Prologue: First Strike



Torinn’Vinn Envirodeck

Titan-class Command Ship Ascendancy

Danube System, NI Territory

Epsilon Sector, Outer Rim

1345 Hours Ship’s Time



Naguis’Voxavit Kamren Thansil relaxed as he stretched out naked on the table, enjoying the sensation of the purposeful, massaging hands moving across his back. The tropical atmosphere was thick with the smell of herbs and sweet fragrances, clearing his sinuses and allowing him to take deep, filling breaths of air. The Ascendancy’s premier envirodeck was reserved exclusively for officers of prestige and those who had earned considerable honor in service. It was also the spa that the Vox’Donn himself – the ship’s admiral and task force commander – also frequented, making it an honor indeed for visiting soldiers. As Wing Commander of the Black Rain flight group, Kamren Thansil was one such distinguished officer.

The sound of soothing, natural music played softly throughout the deck, caressing his ears and further helping to relax the worries of military life. It was a luxury not often afforded in times of war. Every soldier’s service was rewarded based on the quality of his service and his accomplishments. Whether it was the pleasure of a warm meal or a free hour on the Titan’s most luxurious envirodeck, everyone was duly rewarded.

Kamren sighed as the expert hands of his masseur worked the tightness out of his back muscles, pressing hard at first, then softening into a rhythmic pattern in tune with the music. Aromatic oils were applied next, sending icy fingers crawling over his skin, to be replaced just as quickly by a warmth that bled into his battle-weary bones. The scent of the fragrances was strong and intoxicating. For a while he just lay there on the verge of semi-consciousness, letting his mind focus away from his worries, into the bliss of nothingness.

Though his eyes were closed, he still saw a darkening of vision as a shadow moved overhead. All too soon, he thought.


The comforting hands leaving his back, Kamren let his mind return to the senses of his corporeal body, and he pushed himself up slowly, swinging his legs around to sit on the raised bed. His masseur politely stepped away, leaving Kamren alone with the visitor. Sweat dripped down from his bangs onto the bridge of his nose, and rivulets slowly made their way down his bare skin, caused by the high humidity of the tropical environment, but he ignored them. Raising his head, he turned his eyes toward the figure standing at the front of the bed.

“I am sorry for disturbing you sir,” his second in command apologized.

“What is it, Vos?” he asked, studying the man’s face. Vos Quinlan was in full uniform, meaning he still on duty, probably coming from the Wing’s own hangar section. “I see this is not a social occasion,” he noted.

“Again, my apologies, Naguis’Voxavit. I have news that could not wait, and you wanted to be informed of any changes.”

Kamren nodded his acceptance. Outstripping Kamren by a good two hand-lengths, Vos cut an imposing figure, especially in uniform. His shock of blonde hair, almost white, and piercing blue eyes clearly denoted him as being from the outer provinces. Kamren on the other hand was shorter, with dark hair and eyes, and skin that was tanned a brownish-gold. Whenever he and his second traveled together, the differences between them were impossible not to notice.

“So, we have finally arrived in enemy territory, then?” Kamren asked.

“More than that, actually,” Vos said. “The first wave of attacks has already been completed.”

Kamren blinked in astonishment. The news had caught him completely unawares. “How can that be? I saw the Vox’Donn here half an hour ago.” He looked across the columned, marble atrium to the hot spring, disguised by a small forest of tropical trees and plants.

“I just received word myself,” Vos explained.

After a moment’s hesitation, Kamren nodded. “Indeed. I will meet you at the entrance. Allow me a moment to change.”

His second bowed and turned to leave. For a moment, Kamren remained seated, allowing his body and mind to draw back out of their immersion in the false environment. He took several deep breaths of the enriched tropical air, gazing around at the wonderful and unbelievably realistic environment. One would never suspect that he was on a ship at all. Above him, a deep blue sky stretched endlessly, punctuated by a few of the brightest stars. Mountains ringed the horizon, which was turning a deep red and gold from the setting sun. Over the summits to the east hung a ringed planet, the world around which this artificial satellite orbited. In fact, this place was an exact duplication of the pleasure moon Torinn’Vinn and the famous spa there. It was set up as a sort of acropolis, with multiple baths and columned buildings offering various services to its guests, and outside a jungle held an array of natural hot springs and beds of comfortable nakti plants. A myriad of vines and colored tapestries hung from the ceilings, and beautiful, exotic species of aliens roamed the grounds, offering refreshments or playing delicate music. It was a paradise, one of the best in their home galaxy, and duplicated down to the finest detail here on the Titan-class Battleship Ascendancy. It was often joked that without such replicas among the Altarin’Dakor fleet, the soldiers would never have left their home galaxy at all. Being here, in the barbarians’ galaxy, was like abandoning civilization altogether.

But enough reminiscing, he thought. This is a battleship, not a pleasure yacht. It was time to go.

Rising, he pulled his robe on over his naked body and made his way across the atrium’s marble floor, past other beds where more fortunate subjects were still enjoying their massages. In the changing and locker area, he afforded himself a quick shower to wash away the sweat and oils covering his body, then changed into his uniform proper. As the last button snapped into place at his collar, the laid-back, leisure-loving Kamren Thansil ceased to exist, cast aside with his robe and replaced by the hardened, focused soldier underneath – a human weapon. This uniform redefined him, or rather brought out his true self, outwardly displaying the change that took place within. Now he was Nagius’Voxavit Kamren Thansil, Wing Commander of the Black Rain flight group. Now he had only one goal: to obey the commands of his superiors and to help bring about the Return as expediently as possible.

He met his second in command at the entrance. Vos was already starting to sweat in the humidity, and Kamren could feel it clinging inside his newly-donned uniform, as well. Together they passed by the registration office and through the front entrance, into the large waiting airlock and turbolift. The doors closed behind them, and the air began to cycle automatically as the two officers waited. Meanwhile, the car traveled downward, taking them deeper into the lower levels of the ship. Slowly, the thicker air was supplanted by the cool, dry air put out by the ship’s ventilation systems. The contrast was so great that Kamren could actually see the line of thicker air being pushed out, starting at their feet and moving up their bodies, passing their heads and finally flushing out the vents in the ceiling. Instantly, Kamren felt a chill as the cooler air settled around him, setting his skin crawling.

Then the cycle was complete, and the lift came to a stop. The outer doors opened, and the two officers emerged into the bustling, military interior of the Ascendancy.

“All right, tell me what you know,” Kamren said as they marched through the corridor. He kept to the right side near the wall, as beings of numerous species continuously filed past going the other way.

“Apparently the first battle group arrived in enemy space a short while ago and has already subdued one of their systems near our sector base, which the outlanders call Mizar.”

“Yes, I extensively studied the records of the battle there. The Cataclysm dealt them a harsh blow, an accomplishment considering we had just lost our sector task force commander.” Kamren nodded in satisfaction. He didn’t know who had been commanding the forces here in this sector, but he had apparently been defeated because the forces at Mizar had been milling about aimlessly without a commanding officer, something like a headless viper. There had been a lack of foresight in the abilities of these outlanders.

Vos nodded as they continued down the brightly-lit corridor. “And now we’ve begun to further injure them with this attack. They won’t be able to stop this task force, Commander. By the time we are finished, this ‘New Imperium’ will have ceased to exist.”

“Don’t dismiss them so lightly,” he told Vos, sidestepping to avoid a squad of huge, burly Thoktil marines marching past the other way. “It is easy to talk about victory, but in actuality it takes much time and effort. The outlanders have shown a remarkable resilience and luck, if not outright skill.”

“Luck. It must be. I can’t believe that they purposefully blunted our first offensive, when they hardly even knew of our existence at that time,” Vos countered.

They had made their way through the corridor and into one of the ship’s many ferry stations. A series of docks held waiting cars that every few moments would zip along their tracks, taking passengers to distant parts of the ship. For their journey to the hangar, they would have to board the appropriate car. After all, they could hardly take the time to make the fifteen-kilometer trip on foot.

Kamren and Vos entered the appropriate car and settled into its secure seating as the shuttle whisked them through the long tunnel toward the aft of the ship. At thirty-two standard kilometers in length, the Ascendancy was a colossal warship capable of laying waste to entire planets and subjugating whole star systems. She might not be as big or impressive as the Cataclysm or the other largest Titans, but she was still a Titan in every right. With over two thousand fighters in ten different wings, she was the equivalent of an entire fleet in herself. Though not the largest or best-armed Titan in the fleet, the Ascendancy was nevertheless a legend, renowned for countless victories across two dozen millennia of service. She was ancient, dating back to the Great War, and just serving on this ship - or any Titan - was one of the highest honors an Altarin’Dakor warrior could receive.

In this campaign, however, she was not alone, but one of four separate Titans that had just recently entered New Imperium space. Each Titan led its own separate task force of corvettes, cruisers, destroyers, carriers, and battlecruisers. In addition, multiple task forces would be working together in some engagements. In Kamren’s opinion, such a force sent to eliminate such a tiny threat seemed overkill in the extreme, even by Altarin’Dakor standards. But the enemy had proven quite resilient already, so he understood why the fleet didn’t want to take any chances this time. Better to completely overwhelm them than rely on precisely laid-out strategies.

And yet, the fleet had attacked without his even being informed. It was this kind of negligence of certain forces that was the major drawback of being part of a huge task force. Besides, what he’d heard so far indicated that maybe they were following someone’s meticulous strategy after all. Either way, he knew it was useless to try and guess about things without the proper knowledge. His orders would come down from command soon.

Moments later, the car slowed to a stop, and the two exited, emerging on the main flight level. Unlike some ships, the Ascendancy had a separate hangar for every two wings, meaning there were five hangars spaced throughout the vessel. Two were amidships on either side, and two more were near the aft under the ship’s broad wings. A fifth was located on the upper side of the ship. This provided ample space for the Titan’s compliment of starfighters. The hangar designated for the Black Rain Wing was on the port side, aft.

The hangar bay was bustling with activity, confirming Vos’ words that the ship was on full alert and located inside enemy territory. The whole hangar was a well-lit, massive open space half a kilometer across, with the many fighters in his wing spaced out in multiple recessed sections. Ships were just now coming in from patrol while others were on their way out, and crews and technicians ran across the expansive, shiny hard deck, carrying supplies, refueling ships, and performing maintenance. Here, the air was even colder than the rest of the ship, with only the atmospheric shielding over the hangar’s two exits preventing the air from leaking out into space. In the dry atmosphere, the scent of grease, smoke and fuel was thick in the air, and he breathed it admiringly. It was a welcome friend to a veteran pilot.

“This way sir; you’ll want to see this,” Vos spoke up.

Vos lead him across the deck to the edge of exit two, a massive hole in the hangar floor allowing ships to launch out of the ship’s bottom. Only a protective railing was between Kamren and a bottomless fall as he looked down into space below. But instead of the familiar blackness of space, he saw a world suspended, looking just a bit larger than both his hands held out at arm’s length. He hadn’t known the Ascendancy was in a planet’s orbit.

“I heard that the outlanders call this the Danube System,” Vos said, struggling over the foreign terminology. “but only the second planet here was inhabited.”

Was, Vos had said. Kamren understood why. The planet seemed to be covered completely by water, which was not so uncommon a sight, but instead of a deep cerulean streaked with white clouds, this world was fast becoming a dark, lifeless ball. Its oceans had already turned green, and were darkening to brown in some places. The clouds had become a dirty brownish black. This was obviously the work of a well-placed biological/chemical strike, the first major blow to be dealt in this operation. A fitting fate for the barbarians. He’d heard that other forces had subdued a system or two, but this was the first inhabited New Imperium world to fall. He smiled wistfully. If only his squadron could have taken part in the first strike…

“What did you hear?” he asked Vos without turning from the scene.

“Our forces moved in quickly and cut off all their communications. We already had ships in the area to stop escapees – no one got out. There were no real defense systems worthy of speaking of, so this was a quick and bloodless victory. I believe the Vox’Indant wanted the planet rendered uninhabitable, since we obviously have no use for it.”

“Of course,” Kamren said. This would be the first payback for what the outlanders had done to the initial invasion force at Mizar. And furthermore, for the embarrassing defeat that had driven his people from this galaxy a thousand generations ago. He would be sure to send copies of the engagement back to his wife and son. They would be proud to see this.

“What’s that just passing over the planet?” he asked, pointing to a distant object just visible against the dark hue of the world. “Is that he Hegemony?”

Vos squinted and leaned forward a bit, as if being that much closer would help. “I believe so… She must have performed the bombing.”

“Lucky van’brak,” Kamren said, shaking his head. Again, too many ships had meant less action. “Both Titan’s weren’t needed to take this system, not as lightly defended as it was. We must be using it as a staging point.” The Desolation and the Annihilator would also be in NI space by now. Never had he heard of this many ships being used together in such close proximity. Almost half the task force’s Titans in one sector! Kamren intended to get the Black Rain into the action, before this conflict was over before it even started.

“All right,” he said, pushing back from the railing. “Call the Wing and tell them to report for briefing at 1800 hours. I’ll be in Command and Control for a strategic update.”

“Yes… regarding that,” Vos spoke up, his voice a bit hesitant. “You do recall that Voxavit Jukor and Voxavit Tryn are scheduled to honor duel at 1700, correct?”

“Ah, that.” Kamren shook his head. “They will have to make it fast. I’ll be there personally for this one.”

Vos arched an eyebrow, then saluted and proceeded out to fulfill his orders. Alone, Kamren started for the lift that would take him toward Command and Control. He was going to get his Wing involved in the next engagement. And then the outlanders would be up against odds so poor that no amount of luck could save them.


* * *


Outskirts of Vectur

Planet Varnus

1040 Hours Local Time


Jac Railler, as he was now known, stooped down to gather a couple more vegetables hanging from the tender green plant at his knees. It was but one of a long row, and that one of several rows, in his garden, behind the flat he was renting on the outskirts of Vectur, capital of Varnus. The city, its skyscrapers rising impossibly high off in the distance, was just too big and bustling, too hectic and out of touch with nature for his tastes, now. He’d had more than enough of that in another life.

Unfortunately he couldn’t escape entirely. Fate was not so kind to Jac Railler. The spot he had originally chosen to escape to, a newly colonized world called Haven in the Satyr system, had been suddenly and violently attacked by an enemy more terrible than he’d ever known, one that called themselves the Altarin’Dakor. Having seen thousands abducted or brutally murdered in front of his eyes, he’d had no choice but to fight back, and eventually escape, bringing what refugees he could here to the heavily protected world of Varnus. But even that wasn’t to be the end of his battles. He’d spoken with the Grand Master of the New Imperium’s Jedi Division and had been offered a commission to train the soldiers here. Faced with a choice of being annihilated by the deadliest threat the galaxy has ever faced, or taking up arms to fight for hope and freedom, there was little choice to be made.

Besides, there was something in Xar Kerensky that had captured his imagination, and inspired a sense of loyalty that Railler thought he could never have again. Maybe it was the charisma the man had, the intensity with which he pursued his goal of defeating the enemy. Or perhaps it was his power, his abilities in the mysterious Force, that Jac’s former master had commanded as well. Whatever it was, the impression had been made, and Jac had agreed. He’d even given the man Cozeeke, his loyal multipurpose droid, to archive the ongoing struggle against the Altarin’Dakor and offer whatever services he could give. Jac hadn’t had nearly as much need of the droid here, anyway.

He reached down again and poured a nice amount of water over the he’d been tending, giving it a drink to help settle it in and spur further growth, then he moved toward the next one down the line.

Suddenly the low roar of a repulsorlift engine sounded across the field, and before he could even see it, he knew an airspeeder was approaching. After a moment, he could make out a dark speck coming his way from the city, and as it grew larger, he saw that it was a personal-sized craft, made to carry only three or four and built for speed.

Within moments the airspeeder came to rest just outside the property line, which was fortunate not to bump up against anyone else’s property. His flat here had lots of space, something he’d hoped would help him feel like he was away from the war that was raging. He was never more than a few minutes’ ride from the city, however. The guard was performing well, but there was always work to be done.

The man that emerged from the airspeeder wore the duty uniform of the New Imperium armed forces, with the insignia of the Royal Varnusian Palace on the breast. Jac knew it wasn’t a social call. A pity; he had wanted to harvest a few more vegetables that were producing here in the autumn, before the weather turned too cool and the plants went into hibernation.

The officer approached and saluted, cutting off his train of thought. “Sir,” the man said crisply. “Sorry to disrupt your leave, but there have been important new developments and your attention has been requested.”

“It’s all right,” Railler said, waving the man down. “What’s happened?”

“Command believes we are under attack from the Altarin’Dakor once again, sir. We have lost all contact with the Danube System, and we think that this could just be the beginning of a new phase in their assault.”

Jac nodded, taking in the report. Dire news, indeed.

“I have been sent to ask you to accompany me back to the Varnusian Palace to prepare for impending enemy activity,” the man continued.

“Understood. I will be right out, Jac replied. Turning, he set a quick pace back toward his flat to gather his things. This could be it, he realized. His respite has been all too brief here. If this was the invasion they’d all been dreading, he knew he wasn’t likely to be back here for quite some time.


* * *


Basra Refinery Base

Basra System, NI Territory

1700 Hours


The planet Basra was a lonely, barren, gray rock orbiting a small blue star, about forty light-years from Varnus in one direction and twenty light-years from the edge of the Galbagos Nebula on the other. Totally devoid of life or any redeeming reasons for colonization, it did however contain one particularly useful resource – bountiful sources of the crude liquids which were needed to refine common fuels, used in everything from ground transportation to starfighters. Upon discovering its wealth in raw materials the New Imperium had established a large mining base there to extract them. And in orbit of the planet, directly over the base, was the Basra Refinery Base, a space station made to refine the product immediately and ship it throughout the NI worlds. The central tall cylinder housed the refinery itself, while spanning around its side was a wide ring of living quarters, offices and docking bays. At 1000 meters in diameter, it was a respectable production facility, one that had turned a tidy profit for the NI and saved much in fuel-import savings.

Until now.

Suddenly, lines of starfighters began to appear out of the darkness, space around them rippling as they powered down their cloaking systems, not for any need to raise shields or target weapons, but so their pilots could acquire greater honor in the sport of the kill. Only the smallest strike force was needed to eliminate such an insignificant target – and Altarin’Dakor hated to share their battle glory.

The two squadrons of fighters that had de-cloaked immediately opened fire on the station’s essential systems – shield generators, communications arrays and power generators. Striking with precision, the fighters unleashed their beam weapons and missiles, blasting sensor dishes, cutting through power conduits and destroying the shield generators before they could even be brought online.

A single destroyer-class vessel de-cloaked then, flanked by two corvettes, immediately opening fire with beam weapons into the interior production cylinder of the station. Fire blossomed out at their touch, cutting through durasteel hull and opening the breached areas to vacuum. In response, the station’s defensive turbolaser and blaster turrets opened up, sending red streams of light out into the void. But the beams simply impacted harmlessly on the shields of ship and fighter alike. The Altarin’Dakor were not so easily dissuaded.

By this time the station’s patrol ships and the defensive fighters stationed inside were launching into the fray, an assortment of vintage-design fighters from New Republic and Imperial days. X-Wings, A-Wings, and shielded TIE Interceptors and a squadron of TIE Advanced came out of the hangars and scattered in search of targets. Unfortunately, their efforts were too little to stop the inevitable. The Altarin’Dakor fighters swooped down on them with greater speed and accuracy than the NI ships could match. In the ensuing melee, the NI forces were quickly routed. The AD lost half a dozen ships, but the NI fighters were wiped out, cut in half by beam weapons and turned into expanding balls of gas by Shockwave missiles.

The destroyer and corvette continued to rain fire into the heart of the station, igniting its storehouses of raw and refined fuel. The fuel went up in a chain reaction, consuming the refinery from the inside out, then continuing through conjoining corridors into the ring surrounding the center. In moments the station was breaking up, the last of its fuel and atmosphere burning away quickly in the airlessness of space.

But the Altarin’Dakor appetite was far from satiated. With the NI fighter cover obliterated, the AD fighters dove for the surface, gaining the first strikes against the helpless mining colonies below. Beam weapons tore open ground structures and ignited more fuel repositories, causing flaring explosions and opening the buildings to near-vacuum.

As the fighters pulled out of their initial strike, the destroyer’s larger beam weapons opened up from orbit, stabbing down into the deep holding tanks and even into the deep mining shafts. The NI mining base was suddenly covered in flames as massive explosions leveled any remaining structures that were standing.

The final blow came several minutes later, when as a parting shot the destroyer sent a high explosive orbital fusion bomb down the main mining shaft entrance of the colony. The resulting explosion sent massive gouts of flame pouring back out the entrance and burning deep inside through the mining tunnels as well. With a final, silent implosion the mine itself collapsed, sealing the destruction inside. If the NI ever returned to this world, they would have to find a new place to settle.

With nothing left to destroy, the Altarin’Dakor vessels began to pull away, disappearing behind their cloaks as they did so. Behind them, the scattered pieces of the station marked a desolate graveyard for the station’s 3,000 inhabitants, and the burning crater on the surface a funeral pyre for the 1,000 that had been on the surface. As the invading ships vanished into the darkness of space, there was little sign that anyone had ever set foot in the Basra System.


Varnusian Productions Presents:


The Second Great War 1:



NI Senate Complex

Tralaria, NI Capital

Epsilon Sector, NI Territories

2215 Hours Local Time


In an isolated conference chamber deep within the NI Senate’s main Complex building, the Diktat and seven of the eight members of the War Council had assembled in an emergency session. The reason of the impromptu gathering was clear: word had arrived that all communications had been lost with Basra, now in addition to the silence of Danube four days earlier.

Everyone’s attention was on the tall, confident woman standing before them, whose duty was to inform them exactly what was going on. She held a regal bearing in her stance: back straight, head slightly turned upwards. Her hair fell in an assortment of dark brown locks, and her dark eyes swept across the room with a predatory look.

“I believe the reason for my visit here is obvious to all of you,” Zalaria said. “The main invasion for which we’ve been waiting for the last months has finally started. Frankly, I wonder why it took them so long to act in the first place.”

From his seat at the large, round briefing table, Jedi Master Nico Flygras watched the scene with growing unease. If what Zalaria was saying was true, then the day they’d all been dreading had finally come. He could see that newly-elected Diktat Gene Rytor was as disturbed as he was, enough to call the top military personnel of the NI together in the middle of the night for this emergency meeting.

Around the conference table was the newly-appointed NI War Council. At one end of the table was the Diktat, elected just a month and a half before with a strong voting base, including Nico’s support as the Jedi Division’s acting Senator. At the other end was Zalaria, who was already at Tralar on other business and had been called in for her obvious experience with the AD military and their strategies. Filling out the other seats around the table were seven of the eight members of the War Council. The Minister of War and overall commander of the NI fleet was Sector Admiral Arfann Dogar, Rytor’s predecessor. Dogar had decided not to re-run for office and everyone had expected him to retire, but Rytor had made him his chief military officer because of his experience as both a fleet commander and former Diktat. Also present were Fleet Admiral Gaius Adonai, commander of the First Fleet, and Sector Admiral Stan Sanders, commander of the Second Fleet. Each officer commanded roughly half of the entire NI Starfleet, each of the two fleets composed of three separate task forces. Gaius was the former Commodore of the ISD Stormwatch, a commanding officer the former Dark Lightning Strike Fleet, and a Jedi Master, to top it all off. Stan had been the Fleet Commander of the Intruder Wing until the NI’s factions had recently decided to merge under one flag.

Also present was the new commander of the Fighter Corps and one of the NI’s top research and development heads, Admiral Walt Amason. Beside him was Field Marshall Rodin Kaler, head of Ground Forces. Next was Fleet Admiral Percy, head of Logistics Support. Last but not least was CEO “SilverfoxK’bail, a Trianii male and head of Research and Development.

The only missing member of the War Council was Grand Master Alyx Misnera, who was also the only member occupying two Cabinet positions. In addition to leading the Jedi Division after Xar Kerensky stepped down, he had taken the job of commander of Special Operations, desiring the ability to pursue a few private projects. This was presumably what he was doing now, organizing some nasty surprises for the AD with his R&D team on Varnus. As for Nico, he also had a respectable list of titles under his belt – Sector Admiral because he’d led the former Dark Lightning Strike Fleet, and Jedi Master in the Division. Now he had come to Tralaria as the Jedi Division’s representative in the NI Senate. With all the factions of the New Imperium now merged, the NI seemed stronger and more united than ever. It was all too important now that the Altarin’Dakor had finally decided it was time to strike.

Nico took his task seriously and with more than a few reservations. In his early days as a Jedi he had never dreamed he would hold such a position, but circumstances and the Force – not to mention no small amount of luck – had seen otherwise. Now he was bringing his past experiences leading a star fleet to his position as official Jedi Division Senator, and he was well-acquainted with how difficult organizing all the Jedi within the New Imperium would be. Though the Jedi were based on Varnus, the Grand Master’s primary command center, there were some stationed at Jengar, Moro, and Ilfaygin, where the each of the four Jedi Houses were. Juggling them all was no easy task, and with all this on Grand Master Misnera’s shoulders, he would have to prepare the Jedi to fight the most dangerous foe they had ever faced.

Now, Diktat Rytor sat with his elbows on the table and his fingers pressed together, studying their guest speaker. Nico knew that Zalaria’s forces and territory far exceeded that of everyone here combined, and compared with her, their haughty titles were reduced to boastful wishing. She was an Altarin’Dakor Warlord, one of the chief Force users leading the Altarin’Dakor against the galaxy in the Great War, before the founding of the Old Republic. That in itself Nico would never have believed had she not been standing in front of them now. She was Immortal, and no one even knew why. In fact, there was more they didn’t know about her than what they did. Now she was allies with the NI, an exile of sorts from her holdings, and she was helping them come up with a strategy to defeat the Altarin’Dakor invaders. Worst of all, she claimed that the Warlord leading the invasion was none other than her brother, who just happened to be the most feared and renowned military strategist in Altarin’Dakor history. It was enough to make his stomach feel sick.

Rytor finally nodded at their guest. “Very well. Thank you for joining, us… Zalaria.” He seemed unsure about what title to use, so he simply stated her name. “Your wisdom and knowledge will be indispensable in developing a counter-strategy.”

Zalaria seemed to lose some of her anxiety at his welcoming tone. “I suppose. Fortunately, I was in the system with the Nexus taking care of some matters.”

The Nexus, a Titan-class Battleship, was her flagship, the vessel on which she’d come to NI space. Though technically assigned to Task Force Nexus under Fleet Admiral Gaius’ First Fleet, everyone knew that she was ultimately the one in charge of the Titan.

Gaius spoke up then, his tone remaining conversational. “I take it Xar wasn’t with you on this trip? I’d expected you two to be together.”

Zalaria turned to look at him blankly. “Xar is helping with the training of the Jedi on Varnus. Hard as it may seem to believe, we don’t spend every waking moment of our lives together.”

“All right, no need to get personal,” Jann Percy, head of Logistics, spoke up from his seat beside Nico. “Begging your pardon, but how are you certain that this is the full-scale invasion that you’ve been predicting? True, we’ve lost all contact with Basra and Danube, and I don’t believe in coincidences, but neither system was very heavily defended. To be frank, they weren’t deemed important enough to staff entire fleets around.”

Stan Sanders, head of the Second Fleet, spoke up. “True, but we haven’t lost any systems since Varnus briefly fell a few months ago, and then they attacked with overwhelming force. Other incursions have been ragtag units, seeking personal glory.”

Zalaria, the only one at the table standing, took an audible breath and let it out slowly. “Gentlemen, are you going to argue all day, or do you want to hear what I have to say?”

That elicited a few looks of surprise, and Nico felt the atmosphere clam up as though an airlock had just slammed shut. He hoped it wasn’t going to be this tense the whole time

“Please, continue,” the Diktat spoke up, cutting off any further comments. “In fact, you are our only real source of intelligence on the inner workings of the Altarin’Dakor we’re facing. Please fill us in.”

Zalaria nodded condescendingly. “Very well, and I’ll make this brief. The enemy we are facing is my brother, the Warlord known as Nimrod. He commands by far the most powerful fleet in the Altarin’Dakor galaxy. He is also a military genius, and he wouldn’t have attacked us without fully developing a strategy to take the entire New Imperium, and Epsilon Sector with it.” She placed her hands on the table’s edge and leaned forward over the holoprojector. “However, he also knows that I am here in the NI, so the opponent that he expects to face, and the mind that he is trying to outwit, will be mine.”

“So, you’re saying that you know what each other is going to do?” Percy said as she paused. “Since you said your race has virtually perpetual memories, you already know most of his strategies. He’ll have to outwit himself, basically.”

Zalaria smiled softly. “Not quite. I am familiar with the strategies he’s used in the past, and which methods he prefers to use. However, this kind of war is different from both the subjugation of a lesser race, and an Altarin’Dakor civil war. I am not the genius in war that he is, and I cannot predict which of his strategies he will use until he starts moving, and then it may be too late. Moreover, he could have developed something unexpected. He’s taken six whole months, remember.”

“So what are you saying? That we don’t have a chance?” Stan asked.

“Frankly?” Zalaria glared at him. “That’s probably the case, considering how much personnel and firepower Nimrod has behind him.” That caused a small murmur which she quickly overrode. “Our best chance is to flee, although as you’ve all pointed out before, this is only a temporary solution, as the longer we wait, the stronger he will become, until he takes the entire galaxy. I would suggest we flee the galaxy entirely, but since you’re all adamantly against that idea, I will offer you my services the best I can.”

Nico winced, knowing she’s probably just stepped on the toes of every officer in the room. Running away? Leaving the entire galaxy? The very idea seemed preposterous. Could things possibly be that bad?

“So what do you suggest, Zalaria?” Diktat Rytor asked, raising his eyebrows.

She swept in everyone gathered with a dark glance. “To better understand who our enemy is, we must first learn about him. I have prepared an informative tutorial based on records contained in the Nexus’ computer archive. We have recordings of quite nearly the last 25,000 years of conflict in our galaxy. I wish I had the time to show you one percent of all the information we have here, but sadly we do not. If you will watch the holoprojector’s image, please.”

Producing a datacard from her pocket, she slid it into the holoprojector and hit the activate button. The overhead lights began to dim, and a three-dimensional NI logo appeared over the projector as the datacard prepared to play.

Zalaria slid back into the remaining empty seat. “Gentlemen, before you see this I must tell you one thing about Nimrod.”

“What’s that?” Stan spoke up, as the image began to coalesce into a black star field.

“You will be afraid of him. Don’t let this cloud your judgment, or your resolve to fight.”

Slowly, the starfield changed into a view of two large suns, one red and one blue, rising from behind the edge of a dark brown world striated with black clouds. Slowly, out of the distance appeared a group of dark vessels, silhouetted against the suns, but growing closer and larger, finally eclipsing them and growing to fill the entire image. That’s when Nico realized that each ship was a Titan-class Battleship. Each of the dozen or so ships were of comparable length and width, but widely different in shape and form. As the ships passed by in what was certainly a time-accelerated effect, the camera focused on the black hull of the center ship, shaped like a wicked-looking dagger, with spear-like projections extending out at seemingly random junctures. The holovid slowed as the camera focused on the ship floating past, and Zalaria began to speak again.

“During the Great War, Nimrod became one of the most feared and renowned names in this galaxy. Though other Warlords hold more personal power and caused more trouble to he Jedi of the day, Nimrod was the most dreaded opponent to face in naval space combat. He was hated so much that I understand his name is still used as a derogatory word in this galaxy. Ironically, the word means “idiot” to you, but this is the opposite of its true origin. Nimrod is a genius.

“Nimrod was the last Warlord to be driven back by the combined fleets of this galaxy’s allied races, and his were the last ships to travel through the Galactic Gate into our new galaxy. But it was there that he has earned his real reputation. His ruthless and relentless conquests subdued all who would oppose us in the Altarin’Dakor galaxy, and paved the way for us to take the it all in the name of the Altarin’Dakor. In our galaxy, one of the names he is known by is the Destroyer.”

The scene shifted to another view of space, this one filled with explosions and beams of light and crossed by uncounted numbers of oddly-shaped vessels, both large and small. A transparent window appeared over the battle, and a scroll of unreadable text began to flash by. Nico couldn’t begin to catch it all, but there had to be thousands of listings scrolling by.

“Nimrod has expanded his territory in our galaxy through continuous conquest of both the indigenous population and of the other Warlords. There used to be many more Shok’Thola, but most of them were wiped out through civil wars. Nimrod has defeated more than any other. This is a list of the various civilizations that he has personally eliminated. This may seem unreal and may not have full impact upon you, but I assure you that it is completely accurate. As you know, those who were deemed unproductive races were wiped out. Nimrod has exterminated thousands of races and subjugated at least a million worlds. That is why he is known as the Fist of the Million Suns.” She paused, letting the silence and scrolling of names to underscore her statement. “Do you understand the import of what I have said?”

Nico couldn’t have answered if he’d wanted to. He was too busy staring drop-jawed at the scrolling of names and the maelstrom raging in the background. No one else uttered a word.

The scene then shifted to a different scene, a dark world half-eclipsing its own sun, and floating in the distance, a massive black space station. From this distance its surface seemed an intricate working of uncountable spires and projections. Nico couldn’t begin to guess its size, but it appeared massive, at least the size of a Death Star. “Furthermore,” Zalaria continued, “my brother has assembled a star fleet dwarfing any of the other Shok’Thola. Many of his ships are those he has captured from other Warlords, including many of their Titans. His strategies have been very near perfect in every engagement.”

Her face bathed in shadows, Zalaria gave a slight smile. “I don’t really know where his genius came from… But even when we were children he was always good at reading other’s true motives and intentions. By our days among the Jedi before the Schism, he was renowned for his knowledge of past wars and military strategies. I suppose his interest carried him in that direction.”

The holo changed again then, to a chest-up view of a massive figure clad in jet-black armor, so dark that the shadows around him seemed light in comparison. Though its details were hard to make out, it was clearly huge, leaving nothing uncovered, every seam fitting together perfectly. The helmet was a huge black mask with sweeping wings and a faceplate sporting two glowing, electronic eyes. The simple presence that the figure exuded sent chills down Nico’s spine. He’d thought the sense of age and wisdom in Zalaria’s eyes was bad, but just seeing the being in this holo was far more terrifying. He looks like Darth Vader, Nico thought, only worse.

“Nimrod conceals his true form in this technological construction,” Zalaria said. “He is, and has been since before the Great War, obsessed with technology and electronic equipment of all types. His suit is less to protect himself than to give him access to hundreds of commands and computer links, and of course, to strike terror into anyone he sees. Though few do so outside his personal circle and survive.

“Additionally, after the death of Kronos, the leadership of The Return was in question. I was present when it was declared that each Warlord would begin acting independently. When Kronos died – only temporarily, I might add – Nimrod invaded his territory and took a large portion of it, possibly acquiring more Titans as well. Furthermore, when he tried to confine me on his world in Dorchav Sector, I learned through my sources that he would likely become the new spearhead of The Return. That is why I believe we’ll be facing only him for now, instead of multiple Warlords. Although, he’s certainly enough for us by himself. If he’s become powerful enough to send other Shok’Thola against us, then I’m afraid he may be unstoppable.”

From near Nico’s seat, Walt Amason let out a low whistle. “I wish Vader could have met this guy once… and that I was there to see what happened.”

“I’m familiar with the man who nearly wiped out the Jedi in this galaxy single-handedly,” Zalaria said. “Who is to say that Darth Vader or your Emperor Palpatine didn’t come across some scrap of legend in a museum and read about the legendary being who once ravaged this galaxy? He could have been thus influenced, perhaps.”

Feeling his nerves returning, Nico rubbed his face with one hand and shook his head slightly. He doubted such a story was true, but then again, who could know? Stranger things had happened.

“Zalaria,” Rytor spoke up. “Do you have any idea what percentage of Nimrod’s total force we’ll be facing? Roughly how many Titans and other ships?”

“Obviously, the majority of his forces remain back in our own galaxy, protecting his considerable territories,” Zalaria responded. “However, he does have a large offensive fleet that he brought into this galaxy years ago. As you’ve learned already, the spiral arm on the other side of what you call the Great Rift has already been conquered. Ever since the return Gate was completed over thirty years ago, we have been active in this region, and it’s fully Altarin’Dakor territory now. Nimrod, as well as other Warlords, has holdings in that area of space. Therefore, to answer your question, his fleet will be considerable. He wants to bring enough ships to not only defeat us, but to continue toward the galaxy’s heart.”

“That’s true,” Amason said, nodding. “We have to consider that we’re not just fighting for ourselves, but to stop them from sweeping over the rest of the galaxy unsuspected. It’s up to us.”

“Nimrod will most likely spread his fleet across NI space and may even strike at other territories and factions around us,” Zalaria said. “In all, I expect that he’s committed somewhere in the range of ten Titans, though it could be as many as fifteen. We could – in this sector – be facing only half of them, or then again we may be facing all of them. Along with a host of other capital ships ranging in size, of course.”

Nico felt even more dismayed at this news. Altarin’Dakor capital ships ranged from corvettes to ISD-sized battleships or much, much larger, but Titans dwarfed everything else in their arsenal. He didn’t see how the NI would stand a chance if faced against ten of them.

“At any rate,” Zalaria continued, “it is unlikely we will come into direct contact with Nimrod or his personal command. Rather, he will probably employ his top Admirals and his Inner Circle of Kodonn’Dakor, the personal Jedicon that serve him in various ways. The Jedicon especially will be troublesome, as they are among the most powerful of the Altarin’Dakor Jedicon. They are his presence in places where he cannot be, and they are masters of various methods of war as well, from military strategy to combat, to sabotage and assassination.”

“We’ll have to be at our highest alert for infiltration, then,” Gaius said.

“Assuming we haven’t already been infiltrated,” Zalaria said with a wry expression. “That’s why I can’t conclusively say which method Nimrod will use against us. I would have expected an overwhelming military attack already, but since that has not occurred, I therefore suspect that his attack will be multi-pronged, both from within and from without.”

“You’re saying there are spies and sleeper agents already within the NI? Why haven’t we been doing something about this already?” Field Marshal Kaler demanded sternly.

“We already have,” Zalaria said, staring across the table at the man. “Xar and I have been searching for them for them, and we’ve eliminated those we know about. Of course, that leaves the ones we don’t.”

“All right,” Diktat Rytor spoke up. “We’re already working on that. I have people looking for Altarin’Dakor agents at every level. If I find anything, this War Cabinet will be alerted immediately.”

Nico nodded silently. The thought of spies among them, perhaps even in the NI command, was unnerving in the extreme.

“In that case, my report is concluded,” Zalaria said. “I will continue to offer advice as needed.” She took her seat, and the holograms faded, and the lights began to brighten once more.

The Diktat nodded slowly. “All right then. Perhaps we should now take stock of our current military capabilities and the steps we’re taking to combat the Altarin’Dakor. As you all know, we’ve been busy in the time since the last attack, boosting our defenses, assembling new ships, incorporating Altarin’Dakor technology with our own, and working to gain allies among other races and empires. Sector Admiral Dogar, could you please brief us on the current status of the NI military.”

“Of course,” Dogar said, rising to his feet. “Most of you know of the projects we’ve been working on in the lull since Mizar. I’m going to update you on the status and feasibility of these various projects.”

He activated a few commands into his terminal, and another holo sprang to life, though the lights remained on. Nico instantly recognized a map of New Imperium space, situated at the edge of Epsilon Sector, bordering the Unknown Regions. NI space wasn’t a straight or circular containment of territory, but an uneven line between the Unknown Regions border and the territory of the New Republic. NI space primarily was situated around the massive Galbagos Nebula, though some territory extended anti-spinward. As Epsilon Sector was at the edge of the main galactic disk, beyond the border with the Unknown Regions was the Great Rift, a large empty space between the disk and the spiral arm. At his point, everything beyond in the Unknown Regions border was considered to be Altarin’Dakor territory.

Tralar, the New Imperium home system containing Tralaria and six other planets, was near the center of NI space, near the Nebula. Approximately 200 light-years away was Varnus, which was spinward, or on the right side of the map. Just over 50 light-years above Varnus was Mizar, where the New Imperium had suffered a huge loss against the Altarin’Dakor months ago. Other notable systems included Erebria, located just inside the nebula above Tralar; Kolath, a major inhabited world and former home of the Dark Lightning Strike Fleet; and the various inhabited systems in Naroon Quadrant to the left.

As Nico watched, the upper right portion of the map was highlighted and expanded. Dogar began speaking as the 21 major systems in the quadrant appeared, including five New Republic systems. NI systems were red, NR were green, and AD systems, of which only Mizar was named, were in orange. “For now, I will focus our study on Varnus Quadrant, which it seems the Altarin’Dakor want most. We must not forget, however, that there are AD forces on the other side of the Galbagos Nebula, and that we could also possibly see strikes from within the nebula itself, or even from the other side.”

“This is correct,” Zalaria chimed in.

“Now, if we assume the Altarin’Dakor have taken Basra and Danube, this puts the AD border here,” Dogar said. The border expanded to envelop the two systems, and their names turned orange. Suddenly Varnus was at the end of an inverted U, with both systems on either side within enemy territory. “As you can see, this puts Varnus in a somewhat precarious position. However, it is also our most heavily defended system in the quadrant when the Nexus returns. Secondary in strength is Moro and the shipyards there. We cannot afford to lose them.”

“If the Altarin’Dakor take Moro, then Varnus is really in danger,” Stan pointed out. “And if they take Talas too, then it’ll be completely cut off.”

“Not to mention that it’ll isolate Sigma, Jengar and Pax,” Gaius added.

The Minister of War nodded. “Exactly. So, how can we anticipate the enemy to strike?”

“Nimrod will want to take Varnus,” Zalaria said. “It is of particular symbolic importance to us – to the Altarin’Dakor. Therefore, we should make every effort to defend it. If we can, it will seriously affect their morale. As for Moro, I suggest we evacuate it. We can only make our stand at one location. We can’t afford to let them advance too far, but we don’t want to spread ourselves too thinly. Better to choose our own battlefield.”

The group seemed to consider her words for a moment, and Nico watched thoughtfully. He knew this was in the hands of Dogar and the Fleet Commanders, as well as the Diktat.

“We can’t just abandon Moro without a fight,” Gaius said, visibly struggling with emotions. “We can’t evacuate everything in time, and it’s one of our most vital systems. There are lots of incomplete ships there, not to mention uncounted thousands of personnel.”

“They’ll have to be abandoned, and the people evacuated” Zalaria said impassively. “Take everything that can fly and get out.”

“I agree with you Gaius, but we don’t have much of a choice,” Stan said. “We can’t wait until the enemy attacks before we decide our course of action.” He turned to the Minister of War, seated beside the Diktat. “Dogar?”

“The First Fleet will be deployed to Varnus Quadrant,” Dogar answered. “Stan, your Second Fleet will have to guard Tralar and the anti-spinward side. It’s up to you, Gaius. I suggest we begin evacuations, but we’ll have to do something to avoid a preemptive strike. If the enemy finds out our plans, they won’t let us leave.”

“What we discuss doesn’t leave this room,” Percy put in. “If you start things quietly, through the right channels, we should be able to pull it off.”

“We need to start evacuating the other systems too,” Nico offered. “Sigma, Jengar, Talas, Pax...”

“Those are all major inhabited planets,” Walt Amason spoke up, “and there aren’t any places for them to go to, until they reach Ariel Quadrant. That’s a long trip.”

“Varnus can take some,” Nico countered. “If we’re going to place our defense there, then people will go there anyway.”

“And if Varnus falls under attack as well?” Field Marshal Kaler spoke up.

“Then we get everyone off there, too, and defend as best we can,” Nico replied adamantly.

“See to it then,” the Diktat said. “The rest will have to make the long haul, or stay.”

“I still can’t see abandoning these systems without a fight,” Gaius put in. “I’ll order the evacuations at Moro, but it’ll take time. Lots of it. I don’t want to leave anything behind if possible.”

“Then I suggest you get busy,” Zalaria said matter-of-factly.

Nico watched uncomfortably as the woman stared at Gaius, but the other man seemed to take it without too much effect. After moment, he nodded.

“Okay then, what about our projects’ status?” Field Marshall Rodin Kaler asked.

Dogar held up a hand. “Yes, I’m getting to that now. As I said, the First and Second Fleets are in full deployment and high alert now. We’ve been bolstered by additions from the Devastator Project.”

“Not to mention the nCSA’s new Majestic-class Cruisers,” Amason added. K’bail, who had been silent until now, nodded and voiced his assent.

Dogar nodded to the two CEOs. “We’re especially grateful for that, as well as helping integrate AD technology with our own. We recently unveiled a new version of the TIE Avatar sporting quad beam weapons like the AD fighters use. We’ve also rigged them to use Shockwave missiles. We had to replace the power plant to account for the huge power drain from the weapons, but AD modifications have been more than adequate. We’re also working on the possibility of incorporating AD beam turrets on ISDs and MC-80s,” he added.

“How many World Devastators and Majestic Cruisers do we have now?” Kaler asked.

“We’ve spawned three smaller Devastators from the original Pillager Nine,” Amason answered. “And we’ve added four Majestic Cruisers to Task Force Independence.”

Nico smiled at the news. The Devastators would be producing countless equipment and TIE Droid fighters to bolster the weakened NI starfighter contingent, and they were producing a large number of attack and war droids as well. The droids idea was another big plan in itself – the Altarin’Dakor were not known to employ droids per se, but to rely on human interfacing with computers and computer-automated tasks. If the NI could produce enough war droids, AD ground forces could be in for a surprise. As for the Majestic Cruisers, they were Phoenix Technology’s newest unveiling – a sleek, fast cruiser built to incorporate a simple yet deadly Altarin’Dakor weapon – the mass driver. Built around a massive rail gun large enough to launch small asteroids if need be, the Majestic Cruisers had already proved themselves at an engagement in the Moro System. When they fired specially-designed, shield-piercing rounds, they would prove particularly deadly to AD capital ships.

“That’s all I have at the moment,” Dogar said. “Jedi Master Flygras, if you’d like to finish us off with a report on the Jedi?”

“Certainly,” Nico nodded, standing. A brief feeling of nervousness quickly faded. He was used to this by now. He took a breath, glanced at everyone seated, and proceeded. “Grand Master Misnera and I have finally assembled a rough idea of the number of Jedi in the New Imperium. Altogether, we currently have around a hundred Jedi in the Division itself, including myself, some of us here in this room, and those stationed at various locations. I use the world “Jedi” liberally in this case because encompasses everyone. It includes everyone from Initiate to Grand Master, as well as some who are currently missing or outside of the Division and the New Imperium itself. It also includes quite a few who also hold other positions, from cadets and starfighter pilots to Master Gaius, there.” He gave a nod to the man in question. “Therefore, I estimate only 40% of our numbers to be active or deployable on short notice.”

The men at the table exchanged glances, and Stan spoke up. “That’s not a lot.”

“I know,” Nico said. “We’re in a tumultuous and uncertain period. We’ve had a lot of people leave, transfer, desert, or whatever. We also took casualties at Mizar, and in other engagements with Altarin’Dakor Jedicon. So far, we haven’t been fairing well against them in one-on-one combat.”

“You’ve been training specifically to fight Jedicon, haven’t you?” Kaler asked pointedly.

Nico nodded. “That’s true, but you have to realize that the Jedicon have trained their whole lives for this. We can’t just catch up in a matter of months, and Jedi are harder to replace than starfighters or even capital ships. As both a former Jedi trainer and a fleet commander, I understand this, as I’m sure the rest of you do.”

“But that number doesn’t include the Jedicon that came over with Zalaria,” Dogar spoke up. “It doesn’t account for the number of Jedicon on our side. Can you enlighten us there?” He turned to the sole female at the table.

Zalaria was silent for a moment, her face impassive. Finally, she spoke. “I can triple the numbers you’ve just given,” she said simply.

Nico felt his jaw drop, and the rest of the table erupted with surprised comments.

“Why didn’t you tell us this before?” Amason asked.

“The same reason I haven’t told you everything about the Altarin’Dakor, my personal holdings, and other things. There is a time and place for everything, including knowledge.” Her eyes narrowed suddenly. “I brought a good deal of Jedicon back with me, but what good do you expect it to do? They pale in comparison to the thousands at Nimrod’s disposal. And if I had announced earlier that I’d brought three hundred Jedicon back with me, you’d probably have attacked me the moment I appeared with Xar. I also cannot necessarily supplement your Jedi with mine – many of my forces still hate your so-called “Jedi” with ferocity. Working them together would not be prudent; therefore I will employ my Jedicon as best I can in other areas.”

Nico sat down, at a loss for what to say. The presence that Zalaria was giving off allowed no argument. If she was planning to operate independently, she couldn’t have said it much more plainly. Murmured discussion continued at the table for several moments before the Diktat spoke up, commanding attention.

“All right then,” Rytor said. “That will conclude our meeting. Zalaria, what kind of a timeframe are we looking at? If you had to estimate, when do you think the next strikes will occur?”

Her eyes flicking over to where Rytor sat, Zalaria made a grim expression. “Frankly? I expect the next attacks to come within one or two days,” she said. “Provided, of course, they aren’t underway already.”

The tone in her voice made Nico’s stomach turn.


* * *


Palace Eaglespire

Imperial City

Planet Jengar, NI Space

1440 Hours


Tossing a hydrospanner into its toolbox with disgust, Maarek Stele stormed across the hangar deck, looking for someone to blame for this most recent ruination of his life. Why is this happening to me? he wondered uselessly. Turning away from his gutted TIE Avatar – once a beauty of New Imperial engineering, but now a husk filled with a jumble of wires and spare parts – he stormed out of the hangar, passing rows of stacked supply crates of varying sizes. He quickly crossed the conjoining corridor, turned right at the first intersection, and entered the pilots’ barracks.

“Where’s Balfin?” he demanded, sticking his head through the rec. room doorway.

At the sudden entrance, Rann Wosper nearly dropped the barbell he as lifting over his head. With a grunt of effort, he pushed it up onto its holding rack, then ran a hand through his wiry blond hair. “No idea, boss,” Rann said. “Haven’t seen him in the past hour.”

“I’ll ask Bast,” Stele said, spinning on his heel, leaving his wingman lying across the lifting bench in bewilderment.

Unfortunately Maarek couldn’t find the leader of Flight Two in his living quarters, and on his way back in the corridor Tanya Vinikoro, Inferno Three, hadn’t seen him all day. Thus, Maarek found himself in a turbolift carrying him up into the middle levels of Palace Eaglespyre, home of the Jedi House Ar’Kell, part of the New Imperium’s Jedi Division.

The turbolift deposited him into the hall on the main floor. He turned left and started down the corridor, passing a couple of robed Initiates before lucking up. Narm Greyrunner, the newest addition to the squadron, was coming down the hallway carrying a late lunch back to his room. Maarek stopped him with a wave of his hand.

“Hey Narm,” he said. “Seen Thad?”

“Thad Balfin? The crazy engineer?” Narm said, raising his eyebrows. “Are you kidding? I saw him at the bar just a few minutes ago, doing what he does best. And that isn’t repairing starships, mind you.”

“Right, right,” Maarek shook his head. “He’s still there?”

“Maybe. He was in a big way of saying how he was heading into town, going to City Hall for something.”

Poor fool really is running for mayor, Maarek thought, rolling his eyes. “All right. Guess I’ll go gripe at him before he leaves.”

“Good luck, Commander,” Narm said, his expression looking genuinely concerned. “I hope he’ll decide to listen to you – this time.”

Nodding, Maarek took off down the corridor, hoping he wouldn’t miss the old technician again. He’s not jetting out on me this time.

To both his relief and irritation, as Maarek turned into Palace Eaglespyre’s shadowy, rustic-looking bar, he noticed the large, wide man sitting directly ahead at the counter. At this early hour, only a few other patrons were present, including a couple of insectile Sigmans and a Gand. The man in question was nursing a drink and mumbling something to the bartender Jan, while the latter was attempting to listen in on the daily holonews broadcast.

Stepping closer, Maarek took a moment to listen in on what the reporter was saying. Over her left shoulder was a picture of a spinning planet, and labeled as the Basra System.

“…confirmed reports today that the Basra System has indeed fallen to Altarin’Dakor attack. Whether this was an isolated event or the cusp of a new invasion is not known at this time. The scouts further reported that the Basra Refinery Base has been totally destroyed, and the mining colony also suffered severe damage. There are no reports of survivors.”

Maarek shook his head sadly. He’d heard similar reports from military sources already. But the fact that there appeared to be no survivors was new and particularly bleak news.

“In other news, the Diktat announced today that the NI Starfleet will be deploying in full to safeguard our remaining systems and to escort civilian craft traveling between systems. There is also the possibility of mandatory evacuations in high-risk systems. Stay tuned to your local news reports for specific details related to your location. For the Tralarian News Network, this is Ardan Tyrus.”

From there the screen changed to a view of the local Jengar news network. Turning away, Maarek sauntered over to the bar and took a seat next to Balfin. At first he thought he wasn’t even noticed, until Thad turned to him with bleary-eyed look and started talking over his glass of whiskey.

“There you are, my boy,” he declared, his breath nearly driving Maarek to get up again. “Can you believe the mess they’ve put me in here? I can’t believe it. Where’s Gohac when you need him?” He paused, squinting at Maarek for a moment. “Say now, aren’t you going to drink something?”

“Actually, I’d rather not,” Stele held up a hand. “Now, Thad…”

“Listen to the predicament I’m in!” Balfin cut him off, moaning like a dying nerf. “I took Sturm Brightblade’s shuttle and was gonna rev it up with the new Mark II engine modifications I designed. But then he tells me he needs the shuttle for a mission. Well, I sent Gohac to fix it, but he thought it was a Sigman variant shuttle, and now the repulsorlifts’ modulation frequency is all screwed up! And on top of all that, I can’t find my favorite hydrospanner! What do you think of that??

“Well, I guess we’ve all got our little problems today, don’t we Thad?” Maarek said, rolling his eyes.

“I just don’t know what I did with the blasted thing!” Balfin continued, his voice continuing to rise.

“Okay, okay!” Maarek interrupted, his patience at an end. “It’s this kind of crap that I want to talk to you about. What the frizz did you do to my fighter?”

“What fighter?”

What fighter? My only one!” Maarek practically shouted. “My TIE Avatar that you’ve got sitting on the deck in fifty pieces!”

“Oh, that,” Thad said, shaking his head. He paused to take a long drink, draining the glass and setting it down with a chink. He wiped his mustache with one arm. “I was trying out a new shield system for it. Don’t know if it’ll work yet, but…”

“Hello? Are you deaf? Haven’t you been watching the news at all?” Maarek thrust a finger up toward the holoscreen. “Didn’t you hear the AD are attacking? They’ve already taken Danube and Basra, and we’re one of the next on the list. And you choose now to take my fighter apart and leave it shieldless?”

“I didn’t know about that this morning,” Thad countered, his voice indignant. “Besides if it works, your shields will be ten percent more effective.”

“More likely they’ll simply fail, if they don’t blow me up outright! Now I want you to get down there and fix my fighter!”

Thad arched and eyebrow, then turned to face the bar again. “Sorry, don’t have time today, my boy. Got to go to City Hall to work on my campaign plans.”

Maarek blinked and stared a second in utter disbelief. “Listen, you quack,” he said, slamming a hand on the countertop. “In a couple of days there might not be a city to be mayor of, if you don’t fix my fighter and let me fly! Jengar has almost no defense: there are no capital ships and only a light fighter garrison. Everything worth a spit is right here in Palace Eaglespyre, and I’m useless if I’m not in the air. So you can either fix it, or I’ll take this up with Sturm, and we’ll see if you can ignore a Jedi Paladin.”

Thad Balfin seemed to consider that for a moment. Finally he blinked slowly and nodded. “Stang. First Novitaar, now you. Well, if you feel that strongly about it my boy, then I’ll be glad to do it for you. It’s your loss. Personally I’d go with a ten percent increase in shield power any day, but it’s your decision, and…”

“Thanks,” Maarek said, rising from his seat. “I’ll see you in the hangar in fifteen. After that, we might need to go see Sturm anyway.” He glanced up at the holonews, where a new message was flashing across the screen. “Because they’ve just announced an order for the evacuation of the planet Jengar.”


* * *


C&C Briefing Room

Titan-class Command Ship Ascendancy

Danube System, NI Space

1630 Hours Ship’s Time


“Fear not, Naguis’Voxavit, you will have your chance soon. In twenty hours we will launch the next stage of our attack on the New Imperium.”

Kamren Thansil bowed his head in respect to the Coordinator’s words. Around him, the other Wing Commanders and Regiment leaders made similar gestures. All the military officers and commanders were seated around the central control center in the Ascendancy’s Command and Control Briefing Room. In the center was the ship’s Commodore, Naguis’Vox’Donn Evan Reinal, a tall, dark-skinned human with short, graying hair, a testament to the many years he had commanded the Titan-class Command Ship. Around him were several other command officers, including the Chief of Communications, Head of Tactical planning, and the Coordinator, who would relay the orders of the Naguis’Vox’Indant and Misot’Vox’Indant, the Fleet Commander and Senior Admirals respectively. The Coordinator was an essential and high-ranking position, and those who held it gave their own lives over to the task, allowing their minds to be linked through computer systems back to the Naguis’Vos’Indant as well as all the other command ships in the fleet.

Naguis’Vox’Donn Evan Reinal now took center stage to offer the specifics of the upcoming operation. “We have taken the first two systems in the enemy’s territory, and we are now ready to move on. From here, the Fleet will divide into four primary task forces, each group led by one of the command ships. The Desolation and the Annihilator will both move forward into enemy territory and occupy their attention with strategically planned strikes against their systems. The Hegemony will provide cover for our convoys and coordinate with us as needed. As for the Ascendancy, our next task is to sweep along the fringes of their space and break the backs of the enemy. Our first target is the system they call Jengar.” As with most Altarin’Dakor, he stumbled a bit over the foreign word. “After which, we will continue with the plan that has been outlined by the Naguis’Vox’Indant. I cannot divulge the specifics of our overall strategy at this time. You will receive your orders on a mission-by-mission basis.

“Yes, Naguis’Voxavit?” Evan Reinald nodded at Kamren’s raised hand.

“Commodore, will all the Wings be seeing action at Jengar?” Kamren asked, keeping his question brief and to the point.

Evan Reinald nodded slowly. “Each Wing will be performing a different but necessary mission in the attack. I know that you are eager to send the Black Rain into action. Your status and honor as Wing Commander has been well-earned, and you will have a chance to prove your abilities against the outlanders.”

Kamren nodded gratefully, then waited as other commanders and regiment leaders posed their questions. Beside him, Wing Commander Xun Fiar, a Qwi’pthi, leaned close and whispered so that only Kamren could hear.

“I hope your Wing performs as well as you’ve promised, Kamren Thansil. Because my Sun Lancers will be ready to replace you at the first sign of weakness. You may be the best-rated pilot on the Ascendancy, or even the entire fleet, but that won’t protect you from the consequences of failure.”

Repressing the rage that instinctively welled up in him from such biting words, Kamren instead forced a cold smile and looked at his peer and rival. “If you’re suggesting you want to challenge me for my position, you are more than welcome. I hadn’t known you were so willing to change commands.”

“I’m not challenging you at all, Voxavit,Xun Fiar retorted coolly. “My group has already proved itself in battle with these barbarians. I am simply offering a word of warning – advice that you would do well to heed.”

“I’ll take it into consideration,” Kamren said, returning his attention to the Vox’Donn.

Evan Reinal looked around the room at the gathered officers. “If there are no other questions, the briefing is concluded. You will receive full and specific orders upon your return to your offices. Wing briefings are to take place within two hours. In less than a day, the Ascendancy will strike its next blow into the heart of the enemy, and we shall bring much glory to ourselves and our great empire. Glacia na Altarin’Dakor!

His battle cry, echoed by Altarin’Dakor warriors for a thousand generations, was eagerly picked up by all the officers present.

Glacia na Altarin’Dakor! Glacia na Altarin’Dakor! Glacia na Altarin’Dakor!”


After being dismissed, Kamren took the most expedient way possible back down to the hangar – the primary hyperlift. He arrived on the main level just two minutes before the scheduled 1700, and he hurried to the primary hangar, where he knew everyone would be waiting. An honor duel would not be starting late.

Voxavit Jukor and Voxavit Tryn were both excellent and respected pilots in the Black Rain Wing, who had earned their honor through trial and conflict, as all Altarin’Dakor should. Their quarrel was not over a position of command, but over a personal conflict begun with a hasty comment and too much drink. Kamren deeply respected the time-honored tradition of the challenge and honor duel, as long as things were kept in the proper perspective and followed the original intent of its purpose. But some took it to mean that challenges could be made for every petty grievance, and this not only disrupted the normal flow of business on a ship, but in Kamren’s opinion was also a waste of resources and personnel. He did not want to lose either of his pilots today.

Kamren met Vos, his second, waiting by the entrance to the main hangar.

“Good timing, Commander,” the tall man nodded respectfully. “Jukor and Tryn are here.”

“Very well. Let’s go watch them.”

Vos fell into step beside him as Kamren walked purposefully across the deck and mingled into the gathering crowd. Normally the challengers would agree on the type of combat to be used, from hand techniques, bladed or projectile weapons, all the way up to a dogfight in atmosphere or out in space. The art of dueling was all too deadly.

As he and Vos came to the front of the line, they saw both participants just now standing opposite each other, each dressed in full ceremonial garb. For this match, each held a ceremonial long-dagger about the length of fingertip to elbow. Kamren knew both warriors well. Jukor, starting on the left, was a dark-skinned human with black hair, and was known for his short temper. On the right was Tryn, an Ulrian, a near-human species with predominantly purple skin and wavy silver hair. Jukor, the initiator of the challenge, was the favorite to win, but not by much.

The two opponents faced each other and waited for the match to begin. With little ceremony involved, the hangar’s warning klaxon blared once, and then the match was on.

Honor duels usually didn’t last long, and this one probably wasn’t to be any exception. Tryn rushed forward with a roar, forcing Jukor back into a defensive stance. With a loud below, the purple-skinned Ulrian swung his blade down at his opponent’s head, but Jukor threw his blade up and parried it to the side, then sidestepped out of range. He lashed out with a foot, catching Tryn in the groin area, but the Ulrian hunched forward, then rolled out of the way of Jukor’s blade.

This time Jukor stepped in and struck. Tryn came up and blocked the blade, locking weapons with Jukor for a brief moment. For a moment they pressed hard on one another, then Tryn abruptly grasped his opponent’s wrist with one hand, deflected Jukor’s momentum to the side, and brought his blade across horizontally. Jukor danced back, but not quite fast enough. Tryn’s blade cut a gash across his right arm just below the shoulder, but Jukor didn’t even wince in pain.

As Jukor stepped back, blood dripping down his sleeve, Tryn apparently saw his opportunity for the kill. He rushed forward, clashing blades with the other man, then forced it to the side and swung wildly at his opponent’s head. Jukor ducked at just the right moment, instead slashing down to cut into the Ulrian’s thigh area. Then as Tryn stumbled, Jukor turned back and slammed his pommel into the back of Tryn’s head. His leg collapsed, sending him crashing face-first onto the deck.

Jukor stepped over his fallen opponent, then raised his blade slowly, clearly anticipating the kill and the end of the match.

“All right,” Kamren said sharply to Vos. “Sound the alarm.”

He’d waited until there was a clear winner, but he wasn’t going to let Jukor finish off his opponent. Not only was it a stupid thing to die over, but Tryn was a good pilot, better spent in battle against the true enemy than in an honor duel such as this.

Vos said a few words into his communicator, and the klaxons went off again, this time in a lower pitched, repeating tone designed to call all pilots for mission briefing. Kamren knew that some might resent his timing on this, but they would have to live with it. If he’d stopped the fight sooner he probably would have had both pilots angry at him and a lot of ill feelings from the others as well, but this way the conflict was resolved without an upset caused by Tryn’s death.

The blaring alarm sent a ripple of exasperated sighs and groans from the crowd, and for a moment it looked as though Jukor would ignore the warning entirely. He stood there, glaring down at his stricken opponent. But then as the klaxons refused to abate, he lowered his blade and started off in the opposite direction.

“All right, everyone,” Vos spoke through the hangar’s loudspeakers. “You heard the signal. The match is over; all pilots report to the briefing room within fifteen minutes. Those who do not will be subject to reprimand by the Wing Commander.”

As the crowd began to scatter across the deck, Kamren couldn’t help but smile. Fifteen minutes would give Jukor and Tryn just enough time to change and make it to the briefing, while preventing them from gloating or causing more trouble in the meantime. In the meantime, Kamren had to return to his office and obtain his specific Wing’s orders for the upcoming mission. After Kamren finished briefing his Wing, not only would the emotions of the fight have cooled, but his pilots would all have something much more important to be worried about.


* * *


Training Room 201

Royal Palace, Vectur

Planet Varnus

1530 Hours


Jedi Adept Kiz Thrakus crossed his arms over his chest and watched the five Jedi sparring on the map. All Jedi Knights - Kip Slocum, Zine Orab, Sutel Cloke, Baden Wren, and Zep Prings’nyl - and this time, they weren’t using stunsabers, but real Jedi weapons. Opposite the five warriors were two also very real Jedicon, Naguis’Dakor in service to Zalaria. Naguis meant that they were the mid-level, the equivalent of Jedi Knight in the Altarin’Dakor system, or so Kiz understood. Vormav and Zopar were their names, if Thrakus had their pronunciations correct.

He shook his head in growing consternation. They had increased their odds, but it still took five Jedi Knights to hold their own against two Jedicon. Guess it’s better than the first time though, when one of them knocked ten Jedi Knights senseless, he thought.

It’s wasn’t a matter of obtaining enough Force power – that depended on each person and was uniform across both galaxies. Jedicon weren’t inherently stronger than Jedi in this galaxy. But there were two main areas that Jedicon had advantages in, and both stemmed from their lifelong studies to become what they were. First, they simply knew more and seemingly lost Force powers, and generally had a better knowledge of fighting techniques. Secondly, they had more experience using both the Force and personal combat. Kiz didn’t want to guess how many each had killed by simply rising through the ranks.

Vormav and Zopar were among a very small population of Zalaria’s Jedicon who were actually willing to train the NI’s Jedi. Most refused to even come onto the planet’s surface, and hated the so-called “false outlander Jedi” with a vengeance. Even Vormav and Zopar refused to mingle with the other Jedi or have even passing relationships with any of them. This aloofness kept both sides wary of the other, and made Kiz more than uncomfortable around them. How were they supposed to fight together when they couldn’t even stand each other?

The Jedicon looked very wary, now, as the five Jedi Knights moved forward, carefully testing their opponents’ defenses with thrusts and jabs from their blades. The object of this exercise was to disarm one’s opponent or drive them off the mat without causing a serious injury. No special Force powers beyond the fighting instinct were allowed – other groups were practicing special Jedi powers and energy manipulation in special training grounds outside Vectur.

Suddenly three Jedi rushed forward on Vormav, and the Jedicon’s blade became a blur of light as he parried blows from three opponents. The other two Jedi took the opportunity to go after Zopar.

Vormav’s three enemies were driving him back before their combined attacks, and Thrakus watched the action with growing enthusiasm. Perhaps the NI Jedi had gotten a little closer, now. Vormav was totally on defense, blocking multiple strikes with his azure, Altarin’Dakor lightsaber. Meanwhile, Zep Prings’nyl and Baden Wren were holding their ground against Zopar, the three combatants’ blades humming through the air and coming together with a series of hiss-crashes.

Suddenly Vormav gave a small cry as he stumbled off the edge of the mat, falling to his back. Sutel Cloke came down too, his momentum carrying him forward and out of bounds. In respect to his opponents, Vormav shut off his weapon and moved away from the edge. Cloke had to follow suit, having stepped off by accident.

Then everyone’s focus was on the other match, where Zep and Baden were still matching off against Zopar. Zep struck at the Jedicon’s feet while Baden swung a wide head blow, but Zopar blocked the low attack and ducked under the high one, spinning as he moved. His foot lashed out, catching Baden across the face and sending him into Zep. Pressing the advantage, the Jedicon moved forward, swinging a powerful blow intended to disarm Baden Wren, but Zep put his blade in the way and blocked the attack instead. Then, recovering quickly, Baden caught the weapon on the other side and spun it in a circular motion. Rather than lose his hand, the Jedicon let go of his grip, and the lightsaber spun away, landing on the mat and scorching the surface where it lay.

“Nice work, teams,” Thrakus said, applauding. He was overjoyed at the outcome, more because no one had been killed or lost a limb than because the Jedi had won. Other matches had not ended so fortunately. A week before, Jedi Knight Brajo had lost his left hand and had required a prosthetic replacement. It was hard training, but the order to do so had come straight from Xar himself. As much as he might inwardly disagree, Kiz was forced to obey, and obey enthusiastically.

“Good teamwork on Vormav, people,” he said, continuing to point out the strengths and weaknesses of the fight. “Sutel, don’t overextend yourself and watch your balance. Zep and Baden, good improvisation, but don’t count on just that to work in a real situation. Vormav, Zopar?”

Zopar nodded. “Yes,” he agreed in accented Basic. “In a real fight I do not let go of my weapon. If I lose one hand, then I will take hold with my other hand, and you would be open to attack,” he finished matter-of-factly.

Thrakus eyed the Jedi Knights with an intense gaze. “You see, that is the resolve and determination of an Altarin’Dakor. You must be just as determined as they are, or you’re not going to survive your first real fight with one.”

The other Jedicon trainer gave a nod of respect. “I was forced back, but not disarmed. Follow up on your attacks and do not let your guard down.”

The Jedi Knights took the comments respectfully for the most part, except for Sutel Cloke, who seemed to be chaffing inside at the correction Thrakus had made. He was of the new, more radical philosophy headed by the Jedi known simply as ‘Nova’ and other young Jedi who had passed through the accelerated training program. Thrakus realized he should have an eye kept on him. Use of the True Force might eliminate some of the old dangers of Jedi instruction, such as some of the dark side snares, but it also had its own dangers. Let anger and aggressiveness dominate for too long and it would still lead to problems.

“All right then, dismissed. Thank you, Vormav and Zopar, for your assistance in this exercise.”

The Jedi and Jedicon made ceremonial bows, then parted to go their separate ways. Thrakus turned toward the main exit when he noticed a familiar figure standing there, leaning against the doorway.

“How are things, Jacob?” he asked. “Congratulations on your promotion to Adept, by the way. We’re even once again.”

Jacob “Jinx” Skipper smiled and shook his head. Cutting a stark figure with his black hair and silver lock, Jinx, Magistrate of the Moro System, had recently returned from there on a mission to evacuate his people, the Renastatian refugees, and secure House Vortigern’s holdings. He was a staunch supporter of Xar, Misnera, and the faction against Nova and his upstarts. Thrakus didn’t sense much mirth in the man’s attitude today, and knew something was bothering him.

“Thanks, Kiz” Jinx said. “Care to walk?”

“Okay, lead the way,” Kiz replied, falling into step beside the other Adept. “What’s going on?”

“Where are we headed, Kiz? The whole Division, I mean.”

“In terms of what?” Thrakus thought he already knew what was bothering the man.

Jinx shook his head as they strode along. “It’s the same problem that occurred as soon as Grand Master Misnera took power. There’s a pretty vocal group of Jedi who didn’t support him in the first place, and they certainly aren’t for all these new baby-sitting missions overseeing refugees. And they resent his taking position as Commander of Special Projects on the NI War Cabinet. With Misnera at Moro for an R&D project, a lot of people want to do things their way, even take the fight straight to the AD and get themselves killed in the process.”

“Who’s this? Nova’s group?” Thrakus asked. The Jedi Paladin Ken Nandos, who only went by the name ‘Nova’, was known for his short temper and willingness to speak out.

“Among others,” Jinx responded.

“Well, what did they expect? We may be Jedi, but we’re still serving a military role underneath. There’s a war going on here.”

Jinx nodded as they continued walking through the corridors underneath the Palace’s ground levels. “But the cause of his problem is obvious, and I can’t say I disagree entirely. Our leaders are gone, not even on Varnus. The only Jedi Masters here in the Palace are Mathis Organa, who is still locked up in his quarters, and Xar, who’s occupied in his own affairs as normal.”

“That still leaves three Adepts on the Council,” Kiz countered. That included himself, as Kensai – or combat instructor – Gui Sun Paan, head of Special Ops, and Vynd Archaron, the Warden and Academy Dean. Normally it would make a rounded out, six-seat Council, with the two Grand Masters in overall charge.

Jinx shrugged. “Still, it’s not the same to these guys. They see an opening and they go for it. Give them a meter and they’ll take a klick before you realize it.”

Thrakus sighed. He’d hoped that things would stay together on Varnus in the meantime. Misnera had taken off shortly after Xar and his team’s return from the last mission, and the acting Grand Master was now heading up special projects for the NI Advisory Council. Nico, the acting Senate representative, was still on Tralaria, liaising with the new Diktat and the military leaders. And Jedi Master and Fleet Commander Gaius Adonai was on the Advisory Council itself, heading up the fleet and wasn’t likely to return to Varnus anytime soon.

“What are Bren and Rynn up to?” Thrakus asked. “Still working on their non-violent Force studies?”

Jinx nodded. “That, at least, is making progress.”

Thrakus didn’t know many details about what Bren and Rynn were up to. But the rumors – of which there were many flying around these days – said that they had vowed not to enter combat and were focusing completely on ways to resolve the conflict peacefully. As much as he wished it were possible, Thrakus had serious doubts they would be successful in this conflict. “What about you?” he asked, curious.

“I can’t afford the time for it,” Jinx replied. “In fact, Xar wants to see me this afternoon. For some new assignment, no doubt.”

“You don’t think… Surely they’re not going to evacuate Moro?”

The other man walked in silence for a moment, then finally shook his head. “I can’t believe we would leave without a fight. Anyway, I’ll try and talk some sense into Xar while I can, and I hope you will too. He’s one of the few people with enough pull to set everyone straight. At the least, he can get in contact with Alyx or Nico and inform them of the situation here.”

Thrakus nodded. “Well, I’m with you all the way. Whatever it takes to stop this inner conflict we’ve been experiencing. I hope we can pull together, because division is the last thing we need with the AD breathing down our backs. Otherwise, nobody will be able to stop the Altarin’Dakor. And a galaxy ruled by them is not the kind of galaxy my daughter Seydinl is going to grow up in.”

Together, the two resolute Jedi continued through the hallway, feeling like the weight of a world was resting on their shoulders.


* * *


Diktat’s Office

Senate Complex Building

Tralaria, NI Capital

2145 Hours


Diktat Rytor was in his office, going through the end-of-day reports on his holo-screen, when the call came in from his secretary’s office.

“Yes, Quat?” he called out, surprised to find his aide still here so late. “I thought you’d gone home.”

“Sorry, Mr. Diktat. I decided to work late, too. Secretary Brucmack told me to get these papers done today. Anyway. There’s a man here to see you, says he doesn’t need an appointment. Normally I’d turn him away, but he looks familiar. Has he been here before, sir?”

Rytor glanced at the mini-cam window on his screen and his eyes went wide in recognition. “Yes, of course he’s fine, Quat,” he said in his most thankful tone. “Please send him right up.”

It took a few moments for the visitor to pass the security checkpoint and take the lift up to the Diktat’s protected chambers. Meanwhile, Rytor closed out the programs he’d been working in and stood up in anticipation. A few seconds later the doors slid open, and a mid-sized human male walked in, average-looking, with blond hair almost down to his shoulders, and dressed in typical civilian clothing.

Immediately Rytor gave a low bow of respect. “I was not expecting you this evening, my Lord,” he said.

“You may rise. I don’t want anyone wandering in here with you like that,” Queklain said sharply. Rytor straightened. “How went the meeting today?”

“Satisfactorily,” Rytor replied. “We got some definite things accomplished, and the Ministers are out working on our defense plans.”

As his guest crossed the room and settled into the chair opposite the Diktat’s massive desk, Rytor took it as a cue to sit, also. He leaned back into his plush seat of office. “Is there something specific you require of me?” He kept his tone respectful but inquisitive, still unsure exactly of all the guidelines in his relationship with the Shok’Thola. With some of them, asking questions could get you killed, or at least have your tongue removed. But he was Diktat of the New Imperium, a figure that wouldn’t be easy to replace should he die from insubordination.

“I know things are still… uncertain to you,” Queklain said, probably reading his mind. “Before I came along you were just another spy for us in this galaxy, an outlander with little chance of gaining true glory. Now, perhaps you are wondering if opposing Nimrod is such a wise decision… Perhaps you have considered that you might obtain some reward if you turned the New Imperium over to him. Best to be on the winning side, is it not? And Nimrod could snatch you up as quickly as I did.”

Rytor tried to hide his surprise. He’d considered many possibilities and contingency plans, some more in depth than others. But he dared not lie; even if he’d just given it a passing thought he had to admit it. “I am worried about how we will survive against him, yes,” he nodded. “But I have no illusions of grandeur that I might retain some power were I to give the New Imperium to him. Moreover, I have served in the NI loyally ever since its inception, and even before then I have always served with integrity. I consider betrayal an unforgivable and evil thing. I intend to protect the NI as best I can.”

Queklain surprised him by chuckling softly. “If your justifications put you at rest, then so be it. At any rate, it is good that my plans coincide with your desire to preserve this tiny little empire,” he said with some mirth still in his voice. Then his expression turned serious. “I do not intend to let Nimrod destroy the New Imperium. I’ve set myself up here for a reason, and I now realize my plans do not align well with his. But Nimrod is a most fearsome opponent, even for me. You must also have considered the potential repercussions of going against him.”

Rytor nodded slowly. “I am aware of the risk I take. But still, I risk no more than the soldier on the battlefield, who may have to face a Jedicon with only a blaster at his side. Besides, I am here behind layers of protection. My chances of seeing battle are slim.”

“Don’t be so sure. Your actions have attracted notice,” Queklain said. “I came here to warn you: Nimrod will send an assassin to kill you soon.”

The words sent a chill down Rytor’s spine, and his eyes widened in shock. “An assassin? Will it be a Jedicon?”

“Most likely one of his best,” the Warlord said matter-of-factly. “Normally you wouldn’t have a chance of survival – but fortunately you have nothing to fear. I will be here, and I will protect you from harm.”

“I am most appreciative, Lord,” Rytor said. “When… When do you expect the attack to occur?”

“I cannot say for certain, and you do not need to know. You must continue your duties as normal, as if you expect nothing out of the ordinary. I didn’t tell you so you could prepare, but for other reasons. Suffice it to say that it will be soon enough.”

“I understand.” Then a new thought came to him. “What of Nico Flygras? Is he in danger also?”

Queklain shook his head once, quickly. “No. He is my special piece on the board, as unknown to the others as he is to himself, and as invisible as I am to our enemies. I am glad you convinced me to spare his life. He may yet prove useful. Do not speak of him unless both he and I are present with you.”

“Yes,” Rytor said. “Then… Do you have any specific instructions for the defense plans?”

“Continue on as normal, Rytor,” the Warlord said. “While you are mounting our defense, I will seek out other spies within our midst, and see if they can be turned. If I receive specific intelligence I will inform you in time to adequately prepare.”

Then, without further words, the visitor rose from his seat and strode from the room. As the doors closed behind him, Rytor realized he had much more to think about than he’d figured. He’d anticipated that he would have to face assassination attempts, as his predecessors had. But he hadn’t known how important his position or his government appeared to a Shok’Thola such as Nimrod. Now more than ever he wondered if the Warlord could be stopped. And if even Queklain was fearful of Nimrod’s might, then the New Imperium’s future looked dire indeed…


Secretary to the Diktat Ken Brucmack was just approaching the Diktat’s Office when the doors slid open and a man with long blonde hair exited. The newcomer glanced at him for a moment, and Bruc felt a tingle go over his skin at the man’s gaze. Then the blonde-haired man turned and strode away.

Entering the office, he found Quat still there, seated at his desk, going through the daily reports on his desk before sending the pertinent ones to Rytor. The young man was intent on his work, and didn’t notice the Secretary until he walked right up to him.

“Who was that just in here, Quat?” Bruc asked.

The other man gave a start, then looked up at him askance. “What?”

“The blonde-haired man who just left. Did he have an appointment?”

Quat’s expression showed a total lack of understanding. “I didn’t see anyone in here, sir.”

“You’re telling me you don’t remember anyone being in here just now?” Bruc asked, wondering if he’d heard the man wrong.

“Of course not, sir,” Quat said adamantly. “Believe me, if there was someone in here, I would know.”

“Right. I’m sure you would,” Bruc said. Then again, Quat didn’t even seem to notice his own arrival sometimes. He glanced toward the Diktat’s door.

Quat paused. “Sir, are you sure you’re feeling well?”

“I’m fine, Quat. Carry on,” Bruc muttered, and started back out of the office without another word. The doors opened him onto the corridor again, and he stared off in the direction the unknown man had gone.

What the frizz is going on? he wondered.


* * *


Palace Eaglespyre

Planet Jengar

1040 Hours Local Time


“All right people, you heard the announcement; let’s move!” Maarek shouted to the four squadrons of fighter pilots gathered in the hangar of Palace Eaglespyre. The short briefing Maarek had given concluded, the crowd dispersed, each squadron running to their respective ships. Inferno Squadron remained with him, ready to mount their TIE Avatars and be the first group out of the hangar.

Inferno Squadron was really just three-fourths of a normal Imperial-style squadron, with only nine pilots currently in the roster. He still hadn’t managed to find suitable replacements for his elite squadron after the losses they’d taken at Mizar. And with the current assignment on Jengar, where they’d been for nearly two months, there weren’t many good candidates looking to join up. Still, nine pilots in Inferno Squadron were just as good as three whole squadrons anywhere else in the NI, in his opinion. Today, they might have a chance to prove it.

Maarek, already dressed in his flight suit, ran up the steps to the overhead scaffolding from which his TIE Avatar now hung. Thad, you better not let me down, you old windbag, he thought. Thad Balfin had put his shield system back together, and it had tested out all right, but that was no perfect guarantee. Didn’t he ever learn that if it isn’t broken, you don’t fix it?

He slid into the cockpit as the technician closed and sealed it behind him. Donning his helmet, he secured his fastening straps and oxygen supply to the fighter’s internal systems, then began the warm-up sequence. Everything should have been checked by the tech already, but no chances were taken with such an expensive piece of equipment. His heads-up-display came online, giving him a green on all systems readouts, including engines, repulsorlifts, shields, weapons, communications, and sensors. “Inferno One, two lit and in the green,” he said into the commlink. “Call ‘em as you get ‘em up.”

“Inferno Two, ready to rock, boss,” Rann Wosper spoke up.

“Inferno Three, in the green,” Tanya Vinikoro said.

“Inferno Four, reporting all systems go,” Bast Vlagen reported.

“This is Inferno Five, I haven’t blown up yet,” Kikitik chimed in.

“Inferno Six ready to go,” said Gren Pabos.

“Inferno Seven with two lit and in the green,” Salle Darl announced.

“Inferno Eight, ready to kick some AD,” Petur Kien said eagerly.

“Inferno Nine, bringing up the rear but in perfect shape,” Narm Greyrunner said, finishing up the report.

“All ships detach and follow me into orbit,” Maarek said, hitting the disconnect switch. His fighter dropped a few meters until the repulsorlifts caught him, holding him aloft over the hanger deck. Then, slowly cranking the engines up from standby, he eased the TIE Avatar forward. Within seconds he sped the craft up to normal throttle and shot from the hangar. His rear screen showed eight identical fighters coming out of the entrance as he pushed the throttle up to full and blasted for the sky. Palace Eaglespyre receded to a speck, and the massive volcano in which it was situated shrank slowly beneath them.

“Form on my wing, Inferno,” he spoke into the link.

“Lead, Six. I read transports coming up on the other side of the valley,” Gren Pabos said.

“Roger that. We rendezvous in orbit at mark three point two nine. Let’s take it into vacuum.”

Suiting actions to words, Maarek pointed his Avatar at the sky and pushed his fighter to escape velocity. The nine fighters streaked skywards on trails of ionized gas, and within moments they had achieved low orbit and were continuing to rise.

“One, Four. Other squadrons report they are launched and ready.”

“All right. We patrol the rendezvous point until all the ships can meet up, then escort them to the jump point,” Maarek said. He looked down at the surface below, where small dots were quickly growing into ships as they came up from the surface. Jengar’s main city was on an island in the center of a massive lake, actually the top of an extinct volcano. It was the only settled, advanced city on the planet, and thus the evacuation and defense of the city would be localized and focused. Dozens of transport craft, some mere shuttles and others perhaps two hundred meters or more, were coming up from the surface, following the order to evacuate the planet in case of imminent AD attack. It was amazing that the evacuation, headed by the governor and House Ar’Kell’s Jedi leaders, could pull this off in only a day. Unfortunately, every transport on the planet, if packed beyond capacity, could only carry perhaps twenty percent of the population. The others would have to wait for other transports already inbound from other systems.

Of course, not everyone would leave, because not everyone wanted to. Maarek didn’t understand why the NI didn’t commit a fleet here. Obviously it was one of the lesser inhabited and unimportant systems, but a life was still a life. They couldn’t just abandon the majority of the people down there to enemy capture, could they? It would be like Haven in the Satyr System months before, when virtually the whole population had been abducted in a surprise AD attack. Where those people were, nobody knew. Maarek had gone in to save a few with Jack Railler, and had seen firsthand what an Altarin’Dakor attack’s result looked like. The only way to beat them is to kill them all, he thought angrily. Suddenly his thoughts went to Victor, and his time test-flying the Archon. They often did, still. Disturbing thoughts.

They were circling the rendezvous point now, and a small fleet of transports and freighters had already gathered and were heading in a line towards the jump point. Maarek kept his squadron on a parallel course to them, watching as they moved along. This was just the first wave. After this they would go back down to the surface, rest a bit, then climb back into their fighters and do the same thing all over again, until there were either no more ships, no more evacuees, or the AD had destroyed them all.

Despite his dour thoughts, he realized he was actually hoping for an engagement with the AD soon. It had been a while since they’d seen actual combat, and he didn’t want anyone’s skill level dropping. His stupid stunt back on the Nexus, testing out an AD fighter without permission, had earned them all several months of exile on this backwater, not to mention torment they’d suffered at the hands of Balfin. Thankfully, his squad mates had stood by him and had proven their support many times over.

Inferno continued its escort until finally the first line of transports accelerated suddenly, then vanished. Following them in turn was another, then another, until finally they had all made it out. Mission accomplished.

“Okay everyone, that was easy,” he said into the squadron’s commlink frequency. “Let’s turn ‘em around and head home.”

Suiting words to actions, he banked sharply around until the blues, greens, browns and whites of the planet filled the view ahead. The sooner they were done, the sooner they’d be off this rock.


Pilot’s Locker

Palace Eaglespyre

Jengar, 1450 Hours Local Time


Maarek stepped out of the shower, a thick, white towel wrapped around his waist and another draped around his shoulders, which he used to scrub vigorously at his still-wet hair. He walked over to the locker aisle his squadron had appropriated, where Narm was dressing into his off-duty clothes, while Petur and Gren were just stripping off their flight suits and gear, locked in a conversation about the loadout on their Avatars. Bast was already done and on his way to the cafeteria, and Maarek wasn’t sure where Kikitik had gone, but he obviously wasn’t in the steam-filled locker room, since Sigmans didn’t bathe like humans did.

He looked up to where a screen hung down from the ceiling, a courtesy to off-duty officers, this one showing the current planetary live news feed. His towel still in hand, he paused in mid-dry, staring at the screen’s headline in disbelief. Thad Balfin was there, campaigning in front of City Hall. Was he crazy? Didn’t he know there might not be a Jengar soon?

“I don’t understand him either,” Narm said, noticing Maarek’s stare as he zipped up his vest. “That man lives in his own world.”

“Well, this may be his world,” Maarek returned, shaking his head and throwing his towel over the bench. “Looks like he’s determined to be the last living being on Jengar.”

“He’ll get off, but I bet he’ll wait till the last nanosecond, like he always does,” Narm said ruefully. He hoisted his gear satchel one-handed and glanced down at his wrist chrono. “What time is the next batch of transports?”

Maarek had been going through the folded pile of clothing in his locker, and finally chose a clean set of coveralls. “1800 hours, then the last one will be at 2200.” He glanced over at Narm. “After that, we’re not obligated to stay.”

“Sounds good to me. I’m ready to get off this rock,” the man said, taking off toward the exit.

Gren and Petur had finished undressing and were carrying their towels toward the shower. Maarek zipped up his coveralls in front as the two men passed, then a sudden chill ran over his skin and he called out at them. “Guys, make sure you pack up your stuff before we go out again.”

The two glanced back at him. Petur asked, “What is it? You got a bad feeling, Commander?”

“Something like that,” Maarek admitted, though he wasn’t quite sure what it was, himself. All he knew was that they needed to be prepared. The AD had to strike somewhere, soon. They had to be ready for anything.

Grabbing his own bag, he started for the exit.


* * *


Royal Palace

Planet Varnus

1730 Hours


Jinx knocked respectfully on the door twice, then turned the handle and entered the makeshift strategic room that Grand Master Xar had appropriated.

“Enter,” Xar’s voice came from deeper within the room. Jinx closed the door behind him and moved further in. He moved past a holotable in the center and spotted the Grand Master behind a desk in the adjoining room. He was the only other person present.

“Jinx,” Xar acknowledged him as he stood leaning over his desk, staring down at a pile of flimsiplast sheets. As Jinx approached closer, he looked up.

“I’ve just received word today from the Advisory Council that Moro is to be evacuated. I need you to go there and oversee the operation.”

Jinx stopped short of coming to the desk and stared in shock. “Already? Evacuating, just like that? But why?”

Xar shook his head. “It’s pretty obvious when you consider it. We cannot defend all our systems at the same time. An attack will inevitably come. There’s no use in wasting lives. We have to choose our battles wisely.”

“And Moro isn’t deemed important enough to make a stand at?” Jinx countered, feeling comfortable enough with Xar that he wasn’t afraid to question orders or offer his opinions. “What about the shipyards, House Vortigern’s base, the Krri’Graq?”

“And the Renastatian colony?” Xar arched an eyebrow, his words referring to the colony of Renastatian survivors – Jinx’s own people – who had made Ravick, home of House Vortigern, as their new temporary home.

He acknowledged Xar’s words with a nod. “Yes. What about them? We just leave, just like that?”

“Your people are used to that, aren’t they?”

“That’s true,” he admitted. “But where are we supposed to go?”

“I don’t know,” Xar sighed, giving a helpless shrug. He started around the desk to face Jinx more directly. “There’s a lot of options. Erebria, Tralar, Kolath, Ilfaygin…”

“That’s a long trip to make on such short notice,” Jinx countered. “Not everyone would make it. It will take time, several trips, to transport it all.” He paused, then pressed forward with the words he had to say. “Let me bring them here, at least for now.”

“Here? Where am I supposed to find room for them?” Xar asked, an incredulous look on his face. “The city’s filling up near to capacity already. Refugees are already pouring in.”

“Then you shouldn’t notice a few hundred more,” Jinx said tartly. “There should be enough room between the Palace and surrounding areas. We’re not that full here. Please. I know I’m asking a lot, but…”

Xar quickly waved away the rest of his comment. “No, no. It makes sense. That’ll be fine, for now.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Just make sure it’s temporary. Once they’re ready to migrate further away then you’ll need to lead them out of here. And I’ll expect them to help earn their keep while they’re here,” he added.

“Don’t worry,” Jinx said flatly. “Renastatians are accustomed to hard work.”

“Indeed. At any rate, the Moro evacuation has to begin right away. I know it’s abandoning all our hard work there, but when the AD attack we have to hit them with everything we’ve got. We can’t spread our defenses out that thinly.” At Jinx’s sour look, he shook his head and shrugged again. “It’s not fair, but it’s the way it has to be.”

Jinx nodded, sensing the cool calculating logic behind the man’s words. Xar had been changing more and more, and he could feel it more acutely every day, it seemed. It had been gradual, but something about him was definitely different from the leader who had brought House Ar’Kell to Varnus. Now he was willing to make sacrifices Jinx couldn’t imagine him making a few years before. With Moro gone, virtually all that Jacob Skipper had invested in during his time in the NI would be reset from scratch. He wondered if Xar would’ve been willing to do the same if it had been Varnus. “I understand,” he answered finally. “I’ll be on my way immediately.”

At that he bowed slightly and turned toward the door, regretting that he hadn’t been prepared for such a sudden departure. He wouldn’t even be able to tell Rynn he was leaving. Maybe he could comm her on the way out. Would she worry about him?

As he reached the door and pulled it open, he heard Xar’s voice behind him, though the man’s words sounded forced.

“May the Force be with you, Jinx.”

Glancing back over his shoulder once, he moved out into the hallway and closed the door behind him.


* * *



Planet Jengar

2210 Hours Local Time


It was their third sortie escorting evacuees, and Maarek had started to breathe a little easier. With each passing hour more people got offworld, which meant fewer people vulnerable to attack, capture, and worse by the Altarin’Dakor. It also meant less time remaining until they could leave Jengar and be someplace else, and he couldn’t wait. Maarek was glad this phase was about over, and Inferno could be put to good use once more.

The string of transports and shuttles – some of the last to leave – were currently strung out in a line making their way towards the jump point. So far so good, he thought. We’re almost done. Maybe the AD weren’t going after Jengar, after all.

Then suddenly his long-range sensors bleeped, and he cursed silently for his hasty thoughts. At the same time, Rann’s voice came over the commlink.

“Uh… Boss, Two. I think we’ve got company.”

“No kidding. What have we got?”

“This is Seven. Data coming in from Jengar’s scanners now,” Salle Darl announced. “These are AD ships. I repeat, Altarin’Dakor ships. Big ones. Looks like two cruiser-sized craft and five destroyers. A host of smaller ships, too.”

Maarek watched his own sensors as the AD ships dropped out of hyperspace, and his eyes continued to widen as the number of ships increased.

“This is Jengar Control to all fighter escort squadrons,” a new, slightly frantic voice came over the comm. “Altarin’Dakor attack force has entered the system at a distance of three hundred kilometers from your current position. Closing fast. Tracking multiple fighter launches from the cruisers, and more fighters exiting hyperspace. All fighters, escort the transports to the jump point and defend them at all costs. We are activating defense systems now. Jengar out.”

“That’s it people, let’s rock,” Maarek said, leaving no time for comment. “Accelerate to attack speed and shields at maximum. We hit the first wing head-on.”

“Roger that boss, let’s get ‘em!” Rann said eagerly.

As they began to pull away, Maarek also noticed several more transports heading toward the Dreadnaught Galthain, the only NI capital ship in orbit. The Dreadnaught belonged to the House Ar’Kell, meaning the Jedi who occupied Palace Eaglespyre were evacuating as well.

“This is Commander Stele to all fighter squadrons,” Maarek said, assuming command as he was the highest ranked officer present. “You heard the drill. We slow the enemy advance and escort the transports until they can hit hyperspace. This is what we’ve been training for, so do the NI proud. Remember, fight by pairs and you should be okay.”

This is insane, he thought as he cut the commlink and switched back to Inferno’s channel. We can’t take out two cruisers and their fighter compliments, much less the rest of these ships. We’ll be lucky to get out of this alive.

“Here they come, boss,” Rann’s voice came to his ears. Ahead, a group of about fifty dots were rapidly growing brighter. Maarek checked his screens and noticed about eight squadron’s worth of fighters at his back, combining the forces in Eaglespyre with the planetary defense force. The Dreadnaught Galthain seemed to be pulling in line with the transports to offer cover.

“Ten seconds to firing range, everyone,” Maarek said. “Break formation and fire at will.”

Suddenly space lit up with the flares of missile launches, the higher-ranged AD weapons locking on first. Maarek’s missile alert went off, and he quickly targeting the incoming warhead.

Two seconds later the space between the fighters was crossed with continuous beams of energy from the AD fighters’ beam weapons. Maarek barely noticed the NI dots winking out of existence on his screens; he was too busy lining up a shot on the incoming missile. When it hit one klick out, he sent a burst of cycling laser fire out at the warhead. His first two shots missed, but the third hit dead on, detonating the missile a safe distance ahead.

“Now, fire! Fire!” he shouted. The AD ships were in range now. Locking onto one, he sent a pair of advanced concussion missiles streaking out toward it, then quickly targeted another without looking to see what happened. Dozens more missiles shot out from the NI ships, crossing the distance on jets of smoke and crashing into their targets. AD fighters were sent off course as they shields flared up, and quite a few exploded under the force of multiple impacts.

Settling his reticule over another oncoming fighter, he sent a burst of quad-linked laser fire that flashed over his target’s front shields, followed by another and another. The AD fighter opened fire, but at Maarek’s wingman instead. Rann quickly juked out of the way to starboard, taking only a light shield hit. Maarek speared it one more time with quad-linked lasers, finally penetrating the enemy fighter’s shields and incinerating the front-mounted cockpit. The dead fighter flashed by in between him and Wosper, followed by a wave of dozens more.

Maarek pulled a tight loop, Rann following close on his wing, and came down behind the fighters that had just passed. Some AD ships had turned to engage the NI fighters, but many were still continuing forward, obviously eager to chew into the transports with their deadly beam weapons and missiles.

“Keep ‘em away from the transports!” Maarek cried, sending two missiles straight into the rear of his of the fighter in front of him. The explosion staggered the fighter but failed to kill it, but then another dual shot from Rann went through the hole in his shields and blew the fighter out of the sky.

He’s getting better as a wingman, Maarek thought, but quickly switched his focus to the next fighter. Working together, they were able to combine their firepower and hit the enemy with twice the firepower of a lone starfighter. AD ships fell one after another, oblivious in their attempts to reach the transports.

Still, persistence paid off. They couldn’t kill them all in time, and some fighters survived long enough to launch their missiles at the transports. The Dreadnaught Galthain sent a hail of turbolaser blasts that intercepted some of the missiles and blew away a handful of ships, but a half dozen transports took hits. A couple lost shields and started leaking atmosphere. Maarek swore under his breath and redoubled his efforts.

“One, Eight. Another wing is on its way,” Petur Kien announced from within the melee behind Maarek.

Pulling his fighter around, he saw it was true. While NI fighters were occupied with the remnants of the first force, another wing was coming in from the direction of the cruisers. “Come on, we’ve gotta get in front of them and intercept!” Maarek yelled. “Form on me and move in!’

Taking stock of what ships were nearby, Maarek noticed that half of Inferno had stuck with him during the last run, along with a dozen fighters from other squadrons. All the rest were finishing off the first run of AD fighters.

“Let’s do this,” Maarek said, goosing the throttle.

This time they didn’t have as much time to intercept the enemy. “Tracking multiple launches!” Rann announced, and Maarek saw glowing streaks riding smoke trails as the enemy fighters launched more missiles against the transports.

“Intercept,” Maarek said, providing the example by locking onto the nearest missile and opening up with laser fire. His fourth shot hit the missile broadside and detonated it, and he quickly moved to the next one, realizing that the AD fighters were drawing closer by the second.

The other NI ships opened up as well. Altogether they managed to stop around a third of the incoming missiles, then the rest were too far past and out of range. The Galthain and those transports that were armed opened up with defensive fire, taking out another dozen missiles. But the rest got through, and caused much more damage than the first set. One small transport took three solid hits and split open at the seams, transforming into a ball of flame. Other ships lost shields and took hits that blasted armor, making craters in the hull, shattering viewports, and venting fire, atmosphere, and bodies into space.

“Blast it! Protect those transports!” Maarek yelled out into the fray. Then he realized they had more to worry about. Pulling away from the missile run, they found themselves directly in the line of fire of two Altarin’Dakor fighter squadrons. With their enemy well within optimal firing range, the AD ships opened up with their beam weapons.

Maarek sent his fighter into a dive and then pulled sharp series of rolls and evasive maneuvers, generally following an arc that would take him back up to target his attackers. Other NI ships weren’t as skilled, however. Several fighters exploded outright as they were speared through by beams, and X-Wings and TIE Avengers had their wings and solar panels sheared way, their fighters sent out of the action. Not that they were exempt from further attack – those that didn’t eject were destroyed within their fighters in the second exchange.

“Still on your wing, boss,” Rann’s voice said in his ear. “Lets take it to ‘em.”

“Copy,” Maarek said, finally coming up into the wake of an enemy fighter. He and Rann opened up together, sending four missiles into its fuselage, punching through the shields and blowing the ship into a thousand fragments.

“Look out, you’ve picked one up!” Rann shouted.

Maarek juked right, but an instant too late. His fighter rocked as he took the hit, a boom and screeching sound assaulting his ears. His screens overloaded briefly, and his secondary display panel burst apart in a shower of sparks. Quickly taking control, Maarek turned his wild spin into a controlled maneuver, cutting the throttle to half and cutting a barrel roll that put him on his enemy’s tail as he shot past.

“He’s on me now! Can’t shake him!” Rann cried out, juking and diving to avoid the enemy’s deadly beam shots.

“Hang on, I’m on his six,” Maarek said, matching the two fighter’s maneuvers with his own. “On my word, break hard left… Mark!”

Rann’s fighter shot to port, and the enemy immediately turned to follow, diving right into Maarek’s two advanced concussion missiles launched in that direction. The first sent his shield rippling from the impact, and the second cut through a lucky gap, hitting the fighter’s left wing and shearing it clean off. The fighter went into an uncontrolled spin toward the planet’s surface below, but Maarek wasn’t satisfied.

They killed ejected and helpless pilots, simply for the fun of the kill. Anyone like that deserved to die. Maarek turned toward the spinning fighter, his vision going red as a familiar thought brushed through his consciousness.

All those who fight are my enemies! He pulled the trigger, sending another missile out that slammed into the side of the fighter, cracking it in half before detonating, consuming it in flame. Maarek thought he saw the pilot’s body rocketed through his own transparisteel canopy from the force of the blow.

“Uh… Nice one, boss,” Rann said, his voice unsteady. “How’d you take that hit, by the way?”

“Don’t know.” Maarek blinked, then looked down at his instruments, and noticed his shield display still working. “That son of a… he didn’t!”

“Who didn’t what?”

“Remind me to thank Balfin for not listening,” Maarek said, shaking his head. Somehow he must have slipped the shield upgrade back in when Maarek had thought he was replacing the old one. That extra ten percent shield had saved his engine from a direct hit by the AD fighter’s beam.

“Will do that. But we’d better finish up here. The transports are almost to the jump point and… By Palpatine’s bones, what in space is that?!”

Maarek turned his fighter back toward the approaching enemy line, and his heart nearly leapt out of his chest. “No…” he gasped.

Ahead, the starfield had been totally blocked away by the dark shape that had emerged from hyperspace. It completely dwarfed the two AD cruisers in the distance, making them look almost like toys. His sensors read it as just above thirty-two kilometers from bow to distant stern. He had never seen this particular ship before, but there was no question as to what it was.

This is Jengar Planetary Control to all NI ships. An Altarin’Dakor Titan-class Battleship has just entered the system! Recommend you escape as soon as possible!”

Maarek switched back to Inferno’s frequency as an apparent argument started between the Galthain and Planetary Control. But he for one had no compunctions about who was going to win this battle. They might have had a chance of success before, but now there was no hope for anything but a quick death if they stayed.

“All ships pull back and escort the transports,” he ordered. “They’re almost to the jump point. We’re following them out.”

Suiting actions to words, he pulled back toward the distant line of transports noticing the dots that were Inferno Squadron pulling out of combat and heading toward him as well. The AD fighters seemed content to let them leave for the moment, as the Titan loomed larger and larger as it approached, eclipsing Jengar’s sun. The lead transports started jumping into hyperspace, flashing off into the distance too fast for the eye to follow.

Then Maarek’s missile alert went off once more. Going wide eyed, he checked his screens and noticed two blips coming at him, launched from a long AD fighter out in front of the others. Ignoring Wosper’s startled cry, Maarek pulled away from the warheads and punched his throttle up to full.

One chance at this. I hope I’m not rusty, he thought, steeling his nerves. He watched the proximity indicator as the lead missile closed in, closing from ten kilometers, to five, to two, and finally to one.

“Boss, eject!” Rann yelled.

Ignoring him, Maarek waited one more second, then cut the throttle from his port engine and pulled back on the stick, sending the fighter into a seemingly wild spin, his signature move. Anyone else would have thought he’d lost control, but he’d worked hard to perfect this technique. It had put him on the tails of many pursuing fighters, and now he hoped that it would work on missiles as well.

The first missile flashed by underneath with plenty of room to spare. The second one he thought missed by about two meters, enough to bathe his cockpit in blue light. Completing his spin and cutting the port engine back in, Maarek let out his indrawn breath and goosed the throttle. The first warhead detonated as his quad burst of fire hit it. Then the second warhead cut to port, executing an incredibly sharp turn to come back at Maarek’s fighter.

But he had expected that. Just as the second missile shot off toward him, Maarek centered it in his reticule and fired, spearing the warhead dead on. It exploded brilliantly, then slowly faded into a cloud of expanding gas.

As Maarek continued to pull away, a new voice suddenly burst over the commlink, in heavily accented but passable Basic.

“This is Naguis’Voxavit Kamren Thansil to New Imperium pilot. You fly well. I want to know your name.”

Maarek half-grinned and hit the send button on his commlink. “Commander Maarek Stele of the NI Starfleet, happy to oblige. Send some more torps our way and you’ll see more of the same.”

“We will meet again, Maarek Stele,” the Altarin’Dakor said in simple words. “I want to meet you in fighter combat. You may be a good opponent.”

“Anytime,” Maarek replied. “I’ll be waiting. But bring some friends, I get bored easily, and I don’t want to have an unfair advantage.”

The AD commander didn’t reply again, and Maarek shook his head ruefully. He halfway wanted to turn back and take him out right now, but with the Titan’s support it would be a suicide run. I’ll get you next time, he thought angrily.

Just then he saw the drive flares of the surviving transports flash ahead, as the ships rocketed into hyperspace. With that, the mission was accomplished.

“We’re ready to jump when you are, boss,” Rann Wosper’s voice came over the link. “We gonna hang around here or what?”

“Negative, Two. We’re outta here,” Maarek said. Then, pulling back slightly on the stick, he looked out the canopy one last time at the receding blue-green sphere that was Jengar. He’d wanted to leave this world, but not under these kind of circumstances. We didn’t nearly save them all, he thought, frustrated. He wondered how many down there would die because of that. This place just wasn’t defended well enough. We never had a chance.

He wondered if any NI world did.

“Let’s go, Inferno Squad,” he said. Setting his fighter back on course, he locked in with the other fighters’ navicomps, and activated the hyperdrive. Inferno had taken no losses, this time. They’d been lucky. The stars stretched to starlines, and then they were gone, leaving yet another system in the hands of the enemy.

He was afraid this might be something he would have to repeat again soon.


* * *


Meditation Chamber

Titan-class Command Ship Grand Crusader

Planet Du’nitha, Dorchav Sector

Altarin’Dakor Space


In the center of his grand command chamber, surrounded by monitors and controls that would give him access to resources all across his vast empire, the Shok’Thola Nimrod watched the reports coming to him from Epsilon Sector. Silently brooding upon the various plots and sub-plots occurring throughout the territory, he analyzed every development, saw each move and where it would eventually lead. Nothing escaped his watchful eye. And so far, things were proceeding exactly as planned.

In some ways it was rather anti-climactic, facing such a pitiful force after twenty-five millennia of preparation and planning. Nimrod had faced enemies a thousand times stronger than the New Imperium and emerged victorious. He didn’t understand how they had caused so much trouble to Kronos, Mordachus, Velius and others, but he was not going to underestimate them as the others had done. Everything was planned, leaving no room for luck this time. Zalaria was the only factor that made it halfway interesting – though even she could not begin to match wits with him. She had made a foolish choice, and soon she would be under his control again, and learn the error of her ways.

According to his plan, the New Imperium would be completely subjugated within the space of a month, and his forces would already be in a position to use Epsilon Sector as a staging base for the rest of the invasion. From there, the main force of his fleet would come into play, sweeping across the entire galaxy. The insignificant little government known as the New Imperium was only an annoyance, merely one percent of the entire plan he had devised for retaking the galaxy. Coruscant, Corellia, Bothawui, Fondor, Kuat, Nal Hutta, and every other major world were part of that plan. Once his forces were in place, they would sweep across an unsuspecting galaxy as no enemy ever had, shutting down the HoloNet, moving along the hyperspace trade routes, and using each success as a platform to launch even stronger attacks. Within approximately a standard year after the fall of the New Imperium, it would all be over. And then he would be the undisputed master of them all. The others, such as Asellus, currently wreaking havoc among a small empire known as the Ssi-Ruuk, were of but minor importance. Nimrod was in control, now. He was the master of this galaxy, now.

Suddenly a holographic image sprang to life over one of his control panels, revealing the image of a low-bowed woman, her hair a flowing blue waterfall, her skin white as snow.

Kodonn’Dakor Ssarlathia,” Nimrod’s voice boomed, like low thunder echoing through a deep valley.

“Great Lord, I am in position on the planet called Erebria,” his Jedicon reported in a silky-smooth tone of voice. Kalaran is ready on Varnus, and Nobien has seen to preparation in the Moro System as well. Also, Yunn reports that he is ready to proceed on Tralaria at your command.”

“Unimportant details do not concern me,” Nimrod said to the image. “You know the time to move.” He had given explicit instructions when each of his powerful Jedicon were to sabotage and disrupt the enemy’s key locations. She would not have called simply to tell him she was in position.

“Yes Great Lord,” Ssarlathia said humbly. Yunn only wishes to know when he should strike.”

From within the deep recesses of his technological suit of armor, Nimrod studied the kneeling figure in the holograph. “That matter is of importance to me. I will not tolerate failure in this. When your task there is complete, you will join him. Then you shall strike.”

The Jedicon was shocked, but managed to conceal it externally. “Of course, Great Lord. Together we shall have no trouble killing their leader.”

“I trust not,” Nimrod said, ending the discussion. Ssarlathia stood, her red eyes glowing with fearsome determination, then her image slowly faded from his vision.

Turning back to his main display, Nimrod watched the holographic model of this galaxy spinning slowly in front of him – his new domain. New plans conjuring in his mind, he began giving out further instructions to his Naguis’Vox’Indant and territorial monarchs. All were pieces on the game board, there to be moved according to his design. And then, when he had control of not one galaxy, but two… Then his ultimate plans could finally begin. And then all would tremble at the mention of his name.

“My sister, what a foolish mistake you have made,” he spoke into the void. If the time came when Altima demanded her death, then he would perform the act without question. But for now, instead, it was expressly forbidden, and the only thing that could mean was that Altima wanted to deal with her treason personally. “In many ways, I pity you, sister. I do pity you.”


The End of Part One:

Darkening Skies


By Joshua Ausley

a.k.a. Xar “Sauron” Kerensky

Copyright New Imperium 2001


Next: Part Two - Path of Fury


As clandestine Altarin’Dakor forces move unseen within their space, the New Imperium must mount a defense against the increasing, inexorable assault by the Warlord Nimrod’s forces. Faced with sabotage and assassination attempts, the NI must find the strength to persevere. Maarek Stele’s Inferno Squadron has a close encounter with the AD forces at Talas, while the NI’s First Fleet desperately tries to evacuate the Moro System, before an unstoppable Altarin’Dakor strike force arrives to annihilate everything…