Varnusan Productions Presents:
Xar Kerensky emerged from the large refresher station and tossed his towel into the bin. Reaching up, he pulled the angular open section of his tunic across and into place, the micro-sealant firmly fastening it in place. Despite having a field commission as an admiral in Ryskar D’larit’s newly-formed Dark Lightning Strike Fleet, a subdivision of the New Imperium, Xar wore the standard Jedi Division duty uniform as, on this mission, he represented his own organization. The black, clean-cut uniform had squared-off, padded shoulders with the New Imperium logo on them, and long sleeves. Though Xar preferred to wear more comfortable clothing on duty, in campaigns such as this one strict military code was to be followed to the letter. The uniform bore no medals, but held the standard pilot’s wings and the NI and Jedi Division symbols on the left breast, and Xar’s numerous campaign ribbons on the right. Many had wondered how an officer still considered young could be a Jedi Grand Master. Still, Xar had more Force knowledge and had seen more combat than many men twice his age. His handsome face and dark hair had earned him a popular spot in the Holo-News, and though he preferred to keep away from the media, politics dictated that he had to make appearances from time to time.
Reaching on the side table, he pulled his utility belt around his waist. The belt held an empty holster on the right side, and his lightsaber hung on the left. The trademark of a Jedi, the lightsaber never left its owner’s side for long.
Straightening his posture, Xar looked across the room at his long-time friend. At least, it seemed he had known the man forever. Deputy Grand Master Mathis Organa had been through much with Xar, and many times both men’s lives had depended on the other. A Flight Leader in the elite Tanari Squadron onboard the Centaur, Mathis wore the standard duty uniform of the Dark Lightning Strike Fleet. His long, dark hair was bound tightly together behind him and trailed down to the length of his shoulder blades. As always, he had a strange half-grin on his face, though today there seemed to be an air of anger beneath it.
“That makes another one you owe me,” he said sternly. “Sector Admiral D’larit will have your wings for sure, and if he doesn’t, I will.”
Xar glanced at him sardonically. “What do you mean?”
“Come on, if I hadn’t saved your butt out there, you’d be vapor right now. I’m getting tired of this sort of thing.” Mathis chided.
Xar shook his head. “No way. I had everything under control this time.”
“Sure you did. Your entire squad was disabled as I jumped in. They were getting ready to vape you or worse, capture you.” He seemed to cringe at that thought.
Xar hesitated a moment, lost in thought. Tanari Squadron had been on an elite mission to the Krii'Graq homeworld in the Moro System. Xar, in an attempt to catch up with the infiltration force, had taken a squadron of fighters ahead of the Jedi Division’s new flagship, the Imperial-class Star Destroyer Stormwatch. They’d been ambushed by a Krii'Graq task force, and all the ships but Xar’s were destroyed. Then the bugs had sent a ship to capture him… Xar wanted to cringe at that thought, also. Fortunately Tanari had been in range, and had pulled off a brave rescue, though it’d sacrificed their mission at the same time. The squadron, with Xar’s Defender fully functional again, had jumped straight to the rendezvous point for the Dark Lightning Strike Fleet’s main task force and landed on the ISD Centaur.
Finally he looked back up at Mathis. “Have our flight recorders been checked yet?”
Mathis shook his head. “They’re still going over them.” He nodded down the corridor. “Which reminds me, we’re needed in the briefing room to go over the last phase of the campaign.”
Xar nodded, and followed Mathis as he started off for the main turbolift. As they began tracing their way through the ship’s massive interior, Xar began voicing his thoughts.
“It was strange… We were making our last course adjustment and were about to reenter hyperspace when we noticed them coming in… How could they have known we would be there? Could it have just been coincidence? At any rate, they fired some kind of missile at us. It blew about three klicks away and made a shockwave that shorted out our systems.”
Mathis’s face held a quizzical look. “Some type of electromagnetic pulse torpedo?”
“My thoughts also, at first. But the shields should have absorbed the energy… And it was not like a Mag-Pulse missile. Believe me, I know. It moved a lot faster, and, as I said before, it did not have to hit us to disable us.”
“Ah, so you’ve had firsthand experience with Mag-Pulse torps, have you?” Mathis asked sarcastically. He shook his head, a more serious expression on his face. “Never seen the like myself, either. Perhaps they have developed some new technology we haven’t heard of. Or, maybe they specialize in that sort of thing, like the Crinn and their projectile weapons. According to you, at least.”
Xar nodded wryly, but his face remained thoughtful. “But why introduce the weapon at this late period in the campaign? They could certainly have used it to disable our larger ships in other engagements.”
“True. Maybe they’re getting more desperate now that we’re approaching their home planet. Expending all the resources they’ve got to stop our advance.”
“It is a possibility.” As they reached the turbolift entrance, Mathis hit the call button and the two men stood waiting.
“If you do not mind my asking, why did you want to join the Centaur for the main operation?” Mathis asked.
Xar didn’t answer right away. As the turbolift doors slid open, the two men made their way inside and began the journey upward towards the Briefing Room.
question, my friend.” Xar hesitated a moment. “One
that I cannot fully answer. But I know, through the Force, that my being
here is somehow instrumental to our success.” He shrugged. “Maybe that sounds
selfish, but that is the only explanation I can give. Putting myself in danger is something I would not do lightly.
Mathis grunted. “I could mention a few other times lately…” When House Ar’Kell, the Intruder Wing, and various other fleets and organizations gathered together to begin this “New Imperium”, Xar had nearly been killed by a Dark Brotherhood strike team sent to stop them. Xar was becoming notorious as having a penchant for getting himself in trouble.
Xar paused. “Point taken. Still, I feel drawn there, and I feel I need to be there for the final confrontation with the queen.” He paused in thought. “I know all of us that are Force sensitive feel drawn in some way, which leads me to believe the queen herself is powerful in the Force, too. I need to be there, for the confrontation with her. It might help tip the balance of power in our favor.”
Mathis nodded. “I hope you’re right. Just promise me one thing.”
Mathis put a hand on his shoulder, then turned Xar to face him straight-on, his expression deadly serious. “Promise me you’ll never go out on your own like that again. I told you before; you’re too valuable to just lose in a simple fighter battle. You’re the Grand Master now, and it’s time you started acting like it.”
Xar immediately chafed at the reprimand, but he knew that his friend was speaking the truth out of concern for his well-being. And worst of all, the man was right. As much as he loved to fly, and despite the fact that he had served as a top pilot for Thrawn in the Imperial Navy, the time had come for him to hang up his wings in a TIE. He nodded slowly.
“Okay, Mathis. I promise.”
The turbolift’s upward motion slowed to a stop, and the doors swooshed open. Stride for stride, the two officers exited and made their way toward the Briefing Room.
The Briefing Room was located a small distance from the bridge, only a couple levels down and a short walk away. It was also near the main turbolift, which could speed someone down toward the hangar bay with moderate quickness. The room itself was spacious, but with a brisk military atmosphere that gave an air of activity and organization. The walls of the room were lined with computers and consoles, the officers manning them managing the endless stream of data that constantly poured in from ship’s systems, mission debriefings, strategic and tactical displays, and a myriad of other sources. The dimly lit chamber was given life from the multicolored light from the consoles and displays, and a massive holo-projector sat in the center of the room.
Commodore Emil Beli looked up as the twin entrance doors to the Briefing Room slid open and the two officers strode in. Xar, in his Jedi Division uniform, and Mathis, in his DLSF counterpart, both stopped and saluted smartly. Beli returned the salute respectfully, then motioned the two men to accompany him next to the holo-projector.
Xar shook his head ruefully as they took their seats. It was like playing some game of costumes between each other. Since being incorporated into the New Imperium, most of the Jedi had chosen to also help by serving in the NI military organizations in certain capacities. Although it detracted from some of their duties as Jedi, it was good for the NI as a whole, and so Xar encouraged it. Nico Flygras was also one of the commanding officers of the DLSF. Sector Admiral Ryskar D’larit had been more than kind to let Xar’s men take positions of command, much-needed though they might be. The citizens of Epsilon Sector were eager to come on board, but capable command officers were still few. Still, Xar wasn’t too worried about things on Varnus. Alyx Misnera was taking care of things quite well, and the palace and surrounding city were both being restored at a superb rate.
Suddenly Xar’s thoughts were broken by Beli’s military-crisp voice.
“Flight Leader Organa,” Beli nodded toward Mathis, who was his senior as a Jedi, but the junior officer here. “Welcome aboard the ISD Centaur, Kerensky,” he said. Technically, Xar was Beli’s Grand Master, but on the Centaur, the Commodore was in charge. Still, Beli made an effort to afford the GM the deepest respect.
The entrance doors split open again, and Colonel/Jedi Knight Omega Kira hurried in. Like many Ar’Kell defectors, Omega had also decided to take part in one of the New Imperium fleets.
“Ah, Colonel, nice of you to join us.” Beli remarked.
“Sorry, sir. Handling repairs on the Tanari Fighters.”
“Well, Osiris can handle that. We have more important matters to discuss, and an objective to accomplish.”
Beli gestured towards the holo-projector. On cue, one of the tech officers brought the device to life.
A three-dimensional map of the Moro System coalesced into being in front of the officers.
“This is the Moro System, gentlemen.” With a
small plasteen pointer he denoted the small orbs that
represented the four planets in the Moro star system. A small arrow appeared
outside the outermost planet’s orbit. “The Centaur
has arrived just inside the fringes of the system. On schedule, our escorts,
the Strike Cruiser Phalanx and the
“What about the ISD Majesty?” Mathis interjected.
“The Majesty is on patrol along the border, both to stop any more Krri’Graq incursions and to assess possible Rebel activities. Preliminary reports say that she may have made contact with a new race, but we can’t bother ourselves with that now. In any case, her assistance was required to reinforce us in the last engagement, but her presence is not necessary to complete this campaign.” At Mathis’s understanding nod, Beli turned back to the hologram.
“Tanari has returned to the hangar, giving us a near full fighter compliment again.” His expression didn’t show disappointment at Tanari Squadron’s failure to penetrate the Krii'Graq Homeworld.
Up above and to the side of the rotating system representation, a readout of the task force’s ships and resources appeared. Beli pointed at the third planet from the sun, and the hologram began zooming in. The planet grew in size as the simulation’s clock ran in accelerated time, showing the task force moving in on the Krii'Graq Homeworld. A text readout of the planet’s stats, as accurate as could be ascertained since scouts had not actually been to the world before, came up next to the globe. “The Krii'Graq Homeworld isn’t an ideal place for human life. There are numerous gases in the atmosphere unhealthy to human lungs. Suggest you wear breath masks while down there.” The readout vanished, and was replaced by a tactical display.
“We’ll be making a short jump into the system to make it to the planet for the assault. Then we’ll move in on Moro Three at flank speed. Our attack is far from secret now, so there’s no point delaying the inevitable. The Stormwatch hasn’t arrived yet, but she’s en route, and we’ve beamed her coordinates for her exiting vector from hyperspace so we’ll be able to coordinate our attack together. The bugs should have a surprise when we show up with two Star Destroyers.” He smiled.
Beli turned to look at his Wing Commander. “Kira, what is the status of the squadrons for this engagement?”
“Eraser, Tanari, and Eclipse Squadrons are prepped and ready. The pilots have been running simulations of the anticipated battle and have come out victorious every time, with an average of fifteen percent losses of the DLSF forces, five percent losses for the Jedi.” At Beli’s quizzical look, he shrugged. “Well, they are Jedi. But the computer simulation couldn’t predict the effects of the Force in combat, so they took twenty percent losses on average.”
Beli shook his head. “Thanks, Colonel. And
please, no need to be so precise next time.”
Omega blinked. “Oh, right… “
“Well, keep it in mind, even though you won’t be serving under me anymore. I doubt Xar likes going through the numbers any more than I do.”
Omega nodded, and Xar and Mathis exchanged smiles. “I think I can cure him of that particular habit,” Mathis grinned ghoulishly. Omega’s face seemed to pale.
“Back to the matter at hand,” Beli interjected. “We’ll go over the final battle plan and get Xar and Mathis’ input.” He pointed to the dark cloud-covered, greenish-brown world spinning in front of them. The DLSF task force, red wire-frame representations of each capital ship and escorts, hovered in orbit, with the Krii'Graq forces, a loose approximation of what the bugs most likely had, represented in green.
“We’ll move in on the bug Homeworld, punching into their remaining defenders with everything we’ve got. No point in holding anything back, since we’ll have the Stormwatch to back us up. Speaking of the Stormwatch, she’ll arrive shortly thereafter, hopefully in a position to pull a flanking maneuver and trap the bugs between our combined forces.” Another Star Destroyer representation flew out of nowhere into a position behind the green Krii'Graq forces, and a myriad of tiny dots emerged from the New Imperium capital ships, representing their fighter squadrons.
“We’ll catch them between us and crush them. At the same time, our ground assault forces will launch. We’ll have three AT-ATs, several AT-STs, and most of our Stormtroopers down there. It’ll be a bloody battle. As you know, the bugs don’t stop until either they’ve won or they’re all dead. Our troopers will be fighting outside their main city, and will also be providing cover for the capture operation. Likewise, once we can afford it, our fighters will enter the planet’s atmosphere to provide aid for our ground forces.
He paused a second to consider. “Now, the key segment of this operation… The main purpose for the double strike is, as you know, to capture the Krii'Graq Queen. She is the center of their race, their hive-mind, or so it seems. The Transport War Wagon, requisitioned for this new job, will be standing by in the hangar with our boarding party. Kerensky, Organa, you’ll be heading that. As you know, you’ll have to make your way down to their main hive center, or whatever it is, blast your way through, and capture the Queen.” He paused again, as if contemplating that momentous task. “I know the battle up here won’t be easy, but I’d hate to be faced with what you have to do. You’re sure this is the way you want it…?”
Xar and Mathis nodded. “Do not worry,” Xar assured him. “We can handle our end. Just make sure you have space superiority secured for our return.”
“Not a problem. So, when we have the Queen safely aboard, we’ll get to work convincing her to surrender to our forces.” He shook his head, doubt apparent in his expression. “You know that if you fail, a lot of good officers are going to die.”
Xar nodded. “Yes, I am aware of the risks. I have taken them before. If I have to accept the needless deaths of our soldiers on my hands, it is my responsibility. But we will succeed. I know it.”
Beli looked like he wished he had the Xar’s confidence. “As you say. Well, that’s it. Once we have the Queen, hopefully complacent and cooperative, the bugs should fall right in line with her wishes. Almost as if our battles with them never occurred. At least, that’s the theory. Then we’ll be rid of the threat and handle them as needs be. But that’s not our concern, at least not until we’re called on again. Our job is to accomplish the objectives set here before us. Any questions?”
No one raised a voice.
“All right then… Omega Kira, get down there and get the squads ready for launch. Kerensky, Organa, you know what to do. The boarding party will be on standby and you’ll be notified when it’s safe to launch. We’ll have a flight group escort you down to the surface. They’ll break off once you hit atmosphere and return when you head back up. Other than that, the plan is yours.” He nodded to the three men. “Good luck, and may we celebrate our victory together tonight. Dismissed.” He straightened and saluted. The three officers followed suit, turned, and walked out with military precision.
After the three officers had left, Beli nodded at the hologram in front of him. “I think we’re ready.”
* * *
Xar sat at the terminal in his temporary quarters, taking the brief respite between briefing and utter chaos to access his personal messages and do some browsing through the HoloNet. Since the New Imperium’s inception, more organizations than Ar’Kell had joined up, and in fact, many soldiers and idealists from across the galaxy were flocking to Epsilon Sector to become a part of this new movement. Well, new government really, Xar reminded himself. An NI Senate had been established already, with each fleet or organization and planet getting representation, although no role for leader had yet been established. Xar’s acquaintance Arfann Dogar was coordinating the fleets somewhat, although all agreed that sooner or later a leader must be chosen from among them.
But he wasn’t concerning himself with that today. Those decisions would come later. For now, he was writing a message to a former comrade with whom he’d served for quite some time in the Imperial Navy. With all the enthusiastic new recruits in Epsilon Sector and the experienced veterans coming in from all over, the NI’s military strength was growing daily at a rapid pace. Plus, with names like D’larit and Organa, there was some clout which could be used to draw more names. There was one in particular Xar had in mind.
Finishing the message he’d been typing, he reread it once more to be sure. It was an invitation, to an old friend, praising the idealistic foundation of the NI and urging his friend to come and be a part of it. He didn’t know what the man was doing right now; in truth, he didn’t know if he was alive or dead. He just knew the last contact address that he’d been given, just before Xar left Thrawn’s fleet and went out on his own. Could he still be out there, flying missions? Had he stayed with Thrawn and gone to the Unknown Regions? Did he even use this address anymore?
There were many questions and many unknowns, and perhaps chances were slim that this message would get through. But if it did, it would be more than worth the time and effort. Maarek Stele would prove to be more than a fine addition to the New Imperium.
The massive Star Destroyer’s main hangar was in pandemonium as Xar and Mathis emerged from the turbolift. The vibration of the deck, the high-pitched whine of fighters’ engines, and the myriad of pilots, officers, and tech crew running around created a furor of noise and activity. Still, contrary to the hubbub of confusion that it seemed to be, everything was organized. It was simply the operation of prepping the massive Star Destroyer for combat. The pilots were running in their bulky combat suits, heading toward their fighters. The crews were busy checking the ships, then moving away as the huge TIE racks moved the fighters down into position in front of the massive entrance of the hanger that opened into space, like the mouth of a bottomless pit. Once the ship arrived in the combat zone, they would immediately launch.
Xar and Mathis made their way across the polished deck to the landing pad that held their waiting transport, the War Wagon. Lined up in front of the rear entrance was the rest of the infiltration team. Three more Jedi Division members, - known by their callsigns Dukhat, Ranger, and Darcunter – had transferred onto the Centaur earlier in the campaign. Just behind them, arrayed in a perfect line, stood a dozen Stormtroopers in gleaming white armor. As the two officers approached, they stood even straighter, if that were possible. The three Jedi bowed low before their leaders.
“It is an honor to serve in this mission with you, Grand Master,” Ranger said respectfully, his voice almost drowned out by the noise. Dukhat and Darcunter nodded in agreement.
Xar gave a nod to the three men. “Likewise. We have a hazardous mission set ahead of us,” he said, addressing all present. His voice was calm and quiet, but unlike the Jedi Knights’, his voice was easily heard by everyone present. A subtle, yet useful manipulation of the Force. “We must and will succeed, however. You already know your jobs. Our mission is vital to the success of this operation and to the entire campaign. Time will be of the essence down there. We will launch as soon as we are given the word from the bridge…” A klaxon began sounding, its sound dubbing out much of the engine noise from the other hangars.
“We’re about to enter hyperspace,” Mathis announced. “Let’s get onboard the transport and get everything ready for launch. This is it.”
First the Stormtroopers, then the Jedi clambered up the boarding ramp, as a bright flash erupted from the entrance of the hangar bay.
“Commodore, all ships reporting in. Ready for light-speed.”
Beli swiveled in the command chair to look out the main viewport and nodded. “Affirmative. All ships, engage hyperdrive.”
The stars extended into starlines, and the Centaur and its escorts shot forward into hyperspace. The storm had begun, and the Moro System was about to experience war again, as it had in ancient galactic times past.
* * *
Mathis reached up and switched the cockpit’s primary display over into flight mode. “All systems ready,” he announced to Xar. He looked over at the man in the pilot’s seat. “Standing by for launch order. You sure you can handle this thing?” he asked jokingly.
Xar smiled and nodded. “I have managed to disable or blow up my fighter the last two times I have flown. I hope I can still handle a bulky transport like this.”
Mathis looked down at a secondary display. “All crew are strapped in and standing by. I hope those guys on the ground are clearing a way for us to land. I’d hate to be down on the surface fighting those buggers…” He shivered. The ground assault forces had launched shortly after the ship had exited hyperspace, meaning the fleet must have let the planet’s own gravity well pull them back into realspace. It was a dangerous maneuver, but if executed properly would take an enemy almost completely by surprise.
“I am more concerned with the battle out there,” Xar said, gesturing beyond the viewport. Even from their poor vantage point of the hangar entrance, they could glimpse of flashes of light coming from outside, the sign of a heavy space battle going on.
“Switching over to comm traffic.” He reached down and tapped a few buttons on the communications display.
“…eport in now please…” the display crackled.
“Eclipse Two here, I’m a little singed but okay. Three bogeys coming in at eleven o’clock high.”
“I see ‘em, take the one on the left…”
“Anybody see Eraser five?”
here, I’m taking a shot.”
“Watch it Quorl, two on your right.”
“On them… Three, on my wing.”
“Stang, he’s on me tight sir, I can’t shake him!”
Mathis shook his head. “Must be more of ‘em than we thought…”
“Hold on, Simo, Be right there.” Osiris pulled the fighter around and shot up toward the enemy fighter at blinding speed.
The TIE Avenger’s quad lasers spat megajoules of energy into the enemy’s secondhand-procured X-wing, incinerating the fighter’s armor and punching into the power core. The ship exploded, sending debris flying off toward the planet below.
“Don’t thank me too fast, two from above. Break hard right!” Two fighters were closing in on them, spitting out laser fire as they came. As Osiris pulled up, several blasts hit his forward shields, bringing them threateningly close to collapsing. He calmly lined the fighter in his sights, and fired. Green lances shot out to connect with the enemy Interceptor as it flew straight in. The ship exploded instantly, the spreading wave of gas and energy sending its wingman veering to the side. Osiris pulled the joystick to the right, rolling the ship on its side, then pulled a tight loop, falling right back on the second fighter’s tail. He switched over to double fire and pulled the trigger again. The enemy tried to juke out of the way, but Osiris’ second shot hit the fighter just above the ion engines, causing them to erupt and blow the fighter apart with them.
“Nice shooting, sir. These aliens can’t fly worth nerf crap, but they’ve got strength in numbers…” Another voice overdubbed the comm channel.
“…too close, can’t eject, help me, Aaahhh!!!” a panicked scream tore out, then was briefly replaced by static.
A brief moment of dead silence, then his comm unit clicked again. “Tanari two here, Commander. Enemy cruisers have reached optimum firing range with our ships and are exchanging shots. We’re getting caught in the crossfire.”
Osiris leveled off for a second, getting his first good look at the new bug ships. He hadn’t seen them before they’d arrived at Moro, so he assumed the bugs had saved them as a last resort. The rounded, oblong gray ships were slow and ugly, but they were bristling with turbolaser batteries, which were spitting fire out at the Centaur at the moment. Two more were closing the distance, still well out of range off the Centaur’s port side. The Strike Cruiser Phalanx, his sensors told him, was engaging two smaller enemy ships, while a Carrack-class Cruiser was attempting to pelt the Star Destroyer from above, and taking a serious beating itself in the process.
He pulled a wide loop, then pulled back hard on the stick to avoid an enemy corvette that was in the process of blowing itself apart. His fighter shook as the ship blew behind him, and he adjusted his shields to compensate for the effects of the blast. As he looked back up he caught a glimpse of something else heading for the Centaur. The cylindrical, fat outlines of TIE Bombers were making a beeline for the Star Destroyer. Just what we need, he thought, cursing under his breath. “Tanari squadron, break off and engage enemy bombers, at mark five-seven. We can’t let them get to the Centaur.”
Mathis was watching the tactical display with a growing feeling of dread in his gut. “If those other two cruisers get in range…” He cut off as the COM traffic broke off and was replaced by a short chime.
“Transport War Wagon, this is the bridge, do you copy?”
Xar reached out and hit the comm. “Affirmative. Orders?”
“Sir, things aren’t looking very good. The enemy presence is larger than anticipated. If you’re going to launch, you’d better do it now.”
“Stang.” Several muffled thumps came from outside, audible even inside the transport’s cockpit. Both men looked up and outside the viewport, toward the armored interior of the flight hangar. “Torpedo hits,” Mathis mused aloud.
Xar hit the button again. “What about our escort?”
There was a brief moment of silence, then the officer replied. “We’ll try to give you a two-fighter escort, but if things get much hotter we’ll all get burned.”
“Two fighters!” Mathis exclaimed. Xar shook his head and held up a hand to forestall any further comment.
“Affimative, bridge, we are launching now. Standby.” He looked back over at Mathis. “As long as we have a little help we should be all right, just make sure they remember what to do if things get rough.” He jerked his thumb back toward the main passenger hold. Mathis nodded, and leaned over to a secondary monitor as Xar busied himself with the transport’s liftoff.
The ship’s engines increased in pitch from a low roar to a shrill whine, as the War Wagon rose on its repulsorlifts and started forward.
Meanwhile, down on the surface of Moro Three, another kind of battle was taking place. Men were dying, lives were being changed, and new heroes were being made. The battlefield was smaller, but no less deadly, and a hundred times more personal.
The task force’s entire Stormtrooper compliment was arrayed in a line, ducking or laying down behind whatever cover they could find across the massive brown grass plain that sat before the main Krii'Graq city. The three AT-ATs stood behind, battered and blackened with scorch marks, sending hails of blaster cannon fire down at the legions of the Krii'Graq army ahead. The AT-STs had long since been decimated by enemy cannon fire. The huge bug tank machines sat on their large treads and poured a near continuous stream of fire at the massive Imperial war machines and the entrenched Stormtroopers.
Commander Radock Muur ducked instinctively as a particularly close blaster bolt flashed by overhead. His dozens of remaining Stormtroopers were arrayed to either side; the sound of the return fire they were pelting the enemy with was nearly deafening. The ground between them and the bugs was being crisscrossed with hundreds of blasts at once, and the death count was getting painfully high. The dense, hazy atmosphere obscured the view of the enemy somewhat, but they’d still managed to kill what looked to be hundreds of bugs. Yet as many more remained, and the troopers were waning in strength and numbers.
To his right, one officer only had time for a brief scream as a blaster shot took him in the chest and blew him several feet backwards.
Radock leaned closer to the ground and held the comm unit to his ear. His breath mask, built into his Stormtrooper helmet, allowed him to breathe on this forsaken planet, but also made his voice sound distant and metallic. “Yes, blast it, I said we’re getting chewed up here!” He could barely hear his own yelling voice. “There must be hundreds of them out there, and they’re more relentless than anything I’ve ever seen… They won’t stop coming. Every time they advance we manage to drive them back, but they just keep coming!”
There was a brief response, which was nearly drowned out by a nearby blast of cannon fire. “I don’t care what they’re giving you up there, we need some aerial support fast!”
“Well you’re just goin… …to hold on,” the voice came out.
“Get me some air support!” He growled throatily. He switched over to his own unit’s frequency. “Okay, this is our last chance, men. Get those rocket launchers up, and we’ll provide cover for you! Don’t let up, and don’t give these insects a centimeter!”
With that he dropped the commlink, grabbed his blaster carbine, and stood up in full view. “Come on, you buggers! Come get some!” he screamed, firing again and again, laying a hail of bolts across the field toward the enemy. Bug after bug fell before his assault, gushing green blood across the dry, dead grassland. Enemy return fire flew toward him, yet somehow he wasn’t struck. The bolts shot by all around him. The officers around him, inspired by his heroic display, stood and began rallying blaster fire toward the advancing enemy.
“Come on, let’s finish this!” Cried one of the assault troopers. He hoisted his missile tube onto his shoulder and stood. His companions did likewise, raising shouts of determination. His companions lined up their shots and let their mini-concussion missiles fly. The warheads flew across the battlefield on trails of smoke, homing in on their targets. The missiles poured into the tanks, blowing their armor to shreds and tearing into their interiors. More shots flew, one hitting the front of a tank just under the cannon. The missile exploded, tearing through the machine’s front and detonating the tank’s ammunition as well. The vehicle tore itself apart in a massive fireball, throwing debris out all over the battlefield. Another missile sped by and connected with a nearby tank’s treads. The tread was blown apart, sending a hail of debris flying into the Krii'Graq warriors nearby. The tank pitched over onto its side, rendered harmless.
A cry of jubilation came from the officers, but then Krii'Graq return fire came at them with a fury. Screaming officers collapsed or dove for the ground, tossing their missile tubes aside. Radock didn’t move though; he watched as one huge alien broke ahead of the others, running forward on its four hind legs, firing its blaster with its front two.
A blaster bolt hit Radock’s left shoulder, burning through the armor and cauterizing flesh. He fought back a scream, the pain blasting through his body. He stumbled, but forced himself to straighten. His left arm dangled uselessly to the side, and the launcher threatened to send him down with its weight. With the last of his strength he brought his launcher up to bear on the huge bug warrior, and fired. The missile shot out of the tube, the force of its flight knocking him backwards. The alien screamed a high-pitched squeal as the warhead flew came in too fast to react. The missile hit the bug’s front, penetrated through its chest armor into the soft underbelly, and detonated. The Krii'Graq warrior was literally blown to bits by the explosion, engulfing the other nearby aliens in flame. Green blood splattered in all directions, and for a moment the enemy advance was halted.
It was enough for the troopers to regain their heads and morale.
Explosion after explosion blossomed out of the sides of the alien cruiser, even as the Star Destroyer’s turbolaser batteries continued raining down lethal blasts of destruction that turned more of the ship to molten slag. Finally the ship’s interior collapsed and the entire vessel was engulfed in a massive ball of flame. Within moments nothing was left but a floating hulk of a ship, an armored exterior with a hollow inside.
“Commodore, enemy cruisers powering up weapons… Three minutes to optimum firing range.”
Beli nodded, keeping any emotion from his face. Inside, though, he was feeling growing unease. If those cruisers go full out with us we might not make it. Instead, he said “Understood. Tactical?”
Another officer from the crew pit called out. “Shields at seventy-five percent, sir.”
“Any word on the Stormwatch?” he asked the comm officer.
Beli bit back a curse and turned back to look out the forward viewport. The two Krii'Graq Cruisers were moving steadily closer, two silent, black orbs, like the pupils of malevolent eyes. Small shapes passed distantly beyond the transparisteel, red and green lances darting out between them. This was the moment of truth, he knew. The next engagement would decide the fate of the battle and the campaign to take the Moro System.
His comm unit beeped. “Centaur, this is
“Affirmative, watch yourselves,” Beli responded. Then he swung back around to face the bridge interior.
“Move us into attack position. Order Strike Cruise Phalanx to circle around to point three-nine and we’ll open up on the cruisers. All available fighters to form a screen around the Centaur and Phalanx.”
“Yes sir,” the comm officer replied, already entering commands into the console.
This is it, Beli thought. Either a stunning victory or a blaze of glory. No in between.
“Launch one,” Archaron’s voice announced. A blindingly fast concussion missile streaked out to connect with the last TIE Bomber. The missile hit the left solar panel, blasting through the thin material like flimsiplast, crumpling the panel. The missile punched its way further inside the fighter before exploding, blowing the bomber out of existence.
“Good shot, Vynd,” Osiris
said. “All right, hold on, we’ve got new orders. Tanari,
form on me. We’re to form a screen around Centaur
and provide cover for her.
The transport flew toward the huge green-brown world at top speed, the TIE Avenger escorts easily keeping pace. Xar sat at the controls, with Mathis, at the copilot’s seat, keeping a wary eye on the scanners and tactical display.
Suddenly the computer bracketed over a dozen enemy blips on the screen. Mathis looked up.
“Looks like they think they’ve got this one in the bag,” he announced. “They’re sending everything else at us.”
“Great,” Xar noted. He reached over and hit the comm. “TIE escorts, we have incoming.”
“Affirmative, sir. Moving to engage. Don’t worry about us, just get down there.”
“Not likely,” Xar said to no one in particular. He activated the ship’s interior speakers. “Men, this is what you have been training for. Cloud their minds, confuse them. We cannot let the enemy prevail.”
With that he pulled the ship up and to the left, toward a wave of incoming fighters.
The scream of one of the escorts as his ship exploded echoed through the cabin. Floating in the middle of a swarm of bug fighters, Mathis could feel the bug pilots’ presence, could touch their minds. He saw one come around on an attack vector, and concentrated on that one. He pushed into the alien’s mind, then found something totally unexpected. “The… Queen…” He concentrated, letting the Force flow through him into the enemy’s mind. “She’s… controlling them, somehow.” The enemy fighter veered off, falling into a tight spiral down toward the planet below, as if trying to get away from Mathis’s attack.
“I expected as much,” Xar replied calmly. Mathis knew that, when Xar became cool and unemotional like that, that he was deeply within the Force. “There is more going on here than we realize. I can sense the connection between the Queen and her minions… I can feel their presence, a presence here since ancient times…”
“Sir,” a voice came over the comm from the passenger quarters. “I… I can’t get into their minds… They’re so… alien. It’s as if they’re not really in control of their own minds, but there’s something else, something blocking me.” He heard grunts of agreement from the other Jedi in the compartment.
“There are… other ways of using the Force to defeat you enemy, Dukhat. More subtle ways.” Xar was looking out toward an enemy Interceptor circling around in front of them. Suddenly the ship lurched to the side, and a gout of flame emerged from the Ion Engines. The engines exploded, blowing the fighter into fragments.
Mathis looked over at the Grand Master with curiosity. He’d have to ask Xar about that technique. Xar’s policy of “I didn’t tell you because you didn’t ask” could be annoying sometimes.
Xar’s head turned to the side, where an enemy Avenger was coming in, firing as it came. This time there was no warning, the fighter simply exploded. Mathis nodded; he’d felt it that time. Xar knew his starfighters, and he knew just where to stress and engine, pull something out of place, at just the right time.
“Sir, how…” Ranger’s voice blurted out.
“A question for later, Knight. Right now we have bought ourselves a few moments of respite.” Xar put his attention on the controls again and turned the transport toward the planet.
Suddenly the primary console gave out a rapid beep. Mathis looked down, and drew in a breath. “Ship coming out of hyperspace… a big one.”
Mathis blinked at the display. “Right on top of us!”
There was a flash as the fabric of space was disrupted above, and suddenly the wedge-shaped visage of and Imperial-class Star Destroyer flashed into existence.
“The Stormwatch…!” Mathis twisted around to try and follow the ship as if passed overhead with incredible speed. Several fighters in the way were obliterated as the Star Destroyer rammed them.
“It’s too close!”
The two cruisers were pelting the Centaur with near continuous blasts of turbolaser fire. The bridge shook again and again from impacts against the critical shields.
“Shields at twenty-three percent and dropping, sir!” the tactical officer yelled.
“Hang on, keep firing! Position the fighters…” Beli broke off as the Stormwatch appeared out of nowhere above and to starboard of the Centaur. Still moving impossibly fast from its exit from hyperspace, the ISD roared over the top of the Centaur with chillingly little room to spare. Several small explosions flashed as fighters occupying that space were decimated as the massive vessel plowed through them. “What the…”
The Stormwatch’s bow rammed cleanly into the side of the rearmost Krii'Graq Cruiser. The smaller cruiser’s hull buckled against the heavily armored nose of the Star Destroyer. The bow disappeared inside as the ISD pushed itself deeper into the alien cruiser. The Krii'Graq ship, bent amidships beyond the breaking point, cracked in the middle like an egg. Explosions erupted from all over the ship, blossoming out, combining with more and still more, until the entire vessel was engulfed. A wall of flame rushed up the hull of the Star Destroyer and around the bridge. For a moment the tower was lost in blaze of fire, then it was past and ship could be seen in full view. The bridge crew stood stunned by what had happened, and for a moment it seemed the battle slammed to a halt. The blackened hull of the Stormwatch could seen in full view. The nose of the Star Destroyer appeared to have suffered considerable damage, but the Krii'Graq ship was nowhere in sight. Instead, a cloud of debris was flying out in all directions.
Beli recovered first. “Well,” he said. “That definitely helped.”
The entire ship shook violently with the impact. For a moment the entire crew was struck with the odd beauty in front of them, a holographic representation of the large Krii'Graq cruiser breaking up before their eyes. Then all they could see was fire.
Gaius pulled himself to his feet and shook his head. “Whew, that was a first for me. Status report!”
The other bridge officers scrambled back to their positions. “Shields out at the moment,” the tactical officer announced. “Damage to forward decks, more coming in from all over. Slight power loss in sections two and three. We lost fifteen turbolasers and ten more are in the yellow.”
Gaius nodded and stepped forward toward the viewport. “Open the blast doors.”
“Sir the debris could still be dangerous.”
Gaius turned to look at the young officer. “Understood. Now open the blast doors.”
The young man blinked, then turned and hastily began hitting buttons. “Opening now, sir.”
The thick durasteel doors unlocked and began parting in front of them. As the doors moved aside into their normal locking positions the entire bridge crew stood captivated by the view in front of them. A cloud of black debris was floating in front of them, but it hardly obscured the panoramic view of the planet filling the entire sky. They could make out the green foliage and brown dirt, the brownish waters and the darkened clouds. It was a view they would never forget. “It’s beautiful,” one of the officers said.
Most of the officers knew enough to take a look at the body of the Stormwatch in front of them. The nose of the ship had been damaged, tons of armor blown off and the entire bow seemed a little shorter, though it could easily have been a trick of the mind. Nearly the whole body of the ship from bow to bridge had been blackened by the white-hot flame. The Grand Master is going to kill me, Gaius thought.
“There’s another cruiser out there, people,” he said instead. I want every available battery on it, now! Launch all fighters. Patch me through to the Centaur.”
“How nice of you to join us,” Beli’s voice suddenly came over the comm.
“Yeah, well we heard how much fun you guys were having and thought we’d join in. Need a hand?”
“Gaius, I thought you’d never ask. Let’s give these bugs a lesson in wisdom… Never mess with the New Imperium.”
“Agreed,” Gaius smiled. “Let’s end this game.”
“I am going to kill Gaius,” Xar announced.
Mathis tore his eyes from the spectacular view to look over at Xar. His grin widened. “Let’s save that for later, shall we? Gaius just saved our butts.” He turned to look back out the viewport. “Look! They’re converging on the last cruiser, and the Stormwatch is launching fighters.” Indeed, both Star Destroyers and the Strike Cruiser were concentrating their fire on the last Krii'Graq Cruiser, which tried vainly to return sufficient fire on all its attackers to cause any real damage. “I’d say we’ve got this one in the bag. Now, down there,” he gestured to the planet, “is another story.”
Xar nodded slowly. “Now comes the fun part.” He swung the transport back in line with their original course. “Time to do our job.”
The battlefield was littered with bodies; fallen Stormtroopers in stark-white armor contrasting against the darkened ground on one side, the black and yellow exoskeletons of dead Krii'Graq warriors on the other. Yet still the fighting continued. New Imperium troopers, fatigued and low on ammunition, kept up a steady stream of fire against the relentless Krii'Graq advances. The two AT-ATs remaining poured hot blaster fire into the ranks of the enemy troops, but still they kept coming on, as if driven by some unseen power.
Commander Radock, crouching on the ground after taking another hit in the left leg, watched the last stages of the battle and issued orders as necessary. His men were exhausted, he knew. Over one quarter of his troops were now lifeless bodies sprawled over the battlefield, with nearly another quarter down from injuries. The rest were exhausted and as low on morale as they were on ammunition. This was the end, he knew. As soon as the bugs realized the state his troopers were in, they would rush in a swarm and wipe them all out. There was no way they could stop them. He could still see hundreds between their position and the city.
“Get ready,” he spoke into his comlink. “Save your ammunition. They’re about to rush in again. On my command we’ll give them everything we’ve got. They might take us down, but it’s gonna hurt ‘em badly… cause we’re going down fighting!”
“Sir!” an excited voice spoke up over the comlink. “They’re fighters coming in!”
“What…” He turned on his back to look up at the sky. “I don’t see any…” He broke off as he heard them. The unforgettable sound that ion engines made inside an atmosphere. A few seconds later he could see them, coming in toward the battlefield at a steep angle, moving at hundreds of kilometers an hour. “TIEs!” he exclaimed into the comlink. “Our air support is finally here!” He pushed himself up to watch as the fighters descended upon the Krii'Graq like avenging angels. Red lances shot out as the ships fired their concussion missiles that hit the densest clusters of the bug army. Huge mounds of dirt were blasted away in a conflagration of earth and fire. Missiles hit the remaining Krii'Graq tanks and tore them to shreds, deadly debris slicing into the bugs nearby. The fighters adjusted course and began raking laser fire across the Krii'Graq lines. Dozens or even hundreds of bugs were vaporized instantaneously. The fighters shot overhead with a deafening roar, the pitiful return fire of the few Krii'Graq that managed to get off a shot in time, missing by dozens of meters. Even as they turned to begin another pass, it was clear that the bugs were finished. The remaining warriors were in chaos, no longer acting like a single unit. Many were trampled as the majority of the surviving aliens ran back in the direction of the city in a vain attempt to get away.
Radock sighed with relief. “All right, troopers!” he yelled into the comlink. “They’re on the run. Let’s finish ‘em off!”
A rallying cry emerged from the troopers, and they rose as one and advanced forward, in one final assault against the retreating Krii'Graq army.
The Transport War Wagon blasted through the atmosphere of Moro Three, gray striated clouds filling the sky behind. The hazy air slightly obscured Xar and Mathis’s view of the Krii'Graq main city, but the scanners told them they were on the right course.
Mathis leaned forward and looked out the viewport down at the brownish landscape below. As they grew closer he could make out last stages of a battle going on. Several TIE Interceptors and Avengers were circling the area, periodically firing down at what must have been the Krii'Graq army. While it was hard to make out any details, Mathis could still see the blackened ground from the fighters’ runs and the wreckage of dozens of tanks. He could also see one destroyed AT-AT and two other damaged ones. “Must have been a major battle down there, but it looks like the bugs were beaten. They’re being driven back toward the city, I think.”
“In that case,” Xar answered, “We better get out job done and get back out before they reach us. There is the main hive ahead.”
Mathis shifted his gaze over to the heart of the Krii'Graq city. Orbital bombardment from the DLSF fleet had destroyed much of the city’s defenses in preparation for the ground assault, and large tracts of cityscape had been destroyed by turbolaser fire, blackened ground marking the blasted areas. The rest of the city, the majority of it, was all made from the same orange-brown material. The buildings were not overly tall, and architecture didn’t seem to be a major factor in the designers’ plans. The buildings looked like dirt huts from this height, with little or no decorations or architectural variety. Another thing that struck Mathis was that the city was not nearly large enough to capacitate the kind of population he’d seen on the battlefield, and that had just been the Krii'Graq warriors. As they’d suspected, most of the bugs’ living space was subterranean, hidden below the cityscape. “Looks like a drab place to live,” he commented.
“Indeed.” Xar hit the internal ship’s comm. “We are approaching the main hive complex. Everyone get your masks on.”
Mathis blinked. He’d forgotten for a moment that they’d have to wear masks to breathe down there. He’d have to get one himself, too. As he rose to head back to the hold, he took one more look at the bug hive growing in the viewport. It was definitely the tallest and largest structure in the city, perhaps even the whole planet. The building resembled a massive orange-brown beehive, with progressively smaller levels heading up toward the top and many rounded outside entrances of unknown function. “Where do you expect the Queen to be?” he asked.
Xar shrugged. “Offhand, I would say somewhere below the main hive complex. If the Queen lived above ground in the hive she would make a better target.” He glanced back at his friend and companion. “Go on ahead and get your mask. I can take her in from here.”
“Okay. You want your mask now?”
Xar reached up and hit a switch on the overhead panel. The HUD painted a display schematic over the huge structure, searching for a possible landing site and point of entry.
“No thanks, I will grab one on the way out.”
Mathis nodded again. “See you shortly.” With that he turned back and headed for the transport’s hold.
The transport flew low over the Krii'Graq city, using its repulsorlifts to hover several meters above the tops of the buildings. The hive grew larger and larger in the viewport. Xar had found a small clear area which seemed to be a small personal landing pad and headed the transport that way. Several Krii'Graq guards had anticipated that Xar would try to land there and shot sizzling blaster bolts futilely at the shielded craft. Xar brought up the ship’s weapons and brought the targeting brackets onto the guards. He fired, sending green lances of energy down to obliterate the bugs. The ones that were hit were vaporized; the rest were either blown off the platform by the blast or dove off on their own accord. Xar then directed his fire to the sealed entrance to the hive. Might as well make a big enough hole to enter in, he thought. The transport fired again, the lasers blasting through the doors and taking large sections of wall with them. The sides of the hive weren’t made of very strong material, it seemed; it held together well, but the lasers cut right through them into the interior of the building.
The transport set down on the pad with jarring abruptness; speed was a necessity more than a smooth ride. Xar quickly put the ship into standby mode and clambered back toward the hold where the rest of the group was waiting. He reached the crowded room and one of the troopers handed him a breath mask. He donned it, nodding to the party in front of him.
“This is it, people. It should not be very difficult locating the Queen, her Force impressions really stand out. Shoot every bug in our way, but remember, time is the most important thing here. Once we have her down we will have to get the nets over her and get her on the sleds quickly, or we may not make it out alive. May the Force be with us.” He nodded to the officer in back, how hit the switch to descend the transport’s boarding ramp. The atmosphere inside the transport was quickly sucked out as the cabin pressurized with the planet’s air. The party was quickly exposed to the hot, humid air of Moro Three.
“How do they stand this air?” asked Dukhat.
“Time to go, everyone. The sooner we get this done the sooner we can be get out of here.” Mathis
shouldered his way to the exit and looked out. “We’re clear. Let’s roll.”
The party’s footsteps pounded on the deck as they ran down the ramp. Xar was the last to descend, closing the transport behind and sealing it. Then he turned back to the other, taking up point in designated formation, and pulled out his favorite weapon, his personal mass gun. They made their way cautiously but steadily inside the hive, the stormtroopers forming a circle around the Jedi who, drawn to the Queen’s Force presence like vornskrs, led a sure way through the honeycombed corridors.
The last cruiser made a beautiful explosion, the final blast sending a small shockwave of energy outwards that knocked the nearby fighters out of control. The rest of the alien craft broke off, finally acknowledging defeat. Even the bugs finally had to give in to such insurmountable odds. The remaining Frigate and a couple dozen fighters broke away from combat and began heading out for the edges of the system.
Beli leaned forward and watched as the alien ships headed outward at top speed. “Stay on them,” he ordered. “I don’t want any survivors!”
“Moving to fall in behind, sir, but they can outrun us. They’ve got less mass to push around.”
The Star Destroyer’s turbolaser batteries pelted the enemy Frigate, its engines burning at maximum in a frantic escape attempt. The New Imperium fighters pulled in behind the bugs, systematically picking off the alien fighters one by one.
“Status of fleet?”
“Shields at critical, Stormwatch’s shields still down.
Damage reports within manageable levels. The Stormwatch has it a little worse off than we do. Phalanx reports no significant damage.
Beli looked down at the Carrack Cruiser barely in view to port. Most of the ship’s engines had gone dark, and the ship’s interior had been breached in several places. Escape pods were still launching out, giving a hint of just how severe the damage really was. The ship had managed to take out the enemy’s Nebulon B-class frigate, however. The thin midsection of the ship had been destroyed, causing the two larger sections to float about aimlessly in space. Then the Centaur began turning away toward the fleeing enemy, and the scene was lost to view.
The other frigate was out of range after several minutes had passed. The Centaur had managed to take her shields down, but at this point the ship itself was intact and too far away for the Star Destroyer to cause significant damage. Beli was contemplating rearming a squadron of fighters for a bombing run, when a rapid, pulsing beep came from the ship’s overhead speakers.
“Commodore, new ships have entered the system. I’m reading three Corvettes and a Victory Star Destroyer in position right in front of the enemy fleet,” the comm. officer said.
“What? Who are they, more bugs?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Put it onscreen.”
The viewscreen changed from a tactical view of the immediate area and zoomed over to where the new fleet had exited hyperspace. The ships were tagged as “unknown”.
“Sir, the new ships are not, I repeat, not using standard Krii'Graq identifications codes.”
Beli shook his head in puzzlement. “Take us closer, Lieutenant.”
“Sir,” the tactical officer interrupted, “new ships are firing on enemy Frigate!”
Beli stood and made his way nearer the viewport, which showed the starfield slowly rotating as the Centaur changed course. As the bug ships came back into view, Beli saw for himself what was happening. The Victory-class Star Destroyer had opened up on the Frigate, the latter ship now ablaze in flame escaping from compromised hull sections. The weak return fire it shot back couldn’t penetrate the larger ship’s shields, and soon no fire returned at all. More fire pulsed into the frigate from the VSD’s relentless turbolasers. The bug ship finally gave in, an expanding fireball extending outward from the engines and consuming the entire vessel.
“It’s over,” Beli sighed. They’d done it. Though as a fleet and a government they had barely gotten started, they’d beaten the Krii'Graq race, on the ground and in the air. But the price had been high. He didn’t want to think about that right now. “Give me data on newcomer fleet,” he ordered.
“Ships appear to match standard configurations, sir… Life signs reveal… hold on, sir, they’re hailing us!”
Beli blinked, then nodded and headed back to the Commodore’s chair. “Well, put it onscreen.”
The screen flashed to static for a moment, as Beli sat down, then coalesced into the image of a Victory Star Destroyer’s bridge. And standing in front of it… What is this, he thought. A bad holoflick? The insectile alien standing in the foreground looked differently from the Krii'Graq, but it was obviously of similar design. This orange-brown alien stood more upright than the bugs, and it didn’t look as physically threatening as the Krii'Graq did. It’s face had small mandibles, large purplish eyes, and two thin antennae coming out from his head. Even as Beli formed the word who on his lips, the alien spoke.
[We are Kaav’klan,] the automatic ship’s translation interpreted, listing the language as related to Krri’Graq, which they already knew. The alien’s various mouthparts moved, and its mandibles clicked together slightly as it talked. [We are not hostile towards your species or government. We are here to help you defeat the Krii'Graq, our enemies.]
A little late in the game, Beli thought. “We appreciate your help. We do not have any knowledge of contact with your race before, but we would certainly like to make acquaintances once this is over, if you wouldn’t mind…?”
[Of course. We look forward to relations with your government. We have been watching your progress and decided to reveal ourselves at this time. We are from the star system you call Sigma.]
“Very interesting.” Sigma was not very far away. Beli wondered how these aliens knew what they did without their knowing about them in the process. Unless the Senate did, and hadn’t revealed it… It didn’t matter, he decided. “I am not authorized for first-contact situations, but if you would remain here, our spokesman should be back shortly.”
Beli didn’t add “if he survives”… The alien nodded, and he turned to the bridge crew to issue new orders.
Xar fired again, sending a shot cleanly through a bug’s face, splitting it apart, then spun around and fired into the one coming up behind him. The projectiles blasted through the bug as if it wasn’t even there, sending a stream of blood shooting out behind it. The alien fell backwards, obviously hurt, but not dead. One of the troopers walked up and put a blaster bolt in its head, ending its misery.
“This way,” Xar said, nodding his head down the corridor. “We are close now.”
The remaining eight troopers reformed their screen around the Jedi, and the party ran by the bodily remains of the bug ambush.
The Queen stared furiously down at the drone organizer. [You failed! Because of your incompetence we have lost to these meat!]
[Many apologies,] the drone bowed. [They surprised us, my Queen. They showed remarkable resilience.]
[Resilience! You idiot! You were in charge of all our forces, and you have made the ultimate failure. Now the meat has penetrated my personal chambers! Stop them, and your death will not be so slow and painful! Fail, and you will beg me to eat you alive!]
The organizer bowed low, backed away from the dais, turned, and was impaled by two blasts that tore through his body and out his back, spraying green blood all over the wall behind. He was propelled backwards off his legs to collide with the wall, where he crumpled, motionless.
Xar stepped around the corner where he’d been hiding and stood facing the Queen. The huge, bloated insect sat on an upraised dais with a chamber extending into the distance behind. The bug stared at him with the most malevolent eyes he’d ever seen, her forelimbs on a small console in front of her. Her massive black bulk extended in into the chamber behind, no doubt a connecting room to her other private chambers. Behind and above her was an elaborate backdrop for the throne, complete with pictograms and scrawlings in the alien’s violent and ugly language.
Xar’s companions filed into the room behind him, and he held up a hand to forestall any action. Reaching up, he took a final deep breath into his mask, then pulled the device off and let it drop to the ground.
“This is finished, Queen,” he stared right back into those huge eyes. “You have been beaten. Surrender to the New Imperium and you will not be killed.”
The Queen drew herself up as much as she could on her front legs and spoke in a high-pitched squeal. Xar’s earpiece translator even included the malice in the Queen’s words. [Pathetic meat, you have no comprehension of what you have done! You will all pay for this with your lives.]
He shook his head. “No, I know exactly what I am doing. You are defeated, but it does not have to end here. Surrender, and come back with us. You and your race will be treated fairly and given many freedoms under New Imperial rule. You are of more use to us alive than dead, but one way or another, you are coming with us.”
[Oh no, I’m afraid you are mistaken, young Jedi.] Xar grimaced at the use of the word, and the Queen made a throatily sigh. [Yes… Yes, I know much about you and your kind. The ancient Jedi defeated my ancestors. I’ve heard of this, passed down to me before I emerged as the one true Queen. I am strong in the Power, strong enough to defeat you.]
Xar threw his head back and laughed. “You have the Force in you, but you cannot control it. You could not even sense me as I hid myself from you, there.” He gestured to the side corridor. “Now, time is up. There will be more to speak about later. You are coming with us.”
The Queen growled. [Time is up, Jedi. For you!] She shot her hand forward and hit a key on the control pad. Above her, in the elaborate backdrop for the dais, a long spike shot out from its hidden hole. Xar only had milliseconds from the moment he sensed the projectile’s shot until it would impale him. Already holding on to the Force, anticipating some aggressive action from the Queen, he leaped up and to the side, the shaft passing inches underneath his body and slamming into the floor behind him. The shaft exploded, blowing rock and duracrete into the air. Xar hit the floor, rolled, and came up on one knee, his mass gun leveled at the Queen. He slowly rose, keeping his gun trained on the Queen’s ugly face.
“You made your shot,” he said with nerve-chilling calmness in his voice. “Now time for mine.”
The Queen pushed herself up, drawing in a breath a hiss. There, at that moment, Xar saw, the Queen knew true fear. The Queen was the center of the entire Krii'Graq race; they lived to serve her, and gladly died in her service. That was the whole key behind the relentless advanced of the bugs, to serve her voracious appetite for more power. It must have taken her years to build a force sufficient to challenge the New Imperium, or so she’d thought. The innumerable deaths of her servants were nothing to her. All that mattered was the Queen. If the Queen died, all was lost for them, until a new Queen emerged. There, at that moment, she knew her life was over.
Blaster fire erupted from behind Xar. Stun blasts. The entire kept up a constant stream of fire, blasting the Queen again and again. The blue bolts poured into the Queen; she shrieked, twisting her body from side to side. A high-pitched scream tore throughout the whole hive, then she dropped, landing on the dais with a thump.
Xar nodded toward his men and holstered his mass gun. His companions ceased firing, having put a few extra shots into the bug to make sure she’d stay unconscious.
“Thank you, gentlemen.” His voice sounded hoarser. Bad air. “Right on time. Now, let us get this huge thing onto the sleds and get off this dump.” He turned back and went to retrieve his breath mask. The others holstered their weapons and began pulling out their equipment. Mathis took a disgusting look at the massive blob of the Queen’s main body. “I’m getting too old for this,” he said wearily. Xar, chuckling, slowly shook his head.
* * *
The Stormwatch floated lazily in orbit, its battle-scarred visage a testament to the bloody campaign to take the Moro System. The ISD Centaur sat a short distance away to the rear and starboard, while the Strike Cruiser Phalanx brought up the rear. All three ships were in a geo-stationary orbit above the main Krii'Graq city. All three were definitely the worse for wear.
With the arrival of the Sigmans, space superiority had been quickly gained over the remaining Krii'Graq forces. The bug Queen had been transferred over to the Stormwatch in the transport War Wagon, while extraction forces had gone down to gather the surviving ground forces. TIE fighters from the Jedi Division and DLSF ships – the ones the least damaged – patrolled the area for other potential contacts. In theory, now that the New Imperium forces had the Queen, the bugs wouldn’t dare mount an assault or even a rescue attempt, missions that might get her killed in the attempt. The Queen was the center of their race; as far as they were concerned, she was their race, and if she died, they died. And, depending on the Queen’s wishes, the bugs would react with the same emotions as she did, only on a larger scale. Things seemed strangely quiet down on Moro Three… too quiet.
Mathis watched through the one-way glass as Xar made his interview with the Queen. The two beings were in a sealed cell and examination room in the medical wing of the Stormwatch. Mathis and his companions – Gaius Adonai, Omega Kira, Osiris, and several other officers – sat in an adjoining waiting room.
Mathis had seen some of the injured from the battle planetside. Some of the troopers were in rough shape. The battle must have been long and bloody… He’d seen Commander Radock rushed by with a blaster wound to his arm and leg; he was still mumbling about seeing to his other men. Seemed the man would be up for a Medal of Honor once he recovered. Mathis wondered if their victory would be worth the price that they’d paid. It all depended on Xar, he supposed. He turned his attention back to the interior of the cell.
Xar was flanked by two other Jedi Knights, to back him up in case of some unforeseen circumstances. Everything seemed to be going as planned, though. Xar and the Queen were deep in negotiations at this point, and not all of it obviously was verbal. Mathis could sense the Force flowing through both of them, hinting at something going on in the background that he and his colleagues couldn’t catch.
“You are not in a position to negotiate.” Xar was saying calmly. “What we ask is not too much for you to do. We are being much more generous than the Empire would have been. If we were the Empire, you would be dead.”
The Queen made a hissing sound. Ever since coming to inside the ship, she’d known her defeat was obvious, and she seemed resigned to her fate. She was at the mercy of her captors, who if they were anyone else, would probably have given her a slow and painful death.
For a moment the two just stared at each other, then the Queen nodded, an over-exaggerated imitation of a human movement. [We will join your New Imperium. In exchange…]
“In exchange you will be given all the freedoms I entailed in the proposition,” Xar broke in. “Your building skills will be the most important addition you can make to our Cause. We will provide you with all the materials you will need, and proper protection. In exchange, as members, you will be bound by NI Law and will operate within our given guidelines. You will also allow us full access to your race history and archives.”
The Queen nodded again, and Xar’s expression changed. “What… A storehouse?” Mathis frowned. He must have been picking up on the Queen’s surface thoughts. Xar continued to mumble. “Force artifacts? Where are they? I would like to see them.”
The alien seemed surprised, then lowered its head in resignation. It made a buzzing noise, and the speakers outside translated for Mathis and the others. [Our… trove… We collected things… pertaining to the Power… from many places, since longer than my ancestors could remember… It is… deep below the palace.] She paused. [Take what you want.]
Xar smiled slightly. “Show me where. We are going down soon to prepare things for NI occupation and reconstruction. You will have one of your servants show me.”
A short while later Xar emerged from the cell and shook his head toward Mathis. “I hate negotiating,” he sighed.
Mathis snorted at the man’s attitude. “Not a bad job of it, for someone who doesn’t like it. You just negotiated the NI a huge benefit. The Krri’Graq will give us nearly unlimited building capability.”
“You could have done it too,” Xar said.
Mathis shook his head. “What was that all about? More was going on than what you two were saying.”
“I caught a glimpse of something in her thoughts when I mentioned their history and archives. A brief image of a secret chamber they’ve got hidden somewhere… I think it is important.”
“Sounds worth checking out. Want me to assemble a team to head down there with us when we go?” Mathis asked.
Xar nodded. “Please do. This was something I think she was loathe to reveal, but now she knows she has basically no choice in the matter. Not in the middle of an Imperial II class Star Destroyer, at least.”
Mathis smiled wanly. “Think she’ll betray us once we set her back down?”
Xar mused over that question a second. “She might, eventually. But she will be closely watched, and until she builds another force capable of challenging us the move would be suicidal, and she knows it. We can relax for a while.”
Mathis wondered if that was true. If they could ever relax. He didn’t think Xar did. It just wasn’t in the man’s character. “Well, at least it’s over, for now. I’ll sure be glad to get back to Varnus.” Though only a few months had passed since they’d moved in, he’d grown used to their new home.
“Yes, it is over.” Xar’s reply seemed distant. “For now.” He glanced around the room. “One thing out of the way, but more ahead. There always is. How many good men and women died today? How many reports to be filled out?” He shook his head. Mathis thought he heard Xar mumble something about “usefulness” under his breath.
“Well, I’ll get the team ready and see you planetside. I guess there’s a heap of stuff you’ve got to do to get ready.” Xar nodded blankly, not moving from where he stood. Mathis bowed and turned away, wondering what had Xar so perturbed. He expected he’d find out, soon enough.
[This way,] the servant growled. The bug – smaller than the others, obviously not from the warrior sect – was obviously uncomfortable with his current task: leading the party down through the winding corridors of the lower levels of the hive palace. Xar, Mathis, and Gaius followed closely behind the alien, with two scientific analysts and two Stormtroopers bringing up the rear. The analysts would attempt to identify and safeguard anything important the party found, and the Stormtroopers were there for obvious security reasons as well as manpower.
The New Imperium forces had arrived on-planet with a large occupation force… And in a long ceremonial display the Queen had sworn allegiance to the New Imperium. Her dark mood was clearly shared by the other members of her race, but fortunately no violent outbreaks occurred. Soon the rest of the NI forces would arrive and firmly establish NI rule over the Moro System. Xar didn’t much care for the ceremony or much else at the moment, for that matter. As soon as it was finished he’d made the Queen order one of her servants to lead him to the hidden chamber he’d glimpsed in her mind. Now, although wary of the possibility of a trap, he didn’t expect one. Doing so would be detrimental to the Queen’s heath, and Xar was willing to bet that she valued her own life more than her trove of Force items.
The alien led them through an unlit and obviously rarely used passage, lit only by their handheld glowrods. The tunnel dead-ended at a blank stone wall, but the servant turned to the left and held its glowrod in a secondary appendage. Xar noticed several crude-drawings on the wall there, looking faded with great age. The creature reached over and made indentations in otherwise normal-looking spots on the wall, and suddenly the entire section swung inward with a grating sound. There was a hiss of air as the pressure inside the room adjusted to the outside; this area hadn’t been opened in a very long time. Xar and Mathis exchanged glances, then moved to the entrance at the alien’s beckoning.
Immediately they felt as though stepping back in time. The presence of the Force was strong here, almost palpable. Through the breath mask, they couldn’t tell, but the air seemed stale. The servant shook its head and backed away from the entrance.
Xar heard Gaius’ half-gasp as he came in behind them. He glanced backwards to see the analysts move inside and the Stormtroopers position themselves at the entrance, blasters held at a diagonal across their torsos. The bug servant, obviously uncomfortable, didn’t deign to enter.
“Well,” Xar said, turning back into the room’s dark interior. “Let us see what we have found here.” He raised his glowrod up, the others doing the same. All around them were boxes, piled in no particular order, most with the strange scrawling language of the Krii’Graq on their sides. Some of them were opened, revealing a cluster of dust and scrapings mixed with artifacts and other items. Xar took a quick check of the rest of the room. It wasn’t overly large. Along one wall was a small alcove whose contents were hidden by a piece of fabric hanging down from the low ceiling. The rest of the walls were drab stone, but full of some kind of ancient-looking language scrawled all over them. The writings were faded, as if they’d been there a long time.
“What is this place?” Mathis wondered.
Xar nodded, understanding the man’s feelings. “A hidden trove of Force artifacts and other objects…” he answered, slightly awed by the history embedded in the chamber. “The entire collection of the Krii’Graq race, right here around us. The Queen hoarded it all up, hoping to one-day use its powers to increase her own. Some of it has been here a lot longer than she has.”
“No kidding, look!” Gaius pointed over to another set of boxes. “That… that looks the same as the device those Dark Jedi used when they invaded Ravenspyre!”
“What?” Xar moved closer. A transparent orb larger than his head sat on the top of the box. “A Null Sphere…” he breathed. Such an item was legendary, and to even see more than one in a lifetime was unheard of. It would create the same Force-dampening effect as a ysalimiri could, but using some unknown and long-lost technology instead. There were more than one, lying around there. He let his gaze linger on them, then moved on. “And look… in this next one…” He reached down into one of the boxes. He came back up, and in his hand was a semi-transparent pyramidal shape with alien writing on it. “A Holocron…”
Gaius moved up beside Xar, who handed the artifact to him. “What would the bugs be doing with a Holocron? With all this stuff, in fact?”
“I have no idea, but I am sure it will be interesting to see what lies inside it.” Xar looked over at another box and his eyes widened. He picked up a small glass object, twisting in shape and holding a beautiful crystal inside that shimmered in the light of the glowrod. “This is a Manistor Spiral… One of the rarest natural artworks in the galaxy… This one alone is worth a fortune.”
“Xar, look at this!” Mathis exclaimed. Xar looked over at his friend, who had made his way over to the alcove and had torn away the cloth covering it. The fabric had disintegrated in his hands, and was a pile of dust on the floor now. But it was what he was standing in front of that held Xar’s attention. A long, wide metal cylinder lying horizontally, its surface featureless except for a control panel on the side.
“What is it?” Gaius asked, moving toward Mathis for a closer look.
“It looks like some kind of stasis box,” Mathis said, his breath catching in his throat. “Big, though. I’ve never seen one of this size or makeup. This one could fit a human.”
Xar turned and began navigating a way through the clustered boxes between him and Mathis. “That is what it was made for. Take a look. What do the controls say; is there anything inside?” He doubted it. If what the Queen said was true, no one had been down here in centuries, perhaps longer, and she hadn’t mentioned – or thought of –anything like this.
Mathis squatted down and wiped his hand over the panel. Dust flew everywhere, causing him to sneeze and stir up even more dust. He peered back up at it, wiping his eyes. “Hold on a minute… By Alderaan…”
“What is it?”
Mathis turned to stare at him, unbelief on his face. “There is somebody in here, and this bloody machine’s still working!”
“What?” Xar stopped, staring at the man.
Mathis looked back down at the device. “The display’s very faint, I think it went into low-power mode… I can barely make it out and I can’t read the script, but… Someone is in here…” He touched the device with his hand, leaving an imprint of it in the dust.
Suddenly Mathis grew very silent. He crouched down, not moving, still staring at the control panel.
“Well,” Xar said impatiently. “Is he still alive?” Assuming it was a he, that is.
Mathis’s reply was a few seconds in coming. “I think so,” his voice was soft, and ghostly.
Xar took a couple steps closer. The confusion was evident in his voice. “Well… how long has he been in there?”
“I… don’t know.”
“Huh? What do you mean? Does it say?”
“I don’t know…” Mathis turned to Xar, his face white as a sheet. “The timer ran out at 9,999…”
The Manistor Spiral shattered as it hit the stone floor, forgotten.
To be continued…
Continued in Awakenings, the next chapter in the New Imperium Plotline.
The End, of: The Confrontation, Chapter 1 of The Return.
Written by Joshua Ausley
Copyright 1998 All Rights Reserved