be told, the NI still hadn't ventured back into some of those systems. They were still currently AD-occupied space.
     "We've managed to reassume command of most of Varnus Quadrant," Gaius explained, "So far we've opened back up the Eridani, Sigma, Talas, and Goven systems. But our forces are stretched thinly. We must rely on newfound AD forces to help hold our territory, or we'll fall apart."
     "There are a lot of systems that were taken," Rytor said, nodding. "We need to get those systems reintegrated and producing quickly," Rytor said. "I don't need to tell you that our economy is on the verge of collapse. If we are to survive, we need those systems back in the fold."
     "Understood. I've sent scouts to most of the other systems and am waiting for their reports." Gaius pointed to several other stars on the map. "Some systems are not worth reestablishing a presence, I'm afraid. The Krri'Graq population on Moro have been utterly wiped out, as well as the denizens of the Danube system. The bases at Basra and Jengar have been obliterated. The Eridani system was completely destroyed. Sigma, Rilke, and Genotia have suffered heavy casualties as well as oppression of the local populations. I don't know if they'll be able to contribute anything, anytime soon."

     Gaius felt a chill run down his spine. They were talking statistics, acting as though massive losses, millions of deaths, were just numbers on a ledger. The people of the New Imperium – real, living, breathing people with lives and hopes and dreams – those people had suffered horrible losses. Countless lives had been lost or irrevocably altered. Many of those had counted on the fleet and the Jedi to protect them.

     He shook his head as he glanced at Varnus Quadrant, which had been all but swallowed up by the Altarin’Dakor advancing wave. The Sigman Emperor Virzixl had survived the destruction of his flagship at Varnus, and had now returned to his homeward to try and rebuild. Gaius could still remember the sounds of horror as the survivors returned to their battered planet. The Altarin'Dakor had gone in on the ground, wiping out their infrastructure and subjugating the population to begin the process of converting them into a slave race. The Sigmans had been set back decades.

     They'd fared better than the Krri'Graq, though. The Sigmans' Moro-based cousins were simply gone. Including their Queen, the Krri'Graq had been completely wiped out.

     The consolidation of AD forces in the NI and recapture - if you could call it that - of their worlds had taken most of the last several months. Though fortunately, no more battles had needed to be fought, the devastation had been massive. Gaius could still hear the sounds of weeping as officers returned to their homes on Erebria and Varnus. The number of dead had reached the millions, the economy had fallen flat and infrastructure had been pushed back to before the NI had ever come into the sector.

     Meanwhile, the shifting of power from Nimrod’s Altarin’Dakor to Zalaria’s had been brutal and bloody. Untold thousands of Altairn'Dakor had been killed in order to facilitate a smooth transition of power. It had been a culling. Now they had to work together with who only months before had been the most bitter enemy they’d ever faced.
     Rytor’s words brought Gaius out of his thoughts. The Diktat was continuing his analysis as though oblivious to Gaius’ concerns. “What did you say again?” he asked the Diktat.

     "The systems we’ve retaken, Gaius. They’ll most likely be more of a drain on resources than a help," Rytor said in a disappointed tone.
     Gaius nodded. "Agreed, but it's Pax I'm most concerned about, there. Their government has refused to allow my men to land on their planet, even though their Altarin'Dakor captors relocated to orbit."
     "It's worse than that," Rytor explained. "They've declared independence. They refuse to be readmitted into the New Imperium."
     "That is treason. They cannot be allowed to defy their pact of membership."
     Rytor sighed, and Gaius looked at him askance.

     “You’re right, of course. But I’m afraid they will have to wait.”

     “What do you mean?”
     "They are not our top priority at the moment,” said the Diktat.
     "Sir, I strongly recommend..."
     "If they want to go it alone, we’ll let them learn their lesson the hard way," Rytor cut him off. “The Altarin’Dakor will be far less lenient than we would be.”
     Gaius shook his head sharply. "If they are allowed to secede, then others may follow suit. And you just said that we need them, economically."
     "Granted. But as you say, Gaius, we are stretched too thinly. If we force them in line, then it may cause others to secede anyway. We would be labeled as the old Empire all over again. There would be no longer any distinction between us. Do you want that to be the legacy that we leave behind?”
     Gaius shook his head; he couldn't believe the Diktat would consider letting Pax carry out their treasonous acts. He had just mentioned restoring the NI economy, but he had to know that Pax was the wealthiest system in the entire NI! They had suffered virtually no damage at all from the AD - after all, they'd surrendered like the cowards they were.

     “We have a more important target ahead of us at the moment,” Rytor continued, “and only a limited window of time opportunity in which to strike. We cannot get embroiled into a civil war. It would destroy what little remains of morale."
     A sickly feeling came into his gut as he realized what Rytor was telling him. "You're talking about Mizar," he said.
     "Correct. That's our task, now," Rytor said, looking back at him. "Prepare an attack on the Mizar System, War Coordinator. Perhaps you will have success where Dogar failed."
     Gaius gave him a hard look. He knew it bordered on insubordination, but he didn't care. The man would have to get used to such from him. "With respect, sir, it wasn't Dogar's failure. We were all there. None of us knew what we were getting into at the time."
     Rytor simply inclined his head. "Nevertheless, he quit. You are in charge, now."
     "Sir, perhaps we need more time to integrate our forces with the new Altarin'Dakor additions," Gaius suggested.
     "I wish we could, Gaius, but we have no time. Pax will have to wait until after Mizar. Go and prepare the fleet. If anyone can integrate our forces now, it will be you. I have faith in you, Gaius."
     There was little more he could say. The Diktat was asking a virtually impossible task of him. He seriously doubted that integration would ever really occur, so Rytor was simply suggesting the obvious question: why bother?
     Scouts had already reported that the Mizar system was all but empty of AD forces at the moment. A strike now might be their only chance. Gaius had known all along what going on the offensive would come down to. One way or another, it was Zalaria that he would have to deal with.

     "Yes, sir." With that he turned and walked out, and didn't look back.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

Personal Quarters

Royal Palace, Varnus

2330 Hours
   

            Xar sat alone in his quarters at his new desk. Virtually all the furniture in his rooms had needed to be replaced. The Jedicon had destroyed his old desk, his computer terminal, the shelves and chairs - even his bed had been sliced up. All the new items made the room feel unfamiliar.
     The walls still had slashes in them, and the carpet still had gashes cut through it. Some of his prized artifacts had been smashed and broken, their pieces laying scattered across the floor.
     He didn't really care, anymore.
     Zalaria was still up on the Grand Crusader, and he was waiting for her to return before he turned in for the night. It was getting late, though, and he was tired - not physically so much as mentally. He was always tired that way, lately.
     He still couldn't figure out what she'd meant. She hadn't really answered his questions, only given him a cryptic response that redirected the conversation. When he'd asked her why she was helping the New Imperium, she'd started talking about the monotony of immortal life. Did she mean that she was helping them merely out of boredom? That she'd switched sides to make things interesting, to simply give her something to do?
     He did know that his wife's love towards him was genuine. He'd felt it on more than one occasion, and knew that those emotions couldn't simply be faked. He trusted her again, and that made things feel just a little more right. So, perhaps she was simply exploiting the NI for the sake of having some fun, but Xar had no doubt that their relationship was real. For whatever reason, she had decided to marry him, and that was something he had to cherish and appreciate.
     On the other hand, perhaps her alliance with the NI had been part of some brilliant scheme of hers to assume control over the entire Altarin'Dakor. The problem with that theory was that she couldn't have known what the outcome of Nimrod's attack would be. And according to their son, it had originally ended very badly for Xar. If Zalaria had retaliated by killing Nimrod, then she might still have taken control and fought the AD off later. But that reinforced Xar's opinion that he didn't really matter in this conflict, anymore. It had grown beyond him, by this point.
     Either way, Zalaria had taken on a very risky strategy, yet one that appeared to be paying off. If she truly did have command of all of Nimrod's forces, then she might be the most powerful Shok'Thola of all right now. But he wasn't so sure she was as in full command as she claimed. If she wasn't in the AD galaxy, how did she know what was going on there? And how much harder would it be for her to command them?
     She had sent forces to try and cross the Galactic Gate into the AD galaxy and retrieve more of her forces, as well as Nimrod's. But he had his doubts as to whether they would be successful. What if word had spread about Zalaria's defection? What if her forces couldn't cross the gate? If so, then the NI was still in trouble if they had to face the full might of another Warlord's fleet.
     There were still five of Nimrod's Titans that were unaccounted for, as well. Those ships had attacked Tralaria, and as soon as their Shok'Thola's death was reported they had fled, refusing to answer to Zalaria's call or assumption of command. They had been branded traitors, and hopefully the commanders would be overthrown by their subordinates and they would return to the fold. Otherwise, an AD fleet without a leader was ripe pickings for whatever Shok'Thola decided to scoop them up.
     One way or another, those fleets would fall in line. Either they would surrender, and face punishment, or they would be hunted down and wiped out to the last man, like the cowardly traitors that they were.
     Still, another thing Zalaria had said bothered him, that even the relentless monotony of her life was the lesser of two evils. She had implied that it was the Entity itself that was the problem, that her link with it was a double-edged sword - the source of eternal life for her, but at the same time, the source of eternal torment. Was it really driving the Shok'Thola to destroy everything? How much influence did it have on Zalaria, on her decisions and actions? He didn't understand the nature of that relationship at all.
     Suddenly his door chimed.
     He immediately knew it wasn't his wife, because she would have just entered. He activated the screen on his desk, the image showing a view of the hallway outside his quarters.
     Nadia Ispen was out there, standing guard to his quarters, even though he hadn’t asked her to. He didn’t understand why the woman was so fixated on protecting him. He never even spoke to her, yet she always followed him around at a safe distance like some kind of bodyguard. Like he needed one, anymore.
     "What is it?" he called, pressing the talk button.
     “You have a visitor, sir,” Nadia said, looking up at the camera, though she wouldn't be able to see him in return.
     “Not tonight, Nadia. It’s late.” He was in no mood for entertaining right now.
     Another figure moved onto the screen, and Xar groaned inwardly. A giant feline face glanced up at the camera. The Togorian was hunched over, his posture unnatural.
     “Sir, it’s Akala,” Nadia said.
     “Very well,” Xar said, letting him in. So far, virtually everyone else had come and tried to cheer him up, to talk him into returning to his duties. Xar's wife had tried, and so had Icis. Walt Amason had sent him a concerned message, and the Diktat himself had given him a call. He was surprised that Rynn Mariel or Bren hadn't come, but they were probably as devastated as he was. Maybe they had finally given up on him. He hoped so.

     The only person who truly seemed not to care was Alyx. They hadn't communicated at all since the attack. Xar would have to deal with him, eventually.
     For now, it was Akala’s turn. The door opened, and the Togorian Adept ducked sideways to enter.
     Akala still hadn’t fully recovered from his injuries during the battle. In truth, he might never heal completely. He’d needed implants to supplement organs that had been damaged in his fight. He'd had shattered limbs that hadn't healed completely, even with bacta and Force healing trances. Scars made streaks across his fierce-looking face, and he'd gone blind in one eye, that one turned a milky white.
     He was damaged, useless to Xar, now.
     "Xar," Ralagos growled, moving into the living quarters. He made no motion to sit, and Xar didn't offer him to.
     "I'm sorry to see you injured like this," Xar offered. He knew that he should say something like that, but he was unable to actually feel the emotion he claimed. How could Ralagos' problems compare with Xar's? At least the Togorian could go home and live whatever kind of life he wanted. He wasn't dead; he still had a destiny ahead.
     "I will be whole enough, in time," Akala replied. "It is you I am worried about, Xar."
     "Why is that?" Xar asked, his voice still flat, emotionless.
     "You are not yourself. I know you suffered great trauma during the battle. More than any of us. I am concerned. I want to see the great comrade I fought with return."
     Xar looked away. Seeing Ralagos reminded him too much of Derek. The three of them had trained together often. The boy had loved this oversized, alien feline.
     "I'm fine," he said, looking back. "I've decided to take a leave of absence. Things will get along just fine without me. I’m not sure if the New Imperium needs me anymore. Who knows, I might even retire."
     "At this point?” Ralagos said. “The New Imperium needs you more than ever now, Xar! The Order…”

     “They don’t need me, Ralagos.”

     “You're denying that there is problem, then."

     "I'm not denying anything," Xar countered sharply.
     "But you have walked away from your duty, to the people of Varnus and the New Imperium," Ralagos said. “You cannot abandon them!”
     "I don't want to hear it!" Xar shot back. Why did everyone think they needed to fix him? What was it they wanted him to do? Everyone just wanted to use him!
     "I've given everything for my people and for the NI!” he snarled. “And what have they given me in return? Nothing! They hate me! I've had enough, Akala!"
     He could see the pain in his friend’s eyes. "Xar!” Akala exclaimed. “Something is wrong with you! You've changed – can't you see it? You cannot bring Derek back. You have to accept that and move on!"

     Something snapped within Xar. How dare he mention that name? He'd ordered everyone never to say the boy's name to him again!
     "That's enough! Get out!" Xar shouted.
     The Togorian looked as though Xar had just punched him in the face. His expression became darker, even more fierce. "Very well," he growled. He turned and started for the door. Just as it opened in front of him, Xar called out, stopping him. He turned back.
     Xar simply stared sadly at him. “Go home, Ralagos. I don’t need you anymore, and neither does the NI.”
     Akala's good eye narrowed, and Xar thought he heard a rumbling deep in his throat. "I am sorry for what has happened to you. You were a good friend. I hope you find your peace."
     "Goodbye, Akala," Xar said.
     After the Togorian left, Xar checked the time. It was well after midnight. He wasn't going to wait up any longer for his wife. The sense of tiredness had sunk deep into his bones, now. Better to let sleep wash away the pain of living, and the memories.
     He went to the refresher and took a quick shower, then changed into his sleeping attire. Then he shut the lights down and finally lay down in bed, simply hoping for peace, and the bliss of sleep.
     He lay back against the pillow, the thin sheet covering him to the waist. His mind was still going too quickly, however. He knew that somewhere, deep inside, he felt guilty for the way he'd treated Akala. It wasn't right, he knew. But he couldn't bring himself to care enough to do anything about it. Akala was simply one more friend he'd alienated. It was better this way, better than letting them get close, where their inevitable deaths would take an even further toll on Xar's battered soul.
     Besides, they all wanted something out of him. That was the bane of being a ruler - of a government, a planet, or anything. People wanted to use you. Their stayed around you, acting as though they were your friend, but ultimately they expected you to do something for them in return.
     The people of the NI were all like that. They wanted him to lead them, to save them. But they simply took and took, and now Xar had nothing left to give. All those around him had ultimately failed him, proving useless in the end. Why should he take their advice? Why should he subject himself to them and their expectations anymore?
     No, Xar realized; there was no one he trusted anymore. No one he cared for.
     He hated them all.
     The room was dark and still around him. Quiet. He closed his eyes, and though sleep finally came, it was not the peace that he had sought.
     Dreams came, dreams in which he struggled against an unknown foe, and all his friends turned out to be dopplegangers that tried to kill him. He fled from them all, a conspiracy of agents that simply wanted to use him, to experiment on him, to turn him to their cause.
     He awoke from that dream, then after that, the real nightmares came. He relived the torture he'd received under Kronos, and the terror of running from Nimrod in his dark fortress. He experienced again his training under Dark Jedi Master Runis, from the time he'd first awoken on his black ship, the Nightmare.
     In his dreams, he stood before Runis again, in that room on his ship, at that final moment when they'd struggled, when Xar had finally managed to kill his master. He relived the agonizing pain of Runis' assault, his body held in place, immobile, fire running through his veins and the breath being squeezed out of him.
     He raised Runis' lightsaber overhead, just as before, twisting it in his hands, willing that spike at the end to come out and embed itself in his master's chest.
     Only this time, nothing happened. The lightsaber refused to move, its sharp spines simply cutting into his hands. Runis' attacks continued, escalating, the torment driving Xar into the darkness, all the while his master's evil laugh echoing in his ears.
     I will always be a part of you, Runis' voice echoed in his mind.

A sudden noise awoke Xar with a start. He tossed the sheets off his body. He glanced beside him, where his wife lay, his commotion beginning to stir her. Her warm presence reassured him. It was only a dream.
     Suddenly in the dim light he caught motion out of the corner of his eye. Something felt very wrong. He looked down towards the foot of the bed.
     There was someone in the room. A black-robed figure stood there, still and unmoving. Suddenly the figure’s hood flew back on its own accord, revealing an aged face, white hair and beard. The figure grinned, revealing a row of stark white teeth. It was his old master.
     “Welcome,” Runis grinned, eyes flaring wide. “Welcome to the madness!”
     Then he turned and walked into the next room.
     Xar screamed.
     Zalaria sat up next to him in her shift, the sheets falling down to her waist. "What is it, Xar?" she exclaimed.

     Xar’s eyes were still rooted to the place where the dark figure had stood. He couldn’t look away, even though there was no sign of him anymore. All was quiet.

     “Xar?” he heard his wife say.
     "Didn’t you see him? Couldn’t you feel him here?” Xar asked, finally turning to look at her.

     “Who?” she asked, her face concerned.

     “Runis!” Xar said, hopping out of bed. “He was here! I saw him!” The fact that she hadn't woken before clearly meant she hadn't sensed Xar's old master. He grabbed his lightsaber off the table nearby and ignited it, moving into the room Runis had vanished into.
     "Xar!" Zalaria called.
     Orange-yellow light bathed the furniture in Xar's sitting room. On the other side of the room was a door that led into his office, but the door was firmly closed, the keypad clearly glowing red in lockdown mode. There was no sign of Runis. He was gone.
     There was simply no one there.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Planet Tritonia

            1450 Hours

 

            The figure strode along the dark, empty streets, the hood of his cloak pulled up, the rain softly pelting the fabric and running down in thin streams. Empty buildings towered all around him, their shattered windows gaping out at him like soulless eyes.

     Lightning flashed high overhead, merely illuminating the thick layer of clouds that hung only a few hundred meters above the ground. There was no thunder to be heard – the flashes were higher up, far from the surface. A thin misting of rain slowly fell onto the dark streets. It was still daylight somewhere up there, the day still far from over, but the sun hadn’t been seen here in months, perhaps even years. The perpetual layer of clouds surrounding the planet effectively plunged it into an endless night.

     This was the figure’s second visit to the planet Tritonia. It was the second time he’d come here in search for someone. And again, he’d been inexplicably drawn here, knowing this was where his quarry would be found. It was as if they had some connection, the two of them, one that spanned both space and time. He wouldn’t be surprised.

     The planet was empty. A dead world. Its population had vanished millennia before, leaving everything standing as though they would return at any moment to continue their lives. But the world was run-down, now. Nothing of value seemed left intact. Trash lay in heaps on the sidewalks. The entrances to the buildings around him stood open, beckoning, yet promising only more emptiness amongst the darkness inside.

     Yet there was something alive. He could feel their eyes on him, watching from the blackened interiors of the buildings, the alleyways. He didn’t know if they were intelligent remnants of the population, turned into scavengers and cannibals, or whether it was simply some kind of feral animal out there, tracking him and waiting to make its next kill.

     Lasitus didn’t care. Whatever it was inside, they were no match for him. And so they kept their distance.

     He turned into one alleyway, uncannily knowing where he was going even though he’d never visited this area before. At the far end of the narrow passageway stood a figure, similarly cloaked in black, face obscured by the rain.

     “Who are you?” The words, spoken in Altarin’Dakor, echoed their way along the walls of the alley before reaching Lasitus.

     As the distance closed between them, the figure threw back his hood, revealing a long-haired man, his face heavily tattooed with black markings. Lasitus could sense that he was quite strong in the Power, probably marking him as one of his master’s top Jedicon, this close to his domain.

     “I am here to speak with Akargan,” he said.

     The Jedicon’s eyes widened at the mention of that name. Nevertheless, he placed a hand on the hilt of his lightsaber, clearly determined not to let him pass. “Outsiders are not welcome. Turn back or you will be destroyed.”

      Lasitus was in no mood for games. “You can feel my power,” he told the Jedicon, standing his ground. “You know that I could kill you if I wanted to. But I am not here to fight. What is your name?”

     “I am Naguis’Dakor Moyabi,” came the reply.

     “Well then, Moyabi. Take me to your master.”

     The Jedicon seemed to consider for a moment. The rain kept pouring all around them, down onto the streets, its drone filling the silence.

     “And who are you?” Moyabi finally asked.

     Lasitus smiled, then. “An old acquaintance of your master,” he replied. “My name is Lasitus.”

 

            The Naguis’Dakor known as Moyabi led Lasitus through the streets, eventually coming up to a massive duracrete structure, spanning what must have been at least a dozen city blocks. Its walls were a hundred meters high and filled the whole view at the end of the street as they neared. Every visible entrance and window in the structure was sealed from the outside with metal plates. But as one of the entranceways opened up and Moyabi took him inside, all thought that the place was abandoned left his mind.

     Ducking inside, Lasitus realized that this was where Akargan had set his base. The walls and floors were made of dark polished stone, though the whole interior was dimly lit, giving it a dark, almost eerie feel. Uniformed personnel moved through the corridors, with every entrance and crossway guarded by groups of shock troops and Jedicon.
     However, at second glance Lasitus realized this wasn’t a fortress, but a palace. Though the windows were sealed, he could see that on the inside, ornate stained glass windows marked strange-looking, historical events. Tapestries hung from the walls, depicting battle scenes of what looked like stone and iron-age type engagements. Massive golden chandeliers hung down from the vaunted ceilings, their surfaces tarnished, as if hastily cleaned after millennia of disuse. Their glowlamps, however, worked perfectly, casting a greenish hue throughout the chambers they passed through.
     Before long, Moyabi had taken him deep into the palace, and they eventually emerged into a gigantic domed chamber. Overhead, predominantly green stained glass filled the overhead dome. More chandeliers hung down, and the walls were covered in banners, ancient weaponry, and the heads of exotic game animals.
     Jedicon stood at the walls, ringing the entire circumference of the chamber, each of them striking and unique in appearance. Chiming music wafted through the eroom, evoking the air of a temple or place of meditation.
     In the center of the chamber lay a man, lounging on a plush, red-padded couch, which sat on a raised dais covered with thick red floor tapestries. Women surrounded him, lounging in smaller couches on all sides, most of them unclad, wearing nothing but ornate jewelry that sparkled in the light. They were flawless and buxom, perfect physical specimens. Lasitus avoided looking at them; he could not let himself become distracted if he wanted to live through this meeting.
     So, this was the Warlord’s court.
     Akargan wore a cloak made of a myriad of animals' fur. Tails, limbs and heads hung from it around the edges, though Lasitus couldn’t guess how many creatures it was comprised of. Two feral wolf-like heads hung over his shoulders, one on each side.
     The Warlord himself looked exactly like Lasitus remembered from their last meeting. Akargan had long, black hair that fell in curls to his shoulders. A neatly-trimmed mustache and beard worked its way around his mouth in perfect symmetry, ending in a point on the tip of his chin. Muscles rippled down his arms and across his bare chest, too large even for a man of his size. Such physical perfection was not naturally obtained, Lasitus knew.
     Moyabi stopped them a good fifteen paces from the Shok’Thola. What had been the rustle of whispered conversations had all died out. All attention in the room was on Lasitus, now.
     Akargan, still seated, studied him for a moment, and Lasitus nearly withered under that ancient gaze. Those were not the eyes of a human, anymore. It felt as though Akargan could decipher every hidden motive in Lasitus' heart by simply looking at him. The Warlord held a golden goblet filled with a dark liquid, and he took a slow, measured sip before deigning to speak.
     “Why have you come here, brother?” Akargan asked finally, the last word coming out as a snarl. He somehow made the word sound like a curse. His deep voice echoed off the walls of the massive chamber. “The time to ally yourself to my cause, to rise into my favor as a Jedicon warrior, has long passed.”
     “Why here, Akargan?” Lasitus, trying to buy time. “Why make your base on this remote, dead world?”
     Akargan’s eyes narrowed. “Ah, but of course. You were captured long before. You were unable to rise high enough to be rewarded with the chance to come to this world, to enjoy its many… pleasures. This world was the regional capital for the Shok’Thola that we both served. Our master, Mateus.”
     Lasitus took another look around. This time he saw what lay behind the hanging banners and animal heads, noticing the carved stone statues and gargoyles protruding from the walls. In fact, the huge columns that rose up at different intervals, holding up the dome itself, were statues of a cloaked otherworldly figure. Lasitus recognized the carvings on the friezes and walls, and it suddenly came back to him. Yes, this place had belonged to Mateus. The image of his old master came back, as sharp as if it had never left, and memories of the terror that face had inspired.
     Akargan smiled at his recognition. “This was his palace, central place of worship for this entire world. Naturally, when he died, he took them with him, and turned this world into what it is today. A biological virus, designed to be released upon the moment of his untimely demise, mutated all its inhabitants into mindless animals, desiring only the taste for flesh – and of each other, of course. There are still some remnants left, descendents of the originals. Go into some of the abandoned buildings and you might find them.” He grinned, as though he’d just delivered the punch-line of a grand joke.
     “But you did not answer my original question, Lasitus. Why have you come here?”
     Lasitus looked down. He didn’t know what else to say, other than the truth. “I needed to come here. I have done… terrible things.” Images flashed through his mind. The people that he had killed, recently. The boy whose death was his fault, and the man who’d loved him, and the look in his eyes that said that his world had been shattered forever.
     “Yes. I can see that you have, brother.” Akargan’s voice was low, considering. “I can feel the guilt emanating from your soul." He smiled. "So, your true self has returned. Acknowledge now, Lasitus, the truth. Admit to me that you are a killer at heart.”
     There was no way Lasitus could deny it. The man who had called himself Bren was no more. He had died at the same instant that Derek had. He could only nod his acceptance of what he already knew to be true. There was no going back, now.
     “I am impressed.” Akargan’s voice held what Lasitus would have called respect if he had dared. “I did not think you would accept your fate.”
     “A lot has changed,” Lasitus said, forcing himself to look back up. “But that is why I have come to you. You were my closest companion. I’ve lost everyone else, Akargan. Let me stay with you. The New Imperium holds nothing for me anymore. If there’s any good that I can do, then I know this is where I need to be.”
     “Why would I need you?” Akargan’s eyes bored through him, calculating him like an equation, one that he was quickly about to solve. "Perhaps I should kill you instead."
     The threat did not carry the weight it once might have. Lasitus had little to live for, now. Shaking his head, he clenched his fists and continued. “A lot of bloodshed has occurred, on both sides. Several Shok’Thola are dead.” He gazed into the eyes of his onetime friend. “There was a time that you valued my advice. If you would do so again, then listen to what I have to say. Because I don’t want you to suffer the same fate.”
     “You?
Fear for me?” Akargan said mirthfully. “Soon enough I will become the greatest of all Shok'Thola!”
     “Reconsider this path,” Lasitus argued. “I urge you. You could still lose.”
     “I am the master now, Lasitus,” the Warlord intoned, raising a finger. “While you slept I conquered empires for a thousand generations. Not only is this the only way, it is the way that gives me life. To live – to truly live, Lasitus – you must destroy others. Only the strong are worthy to survive. To try and protect the weak will only end in destruction for all. You know this. It is too late to try and change me, my friend.”
     “Akargan, I…”
     “Enough.”
Akargan waved him off. “Save your breath, Lasitus. I know why you are really here. If you wish to plead for your petty New Imperium, don’t bother. I have no intentions of attacking it.”
     Lasitus blinked in surprise.
     “It is an insignificant speck, Lasitus. It comprises less than one thousandth of the galaxy’s breadth. And yet, a number of Shok’Thola have managed to mark their graves there. I will not follow in their footsteps.” He leaned back in his seat. “I will bypass it entirely and directly assault the Core. Once the rest of the galaxy is mine, I will return and offer them a truce. Perhaps I will even make their leader a regent, and give them complete autonomy over their systems.”
     Lasitus struggled to process all this. It was a far cry from what he’d expected. “That’s… very generous,” he admitted. “But if you’re going to do that, then why must you conquer the rest of the galaxy? Many innocents will die. Instead, why not carve out an empire for yourself in the Unknown Regions? Their hyperspace routes are of no hindrance to our technology. You can have an empire large enough for any emperor.”
     “You do not understand what it means to be Shok’Thola,” Akargan snorted. “There can never be enough. This galaxy will be mine, and mine alone. And then I shall conquer new galaxies. That is my sole desire. And it also happens to be the order that was given by Altima, and it is he who is our true master, now. Yours and mine.”
     He inclined his head as Lasitus’ eyes went wide. “So, you have heard of him, I see. Then I will reveal to you a secret, something that Altima told me, personally.” He leaned forward, his voice barely above a whisper. “In the end, there will only be one Shok’Thola. Altima has said it. There will be one Shok’Thola, one supreme ruler, subject only to Altima himself. We have been culled, to separate the weak. One day, very soon, I will be the sole Shok’Thola, and I will eliminate all the others to obtain that position.”

     He leaned back again, a smirk coming to his features. “I always thought that the Spearhead competition was simply a ruse. Kronos was not powerful enough. Then, after his demise and when Nimrod took command in front of Altima, I feared all was lost. However, fortune has smiled on me. Now, thanks to your friends, only one other Shok’Thola really stands in my way. He has been giving me much trouble, pestering me like a thorn in my skin, always on the brink of an all-out feud. His name is Strife.”

     Lasitus mentally recounted everything he knew about that particular Warlord. There wasn’t much. He knew that Strife was considered one of the most powerful Shok’Thola.

     “There will be a confrontation between us,” Akargan declared. “It cannot wait until we have taken most of this galaxy. I will see it ended here. If you wish to help me, then my question is this, brother: will you fight against Strife for me?”

     Lasitus thought for a moment, but there was really nothing to consider. He had told Akargan the truth; he had nowhere else to go but here. Now, somehow, it felt right that he should be by the side of his old friend and companion. Even though that companion had risen far beyond his own position. Lasitus knew that he was a living weapon, bred for war. He had denied it, had run from his purpose for a long time. But it was time for that weapon to be unleashed once again. And if it was against another Warlord, then he had little compunction about doing what was necessary to stop what constituted a major threat to the galaxy.

     He nodded. “I will help you fight him, Akargan. If that is what it takes in order for me to stay, to earn your trust again, then I will do it.”

     “That is what I demand,” Akargan agreed. “But as for trust, we shall see. I have already shown you a gesture of goodwill. My forces could have destroyed you as soon as you arrived in the system, but I bade them spare your life because I wanted to speak with you again.”

     “What forces?” Lasitus asked.

     Akargan smiled. “I have four Titans in orbit, cloaked. They are more than enough to eliminate your New Imperium should I have desired it. Instead, I will pit my forces against those of Strife, and we shall determine once and for all who is the true master of war.”

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Titan-class Battleship Eternity

            1000 Hours

 

            Maarek Stele awoke, dressed and freshened up, then walked out of his bungalow into the bright morning sunshine. The air was crisp and cool, and he took a few deep breaths, savoring it.

     Most of the other residents were already out and about by this time. Identical flats made a line of buildings on either side of his, and in front of them was a large common area, with places to relax, eat, and generally avoid the rigors of everyday life. Several grassy parks were spaced around the area, divided by a small stream that ran through the middle of it all.

     Above his head floated a deep azure sky, devoid of any clouds this morning. The sun’s rays shone strongly over the peaks of the tall mountains, rising like a wall in the east. At this hour, beings of various species milled about, almost all of them unknown to Maarek. Even the humans looked different. They had strangely colored hair, were often very lithe and fair-skinned, and just generally beautiful.

     In fact, the whole place was beautiful.

     Slowly he made his way over to the railing overlooking the stream in front of his bungalow, then took hold of it and closed his eyes. He could only make it a few steps before having to pause and wait for the dizziness to fade. Looking at the sky and the mountains had brought on a particularly nasty bout of nausea, and he was glad that he hadn’t had any breakfast yet.

     He’d slept through the trip here, blissfully unaware that he was traveling on a small ship, thanks to that Jedicon woman and her powers. It was welcome, though; Maarek knew that he could never have survived the trip if he’d been conscious. Now here, wherever here was, he was at least able to get around like on Varnus. But with each passing day the reality of his situation sunk in even more. This vertigo wasn’t going away.

     As the dizziness faded, he opened his eyes and looked around again. Smells wafting from one of the nearby restaurants made his stomach want to growl. So far, the blue-haired Jedicon named Alona had come to check on him each day. She brought him breakfast, and watched him eat it at one of the tables on a nearby patio. They would chat, however he was never able to get her past random chitchat. She kept saying that he would have to wait for Victor to arrive before she would have permission to speak at length. Maarek didn’t mind so much, though. She was nice enough to look at that he couldn’t think of much to speak about, anyway.

     He’d been here only a few days, but he hadn’t ventured outside of this small community. He figured it was at least a kilometer square, and being that even walking small distances took forever and brought on fits of nausea, he hadn’t been feeling too adventurous. So he waited for Victor, spending time in his bungalow, watching holovids in a language he couldn’t understand. He’d asked Alona what planet they were on, knowing that he’d never been here before. She’d simply smiled and told them that this was actually something called a Envirodeck.

     That was when Maarek had realized the truth. They were not on a planet. They were, actually, on a ship, a Titan-class Battleship to be exact. A ship called the Eternity.

     It was only the second Titan he’d ever been on, and his time on the Nexus had been short-lived, anyway. After pressing Alona, he’d finally convinced her to show him a picture of what this Titan looked like from the outside.

     This was a ship unlike anything he’d ever known.

     The Eternity was fifty-five kilometers in length, made of sparking white metal. The front was wider, shaped like a fan, tapering down at the center before spreading out again at the massive engines. The Envirodeck, this entire kilometer-square area, made to simulate the pleasure world Tiroeno, was just a small speck in respect to the whole bulk of the ship, and was itself one of several different Envirodecks. This was unequivocally the largest ship he’d ever been on, or would probably ever be.

     He wondered what was keeping Alona today. He had come to look forward to their quiet breakfasts with quite a bit of anticipation. But this morning she was nowhere to be found.

     After a moment, he glimpsed a hint of white out of the corner of his eye, and turned – very slowly – to see who was approaching. However, when the cloaked figure came onto the patio where Maarek stood and threw back the hood of her white robes, Maarek saw that it wasn’t Alona who had come to see him today. But it was someone just as beautiful.

     This Jedicon looked like the polar opposite of Alona, in fact. Her hair was a fiery red, almost orange in its brightness. Her face was more round, a bit more tanned. Big brown eyes peered out at him, full of intrigue. And unlike Alona’s elegant cheek designs, this one’s tattoos were simply a pair of dark lines stretching up diagonally from her left eyebrow, moving up to her hairline. If anything, it actually enhanced her beauty even further.

     “Victor has returned. I will take you to him now,” she said, coming to a stop in front of him.

     “And who are you?” Maarek asked.

     “My name is Chele. I am Naguis’Dakor.”

     “I… see.” The name meant she was a Jedicon, of the same rank as Alona. “Where’s Alona?” he asked.

     “She is performing other duties. Please, come with me.”

     “I can’t move too quickly,” he said reluctantly. He was getting a bit more used to admitting his problem, however. “You’ll have to bear with me.”

     “I am fully aware of your situation,” she said, her mouth quirking into a smile. “Take your time. There will be a vehicle waiting outside to take us there.”

     With little option or even reason to delay, Maarek simply nodded and began to follow her out. He had no idea where they were going, or how to exit the Envirodeck. However, when they approached the interior of a building that Maarek had never been in before, the doors opened not to reveal a foyer or a dining hall, but instead, the cold steel corridor of a ship, uniformed officers passing by in either direction.

     They were inside the Titan, now.

 

            Slowly, Maarek made his way into the chamber, flanked by the Jedicon known as Chele.

     The atmosphere in the room immediately felt different. On the way here, they’d ridden a hovering vehicle through kilometers of corridors, passing innumerable personnel and other vehicles, but it had all felt like the normal everyday bustle of activity onboard a massive starship. But this felt different, unlike a ship at all. Despite the glow of display panels and control stations spread throughout the chamber, it felt more like a throne room than a ship.

     A raised dais ten meters in diameter was the room’s centerpiece. Blue and purple tapestries hung down walls that extended far above, a pure white light seeming to fill the entire ceiling space. The floor and walls were polished white, and the tapestries themselves looked like royal crests that he’d seen on other worlds.

     There were no visible guards. Instead, elegantly-dressed delegates of what must have been the epitome of beauty for their races stood at attention along the walls. In between them were white-robed Jedicon, both males and females, absent any kind of armor but with prominent lightsabers resting at their belts. He recognized Alona immediately, his eye drawn to the azure hair streaking down to her shoulders. She met his gaze, but made no other gesture to indicate she recognized him.

     He couldn’t focus on her for long. Facing away from Maarek at the center of the room, standing on the dais in front of a massive hologram of the galaxy, was a tall man dressed in royal blue robes, a wave of shimmering white hair falling almost to shoulder level. The last time Maarek had met him, it had been much longer, falling down his back. But as the outline of the man’s face came into view, with his flawless skin and staggering blue eyes, he knew this was the same man who had met him on Arcadia. He didn’t look to have aged a day – in fact, he might have looked even younger than before, far below Maarek in years. He was slim, yet judging from the arms extending down from his sleeves, well-muscled and stronger than he first appeared.

     Victor turned to look at Maarek and smiled. “Welcome onboard the Eternity, Maarek Stele.”

     On the other side of Victor, two bald men dressed in broad golden costumes bowed respectfully and turned to leave. From behind Maarek, the Jedicon Chele moved past Maarek and took up a position slightly to one side. Surprisingly, Alona moved to stand beside her.

     “Apologies for my delay,” Victor said, taking Maarek’s attention once again. “I trust you made yourself at home here onboard my ship.”

     Your ship? Maarek thought, halfway in disbelief. The last time he’d met Victor, it had been in a remote palace on the planet Arcadia. He’d had servants and even Jedicon, but in order to own a Titan, that would mean that Victor was one of the Warlords, himself. That was preposterous, wasn’t it? Maarek had come here on the promise to fly the Archon again, nothing more.

     “I’m honored at your invitation to come here,” he said uncertainly. “Frankly, I never expected to hear from you again.”

     “I have need of your services once more,” Victor replied. “In your absence I continued to run tests on the Archon System, with many pilots. Unfortunately, no one has been able to bond with the system nearly as well as you did. It was inevitable that we would meet once more, Maarek Stele.”

     Maarek didn’t know whether he felt flattered at the compliment, or jealous that Victor had tried to duplicate his feat with the Archon without him. “I guess you realized you needed the best for your tests,” he said a little testily.

     Victor gave a chuckle. “Indeed. For millennia pilots' abilities have outmatched their fighters, my friend. But now we have made a ship that no pilot can master… Except for you, perhaps.”

     “I’m glad I made a strong impression,” Maarek said. “I’ll be honest with you, Victor. I’m dying to fly it again. With my condition – well, it’s the only chance I have to be flying at all.”

     “Yes, I know of your injuries,” Victor nodded, “but you sustained them obtaining a great victory. You defeated Nimrod’s finest pilot.”

     “We took each other out,” Maarek corrected. The last thing he wanted was an unearned sense of glory for himself. He knew he was good, but there were others out there, too. He’d be dead if not for Rann and the others. If he was really good, he should have saved them, too. “I was just lucky enough to survive bailing out.”

     Victor pursed his lips. “I see.” His gaze bored through Maarek, making him uncomfortable. It felt like those eyes could see right through him.

     Maarek opened his mouth again before the situation became even more awkward. “Look, Victor, I just want to fly the Archon. If you have a mission for me, then tell me what it is. I don’t want to waste your time.”

     Victor held up one finger. “First of all,” he said, “you should be aware that my true name is not Victor. That was simply an alias; the truth is that I am an Altarin’Dakor Shok’Thola. And for the last thousand generations, I have gone by the name of Strife.”

     Maarek felt his breath catch in his throat. His limbs suddenly felt heavy, as through he couldn’t move them. He’d never heard of a Warlord named Strife from his briefings on the AD. Could it really be true? Here, standing in front of him, was what appeared to be a normal man, not a legend. Such claims didn’t seem possible. He looked maybe ten years younger than Stele himself.

     But he controlled a Titan-class Battleship. Jedicon surrounded the entire room. Maarek felt a chill; he hadn’t put much thought into that fact until just now. Surely only a fool would make such a claim if it wasn’t true. But everyone else in the room didn’t look surprised at all.

     Maarek took several breaths before he could find his voice once more. “Forgive me if I say that I haven’t really heard of you before.”

     Strife smiled. “I always find it interesting to find someone without a preconceived opinion of me. After all, I am worshipped as a god in over a million different star systems. Yet now I have met someone who has never heard of me at all. A truly fascinating feeling.”

     “Glad I can oblige,” Maarek quipped before he could catch himself. He chided himself; antagonizing a Warlord definitely wasn’t the smartest idea. Still, he hadn’t come here for hyperbole.

     “Now that you know who I am, do you have any compunctions now about working for me?” Strife asked him.

     Maarek considered that. What would everyone in the New Imperium think? What would Salle say? Would she call him a traitor? As long as he didn’t have to fight the NI, he could do it, right? What would Xar…

     He shook his head suddenly. What did Xar care what he did anymore? What did the NI’s opinion matter, either? Maarek was on his own from here on. “You called me,” he said. “I’m prepared to take that offer in good faith. For now.”

    Strife smiled slightly. “Then we have a deal. I will have your full cooperation for as long as I require it.”

     Maarek nodded, with a strange feeling almost like a door had swung closed in his head. Like he’d been walking down a path that had split in two directions, and he’d just chosen one over the other, and was unable to go back. He pushed the thought aside; he’d worked through all of this before. Whatever it was he had to do, it was better than rotting dirtside on some backwater world. Maarek knew that he had changed. He figured that crashing through the side of a building might do that to someone. “This is why I came all the way out here,” he said, adding, “wherever it is we are.”

     “We are in the Ven’lar System,” Strife told him. “It is here that I have been testing the latest Archon System designs. It is a perfect staging point for all that you will be doing for me.”

     Maarek digested this, and nodded slowly. “So what do you want me to do, besides simply fly the thing?”

     “Two things, and the first is this. On the mission you flew for me before, you struck at a supply depot controlled by the Shok’Thola known as Akargan,” Strife said. At Maarek’s nod, he continued. “The feud between that Shok’Thola and myself has escalated, and I am preparing a final strike to eliminate him once and for all. I desire your assistance in putting an end to Akargan. Will you agree to this?”

     “Who he is doesn’t make any difference for me,” Maarek said. “Yes, I’ll fly the Archon against this guy for you. Kriff it all, I’ll fly it anywhere you want me to. I just have one favor to ask in return.”

     Strife arched an eyebrow at him. “And what would that be?”

     “I was shot down by Jedicon pilots. They killed my wingmen, my friends. They…” he struggled for a moment with the words. “They messed with our heads.”

     He looked up and met Strife’s eyes. “I can use the Force; I accept that fact, now. I want to learn how to block those blasted Jedicon so they can’t get into my mind anymore.”

     A slight smile once again made its way onto Strife’s lips. “I believe we can accommodate that. My servants, Alona and Chele, will be more than happy to teach you anything you want to know.”

     “Just that will be fine,” Maarek said, glancing at the women. “Nothing more. I don’t want to use the Force any more than I have to.”

     “But why?” Strife asked him. “You are not weak in terms of potential. Why eschew the gift you’ve been given?”

     “Not everyone sees it as a gift,” Maarek said dryly. “I’m one of those.”

     “Apparently.” Strife continued.

     “What was the second thing you wanted?”

Strife smiled again and shook his head, his white locks swaying. “I’ll save it for another time. Let us focus on the first task for now, shall we?”

     “Fine by me. When do I begin?”

     “Immediately,” came the response.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Titan-class Battleship Grand Crusader

            In Orbit, Varnus

            1300 Hours

 

            Xar sat on the bridge of the Grand Crusader, listening to the briefing by the New Imperium’s new War Coordinator.

     He’d finally agreed to come up and see the ship for himself. He had to admit, it was beyond anything he’d ever seen before. At over fifty kilometers in length – far greater than any Titan he’d ever been on – it possessed more firepower in itself than most whole fleets combined. If a Star Destroyer was like a floating city in space, then this must surely be the equivalent of an entire nation-state.

     Surrounding him was a massive bridge crewed by at least a couple of hundred officers. It took up three levels and was itself as large as any of the Royal Palace’s courtyards. But this was only one part of the whole picture.

     This wasn’t, in fact, the ship’s true command center. In truth, the ship was primarily designed to be controlled from the meditation chamber located deep inside, from where Nimrod had commanded all of his forces at once. The ship was essentially built around a massive Force artifact, which augmented and expanded its user’s powers – enabling the Warlord to accomplish feats such as reaching across the whole galaxy to communicate, creating mass-scale realistic illusions, bolstering his entire navy’s fighting prowess – even destroying a star.

     However, despite all that power available to them, Zalaria had admitted that she hadn’t yet figured out the nuances of using it. So, for now, the ship would be run from this auxiliary bridge, itself larger than any command deck Xar had ever seen. It was fully staffed by a Zalaria-loyal Altarin’Dakor crew, in case their Nimrod counterparts decided the NI was still the enemy, after all.

     Gaius stood in front of a large holoscreen in the room, briefing all the commanding officers on the NI’s current military situation. While most stood off to the side, listening, Xar had chosen to sit, taking a chair in front of a control panel by one of the bridge’s large viewports. He watched as Gaius showed them a map of NI space that zoomed in and out at his discretion, with icons representing individual ships or fleets within the NI Navy, the largest ones representing the three Titans now inhabiting the Varnus system.

     He was currently explaining mass exodus of a good portion of the former Second Fleet, taking untold hundreds of thousands of civilians and military personnel out of the New Imperium entirely.

     Fleet Admirals Majere and Shok'fur had taken a handful of ships - the ISDs Bismarck, Nemesis, Serpent, Malevolence, and Scarabaeid, the Interdictor Agemnor and the VSD Thresher, leaving the rest of their task forces intact to continue to aid the NI. However, some reassigning of personnel had occurred, allowing those troops who wanted to leave to do so. As a result, Majere and Shok'fur's ships had been packed, not to mention the transports they had escorted out. That had left the NI's ships somewhat understaffed. After all the casualties they'd taken in the recent days of the war, the NI ships were far below full fighting capacity.
     They would have to rely more and more on the Altarin'Dakor and their Titans as the days wore on. 

     “Meanwhile,” Gaius was saying, “the Diktat has approved the restructuring of the fleet around the new Titan-class battleships we’ve obtained. That means there will be one navy, with task forces denoted Grand Crusader, Cataclysm, and Ascendancy. This will keep the task forces strong – of roughly equal strength this time – and facilitate ease of command.”

     “How are we going to get our forces to work with these new AD?” Walt Amason spoke up.

     Gaius nodded to him. “We’re currently working on that. It’ll take some time, I know. I’m certainly open to suggestions.”

     Xar looked at the other gathered members present, a listing of all the remaining NI commanders in the fleet. There was Zalaria, of course, followed by Sector Admiral Stan Sanders, Field Marshall Rodin Kaler, CEOs Amason and K’bail, Fleet Admirals Jann Percy and Tam Eulicid, and last but not least, Grand Master Alyx Misnera, Xar’s own appointed replacement. It was the whole War Cabinet, assembled here.

     Also, quite interestingly, Icis Novitaar was there, standing aloof from the others near the corner. Xar didn’t know how he had come to be here – certainly neither he nor Zalaria had invited him – but he didn’t protest his presence, either. Xar and Icis had mostly worked out their differences, although the man still had more than his share of secrets. That was why Xar couldn’t trust him.

     Gaius cleared his throat, getting everyone’s attention before continuing. “The Diktat wants an attack on the Mizar system,” he said. “I’m here to discuss with you how best to tackle that plan. Our scouts report that the system is only lightly defended at the moment and recommend we strike soon. Any comments?”

     “We should strike immediately,” Zalaria spoke up first, her voice definitive. “The longer we wait, the most chance they will bolster their defense.”

     “What if they’re laying another trap for us like before?” Rodin Kaler asked. “They could be waiting for us to make just this move.”

     “Whether they are or not, we cannot pass up this opportunity,” Gaius replied before Zalaria could open her mouth. He turned to look at her. “I fully agree that we should strike as soon as possible. I also recommend that we hit them as hard as possible, with everything we’ve got. Our best chance lies in an overwhelming, surprise strike.”

     Zalaria looked at him and said nothing, but her eyes widened slightly. Xar could see that she was surprised, and the faces of several others gathered mirrored that feeling. Gaius had been opposing Zalaria’s taking command just a couple of weeks before, and had argued against a fast counterattack.

     “Are you sure we’re ready for that?” Amason asked him.

     “We have to be, Walt,” Gaius replied. “But I’m concerned about our forces intermingling just as much as you are. Therefore I am appointing a fourth, temporary task force, denoted Darkstar, which will be led by the former Intruder Wing flagship of the same name. They will contain all our NI ships and will operate independently under Fleet Admiral Tam Eulicid as a separate force for this particular engagement.”

     “Why shouldn’t the New Imperial vessels formerly in the other task forces be reassigned as escorts to our Titans?” Zalaria finally spoke up.

     “Because the NI troops haven’t integrated with the Altarin’Dakor forces yet,” Gaius explained. “Better they stay separate, at least for this one battle. We can get an assessment of their readiness to fight together after this.”

     Zalaria looked at him for a moment, and it looked as though she was going to protest. After all, why should they appoint a fourth task force weaker than the others? Their effectiveness would be cut down and would be an easy target for the enemy. The air in the room began to feel stiff, but suddenly Zalaria shook her head and actually laughed. “Fine. Have it your way,” she said.

     Xar smiled inwardly. It seemed that Gaius was trying a new strategy. Instead of fighting with Zalaria outright, he was agreeing with her in as much as possible, while trying to subtly steer things in his direction. It was a good tactic, but he doubted that a 25,000 year-old Shok’Thola would fall for it. She would run rings around his reasoning and in the end have things exactly her way.

     “Aren’t you all forgetting something?”

     Xar turned to look at Alyx, who had finally chosen to enter the conversation. About time. He was obviously not happy about this whole situation at all.

     “Our forces hate the AD – including those on this ship – and the AD hate us. And now we expect them to fight for us? This is ridiculous! We just stopped trying to kill each other less than a month ago!”

     So. Gaius might be trying to manipulate Zalaria, but Alyx, on the other hand, was still relying on outright defiance. He seemed opposed to everything Zalaria had to say. The man was so stubborn, unwilling to bend even a millimeter. Didn’t he realize that the Jedi Order belonged to Xar? Alyx had no authority that Xar hadn’t given him in the first place! Where was his sense of gratitude? Didn’t he realize Xar could strip him of that authority just as easily as he’d given it?

     “That is why I am placing them in a separate task force, temporarily,” Gaius explained.

     That answer was obviously not good enough for Alyx. But there was little he could do; this wasn’t his call. The Diktat and the War Coordinator had made up their minds.

     Gaius turned back to Zalaria. “Perhaps it would be prudent to get an update on the status of these forces of yours. Are they ready to fight? And will we, in fact, have reinforcements on the way if this war continues to escalate further?”

     “As for the issue of reinforcements, I can only say that we must wait a bit longer. I have sent an honor guard back to out home galaxy with the news of what has happened, as well as explicit instructions. They are to send whatever forces of mine remain in our galaxy to come here, and they are also to relay that same message to Nimrod’s fleets. How many of them will respond is yet to be determined. Quite possibly, Nimrod’s territories are in a state of civil war. I have yet been unable to decipher how he used his command chamber to communicate directly with our galaxy.

     “There still remain five Titans belonging to Nimrod that fled Tralaria. I have sent a task force to hunt them down, and as soon as they are found, I plan to act to seize or destroy those ships. However,” she continued glancing around the room, “as to the condition of the forces we have here – they will fight, because that is what they are ordered to do,” Zalaria explained. “Altarin’Dakor fight each other all the time; it has been this way for millennia. All the Shok’Thola have fought against one another at some point. Our society is based upon the survival of the fittest. Though it may seem an inopportune time, they will not hesitate to fight their own kind if the command is given.”

     “Yes, but what about our forces? How do we know they won’t turn and attack us?” Kaler asked her.

     “They will not attack subjugated or integrated forces,” she explained. “As far as they are concerned, the New Imperium is an extension of territory under my Altarin’Dakor faction.”

     “What are you saying?” Amason asked. “That they think they won the battle here?”

     “Of course,” she said matter-of-factly. “In the process of claiming all of Nimrod’s territory, I had to include the New Imperium in that same claim. The warriors would not have understood why I ordered a cease to hostilities otherwise. They believe that the New Imperium surrendered to them.”

     “You told them what?!” Alyx sputtered.

     The room erupted into an uproar of shouts and rebuttals. Zalaria stood above it all, her logic infallible, explaining that the Altarin’Dakor would not have pulled back if they thought the New Imperium was still defiant. The other commanders argued that this put the NI in an unacceptable position – they would not put on a charade that the NI had surrendered just to get the AD to help. Most of them were willing to start fighting again right then and there, to preserve their sense of freedom and independence. Couldn’t they see that there was no other way?  Altarin’Dakor did not surrender. Unless all the forces were under Zalaria’s command, they would never be able to fight together.

     Gaius finally managed to calm everyone down, shelving the issue for a later discussion. He began to discuss the logistics of the attack on Mizar, reviewing ship assignments and fleet strength assessments.

     Xar listened with only half an ear, glancing out the viewport window to get his mind off the conversation. Out there lay the other two Titans, the Cataclysm and the Ascendancy, along with a ragtag band of ships used to be part of the First Fleet. Among them was the ISD Stormwatch, the flagship of the NI Jedi Division, a customized Imperator-class Star Destroyer that Xar had purchased from Kuat Drive Yards himself using funds from the royal treasury. He'd been proud of that ship, of her upgrades and achievements. He'd been impressed by her size and firepower. Now, next to the Grand Crusader and the others, she was no more than a speck of dust. Small. Insignificant.

     It was a microcosm of the relationship between the New Imperium and their Altarin’Dakor allies, now. Like it or not, the New Imperium they had known was gone for good.
     He started to turn from the viewport when suddenly he froze in shock. In its reflection – right behind where he was sitting – was a man’s face, heavily scarred, framed by unkempt, long hair falling down the sides of his head.

     There was no mistaking the identity of that visage. It was the face of Dasok Krun. Xar started, turning away to stare at the space beside him, where he’s seen Krun.

     There was no one there.

     The conversation had died down. Xar realized everyone was looking at him.

     “Xar? Are you feeling okay?” Zalaria asked.

     “I’m fine,” he lied.

     She didn’t look so sure. Everyone else turned back to their conversation except her and Icis, the latter of whom was watching him with a curious expression on his face. It made Xar feel uncomfortable.

     So now he was seeing Dasok Krun’s face. He already seen Runis twice more, in fleeting glances inside the palace, only to discover that he wasn’t really there, of course. Now Dasok Krun was visiting him too? What was next, Kronos appearing out of thin air and trying to kill him?

     Was Xar going insane? If so, why now, after all this time?

     “We should send all four task forces to the third planet, the one called Arcadia,” Stan was saying in the meantime. “That is the only target of strategic value, and the only one the Altarin’Dakor are likely to contend.”

     “Agreed,” Gaius said, nodding. “If we strike fast and hard – and there are no hidden reinforcements as Walt pointed out – we can take the system. Kaler, what about a ground assault? Can we hold the planet?”

     “It depends again on the integration of our forces,” the Field Marshall answered. “There are millions of AD troops at our disposal. Meanwhile, we lost most of our men in the First and Second Fleets, but I have supplemented with fresh troops from the Kolath and Tralaria garrisons. Those haven’t seen combat against the AD yet, so that might work out.”

     Gaius turned to Misnera. “And what about our Jedi forces? I would like to use them as elite strike teams on key targets on the surface.”

     “The Jedi will not be participating in this battle,” Alyx said.

     The room suddenly went quiet.

     “Nimrod’s Jedicon had to be eliminated,” Zalaria said, keeping her voice soft. “My forces were virtually wiped out. We have no Force users without the Division, and the enemy will certainly have a large number of Jedicon at their disposal.”

     “I said we’re not going anywhere. There’s hardly a Division left at all, people. We have plenty of things that need taking care of first. One of those is the assistance of the people of Varnus and rebuilding the devastation that has happened. This battle is not the Division’s first priority.”

     Xar could take it no longer. He thrust himself out of his seat and took several steps towards Misnera.

     “What makes you think you can just opt the Jedi out of this war?” he demanded.

     Alyx rounded on him angrily. “Since when do the Jedi pander to dictators?” he countered.

     Xar waved him off. “Quit acting like a child, Alyx! Zalaria has thousands of years more experience than you. What makes you think you know better? Maybe she’s right and you’re wrong for once!”

     “I’ll be the judge of that. Maybe I’m just the only one not deluded by her and her crazy claims.”

     Anger threatened to explode out of him, but Xar held it in. Alyx was insulting his wife! He wouldn’t stand for this kind of attitude. The man’s delusions of grandeur had to be stopped.

     “Either way, you can’t order the whole Division to stay out,” Xar said darkly. “That’s not your call. The decision is mine.”

     “You waved your right to make the decision when you stepped out on the Division,” Alyx shot back defiantly. “Where were you when we needed you? It’s too late to come back now.”

     Xar clenched his fists and took a deep breath, but turned away. He had been absent. He should never have let this poor excuse for a Jedi Master take command. He should never have promoted him in the first place. He glanced back at the delusional man.

     Alyx was still speaking, to the others, this time. “Have you all lost your minds?” he demanded. “Do you really think this is going to help the NI? Do you really believe that all these warriors we’ve been fighting are going to just suddenly flip around and fight their own people?” He raised a finger and spun it around as if to emphasize the point. “Do you think they’re going to just abandon their precious ‘Return’, just like that?”

     Suddenly the anger in Xar’s head spiked. Pure rage overwhelmed him, fury at the man in front of him who had tried to take the Division away from him, to destroy the Jedi and, by doing so, his own people.

     Xar launched himself forward like a rocket. In an instant, he was on top of the other Grand Master.

      He drove Misnera to the floor under his weight, his hands at the man’s throat, squeezing and shaking him as hard as he could. He wouldn’t let it happen again! Varnus was his world, its people his people! This cretin in front of him wanted to destroy everything! He squeezed harder, trying to choke the life out the man underneath him.

     “No!” he shouted. “I won’t let you kill them again!”

     “Get him off me!” Alyx shouted beneath him, gasping for air. “He’s crazy!”

     A second later half a dozen hands grabbed at Xar, trying to pull him away. Xar struggled with them, gripping the man below with all his might, but he couldn’t seem to make his hands move. His arms weren’t responding right, and his thoughts started to drift. He felt Gaius’ arms going around his head, pulling him up and off of Misnera. Finally his grip slipped away, and he fell back.

     For a moment, he had seen Dasok Krun’s face on the man he’d been choking.

     “No!” Xar shouted, thrusting his arms out, pushing the bodies around him away. “Get away!”

     Then sudden, stabbing pain spiked in his brain, and he threw his hands up to hold his head.

     “Xar!” he heard a whole group of people say. He felt himself pitching forward, saw the deck plates rising up to meet him, just before everything went black.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Detention Center

            NI Senate Complex, Tralaria

            1800 Hours

 

            Gene Rytor stepped into the detention cell and stared down at the man inside. Queklain stood up as he entered, a force field providing a blue curtain separating him from his captors. At Rytor’s nod, the two guards in the room filed out, closing the door behind them. He’d also ordered them to switch off the room’s holocams. The men holding Queklain were all hand-picked by the Diktat himself, and fully understood the gravity of the situation.

     They could not run the risk of a trial or give the prisoner any opportunity to escape. The Null Sphere had been housed in the cell directly above this one, overlapping both with its Force-canceling field. But Rytor was taking no chances. He had come to deal with this Warlord, and get some answers.

     “I have some questions for you,” he began, crossing his arms and staring at the man.

     Queklain simply sneered at him. He said nothing in reply.

     “I’m not going to torture you,” Rytor said. “I doubt it would do any good. Why don’t we be civilized and chat for a while instead?”

     Again, his comments were met only by stark silence. After staring at the Warlord for a moment, Rytor realized he wasn’t going to get a response. Very well then. He began to pace back and forth in front of the glowing blue field.

     “You see, I have my own contacts, even among the Altarin’Dakor,” he continued, explaining. “No one has heard of a Shok’Thola named Queklain. The only mention of that name is in some of the most ancient records of the original Great War.”

     He stared at the man in front of him, an image of hate glaring back at him through the force field.

     “And yet,” Rytor continued, “Here you are, with all the powers of a Shok’Thola, acting the part and with the same name from those legends. I don’t think you’re an impostor.” He raised a hand to forestall any protest. “You’re very much real. Somehow – and I don’t have any idea how – you ended up here in our time. Now you’re acting behind the scenes, playing both sides against the middle. I’m going to take a chance and say this: I believe that you’re acting on your own. And I think that if we kill you here, now, none of the other Shok’Thola will ever know anything happened at all. You are, I’m afraid, all alone.”

     “You’re a fool,” Queklain finally said.

     “What did you plan to achieve here?” Rytor asked him, ignoring the man’s confident tone. “What are your plans for the New Imperium?”

     “I will kill you very slowly, Rytor. Do you know how long I can keep a body alive while I torture it? A very, very long time.”

     Rytor brought his pacing to a halt, reached to his waist and pulled out the blaster he had there. Then he walked over to the wall and hit the button to deactivate the force field. Once the wall over energy vanished, he trained his blaster straight for the Warlord’s chest. Queklain didn’t use the moment to make an attack, something which increased Rytor’s confidence level just another notch.

     “Why don’t we put my little theory to the test,” he offered. “You’re powerless now, I’m afraid.”

     The Warlord’s eyes narrowed. “You can’t kill me. You know that. You’ve doomed yourself and your pathetic little empire. You could have had everything…”

     “That’s enough!” Rytor shouted. He released the blaster’s safety and took a step forward. “I’m going to give you one last chance. Do you have anything useful to say about your plans, or do you just want to die here in obscurity?”

     Queklain glared at him for another long moment. But Rytor refused to budge. Suddenly he spoke.

     “What do you want to know?” he growled.

     A surge of victory swelled in Rytor’s chest. His gamble had paid off. “Tell me why you are here,” he ordered.

     The man took a deep breath. He seemed to believe Rytor, now – and that convinced him that his theory was correct. Rytor been uncertain before, knowing that making a gamble like this could be the last thing he ever did. But Queklain seemed genuinely afraid of Rytor’s blaster, since the Null Sphere still in place.

     “I was imprisoned a long, long time ago,” Queklain said. “During the Great War, yes. I was freed by your unfortunate friend known as Nico.”

     Rytor nodded slowly. So he’d only emerged recently, then. That also reinforced the notion that he was acting alone.

     “What were your plans for the New Imperium?”

     The Warlord grunted. “I want what all the Shok’Thola want, Rytor. Power. I want this galaxy for myself. Don’t you?”

     “And you actually thought the New Imperium could win?” Rytor asked.

     Queklain sneered at him. “Don’t be a fool. The New Imperium doesn’t matter. Only chaos matters. Every Shok’Thola knows that in the end there will only be one of us. They’ve only worked together until now because they were ordered to.”

     “So the Shok’Thola eventually want to kill each other?” Rytor asked in surprise, lowering the blaster a bit.

     “Of course they do. You don’t think we actually plan on sharing power?” Queklain shook his head. “I needed a base of power by which I could challenge the others. Surprisingly, your little government has been effective in halting not just one, but two major Altarin’Dakor offensives. That’s quite impressive, Rytor. With you under my control, why should I go and conquer some other, distant government? This was the perfect place, a vital place, to keep our internal war from spreading across the galaxy and alerting everyone to our presence.”

     Queklain gave a snort. “In the end the New Imperium will be destroyed, either by one of the others, or myself. It is merely a platform, leading to the next, which will lead to the next. Until I have eliminated them all.”

     “And why do you want to do that?”

     “Because there can only be one ruler among the Shok’Thola. That one will become the Altima, the source of all power. All the others will eventually fall, to make way for the one that will rule over everything.”

     “Galaxy-wide destruction.” Rytor shook his head. “Are you all this nihilistic? Or is it because you were trapped in a prison for twenty-five thousand years?”

     Queklain snorted. “I remember almost nothing of my time before awaking. But I know the power I have. The others are unaware that I even exist. It is the perfect place from which to strike at them. What are you, Rytor? An insignificant speck. I could have given you real power, a real meaning to live. You don’t understand the truth; the Shok’Thola are all that matter.”

     Now Rytor understood why the Shok’Thola weren’t working together, why each one he’d encountered had been oblivious to the schemes and machinations of the others. Each had wanted completely different things, had totally different goals, and was only focused on one thing – their own success. That was why the Altarin’Dakor hadn’t already succeeded. The Warlords were ultimately fighting each other. The galaxy was simply the setting, the prize to be won at the end.

     “Well then, this should speed up the process a little,” he said. He raised the gun, and fired.

     Queklain stumbled back against the far wall and slumped to the floor, his face a mask of shock as the smoldering crater in his chest began to emit smoke. Rytor immediately could see that it was a fatal blow; the wound had cauterized, destroying most of his vital organs. The Warlord had only seconds to live.

     In those final seconds, Queklain’s expression went from one of disbelief to one of sheer horror. His eyes went wide, his face paled, and he stared up at Rytor as if he were looking at death itself. And at that moment, Rytor realized that both he and his quarry knew the truth: the Warlord was not coming back after all. Rytor’s idea of using the Null Sphere’s effect would work; this death was going to be final.

     So. They’re not immortal, after all.

     “Please...” the dying Warlord began to mouth, his voice barely a whisper.

     Rytor fired again, blasting the man’s face apart.

     It was over. A Shok’Thola had fallen.

     Then he felt something, a feeling of dread like he’d never experienced before. Rytor couldn’t use the Force, but he was sure at that moment that he felt something leave the room. And in his head sounded a kind of ethereal scream that sent cold terror into his gut. It was intangible, horrible, as though the creature’s soul was being dragged into a hell he couldn’t begin to imagine.

     Just as quickly, it was gone. What had just happened?

     Rytor took a moment to gather himself, to catch his breath, then calmly replaced his blaster. He turned and left the room, trusting his men to follow orders and dispose of the body discreetly.

     He had learned something valuable, this day. The Shok’Thola were not unbeatable. They could be killed, under the right conditions, and he’d discovered a way to do it. Now there was one less Warlord in play. Rytor had served Kronos first, then had been scooped up by Queklain against his will. There was still one more Shok’Thola in New Imperium space, but she had taken no interest in Rytor. He was confident that Zalaria didn’t know about him.

     That put Rytor in a favorable position; he was now free of any direct Shok’Thola influence. And that also gave him a unique chance to make a landmark decision. He was technically no longer an Altarin’Dakor agent. He was in charge, now, the Diktat of the New Imperium. And that New Imperium had just defeated the forces of Nimrod, the most powerful Altarin’Dakor Warlord known, and was in a position to turn back the whole tide of the war.

     Rytor had originally joined with Kronos because he was convinced the Altarin’Dakor were unstoppable. Now that was obviously no longer the case. Perhaps he no longer had to work for the Altarin’Dakor at all.

     He gave a momentary start. Had he just switched sides?

     He would have to think on this issue quite a bit more.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Briefing Room

            Titan-class Battleship Grand Crusader

            1335 Hours

 

“I fear,” Icis began, “that he will eventually go insane.”

     Everyone gathered in the room exchanged worried looks. Xar pointedly avoided looking at anybody, knowing what their gazes would undoubtedly hold. Shock. Anger. Distrust.

     They all sat in the briefing room adjacent to the Titan’s bridge area, itself as large as the bridges of some vessels. Xar sat in a seat near the head of the long briefing table, one arm resting on top, staring at the viewports looking out on the darkness of space. Clustered around was most everyone else, including Icis, Zalaria, Gaius, Percy, and Amason. Alyx had stormed off the bridge as soon as they’d stopped Xar from trying to kill him.

     Xar had told them about seeing Dasok Krun. Maybe he shouldn’t have, but he figured things couldn’t get much worse than they were now. Better they know why to distrust him than to think he’d turned traitor. Xar had nothing to hide. He’d let his wife do a full scan of his brain through the Force. He’d waited as placed her hands on his head, felt a shudder run through him as she touched him, felt her in his mind. Was that what Nico had felt, before everything suddenly went dark?

     “There is more than one person in your mind,” she had said, finally. “I can feel parts of your mind that are closed to me, that are clearly not your own personality or consciousness, yet are somehow wrapped up inside you. Almost like an amalgam of different conscious entities. Like…” She’d glanced at Novitaar. “Almost like him. But not integrated like he is.”

     Now everyone was reacting to Icis’ statement with varying degrees of disbelief. Amason was the only other person who was seated, several chairs down from Xar, looking lost in thought. Gaius had leaned against the wall, while Percy was pacing back and forth furiously.

     “Why do you say that?” Percy finally asked Novitaar.

     “Dealing with split personalities is a serious challenge,” she replied changing the subject. “It requires careful, specialized treatment that if he doesn’t receive could debilitate him for life. Xar is a very powerful Force-user. He may not be able to cope with the changes in his mind, and if he loses control the results could be disastrous.”

     Xar shook his head, smirking. So now he was too powerful for his own good, was he?

     “What makes you think that’s the problem?” Amason asked.

     “Violent mood swings,” Icis answered. “Coupled with the fact that Xar’s symptoms have been getting worse over the last year and a half. I’ve been watching – that’s my job, after all.”

     “Why didn’t you say something before this, then?” Percy asked him.

     Icis merely shrugged. “I had no concrete evidence, no name to put to my concerns.”

     “No one would have believed you,” Zalaria said flatly.

     Walt leaned towards Xar, eyeing him from across the table. “Xar, why did you attack Alyx? What were you feeling?”

     Xar said nothing. He continued to stare ahead. He hated people talking about him like he wasn’t really there. And now they were doing it again, trying to fix him. As though he were a broken child’s toy.

     “So what can we do to help him?” Gaius asked.

     Icis looked over at him. “He needs expert-level help that he cannot get from us. We can support him, but I fear that his delusions may turn him against us all, eventually.”

     “He can take a leave of absence,” Percy put in. “He can’t be expected to fulfill his duties, suffering from such a condition.”

     “Xar,” Amason said, addressing him again. “I have some connections at one of the finest hospitals in the galaxy, on Obroa-skai. Let me give them a call. I’m sure they can help you. You’ll be back to normal in no time.”

     Xar narrowed his eyes. So, they had labeled him and were ready to dismiss him, to hand him over to others. They wanted to be rid of him. Get him out of the way, so they would be in charge.

     “Go, leave me alone,” he told them. “I wish to be left alone.”

     For a moment, silence filled the room. Amason stared at him, gaping, as if struggling for something to say.

     “I said go!” Xar shouted.

     That was all they needed to hear. Walt practically jumped up, and joined Percy in hastily heading for the exit. They all started to file out, Icis included. Zalaria moved to escort them from the room. Xar looked away. Doubtless they were afraid of him, worried he’d snap again and attack one of them, too. They needn’t bother. Xar wasn’t concerned with them. If they feared him, then all the better reason for them to do as he said.

     Just as they reached the door, Icis turned to Zalaria and paused, speaking with her for a moment. Xar couldn’t make out their whispers. After a moment, she nodded, and together they turned around and came back.

     “I said…” Xar began as they approached.

     “We need to talk about this,” Zalaria said, her voice allowing no argument about the subject. She put her hands on her hips, and he closed his mouth. Icis walked over to stand in front of him.

     “What do you know about Absorb Force Energy?” Icis asked him.

     Xar frowned, taken aback by the randomness of the question. He knew the ability that the man was referring to – knew it all too well. “The dark-side power? It’s terrible, forbidden,” he said honestly.

     “And how many times have you used it?”

     “Just once,” Xar said. “On Dasok Krun.”

     “Are you sure about that?”

     “Don’t you think I would remember using it again if I did?” Xar snapped.

     Icis crossed his arms in front of him. “I read the biography you wrote. When you mentioned the scene where you killed Runis, it sounded a lot like what happened when you killed Dasok Krun.”

     “What are you saying? That I used it on him, too?” Xar snorted. “I suppose it’s possible. But where are you heading with this?” He glanced at Zalaria, who was watching Icis more curiously than Xar.

     “Tell me,” Icis said, ignoring his question. “Just now, when you flew into a rage, whose face did you see just before that?”

     “Krun’s,” he said. “I already told you.” His patience was wearing thin. Why was he wasting his time talking about this?

     “Krun was known for his anger, wasn’t he? Now, what traits would you say Runis had?”

     Xar shook his head. “What does it matter?”

     “Just tell me.”

     Xar threw up his hands, exasperated. “I don’t know… Revenge, mostly. Hatred and distrust. Pure evil. Are we done here?”

     Icis glanced at Zalaria, then back at him. “And wouldn’t you say you’ve been less trusting of everyone lately?”

     “What are you saying, Icis?” Xar demanded. “That they’re both in my mind somehow?”

     Icis fixed him with a level stare. “That’s exactly what I’m saying. Or at least, a part of them is.”

     Xar thought about that for a moment – or rather, tried to, but something refused to let him brush against it. The thought was too disturbing. How could Icis be insinuating that those two were inside Xar’s mind somehow? Xar hated those two men more than anyone else in the galaxy! And why only now was it making itself known?

     “So if you’re so smart, tell me why this hasn’t manifested itself before,” Xar demanded.

     “Perhaps it was triggered by the traumatic events of the past few weeks. You nearly died fighting Nimrod. Then after that, Derek’s death. Aside from all that, you’ve been getting progressively worse, Xar. I’ve been watching, from the outside. It’s my job, remember?” he repeated.

     “I told you never to say his name again,” Xar said darkly. That name brought all the painful memories rushing back…

     “Xar, listen to reason!” Zalaria chided him sharply. “Let the boy go and deal with the present!”

      Xar blinked in shock. “I… I can’t let him go!” he shouted.

     “There’s something wrong with you! Don’t you even care?” she demanded.

     He stared at her, unable to find words to say. “I…” he began. The anger that had been flaring up inside of him began fading quickly away. What was happening to him?

     Icis stepped closer to him, leaning a hand down on the table beside of him. “Listen, Xar, I think that part of them is inside of you. Maybe even part of their souls.”

     “That’s impossible.” he said. “There’s no proof.”

     “Runis was cunning,” Icis countered. “He knew of arcane powers. Maybe nobody else in the galaxy has used this ability! How can you of all people say it’s impossible?”

     “I have proof,” Zalaria’s soft voice spoke up suddenly, cutting him off. Something in her voice made the hairs on Xar’s arm want to stand up, and he turned to look at her askance.

     She stared at him intensely. “There have been other times, like just before, when I couldn’t recognize you, Xar. Do you understand what that means? I could not sense you in the Force at all. I sensed someone. But it wasn’t you. And it has happened before today; this is not the first time.” She shook her head slowly. “I never told you. Honestly, it frightened me.”

     “Why?” he asked.

     “Because I didn’t understand it. I still don’t,” she admitted.

     The fading away of the anger had let a bone-sapping tiredness creep in, and Xar hung his head, the sheer gravity of what they were saying overwhelming him. If Zalaria didn’t even understand it, then surely no one could. He had no words to rebut their arguments, no proof that what they were saying wasn’t, in fact, the truth. What could he do? He didn’t want to go insane!

     “So that confirms my theory,” Icis said, “that this problem has been with him for some time. Maybe it was exacerbated by the events of the past few weeks, but it has been there all along.”

     Xar thought for a moment, then opened his mouth. It took strength to summon even enough will to speak. “So what you’re saying is that if I had died fighting Nimrod, we would never have discovered this. I would never have even known about it.”

     Zalaria smiled. “You see, it seems you don’t know everything there is to know about destiny, after all.”

     He blinked. What did she mean by that? That this could all somehow be meant to be? That maybe things were supposed to happen this way? How dare she? The thought itself was too dangerous to even consider. Xar couldn’t dare to believe in destiny again. He had sworn that he would give up all of his superstitious beliefs and omens.

     Icis was speaking to him again. “The situation is more dire than I first anticipated. Xar needs more than just professional therapy and guidance. No hospital in the galaxy will be able to help what he has.”

     Xar and his wife both looked up at him. Icis opened his mouth to explain.

     “Xar, I believe that the person you are is inherently good. I remember how you were when I first met you. But think for a moment. There are two evil, dark Jedi in your mind and only one of you. That’s two to one odds.”

     Xar shook his head.

     “What are you saying?” Zalaria asked.

     “I’m no expert by any means, but I can only see two possibilities. Either one personality will ultimately become dominant, or the three of them could merge. If that happens, then the Xar we have come to know will cease to exist.”

     “Why? Can’t he overcome the other personalities?” she said.

     “The Xar that we all know is only one-third of the equation; the other two-thirds are sadistic, murderous dark Jedi. If they were to merge, which do you think would win out? What would happen to him then? Look how much he’s changed already.” He shook his head. “Xar has to win out over the two personalities. The question is, how?”

      Xar let his head hang, a sudden feeling of despair threatening to overwhelm him. There were two killers loose in his mind, had been for years, now. If what Icis said was true, then he was probably going to slowly lose his battle against the other two. He was right; Xar was getting worse. He’d known it, but hadn’t been able to care enough to do something about it. Now, it might be too late. Could he summon up the strength, the will, to care this time?

     Finally he turned to look at his wife. “Can you help me?” he asked her.

     Zalaria’s face held one of the saddest expressions he’d ever seen from her. “I’ve never encountered anything like this, Xar,” she said. “This power comes from a technique that I have no experience with. If I tried to remove it forcibly… Well, you well remember what I did to your friend, Nico.”

     The matter-of-fact way she said it should have shocked him, but he merely nodded, accepting her logic as infallible. What was done was done. Nico would not be coming back; he’d accepted that fact, now.

     “So there’s no hope,” he whispered.

     A feeling of despair washed over him then. Xar didn’t even know himself. Everything he’d done had been the result of the others’ influences within him.

     “Perhaps there is,” Icis said.

     They both looked at him. “What?” Xar asked feebly.

     The man hesitated, as if unsure how to say what he wanted to say. Finally he spoke. “If there’s one person in this galaxy – no, I mean this whole universe – who knows how to help you… Then I know who it is.” He shrugged, in what Xar could almost have taken for embarrassment had he not known the man better.

     “Who?” Zalaria asked.

     “Angol Moa.”

     “Angle what?” Xar said.

     “Angol Moa. I think she can help you. But to meet her, I’m going to have to take you somewhere,” Icis said.

     “Where?” Xar asked.

     “The Traveler Homeworld,” Icis replied.

     Xar stared at him speechlessly. It was probably the last thing he’d ever expected Icis to say.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Titan-class Battleship Eternity

            Ven’lar System

            1440 Hours

 

            Maarek brought his fighter to a perfect landing on the hangar’s deck plates and began to power down. He disengaged from the Archon system, then pulled the opaque blast shield off of his face, taking a moment to catch his breath.

     The nausea and emotional swings he’d had when first flying the fighter were nowhere to be found. Best of all, he was able to fly the Archon without even a hint of vertigo. He felt completely free again – more free than he’d felt in a long time, in fact.

     Unfortunately, however, the effect lasted only as long as he was jacked in. He had to take his time getting out, readjusting to the real world around him. But that gave him time to think about all that had transpired so far.

     He had spent the last several days re-acclimating himself to the Archon and its systems. It had taken surprisingly less time than he’d thought. In fact, as soon as he’d climbed into the cockpit of the fighter, it had felt like revisiting an old friend, one that he knew almost as well as he did himself.

     Of course, Alona had been there to help, too. Every day she met him at the hangar and met his every need from start to finish. She’d helped him get reacquainted with the controls, simply getting the feel for the fighter and running simulations for the first couple of days. Then, after that, she’d gone out with him, flying another Archon on his wing as they made a test flight once around the Eternity. If Maarek had thought that the ship looked massive on a holoscreen, it was nothing at all compared to seeing it in person, up close.

     He’d also seen the other three Titans in formation with the Eternity: the Abyss, the Oblivion, and the Maelstrom. Each one was near or above fifty kilometers in length. Now he understood the kind of firepower that Strife had.

     Maarek had heard that Nimrod had the largest fleet of all the Warlords, so he’d naturally assumed that all the Titans he’d hit Varnus and Tralaria with were the bulk of his fleet. Now he understood that they were simply an advance task force – and all the other Warlords had theirs, as well.

     Now Maarek was flying missions for one of them. It took some effort to settle his gut every time he thought about that. The sheer vastness of the Altarin’Dakor armada completely overwhelmed him.

     Having Alona there to help him was an incredible boon, and he enjoyed every moment that he was able to spend with her. It calmed him for some reason, and made him feel more comfortable about what he was doing. After all, it wasn’t like he had switched sides. They weren’t going to attack the New Imperium; they were going after another Warlord. He was actually helping the NI, he reminded himself.

     He tried not to think about what would happen if circumstanced changed.

     He found himself enjoying spending time with Alona a lot. It kept him busy. Not only was she stunningly beautiful, but as their time together stretched on, he was able to get more and more in the manner of conversation out of her. And he liked what he was learning. As stoic and composed as he’d found her to be at first, he understood now what that was. That was the Jedicon in her, the façade that, as a warrior, she was required to have.

     Underneath that, she was a highly perceptive – and incredibly self-confident – ace pilot. And he found himself admiring that a lot.

     He’d never expected to actually meet a Jedicon pilot. The mere thought of them had struck fear into his heart ever since encountering them at the Battle of Mizar. Jedicon had killed most of his wingmen in Inferno Squadrons, and their deaths were like holes shot straight through his heart. They’d nearly killed him, too.

     If he’d known from the start that Alona was a pilot, he probably never would have even spoken to her. But instead, he’d gotten to know her first before discovering what she was. His guard had been down, his mind open. Now he realized that Jedicon pilots weren’t evil. Merciless killing machines they might be, but they were simply people who had been trained that way, underneath it all.

     He knew that he wouldn’t stand a chance against Alona in one-on-one fighter combat. He still hadn’t learned anything about the Force yet, so he had no idea how to block her abilities. But because he already knew Alona, that knowledge didn’t phase him. In fact, it had the opposite effect. He’d always wondered what it would feel like to meet a woman who was even better than he was. He’d imagined what kind of reaction he might have. Would he be jealous? Or would he fall head over heels for her?

     Now he knew the answer. He could barely stop thinking about her when they were apart. He was falling for her, and he knew it. This could be big trouble.

     The first day, Strife had led him to the hangar personally. It had taken them more than half an hour to take the series of turbolifts and conveyors that brought them to the private hangar of the Warlord, where his personal ships – and the Archon fighters – were housed. Along the way he had returned to the more thoughtful, philosophical conversations that Maarek remembered having with Victor, before.

     “A warrior is more than the sum of his skills,” he’d said as they walked. “And, a fighter pilot is more, as well.”

     “What do you mean?” Maarek asked.

     “To win, you must not merely be the fastest or the strongest. You must have a superior attitude, one that comes only from total confidence in yourself. A warrior must know exactly who he or she is, and must also know exactly who the enemy is.”

     Maarek just nodded. He’d heard this kind of philosophy before. He knew that most fights were decided long before the killing blow was dealt. But what Strife was suggesting was easier said than done.

     “Have you discovered who you true enemy is?” Strife asked him suddenly.

     So, it was back to that. Maarek thought for a moment before answering. It wouldn’t do any good to lie. The more he’d fought – especially in this crazy, convoluted war – the less he felt he understood anything at all. “Not yet,” he said finally.

     “At least now you are willing to admit the truth,” Strife said, walking with his arms behind his back, his robes swishing at his feet. “I must confess, Maarek Stele – I used you. The Archon System was still unrefined the last time you flew it. Its interface with the pilot tended to drive him emotionally unstable, with violent tendencies. It antagonized you, deceived you even, to the point that you killed even the wingmates you flew with.”

Maarek stared straight ahead, ignoring the flash of indignation that welled up inside of him. He remembered the flight Strife was talking about. He’d shunted it out of his mind since that time, not wanting to think about what he’d done, about the men he’d killed. He didn’t want to remember their screams of betrayal as he’d cut their ships apart.

  “You are not to blame,” Strife said.

  “I don’t want to talk about it,” Maarek said.

      If the Warlord was put off by the bluntness of his reply, he didn’t show it. “Very well. In the interval, we have improved the system greatly,” he continued. “Now the system will calm you, keep you collected, your wits sharper. Your decision-making skills will be enhanced, not inhibited.”

     “Glad to hear it,” Maarek bit off sharply.

     Beside him, Strife made a grunting noise. “We must always continue to learn, Maarek Stele. No matter how long we live, we must endeavor to study new things, to grow. Some of the others have forgotten this. Over the millennia, we have mastered psychology, biology, physics and even time – we even learned how to manipulate these things through the Force. But we must not let ourselves stagnate here.”

     “Is that why you’re working on the Archon System?” Maarek asked. “To advance further, both technologically and in warfare? I mean, why didn’t you develop this system eons ago? You should have had the technology.”

     For a moment Strife said nothing. They walked in silence, so long that Maarek glanced at the man to see if he was even planning to continue the conversation. But finally, Strife spoke again, his cold blue eyes distant.

     “This may seem difficult to believe, but I was given an opportunity that precious few ever have.”

     “What do you mean?”

     “A chance to start over, Maarek Stele. Some time ago, on a planet called Mies, I quested for an object of unspeakable power. I came into contact with a Celestial device, and was drawn inside. It sent me…” He paused, and took a breath. “Back in time,” he finished.

     He glanced at Maarek as if to gauge his reaction. But Maarek just kept looking at him. What was he supposed to think? This was little worse than the claims that he’d lived for over a thousand generations and was strong enough to destroy an entire planet. It was just one more bellicose – possibly even insane – rambling.

     “You don’t have to believe me,” Strife said, as if knowing his thoughts. “Along the way I was shown incredible things. Secrets from my past. Untold glory ahead in my future. My eyes were… opened. I now know the truth: the Altarin’Dakor are merely a group of small fish swimming within an ocean of giants. In the end, no matter what we accomplish, we are insignificant in this universe.”

     Maarek didn’t respond. There was really nothing he could think of to say. This kind of philosophical rambling wasn’t something he cared for. How could the Altarin’Dakor see themselves as insignificant? What else could be out there that was moer powerful than they were?

     But the Warlord wasn’t finished. “Once I thought that power was the ideal that we must seek to obtain – that power could solve anything. Now I understand that it is not power, but knowledge that is the most influential force in the universe. Knowledge can turn a man who is an enemy into a friend. It can make civilizations stop with a single word. It can show you your true place in relation to all things.

     “Ah, here we are,” Strife said, breaking off as they reached a set of doors. As they approached, they slid open, spilling them into the interior of the Warlord’s private hangar.

     And that was when he saw it again. The Archon. It was by far the most beautiful fighter he’d ever witnessed. And, by far, the most deadly.

     The craft was gleaming white, with a streamlined cockpit and fuselage, aerofoils and swept-forward wings. It sported five beam weapons in the front, in addition to two automatic rail cannons and a pair of missile launchers. But the most deadly aspects of the ship, he knew, lay inside. Bonded to the Archon system, a pilot would become nearly invincible.

     He found his mouth going dry. All he wanted was to climb back inside, to link with it again. The sensation was overwhelming.

     He’d waited so, so long for this.

     “I give you the latest-generation Archon, Maarek Stele,” Strife had said, that day. “From now on, she is your domain.”

His reminiscing finished, Maarek finally felt right enough to pull himself out of the cockpit. He really hoped that his training in the Force would begin soon. Maybe he’d learn a trick or to about how to repress these feelings of nausea. But then again, they might not teach him those. After all, with him like this, he could never fly anything but the Archon, ever again.

     It took nearly five minutes for him to make it all the way down the boarding ladder. It struck him that he might not be of much use if the ship got ambushed and they had to launch fighters in a rush. But then again, they were on a Titan-class battleship. Who was going to ambush them?

     At the foot of the ladder, he found Alona waiting for him.

     “You took a long time to get out, Maarek Stele,” she said. “Are you getting worse?”

     Her voice held true concern in it, and he appreciated that. “Just Maarek is fine,” he said. Her accent was really starting to sound pleasant. Why had he hated it, before?

     “Very well, Maarek. Are you feeling all right?” she asked, a hint of annoyance in her voice.

     He flashed her his best smile. “I was just evaluating my performance up until now,” he explained, certainly not about to tell her that he’d felt like vomiting all over the controls after the flight. “I like to do that after every few missions, just to gauge my abilities.”

     “I am very proud of how quickly you have progressed,” she told him, appreciation in her voice. “You are a good student, and a fast learner.”

     “Thanks. I have a good teacher.”

     Her lips curved into a smile. “Come, to the debriefing room.”

     There were only half a dozen other test pilots running the Archons out of the private hangar, and debriefing never took very long. All the other pilots were Jedicon, and so far Maarek had had no further interaction with them. They certainly hadn’t flown together, yet. So far, it had been only him and Alona.

     But that was just fine by him. They were a formidable team in their own right. And her certainly preferred to have Alona on his wing than any other Jedicon pilot on the ship. Having her there felt… comfortable. It just felt right. It brought him a sense of peace and security that he hadn’t realized he was lacking, before.

     He stole his first kiss from her in the debriefing room that evening, as soon as everyone else had left. At first, he’d merely sauntered over to her, asking her to show him his brainwave scans in more detail. Then he slowly inched closer and closer, watching her eyes for any sign of surprise, or reluctance. Instead, he found only the same evaluating gaze, and a playful smile that came to her lips the moment before he touched them with his.

     To his surprise, she returned the kiss, not pulling away at all. In fact, to his surprise, her hands reached up around his neck, stroking the back of his head, and she pulled him even closer. They remained like that for a very, very long time.

     They finally pulled away, and Maarek found himself staring straight into the deep jewels that were her eyes. “I like you,” he said breathlessly. “I like you a lot.”

     Alona grinned. “Then don’t waste your lips on words… Maarek.” She gripped his head tightly and pulled his mouth down to hers again.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Titan-class Battleship Overlord

            Tritonia System

            1220 Hours

           

            “Power,” Akargan said, “is the key to all questions you may the face in this universe. With enough power, you can solve any problem, right any wrong, defeat any opponent.”

     Lasitus nodded his agreement, standing beside the Warlord on the bridge of his flagship, the Titan-class Battleship Overlord. Around him milled over a hundred bridge crew, each attempting to look as busy as physically possible in the presence of their supreme leader.

     Lasitus knew that had little choice in the matter but to nod, really, and agree with whatever Akargan said. One didn’t disagree with a Shok’Thola lightly. He had to pick and choose his battles wisely.

     The last few days with Akargan had opened his eyes to the true nature of the Warlord’s rule, and to what the Altarin’Dakor had become, now. They’d traveled from the surface of Tritonia to where Akargan’s fleet lay in orbit – four Titans, capable of smashing virtually any fleet in this galaxy to shreds. Now they were on the flagship, the Overlord, and in formation were the Warhawk, the Extinction and the Exterminator. A whole navy, with a whole army contained within. All devoted and loyal to a single man.

     Now Lasitus understood how the Altarin’Dakor worked. The officers under Akargan served him out of fear, not respect. To them, he was not a beloved comrade or an iconic leader. No, he was something else entirely. A god.

     Where did we go wrong? he wondered.

     Lasitus was beginning to doubt whether Akargan could ever be turned back to see the right path. That was the real reason he’d come. He’d wanted to turn his former ally from the inevitable path of destruction that he was on, and he’d hoped that his presence would remind his friend of better times.

     However, twenty-five thousand years was a long time. Long enough to forget what you once were. Akargan truly believed himself to be a deity, now. And now, perhaps the only thing that could bring him back was for him to completely realize that he was still, deep inside, a normal human being.

     Those thoughts, however, he kept to himself, pondering them only when he was sure Akargan was otherwise occupied. Not only was Lasitus closely watched, but he also knew the Warlord could quite easily read his mind. Despite all of Lasitus’ resurgent powers, he felt like a gnat next to a giant beside the Shok’Thola.

     Lasitus knew that, eventually, Akargan would probably make him do things that he didn’t want to do. The thought disturbed him. How much of himself would he lose trying to save his onetime comrade? Would Lasitus revert to the man he’d once been? For him, not so many years had passed. Instead of consciously living all those generations, he’d slept them away, blissfully unknowing. Would the old Lasitus return, as it had on Varnus?

     “Are you listening?” Akargan’s voice broke through his thoughts.

     “Of course,” Lasitus replied, mentally recalling the last few things the Warlord had stated. “If you are powerful enough to stop Strife and his forces, then the rest of the Shok’Thola will most likely defer to you without opposition. You will have proved your superiority.”

     “Don’t waste your breath on flattery,” Akargan spat, causing several officers on the bridge to jump. He smiled, then, revealing a row of white teeth. “You will eventually see as I do, brother. It is inevitable.”

     Lasitus didn’t reply. Instead he kept staring forward, out the bridge’s viewports. If there was some way to get Akargan to see sense, to turn him from this self-destructive path, he had to find it soon.

     He knew he was betting his life on this. But in the past months, he’d found more and more that he didn’t know what his purpose in life was, really. He’d thought that helping the New Imperium and stopping the Altarin’Dakor was a cause worth fighting for. But he’d tried to do it without resorting to violence, attempting to keep the order from slipping into the same kind of attitudes that the AD had.

     Then, he’d discovered that his efforts were too little, too late. The New Imperium wasn’t as noble or idealistic as he’d dreamed. And then, in the end, he’d fallen, too.

     What was his purpose, after surviving in a stasis field since the time of the Great War? He was probably the only person alive from that time who wasn’t a Shok’Thola. His chances of survival in that pod must have been abysmally small. One would think that defeating the odds like that meant he had some special purpose, some higher calling to fulfill in his life. But for all his meditating on it, he was completely in the dark as to what, if anything, that might be.

     Perhaps this was it. If he could turn Akargan, it would bring some kind of closure, bring everything full-circle. And, barring that, perhaps he could still help prevent the Altarin’Dakor from taking over the galaxy.

     “A mission, I think, would help you understand things better,” Akargan said suddenly, breaking through his musings. Lasitys felt a surge of panic. Had he let his thoughts wander too far, into dangerous territory?

     “A… mission?” Lasitus asked.

     Akargan nodded. “There is a contested system between Strife and myself. He has resources and supplies stored on a base on the planet Borrose. I’ll send you with Moyabi. Take the Warhawk. Destroy that base utterly,” he ordered.

     The Warlord’s expression was otherwise unreadable. Lasitus’ mind raced. A mission to attack another Warlord? At least, then, he wasn’t fighting against the NI. Akargan had given him his word that he wouldn’t attack, but would he keep his promise?

     Lasitus nodded. “When do we leave?”

     “You can leave at any time. Go now. Just do as I command. Come back only when you are finished.”

     “Is this a test, Akargan?” Lasitus asked him. “Sending me away?”

     The Warlord grinned back at him. “Of course it is. Regardless, there is another matter that requires my attention. One that I must attend to, alone.”

     Then he turned back towards the viewport, shunning Lasitus completely. It was as good a dismissal as any.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Royal Palace

            Planet Varnus

            1500 Hours

 

"So how do we get there?" Xar asked as their shuttle touched down on the palace’s private landing pad.
     "To Kajarn?" Icis gave a dry laugh as Xar shut the ship down and they unstrapped. They had come straight from the Grand Crusader after Xar bid his wife and the others farewell. Xar had decided to leave immediately; there was nothing left for him to do here, nothing to hold him back. As they’d said, he wasn’t fit for duty right now. He could admit that. Now he could devote all his time to solving the mystery of what was wrong with him.

     "It's easier said than done,” Icis said, looking at him. “First, we have to take a ship and fly out to a nexus hub."
     "Which is what?"
     Icis led the way out, heading down the shuttle’s entry ramp and out into the cool air. It was still midday, and the sound of construction teams working out in the streets echoed their way to the palace. Icis headed towards the entrance. "A transit point. A way of connecting with Traveler space. They're usually located at the secret hideouts of whatever Traveler has been assigned to this region."
     "I thought that was you," Xar said, stepping up beside him. They entered the palace corridors and started winding their way through to the command-level living quarters.
     Icis shook his head as he walked. "No. I went rogue, remember? I snuck my way here. I wasn't even assigned to this galaxy, originally."
     "That's right." Icis had been with him so long, sometimes it was hard to remember what had brought him here in the first place. "Well, we can take my old ship," he offered as they .
     "The Black Star?” Icis looked over at him. “Don't you think she's too conspicuous?"
     "Not where we're going, right? Besides, she's got the speed and firepower to get us out of any potentially bad situations. Unless you think the Travelers would blow up a Crinn ship on sight?"
     Icis shook his head. "We watch, but don't interfere, remember? Even if we showed up at Kajarn's doorstep, I think they'd ask questions first before shooting."
     "Let's hope."
     "There is, of course, one little problem," Icis said, turning down a side corridor.
     "What's that?" Xar asked.
     "I've been banned from Kajarn forever, remember? I'm not a Traveler anymore."

     The statement hit Xar like a blow between the eyes. He had forgotten that fact. It had seemed unimportant at the time. Who could have known that Icis would ever actually want to go back?
     "So how are we supposed to get in?" he demanded, growing angry. Icis could have informed him of that small little detail before this! Instead he’d waited until Xar had said his farewells and was finally feeling optimistic for the first time in weeks.
     Icis held up his hands in a placating gesture. "Well, I can get us there, all right. But as for what they do with us afterwards... Well, I'm hoping to get some help in that area. I don't actually know how to find Angol Moa."
     "What?!"

     "Don't worry. With any luck, she'll find us. At least, I hope so." He broke off uncertainly.

     “This doesn’t make me feel very hopeful, you know,” Xar told him pointedly.

     They continued to walk in silence for a moment, passing few others in the corridors. Traffic in the palace – in all of Vectur, for that matter – had dwindled more and more since the battle. People were getting out while they still could.
     They had almost gotten back to Xar’s quarters before Icis spoke up again. "Anyway,” he said, “since we're heading there for a bit of psychiatric help, what do you think about bringing along someone else who could use a little help to find himself? Some assistance in... mental issues."
     Xar stopped, staring at him. He knew who Icis was talking about. "Nico."

     Icis nodded.

     It took Xar only a second to consider. “We’ll bring him,” he said.

 

An hour later they had packed whatever things they would need for the trip, then they had gone down to medbay there and wheeled their patient out, to the protests of Doctor Vannik and his staff. They walked back through the palace corridors, Icis pushing a hoversled in front of him with an unconscious Nico lying on top of it.
     Before long they were in the military hangar section. Xar led them past rows of TIEs hanging overhead, down a locked corridor that he accessed via identicard, then to a sealed smaller hangar that only responded after giving Xar a retinal, fingerprint and voice identification scan.
     When the doors opened and the lights came on, a gleaming black ship sat in front of them, looking like a raven ready to take flight. Fortunately, this private hangar hadn’t suffered damage in the battle.
     "The Black Star," Icis said. "It's been a while."
     Xar nodded. This ship had a lot of history, and a lot of memories for him. It was his master's old ship. Somehow taking it on this mission seemed right. Like bringing things full circle, again.
     The ship seemed chiseled from polished rock, all its angles on top and bottom cut at angles meant to deflect scanners and energy weapons. It had two large outstretched wings and a thick yet streamlined fuselage. Two gun turrets rested on top and one in her belly, and the cockpit jutted forward like a raven's head, with room for a pilot and co-pilot in front with two more officers in the rear. An array of weapons in front rested on either side of the cockpit. The whole ship was larger than a normal Corellian transport like the YT-1800, yet far more graceful-looking. Designed by the Crinn using technology left over from the Altarin'Dakor, she was a formidable ship. Xar had lived on her for quite a few years, traveling across the galaxy from place to place in search of ancient Force secrets and artifacts.
     "Let's go," he said, producing the remote that lowered the ship's boarding ramp and activated her internal lights and systems. He led the way up the ramp and into the inside, entering the ship's central corridor, with living rooms spaced in the aft and kitchens, study and common areas forward. However, once in the hallway, he froze. He could almost feel the remnants of Runis' presence, here. Would he suddenly see him here, passing through the corridors?
     "You okay?" Icis asked.
     Xar shook his head. "Just... fond memories," he said.
     He helped Icis secure Nico's hoversled and the necessary equipment for keeping him alive in one of the staterooms. Xar wasn't particularly fond of caring for an invalid on this trip, but he figured he owed it to the man. If he deserved to get help for his problems, then Nico probably did, too.
     They stowed their gear in the other two staterooms, then Xar led them forward to the cockpit. As they entered the large study, with its line of viewports near the ceiling facing forward, he suppressed a shiver that tried to run through him. This was where, in his dreams, he had relived the final struggle against Runis, and lost.
     The room's large desk was still set into the corner, and transparisteel-encased weapons were still mounted to the far wall in case they were ever needed. Those all belonged to Xar now, of course. They no longer had a stigma about them; he had made them his own, over the years.
     Wordlessly he continued on through the room, through the access-way into the ship's cockpit, and sat down with Icis next to him. He powered the ship up, running through the pre-flight checkups, the Crinn-language controls still overlaid with Basic labels by Alyx, or whoever had flown the ship last. He peeled them off, not wanting distractions.
     Despite not having left this hangar for the last two years, the Black Star powered up as though it were brand-new off the line. Xar lifted her up on her repulsorlifts and swung her around to face the exit, which was opening up before them. Then he pushed the controls forward, sending the craft into motion.
     They passed through a short connecting tunnel with a door at the end, which after opening spilled them into the primary launch tunnel for military ships. It was a tight fit, but the ship passed through into the the main access and towards the light resting at the end.
     Seconds later, the Black Star emerged into open air, blasting into the clear blue sky over Vectur. Xar turned to starboard, passing rows of skyscrapers, many of them broken and jagged, with shattered windows that stared outwards like dead eyes. Rubble still filled the streets that hadn't been cleared. He continued the turn, seeing the palace below him, the scars of battle still looking fresh on her exterior. The tower once jutting out of the center was gone, ending in a broken shaft.
     Then he angled the ship up, gunning for space. The palace and surrounding city receded below them. Within moments, the blue sky around them darkened to the blackness of space.
     Soon, three bright objects began growing large in front of the cockpit windows. They resolved into individual shapes, revealing more and more detail as the Black Star approached. The Titans were massive; one was over thirty kilometers long, and the other two were over fifty. Xar stared out at the center ship, the Grand Crusader, and could feel his wife's presence there, growing closer as they drew near.
     They had said their goodbyes, embracing as Xar prepared to board the shuttle that would take him down to the surface. It had been a cherished private moment between them, as they knew they might not see each other again for some time.
     "By the time you return, our son will probably be born," she had warned him. Her expression had been hard to read, but he was willing to assume that she wasn't happy by that proposition
     Xar had nodded, assuring her he would do everything in his power to get back before that happened. But in truth, he knew he couldn't make any guarantees. Anything could happen between now and then.
     Xar didn't know what would happen to them on Kajarn, but he vowed that he would make it back, and see his son. He would not grow up without a father, this time.
     "Xar?" he heard Icis say. The Grand Crusader was growing closer ahead of them.
     Turning to port, Xar pulled away, sending the ship toward the immense length of the Cataclysm, laying just off to the left of the Grand Crusader. The black hull of the second Titan loomed ahead, tens of thousands of windows becoming visible below them as they passed overhead. Xar shook his head; this was the closest he'd ever been to an enemy Titan. He'd never considered the Nexus in the same category, and even though these ships were now technically on his side, it still made his breath catch in his chest. That ship - and those windows - were filled with Altarin'Dakor, beings originally from outside of this galaxy. It was more than a bit surreal.
     However unbelievable it might seem, however, where they were going next was far more so. A part of Xar wanted to be giddy at the thought. All his life he'd sought to uncover mysteries and explore new wonders. Now he had no idea what to expect in the days ahead.
     The Cataclysm behind them, Xar set in the coordinates that Icis had provided him into the navicomputer. "Well," he said, reaching up for the controls. "Here we go."
     "May the Force be with us," Icis said.
     Without acknowledging the comment, Xar pulled the levers down. The stars extended into starlines, and the Black Star shot into hyperspace.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Titan-class Battleship Eternity

            Ven’lar System

            1840 Hours

 

            Maarek was beginning to get the hang of the Archon. Each day, he was able to stay out in it a little longer. And each day, he felt the fighter’s system melding with his mind even more deeply.

     This ship was beyond any other kind of fighter he’d ever flown or encountered. It was, in every sense of the word, a superfighter. With the meld, he could control the fighter with his mind, enabling him to fly harder and pull turns that conventional pilots could never dream of doing. The ship also increased his response time and decision-making abilities, meaning he could go faster and more aggressive than anything else out there. He could outfly virtually any other fighter in the Altarin’Dakor fleet – which also meant that anything coming out of his home galaxy couldn’t even come close. He’d been flying the TIE Avatar for a few years now, and had gotten used to it even over his classic Defender. But compared with this, the ship felt like an Ugly – an amalgam of random, outdated parts assembled by amateurs. One Avatar could easily dispatch a whole squadron of Avatars or Defenders. He knew that if he’d had this at the battle of Varnus, his fight with Kamren Thansil – and even the Jedicon, maybe – would have turned out very differently.

     Maarek was enjoying the time spent with Alona, as well. She went out flying with him every day, and though she was an excellent pilot of the Archon, Maarek knew that soon he was going to surpass her in his mastery of the ship. But that didn’t matter to him; it was her presence he valued most, especially their times in the briefing room once their test runs were over.

     He’d found himself spending more and more time with her outside the training. Her high position within the hierarchy of the Altarin’Dakor enabled her to go virtually anywhere she liked. She’d come to him on the Envirodeck a lot, but just as often had taken him to places on the Eternity that he’d never been to before. So far they’d gone to an envirodeck simulating a desert paradise, apparently a kind of reward location for Altarin’Dakor officers.

     All the other Altarin’Dakor except for her, and Strife himself, had treated him rather indifferently. Still, he’d counted himself lucky. He’d been fighting the Altarin’Dakor ever since they’d entered NI space, and it felt completely strange and surreal to receive anything but hostility from them at this point. But he was beginning to understand that not all Altarin’Dakor were the same. The AD onboard this ship, serving Strife, were completely different from those who had been in Nimrod’s fleet. In fact, he’d remarked to Alona that they seemed like totally different militaries, or even different races. She’d responded by telling him, to his surprise, that was exactly the case.

     She’d also shown him areas on the ship that were technically off-limits. He’d known better than to press his luck and go alone into restricted areas, but Alona had taken him past checkpoints with ease. As such, he’d inspected one of the main hangars, as well as a strategy room filled with an incredibly detailed, interactive map of the Altarin’Dakor galaxy. Some of the things he’d seen on some of the worlds there he wasn’t sure he could even believe.

     Their favorite place to visit, however, was the observation deck. There, with a virtually uninterrupted view of the stars, he shared more intimate conversations – and many more kisses.

     Maarek was starting to realize that he was changing at an alarming pace, one he couldn’t exactly fathom. Only a few weeks ago he had hated all Altarin’Dakor, and the Jedicon most of all. But now was he actually falling in love with one? Wasn’t he betraying what his squadron members had died for? Or was this different, since they served a different Warlord? Did any of that even matter at this point?

     Besides, Alona felt like a real person, not a Force-wielding killer. All he knew was that flying the Archon, and spending time with Alona, he was happier than he’d been in a long, long time. Probably, in truth, since the Empire had invaded his home system of Kuan so many years ago, and taken his life in a direction he’d never anticipated.

     However, there was another problem he was now facing. In spite of the progress he’d made with the Archon, he had also begun facing a much more difficult challenge: learning how to use the Force.

     He’d avoided this for all of his adult life, ever since he’d learned from Palpatine’s Secret Order that he was, in fact, Force-sensitive. He’d repressed it for so long that he’d forgotten about it, had subconsciously written off the uncanny feelings he’d occasionally get as simple pilot instincts.

     But now he was having a crash-course in the Force. And he was finding that tackling it like a tactic to be memorized, or like a new fighter to shake down, was not quite working in the way he expected at all.

     And while Alona – a trained pilot Jedicon – was flying with him every day in the Archon, his instructor in the ways of the Force was the other Jedicon that had been present in Strife’s chamber that day – Chele.

     Naguis’Dakor Chele was not like Alona at all – in fact, they seemed almost total opposites. She was of the warrior caste, and he knew from his briefings about the AD that she had been training all her life for this – to be the ultimate, perfect Force-wielding warrior. She was, in fact, considered to be a living weapon, an extension of her Warlord’s will. As the first such person Maarek had ever made acquaintance with, he didn’t know what to expect. How far from normal would she be? Would he be able to converse with her? Was she even… human?

     Now after only a few days training, he already felt like his head would explode during the sessions.

     Maarek sat on the matted floor in a large training room, his instructor the only other person present. She was sitting cross-legged in front of him, dressed in her white Jedicon robes, her vividly red hair flailing wildly around her head. The look in her eyes was similar to that of a wild predator preparing a killing strike on its prey.

     “You must feel what you are doing,” she hissed in accented Basic, chiding him again. Maarek’s progress so far had been slow – far too slow for this Jedicon, at least.

     “Take the Power into your mind, into your hands, and bend to your will. It is more about feeling that technique. What you do must become natural to you. Like your flying, yes? In battle, you cannot think about what you must do – you have to do it.”

     Sitting cross-legged on the ground, Maarek felt sweat running down his forehead from the exercises Chele had been putting him through. He shook his head, trying to throw some of it off. “Wow, that’s different,” he breathed. “I always heard – about the Jedi, at least – that you learn to use the Force more passively, less aggressively. That it guides your actions, not the other way around.”

     “Perhaps that is how your so-called Jedi do it in this galaxy,” she admitted, “but this is the Altarin’Dakor way. You will learn how to use the Power like an Altarin’Dakor.”

     And so he was. These were no mere exercises – everything she was teaching him to do was practical in the extreme. The Altarin’Dakor were born to be warriors, and they wasted no time on things that wouldn’t be useful in combat. He spent no time trying to understand what the Force was saying to him, something he’d heard the Jedi studied. The Jedicon used the Force as a tool – and most often, a tool of war.

     She was a harsh instructor, putting him through drills that had him gritting in frustration and gave him a splitting headache. However, despite her pushing him to try harder, to learn more quickly, she hadn’t lost her temper or walked out on him. Either she was under strict orders from Strife, or she actually didn’t mind teaching a slow learner. So Maarek tried, but his progress was dismally slow, even to him.

     The truth was, her presence was just too blasted distracting.

     Chele was nearly a perfect female specimen in every sense of the word. And every day when they began practice, she shed her white robes to reveal a tight-fitting battlesuit underneath, its shape leaving very little to the imagination. Despite his best intentions, Maarek could not keep himself from looking – and being distracted. Each time he did so, she punished him – usually with a smack on his backside with some invisible tendril of the Force.

     He worried that by enjoying Chele’s looks that he was betraying what he was building with Alona. But in this setting, with just the two of them here for hours on end, it was well nigh impossible to resist. And since there was nothing yet committed between he and Alona, what was wrong with it? He was still single, still free to do as he pleased. And Chele’s presence was quickly becoming as intoxicating as Alona’s.

     “Now we must learn how to control the world around you. What is the word you use?” She tapped her lips thoughtfully. “Ah, yes. Telekinesis.”

     “But I’m not interested in learning how to…” he began.

     He might have saved his breath. Chele wouldn’t take no for an answer. And so, by the third day, he was learning how to do simple pushes and pulls, things he’d thought he would never be able to do. However, Chele gave him no respite. Once he could move a few objects around a bit with his mind, she dove into the more mental disciplines – with a vengeance.

     She taught him how to reach out with his mind, to sense the life in the room as well as all around them in the ship. Tentatively he followed her lead as she taught him how to probe the mind of another, to get a general sense of their surface-level intentions and emotions.

     After he had only a rudimentary practice of this, she proceeded to teach him how to close his own thoughts off, to project a mental shield around himself. This was what he’d wanted to learn all along – the only thing, in fact. All the othet stuff was for the real Jedi – Maarek simply wanted to survive the next time he went up against a Jedicon pilot.

     It took him four hours before he could even get what felt like the most basic protective barrier in place. But as soon as he had, he realized just how seriously the Altarin’Dakor method of learning was.

     “Defend yourself,” Chele ordered suddenly.

     Within seconds, he felt his mind being attacked.

     “No, wait!” he protested. “I’m not… ready!”

     “If you are not ready, then you will be dead,” she hissed. Then she attacked.

     Her mind exploded through his shield and suddenly she was inside of his brain, calling up memories and thoughts inside Maarek’s head, and he could do nothing to stop her. He could feel her presence in his mind! She was sorting through his memories like books in al library. His father and mother’s faces flashed through his mind, along with countless battles, a hodgepodge of brief clips of missions innumerable. It was as though his body were a puppet, and someone else was pulling the strings and even controlling what he saw.

     Finally, he screamed, falling to the floor and grasping his head in both hands.

     Abruptly, the invasion of his mind ceased. She was gone as quickly as she’s entered, and the only trace of her presence was a small lingering headache just between his temples. “We go again,” she ordered.

     He looked up in shock, but had no time to protest as the next attack came in. Desperately he tried to throw up his shield, but this time failed entirely. This time, her ravaging in his brain was even worse than the first.

     For the next two hours they repeated the exercise, until Chele was sure that Maarek could build a barrier almost instantly, without even thinking about it. It also had to be strong enough to stop her basic attack. It took a long time, but Maarek finally did it. He knew that she was far stronger in the Force than he was, still, and that he would have to train a lot more in order to be ready for a real attack situation, but the basics were there. Maarek had learned how to block telepathic attacks in the space of a day.

     He had been sitting cross-legged for most of the time, and his legs were killing him, so he was leaning forward on his hands and knees, the sweat dripping off his chin onto the mat below. He remained there for several minutes, waiting for the world to stop spinning around him, feeling as tired as any workout he’d ever done in his life.

     “You did well today, Maarek Stele.”

     He heard her voice, sounding as though she were right beside him. He felt her breath on his ear. Slowly, he raised his head, and found himself staring straight into her eyes, their noses less than a centimeter apart.

     Then she leaned forward and kissed him.

     For a moment Maarek simply froze in shock. Her hands gripped his head on either side, gripping him tightly. He caught her scent – something strongly like sweet, ripe fruit, without even a hint of sweat despite the long training session. Emotions and thoughts ripped through him. He wanted to pull away; this didn’t feel right! But his body was refusing to move. Was he… Could he actually be kissing her back? He wasn’t sure. This was crazy! He was falling for Alona, not this stranger! Still, her lithe body moved even closer, and she suddenly pushed forward into him.

     Maarek fell to his back, and Chele was immediately over him, her lips seeking his again and again, overwhelming him.

     Then, just as suddenly, she pulled away and stood up. “That is a sample,” she said.

     “Of what?” he gasped, blinking up at her in surprise.

     “Of what will happen if you choose me.”

     Then before he could reply, before he could ask her what she was talking about, she turned and sped out of the room, leaving him in utter, frustrating confusion.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            The Madas System

            0400 Hours

 

The Black Star soared through the darkness of space, weaving its way past city-sized chunks of rock and ice.

     Icis and Xar had entered a massive asteroid belt, the only significant body in the Madas system, and were heading for a big one that was looming straight ahead of them. With a diameter of maybe fifty kilometers, there was nothing in particular to set it apart from the millions of others in the system, except for a single set of coordinates in one of Icis' datapads.
     They began to circle, and Icis studied the rough, broken shape of the gigantic rock beneath them. Its surface was littered with craters and holes. Xar glanced at him uncertainly, probably wondering if this was the right place or not.
     "There," Icis said, pointing to a relatively small hole not unlike most of the others.
     "Are you sure?" Xar asked, edging them closer.
     "Take us in," he said.
     Xar guided the ship down, and as they approached, Icis saw that there would be plenty of room for the Black Star to enter. They did so, entering into a smooth tunnel built into the rock itself. Soon, that rock gave way to metal. The Black Star’s wings had precious few meters to spare on either side.

     They entered a small, private hangar. As they pulled inside, a couple of lights built into the ceiling came on, sending dim illumination across the chamber. Only one other vessel was there; it appeared to be some kind of medium transport of a make Icis couldn’t identify.

     Other than that, the hangar was barren of much – only a scattering of old equipment, most of it looking unused or broken down. A stack of large crates were piled against the far wall, leaving a small opening that led deeper within the base itself.
     "Place looks deserted," Xar said. "Or like maybe he's in the process of moving out."
     "He probably is. The Altarin'Dakor advance got really close to this area," Icis replied.
     "I can sense someone here," Xar said.
     Icis nodded. "That’s his ship, so he must be here. Be careful, he might have some booby traps waiting for us."
     "I'll see if I can find and disarm them. Let's go." Xar unstrapped and led the way out.
     They donned their coats – heavy, military-style things with fur linings – but even so when the boarding ramp descended Icis was struck by the cold. The hangar’s force field was keeping the atmosphere inside the hangar, but was letting virtually all the warm air out. He could see his own breath in front of him, streaming out like gouts of steam.

     Icis moved across the floor, passing derelict equipment – some covered with dust – and over to the far ledge, where he climbed up the ramp that butted up against the back wall. Along the way he lost sight of Xar, who vanished somewhere in the shadows. He ducked through the entranceway between the crates and found himself in a basic kind of storage and control room.

     Moving over to a computer screen built into a console there, he brought the terminal to life. A command screen awaited there, and he quickly activated the rest of the hideout’s lights and heating systems. Either Noa Rintor wasn’t here, or he was making it look like he wasn’t. Either way, Icis saw that they would have to explore deeper inside, since the controls to activate the nexus were inaccessible from here.

     Turning, he moved through an exit in the back wall and found himself among even more abandoned equipment. Most of it was standard-era junk, although he noticed some boxes with Kajeat writing on them; those would be supplies ordered through the Traveler network. He wondered how long this particular base had been in operation.

     He moved through the room quickly and approached the exit, heading deeper into the base, but stopped when a figure came out of the shadows in the doorway.
     "Stop right there, Novitaar."
     A man stepped into view, a blaster in his hand. It was Noa Rintor, the real Traveler assigned to cover Epsilon Sector. So he was here, after all. He was bound to make it difficult for Icis to activate the nexus and travel to Kajarn, though Icis was fairly sure that he wouldn’t use that blaster. Travelers couldn’t resort to violence unless their lives were directly threatened, and even then, there were many who would sacrifice a temporary shell in order to keep from interfering with another civilization’s development.
     "What are you doing here, Novitaar?" Rintor demanded sharply, his voice echoing in the chamber. His blaster hand hadn’t moved.
     "I have to go back to Kajarn," Icis said simply. “I’m here to activate the nexus hub and go home.”
     Rintor blinked in utter surprise. "Are you crazy? You know you can’t do that. Kajarn isn’t your home anymore. You are no longer a Kajeat. You can never go back there."
    Icis shook his head. "Nevertheless, I have to go. There is a very important reason."
     "Your reasons do not matter. You've been banned from Kajeat society forever. You’re not even one of us. I can't let you through."

     “Please stand aside,” Icis said.

     “No way, Novitaar. Turn around and leave, or else.”
     “I’m sorry, Noa Rintor, but you cannot stop me,” Icis said calmly.

     “And what makes you think that I can’t? You have no Force powers and no authority,” Rintor chided him.

     “This is why,” said Xar, stepping up from behind, a blaster trained on the man’s head.

     Rintor glanced over at Xar – and did a double-take when he saw who it was. “You?!” he exclaimed. He turned back to Icis. “Are you insane? You’ve brought him here?”

     “Drop the gun,” Xar ordered.

     Rintor lowered his blaster reluctantly, and Xar snatched it away, popping the power clip out one-handed and tossing the gun away onto a table full of junk. Rintor continued to stare at Icis in disbelief. “You’re not actually going to take an outsider to Kajarn!?” he blurted.

     “I have very important reasons, as I said,” Icis explained.

     “This cannot occur,” Rintor protested, glancing helplessly at Xar. “I will not open the nexus for you.”

     “I don’t need your help,” Icis said. “I know the codes and how to operate it. All I need you to do is stand aside.”

     “You know I cannot do that. Listen to reason, Novitaar. If you go, you will only be bringing about your own doom. They’ll have no mercy. They’ll lock you up forever this time!”

     “It’s a chance I’m willing to take,” Icis explained.

     “I’m warning you for your own good, Novitaar!” Rintor warned. “You’re mortal now, aren’t you? You’ll die in a cell on Kajarn. Isn’t it bad enough that sixty or eighty years is all you have left? Do you want to spend the rest of your short life in a prison?”

     “I…” Icis began. Then Xar slammed the butt of his blaster against the back of Rintor’s head, and the Traveler collapsed to the ground.

     “This conversation is useless,” he said. “Let’s tie him up.”

     Icis recovered quickly, then cast around the room for something to use. “Let’s put him in there,” he said, pointing towards a large storage chest. “By the time he gets himself out we should be done here.”

     Within moments they had placed Rintor inside and sealed the lid closed. As a Force adept, Rintor would be able to escape, but hopefully not before Xar and Icis were long gone.
     “Where to now?” Xar asked once they were finished, returning the blaster to his holster.

     “The main control room must be deeper inside,” Icis explained. “Follow me.”

     As they walked, they moved through a narrow corridor leading further inside, passing a number of side rooms, most of which were sealed and must have been for personal quarters. This was a small base, not made to house many visitors, if any. A lot of the base’s space was probably taken up by the computer systems and mechanisms controlling the nexus hub.

     “They don’t outfit you guys very well, do they?” Xar remarked at one point as they passed yet another sparsely-furnished room. “No wonder you broke out on your own and ran a smuggling empire.”

     Icis grunted, sending out a puff of steamy breath. “Do you know how many Travelers there are? Quadrillions. If we simply outfitted one per sector per galaxy, we’d hardly be able to record anything, and still would have to pay and support a whole race’s worth of workers and their paychecks, not to mention the fact that each one has their own information network. Not that we can’t afford such a thing,” he assured Xar. “It’s just that some areas get… higher priority than others.”

     “And the little fact that the AD are bearing down on Epsilon Sector doesn’t warrant a bit more attention?”

     “Trust me, Xar. In the grand scheme of things, this is just a minor scuffle between inferior, even barbaric, species. Most Kajeat even consider it a local dispute rather than an invasion.”

     “That’s ridiculous,” Xar spat, sounding angrier the more they continued on the subject.

     “I agree with you. That’s why I’m fighting on your side,” Icis told him.

     “Plus I doubt you were given the height of luxury when they assigned you to the AD galaxy,” Xar said.

     “Don’t remind me,” Icis warned him. “Ah, here we are.”

     They finally entered Rintor’s control room. It was unlocked, and Icis led the way into a cramped space dominated by a massive control panel and wraparound holoscreen display. On the screen was a view of the asteroid’s interior. It was a massive chamber located directly in the heart of the space rock.

     “That’s where the hub will be located,” Icis said, pointing. “We just have to activate the controls and fly through the portal that appears there.”

     “The portal?”

     “Watch.” Icis put in the command coders into the system – codes that he’d stolen long ago through his network contacts – and the display came to life. Icis thanked the Force for Kajeat rigidity. Changing the codes would have taken lot of time and red tape on Kajarn – since all the systems on any traffic to this area would have to be updated, as well – so Rintor hadn’t bothered. That made things a lot simpler. He’d have hated to hurt Rintor for doing his job.

     A few minutes later and the device was ready. Lights came on within the chamber, and Icis could make out machinery lining the walls, golden lines forming geometric shapes that converged directly above and below the center of the room. “Okay. Now all we have to do is fly through that spot and watch the fireworks begin.”

     “If you say so,” Xar said doubtfully.

     “Trust me. It’ll work.” Icis locked the system back down and hurried them back towards the entrance. He just hoped that Rintor didn’t awake before they could fly their ship to that spot, otherwise nothing would happen.

     As they passed the storage room, he saw that the box was still sealed. Rintor hadn’t woken up yet. Icis hoped that Xar hadn’t hit him too hard.

     Moments later they were in the Black Star once more and were taking off. Xar, at the controls, swung the ship around, then led them down a side corridor, the doors sealing it now wide open.

     “Just a bit further,” Icis told him.

     “I hope you know what you’re doing,” Xar replied, his voice tense.

     The tunnel narrowed even further, returning to simple hewn rock. Xar held the controls tightly, heading for the light growing slowly larger ahead. A moment later, they emerged into the nexus chamber.

     Suddenly there were kilometers to spare all around the Black Star. The golden lines, framing black panels that angled down towards the center of the chamber, seemed to glow with an inner light. The ship continued edging forward, until they were almost right between the cluster of devices in the middle of the room.

     “Nothing seems to be happening…” Xar began as they hit reached the center of the chamber.

     Then his words were cut off as the Black Star was enveloped in light, coming from above and below at the same time. Xar cried out in surprise, and Icis gripped his seat’s arms hard as a disk of light opened around them, growing to consume the whole view outside.

     Then the Black Star entered the portal, and they were gone.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Titan-class Battleship Grand Crusader

            Varnus System

            0430 Hours

 

            Zalaria strode alone into the midnight interior of the Grand Crusader’s meditation chamber. The entranceway closed shut behind her, plunging her into complete darkness.

     Then the lights came on, and the vast expanse that had been her brother’s ultimate weapon revealed itself.

     She was a lone speck of shadow amidst a sea of light. The chamber was a cylindrical space several kilometers in diameter. Its white walls shone, burnished, all around her. Silently she strode along the thin walkway that suspended her out into midair in the center of the structure. There, a seat descended down from the ceiling, a throne awaiting the return of its master, the steps leading up to it angled to as to make the approaching person knees in obeisance.

     Zalaria approached the dais and paused, considering what it might enable her to find – and to do. This was how Nimrod could exercise instant command over all the forces within his empire. This was how he reached out across dozens of light-years to cause whole stars to supernova. This could be the key to winning this entire war.

     But she had other concerns, as well. Earlier in the day, she’d received a jolt of surprise as her sense of Xar through the Bond suddenly became dimmer. It had been completely unexpected; her sense of Xar was always something in the back of her mind. One moment she’d been feeling his presence as always – if not close, then at least on this side of the galaxy. Then, in the span of an eyeblink, he was gone, and she could not even begin to guess where. It was the furthest removed she’d ever felt him before. Xar was far, far away, now.

     At the moment it wasn’t important. She walked up the steps to the seat and finally sat down, its bulk engulfing her lithe frame. It hadn’t been intended for someone of her size, but nevertheless, she knew how to use its controls. She had put off coming to this room for quite some time, but knew she eventually had to use its unique advantages.

     This would be the second time. The first, she’d attempted to establish contact with the remainder of Nimrod’s forces, both here and in the Altarin’Dakor galaxy. She’d given them orders to send as many forces through the Gate here to supplement what she already had. Unaware that they were now being controlled by her, they had agreed. It was time to check their progress.

     She needed as many reinforcements as possible. Her own fleets, ordered through the Gate, had met with unexpected resistance from some of the others. Only a few had made it intact. In truth, a civil war had already broken out amongst the Shok’Thola. Sides were being drawn and alliances were forming. Currently, she had yet to make one herself.

     The chamber came to life, and suddenly the walls were gone, replaced by the magnificent void of space. Suddenly she was aware of everything happening within Nimrod’s empire.

     Immediately a hundred pressing concerns were thrust upon her. Requests for orders, information, and aid had poured in during her absence.

     Nimrod’s empire was dying.

     She was beginning to understand, finally. The Shok’Thola truly were the keys holding the Altarin’Dakor together. For millennia, they had held the galaxy in a state of relative peace. Only minor Warlords had been killed throughout the last ten or so millennia; none of the major ones had perished. It was unthinkable to their thralls that their masters – their gods – could die. So when the inevitable happened, their empires collapsed under their own weight.

     Sometimes Shok’Thola would lose a border skirmish or even a major conflict. Sometimes they would actually be defeated and their bodies destroyed, only to return in a regenerated form shortly thereafter. But lately, Shok’Thola had started to die the final death. The Altarin’Dakor were not prepared for that.

     When word finally arrived that Nimrod was truly dead, his empire had descended into chaos. Various monarchs and grand admirals had decided to seize power for themselves, plunging nearly half the Altarin’Dakor galaxy into civil war already. Despite her assumption of command and strict orders, without her actually being present few were following her commands. Some had rebelled, while some had given up in despair. Slave races were overthrowing their oppressors. Commanding officers were committing suicide, leaving their men leaderless.

     A group of fleets had responded to her call. However, they had come under attack at every step along the long journey to the Altarin’Dakor Gate. Even after leaving Nimrod’s territory, the forces of other Shok’Thola had assaulted them. Finally, at the Gate itself, it appeared a massive battle had taken place, a final attempt to stop them. Perhaps Altima himself knew and had ordered them to stop her forces from reinforcing her.

     Could this be the end of the Return? With only a few Shok’Thola dead, the level of devastation was almost unimaginable. What would the others do? Would the entire society collapse in on itself?

     Fortunately, some of her own forces had managed to make it through before the situation had become so chaotic and were now en route. She hadn’t known how to adapt the chamber to call her own forces yet, so she’d had to rely on scouts sent out. Hopefully her own forces would arrive soon, along with whatever survivors were left of Nimrod’s fleets.

     Many forces in this galaxy had decided not to comply with her orders. Case in point were the five Titans that had fled the Tralar System after her brother’s death. They, unfortunately, knew immediately that their Shok’Thola had perished. Those ships had been easy enough to track using the chamber; however, they had managed to sabotage their own ships, making it impossible for her to take command and control them remotely.

     The state of those ships currently was not good. They had fled together into the Galbagos Nebula, undoubtedly hoping to avoid detection. There it seemed that some dispute had occurred as to what to do next. Without their Shok’Thola, their existence had suddenly become meaningless. Men had abandoned their posts, and mass suicides had taken place. Then, apparently, the remaining Jedicon on the ships had decided to mutiny. They’d stormed the bridge, but the commodores had retaliated. So far the Jedicon had wrested control of two of the Titans. The results of the other conflicts were still pending.

     Zalaria didn’t care what the outcome would be. The ships were unsalvageable. It would be a waste to engage the five Titans with their own remaining ships, and boarding and capturing them might prove impossible, considering the hundreds of thousands sequestered onboard. Now the ships were in a state of utter chaos, virtual derelicts in the cauldron of the nebula while they fought amongst themselves.

     It was best to ensure they would never become anyone’s problem. The officers onboard had managed to successfully disrupt her from taking control of its primary functions. However, they would be totally unaware of the backdoor protocols that gave her access to the ships’ most vital zones – their power cores.

     Reaching inside through the invisible link provided by the meditation chamber, she activated the self-destruct sequences on each of the five Titans.

     Their crew would know what was happening, but would be powerless to stop it. There would not be enough time to reach escape pods and achieve the necessary distance from their mother ships. When the power cores blew, they would be like miniature suns shining within the depths of the nebula.

     One by one, the cores of the Titans went critical, the explosions obliterating the ships from stem to stern. Five bright spots flaring within the nebula, adding their own gasses and debris to that of the cloak in which they had hidden.

     For Zalaria, she saw their destruction as flaring, then vanishing blips on the expansive canvas laid out before her. And with that particular issue out of the way, she turned her attention to other, more pressing matters. She knew that the other Shok’Thola were up to something. Their fleets were on the move. If another one of them decided to attack next, she would have to be ready. Perhaps they would join forces against her, and she would have to fight them all off at once. But when this massive Force artifact came fully under her control, maybe – just maybe – she would be able to do just that.

    

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Titan-class Battleship Eternity

            Ven’lar System

 

            Maarek was continuing his training, and over the last month he knew that he was making good progress.

     Chele continued to teach him at a withering pace, pushing him as hard as any drill instructor he’d ever met. She made no more romantic overtures towards him though, something that now was confusing him just as much as her initial advance. Why be so forward at first, the act as if nothing had happened at all? Even though they continued to train one-on-one, now she was all business.

     She attacked his mind constantly, now. Even when they were discussing something, even when Maarek was trying a totally different exercise. It was forcing him to adapt quickly, to be prepared in any situation. He was now able to keep a constant shield around his mind, almost without even consciously trying to do it, like a computer program running unseen in the background. And though she was still strong enough to break through his barrier most times, it was getting tougher for her each time.

     Maarek pursued his learning relentlessly, constantly reminding him that this ability would mean the difference between survival and certain death. He would face Jedicon in battle again, he was sure of it.

     After the lessons, he tried to learn a little more about her, to make small talk and ask her questions. But she brushed him off each time, leaving him alone to clean himself up and return to his quarters. Each day it happened, Maarek found himself getting more and more frustrated.

     Alona and Chele were complete opposites. The former intrigued him, a match for him in both wits and piloting. She was a mystery, and he found himself thinking about her time and time again during the day. Yet his attraction to Chele was different and confusing. She was totally unknown, attractive only in the physical, calling him to something more dangerous and uncertain.

     He’d never really found himself in this kind of position before. He liked two women at the same time. But which one should he choose? And how much longer could he keep up this pretense of only casual interest? He wasn’t the kind of man to try and play two women at the same time.

     At the next opportunity, he asked Alona to come to the observation deck with him again. She readily accepted, and part of him was thrilled that she was responsive to his invitations. Every moment he spent with her was, well, intoxicating.

     So here he sat, on a bench in a private observation window, with the blue-haired Jedicon sitting next to him. As always, she wore her jumpsuit and white robes. Her big eyes stared out through the viewport, and he could see stars reflecting in those big, dark pools.

     “Tell me,” he asked, “Do you have any family?”

     She waited a moment before responding, then turned to glance at him mysteriously. “I do not know,” she said, in her typical accented Basic.

     Her response took him aback. “What do you mean?” he asked. It was a simple question; how could she not know if she had family?

     “I was taken as a child to train and become a Jedicon,” she explained. “I was given a new name and a new place to live. It was decided before I could walk that I would become a warrior pilot. If my parents live, or if I have any siblings, I have no way of knowing.”

     He frowned. “That must be hard. Didn’t you miss not having a childhood? Not having any freedom?”

     She smiled almost condescendingly. “There is nothing to miss. All Altarin’Dakor are born into such a life, depending on which caste they are appointed to. The life chosen for me is freedom, Maarek Stele. We each act in accordance to that which will improve all Altarin’Dakor. The training was difficult for many years, but now I am in a position of highest honor among all Altarin’Dakor. As a personal servant to the Shok’Thola, I enjoy all the freedoms and privileges that I want. I am very fortunate. Most Altarin’Dakor never achieve even a small portion of the authority and freedom that I have. Everything I have is thanks to my Shok’Thola. I have no need for a family. I exist only to serve him.”

     “I… see,” he said, considering her words. Her devotion to Strife was alarming, even a bit disturbing to him. It was as if she was in love with him. Did that mean Maarek would always be second best?

     Her whole life had been determined for her since birth. It was just another example of how tightly controlled their entire society was. He supposed that for her, it had paid off in the end. But for countless others, they lived like slaves their whole life. Did she see that as beneficial?

     They were so devoted, so passionate about their cause. He had never seen such a well-oiled machine as the Altarin’Dakor navy. They moved with such professionalism, yet with a sense of camaraderie that he’d never quite sensed before. It almost felt like everyone was related, part of the same gigantic family, all with the same values and goals.

     What could it be that inspired such loyalty and unity among them? He decided to voice his thoughts to her.

     “This is very similar to when I served in the Empire,” he explained. “Everything was tightly controlled, but most people obeyed out of fear. But you don’t seem to.”

     “What do you mean? Who were you afraid of?” she asked him.

     He thought for a moment. In the Empire, there were some good commanding officers, people he had respected. But there were just as many who were not good men. Those, you served out of fear of facing the consequences of failure. And each of those served under his superior as well, all the way up the chain of command to the top. Ultimately that’s what the Empire was built upon, from the stormtroopers who kept order to the Death Star itself. “I suppose it was the Emperor,” he said finally.

     “You served your Emperor, but out of fear,” she repeated. “Was his empire great?”

     “Very,” he said. “He conquered the whole galaxy for a while. But then he was overthrown.”

     “What happened?”

     “A rebellion,” Maarek explained. “He couldn’t keep tight control over everything. People wanted their freedoms. They said the Empire was evil, and they fought back. Eventually they won, I guess.” Small vestiges of the Empire still remained, he knew, but they were only denying the truth. It was over.

     “Your Emperor was not worthy to be a leader,” she said suddenly, breaking into his thoughts.

     “What makes you say that?” he asked her, surprised. He’d never really heard anyone say that before.

     “Because he was defeated,” she explained, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “If a leader is killed, then he is proven to be a failure and an impostor. Only the strong have the right to rule.”

     He blinked at her in mild astonishment. She really believed that, he realized. And that was why the entire Altarin’Dakor culture revolved around that ideology. Superiors could be challenged and replaced, their defeat itself proof that they hadn’t been worthy to hold their position. “You really do believe he’s immortal, don’t you?” he asked. She knew who he meant, he was sure.

     “I do not believe. I know,” she replied simply. “The Shok’Thola cannot be defeated. That is why he is worthy to be served. You must understand this. The foundation of the Altarin’Dakor is built upon this truth. The Shok’Thola are the Altarin’Dakor.”

     “But you’re fighting against other Altarin’Dakor, serving other Shok’Thola,” he pointed out. “What happens if one of them is ever killed?”

     “Then he would be proven inferior and unworthy. A liar,” she answered matter-of-factly. “I would pity those who served him.”

     “But you don’t believe that could ever happen to you?” he asked.

     For a moment he saw her eyes flare in anger. He felt the hair on the back of his neck standing up for a long moment before her expression softened. “Your words are blasphemous, but you do not understand,” she said finally. “If I did not believe, then I would have no reason for living. I live to serve the Shok’Thola. He cannot die, and he cannot be defeated. We may lose a battle, but the end is inevitable.”

     She turned back to look out the window, her voice turning thoughtful. “Perhaps others feel the same about their own Shok’Thola. If we fight, eventually one of us will be proved wrong. But they do not believe it will be them, and I do not believe it will be me.”

     “I understand,” he said finally. Her devotion to Strife was completely unshakable. He would have to learn to live with that unfortunate fact. She truly did believe he was immortal. But Maarek was still skeptical. He’d never seen the man come back to life yet. Maybe if he saw it with his own eyes.

     He shook his head, overwhelmed at the thought. The Altarin’Dakor weren’t just an empire or a military. It was a religion. They didn’t just serve the Shok’Thola, they literally worshipped them, holding ceremonies nearly every day. The Jedicon in the very same room with Strife – though they were standing there and saw that he was a man, like them – they still thought they were actually serving a god. People had served Palpatine for many different reasons, but no one had ever thought he was divine.

     The Altarin’Dakor were brainwashed, certainly. But they believed so strongly, and that fact nagged at him strongly. What if what they were taught was actually true? Would it still be considered brainwashing, then?

     He didn’t have an answer to his own question. So, he slipped an arm around her as they sat, staring out the viewport at the stars.

     “I have heard that you have been spending extra time with Chele recently,” she whispered suddenly.

     He pulled away, a jolt of shock going through him. It had completely slipped his mind as he’d gotten lost in the conversation. “I… It’s not what you think…” he began. But from the look in her eyes, it was clear that she knew. He was caught. Alona knew that Chele was after him. And Maarek hadn’t exactly been running away from her, either.

     “Alona, I’m sorry…” he began. “I didn’t mean…”

     She put a finger over his lips quickly, silencing the rest of his words before they could come out.

      That was when he noticed the mischievous look in her eyes. “You look like a confused little boy,” she said, a hint of a smile coming to her lips. He thought to respond, but she spoke further.

     “It is quite common in our culture for rivals to court the same potential partner,” she said. “Chele is attracted to you, also. She is sending me a challenge to see who can win you first. I will have to make an extra effort in order to claim you, I see. But I am not concerned. I enjoy the challenge, and I know that in the end I will be victorious.”

     He looked at her incredulously. He had thought that she would be angry, maybe even end what had begun between them. But was she actually… approving? Thinking of it as a challenge?

     He started to protest, to apologize to her again, but his voice hung in his throat. She withdrew her hand.

     “You may choose when you are ready,” she said. “But I will make sure you choose me.”

     He felt himself blushing, and could feel a drip of sweat running down his back. He honestly didn’t know what to think right now. She was practically telling him he could choose between them. Was she serious? Should he seriously consider Chele? But he didn’t want to choose her, he wanted Alona! Should he take her up on the offer to court both of them and see which he wanted more? But how selfish, how wrong that felt! He’d never this awkward before in his life!

     Suddenly her arms were around him again, and as she kissed him, he felt warmth spreading through his body, slowly erasing his protesting thoughts like mist evaporating in the sun.

     Don’t think too much, he thought to himself. Maybe he should count himself lucky.

     Alona’s kisses became more passionate, longer. Pretty soon he wouldn’t be capable of any further rational analysis of his predicament. And though he knew he would have to decide eventually, there was no reason to say that he couldn’t delay making that choice.

     Besides, if she was willing to let him test the waters before deciding, then who was he to argue?

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Titan-class Battleship Grand Crusader

            In Orbit, Varnus

            1630 Hours

 

            Sector Admiral and War Coordinator Gaius Adonai was sitting alone in the conference chamber, nursing a large cup of caf and trying to remember when he’d last slept, when Zalaria strode in, the trails of her flowing dress stretching out behind her.

     He looked up as she came in, dressed in a royal white gown, her hair tied back behind her head. Her abdomen was prominently swollen, now, drawing his eyes there immediately. Gaius couldn’t help but stare in confusion at the change in her appearance. When he’d seen her three weeks ago she’d barely even been showing; now she looked to be six or seven months along already!

     “I did not see Misnera or any of the Jedi Council assembled on the bridge,” she quipped as she entered.

     All sense of fatigue gone, Gaius took a long drink of caf and placed his cup on the conference table in front of him. “The Jedi Division have decided to sit this one out,” he told her gruffly. “They have no desire to continue the offensive.”

     She walked past him, over to the window, and stared out of it for a few moments. He could hear her taking level breaths. He wondered how she would react to that news. Hopefully she would keep her cool. Fortunately, she didn’t seem to be suffering any mood swings from her pregnancy; she must have solid control over her emotional state. Of course, her usual demeanor was arrogant, short-tempered and obsessed with power, so he didn’t know how it could get any worse, in any case.

     She turned back to him. “And what is your standpoint on this issue?”

     Gaius crossed his arms in front of him and glanced down at his cup, thinking. “We have retaken most of the systems in NI space, but Mizar’s still out there,” he said. “The AD will keep using it as a staging base to launch attacks against us and the rest of the sector. We need to take it, use it as a buffer zone, a first line of defense. It’s either that, or we should get out of Epsilon Sector completely.”

     “An apt analysis,” she remarked, drawing his attention again. “My scouts report that the Mizar System is unusually quiet,” she said. “There is very little activity going. We should probably move in soon. But something is wrong. Something momentous and dire is about to happen. You can feel it, can’t you?”

     He nodded thoughtfully; he knew what she was talking about. Something wasn’t right in the Force. “It feels like the calm before the storm,” he said.

     “When you move in, you will likely have to do so without me. I will follow after you as soon as I can.”

     When he looked askance up at her, she inclined her head and placed a hand on her stomach. “Within the next two weeks I will be retiring to give birth to my son,” she said.

     Gaius gaped at her. “How?” he blurted without thinking.

     She smiled slightly. “Through the Force and my knowledge of biology, I have accelerated the child’s development. He will be safer in a secured location, rather than with me, facing the dangers ahead.”

     He digested the news silently. If she said she could do it, then he didn’t doubt it. But it was the craziest blasted thing he’d ever heard in his life.

     “Far be it from me to get in the way of a mother and her child,” he said.

     “You won’t have any problems taking Mizar,” she said. “We now have superior firepower. But the Jedi concern me. I will not let them sit idly by like spoiled children just because they got hurt.”

     He eyed her warily. She spoke contemptuously about them, as if losing more than half their number was a minor wound, easily mended. What did she expect of them? Was this normal life for an Altarin’Dakor?

     Zalaria was bent on one goal: victory. In her mind, they had taken losses, but had won. Now it was time to move on. The dead were gone. Insignificant. To her, everyone – Gaius included – were simply tools to be used.

     “So what’s your plan?” he asked her. “We take Mizar, and then what? Fight off the other Warlords one by one?”

     “If we must,” she replied.

     “And will you absorb their forces into your own, just like you did at Varnus?”

     “Most likely I will be able to,” she replied. “The tradition remains, among our people.”

     “So eventually there’s going to be a whole army of Altarin’Dakor here,” he said. “I thought that’s what we were fighting to stop.”

     “Would you rather it be me, or a Shok’Thola who may decide to kill you for sport?” she snapped. “It may not be your ideal vision of the New Imperium, but it will keep you alive. The point is, the Altarin’Dakor are here now. Like it or not, we are staying.”

     “Is that what you intend to do then?” he asked her. “Kill the other Warlords and take over the whole galaxy in order to win? Is that your plan?”

     “Don’t think I hadn’t considered it,” she quipped back at him. “It might just require that, in the end. We will ultimately have to deal with Altima, remember.”

     Gaius just shook his head.

     “What?” she demanded.

     Megalomania, he thought. “You’re all the same. Justify your thirst for power however you want.”

     She snorted back at him. “Don’t delude yourself, Gaius. Glory, conquest, wealth, power; these mean nothing to me. They are mere temporal things, destined to vanish in the endless depths of time.”

     He looked at her skeptically. “So what does all this matter to you, then?” he asked.

     She said nothing more, then. She apparently didn’t feel like deigning to respond. Fine, then.

     He waited for several minutes while she just stood there, like a stoic phantasm, her thoughts unsearchable. Who knew what such a creature was thinking about? Did she even think like normal humans did, anymore?

     “We have some problems among the ranks,” she told him finally. “The Altarin’Dakor forces are getting quite anxious. They want to know why we are holding here instead of pressing further with the invasion.”

     “You’ll just have to come up with some reason to satisfy them,” he retorted. He knew very well that she’d lied to them, telling them that the New Imperium had been defeated and that they were now occupying the NI as conquered space.

     She shook her head slowly. “I’ve prolonged things as long as I can. I even executed the commodores of all three of our Titans, citing disobedience to my orders.”

     He winced at that fact. It was getting hard to keep thinking of the NI as different from the Empire. Sometimes he felt like he was just pretending, deluding himself. Things were changing, fast.

     “If I told them the truth, that we were turning to engage other Altarin’Dakor forces – that we are, in fact, working to stop the long-prophesied Return – everything that they believe in and live for would be destroyed,” she said.

     “Do you think you can keep up the charade forever?” he asked her.

     She didn’t respond. She would know as well as he did that the NI and AD forces had been completely isolated from one another. There was no interaction, even on the small scales that Zalaria’s forces had been during the past year or so. It was all because these forces had belonged to the Warlord Nimrod. And, incidentally, these forces thought that the New Imperium was a conquered foe. So why should they work together with them?

     “Without those forces we won’t be able to retake Mizar,” he told her. “But I won’t go into battle with men that I can’t trust to follow my orders.”

     “Don’t forget that the Altarin’Dakor forces are solely under my command,” she reminded him. “We are playing this charade on several levels, Gaius. You are not Altarin’Dakor. You cannot do this without me.”

     “Well then, if this is a charade, then why don’t you just end it?” he offered, extending a hand towards her. “Why don’t you kill me right now and take total control?” He knew that in truth, she could easily do so at any moment. All it would take was a whim and a small portion of her powers. But he didn’t fear it. He’d faced death too many times to be afraid, now.

     “Despite what you may have been led to believe, Gaius,” she replied tartly, “I am not an evil person.” Then she stood up and turned toward the double doors at the room’s exit.

     He barely heard her whisper on the way out, and he thought she said not anymore.

     Taking her comments as the random murmurings of a crazed despot, he simply rose and followed her back onto the bridge.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Titan-class Battleship Warhawk

            En Route: Borrose System

            1450 Hours

 

            Lasitus stood on the bridge of the Warhawk, arms crossed in front of him, watching the crew flawlessly performing their tasks in a state of near total quiet. Beside him stood Kodonn’Dakor Moyabi, dressed in his battle armor, himself standing silent watch over the ship’s commodore.

     Unlike the other Titans he’d been on so far, the Warhawk was one hundred percent a warship. The bridge was smaller, more stripped-down, more functional. It was split into various, self-contained levels, each devoted to one section of the massive vessel under its control. The bulkheads were thick, and unlike many other ships, the bridge itself was located deep inside the Titan, surrounded by kilometers of armor.

     It brought back memories of his past life, vanished ages ago, when he’d led legions into war against the forces of the galaxy, intent on claiming ultimate victory for the Altarin’Dakor. Those memories had been shrouded in mystery to him before, but thanks to Akargan, they were now laid bare in all their ugly truth. He had wiped out entire worlds from the bridges of ships like this one.

     Was he about to do so again?

     “So we go in, accomplish our mission, and destroy the base,” Lasitus said, speaking for the first time in an hour. Moyabi seemed to lack a single hint of something that could be called a personality. Most likely during his lifetime of training, he’d never found the time to try and develop one. He was the stereotypical Jedicon, and Lasitus hated him for that.

     Akargan had given him virtually no information about this mission he’d been sent on, and Moyabi hadn’t deigned to enlighten Lasitus any further. All he knew was that on Borrose was one of Strife’s communications bases, secreted in amongst one of the local cities. Apparently inside was a database of all of Strife’s agents currently employed throughout the galaxy. If it was true, it would be a treasure of a find for Akargan to get his hands on. But how well would it be protected? Would there be failsafe measures to destroy the data should the facility be compromised? Was Akargan even telling him the truth?

     Despite their earlier meeting, it was still hard for Lasitus to see Akargan as a real, full-blown Shok’Thola, on par with some of the other ancients. After all, the two of them had practically grown up together, fighting in the Great War, as it was now called. Lasitus knew his former comrade’s tendencies, habits, and even his flaws. He knew exactly the humble beginnings the Warlord had come from. Akargan was very much a man, not some kind of deity like his followers believed. This enabled Lasitus to approach him in a far more confident manner than the other followers did. After all this time, Akargan still felt like a fellow

     However, going up against a Shok’Thola from before the Great War was another matter entirely. The name Strife had stricken fear into Lasitus ever since he’d been a child. Strife was one of the oldest, one of the strongest, and had been a Shok’Thola thousands of years before Lasitus was even born. As a result, even subconsciously, Lasitus was almost deathly afraid of him.

     Back in the old days, the Shok’Thola had ruled the Altarin’Dakor as a group, and though each Jedicon served a specific Warlord, they at least knew of the existence of the other Warlords, as well. But time had changed everything he’d once known about the Altarin’Dakor. Now Shok’Thola ruled independent territories, where their followers truly believed them to be gods of some kind, completely oblivious to the existence of the others. This to Lasitus seemed detrimental. What would happen to one Shok’Thola when they learned the existence of, or were defeated by, another Warlord? Would the entire society collapse? Was it collapsing already?

     “There is one correction,” Moyabi said at last, staring straight ahead.

     “What?” Lasitus asked. He’d nearly forgotten asking the man a question.

     “First we must go down to the surface. There is a database there of Strife’s operatives. We must ensure that we have the names of any and all spies that are within our own forces,” Moyabi stated flatly. “After we leave, we will bombard the planet from orbit. We are to leave no survivors at all, Lasitus.”

     “I… see,” Lasitus answered. So, that was what Akargan had neglected to inform him about. Not until it was too late.

     He didn’t voice the panic that suddenly welled up inside him. What was he going to do now?

     “We have arrived at the entry point to the Borrose System,” an announcement came over the bridge just then.

     “Excellent,” Moyabi replied. “Open the wormhole and take us into orbit.”

     And with that, Lasitus realized he wouldn’t have enough time to decide. He was on a ship with hundreds of thousands of Altarin’Dakor warriors, and enough firepower to level a planet. And Akargan had been one step ahead of him all the way – now he was trapped, and if Lasitus played his hand now, he knew he would never make it close to the Warlord again. He had failed.

     Lasitus realized he had made a terrible mistake in coming to Akargan. Now, more people – perhaps millions of them – were going to pay the ultimate price for his foolishness.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Titan-class Battleship Eternity

            Ven’lar System

            1750 Hours

 

            Maarek was coming to grips with the grim reality that it now took longer than it used to in order to get around. Still, with his now trusty cane in hand to help bear his weight should he become too dizzy, he was eventually able to make it to the briefing room and sit down. Mercifully, everyone had waited for him to arrive. He was, after all, their star pilot, so he supposed it made sense.

     Maarek had wondered if Strife himself would be here to give him his first real mission. He’d had no further contact with the Warlord since their first meeting. But Strife was nowhere to be found. From now on Maarek’s orders would be passed down through Alona, it seemed.

     Over the last few days Maarek felt he knew the Archon well enough to take it into combat. And even more important, his mastery over the Force had improved to the point that he was able to keep his shield up at all times, subconsciously projecting it while going about his day-to-day tasks. He still needed to improve, however, on the strength of it.

     He’d taken the squadrons out into a mock battle. During the fight, he’d asked Alona to try and disable him through the Force, something that he now wished he hadn’t. Alona, a powerful Jedicon, was able to break through his barrier within seconds. For a moment he’d relived the horror of that day on Varnus, when his ship had barreled straight down towards the city streets, and he’d been forced to watch Rann and Tanya’s fighters explode as they impacted on the surface.

     The terror had been so much that Maarek had been out for several minutes. Later, however, during their private time together, Alona confessed to him that she was surprised he’d lasted as long as he had. Apparently since she knew him so well now, it was easier for her to break through into his inexperienced mind. He tehn told her about the fateful day it had happened to him for real, and what his pilots had meant to him. Perhaps, as a wing commander herself, she would be able to empathize with him.

     He didn’t fault her for putting him through that again. He knew she hadn’t meant it; she was simply doing her job. And that job was to make Maarek as ready as he could be for actual combat against other Altarin’Dakor – especially Jedicon.

     His failure tore at him inside, and he had rededicated himself to making his barrier as strong as possible. Perhaps other Jedicon pilots weren’t nearly as strong as Alona was. Against them, she said, Maarek would fare better. But regardless, he wouldn’t give up. He would be ready before he faced a Jedicon pilot again. And next time, his shield would hold.

     Alona came into the center of the briefing room and began to address all the pilots in the wing encircled around her. Maarek finally eased himself into his chair, surrounded by a room full of Altarin’Dakor pilots – many of them Jedicon.

     After a moment the room stopped spinning around him, and Maarek focused on Alona, standing there in her white Jedicon robes.

     “We have our first mission that will take us into actual combat,” she announced in Altarin’Dakor. The earpiece in Maarek’s ear translated everything she was saying into Basic almost as soon as the words were out of her mouth. If it hadn’t, Maarek would have been completely lost. He’d picked up some Altarin’Dakor words and phrases since coming, but he wasn’t conversational in it yet. Language skills had never been one of his strong points.

     “We have received a distress signal from our base in the Borrose System,” she continued. “They are under attack from a Titan-class Battleship belonging to a rival fleet. Our first real combat will be against enemy Altarin’Dakor pilots. May we bring glory to Lord Strife with an overwhelming victory.

     The round of applause filled the chamber and sent chills down Maarek’s spine. He couldn’t sense the slightest trepidation from them, or the smallest sense of remorse that they were killing other AD. As far as they were concerned, they were the enemy.

     “As you know, one of the key reasons for developing the Archon System is to combat against Jedicon pilots. Should our minds become clouded, our link with the fighter should protect us and enable us to function normally.” She spun in a slow circle, glancing at the rows of soldiers gathered in the room. “Our integration with our fighters is virtually complete. We are the ultimate elite pilot-warriors. Honor to the Altarin’Dakor! Glory to Strife!”

     The call was taken up, reverberating throughout the chamber. And even though Maarek didn’t join in, he still felt a sense of pride rising up in his heart. He was one of them. He had sat with them, ate with them, and trained with them, and was now about to fly the most advanced fighter the galaxy had ever seen. Whatever it was out there they were about to face, they were more prepared for it than anyone else could ever be.

     It was time for the real testing to begin.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Titan-class Battleship Grand Crusader

            Varnus System

            1700 Hours

 

            Gaius followed Zalaria through the double doors from the conference room onto the ship’s massive bridge. Unlike some he’d been on, the Titan’s command chamber was a silent and completely composed environment. Holograms hovered here and there – maps of the galaxy and of NI space, status reports, and fleet orders of battle. He still hadn’t gotten used to it all yet.

     Assembled and waiting for them there were Walt Amason, Rodin Kaler, Stan Sanders and Jann Percy. Stan wore a frown on his face, while Amason was sitting in a chair at one of the consoles on the side. Kaler and Percy stood near one of the ship’s wide, spread-out viewports, having a quiet conversation between them.

     Gaius knew the men were uncomfortable, here. They were surrounded by even more Altarin’Dakor than they had been on the Nexus, with far fewer NI personnel. At least on the former flagship, they’d started to become familiar with some of the bridge crew. Now, looking around the massive chamber – three stories of walkways, command stations, and bewildering equipment – he knew that some of these officers had actually served Nimrod, and had fought against the NI. How long would their loyalty hold if they actually went into battle?

     Standing several meters away – but still within earshot – was the ship’s new commodore, a bald, middle-aged man with a muscular build that made him look more like a grunt than a commanding officer. He, at least, had been one of Zalaria’s men, though how well the Titan’s crew were accepting him, Gaius wasn’t sure. The man barely spoke a word of Basic. That made Gaius nervous. In battle, clear and concise communication was vital to survival.

     The NI officers – now the members of Gaius’ so-called War Cabinet – looked at him expectantly as he and Zalaria came to a halt in their midst. Gaius wasn’t sure what they were expecting him to say, but he hoped they would be willing to accept the decisions he was having to make.

     “Some good news,” Zalaria said first.

     Eyes slowly shifted to her. Gaius knew that they still considered him to be the sole commander of the navy. And they didn’t like deferring to her, not one bit. If any of them were shocked by how large her abdomen had become, they were hiding it well – somewhere behind the expressions of disdain on their faces.

     “It’s about time,” Stan said finally.

     Inclining her head, she raised her hand out towards the stars outside the viewport. Gaius followed her hand with his gaze. Through the forward windows he could see the massive trunk of the Grand Crusader extending for tens of kilometers ahead, along with the two giant wheel structures that housed much of the Titan’s formidable forward weaponry. The sheer bulk of the ship was still hard for him to comprehend. Due to its shape, it was many times more massive than the Nexus had been. So far he’d personally seen less than one percent of the ship, and he doubted that amount would increase by much.

     Then, outside the viewport, stars began to shift positions as a ripple seemed to blossom out in the void. Then, fading into view like a phantom, another Titan-class Battleship appeared.

     “Gentlemen, I give you the Nimbus,” Zalaria said.

     The vessel was massive, as most Titans were. But whereas he remembered the Nexus, Zalaria’s last ship, as an elegant, almost fragile-looking ship, this one was different.

     It was clearly a ship meant for war. Well over forty kilometers in length at Gaius’ guess, the new ship was armored in dark metal. The bow began in a sharp, spear-like point, from which the hull rose and flared in a series of ribbed sections edging ever higher, creating what looked like sharp-pointed, forward-sweeping waves rising upward all across her spine. It was far more massive than the Nexus had been, that much was clear. What was confusing, however, were the numerous blackened spots along her hull, including sections where holes had been carved, exposing some of the internal decks to the outside, along with the unmistakable gash marks of Altarin’Dakor beam weapons.

     “She’s damaged,” Percy remarked.

     Zalaria nodded. “Unfortunately, the Nimbus is the only ship that survived running the blockades that the other Shok’Thola have in place at the Gates – both on our side, and yours. I have yet to discover if any of my brother’s former forces were able to make it through, either. Apparently, several of the others have somehow decided to join forces. It could things a bit more difficult for us.”

     The news cast looks of alarm between the command staff.

     “That’s putting it mildly, don’t you think?” Rodin Kaler said, his face turning livid. “How long have you known about this?”

     “Long enough to develop a counter-strategy,” she quipped back smoothly. “Do not despair.”

     “Well, we now have four Titans,” Stan Sanders commented. “We have more firepower now than we ever had with just the NI forces alone. That gives us a better fighting chance, doesn’t it?”

     She shook her head once. “We are still not unbeatable. We have no Jedicon other than those that have just arrived. Mine were wiped out at Varnus, and Nimrod’s all had to be slain. We still need more reinforcements, as many resources as we can gather.”

     “Why can’t you muster more of your forces back in your galaxy – or Nimrod’s?” asked Percy.

     “You must understand,” Zalaria explained, “Nimrod controlled nearly fifty percent of the Altarin’Dakor galaxy. His territory is now a lawless region, in a state of chaos and civil war. What is more, other Shok’Thola are invading his space and stealing territory for themselves. Our entire society is extremely unstable at the moment. Only the other Shok’Thola can reestablish order and keep things under control, but they are currently all focusing their efforts here, in this galaxy.”

     “Do you think the other Warlords will come after the New Imperium?” Stan asked. “Will they be looking for payback, or might they bypass us entirely to strike into the rest of the galaxy?”

     “Their strategy is still unclear,” she replied, “But we do know that Mizar is still under their control. Therefore they may wish to take advantage of its useful position as a staging base.”

     “We have to finalize a plan of attack on Mizar, and soon,” Gaius said, watching to gauge their reactions. No one seemed overly surprised; they’d almost certainly expected this time would come.

     “What’s the status of the new Majestic cruisers?” he asked Amason.

     The other man blew out a sigh and pushed himself up out of his chair. “I placed an emergency order for ten of them, back among some of our allies,” he said, starting to pace anxiously. “Since we lost Moro we have no capacity to build ships ourselves. I had to incur a massive debt on this, since we currently do not have the funds to pay for them.”

     “We’ll do our best to reimburse you after the war is over,” Gaius told him.

     “I’ve heard that one before.” Walt shook his head. “At any rate, they’re supposedly on their way. I guess they’ll get here when they get here.”

     “And what’s our logistical status?” Gaius asked, turning to Percy. “Is it as grim as I’ve heard?”

     “Probably more so,” the man replied. “As you know the NI is down to about a fourth of its original territory. We don’t have the forces or population to occupy all the space we once held. Our economy has completely crashed and the local population doesn’t know what to do, but they do know as well as we do that we can’t keep going like this. There isn’t enough revenue coming in to pay our soldiers or purchase new supplies.” He gave an exasperated look at everyone gathered. “We have to end this soon if we still plan on living out here. Once the war is over we’ll have to try and pick up the pieces that are left.”

     Gaius nodded. It was a grim situation. “We have to consolidate, until the war is over at least.”

     “What of your quest to find allies among some of the oldest races?” Kaler asked Walt Amason.

     “The mission was a disappointment at best, a failure at worst,” Amason said. “We made some allies along the way, but nothing remotely even as strong as the NI. The Barabels sent us a few divisions of troops, which helps some. But the Sharu – they weren’t interested in helping us fight the Altarin’Dakor. They didn’t even give us the time of day. None of the other, supposedly super-advanced, civilizations did. If you ask me they’re not quite as advanced as they try and make out. I think they rely on gimmicks, mostly.”

     “Hmm. Well, only on battalion of Barabel troops isn’t going to recompense my losses from Varnus or anywhere else,” Kaler complained. He shifted and turned to look outside the window as the room fell silent once more.

     “Tell us about these other Warlords,” Stan told Zalaria.

     “Yes, I think we’re at the need-to-know point, don’t you think?” Amason stopped pacing to add.

     She grimaced, but complied with their request anyway. “When my ships passed through the Gate into this galaxy, they were able to obtain an order of battle of all other Altarin’Dakor vessels that have passed through the gate recently,” she explained.

     “Unfortunately, they discovered that the flagships of virtually all the major Shok’Thola were on the list. These include Akargan, Velius, Strife, Asellus, Calvernic, and Raftina. That means that they are all now in this galaxy. They must eventually be dealt with.”

     Percy made a low whistle, while Stan looked down and shook his head slowly. Amason blew out a long sigh and started pacing again, his boots echoing off the polished metal floor.

     Stan looked about to respond, but she stopped him with a raised hand.

     “There is some good news, however. Altima’s personal flagship was not on the manifest, which means that he is probably still in the Altarin’Dakor galaxy. This presents us with a unique opportunity. If we can make a strike at the Gate and destroy it on the other side, we might be able to prevent Altima from traveling to this galaxy, and delay the return of more Altarin’Dakor forces for decades or even centuries, considering the chaos there.”

     “Finally, a proactive approach,” said Percy. “I like that. How could we implement such a plan?”

     “It will require a strike with massive force. We’ll have to take all the firepower we have to the very edge of the galaxy. It may leave the New Imperium virtually undefended, but such a brazen move might actually draw the others after us, instead.”

     “Then maybe that’s what we need to do,” Amason added. “We can’t keep fighting a war of attrition. We have no chance if we do.”

     Everyone looked at Gaius, obviously wanting to know what he thought. But Gaius had already made his decision. He’d spent hours deliberating over it in the ready room. There was only one way they could ever hope to stop the Altarin’Dakor, and that was to destroy the Gate. Otherwise, the galaxy would continue to be ripe for invasion no matter how many Warlords they killed.

     “First things first,” Gaius said. “Deploy the fleet. We head to Mizar. Then, after that, we’ll look at this plan.”

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Onboard the Black Star

            Location Unknown

            Time Unknown

 

Eventually, Icis' eyes adjusted, and he saw that instead of a surrounding brightness, they were actually traveling through a tunnel of light, the sides of which were just slightly brighter than those ahead. How long they traveled that way, he could not have said. Time did... strange things... whilst in the Transit.
     Beside him, Xar had a look on his face that seemed part bewilderment, part worry. Icis did the best he could to explain that this was, in fact, the normal procedure though which all Travelers passed back and forth to Kajarn, the home of the Travelers.
     After a while, the brightness that lay at the end of their tunnel of light began to take on a significantly bluer hint to it, and Icis felt a wave of nostalgia begin to wash over him. He had only seen that blue a single time in the last several thousand years. This was it. He was almost home.
     Suddenly, the light around them vanished. All that remained was the blue, like that of a bright azure sky, enveloping them on all sides. Xar actually gave a small gasp at the transition.
     Then, as through a haze of blue, a circular object appeared ahead, growing quickly darker, quickly closer. Soon it was clear what it was. A sphere over fifteen thousand kilometers in diameter. The Traveler Homeworld.
     The surface was completely gray and featureless, save for an equatorial line that itself emitted a bluish light. Constructed artificially by the Kajeat eons before, it actually had self-contained environments of all varieties in special zones designated within. And to actually access the planet's interior - and surrounding the planet itself like a broad ring - were the docks.
     The docks were a series of broad platform structures hovering anywhere from one to a hundred kilometers above the surface, linked to one another by narrow tubes, forming a latticework that wrapped around the entire planet. Transport actually to Kajarn itself, of course, was done by teleporter, so the connecting tubes were rarely used anymore.
     There were ships, too. Countless ships. Docked at those structures, and moving in between and away from them, of all shapes and sizes. Thousands upon thousands of them.
     "I... I've..." Xar whispered softly, struggling to find the words. "I've never seen anything like this." He turned to look at Icis, his face bathed in blue light. "I mean, I've seen Celestial constructions this big. But they're abandoned, just relics. This..." He glanced out the viewports once again. "This is alive."
     Icis understood how he must be feeling. It was his first time to the Travelers' homeworld. Compared with their artificially-constructed planet, even the Empire's Death Stars would have looked tiny and primitive in comparison. "You are now among one of the First Races," he said. "Welcome to Kajarn."
     As they grew nearer to the planet and the platforms loomed ahead, Xar looked down at the controls with a bewildered look. "Gravity's not pulling us in," he remarked.
     "Each environment has its own gravitational field," Icis explained. "The space outside Kajarn is kept gravity-neutral." A second later, the Black Star passed through an invisible force field, and trails of air began to stream off the ship's wings. "We are now inside atmosphere," Icis said.
     Xar simply shook his head in disbelief. "So where do we go?"
     Icis pointed towards the nearest platform looming ahead. "That will do."
     The platform was maybe a kilometer wide. Xar guided the Black Star up to one of the obvious airlock ports on the side and slowly floated them up until they nearly touched, then activated the docking system. A series of magnetic clamps locked them on, a short tunnel extended from the platform to the ship, and seconds later they were officially docked.
     "Well, this is it." Icis said. "Let's get our stuff. We should probably bring Nico, as well."
     "Now? How do you know they won't be hostile toward us?"
     "I don't," Icis told him. "But we can't just leave him here. He’ll be safer with us."
     With that, they unstrapped and made their way towards the back. In a short time they had gathered their bags, and Xar was wheeling Nico out on his hoversled, and they passed through the Black Star's airlock into the stark white corridors of the nexus hub platform.
     The first hallway was empty. That was good. Now all they had to do was get to the teleporter and enter Kajarn before security caught up with them. Once inside, they could make a scene and, when it was obvious that the general populace knew there were outsiders onboard, he should be able to appeal to speak with Angol Moa herself. Should being the operative word, of course.
     They weaved their way through the featureless white-lit hallways, blue light streaming in through the occasional window. Icis knew his way through; fortunately, all the platforms had the same general layout. Also fortunately, they were almost always unoccupied unless someone was actually docked there. He had chosen an empty one, trusting that would be just the case.
     There were no security droids or checkpoints in the platform, nor were there any customs or immigration protocols. It was usually assumed that only Travelers could conceivably come to Kajarn in the first place - and rightly so. After all, Icis was one.
     In fact, they made it all the way to the teleport chamber before their luck ran out. There were guards there, all right, and they had been waiting for the intruders to come to them.
      "Halt!" the lead officer shouted as they rounded the last corner. He and seven others stood directly in their way, in front of the teleport pad. All of them had guns trained on Icis and Xar. They had managed to get here just in time, it seemed.
     "Don't shoot!" Icis said, dropping his bag and raising his hands immediately. Xar glanced over at him, and after a second slowly did the same.
     It took Icis a moment to realize how ridiculous they must look. Two intruders, calmly sauntering their way through the corridors as though they owned the place, one of them pushing an unconscious patient on a hoversled, complete with life support equipment attached and running.
     Unfortunately, all eight of these officers were Kajeat, which meant that they were all Force adepts. This could be bad.
     "My name is Icis Novitaar..." he began.
     "You are not Kajeat!" the leader shouted. "Only Kajeat are allowed here! Outsiders are not welcome on Kajarn!"
     Icis froze. It was a harsh reality, having your own people refuse to acknowledge you as one of them.
     "I am Kajeat," he protested, keeping his voice calm. I was raised here and achieved full Traveler rank. "Please, let us pass. We seek a meeting with Angol Moa."
     The man kept his gun pointed straight at Icis. "You are not one of us," he said stubbornly. "You can't fool our scanners. Outsiders are to be turned away and sent back immediately and without question. Turn around now!"
     It was impossible to tell the age of a Kajeat by their appearance, but apparently some of them were still fairly young. At least two of the guards had begun to gape openly at Icis when he'd mentioned his name. Apparently his reputation as something of a rebel was still floating around the homeworld.
     However, they made no move to countermand their superior officer.
     "Gentlemen, I suggest you let us pass," Xar said, speaking up for the first time. "You should know that I can probably defeat all of you at once."
     Several of the officers took on expressions of disbelief, and he heard Xar grunt beside him in surprise as their weapons remained steady.
     "Icis! Don't they know who I am?" Xar asked, looking over at him.
     Icis turned slightly towards him, careful to keep his hands raised. "I'm afraid not," he said.
     Xar just stared at him.
     Icis sighed. "I'm sorry to disappoint you, but most Travelers don't know you exist. They have no idea what goes on in our galaxy. Neither we nor the Altarin'Dakor galaxy are part of the intergalactic community."
     "But the war..."
     "Is a minor one by our standards," Icis explained. "Frankly put, we're a backwater. Most of the Kajeat that do know about it consider it a local dispute."
     "A local dispute!" Xar snapped. "Are you insane? Do you know how many people have died in this 'local dispute'?"
     "Imagine wars that happen between different galaxies," Icis countered. "How many lives do you think those cost?"
     "That's beside the point!" shouted Xar.
     "Quiet!!" the officer bellowed, straining to drown out their yelling at each other. The officers were glancing back and forth at each other in seeming confusion, clearly perturbed by their quarreling guests. "Turn around and leave! You can continue you argument on your way out of Kajarn!..."
     He broke off as a flash of light enveloped the teleport pad. When it was gone, there was someone else standing there, and Icis immediately recognized him as a Thiganik'llor. His blue-skinned body was covered with white feathers, and he had a set of wide wings folded behind him in addition to his clawed hands and feet.
     "Stop immediately!" the newcomer ordered. At his word, the officers turned back in surrprise. The 'Lor sauntered over to them and began speaking with them in sharp tones. Icis took that moment to edge closer to Xar.
     "What was that?" Xar whispered to him.
     Icis cocked his head over towards Xar. "That is a teleporter," he explained. "That's how we get around Kajarn."
     "A what?"
     He broke off as the 'Lor turned to them and the officers trained their guns on them once more. "I am Solus Emsu," he announced. "You are to come with me at once."
     Icis felt his jaw drop. An Elder was here?
     He gestured Xar to move forward and do as they were told. Xar took hold of Nico's hoversled once more and steered him toward the teleport pad. The officers all began to file in around them.
     Icis couldn't believe that an Elder had actually come. This was either going to be good, or very, very bad.
     "Are we actually going to..." Xar began as they stepped onto the teleporter.
     "Don't worry, you won't feel a thing," Icis assured him. "Some people get disoriented, but that's all." His own stomach was starting to feel queasy, but for completely different reasons.
     There was a flash of light, and suddenly they were all gone.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Titan-class Battleship Abyss

            Entering Borrose System

            1220 Hours

 

Maarek half-stumbled as he tried to hurry his way across the flight deck, but caught himself in time to avoid too much embarrassment. He paused, enduring a moment of agony as the world seemed to spin around him, then slowly started forward once more as the sensation faded.

     Alona and the others were already in their cockpits and were linking in and powering up their powerful Archon fighters. The rest of the hangar was a sea of organized chaos, with Altarin’Dakor pilots and troops everywhere, working to get the strike team launched as soon as possible. They worked with speed, but were composed, not panicked.

     Maarek’s own fighter lay only ten more meters ahead. Gritting his teeth, he pushed himself forward, his cane clinking every time it touched the deck beneath his feet. The air smelled of coolant, polished metal and exhaust.

     The strike team of Archon pilots would fly into Borrose first, escorting a small formation of troop transports carrying Jedicon and shock troops down to the surface for the counterattack. Then they would provide air superiority until the Abyss arrived to drive off the invaders from orbit. In theory, the Titans would do little more than take potshots at each other before one of them decided to leave. Ships of this size and expense rarely engaged one another directly – much like top-level predators on most habitable worlds.

     Nearly to his fighter, Maarek spotted Chele in the distance, leading a group of elite Jedicon into one of the sleek armored transports. Each of them wore a suit of black stealth armor. Their job would be to enter the base and eliminate whatever attackers had infiltrated inside. He felt a pang of fear for her safety, just as he did for Alona, who would be flying with him. Chele caught his eye and raised a hand in mock-salute at him, then flashed him a wink before she ducked inside.

     The day before, they’d had a grueling training lesson in which she’d assaulted him mentally for two hours straight. He’d done better than he ever had before. But he still didn’t know if he was ready. The whole time, she hadn’t spoken to him about their relationship, and she still hadn’t mentioned Alona. He was unable to tell whether she was growing impatient waiting on his decision.

     But Maarek felt he had made his decision, or perhaps it had already been made since the beginning. He had wanted to tell Chele then, had wanted to tell her that he had chosen Alona. But for some reason, he hadn’t been able to bring himself to say it. Maybe he was afraid of disappointing her. Maybe he still wanted to keep his options open. But there was another possibility he was afraid of, one that sent self-doubt stabbing into his mind. Maybe he really did want two women at the same time.

     He shook his head, then immediately regretted it as the world spun again. Blast it! Now wasn’t the time to consider such things! He took the last few steps up to his fighter and made his way up the steps leading to the cockpit, knowing if he let himself get distracted out there, he was as good as dead.

     After a moment he dropped into his seat, and the ladder pulled away and the cockpit sealed, cutting off all outside sound. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, relishing the peace and quiet for a split second. Don’t screw this up, he told himself. He had to remember, he’d been given another chance at this. Flying was life, and this was his second lease on it. Better make it good.

     The built-in connectors in his headrest reached out and touched the implants in the back of Maarek’s head. From that point onward, Maarek stopped seeing things with his own eyes. Now, he was the Archon. He could feel its wings like his own arms, and its rear ailerons were his legs. The armored exterior was his skin, and its powerful array of weapons were his teeth.

     Now, he felt invincible.

     The pre-flight sequence took less than a minute to complete. Just as the last of the troops finished entering their transports, Maarek’s wing of Archons launched out of the belly of the Titan-class battleship.

     Once in space, Maarek guided his ship into formation with the other group of Archons as they streaked away from their mothership. The transports launched seconds later. Maarek was able to switch his vision to an aft view of the fighter almost without even thinking about it, and it brought the Titan into view behind and overhead.

     The Abyss resembled nothing so much as a wickedly-carved dagger out of some fantasy Holo-drama. Black, and sharp-pointed at the bow, it contained four wing-like areas that fanned out in different directions near the stern. It was fast, stealthy, and extremely well-armed, perfect for this mission.

     “Setting a course for the target system,” Alona’s comforting voice entered his head.

     “Understood. Locked in and ready,” Maarek sent back. He didn’t actually have to speak the words. Just thinking about it made it happen. The sophistication and beauty of the Archon fighter never ceased to amaze him.

     Moments later, all the ships were in formation. But when Maarek expected the whole lot of them to jump into hyperspace, that didn’t happen. Instead, there was a flash of light ahead of the leading ship, and as he watched in amazement, a hole opened up in space, filled with an unearthly red light shining out from within. Then, one by one, the fighters and transports passed through onto the other side. When it was Maarek’s turn, he felt his Archon moving forward on autopilot, the anomalous opening filling his vision, unable to look away, as the ethereal light of ultraspace expanded to surround him.

     Then he was inside.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Spaceport

            Planet Borrose

            1450 Hours

 

Lasitus followed Moyabi’s retinue through the interior of the spaceport, stepping carefully around the bodies strewn across the floor. The nerve gas that Moyabi’s men had attacked with had done its job well. At least they were enemies – Strife’s forces, he reasoned. At least, most of them were. Quite a few were dressed in civilian clothing. He tried not to look at their faces.

     What was he becoming? Did he have to accept responsibility for their deaths, as well?

      The throng of shock troops led Moyabi, Lasitus and the other Jedicon deeper inside without incident. There had apparently been no survivors. It made Lasitus suspicious. This was far too easy; it had to be a trap of some kind.

     He kept his eyes straight ahead, watching Moyabi’s back. But still, he couldn’t erase the stench of death that came to his nostrils. It brought painful memories back into his mind, ones he had shut away as tightly as he could. He couldn’t deal with those, not now. The wounds were still too fresh, the events that had caused them transpiring just a matter of weeks earlier.

     Lasitus knew that it wasn’t just the death of someone who had been closest to him. It had been what he’d been willing to do to avenge that loss. He knew he was a killer – plain and simple. And he’d enjoyed it. The old Lasitus was still very much alive, and always would be.

     But the truth was, even his love of shedding blood didn’t disturb him nearly as much as another, inescapable fact. What brought that true horror was how he’d stood by to begin with while Derek was killed. His moment of indecision meant that the boy’s blood was on his hands. Lasitus was responsible for his death just as much as those Jedicon had been, and that thought was unbearable. He had to do something to try to atone, even though he knew it would never be enough. He would never forgive himself for his failures.

     The man who had been Bren – he still existed too, somewhere deep inside. Slowly, Lasitus had come to realize that he hadn’t reverted completely to the old man. It wasn’t glory or personal power he lusted for, anymore. The violent man inside was still there, and he had no compunctions about using it to accomplish his goals – but those goals had changed. He wanted to protect life, not take it. He would not stand idly by again.

     Perhaps that was what had driven him to Akargan, the only remaining person from his former life. If he could somehow save his former friend from what he had become, would it validate Lasitus’ own second chance at life? And yet, after only a few days with him, Lasitus knew that his cause was hopeless.

     He couldn’t allow Akargan to destroy Borrose. Millions would die, and their blood would be on his hands, too. He had to figure out something, fast. He knew he could dispatch Moyabi fairly easily. But would that be enough? If he wanted to stop the Warlord, he would have to take up arms against him. But deep down he knew that it was a hopeless cause. Just as the New Imperium didn’t stand a chance against the Altarin’Dakor, he didn’t stand a chance against Akargan.

     Moyabi had stopped in front of a closed hangar door inside one of the private docking areas. There were no bodies in this area at all. The spy reports had said that Strife’s base was in a sealed area within the spaceport. It took only moments for Moyabi’s slicers to override the door’s controls.

     The doors opened to reveal rows of computer banks and workstations taking up the whole interior of the hangar. It was also occupied – apparently the base was on a separate ventilation system, because its denizens were still very much alive – and ready for them.

     The firefight lasted only moments. Moyabi’s Jedicon and the shock troops rushed in as the base’s dozen or so occupants let loose with their weapons in a desperate bid to stop them. Within seconds they were cut down – whether by lightsaber or pulse rifle, the end result was the same.

     As the smoke cleared, Moyabi and the slicers picked their way through the room towards the main control consoles. Lasitus followed them at his own pace, his mind still working desperately on his own situation. They didn’t need him, anyway. He hadn’t had to do anything since shuttling down to the surface, and even during this firefight, he hadn’t been in any real danger.

     The main control consoles had only received minor damage from the shootout. It took less than half an hour for them to break through the security system and get inside. Again, too easy. Something didn’t feel right about this.

     “There is a large store of information here,” one of the men reported.

     “Just take everything,” Moyabi ordered them. “We will sort through the data on our return.” He turned away to allow them to work, and looked back towards the entrance. “Let us return to the ship so that we can turn this miserable rock into space dust.”

     Lasitus’ mind was racing a million klicks an hour as he followed the Jedicon out.  What was he going to do? He couldn’t let them kill everyone on Borrose. Every passing second made the sense of panic inside him grow stronger.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Borrose System

            1530 Hours

 

            The dust-covered world of Borrose hung suspended in space, growing closer in Maarek’s cockpit window every second as they approached. In the distance hung the Titan-class Battleship Warhawk, one of the Warlord Akargan’s ships. The vessel was massive, with a bulky finlike projection extending downwards almost as far as the ship was long. A retinue of smaller ships surrounded the Titan, while their target – the capital city’s starport – lay on the other side.

     Maarek guided his Archon in between the cluster of transports and the rest of his wing. As the planet grew closer ahead of them, he saw another large blip appear on his screens – the Abyss was coming out of hyperspace behind them.

     “Two minutes to engage,” Alona’s familiar voice came to his ears. “The transports should be on the surface thirteen minutes after that.”

     “Understood,” Maarek said back. Following his words was a flurry of chatter in Altarin’Dakor that he didn’t understand – probably acknowledgements from the others, or supplementary comments. He knew that this was to be a fast mission: go in, kill the invaders and prevent the base from being compromised – most likely by blowing it up – and getting back out. They didn’t want an extended engagement with the enemy here.

     Enemy squadrons were beginning to turn to engage them, now. Maarek recognized Stilettos, Aggrssors, even a few Nightstars and Punishers. No Widowmakers yet, thankfully. He wasn’t ready to face a Jedicon again just yet.

     This would be a tough engagement, but he was sure the Archons would still make space dust out of them. “Alona, I need you to guard our exit corridor while the transports go in…” he began to say.

     “Do not try to protect me, Maarek Stele!” she shouted over the comm, her voice startling him with its ferocity.

     He bit off what he was going to say back. Her decisive tone left no room for argument. He knew she was right. To treat her with favor would be a grave insult both to her rank and her honor. It would mean she was too weak, unworthy of her high position. It would be a death sentence among her peers. He would lose her by trying to save her

     “I meant, take the approaching squadron at two o’clock!” he said instead. He would just have to trust her not to get herself killed. Chele was going down to the surface too, he knew. There was nothing he could do for her, either.

     Suddenly Maarek was aware that they were in firing range. Glancing at several enemy fighters, he targeted them and began to unleash his craft’s beam weapons, sweeping from one target to the next.  The Archon’s next-generation Xyrilan-class beams operated on a different frequency than normal, and were able to penetrate opponents’ shields and cleave clean through their fuselages. His beam weapons hit one enemy Punisher and sliced it in half, swept over to an Aggressor and cut away its port wing, sending it spinning away. He also opened fire with his craft’s mass driver rail cannons, their projectiles laced with anti-shield charges. The slugs slammed into a Stiletto, blasting it into a thousand pieces.

     Craft after craft split open and explosions blossomed in the distance ahead of him. The enemy returned fire, but their beams went wide; the Archons were moving too fast, their pilots able to anticipate their attacks just before they happened. This was uncanny; Maarek had never felt this calm in a dogfight before. Even though his actual body was completely enclosed in an opaque cockpit and even though his helmet had no visor, he could see and feel everything going on around him. Remarkable that it no longer felt odd at all.

     More enemy ships were exploding, and Maarek was feeling more invincible than he ever had before. With every passing moment he felt himself grow more excited, and he knew the fighter was building off of his own emotions again, making him even more aggressive, more dangerous. His earlier fears that he wasn’t ready to take the Archon back into combat seemed laughable. Nothing the enemy had could challenge his Archon Superfighter. It wasn’t even a fair fight.

     Within seconds a handful of enemy squadrons were obliterated. The entire wing of Archons blasted through the first wave without losing a single fighter. Alona and half the wing turned back to reengage, while Maarek the rest of them continued to escort the assault transports toward the surface. Behind them, the Abyss began to vomit out hundreds more conventional fighters into the fray.

     More enemy blips appeared on the edges of his vision, and the sky around his fighter began to light up with beam weapons from the enemy capital ships and enemy fighters. Glancing to port and locking onto a half dozen opponents with merely a thought, he sent missiles streaking out towards them. Seconds later, Maarek and the first line of transports hit the upper edges of Borrose’s atmosphere, and his wingtips began to glow.

     “Ten minutes to the surface!” Alona announced. “Provide air cover while they operate!”

     “Copy,” Maarek said. Time to see how well this thing performs in atmosphere, he thought. Chele, be careful down there. He knew that she would attack her task with the utmost ferocity and determination. He did not envy whatever opponents she was going to face at the base, Jedicon or not.

     At least fifty enemy fighters had pulled in behind them, but the Archons and transports hit solid air well ahead of their pursuit. Ahead, he could see a few squadrons rising up to meet them from the vicinity of the capital. Not enough to stop them, though. Maarek would see that those transports made it safely down to the surface, then he would pick off any fighters that tried to make a run at them.

     Then he would have to trust Chele to do her job and come back in one piece. Just as Alona had made very clear to him concerning her, as well. This was war, and you had to take chances.

     He engaged the approaching fighters on the way down, sending out more missiles and beam strikes. Their blitz was strong enough to scatter the enemy formations, giving the assault tranports enough room to blast through to the surface. Within moments they would be making hot landings and disgorging their troops into the interior. Maarek kept one eye on them and one on the sky, watching and waiting – even while fighting – to see what would happen next.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Starport

            Planet Borrose

            1545 Hours

 

            Lasitus and the team had nearly reached the hangar again when the attack came.

     Beams and blasts of energy erupted from troops and Jedicon hidden behind counters, terminals and benches. The first line of Akargan’s troops went down immediately, simply cut apart by the barrage. The rest scattered and returned fire, taking shelter behind anything they could find on the terminal floor. Within seconds the whole place was a war zone as probably fifty or more soldiers on each side opened up on one another.

     Lasitus dove down behind an information counter as Jedicon rushed forward against each other, lightsabers blazing. Shock troops screamed as they poured fire into one another or engaged in single-handed combat. Explosions erupted in the air from propelled grenades, blasting transparisteel panels and holographic displays into fragments that scattered across the whole terminal. A group of four soldiers to his right screamed as their bodies were pierced by blasts of energy and supersonic projectiles, and they clattered to the ground just outside of arm’s reach.

     Still in shock from the unexpectedness of the attack, Lasitus hunkered down in his position, the sounds of battle filling the air around him. He was still trying to get his bearings when he saw two enemy shock troops rise to his right, training their weapons on him. A surge of panic shot through his body as his fight-or-flight instincts kicked in.

     Until now he had avoided using the Force; in fact, he’d refused to even touch it since that horrible day on Varnus when he’d slaughtered those Jedicon. Even when facing Moyabi and even Akargan he’d managed to find a way around even touching it again. But now he was faced with a familiar decision – defend himself, or die.

     Thrusting out a hand, he sent out a wave of force that blew the two troops off their feet, hurling them backwards through the air and sending them through one of the far wall’s floor-to-ceiling windows. He couldn’t even heard their yells over the din of battle raging around him.

     That threat abated, he glanced over to take in the rest of the fight. Screams and explosions continued to fill the air, and he could feel his blood beginning to heat up. The warrior within – his true self – wanted to get out. He knew that if he let it, he would be able to deal with the rest of the enemy with impunity.

     He had to make a decision. He didn’t want to kill anyone, and he didn’t want to let Moyabi destroy everyone on Borrose. He could help these attackers – even kill Moyabi, or at least allow them to do it for him. But if he did that, if he didn’t stop this attack, he would never be able to return to Akargan, and his chances of affecting the Warlord would be lost forever. He had to decide fast.

     He saw Moyabi moving forward, his lightsaber spinning in his hands as he deflected bolts of energy from one opponent, then clashed against an enemy Jedicon’s own saber. His long, braided hair swung wildly behind his head as he struck with all the ferocity of a Jedicon in the midst of battle rage.

     Standing, Lasitus drew on the Force and stepped forward.

     Using the power within him, he extended a bubble of protection around both himself and – meters away – Moyabi. Suddenly bolts flew at him, but impacted harmlessly against an invisible field two meters away. Moyabi was protected, as well, and he began to cut through opponents with renewed vigor.

     Following Moyabi, Lasitus strode forward one step at a time, allowing the Jedicon to kill each enemy in turn before moving on. A dozen warriors threw themselves at the Jedicon, only to be cut down mercilessly like mere training dolls. Moyabi kept pressing forward, not looking back, not even acknowledging Lasitus’ assistance. They were nearly to the hangar doors, now.

     Then suddenly, appearing from inside the door, a new figure came into view, hoisting something large in its outstretched arms. There was a flash, followed by smoke, and Lasitus dove instinctively to the side.

     The bomb went off about ten meters away in midair, and the force of the explosion sent him reeling. He let his body roll with the momentum, crashing into a table and chairs set up outside what had been a tapcafe. After a moment, ears ringing, he pushed himself up to his hands and knees, surveying the scene to assess the damage to the terminal.

     His central group of shock troops had been obliterated in the blast zone, along with all but two of Akargan’s Jedicon. As he watched, the figure from before – a red-headed woman, he realized, clad in close-fitting battle skin – dove onto those last two Jedicon. Her opponents reacted well, brandishing their blades and coming against her at one time, slashing at her as she came in. But Lasitus quickly realized this was no ordinary Jedicon. Not one, but two azure blades snapped to life, one in each hand, and she took them both on in a lightning-fast flurry of strikes. One of the Jedicon fell with a gash across his chest, then a second later his companion followed suit, his head sliced cleanly away and his lifeless form falling to the ground.

     The woman whirled, snapping locks of auburn hair away from her face as Moyabi – the last Jedicon alive – came in next. Lasitus stood to his feet now, eyes fixed on the pair as they met in a clash of light and noise. Moyabi attacked with powerful strokes from his muscled arms, his blade a whirl of light under his Force-enhanced speed. Somehow, thought, with her twin blades the woman was able to parry his strikes, spinning just out of reach and then coming back in, sending him retreating backwards with a complicated series of strikes of her own.

     Locking bladed with her for an instant, Moyabi glanced back and met Lasitus’ gaze once, inquiringly – almost asking for help, perhaps? It didn’t fit the Jedicon. Lasitus knew he should have been helping his ally regardless, but he found himself standing his ground. Let it play, a voice inside of him said.

     The woman attacked with a fury, spinning both blades in a deadly dance overhead. Moyabi fell back, defending, then with a yell he ran stepped in a desperate attack. Their glowing weapons met once more, then there was a flurry of light from her blades as she spun. Her weapons weaved once, then twice through the other Jedicon’s body, and Moyabi’s arm fell away first, then his torso split open in three sections, spilling his innards onto the floor at the woman’s feet.

     “Only you remain,” she turned to him and spoke in Altarin’Dakor. “What is your name?”

     Lasitus didn’t respond. He respected this woman’s skills, but she was no match for him. He didn’t want to kill anyone else unless absolutely necessary.

     “If you will not respect the honor of the Jedicon, then you will die a nameless memory!” she shouted at him, stepping forward.

     “Don’t do it!” he yelled at her in Altarin’Dakor. “Do not force me to kill you!”

     Her mouth twisted into a grin, and she lunged at him.

     She left him no choice. It was kill or be killed. She ran forward, blades twirling, and he thrust out a hand at her.

     The blast of Force he sent this time could have stopped a star cruiser in its tracks. Targeted against a single body weighing maybe half as much as his, she had no hope of escaping its grasp. Her body flew backwards in the blink of an eye, slamming into the far wall hard enough to leave an imprint of her form in it. He heard bones crack, her weapons flew from her hands, and as he released her she fell, dead even before she hit the ground.

     Not for the first time, Lasitus felt the rush of the kill flowing through his veins. And, also not for the first time, he hated himself for it.

     He looked back across the terminal interior, now little more than a blasted shell, and saw that there was no one else remaining to fight. His allies were all dead, as well. Some distance behind him, overturned in one of the blasts, was Moyabi’s cart containing the data discs stolen from the enemy’s secret base, their cartridges scattered across the floor. Moving over to them, he began to scoop them back up. This was what Akargan wanted. This was why they’d come. Without them the mission would still be a failure.

     He would bring these discs back to Akargan and complete his mission. Now that Moyabi was dead, Lasitus was in charge of the Warhawk and the task force. They would do as he said, or else. And there would be a change to the plan. No attack against Borrose would occur before they left. Let Akargan react to that as he willed.

     Seeing the body of the dead woman lying lifelessly as he passed, Lasitus made up his mind again; he would not kill anyone else. Especially not a woman. Not again.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Borrose System

            1600 Hours

 

            Maarek banked hard to port, the angle of his maneuver only possible thanks to the Archon system encased around his body.

     As he pulled around, his two pursuers came back into view. Switching with a thought to his rail guns, he opened up on them. Supersonic slugs of shield-penetrating metal alloys pierced the air in an instant, ripping into the enemy fighters. The port wing of the first one disintegrated, sending the fighter plunging towards the ground. The other was hit head-on, ripping first the Stiletto’s cockpit to shreds, then blowing the rest of the fighter apart in a gout of flame and gas.

     Rolling over, Maarek dove for the ground, then pulled up in a split-S to avoid the trio of enemy fighters that had been circling above him. His opponents were good, and he knew that like all Altarin’Dakor pilots they were connected to their fighters through the neural implants in the back of their heads, enabling them to perform far beyond a mere humans’ capabilities. But their technology primitive compared to the Archon. Maarek was his fighter.

     Shaking his pursuers took only a few seconds, then he pulled another tight loop to track one of them down. An Aggressor, it dove for the ground to try and escape. Maarek rolled and pulled right onto his six, then fired with two of his cannons. The beams of blue-white energy reached out and sliced the craft cleanly in half, separating it into two halves. A second later both pieces slammed into the dirt of the surface.

     “Maarek Stele, what is your status?” Alona’s voice sounded in his head.

     “Situation nominal,” Maarek thought back. “Just mopping up here. How are thing in orbit? What’s your tally?”

     “The situation is still a standoff. We have lost five Archon fighters so far.”

     Maarek felt a twinge of disappointment. They weren’t completely invincible. “How many enemy have you killed?” he asked.

     “To date the Wing had eliminated three hundred and twenty enemy fighters.”

     Maarek felt himself smile – or at least he thought he did, since he couldn’t feel his actual body at the moment.

     “There is a problem, Maarek. The strike team has been neutralized.”

     Maarek’s attention snapped back to her. “What do you mean?”

     “They failed their mission. It seemed they would success at first, but there is an extremely powerful enemy down there. I can sense his presence even now. It is far stronger than any Jedicon I’ve ever felt before.”

     Maarek couldn’t believe what he was hearing. All he could feel was a rising sense of panic. “What about Chele?” he asked, the world feeling more surreal by the second.

     “Her transmitter is off. She is dead.” Alona said simply.

     “No!” Maarek shouted. He rolled his fighter around again and dove for the surface.

     “You cannot go down there!” Alona warned. “The Abyss is going to bombard…”

     He cut her signal off with a thought, adjusting his dive to bring him back over the city, the lights of the spaceport standing out against the ground below. This couldn’t be happening! Not again!

     The two fighters he’d let live had circled around and were ahead of him. He felt their attacks before they came, and jukied his fighter to starboard. Their beams of energy sliced through empty air beside him.

     Locking missiles on one, he fired two warheads, then targeted the other and cut loose with all five beam emplacements.

     The enemy fighter didn’t stand a chance. All five beams hit dead on. There was a flash of light and a glowing halo that appeared where the fighter was, then the beams died and Maarek could see a strangely colored cloud of gas and two small pieces that had been wingtips falling towards the ground. The rest of the fighter had been vaporized.

     His missiles hit the other fighter and exploded, sending fire and metal flying in all directions.

     There was nothing else remaining between him and his target. Diving his Archon downwards, he rained death upon the spaceport.

     Switching to missiles, he fired every last one he had left, sending each one into a different building. The warheads penetrated inside and exploded, blasting duracrete into the air and sending fireballs rising into the sky. Two of the smaller buildings collapsed, consumed in fire.

     Maarek’s rage was far from abated; in fact, it was rising with every passing second, a thirst for vengeance and blood impossible to ignore. The Archon made him invincible! He would make the enemy pay! They would know the power he held in his hands!

     Kriffing kriff, they’d killed Chele! NO!

     Maarek leveled off, coming in fast on a strafing run. Opening up with his rail cannons, he sent the slugs into the main terminal building, raking them back and forth to get maximum dispersal. Then he fired his beams next, pouring fire through the main building as he passed overhead at a blur. His beams sliced through the complex, sending explosions of fire pouring out in their wake.

     As soon as he was past he immediately began to loop back around for another pass. He could see the complex below, clearly divided in two by the glowing line his beams had left. He leveled back off, then dove in again. Another couple of runs and he should be able to finish the whole place off. And whoever was left alive in there – whoever it was that had killed her – well, he would make sure their remains would never be found. Ever.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Starport

            Planet Borrose

            1610 Hours

 

Lasitus ran as fast as he could back towards the main hangar as explosions continued to rip through the base.

     The attacks seemed to come from everywhere at once. At first he’d thought it was orbital, but he realized that if it was he’d already be dead by now. A squadron of fighters must be strafing the place after realizing their strike team had failed.

     With half of his power enhancing his speed and the other forming a protective shell around himself and the hovercart with the datatapes, Lasitus ran hard. The transparisteel roof and windows shattered into thousands of deadly shards that filled the air. Metal beams and girders fell down from above, proceeded by explosions and blasts of flame that chewed through the interior of the place.

     Lasitus sped forward, never stopping, relying on the Force to avoid falling debris and explosions an instant before they occurred. The floor was littered with rubble, and he leapt over piles of duracrete, collapsed support beams, and crushed dividing walls. If he could just get back to the main landing pad, the shuttles they’d come in on might still be there in one piece.

     Suddenly a blinding light filled the terminal once more. Lasitus let the Force guide him, diving instinctively to the side as a massive beam of energy tore through the air once more. Searing heat touched his skin, seeming to suck the very air from the room. Explosions ripped through the building, shaking the ground beneath him as cracks split the floor. By this time all he could hear was ringing in his ears.

     Just as suddenly the light was gone, and Lasitus’ danger sense flared again. He pushed himself up and ran, dragging his cargo with him with the Force, as fire fell from the ceiling towards him.

     At the far end of the room he could see the exit. He ran for it as fast as he could. Glass shattered at his feet as it hit the ground, and chunks of duracrete impacted against the protective bubble over his head.

     Something huge exploded in the room. He took an instant to glance back, and saw that the entire central structure of the terminal had collapsed. A wall of fire was rushing towards him as if in slow motion.

     With the Force filling him, he put everything he had on speed and ran, knowing he had only seconds to get out. Ahead, the ceiling above him finally caved in, and he watched it descending in a painfully slow fashion in front of him. Adrenaline and the rush of battle surged through his veins. Almost there.

     With a final burst of speed he dove through the hatchway, flames licking at his heels as he emerged into the night air. He hit the duracrete floor of the pad and rolled, letting the cart go behind him. It hit the ground, and datatapes scattered across the ground. Then the terminal behind him collapsed, and a blast of fire and dust rushed out of the entrance.

     I made it. Breathing out a long-held breath, Lasitus picked himself back up to his feet. His blood was rushing in his veins – he felt alive! That had been too close, he decided. He looked back at the devastation that was all that remained of the spaceport. Then he glanced into the sky in the direction the attack must have come from.

     There. A fighter of a design he’d never seen before was streaking skywards, away from him, merely a speck in the night sky now. Cold rage poured into his veins. That pilot had nearly just killed him. He could feel the old Lasitus welling up again, the desire to exact vengeance suddenly overwhelming.

     Despite what he’d told himself just moments earlier, he instinctively reached out, knowing he could eliminate the enemy who’d nearly just done him in. A voice in the back of his mind reacted against that, telling him to let it go, but in the rush of the moment he refused to listen. It’s kill or be killed, he reminded himself again. That was all it was. This one was just another enemy that had to be eliminated.

     The Force welled up in him once more, and just as he was on the cusp of swatting the fighter out of the sky, he literally jumped backward as a familiar presence hit him. He knew the person flying that fighter! He’d encountered that presence in the Royal Palace before, on Varnus. But how could that be?

     Maarek Stele wasn’t a close friend, but he wasn’t an enemy, either. Why would he be here? And even more, why would he be flying for the Altarin’Dakor? Was something else going on here that he wasn’t aware of?

     He pulled away. He certainly wasn’t going to kill Maarek Stele, even if the man had unknowingly just tried to destroy him.

     He looked down at the datatapes lying inside the hovering cart. What if there was really nothing of value on them? Maybe this was all a setup. Perhaps it was merely a ploy just to see if Lasitus would obey Akargan’s command and slaughter millions of innocent people.

     Then he thought about Moyabi again. The man was dead, and now Lasitus was in charge. The Warhawk would respond to his commands. He would tell it to turn around and return to base, and then he would face Akargan and the consequences.

     He made his way for one of the surviving shuttles, eager to be away from this place as quickly as possible.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

Planet Kajarn

Icis knew immediately that they were now inside Kajarn. However, he also realized that they were probably in a lot of trouble.
     The reason was clear to him – this wasn't one of the massive interior biospheres that had been created to house the billions on denizens that lived on Kajarn. This was a security sector, with no unrestricted access to the outside. He’d been to one of these sectors twice before in his lifetime. Each of those times, the end result for him hadn’t been favorable.
     They were marched down a much wider, yet still solid white corridor. This one, however, was quite populated. Icis saw beings from hundreds of the innumerable different species that made up Kajeat society. They were all shapes, colors and sizes, yet they were all Kajeat. The Travelers were probably, he figured, the antithesis of a homogenous people group.
     Unfortunately, all of the Kajeat in this sector wore security uniforms. Although crime was virtually unheard of on Kajarn, one could not have a society of billions without some form of law enforcement, and this seemed to be the central location for most of them.
     "Icis, I thought teleportation was impossible," Xar spoke up from beside him.
     "Sorry I didn't have time to fully brief you on Traveler technology," Icis said, feeling a twinge of annoyance. Didn't the man see they were in serious trouble? "Besides, if I'd simply told you, would you have believed me without seeing it for yourself?"
     "You have a point," came the answer.
     "We've got to figure a way out of this," Icis said frantically, keeping his voice down.
     "What?"
     "They're going to lock us up straight away. We'll never get our meeting this way!"
     Xar spitted him with a hostile stare. "Maybe you should have let me do things my way."
     Icis shook his head. "You don't know what you're saying. You're on Kajarn, Xar. I don't care how strong you are, you can't fight you way out of this one."
     Abruptly they seemed to have reached their destination. They were in a large intersection, and corridors branched off into many different directions. Solus Emsu had turned to face them and was addressing the officers.
     "Take the prisoners to their cells," he was saying. "Those two to the standard holding cells." He pointed to Xar and Nico, then to Icis. "That one goes directly into isolation. He is to have no contact with anyone until the Council decides his fate."
     "Elder!" Icis found himself crying out instinctively. "You know who I am. I ask to speak with my father, Moa Gault! He is on the Council of Elders!"
     Solus Emsu turned to him sternly, and Icis felt himself automatically beginning to wilt beneath that furious gaze. This was an Elder, many times Icis' own young age of five thousand years. He was probably much older than any of the Altarin'Dakor Warlords. It was difficult to even speak to him, much less defy such a person. Yet he had to. It was his only chance!
     "Moa Gault is indisposed," Emsu snapped at him fiercely, his feathers ruffling. "He will not speak with an outsider. That right is only reserved for Kajeat, and you are no longer a Kajeat. Take them away!"
     Icis felt like his heart had dropped out of his chest. This was it. They were going to put him in a cell for the rest of his life! How could he have been so stupid as to come back here? This was the end!
     "Icis," Xar said in a warning tone. "This is about to get messy. You'd better stand back."
     "No!" He whirled to face Xar. "You can't fight them! That is not our way!" How could he make the man understand? He was nothing, here. The Kajeat authority was unquestionable!
     "I don't care anymore. I came here with nothing to lose. Either I find what I came for, or I’ll die trying." Xar fixed him with an intense stare, and Icis felt a chill run over his skin. Then the man turned towards the officers.
     "Hold it right there," the leader of the officers said, stepping forward. "You two will come with my while they rest of you take this one to Isolation!"

     Suddenly, everything seemed to happen at once. Officers rushed toward Icis and Xar, while out of the corner of his eye he saw someone coming up to grab Nico’s bed. Desperately he turned away and threw himself over Nico’s gurney, shouting at the men to stop. Xar crouched low like he was about to attack the two men coming towards him. The captain raised his sidearm, striding purposefully toward them and barking orders, looking like he was actually going to fire at them at any second…
     He froze in mid-step, and his shouted words became fuzzy, befuddled, as though he were speaking underwater. Everyone around them slowed to a halt, their hands still reaching out to grab their prisoners.

     Then they began sinking into the floor.
     Icis and Xar gasped at practically the same time. Everyone in the room was sinking, except for them! They stood like statues, their bodies vanishing into the perfectly white, solid floor, up to their waists, up to their chests, their necks.
     As their heads vanished beneath the floor, the muffled speaking stopped. Icis and Xar stood there in silence, Nico's bed hovering just behind them.
     "What... in... the... blazes...?" Xar whispered.
     Then suddenly, in front of them another figure came up out of the floor, rising until she stood perfectly level, right in front of them.

     Icis' jaw dropped even wider, this time. It was her.
     She was tall for a woman, almost Xar’s height – which still meant she only came up to Icis’ chest. She wore a long black overcoat, cut wide at the shoulders and folded over at the chest, which tapered down and concealed everything but her boots just above the floor. The coat’s breast was embroidered with red and gold patterns, and underneath she wore a violet button shirt.

     All of this was, of course, secondary to the long, flowing mane of bright red hair that came out of her head and went everywhere. It must have been of a dozen different lengths, because parts stuck out like spikes from her head, while others curved downwards, ending around her shoulders, while the longest segments trailed down almost to her thighs. 

     Her face was mature, yet youthful at the same time. Her large eyes were of a deep, emerald green like he’d never seen before. Her face held a smirk that said she knew exactly who they were and all about their mission here. Which of course, he didn’t doubt in the least. She was so striking that it took Icis a moment to realize he still had his mouth open. He tried to work it, to say something, but his mind had frozen like a ball of ice. It was her.

     Finally she put her hands on her hips and blew out a sigh of pure annoyance. “Well, it’s about time. I’ve been waiting for you two for a while. Come on.”

     “Ex… Excuse me?” Xar spoke up from beside Icis. His face was still frozen in disbelief at what was going on – which, of course, Icis himself was, too.

     “What did you do to those guards? Where’d they go?” Xar asked.

     “Hmm? Oh, the officers? They didn’t go anyway, dearie. You came down here.” She pointed a finger at him. “I pulled you into this parallel dimension. It makes it a bit easier to get around, wouldn’t you say?”

     “A… A what?”

     Abruptly she looked down at what appeared to be a chronometer on her wrist. “Oh, good. We should have plenty of time left.”

     “Left for what?” Xar asked.

     “Why, to save the universe, of course,” she replied with a grin. And with that, she turned and began walking away.

     Icis still hadn’t managed to get his mouth working right. He turned to Xar and grunted loudly.

     “What’s going on?” Xar asked, obviously still dumbfounded.

     “J… Just follow her!” Icis managed. He ran around to the other side of Nico’s bed and started pushing it forward, rushing to catch up. Xar complied, coming up beside him.

     Xar glanced over at Icis and nodded at their guide. “Who is this woman?”

     Icis worked his tongue, swallowed hard, then cleared his throat before answering. “This, my friend,” he replied, “is Angol Moa.”

     “That’s the person we’ve been looking for?” Xar seemed shocked.

     “It would seem she’s been looking for us,” Icis replied gruffly.

     “She said she was waiting on us. Who is she, exactly?”

     Icis glanced between the two of them, then shrugged helplessly. “Angol Moa is Eldest of the Travelers, and our Supreme Leader. And, quite probably, the oldest living being in the universe.”

     Xar looked back at Angol Moa, who gave him a sly wink.

     “The Force help us,” he whispered.

     Angol Moa turned slightly and waved them forward. “Come, come. I’d like to get there this century, please.”

     “Where are we going?” Xar asked.

     Instead, she simply quickened her pace, heading down one of the main corridors. They walked in silence for a few moments before Icis realized they must be heading for another teleport room.

     “How did she do what she did just before?” Xar whispered, looking at Icis. “I couldn’t feel her using the Force.”

     Icis stared at him in confusion for a moment. The man had to keep asking questions Icis didn’t know the answers to. What did it matter how she did what she did?

     “Well?”

     “I have no idea,” he said finally. “Xar, Angol Moa created Kajarn. She created the Teleporters. She created all our technology! She even created all of us! Of course she can use the Force as well, as any Kajeat can. But I really don’t think she has to if she doesn’t want to!”

      “Calm down! I’m just saying I can’t feel her in the Force, Icis!”

     Angol Moa glanced back at them just then. “Ah, don’t worry about that. This is just my astral projection,” she said matter-of-factly.

     Your what?” Xar asked incredulously.

     Just then they reached the teleporter. “Step inside, boys,” Angol Moa said, gesturing to the pad. “I’ll be happy to answer all your questions in just a few moments.”

     They complied, with Icis pushing Nico’s bed onto the pad and stepping up beside Xar. They watched as, whether for their benefit or for some other reason, Angol Moa stepped up to the pad as well. Then came that familiar flash of light…

     Suddenly they were in a darker room, one made of metal, not painted solid white. Yet it was still obviously a teleport room, and could have been one of thousands on Kajarn.

     “This way,” Angol Moa said, heading towards the room’s only exit. The door slowly split open, letting in a shaft of natural light into the room.

     They stepped through the doorway and onto soft green grass. And as his eyes adjusted, Icis gazed at the scene in front of them in utter amazement and shock.

     The teleport room was a single structure built into the hillside on which they now stood. Stretching before them was a large valley full of multicolored trees, with a deep azure sky resting above wispy clouds. Mountains rose in the distance, towering, craggy rocks with white-capped summits. It was one of the most beautiful places he’d ever seen.

     “Come on now,” she said, then began walking down the hill, moving in the same ethereal-looking motion as before. Icis and Xar moved to follow, with Nico in tow.

     “S… Supreme Elder,” Icis spoke up, finally managing to address her. “Where on Kajarn are we? I am not familiar with such a place.” Yet it must have taken up a large chunk of the interior to be this vast!

     The astral projection of Angol Moa smiled back at him. “We aren’t on Kajarn anymore I’m afraid, kiddo. The Council of Elders gave me my own personal planet a while back, mainly to keep me out of their hair, to keep me from interfering with their politics and running of things. Gives me more time to do my research.” She paused, cocking her head to one side. “Of course, they were also worried that my experiments would blow up the whole planet one day, so better this one instead, don’t you think? Ha!”

     Icis continued to follow her in a state of semi-disbelief. Now he and Xar were in the same situation, and he knew exactly what the other man must be feeling. This was simply… unprecedented. Icis had never expected to find anything like this.

     They reached the floor of the valley, where yet more wondrous things lay in wait. Huge, white organic-looking structures rose from the ground, spreading out into the sky and flattening like giant, spindly mushrooms, serving some completely unknown purpose. All around them rose trees of myriad hues – mainly green interspersed with red, yellow, and orange. Some were even pink or purple. Exotic birds and avian creatures flew through the air between them, their species unidentifiable.

     The air was thick with the smell of flowers and nectar, and the sound of the birds and other creatures, as well as a chiming music that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. The temperature was just right – not too hot, not too cold. A slight breeze blew across his skin, rustling the leaves of the trees. Everything was just right. It felt good to be here. The place was a paradise.

     The apparition led them down a grassy hillock surrounded by exotic trees sporting luscious-looking fruit. At the bottom of the hill was a pathway nestled next to a babbling stream, crossed by a bridge spanning the stream’s width. Nearby, sitting on a hovering high-backed chair, was another Angol Moa, a semi-transparent holoscreen floating in the air in front of her, her fingers tapping on a similarly semi-transparent keyboard hanging just beneath her hands.

     The first Angol Moa walked around to the other side of the second, seated one, turned around, and sat down into the one already in the chair, matching the other Angol Moa’s position precisely. And then there was just one of her, typing away at her screen, ignoring the three of them completely.

     Xar and Icis stood there with Nico for a long moment, so long that Icis began to wonder if the real Angol Moa had even noticed them at all. But she had to have, hadn’t she?

     “Are we…” Xar began.

     Suddenly she whirled in her seat and stood, and Xar found her index finger touching his nose as she stared him down. “You really looked better without that scruff of a beard. Lovely weather today, isn’t it? I made sure it would be.”

     For once, Xar seemed completely for lack of words. Icis felt the same; Angol Moa had that effect on everybody, including himself. It was like she knew what you were going to say before you even said it.

     “Well. Anyway, welcome to my home. Or my testbed, if you prefer. I don’t have a preference to what you call it, personally. I haven’t decided on a good name for it, yet. Let me know if you come up with any good ones. Just make yourselves at home.”

     It was then that Icis noticed that they were not, in fact, alone. Other figures were present, walking down the path, or coming out from the forest of exotic trees surrounding them. Yet they weren’t human, he could tell. In fact, he didn’t think they were even alive. All of them were humanoid in appearance, but their skin glowed, and was semi-transparent. He thought he could see machinery inside, so they were droids, most likely.

     “These are my assistants,” Angol Moa said, looking at Icis. “I found they usually listen better, have more patience, and last a lot longer than most organic species.”
     “You created them too?” Xar asked.
     “Of course. Would you like to be my guinea pig?”
     Xar opened his mouth, but only a croak came out. "Your… What?"
     "You know. A subject for my experiments," she said matter-of-factly.
     "I, ah... No," he stammered finally. "No, I don't think so." Xar looked like he'd seen a ghost.
     "Ah. Too bad." She simply shrugged. Icis cringed inwardly. This was Angol Moa, all right.
     An awkward silence ensued. Icis couldn't really think of anything to say at a time like this. Xar cast about as though looking for something to relieve the tension. “Ah, what’s all this?" he said. "You must really, ah, love insects.”

     Icis looked at what Xar had made a sweeping gesture to indicate. There were bugs, he realized. Not small ones, but big ones, of bright colors and interesting shapes. They weren’t real bugs, of course. They were really normal objects, simply made to look like insects. She had insect pins in her hair, he could see, and now that he looked closely, even the embroidery on her coat was of some kind of insect. Then there were insect shapes laid into the railing along the side of the river, and there were insects on her large holo-screen, moving across it like some sort of screen saver. Insects everywhere.

     Angol Moa nodded matter-of-factly. “Of course; I used to be one myself.” She gave him a glance and must have seen something in his face, for she blinked. “Well, never mind that.”

     “What? When was this, Supreme Elder?!” Icis blurted without thinking.

     “What? Oh, fifty-seven… No, sixty. Wait… Maybe… Sixty-two thousand years ago? Way before your time, Icis.”

     “And how long have you looked like this?” Xar asked.

     “Um…” She paused, tapping her lip. “That’s a good question. I’m not really sure. Certainly for thirty thousand years, but… Well, it all blends together, eventually.” She turned back to her screen. Letters and numerals were flashing by in patterns that Icis couldn’t begin to decipher.

     Xar glared at her in disbelief. “Is she insane?” he whispered to Icis.

     “Seventy-eight percent of people who meet me answer yes to that question,” she said without looking back.

     Icis simply shook his head. It was hard to imagine the supreme leader of the Travelers as a giant insect. It was like having a Verpine as the Diktat, or as Chief of State.

     “All right,” she said finally, tapping a button and causing the hologram to collapse in on itself and disappear in a flash of light. “Would you like to come to my laboratory with me?”

     Xar glanced at Icis, who shrugged. “I don’t think we really have a choice. Lead the way.”

     They took off again, and she led them away along the path into a copse of vibrantly-colored trees. On the other side was a grassy hillock, which they climbed leisurely, Xar pushing Nico's gurney ahead of him. Something that looked like a butterfly floated in front of Xar and landed directly on the unconscious man’s nose, apparently along for the ride.

     As they crested the hill, the trees gave way to a panoramic view ahead, and despite everything he knew about Angol Moa and her achievements, Icis' breath still caught in his throat.

     It was like a shining white city spread out before them, but all made of one single, congruous structure. There were giant domes hundreds of meters in diameter and spires that towered into the sky. Structures of odd shapes and sizes were spread out here and there, each surviving some unknown yet inevitably scientific purpose. Everything gleamed in the sunlight like a colossal white palace. There were even floating structures, small and large, whole buildings or facilities that hovered at varying heights. Giant, transparent orbs rested nestled between buildings, with strange lights glowing within.

     Icis shook his head in awe. He knew that Angol Moa was legendary for her brilliant intellect and amazing inventions. But to actually see it with his own eyes was something else altogether. They were on Angol Moa's own world! He was sure that few Kajeat had ever been granted this kind of honor. And the fact that he, who was an outcast, was actually here was too wonderful for words.

     "Shall we?" Angol Moa asked, gesturing the way forward. "We have a lot to discuss."    
     They nodded, and shortly they were descending the hill towards the large, gaping entrance resting below them. Icis could make out more glowing droids inside, waiting for them.
     It had to be one of the strangest retinues he'd ever been part of, he realized. He and Angol Moa, with Xar pushing Nico's bed, all of them walking along a stone pathway towards the most magnificent center of scientific research he'd ever heard of.
     It felt surreal. He was really here at Angol Moa's lab. She had invented most of the technologies that the Kajeat used. She had built Kajarn itself.
     He knew that the surprises, and the revelations, were only just about to begin.

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Titan-class Battleship Abyss

            Leaving Borrose System

            2210 Hours

 

            There was no funeral. There was no memorial for those who had fallen. Altarin’Dakor couldn’t spare time for the dead.

     Maarek tried to pull himself out of his cockpit, but he couldn’t even stand on his own legs. He collapsed in a pile on top of his seat, the world spinning, and he lurched over to the side, vomiting wretchedly.

     Once he was finished, he pushed himself back upright with no small effort, breathing heavily. It wasn’t the first time he’d thrown up in the cockpit.

     Despite the nausea and disorientation, his mind couldn’t stop replaying what he’d seen and heard down there on Borrose. The sense of loss, the despair and the pain, had flared up again just like on Varnus. It was beginning to feel all too familiar.

     Chele was dead. And he hadn’t even been able to say goodbye. He hadn’t been able to tell her that he was planning to choose Alona. She’d probably gone to her death with hope still in her heart.

     The pain was unbearable. The faces of everyone he’d lost kept flashing through his head. Bast, Rann, Tanya – and countless others. His friends and his comrades.

     Chele had been somewhat different. She’d been his teacher, albeit a harsh one. But during the last few months they had become familiar with each other, and they might have become more, given time and the right circumstances. But now that was gone forever, extinguished.

     Burn him for a fool! What an idiot he’d been! How foolish of him to play two women at the same time! What had he been thinking? He should have told Chele before, let her know the truth at least…

     “Look up, Maarek Stele.”

     He raised his head at the sound and saw only a light blur above him. He knew the voice, though. Alona.

     She was leaning down into the Archon’s recessed cockpit, one arm extended downwards toward him. He reached up, grasping her wrist, and he felt himself being lifted bodily out of the fighter.

     A moment later he was sitting on the flight deck, trembling uncontrollably and dripping sweat, waiting for the world to right itself around him. He felt Alona slide down to sit beside him. At her presence, his sense of balance seemed to return again, for the most part.

     Slowly he turned to look at her. She was still wearing the pilot’s dark jumpsuit, her azure hair flailing wildly around her head, some of it plastered to her forehead by sweat. Those incredible eyes of hers peered into his like firebrands. Her sheer beauty, at that moment, took his breath away.

     “We must return quickly to the Eternity and report this incident to my Master,” Alona said.

     Maarek just stared at her speechlessly. It took a moment for her words to register; they weren’t at all what he’d expected to hear. Chele’s dead, he thought. The pain clenched his heart once more. He shook his head, confused. Was the pain all for Chele? Or was it for his squadron, coming back with a vengeance?

     “The enemy forces have retreated from the system,” she continued. “However, they may have escaped with data that is vital to our Master’s plan.”

     Maarek blinked at her. Her words were calm, analytical. Was that all she had to say?

     “What is wrong?” she asked him finally.

     What’s wrong? He wasn’t sure he could even speak. “Chele, she…” he began weakly.

     She immediately interrupted him with an upraised finger at him. “She earned much glory, and brought great honor to the Altarin’Dakor. Is this what disturbs you? There is no shame in death, Maarek Stele.”

     “Shame?” he asked incredulously. “Of course not. I… Don’t you feel sorry she’s…

     “Do not dishonor her memory!” she interjected. “To die in the service of my Shok’Thola is the greatest privilege I could ever hope for. May I one day be as fortunate as she was this day.”

     “Are you crazy?” he whispered. “You actually want to get yourself killed?”

    She leveled her gaze at him then. “If you would have me, Maarek Stele,” she said, “You must accept who I am. And you must accept that risk. I live for my Master’s glory.”

     He stared at her transfixed, feeling as if in a stupor. What was it with Jedicon and their death wishes? Why didn’t they value their own lives?

     Stark realization hit him, the answer to his question he’d been wondering ever since arriving here. Even before that, really. So, he reflected, this is what it means to serve one of the Warlords… Utter devotion, complete and passionate loyalty. Placing value on their lives so far beyond your own that if even your death could bring them just a bit more glory, it would all be well worth the experience.

     Now he understood why the Altarin’Dakor lived and fought with such passion and unity. They truly did believe that they were serving a god. Next to that, what did one’s personal life matter?

     She was telling him that one day she might suffer the same fate as Chele had today. And he would lose her, too. The thought of that was unbearable. Could he dare to live like this? Knowing that she would welcome death, despite the happiness they shared together? Could he open his heart again, knowing the pain that it might cause him as it had so many times before?

     “You must not dwell on the past, Maarek Stele. We must let go of what we are afraid to lose. Let us not mourn for her,” Alona told him. “Instead, be thankful for her sacrifice, and for what she gave to you in this life.”

     He nodded, at a loss for how to argue the point with her. At least the competition was over, he realized. The decision had ultimately been made for him.

     That, to his surprise, was some consolation. He had to admit that part of him was glad that it was Alona who had survived, who hadn’t had to sacrifice herself today for the sake of a Warlord. He knew it was wrong, even despicable, to actually be glad that Chele had died instead of her. But it was the truth. Why should he deny it now? He didn’t care anymore. If it had been Alona, it would have been far worse.

     Perhaps he would lose her someday, too. Or maybe during one of these missions Maarrek’s time would finally be up. But for now, he knew that he had only one choice. Either way, at least he was with her right now, and that was all that mattered.

     “I guess I’m all yours now,” he said. Then he leaned down and buried his face in her rich azure hair, and forgot about everything else.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Planet Tritonia

            2200 Hours

 

            As he waited, Lasitus once again went over what he intended to say to Akargan, playing and replaying possible conversations over and over in his mind. He also fought against the fear that was resting deep within his gut. He didn’t know what to expect from the Warlord this time.

     The trip back to Tritonia had been full of tension and unrest. The crew had not been happy that Lasitus had assumed command; they’d been even less happy that they hadn’t bombarded the planet like they’d been told they would. Perhaps they were afraid of being executed for their failue, but their disappointment at not being able to slaughter those innocent people had turned Lasitus’ stomach inside out.

     Upon arrival, he had demanded an audience with Akargan immediately, but had been refused. He was informed that Akargan was visiting his harem and would not wish to be disturbed. Instead he was told to wait in the audience chamber, which was where Lasitus now stood along with a dozen or so of Akargan’s other top Kodonn’Dakor. They were watching him like hawks. Of course, Akargan didn’t need any of them to protect him, which made Lasitus wonder why they were even there.

     Everything he’d seen here so far indicated that Akargan had built a different kind of organization than what Lasitus had experienced from other Warlords in the past. The fact that he allowed his minions to know of his presence here, that they were allowed to persist in his presence for any extended period to time… Even that a visitor could actually obtain an audience with Akargan rather than be told he didn’t even exist – all these were strange ways for a Shok’Thola to run things. Perhaps it was Akargan’s military background. Or maybe he’d gotten sloppy.

     Lasitus could still remember serving their old master, in whose former palace they were actually now located. Mateus had been the kind of Shok’Thola Lasitus has come to expect. During all his years of preparation and service, he’d only been allowed in the Warlord’s presence once, and even then had not been permitted to look upon his master’s face. Untold multitudes of people had been sacrificed at temples devoted to his name, as his followers asked for blessings they believed he could deliver.

     That was the kind of Altarin’Dakor that Lasitus was used to.

     The audience chamber was massive, and located deep within the heart of the palace. From the outside there was virtually nothing to give it away, but the deeply hidden fortress was in fact the size of a sprawling city. The fact that Akargan had changed little in its décor unsettled Lasitus. Maybe it was just that the Warlord had moved in recently, and didn’t intend to stay long. But something told him that Shok’Thola were far more fickle than that. They were pompous and arrogant, and loved edifying themselves through any means available. Akargan wasn’t as vain as some others had been, but he was still a Shok’Thola.

     Suddenly, without any warning whatsoever, a side door to the chamber burst open and Akargan strode through, dressed in leisurely robes. His long, heavily curled hair swung freely behind him, and the massive muscles of his chest and arms were shone like burnished metal beneath the sleeveless garments that he wore.

     Akargan didn’t even acknowledge Lasitus as he walked in, moving over to the central dais where he relaxed onto a couch very similar to the one when Lasitus had first arrived. There was no other furniture in place. Above them towered massive statues of Mateus in various forms, their aged and weathered faces nearly indistinguishable now after a thousand generations.

     Almost immediately, servants appeared bearing wine, fruit and other savory delicacies to their Shok’Thola. Instead of speaking, Lasitus continued to wait. He would not show that he was in any hurry to report about the mission. The sense of anxiety in his stomach, however, refused to leave. There was no way to gauge how Akargan would react to his report of the mission. These could be, he realized, be his last few moments alive.

     Akargan sat and ate, taking his time. Occasionally he would speak a few words to one of his other Jedicon. Whatever they had to report, Lasitus was unfamiliar with their missions, because he couldn’t make sense of their cryptic conversations. After nearly an hour had passed, Lasitus was beginning to wonder if he would even be called on. Perhaps Akargan was showing him that he wasn’t important, after all.

     “Lasitus,” Akargan finally cooed after a while longer had passed. “Moyabi is no longer with us.”

     “That’s correct.” Lasitus said, finding his own voice after a second. He began to walk forward, not stopping until he came within a few paces of the couch that Akargan was reclining on. He reached out a hand, holding an Altarin’Dakor data reader into which they’d encrypted all the data from Strife’s base on Borrose.

      “Here is the list of Strife’s spies within your fleet,” Lasitus said.

     “Ah, yes.” Akargan didn’t look at the reader. After a moment, Lasitus simply tossed it onto the couch beside him. The Warlord’s eyes were still fixed on him, sending tremors down his spine. It was just like when he’d met gazes with Zalaria – those eyes seemed to strip his very soul away from him.

     “Is there something else?” Lasitus asked after a moment.

     Fast as a viper, Akargan moved to his feet, and his backhand sent Lasitus reeling off his feet. Stars exploded across Lasitus’ vision.

     A second later he felt the cold stone floor against his cheek and realized that he’d gone down. Slowly, he pushed himself up, his head throbbing, vision swimming in front of his eyes.

     He’d taken worse before. He knew that if the Warlord had put the Force behind it he could have taken his head clean off. He looked up, and saw the Warlord towering over him.

     “I told you to wipe out everything on the planet! To leave no survivors!” Akargan bellowed down at him. Spittle rained down on Lasitus. Sheer terror worked its way through his body, but somehow he found the strength to resist it enough to speak.

     Lasitus looked up at him defiantly. “I am not going to do that!”

     Akargan sneered suddenly. “Yes, I know, Lasitus. That is why I sent the Extinction to do it after you left. Unlike you, they actually completed their mission.”

     Coldness gripped Lasitus, the Warlord’s words sending rivulets of shock through him. It… It couldn’t be! There had been no communiqué, no word of any other mission at Borrose! There had been millions of innocent people down there!

      He stared at the Warlord, his blood going cold, clenching his hands into fists beneath him as he pushed himself to his knees. Fear was suddenly gone, replaced by cold, hard rage.

     “Just so you know,” Akargan continued arrogantly, “the data that you brought me is a fraud. Strife wanted to lure me into a confrontation there, but I was aware of his tricks. I thought sending you might be a good way to test your loyalty.” He smirked. “Their deaths are all on your hands… Killer.”

     “No!” Lasitus retorted.

     Akargan’s smile widened. “What? Do you want to kill me now, brother? But I thought you were here to save me!” His laughter rang through the halls.

     Lasitus couldn’t feel anything, anymore. The man standing above him, jeering – there was nothing left but raw, unbridled evil. “It’s too late to save you,” he whispered. He had been a fool to think otherwise.

     Akargan’s face snapped from bemusement to anger in the span of an instant. “Get away, Lasitus!” he yelled. “You are too weak to serve me! Don’t let me see your face in my presence again! If I do, I will destroy you.” He turned to his retinue of Jedicon encircling the dais. “Take him out of here! Place him in the holding cells.”

     It was then Lasitus realized his plan had backfired. Akargan was far, far beyond salvation – Lasitus had known, but simply let himself be blinded to that fact. How could he have expected a Shok’Thola to be anything but ruthless and totally without conscience?

     The Jedicon moved in to pull him away, and he realized that his naivete – and his stubbornness – had just cost him his life.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Titan-class Battleship Grand Crusader

            Mizar System

            1800 Hours

 

            The New Imperium fleet had met with little resistance when it arrived at Mizar. Sector Admiral Gaius Adonai watched from the bridge of the Grand Crusader, gazing down at the pristine violet-blue world spinning slowly below him.

     Returning here meant revisiting painful memories for the New Imperium. It was where they’d suffered one of the worst defeats of the war, having charged headlong in an assault against a completely unknown foe. They had paid dearly for their brashness. Though Gaius didn’t believe in bad luck, he knew that many NI personnel with him would be on edge, nonetheless. Morale was already as low as he’d ever seen it. He didn’t want to imagine what might happen if things got ugly again.

     To take his mind off that train of thought, he studied the system’s readout once again from his command chair. Virtually nothing had changed since the last time he’d been here. Mizar one, Tholai, was still a sun-blasted, uninhabited rock a scant distance from the star Mizar. The second planet, Darklon, was still a pulverized field of rocks and debris

     Mizar Three, known to the New Imperium as Arcadia, was an azure, purple and green orb floating just within sight of the Grand Crusader, a glittering band of gems forming the rings that encircled around her equatorial region.

     Gaius had expected to find a thriving Altarin'Dakor population in the hundreds of millions, if not billions. He'd been mistaken. Aside from a few military installations, Arcadia was virtually uninhabited. It was a pristine, utopian gem of a world, hidden near the edge of settled space, and it was devoid of any real population.

     When Zalaria's forces entered the system, she had assumed control of the bases on the surface, as well as the remaining ships in orbit, but as before, the transition had not been bloodless. Many of the commanding officers had been executed, both to eliminate disloyalty and to simply make a point. It was hard for Gaius not to think of it as murder. It was the Altarin'Dakor way.

     Gaius cringed at the thought of the bloodshed that was essentially on his hands. It was something he knew Dogar, his predecessor, would never have been able to accept. But that was the difference between them. Gaius came from a long line of officers, his family steeped in generations of military service. Ever since his great-grandfather had served in the Republic Defense Forces during the Commenor Crisis.

     Military commanders had to make hard decisions. They sometimes had to choose the good of the many over the lives of the few. Gaius had learned to accept that, to push it out of his mind and not let it affect his decision-making. It was the harsh reality of the world that had chosen him. If he was too weak to accept it and move on, then he would be unfit to lead those who were under his care, men and women who relied upon him and the consistency of his character. If he doubted, if he faltered, he would be putting many more lives at risk, and pointlessly this time.

     He would do whatever it took to win this war and protect the citizens of the New Imperium.

     Now, Zalaria had taken her leave, presumably to deliver her baby after a mere three months’ gestation. It was unbelievable. But then, most everything she did was unbelievable.

     “Report,” Gaius ordered sharply. Space around them was quiet, empty except for the New Imperium vessels. Something wasn’t right.

     “Sir, no further activity has been reported within the system,” replied Comm officer Bizrain, a female NI officer he’d brought over from his command. “Mizar central command remains on standby, awaiting further commands.”

     Gaius repressed the urge to snort derisively. The Altarin’Dakor forces on Arcadia were acting cooperatively, apparently subdued for now. They assumed that Zalaria had claimed ownership of them – which was true, at least – and that Gaius and his fleet were her Altarin’Dakor forces there to assume regional command. How long they could maintain the charade, he didn’t know. But for now, at least, things were quiet.

     In an ideal world, they would wait here until another fleet came through, perhaps even led by one of the other Warlords. They would then ambush that enemy and destroy or capture as many vessels as they could, growing their forces further until they had a fleet large enough to traverse the Great Rift and enter Altarin’Dakor space proper.

     Of course, if an enemy Warlord did show up, Zalaria would need to be there to face him or her. If she didn’t return in time though, things would be bad. Very bad.

     He knew that even the best-laid plans were never certain. A battle was going to happen – he knew it as well as the enemy did. But the Altarin’Dakor wouldn’t concede Mizar without a fight. If they still intended to prosecute their crusade, they would have to come through here sooner or later. The fact that they hadn’t yet done so disturbed Gaius more than if he’d found a whole fleet here waiting for them.

     Gaius was tired of this war. He was tired of fighting, and he knew with each successive battle the odds against his survival were mounting. But they had to fight. It was the only way the Altarin’Dakor could be stopped. Giving up wasn’t a concept they understood.

     Where were those other blasted Warlords?

     “Engage cloaks on all ships but ours,” he ordered. At least if – no, when – the enemy arrived, they wouldn’t know how many ships the New Imperium had. And if they could maintain the element of surprise, that might just give them a bit more chance of survival.

     He then turned his attention to the array of New Imperial vessels that had followed them into the system – Star Destroyers, Majestic Cruisers, and the MC-120 Darkstar. “Tell our forces to deploy formation Beta – close proximity.” Perhaps the Grand Crusader’s mass shadow would help hide them until it was too late for the enemy to realize they were there. Besides, if things got hot, they would need to rely on the Titan’s shields to protect them. In truth, those ships shouldn’t even be here.

     He watched outside the bridge’s viewports as, one by one, the hulls of the Cataclysm, the Nimbus, and the Ascendancy rippled in space, turned transparent, then vanished altogether. Now it would appear that only the Grand Crusader remained in the system.

     Gaius still hadn’t gotten completely used to the bridge of this ship. He had been on the bridge of the Nexus for too long, growing accustomed to its 360-degree holographic environment. This ship’s, by contrast, felt empty, more expansive. Controls were more spread out, making it not as easy to keep abreast of everything. Gaius knew that it wasn’t a design flaw – this bridge was merely meant to serve secondary functions. Normally, the Warlord Nimrod would be inside his meditation sphere, deep within the heart of the ship, controlling everything. Unfortunately, Gaius couldn’t access that particular feature of the ship. He’d been kindly informed by Zalaria that he wasn’t powerful enough in the Force.

      His thoughts were brought back to the present as he heard bootsteps coming up behind him. A second later Walt Amason appeared at his side, joining him in front of the viewports.

     “How much longer do we intend to wait here?” Amason asked.

     “As long as it takes,” Gaius said, turning back to the view.

     After a moment, Amason spoke again. “Sitting here only invites a trap. We could at least move further in, attack them in their space. We’ll have to eventually.”

     “Cross the Rift now?” Gaius shook his head. “Not until Zalaria returns, at least.”

     “Maybe she’s setting us up.”

     “You’re not being very optimistic today,” Gaius pointed out.

     “I haven’t had much reason to be, lately.”

     Gaius snorted then. “Without her we don’t have a chance of these AD soldiers doing what we say. If she decides to betray us, then we’re doomed anyway.”

     “I see you’re not very optimistic, either,” Amason remarked.

     Gaius looked over and gave him a hard stare. “Fleet commanders rarely have that luxury, my friend.”

     He took a moment to ponder the changes that had taken place since he’d taken this role. Though life and his career had been pushing him towards command, it had still come sooner than he’d expected. He might have spent more time in his Force studies if he didn’t have an entire navy to run, now.

     His thoughts were continually full of everything that was happening, and rest had become a rare commodity indeed. The theater of war was a constantly shifting thing. As soon as the plan to move and take Mizar had been enacted, it was already outdated. Upon arriving Gaius had to improvise and act on what limited intel he could obtain, but what was going to happen next was anyone’s guess.

     They had retaken most of the eastern half of NI space, at least in theory. In truth, however, it was uncertain if the NI would even survive once this was over. Worlds had been devastated, whole populations killed, relocated or turned into refugees. Economies and infrastructure had been shattered. The NI didn’t have enough credits to pay for the restoration.

     Others had refused to rejoin, most notably Pax. However, instead of making an example of them as the Empire certainly would have, the Diktat was simply content to leave them alone. Isolating themselves both economically and militarily would only hurt them worse in the end, Gaius knew. But it also hurt the NI’s chances of recovery.

     The only real chance they had, according to some, was to somehow harness the wealth and power of the Altarin’Dakor. But to do that would mean embracing at least some aspects of the AD, which the population would be loathe to do. Which he was loathe to do. They could possibly pillage and plunder AD worlds, assuming they won in the military theater, but if they did that, what difference would there be between the NI and the AD in the first place? Gaius shook his head in frustration.

     The Comm officer spoke up again. “Sir, you have a meeting with the other fleet commanders in fifteen minutes.”

     He nodded; he was still well aware of the time. “Send them to the War Room,” he told her.

     “Aye, sir.”

     In fifteen minutes he would have to listen again to reports of exactly how much in control of their fleet the NI actually was. The Altarin’Dakor forces – now making up the majority of this task force – were growing more impatient by the day. Either they suspected that the NI really was calling the shots now – and that their blessed ‘Return’ was no longer an agenda – or they simply wanted something to attack, someone to fight.

     If, for some reason, they lost control of those AD forces, it would be all over. Zalaria had assured him it would never happen, not with her in charge. But it was far too large a hope to be riding on her word alone. Gaius had felt a sickening feeling in his stomach since before this mission had even gotten under way.

     “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” he confessed, halfway under his breath.

     “You should get some rest,” Amason said beside him.

     Gaius gave him a smirk. “You rest, Walt,” he said mirthlessly. “Rest for both of us.”

     Then he turned and began the long trek across the bridge back to the meeting area.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Titan-class Battleship Eternity

            Ven’lar System

            0800 Hours

 

            “Maarek Stele, get up. The Master wants you.”

     Maarek opened his eyes, and it took him a moment for him to see Alona standing in his bedroom, fully dressed in her Jedicon garb and white robes. He blinked sleepily, then pushed himself up into a sitting position. She had let herself into his apartment again, he realized. Of course, privacy wasn’t something he could expect on an Altarin’Dakor vessel.

     They had just returned to the Eternity the night before, and he wasn’t fully rested yet from the previous mission. His is body still felt the fatigue as he tried to sit up. He hadn’t slept well thanks to that blasted vertigo, making him sick every time he tried to close his eyes. How was he going to live with this the rest of his life?

     “Get dressed and come quickly,” Alona said, then moved back into his living quarters to wait.

     As quickly as he could, blinking away the sleep from his eyes, Maarek got out of bed and dressed himself. It wasn’t easy with his head swinging constantly – he stumbled over to his dresser first thing, got out some of his meds, and swallowed them with a glass of water he’d left there the previous night.

     Fifteen minutes later, cursing himself for everything taking so long now, he made his way into the living room where Alona had been patiently waiting for him. Without further word she rose and led him to the exit, where they found themselves quickly crossing though the Envirodeck and into the ship proper.

     Cane in hand, Maarek did his best to meet her stride for stride as they walked down the corridors. He kept his eyes switching back and forth between her back and the floor, and avoided looking far down the corridor – beings traversed it as far as the eye could see, and its glowing overhead lights seemed to stretch on forever. Not a good combination to mix with his illness, for sure. Everytime he looked, the corridor seemed to lengthen, to stretch on forever, and start bending in strange, impossible ways.

     “Do you know what he wants me for?” Maarek asked along the way, trying not to stumble as he walked.

     “It is a mission,” was all she said back.

     He stared hard at her back, wondering what was the problem with her. Was she upset that he’d taken Chele’s death hard? After their previous discussion and the running rivalry – nearly courtship – he’d had with both of them, he didn’t believe she was the jealous type. It must be something else. Had Strife told her something that had disturbed her? Was he angry that their mission had failed? Could Maarek be walking to his doom?

     Suddenly the reality of his situation sank in – this wasn’t the New Imperium anymore. He was working for an Altarin’Dakor Warlord, now. The rules were completely different from anything he’d known before. Strife might not even be sane.

     A lot had changed in the weeks and months since Varnus. His whole life had been completely turned on its head, and he’d jumped headlong into it. Wherever this new road took him, it was his own decisions that had gotten himself here. He didn’t regret it – not yet.

     Passing Jedicon and Altarin’Dakor shock troopers in the corridors no longer disconcerted him. They had been the enemy before, but now they were not. That was the nature of war. Things weren’t just black and white – there were endless shades of gray. Nobody was innocent, that much he knew from experience.

     Maarek took a deep breath once they got close to the Warlord’s chambers, and he paused before entering through the polished metal hatchway. This would be only the second time he’d met with Strife since coming onboard. He had no idea what to expect.

     Alona led him in. As before, Strife was not alone. At least twenty Jedicon served as retainers, all of them seeming perfect physical specimens of their race and gender. In the center of the room, facing a massive holographic display of what Maarek immediately recognized as Epsilon Sector, stood Strife. He was dressed in fine robes that hung loosely over his lean form.

     As the doors slid closed behind Maarek, Strife turned to face him. His expression was… placid.

     “Welcome back, Maarek Stele,” the Warlord said, his voice sounding as sweet as dripping honey. “First, allow me to assuade your fears. I am not angry with you, nor with Alona. You did well on Borrose.”

     Maarek had felt nothing to indicate the Warlord had touched his mind with the Force. Either he was inferring Maarek’s thoughts naturally, or he was good enough to completely bypass Maarek’s own rudimentary training in the Force he’d received.

     Maarek gave a respectful nod in response. He felt slightly better, but the unease hadn’t completely gone away. He still had no idea why he’d been summoned. “Thank you,” he offered.

     A slight smile touched Strife’s lips, then he turned and gestured to the floating holomap in the center of the room. “As you can see, I have begun an offensive front all along Akargan’s territory here.” At least a dozen systems began to pulsate as he indicated them. “However, in addition we will also launch a direct attack against his home base of operations.” Another dot - the Tritonia system – became enveloped in red brackets. “My main fleet will engage his here, just inside the jump point for the primary planet.”

     Maarek listened, taking it all in, wondering what the Warlord wanted from him. Alona had moved to join the other Jedicon, so Maarek stepped forward until he was beside Strife. The light from the holograms sent multicolored hues across the Warlord’s face.

     Maarek studied the map spinning slowly in front of them both. It would be a massive engagement. It looked like Strife was looking to finish Akargan off for good.

     “So, his base is on Tritonia,” Maarek remarked. “I wouldn’t have thought it so close to NI territory.”

     “We have been closer than you realized,” the Warlord responded.

     “What do you need me to do?” Maarek asked him. “I’m ready to help you take him down, however you plan to do it. The Archons are ready for combat.”

     “I am aware of that. And I am pleased by the progress you all have made. However, I have a special mission for you.”

     Maarek looked up at him curiously. “What do you need me to do?”

     Strife’s cold blue eyes turned and bored into him. “All these attacks are but a ruse, Stele. The true battle will be between Akargan and myself. We will face each other, and only one of us will survive the encounter.”

     Maarek swallowed hard under that gaze. “You’re going to fight him, one-on-one,” he said after a moment.

     “Correct.”

     For a minute there was silence as the two of them stared at the map. Maarek wondered what exactly Strife was asking of him. He was, after all, just a fighter pilot. Why would Strife need his help fighting another Warlord?

     “I will need you to fly me in quickly, using the Archon,” Strife said.

     Maarek blinked. It wasn’t exactly what he’d been expecting to hear. Actually, he hadn’t known what to expect at all, but why would he need Maarek to fly him in? If he was the great Warlord he proclaimed himself to be, couldn’t he find an easier way to get himself into Akargan’s base? Couldn’t he teleport or…

     “Since you are wondering why I need you, suffice it to say that Akargan will not be expecting this tactic.” At Maarek’s look, Strife made another half-smirk. “You see my friend, unlike the so-called Jedi Masters of your galaxy, Akargan and I really have completely mastered the Force. He will have traps set, using the Force, that detect and attack anyone who attempts to enter his domain directly using our powers. The only way to feasibly enter will be for you to drop me inside of his range.”

     “You’re going in alone?” Maarek blurted. Was he crazy? He must believe himself as invincible as his minions did.

     Strife waved him off. “Don’t concern yourself for me. Akargan is the only threat to me, and I will face him directly. When it is over I will not need you to return, so get out as quickly as you can.”

     Maarek could do little else but nod. “If you say so. But there’s only one problem. There isn’t room for two in the Archon’s cockpit,” he reminded.

     “My men have attached a special missile pod beneath your fighter. I will be inside of it.”

     Maarek stared at him. A missile pod would give him barely enough room to fit inside. He wouldn’t even be able to move in there. He hoped the Warlord wasn’t claustrophobic.

     “You are the best fighter pilot in my arsenal,” Strife told him. “Even better than my Jedicon pilots.”

     Suddenly aware of all the Jedicon in the room, Maarek glanced around but saw no change in their expressions, no acknowledgement that they even heard this conversation taking place, He didn’t respond to the Warlord’s praise of him. Instead, he was thinking of Alona. Was she expendable to Strife, too?

     Of course she was.

     “Don’t become too attached to temporal things,” Strife’s voice broke softly through his thoughts. “Nothing is ever permanent within the shifting seas of time.”

     The Warlord’s voice had taken on his lecturing tone Maarek was used to, again. “So you don’t care about them,” Maarek said, aware of the accusatory tone in his own voice. “Their lives mean nothing to you.”

     “If they did, then that which I am would be compromised,” the Warlord answered. “You understand this, deep down. In the end both parties benefit from this scenario.”

     “But I’m not like you,” Maarek countered.

     “Then what have you to complain about? You have what you desired most – your woman, and your fighter. I have given both of them to you. Your relationship with Alona was something that I desired – fortunately for you both, the feelings have become genuine.”

     Maarek blinked, trying to process what the Warlord was telling him in such a short time. Alona had been sent purposefully to him – he had suspected as much. But Strife was saying he’d planned their relationship all along? It couldn’t be; Maarek knew his feelings for her were real, more real than anything he’d known in a long time.

     “Why do you think I sent her to bring you here?” Strife said. “As for the Archon – it is custom-tailored to fit your own neural pathways. My scientists developed that during our last absence from one another. You have me to thank for all of this, Stele.”

     Maarek stared down at the floor. Why was Strife doing all this for him? Was he trying to develop Maarek into some kind of guinea pig, a super test pilot? Deep down, he knew it was true that the Warlord deserved his gratitude… however crazy that might sound to say.

     “Have you discovered yet who your enemy is?” Strife asked suddenly.

     Maarek shook his head. He’d thought about this question a lot since coming here. “Not yet,” he answered honestly. “I know now that it’s not a particular group or side; that’s too naïve a view of the universe.” He saw the Warlord watching him curiously, so he continued. “At first I thought it was evil,” he said, “but then I realized that evil is too hard a concept to label. Each side sees its enemy as evil.” He shrugged finally. “I’m still not sure. But I know I have to find out for myself.”

     The barest of smiles touched the edges of Strife’s mouth. “You are getting closer,” was all he said.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Angol Moa’s World

            Time Unknown

 

It was beyond anything Xar had ever seen. They were inside Angol Moa's laboratory, a city-sized facility that allowed its owner to perform virtually any type of scientific experiment imaginable. They were in a gigantic domed chamber, within which rested one of the most beautiful gardens he'd ever seen, complete with waterfalls, flying birds and other creatures. There were what looked like colorful butterflies, with wingspans of at least half a meter. There were lizards whose scales blended in with whatever surface they were lounging on.
     Those glowing droids of Angol Moa's were walking around everywhere, conducting research and tasks for her that he couldn't believe she could possibly keep track of by herself. Holographic representations floated about the chamber, some stationary and containing data in strange symbols and unknown numbers, while some took the form of mythical-looking creatures, flying through the air like expressions of art.

     It had taken Xar a little while, but he had finally come to the conclusion that they were actually in a different galaxy. It was really hard to fathom. He had spent his entire lifetime in an environment where his home galaxy was everything. Oh, he knew that the universe held billions of them, but since one could ever reach them, no one gave them any special thought. For all practical purposes, it was as if everything that existed was held within his own home galaxy.

     It wasn't until the Altarin'Dakor invasion that he'd actually seriously thought of other galaxies and what they might contain. They had always been unknowable, unreachable. A mysterious hyperspace barrier prevented anyone from traveling outside their own galaxy. Then Xar had learned about the Galactic Gate, allowing instant transport between the Altarin'Dakor galaxy and theirs. Xar hadn't actually been there, but he knew that it was a cruel, harsh place. Every corner of it was under the iron grip of the Altarin'Dakor.

     No, this was the first time he'd actually been in another galaxy, if indeed that was where they were. Though he'd visited a hundred different kinds of worlds in his own galaxy, somehow just that knowledge made this place feel strange and exotic.

     He and Icis were seated at a table that vaguely resembled a large beetle – albeit in abstract art. Their bags, containing their personal belongings, lay on top, while Nico hovered nearby on his bed, eyes closed, face tranquil. Xar wished he could have been awake to see all this.
     Of course, he was seeing this too, but he still wasn't sure if he believed it.

     Presently, Angol Moa was listening to a diatribe of scientific jargon that Xar couldn't begin to comprehend, spilled out by one of her ubiquitous droids. She seemed to have forgotten him, Icis and Nico completely. After what seemed like an eternity, the droid turned and began walking away without any discernible notice. Angol Moa continued to stare ahead.

     Xar watched her for a moment, expecting her to finally address them. When he'd waited for about a minute without any apparent acknowledgment from her, he cleared his throat rather loudly. "I, ah, have some questions," he said.
     She continued to ignore them.
     Xar watched her for another few minutes. Then, exasperated, he turned to look at Icis. His patience was wearing thin. Ignoring them, was she? Well, two could play this little game of hers.
     "What do you think of her?" he asked Icis.
     "What do you mean?" the man replied.
     "I mean what I just said. What do you think about Angol Moa?"
     "Well..." Icis shrugged, as if he didn't get Xar's meaning. "She's the Supreme Elder, Xar. I'm in awe of her, just sitting here." Then he cleared his throat awkwardly, and his face started to turn red.
     Xar arched an eyebrow. "She seems kind of motherly to me," he said. "When your mother gets older, maybe. Just before senility, maybe."
     "Xar!" Icis sputtered, glancing at the woman present, still turned away from them.
     "Just making an observation," he replied.
     "Well that's not the effect she has on me at all," Icis said. He adjusted the collar on his coat, and his face still hadn't paled back to normal. What was the matter with him?
     "I don't believe she's seventy-five thousand years old," he said, shaking his head. He knew that the Travelers were energy forms that bonded with living creatures. Their life energy endued them with an immortality as functional as that of the Altarin'Dakor Shok'Thola. If a Traveler was killed, he or she could simply find a new host to join with and continue on living, indefinitely. Icis was five thousand years old, but was considered relatively young. He'd claimed Traveler society was seventy-five thousand years old. But could anyone still be alive after all that time?
     He glanced at her - and saw her staring straight at him.
     "I do look so good for my age!" she said, grinning widely.
     He nearly jumped out of his seat at the abruptness of her words. Was she really insane? Zalaria's words came back to him, words about surviving the monotony of life for twenty-five thousand years. But this woman was at least three times that age! How had she managed it?

     She glanced at him and cocked her head to one side. He tried not to think of the motion as insect-like.

     "So, what can I do for you gentlemen?" She clasped her hands together in front of her and took a few steps in Nico's direction first. "What's wrong with him?" she asked.

     "His mind was wiped by an Altarin'Dakor Warlord," Xar explained.
     "I see." She walked over to his gurney, then moved around to stand near Nico's head. She reached out a hand, placed it on his forehead, and closed her eyes. Before he realized it Xar was halfway out of his chair to stop her.

     “Hold on just a second…” he began.

     “It’s okay Xar,” Icis said, keeping him in check.

     Xar felt a ripple in the Force as Angol Moa delved inside Nico’s mind. "Yes," she said after a few seconds. She released him and looked at Xar. "He's messed up pretty badly."
     Xar blinked. Stating the obvious wasn’t what he’d been expecting. "So... can you help him?" he asked.
     "Of course I can," she replied, her tone still jovial. "Now, what's wrong with you?"
     Xar opened his mouth to protest at her tone of voice, but hesitated. They were here for her help after all, he had to remind himself. But he was a loss of what to tell her.
     "He's absorbed the spirits of two dark Jedi into his subconscious," Icis replied for him. "They're slowly driving him insane."
     "Really, now?" she asked, raising her eyebrows at him. "Now that's quite interesting. May I?"
     Xar took a deep breath. He didn't like it, but he nodded anyway.
     She walked up to him, and reached out to place a hand on his forehead, just like with Nico. As she did, he was suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of belonging, and peacefulness. He felt... He almost felt like a child again. Angol Moa closed her eyes and he felt the Force flowing into him, yet it wasn't invading in the least. She felt... yes, quite motherly, indeed. It was something he hadn't experienced since...
     Since his own mother had died.
     "Hmm." She released him and took a few steps back. The sensation faded slightly, and he shook his head to clear it. What kind of affect was she able to cause on him? Was it some kind of defensive mechanism?
     "Well?" he asked.
     She was standing there, looking deep in thought. Birds flew from tree to tree in the distance behind her. It was hard not to feel like a child asking his mother. It was hard to feel angry, or annoyed. How could anyone be hostile to someone that felt like that?
     "I will need to run some more tests," she said, crossing her arms and tapping her lips thoughtfully. "This is new for me. I've never treated someone with your condition before. I'll probably have to invent a new device to scan deeper into your psyche."
     Then suddenly she grinned, and threw her finger into the air. "Don't worry, though! I love a new challenge!" she laughed. "Make yourselves at home. We'll have you fixed right up in no time!"
     He gaped at her. She seemed to change moods like the wind!
     “Well? What are you staring at? Let’s get to it, gentlemen. We have a universe to save.”
     "Why do you keep saying that?" he asked her. "I thought you were going to answer our questions!" Blast it, but he did have questions! None of this made any sense at all!
     Abruptly she blinked, then cocked her head to the side again. "Of course. What would you like to know?"
     He stared at her some more. She was just watching him, as though seeing what he was going to do next, like some sort of menagerie. It was disconcerting, to say the least. Where was he supposed to begin?
     "First of all," he said, "Where are we? And who are you? Icis says you're the leader of the Travelers. Then why are you cooped up in here like a recluse? And for that matter, what do you do here? And what do you mean by saving the universe? What do our reasons for coming here for have to do with that?"
     Angol Moa crossed her arms in front of her. "Wow. That's a lot of questions," she said, grinning. "And what makes you think I can answer all of that?" Then she actually winked at him! Was she taking this seriously?
     He started to reply, but hesitated. Why was he so focused on getting answers from her? What did make him think she knew? Was it her age? Or was it that strange, motherly sense he got from her? A child asked its mother questions about the world, about the universe. Wasn't he like a child compared with her? She was seventy-five thousand years old, and he hadn't yet even reached forty.
     "Angol Moa knows more, I think, than we can ever imagine," Icis said, speaking up next to him.
     The knowing smile on Angol Moa's face held all the confirmation than Xar needed. This woman was powerful, indeed. He'd been feeling a premonition in the Force from the moment Angol Moa had saved them from those Kajeat security officers.
     "You've been waiting for us," he said.
     She nodded.
     "Not just to help with whatever it is that's wrong with me."
     "That's right."
     "So." He crossed his arms in front of him. "What is it that you want from me?" He knew that must be it. Everyone wanted to use him for something.
     “Ah, now we get to a useful question." She grinned, then her voice took on a softer tone. Her eyes took on a distant look.
     Suddenly she seemed old. Very old. Ancient.
     "The End of Everything is coming,” she said.

     The end of everything, Xar thought. That sounded strangely familiar. “It doesn’t sound like you’re talking about the Altarin’Dakor,” he surmised.
     She nodded again.
     “The Ones.”
     Angol Moa smiled.
     "Xar," Icis began. "I don't think..."
     Xar held up a hand, stopping him. Realization had slowly begun to set in. He now felt that he understood what the Force was trying to tell him.
     "We stand at the cusp of history, gentlemen," Angol Moa said. "Like I said, I've been waiting a very long time."
     She knew about the Ones. She knew about the so-called end of the universe. The exact same things that had been told to him by a visitor, just weeks before. Xar didn't believe in coincidences. Now he knew what he had to ask, as ridiculous as it might sound. It was time to take a chance.
     “You know how all this ends, don’t you?” Xar asked her. “You’ve been visited by him too. My son, Derek.”

     It wasn’t really a question, and she didn’t respond. He leaned forward. “That’s his name, isn’t it? Derek?”

     “His name is whatever you choose it to be,” Angol Moa replied. “For all I know, it’s changed every time the timeline gets altered.” Her quirky grin sent a shiver down Xar’s spine.
     Xar just sat there, speechless. Angol Moa had met his son.
     Then it was real. Everything his son had told him was true.
     "The... The timeline?" Icis asked.
     “I told you," she said, "that we have much to discuss."
     "When did you meet him?" Xar asked.
     "Long ago," she said. Then she made a half-grin. "And recently."
     Was was that supposed to mean? "I don't care for cryptic answers," Xar stated. "My son. He told you about the Ones. You know they're coming. What do you know about them?"

     Suddenly melancholy, Angol Moa began to pace back and forth in front of them.

     “Bah. That boy changes space-time like you might change clothes. Anyway, I suspected that something like this would eventually happen," she said, "after the conclusion of the Dark War. That was when the Avatar appeared… That’s your son, by the way.” She nodded at Xar. "When he appeared, he confirmed everything. Since then I have been waiting for events to fall into place. For the right players to appear.”

     “The Avatar?” Xar asked.

     “Yes. There have been many of them. Altima is one; your son is another."
     "Altima?" What did she know about him?
     "Well, you might say Altima is the Entity’s avatar, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate…”

     The Entity! So, Angol Moa knew about everything! But then, why shouldn't she? She was the head of all the Travelers, and they recorded all major events in history. "But why is my son an avatar of the Force?" Xar asked.

     She shrugged. "There are theories. Almost as many schools of thought as there are researchers."
     "There are researchers?" he asked.
     She ignored the question. Instead she leaned over the table and leveled a finger directly at him. "What does the reason matter? You both came in contact with a Celestial artifact, did you not? It is called the Collector."

     "So?" Xar blinked. "What about it?"

     She leaned back and crossed her arms again. "It is not, as some have mistakenly thought, the source of the Force itself. The Force is created by all life and has no central source. However, the Collector is able to gather some amount of latent Force energy from all across the universe and put it to use. It was the Force's will that your son be born, and the Collector inadvertently carried out that will."

     "The Force's will?" He'd heard people say things like that before. Though he'd seen plenty of strange things in his lifetime, he still wasn't sure if he believed the Force had a will. "Why is that?" he asked.

     "To fix things," she replied. "To bring things back into balance. The Entity's touch has corrupted this universe as well as well as the one in which is resides. It has created immortal beings here that shouldn't have existed. It created Altima, their leader. The Force is always trying to bring things into balance. Your son has been born to right what has gone wrong." She shrugged. “That is only one theory, of course. Another is that a fusion of two super-powerful Force users could – again, subject to the will of the Force – create a being with no limitations as to how much of the Force he or she might access. But I don’t think you’re quite strong enough for that.”
     Xar shook his head. "What has gone wrong. He was still thinking about what she’s said about that. "The Warlords. They got immortality because of the Entity. Because of a power source outside of our universe. They then tried to take over the galaxy. They did things that would never have been possible without the Entity."

     “The Warlords are a perversion of life,” Angol Moa said with a derisive shake of her head. “They should have died eons ago.” She walked over and placed a hand on the table's remaining empty chair, glancing away. “Humans were never meant to be immortal.”

     Xar reminded himself that this woman was, in fact, very much not human.

     "You mean because the Warlords' power didn't originate in this universe, the Force itself is trying to fix it?" Icis spoke up.

     "Correct," she nodded. "Now, we have digressed far enough, I think. Can we get back to our original topic?"
     Her words surprised Xar enough that he had to think about what she was referring to. "The Ones?" he asked.
     "Actually, you first asked me what I wanted with you," she said, holding up her index finger. "The answer is this: You are one of the players I have been waiting for."
     "Why me?"
     "Why isn't important. What is, is that the Force showed you to me. You are one - or rather, the means to find one. I am searching for Sado."
     "The Shok'Thola?" Xar asked.
     "I would very much like to speak with him."
     Xar gave a bewildered laugh. "I'm sorry. I can't help you. I've never met him. And I doubt an Altarin’Dakor Warlord would be very interested in talking to you. Torturing and interrogating, maybe, but not talking."
     Angol Moa gave him a curious look. "We'll see," was all she said.
     Xar shook his head. What was that supposed to mean? "Who are the other players?" he asked.
     "Your son is one," she said.
     "My son?" Well, he could have guessed that, he supposed.
     "Quick repeating what I say, boy. It’s annoying.”

     Xar blinked.

     “He'll be along shortly."
     Xar felt jolt of exhilaration. "You mean, he's coming here?"
     "Of course. You didn't think he was just going to show up once and then not see you again?" She grinned quirkily again.
     Xar took a deep breath. So, Derek was coming back to see him. The thought made him feel giddy with anticipation. He wanted to see him again, very much. After all, this was his son!
     "All of these players have something to contribute," Angol Moa said. "We must all sit down and find out what each other knows. I have most of the puzzle pieces, but not all of them."
     "What do you mean by that, Supreme Elder?" Icis asked.
     She glanced at him. "You and I have spent a lot of time together, as well. I will have to show you some things before you can understand what I mean, though. You are another of the players, an important piece of this puzzle."
     Icis looked at her in obvious confusion.
     She gave him a compassionate look, her big green eyes practically sparkling. "What I mean, my dear, is that I only have part of the picture. I know only part of what will - of what must - happen. Maybe ninety percent. But that is not enough. Not nearly enough," she said, shaking her head and rustling the huge red mane of hair behind her.
     "My son said that someone named Malduke is the key to all of this," Xar added in. "Is he one of these players, too?"
     Angol Moa turned to look at him. Across the table, Icis seemed as though he'd seen a ghost.
     "Your son is right," she said. "But Malduke won't be meeting with us. He is beyond speaking with anyone, actually."
     "Why is that?" Xar asked.
     "He is completely insane," she replied. "Rational thought is beyond him."
     Xar shook his head in confusion. This was too much to take in. "So why is he so dangerous? Who is this Malduke?"
     Icis jumped in. "Malduke was the only Kajeat to ever rebel against our society. He believed that our powers entitled us to rule over the other races. He raised up thousands of races to join his cause and started a war that spanned between galaxies. He even developed a weapon that could kill a Kajeat."

     “Kill you? I thought you were all immortal.”

     “Malduke was very smart,” Angol Moa told him. “He used to be a pupil of mine.”

     "So how was he stopped?" Xar asked.
     "The Kajeat joined with all the other races and fought back,” Icis said. “His weapon was destroyed, and eventually he was captured. Malduke was sentenced to solitary imprisonment for all time in an isolated location."
     "Actually," Angol Moa chimed in, "not so far from your corner of the galaxy." She looked at Xar. "We built a nebula around his prison so that no one would ever find him."
     "Not the Galbagos Nebula?" Xar blurted.
     "I'm afraid that your friends released the worst criminal in intergalactic history," she chided.
     Xar sat back in astonishment. He'd heard passing mention in the report from the nebula mission that they'd found a spacer stranded on one of the worlds deep inside. He'd been released, then come back with the troops to NI space.
     A cold feeling came into his gut. He knew he'd heard that name before. Someone named Malduke had come to Varnus, had been inside the Royal Palace! Xar had even met the man! He knew from the first time that he'd seen him that the man was a raving lunatic! What had he been doing there, hanging around Draken Ar'Kell and Omega Kira? Could he still be on Varnus, even now?
     "By the Core..." he whispered.
     "Relax, my boy," Angol Moa said, waving a hand at him. "He's not on your homeworld anymore. Malduke is long gone, by now. No one knows where he is." She pursed her lips together. "Actually, if anyone knew where he really was, this would already be over."
     "Why is that, Supreme Elder?" Icis spoke up.
     "Because if we find him first, we can win this. But if Altima finds him, then he - and the Ones - will win."
     "Then we have to find him first," Xar said.
     Angol Moa merely nodded, tapping her lips again thoughtfully.

     “But why is Malduke so important to the outcome?” Icis asked.

     She sighed before replying. “Because,” she said, “He is the key to releasing them.”
     They sat there in silence for a moment. Xar listened to the sounds of the waterfalls in the garden in the distance. Bright beams of sunlight shone through viewports in the ceiling.
     He decided it was time to ask the most important question.
     “What are the Ones?” he asked.
     For a long moment she didn't speak. It was as if she had forgotten they were there.
     “I saw them,” Icis spoke up instead, “using the Scepter of Karanishma. They are horrible, powerful. Some kind of spirit, not physical. Almost like us, but stronger. They consume everything in their way. An unstoppable force that will destroy everything. As far as I can tell, they just appear out of nowhere sometime in the future. I have no idea where they come from.”
     “The Ones are the souls of dead Kajeat,” Angol Moa said softly.
     Icis’ mouth clamped shut. His eyes went wide, and he looked as though he were going to choke. Angol Moa turned to look at him.
     "They are willful energy, Icis, just like we are. And just as any Kajeat could, conceivably, forcibly bond itself to a host body, the Ones are able to take possession of any physical creature they come in contact with. However, instead of bonding to form a new, sentient creature, the possessed are rendered insane, a mindless, unstoppable killing machine controlled only by their hive mind, and that itself by their leader - Altima. The possession cannot be resisted, except for us Kajeat, and when bonded to a host body they become extremely powerful, more than any of us can overcome, I'm afraid."
     “But why is Altima in control of the Ones?" Xar asked. "I thought he was controlled by the Entity.”
     “Of course. The Entity is the Ones. Or rather, the Ones are the Entity. Their hive mind is directed by its avatar - Altima.”

     “What?!” Icis blurted.
     "Then how are the Ones the souls of dead Travelers if they're part of the Entity?” Xar asked. “How'd they get into the Entity's dimension?"
     "Because that is where we were originally from," she replied.
     Xar felt a chill wash over him. He glanced over at Icis. The man's jaw had dropped. Angol Moa simply continued.
     “In our home dimension, a device was made. It was to absorb the latent life energy of all creatures in the universe, just enough that no one would ever notice, yet even that tiny fraction would have been enough to accomplish anything. However, the device was flawed. Instead of taking just some life, it started taking it all, beginning with its surroundings, and spreading out quickly to cover all life in the entire universe.”
     Xar listened in awe. She actually knew what the Entity’s origins were! Moreover, it sounded just like the Collector that she said the Celestials had built! Did that mean the Celestials built this device, too? If so, that would mean the Celestials had gained access into other dimensions!
     “The device eventually consumed everything in our universe,” Angol Moad said. “But before it could take us all, I invented a device that transported us into this dimension. In the process it had to convert us into a new form, that of living energy. Only energy was able to cross the divide between dimensions.”
     "Supreme Elder… a question… if… I may," Icis stammered. His voice sounded unsteady. These revelations seemed to be hitting him much harder than they were Xar. Of course, Xar was no Kajeat. What was it like to learn the origins of your race in such a manner?
     "Supreme Elder… You said that the Force itself is trying to right the wrongs of the Entity. If that's true, then why hasn't the Force done the same with us?" he asked. "Since we are from that same dimension?"

     She turned to Icis. "I surmise that we were spared because we have not created the turmoil that the Entity has. We live in symbiosis with the life forms of this universe. Where the Entity destroys, we ourselves keep our involvement to a minimum. We observe, but do not interfere. Now do you see why we chose the path we've taken?"

     Icis’ face looked as though he'd just realized that for the first time. He probably just had. Xar had to admit he seemed to be taking it well.
     Xar himself struggled to absorb this information. The Travelers were originally from the same dimension as the Entity. Then they had fled into this dimension to escape the Entity, but anyone who had been left had been consumed and turned into the Ones. "How many of you managed to flee here?" Xar asked.
     "Only a few thousand," Angol Moa replied.
     "But that's... that's a whole universe full of people that were lost!" Xar blurted.
     She nodded, and Xar felt colder than ever.

     A universe full of Ones.
     "And if they come into our dimension, there are enough of them to consume everyone in this universe, as well."
     Xar's breath caught. He may never have felt so horrified in his life as he did at that moment.
     “The Entity destroyed all life in our home dimension,” Icis said, as if trying out the words for the first time.
     “Yes. Ever since then we have put ourselves at great risk to bring some of our brethren into this dimension, cleansing them in the process. That’s how new Kajeat are born.”
     Icis looked up at her. “Wh... What? You mean I was a… a One?” he whispered. Xar had thought that the man couldn't get any paler.
     “Technically yes. But you could have no memories of life before arriving here.”
     The look on Icis face held more horror than Xar could bear to see. He looked at Angol Moa instead. Her eyes took on a soft look, and that same motherly feeling washed over him again.
     "Don't despair, child," she said, her voice full of warmth and compassion. "All Kajeat were Ones that were redeemed, except for those few of us who were part of the First Generation, those of us who originally came here. All of you have been redeemed. The process of birthing a new Kajeat cleanses the insanity of the Ones forever." She looked away, and her face fell slightly. "Except for a Death Child, of course, but even then the process is almost always complete, anyway."
     "But I was a Death Child!" Icis said, staring up at her. His eyes looked bloodshot. "What about me?"
     "Don't worry, child. You've lasted this long, haven't you? You haven't manifested the kind of madness that took hold of some. Your independent streak may have been influenced somewhat by it, but I'd rather think that you take after me in that regard." She gave him another quirky grin.
     "What's a Death Child?" Xar spoke up
     "A Death Child results when one or both spouses die during the birthing process," she said. "Depending on the stage of the birth, the Kajeat could be perfectly normal, or could come out completely insane." She looked down. "Those have to be locked away permanently, I'm afraid."
     "Why can't you kill them? Xar asked.
     "We have no form of capital punishment," she said, looking at him. "The only Kajeat ever to develop a weapon that could kill another Kajeat was Malduke, and even when he was defeated, we imprisoned him."
     "And now he's back and is going to destroy the universe," Xar said. "How brilliant. So much for not interfering. That's what your sense of compassion has gotten you."
     "Malduke was a Death Child," Icis said suddenly.
     Xar looked at him in surprise.
     "He was the first one," Angol Moa agreed.
     "They compared me to Malduke when I was growing up," Icis said, shaking his head. "I was always looked down upon."
     "I'm sorry for that, child. But you have risen above those trials. You are stronger because of it."
     "I know, I..." Icis broke off, going silent.
     Xar wondered what other world-shattering revelations Angol Moa might have for them. Surely this was enough for today. It hurt to even look at Icis. The man was usually so composed, so proud.
     "I can't believe all this is so tied together," he whispered, shaking his head. "Something that was invented eons ago in another dimension now threatens to destroy ours, as well. But why didn't it work? The Celestials built it, didn’t they? It sounds just like the Collector you were talking about. Why wasn't this one successful?"
     "You are correct in your comparison," Angol Moa told him with a nod. "They are virtually identical. Ours failed, yours was a success." Her voice became distant again. “It was my one failure,” she said.
     Xar snapped his head up to look at her. "What was that?"
     "I have visited the Collector here, of course," she continued on. "I now understand what went wrong. I was too young, then. Too ambitious. I know what I did wrong, but I will never try it again. It is the one thing I will never build again."
     Her words registered in his ears, but were dismissed as unimportant. Xar's vision had gone red. “Wait a second,” he said. "You're saying you... You created that thing?!"
     "The Entity was my failed creation," she admitted. "I will not deny it. I knew this would be hardest for you to accept."
     "Hard to accept?!" he shouted, jumping to his feet. "Are you serious?! If what you're saying is true, then you're responsible for all of this! The Entity, the war, the Altarin’Dakor everything!" He threw his arms wide.
     "I am aware..." she began.
     "All their deaths are on your hands!" Xar yelled at her. "If you hadn’t created that thing, there never would have been any Warlords! Everyone they’ve killed, everyone that died in the Great War, in their galaxy, and in ours are all your fault!"
     Even Derek’s. The thought came all of its own.
     “I know that,” she said, meeting his gaze. "I have dealt with it. I've had a long time."
     Xar leveled a finger at her and shook his head. His anger was unabated. This woman - this creature in front of him - was a monster! “That’s right," he accused. "You knew! And you just sat there and did nothing!”
     Icis seemed as though he'd just come out of a deep sleep. He blinked slowly, shaking his head, as if in disbelief.
     “You hypocrite!” Xar snarled, waving his hands around. "You're all hypocrites! You talk about not interfering! But you caused the biggest interference in the history of the galaxy!”
     “Xar, hold on…” Icis began.
     “I don’t want to hear it!” he shouted. “I don’t need any help from her!” He stared hatred at her. “I don’t want your help!”
     He turned and stalked away. His footsteps echoed loudly on the polished floor beneath him. He made it to a railing that overlooked more of the gardens below and grabbed the rail, gripping it with all his might. Righteous anger exploded within him. Xar had fought all his life to stop the evils in the galaxy! And all this time, beings this old and this powerful had sat idly by, letting things take their course. Letting evil prevail! Just watching!
     “You know, your son is a fine young man,” Angol Moa said, suddenly behind him.
     He turned to look back at her darkly. “Kriff you.”

     "Xar!" Icis shouted.
     If his words perturbed her, she didn't show it in the slightest. She took several steps toward him, though Icis looked as though he might try and stop her. "Supreme Elder," he said. "He is not himself, recently. It may not be wise..."
     She cut him off, still addressing Xar. “He has visited me a number of times throughout my life, you know. We first met just after the conclusion of the Dark War, more than fifty thousand years ago. Since then, he pops in every few thousand years. He often asks for my advice. We've talked extensively about you,” she said. She seemed to hesitate. "He loves you, even though he's never met you."
     Xar stared at her. Was she telling the truth? He had no reason to believe anything she'd said so far.
     "I know this is hard for you both to accept, but know that there were necessary reasons for what I have done. If I could, I would have done something."
     She paused for a moment. Xar continued to watch her. Behind her, Icis stood up slowly, as well.
     “I... I didn’t know,” he said.
     “Only the Supreme Council of Elders knows,” she said, looking back at him. “Only those of the First Generation, who came to this dimension, like myself.”
     “But why?”
     “You are capable of handling this information,” she told Icis. “That's because you’ve already believe that we should interfere. You’ve broken the Traveler code already. But to others, this information would be too volatile. It would tear our society apart. But the time is coming soon when all Kajeat must know.”
     “You’re all fools,” Xar shook his head in derision. He didn't care what reasons she felt justified her actions. It was too late, now. How could she ever atone for what she'd done? “Why didn’t you do this before?" he accused. "You had plenty of chances. You let thousands of years slip by! You could have stopped the Altarin'Dakor when it all started!”
     She held up one finger. “First of all, I could not have stopped it, because even I cannot defeat Altima. All of the Kajeat together could never have stopped him." She raised a second finger. "Secondly, the timing was not right. Things have to fall into place. I know this, partially, because of your son. I am operating on information that he has given to me. It is he that we are waiting on to move next.”
     "So you're using the Force to justify your actions, is that it? Let prophecy take the blame."
     "When was the last time you focused on anything other than gaining strength in the Force?" she asked. She still had not raised her voice back at him. "When was the last time, Xar Kerensky, that you felt the Force speaking to you? That you saw a vision of what was to come?"

     He had no answer to her question, and it didn't matter. Xar had made his choice. This was war, and strength was what was needed. He didn't have the luxury of focusing on the Force's finer flows. "Do you know how many people have died because of your decision?" he asked her.

     "I assure you that you have no idea," Angol Moa said calmly.

     He stared at her blankly.

     "My dear, every living creature in my entire dimension was consumed," she said softly. "Do you know how many beings live in an entire universe?"
     He shook his head.
     She remained silent for a moment. Xar - reluctantly - tried to think about how many beings there might be in a universe. He couldn't even begin to imagine it. It was impossible.
     Suddenly, the anger fell out of him in a rush. He felt bone-weary.
     The sheer sadness of it all was overwhelming. More people had died in her universe than he could ever fathom. All because of an accident. “You’ll be brought to justice for your actions one day,” he said.

     “You think that I haven’t paid a high enough price already?” Angol Moa looked at him sadly. "The Supreme Council has been reluctant to take action to rectify the situation. They hold firmly to the beliefs that our society is built upon, especially the belief that we should never interfere, no matter what happens. They believe that enough damage has been caused, and to continue to interfere would simply cause more problems."
     Her voice took on a hard edge. "But soon the time will come, and the Council will understand that this fight is necessary. The Kajeat must take responsibility for what we've done. Even if it means interfering one last time."
     Icis nodded slowly, considering her words. Xar turned back to the railing, staring into the foliage. For a long time, no one spoke.
     "Do you have any more questions for me?" Angol Moa said after a while.
     Xar said nothing. This had been enough for one day. He hadn't imagined there could have been so much already.
     "Then you should settle into your quarters," she said. "We have a lot of work to do while we're here."
     As he looked back, Xar saw one of Angol Moa's droids walk up out of an alcove. The droid took hold of Nico's bed and began guiding it away.
     Angol Moa stood next to Icis, looking up at him. She barely came up to his shoulders.
     “You should go speak with your father,” she told him.
     “My father?” Icis asked.
     “There are things that need settling. Now is the best time to do that. I will work with these two in the meantime.”
     "Supreme Elder, are you sure that I should leave you with..." he began.
     "Trust me," she said, reaching up and laying a hand on his chest. Icis gave a visible shudder.
     "How... how do I get to him?" he asked.
     "Don't worry - I have teleporters throughout the laboratory here, so you don't have to go back outside. There's one down the hall. It will take you wherever you tell it to."
     "I... see." Icis looked uncomfortable at the idea, but he nodded respectfully, nevertheless.
     Then Angol Moa looked at Xar. "You should get some rest too," she said, giving him another wink. "Tomorrow I will be doing a lot of experiments on you."
     With that she turned and started following her droid assistant, the one leading Nico's gurney away. Another droid appeared to Xar's right and gestured to him and Icis. "This way, sirs," chimed its voice.
     Xar shared a glance with Icis. Then he shook his head, retrieved his travel bag from the table, and followed the machine as it led him further into the depths of Angol Moa's laboratory.

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 /

            Titan-class Battleship Dark Sun

            Mizar System, Epsilon Sector

            1600 Hours

 

            Asellus stood on the bridge of her flagship Dark Sun and watched the chaotic red sky of Ultraspace swirling all around them. Her cold blue eyes seemed to penetrate the curtain like a fog, fathoming the secrets it held within its depths. Her golden hair hung extended down nearly to her shoulders, straight as laser beams, framing a face that was nearly as beautiful as Zalaria’s.

     Today she wore an outfit of burnished gold and purple fabrics, with an elaborate angled-winged cape and crown to top it off. Holographic projections surrounded her, adding floating wings behind her as she walked, and generating curious creatures that seemed to attend to her every move. It was a lavish display that suited her perfectly. In fact, the whole ship was custom-made to suit Asellus’ purposes and her character. It was elegant and foreboding – a massive behemoth of war – yet darkly beautiful as well, with giant black wings stretching out in different directions in relation to the ship’s main body. And it was only one of three Titans Asellus currently had here. The others, the Nightlord and the Vertigo, were equally intimidating warships.

     Behind her, Calvernic kept careful watch, his dark eyes reduced to slits as he held the other three Shok’Thola in view. He sat in one of the bridge’s empty, ultra-luxurious seats, the only one visible in the holographic chamber in which they currently rested. There were no entrances or exits, ceilings or floors – only Ultraspace. The chamber was otherwise completely empty except for the four of them. Asellus had kindly offered her hospitality to them, as well as her flagship as a meeting point, but Calvernic knew it was merely meant to flaunt her power. He leaned back in his chair, touching the fingertips of each hand against the other, waiting patiently as he watched the others.

     Standing nearby was Kronos. His shock of blonde hair took on the lights of Ultraspace raging around them, while his mismatched eyes cast to and fro, as if looking for something to destroy. Kronos had come bearing only his own flagship, the Death Wing. It was one of the few he’d retained after losing a proxy war with Nimrod, but it was all he usually needed – a nearly sixty-kilometer monstrosity with enough firepower to level whole fleets. Kronos was itching for revenge, Calvernic knew. The New Imperium had stopped his initial advance – and subsequently stripped him of his status as Spearhead. Kronos – self-proclaimed god of Time – sought vengeance.

     The final member of their party was standing somewhat aloof on the other side of the bridge, with only swirling chaos lying behind them, but Calvernic hoped that he would stay there. Velius was as unpredictable as he was strong in the Power. He was currently dragging a dead body around with him wherever he went, lugging it around by one of its ankles while the rest of the corpse lay with its limbs spread out. Rigamortis had long-since caused the cadaver to stiffen out like a board, and judging by the look of it, Calvernic estimated the creature had been dead for a week at least. Why was Velius still carrying it around like a child’s plaything?

     Velius currently looked a lot like a corpse, himself. Today he had skin as white as bleached paper, and a shock of red hair that stood straight up in spikes above his head. When he smiled, Calvernic could see a row of sharp-filed teeth that glowed a neon blue. How or why the man chose the way he looked was beyond Calvernic. In fact, practically everything Velius did was a mystery. The only thing he knew for sure was that Velius was insane – and not someone to be trifled with.

     Velius had brought three Titans with him as well, a sizeable portion of his active fleet. The Violator, the Defiler and the Tormentor were as wickedly-shaped and terrifying as their names implied. In Altarin’Dakor space, merely seeing one of those ships enter a battle was cause for despair. Not only for what firepower it contained, but also for what it represented: it meant that Velius, most powerful of the Shok’Thola, had come to play.

     He pushed down the sense of unease that arose as Velius began walking towards them across the bridge, his prize in tow. Unlike most of the others, Calvernic didn’t have a morbid fascination with death. But then again, he’d only been alive for around five thousand years, a mere fifth of the time that most of the others had. He remembered most of what had happened in his life, even before he’d become a Shok’Thola. Calvernic hadn’t yet experienced the profound sense of boredom, the monotony of life that the others called the Hunger. Would he go insane, too, as others had – as Velius clearly had? Or would he commit suicide, and sacrifice himself to the very creature that had granted him Immortality to begin with, all those centuries ago? He could not yet say. He intended to live long enough to find out.

     “He isn’t coming,” Velius growled as he neared, his voice sounding like sandpaper rubbing against itself. “It’s been too long.”

     “Akargan should have joined us,” Asellus said after a while. “It would have been in his best interests. Surely he cannot hope to win this war all by himself.”

     Calvernic nodded his agreement. It was unfortunate that Akargan had declined their alliance, but not unexpected. He’d always preferred to go it alone, thinking himself invincible. And Calvernic’s sources told him that Akargan was currently feuding with Strife, as the two often did. Perhaps one of them would finally end the fued once and for all.

     “Asellus,” Calvernic began, “I believe that Akargan…”

     “You will address me as Great Mistress!” she snapped at him, causing him to jump. “The time has come for you to know your place. If I desire your opinion, I shall ask you directly.”

     Calvernic bit off the curt reply he’d intended in return. He did not try to deny the fact that his current position was… altered… from what it had been a few months ago.

     The Altarin’Dakor galaxy had erupted into civil war, or so all reports said. Those Shok’Thola left in the home galaxy were all feuding with each other. Calvernic wasn’t nearly as old or as strong as even some of those, and he was actually here among some of the most powerful of them all. In order to survive, he had to accept himself as having a lower status than the others. He was younger, weaker, and had a smaller fleet. He’d only brought along his flagship, the Invasion of Light. If he didn’t attach himself to the most powerful, he knew he’d be gobbled up with the rest once the civil war reached its end.

     He tried to hide his sense of unease as best he could. He was, after all, in this chamber with three of the oldest and most powerful beings in the universe, worshipped as gods within their own empires. Their egos had stretched beyond the realm of normal beings. Kronos alone would have been bad enough. But Asellus had long fought with Zalaria over who was termed goddess of beauty. And Velius – well, Calvernic guessed that god of Death was probably the most suitable title.

     But Calvernic knew they were not gods, nor did he purport himself to be one. They were merely powerful – no, extremely powerful – users of the Power. But they’d had a thousand generations to believe their own lies about themselves, and he knew that each one of them saw the universe completely differently, something that made posturing with them exceedingly difficult. Calvernic knew that any one of them could kill him at any moment, on a whim. That would not be beneficial for his own plans of conquest in this galaxy.

     Calvernic looked out at the starfield before them, wondering what might be lying in wait for them out there. They couldn’t be entirely sure who they were playing against, here. This new enemy, calling itself the New Imperium, had been completely unexpected. That they could delay the Return itself for the past two years was nearly unthinkable – yet somehow, it had happened.

     Kronos’ defeat at first could be explained away readily enough. After all, the man was overconfident, and a narcissist in the extreme. The Outlanders had simply gotten lucky, getting caught up in one of Zalaria’s schemes to overthrow him. It was obvious that had been Zalaria’s plan all along.

     Understandably, Kronos hadn’t been forthcoming with any further information. Wounded pride was a hard thing to suffer. He stood now with his arms folded, watching.

     The events of the next phase of the war were not so easily accounted for. When Nimrod had announced his plan to lead the way in and reclaim the galaxy, Calvernic and the others had despaired. It had seemed inevitable that Nimrod would achieve his goals – after all, no one could have matched strategies against the greatest military genius in history. When news had come of Nimrod’s death, it had shaken the Altarin’Dakor to its core. The home galaxy was now in a state of chaos and uproar, and the Shok’Thola – well, they were left with merely unanswered questions. Unlike Kronos, Nimrod had not come back yet.

     Had Nimrod truly been killed? The only explanation was, again, Zalaria. Could it be that the only person Nimrod had ever underestimated was his own sister? Surely he hadn’t expected her betrayal, as none of them had. Could she have outsmarted him? If so, then that meant she was far more dangerous than even Calvernic knew. Rumors abounded that she had even somehow survived a direct assault by Velius, something which was utterly impossible, and that Velius himself refused to either confirm or deny.

     Calvernic didn’t believe for a second that it had happened like he’d heard. Stories regarding Shok’Thola became easily exaggerated, even amongst the most trusted couriers. Zalaria had trained Calvernic and even sponsored him to become a Shok’Thola. No one knew her better than he, except perhaps Nimrod, and now he was no more – supposedly, at least. But he felt confident that he hadn’t underestimated her by that much.

     At any rate, almost certainly their opponent on this battlefield was Zalaria, once again. But this time, there were four Shok’Thola against one. Between himself, Asellus, Kronos and Velius, she didn’t stand a chance. The four of them were powerful enough to destroy stars, and turn whole planets into mere interstellar dust. They could easily take over this entire galaxy by themselves.

     But what if there were other, unknown factors? How much of Nimrod’s former fleet was in Zalaria’s hands? They had seen to it that no other forces were allowed through the Gate, but Nimrod already had many Titans on this side before the blockade had been placed. And Zalaria’s forces were currently unknown. Finally, what of these Outlanders? Could they had some secret weapon that hadn’t been accounted for? Had they discovered some long-lost technology, perhaps even another version of the Infinity? The thought of being obliterated within the blink of an eye was an intimidating thought.

     But, like all Shok’Thola, Calvernic did not fear the destruction of his physical body. He had ample clone bodies to transfer his essence to, which he could then reshape into his own preferred, individual form. There was only one person in the universe that could take away their Immortality, and as long as they were doing his bidding, they had nothing to fear. Besides, Altima was currently still in the Altarin’Dakor galaxy.

     A robed servant appeared out of the darkness, cowl pulled low over his head, and dropped to his knees in front of Asellus. “Our scouts have entered Mizar, Great Mistress Onrai,” he chimed out.

     Calvernic resisted the urge to laugh derisively. After all these years, eons after being ousted from power on Coruscant, Asellus still held on to her claim as the mother-goddess of all humankind. Though most Shok’Thola were worshipped as deities inside of their own territories, Asellus wanted herself reinstated in this galaxy into a position above that of all the others – one that they had never agreed to allow her in the first place.

     He watched to see if she would execute the messenger, as she often did for sport, but this time she did not. Calvernic was only slightly disappointed. It could be amusing to watch her tantrums sometimes, as long as they were directed at someone other than himself. She was in an unusually good mood for some reason, this day.

     An image was displayed in front of them, showing the third planet of the Mizar System – Arcadia, Calvernic remembered. There was only one ship visible in orbit. Calvernic’s eyes widened when he saw what it was – the massive bulk of the Grand Crusader.

     “That is Nimrod’s flagship,” Asellus said. “What is it doing there?”

     Calvernic did not attempt to offer his opinion without being asked. Instead he watched as Kronos pursed his lips, watching the holographic displays encasing the room around them all. “Zalaria must have taken control of it. Hard to believe. That brazzna. My scouts reported that the Mizar system is currently under Zalaria’s authority,” he said, pausing. “Or… Could the New Imperium have actually captured such a vessel?”

     “Impossible!” Asellus snapped. “Don’t be a fool. You’re afraid of them, Kronos, because one of them killed you.”

    Calvernic thought Kronos’ face was going to bleed, as red as it became. “Watch your tongue!” he snapped, “or I will remove it from you! I fear nothing, least of all you! And I do not underestimate anyone!”

     “Bah,” she spat, “They would have been wiped out long ago if not for Zalaria’s assistance. It is our own number turning against us that’s caused us such delays. The denizens of this galaxy are less than insects to be trampled underfoot.”

     “Maybe Nimrod is still alive.”

     All eyes turned to Velius, who held a half-smile on his face as he stood nearby. His voice sounded like creaking metal when he spoke.

     “You’re saying this is a ruse?” Asellus asked.

     “It would be like him,” Kronos added thoughtfully, causing Asellus to blink as if surprised they had agreed.

     “They’ve teamed up against us,” Velius added with a grin. He looked giddy, as though excited at the prospect of facing both Zalaria and Nimrod. “I always wanted to fight him. But don’t worry; the odds are still in our favor.”

     “That the odds are in our favor goes without saying,” Asellus said adamantly. “However, I am interested to know why – and how – they have joined forces. That such a thing could even occur concerns me a great deal. How could Altima even allow such a thing? It threatens to disrupt the entire Return!”

     Calvernic hid well the sense of unease that such a thought put into him. Altima had been strangely silent for far too long, even as the Shok’Thola broke from the Return into petty feuds and Altarin’Dakor space grew more and more embroiled into civil war. What was Altima’s purpose in allowing all of them free reign like this? Not knowing made him far too nervous.

     He was also displeased that Asellus continued to feud with Zalaria. He knew the woman was bent on killing her rival, and she had right to assume that if Zalaria had joined forces with her brother, then she would be that much more difficult to exact vengeance upon. Velius, however, seemed to absolutely love the idea. Perhaps he considered the two of them combined would actually be a challenge for him. Many Shok’Thola craved feelings of nervousness or fear, because they had become so foreign to beings who were functionally Immortal. Not Calvernic, though.

     Calvernic had to admit it was a logical conclusion that Nimrod could be alive. Misinformation was a powerful tool of war. The siblings united would be a powerful force to be reckoned with. Perhaps they thought they could slay all the other Shok’Thola and take the entire galaxy for themselves. They might even have a chance, as fragmented as the Altarin’Dakor had become.

     “So, we are all in agreement that it is possible it is Nimrod we are up against,” Kronos said. “We face two options. Either Zalaria has convinced yet another Shok’Thola to mutiny, or else he defeated her and has brought her back onto his side.”

     “If Zalaria joined with her brother, then why would they be at Mizar?” Asellus asked. “Why wouldn’t they have conquered all of Epsilon Sector by now?”

     Three sets of eyes turned towards Calvernic. “You,” Kronos said, his voice dripping venom. “You are her lackey. Tell us what Zalaria is doing here.”

     Calvernic ignored the derogatory words the man used against him. “It must be true,” he surmised, shaking his head. “As impossible as it seems, the only reason Nimrod would return here is to face us. He intends to defeat us all before he continues taking the rest of the galaxy.”

     His words caused a grin to split Velius’ ugly face. “There is no way he only has one ship,” he said. “Either his other ships are cloaked, or are elsewhere.”

     “Cloaked, most likely,” Kronos surmised, inclining his head toward Velius. “You are being remarkably astute this day. This concerns me, my friend.”

     Velius merely grinned wider, wagging his tongue out at the other man.

     “The question is, how many?” Calvernic asked.

     “What does it matter?” Asellus said. “We have nine cloaked Titans. Nothing can stand against us – not even Nimrod.”

     Calvernic nodded his agreement. Whether Nimrod was alive or not – and whether Zalaria was with him or not – nothing could stop four Shok’Thola working together. That was the purpose of this alliance. Singularly, they might conceivably be defeated. But Calvernic had seen the wisdom in this alliance. Asellus had forged it first with Kronos, and the two of them had drawn in Calvernic, a logical choice among the rest of them. Velius’ joining had been unexpected. It had thrown things out of balance, but they weren’t about to send him away. His addition had ensured that this alliance would be unstoppable. There wasn’t a force in the universe powerful enough to stop them, save for Altima himself. Even if Zalaria and Nimrod were working together, it simply wouldn’t be enough.

     “Don’t undersestimate Nimrod’s genius,” Kronos countered sharply. “Many are the Shok’Thola who have, and are fallen now. We need more information before we move forward.”

     “We will enter the system and speak with him,” Velius said suddenly.

     Calvernic turned to look at him, as did the others.

     “Do you have any objections to that plan?” Velius asked.

      “I do not,” Kronos said. His face twisted into a sneer. “I’ve been looking forward to seeing Kerensky again.”

     “Shouldn’t we be cautious?” Calvernic said, unable to keep silent. He wasn’t sure Asellus would approve or not, but if the two of them disagreed, perhaps they could stalemate the decision.. “As you said, we don’t know what we’re facing yet.”

     “Don’t be a coward,” Asellus said, leaving little room for doubt as to her opinion. “Nimrod cannot challenge us directly. As much as I despise your obsession with that man, Kronos, I do not object, either.” She smiled suddenly. “Perhaps I will play with him, as well. I will enjoy seeing Zalaria’s face as she watches her plaything beg to be mine instead of hers.”

     If there is anything left of him once I’m finished,” Kronos put in.

     Instead of responding, Asellus began barking out orders into the void surrounding them. “Bring us into the Mizar System realspace. All ships save for my flagship shall remain cloaked. We will hail them, then we shall see what kind of game our opponent is playing. Perhaps diplomacy will suffice for this engagement.”

     From the looks on their faces, Calvernic was willing to bet the three other Shok’Thola were hoping that wouldn’t be the case.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

 

            In Orbit

            Tritonia System

            2100 Hours

 

            Deep within the Archon System, Maarek Stele felt only a strong sense of purpose as he entered the atmosphere of the planet Tritonia. The view around him – the cold, dark world below and the glittering stars at his back – was all that he could see save for the status displays that stayed in his sight wherever he looked. The pinpricks of light that were Akargan’s fleet had passed out of view beyond the event horizon – they were approaching the enemy’s base from far off, so as to get under the planetary shields and get in undetected. He wasn’t quite sure what would happen once they made it, though.

     Somewhere below his fighter, nestled into a coffin-sized pod attached to the underside of his fuselage, was an Altarin’Dakor Warlord. That fact still felt very surreal. How had he been selected for a duty like this? Why Maarek? And more importantly, what if Maarek got randomly shot down? Would his passenger protect him – or die along with him? Rhetorical questions, perhaps – but many things went through Maarek’s mind as they flew down into the atmosphere.

     A few months ago Maarek never would have believed he was doing this. A lot had happened since then.

     The Archon entered the cloud layer, and a simulated image from the Archon’s computers pierced the obscurity, revealing an endless array of buildings covering every square meter of the planet below. Maarek watching in awe – it was like Coruscant down there, only without a single visible sign of life.

     They flew on, cloaked, moving at hypersonic speed toward their destination. Lightning flashed around them, illuminating the darkness for split seconds before surrending it once more. On the comm, Maarek listened to the reports of the unfolding battle as it began. The chatter was unlike anything he was used to. The comm lines were almost completely silent except for cold, hard movement reports. Strife’s fleet was just beginning to reveal itself, and Akargan’s was moving forward to engage, almost too fast a response for the attack to have been a surprise. Could this be a trap?

     He immediately worried about Alona. She was flying out there, leading the wing of Archon fighters. She had to make it. He couldn’t lose her and Chele in the same week. He had to trust that she’d make it.

     “Keep your mind focused on our mission,” Strife’s voice came over his private channel.

     Surpise jolted through Maarek – but he immediately realized that the Warlord was reading his thoughts. It was the only way he could have been so dead-on at that exact moment. Maybe he really was as powerful as everyone proclaimed he was. Maarek tried to steel his nerves. “Yes, sir.”

     “When we arrive, you must leave the atmosphere as quickly as possible. Rejoin the battle and wait until the surrender is announced from Akargan’s forces.”

     Pretty self-confident of winning, aren’t we? Maarek thought.

     “I am.”

     Maarek would have swallowed hard if he could have felt his body through the Archon System. Instead – he was the fighter, after all – it simply made him feel even more exposed. “Understood,” he replied.

     They began to pierce through openings in the clouds. Dusk had settled into night, and the sky was blue-black overhead. There were no lights from the cities below. How many people had lived here, once?

     From the comm traffic, it became clear that the two forces had engaged each other. Fighters were being shot down by the dozens already, and the Titans had directly engaged one another with their beam weapons. It would be an incredible thing to see. Maarek just hoped he survived to make it back up there.

     A bracketed object appeared overhead. They were now less than five hundred klicks from their target.

     “Prepare to release,” Strife ordered. “Then get out as fast as you can.”

     “Can I ask you one thing?” Maarek said. He knew this was the best time to have the Warlord’s full attention.

     “What is it?”

     A hundred questions were racing through Maarek’s mind, things he wanted to ask of a Warlord. Was he really immortal, and a thousand generations old? What would happen after this – would he continue on take over the galaxy? If so, did he plan to spare the New Imperium? Perhaps even more pressingly, had he actually orchestrated Chele’s death in order that Maarek would draw closer to Alona? Many questions floated in his thoughts. Most of them were not appropriate to ask in this situation.

     Instead, there was one thing that he did want to know more urgently than anything. And he didn’t care if it was appropriate or not.

     “Alona,” he said. “Does she really love me?”

     A pause. “I told you to focus on the mission,” Strife said.

     “I know. But I have to know this. If we don’t survive… Well, if you can read my thoughts, then you must be able to read hers as well,” he said. He already knew that Strife had planned for them to be together. Had he planned for them to become this close, though? He didn’t care one way or the other that Strife had been pulling the strings all along. Just as long as he knew whether her feelings were genuine or not.

     “I know my Jedicon better than they know themselves,” Strife answered. “Alona would fight alongside you. She would die alongside you. She would even wed you if you asked. Yes, as you count it, she loves you.”

     Maarek suddenly felt like a burden had been lifted from his shoulders. He didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t expected the Warlord to answer him, to tell the truth.

     Begin our descent,” Strife ordered.

     Snapping back to reality, Maarek obeyed, edging the Archon downwards. They had already slowed to begin their descent. Now they fell below cloud level, and soon they were beneath the tops of the towers that rose up like skeletal fingers piercing the night, some even piercing the clouds at points. Maarek found the appropriate thoroughfare that they’d mapped out, a wide avenue lined with skyscrapers on either side, and he brought them down to within a hundred meters of the ground.

     Then suddenly, as the wall of buildings rose on either side, a sense of panic gripped him. The street below, the buildings around, and the sense of it stretching on forever in front of him – it was too familiar, still too raw after Varnus. He could almost see Thansil’s fighter ahead of him, about to blast him out of the sky and send him rocketing out of his fighter to a certain death. He could almost see Rann’s and Tanya’s fighters plunging to their destruction on the streets below.

     Then, just as abruptly as the attack came, it faded, leaving only a sense of peace. He felt… something… within himself, calmly assuring him that it would be all right, that he had nothing to fear.

     He knew it was Strife, controlling his emotional state. But for once he didn’t resent it.

     Strife’s voice came into his ears. “Now I have a question for you, Maarek Stele. Your galaxy is already controlled by unseen forces, powers hidden in the darkness. What difference does it make if a new power conquers it and assumes control?”

     Maarek thought for a moment, pondering what the Warlord meant. Was he saying it didn’t matter if the Altarin’Dakor took over the galaxy? True, the New Republic currently held power, and it was plagued by problems. The Empire before that had been ruled by an evil tyrant – he’d come to accept that fact, now. Before that it had been a corrupt system controlled by bureaucrats and powerful corporations. What difference did it really make? It was always the same, but with different faces and names attached to the banners on Coruscant.

     Yet each time that happened, each time power exchanged hands, it was the result of wars, assassinations, genocides. Millions, sometimes billions died simply so that a new government could assume command. Change always brought with it destruction. But the cycle itself never really ended.

     “Because many people die,” he answered finally, choosing his words carefully. “And a lot of those are innocent people who don’t deserve to.”

     There was a long pause before the Strife answered, and Maarek began to wonder if his words had been audible or not.

     Finally, the Warlord spoke. “That is a good answer. Now, release me.”

     Startled, Maarek realized they were within ten klicks of their destination. Mentally issuing the command, he released the clamps that held the pod beneath his fighter. He felt it drop away, lightening his load, and saw the coffin-shaped device fall down toward the streets below.

     Suddenly, Maarek was alone again.

     He knew there was no time to reminisce. Akargan’s base had guns that might be able to track him if he got too close, and had a firing range of many kilometers. Maarek pulled his fighter into a sharp climb, rising above the buildings, and turned away to head out on another heading.

     He’d only been pulling away for a few seconds when he noticed fighters heading towards him.

     There were three of them, turning away from their patrol to head towards him, soaring over the tops of the skyscrapers. They were small and compact, with four short wings surrounding a central ball-shaped cockpit.

     Maarek felt a chill as he recognized what they were. Widowmakers. Jedicon fighters.

     I’m not ready, he thought desperately. But the thought quickly faded. No, he was ready. He had trained for this. He knew what to expect. These Jedicon pilots, however, would not.

     Was it the Archon System again, making him feel invincible? He couldn’t tell anymore. It didn’t matter, anyway. He turned into the attack, going head-to-head with the three enemy fighters. Then, calling on the Force as he’d been taught, he put on a mental shield around his thoughts.

     Within seconds he felt the attack hit his mind. It wasn’t concerted; if it was, he might not have been able to block it. He only felt one Jedicon mind – and it wasn’t as strong as Chele’s – assaulting his consciousness. The enemy had been overconfident. They hadn’t been expecting to find resistance.

     To Maarek’s relief, his barrier held, the attack sliding off just as he’d been had in a thousand practices. He immediately felt shock emanating from the pilots of all three approaching fighters that their sure-fire tactic had failed. Undoubtedly they realized they’d made a fatal judgement error. Maarek didn’t give them a chance to rectify it.

     He opened fire on all three simultaneously. Bright blue beams pierced the air, slicing the leftmost of the Widowmakers in half crossways and detonating it in a massive fireball. His rail cannons spat out death at hypersonic speed, taking the center fighter dead in the heart and shearing through it like flimsiplast. The fighter exploded, raining pieces downward.

     The one of the right tried to dodge, but he wasn’t fast enough. Maarek’s remaining beam weapons found their mark, slicing away two of the fighter’s four winglike projections. Bleeding fire from the gaping wound it had sustained, the fighter plunged toward the ground, doomed.

     Maarek goosed the throttle and pointed the Archon’s nose at the sky. He’d gotten lucky, but the element of surprise would work only once. He wasn’t about to stick around for more. The next batch surely wouldn’t make the same mistake their predecessors had.

The clouds enveloped him once more, and soon even they gave way to the starlit sky of space above – and the intense battle raging overhead. Already he could see bright beams of light piercing the darkness of space. Hundreds, thousands of fighters milled in orbit above.

He might be leaving one deathtrap behind, but there was another one waiting just in front of him. But by this point, he was used to it. His Archon wouldn’t let him down. Wishing Strife success below, he rose to find his next challenge.

 

            The pod descended as it sped towards its destination, its built-in repulsors keeping it along just above the surface of the long street it was barreling down at breakneck speed.

     Inside, Strife prepared himself for the crash, and the inevitable death that would follow. He knew that Akargan’s fortress was warded against use of the Power.If anyone tried to use it to penetrate its walls, powerful defensive mechanisms would activate, well-prepared defenses that could not be nullified. The attack would have to put him inside completely on its own.

     However, once inside, it would be a different situation.

     It took only seconds more. The pod sped down the street, headed straight for one of the palace’s side walls, its stained-glass windows boarded up to keep any light escaping from within.

     Then the pod hit the wall, punching a hole straight through with its reinforced tip and front end. Debris blasted everywhere as the pod penetrated through the wall into the interior of the fortress before coming to a crashing halt inside.

     The initial impact hadn’t destroyed the pod completely. It lay on its side in a large, empty room, half-buried in one of the interior walls. Its occupant, however, had been killed instantly.

     For Strife, everything had gone black. But only for seconds.

     Within what seemed like an instant, he was back. His body, of course, writhed in agonizing pain as it healed, mending bones that had been shattered and organs that had been liquified from the impact. He hated it every time he experienced this. But despite the torturous pain, he held his tongue, waiting the healing process out.

     Within moments Strife was completely self-aware again. Seconds after that he could move his body once more.

     He called upon the Power now in earnest.

     The pod ripped open, pieces flying out in all directions. Strife stood up and took in his surroundings in a glance before moving forward. Then he ducked down a dark corridor nearby, in search of his target.

     Akargan would be aware of his presence by now. Unfortunately there was nothing he could do about it now that Strife was inside his fortress, nothing save confronting him directly. Strife smiled as he called on the power to increase his momentum, moving him down the hallways at blinding speed. So be it.

     He wore all black, a one piece padded jumpsuit that wouldn’t restrict his movements or tear if he moved at supersonic speed. He brought no equipment, save for his hypersaber, Nakti. Its half-meter, bone-white shaft of a handle was strapped to his back, already repairing the minor scuffs and scratches it had received from the crash.

     Strife reached an intersection and paused, his straight, stark white hair – cut to mid-neck level, now – swaying back and forth as he looked down each path, then chose the one that felt right. The one with the group of Jedicon at the end.

     They never knew what hit them. He sent out a thought towards them, and the six warriors fell upon each other, their blades igniting in their hands and slicing through one another as Strife flew past them in a flash. Alarms began blaring in the distance.

     He touched the doors beyond and they collapsed before him, not breaking his stride. The room beyond was a massive stairwell, and he vaulted over the railing and dropped the ten stories or so down to the bottom. He dropped into another room with at least ten Jedicon inside of it, this group more prepared than the last. They had their lightsabers out as he landed on the floor in the midst of them, raising their blades and rushing towards him with mouths open, roaring wordlessly.

     To Strife, it was as if they moved in slow motion. Pulling out Nakti from his back, he set the blade for whip with a thought and spun it around in a circle in the blink of an eye, its four-meter blade slicing through bodies, arms, and handles all in one fell stroke. He was on the move again even before they realized they were dead, their bodies falling in pieces on the floor behind him.

     Another group stood before him, guarding a set of ten-meter-high sealed doors with markings scrawled across them. He gathered the power, thrust out a hand, and the whole lot of them disintegrated before he ever reached them, not having time to even scream as their bodies exploded into fragments of skin, bone and blood. The blast hit the doors next, and they flew off their hinges, spinning into the hallway beyond.

     A troupe of would-be assassins awaited him. Crossing his arms in front of him, fingers extended, he sent out tendrils of energy from each of them throughout the hall ahead. Soldiers and Jedicon fell, sliced into pieces. A few survived and sent blasts of energy his way, but he merely ignored them as they hit – none were powerful enough to cause damage to him anyway.

     The doors at the end exploded before he reached them, and he slid into another large chamber. At the far end were a series of columns leading into an even larger room, undoubtably the throne room he was seeking. A dozen warriors jumped up from their positions around a group of tables, raising the alarm as they saw him. Running forward, he waved his hand across the lot of them, using the Power to touch each of their minds with enough force to scramble their brain matter, killing them instantly.

     He pierced the far wall, passing through the columns decorated with friezes of various Shok’Thola ­– including himself – and leapt over the railing into the chamber beyond.

 

            Lasitus had been in the dark for three days. He’d been given little food or water, and was sure each day that Akargan was going to come in and kill him. But so far, he hadn’t. Why the delay? Was he going to let him rot down here? His cell was featureless – one of the deepest in the ancient palace, meant to demoralize whatever prisoners were placed inside of it.

     Lasitus realized his mistake, now. He never should have believed Akargan would value their former friendship. That relationship meant nothing to him, now. For Lasitus it still seemed like it could have been yesterday, but for Akargan twenty-five thousand years had caused it to fade far from memory. 

     He hadn’t really expected to turn Akargan. Truth be told, he hadn’t known exactly why he had come here. Torn by grief at Dereks’ death, faced with the reality of the killer that he really was, he’d been pushed beyond the breaking point. He hadn’t really known what to live for, anymore.

     Suddenly he heard a commotion outside of his cell. He took a deep breath, expecting to see Akargan enter at any moment.

     The metal door slid aside, and a figure was sillouetted there. Lasitus blinked at the sudden light, but he knew that the outline wasn’t Akargan’s. He didn’t know who it was.

     “Don’t stand there! Get out!” a voice growled harshly in Altarin’Dakor. “We are under attack! Get up and help us!”

     As soon as he’d appeared, the figure was gone, leaving a door of light in his wake. Tentatively, Lasitus moved forward, unsure what was going on. He had no idea what the man was talking about. Why had he let him go?

     Inside the cell he’d been within the field of a Null Sphere. But as soon as he exited, he felt its presence fall away, and suddenly he felt the Force again.

     And felt the death all around him. There was an intruder in the palace. Someone very, very powerful. A Shok’Thola.

     It must be Strife, Lasitus realized. How had he found them, and why come so soon? Was it because of the data that Lasitus had taken from Borrose? But Akargan had said it was all a fake!

     It didn’t matter; this was real. He could feel a battle going on far overhead, as well – in orbit, no doubt. He glanced down the hallways, where jailkeepers and Jedicon in the area were already disappearing through the exits. Feeling disoriented after so long in the dark, Lasitus moved to follow them, wondering what he should do next.

     Should he help, as he’d been ordered? Or should he try and escape? Obviously he was not working for Akargan anymore – he’d been branded a traitor and jailed. He knew he should flee, but what would happen if the two Shok’Thola fought? Would Akargan win, or would Strife? Which outcome should he want to see? Which would be better for the New Imperium and the galaxy as a whole? Lasitus didn’t know. Perhaps he should help Strife, but maybe he should assist Akargan despite everything, if he would be easier to deal with.

     He found himself moving upwards, taking the stairwells toward the main chamber once more. He knew this was probably a bad idea – on that might even get him killed – but something drove him; he had to know how this battle would turn out. A fight between Shok’Thola was a rare thing, and it would have consequences that would affect billions, even trillions in the Altarin’Dakor galaxy. And it could determine the entire fate of this one, as well.

     Calling on the Force to restore his weary muscles, he kept heading up.

 

The Extinction had been blown to bits by the time Maarek got back into orbit. Pieces of it, still kilometers wide, were spreading out into the void, gravity pulling them inexorably down towards the surface, where they would eventually enter the atmosphere and crash into the endless cityscape of the ecumenopolis.
     It was now three on four, with Strife's warships still holding strong despite suffering some damage of their own. The front side of the Oblivion glowed in places, leaking smoke and atmosphere, but the Abyss, Maelstrom and the Eternity were still relatively unscathed. They continued to pour fire into the enemy formation, Akargan's remaining Titans Exterminator, Warhawk, and his flagship, the Overlord.
     Beams of energy crisscrossed the space above him, and thousands of small, shiny objects flew amongst the larger warships - dogfights involving the fighters of both sides. Fusion beams, neutron cannon blasts and even mauler weapons blasted out between the Titans, taking any smaller ships that might be unfortunate enough to be in the way. It was unreal to witness - if it had been the NI fighting here, they would have been wiped out almost immediately.
     As he rose into the fray, he immediately tracked down Alona's Archon signature, leading the wing of Strife's elite forces as they weaved back and forth between larger ships, picking Akargan's fighters out of the sky like flies. He felt a blossom of relief as he found her; not only was she still alive, but she appeared to be dominating the skies. He rushed to join her.
     "Alona, I'm here," he sent over the wing's comm line. "Where do you need me?"
     "Form on me, Maarek Stele," he felt her say, sending elation into him with her words. "Help us wipe the scourge of our enemies from the skies."
     "With pleasure," he sent back. They were the words he'd been wanting to hear, the chance to actually fly on her wing into real combat. Eagerly he pulled his fighter around and fell into the cloud of silvery Archons that were just regrouping beneath the Maelstrom.
     Almost immediately he noticed two Punisher-class heavies coming towards him from around two o'clock low. An alert appeared in his vision as four missiles streaked out from the fighters, heading his way. Feeling their incoming trajectories with the Force, he fired his beam cannons, aiming each one at a separate warhead. One by one the beams found their mark, detonating the missiles prematurely in flashes of light.
     The Punishers opened up with beam weapons next. Maarek pulled up and snap-rolled, watching the beams pass beneath him harmlessly. He goosed the throttle, moving to slide past the fighters on their starboard side. At the same time, he angled his rail cannons along their fight path and opened up on the one on the right. The high-velocity slugs pierced the fighter's shields and punched through its armored fuselage. The cockpit shattered first, then the fighter flipped over and Maarek's projectiles ripped through the fighter's underside, piercing the engine housing and causing the fighter to explode brilliantly.
     The other fighter flashed past to the right and began a tight turn to get on Maarek's six. Straightening his own turn, he went vertical instead, pulling g's that he could never have sustained without the Archon System. He came around, inverted, and came in above the enemy fighter on a head-to-head. Spitting the fighter in his sights, he fired with two of his beams, the blasts meeting just as they reached the enemy's fuselage and slicing the ship cleanly in two.
     He turned again without waiting to see the inevitable explosion, already searching for his next fight. In a TIE Avatar, he knew those Punishers would probably have done him in. But the Archon made enemies like that no more than child's play. Not only could they not match his fighter's agility, but with the Archon's ability to give him uncanny accuracy he had unrivaled dominance over the skies.
     Ahead, he could see the gigantic, ethereal mass of the Eternity beginning to square off directly opposite Akargan's flagship Overlord, a massive oblong-shaped gargantuan bristling with cannons all across its bow. Thick beams of energy began to fill the space between the two, catching any unlucky fighters that got in their way and vaporizing them instantly. The shields of the two ships were lighting up, walls of bluish energy kilometers wide. Maarek definitely wasn't going to find himself getting in between those leviathans.
     Despite their seeming advantage, Maarek knew that this fight was far from over. The battle could still go either way, and he knew that the fight between the two flagships mirrored what was unfolding on the surface. That was the duel that would likely determine the outcome of this day. All they could do was hold out the best they could, and hope that it was Strife who emerged the victor.
     Looping around again, he rejoined his comrades - his siblings among a family of superfighters - and moved to take the fight to the enemy once more.

Strife dropped down into the chamber, landing nimbly, and stood to his full height. There – standing in the center of the room, waiting for him – was Akargan.
     He was ready – but that much had been expected. The chamber had been emptied, the furniture moved to the walls. Akargan stood on a dais beneath the gaze of his former master’s statues, with three massive fireplaces behind him lit with orange fire. A cloak of animals’ pelts hung from his shoulders, and his curled black hair was tied behind his head. A smirk decorated his face.
     “So, the time has finally come,” Akargan said, licking his lips. “I knew this day would arrive, Strife. I’ve been waiting for this.”
     “Twenty-five thousand years is a long time,” Strife said, putting on a cordial smile. “It was always destined to be this way. Only one of us will emerge alive.”
     “Agreed,” Akargan replied eagerly. “How shall we do it?”
     Strife gave a smirk he knew would anger the other man. “You’ve always wanted to prove you were better than me with a blade.” He held his hypersaber’s handle up in the palm of his hand, gave it a toss. “Weapons only.”
     “Perfect.” Akargan’s expression betrayed no emotion. “And the Power?”
     “Enhance speed and strength only,” Strife replied.
     “Accepted.”
     Akargan appeared eager, but there was uncertainty lurking within his eyes. Strife knew that despite his words, Akargan hadn’t been eager to see this confrontation through to the end. It was he who had put this off for so long, delaying direct duel between the two of them until millennia had passed by.

     They had faced each other before, but not in thousands of years. The last time, Strife had bested him also. Perhaps Akargan merely thought this was yet another confrontation in an endless war between the two of them. But Strife had other intentions – this would be the last day. Altima had given him the tools before, when he’d been sent after Mordachus.
     Akargan might not keep his word. He might truly wish to prove that he was the superior swordsman, but if things became dire he might regress and unveil his full power. Strife intended not to give him that chance. He preferred the elegance of a real duel to the messiness of destroying whole cities with the Power.
     “For far too long you’ve thought you were the god of War,” Akargan said gruffly. “That title belongs to me. And today I am going to take it. Today we find out who is truly the strongest.”
     Strife put on a mocking smile. “After all this time, you still don’t understand. Titles mean nothing to me, Akargan. Strength means nothing. I have a far greater power. I am of the true blood. I was old before the Altarin’Dakor were born. I have nothing to prove. A Jedicon’s marks have never touched my face,” he said.
     Akargan’s face twisted into a sneer, but he didn’t fall into the trap. He did not devolve into a fit of rage. He was keeping his head for this battle. “Your words border on treason, Strife,” he taunted. “Altima has granted me special knowledge. There will be only one Shok’Thola in the end. And that will be me.”
     Strife paused, but dismissed the man’s words as bravado. He wasn’t going to be taken in, either. It didn’t matter what Altima said. Strife had chosen his path. No Shok’Thola had any hope of a future as long as Altima still reigned.
     And he’d just discovered the way to defeating Akargan before he ever drew his blade. “Thank you for passing on that information,” he said. “Quite interesting, since Altima has ordered me to eliminate you next. Just like he did with Mordachus,” he lied.
     He watched as Akargan’s eyes widened, then took on a wild look. This was it. The battle rage that the man relied on when fighting. It gave him incredible strength, but poor judgement. In response, Strife called upon the immense reserves of power within that always lurked just beneath the surface. He reached through that barrier, like reaching through the oily surface of a pond, tapping into the vast well below, yet feeling its taint – the unnatural touch of the Entity upon his soul, the thing that he’d called master for a thousand generations.
     “You are a fool, Strife!” Akargan barked. “And now I will end the universe of your existence once and for all!”
     “Then come, and die!” Strife shouted.
     With a growl emanating from his throat, Akargan pulled out his own hypersaber. Sha’kira ignited with the sound of a thunderclap, its blinding two-meter white blade snapping to life and banishing shadows from the room. Four smaller blades shot out from around the emitter nozzle, forming a guard of energy. Strife could feel Akargan powering up to his full strength, like a giant mountain of the Power welling up in front of him. Akargan’s furred cloak ripped itself free from the man, revealing a massive chest and arms that rippled with muscles. The air rippled out from around him in visible waves.
     Strife raised Nakti as well, igniting the blade with a hiss. Three meters of purple-white energy shot out of one end as though the blade itself was anticipating this battle. Strife drew in all of his power, allowing it to fortify his body, to increase his speed to the point that the flames in the fireplace appeared to stand completely still.

     Together they could have certainly destroyed the entire planet. Yet contained, they focused on each other, enhancing their speed and strength, in the controlled chaos of the Power preparing to engage in the ultimate duel between two warriors.
     Then Akargan barreled towards him, and Strife rushed forward to engage.

     Raising his blade high with a scream, Akargan struck like lightning. Strife’s blade snapped out and the two blades met with the sound of a thunderclap. They clashed and held for a nanosecond, then were on the move again before the sound even had begun to spread through the air. Akargan brought his blade around low and to the side, and Strife dipped his blade down to parry. The force of the blow was like a mountain crashing against him, but their strength did not depend on muscles. Strife’s power was at least equal to Akargan’s – in truth, it was greater – only the perfect combination of strength, speed and skill would proclaim the victor this day.

     Strife fell back before the furious onslaught, as Akargan struck in a maddened rage. Letting the Power guide him, Strife blocked twenty different attacks in the span of a single second’s time. His hair whipped around as if moving through water instead of air, and the flames of the hearth creeped upwards at a snail’s pace. Booms filled the air as their arms broke the sound barrier repeatedly.

     As his foot struck the floor again, he pivoted, ducking beneath another blow, then bringing Nakti around in a strike. Akargan caught the attack on his guard and forced Strife’s own blade around and down. Then he disengaged and swept upwards at supersonic velocity. Strife leaned back at the last nanosecond, allowing the blade to merely scrape the surface of his suit with millimeters to spare from breaking his skin. Then he spun, sweeping his blade overhead to block devastating downward blows from the larger Warlord. With each successful block, he attacked, but Akargan’s blade met his blow for blow.

     He was enjoying this.

     Stepping back, he commanded Nakti with a thought. He released the shaft and it flew back to settle on his forearm in a split second. As Akargan’s strikes came in again, he used his whole arm to direct his motions, blocking his opponent high, then low, then stabbing back in with lightning speed. Akargan dodged, his body writhing like a viper’s. Strife struck at his head again and again, but the other Warlord rolled his head left, then right, then sweeping his blade up to bat Strife’s away with ferocious force.

     Spinning with the blow, Strife released Nakti and let it hover over his arm for a moment. Responding to his direction, it changed once more, its blade contracting, forming a protective shield above his arm. Stepping forward, Akargan attacked again, swinging with massive blows. Strife moved his arm to block, the blade crashing against his shield of light repeatedly. With a yell, Akargan swung rapidly, hammering the shield dozens of times in the span of seconds, but the barrier held.

     Feeling a smile touch his lips, Strife sidestepped again, releasing the shield, gripped Nakti’s shaft once again, and set the blade for whip. Flicking the handle, he sent the energy cracking through the air, then whipped it around and swung. Akargan’s eyes went wide and he stepped back, blocking with Sha’Kira, and Strife’s blade struck his, wrapping partway around the other’s blade before he could fully arrest its motion.

     Strife launched into the offensive, striking out with Nakti in a fury. Akargan fell back, each time careful to block the light whip near the end to avoid being sliced from the blade’s wrap-around. Strife cracked his blade again and again, and Akargan dodged in a blur, the blade slicing into the floor over and over again, sending chunks of stone blasting into the air. He spun, bringing the whip down in a complex arc, and passed Akargan’s guard to cleave away a few centimeters of hair tied behind his head.

     Akargan slid back out of range, spinning Sha’Kira in his palms. Pausing, Strife set Nakti back into blade mode and smiled again. His opponent stared at him in malevolent hate. They stood there for several seconds, long enough for sweat to begin to bead on their foreheads.

     “You have improved your skills since our last encounter,” Strife offered. Then he narrowed his eyes, smiling harder. “But you see I’ve saved a few special techniques for this particular fight.”

     “You’re no match for me,” Akargan sneered. “I’ve merely been toying with you, Strife. Perhaps it is time to unveil our true power.”

     “Agreed,” Strife said. Then he took a breath, and the stones at his feet split as he launched himself forward.
     

Lasitus ran back into the audience chamber and skid to a halt. He could barely believe what was unfolding before his eyes.
    He froze, unable to take his eyes away. The Below him, on the main floor, the two Warlords moved like lightning. Even fully powered up, Lasitus could barely even see their movements as they fought. two Shok’Thola glowed like stars with the power. He could feel it, right down to his very soul. It made him want to fall on the ground and weep.

     He’d never felt anything like this before. Two Shok’Thola, fully powered up and engaged in combat with one another. Even during the Great War nothing like this had happened in his memory. The strength of the two men down there – it was incredible! Strife he could understand; after all, he’d been a legend long before Lasitus had been born. But Akargan – Lasitus remembered fighting alongside his former comrade as though it was yesterday. That man was not the same being as the one who now fought below him. He had… changed, utterly and completely, into something far beyond what mortal men could be.

     Somewhere, among the maelstrom of emotions and thoughts running through him, a new thought emerged. I could have had that, he realized. If he’d somehow escaped imprisonment, it might be him down there instead of Akargan. Even after that, if he’d served Akargan well, then perhaps he might have become a Shok’Thola, too. He could have been Immortal, invincible.

     The thought disgusted him, yet at the same time he couldn’t deny its reality. Lasitus was still the man that he’d been before the long sleep, before amnesia had turned his former life into a hazy mist. But that could have been me, he thought, and the sense of longing nearly drove him mad.
     In a flash the sense of reality returned. His eyes were transfixed on the Warlords below. And what he saw took his breath away.

     The two Shok’Thola twirled in a dance of light, their blades moving so fast around their bodies they seemed continuous streaks of light surrounding them. They moved across the floor as they fought, their motions a blur.

      Akargan struck with furious aggression, his face a mask of rage, his muscles rippling like wild, living creatures inside his body. Strife countered him, his lean form by contrast somehow able to parry blows that sent shockwaves through the air. His face remained calm, composed, his eyes glowing like blue fire. He jumped, ducked and spun away from the massive Warlord’s attacks, dumbfounding Lasitus with each successive move. He stepped back, and somehow his blade became livid, snakelike, blocking and whipping around to strike Akargan from the side, from above – every conceivable angle. But Akargan’s speed kept him from taking hits, and he came in all the harder. The palace was shaking under the force of their movements.

     Akargan stabbed straight him then, his blade guards pinwheeling as his pommel spun in his hands. Strife parried and turned, spinning his body, swinging his hypersaber around to strike at his opponent’s back. Akargan rolled foreward and turned, then brought his blade up to parry the violet-white blade as it extended at least five meters to strike out at him. Then Akargan launched forward in a blur, forcing Strife back once more, but the man’s lithe body slid out of the way, twisting his blade and swinging as he moved. His blade passed underneath Akargan’s guard and split a gash across the man’s side as he passed.

     By the time Lasitus realized what had happened, Akargan had already spun back around and the two were facing each other once more. Vaporized flesh and blood formed a small cloud that wafted away from his body. His face betrayed no pain – only surprise, visible in his widened eyes that had become almost pure white.

Before he realized it, Lasitus had leapt over the railing and dropped to the floor with a thud. The two Warlords continued to face off against one another, oblivious to their intruder’s presence.
     “Akargan!” Lasitus yelled, staring across the floor at the Warlord.
     The Warlord spared him a brief glance, no more. There was no sense of hostility there, yet neither was there a feeling of camaraderie. There was no request for help in that gaze. Lasitus was just an observer, a complete stranger.

Strife attacked.

If he’d appeared as a blur before, he seemed twice as fast, now. Akargan fell back across the floor of the massive chamber, meeting him stroke for stroke. The sound of their clashes tore through the air, falling far behind the movements of their blades as their movements barely became visible. The two Warlords moved as though locked in an elaborate, beautiful dance, their blades wrapped in a continual clash of expertly-executed strikes, blocks and parries. Strife stuck, then fell back under a counterattack from Akargan, parried and went offensive again. Lasitus watched, unable to move, paralyzed with terror. If they even came near him, he’d be killed by a stray swing he might not even see.

The two Shok’Thola clashed again, held against each other for a split instant, then pushed away from each other again. Once more each measured the other, Akargan’s face a strained turmoil, Strife’s a mask of smiling confidence.

 “DIE!” Akargan’s voice boomed throughout the chamber as he came in, striking horizontally with Sha’Kira, the blade glowing like the sun.

 Strife blocked, but the force of the blow threw him back. He spun with the motion, allowing Akargan to pursue him, his blade suddenly changing back into its whip-setting again. He snapped the blade up, slapping Akargan’s next attack away, then slipped past his opponent again.

 The two faced off once more. Then Strife moved forward in a blinding assault, his light-whip cracking through the air. He lashed out, striking Akargan’s blade on one side, then the other in the blink of an eye. Akargan parried, but the other’s blade was too fast, too mobile. His motions became just a nanosecond too slow. Strife’s blade bounced off his light-guard, striking twice on the left, then on the right. The unanticipated move succeeded; the glowing violet blade touched on one side, and something flashed, then the blade hit the other side and sparks flew out from Sha’Kira’s handle. Akargan ducked a wide horizontal blow and stepped back.

 Two of his light guards had gone out already. As Lasitus watched, a second later a third light guard flickered and went out. Only one remained. Wisps of smoke rose through the air as if in slow motion. Akargan glanced from his blade back to his opponent. Strife’s face was composed, deadly.

No words were exchanged. With a scream, Akargan ran forward, his veins near bursting, his eyes solid white. He glowed like the sun in the Power, now. Sha’Kira stabbed forward too fast to follow. Somehow, Strife moved out of the way. He slapped down Sha’Kira again and again, driving Akargan back as he spun one way, then the other. Akargan countered, Strife parried Akargan’s blade, then spun in close once more. His blade slashed upwards in a return stroke, and the violet-white blade severed Akargan’s right arm at the elbow.

 Vaporized blood shot through the air. The blade and the arm holding it flew away. Akargan turned, his face a mask of shock. He did not cry out.

 Like lightning, Strife struck out again, cleaving Akargan’s right leg off just above the knee.

     Akargan pitched forward, catching himself with his remaining left hand. He fell to his remaining knee, his right leg a stump touching the floor. He grunted, then looked up at Strife, his face a mask of hatred. Strife stood above him, looking down dispassionately. Lasitus stood transfixed in shock, unable to look away. No... he thought…

     …something… happened in that moment. Lasitus felt Strife reach out with the Force and touch Akargan in a way that he’d never felt before. Akargan’s eyes went wide. Even from this far away, he could clearly see as the Warlord’s gaze went from one of chagrined defeat to one pure terror in an instant, and he gasped, lurching forward as if in sudden agony.

     Strife raised his blade. Akargan raised his head, struggling, as if feeling pain for the first time. He finally meet his opponent’s eyes.
     “…Kigiras?” Akargan whispered. “What…”

     Strife swung his blade in a final, horizontal strike, his massive blade cleaving Akargan’s head clean away from his shoulders. The head hit the floor and bounced, rolling away. The headless torso slumped to the ground.

     Lasitus could only stare. It was over.

     Then he felt it – a scream so visceral it sent shivers across his whole body. It wasn’t audible, it was felt, filling the Power within him and reverberating within his mind until he felt he would go mad. And it was made all the worse because he recognized the voice of that scream. Akargan’s voice.

     Something terrible had just happened. And whatever it was, somehow Lasitus knew that Akargan was far worse than simply dead. It was as if he’d just heard a soul falling into hell itself.
     He stood there, paralyzed, as Strife turned slowly away from his fallen opponent, surveying the room. Lasitus knew he would be seen; there was no escaping now.
     The Warlord's eyes shifted to take in Lasitus, and sheer terror ran through him.
     “So... Do you wish to try your luck?” Strife asked simply. The words, softly spoken, punched through the silence like a thunderclap.
     Lasitus stared at him wordlessly, unable to speak even if he’d known what to say. If the Shok’Thola decided to kill him, then he wouldn’t have a chance. He didn’t want to die here, today.

     “I know you,” Strife said then, arching an eyebrow.  "Isn't that yours?" He glanced down at the floor. Lasitus followed his gaze, and saw what the Warlord was gesturing at. Sha’Kira.

     Lasitus tried to swallow hard, but his mouth was too dry. Strife had recognized him. But what did he want from Lasitus? Was he going to let him live? He dared not hold out hope. As long as he didn’t suffer the same fate that Akargan had, whatever it was…

     “Take it,” Strife ordered, jolting him once more.

     Obediently, Lasitus reached out with the Power. His onetime hypersaber lifted up off the floor and soared through the air to land in his hand. As his fingers fell around the hilt, feeling its worn, weathered pommel, a deluge of memories assaulted him. It had been a long time.

     “You should return to your New Imperium,” Strife said, breaking through his memories. Lasitus looked up at the Warlord in shock.

     “Tell your friends they are walking into a trap at Mizar,” the Warlord continued. “I will be there personally within days. I must first consolidate Akargan’s fleet.”

     Lasitus blinked in dumbfounded shock. What was the Warlord talking about? Why was he telling him this? He wanted to ask a question, to discover what he meant, but the words wouldn’t come out.   

     Strife’s gaze rose to the massive domed chamber around them, and when he looked back down, his expression became deadly serious.

     “Akargan has many Jedicon in this place,” he said. “They must be neutralized. You have thirty seconds to be at least ten kilometers away from this facility before I completely obliterate it. Get as far away as you can. For someone of your level it shouldn’t be difficult.”

     Lasitus felt his jaw drop. He gaped at the Warlord in shock.

     “Go!” Strife shouted at him. He raised a hand at the ceiling, and Lasitus felt a blast of the Power unlike anything he could hope to equal. The domed roof caved in, creating a tunnel that rose steadily higher above him. Then the Warlord held out his other hand to the side, and a ball of pulsating energy began to grow within his palm.

     There was no longer time to think. Gathering the Power within him, Lasitus jumped, using his strength to catch himself in the air and propel him upwards. The tunnel Strife had made streaked past him as he flew, then suddenly the walls ahead gave way to open air.

     He burst out of the palace, calling on the Power to give him speed like he’d never known before. The air ripped at him as he flew away, its fury abated only by the shield he managed to erect around himself.

     Lasitus flew away as far and as fast as he could, unable to comprehend what was happening. Why had Strife let him live? Why had he warned him about Mizar? How was he going to get back to Varnus and warn them?

     His thoughts were dashed away as a brilliant light began to fill the air behind him. He spared a single glance backwards, just long enough to see the explosion reach up and fill the sky, turning the cityscape behind him into motes of light as the shockwave blasted out towards him.

     Throwing every last ounce of energy into speed, Lasitus flew hard and fast. And he screamed, a wordless, thoughtless roar. And as the light reached out and enveloped him, he realized that he really didn’t understand anything about the universe at all.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Angol Moa’s Laboratory

            Location Unknown

            Time Unknown

 

In the past few days, Xar had been poked, prodded, scanned, and numbed so many times that he really did feel like someone's guinea pig. And his patience was beginning to wear thin.

     Now he was sitting in a golden chamber surrounded by equipment whose function he could not begin to guess. Angol Moa sat above him in an extended chair, her floating holoscreen in front of him. Her fingers danced lightly across its glowing surface.

     After what seemed like hours, he decided to break the silence.

     “What happened to the Celestials?”

     At first, she said nothing, the light reflecting off her face as she stared at her screen in concentration.

     “You do know, don’t you?” he said again after a while.

     Her eyes glanced over at him, and for a second he thought they flared in annoyance. “Of course I do. It’s my position to know. There isn’t a scientific mystery in the known universe I haven’t already figured out. Except for one,” she added, tapping her cheek thoughtfully.

     “What would that be?”

     “It’s those little flakes that get stuck in your teeth when you eat gooji chips… I just can’t figure out how to stop them,” she said, grinning oddly again.

     He grunted and looked away. “You’re making fun of me again,” he said.

     “Maybe you need it,” she replied, suddenly cool again. “There’s far too little humor in you, my boy.”

     “Thanks for the advice,” he put back. “I’ll put that on the list somewhere after I’ve killed the last Altarin’Dakor.”

     “You need to let go of your hate.”

     “Just answer my question,” Xar said flatly.

     She frowned, then shook her head. “I can’t. This is not the time to discuss that. If we did, it might distract you from our mission.”

     “What mission?” he asked.

     “The only thing we need to worry about is how to stop Altima from finding Malduke,” she responded. “That is our only objective.”

     “That’d be a lot easier if you were a little more forthcoming with information,” he told her.

     “I’ve told you what I know about him,” she replied.

     He waited again while she kept doing whatever it was she was doing. He took a deep breath, impatient. He remembered once being far more calm and reserved than this. Once, he could have waited for hours to get the information he needed. He’d been composed, collected. Was this Krun’s influence again, or Runis’? It seemed more like Krun, to him. Runis had been patient.

     The shook his head. This line of thinking was too disturbing to think about. It felt like… Like giving it legitimacy gave it power  It was almost like he was considering those two ruthless killers in his head comrades, now.

     “I saw him on Varnus,” Xar said, turning his thoughts elsewhere. “Malduke was there, at least a couple of years ago.”

     “Humph. He could be on the other side of the galaxy by now,” she replied idly.

     “We’ll put everything we have into finding him,” Xar said. “Everyone leaves a trail. If he did leave NI space, we’ll find him sooner or later.”

     “You’ll have to do better than that if you want to find him before Altima does,” she said. “He has resources far beyond anything you might have.”

     “Don’t any of the other Warlords know?” he asked suddenly.

     She glanced at him. “Know what?”

     “About Altima’s true objective. The whole Altarin’Dakor, the Return itself. It’s just a farce, isn’t it? Altima doesn’t care if they succeed at all. He just wants Malduke. The Shok’Thola  have been completely duped.”

     “People come up with their own reasons for doing what others want,” she said softly. “Wouldn’t you want to give some purpose to your life if you had lived for a thousand generations?”

     He considered that, thinking of everything she had done, of all the inventions she’d created, and of this entire world devoted to her work. This was what kept her going, he realized. “The Shok’Thola want to take over our galaxy,” he said to her. “And not just ours. They want to conquer them all. They’ll come after you eventually, too.”

     He looked up as she gave a snort.

     “Bah,” she said. “The Altarin’Dakor wouldn’t have a chance if they attacked Kajarn. Much less the other races of the intergalactic community.”

     “The technological difference is that great?” he asked.

     “Of course.”

     He looked around the room. “You use nanotechnology,” he remarked. It was the only way they could do things like this, to cause matter to change so quickly and inexplicably. “So do the Altarin’Dakor. It’s called Shadowtech. Intelligent machines.”

     “It is quite primitive, I assure you,” she said. “A pale comparison to ours. It’s actually flawed, which gives rise to the large rate of anomalies and malfunctions they’ve experienced. In the grand scheme of things, the Altarin’Dakor are mere cosmic adolescents,” she told him. ”The races of the intergalactic community are much older, and far more advanced. Your Altarin’Dakor foes wouldn’t get very far should they venture into a properly settled galaxy.”

     “But what if Altima was with them?”

     She fell silent at that, the only sound in the room the beeping of her monitors. It was enough answer for him.

     “Tell me,” he said. “If you’re supposed to be the greatest scientific genius the universe has ever seen, then why haven’t you been able to duplicate what the Celestials did?”

     “What is it with you?” she sighed, shaking her head. “Are you trying to make me slip? Always asking about the Celestials... Always wanting to know secrets…. When will you learn?”

     “Learn what?”

     “That some things are best left alone.”

     Xar snorted. It was just a simple question. She didn’t have to take it so personally. Xar had always had an insatiable thirst to know more about the universe, especially its ancient secrets. What was so wrong with that? “Sorry to bruise your ego,” he said. “We all have our limitations.”

     She glanced sideways at him. “Who says I haven’t duplicated it, boy?” She gave a loud sniff. “Actually, I copied Celestial technology millennia ago. In my own way, of course. What they did wasn’t quite so impressive as you imagine, I’d wager. If you knew half of what the members of the intergalactic community are capable of, you’d probably wet your pants. Manufacturing planets, terraforming, stellar gateways, transplanted star systems – even virtual immortality. These things are readily available. There’s nothing the Celestials built that I haven’t already duplicated – or could surpass, if I chose to.”

     She broke off then, and turned back to her screen. “Some things, however, are just too dangerous to play with.”

     He thought on that for a moment. “The Collector?” he asked finally.

     For a moment all he heard was the sound of her computer, beeping at her in a code that he supposed only she understood.

     “It’s the one thing I swore I would never build again,” she said after a while. “Now, are you ready to begin?”

     “I’m ready whenever you are. What are you going to do?”

     She glanced down at him. “I’m going to put you to sleep for a while. Then I’ll find out some more.”

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Titan-Class Battleship Eternity

            In Orbit, Planet Tritonia

            1900 Hours

 

            Maarek no longer doubted the stories that he’d heard about Strife. They had to be true. He had seen enough by now, and with his own two eyes to prove it to him. Compared to that, the stories he’d heard before weren’t far-fetched at all. And at this point he’d probably believe anything about the Warlord.

     Strife had already been onboard the Eternity when Maarek landed. Somehow, he’d gotten offworld and returned without a single shuttle or ship of any kind returning from the planet. And after the explosion that had lit up the atmosphere, clearly visible even from space, Maarek hadn’t thought there was any chance the man had survived at all. In fact, he’d thought that they’d lost, at first.

     He had been wrong. No normal person – in fact, not even the strongest Jedi Maarek had ever heard of – could have survived a blast like that. But now that Maarek himself had learned enough about the Force to feel it when it was used around him, he knew that the truth was far more stunning – Strife had caused that blast. The sense of power just before it happened had been unmistakable. Maarek had never felt anything like it before.

     Now, as the Warlord stood in front of him, he couldn’t help but acknowledge that the rumors had to be true. Strife was a god.

     “You performed excellently,” the Warlord said, standing at ease in silken robes, his hair falling like a straight waterfall around his face. “Well worthy of reward, in fact.”

     Maarek had freshened up and had dressed himself into a ceremonial uniform to meet the Warlord. It was stylish and black, and Strife’s insignia was emblazoned on the shoulders. An immense feeling of pride swelled up in his chest at the Warlord’s words. “I have all I want,” he heard himself say. “You’ve already given it to me.”

     There, he’d said it. He knew it was true; there was no denying it. He felt more at home here than he’d ever had anywhere else. Here, he finally belonged.

     He watched as Strife grinned at him, splitting his beautiful face and revealing perfect white teeth. His cold blue eyes sparkled. “Indeed, Maarek,” he said. “You have proven your loyalty to me with certainty, now. I know this not because of your performance, but because I know your innermost thoughts. I know that you serve me faithfully. Therefore, for your service I will give you a new title, a new name for you to bear. From this day forward you will be known as Seitann Maarek Stele. In Altarin’Dakor, the meaning of Seitann is that of an emissary. From now on you are one of my emissaries, Maarek Stele.”

     “Thank you,” Maarek said, unsure of what else to say. The sense of pride within swelled like a glowing sun. A title – given by Strife himself? It would have been the last thing he’d expected to receive, but it felt… right. He could almost feel it falling and resting upon him, like a mantle.

     The Warlord’s face suddenly became more serious. “And now that you have proven your loyalty, I would like to address the second thing I require of you, Maarek Stele.”

     Strife’s eyes pierced through him. It took a second for Maarek to realize what the Warlord was referencing. Then he remembered their original conversation, months ago now. “And that would be?” he asked.

     “Clones.”

     Maarek blinked. Clones? “What kind?”

     “Clones of you, Maarek Stele,” Strife replied. “Now that I know you are able to master the Archon in every way, I will build an entire navy’s worth of Maarek Steles piloting my Archons. They will be more than enough to stop any military opponent that comes against me.”

     Maarek felt a chill wash over him, and he stood in silent shock. Clones of him? He’d never thought anyone would want to do something like that. Was that kind of thing even possible? “That… sound like quite an undertaking,” he said. “How long will it take to do?”

     “It is already done,” Strife replied. “I merely required your DNA, Maarek, and full scans of your brainwaves and patterns, which we have already obtained. I am telling you because I wanted you to be aware,” he said, “and because I wanted to test your loyalty before I began to duplicate you.”

     Maarek wasn’t sure how to respond. He certainly never would have gone along with such an idea when he’d first met the Warlord.

     “I don’t know if I like the thought of other… You know… Me’s…” he began.

     The Warlord cut him off with a wave. “They will not look like you, Maarek. They might resemble you as a distant relative might, but that is all. What I required was in your mind. Don’t worry, my friend. There will only be one true Maarek Stele. I will make sure of that.”

     Maarek took a breath, then nodded. If it was done already, he knew there was really nothing he could really do to stop Strife from carrying out his plans. Besides, this wasn’t his concern any longer.

     “Now,” Strife said. “If you wish, you are free to go. Or, you may live out the rest of your life in luxury in my territories as a prince. You would have access to anywhere in my empire, and nothing I have would be off-limits to you.You could take wives…” He arched an eyebrow at him knowingly. “You could have anything you desire, Maarek.”

     Alona’s face instantly popped into his head. I’d like that, the thought came all on its own. Following a moment later was an image of Chele, lying dead somewhere on the planet Borrose. The twinge of pain knowing she was gone bloomed back in his mind. He pushed it all to the side with some difficulty. “And what will you do with the clones?” he asked.

     “I will use the clones as I see fit, even taking them back to the Altarin’Dakor galaxy.”

     “Will you use them to conquer this galaxy?” Maarek asked.

     “That question is irrelevant to our deal,” Strife countered. “Assuming the Altarin’Dakor invasion is successful, the clones might not even be ready until it is all over. Perhaps the galaxy will already be under my control, or that of another Shok’Thola. I am looking to the future, to what lies ahead, quite a few steps more than some of the others. There are many other galaxies out there, Maarek Stele.”

     “I see,” Maarek replied, thinking. What did he have to lose? He was home here, anyway. Alona was closer to him than anyone else in the galaxy, now. He had carried the Warlord personally onboard his own fighter. He supposed that he had proven his loyalty, at that. “I want Alona,” he said, surprised at how quickly the words came out of his mouth.

     Strife smiled slightly. “She is already yours, Maarek. But know that she will not leave my presence easily. It can be… intoxicating.”

     Maarek took a deep breath, then nodded.

     “You must work things out between yourselves.”

     “I understand,” Maarek said.

     “You will stay with us, then?” Strife asked.

     Maarek nodded once. “I will.”

     The truth was, he knew his decision had been made already.

 

            A few hours later, Maarek was back on the Eternity’s observation deck, watching as Akargan’s former ships were brought into formation with Strife’s fleet. Presumably commands were changing hands, and those factions that would be unwilling to change allegiances were being eliminated even as he watched.

     He was aware of Alona’s presence even before she stepped up beside him. That he could do that now – with his budding Force abilities – continued to amaze him. But not as much as the look in her eyes as he turned to look at her.

     “You are staying with us,” she said.

     “I’m staying with you,” he said, staring into the maroon discs that were her eyes.

     She didn’t blush at his intense stare, but merely returned his gaze. “I am honored, Maarek Stele. There are more battles ahead, though. You know that.”

     “I know,” he said. “And I’ll fight them beside you, every step of the way.” He glanced back out at the stars again. “I’m a pilot, Alona. War is all I’ve known for so long, there’s nothing really else out there for me. Except for you. I want to do this together. And after this is all over, maybe we can settle down somewhere.” He reached over and took her hand, squeezing it gently.

     “I would like that, Maarek Stele.”

     “I know now,” he said, nodding. “This is what we were made for.”

     “I understand what you mean, Tan Stele,” she said.

     Maarek turned to look back at her. “Why do you call me that?” he asked.

     “It is the short form of Seitann. It is a term of endearment,” she explained, her eyes twinkling.

     A smile began to play across her mouth. He stared into her eyes for a moment, then reached a hand behind her head, taking hold of her thick azure locks, and drew her lips to his.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Angol Moa’s Laboratory

            Location Unknown

            Time Unknown

 

            “Welcome back,” Angol Moa said as Xar’s eyelids flickered back open. He looked up at her and saw her still sitting above him, just as she was before. Making him feel even more like a blasted guinea pig. He shook his head to clear it of the sudden grogginess he felt. He hadn’t even known he was out.

     “I have good news,” she said, then broke off and paused thoughtfully for a moment. “Well, I suppose it’s actually bad news, but at least it is progress.”

     “What do you mean?” He glared up at her. “Whatever it is, just tell me.”

     Angol Moa tapped her lips thoughtfully. “I have isolated your problem, my boy. The good news is that you’re not completely insane. The two personalities within you are very much real.”

     “What?” he said.

     “They’re not a physical manifestation on your brain at all. Part of their spirit is trapped inside you, intertwined with your own.”

     “So how do we get them out?” he demanded.

     “That is the part you’re not going to like. Their personalities have nearly bonded to yours, marking you as a completely different person from what you might otherwise be. It is good that you came to me now; if you had waited much longer it might have been too late to save you from complete insanity. But I cannot forcibly remove them from you. The healing cannot come from outside, it must be from within. The only way to do that is deep inside your own psyche.” She arched an eyebrow at him. “You’re going to have to face them. You’ll have to fight them off, eject them from your own psyche. And if you lose, it might be yourself who is cast out, instead.”

     He shivered at that thought. Still, he doubted this could possibly be true. “Can’t you help me?” he asked suspiciously.

     “I’m afraid this is something you’ll have to do by yourself,” she replied. “I can only provide the doorway inside.”

     Xar didn’t respond. Doubts played through his mind. What was Angol Moa really up to?

     “Give it some thought,” she said. “When you are ready, let me know when you to want to proceed.”

     That night, he didn’t sleep well. In his dreams, he did cruel things, hurt people that he knew he really cared about, but in that moment inexplicably lost all sympathy for. In his dreams, he knew he was really a different person. And when he saw his face in the mirror in those dreams, it wasn’t himself that he was seeing. It was always the face of Krun, or Runis. It was never Xar.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Titan-class Battleship Grand Crusader

            In Orbit, Mizar System

            1600 Hours

 

“Sir, a Titan-class battleship had just decloaked a point two-five-seven!”

     The call blared out from beside his cot, waking him almost instantly. With the lights still dimmed, he nevertheless dressed in a rush, then strode out of the ready room, where he’d had a makeshift quarters set up so he could be close in case something happened. Something like this.

     Gaius was on the bridge within moments of the call going out. The fatigue from the short, fitful sleep he’d been having quickly vanished as he saw what was waiting for him outside the forward viewports.

     A monstrosity eating away at least a quarter of the sky floated out in space in front of them. It was pitch black, making it stand out in sillouette against the Galbagos Nebula filling the sky behind it. Two massive, wickedly-curved arms stretched out in front of a broader central hub, making it look like a massive, spiky beetle’s head floating in space. But there was more than just a visual sense about the ship. Through the Force Gaius could feel the evil emanating off of it. It wasn’t just the ship that was the threat; there was a powerful presence inside of it, and it felt more dangerous than the Titan ever could be.

     It was nearly fifty kilometers long. He remembered a time he’d stood in disbelief at seeing a ship of that size. No longer. Now he was commanding one of his own.

     Walt Amason had been watching the bridge in Gaius’ off-shift. He spun around in Gaius’ chair as he noticed the fleet commander’s entry. The whole bridge was a bustle of activity behind and below him.

     “What have we got?” Gaius asked as he walked up.

     “The ship is called the Dark Sun,” Walt said, coming to his feet. “We’ve never seen this particular Titan before.”

     Gaius took a deep breath, looking out the viewports again. The ship outside was huge, but not as large as the Grand Crusader. They weren’t outmatched yet. The question was, however, was this ship alone, or were there others, cloaked just as theirs were?

     Their plan here, to hold at Mizar and pick off Altarin’Dakor fleets as they came in one by one, depended upon not having to face too large a force at once. If they were seriously overwhelmed, it would expose the weakness in their plan.

     A chime sounded throughout the bridge. “We are being hailed,” the Comm officer reported.

     Gaius exchanged quick glances with Amason. “What are they saying?”

     The Altarin’Dakor officer paused, perhaps to translate in his head what she was hearing. “They are asking our purpose for being here, and to speak with the commanding officer,” she reported.

     “That would be me,” Gaius said. Walking over, he took the empty chair that Amason had vacated. Walt took up a place beside him, for support if needed.

     “What is our response sir?” the woman asked him.

     Gaius put an elbow up on his armrest and stroked the stubble that had started working its way out of his chin. He hesitated before replying to the woman. This situation was delicate. He needed more information. Was it just one Titan, or more? He had three more cloaked Titans in close formation around him, his surprise card. But he needed time to assess his enemy before he knew which action to take. Could this be decided diplomatically, or would force be necessary”

     “Maybe we can scare them off,” Walt suggested at his side.

     Gaius considered his options. He didn’t want to reveal his hand prematurely, but he also couldn’t ignore the communiqué, either. “Send them a message,” he ordered. “Ask them what they are doing here. Tell them the Mizar is under our jurisdiction.” He hestitated, mind working quickly to find a way through this. “Tell them it’s under Nimrod’s jurisdiction,” he finished.

     For a moment the officer just stared at him, doing nothing. Gaius wondered if he’d somehow violated a cultural taboo or something by invoking Nimrod’s name. You just never know with these blasted Altarin’Dakor, he thought. He wished he had the dayshift officer here instead, but there simply weren’t enough NI personnel to man all the shifts. “Is there a problem?” he asked finally.

     The woman straightened, as if realizing she’d been gaping at him and that she wasn’t supposed to do that. “No sir,” she said in a monotone voice. “It is… an unusual thing to say.”

     “That’s the idea,” Gaius told her. “Send the message.”

     “Understood, sir.” Then she leaned over her console and began speaking into the receiver.

     For several moments, Gaius and Walt waited without any sign of a response. The constant hum of activity on the bridge around them was the only thing to be heard.

     “Well?” Gaius asked.

     The Comm officer looked back up at him. “They are not replying, sir.”

     “Figures,” Walt spoke up.

     “They’re trying to decide if we’re bluffing,” Gaius told him. “This should buy us some time.”

     “Time for what?” Walt asked.

     “To figure out what our next move is,” Gaius said.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Titan-class Battleship Eternity

            Ultraspace

            0900 Hours

 

            Days had passed since Maarek’s sudden promotion, and his decision to stay with Strife’s fleet. They had left Tritonia, jumping to another system, though Maarek wasn’t sure where. It had to still be inside Epsilon Sector, though. They weren’t leaving the key battlefield of the war just yet.

     The days of downtime had also given him as much uninterrupted time with Alona as he could have hoped for. During that time, their bond had deepened even further. Hours on the observation deck, long walks in the envirodecks, and most importantly, lots of conversation. He had been fascinated to learn about where she was from, and what turns her life had taken to bring her to this point.

     She’d been trained almost from birth to be a Jedicon pilot. Maarek could only imagine what it must have been like to have your destiny set for you for as long as one could remember. Alona had been the star of her class, and her amazing powers in the Force had put her on track to become one of the Shok’Thola’s most elite squadron pilots. Slowly, Maarek came to understand what her position truly entailed. The chances of being selected to serve in the position she held were literally one in a million. Alona was the envy of thousands, millions of Altarin’Dakor pilots and Jedicon alike all throughout Strife’s vast empire. She was a personal servant to their supreme ruler, a man their great-great grandparents had learned to serve and worship from the day they were born.

     In comparison to that, Maarek didn’t consider his own life to be that remarkable. Yet remarkably Alona was fascinated with every aspect of Maarek’s life from his childhood to his Imperial pilot days, all the way to his time in the NI. She didn’t take it offensively that he’d killed Altarin’Dakor pilots – after all, she reasoned, it was a war – and she found it especially interesting to hear how Maarek had saved Emperor Palpatine – the former ruler of this galaxy. He supposed that she could relate well to what his role had been, at least for that mission, anyway: the personal bodyguard of an unquestioned authority.

     She also wanted to know all about Maarek’s parents, Kerek and Marina Stele. Maarek was reluctant to reveal too much, especially what their current whereabouts were. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust her – no, he trusted her more than anyone – it was just that old habits died hard. He hadn’t spoken of his parents to anyone in years. Not since Vader had lied to him about releasing his father.

     The days went by so quickly that he didn’t even notice the fact that Strife’s fleet was amassing in a single location again until they had already done so. One evening, on the observation deck, he noticed far more ships around than he’d ever seen in the fleet before. Strife was getting ready for another big move. Maarek understood – he’d defeated one big opponent, now he wanted to keep the momentum up. But what would their next mission be? Would they go up against yet another Shok’Thola? Or would they be turning their guns onto the New Imperium next?

     His questions about Strife’s plans were soon answered. Maarek had been called back to the Warlord’s war room, for what would now be the third time. Each one so far had signified a momentous change in Maarek Stele’s life. Would this one be the same?

     Now, staring at the giant map floating in the air with Strife standing on the other side, he held his breath in anticipation for whatever he was about to hear. Because whichever direction it went from here, the changes would be momentous, indeed.

     “Here,” Strife said, gesturing at the holographic representation of the Mizar system floating in the air between them. “From this you can see that the New Imperium Starfleet has amassed in the Mizar System. They arrived several weeks ago and secured it before anyone else could move in.”

     Maarek looked at the map, feeling more than a bit of shock. The New Imperium had taken Mizar! The first time they’d tried, it had been one of the worst defeats of the war, and one of the bloodiest battles Maarek had ever seen. Now the NI had been successful, and Maarek hadn’t been there to see it. “What are these other blips?” he asked, pointing.

     “Unfortunately,” Strife said, “a coalition of Shok’Thola appear to have banded together and positioned their fleets opposite those of the NI. My sources tell me that the fleets belong to the Shok’Thola Asellus, Kronos, Calvernic, and Velius.”

     Maarek felt a chill run down his spine. Four Warlords together!

     “This is an unprecedented opportunity,” Strife said, glancing sideways at him. “One we cannot afford to pass up. Five Shok’Thola, including Zalaria. If they can be eliminated, then there would only be four Shok’Thola left remaining within the entire Altarin’Dakor, including me. In addition, my superiority over the others would be unquestionable, as I would be the strongest by far. The entire Altarin’Dakor empire might even fall under my command, at that point.”

     “So, we’ll be going in, then,” Maarek said, taking a breath and glancing again at the map. It would be oa battle of legendary proportions. “When?”

     “Our forces will assemble immediately. We will hold just outside the system, in Ultraspace, and wait for the right time to enter the engagement.”

     Maarek nodded slowly. Then, irresistible, the next question on his mind came to his lips. “Whose side will we be fighting on?”

     Strife met Maarek’s eyes with his own. “That has yet to be determined,” he said. “We will continue to watch the situation, and when the time has come, we will move.”

     Maarek merely nodded, turning to study the holographic display in more detail. He pushed aside his worries; he had to trust Strife. And even if things turned out differently, he knew that in war things were never clear. Allegiances shifted.

     “You must obey my commands no matter what, Maarek Stele,” Strife said, taking his attention again. “Even if you do not understand them at the time.”

     “I understand,” Maarek replied professionally.

     “You belong to me, now.”

     Maarek glanced back at him, and he knew he couldn’t deny that fact any more. “I’ll be ready,” he said.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *    

 

            Angol Moa’s Laboratory

            Location Unknown

            Time Unknown

 

            The experiments continued for quite some time. Xar was beginning to lose patience with Angol Moa.

     Xar seriously doubted that Angol Moa was what she and Icis claimed. The thought that anyone could be as old and as smart as her, and could accomplish so much, was starting to feel a bit far-fetched.

     After all, he’d been here for weeks, now, and still she hadn’t figured out a solution to his problem. If she couldn’t do it, then he’d rather have her come out and admit it, rather than keep leading him on like this. If he was going to go insane, then he didn’t want to do it cooped up inside her laboratory.

     Now he found himself in yet another scanning chamber. She must have run the same scans on him a hundred times by now, he surmised. What good was it to do more?  Sitting there at her hovering seat, there was an almost haunted look to her face. It was barely perceptible, well hidden. But more than ever he felt a sense of sadness about her. Maybe she was realizing that Xar couldn’t be saved.

     “Any progress?” he asked for what must have been the thousandth time.

     “Progress is always being made,” she said. “I must assemble more data before I can give you a more accurate picture of the situation.”

     Xar grunted; he’d heard that answer quite a few times already. She never said any more than that. She just kept working, her eyes rarely blinking, fingers working furiously. There. The corners of her eyes dropped just slightly. It was barely noticeable, but the sadness was definitely there.

     “What’s with the look?” he said.

     “What do you mean?”

     “You’re not exactly your normal, perky self,” he said in a sarcastic tone.

     She glanced down at him. “We Kajeat are highly sensitive to the feelings of those around us,” she said softly. “It helps us to understand others better, and therefore chronicle their lives. Certain things in your life… remind me of tragic events in mine,” she finished.

     That was about as open an answer as he’d ever gotten out of her. “Did you… lose someone?” Xar asked. He was guessing – but maybe it really was just disappointment in her lack of progress. Was this creature even capable of something resembling a normal relationship – much less love?

     She frowned for a moment, as though she knew exactly what he was thinking. Then she sighed. “My… mate, and my child, both perished in our home dimension. They were too close to the Entity, and I could not save them.”

     Her words struck a chord in Xar. He’d never considered the possibility that she could have been a mother, once.

     He frowned. “But couldn’t you… you know… draw them back here? Couldn’t you pull them out whenever you draw a new Traveler into this dimension?”

     “It doesn’t work that way,” she told him. “We cannot choose a certain individual to bring back. Believe me, I’ve tried.”

     “I… see. I’m sorry,” he said.

     “You must reconcile yourself to the loss of the boy,” she told him eventually.

     Xar snapped his head up in surprise. “What does that mean?”

     She didn’t answer him. Instead she said, “You have to move on, Xar.”

     “That’s none of your business,” he snapped. But after a moment, he relented. If what she told him was true about her family – and that was a big if – then she should understand what he was feeling. But then again, he didn’t fully understand it, himself.

     “I should have protected him,” he said finally.

     “You have to forgive yourself,” she said instead. “It was not your fault.”

     Xar took a deep breath. His voice had become unsteady – he hadn’t spoken about this with anyone, yet. “I can’t let his memory die. D…” Stang, but it was hard to say that name… “Derek would have been stronger, greater than I ever could be,” he said. “He had a bright future – a destiny. And it was snuffed out.”

     “It is not your place to make that determination,” she said. “The boy Derek’s destiny was his own. Who is to say that his sole purpose was not to draw you into what you now face?”

     “How can you say that?!” Xar exclaimed. “You coldhearted…”

     “Do you yourself believe in sacrificing your life for that of others?” she interrupted him. “Haven’t you risked your life many times for your wife, for your people?”

     He broke off. The casualness of her comment was dismaying, as though she were suggesting that Derek had been something less than a real, living being. Xar shook his head. It was impossible. The Force couldn’t be that cruel. “You’re forgetting one thing,” he said. “I was supposed to die. We never would have discovered something was wrong with me if my son hadn’t come back to save me. If only he could have saved Derek, too…”

     “You have to focus your mind into the present, boy.”

     “I have to mourn him!” he countered. “And I won’t tolerate your disrespecting him again.”

     She sniffed loudly again. “Perhaps. But there is little time for the healing process, I’m afraid. You are holding back, and I cannot help you if you won’t let me.”

     “What do you know about healing wounds?” he shot back.

     Angol Moa arched an eyebrow. If his words perturbed her, she showed little more, yet that one gesture felt like a yell. “I am not playing games, boy,” she quipped back at him. “Consider this: you may have lost one who was like a son to you, but you have gained two other, true sons, instead.”

     Xar looked up. “What do you mean by that?”

     “You have Derek, the son resting within the womb of your wife. And you have the Derek who came from the future and saved your life – soon he will return to be with you.”

      “But that can’t be,” Xar countered, shaking his head. “How can there be two at the same time?”

     “Your son Derek has the ability to transverse the pattern of space-time,” she said. “Perhaps you do not fully realize the implications of his decision to help you. When he altered history in that way, he changed forever the future that he knew. Now he is all that remains of that timeline, of that entire universe.

     “Now the boy who grew up without you will never be. The child that is now within his mother will grow up a different reality, with a father to guide him. Future Derek still has those memories, of course, but the moment he changed history, the mother that raised him alone and the timeline in which he grew up have now effectively ceased to exist – or at least, they are now inaccessible to him. He is trapped in this timeline forever, now. He gave up all of that – everything that he knew, Xar. He gave it up for you.”

     Xar listened, but didn’t look at her. He was at a loss for what to say.

     “He shouldn’t have done it,” he declared finally. “One man’s life could never be that important, to trade for everyone else’s.” Everyone in the universe.

     “So you wish that you had died?”

     “Don’t play games with me,” he said. “You’re just trying to justify killing off everyone in your universe. My son would never do that. He’s a good man – better than you’ll ever be.”

     “Whether his actions were right or wrong is irrelevant, now,” she told him. “The universe is amoral, Xar. Decisions are made and must be lived with. I have come to terms with myself. You must do the same for you.”

     “We’ll see about that,” he said, wishing he knew of something better to say. All he could think about was what his son Derek had told him, that he’d grown up with only his mother to guide him, and that he’d taken an incredible risk to come and save his father, to change history.

     Xar was supposed to die on Varnus, that day. Derek wouldn’t have traded an entire universe just to save his father’s life, would he? Did time really work that way? He didn’t know – and that lack of knowing was unbearable. It couldn’t be true. Derek had to be a better man than Xar was.

     Angol Moa began typing on her screen again, and he heard the scanners firing up once more. “What’s done is now in the past, Xar,” her words echoed throughout the chamber. “What matters now is that you must live in such a way as to prove his actions worth the cost.”

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            That night, the nightmares came in force.

     Xar rolled over, burying his face into his pillow. Heaving sobs, dry sobs without tears, raked through his body. He gripped the sheets in clenched fists, pulling on them tightly as he could in a body that suddenly felt sapped of strength, as impotent as his ability to turn back time and change what had happened. 

     Why had she had to mention the boy? Xar had managed to push it far, far away, into the deepest corner of his mind where he’d locked the events away tightly. He hadn’t had time to think about it, and he knew that he wasn’t strong enough to take it even if he did. That day on Varnus part of him had died just as certainly as if hi son hadn’t rescued him.

     In fact, that was the key; Xar was supposed to have died. If he had, he never would have known that the boy had been killed by those Jedicon. Xar could have slept in peace forever. But instead he had to live now in the agony of that knowledge. Angol Moa had thrust those doors in his mind open, and now the full power of that devastation rushed through him in a chaotic maelstrom.

     Derek was dead. He accepted that fact, now, and the despair was overwhelming. He was never coming back. Never! It was so surreal, like a dream that he had to wake up from. How could it be?!

     He was just a boy! The thought tormented his soul endlessly. Xar had done everything – everything! – in his power to keep him safe, away from the conflict. Why had hit happened? Why?!  Derek had been so kind, so endearing, so innocent! He hadn’t deserved this!

     Oh, kriff! his mind raced. Kriff it all! It’s not FAIR!

     Suddenly, the room felt different.

     “You’ll soon be joining him,” a raspy voice sounded from within the darkness.

     Xar jolted awake, sitting upright, his heart racing. Sweat-soaked sheets fell to his waist as he looked around. There, in the doorway, was a sillouetted figure. As he watched, heart pounding in his chest, the figure moved forward slightly, just enough for the light to illuminate his features.

     The man had long, dark and unkempt hair. His face was marred by the ugly scar stretching across his face. His eyes were dark, sinister. It was Dasok Krun.

     “What’s the matter, Kerensky?” Krun taunted him. “Afraid to die?”

     Xar screamed, lunging out of bed and reaching desperately for the Force. “Lights!” he shouted, causing the room to illuminate. He cast about for his lightsaber, but it took only a second to remember he’d left it back on the Black Star.

     He turned to look back at the figure in the doorway. Then Dasok Krun turned and ran from the room.

     Xar took off after him, allowing the Force to rush through his body. He passed through the doorway out into the cool night air, the sounds of Angol Moa’s forest surrounding the apartment he’d been given to sleep in.

     Dasok Krun was already a good twenty paces ahead of him, barreling towards the entrance to Angol Moa’s laboratory. He glanced behind him as Xar stood there, hesitating. This isn’t real, he thought. It had to be an illusion, a product of his own mind working over time. But Krun looked so real… Could it really be him, still existing somewhere inside Xar’s mind? Was that was was controlling this image in front of him?

     “Come get me, Kerensky!” shouted Krun from below. “Do you think you can kill me? Do you think you’ll be able to stop me? I killed your whole family, Kerensky! Your father, your mother, your sister and your brothers.” He laughed then, a sound rich with the utter vileness of the dark soul that rested within. “I even killed your uncle,” he finished with a grin.

     Xar was running again in an instant, barreling towards the murderous creature below him. He didn’t care whether Krun was real or not; he was going to kill him tonight. Even if he had to burn part of his brain out to do it.

     Krun turned and continued running, heading for the entrance. He slipped through into the laboratory just ahead of Xar, disappearing for a moment out of sight.

     Xar passed through the entrance and paused, scanning the giant vaunted area beyond. Krun had vanished.

     Ahead lay the gardens situated directly underneath the first massive dome, the one with the holographic creatures.

     “Over here, Kerensky!”

     There he was. Standing over near the side wall to the right, just in the shadows, grinning wickedly.

     With a roar, Xar thrust out his hand and send a blast of energy out at his enemy. The flash of energy crossed the space and slammed into Krun, who exploded into a hundred pieces. Glints of metal and plasteel flew through the air. It didn’t take long for Xar to realize what it was.

     One of Angol Moa’s droids.

     “I’m here, Kerensky!” Krun’s voice came.

     Xar looked up at the bridge arching ten meters above the gardens, allowing its travelers a superb view of the scenery below. Krun was standing directly in center of it, glaring down at Xar, hands on the banister.

     Xar sent another blast out towards his enemy. Dasok Krun exploded. Sparks and pieces of synthetic material flew everywhere, and a cloud of smoke rolled upwards from the wreckage.

     Another droid down, Xar thought. Maybe at this rate I’ll destroy all of those blasted things.

     But what about Krun? What if he didn’t go away, this time? Would Xar really go insane?

     “Kerensky!” Krun laughed wildly from somewhere else. Xar snapped his head around and saw the man darting from one of the side hallways.

     He took off after him, following him into the gardens. If Krun thought he could lose him there, he was sorely mistaken.

He followed a narrow path into the gardens, temporarily losing sight of his quarry. He could still hear Krun’s footsteps, though, coming from somewhere. Crouching down, he slipped off the path into the dense foliage.

Tracking more by his natural instincts than the Force, he skirted through the tall ferns surrounding him, coming around to flank his opponent. He finally emerged into a clearing a few moments later. Sure enough, there was Krun, standing still next to a babbling brook and waterfall, his back turned to Xar.

Drawing on a surge of the Force, Xar lunged forward at his enemy. At the last second Krun turned, a mad smile painted across his face, then Xar thrust out a fist with all his might and sent the man’s head flying from his shoulders.

Sparks flew from the headless droid as it collapsed into the waters. The head crashed into the underbrush somewhere out of sight. Another one down, Xar thought feeling a wicked grin creep across his face. This was actually becoming enjoyable…

     “That will be enough, boy.”

     Angol Moa’s voice cut through the air like a knife. He turned toward the sound, over to where a short bridge rose up to cross the brook as it flowed downstream.

     There she was. Standing there in all of her terrifying glory, her hair spreading out in the darkness wildly like rays of dusk sunlight. The woman who, so he was to believe, was the oldest living being in the universe.

     If Shok’Thola were guilty of horrible crimes in the thousand generations they’d lived – if they deserved to die for what they had committed, then what must this woman have done after four times that lifespan? What must she deserve to endure for her own crimes? The Warlords had wiped out whole races, but this woman had destroyed an entire universe. And Xar was the only person who knew. He was the only person who stood in a position to bring about justice.

     “I said that’s enough,” Angol Moa repeated. “Stop this nonsense.”

     “I will not,” he said back defiantly. She could undoubtedly feel that he was filled to bursting with the Force, but she showed no fear whatsoever. “I’m through taking orders from you. You’ve wasted enough of my time. I know you can’t help me.” He gave her a wicked grin. “Admit it! You’ve finally met your match! A problem you couldn’t solve! Well, from here on out I’ll take my chances elsewhere. I’ll defeat Krun and Runis on my own, on my terms.”

     “Focus, Xar!” she shouted at him. “Search your feelings. You are not yourself! Krun is inside your mind!”

     “Part of Krun,” he countered. “But I have my whole mind. I’m stronger than he is. Stronger than both of them combined!”

     “Don’t be a fool! If I lose you then our chances of defeating the Entity…”

     “I’m not listening to any more of this!” he spat at her. “Why should I believe your crazy ideas? You created that thing! You’re as guilty as the Altarin’Dakor!”

     Her eyes narrowed. “I’ve never denied my…”

     He stopped listening to her. His vision had d gone red, and all he could focus on was the anger and rage boiling inside of him. “It’s time you learned to deal with your own problems!” he shouted, shaking his head. He couldn’t believe the audacity with which she walked around, pretending to be some great matriarchal figure, all the while hiding the fact that she was the biggest killer in all of history.

     “You’ve killed far more than the Altarin’Dakor ever will,” he declared. “In fact, the Altarin’Dakor are your fault! Every death they’ve caused can be placed in your hands! Even…” He flinched as the realization suddenly hit him. The AD killed Derek. It was like a sledgehammer to the stomach. The sense of loss hit and overwhelmed him instantly. The anger, the frustration at not being able to do anything, at being powerless to change the past, sent the rage spiking in his mind.

     Xar glared at Angol Moa with hate-filled eyes. “YOU killed him!” he shouted.

     He clenched his fists, reaching out to draw all of his power, enough to destroy her. He reached out – and froze in complete shock.

     He couldn’t touch the Force! At first he thought she’d outsmarted him, and his hatred boiled all the more. But no – the Force was there, just not in the way that he was used to. This feeling, this way – it felt old and familiar. He could take hold of it once more, if he wished.

     Letting his anger fuel him, he reached for the Force again and seized it by force, commanding it to do his will.

     He reached out towards Angol Moa, and sheets of lightning shot out of his outstretched fingers at her.

     She looked almost as shocked as Xar felt as the dark power flowed through him again.

     Her surprise lasted only a second. The lightning didn’t come within two meters of her – it simply dissipated against an invisible bubble surrounding her that he hadn’t been able to see.

     His anger unabated, he let the lightning die. Very well then. If that wasn’t strong enough for her, then perhaps this would be. Clenching his fists together, he drew on all the Force he could muster – which was somehow not as much as he was used to, but it didn’t matter – then he thrust his arms out at her and sent a blast of Force Destruction erupting from his palms.

     Angol Moa’s eyes widened. She took a step back, thrust out a hand just as Xar’s blast reached her. Light and energy shot out from her hand and touched Xar’s

     The blast illuminated the jungle all around them, and a gust of wind made Angol Moa’s hair stand out behind her head. Her robes flapped wildly, and the foliage around them swayed violently.

     Finally the eruption died down, and dark and quiet settled around them once more. Water burst out in clouds of mist around them from hydration machines that had been damaged by the assault. Xar cursed again, seeing how ineffective his attack had been. There had to be some way…

     “How far will you go to satisfy your thirst for vengeance?” Angol Moa said, her voice eerily still, yet somehow piercing the quiet like a thunderclap.

     “Kriff you…” Xar spat. “I’ll show you…”

     “Will you allow the dark side to consume you once more? Tell me Xar, who is in control, now?”

     “I…” he began to say, then paused. The dark side.

     Realization struck so hard that he collapsed to his knees, falling over in shock, hunched over on the ground, hands sliding through the wet soil beneath him.

     Just as quickly as it had come, the anger and the hatred faded away to nothing. He understood now what had been happening. I let Krun take control, he realized. I used the dark side. I swore I never would again.

     What have I done?

     The sense of guilt was overwhelming. In a moment Xar had thrown away everything he believed in. He’d even tried to kill Angol Moa. What has happening to him? How could he live with himself like this?

     Suddenly he was aware of Angol Moa standing over him. He pushed himself up on his hands and knees, forced himself to look up at her. He wondered if she was going to kill him now. If so, then he knew that he deserved it.

     “The transition is almost complete,” she said. Her eyes – and her voice – were both full of pity. “We don’t have a lot of time left, Xar.”

     “I…” he tried to say, choking up. He stared at the ground, water dripping down off his face. “What’s… happening to me? I don’t understand…”

     She knelt down in front of him, and he felt her hand touch his shoulder. “This is a most sinister attack against you, Xar,” she said. “There is no way you can defend yourself against it.”

     Suddenly her hand was under his chin, guiding his head up. “Look at me,” she said.

     He met her gaze, his emotions welling up like a bursting dam, unstoppable. “I hate them so much…” he croaked. “They took everything away from me. My father… My mother… My brother and sister…” Even his uncle, Aron. “Even Derek. He’s dead…!” he broke off, unable to utter another word.

     “Oh, child,” she said. “Come here.”

     Willingly, he collapsed into her arms, put his head into her lap, and wept uncontrollably. Great sobs ripped through him, muffled only by his face buried in her dress, his tears mixing with the water streaming down his face.

     “Your pain runs deeply, child,” she explained her voice coming soft to his ears. “You were not allowed a normal life to grow up in. As a child you were forced to grow up quickly. Then that young man was subjected to endure things very few people ever have to endure.”

     He cried for a long time, letting out all the hurt, all the anger at what Runis, Krun – and the Altarin’Dakor – had done to him. To his family. He felt he would never heal from the pain, it was so debilitating. How could he have been so stoic, so emotionless, for so long? He hadn’t mourned them; he’d held it all inside. Now it was coming out at a rush, uncontrollable.

     After what felt like an eternity, he felt her hands on his face, her touch soothing as cool water on a hot day. The water stopped, and he felt warmth spreading throughout his body, filling him with a sense of reassurance, of safety, of hope. “There, there,” she whispered, rocking him back and forth.

     Xar let himself become lost in that warm embrace. He couldn’t help it; never before had anyone felt so much like a mother to him. He understood now that she was the oldest living woman – the oldest living mother – in the entire universe. She may not have created it herself, but she surely knew more than anyone else possibly could. A thousands questions surfaced in Xar’s mind, questions about himself, about his life. Would she have the answers to all of them? To the things that Xar had always wondered?

      Sometime later Angol Moa lifted his head up to look into his eye.. He saw little more than a blur as she spoke to him. “We will have to deal with these issues inside of you if you wish for true restoration to take place,” she said. “But for now, child, rest. Come. I will help you keep the dreams at bay.”

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Royal Palace

            Vectur, Varnus

            0820 Hours

 

            Grand Master Alyx Misnera sat with the remaining members of his Jedi Council, attempting to solve the problems only they could, using what creativity and resources they had, even though each of them probably hadn’t had a decent sleep in months, at the least.

     Cups of caf sat in front of each member gathered, steam wafting inexorably upwards from the dark liquid inside. Some were on their second or third cups. Alyx blinked until the stinging sensation left his eyes. He hadn’t gotten much sleep lately, and Force-induced trances only helped for so long. He was long past that point, now.

     Every day from the moment he awoke to the time he fell asleep was spent trying to piece Vectur back together. Xar had dropped the whole disaster squarely in Alyx’s lap. He’d never asked to be an administrator – Xar was better at that, even though he’d always shirked those kinds of duties. How was he supposed to put an entire city back together?

     And now, it was clear that even the combined knowledge and know-how of Kiz Thrakus, Vynd Archaron, Jinx Skipper, and Atridd Xoan wasn’t enough to solve all their problems.

     Alyx had had enough.

     “Construction has stopped once again,” Jinx reported. “Contractors are tired of not being paid, and we don’t have enough money in the treasury to pay…”

     “What about clearing the rubble from the streets?” Alyx cut in.

     “A lot of progress has been made,” Thrakus added, “but it’s the same problem now. We haven’t paid wages in six weeks.”

     “Let them do it volunteer, then,” Alyx countered gruffly. “They live here too, don’t they?”

     “Sir, people need to earn money to buy food so they can eat,” Kiz replied. “Not to mention to pay back their debts, their houses, transportation… The economy can’t recover from this overnight. With our infrastructure having taken so many hits, it may never recover.”

     “We might as well face it, Alyx,” Jinx spoke back up. “We can’t rebuild Vectur just like it was. Not for… well… years. We might not even be able to rebuild the palace like it was. People don’t want to work here anymore.”

     Alyx dropped his head, feeling the steam of his caf waft up over his nostrils. They were right, he knew. The whole NI economy had collapsed. It had become impossible to undo the damage done by the Altarin’Dakor invasion. It would take years just to get them back to where they had been, and that was assuming people stayed around to invest in the NI all over again. That didn’t seem likely – people were leaving in droves, calling themselves “refugees”. He shook his head in disgust. Refugees from the government that had protected them.

     “Keep sending out the recruiting advertisements,” he told them. “And the marketing campaigns. Maybe we can keep people from leaving and attract people back to Vectur. Promise them we won’t let any AD near Varnus again, ever.”

     “But, sir, with due respect, they’re already here…” Thrakus began.

     “I am aware of that,” Alyx said, grabbing his caf in a clenched grip. “But we have to do whatever it takes. Even if it means kicking any AD off of Varnus, whether they’re helping us or not.”

     “We can just make sure all AD are with the main fleet at Mizar,” Vynd put in. “They need all the forces they can get, and we certainly don’t need – or want – them here.”

     “Gaius is still asking for more of our Jedi to supplement the forces there,” Atridd said.

     “He’ll have to do without,” Alyx declared. “We’ve hardly any Jedi left to even rebuild the Order. Xar’s managed to run off even his most loyal followers.”

     That comment sent silence around the table for a long moment. Alyx shook his head in disgust. Things were bad – they didn’t even speak up when he put Xar down in front of them. Alyx didn’t care; the man deserved every bit of it, and more. Even Akala had resigned, weeks earlier. Citing that Xar had abandoned him, he’d left in disgrace. Alyx couldn’t forgive Xar for that.

     “I’m tired of fighting Xar’s personal wars,” he said. He looked up, met the gazes of the other men around the table. They looked tired – but he felt more fatigued than any of them appeared.

      “With all due respect again,” Thrakus spoke up, “This isn’t about Xar anymore. The New Imperium needs us. The question is, are we still a part of it? I, for one, am.”

     “And I am, too,” Jinx added. “If for no other reasion, the NI is the only hope my people have at this moment.”

     Suddenly the doors burst open without warning. Ready to expect anything at this point, Alyx spun towards the sound, already drawing on the Force, feeling the men around him doing likewise.

     Standing in the doorway was a tall man in worn robes. His long, dirty blonde hair hung down unkempt from his head, framing a face full of weariness and pain. Alyx hadn’t seen that face in months.

      It was Bren.

     “You,” Alyx said. “What are you doing here?”

     Alyx had heard from Rynn and Jinx that Bren had run away, overcome with guilt about Derek’s death, but as far as he was concerned the man had gone AWOL.

     “You look like you’ve seen better days,” Atridd told Bren.

     Bren stayed where he was, taking in everyone seated in the room. “I have seen better days,” he replied in a hoarse tone. “Much better.”

     Alyx took in Bren’s posture, his weary eyes, and the fresh-looking scars on his face. Atridd was right, the man didn’t look good. “Where have you been?” he repeated.

     The long-haired man took a deep breath first. “I was with the Shok’Thola Akargan,” he breathed finally.

      “What?” a chorus of shouts came.

      “Doing what?” Alyx asked. He noticed Jinx’s hand had dropped to his waist, where his lightsaber hung.

     “Trying to stop him from invading,” Bren said more energetically, apparently stirred by their aggressive remarks.

      “How did you know where he was?” Kiz demanded.

     Bren hesitated visibly.

     “Well?”

      “We knew each other during the Great War, before I was put into stasis,” Bren answered. “We were close friends.”

     The room suddenly became deathly silent.

      “You never told us about this,” Xoan accused him.

     Alyx considered the possibility that they might all be fighting for their lives in a few moments. Bren was strong in the Force, he knew, but he didn’t know exactly how strong. Could they all take him, if necessary?

      “I thought that I could turn him away from this war,” Bren said quickly. “I thought he could be saved.” He looked down. “I was wrong.”

     Another moment of silence. “So, he’s coming here,” Thrakus whispered.

     Bren shook his head immediately. “Akargan is dead.” He looked back up at them. “He was killed by Strife, an even more powerful Warlord. I saw it with my own eyes. It was… unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Now Strife is on his way to the Mizar system.”

     Alyx exchanged brief glances with the other Council members. None of them said a word.

      “The New Imperium fleet – it’s at Mizar, isn’t it?” Bren asked.

      “That’s classfied information,” Alyx told him.

      “Strife told me personally,” Bren countered. “He said they were already there.”

     “Maybe he was lying to you,” Jinx suggested.

     Bren just shook his head. “No way. I know they’re there. Just admit it.”

     “We don’t have to admit anything,” Skipper countered.

     “This isn’t a game!” Bren said forcefully, and Alyx reached out to the Force just in case something was about to happen. “The future of the NI is at stake here!”

      “They’ve already been there for three weeks,” Thrakus stated. “Now they’re in a standoff with an enemy task force.”

     “The NI fleet is in grave danger,” Bren said.

      “I don’t think you can really call it the NI fleet anymore,” Alyx added bitterly. “All we’ve got left are four Altarin’Dakor Titans. But I’m sure they can handle themselves.”

     “Strife told me they’re up against four Shok’Thola,” Bren said.

     The room became deathly quiet again.

     “What…?” whispered Atridd.

     “No one can withstand the power of four Shok’Thola working in tandem,” Bren continued. “But to make matters worse, Strife is on his way too, like I told you. He has at least four Titans of his own, and he may have as many as three of Akargan’s with him! With his reinforcements the NI won’t stand a chance. They’ve walked into a trap!” Bren said, desperation clear his voice. If he was faking it, Alyx remarked, then he was doing an incredible job of it.

      “We have to help them,” Jinx said.

     Alyx looked at him in surprise.

     Atridd spoke up first. “What good could we do? A couple of dozen Jedi wouldn’t make a difference.”

     “We have to at least warn them,” Jinx countered.

     “So send them a message.”

     “It won’t be enough,” Jinx said.

      “We’ll have to move fast, or it’ll be too late,” Bren said. “Please, take me with you.”

     Alyx stared at the man, considering his words. Could he risk trusting Bren?

      “We could try and talk them out of it,” Xoan said. “Bring them back here.”

      “Don’t count on it,” Alyx countered. “With Zalaria there, you might as well try and take a Titan apart with your bare hands.”

     “Maybe Xar’s son will help us again,” Vynd suggested.

     “Do you really believe that tale?” Kiz asked him. Vynd gave a sheepish shrug in response.

     Alyx shook his head harshly. “We cannot count on anything like that. We don’t even know if he really exists, and even if he does there’s no indication that he would choose to help us.”

     “Besides,” Kiz offered. “He might be able to kill one Warlord, but what about four or five at once? No one is that powerful,” he finished.

     “So what are we going to do?” Xoan asked. “Just keep sitting here and talking about it? Or are we going to decide and do something?”

     There was a moment of silence as the Council members took turns exchanging glances. Alyx considered his options. As the Grand Master, he of course had the final say. He didn’t want to embroil the Jedi Division in any more unwinnable situations. With the losses they’d taken, it would already take years to recover, if they ever could. But he also knew that if the Altarin’Dakor weren’t stopped, there wouldn’t be a Jedi Division left. Nor would there be a New Imperium. Or a New Republic. Or anything else.

     “I’m in,” Jinx spoke up first. “I’d rather face them out there than wait until they come here again. They’re not just going to pass us by, and they’ll hit Varnus next if we don’t face them off at Mizar.”

     Kiz nodded agreement. “Jinx is right. We don’t have much choice in the matter.” A round of nods around the table completed the silent vote.

     They were right. Better to choose your battles than have them chosen for you. They would have to do this. And more Jedi would die. Each remaining one at this point was precious, so very precious, for the NI.

     “Blast Xar and that woman of his,” Alyx declared. “Gather what people you can,” he said. “We don’t have much time.” The repairs in Vectur would have to wait – probably until the end of the war. If there was an end.

     “I hope that Xar appreciates how often we have to go in and save him from the messes he gets us all into,” Atridd said, standing.

      “This isn’t for Xar,” Alyx announced, letting them all hear as he stood also. “I’m doing this for Gaius. He’s saved our butts quite a few times. If Xar doesn’t want to help us, then he can rot for all I care,” he continued. “But the NI… That’s something I’m not going to let go down without a fight.”

     A chorus of agreement rose through the room as the Jedi Masters began to disperse and get ready for the challenges waiting ahead.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Titan-class Battleship Grand Crusader

            Mizar System

            1850 Hours

 

            The Grand Crusader was still at a long-distance standoff with the Dark Sun, and the time was beginning to grate on Gaius. Something had to happen, soon.

     This was a battle they absolutely had to win, or the war would be lost. He wished he knew how many Titans were out there. It had to be more than just the one. Blast the AD, he thought. Every time we think we gain some ground they just hit us with an even bigger force. He wasn’t even sure if all the ships he’d brought with him this time would be enough. He needed more time, until Zalaria returned from wherever she’d gone to give birth.

     His limited resources told him that the Dark Sun belonged to the Shok’Thola Asellus, but it had virtually no information on the Warlord herself. Zalaria hadn’t returned yet to shed any light on the situation; in fact, she hadn’t been heard from at all. What if they were attacked while she was gone? All the firepower in the galaxy wouldn’t save them against a Force-user of this capability.

     Still, they had no choice but to stand their ground. If they ran, the AD would sweep over NI space and wipe out everything they knew and loved. And the disperate forces of an unsuspecting galaxy might not be able to muster a defense in time.

     Gaius took mental stock of his task force. He had four Titans, three of which were cloaked but within a hundred klicks or so from the Grand Crusader’s position, all in high orbit over Arcadia, Mizar’s third planet. He watched as the world slowly spun beneath them.

     Resting just on the other side of the planet Arcadia was the New Imperium’s Task Force Darkstar, consisting of the MC-120 of the same name and a cluster of Imperial-class Star Destroyers. They were the most fragile of his ships, unable to bear the brunt of a Titan’s direct assault. But they offered necessary morale support to the NI forces; without them, how could they even call themselves the NI anymore?

      Finally, there was the fleet that Amason had promised – some ten Majestic-class Cruiers. They were waiting just outside the system, ready to jump in on a moment’s notice. Gaius hadn’t wanted to tip off the enemy that they had them; best to have an ace in the hole whenever possible.

     He’d brought virtually every major capital ship he had to this engagement, knowing that their claim of Mizar would make or break this part of the war. If they retained control, then they could begin preparations for the attack on the Gate and try and seal the Altarin’Dakor out of this galaxy. But if they failed here, none of that would happen; the NI would be finished and the AD would continue on unabated.

     Below, on the surface of Arcadia, he had several battalions of troops stationed inside the main Altarin’Dakor base, having forcibly taken over it upon arrival. Other than the military forces down there, Arcadia was sparsely populated; there were only a few bases and spaceports down there, and no major cities. The whole world was a priceless gem, just waiting to be captured and cultivated.

     Gaius raised a cup of caf to his lips and took another sip, only to realize the liquid had cooled to an unappetizing lukewarm temperature. He drank it anyway.

     A chime sounding throughout the bridge took his attention immediately.

     “What is it?” he asked, standing and looking over the railing toward the bridge’s forward viewports. The enemy Titan still hung out there, just a few hundred kilometers away.

     “A message from the Dark Sun,” the comm officer reported, the surprise clear in her voice. “They wish to speak with our Shok’Thola.

     So, someone was finally ready to talk. Unfortunately Gaius had no idea how to proceed, save for staging an all-out battle. Altarin’Dakor etiquette was completely foreign to him. He was ready for a fight, but not to negotiate.

     “We’ll have to disappoint them,” Gaius said after considering it. “We don’t have a Warlord for them to talk to.”

     “Should I relay that message, sir?” The comm officer looked skeptical.

     “Certainly not,” Gaius said, chiding himself for speaking his thoughts aloud. “We want them to think Zalaria and Nimrod are both on board.”

     “Shall I refuse to answer them, sir?”

     Gaius thought for a moment. A lack of response might provoke them into attacking. He’d already delayed them several times. He should at least tell their commodore personally.

     “Put them on the main screen,” he ordered.

     Moments later a holographic projection appeared in the center of the bridge’s atrium, a large open area three levels deep separating Gaius from the forward viewports. The image was huge, many times life-size. But it wasn’t the size of the speaker that appeared that shocked him. It was the figure itself.

     This was no ship’s commodore.

     A waist-up image of a woman seemingly made of golden light filled the air, her head adorned with an ornate crown and wings made of some unrecognizable material floating behind her. Golden hair fell straight to her shoulders. He eyes were a glowing blue; her lips were full and pursed in seeming annoyance. Her features were flawless – it was impossible to guess at her age. She could have been Gaius’ age, or she might have just turned twenty for all he could see.

     All he did know, however, was that she was one of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen in his life. Definitely on par with Zalaria, yet somehow as different from her as night and day.

     The woman opened her mouth to speak. Her voice echoed in the chamber, not matching her lips, for she was speaking in Altarin’Dakor and the computer had to translate her words.

     “I ordered an audience with Nimrod,” said the woman in Altarin’Dakor. “Not his lackey. Begone.”

     It took a moment for Gaius’ mind to process her words, as he had to read the translation subtitled beneath her image. Her voice was smooth as honey, melodic in tone, almost certainly artificially enhanced. It sent chills across his skin.

     Gaius’ mind raced for a suitable answer. The woman’s visage had captivated him so completely that he’d lost all sense of where was or what he was doing. The feeling had come so suddenly and unexpectedly, so different from anything he’d ever experienced before, that he hadn’t known how to react. He fought the feeling now, forcing his mind to realize that this was an enemy – an enemy perhaps more powerful than any he’d faced before.

     “My Shok’Thola is indisposed at this moment,” Gaius said finally, letting the ship’s translators work for him. “I was sent to speak with you. My apologies for the delay.”

     “You are not Altarin’Dakor,” she replied, switching to flawless Basic. The honey-sweet chime of her voice seemed just a tad harsher now that the complex tones of the Altarin’Dakor language were replaced by the harsh syllables of Gaius’ own tongue. “Has Nimrod allowed outlanders to speak for him? Or do you represent Zalaria? Perhaps Nimrod truly is dead, as the rumors say?”A pause. “Speak!”

     Quickly Gaius realized he was unprepared for this; he hadn’t planned on talking directly with an Altarin’Dakor Warlord. He was way out of his league, here.

     “You are the Shok’Thola Asellus, I presume,” Gaius said, still trying to buy time to think. “It is an honor to speak with you. Nimrod and Zalaria have an… arrangement… with the New Imperium. We are now under their control. They ask that you acknowledge their authority here and bypass this region as you continue with the Return.”

     Bald-faced lies, he knew. He just hoped that she couldn’t read it from him. He couldn’t sense her using the Force on him, just yet.

     The massive image of Asellus regarded him for a moment. “Do you think me a fool?” she asked finally.

     “Of course not…” he began before her words drowned him out.

     “Silence!” she cut him off. Then her attack came into his mind so suddenly that he gasped in shock and pain.

     The defenses of a Jedi Master were no match for an immortal Altarin’Dakor Warlord. Her attack broke through his barriers in an instant, and suddenly she was inside his mind. He could feel her there, rummaging through his thoughts and recent memories, trying to find whatever it was he was looking for. With all his might he struggled against her, trying desperately not to think of Zalaria or Nimrod, for fear that she would know that neither Warlord was on this ship. He knew his efforts were futile; once she found out the truth, they were all finished. And he knew that by trying not to think of Zalaria or Nimrod probably meant that they would pop right into his mind.

     “Do not resist me,” her voice warned, filling his head. “Perhaps if you cooperate, I will allow you to live on as my slave once I defeat your fleet, your mind wiped of everything except for my presence. I am your Great Mistress.”

     Gaius opened his mouth to scream, but not sound would come out. She had him, now. He couldn’t even control his own body. The pain in his head was excruciating. He heard Amason cry out, yelling for someone to sever the connection with the enemy warship, but Gaius knew it was too late. He was nothing to her. Soon the end would come, and Gaius knew that he had just doomed the New Imperium.

     Just as he felt her mind reach into the deepest recesses of his brain, causing pain to explode throughout his head like he’d never known, he felt something pass between his mind and that awful touch. A barrier, invisible but seemingly impenetrable, slid instantly into place, and the pain was suddenly gone.

     Gaius gasped, opening his eyes just as Asellus’ shocked face vanished from the holographic display. With her image gone, the bridge looked as normal as if the whole thing had never happened.

     Suddenly there was a whooshing sound as the bridge doors split open behind them. Gaius spun around, and his breath caught at the sight of the woman who strode through the entranceway.

     Zalaria had saved him.

     He should have recognized her touch when the barrier had manifested, blocking the attack. He was sure that Asellus was about to find out everything, and probably destroy his whole psyche in the process. If Zalaria had been half a second later, Gaius knew he would most certainly have been dead, or at least a vegetable.

     Now, suddenly, Zalaria was back, though there’d been no indication as to where she’d gone or how long she would be there. He’d nearly given up hope that she would even return. Now she stood and surveyed the bridge, as beautiful – and as thin – as he’d ever seen her. There was no longer any sign of the pregnancy. She wore a snug-fitting, long-sleeved dress in black, emblazoned with gold and red dragons scross the torso and with flowing sleeves and train stretching out behind her. Her hair fell in intricate curls, framing her gorgeous features, the face of a goddess. She was far more beautiful than Asellus, Gaius decided, then chided himself for even having such as thought at a time like this.

     “This is not good,” Zalaria stated, coming straight for Gaius and Walt, who had placed a hand on his arm to steady him. Zalaria’s expression was not in the least bit jovial. Gaius couldn’t help but stare at her midsection. There was no indication that she’d ever been pregnant at all. But where was the child?

     “You,” she said, coming to a half a scant few paces away, “made a foolish mistake, and nearly cost us this battle before it’s even begun.”

     Gaius held his tongue, wanting to question her for her absence, to ask her how he was supposed to know he was facing a Warlord. Instead he forced himself to say, “Thank you for saving my life.”

     “Don’t be so hasty to thank me,” she said dourly. “Your life may yet be forfeit this day.”

      Beside him, Walt couldn’t hold his tongue any longer. “Zalaria, where’s the…”

     “My son is safe,” she barked, cutting him off instantly. “That is all you need to know. We have more pressing matters to attend to, here.” She glared down at Gaius. “Deploy the fleet for battle immediately.”

     Gaius made a slow, even turn to look out the forward viewport and the enlarged image of the enemy ship there. As his sense of events came back into full awareness once more, he realized the alarm klaxon that was blaring a low, even drone. The Dark Sun was moving into attack position.

     “It appears we managed to provoke Asellus into moving first,” Amason noted.

     Zalaria stared at him and shook her head slowly. “Not just Asellus. There are four Shok’Thola.”

     There was silence for a long moment. “What?” Amason finally whispered.

     Gaius stared at her speechlessly. Four enemy Warlords? Why hadn’t he been informed of this before now?

     “Who are they?” Amason asked.

     She paused for a moment, staring out into the void. Finally, she spoke. “Calvernic, Asellus, and Kronos.” Another pause, and she licked her lips. “And Velius.”

     Gaius had heard of some of those before, especially Kronos and Velius. Supposedly both she and Xar had encountered them before, and somehow they’d lived to tell about it. Judging from the seriousness of her expression, he didn’t think she wanted to try her luck against them again.

     This was exactly what they had feared – a force too large for them to take on all at once. They’d hoped to face only one Warlord and their fleet at a time. Zalaria had practically assured them that Shok’Thola never worked together!

     “We have to retreat,” Amason stated flatly. “There’s no other choice!”

     “And do what?” Zalaria snarled at him. “Fight them when they get to Varnus? They want us. They want blood, and they won’t give up.”

     “We’re pinned against the planet below,” Gaius said. “Retreat isn’t really an option unless we can make it to the other side.”

     She shook her head. “We have to fight. We can’t outrun them. We cannot move back into New Imperium space or we risk defending our own ground once more. Our stand must be made here.” She glanced at him, her eyes taking on a strange light. “We either win here, or we die.”

     Gaius stared at her, taking in her words. They hadn’t been prepared for something like this. If there were four Warlords, then how large was the fleet they were facing out there? Beside her, Amason paled visibly and swallowed hard.

     “We can’t win this,” Amason protested.

     Zalaria’s eyes narrowed. “The situation is not totally helpless. We have the advantage of surprise. Our ships are cloaked, and they do not know how many Shok’Thola we have.”

     “I strongly implied that Nimrod was still in charge here,” Gaius told her. “But can’t they sense that he isn’t really here?”

     “Nimrod and I knew a few tricks that we never revealed to the others,” she said. “One was the ability to emulate each other’s Force signatures. We knew each other well enough that we could pretend to be one another most convincingly. It proved useful on a number of occasions when we needed to appear stronger than we really were.”

     “So the Warlords think they’re facing you and Nimrod,” Amason said. “But that’s still two to one odds.”

     “Correct,” she replied tersely, “but only a fool would attack Nimrod without taking the utmost care and preparation. If we continue to foster the illusion that we are stronger than we are, it could buy us time to exploit their weaknesses.”

     Their weaknesses?” Gaius asked her. “And what would those be?”

    Shok’Thola are not unbeatable, Gaius,” she said sternly.

     She cut off as alarms began blaring all over the bridge. The tactical officer’s voice echoed out a moment later.

     “Enemy Titans de-cloaking, sir!”

     Gaius’ blood went cold. So. The enemy was making their move, laying their cards on the table. “How many?” Gaius demanded, stepping to the railing and staring out the front viewports.

     There was a pause as the alarm klaxons seemed to reach their peak. The tactical officer shook his head as though not believing what he was seeing. “They keep coming!

 They’re just… everywhere, sir!”

     The three of them watched the holographic display in the center of the bridge as it made real-time updates of the battle theater. Gaius watched the enemy Titans appear, staggered in a loose formation with each ship only a couple of hundred klicks from its brethren. They varied in shape and size from thirty to fifty klicks in length, the largest of them on a par with the Cataclysm, or even the Grand Crusader.

     Within a minute there were eight massive shapes floating in the air. They were spread out wide enough to effectively block in the NI fleet from escaping.

     “Eight confirmed Titans, sir,” the comm officer said. Gaius didn’t need to hear; his eyes were working just fine.

     The ships were as varied in appearance as any other Titans he’d seen. No two were alike. They were identified by labels floating beneath each ship, with its name, vital statistics, and the Shok’Thola to which they belonged.

     In the center were the Dark Sun, the Vertigo, and the Nightlord, all belonging to the Warlord Asellus. To the side and resting slightly aloof from the others were the Violator, the Tormentor, and the Defiler, three of the most wicked-looking ships Gaius had ever seen. They looked more like instruments of torture than starships, and their names seemed suitably apt. They belonged to Velius.

     On the other side of Asellus’ vessels were the Death Wing, flagship of Kronos, and the Invasion of Light, belonging to Calvernic.

     He glanced at Zalaria. “Are we facing more illusions this time?”

     She shook her head. “They aren’t fakes. These are all real.”

     Gaius took a deep breath. They were outnumbered two to one. But in truth those odds were overly optimistic. Because they have four Warlords to our one, he thought. Amason was right; they couldn’t win this. But they had to fight. There was no other way out.

     “A message from the enemy fleet,” the comm officer spoke up. “Very short. It simply reads, ‘Surrender or be annihilated’.”

     “Couldn’t someone that old have a more original line?” Gaius muttered under his breath. “Send a message to the enemy flagship,” he ordered. “Tell them that the New Imperium will never surrender. And tell them that unless they leave immediately we’re going to destroy them all.”

     He glanced at Zalaria, sharing a glance with her.

     “Be careful,” she warned. “Provoking them might make them become rash and act unwisely, but it could also backfire. I will be in the Meditation Chamber to coordinate our forces.”

     “Very well,” Gaius told her. As she turned to leave, he stepped back up to the railing. “Alert all commands! Disengage cloaks and launch fighters. Move into attack position!” Then he turned and nodded at Walt. “Call in our forces. Bring in the Majestics and everything else we have. If we’re marching to our death, then so be it. We draw the line here!”

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Angol Moa’s Laboratory

            Location Unknown

            Time Unknown

 

            Over the next few days Xar made a conscious decision to change his attitude about Angol Moa and her tests.

     He now accepted the fact that it was really the influence of the dark Jedi inside his mind that had affected his personality over the last month – in truth, the last years – making him harsh, angry, impatient – even ruthless. On the other hand, he knew he couldn’t shirk all responsibility for his actions by blaming it on them. Ultimately it was he, Xar Kerensky, who decided what he did and what he said. But it wasn’t just out of a sense of regret that he accepted Angol Moa’s tests more readily. He knew now that if she didn’t find an answer soon, he was most likely going to lose his mind.

     He dreamed constantly of Runis and Krun, now. It was as if, by acknowledging their existence as real, he’d given them some kind of power, more strength to reach out and affect him. He even caught glimpses of them out of the corner of his eye when he least expected it, like the night in the garden. It was a terrifying testament to the fact that he was slowly going crazy, and that things would only get worse from this point onward.

     At times, the stress of waiting, of enduring more tests, of not knowing if any progress was being made at all, was overwhelming. Fortunately, a few days after the incident when he’d broken down, there was some good news that – at least temporarily – brought his spirits back up. Gave him hope.

     He was at a table in the gardens one morning, having breakfast alone among the sounds of nature, when Angol Moa appeared. Standing at her side, dressed in a white robe, was a very familiar face. Xar felt his jaw drop as they approached. His spoon fell from suddenly limp fingers, clattering to the floor.

     “Nico!” he exclaimed. “You’re alive!”

     Angol Moa put on a grin. “Of course he’s alive, boy,” she said. “He was always alive. Just not very mobile.”

     Nico, practically hanging off her shoulder, blinked sleepily. Xar arched an eyebrow in confusion. If Nico recognized Xar, he wasn’t showing any sign of it.

     He glanced from Nico back to Angol Moa. “Is he all right? How did you heal him?”

     “Don’t get too excited yet. ‘Heal’ may be too strong of a word. I’ve only woken him up, so far. I haven’t been able to restore his memories. What you see here is just a shell.”

     Xar felt his expression fall. “A what?”

     “An empty vessel. An incomplete person. Physically, he is perfectly fine, but his mind is a blank slate right now.”

     Xar fought the sudden surge of anger and frustration that flared up inside of him. “What’s the point of reviving him if the real Nico’s still gone?” he demanded.

     “Progress has to be made in stages, boy.”

     “He looks just like the normal Nico to me,” Xar countered. “Nico!” he addressed the man. He just stood there, looking just like his onetime friend. “Do you recognize me?” he asked.

     Nico just stared at him and smiled for a long moment. Xar thought he saw a hint of recognition in his eyes, and for a moment he was sure that Nico had remembered.

     “You look friendly,” Nico said finally. “What is your name?”

     Xar felt his smile fade as disappointment came over him. So, he didn’t remember a thing. The Nico he knew was still gone. He turned away, unable to look any longer. Seeing a shell of a man that he knew was even worse than having him lying motionless in a coma.

     “I’ve only imprinted him with a temporary personality set,” Angol Moa explained. “I had to do a complete reboot of his mind – consciousness, suassbconscious, the id, the ego, the whole mess. Until I can restore his memories, I had to replace it with something that would enable him to at least function nominally.”

     Xar turned to stare at Angol Moa. “I thought you could do anything. Can’t you fix him completely?”

     “I’m working on developing the technology necessary as we speak,” she said.

     “Why do you have to invent a new technology just to help him?” he asked.

     “Well, it’s not like I’ve dealt with someone with this problem before. I’m doing the same for you.”

     Xar put his elbows up on the table and rubbed at his eyes, suddenly feeling weary, even though the day had just begun. “So how about you tell me about this technology you’re going to create?”

     “I’m glad you asked!” she said, perking up so suddenly Xar nearly jumped. She held up her right hand and started folding down one finger at a time. “My current theory is this. All biological matter has memories imprinted onto it at the cellular, atomic, even subatomic level. Everything that has happened in a person’s life is stored somewhere in his body, through electric impulses, soundwaves, synapses firing. I should be able to retrace that information by reading the stored information and extrapolating the results.”

     “I see,” Xar said, though he certainly didn’t in truth. He just hoped the woman could actually do what she claimed. If not, then he knew he’d never be able to stand being around this… shell… of his onetime friend. Only the fact that Nico was physically up and walking kept some hope alive within him. “So how close are you to making this work?” he asked skeptically.

     “I have no idea.” She grinned at him. “That’s the fun part.”

     He wondered who was crazier: him, or her.

 

                                    *                                  *                                  *

 

            Personal Quarters

            Royal Palace, Varnus

            1440 Hours

 

The New Imperium sigil faded from the screen, replaced by the visage of the Diktat himself. He was awake and on duty, even though on Tralaria it was already well into the night. Rytor nodded, acknowledging the caller. “Misnera. What can I do for you?”

     The Diktat’s face was not as Alyx had remembered. The man’s eyes seemed more sunken, with dark bags underneath them, and he seemed just a bit thinner, his wrinkles a bit more prominent, than the last time they’d spoken. Clearly the war was taking its toll. Running a government on the brink of its own destruction was not an easy task.

     “How are things, Gene?” Alyx asked.

     The Diktat sighed in response. Behind him Alyx could catch a glimpse of the man’s quarters, though it was sparsely decorated, with little in the way of personal possessions. Rytor had always been a secretive man, showing little of himself on the outside.

     “Most of the damage from the attack has been repaired,” Rytor said finally. “Yes, I wish the same could be said for Varnus, as well. The economy though, and morale… Those are different matters entirely.”

     “I know that you have a lot on you right now,” Alyx replied. Though he didn’t want to burden the Diktat any more than he already was, Alyx felt compelled to at least be accountable to him for what they were about to do. After all, he might lose the whole Jedi Order because of this.

     “As you know,” he said, “Sector Admiral Gaius has led the fleet to Mizar and is currently holding it. They are at a standoff with enemy forces. I need to inform you that I will be taking a contingent of Jedi with me to the Mizar System to assist in the engagement there.”

     “I see,” said Rytor after a pause. “Any particular reason for the change of heart? I was under the impression you were not participating in the offensive.”

     “I think that Gaius and the others may be walking into a trap,” Alyx said. “I don’t like it.

     “I don’t like it either,” said Rytor heavily. He let out a long sigh. “We cannot trust the Altarin’Dakor forces that we are working with, yet we cannot survive without them. This is a very precarious position, Alyx.”