Chapter Nineteen: Last Man Standing

"The responsibility for a martial host of a million lies in one man.
He is the trigger of its spirit."- Wu Ch'i

"She's not gonna hold together much longer, Captain!" Geordi shouted into his communicator. His expression told the whole story as he stared at his control panel. Every indicator was in the red zone, every alarm seemed to be flashing. Crewmen worked frantically to contain a leak behind him and the ship was starting to shake, its metallic frame singing a death song.

An earsplitting alarm went off and an ensign working to his right swore. "God damn it! Junction twelve just blew out, sir ... it's gonna flood the whole compartment!"

"Close the isolation doors!" Geordi shouted. "We've got to contain it!"

"But sir, there are twenty crewmen in there!"

"You can't help them, ensign! Now close the doors! That's an order!" Geordi shouted back.

The young man stared at him and then complied. Geordi turned back to his panel, cringing inwardly at the thought of those crewmen trapped in the flooded compartment. The corrosive gas would dissolve the skin off their bodies. Not the way I'd want to go, he thought to himself.

The console showed the doors closing, but thankfully it didn't show a video feed of the crewmen trapped inside. The blaring alarm ceased and the ensign pounded his console in anger. "This shouldn't be happening, sir. Who the hell knew they could grab us with tractor and repulsor beams?"

"We should have known, ensign. They had all the time in the world to study that cloaking device."

"Then why don't we just drop the cloak, sir?"

"Not a good idea, ensign. They'll blow us to pieces the second we decloak. The only way out is to break free of those beams."

"But sir, it would take a miracle to- aw hell! We've got microfractures in the starboard nacelle strut! She's starting to give way!" A new barrage of alarms began to sound.

"We're gonna lose her in about thirty seconds if we can't break free of that tractor beam!" Geordi shouted over the noise. "Wait, I've got an idea!" he said, tapping his communicator. "Captain, I recommend we raise shields!"

"We're phase cloaked, Mister Laforge. Shields are irrelevant." Picard answered.

"Yes sir, but the shields might disperse some of the forces. That'll take some of the load off the integrity field, and the shield bubble has a bigger section modulus than the hull!" Laforge answered, his voice gaining urgency as the ship's impending destruction drew near.

"All right, Mister Laforge. Raising shields." Picard answered. After a delay which lasted a few seconds, the shaking began to subside.

The ensign was ecstatic. "It worked, sir! Hull stress indicators dropping below critical!"

"Yeah, but for how long?" Geordi muttered. He tapped his communicator again. "It worked, Captain! We've got a few more minutes, but that's assuming they don't just increase the power. I've got a feeling they're just toying with us, so I hope you can think of something fast!"

"So do I, Mister Laforge." Picard replied from the bridge. The bridge was quiet and calm, a stark contrast to main engineering. It could have been due to fatalism, misplaced optimism, or simply their training, but the crew was entirely businesslike and professional. Every one of them worked to deal with the damage and casualty reports, while others still reported regularly on the status of the battle. But although they did not betray a sense of panic, the shields were dropping at an alarming rate, and they knew they had only postponed the inevitable.

Jaina turned to face Picard, "Your engineer is right, Jean-Luc. Jacen is toying with us. He could destroy us at any time."

Picard nodded, and turned to face her. "Jaina ..." he began.

"I know, Jean-Luc. You tried your best." she said quietly. "But it's hopeless."

"You don't know that." he protested. "We can still try-"

"No." she said, tears welling up in her eyes. "It's over. You forget, Jean-Luc. I can see things before they happen. I'm going to die."

"I don't believe that!" Picard said firmly.

"It's true, Jean-Luc." she said, her voice cracking. "I'll never grow old, I'll never have a family-"

"Jaina, I-"

"My son will never be born ..."

"Jaina!" he shouted.

She looked around the bridge, suddenly aware that some of the crewmen were staring at her. They immediately turned back to their stations, leaving her and Picard looking at one another. "Jean-Luc," she said, trying to compose herself, "there's something I have to tell you ... before the end."

"It can wait." he said with a forced smile. "You can tell me after we break free."

On the bridge of the Crimson Blade, Admiral Kanos was furious. "How the hell did she end up on the Tanaka?"

"Picard picked her up before Search and Rescue could get to her, sir. We didn't realize what happened until now."

"What was he thinking? She would have been perfectly safe in the pod until Search and Rescue got her."

"I don't know, sir. Are we going to attempt a rescue?" Daron asked.

Kanos sighed heavily. "We don't have a choice, Captain. It's our duty. It looks like this is end-game."

"End game? What do you mean, sir?"

"I mean that a strategic retreat is no longer an option. Regroup and begin a new offensive. Protect the Tanaka at all costs."

"Admiral, I must protest. That's a suicide mission! Ring Station reports that they've still got some control over the wormhole, so this is our last chance to escape."

Kanos locked eyes with Daron. "Your objection is noted, Captain. And if we somehow survive the journey back home through a slowly destabilizing wormhole, perhaps you would like to tell the Emperor that we abandoned his sister to save our own lives."

Daron lowered his gaze and pulled at his collar, as if he could feel the cold, invisible noose of the Emperor around his throat already. "I see your point."

On the bridge of the Death Star, Tharde paced back and forth, occasionally stopping to look at the timer. Its glowing red symbols counted down until the primary weapon would be ready to fire again, but they counted far too slowly for his tastes. He clenched and unclenched his fists, staring at the timer as if he could will the timer into counting down faster.

A junior officer came running. "Sir," he exclaimed breathlessly, "Kanos' forces are attacking again!"

"Again? I thought we sent him packing. All right, put it on the main viewer."

Kanos' ships were indeed accelerating back toward the Death Star, taking casualties and firing as they approached. The shield breaches had grown and some of their blasts struck home, but it was too little, too late.

Tharde began to chuckle. "He just doesn't know when to quit, does he?" Dozens of Star Destroyers were reduced to molten slag, succumbing to the barrage from the Death Star's heavy guns. But despite their fearsome casualties, Kanos' ships kept coming.

"Sir, it looks like he plans to enter the shield with his heavy ships!"

Tharde sat forward, his interest piqued. "He's not kidding around this time, is he? Intensify firepower at the shield breach!" He watched with growing satisfaction as Star Destroyer after Star Destroyer attempted to enter the breach, only to be blasted to atoms. But as before, the drifting clouds of wreckage acted to obscure the gunners' line of fire, and one of the lumbering ships finally managed to break through.

"One ship is through, sir. Targeting-" the young officer was cut off my an explosion which shook the station and knocked him off his feet.

"Damage report!" Tharde bellowed, scrambling back to his feet.

"Sir, the ship jumped to hyperspace and rammed the station! Took out every turret and surface battery in a two kilometre radius, as well as one buried shield generator unit. But the heavy armour belt is still intact."

"I don't believe it ... can't we close that damned shield breach?" Tharde asked.

"No, sir! It's getting bigger ... Kanos' ships are still coming through ... brace for impact!" Another tremendous explosion rocked the station.

"He's insane ... he's trying to thin out our defenses," Tharde muttered in bewilderment, "but for what? He'll run out of ships before we run out of weapons."

Aboard the Tanaka, the crew watched the suicidal attack unfold.

"He's really pulling out all the stops now." Portugal said in awe.

"It's a rescue." Jaina said. "He has sworn to protect my life at all costs."

"Even if he has to sacrifice his entire fleet?" Picard asked in amazement.

"Yes." Jaina answered sheepishly.

"Sir, his ships are approaching our position!" Portugal reported. More than a hundred Star Destroyers converged on their location, taking horrific casualties as they approached. More than fifty ships were blown apart as they approached, and the survivors were belching flame and trailing debris.

"This is insanity! What do they hope to accomplish?" Picard asked. But the words were barely out of his mouth before a burning, badly damaged Star Destroyer passed right through the Tanaka. It slowed and stopped so that the cloaked ship was embedded in its bowels, and the Tanaka shuddered violently. It lurched forward as if the tractor and repulsor beams had been cut off, but it stopped again when the stricken Star Destroyer succumbed to a mercilessly intense turbolaser bombardment and disintegrated around them.

"Son of a bitch ..." Portugal swore. "Kanos' ships are trying to block the beams, sir! When the other ship passed through us, the Death Star tractor beams lost the lock!"

"But they regained the lock as soon as it was torn to pieces." Picard concluded.

Kanos began broadcasting on an open channel. "Admiral Kanos to USS Tanaka. Get out of there while you can! My ships will escort you out!"

"Admiral, save your men! It's not worth it!" Picard protested.

"Captain, my men are dying while we debate this. Get out of there. Now!" Kanos replied emphatically.

Picard bit off a reply, knowing that Kanos was duty-bound to sacrifice millions of men if necessary. "Damn it, get us out of here." he ordered.

The ship accelerated away from the maelstrom in fits and starts, as starship after starship sacrificed itself to buy time for their escape.

Picard tried to talk some sense into Kanos. "Admiral, I still have a mission to complete. I've got to enter the Death Star!"

"Captain, we tried your plan and it didn't work. Lady Jaina, I humbly request your permission to execute Operation Javelin."

Jaina's face fell. "I suppose we have no alternative. Permission granted, Admiral."

Picard waited until the channel was closed, and then asked the question on everyone's mind. "Jaina, what is Operation Javelin?"

Her eyes were downcast. "A weapon of last resort. No one knows about it but Kanos, Daron, and myself."

"Another superweapon?" Picard asked, wondering how many instruments of mass destruction the Empire had brought into his galaxy. "Where is it?"

"Believe it or not, it's been sitting right under your noses all this time." Jaina replied. "But it comes with a price. It's too bad ... I would have liked to see Coruscant one more time."

Aboard the Death Star, Tharde watched the incredibly costly rescue operation proceed. "He's throwing his men into the meat grinder just to save Jaina." he muttered in amazement.

The junior officer returned. "Sir, we've monitored some strange activity on the ring station. The energy readings are skyrocketing. It looks like they're going to lose containment on the energy stream soon."

"Good. That'll save us the trouble of destroying it for ourselves. We'll destroy Kanos' ship instead." Tharde answered smugly.

"But sir, the ring station is very similar to a giant particle accelerator."

"Yes, yes, I'm already aware of that, lieutenant."

"Its circumference is nearly four thousand kilometres."

"Thank you for the technical review, lieutenant." Tharde hissed with obvious annoyance. "I hope you have a point."

"Well, if they keep ramping up the power, they'll eventually lose containment of the energy stream. If that happens-"

"The station will be destroyed. The wormhole will completely destabilize. That's exactly what we were trying to accomplish, young man."

"Yes sir, but if they drop containment properly, they can control the direction of energy release."

Tharde threw his hands up. "Who cares? The wormhole would still destabilize. What would they accomplish by ..." Tharde's eyes widened and his voice trailed into silence.

"Sir, they can turn that station into a huge particle cannon. They'll only get one shot ..."

"But that's all they're going to need. Maker help us!" Tharde sputtered. He fumbled for his comlink and tried to contact Jacen.

Alone on the darkened overbridge, Jacen had begun to rant anew. "You'll never escape, dear sister! You can run, and you can hide behind your lackey Kanos, but there is no escape! I will destroy him, I will destroy his fleet, and I will hunt you down no matter where you go!" He shut off the transmission to answer Tharde's blinking signal.

"How dare you interrupt me in my moment of triumph?" he bellowed.

Tharde's holographic representation appeared before him. "Your Excellency, Admiral Kanos is attempting to-"

"Silence!" Jacen thundered. "I don't have time to waste on your petty concerns!"

"But my Lord," Tharde spluttered, glancing nervously at something out of the holocam's view, "he's going to attack us with the ring station."

"Fool! We are invincible!" Jacen roared. "Begone!" he shouted, shutting off the channel.

To Jacen's utter astonishment, the worthless bureaucrat actually had the temerity to re-open the channel. His holographic image appeared once more. "My Lord, please! We must-"

"How dare you defy me!" Jacen screamed. "You have made your last mistake, fool!" he thundered, as Tharde began to clutch at his throat. He crushed the life out of the Grand Moff in seconds, then he turned his attention back to Jaina. He tried to reach out with the Force to feel her fear again, but something nagged at the back of his mind. What was that idiot Tharde talking about?

Millions of kilometres away, the ring station was reaching overload level.

"The javelin is ready, Admiral." the ring station commander reported.

"Commander Kinan, may your aim be true. Fire." Kanos ordered.

Seconds later, a precisely controlled forcefield shutdown released the station's enormous payload. The gargantuan energy stream obliterated a section of the ring's outer wall, and shot out in one long, cohesive line toward the Death Star.

"Only six microradians off, Admiral." Daron exclaimed with a gleam in his eye. "We've got him!"

On the Death Star's overbridge, Jacen felt the threat, rather than seeing it. He saw a blindingly bright white line in his mind, drawing itself between the distant ring station and his Death Star, and he saw what would happen when it struck home. His eyes snapped open. "No ..." he whispered.

Aboard the swarms of Federation and Imperial ships battling for supremacy around the Death Star, they all picked up the approaching threat. Hundreds of starship captains screamed orders for their helmsmen to get away from the path of the incinerating beam. They had mere seconds to act, and for many of them, it wasn't enough. Hundreds of starships and fighters were caught in the path of the beam and disappeared as if they had never been. It plunged through the breach in the shield, through the warring ships, and into the surface with a cataclysmic impact.

Millions of Death Star crewmen died instantly as the beam carved out an enormous hole, blasting its way hundreds of kilometres deep into the Death Star's innards. A vast plume of vapourized metal and white-hot debris shot away from the impact crater, obliterating everything in its path. The widespread destruction caused systems to overload and fail all over the entire battle station, and in an instant, the crew of the Death Star went from a calmly conducted textbook defense to a desperate struggle for survival. It was all they could do to control the station's massive machinery and keep it from self-destructing.

"Kanos!" Jacen screamed amid the chaos of the overbridge as wreckage fell from the ceiling and flames rose around him. "I will destroy you!" He contacted the bridge. He couldn't remember the name of Tharde's second in command, but that hardly mattered. "Commander, target the Crimson Blade with the superlaser."

"My Lord, that is impossible. Primary weapon control is inoperative. The superlaser array has been heavily damaged. The shield is down, and propulsion control is out! The whole power grid is fluctuating- we can't maintain defensive fire." The terrified officer saw bank after bank of turbolaser turrets and batteries going silent on his status displays, and the tactical display showed that the surviving attackers were now free to wreak havoc on what remained of the battered space station.

Jacen raged at him. "We've lost our ability to fight? How dare you fail me?"

"My Lord, there is too much damage- urrgh ..." the unfortunate officer's words trailed away to a death rattle in his throat, as the invisible grip of the Force crushed the man's windpipe. Jacen roared in frustration and lashed out again with the Force, uprooting everything in the overbridge and scattering it about the room like leaves before a hurricane. When he regained control of his anger, he turned to the door and casually noted that the guards had been killed by the flying debris. He casually deflected a falling girder, stepped over their broken bodies, and with a flare of blue lightning from his fingertips, tore the door to pieces. He stalked through the ruined door and into the hallway beyond, his eyes glowing fiercely.

Aboard the Tanaka, Picard watched the carnage with a mixture of elation and horror. "We're free! Turn us around, and set a course for the Death Star's main reactor. Best possible speed." he ordered.

"Jean-Luc, no!" Jaina exclaimed. "The Death Star is doomed, but Jacen is the real threat- we must stop him when he tries to escape."

"But now we can destroy the Death Star." Picard protested.

"The fleet will do that for us, Jean-Luc. Look." she said, pointing at the viewscreen. Indeed, Kanos' fleet was now attacking with the defenseless Death Star with renewed vigour. Salvo after salvo plunged into the Death Star's unprotected surface, many striking deep within the gaping hole and destroying the exposed equipment therein. All of the light attack craft which had survived the initial blast were now flying into the hole, blasting away at obstructions and wending their way through the superstructure toward the reactor core.

"Yes, but we can destroy it faster than they can, and with fewer casualties."

"And if Jacen escapes, all of this will be for nothing. We must stop him, Jean-Luc."

"All right," Picard agreed, "but how are we going to find him?" The viewscreen showed thousands of ships pouring out of the Death Star, as its crew abandoned the doomed battle station for the relative safety of deep space. "He could be on any of those ships."

"Look for a two hundred metre long space yacht." Jaina replied.

The Tanaka's sensors swept through the horde of escaping starships for what seemed to be a very long time, before Portugal reported success. "Captain, I'm picking up a space yacht. It fits the tactical profile of Jacen's personal ship."

"Lay in a pursuit course." Picard ordered. The Tanaka decloaked and accelerated toward the sleek luxury starship.

"We're gaining on him, sir." the helmsman reported.

"Good. Jaina, what kind of weaponry does Jacen have on that ship?" Picard asked.

"I wish I'd paid more attention when he used to talk about his ship. I know he's got some weapons, but I'm not sure what type." Jaina replied apologetically. "But it's not a warship. It's just a modified space yacht. My father helped him modify it. They used to stay up all night ... Chewbacca would sometimes help ..." her voice trailed off, as she thought of better times.

"We're coming in weapons range, Captain." Portugal reported.

"Target his engines and prepare to fire-"

"No!" Jaina exclaimed. "He's not on that ship. It's a decoy. If he were on board, I would have felt him by now."

"Great." Portugal grumbled. "Now what do we do?"

Jaina closed her eyes. "He's on an unmarked transport." she whispered. He's surrounded by hundreds of ... hundreds of ... children."

"Of course. His trainees."

"He's running away ... running ... toward the wormhole." Jaina whispered, her eyes still closed.

"I've got him, Captain." Portugal reported. "One transport has broken away from the others. It's headed toward the wormhole." A blocky, nondescript starship accelerated toward the distant ring station, now cold and dark.

"Shouldn't he know that the wormhole is unsafe? Are you sure he's on that ship?"

"I'm sure, Jean-Luc."

"Very well. Helm, lay in an intercept course. Full impulse." Picard ordered. The Tanaka gave chase to the new contact, closing rapidly on the sluggish transport.

"Coming in weapons range now, Captain." Portugal reported.

"Target his engines and fire phasers." Picard ordered.

"Firing." Phaser beams lanced out from the Tanaka's forward array and struck the transport's shields. There was no return fire.

"Keep firing, lieutenant. But remember- he has hundreds of innocent children on board. Be careful."

Portugal nodded and continued the attack. Phaser beams played over the transport's shields until they collapsed. The ship's engines were disabled in short order.

"The ship is disabled, Captain."

"Helm, come alongside and match speeds. Transport those children aboard." Picard ordered.

"I can't get a transporter lock, sir. He's running some sort of interference field."

"Mister Portugal, can you disable it?"

"Only at the risk of destroying the ship, Captain."

Picard grimaced. "All right, open a channel." Picard ordered. He adopted his most commanding tone of voice. "Jacen, your ship is disabled. You cannot escape. Surrender and prepare to be boarded, and you will receive a fair trial."

The sound of laughter could be heard as Jacen responded. "A fair trial? Don't waste my time, Captain. I don't need your help, or your empty promises. I have four hundred hostages. You will surrender your vessel. You will lower your shields and allow me to board your ship. And if you do not comply, I will kill the children one by one."

On the bridge of the Crimson Blade, the enemy's exposed throat seemed to energize the crew. Most of them had all but forgotten the fact that they were now stranded in this galaxy, so eager were they to strike the crippled Death Star and its defenders. The fleet had inflicted a punishing assault upon the traitors, and the end was near.

"Admiral, the Death Star's main reactor is going critical!" Daron reported.

"I thought our ships hadn't reached the reactor chamber yet." Kanos replied.

"They haven't. But it looks like the reaction is out of control. Must be all the damage. It could go any second!"

"Get us to minimum safe distance. Flank speed." Kanos ordered. "Where is Jaina?"

"She's still on Picard's ship, but he's staying well out of range."

"Good." Kanos replied. He walked over to a communications panel and opened a channel. "This is Admiral Kanos to all Imperial ships. The Death Star's main reactor is destabilizing. Retreat to minimum safe distance immediately. Repeat, retreat to minimum safe distance immediately."

Swarms of fighters, cruisers, destroyers and battleships responded to the warning. Ships on both sides, cognizant of the immediate danger to their mutual survival, temporarily suspended their struggle in their flight to safety. In their wake, desperate Death Star reactor control technicians struggled with their damaged equipment. Success would mean another minute of survival, and perhaps more, but failure would mean vapourization. They didn't even notice the passage of time until it began to occur to them that they had survived for longer than they expected to. Incredibly, some of the reactor core readings were actually stabilizing, and it looked like they would be able to successfully throttle it back to a safe level.

Kanos observed the retreating ships, until most of the combatant vessels were safely out of range. "Captain, may I assume that your ships successfully disabled Jacen's ship?"

"Yes, sir. One of our strike cruisers disabled his yacht. Shall we board it?"

"No, not yet. He's too dangerous. We'll keep him bottled up in his ship until we decide what to do with him."

"Yes, sir."

"Um, Captain ..."


"Why hasn't the Death Star exploded yet?"

Daron cleared his throat uncomfortably. "I don't understand, sir. They must have somehow brought it back from the brink."

"Either that, or it was a ruse." Kanos mused.

"Shall we attack?"

"No. Tharde might be willing to surrender." He gestured to one of the communications officers, who opened a channel. He cleared his throat. "This is Admiral Kanos to Grand Moff Tharde. We have destroyed your defenses and weakened your forces. It is time to discuss terms of your surrender."

On the bridge of the Tanaka, the horrified crew saw the body of a small boy float out of the airlock of Jacen's transport.

"All right!" Picard cried hastily. "We will do as you ask! We will drop our shields, and we will allow you to board the Tanaka. We have disabled all intruder control systems, we have blocked command access from anywhere but the main bridge, and we have placed the transporter system into a diagnostic cycle. It cannot be used for three hours."

"You cannot deceive me, Picard. Disable all of your transporter systems, not just your primaries."

Damned telepaths! Picard frowned and then nodded at Portugal to proceed. "Very well, we will disable our cargo bay and shuttle transporter systems."

"Do not attempt to deceive me again." Jacen's shuttle soon made the short trip from the transport to the Tanaka's shuttle bay, and it eased down onto the hard metal deck. The ramp opened, and Jacen strode out confidently to face a squad of Starfleet marines.

He smiled. "A welcoming party ... very good. Take me to the bridge." The marines silently parted to let him through, though their weapons remained trained on him with nervous fingers tensing on the triggers.

On the bridge, Portugal noted Jacen's arrival. "Jacen is on his way, Captain."

Picard's new first officer was distinctly uncomfortable with the situation. "Are you sure this is a good idea? If the reports are true, this man is extremely dangerous." he asked.

"Jaina feels she can handle him, Number One." Picard answered. If it had been Riker, he might have told him about the Stone of Gol. But this man had supposedly been picked at random, and he didn't feel entirely comfortable with him. The Stone would have to remain hidden for now.

The doors to the turbolift slid open, and Jacen walked onto the bridge. He betrayed no concern about the dozens of phasers aimed at him, and he seemed to exude a sense of power and confidence that everyone could feel the moment he entered.

"What do you want with my ship, Jacen?" Picard asked loudly, hiding the Stone of Gol behind his back.

"Do not address your Lord and Master in that tone!" Jacen roared. Picard felt a sensation like icy cold fingers around his throat and he collapsed to his knees, gasping for breath. The Stone of Gol fell to the floor as his hands involuntarily went to his neck in an instinctive attempt to remove the suffocating grip. Black spots clouded his vision, and he could see that the rest of the bridge crew was similarly stricken. The marines died almost immediately, their necks snapped like twigs. Jacen had apparently reserved a slower death for the rest.

Lieutenant Portugal somehow managed to draw his phaser, and with shaking hands, he fired a shot at the glowering Sith warrior. Jacen seemed to anticipate the attack, and his hand was already moving upward when the weapon was fired. The blast ricocheted off his hand and directly back toward Portugal, striking him squarely in the chest. Portugal fell with a look of disbelief frozen on his face.

Even before Portugal's body hit the floor, Jaina was already lunging at Jacen with a lightning-quick motion of her lightsabre. He produced his own lightsabre from inside his cloak, jumped back and parried her thrust at the last instant. Brother and sister eyed each other warily, their humming lightsabres between them.

"I have no use for those underlings," Jacen said, as he effortlessly squeezed the life out of the rest of the bridge crew, "but I will spare these two." He raised his hand in a mock gesture of magnanimity as he released his suffocating grip on Picard and Counsellor Troi. "So they can watch you die."

Picard sucked precious air into his lungs, and he had enough presence of mind to wave off Troi before she attempted anything foolish. He massaged his throat and crept toward the Stone of Gol, still laying on the floor.

Jaina looked at her brother, and saw nothing but single-minded blood lust. She had seen him angry before, and she had seen him prepare for combat. But this was different- he had changed somehow, and she knew that his powers had grown. She didn't know whether it was some Dark Side sorcery or some unspeakable horror he had unleashed upon his kidnapped infant students, but he had gained new strength from somewhere, and this was not the same man she expected to see. She tried to focus her thoughts.

"What? Nothing to say, dear sister?"

"Not yet." Jaina replied defiantly, as she lunged toward him again. Their blades met, and they began duelling in earnest.

Picard picked up the Stone of Gol and turned toward the duelling siblings in triumph, but the two fought so furiously that he couldn't get a clear shot. "Jaina, get out of the way!" he cried.

Both combatants ignored him, and they continued to fight. But Jaina was weakening by the moment. With each slash, lunge and parry, she seemed to wilt a bit more, and Jacen's strength seemed to grow. He pressed and she retreated, still fighting valiantly. But Picard could see that her strength was waning, and cursed beneath his breath. He had a white-knuckled grip on the Stone of Gol, but he was powerless to help her.

"You are weak, Jaina. You power is fading."

Jaina said nothing, as she desperately blocked a series of vicious attacks. She began to falter, and fell back again. Jacen was pressing his advantage to the hilt. He commenced a furious attack, raining blow after blow down on his wilting sister. She staggered backward again, and found herself with her back to the wall.

"Jaina, get away from him!" Picard pleaded, but she had nowhere to go.

She knew the danger she faced, and in desperation, she gathered her strength and charged at him. But he avoided her thrust effortlessly, and she overextended herself. His counterstrike caught her in the side, and she collapsed to the ground with a shriek of pain.

"No!" Picard screamed. In an unthinking rage he unleashed the Stone of Gol, and the ancient psionic weapon conjured up a nightmarish glowing spectre. Jacen put out his hand and his skin seemed to crawl with blue lightning, but the luminescent cloud swept through him unabated. It lifted him off his feet and hurled him against the wall with a heavy thump, and then the Sith lord fell to the floor and lay still.

"Medical emergency!" Picard barked into his communicator as he rushed to Jaina's prone form. Her eyes fluttered open and she tried to speak.

"Jean-Luc ..." she gasped. Dark, almost black blood oozed from her side, and he knew that she was seriously, perhaps mortally wounded. Troi picked up Jacen's lightsabre and gave it to him.

"Jacen is dead." he said, brandishing Jacen's lightsabre for her to see. "Everything will be all right. Help is on the way." he assured her. Her blood was on his hands, and tears streamed down his face as he tried to staunch the flow from her wounded midsection.

"How ..."

"A psionic weapon. It's right here," he said, holding it up and letting her see it. He never did know if she saw it, because her eyes were already closed. He felt her go limp in his arms, and he gingerly laid her down on the floor. He didn't even notice Troi stiffening in terror beside him.

"Captain!" Troi cried in a panicked voice.

Picard looked up, only to see the Stone of Gol leap off the floor and fly through the air. He watched in horror as it flew directly into an outstretched black-gloved hand. Jacen slowly stood up, and Picard felt a sickening sense of dread. The weakened Sith Lord stood unsteadily and leaned against a wall, but he was very much alive.

"The next time ... you try to kill a Sith Lord," Jacen sneered, seeming to gain strength by the second, "make sure you finish the job."

Counsellor Troi pressed the lightsabre into Picard's hand. He activated the weapon and its humming blade shot forth. "I can fix that mistake." he said with a forced show of confidence.

Jacen was unimpressed by Picard's display of bravado or the sight of his own lightsabre. He examined the Stone of Gol in his hands. "I see you have a primitive Dark Side weapon. Impressive." He aimed the weapon at Counsellor Troi, and a wave of psionic energy appeared between them. She barely had time to scream before it swept through her and completely disintegrated her body. "Most impressive."

"Monster!" Picard shouted, advancing toward Jacen. It had taken mere seconds for Jacen to learn the inner workings of the Stone of Gol, and make it more powerful than he thought possible. He pushed aside a growing sense of terror and brandished the lightsabre, but it was abruptly ripped from his hand. Picard expression changed to one of grim resignation as he watched the lightsabre glide through the air and land firmly in Jacen's palm.

"Fool." Jacen sneered, walking confidently forward. "You don't know the power you face." He strolled toward a hidden hatch in the floor and abruptly plunged the lightsabre's glowing blade through the hatch. Picard heard bloodcurdling screams and clenched his fists in impotent rage as Jacen plucked a thermal detonator from his belt and dropped it down the hole. The ensuing blast made the entire deck shake, and the screaming stopped. "And they shouldn't have tried to interfere."

"That wasn't necessary." Picard growled from between clenched teeth.

"I know." Jacen said with a smile. "Now, take us into the wormhole."


"Fool. You aren't indispensable. I don't need you to take control of this ship."

"Your overconfidence is your weakness. I have locked out the ship's computer, and only I know the code."

Jacen smiled, and addressed the computer. "Computer, override command lockout. Authorization code Jacen, omega five five nine." The computer processed the instruction briefly, and then the bridge consoles became alive with activity. System after system reinitialized itself, and the bridge was fully functional again. His smile grew even wider, and he continued. "Computer, restrict system access to Imperial personnel."

"Access now restricted to Imperial command level personnel." the computer reported.

Jacen swung his lightsabre at Picard again, and Picard hastily jumped out of the way. "Now you see. Did you really think Kanos would give you control? Your ship's computer was reprogrammed when it was in our custody. Your command access was an illusion. On this ship, root privilege is reserved for the Empire."

Jacen advanced toward Picard, swinging his lightsabre casually at him. Picard leapt back, barely avoiding several slashes.

"Then why didn't you take control of the ship remotely? Why board my ship?" Picard asked, silently cursing Kanos for not having trusted him.

Jacen's eyes gleamed. "Fool. I had to kill my traitorous wench sister, and I wanted you to watch."

"You can't escape, and the wormhole is unstable. Your allies are gone, and Kanos will kill you at the first opportunity. If you think you can escape, you're insane."

"And you're stalling for time, Picard. Here," he said, gesturing toward one of the bodies strewn about the deck. A hand phaser leapt from the corpse's hand and flew toward Picard, who caught it. "Now you have a weapon. Try to die like a man."

Picard held the phaser in his hand, and considered his options. It didn't take him long to come to a decision. "I won't give you the satisfaction." Picard said, dropping his arms to his side and letting the phaser fall to the floor. "You can kill me if you want, but I won't perform in your game."

"Very well, then. So be it." Jacen snarled. He raised his lightsabre over his head, and Picard tensed in anticipation of the death blow. But there was a loud popping sound, and Jacen stopped dead in his tracks. His eyes bulged, and he looked down in disbelief. The tip of a glowing lightsabre blade protruded from his chest, and Picard saw that Jaina had somehow struggled to her knees and run him through from behind. Brother and sister remained frozen in place for a few seconds, and then both collapsed to the deck.

Picard was not one to make the same mistake twice. He picked up the phaser, set it to maximum power, and fired it point-blank at Jacen's body. The corpse disintegrated completely, and he heaved a sigh of relief. The turbolift doors snapped open, and he realized that Jacen must have been holding them closed somehow. Doctor Crusher and some of her staff came running out, and they went to examine the dead and wounded. Crusher ran directly to Jaina, while the rest of the medics checked the rest of the bodies for life signs.

"How is she, Doctor?"

"She's been very seriously wounded, Captain. The wound is very deep, and her liver has been partially disintegrated."

"Can you save her?" Picard asked, his voice quivering.

Doctor Crusher couldn't look him in the eyes, and shook her head. "Jean-Luc, I don't even understand why she's still alive. These wounds should be fatal." She continued to work, and swept her tricorder over Jaina's abdomen. She stopped, double-checked her readings, and her eyes widened. She tapped her communicator badge. "Doctor Crusher to sickbay, prepare for emergency surgery."

"Doctor, what's happening?"

"Captain, this woman is pregnant."

Commander Riker looked at the alien display system in front of him. "Admiral, the Death Star has signalled its surrender."

Ruk's new rank insignia was still shiny, and it would take some time to get used to the title of Admiral. But as the architect of the new Rebel Alliance and the only one who had ever fought Kanos and lived, Ruk was the logical choice to command the fleet. He leaned forward in his chair. "Damn him. I was hoping they would destroy each other. Report status of Kanos' fleet."

"He's down to roughly a thousand capships, many of which have suffered serious damage or shield depletion."

"What about fighters?"

"It's hard to get an accurate count. I think we're looking at around fifty thousand."

"Death Star defenses?"

"Hard to say. The Death Star power grid is fluctuating and its defensive systems are powering up and down randomly."

"Ring station?"

"A few hundred turrets, nothing else. But the station's shield is at full strength."

"All right. We'll move the fleet in closer, and try to get targeting solutions-"

"Captain, the Romulan ships are breaking formation!" one of the tactical officers exclaimed.

"What? Contact the Romulan fleet commander. Tell him to get back into formation immediately."

"They are ignoring hails, sir. They've gone to warp."

Captain Ruk swore loudly, in an incomprehensible jibberish language that was apparently not in the universal translator's database. He pounded his armrest in frustration and then calmed himself. "Fools! Vengeful fools! Well Commander, it looks like your Romulan friends are hungry for vengeance."

"So what do you plan to do?"

"What can I do? I was hoping that only one side would survive. We don't have enough ships to destroy Kanos' fleet and the Death Star at the same time."

"Admiral, the Romulans are the heavy hitters of our fleet." Riker gently reminded him. Many of the other governments had officially allied themselves with the Empire for fear of reprisals, but the Romulans had thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the cause. Thus, their ships comprised more than a third of the fleet, and more than half of the firepower.

"Yes, they are." Ruk agreed. "I take it you think we should back them up?

"We can't destroy both Kanos and the Death Star, but we can destroy the Death Star itself. Its defenses are down. This will be our only chance, Admiral."

"Maybe, but we'll probably all be destroyed in the process. Blaze of glory, eh Riker?"

"Admiral, the Klingons have a saying: Today is a good day to die."

Ruk smiled. "Riker, you would have made a fine rebel. You're a madman, but you would have made a fine rebel nonetheless. I think perhaps I've been running from Kanos for long enough." He flipped on his voice transmitter. "All ships, go to battle stations. Repeat, all ships, battle stations. Set nav co-ordinates for the Death Star and jump to hyperspace on my mark." He flipped off the transmission and turned to Riker again. "It's time we finished this."

Chapter 20