STAR WARS Episode 10, A Sliver of Evil, Volume 1 of the Alternate Galaxy Trilogy

Summary

Star Wars Episode 10: The sequel to the Alternate Universe Trilogy. A decade of relative peace has elapsed since the defeat of Darth Umbrage, but everyone initially underestimated the pathogenic properties of his Fabricated Crystal Matrix. One of the Scree researchers was unknowingly infected by contact. He isn't part of the lineage of the Sith Lords. He wasn't trained by one of them. He is instead an exclusive product of the Dark Side of the Force. He has Scree teleportation technology and the temporal technology of his replicated Crystal Matrix, and he's had a decade to perfect his plans. In short, he is far more dangerous than anything the Jedi Order has ever faced before.

Genre:
Scifi / Fantasy
Author:
SonicSculpture
Status:
Complete
Chapters:
10
Rating:
n/a
Age Rating:
16+

A Fragmentation in the Force

Dari Jenay turned softly away from Demorin as she stepped onto the holographic projection platform, bowing before she faced the image of Grand Master Cyrella Lasari. Although Dari had been married to her consort for over a decade, she was still regarded as a representative of the Jedi Order. But she’d lived exclusively on Brimula. Her return now to Scrymerula had come with unexpected consequence.

“For some time now I’ve sensed the suggestion of something unsettled, but it seemed very faraway and there was no sense of direction,” Dari began by saying. The previous padawan of Soma Sarmosini then paused before cautiously continuing, “Now that I’m on Scrymerula, I know it was coming from here. But it feels like all that remains is a reflection. The source of the unrest has been removed. Nevertheless, the reflection provides a directional vector. And it leads to the ministry of science building from which a leading researcher has just vanished. There’s concern that he could’ve been kidnapped. The people of the Republic are now aware of the existence of the Scree. It’s been suggested that one of the Republic’s criminal organizations might be behind the disappearance.”

“I can see how the abduction of a scientist could give them an unprecedented advantage in the area of emergent technology,” Cyrella carefully agreed. “The Scree will not make transporter equipment available to the general public until they’ve developed a way to shield valuables from possible pilfering, besides overlapping ray shields. Everybody understands this. But unless the kidnapping was carried out by an unsuspected Sith Lord, I see no reason for you to be sensing the presence of the Dark Side. I’d consequently advise you to suspend all assumptions as you investigate. Do not accept anything as fact until you’ve confirmed it. Should I send assistance?”

“I should be able to submit at least a preliminary report before our communication conduit is interrupted,” Dari replied, indicating her cognizance of the vast distance between them and how tenuous it made their ability to stay in contact. “I would like to think no assistance will be shown to be necessary. But that would also be a predisposition. However, if I should fail to contact you again before the conduit closes, then I’d ask you to send all available assistance. I can’t explain my perception. As far as I know, the last servant of the Dark Side was destroyed a decade ago.”

Everybody wanted to help, but they also felt the need to maintain a respectful distance. She could clearly feel this from everyone she and Demorin encountered as they entered the building from which the scientist had disappeared. Living on Scrymerula, everybody else was cybernetic. Dari’s perceptions, though, were in no way dulled by such distractions. She knew exactly which way to proceed in order to follow the disruption in the Force. They ultimately arrived in what had been the workspace of the missing researcher. His closest associates were also assembled, but it’d already been determined that massive amounts of data had been deleted from the computer system. All records of his research for the last decade had been scrubbed, and all that remained of the machinery in his lavish private lab had been smashed almost beyond recognition.

“This doesn’t seem like an abduction,” Demorin concluded in confusion. “Why would all the records have been erased? Why destroy everything? Does anyone know what he was working on?”

As he asked this, he turned to the coworkers. Dari could feel fear welling up within them.

The two cyborgs, both members of the project team with which the missing researcher was loosely associated, each claimed to have no knowledge about his recent handiwork. The shorter of the robotic beings was introduced as Kilnar. The taller cyborg felt female to Dari. But Cyl also had no explanation for her coworker’s disappearance.

“Not aside from the projects in which he participated,” Kilnar sadly summarized. “He helped us make many advancements. Unfortunately, there’re a couple of very troubling things I find that I must now tell you, and I’m very sorry I have to say these things.”

“No one here is on trial,” Dari reassuringly said. “And if anyone were, it’s beginning to look like it would be the person who has disappeared. Please speak freely.”

“Although great pains were taken to disfigure it, we recognize the type of machine that sits in the corner,” the coworker continued. “It harkens back to the time when we foolishly attempted to fabricate the One Crystal. Narik was a team leader on that project, which we abandoned long ago. But something happened back then. Although it was dismissed it at the time, I’m afraid we failed to consider just how impressive the pathogenic properties of even just a shard of the One Crystal actually are. But please remember, this was long before the development of the QRV. In your vernacular, we failed to connect the dots. It’s entirely possible that he was contaminated by his contact with the Crystal Shard. He had just arrived from Brimula and wasn’t a cyborg yet. He accidentally touched it. But he was checked and cleared. Afterwards, however, the incident was dismissed. He was not monitored for any further aftereffects. And that’s where we failed him.”

“Monitored!” Cyl exclaimed. Turning to Kilnar, Cyl continued, saying, “Filed in monitor!”

Understanding his associate’s insight, Kilnar excitedly explained, “Inventory control. We get all our material from inventory control. It’s a separate system. It can’t be accessed from here, no matter what codes were cracked. The records of everything he requested should still be safe.”

“The Force is with you,” Dari sycophantically said to the perceptive associate. “Your insight serves you well. Would you perhaps do us the honor of escorting us to a site from which we can access those records?”

The mixed assembly exited the enormous edifice and strolled through underground tunnels to a completely separate complex. It sprawled into the distance. They entered through the main doorway, where security guards respectfully stood to the side as they swept by. Their guide led them to a security post, where the officer in charge dutifully yielded to Demorin. They were then able to access the suggested records, which were completely intact. But it remained for them to puzzle out what precisely Narik had been building with his requisitioned materials.

“He was clearly doing research into cybernetics, which is something they all did,” Demorin summarized as he examined the records. “But something is out of place here. There’s no order for the outer casing. It looks as if he was working on medical droids and a cybernetic body, but he didn’t order everything he’d have needed to finish it. Am I missing something? What are the other file types here?”

“Since there’s a certain limited amount of commerce with the Republic,” the technician said, “it’s possible to sometimes requisition something so exotic. Extensive research is done on every piece of Republic technology we encounter. We always seek to increase our understanding. It’s what we do. He tried to requisition something called phrik alloy, but the order was never filled.”

Demorin turned in alarm to Dari, asking, “Didn’t you say phrik alloy is the only material that can deflect blows from a lightsaber?”

“It’s one of very few that are known,” she quietly confirmed. “I think it’s time for me to make my report to the Grand Master. But let me just ask this. If Narik managed to fabricate a shard of the One Crystal, even if it were large enough to cut into a Crystal Matrix, what would be his next step? Wouldn’t he still have to infuse the matrix with midi-chlorians? And there is only one place I know of in the galaxy where they can be found.”

“Coruscant,” she and Demorin said in unison.

Turning back to Cyl, Demorin said, “We need to find out of its possible to repair the trashed machine in his lab. Can you head up that project?”

“Even if we can restore the device to some functionality, there’s no way for us to know how he managed to fabricate a fragment. All his research concerning that breakthrough is gone,” Cyl carefully countered, seeming to shun the responsibility.

Demorin was, however, an expert at delegation and reassuringly said, “But you have every record of the materials he ordered. Shouldn’t that give you some insight?”

Cyl paused to consider for only a second before robustly agreeing, “Yes, it might at that.”

As one person, they and the members of their entourage quickly turned and headed toward the nearby exit. Dari wasn’t the only one who suddenly sensed the need for urgency. Although it seemed impossible, there now appeared to be a new manifestation of an ancient foe. She didn’t relish the idea of having to deliver so reprehensible a report.

It certainly seemed as if a relative peace had finally come to the Republic. The Jedi enjoyed a healthy relationship with the Galactic Senate again. And to further foster their friendship, some of the illustrious order’s members were stationed on Coruscant. But idleness wasn’t an aspect of their assignment. Stripped of almost all its equipment, the Nubian Nadir was being kept there for study. Although initially it was almost completely depleted, the sample of midi-chlorians had also been removed. Rather than keep the remainder in stasis, which to the Jedi seemed reminiscent of the incarcerated situation that had existed for those in the One Crystal, they transferred them instead into a growth medium. Like the various trophies they had acquired from the confiscated ship, they wished to study the microorganisms. And having a larger specimen pool only seemed as if it would simplify the process. They were also trying to understand the capacity of the Nadir to alter course while traveling at light speed.

To all those in attendance, it seemed as if there was something arresting about the eyes of the Grand Master’s image as it hovered over the projection platform. Dari was cautioned by her very visage, understanding that something horrible had happened since their prior conversation. But she had initiated the contact, and she knew Cyrella was waiting to hear her report. She felt like she was throwing a stone into already disturbed waters, and she had no idea how or to what extent they’d been so disturbed.

“The missing scientist is Narik,” Dari began. “He was a leader on the team that attempted to fabricate a shard of the One Crystal. My investigation has uncovered no evidence of abduction. It seems instead that the researcher has gone rogue. He reportedly came directly in contact with a fragment furnished by Umbrage. We now suspect he was contaminated by that contact.”

“The midi-chlorians on Coruscant were just stolen,” Cyrella slowly announced, “They were teleported right out of their enclosure at our outpost atop the Ziggurat on Coruscant. There was also a breach of the Nadir. We have security recordings that show a droid teleport in and access information from the ship’s databank. We’re having R2 check to see what was looked at. Let us take careful note of the fact that we’ve been very skillfully outmaneuvered twice already by this new enemy. We need to get a handle on this threat. We need to try to anticipate his objectives.”

“We know he’s looking for phrik alloy,” Dari said. “It’s possible he plans to use it to complete the outer casing of a state-of-the-art cyborg, one he ostensibly intends to transfer himself into.”

“Thanks to our misguided efforts, he probably now has a sufficient amount of midi-chlorians to infuse both a fabricated crystal matrix and the biological component of a cybernetic body,” the Grand Master observed. “Encased in phrik alloy, he’d be approximately indestructible. Could we possibly anticipate where he might try to obtain it?”

“If he’s relying exclusively on the downloaded library from the Nadir,” Dari replied. “It would seriously restrict his options. We have a team attempting to repair the damaged machines in his lab. I don’t think he’d have gone to such trouble to destroy them unless he was afraid they’d give us some advantageous understanding. But there is one thing about which I find I’m not certain.”

“What is that?”

“What is it that gives the Crystal Matrix so much influence over the Force?” Dari asked. “Do you know?”

“The Crystal Matrix represents the Dark Side’s analogue of a vergence in the Force.”

“And while the vergence forms naturally,” Dari insightfully rejoined, “the Crystal Matrix is the result of an enforced arrangement.”

“I will alert Eisley and dispatch Jedi Masters to the locations listed in the Nadir’s library. I am familiar with them,” Cyrella authoritatively said. “Please wait a moment while I fulfill that duty. I’d like to discuss this further, but I’m about to scatter everyone else into hyperspace.”

“I’ll gladly wait.”

It was only a few moments before Cyrella returned and said, “Narik could’ve easily included killing in his plan, and I don’t understand why he didn’t. He apparently succeeded in producing a replica of the Crystal Matrix from the shard he fabricated, and he was obviously able to cloak his ship with it even though it hadn’t yet been infused with midi-chlorians. With so unprecedented a tactical advantage, he could’ve done far more damage. Why did he opt not to take advantage of such an unparalleled opportunity to thin our numbers? How could his objective not include killing us?”

Long had it been since Dari’s inclusion in any council-level discussion. But this new danger had invisibly arisen from her own back yard. She was therefore desperate to provide the Grand Master with an insightful response. But the only comeback she could craft seemed nonsensical in the extreme.

“Perhaps he hopes to achieve his objective without actually engaging the Jedi. If he’d killed even one of us, he’d have provided us with additional impetus for finding and destroying him. I’m not able to name what it is he hopes to achieve, but I hope I’m wrong. It would mean we already missed our most auspicious opportunities to intercept him.”

“He managed to conceal his disappearance until he’d reached our side of the Core. We can only hope he hasn’t already obtained the phrik alloy; if he has, then I just sent almost all the Jedi Masters on a meaningless mission,” Cyrella responded. “Let’s hope R2′s investigation can shed some light on what Narik is really trying to do.”

“Can we assume he has the capacity to send things through time?”

“He probably lacked that ability before infusing midi-chlorians into his Crystal Matrix. But he almost certainly has that capacity now,” the Grand Master replied.

“Maybe that’s the awful answer. He wouldn’t need to kill any of us in the present if he plans to kill us all in the past.”

“I’m sure Darth Umbrage would’ve done both, so let’s hope that isn’t his actual objective. I’m relying on you to determine the type of ship for which we should be looking. If he needs to dock somewhere in order to pursue his acquisition of phrik alloy, it would be beneficial if local security personnel could recognize it,” Cyrella suggested.

“Demorin and I will get right on that.”

“You have things to which to attend, and our communications are becoming erratic,” Cyrella replied. “There are other counsels for me to keep. I will pursue those insights and trust you to the will of the Force.”

“May the Force be with you as well.”

Chief Magistrate Corgus entered the main audience chamber, to which they’d returned, just as the conversation was concluding. Despite being cyborg, he somehow seemed winded as he finally addressed the distinguished due.

“I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to catch up with you,” he hollowly intoned. “You’ve changed locations repeatedly since arriving. But I’ve really come to tell you how incredibly sorry I am that this thing happened here on Scrymerula. We’ve obviously been negligent in our responsibility.”

“The foresight of all failed in full measure,” Dari replied. “Any lapse on your part surely didn’t exceed that of anyone else. But we must now determine how he managed to circumnavigate the Core. There’s a ship in this equation, and we need to identify it’s type as quickly as we can.”

“Then I’ve actually arrived just in time,” Corgus sounded relieved as he announced. “That is something I can most definitely help you with. And I can do it from the console in the corner right over there.”

In a matter of minutes, Corgus isolated a discrepancy in the inventory of interstellar-capable spacecraft. While there was still a stable signal, Dari transmitted the ship’s full description to the Grand Master. The trio then headed off to assist Cyl’s efforts in the private laboratory of Narik.

***

On Hypori in the Ferra sector of the Outer Rim, Leia and Han were affectionately observing Luke and Lucas as they practiced their tumbling exercises when the wave from the Jedi Temple came through. Because of feeling a premonition in the Force, she’d been expecting to hear from Cyrella all afternoon. But she possessed no insights into the cause for the call. Despite applying all her esoteric abilities, the nature of the supposed peril refused to resolve. She found this to be as concerning as it was confusing.

Cyrella quickly informed the prior Grand Master of the specifics of the situation as they were understood, and then she continued, “Narik isn’t like anything we’ve ever faced before. He’s not a product of the succession of Sith Lords. He wasn’t trained by one. He isn’t a clone of one. And he has no uploads or special abilities beyond an increased midi-chlorian count and a cybernetic body that might already be encased in phrik alloy. But he is exclusively a product of the Crystal Shard, and he’s one of the most brilliant scientists the Scree have ever produced.”

“He obviously figured out how to use his makeshift Matrix to cloak his ship in spite of not yet having infused it with midi-chlorians,” Leia pointed out.

“He not only evaded us with apparent ease, but he kept us in the dark the entire time it took him to pull off the first part of his plan. And yet, it certainly seems as if he deliberately dismissed the accompanying opportunity to commit carnage. Dari put forth a plausible explanation though I don’t know what it would mean. She suggested that his objective somehow does not require him to engage us. One possibility would be that he plans to kill us in the past and thus he only needs to delay any direct encounter.”

“If his goal is to rule, I don’t readily see another way he could circumvent us,” Leia prefaced her rebuttal by agreeing. “But despite his unique linage, I question his behavior including mercy. Any Dark Lord or apprentice would’ve certainly reaped as many souls as they could. Have you any other leads to pursue?”

“I just received a report on R2′s survey of the data that was accessed on the Nadir. It surely isn’t what I expected. Narik’s droid copied all the data from the intergalactic probe that Umbrage launched and the experimental procedure used to infuse midi-chlorians into Garis Woe. He also cloned the files that detailed the research done by Umbrage’s droids on creating an intergalactic drive. This introduces a disturbing possibility. Does he not need to engage us to accomplish his objective because his plan is to escape beyond our reach? Are we on the verge of releasing a virus into the universe? Have we possibly underestimated the pathogenic potential of the Dark Side so disastrously? We have to intercept him before he can simply slip away.”

“This is unthinkable. I feel responsible for burdening you this way, Grand Master,” Leia said remorsefully. “Is there anything you need me to do?”

“You’re already doing it. It might be that the future of the Force is actually in your hands, not mine. This crisis has been long in coming. The intervention of the standing Jedi Council must be enough, or we are miserable stewards of the power with which we’ve been vested. I will contact you again as time allows. May the Force be with you until then.”

“And with you, Grand Master.”

Han had entered the room not long after the commencement of the conversation. He waited to see what his wife would say. Chewbacca, as Han was well aware, was engaged at the time in a construction project with some of the relocated Twi’leks.

“It seems we’re still suffering repercussions from the instrumentality of Darth Umbrage,” she sorrowfully summarized. “And this menace, despite having only just emerged, looks like it might truly be on the verge of metastasizing. If true, it’s like nothing the Jedi have ever faced before.”

“I don’t think it was a mistake to let somebody replace you in the capacity of Grand Master,” he was swift to reassuringly say.

“No,” she agreed. “This development was going to happen regardless of who served as the leadership of the Jedi Council. Its membership is immaterial. One of its members was actually in proximity to the inception of the peril, and yet she only sensed something unsettled that seemed to be very distant.”

“I hate to ask such a coldhearted sounding question,” Han warily remarked, “but are you so sure that keeping the threat contained is the right course of action? What if the Jedi really aren’t up to the challenge? Each time the menace seems to have been eliminated, it’s simply changed form. Sidious was replaced by a clone, whom your brother gave his life in order to destroy. But it didn’t stop the Dark Side from reemerging as Lamis Cormosa, who singlehandedly slew half the Jedi Council. He was replaced by his apprentice, who became Darth Umbrage. And that lylek of Dark Lords figured out how to use his Crystal Matrix as a time machine. He managed to disarm you, quite literally, and was only defeated by Master Gwonameeth. But even a telepath wouldn’t have any advantage over an enemy encased in phrik alloy. Maybe you’ve tried as hard and lost as many Jedi as the Force wills. Couldn’t it be telling you that the time has come to let go? What could really be the consequence if the Jedi surrender this obsession before it destroys you all? I know the Council feels a sense of responsibility, but it’s starting to sound like a suicide mission.”

“I still have my discernment, although I didn’t correct Cyrella concerning the real flaw in her fear. We can’t be killed in the past with a time machine that was only just created. Its range can’t exceed its inception. That’s what stopped Umbrage from killing us before the temple was moved to Tatooine. But you haven’t thought this through, honey. It was Umbrage launching a probe into intergalactic space that endangered our galaxy. So when Cyrella destroyed the Crystal Matrix, it ended the entanglement. What then do you suppose the repercussions might be if we elected to simply allow this virus to invade the universe?”

“Incalculable,” answered Han in horror.“I didn’t consider the quantum entanglement aspect. That changes everything.”

“The carrier of a disease isn’t completely impervious to the infection, and derives no benefit by acting as a agent of its transmission. Patient zero might seem immune, but is still susceptible to secondary infections. The pathogen must be eliminated at its source. Wishing our problem on someone else’s civilization might actually have the net effect of dooming our galaxy. The peril is no less real than what was previously posed by Darth Umbrage. It’s just more insidious.”

“Then the cost must be considered acceptable no matter what sacrifice must be made?” he apprehensively pressed.

“Even if its accomplishment brings the Jedi Order to an end.”

“Do you think Cyrella really understands all this?” he sounded shaken as he asked.

“I’m sure the Force will reveal it to her, even if I’m the eventual instrument of that revelation. But she is the Grand Master, and I doubt very much if her discernment will require augmentation by me. She’s surrounded by the same counselors that carried me through my trials.”

***

Jedi Master Xan stood in the office of the Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Senate. He’d been summoned there by the magistrate himself. The congress had recently reconvened after a long intermission, and upon his return Chancellor Cranis discovered that an invaluable item had been removed from his administrative center. He was completely confused by what the security recordings had captured. It appeared as if the statue of Sistros simply winked out of existence.

However, Xan instantly noticed that the time, which was indicated on the recording, exactly corresponded with the disappearance of the midi-chlorians and a droid’s unauthorized entry of the Nubian Nadir. He easily deduced the incident’s terrible truth. Narik didn’t actually need phrik alloy. He’d already stolen some neuranium, another material that could block lightsaber energy.

“I doubt if we’ll be able to recover the statue, your grace,” he regretfully informed his baffled host. “It’s probably already been separated into its native materials. But we’re already looking for the person who most certainly stole it. Previously, he was a prominent Scree scientist. The theft was accomplished with teleportation. That’s why the statue seems to disintegrate.”

“He was after the neuranium?” Cranis asked, demonstrating his familiarity with the statue’s composition. “To what end?”

“We’re still trying to understand his ultimate agenda,” Xan honestly admitted. “Because he’d filed a requisition form for phrik alloy while he was still doing research on Scrymerula, we leaped to the wrong conclusion. We mistakenly assumed he’d still be trying to obtain it, now that he has reached the Republic. I need to report this disturbing discovery and recommend an alternate course of action.”

“And what course of action will you now recommend?” Cranis pressed.

“One of his droids teleported onto the Nadir and accessed some of its files,” the Jedi Master replied. “It seems clear that he intends to build an intergalactic drive. We need to figure out what materials he may still need and where he might be able to obtain them. Then, we will have to try to intercept him.”

“If his intention is to leave the galaxy, where’s the wisdom in trying to stop him?” Chancellor Cranis asked in confusion.

Xan didn’t want to take the time to delve into an esoteric answer, so he offered a somewhat more accessible explanation by saying, “If his means of escape are so certain, there’s no telling what kind of crime he might commit before he flees. If we allow him the promise of impunity, we could end up enduring all kinds of consequences.”

“I hadn’t thought about that,” Cranis pensively replied. “But I’m not a Jedi Master. I’ll let you attend to your duties. You seem to have the situation in hand. If you find the opportunity, please give my regards to the Grand Master. I have few opportunities to visit the Outer Rim.”

As he was returning to their command center atop the Ziggurat, Xan signaled for everybody else to meet him there. His first order of business, upon arrival, would be to contact Cyrella and inform her that Narik had already obtained the lightsaber resistant material which he apparently planned to use in completing the outer casing of his cybernetic body. With the assistance of the other Jedi on Coruscant, he would then scan the records on the Nadir, which Narik’s droid had accessed, and try to determine what materials their adversary might need in order to assemble an intergalactic drive. He could only hope other equally exotic acquisitions would be required. If not, they would have a very difficult time intercepting their skillful quarry.

Jedi Knights Jenassee Secura and Rostla-Kon Romeni as well as Jedi Master Priella hailed him as he entered the command center. As quickly and concisely as he could, he elucidated the situation. They were thus able to begin the required research while he made contact with Grand Master Cyrella.

“So with one strategic move Narik was able to pilfer the midi-chlorians, the data he needed, and a replacement for the phrik metal he’d failed to acquire before he left Scrymerula,” she said in response to his report. “Phrik alloy would’ve been lighter and also somewhat more resistant to lightsaber energy, but neuranium is certainly an adequate substitute. He seemingly expected us to discover his requisition order. And he found a way to keep us from using it to intercept him. If he continues to outmaneuver us like this, we’ll never catch him. I think your plan is the soundest way to proceed. Let me know what you discover. Unless he requires more uncommon materials or components, it’s going to be very difficult for us to cover every possible source. The Force will have to inform us about how to position our trap. But if he has already integrated the neuranium, our best bet would be to destroy him and his ship in space. Personal confrontation could be very ill advised.”

“I’m going to have R2 review the intergalactic data and see if he can possibly determine the most likely target,” Xan circumspectly said. “If he can, he might also be able to calculate a likely place from which to initiate the course. It’s a long shot, but it might give us a place to look.”

“Any planets within a few parsecs of such a location would be ideal places for gathering the remaining materials, if they’re industrialized worlds,” Cyrella agreed. “That’s an excellent idea.”

“I’ll let you know if he has any success,” Xan replied. “He is an incredibly resourceful droid.”

“I seem to recall him being honored for that capacity in the past,” the Grand Master mused, “perhaps even on multiple occasions. You’re obviously equal to the task at hand. May the Force guide you now as you search for a way to intercept this renegade scientist.”

“May the Force be with you as well, Grand Master,” Xan said in closing.

Kodi-San Camorra, Xan’s padawan learner, was on an errand for his Jedi Master and had recently returned to the command center. The others there quickly brought the young man up to speed on what had happened and the activity in which they were now engaged. Rostla-Kon was anxious to impress his mentor and asked an insightful question of the Jedi Master as he entered the enclosure.

“We use a parabolic course around the Core to reach the Unknown Regions,” he observed. “So, it might seem sensible to assume an intergalactic trip would be initiated in like manner. But isn’t it possible that a location nearer the galaxy’s edge might be more beneficial for undertaking such a trip? Could it be that Narik will return to his own system instead to begin his intergalactic journey?”

Priella paused from her research long enough to comment, “There could be a type of poetry in that approach, returning to the screen of the crime and all that.”

“It does seem unlikely that the Scree would expect his return,” Jenassee agreed. “He might think it’s the last place anyone would look.”

“It would be like taking a victory lap,” Rostla-Kon suggested.

“At present, we can’t afford to discount any possibility,” Xan commandingly concluded. “We need to determine what we can about the drive system he’s trying to build and the materials he’ll need in order to do it. If we’re able to discern his destination and understand the dynamics of his drive system, then we might be able to deduce his course and perhaps his optimal launch point. Everything else is nothing more than conjecture right now. I am certain he wants to reduce us to guessing. Let’s not give him what he wants. He’s gotten too much of that already.”

After several hours of uninterrupted research, Priella sounded distinctly disappointed as she said, “R2 has narrowed the possible destinations down to the two galaxies nearest ours. One of them is the one that appeared to be on a collision course. That telemetry was obviously in error. Darth Umbrage didn’t see the image after Cyrella destroyed the Crystal Matrix. But some of the research data can’t be interpreted without that Crystal Matrix. All we really have are some virtual simulations and the list of components that are common to most of them. Several of them could only be sourced in specific star systems. We should report this to the Grand Master, so she can deploy our people to try and intercept Narik, but it’ll be up to the Force to help us find him. A star system is an awfully big place.”

“And he’s in a cloaked ship,” Xan added, “but he won’t be able to dock his ship that way. He may have to forego his invisibility, at least temporarily. And the Dark Side surrounds him and his ship. He might not be quite as difficult to detect as he seemingly assumes. We needn’t abandon our optimism. He’s not omnipotent. If he were, he wouldn’t be running.”

He was about to report their findings to Cyrella when Commissioner Eisley contacted them, saying, “We have a problem, and I’m afraid it might be much more immediate than your need to locate Narik.”

“What’s happened?” Xan inquired of the holographic image.

“A fleet of freighters just arrived from Corellia, but their holds were somehow empty despite the security seals still being in place,” Eisley replied. “The only noteworthy thing that happened during their voyage was a near miss with a fleet of outbound Neimoidian ships that had deviated from their flight plan. They claimed a mechanical malfunction had thrown them off course. As I’m sure you will recall, the infamous Trade Federation was Neimoidian. And it just so happens that this same fleet was also on Coruscant when Narik carried out his acts of theft.”

Xan grunted almost as if he’d been struck before asking, “You think Narik might’ve supplied them with teleportation technology?”

“Your Grand Master told me the renegade Scree is trying to build an intergalactic drive,” he replied. “There’re only two ways he can procure parts. One would be to take them by force. But that would tell you where he’s been and what he’s acquired. You might then be able to figure out where he’d have to go to get what he still needs. The other way would be for him to actually pay for the parts. He’d need Republic credits to do that. He might’ve sold forbidden technology to get the credits. For him, that would also have the beneficial effect of burdening the Jedi with a chore far less ephemeral than trying to prevent his escape into intergalactic space. I’m sure he knows that the distribution of teleportation technology would seriously destabilize the Republic. There’s really no choice for us but to address this issue immediately. I’m afraid he has very strategically muddied the mix.”

“I was about to contact the Grand Master,” Xan said. “And I am sure she’ll concur with your conclusions.”

“It gets worse,” he said. He then paused as he allowed the import of his assertion to sink in, before continuing, “I have examined the manifests of all the craft from which the shipments were stolen, and I’m afraid I might understand why they were targeted. The Neimoidians now have all the components they’d need in order to build an army of Droidekas. We’ve no idea what such an army might be used to achieve, but it does seem unlikely that the Neimoidians would be working alone. They no longer possess anything like the strength of their long-defunct Trade Federation. If the Colicoids are actually involved, there haven’t been any indications. But I just can’t imagine the Neimoidians attempting the assembly an army of destroyer droids without at least consulting the race that created them. This might be a matter for Master Gwonameeth to investigate. If the Colicoids are part of some plot, it might take a telepath to make that determination.”

“Being essentially insectoid, Gwonameeth would also be more like the Colicoids than any of the other Jedi Masters,” Xan mused. “That could be critical. It’s commonly known that they’ve no love for the Jedi.”

“Orbits en route around Neimoidia and Cato Neimoidia might also be advisable,” he replied. “The latter, as you know, was the base of operations for the Trade Federation. And being closer to Corellia, it might be where the intelligence about the stolen shipment was initially gathered.”

“I will relay both your report and your recommendations to the Grand Master,” Xan assured him. “May the Force be with you.”

“If the Neimoidians intend to create an army of Droidekas with the pilfered components, we need to understand their goal,” Cyrella said in response to his report. “This is an odd play for the people who founded the Trade Federation. They must have a very specific objective. Those are the deadliest droids ever designed. Loss of life must be part of their plan. I don’t think it’s wise to send even Master Gwonameeth alone on such a mission. I’ll send Awswi as well. But the rest of us need to focus on discerning where Narik plans to acquire the assorted components he needs for his drive. It’s an interesting list you’ve provided. Unfortunately, most of them can be acquired from numerous places.”

“Since our quarry has resorted to diversion, he must feel like we’re in a kind of race,” Priella interjected. “Therefore, he might try to source them from systems that are relatively close to one another. We’re compiling a list of possible suppliers. Once it’s complete, I would recommend we focus on those that are grouped together.”

“That sounds sensible, but Narik is extremely crafty,” she replied. “He might spread out his purchases just to keep us from anticipating his movements in such a way. It might even be why he engineered a diversion. It gives him more time to go all over the galaxy to get what he needs. Do not assume anything. Clear your mind and focus on the Living Force. It might guide you to a different answer. Suspend all predispositions when you look at that list for the first time. You just may see something you didn’t expect.”

“I will do as you say, Grand Master,” Priella assured her. “Thank you for your guidance.”

Speaking again to Xan, Cyrella said, “The transponder codes for the Neimoidian ships may come in handy if Gwonameeth and Awswi pick them up in one of the three systems. But it’s also possible that the pirates deactivated their transponders or switched out their codes with those of other ships. I’ve been looking through the list of the stolen goods, and there’s a type of item that is rather unusual, specifically S-thread boosters. The Force informs me that these are somehow important, although I’m unable as yet to discern the relationship between the droid parts and the boosters. But I believe their ability to steal both at once is the reason the Neimoidians didn’t wait to use their illegal technology. Hopefully a pair of Jedi Masters will be able to solve this mystery. I’ll leave you to your work for now.”

***

Dropping out of hyperspace onboard the intrepid Forthright, Jedi Masters Gwonameeth and Awswi entered the outskirts of the Neimoidian system. The Force instantly alerted the pair to the fact that there were people on the primary planet who harbored evil intentions. The exact nature of those intentions could not be discerned by the telepath, not at still so extreme a distance. But at Gwonameeth’s instruction, the formidable craft adopted a course that would put it in orbit over the main planet.

Admiral Ackbar’s voice came over the intercom announcing, “We’re picking up no indication of the pirate ships’ transponder codes from anywhere in the system. Is the Force telling either of you that we need to look closer, or should we move on to Cato Neimoidia?”

Experience had made Awswi an expert in understanding the telepathic transmission coming from his insectoid colleague, and he interpreted Gwonameeth’s impressions by answering, “The problem with telepathy is that it only tells you what someone is thinking and not what they know. During interrogation, a person might be manipulated into thinking about a certain subject, which would then cause them to disclose the desired information. However, no person on the planet is presently thinking about either S-thread boosters or Droidekas. But the Neimoidians know there is a telepathic Jedi Master. Anticipating this flyby, they might’ve even removed anybody with any firsthand information about the location of the stolen items. The leaders of the Trade Federation relocated repeatedly to avoid possibly being apprehended during the Clone Wars. It’d take time to perform the type of interviews that would be required to trick anyone into focusing on the right information, if anyone here even has it. And I don’t think we have that kind of time. Let’s proceed to Cato Neimoidia.”

“Roger that,” Ackbar replied.

When the flyby of Cato Neimoidia also proved unproductive, he was asked to set course for Colla 4. Since this was the most substantial part of their trip, the admiral came aft to confer with his passengers while the light-years slipped by.

“I’ve been considering the suggestion that the Neimoidians are preparing to establish a new hyperspace corridor,” he conversationally said. “Since this could easily cause a conflict between them and the Navigator’s Guild, it might be why they want the Droidekas. But the location of this hypothetical corridor is entirely unknown. And this leads me to wonder about something.”

“What’s that?” Master Awswi asked.

“As I understand it, Narik was one of the most celebrated Scree scientists,” Ackbar carefully replied. “What if he sold the Neimoidians more than teleportation technology? He very obviously managed to reach Coruscant in fairly short order. What if he somehow found a way to establish a hyperspace corridor between the Republic and the Scree? As soon as anyone figures out how to produce a teleportation preventing ray shield, instead of being forced to rely on expensively overlapping ones, commerce between the Scree and the Republic will increase exponentially. If the Neimoidians have opened a corridor in between, they would be in the position of regulating and cashing in on all that commerce. It really would be the rebirth of the Trade Federation.”

“Now there’s an unsettling suggestion,” Master Awswi exclaimed.

“In our trips to both Brimula and Scrymerula, we endeavored to duplicate the course of the freighter that first encountered the Scree,” Ackbar continued. “But in reality, Coruscant is on the same side of the Core as their system. It kind of makes sense that there would be a more direct route. Narik was an eminent researcher. At one point the Scree had talked about trying to make contact with the Galactic Senate. Was he involved in researching a way to do that? Perhaps we should try to make that determination.”

“Leia Solo occasionally commented to me about your facility as a tactical strategist,” Master Awswi replied, very obviously impressed. “When we drop out of hyperspace, I’ll see if I can send a signal to Dari. She’s leading the investigation on Scrymerula.”

“We should be switching over to the sublight engines any time now,” Ackbar commented.

Moments later the stars again assumed their spherical shape as the Forthright dropped into normal space. Master Awswi left his flight seat and headed toward the communications console. But he abruptly stopped in his tracks as he and Master Gwonameeth both sensed the presence of malicious intent from the inhabitants of Colla 4. And it was far more focused that it had been in either of the previous systems. The telepath responded by insisting on a solo excursion to the surface, which would advantageously leave Master Awswi free to try to contact Scrymerula. The bipedal Jedi Master wasn’t at all in favor of letting his friend face the peril alone, but he knew his presence would only add to the danger. If either of them stood any chance of being accepted by the Colicoids, it would clearly be the one who was insectoid.

Knowing that visitors weren’t really welcome on Colla 4, Master Gwonameeth chose to use a drop ship to reach the surface. The landing of a dreadnaught like the Forthright would’ve been certain to provoke a potent reprisal. It was a well-known fact that the Colicoids tended to eat the uninvited, which was basically everybody. The telepathic Jedi Master therefore intended to take every possible precaution to avoid a ravenous response.

Anticipating that he might have to swiftly organize his colleague’s rescue, Master Awswi lost no time in attempting to contact Scrymerula. Due to the presence of sporadic interruptions in the signal, caused by astronomical objects crossing the line of sight between the subspace stations, holography was temporarily unsupported. Master Awswi therefore had to settle for audio only.

After hearing him rehearse Ackbar’s suggestion, Dari replied, “Every record of his work was erased, but such research would’ve been conducted in response to an assignment. Therefore, I should be able to determine whether a request for such research was ever made. I will relay my findings just as soon as I can. Personally, I hope Admiral Ackbar is wrong for once. I’m certain it won’t spoil his reputation if he is.”

***

Jedi Master Gwonameeth’s drop ship obliquely entered the atmosphere of Colla 4 while its pilot scanned the surface for an optimal landing location. Much of the planet was tropical, almost reminiscent of Dagobah. In order to avoid an ambush, a large clearing was really required. They were in short supply. The telepath didn’t want to set down in an area that was altogether devoid of Colicoids, since contact was a critical part of the plan, but a safe distance was desirable. Any observers were certain to quickly converge on the landing site.

Although the Colicoids, being insectoid, were immune to mental manipulation, Gwonameeth would nevertheless be able to discern whether questions were answered honestly. The telepath could also sense their proximity. This facility, however, yielded very little advantage. Because of the tunnel system they had exhaustively excavated beneath much of the surface of their planet, they seemed to be everywhere.

As much as the uninvited visitor did not want to present any appearance that might evoke a violent response, it could end up being suicidal not to take precautionary steps. The Jedi Master therefore adorned the pair of lightsabers, the hallmark of an extremely exotic technique, before exiting the precincts of the drop ship. Gwonameeth was thus girded for conflict if it should occur.

One side of the selected clearing was bordered by rocky outcroppings. Even if the scanners hadn’t indicated the presence of caves, such cavities were the only explanation for the life forms the Jedi Master had telepathically detected. And since none of the denizens of the underground environment issued forth to confront the intrepid interloper, there seemed very little choice but to meet them on their own subterranean turf. Relying on the Living Force for the requisite courage, Gwonameeth entered the carved out corridor. But still, the planet’s infamous residents remained strangely elusive. It was almost as if they were giving ground before the invader’s advance. This was an altogether unexpected response.

As Gwonameeth delved deeper into the alien labyrinth, the telepath’s abilities were focused behind as well as before. At first, the Jedi Master suspected that the Colicoids were behaving as they were in order to encircle the impertinent trespasser. But telepathy failed to confirm that any such ploy was in progress. And this became increasingly more confusing since the underworld’s occupants continued to recede before the mystified emissary. Since they were maintaining their distance, it wasn’t possible to get a read on their actual intentions.

The Jedi Master finally rounded a corner. One side of the passage opened onto a massive chamber. It was at this point that everything suddenly became crystal clear. The cavern was full of Droidekas. And they were all taking deadly aim at Jedi Master Gwonameeth.

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