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

The Days That Were No More

Despite the debacle that had taken place on the previous occasion, when Julither suddenly became confrontational toward her, Leia elected to convene an informal assembly and therefore allow access to everybody in the envoy. Han was also in attendance. Between their reception of the invitation to Brimula and the successful recovery of the Twi'lek slaves, there was perceptible optimism among all those attending. Julither took the opportunity to render a formal report to the few members of the Jedi Council who were present.

"It appears as if only one band of Tuskens actually participated in the attacks on the Twi'lek transports, and we're uncertain of the disposition of the rest of their scattered tribes," she began. "We would have to locate them before we could encourage them to return to Tatooine. And that would probably require the assistance of Master Gwonameeth. For the sake of consistency, not even taking telepathic capacity into account, I'd prefer for the original members of the diplomatic mission to make the return trip."

"That's the bad news," Leia cryptically interjected.

"Excuse me," Julither countered in confusion.

"The Scree became aware of the presence of a telepath in your group because of the ease with which you obtained permission to land," Leia patiently explained. "They have asked that we exclude the telepath from the return trip. The populace of their adopted homeworld, to which we have been very auspiciously invited, aren't cybernetic. They understandably want to allow some room for caution. Appreciating their position, I agreed to their terms. Gwonameeth must remain."

"Then we can proceed on both fronts," Awswi observed. "I agree that the reclamation of the Tuskens could be critical to stabilizing the security of the surrounding sectors. If my services are not required elsewhere, I'd be happy to also remain behind in order to assist in that effort."

"Commissioner Eisley is having the wreckage of the Tusken ships examined by Republican Security," Julither continued. "But they were very badly damaged when the hanger blew. If he is able to identify where they originated, whether through barter or theft, it could possibly help us in locating the remainder of their tribes. I'd recommend that you wait to see what he says."

"I'm assuming that Darth Umbrage is no longer a guest of the Scree," Cyrella ventured. "Do we know where he went?"

"Not precisely," Leia answered. "But we know he's taken an apprentice. And Garis Woe has since become Darth Woe. This other adversary apparently came up with the idea of using Scree teleporter technology to try and replicate the crystal shards. But although they made the attempt with every process at their disposal, the Scree couldn't fabricate the material of which the crystal shards are composed. Upon learning of this eventuality, Darth Umbrage and his apprentice took their leave of Scrymerula. And unlike us, they haven't been invited to Brimula."

Leia noticed the faraway look on Cyrella's face as the Jedi Knight replied, "Somehow I have the impression that Darth Woe hasn't quite run out of ideas with regards to possible applications for the teleporter technology. I'm sorry I can't be more specific than that."

"Besides replication, what could the teleportation technology possibly be used for?" Zayana pressed.

"My impression is that it represents a brand-new way to test the limits of the Force," Cyrella cautiously answered. "This makes me think it must somehow also involve moving things through time. But I can't discern the exact details."

"If Gwonameeth is staying and Priella has returned to Coruscant with her padawan," Awswi interjected, changing the subject, "then perhaps we should have Rostla-Kon brought back so he can retest."

"It's not been a year yet. The mandatory waiting period for retesting hasn't expired," Julither automatically argued. But then she seemed to reconsider her position and continued, "But there are extenuating circumstances. We have confirmed that he deliberately failed the trials. Perhaps it would be permissible to move his appointment up. I withdraw the objection."

Leia couldn't be certain whether Julither was being obliging or her self-confidence had been compromised. Given that the standard was established by tradition, even though she would also have entertained a motion to reconsider it, Leia would've supported Julither's objection. Instead, the situation was being treated as an exception, and the rule remained unaltered. She didn't feel as if the correct course had truly been taken. But since it seemed to be of no real consequence, she dismissed the perception.

"We should probably wait for the findings from Republican Security before we recall Rostla-Kon," Leia suggested. "Since the Falcon will almost certainly be sent to retrieve him, there might be a chance of using it to send Awswi and Gwonameeth on their way at the same time. It's quite possible that we're under surveillance. Our movements need to be concise, circumspect, and as reinforced as we can make them. Han's ship is extremely recognizable, and the enemy's vessel is cloaked. I'd be much less concerned about the possibility of him flying into a trap if he has two Jedi Masters with him on the outbound journey and an exceptional Jedi Knight candidate on the return trip. His Force-sensitive passengers might perceive something that not even the Falcon's most sophisticated equipment could detect."

"I agree," Awswi was quick to concur. "We should also consider sending the Forthright by a circuitous route. We definitely don't need to advertise its destination."

"Is there any chance that we are walking into a trap?" Julither asked, returning to a strategic perspective in response to the turn in the conversation.

"We would not have been invited to Brimula if the Scree thought any conflict might occur," Leia replied. "But the Sith Lord's departure could've been a feint. You'll need to be vigilant."

"I don't suppose there's any point in putting off our departure then," she concluded. "If there is nothing else to discuss, my team and I should probably go ahead and report to the Forthright. It's just unfortunate that we don't even have an inkling of what the Sith Lord is doing."

Almost as if in response to Julither's summation, a mysterious psychic effect swept through the assembly. Like many of the other members, Cyrella had just risen in preparation for carrying out the Jedi Master's suggestion. She nearly swooned before its onslaught. Han was powerfully reminded of the reaction of Obi-Wan Kenobi upon sensing the destruction of Alderaan, although nobody aboard the Falcon actually understood what was happening at the time. It was only later that they discovered the source of the Jedi Master's discomfiture.

"What the hell was that?" Zayana frantically demanded, sounding approximately panicked.

"He's altered the past," Cyrella replied, using a nearby piece of furniture to steady herself.

"But he did that before, when he sent those destroyer droids into the commerce complex," Julither objected. "It didn't have this kind of profound effect."

"This time it must've involved the loss of life," Leia correctly concluded."Redefining the past in that way would send quantum reverberations through the Force."

"And only the Force-sensitive are probably even aware that anything just happened," Awswi added. "For everyone else, it would likely seem as if life is simply going on as normal. What has he done?"

He looked mostly at Cyrella as he asked the question. But as he finished he also glanced at the Grand Master. Both women were however gazing in the same direction. Neither was looking through the nearby window, which would perhaps have seemed reasonable. Their concentration was fixed instead on a point in space that was somewhere obviously beyond the confines of the structure in which they were standing.

"The Hoth system," they both suddenly announced in unison.

Turning to address the assembly, Leia continued, "I can't discern the precise nature of what he's done, but the disturbance originated in the Hoth system."

"Should we send someone there to investigate?" Zayana asked.

"There'd be nothing to find," Cyrella took the opportunity to answer. But she was careful not to demonstrate amusement at her friend's expense. Although genuine, the inquiry could've very easily been considered comical. And Cyrella was sure that such had not been the intent. "When he changed the past, he erased all the evidence of whatever was there before."

"What type of target could've attracted his attention in such a place?" Julither asked, but the answer suggested itself to her even as the question was leaving her lips.

"Due to the destruction of its star, the Hoth system is an area of disturbed space that is very similar to what we have here," Leia reluctantly replied. "If he's testing some application for killing people in such a location, he may've just experienced a major breakthrough. Perhaps we should temporarily postpone the departure of the Forthright. We might be about to find ourselves on the defensive. I'd rather not send so many lightsaber wielders away in our only dreadnaught until it's clear that we're not about to be the subject of his next assault. Let's wait a couple of days."

"Once we've deployed the probe droids, all that will remain of the time-shifting shards is the dust from the cutting of the One Crystal," Darth Woe hesitantly surmised. "With your permission, my master, I'd like to conduct an experiment."

"What is the nature of this experiment?" Umbrage asked.

"As I understand it, a person's midi-chlorian count can't be increased through something as simple as an injection," Woe replied. "They must actually be infused. This occurs during cloning. But I think there might be another way to accomplish the enhancement. And I'm willing to be the test subject."

"You're trying to make yourself strong enough to possibly replace me?" the Sith Lord darkly demanded, his words edged like lightsabers. "Why should I allow such an attempt?"

"I entertain no such aspirations, my master," Woe replied. "It would be counterproductive in the extreme for me to even consider such a thing. I've no reason to think I am capable of saving the galaxy myself. Even if I were to depose you and achieve immortality through the use of your cloning equipment, my linage would come to an end with the destruction of the galaxy. My place is at your side as your subordinate. This would even be true of any subsequent clones of myself that you allow me to create. My ambition is to improve myself merely as a means to better serve you and your cause. But I also suspect that the procedure might yield insight into other ways the dust might be used."

"Explain," Umbrage instructed.

"Thanks to the scans that were taken by the Scree," Woe rejoined, "we now know about the biological component that somehow came to be incorporated into the One Crystal. Furthermore, we also possess a much better understanding of their teleporter technology. It might be possible to infuse that biological component into other organic structures. My idea involves drawing some of my blood and using the teleporter to merge it with a sample of the dust. If fusion really occurs, I'll then inject the composite into myself. In this way, I might be able to increase my midi-chlorian count; although there might also be an absorption period involved."

"You will eventually engage the Jedi," Umbrage prophetically proclaimed. "It thus behooves us to make you the most indomitable adversary we can. But if this procedure is successful, how else does it have the potential of helping us?"

"If it is actually possible to combine the biology of the crystal dust with other organics," Woe cautiously suggested, "then enhancement might not be its only application. We might be able to weaponize it in way that allows it to kill. Perhaps it could be combined with an especially virulent virus. Maybe we could even engineer it so that the crystal's time-shifting capacity is activated as an effect of infection. If so, then it might be possible to kill a person in the past by exposing them in the present."

"You're thinking of the Grand Master," Umbrage correctly deduced.

"And I thought the Jedi were the only ones with a telepath," Woe laughed as he answered.

"I approve your experiment," the Sith Lord solemnly said. "But I'd recommend that you have one of the droids draw your blood and prepare the sample. In addition to the cloning procedure, they're programmed to perform other medical ministrations. Since their protocols came from the Kaminoan complex, it's almost like having a team of doctors on standby."

Darth Umbrage observed dispassionately as Woe submitted himself to the bloodletting. But the phlebotomy was so professionally performed that his apprentice experienced little in the way of discomfort. As the droid was preparing the sample for teleportation, the Sith Lord asked about the possibility of procuring a strain of exceptionally virulent virus for possible development into a biological weapon.

"One of the systems not far from Kamino contained a planet where a biotech company was located," the droid replied. "Most of the inhabitants of the sector were probably evacuated when the star was destroyed. If so, then the facilities might have been abandoned rapidly enough that some of the medical materials could've remained behind. You might have unrestricted access to them. The system is just outside the Rishi Maze. I can provide you with the coordinates."

"Since we are sending them into the future, we can deploy the probe droids at any time. It's really just a matter of reaching the required locations," Umbrage observed. To M4 he said, "Let's go ahead and input a course to the system your associate just described. Maybe by the time we reach that world, we'll know whether the crystal dust can really be combined with other organics. And perhaps we can proceed with a new plan for getting rid of the Jedi."

Having received the sample of his own blood, prepared in a Petri dish, Darth Woe then took several grains of crystal dust and put them on the teleporter pad beside the container. Moving to the teleporter's control console, he conjoined the two in transit, sending them to his workstation.

Electron microscopy revealed that the infusion had been successful. The midi-chlorians had indeed been absorbed into the blood cells. Although the remnants of the crystal dust adhered to the outsides of the cell walls, the droids were able to apply a process that washed them away. It was then considered safe to inject the mixture back into its donor. But even Umbrage could offer no prophetic conjecture as to what the results would really be. Mere moments after receiving the vaccination, the recipient fell writhing to the floor. The entire team of droids quickly initiated a full court press. It was only because of their swift intercession that the victim survived.

"He's going to be sick for awhile," M4 finally informed Umbrage. "His body tried to reject the infusion. We apparently need to allow an adjustment period after such a procedure, although it's entirely possible that the reaction will be progressively less severe with each infusion if he elects to continue the therapy. Nonetheless, we've now verified that single-celled infusion of the crystal dust can be achieved with the aid of teleportation."

"The Scree claimed that single-celled structures could survive the teleportation. Fortunately, that's all we require," Umbrage replied. "Make my apprentice as comfortable as you can. I might need his assistance when we reach our objective."

The prognosis of the automated medical team proved to be correct. It took time for the man who'd once been Garis Woe to acclimatize to his absorption of the additional midi-chlorians. But subsequent testing confirmed that his count had indeed increased. By the time they reached the far side of the Rishi Maze, he was on his feet again and more powerful than before. Meanwhile, his master conducted extensive consultations with his robotic advisers, trying to determine what it might be possible to do in terms of modifying an infectious agent with the crystal dust. And the suggestions he extracted could probably have been arrived at by no other route. Due to the fact that the Kaminoans were master geneticists and the droids had been programmed for service in one of their medical complexes, even the Archives didn't contain all the biological information to which the Sith Lord had access. It goes without saying that the Kaminoans, if they had survived, would've been appalled by the purpose to which their medical comprehension was put.

In order to safely forego the use of the Nadir's transponder, they avoided the Corellian Run. Their course took them instead through the edge of Bothan Space on their way toward the Rishi Maze. The shockwave from the destruction of Kamino had dangerously jumbled the orbits of the astronomical objects in the maze, making direct passage through it practically impossible. Darth Umbrage saw this as only being advantageous since it would minimize the odds of encountering any other traffic in the sector. And he knew he could count on the Dark Side of the Force to help him guide his ship through the shifting labyrinth. Such an approach would defy any detection.

By the time they cleared the Abrion Sector, they were finally able to confirm the coordinates of their objective. The maze had acted almost like a buffer between the stellar explosion and the systems further out on the galaxy's rim. Consequently, orbits in this extremely backwater region were essentially unaltered. The planet was right where they expected it to be. But since nobody was certain of the extent to which the surrounding systems would be impacted by the explosion, it had seemed expedient to evacuate the system. Their objective was virtually vacant of sentient life. The only indication of habitation was in an area that was very far removed from the medical research center. Umbrage and his apprentice knew that the interlopers were solely interested in acquisitions that assisted survival. Noxious compounds weren't on that list. They'd only resort to the medical complex if injury or illness forced them to do so.

Despite the approximately arctic conditions of its surroundings, the contents of the complex seemed mostly uncompromised. Some of the medicine cabinets had been ransacked. But all of the areas where biohazard signs were posted appeared to have been immune to such pilfering. It looked as if no one had entered them since before the evacuation. Even though access codes were required for admittance, a determined assault would have eventually provided entry for the robbers. Of course, Darth Umbrage was able to easily open the hermetically sealed portals with an application of the Force. For safety's sake, as they entered the outermost of the laboratory's airlocks, he and his apprentice donned biohazard suits that'd been supplied for the technicians.

In the event that containment had been breached by any of the infectious agents, Umbrage elected to leave the droids outside in the main structure. He didn't want to accidentally transport anything outside of the secured compartment. Their attendance wasn't necessary anyway. They could access the laboratory's inventory from any interface in the complex and relay those details through the use of a com-link. In this way they directed the two protectively-garbed scouts to the repository in which the most dangerous diseases were kept. After determining what was actually available, they offered their advice concerning the selection of the most promising pathogens for the weaponized application. Darth Woe located a case in which the samples could be stored for transport, and the two men emerged with their perilous prize.

Once they were back aboard the Nadir, they began working on a way to realize their deadly dream. They soon decided that there was only one safe way for using the teleporter to combine the crystal dust with any of their virulent samples. The receptacle needed to be outside the ship, safely sequestered in the sterility of space. They were thereby able to accumulate a collection of abominable amalgams that all resulted from such transmogrifying mergers. Since the droids had been programmed by the Kaminoans and had direct computational access to the Crystal Matrix, they were able to run simulations to determine the ultimate outcomes of infection by each of the redesigned diseases. They were thus able to identify the result that most perfectly matched their operational objective.

The time-shifting aspect of the pathogen would become active as a direct effect of infection. And of course, it was incurable. But the illness didn't kill its victim in a matter of days or hours. It killed them years ago. It wiped out their life all the way back to the creation of the Crystal Matrix. If history could be defined as the deeds of individuals, this was the decisive way to rewrite it. No one would, as Umbrage and his apprentice inferred, even be aware of the alteration. It made the past completely pliable. If they could somehow manage to infect the Grand Master with this new biological weapon, she would die before ever convincing the Jedi Council to relocate the temple to Tatooine. Then the droids, which Darth Umbrage had already sent back in time, might be able to achieve their objective and destroy the Jedi Order.

"How do we test it in real time?" Woe carefully inquired.

Reassured to see that his apprentice still deferred to his judgment, Umbrage answered, "It's best if we use a limited target in an out-of-the-way area. My predecessor was prospecting in the remains of the Kamino system when he underwent his transformation to Darth Duress. But Luke Skywalker destroyed other stars. And there are certain to be opportunists hoping to gain access to the mineralogical deposits of ripped-open worlds in those systems. Everyone remembers how the obliteration of Alderaan made some prospectors implausibly prosperous. Such opportunistic individuals are actually trying to stay off everyone's radar, just like Lamis. Kamino and Geonosis were too close to Tatooine. I'd prefer not to conduct operations in that area until we are ready to make our move against the Jedi. But Hoth was in the backwater of the Outer Rim. We should be able to find some suitable test subjects in that remote of a region. M4, set a course."

The droid took note of its master's desire to avoid Tatooine, which was situated almost right along any direct course to their target. In order to avoid the use of the ship's transponder, it also knew to stay away from established shipping lanes. Shunning the dreaded Death Wind Corridor, it plotted a course that took the Nadir around Ryloth and not far from both Utapau and Dagobah as it made its meandering way toward the Ison Corridor of the Anoat Sector. While on route, the two men cautiously prepared their biological weapon for deployment.

Once they reached the dark and decimated worlds of the Hoth System, it didn't take long to locate some prospectors. But in spite of his supposed omniscience, Darth Umbrage had no idea that he'd just located one of the bands of Tusken Raiders for which the Jedi were looking. Being the clone of Lamis Cormosa, he recognized them for what they were. He was however oblivious to fact that they were of any interest to his adversaries. Having memories from Lamis, his hatred for the Tuskens was actually genetic. He consequently considered it serendipitous that they had presented themselves as his prototype target. He couldn't imagine more deserving guinea pigs.

"We need to introduce the aerosol into the life support system of their habitat," the Sith Lord observed aloud. Turning to M4 he said, "See if the scanners can locate a section of their system into which we can teleport a time-release canister, but keep the ship cloaked. There's no reason to make them aware of our proximity."

After mere moments of using the Nadir's equipment to scan the prefabricated structure, the droid announced, "I've identified a section of conduit into which we can introduce the canister. If we wait just a little while, they will all be inside the outpost. The sensors show that the rest of the workforce is on its way back to the habitat right now."

The predatory occupants of the Nadir waited as patiently as they could for the unsuspecting Tuskens to come trundling back to their habitat. Umbrage then delayed until he was certain that the spacesuits had been shed. And after the Raiders had all comfortably settled inside the killing box, he instructed M4 to teleport the time-release canister into their life support system's primary conduit. After that, it was only a matter of watching the countdown timer. And then, their vessel's scanners coldly confirmed the release of the slaughtering spray.

Within moments, the Tuskens and all the evidence of their operations started to shimmer in uncertainty. It was like watching heat waves disperse before an unexpected, wintery wind. In the final second, before winking into nonexistence, it was as if the Tuskens and their trappings were unceremoniously sucked into an invisible black hole. Being Force-sensitive, the two men felt the quantum repercussions as, in complete contravention of its continuity; such integral components of the timeline were consigned to impossibly preexistent oblivion. To the perpetrators, the sense of wrongness was almost overwhelming. The experience was like getting away with the ultimate crime or receiving an injection of a powerful and incredibly addictive drug. It was Darth Woe who summed it up most succinctly.

"That was wrong," he correctly concluded. But then, turning to Umbrage, he conspiratorially suggested, "Let's do it again."

"Yes," he maliciously grinned as he agreed, "but on infinitely more deserving recipients."

"What is to be our next target, Master?" Woe carefully inquired. "Is there any way to use our weapon against the Jedi?"

"The shield that protects the Jedi Temple on Tatooine is unassailable," Umbrage answered. "Nothing can penetrate its protection, except the ships that are allowed to pass through. There's only one way to get the weapon within range of the Grand Master: just let the Jedi deliver it. The Force informs me that the Scree have invited them back for further deliberations. We will simply teleport a canister of the weapon onto the Forthright and let Ackbar relay our regards to the Jedi Order. As powerful a pathogen as we've developed, it probably doesn't even have to actually be inside the structure to kill everyone. I doubt if the air intakes atop the temple can filter it out. And it's possible that some of the infected will make it inside before they succumb. As you know, it is of course communicable until it kills."

"Yes, and that is the ultimate failsafe," Woe rejoined. "After it's done its job, the host doesn't even exist anymore. There can't be a more effective means of sterilization than that. Am I right in assuming then that it's already time for us to head back to Scrymerula?"

"No," Umbrage surprised his apprentice by answering. "They are not going to Scrymerula. It seems that the Scree haven't been completely forthcoming with me. So be sure to keep the ship cloaked. We'll be going to Brimula."

"I know I'm the one who usually provides the comic relief, sometimes without even meaning to, so I'm not comfortable playing the heavy," Zayana explained. "And please do not get the idea that I think any less of my mentor. But something has happened to Master Julither, and we need to be certain to safeguard her as much as possible. I have a bad feeling about this mission."

"Your mentor is a very great Jedi Master and I've no doubt that she has an important part to play in the drama that's currently unfolding," Cyrella circumspectly replied. "But I have seen that her confidence seems to be under attack. And I suspect that the source of her uncertainty exists apart from anything she has yet intimated."

"I know the loss of Soma had more of an impact on her than perhaps anyone else," Zayana remarked. "She's repeatedly made mention of the mistake she made in leaving Soma alone with Lamis at their first meeting. I also know it was to honor the obligation she'd made to me. And I'm not sure how I feel about that. But what else is it that she could regret?"

"As part of research for a project assigned to me by Master Priella, I examined a number of security recordings from the time just prior to our departure from the Jedi Temple on Coruscant," Cyrella explained. "I was reminded of the fact that Soma was with us for awhile after she parted company with Lamis. In fact, the Jedi Council actually met more than once during that time. She also had personal interactions with a number of people, including your mentor. Being one of the few people in whom Soma confided, perhaps your master is mostly troubled by the fact that she was oblivious to how far her friend had fallen. But to put that into perspective, neither the Grand Master nor even Master Gwonameeth detected her defection until after the fact."

"Even General Kenobi didn't realize that the Dark Side had claimed his previous apprentice until after Anakin became Darth Vader," Zayana supportively said.

"The only shortcoming in all of this is that none of us are omniscient," Cyrella recapitulated. "Not even someone who sees shatterpoints can always expect to forestall the future. It certainly didn't turn out to be the case for Master Windu. We should endeavor to find occasions to remind each other of these truths while in the company of Master Julither. Perhaps it would help."

"That sounds like a commendable recourse," Zayana agreed.

Their discourse was interrupted by the pervasive sounding of a soft chime. Considering that it served as the summons to an emergency session of the Jedi Council, the sound itself seemed antithetic. Although neither of the women were Jedi Masters, it stood to reason that the envoy to Brimula would be impacted by whatever had now developed. It therefore seemed reasonable for them to respond to the summons. Using bursts of Force-induced speed to follow the sound to its source, they rapidly arrived at the observation deck of the northwest tower. Everybody was soon assembled. Knowing that Awswi had actually initiated the summons to emergency session, Leia looked to the Jedi Master.

Addressing first the holographic images of Masters Xan and Priella, he said, "I apologize for interrupting your shifts, but we have a serious problem. As I'm sure you're aware, we have been awaiting a report on the origin of the ships used by the Tusken slave traders. Since I was getting impatient, I decided to contact Republican Security to get an update on their investigation. They had no idea what I was talking about."

"How is that possible?" the shimmering image of Xan anxiously inquired.

"I'm sure you experienced the disturbance in the Force that resulted from Umbrage altering the past," Leia replied. "Whatever he did must somehow have negated the means by which they came to be in possession of those ships."

"But we both sensed that the time disruption originated in the remains of the Hoth system," Cyrella carefully interjected. "How could an event in so far removed a sector of space have such proximate repercussions?"

"The people he killed must've been the Tuskens who were really responsible for the theft or acquisition of those ships," Master Julither correctly construed. "But they put theirs to a purpose that didn't include attacking Twi'lek transports. My suspicion is that they were prospecting, which is what Lamis Cormosa was doing and how he got into so much trouble."

"If Umbrage was looking to test some new application of his technology," Awswi suggested, "he would've appreciated the possibility of finding disposable people in such a situation. I'm sure it's only because of the Force that we're still aware of the timeline he nullified. But consequently, we understand just how incredibly far-reaching the repercussions really were. It's hard to grasp."

"By what malicious means could he have eliminated people from the past?" Zayana asked.

"The Scree confirmed that teleportation was not possible for anything but single cells," Leia reminded the assembly. "I can't quite reconcile how killing the Tuskens in the Hoth system could have stopped them from acquiring their ships somewhere else. That is obviously not where they got them. Does anybody have any idea about how he could have erased them from the timeline like that?"

"Perhaps the Scree could help us comprehend how it was done," Julither suggested. "It had to involve a fusion of their teleportation technology and Umbrage's time-shifting ability. If there is any kind of security recording of what he was doing during his last visit, maybe we could discern the nature of this new application. I move that we immediately proceed with the embarkation our envoy. We cannot hope to diffuse the danger by delaying any longer."

Grand Master Solo put the measure to a vote, and it was unanimously approved. Everyone understood that their destiny, whatever it was, needed to be embraced. They needed to conduct themselves with temerity; if not, they would already have suffered a type of defeat. The Jedi had always been renowned for their boldness. They would not weather the storm that was Umbrage by abandoning their most impassioned aspect.

Since Han and Chewy were performing maintenance on the Falcon, making certain it would be ready for any upcoming mission, they were absent from the upper platform for the departure of the Forthright. Grand Master Solo stood flanked by Awswi, Gwonameeth, and their respective padawans as she watched the dreadnaught go soaring off into the sky. She then remained mute for several moments before turning to the Jedi Masters.

"I can get no sense of this expedition's outcome," she complained in confusion. "When they left before, I experienced the certainty that they would return unscathed."

"The Shroud of the Dark Side has fallen," Awswi reluctantly conceded. "We knew it was just a matter of time before Umbrage applied that aspect of his instrumentality. It can only mean that he's now ready to make his move."

Gwonameeth's padawan, the Wookiee Jedi Knight Chenezarr, growled loudly in disgruntled agreement, but Leia's padawan, Jedi Knight Avalynn Vosh, suggested, "The Shroud of the Dark Side could be like the ink of some undersea creature. It might blind everybody. Sidious certainly didn't foresee his own downfall. Perhaps it doesn't actually yield an advantage to our adversary. Maybe it merely levels the playing field. And we like it when the odds are even."

This comment was rewarded by an altogether different reaction from the amused Wookiee, who chortled uproariously. And Awswi's padawan, the Togruta Jedi Knight Hershonel, obviously was also very amused by Avalynn's attitude. Appreciating their optimism, their instructors wisely made no comments to the contrary. In fact, Awswi's normally solemn expression was briefly lost to the uncontrollable cracking of a crooked smile. Without any further discussion, the group then turned about and went back into the bastion.

Onboard the Forthright it seemed to some of her subordinates as if Julither now displayed a dangerous determination. Her demeanor no longer suggested a lack of confidence. But her new intensity was almost frighteningly fey. She hovered over the three female Jedi Knights as if they were only younglings. Her dedication didn't seem to them like that of somebody who was merely a mentor. It was almost maternal. And they could not discern its source.

"You should try to get some sleep before we get to the Core," she encouraged Dari. "There might be no other opportunity until after we've reached our destination. And you can never know when you might need all your strength."

"It's too bad Masters Awswi and Gwonameeth aren't going to Brimula with us," Cyrella said, attempting to engage Julither in small talk.

"I'm just glad you and the Gallantry are going with us," the Jedi Master puzzlingly replied.

After Julither had walked away, Zayana turned to Cyrella and softly asked, "Does she know something?"

"She knows lots of things," Cyrella playfully replied. "She's a Jedi Master."

Not particularly pleased that Cyrella was trying to take her place as the one who introduced the comic relief, Zayana replied, "Stop stealing my lines."

"She's had to adopt the responsibility of an entire triumvirate," Cyrella more understandingly responded. "And the mission couldn't possibly be more important. If the Force had not arranged otherwise, it probably would've been Grand Master Solo making the excursion. If Master Julither needs to do this on her own terms, our most reasonable and only recourse is to be supportive of her. And if she is actually seeing shatterpoints, we must trust that the Force will inform her when and if it becomes time to share them with us."

"I think I liked it better when you were trying to be funny," Zayana comically complained. But she then noticed that Dari had been privy to their entire exchange and turned to her to ask, "Are we keeping you up?"

"Listening to the two of you is far more refreshing than whatever little nap I might manage to take," she replied. "And I'm not really sure why the Jedi Master thought I needed one. Don't stop on my account."

The three young women spent the rest of the trip toward the Core in quiet conversation, but the subject of their discussion centered on the time each had spent at the temple on Tatooine. It was nothing short of scary to think that, aside from their interface with the Force, such memories could be unceremoniously ripped away. There was no way to estimate the number of individuals who had unknowingly lost part of their past when it was surreptitiously reshaped by the insidious instrumentality of Darth Umbrage.

Catapulting around the Core was no less chaotic than it had been on the prior occasion, but the Forthright emerged unscathed from the seemingly interminable ordeal. And the dreadnaught was soon on a direct course for Brimula. Julither remained on the bridge the entire time, but the three Jedi Knights dozed as the ship shot across the empty expanse that stretched between the spiral arm in which the Scree resided and the rest of the galaxy proper. Although Ackbar and his crew had loaded a subspace relay buoy aboard for potential deployment in this area, the Grand Master had stressed the need for them to first obtain permission for its placement from whoever was actually the chief executive of the Scree. Consequently, this was their intention.

Although it was immediately apparent that it was indeed a world of topographical extremes, Brimula was beautiful. Upon entering orbit, the crew of the Forthright received exact instructions for the ship's approach to a secured landing location. Everyone in the envoy understood that the planet's indigenous life forms, although almost extinct, had resurged in response to the efforts of the Scree to make Brimula more habitable. And some of the fauna were frighteningly fearsome.

The blister of ray shielding, which encompassed the enormous landing pad, was interrupted long enough to allow the Forthright to touch down. As its operation resumed, the platform swiftly descended into a cavernous conduit that actually dwarfed the dreadnaught. It was obvious to all the observers that the towering tunnel was really a reworked lava tube. Its reinforced, cylindrical walls glittered with metallic iridescence before the floodlights that encircled the platform's resting place. A small assembly of humanoid-looking individuals was waiting in a reception area at the edge of the platform. If it had not been for the overabundance of artificial light, which seemed to mimic the spectral output of the local star, the welcoming party could easily have been invisible. Their skin was cobalt blue. It made the whites of their eyes look almost simulated. And although their pupils were black, the irises that surrounded them were all a very shocking shade of cyan.

The passengers promptly disembarked. As the envoy made its way towards the welcoming committee, one of its cobalt constituents stepped forward to receive them. Even though the Jedi typically bow, the Scree were really only aware of the customary greeting rituals from the library downloads they'd received. Consequently, Julither was offered a handshake. This made it clear that the Scree did indeed have five fingers on each hand, although the outermost on either side were opposable thumbs. The cyborgs had been similarly equipped, but the Jedi Master had not been certain whether this was true of the organic Scree or only their mechanical manifestations. Of course, she courteously responded in kind.

"I am Chancellor Varnic," the alien cordially declared. "It is my great please to welcome you and your associates to Brimula. We should probably begin by introducing all the members of our respective parties."

"We're grateful for your decision to so receive us. I'm Jedi Master Julither," she replied. And then indicating each in turn with a wave of her hand, she continued, "This is Jedi Knight Zayana, Cyrella, and Dari. The crew of the Forthright is still aboard ship. We didn't wish to impose upon your hospitality by burdening you with care of the entire crew. Its accommodations are sufficient for their stay. At your discretion, however, I will happily call them forth so you can meet them."

"Allow me first to introduce my family," Varnic insisted. Turning to the modest assembly with which he had been waiting, the Chancellor continued, "This is my wife, Shani; my son, Demorin; and my daughter, Kashari. The other member of our group is my executive assistant, Craydic."

At Varnic's request, Julither then summoned the crew of the Forthright and introduced them to the Chancellor and his family. And she was happy for the opportunity since the craft's diverse crew served to represent the myriad species of which the Republic was actually composed. The Chancellor seemed particularly pleased to meet Admiral Ackbar, whose name he recognized as significant from some of the most recent records that the Scree had downloaded from the Nadir.

"It is our custom to welcome guests with a meal. We are regrettably unprepared to entertain your starship's entire compliment," Varnic apologetically informed the admiral. "But you and your gallant crew are welcome to roam at will. It is not necessary for you to stay on your ship. We ask only that you restrict your excursions to the tunnels and avoid venturing out onto the surface."

Admiral Ackbar thanked the Chancellor for his hospitality. Varnic and his entourage then led the envoy across the base of the cavernous conduit and through the entrance of a much smaller side passage. As they were working their way down the side tunnel, Varnic used the occasion to express his concerns regarding the Sith Lord.

"We spent some time examining the security recording from the Century Station, which you left with Chief Magistrate Corgus," he said. "He recognized the hilt of the assassin's lightsaber. It is the one worn by Darth Umbrage. When you tried to ask the Sith Lord about it, he changed the subject; but we suspect that he did indeed eliminate his predecessor. Both murders would seem completely unprovoked. Even if he can save the galaxy, after a fashion, it doesn't behoove us to rely on someone who has demonstrated such a complete lack of compassion. His agenda is not the altruistic one he has advertized. He's using the coming catastrophe to promote his own plan, as an excuse for subjugation. In actuality, it is fortunate that we can no longer offer him any kind of meaningful aid. We have recognized that we need to distance ourselves from the overbearing benevolence of his predatory campaign."

"Thank you for sharing your insights," Julither politely replied. "We're hoping you might have some idea of the industry in which he is now engaged. We know he has succeeded in creating a new type of time weapon. Could we possibly learn anything about it by examining the records of his previous stay?"

"Perhaps not surprisingly, Umbrage obviously knew he was under surveillance," Varnic said with disdain. "He spent most of his time training his apprentice. We know nothing about any new type of weapon. When he left our system, we understood that his plan was to equip some probe droids with his remaining shards. He intended to time-shift them into the future in close proximity to star systems the compliance of which were the most crucial to his scheme. He'd thus be able to monitor their obedience, or lack thereof, before it ever even occurred."

"What?" Cyrella rasped, automatically coming to a complete stop.

Because the eight people had been pressed into close proximity by the compactness of the side conduit, some collisions resulted when Cyrella unexpectedly stopped. Demorin would have run into Dari, except that the prescience of the Jedi Knight prevented any actual impact. But the young man lost his footing and would have fallen if she hadn't reached out and steadied him. As she withdrew her hand, she saw the unusually warm regard with which he responded. She shyly nodded, acknowledging his unspoken gratitude, but it felt to her as if the event had been vital.

Turning to Cyrella, Varnic inquired, "You find this bit of news especially disturbing?"

"Darth Umbrage surely expects to see those systems engaged in industry that supports his evacuation agenda," Cyrella responded. Turning to Julither, she continued, "If he sees anything else, he's sure to take steps. Have we perhaps waited too long to represent this situation to the Galactic Senate?"

"The time weapon is our principal concern," the Jedi Master authoritatively answered. "The ability to rewrite history is of much more preeminent importance than how Darth Umbrage might react if he sees something besides compliance in those systems. Grand Master Solo will decide when it's appropriate to involve the Galactic Senate. While it's worrisome to consider our enemy as having such futuristic surveillance, his probe droids will be essentially fixed in space. They're not going to be able to help him draw connections between current events in distant sectors and what they're observing close at hand in the future. Even though he will know if his grand agenda remains unrealized, he'll have no idea how his purpose is being preempted. He'll be in the dark."

Zayana came very close to making a remark about the redundancy of Julither saying that a Dark Lord of the Sith was in the dark, but she wisely thought better of it.

As they were entering the banquet hall, Varnic said, "I suppose it's entirely possible that you ate just prior to arrival. But it's been our experience that the act of dining together tends to make conversations more comfortable. You're by no means expected to partake of more nourishment than you desire, although you're more than welcome to eat your fill. We studied the downloaded library extensively in order to be certain we offered you foodstuffs that you would find pleasantly palatable."

During the course of the dinner, Demorin made casual eye contact with Dari on a number of occasions. It didn't seem to be presumptuous, but simply sociable. She nonetheless had trouble wrenching her gaze away from his strikingly cyan eyes. She ultimately decided that her only real recourse was to engage him in dialogue, which she did once there was a lapse in the discussion between Julither and Varnic.

"I'm curious about the biosphere that's developed on Brimula," she remarked as if she were doing nothing more than making small talk. "How did you decide not to prevent the development of predators?"

"Like other sentient species," Demorin seemed delighted to answer, "we became incidental experts in causing mass extinctions through things like defoliation and deforestation. We wanted to establish a sustainable, symbiotic biosphere on Brimula. Experience has shown the necessity of apex predators in such a system. We compromised the stability of biospheres on Scrymerula through their removal. Our purpose is to supplant the predators by integrating ourselves into the established ecosystem in their place. We intend for some reserves to remain as a kind of control group. We can use them as a failsafe in the event that we make mistakes. Our intention is not to make merchandise of the system that's established itself here, as if it were merely a commodity, but to actually incorporate ourselves into it. To begin, we do of course have to make some areas safe for our occupation; hence, the safaris."

"Perhaps I could persuade you and the members of your party to participate in such a safari tomorrow," Varnic suggested to Julither. "We no longer hunt for the thrill of the kill. Nonetheless, we must make room for ourselves on the surface. Sitting around in conference rooms surely will not strengthen our association as much as engaging in activities together."

The three Jedi Knights couldn't be certain when they had last seen Julither laugh so openly, before she smilingly responded, "Your wisdom is certainly unassailable. The Scree are fortunate to have so astute a leader. We are happy to accept your invitation."

Even though the four ambassadors could've simply returned to the Forthright, Varnic gently urged them to avail themselves of the accommodations offered by the Scree. He obviously took his responsibilities as their host very seriously. Julither graciously accepted his offer on behalf of the envoy. And after she used her com-link to advise Ackbar of this development, the four ladies retired to the proffered, and rather sumptuous, compartments. They passed the night peacefully.

After breakfast, when they assembled the next morning, Varnic said, "Ideally, we would like to raise the platform with your starship on it and use it as a secure base of operations. The crew could monitor us from that location if they'd prefer. But they are welcome to remain here instead. I understand that they have found the entertainment centers. And I suspect that more than a few friendships have already formed."

"Although Admiral Ackbar has command over the spacecraft," Julither replied, "as leader of the diplomatic envoy, I feel as if I'm ultimately responsible for everybody's safety. The creatures we're hunting are apparently comparable to lyleks?"

"From the downloaded records we reviewed, I would say it's a pretty accurate comparison," the Chancellor replied.

"We understand that the ecosystem here has been developing for generations, but can you explain the emergence of so complex a life form in so short an amount of time?" Cyrella asked.

"They were already here," Demorin took the opportunity to answer, although looking mostly at Dari as he did. "Like most of the water on this world, possibly for many millions of your years, the life forms were all subsurface. Some lived in burrows and actual caves. Most lived in various areas of the extensive lava tube systems that crisscross the upper strata of the crust. The first of the explorers who came here, when they discovered and entered the underground environment, killed the ones they encountered. By the time we started to really encroach into the most remote regions of the lava tube system, we were already hydrating and oxygenating the atmosphere. At that point, instead of killing it, we opted to simply drive the underground life to the surface. Since we were reinforcing the tunnel walls to make them more radiation resistant and even to increase their oxygen levels initially, the animals couldn't regain their access to this region. But then their populations exploded in response to the idyllic conditions we'd created aboveground."

"I accept your suggestion," Julither said to Varnic. "And I'll recommend to Ackbar that he do the same. I suppose then that we should get this little excursion underway."

Leaning toward Cyrella and speaking in a surreptitious tone, Zayana said, "This is where all the fun begins."

"More so than even before, we need to determine the whereabouts of the Tusken Raiders," Jedi Master Awswi insistently said to Leia. "It is the only way we can discover what happened to the ones Umbrage eliminated. Maybe by so doing we can gain some sort of insight into his new weapon."

"What exactly are you suggesting?" Grand Master Solo carefully inquired. "How do propose to begin such a search?"

"The fact that Gwonameeth can't detect them indicates to me that they are still in an area of disturbed space," Awswi answered. "And this is consistent with my suspicions."

"Go ahead," Leia encouragingly rejoined.

"In addition to their extensive droid foundries," Awswi explained, "the Geonosians were also in the business of building ships. I'm certain you know where the plans to the original Death Star originated. The Tuskens are opportunists. It's entirely possible that they entered the remnants of that system in search of anything of worth that'd been abandoned. If so, then they would've also been in close proximity to Ryloth, which might explain how they discovered the transport ships."

"The destruction of the star would have fried the circuits in anything technological," General Solo, who also happened to be in the room, pointed out. "And then there's the shockwave."

"Many of their manufacturing plants were underground," Awswi argued. "Some might even have offered enough limited protection to result in minimalistic damage to its contents."

"Okay," Han replied. "But you are still conceding that the contents would have been at least somewhat damaged. Tuskens aren't engineers. The repairs would've been beyond their ability."

"I'm not suggesting that they performed the repairs," Awswi craftily countered. "We're not so terribly far from Bothan Space. If the Tuskens, whom Umbrage somehow killed in the past, were originally responsible for their tribe encountering another group of opportunists, one that had the capacity for making those repairs, it could possibly explain why they didn't ultimately end up with those ships. The Bothans have them."

"That's an exceedingly insightful suggestion," Leia acknowledged in a deeply congratulatory tone. "How do you want to proceed?"

"Our fighters aren't as formidable as the Falcon, but they're also less likely to draw anyone's attention if we're really being watched," Awswi answered. "They're also shorter-range, but they'd be enough to get Gwonameeth and me to Geonosis. If we can't find the Tuskens, we'll head into Bothan Space and see if we can find the ships instead. Whoever has them should be able to tell us where they originated. And that should lead us to the Tuskens."

"Because of the protective casing the Scree installed in their tunnels, I wasn't even certain if I'd really found the Forthright at first," Woe said to Umbrage. "But they just brought the ship back up. That's the good news. Unfortunately, we still have a serious problem."

"What do you mean?" Umbrage growled.

"Even with its defensive shields deactivated, the Forthright is still encased in ablative armor. It's scattering the teleporter beam," Woe replied. "We won't be able to just transport the canister onto the ship. It'll have to be smuggled aboard. I'm perfectly willing to make the attempt. But the odds are that I'll be detected. If so, it would defeat the entire purpose of the plan."

"Defeat isn't a word you should so lightly bandy about," Umbrage complained.

"I didn't mean myself personally," Woe rejoined. "I could kill them all. But that doesn't get us any closer to eliminating the Grand Master. The Scree are in contact with the Jedi. If we were to just take the ship, they're certain to report the incident to the Jedi Council. We'd never be able to get through the temple's shields."

"Since we have yet to install the holocrons into the probe droids, I still have access to all the crystal shards," Umbrage maliciously mused. "There might be a way to use one and remedy this problem. It would mean reworking your weapon so it functions more like mine. We might be able to cloak you."

"I've wondered about the invisibility that the Crystal Matrix imparts to the ship," Woe elected to admit. "Since it can cloak something of this size, it stands to reason that there should be other applications."

"But we'll need to perfect this application quickly," Umbrage observed. "You need to get that canister on their ship while it's still on the surface. They're apparently taking part in a hunt. If you don't manage to do this while the Jedi are away, we might not get another opportunity."

With the aid of the droids and their direct access to the Crystal Matrix, the men immediately went to work on their insidious project. Already imbued with the Dark Side of the Force, Anakin's lightsaber underwent a transformation more malevolent than anything even Darth Vader himself had ever imagined. By utilizing a dark procedure that caused the two to be in sinister symbiosis, a second crystal was installed in the unholy hilt. Unlike the Predator's Prism, which bestowed on Darth Umbrage the capacity to change his appearance, this weapon gave Darth Woe the ability to become virtually invisible. Like most kinds of cloak, it wasn't perfect; but it rendered its wielder very difficult to detect as long as its blade wasn't activated. Nonetheless, its homicidal designers believed it would be sufficient for the purpose of surreptitiously placing the canister on the ship.

"You're being afforded a very great honor," Umbrage announced as he handed the finished weapon to his apprentice. "You said you believed that you would use this lightsaber to kill a Jedi Master. In actuality, you will bring about the end of the Grand Master of the Jedi Order."

"Thank you for equipping me to fulfill my destiny, my master," Woe replied, bowing. "This is a day that history will long remember."

"Yes, perhaps I won't have to rewrite it anymore," Umbrage gleefully agreed.

Since the dense foliage of the encircling forest promised to make it problematic for anybody in the Forthright to monitor the hunting party's progress, most of the crew remained below in the sprawling tunnel system. Only a skeleton crew seemed entertained by the idea of observing the safari from afar. In order to facilitate falling back to the starship, if the need should arise, none of either its shields or those of the platform itself were raised. The ship's confines were impervious to the radiation and vacuum of space. No animal would be able to imperil its occupants in a way that even space itself could not. After its ascent had stopped, with the Forthright occupying most of its area, the hunting party then stepped to the edge of the platform.

"As I understand it, the members of your illustrious order normally arm themselves only with lightsabers," Varnic respectfully remarked. "But on this occasion I wonder if perhaps you'd make an exception. The Crimpth are the most formidable life forms we've ever encountered. And they are as terrible to behold as they are dangerous. I personally would not want to have to get close enough to one to kill it with nothing but a handheld weapon. Their exoskeletons are known to be somewhat resistant even to particle beams."

"Whatever dangers might await us on your world," Julither answered, looking circumspectly around, "the Crimpth do not figure significantly into that equation."

Varnic seemed only reassured by her response. He missed the sidelong glance she shot at Cyrella as she concluded her summation. His female family members had remained behind. But with Demorin and Craydic also in the company, they moved out. The men activated their energy weapons as they prepared to head down the nearby trail.

Cyrella couldn't be certain what had set the Jedi Master off. She did have a vague sense of some sort of danger. But it seemed to be somewhere far away. Before receiving Julither's furtive glance, she had been assuming that it was simply a response to the predators that they knew to inhabit the jungle stretching all around them. But now, she wasn't so sure. Somehow the source didn't seem to be isolated to ground level, which is what she would have expected if it was really due to a land-based predator. The sense of danger also seemed to emanate from the air.

Since alpha predators consider nearly everything else to be prey, it was not long before one of the Crimpth came across their company. They were actually being stalked by their quarry, but the combined fire power of the three energy weapons quickly brought it down. The Jedi however saw for themselves the truth of Varnic's earlier assertion. One of the energy bolts bounced off of the animal's armor and ricocheted towards the onlookers. But a skillful swipe of Dari's lightsaber deflected it harmlessly away.

Something similar happened sometime later with the next Crimpth they encountered, but on that occasion it wasn't quite as innocuous. The laser bolt deflected directly back at Demorin. Her facility with the Force allowed Julither to promptly levitate Demorin's laser rifle up into the path of the bolt, keeping the discharge from striking him in the chest. But his weapon was wrecked as a result, rendered totally inoperative.

"You can't be out here unarmed," Varnic anxiously insisted. "And in order to safeguard you, somebody will need to escort you back."

"I'll go," Dari volunteered. "You guys are really doing all the hunting anyway."

She instantly wondered if she'd perhaps misspoken in more ways than one, but the informal term of familiarity seemed acceptable to Varnic. And since she and Demorin hadn't even tried to hide the friendship that was forming between them, she also feared that Julither might forbid her request. Dari thought that the Jedi Master might be reminded of leaving Soma alone with Lamis.

Instinctively responding however to some instinct she couldn't quite qualify, Julither was still behaving in a motherly manner towards the Jedi Knights in her charge. She only considered the request as an opportunity to send Dari out of harm's way. Therefore, she was entirely agreeable with the idea of letting her accompany Demorin back to the Forthright. The young couple quickly took their leave of the party and retraced their steps back to the landing platform while engaging in cordial conversation. Dari's facility with the Force had assured her that there were no Crimpth in the immediate area, so they actually enjoyed a pleasant stroll.

"There's a weapons locker just inside the airlock," she affably informed Demorin. "I am sure no one will mind you borrowing one of our laser rifles. After all, we will come back this way when the hunt is over. You can simply return it at the time."

"Thank you. That will save us a trip down into the tunnels," Demorin remarked. "And I would love to see the inside of your starship. As I understand it, your vessel has been from one side of the galaxy to the other. I've never actually been outside our system."

"Perhaps you'll visit the Republic one day," Dari suggested, speaking far more prophetically than she realized. "Your society is such a wonderful example of what it's possible for a people to accomplish together."

Shortly after this, they reached the main airlock for the Forthright. Demorin noticed how Dari cocked her head as she regarded the aperture. Her behavior seemed to suggest that something was amiss. But he had no perception of anything out of place.

"What's wrong?" he asked in confusion.

"I don't know, but I seem to be sensing danger beyond that door," she softly answered. "I've the impression that someone went through here recently and that they have yet to emerge. Stay here for now. If I'm somehow mistaken and it's actually safe, I'll happily invite you in."

"I cannot think of a reason for anybody aboard to come outside while your ship is still on the surface," Demorin rejoined, but Dari had already activated the airlock and entered the ship.

Jedi Knight Dari Jenay warily walked right by the weapons locker, carefully continuing down the main corridor. Something seemed out of place, but she wasn't able to isolate its source. She was about to ultimately dismiss the misgiving when she suddenly sensed that her lightsaber, the Violet Vergence, was reacting to the disturbance. Deftly deploying the weapon, she activated its nearly indigo emanation. Using it almost like the needle of a compass, she systematically swept it around, searching for the source of the disruption in the Force. Only moments after finding the focal point of the disturbing sensation, a blue blade erupted before her and Darth Woe attacked.

Although she was strong with the Force, she wasn't a match for the increased midi-chlorian count of her seemingly insuperable assailant. Fighting with a ferocity that was really reminiscent of Vaapad, it was almost as if her lightsaber became a reincarnation of the fabled blade that had faced Anakin Skywalker's duplicitous weapon once before. And it was doubly determined not to succumb to its darkling attacker on this occasion. Given her disadvantage, she acquitted herself with improbable poise as she parried one murderous lightsaber swing after another. However, it would've been the end for her if help hadn't arrived just as her defenses were finally failing. Jedi Master Julither erupted from the nearby airlock with the power of a sandstorm in the wastelands of Tatooine.

Taking Dari's place in the compromised quarters into which the Jedi Knight had slowly been maneuvered, Julither used a Force-push to hurl her through the open airlock door. Because she was unprepared for the sudden expulsion, her landing wasn't quite controlled. But since she fell into Demorin's arms, she wasn't injured by the experience. After realizing her situation, she very perceptibly paused before extricating herself from his embrace. In like manner, Demorin paused before altogether disengaging. Looking up, they beheld what was happening inside the ship.

In order to save the life of her previous padawan, Julither had placed herself in a vulnerable position. No amount of swordsmanship skills would suffice to counter the disadvantage she had inherited by inserting herself into the situation. The Adjudicator flashed and sizzled as she deftly defended herself, but she could gain no advantage. She finally fell right there on the Forthright.

Dari would've disastrously rushed right back into the fray to face her master's murderer, but she and Demorin were both unceremoniously shoved aside. Wielding the Gallantry, Jedi Knight Cyrella Lasari swept between the pair as if she were surrounded by the turbulence of a tornado. She completely overflew the landing platform, leaping through the open airlock to confront Darth Woe. The stalwart spaceship actually shuddered, from stem to stern, in response to the storm of her arrival. The power of the vergence was fully upon her.

Klaxons sounded as the besieged Forthright's systems erroneously reported an impact; and to anybody aboard, the report of the combatants' lightsabers crashing into each other might very well have sounded like meteor strikes. Within the spacecraft, the open area in front of the airlock became the arena in which the two titans vied for definitive victory. Darth Woe continuously tried to back the Jedi Knight into an indefensible position. But Cyrella swiftly circled her attacker each time. And the Gallantry was always exactly where it needed to be to intercept every thrust of his weapon. Despite his mastery of the Dark Side and all the technique taught to him by his master, he could find no way to penetrate its perimeter.

As the conflict continued, he eventually started to understand that he was really the one on the defensive. Slowly but surely, he was revealing all of his most advanced methods. If he could not overcome her quickly, she would soon be able to anticipate his actions. She was relentlessly waiting him out. And the moment he made a single mistake, he knew it would be his last. But he could not discern the source of her skill and strength. It was beyond his experience. This caused a lapse in his confidence. And without confidence, even the most powerful Sith Lord is nothing.

As Dari and Demorin looked on, Cyrella ultimately outmaneuvered her opponent and fatally ran him through. The apprentice of Darth Umbrage collapsed in a lifeless heap not very far from the body of the Jedi Master he had just slain. But his malicious mentor was aware of the life that was lost. Abandoning its invisibility to take vengeance, the Nubian Nadir descended and opened fire.

"Get him the hell out of here!" Cyrella shouted at Dari while leaping down from the airlock to the landing platform in order to give the Nadir something besides the ship to shoot at.

Dari didn't need to be told twice. As she took her escort by the hand and led him away from the endangered area, she glanced back over her shoulder. She saw Cyrella use the Gallantry to deflect fire from the turbo lasers of the Nubian Nadir before using a very precisely-timed burst of Force-induced speed to disappear into the jungle with the enemy's ship in hot pursuit. The crew of the Forthright, obviously aware of what was happening, raised its shields. Had they hesitated even for a second, the dreadnaught would've been disastrously damaged by the laser blast that the Nubian Nadir fired at it in passing. But instead, the incinerating blast bounced harmlessly off into the atmosphere.

Revealing that he'd also witnessed the series of events, Demorin breathlessly blurted, "She sacrificed herself to save your ship!"

"No," Dari replied as encouragingly as she could while running. "She can corner much more quickly than his ship can. Umbrage will never catch her."

"That just means he'll be coming after us as soon as he figures it out," he anxiously replied. "And I don't have the speed of a Jedi. We need to get underground. I know of an opening not far from here."

Demorin was suddenly leading the way. Dari had an opportunity to regret the fact that she'd failed to get him a replacement weapon from the Forthright. Consequently, he was both on point and unarmed. But she had no perception of any Crimpth in the jungle immediately around them, so it certainly seemed safe to pursue his preferred option.

"Where are you taking us?" it occurred to her to ask.

"This planet doesn't have tectonic plate movement like Scrymerula. But much of its water is subsurface," he rasped between breaths. "It will expand and contract with temperature changes. Sometimes it evaporates. These motions can cause the curst to shift, sometimes compromising the casing in one of our tunnels. There's one nearby that had to be abandoned for this reason."

"Doesn't that mean it's not safe?" she inquired in confusion.

"This planet's ray shielding isn't like those in your Republic," he explained while pushing his way through interposing clumps of plant life. "It's mainly for deflecting dangerous solar radiation. Between it and the reengineering of the atmosphere, the reinforcement of the tunnels is almost redundant. It was abandoned back when we still needed them sealed well enough to hold extra oxygen. We don't even really require the shielding anymore."

"You make it sound as if it's been empty for a very long time," she carefully commented, not wanting to appear argumentative. She was concerned about his security, and she didn't actually have any alternative to offer. "How long has it been since anyone was even in there?"

"We've been concentrating on aboveground operations," he replied. "It hasn't been included in the reclamation process yet. We'll probably be the first people to explore it in decades. But it'll be alright."

He could see that she was apprehensive. He was clearly trying to replace her anxiety with a sense of adventure. Stepping around a rocky ridge, a crevice was suddenly exposed at his feet. She could see his cyan eyes flicking back and forth as he carefully estimated the distance to the bottom of the gorge. He then stepped over the edge and slipped into the shadows of the chasm.

It wasn't until she stepped into the spot where he'd been standing that she abruptly realized the source of her unease. The tunnel's reinforced shielding was still intact enough to prevent her perception of its peril until she was standing right before its breach. And her reckless companion had already moved out of range around a boulder before she could use the Force to levitate him out of danger. This was why there had been no Crimpth in the area aboveground. Activating the Violet Vergence, she leapt down into the lair.
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