Mizar System

0800 hours


The Nebulon B-class Frigate Bombardier floated quietly through the blackness of space. Here, at the edge of the Outer Rim and the Unknown Regions   Epsilon Sector – the starfield was considerably sparse, and darkness dominated the few pinpoints of light in the distance. Epsilon Sector was at the edge of the galactic disk, further out than even Endor or Bakura. The only way to proceed further would be into one of the spiral arms that extended out on this side of the galactic plane, but that was deep inside the Unknown Regions. Therefore space here was dark; however, another object in the sky provided more than ample light. The sprawling Galbagos Nebula - a beautiful, cloud-like purple emission nebula - filled the space on the port side of the Bombardier.

 “We’ve entered the Mizar system, Captain.”

 Captain Jothin swiveled in his seat to face the viewscreen. Only a handful of stars shone from within the darkness ahead, although a wispy trail of what was probably the far spiral arm of the galaxy made a line across the screen as well. A small, bright, violet ball near the left edge of the viewscreen marked the location of the star Mizar itself.

 “Very good, Lieutenant,” the Captain replied. He took a moment to glance at his bridge crew. The dim lights of the bridge during normal operating periods provided enough light to move around in, but were kept at a soft glow, soothing to the eye. The multicolored lights from the numerous display screens and control pads shone their hues on their faces and brought the bridge to life. The low roar of the engines and steady hum of the ship’s systems created a continuous background of sound. Jothin liked it that way.

 During the slow-paced, two-day trip from Varnus to Mizar, his crew had kept themselves at the ready, never for a moment showing any disappointment that they’d been sent on a simple mapping trip. The long, lonely days spent exploring new systems, parsecs from any civilized world, could take their toll eventually. Worse than that, the blackness of space in the Unknown Regions was enough to rattle the nerves of the hardiest spacefarer. They were good crew, he knew. They deserved better than such a monotonous post. Perhaps he’d request a transfer to a border patrol or another more active post when they got back. But for now they had to continue with their tedious mapping mission. Exploring all the star systems in the newly-founded New Imperium’s territory was paramount.

 “What’s our position? Any planetary bodies orbiting the sun?”

 “Heading one-zero-three-eight, Captain,” Science Officer Tamar Drek answered. “I’m reading three major planetary bodies within sensor range. Outermost planet is closest, coming up point four-eight.”

 Jothin nodded. “Any other activity in this system?” It wouldn’t be very diplomatic to simply stroll in unannounced if the system was occupied.

 “No sir,” Drek replied. “Only the three planetary bodies. No detectable power sources.”

 Jothin nodded. “Very well, set course for the outermost planet, standard cruising speed. We might as well take them as we come to them.” He leaned back in his chair. “Keep sensors at maximum range. If anything shows up, I want to be informed immediately.”

 “Yes sir.”

 The sparse starfield shifted slightly as the ship altered course, the orange sun of the Mizar system passing from view. Jothin let his thoughts wander, wondering what type of planets this system could hold. Probably just huge chunks of rock and ice, he thought. This far out, anything else was a rarity. And yet several of the New Imperium’s worlds had shown that that theory wasn’t entirely true. Epsilon Sector had shown a surprising aptitude for variety – and life – in what they’d discovered so far. The Sigmans and the Krri’Graq were just two of the races discovered here. Just because they were now in the Unknown Regions didn’t mean all systems became lifeless wastelands…

 The Unknown Regions. All his life Jothin had heard the name mentioned with trepidation and fear, or occasionally a sense of wonder. A mysterious entity waiting out there for the hapless traveler to become lost forever inside. It was just a natural tendency, he knew, to fear the unknown. But he’d never thought he’d be here himself, actually venturing into the Unknown Regions, so far away from galactic civilization that he might as well not exist.

  For that matter, what he was doing might as well not matter, either. Who cared what the system had in it? It was so far from established hyperspace lanes even a valuable mineral deposit might not make the system worth colonizing. Yes, he decided. He would ask for that transfer. Besides, this last mapping trip should close it off for this quadrant. There hadn’t been any other significant systems past Mizar detected until the other side of the Great Rift, so called because of the distance to the far spiral arm. The Unknown Regions wouldn’t be unknown much longer, at least in this part of the sector.

 On the viewscreen he could now make out a larger, brighter object against the darkness. “That’s the outermost planet?”

 “Yes sir,” the Science Officer spoke up. “Mizar Three. Should be within sensor range shortly.” Drek’s terminal whirred as it went though a stream of data that she was cataloging.

 “Very good. Call out any relevant information you come across.”

 The bridge went back into silence for a moment, the crew busy at their stations. Jothin continued to watch the object growing larger in the viewscreen. The half-eclipsed planet was still too bright to make out clearly, reflecting pale violet light from its star. He could almost make out the point where day met night.

 “Entering sensor range,” Drek called out from Jothin’s left. “Data’s coming in now. Planet is a mid-sized world, approximately 13,000 kilometers wide. Scanning terrain and atmosphere… Looks like it has a habitable atmosphere. Many life forms detected… Wait, what’s that?” she broke off suddenly.

 “What is it?” Jothin asked, swiveling to face the science station.

 Instead the officer at sensors called out, his voice tight. “Sir! There’s something coming up to starboard, fast.” Even in the dim light Jothin could see the man’s eyes go wide. “I’ve never seen anything like it! Energy readings are… incredible!”

 “Put it on screen!” He turned back to the viewscreen, seeing the now-bluish hue of a world in front of them… And suddenly that view was gone. In its place was a wide, massive orange-white wave of pure blinding energy. A rolling explosion, a hundred kilometers wide. And it was growing larger.

 A shout erupted from the bridge crew. Jothin’s breath caught. Then he turned, crying out over the din of voices.

 “Shields up! Ninety degrees starboard, face into the wave!”

 “Too late, sir! It's already on us!” The man at the tactical station was yelling. His hands flew over the controls, but his face showed a mask of bleak terror. He knew they’d never turn in time.

 Jothin pushed himself to his feet. The wave of fire dominated the screen, filling the bridge with a piercing orange light. The blast grew larger and brighter, until nothing else was visible. Then the safeties shut the viewscreen off.

 And that was it. He could hear a new, deeper roar coming though the deck plates. A jolt of panic surged through him, but he pushed it back. He looked bleakly at his bridge crew one more time. They were such a good crew… What in the galaxy had happened?

 The deck dropped from under his feet, as every circuit on the bridge blew out in a spray of sparks simultaneously. He never hit the floor. The hull parted before him, and a blaze of fire incinerated all of them in an instant.


 The wave hit the Frigate with unstoppable force, instantly splitting the ship in half at the mid-drift. For a second the ship seemed to be tossed along in the current of energy. Then the hull plates were blown away like parchment, and the ship was consumed in an inferno of blazing fury…



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Varnusian Productions Presents:




He floated in an endless void, a kaleidoscope of infinite colors and possibilities. The colors swirled around him, coalescing into one another, bursting into a thousand tiny fragments then coming together again in a flash of light. The light faded, descending into darkness so deep it made the blackness of space seem bright in comparison. He spun around, frantically searching for an end to the darkness, anything but the blackness surrounding him. Then he heard a sound, like the whispering of fabric rubbing against itself, and he turned around. A figure stood before him, covered by a dark cloak. He tried to peer inside the hood, but no face was visible. The figure raised a hand toward him, a hand hidden by the huge sleeve of his cloak, and suddenly the vision changed. He was standing in front of a large podium. Before him he saw a sea of beings spread out over across the land, extending as far as he could see. Thousands of different races, all shouting at the top range of their vocal chords and waving their arms toward him. Shouting joyously up at him, he noticed. He couldn’t make out their words, but he could feel their feelings of praise toward him as if it were tangible. He smiled, reveling in the glory of the moment. He raised his hands up, producing a louder cry from the crowd, and closed his eyes. He opened his eyes, and the entire scene burst into a million different fragments. A white cloud enveloped him, and suddenly he was hurtling downward at an impossible velocity. He glimpsed half-visions of places, places that seemed familiar, though he didn’t know why. A quiet mountainside, a dark room, a glistening pond, an impossibly high tower. Strange faces appeared before him, only for an instant, seeming warped by some unknown force.

    It was only then that he noticed something was different. Before it had only been an unfathomable darkness around him, a sense of being outside his own body. A dreamless sleep where time had no meaning. Here, nothing had meaning, just half-thoughts and senseless visions and incomprehensible voices. Oblivion. But the fact of the change couldn’t hold his attention for long. The clouds vanished around him, and he was falling downward, downward with no sight of an end.

 He opened his eyes. There he was, lying in front of himself. That thought made him consider, for a moment, if the vision was real; he shook it off. Of course it was. There was nothing odd about viewing your own body, lying there on the table in front of you. With the Power, many things were possible. The Power? Where had that thought come from? What was this Power? It didn’t matter; he didn’t even know who he was. That thought made him burst out laughing. What a ludicrous idea. But wait… Why couldn’t he remember? For that matter, what couldn’t he remember? He broke off the laugh, silence devouring any trace of the sound. A deafening silence. A maddening silence. He made to clutch his head in his hands,  then realized he had no hands. His mind strained, thinking. What can’t I remember? Half-memories floated just beyond reach; they might as well be light-years away. He shook his head violently. His veins were burning, his head swimming. A growing roar was emanating from his throat.

 Why can’t I remember?!” he screamed.



   1800 Hours

   Royal Palace, Vectur



      The doctor pushed himself away from the monitor and strode over to the table where the patient lay.

 “Doctor Vannik, he’s becoming unstable!” one of the nurses cried out.

 “All right,” the older man said calmly. His dark complexion contrasted against the stark white of his uniform. As he pulled up a sterilization mask over his face, he glanced at the overhead status monitor.  He moved to the bedside where a pale, middle aged man lay in a white patient’s gown. The man’s face seemed calm, relaxing in a deep sleep. His long blond hair was tied behind him and hung partway off the top edge of the bed.

 A regal-looking face, Xar Kerensky thought. And one that seemed slightly familiar. But he knew he’d never seen the man before. Xar watched through the one-way mirror, silently contemplating what exactly the patient was doing here.

Vannik glanced momentarily at the mirror. He would know Xar was there, of course, but he didn’t know how much Xar knew. The Jedi Grand Master smiled. Vannik turned back to the patient, calling out orders to his nurses for a prescribed mix of drugs.

 “Interesting, no?” Xar asked, still staring ahead.

 “Yes, very interesting,” Mathis replied. Xar saw a half-reflection from the glass as the Deputy Grand Master moved closer to his side, a half-grin on his face as always. Xar doubted the other man knew what he’d referred to, though.

 The patient on the table still lay there, still as death. Xar and Mathis had found the man little more than a month before, encased in a stasis field deep underneath the Krii’Graq Palace on Moro Prime. Not only was it strange finding a human in such a way, on a planet where no other humans had set foot in thousands of years, but there was another, deeper secret, Xar knew.

“The display’s very faint, I think it went into low-power mode… I can barely make it out… Someone is in here…” Mathis 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. “Yeah,” his voice was soft and ghostlike.

 Xar took a couple steps closer, confused. “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 back toward him, his face white as a sheet. “The timer ran out at 9,999…”

 There, in a treasure vault of Force-related artifacts, they’d found a working stasis device that had held a living being for well over ten thousand years.

 And that being is a Jedi.

  “What?” asked Mathis, turning to look at him.

  Xar realized he’d said the last sentence aloud. He turned to look at his friend.

  “Yes, a Jedi. Well, perhaps not a Jedi as we know it. But Force-sensitive at least.”

  “Are you sure? How is that possible? You know what that means…”

  Xar nodded. “We have a Force-sensitive being from an age twice as far back in the past as the Golden Age of Sith Empire…” No currently known historical records went back that far. If this man woke, he could only imagine the stories he could tell…

  But the very decision of whether or not to try reviving him had taken most of the month to decide. Xar had personally seen to the transportation of all items and artifacts from the Krri’Graq storeroom to the treasure vaults beneath the Palace on Varnus. The stasis box had been the most carefully transported, covered up and brought with the utmost care during the night. He, Mathis, and the other Jedi Council members had debated for days over whether or not to open the stasis box. Doing so much kill whoever was inside, they knew. But in the end, it was a chance they had to take. Or perhaps it was unchecked curiosity. At any rate, they had disrupted the stasis field, and the coffin-like box had opened to reveal the naked, unmarked figure of the man in front of them now. After that, Xar had left the matter up to chief medical officer Vannik, head of therapeutics in the palace.

  At the sound of the doctor’s raised voice, both men turned back to concentrate on the scene outside the window. Something was happening that they had not yet seen before. The patient was moving. And his actions were getting more and more frantic. His arms and legs began flailing about, and his head was twitching from side to side.

 Vannik cried out in dismay. “He’s going critical! Hold him down!” As the nurses moved to comply, Vannik ran over and held the man’s head, intently staring into the man’s face. “Don’t you die on me,” he muttered sternly.

  The nurses moved in front of Xar’s vision, obstructing his view of the patient…

  And suddenly Xar was standing outside, the cool breeze flowing past him. He looked down, and took an involuntary step back away from the cliff side. Below him was a beautiful valley, with a clear lake surrounded by a grove of evergreen trees at the bottom. It almost seemed familiar… He glanced up, and saw the orange-yellow sun of his home planet resting in a clear blue-green sky. He was on Varnus.

 He shook his head. No, this was a vision, a telepathic transmission through the Force. This patient was stronger than he’d thought… But he couldn’t let himself get caught in someone else’s memories. He repressed the image with the Force, and suddenly he was back, staring through the glass at the emergency room. The room’s other occupants stood as if frozen, obviously captivated by the scene that Xar had been able to block out. But the patient was still flailing around in unconsciousness.

 Suddenly the doctor, nurses, and his Deputy Grand Master came out of their reverie. Xar reached a hand out to steady Mathis, but kept an eye on the scene inside.

 “I saw…” one of the nurses began.

 “Save it.” Doctor Vannik had obviously kept his wits about him. “Give me that needle!”

  Xar heard a faint moan from the table. He didn’t know if the patient was conscious, but he prepared a shield using the Force just in case the man came out blazing.

 Instead a tremor spread slowly throughout the room, shaking the table, instruments, and the other devices in the room.


 One of the containers on the far side of the room flung itself open, and a cluster of glittering sharp objects flew out through the air. The room’s occupants scrambled to the side, but one didn’t make it fast enough. Xar reached out with the Force, catching several of the projectiles in mid-flight, but a couple got through. Two sharp cutting knives embedded in a nurse’s shoulder and stomach, and he stumbled to the ground, groaning, clutching the impaled objects.

 “Med. team to the emergency room!” the doctor yelled. He grabbed the needle from the table and brought it down into the patient’s chest in one motion, then virtually threw himself on top of the twitching body on the table.

 Then Xar noticed that Mathis had left and was making his way into the emergency room, his long, curly hair flowing behind him. The doors just opposite him burst open and an emergency team ran in. And a few tense moments later it was over. The patient was lying still as he had been before, the injured nurse was being attended to, and Xar had moved to meet Doctor Vannik and Mathis at the door.

 Vannik pulled his sterile mask off and tossed it in the nearest bin. “What in the name of the galaxy just happened?”

 Xar looked over at the patient. “Is he all right?”

 Vannik hesitated for a moment. Xar could feel the man’s gaze on his face.

“He’s stabilized,” the doctor finally conceded with a sigh. “For a minute there I didn’t know what was going on. I think we almost lost him. You going to tell me what happened?”

 Xar turned his eyes from the patient to the doctor. “That man,” he said quietly, “is Force-Sensitive. A Jedi. What happened was an involuntary action on his part. Thrashing out with the Force, unconsciously. Not intentional.”

  Vannik lowered his dark eyebrows. “Why didn’t you tell me that? We have special facilities for Jedi.”

 Xar nodded a bit impatiently. “I know that. I did not know that he was Force-Sensitive until just a few moments ago.” He broke off, unsure what to say. “I am sorry for the misjudgment, doctor. Please make sure you offer this patient the best care we have. I do not want to lose him.”

 Vannik shook his head. “Don’t worry just yet, I think he’ll stay stable now. But he’s still in a coma. I’ve no way of knowing when - or if - he’ll come out.”

 “I know you will do everything you can. If there is any change in his condition, let me know.”

 “I will.”

 “Thank you doctor.” He nodded to the older man, then turned and led Mathis back toward the entrance and the hallway back toward the rest of the palace.

  “What was that all about?” Mathis asked once they’d cleared the Medlab.

  “I did not want to let the doctor know too much about what we are dealing with.” Their footsteps echoed down the hallway. Only a small amount of traffic was making its way around this, one of the deeper sections of the Royal Palace.

  “I know of the implications here,” Mathis mused. “Though I’m not sure what it could be that’s too sensitive for the doctor to hear. Did I miss something?”

  “Only because you were not looking for it.” Xar said, glancing at his friend. “I was able to get a rough sense of his strength in the Force. I think he is stronger than I am.”

 Mathis looked at him incredulously. “Are you sure? I thought you’d doubled in strength after your fight with that dark Jedi.”

 “With Dasok Krun, yes. But this man is from an age when Jedi were everywhere, a thousand times more common than today. Perhaps the Jedi of that age were simply born stronger. Maybe it depends on a particular gene. There are many possibilities.”

 “Including the possibility that he knows how to drain Force power?” Mathis asked curiously.

 Xar shrugged. “Perhaps. But if he did, he would almost certainly have been branded a Dark Jedi. Which brings up another point… Did you notice how he was using the Force? Not that he was, how he was…?”

  “Oh… You mean, did he use the Dark Side or the Light Side?”


 “I didn’t happen to catch it. After the place started shaking I started for the emergency room and was catching objects with the Force. I thought I might be able to stop him from hurting somebody.”

Xar nodded. “The man was unconscious. Regardless of what emotions he was feeling on the inside, there is a trace through the Force of the kind of power used. He was full of emotion – but not the Dark Side.”

  Mathis stopped, and Xar took a couple steps past before catching himself. He turned to face the Deputy Grand Master.

 Mathis’s seemed to hesitate a moment. “Xar… You don’t mean to suggest he’s doing what we’ve just recently learned?” he whispered. His face was a mask of stone.

 Xar nodded gravely. “I think so, Mathis. The whole concept of the dark and light… the ‘Sides’ as we know it… gone. What Novitaar told us, what I have been teaching you these past months - that was what he used. I am sure of it.”

 “How is that possible?” Mathis’s voice was low.

 Xar considered. “Through the training we have been undergoing for the past months, you and I have learned to give up the concept of using a particular ‘side’. You have overcome your earlier training, and now you use the Force, no longer relying on the ‘Dark Side’ or ‘Light Side’. Novitaar… guided me in the right direction, and other hints I gleaned this from studying Runis’ secret records, the things he’d encountered in his travels. Now, we know there was a time in ancient history when there was no distinguishing between the sides. When there were only ‘Jedi’.”

 “Whoa, hold on Xar… You know what you’re saying? That was before the Old Republic. Over twenty-five thousand years ago!” Mathis stammered.

 “Not so loud, Mathis!” Xar whispered. Did he want the whole palace to know? “You remember how Runis spent years in the Unknown Regions… There he learned secrets I have only begun to uncover in the databanks on the Black Star. I only found this out recently. He found the secret to this power out there somewhere, and though I did not know it at the time, he taught it to me, although it was his own philosophy, tainted by the Dark Side, which is what he loved anyway. Runis did not adhere to this concept he discovered. At any rate, I only found out recently, as I said. Perhaps this Jedi discovered the secret long ago, when it may have been more widespread.” It was the best explanation Xar could give. Information was just too scarce, and before this past year, there hadn’t been a Jedi alive who didn’t believe in two distinct sides to the Force.

 Mathis nodded, understanding dawning on his face. “Of course… But, like you said, that just makes him even more important to us. We’ve got to revive him. What he knows could be extremely valuable. It could change everything.”

 “Yes, and we must take steps to ensure his safety… But that is for later,” he announced. “We can do nothing about that at the moment, not until he awakes. You had something you wanted to show me?”

 “Oh. Yes, I did,” Mathis affirmed. “But, well… you won’t like it. Could we go to your office?”

 “Of course. Follow me.”

 He turned and started back down the hallway at a faster pace, the Deputy Grand Master following on his heels. They passed a number of palace tenants, workers, servants, and Jedi-in-training on the way. Each gave way to their two-man train, bowing respectfully to the leaders of the New Imperium’s Jedi Division.

 The palace had been completely repaired and refurbished in the months since House Ar’Kell had moved in, along with the remnants of the Society of Shadows, the offspring Jedi cult attached to the Intruder Wing. Now they were known simply as the Jedi Division, and had their own territory that was the Varnus System, along with an assortment of ships, fighter groups, and various military attachments.

  The palace itself had been restored to pristine condition. The interior was clean, and tapestries decorated many walls, and the ornate carvings on some of the ceilings had been cleaned. What was more, many beings now populated the place, going about their business in what was essentially the city center of Vectur, the official seat of its ruler Xar Kerensky, rightful heir to the throne of Varnus.

 Xar opened the door to his chambers and entered, making his way through the antechamber toward his private office. It was quite different from his old office in Ravenspyre back on Frigg. He heard Mathis close the door behind him and pad softly across the room.

 In the main office, Xar sat down in his plush, automatically-conforming seat and brought his personal computer online. From his office he had connections to all the local news servers, the Jedi database in the palace, including other member’s systems, and a full HoloNet up-link.

 Mathis stopped on the other side of the desk and hesitated, as if pondering where to begin.

 “Well,” he began finally, “As you asked, I’ve been searching all over the HoloNet for…” He stopped as Xar held up a hand to forestall him.

 “Just a second. Look at this.” He motioned for Mathis to come around beside him.

 “What is it?” asked Mathis, moving around the desk to see what was on the screen.

 “The latest HoloNet news feed from Coruscant.” Xar grimaced. The view switched to a vantage point above Coruscant, showing a wide expanse of gray and black. There used to be buildings, but now they had been reduced to rubble, rubble extending as far as the eye could see. Black clouds of smoke poured from huge cracks within the planet, leading down to the deeper levels that used to hold the lower classes of Imperial Center.

 “Look at it, Mathis. This is what the Empire has wrought. Nothing but death and destruction.” A great feeling of anger and frustration welled up in him; he didn’t try to repress it. The view switched to the surface, showing in detail some of the devastated buildings and squares. And the bodies… charred remnants of once bright, life loving beings. Children’s’ toys, once-beautiful statues, and other people’s belongings were strewn along the ground. “’Less than a billion left alive’, it says. The whole planet is in civil war. The Imperial factions are fighting each other more fiercely than they ever fought the Rebels.” He narrowed his eyes in anger and frustration. “Those butchering Imperial Warlords! If only we were strong enough, we could move in and wipe them all out ourselves.”

 Mathis, standing by his side, shook his head. “We may not have to… Look, it looks like the Rebellion… I mean, the New Republic, is stepping in to restore order.” He pointed to the screen. Indeed, the display brought up text at the bottom saying that the New Republic had arrived in system and had claimed the world under their protection. Shockingly enough, Xar realized he didn’t care. In fact, he was glad. What did that mean? He shook off the thought.

 “Sorry for the interruption. What was it you wanted to show me?”

 “Ah…” Mathis produced a datacard from his pocket and handed it to the Grand Master. Xar studied it for a moment, then placed the disk in one of the computer’s drive slots. The screen left the scenes of Coruscant behind and converted to a database system.

 “What is it?” Xar asked.

 Mathis sighed, hesitated a moment, then began. “You told me to look through the HoloNet and other resources and try and find someone… I think I found him.”

 Xar looked back up at him in surprise. “Are you serious? You actually found General Akira?” Akira. He’d only heard the name twice before, both times during the attack on House Ar’Kell over a year ago. Dasok Krun had mentioned that he’d worked for the General, and another of the invaders had mentioned the name Akira, then abruptly died of an unknown ailment. Xar had told Mathis to look into the name in his spare time, and try and find out who this General Akira was. Had he found him so quickly?

 “It took some intensive searching,” Mathis explained. “I went though a bunch of Akiras. Akira, the Captain of a freighter working for Sorosuub, Akira, a physics teacher on Coruscant… At least before the bombing…”

 “Could you please get to the point here?” Xar asked impatiently.

 Mathis gave a slightly exasperated sigh. “Of course. Bring up Search Results. Like I said, there were a lot of Akiras. But only one specific General Akira.”

 Xar complied, and the screen switched to a text readout of “General Akira”.

 “Go to the visual.” Mathis whispered. Xar did so, wondering what could be so special to give the Deputy Grand Master such trepidation. The screen switched to an image, filling in the screen and quickly filtering it…

And there he was. Something instantly clicked inside Xar as he looked into the face of the architect of his world’s downfall. He knew this was the right man. His bald head, beard and mustache dark, with a hint of gray coming through. Almond-shaped eyes. But it wasn’t Akira who dominated the scene. In fact, the general was standing behind the shoulder of another man. And that man Xar certainly recognized…

  “Mathis… That is Emperor Palpatine” There was no mistaking it. The brown hair, graying at the sides, the aging (but not yet old) face, the thin mouth and blue eyes… Palpatine in his proverbial middle age.

  “Actually, Senator Palpatine,” Mathis snorted. “Just before the Clone Wars erupted. And his right-hand men, General Akira and Kinman Doriana.”

 The latter name made Xar look at the man on Palpatine’s other side. The elderly face of Kinman DorianaKnown by extremely few as Palpatine’s right-hand man, and one of the architects of his rise to power. And if Akira was there, in that circle… “This is deep,” he said aloud.

 “Tell me about it. According to the scant records I was able to compile, Akira vanished during the Clone Wars. After they were over, of course, Palpating made himself Emperor. Doriana died abruptly, and around that time Thrawn and Vader came into the Emperor’s services.”

 “And what about Akira?” Xar asked, leaning back in his seat.

 “Like I said, he vanished, presumed dead. In fact I found a rumor that he fell from Palpatine’s graces and was summarily executed.”

 “But we know that is not true.”

 “As you say. Because the battle of Varnus happened over twenty years later, and that was masterminded by Akira himself, with Dasok Krun to implement the plan.”

 Which means he led a group of Dark Jedi. Knowing Palpatine, I would not be surprised to find Akira trained in the Force himself. Maybe he was even one of Palpatine’s Dark Side Adepts.”

“Could be.” Mathis gave a low whistle. “And that could mean he’s out there somewhere with a whole force at his hands, including a group of Jedi.”

 Xar sighed. That would not be surprising. If Akira was a close advisor, the Emperor could have sent him off on some covert mission instead. Either way, it seemed likely that he was able to assemble his own faction, from where he ran things, either by Palpatine’s order or of his own accord. Xar twisted his mouth in disgust. Another threat out there, one they didn’t even know the slightest about, nor their whereabouts.

 “So,” Mathis continued, “if Akira is based somewhere out here, as it would seem from the Battle of Varnus, then we may be facing a powerful warlord that helped the Emperor rise to power… and with his own Jedi and various other resources. And remember he has a pretty widespread influence as well. We heard that he had people working for him in the upper levels of command in the Phare System.”

Xar nodded. “Small galaxy,” he mused quietly. His thoughts wandered back to Frigg, over a year and a half ago. Ravenspyre had been attacked by an elite group of Dark Jedi looking for an ancient artifact underneath the palace. And Krun himself had been from Varnus, exiled by Xar’s father. And they’d wanted to kill him in return for killing Janus, a Dark Jedi Xar had beaten two years ago. “It all ties together, huh? Janus, Krun, Akira, Palpatine, Varnus, me… Everything.”

 “Could be,” Mathis said thoughtfully. “But how?”

 Xar’s mind strained to find some link, something he’d heard from Janus or Krun, but it was too sketchy to bring to mind. Then he remembered something. “Janus was willing to die rather than tell me whom he was working for,” Xar said, looking up at Mathis. “If Krun was working for Akira, then maybe Janus was too. But Janus was on a totally different mission. If both worked for Akira, then this guy still has major connections.” He made a smirk. “And if he also ordered Krun to attack Ravenspyre, then General Akira is still alive…” Still alive to pay for his crimes, he thought.

 Mathis must have caught his mood. Xar felt the other man’s hand on his shoulder.

 “Xar, if you’re thinking what I think you are, please forget it. We don’t know anything about this guy, much less where he is now. And I’m not letting you go off on some fool’s joyride this time.”

 Xar turned back to stare intently at the face in the holoscreen. “He has to be brought to justice, Mathis. You should feel as I do. What about you and your obsession with Leia Organa?”

 Mathis’s hand left his shoulder. Xar turned to look into a face that, for once, didn’t contain Mathis’s ubiquitous half-smile.

 “I can’t change what happened to Alderaan, Xar. Leia will eventually pay for what she did to my world, but I know it’s not my responsibility anymore. I’ve learned to deal with it. I’d thought you had with yours, too.”

 Stern words coming from his Deputy Grand Master, and friend. But Xar knew he was right.

 “Sorry, Mathis. You are right, I cannot let the past dictate my actions in the future. But some day you will know what it is like, to have something you thought long gone in the past flare back up in your face. I sense that this is going to have some effect on us in the future, on the New Imperium as a whole. If the necessity arises, it may be our responsibility - as the New Imperium’s is to protect its subjects - to stop this man.” He studied the face on the screen, a face from thirty years ago, standing together with two of the most dangerous men in history. An uneasy feeling came up in his gut. No, something definitely was not right here…

 Suddenly his commlink beeped.

 He acknowledged the signal, and a small window appeared on the screen with an envoy on the other side.

 “Yes? What is it?”

 The younger man in the window hesitated. “I, um… Well, sir, you see… There’s a man here at the entrance. He um… says he wants to talk to you, personally.”

 Xar sighed. “You know I do not have the time to speak with everyone who walks up. Tell him he needs to make an appointment like everyone else.” There were set times when he admitted visitors and citizens to come to him with their questions, comments, and problems. The responsibilities of being Grand Master required strict schedule planning. He didn’t have time to admit someone at the spur of the moment.

 “Ah, yes sir, but…” The envoy went on timidly. “Well, the man says he knows you personally, sir. He says his name’s Maarek Stele…”

  The envoy cut off abruptly, staring through the screen at Xar. “Sir?”

  The other man must have caught the surprise on Xar’s face. Maarek Stele. Had he really gotten Xar’s message? And come so soon? He hadn’t seen or heard from Stele in a long time, except in the history books.

  And it seemed that Stele was still alive after all, and against all hope had gotten Xar’s message and come to fly together again in their idealistic New Imperium. Dismissing his trepidation of an imposter or threat, he looked sternly back though the screen and addressed the envoy. “Send him to my office, immediately. He has clearance to my personal chambers. Bring him up as soon as possible.”

  The envoy’s eyes went wide. “Of…of course, sir! Right away…” Xar cut him off by closing the connection. He sighed.

 He glanced at Mathis, who had a thoughtful expression on his face. “Hmm. That name sounds a little familiar," Mathis said, eyes narrowing. "Ah! I remember now,” he said, raising a finger. “You once told me about a man by that name. Is this the same man you told me about before?”

 Xar nodded. “Yes. Maarek and I were both Squadron Commanders under Grand Admiral Thrawn. We served under him until Endor, when I left Thrawn's services. Maarek stayed with Thrawn, for a while at least. Less than a year later there was a report saying he’d died in a fighter crash, but I doubted it. I sent him a message months ago, back when we first came here to Varnus.” He shook his head. The name brought up so many memories.

  Mathis shook his dark, long-haired head. “I remember you telling me about that, now. So it seems Stele got the message.”

 Indeed it did. But Xar already had a full schedule today. And something else nagged at the back of his mind, but he couldn’t quite place it. He reached over on the desk and grabbed his personal datapad, looked at his schedule. His fears were right.

Stang.” Xar exclaimed. He’d had too much on his mind the past few days, it was inevitable he would forget something important. “The diplomatic mission to the Sigmans is coming up. I have to leave today.”

  “Ouch,” Mathis noted. "That could be cutting it close."

  The Sigmans, or Kaav’Klan as they called themselves, had made contact with NI forces during the Battle of Moro a month before. They’d requested a diplomatic meeting on their world with a member of the newly-established NI Senate to discuss membership in the New Imperium. Since the other members were mostly fleet commanders, and busy seeing to the affairs and construction of their own territories and fleets, Xar was considered the freest, and the most diplomatically able to handle these situations. The Senate had not yet elected a president, to be known as the Diktat, although Xar had been nominated and was expected to be chosen and sworn in soon. The other leaders were busy, and Xar had negotiated the Krri’Graq truce, after all. So many agendas, too little time, he thought.

 “I will not be able to speak long with Stele. Relay a message to the Stormwatch. Tell them I will be transferring aboard later and to prepare for the trip to Sigma.”

 “No problem.” Mathis gave a grin. “You’re really adapting to the leadership role, becoming fashionably late all the time. It’s a basic rule, making everyone else wait for you, so you can make your desired entrance, and then all the attention will be on you.”

  “Not my intentions at all,” Xar chided.  But he couldn’t help smiling at the picture in his mind. He glanced back at the screen. The windows containing holovids of the chamber’s area showed someone was at the outer door to the chambers. “All right, hold on. Here he comes. Boy, that was fast.”

“Guess we’re about to see if this is the same guy you used to fly with. Are you sure he’s same as when you left him?”

Xar shrugged. “I suppose we will not know until we see him.”

 “That makes me feel better,” Mathis said sarcastically.

 Xar shut the system down, got up, and made his way to the center of the room.

 “Well, I guess we’re about to find out,” Mathis noted as they turned to face the entrance. 

  A few moments later the doors parted, and a dark haired man in a nondescript Imperial-style uniform stood in the doorway. He stepped though into the office, visually glanced around the room. Only for a second, though; his gaze came to rest on the Xar and Mathis. A hard gaze, one that Xar could remember.

 There was no mistaking the face in front of him. He never forgot a face, even though this one had grown a close, neatly cropped beard and mustache as dark as his hair. "Maarek Stele," he whispered.

 The other man's face looked somewhat uncertain. "Xar? Xar Runis, is that really you?" Then his gaze softened a bit, and he grinned. Xar felt a smile come onto his face, as well. "It is you." He started closer.

  Xar met him halfway, and a round of hand shaking and backslapping went around between the two. Mathis stood behind, watching with bemusement. Xar rarely showed this much emotion.

  "Maarek, it is so good to see you," Xar exclaimed. "I hoped you would get my message. I knew it was a long shot, but to actually have you show up here…"

  The man smiled. "Let’s just say I was waiting for the right kind of invitation. Things have been rough after Endor."

  "I can understand that," Xar said, giving a laugh. "Here, let me introduce you to my Deputy Grand Master, Mathis Organa, a.k.a. “Billbob”. He is a good friend, and his support has been invaluable."

  Maarek’s his lips curved upwards in a smile. "A famous name, Organa. I’m assuming you’re the real thing. But… Billbob?" Xar brought up a hand to cover his grin. It wasn't the first time someone had expressed cynicism at Mathis' name.

  "Yeah, well, maybe I’m real, maybe not," Mathis retorted. His voice was stern, but Xar could see his eyes weren't angry. In fact, it had almost become a kind of inside joke, one Xar and several of the old Ar'Kellians loved to rankle the Deputy Grand Master about. “And Billbob is a very honorable name, I’ll have you.”

 "I didn't mean offense by it, I..." Maarek broke off as Mathis started chuckling.

 "No offense taken," he laughed. "Sometimes I wonder about it myself. Maybe I'll tell you the story behind it sometime," he added more seriously. "But you'll have to have a lot of time on your hands. Ask Xar; I've known him for two and a half years, and he still hasn't heard it all yet."

 "Well, I'll look forward to that someday," Maarek smiled. "But Xar; a Jedi Master?” he asked incredulously. “Things sure have changed.”

 “For all of us, I am sure,” Xar said, nodding to Mathis as well. “But first, proper introductions. Mathis, this is Maarek Stele, hero of the Empire. And one of the best starfighter pilots around, unless he has become lax in his old age," he joked.

 “I’m still younger than you,” Maarek retorted. “And I’m still the best.”

 “I hope we can test that sometime,” Xar challenged, lightheartedly. “We are all still in our prime.”

 “I don’t know about that one, Xar. I’m sure that Maarek here and I are still top-notch, but you’re not going anywhere near a fighter again, remember?” Mathis broke in with a grin. "Anyway, I’d better be going. I have some things to take care of, and I'm sure you two want to catch up on old times. Good to make your acquaintance, Commander Stele."

 "And yours, Deputy Grand Master Organa.”

 “Organa will do,” Mathis said.

 “Okay, Organa. But I'm not really a Commander any more. Just Maarek Stele will do."

  "Ah. Well then, see you later, Maarek Stele." With that Mathis nodded, turned, and made his way out of the office.

  "Well," Xar said as the door closed. "Where do we begin? Would you like something to drink?" he asked, heading for the cabinet near the back wall. It was made of light, polished wood, complimented by the blue carpet floor it sat on. He opened the doors, revealing two shelves of bottles filled with multicolored liquids.

  "You must have changed more than I thought," Maarek said as he came over beside him. "You didn’t used to drink."

  Xar half-smiled. The man remembered well. "Stress has been building lately. And this is partly for my guests, too.” He opened a side box on the bottom shelf and brought out another bottle, cool to the touch. "But I am on duty. This is a combination of exotic fruits, very refreshing. I find it very useful on days like today."

  "Yes, I'm sure you do," Maarek laughed. "In that case, I'll have some too."

  "Good choice." Xar handed him a glass and took another for himself. Then he poured the orange liquid into the glasses, filling them halfway, and set the bottle back in the refrigeration unit.

  "Try not to spill any," he said lightly.  Then he took a long drink, nearly draining the glass. He must have been thirstier than he'd thought. His taste buds were bombarded with a collaboration of flavors. He felt the cool liquid as it traveled all the way down to his stomach. He lowered the glass and sighed. It was, he thought, the best drink he'd ever had. And with good reason. The stuff went for five hundred credits a bottle on the open market. He decided not to tell Maarek, though.

  Maarek's eyes widened as he took a drink. When he lowered his glass he licked his lips. "That is good," he exclaimed.

  "I thought you would like it. Come, have a seat. As Mathis said, we have much to discuss." Bypassing the desk, he moved further into the room, to the far wall where a couch and two plush, self-conforming seats surrounding a low glass table. Maarek followed, a thoughtful expression on his face. Xar set his glass on the table and reclined on the couch. Maarek sat down in a seat opposite him and relaxed visibly as the chair conformed itself to his body structure.

  "It has been a long time, Maarek."

  "Yes, a very long time."

  Time to get to the point. "So, what brings you out here to Wild Space, Maarek?"

  Maarek smiled. "Well, your message, obviously. That’s for starters. I heard you guys had a whole fleet assembled out here, waiting to storm the New Republic and take back the galaxy. I also heard on the side that you were leading this little operation." He shrugged. "I wanted to see for myself if the rumors were true."

  Xar gave a dry chuckle. He was aware that there were about as many rumors about the activities and goals of the New Imperium as there were mouths to tell them, but he didn't really care what other people said or thought. Rumors were not the only reason Maarek had come. "You know how the rumors go, Maarek. Yes, they are sticking me in this position, at least for the first term. But we are no real threat to the New Republic, not right now. All they can do is grow, and they could squash us like a bug, how we are now. Besides, that is not our goal. To restore peace and order to the galaxy, yes, but that is too broad a goal, too vague, not to mention impossible. We can never bring the galaxy to peace ourselves.  We needed a more finite goal, one we can accomplish. To bring peace to our own little corner of the galaxy. To help out those we can and protect them. It is not about power or conquest. You may have checked the local news on the way in?” Maarek nodded an affirmative. “Well, with the recent Imperial actions on Coruscant, we have decided to sever all official ties with the Empire. We are on our own, and maybe we can bring peace and protection to a few. If we do work on a galactic scale, we would have to work with the New Republic, not against it. Otherwise our honorable goals and intentions would be a sham. The New Republic has the right idea, the right goals and motives, perhaps, but they do not have the power, abilities, or courage to back them up. We have similar goals, but we can back up our goals and claims, at least as long as we do not overextend ourselves. If we have to work with the New Republic eventually... Well, we will deal with that when it arises."

  Maarek had sipped his drink quietly during Xar's speech, and now he set his glass down, a thoughtful expression on his face. He nodded slowly. "I see. From your tone of voice I take it there are those within the New Imperium that do not subscribe to your ideals?"

  Xar shrugged. "There are. But we are working to convince them otherwise, to bring them into our way of thinking. Ours is not an easy task, but from how I see it, we have to do what we have to do. To do otherwise would be wrong."

 "Still, your goals are broad. And what you've told me is doubtless what your 'official' stance is. Any citizen could probably find what you've said in the New Imperium Constitution or news vids. What about you, personally? What is your goal?" His tone wasn't harsh or aggressive, just questioning.

  Xar thought for a moment before answering. He had been asked this question before, numerous times. Many times the question had been raised accusingly, warily, or aggressively. But now it was just a simple question. It required a simple answer. He'd spent a lot of time pondering his motives, whether they were just. He knew he had made mistakes in his life, but he had determined, from the beginning in his helping to found the New Imperium, that he would do what was right. A simple answer.

  "I want to reestablish the Jedi. Not Jedi of the Light Side or Dark Side, but of the Force. A group that will do what the Jedi of old did... They were mediators, protectors of peace and justice, and defenders of the innocent. I want to make the New Imperium a symbol of hope and protection, something people can look to and know that they are in good hands, that we will do everything we can to preserve their freedom. I want to learn all I can about the galaxy, about what is out there." He gestured upwards. "There is so much we have forgotten. So much we have yet to learn. I want to learn. That is my goal. That is what I have dedicated myself to." Not a short statement, but simple enough.

  Maarek leaned forward, his eyes looking into Xar's. A smile came onto his face, and he nodded. "In that case," he said, "I’ll join you."

  Xar's jaw dropped in surprise. He’d hoped for this, but not expected it so quickly. "Are you serious?"

  "Absolutely. Not just because of your message, of course, or even your speech just now. I didn't come all the way out here just for nothing, though. I never told you this, but I didn't serve the Empire of my own will, entirely. When the Empire came to my world, and stopped the civil war between the two races in my system, it was a grand ideal they gave us. They made many false promises and guarantees. We were 'convinced' to join, thought practically at gunpoint. It was the same thing when they 'recruited' many of us, including our leaders. I was eager to join this grand order, to see the galaxy. I also wanted to find my father, Kerek Stele. He'd been captured by the Bordali and later transferred to Imperial hands. I didn't know until later. Remember that mission we flew? Zaarin had staged a coup to kidnap the Emperor, and we had to move in to save him before they got away?"

  Xar nodded. He remembered well. "Yes, it was a historic mission. I heard that cadets were required to fly the mission at the Academy before they could graduate."

  “Anyway. What about you, Xar?” Maarek asked.

  Xar considered. It had been several years since they had last met. "After I left Thrawn, I wandered around and eventually joined up with the Imperial Remnant,” he said. “After a while I realized it was a worthless cause, and so I entered the surviving remnant of the Dark Jedi Brotherhood in Minos Cluster.” He paused, remembering those months with House Ar’Kell that had changed his life again. “I could not stay forever, though. A group of us left together and founded the New Imperium, along with several other fleets and organizations. What's so funny?" he asked, realizing that Maarek was laughing now.

  "I was just thinking," the other man said jovially. "Look where we all ended up. I mean, look at you, a Jedi Master. You told me you would be one someday, but frankly, I didn't ever think you'd accomplish it."

  Xar smiled. "Well, though it was forced upon me - the use of the Force, that is - and I learned to accept it and adapt to it."

  "Possibly much the same as with me."

  "What do you mean?" Maarek was Force-Sensitive, from what he understood, but not very strong. At least not that Xar could tell, because Stele had never had former training. All he knew was that the Emperor’s servants had taken to Maarek and had given him lots of messages through the course of the war.

  "Remember those hooded guys that lurked around on the ships and bases, usually popping in to give a message or relay some secondary orders for the missions?"

  Xar nodded. "Yes, the Emperor's so-called Secret Order."

  "Yeah, that's right. Did they ever give you any weird messages? I mean, stranger than the usual ones they gave?"

  "Nothing that I can recall specifically," he shrugged. "I was hiding my Force-sensitivity at every opportunity. I suspected they might have known I was Force-Sensitive, but I couldn’t take any chances."

  "Well, they gave me some pretty strange ones sometimes. About serving the Emperor, destinies, that kind of thing. They taught me a lot of weird stuff, but frankly I was never comfortable with it."

  "I see."

  "Did you ever have dreams? Sometimes I thought I could hear the Emperor's voice calling me, as though he knew me and had a specific purpose for me."

  "The Secret Order used numerous methods to get their points and ideas across. Brainwashing and similar activities were probably well known to them. I can understand the dreams, and could resist them due to my training. As a Force-Sensitive, you should be familiar with them."

  "Hmm. I’ve been thinking of something, and I wanted to ask you what you know," Maarek said thoughtfully. "Were you ever in one of those strange ceremonies?" He brought his arm up and began pulling his sleeve back. Underneath, on the inside of his forearm, was a complex pattern of tattoos the Secret Order gave, symbolizing rank. "Anyway," he continued, "The ranks went all the way up to Emperor's Hand. I was an ‘Emperor’s Hand’. I got messages handed down by the Order, and I carried them out. Some I understood, some I didn’t…”

  Xar watched Stele thoughtfully. Obviously, he had been in deeper than Xar had ever been. How much had Maarek learned about the Force?

  Maarek continued. “There have been several people called that, ‘The Emperor's Hand’. You remember anyone else?"

  "Mara Jade," Xar answered. He picked his glass up from the table, drained it of its remaining contents, and set it back down. "She was an advisor and agent to Palpatine."

  "Ah. Might there have been more Emperor's Hands, too?"

  Xar smiled at the thought of Palpatine with several physical hands. It seemed the Emperor did like to name his servants after certain body-parts... "I am sure there were," he replied. "But I have no idea who they were."

  "And what if there was a rank beyond that? Ever hear of the Emperor's Reach? I did."

  At first Xar shook his head, but stopped midway. Now that was an interesting prospect. He leaned back, tapping a finger on his chin thoughtfully. "Good question. But who might that be? The leader of the Secret Order itself? A close advisor?" He broke off at that thought. A close advisor. The image of Akira popped involuntarily into his mind. Could it have been? A long shot of a theory, and fairly ridiculous, but an interesting possibility nonetheless.

  "I don't know," Maarek said in reply to his question. "Oh well, it was just a thought. Where was I before?"

  "You were talking about our time in the Empire, and how we all left and ended up in different positions," Xar replied. "So what did you do?"

  "Ah, yes... I was getting to that part. As I said, the Empire had custody of my father Kerek. He was a brilliant scientist, and the Empire kept him well in exchange for his 'services'." His face practically shone with pride for his father. "Well, after we saved the Emperor, Lord Vader himself awarded me the Medal of Honor. He said some things to me, and one thing I've kept to myself all this time. We both knew my father was being held in the service of the Empire. Vader told me that for my loyal service, he would be released. However, in exchange I would have to keep serving the Empire until I had earned the right to leave and be reunited with him."

  Xar’s eyes widened. Interesting. Stele had never mentioned it to Xar, for certain. And Maarek had not let it show in the slightest, that Xar could remember. "I... never knew." That was all there was to say.

  "I didn't want it to get out. Not that I didn't think you'd keep a tight lid, but... It was something I had to do on my own. I didn't want anyone to endanger themselves to help me escape, to save my father."

  Xar nodded. He understood, and agreed, with Maarek's thinking. When he'd found out what had happened to his family and world, the devastation that had been wrecked while he'd been gone, he had bottled it all up inside, not willing to share it with anyone. He had joined the Empire to wage his own private war against the Rebellion, thinking they had been responsible. And when he had found out that it was a lie, that one man, Dasok Krun, had been personally led the strike on his world, he had transferred that vengeance fully to him. And now he'd found out that a man named General Akira had orchestrated the entire plan. Was he now going to transfer his vengeance to him? No, he thought to himself. He'd let that go when he’d killed Krun, and there was no more reason to rely on that. All the emotions and intentions, kept inside him, never allowed outside. He could not solve every problem on his own. That day he had learned to let others inside, for the first time in years. . Mathis had been right. Maybe he should follow his Deputy's advice more often...

  "Xar? You okay?" Maarek was leaning forward, a concerned look on his face.

  He shook his head. "I am fine. Just... memories. I can empathize with what you went though. Funny how similar our lives have been in some ways. So how did you escape that deal, and did you find your father?"

"Yes, just a second," Maarek nodded. "I knew I had to find some way to get out, but like you know, I was working directly with Grand Admiral Thrawn at the time. When he decided to take off into the Unknown Regions, there was little I could do to stop him. I finally came up with a way, though. And believe me, it wasn't easy. I had a... falling out... with Thrawn about something. I became a little... reckless... and impulsive, you might say... Well, even from a so-called 'hero' of the Empire, the perfectionist that Thrawn was couldn't take it forever. I was to be transferred back to the Inner Rim, for a less than honorable tour of picket duty, or perhaps training new recruits. Thrawn was pretty clever; he figured I was trying to escape. Lucky for me his lackeys weren't as competent and thorough as he was. My letter of transfer was mysteriously... lost... and I managed to hijack a ship and escape. Of course, I knew they were going to come after me, and probably my father too."

"So you got away."


"For the time being, yes," Maarek nodded. “Then I had to hide for a long while. The Imperials started looking for me, but their search wasn't up to par with the Empire's... standards. I guess the turmoil the Empire went through after Endor made a difference. When they couldn't find me, they issued the letter telling the rest of the galaxy about my unfortunate 'death' in a flying accident." He gave an almost sad-looking smile.

"So you found your father? You managed to rescue him?" Xar asked. Maarek must have been more resourceful than he'd thought.

Maarek’s eyes took on a distant look, as though seemed to be focusing elsewhere. "Actually, that’s a topic I’d rather not broach right now. The fewer people know about it…." He finished in a voice almost too low to hear.

 “I understand,” Xar said. He folded his hands in front of him and thought for a moment. “Just remember,” he said, “I am trusting you to come here and join us. I expect to receive your trust in turn.”

 “I know. Just give me some time,” Maarek said, sighing. “You know you can trust me, Xar. You know, I always thought very highly of you. Back on Thrawn’s ship, you were always so composed. So in control.”

 “I was younger,” Xar said, smiling slightly.

 “It wasn’t all that long ago, you know,” Maarek said.

 Xar looked down. “It feels like forever,” he said.

 For a moment they sat in silence. Xar decided to change the subject. “So what about the Force? How much did you learn under the Secret Order?”

  “Always back to the Force, is it ‘Grand Master’?” Maarek countered with a grin. He shrugged. “Well, mostly passive stuff, I guess. How to hear their voices, to react in battle when I felt threatened…”

  “Have you done any exercises to increase your Force power? Stretching you muscles, if you will?”

  Maarek shook his head. “Frankly, until now I haven’t had that much use for it, compared to feeling a fighter in your hands and relying on good old fashioned piloting sense. I haven’t used it in a few years, and now when I try…” He shook his head. “I can’t really do anything now. It just doesn’t really work for me, I guess.”

  “If you want, I can teach you to use it.”

   Stele shook his head again. “Thanks, but no thanks. I have even less need for some mystical energy field now. Just give me something meaningful to do, some missions to fly that will help people, and I’ll be fine.”

  “As you wish. That I will promise you my friend.” Xar rested against the back of the couch, contemplating the events that had transpired to bring all of this together. Maarek didn't say anything else; his thoughts must have been far away as well.

  "A very interesting story you have," Xar finally noted. "But there is one thing that I cannot quite understand. If you found your parents and did what you set out to do, why come out here and join up with the New Imperium to fight again? Would you not rather live your life out normally? Not to discourage you from joining - I would love to have you with us - but do you consider your military days not enough or something?"

  Maarek smiled thinly. "It's a long story. I have changed a bit in some ways... Suffice it to say, for now, that I am looking for the next phase in my life. Think of me as a wanderer, looking for a noble cause to champion for a while. Something to fight for, new battles to win. I think I've found my cause in your New Imperium. Your story… it was the last thing needed to convince me. I believe you’re doing what’s right."

  Xar thought silently for a moment. Those words... That kind of attitude... They did not suit the hardened Maarek that Xar had once known. Something must have happened. Something that remained in the man's mind, and something he was not eager to talk about. Perhaps, he hoped, one day he would be able to earn Stele's trust enough to hear the rest. Until then... He glanced down at his chronometer. If he was going to embark for Sigma today, he had better get started.

  "All right," he said. "In that case, I would be glad, and honored, to have you with us, Maarek Stele." He pushed himself up and offered his hand across the table.

  Maarek took his hand and shook it firmly. "Good to serve with you again, Xar Runis."

  Xar half-smiled. That was one thing he'd forgotten about. "Actually," he said, a little embarrassed. "The name Runis was one I took after I found the devastation of my world. It was the name of my old Jedi Master. Now, with my family and world avenged and our work here to restore Varnus, I have retaken my family name: Kerensky. It is a very Varnusian name."

  Maarek silently mouthed the last name as if testing it. Then he nodded and smiled. "I hope I can do the same, and help right some things here in the NI. What can I do to help?" He added quickly. Obviously he didn't want to re-open the historical conversation. Xar was willing to oblige, for now.

  "Well, seeing as you have a lot of experience and ability, you could have almost any job you want. Do you want to work within the Jedi Division, one of the fleets, or within the New Imperium as a whole? What would you like to do?"

  "Hmm... If you can find me a place in the Jedi Division forces, that will do for now. And I'll take any position in which I can fly. That's my true passion."

  "I love it too,” Xar said, feeling nostalgic at the thought. “But I rarely find time for it these days." Plus Mathis would lock me in my quarters first, he reminded himself. He remembered his last two excursions in a fighter, and how uncomfortably close to death he'd come both times. Maybe it was time to turn in his wings, as Mathis and Alyx were always telling him. He’d already promised as much. "The Division Flagship, the ISD Stormwatch, is in need of a Wing Commander or even a good Commodore. What do you say?"

  "Don't mention the word Commodore!" Maarek cringed. "They offered me that once. I told them where they could put their desk job. Wing Commander, though... That sounds like me. Are you sure? Will the pilots be open to someone from outside just jumping right in?"

  "They are quite used to it," Xar assured him. "The NI is still young, and officers are coming from all over the galaxy, not just Epsilon Sector. Still, I would not feel right simply giving you command of one Wing. With your knowledge and experience, you should lead all our fighter groups."

  "As long as I get to put in as much time as everybody else,” Maarek said. “If there's one job I hate, it's a desk job."

  Xar nodded. He remembered once thinking he'd never take a desk job, no matter what. Now it seemed it was all he did... "Great," he told Maarek. "Then you will want to get acquainted with the ship and pilots as soon as you can. I am embarking on a diplomatic mission to the Sigma system today, and will be taking the Stormwatch. If you would like to come along, it would be a great opportunity to get familiar with the place."

  "Sure, I'm game. My stuff is still packed, I flew my Defender here, so I'm not carrying much anyway."

  Xar started. "You have your own TIE Defender?" he asked.

  "Sure," Maarek nodded. "But that's another story. If it's all right, I'll hop in my fighter and follow you up to the ship. Hey, maybe once you've settled in, we can put in some Simulator time together. It's been a long time since I've flown with you."

  Xar nodded. "I think we can work that in. Okay, as soon as I take care of a few things we should be good to go." He remembered flying against Maarek in simulations. He wasn't going to be looking forward to it again. Instead he said, "Welcome to the New Imperium, Maarek. I think you are going to enjoy your time here with us."

  "I hope so," the other man replied. "Otherwise this would be a wasted trip," he laughed.


    After the door closed, Xar turned back into his office. Standing there, beside his desk, was a tall man, dark-haired and dressed in a black cloak. He was looking at Xar blandly.

   “So, what do you think, Icis?” Xar asked. Novitaar had appeared again in the last few months, strangely absent during the hectic flight from Minos to Epsilon Sector.

   The other man’s eyebrows rose as he spoke. “He could be a valuable asset.” His voice was as unemotional as his expression. “Useful, if he chooses to help us. Dangerous, perhaps, if he does not.”

    Xar nodded absently. “So it is with everyone,” he sighed.


                                                *                                              *                                              *


Maarek watched through the cockpit as the massive Imperial-class Star Destroyer Stormwatch loomed into view. He’d always held an attraction for the wedge-shape of the ships, and the gleaming white hull of the Division’s Flagship looked to him like the epitome of naval and military might. Numerous tugs and support craft were hovering about the vessel, making last-minute adjustments for the trip ahead. Maarek kept his prized TIE Defender, Mad Cat, flying smoothly and steadily alongside Grand Master Xar’s Lambda-class Shuttle as they rose to meet the massive vessel.

 The flight up to the Stormwatch, however brief, gave Maarek a chance to relax. He’d spent a lot of time in his ship lately, mostly during the trip to Varnus, but he never got as tired of it as most other pilots. His fighter had become his second home, and inside it was the safest and most comfortable place in the galaxy. As he effortlessly guided the fighter along, he thought back to the recent years, how he’d acquired and modified his own personal ship, and the many great battles he’d been in. But there were greater battles to be fought ahead. He knew, he could sense it, like a pilot’s gut danger sense in combat. This was where he belonged for now. He’d certainly been surprised to find that Xar was actually the leader of this operation; he could see when serving with him that he’d become someone important someday. But he’d never expected this. He was glad to see him again, and even more so to be able to serve with him. Xar had been a good friend and a good listener and advisor when he’d had no one else to turn to. After all these years he’d figured they’d never meet again. Until the message he’d received, there would have been no way of knowing if the man was even alive or not. Maybe Xar was right about there being a destiny between them.

  By now the Star Destroyer filled the window ahead, and he expertly guided the TIE Defender into the cavernous hangar where the automatic docking systems came on. The hangar's tractor beams brought him into a surprisingly large sub-hangar and docked him onto the TIE racks hanging over the deck. Below he saw Xar's shuttle glide to a smooth landing. Shutting down his ship's systems, Maarek popped the top hatch and clambered out. He quickly closed the ship back up and jogged across the scaffolding walkway. Then he climbed onto the ladder, sliding down holding onto the sides, and dropped the last several feet to the deck floor just before the shuttle's ramp descended.

  It was cold here. The force screen covering the entrance to the hangar kept the air in, but not the heat. What little heat came from the landed crafts' engine nozzles was drawn out through the screen and into the void. Maarek had spent much time in Star Destroyer hangars though, and was used to the cold. Smoothing his uniform, he planted himself in front of the shuttle as Xar, Mathis, and the rest of the crew made there way out. "About time," he said smartly. "I guess those years in command positions slowed you down, huh?"

  Xar grinned widely as he approached. "You always had to make it out first, huh Maarek?"

  "Of course. That means I get to the showers first," he joked.

  "Not so fast this time," Xar interjected mildly. "First I want you to take a look around my ship. Welcome to the Stormwatch..." He raised his hands in an expansive gesture and grinned broadly.

  Maarek narrowed his eyes, confused for a moment. "What do you mean your ship?"

  "KDY custom-built her for me shortly after we arrived in Epsilon Sector. There are some special modifications I suggested myself. Remember that time we were discussing the weaknesses of Star Destroyers and how they could be fixed?"

  Maarek nodded. He remembered well. With their combined experience they knew where all the weak spots on an ISD were. Oftentimes they would have to work harder to stop the Rebels from exploiting those weaknesses.

  "Sounds interesting. I'll look forward to seeing what you've done," he said candidly.

  Just then he heard footsteps on the deck plating behind him, and he turned around to see a train of officers approaching in full uniform, followed by a Stormtrooper honor guard.

  "Ah, here they are," he heard Xar say, coming up beside him. "I believe you all know Mathis Organa. Now, Maarek, let me introduce you to the fill-in Captain onboard the Stormwatch... Our Praetor, Jedi Adept Gaius." He gestured to a tall man in an Admiral's uniform, displaying the NI Symbol on the left breast, beside a jagged black lightning bolt on a blue shield. The large, dirty-blonde haired man smiled and nodded toward Maarek. Then Xar turned to the officer beside the Captain, a mid-sized human male in what resembled a white Imperial Grand Admiral's uniform, but plainer, without the gold trim and markings. "This is CEO Walt Amason, of Phoenix Technologies and the ‘New’ Corporate Sector Authority, as we call it. He is also one of our best diplomats. He is accompanying us on this mission to assist in relations with the Sigmans." Amason nodded to Maarek, and extended his hand. He had short sand-colored hair, and his blue eyes met Maarek's warmly enough. Maarek shook his hand, and Gaius' as well, as Xar finished the introductions.

  "Gentlemen, this is Commander Maarek Stele, a formal Imperial war hero and a friend of mine. Probably on of the best pilots in the galaxy. He is here to join the NI and lend us his flying skills as commander-in-chief of the Division's fighter groups." Brief, and not very elaborate, but Maarek liked it that way.

  The two officers seemed to take it as a matter of course, and bade all three newcomers welcome onboard the ship. The one named Gaius did give him an interesting once-over, though.

  "So, one of the best pilots in the galaxy? No doubt you've gone through a lot, flying for the Empire. I can see it in your eyes."
  The man was right, Maarek knew. You could see something different in the eyes. It was something TIE Fighter pilots got after surviving their first several combat missions. Something they got if they survived, that is. It came from seeing too many comrades die in those deathtraps, with no atmospheric containment, no ejection seat. But for a while, it had been a way to distinguish survivors from rookies. The look in Xar's seemed to have been replaced over the years by a new light, almost an inner light. But Maarek knew that his own gaze seemed to make most others uneasy.

  "I've met some excellent pilots in my career," Gaius continued. "I think I vaguely remember your name. Have you ever heard of Baron Sootnir Fel? They say he's the best, you know. Or was, at least. They say he died, but who knows? He'll probably show up again."

  Maarek smiled. He'd heard references to the great Fel throughout his career. He was good, that much was certain, but Maarek knew he could dismiss many of the stories regarding him as being highly exaggerated. "I've heard of Baron Fel, and many of his famous accomplishments... I’ve never met him personally, but we were to go head to head, I’m sure it'd be a tough battle," he conceded. "But, I think I could take him."

  Gaius' jaw must have dropped an inch. Maarek could feel the rest of the men's gaze on him, all except Xar's, who was smiling smugly. It was clear Gaius didn't believe him. They probably thought he had an ego the size of the Star Destroyer they were on. Maybe true, he conceded to himself. But no matter. Soon he'd have a chance to show everyone, and they'd all see and understand soon enough.

 "Well, all right then," Gaius finally muttered. "Welcome aboard, everyone. Grand Master, now that you're here, we'll be getting underway soon. If you will accompany us to the bridge for embarkation? Commander Stele is welcome to come as well."

  Xar nodded and looked askance at Maarek, but he shook his head. "No thanks. Perhaps I'll join you when we arrive. I need to freshen up and settle my things in."

  "Very well," Xar told him. You will be shown to your quarters, where you can check the computer and get familiar with the ship. I think you will find some of the modifications most interesting."

  "All right, I'll check it out," Maarek promised. "And after we jump out, are we still on for a Sim or two?"

  Xar's mouth twisted slightly. "Sure. I will send a message to your quarters."

  "Good. I'm looking forward to it," Maarek said.


               The trip through the interior of the Stormwatch proved relatively uneventful. An aide led him as they took a transit car aft and a turbolift up toward one of the residential areas. Then they strolled through a wide, luxurious area that looked more suited to a shopping mall or hotel than an Imperial Star Destroyer. The area in the center was complete with various flora, a long fountain and pool, and a cafe. Beings from a dozen different races, though predominately humans, lounged around chatting and eating. The aide rattled out a memorized speech about the ship's areas and facilities that Maarek hardly listened to. There would be plenty of time for his own investigation later. Ever since his first time onboard a Star Destroyer he'd known that their captains liked to keep certain strange areas that reminded them of home or gave them a respite from duties. His friend Admiral Mordon had kept a private garden that only those with a special key could enter. Maarek remembered wearing the simple ring Mordon had given him; he remembered having to remove it when Mordon had been accused of treason. He hadn't understood at the time, but now he knew why. Mordon had had enough of the corruptness of the Empire and had tried to change it, make it better from the inside. A fatal mistake. But that was in the past, and the Empire was gone. From now one he was serving the New Imperium, and an honorable goal, one Mordon would have liked. If only he'd lived to see it.

  The aide continued past the lounge area and down another corridor. This area was well-traveled also, and the walls were lined with windows displaying holoscenes from different worlds. He recognized the skyline of Coruscant, the flowing fields of Alderaan, and Coronet City on Correlia. Other, more alien locations, he didn't recognize.

  Despite himself Maarek felt himself relaxing as he strolled along. The denizens he saw seemed quite friendly, and smiled at him as they passed. It was, truly, a better indicator of the NI's disposition than any speech Xar could have made. Maarek liked it. He began strolling more casually, and took a moment to glance out the windows. The aide complacently waited for him as he did so, still occasionally rattling off a statistic or two about the Stormwatch's unique features.

  A short while later the aide led him down a side passage and past several crossroads into what looked like a residential area. Passing through a security checkpoint, the aide took him into what he called the "VIP quarters".  Maarek had often heard them referred to on ISDs, but he'd never actually stayed in one. For once in what had been a while he felt himself become a little excited. Perhaps he'd stay here longer than he'd planned to. After all, what could it hurt? Here, he felt among friends, and didn't feel intimidated by the usually-close walls and guards. He’d been on the run for too long.

   Finally they came to a metal door in the middle of one of the hallways. He could see large double-doors off at the end of the passageway, which the aide informed him led to the main turbolift. However, he'd have to have his VIP card to use the lift or to return by it to this floor. The man promptly produced the card from his pocket and gave it to Maarek, instructed him that any additional information he needed could be found from the terminal in his quarters, and made his way back the way they'd come. After a moment, Maarek shrugged and stuck the card in the slot next to the entrance. The medal door swung open sideways with barely a sound, and he entered.

  "Wow," Maarek said aloud as he looked around at the inside of his quarters. Not what he was used to. It wasn't the most luxurious room he'd ever been in, but after months of living on virtually zero credits, it was a welcome change. Unpleasant memories came to mind, memories of wandering from place to place, with no direction, searching for the next fight. And some of the places he'd been.

 This room was well furbished, with a large bed suited for a captain, carpeting, computer terminal with HoloNet access, a small desk, self-conforming couch, and a full-sized refresher station. Maarek walked over to the closet and opened the door. Inside was a full rack of robes and dress clothes suitable for an Admiral. He grabbed one of the robes and headed to the refresher for a shower. It seemed like ages since he'd had one.

 After a good ten-minute shower with real water, he donned the robe and went back into the room, feeling much better. His bags had been brought from his TIE and were lying on the bed. Going through them, he picked out a plain gray jumpsuit that wasn't quite as dirty as everything else. He hadn't had a chance to wash his clothes in a couple of weeks.

  With that out of the way he made his way over to the computer terminal to, as Xar had put it, ‘get familiar with the ship.’ Actually, he was a little interested in what Xar had done to it, but it wasn't the most important thing on his mind. He'd get around to it in a few minutes.

  First, he opened up a general map of the NI, deciding it would be a good idea to get more familiar with this new government he’d just joined up with. The territory of the NI basically wrapped itself around the huge Galbagos Nebula, right on the border with the Unknown Regions. Any further out and star systems became few and far between, at least until one reached the far spiral arm on the other side of the Great Rift, as they called it. Core-ward, the NI bumped right up against New Republic space and the Outer Rim. However, with the NR still getting on its legs and fending off a hundred different threats from as many directions, including the Imperial Remnant, there was very little real activity this far out past Endor. For now, the NI seemed relatively safe, except for pirates and outlaws, which were no match for a real military. And with luck, maybe in the future the NI would even be able to convince the New Republic that they weren’t much of a threat and would leave them alone. Of course, wishes were a credit a dozen, he knew.

  The NI contained a surprising number of habitable worlds, considering how far out in the Rim they were. Systems were a little more sparse around here, yet there must have been a few dozen worlds that could support human life without any special survival equipment. Quite a few had indigenous populations or had been colonized in the ancient past, including Varnus, Danube, Jengar, Grummium, Kolath, Lorn, Vol, and the capital, Tralar. Others had been colonized by the NI, and many of the non-habitable ones were being used for mining, industrial or military purposes. Later on Maarek decided he would delve into the Epsilon Sector map and read each system and planet’s data readout in detail.

  To either side of the NI along the galaxy’s spin was basically unknown territory. That worried Maarek just a bit. On the left side of the map were areas where new NI fleets were coming in and mopping up pirate clans and mercenaries. However, to the right, not that far from Varnus, NI territory simply stopped, running into the Unknown Regions and worlds that were shrouded in lawlessness and mystery. Heading in that direction one would soon reach Delta Sector, which was virtually unexplored, and who knew what might be lurking out there? Maarek decided it would be a good idea to keep an eye on that region, as any potential threats would most likely come from there.

  Finally, he got around to bringing up the ISD Mk-II Stormwatch directory and take a look at the Star Destroyer’s stats. The computer launched into a drawn-out dialogue of the ship's exact specifications and mission parameters. Most of it didn't surprise Maarek; many of the modified criteria for the Stormwatch were simply necessary for its new role in the NI. Essentially, the vessel wasn't just a warship. It was a floating city in space, complete with a variety of recreation areas, restaurants, a shopping center, entertainment areas, and a host of other luxurious upgrades that made the ship more geared toward civilian population.

  A few things did cause him to raise his eyebrows in surprise, though. The ship was heavily modified. For attack, the ship had the fifty turbolasers, fifty heavy turbolasers, and twenty ion cannons of a standard Mark II, but it also had four long-range turbolasers, several advanced torpedo launchers and a load of Excalibur-class Missiles, something Maarek hadn't heard of before. For defense, the ship had been equipped with better shields and armor, including Neutronium-II plating to reinforce certain vital areas and in the front of the bow. The shield generators were inside the main body of the vessel, making the bulbous twin generators on top of the command towers unnecessary. A smaller, yet more powerful power core and solar-ionization reactor gave off enough power to the new systems. Also for defense were three new items Maarek hadn't yet seen in an Imperial Star Destroyer. First, an ECM package would be able to break the lock of incoming torpedoes, allowing the ship to move out of the way. If the ship couldn't move fast enough, there were eight "flak turrets" in place, four on each side of the ship, which would fire small bits of debris in a spreading wall to destroy the incoming warheads. The Stormwatch also had a Nova mine launching system, which could launch several kinds of mines to guard targets, mine hyperspace entry/exit vectors, or drop a surprise into the path of a pursuing ship. Rounding out the defenses, Maarek saw, was a fully functional cloaking device. Of course, it was a tradeoff; as long the ship was cloaked, no one could see or detect it, but occupants onboard wouldn't be able to see outside, either. A problem that modern technology hadn't yet been able to remedy.

  There were modifications to the bridge, as well, both internally and externally. Twin powerful heavy turbolasers rested on either side of the bridge to protect from incoming fighters and torpedoes, and a Neutronium-II blast shield could be closed to cover the vulnerable viewports. All in all, some good ideas, if the ship were ever in a situation where it'd have to put them to practical use. But better to be safe than dead, he supposed.

  Just before closing the system down, he made a note to be forwarded to Xar, asking him about setting up a time for a Sim session the next day. Then he shut the computer off. The results of his search wouldn't be in for some time, anyway. Maybe he'd take a walk... And get his clothes washed. Yes, that sounded like a good idea.

                                                *                                              *                                              *


             Maarek pulled back on the controls, sending his TIE Avenger into a tight loop. His radar screen showed his pursuer stayed right on his tail. Maarek juked as another quad-laser blast sliced though the space he'd been in an instant before. The other man was still good, but Maarek had an edge. And an edge made all the difference between a live pilot and a dead one. And his kill score showed it.

  Maarek snap-rolled his fighter left, then spun the ship up and around in his signature move, cutting the power to engines and turning all power to lateral stabilizers, spinning him up and around while his opponent passed below. The stars swam before his eyes, but we wasn't really paying attention to them. He watched as his opponent tried to copy the move, but couldn't pull as tight a loop as Maarek was. The other fighter's blip moved onto his front radar, and he completed the spin, coming down right in his opponent's wake. He had practiced the move thousands of times, until he no longer made a mistake. The fighter in front of him seemed to hesitate for a split second, all Maarek needed. His quad-burst hit the fighter directly in the engines, vaporizing the rear of the craft. There was a bright flash as the engines went, and the enemy Avenger exploded, virtually. Maarek flew right through the expanding fireball, bits of molten metal flying off his virtual shields as he went.

  "Got you again, old buddy." He laughed. "That makes five to one, Xar. You're getting rusty. Want to call it a day?"

  "Not a chance," Xar's voice came over the speakers. "We will see how long your luck holds up. Care to try again?"

  "With pleasure," Maarek smiled inside the simulator's helmet. While not as comfortable as in a TIE Defender with its custom-installed life-support system, he really felt at home in any cockpit.

   Another blip came on the radar as the simulator re-spawned Xar's ship. At the same time his shield levels went back into the green, as the computer equaled the fighters out for the next dogfight. Too bad it couldn't increase the opponent's skill level. The thought made him laugh aloud again.

  "Just keep laughing," Xar said tauntingly. "Time for a little lesson in manners, my friend."

  "Yeah, whatever. Put your lasers where your mouth is."

  Xar seemed to oblige, as his ship turned to face Maarek's head-on. A straight-in, head-to-head engagement might level the playing field a bit, but there was no way Maarek was going to let Xar show him up. He knew the man's moves, and how to beat them.

  The other ship was growing larger now. Xar didn't fire; as usual he probably wanted to go for optimum range. But Maarek was a marksman. He fired, sending four bolts of green death out towards the other ship. But Xar's Avenger juked to the side, the lasers passing harmlessly by. Maarek realigned and fired again, but Xar once again avoided the blast. Maarek knew Xar would juke around like that, then suddenly come up and take a shot as his opponent passed across his sights. It was a remarkably effective tactic Xar liked to use, but Maarek knew how to beat it. He started juking around as well. Then suddenly, as the fighter flashed into view ahead, he threw his fighter into a corkscrew to the side and around in a spinning loop that should have brought him on Xar's tail. But it didn't. Instead he was staring at blank space. Where was he? Maarek looked at his radar... but nothing was there. He blinked... Time seemed to slow for a moment. He was confused. What was going on? Had the simulator malfunctioned?

  Then everything went white, and the words "You have died" flashed onto the screen.

  "What in the Emperor’s black bones?!" Maarek yelled. He hit the escape switch angrily, and the cockpit rose around him, admitting him back into the real world.

  Pulling his helmet off, he tossed it down, unstrapped himself, and climbed out of the simulator. He staggered for a moment as his feet hit the deck floor, and the brightly-lit simulator room swam in his vision. He reached back to the machine to stabilize himself and let his vision clear, then he turned to scowl over at the simulator beside his, where Xar was pulling himself out.

   "What was that?" He demanded, more angrily than he actually felt. His voice spread though the room where other simulators sat, some closed and occupied, some open and waiting. "Some sort of trick?"

  Xar sat his helmet in the seat and stood to face Maarek. He took a deep breath. Finally he answered. "Yes... A trick, of sorts. The Force," he admitted, "Can be most useful when you need an extra edge to level the playing field. Sorry, Maarek. A small distraction can go a long way."

  "You cheated," Maarek said darkly. "You couldn't beat me yourself, so you used the Force to help you."

  Xar's mouth twisted sideways at the mention of the word. He shrugged. "Call it what you want. But it means I am alive, and you are not. Could you complain that I cheated if you were dead?"

  Maarek shook his head. "That's beside the point, Jedi. It wasn't a fair fight."

  "It never is," Xar said sadly. "We both know that. How many times have you shot down an inferior pilot in a weaker starship? What difference is there?"

  Maarek shrugged. Xar might be right, in a way. Maybe the Force wasn't all that different from a superior ship, or ability, or a dozen other factors that came into play. But that didn’t mean he had to like it.

   “You can learn to do this too, Maarek,” Xar said testily. “Would you like to?”

   “I told you before; thanks, but no thanks.” Maarek shook his head adamantly. He didn’t like being pushed. So what if he had Force potential? Did that mean he had to use it, to become a Jedi, too? “If I ever decide to, I promise you’ll be the first one I ask,” he told Xar.

   “Very well. I respect your decision.”

   Realizing the awkward silence, Maarek tried to lighten the mood. "Still, one-on-one I had you, Xar. What's wrong? Get lax in your old age?" he grinned. "You've gone civilian, haven't you? Let your flying skills go to waste?"

  "What good are they to me now, except as a pastime?" Xar sighed heavily. "No, you are right, more than you know. I still love to fly... But I can never quite find the time. And my subordinates will not hear of me going out for real anymore. I pulled rank to do it a couple of times... and paid for it." A gleam appeared in his eyes. "You know, though I am still pretty good - more so with a ship like the Black Star than a fighter. There were not many back in the Remnant that could best me. There were a couple, though, who gave me quite a run for it. Kaerner beat me two for every one I got on him. I would have liked to see you go up against him, Maarek. It would have been an interesting tangle."

   Maarek smiled. In truth, Xar wasn't really as bad as he might have thought. Maarek hadn't found anyone who could come close to him in years. Maybe it would have been a good match. Would have been... "I take it from your tone that he's not around anymore, is he?"

  Xar shook his head. “They sent him after us when we first came to Varnus. He shot me down, and I ejected. Not really any chance of me winning, anyway. But his hesitation to finish me was his undoing, along with ten bullet holes through his body from my mass driver."

  Maarek shook his head. "Sounds like you cheated again," he said.

  "I suppose I did," Xar admitted. "Join me for lunch?"

  "Sure," Maarek answered. He was getting a little hungry; it'd probably take a few days for him to catch up on his nutrition after his long trip.

  No, Xar wasn't exactly the same as when he'd last seen him. But this one had something different, a fire inside, a more open personality. He wasn't totally different, not yet. Changes didn't always happen all at once. It would be interesting to see how things would go in the new future. The changes have only begun, he thought.


                                                *                                              *                                              *


Observation Deck

1200 Hours


                The Observation Lounge was located just forward of the Recreation Section, in the rear third of the ship, about thirty meters from the command tower. The lounge doubled as a high-class restaurant, where denizens could enjoy a fine meal and a wide, spectacular view of the Stormwatch's flight path. Currently the sky was the mottled blue-white of hyperspace.

  Xar was seated at one of the tables near the window. Maarek sat across from him, a bored look on his face.

  "So," Xar said while munching on a blue gooji chip. "What do you think of the Stormwatch?"

  Maarek shrugged. "It's... different, but I like it."

  "It was constructed to meet my specifications." Xar took a sip of a sweet cream drink called Kougnch.

  Maarek laughed, eliciting a raised eyebrow from Xar. "It just reminded me of the times we used to talk about what we would do if we were in charge," Maarek said in answer of Xar's unasked question.

  "That was a long time ago friend. A lot has changed since then."

  "Far too much, Xar." Maarek sighed.

  "So, what did you do when you heard Thrawn died?" Xar asked seriously.

  Maarek shrugged. "I'd had about enough of him by the time I got the word. I'd spit on his grave, but of course, they have that hidden away somewhere..." he said nonchalantly.

  The words shocked Xar, and he didn't think he succeeded in keeping it off his face. It was quite different from his own reaction when he'd heard the news. But that was before Xar’s view was changed by treachery, as well. "I did not know you felt that way."

  Maarek made no answer. Silence fell across the conversation, as Xar tried to think of something else to say. He wanted to ask why, but held himself back for fear of offending his friend.

  "Don't worry about it," Maarek said lightly. "You never fell into his bad graces, did you? Never saw what he was like then."

  Xar shook his head. He could probably imagine what Maarek had gone though to escape the shackles of Imperial bondage. He'd gone though it with Runis. Best not to speak of such things. "I bet it was pretty tough coming here," he mused. "If you like, I will have the techs take a look at your fighter, patch up any holes, and get her in pristine condition again."

  Maarek smiled thinly. "Thanks, you wouldn't believe the places I've been in coming here. Ever since I went off on my own, even. I've slept in places not fit for a Bantha. It's not too bad when you're near the major space lanes, but when you start out into the Rim, or Wild Space, believe me, it's not very pleasant. Especially with all your money going to buy fuel for you ship. We used to burn it up when other people repaired and filled our fighters up, but man, those Defenders do love fuel. Not to mention that everyone wants to steal your ship, anyway, so you have to be extra careful about that.”

  “I can imagine,” Xar said.

  “And don't even get me started about repair costs. TIE Defender parts are virtually nonexistent. Once this one wears out, I think I’ll just stick with an Avenger. You just have to find what works, at least long enough to get you to the next station. There was this one old, old space station out in the middle of nowhere... Talk about nasty.”

  Xar chuckled, imagining what it must have been like. He was sure he’d explored quite a fraction of the most filthy hovels in the galaxy, himself.

  “There was another place though,” Maarek continued. “I'll never forget it. I stopped by on the way here, in Epsilon Sector, but still in the New Republic space. The whole planet was covered in cities, with buildings kilometers tall... Almost like Coruscant, except this one was totally empty. No, not just empty, abandoned. There was nobody there, and there hadn't been for centuries, it looked like. The only people there weren't even recognizable as humans, though I'm sure they were. Whenever I'd spot one, they ran out of sight. It was weird, really weird. I don't think the flight data survived the purge at Vraxia, though.

  Xar shook his head. He'd have liked to have see that. Anything pertaining to ancient cultures and mysteries would whet his appetite. Wait... Suddenly a thought hit him. "Purged your flight data?" he blurted. "You mean this was a one-way trip for you? You did not know the way back?"

  Maarek nodded gravely, then suddenly broke into a grin. "Like I said, there wasn't really any doubt in my mind I'd find the place. The question was whether or not I would stay. But, of course, that's answered now. This is where I belong. I knew, even before I came... somehow."

  Xar nodded. He was beginning to believe even more strongly that the Force had brought them together here. Still, it was hard to believe. Setting his fork down on the now-empty plate, he sighed heavily. "Well, I had better get back to work. We will arrive at Sigma tomorrow morning. If you want, you could go down to the hangars and take the time to get familiar with some of the pilots. I am sure they would love to meet you. Besides, you would have to eventually."

 Maarek nodded slowly. "That's true. All right, I'll do that. Hopefully they won't have heard much about me, though. I don't like publicity."

  "I know the feeling. I doubt they will have. Besides, they are pretty used to famous figures. There are enough of them around the NI."

  "All right. I'll go see them. And if I don't see you again before you head down to Sigma, good luck."

  "I do not believe in luck," Xar said, "But thanks anyway."

  His plate now empty in from of him, Xar slid back and stood up, drink in hand.

  "Aren't you going to wait for the bill?"

  Xar arched an eyebrow. "This is my ship," he said smartly. "The least they can give me is a free meal."

  Maarek shook his head, grinning. "Of course."

  "Besides, the service here could use help," Xar joked. He drained the remaining content from his glass and set it back on the table. "See you later."


                                                *                                              *                                              *


Maarek decided to take Xar's suggestion and introduce himself to some of the pilots onboard the Stormwatch. After all, if he were going to be the overall commander and instructor for the Jedi Division’s pilots, he'd have to get acquainted with them sooner or later. The instructing part of it wasn't that attractive, but being able to fly would make it all worth it. Commanding was something he had done before, and though it was not an easy job, he already had a few ideas on how to delegate some authority and responsibility, and even set up other training instructors to handle the newer pilots. He'd handle the more experienced pilots on advanced techniques, and with a few tests to find able instructors, he should be able to get an efficient operation going that would get the Division’s fighter wing in top running condition.

  He headed down to the lower levels of the ship around the hangar area, but taking his time to catch a glimpse of the kind of activity and the atmosphere aboard the ship. He much preferred making his own observations than relying on someone else to fill him in. That was one reason he'd used the system in his quarters to bring up a random list of news reports, public broadcasts, minority group information and advertisements to find out if the rest of the NI shared Xar's noble vision of the future. He'd check on the results that night.

  His first stop once he reached the pilot level was the office of the acting Commander, who coordinated the Stormwatch squadrons. Kale Joven was a graying man, with a short beard and hair. His experience was readily apparent on his battle-scarred face, though he smiled as Stele entered the office. Maarek nodded, and the man stood to greet him.

  "Good afternoon, sir," he said in a friendly tone, his eyes glancing down toward Maarek's rank insignia. "Ah. You must be the new Wing Commander?" At Maarek's nod, he went on. "Well, I'm glad you're here. They told me you would be here sometime, but I didn't know when. Forgive my lack of proper greetings..."

 "It's all right," Maarek assured him. "Good to see you sir. I understand you are acting commander of the pilots onboard the Stormwatch?"

  "Yes sir, I am. As I've been informed, you'll be taking over that job shortly, and I'd be happy to inform and help you in any way necessary."

  "All right, but no need for the formality. I'm not very big on it," Maarek said, looking around. The Commander's room was spartan, with only a few personal items, and the rest of the space on the table and desk full of sheets of flimsy and datatapes. "What is the status of the squadrons onboard the Stormwatch?" he asked.

  Joven folded his hands in front of him and sighed. "Well, with the removal of the Jedi House squadrons from their rotational duties - which I'm not actually against - and the casualties we suffered during the campaign for Moro, we've got three active squadrons onboard the Stormwatch now: Blackwind, Firehawk, and Flare Squadrons. That's a TIE Defender and two TIE Avenger squadrons, respectively. We're supposed to get in a shipload of the new TIE Avatars as soon as they're completed, but we don't know when that'll be or which they'll replace. The three squadrons are in good shape, though; we have some excellent pilots and personnel to keep them running. Thankfully, it seems the NI has attracted the right kind of attention."

  "Yes, it does look that way," Maarek agreed. "Well then, I'm really anxious to meet these pilots. It sounds like my job won't be so hard after all."

  Joven laughed, and offered Maarek his hand. "Then welcome to the Stormwatch, Commander Stele. I'll be happy to show you around personally."

  "I'd like that," Maarek shook the man's hand.

  "Good. There's a lot you might want to get familiar with, and some things we do a bit differently around here. I'll show you around the area and introduce you to the pilots. If you'll follow me..."


    Maarek spent the rest of the day touring the area with the Commander, and on his own when the man finished showing him around. Since the pilots weren't on active duty, Maarek found them in the barracks, hangars, simulators and recreation facilities, getting to know them and speaking with them for a moment. Surprisingly to him at first, not all were humans. There was a Twi'lek, Klatoonian, Duros, and even an Orbid, along with four human females, spread between the three squardons, proof of the NI's new policy regarding aliens and women. It wasn't exactly something Maarek was used to, in the Empire, but he thought he'd get accustomed to it eventually. All in all, they seemed pretty competent and up to the task. He'd have to personally test their piloting skills, of course. He suspected a few of them might be capable of handling an instructor's duties. That would ease his task considerably.

  The other Squadron Commanders were just as hospitable as Joven had been, at least outwardly. Joven had been pretty candid with Maarek regarding the pilots and even other Commanders. Maarek could tell he was experienced enough to know the ins and outs of his pilots.

  He and Joven had been touring the hangar when they decided to stop and help a tech repair a damaged converter on one of the TIE Avengers. The Commander told him how he expected the pilots to spend some time in the hangar working on their fighters, to not only get to know them better but to be able to effect repairs of their own if necessary. Having spent his first months onboard a Star Destroyer and in the Imperial service as a technician, Maarek understood and agreed with the principle, and he thoroughly enjoyed working on the craft with the Commander.

  While they were working, Joven surprised Maarek with an offer to join him and a selected group of pilots on a patrol mission the next day when they arrived, a largely ceremonial mission, followed by a jump to the nearby Danube System for a shakedown flight and maneuver practicing. Maarek immediately accepted, jumping at the chance to get some space around himself again and getting some time away from crowds. Besides, his fighter could use a good shakedown to see what needed repairs and upgrading after his long journey. He'd have to report for briefing and suiting up the next morning, which meant he'd miss the jump in-system Xar had invited him to. But, he'd been looking for a reason to politely decline, and this would work out well. The jump wasn't a big deal to him; he'd seen Star Destroyers jump and revert hundreds of times before. He'd report to the hangar the next morning and join the pilots. Much more fun, he thought.

  After grabbing a bite to eat that evening after he'd finished, Maarek headed back to his room. Passing Security wasn't a problem, and with a swipe of his access card into the data slot, the door slid open, and he entered.

  As the door securely locked itself into place behind him, he headed straight for the computer system. Bringing the terminal up, he logged onto the HoloNet and brought up the results of his search. The news reports and such he collected into a separate directory, for viewing later. They weren't that important at the moment; not his real reason for being on.

 Also, almost as an afterthought, he brought up his messages for the day. A few were local ads, news services, and the like. Only one was personal, addressed by Xar. It was a repeat of the invitation he'd given Maarek earlier, to accompany him to the bridge for re-entry. Maarek replied, briefly but politely declining, explaining that he would join the pilots on the shakedown and training flight the next day. He'd seen enough jumps to and from hyperspace, and he wasn't sure why Xar seemed to want him to join him there. If he had something to say, he'd have plenty of opportunities.

  He set that out of his mind for a moment. Closing his messages, Maarek carefully, anxiously pulled up the results for the HoloNet search he'd made the day before. He hadn’t had HoloNet access in a long time, and he didn't really know what to expect, or what he might find. It was a long shot; not likely to have turned up anything. He tried not to get his hopes up.

  Finally the computer finished processing the data. Searching the whole HoloNet for someone - or something - took lots of time and money. Still, if he could actually find his friend, it would be well worth the effort. Many years had passed; the man might not still be alive.

  The computer brought up a text list of results. But, as much as he wished otherwise, the search hadn't found anything on the name Pargo. Pargo, one of Maarek's few friends, the only one he'd known since childhood. Pargo had been indoctrinated into the Empire around the same time Maarek had been, when a Star Destroyer had shown up in orbit of Kuan and announced that their civil war was over. Pargo accepted the Empire's invitation to join, though not as a pilot like Maarek. Instead, he'd decided to become a Stormtrooper, and went off to train to be one of the Emperor's elite enforcers. Maarek had warned against him, told him of the dangers being a Stormtrooper held, and of the high death rate of the troopers with the Rebellion going on. But Pargo hadn't paid him any mind, instead retorting about the folly of flying a death trap into space combat. Maybe they'd both been crazy. Still, Maarek remembered finally seeing Pargo when he'd done it, when he was finally a full-fledged Imperial Stormtrooper. How proud the man had been. Maarek wondered what he thought of the Empire now. If, of course, he was still alive. The Stormtroopers had dramatically decreased in number ever since the chaos that had surged forth after the Battle of Endor. His friend might not still be alive; it'd been over six years. But Maarek wouldn't give up; he'd keep searching, until he either found the man, or the obituary. And that didn't always ensure that the man was really dead, he knew. He'd seen his own obituary, wondering at the time if anyone really even cared that he'd supposedly died. He guessed the right people had, though, and that was probably why he was still alive.

  No results. He sighed, nearly shutting the system down before catching something. Bringing the list back up, he searched though where his information had come from and through, what databases had been used in the search. At least maybe he could avoid searching the same record over and over again. But something caught his attention. The search hadn't been as comprehensive as it should have been. In fact, a whole section was missing. Looking through, he found that the computer showed that a few major HoloNet relay stations –buoys, more accurately - hadn't relayed his request. In fact, according to the information, they weren't working at all. That’s strange, he thought. Hyperspace relay sites went down all the time, but the ones along the main routes were usually well maintained, with backups in the unlikely event one failed. And it wasn't just one; there were several, all along the same route. Definitely strange, and not likely to be coincidence, either. But Maarek had no idea who could have been responsible, even less why anyone would have taken the relays out. After all, Imperials, Rebels, and most everyone in between accessed the HoloNet, including many through illegal channels. That was one thing nobody messed with.

  Well, it wasn't his problem. The maintenance corps would probably have the relays fixed shortly, anyway. He'd simply have to repeat his search later. Shutting the system down, he began getting ready for bed. It had been a fairly long day, and it looked like the next would be even longer. Time for some rest...


*                                              *                                              *


The next morning, Maarek was up early, eager to be off and get out into space. He headed down to the pilots area, where most of the officers were already up getting things ready for the flight. He took breakfast in the mess hall with the other pilots, and joined in their conversation enough to fit in. He managed to get enough information to find out what he needed to do to get ready. The ship was scheduled to arrive in-system at 0920, which left little time to get his own ship ready for the flight. Taking his leave of the other pilots - they were lucky, having someone else to prep their ship while they relaxed over caf; he'd see to changing that when he took command - he headed to the hangar.

   He walked in, and instead of finding the battered old starfighter he'd left, saw that someone had had his ship totally cleaned up while he was gone! He stood there, gaping at the gleaming TIE Defender, his only ship, his friend and companion through four long years. It was beautiful. He didn't really doubt it had been Xar who had had it done. He took a few moments to inspect the ship, noting every little repair and improvement. They had been fast. He really owed Xar for this. Silently he promised to make his friend proud of his decision.

   Checking his chronometer, he realized he'd have to extend his thanks later. He needed to suit up before attending the briefing, and he wasn't going to be late.


               Maarek strolled into the briefing room in full TIE pilot garb, polished black helmet tucked under one arm. Most of the other pilots were already gathered, seated in the rows of seats facing Commander Joven and the large screen at the front of the room. Maarek took a seat near the back, and a few moments later the rest of the pilots arrived as well.

   Commander Kale Joven finished putting up several datatapes inside the desk at front, then took up a control pad from the deskt op and faced the pilots. "Good morning, gentlemen," he began. "We're due to arrive in the Sigma system any moment now, so I'll make it a short briefing so we can get to the fighters." He hit a button on the controller, and a map of the Varnus Quadrant of Epsilon Sector appeared on the screen behind him. Simultaneously, the lights in the room dimmed a bit. Maarek scratched idly at his thin beard. This wasn't a complex mission; in fact, Joven could have gotten by with giving out his orders once they were in space. Maarek really didn't see the point of a full lecture, unless the pilots needed the discipline of repetition. Then again, maybe Maarek was just eager to be off. After all, there wasn't much they could do until they arrived in-system.

   As if by his words, the ship shifted. That was the only way to describe the exit from hyperspace. For a second everything seemed to blur; Maarek felt lightheaded. Then suddenly the sensation stopped.

   "Well, it looks like we're there already," Joven stated. "We'll have to cut the briefing short, since we're supposed to launch ahead of the diplomatic delegation. Firehawk Squadron will be on point around the Stormwatch. When the Diktat's shuttle launches, flight one will escort them down along their prescribed course. Blackwind Squadron will be with me. We'll be following a fixed patrol on our way to the jump point, where we'll be jumping to the Danube System to run some shakedown and training maneuvers.” He turned to look at Maarek. “We have a guest accompanying us in Blackwind: our new Wing Commander, Maarek Stele. Everyone get to know him.”

  Maarek waved, and most of the other pilots returned the gesture without looking forced. Then Joven finished up the briefing.

  “All pilots are to keep comm channels open and be alert for order changes, in the unlikely event something should go wrong." He tilted his head to one side, probably listening to C&C though his earpiece. "All right, we just got the order. All pilots to your fighters. Let's move."

  Maarek moved. This was what he'd been waiting for. Not exactly a combat situation, but he still felt the exhilaration of it, reminiscent of his past life. It was time to go out again, and he couldn't wait.


     Maarek guided his TIE Defender out of the hangar and out from underneath the belly of the Star Destroyer. He pulled up in formation behind Joven's Defender, designated Blackwind One. On his rear scanners he could see the rest of the squadron form up to the side and behind. Maarek took a deep breath, thankful for the enclosed atmosphere of his fighter's cockpit. The other fighters had them too; yet another improvement Xar had made with his apparently unlimited new resources. Maarek looked over to port, seeing the massive bulk of the Stormwatch fly past. He never had gotten over the sense of wonder when seeing the huge, beautiful vessels.

    "Blackwind Squadron, report in," the Commander's voice came over the speakers.

    Maarek listened as the rest of the squadron called out their designations. Unsure exactly how he was supposed to reply, Maarek keyed the commlink after everyone else had gone. "Blackwind thirteen, Mad Cat standing by," he spoke.

   If he'd said the wrong thing, the Commander didn't mention it. "Form on me," he said. "Prepare to enter hyperspace on my mark."

   Maarek automatically linked his navicomputer to Blackwind One's; all the pilots' ships would enter hyperspace in tandem. He kept his fighter in formation without effort, and, curious, scanned toward the verdant blue-green planet off to their right. A Victory-class Star Destroyer sat about fifty klicks off, as if barring the way to the planet itself. Probably the Sigman reception party. Not that it could pose any real threat to a modified Imperial Mark II and half a wing of the most state-of-the-art Imperial fighter craft. And the handful of light cruisers, corvettes, and freighter-class vessels with it were beneath notice.

   All that he took in with a glance, and then it was time to jump. His timer counted down to zero, and his hyperdrive kicked in. The stars extended into starlines, and his ship was surrounded by the swirling blue sky of hyperspace.


                                                *                                              *                                              *



  Sigma System

  Planet Sigma

  1400 Hours


The Lambda-class shuttle flew high over the jungle canopy that covered most of the land mass of Sigma III. A mass of green foliage blurred past below the craft, interrupted occasionally by glimpses of blue lakes and ponds. Ahead, several large flying creatures dove out of the shuttle's path. Off in the distance, thin beams jutted up from under the predominant canopy and were growing larger. The tallest buildings in the main city of the Kaav'Klan. There were no other signs of the city, though. The Sigmans loved their lush world; their whole civilization was built to coexist with their environment, instead of plowing it over in the name of progress.

   "Quite an impressive achievement," Walt Amason spoke aloud. "They could prove a very useful addition to the New Imperium, their productive abilities aside. Their capacity for industry without harming their natural environment, in fact, incorporating it into their society... Quite impressive." 

   Xar nodded thoughtfully. The mutual advantages of an alliance with the Sigmans were clear; they did not seem to be just another backwater race. In fact, some of their unique qualities were quite interesting, if one had the time to study them in detail. But aside from the poorly detailed reports made, and the little information the Sigmans had offered before asking for a negotiation date, little was known about them. Xar didn't like going into a situation he wasn't prepared for, much less not having any idea how someone would react to him. It put him a little on edge, not knowing what to expect from these strange insect creatures.

  Xar must have spoken some of his thoughts aloud, because Amason shrugged in the seat across from him. Then again, Xar thought, he hadn't spoken out loud. He needed to keep his thoughts to himself more. For someone as strong in the Force as he was, it was easy sometimes to unknowingly broadcast thoughts though the Force to others. And with someone else who was Force-sensitive, like Amason was, it must have been increased that much further, much easier to pick up the stray thoughts he was sending.

   "How do we know what to expect from them?" Xar voiced a question, hoping the other man wouldn't pick up on what had happened.

   Amason gazed out the viewport ahead. "Well, we don't. From what we do know, however, I'm sure we can handle it. These Sigmans aren't nearly as xenophobic as those Force-forsaken Krri'Graq are. It's a kriffing mess trying to get those bugs to do anything, especially with all the contracts Phoenix Tech. has been able to take with the new labor pool. But anyway, it looks like we're about to find out. We're coming up on their main city."

   Xar followed Amason's gaze, and drew a breath at the sight displayed in front of them. Rising up out of the jungle, in a perfect blending with the environment around it, stood a city. The outlying areas blended in so well as to be all but invisible, but the central area was more urban. Still, as the shuttle passed over swathes of jungle covering brownish-green structures, placid lakes and ponds, and ovoid buildings rising above the canopy, he couldn't help remark about the beauty of the integration. It looked almost as if no construction had even been done, as if the Sigmans had assembled their city with nothing but their own hands, or appendages. Perhaps they had.

   As they came up on the central area of the city, he could see more modern structures that were probably the operations centers for the many building industries, shipping firms and corporations, and business centers that operated on Sigma Prime. Of course, even here a healthy respect for the environment seemed to be in place; for every modern building or skyrise, a park or greenhouse stood either around it or on top, respectively. It made for a very peculiar sight, seeing trees growing from the tops of buildings, and hundreds of creatures milling around on foot or on hoverspeeders passing by fertile gardens and exotic flowers. Of course, he only took all this in at a glance, then the shuttle was past, approaching the largest complex at the center of the capital. The Sigman city stretched all around now; he noted perhaps a few hundred of the skyrises, counting the surrounding area occupied by the blended structures - living areas probably - the city must have occupied hundreds of square kilometers.

   The central structure of the city was looming ahead now, a massive pyramidal structure of white and pale yellow duracrete. How the Sigmans had built such huge structures and kept their environment in pristine condition was beyond him. The palace, what he assumed was the palace, sat in the center of the city and was surrounded by gardens and large fountains. Wide windows marked the floors of the pyramid as it rose, getting smaller and smaller near the top. Small hovercars made rounds around the massive structure, flying toward the palace's holding areas near the bottom, and heading back out toward the rest of the city. The front of the palace was a bustle of activity. One wide, extremely long pathway led from the front entrance to connect with the main street that ran through the center of the city. Not that there were many streets; most transportation was either by foot or hoverspeeder, though the roads hinted at the more primitive technology of a bygone era.

   Arrayed along the pathway in front of the entrance was a line of Sigmans, too many to distinguish between one another. Then the shuttle began its descent, and Xar concentrated on getting everything ready for disembarking and the mission ahead.

   Minutes later, the shuttle was down, and the boarding ramp slowly descended. Xar waited at the top, allowing the half-dozen Centurions to descend ahead of him, then went down himself, Amason and Mathis on his heels.

   They stepped down into a warm, humid atmosphere. The blue-green sky above was partly cloudy, obscuring the bright green star of Sigma. The Centurions fanned out to either side along the walkway, and Xar's entourage came up behind him as he started forward, the palace looming directly ahead.

   Up ahead, the Sigmans waited for them. Xar stopped fifteen meters in front of them, and got his first real look at a Kaav'Klan. The Sigmans were moderately tall, bipedal creatures with a tough-looking carapace covering their bodies. Their exoskeletons ranged from brownish to orange, red, and dark and light shades of green. They had two jointed arms that ended in delicate-looking hands with six, multi-jointed fingers and an opposable thumb. Their heads were large and rounded, with two large, bulbous eyes of dark blue, brown or black. They had two antennae about half a meter long and a centimeter thick, and the front of their face narrowed into a mouth of many small parts. Two small mandibles were on the sides of their mouthparts; they always seemed to be moving them and their antennae, perhaps an involuntary function.

   The Sigmans present wore little in the range of garments, and seemed to be arranged in order of color, though Xar didn't know what that could mean. They were the first insectoids Xar had seen that actually wore clothes. The alien at the head of the line was one of the most colorful, a red-bodied insect slashed with purple in places, a touch of green in others. His eyes were dark, but held a green pupil in the center, as opposed to the dark pupils of most of the others.

   Xar inclined his head toward the lead Sigman. "Greetings. I am Xar Kerensky, Jedi Master and representative of the New Imperial Senate. On behalf of the New Imperium government, I thank you for this opportunity to come to your world and conduct peaceful negotiations with your race, so that we may enter into a productive alliance together." He waited for a response, but the alien just stood there stock-still, looking at him. At least, Xar thought he was. Again he wondered what he was supposed to expect from these aliens. He decided to continue. "You have a very beautiful world, very well preserved. We are eager to learn what you could possibly teach us about this kind of preservation, and the technology we can, in turn, share with you. I believe we can look forward to a trusting, harmonious, and mutually beneficial alliance between our governments. So, if you will lead the way, I am sure we are all eager to get started." There, that was a mouthful. They had to respond to that.

   The leader's face looked like a mask of seriousness. His antennae twitched as he finally spoke. "We… No speak Basic," his mouthparts barely made out.

   Xar blinked. He tried to form words, but his mouth wouldn't work. He glanced over at Amason, whose mouth was hanging open. Why hadn’t anyone told him about this? Just like one of his peers to set him up for an embarrassing moment… He turned back to the Sigmans... and gaped, himself. The aliens were all stumbling around, slapping their carapaces, and emitting hisses that could only be crazed laughter. It was more like a frenzied buzz emanating from their mouthparts.

  After a good while of mirth for the Sigmans, and several annoyed grunts from Xar and his party, the laughter finally died out, and the head alien came forward, his wide mouth curved upwards in an approximation of a smile.

   "I am Kaviq," his mouthparts whistled in a high pitched tone, but his translator turned it into perfect Basic. "I am Chief Ambassador for the Kaav'Klan Empire. On behalf of Emperor Virzixl, we greet you."

   Xar tsked, then nodded. "Of course. Well, ah... lead the way then, Ambassador."

  Kaviq nodded, turned and started off toward the palace ahead. The rest of the Sigman train followed him as one. A very peculiar race, he thought. He still had little more idea of what to expect from them than he had before. Perhaps they liked it that way.


                                                *                                              *                                              *


Danube System

1200 Hours


   Maarek kept his fighter in perfect formation behind Commander Joven, though not all the pilots managed as well. They weren't in a complex formation; Maarek let his thoughts wander as he anticipated their next move and turned at the right moment. Still, some of the other pilots weren't as adept, and he supposed it might even be a challenge for some of them. Mock dog fighting had been no more difficult; no one had even scored a hit on him. He hadn't wanted to put himself above the other pilots so much, but once he was in the cockpit everything changed. Besides, if he was to be their Wing Commander, the pecking order had to be established.

   The orange sun of Danube was a small ball of light out of the viewport. Maarek had done a bit of checking up on the system the night before. The Danube system had two planets and a large asteroid belt. The largest of the asteroids, a couple thousand kilometers in diameter, was thought to have been destroyed ages before, giving birth to the field of asteroids itself. The other of the planets was habitable; a watery world home to a friendly yet superstitious race that had eschewed contact with the NI as much as possible. The squadron was flying a few thousand klicks away from the asteroid field, and at this range only a few of the huge rocks were coasting around, easy obstacles to avoid.

   Joven leveled out ahead, and spoke over the commlink. "All right, pilots, good flying. Set course three-o-five and head for the asteroid belt. Let's see how you guys fly an obstacle course."

   Maarek sighed. The main reason he'd come was to be alone in space, to feel nothingness around him. It was... calming, to him. It let him think. He keyed the commlink.

   "Sir, this is Blackwind Thirteen. If you don't mind, I'd like to break off and take a short hop across the system, see what I can find." After all, Joven had told him he only had to stay with them as long as he wanted.

   "This is One. Go ahead, Thirteen. Try not to get into trouble though; I'd hate to have to fish you out."

   Maarek smiled. "Don't worry. I'll be back before supper." With that he pulled his fighter up out of the formation, turned, and headed out to cross to the other side of the system, far away from any planet, or any life.

   He hit the activator, and the stars burst forward into starlines. But they didn't coalesce into the tunnel of hyperspace; almost immediately the starlines pulled back into stars, revealing the sparse starfield out near the Rim. The sun was gone, blackness filling the viewport ahead.

   For a moment Maarek just sat there, enjoying the moment of peace and absolute silence. Sometimes he just loved to sit still and gaze out at the night sky of space. Some might think him half-crazed, but Maarek didn't care. It was beautiful.

   He coasted the craft ahead for a long moment, enjoying himself and letting himself relax. This was peace.

   Suddenly, without warning, the ship lurched violently forward. Before he could figure out what had happened, his screens went crazy, flashing a collaboration of colors as they went totally haywire. The ship was turned into a wild spin, the starfield swam in front of his eyes. Maarek grunted, and held on for dear life as his ship was shook and lurched. There was a creaking sound somewhere; a high-pitched hiss sounded as the atmosphere of his cockpit began to escape into space. The automatics built into his suit kicked in, sealing him off from the rest of the cockpit. Amid the twisting, Maarek could see a wave of white energy flashing past. Then there was a loud pop, and his screens went out in a spray of sparks all over him and then shut down altogether.

   Maarek yelled out, wildly gripping the controls for all he was worth. "No!” This couldn’t be happening! What in the blazes was going on here? “Come on, Mad Cat, hold together for me!"

   Then the familiar screech of his engines died out. He gripped the controls, physically fighting the ship's role. The engines had gone offline, and only the side thrusters were working. Gradually, ever so slowly, the ship's spin decelerated, and the stars came to a halt. Spotting the sun off to port, and relieved to see something familiar, Maarek leveled the ship out with the orange ball ahead and to the left.

   Then the second wave came, of a different nature. In his mind, through what he could only guess was the Force. A high pitched, blood-curdling, almost metallic scream reverberated though his head. It wanted to make him scream, too. It was unworldly, like nothing he’d ever heard before. The sound sent a feeling of dread into him. He glanced around his dead sensors in desperation. What was causing this?

   Then Maarek's eyes went upward, and all hope left him. A deafening sense of terror shot though him, building. A dark, black shape had passed into view above, moving forward. One by one, the stars above went out, replaced by blackness. He'd never been so terrified in his life. The dim orange light from Danube glinted off the object at certain points; dim, though Maarek knew he was looking at a ship’s hull. Impossible. The object filled the viewport to either side past the limits of his vision. It couldn't be a ship; he had never seen a ship that size. Yet it was. Maarek had to hold his hands down to keep from covering his face; the sense of horror through the Force almost overwhelming.

   The ship went on and on. Maarek fancied he could see details of it in the sparse light, bulbous structures that held long barrels... weapons? He thought he could see the front of it ahead now that it was contrasted against the sun. But only for a moment, for even then the massive, impossible vessel eclipsed the star itself. Yet it kept coming. A few moments later, Maarek saw what was definitely some sort of blister on the ship, ringed with lights from levels. Impossible; there had to be fifty levels on the height of the blister alone. Maarek was a few clicks away from the underside of the ship. Other than the blister, no windows were visible, though. Definitely the bottom of a ship. A ship much, much bigger than even a Super Star Destroyer.

  Then another change occurred. Maarek could see an opening, a massive, yawning entrance lined by constant red lighting. A hangar? But a hangar easily large enough to accommodate an Imperial Star Destroyer with room to spare. Maarek shook his head in disbelief. This had to be a dream. It had to be!

   He began breathing, settling into controlling exercises one of the Secret Order had once taught him. A few moments later, Maarek had taken control of his emotions and set to checking his damage. Reaching down, he pulled off the access panel and hit the emergency restart button. What had happened was not unlike an ion cannon blast, an electromagnetic pulse that took down all his electrical systems.

   To his elation, the screens flashed back to life, and the familiar sound of his engines rose from a low roar into a higher pitched mode. He began checking his systems, searching for damage. His shields and weapons were out, as was his environmental cockpit support. Thankfully, his engines were still operating, though at less than fifty percent. And his hyperdrive, the most vital factor, was still operational, though repairs were recommended. Maarek looked back up, then blinked at the change in front of him. What looked like a long cylinder was passing in front of him. Careful not to use too much thrust, he began backing away. He didn't know if he'd been noticed yet, and if activating his engines would attract that notice. He prayed it wouldn't.

  Engines. Suddenly he realized what those long cylinders led to, as a strange white glow began to illumine the ship from behind. "Oh, stang!" he yelled, looking away and throwing his hands in front of his face.

   Not that it did much good. The ships' engines came into view, massive circles of fire brighter than a star, a thousand times brighter than Danube. Blinding light. The viewport glass automatically darkened, but even then the light burst through, as if into his eyelids. The viewport went entirely black, totally darkening his view. The afterimage of the brightness was still blinding. It took several minutes for him to even see his cockpit again. Desperately he reached out, throwing the ship backwards at full power. He didn't care if they saw him. The ship shook again, the roar grew to almost deafening levels. The backwash of the ship's engines would incinerate his fighter unless he got away faster. The radiation of the fire itself might be enough to kill him. He could practically feel the outer layers of his hull being ripped away from his ship. His beautiful ship. He had to get away.

   Ever so slowly the torrent faded, the roar quieted. His viewport turned clear again, or at least tried to. Some of the octagonal viewport’s panels remained black, ruined. He peered though the semi-transparent panels, but nothing was ahead. The ship was gone. The engine flare was gone. Danube burned silently ahead and to the left. That wasn’t possible. No ship of that size could have left that quickly. He’d have been able to tell from his sensors if the ship had gone into hyperspace. This ship has simply… vanished.    Everything was back to normal, except his damaged ship. Desperately, he turned his ship around and plotted a course back to the Nav point. He didn’t know what had just happened, but he had to get back. His precious ship was in shambles. Giving a silent prayer, he activated the hyperdrive. The stars stretched to starlines...


                                                *                                              *                                              *


The Sigmans led them into the palace with little more speaking than before, apparently a sign of formality among their people. Some of their entourage filtered out to other parts of the palace as they went along, but most stayed with the train that escorted them down the spacious, dark gray duracrete hallways. Colorful banners and tapestries hung down from the ceiling, and numerous flora sat in plants, hung from rafters or grew out of troughs along the walls. Colorful rugs with significantly alien script lay across the floor in large alcoves, and furniture made for the Sigman form sat about, inviting weary travelers for a relaxing seat. Large windows offered views of the cityscape outside, or beautiful parks and gardens.

   Kaviq led them around what must have been the scenic route, until they came to a large hallway that ended in two tall, elaborately carved doors. It was then that Kaviq spoke, "The Emperor's chambers are ahead. He has prepared a special greeting for you. Please remember your respectfulness. Oh, and you might want these." Beside him one of the entourage produced several tiny translators made to fit inside a human ear. Xar and the others took one each, murmuring their thanks.

   “Can you hear us?” one of the Sigmans asked. Xar nodded, noticed his partners doing the same. Kaviq’s antennae twitched, and he started forward again as the rest of the Sigman group lined up on the sides of the hallway.

   The doors opened slowly as they approached, without a sound, and revealed a well-lit room within. Two huge crystal chandeliers hung down from the ceiling, splashing light around the entire chamber. The floor was made to look like stone; the ceiling and walls engraved with a fluid design and ambient colors. A long blue carpeting led from the doorway across the room and up the steps leading to a raised dais, upon which sat a large white dais. And on the dais sat a very compact green and purple-colored Kaav’Klan with similar colored eyes. Its antennae stood out long, slowly pivoting up and down as the alien watched them. The Sigman wore a slash of silver clothing from its shoulder down beneath its other arm, and in its right hand it held a golden staff.

   In front of Xar, Kaviq made a high-pitched sound, then stated in basic, “The Regent of the Kaav’Klan Empire and of our honored race, Emperor Virzixl!” He made a low bow, bending at the thorax. Xar followed suit, but keeping his bow not quite as low or as long as Kaviq had. The pike-armed Sigman warriors lined along the sides of the room stood stock-still, statues.

   The Emperor inclined his head toward them, and Kaviq moved forward to stand to the side near the bottom of the dais. Then the regent opened his mouth to speak. “On behalf of the Sigman Empire, I greet you,” Xar’s translator spoke.

   “On behalf of the New Imperium, I greet the illustrious Kaav’Klan Empire. I thank you for your greetings, Emperor Virzixl.” He hoped he got the pronunciation right. “I must say, Ambassador Kaviq’s reception was… interesting.”

   The Emperor laughed in that buzzing sound. “Ah yes… I apologize if you were offended. In our custom, visitors to our world for the first time are honored with a sample of our taste for fine humor . Kaviq and I chose a method we hoped would not offend you, being human. We have employed much more elaborate methods in the past.”

   Xar smiled in spite of himself. “No offense taken, your eminence. Can we expect similar… honors throughout out stay here?”

   “I am afraid so,” the Emperor’s voice said mirthfully. “But come, we have much to discuss. In Sigman culture, such negotiation is best done over a grand feast. We have prepared one especially for you. All that we have is yours.”

   Beside him, Mathis and Amason smiled in surprise. “We would be honored,” he said.


As they entered the larger audience chamber, Xar looked around in surprise. Kaviq hadn’t been exaggerating about preparedness; a whole banquet had been prepared, long tables covered with tons of food. Fruits, spiced and simmered meats, and delicious-looking desserts sat arranged on the tables. Sigman aides stood ready with cool pitchers, condensation dripping down their sides. Xar nodded toward the head of the table, where the Emperor was seating himself. “Very nice. So, do Kaav’Klan eat the same food as humans?”

   The Sigman buzzed in laughter. “Afraid not,” the translation came over. Just then one of the aides came over, pulling the lid off a dish it held. Xar quickly averted his eyes. The sight of a pile of dead insects wasn’t something to whet his appetite. He took a seat at the table and glanced back over, focusing on the Emperor’s face.

   “We are very interested in an alliance with the New Imperium. Please, tell us what you have in mind…”

   Between courses, Xar laid it out for them. The New Imperium would offer the Sigmans protection, resources, technology, and the means to expand beyond their local territory. In exchange, the Sigmans would add their forces and resources to the New Imperuim and serve in production. They would also contribute their ecological knowledge to assist the NI in more environmentally safe industrialization. The Emperor was very friendly and warm, and the main points were agreed on faster than Xar had anticipated.  They must have expected most of it. Of course, the mild humor the Sigmans put into nearly every other sentence began to grate on him after a while. A very strange people.

   Suddenly Xar's commlink beeped. He frowned. No one was supposed to call him while he was down here. Not unless it was important. A dozen thoughts of what it might be flashed though his head as he brought the link up and responded. "This is Xar. Go ahead."

   "Chief Medical Officer Oren here. Sorry to bother you, Admiral, but I thought you should know. Maarek Stele just got back from a training flight to the Danube System and, well, his ship's badly damaged. He wasn't in good shape when the others towed him in. Radiation poison. He's in a bacta tank now."

  Xar sat still, confused. "Do you know what happened?" he asked.

  "No sir, I just know it must have been pretty bad."

   "I will be right up," Xar said, and shut the link down. He looked over the table at Amason, the man eyeing him askance. "Think you can handle the rest for me? Something just came up; Maarek is in bad shape, and I need to find out what happened."

   Amason shrugged. "Just about everything is worked out," he said. "Mathis and I can finish things here."

   “Thanks, Walt,” Xar said gratefully. “I will have another shuttle sent down for you." The other man nodded and settled back in his seat. Xar rose and briefly addressed the Kaav'Klan High Council, made a few appropriate apologies, and made his leave.


                                                *                                              *                                              *


ISD Stormwatch

Briefing Room

1940 Hours


                Xar paused in the doorway just before entering the briefing room. He could hear raised voices inside, arguing. He carefully leaned his head around the corner to see what was happening.

   "I'm telling you, I saw it! It was there!" Maarek was glaring angrily at a similar-looking Gaius. Stele was still wearing his patient’s gown, and his hair was still wet from being in the bacta tank.

   "I'm not questioning what you think you saw," Gaius retorted. "But listen to what you're saying! A ship that huge... Nobody's ever seen anything like that before. I think you saw something – maybe thought you saw something. But I don’t know what it was. You could've imagined it. Your flight recorder shows nothing, Stele."

   "That's because the recorder was totally fried! Look at my ship; it's a total loss! What did I do, shoot myself?" Maarek yelled in obvious frustration.

   "I don't..." Gaius broke off abruptly as he glanced at Xar. His eyes widened. "Grand Master, you're back. I, ah..."

   "What in the galaxy happened here?" Xar interjected sternly, stepping out into the room.

   "Sir." Gaius said, a little more confidently. "Commander Stele came back to the Stormwatch with his ship badly damaged, spinning a tale of some kind of supership in the Danube System. And with his attitude right now, I'm questioning whether he's mentally healthy enough to give an accurate account of what he saw."

   "You didn't see it!" Maarek glowered at Gaius. "You weren't there! You can't know what it was like."

   Xar held up a hand to forestall any further comment. "All right, that is enough. Gaius, I know Maarek. He is not a liar. If he says he saw a ship out there, then he saw it. I do not care if it was as big as a planet." Gaius looked ready to argue the point, then shrugged and backed away.

   "Secondly," Xar continued, "I had to cut the negotiations short to come back up here and find out what in space happened today. Maarek, you need to be back in the Medlab. Gaius, get repairs started on Maarek's fighter..."

   "Sir, like Stele said, the ship is a total loss. We can't repair..." Gaius began.

   "Don’t argue with me, just do it!" Xar spun on his heel and stalked out of the room.


Xar heard footsteps behind him as he strode through the corridor outside. Annoyed, he spun around, and, finding Maarek standing there, gave him a dark look. "I thought I told you to go to Medlab," he warned.

  Maarek hesitated, as if considering whether or not to leave. Then his expression became resolved. "Sir, thank you for believing me. I did see that ship out there." His voice was formal, yet uncertain, shaky. Xar had never heard him talk like that before. There was something strange in his voice. He realized what it was: Fear. He radiated it through the Force.

   Xar nodded. "I know you did, Maarek. After all we have been through, I trust you. So you saw that huge... vessel... out there in space. The question is: who... and what... were they? And what do they want?"

   Maarek shook his head. His voice was shaky. "I... don't know, Xar. But I'm afraid. I felt like a gnat beside a rancor. Either they didn't notice me, or I wasn't even enough of a threat to acknowledge. And there was this scream, a horrible, piercing scream in my head... Through the Force, I think. I've never been so terrified in my life."

  Xar realized how shook-up Maarek really was. He stepped forward to comfort the other man, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Maarek... It is all right. I do not know what could have caused that, perhaps some kind of tremor through the Force, or a deep-buried phobia you might have. But do not jump to any conclusions. Whoever they are, they are obviously way beyond our technological level. If they decide to show themselves to us, then they will. Until then, there is little we can do to stop or hinder... whatever they are up to out there. But if they want to establish contact, we will be ready and waiting."

   Maarek eyes met his, and Xar saw dark pools that reflected his own face. "I hope that doesn't happen, Xar. I don't know why, it's just my gut instinct. But I've learned to trust my instincts. Nothing good will come of this. Something is coming, and it's going to affect all of us."

   Xar knew about trusting instinct; it was what kept the good pilots alive. But Maarek had been though a lot, and he was smart enough to know Xar’s words of encouragement were as empty as the space outside the ship. The truth was, if what Stele said was true, then he was worried, too.

   "We will see," he told Maarek. "You had better get to Medlab now. We will talk again after you get some rest." Maarek nodded, and slowly he turned and walked off down the hall. Xar shook his head. He didn't understand what could have upset his friend so much, but he had felt feelings like that before. Recent events had been cluttered together, trying, and more than anything else, confusing.



                                                *                                              *                                              *




Tralar System

Tralaria, Main Senate Hall

1430 Hours

Days later


                The Main Senate Hall was not quite up to its name, as there were still too few member governments and systems in the New Imperium to justify a large auditorium. Instead, the various heads of fleets and organizations met in a large conference room adjoining to the still-empty Hall, and their topic today was of paramount importance: the election of the Diktat, the NI’s Speaker, for the first, introductory six-month term.

  Xar sat at the table, watching the other members quietly conversing around him. Once again he took stock of all the various kinds of races, fleets, organizations and agendas that had merged into one government. There was the Intruder Wing, commanded by Fleet Admiral Arfann Dogar, from Canis. His other representatives were Admirals Jann Percy and Stan Sanders. The IW had been an Imperial unit assigned to surprise and clandestine strikes against the New Republic, and consequently the IW flew New Republic ships and fighters, from Calamari Cruisers to X-Wings. Now their ideal was changed, but their equipment remained the same, headed by their flagship, the one-of-a-kind MC-120 Darkstar. Their home base was in the Erebria system, just inside the fringes of the massive Galbagos Nebula, and had been the base of operations for the IW since before the rest of the NI arrived. They also had bases at Trifid and Eridani.

  Beside Dogar was CEO of Phoenix Technologies Walt Amason, conversing with his subordinates in low tones. Walt was middle-aged and in his thirties, considered a firebrand yet quite popular among the corporations, which had helped him assemble such a lucrative and powerful company. Next to him was his associate, ‘SilverfoxK’bail, a Trianni male, along with two other CEOs, Trident and Kasei. All together they represented the backbone of the NI’s Research and Development, and the means by which the NI was procuring more and more ships from the Corporate Sector and all across the galaxy. Their contacts had proved invaluable in bringing the NI much-needed resources. They had bases on each NI world, rather than using one central location, although the main office was located here on the watery world of Tralaria.

  Next in line at the table was Sector Admiral Ryskar ‘Scourge’ D’larit, a middle-aged man with a calm, stoic demeanor and regal-looking features. A former Imperial and wealthy member of the D’larit family, rulers of the Bacta cartels on Thyferra, he had taken his fleet and his family fortune along to the NI, providing half the backbone of Imperial-style ships in the New Imperium. He’d christened his force the Dark Lightning Strike Fleet, and had taken five systems coreward from Tralaria, based primarily on the jungle world of Kolath. Other systems included Grummium, Reis, Fortress, and Ilfaygin. The DLSF also bordered New Republic space, which made them an important buffer for the rest of the NI. Many of former House Ar’Kell’s Jedi had taken military positions in the DLSF while the NI was still hammering out its borders and clashing with local pirates and the like. Xar himself held the courtesy title of Admiral in the fleet, and one of his Jedi, Emil Beli, had risen to become a commodore in the recent fight with the Krri’Graq at Moro.

  Beside D’larit was Admiral Carmon Majere, heading a group of defected Core-based Imperials who had taken up base in Naroon Quadrant. His men were more traditional-minded, with fewer aliens and a more Imperialistic demeanor, yet they were disillusioned with the Empire and supported the New Imperium’s ideals. Majere was the senior officer present, in his fifties, making him slightly older than D’larit. Caramon had a hard-edged feel about him and often wore his crisp military uniform even during non-official functions. His subordinate was Admiral Tam Eulicid.

   Beside Majere was Admiral S’cill Shokfer, a gray-furred Bothan heading the fleet calling themselves the Star Vipers, using Imperial ships and recently moving into the more distant and still-contested Enion and Matacious Quadrants. They Star Vipers were the newest addition and the most unknown; Xar wasn’t sure what to make of them, yet. With their territory extending further spin-ward and being quite a few light-years distant, they probably had more space to themselves than Xar hoped for an NI member. However, they were currently doing an admiral job while engaged in a hot arena of combat with powerful pirate clans that had a hold in their quadrants for decades.

  Lastly were the government heads of the various populated systems under NI control, including Pax, Satyr, Jengar, and the newly-added Sigma system. Each had its own planetary defense force, but still relied on the NI as a whole for protection and coordination. Ambassador Kaviq sat at the opposite side of the table, antennae swaying, looking slightly nervous to Xar’s eyes. Although, knowing nothing about Sigman physiology, he could have been wrong.

  “Let’s get to business, shall we,” Dogar said above the low din, bringing everyone’s attention to bear. “No need to waste time on this issue. The sooner we deal with it, the sooner the government can begin working as it should.” Behind him, a painting of the water world of Tralaria covered the far wall. Located strategically between Varnus, Erebria, and Kolath, the Tralar system had been selected as the center of government, partially because the native Trilarians, structured similar to jellyfish and living mostly underwater, had left most of the land empty and open for construction of necessary NI structures. Now the NI cities were going up at record pace, thanks to an influx of Krri’Graq workers. The Senate Hall, completely only a week before, was full evidence of the NI’s growing base of stability. Once the Diktat was chosen, the NI would be officially in motion as a government.

  “Then perhaps we should render our votes now,” Majere spoke up. He nodded toward Xar, and all eyes turned to the Jedi Grand Master. “Master Kerensky, you are, frankly, the only one capable at this point. The rest of us are just too busy fortifying our own fleets and organizations.”

  “I agree,” D’larit added. “I have my hands full keeping the DLSF in order, as I’m sure the rest of you do, too.”

  This hadn’t been totally unexpected, but the words still struck Xar heavily. He didn’t consider himself the most qualified to be Speaker, but he knew the real issue was that they wanted to dump the whole thing on him so they could look out for themselves. Yet who could blame them when things were still so tenuous? He opened his mouth to make a comment, but Amason spoke up first and cut him off.

  “I believe we all agree, though Xar has his own organization to run, as well.” Amason looked over at Xar. “What is your stance on this issue?”

  As everyone listened for what was essentially his decision, Xar took a breath. He had known it would come to this, and it wasn’t that he didn’t want to lead the New Imperium for a while. In fact, he realized he was somewhat looking forward to it, as an extension of the leadership role he had been trained for as heir to the Royal Family on Varnus. But to lead a government of this scale would be an awesome task and responsibility. And it would be difficult to do so while training his Jedi on Varnus. The former Ar’Kell members were still getting used to their new name and role, and Xar had yet to share his new Force philosophy with many of them. Slowly, he nodded. “I understand the reasoning for your decision, and I agree that at this point we must strengthen each of our member organizations. I will accept the role of Diktat for the first term,” he stated, “but there is one stipulation I want to make. As Walt said, I have a Jedi Order to see to, and their role is absolutely vital to the New Imperium at this stage. Therefore, if I am Diktat I cannot stay tied down to this location on Tralaria at all times, as I know none of you can, as well. I need to be mobile, seeing to things here and on Varnus. If these conditions are acceptable to all of you, then I will perform the task to the best of my abilities.” Then he sat back in their chair to await their decision.

  The other members present at the table exchanged glances, then a low rustle of whispered conversation spread through the room for a few moments. Finally, Admiral Dogar stood up and called for attention. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, his words deliberate. “Let us cast our votes for the first Diktat of the New Imperium.”

  Moments later, it was finished. The first Diktat was selected with a unanimous vote. And Xar’s mind traveled far as he contemplated where this new position was going to take him in the future. Suddenly his commlink beeped. He brought it up and turned it on, aware that there were people around him who could hear. "Kerensky here, go ahead."

   "Sir, this is Communications Officer Jostin, on the Stormwatch. I've received an urgent message for you from Doctor Vannik on Varnus. He said it couldn't wait."

   An uneasy feeling wrenched Xar's stomach. "No, it is all right, go ahead," he said stiffly. He hoped that their patient hadn’t died…

   "He just left a short message before cutting off, sir. He said, 'You might want to wrap things up there on Sigma pretty soon, and get back here. ‘He’ just woke up.' That's all there was, sir."

   Xar's stomach seemed to jump up into his throat. "Get me a shuttle ready," he said weakly. "No, scratch that. I will be right up there." He turned to the gathered leaders present, giving them an apologetic look. “The ceremony will have to wait for a few days,” he said. “There has been an emergency.” Shutting off the commlink, he started a fast walk toward the turbolift, forgetting about the dignity of a Grand Master for a moment. The second time in the last few days he’d had to crash a party in progress. At least they'd gotten everything finalized with the Sigmans, and now the necessary part of the election. Surely they'd understand that something had come up.

   “Who woke up?” Amason’s voice followed him as the turbolift doors closed.


                                                *                                              *                                              *


                Grathkar Korealis smiled at his commanders as they reacted to the revelation of his master plan. Reacted exactly as he wanted.

   "But sir, this is impossible," his third in command protested, a look of disbelief on her face. "Striking directly into the heart of the New Imperium? We can't possibly pull off anything like that!"

   Grathkar smiled even wider. "We can, my dear Melus, and we will. In a month the New Imperium will be destroyed, their evils revenged upon, and their territory ripe for our picking. And the entire galaxy will utter our name in fear. The Eyes of Elfodd will break all the interlopers, and our regime will expand to last forever." Yes indeed, soon the petty New Imperium would feel the wrath of the Eyes of Elfodd. There was no other way it could be done.


The End of



The saga will continue in… Grave Affairs.


Written by Joshua Ausley

Copyright 1998

Special thanks to T-Rex as contributing writer.