STAR WARS Episode 12, The Balancing of the Force, Volume 3 of the Alternate Galaxy Trilogy

Downrange Defenders

“Both sides of the Force share a blind spot. Neither can anticipate altruism.”

~ Transformed Jedi Master Luke Skywalker

Exposure to the Celtris Shockwave had increased the amount of radiation Narik emitted. To prevent any further attrition of the crew, he set up ray shields just within the walls of the quarters he’d confiscated from Captain Ropani. And there in self-imposed solitary confinement, he began to consider the course the Dark Side seemed to suggest and what would be required in order to achieve such an ostentatious objective.

He was somewhat distracted by an unexpected sense of loss. He found he languished from the lack of robotic attendants. It seemed to make his quarantine complete. He could easily order the engineering crew to create replacements for those he’d lost, but he knew the Joracki did not like droids. And the Force told him he wasn’t held in the same high regard to which he’d become accustomed, at least not by this compromised crew. He had no desire to strain that relationship further.

There was however something he needed much more desperately than a droid. He needed to rebuild the Banisher. He had scans of the crystalline structures of the original and believed he could re-composite them. But it’d require the use of the main replicator in engineering. And he’d have to tap warp power from the engines. This couldn’t be done while the ship was cloaked and traveling at warp. And yet without the advantage of his dreaded time-ripping weapon, it could be disastrous to face either the Federation or even the Breen. His reception by such potential allies could easily require a show of godlike force. He didn’t want to take the warp engines offline long enough to enable the required construction. He abhorred the idea of such a delay. Far too much time had passed while he was stranded in space. But there was an another possibility.

He had given the Joracki much of their technology in the beginning. He’d then overseen the incorporation of technologies from the various species they’d consequently conquered. He knew each of their battle cruisers carried a compliment of drop-ships to transport troops to the surface of whatever world they were invading. The Force told him he could simply connect their engines in tandem in order to supply satisfactory power to the main replicator. No interruption of their trip would thus be necessary. However he’d need the engineering crew to evacuate their sections of the ship while he carried out the fabrication. But with the ship cloaked and traveling at warp they were really doing little more than monitoring. He contacted the chief engineer of the Kalaxa and made the required arrangements.

He then contacted Commodore Najacor’s personal communicator, saying, “I am putting you in charge of the ship until I complete my project in engineering. You need to determine precisely where the edge of the damping field is so you can take us safely around it. Once we’ve entered Federation Space, we’ll need to proceed a flank speed. It’s a sure bet they have ships watching the border. I hope to finish before we reach Breen Space. Keep me advised of our progress.”

***

Despite its time-consuming progression at sublight speed, Tund was practically parallel with the Kessel Sector before the Neimoidians arrived to deliver the consignment of Walkers and the anti-telepathy compound. The ragtag team of operators had already boarded one of the frigates and been training on virtual reality consoles set up by the engineering team. The commissioner was unfamiliar with riffraff of their ilk, but he’d little experience with the kind of nefarious folk like those with which Han Solo often used to associate. Since the Millennium Falcon remained in its forward position, keeping close watch on the rapidly approaching rogue world, he could not rely on its captain to help him oversee the treacherous trainees. He had to handle them himself.

“The Walkers are being divided between two frigates. As soon as the Dark Energy Weapon has crossed the terminator and is no longer in line of sight they’ll pulse their hyperdrive engines. They’ll have to come out of lightspeed ludicrously close to the planet to make this work since we don’t have enough compound to completely treat their crews, not and be sure you have enough. They will need to deploy you to the surface and get back into space and out of range before the telepath can puppet them. Ambassador Demorin and Master Awswi will be on the bridges of the two frigates. They’re familiar enough with ship’s operations to execute the extraction in the event they have to incapacitate either crew. Your consoles have topographical schematics that should help you accomplish your approach. After you are detected, you might find yourselves swarmed by Droidekas. But their blasters should be useless against your armor. Nevertheless, it would be wise if one of you occasionally turned around and engaged them, since they will almost certainly attack from the rear. If the monks fear for their lives, perhaps the telepath’s control will slip. If so, he might give up on trying to harass you with the Droidekas. That could be critical when it’s time to extract you. Your only other opportunity to withdraw would come if you actually complete your mission. I know you’re hoping to kill the telepath and earn the reward, but your primary task is to destroy the shield generator that protects the Dark Energy Weapon. I think you’ll need to do that before you can even attempt to do anything else. Any questions?”

No one said a word. And from their emotionless faces he felt like he was confronting a firing squad. Upon retrospect however it occurred to him that he had seen such impassive sentiments in the eyes of Senate Council members. It seemed ludicrously ironic to him to observe the same merciless mindset in such dissimilar groups of people, rogues and representatives. He carefully stifled his laughter for fear of the effect it might have on those assembled. He understood killing to be their first recourse.

***

Jedi Master Awswi was on the bridge of the Lylek. Ambassador Demorin was on the bridge of the sister ship. The life support systems of both frigates had been equipped with canisters of Tava, which could be activated from the bridge. The gas would disorient the crew without really harming anybody. And both Jedi representatives had rebreathers in case they had to trigger the activation. Since anti-telepathy compound had already been administered to the members of the Walker teams in preparation for the hyper-jump, there were no concerns that the telepath might puppet them. The life support systems of the Walkers, in which they had already assumed their stations, were completely separate from those on the frigates anyway. At the set time, the ships pulsed their hyperdrives and went hurtling toward Tund.

The absence of any illumination except starlight made the approaching mass look ominous. There were only a couple of dimly lit city shields on the side they where they planned to deposit the Walkers. Although they’d managed to isolate the location of the Dark Energy Weapon, those shields had made it difficult for the probes to detect other weapons emplacements. The captains had to hope they were executing the deployment far enough from all the shielded cities to avoid coming under fire, if such defensive batteries did in fact exist. They also had to hope they could get their ships sufficiently back into space before the Droidekas closed in. Although the frigates were ray shielded and covered with ablative armor, their armor did not consist of Colicoid metal like the armor of the Walkers.

The inertial dampers of the two frigates were strained to the limit as the sublight engines cut in and landing cycles were immediately engaged. Within their heavily armored hulks, the Walker teams prepared for a rough deployment. There wasn’t sufficient time to extend ramps so the AT-CMHC’s could amble to the surface. Utilizing a combination of tractor beams to steady them and repulsor drives, mounted to the ankles of each lumbering machine to help slow its descent, they were instead being dropped like bombs out of hatches on the underside of each frigate. The skill of the tractor beam operators was the only thing that made this part of the mission successful.

The Walkers had no more than successfully landed when the tractor beam operators began trying to pull them back up. Awswi and Demorin immediately sensed that the telepath was using his power to puppet the operators. At about that same time, several of the bridge officers started demonstrating destructive tendencies. Awswi and Demorin had to resort to using Force Pushes to separate the officers from their stations, and then they had to activate the canisters of Tava. It was all they could do to pilot the pair of frigates back up into space since no assistance from the disoriented crew was forthcoming. With rebreathers firmly in place, they saw the Walkers amble safely away on their computer-enhanced viewing screens. Although barely, they’d succeeded in delivering their payload. It was now up to the teams on the surface to destroy the generator that supplied power to the Dark Energy Weapon protecting shield.

With nobody available to assist at the helm, Awswi and Demorin kept their ships at sublight speed as they returned to rendezvous with the rest of the frigates. In order to limit the amount of anti-telepathy compound dispensed to the crews, only those who had immediate access to gear that could be used to destroy the ship received doses. Most of these were in the engineering or weapons sections. It was up to the Jedi representatives to observe and, if necessary, neutralize any members of the bridge crews who appeared to be compromised. By the time the gas began to wear off, the frigates had almost reached the rest of the armada. Awswi and Demorin took the opportunity to help the debilitated bridge officers back to their faltering feet. Several of the Force Pushes with which they were pummeled had caused them to collide with control consoles while on their way to the floor. But they expressed the benevolent belief that the bruises were a small price to pay for a successful deployment.

“All our hopes and prayers are now with the Walkers and their operators,” Ackbar added as he welcomed the two frigates back to the fold. “They might be too busy to broadcast any regular reports. But the Falcon will be close by to report on their progress, but there’s really nothing they can do to assist the Walkers. May the Force be with them all.”

***

The Excelsior, Enterprise and the Quantum Quest were cloaked and at station keeping just outside the Bryma system near the edge of the damping field between the Ferengi Alliance and the Cardassian Union. With their scanner systems set up to run remotely, the crew of the Quest was aboard the Excelsior. Star Fleet Intelligence had recommended using anti-proton beams to potentially detect cloaked enemy ships, so the three ships were engaged in a coordinated effort to sweep the space near the edge of the damping field. Although it was the very thing they were attempting to identify, the bridge crew was nevertheless surprised by the sudden reception of a return signal.

“A cloaked ship traveling at high warp is passing through the region we’re scanning,” Spock announced. “It’s on a course approximately toward Decos Prime. Its destination could be Breen Space.”

He was still speaking when all four intergalactic representatives simultaneously stepped out of the turbolift and onto the bridge. But it was Odo who asked the applicable question.

“With the damping field in place, why would the Joracki still be trying to form a coalition with the Breen?”

“It’s Narik,” Lucas interjected. “He’s back.”

“We all sensed it,” Luke added as Tysha and Tani nodded in agreement.

“Same question,” Odo replied, unrelenting. “What’s he hoping to accomplish?”

“As a devotee of the Dark Side, one of his primary weapons is deception,” Lucas answered. “I think he’s planning to use the Breen, making promises he won’t keep.”

“How so?” Spock asked with an unusual amount of apprehension in his normally impassive tone.

“The Breen battle cruisers that reached Joracki-controlled space did so by circumventing an armada of Ferengi and Federation ships,” Captain Alexander interjected. “Narik might know this. If the Breen attack the Ferengi again we’ll very predictably be sent to support them. It might be a simple matter for Narik to promise his support in the next campaign but then wait for us to arrive on the battlefield before following us in and cutting us off from retreat or reinforcements. In other words he could use the Breen as bait.”

“Does he have the ships to do that?” Odo anxiously asked.

“If he pulls his ships from their patrols in Cardassian Space,” Alexander answered. “But that would leave his hold on them at risk if he loses the battle. It could be the beginning of the end of his empire.”

“If the Federation were to position its forces accordingly, you could assist the Ferengi by not allowing Narik’s ships to make it around the damping field,” Tani suggested. Using the star chart on one of the side screens, she continued, “We could lie in wait for him near Ronara Prime. Can we come up with more ships to help us form a cloaked blockade?”

“Vice Admiral Adamson said there are half a dozen ships about ready to leave Spacedock,” Alexander replied. “I could advise him to get them headed our way as soon as possible. Tell me, though, where did you learn battle tactics?”

“In the galaxy from which we came I was a lieutenant commander in Republic Security. I’ve been hoping to make some kind of meaningful contribution to our mission here,” she replied.

“Your input is greatly appreciated,” he replied. Turning to Communications Officer Sisko, he said, “See if you can get me through to Vice Admiral Adamson.”

After being apprised of the situation and the current plan, Adamson said, “The good news is that the Klingons are sending six of their ships to match the six coming from Spacedock. But I’m less than enthusiastic about your strategy. I empathize with your concerns about getting trapped between the Joracki and the Breen. But if all you manage to do is contain Narik’s armada inside Bajoran Space, we could lose control of the wormhole.”

Privy to the discussion through VOX, Data asked, “Why is the wormhole important?”

“There’re two reasons. Narik could choose to abandon his empire’s expansion into the Beta and Alpha Quadrants. He and his surviving forces could retreat through the wormhole and begin an expansion in the Gamma Quadrant. It’s taken him millennia to assemble his empire. He’s in it for the long game. If the part of his fleet securing the spiral arm he’s already conquered can hold on, he could try to combine his acquisitions down the road. Then we’d be the ones caught in the middle. We already defeated the Founders for them. And I’m afraid that’s not the only reason we can’t let him control the Bajoran wormhole.”

“What is the other reason?” Data asked.

“As I’m sure you’ll recall, the Romulans are keeping an eye on the Nexus and on the super-massive black hole just outside the edge of the Gamma Quadrant. Guess how they got there? If we lose control of the wormhole, they have several ships that could become eternally trapped in the Gamma Quadrant. Our relations with them have been a bit strained of late. We don’t want to give them an excuse for any further animosity. We need them firmly in the fold.”

“Then they do have a targ in this fight,” Alexander exultantly concluded. “They must have a way to communicate with their ships in the Gamma Quadrant, do they not?”

“They’re using a relay that was originally established by DS9. And I think I see where you’re going with this. If they were to emerge from the wormhole at an opportune time a trio of warbirds could decide the outcome of the battle.”

“And they’d look like heroes,” Alexander sanguinely summarized. “Would that serve to seal the diplomatic rift you referred to?”

***

The two frigates had each deployed half a dozen Walkers, so twelve of the heavily-armored equine-appearing conveyances were now ambling across the trackless tundra of Tund. The pair of frigates had barely lifted off before the Droidekas arrived. The crew of the Falcon watched on long-range scanners as the dreaded droids closed on their targets. At first their attacks seemed almost comical. But then they abruptly adopted a more definitive strategy. They began following the Walkers and combining their fire very exclusively at the joints in the lumbering legs. It wasn’t clear to the crew of the Falcon whether those supporting structures might eventually succumb to such abuse. Using a prearranged and securely-coded subspace channel, Han hailed them and warned them about what he and his crew were witnessing.

Two of the Walkers in the rear of the column immediately swung around and began firing at the Droidekas. The members of the swarm swiftly scattered. But others were appearing over the horizon and they began attacking from the sides.

“If you can manage to destroy just one of the Droidekas, the others may fear for their lives,” Leia rasped over the subspace radio channel. “The telepath might find it increasingly difficult to control them if he’s competing with their impetus for self-preservation.”

Considering their relative lack of experience, having trained exclusively in virtual reality, the gunnery crews were incredibly accurate. But the Droidekas sported very powerful ray shields. In spite of being struck full-on by the Walkers’ blasters, they survived the onslaught with very much the same impunity as the Walkers themselves. Neither group of contenders appeared to be able to injure the other. But the telepath wasn’t out of tricks yet.

The suspensors made the Droidekas exceedingly maneuverable. Between their speed and the strength of their shields, they were able to keep the rearguards of the Walkers engaged. The ones coming over the horizon were therefore free to execute a different strategy. They started to strafe the ground over which they Walkers would need to traverse, increasing its unevenness. It didn’t take very many strikes before sizable gouges in the ground began to appear directly in the path the Walkers needed to take. They were designed to overcome any type of terrain, but more time would be required to reached their objective. Since the amount of anti-telepathy compound they had was limited, so was their time.

“AT-AT’s aren’t actually designed to walk backward, certainly not over increasingly uneven terrain,” Han complained. “And in order to turn to the side to shoot, they have to stop. Isn’t there anything we can do to help them?”

“I’m the only one of us who’s immune to telepathic control,” Leia replied. “And if I try to drop you and Chewy off and take the Falcon down there, I’d be immediately swarmed. All we can do is observe.”

“The telepath is relying on the senses of the Droidekas,” Han thoughtfully remarked. “Could we possibly do something to confuse them, something that wouldn’t require going down there?”

“Already in hand,” Demorin replied over the coded subspace radio frequency. “The Walkers are equipped with both launchers and droid poppers, electromagnetic pulse grenades. They are armed by launching them. The Droidekas are traveling on suspensors, which creates a problem. But exposure to either a ray shield or a suspensor field will set them off. All a Droideka has to do is fly over one. The trick will be for the rearguards to blast them while their shields are down.”

“If the monks start suffering casualties it’ll definitely test the telepath’s control,” Leia said.

“These Droidekas have brains,” Han remarked. “They’ll soon learn to avoid the grenades. If they fly far enough above them they’ll be able to avoid setting them off.”

“But some attrition might be inflicted before they make the adjustment,” Demorin argued. “If we succeed in thinning their numbers, even marginally, it’ll show them they are not as invincible as the telepath is probably telling them. But we could conceivably accomplish that without really killing any of them. When the Droideka’s systems crash, the monk’s brain will be bereft of all the input it’s grown accustomed to. That alone would probably be an incredibly scary experience.”

“If those systems are down long enough, casualties could result anyway,” Han added. “The brains are kept alive by those same systems. And the telepath is relying on that input. The more Droidekas we can take offline, even temporarily, the more blind he’ll be.”

Chewy growled in agreement with Han’s summation. And moments later the Walkers began launching the electromagnetic grenades. It wasn’t long before some were caused to detonate by their proximity to ray shields or suspensor fields. Disabled Droidekas soon were tumbling to the frozen surface of Tund.

The Droidekas that had been pursuing the Walkers immediately veered away. The disabled ones had not been hugging the ground so, although the monks now realized the grenades could actually harm them, they didn’t realize the weapons could be safely over-flown. The immobilized Droidekas were extremely slow to recover, since their circuitry had been altered from its original design. Those that recovered the quickest were mostly uninjured. They swiftly fled, following the lead of their unaffected familiars. Those that’d been closest to the sources of the EMP’s split into two groups. Some were brain-damaged by the cold and/or lack of oxygen and therefore beyond the control of their inhabitants or the despotic telepath. They imprecisely exited the engagement area. But some had completely succumbed to the frozen conditions and died. Power returned to the robotic systems, but the Droideka remained inert, its occupant having already expired.

The crew of the Falcon observed as a struggle then ensued between the tyrannical telepath and the traumatized monks in their Droideka bodies. The instinct for self-preservation had given them the wherewithal to at least temporality resist Moxi-Lon’s control. If he’d been ordering them to kill each other, as he had with the fighter pilots, it might’ve been different. But he was ordering them to risk death, and he was attempting to exercise such control over dozens of individuals. It was testing his capacity for such control to its utmost limit. The trajectories of most of the fleeing Droidekas vacillated violently as volition shifted back and forth between their occupants and the telepath.

Unlike repulsor drives, commonly used in vehicles such as speeders, the suspensors drives in the Droidekas were designed to actually enable flight. It was obvious to Han, Chewy and Leia that the telepath had fixed his overpowering focus on a single Droideka as it spun about, gained altitude and safely flew right over a grouping of grenades. It then became much easier for him to coerce the others into doing the same. But the Walker teams were not without recourse.

By changing the setting on their cannons from blaster to stun they were able to activate the grenades without instead destroying their electromagnetic pulse emitting capacity. Although the Droidekas were entirely airborne, some of them weren’t far enough aloft to be unaffected by the bursts. The Walkers continued to make progress across the tundra of Tund as the attackers had to figure out the altitude that truly constituted a safe fly-zone. More Droidekas were permanently disabled during the determination, and some mortalities resulted as well. Unlike the cannons of the Walkers, the grenade launchers could fire both behind and to the side. But their ammunition was of course limited. By the time the Droidekas determined how high they really needed to fly, the electromagnetic assault was over. The Walker teams switched their cannon settings back to blaster and continued to determinedly trudge over the ridges created by the energy weapons of the Droidekas.

***

Narik watched through the portholes in Captain Ropani’s quarters as the cloaked battleship dropped out of lightspeed at the outermost edge of Breen Space. In one of his robotic hands he clasped the recently rebuilt Banisher. The Force informed him it was fully functional, but he was itching to put it to the test. Nothing had been near enough at hand while they were at warp, and he no longer enjoyed the advantage of an open cockpit as he had on the Funerary. But seeing it in action before he conferred with the Breen seemed essential. He needed to know the extent of its abilities.

The Breen envoys had just undertaken their return trip when they encountered the damping field. Considering the distance to their destination and the interposition of the Ferengi Alliance, it was possible there’d been no opportunity yet for them to send back word of their success. If that was true, the Breen might not know about the damping field. Their high command might instead be wondering what’d happened to their ships. Narik knew there were ways this could work to his advantage.

“What is our position, Commodore?” Narik asked over the intercom.

“We’ve just passed the Portas system, sire.”

“Clear the corridors between my quarters and the starboard airlock. After I am outside, I will signal you to drop the cloak. Keep a sharp eye on the scanners for Breen battle cruisers. If they appear to port, roll the ship so I am facing them but keep the shields up. The use of my weapon does not require lowering our shields. Be ready to patch me through on all hailing frequencies.”

“Aye, my lord. I should mention that our universal translator does not perfectly interpret the speech of the Breen.”

“I believe that will prove to our advantage,” Narik enigmatically answered. “I’ll be out of the ship in just a moment.”

Having so recently been delivered from his interment in the void, it was hardly comforting to be leaving the confines of the ship. But his robotic feet were capable of magnetically anchoring him to its metallic skin. He wondered if his cybernetic nature would’ve been betrayed if anybody had been observing, but he knew Najacor was a dedicated disciple and could be counted on to keep the rest of the crew in line. He turned his attention to the alien vistas stretching endlessly around him. The Force told him they were not as empty as the seemed.

A trio of Breen battle cruisers appeared to shimmer into existence as power was transferred from their cloaks to their weapon systems. Narik knew there wasn’t time to talk before they fired, and was unwilling to risk any injury to his conveyance. The Force told him which of the cruisers would fire first. He fired on it, striking its weapons array with a burst of time-shifting energy. The other two cruisers immediately raised their cloaks again and disappeared. The damaged cruiser didn’t have that option. Its shielding capabilities had been completely compromised by the burst ripping right through them. It was left to the mercy of the attacker. Narik didn’t actually possess such a sentiment, but he did have cause to spare the lives of the helpless Breen.

Although he knew his deception would be exposed to everybody on the bridge, since they’d be privy to the conversation, he didn’t really care. He instructed Najacor to transmit on all haling frequencies.

“I am Pax Parakal, Emperor of the Joracki Sovereignty. I’m here to answer your request for an alliance against the Ferengi and the Federation. I’m afraid the diplomatic ships you sent were inadvertently destroyed. We are after all in a state of war and we have encountered difficulties in translating your language. But a scrupulous examination of their remains has revealed their real mission. Is it still your desire to enter into an accord?”

“We...seek...alliance. We...need...coordinate attack, catch...between us.”

“My idea might not be quite the same as yours. You will lead the attack against the Ferengi. The Federation will surely respond. We will move in behind Star Fleet and catch their ships and those of the Ferengi between us. I can field over two dozen ships. What’s the size of your fleet?”

From the glitch in the translation it was clear a numerical value was beyond the ability of the interpretation circuitry. This was clearly going to present a problem when it came to coordinating an attack. Narik needed a navigational reference and one came immediately to mind.

“Are you able to monitor the pulsars within the Black Cluster?”

“Yes.”

“I’m going to transmit the configuration in which you should find them when it’s time to begin your attack. Would that be an acceptable indicator?”

“Yes. What...location...attack?”

“The Khofla system is just within the Ferengi Alliance and fairly proximate to your section of space. Do you find that target acceptable?”

“We...agreement. We...crush...enemies together.”

“Reverse course,” he said to Najacor. “Take us back to the rendezvous point. Are you fairly certain there were Federation ships that managed to detect us with anti-proton beams?′

“I am not aware of any natural anomaly that would project such directed beams of that type, sire. So yes, I’m afraid so.”

“Then we should be able to detect them in the same fashion. Assign a science team to find out the maximum range of such a system. We want to position our fleet so we detect their ships as they’re headed to help the Ferengi but not so close as to give away our presence.”

“So we will be nowhere near Khofla when the Breen engage the Ferengi, my lord?”

“We will be fashionably late to the party if we make it at all. Our target is the Federation. I’m not really worried about the Ferengi. Their Alliance will certainly be weakened by the Breen. We will either crush the Federation or at least minimize them as an impediment to the expansion of our Empire. In the final analysis the Breen are as expendable as their Ferengi foes.”

***

Within the engineering bay on the Excelsior, two teams were hard at work. Dr. Marcus had finished fabricating the parts for the Genesis Device and was assembling them in one section of the compartment. Spock was assisting him. Since it now was finally free for other functions, the intergalactic ambassadors were using the main replicator for a different project. Lucas explained to Alexander since the captain had come down to check on developments.

“We have been experimenting with crystals we brought from our galaxy and those from the capstone that we removed from the side of the cache on Lambda Paz. We believe we’ve found an arrangement that’s capable of deflecting bursts of time-shifting energy, since Narik is certain to have replicated his weapon. We’ve been using the main replicator to duplicate the deflecting configuration. We hoping to equip all the ships in our armada in this way. I’m sure we’ll have the assemblies soon. I just hope we have time to install them before battle is joined. We still need to test how they’ll interface with cloaking devices.”

Thevlen had been circulating between the two projects and approached as Lucas finished.

“Once they’re ready we will have to briefly take the cloak offline while the final connection is made and the interface is adjusted. I know we’re currently in highly contested territory. We might need to withdraw while we make the connection. And if we’re going to fall back, it might be wise to have the rest of our fleet rendezvous with us. That way we can get the new deflector systems all up and running before we return to the engagement area.”

“So the Enterprise and the Quest will be the last to be retrofitted if there’s time?” Alexander asked.

“Since their cloaks will have to be deactivated during installation, I don’t see where we have much choice. I am just hoping that using the deflector disks of all the ships involved will allow us to create a diffuse enough anti-proton field that the Joracki won’t be able to use our emanations to locate our individual ships.”

“Science Officer Dax and Admiral Data are both working on that,” the captain informatively replied. “I just wish our Force-wielding friends were psychic enough to tell us how much time we have to prepare before we have to take on the Joracki fleet.”

As he finished his sentence Alexander looked to Lucas who replied, “We do get a sense of his proximity. I think we felt him before the anti-proton beams even detected him. But I’m unsure if we can actually provide you with anything like that type of exact estimate. It’ll probably be only seconds or maybe minutes. I doubt if it’ll be hours, let alone lightyears.”

Luke, Tysha and Tani suddenly looked to Lucas who said, “Narik just passed by again. His negotiations with the Breen either failed or went much more swiftly than we expected.”

Alexander quickly confirmed their observation with Shanella. She was deeply in conference with Admiral Data and the science officer onboard the Enterprise. After substantiating the return of Narik, she returned her attention to that discussion. Something had occurred to her.

“Narik obviously has a hyper-accurate fix on the edge of the damping field. We should also know its endpoint. If we’re going to deploy probes to make that determination anyway, it’d be an opportunity to use them for another purpose. They could create the anti-proton detection grid. It would prevent the Joracki from identifying our ships by tracking the beams to the emitters. I just learned we’re going to have to fall back to take our cloak offline while the new deflector array is installed. But the Enterprise is in an optimum location for positioning the probes.”

“Retrofitting of the probes will be required,” Data replied. “But our science teams are hardly as busy as yours. And the programming is something I can quickly accomplish. According to my calculations, if Narik is returning to Cardassia to assemble his armada, we should have plenty of time to complete the reconfiguration and deploy the probes before he can return this way. It is a certainty that one will be lost due to its encounter with the damping field. But I shall program the network accordingly.”

***

“That was a cute trick with the droid poppers,” Han exclaimed, congratulating Demorin over subspace radio. “I’d like to know how you pulled that off.”

“My people are still trading partners with the Neimoidians. And I’m in contact with my father. I simply suggested it to him, but the way he then phrased it to the Neimoidians probably was not as a suggestion. He has Viceroy Rumpf at a considerable disadvantage. The plan to destroy the Jedi Temple also put my life in danger. So even if the Jedi Order let Rumpf barter his way out of culpability, he still needs to curry favor with my father. I knew the Walkers would have to cross a considerable tract of Tund to get into firing position. And it was the only advantage I could come up with that might buy them the time.”

“Very well played,” Leia commented. “It’s too bad that it looks like they’ve already expended their arsenals.”

“There just wasn’t room inside the Walkers to provide them with the kind of ordinance I had envisioned,” Demorin agreed. “But the first of them should be in firing position before too long.”

“The closer they get,” Leia replied, “the more worried I am about the kind of desperate thing the telepath might do. If the Force allowed him to foresee this assault, he could have prepared a response. We might not yet have seen the full extent of his arsenal.”

“I think you’re right,” Han anxiously observed. “They’re doing something different. I’d almost forgotten they have hands. Some of the ones just joining the party appear to be carrying coils of cable. It looks like they’re attempting to do what our fighters did on Hoth with their harpoons and tow cables. The Walkers aren’t designed to get back up if they’re somehow knocked down. How can we counter this maneuver.”

But the operators of the Walkers had overheard the observation. The armored conveyances began stopping and turning to the sides to shoot at the oncoming Droidekas. Some were turned from their approach patterns, but their force fields were strong enough to withstand the fire from the Walkers. They were not destroyed. Some managed to achieve their objective. The crewmen had no choice but to sporadically open the hatches in the bellies of the metallic monstrosities so they could blast the restraining cables. They managed to keep their towering conveyances from taking a tumble, but their progress was seriously slowed.

“We couldn’t equip them with an inexhaustible supply of the anti-telepathy compound,” Leia worriedly remarked. “Slowing them down could end up being the same thing as stopping them.”

Responding to Chewie’s anxious utterance, Han turned to a side display and said, “There’s something happening forward of the Walkers’ position. The Droidekas appear to be busily doing something in the valley that leads to their firing position. Chewie, zoom in on that, will you? Can you tell what they’re doing?”

The Force revealed the truth of it to Leia as Chewie apprehensively uttered the answer.

“They’re mining the vale through which the Walkers will have to pass,” she gasped. “If they succeed in knocking them over, this will all have been for nothing.”

“The Walkers will have to sweep the pass with their turbo-lasers and set the mines off,” Han replied. But after a moment’s reflection he added, “But that’ll tear the crap out of the topography. They might not be maneuverable enough to cross through the aftermath. But I don’t see how we can help them.”

“Notice how some of them now seem confused?” Leia asked. “Their circuitry was drastically modified to allow for the bio-chambers. Some of the droid poppers might have done much more than just momentarily stun them. If their sensors were truly damaged, they’re now useless to the telepath. And if their telepath response units were fried, it might minimize his control over them somewhat. It looks like part of his fighting force has now been neutralized. The unaffected ones seem more determined, or maybe he is. But I am beginning to be concerned that the Droidekas might actually be capable of stopping the Walkers in spite of the indestructibility of their armor. If they keep coming up with new ways to forestall the Walkers, this mission will be in trouble.”

“When they get to the pass, they should go through one at a time,” she replied. “I might just be able to use the Force to keep each one from falling over, but only individually. Those furthest back in the line should use their turbo lasers to make sure the legs of the leaders remain free of cables. The ones on the end are the problem. If they have to keep opening the hatches on their undersides, it’s only a matter of time before one of the Droidekas manages to charge the breach and get onboard.”

“There is something we can do, but it’ll require the two of you to put on spacesuits and hang out up here for a little while,” she cautiously suggested. “The Walkers can’t fire on the minefield from where they are. But I could fly down in the Falcon and set some of the mines off while they are still being placed, using the monks’ new weapon against them.”

“They’re certain to swarm you,” Han anxiously observed.

“I’ll use the Force to guide my shots, so I won’t have to get that close. Accuracy won’t really matter that much anyway since I’ll be strafing the target area. But time is of the essence if this is gonna work. It looks like they’re about halfway done placing their mines, and I need to get there before they finish.”

Without a word Han and Chewie bailed from their seats and headed toward the hatch. After donning their spacesuits in record time, they disembarked into the void of space. With the Dark Energy weapon being beyond the terminator, Leia knew it was safe to briefly leave them as she took the Falcon down into the remnant of atmosphere still encircling Tund. Her approach was of course immediately detected.

The Droidekas that were still pouring over the frozen horizon started the ascent to intercept her. Those involved in the assault on the Walkers and the placing of the mines didn’t react at all. Since the Force was directing the placement of her gun sights, her eyes were firmly fixed on the screens that were set to compensate for the absolute lack of sunlight. She therefore chanced to see something she had hoped would never happen. One of the Droidekas managed to enter the open hatch on the bottom side of one of the Walkers. From the suddenly somnambulistic motion of the ultimate armored personnel carrier, it was excruciatingly clear that its imperiled occupants were being massacred. She watched helplessly as its careening course caused in to unbalance and topple to the tundra. The Droideka then left with impunity out the very same hatch though which it had entered.

Smoke was already pouring from the control room head as other Droidekas speedily moved to swarm the colossal carcass and contribute their firepower to its demise. Not one of its valiant occupants emerged as it succumbed to the onslaught. But the Force told Leia they’d been killed already by the interloper’s original attack. There was blessedly nobody left to be burned to death or fatally frozen by the sudden influx of icy cold. She responded by unleashing a torrent of blasts from the Falcon’s pair of turbo lasers. She then pulled the ship out of its strafing drive before the climbing Droidekas could reach her. Through the rear scanners she watched as the mines that were hit exploded beneath the Droidekas who’d planted them, some of which were obliterated by the blasts coming from directly beneath them.

She managed to accomplish one more strafing run while staying above the ascending cloud of Droidekas that had been sent to intercept her. She was sure the Falcon’s shields were robust enough to deflect at least a limited amount of fire from the type of blasters with which Droidekas came equipped. But Han and Chewie were stranded in space. She couldn’t hazard a chance on anything possibly compromising her ability to return for them. Attempting any direct engagement with the Droidekas would be risky, too risky considering the precious cargo she had left behind.

By the time she headed back up into space, the pass was within range of the turbo lasers of the Walkers. The Droidekas had consequently cleared out. They were placing no more mines. It was now up to the Walkers to detonate the ones that remained before treading on them instead. Leia’s efforts had significantly reduced them. She was quickly closing on the location of Han and Chewie as the last mine was destroyed and the first Walker entered the pass.

She ushered Han and Chewie back aboard as the first Walkers started to carefully traverse the devastated landscape. The Force informed her of hidden danger only scant moments before every sensor on the ship monitored the devastating discharge from the formerly silent weapon.

“He’s using the Death Star setting,” Han exclaimed. “He’s trying to disintegrate the hills that block his ability to fire at the Walkers.”

“They’re being pummeled by the debris blowing off the hilltops,” Leia anxiously observed. “If this keeps up, they could be knocked over just by the shrapnel.”

“One of them has got to get through and knock out that shield generator,” Han emphatically insisted, to which Chewie growlingly agreed. “The Falcon’s turbo lasers aren’t that powerful. We need the heavy cannons on the Walkers. And we would be exposed to the Dark Energy weapon before we could even get in position.”

“I’m trying to use the Force to keep the Walkers from toppling,” Leia announced. “But I can’t compensate for multiples being struck at the same time. We’re starting to lose them.”

“We have another problem,” Dari unexpectedly announced over subspace radio. “See how fast the weapon is firing. If it does that in Dark Energy mode, we’re in trouble. I can Force sprint all across this hull. But if we have to reposition the ship, he might be able to fire around me.”

“All it’ll take is one shot striking the Core and this whole mission has been for nothing,” Han spat as he summarized. “And the Walkers are falling like dominoes. We never even considered the possible excavating capacity of the weapon. We were fixated on how the rogue monk could not risk hitting Tund with a burst of gravity-reversing energy.”

“By the time Tund emerges on the far side of Hutt Space and enters the Mid Rim,” Demorin interjected, “there’ll be multiple firing solutions that could enable him to strike the Core. We can’t let this opportunity pass us by. There might not be another.”

As the crew of the Falcon looked on, one of the toppled Walkers used the repulsors in its ankles to push against another of its fallen fellows. Doing so enabled it to push itself beyond the last hillock and within range of the shield generator. But there were still ridges of disturbed loam between it and its target. And because it was lying on its side, its head wasn’t as maneuverable as it would otherwise have been. It began firing at the obstruction, but bursts from the telepath’s weapon reached it before it had cleared its line of sight to the generator. By this time all the rest of the Walkers were on their sides and the assault was obviously over. Leia reluctantly reported the now seemingly hopeless situation.

“Captain Solo, get your ship out of there,” somebody said over the subspace radio channel. It took Han a moment to identify the voice since there hadn’t actually been any direct interaction between him and the captain of the Bothan freighter. But Demorin responded before he could.

“Captain Seng, has something gone terribly wrong with your vessel? According to my scans your crew is using the escape pods to abandon ship. Do you require assistance?”

“Somebody needs to collect the escape pods and then give my crew safe transport home,” Seng replied. “I have to stay at the controls. You’re pretty good at math. You are free to confirm my calculations. That city shield is strong enough to deflect almost any bombardment. But there is an exception, the kind of kinetic energy weapon my freighter will become at lightspeed. Do be good enough to give my regards to the galaxy. I just hope the B’omarr monks all return to sanity once they’re no longer under the telepath’s control. But there will be neither a rogue telepath nor a Dark Energy Weapon in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.”

Han pulsed the hyperdrive of the Falcon to make sure it was out of harm’s way. The Bothan freighter flew forward faster than the eye could track. The city shield protecting the Dark Energy Weapon was overwhelmed by the impact. The Force told Moxi-Lon what Seng was planning, but there just wasn’t enough time to adjust the trajectory of the weapon. Most of the Droidekas were still downrange, having been engaged in their efforts against the Walkers. Only those still within or near the city were destroyed. But the rest were left leaderless. They relented of their assaults against the fallen Walkers, but the cold had already claimed the lives of the operators. It had all happened so quickly the observers could only look on in shock and disbelief.

“So one life given for the galaxy has saved it again,” Han circumspectly remarked.

“It does feel like history repeating itself, doesn’t it?” Leia rhetorically asked in agreement.

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