STAR WARS Episode 9, The Predator's Prism, Volume 3 of the Alternate Universe Trilogy

A Necessary Evil

Darth Umbrage turned angrily away from the control console of his completely cloaked ship. His time-shifting experiments were not going well. His holocron-powered droids were a precious commodity. He hadn’t anticipated losing one when he time-shifted it eight seconds into the past, but it had then unexpectedly appeared in front of the ship and been smashed by its shields. The second experiment, sending an insignificant item several seconds into the future, had produced equally disappointing results. The scanners had picked it up astern as it manifested itself behind the ship. Transferring something through time seemed to disassociate it from any kind of normal inertia. And the Crystal Matrix seemed unable to compensate for the displacement. Although he could have negated the difficulty by bringing his ship to a stop, he couldn’t hope to stop a planet.

“I need some way to transmit matter to a specific point in space while I’m time-shifting it,” he thundered to his mechanical crew. “Someone in this godforsaken galaxy has to have the type of technology I need. Search the Nadir’s databanks and see if you can’t find a reference, no matter how obscure. Meanwhile, set a course to take us outside the galactic plane. If I send a probe far enough into the future, it might see something useful before anything crashes into it. I should be able to pick up its holocron transmissions with the Crystal Matrix. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”

While his droids diligently scanned the contents of his vessel’s vast reservoir of information, the Nadir angled out of the galaxy’s elongated disk. His predecessor had adopted this approach once before. But the Dark Lord’s recollection was sketchy in the extreme. Many of his memories were much more like dreams. The love, which Lamis had once held for Soma, existed as only a diluted version of itself in this subsequent incarnation. Due to the fact that the Dark Lord uploads comprised about ten percent more of his personality, his sentiments were not shared by most of the occupants of the cosmological configuration from which he had just taken his leave.

Beneath the invisible bow of the Nubian Nadir, the unsuspecting galaxy stretched before his scheming eyes. His familiarity with astronomical arrangements, assembled over lifetimes he had not actually experienced, allowed him to recognize the constellations of the Core even at such a tremendous distance. The central systems, which comprised the nexus of the Republic, seemed almost insubstantial, situated as they were amidst the obscuring haze which hovered around the galaxy’s glowing center. The radiance from those stars, which would’ve scalded a human’s eyes in their sockets close up, appeared to barely twinkle at such far-removed range. It looked like he could simply swat them from the sky. The prospect of their conquest actually seemed altogether attainable from so detached a vantage point.

M4 was the first holocron-powered droid he’d constructed with the technological information he absorbed from the archives of the Darth. Beckoning his cybernetic right arm to the bridge, he asked, “Can the Nadir’s navicomputer even make calculations that take into account the relative movements of nearby galaxies?”

“It wasn’t really designed to facilitate intergalactic travel, since no known species possesses a propulsion system which would enable such a journey,” the droid answered. “We can however make measurements from here. Do I correctly construe that you are concerned about a collision between the time-shifted probe and another galaxy?”

“I know that the nearest other galaxy in our local group is almost a million light years away,” he replied. “But since I’m not certain just how far into the future to send it, perhaps I should set it to perform a panoramic scan. That way, if it does end up running into something, we’ll be able to adjust the trajectory of the second probe. I just don’t want to have to do this more than twice. My resources are limited.”

“Perhaps it could be programmed to attempt some compensational maneuvers, although its propulsion system is limited,” the droid suggested. “But extending its scan to include the nearby galaxies is an exceedingly wise decision. It would take time to make dependable measurements from a fixed position. The probe can show us how the cosmos will shift over innumerable eons.”

“Program the probe accordingly and let me know when it’s ready to time-shift,” he instructed the droid. “I’m going to retire to my quarters until then. See that I remain undisturbed until you’ve completed the programming.”

The Dark Lord made his way to the captain’s cabin but then spent several minutes standing in front of one of its pair of portholes, before he eventually elected to stretch out. In a moment of uncharacteristic contemplation, he considered the distant galaxies. He was too far from them for the Force to inform him about their possible occupants. But he wondered what kind of exotic life forms might be found within such unimagined environs and whether any of them had discovered some way to traverse the ultimate gulf of intergalactic space. A little bit later, he emerged from a strangely dreamless sleep as he responded to a summons from M4.

“As I am sure you know,” the droid began, “our galaxy is approximately a hundred thousand light years across. If our understanding of its relative motion is correct, time-shifting it forward by about forty-thousand years should cause the probe to emerge with a perspective upon the Core. If only it were possible to make it skip across time and accumulate multiple samplings, we would then be much more certain of an advantageous discovery. But it is probably safe to assume that any knowledge of the future has to be beneficial.”

“Program the Crystal Matrix to perform the suggested time-shift,” he instructed. “Then move the probe into position. Make sure the transponder signal is stable. I’ll man the controls myself.”

Using the influence of the Dark Side of the Force, the Dark Lord interfaced with his ominous equipment and propelled the probe far into the future. The multicolored illumination, issuing forth from the facets of the Crystal Matrix, looked kaleidoscopic as the probe leapt ahead in time. The sound of its disappearance, as the air in the cabin rushed to fill the abrupt emptiness, was like a muffled thunderclap. Darth Umbrage then turned his attention to the transponder signal that was being received by the Crystal Matrix, a signal transmitted across parsecs of space and millennia of time.

As the images started to resolve, the droids industriously recorded them into the ship’s data banks. The probe’s panoramic view revolved to reveal the Core and some unparalleled pictures of the nearby galaxies. Although Darth Umbrage was most interested in occurrences around the Core and waited impatiently for the completion of each revolution, M4 seemed nearly frenetic as it processed the more astronomical data. At first, the Dark Lord wasn’t certain what was causing the droid such anxiety. However, as he focused more carefully on the carousel of alien galaxies, he discovered that something catastrophic seemed to be happening inside one of them.

“M4, what’s going on in that galaxy?” he casually asked.

“It seems that a collapsar, or hypernova, has gone off in close proximity to the far side of its core,” the droid sounded worried as it replied. “It created a cascade of stellar explosions. I’m still running the equations. But we know where that galaxy is now and where it’ll be in forty thousand years. And it’s clear that those explosions have changed that galaxy’s trajectory. I’m sorry to say this, but now that I’ve completed the math, the implications are that it’s now on a collision course with our galaxy. The impact won’t begin for another several billion years, but all life forms in both galaxies will be completely eradicated by the collision.”

As if by some instinct, the rest of the mechanical crew ceased their activities as they waited to see what he would say in response. But the Dark Lord offered no immediate answer. First, he proceeded to the console where M4 was working and inspected the unacceptable readouts as if he hoped to find some mistake in the droid’s deductions. However, the calculations were without any errors.

Turning to confront the nightmarish image on the main monitor, he finally said, “We have an extra forty thousand years to accomplish the evacuation of our galaxy.”

“But Lord Umbrage,” M4 very cautiously interjected. “As we’ve already discussed, no known species possesses the capacity to accomplish an intergalactic crossing.”

“Then what we really have is an extra forty thousand years in which to subjugate the galaxy and prioritize the development of an intergalactic drive,” he resolutely replied. “I am the salvation of our interstellar societies. I will fulfill the original destiny of the Darth by ensuring the survival of civilization. It is now more imperative than ever that we destroy the Jedi Order; for, if they should stop me, they’ll bring about the end of existence itself. The occupants of this microcosm must be made to do what’s in everybody’s best interest. For safety’s sake, I must establish myself as the absolute monarch of an all-inclusive galactic government.”

“We might’ve just uncovered a reference to teleportation in a literary file,” M4 announced. “It was listed as a legend. But that might be because no one was able to ever verify its information. It says that a commercial spacecraft was once on its way from Cato Neimoidia to Coruscant; but due to a malfunction in its guidance system, it strayed too close to the Core and was flung out of all but the outermost rim. The ship came to a stop in a region of space beyond even Ansion. Out on the backside of the border of the Unknown Regions, its crew encountered a race of creatures that called themselves the Scree. They reportedly possess teleportation, but the technology only works on inanimate matter and microbial life. According to this account, which unfortunately fails to include any coordinates, the Scree told them that nothing larger than a single-celled organism has ever survived the process. This is the one ship that might truly be able to duplicate their trip, although I wouldn’t be surprised if special components had to be incorporated into the holocrons to facilitate their teleportation. But I believe the manufacturing engineers on Eriadu, in particular, could quite probably satisfy any such specifications.”

“Activate our recently acquired, stolen transponder and then set course for Cato Neimoidia,” he instructed. “It sounds like a very roundabout way to come back to the Unknown Regions. But I’m not sure if we’d be able to find the target system by simply striking out from here. I think we’ll have to find it the same way the crew of commercial spacecraft claimed to have done so. I really hope this isn’t going to be a waste of time. We have no time to waste. There’s no telling just how long it will take me to gain the required control and prioritize the development of the intergalactic drive.”

Looking up from the navicomputer, M4 casually commented, “We will be passing very close to Corellia, home of Leia Solo’s husband and of the Rebel Alliance. But I don’t suppose we have any business to take care of there.”

“I doubt very much if either the Grand Master or her spacefaring spouse spend their time in that sector anymore,” the Dark Lord agreed. “But the use of our cloak won’t keep the authorities from homing in on our stolen transponder. We just need to make certain we’re clear downrange. After we make the jump to light-speed, deactivate it. You can engage it again after we cross the Corellian Trade Spine. Has the probe reported anything else of note from the future?”

“No, Lord Umbrage,” M4 immediately answered. “We are of course continuing to monitor its transmissions. But nothing of note has presented itself in any of the subsequent scans. Perhaps as it crosses the Core it will detect something worth mentioning. Its presence could yet assist us in surprising ways.”

“My thinking exactly,” he smirked as he concurred.

The Nubian Nadir leapt to light-speed, leaving the Unknown Regions far behind as it skirted the Core and careened toward Corellia and the Colonies beyond. Contact with the probe was of course temporarily interrupted during such interstellar transit. Even the Crystal Matrix lacked the capacity to receive signals in hyperspace. But as it went streaming by to port, the Core provided ample diversion for the Dark Lord. None of the contributors to his uploaded memories were very familiar with this region of space. He found himself actually enjoying the new experience, but he also knew he was racing against a cosmic clock.

Turning to M4, he asked, “Without knowing how an intergalactic drive would perform; I don’t suppose there’s any way to estimate how long it would truly take to evacuate the galaxy and get everyone to safety, is there?”

“Unfortunately not,” the robotic accomplice replied. “A few billion years probably sounds like a long time; but in cosmological time, it really isn’t. And we could start feeling some gravitational effects in our galaxy long before the collision occurs. Even the nearest other galaxy to which we might evacuate is a million light years away. And in order to accommodate everyone, it might be necessary to select more than one. After all, they might already be inhabited. We’ll have to send probes to make that determination and wait for the signals to return. We might have to negotiate for homesteading rights in order to avoid waging war for survival space upon our arrival. It could be that the most major complications are the ones we can’t actually predict at this point.”

Casting a scowl in the droid’s direction, he caustically commanded, “Elaborate.”

“As I am sure you’re well aware,” M4 warily replied, “even the nearest galaxies are around a million years older than what is displayed in the sky. And the further away a galaxy is, the more it may have changed over time. It’s not just that each probe must make the crossing, completely reconnoiter its target, and send back a signal which takes time to receive. If a group of habitable worlds is found in a galaxy ten million light years from here, we must anticipate the disagreeable possibilities. In no more than the time it takes for the probe’s signal to reach us, assuming it was already at the end of its survey, intelligent life could arise on one or more of those worlds. By the time we could reach those systems, we might encounter an advanced technology. And although we could almost certainly overcome resistance to our occupation of those planets, they could be wasted into worthlessness by the resulting war. They could also conceivably be colonized by an intelligence that’s indigenous to the target galaxy in the interim. The probes must be prepared to prevent these things from happening, which means they must be sophisticated in the extreme.”

“Can you categorize any additional difficulties,” he worriedly inquired.

“Even if the probes can travel at many multiples of the speed of light and the following ships can do the same,” the droid responded, “the signals that are sent back across galactic subspace may not be able to do so. The distance in light years could in fact equal the time required for the reception of a signal. It also could take many millions of years for a lone probe to entirely inspect a whole galaxy. And in order to circumvent any effects on the continuum caused by the shearing stress of the approaching galaxy, we should specify a plane that would be parallel to the area of expected impact and dispatch the probes only to galaxies on our side of that plane. To speed up this operation, we should also send them out in no small number. Frugality could be fatal.”

“So,” Darth Umbrage summarized, “we need to develop an intergalactic drive, create a race of robotic probes that approximate true consciousness, and then direct them to limit their search to only the nearest galaxies that are also at right angles to the one which will begin its approach in about forty thousand years. Is there anything else?”

“To make certain our destination avoids interacting with the debris field that’ll result from the impact, I would recommend concentrating on galaxies no closer than five million light years,” M4 answered. “Even at five times the speed of light, it’d actually take a million years to reach such a destination. Due to time dilation, the travelers will subjectively experience a passage of time that will be far briefer. But it will still be a multigenerational journey in the extreme. The colonial ships will have to be constructed to serve as self-sufficient cities in space. Each will have to be its own biosphere, which means they’ll be massive and incredibly expensive to construct. It is difficult to estimate how many millions of them will really be required to accomplish the evacuation.”

“And nobody short of an absolute sovereign would possibly be able to impose this expense upon his people,” he darkly deduced. “Neither a democracy nor a republic could prepare in time. The skeptics and the pessimists would doom their civilization. Corruption alone could ensure its extinction. The only conceivable way for so many cultures to act in concert is under the impetus of an Emperor. But my ascension must be very swiftly accomplished. We’ve too much to do and far too short a time in which to do it.”

“The soundness of your deduction is undeniable,” the droid agreed. “Given the current state of social disorganization in our galaxy, I calculate that very few species would survive otherwise. And any that did would probably do so only at the expense of those that did not. Only by forcing unification upon them could you even conceivably cause the kind of concurrence in their activity that would result in their unilateral deliverance. Your preeminence is a necessary prerequisite to this plan. The Jedi Order is therefore an obvious obstacle that demands removal. If selflessness actually is their axiom, then they should willingly sacrifice themselves in order guarantee that the galaxy’s numerous societies all get to experience continuance.”

The Dark Lord was encouraged by the droid’s numerically calculated justification. It seemed as if the math itself required the success of his scheme. It never occurred to him to consider that M4 was powered by a holocron at the heart of which sat a shard from the One Crystal.

Performing as previously programmed, the Nubian Nadir dropped out of hyperspace while it was still outside the Corellian star system. A number of the galaxy’s most important trade routes included Corellia. Angling away from the hyperspace lanes, the cloaked craft cut invisibly across the system using its sub-light engines. The Dark Lord could sense the immediacy of the security forces that were assembled to intercept the ship with the stolen transponder. But he’d instructed M4 to temporarily disable it after calculating their course. Therefore, there was no way the Nadir could be reacquired as it slipped through the outskirts of the system. He waited until his slippery ship was on the side proximate to Cato Neimoidia before engaging the transponder and making the last leg of the inbound jump.

“This is where all the fun begins,” he mused as the ship emerged near Cato Neimoidia. The mechanical crew began crunching the numbers that would be needed to duplicate the trip of the legendary, commercial spacecraft. He could only hope that his stalwart ship could really survive the rigors of being gravitationally deflected by the Core. He knew it was extremely risky.

“Since our hypothetical destination is Coruscant and there is so much traffic in this region of the galaxy,” said M4, “we will have to activate the transponder and make certain our trajectory is clear before we make the jump. However, I’m mainly concerned about what we might encounter on the other side of the Core. Our course, after the deflection, cannot be calculated with enough accuracy to assure our safe passage to the outskirts of the galaxy. We will effectively be playing roulette with our ship while it’s in hyperspace.”

“It can’t be helped,” he curtly countered. “But I doubt very much if any traffic will be traveling along our axis. All the shipping lanes should either be above or below us, if my understanding of the resulting course is correct.”

“If we’re actually involved in a collision at that speed, we’d never know about it anyway,” the droid replied, sounding almost dismissive of the idea. “We’d be instantly atomized.”

“I do believe you’re becoming darker by the day,” he jokingly rejoined.

“Thank you, Lord Umbrage,” the droid responded with surprising sincerity. “Our calculations are now complete. We’ve reconstructed the course of the cargo ship as closely as possible from the information in the reference. We’re ready to engage the hyperdrive at your command.”

“After we’ve been deflected,” Darth Umbrage reminded the droid, “you’ll have to monitor our new course very closely and adjust our trajectory if it looks like we’ll cross any shipping lanes. At least we have that option. Our predecessor was just trying to stop after they’d been rerouted.”

“Nevertheless, because they were deflected by the Core, they might’ve been the first ship in history to change course in hyperspace,” M4 replied. “In fact, the ship could’ve conceivably even reached intergalactic speed before they finally succeeded in slowing down.”

With sudden interest, the Dark Lord inquired, “Would that be a practical way to accelerate a ship to such a speed?”

“Only if the course was entirely clear all the way from the Core to the outskirts of our galaxy in the direction of the intended target,” M4 answered. “But I doubt if the inertial damper on a city-sized ship would be able to handle the shearing stress. However, the procedure would probably work on something less substantial, perhaps the size of a probe. And since we are still receiving telemetry from the one you sent into the future, we’ll be able to accurately calculate a course for such a probe to any of the nearby galaxies.”

“Activate the hyperdrive and then deactivate the subspace transponder,” he evenly ordered. “I can sense that the security forces are already homing in on our commandeered device. Won’t they be surprised when they detect our suicidal course towards the Core? They might even stop monitoring for our transponder’s frequency. Perhaps we won’t have to replace it soon after all.”

From the outskirts of Cato Neimoidia, the Nubian Nadir leapt to light-speed once again. The commander of the Republican security forces could scarcely believe what his telemetry told him. Their quarry had initiated a course that would take them far too close to the Core. He incorrectly deduced that desperation had driven them to take such a measure. After reporting his suspicion that the ship would be destroyed, he ordered his squadron to swing around and proceed toward the system’s primary planet to refuel. After receiving the subspace transmission, the Republican dispatcher on duty officially relisted the stolen transponder as lost.

Although the Nadir could change course in hyperspace and her shields outclassed anything else her size, there were numerous unknowns with regards to the maneuver. The most troubling of all was the uncertainty of whether they’d really be able to execute course corrections after the ship had been deflected and was traveling at intergalactic speed. The cargo ship, whose course they were attempting to duplicate, had barely been able to stop before being flung altogether out of the galaxy. Even a minimalistic course correction could result in shearing stress that would be disastrous at such an unproven velocity.

“From our situation just inside the Colonies, we’ll pass very quickly through the Core Worlds and reach our deflection coordinates only a matter of minutes later,” M4 informed him. “We have taken every possible step to amplify the inertial damper and safeguard the Nubian 327 core with its T-14 generator. Surviving the deflection might not matter if we don’t remain maneuverable.”

Although the ship’s inertial damper was operating far above its manufacturer-recommended maximum, the formidable spacecraft was almost crippled during its deflection by the Core. Darth Umbrage alone, because of his facility with the Force, emerged completely unscathed. But none of his robotic crew escaped the ravages of such wrenching. They were all a little worse for wear. While the Dark Lord succeeded in adhering himself to a nearby bulkhead, the safety harness on every crash couch catastrophically failed and sent its mechanical occupant careening. M4 spent several embarrassing moments, picking itself up from the deck plate, before it could comply with its master’s demand for an update.

“We’ve been successfully rerouted,” the droid ultimately managed to report. “Our course will take us to the outskirts of the galaxy, although I’d have to use our vessel’s navicomputer to even estimate our speed.”

“See if you can do that before we have to start decelerating,” he ordered. “That type of data could prove critical later on. Am I correct that Ansion is now off the starboard bow?”

“Yes, Lord Umbrage,” the droid responded. “We’re headed toward a section of space that is actually incorporated into the Unknown Regions just adjacent to that sector. Given just how long it allegedly took for the crew of the cargo ship to slow their speed, I think they may’ve made their legendary discovery very near the terminus of the spiral arm that lies beyond. It has never been explored; except perhaps by its indigenous occupants.”

“If the Scree actually exist and have teleportation technology, then they would be one of the most formidable life forms in the galaxy,” he replied. “I’m sure they’re quite knowledgeable about their interstellar surroundings. I would not be surprised if we could learn a lot about this sector of space from them. I just hope they’re really as welcoming when it comes to contact as the legend seems to imply. If I have to take what I want, we could have a difficult time of it.”

“Most civilized species understand the concept of commerce,” M4 commented. “The legend makes it clear that the crew was able to trade their cargo for the needed repairs to their ship.”

“Which is why so many people, including their employer, ardently rejected their account,” he rejoined. “It sounded like nothing more than a very imaginative way to rip someone off.”

“Of course, it should be mentioned that no one was familiar with some of the materials used in the repairs; which is why the courts ultimately ordered them to simply make restitution instead of convicting them as criminals,” the droid pointedly replied. “The fact that it took several months for them to return also seemed to uphold their tale. Some suggested that they returned because they exhausted the income from the stolen shipment. But the vessel’s flight log indicated instead that a series of jumps from a location in the Unknown Regions had in fact occurred, even if such flight logs could’ve been fabricated. But speaking of shipments, do we have anything to trade?”

“Just information,” he intensely answered, “but foreknowledge is perhaps the most priceless commodity of all. And the readouts from the probe can be qualified as authentic. I’m certain they will see the advantage in our association, if I’m only able to present my proposal before any kind of antagonism can occur.”

“I’ve finally succeeded in calculating our velocity,” M4 announced. “We’re currently traveling at almost exactly five times the speed of light. However, we need to commence our deceleration immediately or we may find that we have been flung altogether out of the galaxy. I estimate that we have achieved the necessary escape velocity.”

“Begin the braking maneuver,” the Dark Lord ordered. “Just be certain not to overstress the ship.”

The Nadir had only achieved its ludicrous speed by being approximately backhanded by the Galactic Core. The hyperdrive complained with a piercing whine as it was pressed into a service far beyond what its builders had probably ever imagined, attempting deceleration from a velocity many times that of light. By comparison, the engines on the star freighter had been designed for accommodating considerable added mass. The Dark Lord’s much more diminutive dreadnaught was approximating the performance of a ship that was altogether outside its class, but it was the only vessel its size that could actually rise to the occasion without ripping itself apart.

“Because the navicomputer can’t compensate for hyperspace distortions, readings taken at relativistic velocities tend to be inexact,” M4 reminded its master. “It is however evident that we’ll reach the spiral arm beyond the Unknown Regions before the ship manages to stop. The lack of star systems in the interposing space drastically diminishes the risk of collision. This is therefore the most fortuitous of situations.”

The morass of multihued illumination, through which their craft was careening, began to thin out. An unfilled and decidedly featureless expanse was inexorably exposed beyond; space in its vacuous, inhospitable and most fundamental form. Having traveled outside the galactic plane on previous occasions, since Darth Duress had also adopted the tactic, the overwhelming enormity of intergalactic space was not foreign to the Dark Lord as he was forced to confront it again. But he was glad for the almost hallucinogenic suggestion of the spiral arm in the distance. His ability with the Force notwithstanding, the readouts from the probe had proved that the universe wasn’t as innocuous as the microcosm he hoped to conquer.

As the internal chronometer crept incessantly forward and the spaceship continued to slow, the features of the galactic appendage began to gain definition. The ship’s spectrometer started to detect discernible readings from the ambient starlight, and the navicomputer began to identify the possibility of habitable worlds scattered among the nameless systems ahead. One particular planet seemed to stand out from the cosmic crowd, and the Nadir was headed in almost exactly its direction. Taken together, these factors seemed to suggest that they’d indeed discovered the location of the Scree.

“Needless to say, Galactic Basic Standard isn’t spoken by the Scree,” M4 commented. “But the crew of the cargo ship said that their navicomputer ultimately managed to translate the alien language. I would respectfully suggest that we begin broadband transmissions to establish such interaction. As I’m certain you know; there is a computer protocol for contact when interpretation could be required.”

“Initiate the protocol,” he impatiently replied. “And let me know as soon we have any type of intelligible answer.”

Even at their improbable although steadily reducing speed, it took a considerable amount of time to traverse the empty expanse that stretched between the galaxy’s edge and the spiral arm toward which they were racing. As they finally drew nearer to their destination, the mathematical linguistics, which were being broadcast through subspace by the ship’s navicomputer, induced a response. Communication began to occur. The Dark Lord had been expecting any interpretation to take time. This didn’t turn out to be a precise appraisal.

Turning to Darth Umbrage, M4 seemed almost pleased to announce, “Because of their prior contact with the crew of the cargo ship, the Scree now recognize Galactic Basic. They’re able to translate between their language and ours. I requested permission to approach their planet, and it has been granted.”

“Well done,” he enthusiastically answered. “Once you’ve assumed a standard orbit, request a conference between myself and the leadership of the Scree. Hopefully, they’ll give permission for us to land. Tell them I have foreknowledge of an impending disaster that will affect everyone in the galaxy. And disengage our cloak. Let’s not advertize that we have such a device.”

“Yes, Lord Umbrage,” the droid replied. “We’re about to enter the outskirts of their system.”

From orbit, the homeworld of the Scree bore an astonishing resemblance to Coruscant. The suggestion of extreme mechanization was visible even at that distance, although the undeniably alien ecumenopolis didn’t yet encompass the entire planet. But the Dark Lord was left to wonder about the extent of the parallel between their world and the Capitol of the Republic. For reasons he could not quite qualify, he was having an unusual amount of difficulty obtaining any sense of its citizens. Since he was about to attempt the most ambitious manipulation of his career, so far, he considered this development to be particularly disquieting.

“I’m relaying your request for a forum with the leadership of the Scree and advising them of the crucial reason for your request,” M4 announced. “We should have their response shortly.”

As he looked down upon the inexplicable planet, he began to question the sprawling extent of the mechanization he was observing. It looked like a place better suited for machines than for biological entities. Additionally, now that they’d actually entered orbit, the Nadir’s scanners were detecting an envelope of atmosphere so sparse that it could scarcely be expected to support so obviously sizable a civilization. He couldn’t reconcile the readings with the evidence of his eyes. But the scans did seem to concur with what the Force was informing him: there was very little in the way of actual life on the world below.

“We’ve been given the coordinates of the parliamentary complex and invited to make use of a landing pad they’re clearing for the occasion,” M4 interrupted his reverie by reporting. “How do you want me to respond?”

“Thank them for their gracious invitation and then begin the landing cycle,” he instructed the droid. He then added, “But don’t be surprised if our hosts are much more like you and the rest of the crew than they are like me. I strongly suspect that they’re cyborgs.”

M4 made no comment as it simply complied with the Dark Lord’s orders. Moments later, the Nubian Nadir deftly dropped into the meager atmosphere that enshrouded the homeworld of the Scree. The parliamentary complex had the rambling look of a structure that had been repeatedly expanded. And the landing platform, to which they had been directed, was located closest to the largest segment’s main entrance. It looked like the kind of preferred location that would probably have been reserved for prominent representatives. But the Dark Lord thought a more pragmatic consideration had dictated the selection. Once their ship had settled on the unfamiliar surface, a droid emerged from the nearby entry and patiently waited for the emissaries to disembark. Darth Umbrage allowed M4 to accompany him, and they were swiftly ushered inside.

Even though Umbrage had never actually clapped eyes on General Grievous, his Dark Lord uploads immediately recognized a resemblance between that cybernetic criminal and the mostly robotic ambassadors before which he was cordially conducted. Due to his facility with the Force, he could sense the presence of living tissue sequestered within their mechanical confines. But it was clear that their physical forms were artificial.

“I’m Darth Umbrage,” he said with bow. “I come from a place to which those of the Republic refer as the Unknown Regions. It was in fact by using one of their legends that I was able to find you. I’ve discovered that all the inhabitants of this galaxy are in danger. I have very little to trade except this information. But I know you have a type of technology that would help me in bringing about an eventual evacuation. It’s my hope that you’ll assist me in this effort. M4, show them the readouts from the probe that we sent into the future.”

Bringing its holographic projectors online, the droid obediently displayed the feeds from the time probe. He could sense surprise on the part of the spectators as they noticed the associated star date that ran, like some other technical data, along the peripheries of the projection. He had been careful to just tell the truth. Like the Chameleon’s Crystal of his deceased predecessor, the Predator’s Prism made it possible for him to protect himself from telepathy. Cyborgs typically did not possess the capacity, but the Scree could’ve been an exception. And his agenda concerning them didn’t depend on deceit, but only on belief; so, he wanted to be as transparent as possible. He also wanted to avoid of the use of mental manipulation unless an attempt became necessary in order for his scheme to succeed. There was a chance of such exploitation being detected.

He waited until the droid had played the applicable portion of the probe’s recording, then he instructed M4 to display the calculations that confirmed the galactic collision course. It was clear that his hosts were horrified by the cataclysmic depictions with which they were presented. They spoke in hushed voices between themselves for several moments before one of them, whom he had already discerned as their leader, addressed the Dark Lord directly.

“I’m Corgus, Chief Magistrate of Scrymerula, the homeworld of the Scree,” the alien intoned as its cybernetic implants accomplished the translation. “We detect no duplicity in your data. We would like to know what type of technology it is that you’re requesting. We also wonder how this data was obtained. Are you able to trade temporal technology for whatever it is you’re seeking?”

“The ship’s Crystal Matrix, which is a prototype, consists of a unique kind of crystal that was somehow formed during the exceptionally complex death of a star,” he explained. “I’ve searched for any suggestion that others exists, but all such exploration has been unproductive. While I am very willing to share the results obtained by my temporal technology, I’m lamentably without any components to spare. I can only offer information in exchange for your teleportation technology.”

“Considering the possibly catastrophic consequences of withholding our aid, we must agree to your terms,” Corgus concurred. “But are we to understand that nobody in your entire Republic possesses the equipment with which to perform such translocations? The crew of the spacecraft that visited us before made no mention of this shortcoming.”

“They probably just didn’t want you to feel they were inferior,” Umbrage answered. “After all, they were very far from home and in need of your aid in order to return. Maybe they thought you would take advantage of them if you felt they were from a second-rate society. I cannot afford to entertain such a concern. My mission is too important, and there is no room for dishonesty in my embassy anyway. But since you raised the point, I’d be very interested in learning what impelled the development of so exotic a science.”

“You probably noted that Scrymerula is the third planet from our sun,” Corgus replied. “Both of the worlds between which we are situated were originally deemed uninhabitable. And this one was almost made so by pollution and our unwise depletion of its resources. We therefore turned our attention to the rest of our solar system, seeking some ancillary means of survival. When we did, we discovered that life had once flourished on the fourth planet. The evidence indicated that liquid water had once graced its surface, but its atmosphere wasn’t substantial enough to deflect the radiation from our sun anymore. Colonization would be problematic at best, and it lacked the resources that would’ve made economic sense of the undertaking. Later, we learned that a vast network of lava tubes extended under its surface. Most of our people now inhabit that developed labyrinth. Scrymerula is now situated at the inner edge of this system’s habitable zone. Those of us who refuse to leave have transferred our essential tissues into these fabricated forms. It is no longer safe to walk under the open sky. Cybernetics allows us to integrate the needed shielding. But you asked how we happened to develop teleportation.

“At first, we thought we could increase our resources through the mining of asteroids. There are many in this system, and some were nothing less than mineralogical treasure troves. But we didn’t yet understand and consequently couldn’t generate gravity artificially; so, we soon learned the dangers of existing in its absence for too long. The early explorers who spent extensive time in space soon began experiencing numerous health problems. Because of the clinical concerns, it seemed as if asteroid mining could only be accomplished robotically. We began to build robots to carry out the extractions. We also started extensive research into cybernetics. Droids became a part of everyday life. To avoid the physiological complications, we tried to find another world in our solar system that had a mass much more like our own. And there was only one.

“But the second planet in our system, actually the closest to us, has an incredibly corrosive atmosphere. It in fact is so caustic that it consumed every probe we tried to place on its scalding surface. Despairing of this approach, we positioned satellites in orbit all around it and used them to image its surface. Our technology was advanced enough that the scanning beams from these probes could actually penetrate the outer crust of the planet. This yielded a startling discovery.

“There are massive caverns just below the surface of the seemingly unreachable world, and the majority of them were also adjacent to precisely the types of mineralogical deposits we were so desperately hoping to find. But they seemed completely inaccessible. There was just no way to get the mining machinery through the atmosphere without it deteriorating. This is why we first explored the possibility of teleportation. It’s also why initially we were so exclusively interested in the transmission of inanimate matter. Even within its caverns, there’s no breathable atmosphere on that planet. Once we had the technology to do so, we sent in processors to make the air less acidic. We then sent in droids to extract and process the deposits. And then, we began beaming the filled containers into waiting cargo ships. It’s how our civilization was saved.”

“But what about the translocation of life forms?” the Dark Lord pressed. “Surely you went on to perfect that aspect of your technology, didn’t you?”

“The molecular mechanisms that make life possible are animated in the extreme. In fact, life might be defined by that state of flux,” Corgus countered. “Inanimate objects do not demonstrate mitosis or any of the other extremely kinetic, microscopic processes that we’d need to somehow suspend in order for such relocation to become possible. Even though we’ve developed a stasis field, its operation interferes with the effectiveness of the teleportation beam. The two processes are in complete opposition with each other. And there has really been no impetus for developing the organic analog.”

“It would take billions of self-sufficient city-ships to accomplish the evacuation of our galaxy with any kind of conventional approach,” Umbrage argued. “I’m trying to determine whether your suggested analog could possibly serve as a substitute.”

“Intergalactic teleportation is impossible,” Corgus resolutely replied.

“Why?” Umbrage demanded, sounding more adversarial than diplomacy really allowed. But since they were discussing the end of civilization, the Scree let it slide.

“The teleportation beams travels at the speed of light,” Corgus patiently explained. “In order to transport something to a target millions of light years away, the beam would therefore have to be maintained that long. There are stars that don’t even possess that type of power. There’s the additional problem of the relative motion of the target. Even if we had very accurate coordinates of the target, which we don’t, any planet, upon which we intended to deposit the travelers, would be rotating. At some point we’d be trying to send the teleportation beam through the mass of the planet. Over such an extended period of time, stars might superimpose themselves between the transmitter and the target. These problems cannot be overcome.”

“Okay,” Umbrage answered, giving careful consideration to the objection. “What if the target isn’t a planet? What if we simply beam the city-ships to the outskirts of the other galaxy? Then, they would have clear access to their objective, and the ship wouldn’t have to be built to support its inhabitants for multiple generations. What about that?”

“Just as there’re interstellar exoplanets, which don’t actually orbit around a star, there could be intergalactic analogs,” Corgus responded. “If such free-ranging rouge planets really exist, the access to their objective might not actually be clear. But that is not the primary problem. You are describing an incredibly complex matrix that consists of both organic and inorganic material. We are assuming that the stasis field will prevent the life forms from succumbing to longevity issues before the teleportation process is complete. But we’ve now introduced another component into our already complex equation. The occupied compartments of your proposed city-ship would be pressurized; and without that pressure, despite the stasis field, the colonists would explode.”

“I’m surprised you haven’t already addressed that issue,” Umbrage admitted, aghast.

“We cleverly avoided the problem by having the product in the caverns vacuum-packed and then beaming the containers into the open bays of waiting cargo ships,” Corgus sounded almost humiliated to reveal. “We eliminated any possible pressure differential. In the scenario you have described, all the shortcomings of our technology are unfortunately brought to bear. Since we’ve failed in all our attempts to redress these issues, it doesn’t stand to reason that it could help you to carry out the evacuation. In fact, we have no idea how our teleportation technology could help you in your quest. But from the questions you’ve asked, it is clear that your purposes are indeed altruistic. Consequently, we shall accede to your request. We will give you what you asked for.”

The Dark Lord responded by bowing, a gesture that was very uncommon among those who had attained so infamous a title. But this aspect of his personality was altogether unknown to his oblivious benefactors. They saw him only as someone who aspired to save civilization. His other attributes were obscured by the Predator’s Prism. It was consequently with a profound sense of accomplishment that he took possession of the equipment with which he hoped to eradicate the Jedi Order. And after promising to return and update the Scree as soon as he could, he climbed back aboard the Nubian Nadir and set a course for the Core Systems of the Galactic Republic.

“I am sure you comprehended the explanation they gave us concerning the operation of this equipment,” he said to M4 as the ship made its jump into hyperspace. “But now I need for you to determine the parameters of an interface that would allow it to act in conjunction with the Crystal Matrix. Once we know what we need, we’ll have to confirm whether the components can be built on Eriadu. It will take us a considerable amount of time to reach the Hydian Way. I expect you to have an answer by then. Don’t disappoint me.”

The Dark Lord didn’t see his recent success as sufficient cause for celebration. He had only completed the first of many steps in an exceedingly complex plan, and he didn’t even know how the rest of the scheme went in its entirety. He was sure of only one thing. He could not begin his campaign of conquest until he’d eliminated the Jedi. That had to be the next step. And it was the one in which he knew he’d take particular pleasure. The self-styled defenders of democracy had become an impediment to the salvation of civilization. Prudence alone demanded their removal.

However, his encounter with the Scree had stirred up some very strange sentiments. Of the Dark Lords whose recollections comprised his uploads, Darth Maul alone had ever experienced anything like the sort of social isolation that had been thrust upon him. Being cyborgs, the Scree had reminded him of General Grievous. But they’d also reminded him that he was utterly without any actual allies. The dominion of Darth Sidious had been made possible by nothing less than a procession of apprentices. Darth Tyranus had interacted with and orchestrated the development of the Separatists. Darth Vader had taken command of the Imperial Fleet, allowing the Emperor to remain ensconced on Coruscant and consolidate his control. And at the periphery of the plan had been other important people like Jango Fett and General Grievous.

Darth Umbrage had simply been in no position to risk the kind of disclosure that could have caused the Scree to withhold their transporter technology. But it seemed unwise to include them in his scheme anyway. The only people whom Sidious had made privy to anything even close to his complete plan were his apprentices. Nonetheless, there was an inescapable requirement for collaborators in the current campaign. There was also an immediate need to start thinking many moves ahead. The lengthy journey back to the Republic proper represented the sole opportunity for such uninterrupted conceptualization in the foreseeable future. He needed to avail himself of the chance to consult the Dark Side of the Force and formulate his strategy.

He had no pool from which to pull potential apprentices, nor did he want to take time to train one. Although he could take the attitude that his subsequent clones would bear responsibility for completing the plan, there was no way to know how much time would really be required for a full evacuation. There was a conceivable shortcut, but it mandated the elimination of the Jedi Order. He could present his evidence directly to the Galactic Senate, but not without first destroying his ancestral opponents. If he simply kept his craft cloaked, he could slip through the city-shields on Coruscant alongside a commercial spaceship. He could land the Nadir atop the Senate Building and supplant the Supreme Chancellor in order to create the opportunity for his presentation. But he could not qualify his evidence or make the necessary recommendations without exposing his identity. And the moment that occurred, the Jedi would descend upon him. Although he believed he could take on their entire order, it could be counterproductive to commit such carnage in front of the delegates whose agreement he was trying to garner. He needed to eradicate his enemies beforehand.

An expansion of the Republic and its influence represented the simplest means by which he could accomplish his plan, but he had no clone army waiting in the wings. The previous emperor had benefitted from the unrivaled advantage of a decade of preparations, principally put in place by apprentices. He did not believe that he could afford to wait so long before taking control. And without the imaginative and preexisting mechanisms of his antecedent, he needed a much more immediate means for achieving his ascension. He needed to become the emperor just as swiftly as it could feasibly be arranged. This meant totally destroying the Jedi Order, impersonating the Supreme Chancellor at least long enough to assume control of the conclave, and presenting the readouts from the time-shifted probe to the people whose assistance he really required.

Being on the opposite side of the Core from most of the Republic, and the obscuring effects of the Unknown Regions, had kept the Dark Lord from learning anything about the recent events in the cooperative he now hoped to conquer. Although the Nadir had cut across those sectors of space on its way to the world of the Scree, it’d only dropped out of hyperspace both sporadically and briefly. There had been no opportunity to acquire updates from the media waves. There had barely been time for programming the transponder before the next jump. As a consequence, the contemporary exploits of the Jedi Order were unknown to him. The Force only informed him that they still existed and were somewhat scattered across the cosmos. He didn’t know that they had just moved the Jedi Temple.

With the spacecraft’s return course set, M4 and the entire team of droids were working on a way to combine the teleportation technology with the time-shifting capacity of the Crystal Matrix. Their chosen route to the Hydian Way would take them first through the region near Ansion and then not very far from Fornax. Since they had broadcast their course with the transponder, there was no reason to anticipate any trouble along the way. And Umbrage was certain the authorities were no longer looking for the stolen device. He hoped to get an update regarding the goings on of the Republic when they dropped out of hyperspace in order to contact a manufacturer. He did not even want to consider the possibility that the droids would fail. And it turned out that his faith in them was not misplaced.

“I’m pleased to report that it’ll be possible to use the teleportation technology to compensate for the spatial displacements induced by the temporal translocations,” M4 announced. “We have developed the specifications for the component that needs to be incorporated into the holocrons in order for the adjustment to be made. And after combing our databanks for manufacturers who could produce the part, we’ve substantiated our suspicion that one company on Eriadu would be the most likely.”

“Well done. After we drop out of hyperspace, send them the schematic,” he instructed. “And see if we can arrange to rendezvous with a distributor to accept delivery in some out-of-the-way location. Once we use the stolen transponder in Republic space again, there is a possibility of it popping up on a watch list again. Let’s not take any unnecessary chances. We’re way too close to gaining a critical advantage. The Jedi are relentless. If they were to somehow become aware that a craft with a stolen transponder had unexplainably avoided destruction, they might discern that it was the Nubian Nadir. I’m going to retire to my quarters. Let me know when we reach the Hydian Way.”

“Yes, Lord Umbrage,” the droid affirmed. “And I will make certain you remain undisturbed in the interim.”

As he reclined upon his cabin’s accommodation, he reflected on the fact that, unlike a flesh-and-blood apprentice, his droids couldn’t even consider killing him in his sleep. Given the history of the contributors to his Dark Lord uploads, this was reassuring to remember. It symbolized one more reason that the cloned successor approach was superior to the traditional system that had allowed the temporary elimination of the Sith Lords.

Although the vessel’s inertial dampers would have made the deceleration to sub-light speed approximately imperceptible to anyone not Force-sensitive, the Dark Lord was awakened by the maneuver. He emerged from his cabin fully refreshed and eager to absorb whatever information he could glean from the news waves. He was very aware that a lot of time had elapsed since his last update on the escapades of the Jedi. Now that he hoped to engage his ancestral opponents in the very near future, it was critical that he familiarize himself with their contemporary exploits.

He was anything but reassured to discover that the Jedi Order had abandoned its traditional lodgings on Coruscant, moved the Temple to Tatooine, and allowed their eminent Ziggurat to be converted into a commerce complex. There was great disparity in the conflicting sentiments that were being expressed by various parts of the Republic’s population. The inhabitants of the Core Worlds, particularly the Republic’s capital, felt bereft. But among the more outlying systems, the move was applauded as an outreach to all the people who’d been displaced by the Star Killer.

“How did I not know this?” he breathed aloud incredulously. Although the droids were silent at first because they thought they were perhaps about to be blamed, his question was rhetorical. As he gazed all about the bridge, however, his demeanor became much more demanding as he asked, “What would’ve induced so nontraditional a decision? And why didn’t I detect so much as an indication of this when we passed through the Republic on our way to Scrymerula? What has the Force been up to in the galaxy’s interior?”

“Most broadcasts are blocked from reaching the Unknown Regions by various cosmological phenomena and we dropped out of hyperspace only briefly as we passed through the Republic,” M4 replied, attempting an answer.

“The Force is not restrained by such limitations,” he intently argued. “The perceptions of the Force-sensitive are not stifled by traveling at light-speed. And the Core poses no impediment for the ephemeral energy field that binds the galaxy together. Something else is responsible for this interference. It will take time to receive a response from the manufacturer on Eriadu. Spend it by scanning our databanks for any reference to a vergence in the Force. An anomalous occurrence might be providing unexpected benefit for our foes. I need to know what I’m up against.”

“I’m just familiar enough with the subject matter to remind my master that Anakin Skywalker represented the prophetic embodiment of such a phenomenon,” M4 hesitantly said. “If any other historical or literary references exist in our spacecraft’s archives, we will certainly discover them. But since the Crystal Matrix might satisfy the requirements for such an anomaly, I would venture to say that their benefit cannot possibly exceed our own.”

“As I understand it,” he rejoined, “the Jedi weren’t even aware of Anakin turning to the Dark Side until Obi-Wan saw it in the security recordings. And since Emperor Palpatine was also later blindsided by the betrayal of that previous apprentice, it stands to reason that there’re obscuring effects involved in a vergence. Perhaps this would explain my inability to detect the transference of the Temple to Tatooine. But its location is rendered irrelevant by our technology. According to the Scree, the transporter beam can probably even penetrate something as formidable as a city-shield.”

An extensive search of the ship’s databanks produced only an unrevealing reference to the prophecy that Skywalker had later fulfilled. It was bereft of useful information. About the time the investigation came to a close, a response was received from the manufacturer on Eriadu. It said they would be pleased to fill the order. It stated the price and estimated the time of completion. It also said one of their distributors would be making a foray to the Spar Sector about the time that the order would be ready for shipment. It closed with a request to confirm the precise location of the transfer and a reminder that payment would be due upon delivery.

“There’s now a space station in orbit around Endor,” Umbrage informed M4. “It’s being used as a base from which to scour the system for any remnants of the second Death Star. I suppose some people will do anything for a living. Transmit our acceptance of their terms and specify the station as the location for the exchange.”

“Immediately, Lord Umbrage,” the droid replied. But then, having complied, it observed, “I’m inclined to call their quote for the components somewhat pricey. I know you cunningly convinced the Scree to give you what you wanted without ever offering them any of the precious metals we yet have in our hold. But do you now intend to simply pay a rather exorbitant price?”

“The Scree only asked for technology in exchange,” Umbrage reminded the droid. “I did not deceive them when I said I had none to spare. If they had inquired as to whether I could provide some other form of remuneration, I’d have been forced to reveal the holdings to which you have referred. But I don’t intend to offer any payment for the components in question. I intend instead to use this as an opportunity to begin my campaign against the Jedi. As you’ll recall, the Crystal Matrix gives me the ability to use the Predator’s Prism to alter my appearance. I’ll impersonate a known Jedi Master and kill the distributor in full sight of the space station’s security cameras. My lightsaber can produce emanations that match those of several of my enemies. We only need to determine the appropriate Jedi Master for the occasion, and their locations are not classified.”

“I will instruct my associates to scan the news waves for any mention of their whereabouts,” M4 resourcefully responded. “From the entries that describe his exploits, your plan parallels one that was employed by your predecessor against Jedi Master Soma Sarmosini.”

“Yes, but our feelings for her,” he started to answer, but then abruptly stopped. “His feelings for her prevented him from allowing her to actually be convicted of the crime. He deliberately left evidence that ultimately exonerated her. Although it should be possible for the Jedi to eventually prove that the individual I’ll impersonate couldn’t have been present, this incident should fan the flames of distrust that have already sprung up in the Republic’s capital. I need to create distance between the Jedi Order and the Galactic Senate. And this will be the beginning.”

“Although Eriadu is much closer to Endor than we are, it will take time for the manufacturing of the components,” the droid pointed out. “We’d have time to cruise by Coruscant if you wanted for any reason to do so.”

Looking at the display, which showed where they had intersected the Hydian Way, the Dark Lord recognized Bogden as he answered, “It is interesting that we paused to develop our plan in this location. Darth Tyranus recruited Jango Fett on one the moons of this very world. You could almost claim that the Clone Wars actually started here. But to address your suggestion, I am not in favor of making any additional jumps. If we do, we might have to replace the transponder, and that could unnecessarily delay our rendezvous with the distributor. I would prefer to arrive ahead of time and totally attune myself to the location. I feel that there might be some interference from our Force-wielding foes.”

“Do you have a preferred approach path?” M4 inquired. “Although we are set to move along the Hydian Way, it doesn’t angle toward the Moddell Sector. It might be that the Corellian Trade Spine would serve us better.”

“We’ll follow the Hydian Way as far as Cato Neimoidia and cut across to the Corellian Trade Spine from there. We will use the transponder to make sure our course is clear to the Sanctuary Pipeline. But in case our stolen transponder has shown back up on a watch list, we will abandon the Corellian shipping lane before we get that far. Since most of the Mid Rim traffic travels along the Pipeline, we should have a clear shot at the Spar Sector. We’ll plot our course through some unsettled systems to avoid the use of our transponder. I don’t want to announce our arrival. Just be certain to cloak the ship before we arrive at the end point of each jump for the duration of our journey.”

“Understood, Lord Umbrage,” M4 intoned before bowing to turn away and enter the relevant data into the navicomputer. Some of the other droids began programming the cloaking device to automatically engage upon deceleration from light-speed. Umbrage commandingly activated the hyperdrive when all was ready.

Down the Hydian Way the Nubian Nader obediently leapt. It swept right passed the heart of the unsuspecting Republic, as it rounded the corner close to Coruscant, and then crossed within scant parses of the space that’d once been occupied by Alderaan. The cloaking device engaged as the ship dropped out of hyperspace near Cato Neimoidia. And after angling in the direction of Corellia, its hyperdrive engine activated again. Before long, it was traversing the Corellian Trade Spine in the direction of the Mid Rim. This was actually the most protracted part of their journey, further in fact than even the distance from Scrymerula to Bogden. Darth Umbrage was glad he’d decided against any detours.

The ship emerged in normal space when it was still a parsec from the Sanctuary Pipeline. It oriented its scanners in the direction of Endor, and the army of droids began the sober business of plotting a hyperspace course through the interposing systems. The ship was underway before it could become an obstacle for anything coming across the Trade Spine. It slipped, transponder deactivated, through the outskirts of many backwater worlds as it clandestinely accomplished its approach to the Moddell Sector, a region of space proximate to the Spar Sector.

“Our cloak should make us undetectable to the station’s sensors even at point-blank range,” M4 commented. “But if we don’t dock, we’ll still need to somehow smuggle you onboard.”

“We might also need to make a rather prompt departure,” Umbrage playfully replied, testing his robotic apprentice. “And these two problems really require a single solution. Can you think of a way to possibly address both concerns? Be sure to include the computational capacity of your holocron as you strive for a solution.”

The droid was silent for a moment. It then put a schematic of the space station on the ship’s main display screen. After a minute or more of additional scrutiny, it began placing various types of ships around the station in different docking configurations, depicting the situations they might expect to encounter. All of a sudden, it stopped. Its mechanical voice sounded almost trancelike as it turned to its master.

“The other ships,” it incredulously intoned.

“Explain,” the Dark Lord pressed.

“There will doubtlessly be other ships docked at the station,” M4 dutifully replied. “Some will be there for maintenance. They’ll be almost completely unmanned. And their crews will have left their airlocks unsecured for easy access by maintenance personnel. We only need to locate one that has an exposed airlock with which our cloaked umbilical can couple. You’d simply stroll into the station as if you were one of the spacecraft’s crew. The Force would tell you when you could do this without being seen by anybody who would know differently.”

“Well done,” Umbrage answered, grinning broadly. “You should also be able to gain access the station’s central computer, so you can identify a vessel that’s not due to depart until after our exchange has taken place. The Nadir can then just remain attached to a single ship while I’m on the station. It’ll simplify things if I can leave the same way I arrived.”

After a series of jumps, the Nadir eventually arrived in the Moddell Sector. He instructed his crew to prepare for final approach to the station. And as they closed on their objective, it quickly became clear that there were numerous ships docked around its rings. Comprehensive scans of the visiting vessels revealed that several of the more sizable ships had airlocks oriented in ways that would allow an umbilical coupling. Since the scheduling of maintenance hardly constituted a security risk, it was easy for the droids to gain remote access to those records. And soon, they’d selected a freighter, which had recently arrived, as their target. It wasn’t scheduled to leave until after the distributor had delivered the custom components to their master. With a menacing nod, he immediately approved their plan. Like an orange rock worrt preparing to implant its eggs in a pitiable recipient, the Nadir pulled invisibly alongside the cavernous cargo ship and readied itself to release an equally fatal infestation.

“Watch for the Falcon and the Forthright. I believe you’ll see them both before this business is completed,” the Dark Lord commanded. “And keep in constant communication with me. I may have additional instructions for you while you await my return.”

The news waves had revealed that Awswi was one of the few Jedi Masters who’d remained in the outskirts of the cosmos. Most of the others seemed to have been summoned to a meeting at the Temple on Tatooine. After availing himself of some of the precious metals that were yet in the Nadir’s hold, Darth Umbrage used the Predator’s Prism to morph into an imitation of the Jedi Master. Then, he made his way across the umbilical conduit, which had been extended between the two airlocks, and entered the cargo ship.

Using the Force he confirmed that the sprawling spacecraft, as the Nubian Nadir’s scanners had initially reported, was still empty. Its crew, as he was also able to perceive, was enjoying the entertainment on the space station’s promenade. He waited until he could sense the absence of anyone to observe his exit, and then he casually strolled onto the space station proper. A few of the local merchants took notice of him as he rounded the circuitous corridor, but they seemed to be mostly reassured by the suggestion of security that he symbolized. The Jedi were protectors.

There were numerous nods of apparent appreciation from many of the space station’s other occupants as he accomplished his inspection. After satisfactorily familiarizing himself with all the alcoves and nuances of the facility, he retired to one of the saloons in the space station’s center and waited for the signal that would indicate the distributor’s arrival. He even got free drinks.

Because he’d assumed the identity of a Jedi Master, no one thought to question the means by which he’d arrived on the station. The Jedi were renowned for mysteriously showing up in the most unexpected places. Since there’d been only a passing reference to the actual Awswi in the news waves, and it was assumed that he was assisting with the relocation of refugees to Hypori in the Ferra Sector, there seemed little chance of anybody seeing his presence on the station as an inconsistency. As a result, he was shown only respect while not being subjected to unwanted questions. His disguise was almost advantageous beyond belief. Because he had cleverly come equipped with precious metals for the providing of payment, he was also able to secure quarters without presenting any actual credentials. While waiting there, he received the anticipated signal from the distributor and arranged for the exchange to take place at a restaurant that was located along the inner side of the station’s central ring. Although the Nadir was coupled to a vessel that was docked to one of the outer rings, this was a much more public place in which to execute the exchange and subsequent killing.

While Umbrage was waiting in the restaurant for the distributor, whom he knew had already docked; M4 sent a signal, saying, “We just monitored the Falcon and Forthright docking at births on the central ring. It appears as if the distributor was being shadowed. What are your orders?”

“Hold your position but minimize the power emanations from the Crystal Matrix,” he furtively whispered into the concealed com-link. “I’ll join you shortly.”

With component-laden briefcase in hand, the distributor sauntered into the restaurant. Darth Umbrage motioned to him. The man seemed more than somewhat surprised to discover that his client was a member of the Jedi Order. But understanding that anonymity was perhaps the most important service he could offer his customers, he immediately dismissed the eminent identity of the purchaser. There was nothing but professional deportment in his step as he strolled towards the booth where the buyer was waiting. But his poise immediately evaporated as the cinnamon-skinned individual stood and a lightsaber leapt into the ominously outstretched hand.

Under normal circumstances, the passage of the plasma emanation cauterizes a cut that is inflicted by a lightsaber. Even when it imposes dismemberment, arterial spray will seldom result. But as the upward swing of the crimson blade clove the man completely in half, it created a very visual geyser of gore. The contents of his skull erupted and were sprayed upon the ceiling under which he had been standing. As the restaurant’s panicked patrons retreated in nauseated terror, the Dark Lord levitated the briefcase into his grasp, before it had even hit the floor, and casually walked out.

As he stepped out onto the promenade, he immediately encountered Xan and Priella. They were just perplexed enough by his appearance that he was able to unleash a Force-push at the pair before they could act against him. The name of the Jedi Master, whose form he’d assumed, was on their lips as they were hurled into the wall behind them. He’d have availed himself of the opportunity to dispatch them both. But he could sense that the Gallantry was now on the station, and he didn’t want to put the Predator’s Prism at risk. There was no need. If his plan succeeded, he could destroy the Jedi without any additional encounter. Sensing which elevator was located on the respective level below, he used the Force to open the doors to the otherwise empty shaft and hurl himself up to the level of the vessel with which the Nadir was invisibly coupled. He was back aboard his cloaked spacecraft before any interference could occur.

As they uncoupled and pulled away, M4 said, “The space station has raised its shields. But we might still be able to destroy the Falcon and the Forthright. Should I target them, my lord?”

“It’s not the ships that I want to destroy,” he replied. “It’s the people they carry. And they are all on the station right now. It has other defensive systems. And we would have to give away our position in order to open fire. Our cloak steals some of its power from the ship’s shields. The risk outweighs the reward. We have what we came for. We need to get started upgrading holocrons. That will provide the most immediate means for eliminating our enemies. There will be nowhere for them to hide. And after I’ve saved it, the inhabitants of our galaxy will be glad to forget them.”

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