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

A Stitch in Space-Tme

As the Millennium Falcon dropped out of hyperspace at the edge of the Moddell Sector and reacquired the distributor’s ship on its long-range scanners, Jedi Master Xan said, “When we left the Spar Sector, I was almost expecting our quarry to head for the Sanctuary Moon. I’m not sure why a Dark Lord would’ve insisted on an exchange in a place as public as a space station. But it certainly looks like that’s where we’re headed. I have a very bad feeling about this.”

“Since we’re speaking of sensations,” Jedi Master Priella replied, redirecting the topic of the conversation, “maybe I should ask if we’re all in agreement about having found that reflection for which we’ve been seeking.”

She looked most immediately to Zayana, who answered, “Yes, but it’s diffuse. It’s not just in one place. It somehow seems to be both inside and outside the station.”

Spinning to Cyrella, Priella carefully inquired, “Would you agree that the reflection inside the station indicates the Dark Lord’s location? And if so, precisely where in the station do you sense him to be?”

“In the centermost section, very close to its core,” she concisely responded. “But if the more ephemeral reflection is from his ship, do we not have an unprecedented opportunity to eradicate his cloaked spacecraft while he has disembarked?”

“His ship is probably manned by droids,” Xan rejoined. “If we delay our arrival by attempting to engage an enemy we cannot see, the Dark Lord might take hostages in order to negotiate his unimpeded passage out of the sector. We need to descend upon him suddenly, and with as little forewarning as possible. That is the surest course to success. He might not be able to adapt his plan if we don’t give him any time.”

“It stands to reason that the best way to fight somebody with time-travel technology is not to give them any time,” Zayana heedlessly summarized, for which she received disapproving looks from both Jedi Masters.

“Once we dock, we’ll need the two of you to stand guard just inside the docking ring,” Priella instructed, addressing the pair of Jedi Knights. “If we fail to eliminate the Dark Lord but keep him from falling back to his ship, the Grand Master’s spouse could become a target of opportunity. In that eventuality it would be best for our enemy to find his improvised objective defended. I doubt if he would even attempt to get past the Gallantry. Since his lightsaber is certainly the source of the reflection, it must contain a shard of the One Crystal. He won’t risk its destruction.”

“He is doubtlessly aware that his weapon incorporates such a shortcoming,” Cyrella said as the Falcon moved into final approach for docking. “Why would he integrate a crystal that caused such a concern?”

“It must provide a tactical advantage that offsets the deficiency,” Xan suggested. “Perhaps it increases the cloaking capacity of his ship, making him somehow difficult to identify. It will fall to us to overcome whatever advantage it imparts to its evil master. Your concern is solely for the safety of this ship.”

Cyrella and Zayana bowed in acknowledgment of their mandate, and then they followed the Jedi Masters through the airlock. Having been privy to the preceding conversation, General Solo and Chewbacca remained aboard and busied themselves with preparations for the return trip. In a matter of moments, using Force-induced speed, Xan and Priella disappeared down the curved corridor and left the newly promoted Knights to safeguard the Falcon. Zayana was then abruptly taken aback by the unexpected ignition of Cyrella’s lightsaber.

“What are you doing?” she pensively asked, as her friend swept the weapon back and forth like some type of radiation detector.

“Whatever remains of the One Crystal is attached to this station,” she responded, fighting to keep the frustration out of her voice. “If we hadn’t been told to stay here, I’d find and destroy it.”

“I understand your sentiment. But you could get a reputation if anyone heard you talking like that,” Zayana softly said. “After they eliminate the Dark Lord, I’m certain the One Crystal and his ship will be next.”

“I’d have done it the other way around,” Cyrella mulishly maintained, refusing to be pacified. “We have no idea what benefits his lightsaber gives him, but they’d all be negated by eliminating the One Crystal. Our only understanding of teleportation comes from myth. What if the microbial limitations no longer exist? What if his droids could just use time-shifting technology to bring him back?”

“What if we do a total role-reversal and I insist that we just do what our Masters instructed?” Zayana playfully asked in reply. This finally produced the desired result. Both women erupted in laughter but, given the severity of the situation, the focus of their thoughts never strayed far from the two mentors to whom she had just referred.

Jedi Masters Xan and Priella raced to the place from which the shard’s reflection seemed to emanate. But as they quickly closed on the location, also sensing some sort of disturbance from within the associated establishment, Jedi Master Awswi seemed to emerge from the eatery. The confusion this caused allowed Umbrage to unleash a preemptive Force-push which momentarily debilitated his enemies. By the time they could recover, he’d already launched himself up one of the nearby elevator shafts. Even though they tracked his course through the freighter, they were unable to reach the airlock before the umbilicus uncoupled and the Nadir angled invisibly away.

After falling back to the Falcon, it was Priella in particular who took note of Cyrella’s peculiar countenance. But the Jedi Master decided to wait until they were underway on their return trip to Tatooine before making any inquiry.

“It occurs to me to wonder if the Dark Lord was perhaps predestined to escape,” she said in reply. “After all, it was the components that led us to this location. But if we prevented them from being purchased in the first place, how could that have happened? Would that not constitute the dreaded temporal paradox?”

“That’s a difficult question,” Priella prefaced her answer by admitting. “As I understand it, we consider the recovered components as having originated in an alternate universe. Those he just took have yet to be sent back in time. They’re not actually the same. The ones you brought back from Coruscant are older, if only marginally. It is perhaps that margin that allows them to exist at the same time in one universe.”

Shortly after concluding this conversation, Xan and Priella made use of something only they would probably have considered as an accommodation. They retired to the control chairs for the Falcon’s pair of turbo lasers and used them to get some sleep. It was a foregone conclusion that the Jedi Council would be called into session immediately upon their return. There was a lot that needed discussion. They wanted to be sure they were well-rested for the occasion. Zayana and Cyrella spread out in the passenger section as well as they could and then quietly continued the discourse.

“Master Priella’s response was inspired if perhaps still somewhat inadequate,” Cyrella softly said. “I remain apprehensive about the possibility that we could’ve caused a temporal paradox.”

“Can’t you articulate your concern a little more demonstratively?” Zayana teasingly asked in reply, rolling over to face her friend.

“Can we safely assume that the continuity of the continuum can’t be compromised?” Cyrella intently asked. “Isn’t it possible instead that the fabric of space-time could’ve begun unraveling if we’d stopped the components from changing hands?”

“I’m glad we didn’t find out,” Zayana answered. But then, being easily perceptive enough to sense that her friend hadn’t fully revealed the source of her concern, she very carefully inquired, “Something else is bothering you though, isn’t it?”

“Even if universe-ending consequences did not ensue from the paradox,” Cyrella reluctantly rejoined, “isn’t it possible that, by orchestrating such a temporal impossibility, we would be guilty of testing the limits of the Force?”

“Same answer as before,” Zayana replied with a disturbed sigh. “See if you can go to sleep. You’re starting to scare me.”

The remainder of the trip back to Tatooine was mostly unremarkable. As the commander of the spacecraft that conveyed the strike team, General Solo had taken it upon himself to dispatch a subspace signal to the Jedi Temple and relay the results of their ineffective assignment before they made their jump to hyperspace and left the Moddell Sector. Consequently, the Jedi Council was already waiting to convene a special session by the time the Millennium Falcon descended through the Temple’s shield and landed on one of its upper pads. Disembarkation was somberly accomplished.

“As I am sure you know, Jedi Master Awswi was on a ship that was transporting refugees to the Ferra Sector at the time of the slaying on the space station,” Grand Master Solo soberly said after calling the Council into session. “The captain and crew of that passenger ship have already provided evidence of Awswi’s occupancy to Commissioner Eisley. But coming as this has on the heels of the incident at the Temple Ziggurat; there are people in the Republic who are becoming increasingly distrustful of our Order. And that was most certainly the objective of the Dark Lord’s trap.”

“How can we counter the iniquitous reputation that our adversary has such skill at ascribing to us?” Jedi Master Julither inquired.

“My concern is not for the damage he has already done,” Leia frankly confessed. “I perceive that he will make a move against the Galactic Senate. We now need to reestablish some type of presence on the planet we so recently vacated. My thought is to send Masters Xan and Priella.”

“We should certainly prevent any attempt at usurpation,” Priella guardedly agreed. “But isn’t there anymore effectual an approach to this problem that could be undertaken by the rest of the Council?”

“There most assuredly is,” Leia instantly agreed. “Since the legend regarding the Scree and their teleportation technology has now been verified, we must endeavor to discover them. Let us hope they have not allied themselves with this new Dark Lord. Perhaps he simply purchased the equipment outright and no other relationship is implied. But if there’s any way to detect its usage at a distance, they are the ones who would know. They would also know whether it’s possible to shield something in a way that would prevent penetration by the transporter beam. Although we appear to be beyond its reach here in our new Temple, it can hardly be the only target receiving his consideration. We need to find a way to extend our advantage to other possible objectives.”

“If they directly interacted with him,” Xan suggested, “then they might understand something of his agenda and his identity. We still don’t even know what this Dark Lord calls himself.”

“Given the altruistic aid, which the Scree extended to the crew of the cargo ship,” the Grand Master rejoined, “I’m finding it difficult to comprehend why they would so enable an agent of evil. Either they were tricked into relinquishing some of their technology, or part of his plan appeared to be philanthropic enough to earn their assistance. But if you and Priella are going to safeguard the Galactic Senate on Coruscant, who should be sent on this diplomatic mission?”

“I believe it was wise to exclude padawans from the strike team,” Julither prefaced her reply by observing. “It would however help to facilitate the keeping of shifts on Coruscant if Priella and Xan had their padawans with them. One Jedi Master could always be on duty. When it comes to a diplomatic mission, it might seem sensible to send the head of our Order as at least part of the representation. I would very strongly advise against this. Any plan concerning the Republic must include some scheme regarding the Grand Master. In fact, the nameless Dark Lord may actually be expecting such an exposure. I’d be glad to lead the delegation in your stead. Someone might suggest the presence of Senators in the envoy, or even the Supreme Chancellor himself, but it’s altogether possible that we will be heading into a trap. Our reputation is already being called into question. If any representative of the Senate were now killed in our company, the debacle would be devastating in the extreme. I’d therefore respectfully recommend that I am accompanied only by other Masters and perhaps Knights. But our padawans should be preserved for the future.”

“I know some Jedi Knights whom I believe would be most pleased by the addendum to your recommendation,” Grand Master Solo suggested. “But the greater part of our graduates must be reserved for unforeseen assignments. You may take only two, along with as many Jedi Masters. Our delegation should be sizable enough to demonstrate respect, and for defense if it should be discovered that the Scree are really in league with the Dark Lord. But there are cultures where it could be interpreted as impolite to show up in numbers that imposed upon the hospitality of your hosts. The success of this diplomatic mission is paramount. However, I am completely confident that I can trust you to do only as the Force directs.”

Once the Council concluded its session, Julither and Leia sought out Cyrella. And as they’d expected, she was found in the company of Zayana. This worked well since Julither intended to extend the invitation for both Jedi Knights to accompany her entourage. But surprisingly, Cyrella seemed almost hesitant to accept the assignment.

When pressed for a reason, she reluctantly replied, “Perhaps a diplomatic mission is not the most beneficial use of my abilities. Had I not been ordered to stay and guard the Falcon, I would have used the Gallantry to find and destroy the One Crystal in its current incarnation. I’m certain it was onboard the Dark Lord’s ship. Wouldn’t it be wise to reserve me instead for the next such skirmish?”

“If the strike team had done differently,” Leia carefully countered, “I have no doubts that the outcome might also have been otherwise. But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have been worse. It pains me to remind you of so personal a loss; but Fazif was killed by a Dark Lord’s droid, not by the Dark Lord himself. It’s because of you that we know about the holocrons this new adversary is incorporating into his mechanized minions. In fact, according to Commissioner Eisley, you left instructions that only Jedi Masters should be sent in to deal with them if you fell. As for forcing a confrontation, I can’t think of a single time in recent history that such a tactic worked out well for the Jedi Master involved. Even for a Grand Master, it can be a perilous approach. It’s proven far more effective to use the Force to foresee our enemy’s moves and then position our appropriate assets at those anticipated junctions. Maybe I should remind you that this Dark Lord might need to conduct further commerce with the Scree. If he should choose for whatever reason to double-back, and consequently encounter our delegation, I would prefer for you and the Gallantry to be on hand. On further reflection, I think you’ll conclude that our seemingly disparate discernments in this matter are the same.”

“I have been foolish, Grand Master,” Cyrella repentantly rejoined.

“I wouldn’t say you were foolish. You were understandably intent on alleviating our peril just as expeditiously as possible,” Leia consolingly answered. “But we must always employ as much patience as any situation allows. This truth is by no means mitigated because the circumstances are unwelcome. The more time we spend in meditation, focusing on the Force, the less likely we are to have no recourse but to reach for a lightsaber. A padawan learner might react rashly. Jedi Knights can never allow themselves to do so, nor should they allow themselves to feel regret for following the instructions of their Masters. That burden is mine alone to bear if I lead the Council astray or its course becomes errant and I should foolishly fail to correct it. You are innocent in all of this. Revel in that realization.”

“Since the Forthright will have to duplicate the course of the heretofore mythical cargo ship,” Julither jovially observed, “there should be ample time for you to rest before we embark.”

Turning to the Jedi Master, Leia asked, “Have you chosen the rest of your delegation? I am particularly interested in learning whether anyone else from the Council will be remaining behind with me.”

“We have no description of the Scree. They could be exotic in the extreme,” Master Julither replied. “We could send the wrong signal if we show up with nothing but bipeds. And it would be a misrepresentation of the populace of many planets in the Republic. Since Gwonameeth is also a telepath, such would be my selection anyway. The infamy recently endured by Awswi wouldn’t be known to the Scree, and it might be best not to send him on local assignments for awhile.”

“I suppose it’s very fortunate then that I have Jedi Knights to send on local assignments and the Falcon to get them there,” Leia laughingly replied, “since you plan to deplete my compliment of Jedi Masters entirely. And may the Force go with you, as well.”

As she turned away, the Grand Master suddenly had the distinct sensation that she was not alone. Although the others had taken their leave, something remained. And her Jedi perceptions allowed her to discern the phantasmal figure that floated further down her selected corridor. She wasn’t sure how to interpret the interruption since she seldom had any dealings with the Council of Transformed Masters anymore. Seeing Soma ensconced among its revered assemblage had seemed like a kind of contradiction. And it was with a feeling of foreboding that Leia realized she was facing the fallen Jedi Master without any of that other Council in accompaniment.

“What brings you to our new Temple?” she courteously inquired. But then, being somewhat bothered by the disturbing distraction, she more confrontationally continued, “Don’t you have an afterlife to get on with?”

“I’ve discovered that I’m unable to move on,” Soma’s voice echoed eerily as she answered.

“I don’t see how I can help you with that,” Leia replied with sincere remorse. “I would pardon you for your betrayal if it had come with cost. But yours was the only life that was lost as a result of your treason. There are some who miss you very much, and I’m among them. There’s no one here who harbors any ill will toward you. I don’t understand your situation.”

“I’m not here to acquire your aid, although I’m grateful that you would give it,” Soma replied. “I know how Grand Master Yoda always stressed the importance of letting go. But perhaps even he never suspected how important that becomes when confronting the netherworld of the Force. When you hold onto things too tightly, sometimes they can adhere to you as well. It’s particularly true if influence over the Dark Side was in any way wielded. Sith Lords become enmeshed in an ephemeral layer of the Force that doesn’t just bind the galaxy together, but even spans the very universe. It appears as if they are purged from their cosmic incarceration when the continuum in that associated sector of space is disrupted by something like a stellar explosion.”

“The continuum in the Kaminoan system had already been disrupted,” Leia observed. “Am I to understand that the destruction of the secret cloning facility didn’t afford your release? And do you mean to imply such imprisonment for the other deceased Dark Lords?”

“Perhaps if the sector of space hadn’t already been compromised, I wouldn’t be in this sorry state,” Soma suggested. “Darth Maul is the only Dark Lord in recent history who met his demise while on a planet. As I am sure you know, some of the inhabitants of Naboo claim that his ghost still haunts the lower halls of the palace where he fell. All the others died in space. Darth Sidious might’ve been released into the multi-verse by the destruction of the Death Star. Darth Chrysalis almost certainly reaped that benefit when your brother destroyed the Hoth system. I fear that the soul of Lamis is probably trapped somewhere in the Unknown Regions. When I warned him that his quest for immortality would probably delay his development as an individual, I’d no idea how accurate I really was. His purgatory could persist for many millions of years.”

“Darth Tyranus died in space, and we all know about Darth Vader’s redemption,” the Grand Master summarized. “But the need for this discussion eludes me. Why are you here? Is there an important insight you’ve come to convey? If so, then I’ve yet to discern it.”

Unperturbed by Leia’s impatience, Soma responded, “While helplessly plummeting towards the surface of a planet, a person can often estimate both the moment and the point of impact. In like manner, I am able to apprehend the approach of my deliverance. It is a terrible thing; too far in the future for me, but maybe uncomfortably close for you.”

“Why would you call terrible the thing for which you are waiting?” Leia anxiously asked.

“I’m still trying to make sense of what I see,” the phantasmal female answered. “But there is a cataclysm coming. It is this catastrophe that will set me free. No longer can the Order concern itself only with the goings on in the galaxy. Learn to look outward or you will fear the future. Your proximity to the place where I perished is the only reason I was able to appear to you again. My sphere of influence shrinks. I may not be able to share additional insights. Farewell, my master.”

It felt strange to have Soma address her in this way once again. And the Grand Master was almost as surprised by the term of endearment as she was by the specter’s unexpectedly abrupt departure. Unlike Anakin, Soma’s repentance had not preceded her death. Leia was left to sadly surmise that her friend’s facility for navigating the netherworld of the Force had been forfeited by this failure, and the fallen Jedi Master would now have to wait almost an eternity before she’d be admitted into the multi-verse. The personal expense for her mistake was nearly as unimaginable as the meaning of the insight she had attempted to impart. Leia wondered if it would be possible to obtain further clarification from another of the Transformed Masters. As if they were somehow responding to her unasked question, the apparitions of Obi-Wan and Anakin almost immediately manifested before her.

“Were you aware of the counsel I just received from Soma?” she quickly inquired. But then, before either could answer, she continued, “Can you identify the future catastrophe to which she referred?”

“Master Yoda told me to be mindful of the future,” Obi-Wan seemed to pause before warmly responding. “But my master admonished me by telling me that I should not do so at the expense of the moment but be mindful instead of the Living Force.”

Before Leia could comment on his curious comeback, Anakin inexplicably added, “Although the Force often shows us things that are meant to be, our own emotions can slightly distort what we receive. When I was a boy, I had a dream that I became a Jedi and returned to Tatooine and freed the slaves. There are now no slaves on Tatooine, but not because I freed them myself, not directly. After I sacrificed myself to save my son, he advised the evacuation. Of necessity, many of the refugees fled to the Republic. Slavery is illegal there. So, not only are there no longer any slaves on this planet, but many of their owners had to set them free to save themselves. I never envisioned the achievement of the end result occurring in such a way.”

“When my master promised Anakin that he would be trained as a Jedi, I am certain it never occurred to him that somebody else would complete that training,” Obi-Wan took the opportunity to interject as Leia struggled to respond to their mystifyingly unified front. They seemed intent on imparting a perception that was difficult for her to quantify.

“Then I should focus on the Living Force and accept that somebody else might have to deal with the coming calamity which Soma intimated?” she carefully inquired.

“There’s a danger involved in delving too far into the future,” Obi-Wan answered. “We might attempt to insert ourselves into a situation where we really don’t belong.”

“Consider how incredibly counterproductive it was for Luke to leave his training and face me at Cloud City,” Anakin offered, appreciating the emotional impact that would result from such an unwelcome reminder. “You must do what you know to be right in the moment, not what you feel might be right in the future.”

“When considering whether the ends truly justify the means, it is the morals of those means that must be the most immediately contemplated,” Obi-Wan succinctly summarized.

“Thank you, my masters,” Leia replied, bowing. “I will remember to consider your counsel in the difficulties I now face.”

In response, their phantasmal images dissolved just as swiftly as they'd appeared. And Leia was left to reflect on their odd discourse. Her eyes were captured by the specter of the system's twin suns as they set. Despite the torrid heat that mercilessly reigned over the desert landscape during the day, she knew the outside temperature would soon plummet. Already the languishing light looked cold as it spilled across the temple's massive stone tiles. It seemed strange to her to think that light could appear cold. It made about as much sense as there somehow being a Dark Side to the Force.

By using every fragment of information they could access through the Archives with regards to the original trip of the commercial cargo ship, Admiral Ackbar's team had finally calculated the flight plan for the Forthright by the following morning. The trio of Jedi Masters, who'd be aboard, had used the Force to certify the correctness of the course. The starship was ready and waiting.

"Because of the protracted amount of time that's elapsed and the relative movements of the astronomical objects involved, for some of which we only have estimates, it took a lot of number crunching to come up with a course that really seemed safe," Ackbar explained. "However, I am satisfied with the result. And your Jedi team agrees. We can depart at your discretion."

"Eisley has also responded to my subspace communication," the Grand Master rejoined. "It seems the invasion of the business complex had the effect of softening some sentiments toward our return. Some members of the Galactic Senate are now actually clamoring for us to provide a defensive presence. The commissioner suspects, and the Force agrees, that they're responding to demands from the Commerce Guild. Some of the most affluent entrepreneurs in the Republic suffered serious financial setbacks as an effect of the robotic occupation. Now, they are hedging their bets. The Falcon will be leaving with Xan and Priella very shortly. I've no real idea which of the two missions is truly the more important."

"Since this new enemy is sure to show up at one of these two destinations, you've certainly covered the contingencies," the admiral reassuringly said. "As a military strategist, I would have to say that your solution is completely comprehensive. I don't see how this new Dark Lord could even hope to do an end-run around the perimeters of your plan. The Force is clearly with you."

"And may it be with you as well, dear friend, as you journey into a region of space where no Jedi has ever ventured before," she replied, bowing.

As she turned from the consultation, she faced the person whose presence she had already been sensing for several moments. Dari Jenay stood before her. The young woman seemed as perceptibly pensive as she was also demonstratively determined. Leia had foreseen the request that was about to be made, and she had also decided on the response that needed to be given.

"Grand Master," the padawan said with a bow. "Unlike the other candidates for knighthood, it's my master's judgment that I am as yet unready to undergo the testing. Is it therefore wise for me to be parted from her for an unknown duration? With no other Jedi Masters remaining at the temple, the continuation of my training will fall to you. While I'd certainly be honored to be under your tutelage in the interim, it occurs to me to wonder if that obligation wouldn't possibly distract you from other more pressing responsibilities. I consequently and very respectfully request that I be allowed to accompany my master on her mission."

"Perhaps if Soma hadn't found so many opportunities to be parted from you, her obligations to us would've held greater sway over her decisions," Leia answered, choosing to speak directly of the loss they had both suffered. "'I'll not allow myself to be responsible for inflicting any further distance between you and the master upon whose direction you rely. Your request is granted."

Julither had been approaching the pair and was within earshot as Grand Master Solo stated her decision. She silently nodded as Leia completed her proclamation. She looked then to Dari.

"We'll be leaving within the hour," she said to her padawan. "Gather just the belongings you believe you'll truly need, and then report to the Forthright. I will join you once I've taken my leave of our enlightened leader."

As Dari sashayed lightly away, with a new spring in her usually dispirited step, Julither said, "If the Dark Lord doesn't return to the Unknown Regions while we're there and also isn't ready to make a move against the Galactic Senate, the Force informs me that his design will be primarily against you. He may try to draw you out. I would therefore urge you to remain in our fortress. He cannot reach you here, not if we understand the limitations of his technology. And I don't believe anyone could take him on alone. No matter what impetus he provides, please await our return before making any further move."

"Short of a confirmed summons to come before the Galactic Senate, I'll keep your counsel," Leia affirmed. "Seeing how unassailable we are here, our enemy will almost certainly attempt to maneuver us into making some sort of misstep. It is therefore essential that we use the Force to certify every move before we make it. If we are out-thought, we are out-fought. Remember this."

"I will, Grand Master," Julither agreed as Awswi and Gwonameeth moved to stand on either side of her. The trio bowed. Leia responded in kind. And the Jedi Masters then took their leave.

Word of Eisley's message had reached Leia earlier, as she and her husband were finishing breakfast. Han had immediately headed to the hanger to ready the Falcon for flight. Escorted by Xan, Priella, and their padawans; he determinedly strode up to her shortly after the departure of the trio of Jedi Masters.

"We've finished the preflight. We can leave anytime. However I'm not particularly anxious to be abandoning you, since that's what it feels like," he amiably admitted. "I am sure you'll be safe here, more so in fact than you would be anywhere else if I understand correctly. But I really don't like leaving you when there's some renegade Dark Lord on the loose."

"It's your own fault for having the fastest ship in the fleet," she tenderly teased. "Of course it also means you'll come back to me quickly."

As Han nodded in sanguine agreement, Xan said, "I understand why we're going but I must admit that I am not optimistic about our mission. Our adversary can apparently impersonate any person he selects. He could eliminate one of the representatives and assume their identity. Until he makes a motion that seems completely out of place, we might not even know he was there. It would also complicate our ability to act against him. It'd look like we were attacking a delegate."

"That's why I'm sending all that now remains of the Jungle Jedi," she countered with intense conviction. "The two of you have repeatedly demonstrated superior discernment. It might be that you will be able to sense our adversary in a way that others would not. Even Gwonameeth didn't detect the Dark Side in Lamis. Had it not been for your lack of interaction with him, perhaps one of you could've seen through his disarming demeanor at least enough to suspect that something was seriously amiss. Avail yourselves of the Living Force and I doubt you'll be disappointed."

Xan and Priella both bowed as Leia finished her summation. And their respective padawans duplicated the gesture. Xan's older apprentice was also in attendance. Although he hadn't been able to pass the trials, the continuation of his training required him to be included in their embassy to Coruscant. Rostla-Kon Romeni was enthusiastic about the opportunity. The young padawans were also along for the ride. Jenassee Secura, the great-niece of the fabled Rutian Twi'lek Jedi Master, was the apprentice of Priella. And Kodi-San Camorra was the young male padawan of Xan. Both adolescents were very obviously excited about their chance to see the capital of the Republic.

Leaving Avalynn Vosh, now a Jedi Knight, to watch over the younglings, Grand Master Solo accompanied the group as they made their way up to the hanger bay. The landing pad on top of the temple would barely accommodate the immensity of the Forthright. But the Falcon was able to fit into the confines of the compartment below it. After its intended occupants had stored their gear aboard, they ascended to the landing pad to bid farewell to the Forthright. Despite just how propitious the occasion really was, everybody seemed very businesslike as they embarked. And once the dreadnaught had cleared the landing, the well-wishers returned to the lower bay where Leia ultimately bid them goodbye. She then watched until the Millennium Falcon had completely disappeared into the dusky desert sky. She was reassured to note that her facility with the Force provided her with no reason for remorse. She had no misgivings about either mission.

As the Forthright hurtled through hyperspace on the way to its intersection with the Galactic Core, the passengers had an opportunity to relax. Since it simply wasn't possible to predict how the Scree would receive their envoy, the Jedi Masters knew that the best method of preparation involved making sure the members portrayed a unified front. The assorted personalities needed to become a homogenous mixture with each individual demonstrating an identical determination to establish a tactful relationship. More so than ever before, they needed to establish a sense of society among themselves. If their legation were to succeed, they needed to act as one person. They needed the synergy of solidarity.

Understanding that it was not simply a matter of getting everybody to talk to each other, but more a matter of getting them to truly open up to one another, Julither turned to Dari and said, "I was impressed by the way you spoke to the Grand Master. You seemed determined to continue your training without interruption. Was it really that, or were you maybe just desperate to get out of the temple for awhile?"

This type of teasing was of course common between the padawan and her Jedi Master, just as it was in most other relationships of that sort. Dari could've fashioned a comical comeback or elected to merely acknowledge the compliment. But she knew her mentor well enough to realize that Julither was trying to evoke a more profound exposition of the sentiments that had impelled her decision.

After eyeing her instructor for a moment, Dari glanced at Cyrella before responding, "Maybe it's not possible for just anyone to understand. Perhaps this would only make sense to someone who lost their Jedi Master because of a devotee of the Dark Side. But those few of us who were required to endure the experience know that we were inducted into this drama in an inextricable way. Our destinies have become inseparably entangled with the resolution of the imbalance that resulted from the loss. And my situation is exceptional."

"How so?" Julither pressed.

"My master wasn't killed outright. She didn't die defending the temple or trying to apprehend the perpetrator after he had committed so many murders," the padawan explained. "While it was arguably misguided, she died as a direct result of her altruistic attempt to give Lamis a reason to reform. She obviously hoped that fatherhood would provide the impetus for him to finally adopt a life of peace. And it clearly did not work out for her nearly as well as it did for Grand Master Luke Skywalker. I'm not sure what part I am to play. I rather doubt if I'll be called upon to design some special lightsaber that ends up making a decisive difference. But my desires don't actually come into the equation; neither for revenge, nor even for justice. I just know that I have to be here."

This was actually more of an admission than the Jedi Master had anticipated, and it caused her to consider the possibility that she had seriously underestimated Soma's previous padawan. In the interest of proceeding cautiously, she had authored an evaluation that postponed the Jedi trials for Dari. Given that half a dozen other candidates were set for advancement to knighthood, she saw no harm in holding Dari back until she could be more certain of the young lady's status. But aside from elevating Julither's opinion of her padawan's development, Dari's declaration had clearly broken the ice. Her empathic superiors were instantly supportive. And it was not possible for them to be sympathetic without also opening up.

"After we lost Masters Mardra and Mox, I know it seemed to Fazif and me as if we were on an intractable course," Cyrella very consolingly said. "Considering the hours of research we put into the project, it probably sounds nonsensical to say. But it really was as if the decision to build the Gallantry and the Guarantor was somehow made for us. In retrospect I now know it was the will of the Force. Perhaps your path has also been ordained in this wondrous way."

"If I have understood correctly, then your situation involved a vergence," Dari replied. "The phenomenon that formed between you and Fazif does not exist in my case. Maybe that is why I have no sense of a specific thing that I am intended to accomplish. I only know that with regards to this mission my presence is a prerequisite. But when it comes to lightsaber construction, if it's permissible for me to be so bold, I'd like to ask Master Awswi why he is the only Jedi I know with a red-bladed saber."

"Why does everyone always call it red?" Awswi impishly asked in reply. "I call it the Crimson Equalizer for a reason. I was trained by one of the Lost Twenty. And I guess I was a little bit of a late bloomer. By the time my master finally deemed me ready to build my lightsaber, the Empire had already been established. And so, the world from which the required crystal would normally come was being watched. My master's discernment showed him the danger. My only real option was to create a synthetic crystal, which is what the Sith do. My saber was of necessity patterned on theirs. But I'm hardly the only Jedi whose lightsaber uses a synthetic crystal."

"I am of course aware of my master's Adjudicator," Dari rejoined. "I have no idea whether or not access to natural crystals was blocked at the time. But I do know that it was deliberately built to interrupt force fields."

"Are you comparing me to your master?" Awswi disarmingly smiled as he quizzically asked, thinking to catch the padawan unprepared.

"The uniqueness of each individual precludes the idea that they should be valued differently from one another," she stoically answered. "Only their actions should be so estimated. As to my master's lightsaber, I would call it an incredible accomplishment. Maybe Jedi Knight Cyrella's is actually the superior example. But it isn't proper to imply that either builder is somehow superior to the other. The Force needs them both. And my master's is one of the two I chose to emulate."

"I noticed the lightsaber you have slung at your side," Zayana observed. "Would you care to tell us about it?"

"Master Soma's last assignment to me was the construction of my lightsaber," Dari wistfully responded. "It was during her brief return after we lost Masters Mox and Mardra, and before she fled to her destruction. I was reassigned right after that. Before she transformed into the Force, I was already thinking about building a saber that would somehow honor the fallen Jungle Jedi. It had occurred to me that they were both trained by Master Windu. When I saw the Adjudicator, it provided the final inspiration. Although mine looks more like the one wielded by Master Windu, it can also interfere with force fields. I call it the Violet Vergence."

Gwonameeth projected a mental picture of Dari demonstrating her lightsaber. The padawan was quick to comply. Because of the Archive's ancient security recordings, they were all familiar with the amethyst emanation that erupted from its elegant emitter. And as Dari put the lightsaber through its paces, Julither observed her padawan's presentation with obvious approval.

"Now I have to wonder if Fazif and I started some kind of trend," Cyrella jokingly suggested.

"Considering how many padawans are eventually going to need crystals with which to build their own lightsabers, it'll take the Forthright to facilitate the fieldtrip if some of them don't elect to fabricate the crystals instead," Zayana teasingly responded. Turning to Dari, she said, "It was no small thing managing to be the only one who got to come with us."

"Due to the Jedi Masters we lost to the Dark Lord on Utapau, the Grand Master has a small class of padawans in addition to the class of younglings, who are mostly instructed by Avalynn," Dari replied. "But I actually have a Jedi Master. I was being altogether honest about not wanting to become an additional distraction. Nevertheless, I'm very honored to be included as a member of this diplomatic outreach. I fully recognize, however, that I am only an attaché. Each of you is actually the dignitaries, and I will be very careful to follow your lead."

The three young women were approximately peers. Julither now suspected that Dari would have actually attained knighthood if she had been allowed to undergo the trials. The Jedi Master was consequently encouraged to see how they organically gravitated together. They seemed to naturally coalesce into their own type of triumvirate. It wasn't difficult for her to visualize them as one day overseeing those trials. In the presence of such synergy, she wondered if she was now somehow seeing shatterpoints. She knew that Mace Windu had once been able to glimpse brief visions of the future.

Only moments later, Admiral Ackbar decided that he should take an opportunity to check on his passengers. Considering the dangerous thing that they were about to do, he was glad to see that they all seemed to be in very good spirits. And since the young women hadn't been present at the approval of their course, he took the occasion to explain the Forthright's route to them.

"We're taking the Corellian Run out of the Arkanis Sector; in fact, we'll be taking it almost all the way to Corellia," he demonstratively said. "Then, we'll cut across the Trade Spine and adjust our course for our intersection with the Core. Before reengaging our hyperdrive, we'll take a last set of cosmological readings. We'll then execute the slingshot that will fling us into the Unknown Regions beyond Ansion. We believe we have a fairly good fix on the coordinates of the world of the Scree. We'll let you know when we're about to implement the gravity maneuver."

The Jedi thanked him and then went back to their banter. Had there been other passengers aboard to observe their behavior, they'd never have suspected the peril toward which they were hurtling at relativistic speeds. With the single exception of Gwonameeth, they were still laughing lightheartedly and reveling in newfound camaraderie as they bypassed Corellia and crossed the Trade Spine. From the shimmering undulations of fiber-optic-like purple fur, it was apparent that the towering telepath was also having a good time. But outright laughter was simply beyond that Jedi Master's ability.

The starship came to a stop just long enough to confirm the projected coordinates of all the astronomical objects ahead. Of course, part of the star-field was occluded by the Core. But with all the cosmological markers appearing where predicted, there could be very little doubt that the three-dimensional, galactic navigational depiction was correct. The slingshot course, which they had previously plotted, was programmed into the navicomputer. And the spaceship's occupants were advised to prepare for the chancy procedure. The six Jedi donned their flight harnesses as if they were anticipating nothing more than an amusement park ride.

The dreadnaught's hyperdrive was engaged again. The massive conveyance instantly leapt to lightspeed. With the assistance of gravity, it plunged toward the Core. The starship's systems were all strained to the very edge of their operational limits as it plummeted toward the quantum maw of the super-massive black hole at the galaxy's inescapable center. Tidal forces tore at the starship's tortured shields as the ravenous singularity sought to dine on the daredevils and their impudent vessel. But their vector robbed the monster of its meal. The starship's momentum kept them just beyond its reality-rending reach as they completed their parabolic escape orbit around death itself and were unceremoniously expelled into the sector beyond. It was several very long moments before even the Jedi could collectively catch their breath.

"That was good," Zayana was ultimately able to sarcastically summarize.

Over the intercom system Ackbar announced, "We've just completed a scan and calculated our coordinates. Ansion is no small number of parsecs off our starboard stern. We're at the very edge of the galactic disc. We'll soon pass into an empty region of space that lies between it and the spiral arm where the world of the Scree is rumored to be. Of course, we don't know its exact position. But between the Forthright's sophisticated scanners and your facility with the Force, it's a foregone conclusion that we will discover the location. If you believe you are sensing life forms anywhere ahead, please report that impression immediately. Thank you."

The ship swept out of the galaxy proper shortly after his announcement and was swallowed by a sprawling expanse of utter emptiness. Because of being a battleship and equipped with the type of engines that were common for spacecraft of its class, the Forthright was more effectively able to absorb the stress of deceleration than the Nadir had been. Since their enemy had clearly succeeded in reaching their rumored objective, Admiral Ackbar's optimistic appraisal seemed to be reasonable. But their expectation was that having Jedi Master Gwonameeth in their company guaranteed success. The telepath's presence gave them an advantage that even the Dark Lord had lacked.

As their careening spacecraft finally began to close on the initially insubstantial-looking arm, Master Gwonameeth did indeed detect sentient beings in a system adjacent to their course. But the Forthright, unlike the Nadir, had to drop completely out of hyperspace in order to recalculate and alter its trajectory. Nevertheless, they were soon on their way directly towards Scrymerula.

They were still at a considerable distance from the system when they received the first hail. Whereas Darth Umbrage had found it necessary to rely on the Nadir's navicomputer to translate the language of the Scree, Gwonameeth was able to understand the transmission and then use its multiple appendages to type out an appropriate response. Although deception was never the Jedi's true intention, the Scree originally had no idea that they were actually communicating with a telepath. And due to the fact that the Jedi Master intuitively knew what to say in order to obtain the consent, they were swiftly given permission to complete their approach to the planet. No one had really foreseen just how well this tactic would work.

Upon their arrival, and because Master Gwonameeth assured them it would be understood, the Jedi used Galactic Basic to communicate with the representatives who met them. The Force swiftly informed them that they were dealing with cyborgs. Although they had no comprehension of the storied history of the Scree, they instantly surmised an association between such a social development and the fact that the transporter technology was rumored not to work on life forms.

Chief Magistrate Corgus expressed concern when they told him Darth Umbrage was in fact a criminal, although Gwonameeth sensed some dishonesty. And knowing that such an assertion was sure to be questioned, they'd come equipped with a copy of the security recording from the space station. Although the person in the recording didn't remotely resemble the Dark Lord, they had evidence that proved it was an impersonator. Corgus seemed shocked when he recognized the hilt of the lightsaber with which the bloody butchery had been committed. He then explained why they had elected to aid the mysterious visitor from the Unknown Regions.

"We still have a copy of the scans from his time-shifted probe, and we are certain they were not manipulated in any way," Corgus authoritatively announced as he ran the recording. "As you can see, this nearby galaxy is about to undergo a change of course that'll cause it to collide with ours. Unless they're forced to work together for their mutual survival, his concern is that many of the galaxy's sentient species will be left behind to die by those few who happen to possess most of the required resources with which to accomplish an evacuation. While it is true that his goal is one of subjugation, his ambition is actually altruistic at its core. He is trying to save the selfsame civilizations you represent. In this particularly extreme case, do the ends not justify the means?"

"I don't know if I can bring myself to believe that the Republic really isn't capable of the kind of cooperation that'd be required to peacefully accomplish an evacuation," Julither objected. "I'm also obligated to point out that there are other worlds like yours that aren't part of the Republic."

"For his scheme to succeed, the Republic would first need to absorb such other worlds," the magistrate concluded. "And as objectionable as that certainly sounds, can we really be sure that every sentient species will survive if there are some whose survival is almost entirely dependent upon the altruism of others?"

"Can we really be so sure that survival is even at stake?" Awswi interjected. "We have seen that galaxies sometimes converge. Do we know that a disaster is actually implied? Couldn't it be the case that it's more like cellular osmosis, a peaceful fusion into a composite cluster? Think of all the space between the stars. Do we even know if any actual impacts will occur?"

"We're trying to contact Umbrage even now," the magistrate admitted. "If we can reach him, we'll request that he send a second probe much further into the future. We also want the answer to your question. Even from the galaxy's edge, we can't see what is happening to solar systems in other galaxies. If his technology is not too limited, perhaps we could determine if only specific systems will be imperiled."

"But if the galactic cores will actually collide," Cyrella cautiously suggested, "it would require the evacuation of almost every planet in the Republic."

"And it's outrageously regrettable that we'll have to rely on a Dark Lord to supply that data if he can even come up with it," Zayana skeptically added. "How would we ever verify it?"

Although it was a risky tactic, Darth Umbrage had the Nubian Nadir drop out of hyperspace near Tatooine as he and his robotic henchmen were making their way from Endor to Coruscant. He needed to deploy a probe that would be able to confirm the nonexistence of the Jedi Temple there after his strike force destroyed its occupants in the past. If he succeeded in killing them on Coruscant, their sanctuary in the Arkanis Sector would never even be built. Despite the fact that their elimination almost seemed like a foregone conclusion, he wanted to certify his victory while still in proximity to Coruscant and its Senate - wasting no time before making his next move.

As the final adjustments were being made to the robotic strike force, which they were about to send back in time, M4 said, "As you know, all our research leads to the same conclusion. The Crystal Matrix can't be used to send anything back to a time before its creation. There is another limitation as well. The mass of the time-shifted object also limits its projection into the past. If we want to send an object all the way back to the first moments after the Crystal Matrix was brought into existence, it'd have to be no bigger than a single-celled organism. The larger the object, the more restricted is its ability to be projected into the past. Because they're going up against Jedi, we really need to send these modified Destroyer-droids. And I've minimized their mass as much as possible. But we're going to be cutting it awfully close in trying to put them in the Jedi Temple on Coruscant before the Jedi abandoned it. I can't be certain of the outcome."

"The structure on Tatooine is essentially unassailable," Umbrage replied. "I need to destroy them in the past. Whether this works or not, I'm sure the time-shifting technology represents the most promising way to get rid of them. And the probe we put there will swiftly reveal whether the new Jedi Temple winks out of existence. Honestly, I'm very anxious to see what that looks like."

"The Destroyers are ready. We're fully cloaked and approaching the coordinates from which we can teleport them in," the droid observed. "We can execute at your discretion."

"Do it," Umbrage barked.

As the assembly of mechanical killers promptly disappeared from the teleportation platform, amidst the psychedelic sparkle of displacement, the Dark Lord turned his attention to the screen with the readout from the probe in the Arkanis Sector. With exceedingly wicked expectations, he eagerly gazed upon the image of the impregnable bastion he hoped to breach with his temporal attack. But although he believed the alteration would be almost immediate, the insolent structure steadfastly refused to fade. As the seconds ticked unacceptably by, he slowly had to accept that his scheme hadn't succeeded.

"I'll be damned," he grated through clenched teeth, clearly not considering the irony of such an assessment. "The Destroyers didn't work. Now I will have to come up with some other way to make the most of my single greatest advantage. I am retiring to my quarters to contemplate my options, M4. See that I am not disturbed."

Sometime later, the droid decided there was really no choice but to violate that directive. As tactfully as it could, it announced over the intercom that there were new readings of which it was sure that its autocratic owner would want to be aware. Given the extent to which the Destroyers had proven to be expendable, it then waited in uncertainty for its protean proprietor to come out of his lavish stateroom.

When Umbrage emerged, and before the Dark Lord had any opportunity to deride the droid for daring to disturb him, M4 announced, "The probe monitored the departure of a pair of ships. When they accelerated to lightspeed, both appeared to take a course towards the Core. One of the ships matched the dimensions of the Forthright. Considering the volume of that vessel, I see no reason why they'd need to send two ships to Coruscant - if that's what they're doing."

"They're not," Umbrage correctly concluded. "They're trying to contact the Scree."

"Should we try to intercept them?" the droid inquired.

"The Forthright is way too fast. They'll reach their jump point before we can catch them," he contemplatively replied. "I'm not even sure we could reach Scrymerula ahead of them. As much as I'd like to simply confront and kill the members of their little diplomatic mission, I would prefer not to make a mess in front of the Scree. I don't see how my scheme can succeed without some assistance, and they're about the closest thing I have to actual allies. Since we have an exact fix on the position of their planet, could we possibly contact them with a subspace signal?"

"Not from the Nadir and not from this location," M4 answered. "We might manage to send a tightly-beamed transmission. But we'd need a subspace station and it would have to give us line of sight to the signal's destination. There's only one facility that satisfies these requirements. We visited it quite recently. It's the space station in the Moddell Sector. Because of its distance from the Core, it has superior subspace capabilities. And it's right up against the Unknown Regions."

"You want me to return to the scene of the crime?" he sardonically asked. "And just how do you think we can make that work?"

"You can imitate one of the Jedi Masters who was there at the time," the droid instantly said in response as if it had actually been anticipating the question. "It's rational to think that the Jedi might send one of their own to further investigate what happened there. And no one would deny access to such an individual if he said he needed to send a subspace signal back to Coruscant. You would probably be received as a VIP, just as you were before, and just as you should be."

"Calculate the course and lay it in, but keep us away from the shipping lanes. I would prefer not to put our transponder online," he instructed the droid. "And as much as I admire your savvy in producing this plan, I think you missed a step. A Jedi Master wouldn't arrive in a cloaked ship, not even to conduct a clandestine investigation. We need to come up with an acceptable option. Let's try to develop some possibilities."

"The primary alternative would probably involve placing you on a ship that's headed toward the station," M4 observed. "But this would present a new set of problems, and it would both take more time and run the greatest risk of the masquerade being discovered. I see no real reason to assume that our previous ploy won't still work. We just need to survey the ships that are docked at the station to determine which one a Jedi Master would probably have hidden aboard in order to reach that destination undetected. Jedi are known to employ such tactics. It is also consistent with our cover story - that you are there to conduct a clandestine investigation."

"Very well," the Dark Lord agreed. "But which Jedi Master are you proposing that I imitate?"

"Your lightsaber is able to produce a blue blade," the droid responded. "You might not have any opportunity to use it, but Jedi Master Xan has such a lightsaber. And right now he just might be on his way to either Coruscant or the Unknown Regions. It is therefore doubtful that there will be any chance of your deception being detected."

"Let me know when we reach the Moddell Sector," Umbrage instructed before turning away to head back to his quarters.

As suggested by his mechanized assistant, the ruse worked. In short order, Darth Umbrage was escorted to the compartment with the long-range subspace equipment. He did not even find it necessary to use the Force to compel his escort to afford him complete privacy thereafter. M4 plugged into the interface and configured the transceiver to facilitate the holographic conference with Scrymerula. But Chief Magistrate Corgus was not alone. The Jedi had already arrived. And Umbrage almost regretted having dropped his disguise to make contact with Corgus.

"I seem to have found myself in the midst of an age-old feud, and the fate of the galaxy may hang in the balance," Corgus suggested. "Perhaps I should step aside and allow the parties with the complaint to discuss their differences."

"We meet at last, Darth Umbrage," Jedi Master Julither, being the leader of the envoy, took the opportunity to observe. "May I assume then that Lamis Cormosa is no more?"

"Let's not waste time discussing your assumptions," Umbrage answered, skillfully deflecting her inquiry. "I am certain you are now aware that I am trying to save our galaxy. Surely you can't possibly be so unwise as to try and prevent me from doing so."

"We've seen the recording from your time-shifted probe," Awswi interjected. "While we have no reason to believe it was altered in any way, we do question your conclusion. The intersection it indicates could be more of an innocuous convergence than an actual collision. This is why the Scree have been trying to contact you. They'd like you to send a second probe much further into the future. It's possible that very few planets would really have to be evacuated, if any at all."

"Our galaxy is in motion," Umbrage rejoined. "The further into the future it's sent, the further away it'll emerge. It will lack the resolution you're requesting, if I can still even receive its signal."

"So we very inconveniently can't verify the idea of the danger or lack thereof," Cyrella found the occasion to summarize. "We just have to assume that it's real and act accordingly."

"Considering the example of Grand Master Luke Skywalker, I would say it's the predilection of the Jedi to err on the side of caution," Umbrage accusingly asserted. "It's just that you cannot stand the idea of a Sith Lord saving civilization."

"I think you meant to say enslaving civilization," Cyrella sincerely contended. "Your solution is, after all, to install yourself as the omnipotent overseer of the evacuation. But you're assuming that the evacuation can't be accomplished with simple cooperation, and we can't even be sure if it's really necessary."

"Then your education is lacking," the Dark Lord deduced. "And considering its source, that's not so surprising. Do you not know, or have you perhaps simply forgotten, what holds the galaxy together? Your instructors would tell you it's the Force. But in actuality, it is Dark Matter. A spiral galaxy would fly apart without it. Gravity alone can't support such structures. It's also the reason for the synchronous rotation of its seemingly disconnected sections. Make no mistake my young apprentice: without the Dark Side, there'd be no Force. Even stars must be managed in order to cause them to coalesce into life-giving amalgamations. And everything that proceeds from those stars must also be managed for exactly the same reason. Meet the management. Just what the hell do you think is going happen when the Dark Matter latticework of one galaxy slams into that of another? I know the Dark Side. I can promise you that there'll be no innocuous convergence."

"But that still doesn't justify the subjugation of the galaxy," Julither interjected, coming to the Jedi Knight's defense. "We must give diplomacy its opportunity, and not just simply assume that suppression is necessary."

"Have you forgotten the Clone Wars from which your Republic so recently emerged?" Darth Umbrage demanded. "Are you unfamiliar with ideas like duplicity and sedition? Do you not know that there'll be those who, upon learning of the approaching danger, will simply pay lip service to your proposed treaty, only seeming to go along with your agreement? Without an instrumentality for policing their cooperation, the more dependent of the Republic's species will find that they've been abandoned. Billions could end up paying the ultimate price for your reprehensible naivety."

"But cooperation, if it could only be entered into with any kind of accountability, would surely yield the speediest of all conceivable solutions," Awswi argued. "Consider the incomprehensible amount of time that would be required to accomplish the imposition of your empire."

"And whose fault is that?" Umbrage irritably inquired. "The required framework was already in place before the Jedi needlessly tore it asunder. Its restoration is now essential to the survival of the very civilization you've sworn to serve. If you would truly honor your altruistic oath, you will make no attempt to hinder my plan. Interference won't be tolerated. My predecessor very nearly eliminated your order. If you make it necessary, I'll finish what he started. You've been warned."

"You've already made one unwarranted and equally unsuccessful attempt," Julither replied, admonishing him. "And we do not concede to the necessity of your scheme. We will find another way."

Turning to Corgus, Umbrage much more amiably said, "I am very sorry you got stuck in the middle of this disagreement. May I look forward to speaking to you again under less adversarial circumstances?"

"This matter certainly requires additional discussion," Corgus conceded. "And I'm not nearly as uncertain of your arguments as my guests very obviously are. I do indeed hope to speak with you again in the near future. Contact me at your convenience. May the Force be with you."

Everybody except Gwonameeth was seriously surprised by the way in which Corgus closed his discussion with the Dark Lord. But despite their insulation by cybernetics, the telepathic Jedi Master had come to increasingly understand the actual extent to which the Scree were aware of the history of the Republic. This item of information was problematic to impart through the use of images, but Gwonameeth did manage to suggest the discovery to the rest of the Jedi. However, Corgus was about to come clean anyway.

"When Darth Umbrage first came to us, asking for our teleportation technology, he admitted that he had nothing to trade except information," Corgus explained. "Once we saw the recording from his time-shifted probe, we were much more compliant to the possibility. But we still wanted to get the best bargain we could in exchange. At our suggestion, he allowed us to download the libraries from his formidable spacecraft. We've been busily processing that information since his departure. We've already learned a lot. Because of a previous encounter with a cargo ship from the Republic, we weren't exactly operating in a vacuum. We had heard about the Jedi. The crew of that ship held them in high regard. We'd even entertained the hope of maybe one day making contact with Coruscant, the seat of your Galactic Senate. But now we know so much more. Your Republic, as a consequence of what you call the Clone Wars, became an empire under the rule of Darth Sidious, Umbrage's predecessor. After his demise, he was replaced by Darth Chrysalis. And that engineered individual was ultimately eliminated by Grand Master Luke Skywalker, who destroyed entire star systems in order to accomplish that agenda."

"We understand how unacceptable his solution sounds," Julither carefully commented. "But it was the only way to restore freedom to the Republic, the lesser of two unacceptable evils. We are still picking up the pieces. However, given the autocratic alternative, we understand why his difficult choice was necessary."

"That's exactly the argument of Darth Umbrage," Chief Magistrate Corgus concluded. "You have simply rephrased it for your own purposes. Perhaps the Jedi still deserve to be held in high esteem, but maybe you are misinterpreting the extent to which our cosmic situation has become compromised. There is, however, one thing of which you can be certain. We have the sovereign right to decide for ourselves whom to believe and how it would be best for us to proceed. You're simply our guests. You don't have the authority of advisors. We might elect to send a diplomatic envoy to Coruscant ourselves to discuss this with your Senate. We may elect instead to request and welcome your return for a further conference here. But it's also possible that we'll choose to support the position of Darth Umbrage. If so, it's not impossible that we might even represent his position to your Senate. We'll not rashly rush into any such decision. There is far too much to be considered. Go now with our good wishes and allow us to circumspectly determine what course we should take. And may the Force go with you."

They bowed as one person, and then Julither led the Jedi envoy out of the ornate enclosure in which the consultation had been conducted. Being uncertain of the reception, Admiral Ackbar and his flight crew had remained on the Forthright in case a hasty departure was required. From the downcast dispositions of the representatives, he correctly concluded that things hadn't really gone well. He waited until they were out of the system before requesting a briefing from Julither.

"At the very least, we succeeded in opening a diplomatic dialogue with the Scree," she said, trying very perceptibly to sound optimistic. "But I am honestly uncertain as to whether things are now better or worse than they were when we arrived. We will simply have to wait and see."

"We've almost completed the calculations for the return trip," he conversationally replied. "It occurred to me that we shouldn't return the way we came. I wouldn't want our endpoint to be too predictable. Considering what we're going up against, I have decided I need to start thinking like a strategist again. After all, it's how I got this job."

She smiled wanly in response to his attempt at humor. Wishing she could see shatterpoints, she turned and looked at Gwonameeth. But even the telepathic Jedi Master had no clue of what the Scree would do. Only moments later, Ackbar advised his passengers to prepare for another turbulent trip around the Core. Slipping into their restraints once again, the Jedi settled back into their seats and readied themselves for the extreme gravity of their chaotic passage. The gravity of their situation was however Julither's principal concern. Darth Umbrage had played them to a stalemate. And it was anything but an acceptable outcome. She had no idea how Grand Master Solo would respond. And as much as she hated to recognize such reticence in herself, she was glad the decision wasn't hers to make. The seeds of self-doubt had been sown.
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