29

Leaning against the metal railing that ran around the circumference of the barrel-shaped bridge, Anakin Solo had to force himself to not fog up the transparisteel viewport with his breath. Spread in front of him, as far as the eye could see, was a sloped expanse of durasteel painted in anti-flash white. The red insignia of the New Republic adorned both dorsal flanks, and numerous turbolaser turrets and other emplacements protruded from the superstructure at seemingly random locations.

Generally speaking, Anakin preferred to work on a much smaller scale. Droids and cybernetic circuitry had always fascinated him, but the two-kilometer long keel of the Vigorous presented a quality all of its own. It was the largest warship Anakin had visited in his seventeen years, the warlord Hethrir's worldcraft notwithstanding.

Like most of the contemporary warship designs, Vigorous followed in the tradition established by Kuat's Acclamator with a wedge-shaped primary hull. Unlike the towering superstructures of the Acclamator's successors, however, the bridge of the Vigorous was built into a low, cylindrical superstructure common to other Corellian warship designs.

Arms-wise, the ship was equal to or better than any other Star Cruiser in its class. Eighteen massive turbolaser turrets adorned both the dorsal and ventral surfaces of the ship's hull, staggered diagonally along the length of the ship to allow better all-around firing arcs. The number of smaller turbolaser emplacements was nearly impossible to count, with industry estimates ranging from a scant hundred to almost a thousand. To top it off, the ship carried dozens of ion cannon and several clusters of ordnance launchers.

Anakin sighed, almost inaudibly, as he turned away from the viewport. He could rattle off the technical specifications of the major warship classes without even really thinking about it. His brother had always poked fun at the way he continually memorized seemingly useless technical information. What Jacen wouldn't admit was that his knowledge had come in handy more than once.

Back to the issue at hand, Anakin thought to himself. In the two weeks since the Senate committee hearings had concluded, the Corellians had been the first to put an offer on the table, and as such had received preferential treatment by the Federation delegation. Kuat and Rendili had eventually put their own offers out to match, and as a result, Vigorous was accompanied by Steadfast, a Republic-class Star Destroyer from Rendili, and Invictus, one of Kuat's mainstay block 2 Imperator-class Star Destroyers.

It didn't stop there, however. There was too much supporting hardware to fit on the three Star Destroyers, so it had been packed on four bulk transports. From what they had said, it included everything from scout walkers to spare hyperdrives. Anakin wasn't sure what sort of terms the Federation representatives had worked out with the various corporations, but he could easily guess that it must have been a fortune.

"Hyperspace reversion in T minus 20 minutes and counting," the ship's bosun announced over the intercom. "All hands, report to stations."

Anakin crossed the bridge in a few quick strides and walked down a short flight of stairs to the navigator's station. The navigator was a senior lieutenant in CorSec who had been traveling hyperspace since before Anakin was born. At Master Dellen's insistence, Anakin had been designated the "navigational advisor" of the Vigorous. This essentially entailed guiding the ship through the wormhole and helping plot hyperspace courses once they were in the other galaxy. He didn't mind, since the senior lieutenant had been "showing him the ropes" over the past two weeks and he'd learned quite a bit already.

The navigator glanced over as Anakin took his seat next to him. "Ready?"

The tone of that one word conveyed everything Anakin needed to know. Everything came down to this moment; any mistake he made could kill them all.

"Ready," Anakin responded, but he wasn't sure if he meant it.

The black hole – which, Anakin reflected, looked anything but black when viewed from a close distance – was exactly where it was supposed to be. Remembering what his father had told him about the Maw Cluster, he suppressed a shudder. But then again, his father did tell him about how Kyp Durron had managed, without any Jedi training, to navigate through the cluster.

But this was different. He wasn't just running past a black hole at a high fraction of lightspeed. He was going to override the hyperdrive's failsafe circuits and hit the gravity well at somewhere in excess of a million times lightspeed. Most navigators had a term for that: suicide.

The only comforting fact was that the Outbound Flight had managed this feat on two separate occasions.

Not quite as reassuringly, the Corellian engineers had explained their "improvements" to the hyperdrives of the four ships. They had taken a simple brute-force approach, adding in an absurd amount of capacitors and surge-absorbing circuitry that, in theory, would absorb any damaging back-fed power and slag themselves before the hyperdrive motivators did. If the circuits worked, then all they'd have to do is replace the damaged circuits. If the circuits didn't work, the freighters had plenty of spare parts assuming they made it that far.

Anakin put his mind back to the task at hand. He was acutely aware that all eyes on the bridge were focused on him now, but pushed the feeling aside. Taking a deep breath, he reached out.

Suddenly, he was aware of all seven ships, insignificant bubbles that glowed brightly in the Force. Almost sixteen thousand crewmen, he realized abruptly. He hadn't realized that the training crews were so large. Sixteen thousand people that were counting on him. Sixteen thousand people with families to return to.

It was a sobering thought. Over three thousand were aboard the Vigorous and the remainder were split between the other two Star Destroyers. The freighters, being mostly automated, took very little crew.

He dropped that train of thought as abruptly as it had started, and reached out further. The system had a number of lifeless rocks, cooked by the heat of the star that had once sustained them millennia ago. Some were planets, now barren. Others were the remains of comets and asteroids.

Anakin reached further. Now he could feel the incredible gravitational forces in the system's center. Some rocks unlucky enough were caught in a never-ending downward spiral, their orbits having been too close to the black hole to escape it. Those even closer had been pulverized by the tidal forces, forming a massive disc around the collapsed star that funneled material into it. Radiation caused the disc to glow brightly, but Anakin couldn't see any of it. He simply knew it was there.

Still deeper he reached, past the event horizon, the point at which light could not escape. If he was there physically, his body would already have been ripped apart.

Then Anakin felt it. It wasn't an object, it was a simple mathematical radius. Similar to the event horizon but not quite, he realized that if they hit that point exactly while in hyperspace, the gravity would steal a considerable amount of energy from the ships. In realspace, that amounted to a death sentence, but thanks to the bizarre nature of hyperspace, the loss of energy would actually accelerate them. He reached down and started entering in the numbers that came to him unbidden.

"Coordinates set," he finally said as he sat back up straight, rubbing his eyes even though they'd been closed the entire time. Looking down at his chronometer, he realized that the whole thing had taken close to an hour – althouh it had seemed like five minutes to him. His aunt Mara was standing directly behind him, and she nodded with approval.

"Are you sure they're correct?" Anakin turned to see the commanding officer of the Vigorous looking down at him from his position on the bridge. Justis Sicuro was a Colonel in CorSec, and a fairly young one at that, perhaps in his early thirties. His slightly longer-than-regulation black hair was combed straight to the sides, accenting his elongated cheekbones. Even though he was of average height, his elevated position made him look like a giant at the moment.

"I'm sure," Anakin replied.

Sicuro turned to the other side of the bridge, where Anakin knew that Comm-Scan was located. "Slave the other ships to our navicomp," he barked. "We'll make the jump in T minus 2 minutes."

"All ships slaved, Sir," an ensign called from Comm-Scan. "They report they are ready for the jump."

"Shields?"

"Shields up, generators at 99% efficiency."

"Weapons?"

"All weapons charged and ready."

Colonel Sicuro nodded and turned back to Anakin. "Make the jump. May the Force be with us."

.

It was, Anakin later recalled, like slamming into a duracrete wall at full speed. He'd half-expected the inertial compensators to fail but miraculously they had held. Other than that, the Vigorous suffered little damage. The surge-absorption circuitry had proven to be redundant, since the overload was well within the normal ratings.

Of the other ships, the freighters hadn't been so lucky. For whatever reason, one had managed to slag both its motivators and the hyperdrive core despite the added safety circuits. While they had the spares, it would still take time to repair. The other three freighters were still working fine, but some of their cargo had broken loose.

He was jolted out of his reflection by the sharp report of a crewman at Comm-Scan.

"Colonel, we've picked up an inbound on the scopes," the crewman exclaimed. "Unknown type, appears to be..." He paused momentarily. "It appears to be in a subspace bubble. Estimated size is 27 cubic kilometers. ETA in five minutes."

"Subspace warp," Sicuro muttered, walking over to Anakin and Mara. "Master Dellen warned me of some group called the Borg. Do you think that's who we're dealing with?"

Mara silently nodded.

Sicuro sighed and grabbed a comlink. "All commands, battlestations."

At once the crew began rushing about. Orders were barked and carried out. In the middle of it all, Anakin merely watched, feeling somewhat useless. Of course, he knew that there really was nothing he could do that the bridge crew couldn't do better, but that didn't stop the feeling.

"Subspace disturbance at 317 by 110 mark 228, range 510,000 klicks," Comm-Scan announced. "Inbound on an intercept course with Freighter 3. ETA three minutes."

"Hail them," Sicuro ordered.

Several uncomfortable seconds passed as the entire bridge crew watched he inbound – which could now clearly be seen as a cube – approach on the holographic tactical map. As it neared, more and more detail was revealed on its surface, which by this point best approximated a schizophrenic plumber's worst nightmare. As strange as it was, Anakin thought, it certainly didn't look like a warship.

"Incoming transmission, audio only," a crewman reported.

Sicuro nodded. "Let's hear it."

As the transmission began to play, half the crew on the bridge shuddered at the sound of the voice, or rather, voices. "We are the Borg. Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile."

"So much for friendly," someone muttered as Sicuro grabbed a mic and keyed it on.

"This is Colonel Justis Sicuro of the Corellian Engineering Corporation warship Vigorous. The ship you are approaching is under our protection. You will change your course within ten seconds or we will open fire."

Their reply was swift. "We are Borg. Protection is irrelevant. Resistance is futile."

Anakin watched as the chronometers on the bridge ticked the ten seconds away, while the cube showed no signs of changing its course. He knew that Sicuro had seen it, too.

"Gunnery, fire one light battery as a warning shot," Sicuro ordered, his face grim. Anakin stepped over to the bridge windows and watched as a forward battery spat four green blasts that vanished into the distance almost immediately.

"Confirmation of hit, no effect. They just locked a tractor beam on Freighter 3."

The general atmosphere grew tense as Sicuro gritted his teeth. "Captain Arkala, turn your ship around and try to break their lock. All commands, fire on my mark."

He waited for a long, tense moment before calling "Mark."

Dozens of emerald bolts and hundreds of smaller bolts lanced out toward the cube. Even from the extreme distance, Anakin could see the brilliant glow as the turbolasers found their mark.

"Damage estimate..." The Comm-Scan operator trailed off as he read whatever figures the computer was presenting him with. "Fifty-one percent of the enemy ship destroyed. They are maintaining tractor beam lock."

"After taking that much damage?" Sicuro's voice was incredulous. "Maintain fire."

After several more volleys, all that remained of the Borg ship was half-melted wreckage and scattered atoms.

Sicuro sighed and leaned on the tactical map display. "Damage report?"

"Freighter 3 lost their primary reverse power coupling when they went to full thrust. They are working to repair it as we speak."

He nodded. "Comm-Scan, maintain long range scans. I want to know if anything sneezes nearby."

"Yes, Sir."

.

. . .

.

Anakin was jolted out of sleep by the sharp report of an alert klaxon. He jumped out of bed, narrowly avoiding bashing his head on the low ceiling above it, and threw his clothing on as fast as he could. Then, he grabbed his lightsaber and dashed out into the hallway, where he nearly collided with his aunt Mara.

"What's going on?" They both spoke at the same time, then laughed and Mara shrugged in response to their mutual question. "I'm not really sure, but I'm heading to the bridge to see what the fuss is all about."

"Well, that's where I was going too," Anakin agreed. They went for the nearest turbolift, along with about ten crewmen who had joined them in the hallway.

After a short trip they arrived at the bridge and the door slid open. "Captain?" Mara asked as the two Jedi approached. "What's the situation?"

"Comm-Scan just spotted five bogeys inbound. Their mass is consistent with the Borg cube and they're moving at a fairly high speed."

"That doesn't sound good," Anakin said.

"Tell me about it," Sicuro agreed. "I've recalled the CAPs and all fighters are being prepped for launch." He paused to give Anakin a skeptical look. "I've been told you fly."

CAP was jargon for the regular fighter patrols during combat operations. They had been running nonstop since the last Borg visit, and had almost completely canvassed the system to the point that the entire group had a good idea of all the places that a defense station would be most effective. Not that it really mattered at the moment since there really was no time to set up proper defenses, Anakin thought. "I've been training in my uncle's X-wing and flight sims for a few years now."

Sicuro glanced toward Mara. "Are you sure he's ready for this?"

"He could use the combat experience."

"Well," Sicuro said, "what do you think, Anakin? Do you want to fly?"

Anakin rubbed his hands together with barely contained excitement. "I'd love to."

Sicuro waved one of the bridge crew over. "Ensign, could you get Anakin down to the flight deck double-time?"

"Yes, Sir."

Not surprisingly for Anakin, the flight deck was a scene of ordered pandemonium. Fighters were constantly landing, while the other fighters on the deck had crews bustling about them with equipment, topping off the fuel tanks, arming and loading torpedoes, and generally making all the expected preflight checks.

The Ensign that brought Anakin down walked straight over to a small booth on the side of the hangar. He saluted the man inside the booth, then turned to Anakin. "This is the Senior Chief," he began. "He'll assign you to a craft."

The Senior Chief stood up. "So you're one of the Jedi that that the crew is buzzing about, eh? Well, first, let me set the record straight. If you're going to fly with this squadron, you HAVE to obey the orders of the squadron commander. No gallivanting off on your own like I've heard some of you Jedi are fond of doing."

He leaned closer to Anakin, who idly observed to himself that he seemed to be a lot older than he looked. He wondered why he was still a non-commissioned officer in CorSec...

"He's going to brief you all in about a minute here. You're going to listen to what he says, and you're going to do what he says. No IFs or BUTs. Above all, don't forget your wingman if you're the lead. If you're the wingman, don't forget your lead. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Sir," Anakin replied hesitatingly, somewhat surprised by the whole spiel.

"Good. The briefing room is over that way," the Chief said as he pointed across the hangar. "Our orders will be coming as soon as the Captain gives them. You ARE familiar with the MSF-350, aren't you?"

"I've trained in the simulator on it."

"You've trained in the SIMULATOR? Is that all it takes to pass for a fighter pilot these days? What HAVE you actually flown in combat? Anything?"

Anakin stammered, now completely off guard. "I-I flew the Millennium Falcon in the Sacorrian crisis when I was seven," he finally came out with, then realized that it sounded completely inadequate. "I've also been flying X-wings for a couple of years now."

"A tramp freighter hardly counts as a fighter, son, and you were seven a long time ago. Have you actually flown an X-wing in combat?"

"N-no, Sir."

The Chief shook his head. "Rookies these days, hotshots the lot of you. Well, I have to let you in, Captain's orders, but remember, you kriff up out there and good men will die. Do you UNDERSTAND?"

"Y-yes, Sir."

"Good. Now get yourself to the quartermaster and get a flight suit on, then head to the briefing room."

As Anakin walked way, he could have sworn that he heard the Chief muttering something about "kriffin' Demorr krayts." He idly wondered what a Demorr krayt was and if it was related to the krayt dragon, eventually deciding that he'd have to ask Jacen about it later as he walked into the quartermaster's office.

Back on the bridge, the situation was tense as the entire crew waited for the Borg to drop out of their subspace bubbles. "They've reverted," Comm-Scan reported.

"Hold fire for positive identification," Sicuro ordered. As if on cue, the Borg's standard hail played across the bridge speakers, and brilliant emerald beams lanced toward the Star Destroyers.

"No damage," the ensign at Comm-Scan said. "Radiation output is increasing, consistent with scanning."

Sicuro just nodded. "All commands, fire at will."

By now the Borg were close enough that Mara could now see there were some differences between the five cubes. Two of them were like the one they had seen before, but three of them were partially clad in gray armor plating. "They seem to learn quickly," she remarked. "Now they're armored."

Not that the armor did the other unarmored cubes much good, Mara reflected. The first wave of turbolaser bolts immediately ripped into the nearest of the cubes, vaporizing a good deal of its underlying structure. Just like the previous time, they continued to approach despite the damage, and more volleys of fire ripped into the cubes.

The three armored ones moved closer, passing the two damaged unarmored ones. The less damaged of the two unarmored cubes then moved in toward Freighter 1, which, if Mara recalled correctly, contained hyperdrive components among other spare parts and was probably the most important freighter in the mission.

"Freighter 1 is reporting tractor beam lock," Comm-Scan announced.

"How did they know?" Sicuro murmured half to himself, voicing the exact thought that Mara had.

Sicuro grabbed a nearby comm. "Broadcast all channels," he told the ensign at the station, and keyed the comm on. "This is Colonel Sicuro of the Corellian warship Vigorous. Release our freighter or be destroyed."

"Demands are irrelevant," came the eerie, unfeeling response. "You will be assimilated."

Sicuro made a chopping motion with his hand, then turned to the gunnery station. "Mark that cube as the priority target."

The withering fire from the small force focused on the cube, which practically melted under the onslaught over the next few minutes.

"Ship destroyed."

A slight cheer went up from the bridge crew but was quickly silenced as another cube, one of the armored ones this time, locked on to Freighter 1. Without any prompting, the gunners changed targets and the barrage continued.

"I'm not sure if I'm reading this right," the ensign at Comm-Scan asked, "but it appears, Sir, that we're doing less damage with every volley."

"Duly noted," Sicuro replied. "All commands, increase firepower."

As the turbolaser bolts became more intense, the other cubes now moved in to block the shots and quickly began taking damage. The other unarmored cube was next to go, vanishing in the hail of fire.

Sicuro sighed heavily. "Helm, try to get us a clear shot at that cube. Fighter Command, launch fighters and target the tractor beams, we need to break it loose ASAP."

In the briefing room, Anakin sat next to the wingmate who had been picked for him, a female Selonian named Salisca, as they listened to the commander give the orders. Then they quickly filed out, running to the fighters and jumping in the cockpits. The engines were already idling, so Anakin simply pressed his helmet on and strapped in as the hatch closed over him.

Moments later, the MSF-350 was floating on its repulsors as he guided it out per the deck crew's directions. Then they launched, and the squadron commander's voice squawked over the headsets. "All fighters, report in.

"Talus Leader, standing by," the fighter squadron's leader reported.

"Tralus Leader, standing by." Tralus squadron consisted of the strike bombers, and it was the fighters' job to protect them.

"Talus 14, standing by," Anakin keyed in.

"Talus 9, standing by," his wingmate came through.

Anakin tuned out the rest of the chatter as he focused on the directions. They were to get in, knock out the tractor beams, and then escort Freighter 1 back toward the Vigorous. It sounded easy on paper but Anakin somehow doubted it.

"All craft, assume attack formation."

Anakin glanced at the screen as he adjusted the course of the starfighter. As he looked forward from the canopy, he saw the cubes rapidly growing in size from the pinpricks they appeared to be from the ship.

"This is Tralus leader. We have our target, begin the attack run."

He pulled on the stick and the fighter slid into formation ahead of the heavier bombers. As they approached, emerald beams began lancing out from the cubes. One managed to graze a fighter ahead of him.

"Talus 15. That tickled. Going in hot."

The cubes now loomed to fill most of the canopy. Anakin noticed that the closer they got to the cubes, the more wild the shots became. That was rather strange, he thought, since all the training he'd had told him that the closer you got to a ship, the more close-in defense guns you would run into. The only explanation he could think of was that the Borg were not used to combat with small attack craft.

The bombers in front of him turned and sharply dove in toward the haphazard surface of the cube. Anakin followed suit, twisting his fighter to avoid the shots that were coming toward them. When he was almost at the surface of the cube he pulled up hard and began winding along the tangled superstructure.

"Tralus 5. Torpedoes away."

Anakin saw the explosion rapidly pass. "Confirmed hit, tractor beam disabled," Tralus leader reported. "All craft, pull up."

"Negative, Tralus Leader," the comm squawked just as they were beginning to pull up. "Another tractor beam just locked on. Sending coordinates now."

"Kriff!" one of his squadron mates interjected. "What are we doing, whacking mynocks?"

"Keep the channel clear!"

Anakin pulled a hard about turn as the entire squadron headed back to the surface. At the same time, there was a brilliant flash in the distance as another cube exploded, silhouetting the squadrons and darkening his canopy.

He noticed that the defensive fire was getting more accurate, and on an instinct he lined the fighter up and pulled the triggers, sending a barrage of blaster fire into one of the Borg emplacements. A couple of his squadron mates did the same thing, although it did not seem to lessen the volume of incoming fire much.

As they began strafing along the surface, Anakin saw a flash of light to his right, and as he looked over, he saw fuel spraying out of Salisca's fighter.

"Salisca!" he shouted into the comm. "You've been hit!"

"I did not feel anything!"

Anakin jinked the fighter around another barrage, then looked back at the Saccorian's fighter again.

"Must have grazed you. You're losing fuel. Can you make it?"

"Yes."

"This is Tralus 13, I'm locked on." Anakin saw the bomber dive in toward the cube and followed suit, thumbing the trigger when he was clear to try and suppress some of the incoming fire.

"Confirmed hit," Tralus Leader reported. The comm stayed silent, then he came back in. "Comm-scan reports that there are now two emitters locked on to the freighter. We will target one of them, while the freighter tries to pull free."

"This is kriffin' ridiculous," the same voice as before said resignedly. Anakin silently agreed as the squadrons weaved their way back across the surface to the next target. Then, abruptly, the surface suddenly got much closer.

"What the hell?" The reaction was almost unanimous as the fighters and bombers had to jump upwards to avoid being hit by the now rapidly approaching superstructure of the cube.

"Freighter 1 has gone to full power. It's towing the cube now..." Tralus Leader reported. At the same time, a large explosion in the distance signaled the demise of yet another cube.

"I have a lock," Tralus 9 reported. "Firing torpedoes... kriff!"

Apparently the Borg didn't like being taken along for a ride, because the Cube suddenly reversed direction, towing the struggling freighter backwards. With the sudden change, the torpedoes went wild, blowing gaping holes in the superstructure of the cube but apparently not hitting anything vital.

That is, until a chunk of metal tore free from the cube and went sailing past the astonished pilots.

"There goes one emitter," one of the flight leaders remarked. As if on cue, at least four more emitters suddenly replaced it.

"Oh, come ON!"

"Clear the channel!" Tralus leader half-shouted. "Comm-scan's reporting a massive power surge on the cube, they're not sure what..."

All of a sudden, the cube and freighter seemed to elongate, then there was a flash of light and they vanished.

"... the kriff," Tralus leader finished. "Abort mission."

.

. . .

.

By the time Anakin landed, jumped out of the fighter, and rushed to the bridge, there was a heated debate going on over how to catch the Borg.

"We don't have any kind of interdiction system," he heard Colonel Sicuro say. "All we can do is follow, we have no way of stopping them."

"Wait a minute," Anakin said. "They aren't in hyperspace."

"It doesn't matter," the ship's navigator responded. "They're going faster than the speed of light, so they're tachyonic. Only mass can force them out."

Out of the corner of his eye, Anakin saw Mara walk over. "Actually, that's not quite true," she said. "They're in a subspace bubble, right?"

"Right."

"So they aren't really tachyonic, they're just warping space around themselves. It's a poor man's way of going past lightspeed, because they're actually still in realspace."

A light seemed to dawn on Sicuro's face. "And they're traveling at about a quarter of our flank speed... But how can we force them out? We can't put ourselves in the way or we'll be destroyed."

Anakin thought about it for a moment. "Turbolasers," he said. "Use our turbolasers to bracket their trajectory and force them out."

Sicuro scratched his chin. "We don't want to risk hitting the freighter."

"The cube is in front, so all we need to do is hit it with enough fire to force it out of warp. Keep the shots tight enough and we shouldn't hit the freighter."

"Sounds like our best chance," Sicuro agreed, walking over to the navigation station. "Lay in a course alongside theirs, and take us out ahead of them with enough time to set up a firing solution."

"Yes, Captain."

He walked over to the gunnery station next. "How fast can you set up a bracketing fire?"

"Thirty seconds, Sir."

"Signal Invictus and Steadfast to protect the remaining freighters while we pursue.

"Yes, Captain."

"Make the jump."

Several short minutes later, they emerged to realspace, turning the ship around to set up a firing solution.

"Standby," the lieutenant at Comm-Scan said. "Target in range in forty seconds."

As he counted down to zero, Anakin watched and on the zero mark, dozens of shots lanced out... and kept on going.

"What happened"? Sicuro demanded.

"We fired too soon so the shots went wild. I'm feeding the data in to the gunnery computers so it can compensate."

Sicuro rubbed his face and turned back to the navigator. "Plot another jump, and this time try to give us a little more time."

Anakin watched as the bridge viewports again filled with the scintillating sky of hyperspace, then almost as quickly returned to the blackness of normal space. Comm-Scan again began counting down the range, and right on cue the sky was filled with turbolaser blasts. This time, however, as the bolts passed through space there was a brilliant flash of light; the Borg cube and freighter both popped back into reality tumbling end over end.

"Kriff," Anakin swore under his breath. "That can't be good."

Even while Vigorous was still pummeling the cube, it stopped its chaotic rotation and managed to snag the still-tumbling freighter with more tractor beams. Anakin watched in disbelief as the cube again jumped to warp despite all their efforts.

"Helm, plot another intercept," Sicuro ordered, immediately turning to Comm-Scan. "How badly did we damage it this time?"

"They've lost less than twenty percent of their original mass," the lieutenant replied. "It's hard to tell if they suffered any damage to their systems since we can't get a good estimate on their capabilities."

Sicuro walked over to his chair and sat down. "At this rate, we're going to wind up chasing them halfway across this forsaken galaxy..."

Anakin certainly hoped that wouldn't be the case as they jumped again. His hopes were somewhat dashed when the next set of bracketing shots went wild.

"They changed course shortly after we reverted," Comm-Scan explained before anyone could ask. "They must be able to scan while they're at lightspeed."

There were a number of muffled curses from the crew in the pits.

"Helm, another intercept. Cut it close this time. Gunnery, you're going to have to work faster for that firing solution so that they don't have much time to react."

The next jump was far more abrupt, and they began firing almost as soon as they had reverted. Sure enough, there was another bright flash and the Borg unceremoniously came tumbling out again, followed by the freighter. Again turbolaser bolts chewed into the cube, most focused on the already-weakened areas. Yet again, despite it being almost torn in half, the cube managed to stop its dizzying spin and warp away.

With the next jump Comm-Scan almost immediately had an answer. "We can't get a firing solution. They changed course as soon as we reverted."

"They're getting desperate," Mara observed. "We can keep leapfrogging them, but they're just going to keep changing course now."

"Then we'll just have to leapfrog faster," Sicuro said. "We can't let them get the freighter. Can we come up with a firing solution any faster?"

The bridge was silent for a long moment, and finally the navigator spoke. "We know they have not changed their speed, so I can plot an intercept course that will put us right on top of them. If gunnery can work with the data I give them, they could have a firing solution ready before we even revert."

Sicuro looked over at the gunnery officers. "Can it be done?"

The officers looked at each other uneasily. "Possibly, if we get the timing right."

"Then do it, and make sure we hit them with everything we have. We can't let them escape another time."

In an instant the bridge was eerily quiet, save for the sound of keys tapping as the crew set the ship up for the crazy plan. Anakin could only watch in amazement as they went about it; he had no doubt that a Jedi could coordinate in the same way using the Force, but in this case it was better for the ship's crew to do it given the scale of the Vigorous's systems.

Then the jump happened, and Anakin could have almost sworn that the guns began firing before they emerged from hyperspace. The cube, or more correctly, the remainder of the cube, came hurling out of warp at almost point-blank range, only to be immediately assaulted with a broadside of turbolasers and concussion missiles.

"Gunnery, lock all available tractor beams on them, make sure they don't escape again."

There was a faint shudder as the tractor beams locked on to the struggling cube.

"What the..." Anakin said as he felt the ship begin moving with the cube. "Why are we moving?"

"The sensors are going nuts," Comm-Scan reported. "I don't think it's possible for our mass to be decreasing so fast."

All of a sudden, the stars turned to streaks around them, but the sky of hyperspace never appeared.

"This isn't right..." Anakin was dumbfounded. Directly in front of them was the damaged cube, and they could see streaks of light slowly passing by.

"Captain?" It was the lieutenant at Comm-Scan. "We're in the subspace bubble. They're towing us with our own tractor beams."

Sicuro frowned for a moment, but his frown quickly changed to a smile. "Gunnery, do our weapons still work?"

"Sensors are still nuts, but the visual tracking is there," the response came quickly. A shot lanced out toward the cube, disappearing in a small flash of light shortly afterward. Without any further confirmation, all of the ship's forward batteries opened up.

Anakin shrugged. "You know, I am a little worried what happens when that cube is-"

It was almost as bad as when they came through the wormhole. The ship felt like it had stopped, then inertia caught up with them as the systems struggled to compensate. Almost everyone that was standing was pitched to the floor, Anakin included. Mercifully it was over almost as soon as it had started, and they started to pick themselves up when reality re-asserted itself.

"I guess that answers that question," Anakin muttered, more to himself than anyone.

Colonel Sicuro coughed as he came to his feet. "Status?"

"We've only traveled about one light-year. The cube is almost completely destroyed. I can't read any power and there are only a handful of life signs left."

Sicuro looked at Mara and Anakin. "What should we do with them?"

The two Jedi exchanged glances, shrugging. "While Master Dellen did warn us to not underestimate them," Mara said, "they may be worth taking a second look at. Can we tow the remnant with us?"

"From what I've seen so far, I would honestly be far more comfortable with them vaporized," Sicuro said, "but I'll defer to you. Just so we are clear, however, if they show any sign of hostility I will not hold back."

"Perfectly clear," Mara replied. "I wouldn't suggest anything different."

About a minute later they had the largest of the shattered pieces in tow. When they returned, they found the remaining ships had followed and arrested Freighter 1's wild spin.

"Captain Tafalo reports that they did not suffer any serious damage, and they estimate they should have repairs completed within an hour."

Sicuro turned around to face Comm-Scan. "Finally some good news. Keep a close eye on the Borg, and Navigation, I need you to plot a new course to Earth. As soon as Freighter 1 is ready, we leave."