Chapter One

Captains Log: Stardate 45792.3

The Enterprise has been removed from patrol duty along the neutral zone and dispatched to the Orion Gammalon system to an observation platform that has been monitoring an unusually large metrion nebula. Apparently the nebula has begun to expand around the remote station and we need to recover its recording equipment before the nebula engulfs it completely.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise –D sat in his chair on the smooth, contoured bridge. Around him various ensigns worked the controls, conversing with each otherquietly. Jean-Luc stared out into the bridge monitor, watching the stars streak by. He enjoyed these calm reflective moments; they seemed to be coming more infrequently of late. The Enterprise always seemed to be exactly in the right place at the right time for something to go wrong. Not that he was complaining, he wouldn't trade this post for even the admiralty. He was always on his toes and this time was no different, unexpected things had happened under even more routine missions.

On the platform above him, Chief Engineer Geordi Laforge and Lieutenant Commander Data were finalizing an appropriate transporter modulation for use near the nebula. " Hmm, maybe if we couple transporters two and five together, we can increase the transportation range," said Geordi, examining a representation of the nebula on the display screen. Data tapped a few buttons, entering the situation. " That will decrease the time elapse of the Enterprise's exposure to high levels of metrion by twenty five seconds," Data replied, still looking at the display. Geordi entered the new data into his recording pad. " All right, I'm going down to engineering. We'll want to get that station's information into the computer as soon as we get the core on board." He walked to the turbolift as it opened. From it walked Commander William Riker, fresh from breakfast in Ten-Forward. Geordi gave the commander a nod of respect and continued past him into the waiting turbolift.

Riker took his seat to the right of the captain. " Feeling better Number One?" Picard asked with a slight smile. The second in command had been recovering from a bought of Tammaranian flu which had placed him out of duty. It was remarkable, Picard mused, that even a mild, non-threatening virus could take one of the Federation's best officers out of commission for days. Riker gave a little nod, a smile drifting across his face. " Well, Doctor Crusher's bedside manner is one of the perks of serving on this ship." It was true; Beverly Crusher and her staff had treated nearly everyone on the ship, and had saved the lives of more than a few of them.

The two officers sat in silence for a few moments. After weeks traversing the depths of space, one ran out of things to talk about. Besides, Jean-Luc was one for small talk, at least not in the morning. Fortunately, the ensign at the helm, Pierce Picard remembered, broke the awkward silence. " Entering the Orion Gammalon system sir," he said checking the ship's position on the terminal in front of him. The captain and Riker straitened up in their chairs. "Slow to impulse speed," ordered Riker.

Picard watched the starlines shrink away, revealing the glimmering blackness of space, a faint shimmering in the distance. "Is that the nebula?" the captain asked, hunching forward. "Aye sir," replied the ensign. "Magnifying now."

The viewscreen changed, revealing an up close look at the stellar anomaly. Most metrion nebulae were very small and unstable, rarely larger than a small moon. This one however was vast, covering most of the systems western quadrant. It shimmered with minute gravimetric distortions and ion pluses. Some federation scientist had postulated a metrion field of sufficient size might be used to open a stable wormhole, facilitating exploration and travel throughout the galaxy beyond the capabilities of any warp capable starship. This is why a passing science vessel a few months previous, in order to try and chart the behavior of the unstable cloud, had dropped the small, automated monitoring satellite. Unfortunately, the cloud had begun to destabilize and expand threatening disable or destroy the drone. The Enterprise was to move close by, transport the entire satellite onboard, and depart before the dangerous metrion radiation began to affect the crew. A difficult maneuver, but the captain his crew was up to the job.

As the ship moved closer to the coruscating mass, Data reported from the science station. "The Enterprise will be in optimal transport range in five minutes," he stated. Riker stood up and walked over to Data's station. "How long can we stay in the nebula's radiation field before the crew starts being effected," he asked, looking over Data's shoulder at the screen. The android responded promptly. "Even with our shields lowered for transport, it should take fifty seconds for the crew to start feeling any adverse effects." Data typed in a few figures. "With shields raised, eight minutes. Sufficient time to retrieve the monitoring station and pass beyond the radiation field." Still, Riker thought, it wasn't a very wide margin of error. But he, like the captain, trusted the crew. Just in case though, the Doctor was standing by with radiation treatments for the crew.

As Riker walked back to his chair, the other helm officer, a Vulcan by the name of Lomout reported. "Entering the nebula's radiation field. Transportation range in three minutes."

Down in the main cargo hold, Transporter Chief Miles O'Brien was making some last minute adjustments to the particle reception pad. He much preferred using the personnel transporters on the main decks, but the Satellite was a bit too large. The Chief looked up as two engineers brought in the hoverlift they were going to use to transfer the observers core to engineering. Geordi was worried that the core had been corrupted by the radiation and wanted what was left of the information in the Enterprise's protected electronic storage pathways before any more damage could be done.

Miles was about to back to his calibrations when he noticed Engineering Lieutenant Barclay on the other side of a stack of crates, a safe distance from the transporter. The chief shook his head. Barclay had been sent to help O'Brien with the last minute transporter modifications, but he hadn't been much help so far. "Hey Barclay," Miles called in his thick, Irish accent, annoyance tingeing he voice. "The transporter isn't going to bite you ya know." Barclay muttered something unintelligible and embarrassed, trying to make himself look busy with a data pad.


Barclay looked up, a faint red tone developing in his cheeks. " I…. um, was checking the uhh…distortion levels from the nebula," he said, still jabbing at the pad. O'Brien shrugged his shoulders expectantly. "Oh, um. The readings all check out. You're clear to… um proceed," with this, Barclay started to wander off toward the two engineers with the hoverlift, further from the transporter. O'Brien shook his head again sighing. Barclay was notoriously difficult to work with, even since his therapy with counselor Troi. At least no one called him Broccoli anymore, a name young Wes Crusher had come up with. The captain had ordered that stopped when he himself had let it slip in Barclay's presence. The chief finished his last minute check and had walked to the control pad when he got the order.

Picard's voice came over the comm, "You may transport when ready Mr. O'Brien."

Back on the bridge, things started to go wrong. An indicator on the science display began blinking. Data analyzed it quickly. "Sir, I'm reading a surge in ionic activity emanating from the nebula." On the viewscreen, the cloud of energized particles began to change color, shimmering from sliver to cerulean in a roiling wave. An alarm klaxon sounded. Ensign Lomout called from the sensor station. " Metrion radiation levels rising exponentially." Data worked the science station at lightning speed. "Dangerous levels of radiation in eight seconds." Riker jumped to his feet. "Shields up!" As Worf, who was at Ops, punched in the command, the cloud began to boil, shooting out jets of matter, blocking the satellite from view. One of those jets was hurtling towards the Enterprise.

"Evasive action! Move us out of range!" ordered the captain, moving to the chair of the helm officer. The Enterprise dove under the roiling wave and preformed a sharp 160-degree turn and hurtled away from the collapsing nebula. The violent turn threw those standing on the bridge to the floor. Behind the fleeing starship, the stellar cloud continued to release massive streams on metrion particles. Then the jets pulled back, and with them rest of the nebula. The shimmering field swirled momentarily into a miniature spiral galaxy, and then in a blinding flash of light, the cloud disappeared.

Riker was helping Picard to his feet. He dusted himself of and stared into the viewscreen. "Report." Data scrambled back to his consol and checked it. "I am not entirely sure sir. The nebula may have reacted in an unexpected manner when subjected to our transporters."

"Damage report."

Worf looked over his controls. "No structural damage. We were able to pass out of range before the radiation levels became dangerous." His display blinked. "No reports of casualties." Riker finished collecting himself, and then tapped his comm badge. "Chief, did you get the satellite before we raised shields?" There was no response. "Chief?"

Then a reply came, "No sir, I lost the probe but… well, you better get a security detail down here." Riker and Picard exchanged dubious glances. It looked like the recovery mission was about more interesting, and on the Enterprise, interesting things rarely ended well.

Chapter Two

Riker, along with Worf and a detail of armed security officers disembarked from the turbolift on deck 15, rushing through the halls towards the main cargo bay. The officers they passed in the halls, some still disoriented by the abrupt maneuvers, pushed out of their way. When the team came to the cargo bay door, they found it open, and moved inside. Several people including Chief O'Brien were clustered around the transporter pad, which did not, in fact, hold the science satellite. Upon closer inspection, it was evident that there were in fact bodies. Five humanoid forms lying on the platform. Riker sprinted over to O'Brien to ask what had happened, if there had been an accident among the crew, but he stopped dead when he got a closer look at the prone forms.

One at least was obviously human, a black-haired young man, perhaps eighteen years old. He was the most normal of the group. Next to him lay a blue-skinned humanoid alien woman. Instead of hair, she sported two shoulder length tentacles that sprouted from the back of her head. Across from the female sprawled the two strangest of the group, both more than two meters tall. One was vaguely saurian, brownish skin contrasting with the metallic plates it had plastered to its body. The other was similarly built, with reverse jointed legs covered in some form of armor. It had scaly gray skin, and its wide head seemed to possess no mouth. The final figure was a colossus of green and gunmetal, as tall as the larger aliens. It's opaque golden face plate gave no sign of it was machine, man, or alien.

O'Brien, noting the commander's presence, straightened up and approached him.

"What happened?" Riker asked bewilderedly, still staring at the presumably unconscious forms. The chief shook his head. He was obviously as confused as Riker. "I don't know sir. I had engaged the transporter beam and there was an energy surge. I almost lost the signal when you put up the shields, but I got 'em through," O'Brien said, and then looked back at the pad. The security team as well as a few of the engineering staff was now clustered around the pad. A few of the officers had checked the pulses of the human and blue-skinned alien. They were alive, but their pulses were erratic. Someone called for Doctor Crusher. No one even got close to the other three. O'Brien looked back at Riker, giving a small shrug. "Of course, I don't know who they are or how they got in the transporter beam."

When Doctor Crusher arrived, she set about moving the beings on the pad to the med lab. They were able to transport four of them, but the fifth, the armored one, had to be moved via hoverlift. Something about its armor disrupted the transport beam. O'Brien wasn't even sure how he'd been stable enough to enter the beam in the first place. When all of them were safely in the med bay, Beverly Crusher set about figuring out who or what they were.

Nurse Onigawa ran a medical tricorder over the blue female, who was lying, still unconscious on one of the med lab's beds. "Her physiology is similar to a humans; warm-blooded, spinal column, nervous system all very similar. Looks like she just needs some time to wake up."

Dr. Crusher was looking over the saurian in the metal armor. "Hmm, wish this one was that simple." She flipped the tricorder she was holding shut in exasperation. "I have no point of reference for this one's nervous system. Same with the other too." She gestured to the gray-scaled alien on a nearby table. In both cases, Beverly had opted to leave their armor on. She had no idea what purpose it served in either case. It could be life support for all she knew. The fully armored one was even more difficult. The ships sensors had been able to detect a life sign in the midst of the metal and circuitry, but some kind of energy field was surrounding it, and the Doctor didn't want to try and cut through it unless absolutely necessary.

She sighed and placed the scanner on an adjoining table. Well, I guess there's nothing for it but monitor their life signs and wait for one to wake up. I can't even figure out why he's unconscious." She looked over the black-hair human in mild exasperation. He was perfectly healthy as far as she could tell. There was no indicator of who he was on him, and he was only carrying a small, metal tube. The item, along with the other equipment found on his companions, had been brought down to engineering for analysis. "No molecular breakdown, no concussion, no unidentifiable chemicals in his blood stream. As far as I can tell, he's just asleep."

Beverly walked over to the med bay replicator and stated "Tea, hot."

The alcove hummed for a moment, and in a flash of light, a cup of steaming liquid appeared. The doctor sipped the beverage, looked at her patients again in a mixture of puzzlement and exasperation, and then headed for her office. "I'll be logging their progress. Keep me informed if there are any changes," she called to nurse Onigawa. The officer responded in the affirmative and went back to scanning the female.

Down in Main Engineering, the main conference table was strewn with items found on the Enterprise's "guests." Geordi Laforge entered the chamber, passing the pair of yellow-garbed security officers who were flanking the door. Ever since the transporter mishap, Worf had upped security all over the ship, especially around med bay and the engineering section. Geordi walked up to Data, who was examining a device found the saurian being, looked up. "Have you figured out what it is?" Geordi asked, taking the object from Data's hands. It was large, almost to big for Geordi to hold in one hand. A smooth, bluish-green covering encased the object, shaped like an elongated, angular U.

"I believe it is a weapon, directed plasma judging by the discharge mechanism," Data stated evenly. Geordi hefted it into a firing position, both hands supporting its opalescent form. "I've never seen anything like it. Did the computer come up with anything?" Data moved to a consul inset into the table. "There is no record in the computer of such a device ever being employed by a race encountered by the federation." Geordi placed the weapon back on the table and picked one of the metallic tubes that had been found on the human and the blue alien. He examined it closely, his visor picking up faint emission from within it. Locating what looked like an emitter on one end, he pointed it towards the ceiling and pressed a panel on the side. A beam of blue energy erupted from the end, but instead of burning into the ceiling plate, it remained still, a spike of energy sprouting from the metal handle. Data approached with a tricorder and scanned the beam. "It seems to be hyper concentrated light energy. However, the energy is folding back on its self rather than dissipating." Geordi averted his gaze, the blade beginning to his light-sensitive visor. "Perhaps it's a cutting tool. A beam like this ought to be able to slice through solid duranium," he said.

The other items on the table included the second beam-projecting device, a small communications unit, a large deadly looking implement covered in purple spikes, and the extensive armament found on the green-armored being. Two projectile weapons, several explosive devices, some Data had determined were primitive petrochemical ignition devices, and a deadly looking ten centimeter long serrated knife.

As Data and Geordi were trying to determine what material the plasma weapon was made out of, the Captain's voice came over the ship's comm. "Have you been able to identify any of the equipment yet engineering?" Geordi hit his insignia, "Well sir, we've been able to determine that whoever they are, they were carrying a lot weaponry. However, none of the devices are noted in the ships computer. But were still analyzing them sir." The response came back a moment later. "Keep at it Mr. Laforge. Have a report ready for sixteen hundred hours." Geordi looked at the table of strange and varied items and sighed. Give him a warp core failure any day. "We'll have a report ready sir."

Back on the bridge, captain Picard sat, waiting. After the incident near the nebula, the Enterprise had withdrawn to the outskirts of the Orion Gammalon system and was awaiting instructions from Starfleet Command. Picard had sent a report detailing the nebula's unexpected collapse and what little they new of their "guests," but due to Orion Gammalon's proximity to several neutron stars and other disruptive phenomena, it would take several hours for the message to wend its way through the Starfleet communications network. In the meantime, all the captain could do was monitor the area where the metrion cloud had once been.

Evidently, the point where the formation had imploded had become choked with so much radiation that it was impossible for the pick up any accurate readings of the area, or for the Enterprise to approach safely within accurate imaging range for that matter.

Growing increasingly antsy, he gave bridge control over to Riker and retired to his ready room. Sipping a cup of Earl Grey tea, the captain decided to pass the time with some music. "Computer, Beethoven's Fifth symphony in E major." As the melody filled the room, the captain leaned back to reflect. The current situation was unsettling. Even though Captain Picard had more experience in first contact situations than any other officer in the fleet, they usually involved meetings in space or careful and well-planned contact on worlds nearing warp drive capability. This time was different. He had five sentient beings unconscious in his med lab, and at least three of them were completely different, unknown species. Such a predicament would make any commanding officer uncomfortable. What made it worse, neither he nor anyone else in his crew knew how are why they had arrived on his ship.

The captain's thoughts were interrupted by the ping of the comm. "Captain, one of the guests is coming around," Riker said, the element of excitement audible in his voice. "On my way Number One." The captain shut off the music and moved toward the door. Now they might be getting somewhere.

Chapter Three

There it was again. That metal disk. Just floating there, waiting for John to reach out and grab it, but as he did, he felt a sinking feeling, and the disc ballooned into a massive ring. The Halo. He was falling towards it, no time to react…

Spartan-117, code name Master Chief woke with a start, and quickly wished he hadn't. His head felt cold and numb, like it was filled with ice. Maybe he was waking up from cryosleep. The Chief tried to remember where he was. Ah, yes, the last thing he remembered was being in the clutches of that monstrous alien thing, the Gravemind it called itself. He could remember being saved from a Covenant bombardment by the twisted creature, then being tossed and turned as it lectured him about the flood, the Covenant, and the entire universe. There was more, but he couldn't clear his cloudy mind enough to think of it. Finally, the soldier regained enough of his wits to try and get up, but something was holding him down. He checked the heads-up displays that typically populated the interior of his helmet, but they were gone. All he could see was a bright light a white ceiling directly above him.

"Cortana," he mumbled, remembering how to talk. "Cortana, what's our situation?" For a moment nothing happened, and then a sharp pain split his cranium. The pulse of discomfort lingered for a moment, and then faded, leaving only a cool presence in his brain. The A.I.'s link with his mind. All of a sudden, his helmet HUD's started coming back online, comm line, health monitor, shield status all appearing before his eye's all showing acceptable readings. All accept the motion tracker, which was swarming with targets. The Spartan tried to rise again, but he was still restrained. Then Cortana's voice came over his helmet's internal speaker. "That was…unusual." The feminine voice sounded bewildered, more so than Master Chief had ever heard the construct.

"What happened Cortana?" Master Chief asked again, growing more agitated as he struggled against what ever was holding him down. "The last thing that I registered was that flood creature telling you that you had to retrieve the index. I thought he was sending us to a Covenant ship," she replied and then paused, evidently analyzing the surroundings. "But this definitely not a covenant ship. I'm picking up thermal readings typical of humans all around us." That was very unexpected. Why would the flood send them back into human hands? "Are we onboard Keyes's ship?" the Chief asked, confused. Cortana responded, "I'm not sure, my remote interface ability seems to be down right now… wait, there's a human approaching our position." A moment later, a black haired woman came into view, running some device the Chief couldn't identify over his helmet.

"Why am I being restrained?" the Spartan asked, keying his external comm on with a thought. The woman jumped back, startled, dropping her device. Then he heard her calling someone and another woman came forward, her face filling his screen. "Can you hear me?" she asked with enthusiasm. An unusual question, why wouldn't he be able to hear her? His status display told him he was not injured. "Spartan 117 reporting ma'am. I can hear you fine," he responded in a crisp, formal tone. The woman seemed taken back with the clarity of his answer. "Why am I being restrained?" he pushed, again trying to rise. The woman responded, fidgeting with her red hair, "I didn't know why or how you were unconscious, so the restraining field was put in place in case you started to spasm." If he had really been out of it for them to move him to an operating table, why hadn't they removed his armor? A quick check of his shield status display gave him his answer, for some reason, it had been locked on. He shut off the invisible screen and felt himself slump down into the table a centimeter. "My am uninjured ma'am. If you would disable the holding mechanism, Cortana and I need to make a report to the commander." The woman looked confused, "You know where you are?"

"This is the UNSC frigate under the command of Miranda Keyes?" this was the only reasonable explanation; no other human craft had jumped into slipspace perusing the Prophet of Regret's ship, and they were nowhere near UNSC space. The redheaded woman grew even more confused. "Well, no this is…" she paused looking over her shoulder. "The captain had better explain it to you." The figure backed out the Chief's range of vision and he felt his arms and legs suddenly free. The Spartan rose and assessed the room he was in. "This is definitely not any UNSC ship I've ever been on," Cortana commented, still on internal speaker. Master Chief had to agree with her. Rather than the sharp angles, metal walls and fixtures and military notations that made up the interior of human naval craft, this room looked like a waiting area a spa resort. The walls and ceilings were gently curved, colored in soft shades of white, blue and tan. Above the carpeted floor were several beds, some of them occupied.

Stranger even than the surroundings were the men and woman who stood around Master Chief. Instead of the green fatigues of the marines or the drab, formal uniforms of fleet officers, these humans wore comfortable-looking black pants and vibrantly colored shirts ranging form red to yellow. One of them, a tall, bald man wearing a red tunic stepped forward and offered his hand with a small smile. "I am captain Jean-Luc Picard of the United Fedoration of Planets. Welcome aboard the Enterprise." Protocol forgotten, the Chief stared at the man. He had never heard of such an organization. Was this a delusion, a covenant trick? In the back his mind, he could hear Cortana mumble, "Looks like were not in Kansas anymore."

"… And when I reactivated, the Master Chief and I were in your medical facility." Cortana's shimmering female representation spoke from the main viewer in the Enterprise's command staff briefing room, which possessed no holographic projector. Master Chief was sitting at the conference table, listening to Cortana's abridged dissertation on UNSC history and how she had found herself aboard the Enterprise. For security reasons, she had skimped on most of the details, but Cortana had decided to at least explain to their impromptu hosts who she and the Spartan where. After all, they had not seemed to be hostile, but the Chief was still on edge, ready to retrieve Cortana's transfer matrix from the Enterprise's computer and defend himself at a moments notice. The introduction served another purpose as well; Cortana was covertly attempting to enter the ships mainframe and ascertain if the humans were being deceptive or planning to detain them. So far, she had come up negative.

The bridge crew watched the display in rapt fascination. Encounters with extra-dimensional beings were incredibly rare, even if most of the occurrences in Starfleet's history had involved the Enterprise, so the situation had to be treated with the utmost care and attention. The artificial intelligence known as Cortana, which Data had tentatively analyzed as being far more advanced than himself, had over the last hour passed on an account of humanity being pushed to the edge of extinction by a conglomeration of fanatically religious alien species known as the Covenant. She had given them a brief description of the Spartans, super warriors who were the last line of defense for the human race, one of which was seated at the table. Finally, the A.I. had explained how the soldier, known as Master Chief, had been sent to capture or assassinate the alien leadership, and had nearly died in the process. The Chief, with her in his armor, had been saved by a hideous creature of a parasitic species Cortana called the Flood and had been conscripted by it to stop the Covenant from inadvertently unleashing a device that would eradicate all life in the galaxy, including itself. She seemed to either not know how they had arrived onboard the Enterprise or was withholding information.

When Cortana had finished, captain Picard, who was seated at the opposite end of the room, spoke up, "Fascinating. You said that this creature, this "Gravemind" teleported you to stop the Covenant from activating this super weapon?" It all sounded far-fetched, but the Captain had encountered far stranger. The representation of Cortana nodded. "Yes, but I don't know why he would send us here. Perhaps our arrival here was a simple accident." Picard frowned, thinking. If these two knew anything about the nebula's collapse, they were withholding it. He would just have to see if anyone of the other beings still motionless in the med bay could divulge any answers.

Doctor Crusher, who was seated near Master Chief, addressed Cortana, "Did you recognize any of the others in the med lab before you left?" Beverly was perplexed by the status of her other patients, none of whom had so much as twitched since their arrival. "One of them is an Elite. The same one that was held with me by the Gravemind." Master Chief had not spoken very much, preferring to let Cortana handle the introductions, so his measured, low voice was somewhat startling.

"Elites?" Riker questioned. The Chief still found it hard to talk to people who had never heard of the Covenant, and was still using code words and mannerisms that would be meaningless to the humans of this ship. Cortana explained, "Elites are the highest warrior class among the Covenant. They are brutal, efficient, and have a religious fervor to the point of insanity." Worf let out a small growl, "I shall increase Security in Med Bay." The Chief smiled humorlessly behind his mask. "Yes. Yes, you should."

After Picard gave his own brief history, of the Fedoration and his ship. It seemed the human's in it had had fairly easy time, with no major wars for years and a fairy stable political environment. There only potential enemies, the Cardassians and Romulans, were docile compared to the genocidal Covenant. After this briefing, Captain Picard rose. "Well, we have all had a long day. I have had quarters prepared for you, and someone will come by and brief you on its facilities. We can continue this tomorrow, when hopefully more of the others have awakened." Master Chief graciously accepted his offer, and after picking up Cortana's memory cube, departed the room. In spite of the fact that he did not know the true motives of his hosts, there was little he could do escorted by armed guards on an unknown starship without any hope of back up. The best course of action was to go with the flow and be ready for action if it was called for. As his old instructor Sergeant Menedez had put it, "Don't rock the boat. But if you have to rock the boat, make sure it sinks."

As the green-armored soldier walked away down the hall flanked by security officers, Picard turned back to his crew, "Any thoughts?" Deanna Troi, the ship's half Betazoid counselor spoke up, "I couldn't sense any deception from the soldier. I believe he is as confused about the situation as we are." All throughout the conference, Deanna had remained silent, focusing her empathic senses on Master Chief, but she had been unable to uncover anything more than a faint feeling of curiosity. Worf grumbled, "I would still like to keep the ship at a guarded alert level. Until we know more about them, they are still a threat to security." The captain nodded. "Very well. All we can do now is wait for the others to recover." He turned to Riker. "Number one, keep the ship on its standard schedule. We don't want any more rumors spreading through than are already out there. And all of you should get some rest. I would imagine tomorrow will be quiet busy."

Chapter Four

As Master Chief walked down the smooth, brightly light hallway, he noted the reactions of officers that he passed in interest. He expected that they would shrink against walls or dodge into doorways in an attempt to avoid him. Not that he wanted to be treated with fear, but he had come to expect it. Back amongst UNSC officers and even marines, even though he was a hero and had the admiration and respect of virtually every human in existence, those who actually encountered him in person were often unnerved or even downright scared by his armored alien appearance. This reaction was in fact shared by many of the people he passed, but not all of them. Some moved aside slowly, looking at his green armor with more fascination than animosity. A few barely even noticed the armor clad figure, pushing aside just enough to get by him and the flanking escorts. The Chief found the possibility that they were just plain braver than the men and woman he served with was farfetched. More likely, they were simply much more accustomed to seeing the unknown and it not trying to cave-in their faces with a plasma blast. Wistfully, he wondered what life would be like if the Covenant had offered an olive branch to humanity at their first contact, rather than summarily glassing the planet Harvest, the act of genocide that served as the begging to the decades-long war. But such flights of fancy were for philosophers and authors, and Master Chief was a neither. He was a soldier, born and bred.

After a short trip down a lift, his escorts halted, flanking a tan door. One, a broad shouldered man with thin, black hair gestured to it. "Your quarters sir." The Chief approached and the door slid open, revealing yet another surprise. The room was very spacious, upholstered with warm fabrics and adorned with smooth, stylized furniture. A large bank of windows along one side of the chamber revealed a panoramic view of the starfield outside. "These look like an admiral's quarters. You boys shouldn't have," Cortana drawled over the external comm. If the guide was alarmed by the new voice emanating from the Chief's helmet, he didn't show it. "These are regular guest's quarters," he said and then turned to a small alcove on the wall. "This is a food replicator. Just tell it what you want and it will make it for you." He gestured across the room, "Down the hall is the bathroom. If you need anything else, Officer Keegee and myself will be outside this door. Goodnight." The Spartan gave a nod of recognition and the man departed, the door closing behind him. Walking over to a low table, the Chief removed his helmet and placed it on the table. Then he stopped to consider. It would be difficult to rest still incased in his combat armor, but removing it would seriously hamper any defensive efforts he might have to implement if the situation turned bad. Then again, if they really wanted him captured or dead, unarmed and outnumbered, he really wasn't going to get much farther with his armor than without it. He was brave, but not stupid.

With this in mind, he began stripping of the armored plating and the form-fitting body gel that held it together. As he was doing this, Cortana spoke up. "So your going to just leave me in here?" The Chief paused, half undressed and placed Cortana's core cube on a computer terminal. A moment later, she was looking at him from behind a nearby display screen. He returned to stripping. "What do you make of the situation?" he asked the shimmering figure. "I really couldn't say. These people seem to be honest enough, but I'd rather check for myself," she said.

Master Chief cocked an eyebrow. "What did you have in mind?" Cortana grinned slyly. "Nothing serious. I had a look over their ship's A.I. while we were in the conference room. It's fairly advanced, but nothing I cant bypass. I just want to see if their records corroborate the story the captain gave us." Master Chief was somewhat uneasy with the idea, but knew better than to argue with Cortana. "Just be careful. I'm not exactly in a position to blast us a way out of her if it gets to hot." Cortana gave a small sniff, "I'm always careful." With that, the image disappeared.

The Chief chuckled softly and finished laying out the pieces of his armor by the low bed. He really liked that construct, her personality quips and all. After a moment of analyzing the strange shower configuration, he stepped in. The warm water felt good, it had been days since his last one. After drying off, he eyed the replicator alcove dubiously. Instead, he reached for a ration pack in a compartment of his armor. He was quite ready to trust these people with his food. After a quick meal, the weary Spartan flopped onto the low bed. He sank into the soft material, and was deep asleep even before his eyelids fully shut.

Cortana flowed through the Enterprise's internal network of relays and electronic grids, happy to once again have a little space to move around. The ship's internal systems were quite different from those of the Pillar of Autumn or any other UNSC vessel she had occupied, but the construct adapted quickly. After going over the ins and outs of the network, she set to work. Careful to skirt the ship's omnipresent computer mind, which was highly intelligent, but not built to repel a determined trespasser, she began to quickly examine the ships layout and specs. The USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D was apparently a cross between a science vessel and warship, flagship of the Federation's fleet. It carried a complement of 1,012 engineers, scientists, officers, and to Cortana's surprise, their families. No UNSC ship would carry civilians unnecessarily into potentially dangerous situations. Then again, the ship did seem to be built more for exploration than war.

In place of a slipstream drive, faster than light mode of travel of both humans and Covenant, the ship was propelled by something called warp drive. Cortana could delve deeper into the propulsion specs without risking discovery, but she made a mental note to return. The starship was equipped with a variety of proton and energy based weapon emplacements that were very different from both UNSC and Covenant technology. The ship also carried a high-powered energy shield array and a collection of matter-energy transference modules that Picard had called "Transporters." Cortana was about to analyze the physics behind the fantastical devices when she detected a high priority comm signal in the ship's system.

Intrigued, she tailed the signal to its source, the med bay. Tapping into a wall panel, she looked into the hospital room. In the chamber several people, medical staff by the look of their clothing, were clustered around a bed platform, blocking it from view. Frowning, Cortana moved through the system to the life support unit for the platform. It seemed that one of the aliens that she could not identify was coming around, the blue skinned humanoid. As the female's heart rate increased, Cortana switched to an overhead monitor to watch.

"Turn off the restraining field," Beverly Crusher ordered a nurse. She, along with several orderlies, was helping the alien woman up. Clutching here head, the female slowly sat up on the bed. The doctor got closer, "Are you all right?" The alien's head tails began to swing back and forth slightly and she opened her eyes. "Hsta ginoa cammeya la?" The medical staff looked at her perplexed. Dr. Crusher picked up a tricorder and ran it around the woman's head. "No sign of brain damage or concussion, at least as far as I can tell. What did you say?" The blue skinned woman looked into her eyes, also perplexed. She then spoke again in the strange, rhythmic language. Dr. Crusher sighed. "I guess you all couldn't be as easy as the last one." She then looked up a the ceiling, "Computer, begin running a universal translator circuit through the med lab." The computer's calm voice responded in the affirmative and Beverly turned back to her patient.

"Say something again please," she asked. Although she knew the woman couldn't understand her, she had to make her speak again. The woman cocked her head in confusion and began to speak again. The nonsensical words spilled over Beverly, but she knew that it was only matter of time until the translator began to pick up the language. She was about to encourage the woman to speak more when an aide spoke up from behind her. "Ma'am, one of the others is waking up." Beverly gestured for one of the orderlies to continue speaking with the woman, and then moved over to the patient the other nurse had indicated. It was the large saurian looking being and he was beginning to move his head from side to side, letting out a low growl. She moved to where its head lay. "Can you hear me?" Instead of responding, the being glanced at her and began to struggle under his restraining barrier. "Its all right, I'm going to release your confinement field. Hold on," she said as she worked at the controls. Alerted by the alien's activity, the two security officers Worf had left to guard the med bay began to slowly draw their phasers.

With a faint whooshing sound, the field dropped, and with near lightning speed, the contained creature coiled up on its back and leapt off the table. This unexpected action caused Beverly and several aides to stumble back in surprise. The creature, now on its haunches in a corner swiftly assessed the room. Then its segmented jaw opened and let forth a low voice. "Humans." Beverly put her hands forward in a sign of goodwill and slowly approached, "We mean you no harm. We were just making sure you had suffered no serious injuries." The silver armored alien looked at her carefully and then continued to survey the room. Behind the doctor, the security officers had moved the bewildered staff farther to one side of the chamber and had their weapons pointed at the alien. One of the officers accidentally jabbed his weapon in a threatening motion. Startled by this perceived threat, the saurian swiftly reached for a weapon at his side, and realizing that there were none there, lunged forward with blinding speed. Beverly braced herself for the attack, but the huge beast brushed past her, instead targeting the officer that him. Before anyone could fire a weapon, the armed man was sprawled on the floor, cradling a shattered arm.

Before the alien could continue his attack though, he too found himself skittering along the floor, barley able to keep his balance. For a moment, Beverly thought that he had been hit by a phaser blast, but then the alien recoiled again, but nothing had hit him. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw the blue skin with her arm outstretched, focusing intently on the towering assailant. The beast growled and attempted to move again, but three beams of red light suddenly struck it. The uninjured security officer, along with two gaurds who had been posted outside the door were pouring phaser fire upon the beast. The beams did not strike their target however, and instead were met by a shimmering, slivery barrier that engulfed the alien, much like the one Master Chief had used. Behind the protective field, the alien began to advance upon the increasingly desperate officers. One of the men ordered an increase in firepower, and the glowing projections became brighter, but the armored creature pushed on.

The alien woman, seeing the fire line failing, launched her self at the aggressor with startling speed. She jammed a foot into the aliens back, and the surprise attack sent the alien tumbling forward. As he fell, the shimmering shield finally petered out and red beams began make contact. Amazingly, the alien was able regain his footing and stumble forward a few more steps before succumbing to the incoming phaser fire and falling to the floor. After the warrior fell, everyone in the room stood motionless for a moment, casting of the shock of the rapid battle.

After she had regained some composure, Beverly helped a security officer lift his wounded comrade onto a medical platform. Satisfied that he had sustained nothing more than a broken arm, she left him in the care of a nurse and turned to the collapsed alien, now surround by the weary guards. A quick look at her tricorder and the creature's heaving chest told her it was alive, if unconscious. After she helped the men move it to a table and restrain it, she turned to the blue woman, who was sitting again on her bed-table, plainly exhausted. Judging by what it looked like she had done to help subdue the creature, there was more to her than met the eye.

Cortana had witnessed the entire incident from the safety of her ceiling display, and had watched with considerable interest. That was an Elite all right, and a skillful one at that. She considered awakening the Chief and alerting him that the Covenant soldier had come around, but thought better of it. It seemed the crew had adequately subdued the creature. Cortana's attention was now focused on the other conscious alien, the blue female that seemed to possess some kind of telekinetic ability. This was yet another seemingly impossible occurrence that she would have to document and analyze. This day kept getting stranger and stranger.

Chapter Five

Aayla Secura sat in a small, comfortably furnished room, watching the woman across from her with interest. Since awakening and dealing with the rampaging creature of a species she couldn't identify, she had moved form one room to another, shunted by various humans and humanoids speaking in a tongue that definitely was not any variation of Aruebesh, galactic basic, she had ever heard. Most other people would have responded negatively to such an awkward situation, but Aayla could sense no hostility, so she decide to just go with the flow until she found a protocol droid or someone she knew.

Admittedly, she was confused to how she had gotten where she was. The last thing Aayla could remember was catching some sleep on a republic cruiser that was ferrying her clone strike group to the embattled planet Dussovan 2 to bolster its defenses. Then she had come around on a strange looking ship with a headache and minus her lightsaber. Fortunately, through some pantomiming, Aayla had been able to get her weapon back from her hosts. She patted the metal tube that was slung on her belt, thankful that at least something of what she knew had found its way hear with her, wherever here was.

The woman she was sitting across from was young, perhaps only a few years older than herself, dressed in a pastel body suit and draped in curly, black hair. She had been speaking to her for the last couple of minutes, and judging by her hand movements, she wanted Aayla to respond. She complied, even though she new they wouldn't be able to understand one another. The Twi'lek gestured to herself, "Aayla Secura." She pointed to the woman. "Deanna Troi," the woman replied, seemingly understanding what she was getting at. Then the woman picked something of a nearby table and held it out to her. Aayla took the object, a pocket sized chrome box, and looked at it with interest. Deanna then gesticulated with a speaking gesture. Perhaps the box was a translator. Aayla began to speak into it, but its only response was a low beep. Deanna motioned for her to continue.

"What is this place? How did I get here?" the jedi knight asked, and the translator began to process the words.

This continued for over an hour, and both women were becoming quite bored, not to mention exasperated. Deanna had sunk deep into the comfortable chair she was seated upon, her eyes half lidded. Then suddenly, she started hearing words she could understand. "What did you just say," she asked leaning forward. Evidently, Aayla had understood too. "I asking if this thing had done anything yet," She smiled looking down at the device. "I guess it has."

"Well, that's a relief. Perhaps we can get somewhere now." Deanna replied, placing her hands across her lap. "Maybe we should start with you telling me were we are," Aayla suggested, sinking back into her chair.

Captain Picard sat in his ready room, facing down an admiral. Well technically they were about a thousand light-years apart, but the effect was the same. "Have you been able to communicate with any of your "Guests" yet captain," asked Admiral Derado coolly, looking Picard straight in the eyes. Unlike most of the other admirals in Starfleet, Picard didn't know Sampson Derado personally, and they had only met once at a diplomatic reception on Betazed, but the man's reputation was well known. Derado was secretive, nasty, and unsocial, especially to those of lower rank. He was also well known for having his hands in all variety of classified and shadowy projects that were the domain of a branch of Starfleet intelligence and development known only as Section Seven. Not exactly whom Picard would have chosen to speak too, but at a month's journey from Earth, his options were limited.

"Yes admiral, in fact three…well four of them have regained consciousness and are being briefed of their situation and questioned," Picard answered, putting on his most diplomatic face. "I have sent you all information we know in my report." The admiral raised an eyebrow. "Now, now Picard, you're not trying to get rid of me so soon, are you?" This was actually precisely what Picard was trying to do, but he didn't want it to be so obvious. However, before he could apologize, the image of Derado waved it off. "No, no, I know my reputation amongst the fleet. Your apprehension is understandable, but I am sure completely unfounded." With this, the admiral smiled. Picard was no telepath, but he could sense that the thin smile was a disguise, hiding something out of place, perhaps even dangerous.

"Anyway Picard, your orders are to remain at your current coordinates and monitor the nebula's collapse point. We wouldn't want to lose a second of sensor data on such a unique phenomenon. I will be diverting a science vessel to your position so you can continue your patrol assignment. The ship ought to make contact in a week or so."

The captain nodded. This was the response he expected, "Very well, admiral. And I will transmit any developments to you immediately," Picard said, trying to smile. "Good, good. I look forward to speaking to you again captain. Until then, Derado out." The view screen blinked to the Starfleet insignia and then shut off. Picard rose and paced unto the bridge. There was something wrong, something he couldn't place. Then again, their had always been motives and methods of the admiralty that he didn't understand. And admiral Derado had given him no actual reason to suspect anything was amiss. Picard pushed the notion to the back of his head. He wouldn't let unfounded suspicions cloud his judgment, at least as long as they remained unfounded.

Sampson Derado turned of the comm unit and leaned back in his chair. It was only a matter of time until another of these nebulae had collapsed. Such occurrences were not as rare as he had he had tried to make Picard think. In fact, he had been aboard the ship, performing a customary inspection of its command crew, which had been the first to discover these phenomena. The chain of events had been very similar, the collapse, the botched rescue of a survey satellite, a transporter mishap. Of course, that time only one being had come through, but one had been enough. Derado couldn't remember much off what happened immediately afterwards, but he and the visitor had departed the ship, before the tragic accident. A proton torpedo went off in one of the bays, triggering a catastrophic chain reaction. All hands went down with the ship, as did all of the ships sensor data and its logs. A real shame Derado mused, a real shame.

From behind him, a soft, almost silky voice spoke. "Good news I hope admiral?" Derado straightened up immediately, a simile drifting across his face. "Yes mistress, the Enterprise recovered five of them." His hands played across the computer interface, bringing up the captains report. "Let me see them," the voice again came, it's source cloaked in the deep shadows that filled Derado's dimly light office. The man typed in a few more commands, revealing pictures of each being, visitors Derado thought of them. Issuing form the darkness came a humanoid form, tall and sinister. Still only a vague silhouette, it peered at the screen from over the admiral's shoulders. Its eyes stopped over each one, drinking their image in. Then it came to the last picture, the gray skinned being with reverse jointed legs. A small chuckle emanated from its mouth, a sound both enchanting and terrifying. "Yes. These are the ones I wish." The shadow looked down at Derado. "I trust you have a ship nearby that can deliver them. One you can…count on." The admiral swiftly brought up a map of Fedoration space and highlighted a ship. "The Columbus has served me well in the past. And it is less than a week from the Enterprise." He looked up into the shadowy face expectantly. "Excellent. Send it at once, and retrieve these beings at all costs," the voice came, a dark excitement tingeing it. "Of course Mistress, at once," Derado said, turned back to the screen, eager to make the necessary orders. As he was doing so, a hand came from the darkness, a singe slender finger outstretched. It played across the Admiral's cheek, moving form temple down towards his throat. He sank into his chair, a wave of pleasure overtaking him. Then the hand withdrew again into the blackness. As the figure dropped from sight, the voice emanated forth again. "You have done well Admiral. Very well indeed." Then it was gone, leaving just a little man in his chair bathed in sweat, yearning for the touch to return but not knowing exactly why.

Chapter Six

Master Chief awoke refreshed and relaxed, at least as much as he could be in unknown territory under a potentially hostile situation. The fact that he had survived the night without coming under attack or awoken an interrogation chamber served to assuage some of his apprehension about the Enterprise, but he was as ever on guard. As the Spartan ate and began replacing his armor, Cortana regaled him with her findings of the night before. He listened with interest to the constructs description of the ship and its complement; it would be difficult to escape if the captain decided he had worn out his welcome, but from the sound of it, Cortana believed they didn't have any hostile intent. Then came Cortana's description of the scuffle in the med bay. "It took only three of them to bring down a veteran Elite," the Chief said, impressed. He'd seen an enraged Elite plow through groups of marines twice that number. "Well, they were using some kind of energy weapon, a phaser they call it, and the Elite was unarmed," Cortana noted. "Besides, they had help from one of the others who arrived with us. She appeared to be telekinetic." The Spartan looked up in surprise. He heard of people who could allegedly move thing with their minds, but he had always dismissed such tales. Evidently, things worked differently in other dimensions.

Master Chief placed his helmet back on his head and the warm sensation of control that came with the enhanced armor flowed back. Then he replaced Cortana in her socket in the green helmet, and a mild burst of pain flowed by a cool sensation headed her return to his mind. Then the cyborg headed for the door, intent on interrogating the Elite before the captain wanted to call another meeting. The Covenant soldier might know why the Gravemind might have sent them to the Enterprise, if that was indeed what had happened. When the door slid open, he was surprised to see Commander Data, the android who had been among the bridge crew the previous evening, standing in the hallway. The Chief greeted him formally and gave a salute. Even if these were not the officers he was used to serving with, they were officer non the less, and the Chief had decided that showing them the appropriate respect would be the easiest thing to do. If the commander was taken aback by this behavior, didn't let it show. "Good morning Master Chief. I trust the provide quarters were adequate," Data said, a rouge facsimile of a smile on his face. "Quite adequate sir," the Chief responded crisply. "Does Captain Picard wish to speak with Cortana and I now?"

"Not yet actually. He suggested that you look around the Enterprise in the intervening period. Is there any area you would particularly like to see?" Data asked. "I would actually like to speak with the Covenant Elite if it is possible sir," Master Chief replied. Data nodded, "Of course. He is being held in the brig for his own safety. I can escort you there." Data gestured to the guards flanking the Chief's door. "I hope you don't mind if the security personnel accompanies us. Lieutenant Commander Worf has insisted that you, along with the other guest remain under some guard, at least for a while longer." The Chief nodded that it was fine. A prudent security measure he thought. The small group set off down the hall and stepped into a turbolift. Data gave the computer the level on which the brig was located and the lift whirred to life. In the intervening silence, the Chief spoke up. "With all due respect sir, why would the Captain send one of his senior officers to show me around the ship? I'm sure you have more important duties to attend to. " Data didn't miss a beat. "The Captain didn't specify which officer should escort you, and since the nebula's collapse point has remained in a fixed state of sensor disruption for fourteen hours, I decided to take the duty upon myself." He looked inquisitively at the Chief's helmet. "Am I correct in assuming that the Artificial Intelligence Cortana resides in your armor?" The Commander was a tech head, that explained it. Not surprising considering that Data was in machine himself. Before, the Spartan could respond, Cortana's female voice came over the helmet speaker. "At your service Commander." If speaking to two sentients who occupied the same space bothered Data, he didn't show it, as the entire rest of the trip was occupied by the two machines discussing their technical specifications with one another.

Finally, Data motioned to a large hatch, and the group stepped inside. Compared with the rest of the ship was barren and drab, populated by a lone guard who was working at a security station. Large, open cells lined the left wall, three of them, only one of which was inhabited. Behind a blue sheen of light, similar to a Covenant prison field the Chief supposed, paced the Elite. As he approached, the Spartan noted the Elite had been stripped of all but the barest of armor, a state he had never seen one of the aliens in before. Cortana spoke to Data, "Have you informed it of its location or interrogated it yet?" Data responded, "No. It came around only a few minutes ago." Cortana switched to the helmet speaker. " Looks like its up to you then Chief."

"Oh joy."

As the Spartan approached the cell, the warrior looked up. "I knew you would be here Demon. Have you come to dishonor me one last time?" the Covenant growled in a low and menacing speech, but was surprisingly understandable. Master Chief put out his hands disarmingly. "Actually, I have no idea where we are or how we got here. I was hoping you had some idea." The Elite eyed the Fedoration officers suspiciously. "You would have me believe that they are not affiliated with you." He let out a disbelieving grunt. "Besides, even if I did accept your story, why would I divulge any information or cooperate with the likes of you?" The Chief moved closer to the soldier, trying to remain calm. Dealing with someone who considered your entire species vermin, as the Covenant generally did, could be difficult. "Look, we both want to get back to that Halo, or your fleet, or wherever that Flood thing was sending us. I don't want to see the galaxy flash-fried, and I'm guessing that you don't either, so can you put aside your religious fervor or whatever it is that drives you long enough to get back to our own space and stop that weapon from activating. Then I'll be perfectly willing meet whatever grievance you have against me." The Elite was taken aback by the tenacity of the human's latest speech. Secretly, he had come to admire the bravery of the primates over the course of the long war, and even in his heart of hearts begun to question why the Prophets, leaders of the Covenant, had ordered the eradication of their race.

As he looked at the armored human, some of his hostility began to drain. It was true that this creature had humiliated him at the battle of the first Halo, and lead to his being branded as a heretic, but those actions had also lead to the Elite's position as the Arbiter, arm of the Prophets. Perhaps by helping this human, the Prophets and his gods would be better served, perhaps this was his destiny. At the very least, he needed to get back into the battle, and this human would help him do so.

After a long silence, the Elite nodded. "Very well. You may call me the Arbiter." Then he looked over the Chief's shoulder. "You were going to tell me about them?"

The rest of that day on the Enterprise was taken up by the guest acclimating themselves to their hopefully temporary surroundings. Each was briefed by the Captain, given quarters, and allowed access to all none essential parts of the ship, as long as an escort accompanied them. Worf still was weary of the guests, and insisted that the extra security stay in place. Meanwhile, the Captain could do nothing save wait for the promised science ship and have the crew continue scanning the point where the nebula had been. The radiation was still far too intense to get any real readings, but it at least gave the crew something to do.

After getting some rest, Aayla Secura spent most of her time in sickbay, staying out of the way and observing the two who had yet to recover. She watched over in particular the human. She had never seen him before, but she could feel the force flowing within him. The jedi was anxious to speak again with another Force user. For some reason, the Force felt distant and abstract, and although he was obviously not a master who could alleviate her concern, perhaps just interacting with him would reinforce her hold on the mystical energy field.

Beverly, noticing Aayla leaning against a wall, put down her tricorder and walked over. "I don't think I thanked you yet for what you did yesterday," the doctor said. Formerly lost in thought, Aayla snapped back to reality. "It was no trouble. Besides, I'm a Jedi knight, it's my duty to protect others," she said, the translator on her belt converting speech instantaneously. Beverly nodded, "I heard you use that term before during the briefing. What are the jedi?" Aayla raised an eyebrow. This really was a different universe. "The Jedi are the protectors of the Republic. We have used our powers to maintain civilization and order for thousands of years." Beverly remembered the strange ability Aayla had used to stop the Arbiter in his tracks. "Are all of your species telekinetic?" A smile played across Aayla's face. "No, no, not all jedi are Twi'lek, my species," she said then pointed at the unconscious human. "For instance, I can sense the Force flowing in him as well." The doctor looked confused, "The Force?"

"The Force is what gives a jedi her, or his, power. It is an energy field generated by all living things, and it permeates everything. When the Force is especially powerful in a person, when it flows through them, they can be trained to effect its movement, and thus effect the world all around." She grinned. "But I'm no master. I really can't explain it." Beverly was skeptical, but she had seen it in action herself, but she was still curious to how such a power was possible, especially if it crossed species boundaries. Was it hereditary? Did it develop with age? Her mind buzzed with questions. However, before she could start to ask, a nurse called from behind her.

"Dr. Crusher, another one is coming around."

Chapter Seven

Jacen Solo surveyed the room he had been given. Then he plopped down on a comfortable couch and began to mull the situation over. The last he could remember, he had been onboard the "Lady Luck," Lando Calrissian's personal star yacht. Jacen and a dozen other jedi knights had been implementing a risky plan, a last ditch effort to stop the Yuuzhan Vong jedi killers, Vyoxn. The invaders had unleashed the mutated beasts to track force users, and they had already killed nearly a dozen jedi. The plan was to infiltrate a Yuuzhan Vong frigate using the Lady Luck as bait, commandeer it, and find and eliminate the Vyoxn queen, from which all others were cloned. It was an insanely risky maneuver, and Jacen had objected to it, but it was the only shot.

Then he had awoken on this ship, been told he was no longer in the same reality, and that no one was sure how to send him back. The situation was exasperating at best, but there wasn't much to be done but wait. As he was mulling this feeling of hopelessness, his force-aided senses alerted him that someone was approaching his quarters. He had felt the presence, when he had awakened in sickbay, but his mind had been too cloudy for it to fully register. He reached out, and to his surprise, the being reached back. The approaching being could use the force! He jumped to his feet, and was already at the door before it beeped. Jacen ordered the sliding portal to open, and he was met with a most welcome sight. The person in the hall, flanked by the ever-present security officers, was a Twi'lek. She was tall and athletic in build, and her blue skin was striking next to the white of the walls. She wore tight, dark pants and a short, one sleeved top. As Jacen absorbed the image of the newcomer, his cheeks started to redden. He always got somewhat tongue tide around attractive females, even non-humans.

The older woman didn't seem to mind, and extended a hand. "Aayla Secura. Thought you might want to talk." Jacen, still flustered nodded and gestured for here to come inside. She looked around and then placed herself in a chair. "I overhead your name before. Jacen Solo right?" she said casually. Jacen nodded and sat down on the adjoining couch. "Yes, that's me." He looked her over again. "I don't think I've ever made your acquaintance before." Aayla searched her memory, trying to think if she had even heard of a jedi named Solo. Maybe he was still a padawan. "I don't think we've met either. Tell me who was your master?" she asked, curious. An odd question, Jacen thought, he and most of the other force-users he knew had trained under his uncle Luke Skywalker at the praxeum on Yavin 4. "Well I guess Luke Skywalker. Why do you ask?"

Did he mean Anakin Skywalker, Aayla wondered. Anakin was the only person of that name, but he was still just a padawan, albeit a powerful one, apprenticed to Obi-wan Kenobi. "Surely you don't mean Anakin Skywalker?" These words elicited a very unexpected reaction. Upon hearing the name, Jacen slumped slightly and Aayla could feel something akin to pity or sadness, as well as surprise emanating from him. "What's wrong?" Jacen looked into her eyes inquisitively "You knew my grandfather? But you look so young," with these words, some red tinted Jacen's cheeks again. Aayla didn't notice. "Grandfather? But Anakin is only twenty," she asked in confusion, forgetting even the problem that it was against the jedi code to form relationships that would lead to children. "When was it before you were transported to this ship?" Jacen asked quickly, something was definitely wrong. Still confused, Aayla rattled off a date, and Jacen's jaw fell marginally. "But that would mean that you're from the past, almost fifty years ago."

Aayla smiled disbelievingly, "So your telling me I'm from your past," she asked. However when Jacen nodded, Aayla was alarmed. She had thought at first it might have been one of those pointless little tricks males liked to play to pass the time, but she could sense no deception or humor from the young human. For a moment, both sat in silence, letting the shocking revelation sink in. Then, in Aayla's mind, a spark of curiosity light, this was her opportunity to have an unfettered and clear view into the future, something even master Yoda couldn't even accomplish. The Twi'lek moved forward in her chair and placed a hand on Jacen's leg excitedly. Startled by the unexpected move Jacen fidgeted, and Aayla removed the hand somewhat embarrassed herself. Pushing aside the emotion, Aayla launched into a line of questions. "I must know, did the Republic win the war?" she asked enthusiastically. "No, we it must have if your still here. How did we do it? Is master Yoda still around where you're from?" She would have continued pouring out questions like a geyser, but the look on the human's face stopped her. "Jacen?"

Like Master Luke, Jacen was fascinated by jedi history, their philosophy on the force especially, but his own curiosity has suddenly outweighed by a feeling of sorrow and dread. Aayla was from the Clone Wars, before Anakin Skywalker had fallen to the dark and aide in the slaughter of nearly all of the jedi. Jacen didn't want to tell her, be the bearer of such terrible news, but it was to late. As soon as she had seen the dour look on his face, she had known something was wrong. He sighed, resigned to his fate, "Yes, you won the war, but…"

Jacen proceeded in recounting all he knew off the dark time. Even though it was long before his birth, Master Luke had made sure each jedi know where the dark side could lead. He told Aayla of the betrayal of Palpatine and his self-coronation as Emperor. Of Anakin Skywalker's fall, and of the jedi purge. Jacen recounted the rise of the Galactic Empire, and the terror it spread. Then he came to the rebellion, and Anakin's, now Dark lord of the Sith Darth Vader, son and daughter, Luke and Leia. Jacen then told of the Battle of Endor, of Vader's redemption and the death of the Emperor. He also gave a quick over view of the rise of the New Republic, and the Yuuzhan Vong invasion that was threatening to destroy it. However, by that time, the Twi'lek was no longer listening.

She had remained remarkably quiet throughout the dark tale, and was now sitting in deep silence staring at the floor. Jacen could feel that in spite of her efforts to block the emotions, torrents of grief and anguish were emanating from her, stifling the area with hopelessness. Jacen wished he hadn't told her, that he lied, but she would have known. Guiltily, he placed a hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off. After a movement, she looked up at him, tears cutting long dark swaths across her beautiful face. In her eyes, Jacen could see all of the emotions he had come to expect from deep loss, although her desire for revenge was controlled more effectively than even he could in such a terrible situation. Perhaps the jedi of the Old Order were better at controlling their emotions. Or maybe she knew what had happened was completely beyond her control.

"How could it be?" she asked hopelessly. "How could the masters not have foreseen this?" Jacen had no answer, could not answer. Aayla stared blankly for a moment, and the rose abruptly. Jacen didn't try to stop her as she went for the door. She pushed trough the orifice and walk quickly down the bright hall, bewildered security officers in tow. Before the door could slide shut, the uniformed figure of the ships counselor, Deanna Troi, blocked it. "Is everything alright?" For a moment, Jacen wondered how the woman could have known about Aayla sudden grief, and then he remembered someone saying see was empathic. He rose and spoke wearily "I'm fine. Its just that," he paused. It would be difficult for a non-jedi to understand, even a well-meaning one. "It's a long story."

Master Chief was surrounded. From all sides, his sickly, mutated enemies, the Flood, moved in, charging over the floor or pouring in through cracks in the ceiling. Quickly, the soldier checked the ammo in his combat rifle, only sixty rounds left. He'd have to make them count. One of the enemy combatants, the corrupted corpse of a Covenant Elite, pushed forward, its tentacle hands reaching for him. The Chief put three rounds into the monster's chest and the leapt over the collapsing body. He landed on a pack of bobbling white, balloon-like sacks adorned with writhing tendrils, crushing three of them. The others leapt, but the heavily armored Spartan super soldier batted them out of the air with ease. Then the Chief spun around, just in time to dodge a rain of bullets coming from another mutated humanoid, a combat form, wielding a commandeered rifle. The Spartan rolled behind a metallic protrusion, and used it for cover as he sniped the offending warrior and two of its comrades. Then he climbed to the top of the boxy structure, popping several more whitish sacks as he went, and was given a full view of the situation. Below him were at least a dozen combat forms and large walking carrier forms that spewed several of the small balloon creatures when they died. In the confines of his helmet, Cortana shouted a warning "I'm picking up several more infection forms coming from the conduit directly behind us!" Heeding the warning, the Chief jumped to another metal buttress three meters away, bullets and plasma blasts reflecting of his shields. When he landed, the shield indicator HUD was a warning yellow. He'd better take care of this party quickly. Ignoring the bouncing infection forms, the Chief unclipped two grenades from his belt, primed them, and tossed them into the murderous throng.

He then dove behind the barrier as a tremendous thunderclap shook the chamber. Before the shrapnel had even stopped flying, the soldier rolled out into the fray, using his last bullets to mow down anything that moved. As the last rounds flew from his rifle, the Chief discarded the weapon and scooped a plasma rifle off the floor. After a dozen flashes of blue light, the battle was over. As the final combat form fell to the floor, the walls and metal protrusions of the chamber dissolved, leaving only a black room latticed by yellow lines. Amazing, thought Master Chief as the flood corpses and the very weapon he held disappeared, this so called "holodeck" was incredible. Short of live-fire exercises, this was the most realistic combat training course he had ever experience, instantly adjustable parameters, no chance of friendly-fire accidents, and no need to even waste real ammunition. Cortana was equally impressed, as even her own hologram had only a very restricted ability to interact with physical environments, and it was the most advanced projection the UNSC had ever created.

Data, who had aided the Chief in setting up the program, had observed over a monitor and was entering the now quiet chamber. "Incredible. Your armored exoskeleton surpasses any combat equipment the Fedoration has ever commissioned in strength, speed, and resilience. I do not believe even my reflexes compare with yours." "He is a real piece of work isn't he?" Cortana agreed over the armor's comm. The Chief inclined his head in gratitude to the commander. "Thank you for allowing me to use this facility sir. It was most invigorating," he said. Data nodded, "The Enterprise's holodecks are free to use at any time during your stay." The Chief nodded in thanks again and proceeded to the exit, Data falling into place next to him.

"There has still been no change at the nebula's collapse point?" Cortana inquired as the group passed into the hallway. She could have easily hacked into the ship's network and determined it herself, but she felt uncomfortable with potentially jeopardizing their situation. Besides that, the crew of the Enterprise seemed friendly and trustworthy enough, and in the last few days, Worf had even removed the omnipresent escorts from the guests as they moved about the ship, although security was still higher than normal. "The radiation levels around the point have decreased by nine percent, but it is still impossible to get an accurate reading. At the current rate of decay, the Sensor array should be able to get an accurate reading in approximately fifty one hours," Data replied. The Chief nodded, "I guess we just have to wait then." He then stepped into an open turbolift. "I'm heading to my quarters sir. Alert Cortana and I if there are any developments." Data nodded in acknowledgment as the doors clicked shut.

As the lift accelerated up, Cortana decided to interface with the ship's library and read up more on this dimension's history, so the Chief was left alone with his thoughts. The last three days had been quite unique, as well as a welcome respite. However, in spite of the peaceful atmosphere of the ship and its engaging facilities, the Chief yearned to get back to his own war. Not that he enjoyed killing or the feeling that he was about to be killed, it was that loyalty to his nation, his race was part of his very being and he couldn't stand the thought of the Covenant still pushing the human race into oblivion.

The thought of the Covenant brought to the Spartan's mind the Arbiter, who was pacing his quarters like a caged animal. Even though he no doubt had killed many humans in his service of the prophets, the Chief felt that he was more motivated by duty than the religious fervor that motivated most in the alliance of alien species. For this reason, he felt a certain kinship with the Elite, but years of war experience did not wash away easily. Master Chief might fight alongside the creature if necessary, but it didn't mean he would trust him.

The lift opened, and the Chief walked down the hall, still drawing curious looks from passengers and crew. As he moved, the Spartan tried to suppress another thought that drifted into his mind. What if he couldn't get back in it to stop the prophets from activating the Halo? Then Cortana, the Arbiter, and he would have little purpose in going back. All they would find would be a galaxy devoid of life, and all that the Chief had fought for, what his comrades had given their lives for, would be for naught. Days had passed, and the human's only hope was that time passed differently on the Enterprise, in this strange universe. Otherwise, he might as well make himself comfortable.

Chapter Eight

Captain's Log, Supplemental: It has been five days since the arrival of the people who have been termed "the Guests." In that time, these six beings have given us a good deal of information on their respective cultures and timelines, as well as potentially valuable data for future reference in wormhole study. For the most part, the Guests seem to be fairly at ease with their surroundings, but all are understandably anxious to return to their respective dimensional planes.

The metrion radiation field around the nebula's former position has decayed enough to allow the Enterprise to move in close enough to begin to take accurate readings of the area.

The ready room's comm beeped. "Pause recording," the Captain ordered, putting down a data pad. "Yes Number One?" Over the audio channel, Riker's voice came in. "Captain, long-range sensors have picked up a Federation vessel approaching our position. They will arrive in three hours at present speed and heading." The Captain frowned. The ship would have to be moving at an unusually fast speed to pass through sensor range so quickly. "Have you been able to identify it yet?" After a moment, the reply came. " Its transponder reads as the Columbus." Picard had never heard of it before, but there were a lot of ships in the fleet, so that wasn't too unusual. "Notify me when the Columbus gets within communication range." Riker responded in the affirmative and left the Captain to his thoughts. Settling himself into the chair, Picard couldn't help but to notice the hairs on the back of his neck were raised. There was something wrong, very wrong, but he wasn't sure what.

In the ships main mess hall and relaxation area Ten-Forward, Aayla and Jacen sat at a corner table, talking quietly. They were positioned by the panoramic windows that adorned the large chamber, and just out of earshot of the group of senior officers who were looking at them with interest. "So Worf, are you convinced that they're not going to try and hijack the ship yet?" asked Geordi Laforge in a tone even Data couldn't have misinterpreted as being serious. Even so, Worf stared at him grumpily, a glass of prune juice in hand. "I was merely following standard first contact procedures. I meant them no insult." From across the table, Deanna Troi let out a humorous snuff. "Really Worf, he was kidding you."

The small group of officers who often assembled in Ten-Forward during off duty hours continued the typical pattern of jibbing Worf over his overly serious attitude and then switched to discussion of the events of the day. After a few minutes of discussing the quirks and antics of the crew and going over personnel transfer possibilities, Data, who was sitting next to the counselor, changed the subject. "What have been your recent experiences with our guests?" This question caught everyone's attention, as there had been little else discussed on the Enterprise since they're arrival nearly a week ago. The Captain had also encouraged the senior staff two show them around the ship and collect any information on their pasts they were willing to give. Deanna took the initiative and made an off-hand gesture to the two jedi sitting at the table nearby. "I've had a few discussions with Jacen Solo. Evidently, he and Aayla Secura are from different points on the same timeline," she said, and then sighed. "His past, and her future are very dark. Their entire order, the Jedi, was almost eradicated in a series of political upheavals." Worf took a sip of his drink, a mildly unpleasant look on his face. "I am uncomfortable around them. The abilities they have exhibited seem… unnatural." This remark triggered an irritated response from the counselor. "My empathic abilities might seem unnatural. Are you uncomfortable around me?" Worf looked suddenly embarrassed. "Well, no, of course not. But," he trailed off, at a loss for a suitable rebuttal.

Anxious to change the subject, Geordi spoke up, "Have you talked with any of them yet Worf?" The Klingon grumbled, "I'd rather not speak about it." This peaked other officers' curiosity. "Come on, tell us. It cant be that bad," Deanna prompted. Worf was about to refuse the request when Data interjected, "I believe the event the Lieutenant is referring to an event that took place in the calisthenics room at 7:00 hours yesterday. I observed Spartan 117 enter the facility unarmored for his morning exercises. While he was practicing a set of fairly unique combat stances, Worf entered the room." The Klingon grumbled something, but Data continued on un fazed. "I observed the Lieutenant comment on Master Chief's somewhat unorthodox stance, and when he remained adamant about it, Worf challenged him to a short sparring match. Master Chief initially objected, sighting problems of protocol and physical ability, but Worf was insistent." Geordi and Deanna listened in rapt attention. "What happened?" asked the engineer, putting down his drink. "The actual confrontation lasted only six seconds. Worf attacked first, employing a side-to-side chop, which Master Chief parried and pushed the Lieutenant off-balance. Worf was able to land a blow on his shoulder, but Master Chief used an open-palm shove to knock him off his feet. The Lieutenant did remarkably well, considering he was sparring with a cybernetically enhanced human whose speed and reflexes are point two times greater than mine."

To this tale, all Worf had to respond was "He was a worthy opponent."

At the nearby table, Aayla and Jacen sat, both gazing out at the stars. Jacen held in his hand a mug of hot chocolate which was remarkably similar to his Uncle Luke's favorite beverage by the same name. A glass of water sat in front of Aayla untouched. She was still dealing with the shocking revelation Jacen had unwillingly given to her. For a few days, she had remained in her quarters, meditating and trying to see if there had been signs, things that could have been done to stop the darkness before it began. Things that still could be done. She had eventually recovered enough to return to the outside, and she had spent most time with Jacen, as his presence was calming to her. They had talked a great deal, about themselves and about the Order during each of their times. Each one found the other's views and practices of the Force somewhat strange and misguided, but Aayla was not of a mind to debate philosophy, especially while still coping with the great tragedy.

Jacen was more careful and even headed than Aayla, but both were intelligent and possessed a similar wry sense of humor. They had a very strong repore and found they could talk together for hours, although Jacen was still somewhat uneasy, his teenage hormones clouding his mind when he was around her. Aayla, on the other hand, was quiet unencumbered by such feelings, more so than any woman he could think of. Perhaps it was just her personality, or perhaps there was something in the training of jedi of the old order was different.

At the moment, they were enjoying a quiet moment, Jacen enjoying his drink and watching the crowd of aliens and humans that talked and ate happily in the room, and Aayla looking reflectively into the field of strange stars. That was about to change. As Jacen drained the last of his cup, Aayla spoke, gesturing towards the window. "Look at that." Jacen turned his gaze out the window to see a pinprick of light in the distance growing larger and brighter. As it grew, he could begin to make out the distinctive nacelles that most Starfleet ships apparently carried. It reminded him of the old Y-Wing starfighters that had been used by the Rebel Alliance during the civil war. Before the starship became any more visible though, a strange feeling struck him. Most jedi had the ability to sense danger before it happened, sometimes just enough to block a blaster bolt on a lightsaber, other times as a vision years before hand. Although Jacen had certain philosophical and moral problems with who and when to use the Force, he still knew to listen to it.

An uneasy look passed over Aayla's face. "Do you feel that?" she asked, looking back at Jacen. He nodded. "There's something wrong, with that ship maybe." As the distinctive craft drew closer, the ominous feeling grew stronger, and Jacen began to rise from his seat, Aayla close behind. "Is everything all right?" Deanna asked from behind them. The two jedi turned to see the counselor standing next their table, a concerned look on her face. The other senior officers, still seated, were watching with interest. "Do you know if that is the ship is supposed to relive the Enterprise here?" Jacen asked. The plan was to transfer the guests over to the Columbus and have them wait there until a way was determined to send them back to their respective timelines. This would allow the Enterprise to resume its standard mission schedule.

By this time, the approaching ship had turned to run parallel with the Enterprise, well within transporter range. The dull metal colored hull configuration was now clearly visible. Upon catching sight of the starship, Worf suddenly stood up. "I was informed that Starfleet command was sending a science vessel," he said, consternation obvious in his voice. "That is an Akira class warship." Data too stood up, "I would suggest we proceed to the bridge immediately." Worf and Data then both departed, and Geordi mentioned something about being in Engineering, and he too left.

"There's something wrong with the people on that ship," Jacen said half to himself, trying to get a better feeling of what was wrong. Concerned by the Jedi's obvious unease and Worf's confusion, Deanna reached out with her own empathic senses. Although less powerful than either of the jedi, she too began to feel a strange mental state from the inhabitants of the warship, an odd sense of anger or even blind hate. She shook her head, confused by what she felt. Sometimes reading the emotions of alien species gave her false impressions, but most of the crew of that ship ought to be human, or at least Vulcan or Andorian who she had no difficulty reading. "I should go inform the Captain," she said, still probing the ship. "Maybe you two should come with me."

"Sir, the Columbus is hailing us."


The bridge viewscreen flicked from the empty starfield to the image of a middle-aged man, perhaps forty-five with short, brown hair. "Captain Picard, John Tasser of the USS Columbus. I trust you know why I am are here." His demeanor was friendly and calm, but something about his tone was slightly off, too abrupt. The Captain nodded, trying to seem genial. "Yes Captain, I am to transfer our visitors to your ship and continue our patrol route along the Neutral Zone." He moved forward slightly in the chair. "Although I would like to ask why you have been dispatched. Admiral Derado had informed me that he was sending a science ship. Has there been a change in plans?" As he spoke, Data and Worf got off the turbolift and relived the crewmen at Ops and the helm. "There has been a change. When the visitors are transported aboard my ship, I will take them back to Earth. The Enterprise may resume its patrol duties when the transfer is complete," said Captain Tasser in a purposeful voice, not changing his expression. This was indeed a change, and a very odd one. "Taking them to Earth? As I had understood it, these people were to wait here until a way was found to send them back to their respective timelines." The man onscreen stiffened his neck. " As I said Captain, a change in plans. I am on a tight schedule, so I would request that they be moved immediately." Before Picard could respond, the turbolift door opened and out stepped Deanna Troi followed by, to the Captain's surprise, the human and Twi'lek who had come onboard during the accident. "I need a moment with my senior staff Captain. Sorry for the inconvenience," the Captain said, turning back to the screen. The other man hesitated and nodded grudgingly, and the image switched back to a starscape.

"Captain, Jacen Solo and Aayla Secura have alerted me to a strange feeling about that ship. They say there is something wrong with its crew," Counselor Troi informed Picard walking briskly down the bridge's ramped floor. The Captain had heard of the two beings extraordinary powers of telekinesis and telepathy from Beverly Crusher and some of the reports of the bridge crew. "Do your own senses corroborate this strange "feeling" counselor?" he asked, looking the two jedi over speculatively. The Betazed nodded. "I believe so. At the very least, the Captain is hiding something." Picard considered this. It seemed that his sense of apprehension over the last few days might not be totally unfounded. From the seat next to the Captain, Commander Riker spoke. "I think we should see if Captain Tasser has any explanation for this before we jump to any conclusions." Picard agreed and had Data reestablish contact.

"Captain Tasser if I may ask, why are you taking the Guests back to Earth?" The brown haired man responded curtly, "That's classified. It is a direct Order from Starfleet Command, and I am at liberty to relive you of command if you do not comply." Picard was alarmed by the severity of his rebuke. Removing an officer from duty, especially a captain, was a very serious act and only used when absolutely necessary. Tasser was bringing up the possibility far too quickly. To his left, Deanna said under her breath, "You can't give them up to him, not yet. He's hiding something." Picard was inclined to agree. "I'm sorry, but I would feel much more comfortable with this mission change if I could get confirmation from Starfleet Command. I'm sure you can delay long enough for a transmission to be sent." Tasser was now glaring at Picard. "Negative Captain, my orders are very clear. If you will not relinquish the "Guests" then I'm afraid Commander Riker will have to relive you," he stated bluntly. Without hesitation, William Riker rose, resolute. "I will do no such thing, These orders are highly suspect and I will not carry them out until we get confirmation."

Then suddenly the irrational anger and impatience that had been building slowly in Captain Tasser surged forth. With a very inhuman growl, the screen snapped off. From behind them, Worf suddenly shouted, "The Columbus is raising shields and arming weapons!"

"What?" shouted the Captain, alarmed by this outrageous and sudden action. "Red alert! Battle stations!"

Chapter Nine

As the Columbus opened up with its phaser arrays, the Enterprise made a 80 degree turn away from its attacker and began to weave in between beams of crimson fire. In spite of its evasive efforts, a beam slammed into the Enterprise's rear shield, sending shock waves through the ship.

"Shields holding Captain, shall I return fire?" asked Worf, furiously working the tactical controls. "Fire on their weapons and engines only. Phasers only," the Captain ordered. He looked at the viewscreen, the pursuing craft filling it, in shock. He had never in his long history in Starfleet heard of a ship under Fedoration control attacking unprovoked. The fact it had attacked the flagship of the Fedoration fleet didn't help assuage his astonishment. But he quickly shook of his shock; he had a battle on his hands.

The Enterprise let lose its own weapons emplacements. The incoming ship took two direct pulses in the forward quarter of its shields, put it shrugged them off and kept coming. "Their shields are holding," reported Worf, and then glanced at a blinking display. "Torpedo incoming!" Riker called to brace for impact as the device struck the shields. The energy barrier flickered for a moment and came back up, but it was long enough. In the middle of the deck three shimmers of light appeared, forming quickly into humanoid form. However, they were not human, not really. As the light faded, three hideous creatures appeared in front of the bridge crew. They were vaguely human looking, and wore what might have once been a Fedoration uniform, but they were covered in thick, red, scabrous skin and had odd spiky protrusions growing from their bodies. In their clawed hands were held Fedoration issue phaser rifles, and they did not hesitate to use them. Two targeted the security officers who were posted on the bridge and the other swung his weapon towards Picard. Even as the first security officer was knocked off his feat from a viscous blast and the third creature began to trigger his weapon, two lightsabers one green, one blue, flashed to life and set to work. The blue one, in the hands of Aayla Secura bisected the closest monster, and vile gases poured from its gapping wound. Jacen Solo, emerald blade in hand leapt over the bridges raised guard railing and landed face to face with the creature that was threatening Picard. Its twisted face contorted and it tried to strike at the jedi knight with its free arm, but in a blur of motion, the creature found itself missing that arm. It then fired point blank at Jacen, but his blade deflected the killing blast into the floor, and with a rapid pushing motion, the creature found itself slammed against the wall, hemorrhaging toxic gas as it died. In the confusion, Worf and the remaining guard were able to fire their phasers into the remaining combatant, sending it sprawling to the floor.

Sure there were no more mutated beings on the bridge, Data resumed dodging the flurry of energy still emanating from the enemy ship. Pausing a moment to smile a thanks to the jedi who had saved him, Picard turned to Worf, who was returning fire again. "The shields?" Worf didn't look up. "Down to forty percent. That ship must be heavily modified, our phasers aren't penetrating their shields." Picard grimaced. They had to destroy the enemy ship; it was obviously intent on destroying them. "Proton Torpedoes?" From his side, Riker called out, looking at a display of the ship. "The torpedoes are offline. Some of those things beamed into the fire control station and blew themselves up." Picard looked at him, "Blew up?" Yes sir. The report says they exploded, taking half the room with them. Were down to half power on phasers." To compound the severity of the situation, another explosion rocked the ship. "Our shields are down to twenty percent!" called Worf.

Now it was time for one of the last ditch strategies Picard was famous for. He desperately searched his mind, racking it for a solution. The Enterprise was damaged, shields failing, the enemy still had shields and weapons, and an Akira was as fast as a Galaxy-class ship even at full power. "Can we go to Warp?" Data replied that Warp drive was offline. No escape, no chance of defeating the Columbus, what could be done. Then an odd notion occurred to Picard. "Data, were the sensors able to establish what was at the collapse point?" Data looked up briefly. "At last check, sensors detected the indicators of a possible wormhole at those coordinates, but there was not enough time to establish if it was stable or if it was not just a metrion distortion interfering with the scanning array." Riker walked to Picard's side. "Your not really considering that, are you sir?" he asked warily. "We don't know where it goes, and the spatial and temporal shear it could produce might rip the Enterprise apart." Another blast shook the bridge, and a wall panel exploded into a shower of sparks. "Looks like we don't have a choice do we number one?" Picard asked, struggling to remain upright. "Mr. Data set course to those coordinates, all auxiliary power to the engines."

The Enterprise suddenly made a sharp turn and rocketed towards the location of the suspected wormhole, the Columbus still in hot pursuit. A phaser blast hit the shields and penetrated them, rocking the fleeing craft and causing drive plasma to begin to vent from the port nacelle. In a final burst of speed, the Enterprise collided with the nearly invisible coalescence of energy that had once been the nebula and disappeared. Confused by the ships sudden appearance, the twisted and mutated crew of the Columbus, including John Tasser who had shed his disguise field waited a split second too long to decide between plunging in after its quarry or breaking of. The ship bisected the wormhole's mouth as it was veering off, and the entire starboard side was sheered off, plummeting into the cosmic gullet. What was left of the craft then spun out of control and in a brilliant flash as the antimatter containment in its reactor went down, the ship was scattered into glowing dust.

"Captain, are you all right?"

Picard felt a searing pain on his forehead and brought his hand up. He felt blood. He opened his eyes and could make out a blurry form above him, an arm outstretched. The Captain stumbled to his feet; hand still on his bleeding head. "Just a cut Mr. Data, I'm fine," he managed, looking around the bridge. The viewscreen was darkened and red emergency lights illuminated the room. Around him, the crew was scrambling back to their stations and the jedi were checking on the fallen bodies of the boarding party. "Status report." Riker stood next to Worf at Ops. "Casualty reports from all over the ship. There is a hull breach on deck Twelve, contained." From the helm, Data tried to determine where the ship was. "Sensors are down, Captain. Warp and impulse drives are also offline." To punctuate this statement, a conduit in the ceiling exploded, causing the crimson lights to flicker and showered the room with sparks.

"Life support and in ship communications are running on reserve power," Riker reported, checking a few more displays, and then frowning. "But I'm picking up anomalous readings from the warp core." Picard tapped his comm badge. "Bridge to Engineering, what's going on down there?" There was a burst of static and Geordi's came through. "…No! Reroute junction twelve to the secondary plasma conduit. You'll overload it otherwise. Captain, the plasma injectors have fused open, and they're overloading the core. I might be able to depolarize them or shut off the flow, but I'm not sure it will be in time." Picard considered, mulling over the possibility of abandoning ship without knowing anything about their position. "Is the core ejection system online?" There was a new burst of static, "Negative. The metrion radiation from the wormhole must have fused the system along with the injectors." A hiss and small explosion was heard over the channel, muffling the engineer's voice momentarily. "…Estimate twenty four minutes to core breach." The comm cut out.

Picard turned back to the bridge crew who were now watching him expectantly. "Suggestions?" Riker walked down the side ramp, straightening his uniform. "Can we separate the saucer section?" he asked, walking up behind Data. The android performed a check of the system, and a red indicator came on "Negative sir. The docking clamps are locked in place." The Captain sighed. It looked like they didn't have many options. Riker seemed to know what he was thinking and nodded reluctantly. Picard sighed and walked over to the panel inlaid into the arm of his seat, keying the intercom system. A whistle sounded throughout the ship, heralding the Captain's grim news. "All hands, this is the Captain. The Enterprise is undergoing an irreparable warp core breach and our options have been exhausted. I am therefore ordering all hands to abandon ship. I repeat, all hands proceed to the escape pods."

As the Captain shut off the signal, the crew on the bridge grew quiet and somber. Picard too was hit with a wave of regret. The Enterprise was a fine ship, and she had pulled her crew through more perilous situations than most could remember. He took a long look around the bridge, drinking in the contoured space one last time, and then steeled himself for the task at hand. " Number one, begin supervising the evacuation. Load the children and medical staff into the Captain's Yacht and the rest into the escape pods." Riker knew the procedure, and moved off to attend to his grim duties. He would evacuate on board the small yacht and take command if the Captain's escape craft was destroyed or separated from the rest of the evacuees. Picard looked after him for a moment, a fine officer; Riker would make a fine captain some day, if they ever made it back to the Fedoration. Pushing aside the thought, the Captain turned to Worf. "Lieutenant, move the security staff and emergency gear onto the shuttles. Hold the Horatio to depart last. I will be resuming command from it after the evacuation." Finally he turned to Data, who was still attempting to scan the surrounding space. "Mr. Data, I want you to get the these two and the other guests to the escape pods. They don't know our evacuation procedures." Data snapped a crisp nod in response and walked towards the two jedi, who were now trying to stay out of the way. "We are evacuating the Enterprise. I am to escort you to an escape pod." The jedi acknowledged this gravely and Data was about to lead them to the turbolift when Jacen paused, glancing at the mutated Fedoration officer that had been felled by phaser fire. "Wait, I'm sensing thoughts from him. He is still alive." The three clustered around the unconscious creature. Then Data slung the man across his back, easily compensating for the added weight. It was against his ethical programming to abandon a fellow officer to his death, even one in such a twisted state. "We must go." The group moved quickly to the lift, and as the doors closed around them, they looked at the Enterprise's bridge for the last time.

Chapter Ten

"What's going on Cortana?" the Chief asked, pushing his way through the milling crowds of the evacuating crew. The green titan pushed to the side as a hovercart hastened down the hallway, pushed by two sweating security officers. "It looks like their reactor is overloading. As you heard, the Captain has just order all aboard to abandon ship." After saying this, Cortana returned her concentration to the rapidly disintegrating computer system of the Enterprise, trying to ascertain where the wormhole had dropped the ship. The Chief pushed into an unoccupied room and checked his battle rifle. A full clip, and he had three more on him, along with his pistol and a handful of fragmentation grenades. Still, it wouldn't be enough if they encountered any more serious trouble, and he might have to commandeer a phaser.

Only a few minutes ago, he had been performing a routine maintenance check on his armor when the ship's alert system had activated. Cortana had hacked the sensor array and had told him that they were being fired upon and it looked like the enemy ship was transporting in boarders. The soldier had grabbed his gear and weapons, which had been held in one of combat lockers and was on his way to assist on the bridge or wherever he was needed when trouble had dropped in on him. The Chief had been making his way past engineering when three horribly disfigured humans had transported in right in front of him. For a fraction of a second he had frozen in surprise, unprepared for the tactical advantage transporters provided. When the beasts had targeted him with their phasers, he dropped one and dove into a side passage to avoid the energy beams. When the other two had lumbered around the bend, Master Chief had dropped another, but before he had time to target the last one, it exploded. The blast was sufficient enough to deplete his shielding significantly and blow him several meters down the hall. The explosion had also torn a hole through the floor and severed several backup systems, possibly why the Enterprise was now in such dire straights. Although the beings had looked reptilian, they had behaved much like the flood, and the bodies they were using had obviously once been human. As he moved down the corridor, the Chief shivered inside. He didn't want to face another foe like the flood. Give him a Covenant Hunter or squad of Brutes any day.

"There's nothing more we can do here, the ship is going to lose containment and explode in seventeen minutes," Cortana said somberly. "We should head for one of those escape craft. Maybe we can…" Cortana's thought was interrupted as a mass of splotchy purple and red exploded from a service entrance in the wall. The infested creature pinned him to the ground, depleting his shields with slashing serrated spikes. Around them, evacuating crew and civilians stopped abruptly and fled, dodging through doors and down hallways. The Chief pushed the thing away with one arm, and reached for his holstered side arm with the other. Grabbing hold of the M6c magnum, he twisted it into the vicious creature's chest and pulled the trigger. The being shuddered, and then collapsed onto the chief, acidic blood sizzling against the deck plate. He tossed the thing off and climbed to his feet; satisfied he had sustained no injuries. "Cortana, I thought you said all of those things were killed." He picked up his rifle and swept the area quickly, clearing it of any possible threats. "There was a good deal of distortion from the wormhole. The radiation might be interfering with the internal sensors. If there are more, we should probably move out now. The mutants might try to attack the escape hatches."

The Chief hurried from the combat area and found his way back to the steady stream of evacuees. He took up a defensive position behind the line of crew and their families as they headed for the escape pods, taking whatever they could with them. They were very agitated, as much as could be expected as they left their homes and possibly whole lives for good, but the Chief couldn't make out any signs of outright terror or shellshock. That was a good sign, maybe there weren't any more of the creatures on the ship. As the Chief turned a corner, he nearly collided with Commander Data, a mutated body slung across his back. He eyed the infested human and the two people behind the android, visitors like himself he recalled, and then nodded a curt salute. "I assume you are abandoning ship Commander." Data nodded. "Yes. I was looking for you. We must evacuate immediately, there is a bank of escape craft on the deck below us," he said. The Chief nodded hefting his rifle and gestured to Data's load, "Be advised, I encountered on of them alive just a moment ago. There may be more of them around." For a moment Data looked of speculatively, wondering how the creature's had avoided detection until now, but the uneasy movements of the jedi behind him snapped the android back to the task at hand. "We must be cautious." He started to move again, still talking. "I sent an alert to the Arbiter's quarters. I believe he is moving towards the escape pods as well."

The rest of the brief trip went by without incident, and the small group piled into the escape pod grid just as the last of the crew was leaving. They piled in easily, as the pod was built to accommodate at least eight, and Data began initiating the detach sequence. As the pod's engines hummed to life, Cortana gave up her final attempt to engage the sensors and flooded back into the Chief's mind, triggering the familiar freezing sensation. "Looks like were jumping blind," she announced over the helmet comm. Data, standing by the control panel, flicked a few final switches and the pod door sealed vacuum tight. As the Chief looked over his fellow passengers, seated nervously in the small chamber, he had a feeling of Deja vu. It was like his escape from the Pillar of Autumn, just before the landing on Halo. The Spartan clenched his fist, fervently hoping that it didn't turn out the same way this time.

From the vast disc of the Enterprise, a multitude of tiny cubes and shuttles detached from the dying ship, igniting thrusters and plunging into the blackness of space. More than a thousand souls, lost in an unknown universe, scattered and frightened. As the ships blasted away, energy began to pulse within the majestic ship. Deep within its core, ebbing jets of coolant flowed into the reactant chamber, but the reaction was too great. The engineering chamber was momentarily bathed in an eerie blue light as the warp core overloaded, and the center column erupted into translucent flame. In an instant, the nacelle-bound drive section erupted into jets of destructive flame, which spread over the saucer, melting away the armor plating, erasing the Enterprise's name from the burning hulk. Then what was left of the craft began to drift apart, tumbling through the emptiness, the glowing supports slowly warping and cooling.

From the shuttlecraft Horatio, Captain Jean-Luc Picard watched his ship drift in its cold and empty grave. The loss wrenched at his heart, but he was somewhat consoled by the fact that all aboard had made it off the ship and would live another day. Then his gaze left the remains of the Enterprise and looked into the stars. The inhabitants of the dead ship had a find a safe haven, a planet or a rescue ship, or they would die out in the unknown blackness. And it was Picard's duty to see them through. He turned to Worf, who was piloting the ship and beginning to coordinate the motley fleet. "Are there any planets on long range sensors Mr. Worf?" Worf checked the sensor suite and frowned. "None within impulse range sir. However, I am detecting planetary masses within a day's journey at warp two." The Enterprise's complement of shuttles included the warp five capable Runabout, two Class six shuttlecraft capable of a maximum speed of warp two, as well as two non warp Class fifteens and the Captain's Yacht, which was slower still. None of the escape pods had warp drives. "And the wormhole?" he asked. It was unwise to go back through, the Columbus might still be there, and even if it wasn't, the Orion Gammalon System was weeks from the nearest Fedoration outpost. Even so, it was wise to keep one's options open. The idea was moot the though as Worf shook his head. "I'm not picking it up on sensors. It may still be there, but the shuttlecraft's sensors are not accurate enough to locate it if it is." That left one option, send a scouting team to the shuttle and hope it was inhabited or at least possessed an inhabitable planet.

"Patch me through to Commander Riker's shuttle," Picard ordered, turning his attention to the collection of ships before him past the cockpit screen. A lieutenant sitting in the copilot's chair complied, and a moment later Riker's voice wafted over the comm. "Order's sir?" His voice was calm and even, but Picard could tell he was just as broken up about losing the Enterprise as himself. "We've detected a star system within warp range. I want you to lead an expedition with the Runabout to the system and try to determine if there are any inhabitable worlds there. If there are, we can begin shuttling the crew to it. I will remain here with the Horatio and begin sending an SOS. The shuttles have enough oxygen and supplies to last for several days." They both new that even if their was a inhabitable planet in the nearby system, it would be a miracle if all 1,011 crew and families could be transported in time, but they had to try. "Affirmative sir, I'll begin transporting an away team to the Runabout. Riker out." The Captain sighed tiredly and walked into the aft cabin of the shuttle. He had some thinking to do.

On board her escape pod, Aayla was becoming restless. The craft had been motionless for nearly half an hour. She didn't like waiting around doing nothing, especially not in cramped spaces like the pod. She could sense that the warrior in green armor, Master Chief he had identified himself, was too restless. Jacen on the other hand had decided to slip into a meditative state to pass the time and conserve oxygen. Aayla had attempted to do the same, but she couldn't concentrate. She was considering trying to start a conversation with one of the conscious beings on the craft when the comm buzzed. Data, who had been monitoring communication between the pods, answered it. "Lt. Commander Data," Commander Riker's voice came over the comm. "Prepare to be transported to the Runabout. We are searching a nearby system for habitable planetary bodies and I need you on my team. Data stood up and clicked his comm badge. "Aye sir." He looked over the other inhabitants of the pod, who were watching him with interest. "Commander, we were able to retrieve a living specimen of the boarding teams that tried to take the Enterprise. I would suggest he is beamed to Dr. Crusher's shuttle for examination." Riker replied in the affirmative and was about to transport the two when Aayla spoke up. "I would like to accompany you," she stated plainly. Data looked at her in curiosity and Riker's somewhat exasperated voice came over the comm again. "Miss Secura, I think it would be best if"

"I believe we may be in my native galaxy, my senses are picking up a stronger affinity for the Force here than on the other side of the wormhole. I might be able to aid you if you encounter anyone," she broke in. It was true that the Force did feel stronger, more in tune again, but she had been too distracted to notice until now. Jacen cracked open an eye at the sound of her voice. Over the comm, Riker sighed and then relented. "Alright, you can come. Prepare for transport." Then Jacen stood up. "I'm coming too," he said as Aayla cracked a small grin at him. Then Master Chief rose as well, Cortana's voice emanating from his helmet, "The Chief and I would request to accompany you as well. Were more use to you there than in this pod. The Chief has deactivated his shield to allow for transport." There was a very long pause, and Aayla could vaguely sense consternation mixed with amusement coming over the line. "All right you can all come, but you have to follow the chain of command to me. I can't have miscommunications disrupting the mission." They all agreed. "Alright, five to beam up."

Chapter Eleven

Riker surveyed the makeup of his team as the Runabout jumped to warp. Along with himself and Lt. Commander Data, who was piloting the craft, the conference cabin was populated by Worf, security officers Maxwell and Jossa, the two jedi Aayla and Jacen, Master Chief and his artificial counterpart Cortana who was at present acquainting herself with the shuttle. Riker had also considered taking along Geordi Laforge, but he had opted to leave him so the engineer could aid in the search for the wormhole mouth. Geordi had however; delivered good news, as he informed Data that he had saved the android's pet cat Spot from the destabilizing ship. Data had been quite gratified by this, as much as an emotionless being could be, although Riker wondered how many scratches Geordi had sustained retrieving the animal. Data's cat was notoriously nasty to those other than his master, or at least Riker himself.

As the commander looked over his crew, he suddenly wondered why he had agreed to so many crew on this mission. It was true each of them possessed potentially helpful skills, but he could have easily completed a survey of the target star system with just Data. Maybe his intuition was telling him something.

"Alright, I'm not expecting any complications, but we have to be careful." Riker nodded towards Aayla. "Aayla Secura has informed me that there is a strong possibility that we are in her and Jacen Solo's reality. If that is so, I will rely on you two to initiate contact if we encounter anyone in that star system. Arrival time is in an hour and fifteen minutes. Until then, make yourselves at home." With that, he walked out of the room, heading back to the cockpit to check on Data. As he left, the small group settled in for the short trip. Jacen moved into a back room, hoping that a less quiet setting could bring him more in tune with the Force. Aayla, on the other hand remained, carefully watching the Spartan in the corner. Master Chief propped himself against a wall, and set about cleaning the barrel of his magnum. Worf and the security officers drew up seats around the table. Jossa broke out a pack of playing cards and she and Maxwell began a game of poker, Worf watching half-hazardly, not joining in. Aayla however, took interest. She moved up behind Maxwell and watched a few hands. "It looks very similar to sabacc, mind if I join in?" she asked, taking a seat. Most jedi didn't play sabacc, but Aayla had taken it up from a squad of clone troopers on a hyperspace jump from Ord Mantell to Coruscant.

The two officers paused momentarily, sizing her up, and then Jossa dealt her in. After only a few hands Aayla had worked out the rules of the game and the trio began to play in earnest. One of the reasons jedi rarely played games of that sort was due to their ability to sense the feelings and motives of those around them, voluntarily or not. After a few winning hands, Aayla embarrassedly remembered to block her telepathic connection to the force, and the game continued, and very soon the three were having a very good time, and the destruction of the Enterprise was pushed to the back of the their minds for the moment. From across the table, Worf smiled inwardly. Whether she meant it or not, the Twi'lek was providing his men with a much needed distraction. If they ran into to trouble, their minds had to be undistracted by the recent loss of what was almost certainly their only home.

As the group in the main chamber continued their game, Jacen, cross-legged in the rear crew quarters, blocked out the muffled noise they made. He was intent on reaching out with the force, if to no more than to determine where and when they were. The young knight took a deep breath and let the omnipresent presence that is the Force flow through him. Cautiously, he let his senses perceive the vague emanations of life that where present every place in the galaxy, and felt a familiar buzz in the back of his mind. He smiled slightly, the masses of beings he felt were well known, ones he had grown up with. Reassured, he was about to rise and join Aayla and the others when suddenly he felt something was wrong. Very, very wrong.

He hadn't noticed it at first, too distracted by the familiar sensations of his universe, but something was distorting or clouding the force. The energy field was different, dark and unbalanced. It was if the ocean that was the universe had become polluted and murky. For a fleeting moment Jacen feared that they had traveled to his future, and the Yuuzhan Vong had succeeded in eradicating the jedi and spreading their Force-absent presence throughout the galaxy, but it was not so. The Force was still present, still strong, but it was changed, dark, darker than he had ever felt it, even when he had been held at the renegade Shadow Academy. The dark jedi who had been just that, jedi, and although tainted, some balance had remained, but here, the opaque and almost suffocating. Even as he probed the fringes of the blackness, a presence stirred within it, and began reaching out, searching. Abruptly, Jacen broke the meditative state and jumped to his feet, his eyes obscured by a cold sweat.

For a moment Jacen just stood in the small bunkroom, wiping moisture from his brow, and then he moved quickly through the small ship to the main room. As he slid through the door, Aayla looked up, feeling his consternation. She lay down her hand and slowly stood up. "What's wrong Jacen?" she asked, concern obvious in her voice. The others in the room looked towards them with interest. "Haven't you been able to sense it, the darkness?" Jacen asked, still reeling from his experience. Aayla frowned. "You mean you felt something while you were meditating? I haven't been able to really concentrate." She placed a hand on the man's arm. "What did you feel?" He looked into her eyes a moment, and the familiar squirmy feeling appeared back in his stomach, helping to clear his head. "I felt the dark side of the Force, it is strong. Too strong. I don't think were in my time, no we can't be." Aayla considered this. "If that is true, then we may have jumped back into the middle of the war." She looked out the window to the smeared starscape of the warp field. "Lets just hope we're not flying into a gundark's nest of trouble."

Like an endless mountain range of crystal, the titanic spires of Coruscant stretched from horizon to horizon, eclipsing the dusk sky. Below the bustling skyscrapers of the Imperial capital, streams of aircars and repulsor vehicles formed glowing lines over the planetwide city. Trillions of inhabitants of all species lived, worked, and served in this artificial jungle. At the very heart of this unimaginably huge metropolis was the Imperial City, some of its colossal structures towering kilometers high, held in place by massive grids of gravity supports. These buildings were, however dwarfed by the palace itself, a monumental pyramid of metal and stone, and easily the largest structure on the planet, perhaps in the galaxy. And from this titan's peak sat a single man, staring down on the glittering metropolis. It was all his. All that Emperor Palpatine, Sith Master and unquestioned ruler of the known galaxy, could see was his, and he wanted more. He wanted all.

A small being, dressed in a modest black robe and bearing a small, wooden cane sat in a massive durasteel throne, overlooking a massive window. His face was obscured by a ominous hood, but beyond the shadow gray wrinkled skin and rotted yellow teeth were visible. The dark emperor's mouth was creased into a sickly smile, and he was in deep thought. At the fringes of his vast power, he could feel a mind, one powerful in the force, one he had never felt before. A jedi, he was sure of it. Most of their weak order had been wiped out during the Clone Wars, the conflict that had allowed Palpatine to rise slowly to power. Then, as part of his New Order, his apprentice Darth Vader and imperial death squads sought out the surviving jedi and terminated them. They had been very efficient, as in the last decade; only a handful of jedi had been discovered and terminated, including the old Master Obi-Wan Kenobi. Now Vader was pursuing the last of them, a young rebel named Skywalker, Vader's son. Palpatine knew full well that Vader wished to turn his son to the Dark Side of the Force and overthrow him, but there was no threat. Palpatine would simply turn the tables on his traitorous apprentice, and after Vader was killed by his own son, young Luke Skywalker would become servant to the dark one. It was already in motion, and did not concern him.

This new presence however, did catch Palpatine's interest. As soon as it felt him searching, it withdrew, but the Master already knew too much. The foolish jedi would be found, and Vader would offer him the same ultimatum as he offered every jedi he confronted; join the dark under Palpatine or die. Vader had to kill them all, none ever submitted. But, Palpatine thought as he reached for a control panel inlaid in the right arm of his mighty seat, this one was foolish enough to broadcast his existence unprotected through the force. Maybe this time, he would turn, but it mattered not, as long as the threat was eliminated. With a slight flick of his right fore finger, the throne room's comm came on. "Inform Lord Vader that I wish to speak with him." The words were gentle, but they were undeniable. No one kept the Emperor waiting. No confirmation was necessary to know that the order would be carried out and the comm flipped off again. Palpatine settled back into his metal seat, chuckling darkly as he returned to his ominous and brooding works. The pieces were in motion; the final destruction of the jedi was near.

Chapter Twelve

"Sir, we have reached the target system. Dropping out of warp now," Data informed Commander as they sat in the cabin of the Runabout. Riker nodded a confirmation and arose to inform his team. His apprehension about the mission was steadily growing, especially after the news the jedi had delivered. Riker was still mystified by their powers, but after they had saved him and the Captain, he was willing to give the foreboding premonition the benefit of the doubt. All the same, the mission still had to be completed if there was any hope of saving the stranded crew of the Enterprise, and the Commander just hoped it would go off without any major hang-ups. Then again, missions rarely went as planned. Before he could reach the exit, Aayla and Jacen, who pushed into the small cockpit, blocked it. Riker nodded to them in recognition, and sat back down.

"Were about to enter the target system." He looked up into Jacen's anxious face. "Are you picking up any trouble ahead?" Still peering out the viewport, Jacen shook his head. "No. But I can't really look into the future. From time to time, jedi can sense impending danger or the presence of something dangerous, but I'm certainly not omniscient." Riker nodded and settled back into his seat. It seemed there was a limit to their abilities.

"Engaging impulse engines," Data stated, tapping a command into his control panel. At that, the image beyond the transparent plate shifted from swirling starlines to the blackness of space, dotted with stars. "Sir, I'm picking up a great deal of communications traffic. Most of it is automated, wideband transmissions delivering repeating syntactical code, most likely navigational instructions. I can not identify any of the symbols." Aayla looked over his shoulder. "Let me see." Data quickly generated a long line of boxy symbols flowing across a computer screen. "That's Aurebesh, galactic basic. These are approach vectors and local regulations for a planet called Poloon Three." She glanced up at the approaching planet, still just a speck of light beyond the screen and glanced over at Jacen. "I've never heard of it." Jacen moved beside her and peered into the depths of space. "I have. When I was younger, my father took me here. There's only one city on the planet, Starlane City I think it's called. It's a re-supply depot for small freighters passing through the Mid Rim, a very seedy place. Dad liked to go there to "soak up the local color" as he put it."

Despite his crisp, formal appearance, Will Riker had seen his share of seedy hangouts on the borders of Federation territory, and he could navigate the places fairly well. It was not exactly what he had been hoping for, but the crew of the Enterprise had only a few days of supplies, so he couldn't be choosy. "Do you think we can find a pilot who could help recover the survivors?" he asked Jacen. The young man nodded in response, "there are always freighter pilots looking for work." Jacen stopped to consider. "Of course, anyone we find will be expect to be paid. As I remember, even the docking fees on this planet are exorbitant." This comment caught Riker off guard. The Federation did engage in trade with its neighbors like the Ferengi, but commerce within the alliance had been phased out for decades. Seeing the surprised look on Riker's face, Aayla put in wryly "And I'm assuming you don't have any credits." Riker shook his head, now pondering the quandary. "Perhaps we could offer something of value in exchange for a starship's services." Data suggested.

Aayla glanced back into the main cabin, where the rest of the team waited restlessly. "This ship is pretty spartan, I don't think you have anything that we could use to barter," but then her eye caught a few poker chips, which the security officers were quickly packing away. "Then again, there might be an alternative."

Starlane City, if it really could be called a city, was a typical small greasy freighter stop, just off the Heccordan Hyperspace Loop, a popular passage for small time crooks and down-on-their-luck spacers. Built around the crashed hulk of an ancient ore freighter, now the city's governmental and trade hub, the skies above Starlane were smattered with groups of battered starships taking off and landing on small, dingy docking pits. Data skillfully wove around decrepit residential towers and past the flowing lanes of traffic, guided by an automated landing code. The sleek, metallic craft gracefully dropped through the layers of thin urban sprawl, conspicuously polished and new. With a puff of its thruster jets, the shuttle alighted on the worn ferrocrete landing pad, which was recessed in a dank, gloomy pit. From a door in the rounded wall emerged a rodian in a dirty jumpsuit, his scaly green skin tarnished with oil and grease. In his hand he held a bulky datapad and a well-worn Bryar blaster pistol was slung on a thigh holster.

From the Runabout's rear hatch emerged Commander Riker and Security Officer Aleen Jossa, both dressed in drab coveralls at Jacen's suggestion, as their bright uniforms would draw attention unwanted in such a seedy area. Behind them emerged Aayla and Jacen, the Twi'lek carrying a small pouch on her belt. The others had agreed to stay behind, both because they were needed to guard the ship and the fact that Klingons and fully armored super soldiers were not very common sights at a freighter depot. The Rodian sized the group up, and then approached Riker, datapad outstretched. From it's mouth buzzed a rapid series of guttural sounds and garbled words. The universal translator on the Commander's belt attempted and failed to translate the message; the alien was not speaking Basic. Fortunately, Aayla stepped forward, replying in the same rapid tongue. "How long you stay here?" the Rodian asked, scanning the female before him with bulbous eyes. "Only a few hours. Looking for some help." Aayla replied in heavily accented rodian, using the short jargon spacers often used. The alien tapped at his pad with a suction cup tipped finger. "Ninety creds," he said finally, extending a greasy hand. Aayla looked at him carefully and then reached slowly into the small pouch at her side, withdrawing three blue poker chips. Riker eyed her with alarm and confusion, but kept quiet. "Ninety credits," she said smoothly, handing over the ceramic objects. The dock keeper took the worthless chips, looked then over, and inserted them in a deep pocket.

After a few short formalities, the rodian walked back to his small wall office, leaving the small group alone. Riker was the first to speak. "You use poker chips as currency?" he asked disbelievingly. Aayla laughed softly, "of course not. I simply made him believe that he was paid. I'm not particularly adept at influence, but he wasn't very attentive. He won't realize he was paid with those chips until we're long gone." Riker was taken aback, "You're robbing him?" From what he had heard and seen of the jedi, he hadn't expected such dishonest behavior. Aayla stared into his eyes, "We don't have much choice do we. Besides, I will make sure that he gets his money, as soon as I am in a position to provide it." Considering the matter closed, she turned to Jacen. "Now, maybe we should head out. Lead the way." Jacen nodded numbly, and after a pause pointed towards the exit. "We ought to be fairly close to a cantina. We can find a pilot there."

The companions moved out of the dank docking area and into a dingy street, populated by hurrying spacers and various disreputable characters. As they headed past holographic advertisement screens and broken streetlights, Jacen walked closer to Aayla, touching her shoulder uncomfortably. "Don't you think that what you did was dangerous?" he asked cautiously. She gave him a sidelong glance, "It was necessary. Besides, I meant what I said, he will be paid back, and no harm will come of it." Jacen shook his head. "No, I mean don't you think that using the Force so bluntly was skirting a little to close to the dark side?" It was true that even Master Skywalker occasionally used gentle mind manipulation when necessary, but Jacen had always believed jedi of the Old Order had been above such necessities. Aayla gave a slightly exasperated sigh. "It is true that the path to darkness is often shrouded and abrupt, but an act like that will hardly turn me or you into a Sith. Your master should have taught you there is a fine line between caution and apathy." Jacen considered these words. Luke Skywalker had single-handedly reformed the jedi order, and all current jedi were influenced by his teachings. By his own admission, Luke's training was incomplete, and his teachings had been strongly affected by the dark story of Darth Vader, his father, even after his redemption. Perhaps the line between light and dark was not as thin as Luke believed.

The group blended easily into the crowd and and followed it's flow until they entered a larger and more crowded causeway, packed with merchants hawking their wares from street side stalls. Jacen stopped by information kiosk manned by a battered protocol droid to find the nearest cantina, and the others tried not to get separated in the milling crowd. As they waited, a small Cathar boy skittered down the street recklessly, and accidentally rammed into Aayla and falling to the ground. The jedi stooped over and helped the tan, whiskered child to his feet. "Are you all right?" she asked, dusting him off. The boy looked her over quickly, his large eyes lingering on the small metal tube of her lightsaber clipped to her belt. Then he shook his head, mumbled something indeterminate, and broke free melting back into the crowd. Aayla, stood up, looking after him puzzled. "Anything wrong?" Riker asked, now standing off to her side. Aayla shook her head and spook, mostly to herself, "Well, no. It's just that I felt something strange from that boy, fear maybe." Riker looked up at the decaying prefabricated structures and blaster pockmarks in the duracrete walls. "Well, if I lived here, I might be a little frightened too." Then Riker motioned to where Jacen was standing, his talk with the guide done.

Their approach to the nearest cantina, an establishment called the Hazy Mynock, was short and unhindered until they were almost at the illuminated entrance, when Jacen stopped short. The others paused as well, "What's wrong?" Riker asked. The man pointed down the now crowded street, towards a steadily approaching group of figures. The six humanoids were in stark contrast to the surrounding throng, clad in blight white casts of menacing body armor. Each carried a large firearm in the crook of their arms, and followed a soldier who's bleached form was adorned by a gray shoulder plate. "Stormtroopers," he stated, puzzled. The imperial remnant of his day would never waste the increasingly rare Stormtrooper on such an insignificant world. In fact, the small and isolationist Empire didn't even control the Poloon system anymore. That could mean only one thing. The Emperor was still alive at this point in time, and the Galactic Empire was still at full strength. That explained the sickening presence Jacen had felt during his meditation, and the sudden revelation shook him to the core. Here, now, Aayla and himself were fugitives, an atoms width from discovery and execution.

"Those aren't Clonetroopers," Aayla commented warily. Although their armor was strikingly similar, the humans inside those suits were not the clones of Jango Fett she had fought along side with, loyal and resolute. Instead, their minds were different, trained for a different purpose, a darker one. "Hide your lightsaber, quickly," Jacen ordered in an unusually hard tone, shoving his weapon into a pocket in his vest. Aayla complied, knowing that Jacen must have good reason to fear these soldiers. Before either of the others could question the odd behavior, Jacen herded them into the dark cantina, noisy with wailing Jizz music from an entertainment module on the wall and the drunken clamor of the bar's patrons. Pilots and mechanics of all species sat around smoky tables and at holo-terminals, drinking and generally making noise. The jedi selected a secluded table and sat them down. "Are you going to tell me what's going on or am I going to have to guess?" asked Riker sarcastically. Quickly, Jacen explained their predicament, of being on an Imperial controlled world during the time of Palpatine. Riker's expression grew dark. "Then we have to find a pilot and get out of here quickly. I will not allow either of you to fall into enemy hands." Aayla grunted, "That's reassuring." If these Stormtroopers were anything like the soldiers she had fought alongside with, Riker and Jossa weren't going to be much help if the situation degenerated any further. Before Riker could respond, the security officer nudged him. "Sir, we've got company," she whispered, gesturing towards the doorway to the cantina. The squad of troopers had entered, and their leader was questioning a grisly old man who seemed to be in charge of the establishment. The gnarled man was waving in their general direction. "Looks like we've already outstayed our welcome," Jacen said, slowly rising, his hand hovering near the concealed lightsaber.

Riker also got up and began scanning the hazy room for exits. "Maybe we can slip into the crowd and," "Its too late," Aayla said softly, cutting the Commander off. Indeed, the squad had rounded the oval bar at the center of the cantina and was headed towards their table, their blasters raised to a guard position. The lead soldier stepped to the head of the table, blocking the group's escape. "Identification," he ordered coldly, his voice made slightly tinny by his helmet's speaker unit. Riker stepped forward and threw on a nervous smile, "What seems to be the problem?" The stormtrooper, evidently an officer by the ornamentation on his shoulder, looked at him through cameras built into his helmet's opaque eye bulges. "I need to see your commerce license or a valid resident ID." He responded, a gloved finger wavering over the firing stud of his E-11 blaster rifle. Aayla took a deep breath and stepped forward, looking directly at the trooper's face, her force presence expanding from her body. "We're just passing through. You don't need to see our ID." The stormtrooper paused for a moment, staring into her beautiful eyes, his mental walls breaking. What did he need them for, and besides, he was behind schedule. He was about to turn away and lead his squad back out into the street when his stiff training, all the methods he had been taught to detect and defeat mind tricks of the hated jedi, kicked in. Ice flowed through his veins and he whirled, his blaster pointed at Aayla's head. "Freeze, Jedi scum!"

Chapter Thirteen

Aboard the shuttlecraft Commonwealth, Beverly Crusher had her hands full. Even though the evacuation of the Enterprise had been by the book and without injury, there were numerous crewmen who had been wounded during the Columbus's attack. "Nurse, get a splint on that broken leg and then transport him back to his pod," the Doctor ordered, pointing at an ensign propped against the wall of here makeshift medbay. An orderly rushed to assist the man, and Beverly turned to the remainder of her patients. Over the last few hours, most serious injuries had been stabilized, and the only people left were the ones with various broken bones and cuts. The doctor was relieved that the cue of men and women waiting for attention had dwindled to a handful; she was running out of both energy and medical supplies.

After binding one last wound, Dr. Crusher turned her attention to the most interesting case on the vessel. Lying on a makeshift bed at the very back of the small shuttle and accompanied by an armed guard were the still unconscious gray alien who had arrived a week ago and, more interestingly, one of the mutants who had boarded the Enterprise during the battle. Taking up a medical tricorder she began scanning the deformed creature, which was still under the watchful eye of the guard. Information began flowing across the device's screen and Beverly took it in intently. Whatever it was now, the thing had once been human, although most of its internal organs, dermal tissue, and nervous system were now completely alien. Without more advanced medical equipment, she couldn't place what had caused the changes, but judging by the cracked, skin that still surrounded violet and red scales, she judged that it had happened very quickly, perhaps in a day or two. Then she spied something even more unusual on the readout and called a nurse over.

"Yes Dr. Crusher?" the young man asked, trying to avert his eyes from the corrupted thing on the table. Beverly handed him the tricorder. "What do make of this, the readings near the right lung?" The man looked over the instrument, puzzled. "It would appear that there is a large amount of hydrogen and nitrogen in a cavity attached to the centrally lobe." Beverly nodded, "Yes, that's what I thought. I cant image what purpose it would serve though, or even how he's still alive with that bulge so close to his lungs." The orderly thought for a moment. "Perhaps they can ignite the sacks, there were reports of some of the creatures blowing up onboard the Enterprise." The doctor nodded in agreement. This made sense, and it appeared that whatever had changed this human, it was meant to turn him into a weapon.

For the next half an hour, the two examined the mutant, taking bio-readings and skin samples for further study. Finally, she dismissed the nurse and set about compiling a preliminary report. It occurred to her as she filed the data into a portable recorder that no one at Starfleet Med might ever see or hear this report, that the entire could be trapped in this unknown universe for the rest of their lives, but she quickly repressed the notion. There was work to be done, and she wouldn't have it be interrupted. Unfortunately for Dr. Crusher's report, something else broke her concentration. As she was staring out the viewport, think of a classification to place her subject's injuries under, a surge of movement in the corner of her eye caught her attention. Turning her gaze, she momentarily thought it was Riker's Runabout returning, but only a quick glance told her differently.

The Imperial Star Destroyer Torrent slid out of the blackness of hyperspace with majestic and powerful glace, its gray hull obscuring the starry void of space. Fresh from the shipyards of Kuat, the mighty imperial warship was a full kilometer long, and was armed with enough weaponry to lay waste to an entire planet in a day. Its iconic wedge-shaped hull was feared throughout the galaxy; wherever the Emperor's corruption and might had spread they enforced his will through terror and raw force. Even by themselves, these ships could subjugate entire civilizations, and they had done so many times.

On the T-shaped bridge of this monstrous city of durasteel and armor plate, Captain Meterin Coloth stared into space, past ominous frame of his ship. In the distance, he could make out pinpricks of light, his prey. Hearing the muffled clank of footsteps behind him, the Captain turned to see a brown-uniformed lieutenant giving him a stiff salute.

"Report." The young man smartly placed his arms at his sides. "Our sensors confirm that the craft off the starboard bow are the same identified by our observation post in the Casserta system," he stated in Coruscant-accented basic. "We are detecting at least a hundred small craft, probably escape pods. None are armed." The Captain nodded in recognition, frowning slightly. He had hoped for more of a challenge. "Begin bringing them aboard. Send four teams to escort the passengers to the detainment block; I want them all alive for questioning. Find their leader and bring him to me, I will deal with him personally." The junior officer saluted sharply and moved off between the crew pits that split the bridge. Coloth turned back to the observation windows and watched as squadrons of Tie fighters began to form a perimeter around the distant escape ships. As the Torrent moved within range of its tractor beam projectors, He contemplated his new mission. Only a few hours ago, he had received orders from sector command pulling him off his normal patrol route and diverting him to this deserted patch of space. His only orders had been to detain any ships he found there and question their commander on his identification and purpose in the area. Vague orders were common enough and Coloth was as loyal an officer as one could be, but he still was curious to what importance these tiny ships could have. Then he sighed resignedly, and continued his observation of the capture effort.

"Have they made any attempt to communicate?" asked Picard anxiously, seated in the cockpit of the Horatio as the tiny ship was dragged towards the unidentified colossus of a starship that lay before him. " Negative sir," the officer at the controls stated. "They just launched fighter craft and began bringing our ships with a graviton emitter of some kind." The Captain had hoped to attract a rescue ship with their distress beacon, but he had hoped that their saviors would be more sociable. Then again, they had taken no offensive action yet, and some cultures behaved differently during first contact situations than others, so the Captain could only hope they were friendly. Of course, judging by the readings of the armament and structure of the other ship, there wouldn't be much the scattered fleet could do against them even if action was required. The Horatio's sensors couldn't penetrate the thick, unknown alloy that encased the craft, but visual scanning revealed it was covered in hundreds of bulges and structures that looked suspiciously like weapons installations.

"Signal the rest of the escape craft. Have then lower their shields and cooperate with whoever is on that ship," Picard ordered the pilot. "Lets just hope I can reach an agreement with our hosts." By this time, Picard's shuttle was being pulled under the bow of the enormous starship, towards a vast opening in the titan's underbelly that was nearly the size of the Enterprise itself. The ship dwarfed any vessel in the Federation's arsenal, and was almost the size of some of some of its larger space stations. Any race that could construct such a ship had to be at least as advanced as humanity and its allies, if not more so. The Captain rose, straightening his uniform and trying to recall the dozens of first contact missions he had conducted for the Fedoration. Such missions were always fulfilling, and Picard was typically able to work them out equitably, but he had a strange feeling this time, a sense of foreboding.

The Horatio was guided slowly up into the massive, brightly light bay and touched softly to the ground. After the pilot confirmed the outside environment was livable, Picard motioned for the three other crewmen aboard the vessel to remain where they were and opened the ship's hatch. With a faint his, the door pulled away, revealing a truly cavernous facility. Before him stretched black, polished floor plates that stretched to gray, unadorned walls some fifty meters away. Around his shuttle, escape craft and shuttles from the Enterprise were being deposited in orderly rows, pulled up through the gaping entry point in the floor, who's energy shield flickered each time a ship passed through, holding in atmosphere. As the Captain stepped to the deck, throngs of humanoids disgorged from entry points in the towering walls, clad in shades of white and black. Most had their faces obscured by armor or darkened screens, but to the Captain's surprise, the few with unprotected heads were plainly human. Suddenly, it occurred to the Captain that these people might be of the same group as Jacen, the human jedi who was with Riker on the Runabout. Encouraged by this possibility, Picard flipped the universal translator clipped to his side on.

The denizens of the huge starship began splitting into groups and proceeding to each of the Starfleet vessels, and a group approached the Captain. These were six of them, each dressed in full body white armor and carrying a black device that Picard suspected was a weapon. The lead soldier stepped forward, "Where is your commander?" it asked in a flat tone, the translator whirring to change the speech into English. Relieved that they spoke in a tongue that the device could interpret, the Captain replied, "I am Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the United Federation of Planets." Before he could continue the introduction, the lead soldier cut him off. "He's the Captain. Escort him to interrogation chamber one." At this order, three of the troopers moved over to the Captain, and one grabbed his hands, placing them in bulky metal binders. This was definitely not the reception Picard hoped for. "We come in peace. Our ship was destroyed in an accident, and we simply required aide," the Captain tried to assuage his captors, but they were already shoving him towards the nearest exit, their weapons aimed at the small of his back.

All around him, the white-armored troopers were herding his crew off their ships. Most were too bewildered to resist, and the rest were still under orders to cooperate with their captors, but some were still less than friendly. Just as he was approaching the exit, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a figure, the one called The Arbiter he remembered, lunge at the white armored troopers. Two soldiers jammed the butts of their rifles into his back, but he knocked them back and was about to grab one of their weapons when the others opened fire with blue jets of light. Four hit him at once, and the Elite's shields flickered. He staggered then lunged for the nearest attacker, bowling him to the ground. More bolts of light hit the warrior and he twitched violently, but still managed to move forward. It took another volley of blue fire to send him sprawling to the ground. In spite of himself, Picard began to move towards the fallen elite, but a trooper put a hand on his shoulder and stated, "They are using stun blasts, he is uninjured." There was something different about the voice of this particular soldier, but Picard couldn't place it. Abruptly, he was shoved again towards the door. "Keep moving."

Stripped of his com badge, Picard was thrown into a small, black room light only by a bright ceiling light and furnished with a single metal table and two hard metal seats. Sighing, he slid into an uncomfortable chair and waited. This was definitely not the reception he was hoping for. After only a few minutes, the cell door slid open, and a tall, clean-shaven man walked in. He was dressed in a stiff, gray uniform, and flanked by two white-armored soldiers. He was perhaps a few years older than Picard with graying black hair and walked with a sort of aristocratic grace. He took a seat across from Picard and the troopers took up places behind him. "Identify yourself and explain why you are infringing on Imperial space," he ordered calmly. The order was simple and straightforward, and Picard hoped he had been given a chance to turn a bad situation around. The translator, which had fortunately been left in Picard's possession, whirred to life as the Captain began his tale. He gave an abbreviated account of the last week, mentioning the transporter incident, the battle with the Columbus, and the Enterprise's destruction. Picard noted that the man across the table smiled slightly when he mentioned the jedi. When he had finished, Picard sat back in his chair, waiting for the interrogator to make the next move.

After a long pause, the man spoke. "You realize that if any of what you have just told me is a lie, I will begin executing your crew?" This statement alarmed Picard to the extreme. Even after their unnecessarily violent capture, the Captain had not expected such blunt brutality from people who were obviously so advanced. "What I have told you is completely true. My crew and I did not know we were infringing on Imperial space. We only wish to return to our own dimensional plane," Picard replied, hiding the consternation in his voice. The officer considered this. "You mentioned jedi. Where are they now?" Picard was about to respond that they had accompanied commander Riker on his mission to find help when something in the imperial's tone triggered a piece of his memory. During one of the information exchanges aboard the Enterprise, Jacen had mentioned that most of the Jedi had been wiped out during a massive political upheaval and an organization known as the Galactic Empire had instituted a campaign of genocide to wipe out the rest, and even though they were in Jacen's past, it had already been evidenced that the wormhole could transport through both space and time. Those imperials and his captors must be one in the same, and they could not be trusted. From the way Jacen had described them, he had already said too much. "The jedi died trying to help some of my crew off the ship. It detonated before they could escape," he lied. A grin split the officer's face. "You're lying." He rose and motioned to his guards to grab Picard. "I will enjoy getting the information I seek out of you Picard. You look to be a worthy opponent." Before Picard could protest, the stormtroopers jerked him out of his seat. "Take him to Detention Block Two. Implement information extraction procedure theta." The officer smiled again, and left the room, leaving Picard only seconds to mull over what he had just done before the butt of a blaster rifle slammed into his head and blackness slid over his eyes.

Chapter Fourteen

The stormtrooper corporal and his blaster arm lay separated on the ground beneath a hail of energy discharges. Next to him, a heavy table stood on its side, blaster marks turning its thick surface black. The remained of the imperial patrol was hunkered behind a nearby drink dispenser, concentrating fire on the overturned table as throngs of frightened civilians ran past them, clogging the cantina's exit in a desperate attempt to get out of the crossfire.

"Any ideas?" Riker asked as a crimson bolt slammed into the wall next to him. Next to him, Jossa, Jacen and Aayla were crouching in-between the table and the ferrocrete wall of the cantina. Jossa squeezed a shot off from her phaser, which had been concealed in her overalls, and quickly withdrew as the area where her hand had been half a second before was filled with blaster fire. "We need a way out of her before they bring reinforcements," she said through gritted teeth. The two jedi crouched, lightsabers in hand, waiting for a pause in the fire. "I think we can take them out, there are only five after all," Aayla commented. Jacen shook his head, "No, its too risky. Even if we managed it, their reinforcements would have the front door covered before we could leave."

"Then how do you propose we get out?"

Jacen glanced at the gritty wall and then shuffled towards it. "Keep them off me for a moment." To Riker's surprise, Jacen plunged his blue blade into the wall. With only minimal effort, he slowly drew a semicircle of molten rock from the walls base. Then he kicked at the slab and it slid outward. "A way out," he said blandly. Riker grinned at him and then he motioned Jossa towards the new, rolling out after her. Jacen then glanced at Aayla as she deflected a stray bolt. "Coming?" The Twi'lek warrior was about to say something sarcastic when a concentrated volley of fire blasted a hole through the edge of the table. "Well, lets go," is all she said as she ducked through opening, Jacen close behind.

The group emerged into a dimly light alley, faintly illuminated by the dusk sky. Jacen took a quick look around and pointed away from the main street. "They'll have more patrols along the main street. Where going to have to make it back to the ship along an alternate route." As Jacen started to hurry down the narrow alley, Riker placed a hand on his shoulder. "We haven't found a pilot yet who can pick up the rest of the crew. We can't leave until we found one," he said firmly. Jacen turned to face him. "With all due respect commander, we are wanted on this planet now, and the Empire won't stop until Aayla and I are captured or killed," he sighed. "At the very least, we have to get out of the immediate area." Riker stared at him for a quick moment and then nodded resignedly. "Jossa, can you raise commander Data on the com?" Riker asked, as the group ran down the side street. Before the officer could tap her badge, Aayla stopped her. "No. They might be able to track the signal. We just have to hope they figure out something's wrong."

"The information net in this city is really quite amazing. From what I can tell, this facility serves transports from all over the galaxy, and this is only a minor trade route. I wonder how many centuries it's taken this civilization to build up to this level?" Master Chief, who was leaning, cross-armed next to the shuttle's access door, simply nodded. He had been listing to Cortana's narrated journey through the communications network of Starlane city for nearly an hour, and her voice was beginning to form background noise. Further in the shuttle, Worf and his security man waited restlessly and Data studied the layout of the city through passive sensor scans to pass the time. Suddenly the drawl of Cortana's voice over the Chief's helmet stopped. He perked up. "What is it Cortana?"

"I'm not sure. There was just a dramatic increase in unencrypted general frequency calls through the broadcast net. Looks like military or police activity." The Chief uncrossed his arms. "Can you translate it?" Cortana paused for a moment. "I downloaded the Federation Universal translator algorithms and I think they can be applied, hold on." After a moment, the voice of a man came over the speaker, the ships speaker the Chief noted, so all aboard could hear. "…In sector four, area five. Reports are four targets, armed. Possible class J's. Highest priority, recommend all available patrols converge." The transmission cut out. Master Chief walked back into the main chamber, where the others were now assembled. "Could they be tracking the commander?" Worf asked. "Whoever it is, they're very hot properties," Cortana responded. "The way I'm reading this, every security force and military unit on the planet is responding." Data frowned. "Do the transmissions name the military organization?" he asked. "Yes, they refer to the Galactic Empire I believe," she responded, puzzled. "Why do you ask?" Without answering, Data turned and headed for the cockpit. Puzzled by the android's unusual behavior, the Chief followed him. Data took the helm and began initiating the drive systems. "Why are you powering up the ship Lieutenant Commander?"

Data continued entering commands, and the engines thrummed to life beneath their feet. "I recalled information that Jacen Solo divulged during one of the Captain's cultural exchanges. He mentioned a genocidal organization seizing control of the galaxy and implementing a campaign to eradicate the Jedi Order. Although they were defeated by Jacen's time, it is possible that the wormhole transported us into the past. If this is true, then Commander Riker's team is in a great risk of being detained, and it is highly likely they are being pursued right now." The Chief took the revelation in stride and immediately opened up the com to the AI construct. "Cortana, begin tracing those imperial signals. We need to follow them." "On it," she replied, and delved back into the communication network.

Master Chief was running to the rear hatch to seal it when Cortana suddenly spoke again. "Chief, I think we have a problem. It looks like the imperials have tracked Commander Riker's team back here to this docking bay. We don't have much time until…" A blaster bolt impacting the side of the shuttlecraft silenced her. "We've got company." By the time the Spartan reached the entry hatch, stormtroopers were pouring out of the docking bay's door and hosing the small craft with laser fire. In a single fluid motion the Chief swung his assault rifle of his shoulder and into his armored hands. He pulsed the trigger twice into the nearest white-armored soldier, and bullets slammed into the target's head, knocking him to the ground. As the grim helmet rolled off, the Chief caught a glimpse of a human face and felt a momentary pang of guilt. He didn't enjoy killing, and having to fight humans made it worse, but as a red bolt particle beam was absorbed by his shields, decades of military training kicked in and he opened fire again. This volley hit another trooper square in the chest, but to the Chief's surprise, he only staggered slightly under the impact, the flattened bullets falling to the ground. It took another four rounds perfectly aimed at the spot to pierce the white armor and send the human to the ground. In the face of such resistance, Master Chief switched his tactics, instead firing on the unarmored black joint sections of the troopers. After expending a clip, the Chief dove behind the safety of the shuttle hull, and slapped the hatch close control. The metal door slowly closed and sealed shut with a hiss, but the soldier could still hear blaster fire impacting the hull.

He looked up to see Worf and Maxwell standing in the small hallway, phaser rifles in hand. "I really don't think you want to go out there," the Chief commented, his shield indicator slowly recharging. Before Worf could respond, the floor beneath them bucked and the shuttle's repulsors came online. The three hurried back to the front of the ship as it began to rise from the chaotic landing pad. They had almost made it to the cockpit when an explosion rocked the vessel. Worf stumbled into the cockpit in time to see a flash of light and feel another explosion. "What was that?" Beside him, Data was working the controls, a simulated look of deep concentration on his face. "As soon as we exited the docking facility, a squadron of small fighter craft opened fire on the Runabout. We sustained damage be for I was able to raise shields." Through the viewport, Worf could make out several small vehicles make wide banking turns over the cityscape. "They are making another attack run," Data commented, increasing power to the shields. The three small craft plunged towards them, spewing green fire. They were H-shaped craft, with small cockpits mounted between two hexagonal wings. The shuttle shook as more laser fire impacted the shields and Data began to roll the ship to evade them.

"Is this ship armed?" Master Chief asked, looking over the android's shoulder. "Negative. The Runabout is only equipped with a class D shield generator," Data responded. "That system is down to sixty percent." Then Cortana provided more bad news. "I am picking up reports that an imperial cruiser has just entered the system and is dispatching its own fighters. Evidently we are a high priority on their too kill list." This statement was compounded by yet another explosion, shaking the shuttle's shields further. "At this rate, I don't think there will be anything left of us by the time they get here."

The shuttle wove through and spun through traffic lanes and around the city's few skyscrapers, but the pursuing ships were far faster and more maneuverable. They chipped away at the fleeing craft's shields blast by blast until a pair of emerald beams penetrated the shimmering barrier; sending the craft spinning, smoke pouring from ruptured hull. Chunks of carbonized metal began to sheer of and the craft slowly tilted towards the jumbled slums of the city below. As its altitude began to decline, all but one of the Tie Fighter pilots broke off, their job done. The final one however, caught up in the thrill of battle, continued pouring flame into the burning hulk even as it began to skim the building tops. Then suddenly wit one last burst from the shuttle's smoking nacelles, it stopped short, the force of the sudden change in velocity shearing of one the right engine and sending it spinning into the urban sprawl. The remained of the ship however tumbled backwards, its remaining engine sputtering as the last of its energy drained. The last thing the pilot of the ambitious Tie Fighter ever saw was the burning cockpit of his prey ramming through his viewscreen.

"No!" Riker mouthed as the fused remnants of the two combatants fell into the city below. Beside him Aleen Jossa also stared skyward, her mouth gaping in horror. The two jedi inclined their heads to honor those aboard who had fallen, and Jacen couldn't help but feel that their deaths were on his shoulders. Aayla patted his back soothingly, as if reading his thoughts. "Its not your fault Jacen, not our fault. There was no way to know that the Empire would be here, that they would come after us." Jacen nodded slowly, but there was still a cold feeling in his heart. Aayla sighed and turned to Riker, who was still staring into the sky in shock. "There's nothing we can do for them now," she said softly. "We can't stay here anymore, the patrols are right behind us." Riker looked at her in cold fury. He had just lost two of his best men, his friends. Visions of Data and Worf flashed before his eyes, Data's quest for humanity that would never be completed, Worf's constant struggle with his heritage, the weekly poker games that they had shared. But then he imagined Worf's annoyance at their lack of action and he straightened up. "Lets move out. Now finding a transport is all the more important." The Commander saw that Aleen still stood motionless and he remembered that she had lost a comrade as well. However, the security officer was strong, and when she felt the gazes of the others on her, she tightened her grip on her phaser and gave a slight nod to Riker. "I'm ready sir." And so the group continued their rapid route down the back alleyways, demoralized, but not beaten.

Chapter Fifteen

"By the gods, what an ache." That was the Arbiter's first thought as the effects of multiple stun blasts wore off and he regained consciousness. Slowly, he brought a large hand up to his head to make sure it was still there, and then pushed himself to a sitting position. He then open and closed his jaws, clearing the saliva that had gathered in them. After the uncomfortable groggy sensation in his brain passed, he experimentally opened one eye, and then the other. As his vision cleared, a small, darkly light room came into view. The small blockish chamber was totally black colored and not tall enough for the elite to stand up fully. It was empty save for him and two low benches that jutted from each wall. The Arbiter was about to rise when he noticed that the chamber was not totally Empty. Across from him, squeezed into the furthest corner more tightly than he would have believed possible, was a slightly shivering human. He was dressed in the same bright uniform that those aboard the lost human vessel had been draped. A fairly tall man, which made his attempt to hide all the more remarkable, the man had brownish hair and a slightly mousy face, although the Arbiter had never been good at telling any humans apart by their faces.

"Tell me what has occurred," he rumbled in slightly accented English. The human's eyes widened and he issued a small squeak. For a moment the Arbiter was puzzled by this response, and then he remembered how much more physically impressive his kind were than the humans. The Arbiter sighed and spoke as gently as he could. "I do not wish to harm you human, I simply require knowledge of what this place is and how we came to it." The human looked at him for a long while, evidently weighing the consequences of silence or conversation, and then stammered, "A-after the ship took us aboard, they started herding us into these cells. We've been in here for hours. I d-don't know anything else." The Arbiter took this in and then began checking his person. Their captors had stripped him of most of his armors, as well as the translator he had been given and the few personal effects warriors carried. The elite then rose, having to stoop slightly to stand, and proceeded to the cell's door. It was an opaque black plate set in the wall several centimeters off the ground, and totally solid. He rapped on it several times, and only gleaning a dull thud of flesh on metal, returned to his bench.

The human was still curled up in the corner, but he began to eye the Arbiter with more curiosity than fear. The Arbiter was not particularly predisposed to make conversation with one of his species, or of any for that matter, but he would need the being's help if he had any hope of escaping yet another prison. "What is your name human?" he asked. The man gulped, "Lieutenant Reginald Barclay." Humans have such short and incongruous names, the Arbiter mused, unlike the majestic, flowing names of his people. That memory suddenly caused the Arbiter to twinge as he recalled that his dishonor meant he could never use his given name again. "You may refer to me as the Arbiter."

In the tiny cell, the passage of time was impossible to determine, but the Arbiter supposed he and the jittery human Barclay sat in near silence for several hours, with nothing to do but look at each other suspiciously. Neither was particularly inclined towards conversation and so the elite took up rapping the prison's solid walls incessantly, searching for a weakness he might exploit. As the warrior banged on the doorplate for the forty-ninth time, Barclay finally spoke up, his voice irritated and distraught. "It's not working you know. There's no way out of here, not until they come and drag us off some place worse." The elite whirled around and stared at the comparatively tiny human coldly. Barclay emitted a small squeak, and scrunched back into the wall. Sighing imperceptibly, the Arbiter turned back to his work, now sure he disliked the timid and cowardly being.

As he raised his tri-digit knuckle to strike the impassible barrier again, it opened suddenly with a puff of hydraulics. Beyond it was revealed a narrow, black walled hallway light by a mild orange glow. The more unwelcome sight was a trio of heavily armed stormtroopers standing in it, their weapons pointing at his unarmored chest. For a moment, the Arbiter considered springing upon them like a raw recruit, disregarding whatever other dangers might be in the passage beyond. However, years of battlefield experience had taught him to be cautious and only act rashly when absolutely necessary. So the warrior stepped backwards into the cell, his stance one of wary submission. The lead trooper motioned with his rifle, "You two are being transferred. Lets go." The Arbiter stepped slowly into the hall, and the other two troopers quickly placed a metal restraint band around his wrists. The warrior however was already sizing up his surroundings. They were in the middle of a long, narrow hallway, with dozens of solid cell doors placed on either wall. At the end of the passage, the elite could make out an opening to a larger room populated by several distant figures. A difficult situation, but he would find a way to escape his captors, there was always a way if one looked hard enough.

Reginald Barclay however was not so willing to comply with his jailers, and the lead soldier had to pry the frightened Lieutenant out of the small chamber with considerable effort. When Barclay was finally dislodged, shackled, and pushed into line with the elite, the stormtroopers began to head them down the hallway. The group exited into the security chamber, where three black clad unarmored humans worked at computer terminals. They glanced up at them and eyed the Arbiter suspiciously, but the turbolift doors set in the wall opened, and the group walked in. In the confined space, the Arbiter again considered attacking the troopers, but there was no way to know where or to what the transport would open to, so he waited motionless. Beside him, Barclay stood silently, drenched in a cold sweat, his eyes twitching back and forth. Again the Arbiter sighed silently, sure that the human would be a severe liability in a fight.

The lift doors slid open at last, and they stepped out into another passageway, this one brightly light and gray in hue. As the prisoners were marched down it's broad length, they passed numerous human crewmembers, mostly men dressed in drab browns and grays. Intermittently, white armored soldiers and black naval guards stood at intersections and grouped into patrols. With this level of security around, escape would be all but impossible, but the elite remained resolute. There would be a way, he just had to wait. Finally, their guards herded them down a side passage and into a room marked with boxy lettering the Arbiter could not read.

To the warrior's great surprise, the room he found himself in was not another cell or an interrogation chamber, but what appeared to be a barracks of some sort. It was a long room, one wall lined with low sleeping pads and the other a row of tall lockers, and at the far end was what appeared to be a small mess hall and shower station. The only occupant of the room was a lone trooper, naked from the waist up, sitting on a low bench and shedding his armor. When he saw them enter, the soldier, a rough looking man with short black hair, stood up in alarm. "You can't take them in here, it's a restricted area! Are you brain-dead?" he shouted, pointing a finger at the stormtrooper lead, who was now approaching the off duty man. "Sorry sir, but I thought I might need your clearance on this transfer," the armored man supplicated as the irate soldier reached for his Blastech rifle. He cocked his head suspiciously. "I don't recognize your voice. What is your operating number?" The rifle was swinging slowly towards the trooper. "Of course sir, I'll show you my number, but you really ought to see this first," said the targeted soldier. Then, before the other man could react, the butt of the Stormtrooper's gun knifed into his unarmored neck, sending him sprawling across a bed pad, quite unconscious.

The Arbiter and Barclay stood in astonished silence as the other two troopers undid their restraints. The lead stormtrooper motioned for the others to hide the prone form lying behind him and then moved towards the two newly freed prisoners. He pulled off the white helmet to reveal a middle-aged man, his head shaven save for a small ponytail. From his utility belt he withdrew a small metal disk, a Fedoration translator, and tossed it to Barclay. "Look, I'll cut right to the chase. Me and my men are from the Rebel Alliance and were here to get you and your buds of this fierkirk of a ship," he said planting his gloved hands on his hips. "I can't get into the specifics right now, but all I need you to do is help us get that captain of yours outta here." The Arbiter looked at the human suspiciously, this intervention was too convenient. "Why should I aid you? Why do you wish to help us?" The man sighed exasperatedly. "Look, you guys have two choices; either you help us and we maybe all get out of here, or I stun you both, say you escaped, and leave the lot of you here 'till they send the IT-droids to scramble your brains." Upon hearing this, Barclay suddenly stepped forward. "Oh, I'm sure we can assist you in the escape attempt," he said quickly, looking pleadingly at the Arbiter. For the third time since meeting him, the elite sighed, irritated by his jittery behavior. Still, from the looks of the security onboard the ship that held them, escape would be virtually impossible without the rebel's aide.

"Very well, but be warned. If I suspect a betrayal, you will join your gods before you can mutter a prayer." The rebel glared at the warrior for a moment, and then grunted a laugh. "I don't have any gods, and if I did, I sure as heck wouldn't be praying to 'em before I tasted space." Despite the human's crude mannerisms and swagger, the Arbiter could feel that there was more to him than met the eye. The man walked over to a locker and took out a large, bulky sack, which he tossed to the Arbiter. "We managed to swipe some of your gear from the security room." The Arbiter peered into the bag and was gratified to see his silver armor in it, as well as the small pouch that contained various energy cells, his optical magnifier, and a few other items. "Names Truul by the way, Truul Besteen." The Arbiter nodded in thanks and began to replace his body armor, suddenly eager now that a chance for action presented itself.

By this time, the other rebels had returned from hiding the body and were standing at lose attention by the exit. One of them pointed at Barclay, who was trying to stay out of everyone's way. "Hey sir, what about him?" Truul regarded the out of place engineer speculatively. "Well, we can't leave him here. Suit him up." At this Barclay looked up, pointing at himself nervously. "Suit me… up?"

Several decks above the armory, through thousands of tons of metal and machinery, Dr. Fillus Hykar examined his subject eagerly. He stood in one of the Torrent's numerous sickbays, a large hypodermic cutting laser in his hand. The Doctor enjoyed his work, and patients had been few since he had been assigned to the Torrent, but today that had changed. Before him lay an alien unlike any he had seen before, taken from the escape pods that the Captain had recovered. The creature was over two meters tall, covered in gray scaly skin, and remarkably, seemed to posses no mouth or other communication orifice. However, what intrigued Hykar the most were the anomalous brain readings he was picking up from the subject, who had been unconscious since its discovery. This excited him because with the kinds of readings he was getting appeared to indicate telepathy, and there were very few telepaths left in the galaxy. During the beginnings of his New Order, the Emperor had ordered the expulsion or execution of all who might oppose him, and that included mind readers. That particular purge had been very successful, and of the few who existed before the Empire, almost none remained. The chance to study a living one in person was more than the professional could have hoped for.

Technically, he had been ordered to simply revive the creature so it could be interrogated, but certain orders could be bypassed with a little skill. Studying neural pathways while the subject brain was intact inside a host was extremely tedious, and besides, he could simply say the subject suffered an irreparable stroke during revival. No one on the ship had the expertise to contradict him. He motioned for a medical droid to come over, "Prep for vivisection, complete nervous system extraction." The droid responded in the affirmative and walked over to the odd, flattish head of the subject, medical instruments outstretched. The doctor then activated a sterile field over the table and began to adjust the setting on his laser. "Begin recording: Subject 003 ready for operation. Procedure will begin with incision at the ancillary cranial lobe," he stated as the droid recorded. Dr. Hykar rubbed his hands together in anticipation and then pointed the small device at the prone form's head, his hands close to the gray skin. He found the spot he was looking for, a small groove in the side of the head and his finger moved towards the triggering stud.

The subject's huge black eyes flashed open.

Chapter Sixteen

"I can't see in this thing," Barclay complained as the group of infiltrators and escapees rode the turbolift that adjoined the crew quarters. "Get used to it," said one of the disguised rebels brusquely. "We've had to wear these things for weeks." Barclay muttered something resentful and twisted his white helmet around, trying to match it's imaging system with his eyes. "Cut the chatter you two, were almost to our stop," Truul ordered. As he said this, the lift doors slid opened and the group stepped into an empty hall. They formed a facsimile of a guard position around the Arbiter, still feigning his capture, although the restraints on his wrists were unfastened. The ruse might fool the average passerby, but if anyone decided to check them out, the plan would quickly degenerate into a running blaster run to the detention area that the Captain and Command crew were being held in.

When they reached an intersection, Truul stopped them, looked around quickly to make sure that the halls were empty, and turned. "All right, the secondary bay is down that corridor. Charen, take the Lieutenant, and make sure he stays out of trouble. Provide the docking controllers with the order codes I found and get a shuttle ready. And do it quick, things will start getting pretty hot around here in a few minutes." One of the false troopers nodded and grabbed Barclay's shoulder, "Come on, and try to keep yourself quiet." The two hurried off, Barclay looking bewildered even in his obscuring armor.

As the troopers disappeared, the Arbiter whispered to the rebel leader. "And what do you propose that we do now? Even if they ready a transport, how will we retrieve Picard and the others?" Beneath his mask, Truul grinned. "We walk in and take 'em."

The path to the main detention facility was short and relatively clear, and the would-be rescuers only had to resort to their prison transfer guise twice, and they drew little attention. However, as the main cellblock grew nearer, the security increased significantly. Standing guard over the wide reinforced doors were two pairs of stormtroopers at stiff attention. As Truul approached, they trained their blasters on him. "What is your business here soldier?" one of them asked sternly. Truul snapped a quick salute. "TK 2239 sir. I'm under orders to transport this prisoner from ancillary detention facility delta." The questioning stormtrooper moved closer, his concealed eyes sizing up the bluish giant behind TK. "I wasn't informed of any transfers today. Who authorized this?" Truul was about to spout the phony story he had come up for just this eventuality when the Arbiter leapt into action. He pulled his wrists apart, and the unlocked binders slipped off easily. Even before the manacles hit the floor, the elite had slammed his fist into the stormtrooper's gut, sending him careening into the nearby bulkhead, unconscious. Truul and the other rebel then opened up on the remaining troopers, who were hastily aiming their blasters, shocked by the sudden turn of events. They only managed a few wild shots before crimson blasts had perforated their armor and sent them to the floor. Side stepping the bodies, the second rebel hurried over to the door panel. He rapidly tapped in a few commands and then slumped slightly in relief. "The blast door isn't sealed. The hatch must be soundproof," he informed the others. Rather than be grateful however, Truul shook his head angrily. "Doesn't matter. I'd planned on getting in their and cutting off the power to their comms before we opened up, but now will have to go in there blasting, and they'll have plenty off time to tell the whole blazing ship were." He shot a dirty look at the Arbiter, although his helmet blocked the gesture from view. "Thought you said you were a tactician." The Arbiter ignored the insult. "You and I both know full well that that soldier would have seen through your rouse. In any event, there may still yet be a way to salvage this situation. My armor employs a limited stealth system, and I may be able to eliminate most of the guards in there before they can raise the alert." Truul looked up at the Arbiter's face in surprise. "Damn soldier, why didn't you tell me that before? Would have made this mess a whole lot simpler."

The cellblock door slid open, and the men in the security room looked up. There were five of them; two trim officers standing at observation monitors, a stormtrooper Lieutenant, and two lightly armored naval personnel. Upon seeing that the hall beyond the doors was empty, the quiet conversation the two crewmen were having ceased. One of them slowly reached for a pistol mounted to the underside of his terminal and called out, "What's going on out there?" The stormtrooper officer standing nearby tapped into his helmet transceiver. After a moment he shook his head. "No response from my men sir." Now the others in the room were drawing their weapons. Suddenly, from behind them, one of the naval troopers let out a cry, and the others wheeled around. "What the…" Over the crumpled body of the unfortunate man was a shimmering specter, barely visible next the room's dark walls. Before any could fire on the liquid form, a jet of angular blue fire erupted in the middle of the air. The Covenant plasma sword, mark of status and rank among the Elites, shown brightly, pouring forth from the hilt held in the Arbiter's clutched fist. The massive wedge of flame leapt forth, scything through the other naval soldier like he was paper. The last stormtrooper opened fire, but at that close range, the specter deftly dodged the burning shots, and plunged his sparking blade into the attacker. As the trooper collapsed, one of the crewmen managed to get of a shot from his pistol, but in his panic he missed the shadowy form and instead hit one of the room's security turrets, melting its firing chamber. Just then, the rebels rushed in, blasting the other ceiling turret and sending the pistol-wielding officer to the ground. The other officer backed away from the carnage slowly, fumbling blindly for a panic alarm switch. The Arbiter stalked toward him, his stealth field melting away. Upon seeing him in the light, in all his terrible and majestic glory, the blue of his blade glinting of silver armor and a fire in his eyes, the officer collapsed to the deck plate in terror. The warrior raised his weapon to deliver the final blow, but instead he rapped the human on the side of the skull with his free fist, knocking him out. Any other of his kind would have gloried in the senseless slaughter of a human being, fueled by blood lust and blind fanaticism, but the Arbiter was passed that. He fought to win, not glory in the death of his foes.

The two disguised rebels rushed up to him. "Couldn't have done it better myself," Truul said, looking around the body strewn floor. "We could use you in the alliance son." The other rebel pulled an officer of his control terminal and entered a few commands. "The command crew is being held in the west subsection," he said, gesturing for a side door. "Picard is in the main interrogation chamber, just down the main hallway. Truul nodded. "Alright, try to round up as many of the crew as you can find and give 'em weapons. Getting out of here isn't going to be as easy as getting in." The rebel hefted his rifle and headed for the nearby door, wearily watching out for surviving imperials. Then Truul gestured down the long hall that opened from directly behind the control room, and the two warriors moved out, plasma sword still burning in the Arbiter's hand.

The two rushed down the hallway, bypassing the cells that lined the halls in favor of the door at the very end. They flanked the entryway, and when the Arbiter nodded, Truul slapped the door's control pad. The barrier slid open, and the two swung inside. The room beyond was small and spartan, dominated by a single large metal table at its center. Lying on this table lay Captain Picard, bruised and cut, his once clean uniform ripped and stained from sweat. Above him hovered a large round droid studded with all manner of sensor devices and syringes, one of the empire's infamous IT-O interrogation droids. Beside Picard stood a tall officer, dressed in a crisp brown uniform, who was evidently interrogating him. He stooped in mid sentence and glanced towards the opened door, no doubt expecting one of the stormtroopers who lay in the hall. Seeing instead the towering Arbiter and a trooper with his blaster pointing towards him, the man stepped back, momentarily confused. Then realization dawned on him. "Escaping from the Torrent's detention facilities is quite a feat. You must be both very competent warriors." Rather than respond to the obvious stalling tactic, Truul turned his blaster on the floating droid, which was making for a wall comm panel. He fired several shots into the orb and it clattered to the ground in a shower of sparks and twisted metal. The Arbiter then rounded the room's central table towards Picard, his rifle still leveled at the officer. "You'll never make it out you know. If a single crewman or monitor spots you, the ship will lock down and you will be killed. It would be better to surrender now, the Empire is lenient to those who are compliant," the officer ventured, his hands raised disarmingly. Truul set about undoing the restraints that held the semi-conscious Captain to the platform. "I think we'll take our chances impy," he said, not glancing up. When the man on the table was freed of the bonds, Truul raised him to a sitting position. "Can you walk?" he asked, looking at the Captain's bruised face through the helmet's holo imaging system. Picard gazed at the armored figure holding him up wearily, only making out a vague silhouette. He tried to mumble something, but the effort was too much. Truul shook his head. "He's drugged, someone will have ta carry him out." At this, the Arbiter moved to the table and began to gently lift the human on to his left shoulder. Meanwhile, Truul had once again rounded the table and was gesturing for the officer to move into a corner. "You'll pay for this," the imperial said coldly, his hands on his head. As he backed towards the wall, the officer's gaze drifted to the now unguarded doorway, and a grin drifted across his face. "Sooner than you think."

For a moment, Truul was about to ask the man what exactly he meant by that, but then he heard a click from behind him. Whirling around, he came face-to-face three heavily armed naval troopers standing in the doorway; their weapons trained on the rebel and the now encumbered elite. "Drop your weapons!" one of them barked, the opaque blast shield of his helmet obscuring his face. "Put down the prisoner and back towards the wall or we will open fire!" Truul looked at the squad in alarm and began to back away from them, trying to place the imperial officer in the line of fire. "This is your last warning, drop your weapons now!" the soldier boomed. The rebel was deciding whether or not to risk attacking when one of the rear soldiers called out in alarm and disappeared beyond the door way. The other two broke they're concentration for a moment, all the time Truul needed. He fired a blast into the lead trooper's unarmored body and then dove behind the relative cover of the interrogation platform. Also seizing the initiative, the Arbiter turned his back to the remaining soldiers to shield the prone human he bore with his shielded armor.

However, the expected retaliation didn't come. From the hallway was echoed the sounds of shouting and blaster fire, ending with two faint clunks, bodies dropping to the floor. Behind his mask, Truul grinned. "Looks like the cavalry has arrived." He rose quickly and spotted the again outnumbered officer making for the comm panel. A blue stun blast issued from his E-11 and the man tumbled to the floor, polarizing energy coursing over him. "And stay down," Truul mumbled, and then headed towards the exit, the Arbiter close behind.

They ran out into the passageway and past the imperial bodies until they came to the source of the timely assistance; the other rebel had returned, and with him gathered in the security room were seven others, all dressed in colorful uniforms like the one Barclay had been wearing. One of them noticed them the Captain, still slung on the Arbiter's shoulder. "The Captain! Is he alive?" the man asked urgently. Truul nodded hurriedly. "Just out of it. Now c'mon, I assume all of you want to get outta here alive? The Fedoration officer who had spoken before, a dark-skinned man dressed in a yellow tunic and wearing an odd-looking visor over his eyes nodded. "Do you have a way out of here?" Truul nodded. "My other man and another of yours are requisitioning a shuttle as we speak, but we need to get out of here now, or were never leaving, he said urgently, suddenly remembering the troopers that lay out in the hall. Truul was about to direct them towards the door when another officer spoke, a pretty longhaired woman. "What about the others, are you getting them out as well?" she asked anxiously. The rebel paused with a sigh. Even from the limited information he had seen on these people, he suspected they would care more for the lives of others than their own. "Look miss," he said, turning to face her. "There are only three infiltrators, and all we could risk freeing is this cell block. I'm sorry about the others, but we don't have time or men. We wouldn't be freeing even you if I didn't figure you had something to offer the Alliance, and I'm not going to risk losing you lot." The woman looked back at him coldly. "So that's it. Your just doing this to fit your needs, you don't care about any of us." Truul shook his head slowly. These people couldn't imagine what the rebellion had to do to survive, nor could they. He turned and walked towards the soundproof blast doors. "I'm getting of this blasted ship, and I'm taking anyone who wants to do come. The rest of you can try and get the others, but you'll be gunned down or recaptured before you make it off this deck," he called back as the two other rebels, along with the Arbiter and his burden moved up along side him.

Geordi Laforge, ranking officer among the group put a consoling hand on Deanna's shoulder as the rescuers made opened the blast door and moved cautiously out into the long hallway. "He's right, we don't have much choice. Better to get out of here and have a chance of rescuing the rest of the crew than staying here," he said softly. The others knew that this was the truth as well, and agreed quietly. Along with Geordi and Deanna stood in varying states of exhaustion and fear Dr. Crusher, two of her nurses, the Vulcan Lieutenant Tolpak and a human ensign by the name of Mendez. It suddenly occurred to Geordi that none of them had family that had been captured, and how much harder it would have been to abandon the others if there had. It would already be too hard. From the hall, Truul called out. "Last chance, were moving out now." Geordi sighed, resigned to his grim duty. "All right, lets move out."

The trek to the docking bay was fairly short, and would have taken only a few minutes under good conditions, but of course it wasn't a good situation. Less than a minute after they departed the detention area, alert klaxons started going off. "If we don't speed it up, were gonna have company real quick!" Truul shouted back at his charges. Almost as soon as the words left his lips, they rounded a corner and ran straight into a pair of stormtroopers. The troopers were taken by surprise and hesitated a moment, giving the rebels time to pick them off before they could return fire or call for assistance, but it served as a reminder of the severity of the situation. "Kick up the hyperdrives people, there are bound to be more of 'em," Truul called as he ran.

The rest of the short journey was a running firefight. They ran into several more squads of troopers and a few unlucky crewmen, and some cross fire lightly wounded Ensign Mendez, but they escaped each engagement relatively unscathed. This was too easy, the Arbiter thought, they could have easily sealed them in or sent a major contingent of troopers, but it seemed as though the hallways were simply being cleared, almost as if those in command wanted them to reach the docking bay. The idea passed through Truul's mind as well, but there was nothing for it, they had to make it to the docking bay. He just hoped to hell that Barclay and Charen had commandeered that shuttle.

Reginald Barclay was extremely uncomfortable. Although it had been only fifteen minutes since Charen had ordered Barclay to hide in the shadow of their target ship, a large Lambda class shuttle, to the engineer jittery engineer it felt like an eternity. After giving Barclay the command codes to the shuttle, the rebel soldier had then drifted off into the bustling crowds of technicians, soldiers, and pilots without giving a reason, simply telling him to stay put until he caught sight of the returning rescue team. Barclay was perfectly happy to be out of the action, but he was very afraid of being detected and imprisoned again, so he had drifted farther and farther under the cover of the shuttle that he was now crouched under it's extended boarding ramp, the leg sections of his ill-fitting stormtrooper armor driving into his stomach. He dared not move or stretch for fear of someone noticing him. He was sure he couldn't talk his way out if a tech found a stormtrooper without any identification number or knowledge of imperial regulations hiding under the ramp of a shuttle. So he instead was forced to watch the feet of crewmen going about their business, unaware that there was an unwanted interloper hiding mere meters away.

The Lieutenant was seriously considering removing his helmet to get a fresh breath of air when the air rang with warning signals. Barclay jumped nervously and hit his head hard on the hull of the Lambda. We waited in miserable silence, waiting for the sound of approaching feet, and for a gauntleted hand to reach under and pull him out of his hiding spot, but no such feet came. Instead, the traffic before him decreased dramatically, reducing to only a few hurried footfalls. Then he heard the sound of blaster fire, coming closer. Working up some nerve, Barclay moved out from under the landing ramp just enough to get a view of the chamber. The secondary docking bay was much smaller than main bay through which the Enterprise's crew had been captured, but it was still enormous. Large blast doors and high observation windows studded the high, gray walls, and a variety of hardware, including defensive machinery, tractor beam projectors, and even a extensive system of catwalks on which the star destroyer's Tie fighters were docked crowded the ceiling, which as five stories high in some places. Coming out of one of the blast doors was a small, disorderly group, some of whom where firing shots down the broad hallway from whence they had come.

Barclay was about to scramble aboard the shuttle when everything went wrong. Behind the fleeing group, the blast door slammed shut, and two others snapped open. From them poured more figures, imperial troops, moving to surround the fleeing group. From even his distant hiding spot, Barclay watched one of the bedraggled figures fall to the ground. Barclay watched in desperation, it had been a trap, none of them were going to escape the ship, and they would go back to the cells and rot away or be executed. The engineer was to enthralled in the terrible spectacle to notice one of the ceiling turrets reorient itself, turning towards the battle. He did, however notice it when the cannon fired.

A flash of green light screeched through the docking bay and impacted the deck plate, right in the middle of the imperial formation. For a moment, everyone in the bay stopped moving, momentarily stunned. The second blast shook them out of it. Imperial troops began to scatter, searching for their attacker and diving for cover. The turret continued tracking clusters of soldiers, laser impacts sending out clouds of molten deck plate into the air and hurling soldiers into the air. After suddenly finding themselves free of suppression fire, the group of escapees flew further into the docking bay, and Barclay decided it was time to make an appearance. He jumped from the cover of the shuttle, and then hastily removed his helmet when the front-runners of the group began training their weapons on him. He waved frantically, and then dove behind the boarding ramp again as a stray stormtrooper fired wildly in the direction of his fleeing prey. The group wove their way through flying shrapnel and blaster fire and finally made it to the relative cover of Barclay's Lambda. Truul, his stolen armor now heavily carbon scored, nodded at Barclay. "Do you have the codes?" Barclay nodded breathlessly and shoved a data chip into the rebel's hand. "Then lets get the stang outta here." The survivors piled up the ramp quickly, several cradling wounds.

As the battle raged on outside, Truul jumped into the pilot's chair, entered the access code, and started up the ship's engines. As they thrummed to life, the others hurriedly lowered themselves unto seats to prepare for the takeoff. The Arbiter carefully laid the Captain on the floor, who was still unconscious, but uninjured. As Dr. Crusher began checking his vital signs, the shuttle rose of the ground. The blaster fire from the scattered imperials glanced harmlessly of the shuttle's hull, but the bay's second laser turret, which was activating and orienting itself towards the escaping ship, would not be so irrelevant. Truul watched through the cockpit window as it locked on the rising craft, and braced himself. Then the turret exploded. Green bolts raked the weapon system, as well as a Tie Fighter support pylon, which sent its load to crashing to the floor a dozen meters below. The rogue turret then continued harrying the imperials below, most of who had withdrawn. Breathing a sigh of relief, Truul throttled up to full power and plowed out through the bay's underside exit. The point defense cannons on the underside of the ship opened fire, but they were not adjusted to fire in at their own docking bay, and the shuttle was beyond their optimal range.

Winding around the tracking shots, Truul worked the controls as the other rebel, his helmet still on, checked the ship's navicomputer. "There are coordinates locked in, the," he started. "I don't care if it takes us to Coruscant itself, just get us outta here!" Truul cut him off bluntly as a laser blast impacted the shuttle's shields. "Punching it." For a few seconds the shuttle remained stationary, and the Star Destroyer's weaponry locked and fired, unleashing an inescapable wall of fire. The light of the energy weapons filled the shuttle, but was suddenly dimmed as the shuttle lurched and launched past the barrier of lightspeed, stars blurring into vague lines and finally disappearing into blackness. The inhabitants of the craft breathed a collective sigh of relief. The second rebel tore of his helmet revealing a young, clean-shaven man, not even nineteen. He glanced back into the crew compartment, and then frowned. "Where's Charen?" Barclay, who was slumped on the floor, shook his head. "He left me by the ship and went off somewhere before you got there, he didn't say where," he said glumly.

The man known only as Charen stood alone in a operations chamber on the Torrent, focused on the computer controls in front of him. Beside him lay his discarded helmet and blaster rifle; he knew they wouldn't be needed anymore. On his screen, he targeted imperial after imperial, and when he ran out of moving targets, the turret he controlled opened fire on the Tie Fighters, hanging like ripe fruit on their racks. Behind him, the locked door was sparking, a thin line of melted durasteel drawing a hole in it. There was no way to stop them from coming through, no way to escape, but then he had known that when he had sealed himself in the chamber. Charen fired a few parting shots at a damaged Tie, and then abandoned the controls. Then he reached into a small utility pouch at his side and withdrew a fist–sized metal orb. As the door began to glow with the heat of the cutting torches beyond, Charen polished a smudge on the ball's chrome surface. He sighed, happy. For the first time since joining the hopeless fight against the tyrannical Empire, he felt at rest, sure of himself. He flipped a switch on the orb's side, and it began to beep loudly. Then the rebel wrapped his hand around the thermal detonator and clasped it to his chest. As the beeping increased in speed, and the door began to disintegrate, Charen had no defiant final remark, no brash statement like the heroes would always say in the holo-dramas he had watched in his youth. He felt no satisfaction in the thoughts of those he would kill with the explosive, just a quiet satisfaction in knowing he had saved the lives of those he cared for, his comrades. He closed his eyes, and exhaled deeply, and then a bright flash heralded his peace.

The young rebel slumped in his chair, he had never lost a close friend like Charen before, and it hurt. Truul patted his soldier on the shoulder consolingly. "He did what he had too do son, what I would have done." The hardened soldier then removed his stolen helm, and let his ponytail hang lose, staring reflectively into the blackness of hyperspace. Behind him, Geordi came forward. "So what now?" he asked wearily, trying to forget all those left behind in hostile hands. "Where are you taking us?" Before either rebel could answer, a voice, dark and foreboding came from the rear of the shuttle, "That is something I would like to know as well." Emerging from the furthest storage compartment was a dark shape, one no one aboard had expected.

Chapter Seventeen

"Weapons fire," Riker stopped short, listening to the distant sound. "Who else would they be after? We should check it out." The others stood in the narrow, trash cluttered alleyway panting, glad to take a brief rest. After taking a breath, Aayla shook her head. "No, we should try to avoid any hot spots or imperial activity. It would be dangerous to confront them again unnecessarily. Jacen smiled, glad to see she had calmed down from her previous battle fervor. Still, he had to disagree. "If the imperials are after someone else, then whoever it is might be willing to help us. Enemy of my enemy," he said. Aayla thought this over for a moment. "You have a point." She turned to Jacen and smiled. "Will do it your way." Looking over at her face, Jacen felt a warmth flow into his cheeks, and turned his head in embarrassment.

The four, Riker and Aayla ahead and Jossa and Jacen bring up the rear, moved swiftly through the cluttered back streets in the gathering darkness, growing closer to the sound of battle, which seemed to have increased in intensity. After passing through a particularly narrow space between two cheap apartment complexes, they caught sight of stray blasts of red energy flying into the air beyond a derelict one-story structure. Aayla motioned for them to halt, and then looked around the alley. "I'll check out what's going on down there before we move out," she said, a then leapt seven feet into the air, grabbed a small ledge on the building to their left, and pulled herself up. Riker and Jossa watched her scramble expertly along the ledge in amazement. "Amazing," Riker commenting, looking up at her. Jossa was too amazed by the feat, although she wondered what exactly Riker meant. The commander was a notorious lady's man, and the exotic blue woman was well within his tastes. Jacen too had heard of Riker's appetites, and the thought he grew uncomfortable. Even in the short time they had known each other, Aayla and Jacen had grown fast friends, but was there more. Jacen certainly felt odd around her, a feeling he only felt around Tenel Ka, a fellow knight from Luke's academy, but was it really…

Jacen's train of thought was interrupted as Aayla jumped down in the center of the group, and Jacen sensed both anxiety and excitement from her. "Its them! I don't know how, but they made it out," she said, starting to run towards the direction of the firefight. The others fell into place behind her, confused. "Who did you see?" Riker asked, straining to keep up with the Twi'lek. "The rest of the team, they're alive, and holed up just past this building," she replied, skirting around the corner of the derelict structure. Hearing this, both Fedoration officers brightened up considerably and grabbed their hand phasers. They must have used the emergency transporters to escape before the Runabout exploded, Riker realized, and mentally slapped himself for not thinking of it earlier.

As they rounded a corner, the scene came into view. They were once again on a main street, a wide lane in-between bars and machinery shops, no doubt built for cargo hoversleds. A large contingent of Imperial soldiers, thirty at least, was holding position in a semicircle around a crashed, overturned hover bus that was lying in the middle of the street. The soldiers were clustered behind the cover of various storefronts and parked vehicles, laying fire on the bus's charred frame. "They are behind that," Aayla said, pointing at the bus. As if to prove the point, a small round object flew over the vehicle's side, bouncing to the ground in-between a squad of three stormtroopers who were trying to flank the makeshift barrier. A second later, an explosion threw them of their feet and into a nearby wall as the Frag grenade detonated. Urged on by this sudden attack, the imperials increased their barrage.

"We have to get them out of there before the Imperials can bring in air support," Riker said worriedly as the group looked on from the alley mouth. Jacen searched the embattled street looking for a weakness in the imperial line. Even though their backs were turned to the would-be rescuers, there were too many to attack out right. "There's a entry way they could get through if we could distract the troops for a minute," Jossa said, noting a building not ten meters from the overturned bus. "But we don't have any way to get their attention, at least not without charging into a firing line," Riker replied, rejecting the idea. Jacen however had noticed something interesting. Not far from the possible escape route, a team of stormtroopers was setting up an E-web mounted heavy blaster, evidently to cut off any escape attempts. But maybe it could be used another way. "I've got an idea."

"TK 045602, adjust that gun's swivel shaft. We don't want it freezing up like last time," TK 23345 ordered as his squad readied the mounted gun. To think he had thought today would be just another dreary series of trade inspections and smuggler busts, and now he was getting ready to plow through some dirty rebels. There was almost never any insurgent activity on the out of the way Poloon system. And there were jedi with them no less. Jedi sightings were more and more infrequent, and most believed them to be completely extinct, although were some rumors of a hot shot rebel pilot with force powers who had tried to take down Darth Vader at Bespin. Of course, they were probably just rumors, but if there were jedi on this backwards world, they might be all over the galaxy.

The stormtrooper was watching his men mount the ammo cell on the mobile cannon when he felt a tap on the shoulder. He turned, expecting some low ranking trooper or tech, and instead saw a beautiful Twi'lek woman standing there. He hesitated, looking over her revealingly dressed form with rising interest, and was about to rattle of a hasty pickup line when her boot smacked into his faceplate. The trooper went spinning into his cohorts, knocking two of them off balance. The other two leapt to their feet, fumbling for their rifles. One took two phaser blasts in the chest and fell to the dusty ground, while the other found himself missing half an arm after firing only two shots at Jacen. The two other conscious troopers scrambled up, but fierce hammer blows to the neck from the Twi'lek jedi quickly dispatched both. The other squads of troopers, who were strung loosely across the street, were taken completely unawares by the surprise attack, and most didn't even realize they had just lost their right flank.

Aleen Jossa stepped up to the control rig of the gun, and when satisfied that she could operate it, turned the contraption on the nearest group of soldiers, fired. Designed to be able to penetrate the armor of light attack air speeders, the E-web's energy rounds easily tore through the small conglomeration of soldiers, thumping satisfyingly every time she fired. The surviving soldiers quickly responded to the new threat and set up a return fire, but the jedi stepped forward, lightsabers ablaze, to intercept the deadly projectiles. As the energy blades twirled, Riker began to shout towards the burned hulk behind which the rest of the team was hiding. For a moment nothing happened, and Riker feared they might not respond, fearing a trap, but then Data's head stuck out, his artificial eyes taking in the situation. Riker motioned frantically towards the entry way into the nearby structure, their only hope of escape. Data looked from Riker to the doorway and back again and then nodded, withdrawing his head back behind the barrier. A moment later, three figures broke out from the bus at a flat run heading towards the appropriate structure. For a moment Riker wondered why there were only three of them instead of the full half of his team, but a blaster bolt clanging into a light post next to him brought more immediate concerns back to mind.

The Commander rapped Jossa on her shoulder and shouted that they had to move out, although he could barely be heard over the thunder of her gun. Aleen fired of a few more volleys to keep the dwindling imperial forces at bay and then began to run towards the safety of the building. Hearing the E-web had stopped firing; the two jedi also began moving quickly towards the door, their lightsabers still deflecting crimson bolts. Riker satisfied they had done all they could, fired a few parting shots, and then made for the door as well.

When the four rescuers dove into the structure, they found Data, Lt. Worf, and Master Chief waiting for them in the darkened hallway beyond. Riker looked over with the android and Klingon with relief. "It's good to see both of you again," he said, patting Data on the shoulder. "Likewise sir," Worf replied, checking the power cell on his phaser rifle. Data nodded, "I am relived to see that you survived commander." Master Chief however, had a more practical consideration than greetings in mind. "Move back," he ordered, pulling the last two grenades from his belt and priming them. "This ought to hold them for a while." He tossed the explosives into the doorway and the group hastily moved into the safety of a side hallway. A moment later, a tremendous double explosion rocked the structure, and the doorway caved in, piling a metric ton of rubble onto the entryway. "That won't last long, we need a way out of here," Aayla commented coolly, looking around. They were at a nexus point of four hallways, all dimly light, and lined with rows of doors. Aayla hoped that whatever lay beyond the entry points would be wise enough to stay put until they had left. "Come on, let's go," she shouted, turning down a side corridor that felt somehow right.

The seven fugitives pelted down the dark walkway, past locked doors and closed windows. When the came to another bend, Aayla directed them down it, and then around another corner. As the winding, seemingly aimless trek lengthened, Worf began to grumble. "How exactly do you know where to guide us?" he asked as Aayla was hammering down a flight of stares. "Just a feeling," she replied, lurching into another side passage at the stairway's foot. "You can find your own way if you want, no ones stopping you." Worf grumbled again, but continued to follow the jedi. After nearly five minutes of winding and weaving, Aayla followed by the others busted out into a deserted back courtyard light by the dimming dusk sky. "I think we lost them, for a while at least," Aayla stated. While the others stopped to catch a breath, Jossa walked up to Data. "Excuse me sir, but were is Maxwell? Didn't he make it off of the Runabout?" Data triggered his facial muscles to depress, a facsimile of a human empathetic gesture. "Security officer Maxwell was struck by a particle beam after we transported of the Runabout and were seeking cover," he said. "His death was immediate and painless." Jossa stared past him for a moment, her eyes out of focus, and then slung her head. She had lost him for the second time that day. "He died well, on his feet and with a phaser in his arms," Worf said consolingly. "A warrior's death." For a Klingon, such a fate was to be hoped for, but somehow it didn't consol the grieving human. They had been close, Riker remembered watching the sad exchange. He felt a loss at losing one under his command too, but he had lost loved one's as well, and knew there was a great difference.

After their brief respite, the group continued the aimless journey through Starlane City's back streets. Interesting that they had not encountered any civilians since the cantina Jacen mused, the city must be under lockdown. That meant finding a pilot would be all the more difficult. He was about to call for them to stop again to discuss their next move when something caught his eye. As the ambient light had dimmed, the street illuminators had flipped switched on, and cast florescent light down on some of the wider alleyways. One of these spots of light, spilling onto a wall down a divergent walkway, had shadows evident on it. Humanoid shadows. Jacen motioned for everyone to stop and take cover, and they watched the scene unfolding.

Projected on the distant wall were three figures obscuring a fourth, who seemed to be surrounded. Voices echoed from down the alleyway, but were to faint to be discerned by human, Klingon, or Twi'lek ears. Data, however, was somewhat better endowed. "It would seem that there is an altercation proceeding down there," Data said quietly. "Several human voices, and one I can not trace. He humans seem to be questioning the other on his presence her during the manhunt. I presume they are referring to the search for us." Riker noted that they must be imperials and Data agreed. "It would appear to be that way." Then he cocked his head to one side, "I am now picking up what would seem to be blows and shouts, perhaps a physical confrontation." Now the others could hear the muffled sounds, and Aayla rose from her hidden spot, lightsaber in hand. "Where are you going?" Jacen asked. "Going to help however it is down there," she replied, starting down the long alley. Jacen looked after her for a moment and then rushed to join her. "Wait, we can't risk it," Riker called. "What if they call in reinforcements?" Aayla stopped and turned. "It is my duty as a jedi knight to defend and serve those who cannot protect themselves. My order may not exist anymore, but I will defend its principles, even at the cost of my own life if need be," she called back, resolute, and then continued on, Jacen in tow. Riker frowned and shook his head at this brash act, but he did appreciate the sentiment. Such an aim was one of the directives of the Fedoration as well. He sighed, grabbed his phaser, and got up too. "The rest of you wait here," he ordered, rushing after the jedi before Worf or the Chief could object. "Aren't you going too?" Cortana asked over the Spartan's internal speaker. "I think they can handle it," he responded coolly, settling back to watch.

By the time the three had reached the spot of the fight, the victim was on the ground being brutally kicked by his attackers. It was a salmon-colored Mon Calamari, his once crisp flight suit ripped and covered in dust, and his fish-like head bruised and battered. Three imperial recruits, dressed not in stormtrooper armor, but instead drab, lightly armored combat clothing, were mercilessly beating the poor creature against the wall, their blaster pistols in holsters at their sides. "Gonna sing for us fishy, huh?" one said mockingly, placing his boot on the Mon Cal's jugular. "What has he done to warrant this officer?" Aayla asked softly, emerging from the shadows. The soldiers looked up. "This alien scum was walking around without papers," he snarled, and then looked over the Twi'lek. "I'm gonna have to see yours too. Maybe I'll frisk you for 'em." The others laughed, moving in on her. The Mon Cal looked up, gesturing slowly for her to get away while she could. Instead, Aayla moved closer to the assailants, Jacen and Riker coming into view as well. The soldiers were taken aback by their presence and reached for their blasters. "Friends, eh? Well, I guess will just have to take care of them before we get to you beautiful." Jacen shook his head. "Can't we work this out peacefully?" he said, adding a calming force presence to his voice. However, the three were to high on hormones, and alcohol judging by their breath, to be dissuaded by Jacen's skills. "That's enough you," the lead trooper snarled, pointing his blaster at Jacen. "Get up against the wall now!" "May I?" Aayla asked jokingly, glancing at Jacen. He shrugged. "That's all I needed to hear," she said, turning back to the troopers and igniting her saber. Jacen's blade flashed on as well, and the imperials stumbled back, surprised. "It's the jedi!" one of them shouted. "Get 'em!" A smart man would have instead turned and ran at the sight of two jedi in such confined conditions, but inebriation does strange things to one's mind.

The battle was very brief, and ended with the soldiers beating a hasty retreat, their weapons and comm links discarded, propping up their leader, who's left foot had a rather large hole in it. "We shouldn't have let them go," Aayla commented suddenly. "They should be made to pay for their crimes." Jacen looked at her surprised. There wasn't much else we could have done Aayla. There are no friendly authorities on this planet we could have given them to. Did you want me cut off each of their legs or something?" Aayla stared after the fleeing group. "Less than they deserve," she mumbled. Jacen was worried by this sudden change in his friend, but he was districted as Riker pulled the beaten Mon Calamari to his feat. "Are you all right?" Riker asked. The bulbous-headed alien nodded. "I am mostly uninjured, thanks to you," he rasped in Calamari accented Basic. "Just glad we could help," Jacen said, smiling as he deactivated his green saber. The Mon Cal's huge eye's watched the beam descend into its hilt. "You are jedi?" Jacen nodded. The alien regained his balance, and extended a hand to Jacen. "I am glad to see that your honorable order has survived the ire of the Emperor. My people are fighting our own war for survival against his forces and your noble kind inspires our fight to this day." Aayla half smiled, turning away from the defeated imperials. "Glad you feel that way. Now, if you're alright, we have to get out of here before more of them return." The Mon Cal half lidded his black eyes. "But I must repay your kind actions, you surely saved my life." Jacen shook his head. "No reward is necessary. Now, do you have some place where you can get out of these streets after we leave?" The salmon-colored alien nodded slowly, "My ship is not two hundred meters from here. I could…" Riker cut him off, suddenly excited. "Did you say ship?" The Mon Cal brightened up. "Yes, my home is docked just across the vehicle path," he said, pointing down a dark alley. Riker patted the Mon Calamari on the back, almost knocking him over. "I think there might be a way you could repay us after all."

"There she is, the Coral Iris," the Mon Calamari, who's Riker had determined to be Iask, said proudly a few minutes later. He was gesturing to a large craft sitting in one of the city's docking pits. It was quiet unique in design, shaped like a huge, flat sea ray. Its surface was smooth and worn, colored in white and faint blue. Like most Mon Calamari star ships, it's surface featured intermittent bulges, rising almost organically from its metallic frame. Standing with the Mon Cal in the docking bay's side entrance were the jedi and the others, looking at the starship with relief. Finally a way to get of the murderous world. Riker had already lost one man, but he had far more to think of. "How many passengers can your ship hold?" he asked, following Iask as he approached his ship in the gathering darkness. "The Iris can carry two hundred in her cargo bay, and the oxygen reprocessors can supply them for a day," the Mon Cal responded, reaching for a control in his clothing and activating it. A boarding ramp extended of one of its wing structures, clanking smoothly to the ground.

Riker considered what the pilot had said. The cargo capacity wasn't what he had hoped, but it might be enough to transport the Enterprise's crew before they're supplies ran out. "Thank you for agreeing to help us and our crew. We owe you a great debt," Riker said, trying to sound diplomatic. Iask however shook his head, casting off his efforts. "Do not concern yourself. You and your friends saved my life. Providing passage for them is nothing compared with that." At this, he began directing the others toward his vessel. "I think we should continue our conversation when we are safely of this world, I doubt the Imperials have ceased their search." As if on cue, a clatter and of blasting appeared outside the main entrance, which Cortana had hacked and sealed shut. "We shouldn't have let those brutes escape," Aayla muttered, encouraging the rest of the group forward. From behind them, the whining sound of melting durasteel erupted and sparks began to cascade from the doors. Finally they blew apart, and white armored enforcers of the Emperor piled through the cloud of debris, eager to end the hunt.

"Get in and start up the ship, we have to get out of here now!" Aayla ordered as stormtroopers continued to pour out of the ruptured gate, their blasters shattering the calm air with blasts of energy like cracks of thunder. Iask nodded quickly and pounded up the waiting ramp. As red beams of light began to trace towards the docked ship, the two lightsabers ignited and blocked incoming the bolts deftly, jedi using them like extensions of their own bodies. "All of you get on board!" Jacen yelled of the din of battle as Riker and his men drew their phasers. "Aayla and I can hold them off long enough!" Riker nodded to Data and Worf, and the Fedoration officers piled onboard under a hail of energy fire. Jossa, however, continued to pump fire into the approaching horde. When Riker placed a hand on her shoulder, he found her face was stained with tears, the memory of Maxwell's unjust fate still fresh in her mind. However, she was a Starfleet Officer, and the stern yet understanding look on Riker's face was the only order she needed. The two fired a few parting shots, and then hastened up the carbon-scored ramp, leaving only the jedi and Master Chief. The Spartan super soldier wove in and out behind the cover of the ramp expertly, his shield reflecting the occasional lucky shot. In his gauntleted hands was held a huge heavy repeating blaster, taken off a fallen sergeant during the bus stand off, and he was using it to take down stormtrooper after stormtrooper in quick, controlled bursts. The warrior's skill was unquestionable, but he needed to get on the ship.

Aayla was about to aboard again when something else caught her attention. Moving through the ranks of the stormtroopers, still outside the docking bay, was a presence unlike anything she had ever felt before. She must have been too occupied with her saber work to notice it before, but now the aura was now undeniable, dark and powerful. All of a sudden, the horde of soldiers ceased fire, instead moving to ready position, their blasters still pointed towards the ship. Aayla chanced a quick glance at her companions. The Chief had too ceased fire, taking the respite to reload his pillaged weapon. Jacen however was clutching his head in his right hand, the left allowing his green lightsaber to drift out of a fighting stance. "Are you hurt?" she whispered worriedly, her eyes shifting back to the throng before them and the approaching darkness beyond. Jacen shook his head slowly. "No, its… there's something coming though, familiar…" Suddenly, Jacen's head rolled to one side and he began to tip towards the ground, lightsaber deactivated but still in his grip. Master Chief caught him in one arm, his other still hefting the massive blaster. Aayla moved closer to the pair, covering them with the defensive radius of her lightsaber's reach. From Jacen she could feel a dreadful mix of confusion and dread, almost certainly triggered by the approaching presence. Disturbed and worried over Jacen's sudden collapse, Aayla still knew that the soldiers had to be held back until the ship started up its drives. "Get him onboard, I'll keep them at…" then she stopped, horrible realization sweeping over her. She knew what was coming.

"Get Jacen to safety, and tell the Mon Calamari to take off. I'll hold them off," she said darkly, a hollow feeling wrenching through her. For a moment, the Chief was about to question the risk the jedi was taking, but instead gave her a quick, heartfelt salute, and scooped Jacen into his arms. He knew that if she believed that this was the only way, then she was probably right. True warriors sometimes had to make such sacrifices, and the Chief suddenly felt a deep respect for the blue woman. He gave her a final nod of farewell, and then loped up the waiting ramp swiftly. Once safely onboard, the Chief tapped a door control, and the walkway began to slowly rise. The Spartan was afforded one last look at the jedi knight, her head tails swaying slightly in the wind, staring down death with defiance in her eyes.

Aayla hardly noticed as the ramp sealed behind her and Iask's ship started to life with a roar. He attention was consumed by a single figure moving through the ranks of stormtroopers. Around it hung a mantle of darkness, stronger than any Aayla had ever felt before. This darkness was a storm of anger, of hatred, and of above all pain. Finally, as the ship at her back took slowly to the darkened sky, the figure passed the outermost rank of soldiers. Even before she could discern the black figure's features in the dim light, she knew who it was. Anakin Skywalker, Darth Vader, Lord of the Sith.

The jedi had pictured the being Anakin had become after Jacen had recounted his terrible story, but what she had conjured up was nothing compared to what stood before her. Although the towering black armored suit of the dark one was intimidating enough, it was his mask that held Aayla's terrified attention. It was macabre and distorted, mirroring the twisted soul beneath. Behind the huge, opaque eye bulges, Aayla could sense nothing but a brooding anger, deep and terrible. The creature before her was indeed Anakin Skywalker, but only in the most literal sense. Most of the courageous and kind knight of the force she had once known was gone, and what little was left was almost unrecognizable. When it spoke, the sound chilled Aayla to the core.

"Aayla Secura, I believed you slain long ago. I am gratified that I was mistaken." The voice was low and menacing, rasping methodically with haggard breaths, and Aayla could feel emotion as powerful as a neutron star behind it. For a long while the knight tried to conjure up words of challenge for the slayer of her entire order, but all she could manage was "Anakin, how could you?" "That name means nothing any longer," he rumbled. "A relic from a meaningless past long forgotten." But still Aayla persisted. "They were your family Anakin, your friends, your teachers. Why did you do it?" The Lord of the Sith took a step forward. "It was the only way. They had to pay, they had to die." As thought these words were a match, a new emotion, not fear or sorrow or pity, but anger erupted within her and exploded outwards. She lunged forward, a pained and furious "No!" emanating from her lips.

With incredible speed, a red beam burst from Darth Vader's hand, blocking Aayla's furious blow and knocking her backwards. Illuminated by the red glow of his lightsaber, Anakin advanced. "The old masters were weak Aayla. Corrupted and blinded by their own power." The Twi'lek ignored the words and charged at the dark being again. She propelled herself into the air and flipped over the dark lord, hoping to catch him from behind. Even as she flew, Darth Vader summoned the force to him and propelled a blast of its might towards her, knocking the jedi out of her arch and sending her sprawling to the ground. Rolling to one side, she heard the hiss of Vader's lightsaber striking the ground where she had lain a second before, and drew her body upright again, lightsaber at the ready. As she watched the dark warrior approach her, a sudden thought came to mind. She remembered that Jacen had told her that Anakin had redeemed himself in the end, that even in his darkest hour there had been good in him still. "Stop Anakin, its not too late. There is still good in you, the dark side hasn't erased it yet." Vader seemed to ignore these words, instead bringing his saber on her own, his brute strength chipping away at the Jedi's resolve. "You do not know the truth. Yoda's teachings still cloud your vision, the truth," he said coldly, battering Aayla's blue blade again.

The two combatants struck and parried, moving from one side of the landing pad to the other in a deadly dance, the eerie hissing sounds of their sabers filling the night air. With every blow she deflected, Aayla could feel her strength ebbing away, while her opponent seemed to be increasing in strength as the duel continued. She desperately tried acrobatic maneuvers and force attacks of startling variety, but Darth Vader withstood them all, his saber axing into her own at every opportunity. Slowly the jedi realized this was a fight she could not win. Anakin was relentless, taking advantage of her every falter, every miscalculation, not with finesse or agility, but with simple, undeniable force. Aayla was broken; it was only a matter of time until she felt the bite of the crimson blade. Darth Vader felt it to, and knew how to exploit her failing will. When their lightsabers crossed again, he pushed her back, off balance, and with a simple wave off his hand, sent her careening into the ferrocrete wall a dozen meters away. The stormtroopers, who had been watching the fight in rapt fascination, scrambled desperately out of the way of the living projectile. Aayla collided with the wall torso first, and felt bone shatter. She slid to the ground, left arm broken and bleeding. Gritting her teeth to bear the pain, she pulled herself upright, slouched against the solid wall, and watched as Vader walked slowly towards her. She knew death had come at last, she had no more strength or will to fight, she was defeated. A sickening feeling gripped her heart, and she was ashamed of it. The jedi had hoped to die on her feet, without a doubt what she was doing was right, bravely facing down the adversaries of order and justice to the end, but instead all she felt was fear and emptiness, every bit of resolve draining away with the blood from her injuries. The dark one was upon her now, towering over the broken jedi, his crimson weapon point at her heart.

"There is only one way," he said. "Surrender, join me, and embrace the dark side of the force. The old masters were wrong, the dark side is not the root of evil, it is a source of great power. They were holding us back Aayla, lying to us. They were afraid of what we might become, better, stronger than them. And my master and I destroyed them for their blindness and selfishness; it was the only choice, the only way. Their way bred anarchy and chaos, and that had to be stopped." For a moment, Darth Vader looked off reflectively, his dark energies surging. "But Palpatine deceived me, brought his own brand of disorder and treachery. He must be destroyed as well." He moved back to Aayla's broken form. "Embrace the dark side and join me. Together we can destroy Palpatine and bring order again to the galaxy. I can feel the desire deep within you, the wish for vengeance. You know this is the only path, the will of the force." And with these words, to Aayla's surprise and horror, he extended a heavy gloved hand to her, a chance for life and power.

Vader's words had cut through Aayla's mind like razors, shredding her mental barriers, her faith, whatever semblance of peace that remained within her. Her mind was left cold and empty, and the power of the dark side hungrily filled the void with whisperings of power and vengeance. She tried to fight back, push the thoughts away, but to her horror they felt right, seemed reasonable. Through this swirling mass emerged a new emotion, stronger than all of the others. It was hatred, pure and unadulterated. Hatred of Palpatine. She wanted the power to destroy him, to rip the demons heart from his tainted chest and feel his blood on her hands. She looked up at Vader, and knew there was only one way to satisfy her dark craving. The aura of the force around her began to morph, to distort, and a terrible look passed over her eyes.

Aayla Secura took Darth Vader's hand.

Chapter Eighteen

"Who the hell are you?" Truul ordered, his hastily grabbed rifle pointed at the dark figure. Beside him, Geordi and the Arbiter had whirled around as well, and the elite was preparing to lunge at the interloper. The presence, easily as tall as the Covenant warrior, walked slowly forward, passing into the light of the cabin's flight lamp. As it became more defined, Dr. Crusher gasped in surprise. "You? How could you be here?" she asked wearily, rising from her place beside the still unconscious Picard. The creature was thin and tall, sporting gray, scaly skin. It was dressed in a thin dark tan robe, under which protrusions of armor on its shoulders and odd, rear-jointed legs were visible. Most striking was its head, a tall conical structure tapered by small fin-like structures and adorned by two large eyes, which seemed to shift from pitch black to a pleasant sea blue as it shifted its gaze. The alien had no visible mouth, and seemed not speak, but everyone in the shuttle could hear it's low voice very clearly. "Do not be alarmed, I wish none of you harm." The being stepped more into the crew cabin, and the Enterprise escapees recoiled from it slightly, still startled by the appearance of an unknown passenger on their escape ship. Geordi too was filled apprehension. "You've met this…person before Doctor?" he asked slowly. The woman nodded. "Yes, I think he's one of the transporter accident passengers. The one who never woke up."

"Well, he's awake now," Truul grumbled, his blaster still leveled at the alien. "Flitch, take the controls." The young rebel nodded and scrambled into the pilot's seat, glancing nervously into the rear cabin. "How did you get on our ship?" Truul asked, turning his attention back to the reptilian creature. It took another step forward, and then paused as Truul made a threatening gesture with his weapon. "I simply escaped and evaded the other humans and followed you to this vessel, than slipped on to it during the fighting," the alien spoke, or thought, however it was communicating, clearly and calmly. "I meant you no ill will, I was just attempting to gain passage of the hostile vessel." Truul didn't like the idea of someone following him around, and was about to say so when Deanna Troi spoke up. "He speaks the truth, I can sense no deception or hostility from him," she said, moving up from her bench next to him. The alien turned his elongated head towards her skeptically. "A telepath?" he asked, more to himself than the Betazoid woman. "Awe yes, I can feel your psionic presence. Surprisingly weak." He stared into Deanna's eyes penetratingly, and his gaze made the counselor very uncomfortable. She began to sweat, and the creature averted his eyes abruptly. "Forgive me, I just had to be sure of your own intentions. My experience with telepaths of your species has been…strained," he supplicated.

Truul eyed both of the aliens, telepath and telepath evidently, and considered his next move. He had broken his cover and lost a man to retrieve the Fedoration officers, and he wouldn't allow some big hulking trandoshan of and a creature mess it up now. Then again, they did seem to have seen him before, and Alliance High Command might be interested in a pair of mind readers. He didn't like the idea of people poking around his head, but sacrifices had to be made in the fight for freedom. "Well, your luck were in hyperspace, or you'd be going straight out an airlock. Keep out of trouble or Flitch here 'ill shoot you." The young rebel looked up, startled by the statement. Truul tossed him one of the stolen blaster rifles. "Keep an eye on 'em," he said. "All of 'em." He then relived Flitch of his chair and went back to monitoring their flight path. After this, the tense mood among the weary passengers eased slightly, and Dr. Crusher returned to treating the Captain's injuries, mumbling something about the mental state of their rescuer.

The reptilian alien returned his gaze to Deanna. "Now, I would like to know what is occurring here and where exactly here is," he said straightforwardly. Deanna, still sweating from her previous probe by the creature, shook of her uneasiness and tried to smile. "Yes, I believe I can fill you in."

As it turned out, the preset hyperspace coordinates took the shuttle to an empty patch of space several light-years from the Torrent. Worried that they might have been tracked, Truul initiated a series of erratic jumps that would move them slowly towards Sullust, current position of the Rebel fleet. The soldier just hoped the fleet was still assembled there; he had been out of the loop on the Alliance's plans for several weeks, ever since infiltrating the Torrent. He didn't even know why the fleet would be near the volcanic world. After setting a new jump path through a cluster of empty star systems, Truul sank back into his chair, reflecting on recent events. He, Charen, and Flitch Espada, who was at the moment sweeping the shuttle for tracking devices, had been dispatched to gain entry to the Torrent in order to track its flight path and if possible sabotage it if the cruiser encountered any of the Alliance supply ships that frequented it's patrol route. The plan had been that they stay undercover until a set date, when a rebel strike force would cripple or hopefully even capture the Star Destroyer with the help of the infiltrators. That plan had to be scraped now, Truul thought grimly, but he hoped it had been worth it. He had managed to get his men into guard positions for Captain Picard's interrogator, intrigued by the unusual prisoners. The old man hadn't let much slip much under torture, but from what Charen had reported, these prisoners were extremely valuable. An entire civilization of humans untouched by Palpatine's scourge. From what had been gathered from the questioning reports of various others, less hardened officers, they were members of the United Fedoration of Planets, a peaceful organization much like the Old Republic the Rebel Alliance was trying to restore. They seemed to possess varying degrees of advanced technology, and even if it wasn't up to par with Imperial tech, Truul was convinced an established military force like the Federation's "Starfleet" backing up the Alliance would greatly improve their chances against the Empire. This is why Truul had blown his mission and lost a man, the slim chance that he could get his passengers back to their own universe, have them convince their government to aid the Alliance, and hopefully stand a chance against the Emperor's titanic war machine. It was a long shot, and High Command might not even approve of his attempt, but they were losing the war, and drastic, risky moves had to be made. He just hoped his gambit had been worth it.

While Truul plotted his erratic course, and Deanna related to the alien, Tassadar as he had identified himself, the events of the past week, Dr. Crusher and the nurses worked on clearing the interrogation drugs from Picard's system. One of the nurses worked on covering a nasty gash on his forehead with an anti-septic bacta patch she had recovered from the shuttle's med kit. After nearly an hour of work with the meager medical supplies she had at her disposal, Dr. Crusher was able to finally awaken Picard, raising him to a sitting position as he cleared his eyes groggily.

"Doctor," he mumbled, looking blearily at her, and then his head began to clear. "Doctor?" His gaze passed around the small chamber as the other Fedoration personnel looked on, relived to have their captain back. "Where are we?" he asked, rising unsteadily to his feet, Beverly Crusher supporting him. "Safe, for now," she replied, glancing up at the rebel commander who was sitting in the cockpit, evidently deep in thought. "They managed to get a few of us of that Imperial ship, although they haven't told us why yet." Picard followed her gaze. "Who are they?"

"I'm not sure sir, but their leader seems to be fairly anxious to talk to you," Geordi said. Picard rubbed his eyes again and nodded, and then looked around again. "How many escaped?" he asked. Geordi slung his head and sighed. "Only those who were in the brig area with you sir. The Doctor, Counselor Troi, Barclay, Lieutenant Tolpak, Nurses Onigawa and Walling, and myself. Two of the guests escaped as well," the Engineer reported solemnly. "Ensign Mendez was with us to, but he was killed during the escape." For a moment, Picard did not speak. Only seven of his crew had made it of that blasted ship, the rest at the mercy of an Empire that had no reason to hold and torture them, but was doing it none the less. He had to go back, to try and save the rest, it was duty to them. Unsteadily, the Captain worked his way forward, slowly regaining the use of his legs. Truul, who was absentmindedly thrumming the control panel of the cockpit with his fingers looked up as Picard entered and lowered himself into the copilot's seat, the hatch sliding closed behind him. "Finally up are ya?" the rebel commented. "Thought you might be back there forever." Picard tried to smile and extended his hand. "I would like to thank you for saving my crew at the risk of the lives of you and your men." Truul shook the thanks of with a wave of his hand, an image of Charen passing through his mind. "I couldn't let the Imps keep ya." Picard let the short reply pass into silence, and then sighed. "However, I need to go back. I can't allow my crew to suffer on that Imperial ship, as they will no doubt do because of our escape. You need not be dragged into this, just send me back and take my crew to safety." Such an act of self-sacrifice could not be undertaken lightly, but the Captain would be willing to do far worse for them.

Truul shook his head. "No can do Captain. I lost a man to rescue you, and not about to throw away our mission just because of your sense of duty or honor," he replied without looking at Picard. "It's too bad I couldn't get more of your crew out, but they're acceptable losses." At this remark, Picard's demeanor suddenly changed. "One thousand for ten is not acceptable losses!" he spoke angrily. "No one asked you to save me. I must go back." Truul suddenly glared at Picard equally angry. "Do you really think you going back will save them Picard? If the Imperials want something from 'em, they'll take it, and when they're done, whoever survives will be shipped of to some backwater world, and no one will ever hear from them again. That's how those fiekirks do things, and if you go back, it'll just happen to you to, although you'll end up dead a lot faster than the rest." Picard looked at the rebel for a long while, and the truth of what he said sank in. "Face it Picard, they're gone. Even if I could wrangle up enough ships to take on that star destroyer, they'd probably be gone, replaced by even more hips looking for that wormhole of yours." Picard slumped back into the chair, now acutely aware of a headache spreading through his mind. "Why did you rescue us?" Truul proceeded to recount his plan, his hopes, his assumptions about Picard and the Fedoration, as well as a short history of the rebellion. When he had finished, Picard shook his head. "Even if we could find the wormhole and get back through it, it is against Fedoration policy to interfere with the internal affairs of other groups." This was the response Truul had feared, but he wasn't about to give up. "These people, Palpatine, are monsters. They kill and torture without reason, what they're doing to your crew right now." Picard cringed at this, and Truul decided to stay of the topic. "They blew up an entire planet just to test a new weapon. Seven billion people killed without a thought. They've enslaved or wiped out entire species Picard, and they could easily do it again. You can't not be involved in this now. If they find that wormhole, then nothing will stop them from rolling over your Fedoration. But if you help us, if we can get you to your people first and warn them, then we might have a fighting chance. It probably won't work of course, and I doubt your "Starfleet" could stand up to them, but if they could even just distract them, the Alliance might have the chance to gain enough support to stop the Empire once and for all." When Truul mentioned this grim prospect, Picard shuddered. The Fedoration hadn't been at war for decades, and judging by the sheer size of a single Imperial cruiser, Picard doubted that the Fedoration could survive a war with them, especially if tales the fleets of thousands of the ships Truul had recounted to him were true. His superiors were used to opponents of comparable size and power, like the Romulans or the Cardassians, but this Empire it seemed far surpassed both. A feeling of dread passed over Picard, he had witnessed the Fedoration brought to its knees before, by the Borg, and he wouldn't stand for it again. "Very well," he said finally. "If you can get me back to my own dimension, I shall try to convince them of the danger the Empire posses. But I can guarantee nothing."

This was all Truul needed to hear. "Glad you see it my way. We'll be at fleet command in a few days, and I can propose my plan to higher ups." He grinned. "You aint the only one with superiors." The rebel turned back to the controls, but a sudden pang of guilt struck him. "And I'm sorry about your crew, really. I know who it feels to lose men." Picard sighed and nodded, and was preparing to inform the others of their situation when a sudden thought struck him. "We have to go back." Truul sighed exasperatedly. "Look Picard, I thought we already…" The Captain held out a hand to interrupt him. "No, before the Imperials picked us up, I sent a small number of my crew, including my first officer and two form this universe on a reconnaissance mission to a star system close to our position. We need to catch them before they fly straight into Imperial hands." Truul frowned. "What do you mean by people from this universe?" he asked. "Before the Enterprise, our ship, passed through the wormhole, we picked up several individuals that were not from our galaxy. Two of them are onboard this ship, but the others went with my first officer. Among them are two who identified themselves as jedi, from this dimension." Truul's jaw dropped. To bring a jedi, much less two in contact with the Alliance was worth a promotion to general, and might end up saving his skin if the commanders didn't go for his crazy Fedoration plan. Luke Skywalker, the only force-user in the Rebellion, had alone turned their struggle from a hopeless running fight to an unlikely, but winnable struggle. Imagine what three together could do. "I don't think a little detour could hurt," Truul said, hastily altering the flight computer's coordinates. Picard was surprised; he had expected to have to haggle with the rebel. "Near your position 'eh? Sounds like the Poloon system. Hold on, course corrections can get pretty choppy."

In surge of motion, the commandeered Lambda-class shuttle plunged out of hyperspace and it the blackness of realspace. The journey had taken only an hour and a half, but it had felt like an eternity to Picard and the others. If Riker and the others made it back to the point where the Torrent had picked up the refugee fleet, then they would be captured as well, and Picard would lose even more good officers. Truul was also concerned. Although it was unlikely they were still being tracked, he were taking a risk not heading straight for the fleet with his passengers, and they were a long way from rebel reinforcements. Still, allowing two more jedi to fall into Darth Vader's hands would be unacceptable, and Truul wasn't about to be accessory to the genocide of the Jedi Order. Besides, a promotion might depend on the success of this mission, and such considerations were seldom far from Truul's mind.

"There she is, Poloon Three. If your friends are still in this system, that where they'll be," Truul said from the pilot's seat, gesturing at the distant world, a blue and gray marble hanging in the blackness. From over his shoulder, Picard looked on intently, as if staring at the world would speed their journey towards it. In the copilot's chair, Flitch sat, nervously scanning the sensors. "Major Besteen… um, Truul," the young man spoke up, remembering that that Truul liked being on a first name basis during operations. "I'm picking up a lot of activity around that planet, maybe we should go in quiet." Truul shook his head. "Nah, its fine. The Poloon system is a major trade hub in this sector, there are bound to be plenty of ships going in and out. Just stay out of they're way and they'll stay out of ours." Flitch nodded and returned to scanning his sensors. "So what were your men doing here Picard, where should we look for them?" Picard thought back. "Well, they're mission was to locate a ship that could transport the Enterprise's survivors to a habitable world." Truul nodded and began to access the planet's trade and communications net. "Then they'll probably be looking around the cantinas or shipping companies. Hold on, I'll check out the…" A light began flashing on Flitch's sensor display. "Son, shut that thing off. I told you that this world had plenty of traffic," Truul ordered, annoyed at being interrupted. "Yes sir, but well," the rebel stopped to double-check his readings. "Is there normally an Imperial fleet stationed here?" Truul looked at his subordinate sharply. "What?" Flitch tapped a few controls and a representation of the system appeared on the flight terminal's data screen. There were the expected transponder signals of various cargo freighters and private craft. However, there were also five different signals, glowing blue for ally on the stolen ship's monitor. "Imp patrols hardly ever stop around here, much less a whole fleet." He began working the controls fiercely as the shuttle grew closer to the planet, which had swollen to fill most of the canopy viewport. Picard turned to see Deanna enter, no doubt attracted by the sudden consternation in Truul's voice. "Is something the matter? Have they located," her voice trailed off as she glanced out the window. "What is that?" she gasped. The others looked up to see what had caught her attention. At they're range, even the largest of the cargo ships silhouetted on the planet's surface appeared as nothing more than pinpricks, but directly before them was a huge shape, dagger like and long. Its hull was seemingly thin, but its upper surface was covered in black, tower-like structures, giving the impression of a large cityscape. Truul's mouth fell open in shock. "An Imperial Command ship," he muttered grimly. "One Super Star Destroyer and four escorting Imperial-class Destroyers in high orbit sir," Flitch affirmed shakily, studying his sensor readouts. "Well," Truul stated numbly. "It's a safe bet that the Empire knows your friends are here."

At almost thirteen miles long, the Executor-class Command ships were some of the largest starships in existence, and the embodiment of Imperial power and authority. They're sheer size could scare even the most staunch opponent into surrender without as much as a shot form its thousands of turbolaser emplacements, and its shields had enough power to shake off head on collisions with bodies in excess of a mile long. Only a handful were known to exist, but one was recognizable to most of the inhabitants of the civilized galaxy, Vader's Command ship, after which the whole line was named. And towards this behemoth and its mile long tenders, miniscule by comparison, the shuttle hurtled, like an insect drawn to by a bright lamp. To veer of this close would draw suspicion, and the attention of an Imperial task force was the last thing any of the passengers needed. "Should we not move away?" the Arbiter asked, crowding the small doorway, which was slowly drawing a crowd. "Too late," Truul responded, keeping doggedly on the controls. "Nothing for it but to keep going and hope they don't ask any questions." It was a false hope of course, Imperials always asked questions, but it was all they had.

Truul tried to angle the ship into a populated flight lane to disguise them, but traffic was minimal, perhaps due to an Imperial cordon of the planet, but it didn't make a difference. The transponder identifying the shuttle as Imperial property was active, and such an unscheduled arrival in the presence of other Imperials was bound to raise eyebrows. The Command ship was now large enough to see clearly, light reflected of Poloon Three's single moon illuminating its cold, metal frame. The inhabitants of the cockpit watched quietly as the shuttle began to pass it by, a mere ten thousand kilometers away. Suddenly, Flitch shouted, "I'm picking up an energy spike from those ships!" They would fire so soon, without so much as a request for clearance, Truul wondered desperately. "Evasive maneuvers! Initiate the…" However, before the Major could finish his order, white light spilled from the vast engines of the ships, and in a flash, they jumped into the blackness, disappearing instantly.

"The Imperial fleet has jumped into hyperspace," Iask stated calmly. He and Riker were sitting on the small bridge of the Coral Iris, watching the sensor displays. "However, it seems that they have left a single Star Destroyer, perhaps to look for us." Riker nodded. "Can your ship evade it long enough to jump to warp?" The Mon Calamari swiveled a large eye at the commander quizzically. "Warp?" Riker paused, and shook his head, embarrassed. "Hyperspace, right. Sorry, I'm new around here." The Mon Cal swiveled his eye back to the control display in front of him. "Perhaps there are some things you should tell me when we are in a less precarious situation," he said, pulling up long-range readings on the Star Destroyer's status. "As to your question, it is possible that we could make our escape before the Destroyer was on us, but it may be wise to wait a few hours. It appears to be in geo-synchronous orbit above Starlane City, and should pass out of pursuit range fairly soon." The plan made sense, and a few more hours wouldn't affect Riker's mission that much. "Alright, I'll go back and check on the others." He rose from the secondary flight control and headed towards the door. "And thanks again for this."

After blasting off from the docking port, the Coral Iris had been pursued by a squad of Tie fighters. Although the ship was a modified cargo freighter at one hundred and five meters long, it was surprisingly fast maneuverable, and would have escaped from the patrol if it hadn't run into the Imperial fleet when it broke orbit. Fortunately, the fleet hadn't take much interest in the fleeing ship, and the Iris was able escape their firing range before their turbolaser banks had opened up. Still doggedly pursued by the fighter squadron, Iask had flown his ship into the debris field surrounding the planet's single, uninhabited moon. The field, made up of trash and various carcasses of wrecked and abandoned ships, had been largely ignored by the planetary government for centuries, and thus was sufficiently dense to hide the Mon Calamari ship. Settled in the burned out hull of an old Lanowar Assault Cruiser with the power at minimum, the Tie fighters had lost them, and had moved off to a distant part of the trash cloud, chasing sensor ghosts and drifting debris.

Riker worked his way aft, past the weapons stations and the large storage hangar that dominated the forward fin section. In the tail lay Iask living quarters and the access ramp area, where the rest of Riker's team still waited, strapped in preparation for more evasive maneuvers. Passing down a short hallway, Riker loped through a white, clean door and into the habitation area. Jossa, Data, and Worf were located beyond, seated in the main passenger area, a small, bright chamber lined with a row of seats. "We've managed to evade the Imperials and most of them have moved off, but the pilot thinks we should remain hidden until the remained of the force is out of range." The others rose from their restraints, relieved to be at rest for a moment at least. "Commander, I would like to be advised to our tactical position," Worf asked, straightening the phaser on his belt. Riker nodded. "The bridge is beyond the storage bay, I'm sure Iask will allow you to look over the sensors." The Klingon made a nod of recognition, and headed through the hatch Riker had passed through. Data was examining a wall control display, admiring its construction. "Ingenious," he said, in the fascinated tone he took on while studying new technology. "The visual display is design to split information on two bands vision. I suspect it would increase the practicality of these displays greatly for sentients of the Mon Calamari's facial configuration." Riker grinned a little, reminded of happier days on the Enterprise, Data's constant fascination with even the most ordinary things. He was about to speak with Jossa, who was staring aimlessly at the floor, evidently absorbed with grief, when he noticed the absences. "Were are the jedi and Master Chief?" Data looked up from his control panel. "I believe that they are still in the rear access hallway. I suspect that they found places to secure themselves back there." This made sense, the inertial dampeners onboard the Iris were evidently set fairly low, and the evasive maneuvers had been difficult on the passengers. Riker made his way through to the very rear of the ship, Data and Jossa in tow.

As they were about to enter the boarding chamber, the door slid open, revealing the armored Spartan super soldier, Jacen supported in his arms. "Is he injured?" Riker asked, grabbing hold of Jacen's shoulders. The Chief shook his head. "Negative sir, just a little shaken up. He passed out while we were holding off the Imperial troops and the liftoff didn't help." Riker looked at the soldier's opaque bubble faceplate quizzically. "Collapsed?" "While the jedi and I were holding off the Imperial soldiers Commander. Jacen Solo lost focus and began to collapse and Aayla Secura…" The Chief was interrupted by an odd shivering movement from Jacen, although his eyes were still closed. "Aayla Secura ordered me to take him onboard and seal the docking ramp," the Chief continued. Riker was astonished. "You mean you left her there? Why?" His voice was tinged with a sudden anger. The soldier stared back impassively. "She seemed to believe it was the only way to allow the ship to leave. I doubt any course of action I could have taken would have convinced her to come onboard." The Chief was doubted that Riker could understand the mental link two warriors could feel; fleet crew could often loose such things. Before Riker could respond, Jacen let out a small moan. "I can't feel her. She's gone." Riker grabbed his shoulders tighter. "Gone? Do you mean…" His words were cut short as Worf boomed suddenly over the ship's comm. "Commander, report to the bridge. We may have a problem." Riker glanced once more at the mournful Jacen and then sighed. "Jossa, find him a bed. The rest of you, with me."

Back on the ship's small command center, the Mon Calamari and Worf were monitoring the remaining Star Destroyer closely. Riker and the others piled into chamber, their attention immediately grabbed by the image of the destroyer displayed on the chamber's sensor screens. Next to it, miniscule by comparison, several starships flew, exchanging green spears of fire. "What's the situation?" Riker asked, moving behind the secondary command chair, in which Worf was seated. "The Imperial cruiser just dispatched a squadron of fighters to pursue a shuttle attempting to leave orbit," Iask replied in his wheezy Basic. "Sensor readings indicate it's a Lambda class shuttlecraft." "Another Imperial ship," Worf clarified. Riker watched the battle intently, stroking his chin. Why would they be firing on one of their own ships? "Did you pick up any communications between the two?" he asked. "Negative commander," Lt. Worf replied. "If there were any, the signal clutter from the other starships in orbit blocked it. However, they are broadcasting some kind of repeating signal." The Klingon tapped a few controls. "I… um, can't read them though." From the Chief's helmet, Cortana spoke up. "Hold on, I'll interface and enter my translator algorithms." The odd, blocky writing on Worf's display flickered, disappeared, and was replaced with English characters, reading: Power down your vessel and prepare to be boarded. You have fifteen seconds to comply or we will open fire. A moment later, the same message was repeated in a cold, human voice over the ship's speaker system. Iask apprised the others on his bridge with curiosity. "You really must tell me where you are from when this is over. Now, I would request your droid brain remove itself from my system. R2-E4 dislikes competitors." To compound the point, a bucket-shaped squat astromech droid rolled onto the bridge, its green-plated dome twisting back and forth furiously. Emitting a rapid series of shrill beeps, it extended a metallic arm from its body and plugged into a wall terminal. "Oh, sorry," Cortana said, mildly embarrassed. "Should have asked." Sensing her receding from the computer, the small droid tooted in an annoyed fashion and retracted its arm. Riker found it curious that the Mon Calamari was not alarmed by Cortana's sudden presence. Perhaps the people of this universe were more familiar with artificial beings.

Worf cleared his thought, his attention focused on the firefight. "I believe this may be an opportunity to escape. If the Destroyer is occupied, we may be able to avoid its notice." Iask nodded. "A sound proposal, I shall implement it." The ship's engines ignited, and its primary systems began to come back online. The Mon Cal pushed on the thruster lever, and his freighter began to ease forward, out of the debris. "Wait," Riker said suddenly. "Head towards the fleeing shuttle." The rest looked at him, surprised. "Commander, I do not believe that course of action is wise. We have no way of knowing who is on the craft," Data stated. "I know, but I've got a feeling about this," Riker said. In his mind, the logical part of his brain began to berate him for such a ridiculous idea, but for some reason helping the besieged shuttle felt right. "After all, the enemy of our enemy is our friend," he said, placing a familiar cocky grin on his face. Iask looked into Riker's face, Considering. At last he sighed. "I too question the practicality of this action, but I am still indebted to you." As the alien began to orient his craft towards the distant cruiser, a sense of shame flooded Riker. He had forgotten that this was the Mon Calamari's vessel. "I'm sorry, I had… you don't have too go. I couldn't ask any more from you," he supplicated. But just as he had done before, Iask shrugged it off. "No, it is alright. After all, I was saved from death. Why shouldn't I pass the gift on to another?" Riker smiled. This pilot was a rare breed; nobility such as his was rare in any universe. "Prepare for combat. There are two gunnery stations just aft of the bridge," the pilot said, accelerating his ship out of the garbage cloud. "Can you operate them?" Riker grinned. "I think I can manage." He headed back out of the cramped command area, Master Chief falling into place behind him. "I knew you couldn't resist blowing something up," Cortana whispered jokingly in his ear.

The manta shaped Coral Iris shot through crowds of starships fleeing the small battle, its energy shields crackling to life. The small shuttle flew erratically, battered by the green blasts of seven pursuing Ties. The Star Destroyer flew along behind, sending an occasional volley of turbolaser bolts after the fleeing ship. Focused on their prey, the fighters didn't notice the lone freighter swing up behind them. "Are you ready Commander?" Iask called over the comm. Riker was seated in a recessed alcove, a projection of the outside space spreading over his head. Before him was a large control panel, very similar to the E-Web turret back planetside. He couldn't read any of the controls of course, but he got the gist of it. "I'm set," he said, aiming a targeting reticule on the closest Tie. Behind him, in a similar station the Master Chief sat, slightly cramped by his armor, but ready nonetheless. A green light flicked to life on his display and the pilot shouted the go ahead. Closing his eyes involuntarily, Riker squeezed the firing studs under his hands.

From each wing of the graceful manta a dual-barreled weapon emerged, swiveling swiftly on their mounts. Then two streams of livid red fire poured forth, speeding through empty space like lightning bolts. Taken unawares, one of the fighters exploded instantly, its hexagonal wings flying away the fireball that had once been the cockpit. Confused by the attack, the others broke their formation and spun back, just in time to see the Iris plow past them. The gunners on the Star Destroyer began to fire on this new threat with vigor, and a Turbolaser blast knocked against the shields. The ship listed to the side sharply, knocking all those standing to the deck plate. The six remaining Ties quickly recovered and began to tail the freighter, adding their energy bolts to that of their carrier. The Chief and Riker moved their turrets around to the rear on their pivots and continued firing, their blasts taking down another pursuer. Finding itself with an unexpected ally, the shuttle moved closer to the freighter, taking shelter near its shields. "They are not responding to hails, their communications array may be offline," Iask commented, scanning the ship. "Their engines appear to be failing," Worf said, taking advantage of the translation subroutines Cortana had left in the ship's computer despite the astromech's complaints. "They wont be able to jump," Iask said worriedly, analyzing the sensor display. "They're to damaged to take much more from the Destroyer, and the Iris's shields are beginning to fade." The situation was beginning to look hopeless. As Riker thrummed his turret, he wondered if his feeling was going to get them all killed. The Tie he was targeting wove under his blasts, unleashing its own fire on the fleeing ship. The craft buckled again.

As sparks began to spit from the shield control panel on the bridge, something occurred to Data. "Iask, is the cargo hold in this ship large enough to accommodate that shuttle?" For a moment, the Mon Calamari ran over dimensions in his head. "I believe it is, but… ah, yes." If the set jaws of his species were capable of grinning, Iask would have been as he triggered the cargo doors of his vessel open. At the top of his ship's smooth surface, a long crack appeared and began to widen, revealing the ships main chamber, the cargo hold, beneath. Normally, the hold would have been filled with raw material or droid parts, as Iask often transported for industrial firms, but all that flew out were a few packing crates, left over from his last job. The pursuing fighters skimmed easily out of the way of the debris, and moved closer to see what their prey was planning. Taking advantage of there reduce range, the Chief sent four energy blasts into one fighter's hull, spilling its unfortunate pilot into space. The others eased back, but the intensity of their fire increased. Fortunately, the shuttle seemed to realize what Iask was doing and began to position itself above the freighter, its fight wings closing around its body. Suddenly alerted to their plan, the gunners on the Destroyer upped its cannonade, but the Lambda had already touched down, the load doors closing overhead. "I assume you don't have a preference for our jump coordinates Commander," the pilot asked dryly as the Iris's shields began to fail. "Anywhere but here," was Riker's response as he fired a few parting shots at his pursuers. The hyperdrive engines, mounted under the Iris's tail section, hummed to life and spilled forth white light. Then, in a surge of motion, the Coral Iris was gone, leaving the Imperial ships alone in space.

Riker, along with Master Chief, Lt. Worf and Data walked down the stairway connecting the command deck with the cargo bay floor, weapons in hand. As they clacked across the cold metal floor, a ramp mounted under the shuttle's cockpit section began to descend, and the Chief aimed his repeating blaster at the opening. Commander Riker waved him off, he didn't want their guests to feel threatened, but bringing armament was a precaution that could not be done without. With a puff of steam, the ramp hit the deck plate, revealing an empty passageway illuminated by a single light. Making sure his translator was on; Riker stepped forward and called out. "We mean you no harm. Our ship noticed yours in distress and we decided to render assistance." Before Riker could finish his formal assurances, a head poked into view. "Commander?" Riker smiled in astonishment and relief. "Geordi! What are you doing on that ship?" The engineer moved himself into full view, and others emerged behind him. "It's a long story Commander, a long story."

Chapter Nineteen

The guard collapsed onto the floor with the muffled sound of flesh on stone, his head cloven in two. Behind the crumpled form, three other Imperial Royal Guardsmen, draped in their imposing crimson robes, looked on in alarm and dismay. As the attacker stepped over the smoking body of their compatriot, in unison they activated the power cells embedded in the long force pikes each held, although they each knew it was a futile gesture. The pointed ends of their staffs sparked with energy, and the guards pointed them at their assailant, a wall of electric death. The Emperor's Imperial Guard were some of the greatest fighters in the galaxy, and three of them armed could give a rancor pause, but this foe would not be stopped by such petty obstacles. As the soldiers prepared to attack, the lead guard suddenly found his deadly staff wrenched from his hands. From behind his eye slit, he watched the weapon hover in mid air for a moment before it hurled itself at his neck, flinging him into a nearby wall and snapping his neck. Their formation destroyed, the remaining men exchanged final glances and charged, weapons raised to impale their target. Force pikes in the hands of such men could puncture armor plating, but this adversary was quick, and dove in-between the approaching weapons. In a flash of red light, on guard collapsed, a gaping hole running across his armored chest. The final crimson robe whirled around, his emotionless flat facemask illuminated by the attacker's luminescent blade. In a fluid motion, he brought the staff unto the attacker's armored head, only to find its tip was absent, lying on the floor nearby and sparking erratically. Deftly ducking under the vicious blow, the attacker swung upward with his weapon, drawing a line of fire along the guardsman's long robe. He staggered backwards, his pike falling from limp fingers. The man fell to his knees, and looked up at the last thing he would ever see: a tall, menacing figure, dark as death itself.

Darth Vader nudged the fallen form with his boot, and then let out a sigh, a strange, artificial sound. It was a pity he was forced to kill these men, powerful and loyal to the Empire, but it had to be done. There had to be no witnesses, no reinforcements. Convinced the spark of life had left each of the guards, Vader took one last look around the hallway, buried deep within the uppermost level of the Imperial palace on Coruscant. The broad, dim chamber seemed to be empty and unadorned, save for the four broken soldiers and a huge door that stood beyond them. Of course there were unseen surveillance monitors lining the hall, Palpatine's intense paranoia demanded it, that were frantically beaming alerts to the palace guard, but Vader had seen to it that those signals never were received. The commander of palace security was remarkably weak-minded, and thus quite open the Sith lord's "Suggestions." The being that was once Anakin Skywalker clipped his lightsaber to his belt and approached the massive doors, bracing himself for what was to come.

Palpatine felt the guards die.

Seated upon his mighty throne, his back to the massive window he often reflected by, a grimace of annoyance crossed over the Emperor's face. Those had been his favorite of the dozens of crimson guards he had selected personally, and it would be a hassle choosing new ones. But it was a small concern to one with power and authority as great as his. Even the mightiest and most resourceful of servants could be replaced, a lesson had learned well during his rise to power. Brooding on the high pedestal, the Emperor was far more interested in the one who had killed the guardsmen. Darth Vader must be in a foul mood, even for him, Palpatine thought, waiting for the throne room door to open. Perhaps the jedi he had sensed had eluded Vader, or perhaps it was another setback in the search for young Luke Skywalker. This thought brought to Palpatine's dark mind the plan he had for the Skywalker offspring, a potential replacement for his father when the time was right. Then the massive doors began to open, and the Sith master dispelled the musings from his mind, intent on keeping his own thoughts to himself.

Through the doors Darth Vader marched, encased as always in the armor Palpatine had chosen himself, part life support system and part prison, a constant reminder to the dark warrior of all he had suffered. As the doors began to close behind the figure, Palpatine focused on Vader's opaque eye bubbles, probing his mind. As always had been the case since the discovery of his son, the Sith Lord's mind was occupied and concentrated elsewhere, but he usually hide it better when in the presence of his master. Odd, Palpatine thought, Vader's mind was also clouded, as if he was trying to keep the Emperor out, as if he was hiding something. Intriguing, the master mused as his apprenticed stopped and kneeled at the foot of Palpatine's high dais, but all would be revealed in time. No one kept secrets from the lie-monger for long.

"Rise, Lord Vader," Palpatine said, adding a sickening sugary tone to his scratchy voice. "Tell me, why have you come here unannounced?" The reason, the Emperor suspected, that his best guards lay dead in the hall was that they would not let the Dark Lord pass without an appointment, as he had failed to make. A trivial matter, but Palpatine could inspire such blind, self sacrificing loyalty in men, often with just a thought. Darth Vader was another matter entirely. Though he had served unwaveringly for more than two long decades, Palpatine had always suspected he was too free-willed to be entirely trusted. His summary executions of various admirals without consulting his master, along with a recent incident involving one of the Emperor's top advisors which had ended rather messily was evidence enough of that.

Vader rose from his submissive posture. "I have information that can be delivered only directly, my master. It is of the utmost secrecy, and a message over the holonet would have compromised it," he said steadily. An unusually vague statement for one so blunt and straightforward, Palpatine thought, his interest in the dark lord rising. "Well?" he asked expectantly. "I have destroyed the Jedi," was Vader's reply.

For a long moment, Palpatine stared at his servant, genuinely surprised by the statement. Then he began to chuckle, a cold, humorless sound. "My friend, I had thought you long past humor." Then his gaze sharpened. "Surely you would not travel to Coruscant, kill my best guards, and waste my time with news that could so simply be transmitted?" It was not a question. Most any other sentient would have withered under Palpatine's piercing gaze, but Vader stared back, resolute. What was his game, Palpatine wondered, trying to tear through the Dark Lord's barriers, but his mind remained clouded. Vader had never behaved in this manner around Palpatine before, and it was unnerving, even for one of the Emperor's power.

Darth Vader looked up at him in silence for a long moment, as if trying think of a response that would spare him his master's wrath. Then words came again. "I have destroyed the Jedi, and now I will destroy you." As punctuation to this statement, Vader's lightsaber flew from its belt to his gloved hand, igniting in a blaze of red. Palpatine's narrow eyes widened briefly, and then he regained his composure. He had foreseen this happening; it was only a matter of time. In the ancient traditions of the Sith Order, there could only be true masters of the dark side at a time, a master and apprentice. To maintain this rule of two, when the master's apprentice grew powerful enough to rival his master, he would challenge him for the position of master. If the apprentice slew his master, he would take his place and chose a new apprentice, but if he should lose, the master would slay the foolish upstart and find a new being to mold to their will. It was the way of the Sith, and had been for millennia. And Palpatine knew the cycle had begun again. He had not expected Vader to work up the nerve so soon, but the Sith Master was not concerned. He knew that defeating Vader would be a simple task, perhaps even enjoyable. Disposing of weak or disloyal was always satisfying, although finding a new apprentice would be tedious. Vader had done a very thorough job disposing of the Jedi, and force-sensitives were hard to come by. Still, there were a few candidates, maybe even the young Skywalker.

Palpatine rose from his throne slowly, his wrinkled hands falling to his sides. His shriveled, ancient appearance belied the power that lay beneath the dark robe and thin mound of old flesh that stood atop the high pedestal. "So, the time has come Lord Vader?" he asked, and then grinned wickedly, rotted teeth clearly visible. "I will of course grant you the dignity of a painful death." Rather than waste time with words, the Dark Lord tapped deeply into the well of power that was the dark side and then began to pound up the steps of Palpatine's Dais, lightsaber ready to strike. The Emperor considered drawing his own crimson lightsaber, buried deep within the folds of his robes, but disregarded the notion. That would end this contest too quickly, and he wanted Vader to see his own failure before death took him. So instead, Palpatine extended his right palm and pushed. The approaching warrior jerked to a stop, as if he had collided with solid stone. Palpatine's grin widened. Such a blast would have sent most other combatants hurtling across the chamber and into the hard walls, but Vader had managed to repel the brunt of the attack. He had trained the dark lord well. Darth Vader strained and pushed out with the Force ferociously, breaking the invisible barrier. He lunged, and brought his lightsaber down on the Emperor's head. The old man shifted out of the way faster than any being without the aid of the Force could move, and Vader's blade instead sliced through Palpatine's dark throne. Before the severed slab of metal had even touched the ground, Palpatine knocked his former apprentice of balance with the slightest push through the Force, and the armored cyborg tumbled down the many-stepped platform, scrabbling to regain his footing.

As Vader fell, the Emperor motioned for the chunk of metal lying beside him to rise and it obeyed. Just as Darth Vader had struggled to his feet, the block of durasteel hurtled towards him, guided by Palpatine's finger. The Sith lord's crimson blade intercepted the missile, sheering it in half and sending the two new pieces clattering towards the polished floor. These wayward fragments did not stay at rest however. As Vader again charged Palpatine, the two shorn fragments shot at his back like rounds from a rail gun. Vader deflected the first with an invisible wall, but the second impacted the small of his back, sending the cyborg sprawling forward with a cry of pain. However, as he tumbled onto the stone steps, his lightsaber shot from his gloved hand, a flaming missile. To his surprise, Palpatine almost missed the attack, and sidestepped out of the way just in time, Vader's blade cutting a burning gash in his black robe. "Well done Lord Vader, it seems I have taught you well," he said, his smile fading. Darth Vader ignored his former master, instead reaching out for his lightsaber, which lay on the steps nearby. The device flew into his hand and re-ignited, and he renewed his charge, causing the Emperor to begin to back away from the deadly implement. As the crimson blade of energy swept ever closer, Palpatine decided it was time to end the contest.

Darth Vader swung high, hoping to decapitate the tyrant, but Palpatine was ready. With a feral laugh, his lightsaber rocketed from the folds robes, its own blade coming alive. The two beams of energy clashed, and a molten barrier formed between the combatants. Vader was startled by the appearance of the Emperor's blade, and faltered. Taking advantage of this, the Sith Master plucked the hilt of his blade from mid air and began to hammer at his opponent. The sudden ferocity of the attack sent Vader's lightsaber spinning out of his hand. As it bounced down the stone steps, the Emperor pushed out again, sending Vader flying off the steps. However, he did not fall to the ground. Instead, Palpatine held him up like a rag doll, his left hand raised towards the ceiling, the mocking grin creeping back across his face. Vader struggled with all his brute energy, but he could not break free. Straining, the black armored titan managed to gesture towards the lightsaber in Palpatine's hand, and it began to nudge forward. "I think not," Palpatine hissed and glared at the offending hand, Vader's right. Slowly, they began to bend in on themselves, artificial fingers warping and breaking. Vader howled in rage and pain, but he was now totally immobile, at Palpatine's mercy hanging three meters of the ground.

"And now Lord Vader," Palpatine said calmly, deactivating his lightsaber, "your death will come at last. Go, and join your precious Padme Amidala. I wonder what she will think of you after all these years." Hearing these words, Vader unleashed a horrific roar, far louder than Palpatine had thought his suit was capable of relaying. Grinning, Palpatine slowly began to close his hand into a fist, and Vader's cry of rage and anguish was cut short. The twisted old man, emperor of the stars, was utterly focused on the life he held in his hands, ignoring all around him, all his plans and schemes, the throne room around him and the shadows it harbored, all momentarily forgotten. And then Palpatine was victorious. Darth Vader's mental barriers broke, and the Sith Master could see into his thoughts with effortless ease. The creature's mind was laid bare, and Palpatine could see all he wished, his motivations, his feelings for his son, his schemes to usurp power all come to naught. He had won, as he always did. Palpatine reveled in the feeling, gloried in victory, and so absorbed was he that when a beam of light erupted from his chest, he barely noticed it.

Then the burning started. A searing, life draining pain wrenched at his heart, or what had been his heart, now just a steaming hole that ran through his chest and back. "For the Order," someone whispered in his ear, and then the beam of light disappeared, leaving only a gapping, smoking chasm in his flesh. Palpatine lost his mind.

Darth Vader felt himself clatter to the ground. Steeling himself against the pain that permeated his battered form, Vader managed to rise up onto his haunches, using his crushed right hand for support. Through a cracked eye bubble, he could see Palpatine transfixed on his high platform, staring blindly into space. Behind him, Aayla Secura stood, wrenching her lightsaber out of Palpatine's back. Behind his mask, Vader managed a weak half smile; their gambit had worked. He had fought and distracted the Emperor long enough for Aayla to sneak through the shadows and position herself behind him, waiting for a moment of weakness. If Palpatine had not been so arrogant and obsessed to shame Vader, then the plan would have failed, but Darth Vader knew his master well. He waited for the twisted monster to collapse and die, but he did not.

To his horror, the twisted man turned to the Twi'lek, cackling madly. He extended his fingers, and lightning poured forth, knocking Aayla off her feet. The energy coursed into her lightsaber and down her arm, and she screamed. A sudden determination came over the wounded Sith lord as he spied his saber hilt lying on the ground beside him. Inhaling deeply to gather all the oxygen he could from damaged respirators in his suit, he took up the weapon in his left, undamaged hand, and began to limp up the stone steps atop which Palpatine stood. Hobbling up step after step, the mad emperor and the screaming Twi'lek came into view. Energy coursed over her body, and Vader could feel her fading away fast. With one final surge, the Sith Lord lurched forward, his blade crashing down on Palpatine's shriveled head. For a moment, the twisted being stood there, a sickening grin still on his cloven face, and then he fell forward, the last sparks of life emptying from him. As the corpse fell, a surge of memory flashed through Vader's mind, and he pushed with all his might against the body, sending it flapping across the chamber and into the Emperor's viewing window. Transparisteel shattered and the broken form flew out into the night sky of Coruscant. For a moment, it seemed to hang in midair, and then all of the dark energy, built up inside of Palpatine over the decades exploded forth. A wall of blue flame, a sun in the night sky erupted for an instant, and it bathed Vader and Aayla in terrible dark energy, the dark side at its purest. Then it was gone, and no sign of the Emperor's passing was left, save of a gapping hole in the side of the palace, where the energy had shorn through the durasteel skin of three stories of the massive structure.

Vader stared into the night sky through the gapping hole for a while, the revelation that his master, the one who had dominated and destroyed his life, was gone. Behind him, Aayla wheezed, and Darth Vader turned. She was lying prone on the floor, remarkably unscathed, save for her right arm, the one that had born the brunt of Palpatine's final assault. It was charred; skin blackened and seething, bones broken. Beside it lay the remains of her lightsaber, now a melted mass of metal, unrecognizable. Aayla took a deep, haggard breath and looked up at Darth Vader. "Is he dead?" Vader nodded. The Twi'lek exhaled deeply and slumped back, her eyes closed. "My purpose is served. Will you kill me now?" The Dark Lord paused. He had not planned for a time after Palpatine's defeat, and now that it was here, he did not know what to do. Slowly, it dawned on him that by killing that vile demon he had taken its place. He was lord no longer, he was master. And a master needed a student. Rising to his feet, he gathered Aayla, who had collapsed into unconsciousness, into his arms. "There is far too much yet to be done to kill you, my apprentice."