"What's the matter with her?"
Atton stood anxiously outside the infirmary door, afraid to enter.
"Good Force, I don't know," Mira answered in a whisper.
"Do you think it might be about Mical and Bao-Dur?"
"I don't see how that's possible. She barely took two steps onto the ship before collapsing on the spot. None of us had a chance to tell her."
"I hate this. Not knowing."
"Well, Visas is with her right now. She knows more about the Force than the two of us combined; if anyone can figure out what's wrong, it'd be her."
Atton nodded in agreement before turning his concerned gaze back to the sealed infirmary door.
Inside lay General Kuryama Nari, Jedi Exile, savior of Telos, twice the destroyer of Malachor V, perhaps the best hope of resurrecting the Jedi Order. When just minutes ago they had made good their escape from the crumbling remains of Malachor V, she had fallen suddenly ill as the planet died its second death behind them.
Unconscious, she mumbled words none of them understood, trembled with uncontrollable tremors.
All around the cot where she stirred and mumbled in feverish dreams objects floated in midair, and lightning crackled between her fingertips. It was these strange and bizarre occurrences that warranted the most worry. The Miraluka who sat next to the General was at as much of a loss to explain Kuryama's condition as the rest of the crew.
Visas Marr, the last Miraluka, former servant to the Dark Lord of Hunger, sat on the infirmary's only other cot, watching her new master with fearful concern. She knew not what was afflicting Kuryama, nor how she could possibly manipulate the Force unconsciously as she was doing - something not even the most powerful of Sith Lords or Jedi Masters had ever done. All Visas knew was that Kuryama was dying. And the closer she came to death, the more extreme her unconscious use of the Force.
Since she was blind from birth as a Miraluka, Visas saw through the Force rather than eyes. All Miraluka were especially sensitive to the Force, and she was no different. Seeing through the Force was in many ways no different than seeing through eyes – though it was much different in other ways. But what Visas saw when she looked at Kuryama gave her cold shivers.
To the eyes of the Force, Kuryama did not exist.
She was but a halo without a source. A mirage within the Force, having the appearance of presence but no substance. Visas saw as it were Kuryama's reflection, the impression she made on the things around her, but never the actual source of the disturbance that would signify the person.
Deeply troubled, she rose to her feet and exited the infirmary.
"I do not know how nor why, but Kuryama is dying," Visas explained to Mira and Atton as they stood waiting for word.
"Can't you do something for her? Jedi stuff with the Force or something?" Atton mumbled, his voice rendered nearly incoherent with numb disbelief.
"I know of no technique, power, or trance that might help her. If I did, I would have tried already. There is nothing I, or any of us, can do," she responded.
"Dangit! She can't die, not now! Not after what we've just gone through!" Mira protested.
"Kuryama is out of our hands," was Visas' soft reply.
"Why is the Force always so freaking unfair!" Atton swore as he sat listlessly at the Ebon Hawk's flight controls. He banged on the console in front of him to emphasize his words.
Sitting beside him in the copilot's seat was Mira. "Hey, Atton?" she ventured.
"I know you and she had this whole 'crush' thing going on, but seriously! She's not dead yet, so can you please cut the anguished boyfriend routine?" she complained.
"Deal with it. We don't have a 'crush' anyway," he growled back. "I'm just saying it doesn't make sense. There's no point to it, no pattern to look for, nothing! Kek, there's isn't so much as a likely cause for this insane business! And I thought we were doing pretty good getting off that hole of a planet but like all crazy Jedi she had to go and make things complicated again!" Stress was obvious in his voice.
He still remembered first meeting her. He had been locked in a force cage and she had been wearing less than most self-respecting strippers do on the job. There had been nothing romantic whatsoever about those circumstances, however; the next thing she'd done was punch him square in the face. He remembered that too. It had hurt, a lot.
While he couldn't shake the occasional daydream, Atton didn't delude himself that Kuryama might be in love with him. That didn't keep him from trying, however. But she always seemed more affectionate with Mical than with him.
Dang, he'd almost forgotten. Mical...
Jab, jab! Mira poked him; he'd been nodding off.
Atton shook his head, trying to clear the mists. It had been way too long since he'd gotten any sleep. Not since they landed on Dantooine that second time. Shortly after that they'd dashed off to Telos, fought off hundreds of Sith soldiers and Dark Lords. They hadn't stopped there either. After Telos it was on to Malachor V, and then this. He'd lost track of exactly how many days that made it since he'd grabbed some shuteye.
All of a sudden, Visas' voice crackled over the intercom. "Atton, get in here, now!"
There was something in the Miraluka's voice, urgency perhaps, or maybe even complete and utter what-the-kekness, that made Atton catapult himself from his chair and tear across the ship to get to the infirmary. The door was closed, but Atton instantly knew why Visas had called.
The closed infirmary door was warping inward.
"Kury, are you?..." Atton mumbled in disbelieving amazement.
The hairs on the back of his neck started to rise, he realized he was floating above the floor. Too astonished even to think about why, he looked around, into the main hold. Every single object not strapped down in the hold was floating as he was.
In an instant, the infirmary door gave way and everything fell to the floor.
Visas rushed out, taking Atton's arm as he wearily tried to get to his feet. "She is not dead," the Miraluka announced breathlessly. "She has found the balance..." Her sightless gaze returned to the prone form lying on the cot.
"What balance?" Atton asked, not understanding.
Kuryama was saying something, mumbling more words none of them could understand. And then she said something Atton did understand, but it only puzzled him all the more.
It escaped as a whisper from her throat. "Ex... nihilo!"
"From nothing," Visas intoned in response, her words directed more at herself than at Atton.
"What's going on?" Atton was hopelessly confused. Mira's voice from the cockpit didn't help things."Uh, Atton, there's something weird going on up here!"
Dashing, Atton made it back to the cockpit. He really needed to get some sleep, his eyes were out of focus and he was having immense trouble concentrating. It looked like the controls on the pilot's console were moving by themselves. He rubbed his eyes at the irrational hallucination, but it didn't go away.
"Mira, what is--?"
The red-haired bounty hunter turned in her seat and crossed her arms at the drowsy Atton. "Someone's flying the ship, and it's not me, or you. Just what is Miss Force back there doing?"
Atton tried to make his eyes examine the console before him. The ship's controls were doing something familiar, something he did almost on a daily basis, but his tired mind couldn't figure out what it was.
Oh, he was so darn tired! He'd been awake for days, jumping from system to system nearly by the hour.
Hyperspace. The ship was going to jump to hyperspace. That's what it was doing.
And neither he nor Mira had any idea where it would take them.
Slowly, groggily, Atton tried to put words together. "I think we're about to--" With a jolt, the stars stretched and space turned white. The jump into hyperspace was made.
"--do that," he finished. Unable to keep his eyes open any longer, he fell into his chair and slept.
Orann Dalez never slept, he hadn't since Malachor V. But the loss of that basic human need had been more than justified by what he had gained in return. Unlike the General who, stripped of the Force, returned broken to the Jedi; he had struck out on his own. Malachor V did not tear the Force from him as it had Kuryama Nari, instead it had given him power.
He had been reborn. Darth Oden was his name. His power was to destroy.
Darth Oden had no allegiance, other than to lay waste to everything. He had ravaged Republic worlds, annihilated Sith fleets, slaughtered Mandalorians by the thousands.
Whenever he gave thought to his unrelenting commitment to destruction, the reasons always stood out crystal clear. The galaxy was broken and needed to be rebuilt from the ground up. And thus, all had to be destroyed.
Dalez's powerful figure knelt on the surface of a pock-marked asteroid, black robes, dark skin, and completely black eyes causing him to blend in with the starry sky above him and the shadowed rock on which he sat. Oden's power had accumulated so much that it begged to be released, and he would release it by tearing the asteroid on which he sat from its celestial path and hurling it at a planet of his choosing.
Darth Oden sank his mind into his vast lake of power, reveling in its ecstasy as he brought it to do his bidding. His body felt the massive rock beneath him shift, its course altered. As it always did, the destructive force of his power gave him immense pleasure, for he alone understood that life, true life, only sprung from death.
Suddenly there was a lurch, an interruption of his power. A wave in the Force passed through him, disrupting his work and causing the asteroid he had been guiding to careen out of control. It had a signature attached, one Dalez recognized. It was a summons he could not ignore.
The Force burn you for this, Revan! Dalez cursed. He began to float upward in the zero-gravity environment, having let go of his grip on the asteroid's surface. He let it drift away from him, floating in cold space as he watched the huge rock fly through the darkness until it collided with a neighbor asteroid. Both were crunched to dust.
Deriving what little satisfaction he could at the death of the asteroid, Darth Oden summoned his ship from where it waited. Guided by his own hand through the Force, his ship scooped him out of the vacuum of space. He took his first breath in hours and headed to the cockpit.
As he set the coordinates in his hyperdrive computer, two words echoed again and again in his mind, the shadow of Revan's command.
Revan opened his eyes; the message sent, his meditation finished. This day had been long in coming. Through the incredible bloodshed of the Mandalorian War and the crippling conflict of the Jedi Civil War he had been carefully preparing for it, laying plans. During those times he had made terrible mistakes, and the day in which he found himself was not close to what he would have preferred. But come the day had, and Revan would have to face it with everything he possessed and much that he did not.
The time had come for the Sith and the Jedi to unite under his leadership. They had been called from every corner of the galaxy. Their master awaited, ready to lead them into the Third War. The call had gone out first to the strongest of his generals, those of whom legends were made. They would need to lead legions of his soldiers into battle even in the face of insurmountable odds. Some he trusted, others he did not, but all he knew were ready to do their part.
Two of his generals were with him already. Juhani and Bastila, loyal followers from the days of the Jedi Civil War. They had inevitably been changed when he brought them through the Null field with him, bringing them more in tune with some of their darker powers, but the essence of who they were and their loyalty to him had remained as it had always been. He hadn't wanted to let them come with him until he found a way to bring down the Null field, but they had both been most adamant, and in the face of such devotion he could not refuse.
Revan would require as much of himself as he did of those he called. The Mandalorian War and the Jedi Civil War had as much prepared himself for the struggles that lay ahead of him as they had his generals. The war ahead he would have to fight without quarter, utterly without mercy, for compromise would mean doom. To have a chance at victory he needed to be ruthless, without remorse; Darth Revan would need to come out of his shell once more.
He sensed someone approaching, Jalek, one of his lieutenants.
"Lord Revan, the sensors are detecting the fleet's approach. Shall I alert the ghost squadrons?" the man asked.
"No, this time we will let them pass us by. We are not yet ready to strike at them head-on, there is first much to be done. We must wait for the generals, and then we will prepare for the soldiers' arrival," Revan answered.
"Yes, Lord Revan. It shall be as you command." Jalek bowed obediently and left.
Jalek had been a high-ranking officer in the Sith Armada. After the Jedi Civil War ended and Revan finally realized that there had been a plan and a purpose to it all, it was too late and he had been forced to pick at the scraps of his old imperial army for those such as Jalek--men who would follow him simply because they knew and respected him.
But not much was left of the Sith Empire he had once led. They were now scattered all across the galaxy, scheming while the Republic tried desperately to find its feet.
Revan rose and left the meditation chamber where he sat. Restlessly, he walked the passages of his secret stronghold. Concealed within an asteroid with a thin atmosphere, the base was a smuggler's hideout. Revan had found the asteroid drifting on the Outer Rim and dragged it into the Unknown years ago, with the help of a friend exceedingly powerful in the Force and the gravity well of a Sith Interdictor. The Interdictor ship was now hidden in the shadow of the asteroid, a holdout for the day when he would need to abandon his outpost.
In the control room, Revan regarded the deep-space sensor monitors. As Jalek had said, they were registering the approach of the incoming fleet. Even though he had known the power of the enemy for years, Revan was still sickened by the numbers he saw on the display. They were vast beyond imagining.
Lara's blue lekku tossed about in helpless mirth; Rigel had snorted Gungan beer from his nose. They had just been paid for their last job and were enjoying a few hard-earned concessions, not the least of which was the opportunity to laugh.
She and Rigel were mercenaries, or, as they had named themselves, Talion Hunters. None of what they did was legal in Republic space, but there were lots of people who paid through the roof for their services. What they offered was justice. And in a justice-starved society like the Republic, customers were everywhere. The fruit of the corrupt court systems, murders, rapists, and black-hearts of every trade were running free all over the galaxy, and there was always someone willing to pay a great deal to see them dead for their crimes.
They had only been caught by Republic authorities once, and Rigel had managed to get them out of it. Though, after that they were officially fugitives from the law.
Their ship, a dual-purpose yacht/cargo vessel named Whitecap, had belonged to Rigel's father. He and Lara had made extensive, and highly illegal, modifications to nearly every aspect of the ship, making it truly a one-of-a-kind spacecraft. Hidden weapons, secret compartments, illegal engine boosters, military air recyclers; the Whitecap was their pride and joy.
"Rigel, you big idiot! You could choke on that stuff if you keep doing that!" Lara teased her human companion, laughing so hard her ribs hurt. She clapped him on the back as he expelled the potent beer from nostrils, spraying it all over his console.
"Easy Lara, I'm not as drunk as you were back on Illeptica III. I thought you were going to tear your clothes off in front of everybody. That would've been impossible to live down," Rigel retorted, still trying to clear his nasal passages.
Lara's blue skin turned slightly purple at Rigel's pick of embarrassing incident. Force knew they'd had plenty of those, but she wasn't always so stupid about it. Thinking back, it was a good thing Rigel had been there, otherwise she just might have tried to make love to a complete stranger in a crowded cantina--she'd been that wasted.
Even though they weren't siblings, she and Rigel were as close as brother and sister, they knew each other that well. They'd met when she was being sold into slavery by the Exchange. Lara was sixteen, a street rat living on Nar Shaddaa. Rigel was a trouble-making eighteen year-old with his dad's money and a sucker for hot, young Twi'lek girls. He'd also been drunk at the time. He swaggered up to Lara, a prisoner, and asked her out. After that, Lara wasn't quite sure what had happened but she eventually found herself in a pretty expensive restaurant with Rigel.
That was ten years ago. Rigel's dad had since been murdered by Trandoshan smugglers and Lara's parents had been dead since she was eleven. Neither case had seen justice, as hardly anything in the Republic ever did. Clichéd though it was, the two of them decided to start bringing their own brand of justice to the galaxy, hunting the good bounties.
Their most recent job had been to kill a bigoted Rodian gang leader, Ruki Saza, who'd been responsible for blowing up an Ithorian school and killing hundreds of children. The parents and the school board had put up a sizable reward for Saza's death after Republic authorities stonewalled the investigation because of Saza's deep connections.
Since the 'proper' authorities frowned on the two Talion Hunters' actions wherever they struck, Lara and Rigel had quickly made good their escape, taking the time only to restock their booze supplies before jumping system. They picked a random system each time to make themselves harder to track. The routes were chosen by the ship's computer, utilizing a random coordinate program that Rigel had written himself, adding an extra layer of security against being tracked by ruling out well-known randomization protocols.
The console greeted the two with a beeping sound.
"Dang! We were just starting to get going!" Rigel objected, setting his beer down and attempting to wipe some of the excess from the flight console.
Lara subdued her giggling and tried to concentrate on her own side of the cockpit as the ship prepared to drop out of hyperspace.
Every time they reached a new system they had to be alert for traps, from both the Republic and whomever it was that they'd cheesed off lately. Rigel was the pilot for life, leaving Lara with the less glamorous role they dubbed 'special tactics officer'. She had the Whitecap's full array of concealed weaponry, countermeasures, and modded sensors at her disposal in the event of unexpected trouble.
But this time, there was strangely nothing as they exited hyperspace. No inquisitive sensor pings from nearby starports, no intrusive scans from patrol vessels, not even any comm traffic.
"Lara, what system is this?" Rigel asked, peering out the front viewport.
"According to the computer, Devrita," she answered.
Rigel scowled in sudden suspicion. "This is not Devrita."
Lara frowned at her sensor screens. They weren't even picking up a star system in the area! They were off course. Wherever the computer had taken them was not where it was supposed to have nor where it said it had. Devrita was a commerce nerve center, with clients and investors all over the Republic; where they were was a deep nothing.
"We're off course. The computer must have malfunctioned, sent us here. That's the only thing I can think of, because this is definitely not Devrita," Lara stated resolutely.
"No kidding. This isn't anywhere at all," Rigel remarked. "I guess we'll just have to set our next jump manually, bypass the program. Should only take a couple of minutes."
As he got to work on the hyperdrive computer, however, he discovered that their problems were much, much worse. The computer was telling him things that simply couldn't be possible, disturbing things.
"Lara, we're in trouble."
The Twi'lek's head perked in concern. "What kind of trouble?"
"The computer isn't recognizing any of the normal hyperspace coordinates. According to the system, we're outside of the hyperspace route network," he responded.
Lara absorbed it slowly, her shock building. "But that would mean we're--"
"Beyond the Rim. Yeah, that's exactly what it means."
At that moment, the Whitecap's proximity alarms began blaring. Dozens of contacts registered on the sensor readouts; ships exiting hyperspace and headed straight for them. Lara responded instinctively, activating the Whitecap's illegal cloaking field to mask their presence from the approaching ships.
"Ships, dozens of them. I can't tell if they're Republic or not," Lara informed Rigel.
"There's too many to be Republic. It has to be the Kelici Combine or some Exchange transfer fleet. If it's the Combine, we're in trouble. They probably still remember what we did to their drug trade," Rigel remarked dryly.
But yet more ships continued to appear on their sensors. Dozens swelling to hundreds. Hundreds upon hundreds of small, medium, and fairly large vessels were filling the space covered by the Whitecap's jacked-up sensor range. They came and came and came; there was seemingly no end to them.
Lara stared at the screen in disbelief at the numbers she was seeing. There was not a fleet in the galaxy that was the match of this one in size. Their numbers just continued to grow as she watched.
"I don't think that's the Combine," she mumbled, nearly mute in shock.
They had come into view out the front. Lara and Rigel stared in awe and aching dread at the cloud of shimmering vessels as it advanced ever closer, outshining the stars and competing with them for numerousness. There were hundreds and hundreds of them on the sensors, and much more than that beyond the sensors' range.
Nearly everywhere Lara and Rigel had gone over the last few years they had heard whispers of an insidious enemy waiting beyond the Outer Rim. They both knew without a doubt that this was it. This was the enemy dreaded more than the Sith, feared by an entire galaxy.