Aedanius Cretacea, once President of the New Republic and now the informal leader of the Remnant stood in the midst of a frigid forest clearing on Harborage, completely alone other than the distant calls of birds roosting the surrounding trees.
Sitting on an outcropping of rock, Apollo sank his head and clasped his hands together. Since the devastating losses sustained on Cognalorilos, the Remnant had been rudderless, managing to establish a base on distant Harborage only through Helo Roslia's intrepid leadership.
A large part of Apollo wanted to get to his feet, march to the command post and start acting like the leader he had been for much of his life. Yes, he had sustained losses, but so did every single man and woman in the Remnant. He needed to pull himself together.
The death of his father and his companion Gorf had finally caused something to snap within him, something which had endured a lifetime of grief and war. His thoughts became fixated on those who died because of him: dad, Gorf, his staff... his love. He felt empty, rudderless, hopeless, as though he had been hollowed out.
Whether he liked it or not, however, Apollo knew that his leadership, his legacy, was the sole thing keeping the Remnant together. That was why, he realised, as a tear dripped to the hard stone, why it was doomed.
"No," a familiar voice said from the forest clearing behind where Apollo sat. "It is only doomed if you allow it to be so."
Apollo turned his head to one side, glancing over his shoulder at Ramashe—the former Empress of Rambo Nation.
"Lovely," he said, "I've completely lost the plot."
"It was bound to happen at some point," she said with a smile. "But seriously, get to your feet. The Apollo I knew would never give in to self-pity."
Apollo sighed and got to his feet. "Well, he's gone. Like you. Like my father. Like everyone e-"
As he turned, he came face to face with not only Ramashe, but his father, Willelmus Cretacea, standing proud in his New Republic uniform and Gianne Inviá, who smiled with tears in her eyes.
Apollo forgot himself and rushed forward to embrace his wife, only to pass through her as if she wasn't there. The trio moved forward with loving smiles etched on their faces.
"W-what is this?" Apollo asked, his voice cracking. "... My subconscience is f-frakking with my mind."
Gianne smiled sadly, her eyes searching her husband's face as though she couldn't look at him enough. "No, my love. We're here. We never left you."
Cretacea nodded his head and beckoned to the path leading to the control centre. "The people down there, son, they placed their hope in you. They could've abandoned us at any point over the last few years, but they didn't, because they believe in you. Don't lose sight of that."
"There's a plan for you, old friend," Ramashe said. "Your part to play is not yet over."
Apollo shook his head. "I-I can't. I won't let my friends die on my behalf. I won't give hope where there is none."
Gianne placed a corporeal hand on his chin and lifted it to face her. "You say that, but you don't mean it." She cocked that quirky smile he loved so much. "So, stop feeling sorry for yourself, get up off your arse and get your game face on!"
Apollo couldn't help but smile, but nevertheless, resisted. "No, I-I can-"
"Oh yes, you can," Gianne said, pulling him to his feet. "You're the man for the job. I know it, they know it, and frustratingly, you know it. You've always known it."
"At the risk of overusing the metaphor," Ramashe said with a smile. "The spark of hope isn't out. It never will be. But you need to help carry the torch."
Cretacea placed a reassuring hand on his son's shoulder. "Don't worry, son. We'll be with you every step of the way."
The figures suddenly began to fade away, and Apollo desperately attempted to hold onto Gianne's hand, but to no avail. "I love you!" she said as she faded away, a sad but reassuring expression on her face.
"Goodbye, my darling," Apollo said sadly, before turning to Ramashe and Cretacea. "I'll... I'll make you proud."
The holomap illuminated a vivid projection of the Cyrannus Galaxy, bathing the gathered Remnant officers in a faint blue light. Aoirtae Valaeris stood to attention, listening intently to Helo Roslia, who had taken command of the Remnant in Apollo's absence, struggling to fill Admiral Cretacea's shoes in the eyes of his subordinates.
"While the addition of the Phoebus has provided us with a much needed boast," Roslia was saying, "It simply won't be enough to hold even a single occupied world."
Beside Aoirtae stood Kara Inviá, who gazed down at the map with conviction. "So," she said, "we need to gather our allies. Let the galaxy know that we're still fighting the good fight."
"Easier said than done," Captain Vargeryan remarked. "With the fall of the Confederacy, the Empire has secured total control over each sector of the inner galaxy, from the Core to the Outer Rim."
Roslia nodded his head slowly. "Yes, and all attempts to contact the Resistance have failed."
"What about Voro and the Cognatus?" Aoirtae asked.
"Regrettably," Captain Celeneos said, "Voro is facing his own problems now that the Nequam have unified under a powerful chieftain. He wants to help, by all accounts, but lacks the resources to aid in the recapture of Coru Secundus. It appears we're on our own."
"Perhaps not," came a voice from behind the assembled group. Aoirtae turned her head to see Apollo, wrapping a scarf around his neck to ward off Harborage's bitter cold. Aoirtae knew that the President hadn't attended a single strategy meeting since the Phoebus was stolen from the shipyards of Coruaan, and could understand Kara's shocked reaction when he made a place for himself at the holotable, as if he had never left.
"We need to contact the Revanchists", Apollo said with conviction. "If your reports from Coruaan were accurate, Captain Nerazachi, their fleet would be invaluable in our efforts."
Vice President Ramdard Ramthrace nodded solemnly, his expression much more serious than the admiral's. "Mr. President, a moment of your time please?" Ramthrace inquired.
Apollo furrowed his brow and nodded, following Ramthrace to the opposite side of the command centre, as Roslia continued his briefing.
"Is there a problem?" Apollo asked.
Ramthrace snorted. "Besides being low on food supplies, ammunition and allies, sadly yes. Our long range intelligence units reported back, sir. It seems the Resistance is split in half. Forces under General Sesoka seem cornered at their Andustar Base while the Loyalists faction suffered a major defeat within the Space in Between. Even since, we lost contact with both factions."
Apollo scratched his chin, deep in thought. "That complicates things. The Resistance represented one of the only hopes we had for allies in the Cluster. The mission to contact the Revanchists is now of paramount importance. We simply don't have the manpower to mount a successful rebellion without them."
Ramthrace nodded in agreement. "I concur Mr. President, I suggest we send a ship at once!"
"I agree," Apollo replied. "The Aeolus, perhaps. It has the most advanced stealth technology in the flotilla. Come, lets inform the others."
The two walked back toward the command table. Apollo placed his hands on it and sighed deeply, before continuing. "I suggest Admiral Roslia lead the mission to contact these... Revanchists. As the most advanced ship in the fleet, it'll be easier for the Aeolus to hide from Imperial sensors."
Nerazachi nodded. "Yes, Mr. President, though we've no idea where Quarantar is hiding, or we would have reached out earlier."
"Which is why we need to draw him out." Apollo said. "Before we left Capricaerón, one of my last intelligence briefings from Director Tempaere reported on a small Imperial supply station seventeen parsecs rimward of Coventina. A strike was in the works, but never materialised."
Apollo interacted with the hologram, zooming in on the star system in question. "We hit this station, we announce our survival to the galaxy. Our resolve to continue the fight. No doubt that'll get Admiral Quarantar's attention."
Helo smirked. "It's good to have you back, sir. The Aeolus will head there first, scout things out a bit, make sure there are no unpleasant surprises for our fleet."
"I'd like to join you," Aoirtae said. "I'm not sitting this one out."
Roslia folded his arms and nodded. "More the merrier. I know from experience with Master Ryen how useful an Aldárae is in a tough spot."
Kara and Aoirtae exchanged a somber look. Noticing, Apollo changed the subject back to the mission. "I'll join Captain Sevine on the Phoebus, if that's acceptable, Admiral."
Roslia raised his brow in surprise. "I really think it's best for you to remain on Harborage, Mr. Preside-"
"I insist," Apollo interjected. "I'm not interested in sitting on the sidelines any longer."
"B-but, Mr. President you cannot!" Ramthrace proclaimed in shock. "If they had any indication you were on board, half of the Imperial fleet would be on your tail!"
"My decision is final, Ramdard. I'll be far more helpful there, than I would be here." Apollo replied.
"B-But" Ramdard muttered again, but a raised hand of Apollo silenced him.
"I have every confidence in your ability to lead in my absence, old friend." Apollo said, placing a hand on Ramthrace's shoulder. "But if I'm to lead the fight against the Empire, I must lead by example."
The room fell silent with Apollo's last word, all knew the risks but especially the benefits of Apollo being seen on the front lines, not to mention the inspiration it might give to the subjugated areas of the New Republic and the former Rambo Nation to see their Hero of Hope continue the fight no matter the odds.
"It appears we have a plan, then." Admiral Roslia said. "I'll prepare the crew."
Chapter II: Contact
The wormhole in the Harborage system had originally been mapped by the First Aldárae Order during the era of the First Republic, but subsequently became lost in the archives of Aldár. Now, it served as the saving grace of the Remnant, granting ships safe access to and from Cyrannus, a vital resource given the sheer distance between Harborage and the galactic plane. On the bridge of the Aeolus, Admiral Roslia sat in his command chair with Aoirtae by his side. The Phoebus had already entered the wormhole a few minutes prior, where it would then travel to a system close to the Imperial supply system.
Helo placed his hand on the ship intercom. "All hands, preparing to enter the wormhole. Set condition two throughout the ship."
The engines roared to life and the Aeolus lurched forward, entering into the wormhole and disappearing almost instantly. The ensuing sensation was uncomfortable, and one Helo had not experienced in many years. Through instinct, Roslia had closed his eyes, and when they opened, where he had expected to see the sea of stars he had become familiar with on the other side of the wormhole, instead there was only darkness, and nothing but silence. Helo furrowed his brow. "Report."
The navigations officer, Lieutenant T'ran was lost for words for a moment, but regained her composure and turned in her seat to face the Admiral. "Sir... it appears we've entered a multidimensional rift. We have yet to exit the wormhole."
"It's possible we've hit a jetty, attempting to wrench us free, sir," Subcommander Salan was saying, before the ship suddenly exited the wormhole and smashed against an object in space. The bridge lurched forward, almost throwing Roslia off his feet.
Helo's mind instantly snapped to the Dark Times, when his former command, the Star Destroyer Avenger was hurled through time and space to an alternate future timeline, ravaged by the alien menace known as the Xeranbha.
Before he could ask, the ship's AI Ramí, appeared in a holographic depiction of a female Vinquron garbed in a Republic uniform. "Don't worry, captain. Given the origin of the Aeolus, the hidden subroutine we encountered in the Carina Sector would've been activated. The Xeranbha were not responsible for this destruction."
Destruction? Helo thought to himself. What destruction? Turning his attention to the viewscreen, he joined his fellow officers in wide-eyed shock at the vast starship graveyard stretched out before them. Hundreds of ships, of various configurations and degrees of damage, littered the entrance to the wormhole.
"What happened here?" Helo said, mostly to himself.
Lieutenant T'ran poured over the data on his console. "Blast scoring on the wrecks are consistent with Republic weapons, sir, but nothing about this looks right. I'm detecting Cognatus, Basileus, Rambo and... Ecclessoth hull signatures."
"Ecclessoth? Rambo? Something's definitely not righ-" Helo said, before being interrupted by a proximity alert.
"Sir!" T'ran yelled. "Rambo vessel approaching at sublight!"
"Onscreen, open hailing frequencies," Helo said.
The viewscreen zoomed in on an approaching Rambo Kelvin-class starship.
"Rambo vessel, this is Admiral Helo Roslia of the New Republic Star Destroyer Aeolus. Please respond."
The reply came in the form of a proton torpedo, which spiraled through space and impacted against the ventral shields, rocking the Aeolus violently.
"Action stations! Return fire!" Helo yelled, bracing himself against another potential impact. The Kelvin anticipated this, and before the first volley of turbolaser fire had been unleashed, it powered up engines and skimmed over the hull of the Aeolus, firing phaser bolts at the shields. Suddenly, a lance of blue energy came tearing across the void, impacting against the Rambo vessel, and blasting straight through its command section, sending it adrift.
"Where did that come from?" Helo asked, turning to his tactical officer, who informed him that the Phoebus was within range and requesting contact.
Helo let out a sigh of relief. Wherever they ended up, at least they weren't alone. Captain Sevine had been his close friend and confidante since the days of the First Great War, and together, they helped navigate the horrors of the alternate future timeline. Together, Helo was sure they could figure out what had happened. "Onscreen, subcommander."
To Helo's surprise, however, when the viewscreen linked to the Phoebus, he was greeted not by Sevine, but by a face Helo had not expected to see again. Captain Aeralon Temer, reported dead during the Battle of Thaehos.
Before Helo could express his shock, Temer scoffed. "Captain Roslia, one puny rebel ship is too much for you to handle? How the mighty have fallen."
Helo was taken aback. Temer was not only alive, but thriving. His Republic uniform was considerably more opulent than standard issue, adorned with decorative badges and golden armour pieces. "Captain Temer, it's good to see you again. You were reported dead over two years ago... Do you have any idea what happened here?"
Temer raised his brow, and lifted his hands in awe at the destruction. "Has your brain gone soft, Roslia? The Aeolus was reported lost, but perhaps the battle merely muddled your mind. You are witnessing the might of the Libertan Imperarchate, and the first step in our war to restore the Grand Gigaquadrantic Hegemony!"
Chapter III: Mirror Mirror
It had been an hour since the mirror Phoebus departed the battle, leaving the Aeolus behind, without even an offer of assistance—a detail Helo found quite telling about the disposition of this "Libertan Imperarchate". In the ready room, Aoirtae paced the ground while Helo sat with his hands steepled, contemplating the situation. Suddenly, Aoirtae stopped and placed her hands on the table.
"This is messed up," she was saying quickly. "An alternate universe?!"
The science officer, Commander Faustus nodded her head slowly. "The Aeolus itself originated in an alternate timeline, one in which the war was fought well into the second century NE."
"This is clearly another one then. I don't remember hearing anything about this Libertan Imperarchate," Subcommander T'ran said.
"According to recovered logs from some of the damaged ships," Helo said, "it's a restored version of what we would've considered this universe's counterpart to the ancient First Republic."
"So," T'ran said with interest. "It makes sense. They're the counterparts to the New Republic. We use the same ship designs, we're the same people, if Temer is any indication. Is it possible we could come to some arrangement? We could certainly use powerful allies at this point."
"Doubtful," said the disembodied voice of Ramí. "The Imperarchate may have outward similarities to Republic technology and logistics, but culturally, it would appear that they make the Empire look pleasant."
Aoirtae arched an eyebrow. "How so? They fond of blowing up planets too?"
Ramí materialised on the desk, with her hand on her hip. "And the occasional genocide. As the name would imply, they're Libertus-supremacists, and not above enslaving and destroying other species. According to a quick analysis of the Rambo ship logs, they've been known to... treat certain sentients as food. Humanoids, specifically."
Aoirtae grimaced and raised her hand. "I'm sorry I asked."
Helo was deep in thought, his eyes darting over the datafile. "It's the dominant power here in Cyrannus... or Cyrannica, as the galaxy's known here. A remnant of the Gigaquadrant Hegemon-"
He stopped himself as he read on. Slowly, he put down the datafile and sank back in his chair. "This Hegemony... it fell prey to what these rebel files refer to as the 'Black Sickness'."
Aoirtae noticed that the senior officers reacted with shock, tinged with terror, almost in unison. The reference to this "Black Sickness" clearly did not go over their heads, as it had hers. Feeling obliged to speak up, she cleared her throat. "I'm almost afraid to ask... but, the Black Sickness?"
Snapped out of his daze, Helo sighed. "According to the future timeline we visited, the universe was... will be attacked by an alien force known as the Xeranbha." He rose to his feet and walked slowly toward the viewport, gazing out at the countless vessels scattered across the debris field. Aoirtae sat down as she listened on. "The Xeranbha perpetuate themselves with, or are controlled by, a sentient virus known as Purity, which takes the form of a black substance capable of entering, and seizing control of potential hosts. The same is happening in this reality."
Aoirtae said nothing, and began playing with a loose strand of hair, as was her habit when she became nervous.
"It's never easy, is it?" Commander Faustus said, almost to herself. "Of course, the wormhole closed the moment we entered realspace, so we've no easy exit strategy, and without the Aeolus, the Remnant's assuredly doomed."
A hand suddenly landed on Helo's shoulder, causing him to jump in surprise. Ignoring the confused response of the others in the room, he looked up to see the face of the mysterious messenger, who had appeared to him at various points in his life, offering him guidance when he needed it most. The apparition, which was physical, and yet not, took the form of a golden Libertus who called herself Sonja, and could apparently be seen only by Helo. During the Neraida War, however, he noticed that Master Ryen had some awareness of the apparition, and was therefore unsurprised when he noticed Aoirtae's attention snap to, from her perspective at least, the empty space behind him.
"Don't worry, Helo," Sonja said in a soothing voice. "She can't see me."
True enough, Aoirtae merely furrowed her brow and turned her attention back to Commander Faustus.
"I'm beginning to think I shouldn't be able to see you either, after all these years, and still no explanation." Helo said under his breath, in no mood to deal with Sonja's usual antics.
Sonja let out a hearty laugh, and started giving Helo a fake backrub. "Aw, Helo, I'm just your subconscious frakking with your head."
Helo got to his feet, his back turned to the others. "I take it you're here for a reason?"
"As always," Sonja said. "All that was is written, and all that could yet be, is written. Your part to play does not end in this dark place. No, this is but another stone on the path."
"How is a riddle to help me in this galaxy of despots?" Helo asked tersely.
"Think, Helo." Sonja replied. "This universe is a mirror of your own. Everything, reflected perfectly." Her tone was light, and her statements were posed as suggestions, and yet it was clear to Helo that Sonja knew more than she was letting on. "Of course, this universe has had more time to advance than yours, and likely possesses the technology to bridge the barrier. Wouldn't that be useful, hm? The Remnant needs ships? Perhaps you should think of this excursion as an opportunity to get one."
Before Helo could respond, he turned and saw nothing. Sonja was gone. Sighing deeply, he approached the others and set his command cap on the table. "I have a plan. It's stark raving mad, but still, it's worth a shot."
Aoirtae smiled. "That's the spirit!" She enthusiastically smiled at Faustus. "Crazy plans are my favourite."
"Hear me out," Helo said, as he began to pace. "According to our logs, the Imperarchate is essentially the counterpart of the First Republic, only that it didn't collapse and may or may not have conquered the Gigaquadrant. If so, they must have the technological capability to get us home."
T'ran frowned. "You said it yourself, sir. These... Libertans are despots. I doubt they'll be forthcoming with aid."
"True, true." Helo replied. "Though Captain Temer was unable to distinguish the Aeolus from the mirror Aeolus. That presents an opportunity."
Commander Faustus blinked in realisation. "Oh I don't like where this is going."
Helo smiled mischievously. "There's more, Doctor. We're going to impersonate the crew of the Libertan Star Destroyer Aeolus, travel to Coruaan, and to top it all off, we're going to steal a ship."
Aoirtae raised a finger. "Oh, I've done that before. Good times."
"Granted, you didn't steal from rabid Libertus who literally eat people like us for breakfast," T'Ran said sardonically.
Tapping his combadge, Helo contacted the AI. "Ramí, analyse the debris from the battlefield. Access any information you can find on this universe's Aeolus, and our counterparts. We'll need to know our stuff if we're to convince the Imperarchate."
Ramí materialised once again. "I'll do my best, Admiral, but I doubt they'll simply let you steal one of their ships regardless of how good your acting chops are."
Helo put the thought to the back of his mind. "One thing at a time, Ramí. One thing at a time."
Chapter IV: Behind the Curtain
Three hours after the meeting, Helo sat alone in his personal office. He couldn't help cast his thoughts back to his first experience in an alternate universe. Already, it was clear to him that the future he saw would not come to pass their reality. There, Mou'Cyran was the sole beacon of hope in a universe overrun by horrors, capital of a united Republic, strengthened by a union with Rambo Nation, though prey nonetheless to the capricious whims of a faceless terror. There, he met with a distant descendant of Apollo, Aquillius Cretacea, who put aside his suspicions and ultimately helped Helo and his crew return home. He doubted they would experience such honour here, where even the stars themselves seemed dimmer.
The sound of the door chiming snapped him out of his reverie. "Enter".
The door slid open, revealing Aoirtae, who had a datapad in hand. "Admiral, Ramí has recovered information on our counterparts."
She noticed his change of uniform, replicated to closely resemble the one worn by Captain Temer.
"Nice get up," Aoirtae said, with a wry smile. "Very despotic."
Helo motioned for Aoirtae to sit. "That's the very look I was going for. Please, go on."
Aoirtae sighed as she sat down. "As you probably already caught on from your conversation with Temer, your counterpart is the captain of this universe's Aeolus, which was presumed destroyed at the Battle of the Wormhole. The rest of the crew, though... well, lets just say that only the Libertus members are accounted for, and leave it at that."
Helo leaned forward on his chair. "You mean, they're dead?"
Aoirtae shifted uncomfortably. "Some of them never existed, from what I can tell. The Imperarchate, charming buggers that they are, went through periods of non-Libertan extermination in its early history. The Algonquin and Draken have been extinct for millennia. As for the others, Commander T'Ran's counterpart was a noted rebel captain, whose ship was destroyed in battle three weeks ago. Best keep her out of sight."
Helo shook his head in disbelief, before asking, "And you? Is there a mirror Aoirtae running about?"
"The Ortella aren't extinct here," she said, before continuing, a quizzical tone to her voice. "But I can't find any records of my counterpart. And bizarrely, I can't find a single reference to Tyrómairon, the Aldárae, the Phaedra... even the Oikoumene. In a way, it reaffirms a theory back at the temple, that Valin'uvalyë is constant, unifying and continuous across all quantum realities."
"Well, I suppose it's some consolation that Tyrómairon isn't in charge around here," Helo said jokingly.
Aoirtae gave a mirthless laugh. "Nope, but Apollo is. Or should I say, Emperor Aedanius."
Helo's eyes widened. "You're kidding."
"Oho, no. Believe me when I say, this guy's a nasty piece of work. Murdered his own mother to claim the throne, and when the Black Sickness arrived, he abandoned his extragalactic subjects to die, according to what little information the rebels were able to acquire."
Helo found it difficult to believe that Apollo, in any reality, would be a despot of any sort. Nevertheless, Helo knew they had little time for idle chat. "Any information about where to find a ship?", he asked.
"As you guessed earlier, Coruaan is home to a shipyard, and would be a good bet if you want to find a state-of-the-art ship."
Helo nodded and rose from his desk, pressing his combadge as he walked toward the door. "Ramí, set course for Coruaan. I'll be on the bridge in a moment."
Aoirtae joined him as they walked out of the ready room together. As they made their way to the bridge, she couldn't help but feel nervous. She came to the realisation, that with the exception of a few brief periods, she had rarely been without Kara in all their years together. She wondered to herself whether, without Kara, the crew of the Aeolus could trust her to fulfill the role of mighty Aldárae warrior she knew they saw her as. Nevertheless, as the doors to the bridge parted, Aoirtae put these thoughts to the back of her mind, remembering Ryen's words that he at least, would always be with her.
After several minutes of travel, the impossible blue vortex of hyperspace gave way to a stream of lights, which, once the ship decelerated, were replaced by bright stars and the husk of a world, which Helo could only assume was Coruaan itself. It struck him as odd that the Libertus of this reality would neglect even one of their own worlds to such an extent.
"Sir," Commander T'ran said, with a good degree of trepidation, "we're being hailed."
Helo adjusted his gaudy uniform and nodded. "Onscreen."
The viewscreen activated, and he was greeted by the frowning face of Emperor Aedanius himself. Caught off-guard, Helo gazed blankly at the screen. Aedanius was Apollo, as difficult as it was for Helo to understand. Though he wore the opulent robes of a monarch, and carried what appeared to be a ceremonial sword, he was the same man Helo had spoken to earlier that very same day. If that was true, perhaps, Helo thought, he could be reasoned with.
Helo opened to his mouth to speak, but was swiftly interrupted by Aedanius' raised hand. The Emperor's voice shared Apollo's soft tones, but lacked its warmth and sincerity. "Captain Roslia. Back from the dead."
"It is customary to bow to your Emperor, Roslia. Or have you forgotten your place?" Aedanius said with a cruel grin.
Roslia sank to one knee and bowed his head, and bid his officers to do the same.
Aedanius bid him rise. "The war is to the west, why come to Coruaan?"
Before Helo could answer, Aedanius answered for him. "No matter, no matter. Your arrival is opportune. I have need of you on the Valigon. Do not keep me waiting."
Roslia bowed his head as Aedanius' image flickered from the viewscreen. Aoirtae looked concerned. "Remember, Admiral, this guy isn't Apollo. You can't trust him."
Chapter V: Belly of the Beast
The hangar bay of the Aeolus parted, and a single shuttle emerged, hurtling through space toward the imposing shadow of the flagship of the Libertan Imperarchate, the Valigon, a fully armed Aretenus-class Star Destroyer. From his knowledge of military history, Roslia knew that a ship of a similar design had participated in the Battle of theInterdimensional Warp Gate in the Quadrant Galaxies prior to the war, which further confirmed his suspicions that the Imperarchate possessed the means to bridge the gap between realities. Out the shuttle's viewport, Helo and Aoirtae could spot a vast industrial complex with dozens of docked ships moored alongside, including several starship designs he was familiar with, including one which resembled the merging of the Venator-class with the Empire's fearsome Imperial Star Destroyer.
The view vanished when the shuttle entered the cavernous interior of the Valigon, which was illuminated by a dim golden light. Already, Helo could identify clear similarities in the technology used on both Republic and Imperarchate vessels, though it was clear that the Libertus of this reality favoured extravagance and luxury to a greater degree than Helo was used to. After several moments, the shuttle touched down with a light thud, and Helo could see approaching guards sent to escort him to Aedanius' throne room. Aoirtae shot him a look of concern.
"Are you sure about this?" she asked.
Helo smiled weakly, and motioned to the approaching guards. "If I wasn't, now wouldn't be the time to change my mind. Just stay out of sight."
"I hope you know what you're doing," Aoirtae said, grasping at her blade.
Helo took a deep breath, opened the hatch of the shuttle and stepped out, where he was greeted by a contingent of Libertan guards garbed in what resembled the ancient gladiatorial armour used by the ancient Libertus tribes on Taurophon. They greeted him with a distinctly Imperial salute, before beckoning him to follow. Roslia nodded haughtily as he was led away by the guards, turning his head at the last moment before leaving the hangar to see Aoirtae, shrouded in the shadows, scouting out the entrance to a nearby maintenance conduit.
Helo was led in silence toward what he could only assume was the central chamber of the ship. The corridors were all decked out in finery which even the pompous Basileus of his reality lacked, while proclamations over the ship intercom repeatedly heralded the glories of the Imperarchate's victories over the rebels and the "Black Sickness". Having first hand experience of the Xeranbha, Helo doubted the latter was an accurate assessment of the Imperarchate's efforts. After several minutes, the guards abruptly came to a stop outside a massive door emblazoned with the blade-like sigil of the Imperarchate, which parted to reveal an opulent throne room.
The Imperarchate's leader sat imperiously on a throne, flanked by royal guards. The flags of the regime hung overhead, while golden curtains veiled the viewports out into the darkness of space. Like the rest of the ship, Helo noticed that it was unusually dark, though he could make out the silhouettes of figures he could assume were Aedanius' slaves, attending to their unfortunate duty. An attendant stepped forward.
"May I present His Most Imperial Majesty, Emperor Aedanius Cretacea, First of His Name, Overlord of Cyrannica, Father of the Libertan Imperarchate, Dominus Mortalitasi, Autokrator of Quadrantia, Dominator-King of the Five Galactic Realms, Imperial Sovereign of the Grand Gigaquadrantic Hegemony."
In utter silence, Helo approached the throne and dropped to one knee, deferentially bowing his head. Aedanius rose to his feet and raised his arm.
"Captain, captain, captain. You had us worried. Though I knew the great Helo Roslia could not be felled by a band of directionless rebels," he said.
"A mere setback, Emperor, one I assure you is merely temporary. The Aeolus has been repaired, and her crew eager to fight in your name," Helo replied.
Aedanius studied him appraisingly, and walked forward, his billowing golden robes dragging behind him. Despite his best efforts, Helo's eyes were fixed on the large sword holstered on the Emperor's waist.
"You do not inspire confidence," Aedanius said icily. "The Imperarchate has faced no greater threat than it does today, and your inability to stamp out these insurgents has pulled forces I need from our defences against the Black Sickness."
Helo's shoulders tensed, and he forced himself to remain impassive. "Against the Sickness, my lord, we need all the help we can find. If we approached these rebels, made them see reaso-"
Aedanius' eyes suddenly flared with fury, and he grabbed the hilt of his sword and ignited it. "You would make peace with those who spit on the name of their rightful sovereign!?" he asked, his tone betraying a simmering fury beneath.
"N-no, I'm merely suggesting we divert a greater portion of our armada to bring them to heel... so them the error of their ways," Helo said.
Aedanius scoffed. "Innocent fool. Do you take me for an idiot?"
Helo raised his brow. "My Emperor?"
Aedanius motioned toward a holoprojector to the right of his throne. A projection of a Venator-class Star Destroyer illuminated the darkened room, firing tiny turbolaser bolts at an unseen enemy. Suddenly, a fiery lance appeared and bisected the cruiser, completely annihilating it.
"The Aeolus was completely destroyed," Aedanius said coldly. "So tell me, "Captain Roslia", who... or what are you? Hm?"
The Emperor began circling him like a marine predator. "A holographic decoy? A rebel impositor?"
Helo was lost for words, and was caught off guard when Aedanius positioned his sword across his neck. "Answer, and I will grant you a swift death. Refuse, and you will long for something so sweet."
Suddenly, a violent blast of energy threw the Emperor and his guards off their feet and tumbling to the ground. Aoirtae leapt from a maintenance tube and landed in a battle stance, her purple blade shielding Roslia. Getting to his feet, a shocked Aedanius pointed at the new arrival in disgust. "Alien trickery! Kill them!"
The guards activated their weapons and advanced on Aoirtae and Helo. Closing her eyes, Aoirtae could hear the hum of their bladed ceremonial lances, and focusing herself, she rushed to meet them. Blades came all around her, whirling in impossible blurs. They were clearly skilled, but they did not account for the power of the Aldárae Order. With her free hand, she pushed back her attackers telekinetically, and brought her blade down hard on the closest guard, dispatching him in a single blow.
The four remaining guards rushed forward. One was caught off guard by a bolt from Helo's blaster, while another was knocked unconscious with a piece of flying debris directed by Aoirtae's hand. Another brought his lance down on Aoirtae, who dodged out of the way, though was too slow to prevent her arm being seared by the sheer heat of the weapon. Almost instinctively, her blade spun in her hands and she sent it through one opponent's midsection and sending the hilt flying through the air, impaled it on the final guard, before drawing it back to her hand.
Emerging from behind his cover, Helo joined Aoirtae as they advanced on Aedanius, who stood with his blade in hand, protecting his throne. Aoirtae could sense a cold fury from the Emperor.
"Victory is yours, it would seem," he said with a growl. "But if you think I will surrender, or give up my throne, you are sorely mistaken. So come, finish the job. Let me die with a blade in my hand."
Helo ripped the Imperarchate regalia from his uniform and stepped forward. "In the name of the New Galactic Republic of Cyrannus... I have an offer."
Chapter VI: Deal with the Devil
The throne room was almost completely shattered by the fight. Imperarchate banners were torn and spread out over the once pristine black tiled floor, while the corpses of the guards were left unceremoniously where they fell. When the slaves attempted to clean up, Aoirtae stopped them, and allowed them the use of one of the throne room's escape pods. While Helo questioned the Emperor, Aoirtae sent her blade piercing through the entrance's control panel, preventing any curious Imperarchate officers or guards from entering. Turning to face Helo and the Emperor, she twirled the blade in her hand and deactivated it, placing back on her holster.
"Now, that'll give us some peace and quiet," she said.
Tugging at his robes, Aedanius sat on his throne as if he wasn't completely at their mercy. "So, you hail from this alternate reality I've heard so much about. What brings you here? Conquest? I daresay there isn't much left."
Helo placed his hands on his hips. "We're simply looking for a way home. I know your former Hegemony possessed the technology to do so."
"Ah," the Emperor said with a short laugh. "You want my help, is it? And why would I possibly help an aggressor from an alternate universe and his glorified livestock."
"Maybe because she can turn you inside out if you continue to mouth off," Aoirtae said, brandishing her blade.
Aedanius scowled. "I would watch your tongue, mammal. If you wish to return home, you require my assistance, which I am not inclined to give."
"Oh, I don't think so," Helo said with a smile. "I know the threat you face. This Black Sickness... they're called the Xeranbha. In the past, I confronted their Overseers and I lived. I know how to defeat them."
Aedanius rose from his throne in a rush, all semblance of regality gone in an instinct. Now, there was only desperation. "Please, outlander. How?!"
Helo laughed. "If you think I'm going to trust you with the one card I can use to guarantee our survival, you're mistaken. Give us a ship, a means to get home, and I'll gladly share what I know."
"You would doom an entire universe for the survival of a single ship?" Aedanius asked desperately.
Aoirtae glanced at Helo, who hesitated for a moment. "Give us a ship, and you'll have your information. I promise you."
"And how do I know you speak truth? How do I know you encountered this Sickness?" Aedanius asked.
Helo opened his holocom and contacted Ramí on the Aeolus. "Ramí, this is Admiral Roslia. Play recording 293/24a."
Ramí's disembodied voice expressed caution. "Admiral, that information is classified top secret."
"Overide code, Roslia, Fleet Admiral." Helo said.
The recording began, with an unknown female voice, utterly emotionless though utterly malevolent, as if an unknown force spoke through her. Even Aoirtae, who faced Phaedric Lords and Oikoumene, could not help but shiver. "You resist Purity. Curious. Unexpected. I am Xeranbha. Catharsis will be achieved."
Helo, who maintained his composure despite his harrowing experience, disabled the holocom. "Satisfied?"
The Emperor was momentarily lost for words. "... Y-yes. If you provide the means to protect my empire, I will grant you a ship."
"Lovely", Aoirtae said wryly as she moved toward the rear of the throne room. "I suggest we use one of the remaining escape pods. I assume they're pilotable?"
"My place is here," Aedanius said, apparently offended by the notion he would even consider any more time with a mammal than was reasonably necessary. "You will not draw me away from my throne, and leave it open for some slack-jawed supplicant to claim."
Helo grabbed the Emperor by the shoulder and began dragging him toward the escape pod, ignoring his futile attempts to break free. "Again, you're not trustworthy. You'll be tagging along until I'm satisfied my crew are safely on their way."
Planting Aedanius down on one of the cramped escape pod's seats, Helo made his way to the cockpit of the craft and detached from the Valigon. Aoirtae admitted some confusion about why the gunners of the Star Destroyer weren't firing, or why they weren't being contacted by the bridge.
"This is my private craft, mammal. They would not dare question my intent," the Emperor explained haughtily.
"Luckily for us," Helo remarked, as he piloted the craft toward the shipyards. "Now, Your Majesty, which ship is on the market?"
The Emperor scowled as he rose to his feet, and walked toward the cockpit. After a moment, he pointed out one of the large Star Destroyers on the edge of the docks. "That one. The Terroriser. Almost completely automated. Designed, in fact, for incursions into your universe."
Helo frowned, "Incursions into our universe?"
"Of course," the Emperor said nonchalantly. "This one is dying, and the Imperarchate has no intention of dying along with it. Sending clearance codes for the Terroriser's hangar bay now."
The Terroriser, a Valiant-class Star Destroyer, was emblazoned in white and gold, and strongly resembled the Venator-class Star Destroyer, albeit far more heavily armed and armoured. Unlike the Venator, which needed to open its ventral hangar bays to deploy its fighter contingent, the Valiant had several smaller bays located in different locations across the ship, including one at the bow, which the Emperor's escape craft glided into, before landing softly on the deck. As they stepped out, Aoirtae immediately noticed how empty the ship was, not a single crewmember could be seen, while the fighter deployment tubes were bare.
"I am true to my word, now I trust you'll be true to yours." Aedanius said, as they made their way to the bridge. Once they arrived, Aedanius entered a code into the central computer, lighting the various bridge consoles and activating the ship's AI, which, under the Emperor's direction, began undocking procedures. Helo made his way to the captain's chair, positioned high above the rest of the bridge, no doubt to signify the authority of the commanding officer. Finding the design suprisingly intuitive, he contacted the Aeolus. Commander T'ran answered almost immediately.
"Admiral! Thank the gods you're alright!" she said.
"Thank you, Commander, but we've little time. This ship is equipped with the technology to get us home. Prepare the ship for an interdimensional crossing. Roslia out."
As the Terroriser unmoored from the dock and positioned itself to jump to the rendezvous point with the Aeolus, Aedanius stormed up the captain's chair. "Enough Roslia, I've played along long enough! You promised intelligence on how to defeat the Black Sickness!"
Helo sighed and pulled his datapad out from his jacket. "Here, I'm sending you all the information I collected during my encounters with them. It may not be enough to stop them, but it will certainly dela-"
Before he could finish, the ship's klaxon began to emit a piercing wail, indicating a proximity alert. Helo jumped from the chair and rushed to the viewport. "Have the Imperarchate figured out what we're up to?!"
"I... I-I don't think so," Aoirtae managed to say, pointing at a strange object in the far distance, hovering over the Valigon. It was clearly a ship, though it was unlike any that Aoirtae had ever seen. Both Aedanius and Helo, however, knew exactly what they were looking at. A Xeranbha saucer.
"We need to get out of here now!" Helo yelled, pushing past a shocked Aedanius toward the central ship controls. Aedanius was seemingly caught in a trance as he slowly made his way to the viewport, watching in awe and terror as the saucer began to spin. Slamming his fist against the viewport, Aedanius turned on his heels and marched to the controls. "Engage hyperdrive now!"
As the hyperdrive spooled up, Aoirtae watched in silence as the Imperarchate fleet tried in vain to fight against the Saucer, which deflected their turbolaser bolts effortlessly, as if they were toying with the Libertans. Suddenly, the bottom of the saucer illuminated brilliantly, almost blindingly, and in an instant, the Valigon, her fleet and the docks simply ceased to be. With not a second to lose, the Terroriser made the jump to lightspeed, emerging in realspace alongside the Aeolus a few moments later.
Aedanius slumped in a corner of the bridge and hung his head, whispering a eulogy to a dead empire. Putting the thoughts of their new guest to one side, Helo uploaded Ramí into the Terroriser's systems, and after a few moments, let out a sigh of relief when she reported that the artificial wormhole generator was online and awaiting his command.
"The order is given, Ramí. Let's go home," Helo said.
A beam of light shot from the bow of the Terroriser, which blossomed in a bright flash, unveiling a portal which opened like the petals of a flower. Helo glanced at the broken Emperor in the corner, and despite his crimes against the very ideals of a civilised society, felt a moment of sympathy. Aedanius cast his gaze at the stars of his dead universe and sighed deeply, as both the Terroriser and the Aeolus advanced through the looking glass.
Chapter VII: Home Sweet Home
The Phoebus rocked under the intense Imperial bombardment, and only by grabbing hold of one of the bridge's supporting columns was Apollo able to steady himself. The Empire had set a trap. The so-called listening post was, in actuality, a staging ground for a significant portion of the Empire's Occupied Republic defence fleet. And with the Aeolus missing in action, the Phoebus had no hope in challenging it. Captain Sevine gripped onto the handle of her command chair and cursed, as another turbolaser bolt impacted dangerously close to the bridge.
"We need to get out of here!" Apollo yelled over the chaos.
"We're trapped, sir! That Interdictor cruiser has set up a gravity well generator, there's no way in or out!"
Apollo closed his eyes, in dire realisation that this was the end. Regardless, he wasn't going to go down without a fight. "Concentrate all fire on that cruiser then!"
"Aye, aye!" Sevine replied, nodding her head to her chief tactical officer. A turbolaser barrage promptly erupted from the Phoebus, lancing across space and impacting almost harmlessly against the interdictor's shields.
"No effect, ma'am," the tactical officer said mournfully.
Before she could order another barrage, however, Sevine watched as the interdictor was engulfed in a devastating explosion. A vast unknown vessel had swooped in from above, and with a single blast from its ventral cannon, annihilated the Imperial destroyer. It was joined by a ship that she was all too familiar with, the Aeolus had returned, and it came with help. Apollo punched the air when he heard Helo's voice echo over the intercom. "Need a hand?"
On the bridge of the Terroriser, Roslia watched with some degree of satisfaction as one by one, his Valiant-class Star Destroyer almost single handedly destroyed numerous Imperial ships-of-the-line, while simultaneously extending its shields to protect the vulnerable Phoebus. Despite attempting in vain to pierce the Terroriser's shields, the Empire was soon forced to withdraw, licking wounds from what they no doubt intended would be an easy victory.
"Quite a ship you've got here, Admiral," Apollo said upon boarding the new arrival.
"Thank you, sir. It's a long story." Helo replied.
"One I'm looking forward to hearing once we're back on Harborage, but for now," Apollo said, before trailing off, noticing that Aoirtae was standing alongside a cuffed Libertus in fine regalia. He looked astonishingly like himself.
"... W-who's this?" Apollo asked with trepidation.
"You are addressing Aedanius, Father of the Libertan Imperarchate, and Emperor of the Gigaquadrantic Hegemony." Aedanius said with a scowl. "I take it you are my counterpart in this... lowly reality."
Apollo was lost for words, so Aoirtae spoke for him. "I call him evil Apollo, on account of the whole murderous dictator thing. I suggest we keep him in the brig."
Aedanius was indignant. "You steal my ship, kill my guards, kidnap me and force me to watch as my universe dies, and now I'm your prisoner?!"
Apollo raised his brow, though avoided looking directly at his counterpart. "Is that true?"
"Again, it's a long story, Mr. President. Aoirtae's right, we can hold him in the brig until we figure out what to do with him." Helo replied.
Captain Sevine blinked slowly, but nodded in agreement. "... In any event, sir, we have more pressing matters."
Apollo snapped to attention, and brushed some dust from his shoulder. "Indeed. The time has come to announce our rebellion to the galaxy. Today, the war to restore the Republic truly begins. Broadcast the news of this victory to every corner of the Gigaquadrant. The Empire can, and will be defeated."
In an act of open defiance, the Republic Remnant remained stationed in the system for over three hours after the battle, awaiting the arrival of either the Empire, or preferably, allies from beyond the Outer Rim. Just as Admiral Roslia was about to order the fleet to return to Harborage, however, a single Praesator-class Star Destroyer dropped out of lightspeed, following closely by a flotilla of both Republic and Resistance vessels. A cheer rang out from the bridge officers of the Aeolus, the Revanchists had answered the call.
The hologram of Admiral Quarantar emerged from the central holoprojector, with a satisfied smirk on his face. "Mr. President, it's good to know you're still alive, and fighting the good fight."
Apollo smiled. "Likewise, Admiral. I'm sure with your help, we can begin to truly hit the Empire where it hurts."
"The Revanchist fleet is at your command, sir," Quarantar said. "Following your lead."
The united Remnant and Revanchist fleet subsequently made the jump to lightspeed, leaving the debris of the Imperial fleet behind. An hour after their departure, an Imperator-class Star Destroyer arrived to survey the destruction. Grand Admiral Tector Decimius scratched his chin in thought, watching the arrival of the unknown Republic starship with great interest. In their foolishness, the rebels had broadcasted their existence to not only their allies, but the Empire too. It was a matter of when, not if, that their hidden base would be discovered and the final ember of hope extinguished.