To Curse the Darkness
To Shine a Light
To Shine a Light
Prologue: Something Moving in the Shadows
Admiral Jonathan Blakeley was riding in a military transport shuttle when the broadcast was made. The pilot routed it to the passenger viewscreen so Blakeley could see it.
Blakeley didn't want to see it; he wanted to be left alone with his thoughts, with the consequences of what he had just done. But the pilot insisted, and so Blakeley watched.
And then the Overseer appeared. And then the Overseer resigned, and recognized Blakeley as Supreme Commander of the Cooperative Armed Forces.
It shocked him to his core. It froze him in place. Blakeley had just submitted his resignation to the Overseer; but this meant . . .
Blakeley pulled his military data cylinder off of his uniform and slid it into the comm station, accessing the encrypted command-level communications that now filled the Varn System in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Vahaba.
Who did he send? Who did he send?
“No. No, no, no, no!”
Blakeley palmed the ship's internal comm and ordered the pilot to change course for the Cooperative flagship, Guardian, then he entered a string of commands into the comm station.
The image of Vice Admiral Gorn appeared only a moment later, looking weary and more than a little shocked. Nevertheless, he offered his superior a precise salute.
Blakeley returned it absently, his mind still reeling. “Vice Admiral, I take it you've heard?”
“Yes, Sir, I have. Congratulations, Admiral.”
Blakeley shook his head. “There's no time for that. All flag officers are accounted for.”
“Yes, Sir, they are.” He'd thought it was a question.
“No, Admiral Gorn, you don't understand. The Overseer hasn't dispatched anyone to act on Corise Lucerne's intelligence.” The Mon Cal vice admiral emitted a gravely sort of snort at the notification. “Gods, it's been . . . over six hours.”
“What do you need from me, Sir?”
Blakeley could see the exhaustion in the Mon Cal's face now, the sort of total emptiness brought on by command through extended combat. But he couldn't let that affect him now. “I'm transferring to Guardian as we speak, but I need to stay here and coordinate for possible Reaver counterattack. Gorn, I'm transferring you to Redemption; your orders are to take all functioning elements of the Redemption battle group and any available Hive Ships to the location given by Lucerne, find and extricate any and all captives present. Data retrieval from the outpost is to be considered a secondary objective. We have to move now, Admiral; time is against us.”
“I understand, Sir.”
Blakeley cut the comm line and then sank back into his seat, his mind reeling.
Five minutes ago he had thought he had given up his military career. Now, he was ordering a course of action that may put the Cooperative into military conflict with its greatest ally.
Vice Admiral Gorn didn't like his new seat. Its contours were far too suited for a human occupant. Added to his physical discomfort was the oppressive sense of his own misplacement; this was not his crew, this was not his command.
Now, he was leading damaged ships and exhausted crews into an area of unknowable risk. Coalition star charts showed their destination to be an uninhabited system containing a light asteroid field. Unfamiliarity with the environment meant Gorn would have to bring the fleet out of hyperspace well away from the target, and approach under sublight power. If the installation was well defended, his force may have to weather the Confederation's long-range fire for a considerable time, if they elected to resort to hostility.
It was not a pleasant thought to entertain as the reversion timer counted down its last few seconds.
“Realspace reversion in three, two, one . . .”
Gorn braced himself for the sight that would greet him. “I want active scans of the entire area. The Confederation early warning network has almost certainly picked us up, so there's no point in trying to play at stealth. And get me visuals on the target as soon as possible.”
Gorn shook his head. “Let's not make any hostile gestures until we know what we're dealing with. Just take us ahead, half power.”
The seconds ticked by and Gorn had yet to see any information. “Status update,” he called out.
“I'm sorry, Sir,” one of the sensor technicians replied, “we're getting something, but . . . oh, no.”
“What is it, son? Speak up.”
“Admiral, it's . . . gone. These are residual heat signatures.”
Gorn's fish-eyes grew even wider, and his whiskers started twitching slightly. “Where the hell's my visual!”
“We were looking for indications of power usage,” someone explained by way of excuse. “ I didn't realize . . . pulling it up now, sir.”
Gorn stared at the cloud of dust and rock in disbelief. “Sensors?”
“We're too far out to get any definite reads, Admiral.”
“Can we enhance the image?” Gorn asked.
“Thermal imaging coming up now, Sir.” The whole cloud glowed a dark red, the rocks a softer orange and some of the larger chunks nearly white.
“Time estimation on when this happened?”
“We'll need a reliable read on the rate its radiating heat before we can make any sort of guesses, Sir.”
Gorn frowned, willfully permitting his frustration in hopes it would distract him from the horror of what he was seeing implied. “Any other ships or installations in the area? Any indication of how this happened?”
“Nothing on sensors, Sir. Computer modeling of the debris field may be able to tell us if it was internal explosion or external impact that created it, but we won't get anything specific on energy signatures until we can close for short range sensor surveys.”
“Very well, increase speed t―”
“Reversions detected!” another sensor tech shouted.
“Location onscreen,” Gorn ordered. A second later icons appeared on the representation of local space. The unidentified formation was on the opposite side of the asteroid belt, higher above the plane of the ecliptic and closer to the facility's debris field.
“We're being hailed, Sir. Confederation comm channels.”
“We're too far out, Sir. All we're picking up are their IFF transponders, identifying them as warships of the Contegorian Confederation.”
“We're still being hailed, Admiral.”
“Ignore them!” he shouted, and then a moment later, after reviewing his options: “Signal the fleet. We're returning home. Make the jump to lightspeed with all possible haste.”
“Sir?” the ship's captain asked, shocked that Gorn would turn and run so quickly.
“This was a rescue mission. That's no longer an option. If we jump now, before they close, all they'll have are entry and exit vectors on unkown ships: not enough to prove the Cooperative was here.” Gorn slumped visibly in his chair as the formation slowed and altered course for the return home. “This is a game for the politicians now.”
* * *
With the notable exception of the Confederation's food crisis, Ambassador Grace Nova had found her post in Brandenburg, Genon, largely uneventful. Since the agreement reached between certain Cooperative and Confederation officials regarding the development of a Trans-Rim trade route, that matter had been handled by separately assigned representatives, and the disruption of that plan by the appearance of the Reavers had done nothing to revitalize Grace's position here.
Even Prime Minister Regrad, upon deciding to strike up his Compact Fleet, had bypassed the only official representative of any Coalition member, instead electing to drop in unannounced with a whole warfleet and just ask real nice-like for a meeting.
And when she really thought about it, most issues pertaining to the food crisis were handled on Varn, in the Confederation embassy there.
The more she thought about it, the less her job really seemed to be of any use at all.
And then her comm chimed. And this wasn't her assistant's “I'm making a caff run, you want anything” chime. This was a “Cooperative Combined Council” chime, on the secure HoloNet linkup!
“I'm here, I'm here!” she exclaimed, slapping the activator and then running around the table to get into the field of view of the holorecorder. “What can I do for you gentlemen today?”
“You are aware of the situation in the Vahaba System?” The speaker was Giles Rhade, a member of the Combined Council.
“The battle? Is it over? Did we win?”
“The Reavers have been repulsed. The System has been evacuated.”
“Are we taking it back?” she demanded.
“That's not relevant right now,” he said sternly to dissuade further inquiry. “We are transmitting secure, classified files to you, and will update you regularly as information becomes available.”
Grace's brow furrowed at the unexpected turn. “What's going on; what have I missed?”
“A clone of Admiral Corise Lucerne died defending Vahaba; he had escaped, apparently, from a Confederation detention center, and was utilizing technologies vital to the defeat of the Reavers. You're going to go and get us answers from the Confederation Council. We're counting on you, Ambassador.”
Grace nodded emphatically, momentarily at a loss for words. “I won't let you down, Sir.”
“Oh, and Grace: if they ask you about survivors, tell them that we cannot acknowledge the detainment of individuals who do not officially exist.”
She didn't understand, but she nodded anyway. Giles looked like he was about to close the line, and she managed to get his attention before he did. “Oh, Sir!” He stopped and returned his attention to her, and she proceeded in a more authoritative voice. “What aren't you telling me?”
“Some secrets are more vital than others, Ambassador. They can't afford to be transmitted by any remote means.”
The line closed and Grace immediately opened the data file, reading quickly over the scarce information, and then going through it more carefully a second, and then a third time. There wasn't much here, just a summary of the events at Vahaba, really, and those were far from secret, what with the presence of the Compact Fleet.
But it was disconcerting, nonetheless. If this was real, if the Confederation had cloned their own admiral . . . she had no idea what it meant, but it couldn't be good.
She grabbed her commlink and flipped it to her assistant's line. “Kyle, I need a meeting with the Confederation Council. They'll be expecting me, so they'll either set it up immediately or not at all.”
“I'll get right on it, Ma'am.”
Grace smirked: she hated when he called her “ma'am”.
* * *
These people knew him. They didn't just have his service record or a list of previous residences. They had his childhood dental records. They had the names of his family's friends, the credit amount saved due to his buddy getting him the company discount on holovid rentals during his teens. They knew every detail of his life, had every record ever made with his name on it.
His voice was hoarse from talking. His eyes were burning despite the total darkness. His skin was chafed by the restraints at every joint of his arms and legs, the collar tying his neck to the chair he'd been strapped into. His head was spinning and he was sure he was on the brink of delirium.
They'd put something in his arm, he couldn't remember how long ago. He couldn't remember how long he'd been here. There'd been no food, no water. How long could a human last without water? He couldn't remember, but he'd been here less than that.
And they hadn't let him sleep, though that was probably for the best: the collar would almost certainly strangle him if he let his head droop.
“Timothy Mauler, First Lieutenant in the Cooperative Army, native of the planet Gyndine.” Always the same, neutral, mechanical voice. Always rattling off one bit of inconsequential data or another.
“We've been over this,” he rasped. “That's me.”
“Age: 25. Previous occupations―”
“I said that's me!” His voice cracked under the strain of shouting, and his throat was so dry it burned. “Kill me now,” he whispered. “Just kill me now.”
“But we have such use for you, First Lieutenant Mauler.” The voice was exactly the same, just as void of all emotion, rang just as artificial as ever before, but something was different. It had addressed him directly before, but something . . .
“Who are you?”
“I want you to talk about your time at the Jedi Academy on Naboo,” the voice demanded, and then Timothy caught it. The words weren't all the same length; miniscule variations, little things he couldn't possibly have noticed if not for the droning of these past . . . days? Someone was talking now, and their voice was being synthesized to mach the automated voice.
“Why do you care about the Jedi?”
“I want you to talk about your time at the Jedi Academy on Naboo,” the voice said again. And it was definitely different.
“What could you possibly compromise by talking to us about the Jedi? The Temple is abandoned. The planet was invaded by the Empire. What does your silence protect?”
“I know how this works,” Timothy whispered. “I won't tell you anything. I won't give you the satisfaction.”
“Everyone breaks eventually, Timothy.”
“I've got . . . two more days” the number just lept into his head “and then I'll be dead of dehydration, so as long as 'eventually' is three days away, I guess I'm okay with that.”
“I want you to talk about your time at the Jedi Temple on Naboo.” Timothy didn't answer this time. He closed his eyes just in case they were watching him with some sort of infrared imager or sonar mapper, and just sat, waiting to die in two more days.
“Well if you won't tell me, then I will tell you. You went to the Temple after years of wandering in your adolescence with bright hopes for the future. You just knew that there, you would find your purpose; there, you would become a force of justice, and instrument of righteousness that would go out and right the various wrongs that your unfortunate childhood exposed you to. And then you were paired with some lackluster Jedi knight and spent the next two years holed up in that Temple, locked away behind those walls of stone. You left before the Temple closed, didn't you? You probably even made some grand show of casting your lightsaber into a well or some such semi-symbolic object. And why ever would you do that, Timothy Mauler?”
He didn't know why, but he felt the answer building in his chest, and he knew he just had to speak. “Because they wouldn't act.”
“Precisely. What good is goodness if it is hoarded for yourself? You left the Jedi because they were not good enough for you. And where did you go? The Cooperative, of all places.”
“Not right away.”
“No, but soon enough. And you didn't just go to the Cooperative, did you? You joined their military, probably leveraged your limited Jedi training for an officer's commission, and then you went around shooting Reavers and corralling refugees. Quite the man of action, yes? But that's no work for a Jedi, is it? It's just what you accepted after your dreams were dashed.”
“I'm no Jedi,” Timothy said, and the bitterness could be heard despite his failing voice.
“That's very good, because we have no particular use for Jedi.”
“I won't help you,” he said again.
“I serve the Cooperative. I have made oath to them. I am a Guardian of liberty.”
“And what makes you so sure that service to us will not serve the Cooperative?”
Timothy shook his head, the collar threatening to cut off his air supply. “No none who does this to a man could ever serve a thing so noble as the Cooperative.”
“Are you sure about that? I'll give you a moment.”
Timothy grinned in recognition as the thought occurred to him, but he was quick to snuff out the reaction.
“I saw that,” the voice noted. “That sort of reveal on your part is quite dangerous for you if we have no part in that noble Cooperative of yours.”
“Whoever you are, whatever you're doing here: there's no way in hell that you could get to a Cooperative Army lieutenant asleep in his bunk and carry him, unconscious, to a facility such as this, unless you were working for the Cooperative.”
“Careful, now, Lieutenant.”
“And that makes all of this, all of what you've put me through . . . an audition. So who the hell are you, and what the hell do you want from me? And if I didn't pass, then you best kill me now.”
“We aren't finished yet,” the voice replied.
Timothy grimaced as he pulled against his restraints, straining despite the futility of the effort. But he could feel it, every cell of his body singing out in beautiful harmony, a song to order the very threads of life.
Simultaneously the restraints on his right wrist and elbow snapped loose, though his arm only moved a couple of centimeters off of the armrest. He beckoned with his free hand into the unseen darkness, breathing heavily with the exertion of the past few seconds. “I'm thirsty; bring me something to drink.”
A minute or two passed and no response was forthcoming. “I am a detainee of the United Cooperative of Peoples, and am entitled to certain basic rights to life. So bring me something to drink.”
“Are you prepared to risk your life on that assumption?”
Timothy smiled again, and this time he didn't try to hide it. “The whole of the universe, heaven, and hell sing to me in my dreams. I am a Force adept, a servant of life and its manifest will, so understand me when I say this . . . Colonel, is it?” His smile widened as he felt the change in the adjacent, yet unseen, room. “I am weary of your games, and I want you to give me a glass of water.”
A door opened directly ahead and blinding white light poured into the room. Timothy shut his eyes, but they still burned red-white, even through his eyelids. He heard the footsteps, and then the glass press into his free hand.
“You probably can't tell, what with the blinding light in your face an all,” the authoritative, Rim-accented voice began, “but I am wearing a Cooperative military uniform at the moment, and it does belong to me. So let me make this very clear to you: you possess qualities in excess which I require to preform my duties as have been handed down to me by my superiors. As such, your consent is very important to me.”
“What do you want?” Timothy asked between hacking coughs, brought on by trying to drink too quickly with such a parched throat.
“I'm not at liberty to share particulars pertaining to my assignment to . . . shall we say: outsiders. I am allowed only to say that what is required of us goes above and beyond the oath you swore to the Cooperative; the oath―I am happy to see―you take very seriously.”
“How above and beyond?” He asked, this time a little less ragged.
“I can't guarantee that you will ever be free to walk down the street again . . . ever.
“And what do I get out of giving up my life?”
“Why nothing, of course! But you get to make the Cooperative safer. You get to become the embodiment of our ideals, the noble defender of our noble institution. It's just that nobody will ever get to hear about how awesome you are. Can you live with that? And I want you to think about that real hard, because I'm not joking: you sign up for this, and I own you. You become a possession of the Cooperative, and we are free to lock you in a cage, bury you alive, whatever. So the question―the real question―is: what are you willing to bet on your belief in the Cooperative?”
Timothy was done with the water now, and was resting the glass on the armrest of the chair. His eyes were just starting to adjust enough to venture a squinted glance with one eye. “I'm in, now who the hell are you?”
A toothy grin awaited him.“I am Brigadier General Lee Prine of the Cooperative Defense Force, and you might just rescue us from utter destruction.”
“Brigadier General, CDF? What are you doing running black ops?”
The general chuckled at the comment. “Now, now, we don't call it that. And anyway, you were right, mostly. I was a colonel in New Republic Intelligence, way back when. I signed on with the CDF because I couldn't handle retirement, and I was tired of the real fighting. You're looking at the man in charge of logistics and supply for the entire Northern quadrant of the CDF. Who better to commandeer supplies, disappear troops, and conjure up nefarious-looking covert interrogation installations than me?”
“But what are we doing?” Timothy asked, too tired to try burying his frustration.
“Oh, now, we're gonna have to get you cleaned up, level headed and calmed down before we get into any of that.”
“One more thing, General.”
“What's that, son?”
“Are you ever going to let me out of this chair?”