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

The Enemy of my Enemy is my Frenemy

As Darth Umbrage left the compartment of the station where the subspace transceiver was kept, he found someone waiting for him in the nearby corridor. Not since his previous encounter with a pair of Jedi Masters, in close to the same location, had he felt so profound a disruption of the Force. The young man's garb was not that of a Jedi. His appearance would’ve actually been unimposing had it not been for the fact that there was a lightsaber suspiciously slung at his side. And oddly, some of the disturbance seemed to emanate from that accoutrement. Umbrage had sensed the Dark Side so strongly in inanimate objects exclusively from the Crystal Matrix and its associated shards. He couldn't even guess about the source of so potent projection of power.

"You look just like him," the young man casually observed, "all except for the lightsaber. His hilt is designed differently. But I wouldn't even think of trying to blow your cover. That'd surely be suicidal. Actually, I'm hoping that I can convince you to train me. My name is Garis Woe. And as you've doubtlessly discerned, the Force is with me."

"I get the impression that you're fairly familiar with this station. Is there someplace where we can talk more openly?" Umbrage inquired

"The observation deck is usually deserted at this time of day," Garis replied.

The young man then led Umbrage and his droid to an elongated compartment that provided an impressive view of the heavily-forested Century moon. As they entered, they noted that there was a couple engaged in romantic conversation in one corner. But with their privacy interrupted, they quickly yielded the compartment to the newcomers.

Umbrage then turned to his prospective apprentice and insistently said, "Tell me about your lightsaber. It resonates with the Dark Side of the Force in a way I've seldom sensed."

"I'm able to get impressions of people from objects they've owned," Garis explained. "That's how I know this lightsaber once belonged to Luke Skywalker. Before that, it was his father's. I'm speaking of course of Anakin Skywalker, who became Darth Vader. Luke lost it on Bespin while fighting his father. It fell into the gas giant's upper atmosphere but was intercepted by one of the creatures that inhabited that stratum of sky. A colony of Mynocks nested on the underside of the colossal structure. The destruction of Hoth had a devastating impact on the commerce of all the surrounding systems. Because gas mining operations there became impossible, Cloud City was all but abandoned. I was only trying to salvage whatever I could and sell it for simple scrap. Due to being Force-sensitive, I became aware of the lightsaber. Once I'd recovered it, I discerned its storied history.

"Anakin Skywalker was wielding it when he defeated Count Dooku; approximately replacing him, even though Anakin wasn’t aware of it at the time. And then, as he turned to the Dark Side, he used it to dismember Mace Windu, allowing Sidious to vanquish the Jedi Master. It was then bathed in the blood of younglings. From there it was taken to Mustafar and used to slaughter the Separatist leaders. Anakin then wielded it while attempting to eliminate his old mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi. And later, the insight of an aged Obi-Wan failed him when he took no exception to lying to Luke as he handed him the weapon, telling him that his father wanted him to have it when he was old enough. It actually aided him only once, when it helped him escape from the cave of an ice creature. He unwisely wielded it as he disastrously faced the Dark Side on Dagobah, in spite of being instructed to leave his weapons behind. And it was in his possession when, despite the ardent objections of both his instructors, he abandoned his training and rushed to confront Darth Vader at Cloud City where, when he refused to turn, it nearly delivered him to his destruction. Of course, I intend to use it in the service of the Dark Side of the Force. Hopefully, it'll be according to your instruction. When I saw the broadcast of your previous visit, I knew the Sith hadn't really been destroyed and that I needed to see the place where the encounter had occurred. Upon my arrival, the Force informed me that you'd return; so I waited. Please accept me as your student."

"Do you promise to pledge yourself to my teachings, no matter what I might require of you?" Umbrage asked.

"I do so swear, my master," Garis agreed.

"In order to await my return, you must've procured a place to stay on the station," Umbrage surmised.

"My accommodations are modest, and I believed them to be unfit for our discussion," Garis explained with embarrassment. "I was sure this setting would be much more appropriate."

"Your consideration is commendable," Umbrage answered. "But unless you are wearing all you own, you need to gather up and bring your belongings. Meet me in the cafe afterwards, and I'll take you to my ship. Because it's cloaked, it is currently coupled to one of the vessels that are here for maintenance. We'll exit through the adjoining airlock and board by way of the umbilicus. Don't take too long. I'm getting very tired of looking like a Jedi, and I think I might be wearing out my welcome."

After Garis rejoined his new master, Umbrage conducted him to the Nadir. Carefully making certain that they were not being observed, M4 interfaced with the station's computer system and gained them entry into the vessel that was being serviced nearby. Once aboard, they traveled to the spacecraft's aft section, where the umbilicus from the Dark Lord's dreadnaught was invisibly attached to an airlock. And after they'd completed the crossing, the droid retracted the umbilicus and prepared their ship for departure while Darth Umbrage explained the minutia of his scheme to his new apprentice.

At the conclusion of the disclosure, Umbrage said, "Even though I was impressed when you discerned my identity, and you certainly have some understanding of the Dark Side, you need to demonstrate that you can actually assist me in some way. If you can't do that, then it's not worth my time to train you. There wouldn't even really be a reason for me to let you live."

There was no indication of concern, but only understanding and even acceptance, as Garis replied, "The primary problem, it seems to me, is that the crystal shards are in undesirably short supply. Without them, further time-shifting becomes impossible. But I wonder if the resource can be expanded. The teleporter completely scans a target in order to facilitate its reassembly. What if the system could be supplied with the necessary materials? Could it then construct a duplicate target instead? Could the teleporter be converted into a replicator?"

"Insightful suggestion," Umbrage remarked. Turning to M4, he asked, "Could it be done?"

"Duplication is hypothetically possible," the droid rejoined. "I must point out that the material of which the shards are composed was forged in the heart of a dying star. Although that doesn't necessarily mean it can't be fabricated for use by such a replicator, we definitely do not have the means here. Perhaps the Scree could accomplish such fabrication, and they would also need to be consulted about the possibility of converting their teleporter into a replicator. Shall I calculate a course back to Scrymerula?"

"Corgus requested further contact," Umbrage observed aloud. "Perhaps it would be best for me to put in a personal appearance anyway after he unwittingly found himself right in the middle of that skirmish between myself and the Jedi. Yes, calculate the course and lay it in. I suppose it would also behoove me to introduce my allies to my new apprentice now that he's demonstrated his worth."

The Dark Lord then described the cybernetic Scree and the turbulent trip in which the Nadir was about to engage again. Garis was openly impressed by the lengths to which his master had already gone while pursuing this plan. While he didn't actually doubt the evidence of the coming cosmic calamity, he wondered if the impending disaster was really just serving as an excuse for the subjugation of the galaxy. He had his own suspicions about the Dark Side's real desire, and he knew that the work of the lightsaber at his side was far from finished. Only once had it tasted the blood of a Jedi Master. He had long been aware that its destiny was to reap such a soul. He sensed that his service to Darth Umbrage had finally put him on the proper path. Consequently, he intended to honor his obligation, at least until providence opportunistically allowed otherwise.

The Dark Lord and his apprentice were received by the Scree with undiminished ceremony. Umbrage had been somewhat concerned that their estimation of his worth would've suffered as a result of their contact with the Jedi. But Corgus was guardedly glad to have the ambassador of the Dark Side back in the cavernous enclosure from which he officiated. Although particle beam emitters remained automatically trained upon the visitors, this had also been the case during the initial visit. And the lightsabers, which they had very courteously been allowed to keep, would've prevented any firepower from actually reaching them. But Corgus really only intended to disarm his most distinguished guest in another way - by comprehending him.

Surrounded on either side by other officials, as he'd been at their first meeting, Corgus said, "In order to be sure of our supportive position, we need to be sure that we do indeed understand your agenda. It seems quite clear that our galaxy is in danger. You believe its inhabitants cannot be counted upon to cooperate in a way that ensures everyone's survival and, therefore, the only way to guarantee that outcome is through coercion. In short, since the most affluent civilizations are the ones with the resources necessary for an evacuation, they will be the only ones who will survive unless they are required by subjugation to lend altruistic assistance to the less fortunate. This precept of which we are speaking could be simply paraphrased as: from each according to his ability to each according to his need. Is this correct?"

Umbrage carefully answered, “I am well aware of the perceived shortcomings in the system to which you have referred. But surely you recognize that they rest mostly in the quantification of actual ability and the difficulty of determining true need. The production output of every planet in the Republic has been certified by the Commerce Guild. And survival certainly cannot be said to represent an ambiguous necessity. It is instead the very definition of needfulness. Circumstance has placed us in the one situation where such coercion becomes a requirement. The decision is one of forfeiting certain freedoms or needlessly sacrificing lives instead. And on the other side of the exodus, there would initially be a single standard of living. Therefore, there’d be no incentive for conflict based on inequality. I can see no other answer.”

"We hadn't yet considered the economic equalization that would occur as a consequence of your approach to the problem," Corgus conceded. "We'd considered instead all the strife that we expected to happen on the other side as the refugees fought for the most desirable systems and strove to maximize their acquired areas. In your plan no one would have an unfair advantage. In fact, the most reasonable recourse for colonization would be found at the bargaining table."

"Once everybody is settled, perhaps the empire would not be necessary," Umbrage allowed himself to muse out loud. "But I suppose it's possible that we'll encounter other inhabitants there who don't want to make room for us, and the maintenance of the empire could thus be critical to the continuance of our respective civilizations. We might find that we truly require such a unified defense."

"We understood what you said to the Jedi about the need to police the cooperation of those whose participation in the plan is clearly the most critical," the Chief Magistrate rejoined. "But we wonder how this could actually be achieved. Are you suggesting the establishment of some kind of military presence in those systems, like the stormtroopers of your predecessor? Do you think there is adequate time for the creation of such an army, and is it possible that the very endeavor itself might necessitate the expenditure of some of those critical resources?"

Anybody else might have simply assumed that the Scree were desperately trying to wriggle off the hook. But the Dark Lord understood that they were intensely logical beings and, as such, their participation was contingent upon their comprehension of his plan. They needed to know if it had shortcomings. And their question had actually created an opportunity for him to take them further into his confidence while also requesting their assistance.

"While I would be required to create a military force for coercing compliance," he agreed, "it would be much more limited than you're suggesting. I intend to time-shift probe droids into those systems to monitor their future conformity. The military force would only need to be mobilized if I see that there will be an infraction. In this way they might not have to intervene more than once."

"As we understand it, your stock of the required crystal shards is extremely limited," Corgus carefully commented. "Do you indeed have enough of the exotic instruments to accomplish such an ambitious agenda?"

"Barely," Umbrage honestly admitted. "My apprentice suggested a possible way to increase that resource, but the prospect is completely hypothetical. And because it is dependent upon an adaptation of your technology, it would require your assistance."

"How can we help you?" Corgus courteously inquired, seeming altogether mollified by Darth Umbrage's answers.

"We'd like to explore the possibility of turning a teleporter into a replicator," Garis answered, taking a cue from his master. "If we're able to supply the necessary material for the teleporter to construct the scanned target, instead of transporting the original, could it possibly duplicate that target?"

"That's certainly an idea worthy of investigation," Corgus conceded. "But in the case of your crystal shards, it would be necessary to supply the material of which they're made. We'd need to completely scan one in order to determine if fabrication of such a substance is possible. Are you willing to loan one of them to us for the purpose of carrying out such an examination?"

"Absolutely," Umbrage instantly agreed, swiftly presenting one he had brought along for the occasion.

As he accepted the artifact, Corgus said, "Perhaps you would prefer to be present while we conduct our examination. Please come with me."

Being Cyborgs, the Scree were perhaps more dependent on their technology than any race of which Umbrage was immediately aware. As a result, their scientific trappings were practically ubiquitous. But the sprawling complex behind the government building was obviously a place of research. There were areas where the equipment it housed seemed to stretch all the way to the ceiling. Several of the other officials accompanied Corgus as he escorted his guests to a section near the rear of the impressive structure. Some conspicuously uniformed technicians, who were working in that area, took charge of the shard.

Umbrage and his apprentice looked on as the shard's molecular structure was painstakingly plumbed. The Dark Lord and his droid had been instructed in the use of the teleporter, but not in using its targeting scanners to perform this type of analysis. Consequently, Darth Umbrage was unprepared for the findings. It was with incredulity that Corgus turned to his illustrious guest.

"This would seem to be impossible, but there's a biological component somehow enmeshed within the crystalline structure," the Chief Magistrate explained. "If it was not for the fact that you allowed us to download your libraries, we would be unable to identify the life forms. But because we were, we know that they are midi-chlorians. They must have gotten infused into the crystal at its formation, during the final death throes of the ill-fated star. Maybe some unique convergence of Dark Matter and Dark Energy was responsible. And perhaps that is why its power can only be wielded by someone skilled in what you call the Dark Side of the Force."

"They're fixed in space, like the singularity at the heart of a black hole," Garis mused aloud. Turning to Umbrage, he asked, "Is that why they can be used to send things through time?"

After nodding silently at his apprentice, Umbrage turned to Corgus and asked, "What about the possibility of fabricating the material of which the crystals are made? Would it be possible?"

"Because of the project's importance, I would prefer not to automatically discount the idea," the Chief Magistrate responded. "And although I am dubious about the outcome, we will explore every possible option. But even if we somehow succeed in fabricating the crystalline structure, it will ultimately be up to you to infuse midi-chlorians into the matrix. I'll not commit the discourtesy of trying to estimate your capacity for performing such an improbable process. We have no way of quantifying your skill sets. It will take some time for us to eliminate every possible process for making the material. You're welcome to remain with us and consider how you should proceed if we are successful. Although our mechanical bodies require little in the way of physical comfort, you might be surprised by the sumptuousness of our accommodations. They're a reminder."

Technicians from the fourth planet of the system, Brimula, would sometimes visit. Umbrage and Garis were escorted to underground lodgings that were specifically reserved for guests who weren't cyborgs and consequently needed protection from the rampant solar radiation. M4 went with them. Since the droid could communicate with the other droids and the various systems on the Nadir without actually being onboard, it served as a kind of technological relay to Umbrage's instrumentalities.

Both men were indeed surprised by the opulence of the accommodation. Because they had not lost their appreciation for such niceties by embracing a strictly cybernetic existence, creature comforts were still extended to the visiting Scree. It was a kind of reward for undertaking the trip. And it helped to make their stay worthwhile. The second part of that compensation proved to be important to the Dark Lord and his apprentice. When Corgus indicated that his team of scientists intended to eliminate every possible option for fabricating the material of which the crystal matrix was made, he wasn't exaggerating. Their attempts would take considerable time. But it provided an opportunity for Umbrage to actually train Garis.

Upon returning to Tatooine, after ferrying his Jedi charges to Coruscant, Han Solo trundled down the ramp from the Falcon to meet Leia, who was waiting for him on the upper landing pad. He didn't have to be Force-sensitive to tell that something was weighing heavily on her mind. He heard Chewy growl in concerned agreement as he fought to keep a frown from his face. Despite no indication of anything being wrong when he got landing clearance, Leia looked like someone who had disturbing news.

Taking her in his arms, he said, "You're trembling. What's wrong?"

"We took every possible precaution. There's no way this should have been able to happen," she replied. "I'm pregnant."

"That's wonderful news," he exclaimed, unable to stop himself from smiling. Understanding, however, why the timing seemed so undesirable, and seeing that he'd absolutely failed to dispel her apprehension, he consolingly continued, "This is a happy moment. We're not going to worry about anything right now."

"You're right, this is a happy moment," she replied as she ultimately relaxed in his embrace. However, after only a few moments, she said, "But the second part doesn't really work. I just got a report from Ackbar. The Forthright was preparing for the final jump on its return trip. Our team of ambassadors should be here tomorrow. And it sounds as if things didn't really go very well."

"Then we'll deal with that tomorrow," he pragmatically replied.

She nodded as well as she could, considering that Chewy now had his massive fur-covered arms around both of them. Although C-3PO had stayed below in the bastion on an errand for his master, R2-D2 had accompanied Han to Coruscant. And in response to the excitement, the little droid was whistling like some kind of alien orchestra.

As anticipated, the Forthright arrived early the next day. Rather than convene in the Council Chamber, since the envoy had included some members who weren't Jedi Masters, Leia elected to make the debriefing less formal. She had always felt the most comfortable on the observation deck of the northwest tower, so she invited everybody to assemble there.

"The position of the Scree unfortunately remains inscrutable," Julither finished her report by concluding. "We are not sure if it's because they are cyborgs or perhaps just exceptionally alien, but even Master Gwonameeth could get no clear discernment of their long-term intent. However we've no reason to doubt the scan taken by the time-shifted probe. Even without the emergence of Darth Umbrage, the galaxy would be in dire danger. As I see it, since we have a presence on Coruscant, the decision before us is whether or not we should take the initiative to represent this danger to the Galactic Senate. If the Scree should do so first, it could weaken our credibility."

Although Julither hadn't used the word further to describe the suggested weakening of their credibility, everyone understood the implication. The influence of the Jedi Order had ebbed as a result of a perfect storm of circumstances. Now that the survival of every single civilization in the galaxy was hanging in the balance, they could hardly afford any further defamation. Regrettably, if they chose to warn the Republic, they would have to rely on evidence that'd been acquired by the instrumentality of a Dark Lord. No matter how hard they strove to prevent this as being seen as an endorsement, the fact that it had been his discovery would surely be played to its ultimate advantage. Particularly if the Scree came to his support, he'd try to convince everyone to equate the discoverer with the person who also understood the solution.

"It's true that there is an inherent danger in not being the first to disclose this situation to the Republic's representatives," Grand Master Solo guardedly agreed. "But I think it would be worse to do so without also being able to recommend a course of action. Umbrage will certainly do the latter. We must discover a practical alternative to the imposition of his empire, or we still run the risk of desperate people accepting a rash solution. Let us meditate on this problem. Perhaps the Force will inform us of the answer. There is one other item of information that I need to impart. It was completely unplanned. My current responsibilities preclude the possibility that I should take on anymore. And I frankly don't understand how the contraceptives failed, but I am with child."

The words had barely left her mouth when Leia got the distressing sensation that some sort of instability had just been introduced into their dialogue. Although she knew how much her new condition could complicate their situation, she'd determined that it would be deceitful to delay its disclosure. And she couldn't hope to hide it indefinitely anyway. She had been hoping that some of the members might actually consider her approximately miraculous conception as a prophecy of peace from the Force, a sign that their current predicament would indeed be replaced with a positive resolution. But she suddenly had the powerful impression that at least one person in the room had taken it another way.

"Although I am sorry to have to say this outside an actual session, the venue was not of my choosing," Julither began. "For thousands of years, the Jedi Order had observed strict traditions until the ascension of Anakin Skywalker. That's when everything started to change. We are now training multiple apprentices and even making exceptions for marriage. Maybe it would behoove us to remember how all of this happened. If Anakin had only exercised the required self-restraint and not married Padme in secret, or if the violation had been discovered and he'd been expelled from the Jedi Order, much misfortune wouldn't have followed. Right after leaving Mustafar, while she still had the strength to do so, we know Padme told Master Kenobi that Anakin had suffered from visions of her dying in childbirth. She believed that this is what impelled him down the Dark Path. Had it not been for their marriage and her ensuing pregnancy, he'd have had no reason to interfere in the lightsaber duel between Master Windu and the upstart Emperor. Palpatine would have fallen, instead of the Jedi Order and the Republic it was supposed to protect."

"Who then would've destroyed Darth Chrysalis? And how could that even have been done, Master?" Dari asked in confusion.

This situation was hypothetically impossible, one that Jedi Masters intuitively knew to avoid. The padawan had posed a question that her instructor couldn't answer. The discord had risen to such a crescendo that it resulted in the insertion of a disconnect between Dari and the mentor to whom she now turned in the still-palpable absence of Soma Sarmosini. It was almost as if she'd just been orphaned all over again. Leia could hardly believe what was happening.

"I missed one," Cyrella unexpectedly said.

Her statement was so non sequitur that every eye automatically turned in her direction. The increasing discord was completely, and almost incidentally, dispelled. Her countenance seemed to suggest that she'd just experienced some sort of epiphany. Realizing that she had everyone's attention, and appearing to be as surprised by her outburst as everybody else, she looked to the Grand Master.

"Do tell," Leia softly instructed, sounding both encouraging and quizzical.

"When you asked me about the truths of our existence, I missed one," Cyrella replied. "And it might've been the most preeminent of them all."

"Which is that?" the Grand Master intensely inquired. She could perceive that the vergence was fully in effect. It was as if she were asking the question of the Force itself.

"The continuity of time," Cyrella responded in a faraway voice. "We can't alter the past. And yet, that is precisely what Darth Umbrage has attempted to do at least once already. He's pretty much invented a brand new way to test the limits of the Force, which can't ultimately work out in his favor. Time is immutable. This is one of the truths of our existence. And that's why regret can become a path to the Dark Side. We certainly should learn from our mistakes. But dwelling upon past occurrences that can't be corrected can even lead us to be remorseful about behaviors that weren't really wrong. And Master Kenobi provided us with a powerful example."

"How so?" Leia asked, now truly intrigued.

"In the previously mentioned report, where he spoke about Padme's impression of what had happened to Anakin, Master Kenobi said that he felt as if he'd failed his apprentice," she replied, aiming her gaze at Julither. "When he discovered that Anakin had somehow survived to become Darth Vader, he probably regretted not having ended the life of his prior apprentice. He probably felt as if his failure was complete at that point. But he didn't fail the Force. Luke Skywalker would never have defeated the Emperor without Anakin's assistance. And this demonstrates why such onerous regret just can't be justified: beyond anything we could possibly anticipate, the outcome could end up being beneficial. Whatever the weight of the regrets he harbored; it certainly didn't keep Master Kenobi from training the son of the man he felt he'd failed. And it didn't prevent him from sacrificing himself to save Luke's life on the first Death Star."

"I think I see what you're saying," Julither rejoined.

No one in the room recognized any incongruity in a Jedi Knight speaking to a Jedi Master in this way. Leia could only wonder if she was looking at the next Grand Master of the Jedi Order.

"The march of time is interminable. Nothing in the universe is static. The Republic we serve is not the same one that was protected by our predecessors. In fact, it has actually been reborn. I don't mean to imply that we should simply abandon traditions that still seem to work. But it also stands to reason that our philosophy should be somewhat fluid as well. Our traditions cannot be intractable; otherwise, we put ourselves in the position of espousing absolutes, and only the Sith deal in absolutes," Cyrella very convincingly concluded.

"From your report it seems clear that Darth Umbrage was able to conduct a holoconference with the Scree," the Grand Master remarked, returning the dialogue to its original subject matter. "From where could such a signal have been sent?"

The image of Endor appeared in everyone's mind as Gwonameeth responded to her query. It was obvious that the telepath was pleased at finally being able to contribute to the discussion, almost as much as being relieved by the cessation of the previous dispute. And Leia understood why the image had been preferred over that of the station from which the signal had really been sent. Awswi had been framed for murder there.

"We're nearly as far from the Moddell Sector as we are from Coruscant and Endor is not on the way to Scrymerula," Leia replied with disappointment. "We need to be in continuous contact with the Scree. It's the only way for us to stay apprised of their disposition, and it is also the only way to know if they're going to contact the Galactic Senate. But we need a much better vantage point from which to establish a line of communication. Are there any suggestions?"

"When Alderaan was destroyed," Julither began, before her voice broke. Reconstituting her courage to speak with Leia about something so personal, after their previous disagreement, she finally continued, "The resulting shockwave swept through space for parsecs, clearing passages that had been blocked by interstellar debris. That's why just such a subspace station was set up there. It might be possible to get a signal through to the Scree from that location and it's actually on the way to Scrymerula. Umbrage obviously hopes the Scree will be his proxy representatives to the Republic, so it might be safe to temporarily reassign Priella for the purpose of finding out."

"Xan and the padawans could stay on Coruscant just in case," Awswi agreed, happy about the opportunity to support Julither's proposal. "Although Rostla-Kon failed to pass the Jedi trials, he showed exceptional skills with a lightsaber. He might actually be adept enough to temporarily cover for Priella."

"I must admit to being somewhat confused by his failure," Julither candidly confessed. "Xan obviously thought he was ready."

"He was afraid he wouldn't get to hang out with his Jedi Master anymore," Dari commented, shrugging. She then winced as she realized what she'd just done.

"I'm sure it wasn't the first time someone's padawan purposely failed in order to extend their apprenticeship," Leia replied. Looking then to Cyrella while cocking a crooked smile, she added, "And I know from experience how padawans will sometimes keep confidence with one another."

Catching her eye, Cyrella in turn extended an encouraging nod to Julither who said, "I move to recommend Dari Jenay for the Jedi trials."

"Is there any dissention?" the Grand Master officially asked. When nobody responded, she announced, "Your recommendation is accepted. I will need Masters Awswi and Gwonameeth to see me about scheduling. If there's no other business to discuss, I think we can adjourn for now. Dari, your Jedi Master will escort you to the testing area at the proper time, although she will not remain. You will not be informed about the schedule beforehand. Life comes without a warning."

As most of the assembled were making their way from the observation deck, Cyrella moved alongside Julither and Dari, saying to the latter, "Might I borrow your master for a few moments? I could use some consultation."

After the uncertain exchange from which they'd just emerged, Dari was visibly reassured to see one of the newest Jedi Knights seeking a consultation with her master. In actuality, this was Cyrella's intention, which is why she very deliberately neglected to specify the direction in which the consultation would occur.

As Dari disappeared down the colossal corridor, leaving them alone, Cyrella softly said, "I'm hoping you would be willing to speak to me about the subject of regret, since Master Soma is no longer able to serve as your confidant."

"Strange to think that my padawan has chosen to call her lightsaber the Vergence, yet here you stand before me," Julither replied, completely cognizant of the impetus to which Cyrella was responding. "And you have even named the source of my regret."

"Perhaps it was simply happenstance," Cyrella suggested. "Can I encourage you to specify the particulars?"

"At our initial introduction to Lamis Cormosa, I made the major mistake of leaving her alone with him," the Jedi Master somberly described. "I later learned of the oath they exchanged while I was otherwise engaged. It's logical to conclude that, had I still been present, such a portentous promise would never have been made. It was the beginning of her downfall."

"What was the responsibility that took you away?" Cyrella carefully inquired.

"The perilous parameters of the mission, from which we'd just returned, required us to leave our padawans behind," Julither explained. "After an imposed separation, I knew that I needed to renew our interaction. That thought was foremost in my mind."

"You excused yourself from their conversation because of the responsibility you felt for your padawan?" Cyrella asked. When Julither nodded, the Jedi Knight continued, "Of course I am not speaking from experience. I can only imagine being a Jedi Master. Responsibility for a padawan is still very far away from me. But I strongly suspect that providing an example for someone else would be infinitely more demanding than simply maintaining one's own equilibrium. Considering that you initially evaluated Dari as being unready for the trials, would you say it was very difficult for you to accept the idea of leaving her behind while we went to Scrymerula?"

"I was happy she took the initiative to approach the Grand Master and get permission to go along," Julither replied. But when it looked like Cyrella was still awaiting the answer, she added, "I shouldn't have been so tolerant of the interruption. I felt as if her failure was actually my own."

"And now?" Cyrella sympathetically pressed.

"I think there was no failure on her part," Julither candidly confessed. "The shortcoming was mine alone."

"I barely knew Master Soma," Cyrella reminisced. "But I have empathically felt the effects of her loss on those that did. Whether appropriately or not, you feel somewhat responsible for what happened to her. Perhaps this constituted a kind of conflict of interest with regards to you taking over her training. But it could also represent an opportunity."

"How so?" Julither inquired, intrigued.

"Master Kenobi obviously felt as if he had failed Anakin," Cyrella genially explained. "But his response to that regret was a renewed determination not to permit a misstep in mentoring Luke. His dedication was so complete that he ultimately sacrificed himself to save his apprentice. And his example of altruistic sacrifice turned out to be essential. As every padawan knows, while she was communing with Luke as a Transformed Master, the Grand Master learned that her brother had only been able to defeat Darth Chrysalis by imitating the example of Master Kenobi."

A soft chime from the holographic emitter at the center of the living room in their quarters at the Senate Annex alerted Jedi Master Priella to an incoming transmission. With her padawan at her side, she strode to the control panel and activated the imaging system. The depiction swiftly formed. Upon ascertaining that the caller was Grand Master Solo, Priella bowed. And Jenassee Secura was quick to imitate her mentor's respectful gesture.

"How may I be of service, Grand Master?" Priella cordially inquired.

"Our envoy has returned from making contact with the Scree," Leia informed her. "I'm sorry to say that their support for the Dark Lord remains unresolved. We have been shown scans that were taken by a probe, which Darth Umbrage time-shifted into the future. And they appear to be genuine. They show a disaster in a nearby galaxy that changes its trajectory and forces it onto a collision course with ours. The Dark Lord believes, and the Scree can't be certain they disagree, that many sentient species won't be able to evacuate unless cooperation is imposed upon those few with the required resources. He sees the restoration of his predecessor's empire as the sole solution. I’ve taken Eisley into our confidence, but much more must obviously be done."

"That is an extremely paradoxical problem," Priella commented with controlled concern, not wanting to alarm the young lady beside her.

"During our envoy's visit, Darth Umbrage made holographic contact with the Scree. He was able to reach them from the subspace station in orbit around Endor," Leia continued. "Of course that station is nowhere near the route we'd have to take to return to Scrymerula, and we need to stay in contact with the Scree. I'd therefore like for you and your padawan to go to the subspace station in the Alderaan System and see if contact can be made from there. If so, we'll use it as a relay. Jedi Knight Cyrella recently reminded us that everything in the universe is in motion. Even if contact can't be made when you reach the station, such a channel could eventually develop at that location. You'll need to set up a protocol to continually test that possibility. The Scree talked as if we might be invited back. We need to be sure we can receive the invitation."

"Where in the Unknown Regions is Scrymerula located, Grand Master?" Priella asked.

"It's at the end of a spiral arm in completely unexplored space, on the other side of a great gulf that separates it from the rest of the galaxy," Leia replied. "We believe the empty expanse might be the reason a signal can reach such a distant sector of space. Why do you ask?"

"If we're invited to return, perhaps the Scree would approve the placement of a relay station in that expanse," Priella replied. "The Forthright would be capable of delivering such a payload."

"Yes, and I think you're right that we'd require their approval. We weren't even sure we'd be welcome on the initial visit," the Grand Master rejoined. "There is one other item of information."

"What is that, Grand Master?" Priella inquired.

"Since I don't see Xan in the room, I am assuming that I have called during your shift," Leia observed. "You'll need to have this conversation with him as opportunity allows. But it's come to our attention that Rostla-Kon might've deliberately failed the trials. We're assuming that he didn't want his apprenticeship to end."

"Xan and I have also come to the conclusion that his older apprentice intentionally failed the trials," Priella agreed. "But our discernment might be slightly different than the assumption you have described."

"How so?" Leia asked.

"As I'm sure you've observed, padawans even with different Jedi Masters often behave like siblings," Priella explained. "The tendency is algebraically augmented when both have the same mentor. In that case, the promotion of the older apprentice is almost like the breakup of a family. Because the padawans share a sense of responsibility for each other, they will sometimes resist any attempt to end their familial association. Because there was an interruption in the existence of the Jedi Order, this insight was lost. But we suspect that it's the reason tradition recommends the taking of only one apprentice at a time. As soon as we're able again to have a full session of the Jedi Council, we need to determine the minimum number of Jedi Masters we think are really necessary before we return to the arrangement as originally prescribed."

"I appreciate your insight in this matter," Leia enthusiastically replied. "And I look forward to seeing both you and Xan at the next full session. For the meantime, please keep me apprised of your progress with regards to contacting the Scree. I've encoded the coordinates of Scrymerula into this transmission. Please give my regards to Xan and his padawans. Be sure you stress the responsibility with which we're entrusting him to Rostla-Kon, serving in your stead. Perhaps you can help him comprehend the necessity of moving forward with his promotion. May the Force be with you."

Jedi Master Priella waited patiently a few hours for Xan and his padawans to report for their shift, and then she explained the situation to them all. She made certain Rostla-Kon understood he was being given an assignment that was entirely commensurate with the responsibilities of a Jedi Knight. The bow with which he received the obligation implied more than simple ceremony. It seemed instead to demonstrate the level of commitment that'd been noticeably lacking during the trials. She slipped a conspiratorial smile at Xan, and then she and Jenassee took their leave of the Senate Annex.

Eisley met them at the nearby space port, where he approved their requisition of one of the spacecraft that were normally reserved for diplomatic use. Since the Jedi were on Coruscant as the result of a request by the Galactic Senate, he knew that only a pressing responsibility would call any of them away. But he was courteous enough not to inquire about the particulars of their mission. He'd always been an ally of the Jedi Order. He respected their autonomy, believing it to be an important aspect of their operations. He simply ushered them into the ship and watched it wheel away.

In terms of interstellar distance, the Alderaan System wasn't really that far away. But due to the catastrophe that had occurred there, the Jedi very seldom ventured into that sector of space anymore. Priella found herself wondering about the serendipitous possibility that a space station in that system, which had really been established in place of the populated planet, could end up being of importance in their current predicament. To her, that seemed to suggest that the Force was trying to bring itself back into balance. They quickly closed on their objective.

Aside from travelers occasionally using it as a stopover, the station was unmanned. Most of its maintenance was taken care of by droids. But being a state-of-the-art subspace relay station, its considerable computer system was very advanced. Once Priella had explained their purpose to the astrodroid, which was the only permanent crew member of the craft they had borrowed, it connected to a terminal on the station and explored the possibility of broadcasting a signal to so distant a target. The preliminary results were not encouraging.

However, because the automaton was able to avail itself of the resources of the mainframe, it was able to calculate that a future connection was likely to occur. With its help, Priella set up a protocol to complete the call to the Jedi Temple on Tatooine when the channel opened. It was a manifest misfortune that the first anticipated connection was many months away. Making use of the array, Priella contacted Leia with an update. With their mission complete, she and Jenassee then climbed back onboard their borrowed ship and set a course for the return trip to Coruscant. It was impossible to predict whether they'd actually accomplished anything of importance. But it had felt distinctly auspicious to Jenassee to visit the Alderaan System. To the padawan learner, it was almost as if they had just dropped something with the kinetic energy of an asteroid into a very small pond. And for some reason, she found herself thinking about Dari Jenay.

At the conclusion of Dari's Jedi trials, the Grand Master stood in the midst of the assembled triumvirate and ceremoniously announced, "We're honored to receive you into our ancient order, Jedi Knight Dari Jenay. You've performed admirably. The testing is finished. This isn't part of the examination. I would just like to get your impression of what transpired on Scrymerula. Speaking for the Force in summarizing a situation is something you'll occasionally be expected to do. You were there. Has everything already been said, or do you have any additional insights to offer?"

"I'm not certain this really amounts to an insight, but I think it is possible that Darth Umbrage is deceiving the Scree," Dari answered.

"How so?" Leia inquired, intrigued.

"If our understanding is correct, then the Sith Lord has utilized the technique of a jeweler by cutting the One Crystal into something that can approximate a miniaturized version of the matrix in which it formed. The shards in the battle droids, which Cyrella destroyed, were made from the leftovers of that procedure. But the power of this approximation is beyond compare. It gives him the ability to cloak a ship the size of the Falcon. It apparently imparts the capacity for altering his features to the wielder of the lightsaber made with such shards. And it gives him the implausible ability to even transmit matter through time. To me, this calls something into question."

"Please specify," Awswi softly insisted.

"We use crystals for many things," Dari replied, trying to work her way to the explanation. "It is crystals that make possible the construction of our lightsabers, which we use to help us focus the Force. They're used in cloaking devices. They're used in holocrons. And they're also utilized in the production of ray shields. Even the great city shields on the Republic's capital are created through the application of crystals. Their capacity for deflection is essentially legendary."

"What are you suggesting?" Leia pressed.

"It might be necessary to focus the force of a supernova or a gamma ray burst, nonetheless I suspect that this Dark Lord might actually have the capacity to deflect the very collision that his device revealed to him. But instead, he's using it as an excuse for subjugation."

"You really think he could deflect a galactic collision?" Awswi demanded, not quite masking his sarcasm. "Perhaps you attribute too much influence over the Force to this upstart servant of the Dark Side."

"My Master," Dari respectfully replied. "My suggestion isn't just based on our understanding that the Dark Side is a pathway to many unnatural abilities. If it's maintained for a very long time, even a small force can have a profound effect. He's a clone. His subsequent generations could apply the deflective force of his device for unimaginable millennia. Do you think it really wouldn't make any difference?"

"I think the Scree quite probably have a far greater understanding of his instrumentality than we do," Leia interjected, smiling broadly at Dari. "We should probably pose the question to them if the opportunity presents itself."

Leaving the testing room, Grand Master Solo found Jedi Master Julither in the adjoining hall and happily informed her of her padawan's promotion. After the confrontation on the observation deck of the northwest tower, Julither was anxious not to appear adversarial. She also wondered what her immediate obligations would become if Dari did indeed pass the trials. She would then be the only Jedi Master without an apprentice of any kind. But Leia seemed lighthearted and not at all uncomfortable about being in her company.

"If a day comes when the other council members can't openly speak their minds anymore, it will be time for a vote of no confidence," she disarmingly said. "I am happy you took the initiative to air your concerns. Maybe if Soma had done that, things wouldn't have turned out as they did. And if the fault for that falls on anyone other than herself, it falls only on me. Please do not try to bear my burdens."

"Thank you, Grand Master," Julither replied, visibly relieved. "But I am now abruptly without any padawan."

"Before you're paired with anyone else, I'd like to send you on an assignment. Because it is of an adult nature, it might not be the best way to begin when it comes to mentoring," Leia softly said. "Because of your friendship with Soma and the part my brother played in necessitating the evacuation of their homeworld, I know you're particularly interested in protecting the Twi'leks. As you know, because of their beauty, Twi'lek women have long been the victims of slavery. We've learned that some of the refugees didn't make it to Hypori. Whether by bartering or through theft we're not certain, but a group of Tusken Raiders acquired spacecraft and they are using them to intercept the Twi'lek transports. Their despicable exploits disappointingly did not come to an end along with their occupation of this planet. You can take any two Jedi Knights along with you, but keep in mind the nature of this assignment as you're making your selection."

"I totally understand, Grand Master," Julither agreed. She then added, "Thank you for giving the assignment to me."

"You were the obvious choice," Leia shrugged as she responded. She then continued, "The surface of this planet is no longer dangerous for occupation. Although you might need to employ some aggressive negotiations, try to get the Tuskens to return to Tatooine. There's nobody here for them to harass, and I think we need them where it's easier for us to keep an eye on them."

"I'll appeal to their legendary sense of civility," Julither joked.

Leia laughed in open appreciation of the Jedi Master's banter. It was the first time she had heard Julither express such friendly flippancy since returning from Scrymerula.

Being Force sensitive and attuned to the Dark Side, Garis demonstrated surprising aptitude for mastering the lightsaber techniques he was taught. Had it not been so, he would never have survived the sessions. Unlike Jedi padawans, who were expected to do battle only with bokkens for safety's sake, the Sith measured commitment with mortality. They believed in reward only as the result of risk. Although Darth Umbrage was aware of the advantages he garnered by having an apprentice to send on assignments, he wouldn't have mourned the young man's demise. The apprentice who disappointed his master, either while training or far afield, was deserving only of death. This lesson was therefore inherent in every single session.

"I deem you ready to serve as my representative," Darth Umbrage announced at the end of their most recent session. "In accordance with the ancient custom, I'll therefore give you a name by which you'll be known as such. And your last name is strangely applicable, since I am certain you'll cause great sorrow to the Jedi Order. You shall therefore be known as Darth Woe."

"Thank you, Master," Woe replied as he bowed in recognition of the afforded honor.

"You have pledged yourself to my campaign," Umbrage reminded him. "But I am interested in your perspective concerning the Dark Side. I perceive that our philosophies aren't the same."

"I've long suspected that the Jedi's philosophy is foundationally flawed," Woe replied. "They believe they're in a symbiotic relationship with the midi-chlorians. But the Scree have confirmed that the midi-chlorians can exist in the utter absence of an organic host. In fact, they seem to be far more powerful in that form, free to finally support only the indigenous Dark Side of the Force. The Jedi owe their access and the influence it affords them to an aberration, and that's why they deliberately limit their comprehension of the Force. They don't want to admit what it really wants. Its unadulterated desire is actually the antithesis of their supposedly-altruistic agenda."

"You will be required to tell me what you think the Force really wants," Umbrage interjected. "But first, I'd like to know why you believe the Jedi aren't truly altruistic."

"They're just as dedicated to control as any faction they've ever opposed," Woe replied. "It's a requirement to the maintenance of their important position. Consider the completely prejudicial way they conducted themselves during the Clone Wars, forcing uniformity on systems that were trying to free themselves from the Republic. Where was the evil in wanting independence from a corrupt Republic? That wasn't the reason. The Jedi had to fight against the Separatists because they were justifiably afraid they'd lose their preeminence in the Republic's collapse. It was all an exercise in cultural control for a very self-serving reason: to prevent themselves from predictably losing face."

"You have expressed a very interesting perspective," Umbrage acknowledged. "But what is it that you believe the Force really wants?"

“In all the galaxy there's no immortality. Even what you've achieved, although impressive, is only an approximation. Everything lives only to die, most probably in pain. What exactly is it then that serves as the justification for that struggle? A rudimentary awareness aspires to naught but savagery; kill or be killed, slaughter or starve. Sentience inexorably leads to destruction through the ravages of war and its consequent collateral damage. But battle simply cannot occur without combatants. Consciousness itself must be identified as evil. Without awareness there can be no wrong. If life is eliminated, pain is purged and the galaxy returns to its original state of primordial peace. There is no pain without perception, nor agony without awareness. Suffering is facilitated by life itself. It is therefore life that must be eliminated," Woe concisely concluded.

Being still a composite of Lamis Cormosa, Umbrage hid his horror as he asked, "How could such a thing conceivably be accomplished?"

"You have found the way, through cloning," Woe replied. "A succession of Dark Lord clones could scour the cosmos for any sign of incipient life, which would then be sterilized. Hydroponics could be used to supply their provision. Only a planet's sentient inhabitants would be capable of fighting back, and you have the perfect way of extracting them from the equation."

"How so?" Umbrage carefully inquired.

"You would hardly need anything as destructive as a Death Star to depopulate a planet if its inhabitants have already voluntarily abandoned it because of an imminent galactic collision," he conspiratorially sneered. "Then you'd just need to program the city ships to self-destruct once in intergalactic space, and their occupants would never complete the crossing."

"My predecessor was a slave," Darth Umbrage reminded his predatory protégé. "Part of me abhors the concept of slavery. But part of me wants to turn the tables and become the master of the galactic amalgam that facilitated my forced servitude. Your ambition would leave me nobody over whom to rule. My ambition is to make them all beholden to me. I intend to reap the rewards of saving their miserable little lives. Lamis did not suffer much at the hands of his master, but his was an exceptional situation. There were other owners who treated their slaves sadistically, and there was no one to call those actions into account. I can't concern myself with suffering, or with its idealistic elimination through galactic genocide. I intend to rule. And you'll exclusively support my plan or you will meet your destiny. You voluntarily entered into my service. And although you have proven to have some advantageous insights, you'll not be permitted to usurp my plans. Do we have an understanding, or do I need to terminate our arrangement by ending your life?"

"I would be honored to remain in your service as you require, Master," Woe replied, bowing.

Corgus came to call shortly after the conclusion of their conversation. From his hesitancy, it was evident that the Chief Magistrate had unpleasant news to report. Darth Umbrage welcomed him cordially and then waited to see what the cyborg had to say.

"As those in the Republic count time, it has been many months since we began our attempt to fabricate the material required to replicate your crystals," Corgus began. "The suggestion was inspired, and we've managed to replicate many things. But I'm sorry to admit that we have failed with regard to our original objective. Since the crystals contain a biological component, we even experimented with organic processes. But we are unfortunately unable to formulate the material of which the crystals are composed. What will you do?"

"According to my calculations, if I place them sparingly and strategically, I have just enough of the shards to time-shift probes into the future and monitor the systems whose cooperation will be the most critical to the evacuation," Umbrage answered. "I will come very close to completely exhausting my resources for future time-shifting, but it appears to be unavoidable."

"I should also tell you that the Jedi have succeeded in sending a subspace signal to us," the Chief Magistrate remarked. "They have asked a question that might deserve your consideration. Given the power of your Crystal Matrix and the substantial amount of time before the impending collision, they have asked if its deflective capabilities could perhaps simply prevent the disaster. They suggested possibly focusing the power of a supernova or gamma ray burst to carry out the deflection. As insightful as I know you are, I assume that you've already considered this solution and subsequently discarded it. But I'm not certain I see the shortcoming."

"While it's true that we see gamma ray bursts in other galaxies, the force of the detonations has dissipated long before reaching us. In short, the target is still out of range," Darth Umbrage explained. "However, there is another problem. I must physically interact with the Crystal Matrix in order to control it. Although it might be capable of focusing that kind of force, I would be killed in the attempt. You downloaded the libraries from the Nadir. You understand the situation. Each successive clone will comprise an increasing percentage of Dark Lord uploads. I doubt if I could bring myself to make the sacrifice we're describing. There's certainly no reason to believe some future manifestation would be more likely to do so. Quite the opposite. But the beauty of my plan is that it requires no sacrifice, save for the foregoing of certain freedoms. That is their answer."

"I know what they'll ask in response, since the Jedi claim to be selfless," Corgus countered. "What if someone were willing to make that sacrifice?"

"The Crystal Matrix is exclusively an instrument of the indigenous Dark Side," the Dark Lord smugly responded. "No Jedi would be able to wield it; otherwise, they'd be unwilling to do so. It's the perfect paradox. Mine is the only plan that will serve to save this galaxy's civilizations. I hope I can count on your continued support. As much as I deeply appreciate all you've done and tried to do, however, we must now take our leave. I am afraid it will take a substantial amount of time for us to position the probes. We need to get started immediately. Thank you very much for your hospitality. We'll try to keep in touch."

Darth Woe carefully waited until they were securely back aboard the Nadir before he asked, "Is the target really out of range?"

"What do you think?" Umbrage irritably inquired.

The young man noticed how the Dark Lord's hand was hovering near the hilt of his weapon. Recalling just how mercurial his master's moods often seemed and the superhuman rapidly with which he had seen the Predator's Prism deployed, Woe knew better than to offer any kind of excuse for the committing of carnage. In truth, he needed to demonstrate his continued worth as an ally. And he had not quite run out of creative suggestions, but he needed to live long enough to offer the next one.

"I think it doesn't matter at all," he circumspectly replied.

"Good answer," Umbrage agreed. Ushering his submissive subordinate toward the console where M4 was working, he said, "Plot a course to the first set of coordinates we calculated. I will start getting the probe droids ready."

From an enclosure atop one of the towers that overlooked the airfield, Corgus turned to one of his administrative assistants and said, "To the last person the Jedi would sacrifice themselves to safeguard the freedoms he so callously expects everyone to complacently surrender. He may hold the key to our survival, but it might not be the one he's showing us. Without a doubt, there's leverage involved in his approach. I think we need to confer with the Jedi again while he's away. In fact, I think it might be time to introduce them to our real administration. Put me through to the Chancellor on Brimula."

The Jedi fighters seemed to come out of nowhere. They made it impossible to approach the Twi'lek transports. They were as relentless as a sandstorm on Tatooine, and the way they easily avoided the salvos from the Tusken spacecraft made it seem as if they could actually anticipate the aim of the gunners. To make matters worse for the Raiders, evasion wasn't an option. Once one of the fighters moved into a pursuit position, they hung on with the tenacity of Mynocks on a power cable. The marauders were finally forced to flee back to a nearby moon, which they were using as a base from which to launch their opportunistic attacks.

"Looks like they're ready to talk," Hershonel commented into his microphone.

"They may have hostages," Julither suggested. "Does anyone want to recommend what we should do if that turns out to be the case?"

"They're on an outpost in space," Dari replied. "In such a situation everyone is held hostage by their life support system. If they start making threats, we simply destroy it. I'm certain that the Tuskens will let us rescue their hostages if it's the only way they can get us to rescue them."

"I guess that would fall under the category of aggressive negotiations," Hershonel laughed.

"Maintain your flanking positions and watch for fire from the surface," Julither instructed. "I'll try to explain the situation to them as diplomatically as possible."

The ray-shielded bay of a hanger opened to receive the Raiders' ships. But the pilots, being inexperienced and coming in way too quickly in their attempt to stay ahead of the Jedi, could not decelerate swiftly enough to keep from plowing into the backside of the bay. As the compartment lost pressure, it became obvious that the Tuskens were ill-prepared to contend with any such an emergency. Seemingly out of sheer desperation, they started transmitting a distress signal. And Julither took the opportunity to capitalize on their predicament.

"Tusken outpost, this is Jedi Master Julither," she cordially announced. "If you will surrender your weapons and any hostages you happen to have, I will summon assistance from the Twi'lek transport you were just attacking. If not, then we'll just pull your unconscious carcasses from the station after you've collapsed, and you won't get any bonus points for cooperating. We're waiting for you to signal your decision."

Anticipating what their answer would be, and being aware that medical aid might need to be extended to any captives the Tuskens had taken, the captain of the Twi'lek transport ordered his crew to bring the stalwart craft about the moment he heard her announcement. His expectations were realized in short order. The Tuskens chose to surrender. And once the Jedi confirmed that the Raiders were in fact disarmed, the Twi'lek security forces took them into custody. No loss of life resulted from the incident, and the captives from the previous raids were all recovered. If the pair of Jedi Knights were disappointed that there had been no occasion for swordplay, they very wisely didn't let it show. Julither contacted the Jedi Temple at the end of the operation.

"We just finally succeeded in getting through to the Scree," Leia reported with evident relief. "They've requested the return of our envoy. They are suddenly very serious about establishing a diplomatic relationship with us. Your destination is Brimula. It sounded to me as if the Scree use the cyborgs as a shield when dealing with outsiders. They are far more formidable. It seems that we've been admitted to their inner sanctum. This is an auspicious development."

"That is fantastic news," Julither agreed. "I'm somewhat surprised though that Gwonameeth apparently didn't pick up on the fact that we were dealing with decoys. Why does this remind me of someone's mother?"

"I thought of that biographical reference as well," Leia laughed. "As I understand it, cyborgs can be very difficult to read telepathically. And as for the extent of the civilization on Brimula, it's still mostly underground. Because they offered protection from severe conditions on the surface, lava tubes were used to house the original colonists. Over time, due to increasing solar radiation and the lack of a strong planetary magnetic field, they were reinforced. It was this reinforcement that probably prevented our telepath from comprehending how extensive the settlement actually is."

"Were you able to obtain any description of their governmental structure," Julither inquired.

"Yes, and it is interesting," Grand Master Solo excitedly answered. "Although they did away with royalty a very long time ago, there are reminders of that ancient arrangement in the current configuration. Perhaps their government is run more like a corporation with an heir operating as the Chancellor. Their legislative body is like a major corporation's board of directors, except that the directors are elected. And it isn't just a popularity contest. There're some extremely stringent requirements that must be met in order to run for office. The family from which the Chancellor is selected can change. Even though the current Chancellor's children are very carefully prepared to inherit the position, the legislative body can vote to replace a Chancellor who performs below their expectations. If none of the other potential heirs prove to be adequate, then another family is promoted to the Chancellery. In addition to the other requirements that apply to the members of the legislative body, since there can be no conflict of interest in fiscal matters, the family must be affluent enough to survive without supplemental income for the duration of its service. In that way, corruption cannot enter into the equation."

"Do the Scree have no plans to occupy the surface of Brimula?" Julither asked.

"Like so many ascendant civilizations, the Scree almost ruined their homeworld," the Grand Master replied. "As a result, as it was explained to me, they wanted to take an organic approach to the transformation of Brimula. They therefore steadfastly stayed underground while they were hydrating and oxygenating its atmosphere. But life had once flourished on Brimula in the earliest ages of their solar system, of which their research made them aware, and its vestigial remnants still existed. It erupted in response to their revitalization efforts. And in implausibly short order, it took over the surface. One of the resurgent creatures, which have recently emerged, resembles lyleks. The Scree started conducting safaris in order to certify that specific areas are made safe for occupation. In their effort to facilitate a truly native development, they might have actually let the planet go too far. Now, they have to reclaim the wild."

"They sound like a society that could have a very beneficial influence on the Republic if only they were to aspire to such an association," Julither optimistically surmised. "Perhaps our envoy can help to persuade them in that direction. Do you know what they look like?"

"I've only spoken to Chief Magistrate Corgus so far," Leia's holographic image shrugged as she responded. "So, it looks like you and the other delegates will get to make that determination for yourselves. I'd go with you, but I am afraid my condition precludes the possibility of exposing myself to the extreme gravitational forces of the Core. And I suspect that there will be somebody new for you to meet when you get back from Brimula. Return as quickly as you can to assemble your envoy. Please extend my congratulations for a job well done to the pair of Jedi Knights who assisted you."

"Thank you, Grand Master. I will do that," Julither rejoined. "And if I may ask, was there any word on Umbrage and his doings?"

"The Scree tried to help him replicate the shards of the One Crystal," Leia replied. "But they were unsuccessful. He's left their system, apparently to return to the Republic for the purpose of pursuing his plan. The only other item of information they could impart was that he has taken an apprentice."

The Jedi Master paused before replying, "Although this was never discussed in council, I'm sure we all assumed that he would just eventually clone himself like Lamis did if he wasn't killed beforehand. I find this unexpected development especially disturbing. Do we have any idea why he would adopt such a tactic?"

"No, but I concur that it seems to portend something especially sinister," Grand Master Solo agreed. "I have no idea how an individual would distinguish himself to a Sith Lord like Umbrage. And it obviously represents a doubling of the danger we face in the short term. But what bothers me most is that I sense an ancient evil at work in all this, something that somehow goes back at least to the beginning of the Clone Wars. I just haven't been able to discern what it is."

"That would hearken back to a time before the fall of both the Republic and the Jedi Order," Julither countered with concern. "Besides the One Crystal, what could possibly have survived to now resurface and further compound our problems?"

"I think it might've been instrumental in facilitating the fall of both ancient institutions. But it's almost like there's some type of personal relationship that is interfering with my ability to identify it, like I'm somehow too close to whatever it is," Leia replied, attempting to explain the paradox.

"Although I am hesitant to make the observation, the Skywalkers have been at the nexus of the most pivotal points in recent history. Perhaps this is something that relates to your brother or your father," Julither suggested as cautiously as she could. "While I agree that it is best for us to limit our reliance on communing with the Transformed Masters, maybe in this situation just such a consultation is what's required."

"That particular recourse has already been explored," Grand Master Solo admitted, "and I'm sorry to say that it didn't lead to any additional insights. Whatever is at work here, it is up to us in the present to discern the source of this mysterious menace. It might be that you will gain clarity through your visit to the Scree. But if you should happen to encounter this apprentice, be certain that you don't underestimate his skill. Jedi Master Jinn was slain by just such an acolyte, not the Sith Lord whom Darth Maul merely served. Return now to the temple and assemble your envoy. The Force is with you."
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