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Ship of the Line: An Unquenchable Fire

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Summary: She may be Sith, but she's still pretty. Also? She has a Super Star-Destroyer, and she's not afraid to use it. WARNING: Darkfic/Character Death

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Stargate > Buffy-Centered(Current Donor)DreamSmithFR18548,2614219624,8987 Apr 1322 Mar 14No

Chapter Three

A/N: My profound and heartfelt thanks to everyone who left reviews and recommendations for Chapter Two--the positive response was amazing, especially for a somewhat dark and mildly controversial story. If you enjoy reading this, or any other fic, please take the time to throw a comment and/or recommendation to the author: it really means a lot, and reassures us that you appreciate the work we've put in (and would like more of that particular story).

Now, for this chapter--this is where it gets grim, children. This is very much an 'always darkest before the dawn' section, and I'll warn you that the violence and language is a notch or two higher here. As always, thank you for reading, good luck, and I'll see you on the other side--AJK

02 Aurora s


“The last of the Outriders have undocked, Taleene,” Dawn’s voice told her. “They’re powered up and heading towards the outer system.”

The Sith nodded, her eyes on her reflection in the holo-mirror as she combed out her hair. The brilliant silver-white mane was back in order, spilling over her shoulders and down her back in a silken torrent.

“Good. Once they’re in position put them in stealth mode; passive sensors only. If anything enters the system, I want to know about it immediately.”

The Aurora carried an array of small support craft, from TIE fighters to assault shuttles to spacegoing barges able to land massive armored fighting vehicles on a planet in support of a ground assault. By far the largest of her auxiliaries, however, were her Outriders. Eight Vigil-class Corvettes, 250-meter-long vessels outfitted with extensive sensor suites, carried externally in racks tucked in beneath the ‘wings‘ of Aurora‘s arrowhead shape. One of their prime functions in the Imperial Navy was to patrol the remote reaches of star systems, watching for ships trying to slip in or out of settled regions without being noticed. Here, with the situation so uncertain, Taleene had decided to send them out on remote, to keep watch, in case an enemy force tried to take her by surprise. It had taken only a few minutes per ship for her to configure the relatively simple control systems of the small warships, and allow Dawn remote access. After that, the weary Sith had returned to her personal quarters for a brief rest, while the cybernetic ghost of her sister prepped the ships for launch.

The twenty minute pause was perhaps ill-advised, but she’d needed a chance to catch her breath after that endless race through the bowels of the ship. Plugging her armor into the extremely capable diagnostics module in her quarters had shown no damage or malfunctions, and as far as the medical unit’s sensors could tell, no significant injuries to the body beneath it. She’d obediently gulped down the pouch of liquid it provided, ignoring the slightly metallic taste of salts and electrolytes. Although she longed to take the armor off so that the autodoc could treat her many bruises, she couldn’t take the time for that; not yet.

Though a minute or two to satisfy my vanity shouldn’t do any harm, I suppose, She thought to herself, with a wintery smile for the girl in the mirror. The sweat and smudges of her exertions had been dealt with, leaving only the cold and haughty perfection for which she was known throughout the Empire. She knew it was foolish to bother with such things when there was no longer a crew to impress, but it simply wasn’t in her to allow a disheveled appearance to remain for a minute longer than was necessary.

“I wanna shoot something.” Dawn’s voice held a petulant note. “That moon’s right there; can I try out the HellRails? According to the specs they have plenty of range, and a few shots should be enough to blow a mountain right off the--”

“No.” Taleene left the bathroom and walked down the short hall. When it opened out into her quarters, she turned right and headed towards the central tower, barely noticing the splendor around her.

The quarters set aside for a Fleet Admiral, such as would be quartered here, were, to say the least, palatial. Each chamber was huge, with high, arching ceilings that wouldn’t be out of place in a cathedral. Bare metal was nowhere to be found; instead polished stone, frosted glass, or darkly gleaming wood panels covered every surface. Soft, sourceless lighting filled every space, revealing room after room of luxurious furnishings, beautiful artwork, and tastefully-designed bits of technology. When she exited those chambers, she crossed a graceful walkway that connected two structures, halfway up a wide atrium that was a full seven decks high. The air there was stirred by cool breezes, and was lightly scented with the perfume of green and growing things. Below her she saw several thousand square meters of grass, flowers, and small, carefully-maintained trees, bordered by smooth paths and ornate patios. The sound of water came from some distance to her left, where a small waterfall spilled over a lip of stone and tumbled twenty meters into a large ornamental pool. With a brief, appreciative glance up at the holographic projections of a blue sky rapidly being overcome by oncoming storm clouds, Taleene entered the central tower and proceeded down the corridor.

This entire complex, which in total was larger than the headquarters of some regional planetary governments, was completely isolated from the rest of Aurora’s interior. Armored bulkheads five meters thick surrounded it on every side, with the only access provided by two portals that were guarded by computer-controlled weaponry. This was her refuge, in a universe filled with beings who craved her destruction--even before the accident which had befallen the ship, no droid, and no human being was allowed entrance, save by her express command. She could even shed her armor here, and walk about like a normal person, so long as she didn’t exert herself overmuch, and wore the technology-laced jewelry which assisted her nervous system and dispensed her medicines.

Not that there was time for that now, not when she was still feeling that vague pressure, the Force disturbance that had been insistently prodding her ever since the immediate threat of the missiles had passed.

“Dawn?”

The girl’s voice, when it came, was sullen.

“What?”

Taleene walked past briefing rooms, communications centers, and holographic map chambers where the conquest and subjugation of entire sectors could be planned and orchestrated, all empty and dark.

“I know you like having weapons to play with,” She told her little sister. “But even a warship needs to be able to do more than just shoot things. There’s only the two of us here, in this place. Out of the whole Empire, just us.” She reached the lift shaft, and stepped into the waiting pod. The doors slid shut and she felt herself rising upwards. “There’s no way I can do this without you. Will you try and be good, and help me find out where we are, and how to get home?”

The pause that followed felt somehow ashamed, and she wondered if somehow she was getting Force impressions from the ship itself, now that Dawn’s essence was inhabiting it.

“I’m sorry, Buff--I mean, Taleene; I’ll do my best to help you, absolutely.”

The Sith smiled.

“Thank you. I know you will; and you’re doing very well so far.” The lift doors opened, and she stepped out into a space that was unique abord the ship. Looking up, she nodded in satisfaction. “We’re almost there, I see.”

“Yep! Coming down to the one-thousand kilometer mark in twenty seconds. I rolled onto my side relative to the planet because of the deflector damage on my belly; repairs on that are getting started now.”

The planet’s nightside face dominated her view as Dawn brought the ship lower, to an altitude of just a thousand kilometers, the magnificent vista possible only because of where Taleene now stood.

Back during the design phase of the Executor class, the naval architects had planned to include a dedicated docking bay for shuttles and other small craft, so as to facilitate the travel of command personnel between their ships and the Flag Admiral’s offices. Eventually that idea was dropped, but not before the space had already been allocated and locked into the final design. That left an odd, unfinished void at the top of one particular section of the ship’s superstructure, and when Lady Taleene had been given the ship, she used her considerable authority to push through some last-minute modifications.

Now, the tower above her quarters was topped by a forty-meter dome of transparasteel, the material so close to perfectly clear that the many-faceted bubble was effectively invisible. Looking up at the blaze of stars overhead, and the easily-visible lights of cities scattered across the planet, Taleene addressed the air once more.

“Have you been able to decipher their broadcasts yet?”

“Yes; once I turned the number crunchers in the comp net loose on them, they figured it out really fast. I don’t think these people are even trying to encrypt most of it.”

“Hmm.” She walked the center of the circular space, where eight tall, metallic plinths surrounded a nest of retractable screens and controls, which in turn surrounded a low, cushioned platform. Some Sith, she knew, preferred to lock themselves into tiny, claustrophobic pods to meditate, in order to better focus their sight and energies inward. As for herself, she preferred a secure, but open space for her meditations, with the stars shining down on her in all their silent majesty.

“Show me,” She said, settling herself on the soft platform and folding her feet beneath her. Bare feet would have been more comfortable, but she had long since grown accustomed to her armor and spike-heeled boots. When the screens began streaming intercepted images for her, she regarded them impassively for several minutes before speaking once more. “Humans. Well, that’s a pleasant surprise.” The Empire was firmly biased in favor of Humankind; a prejudice which she shared. For as long as she could remember, she’d felt distaste, even aggression, towards anything that appeared monstrous or alien. “Have they tried to communicate with us?”

Dawn made an exasperated sound.

“I don’t know for sure. There’s thousands of different broadcasts, from all over, and they’re all different. The only thing I’m sure is aimed at us on purpose is the radar that’s painting me; thirteen different sources--oops, make that fourteen, another one just came online.”

Taleene touched a control, studied the graphic that came up on a display screen, and nodded.

“They can see us, but either they don’t have energy weapons that can reach us, or they’re afraid to use them.” She waved a hand, and the various displays began folding themselves neatly away. “Keep the shields up at maximum, and watch for any more missiles.”

“Um, no kidding? I’m not a baby!”

Taleene smiled.

“I never said you were; I just need you to keep watch for me while I do something.” Turning her head slightly, she addressed the local computer node. “Gravity control: Gravity to zero.” Her weight dropped quickly to nothing, her hair spreading in a soft halo behind and around her head. Wrapping herself lightly in a telekinetic cocoon, she drifted upwards.

“There’s a lot of stuff whizzing around down here,” Dawn said, switching to the cybernetic comm link as Taleene moved away from the speakers below. “There’s aircraft way down in the atmosphere, and tons of satellites in low orbit.” She paused, then continued. “Quite a few up in the higher orbits above us, too, and the Outriders are picking up a handful of really weak signals from a few other places in the system; the ones they can localize are coming from the most pathetic probe droids ever.”

Taleene considered that as she used her power to bring herself to a stop in the exact center of the dome.

“Do any of the satellites look hostile?”

“Nothing up here right now has any weapons as far as I can tell. More than half of them aren’t even alive; they’re drifting. No attitude control, no power emissions, messed-up orbits.”

The Sith shook her head and closed her eyes, dismissing all of that as unneeded distraction.

“All right then, keep an eye on them and hush now. I have to concentrate.”

Again, she could almost feel the ship’s sensors scrutinizing her, now that a sentient mind was behind them.

“What are you going to do?” The little girl asked. Taleene sighed, opened her eyes, and peered down at an optical pickup near her console down below.

“Somewhere below us is an incredibly powerful concentration of energy; Dark Side energy. I want to see if I can learn more about it, see if it’s connected to whatever brought us here. Now shush.”

Closing her eyes once more she relaxed her body, let her arms float out to either side, and her head tilt back slightly. Ordering her thoughts, tapping the strength of her anger and determination, she narrowed her mind to a tight, powerful focus, and reached.

* * * * *

“How old?!”

Xander gave a tentative sort of half shrug.

“I don’t know... maybe forty-five?”


“What?!”

He winced at her tone--and the volume.

“Well, it’s not really spelled out in the movies. Anakin was probably in his early twenties when his wife had Luke and Leia, and then Luke was probably around twenty in the first film. So maybe not quite forty-five.”

Buffy shook her head firmly.

“No. No
way am I dressing up as someone who’s as old as my mother!”

Xander looked at her pleadingly--to no avail. The Slayer had her own version of Willow’s famous ‘resolve face’, and she was showing it to him now. With a defeated sigh, he held up his hands in surrender.

“Okay, okay, fine. How old would be okay--and by the way, remember that this is the make-believe age of the fictional character who you’re dressing as, not something which has any impact at all on the really-real world where all of us live.”

The beautiful blonde girl gave a little ‘hmph’.

“It’s the principle of the thing. And evil me is the exact same age as good me.”

Xander squinted at her in disbelief.

“What?”

“You heard me. She’s sixteen. And three-quarters.”

The fanboy in Xander was writhing in torment, but that fanboy wasn’t the part of him that could conceivably get bounced off the ceiling if Buffy didn’t get her way. Even so....

“Buff, that wrecks the whole timeline--
massively. Vader going all Dark-Sidey is part of what kicks off the fall of the Republic and lets the Emperor get rid of the Jedi. How can Luke and Leia even--”

“She has an older brother or something, and they’re his.” Buffy glanced around the cemetery they were patrolling, put her hand on his chest to make him stop where he was, then slipped into the bushes, even as she pulled a stake from inside her jacket. “They’re her niece and nephew, and she’s the really young, really evil, and really
cute aunt that everybody told stories about during Thanksgiving dinner.”

A brief scuffle took place, blows landing with audible force, a couple of pained grunts, some shaking of foliage, and finally the unique -pampf- sound a vamp made when it exploded into dust. Buffy stepped back into view, brushing at her slightly mussed hair. Xander nodded in acknowledgment of her general awesomeness, but voiced his objection nonetheless.

“The Emperor made a sixteen-year old girl a Sith Lord? He put her in charge of a battle fleet?”

Something in his tone must have told her that she’d already won, because she gave him a one-armed hug by way of consolation.

“Yes, Xander, he did. Want to know why?” He looked over and down at her, and she beamed up at him with the odd, innocently smug look that beautiful girls got when they knew they were going to get their way. “Because she is Just. That. Good.”


* * * * *

So much for a quiet Halloween evening.

Giles looked again at the yawning abyss in the center of the Library; a seething, multi-dimensional void which blazed with energies that managed to be eye-searingly bright, despite being all but invisible to the human eye. The massive, soundless explosion which had heralded the mystical rupture had erupted up through the floor, and blown out the skylights for good measure, while still leaving most of the Library relatively intact.

It had also failed to kill Giles himself, who had been perusing the card catalog quite close by... for which he was duly grateful. Now, though, he was at a loss. It had been almost two hours since the event, and even though nothing tangible had emerged from the portal, he had no idea how to go about closing it. Every magical tool he’d dared direct against the thing had instantaneously vaporized in violent and colorful ways--he imagined that over on the magical plane it would look like one of those ‘blow outs’ that sometimes happened in desert oilfields, with burning oil and gas erupting endlessly from the ground with the speed and force of an enormous and uncontrolled rocket exhaust.

He was waiting for Buffy and the others to return from their trick or treating, though he was honest enough to acknowledge that he didn’t know what he expected the Slayer to do about such a thing.

MwrrrrowGiles! Giles wheremrrrowow are yourrrrwowrrr!?”

It took him a moment to decipher the words, mixed as they were with that anxious, plaintive caterwauling, but when he edged around the painfully shimmering void and looked to the entrance, he understood.

At least, after a fashion.

“Cordelia? Is that you?”

She glared at him, eyes full of impatience and fear in equal measure.

“Of course it’s me, mwrrrrooow!” She shook her head angrily, the furry, triangular ears atop her head lying briefly flat in annoyance. Her long tail lashed back and forth a few times, and the vertical slits of her pupils narrowed. Giles stared; on top of the rest, this was entirely too random and strange to be easily processed.

“And... you’re a... cat?

Duh!” She snarled at him--literally snarled, while showing small fangs that were narrower and sharper-looking that those of a vampire. “And therrrrrwrres monsterrrrrrs and weirrrrrd things everywhererrrrrrrre!"

She made her way over the piles of debris with an amazing display of grace and agility, and he saw that both her hands and her bare feet now posessed slender retractile claws to help her along--and of course her tail was there for counterbalance.

His mind finally broke free of its shocked immobility and began functioning once more.

“Monsters and weird things?” He looked at the open rift; he’d been here the whole time, he knew that nothing physical had traversed it.

“Yes! The whole tooooown is full of little monsterrrrrrrrs!” Catdelia was prowling back and forth, her tail thrashing restlessly. “You have to fix me, Giles! I can’t stay like this!”

He nodded absently, largely ignoring her as he considered the problem.

“When I saw you earlier, just after school, you were dressed as a feline, I believe? A ‘Catgirl’?”

She nodded angrily, her claws flexing in and out.

“Stupid Devon and his anime girrrrrrrl fetish! And do I get to have him dress up as my fantasy? Nooo, all I get is a big dumb doofus with a dog mask, a dog collar, and dog breath!”

Giles felt his eyes widen.

“Good lord. Your friend--he actually became a canine?”

She snarled again, softly.

“Of course not; it’s always the girrrrrrl who gets objectified, it’s the girrrrrrrrrl who has to get all dressed up, and do her hair, and her makeup, while the guys just throw on jeans and a t-shirt and think they’re so cool--”

“Wait. Devon didn’t transform... but others did.” She nodded absently, suddenly distracted by what seemed in irresistible need to lick her paw--er, her hand over and over again. Giles turned this fresh information over in his mind for a few moments, then looked at her sharply.

“Cordelia.” She ignored him, fiercely intent on her grooming. “Cordelia!

She looked at him curiously.

“What?”

He took a deep breath for calm, and spoke very carefully.

“Where did you get your costume?”

* * * * *

Leia didn’t know what exactly was chasing her, she just knew that it was tireless, terrifying, and very, very determined to catch her. She picked a storefront at random, pushing through the door to discover a pair of dead men lying at the feet of a third. Apparently they’d killed each other; no doubt as a result of the early stages of Rakghoul madness. Two of them were clutching chrome pistols of some kind, and she knelt carefully to retrieve them, having lost her sword earlier. It was difficult; she had to pry the weapons from their cold, dead hands, but eventually she wrestled them loose from the corpses.

Not a moment too soon, as she heard a heavy tread from the door; the maddeningly deliberate and unhurried footsteps that had become all too familiar. Rising to her feet she backed away from the figure that filled the doorway, machete in hand and white mask staring blankly.

In recent years Leia had amassed far too much experience with all manner of firearms, and she managed to keep hold of the pistols as she fired them, despite their brutal recoil and her slender wrists and hands. The slugs they fired tore into her pursuer as he raised his own weapon, creating wet, bloody spatters where they struck, and causing him to stagger and pause. She continued to fire both weapons as she backed away, and kept firing until their limited ammunition ran dry.

The human--no, the thing in the mask straightened up, regarded her impassively, and then strode forward once more, every step deliberate and unhurried.

Leia flung the pistols away as she dove behind the counter, scrambled through the short hallway that led to the rear of the shop, and fervently thanked whatever random chance had provided her with a rear exit. Bursting through the door, she hurried left down a stinking alley, her bare feet stinging with every step.

* * * * *

Dawn was bored.

Buffy was floating there, not talking, not moving, hardly even breathing, and nothing much else was happening. Her main concern, of course, was keeping an eye on the Aurora’s immediate vicinity, but nothing much was happening there, either. The humans on the ground were pinging her with lots of very loud radar pulses, and that was pretty annoying, but it wasn’t something she could do anything about unless Taleene gave the order. The Outriders were settling into their positions out where the system’s gas giants lived, and some of what they were sending back to her via the FTL datalinks was interesting... only she didn’t dare devote too much of her attention to it. AI or not, Dawn’s capacity was sharply limited; after all, she had never been designed to do any of this. The molecular circuitry of her core was there to give her human mind a place to live, and it did that very well. Splitting herself into multiple instances that each had undiminished speed and cognitive ability, the capacity for true multi-tasking like a dedicated military system, was something she could manage only imperfectly, and within very tight constraints that were dictated by the fundamental architecture of her own ’brain’. So, although she could do a lot, she was far from being any kind of technological goddess... which was really too bad.

She checked on the work currently taking place in her innards, where the ventral deflector arrays had suffered overload. Several kilometers of superconducting cables had explosively vaporized when those monster warheads detonated, and a total of seventy-three tertiary sub-nodes had been damaged when the overload made various other bits melt, explode, or both. That was an impressive cubage of machinery and electronics that needed repair, even if it was microscopic in relation to her total bulk. There were currently one thousand, four hundred and five repair droids at work in her engineering spaces, cutting damaged components free, refurbishing the damaged mounts and structural elements, and preparing to begin work replacing or repairing the damaged systems. That part at least wasn’t something she had to think about; the droids were on board to do exactly this task, and didn’t need her to tell them their business.

Idly flipping through the hundreds of thousands of sensor feeds that let her experience the inside of the ship, she found herself on the bridge. The body was still there; the dead man she’d noticed earlier, while Buffy was busy making herself pretty again. Running the logs back showed her how he had died, and it was pretty clear from watching it that her sister wasn’t exactly fond of poor Captain Piett. With a mental shrug she detailed a cleanup droid to come and collect the corpse. There were disposal facilities that would break him down to manageable-sized bits and vaporize those in one of the heat plumes from the fusion plants, so she told the machine to go and take care of it. While she was ’on’ the bridge she noticed that some of the consoles were also damaged, so more droids were assigned to take care of that.

Flipping back to the meditation chamber, she looked again at Buffy, floating there, motionless.

She turned down her receivers, which continued to relay the constant pinging of the ground radars, which was now coming from seventeen separate locations. And then one of Aurora’s proximity detectors tripped, and Dawn’s attention shifted to a tiny bit of metal and silica that was hurtling towards her.

It wasn’t a threat, not really. Her sensors could see that it was some sort of communications relay; a fragile little thing that massed only a few tons. It was tumbling helplessly, in a slowly decaying orbit that would drop it into the planet’s atmosphere in another fifty years or so. Harmless... and headed straight for her. Floating in the virtual space which held her control interface with the Aurora, Dawn’s cybernetic ghost giggled and clapped her hands.

* * * * *

The hull of the titanic warship was liberally dotted with weapon installations; hundreds of Hellbore turrets as big as medium-sized buildings, row after row of HVW missile ports, and the truly immense structures of the anti-ship Hellrail fusion cannons.

And there were also more than seven thousand structures which were far smaller; the single-beam laser emitters that were her primary point-defense weapon. Despite their numbers, on a ship that was nineteen kilometers long, each of those seventy-two hundred guns stood a lonely, quiet vigil, far from any of their fellows. Now, in the utter silence of space, on the furthest tip of Aurora’s ‘nose’, a single laser snapped up, pivoted to the appropriate angle and elevation in less than an eyeblink, and fired.

* * * * *

“--Still maintaining position over California, at an altitude of about six hundred miles. No, Mr. President, still no attempt at communication from them, and my people are still trying to determine why the ship has moved lower.” Hammond listened to his civilian superior for a moment than shook his head as he spoke into the handset once more. “No sir, I wouldn’t advise relocating to Air Force One. Even if they intend to attack more ground targets, you’re still less of a target in the bunker than you would be in an aircraft. Yes. Yes, my people did try to--”

“General!”

He looked at Captain Carter, who was typing commands into her console with careful haste. The large display was showing orbital data for something, and a series of data strings made his expression turn even more grim.

“I’ll have to get back to you, Mr. President.” Setting the phone down, he moved to Carter’s side. “Captain?”

She looked up at him.

“More weapons’ fire, Sir.” Seeing his look, she hastened to clarify. “Not at a ground target, thankfully. It was a satellite.” The screen flickered, then shifted to show a diagram of a blunt cylinder. “The INSAT-3DT; it’s a communications satellite launched in nineteen-eighty two. It’s been dead for years, and drifting. Orbital data shows that it was on a collision course for the alien ship.”

He nodded in understanding.

“So they destroyed it.”

“Yes, Sir. Some kind of laser; we only saw it because of the effect it had on the INSAT--it disintegrated almost completely, at a range of about nine hundred kilometers.”

Hammond nodded again.

“Well, destroying a piece of space junk that was going to hit them is understandable. I don’t think that’s a hostile act by anyone’s definition.”

“No, Sir. But it does make me wonder why they didn’t use the same weapon to destroy the missiles we sent at them earlier.” She gestured at the display showing the ship, and the distance at which it had destroyed the satellite. “If they can knock down incoming objects that easily, why let us detonate nuclear weapons right on top of them?”

He didn’t have a good answer, just one that illustrated how much trouble they were in.

“It may be, Colonel, that their thought processes are very different from ours. Maybe they’re beyond our ability to ever understand.”

She frowned, clearly unhappy with that, but before she could answer her console buzzed loudly. He watched as she interrogated the system, then another series of lines and text blocks came up on the screen.

“They’re firing again, Sir. More satellites.” Hammond felt his eyebrows move together slightly as he watched the data form. A minute passed, and Carter, too, grew visibly confused. “They’re....” She shook her head. “I don’t know what they’re doing, Sir. The aliens are destroying satellites as their orbits bring them closer to where the ship is hovering, but they’re not destroying all of the satellites that come within a certain distance, and not all of them are of a certain type, either.” She consulted a rapidly growing list of identification codes. “Some of them are dead, some of them are functional; some of them are civilian, some are military.” She ran a had back through her short hair, looking a little lost. “As far as I can tell, this is completely random.”

He didn’t have any comforting thoughts for her, just a reprise of his earlier comment.

“Alien beyond our understanding; God help us.” He said softly, and shook his head in recognition of what that might mean for Humanity.

* * * * *

“That one.”

A roundish object vaporized.

“And that one.”

A squat cylinder this time, with two stubby wings made of solar panels. The panels glittered nicely as the point-defense laser shredded them.

“Oooh, not that one; that one’s pretty.”

It was a hexagonal cylinder, with six matching panels spreading from one end like some oddly-geometric flower. She let that one pass, admiring it along the way, then turned her attention to the next.

Dawn’s virtual space was swarming with targets, now that she was looking for them; the planet’s lower orbital regions were a pretty crowded place. She floated there, shifting her attention to each one in turn, and passing judgment on what she saw when her sensors brought it close.

“Nope.”

A soundless explosion.

“Ugh, with all those antennae it looks like a spine-fish!”

A violent flash.

“Hmm....” She regarded a relatively close one. It was tumbling end over end, and one solar panel ‘wing’ was bent and broken. It reminded her of an injured bird she’d once seen, on the ledge outside her hospital window. The poor creature had flown into the building and hurt itself, and afterwards had been too injured to fly. It had lingered there for over a day, unable to leave its high perch, but doomed to starve if it stayed. She hadn’t seen what happened to it, it was simply gone when she woke up from a fitful sleep. It made her sad to think of that, and ghost-Dawn reached out an insubstantial hand and touched the glowing representation of the spaceborne object.

Out on the hull, a complex thing that was not a weapon turned, tracked, and activated.

The tumbling came to a gentle stop as the tractor beam very carefully nudged the fragile object. When it was stable once more, and flying in a normal attitude, the beam faded, and let it fly on.

Dawn smiled sadly, then took a moment to check Buffy.

Her sister was still doing the trance thing, to all appearances oblivious to the universe. Satisfied that everything there was fine, she went back to her game.

“Sort of pretty. Very pretty! Annnnnd, ugh, not at all pretty.”

She flicked her finger at the offending object, nodded as a rod of coherent light wiped it from space, and started humming a happy little tune to herself. At this rate, she could keep herself entertained for at least another hour before she ran out of targets.

* * * * *

“Jesus Christ, lady! Are you tryin’ to get yourself killed?!

Leia swallowed with difficulty, her hands raised, as the three soldiers came terrifyingly close to shredding her with their antiquated, but very lethal assault rifles.

Or rather, two of the soldiers came close to shooting her out of ingrained reflex; the third one was sagging slowly to the ground despite the efforts of his comrades to keep him on his feet, several severe wounds showing through rents in his unpowered body armor.

“Sorry, I was busy running away from something.” She lowered her hands slowly while throwing nervous glances behind her, but for now the unstoppable figure in the mask was nowhere in sight. Recent experience told her that it wouldn’t last. Looking back at the men, who reminded her strongly of the Rebellion’s own ground troops, she moved cautiously forward. “Can I help? I’ve had medical training.”

They both regarded her warily, shared a look, then shrugged at her.

“Sure, whatever you can do. Here’s a medkit.” She knelt next to the man. The nametag on his armor’s chestplate read ‘Frost’, and she gave him the most reassuring smile she could manage as she examined his injuries. Her smile, faint as it was, didn’t last long.

“What did this? There are sticks in him, broken off sticks....”

The larger, louder soldier laughed harshly, the sound brittle and tinged with barely-controlled panic.

“They’re arrows, if you can believe that shit. We got jumped by some guys, hosed them down, took ‘em out no problem... and then their friends showed up.” He pushed his helmet back, and wiped at his sweaty face with one grimy hand. “They’re elves; motherfucking, daisy-eating elves!

His companion, who as quieter, calmer, and much more competent-looking, put a hand on the man’s armored shoulder.

“Relax, Hudson. We just need to find the others, get to the evac point, and it’ll be fine--”

“Bullshit it’ll be fine! Tell Frost it’ll be fine! Tell those fucking elves with their goddamn bows it’ll be fine!”

Leia kept her head down and her mouth shut, wondering if perhaps she would be better off without these men. On the one hand, the heavily-armed soldiers were likely to be the best allies she would find amidst all this chaos. On the other hand--

She administered a large dose of anti-shock medication from the medkit, but didn’t dare give him any of the stimulant, for fear it would make him bleed out even faster. Judging from the extent of his injuries, she doubted he would last much longer no matter what she did.

“Listen: you need to get your friend to a medical center, immediately. Do you know where one is? Or the spaceport, if that’s closer; they would have at least a clinic there that could--”

Contact!” She flinched and ducked as the quiet one turned and fired, missing her head by bare centimeters. The staccato blast half-deafened her, and she threw a look over her shoulder to see what had provoked that response.

Rakghoul; scores of Rakghoul were bounding and scrambling towards them, rushing down the street and sidewalk in a grinning, snarling horde. The one called Hudson opened fire with his weapon, shouting obscenities all the while.

“Little mutant bastards! Come get some! You wanna bite me, you little shit?! Okay, bite this! Midget mutant monster fucks!

Leia saw a dozen of the small creatures fall, but dozens more were coming, and the tide was sweeping towards them with horrifying speed. Snatching up Frost’s rifle, she examined the weapon with desperate speed.

Slug-thrower, but a fairly advanced one. Fire selector here, ammunition counter here--safety off, pull it tight to the shoulder, line it up and--

She fired, saw one of the smaller Rakghoul stumble, then keep coming. Without missing a beat she flipped the fire selector to burst fire and tried again. This time the creature fell, writhing helplessly on the ground and clutching at a ribcage that had been sawn open by whatever the gun was firing. Shifting targets with swift, practiced precision, she killed another, and another, and another.

“Very nice,” She heard Hicks say from behind her, as he directed his shots with equal speed and care.

“Thanks. I had good teachers.”

Several of the charging mutates were clumped close together, and she heard Hicks’ weapon cough softly. An instant later, one of the close-grouped creatures exploded, the concussion making the others stumble and slow. Leia examined her rifle, found the small slide that switched to the integral grenade launcher, and followed the man’s example, firing into the closest group as they ran forward. The grenade blew the small, savage thing into two ragged halves, and she jacked the slide to chamber another round, and another, walking fire across their advance. To her right, Hudson was still spraying them wildly, his weapon on full-auto, though it promptly went dry, leaving him scrambling to reload.

The Rakghoul were slowing; the concentrated fire had dropped more than half of them, and even their plague-warped minds could see that they wouldn’t reach the humans this way. She switched back to the gun and shot them anyway; any that survived would just try to kill them again later. Three bursts later her weapon went silent. A glance at the digital display made her scowl and look over her shoulder at Hicks. “Is there any more ammunition?” He nodded to the ground next to her, his face expressionless.

“Frost has a couple of clips left. Might as well take them. Go ahead and keep his gun too... he won’t need it.”

She glanced down and saw that he was right; the man’s eyes were staring lifelessly skyward. Without a word she pulled the boxlike items from his belt, located the proper button, and popped the empty from her rifle. Slamming the fresh one home, she peered down the street. The last of the creatures that were mobile had fled, leaving only the dead and dying. She looked at Hicks, and cocked an eyebrow at the panting and wild-eyed Hudson.

“There has to be a ship around here somewhere; what say we go and find it?”

* * * * *

“Ripper; how nice to see you. Sorry I didn‘t meet you at the door, but as you can see, I‘m a little caught up in my work at the moment.”

Giles regarded the man for a long moment, then eased the rest of the way into the back room of the costume shop. Cordelia, still making anxious cat noises, hung back in the doorway, peering at the tableau with wide eyes.

Ethan Rayne was hovering in mid-air, surrounded by a corona of searing, barely-visible dimensional energy identical to what was vomiting forth from the Hellmouth. The room around him was in a state of shattered disarray; a smaller cousin of the devastation that had overtaken the Library when this--whatever this was--had happened. Ethan, despite his elevated position some feet above Giles, his easy words and practiced smirk, seemed less than comfortable. Giles noted how the cords in his neck were standing out, and his arms were likewise taut and straining as he hovered there.

“Problems, Ethan?” He asked, looking around for some clue as to what had happened. “Ah, a summoning ritual; some sort of archetypal deity figure?” He regarded the destruction, then lifted his gaze to the sorcerer. “I’m disappointed. Your workings were never this sloppy in the old days.”

Ethan laughed, the sound both loud and strained.

“Oh, this isn’t my fault!” Giles just glared, and the other man gave him a small smile, even as the effort of speaking drew beads of sweat from his brow. “All right, it’s partly my fault, but only the smallest part of it; the rest of it, my old friend, is because of that girl of yours.”

Giles froze, then took a slow step forward towards the levitating man.

“Buffy?” He felt himself going very cold, as the worst, most violent part of him rose to the surface for the first time in a very long while. “Ethan, I warn you, if you’ve targeted her somehow with this scheme of yours--” That earned him another laugh, and when he unthinkingly took a step closer to strike the man, the merest touch of that pale, shimmering fire surrounding Ethan sent a rush of purest agony rushing down his arm.

“Careful, old man,” The sorcerer warned him. “This isn’t a gently bubbling spring I’m caught in, here.”

Giles took a step back, rubbing at his arm. The pain was fading, but even the fading echo was enough to make his eyes water.

“What about Buffy? What have you done to her?”

Ethan smirked at him, then regarded one of his hands with great interest, and Giles saw that parts of his wrist and palm, as well as two of his fingers, seemed to be dissolving slowly, transforming into that colorless fire. With an elaborate show of unconcern, the man raised his eyes to Giles’ own.

Me? I didn’t do anything, except take advantage of the nature of this place to pull a little prank.”

Prank?!” Giles all but hissed in fury. “Do you know how many dead I saw on my way here? How many dead children?” Ethan just shrugged.

“Tastes differ, Ripper; besides, I don’t recall you being so squeamish, back in the day.” He glanced down, noted that his left leg was now gone from the knee down, and frowned unhappily. “Well, that’s a bother, isn’t it?” When he looked up again, his face was utterly serious. “I tell you now, I never targeted your Slayer. There was no way for me to know that she was linked to the Hellmouth. And even if I’d known, I would have thought that you would have done the working to undo the sacrifice.”

Giles stared, as confused now as he was angry.

“Linked? Sacrifice? What are you talking about?”

Ethan looked at him as if he were an especially dim Pekinese, or perhaps a Labrador.

“I’m talking about the Hellmouth, old man. I’m talking about your Slayer. Someone performed a blood ritual. Someone sacrificed a life, a very powerful life, and bound your girl to the Hellmouth.” He looked genuinely surprised at the blank stare he was getting. “What? You mean you really didn’t know?

Giles felt himself shrinking in utter and complete horror as it hit him.

“She died. She died, when the Master drained her, and drowned her... and she was in the very throat of the Hellmouth when it happened.”

Ethan nodded, ignoring the way his left leg was entirely gone now, and much of his right one was looking patchy as well.

“That would do it. So, imagine my surprise when I performed my invocation, and instead of getting a limited (though extremely clever, I assure you) warping of reality powered by the energy leaking from your Hellmouth, instead the whole bloody thing blows open, and the mystical forces of a dozen hell dimensions falls on me like the Himalayas.”

Giles frowned, noting that the invisible flames were steadily eating their way through Ethan’s body. At the very most he had only minutes remaining to him.

“All that power flowed into you? Into the spell?” He found that hard to believe; as widespread and cruel as the transformations were, so much energy should have had vastly more visible effects than simply--

“No, not me, and not the spell.” Ethan nodded towards the front of the shop. “Your girl. She’s the focus. I can feel her in the spell, but she’s also beyond it, both physically and mystically. All of that power, all of that energy, charged with change and creation, went to her; it couldn’t not go to her--not when her blood and her life had touched the Hellmouth itself.” He grinned, even as his arms began withering down to stumps, starting at his wrists and moving upwards. “I wish I could be here to see what happens after this. Unfortunately, I’m caught in the flood--A dozen dimensions, Ripper; directly connected to the Hellmouth… and dying. Entire worlds are dying for this, consumed, burning, all so that whatever daydream your little girl came up with can be made real.”

Giles’ horror found a new high mark, somehow, and he balled his hands into fists as he stared into Ethan’s eyes.

“I pray you find yourself in hell, Ethan, for what you’ve done.”

The other man just smiled.

“We’ll see. I have a grip on something, somewhere, I think. Maybe a hell, maybe a heaven, maybe a world with nothing but professional telephone sanitizers. Either way, I’ll find out momentarily.” His eyes went glassy, and his features twisted in a small smirk. “Ah, here it comes. I can see further from where I’m standing. The causality lines are shifting, shortening. Something’s coming, something from your girl.” He looked down, eyes refocusing as he smiled a disconcertingly broad and evil smile. “Oh, Ripper; you’re going to love this.”

* * * * *

“Dawn, what are you doing?”

A holographic image of her sister flickered into existence before her, looking postively angelic. There was even a faint pearly glow around her projected form, to strengthen the effect.

“Who, me? Nothing!”

Taleene narrowed her eyes, gaze going to where she’d glimpsed the thread-like beam of laser weapons in the far distance a moment earlier. Shaking her head, she dismissed the issue and moved on to more important matters. Floating down from where she’d been hovering, she waved her hand, causing the stored screens and input consoles around her platform to unfold and come alive, even as she touched lightly down among them.

“Gravity control: one gee.” As the artificial gravity ramped back up to normal, she looked at Dawn. “I’ve found what I was looking for. The nexus of Darkside energy below is incredibly powerful, and it is connected to what happened to us.”

Dawn’s image bounced up and down happily.

“Okay then! Go down and wave your arms at it, and make it take us home!” She stopped, apparently struck by a sudden thought. “Wait. If we go back, does that mean I have to not be the ship anymore?” She looked decidedly unhappy at that possibility, and Taleene took a moment to reassure her.

“I’ll have a ship set aside for you to play with, if I’m able; maybe one of the Vigil’s we use as Outriders.” She considered her options carefully. “It may be that if I can give him a way to reach and control this nexus, the Emperor will overlook my failure to take the Hoth system, and kill Skywalker.” She smiled as brightly as she ever did these days, which wasn’t saying much. “If I really can use this power to transport us back, we may still be able to carry out the attack before the Rebel’s spies warn them!”

Dawn was obviously out of her depth when confronted with possibilities that were that far-ranging, but she nodded enthusiastically anyway, happy because her sister seemed happy.

“Then get to it! Do you need a shuttle to go down there or what?”

Taleene was keying information into her screens, and shook her head without looking up.

“No, that would be unwise. You see, what happened to us wasn’t an accident; someone directed the nexus to affect us as it did.”

Dawn had begun swimming around the inside of the dome, her projection moving as if it were immersed in perfectly clear water, even to the rippling of her long, brown hair.

“Huh? Somebody brought us here on purpose?”

The Sith nodded, fingers still busy.

“Yes. I could feel him down there, and whoever he is, he’s intimately connected to the Nexus, though not actually at its physical location.” She touched a screen, and a holographic depiction of a sprawling settlement appeared. There were no buildings taller than twenty meters or so, and most were far more modest. Still, it was an entire valley; a fair-sized place in which to hide and wait. A steady blue point appeared as Taleene manipulated the image.

“The nexus is here. That’s where I’ll need to go, eventually, but first, I need to draw this stranger out.”

Dawn’s eyes went wide, and she swam downwards to hang upside down directly before Taleene.

“Are you going to fight a duel with him?” She looked frightened at the idea, which made the Sith’s heart give a little twinge. “Don’t do that! You might lose!”

Taleene reached out to give her sister’s ghostly nose a little poke, then she waved her hand to shoo her back, as the girl’s cloud of drifting, translucent hair was blocking her view of the screen she wanted.

“Don’t worry, I’m not so foolish as to meet him in his place of power, where he would have every advantage.” She drew lines on her screen with an armored fingertip. “No, what I’ll do is provoke him, draw him out of hiding. And when he shows himself, I’ll deal with him.”

Dawn nodded, relieved, though she was also looking uncertain.

“How are you going to do that? Should I try and get him on the communicator? Oooh! I can send down some probe droids to assassinate him! Or load up one of the Landing Barges with all kinds of super-awesome armored death machines and flatten him!” She looked gleeful at the prospect of seeing more of her toys in action. “I’ve been looking at the manifests, and we don’t have any of those silly giant walker things, but what we do have is so much better--!”

Taleene raised one hand, and waited for the girl to calm down.

“No, nothing that complicated.” With a small, icy smile, she tapped her screen, sending the information to Dawn’s targeting subsystems.

“Bring the Hellbores online, and prepare for planetary bombardment to these specifications.”

The valley that held the settlement was centered precisely in the targeting reticule.

* * * * *

It happened so fast.

The three of them were making excellent time, moving as a group, with Leia sandwiched protectively between the two larger, armored soldiers. They had found a street sign that indicated a direction for something called the ‘Sunnydale Municipal Airport’, which at least sounded vaguely like a place they might find a transport ship that could get them away from this awful place. They ran on, Leia wincing with every step, but finally feeling some real hope.

Which was when Hudson’s head was abruptly sliced through by a machete, in a horizontal line just below the rim of his helmet. Leia screamed in sheer reflex and horror as the man’s body flailed, fell, and lay twitching, his weapon spraying bullets uselessly into the side of the burning ground transport that had concealed his murderer. Hicks stared as the looming figure stepped fully into view, wide eyes locked on the dark eyeholes of that plastic mask, and he wasted a precious second in shoulder-blocking Leia out of the way as he raised his weapon.

The rifle chattered for an instant even as the masked thing stepped close, absorbing the burst of explosive rounds to the stomach as it reached out with its free hand, clamped it across the soldier’s face, and shoved. Leia heard the snap of the man’s spine as his head was pushed back far enough for the rear of his helmet to rest between his shoulder blades. Hicks fell limply to the ground, and the thing turned towards Leia.

“Die, fuckermother,” She whispered, in honor of Hudson. Her rifle barked forth short, precise bursts, at a range of barely five meters. The rounds struck it in the chest once, then again then again, the impacts actually forcing it back a step, then another, then another. She shifted her point of aim, fired, fired again, and was rewarded by seeing the arm wielding the machete fly off to the side, severed just above the elbow. The creature, whatever it was, never made a sound, never showed any recognition of pain, it simply kept coming at her. When it advanced once more, she toggled her selector, braced her feet, and fired a grenade into the bloody cavity her first bursts had carved. The grenade detonated, blasting a huge, hideous crater out of its chest, and throwing it violently backwards to crash into a red, octagonal street sign. Leia was out of grenades, but the indicator showed a handful of rifles rounds still remaining. She walked forward, till she was just out of arm’s reach, raised the rifle, took careful aim, and emptied the gun into the creature’s mask.

Shattered bits of plastic, blood, flesh and bone all sprayed the letters of the sign that spelled out ‘Stop’ as the right half of the thing’s skull was blown off. Finally, finally it went down, slumping down along the sign’s post till it rested in an awkward sitting position, dead.

Leia stood there, panting, shaking, afraid to look away for fear that it would somehow get back up. Moments passed, with nothing but the distant howls of a Rakghoul pack to mark them. She backed away slowly, very much aware that she was still in danger from any of the other creatures running wild in the darkened streets. The thing stayed where it sat, unmoving, and she let out a long, shuddering breath. Unsure if either of the two soldiers had any more of the clips which fed the rifles, she edged to where Hicks lay, sadness filling her... and then blue-white bolts of fire began to rain from the sky.

She gasped, staring upwards. Far above, directly overhead, she could make out a faint, elongated triangle that just had to be one of the Empire’s new command ships. The energy bolts raining down were massive, and they streaked down in a continuous rain... to crash into the surrounding hills on all sides of the settlement. Brilliant flashes made her eyes water as megatons of energy were instantly translated into heat and explosive shocks that made the ground shudder, and deep pits surrounded by now-molten rock and soil marked a ragged line across the hillsides. Thunder boomed and rolled in a continuous assault on her ears as she turned slowly, scanning the more easterly slopes, and it was the same. The bolts were falling in a circle around the town, either into the hills, or, to the south, into the ocean, some distance off shore. Every land impact threw huge, savagely violent jets of vaporized earth skyward, while off the coast thousands of tons of seawater were explosively flashing into steam, creating a fast-spreading fogbank. Only the fact that nearly all of a plasma discharge’s force turned into heat on impact, and not an more conventional explosion, kept the entire settlement from being destroyed in an instant by multiple overlapping airblasts. As it was, she was having trouble keeping her feet under her, both from the ground’s constant shaking and the rapidfire thunderclaps that were hammering everything within the valley. Leia wondered if this was merely some intimidation tactic... or perhaps, unbelievably, the Imperials were performing some sort of quarantine operation, to contain the Rakghoul outbreak. Her confusion this turn of events was profound... and short-lived.

One moment she was staring at the ring of fire being drawn all around her--and in the next, she was staring dumbly at the jagged, gory post that protruded a full meter from a point just below her sternum. Her lower body instantly went numb, and for what felt like a very long time her dazed mind couldn’t understand why she had yet to fall. Slowly, awkwardly, she managed to turn her head, and then she understood.

Half of a white mask stared back at her, the faint outline of a human eye visible in the dark eyehole for the first time. The other half of the mask was still missing--as was that half of the creature’s skull. It didn’t seem to matter; it had stood up, used its remaining hand and arm to twist and snap the red sign’s upper two meters free, and then slammed it through her back. The creature lifted her, and held her suspended, impaled, her bare toes half a meter off the ground, her clumsy hands fumbling uselessly at the spear that held her aloft.

“S-stop,” She whispered, reading the word on the sign behind her. It was funny, somehow, in a way she could never have explained in a million years.

Leia stared at the unstoppable thing, waiting for it to finish her... and it didn’t. Instead, it raised that ravaged head slightly, staring mutely at the fiery bolts coming down on all sites.

Stop....” Leia whispered again, and tried hard not to laugh as the blood flowed from her lips.

* * * * *

Dawn’s glowing image looked at her.

“Is anything happening?”

Taleene closed her eyes and reached out. She was the most gifted Force-sensitive either the Jedi or the Sith had seen in generations, and yet she still couldn’t pinpoint her foe’s exact location. He was within the circle the Aurora had drawn in fire and thunder, of that she was certain. And yet....

She shook her head, eyes opening as she looked down at her screens.

“Nothing. He’s hiding himself from me with the energy from the Nexus; it’s like a flash-flood, washing over the whole place.” She stared at the image, where a real-time image of the valley was displayed, with the light levels helpfully enhanced to artificial day. The ten-kilometer circle was being scribed and re-scribed by twenty-four of Aurora’s Hellbores, each of them firing once every five seconds, stitching their way around the perimeter of the town. Torrents of vaporized rock were being flung into the air with each shot, and the infrared scan showed the air in the valley was growing dangerously hot.

Taleene sighed at the faint twinge of distaste she felt, then went ahead and gave the order.

“Let’s push a little harder and see if he sticks out his head. Three more, inside the circle, continuous fire, random pattern--but do not hit the Nexus.”

Dawn gave her a little salute, even as her floating image began to rotate slowly counterclockwise.

“RogerRoger.” A moment’s pause, then: “Boom. Boom. Boom!

* * * * *
04 Aurora x



Cordelia was wailing wordlessly, her terrified squalling driving Giles dangerously near the brink of swatting at her with a rolled-up newspaper. The ground’s shaking and the thunder which was rattling the costume shop’s front window made it feel like the world was ending. Ethan was little more than a floating torso now, his smile a rictus grin as the transparent flames consumed him.

“Stop this!” Giles shouted over the constant drumroll of thunder. “Ethan! End this spell now, while you still can!”

His old friend, his old enemy, only laughed.

“It is ending! Your Slayer, the darling child, is about to end it, just as you’d hoped.” The shop shook, much more violently than before, as some sort of blue-white flash reached them from the front room. An instant later the front glass blew in, and Cordelia’s mingled squall and scream followed close behind. Ethan nodded, even as parts of his face began to disintegrate. “Lovely girl; tell her I wish her luck, when you see her.” His grin faded, and he gave Giles a look that seemed almost sane.

“Even afterward, everything you knew will be changed, forever. Something new has come into the world. Something glorious.” Giles gaped at him, and the other man’s grin returned, full force, as his torso ran like melting wax. “Now run. Run!

He ran.

Grabbing Cordelia on the way, ignoring her panicked clawing that had his arm wet with blood in just moments, he ran through the shop, through the door that hung ajar, and into the rubble-filled street. Dust and smoke hung everywhere, reducing visibility to just a few yards. The heat was like standing in an oven, combining with the dust to make breathing nearly impossible. Constant flashes of blue-white light strobed brilliantly through the dense haze, and world-shattering detonations hammered at them, sometimes closer, sometimes further distant, but never ceasing. Choosing a direction at random, he dragged the struggling girl behind him as he ran for both their lives.

* * * * *

Everyone in the SGC was staring in horror at what was unfolding before them.

The aliens were attacking a civilian target.

Hammond was on the phone, in a three-way conversation with the President, and the senior officer of the Strategic Missile Command, who was currently based in NORAD headquarters, roughly six hundred feet directly over Hammond’s head. The time had come to fight back in any way they could fight back, no matter how small the chance of success.

* * * * *

Dawn was fidgeting, shrinking herself down a bit and trying out different designs of fairy wings as she watched the bolts streaking off to vanish against the bulk of the planet below them.

“If you let me cut loose with a full broadside, I could finish this in about a second,” She grumbled, wings fluttering. “Three-hundred and sixty Hellbores hitting that place, instead of just three; that guy would be dead before he knew what hit him.”

Taleene glanced at her, then looked back to her screens.

“I want to draw him out, not send him into hiding. If he gets away, he’ll be back later to ambush us when we’re not expecting it.” She studied the visuals. Optical was useless; the entire valley was hidden under dense clouds of dust and steam. Aurora’s other sensors were able to show her a clear picture of the settlement, however, and she eyed the destruction with dispassionate eyes.

More than a third of them must be dead by now; over ten thousand people. Not even a shadow of what Tarkin did at Alderaan, and what I do here at least serves some purpose other than simply terrorizing my enemies.

“Continue as ordered. If he doesn’t show himself soon, then sheer chance will drop one of those bolts on his head, and I’ll be able to take control of the--”

She froze, staring, openmouthed, as the universe shifted around her.

* * * * *

Ethan Rayne felt the last bits of his physical body fraying to nothing even as the bolt of blue-white death came smashing down. It wasn’t coincidence that the events were simultaneous; his dissolution had occurred exactly because he would die in this place, at this time. The rampaging energies of the Hellmouth had wrought that and other similar, backwards-strange events, as they ran their course.

Now, as his physical form was obliterated, he stretched as far as he was able, hoping to pull himself to safety in some new, different place and time.

He smiled one final time as everything went white, wondering if he would succeed.

* * * * *

The flash seemed to come from all around them, and the blast that followed left them reeling... for a fraction of a second.

The earth surged upwards, slamming Giles and Cordelia flat against the pavement, then dropped, tossing them, spinning, through the air. He came down in an ungainly sprawl amidst a sad, dust-choked hedge. Cordelia landed, spread-eagled, atop a parked car that had seen better days.

The librarian was wheezing for breath as he pulled himself to his feet, the side of his face prickling with an incipient burn from the flash that had landed so close. Cordelia sat up, coughing and clutching at her stomach, and as he stumbled towards her he at first thought his streaming eyes were playing tricks on him. It was only when he reached her that he was certain--her cat ears and cat’s tail were gone.

* * * * *

The tall, gangly, teenaged boy collapsed, instantly dead, his arm and half his head missing, his chest mostly blown away.

Willow was dropped unceremoniously to the ground, still impaled on the sign. She lacked the strength to scream, lacked the strength to do anything but laboriously pull in a breath, very shallowly, through the blood bubbling from her lips, then push it back out again.

Pull the next one in--

And push it out.

It was heartbreakingly difficult. Impossibly difficult, and she knew after the second one that she was finished, that it was over.

She dragged a breath in; a bare sip that was still a victory.

And she pushed it out.

Tears streamed from staring eyes that she couldn’t even make blink.

In.

Out.

Again.

Again.

Again.

* * * * *

Dawn stared at Buffy for several seconds, wondering why she’d stopped in the middle of talking that way. Even stranger, she was staring off into space, her eyes blank and her mouth open.

“Taleene?” She sent her holographic self fluttering down on delicate fairy wings, to hover cutely before her sister, her image now stabilized at exactly one meter in height.

“Taleene?” Nothing. “Um... is this some kind of Force thing? Should I leave you alone while you watch your visions or--”

Buffy keened, an agonized, breathless, nearly soundless exhalation that folded her over, forehead touching the brushed metal of the console before her. Dawn flinched back, staring in shock as her sister made that horrible, terrifying sound over and over again, as fast as she could refill her lungs. Her tiny fists clenched tight, she raised her head, and her huge grey eyes were windows into hell.

* * * * *

I killed Xander.

The thought had held her forever, or so it seemed. When it all changed back, when whatever had taken hold of her on the street, when she was there with the smiling, laughing children... when that thing had suddenly let her go, a small, odd little thought had immediately bubbled up in her mind: I killed Xander.

Just that.

And she stopped--everything she was doing, everything she was thinking--it had all just stopped, while she tried to understand the meaning of those three words. For the longest time it seemed like they were a mystery that would forever be beyond her, that years would pass, and she would grow old and feeble, with grandchildren and great-grandchildren, without ever having puzzled out what those words meant.

And then understanding came, between one heartbeat and the next, and that was when the weight of the universe landed on her, and crushed her, and she knew that it was only what she deserved.

She was vaguely aware that her body was trying to scream, but it was all terribly far away and unimportant.

I’m evil. I’m sick. I‘m worse than the Master, worse than any of the things I‘ve fought. I killed Xander, and I liked it.

It had made her feel stronger, to punish him for his weakness. It had helped her forget her own fear and uncertainty, to punish him for feeling those things.

I killed Xander.

She felt the bitter sickness surge up inside her, and folded forward once more.

* * * * *

Dawn didn’t know what to do. She didn’t have access to the medical telemetry from Buffy’s armor, but what she was seeing couldn’t be good. Buffy was panting and trembling like she was on the verge of a seizure (which Dawn knew all about, from her final few weeks in the hospital), and when she suddenly jackknifed forward and spewed vomit all over her screens, the ghost-girl gave an involuntary little shriek of dismay.

“Ahhhh!” She fumbled through her directories and command trees, searching for options.

“Medical droids! I want all the medical droids to Taleene’s--oh, wait. Aghh!”

She couldn’t do that; no one but Buffy herself could open the doors to the section that held her quarters, and they were massively thick. It would take forever to get the properly-equipped droids there, and longer still for them to burn their way inside. Neither could she herself directly affect anything within that section, thanks to the same security precautions--precautions that were hard-wired in place, to keep a Slicer from letting in his pet assassin, or simply venting all the atmosphere into space.

Is this an attack? She wondered, her mind whirring through a thousand scenarios every second, searching for an answer. Did the evil person on the planet do this to her? Should I stop shooting the town, so that he’ll stop, or shoot it with everything, and hope I kill him before he kills her?

In a vastly-slowed sliver of time, a little girl made of crystal, metal, and flickering green energy debated the fate of twenty-one thousand human beings... and then decided.

The relentless hammering of the cannons ceased, and she looked again at her sister.

“Buffy? Buffy, can you hear me? I stopped the bombardment... was that the right thing? Buffy!

Her sister’s shuddering was only getting worse, and somehow, that same motion seemed to be spreading outwards. Dawn watched, uncomprehending, as every object within the transparent dome began to shake, then to crumple, then to move.

* * * * *

Xander--and thousands more, millions more!

She remembered the destruction of Alderaan, where she had stood by Tarkin’s side while he had committed genocide on a whim. She remembered the slaughter of Jedi by her hand, the fierce joy of it, be they greybeards or only children. She’d hated them all, she’d killed them all, until Merrick--somehow it had been Merrick, her first Watcher--had found her, and with the last four remaining Jedi, he had defeated her, though she had managed to slay them all, save him.

A hundred battles, a thousand murders, one after the other, replaying themselves in her mind, along with the things that she knew to be real, the things that she, herself had done. Xander’s death, the destruction of the military base that had launched the missiles at her, the--

She gasped, eyes half-clearing till she realized it had stopped--that utterly strange knowledge that came when she reached for it telling her that the firing had stopped... but that more than a third of the people who called Sunnydale home were dead by her hand.

The thing that was a part of her, that extra self that acted on what she wanted when she willed it or wished it, that thing, that Force reached out now. It took hold of every object it could find, gripped them tight, and pulled them toward her.

* * * * *

When everything ripped itself loose from its mountings, Dawn shrieked--not that it was audible in the meditation chamber, because the speakers were included among the things that were ripped free, as were the projectors for her hologram, which flickered and vanished. Left with only two tiny visual pickups, high up on the interior of the dome, she watched helplessly as Buffy crushed the wreckage and debris into a ball with herself at the center, the mass compacting itself ever more tightly, moment by moment, as the girl tried to crush herself to death.

* * * * *

I killed Xander.

Those words would never go away; not ever. All she could do was deny them a place to live, deny them a living person to haunt. Pulling the shredded remains of her nest ever tighter, she felt her armor straining to preserve her, felt it struggle to keep her safe, to keep her breathing. It was a wondrously well-engineered machine, but she was stronger than it was; evil, twisted, hateful... but strong. She pulled again, harder, and felt it begin to weaken as her senses began, mercifully, to fade.

[Buffy?]

She tried to ignore the voice, there was nothing more to say, nothing left she could do. She had killed Xander, and so many others, both real and imagined... unless she only thought the other life was imagined; it was entirely possible that she was mad, that it was all real, and that she was even more vile than she’d feared.

[Buffy, you’re scaring me a lot and I don’t know what to do and I would scream at you but you broke the speakers and this cyber comm doesn’t have a scream setting--believe me, I looked--and you have to stop being crazy now because you’re killing yourself and I don’t have anyone else and if you leave me here all alone I’ll go crazy too!]

It was the girl, Dawn, the imaginary sister of her imaginary, even more evil self. It saddened her, to think that the girl would be alone, but then, once Buffy was gone, her imaginary creations would vanish with her; it only made sense. Still, she was sad, for some reason, to lose the sister she had never really had....

She squeezed harder, striving for death, reaching eagerly for the peace that oblivion would bring her.

--Peace is a Lie--

It was her thought, but not her thought. It was a memory from her other self, the version of her that had done so many awful things, just as she had done awful things. That girl, that Buffy--she was still there; all of her was still there, and it was difficult to tell where one of them ended and the other one began. They were both Buffy, after all.

[Buffy, I swear if you don’t become uncrazy right now I’m gonna drop a big scary missile on that stupid town under us! There’s still way more than half of it kinda-sorta standing, and lots and lots of people, so I think that evil guy with the Force powers must be down there, staring up at us and sending crazy beams into your head or something, and I am going to make that whole place into one ginormous crater unless you stop squishing yourself and talk to me!]

She wondered if Willow was down there, if she were alive or dead. If she was dead, then Buffy’s self-inflicted death was even more deserved. If she was alive, then the thought of facing her was more than she could bear.

The sphere of debris was trembling, still pressing inwards, but the pressure was no longer increasing.

There’s something; that Force thing is whispering to me... Willow.

Distantly, faint as a kitten scratching at a window, she thought she could hear Willow’s voice, calling out to her.

She’s alive. She’s hurt. She’ll find out I killed Xander.

The thought of that one happening hurt like a knife twisting in her gut. She would rather die now than see the loathing and hatred in Willow‘s eyes that would come from that knowledge.

I disgust myself, I hate myself.

--That isn’t anything new. A Sith burns in a fire she feeds with pieces of herself. Use it, channel it, let it give you the strength to do what must be done--


Again, it was her voice, her thoughts, but a darker shade of her thoughts. Not a separate part of her, just the other side of her.

I can’t face her.

The debris crushed inward, hard, then eased slightly.

--You can save her. Facing her will be painful--so what? Life is pain, death is useless. Live. Go to her. Save her.--

It wasn’t like talking to another person, it was like having an argument with yourself... when you knew in your heart what the right answer was all along.

I love her, like I loved him. No matter what I am, or what I’ve done, I can still do one good thing.

She took hold of the hate and self-loathing that were trying to destroy her; took hold of them, grappled with them, and turned them to a new purpose.

There isn’t time to be weak; Willow will die if I‘m weak.

The thought was her own, shared by both sides of her, light and dark, both at once.

Passion. Strength. Power. Channel the fire. Don’t let it consume you. Use it.

NOW!


* * * * *

The smushed-up ball of stuff exploded, and Dawn took a completely unneeded breath as a rumpled, unsteady, and very scary-looking Buffy rose to her feet. With no working microphones in the dome, she could only hear what Buffy whispered because of her link to her sister’s comm.

Willow. Willow... hold on. I‘m coming.



* * * * *
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