|The New Imperium Plotline Forum
|"Remembrance" - By Joshua Ausley - Completed!
|Page 1 of 4|
|Author:||J.A. [ Sun Oct 25, 2009 2:11 am ]|
|Post subject:||"Remembrance" - By Joshua Ausley - Completed!|
Summary: In the aftermath of the Battle of Varnus, the shock and loss have proven too much for some to bear. As friendships are broken and loyalties tested, some flee the devastation. The New Imperium War Cabinet realizes there is no time to rest. The rest of the Altarin'Dakor Warlords are coming - and this time, all at once. As the inner machinations of the Warlords throw everything into chaos, new revelations will change lives almost beyond recognition. And with little choice but to keep fighting, the NI decides to strike at Mizar once again, setting the stage for the greatest confrontation yet. The struggle goes on...
The first time he regained consciousness, it was like rising from the depths of a dark ocean, light slowly filtering down, growing brighter and brighter until only white light filled his vision, rippling like 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 came only briefly, 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 was he? What was happening?
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. Maarek’s own fighter, diving downwards, the ground rushing up to meet him, knowing this would be his final moment of…
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 a 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 de-saturations 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 better focus. Was something wrong with his vision?
“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.
“I’ve been better,” Maarek admitted. He felt like he’d been run over by a tank.
“There are some things we need to go over,” Vannik said.
“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.”
“My squadron…” Maarek 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 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, apparently.
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.
Vannik gave a short, mirthless laugh. “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.”
He 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.
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… 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 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. 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. Suddenly he was looking up at the bed, and at Vannik, who was stepping over him, cursing loudly.
“Fool man, what do you think you’re doing?” Vannik’s voice rang dimly in his ears. “Nurse! Get some help over here!”
* * *
Royal Palace, Varnus
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 sadness overwhelming.
Knees collapsing, Rynn sank down to the 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 didn’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? The whole 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. “Just a minute,” she called out. Thankfully, her room’s built in comm 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.
“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.
“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.”
Jacob smiled 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.”
He quickly crossed through the sitting area to where her sleeping quarters lay. Rynn met him there, took the letter and sat down on the edge of the bed. Jacob sat down beside her.
“Well, it looks like they’re finally letting people in and out of the palace again,” he said, obviously looking for something to say for starters.
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.
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!”
* * *
Senate Complex, Tralaria
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 showed 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 are you 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.
"I don't care what you think," Queklain 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 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! 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 burning, now, but he tried his best to keep his face straight. What was Quat waiting for? 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 now 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 powers that grant 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.”
* * *
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 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 sinking down into the earth beneath. But they had won. The Morodin had been freed from their slavery by the cruel 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 Brinks, 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. “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 Murgos, had been defeated this day. Along with them was an army of their so-called Jedicon. The word 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. 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. His tactic had actually worked. After twenty-five hundred years of fighting, they had finally discovered a weakness in the Shok’Thola, a way to neutralize their Immortality, which had always been their biggest weapon. Now Joren and his army had slain two Shok’Thola in one battle. These two were permanently dead; he could tell by the horrible expressions on their faces as they 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’d 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. Still, those 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 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. 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.
“Get back!” The shout began to reverberate throughout the regiment as men and women fought to gain their distance. Joren stood his ground, though, transfixed. Could this really be it? Was he facing the supreme leader of the Altarin’Dakor, right here? He was simply standing there.
“It’s Altima,” Vane said, 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…
And 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-looking 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.
Altima stood there, face devoid of any expression whatsoever. He didn’t even blink. Joren had heard that no one had seen his face and lived to tell about it.
“This is it,” Brincan said beside him. “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!? 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, most 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’re 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 the Force, 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 the Force 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 they 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 vanished.
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.
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 side of the neck. Everyone held a collective breath.
Then Fostican went wide-eyed and backed away, his face full 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. 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 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 left him forever.
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. Skin peeled off of bodies, followed by muscle and bone that was shattered 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, an 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 planet, 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. A round of nods went around the room.
"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. "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 together, and will be taken to the Diktat before anything is finalized," 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. 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 seventy-five percent of what was originally considered New Imperial territory. And you are on a ship filled with more than four million trained Altarin'Dakor warriors, becoming over ten million if you include all the forces in this one entire system. If I so chose to take control, I could do so immediately and without any opposition." She inclined her head towards him in what might have been a gesture of respect. "However, as you say, we are a democracy, and have broken with the traditions that gave both our cultures birth. Therefore 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.
* * *
Royal Palace Cemetery
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, that was to a Varnusian; 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 as good as disowned him already.
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 crutch came up beside him, his head 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 the 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.
* * *
|Author:||J.A. [ Sat Nov 14, 2009 4:54 am ]|
|Post subject:||Re: "Remembrance" - By Joshua Ausley|
Varnusian Productions Presents:
Vectur, Planet Varnus
Varanus Templar made his way through the now 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 outranked 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? No, this 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 formed into a large U shape, 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 members of Vortigern. Seven of 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. You will be taking the fight to the enemy. 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. "Are the AD going to just turn on each other? Some of them were stationed at Mizar. Are they going to kill their comrades? Are our men going to join forces with them after they killed so many of us? There aren't any AD on the planet right now. They've all 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
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.
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?
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. "Are you all right? Did they discharge you? But you're still injured!"
"They can't fix what I've got, Salle," he said. There was 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 freaking 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 than him, so it had to be a woman. But she wore a white robe, the hood pulled up to obscure her features. The lighting was dim, here, but he could make out a pair of 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. "Are you going to kill me?"
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. It extended down from her head, curving outward around her ears, then back down to the base of her neck in a point. Her face was thin, 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.
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? Victor… The Victor from Arcadia, in the Mizar System. A name he didn’t think he’d ever hear again. 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 Alona,” she said, “a Jedicon in the service of Victor. You flew a prototype fighter called the Archon for him, once before. 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.
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. The Archon is controlled by your mind, not your body.”
As he processed her words, hope began rising up again. He’d felt his whole life was over if he couldn’t fly again. If what Alona said was true, then he still had a chance. And the truth was, wanted to fly the Archon again more than anything else in the world. He shook his head in disbelief. “Why me?”
“Victor is 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 chance. 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 wake up 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.
* * *
|Author:||J.A. [ Tue Nov 17, 2009 8:59 pm ]|
|Post subject:||Re: "Remembrance" - By Joshua Ausley|
Velanon Shores, Great Ocean
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. His wife wore a long white dress of soft, thin material, leaving her shoulders bare and dipping halfway to her bosom, where an ornate 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. Not 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, only appreciate it, and thank the Force itself.
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?
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 in Xar’s heart. But 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 finally 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 four 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. 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.
"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. He'd lost one of the most important persons in his life, coupled with a revelation that had shaken his worldview to its very core. It had made him doubt 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 seemingly 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.”
Of course. 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.
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 most credibility to the people.”
"That’s not true. You can be a bridge between my people and yours.”
“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 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 felt 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 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.
“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 the Return? There used to be many of us. Things were more... balanced... in the beginning. Eventually, the others went mad. They had to be eliminated.”
He gaped at her for a moment. So all the Warlords eventually went mad? Due to what? Was there some weakness, some illness he hadn’t known about? Or...
Realization hit him. The inevitable result of the creeping by of centuries, millennia. He had never really thought about the consequences of living for a thousand generations.
“You can never get enough,” he said.
She gave a small nod. “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.
"Each of us has found a way to cope with the hunger within, yet it will eventually win out. Unless we conquer more, consume more, perpetuating an endless cycle. Just like the things that gave us this curse of Immortality in the first place.”
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 entire universe, and simply wish for death. And yet, as he thought on it, he knew that she was right. 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. What could be worse than that?
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.”
He leaned close to her. “Destroy what?” he asked.
She looked at him with haunted eyes. “Everything,” she said.
* * *
Royal Palace, Varnus
“Enter,” came the voice from the speaker. The door clicked 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."
"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.
* * *
|Author:||J.A. [ Tue Nov 17, 2009 9:21 pm ]|
|Post subject:||Re: "Remembrance" - By Joshua Ausley|
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 great 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.
* * *
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 machinations, 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.
“When one becomes a Shok’Thola, his or her fate is ultimately set along a path with only two eventual options,” Sado continued. “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 true 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.”
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 that I can think of: 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.”
“I know that. Give me something substantial. 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. 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.
* * *
|Author:||J.A. [ Thu Nov 19, 2009 10:11 pm ]|
|Post subject:||Re: "Remembrance" - By Joshua Ausley|
NI Senate Complex
Tralaria, Tralar System
“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 you assessment. I had to deal with 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."
"They'll most likely be more of a drain on resources than a help," Rytor added in a disappointed tone.
"Exactly. However, it's Pax I'm most concerned about. 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 in surprise.
"We didn't do a very good job of protecting them before, did we?" said the Diktat.
"Sir, I strongly recommend..."
"If they want to go it alone, let them learn their lesson the hard way," Rytor cut him off.
Gaius shook his head sharply. "If they are allowed to secede, then others may follow suit."
"Granted. But as you say, Gaius, we are stretched too thinly. We have a more important target ahead of us at the moment, 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."
Gaius 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 world in the entire NI! They had suffered virtually no damage at all from the AD - after all, they'd surrendered.
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. 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.
* * *
Royal Palace, Varnus
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 Shok'Thola 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 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 Zalaria, 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 couldn't see him.
“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. The only person who seemed not to care was Alyx. They hadn't communicated at all since the attack.
Now it was Akala’s turn. The door opened, and the large 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 had to have 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. One leg had been replaced with a cybernetic one. Scars made streaks across his fierce-looking face, and he'd gone blind in one eye.
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 and 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."
"You're denying that there is problem, then," Ralagos said.
"I'm not denying anything," Xar countered sharply.
"But you have walked away from you duty, to the people of Varnus and the New Imperium," Ralagos said.
"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! And what have they given me in return? Nothing! They hate me! I've had enough, Akala!"
"Xar! 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!"
"That's enough! Get out!" Xar shouted. He'd ordered everyone never to say the boy's name to him again!
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, 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 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 simply 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.
After that, the nightmares returned. 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, 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.
Zalaria sat up next to him in her shift, the sheets falling down to her waist. "What is it, Xar?" she exclaimed.
"It's Runis! He was here! I saw him!" Xar said, hoping out of bed. 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.
* * *
|Author:||J.A. [ Sun Jan 31, 2010 4:59 am ]|
|Post subject:||Re: "Remembrance" - By Joshua Ausley|
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.
Before long, Moyabi had taken him deep into the palace, into a gigantic domed chamber. Overhead, predominantly green stained glass filled the dome overhead, this one uncovered, unlike the rest. More chandeliers hung down, and the walls were covered in banners, ancient weaponry, and the heads of exotic game animals.
It was in the center of the chamber that he found Akargan, lounging in a plush, red- padded couch, which was sitting on a raised dais surrounded by more Jedicon. So, this was the Warlord’s court.
As if to complete the sense of décor, Akargan wore a cloak that seemed made entirely of animal 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 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 ten paces from the Shok’Thola. What had been the drum of quiet conversations had all died out. All attention in the room was on Lasitus, now.
Akargan studied him for a moment, and Lasitus felt like his eyes could decipher every hidden motive in his heart. The Warlord was holding a large golden goblet filled with what looked like grapes. He placed a plump one in his mouth and chewed it thoughtfully before speaking.
“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.”
“What is this place?” Lasitus found himself asking instead. “Why make your base on this remote, dead world?”
“You do not remember it?” 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. For our master, Murgos.”
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 cloaked figures, massive swords in their hands, otherworldly looks to their features. Lasitus recognized the carvings on the friezes and walls, and it suddenly came back to him. Yes, this place belonged to Murgos, all right. The image of his old master came back, as sharp as if it had never left.
Akargan smiled at his recognition. “This was his palace, in fact. The entire planet worshipped him. Of course, 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 near-mindless animals, desiring only the taste for flesh – that 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 had to leave. 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 you even now. 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 hadn’t known better. “I did not think you would accept your fate.”
“A lot has changed,” Lasitus admitted, 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.
Shaking his head, Lasitus 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.”
“Don’t fear for me,” Akargan said mirthfully. “Things are not as they once were.”
“But you still have a choice,” Lasitus countered. “You don’t have to risk your life.”
“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.”
“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, because I have no intentions of attacking it whatsoever.”
Lasitus blinked at him 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 eliminate countless evils and threats to the galaxy and 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 leader.”
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
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.
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 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 on board the Eternity, Maarek Stele.”
On the other side of Victor, two bald men dressed in broad golden costumed 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. Not that such a fact ultimately mattered. Maarek was here to fly the Archon again, nothing more.
“I’m honored at your invitation to come here,” he said instead. “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 to feel flattered at the compliment, or insulted 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. “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.”
“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. “I was just lucky enough to survive bailing out.”
Victor pursed his lips. “I see.”
“Look, I just want to fly this thing. If you have a mission for me, then tell me what it is.”
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. You may have guessed that much already. As for the last thousand generations, I have gone by the name of Strife.”
Maarek nodded slowly. He’d figured as much, that this man wasn’t what he seemed. Still, a full Warlord, indeed… He’d learned very little about Strife from his briefings on the AD. Like all the Warlords, he knew that this man had supposedly lived for thousand generations and was more powerful than any Jedi alive, but those stories seemed farfetched. Here, standing in front of him, was what appeared to be a normal man, not a legend. Such claims didn’t seem possible. He only looked maybe ten years younger than Stele himself.
“You’ll forgive me,” Maarek said frankly, “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 meet someone who has never heard of me at all. A truly fascinating feeling.”
“Glad I can oblige,” Maarek said, more than a bit skeptical. He didn’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.
“Hey, you called me,” Maarek said. “I’m prepared to take that offer in good faith.”
“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. 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 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 for now, shall we?”
“Fine by me. When do I begin?”
Strife grinned again. “Immediately,” he said.
* * *
Titan-class Battleship Grand Crusader
In Orbit, Varnus
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 two 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 the auxiliary bridge, itself larger than any command deck Xar had ever seen. It was fully staffed by an Altarin’Dakor crew, in case their Shok’Thola decided to turn over any mundane function over to them.
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. “I’m currently working on that. It’ll take some time, but I’m 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 Zalarai shook her head and actually laughed. “Fine. Have it your way,” she said. “For this battle, you are probably right.”
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 they 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 their decision.
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 on 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 mere speck in comparison. 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 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 of course he wasn’t there. Now Dasok Krun was visiting him too? What was next, Kronos appearing out of thin air and trying to kill him?
“We should send all four task forces to the third planet,” 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. 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 millennia 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 much longer! 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 Grand Master take command. He should never had 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 work? 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 ‘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.
“No!” Xar shouted, thrusting his arms out, pushing the bodies around him 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.
* * *
|Author:||J.A. [ Mon Feb 01, 2010 3:19 am ]|
|Post subject:||Re: "Remembrance" - By Joshua Ausley|
NI Senate Complex, Tralaria
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 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.
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. Finally he spoke.
“What do you want to know?” he growled.
“Tell me why you are here,” Rytor ordered.
The man took a deep breath. He seemed to believe Rytor, now – and that convinced him that his theory was correct. He’d 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, what with 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 Rytor’s belief 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. 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. And 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.”
Rytor nodded. Now he 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 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 gamble had worked; 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. Now 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.
* * *
Titan-class Battleship Grand Crusader
“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. Mistrust.
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 simply have no reason. 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 consciousnesses. Like…” She’d glanced at Novitaar. “Almost like him.”
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. 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.”
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 professional-level help that he cannot get from us. We can support him, but I fear that his delusions may turn him against us, as well.”
“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 absorbing 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?”
“Why do you ask that? I should think I would remember using it again,” Xar snapped.
Icis crossed his arms in front of him. “Because 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? I suppose it’s possible,” Xar admitted. “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? The two men Xar hated 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.”
“I have proof,” Zalaria’s soft voice spoke up, cutting him off. Something in her voice made his hairs want to stand on end, 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. 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 spoke up again. “This problem has been with him for some time. Maybe 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? A dangerous road, that. Could Xar dare to believe in destiny again? He had sworn that he would give up 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.
“There are two possibilities. Either one personality will ultimately become dominant, or the three of them can 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?” 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… 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.
“Perhaps there is,” Icis said.
They both looked at him.
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.
“Angle what?” Xar said.
“Angol Moa," Icis corrected him. "I think she can help you. But to meet her, I’m going to have to take you somewhere.”
“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.
* * *
|Author:||J.A. [ Tue Feb 09, 2010 3:23 am ]|
|Post subject:||Re: "Remembrance" - By Joshua Ausley|
Titan-class Battleship Eternity
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’s 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.
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.
In fact, he found himself enjoying spending time with Alona a lot. 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 liking 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 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.
“Very well. In the interval, we have improved the system greatly,” the Warlord 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. 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 Maarke 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
“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 – five 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 worry 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 weeks and 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. He 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. Now, for all I care. 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.
* * *
"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."
"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 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."
"Don't worry. With any luck, she'll find us. At least, I hope so." He broke off uncertainly.
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."
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, flashed Xar's identification 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.
"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 more streamlined. 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 while, 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, the 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 whomever 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 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.
Xar pulled the levers down. The stars extended into starlines, and the Black Star shot into hyperspace.
* * *
|Author:||J.A. [ Wed Feb 24, 2010 4:48 am ]|
|Post subject:||Re: "Remembrance" - By Joshua Ausley|
Titan-class Battleship Eternity
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 she, 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 be kissing her back? He wasn't sure. This was crazy! He was falling for Alona, not this stranger! Her lithe body moved even closer, and she suddenly pushed forward into him.
Maarek fell to his back, and Chele was immediately on 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
The Black Star soared through the darkness of space, weaving its way past 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.
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 Travelers’ 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? Rintor blinked in utter surprise. You know you can’t do that. Kajarn isn’t home anymore, not for you. 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, his 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. “Of course, 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.
“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.”
“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 exterior. It appeared to be a shallow basin located within a giant canyon somewhere on the surface.
“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.”
“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. “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 and launched them into open space, then brought them around to look for the canyon they needed. “That’s one place I don’t care to visit again,” Xar remarked as the surface sped by below them.
Icis grinned. “Don’t worry, one way or another they’ll make sure we can never try this again. Here we go.”
The canyon was opening up before them. Xar dipped the ship down low, heading straight for the indention that had been on the display.
“I don’t see anything…” Xar began as they hit the edge of the depression.
Then his words were cut off as three blasts of light hit the Black Star, coming from different directions, and the ship was enveloped in light. Xar cried out in surprise, and Icis gripped his seat’s arms hard as a disk of light opened in front of them, growing to consume the whole view outside.
Then the Black Star entered the portal, and the brightness enveloped them.
* * *
|Author:||J.A. [ Sat Mar 13, 2010 4:06 am ]|
|Post subject:||Re: "Remembrance" - By Joshua Ausley|
Titan-class Battleship Grand Crusader
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 at least a kilometer 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 remaining three, 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
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.”
“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 an 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 is 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 to harm…”
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
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 apparently didn’t feel like deigning to respond. Fine.
He waited for several minutes while she just stood there, like a stoic phantasm, her thoughts unsearchable. Who knew what a creature like her 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 he heard her say not anymore.
Taking her comments as the random murmurings of a crazed despot, he simply rose and followed her back into the bridge.
* * *
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