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Rigil Kent
9 September 2008, 07:27 AM
TYRANNY REBORN

Genre: Drama, action-adventure, wildly … nay … happily AU, H/L, L/M
Rated: PG. Some mild language, adult situations, harsh feelings, and bad taste.
Summary: Episode I of The Unseen War. One year after Grand Admiral Thrawn's death, shadowy forces pursue Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade across the galaxy, Han Solo is pressed back into service with the New Republic military, and Leia Organa-Solo has only herself to rely on as she combats a corrupt new government ... and her own dark demons. AU, 10.5 ABY, L/M, H/L
Disclaimer: I own a big fat nothing. Not my hopes. Not my dreams. Nothing. All were pawned off to pay for school.
A/N: 1 year after The Last Command. My fic Sidereal serves as a prequel to this; it isn’t entirely necessary to comprehend what has happened since Wayland, although it may help somewhat.
Major thanks to Jade_Eyes, Jedi_Emeritus, and Jedikatie for being a beta and/or a sounding board.

|-*-|

It is a dangerous time for the New Republic. Although Grand Admiral Thrawn's campaign of terror has ended, the destruction wrought by his forces has severely impaired the Republic Navy, leaving it exposed and vulnerable.

Seizing upon this perceived weakness, desperate Imperial warlords are poised to launch a massive crusade to retake Coruscant, the capital of the galaxy and symbol of ultimate authority.

At the same time, internal dissent and political strife threaten to split the New Republic apart even as mysterious forces intent on chaos begin taking the first steps that could topple the government of the restored Republic once and for all....

|-*-|

CHAPTER 1

DEATH ruled the broken world.

Seen from orbit, the planet seemed utterly barren, with blackened mountains and wide gaping rents in the outer atmosphere where turbolasers had scorched the world decades earlier. Angry crimson clouds dominated the planetary sky and the splashes of green that would denote vegetation seemed sadly absent. Dark seas churned and twisted, pounding against the already shattered cliffs with violent force that seemed appropriate given the erratic orbit of the planetary moons. Where other planets glittered with the life of inhabited cities, this world hung silent and black in the void of space, circling a dark red sun like a sullen and angry child. Nothing could live here.

Or so it seemed. Twelve Imperator-class Star Destroyers cruised around the ugly world, each perfectly situated to provide maximum protection for the planet. Hundreds of smaller craft – fighters, shuttles and freighters – darted around the slow-moving behemoths like angry gnats, docking, regrouping, scouting. Despite the planet’s utter lack of appeal, it seemed as busy as any Core World, even the far distant Coruscant.

From where he stood aboard the bridge of the Executor-class dreadnought Allegiance, Commodore Gilad Pellaeon took in the image with growing resentment and anger. It seemed impossible this dead world had become the capital of the Empire, that this miserable hunk of rock and dirt was so important it would require such a mighty force to defend it. If it hadn’t required more effort than he was willing to expend, Pellaeon would have hated the Rebels even more for the Empire’s fall.

Around him, the bridge of the Allegiance was swarming with activity. Officers and crewmen went about their duties with sharp precision that reminded Gilad of days long past. They were all too young for their jobs and far too many of them were conscripts, but nonetheless, Pellaeon felt a flicker of pride as he watched them from the corner of his eye. For just a moment, he was able to forget that Grand Admiral Thrawn had been dead for over a year, or that the Rebels had won every single engagement since that time, or that the Empire was now a hollow shell of its former self. His mood darkened as he reflected upon that and Gilad returned his eyes to the glittering starfield beyond the transparisteel viewports, frowning at the turn his thoughts had taken.

The recent defection of Kuat to the Rebels had been a particularly devastating blow, more so than any of the recent military defeats as it robbed the Empire of their greatest shipbuilding asset while turning over that same capability to the illegitimate government currently occupying Imperial Center. Without the ability to construct new capital ships, it seemed it was only a matter of time before the Empire would be forced to sue for peace and given the general lack of testicular fortitude within the current Moff’s Council, that time seemed closer than ever. Gilad nearly snorted with disgust at the idea as he stared at the nearest star destroyer. It was Chimera, he realized with a pang of homesickness.

The sound of someone discreetly clearing her throat drew Pellaeon’s attention, and he redirected his attention to the interrupting lieutenant’s reflection in the viewport. Recognizing her cue, the woman – a girl, really, and far too young to be wearing that rank, Gilad mused – made her report.

“Contact established, sir,” the lieutenant said.

“Finally,” Pellaeon murmured as he turned away from the viewport and began walking slowly toward the hologram pod at the far end of the command deck. He forced himself to maintain an easy, steady pace so as to appear unhurried. One of the first things he had learned from the late Grand Admiral Thrawn was the importance of appearances; great men did not hurry, the admiral had once said, they caused other men to hurry.

As he approached the waiting holograms, Gilad felt his pulse begin to increase fractionally. What he was about to do could be construed as treason by the Council of Moffs, but Pellaeon realized he no longer cared what that group of incompetent bureaucrats thought. He had stood by and allowed them to waste precious resources and personnel for too long in useless gestures of aggression which had little to no military benefit. Politicians, he thought with disgust. They have no business running a war. It was past time for a change of leadership.

“Report,” he said by way of greeting once he stepped onto the holo-transmitter, hoping the two officers would be receiving a clear transmission despite the distance. Natasi Daala, for example, was virtually on the other side of the galaxy, and Xamuel Lennox had been long exiled to the Corporate Sector for political reasons which had little to do with his current mission.

“Phase One is complete,” Daala announced, shifting slightly on her feet as she spoke. Even in holographic form, she was an attractive woman and Gilad knew her appearance had led to some difficulties for her. For nearly her entire career, she had been plagued by insinuations and rumors that she had once been Wilhuff Tarkin’s mistress, despite the obvious evidence otherwise. Pellaeon himself had believed those stories until Thrawn explained the obvious following his restoring of her to active field service: she had been given several career ending assignments by Tarkin himself in retaliation for her snubbing the long-dead Grand Moff’s romantic overtures. It was an indication of her resilience and skill that she had not only survived those assignments, but had thrived. “I have made contact with the Corellian Diktat and presented your proposal,” she continued. “He seemed quite interested, sir, and I am proceeding to Phase Two.”

“Good.” Pellaeon gave her one of his rare smiles as an indication of his satisfaction. Phase Two was critical in this new gambit, particularly with Imperial resources as scarce as they currently were. With the backing of the Corellian government – even if it was secret – they could finally look to rebuilding the shattered fleet. Daala’s background in intelligence made her ideal for this mission and Gilad knew she would be able to keep the ambitious Diktat in line. If the man got out of hand, he could always be replaced with a more … pliable leader.

“Well done, Natasi,” Pellaeon added, making sure to use her given name as a subtle reminder that his status was greater than hers. His eyes shifted to the hologram of Captain Lennox.

“Nothing new to report, Commodore,” the captain stated. “The situation remains unchanged.”

“Excellent news.” Gilad gave them both appraising glances. “You both know what is at stake,” he told them, grateful for their somber nods of understanding. “I will contact you again in forty-eight Standard hours. Good luck.” He stepped off of the transmission plate as the two holos winked out of existence.

He had barely taken three steps when the world exploded around him.

The shriek of alarms and the distinctive sound of blaster fire roused him back to consciousness and Pellaeon opened his eyes to chaos. For a long, extended moment, he was unable to move as panic and shock conspired to rob him of motor control. An armored hand suddenly gripped his uniform jacket and he felt himself being rapidly dragged across the floor. It was a stormtrooper, he realized in the instant the man shoved him into a more defensible location and began firing his rifle at an unseen foe.

Like angry hornets, blaster bolts flashed around them, splattering against the bulkheads and computers with fierce explosions. A rain of sparks from an exploding computer console fell upon them, scorching Gilad’s exposed skin and causing him to yelp in surprise. The pain snapped him out of the mental fog which had clouded his mind, and he pushed himself off of the floor.

“Stay down, sir!” the protecting stormtrooper shouted as he triggered a rapid burst of fire at a suddenly exposed target. Pellaeon felt his stomach tighten with horrified fury as he finally recognized the uniform of the attackers: naval troopers.

He reached for the stormtrooper’s holstered sidearm.

It fit his hand perfectly, as if it had always been meant for him, and Gilad crouched behind his defender, wincing slightly as his old body protested such treatment. With the pistol braced, he took aim at the nearest traitor and squeezed the trigger; watching the man topple, his face a smoking ruin, was more satisfying than it had any right to be.

Thirty seconds later, it was over as the last of the naval troopers fell. For a long moment, the stormtrooper shielding Pellaeon didn’t move as if he was waiting for a second wave of attackers. When none came, he stepped forward slightly, blaster rifle still held at the ready.

“Commodore!” one of the bridge officers shouted. It was the young female lieutenant, Gilad noticed, and her eyes were wide with horror at the carnage before her. She squeaked in startled surprise when the stormtrooper abruptly pointed his rifle at her.

“Stand down, trooper,” Pellaeon ordered sharply, recognizing instantly the other man was still operating under the haze of adrenaline. The stormtrooper gave him a sidelong glance which lasted mere seconds before slowly lowering the rifle; he didn’t relax, though, and Gilad was grateful for that. “Seal off the command deck,” Pellaeon continued, directing his comments to the lieutenant. “I want a status report immediately!” He turned his attention to the silent stormtrooper. “And get reinforcements up here that you trust.”

“Already en route, sir,” the trooper revealed. When Gilad offered the man his sidearm, the helmeted soldier cocked his head. “Perhaps you should hold onto that, sir,” he suggested. Pellaeon nodded.

“Good thinking,” the commodore conceded. “What is your designation and rank, trooper?”

“MA-zero-zero-three, sir.” The stormtrooper barely seemed to be paying attention to Gilad as he spoke and instead seemed focused on their surroundings. Pellaeon’s opinion of the man climbed a notch. “I hold the rank of ground-captain.”

“Not anymore,” Gilad announced. “Effective immediately, you are promoted to the rank of major.” The trooper glanced once in Pellaeon’s direction. “Do you have a name?” he asked, ignoring the startled looks he received from the surviving officers and crewmen. For a moment, he had the feeling the stormtrooper knew exactly what he was thinking, but Gilad realized he was being silly. Of course, the man knew. With a designation of zero-zero-three, he had to understand the necessities of command; even in the face of impending death, a field or flag officer simply could not show concern or fear.

“Flint, sir,” the new major answered. “Flint Torul.”

“Well, Major Torul,” Pellaeon declared softly. “I owe you my life.”

“Commodore!” a petty officer suddenly exclaimed, panic radiating off him. “Enemy ships in sector forty-seven!”

“Battle stations,” Gilad snapped in response. “All pilots to their fighters, all gunners to their stations! Helm-“

“Weapons fire in engineering!” another enlisted crewman suddenly shouted.

“What?” Pellaeon demanded, his blood running cold. A firefight in the drive section while enemy ships were in range? Could there possibly be a worse scenario?

“It’s stormtroopers!” the crewman declared, and Gilad’s eyes darted to the silent man standing less than a meter away.

“Major?” he asked, tightening his grip on the sidearm. If it came down to it, Pellaeon knew he wouldn’t survive long and only hoped he could get a shot off. He wanted to go down fighting.

“I diverted all armored assets to secure the engineering deck,” Torul announced without a gram of remorse in his modulated voice. “Standard Rebel Infiltrator tactics call for a lightning assault against the bridge to distract the command officers, followed by a surgical strike into engineering so they can place their charges.” Gilad’s eyes narrowed.

“You’re not a normal trooper, are you?” he asked softly and the major half-turned to face him.

“I hold a rating of SC-Aurek, sir,” came the response. Pellaeon blinked in surprise. An SC rating.

Storm Commando.

Also called shadowtroopers, the Storm Commandos were an elite branch of the stormtrooper corps, second only to the Royal Guardsmen in the level of training they received. There remained some contention between the two branches exactly which one was more combat effective, though the smart money – had Gilad been willing to wager on such a thing – was on the shadowtroopers.

“Do what you must, Major,” Pellaeon ordered abruptly, his voice ringing across the command deck. “And pass the word,” he added, this time directing his words to the female lieutenant whose name he still couldn’t remember, “Anyone who resists the stormtroopers is to be considered a saboteur and shot on sight.” Clenching his hands tightly at the small of his back, the commodore walked to viewport in order to watch the coming conflagration.

The Rebels would pay for this.

|-*-|

“We’re going to pay for that,” Leia Organa-Solo murmured the moment Borsk Fey’lya exited the office.

The heavy sigh which emerged from Supreme Chancellor Mon Mothma’s lips sounded heartfelt and so unbelievably tired that it nearly caused Leia to yawn. It was to be expected, of course. Dealing with Fey’lya was difficult on a good day, but negotiating an arrangement with him over his voting coalition in the Senate while he held all the winning cards was nothing short of exhausting. For someone like Mon, who had been playing this game since well before Leia was even born and remembered firsthand how Palpatine had abused such petty shortsightedness, it had to be especially hard.

“We’ll need his votes to pass this measure next month,” Mothma replied sadly. The older woman began pinching the bridge of her nose as she spoke. It was the most she ever let herself relax in front of non-family members, and Leia had always felt honored that she was allowed this glimpse of the woman inside. “I just wish he wasn’t so…”

“Recalcitrant?” Leia asked with a smile and Mon chuckled slightly in agreement. She sobered quickly, though, and pinned Organa-Solo with a look.

“He’s gathering support to make a bid for the chancellorship, Leia,” Mon pointed out. “If you don’t declare your candidacy soon, I’m afraid it’s going to be impossible to prevent him from winning.”

“I know,” Leia replied. It hardly seemed possible that Fey’lya could have recovered from the damage he’d suffered during the Thrawn campaign but, against all odds, he had managed to turn it around so he instead appeared to be the victim of a military conspiracy. In a political atmosphere simmering with war fatigue, his arguments had appealed to a sufficient number of like-minded senators that, in no time at all, he had bounced back, with more political capital at his disposal than ever before.

With Mon’s recent decision to retire from public service at the end of this current session, Leia had found herself on the short list to replace the venerable chancellor. While it was flattering to be considered so indispensable, she struggled with the decision to officially throw her hat in the ring. Han didn’t even try to hide his dislike of the idea, especially since the Senate already kept her so busy she rarely saw him to begin with and Leia knew the job of Supreme Chancellor required a level of dedication she wasn’t sure she could bring to the table. Her duties as the Coruscanti Senator were already positively overwhelming and her position as the last surviving princess of Alderaan only added to the workload, reducing her already limited amount of free time to nonexistent. Still, the work ethic which had been instilled upon her by Bail and Breha Organa forced her to seriously consider the opportunity in front of her; one’s political life expectancy was always short in the Senate, and this chance might not come again.

“Have you spoken to your brother?” Mon asked, rising from her chair. Leia followed suit automatically, smiling slightly as she recognized her old mentor’s change of subject for what it was. Though Mothma had a reputation among many senators as a consummate politician, she’d rarely tried to force Leia into something Organa-Solo wasn’t already interested in pursuing. This was no different: either Leia would decide to go for the chancellorship or she wouldn’t. Nothing Mon said or did would sway her opinion.

“He’s still on Ossus at that Jedi dig,” Leia revealed as they headed toward the door leading out of Mon’s office. “I think he’s scheduled to be back next week.”

“Is there any chance he’s reconsidered his decision?” There was a hopeful note in the older woman’s voice and Leia sighed.

“He’s still not willing to undertake any missions for the Republic at this time,” she admitted cautiously. It remained a point of contention between them, though a part of Leia understood Luke’s reasoning. He really did need more Jedi to take the load off his shoulders and Leia always felt awful when she was asked to press him for his assistance. In the years since Yavin, she’d watched with growing sadness as the wide-eyed innocent farmboy slowly transformed into a young man old before his time and she hated that she was, in some part, responsible for that change.

“We could really use his help, Leia,” Mon commented. “The people will listen to him before they’ll listen to Senator Fey’lya.” They stepped out into the hallway and were almost instantly flanked by two of the blue-robed Guardsmen. At the very edge of her Force senses, Leia could detect the two Noghri currently assigned to her bodyguard detail and she once again marveled at their ability to remain unseen.

“But we can’t make him do what he doesn’t want to do,” she argued, carefully tempering the flash of temper which spiked through her. Though Luke always took offense when she implied it, Leia had a very good idea who was responsible for this recent decision of his. He was lot easier to deal with before Wayland, she reflected sourly before chastising herself for not seeing his perspective. The restored Republic was her great cause, not his.

Once again, Mon exhaled heavily, though whether it was in frustration or exhaustion Leia couldn’t quite tell. The part of her that was a strictly political animal agreed with the chancellor; they desperately needed Luke Skywalker out there to win the hearts and minds of the disaffected if they were going to keep this republic alive.

“I’ll speak to him again,” Leia said though she harbored few illusions that he’d inexplicably change his mind. Their last argument over this had been a particularly vicious one, ending when she lost her temper at his ongoing recalcitrance and accused him of listening to the Imperial spy he was sleeping with instead of his sister. He had walked out without a word and left for Ossus within the hour, despite her repeated attempts to apologize. What had made it worse was the fact that both Han and Chewbacca had sided with Luke, with the former telling Leia flat-out that she was being unreasonable, petty and childish. When did this get so damned complicated?

A flicker of movement drew her attention away from Mon and Leia quickly tuned out what the chancellor was saying as her danger sense flared. Compared to Luke’s, it was imprecise and haphazard, but it had served her well over the years. Her hand instinctively dropped toward her belt and the small hold-out blaster concealed there even as her eyes sought the source of the danger. Initially, nothing seemed out of place: a half dozen security troopers were moving toward them, but it was late and such patrols were commonplace at this time of night. Almost at once, though, her gaze zeroed in on the fact that the troopers already had drawn their weapons…

“Protect the Chancellor!” one of the blue-robed guards bellowed in the half second before chaos erupted.

By then, it was already too late.

Moving quickly, Leia dove to one side, ripping the hold-out free of its holster and pumping a pair of shots into the nearest of the false security officers. He toppled without a sound and Leia shifted aim even as she triggered the alert button on her comlink. It squealed in protest and she snarled a Huttese curse she’d picked up from Han over the years; they were being jammed.

The corridor was suddenly crisscrossed with blaster bolts as a second team of assassins bolted out of nearby offices, weapons spitting lethal pulses of energy. Another of the security officers fell to her blaster and Leia cursed as a third group of assassins rounded the corner.

Her back was suddenly ablaze with pain and Leia screamed out in agony. Her legs and arms went numb, and she collapsed like a droid that had suddenly been deactivated. With a loud crack, her head struck the marble floor as she fell and her vision exploded into dancing lights. A whimper tried to escape her lips, but froze in her throat at the sight she beheld.

Mon Mothma.

The older woman was flat on her back, sightless eyes staring at the grand ceiling of the Republic even as tendrils of smoke wafted from the horrific injuries that had claimed her life. Yet, despite those wounds, for the first time since Leia had met her, Mon appeared at peace.

A hollow boom echoed loudly through the corridor and drew Leia’s attention back to the melee. Most of the security troopers were down, along with one of the blue-robed Guardsmen and a Noghri. The remaining defenders – the Guardsman who had shouted and Adarakh, one of the newest of the Noghri assigned to her detail – were fighting back-to-back, vibroweapons humming as they circled around Leia’s unresponsive body. Lights were flashing, indicating that the anti-blaster countermeasures had finally been activated throughout the Senate, and alarms were shrieking. Adarakh suddenly gasped as one of the assassins speared him with a wicked-looking blade and slowly sunk to the floor, hands wrapped tightly around the false security officer’s neck despite the man’s repeated stabbings. A second flash of light stole Leia’s vision and the sound of thunder rattled her teeth. The last thing she remembered was the Guardsman still fighting over her body, blood staining the blue of his uniform and dripping onto the floor.

And then … darkness.

Rigil Kent
26 September 2008, 09:56 AM
A/N: Because I forgot to mention it earlier, each chapter takes place approximately 1 month after the previous one.

|-*-|

CHAPTER 2

THE darkness stretched on into eternity. It was an endless night, an infinite expanse of black broken only by the blanket of life-giving stars which sparkled and twinkled like billions of tiny jewels. And around one of those glittering balls of plasma orbited a planet which gleamed as brightly as any stellar object.

Coruscant.

Seen from orbit, it almost resembled a star itself. Thousands of ships circled the planet like tiny orbiting satellites. Most were relatively small, freighters or personnel transports, but some stretched out for kilometers, dominating their smaller cousins and bristling with enough firepower to destroy a minor planet. It was a sign of how things had changed – an indication of the mood that had infected the mighty world.

For the Republic had gone to war.

It was not a new state of affairs for the government. Decades earlier, the Republic had marched to war at the behest of a chancellor who was secretly a Sith Lord. Under his rule, the Republic became an Empire and Coruscant basked in his dark glory. When he fell, lesser men and women clung to the planet as if they could emulate his might by controlling what had once been his seat of power. At long last, the Republic reclaimed the world from tyrants and dictators, raising its standard once more in the name of peace and justice. A new chancellor was elected, one who had labored long and hard to restore freedom and democracy to the galaxy against the Sith Lord who had become an emperor.

And now, she too had been struck down.

To many, it seemed as the though the galaxy had changed, had become even harsher than it had been during the reign of the tyrannical Sith Lord. Not since the Clone Wars had a Coruscanti leader been so directly affected by the conflagration that engulfed the rest of the galaxy while on Coruscant. To the pessimists though, it was merely another day, no different than any other and only the names had changed. Unconcerned about the events that threatened to change the balance of galactic power, these people continued on with their business.

To Mara, it felt like coming home.

She had arrived only moments earlier, dropping out of lightspeed at the very edge of the system. The craft she piloted was a battered YT-2400 light freighter purchased almost a year earlier with the severance package received from Talon Karrde when she left his organization. Vaguely ellipsoid in shape, the location of the cockpit compartment on the starboard side of the rounded hull gave the craft a lopsided, almost unbalanced appearance, but the growling rumble of the sublight engines and the grace with which the ship maneuvered belied any concerns over the ship’s abilities. The actual name of the craft had been carefully selected to reflect the way Mara felt about life in the wake of Wayland.

It was, after all, her Second Chance.

With a resigned expression on her face, she silently groaned as she studied the volume of craft in orbit around Coruscant as the Chance raced toward the planet. Ever the hub of traffic, the capital of the New Republic seemed no different from the Imperial Center Mara knew from her youth, despite the current war footing. Or perhaps, she mused, the war footing was why it suddenly seemed no different.

Mara sighed at the maudlin direction her thoughts had abruptly taken. She was exhausted, bored and so ready to get off of the ship that had become her personal prison her hands were shaking. Two months had passed since she last set foot on Coruscant, sixty long days with only a wildly eccentric astromech and dark memories of events and times she would like to forget as company. More than anything else, she was looking forward to breathing air that hadn’t been recycled, eating a meal that didn’t come from a ration pack, taking a hot bath using real water and, if she was very lucky, tracking down the one real friend she had on the planet for some conversation and understanding.

At that thought, Mara realized she was smiling wistfully and schooled her features to impassiveness, all the while wondering at the change that had come over her. Not two years past, she would have killed someone for daring to suggest Luke Skywalker was anything but a traitor who deserved a long and gruesome death, yet here she was, so fervently looking forward to seeing him in person it nearly made her sick. It was strange, she mused, wondering at the change in herself, how things could become so different so quickly.

Rubbing her temples in a vain effort to ward off an impending headache, Mara found herself instinctively reaching out with the Force, seeking that most intimate of connections with the man who had, against all odds, become her best friend. A dull ache throbbed behind her eyes as she stretched out with her mind, reminding her yet again she was not fully healed from the psychic damage Luke had only begun to repair in the weeks and months after Wayland. Fury at Palpatine’s depredations pushed at her control, but she suppressed it and focused on her senses. Disappointment suddenly swelled up within her.

Luke wasn’t on Coruscant.

She could still sense his sister’s presence, though it was scattered and weak as befit someone who was recovering from injuries and the Force signatures of the Solo twins pulsed and flared like tiny novas. To Mara’s surprise, the two children reached back to her, their clumsy psychic touches joyful, mischievous and painfully innocent. When she tried to withdraw into herself, they pursued, so desperately eager to feel someone’s mindtouch that it was almost excruciating for someone as tainted by darkness as Mara. She felt her eyes water and carefully closed off her connection, much to their clear disappointment.

“Damn you, Skywalker,” she muttered as she tried to regain her equilibrium. This was all his fault. A year ago, she wouldn’t have cared enough to gently ease away from the mental connection with the twins and would have simply severed the contact, regardless of the pain it might have caused them. A year ago, she wouldn’t be wiping her eyes and attempting to hide any evidence of what that brief mental touch had done to her.

A year ago, she wouldn’t be sitting here, trying and failing to hate a man for daring to bring light back into the darkness that had been her life.

A moment later, Mara began to frown as the implication of what she had learned sank in. Luke wasn’t on Coruscant. Why not? His sister was still incapacitated according to the news reports Mara had watched, so why wasn’t Skywalker still on-planet? It wasn’t like him to leave Leia when she needed him the most. Her stomach sank as a thought occurred to her.

“Kriff,” Mara murmured to herself. It was a habit she’d picked up during the long, lonely trip to Elrood, though she’d barely noticed. “I hope it wasn’t over me.” The tension between the two Skywalkers had been palpable in the year since Wayland, and Mara knew Luke’s sister was afraid for his safety. It was entirely understandable; only a fool – or a Skywalker, Mara thought with an amused smile – would voluntarily spend great amounts of time with one’s assassin. Most of Coruscant, including Leia it seemed, suspected Mara was sleeping with Luke, a belief neither of them had gone to great lengths to correct. It was, after all, much easier to let people think that than to tell them the truth.

The comm. crackled with an incoming signal and Mara activated it without hesitation. Instantly, a uniformed figure appeared on the small vid-screen, expression bored but still attentive.

“We have you on our screens now,” the sub-lieutenant announced. He was a Lethan Twi’lek, and the deep scarlet color of his skin was such a striking hue which instantly brought to mind Alderaanian roses. Mara could not recall having seen a Lethan in person before and, for a moment, she marveled at the infinite diversity of the universe before shaking herself clear of the unusual thoughts. What the hell was happening to her? “Identify yourself,” the space traffic controller ordered.

“Free trader Step of Two,” Mara replied calmly, using one of the multiple false transponder IDs she possessed. “Celina Marniss commanding.” She was unconcerned about being identified visually; one of the first upgrades she had installed for the Chance was a pattern scrambler for her communications system. The person receiving a transmission from her would see a dark-eyed brunette who bore only a superficial resemblance to Mara. Even the voice pattern the sub-lieutenant heard was different than the one the Republic had on record for her. In her line of work, it was better to take such precautions, just in case.

“Stand by,” the Twi’lek ordered. A long moment passed before he spoke again. “You are cleared for approach, Step of Two. Docking approach Thesh Aurek is approved. Uploading flight path now.” His image vanished from the screen and was instantly replaced by a stream of data. Mara gave it a glance and cursed softly; berthing rates had tripled in the last two months. She silently wrote off the maneuvering upgrade she’d wanted to install as she selected the cheapest platform available and arranged for payment transfer.

Nearly two hours passed before she finally landed and Mara spent that time catching up on current events via the widestream subspace broadcast of Coruscant’s local news. It had been distressing how much had changed while she was incommunicado on the ass end of civilized space; until a week ago, she hadn’t even heard about Mon Mothma’s assassination or the Republic’s resumption of hostilities with the remnants of the Empire. The Senate’s rush to elect Borsk Fey’lya as chancellor still left a foul taste in her mouth, especially since Organa-Solo was technically next in line of succession, but Mara barely understood how the New Republic functioned on good days so she presumed it was simply something beyond her comprehension.

“Alright, Artoo,” she said once they were down and powered down. “Let’s get started on the post-flight checklist. The port stabilizer felt a little loose when we were coming in.” The astromech’s trilling response was decidedly indignant as if he was insulted by her telling him how to do his job and Mara fought to keep from smiling. In the sixty days since she’d departed Coruscant, she’d grown so accustomed to Skywalker’s droid she could no longer imagine operating the ship without him. At first, she’d merely tolerated him, but by the second month, she’d learned how dependable, useful and flat out creative he was; in her less than humble opinion, Artoo Detoo was worth any five crewmen.

It still bothered her a little that she thought of the droid as ‘he’ now.

Gritting her teeth, Mara began the appropriate paperwork necessary to begin offloading her cargo, knowing that if she didn’t start it now, she’d put it off until it was already overdue. She hated this part of the job, hated how much time it required and how much red tape she had to deal with. It was the one thing never mentioned when people talked about the so-called romantic life of a free trader and for good reason: no sane being would volunteer for this part of the job.

The proximity alert sounded several minutes into the paperwork and Mara glanced up in surprise. As far as she knew, no one knew she had arrived on-planet and, as a matter of principle, the local dockworkers never contacted a ship first. With a flick of her wrist, she activated the small comm.-screen and panned the image around for a moment before locating her unannounced visitor. He was standing before the access port leading to the dock proper, an unremarkable-looking hooded cloak concealing his identity. Barely a meter and a half tall, he was stocky without being fat and stood so perfectly still he might as well have been a statue. Mara recognized his species immediately.

He was a Noghri.

Her stomach tightened and she rose to her feet, tossing the unfinished paperwork into the empty co-pilot’s seat as she did. There could be only one reason why a Noghri would come looking for her and Mara felt a sudden flash of fear. What if something had happened to Luke? Who could help her then? Focus on the now, she reminded herself as she made her to the landing ramp.

“Lady Jade,” the Noghri said by way of greeting as she emerged from the Second Chance. He bowed his head slightly but didn’t explain how he had known where she would be landing. “Your presence is requested at the home of Lady Solo.”

“Why?” Mara asked, not bothering to question his use of Solo instead of Vader. After having discovered the full extent of Vader’s deception, the Noghri had expunged the Sith Lord’s name from all of their official records. For reasons Mara didn’t quite comprehend, they still felt they owed the Solo/Skywalker family a debt of honor, but no longer referred to Vader in any way.

“I am only the messenger, Lady Jade,” the Noghri hissed. “It involves Jedi Skywalker.”

“Give me a minute to lock up,” Mara said instantly.

|-*-|

The instant he saw her approach, Han Solo felt something akin to relief well up within his chest.

It was an indication of how worried he was over his missing brother-in-law that the sight of the former Emperor’s Hand didn’t immediately cause his shooting hand to twitch, especially since Han’s children were playing on the floor in front of him and his wife was sleeping the sleep of the heavily medicated only meters away. If he was honest though, he had stopped seeing Jade as a threat to his family months ago, right about the time he discovered she was living in Luke’s spare bedroom while on-planet. Han still didn’t understand the unusual relationship between Luke and the ex-assassin – they seemed more than friends, yet didn’t appear to be lovers – but he’d long since given up trying to figure out the Skywalkers. Nothing they did ever made sense anyway.

“Solo,” she greeted, emerald eyes cool as she gave the wide receiving room a quick once-over. She nodded to Chewbacca, but said nothing to the Wookiee. Her hand never strayed far from the lightsaber hanging at her waist, a lightsaber Han instantly recognized as the one Luke had given her.

“Maw-ra!” Jaina abruptly exclaimed and began struggling to stand. Han blinked in mild shock and exchanged a startled look with Chewie; as far as he knew, Jade had barely had any contact with the twins since saving their lives when they were still newborns. There was no way either of them should even recognize her. Unless it’s a Force thing, Solo realized, once again slapped in the face by the reality of what his children were going to be capable of. To say it was overwhelming was an understatement of galactic proportions.

From her expression, the former Emperor’s Hand looked even more uncomfortable with the attention she was receiving from the Solo twins than Han was in seeing it. If he didn’t know better, he would almost wager she was on the verge of bolting when Jacen began repeating his sister’s call of ‘Maw-ra’, going to far as to add ‘up’ to the statement. Solo would have laughed at any other time.

“You appear to have some fans,” he remarked, watching with no small amount of pride as both of the twins managed to stagger to their feet, lurching like little drunks as they tried to balance on legs still unsuited for walking. Jade shifted awkwardly where she stood, then seemed to barely prevent herself from lunging forward to catch Jaina when the eldest twin fell onto her butt. Resolutely, Han’s firstborn started clambering back up, undaunted by her uncooperative legs.

“Is there a reason I’m here?” the ex-assassin demanded, still eyeing the two children as if they were about to sprout multiple heads or spontaneously implode. Jacen was already staggering toward her, chanting ‘Maw-ra up!’ the entire time.

“I don’t know how up to date you are with current events,” Han began, carefully controlling the urge to laugh as his son reached Jade’s leg and started clinging to it while still pleading to be picked up by their redheaded visitor. Not to be outdone, Jaina stumbled forward herself, latching on to the other leg. “But Luke is missing.”

“And you want me to find him,” Jade guessed. Her eyes narrowed. “I was under the impression your wife doesn’t trust me,” she remarked and Han flinched slightly.

“Luke trusts you and that trumps everything else,” he said, hoping she would drop it. Naturally, she didn’t.

“This is your idea, isn’t it?” she asked. “Your wife doesn’t know.”

“He left Coruscant after a couple of run-ins with Fey’lya,” Han revealed, knowing that by ignoring her question he was confirming it as fact. Damned Jedi and their damned Jedi insight. “He said he was heading back to the dig-site on Ossus to pick up some things he left behind but never made it.” Solo shrugged. “I guess he meant Artoo.”

“Artoo is with me,” Jade announced, her wide eyes still riveted on the twins. Jaina was still begging to be picked up, but Jacen had become more interested in the boot he was clutching.

“Is he now?” Solo murmured. He paused for a moment, wondering if he could think of a time where Luke had entrusted anyone but his sister with Artoo’s well-being.

“Yes,” the ex-assassin said flatly, her eyes darting toward the closed door which led to the bedroom. She winced for some reason, and then turned her full attention back to Han. “How is your wife, by the way?” Jade asked.

“Recovering,” Han replied grimly. “She took a blaster shot to the spine when Mothma was murdered,” he revealed, grimacing at the swell of panicked fear which always accompanied thoughts of how close Leia had come to dying because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. And she wonders why I don’t want her to run for chancellor! “The medics got to her in time and she should make a full recovery,” he finished.

“That’s … good news,” the ex-Emperor’s Hand declared, so clearly uncomfortable with expressing compassion that Solo halfway expected her head to explode. Jacen had collapsed into a seated position with one leg bent at an awkward-looking angle and started pulling on one of the straps of Jade’s left boot. Han took pity on the woman.

“I can pay you two thousand now,” he offered, but she waved it off.

“Cover my docking expenses,” Jade answered, “resupply costs and arrange for a departure clearance in two hours. Keep the rest of your money.” She glanced down. “And get these kri … get these kids off of my legs. I’ll take care of the rest.”

Han had to laugh.

Jade was out the door mere minutes later and Han watched her depart with mounting trepidation. When she woke, Leia would be furious he had sought the ex-assassin’s aid. He mentally shrugged as he fought back a sigh of frustration; it wasn’t like he didn’t already have enough to argue about with his wife.

“Are you sure about this?” Chewbacca rumbled, his concern for Luke causing his words to come out accusing. Han gave him a sour look.

“Am I sure?” he asked, suddenly incredulous. “This was your idea!”

|-*-|

She had a good idea where to start looking.

From the Solo residence, Mara took the first available speeder taxi to Skywalker’s apartment, wincing slightly at the exorbitant rates being charged for such a relatively short distance. During the ten minute trip, she used her comlink and contacted Artoo who had remained on her ship. Without telling the droid why, she instructed him to compile a list of systems between Coruscant and Ossus controlled by or sympathetic to the Empire and then send the list to Luke’s home computer. The astromech’s resigned whistles only served to remind her just how many possible planets fit those parameters.

At the same time, she used her hand-held data-comp to begin searching the holonet for recent Skywalker news. Within moments, Mara had identified what Solo meant by ‘run-ins with Fey’lya’. The same day that Luke had returned to Coruscant, Leia’s condition had been upgraded to ‘critical but stable’ and Fey’lya, displaying the political acumen Bothans were known for, ambushed Skywalker outside the medical facility with the good news.

Naturally, there just happened to be a number of holo-reporters present.

Luke, exhausted from a long hyperspace trip and visibly worried over his sister, reacted far better than Mara would have in the same situation. As politely as possible, he thanked the Bothan senator and then calmly asked that the reporters give his family some space to deal with this difficult situation. Fey’lya made a great show of agreeing…

And then promptly ambushed Skywalker again four days later.

This time, it was following the historic vote in the Senate which named the Bothan interim Chancellor while Organa-Solo was incapacitated, an election which took place despite Fey’lya’s public claims of disinterest for the position. The second ambush was clearly an attempt to capitalize on Luke’s popularity among the citizens of the Republic in the wake of Fey’lya’s vow to bring what remained of the Empire to justice for their heinous crime in the name of the martyred Mon Mothma. To the Bothan’s surprise, Skywalker didn’t cooperate.

“I am a Jedi Knight,” Luke told the holo-reporters outside the medcenter, fury in his eyes over being used for political purposes, “and as such, have no stake in this fight, particularly in light of the fact that there is no proof the Empire was behind this act of barbaric terrorism.” He had then pinned Fey’lya with a stare so cold it made Mara shiver even though it was a weeks-old recording. “I have little doubt the Senate will act in the best interests of justice,” he stated flatly. “But I must admit to some discomfort that the interim leadership of the Senate is urging pre-emptive action. For the first time in the history of the New Republic, we appear to be the aggressors. I cannot and will not be a party to such an act.”

Needless to say, those comments didn’t go over well with Fey’lya.

The taxi slid to a stop outside Skywalker’s apartment and Mara quickly climbed out, her mind racing. Would Fey’lya dare to move against someone as well known and as popular as Luke Skywalker? The notion seemed unlikely at best; whatever else he was, the Bothan was a consummate politician and would do his level best to avoid getting his hands dirty, especially now that he was at the pinnacle of political power in the Republic. With the spat between him and Skywalker now public knowledge, it would be suicide to make a move against Luke, regardless of how well his fingerprints had been hidden. No, Mara mused, it seemed more probable that, if someone had moved against Luke, it was more likely an enemy of Fey’lya’s who wanted to see him fall.

A flicker in the Force caused her to hesitate as Mara neared the door to the apartment and she pushed to extend her awareness. There was someone inside already, someone waiting for her.

“Trying to sneak up on me is a good way to get killed,” she announced as she entered the apartment. A soft hissing laugh answered her as the Noghri she recalled from earlier stepped out of the shadows. Mara narrowed her eyes, concentrated on enhancing her short-term memory to identify her guest, and then spoke once more. “What do you want, Khabarakh?” she demanded.

“You know me?” He sounded surprised, though Mara couldn’t figure out why.

“You’ll find I’m full of surprises,” she replied calmly. He gave her that hissing laugh once more.

“Just so,” the Noghri remarked before straightening to his full but still inconsiderable height. “You plan to seek Jedi Skywalker,” Khabarakh stated. “We wish to accompany.”

“Is that a fact?”

“A debt is owed to the Skywalker name,” the Noghri growled. “My brothers and I would repay that debt.”

Mara opened her mouth to deny the request – she always did her best work alone – but suddenly hesitated and bit her lip in thought instead. Her instincts were telling her there was more going on than appeared and, try as she might, she found herself unable to tell Khabarakh no. Was her pride more important than Skywalker’s safety? Was she willing to take the chance that the Noghri would learn her secrets, secrets only Luke and Artoo knew? She inhaled slowly, held it for exactly five seconds and then exhaled, pushing away her doubts and insecurities as she tried to center herself. Trust your instincts, an inner voice whispered to her.

She tried to ignore how much that voice sounded like Skywalker.

“A team of four,” Mara decided. “Standard retrieval squad load-out, but replace the sniffer with a medic.” Khabarakh blinked and she could feel his surprise at her words. He made no comment for which she was grateful; after all, she didn’t know how to explain she had no idea what a ‘sniffer’ was, only that the word had come to mind. “All four need to be capable of shipboard duties,” Mara continued. “I’ll expect your team to carry their weight while aboard.”

“It shall be as you say, Lady Jade,” the Noghri replied. Mara frowned.

“That’s another thing,” she added. “My title is captain, not lady.” She crossed her arms. “And make sure your team knows I’m in charge. If I give an order, I expect it to be obeyed. Otherwise, I’ll ditch your ass on some rimworld and carry on without you. Understood?”

“I understand … Captain.” The emphasis on her title was so subtle she nearly missed it. Good, Mara reflected. Khabarakh wasn’t entirely humorless. That would make dealing with him easier.

“You have one hour to get your team ready,” Mara declared, even though she suspected the Noghri wouldn’t need an hour. Knowing them, they were already camped outside the Chance, waiting for word from Khabarakh that it was time to move.

As soon as the Noghri was gone, Mara turned her attention to the apartment. A flashing light on the holocom transceiver indicated a waiting message and she activated it at once. To her surprise, it wasn’t Artoo but rather a recorded message of Luke.

“Mara,” the holo said in greeting, “I hope this finds you well. If you are watching this, then I obviously haven’t returned to Coruscant.” An expression of bafflement crossed his face. “I am unsure about my destination, only that the Force is willing me into action and I must obey its call.” Luke’s image sighed. “I would urge you against seeking me out, but that would be a waste of breath,” he remarked sardonically.

“Got that right,” Mara muttered.

“I look forward to seeing you again,” the holo continued. “When next we meet,” he began.

“Everything will be different,” Mara finished with him. It had been one of the last things he had said to her before she lifted off from Coruscant two months earlier and even then had the ring of prophecy to it. She shivered, though she wasn’t cold.

“May the Force be with you,” Luke’s image said before winking out.

Mara stood quietly before the holocom, then played the message a second time, paying close attention to Skywalker’s mannerisms as he spoke. Nothing seemed out of place that she could tell, so she doubted he had been coerced into recording it. A tiny smile crossed her lips at the presence of the beard on his face and she wondered if he had grown it because of an offhand remark she’d made about preferring men with facial hair. Just as quickly as the notion occurred to her, she discarded it at ridiculous. Why should he care what she thought? And more importantly, why should she care if he’d grown a beard? She could almost imagine him laughing at her.

Get out of my head, Skywalker, she silently addressed her absent friend who had seemingly taken up permanent residence there.

Mara spent the next few minutes searching the apartment for any sign of a struggle or concealed clues Skywalker might have left for her. When that turned up nothing, she briefly glanced over the list of systems Artoo had sent her, groaning at the sheer number of possibilities. It would take decades to check all of them, so she needed to narrow the parameters somehow. Once again, Luke’s voice seemed to echo in her ear though she knew it was her imagination.

A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, whispered the ghostly memory, and Mara exhaled softly, her eyes studying the meditation mat Luke so often used. She bit her lip and frowned; could she do it? She’d never intentionally tried to farsee on her own before. Skywalker had always been there to help when her control wavered or when she started to lose her way. How would she know what to do? As if response, another of Luke’s lessons resurfaced.

You will know ... when you are calm, at peace, passive.

“Fine,” Mara snapped at the imaginary voice, annoyed that Skywalker could irritate her even when absent. “I can do calm. Not so sure about passive though.” Once again, she could almost hear his amused laughter.

She raided the kitchen for a meal that didn’t involve ration bars and then indulged herself with the bliss of a shower using actual water before seating herself on the meditation mat. For one brief, ridiculous moment, she had the thought that the mat felt like Skywalker, as if his very presence had been burned into its fibers, but she pushed the silly notion out of her mind. I can do this, Mara told herself as she closed her eyes and focused on her breathing. I will do this…

The Force rushed into her like a tidal wave of pure awareness, causing her to wince in pain as it slammed into her still recovering psyche. A sensation of displacement struck her, as if she were in two places at the same time, and Mara grit her teeth against the discomfort which always accompanied intensive use of her birthright. If she weren’t so preoccupied on maintaining her control, she would hate Palpatine all over again for what he had done to her.

In the wake of Wayland, Skywalker had learned of Mara’s inability to access the full extent of her abilities which ultimately led to his discovery of a psychic inhibitor placed within her mind, a mental impediment which Mara hadn’t even been aware of. According to his research, this mental barrier was an ancient Sith technique dating back to at least the time of Exar Kun and Darth Revan some four thousand years ago. Developed in an era where internecine warfare among the Sith was at an all-time high, it allowed a master to control his apprentice by severely limiting what the student could do with the Force. Historically, the apprentice often turned on the master as soon as he or she learned to defeat this inhibitor. In some documented instances, this linkage allowed a Sith master to speak to his apprentice over incalculable distances, an ability Mara had taken for granted with her former master.

As she forced her perceptions beyond the limitations of her flesh, Mara felt the Sith inhibitor compress like an painful mental vise. In many ways, it reminded her of a balloon – the harder she pushed, the more it would expand to prevent her from accessing her full potential. It was frustrating that, in the most important way, she was crippled – like a bird with a broken wing or a quadruped with a fractured leg. Skywalker had managed to lessen the mental blockage in the year since Wayland, slowly siphoning it away from her mind and gradually returning to her the gift that was her birthright, but Mara hadn’t fully tested herself against the remnants which still remained. Today, however, she ignored the pain, paid no attention to the horrific pounding in her head, and pushed.

The inhibitor trembled as she hurled her will upon it, weakened, and then burst like an overfilled balloon.

Her breath caught as future events suddenly assaulted her perceptions like a tsunami of insight. Luke, standing atop a sky platform against the backdrop of a towering city with twin lightsabers in hand, one red and one green; Solo donning a uniform, his face falling into shadow as he did; Organa-Solo wearing a dark violet hood and robe which seemed tantalizingly familiar; a brown-haired man Mara vaguely recognized as one of the Rogues wielding a silver-bladed lightsaber against an unseen foe; a pair of children she suspected to be older versions of the Solo twins sobbing and clinging to one another as fire and shadow rose up around them; a filthy boy with raven-black hair staring at his bloody hands and weeping; yellow eyes which were at once unforgettable and utterly foreign to her; the rhythmic hiss of a respirator which reminded her of Vader yet at the same time didn’t; a gloved hand reaching out toward her…

It was too much. A thousand images flashed across her mind’s eye in the same moment, overwhelming her fragile control and sending her spiraling toward complete oblivion. She couldn’t remember her name, couldn’t focus on anything but the raging torrent of pain and pleasure that thundered through the fractured remnants of the psychic inhibitor that still stretched over her mind, perverting her gifts and tainting her soul. As she trembled on the brink of unconsciousness, she heard laughter, a sinister cackle which was all too familiar and she fought against the darkness which sought to swallow her soul. She would not be his slave again, would not let his evil affect her from beyond the grave, would not let this monster destroy her. Not again. Not after all having just put her life back together. She fumbled toward control, struggled against the overwhelming urge to just give in and let the emptiness take her. As if in response to her distress, twin pulsars of light seemed to abruptly flare up in the far distance, burning away some of the bitterness which clung to her mind and she reached out to them, desperate for the aid they were unconsciously providing.

With a gasp, she tore herself free. Mara found herself face down on the floor, breath coming in ragged gasps and every muscle in her body trembling. Tears sprang from her eyes but she didn’t have the strength to wipe them away. She had no idea how much time had elapsed since she had closed her eyes.

“Well,” she muttered to herself an eternity later, “that was unpleasant.” Inhaling slowly, Mara slowly forced herself back to her feet, cursing softly at her sweat-drenched clothes. Clearly, another shower was in order. She glanced at the wall chronometer and grunted; an hour had lapsed since she began meditating.

The realization something had changed within her was impossible to ignore. Everything seemed sharper, more real than previously, but Mara didn’t allow herself to believe the psychic inhibitor was actually gone. There had been times before in the last year when she and Skywalker thought it was destroyed – the first time, for example, some four weeks after Wayland when both of them passed out on her floor and woke up the following morning – but the damned thing always seemed to gradually return over time. Still, it would be a lie if she didn’t admit she hoped it was finally gone.

She could still sense the powerful Force signatures which had come to her aid in her moment of need and fought back a smile as she finally recognized the Solo twins. What is it with Skywalkers and trying to save my soul? Mara wondered with bemusement. She let herself reciprocate their mental touch and then winced at the jubilant giddiness that seemed to radiate from the two. Making a note to get the twins something special in the near future – she almost laughed at the mental image of the children wearing wrist holsters with functioning hold-out blasters on their chubby arms – Mara staggered to Luke’s personal computer and sank down into the chair before it, grimacing at how rubbery the muscles in her legs felt.

The star charts that Artoo had uploaded were still on the screen, mocking her with the sheer number of systems that fit her profile, but Mara refused to despair. Instead, she closed her eyes, reaching inward with the Force to enhance her short-term memory. It was one of the skills she’d be taught during her time as the Emperor’s Hand and had been invaluable during her career. Ignoring all of the other possible future events that had flashed before her mind’s eye, she concentrated on Luke and the dire situation he appeared to be in.

His Jedi uniform was torn, ripped and burned in dozens of places, and the exhaustion on his face seemed to age him twenty years. Though he held a red-bladed saber in his cybernetic hand, she could tell there was something wrong with the prosthesis. Shadowy figures surrounded him, all armed with scarlet lightsabers, but their faces were hazy and indistinct. In the background, Mara could see towering skyscrapers stretching out in all directions for dozens of kilometers. It almost looked like Coruscant, but on a smaller scale. Decay seemed to hang off of the buildings like mold and the orangish-yellow star was mostly hidden by pollution and fog. Eyes still closed, Mara let the Force dictate her actions as she reached toward the screen of the computer and made a selection.

Opening her eyes, she drew in a steadying breath and studied her destination for a moment before standing. Time was short, Mara realized grimly, especially if what she’d seen was going to come true.

Skywalker needed her.

hatten_jc
26 September 2008, 10:53 AM
Great work.

Rigil Kent
27 September 2008, 01:31 PM
Thanks!

CHAPTER 3

HE really needed a drink.

As he stared at his reflection in the body-length mirror, Han Solo wondered what exactly it was he had done to deserve this sort of punishment. Was it some sort of sick punishment for the numerous sins of his youth? Or did the universe just have a really sick sense of humor? His sour expression reflected only the barest hint of the confused disgust currently swimming in his stomach but he had little doubt Leia was able to tell. She was Force sensitive, after all, and even before either of them had known that, she’d been able to read his moods pretty well.

“It suits you,” his wife told him from where she rested in her repulsor-chair. Han grimaced as he smoothed away an imaginary wrinkle from the uniform’s jacket and tried to quell the stampeding rontos in his stomach. Who would have ever believed it? Him, an admiral.

An admiral.

“This has to be a bad dream,” Han muttered before turning to face his still recovering wife. She was smiling at him for a change, her delight nearly infectious. Despite the weight she had lost since her injury two months ago, she’d never looked more beautiful. Idly, Solo wondered if it was true what they always said about women loving a man in uniform.

“We do,” Leia answered his unspoken thought and he gave her a half-hearted frown. He hated it when she did that, even though he didn’t know if it was a Force thing or a wife thing. “You’ll do fine, Han,” she told him.

“I’ll turn it down is what I’ll do,” he retorted. He shot a dark look at the datapad that had accompanied the new uniform and fought down the urge to use his blaster on the damned device. Less than an hour earlier, it had arrived by special courier, informing him in that carefully worded bureau-speak all government documents used that his commission in the New Republic military had been reactivated and he was forthwith promoted to the rank of admiral, effective immediately. Command of the Fifth Fleet now fell to him and he was expected to report for duty the following morning.

Somehow, Han just knew that Fey’lya was behind this.

“You can’t turn it down,” Leia said softly and Han gave her an incredulous look. While he was glad that she was on the road to recovery and the surgery that had repaired the damage to her spinal cord had zero complications, he couldn’t believe he was hearing her correctly. There was no way in hell he was leaving her alone, not while the kid was still missing and Jade had seemingly vanished as well while chasing after Luke. “Think how it will look to the public if you do refuse to take command of the Fifth,” Leia continued, a frown on her beautiful face. “Fey’lya will be able to spin your refusal so it looks like a personal attack on him which then allows him the chance to play the wounded martyr again.”

“I don’t care what that slimy Bothan does,” Han snapped. “I’m not leaving you while you’re still injured!”

“Han.” His wife’s voice was calm and she pinned him with those brown eyes of hers that seemed capable of seeing through to his very soul. Han hated that look. “I don’t want you to go either,” Leia stated with a sigh, “but this may be for the best.” He gave her a frown but she continued before he could interrupt. “You’ve already proven yourself against Zsinj,” she pointed out, “and the military respects you a lot more than they would ever respect some bootlicker Fey’lya might try to appoint.” Leia suddenly gave a heartfelt sigh that revealed just how troubled she was. “This war is exactly the sort of thing Fey’lya needs to unite the Republic behind him,” she declared grimly.

“You’re talking about treason,” Han realized suddenly. He knelt before his wife, taking her hands in his as he met her steady gaze with his own. “Aren’t you?”

“How can it be treason,” Leia asked softly, “if he’s already the chancellor?” Something lurked behind her eyes, something disturbed and … was that guilt? Han frowned and, for the first time since his wife’s near death experience, let himself consider the situation on a larger scale than how it directly affected him.

Though many believed it of him, Han Solo was not a stupid man. Leia knew better, but Han had overheard enough of the comments from her contemporaries to realize how many of them felt like she had married below her station. It was infuriating and laughable at the same time, especially when one actually examined Solo’s personal history. He had graduated top of his class at the Imperial Academy on Carida, had manipulated Moffs and crime lords alike in various scams throughout the years, and had even once outmaneuvered Lando Calrissian in a sabaac game with the Falcon as part of the stakes, something that Han still considered to be among his crowning achievements. Early in his life, Solo had learned it was easier to manipulate someone if they believed he was all bluster and no brains, so he had cultivated a blasé, happy-go-lucky persona that resulted in most people underestimating his abilities. When he put his mind to something, there was very little he had trouble comprehending or accomplishing, even galactic politics.

The idea that Fey’lya had been behind Mon Mothma’s assassination he threw out at once; while of questionable morality, the Bothan wouldn’t dare to stoop to such actions because of the possible ramifications of being caught. No matter the reward, that level of risk simply wasn’t an option for a coward like Fey’lya. Taking advantage of a tragedy for personal political gain, regardless of the ramifications? Absolutely.

Even taking all of that into consideration, Han just couldn’t see the angle in appointing him to command the Fifth Fleet. If anything, such an appointment would only serve to enhance the public perception of Leia, Fey’lya’s chief rival in the political arena, as it promoted an idealized image of the Solo family and their dedication to the Republic. He could almost see the talking heads discussing how commendable it was that Leia Organa-Solo would send her husband off to war while she was still recovering from injuries inflicted by the Imperials. A thought occurred to Han and he narrowed his eyes. Yes, she was a political animal – one couldn’t be raised as a princess and not be one – but was she ruthless enough to arrange his reactivation and promotion just to score some points with the public?

“Leia,” he began, wondering how he could phrase the question he wanted to ask without it coming out like an accusation. Admittedly, they’d had some troubles in the last year, especially when Luke had taken a stand against continuing to be the Republic’s tame Jedi and Han backed his decision one hundred percent, but she wouldn’t go this far, would she? It all came down to trust, he realized. He trusted her, utterly and completely. If she believed that he needed to do this, then he needed to do it. No matter how much I hate it, he reflected before leaning in to give her a kiss. She was momentarily surprised, but quickly began to return it.

“Mistress Leia,” Threepio’s voice sounded from the doorway, as annoyingly prissy as ever. Barely suppressing a groan – how did that damned droid always know when to interrupt them? – Han shot the intruder a dark look while leaning back. Leia’s giggle sounded almost girlish and Solo gave her an appraising look, noting without surprise that her amusement seemed directed at the disgruntled look on his face.

“Yes, Threepio?” she asked, eyes dancing. With a grunt, Han pushed himself to his feet, wincing at the various cracks and pops accompanying the motion. When did I get so old?

“Doctor Cilghal has arrived for your nine-thirty session,” the droid announced, taking a half step back when Han gave him another glower. “And General Antilles and Colonel Celchu have arrived for Admiral Solo.”

“Wedge is here?” Han asked in mild surprise. He exchanged a look with Leia, noting that she was frowning slightly. Guess she didn’t know he was coming either.

“My torturer awaits,” she muttered under her breath in reference to Cilghal. Han almost laughed at the less than enthusiastic expression on her face, though he understood her reasoning. While the surgery that had repaired the blaster damage to her spine had been fully successful, Leia was forced to undergo extensive physical therapy to fully recover and, based on what little he’d observed, Solo knew it was anything but comfortable. “Show the doctor to the therapy room,” Leia instructed Threepio, resignation in her voice. “Han, can you-”

“Absolutely,” Solo said in anticipation of her request. He walked to the back of the repulsor chair and began pushing it toward the main living area. Wedge and Tycho were standing near the door with the latter deep in conversation with Winter; Antilles gave Han a quick nod but made no move to approach, clearly recognizing that Solo was occupied for the moment.

The ‘therapy room’ was actually a converted indoor pool area. In the wake of the Thrawn campaign and the near abduction of the twins, the Solos had moved to a slightly larger and more secure apartment, one that possessed an indoor exercise room complete with heated pool. Following Leia’s injury and subsequent surgery, Doctor Cilghal had commandeered the pool for her patient’s physical therapy regimen. She had even gone so far to replace the pool’s contents with some sort of watery compound Han had never heard of called kolto that accelerated healing much like bacta but at a slower rate, thus allowing Leia’s body to recover at a more natural pace.

“Good morning, Senator,” the Mon Calamari doctor said in greeting. As usual, she completely ignored Han’s presence, focusing her entire attention upon her patient. “How are we feeling today?” she asked.

“Cranky and sore,” Leia replied tartly, forcing Han to fight back his smile. Normally, his wife liked Cilghal but during the difficult physical therapy sessions, her temper flared at how hard the Mon Calamari pushed her.

“I’ll be in the front room if you need me,” he said unnecessarily. He’d long since learned that neither of the women wanted him present during these sessions.

“Congratulations on the promotion, Admiral,” Wedge said the moment Han reappeared in the main living area, offering his hand as he spoke. Neither Tycho nor Winter were present, but Solo didn’t give it a second thought; if past experience was any guide, the two lovers were off talking like good Alderaanians instead of acting on their feelings. Instead, Han focused on the shoulder patch Antilles was wearing.

“You’ve been assigned to the Fifth?” he asked with surprise. The last he had heard, Rogue Wing was with the First along the Corellian Corridor under Salm.

“Effective this morning, sir,” Wedge replied. Han gave him a sour look and the X-Wing pilot chuckled. “Sorry, Han,” he said with a smile. “I’ve been in briefings all day with flag officers who expect every third word to be sir or ma’am,” Antilles explained, his good cheer fading somewhat as a grimace crossed his face. “According to Command, I’m supposed to be your executive officer.”

“Which means no flight time,” Han guessed. Based on the other man’s poorly hidden flinch, Solo had hit the exhaust port. “That’s gonna change,” he decided instantly. Taking Wedge Antilles out of the cockpit seemed like a dumb idea, a mortal sin and bad planning all rolled together. “If it’s my command,” Han grumbled, “then I get to decide where you are during a battle.” He frowned. “Why did they assign you to the Fifth?” To his surprise, Wedge laughed.

“The Rogues are full of scoundrels,” Antilles pointed out with a grin, “and Command thinks an old scoundrel like you could keep us under control.”

“Less of the old please,” Han replied before shaking his head. “What part of the word ‘rogue’ do those idiots not understand?” he asked rhetorically, causing his guest to snicker.

“Oh,” Wedge said dramatically, “it gets even better.” He sighed. “They’ve assigned you the Independence as your flagship.” Solo frowned as he tried to place the name to the class of the ship. Seeing the expression, Antilles offered him a tight-lipped smile. “It’s a refit Executor-class,” he explained.

“Executor?” Han asked, his confusion only growing. As far as he knew, the only Executor-class the Republic had in its arsenal was … “You’ve got to be kiddin’ me,” he said with dawning horror. “The Lusankya?”

“Afraid so.” Wedge’s expression showed that he shared the disgust that Han was feeling. “You can just imagine how excited Tycho and Corran are,” Antilles remarked sarcastically. Solo shuddered at the thought; those two pilots had both been prisoners aboard the Lusankya when it was a private gulag under the control of the late and unlamented Ysanne Isard.

“And they renamed it?” Han pressed, horrified at the notion. When Wedge nodded, Solo felt the last of his optimism about this assignment die a brutal and miserable death. It was well known among spacers that renaming a ship after it had already been christened was the unluckiest thing that could possibly be done to it, more devastating to the ship’s good fortune than bringing a pregnant Ithorian pathfinder aboard or launching from the home port on the last day of the week. “This just keeps getting better and better,” Solo growled. He glanced in the direction of the nearby liquor cabinet; was oh-nine-thirty too early in the morning for whiskey?

“Any word on Luke?” Antilles asked softly, his eyes glancing in the direction of the therapy room as if to make sure Leia didn’t overhear his question. Better than any of the other Rogues that Luke considered friends, Wedge knew about the ongoing conflict between the two Skywalker twins. And unlike most of Rogues, he actually understood the concept of subtlety.

“Not since that last transmission from Jade before she left Coruscant,” Han replied, equally softly. He almost winced at the memory of Leia’s expression when he’d told her about enlisting the ex-Emperor’s Hand to track down Luke. Solo still wasn’t sure whether the anger or the fear had been more visible in her face and, by unspoken agreement, neither of them mentioned Jade’s name in relation to Luke’s any more. For what seemed like the billionth time, Han wondered if his wife’s resentment toward Mara was actually rooted in the fact that Leia was no longer the most important woman in Luke’s life.

Not that he’d ever actually ask her, of course. He wasn’t stupid.

Shaking his head, he forced himself to focus on the job at hand and not on the fate of his brother-in-law; if he’d learned anything about Luke over the years it was that the Jedi had a talent for surviving certain death. With a resigned sigh, Han gestured for Wedge to follow him into Leia’s office so they could begin making plans. There was a lot of work to do before they launched.

And time was running out.

|-*-|

Time had run out.

The urge to curse nearly overwhelmed him as Talon Karrde raced through the corridors of his ship, but he suppressed it with some effort. Alarms were echoing loudly through the Wild Karrde and, despite the urgency, he felt pride at how quickly his crew was responding. It was to be expected, though; in the two months since this latest flare-up of hostilities between the Imps and the Rebs began, there had been nothing but opportunities to get battle ready.

When the New Republic began launching pre-emptive assaults against Imperial targets, Talon had expected the conflict to be relatively short-lived. That had become the norm since Grand Admiral Thrawn’s death, as the Imperial Council of Moffs spent more time struggling with one another in senseless political games than they spent focusing on the New Republic. It had become a circle, with the Moffs changing the priorities and objectives of their military on nearly a daily basis, effectively neutering whatever advantages they possessed in firepower. Little by little, the more dedicated Republic forces chipped away at the Imperial power base, absorbing a system here or convincing one to defect there. With the ascension of Borsk Fey’lya to the chancellorship, this latest round of hostilities seemed like the Bothan’s desperate attempt to create a legacy for himself, one that swept away his numerous mistakes throughout the years.

Everything changed when Samuel Gillespee was killed.

Though it had been an Imperial operation that claimed the man’s life over a month ago, it had set off an entirely new battle plan. Rather than get involved in pitched pyrrhic battles that ultimately served little to no purpose apart from the senseless expenditure of military lives, the Empire began waging a proxy war against the New Republic by targeting their shipping capability. It wasn’t a new tactic – disrupting a military’s train of supplies was as old as the stars themselves – but it had an immediate effect. Unexpectedly, the smugglers who had gone legit to capitalize on the Republic’s transport needs found themselves in the crosshairs of the Empire and, unable to outrun or outgun an actual military, started dying by the thousands. To avoid that fate, many of them began selling their services to the Imperial Starfleet instead, which then prompted the Republic to shift tactics as well and begin targeting unaffiliated transports.

And suddenly, it was open war on all smugglers.

In the span of a week, Talon suffered heavy damage to his organization. The Starry Ice was captured by Imperial forces while on a legitimate cargo run to Kirima; every member of the crew had been charged with smuggling and shipped off to a detention center somewhere in the Corporate Sector. Less than a day later, the Etherway was lost with all hands when a Republic taskforce assaulted and destroyed Darknon Station, a shadowport Karrde had used for years as a waystation for his less than legal dealings. The Wild Karrde had narrowly escaped an Imperial ambush on the outskirts of the Byblos system, despite that system’s avowed neutrality in the ongoing conflict. Realizing that he was under siege from two fronts, Talon did the only reasonable thing he could do.

He ran.

For the last three days, the Wild Karrde had been on the abandoned world of Hijarna, repairing the battle damage sustained in their flight from Byblos while Talon plotted their next move. In that time, there had been no indication of pursuit, no hint that any other ships even knew this system existed.

Until now.

Arriving at the closed hatch leading to the command deck, Karrde hesitated before entering, instead forcing himself to relax so he wouldn’t appear worried before his crew. It wasn’t really necessary – everyone aboard was a veteran and would recognize he was trying to project an image of self-assuredness – but Talon did it anyway out of habit. A leader, he’d always thought, needed to appear in control at all times, especially when he wasn’t in control.

“What do we have, Aves?” Karrde demanded as he entered the bridge.

“A ship just dropped out of lightspeed at the edge of the system,” the other man replied grimly. He was leaning over the sensor board, crowding the woman operating it though neither seemed to realize it. Talon made it a point to not notice the unnecessary physical contact; the romantic relationship between Aves and Shirlee Faughn was something of an open secret aboard the Wild Karrde.

“Do we know who it is?” Talon asked and Aves shook his head, a bleak expression on his face. “If they’re not squawking,” Karrde decided, his comment referencing the transponder code on all hyperspace-capable ships, “they’re probably not friendly.”

“Probably a scout of some sort,” Aves suggested. “There’s probably a taskforce lurking just outside sensor range,” he continued. “If we burn out of here, they’ll microjump in and ambush us.”

“Point,” Karrde conceded. “Still, we better prep for emergency departure.”

“Emergency distress signal detected,” Faughn suddenly announced. Her eyes widened slightly. “It’s the Distant Rainbow!” she identified.

“Mazzic?” Talon frowned. “Can you confirm?”

“It’s the Rainbow, all right,” Faughn replied. “Kriff, she’s in a bad way. Extensive structural damage detected.”

“This could be a trap,” Aves theorized. Karrde turned it over in his head for a minute, and then made his decision.

“We’ll have to chance it,” he said. When Aves opened his mouth to argue, Talon continued. “Sentients pay for what they do and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become,” he said. At the other man’s expression, Karrde smiled. “It was something Skywalker told me the last time I was on Coruscant,” he admitted, noting with a poorly hidden smirk how Aves reacted to the Jedi’s name. “It may be a trap, but that’s a chance I’ll take if we can lend aid to a friend in need.”

The damage to the Distant Rainbow was even worse that Faughn had implied and Talon winced as they approached the shattered freighter. Crisscrossed with carbon scoring that could have only come from turbolasers, the ship that had once been Mazzic’s pride and joy looked like a floating wreck. A pair of undetonated torpedoes was still lodged in the outer hull of the Rainbow and Talon winced at sight of them.

“Survivors?” he asked softly as the Wild Karrde drew abreast of the smaller ship.

“Weak life signs on the command deck,” Faughn replied. Talon glanced once at Aves, a command in his eyes, and the other man headed toward the airlock in response to the unspoken order. Without another word, Karrde followed him.

Minutes later, he was stepping onto the ruin that had once been the Rainbow. Debris was everywhere and the stench of seared electronics was so strong that Talon briefly considered donning a rebreather mask. Some of the computer systems were still sparking and he ducked once such spray of embers as a terminal suddenly self-destructed. The door to the bridge was sealed shut and, at Karrde’s nod, Aves broke out his hand torch. In seconds, they had gained entry.

Mazzic was seated in the pilot’s chair, barely conscious but alive. In the passenger seat, his constant companion and bodyguard, Shada D’ukal, was passed out, a mask of blood covering her face. The nasally sound of her breathing seemed to indicate a broken nose and Talon noted immediately that her right arm was still oozing blood.

“Karrde?” Mazzic asked weakly, his eyes narrowed as Talon stepped closer. “I should have expected it would be you,” the Myke smuggler continued, wincing as he spoke. A wet, rasping cough stole Mazzic’s next comments and Karrde grimaced at the sound.

“Don’t worry, Mazzic,” Talon soothed. “We’re going to get you and Shada some help.”

“Take her first,” Mazzic ordered, wiping away the blood that he’d just coughed up. Karrde hesitated, and then nodded in agreement. He stepped back, getting out of Aves’ way so the other man could attend to the unconscious Shada. Mazzic’s expression was quite revealing as Aves and two medics managed to carry the woman out of the command deck, but Talon offered no comment.

“She’s going to be okay,” Karrde reassured him the moment they were alone. Mazzic almost snorted before drawing in a sharp breath. He leaned back in his chair and Talon froze at sight of the man’s injuries: Mazzic’s hand was pressing up against his stomach, barely keeping his intestines from spilling free.

“I’m not though,” the Myke revealed. “Not even bacta can fix this.”

“I’m sorry,” Karrde stated. He held up a hand to stop Aves from re-entering the small cockpit.

“Was bound to happen sooner or later,” Mazzic muttered. He nodded toward a datapad that was on top of the flight controls. “Can you give that to Shada?” he asked.

“As soon as she’s conscious,” Talon replied, pocketing the datapad without looking at it. Mazzic gave him an odd look. “No,” Karrde said in reply to the unasked question, “I’m not going to ask you what it is or what’s on it.”

“You’re a damned fool, Karrde,” Mazzic said with a bloody grin. Talon’s comlink buzzed before he could respond.

“Sir!” It was Faughn and Karrde activated the communications link quickly. “Imperial ships have entered the system!”

“Begin calculating the hyperspace jump,” Talon ordered sharply. “Stand by.” He glanced at Mazzic.

“Get off my ship,” the Myke stated. “I’ll create a distraction for you.”

“Mazzic,” Karrde began to protest but the other man cut him off.

“I’m dying,” Mazzic said flatly. “Let me decide how and when.” He coughed again, spitting up more blood. “And I owe these bastards,” he growled. Talon nodded in understanding.

“Die well, my friend,” he whispered before heading toward the airlock. Aves met him, glanced once in the direction of the Rainbow’s cockpit, and then fell into step without a word.

“What do we have?” Talon demanded as he entered the command deck of the Wild Karrde moments later. Already, he could feel the vibration of the engines as the pilot Dravis began maneuvering. Faughn replied instantly.

“A Dreadnaught-class heavy cruiser,” she announced. “They’ve already deployed fighters. Looks like TIEs.”

“Damned Imps,” Aves muttered under his breath.

“Distant Rainbow is turning,” Faughn continued as if Aves hadn’t spoken. “He’s attacking!”

And so he was. Despite the heavy damage to the freighter, it still maneuvered like a craft half its size. Engines burning bright, the Rainbow oriented toward the dreadnaught and accelerated rapidly. It flashed through the TIE formation, absorbing heavy damage from the half squadron and causing two of the starfighters to bank hard to avoid a collision. By the time the fighters had managed to get back into position, the Rainbow was already beginning its final run toward the dreadnaught’s exposed belly.

Turbolaser batteries began opening up in an attempt to destroy the freighter, but those weapon systems had been designed for use against other capital ships and simply didn’t have the tracking software for a craft as small as the Distant Rainbow. Like a ponderous sea creature, the dreadnaught began changing position in what appeared to be an attempt to evade the incoming craft. Directional thrusters fired and the sublight engines flared, causing the aged warship to begin rolling.

By then, it was already too late.

With hull crushing force, the Distant Rainbow slammed into the dreadnaught’s flight deck, vanishing instantly as the collision atomized the much smaller craft and sent burning chunks of debris spinning into the darkness. Fire erupted from the impact point as the collision punched through the magnetic containment field surrounding the otherwise open launch bay and ignited the internal atmosphere. Secondary detonations ripped through the belly of the warship as the flames enveloped the fuel cells stored on the flight deck for the TIEs and caused them to violently self-destruct. For a moment, it seemed that the entire lower half of the warship was ablaze. The dreadnaught was not destroyed or even crippled – the Rainbow had been too small to accomplish something like that – but the damage was sufficiently severe that it would prevent the craft from immediately continuing the pursuit.

Thank you, Mazzic, Talon silently saluted his fallen comrade in the half second before the Wild Karrde made the jump to lightspeed.

When Shada regained consciousness in the medbay an hour later, Karrde was there waiting for her. There seemed to be no gradual transformation from unconsciousness to alertness for her; one moment, she was out and the next she was awake. A bacta wrap encircled her head and her right arm was bound with a splint, but she still managed to exude an aura of sudden deadliness.

“Mazzic?” she asked, her gimlet eyes flashing.

“Dead,” Talon replied softly. Without pause, he offered her the datapad. “Before he died, he asked me to give this to you.” The raven-haired woman accepted the pad with her left hand and activated it. Her eyebrows climbed at what she saw.

“Do you know what this is?” she queried and Karrde shook his head.

“No,” he admitted. “But I can guess. He left you the access codes for his financial accounts, didn’t he?”

“How did-” Shada started to ask but abandoned the line of questioning abruptly while giving him a cool once-over.

“I didn’t read it,” Talon said. He couldn’t explain why he felt the need to defend himself to her but he did. She shrugged.

“Then you’re not as smart as Mazzic said you were,” she replied before offering a tight-lipped smile. “But exactly as honorable.” Karrde hesitated, unsure whether that had been a compliment or not. “Why would he do such a thing?” the woman wondered aloud, though she didn’t seem aware that she had even spoke. Talon held his tongue, suddenly unsure what to say; while he was fairly positive that Mazzic had been in love with her, he had no idea whether she reciprocated or, failing that, was even aware of Mazzic’s feelings. Karrde grimaced slightly; he’d never been good at this interpersonal relationship thing. In the end, he changed the subject.

“We’ll be in hyperspace for another twenty hours,” he told her calmly, noting that she was once again wearing a slightly shocked expression as she glanced over the datapad’s contents. “If there’s somewhere you want us to drop you off…” He trailed off, unsure what to make of the suddenly wistful yet sad expression on her face.

“No,” Shada murmured. “I have nowhere to go.” She glanced up, once more examining him with that weighing expression. Talon was suddenly uncomfortable; the last time he’d felt this way was when Skywalker was around.

“If you’re seeking employment,” Karrde stated hesitantly, “I’m sure we can come to some arrangement.” He gave her a knowing smile. “A Mistryl Shadow Guard would be quite an asset to my organization.”

“You’re surprisingly well informed, Mister Karrde,” the dark-haired woman said softly, her voice inexplicably reminding him of a blade being unsheathed.

“Forewarned is forearmed,” he quoted. “Intelligence is a weapon like any other and its application can be just as deadly as … say … the zenji needles you usually wear as hair ornaments.” She blinked but gave no other indication of surprise. “If you are amenable,” Talon offered, “I am willing to match what Mazzic was paying you.”

“And if I accept,” Shada wondered coolly, “what would my duties be?”

“Nothing more than what you provided for Mazzic,” Talon declared, flushing slightly the moment he recalled his earlier musings about her relationship with the late Myke smuggler. “Security and protection primarily,” he expounded to cover up his potential gaffe, “though I’m hopeful you won’t be very busy.”

“For now, that is acceptable,” she decided before frowning slightly. “Do you have a plan?” Shada asked, every centimeter the professional. “In regards to this war, I mean.” Karrde gave her a tight smile.

“Absolutely,” he replied. “I’m going to find the deepest, darkest hole and hide.”

|-*-|

Hiding was no longer an option.

He had been running for so long, he no longer knew what day it was. Sleep was a distant memory, something he vaguely recalled doing once or twice an eternity ago. Every muscle in his body ached so badly he no longer felt the pain and his entire body felt like one big bruise. No part of his uniform remained untouched by dirt, blood, sweat or heat. And there was something wrong with his cybernetic right hand.

Luke Skywalker was having a very bad week.

He had come to Genesia a little over a month ago at the prompting of the Force. At first, he hadn’t understood why it was so urgent he visit the planet, only that he saw himself here every time he closed his eyes to meditate. It hadn’t been like the Bespin visions when Vader was torturing Han, Leia and Chewie, but rather a sense of things falling into place. Here, he knew, he would find the source of the unease that had been plaguing him for months now.

Following his public spat with Fey’lya, he had found himself without transportation as the Bothan chancellor had retaliated by having Luke’s X-Wing impounded. Officially, it was due to the ‘needs of the service’, but Skywalker recognized the hand of a petulant loser behind the instruction. Without transport, Luke had been forced to tap into the financial resources he’d recently gained access to, accounts he’d kept secret from everyone, including his sister. He still intended to use those monies to rebuild the Order.

There was just something ironically appropriate about using Darth Vader’s secret funds to aid the Jedi.

Around him, the capital city of Genesia – Brenn, it was called – stretched out for dozens of kilometers. Towering skyscrapers climbed into the sky, disappearing into the perpetual smog that was one-half cloud, one-half pollution, and a hundred percent disgusting. Once, the city may have appeared respectable but centuries of abuse and neglect had turned it into a haven of criminals of all types. The worst of the offenders were those who had been elected into office, more often than not on a platform promising reform and assistance to the sentients unable to make ends meet in the collapsing planetary economy.

In the far distance, an alarm began sounding, warning of impending precipitation. Silently, Luke cursed as he forced his already exhausted muscles to move a little bit faster; to a Tatooine native, the idea that someone could fear rain seemed inconceivable. On the planet he had grown up on, rainfall was seen as a miracle.

On Genesia, it was lethal.

It hadn’t always been like that; once, Genesia had been a beautiful and pristine planet of hills and rivers. All that changed under the Trade Federation during the Clone Wars and, by the time of Luke’s birth, the planet had become so heavily industrialized that it seemed its primary export was pollution. Imperial control only worsened the condition, poisoning the atmosphere so badly that, when the toxic clouds sporadically burst, they drenched the city with a virulent acid rain that ate through everything.

A flicker in the Force gave Luke his first warning of pursuit and he started limping forward more quickly, wondering when he had injured his leg and why he hadn’t noticed it before. Underneath his weight, the skybridge groaned, reminding him of the previous day when he’d watched the acid rain eat through exposed durasteel in a matter of seconds. Already, the city-wide shield systems were activating in response to the precip alarms, but the generators for the protective fields were so old and poorly maintained the locals rarely trusted them for longer than a few minutes.

The door at the end of the skybridge was stuck – melted by the rain, he noticed – and Luke fumbled for his lightsaber, grimacing at how clumsy his fingers had become. He concentrated on maintaining a zero presence in the Force as he ignited the blade and sliced into the metal; keeping a low profile had become a priority in the last week, especially once he learned that his hunters were tracking him through the Force.

Just beyond the ruined door was a wide room. It was octagonal-shaped, with hallways extending out in multiple directions from each of the sides. In the very center of the room was an open shaft that had presumably been intended to be a turbolift shaft before construction of the building was abandoned when the economy collapsed. At a glance, Luke could tell that it went all the way to the roof and even that was open to the sky.

Once again, he felt the slight tremor in the Force warning him of the hunters’ approach. They had found him. Sighing, Luke knelt and focused on centering himself for the coming encounter. There was no sense in trying to hide anymore, not since they were already on their way. He inhaled deeply, allowing the warm currents of the Force revitalize muscles pushed far beyond exhaustion.

Thunder rolled out of the sky, rattling the incomplete skyscraper and echoing loudly through the hollow shell of a building. The absence of any civilians had been the principal reason Luke had chosen this location, given his hunters’ lack of concern over collateral damage. A week ago, when they first attacked, he had been in a crowded cantina.

Luke was the only sentient who walked out alive.

Outside, rain began to fall. The skyline abruptly lit up as the protective shields reacted to the falling acid, resulting in what could be mistaken for a pyrotechnics display. If one didn’t know better, it could almost be a beautiful sight. Another nudge in the Force caused Luke to shift his position fractionally; seconds later, a steady stream of the toxic rain began falling down the empty turbolift shaft as a shield system failed.

Once again, Luke minimized his presence in the Force as he sensed the approach of his hunters. He rose from the kneeling position and examined his right hand with a slight frown. The fingers of that hand twitched randomly and he grimly acknowledged that it wouldn’t be of much use. He shrugged as he readied his saber in his left hand. That would make it more difficult, but there wasn’t much he could do about that.

Without a sound, the hunters filed into the room through the same entrance he had used. There were five of them this time, two more than had attacked him the previous three times. One of them was already hideously disfigured, his face half melted from intensive exposure to the toxic rain. Silently, they arrayed themselves in a semi-circle around him, igniting their scarlet lightsabers as they moved. Luke exhaled softly, letting the breath carry away his fear and concern. He recognized each of these sentients, though they were all long dead.

They were Jedi Masters.

Or, more accurately, clones of dead Jedi Masters. There were two Windus, a Fisto, a Koth, and an Unduli. It was one of the Windus who was suffering from the rain-burn, making it easier to distinguish between the two. All were wearing dark robes, as if it were some sort of uniform. There wasn’t a trace of emotion on their faces; even the burned Windu displayed no hint of pain.

“Hello there,” Luke said with a forced smile. “I was wondering when you would show up.”

There was no response. Sighing, Luke inhaled slowly before thumbing on his lightsaber. The emerald beam flared into existence with a snap-hiss and he brought it up into a ready position. Closing his eyes, he reached out to the Force.

And the clones attacked.

Even as they leaped forward, Luke was reacting. With the Force supercharging his muscles, he leaped backwards, half-twisting in mid-air to avoid a sudden saber stroke from the Fisto clone. Pain and exhaustion were forgotten as he landed in a crouch. With a gesture, he sent a wave of the Force into the closest of the clones – Koth and Unduli – knocking them sprawling. The two Windus were suddenly upon him, their sabers humming as they attacked, but Luke side-stepped one of the blows and parried the other. He kicked out abruptly and the attack slowed the burned Windu long enough for Luke to twist into a spinning somersault that carried him clear of the two.

The Fisto clone sprang toward him but Luke thrust out his right hand, sending another pulse of the Force at his foe. In mid-air, the clone rebounded against an invisible barrier and flew backwards several meters. He struck the floor, bounced and rolled into the turbolift shaft.

And directly into the stream of toxic rain.

By then, Koth and Unduli had recovered their footing and leaped toward Luke. He jumped back and up, narrowly avoiding the two Windus who were trying to flank him. His feet hit the wall and Luke pushed off again, flipping over the burned Windu who had turned to face him. Before the clone could reorient himself again, Luke’s emerald blade bisected him from shoulder to thigh.

A microsecond’s warning was all he got and Luke threw himself forward as the Koth clone’s saber flashed overhead, slicing through Skywalker’s outer robe and scorching the flesh below. Luke hit the ground hard, but pushed himself into a painful roll that carried him just out of range of the Windu’s attacking saber. Momentum carried him away but Luke used the Force to increase his velocity, causing himself to side-flip off the floor and onto his feet. It was just in time too, as the Unduli clone’s saber crashed into his with terrific force, causing him to stagger back half a step. With his malfunctioning right hand, Luke punched the clone in the face. In the half-second that she reeled back, he angled his wrist up and used the Force to trigger the hold-blaster Mara had given him several months earlier currently strapped to his forearm.

The clone toppled, her face ablaze.

The two remaining clones leaped forward, scarlet blades flashing, and Luke twisted away from them both. He gripped the Unduli clone’s body with the Force and sent it tumbling through the air toward the two, fouling their recoveries just long enough to him to lunge forward. His blade sliced into the chest of the Koth clone with only the briefest of resistance.

His danger sense flared and Luke dove backwards, letting go of his saber as he barely avoided the overhand chop delivered by the last Windu clone. Skywalker hit the ground with a grunt, rolled and sprang by to his feet as the clone recovered and turned toward him.

It was his last mistake.

As the clone tensed to leap, Luke reached out and gripped his still ignited saber with the Force, ripping it free from the corpse and pulling it toward himself. The Windu clone didn’t even look at the tumbling weapon, so focused was he on Luke, and never saw the blade that severed his spine. He died as he lived, without a sound.

With a gasp, Luke let himself relax slightly. His legs buckled and he nearly let himself collapse, but an all too familiar feeling through the Force caused him to groan out loud.

“Blast!” he snarled as he limped toward where his saber had fallen. “How many of you are there?” This time, he could feel four of them, approaching from the south. Another trio was to the north and they too were suddenly angling toward him. Yet another trio was west. Exhaustion pushed down on him and, for a moment, Luke Skywalker seriously contemplated giving up. He was too tired to fight, too exhausted to win, too outnumbered to survive. Despair seemed to shroud his mind…

And in that moment, he felt her.

Mara’s Force signature caressed him like a warm wind, washing away the fear and desolation that had been swallowing his soul. She was close, Luke realized, and on her way. He started to grin stupidly as he attached one of the clone sabers to his belt. Somehow, someway, she’d known he needed help and had come for him

Now, all he had to do was survive until she got here.

It was an easy choice which direction to take; in normal circumstances, he’d head toward the larger group in the hopes that he could drive their strength inward and use it against them, but with his entire body on the brink of collapse, that wasn’t an option. Avoidance wasn’t just the best option at the moment, it was the only one.

The eastern corridor led toward another skybridge, but this one opened up into a wide landing platform open to the sky. Luke grimaced as he studied the falling rain and then glanced at the platform. The shield over it was sparking and flickering as the toxic precipitation reacted with the protective field, but there was no telling how long it would remain online. Should he risk it? A human body could survive short exposure to the acid raid …

“This day just keeps getting better and better,” Luke muttered as he felt the familiar tremor. Four of the hunters were close and would be here in minutes. He almost giggled as a Han-like thought occurred to him: if I’m gonna die, I’m gonna take you bastards with me!

He headed to the sky platform.

Standing in the center of the landing pad, he began examining the clone saber for some indication of origin. Unfortunately, it was completely devoid of any markings or personalization that Luke could tell. It had a good balance but seemed like it had been manufactured by a droid, not a living being. Every saber Luke had touched before had an echo in the Force, as if a resonance of its previous owner had been imprinted on the weapon at the atomic level. Not this one.

Glancing up, he frowned at the proximity of the approaching quartet. Luke’s frown deepened as he studied his twitching hand and he made a decision. Fitting the clone saber into his right hand, he reached into the limb with the Force…

And squeezed.

The actuators in the hand twisted under the pressure, locking the hand in a tight grip around the saber. Luke took several practice swings with the ignited blade, before nodding in satisfaction. The hand would probably have to be completely replaced but at least it wasn’t twitching any more. With a flourish, he drew his personal blade with his left hand and ignited it, waiting for the newest batch of clones to arrive.

He didn’t have to wait long.

The hunters approached in single file, crimson blades already ignited, and Luke felt his stomach lurch at sight of their identical faces. Oh no, he lamented, horror tightening his throat. Not again. Anyone but him!

Obi-Wan Kenobi.

It wasn’t the Ben that he’d known, but a younger version that Luke had seen in historical documents from both before and during the Clone Wars. Two of them had beards, two didn’t. It was such an oddly jarring image that Luke blinked. Why were two of them bearded? Did it mean something?

Without warning, the four sprang forward, sabers flashing, and Luke did the same. He ducked under one of the swings, kicking out as he straightened, and brought the twin blades together like a pair of scissors. Only a lurching backwards stumble prevented the clone from losing his head, but it accomplished Luke’s goal: the clone collided with the two beardless clones and complicated their footwork.

The remaining bearded clone – Luke’s exhausted mind hysterically classified him as Obi-Two – came at him with a wild overhand chop that Skywalker parried away with the twin blades. With the clone off-balance, Luke let his momentum carry him into a lethal spin that sliced Obi-Two into three meaty chunks.

Luke!

The Force cry was all the warning he needed, and Skywalker leaped back and away in the half-second before the Second Chance roared into view, turrets already tracking the hostiles. Even as Luke jumped free of the killing zone, the Chance’s guns began barking, blasting apart the remaining three clones with brutal efficiency. The ramp on the YT-2400 was opening as it hovered over the sky platform and Luke half-stumbled into the ship.

The ship was climbing into the sky even before he was fully inside, the ramp sliding shut so quickly that Luke nearly lost his foot. He deactivated both sabers and awkwardly attached his personal one to his belt one-handed. Muscles trembling, he limped toward the cockpit.

As he expected, Mara was at the pilot’s station but Luke blinked in surprise at the sight of Khabarakh in the co-pilot’s chair.

“Start computing the jump, Artoo,” Mara ordered abruptly and Luke studied the starfield beyond the cockpit with fatigued eyes. How did they get into orbit so quickly?

“Compliance,” a mechanical-sounding voice responded to Jade’s instruction and Luke glanced around for the origin. Artoo wasn’t here. “Estimated two point seven minutes until coordinates computed,” the voice sounded again and this time, Luke’s exhausted brain realized that it was emerging from speakers. “Multiple fighter craft on approach vector. They will not reach weapons range before hyperspace coordinates set.”

“Good,” Mara said, half-turning in her seat to give Luke a glance. “Kriff,” she muttered. “You look like hell! Sit down before you fall down!”

Luke obeyed.

Immediately, he knew it was a mistake as the accumulated fatigue, pain and stress of the last week conspired to drop a very heavy building on his shoulders. His eyes drooped closed for a second, then snapped open when he felt a hand on his shoulder. Mara was kneeling in front of him, her features reflecting her concern. Khabarakh wasn’t there anymore and the starfield had vanished only to be replaced by a swirling vortex of blue that was strangely hypnotic.

“Hey,” she said softly. A medkit was in her hand and Luke frowned. Where did she get that? Even more importantly, when did they jump to hyperspace?

“Hey,” Luke replied, his brain too muddy to formulate a more coherent statement.

“Who were they?” Mara asked as she examined his right hand with a frown. Luke found himself wishing she wouldn’t frown so much.

“I wish you wouldn’t frown so much,” he said, surprising both of them. That hadn’t been what he wanted to say. “Jedi Masters,” he muttered in response to her question.

“Like C’baoth?” she questioned, consulting a handheld medcomp as she spoke.

“Exactly like him,” Luke replied. He wished she would smile more. She had a pretty smile. “I killed Ben,” he grumbled. “So many times...”

“Ben? As in Kenobi?” Mara asked and Luke nodded. Dammit, she was frowning again. Just one smile, that’s all he was asking for. Not a smirk but an actual smile. “So someone has genetic samples of Jedi Masters and some Spaarti cylinders?” she asked rhetorically. Luke tried to nod but couldn’t work up the strength. “Shavit, that’s bad.”

“Gotta stop ‘em,” Luke muttered, his words slurring together. “It’s not right to clone dead people.” He sighed heavily and felt a second house join the first one on his shoulders. “Don’t wanna kill Ben no more,” he told her sadly. Mara nodded in understanding.

“I know,” she told him. “I’ll help you, okay?” Luke felt his tenuous hold on consciousness slipping and focused on staying awake. It was Mara’s fault, of course. For the first time in a week, he actually felt safe enough to rest and his body was demanding that he do that very thing.

“’kay.” The universe tilted around him and Luke blinked it away. When he opened his eyes again, Mara was giving him one of those looks, the kind Leia sometimes gave him when he accidentally said something unbelievably sappy to her. Had he said something to Mara?

“Its okay, Luke,” she said softly. “You’re safe now.”

And then, she smiled.

Rigil Kent
29 September 2008, 09:19 AM
CHAPTER 4

THERE was every reason to smile.

Hands clasped together at the small of his back, Admiral Gilad Pellaeon paced slowly around the holographic tactical display buried deep within the bowels of Allegiance. His steps were slow and measured, so he would not appear hurried or worried, no matter what he was actually feeling. Appearance was all important in a combat engagement like this; if he appeared concerned or overly excited, it would show on his face and the combat controllers who relayed his instructions to the rest of the fleet would either begin to worry or become sloppy in their duties, convinced that the battle was all but won. The ship captains would note the sort of emotions those planners were experiencing when they received their instructions and would pass it on to their crews. In an engagement such as this, fear and overconfidence were contagions that had to be controlled or all was lost.

Despite his innate sense of decorum, however, Gilad found himself struggling to keep his features from revealing the giddiness currently threatening to spoil his poise. It took every gram of his self-control to maintain the stern expression he always wore during a combat operation such as this one. If he cracked a smile though, he somehow doubted the junior officers manning the relay stations around the holographic display could fault him: it wasn’t every day, after all, when everything went as planned.

The fleet currently arrayed against Pellaeon’s battle group was considerable: two Mon Calamari MC-80 star cruisers, a trio of captured Imperator-class star destroyers, and two older assault frigates that appeared to have been refit from Dreadnaught-class cruisers. Spearheading the taskforce was Admiral Solo’s flagship, the renamed Lusankya. Squadrons of A-Wings, B-Wings and X-Wings swarmed around the fleet like angry insects, though these insects could – if not contained – kill a capital ship.

Against the might of the battle group under Gilad’s command, however, it seemed completely inadequate. From the Allegiance, Pellaeon commanded an armada of ten star destroyers, each supported by a trio of Carrack-class light cruisers. Six of the surviving dreadnaughts captured from the Katana fleet over a year earlier only added to the firepower currently arrayed against the so-called Fifth Fleet.

There would be no escape for the Rebels this time.

“Chimera and Inexorable in position, Admiral,” one of the combat controllers announced and Pellaeon grunted in response. The holographic representations of the star destroyers in question were flashing rapidly, an indication that they were still uploading new telemetry data to the Allegiance, and Gilad swallowed the urge to curse at the sloppiness of Chimera’s maneuvers. Now was not the time to chastise her commander, he reminded himself. And besides, he was no longer the captain of that venerable ship.

That thought hurt more than it should.

This was the fifth major engagement against Solo’s Fifth Fleet in the last two weeks, though it was the first one in which Imperial forces were the aggressors. From almost the moment he assumed command, Solo had changed the tempo of the war. Given his background, it wasn’t a surprise that the ex-smuggler turned admiral abandoned the low-intensity proxy war against Imperial logistical lines. What was a surprise, though, was the nature of the war plan the Fifth Fleet promptly implemented: in a pair of lightning strikes that caught the defenders napping, Solo’s battle group drove deep into Imperial-controlled territory and captured two systems, encountering only the slightest of resistance. Gilad shouldn’t have been surprised at the boldness of the plan – there was nothing in Solo’s personality profile to indicate the man had ever suffered from a lack of confidence and, as a Corellian, he was certainly brash enough to to come up with such audacious battle plans – but the swiftness in which the Fifth rallied behind their new commander still came as something of a shock.

Nearly as bad as Solo’s presence was the reassignment of Rogue Wing to the Fifth, especially when Antilles’ group began systematically ripping apart every single TIE squadron they encountered. Imperial casualties were inordinately high, forcing Gilad to relocate his own elite starfighter wing from Bastion over the vocal complaints of the Moff Council. Thus far, the 181st Starfighter Group hadn’t had the effect he would have liked them to have, but then, they had only encountered the Rogues once during the last engagement.

“Send to all ships,” Gilad ordered as he finished his latest circuit around the massive hologram, “engage at will.” A frown crossed the admiral’s face as he observed the unusual maneuvers being undertaken by the Rebel fleet; if he didn’t know better, he’d almost believe that Solo was planning on attacking with his sorely outclassed battle group. Abruptly, his eyes narrowed: the Corellian fool was attacking.

With the renamed Lusankya at the very tip of the flying wedge, Solo’s fleet accelerated toward the coreward edge of the Imperial formation in what appeared to be a suicidal end run. Already, the Rebel starfighters were engaging the TIEs and the holo-display came alive with flashing lights indicating damaged or destroyed craft. Pellaeon’s breath caught as he realized the star destroyer that would absorb the brunt of this assault: Chimera.

“Gorgon to reinforce Chimera,” Gilad ordered after a moment of thought. “Send to Stormhawk and Inexorable: Marg Sabl closure maneuver around Chimera and Gorgon. Send to Chimera: begin tactical withdrawal.” Pellaeon paced around the holographic display again, frowning again as he studied the abnormal maneuvers of Solo’s fleet. At first glance, it appeared to be a haphazard formation, one that implied sloppiness on the part of the fleet commander, but looking at it now, Gilad could see that it was anything but a mistake. “Belay those orders!” he snapped sharply, suddenly recognizing the threat lurking behind the abnormal formation.

By then, it was already too late.

A squadron of B-Wings abruptly wheeled around and raced into the gap of the battle line left by Gorgon’s maneuver to aid Chimera, abandoning their attack runs in order to spew a steady stream of proton torpedoes at the momentarily exposed Gorgon. Dozens of warheads slammed into the exposed aft of the star destroyer with brilliant explosions that momentarily dazzled the holographic display. Under such an intense destructive yield, shield failure was almost instantaneous. The sublight engines of the Imperator-class star destroyer flared brightly and died as even more torpedoes slammed into them, detonating with hull crushing force. Inertia kept the warship moving, but it was vulnerable and exposed. The twin assault frigates suddenly pounced, altering course in radical maneuvers as their turbolaser batteries began ripping into the unprotected star destroyer.

Unprotected, but not helpless. The crippled Gorgon’s retaliatory fire ravaged the smaller frigates, shattering one of them completely and heavily damaging the other. By then, though, one of the Rebel star destroyers had reached optimal weapons range and began unleashing its own considerable firepower on the unshielded Gorgon. It was only a matter a time before the Imperial warship died and already, escape pods were being launched.

Gritting his teeth, Pellaeon mentally saluted his Corellian adversary for the unexpected maneuver. For the first time, he acknowledged that Zsinj’s defeat obviously hadn’t been a fluke brought on by overconfidence and abject incompetence. Still, the crippling of one star destroyer would only delay the inevitable; Solo was outgunned and outclassed. Even as the Gorgon was pounded into submission, the rest of Gilad’s fleet was encircling the Rebels. At this rate, Allegiance wouldn’t even need to get involved.

“Admiral!” Lieutenant Petothel called out from the far side of the hardened room. At Pellaeon’s glance, the woman continued. “Priority signal from Bastion! They’re under attack!”

Gilad’s blood ran cold. He half-ran to where the lieutenant stood, abandoning his careful image of poise in his urgency.

“Have you confirmed?” he demanded sharply. The muted worry in her eyes gave Pellaeon pause and, a moment later, he recalled that her records indicated she had a husband and child on Bastion.

“Sir, I-” she started to say but broke off when her console began chirping. “Incoming transmission!” Petothel identified and hit the ‘receive’ button. Instantly, the nearby hologram pod crackled to life and a life-sized image flickered into view. Gilad recognized the man immediately: Grand Moff Ardus Kaine, one of the most powerful members of the Council on Bastion. To say the man looked worried was an understatement.

“Pellaeon!” the image of Kaine nearly bellowed. “We’re under attack! Dozens of star destroyers and MC-80s have dropped out of lightspeed!”

Anger pulsed within Pellaeon then, nearly washing away his common sense with its power. He shot a quick glance at the tactical display, suddenly realizing why the Corellian ex-smuggler hadn’t tried to punch his way out and flee at earliest opportunity.

This entire engagement was a distraction.

“Acknowledged, sir,” he said tightly before turning back toward the officers standing around the display, awaiting his instructions. Grimacing, Pellaeon gave the order no fleet commander ever wanted to give.

“Send to all ships,” Gilad said calmly, “immediate retreat. Emergency recall to Bastion.”

For a heartbeat, the ensigns and lieutenants standing around the tactical display hesitated and Pellaeon felt their surprised eyes on him. Gilad’s expression darkened at their delay and they sprang into action, quickly relaying the instruction to all ships. Almost instantly, he could see the fleet responding on the holo-display as they began maneuvering for an escape vector. The small dots representing TIEs rapidly changed direction and raced back toward their mother ships as the capital ships began reorienting away from the Rebels.

“We’re on our way, sir,” Pellaeon added to the image of Kaine. With an almost regal nod, the Moff ended the transmission. “Send to bridge,” Gilad said, this time directing his comments to Lieutenant Petothel. “Set intercept course for Rebel flagship. We’ll draw their fire while the rest of the fleet evacuates.”

“Yes, sir,” the lieutenant responded crisply.

“Is that wise, Admiral?” The emotionless voice of Major Torul nearly caused Gilad to jump and he shot the ex-storm commando a dark look. It wasn’t a surprise that the major was present; as the commander of Pellaeon’s security detachment, Torul went almost everywhere with him since Gilad’s unexpected promotion to admiral in the wake of the failed Rebel assassination attempt. What was a surprise was how easily the younger man could fade into the background and virtually vanish. “By putting Allegiance into the engagement zone like this, you’re endangering your life,” the major continued. He wasn’t wearing his helmet today, but somehow managed to appear even more lethal without it.

“It is standard procedure,” Gilad pointed out. “Allegiance is a dreadnought, capable of sustaining heavy damage.” Not for the first time, he wondered why he was so willing to explain these sorts of things to Torul. Perhaps it was because the major saved his life?

“With respect, sir,” Torul hissed, “it’s risky and unnecessary.”

Pellaeon gave the holographic display another look before exhaling bitterly. It was risky and unnecessary. If Solo acted like he had in the previous engagements, he would order his forces to stand down the moment they confirmed the Imperial withdrawal wasn’t a tactical ploy. He nodded grimly.

“Lieutenant Petothel,” he stated calmly, “send to bridge: belay intercept course.” The woman obeyed with a sharp nod and Pellaeon gave his bodyguard a fierce glower. “Don’t ever question my orders in front of junior officers again,” Gilad said softly, his voice pitched for Torul’s ears only. He leveled a hard stare at the younger man but wasn’t surprised when the major didn’t react.

“My job is to protect your life, sir,” Torul replied, equally soft. His eyes might as well have been cybernetic implants for all the warmth they reflected. “Even if that means questioning your orders, Admiral.” The onetime storm commando offered a bleak smile that didn’t have any trace of actual human emotion behind it. “In the future,” he offered, “I’ll be more discreet.”

“In the future,” Gilad corrected, “you will be more discreet.” He stalked away from the commando, glowering at holographic display as he tried to comprehend how he could have been outmaneuvered so easily. His instincts had told him this was too easy yet he hadn’t listened to them. Why? A dark thought occurred to him then: was Skywalker within the Rebel battle group? Pellaeon had seen firsthand the effect a powerful Force user could have on a fleet action when Thrawn enlisted the C’baoth clone and Gilad couldn’t help but to wonder if perhaps Skywalker was now doing the same by clouding the admiral’s judgment with those unnatural abilities of his. Perhaps the highly publicized breach between the Jedi and the Rebel leadership had just been part of a greater plan to lure the Empire into a false sense of security?

The holographic image representing the Stormhawk abruptly vanished from the tactical display, an indication that the star destroyer had made the jump to lightspeed. Almost immediately, the Rebel battle group began pulling back to regroup, thus allowing Pellaeon’s fleet to make good their retreat without further conflict. It was another thing that set Solo apart from Imperial commanders: standard military doctrine called for a continued harassment of the retreating force for as long as possible so as to inflict maximum damage.

Chimera limped out of the engagement zone, flanked by the Inexorable and two of the smaller Carrack-class cruisers that served as picket ships. To Gilad’s disgust, Gorgon was lost; escape pods were launching from the star destroyer nonstop as internal explosions ravaged the mighty warship. It was small consolation that both of the Rebel assault frigates were beyond salvage or that the Rebel star destroyer responsible for Gorgon’s state had suffered heavy damage as well.

“All hands, stand by for lightspeed,” a disembodied voice warned from concealed speakers.

Forty seconds later, a subtle shudder vibrated the deck plates as Allegiance made the jump to hyperspace.

|-*-|

With a flicker of pseudomotion, the last of the Imperial star destroyers made the transition to lightspeed but Han Solo couldn’t tear his eyes from the slow self-destruction of the second assault frigate.

Around him, alarms were still blaring as the crew raced to combat the battle damage inflicted upon the Independence during the fight, but Han’s attention was riveted on the distant frigate slowly breaking apart. Even in death, he realized with horrified disgust, the graceful-looking ship retained its beauty. Great gouts of flame could be seen as fires raged on all decks and the dorsal solar fins slowly broke free of the once mighty craft. Mere seconds remained before the engine core went critical.

“Get to the escape pods,” Han urged, balling his hands tightly into fists as he leaned toward the main viewport. “Get to the escape pods!” he repeated, sensing rather than seeing Chewbacca’s worried glance in his direction. As in defiance of Han’s pleading, the assault frigate violently exploded, vanishing instantly in a fierce ball of fire that sent debris tumbling through the void.

There were no escape pods.

“There was nothing you could do, Han,” Chewbacca pointed out but Solo ignored him. Five thousand sentients, dead in an instant because he had failed them. He glanced to where the first assault frigate had once been and silently amended that casualty count upward.

“Mission accomplished, sir,” Commander Loran announced as he approached, still wearing the Grand Moff uniform he had donned moments earlier. The Wraith Squadron commander was peeling off the prosthetic disguise he’d used to impersonate Ardus Kaine and his eyes glittered with satisfaction at a job well done.

“I’m not going to ask where you got the uniform,” Han began, eyes never leaving the shattered debris that had been the frigate Price of Duty. He hoped the ship’s name hadn’t been an omen. “But I would like to know how you were able to fool the Allegiance’s comm. officers,” Solo added. Loran’s smile was broad.

“Trade secret, sir,” the onetime holovid star replied smugly. Han’s expression darkened slightly and he gave Chewbacca a glance. Recognizing Solo’s intent, the Wookiee crossed his arms and growled softly, baring his fangs in an unmistakably intimidating manner. The Wraith Squadron commander gave him a startled, wide-eyed look.

“I’m afraid I must insist,” Han said softly, his voice hard and cold. “I’d hate for Chewie to lose his temper.” As if on cue, the Wookiee growled again and began cracking his knuckles. Loran visibly swallowed.

“We have an operative on the Allegiance,” the commander answered, frowning as he spoke. He glanced over his shoulder, as if to make sure no one could hear his words. “She’ll need to be extracted now…”

“We?” Han repeated. Anger began swimming in his stomach and he fought against the urge to slug the younger man.

“Wraith Squadron,” Loran expounded. “I’m sorry we didn’t tell you, Admiral,” he apologized, expression remorseful, “but my superiors in Intelligence didn’t think you needed to know.”

For a long moment, Han was silent. The Wraith Squadron commander shifted uneasily as the moment stretched out and even Chewie gave Han a sidelong look of concern.

“Look out there,” Solo ordered softly, “and tell me what you see.”

“Sir?” Loran was confused and didn’t try to hide it.

“I said look out there!” Han nearly snarled. He grabbed the commander by the arm and half-dragged him to the viewport. “There,” Solo said, pointing to the wreckage that had once been Price of Duty. “And there,” he snapped, shifting his aim to the remains of the other destroyed ship, Tyrant’s Bane. They had been sister ships, with crews drawn mostly from Mon Mothma’s homeworld Chandrila; Han had liked both of their captains immensely. “Do you have any idea what the crew complement is on one of those ships?” he demanded.

“No, sir,” Loran replied meekly.

“Look it up,” Solo said angrily before letting go of the man’s arm. “And then double it. That’s the number of sentients who died today because I didn’t need to know.” The younger man recoiled from the comment, a sick expression suddenly appearing on his face.

“Sir, I-” Loran started to say but Han spoke over him.

“You are dismissed, Commander,” he said harshly. When the younger man hesitated, Chewbacca dropped a hairy paw on his shoulder.

“You should leave,” the Wookiee said flatly, “before I lose my temper.”

Loran left.

“You were pretty hard on him,” Chewbacca remarked a few moments later. His comment was soft, pitched only for Solo’s ears.

“Not as hard as I’m going to be on those twerps in Intelligence,” Han growled. It didn’t surprise him in the slightest that Drayson and his cronies at New Republic Intelligence kept something like this from him; not providing the fleet commander with a full overview of all assets on hand was something so staggeringly stupid that only a group of spooks could come up with it and think it was a good idea. Well, Han thought darkly, they don’t call it No Real Intelligence for nothing.

“It’s more than that, isn’t it?” Chewie asked, his words causing Solo to grimace slightly. He should have known the Wookiee wouldn’t let it go.

“Admiral,” a feminine voice called out, rescuing him from an uncomfortable conversation he didn’t want to have, and Han turned his attention to the speaking officer. A few years younger than him, Captain Kaiya Adrimetrum had served with Judder Page’s commandos before transferring to fleet operations. How she ended up as the commanding officer of Independence Han didn’t know. At his look, the dark-haired woman continued. “A single Imperial dreadnaught is still in-system, sir,” she stated and Han blinked in surprise. Without comment, he followed her to the security foyer and the waiting communications/sensors arrays within, Chewbacca trailing behind him like a giant furry shadow.

“Incoming transmission,” a comm.-tech announced as they approached. The Bith pressed a button on his console and a life-sized hologram flickered into existence, coalescing into an image of a striking woman wearing an Imperial uniform with captain’s rank. Solo felt his stomach lurch uncomfortably when he recognized her.

“This is Captain Natasi Daala of the Imperial dreadnaught Redemption,” the hologram stated calmly, “to New Republic fleet. We do not have hostile intent. Repeat, we do not have hostile intent.” There appeared to be no trace of concern on the woman’s face but that didn’t surprise Han; Nat had always been cool under even the most intense pressure. “We are requesting permission to conduct search-and-rescue operations for Imperial pilots.”

“That’s pretty brave of her,” Chewbacca commented and Adrimetrum nodded in agreement.

“No, it isn’t,” Han replied grimly. “She knows exactly what she’s doing.” He exhaled in frustration. “She always does,” he added, drawing a curious look from the Wookiee that Solo ignored. Instead, he stepped onto the holotransmitter and waited until it lit up to indicate that it was transmitting his image.

“This is Admiral Solo to Redemption,” he said flatly. “Permission granted to conduct rescue operations.” A sudden idea occurred to him and he went with it. “Rogue Squadron will provide you with close-in support,” Han added, knowing Daala would recognize his lack of trust for her in the ‘helpful’ assistance. It wasn’t entirely intimidation tactics though; with Lieutenant Horn in the cockpit, the Rogues had the best chance of detecting any subterfuge on Daala’s part after all. “General Antilles, you have the ball.” Without further instruction, Solo stepped off the transmit platform and glanced to Adrimetrum. “Inform all group commanders I want a full combat assessment in one hour.”

“Aye, sir.”

Chewbacca followed him to the office set aside for his use without comment, but Han knew the Wookiee was just waiting for the right moment to resume their conversation, no matter how badly Solo didn’t want to have it. The moment the door slid shut behind them, Chewie spoke.

“Are you going to start talking,” the Wookiee queried, crossing his arms as he did, “or do I have to rough you up a little first?”

“Talk about what?” Han asked as he activated the tactical display on his desk. Instantly, a holographic display of the entire battle group snapped into existence and Solo spent an unnecessarily long moment studying it.

“Don’t try to snow me, Han,” Chewbacca growled, a hint of actual anger leaking into the Wookiee’s voice. “It doesn’t work.”

“It never did,” Solo muttered. He sighed and gave his old friend a frown. “What the hell am I doing here, Chewie?” he asked rhetorically. When the Wookie hesitated, Han continued. “I’m not a fleet commander!” He gestured sharply at the hologram slowly orbiting his desk. “Pellaeon proved it here! We should all be dead!”

“But we’re not,” the Wookiee rumbled. “The fleet respects you, Han. They’ll follow you all the way to hell if you ask them to.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Han replied. “I’ve got no business leading these people, not against a man like Pellaeon.” With a grunt, he collapsed into the nearest chair and glowered at the hologram as if he could find his answers there. “An ex-smuggler against a man who was eating, drinking and breathing tactics when I was still in diapers,” Solo muttered. “Explain to me how that’s a good idea.”

“Do you want my opinion?” Chewbacca asked and Han shot him an annoyed look.

“What kind of stupid question is that?”

“You have a tendency to ignore my perfectly reasonable suggestions,” the Wookiee remarked with a shrug. Han opened his mouth to defend himself and then quickly shut it at his old friend’s amused look. Memories of far too many instances where he done just that came to mind and Solo smirked, wondering if he and the Wookiee were thinking of the same things.

“Suggest away then,” he remarked.

“You’re not a conventional officer, Slick,” Chewie immediately pointed out, using an old nickname of Han’s that had turned into the Wookiee’s private joke. Solo had never found out why his old friend found the name so amusing, though he suspected it had to do with Han’s lack of fur. “Stop trying to act like one and play to your strengths.”

“Which are what exactly?”

“You excel at causing chaos,” the Wookiee snickered, his tone wry. Despite his foul mood, Han had to chuckle at the comment. “And you never, ever do what everyone expects you to. To an Imperial flag officer like Pellaeon, unpredictability is dangerous.” Chewbacca uncrossed his arms and gave Han a long look. “Now if you’re done feeling sorry for yourself,” he remarked, turning toward the closed door, “I’m going to go help with repairs and maybe see if I can’t salvage some new shield generators for the Falcon.”

Solo grunted, wanting nothing more than to join his old friend and bury his dark thoughts in work. Instead, he returned his attention to the hologram still revolving slowly over his desk and barely noticed the Wookiee’s silent departure. Chewbacca was right, Han realized with a frown. He’d let Pellaeon maneuver him into this battle when every instinct in his body had told him it was a mistake.

This would be a whole lot easier if Luke was around, Solo reflected sourly. It had been over two months since he’d recruited Jade to find his errant brother-in-law and now, she’d completely vanished too. There had been rumored sightings of Luke on Genesia some weeks back and the last Jedi was a person of interest in a cantina massacre that had claimed the lives of some thirty individuals; Skywalker wasn’t believed to have been the instigator and there were shaky eyewitness accounts of multiple lightsabers being involved, but it was still troubling information.

As he sat before the tactical display, Han found himself staring at the holographic representations of the X-Wings currently circling around the Imperial dreadnaught. If only I could clone the Rogues, he mused before quickly shuddering at the mental image of multiple Wes Jansons. Despite his best efforts, though, he couldn’t entirely shake the notion and Solo leaned back in his chair to think. How would the Imps react to multiple Rogue Squadrons? A grin started building.

He had an idea.

|-*-|

This certainly hadn’t been her best idea.

As she slowly picked her way toward their destination, Mara was yet again reminded of why she’d always hated Byss. Located in the Deep Core, it was a living moon orbiting one of the ugliest gas giants she’d ever had the misfortune of viewing. Viewed from space, there was little to recommend Byss for habitation and that opinion only intensified the closer one got to landing. Rocky terrain dominated its surface, with towering mountains littering the landscape and climbing into the sky. Earthquakes sporadically rattled the ground and the nearly constant rain of frozen carbon dioxide – spewed into the atmosphere by the thousands of active volcanoes where it promptly froze – mixed with hot springs and warm lakes scattered around the moon, resulting in persistently dense fogs that turned already treacherous terrain into positively lethal death traps. And, although the system’s sun was a dull red dwarf, the relative proximity of so many other stars this deep in the galactic core meant the moon was perpetually shrouded in a hazy twilight.

In retrospect, Mara mused, it was no wonder Palpatine had kept a secret fortress here.

“Are you sure you know where you’re going?” Luke asked, his voice sounding distorted as it emerged from the rebreather he was wearing. He was standing less than a meter behind her, dressed in a gray ensemble cut in the same fashion as the pseudo-uniform he’d worn that day at Jabba’s palace all those years ago. A large, padded glove covered his right hand and arm nearly to his elbow, protecting the cybernetic limb from further damage. Olmahk – the Noghri medic on Khabarakh’s team – had managed to restore the hand’s functionality after Luke’s self-inflicted damage but had been forced to remove the faux flesh to do so. So far, they’d not had the opportunity to visit an actual medical facility to replace the limb which had prompted Skywalker to begin wearing the protective gauntlet. For some reason, the glove seemed to bother him more than he wanted to admit and Mara caught him constantly fiddling with the small clasps that kept it secured.

“Pretty sure,” Mara replied crossly before resuming her scramble up the mountain pass. A moment later, Luke began following.

Venturing to Byss had been Mara’s idea once she had a better idea about what Luke had faced on Genesia. Like the now Republic-controlled Wayland facility, it had been one of Palpatine’s secret facilities known only to a select few; Mara had been here twice in her capacity as the Emperor’s Hand, once to eliminate a disloyal senior administrator named Sly Moore who had overstepped her boundaries and once while accompanying the Emperor in her usual guise as palace dancer. As far as Mara knew, she was the only one still alive who had knowledge of the Byss complex, but it seemed the most logical place to start looking for the source of the clones. She’d never gotten around to mentioning this complex to New Republic Intelligence mostly out of spite; Admiral Drayson especially had frustrated her during his endless debriefings and it never seemed like a good idea to reveal all of her secrets to a martinet like him.

On any other planet, Mara would have preferred landing her ship closer to the complex instead of hiking across this desolate wasteland but the Emperor’s notorious paranoia had convinced her otherwise. The moment they hit the atmosphere, alarms had begun sounding as planetary defense systems began tracking them. No ground-based weapons had fired upon them and she wasn’t even sure if any such weapons were still functioning, but Mara wasn’t willing to risk the Chance and made the decision to land several kilometers from the facility.

“You’re thinking too hard,” Luke abruptly declared. He had drawn abreast of her and Mara gave him a sour look in response. It was spoiled by the rebreather that covered most of her face, but his eyes glinted with amusement nonetheless, evidently recognizing her annoyance. “Relax. Take a deep breath. Let the Force be your guide.”

“That’s your solution to everything, isn’t it?” Mara grumbled, not really expecting an answer. To her surprise, Skywalker shook his head.

“Not everything,” he replied, “but combine it with common sense and you’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish.” He closed his eyes, drew in a deep breath and held for several seconds. “Faith and reason are the shoes on my feet,” Luke stated, as if quoting something or someone. “I can travel farther with both than with just one.”

“Where do you come up with this stuff?” Mara wondered aloud. “The Jedi Handbook of Trite Sayings?”

“Tenth edition,” Skywalker responded, eyes twinkling. “I’ll lend you my copy when we get back to the ship.” His good humor faded and his eyes narrowed. Mara could feel him reach out with the Force and instinctively followed suit. A wave of warmth washed over and through her, beating time with her heart, and washing away all of her concerns. Luke’s presence in the Force sang to her, a gentle whisper of light and sound that hinted at the strength of his soul. For a single, extended moment, she lost track of everything around her as the subtle power that was Luke Skywalker dominated her perceptions. In that moment, it was impossible to focus on anything but him.

“We’re running out of time,” Luke suddenly declared, his eyes distant, and Mara snapped out of her reverie. Mortified at her inattention, she flushed though Skywalker didn’t seem to notice, so intent was he on whatever it was he had detected. Getting distracted is a damned good way to get killed, she reminded herself darkly before concentrating on extending her perceptions beyond Luke’s intoxicating Force presence.

At the very edge of her awareness, Mara could almost detect a flicker of … something. It vanished nearly as soon as she sensed it but was most definitely there. She shivered though she wasn’t cold.

“What was that?” Mara wondered, giving her companion a quick glance. Luke shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “Khabarakh,” he spoke into his comlink. The response was instantaneous.

“Yes, Jedi Skywalker?”

“Stand ready,” Luke ordered. “We may need an emergency pickup.”

“As you wish, Jedi Skywalker,” the Noghri replied, no trace of emotion in his voice. He had been more than a little displeased when Luke instructed him to keep his team aboard the Chance and visibly angry when Mara reminded him of their earlier agreement about the chain-of-command, but had obeyed without too much grumbling.

“And if you scratch my ship,” Mara added, instinctively reaching out to cover Skywalker’s hand and prevent him from deactivating the comlink, “I’m going to leave you on this miserable rock.”

“It will be as you command … Jedi Jade,” Khabarakh responded, ending the transmission with that hissing laugh of his. His decision to address her as Jedi instead of Captain was a relatively recent change, brought on by the Noghri’s unusual sense of humor as well as the training Luke had been giving her over the last month. Mara wasn’t sure exactly how she’d found herself back in the role of student but, to her surprise, was enjoying it more than ever before. It didn’t hurt that Luke was such an exceptional teacher and more patient with her foibles and temper than he had any right to be.

“How much farther?” Skywalker asked, prompting Mara to realize she was still holding onto his gloved fist. His eyes were dancing above the rebreather and she hurriedly let go, face flaming with embarrassment.

“Thirty minutes,” she muttered in response before resuming the climb.

As it turned out, her estimate was off by nearly an hour. The steepness of the pass – both climbing and descending – was pure torture for leg muscles too long imprisoned aboard a small tramp freighter and, by the time they reached the base of the pass, both of them were breathing heavily. To Mara’s disgust, Skywalker appeared to be in better shape than she was and she made a mental note to intensify her morning exercise regimen.

The route angled down sharply, descending toward a jagged canyon larger than many cities. As they drew closer, Mara could see their destination. In its prime, it had been an awe-inspiring sight. A trio of angular, pyramid-shaped towers jutted out of the fog-shrouded canyon like the teeth of some primordial beast of legend. They were arranged in a triangular shape, with enclosed skybridges connecting them like the arteries in a massive heart. In the very center of these towers, a domed building could be seen, though it was mostly concealed by the dense fog climbing out of the canyon. A single walkway extended from the canyon ledge to the squat building.

Its days of glory were long past, though. The outer walls of the three towers – once a glistening ebony color – were now pitted with damage and decay. Entire chunks of the surface had crumbled away, leaving the internal skeleton of the buildings exposed to the unforgiving elements of Byss. Though the roof of the central building was still intact, it was worn and battered, with great gouges torn free from tumbling tower debris. If anything, the whole complex now seemed like a pitiful remnant of a past better forgotten rather than the glorious vision of power it had been years earlier.

“Such lovely décor,” Luke commented as they approached the walkway. He kicked a loose stone over the lip of the canyon, frowning as it vanished in the fog. The frown deepened as they slowly crossed the walkway and approached the main entranceway to the central building; Skywalker’s unease seemed to be contagious and Mara found herself uncharacteristically fidgeting in place. Her hand instinctively sought the lightsaber hanging at her waist for comfort. At once, her finely honed sense of irony flared when she realized how she was seeking out an artifact of Darth Vader’s to assuage her growing fear. It was almost enough to make her laugh.

“This is lightsaber damage,” Skywalker abruptly declared, his eyes riveted on the open entranceway. One of the massive double doors had fallen onto the skybridge while the other was in exceedingly poor shape. Great rents and scars covered its surface and large chunks of it had been sliced free. The entire entranceway was littered with debris, though none of it appeared new. Kneeling, Luke studied the fallen door, reaching out with his left hand to touch its pitted surface. Instantly, he snatched the hand back as if it had been burned and gave Mara a sharp look. “Be mindful of your thoughts,” he warned, not sounding a bit like himself as he spoke. “The Dark Side is strong in this place.”

“Be mindful?” she repeated, hiding her worry behind sarcasm. “Can you be any more specific? That’s not particularly helpful.” Skywalker rose to his feet, detaching his saber from his belt.

“I wish I could,” he replied apologetically before offering a weak smile that didn’t touch his eyes. “Just be prepared for anything.” Without waiting for her response, he stepped over the rubble and entered the central building.

“I’m always prepared,” Mara muttered darkly as she followed him.

Immediately beyond the doorway were rough-hewn stone stairs leading down into darkness and Luke ignited his saber to illuminate their path. Twice, he nearly lost his footing on the slick steps as they descended deeper into the building; from where she walked behind him, Mara had the advantage of knowing which stairs to avoid so her own passage was much smoother. By her estimation, the stairwell descended a good four meters before ending at another double doorway. Like the one above, this entrance had long ago been hacked open by a lightsaber. Skywalker barely gave the fallen doors a second glance before stepping through the archway and into the building proper. Without comment, Mara followed.

The room before them was immense, easily twenty meters across at its narrowest point and perhaps as much as thirty at its widest. Shadows draped over much of the chamber, making it difficult to determine its true shape and dimensions though this seemed an intentional design element. The vaulted ceiling seemed to vanish into darkness, held aloft by arched columns that were so disturbingly irregular in shape it seemed impossible for them to exist. Silver walkways, held aloft by forcefields or some other esoteric technology, ran between those curving columns and they too appeared geometrically unfeasible. The recessed floor was constructed of some transparent material and presented an impressive view of the fog-shrouded canyon below. Like an ancient auditorium, the floor slanted down toward an elevated dais that, coupled with the floor’s construction, seemed to be almost suspended in mid air. Mara was instantly reminded of an ancient temple complex.

“It is a temple,” Luke responded with a frown when she mentioned her thoughts. Mara gave him a sidelong glance, noting how he was studying the architecture with discomfort lurking in his eyes. “A Sith temple,” he continued as he deactivated his saber, “from a long time ago.” Gesturing toward the elevated dais, Skywalker spoke again. “The Master as head priest dates back to before the time of Darth Bane and the Rule of Two.”

“So Palpatine didn’t build this place,” Mara mused. In retrospect, that actually made sense. This place was too … chaotic for Palpatine who had, above all else, desired absolute order.

“Not likely,” Luke replied. Reaching out with his gloved hand to touch a crooked column, he traced a line in the dust there before rubbing his fingers together. “It doesn’t look like anyone has been here for a while.” Mara exhaled in disappointment.

“Well,” Mara remarked, “I guess this was a complete waste of time.” She glowered at the raised dais.

“Not necessarily,” Skywalker said softly, igniting his saber once more. His eyes were locked on something behind her. “Prepare yourself,” he warned.

Like silent ghosts, five figures stepped from the shadows. Mara recognized two of them – Kenobi and Windu – instantly from the records Luke had in his possession, but the other three were unfamiliar to her. One was a Cerean male, one was a Rutian Twi’lek female, and the third was a human male with light brown shoulder-length hair. All five were wearing dark robes and, without a sound, they ignited their scarlet sabers in eerie unison.

Before Mara could speak, two of the clones – the Twi’lek and the Cerean – surged forward, blades scything toward her. She reacted without thought, igniting the weapon that had once been Anakin Skywalker’s and leaping backwards into a somersault that carried her away from the duo. Like fierce kath hounds, they pursued, easily jumping the distance that separated them from her, and Mara ducked beneath a wild decapitating stroke from the Cerean before bringing her own blade up.

Her danger sense flared and she threw herself into a lunging tumble as the Rutian Twi’lek twisted around the briefly off-balance Cerean, crimson blade howling. Mara rolled once before spinning to her feet just in time to catch the Twi’lek’s follow up attack with a parry. She danced back, blocking the aggressive swings of the blue-skinned clone, and then sprang back and up, twisting in mid-air to land on one of the suspended walkways. Already, her two foes were following suit and Mara grimaced as they landed on opposite sides of her. Their blades were scarlet blurs and she somersaulted over the Cerean to avoid them, lunging forward the moment her feet touched the walkway. He twisted in place to avoid her disemboweling attack and awkwardly knocked away her blade.

As if in silent mockery of Mara’s previous somersault, the Twi’lek leaped over the Cerean as he attacked with a ferocious overhand strike. Landing lightly behind her, the Rutian brought her blade up to attack but Mara reacted first, thrusting out her left hand and directing a wall of Force into the clone that sent the Twi’lek tumbling backwards. Almost instantly, the Cerean intensified his vicious attacks, his saber flashing and humming as he drove Mara back. She backpedaled rapidly, not even trying to counterattack as she parried his violent strikes. Her eyes darted as she studied his attack style and sought a weakness that could be exploited. Suddenly, she saw her opportunity.

Ducking under one of his attacks, she pirouetted in place and knocked his feet out from under him with a low scything leg sweep against his ankles. He fell hard, smacking his head against the walkway with an audible thunk before bouncing forward and off the suspended bridge to hit the floor some two meters below. Mara recovered quickly and jumped toward him, her saber poised for a killing stroke.

And in that moment, a wall of Force slammed into her like a runaway speeder.

Stars danced in her vision but Mara blinked them away. Her eyes narrowed at the outstretched hand of the Twi’lek clone and anger flooded through her.

“All right, you filthy schutta!” Mara nearly snarled as she scrambled back to her feet. She lashed out once more with the Force, fury giving her strength.

The result was unlike anything she could have imagined.

If it had been an airspeeder that had knocked Mara flying, it was a star destroyer that struck the clone. The Twi’lek flew backwards, smashing into one of the geometrically impossible columns with bone-crushing force. She crumpled into a heap, her legs twitching spasmodically, even as the column collapsed around her. Based on the unnatural curve of the clone’s back, it was clear her spine was shattered.

Mara blinked in surprise. I did that, she realized with slight awe. With a wave of her hand, she had killed an annoying non-entity who had dared to attack her. The decaying tendrils of the psychic inhibitor suddenly came alive, resonating with the Dark Side energy swirling within the temple complex and releasing a torrent of revitalizing energy and strength within her that washed away her fears. Even now, she could feel the additional power lurking there, waiting to be used by someone strong enough to control it. She could be strong enough. No, Mara corrected herself, she was strong enough. A smile started to appear on her lips as she turned to face the Cerean. Her hand came up and he froze in place, suddenly struggling to breathe.

“No!” Skywalker’s voice snapped her out of the dazed fog and Mara jerked in surprise when his hand – his real hand – touched hers. He was staring at her with wide eyes and, behind him, she could see the crumpled bodies of his foes. “Don’t do this, Mara,” he pleaded. “You’re stronger than this.”

“But I can be stronger,” she murmured as she watched the Cerean gasp like a fish out of water. The Sith inhibitor within her mind seemed to beating time with her heart, pounding in her ears and making it hard to think. “I can be the strongest Jedi ever.”

“Not like this,” Luke replied. “The Dark Side is never the answer,” he continued fervently. “If you go down this path, it will consume you. Vader once thought he could control it,” he said softly and Mara winced at the truth she could feel in his words. “And in the end, he became a slave to the darkness.” Skywalker’s hand touched her cheek. “Let go, Mara,” he urged. “Please.” Coming from the man who had saved her life and her soul at Wayland, the plea was impossible to ignore.

So she let go.

The power drained away from her like water through a sieve, leaving Mara so exhausted she collapsed to her knees. Suddenly horrified at what she had nearly done, she closed her eyes to hide the tears threatening to spill down her face even as she felt the inhibitor’s tendrils once more wither away to nearly nothing. Would she never be free of it? The sound of twin lightsabers echoed around her, but Luke’s Force presence never wavered so she knew she was safe. Seconds later, she felt Skywalker’s arms wrap around her.

“It’s okay,” he murmured as Mara fought to recover her control against the anger and despair that seemed to shroud her. She felt filthy, as if she had just bathed in raw sewage, and the taint seemed to be have seeped into her very soul. The urge to vomit tickled the back of her throat, but she pushed it back.

“We need to get out of here,” Luke informed her as he helped her to her feet. “There will be more clones here soon.” Mara nodded as she secured her saber to her belt. Automatically, her eyes sought out the unmoving Twi’lek and she shivered. Why did this one death bother her when she already had so much blood on her hands?

“I’m sorry,” she whispered to Luke as they neared the door and he gave her a confused look.

“For what?”

“For being weak,” Mara replied darkly. “For not being able to-”

“You are not weak,” he interrupted sharply. “This was my fault. I shouldn’t have let you enter this place once I sensed the Dark Side inside.” Skywalker exhaled bitterly. “You weren’t ready to face it, not while still recovering from the Sith inhibitor.” He gave her another wide-eyed look. “So I failed you, Mara. Not the other way around.” Luke gripped her hand tightly. “I suspect the purpose of this temple,” he theorized grimly, “was to tempt Force adepts and you didn’t give in.”

“But my anger,” she started to argue. Again, Skywalker cut her off.

“We all get angry, Mara,” Luke pointed out. “I nearly killed my father at Endor because I was angry.” He offered her a smile. “You slipped,” Skywalker admitted, “but didn’t fall.” His hand tightened on hers. “I’m very proud of you, Mara,” Luke said and she could tell he meant it. His smile pushed back the darkness a little bit and Mara could feel the dark urges dwindling as they began climbing the stairs. She felt more in control of herself and clung to his words hopefully.

Still, she didn’t let go of his hand until they exited the temple.

Once outside, Luke activated his comlink. “Khabarakh, we need pickup,” he declared.

“En route, Jedi Skywalker,” came the immediate response. “Two minutes to your location.”

A tremor in the Force caused Mara to shiver. More clones were indeed approaching, though Khabarakh would be here long before they were. Had they been waiting on Byss for her and Luke? If so, that implied a greater threat, someone with resources far beyond what they currently had. The first step, of course, would be to give the Chance a thorough once-over for any homing beacons that might be hidden there. And then? Mara exhaled in frustration as she realized how little information they actually had at their disposal.

“I think we need help,” she admitted softly and Luke nodded silently.

“We do,” he agreed, his eyes already turning to seek out the approaching Second Chance.

And high overhead, the distant red star watched with impassive disinterest.

Rigil Kent
6 October 2008, 02:42 PM
CHAPTER 5

WITH a muted flash, the red star sank below the horizon.

His face turned toward the distant sun, Talon Karrde sat quietly in the humming airspeeder carrying him to his destination and watched as the day slowly ended. To an offworlder like him, the transition to night seemed imperceptible – Obulette’s proximity to the red giant made even the darkest of evenings far brighter than they had any right to be – but the skyline was already coming alive with activity as sundown displays were activated and workers freed from the drudgery of their jobs turned to vices best left unnamed.

Beside him, dressed in a smoke-silk gown so outrageous it would make a Zeltron blush, Shada D’ukal sighed softly. Her attention was riveted on the windshield of the airspeeder and Talon glanced in that direction to see what had attracted her notice. Ignoring the industrial soot and sludge that covered the transparisteel window, he could make out the dirty gray towers of the city proper. Drive trails from suborbitals and freighters – both arriving and departing – filled the hazy red twilight, instantly reminding him of insects.

“What is it, my dear?” he asked, pronouncing his words with an effete almost snobbish tone as befit a wealthy, bored dilettante. Out of the corner of his eye, Talon could see how closely the speeder pilot – a rough-looking lout missing most of his left ear – was monitoring everything they said and Karrde had little doubt the man would make a beeline for the nearest info-merchant once they landed. That was how things worked on Obulette, especially if one remotely appeared to have wealth, and was one of the reasons Talon hated the Tapani Sector.

“This is all so boring,” Shada squeaked in reply to his question, her voice a full two octaves higher than normal. She gave him a dark look even as she continued to complain exactly like the spoiled noblewoman she was supposed to be. “You promised me excitement!” she whined, a shrill note in her voice. “And all we’ve done is fly around for hours and hours!”

Despite himself, Talon had to fight back a laugh at the sympathetic look he received from the speeder pilot. Not for the first time, he was amazed at Shada’s quick thinking; with a few words, she’d managed to turn the pilot into a pseudo-ally even if the man didn’t realize it. Solidarity between men with nagging wives was as strong if not stronger than ties of blood.

“A little while longer, dear,” Karrde murmured, patting her on the hand. He blinked in mild surprise when she interlaced her fingers with his. For a split second, Talon’s mind went blank at the feel of her hand against his. It wasn’t fair, he decided, that she could do this sort of thing to him so easily. He wondered if it was some sort of special Mistryl training; Mara certainly hadn’t had this sort of effect on him.

His brain restarted, though, when he felt Shada’s thumb begin tapping out a coded message against the back of his hand. Of course she had an ulterior motive for holding hands with him. She’s an employee, Talon reminded himself sharply for the thousandth time since hiring her. With effort, he forced himself to pay attention to her discreet comments.

No pursuit, she tapped out softly. Driver not threat but needs bath.

Talon coughed abruptly, hiding his mouth – and his smile – behind a silk handkerchief.

Mere minutes later, the airspeeder had landed and Karrde stepped onto the duracrete sidewalk, wincing slightly at the foul stench filling the air. It was to be expected, of course; this close to the central factories of Obulette, it was a wonder there was any oxygen at all.

“What an … interesting smell,” Shada pronounced as Talon paid their driver, making sure to tip him exorbitantly with Mecetti-stamped credits. It was far more than the man deserved, but one had to keep up appearances.

Especially in the Tapani Sector.

“Are you sure this is the place?” his companion asked as they approached a particularly rundown-looking cantina, and Talon nodded. Eagerness pulsed through him and he fought back the impulse to charge into the building. Ever since the Starry Ice had been seized by Imperial forces nearly three months ago, he’d been hoping to receive word of the crew. A week earlier, he’d received a coded communiqué requesting a meeting; none of the distress words were present in the text-only communication, nor was there any indication of the origin. Shada had been fiercely opposed to him meeting the contact in person, but Karrde insisted. If this was Dankin or another member of the Ice’s crew, he owed it to them to see that they were safely moved off-world.

The name of the cantina – the Drunken Jedi – nearly caused Talon to smile but he donned a mask of haughty disdain instead as he pushed through the archaic hinged doors. Instantly, he recoiled at the unbelievably foul smells that assaulted him. Stale alcohol, sweat, urine, and vomit all combined to create the unmistakable odor of failure. The bartender – a skinny Besalisk missing one of his arms – looked up from where he sat as Karrde approached with Shada on his arm and gaped for a long moment.

“Milord,” the bartender started, but Talon interrupted quickly.

“Not so bloody loud, man!” he snapped in a stage-whisper before leaning forward as if to impart a secret of galactic importance. “We’re in disguise,” Karrde revealed, waggling his eyebrows knowingly. He slid a number of mid-denomination credits – Mecetti stamped, of course – to the Besalisk who promptly made them vanish.

“Of course,” the bartender stated obsequiously. “My apologies. How may I be of assistance?”

“Oh Tal,” Shada abruptly declared, “this is so boring. Can’t we go somewhere else?”

“Not yet, my dear,” Karrde replied, giving the Besalisk a knowing look. He slid a couple more credit wafers to the bartender. “I’m looking to conduct some … discreet business,” Talon said and the bartender immediately nodded in comprehension.

“We have a shadow booth, milord,” he replied and Karrde smiled. “It will cost a mere five hundred credits per hour to rent,” the Besalisk continued and Talon barely concealed a wince at the exorbitant price. He wasn’t surprised, though; soaking the Tapani nobility was a way of life here and it was a matter of pride that the lords and ladies paid without complaint. “Does milord and his lady wish some refreshment?” the bartender asked.

“I would love some Mei’loth wine,” Shada nearly squealed, causing Talon to wince slightly. An Alderaanian beverage, Mei’loth was considered the best alcoholic drink in the galaxy; with the destruction of its planet of origin, however, it was also the most expensive.

“Dear,” Karrde pointed out, “we’re slumming.” A flicker of mischief flashed in the woman’s eyes.

“What do the proles drink?” she wondered aloud. “Lum, yes?” The answering nod from the Besalisk bartender was forced and the smile he gave her even more so. “Then I shall have a lum,” Shada declared more loudly than was necessary.

“Have it brought to us,” Karrde ordered imperiously.

The booth was barely functional but Talon pretended to admire it nonetheless, all the while silently thanking fortune he’d had the foresight to bring his own countermeasures with him. Once the Besalisk was gone, Karrde activated the privacy-screen surrounding the booth; unlike most protective energy fields, this forcefield wasn’t intended to prevent material from passing through it, only sounds and images. As it flickered into existence, the field darkened instantly and the ambient sounds of the cantina faded away. From outside the booth, nothing could be seen though Talon and Shada had a clear view of the cantina proper.

“We’re clear,” Shada stated a moment after the force-screen appeared. She was examining one of the bracelets encircling her left wrist and Talon shook his head in mild amusement; he should have known they weren’t just decorative. He said nothing though, as he depressed a button on his belt buckle to activate another anti-eavesdropping device. “Waitress approaching,” Shada warned, her tone suddenly low and deadly. “She’s dangerous.”

Talon glanced up, frowning at the female humanoid weaving her way through the scattered tables. She was wearing ordinary-looking clothes that likely doubled as protective garments within Obulette’s various factories. Her hair was dyed a dull, lifeless color somewhere between dirty blonde and light black. Karrde couldn’t see her face – the two mugs she was holding aloft blocked it from view – but the way she moved reminded him of a dancer. He recognized her instantly.

“Hello, Mara,” he greeted the moment she stepped into the concealing bubble. His ex-employee gave him a quick nod before frowning slightly in Shada’s direction.

“I thought you worked for Mazzic,” Jade commented flatly.

“I did,” Shada replied just as coolly. The two women studied one another for a single, extended moment, inexplicably reminding Talon of two vornskrs facing off to determine alpha status. If they were men, he suspected they’d be tempted to start comparing scars or maybe even arm wrestle.

“She works for me now,” Karrde interjected, unsuccessfully fighting back a smile at the image of the most deadly women he knew squaring off. Mara grunted as she took a seat across from him.

“I wouldn’t drink that, by the way,” she said, nodding to the mugs of lum now on the table.

“Not even on a dare,” Shada muttered, eyeing the mugs with distaste.

“Can I presume you’re the contact?” Talon asked, leaning back in the uncomfortable booth seat. Jade nodded.

“Yeah,” she replied. “Sorry about the cloak and vibroknife routine,” Mara continued, “but we needed some way to contact you that wasn’t likely to be monitored.”

“We,” Karrde repeated.

“Me and-”

“Me,” Luke Skywalker finished as he slid into the booth. His sudden appearance seemingly out of nowhere was startling; Talon jumped slightly in his seat and felt Shada flinch. “Hello, Talon,” the Jedi said before giving Mara a quick glance. “Khabarakh’s team is on the move,” he declared. “They sighted a group of the clones heading this way.”

“Blast,” Jade growled. “How did they track us here?”

“Clones?” Talon interjected, but the two seemed to ignore him.

“They didn’t,” Skywalker stated. “They arrived about ten minutes after Talon’s ship did.”

“No one followed us,” Shada defended instantly. Mara gave her a withering look.

“That you saw,” she retorted instantly.

“You said clones,” Karrde interrupted before the argument could escalate and Skywalker nodded grimly.

“Of dead Jedi Masters,” he elaborated darkly and Talon grunted. Suddenly, Skywalker’s disappearance from the public limelight – and Mara’s too, for that matter – made sense. The sludgenews had been going wild speculating over where the last Jedi had vanished to and, in recent weeks, some had linked it to Jade’s disappearance.

“We need to get you to safety,” Skywalker stated, his tone brooking no dissent. He rose from the table and, to Talon’s mild astonishment, Mara stood with him. Giving Shada a quick glance, Karrde climbed to his feet and followed the two.

The bartender tried to intercept them, no doubt hoping to extract some additional monies from Talon, but Skywalker gestured with his right hand – it was gloved, Karrde noticed with some surprise – and murmured something that caused the Besalisk to stop in his tracks. No further attempts were made to slow their exit.

“Do you have a speeder?” Mara asked as they stepped out of the cantina and Talon shook his head. She frowned before exchanging a quick glance with Skywalker. The Jedi nodded as if Jade had said something and made no attempt to stop her as she crouched near a parked speeder. In seconds, she had jimmied the lock and was working on starting the engine.

“Mara,” Skywalker abruptly stated, pulling his lightsaber free from his belt. His eyes were locked on an approaching loading skiff. “Protect them,” the Jedi ordered as he ignited the emerald blade. Without further comment, he crouched and sprang forward into a blurring leap that carried him to the deck of the skiff some five meters away. A trio of lightsaber-wielding figures met him and Karrde drew in a sharp breath as their blades flashed toward him.

“Son of a…” Mara growled as she scrambled out of the airspeeder. She had her own saber out, though it wasn’t ignited, and every line in her body betrayed her desire to join Skywalker. “Contact your ship,” she instructed harshly, her eyes riveted on the flashing blades atop the slowing skiff, “and tell them to prep for immediate dustoff.”

“Aves,” Talon spoke into his comlink, his own eyes locked on the amazing sight before him. Skywalker was a blur of motion, twisting and somersaulting over the heads of his foes, his weapon moving so quickly it seemed to be a solid wall of light. Two more of the clones had joined the fray but the Jedi was holding his own.

“Here, Boss.” Aves’ voice crackled out of the small communication device almost instantaneously.

“Get the ship ready for emergency takeoff,” Karrde ordered, wincing as Skywalker took a boot to the jaw and began to backpedal.

“Already done,” Aves replied. “There are a couple of creepy-looking guys lurking around the docking bay who’re making me nervous.” Talon was about to reply when the other man continued. “They kind of remind me of Mara’s boyfriend,” Aves admitted, his comment reflecting his oft-stated theory about the Skywalker/Jade relationship. Mara’s frown darkened and she gave Karrde a hard look. He understood at once: more of the clones were waiting for them.

“Take off now,” Talon instructed. “Rendezvous point lambda.”

“Aye,” came the quick response before the com-line went dead.

“Jade.” Shada’s voice was low and cool, but instantly drew Jade’s attention. “Et tante Mistryl goth’ga,” the older woman declared in a language Talon didn’t recognize. The utter relief that washed across Mara’s face was proof that the ex-Imperial did understand. With a flourish, Jade ignited her lightsaber and darted toward the now nearly motionless skiff.

Karrde’s breath caught: he’d known for some time that Mara was Force-sensitive but this was the first time he’d truly seen her in action since Skywalker began instructing her. She’s dangerous, Shada had said earlier and, as Jade sprinted across the duracrete, Talon realized how accurate those words were. Without a hint of hesitation, Mara jumped atop a parked speeder, using its hood as a springboard to leap atop a rapidly moving loadlifter. Her sudden appearance on the repulsorlift’s roof caused the pilot to squawk in startled surprise and brake sharply, but she was already airborne once more, this time half tumbling, half falling toward the skiff. One of the clones turned to meet her acrobatic aerial charge but Jade twisted in mid-air like a cat, her lightsaber flashing to meet his with an electric crack. She hit the deck of the skiff lightly, pirouetting around the clone’s aggressive thrust to decapitate him with a spinning slash that used inertia more than brute strength to power it. He toppled, joining the two clones Skywalker had already killed, and Mara flowed toward the Jedi, her steps so fluid it almost seemed she was floating on air.

From that point on, she and Skywalker moved as one, performing maneuvers that, until now, Talon had thought simply impossible without the use of wires. Jade moved like quicksilver, somersaulting and spinning in a lethal dance that, when combined with Skywalker’s frightening implacability, became a violent ballet of death. Unable to tear his eyes away from the martial display, Karrde suddenly had the uneasy realization of exactly why Palpatine had so feared the Jedi Order.

“Beautiful,” Shada murmured, her comment slicing into his unspoken fears. Talon blinked, slightly astonished that the ex-Mistryl wasn’t the slightest bit intimidated by the scene before them. This is Skywalker and Jade, his conscience pointed out and he swallowed the primitive fear of the unknown.

The two Jedi were back-to-back, their movements seemingly synchronized as they dueled with the remaining saber-wielding clones. One-handed, Skywalker batted away an overhand chop from the clone he was facing – a female, Talon realized – and then made a gesture with his other hand Karrde recognized from his own use of a holdout blaster. The clone was already responding, though, dropping away from the blaster’s shot as if warned, but in mid-step, Mara altered her own movement and twirled around Skywalker. Her blue-white blade caught the clone completely unprepared and bisected her.

Before either Jedi could reorient on the fifth and final clone, he suddenly twitched and fell forward into an unmoving heap. A trio of throwing knives – and a pair of zenji needles Karrde noted – stood out from the clone’s exposed back and, seconds later, three hooded figures darted into sight. Shada tensed but Talon relaxed upon recognition of the Noghri.

Within seconds, he and Shada had joined them aboard the commandeered skiff and they accelerated away from the growing crowd. One of the Noghri manned the controls as Skywalker and Jade crouched before the fourth clone. From the expressions on their faces, they were troubled.

“I think you’re imagining things,” Mara declared abruptly with no clue as to what they were arguing about.

“She dodged it, Mara,” Skywalker retorted. “It was the exact same move I used to kill the one on Genesia and she knew it.”

“That’s impossible,” Jade pointed out. “It’s just a kriffing clone. It can’t remember things.”

“Maybe it can,” Shada interjected. She was examining one of the other bodies; this one was a dark-skinned human and was face down on the deck. A lightsaber stroke had severed his spine and Shada was poking the exposed nerves with one of the zenji needles she normally wore in her hair. “This clone has some sort of implant imbedded in its spinal cord.”

“What sort of implant?” Mara asked, quickly joining the other woman. Gone was the hint of antipathy between the two as they squatted over the corpse and, if they had been any other women, Talon would have thought they were gushing over a new pair of shoes or a handbag. The idea was so ludicrous he nearly laughed out loud.

“It looks like a muscle memory enhancement,” Shada revealed. At Mara’s questioning glance, the ex-Mistryl continued. “They’re used to rapidly train muscles back to normal for patients who’ve undergone major reconstructive surgery.” Without a hint of squeamishness, she reached into the gory mess that was the clone’s body and began working the implant free. Talon quickly glanced away, wincing at the sounds emerging from her efforts. He really could have done without hearing this. “Yes,” Shada declared several bone-cracking moments later, “that’s exactly what it is.”

“And that looks like a pulse transmitter of some sort,” Mara murmured, pointing to something at the bottom of the gory implant, “though I’ve never seen that level of sophistication.” She frowned. “Muscle memory transfer perhaps?” Jade wondered aloud.

“So the clones are learning,” Skywalker mused. He was studying the skyline, though whether it was to avoid looking at the mess Mara and Shada were making or to sense additional clones, Talon didn’t know. The Jedi turned his attention to Karrde. “This is why we need your help,” he declared. “You have access to information resource we don’t.” Skywalker frowned. “And I think whoever is behind these clones is also manipulating the Republic and the Empire.”

“To what end?” Karrde asked. They were slowing, he realized.

“Chaos,” Mara answered. She had straightened from her crouch and now stood alongside Skywalker, her hands clasped behind her. Fractionally taller than her Jedi companion, her expression was fierce and unyielding, a contrast to Skywalker’s calm stoicism. “This is exactly how Palpatine seized control during the Clone Wars.”

“A Sith?” Talon exclaimed, horrified at the notion. “You think a Sith is behind this?”

“I think,” Skywalker corrected softly, “someone is using Sith tactics. Whether they are truly Sith or not…” He shrugged. “That I don’t know.”

“We have arrived,” the Noghri pilot declared. “Olmahk has prepared the ship for immediate departure.”

“He better not have screwed anything up,” Mara growled before jumping off the skiff and heading toward the entrance to the hangar bay. Talon followed, his mind racing as he examined the implications Skywalker had made. Even before his organization had come under attack, Karrde had wondered about the cause of the latest flare-up between the Imps and the Republic. In the wake of the destructive Thrawn campaign, further hostilities made little sense for either side and, in retrospect, it really did look like an outside force was manipulating events.

Distracted as he was by these new revelations, Karrde barely noticed entering Mara’s ship or following Skywalker toward the cockpit. He blinked at the sight of the Jedi sliding into the pilot’s station while Jade manned the co-pilot’s board; knowing the redhead as well as he did, Talon was astonished she would let someone else fly her pride and joy.

“Six fighters on approach,” Mara revealed off her sensor board. Karrde leaned forward and frowned at the display. He hadn’t seen functional Eta-2 Actis-class light interceptors in over twenty years.

“How long?” Skywalker asked, his fingers dancing across the pilot’s station. The Second Chance’s engines growled in response and the ship lifted off with barely a tremor.

“They’ll reach us before we hit space,” Jade replied. Skywalker grunted before giving Jade a glance.

“What do you think?” he asked. She nodded.

“Oh, absolutely,” Mara replied, eyes narrowed. “Go for it,” she added with a tight smile. Talon had only the briefest of moments to wonder what they were talking about before Skywalker banked the Chance hard and began accelerating toward the central towers of the city. Karrde winced at the amount of airspeeder traffic before them and quickly began strapping himself into one of the acceleration seats; Shada, he noticed, had already done so and was wearing a rapt expression as she watched the silent byplay between Skywalker and Jade. At his look, she smirked slightly but didn’t look away from the two pilots as they communicated in half-sentences and aborted gestures.

Maybe Aves is right, Talon mused as he began to watch the two Jedi himself. And when, he wondered, had he started thinking of Mara as a Jedi?

“How long?” Skywalker asked before sending the Chance into a sharp climb.

“One minute, forty seconds,” Mara replied.

“This is where the fun begins,” the Jedi murmured, prompting Jade to shoot him a sour look Karrde wished he could frame and put on his wall. Skywalker ignored it though, focusing entirely upon the controls in front of him. Jade grunted abruptly as if she’d suddenly had an idea and flicked a switch on the comm.-panel.

“Krypter krypter krypter!” she snapped into the now open communications line, using the ages-old signal for distress. “We are being targeted by hostile fighter craft on attack vector!” The response was almost instantaneous.

“This is Obulette flight control,” a harried-sounding male voice responded. “Interceptors are being scrambled to assist you!”

“A little late, aren’t they?” Talon muttered darkly as Skywalker sent the freighter into a stomach-lurching spin. Laser blasts began streaking by the cockpit as the pursuing ships drew closer and, instantly, Karrde heard the Chance’s quad-lasers begin retaliating.

“Ten credits on Barkhimkh,” Mara commented flatly.

“Done,” Skywalker replied, his face tense with concentration. “Sakhisakh is a better shot.”

“But not as patient,” Jade retorted. “How are you doing back there, Talon?” she asked, a smirk in her voice.

“Just lovely,” Karrde declared, inhaling sharply when Skywalker rolled the ship and dove toward the still distant planetary defense fighters. Clutching the armrests tightly, Talon closed his eyes and tried to think happy thoughts. He was a businessman, dammit, not a fighter pilot. All of this bouncing around was bad for the digestion.

To distract himself from the insane maneuvers Skywalker was conducting, Karrde focused on the bigger picture. That someone possessed functional Spaarti cylinders and genetic material from dead Jedi Masters was bad enough, but the presence of the pursuing fighter craft and the muscle memory implants indicated even greater resources at their disposal. An individual or organization with this sort of clout would be quite a challenge to track down, especially with the war going on. It would also be an expensive venture and Talon’s finances weren’t as secure as they used to be. At its most basic level, the question was a simple one: was there anything in it for his organization to help Skywalker find these clones?

In the end, it really wasn’t a difficult decision to make.

|-*-|

The decision had been taken out of his hands.

A dark expression on his face, Gilad Pellaeon studied the faces arrayed before him and fought to keep his temper under control. Anyone else in his position would be the same he reckoned; for the last month, he had been virtually imprisoned here on Bastion as the Moff’s Council demanded meeting after meeting after meeting to discuss the status of the ongoing war with the Rebellion. In recent days, the more militant minded of the five Moffs – Ardus Kaine and Vilim Disra – had begun to openly question many of Pellaeon’s strategic and tactical decisions, with Kaine going so far as to imply Gilad wasn’t suited for his current rank.

“I recommend that the Corellian operation go forward as planned,” the Moff in question announced, his aquiline features set in an expression so arrogant it caused Pellaeon to grit his teeth in disgust. Despite his expertise on the subject, Gilad hadn’t even been consulted on this latest shift in strategy. Instead, he had been summoned to stand watch silently as the two most powerful members of the Council continued their ridiculous games of one-upmanship. Pellaeon didn’t know why Kaine and Disra men loathed one another and, frankly, didn’t care. He was just tired of seeing loyal Imperial officers, crewmen, and soldiers die because these two idiots wanted to play their political games.

The Council itself was comprised of the five most powerful Moffs in Imperial space. Their principal job was to provide the political leadership absent since the death of Emperor Palpatine in order to avoid the turbulent chaos and warlordism that had birthed fools like Isard and Zsinj. In theory, the odd number on the Council was intended to prevent tie votes should disagreements crop up among them, an altogether too common occurrence. Unfortunately, one of the most powerful of the Moffs was a notoriously weak man by the name of Abran Balfour and his constant vacillating between the factions controlled by Disra and Kaine kept the Council in a persistent state of flux. At any given moment, no one in the Imperial hierarchy was sure what the political climate would be. Currently, Kaine’s ruling triumvirate was in control but Gilad knew it was only a matter of time before Balfour defected to Disra’s side and the balance of power shifted again.

“This is a mistake,” Moff Disra spat, not even trying to conceal his fury as he spoke. A bitter old man, he’d gained a reputation during the Clone Wars for his rigid and unyielding stance against the Separatists and, upon Palpatine’s ascension to the throne, had shot through the ranks of the new Galactic Empire. “Changing strategies in the middle of an ongoing war plan is absurd.”

“Seizing their shipyards is necessary,” Kaine retorted immediately, glaring fiercely at his rival. He too had a long history within the Empire though his began in the military. “Without them,” he pointed out angrily, “this entire conflict is doomed.”

“It’s already doomed if you keep changing the objectives!” Disra snarled. The two men looked to be on the verge of going for one another’s throats and Gilad found himself actually hoping they did.

“Admiral Pellaeon,” Moff Tavira spoke up suddenly. As the only female Moff in the Empire, she held a unique place in the hierarchy of command. Questions still surrounded her ascension to the rank with many openly wondering if the late emperor had actually promoted her upon the death of her husband as she claimed, though she’d long since proven her skill in the political arena. Though he was loath to take sides, Gilad had long since decided she was the best of the five. “I would be interested in hearing your opinion of this plan,” she declared, pointedly ignoring the glower she received from Kaine.

“Moving against Corellia is a tactical error,” Gilad said firmly. The approving gesture Disra gave him was nearly as annoying as the angry one from Kaine. “Currently,” Pellaeon continued, focusing his attention entirely upon Tavira as he spoke, “the Corellian Diktat is not opposed to Imperial concerns but if we move against him, he will likely side with the Rebel insurrection.”

“Why are we listening to this man?” Kaine demanded snidely. “He couldn’t even find a Rebel spy aboard his own ship!” Gilad’s eyes narrowed at the comment and he felt Major Torul tense behind him. The matter of the mysterious Lieutenant Gara Petothel – if that had actually been her name – remained a sore subject to both of them; despite Torul’s best efforts, the lieutenant had utterly disappeared, leaving chaos and confusion in her wake.

“May I remind the Grand Moff,” Pellaeon said softly, his voice hard, “that it was his office who assigned Lieutenant Petothel to my command.” Kaine recoiled at the comment even as Disra grinned maliciously. Balfour looked on silently, a contemplative expression on his otherwise dour face, while Moffs Brill and Tavira exchanged cryptic glances.

“My office has no record of those orders,” Kaine defended quickly. To Gilad, the comments seemed aimed more at the inconsistent Balfour than anyone else.

“And you’ve found no trace of her?” Tavira inquired, frowning as she spoke.

“No, ma’am,” Pellaeon replied. “She vanished like a ghost.”

“Or a Wraith,” Torul interjected coldly. The major stared without blinking at Moff Kaine, almost as if he were daring the older man to accuse Torul of dereliction of duty. Gilad wasn’t sure what the major would do in the event Kaine did so – Torul’s ability for controlled violence had become feared among the fleet due to his systematic purge of officers and crewmen with questionable allegiances in the wake of Petothel’s disappearance. The execution of Chimera’s commanding officer for seditious and treasonous activity on Torul’s orders had given the major a sinister reputation among even the upper echelons of the Empire.

Wisely, Kaine held his tongue.

“I’m more interested in the wider implications of this spy’s infiltration of our command structure,” Tavira stated with a frown. “Coupled with the assassination attempt on the admiral’s life five months ago,” she continued, “it speaks of greater Rebel intelligence capabilities than expected.”

The comment ignited a new round of debate about how to assure the loyalty of the officers and crews of the Imperial fleet, but Gilad tuned it out like he had dozens of times before. Loyalty could not be coerced, he had learned decades earlier, but rather had to be earned. It was such a simple enough concept, yet somehow seemed to elude the comprehension of the Moff’s Council. Instead of encouraging a sense of group pride within the military, their automatic reaction was to invoke further fear and paranoia with new crackdowns and purges. Pellaeon would be the first to admit that the elimination of sedition was occasionally necessary, but if the Moffs had their way, the Imperial starfleet would have been purged out of existence.

An hour passed before he was able to make his exit and Gilad hurried to his office, disgusted and appalled at the amount of time the Moffs could waste on their trivial nonsense. Even Tavira, the most sensible of the five, seemed to enjoy hearing herself talk more than actually seeking solutions for the Empire’s problems. On the bright side, Pellaeon reflected, he’d managed to avoid receiving a direct order from the Council to conduct the senseless Corellian operation.

Within minutes of reaching the large closet he called an office, Gilad felt his temper spiking yet again as he studied the latest reports from the front. Solo’s fleet was wreaking havoc on the Imperial line of battle, striking when they were least expected and then retreating before an effective defense could be mounted. Pellaeon grimaced in recognition of the strategy behind the Corellian’s war plan; it was remarkably similar to Grand Admiral Thrawn’s unusual tactic of using a capital ship for hit-and-run raids.

Even more distressing were the contradictory reports about the whereabouts of General Antilles’ group. In no less than four separate instances, there were confirmed sightings of Rogue Squadron X-Wings conducting simultaneous raids upon Imperial forces across the same sector. A number of explanations leaped to mind: regular starfighter squadrons could have been given Rogue markings for the intimidation factor it caused, or Solo might have split the actual Rogues up among the various squadrons in his fleet. In any event, it caused further confusion which led to more Imperial casualties and had resulted in Pellaeon taking the unprecedented step of granting the 181st free reign to conduct operations in whatever manner they desired.

That it turned the 181st into the Imperial equivalent of Rogue Squadron was a fact he didn’t want to dwell on.

“Damned Corellians,” Gilad muttered under his breath. He reached for the next dataslate and gave it a quick glance. It was the Council’s grudging approval of his request to promote Daala to commodore; her past association with Solo during their time in the Academy made her the ideal person to deal with the ex-smuggler, even if it had been over fifteen years since they’d last interacted. Pressing his thumb to the optical scanner built into the slate, he signed off on Daala’s new assignment and gave silent thanks someone competent would now be the commander of Chimera.

“Do you ever think of higher office, Admiral?” Major Torul’s voice seemed to come out of nowhere and Gilad glanced up in surprise. The ex-storm commando was lounging near the entrance of the office, a speculative look on his face.

“Higher office?” Pellaeon asked, momentarily discomfited by the unusual comment from the normally stoic major. “Do mean like a Moffship?”

“Something like that,” Torul replied cryptically.

“Not even in my worst nightmares,” Gilad responded while attempting to hide the disgust he felt for the politicians who called the shots. From the major’s expression, Pellaeon wasn’t as successful as he would have liked. “Why do you ask?”

“I can’t help but to think,” the ex-storm commando said calmly, “how much better off the Empire would be with someone like you in charge instead of those fools.”

“That will be enough, Major,” Pellaeon hissed, his eyes narrowed in barely restrained fury. He balled his hands together in tight fists and glowered at the younger man. “One more word out of you,” he snarled, “and I will have you arrested for sedition.”

“No, you won’t,” Torul said in response. He crossed his arms defiantly. “Because you know I’m right. With these fools in charge, the Empire’s days are numbered.”

Gilad opened his mouth to argue, to call out for security to arrest the major, but just as quickly clamped his lips together when he realized he couldn’t disagree with Torul. The Council, as it was currently made up, was slowly bleeding the Empire dry with their abject incompetence. Moff Tavira was, in Pellaeon’s opinion, the only one out of the five who could lace her boots up without needing the appropriate field manual, and even she was far too interested in maintaining her power base. How many loyal Imperial citizens had died because the Council abruptly changed focus in mid-operation?

“Be that as it may,” Gilad admitted softly, “I have a duty to obey them.”

“Even when they’re wrong?” Torul queried.

“Especially when they’re wrong,” Pellaeon stated. “The Empire was created to bring order to chaos,” he pointed out, “and I will defend those principles with my dying breath.” He lowered his voice slightly and pinned the younger man with a cold look. “But I will never countenance rebellion. Is that clear, Major?”

“Yes, sir,” the ex-storm commando answered, straightening to a position of attention as spoke. “Will that be all, Admiral?”

“That will be all, Major,” Gilad replied. Torul turned toward the door but hesitated for the briefest of moments.

“What good is an Empire,” the major asked flatly, “without an Emperor?” Torul didn’t wait for an answer as he stepped through the opening doorway and left Pellaeon alone in the office. Gilad frowned as the surreal nature of the conversation he’d just experienced sank in. In his entire career, he’d never met a man more loyal to the Empire than Major Torul, yet the ex-storm commando’s words had just spoken what could easily be construed as treason. Pellaeon grimaced as he recalled the plans he had been implementing prior to this latest flare up of hostilities between the Empire and the insurgents occupying Imperial Center. Was he any different? Admittedly, he’d never planned on removing the Council from power, even if he had intended on limiting their ability to make policy. Torul’s parting words rang in his ears: what good is an Empire without an Emperor? What good indeed, Gilad wondered even as his thoughts took the major’s unstated implication to its logical conclusion.

They were dangerous thoughts.

|-*-|

He’d had far too much time to think.

His eyes riveted on the hyperspace tunnel beyond his cockpit, Captain Corran Horn fought back the urge to yawn. Twenty hours trapped in a tiny metal box was difficult enough, but knowing he would be facing Imperial TIEs in under five minutes only seemed to make the waiting that much worse. Exhaustion rode his shoulders and he realized he couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept in an actual bed.

“All right, Whistler,” Corran said to his astromech, “let’s get this party started.” The droid hooted a response and Horn smiled as he read the rapid translation. Evidently, the R2 unit was as eager to get this over with as he was.

A tendril of unease began threading its way into Corran’s awareness and he spent a moment trying to coax it into a fullscale Force warning. To his disgust, he was barely able to concentrate enough to recognize it as anything more than the pre-mission nerves he’d always suffered from. Too much time in the cockpit and too little rack-time were conspiring to affect his perceptions.

“Give me a ninety-second countdown,” he ordered as he fumbled for the stim-injector the Rogues had been assigned prior to departure. None of them had liked the idea of using drugs to compensate for lack of sleep, but in the end, they’d all agreed it would be necessary. This stage of Admiral Solo’s plan was critical and he needed the Rogues to be functional. With a grimace, he pressed the injector to his neck and depressed the button. Instantly, the fatigue he’d been fighting for more hours than he cared to consider receded. It wasn’t as good as a few hours of bunk time, but Corran felt a little more confident.

Whistler chirped a warning exactly ninety seconds before reversion to realspace and Corran spent the remaining time calming himself and running through the mental exercises Luke had taught him months earlier. He closed his eyes, inhaled slowly through his nose, drew the breath deep into his lungs, and finally expelled it through his mouth. With it went his fear and worry. All that remained was the mission.

A chime sounded and, beyond the cockpit, the white tunnel fell away into billions of sparkling stars. Out of the corner of his eye, Horn could see the flicker of pseudomotion announcing the arrival of the rest of Rogue Squadron. His wingman – the Gand Ooryl – waggled his wings slightly in greeting and Corran couldn’t help but to return the gesture. This was the first time he’d flown with the other Rogues in over a month, what with the admiral’s crazy but ultimately effective decision to spread them out among the fleet.

With the system’s sun between them and their target, their arrival seemed to have gone unnoticed and Corran gave his readouts another glance. The tension in his shoulders eased slightly as Whistler confirmed the lack of targets in sensor range. So far so good, Horn reflected as he fell into formation behind Rogues Seven and Eight.

The plan was deceptively simple: the Rogues would arrive on the spinward side of the system with the local star conceal their presence. At the same time, Independence and the rest of the Fifth would drop out of lightspeed in plain view of the target and begin maneuvering as if to conduct a major assault. Following standard procedure, the local Imperials would scramble their fighters, which would give the Rogues a clear shot at the drydocks. They would conduct a single strafing run, inflicting as much damage as possible, and then jump to lightspeed.

“This is Rogue Lead,” Wedge Antilles’ voice announced over the commline, “lock S-Foils in attack position.”

“And away we go,” Wes Janson remarked.

“Cut the chatter, Rogue Five,” Antilles ordered sharply. “Two flight, take the lead.”

“Copy, Rogue Leader.” There wasn’t a hint of worry or concern in Tycho’s voice as he spoke. “Eight, Nine, and Ten with me. We’re going in hot.”

“Copy, Seven.” Corran pushed the throttle forward and nudged his stick slightly to bring his X-Wing in line with Colonel Celchu’s snubfighter. Inyri Forge – Rogue Eight – slid into position alongside Tycho while Ooryl accelerated slightly to flank Horn’s snubfighter. Engines burning bright, the four X-Wings darted forward.

Alarms began to sound within the cockpit as they raced through star’s outer corona and sweat broke out across Corran’s brow. They were cutting it close, he admitted to himself as he glanced at the rad-detectors on his control panel, but the shields were holding and he trusted Tycho enough to know the Alderaanian wouldn’t put them at too much risk. And having the sun at their backs would also serve to further conceal their approach.

In the far distance, a massive drydock orbited the planet Byblos like an artificial moon. It was comprised of four immense spherical docking bays, each the size of an Executor-class dreadnought, surrounding an equally large central hemisphere. Hundreds of starships circled the drydocks like insects and Corran could just make out a trio of damaged star destroyers enclosed within one of the spheres.

Beyond the drydock, he could also see the unmistakable wedge-shape of the Independence and, based on the activity of the defending fighters, the plan was working to perfection as a steady stream of fighters were pouring in the direction of Admiral Solo’s flagship. Corran glanced at the digital counter in the upper corner of his screen and bit his lower lip.

Thirty seconds later, their attack formation was detected and the space around them was suddenly alive with turbolaser fire as the drydock defense systems came online. Designed for use against capital ships, the incoming fire was wildly inaccurate and Corran spent several heart-stopping moments slipping and sliding to present an even more difficult silhouette to target. Whistler squealed as explosive material battered the X-Wing’s shields and rattled Horn’s teeth.

“Mark your targets,” came Tycho’s collected voice. For all the emotion in his voice, he could be out for a lifeday drive in the family speeder. “Rogues Nine and Ten, concentrate fire on the port destroyer. Eight, you’re with me.”

“Copy, Seven,” Corran snapped.

“Ten complies,” Ooryl said a heartbeat later.

“Copy,” Inyri responded.

“Cover me, Ten,” Horn stated as he sent his X-Wing into a spiraling dive toward the designated warship. “Whistler, get me a target lock!”

Almost before he expected it, the star destroyer’s hull was looming before him. Corran’s eyes darted over the exposed warship before quickly locking onto the exposed fuel umbilicals connecting the destroyer to the drydock. He dropped the crosshairs onto the lines and squeezed the trigger. Instantly, the X-Wing’s cannons began spitting out a steady stream of crimson lasers. One of the umbilicals exploded immediately, followed rapidly a second and a third. Kicking his fighter into a roll, Corran fired a pair of proton torpedoes into the frozen fuel particles now spewing from the ruptured lines before pulling back hard on the flight stick.

The resulting explosion rocked his X-Wing and Whistler squealed with delight as the fuel tanks detonated, ripping into the outer hull of the motionless star destroyer and exposing its internal superstructure. Before Corran could comment, Ooryl inverted his own fighter and dove toward the gaping hole. The Gand fired a pair of torpedoes a second later and they vanished into the hull breach; a heartbeat later, fire erupted from within the star destroyer as the torpedoes detonated. Secondary explosions followed almost instantly and Horn grinned as he watched the immense warship tremble.

“Good shot, Ooryl!” Corran exclaimed. He snap-rolled into a trailing position behind his wingman, and the two of them darted toward the artificial canyon running the length of the destroyer’s starboard edge. Though it did little more than scratch the paint, Horn peppered the outer hull of the stationary warship with his quadlasers.

Twisting into a high arcing climb, Corran gave the drydock a quick glance. Chaos reigned as the rest of the Rogues pounced. Already, one of the destroyers was ablaze as internal fires systematically ripped it apart. General Antilles was leading another strafing run on a second destroyer and, in the moment before Corran decided to join them, the hair on the back of his neck stood up.

It was the only warning he had.

Streaking out of lightspeed, a squadron of Imperial starfighters surged toward the drydock, their weapons already chattering. Rogues Eleven and Twelve vanished in a maelstrom of fire and debris, unaware they were even in danger, and Rogue Three shuddered under the intensive barrage.

“Trips!” Corran shouted across the commline as he slewed his fighter around. Rogue Three – Lieutenant Scotian – was jinking for all she was worth as she tried to shake the trio of TIE Defenders on her tail, but her shields were already depleted and one of her starboard engines was damaged. Corran didn’t hesitate as he dropped his crosshairs on the nearest Defender and squeezed the trigger.

To his surprise, a pair of proton torpedoes screamed from the launch tubes and a part of him wondered if Whistler had changed the ordnance for him. The warheads flashed toward the state-of-the-art Imperial fighter and exploded against the Defender’s shields, collapsing them almost instantly. A half-second later, another pair of torpedoes – this time fired by the ever aware Ooryl – slammed into the tumbling Imp fighter, detonating with a fierce flash that ripped the craft apart.

A pair of the Defenders darted toward him and Corran rolled his fighter into a sharp, twisting dive their fire. Whistler was shrieking warnings to him but he didn’t have the time to glance at the translation screen as one of the TIEs slid into a pursuit course. The X-Wing rocked as his shields absorbed fire from the Defender and Horn cursed at how rapidly his defenses were being depleted. He sideslipped to starboard, then banked hard toward the drydock.

“This is Rogue Leader,” Wedge’s voice sounded across the commline. “All fighters abort.” It was the retreat code but Corran barely noticed as he corkscrewed his X-Wing around the protruding structures of the drydock and skimmed its surface. Still, his pursuer remained on his tail and Horn felt the first flicker of fear. He glanced at Whistler’s datastream and breathed a curse at the droid’s confirmation that the Defender bore the signature scarlet bloodstripe of the 181st.

The Force hinted at a possible escape route and Corran was diving toward it before he consciously realized he’d made the decision to take the chance. He felt a subtle mindtouch in the millisecond before the pursuing TIE Defender followed him into the burning hulk that had once been a star destroyer, weapons still barking a steady stream of emerald fire. Sithspawn, Corran realized with mounting horror, this bastard is Force-sensitive!

“Whistler,” he growled as he snap-rolled around burning debris within the cavernous launch bay of the shattered star destroyer, “two second delay torp!” The droid hooted in response as Corran triggered a burst of laser fire at tumbling wreckage to clear his path. He inverted the fighter and dove toward the nearest exposed hull breach; it was too small, he realized with mild panic, even though it was too late to change his course. “Drop them now!” he shouted a half-second before his fighter reached the breach.

With a horrific shriek of protesting metal, his port S-Foils were ripped free and the impact sent the X-Wing tumbling end over end. Gravity slammed into Corran with the force of a runaway speeder and he felt some of his ribs crack under the sudden pressure. Whistler howled something, but Corran was too busy struggling against the G-forces pinning him to his seat to pay it any attention. Another explosion slammed into his X-Wing with impossible force and, for a single extended moment, he saw nothing but stars as his helmet ricocheted off of his control panel. Fire seemed to stab through his left leg and he screamed out in agony as a shard of metal punched through the cockpit and half-severed the limb. Already, the hiss of escaping oxygen could be heard but Corran barely noticed.

“Whistler,” he gasped as he reached for the ejection controls, “… need … help.” His vision swam out of focus and Corran struggled to stay conscious. Through the cracked transparisteel canopy, he could just make out the distorted shape of a crippled TIE Defender slowly tumbling through space and the urge to laugh maniacally at his pursuer’s similar fate overwhelmed him. A chime sounded and, to his stunned disbelief, the stars elongated and vanished into the distinctive white tunnel of hyperspace. Darkness beckoned and Corran closed his eyes.

A second later, he knew nothing more.

Rigil Kent
13 October 2008, 08:55 PM
CHAPTER 6

SHE had known this was going to be a mistake.

Her face hidden from view, Leia Organa-Solo leaned forward in her seat and tried to keep from frowning at the sight before her. The decision to visit an observer’s booth in the Senate had been a spur of the moment impulse brought on by Doctor Cilghal’s official – and, in Leia’s opinion, long overdue – pronouncement that she was sufficiently recovered from her injuries to resume full-time duties. It had been pure happenstance that the Senatorial Subcommittee on Military Affairs was meeting tonight though Leia suspected her brother would call it the will of the Force.

From her vantage point in the observer’s booth, Leia could easily see the faces of the subcommittee members as they grilled Fleet Admiral Garm Bel Iblis on the state of the ongoing hostilities with the Imperial Remnant. Ackbar’s presence as a senator was still something of a shock to her despite the months since his election and, judging by the retired admiral’s foul-looking expression, she believed it was safe to assume he felt the same way. It was also rather telling that the Mon Calamari was now clearly in the minority on the subcommittee; where only months earlier, he had been acclaimed as a new voice of sanity, reason, and change in the Senate and had even co-authored the ‘death to smuggler’s’ bill with Fey’lya, Ackbar had recently been marginalized now that he was no longer of any use to the Bothan’s political aims.

Leia completely emphasized with the retired admiral.

If she were honest with herself, Leia would have to admit that she wasn’t surprised at how quickly Fey’lya had moved to capitalize on her injury or Mon Mothma’s death; as a Bothan, he was genetically hardwired to take advantage of an opportunity placed before him, no matter how reprehensible doing so was to anyone else. What still left her reeling in absolute disbelief was how quickly the people she’d once thought of as political allies or even friends fell into step behind the Bothan after he made his barely legal power grab nearly six months earlier. Sentients whom she routinely dined with were suddenly unwilling to return her calls or agree to meet with her and Leia shivered at the sense of déjà vu it evoked. Though she’d grown up knowing that Palpatine had used the system to seize control of the floundering Republic, she’d been convinced history would never repeat itself so soon after the deposed tyrant’s death.

Now, however, she wasn’t so sure.

Frustration mounting, Leia tuned out the back-and-forth between the subcommittee chairman and Admiral Bel Iblis. Garm was an old hand at this sort of thing and she knew he could hold his own against even a vile opportunist like Viqi Shesh, the Kuati senator who seemed to have Fey’lya’s ear on all subjects no matter how minor or trivial. Her star was rising rapidly, despite how recent Kuat’s defection to the Republic was.

“Lady Solo,” a gravelly voice sounded near her ear and Leia jumped involuntarily with surprise before shooting the speaker an annoyed look. She hated it when he did that. Cakhmaim stood a bare half meter away, his expression one of disgruntled irritation and Leia couldn’t stop herself from flashing him a guilty grin.

“That was fast,” she remarked before reaching for the silver torc around her neck. Though it appeared to be little more than decorative jewelry, it was actually a miniature holographic transmitter. Once activated, the torc allowed her to conceal her appearance for short periods of time behind a false image. It was, to no one’s surprise, astoundingly useful for both intelligence gathering and avoidance of the holoshills who erroneously called themselves journalists. Lando had given it to her for her last lifeday and eventually revealed how he’d ‘liberated’ it from Mount Tantiss on Wayland. Despite its applications as a smuggler’s or spy’s tool, it had actually been a joke gift; to Han’s barely hidden irritation, Lando then began flirting mercilessly with her, often implying the item could be used once Leia tired of her husband’s affections. She would have been annoyed at Calrissian’s attentions if she hadn’t been amused at how much it irked Han.

To her slight surprise, Cakhmaim’s hand shot out and caught her fingers before she could deactivate the holographic cloaking field. He shook his head sharply before quickly glancing around the observation booth. Leia gave him a fractional nod of understanding and let her hands drop.

“Leaving without informing us is dangerous,” the Noghri growled. “We are not the only ones capable of tracking by scent.”

“I know it was dangerous,” Leia admitted softly, her eyes turning back to the subcommittee hearing, “but I had to get away to do some thinking.”

“It is difficult to think,” Cakhmaim groused, “when one is dead.” Leia smiled at his gruff demeanor; she wasn’t fooled for a second by the false anger in his voice, not after having seen him playing with Jaina and Jacen earlier this week like a favorite uncle.

“Noted,” she stated before rising to her feet with barely a twinge of pain. Doctor Cilghal had assured her it would take some time before she was back to one hundred percent, but had promised Leia it was possible as long as she continued her daily exercises, something she wasn’t looking forward to. Unlike Luke, she hated swimming with a passion, no matter how good exercise it was. If nature had intended for her to swim, Leia mused, she would have been born with gills. “I’m done here anyway,” she informed the Noghri, giving the committee hearing one last glance. Tomorrow, she would begin the long process of officially rejoining the Senate and fighting Fey’lya’s insanity from the inside; it was already looking to be a long and difficult process.

The utterance of her husband’s name by one of the subcommittee members caused her attention to snap back to the proceedings. Bel Iblis was responding to a question about Han’s recent military engagements with the Empire and Leia fought back a sigh. It had been nearly three months since she’d last seen Han in person. Their parting had been bittersweet and tense, especially with his unspoken assumption she was behind his reactivation and promotion. Though she’d tried to convince him otherwise, Leia doubted he believed her.

Attempts to determine exactly who was behind Han’s reactivation had so far come up empty, even if common sense pointed toward Fey’lya being the responsible party. No matter how much she disliked the Bothan, she had to admit this particular gambit was nothing short of brilliant. By manipulating events so it appeared to everyone else that Leia was responsible for Han’s reactivation, Borsk managed to keep his own hands clean. And, following the line of reasoning Fey’lya undoubtedly utilized, the moment Solo fell flat on his face, it would be upon Leia’s shoulders that the political backlash would land. It was a dangerous gamble.

And it was failing utterly. Where every other fleet commander struggled against Imperial battle plans, Han was thriving. Leia had read enough of his status reports to recognize some of the tactics he was using as old smuggler’s tricks scaled up for fleet actions. His recent successes – and the out-of-the-box thinking that inspired those victories – had turned him into a media darling, earning him a nickname among the news outlets that always caused Leia to laugh: the Princess’ Pirate.

“We have news about Jedi Skywalker,” Cakhmaim murmured, his words shattering Leia’s train of thought. She gave the Noghri a wide-eyed look and gestured sharply for him to speak but he gave the observation booth a quick once-over before shaking his head once more. She understood at once: this location wasn’t secure enough for his tastes.

“My office then?” she asked, suspecting he already had a team lurking there. He confirmed that suspicion with a quick nod. “Lead the way,” Leia instructed eagerly as she quickstepped toward the door.

They were given a wide berth by the few people present in the hallways leading to her office, prompting Leia to wonder if Cakhmaim had cleared the route in advance. When they entered her office, she was unsurprised to see Winter waiting for them. Three other Noghri were present, though they lurked mostly out of sight.

“We have a confirmed sighting of Jedi Skywalker on Obulette,” Cakhmaim related once the door was shut and anti-surveillance equipment activated. As Leia removed the uncomfortable torc, the Noghri inserted a recording disk into the desk viewer. Seconds later, a fuzzy hologram flickered into existence and Leia frowned at the poor resolution. She recognized her brother immediately as he dueled with a group of lightsaber-wielding figures aboard a loading skiff. Mara Jade suddenly entered the image and, for a half moment, Leia felt her distrust and fear of the redhead flare. It vanished quickly, though, once she realized the ex-assassin was fighting alongside Luke to defeat their mysterious foes. Not for the first time, Leia wondered if she had perhaps misjudged Jade.

“How old is this data?” she asked as the poor quality hologram struggled to keep up with the short-lived but amazingly brutal fight.

“Twenty-five days,” Cakhmaim admitted sourly. The holo froze and stuttered, fragmenting into a disjointed mess Leia couldn’t possibly begin to identify. A moment later, it resumed though some short amount of time had obviously passed. The lightsaber-wielding foes were all down and five people had joined Luke and Jade; three of these newcomers were the missing Noghri and Leia’s eyes widened in recognition of the fourth.

“That’s Talon Karrde,” she stated in mild surprise. “I don’t recognize the woman though.” She gave Winter a glance.

“Nor do I, Your Highness,” Winter answered the unspoken question. Without asking for permission, the white-haired woman reached forward and backed up the holo, freezing it on a fairly clear image of one of Luke’s foes. She frowned. “If I’m not mistaken,” Winter said softly, “this is Mace Windu, a Jedi Master who died the day before Palpatine declared himself Emperor.”

“A clone?” Leia mused aloud, memories of C’baoth suddenly springing to mind. She bit the inside of her lip as she absorbed this new information. The Imperials certainly weren’t acting like they had a Force user augmenting their abilities; if anything, they seemed as out of step and confused as the Republic. A third party trying to manipulate both sides then? It certainly explained Luke’s sudden disappearance however. A flicker of annoyance flared within Leia’s stomach at the frozen visual of her brother standing alongside Jade. If there were Jedi clones running loose, why hadn’t Luke contacted her or the Republic for assistance instead of traveling around with an ex-assassin? Why should he, Leia’s conscience murmured caustically, when all you’ve done for the last year is insult the woman he may or may not be sleeping with?

She tried not to wince at that.

“Much of the data involving Jedi Skywalker was wiped clean,” Cakhmaim continued grimly, “and there was no indication of who erased it.” His ominous statement sent a shiver up her back.

“Keep looking,” Leia ordered. “I want to know immediately if you find anything new.”

“As you wish, Lady Solo.” The Noghri bowed slightly and backed away, leaving Leia relatively alone with a distracted-looking Winter. Before she could inquire about her old friend’s lack of focus, C-3PO’s voice echoed out of a nearby speaker.

“Mistress Winter,” the droid said eagerly, “Guardsman-Lieutenant Quin has arrived for his appointment with you.”

Leia smiled at the utterance of the name and silently nodded in approval to Winter. Six months earlier during the attack that claimed Mon Mothma’s life, Lieutenant Tyris Quin had been the last person Leia recalled seeing before passing out. He was still alive and fighting when additional Guardsmen arrived to aid him against the assassins and stood watch over Leia until Han and Chewie arrived. Since recovering, she’d made several attempts to contact him to express her personal gratitude for his heroism, but their schedules consistently clashed and the lieutenant always had an excuse not to meet her. Before he left for the Independence, Han had admitted running into the same problem, prompting Leia to wonder if the Guardsman was trying to avoid her for some reason.

“He doesn’t know you’re here,” Winter stated and Leia nodded before quickly donning the holo-torc once more. The moment it activated, Winter depressed the transmit button on the wall speaker and spoke.

“Send him in, Threepio,” she instructed.

The man who entered a moment later was nothing like Leia expected. His dark brown hair was cropped short in a military buzz cut and his posture was unmistakably that of a soldier but he was otherwise so unremarkable Leia doubted she would have even looked at him twice if he passed her in a crowd. The moment he stepped into the office, his eyes narrowed and his step faltered.

“Lieutenant Quin,” Winter greeted with a smile. “Thank you for coming.” Her smile broadened as the man’s eyes continued to dart back and forth between Leia and the silent Noghri behind her. “Senator Solo again expresses her desire to meet to personally thank you for saving her life.”

“I have no desire to be used to score political points,” Quin replied sourly. His voice was rough, like coarse sandpaper upon wood, and his eyes zeroed in on Leia. Abruptly, he exhaled sharply and a sense of resignation suddenly seemed to roll off of him. To her surprise, he gave her a tight salute.

“Your Highness,” he said by way of greeting. Leia blinked before exchanging a quick look with Winter; the white-haired woman’s surprised look – a slight semaphoring of the eyebrows, which was a gasp of astonishment for anyone else – assured Leia that the holo-torc was still functioning.

“You did that with very few clues,” Leia announced before removing the torc a second time. “I would be very interested in knowing how.” Quin grunted.

“Simple observation, Your Highness,” he answered. “Lady Winter is not of sufficient importance to merit four Noghri.” He gave the woman in question a half-glance. “No offense was intended.”

“None was taken,” Winter said in response, smirking as she spoke.

“Regardless,” Leia smiled, “it’s good to finally meet you.” She took a half-step toward the Guardsman, intending on shaking his hand, but hesitated at the air of discomfort still hanging over the man. Leia frowned at his reaction; for a highly trained soldier, he seemed strangely uncomfortable being around her.

“I’ve not had the opportunity to thank you for saving my life,” she stated. Quin shifted awkwardly, still not making eye contact.

“I was merely doing my duty, Your Highness,” the man replied. He gave Cakhmaim a sidelong glance, eyes still narrowed. At the same time, the Noghri grunted slightly and returned the appraising look. In that moment, the two reminded Leia of wild animals encountering one another for the first time. The only things missing were low snarls and the requisite sniffing of crotches. Men, she snorted to herself with a mental eye roll.

“You’re from Alderaan,” Winter declared abruptly. Quin gave her a quick glance and Leia could almost see him reevaluating her in that brief examination.

“I am,” he admitted tightly.

“And Echani-trained,” Cakhmaim growled. The Noghri sniffed loudly before visibly tensing. “You were a Royal Guardsman,” he said sharply. Instantly, the three other Noghri flowed forward, long-bladed knives appearing in their hands as if magically summoned. Winter took several quick steps backwards, getting clear of the Guardsman, and Leia’s hand instinctively tightened around the lightsaber Luke had crafted for her currently hidden in her clothes.

But surprisingly, Quin didn’t move.

“I was,” he admitted softly, “until Alderaan.”

The air went out of Leia’s lungs as her grief for the lost planet swelled up within her. Without trying, she could still hear Tarkin’s bleak pronouncement of doom, could feel Vader’s unyielding hand on her shoulder, could taste the bitter terror as she watched her homeworld die. The moment was forever stamped in her memory and she felt tears prickle her eyes. It hardly seemed possible that an entire decade had passed since that day.

“Stop,” she ordered harshly. The four Noghri froze in place and Leia stepped closer to the yet unmoving Guardsman. Cakhmaim’s sharp intake of breath warned her that she’d gotten too close for his taste but she ignored it as she stared into the eyes of the lieutenant before her, reaching out with her fledgling Force skills to determine his loyalties. He was an oddly difficult man to read. “You left Palpatine’s service after Alderaan?” she asked.

“I tried to leave after Alderaan, Your Highness,” Quin corrected darkly. A wave of remembered pain pulsed off of him and Leia winced at its intensity. “Leaving Imperial service was not something done easily,” he pointed out flatly. “Especially for a Royal Guardsman.”

“You could have joined the Alliance,” Leia stated and the lieutenant gave her a tight-lipped smile devoid of actual humor.

“Do you know how difficult it was to actually find an actual member of the Rebel Alliance, Your Highness?” he asked. Leia wasn’t sure if it was meant to be a rhetorical question or not but she took it as one and instead asked the one question that simply had to be asked.

“Are you loyal to the Republic?”

“In its current incarnation,” Quin answered carefully, “I am not.” The caution he took in phrasing the reply implied a deeper meaning and Leia gave him a measuring look. He returned her gaze with a blank expression, his eyes revealing no hint of his thoughts. Once again, she stretched out with the Force in an attempt to gain a better measure of the man before her and, once again, she sensed very little. He was a living being and growing more uncomfortable in her presence by the second, but beyond that … nothing. Not for the first time, Leia silently cursed herself for not focusing more on the training Luke had offered so many times in the years since Endor.

“Explain,” she ordered tersely.

“I do not trust the chancellor,” the guardsman stated flatly. “His ambitions and goals appear…” He trailed off, frowning as he sought the proper word.

“Imperial,” Winter offered. Quin grimaced.

“Not the word I would have used,” he remarked, “but an apt description nonetheless.”

“There are a number of people who don’t trust Fey’lya,” Leia began but Quin interrupted.

“I know what you are going to ask, Your Highness,” he declared sharply, “and I must decline.” He quickly raised a hand to forestall her next comments. “I am a Guardsman,” the lieutenant stated, “and my mandate is protection, not political action. No matter how much I may dislike a senator, I am still charged to defending them with my life.”

“There comes a time in any conflict,” Leia pointed out ominously, “when free sentients must choose a side.”

“And there are other times,” Quin retorted, “when a soldier must simply follow orders.” His expression darkened. “It is essential that the Senatorial Guard remain apolitical, Your Highness,” he argued dispassionately, “lest they become the power behind the throne.” Quin inclined his head slightly. “If you will excuse me, Your Highness,” he said, “I must return to my duties.” Leia responded with the slightest of nods that served as dismissal.

“That went well,” Winter remarked the moment the Guardsman was gone.

“It did, didn’t it?” Leia gave her old friend a smile before turning away, her mind racing. Winter’s research into Quin had already uncovered most of what he had revealed moments earlier and careful observation had indicated an apolitical stance more pronounced than that of his fellow Guardsmen. His disdain for Fey’lya hadn’t been anticipated, but it certainly made things easier. If she knew the Bothan, he would start over-extending himself in this latest power grab and begin making mistakes that would ultimately force Quin to take a side. Leia smiled.

Everything was going as planned.

|-*-|

Nothing was going as planned.

Hiding his growing concern behind a false smile, Lando Calrissian slowly made his way through the banquet hall, shaking hands and nodding friendly greetings to sentients he barely knew or cared to know. He took care to make eye contact with the wealthier attendees to the banquet as he did his best to sooth offended egos and ruffled feathers, sometimes literally. The party to celebrate his one-year anniversary as the governor of Socorro had seemed like a good idea at the time, especially as it came on the heels of the successfully balanced budget. It certainly hadn’t been his idea to include mortal enemies on the guest list however and he made a mental note to have the droid responsible reprogrammed or, depending upon his mood after this nightmarish party, scrapped entirely.

“Glad you could make it, Minister,” Lando said as he gripped the hand of a burly Twi’lek. The grumbled response was slightly worrisome, but Calrissian pretended not to notice. Instead, he gestured for one of the nearby waiters. “Have you tried the elvabird?” he queried of the disgruntled Twi’lek while helping himself to the proffered tray. “It’s exceptional, especially for this time of year.”

“I have not,” the scarlet-hued male replied stiffly. His eyes remained locked on a Rodian delegate on the other side of the banquet hall and his lekku twitched rapidly. Though he didn’t entirely understand the language of the Twi’leki brain tails, Lando knew enough to recognize an impending catastrophe, especially when these two were involved. He didn’t know the specifics about the feud between them, only that over the years both had spent considerable sums of money trying to destroy the other. It took less than a second for Lando to make a decision which of the two he could afford to offend; as discreetly as he could manage, he signaled to the protection detail and nodded in the direction of the corpulent Rodian currently making a spectacle of himself near the wine table. The moment the twin security officers flanked the Rodian, the Twi’lek smiled thinly and hefted his glass slightly in Lando’s direction as if making a toast. “To your health, Governor,” he remarked.

“No, Minister,” Calrissian replied as he raised his own glass. “To your health.”

He managed to avert several other similar incidents over the next few minutes, all the while wondering how he’d been talked into this ridiculous job. When he had been approached by representatives of his homeworld of Socorro and offered the governorship of the Outer Rim planet, Lando had jumped at the opportunity. The destruction of Nomad City during Thrawn’s campaign of terror had left him nearly penniless and without immediate prospects, so the idea of spending a term or two as a planetary administrator was strangely appealing. He’d been around the galaxy enough to know that the real money was in politics and, if he played his cards right, this little stint could easily open doors to much larger opportunities in the future.

To his disgust, though, he’d quickly discovered the situation on Socorro was far, far worse than anyone wanted to admit. Crippling poverty had ravaged most of the citizens of the planet and crime was so rampant one would almost think the Hutts were in control. To combat these problems, a series of government programs had been put into place over the decades since Lando left home, each more expensive and useless than the one before it. One of his first acts as governor had been to slash the wasteful spending on failing social programs and redirect those monies into obtaining offworld investment. At the same time, he called in favors and hired an elite security firm out of Corellia to begin policing the lawless planet. None of his reforms made him any friends and each day was more nerve wracking than the previous, but Socorro was finally turning the corner and returning to prosperity.

Lando spent ten more long minutes meeting and greeting, laughing at appropriate times, and keeping an eye on the chronometer. His tenure as the baron-administrator of Cloud City had taught him the value of time management; rarely did an hour pass without some minor crisis requiring his personal attention flaring up. At a banquet such as this one, maintaining the illusion of being busy even when he wasn’t was all important. Venture capitalists weren’t interested in administrators who appeared to have too much time on their hands after all.

The low buzz of conversation drew his attention toward the dance floor and Lando paused for a long moment as he took in the couple currently occupying the spotlight. They flowed across the floor with unbelievable grace and agility, easily outshining every other couple or – in one odd case – trio present. The woman’s dress was cut along Imperial lines and was several years out of fashion, but that did nothing to mitigate its appeal. A high-collar, long sleeves, gloves, and tall boots offered a demure appearance quite at odds with the almost scandalous way the ankle-length body-dress hugged her exquisite curves. Raven-black hair fell to her waist – when it wasn’t whirling through the air during her twirling spins – nearly vanishing against the dark blue of her clothes. Her emerald eyes glittered brightly as she laughed and smiled at her partner. Lando recognized her at once.

Mara Jade.

It took Lando a few seconds longer to identify the man dancing with her as Luke Skywalker. The Jedi’s hair was dyed black as well and the neatly trimmed goatee on Luke’s chin further altered his appearance just enough to make recognition difficult. His clothes were a similar hue of blue and were exquisitely tailored, prompting Lando to suspect Mara had picked them out since Luke’s fashion sense was rudimentary at best. Calrissian released a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding even as he mentally kicked himself for not instantly recognizing his old friend, especially given how the sludgenews were once again claiming the couple was romantically involved, this time claiming they had eloped in the wake of Luke’s sister’s continued disapproval of Jade as a mate for her brother. Always before, Lando had simply discarded the rumors of any sexual connection between Luke and Mara, but seeing them on the floor together like this gave him cause to question his previous assumptions. In his experience, no woman could look at a man the way Jade was smiling at Skywalker and there not be some sort of deeper feeling behind it.

You are one brave man, Luke Skywalker, Lando mentally saluted his friend while slowly inching toward the dance floor. He almost felt like an interloper when Mara caught sight of him; her laughter dwindled away and her eyes hardened almost instantly. She whispered something to Luke, something Calrissian couldn’t hear, and Skywalker gave her a quick nod before heading toward the nearest wine table. Lando recognized his cue and stepped forward instantly.

“Greetings,” he smiled in his smoothest tone though his heart truly wasn’t in it. If he was entirely honest, Jade scared him to death. He’d certainly never admit it to her, though. “I’m Governor Lando Calrissian.”

“Celina Marniss,” Jade told him with a false smile. She offered her hand in greeting and he kissed the back of it while flashing another smile.

“Welcome to Socorro, Madam,” he said. “Would you do me the honor of this dance?” She accepted with a slight inclination of her head and allowed him to lead her back to the dance floor. “What brings you to Socorro, Mistress Marniss?” Lando inquired as the band began a much more sedate piece. He exhaled slightly in relief, glad he wouldn’t have to try to keep up with the pace she and Luke had been setting earlier.

“My husband and I represent certain … financial interests,” she announced, her normally subtle Coruscanti accent now crisp and pronounced, “who are exploring the notion of investment here on your quaint little world.” She gave him a completely humorless smile as she pirouetted on the dance floor and Lando barely kept from shivering at the lack of human emotion in the smirk. For the briefest of moments, his mind locked onto a single word as his thoughts about her and Luke from only moments earlier resurfaced: husband. It was almost enough to make him laugh out loud. “My associates would very much like to arrange a personal meeting with you in order to get better acquainted,” she continued, still smiling that emotionless smile. “Such an arrangement would no doubt be a lucrative one for all parties involved.”

“That’s pretty vague, Madam,” Lando pointed out carefully. The phrasing of her comments was deliberate and he recognized the distinctive code Talon Karrde had worked out with him months earlier. Calrissian struggled to conceal his surprise. How the hell had the wily info-merchant managed to get Luke Skywalker to work for him?

“These are difficult times, Governor,” Jade replied, her perfect teeth flashing with another false smile. “It is often difficult to know who to trust in these dangerous times.” The dance ended and Lando gave her a stiff bow before responding.

“Socorro is neutral in this conflict, Madam,” he said loudly so his words could be heard by every one of the eavesdroppers. It was good for business, both legal and illegal, to advertise that fact whenever possible. “We are open to all interests – Imperial and Republic – but don’t bring your war to my doorstep.” Jade’s smile vanished and she revealed no indication whether she had picked up on his coded reply. Damn, she’s good.

“Yes,” she stated coldly, “we would hate to see a repeat of what happened on Bespin.” Without further comment, she turned on her heel and strode away from him. As if by magic, the crowded parted for her, though Lando suspected it might have something to do with her foul expression; he wondered idly if she was simply faking the poor temper or really was in a bad mood because he ruined her dance with Luke. He really hoped it was the former. Donning a wry smile, he winked at the nearest banquet attendee and headed for a cluster of quietly conversing financiers he recognized from the Goroth system.

Another hour passed before he managed to find a legitimate excuse to duck out of the party. Leaving his executive assistant to cover his disappearance, Lando made a beeline for his personal office, pausing only long enough to make sure he wasn’t being pursued by overzealous security officers. Just to be safe, he deactivated the tracer in his comlink and set the personal alert transponder his security personnel insisted he wear to ‘do not disturb’. It was a common enough occurrence, one the protection detail generally referred to as Bimbo Hour even though it was usually just Lando finding a little time alone so he could relax.

“You sure took your time,” Jade snapped the moment he entered his office and Lando jumped in surprise at the unexpected comment. The ex-assassin was lounging in his desk chair while Luke stood before the shelf of antique books Calrissian kept as a way to impress visitors.

“I’m not even going to ask how you got past my security,” Lando muttered as he sealed the door behind him. He then turned toward Skywalker and offered his hand. “Good to see you again, Luke,” he remarked.

“Likewise,” Skywalker replied as he shook Lando’s hand. A subtle whir sounded from the gloved limb, causing Calrissian to frown slightly. Before he could comment, Jade spoke up.

“Can we skip the tearful reunion?” she asked caustically, shifting awkwardly in the chair. “We’re in a hurry and I’d really like to get out of this stupid dress.”

“Ever the diplomat I see,” Lando chuckled. He ignored the glare she sent him as he walked toward the desk, flanked by Skywalker.

“She’s right, though,” Luke interjected. “We are in a hurry and the less time we spend on Socorro, the better.”

“Right,” Calrissian drawled, eyes darting back and forth between the two. He abruptly blinked when he realized Jade had already cracked his computer codes and was rapidly paging through the data in search of something. Making a mental note to fire his slicer, he shook his head. “Here,” he offered, leaning forward to input a command. “I think this is what you’re looking for.”

“That it is,” she replied as documents pertaining to a trio of recently incarcerated smugglers began crawling across the screen. Lando stepped back to give the pair some space to digest the information and took a moment to study them in silence. It didn’t escape his notice how Jade hardly seemed to notice when the Jedi unconsciously invaded her personal space, something he doubted she allowed anyone else to do. In fact, if Lando wasn't mistaken, she actually seemed to lean toward Luke slightly and, when Skywalker knelt beside her, she shifted the chair’s position to give him a little more room. He filed the observation away for later.

“These navcomp coordinates are useless,” Jade muttered, pointing to one of the digital readouts. She had gained some weight since the last time Lando had seen her and was no longer on the unhealthy side of thin. Luke too appeared to be in better shape than Calrissian recalled and Lando quickly clamped down on the urge to smile when he began speculating on what sorts of exercises they could be doing together.

“But the cargo list tracks with what we already knew,” Skywalker said in response.

“Which doesn’t help if we don’t know where they were going!” came the sharp reply. The two shot one another heated looks that Lando couldn’t possibly decipher and the moment stretched out in silence. Finally, Calrissian spoke up.

“Can I ask why you’re tracking clones?” he asked. Instantly, two sets of eyes locked onto him.

“How did-” Luke started to wonder but Mara spoke over him.

“Why do you think we’re tracking clones?” She gave Skywalker a sharp glance which he returned before shrugging slightly.

“I’ve read the cargo manifest, Miss Jade,” Lando reminded her. “That’s a laundry list for the construction or repair of Spaarti cylinders.” Once again, the two exchanged long looks. This time, it was Mara who shrugged.

“Someone is sending clones of dead Jedi after us,” Luke stated simply.

“After Skywalker,” Jade corrected. “Karrde linked the idiots your people nabbed to a series of mysterious shipments for a dummy corporation operating in this sector.”

“Stang,” Lando breathed. “Jedi clones?” He shook his head. “I take it they can use the Force like C’baoth.”

“It’s worse than that,” Skywalker declared. “They’ve been fitted with some sort of neural implant which allows new clones to learn from the mistakes of the old ones.”

“Imperials?” Calrissian wondered, making the logical connection. To his surprise, the Jedi shrugged.

“We don’t know,” Luke answered. “Talon believes the implants are coming from the Corporate Sector, but he doesn’t know what company.”

“And right now, he doesn’t have the manpower to follow up on that investigation,” Mara muttered sourly. She made a hand gesture encompassing herself and Skywalker. “Hence,” she added, “Luke and I are doing the legwork.”

“Socorro is pretty far from the Corporate Sector,” Lando pointed out while biting the inside of his lip to keep from smiling again. He wondered if he’d ever heard Mara Jade refer to anyone by their first name before. For that matter, he wondered if she was even aware of doing it.

“We’re pursuing all leads,” the redhead retorted. “We were hoping to follow these clowns,” Jade added, gesturing toward the computer screen while she spoke, “to their drop point.”

“And?”

“Never happened.” Mara exhaled in frustration before leaning back in the chair. “The buyers didn’t show, your people arrested these bloody losers, and all we’ve got is another dead end.”

“Has Karrde contacted the Kaminoans?” Lando asked, crossing his arms so he could cradle his chin with one hand. The blank look he received from the two was almost amusing.

“Who?” Luke asked.

“Kaminoans,” Calrissian repeated. “They’re cloners. Reputed to be the best in the galaxy.”

“And you know this how?” Jade demanded. Lando chuckled.

“I did some research after Thrawn' started using clones,” he admitted. “It was in regards to a business proposition that ultimately didn’t pan out.”

“It’s someplace to start,” Luke mused aloud, once again leaning toward Jade. She grunted in a very unladylike fashion.

“Not much of one,” she groused. “And there’s still the Corporate Sector to look into.”

“Leave that to me,” Lando said abruptly. The words tumbled out of his mouth before he even realized he’d spoken and, had he not been confident of his ability to resist it, he’d have accused Luke of using that Jedi mind tricks on him. “I’ve got a scheduled fact finding mission to Etti IV next week,” he admitted, smirking slightly at the way Mara busied herself with the computer. “Which,” Lando added, “the lovely Miss Jade obviously knows about.”

“Mara!” Luke groaned. She shrugged.

“Rule one: use the best tool for the job,” Jade remarked as Skywalker shook his head in exasperation.

“Remind me never to play sabaac with you,” Lando snickered. He pretended not to notice how Luke watched Mara as she stood, especially when the Jedi’s eyes drank in how Jade’s muscles moved under her dress. So he is human after all, Lando smirked before quickly deciding to harass his friend in the only way he knew. “I’d ask you if you wanted to join me,” Calrissian said to Jade with an exaggerated leer as he once more took Mara’s hand to kiss it, “but I suspect you have your hands full keeping Luke out of trouble.”

“I’m not that bad,” Skywalker retorted, causing Jade to flash an honest smile in the Jedi’s direction.

“Yes, you are,” she corrected glibly. “It’s a full time job,” Jade confided to Calrissian in a stage whisper, “but somebody has to do it.”

“Do you have the coordinates for these Kaminoans?” Luke asked sourly in an attempt to change the subject. Mara laughed lightly at the Jedi’s disgruntled expression but Lando nodded and input another series of commands into his computer.

“It’s here,” he answered, “just south of the Rishi Maze.”

“In Wild Space,” Jade muttered, her amusement fading quickly. “Lovely.” She gave Luke a sidelong look. “You sure know how to show a girl a good time, Skywalker,” she growled. “What’s next? Mustafar? Or maybe Kessel?”

“Well, I am thinking about building a summer home on Hoth,” Luke quipped with a smile. “You can contact us through Talon,” he told Calrissian before offering his hand. “Thanks again, Lando.”

“Think nothing of it, Luke,” Calrissian said with a broad smile as he took Luke’s hand and shook it. “I’ve got business in the Corporate Sector anyway.”

“Let’s go, Skywalker,” Jade ordered. At the doorway, she paused and gave Skywalker a glance. Without warning, she reached out her hand and began messing up his hair. He recoiled in surprise.

“What are you doing?” Luke demanded as she shook her head to dislodge her own perfectly coiffed hair.

“Giving us an excuse to be somewhere we shouldn’t be in case Calrissian’s security people grow a brain,” she replied. “Now stop squirming and let me finish.”

Seconds later, they were gone, leaving Lando alone in his office. He sank down into the chair, shifting uncomfortably at the residual body heat left behind by Jade, and cupped his chin. Second thoughts raced through his mind as he reflected on what he’d just learned. Jedi clones and neural implants now? None of it added up. Lando sighed before pulling up his itinerary for the Corporate Sector trip.

What did I just get myself into?

|-*-|

How do I keep getting into these sorts of situations?

The thought flashed through his head as Wedge Antilles scrambled for better cover. Blaster bolts screamed by him, exploding against the duracrete wall he was hugging and he bit back a curse as stone shrapnel sliced a gash across his cheek. A hail of weapons fire from the Rogues he was trying to join covered his mad dash across the open street but Wedge barely noticed as adrenalin and fear temporarily robbed him of common sense. He snapped off a couple of poorly aimed shots in the direction of the attacking stormtroopers before ducking around a corner, still wondering how they’d got onto the planet without being detected.

“Good morning, General!” Hobbie shouted from where he was crouching behind an overturned speeder, blaster pistol in hand. “Nice of you to join us!”

“Sorry I was late,” Wedge retorted as he slapped a new ammo pack into his blaster pistol. He kept his head low as he half-squatted, half-ran to join Klivian. “What’s our status?” he demanded quickly.

“Inyri’s been hit,” Wes Janson growled harshly from where he crouched over the woman in question and Wedge’s breath caught at how still she was. He had been aware of the semi-covert relationship between Inyri Forge and Janson ever since it began months earlier and had gone out of his way to cover their ridiculous attempts at secrecy. It didn’t matter to him that he couldn’t begin to understand how she was able to deal with Wes on a daily basis without going insane; the only important thing was that they appeared to be happy together. When asked about it, Inyri had told Hobbie that Janson made her laugh and, right now, she needed that more than anything else. Until this moment, Wedge had simply assumed it was a casual thing, that the two were friends who were occasionally more than just friends or that it was just a way for both of them to work off the accumulated tension and fear accompanying long-term combat rotations. When he met Janson’s eyes and saw the uncharacteristic fury boiling in the normally laid back pilot’s face, though, he knew it was more than that.

Wedge suddenly, completely and unequivocally hated Nak Shimor.

A nondescript planet in the Colonies just off the Perlemian Trade Route, it was a perfect spot for battle weary pilots to spend a few days blowing off steam and grieving for lost comrades. The planet’s location in the Colonies and relative isolation also made it an excellent layover port for convoys intended for the various fleets deployed in combat actions, which was the primary reason the Rogues were here. After the debacle at Byblos which claimed the lives of three Rogues and crippled one of their best, Wedge had urged Admiral Solo to rotate his group off the front lines for a breather. They had, after all, been engaged in nonstop combat operations for over five months without more than a day or two to recover from battles before being thrown right back into the fire. Escorting a fuel tanker from Nak Shimor to the fleet had seemed like a good idea at the time.

“She needs medical attention bad, Boss,” Hobbie pointed out as he dropped back behind cover to reload his sidearm once again. He kept giving Janson worried looks, reminding Antilles once more than the two men loved one another like brothers.

“Right,” Wedge muttered. He fumbled for his comlink. “This is Rogue Lead to any ships in the area,” he said. “We need emergency medical evac.” A blaster bolt exploded against a nearby wall, causing him to duck. “And a little air support would be appreciated,” he added.

“This is Rogue Seven,” Tycho’s voice echoed out of the comm. “En route to your location now. ETA: one minute.”

“Rogue Leader, this is Hopper One,” a second voice crackled across the comm.-line. “We’re on the tarmac and ready to dust off.”

“They’ll never be able to land here,” Hobbie grumbled and Wedge nodded in agreement as he took in the tightly-packed streets. This place was a sniper’s paradise and any shuttle trying to land would be a sitting duck. He gave Janson a quick glance.

“Can you carry her?” The reply was instantaneous.

“For as long as I need to.” Wedge swallowed at the emotion in Wes’ voice before keying his comlink again.

“Hopper One, this is Rogue Lead,” he said. “Stay on station. We’ll come to you.” Checking the charge on his pistol, he gave Wes another look. “Give me your sidearm, Janson,” he ordered.

Seconds later, Tycho’s X-Wing roared overhead, quadlasers spitting crimson fire at the attacking Imperial lines. A second and third snubfighter – Myn Donos and Gavin Darklighter by their markings – followed suit, their weapons ripping apart the ground and sending geysers of shattered duracrete, flesh and bone into the air. As the trio of T-65s climbed back into the sky, the Imperial assault wavered.

“Go!” Wedge barked. Janson sprang to his feet, Inyri clutched tightly against his chest, and Hobbie followed, his face tight with worry. Twin blasters in hand, Wedge sprinted after them.

The race through Nak Shimor’s streets was a blur of weapons fire, explosions, and terror. Wedge couldn’t say how long it took them to cover the two kilometers to the launch pad; it seemed like an eternity that lasted only seconds. Overhead, the battle for the skies raged on as the members of Rogue Squadron already in the air dueled with attacking TIEs. Explosions filled the dawn sky and debris rained down upon the city. The shattered hulk of a starfighter – a TIE Interceptor from the looks of it – slammed into the street before them, carving a great furrow in the permacrete road as it slid to a stop ten meters away. Fire still enveloped the destroyed ship and miniature explosions continued to cook off the remaining fuel. Wedge gave it a disconcerted look – he’d never been on the ground during an engagement like this – before pressing on. Inyri was depending on them.

Its engines growling, the shuttle – Hopper One – was still waiting on the landing pad when they arrived. A squad of Republic marines surrounded the ugly craft, weapons at the ready and fear in their eyes. Wedge recognized their leader from Hoth – a lifetime ago – and gave him a tight nod of thanks for waiting. Janson didn’t hesitate as he climbed aboard the waiting shuttle with Inyri still in his arms, nor did he look to Antilles for permission. At a glance, Wedge could tell every gram of Wes’ attention was focused on Lieutenant Forge’s wan features and he silently acknowledged that Janson wouldn’t be of much use in a fighter right now. Grimacing, Antilles looked at Hobbie and then jerked his head toward their X-Wings.

“Let’s go,” he ordered before sprinting toward his snubfighter.

His astromech had already prepped the X-Wing for launch so he was in the air within seconds. A quick glance at the data streaming in from the droid nestled behind him confirmed Wedge’s worst fears; the Chimera had arrived. Somehow, that Sithspawned ××××× Daala had tracked them here.

Beyond the canopy, the atmosphere of Nak Shimor receded and a blanket of night replaced it. The drive trails of a hundred ships – starfighters and capital ships alike – glittered brightly against the darkness as the badly outnumbered Republic ships struggled to survive against the three Imperator-class star destroyers arrayed against them. Of the fuel convoy, only three corvettes and a single assault frigate remained.

“I’m hit!” someone’s voice screamed across the comm.-line a half second before static replaced his voice. Wedge glared at his scopes, noting instantly the presence of the Interdictor-class cruiser lurking near the periphery of the system. With its gravity well projectors fired up, escape into hyperspace wasn’t an option for the reeling Republic force.

“Get me a high priority target, Gate,” he ordered his astromech. “Let’s give these Imps a nice, hearty Rogue Squadron welcome.”

[COMPLIANCE,] came the rapid response. [ONE TIE DEFENDER DETECTED.]

“Lock on to him,” Wedge said. It would have to be a member of the 181st. Defenders were simply too expensive to be assigned to anyone but the Imperial’s elite starfighter squadron. Antilles glowered. “Let’s go say hi,” he growled.

The Defender detected his approach and banked hard, abandoning his pursuit of an already damaged B-Wing from Blue Squadron to orient in Wedge’s direction. Everything else seemed to fall away as Antilles’ focus narrowed to encompass the threat screaming toward him at thousands of kilometers per second. His fingers tightened instinctively on the trigger and fiery lasers lanced out from the X-Wing’s cannons, splattering uselessly against the Defender’s shields. Wedge was already kicking his fighter into a snap roll to avoid the Imp’s retaliatory fire but still near misses rocked the X-Wing and alarms began shrieking.

“Kriff,” Antilles snarled as the Defender pilot abruptly slewed his fighter around, almost standing it up on end in a maneuver Wedge would have thought impossible to slide into a flanking position behind him. Lasers and ion beams flashed past the X-Wing as Wedge desperately juked and rolled to break the targeting locks. “Gate,” he snapped, “shields to double aft!”

The X-Wing’s engines howled with protest as Wedge punched the throttle forward and dove toward one of Nak Shimor’s moons, rolling and jinking for all he was worth. Weapons-lock alarms wailed as Antilles inverted the T-65 before pulling back hard on the flight stick. To his disgust, the Defender stuck with him, cannons barking nonstop. Whoever this guy was, he was definitely not a rookie.

“All right, buddy,” Wedge muttered darkly, “let’s see just how good you think you are.” He rolled the X-Wing hard, feathering the rudders as he did to slew the T-65 around into a stomach-lurching sideslip. The Defender pursued doggedly, but the copied maneuver was not as crisp as it could have been. Instantly, Wedge recognized the reason: the Imperial pilot was accustomed to zero-gee operations. Antilles grinned wolfishly as he widened his descending spiral and oriented his fighter toward the nearby moon. His X-Wing hit the outer atmosphere of the Nak Shimor satellite mere seconds later and he gave his scopes a quick glance. The Defender pilot had to recognize Wedge’s advantage here – the aerodynamic shape of an X-Wing made it vastly superior to a TIE in atmo – but if the man was like any of the Rogues, his ego just wouldn’t allow him to break off the pursuit.

A half second later, the Defender screamed into the atmosphere.

Almost instantly, the hunter became the prey. Despite being behind the X-Wing, the Defender went on defense and began focusing so exclusively on staying in the trail position that he didn’t pay enough attention to where Wedge was taking him. With the maneuverability advantage on his side, Antilles began testing his opponent with dangerous rolls, dives and climbs. Though the Defender pilot was good, he was hampered by his craft’s lack of atmospheric maneuverability and began easing back on the throttle incrementally. Wedge quickly recognized he had mere seconds before the Imp broke off and abandoned the pursuit.

“Gate,” he said sharply, one eye on his sensor feed, “prep two torps for immediate launch, maximum yield.” The astromech chirped an affirmative response but Wedge barely noticed as he snap-rolled the X-Wing toward a rocky canyon. According to his scans, it was volcanically active which would make targeting locks slightly more difficult. Another glance at his targeting scope revealed his pursuer was still falling back. Time to make him mad, Wedge mused. He waggled his wings slightly in what he hoped would be seen as a mocking gesture before inverting sharply and diving toward the canyon; exactly as he’d hoped, the Defender pilot accelerated after him, perhaps thinking the canyon would hamstring Wedge’s maneuverability.

“One more second,” Wedge growled as his hand tensed on the throttle. His X-Wing rocked and shook from more near misses as the Defender pilot once more went on the offensive. A flash of cerulean light streaked by his canopy, spiraling tightly as it tried to reorient on his position; rapidly running out of room, the concussion missile smashed into the canyon wall moments later, vanishing instantly in a burst of fire. It was exactly the moment he was looking for and Wedge pulled back hard on his flight stick even as he slammed his throttle back and triggered the X-Wing’s repulsorlifts, using them like directional thrusters.

It didn’t stop the X-Wing – his velocity was simply too great to completely stop on a credit – but it did slow him just long enough for the Defender to overshoot him into the canyon. Even as the Imperial fighter screamed by him and into the canyon, Wedge was throwing the throttle forward once again, wincing at the groan of protest echoing through his fighter. He dropped the targeting reticle on the Defender.

“Got you now,” he snarled while squeezing the trigger. Instantly, crimson lasers lanced out in rapid bursts, slicing into the TIE Defender’s hull or exploding against the canyon wall and showering debris upon the Imperial starfighter. The Imp began juking instantly but Wedge stuck to his six, spraying him with a constant stream of fire.

“Now, Gate!” he shouted. “Now! Fire!” The X-Wing shook slightly as the torpedoes roared from the launch tubes. Hemmed in by the canyon walls, the Defender couldn’t dodge the warheads and they smashed into the Imperial fighter with hull-crushing force, exploding instantly. The top quadanium steel solar array was torn free instantly and the sublight engines flared abruptly before dying. Tumbling end over end, the Defender slammed into the canyon walls and vanished in a fierce fireball.

Pulling back on the flight stick, Wedge applied more thrust as he climbed back toward space. He gave the targeting scope a quick glance before grimacing. One of the corvettes was already dead in space, but the assault frigate had taken the fight to the Imperials to cover the remaining two, suffering heavy damage in the process. Wedge didn’t hesitate as he banked toward the distant Interdictor. Its shields were nearly depleted thanks to the frigate’s suicidal attack and Antilles had the benefit of knowing its weak spots.

“Lock onto the Interdictor,” Wedge ordered, “and prep all torpedoes for maximum yield.” He drew in a steadying breath, noting without surprise that the rest of the Rogues were ripping apart the TIEs. Two of them – Tycho and Hobbie, it looked like – were leading an attack run with the remaining B-Wings of Blue Squadron on one of the ImpStar Deuces.

[RECOMMEND YOU APPROACH FROM SPINWARD NORTH,] Gate related and Wedge nodded in approval. The Interdictor’s shields were the weakest there and the debris from a destroyed corvette could be used to conceal his approach. the astromech added.

“And with you, Gate,” Wedge responded.

The Interdictor detected his approach nearly a minute before he reached optimal firing range and began opening up with their point-defense weapons. Wedge grinned as he flipped a switch on his control panel and began actively pinging the massive cruiser with his sensors. They would have a solid identification of him now and would know that Rogue Leader was coming straight for them.

By himself.

To Wedge’s absolute delight, the Interdictor immediately began firing its emergency maneuvering thrusters and slowly – ever so slowly – began rolling away from him like a great beached sea leviathan. He glanced at his scopes and smirked as one of the Republic corvettes suddenly sprang away as the gravity well projector of the Interdictor shifted away, vanishing into lightspeed with a flicker of pseudomotion. [i]Idiots, Wedge mocked the Imperial captain of the Interdictor as the tone of his targeting computer changed pitch to denote a solid lock. He squeezed the trigger once, twice, three times.

But nothing happened.

“Gate!” Wedge shouted as he continued to squeeze the trigger. Reflexively, he banked away from the Interdictor. The astromech was already responding to the question before Antilles had to ask it.

[SYSTEM ERROR,] the droid informed him. [WEAPON SYSTEMS HAVE FAILED. HYPERDRIVE HAS FAILED. SHIELD SYSTEM HAS FAILED.] Wedge winced as the droid continued to make a laundry list of inoperative systems; in fact, the only thing that did seem to work was the sublight drives and the maneuvering jets. The droid continued. [CONJECTURE: YOUR MANUEVER UTILIZING THE REPULSORLIFT SYSTEM HAS CAUSED INTERNAL DAMAGE. NINETY SECONDS TO REBOOT.]

“We’re not going to have ninety seconds!” Wedge growled as he rolled the X-Wing again to avoid the Interdictor’s turbolaser fire. Two flights of Squints – TIE Interceptors – were already orienting on his tail, abandoning their attack runs on the much slower-moving B-Wings of Blue Squadron in favor of a much richer target. They began firing instantly, filling the space around the X-Wing with so much laser fire it was impossible to avoid it all. One lucky shot shredded his port stabilizer and Wedge cursed as the flight stick began vibrating wildly. He shot a quick look at the seemingly motionless Interdictor and nodded to himself.

Ignoring the thumps and groans of his protesting X-Wing as it took hit after hit, he kicked the fighter into a sharp dive and fed all available power to the thrusters. The TIE Interceptors pursued like hungry nexus, their laser cannons spitting fire, and he did everything he could to minimize his target profile. G-Forces crushed him back against the seat as the inertial dampeners failed. The X-Wing shuddered as one of the S-Foils was blasted free and Wedge lost control.

He didn’t even have time to scream.

Rigil Kent
17 October 2008, 08:43 AM
CHAPTER 7

THE scream woke him instantly.

It wasn’t a vocal cry, but rather a psychic one that rang through the Force like a tsunami of fear, spurring Luke out of his bed before he was fully aware that he was moving. He was halfway across the room by the time his brain caught up with his reflexes and he came fully awake, but even then his stride did not falter. Urgency caused him to hit the door release button harder than necessary and he was stepping into the hallway beyond even before the door fully opened.

Wincing at the brightness of the corridor outside his room, Luke darted toward another doorway across the hall, ignoring the curious looks of the two Kaminoan sentries standing near the distant lift as he did. He jabbed at the door annunciator but, when the device bleated a harsh ‘no entry’ rejection alarm, he reached into electronics of the locking mechanism with the Force and pushed. Without further delay, the door curled open.

Luke was two steps into the darkened room when a wave of malice washed over him. Instantly, he strengthened his mental shields, gritting his teeth in pain as psychic knives seemed to tear and rip at him. Without warning, the room exploded into a whirlwind of hatred and fury. Wind wailed as though a hurricane had penetrated the interior of Tipoca City and Luke was assailed by flying chairs he reflexively batted aside with the Force. A shriek of protesting metal vibrated through the floor as the dining table was ripped from where it had been bolted down and tumbled through the air toward him.

And at the very epicenter of this maelstrom was Mara Jade.

She wasn’t conscious but Luke instantly knew she was responsible for the psychic storm as waves of the Force pulsed from where she twisted and groaned on her bed. Her every muscle visibly trembled as she struggled against the horrific nightmare plaguing her and she whimpered incoherently. She clutched the sodden sheets entangled around her body tightly, holding onto the cloth as if her entire life depended upon it.

Forcing himself to relax, Luke quickly erected a shield around his body with the Force and extended his awareness. He took a step toward Mara, gesturing briefly at the table spinning toward him; it froze in mid-air and Luke returned his attention to the woman before him. Tentatively, he lowered his mental barriers and reached out to Mara with the Force. Images assailed him, burying him under a layer of blood-soaked memories and crippling terror.

He was fifteen and on Coruscant. His heart was racing as he stared at the man face down on the floor before him. This wasn’t the first sentient he’d killed, nor would it be the last, but something about this particular target caused him to hesitate. The Master had ordered this man’s death, had instructed Luke to see to it immediately and had specifically stated that there could be no witnesses. The man had cowered and whimpered and pled for mercy, begging that Luke spare his family, but that was something Luke could not do. Already, the man’s mate was dead and his newborn son was next. No witnesses, the Master had insisted but Luke stared at the screaming child with trepidation. How could an infant be a threat? He hesitated, wondering if he could avoid murdering the innocent and lie to his Master about the child’s fate. Searing pain burned through Luke’s mind then as his Master sensed the flicker of disloyalty. No witnesses, his Master mindscreamed and Luke reached for the child, nausea welling up within his stomach…

With a gasp, Luke tore himself free of the moment and took another step forward. He recognized the flavor of Mara’s mind as she struggled against the weight of despair and Skywalker fought to maintain his equilibrium in the wake of the gruesome images flashing across his mind’s eye. They were suppressed memories, sights and smells and sounds of events Mara had buried deep within her psyche in order to maintain her sanity. Anger flared in his belly, hot and bitter, at what Palpatine had done to her but Luke concentrated on what needed to be done now, not on things he couldn’t change. Another step brought him closer to her…

He was eighteen and aboard a civilian starliner. His target was a wealthy nobleman from the Tapani Sector who had been identified as a Rebel sympathizer. The Master had given Luke explicit instructions about how this assignment had to be handled. The entire starliner was to be destroyed and evidence planted linking the Rebel insurgency to the act of terrorism. Luke had tried to find a different way, had wanted to conduct a surgical strike and take out only the nobleman, but the Master had been unyielding. Even as Luke planted the charges, he could feel some part of his soul rebelling against this action. It was wrong. It was evil. Tears trickled down his face as he worked and he knew his Master would punish him for this weakness of compassion.

“It’s not a weakness,” Luke rasped as he reached the bed. The memories were coming faster now, thundering through the Force like a river suddenly freed from a dam. He could sense the darkness shrouding Mara’s mind and abruptly understood the cause: the Sith inhibitor put into place by Palpatine had finally completely disintegrated but as it withered away into nonexistence, it uncovered years of abuse and suppressed memories. Mara’s subconscious was being overwhelmed as the extent of Palpatine’s evil came to light, forcing her to face the truth about the monster she had once been even if she hadn’t fully realized it.

He was twenty and interrogating traitors at the behest of his Master. Though months had passed since the destruction of the Death Star, Luke could still feel his Master’s fury over its loss. These traitors were believed to have had ties to the Rebel insurgency responsible and Luke had orders to make them talk. Physical and mental torture had broken the traitors days earlier but still, they would not talk! Luke’s hands were slick with blood but he obeyed his Master’s demand and continued to work on them. The urge to vomit tickled the back of his throat as the pungent stench of blood and feces filled his nose. He would not feel compassion for these traitors. He would not…

Mara’s skin was slick with sweat as he reached out to touch her face and Luke groaned as the deluge of memories intensified. He inhaled deeply, ignoring the wailing of the storm around him as he concentrated on expanding his presence in the Force, hoping it would act like a beacon for her. Though she was unconscious, Mara sensed him at once and Luke could feel her instinctively reach out to him for aid like a drowning woman clutching at a life preserver. Her psychic scream became a vocal one as her mind surfaced from the nightmarish memories, and her eyes snapped open, horror and terror plainly stamped upon her face. She was hyperventilating and looked to be on the verge of throwing up.

“It’s okay,” he told her in the half-second before the Force storm wavered and died. With the bang of metal slamming into metal, the dining table and the remains of the three chairs struck the floor and the sounds echoed loudly within the enclosed room. Mara jumped at the sound.

“Luke?” she whispered, her voice cracking. Before he could even respond, she was clinging to him, trembling with exhaustion, shock and pain. Luke responded without thinking, wrapping his arms around her and stretching out with the Force to ease her distress. To his abject dismay, Mara began to cry. Waves of despair radiated off her and he closed his own eyes tightly, grasping at his own self-control to keep from joining her. Right now, Mara needed him to be strong.

“It’s okay,” Luke repeated. He felt eyes upon them and glanced in the direction of the still open doorway. Khabarakh stood there silently, a bared knife in hand, and Luke realized the Noghri had rushed to investigate Mara’s scream. Without a word, Khabarakh backed out of the room and sealed the doorway, though Luke could feel him take up a position just outside to guard them from overly curious Kaminoans.

“Why did he do this to me?” Mara moaned, her body shaking with the after-effects of the nightmare. “He made me into a monster!”

“You’re not a monster, Mara,” Luke said firmly. He gave into his instincts and began stroking her wildly unkempt hair. “You’re a victim. Palpatine did this to you because he was the monster.” Not for the first time, Luke found himself momentarily wishing the Emperor was still alive so he could pay for what he had done. The thought passed quickly though. Hatred, no matter how justified, was always self-destructive.

And it was justified. Not even taking into account what Palpatine had done to the rest of the galaxy, the crimes he’d committed against Mara were horrifying. Brainwashing her into becoming a loyal assassin was only the tip of the iceberg; the Emperor had then did everything in his power to mold her into a sociopath capable and willing to do whatever was necessary to accomplish her task. Where traditional methods had faltered, Palpatine had turned to more esoteric means and conducted psychic surgery to telepathically suppress her innate morality, alter her perceptions, and try to remake her personality into something more … flexible.

In many ways, he had succeeded but the kernel of Light buried deep within her soul had consistently rebelled against the terrible things she did in his name. Luke could only imagine how much it must have infuriated Palpatine that a part of Mara always seemed to know that what she was doing was wrong no matter his psychic manipulations. His grand experiment had ultimately failed and Luke found himself wondering if perhaps this spark of Light was why she had ultimately been unable to kill him while they were on Myrkr. Had she, even then, been instinctively seeking a way to be healed of this damage? It was a question for a later time and he set it aside so he could focus entirely upon the here and now.

“I’ve got so much blood on my hands,” Mara whispered with horror. “I don’t deserve to live.” Her eyes were red from exhaustion and tears, and her voice cracked with each word. Luke frowned as he realized how over his head he was at the moment; she needed professional counseling from someone who could actually help her, not a Rimworld pilot-turned-Jedi who was nearly as emotionally scarred as she was.

“You’re not to blame, Mara,” Luke told her earnestly. “Palpatine is.” She glanced up from where she was clinging to him and met his eyes. He swallowed at the pain and confusion he could see in her face; never before had he even imagined seeing her this vulnerable or lost. She looked to be on the brink of crying once again and he despised it.

Luke wanted the old Mara back.

“I hate him,” she said softly, her voice thick with emotion. “I hate him so much.” Luke nodded as he held onto her more tightly.

“So do I,” he admitted. “So do I.”

Luke lost track of time as he reclined on Mara’s bed, his arms wrapped around her as she struggled to integrate the newfound memories. He wasn’t sure when she finally dozed off again but the expression on her face was so peaceful he found himself unable to move out of fear he would wake her from the desperately needed sleep. Despite the reasons behind them, though, he admitted to himself that these were the moments he lived for, when she wasn’t overwhelmed by despair or remorse but was instead simply Mara, an innocent woman who utterly trusted him with her life and her soul. Asleep, she looked so much younger than normal and he desperately wished there was something more he could do for her. Though he knew he shouldn’t, he leaned forward slightly to kiss her on the forehead. Murmuring something under her breath he couldn’t make out, Mara snuggled closer, burying her head in the crook of his neck even as she wrapped her arms around him more tightly.

“You’re a damned fool,” Luke told himself softly as he carefully eased his body into a more comfortable position on the bed, grimacing slightly when Mara instinctively pressed closer. He tried not to react to the sensation of her curves against his body, tried to avoid noticing the wonderful smell of her hair or the intoxicating feel of her hands against his skin. She would kill him if she knew he was falling in love with her and had been for a long time now, or she’d laugh in his face, or maybe even run away. He simply couldn’t let that happen.

Hours crept by with agonizing slowness. As soon as Luke became comfortable enough to slip into a pre-meditative trance or a light doze, Mara would shift in her sleep or make an unexpected sound, and he would snap awake once more. Attempts to climb from the bed failed as she clung to him tightly, evidently deriving enough comfort from his mere presence to sleep soundly for the first time since they arrived on Kamino.

They had been on this miserable planet for ten days now and still had absolutely nothing to show for it. The prime minister – a female by the name of Taun We – had been eager to help and had given them unprecedented access to the records of the city. Unfortunately, this information offered them no new insights into the identity of whoever it was they were after and, in fact, actually overwhelmed them with the sheer volume of data at their fingertips. Frustrated at the impossible task before them, Mara had theorized that the data overload might be intentional, but Luke had sensed no duplicity in the prime minister, only a desperate desire to facilitate their investigation and get them off of Kamino as soon as possible. It didn’t take them long to realize that the Noghri were the reason for Taun We’s discomfort and a bit of discreet digging revealed the prime minister’s fear she was to be removed from office the same way her immediate predecessor was during Palpatine’s rule: violently. An attempt to convince her otherwise fell on deaf ears and Mara’s suggestion they turn this sort of data search over to Karrde’s people was the best idea Luke had heard in weeks. They had retired for the evening, planning on breaking orbit around dawn.

The following morning was unbelievably awkward. As she stirred, Mara shifted closer to him, squirming against his body like a snake. She sighed softly and Luke shivered at the feel of her hot breath upon his bare skin. He swallowed as she nuzzled more closely, her lips finding his neck and inciting a response in his body that Luke simply couldn’t prevent.

“Mara, wake up!” he said, stress making his words sharper than he’d intended. She was reacting even before he completed the sentence, springing from the bed so quickly that Luke jumped in surprise. The entangled sheets fouled her footing and Mara fell to the floor with a loud thump, cursing loudly in a language Luke didn’t recognize. She froze there on the floor, staring up at the bed with wide eyes while Skywalker looked down at her. He didn’t need to touch the Force to see her leap to conclusions – she was barely dressed and he was wearing only sleeping pants – but the way her eyes darted around the room for evidence of more incriminating evidence was almost amusing.

“Why the hell are you in my bed?” she demanded crossly. “And where the kriff are your clothes?” Confusion and embarrassment was rolling off her in waves and Luke could see the exact instant she remembered his arrival as well as the reasons for it. Her eyes narrowed and she grimaced in pain before quickly breaking eye contact with him. Luke rolled his feet off the bed and offered her his hand.

“Don’t worry about it,” he told her, knowing she was trying to find the words to apologize and thank him at the same time. She shot him a heated look that did nothing to ease his … discomfort before accepting his hand. Luke winced as psychic pain accompanied the physical contact and he instinctively reached out with the Force to sooth the hurt he sensed from her. Mara recoiled.

“Stay out of my head, Skywalker,” she almost snarled as she jerked her hand free of his. Luke frowned at her.

“I can feel your pain, Mara,” he pointed out. Lack of sleep and frustrated embarrassment over his current predicament caused his words to come out harsher than he wanted them to. “There’s a Force technique I can show you…”

“Later,” she growled before nearly running toward the refresher, pausing only long enough to grab her clothes and shower kit. Without saying another word, Luke climbed to his feet and exited the room, sighing heavily as he did.

“Thank you,” he told Khabarakh as soon as Mara’s door closed behind him. The Noghri gave him a tight nod, apparently understanding instantly what Luke was thanking him for, and followed Skywalker into the room they were ostensibly sharing.

“Barkhimkh has informed me that the security holos in this corridor suffered an unexpected and catastrophic failure this morning,” Khabarakh said with a toothy smile. “Every record of our presence here has mysteriously vanished.”

“You think of everything, don’t you?” Luke asked with a chuckle he didn’t really feel. His neck hurt badly from the awkward position he’d been in for the last several hours and he was so tired it was hard to think. The psychic residue of Mara’s Dark Side-tainted dream still shrouded his own Force presence, leaving in its wake a dull pain that seemed to ache throughout his entire body.

“I do try, Master Jedi,” the Noghri responded with a toothy grin. His good humor faded and he glanced at the closed door. “Is she well?” he asked, not even trying to hide his affection for Mara. For reasons Luke didn’t fully comprehend, all four of the Noghri treated the ex-Emperor’s Hand like a kid sister though Skywalker suspected it was due to their belief she was a kindred spirit. Like them, she had been lied to and manipulated by the Empire.

“It was a tough night,” Luke admitted. Khabarakh nodded in understanding; he had seen several such ‘tough nights’ since joining Mara in her hunt for Luke though the intensity of her nightmares had increased exponentially as Mara became more open to and skilled in the Force. It was as if the demons of her past were being pressed upon her, forcing her to face them in a series of mini-trials. Luke frowned: she was being prepared for something the Force intended her to do, something that required her to get beyond the artificial limitations placed upon her by Palpatine.

“I shall warn the others to step cautiously around her today,” Khabarakh said before turning to the door, an almost amused glint in his eyes that seemed strangely out of place. The door slid open before the Noghri could touch the access pad, revealing a tense-looking and fully dressed Mara Jade.

“Ramp up in ten minutes, Skywalker,” she snapped harshly. “If you’re not aboard,” she growled, “I’m leaving you here.” Luke gave her a silent nod and then, to his confusion, Mara flushed slightly before quickly storming away, her eyes clouded with some emotion Skywalker couldn’t identify. Khabarakh gave Luke a quick look, smirking as he did.

“A tough night indeed,” the Noghri murmured, shaking his head in silent amusement. He exited the room, still shaking his head. Luke shrugged at Khabarakh’s mood – the Noghri sense of humor rarely made sense to him – as he gathered his clothes and walked into the refresher. He glanced once at the mirror over the sink and took a step past it before jerking his eyes back to the reflection he saw before him. There, on his neck for anyone to see, was a mild bruise that could come from only one source given its specific shape and outline. Suddenly, Khabarakh’s poorly hidden amusement and Mara’s utter embarrassment made sense. Luke did the only thing he could do in this situation.

He laughed.

|-*-|

It wasn’t funny.

Foul-smelling coolant sprayed from the ruptured hoses he had been trying to repair, liberally coating Han with the slippery blue-green liquid. Already, Solo could feel the coolant seeping into his boots as it rapidly filled the bottom of the maintenance access pit and he squeezed his eyes shut to avoid being blinded. The wrench he had been using was suddenly harder to hold onto than it had any right to be and Han fought back the urge to shout a curse, knowing it would only result in the coolant getting into his mouth. There was nothing in the galaxy – not even Leia’s horrible attempts at cooking – that tasted worse than filthy engine coolant.

With a metallic clank, the wrench slipped off of the retaining clamp and tore the hose free. Instantly, a flood of even more coolant gushed out, splattering Han’s torso and lower body with the slimy muck. He tried to back away, but his boots – already slick with coolant – could find no traction and he stumbled backwards, smacking his head into the other side of the maintenance pit wall.

Above him, safe from the spray of coolant, Chewbacca began laughing.

Han spent several long seconds, holding the back of his head with one hand in a vain attempt to ward off the stabbing pain lancing through his skull while fumbling for the controls of the coolant regulator buried deep within the bowels of the Falcon. He tried to ignore the chortling guffaw of his so-called friend even as the torn hose spat another glop of the slimy semi-solid liquid. This time, the coolant splashed onto his face and he recoiled again.

“You could’ve helped,” he snarled once the coolant pump was deactivated and was no longer squirting the blue-green muck. No part of him seemed to have escaped the sudden shower and he spat out what little of the coolant that had gotten into his mouth. It tastes worse than I remembered.

“Are you kidding?” Chewie asked, still snickering. “That was the most fun I’ve had in months!”

“I should make you clean this mess up,” Han grumbled half-heartedly. He accepted the towel the Wookiee handed down and hurriedly wiped the coolant from his face. Already, his eyes were beginning to sting.

“It’s your mess, Slick,” his co-pilot chortled. “Besides,” Chewie continued, “do you know how hard it is to get coolant out of fur?”

Han didn’t bother responding as he glared at the now thoroughly ruined hose, all the while wondering if this was truly worth the hassle. Desperate to get his mind off the war for a few hours, he had decided to tackle some long overdue repairs on the Falcon that he’d been putting off for too long. In his haste to get started though, he’d completely forgotten to turn the coolant pump off before trying to remove a slowly leaking hose and now? Now, the whole damned maintenance pit was flooded.

“Get me outta here,” he grumbled, reaching his hand up. Chewbacca hesitated for a moment, clearly wondering if Han was planning on trying to pull him into the coolant or perhaps try to get some of it on him, but Solo just wanted out. He needed a shower – no, make that four or five showers – to wash this stuff off and he wanted to get started immediately. “Come on, ya big coward,” he growled and Chewie chuckled briefly before reaching down with one hand and pulling Han up. To Solo’s disgust, his left boot came off with a loud plop and remained at the bottom of the pit.

He tracked a lot of the coolant to the crew quarters and the sonic shower inside the cramped refresher, but knew Chewbacca was too amused to care at the moment. If Han was lucky, the Wookiee had already called for a maintenance droid from Independence’s resources and had put it to work cleaning up the mess Solo had created.

By the third shower cycle, Han was fairly satisfied most of the coolant was gone. A foul smell still hung around him and, given past experience, would probably take another two or three hours to fade completely. His ruined uniform went straight into the nearest disposal unit and he began dressing in a more comfortable ensemble. Before he’d even finished fastening his pants, his comlink began chirping.

“Solo here,” he said into the device, already dreading the inevitable return to duty. At times like this, he really missed being able to just waste time here on the Falcon or not having anyone but Chewie to look out for. A comment Lando had once made sprang to mind and nearly caused him to smile: see what happens you upgrade to the princess deluxe model?

“Admiral,” the voice of Captain Adrimetrum emerged from the comlink, clipped and precise like always. “An unidentified freighter just dropped out of lightspeed at the edge of sensor range. I’m scrambling the combat assault patrol to intercept.”

“Just one?” Han asked quickly, worry causing him to quickly start pulling on his boots. If this ship was a scout ship for Nat’s battle group, it could only mean that she’d figured out the plan he’d spent the last month and a half putting into action. While he wouldn’t put it past her, he’d really hoped for some more time; they weren’t ready to drop the hammer yet.

“We haven’t detected any others, sir,” Adrimetrum replied. Stamping his feet to settle the boots, Han grabbed a shirt and started to put it on as he fast-walked out of the crew quarters. He paused briefly at the sound of Chewbacca talking to someone in the cockpit, but figured the Wookiee was conversing with maintenance and quickly put it out of his mind so he could focus on his job.

“Transponder identified, Admiral,” Captain Adrimetrum said as Han rounded the main corridor of the Falcon and approached the boarding ramp. “It’s the Scarlet Maenad,” the captain continued. “Not one of ours.”

“All right,” Han said. He hated making this sort of snap decision – the crew of this Scarlet Maenad could just be in the wrong place at the wrong time – but too many lives were depending on him to let them get away unscathed. “Tell the CAP he has-”

“Han!” Chewbacca’s bellow caused Solo to jump in surprise and derailed his train of thought. Reflexively, his finger slipped off the transmit button of the comlink and his gun hand went for a blaster not currently at his side. The Wookiee appeared a moment later, rapidly gesturing toward the cockpit. “It’s Luke!” he said quickly. “This freighter! It’s Luke!”

“Stand down,” Solo ordered into the comlink without hesitation. “Have the CAP escort the Maenad to the Indy.”

“Sir?” Adrimetrum’s surprise was obvious, even through the comlink’s distorting effects.

“Do it, Captain!” Han snapped.

Twenty minutes later, the so-called Scarlet Maenad set down inside the cavernous landing bay. Its landing was remarkably graceful, immediately prompting Han to suspect that Luke was at the controls; the cockpit viewports were opaque, however, concealing the identity of the pilot and preventing him from confirming that theory. As the YT-2400 settled, Solo let his eyes roam over the freighter’s lines, admiring the gentle curves while instinctively comparing it to his beloved Falcon. She was a thing of beauty, the Maenad, but simply didn’t have the character of his own ship. Give her a couple of years, Han mused, a couple of impact craters on her flawless outer hull and she might be more attractive. His bittersweet amusement faded as he took in the carbon scoring decorating the freighter’s outer hull; it could only have come from weapons fire and, to his discerning eye, looked quite recent.

The boarding ramp of the 2400 lowered with a muted hiss and a pair of hooded figures – Noghri, by the look of them – descended like bodyguards. Chewie grunted in recognition and began striding forward instantly. After signaling the dismissal of the marines who Adrimetrum had sent to await the Maenad, Han followed.

“Please go aboard, Admiral Solo,” Barkhimkh said by way of greeting. He added something else in his native tongue, something that immediately caused Chewie to chortle. Shaking his head in wonder at the fact his co-pilot already knew the Noghri tongue, Han obeyed.

The interior of the Maenad was darker than he expected, which indicated to him that the crew was operating on a different day-night schedule than Coruscant-standard. Luke was waiting for him, for once not wearing Jedi robes. Instead, his clothes bore a striking similarity to what Han was wearing, right down to the blaster strapped to Skywalker’s side. Far more alarming, though, was the almost elbow-length padded glove on Skywalker’s right hand.

Standing in the corridor leading to the cockpit with her arms crossed, Mara Jade stared at Han with a frown on her face. There was something different about her, something about the way she stood. He couldn’t quite explain it, but it almost seemed like she seemed more grounded and less apt to random acts of homicide. Solo mentally checked it off as Luke having been a good influence on her over the last few months.

“Is there a reason you smell like a coolant tank?” the redhead asked without preamble, wrinkling her nose in disgust as she did. Behind him, Chewbacca snickered and Han’s expression darkened.

“It’s a new cologne I’m trying,” he replied crossly. “My turn. Is there a reason for this cloak and vibroblade routine?”

“I’m afraid there is,” Luke said heavily. He had dark circles under his eyes. “I can’t go into that right now though,” he continued, fidgeting with the glove in what seemed to be an unconscious gesture. “What I need-”

“What you need,” Solo interrupted, “is to tell me what the hell is goin’ on. You disappear for six months, get sighted on a dozen different worlds, and then show up out of nowhere?” Han glowered. “Do you have any idea how worried Leia has been?”

“Leia is the reason I dropped out of sight,” Skywalker replied darkly. He glanced at Jade and she half-shrugged. “Someone has been cloning dead Jedi and sending them after me,” Luke said.

“Jedi clones?” Han asked in surprise. “Like C’baoth?”

“None of them are anywhere near that level of skill yet,” Luke admitted, still fidgeting with his gloved hand.

“Then I don’t see the problem,” Solo said. “The Rogues could really use you right now, kid, especially since-”

“Don’t see the problem?” Luke repeated tightly, the intensity of his words cutting Han off in mid-sentence. Skywalker wore an expression of incredulity that quickly transformed to one of carefully controlled anger. “Someone is using dead Jedi to create an army and you don’t see the problem?” He took a step closer to Han. “You’ve seen what one Jedi can do,” he said pointedly. “Now imagine a squadron of them. Or a wing.”

“Or a fleet,” Jade added ominously.

“Right now,” Luke said, “this is the most important I could be doing.”

“Tell that to Wedge,” Han argued. “Or Tycho. Or Corran.” Skywalker grimaced and glanced away, his thoughts obviously turning to his missing or injured friends. To Solo’s surprise, Jade took a half-step closer to Luke, as if to provide him moral support. Her emerald eyes flashed as she glowered at Han.

“The clones are concentrating on him right now,” she said fiercely. “What happens when they start going after others? Like your wife?” Han recoiled but the ex-assassin pressed her advantage. “Or your children?”

“Point taken,” Solo conceded softly as he met the redhead’s eyes. “Never though I’d see the day you signed up for one of Luke’s…” He trailed off, unable to find the appropriate words.

“Damned fool idealistic crusades?” Skywalker offered, his expression bleak as he fidgeted with the glove once again. Han recognized the look – it was the one Luke always wore when he was thinking about his father or Kenobi. He supposed the phrase was important to Luke for some reason, though Solo couldn’t recall having heard it before.

“Something like that,” Solo said with a frown. “You still could have told us what you were doing,” he grumbled. “You could have told me.”

“Everyone I come into contact with is put into danger by these clones, Han.” Luke frowned as he glanced briefly in Jade’s direction. “Besides,” he continued with a slight smirk, “didn’t you tell me once it was easier to ask forgiveness than permission?” Solo had to smile at the comment; he couldn’t remember if he’d actually told Luke that but it certainly sounded like something he’d say.

“By your presence here,” Han ventured, “can I guess that something’s changed?”

“Calrissian hasn’t made contact,” Jade interjected sharply. “The last time he spoke with Karrde was ten days ago,” she said tersely. “And-”

“Wait a damned minute,” Solo interrupted quickly. He speared Luke with a hot look and tried to keep the hurt out of his voice when he spoke again. “You brought Lando into this but couldn’t be bothered to contact me?”

“Not exactly,” Skywalker replied. “Lando sort of invited himself.” Luke gestured toward Jade. “After we crashed his party on Socorro.”

“And broke into his office,” Jade added, a wry smirk on her face.

“That too,” Luke agreed with a similar smile. “We just need you to look over some system names since you have more history with Lando than either of us.” Skywalker sighed heavily. “It might be nothing,” he continued, “but I’m hoping it’ll give us an idea where to start looking.”

“And Skywalker also needs to have his hand looked at,” Jade said smoothly. “The Lusankya has a fully functional medbay, right?” Han tried not to wince when she used the Imperial name for the Indy and barely stopped himself from making an old spacer’s warding gesture against bad luck.

“What did you do to it this time?” Chewbacca asked, amusement tingeing his question.

“Long story,” Skywalker said. “Can we stick to the Lando situation?” he asked.

“No,” Jade replied flatly. “Go get your hand fixed and I’ll take care of the rest.”

“You can say hi to the Rogues,” Han said quickly, eager to ask Jade some questions without Skywalker present. An unexpectedly sad look flickered across Luke’s face, but was gone almost before it appeared.

“Any more news about Wedge?” he asked softly.

“Nothing concrete,” Solo admitted. “We know the Imps captured him, tried him, and sentenced him to life in prison,” he said darkly. “But as of now, we don’t know where they’re holding him.”

“You can’t help him, Luke,” Jade said softly, her voice unexpectedly soft and comforting. Han tried not to gape in surprise. “Not right now.”

“I know,” Skywalker murmured.

“Go get your hand looked at, kid,” Han said gruffly, suddenly uncomfortable but not quite able to figure out why. “We’ll talk later.” Luke gave Jade another look and then nodded. Donning a hooded cloak, Skywalker exited the freighter.

“Khabarakh,” Jade called even before Luke was out of visual range. A whisper of movement behind him nearly caused Han to jump as the Noghri in question seemed to materialize out of nowhere. “Make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid,” the redhead ordered.

“It shall be as you command, Jedi Jade,” Khabarakh hissed. He made a subtle gesture that Han nearly missed and another Noghri – Olmahk, if Solo wasn’t mistaken – emerged from an equally discreet hiding position. The second Noghri nodded and followed Khabarakh down the ramp; Han couldn’t help but to notice, however, that the other two remained behind, as if to protect Jade.

“I think you owe me an explanation,” Solo said as soon as the bodyguard team departed. Jade gave him a withering look in response.

“I don’t owe you anything,” she replied. Something flashed in her eyes, causing Han to wonder about her choice of words. Did she, as Chewbacca had once theorized, believe she owed Luke the equivalent of a Life Debt? It would certainly explain some things.

“Is that a fact?” Solo glowered at her. “You promised to find Luke and bring him back,” he said, “not join up with him.”

“I promised,” Jade responded, her voice low and hard, “to find him. That’s it.” Her lip curled in a cruel-looking sneer. “Well,” she said coldly, “I found him.”

“That wasn’t part of our deal!”

“Get over it,” she said shortly, turning toward the holographic gaming table.

“Listen, sister,” Han growled, reaching for her arm with the intent of turning her back to face him. It was as far as he got.

A half-second later, his face slammed into the holo-table and he yelped in startled surprise as Jade finished the disabling move by twisting his arm behind his back. Excruciating pain shot through his shoulder as he tried to get free, but she only applied more pressure which forced him into an even more awkward position. The barrel of a holdout blaster suddenly jammed into his ear and Han froze.

“It’s not a good idea,” Jade said softly, “to try that sort of thing on a trained assassin.”

“Let him go,” Chewbacca rumbled a moment later. Han could hear movement and the blaster suddenly left his ear. He started to make another escape attempt, but Jade shifted her stance slightly and another pulse of agony gave Solo cause to rethink trying to get free.

“Only if you promise to keep him in line,” Jade replied coolly. Chewbacca abruptly laughed.

“I’ve been trying to do that for twenty years,” the Wookiee pointed out with another chuckle.

“Try harder,” the ex-assassin said. She let go of Han’s arm and backed away from him. He gave her a fierce glare as he rapidly backpedaled away from her and the table.

“You nearly broke my damned arm!” he growled while cradling the limb in question. Jade snorted.

“If I wanted to break your arm,” she said flatly, “it would be broken.” She flipped open a concealed panel on the holo-table and inserted a datachip. Instantly, the imager came to life, projecting a three-dimensional star map above the table. Several stars began flashing at once.

“Oh, pretty,” Chewie murmured as he brushed by Han to examine the table. “I want one,” the Wookiee said while kneeling before the access panel. Jade cleared her throat and Chewie gave her a sheepish look as he took a step back.

“These are the seven systems we’ve narrowed down,” the ex-assassin stated. She reached into the holo and touched one of the flashing stars; instantly, a system readout appeared.

“Now I really want one,” Chewbacca rumbled.

“That’s the Erysthes system,” Han said, still favoring his aching arm. He inched closer to the holo-table but gave Jade as wide a berth as possible. “Lando’s in the Corporate Sector?”

“Yes,” the redhead said simply. She gestured at the table. “Let me know if anything jumps out at you,” she instructed. “I’ll be in the cockpit.”

“You weren’t much help,” Han muttered to his old friend once she disappeared down the corridor. Chewbacca shrugged even as he continued his examination of Jade’s table.

“A Life Debt doesn’t mean I have to hold your hand when you do dumb things, Slick,” the Wookiee said. “And trying to grab Jade’s arm,” he continued, “was really dumb.” He pointed to the table. “Can we get one of these for the Falcon?”

Han groaned.

|-*-|

Leia groaned.

As she rose from her desk, a sharp pain stabbed through her lower back, sending shards of discomfort through her legs. She froze in place, legs bent and hands bracing herself upon the desk, and grit her teeth as she waited for the pain to subside. It was her own fault for letting her physical therapy routine lapse as her senatorial workload continued to mount, and she bit back a foul curse while slowly straightening her posture. Twinges of pain shot down her spine but gradually faded to something manageable.

“Are you well, Lady Solo?” Cakhmaim asked quickly from where he lounged near the doorway. With Winter off-world at the moment to visit with her wounded fiancée, the Noghri had become Leia’s de facto personal assistant, displaying an ability to navigate senatorial red tape that was frighteningly efficient. Though he remained a fierce warrior, Cakhmaim had the heart of a bureaucrat.

“As well as I can be,” Leia answered. She caught the Noghri’s subtle frown and sighed softly. “Cancel my appointments for the rest of the day,” she said as she began gathering her belongings. “And have Threepio rearrange my morning schedule,” she added. “I need an extra hour every day.”

“Shall I also contact Doctor Cilghal?” Cakhmaim asked knowingly. For the last three days, he’d pestered her discreetly about resuming her pool exercises and Leia suspected he’d been in contact with the Mon Calamari.

“Tomorrow,” Leia decided. She inhaled deeply, arching her back until she heard a satisfying pop. Another spasm of pain accompanied the sound and Leia grimaced as a dull ache seemed to seep into the bones of her legs. She drew the Force around her to ease her pain; it was only partially successful and she mentally cursed herself for putting off Luke’s lessons. Now would be a fantastic time to know how to put herself into a healing trance. “Tonight however,” she added with a sour smile, “I plan to relax with the twins.” Had her back not hurt so much, she would have laughed at the disbelieving expression that flashed across Cakhmaim’s face.


The moment she stepped out of her office and into the Great Rotunda, Leia felt a sense of dread and excitement gather within her stomach. She paused for a heartbeat and quickly glanced around the corridor in an attempt to locate the source of her sudden nervousness. At her side, Cakhmaim seemed to pick up on her sudden shift in mood.

“Lady Solo?” he asked softly, one hand already curling around the hilt of the vibroblade he carried at his waist.

“Something important is going to happen,” Leia murmured. The Force flooded into her, washing away the lingering pain in her back, and she took a deep breath to calm herself.

Out of the corner of her eye, Leia saw the two Senatorial Guardsmen stationed outside her office straighten fractionally and turned to exchange friendly greetings with them. In the last month, she had continued to implement her subtle recruitment drive by making a concentrated effort to speak with the guardsmen whenever possible. She now knew nearly all of them by name, excepting those rare few who were even more anti-social than Quin, and had discovered most of them were highly-trained loners desperate for a purpose.

“Good evening, gentlemen,” she said with forced levity. The younger of the two – a relatively new recruit named Warden Hsieh – returned her smile, much to the obvious disapproval of the other man. Leia blinked away her flicker of surprise at the identity of the senior guardsman and rapidly consulted her mental calendar. Was it already Lieutenant Quin’s turn to stand watch over her office? She nearly sighed the moment she realized how distracted she’d become.

“Lieutenant Quin,” Leia stated regally, drawing upon her upbringing as a royal princess of Alderaan, “how good to see you again.” The lieutenant responded with a tight nod that was almost a head bow. Through the open slits in his helmet, Leia could see his lips tighten in discomfort and, once again, nearly laughed at the incongruity of a man with his training being so uncomfortable in her presence. She opened her mouth to speak.

And everything changed.

It was unlike anything Leia had ever experienced before. Without warning, her every sense came alive. Colors were suddenly sharper than they had ever been before. The ambient sounds of the Senate building suddenly exploded within her ears, instantly transforming from a low, muted buzz into an incomprehensible roar of noise that was physically painful. The universe crystallized around her, showing her a billion different possibilities in the span of a picosecond. Leia’s breath caught as she realized every one of those possibilities revolved around Lieutenant Quin. Somehow, someway, the future of the Republic – perhaps even the galaxy – depended on this man. Leia couldn’t begin to comprehend how she knew this, only that she did.

The moment passed.

“Your Highness?” Lieutenant Quin asked, his eyes narrowed, and Leia realized she had been staring at him for longer than was appropriate. She glanced away, opened her mouth to make a comment explaining her sudden loss of decorum – though she had no idea what she was going to say – when an unidentified feeling of being watched caused the hair on the back of her neck to stand up. She glanced in the direction of Viqi Shesh’s office.

A half second later, the office exploded in flame.

Heavily armored figures poured out of the breach almost instantly, blaster rifles at the ready. Alarms began howling even as Leia’s danger sense flared yet again. She reacted without thought, thrusting her arm toward Lieutenant Quin and Guardsman Hsieh and pulling. With barely time to squawk in surprise, the two men jerked forward and hit the ground beside her a mere second before another eruption of fire and debris engulfed her office. Chunks of ferrocrete exploded toward her but ricocheted off the invisible barrier she’d instinctively thrown up. She staggered back a step as the debris hammered into her Force shield but – to her surprise – it held.

Cakhmaim was already springing toward the burning office, his deadly-looking vibroblade bared and crooning its song of violence, as a quartet of armored figures emerged. Even before the Noghri reached them, Lieutenant Quin was on his feet and surging toward the attackers as well, his blaster rifle abandoned in favor of a long blade of his own. Already, the Senate’s anti-blaster measures had activated and a steady pulse of energy rendered the weapons inert.

Ears ringing, Leia reached for her lightsaber and ignited it with a quick flourish. Its cerulean blade sprang into existence with the familiar snap-hiss and she brought the humming blade up into a defensive posture. The Force whispered to her softly and she reacted without thought, easily parrying a pair of poorly aimed blaster shots directed against her from the attackers. Her blood ran cold at the realization the anti-blaster measures had failed.

Two more offices suddenly exploded and Leia gave the overall situation a quick glance, noting instantly that there were more Guardsmen present than she expected there to be. At least four senators were down, including Ackbar, though she couldn’t tell if they were dead or just unconscious. Another team of the armored figures were racing toward her, their blasters barking. Shouting a curse, Leia made a wide sweeping gesture with her left hand and pushed. Desperation and fear gave her strength and the Force pulse sent the five figures tumbling. They didn’t go far, but it was enough of a delay to give the Guardsmen – and Noghri, she noted – pouring into the engagement zone an opportunity to pounce.

“Lady Solo!” Cakhmaim abruptly shouted. He had taken up a position to her left, his vibroblade sheathed and a blaster rifle in hand. “You must get to safety!”

“No!” Quin retorted sharply. He too had a blaster in hand and Leia had no doubt it had come from the quartet that had attacked through her office. “We need her here!” He pumped a pair of rapid shots into one of the armored figures and sent the man spinning, smoking holes in his protective helmet.

Leia didn’t bother responding to either of them as she concentrated on remembering her brother’s lessons. Her heart hammered loudly in her chest as she once again sent a Force pulse into a cluster of the attacking figures. Two of them were sent flying backwards into a wall as the third re-oriented his weapon and fired twice. Her saber dipped instinctively and caught one of the blaster bolts upon the blue-white blade, but the second grazed her upper bicep with searing fire. She cried out reflexively in the same moment Guardsman Hsieh dropped the attacker with a well-placed shot. Ignoring the pain in her arm, she glanced around for another target.

But there were none.

Instead, the Great Rotunda was crawling with Guardsmen and fierce-looking Noghri. All of the attackers were down – slain or simply subdued – and medical technicians were streaming toward the wounded. Suddenly cognizant of the eyes upon her, Leia shut down her lightsaber and glanced in Quin’s direction.

He was kneeling before one of the attackers Leia had sent sprawling and had already tore open the man’s helmet. To her shock, Quin was reaching into the human’s mouth with his vibroblade, almost as if he meant to mutilate the semi-conscious man’s face. She took a quick step toward the lieutenant in very moment he activated his weapon.

The attacker shrieked.

Fury washed over her and Leia raised her deactivated saber to strike the kneeling lieutenant, but Cakhmaim suddenly caught her wrist. He gave her a sharp shake of his head.

“Hold,” the Noghri cautioned, his eyes narrowed speculatively on the kneeling form of the Guardsman. A heartbeat later, Quin rose, his bloody hands holding something small. He offered it to her.

“Suicide tooth,” he identified. “I mean to discover who is behind this,” he said darkly while gesturing for Guardsman Hsieh to secure their prisoner.

“You expected this,” Leia said. She gave the Rotunda another quick glance.

“Not this exactly, Your Highness,” Quin responded. Leia pinned him with her eyes and he exhaled slowly. “We’ve had credible information about an impending strike for days now,” he admitted. “Unfortunately,” he continued, “there’s been a dearth of actual evidence.” He frowned as he looked at Cakhmaim. “I would like to know how you were aware of the threat,” Quin stated.

“By observing your people,” the Noghri replied sharply.

“Triple the guards on the senator’s home,” Quin ordered tersely. “They may be a target.”

“My children?” Leia gasped, suddenly horrified.

“We have already done so,” Cakhmaim said at the same time. He gave the semi-conscious prisoner being escorted away a dark look. “He will not talk,” he mused and, from the set of Lieutenant Quin’s shoulders, Leia could tell the Guardsman thought the same thing.

“He’ll talk to me,” she declared harshly. She began striding toward the prisoner, her expression resolute. Cakhmaim fell into step beside her and she sensed a half dozen other Noghri surround them.

“Your Highness,” Lieutenant Quin said as he walked alongside her, “I’m not sure this is a good idea.” He gestured to a trio of Guardsmen and, without question, they joined her impromptu party.

“I can make him talk,” Leia stated grimly, her tone brooking no dissent. Anger warred with fear as she realized how exposed her family was at the moment. With Han and Chewie off at war and Luke gallivanting around the galaxy with his own personal assassin, she had only herself and the Noghri to protect Jaina and Jacen. She would not let these terrorists hurt her children.

She swept into the interrogation room moments later flanked by both Cakhmaim and Quin. The prisoner was secured in a restraining chair, his eyes glittering with poorly suppressed pain. Blood was trickling from his mouth, reminding Leia that Quin had forcibly extracted a tooth from this man only minutes earlier. She carefully took the seat across from the prisoner and steepled her fingers on the table between them as her two guards took up defensive positions at her side.

“You know who I am,” Leia said simply. It was not a question. “But I don’t know who you are.” He grunted in response. “This will go a lot more smoothly for you,” she remarked, “if you cooperate.”

“Cooperate?” he repeated, giving her a bloody smile as he spoke. “Not likely.”

“Colonies accent,” Quin rumbled. “With a touch of Mid-Rim enunciation.” The Guardsman crossed his arms. “He’s post-Thrawn Imperial.”

“And you’re a traitor,” the prisoner almost snarled. He returned his full attention to Leia and she shivered at the lack of human emotion she saw in his eyes. “Do your worst,” he commanded. “I’ll tell you nothing.”

“Tell us about your plan,” Leia ordered, stretching out with her haphazard knowledge of the Force and urging the man to obey. “Tell us now!”

He recoiled as if struck before grimacing and straightening quickly. His eyes narrowed and Leia could feel the fury rolling off of him in waves. Once more, she fumbled toward the Force.

“My plan,” the man growled, “involves you and yours being dead.” He abruptly laughed, a sinister and abrasive sound. “Nothing you can do will stop it,” he said with a malevolent smile on his face. “They’ll be dead soon. They’ll all be dead.”

“They?” Leia repeated softly, fighting back the fear bubbling up within her stomach. She gripped the armrests of her chair tightly when he laughed again.

“Your children,” the prisoner said simply.

Fury thundered through her and Leia closed her eyes to keep from leaping across the table. The man’s laughter echoed in her ears and she could hear both of her guards softly urging her to leave, but none of that mattered as she stretched out with her mind to caress the Force signatures of her children. Jacen was asleep at the moment, but Jaina eagerly reciprocated the mindtouch. Leia let her daughter’s unconditional love for her swirl through the Force before acknowledging that she would do anything for her children.

Anything.

She opened her eyes.

“Tell me now,” Leia Organa-Solo ordered, the Force swelling around and through her. Instinct drove her – she didn’t know exactly what she was doing, only that it was the only way she would get her the information she desperately needed in time. The prisoner convulsed instinctively as she slammed a thoughtprobe into his mind and began directly stimulating the truth centers of his brain. He would be unable to lie.

Words began tumbling out of his mouth and Leia felt her stomach twist at the scope of the coming strike. A combination of traditional explosives and biological attacks, it would be catastrophic, with the loss of life in the hundreds of thousands if not the millions. No one on Coruscant would be safe from the madness and she maintained her durasteel grip on his mind as she sought the means to undo the coming strike.

Even as he spoke, she could sense something greater at work, something darker hovering on the very edge of her perception of this man. She followed that hint, burrowing the thoughtprobe deeper into the man’s psyche as she sought the identity of the hidden puppet master. Vaguely, Leia became aware that he was twitching nonstop now and was weeping blood, but she delved deeper, growing closer to the mastermind with each second…

The impact of Lieutenant Quin’s hand across her face brought Leia back to the present and she recoiled away from him, suddenly aware that Cakhmaim was shouting at her. Spots danced before her eyes as she shook her head and panic surged as she realized that she could barely move. A sense of lethargy seemed to be drowning her but, with the sharp pain from the slap, she began clawing her way back to full consciousness.

“I’m all right,” Leia said as she sagged in her chair. Her body felt heavier than even when she had been carrying the twins and her back felt like it was on fire. “I’m all right,” she repeated. She opened her mouth to ask what happened when her eyes fell on the prisoner.

He was dead.

Slumped back in his restraint chair, he stared sightlessly at her. Blood was still dripping from his eyes and ears and nose, and an expression of absolute horror was stamped on his face. Leia felt a wave of nausea surge through her and she barely had time to get out of her chair before she vomited.

By the time she’d recovered, Quin had vanished from the room though she could hear him issuing orders to his Guardsmen outside. With her body unwilling to fully cooperate, Leia forced herself to her feet, aware of Cakhmaim’s intent study of her. She could not tear her eyes from the corpse in the restraint chair. I did that, she wailed to herself. I murdered that man.

“Lady Solo?” Cakhmaim ventured a moment later. Leia glanced at him and swallowed. There was no recrimination on the Noghri’s face, no accusation or surprise, only concern.

“Your Highness,” Quin said before she could respond as he re-entered the interrogation cell. He had a large data-slate with him with a broad overview of Coruscant upon it. “I marked down the strike points he confessed to,” the Guardsman declared as he placed the slate upon the table, “but would like you to check my positioning.”

“Of course, Lieutenant,” Leia replied. She pulled her lightsaber from her belt and offered it to him. “I will cooperate fully,” she continued, “and am surrendering to your custody.”

“Custody?” Quin’s voice revealed his surprise. “What are you talking about?”

“I killed this man,” Leia said tightly. “A prisoner already in custody,” she added. “By Republic law, you are required to arrest me immediately.”

“With respect, Your Highness,” Quin replied, “there are more important things to worry about right now.” He gave the corpse a contemptuous look. “This man,” he said, disgust dripping off his words, “was Hutt slime willing to kill hundreds of thousands of people for whatever mad goal he followed.” The Guardsman’s expression was unyielding. “As far as I’m concerned,” he added callously, “he got what he deserved.”

“I’m a murderer,” Leia growled but the Guardsman cut her off.

“Right now,” he pointed out, “I need your help preventing this attack from being carried out.”

“The lieutenant speaks truth,” Cakhmaim said softly. “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

“Too many people have already died, Your Highness,” Quin added. “And I need your help.” He pointed to the data-slate and the map. “We’ll start here,” he decided and Leia nodded grimly before following him out of the interrogation room.

The rest of the day passed in a blur and Leia later could not recall the exact sequence of events that followed. Five hours passed in the blink of an eye and she found herself standing over the beds of her children, eyes moist as she realized how close she had come to losing them today. Three separate weapons had been neutralized within walking distance of her apartments – two conventional explosives and one horrific bio-weapon – and Leia shivered at the mental image of the twins exposed to the latter. Keyed to the human genetic code, it would have peeled the skin off their bodies in under an hour. That someone would use such a weapon against anyone was nearly unbelievable and the fact they’d recovered over a dozen of them across the planet caused her to wonder if the galaxy would ever be truly safe.

Satisfied they were safe, she retreated to her shower, pausing only long enough to make sure Threepio knew she wasn’t to be disturbed. Under the scalding water, Leia collapsed to her knees and began to tremble as the accumulated stress and terror of the day simply overwhelmed her. She squeezed her eyes shut as the tears began to fall, but made no effort to stop them.

When she emerged from the shower an eternity later, Leia found herself staring at the stranger in the mirror for a long time as she tried to come to grips with what she’d done. Lieutenant Quin had promised her that he would follow the letter of the law and treat her like anyone else, but she knew better. He was Alderaanian, after all, and she was the last of the Organas. She sighed bitterly.

“I cannot resign,” Leia told the stranger in the mirror. “Not while Fey’lya is steering the Republic towards disaster.” The stranger did not reply so Leia pressed on, aware that she was justifying her actions but unsure how to stop. “My children need me,” she whispered. Once again, the stranger offered no condemnation and Leia swallowed. “The man was a terrorist and a murderer,” she said. “He deserved to die for what he had done and what he was going to do.” After a moment of consideration, she nodded. “He deserved to die,” she repeated.

And as she turned away, Leia Organa-Solo, daughter of Anakin Skywalker who became Darth Vader, never noticed the flicker of yellow that momentarily tainted the color of her normally brown eyes.

Rigil Kent
24 October 2008, 08:14 AM
CHAPTER 8

EVEN his eyes ached.

Leaning back in the repulsor chair, Corran Horn tried to concentrate on something other than the dull, hollow ache that radiated out from his left leg and threatened to consume his entire body. Today was the first day he’d been able to do more than just look at the new limb and, as a result, he’d pushed it too far. His stubborn refusal to use painkillers at this stage in recovery was starting to look less logical by the moment.

With a grunt, he leaned forward slightly and, in doing so, he accidentally dislodged two objects resting on the small armrests of the chair. The lightsaber that had once belonged to his grandfather hit the floor with a loud clatter and Corran grimaced as he reached over to retrieve it. His fingers touched the uniform patch denoting his allegiance to the Rogues and he carefully lifted them both to eye level. One he had fought hard to earn, the other was his by birthright but right now, Corran didn’t feel like he was worthy of either one. He stared at both of them for a long time, trying – and failing! – to figure a way out of the hole that life had dumped him in.

“You look like hell,” Mirax told him as she swept into their small apartment a short time later, a small satchel of groceries in hand. Trundling behind her, Whistler chirped his agreement of her assessment before making a beeline for the recharge station.

“I feel like hell,” Corran said in response. He tried to shift position but the stab of pain that lanced through his leg quickly caused him to rethink the movement. Instead, he looked up and met his wife’s appraising eyes. She had a distracted look on her face and Corran braced himself for whatever news she was about to spring.

“I spoke with Doctor Gym’ll today,” she announced and Corran winced at mention of the doctor in charge of his physical therapy.

“Look,” he said quickly, “I already apologized for calling him a Sith-in-training.” His expression darkened. “But I swear he gets off on inflicting pain.”

“Poor baby,” Mirax snickered. She finished storing her purchases and walked to where Corran was seated. “He told me you’re making great progress,” she said as she crawled onto the repulsor chair alongside him, making sure to not jostle his left leg.

“He told me that he’d seen Arkanian slugs work harder,” Corran groused sullenly. His hands joined Mirax’s atop her abdomen and he stretched out with his Force senses to admire the son growing within her womb. Valin, he mindsent, smiling brightly at how the fetus’ Force signature flared brightly in response.

“Stop that,” his wife ordered with an amused laugh. Corran’s smile faltered and he pinned Mirax with a look.

“What do we do if my body rejects this leg too?” he asked abruptly. It was a more than believable scenario; following the Byblos encounter that left him missing a limb, his body had rejected three different kinds of cybernetic prosthetics. While such cyber-rejection wasn’t unheard of, it was a rare occurrence and Corran’s sense of optimism had begun to wane with each new rejection. When Doctor Gym’ll suggested cloning a limb instead using a cybernetic prosthetic, Corran had agreed instantly, desperate for anything that could get him on his feet again. Now, however, months after the transplant, he was starting to get worried again.

“If it does,” Mirax replied, “we’ll adapt.” She gave him a quick kiss before snuggling a little closer. “Don’t worry about it,” she said.

“I feel like half a man,” Corran admitted. He gave into the urge to scratch the cloned limb but jerked his hand back quickly at the sharp pain it caused. Gym’ll had told him to expect this sort of thing as the regenerating nerve endings were hyper-stimulated and prone to sensory overload.

“Half a Corellian,” Mirax whispered seductively as she bit his ear, “is better than any three other males in the galaxy.” Her hand began trailing down his shirt as her bites became more aggressive.

The door chirped.

Mirax rolled off the repulsor chair quickly and Corran drew in a sharp breath as his leg twitched. He waved off her worried look and she moved toward the door, pausing only long enough to give herself a quick once-over in the nearby mirror. Satisfied, she trigged the release and the door curled open, revealing an unfamiliar bearded human wearing a Republic SpecForce uniform with colonel rank. Through the Force, Corran could sense the man’s identity and he fought back a frown.

“Good evening, Captain,” the man said in greeting. “Is your husband home?”

“Home and grumpy,” Mirax replied as she gave Corran a sidelong glance. He nodded and she stepped aside in a clear gesture of invitation. The colonel stepped through the doorway and his brown eyes almost instantly zeroed in on where Corran sat.

“Can I help you, Colonel?” Horn asked immediately, not bothering to offer his visitor a seat. Mirax gave him a questioning look, but Corran kept his attention focused on the SpecForce officer in front of him.

“I certainly hope so,” the man said with tight smile. He looked at Mirax. “You have a lovely home, Captain.”

“Call me Mirax,” she replied, offering her hand. He took it.

“And I’m-”

“Colonel Kyle Katarn,” Corran identified, noting at once Mirax’s flare of recognition at the name. The colonel smiled and returned his attention to Corran.

“You’ve heard of me,” he commented with a hint of pride.

“Everyone has heard of you,” Horn responded. “We even had a name for you in CorSec: the Destroyer.”

“Really?” Katarn asked with a broad smile. “I’ll have to tell Jan about that one.”

“What do you want?” Corran demanded harshly. Remembering the man’s senior rank, he quickly added, “Sir.”

“I want to recruit you for a special mission,” the colonel said, crouching before Corran so their eyes would be level. “Both of you, actually,” Katarn added. “Due to the secrecy of this operation,” he continued, “I’ll need your answer before informing you of any particulars.”

“I’m not exactly in shape for a covet op right now,” Corran pointed out sourly.

“Neither of us are,” Mirax added, the fingers of her hands unconsciously splaying out across her stomach. Katarn gave her knowing smile.

“There’s plenty of time for you to get back into shape,” he said quickly before directing his next comments to Mirax. “And I need you mostly for your contacts in the smuggler community,” he said.

“You mean Booster,” she guessed and the colonel nodded. The look she shot Corran was one he recognized instantly: your call.

“We’re going to need more than that,” he announced. “I’m not willing to put our baby at risk for one of your high body count missions.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Katarn said. He smiled. “Is that your final answer?”

“Unless you change our minds in under a minute,” Mirax offered, “it is.” The colonel laughed.

“A minute?” he repeated. “I can change your minds with a single word.”

Curiosity overwhelmed Corran then and he instantly recognized the trap Katarn had set before them. He bit his lower lip and glanced at Mirax; she wore an identical expression of interest and Corran sighed in resignation.

“What word?” he asked, knowing he would dread the answer.

“Antilles,” Katarn intoned and Corran’s breath caught.

“Wedge?” he breathed. “You’re going after Wedge?” The colonel made no verbal reply but Corran could feel the truth swell through the Force. He nodded and Mirax answered for them both.

“Count us in,” she said.

And Colonel Katarn smiled.

|-*-|

She had no urge to smile.

Pacing back and forth in front of the holo-tank, Commodore Natasi Daala fought against the urge to fidget and wondered once again why she had such a bad feeling about this entire engagement. Everything was proceeding according to plan, she had a two to one numerical advantage and the legendary Rogue Squadron was a mere shell of its former self. Nothing Solo did could prevent his defeat.

And yet, she could not shake the sense of unease as her fleet raced toward Solo’s hiding place at superluminal speeds.

“One minute to reversion,” Lieutenant Commander Janna Tammok, her primary aide, announced and Daala nodded sharply as she continued to prowl around the holographic tactical display. Shaking her head in a vain attempt to clear away the worry, she focused on the location the battle would take place. Only someone like Solo would pick such a desolate place to wage a major engagement like this, Tasi mused.

An unstable cluster of black holes near the planet Kessel, the Maw had a well-earned reputation for being a starship graveyard. Throughout the centuries, literally billions of ships had been lost trying to navigate the dangerous Kessel Run. Even at the height of the Empire, the region had been left mostly alone due to the sheer impossibility of successfully navigating the treacherous region. In instances too numerous to mention, ships fleeing from an Imperial task force would flee into the Maw, knowing the Empire wouldn’t bother to pursue them.

In almost every instance, that ship would never be heard from again.

“Reversion in five, four, three,” the lieutenant commander said, “two, one. Reversion.”

The Chimera shivered slightly as it slowed from lightspeed and Tasi stared at the tactical display intently as five other star destroyers, ten Katana-class dreadnaughts, and twenty Carrack-class light cruisers suddenly arrived. They were already arrayed in the standard assault wedge formation, with the six destroyers forming the nucleus of the aggressive maneuver, and Daala was pleased to note none of her ships appeared to have lagged behind.

“Contact!” one of the sensor operators announced loudly. A second later, the tactical display changed and a half dozen holographic images flickered into existence. One of them was obviously Solo’s command ship, the renamed Lusankya, but Tasi frowned at the battle computer’s inability to identify the remaining ships through the extensive radiation in the region. “Confirm: Independence,” the operator said, unconsciously using the Republic’s name for the Executor-class Solo commanded from. Though Tammok shot the enlisted operator a dark look, Daala gave it little thought and silently preferred the newer name; she’d visited the Lusankya once while it was under the command of Ysanne Isard and had been thoroughly disgusted with what she saw.

“Battle stations,” Daala ordered softly as she continued her slow circuit around the tactical display. New contacts were suddenly popping up all around them and the battle computer was having an even more difficult time identifying them; most were being logged as the detritus from the nearby planetoid slowly being ripped apart by gravitational tidal forces but a small minority of them might be fighters or mines. A shiver ran up Tasi’s spine as she recalled her days at the Academy; in the four years she’d been there, only one person had defeated her in a fleet simulation.

And now, she was facing that very man.

“Fighters deploying,” Commander Tammok said. “All ships reporting ready.” Daala spent another moment examining the battlefield, noting with silent admiration how effectively Han had deployed his forces. His name is Solo, she reminded herself sharply, all the while wondering if he still thought of her by that ridiculous nickname he’d used.

“Take us in,” she instructed. “Thrawn pincher,” Daala added. “All ships be prepared for anything.”

It was an unnecessary order as, over the last three months, Solo’s singular ability to do exactly what they didn’t expect had earned him a reputation among the fleet. Half the officers in her command believed the wily Corellian was certifiably insane while the other half was convinced he was a tactician on par with the late Grand Admiral Thrawn. Daala still wasn’t sure if Solo’s sudden creativity was borne of his experiences with the seedier side of the galaxy or if he’d always been this … sneaky.

Still, with his numbers being depleted by their constant engagements and the apparent inability of the Republic to resupply his need for ships, Solo’s luck could only hold out for so long. Tasi hated to be the one to do this to her old Academy friend, but her duty was clear. She only hoped he would surrender without too much trouble.

“New contacts!” the sensor operator shouted and Daala grimaced at the sudden appearance of another half dozen ships to their aft. Well played, she mentally saluted Solo though such a small number wouldn’t be enough to prevent his ultimate defeat. She opened her mouth to issue orders when the battle computer identified one of the newly arrived ships.

It was an Interdictor.

Daala’s blood ran cold as the cruiser powered up its gravity well projectors. Seconds later, dozens of new contacts began appearing as Solo’s reinforcements were abruptly torn out of lightspeed by the Interdictor’s projectors. Most were smaller assault craft – corvettes and fighters – but at least three of them were heavy ships, including one the computer identified as the Gorgon, believed lost four months earlier in the engagement within the Telaxis Corridor.

“New ships holding position,” the operator said quickly, a hint of panic leaking into his voice. Daala frowned as she studied the tactical display. She pointed to an unknown contact astern of the Chimera.

“What is that?” she demanded.

“An asteroid, ma’am,” the sensorman replied after a moment. “I’m detecting hundreds of them in the battle theater.”

“Where are the Rebellion ships in comparison to these asteroids?” Tasi asked though she suspected the answer already.

“All Rebels are a minimum of ten thousand kilometers away, Commodore.”

“Incoming transmission,” a com-tec said over the sensor operator. “It’s the Independence,” he said. Frowning, Daala nodded and stepped toward the nearby hologram pod. A second later, the image of Han Solo flickered into view.

“Hello, Nat,” he said at once, using that hated nickname.

“Slick,” she replied in kind.

“What we’ve got here,” Solo said after a moment, “is a Rodian standoff.” He crossed his arms. “Now normally, I’d say we’re evenly matched-”

“Of course you would,” Daala interjected.

“-but that’s not true,” the Corellian continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “By now you’ve picked up the asteroids,” he said and Tasi felt the last vestiges of confidence wither and die. “They’re from a dead system called Peragus,” Solo said calmly. Beside her, Commander Tammok drew in a sharp breath, clearly recognizing the name though it was only vaguely familiar to Daala. Something about the Old Republic and fuel, she reflected.

“Highly volatile, highly explosive,” Solo added. “We’ve spent the last two months shipping them here just for you,” he said without a trace of humor in his voice.

“Commodore,” Tammok murmured and Daala gave her a glance. The lieutenant commander offered a dataslate and Tasi accepted it; as she suspected, it was a brief rundown on the Peragus disaster. She winced at estimated destructive yield of the thousand plus asteroids scattered around her fleet. Though the capital ships would likely survive, none of the fighters would and the smaller Carracks would be heavily damaged. Her fleet would be decimated and the loss of life would be catastrophic.

“What are your terms?” Tasi asked bitterly. She could see her hard-fought career spiraling down the drain and all because of a man she’d once seriously considered sleeping with.

“An Old Tapani surrender of honor,” Solo offered and Daala blinked in surprise at his generosity. Her fleet would fall under his jurisdiction and would be held in abeyance until the Empire met his terms for ransom. The fates of her crew would be up to Solo and, if there was one thing everyone in the galaxy knew about Han Solo, it was that he was an honorable man. There was only one answer to give and Tasi spoke without hesitation.

“I accept.”

|-*-|

“I accept.”

From where she stood behind her best friend, Leia Organa-Solo wiped away a discreet tear and watched as Winter and Tycho spoke the traditional Alderaanian marriage vows before the beaming holy man. The love and devotion in their eyes as they drank in each other’s appearance was so obvious she suspected even a blind man could see it, and their emotions blazed through the Force with such power Leia was momentarily overwhelmed.

Following their return to Coruscant after Tycho’s latest near death experience, the two had decided to stop waiting and turned to Leia for aid in arranging the wedding. They wanted as traditional a ceremony as possible and she had been happy to call in as many markers as necessary to arrange it. With no known native-born Alderaani holy men still alive, Leia had instead sought out a Nubian priest whom Luke had discovered years earlier when he went questing for the identity of their mother. The old man, who had overseen the secret joining of Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Naberrie, had been only too happy to officiate the marriage of Winter Retrac and Tycho Celchu.

Everything had gone off without a hitch and Tycho seemed to have finally come to grips with the fact his wife was adopting his name in a manner similar to how Leia had taken Han’s. For centuries, Alderaani men had taken the names of their wives – it was how Bail Antilles had become Bail Organa, after all – but the tradition now seemed to be as lost as Alderaan itself.

“And with your union, the Truth unfolds,” the holy man declared, reciting the traditional closing benediction as he placed his hands on both of their heads. “With your love,” he said, “you become one with the Great Plan of the Universe’s Creator who knows only Love.” He reached for their hands and brought them together. “Unity summons you,” he intoned, “and you summon unity.” The smile on his face was intoxicating. “Go forth and love one another,” he instructed before taking a step back from them.

“Congratulations!” Leia exclaimed the moment the two stepped off the small dais. She wrapped her arms around Winter and the two shared a laugh. The silver-haired woman had a slightly shocked look on her face as she clung to her new husband’s hand and Leia again wiped away some errant tears. She turned to address the assembled group of attendees – mostly pilots and some uncomfortable-looking government types – and raised her voice. “I give you,” Leia said loudly, sharing a quick conspiratorial look with Tycho as she paused for dramatic effect, “Lady Winter Retrac and her husband, Tycho!” The announcement was answered with loud cheers and whistles, and Leia smiled at the look Winter gave her.

“It’s Winter Celchu,” she said in faux-offense.

“Of course, Lady Retrac,” Leia retorted. She laughed again as she watched the happy couple step forward to meet their well-wishers but her good humor faded as she took in the number of injured pilots. Corran Horn sat in an ugly-looking repulsor chair, his left leg still wrapped up but his expression bright, while Gavin Darklighter, head bandaged and right arm in a cast, slouched in an even less attractive chair beside the Corellian. Behind them, Horn’s wife Mirax laughed at something Winter told her even as Tycho exchanged a backslapping hug with a wan-looking Wes Janson. The smile on the latter man’s face appeared to be a forced one and Leia wondered at the reasons behind it. A dozen other pilots, none of whom she immediately recognized, swarmed around the new groom, all intent on offering their advice, congratulations, or warnings.

Lurking near the back of the small chapel, newly promoted Guardsman-Captain Tyris Quin watched the proceedings with an unreadable expression on his face. As if sensing Leia’s study of him, his face tightened slightly and he returned her subtle nod with a neck bow before silently backing from the room. Leia frowned slightly, wondering at the curious behavior before realizing that Quin had lost his homeworld as well. This ceremony, while not perfect, had been a heart-tugging reminder of what they’d lost to the Empire. She wondered if he’d had family members on Alderaan when Tarkin unleashed the Death Star all those years ago. It was something she would have to ask Winter about later.

“That astromech,” C3-PO declared primly, “is even more rude than Artoo-Detoo!” He was referencing Horn’s green droid, Whistler, who happily beeped and chirped away from beside his master. Leia shook her head in silent amusement at the idiosyncrasies of snubfighter pilots; as far as she could tell, every single one of them – including Tycho! – had brought their droids to the ceremony almost as if they were actual members of the family. If Leia hadn’t planned on taking Threepio to the office with her after the reception, she would have gladly left him behind to harass the Noghri guarding Jacen and Jaina.

“Perhaps you intimidate him,” she said with a smile. “You are famous, after all.”

“Oh, my,” Threepio replied with shock in his voice. “I certainly hope not!” he commented before stumbling off to speak with the astromech once more. The electronic sigh the R2 unit emitted as Threepio approached was almost mournful and Leia could swear the droid was glaring at her with its central radar eye.

“Lady Solo,” Cakhmaim whispered as he seemed to materialize beside her. Leia almost jumped in surprise but instead gave him a slow, regal look. His eyes seemed to dance with banked humor. “Meewahl reports success,” he stated and Leia drew in steadying breath while struggling to keep her face clear of the anticipation surging through her. Out of the corner of her eye, she say Corran glance in her direction and was suddenly reminded of Luke’s high opinion about the Corellian pilot’s empathic abilities. She smiled in his direction to assure him nothing was amiss before nodding to Cakhmaim and slowly walking toward the door.

As she suspected, Horn was the only one apart from Winter who really noticed her discreet departure. To the new bride, Leia gave a subtle hand signal relating her need to attend to senatorial business and Winter returned it with an equally understated gesture of understanding, never once losing the train of conversation she was involved in with one of Tycho’s old wingmates, the statuesque Isplourrdacartha Estillo. Leia shook her head in silent admiration.

She and Cakhmaim ducked into her office and Leia made a beeline for the decorative wall closet. She paused for a moment, and then made a snap decision.

“Cakhmaim,” she called. The Noghri appeared almost instantly, his hand on the hilt of the broad vibroknife he carried at his waist and his eyes darting around the room for potential danger. “Contact Captain Quin,” she instructed. When his eyes widened fractionally, she continued. “I want him along so he can see what I’m trying to do.”

“By your command, Lady Solo,” Cakhmaim murmured as he backed out of the room to give her the privacy to change.

Minutes later, she had donned a nondescript outfit complete with a hooded half-cloak. The silver torc that was a holographic transmitter she slid into one of the cloak’s voluminous pockets after checking its charge. Her lightsaber went into another pocket and she slid a pair of holdouts into their concealed holsters. On impulse, she grabbed a portable data-reader and strapped it to her belt.

Quin was waiting in the reception area of her office, a suspicious look on his face. He was dressed in ordinary-looking clothes with no apparent weapons but, based on her interactions with the Noghri, Leia sincerely doubted he wasn’t carrying at least three or four. From the expression he wore, the Guardsman clearly expected an explanation, but Leia offered none.

“Come with me,” she said imperiously, hoping his ingrained Alderaani instincts would kick in. Cakhmaim was already leading the way and Leia exhaled softly in relief when Quin fell into step behind her.

Very little was said for the next hour. Quin made no comment when Cakhmaim directed them into a plain-looking airspeeder and offered only a grunt of mild surprise when the Noghri piloted the vehicle into the Uscru Entertainment District. When Leia donned the holographic torc, the Guardsman’s eyes narrowed, but he followed her nonetheless as she climbed out the vehicle.

Meewahl joined them before they had taken three steps, sliding into place beside Leia with such grace and stealth that the senator wouldn’t have noticed her without the Force. Quin gave the second Noghri another frown but still said nothing, though Leia could see he was desperately curious.

They entered one of the more raucous cantinas easily enough – three deadly-looking hooded figures accompanying a fourth, also hooded, drew surprisingly little attention. Given the number of other figures who were clearly trying to keep their identities secret, Leia suspected the only way they would have stood out was if they hadn’t wore the hoods of their cloaks up. Meewahl took point without comment and quickly led them to a sheltered alcove complete with a table. Before they’d even been seated, a serv-droid appeared.

“Four lums,” Cakhmaim said flatly and the droid wheeled away.

“Why am I here?” Quin demanded a moment later.

“To witness truth unfold,” Leia replied, consciously invoking the marriage ceremony they’d both attended. The Guardsman’s face closed up instantly and he glanced away.

“Two tables left,” Meewahl hissed, her voice surprisingly melodic for one with such a fierce disposition. Leia let her eyes drift in that direction and bit back a smile at the appearance of a hooded Bothan.

“Polo Se’lab,” Quin identified softly, his tone suddenly curious. When a second figure joined the Bothan, the Guardsman froze. “And Lannik Racto,” he murmured. “Why is the chancellor’s chief of intelligence meeting with scum like Racto?” Quin asked.

“A question I’d like answered myself,” Leia admitted. She stretched out with the Force tentatively but recoiled almost at once when the seething emotions swelling around them assaulted her: anger, desire, despair, fear, hatred, lust, madness. It was overwhelming and her hand instinctively went to her forehead to ward off the rush of sensation pulsing within the cantina.

They watched discreetly as funds changed hands and Racto slid a data chit to the Bothan before sliding out of the booth and heading for the exit. A second later, Se’lab followed suit but headed for a different doorway. Leia rose, tossing credits onto the table to pay for their yet undelivered lum, and the other three stood with her. Nothing needed to be said as she angled toward the exit Se’lab had taken.

The door opened up into a dank alley, but Leia could sense Se’lab as he lurked ahead of them and her rudimentary danger sense flared. Acting instinctively, she lashed out with the Force even as the Bothan leaped from his place of concealment, a blaster pistol at the ready. Before he could even squeeze the trigger of his weapon, her Force push slammed into him and sent him sprawling backwards. Cakhmaim and Meewahl sprang forward to seize the staggered Bothan, and he froze when they bared their vicious-looking knives mere centimeters from his face. His eyes darted as Meewahl searched him with expert fingers, finally locating the data-chit concealed in his pants. The female Noghri offered it to Leia instantly.

“Who are you?” Se’lab demanded, his voice trembling, but Leia offered no response as she inserted the chit into the portable reader. Instantly, the demand for a password popped onto the screen.

“What’s the code?” Leia asked. When the Bothan glowered at her, she tried again. “You will tell me the code now,” she ordered, underlying her words with a Force command.

“Aleph null five seven theta null,” Se’lab answered instantly. A horrified expression crossed his face as Leia inserted the password.

“Blackmail material,” Quin growled as he studied the data from over her shoulder and Leia nodded. She pointed to the identities of those being targeted.

“These are the senators most opposed to Fey’lya,” she said. “He’s shoring up his position,” she added before transferring her gimlet gaze to the cowering Se’lab. “You stunted slime,” she growled, suddenly furious. “We spent decades fighting to remove a tyrant who used these types of tactics.” She took a half step closer to the terrified Bothan. “I’m going to make sure you pay for this,” Leia said, balling her hand tightly into a fist. She fought down the urge to strike the despicable traitor.

With a suddenness that was painful, her every sense came alive and Leia inhaled at the impending sense of danger abruptly screaming through her mind. She was reaching for her lightsaber even before she realized it and her eyes jumped from the cowering Bothan to the far end of the alleyway. Cakhmaim clearly recognized the threat in her posture and released Se’lab without hesitation as Quin sprang forward, a telescoping force pike suddenly extending into attack position.

A bare second later, armored figures flooded into the alleyway.

Leia recognized their armor instantly as the same kind worn by the assassins who had struck the Senate last month. There were over a dozen of them, each armed with wicked-looking blaster rifles, and she gestured with her left hand in a Force push that sent the front five flying backwards, tangling up the footwork of those behind them. It was just enough of a delay to give Cakhmaim and Quin time to reach the cluster, and blood began to fly.

“Behind you!” Meewahl snarled as she leaped toward where Leia stood. Reflexes honed by years on the run kicked in and Organa-Solo was diving forward even before the Noghri finished shouting. Leia hit the ground, rolled, and sprang to her feet, igniting her lightsaber as she did. Se’lab shrieked in recognition of the weapon and began scrambling backwards to get clear of her, but Leia focused her attention on the armored troopers now spilling out of the cantina. Already, two of them were down, crimson blood spurting from the gruesome wounds Meewahl had inflicted with her humming vibroblade, and the female Noghri danced a ballet of ruin among the attackers. Had it not been so lethal, it might have seemed beautiful.

Leia gestured sharply with her free left hand, knocking another trio of the troopers off their feet with the Force. A pair of them managed to break past Meewahl and darted toward Leia, their blasters spitting, but she twirled the blue-white blade and swatted the energy bolts back at their originators, absurdly grateful for the training material Luke had left behind. Over the last month, she’d spent every free moment practicing with the saber against her brother’s remotes and her skill with the blade was much improved. One of the shots dropped a shooter instantly, but the other man stumbled into range and took a wild swing at her. Leia reacted without thought, lurching back from the blow as she thrust the saber forward. With a gurgle, the assassin froze and looked down at the cerulean blade impaling him through the upper chest. He slid to his knees as Leia withdrew the saber and then slowly … ever so slowly … he toppled to the ground.

“Are you well, Lady Solo?” Meewahl asked hoarsely. The Noghri’s left arm hung limply from her side and blood was rapidly pooling beneath her yet still, her first instinct was to make sure Leia was safe. Glancing back to make sure both Cakhmaim and Captain Quin were alive, Organa-Solo quickly stepped closer to Meewahl to assess the damage. The Noghri needed real medical attention and quickly.

“This was well fought,” Cakhmaim said to Meewahl in their native tongue as he joined them, his eyes studying the mess his fellow Noghri had made of the attackers. It was said as if he didn’t expect her to survive and Leia gave him a black look.

“She’s not going to die,” Leia told him harshly, almost laughing at the startled looks they both gave her. “But we can’t stay here.” She glanced around for their Bothan prisoner, noting at once he was face down.

“Se’lab is dead,” Quin said in response to her questioning look. “My fault,” the Guardsman admitted. He gestured with his still extended and now quite bloody force pike. “I had my weapon set to maximum to penetrate the armor and the fool got in my way.” He held the reader out to her. “But we still have this.”

“That’s something,” Leia admitted, though she knew they’d never be able to pin Fey’lya to Se’lab’s actions without the latter Bothan’s testimony. Borsk would claim ignorance and argue his chief of intelligence was acting beyond his mandate. It would cause suspicion, but it wasn’t proof. They would need more.

It was telling, though, that Quin had said ‘we.’ Leia wondered if he’d even realized how his priorities appeared to have shifted. No longer was he a disinterested, neutral party. Now, he was an ally.

“Let’s get Meewahl to a medic,” she ordered, dropping the saber into its deep pocket. She glanced once more at the armored bodies strewn across the ground of the alleyway. Why were these assassins so desperate to kill her? And where were they coming from? Who was behind them? Memory of the indistinct image she’d half glimpsed during her thoughtprobe of the assassin they’d captured a month earlier immediately came to mind. Was that person behind this nightmare?

It was a question that haunted her for a long time.

|-*-|

Hunting answers to questions, Lando Calrissian came to Mytus I.

Like Cloud City on Bespin, it was a mining colony constructed within the upper atmosphere of a gas giant but any similarities between the two ended there. Unlike Bespin, Mytus I didn’t have the slightest hint of a habitable zone, thus requiring the entire colony to be enclosed for survivability. The gas giant’s close proximity to the system star made things even worse; tidally locked, the side of the giant facing the sun never changed, prompting the atmosphere on that side to become so superheated the gases there exploded across the planet. Eventually, they would cool on the dark side of the planet and would sink into the lower atmosphere to circulate toward the starward side to begin the pattern anew. As a result of this constant turbulent change, entry into the planet’s atmosphere was nearly impossible – at any given moment, the wind on the gas giant was between two thousand and ten thousand kilometers an hour, depending upon the solar activity at the time.

To defeat these laws of physics, a powerful force field protected the mining colony and connected it to an orbiting space platform, thus providing a sort of tunnel that freighters and transports could use to get to the colony itself. Ingenious engineers had even developed turbines utilizing the gas giant’s winds to perpetually power the force fields. Backups and redundant systems were constantly being installed by paranoid miners afraid of catastrophic failures, so the colony barely managed to break even. None of which explained why the Empire was so interested in Mytus.

So Lando had smuggled himself onto the planet to find out why, despite the system’s almost complete lack of connection to his ongoing investigation into the implants being used by the Jedi clones. Everything on Mytus instead seemed connected to an Imperial star destroyer captain named Lennox who had tentative ties to Admiral Pellaeon, a man Calrissian knew quite a bit about. His instincts had never failed him before, so Lando had spent the last ten days trying to get access to the shipping containers now in front of him.

Only to find out the Imps on Mytus were involved in little more than trying to monopolize the market on orveth blaster gas.

Disgusted and amused at the same time, Lando straightened from where he crouched, wincing at the rapid pops his spine made. He was definitely getting too old for this sort of thing, no matter how much fun it was at times. As he began walking away from the canister, the wrist-comp he wore began vibrating like mad as the proximity sensors detected the approach of life signs. A moment later, he heard the clatter of boots and sighed.

Though every instinct in his body was screaming for him to flee, Lando turned slowly to face the rapidly approaching squad of stormtroopers, a false smile already fixed on his lips. There were six of them, and each was wearing an unusual violet pauldron on his right shoulder that Lando didn’t recognize. From the ease in which these troopers moved, he quickly deduced they were veterans.

“Freeze!” one of the troopers snapped, his blaster rifle trained unerringly on Lando. Adopting a look of shock, Calrissian raised his arms quickly even as his eyes darted for a possible escape route.

“Don’t shoot!” Lando shouted, his voice intentionally higher pitched than normal. Pretending one had a weaker hand than his opponent was always the best opening gambit. “Please, don’t shoot!”

“Give us one good reason we shouldn’t,” a new voice ordered and Lando glanced toward the origin. A thin, wiry human male of indeterminate age leisurely strolled forward, his hawk-nosed face twisted with contempt. He was wearing the distinctive black uniform of a stormtrooper officer and bore the rank squares of a major.

“Look, Captain,” Calrissian said with a worried-looking smile. “I’m just-”

“It’s major,” the officer retorted harshly, taking a step closer in a clear attempt to intimidate. Lando pretended to quail and made sure to inject a stammer in his next comments.

“Terribly sorry, sir,” he said. “I’m trying to find a lost bird, sir,” Lando offered quickly. “It’s about this big,” he said, gesturing with his hands to give an approximate size, “with bright green feathers and red at the throat.”

For a long moment, the Imperial major was silent, a look of abject disbelief stamped upon his face.

“You couldn’t come up with anything better than that?” the major demanded with a cold smile. “Look around,” he ordered and Lando obliged. That it gave him the opportunity to look for another escape route was something he certainly didn’t mind. “This is a gas giant,” the major said. “There are no birds here.”

“Uh, sir,” one of the stormtroopers interjected and Lando heaved a silent sigh of relief. He’d hoped his back-up plan hadn’t been a wasted effort. Acquiring a Nubian swamp crooner and keeping it alive long enough to act as a distraction had cost more money than Calrissian wanted to think about, even if it had allowed him to get a look at what the Imps were doing here. “I saw a bird like that this morning,” the trooper continued.

“Where?” Lando asked quickly, taking a half step closer to the trooper. “I bought it for my daughter,” Calrissian lied easily, “and she’ll kill me if I don’t get it back for her.”

“Possession of non-native creatures is forbidden,” the major said with a resigned sigh. Lando relaxed fractionally as most of the troopers began to lower their weapons. One, however, did not.

“You’re Lando Calrissian,” that stormtrooper said.

Instantly, blaster rifles came back up and Lando froze. He didn’t bother trying to correct the trooper – his face was too well known for him to not be recognized – but instead slowly lifted his right hand, knowing that it would draw attention to the hand. At the same time, he flexed the muscles in his left forearm, thus triggering the spring-loaded holster concealed under the billowing sleeve of his shirt. He felt a satisfying weight fall into his palm and his smile grew broader.

“Well,” the Imperial major abruptly said with a malicious smile, “isn’t this my lucky day?”

“No,” Lando replied, “it really isn’t.” He slowly rotated his left hand so the device held there could be seen.

It was a thermal detonator.

The slow flashing on the top of the explosive indicated it was already armed and Lando respected stormtrooper training enough to know they would recognize it to be a suicide model. All Calrissian would have to do is open his hand and the device would detonate. Stunning him was no longer an option and Lando pinned the stormtrooper officer with a grin.

“Your move,” Calrissian said.

“Shoot him,” the major ordered quickly, backpedaling as he did. “He doesn’t have the mivocks to let go of it.”

“You’re not playing the odds, friend,” Lando said with a smirk. He took a half step toward the major who promptly took a step away. “Look at this from my angle,” he continued. “If you and your friends take me into custody,” Calrissian said, “I can look forward to weeks of excruciating pain followed by an equally painful death.” Gesturing with the detonator, Lando took another couple steps toward the group. They backed away as he expected. “Now if I just open my hand,” he said, “not only would my death be really quick, but I’d go out with a blaze of glory taking you Imps with me.”

“You’re bluffing,” the stormtrooper who had identified him said.

“Maybe,” Lando replied. He shrugged as if the entire situation didn’t bother or interest him much. “Let’s find out,” he said a half second before tossing the detonator at the trooper and diving toward one of the massive packing crates at his back. The troopers reacted exactly as he expected – scrambling away from the explosive – and it gave him enough time to get clear of the immediate killing field. He had, at best, seconds before everything went to hell.

With a flash of light, the detonator triggered. Instead of erupting with explosive force, however, it unleashed a pulse of special radiation designed to affect the optics of stormtrooper helmets. To see, the troopers would need to remove the now useless head gear. New Republic research scientists had been working for decades to figure out the exact frequency and, not for the first time, Lando was glad he’d arranged to have it stolen.

As the troopers began cursing, Calrissian slid a second device from his belt. It was shaped like a small, oval box and he quickly mashed the arming button before throwing it. Bouncing off one of the shipping containers, it ricocheted and hit the ground near the stormtroopers. Almost instantly, it broke open, spilling out dozens of tiny marble-shaped objects. Lando didn’t wait for them to trigger as he pulled his holdout blaster free of its holster and threw himself forward into a sprint.

Behind him, the micro-grenades activated. Twelve of them began exploding with loud cracks and pops intended to dazzle the eyes of the unprotected, while another twelve started shrieking loudly. The final dozen began belching plumes of smoke and tear gas. None of it was expected to do more than slow the Imps down, but Lando hoped it would give him a head start.

The whine of a blaster bolt flashing by his head was proof it hadn’t been as effective as he’d like. Pistol drawn, the Imperial major rounded a corner and gave chase, snapping off a series of rapid shots that splintered wood and duracrete. Lando ducked, and then returned fire with the holdout. It was a perfect shot and nailed the major in the chest; the man collapsed, a startled look on his face.

Less than a second later, the now helmet-less stormtroopers appeared out of the haze, their eyes tearing and their blasters spitting fire. The leader was a man Lando’s age with short-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and a massive scar that ran down his face from eyebrow to jaw. Calrissian pumped three shots into the cluster of stormies with the holdout, hitting one and sending the man spinning.

As he ducked around another of the towering crates, Lando reached for a replacement ammo pack for the holdout. Of a design similar to one he’d seen Mara Jade carry, this model packed significantly greater punch but could only be fired four times before reloading. He ejected the spent ammo pack and slammed the replacement one home in a single, fluid motion. The four miniature LEDs along the top of the pistol denoting number of shots available lit up.

Drawing a deep breath, Lando darted toward an opening in the stacked containers, ducking under a hail of blasterfire that exploded around him. The narrow exit opened up into a large parking lot filled with a half dozen loading units, ground-speeders and a trio of rickety-looking airspeeders, including the one he’d “borrowed” to get here. Cursing at how exposed he would be, Lando popped off four rapid shots at the pursuing stormtroopers which sent them lunging back behind cover. Once again, he threw himself forward into a sprint, ejecting the spent ammo pack as he did. He slid across the hood of a parked speeder and dropped behind it, fumbling for another reload pack.

“This could be better,” Calrissian grumbled to himself as he drew a bead on the stormtroopers bounding out of the shipping area. There were many more of them than he expected and many were still wearing helmets. That could only mean reinforcements.

“Drop it!” the scarred face stormtrooper ordered. The stormies were already fanning out to get a better angle on him and Lando knew he wouldn’t survive long if he put up any more resistance. I can get out of this, he decided before slowly climbing to his feet, holding the blaster up high where they could see it. As ordered, he dropped it before kicking it toward the trooper with the scar.

“Surely we can talk about this,” Lando said with a smile as he inched around the edge of the speeder. The grizzled-looking stormtrooper glowered fiercely as he approached, rifle trained on Lando’s chest, and Calrissian couldn’t tear his eyes from the vicious scar that marked the man’s face.

“Oh, we’re definitely going to talk all right,” the trooper growled ominously. He opened his mouth to say something else but his eyes locked on something behind Lando and abruptly widened.

A half second later, a sizzling stream of blaster fire screamed by Calrissian’s head, narrowly missing him as it exploded against one of the parked loading units. The stormtroopers dove for cover as Lando dropped instantly to the ground. He shot a quick glance in the direction of the origin of the attack as he scrambled toward a hiding place close to where he’d kicked his pistol.

Moving at incredible speeds, a civilian speeder bike raced toward them. There were two figures on the bike – one piloting and the other behind him holding a blaster pistol that was barking lethal pulses of fire at the stormtroopers – and Lando fought to keep from grinning madly when he recognized them: Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade. He had no idea how they’d tracked him down or had even known he was in trouble, but he certainly wasn’t going to complain.

Without a hint of strain, the two Jedi somersaulted off of the speeder bike, igniting their lightsabers in mid-air, and landed a half step away from where Lando crouched. Unmanned, the bike careened into one of the larger shipping crates and exploded violently, sending shards of debris spinning through the air. Secondary explosions from the destruction of badly damaged blaster gas containers hurled a pair of stormtroopers through the air.

“What took you?” Lando asked as he quickly climbed to his feet, retrieving his blaster pistol in the process. The lights indicating a full load were flickering so he ejected the damaged ammunition charge even as Jade shot him a dark look. Luke smiled.

“Traffic was murder,” Skywalker replied, batting away a trio of blaster bolts aimed at them. He gestured once with his left hand and a trio of stormtroopers went flying. They slammed into smaller shipping containers that promptly buried the armored figures under an avalanche of boxes. Lando doubted they were dead – Luke was much more judicious with his application of power than that – but they were certainly out of the battle.

To Lando’s surprise, Mara seemed as skilled with a blade as Luke. Her eyes were constantly moving and she parried blaster bolts with an ease clearly borne of long practice. Unlike Skywalker, she seemed to favor finesse over power and her every movement was sharp, crisp and devoid of wasted motion.

The howl of another approaching airspeeder drew Lando’s attention away from the almost dance-like moves of the two Jedi, and he fumbled for the last ammo charge for his blaster pistol. Jade half-glanced in his direction, frowned, and then pointed to one of the rifles lying alongside an unconscious stormtrooper some three meters away. The blaster quivered and then shot through the air straight toward Lando. He barely caught it before it smacked into his stomach and gave her an appreciative nod she completely ignored.

With a squeal of protesting repulsors, an open-top airspeeder roared to a stop behind them and Lando could see a pair of Noghri within. One of them was already in the rear seat, a long rifle at the ready, and the pilot quickly joined him, pulling a similar weapon free of a hardened case. Without pause, the two began blasting away at any exposed stormtroopers and their sudden appearance caused even more chaos.

“Time to go,” Jade said sharply, tossing her still activated lightsaber in Luke’s direction as she sprinted toward the driver’s seat of the humming airspeeder. Without even looking at it, Skywalker caught the weapon with his left hand and began backing toward the vehicle, now using both blades to swat away incoming blaster fire.

As Lando dove into the passenger seat of the airspeeder, he snapped off a couple of rapid blaster shots in the direction of the stormtroopers. To his disgust, he realized the lead trooper was still in the fight; crouched behind a large metal container, the man was speaking rapidly into what appeared to be a comlink. Already, Lando could hear the distant pitch of Imperial speeder bikes spiking and knew they’d soon have company.

“Go!” Luke shouted as he jumped onto the back of the airspeeder. Mara reacted instantly and the speeder sprang forward. To Lando’s complete shock, Luke remained exactly where he was despite the impossibility of his stance; it was as if he was wearing mag-boots pinning him in place atop the aft section of the speeder. For the briefest of moments, Calrissian thought he was imagining things.

Seconds later, what looked to be an entire squadron of speeder bikes roared into view behind them, their blaster cannons spitting out a constant stream of fire. Lando’s breath caught as Luke’s twin blades became a wall of light, deflecting every single bolt that would have struck the speeder. At almost the same time, the two Noghri began returning fire with their rifles, instantly causing the pursuing scout-troopers to go evasive. One of the bikes – badly damaged and smoking – took a sharp nose dive and the scout trooper barely managed to leap free before it smashed into the ground with a fierce explosion.

“Hold on!” Mara bellowed a fraction of second before the airspeeder lurched hard to the left. The wail of protesting metal was Lando’s first warning and he bit back a curse as another trio of speeder bikes screamed by them, heading in opposite direction. A fourth bike – the one Jade had struck – went spinning out of control toward the edge of the city. The biker scout still trying to regain control, the speeder tumbled into the protective field surrounding the edge of the city…

And was instantly shredded by the winds of the gas giant that wailed across the massive planet at obscene velocities. The speeder didn’t even have time to explode.

“Kriff,” Jade snarled as she pushed the airspeeder into a stomach lurching drop. “What the hell did you do?” she demanded of Lando. Another quartet of speeder bikes raced into view and Mara jerked the speeder controls hard, causing the vehicle to almost bounce as it radically changed direction.

“Are you trying to get me killed?” Luke shouted, feet still planted on the aft of the speeder. Both sabers were still flashing and, to Lando’s surprise, Skywalker’s eyes were closed. Calrissian swallowed and blasted away at the nearest speeder bike so he didn’t have to think about Luke relying on senses Lando could barely comprehend. The shots were wide, but caused the scout-trooper to break off his attack run and begin a wide loop to get clear. It was his last mistake, as it brought him directly into the crosshairs of one of the Noghri who dropped him with a single, well-placed shot. The bike, now unmanned, crashed into the ground and vanished in a fireball.

Grimacing, Mara applied another burst of speed and the airspeeder shot forward, directly into a busy intersection of ground and air traffic. She cursed loudly in a language Lando didn’t recognize as she weaved through the vehicles and pedestrians already scrambling to get out of her way; with loud booms and shrieks of metal upon metal, smaller speeders were sent tumbling.

And still, the biker scouts pursued.

“Go higher!” Luke exclaimed as he shifted his stance so only one saber – the green one Lando was accustomed to seeing him use – was facing aft. He gestured in the direction they were heading with the other blade, face contorted as if in strain, and a dozen parked vehicles flipped up out of the way as if struck by an invisible plow. Lando gaped for a moment as their path opened up for them before quickly catching himself and returning full attention to the speeder bikes around them. His eyes widened when he realized the helmet-less stormtrooper – Scarface, he mentally decided – who had given him so much trouble was among those pursuing.

“Altitude stabilizer is shot!” Jade responded as she applied more thrust and accelerated into the gap Skywalker had made for her. “Luke!” she shouted a second later as they slid out into an open road. There, ten meters distant, a Swift Assault 5 Hoverscout lurked in waiting, its turreted weapons already tracking. With a flash, a concussion missile roared from its launch tubes and screamed toward them.

Luke grunted and half-turned to face the hoverscout, Mara’s lightsaber still aimed toward the speeder’s front. In mid-air, the concussion missile abruptly shifted direction and climbed rapidly. Less than a second later, it vanished through the protective field and was instantly torn apart by the super-hurricane force winds.

“Mara,” Skywalker started to say but Jade was already reacting. She slammed the airspeeder into reverse and then slewed the vehicle around before punching the accelerator. The speeder jumped forward with a growl even as the Hoverscout began blasting away at them with its heavy blaster cannon. Near misses ripped free huge gouts of permacrete from the nearby buildings and Lando winced at the rain of shrapnel that peppered the speeder.

“We can’t outrun that thing groundside,” he commented as he sent a rapid burst of fire in the direction of Scarface. They were all misses, but caused the trooper to duck lower and reduce his speed. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that the two Noghri were having much better luck with their shots; each time they squeezed the trigger on their rifles, a trooper tumbled from his bike.

“Idea!” Luke shouted.

“Bad idea!” Mara replied sharply.

“Just do it!” Skywalker snapped. As if in response, Jade accelerated toward the cluster of pursuing speeder bikes now in front of them. Already, the scout-troopers were breaking to either side of the airspeeder to avoid being rammed, but Mara aimed the nose of their vehicle toward the most distant bike. Without warning, she banked hard, the maneuver instantly causing the speeder to slew around into a violent fishtail.

And Luke went flying.

Lando nearly shouted as he caught sight of Skywalker tumbling through the air, but the exclamation died in his throat as Luke twirled in mid-air and landed almost lightly on the stabilizing outrigger of the bike Mara had been aiming for. His sudden, unbalancing weight caused the bike to begin to flip but Luke was already leaping once more, this time changing direction and aiming toward another of the bikes now reorienting toward their airspeeder. Skywalker covered the three meter distance with the second jump, again landing on the outrigger and springing from it before it too smashed into the ground. As if they were stepping stones across a pond, he leaped to two more bikes and each jump carried him closer to the Hoverscout.

Clearly recognizing the danger they were in, the crew of the Hoverscout shifted fire in his direction and began spraying wildly with their anti-personnel blaster. To Lando’s astonishment, Luke parried the shots in mid-air almost leisurely, deflecting each blaster bolt back at the Hoverscout. The anti-personnel blaster was shredded by its own fire even before Skywalker landed on the vehicle’s hull.

“Showoff,” Mara muttered as she hit the accelerator again. The speeder jumped forward once more and Lando’s last glimpse of Luke before they rounded a corner was as the Jedi drove both saber blades into the Hoverscout’s engines. Calrissian shot an incredulous look in Jade’s direction – he could barely believe she would willingly abandon Skywalker like that – but the tension in her jaw and her white-knuckled grip on the speeder’s controls convinced him to keep his mouth shut.

As they raced through the streets, Lando found himself fighting back astonishment at what he’d just seen. He’d known Luke was a Jedi since the first time he’d set eyes on him, but this? This exceeded anything he’d ever seen before. As a child during the Clone Wars, he could just remember reports of the Jedi fighting the Separatists but, by then, they were so few in number that seeing one of them in person was more unlikely than hitting the jackpot on Sevrosi. Even those reports paled in comparison to what he’d just seen. No wonder the Emperor was so afraid of them, he realized, while silently thanking the stars a good man like Luke was responsible for bringing them back.

They reached a docking berth minutes later and Lando gave the YT-2400 waiting a quick, cursory glance, noting at once that it was already fired up and ready for immediate launch. Another pair of Noghri lurked near the docking ramp, long rifles in hand and tense expressions on their face. One of them asked something in their native tongue and the two in the airspeeder glowered before shaking their heads. As one, the four looked at Mara and Lando followed suit.

Still seated before the speeder’s controls, Jade’s eyes were closed and her face tight. She frowned before opening her eyes and climbing from the airspeeder. Glancing once in the direction they’d just come from, she started to walk toward the YT-2400. In mid-step, she hesitated before visibly relaxing.

And, in that instant, Lando heard the approach of an Imperial speeder bike.

“Why did you jump?” one of the Noghri asked Luke when he arrived, filthy and disheveled but uninjured. “I thought you were a Skywalker,” the diminutive alien said with a hissing laugh. Luke smiled as he began pushing the now deactivated speeder bike toward the waiting freighter.

“I was in a hurry,” the Jedi said.

“You were reckless,” the other Noghri declared flatly. “No wonder the Jedi are extinct,” he continued in a tone Lando recognized as almost frustrated. “None of you have a survival instinct.” Without further comment, the Noghri stalked toward the freighter in a decidedly foul temper. Luke exchanged a look with the other diminutive alien who shrugged.

“Thanks for showing up when you did,” Lando said after he helped Luke push the bike into the YT-2400’s main hold and sealed the landing ramp. Two of the Noghri – the pair who had been waiting at the ship – were already climbing into the gun turrets and Calrissian noted the practiced ease in which they did so as he continued to trail Skywalker to the cockpit. He blinked in minor surprise at seeing Jade in the co-pilot’s station – Lando was pretty sure this crate was hers, not Luke’s – but made no comment about it.

“No problem,” Luke answered as he dropped into the pilot’s seat.

“I hope it was worth it,” Jade added sourly. “We’ve got maybe five minutes before they get a lock on our identity and close the tunnel.”

“That’s plenty of time,” Skywalker said with a smile. The engines roared to life and, moving like a snubfighter instead of the freighter it was, the YT-2400 climbed into the sky. Already, there was more traffic racing toward the sole exit from the mining colony than was normal and Luke expertly manipulated the controls before him, weaving the freighter through the jammed sky traffic with amazing grace.

“Blast,” Mara grumbled, her fingers holding a earpiece in place. “They’ve identified our docking bay.” With her other hand, she was rapidly inputting commands into the console before her. “There goes the shutdown order.”

“How much time?” Luke asked quickly.

“Shut up and let me work,” the redhead retorted without heat. Her fingers danced across the board. “Surprise,” she muttered under her breath before leaning back in the seat. “Two minutes,” Jade said. “I locked out their system using a command override.”

“Like I said,” Skywalker grinned. “Plenty of time.”

-------------
A/N #2: Yes, I know that, canonically, Bail Antilles and Bail Organa are two different people, but since we never actually saw Bail Antilles on the screen, I'm not worried about combining them into a single character. Besides, I thought it was a neat way to make the Alderaani culture slightly more unique...

Rigil Kent
26 October 2008, 01:51 PM
CHAPTER 9

TIME had no meaning to her.

Dressed only in her exercise clothes, Mara swayed easily with the rhythmic beat pounding from the speakers set in the walls of the cargo hold. Her eyes were closed as she lost herself in the music. Gone were the troubles that plagued her on a daily basis – here, there were no blood-soaked nightmares and newly surfaced memories; no cloned Jedi Knights or galactic war; no annoying Noghri who seemed to think she was their kid sister; no eccentric astromechs long overdue for a memory wipe who ran her ship better than she did; and there was certainly no Luke Skywalker with his ridiculously blue eyes and intoxicating presence in the Force. Here, she could be alone with her thoughts for the first time in weeks.

The dance moves came to her instinctively and, for just a moment, she was transported back to the rigorous instruction she’d received to properly portray a dancer during her youth on Imperial Center. Though she knew it was just an illusion tied to strong emotions and memory, Mara could almost feel the chalk – magnesium carbonate, really – on her hands to prevent her from slipping as she pirouetted and twirled, could smell the harsh aroma of the newly waxed dance floor, could taste the desperate eagerness to succeed radiating off her fellow students. It had been one of the very few times in her life Mara had been completely at peace and she clung to the memory, blocking out the truth of her surroundings as she did.

As the music reached a crescendo, Mara pushed herself to move faster, knowing that she was using the exercise to hide from things she didn’t want to face at the moment and silently hating herself for it. Her legs burned as she slid and twirled across the floor, forcing muscles too long neglected into contortions she’d not attempted for ten years. A graceful half-step turned into a long horizontal jump which carried her into the next form, a fluttering twirl that rapidly accelerated until she was spinning almost nonstop in time with the music filling the cargo bay. Unconsciously, she drew deeper of the Force and, before she realized it, was suspended a dozen centimeters above the ground, still whirling in place like a top. With a suddenness that nearly caught her by surprise, the music came to an abrupt stop and she collapsed in place, her entire body fluttering into the traditional kneeling crouch denoting the end of the piece.

A swell of emotion skittered across her awareness, momentarily shocking her when she realized it wasn’t her emotions she was sensing, and Mara froze in place, suddenly mortified at having been observed in this private moment, especially by him. She’d waited until the rest of the crew was asleep before visiting the cargo bay for the exercise and had made sure the sound-proofing was functional. There was no reason for him to be here that didn’t involve him being nosy. Her cheeks flamed as she pushed herself back to her feet and she glanced toward her uninvited guest, a dark scowl on her face. The fierce words she’d planned to flay him with died on the tip of her tongue at Skywalker’s expression of rapt delight.

“That was beautiful,” he whispered from where he sat near the aft doorway leading to the engineering section. His clothes were streaked with filth and his hair stood up at awkward angles, as if he’d absent-mindedly run grease covered hands through it and hadn’t noticed the result. From his posture, he’d been here for a while though she couldn’t recall sensing him arrive.

“It was adequate,” Mara replied, automatically quoting her old dance master when he gave praise. She broke eye contact, unsure why she suddenly felt so uncomfortable in his presence. No, that’s not true, she reflected. She knew exactly why his gaze made her antsy and it had everything to do with thoughts friends weren’t supposed to have about one another. Especially when that friend was also teaching her to be a better person. “Why are you still up?” she asked quickly as she retrieved her towel.

“Couldn’t sleep,” Luke answered. “You?”

“Didn’t want to sleep,” she said softly, knowing he’d recognize her reasons. Though they’d become much more infrequent over the last month and far less intense, the nightmares were still enough of a hassle to make her dread sleeping, no matter how tired she was. This was different however. She’d been jumping at shadows all day and had sensed something elusive at the very edge of her Force perceptions. Despite her best efforts though, she hadn't been able to figure out what was causing all of her survival instincts to start going into overdrive and that failure was really beginning to bother her.

Skywalker grunted in understanding but seemed content to simply sit there in companionable silence. He fished a filthy-looking rag out of a pocket and began to quietly scrub his hands of the grime on them. Mara frowned.

“What have I told you about working on the engine without telling me?” she asked, her tone firm but not combative. It was both a matter of principle and a subtle way to remind him that he was just the pilot no matter their confusing personal relationship. The Second Chance was her ship, not his. Every now and then, Skywalker needed to be reminded of that fact.

Sometimes, so did she.

It was frightening how easy – and how often! – she thought of her personal belongings as their gear these days. They were inching toward becoming something more than master and apprentice, something deeper than just friends, and Mara wasn’t sure whether to just accept it or run screaming. Skywalker, in his usual, oblivious way, seemed to take it all for granted and hardly batted an eye when she raided his cabin without permission for tools to work on her lightsaber or reading material or – after one particularly violent nightmare – clothes to wear, but, with each day that passed, Mara felt another piece of her individuality slipping away.

Far worse though, was the realization that she usually didn’t mind.

“You said it was okay?” Luke offered with a smile. Before she could respond, a chime echoed through the cargo bay. They were nearing their destination, a miserable pit of a planet called Raxus. One of Karrde’s operatives had reported a possible sighting of two Eta-2 Actis Interceptors and, hoping it would lead to something new in their stalled investigation, they had decided to follow up on it, no matter how much it smelled like a wild bantha chase. Mara murmured a soft curse as she turned toward the doorway and tossed her towel onto the nearest railing so it could dry; there wouldn’t be time for a shower until after they landed.

“Who are we today?” Luke asked as he stood. He stretched in place and she winced at the resulting cacophony of pops.

“The Nephrite Sabre out of Kuat,” Mara answered, invoking the cover identity they were using for this leg of the trip. He frowned at once and she gave him a questioning look.

“Had a bad experience there,” he said in response to her unasked question before heading toward the hatch. Shaking her head slightly, Mara followed him, pausing long enough to grab her lightsaber and the bottle of water she’d brought with her into the bay.

The Noghri were already moving around the passenger area in preparation of landing when she and Luke exited the cargo bay. Sakhisakh gave their disheveled appearance a quick look and nudged his usual partner-in-crime, Barkhimkh. For walking, talking killing machines, the two had a frustratingly juvenile sense of humor revolving almost entirely around bodily functions, creative insults, and sexual comments worthy of any twelve-year old boy. Luke had often compared them to two of his Rogue buddies, a pair of miscreants he called Hobbie and Wes whose names she vaguely recognized, and Mara had to wonder what would happen if the four ever met.

“More … ahem … training?” Sakhisakh asked, innuendo dripping off his words.

“I understand,” Barkhimkh said with a snicker, “physical conditioning is all important to a Jedi.” The two giggled like a pair of adolescents and promptly lapsed into their native tongue for another round of jokes. Even as they laughed, they continued toward the gun turrets.

“You know,” Luke muttered with annoyance, “I think stranding those two on Raxus Prime might be good for them.”

“It’d certainly be good for me,” Mara replied.

“And me,” Khabarakh groused as he joined them just outside the cockpit. He slid easily into the navigator’s seat just behind the pilot’s station. Artoo, plugged into the jury-rigged docking station that had replaced the seat behind the co-pilot, beeped a query, but the Noghri ignored the droid. Mara did not.

“Use the externals,” she ordered as she dropped into the co-pilot’s seat. The back of her neck was itching and she could feel the situation changing around them. Something was wrong.

“COMPLIANCE,” Artoo said, his mechanical-sounding voice sounding small and distant as it emerged from the small speakers attached to the docking port.

“I hate that thing,” Luke muttered as he situated himself in front of the pilot’s station. Since he’d come aboard on Genesia, he’d not bothered hiding his disdain for the astromech’s ability to verbalize comments while plugged into the Chance. A sour look on his face, Skywalker keyed in a series of rapid commands and studied the data scrolling across his scopes with a slight frown.

“Well, I like it,” Mara said with a smirk as she finished her own scan of the system readout. She gave the astromech a quick glance and again wondered if she could convince Skywalker to part with the droid. Since Artoo had joined her for the Elrood expedition almost a year ago, she’d been carefully monitoring the Chance’s performance and had noted an increase in both operational speed and efficiency. It was a minor change – less than five percent all around – but continued to inch higher as the shipboard computer began molding itself around the droid’s eccentric personality. There would never be a full counterpart-level interface unless she completely replaced the computer with one optimized for astromech interface, but the gradual improvement of performance was well worth the trouble. I like Artoo the way he is, Luke had told her on Myrkr an eternity ago and Mara realized she did too.

Once again, the hairs on the back of her neck stood up and she glanced over the internal sensors a second time, trying to find the source of her unease. Luke noticed and studied her with concern in his eyes.

“Something wrong?” he asked and Mara felt rather than saw Khabarakh tense behind her.

“Yes,” she said without hesitation. “I just don’t know what.”

“Fire up the guns,” Skywalker said instantly into the shipboard comm. He closed his eyes and Mara could feel him stretch out with the Force. “I don’t sense anything,” he admitted after a moment. His eyes opened. “But your danger sense is better than mine,” the Jedi admitted. He pinned her with a look. “Follow your instincts.”

Without hesitation, Mara reached for the hyperspace lever and pulled it back several seconds before the planned reversion time. Instantly, the swirling vortex of light fell away to reveal the curtain of glittering stars. Their original destination – the Raxus system – loomed before them, a brilliant yellow-orange star with only a pair of planetary bodies to draw notice.

“CONTACT,” Artoo abruptly announced. “SIX MARKS AT TWO-TEN.”

“I see them,” Luke said almost instantly, his eyes locked on the targeting scope in front of him. “Clones,” he growled as he sent the Chance into an immediate twisting dive.

“Artoo,” Mara snapped, “start calculating the coordinates for a jump!”

“UNABLE TO COMPLY,” the astromech replied. “MULTIPLE INTERDICTION FIELDS DETECTED.”

“What?” Mara glanced at her sensor feed but found nothing but the rapidly approaching snubfighters. Through the deckplates, she could feel the hollow thrum thrum thrum of the quad cannons as Barkhimkh and Sakhisakh as opened fire. As one, the clone fighters split into evasive maneuvers, their own cannons barking fire. The engines on the Chance wailed as Luke rolled the heavier freighter. “I don’t see any Interdictors!”

“CONFIRMED,” Artoo relayed. “NO ORIGIN CRAFT WITHIN SENSOR RANGE. NONETHELESS, MULTIPLE INTERDICTION FIELDS DETECTED.”

An explosion of fire and debris punctuated the droid’s comment as Sakhisakh’s shots sliced into the fuselage of one of the pursuing interceptors and punctured the fuel cells. Blue-white flames erupted from the belly of the smaller craft and it savagely blew apart, sending burning debris spinning into the darkness. As if in response, the remaining five interceptors pounced, their laser cannons chattering nonstop. The Chance rocked as her shields absorbed the hits and Luke cursed softly as he fed more power to the sublight drive. To Mara’s surprise, he banked hard and aimed directly toward the Raxus star.

“CONJECTURE,” Artoo stated suddenly, “HAPAN BATTLE DRAGONS UTILIZE PULSE-MASS MINE LAUNCHERS-”

“Scanning for mines,” Khabarakh declared instantly, speaking over the astromech’s continued explanation.

“-AND SUCH MINES ARE DIFFICULT TO DETECT,” Artoo finished.

“Hold on!” Luke snapped in the half second before he sent the Chance into a deep, stomach-lurching dive. Engines howling, the interceptors followed suit.

“Why the hell are you heading toward the sun?” Mara demanded as the transparisteel viewport automatically darkened. Skywalker offered no reply beyond a grunt as he sank deeper into the Force to find an escape route. Mara could feel him reaching out with his mind and barely managed to keep from being swept along. Something wasn’t right … something was being missed…

And in that moment, the interceptors pounced.

Ignoring the seemingly solid wall of fire being unleashed at them by Barkhimkh and Sakhisakh, the clones dove forward. The Chance rocked under the onslaught and alarms warning of imminent shield failure began to wail, but Mara ignored it. Instead, she focused on the jumbled pieces of the puzzle rolling around in her mind. She started to reach out for the Force, frowning as the clones stuck to their aft like feral vornskrs…

Vornskrs…

“Kriff,” she murmured as the Second Chance shuddered under a new wave of assaults. Understanding washed over her like a tidal wave and she wanted to curse herself for being a fool. The deeper Luke fell into the Force, the easier it seemed to be for the clones to hit them.

“Get up,” Mara snapped to Skywalker as she scrambled out of the co-pilot’s chair. He shot a brief, incredulous look as she directed her next comments to the Noghri at her back. “Khabarakh, take over the flight controls!”

“We don’t have time-” Luke started to say but Mara interrupted.

“They’re tracking us through the Force!” she nearly growled. “You and I need to go dark!”

“AFT SHIELDS COMPROMISED,” Artoo announced with an accompanying squeal. “REROUTING ALL AVAILABLE POWER TO COMPENSATE.”

“Mara-” Skywalker started to argue as Khabarakh slid into her abandoned seat.

“Do you trust me?” Mara demanded, already focusing on minimizing her presence in the Force.

“With my life,” Luke said instantly in response.

“Then trust me now.”

With a nod, Skywalker gave the controls before him another glance before closing his eyes. Almost at once, the aura of restrained power surrounding him flickered and receded, leaving behind only the physical shell of the man. He opened his eyes and Mara was startled to realize how dull they seemed.

“Artoo,” she said as Khabarakh sent the Chance into a rapid, twisting climb. Already, the hostile fire from the interceptors was less accurate and, with a fiery burst of flame, a second of the fighters vanished under Sakhisakh’s lethal accuracy. His shout of victory echoed through the ship. “Prep the main escape pod for jettison,” Mara instructed.

“What are you thinking?” Luke asked as he followed her out of the cockpit. She gave him a quick look. With a devilish grin, she responded.

“I don’t have time to explain.”

|-*-|

He didn’t have time for this.

Anger simmered within his breast as he stared at the hyperdrive mechanic, but Talon Karrde somehow managed to prevent it from showing on his face. They were already two days overdue for the rendezvous with Aves and the last thing Talon wanted to hear was how his beloved Wild Karrde wasn’t going to be leaving Kashyyyk under its own power any time soon.

“I want it fixed yesterday,” he ordered, more of his frustration leaking into his voice than he would have liked. The tech nodded quickly and almost sprinted away in his eagerness to get to work. Talon watched the boy dart up the landing ramp before turning away from the craft that had, for the first time since he purchased it so many years ago, betrayed him. The urge to punch the hull was powerful, but he knew it wouldn’t help the situation in the slightest and he had no desire to break his hand. Sighing bitterly, Talon stormed to the edge of the docking platform and glowered at the towering wroshyr trees dominating the skyline. Pain burned in his stomach and he fumbled for the bottle of acid neutralizers he kept in his jacket pocket.

“Getting mad at the techs isn’t going to make the repairs go any quicker,” Shada D’ukal told him as she leaned onto the hand bar encircling the platform. She was dressed in a dark blue-gray ensemble, and was wearing her hair in a curious braided style he had only before seen on Kiffar women. Talon shot her a dark look.

“Do you have any idea how much it’s costing me to sit here and do nothing?” he asked rhetorically, knowing she probably did know. Since joining his operation, Shada had absorbed every facet of how he ran things ran like a sponge. She was even worse than Mara when it came to offering suggestions for improvements.

As he chewed the foul-tasting tablets, Talon mentally began revising his schedule, all the while wondering if he’d even be able to break even on this trip. Fuel prices had shot up astronomically in the last two months, and a ship like the Wild Karrde ate through power cells like they were candy. He grimaced as he tallied up exactly how much this stupid detour was costing him and the pain in his stomach intensified.

The chirp of Shada’s comlink pulled him out of his musings and Karrde gave her a glance as she peeled back the sleeve on her left arm to uncover the communications device strapped to her wrist. It was of a design Talon hadn’t seen before, but he’d become accustomed to her using devices and technology unfamiliar to him. Even the blaster pistol she wore at her hip was unique in appearance and he’d often wondered if it was hand-crafted.

“Go,” she said into the link, her eyes still focused on the massive trees before them.

“We just received a coded communiqué from a ship entering orbit,” Shirlee Faughn’s voice announced. “It’s not on our list of known associates but was addressed specifically to you.”

“Name?” Shada demanded quickly. Her right hand dropped to the blaster, though Talon wasn’t sure if she was aware of doing so or if it was just reflex.

“Nephrite Sabre,” Faughn answered. To Karrde’s surprise, Shada visibly relaxed and smiled slightly.

“What’s the message?” she asked, smiling at the curious look Talon gave her.

“Cortosis.”

“Respond with the following,” Shada said, still smirking. “Paparak cross-cut. Nothing follows.” She lowered her arm and gave Talon a look. “Luke and Mara just arrived,” she stated as she pulled the sleeve back over the communicator.

“Why are they here?” Talon wondered. He didn’t bother asking her about the nature of the codes she and Jade were using; since agreeing to assist Skywalker’s search for the Jedi clones, Karrde had watched with silent fascination as Mara and Shada transformed from wary allies to actual friends. It shouldn’t have surprised him – the two women had more in common than most people realized – but it was still mildly disconcerting to see them when they were together. He wondered if it said something about him that the women in his life joked about eviscerations and the best way to incapacitate an enraged Barabel instead of what handbag went with their shoes.

Even more telling, though, was Shada’s casual reference to the pair of Force sensitives in the same sentence. She seemed to take it for granted that Skywalker would be with Mara and, now that he thought about it, Talon did too. At some point since the entire Wayland debacle, the duo had become LukeandMara, a single entity with split personalities and separate genders. He still didn’t quite understand the nature of the relationship between the pair; there were days he was convinced the two were routinely sharing a bed and other days when he feared for Skywalker’s life.

“How should I know?” came Shada’s amused response to his earlier rhetorical question. Karrde frowned slightly as he considered the possible reasons for their unexpected arrival. The last he’d heard, they were investigating rumors of possible Jedi clone activity on Raxus Prime and that miserable cesspool of a planet was a long way from Kashyyyk. “We could ask them if you’d like,” Shada offered and Talon nodded.

“I would,” he said. “Lead the way,” he added, suspecting she already knew where the two Jedi would be landing. As she led him toward the parked airspeeder, his suspicions were confirmed. Someday, Karrde promised himself, he would figure out the code Mara and Shada were using.

Someday, but not today.

Long before they reached the landing platform Mara’s ship was upon, Talon could see evidence of their presence. Tendrils of dark smoke were climbing into the sky and the sharp, acrid stench of ionized hull plating filled the air around them. Even more telling, a trio of Wookiee fire-ships circled the platform as if expecting a conflagration to erupt at any moment.

As the platform came into visual, Karrde winced at the jagged scars carved across the hull of Mara’s freighter, damage that could have only come from intense weapons fire. The transparisteel viewport of the top turret was badly cracked though it didn’t look as though the gunner had been too badly injured. One of the circular vent plates appeared to have buckled under intense heat which immediately made Talon wonder what they had been doing to cause it to fail; as far as he knew, those plates were rated to withstand temperatures well in excess of half a million degrees. Far more worrisome though, was the open gap at the aft of the cockpit tube and what it could only mean: the primary escape pod had been jettisoned.

Skywalker was deep in conversation with a Wookiee tech when they approached, but the Jedi gave them a quick nod of greeting nonetheless. His eyes narrowed slightly at Shada’s appearance almost as if in recognition, though Talon didn’t know why. As soon as the Wookiee nodded and turned away, Skywalker gave them his full attention.

“I’m not going to ask how you knew we were here,” he said as he offered his hand. Talon smiled as he accepted the gesture and nodded to his silent companion.

“Ask her,” he replied before giving the freighter another assessing look. “Is everyone all right?” Karrde asked.

“Fortunately,” Luke answered. He ran his hand through his hair. “A half dozen of those krifing clones ambushed us at Raxus,” he revealed. “Mara used the escape pod to-” He broke off in mid-sentence and turned away from them, eyes wide. Without a word, Skywalker strode toward the far end of the ship, stepping around and over the various repair machinery and parts strewn around the platform. Talon exchanged a quick glance with Shada and both of them rushed to catch up.

Within a few steps, they could see his destination and Karrde slowed his pace, barely noticing when Shada did the same. Standing at the far lip of the landing platform, Mara stood facing away from them and overlooking an awesome view of Kashyyyk. At a glance, Talon could tell that she seemed to be in some sort of distress. Her breathing was coming fast and ragged, her hands clenched the railing so tightly that her hands appeared white, and sweat was dripping down her face. The moment that Skywalker drew abreast to her, she gave him a wide-eyed look that barely concealed her terror. Karrde blinked: never before had he seen fear on her face and it sent a shiver up his spine.

“What is it?” she rasped, and Luke gave her an understanding smile. It was telling, Talon mused, that Skywalker seemed unconcerned over her obvious state. Karrde’s worry began to recede.

“I was wondering when you were going to notice it,” the Jedi said before reaching out and dropping his hand on her shoulder. “Calm down. Focus on your breathing.”

“I can’t!” Mara replied, an edge of hysteria in her voice. It was something that Karrde had not heard before or even thought to hear coming from her and he gave Shada a glance. She was frowning with concern lurking in her eyes. “It’s too much!” Jade said sharply.

“That’s because you’re panicking,” Skywalker stated calmly. “Close your eyes and focus, Mara.” She gave him another look of barely controlled fear and opened her mouth to respond. “Close your eyes, Apprentice,” Luke ordered, his voice brooking no dissent.

To Talon’s surprise, Mara obeyed.

“Now push everything aside,” Skywalker continued. He stepped closer to her, hand still on her shoulder. “Focus on your breathing, not your surroundings. Ignore what you hear and just listen.” The instruction seemed utterly nonsensical to Karrde, but Mara nodded slightly as if she understood. Already, her breathing was returning to normal and Talon could see her death grip on the railing had eased. “Good,” Luke nearly whispered. “Allow it to wash over you like a wave. Don’t try to control what you sense – that’s impossible, even for a Jedi.”

“It’s warm,” Jade murmured, her voice carrying despite the distance, and Talon could see the tension drain out of her body as she relaxed. “So warm…”

“That’s because it’s life at its purest form,” Luke declared. The two were silent for a moment – breathing in perfect harmony, Talon realized – before Mara spoke again.

“There’s a sound,” she said with a hint of a smile appearing on her face. Her eyes were still closed. “Like a heartbeat…”

“In a way,” Skywalker replied, “it is a heartbeat. The pulse of the universe, if you will. Now, focus on it, let it become your heartbeat.” He nodded, though Karrde could see no reason why. “Yes,” Luke murmured. “Like that.”

A long moment passed as the two stood there, mere centimeters apart from one another. Skywalker’s left hand touched hers, resting atop it without grasping it; his right hand – the false one – found a place upon her hip in a gesture that seemed entirely unconscious. Despite his earlier thoughts about the relationship between the two of them, Talon was astounded at the intimacy before him; the way Mara accepted Luke’s presence without flinching or reacting spoke of a trust so unconditional that Karrde almost couldn’t believe it.

“Now open your eyes,” Luke whispered, “and see.”

Mara gasped.

She tried to take a step back, as if recoiling from something that Talon couldn’t perceive, but Skywalker’s position arrested the movement and anchored her in place. Her eyes were darting to and fro, as if she was staring at something, and Karrde followed her line of sight but saw nothing apart from clouds and more wroshyr trees. Jade’s hand – the one that Luke was touching – came up and her fingers appeared to be trying to grasp something in the air.

“No,” Skywalker said, reaching out with his own hand to take hers. Gently, he rotated her wrist so that her palm was facing up. “Don’t try to force it. Let it come to you.” The Jedi Knight’s hand remained under Mara’s, almost cradling it. “To be a master of the Force, you must be first and foremost be its servant. Trying to control it leads to the Dark Side.”

“It’s so beautiful,” Jade whispered softly, awe in her voice. Once again, Talon found himself fighting to contain his shock. The Mara Jade he’d known was most often abrasive and rude, speaking only in muted growls or sarcastic jibes. He gave her another look, noting the change in her with growing approval. She was still lean and stood with lethal poise, but there was an air of peace and contentment around her that had been absent before. Gone were her body-clinging jumpsuits; in their place, she wore comfortable-looking clothes that closely resembled Skywalker’s Jedi robes but had a flair to them undeniably Mara. Even the expression she wore seemed almost out-of-character for the women he thought he knew. It was, if Karrde had to describe it, almost dreamy, as if she were on a spice-high. Jade just looked softer.

Talon quickly pushed that thought away; he didn’t want to imagine how Mara would react if she suspected he had even thought it, newfound contentment or not.

“It is the living Force.” The pride on Skywalker’s face was impossible to miss. “There are few places in the galaxy where you can see a Force eddy like this,” he continued. “Observe the air currents and how they swirl. Do you see the connections?”

“Yes,” Mara murmured as her hand – and Luke’s – began moving in patterns reminiscent of an orchestral conductor’s. Jade suddenly laughed aloud. It was a pure sound, filled with childish delight, and nearly brought a tear to Karrde’s eye. He would have never thought to hear such a thing coming from the embittered ex-assassin he’d originally befriended. A wave of jealousy pulsed within him then as he watched the two stare at something he couldn’t begin to comprehend. Never before had he been remotely envious of those who could touch the Force; it had always seemed to him to be more trouble than it was worth, especially when the Emperor began his systemic purge of them.

For the first time, though, Karrde wished he could understand.

The two Jedi – and Talon consciously identified Mara as such now – stood silently, hands and bodies still touching, for long moments. Their eyes danced as they stared at whatever they were observing, and, clearly without conscious thought, Jade relaxed even more in Skywalker’s pseudo-embrace. They looked, more than anything else, like a couple in the throes of early love. Standing beside him, her lips curved in a soft smile, Shada shifted slightly.

It was enough to break the spell.

Suddenly sensing the presence of their observers, the two Jedi turned their attention toward where he and Shada stood, and their reactions could not have been more disparate. Mara flushed deeply, her normally pale complexion darkening to an embarrassing red. At the same time, Skywalker smiled tightly, not even bothering to hide the amusement on his face. As Jade took several quick steps away from him, clearly trying to ignore Talon’s twinkling eyes and Shada’s teasing grin as she did, Luke gave the ex-assassin a subtle look Karrde would have missed had he not been looking right at the Jedi. For the briefest of seconds, Skywalker’s feelings for Mara were stamped on his face. They were impossible to miss and Talon felt his breath catch in astonishment.

“Karrde,” Mara said flatly in greeting, once more the woman he knew, and Talon swallowed his newfound realization. He must not have done as good a job as he’d have liked because Jade’s emerald eyes narrowed and she frowned. Emotions Karrde couldn’t begin to decipher swam in her eyes. “I’m going to check on the repairs,” she announced with a barely polite glance in Skywalker’s direction before stalking toward her ship.

“Could you send Artoo over?” Luke asked and Mara grunted in response. At Talon’s side, Shada gave him a questioning look – it was little more than the slight quirk of an eyebrow but he instantly recognized the query behind it – and Karrde nodded fractionally. Without a word, the ex-Mistryl followed Jade, quick-stepping to catch up.

“So,” Talon murmured once the two were out of range, “this thing between you and Mara…”

“It’s complicated,” Skywalker said flatly, his cheeks darkening in embarrassment. Karrde laughed.

“She’s a woman,” he stated with a smile. “When isn’t it complicated?”

“Good point,” Luke replied with a slight chuckle of his own. His eyes tracked Jade’s movements for a moment. “So,” he said in obvious mockery of Talon’s early comment, “this thing between you and Shada…”

“It’s complicated,” Karrde repeated with a broad grin as he watched Jade tell the blue astromech something. Instantly, the droid abandoned his repairs and wheeled around toward Luke. Talon gave the Jedi a questioning look.

“Something good may have out of Raxus after all,” Skywalker said in answer to the unspoken question. “There was a stealth ship lurking just outside sensor range,” the Jedi said as they watched the R2 unit come closer.

“If it was out of range,” Talon asked, his lips pursed in thought, “then how did you detect it?”

“I didn’t,” the Jedi replied. “This little guy did.” He smiled. “Artoo,” he said before Karrde could respond, “show us the ship, please.” The droid beeped and, a moment later, projected a hologram in front of them.

“I’ve never seen a ship like that before,” Talon mused as he inched closer to the image for a better look. Evidently built for speed with six distinctive thrust engines, it was a curious design with a long, narrow crew compartment set upon an oversized drive compartment. Four stabilizing atmospheric maneuvering wings stabbed out of the engine section, forming an almost X shape. Though the resolution of the holo wasn’t the best, Karrde suspected the hull would be dark in color to better allow the craft maintain a low profile in the blackness of space.

“The design isn’t what makes it interesting,” Luke said. “The clone fighters were beaming some sort of signal to this thing.”

“All of them?” Karrde crossed his arms and frowned when Skywalker nodded. “You think it was the neural implant readings?”

“Yes.” The expression on Skywalker’s face was hopeful and Talon fought the urge to fidget under the intensity of the younger man’s eyes. “This could be the lead we’re looking for,” Luke said. Karrde nodded.

“I’ll need a copy of the data you have,” he said, smiling when he noticed the astromech was already extending a data rod. “Damned fine droid you’ve got there,” he remarked as he accepted the rod.

“Artoo’s the best,” Skywalker agreed. The droid hooted something and Luke nodded. “Sure,” he said, “you can go back to work.” Instantly, the astromech spun around and raced toward the Second Chance. “Don’t tell Mara,” Luke said, sotto voce, “but I think Artoo is in love with her ship.”

“His secret is safe with me,” Talon replied with a smile. His amusement faded the moment he noticed worry lurking in the Jedi’s eyes. “Something wrong?” he asked.

“Mara and I need to disappear for a while,” Luke answered. At Karrde’s knowing look, Skywalker flushed. “It’s not what you’re thinking,” he said quickly. “There’s something she needs to do, someplace she needs to go…”

“A Jedi thing?” Talon asked and Luke nodded. He didn’t appear to be looking forward to this, but Karrde gave him a quick smile.

“I’ll see what I can find out about this ship,” he said, gesturing with the data rod. “You do what you need to do.”

|-*-|

He had needed to do this, but he wasn’t looking forward to the repercussions.

His expression as stoic as he could manage it, Han Solo gave the woman standing before him a cool look as she packed up her gear with quick, economical motions. There was no energy wasted in any of her movements and, even to a generally happily married man such as himself, it was attractive in its own way.

“How long until this goes public?” Han asked. She smiled.

“An hour,” came her prompt response. “It’s too late for you to back out now,” she said as she marched toward the door, the bag containing her specialized equipment slung over one shoulder. “I hope it was as good for you,” she offered with a devilish grin, “as it was for me.”

A half second later, she was gone.

Leaning back in his chair, Han exhaled slowly and tried to focus on calming himself. He hoped this hadn’t been a mistake, hoped Leia could forgive him for what he’d just done. It was necessary, though, and he would defend this decision to his dying day.

“Hello, Admiral,” a masculine voice greeted as the door to his office sealed behind the departing woman and Han’s hand instantly fell to the blaster at his side. He was a heartbeat away from drawing and firing when his new visitor stepped forward out of the shadows, hands already held up to prove he wasn’t hostile. Solo frowned in recognition.

“What are you doing on my ship, Katarn?” he demanded crossly. “Shouldn’t you be off blowing up something?”

“Not today,” the SpecOps commando said with a smile. “I’m here on business actually.” The man’s smile never wavered as he slowly stepped closer. “I need to borrow Rogue Squadron for a special operation.”

“Just like that?” Han asked, shaking his head. “You’ve got stones, Katarn. I’ll give you that.” Solo leaned back in his chair once more. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t have you tossed in the brig.”

“Aside from the fact that I’d get out of it and break your pretty ship in the process?” Katarn asked with another smile as he took the seat across from Han without asking for permission. “All right. One reason.” The colonel reached into the pocket of his trousers and pulled out a uniform patch that had obviously come from a New Republic flight suit. He slid it across the desk and Han gave it a look.

It was a Rogue Squadron patch.

“Wedge,” he murmured before looking up to meet Katarn’s eyes. “This is a black op,” Han guessed and the ex-Imperial commando nodded slightly. “Give me ten minutes,” Solo decided, “and you’ll have the Rogues.” A thought occurred to him and he leaned forward slightly. “What about the Wraiths?” he asked.

“Already taken care of,” Katarn replied with that creepy smile of his. “What can I say?” he said in response to Han’s look. “I’ve been busy.”

“Obviously,” Han muttered. “I take it you’ll want to debrief Klivian?” he asked as he began drawing up orders to place all of Rogue Squadron on temporary convalescent leave status. “He’s acting Rogue Leader,” Solo said when Katarn frowned slightly.

“I would,” the colonel replied, standing as he did. “He should be back from patrol by now, correct?”

“How the hell do you know these things?” Solo demanded. He quickly held up his hand to ward off the coming explanation. “No,” he said with a frown, “don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.” His computer chirped in acknowledgement of the new orders for the Rogues and Han looked up. “You’re all set,” he said tightly.

“Thank you, sir.” The colonel started toward the doorway.

“Katarn,” Han called and the ex-Imperial commando hesitated. “Good luck.”

“Luck is no substitute for good planning and a better blaster,” the colonel responded with a wry grin, “but thanks. We’re going to need it.”

Moments later, Han was alone in the office once more, suddenly in a better mood than before. With Katarn on the case, it was only a matter of time before Wedge was back in an X-Wing where he belonged.

That thought made him smile.

|-*-|

It was hard not to smile.

As she stood quietly in that office that, until fairly recently, had belonged to Mon Mothma, Leia Organa-Solo struggled against the urge to laugh out loud. For the first time in a long time, the office was packed nearly to capacity with over a dozen senators from various sectors and systems, but Leia’s eyes were on Borsk Fey’lya. The Bothan’s fur trembled in silent fury as he glowered at the flickering hologram of Leia’s husband, and she could see him clenching his fists together so tightly she suspected he was drawing blood. Every so often, Fey’lya would shoot her a dark look as if this entire situation was her fault.

The holo dominating the middle of the office before them wasn’t a live feed but rather a pre-recorded interview Han had given some hours earlier to GNN’s best journalist, Kella Rand. It was quite obviously a pre-emptive strike by Han to circumvent Fey’lya’s plans to parade the captured Commodore Daala in front of the Senate in order to shore up the waning popularity of the war. Borsk had even floated – through intermediaries, of course – the idea of bringing the commodore up on war crimes charges, no matter the complete lack of evidence. With this single, unauthorized interview, Han had destroyed nearly any chance of that.

Leia only wished it had been her idea.

“The commodore and her officers have cooperated with us fully,” the recording of her husband was announcing though Leia paid it scant attention; she’d already watched it several times in the privacy of her own office where she’d enjoyed a long laugh. “We’ve even started conducting joint operation patrols of the region while we wait for the Imperial Council to respond.”

“Joint operations?” the holo-genic Rand repeated as if she didn’t already know this, something Leia sincerely doubted. An attractive woman a few years Han’s junior, Kella Rand was one of the most popular holo-journalists in the galaxy and had earned a reputation for her no-nonsense reporting with a focus on uncovering corruption in government. She’d been the first to break Leia’s blood relationship to Vader to the public but, unlike so many other holo-shills, had remained completely unbiased in her reporting of it. “As in Imperial and Republic personnel and ships side-by-side?” she continued.

“That’s correct,” Han replied calmly. To Leia’s eyes, he looked tired but completely in control of the situation. There was no way he didn’t know what he was doing and, by the lopsided grin he kept giving the holo-cam, he clearly didn’t give a damn.

“What about the rumors we’ve been hearing that the Senate is considering charging Commodore Daala with war crimes?” Rand continued, going for the jugular as she often did.

“Well,” Han said in response, his eyes narrowing with mild annoyance, “I sincerely hope that’s just a rumor,” he declared flatly. “Commodore Natasi Daala has cooperated fully with me,” Han continued, “and doesn’t deserve any trumped up charges the Republic may be thinking about slamming her with.” He frowned. “If you ask me,” he said, “this looks like Fey’lya trying to hide the fact it’s a Solo who’s keeping us from losing this stupid war he dragged us into.”

Leia bit her lip to keep from laughing and met Borsk’s furious glower with a bland look of her own.

“Can I quote you on that?” Rand asked with a smile. At Solo’s shrug, her amusement faded somewhat. “They might court-martial you for this interview, Admiral,” she pointed out and Han laughed.

“Good,” he said flatly. “I haven’t seen my wife or children in over six months,” Solo remarked with a heavy sigh, “so I’d love to be ordered back to Coruscant, especially if it’s to stand trial for not throwing someone to those rabid wolves in the Senate.”

“Isn’t your wife one of those wolves?” the woman asked with a smile. Han grinned abruptly.

“She’s the scariest one of ‘em all,” he said without hesitation.

Leia did laugh then, though she quickly stifled it and hid her amused smile from view. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see several other senators – all allies to Fey’lya – frowning in disapproval.

“Some in the government,” Rand continued a moment later, “have expressed worry about you being at the head of such an impressive military fleet. Now with Commodore Daala’s taskforce evidently working alongside you, there is some concern-”

“That I’m going to swoop in and take over?” Han finished before laughing out loud. “Honestly,” he asked with another grin, “can you see me in charge of the government? I prefer a stand-up fight to all that diplomacy.”

“Senate meetings would certainly be more entertaining,” Rand admitted. “Your wife, however, was slated to succeed the late Mon Mothma before the chancellor was murdered.” At this, Fey’lya’s fur rippled even more and Leia forced her features to impassivity.

“Good point,” Solo said. He shrugged. “The next time I talk to her,” he remarked flippantly, “I’ll ask her if she wants to be queen of the galaxy. If she says no, then I think Coruscant is safe for the moment.”

With a sharp gesture, Fey’lya deactivated the holo and turned his full attention on Leia. Fury flared within his eyes and, at her back, Cakhmaim shifted fractionally, instantly drawing the Bothan’s attention. The Noghri’s presence within the chancellor’s office was a concession made by the Senatorial Guard; as the target of multiple assassination attempts in the last year, Leia was being afforded more protection than anyone but the Supreme Chancellor himself.

“You put him up to this,” Borsk snarled, his fingers curling around the armrests of his chair.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Leia retorted sharply. She crossed her arms and looked at him disdainfully. “I haven’t talked to Han in nearly two weeks,” she said coldly, implicitly reminding the Bothan of the communications blackout to the deployed fleets he had pushed through the Senate.

“This well exceeds his mandate as fleet commander,” the Rodian senator declared pompously in his native tongue. Ever helpful, C-3PO began to translate but Leia held up her hand to silence him. “He does not have the authority to make policy in this way,” Senator Navik continued.

“If you move against him,” Viqi Shesh said from where she stood, eyes locked on Leia, “Rand and her ilk will destroy you.” It was not a threat, merely a warning of fact and one Leia had to admit was likely true. For whatever reason, Han had turned into a media darling since the war resumed and, in their eyes, could do no wrong. This incident with Commodore Daala was a perfect example; having successfully captured an entire Imperial taskforce without firing a shot, his unexpected decision to flatly refuse to turn the commodore over to the New Republic for interrogation and trial had turned him into an even more romantic figure to the journalists already fascinated with the Corellian smuggler turned admiral.

“Some form of censure is necessary,” Navik argued and Leia gave Fey’lya a quick glance. He was watching her with suspicion clearly stamped upon his face. She gave him a tight smile, her eyes dancing with amusement at his situation. Before he could speak, a buzz emerged from his desk.

“Fifth Fleet commander online,” a mechanical voice announced and Borsk jammed his finger down on the receive button. Instantly, a new hologram of Han materialized before them. He was wearing his ceremonial dress uniform, complete with the second-class Corellian bloodstripes and the numerous service ribbons he’d earned while serving the New Republic. To enhance the look, he’d even tracked down the Alliance Medal of Bravery he’d received alongside Luke at Yavin and it immediately drew all eyes.

Once again, Leia barely managed to keep from laughing. Clearly, she’d taught him better than she thought.

“So good of you to make time for us, Admiral,” Fey’lya said, sarcasm dripping off his every word. Han almost – almost – smirked.

“I always have time for the legally elected members of the Senate,” Solo replied, his lopsided grin a shade away from being mocking. Silently, Leia saluted her husband for his choice of words and she could see Borsk visibly react to them; nothing Han had said was over the line though it was certainly toeing it.

“Since you evidently haven’t received your instructions,” Fey’lya stated coldly, “I am issuing you a direct order to turn over Commodore Daala to the New Republic Justice Department for prosecution.”

“No,” Han said instantly. He paused for effect and then continued. “I recommend you brush up on Republic law, Chancellor,” Solo stated with another smirk. “A Tapani honor surrender is still legally binding and I’m gonna honor it.”

A ripple of mild shock ran through the assembled senators and Leia cautiously stretched out with the Force to judge the mood. They were scared, which was to be expected, but more than a few of them were decidedly amused at the situation Fey’lya had found himself in and were curious to see how he would manage to reign in such a recalcitrant figure as the infamous Han Solo. Leia narrowed her focus and concentrated on isolating the identities of those senators for future contact. Abruptly, she felt a distinct shift in the Force as someone sensed and reacted to her slight mindtouch.

It was Viqi Shesh.

Leia’s eyes narrowed and she began studying the Kuati senator more intently. Luke hadn’t told her Shesh was Force sensitive and it didn’t seem likely he wouldn’t have noticed during the two and a half months he’d spent on Kuat last year, working side-by-side with the woman to facilitate Kuat’s defection to the New Republic. It certainly explained Luke’s oft-stated dislike of Shesh though, especially if she’d rebuffed the idea of becoming a Jedi.

As if sensing Leia’s eyes upon her, the Kuati senator gave her a cold look before returning her attention to the scene unfolding before them. After a moment, Leia did the same, all the while paying closer attention to everything Shesh did.

“-and if you don’t like how I’m doing my job,” Han was saying darkly, “you can kiss my skinny, Corellian ass.” His hologram very nearly vibrated with anger. “Now if you don’t mind,” he continued, “I’ve got a war to win. Solo out.”

The hologram dissolved with a flash of static and Leia snickered at the outraged expression upon Fey’lya’s face. He snapped his head in her direction.

“Do you think this is funny?” he growled.

“Yes,” she replied, “I do.” Several other senators unsuccessfully fought back laughs of their own and Leia could see Borsk’s eyes growing steadily more livid with each second that passed. “You put him in charge of a fleet,” she pointed out flatly. “What did you expect?”

“I expected him to follow orders!” the Bothan nearly shouted. Leia shrugged and abandoned her efforts to hide her amusement.

“He’s Corellian,” she said, eliciting open laughter from the representative of that system. “I can’t get him to follow orders and I’m his wife.” More chuckles answered the statement and Leia sensed the moment had arrived to press her advantage. “There are certain advantages to allowing this commodore to remain in Han’s custody,” she stated.

“Such as?” Senator Kerrithrarr of Kashyyyk queried.

“As Senator Shesh pointed out earlier,” Leia said, making sure to meet the Kuati woman’s eyes with her own, “the media is quite fond of my husband. We’ve all been on the receiving end of their vitriol at some point in our careers.”

“Some more than others,” the Corellian representative murmured.

“The Empire set a precedent when they gave General Antilles little more than a show trial before shipping him off to a prison somewhere,” Leia continued, wincing at the thought of Wedge in a labor camp. At the moment, there was nothing more she could do for him beyond what under-the-table assistance she’d already provided to Colonel Katarn for his black operation, so she pushed the worry from her mind. “By treating this Commodore Daala in a more civilized manner,” she said, “we’re showing that the New Republic stands for more than just words.”

“I concur,” Ackbar interjected. “This surrender should be honored.” He drew in a raspy breath. “It is good for the morale of the military as well as the citizenry.”

“Agreed,” Kerrithrarr rumbled. He turned his eyes to where Fey’lya sat and Leia could see the Bothan struggle to restrain his temper. She tried to keep the sense of victory from her face as she watched him nod in silent agreement. His eyes burned with fury as he watched the senators begin filing from the office and he gave her a sidelong look.

“In some cultures,” Borsk said softly, “it is considered treason to undermine the leader as you’ve done.”

“Don’t you dare,” Leia hissed, memories of all the times Fey’lya had put his own political power before the good of the people flooding into her mind’s eye. She took a step closer toward him and lowered her voice so only he could hear her next words. “If anyone’s the traitor here, Borsk,” she growled, wishing she didn’t enjoy the flash of fear in his eyes as much as she did, “it certainly isn’t me.”

“First your brother goes berserk on Mytus,” Fey’lya retorted, “and now this.” He bared his teeth in a half-snarl, half-grin. “I’m beginning to think the Emperor had the right idea about you Force users. You’re all too dangerous to live.” Leia’s eyes narrowed.

“Some could say the same about you,” she retorted coldly as she turned on her heel and strode toward the doorway, an expression of polite indifference fixed upon her face. Inside though, she was seething. The anger swam in her stomach, churning and twisting, but she forced it under control by focusing on the reasons the Bothan had reacted like he did. It was almost enough to make her smile.

Borsk Fey’lya was running out of time.

|-*-|

By the time they reached their destination, the sun was beginning to set.

Breathing calmly, Luke Skywalker allowed his Force senses to stretch out and encompass the turbulent chaos of life swimming around him. Even when he hadn’t had true control over himself, Dagobah had called to him in a way he couldn’t truly begin to explain. It was an intoxicating sensation, made more so by the presence of his companion.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Mara laboring to keep pace with him, her jaw set in a stubborn line he recognized as her ‘if you can do, so can I’ mindset. Sweat was pouring down her face and she was panting with effort at the pace he set for their midday run, but Luke knew she wouldn’t falter, wouldn’t slow no matter how exhausted she was. She would kill herself with exertion before admitting defeat.

Her own presence in the Force resonated brightly, no longer flickering haphazardly as she surged beyond the artificial limitations put into place by Palpatine. In the two weeks since they had arrived on Dagobah, Mara had advanced by leaps and bounds, exceeding Luke’s wildest expectations and filling him with giddy pride he barely managed to keep hidden from her. Every task he set before her, she excelled in.

There was but one left.

A mist had begun to set in as they neared their destination and it cloaked their path from view, forcing them to rely almost entirely upon their Force senses. They moved in perfect step, with Mara easily matching his stride. A fallen tree suddenly loomed into view, jutting out of the concealing fog, and together they sprang over it, somersaulting in mid-air and landing with barely a missed step. Luke’s heart sang as he noticed how much easier she was breathing. Understanding seemed to flare in her emerald eyes and he could feel her Force signature shift fractionally as she worked out how he seemed to be more energized than she.

Through the Force, Luke felt their destination beckon to him, a siren call he both dreaded and looked forward to. Without warning, he slowed to a walk, gesturing for Mara to do the same. She gave him a brilliant smile.

“Not tiring you out, am I?” she asked before closing her eyes and breathing deeply. Luke let himself watch for a heartbeat, entranced by a droplet of sweat that trickled down her face and disappeared into her shirt. He blinked the moment away as he walked slowly toward a tree stump climbing out of the swamp.

“Today,” he began in what Mara called his lecturing voice, “we’re going to do something different.”

“Oh, goody,” the redhead said without opening her eyes. “I hope it involves giving me time off to take a shower. I stink.” Luke chuckled – not an hour passed that Mara didn’t complain about how much she disliked Dagobah – and he discreetly reached for a metal bar he’d hidden here earlier. He tossed it at her without warning.

It hit the ground in five pieces.

Her saber still humming and at the ready, Mara opened her eyes and gave him a sour look. At his smile, she shut the weapon down.

“You could have warned me,” she muttered.

“What would be the point of that?” Luke asked with a smile. She shrugged and opened her mouth to respond but hesitated. Her eyes swam out of focus and she began looking around for the source of her unease. Luke’s smile faded.

“Something’s not right,” Mara muttered. Her saber was coming back to the ready position, though she hadn’t ignited it yet. A second later, her eyes zeroed in on the entrance to the cave and Luke could see her lips tighten. “Let me guess,” she said flatly. “Another test?”

“That place is strong with the Dark Side,” Luke stated, memories of his own visits springing to mind. “It is a domain of evil.”

“And I’ve got to go in there,” she guessed. Luke nodded slowly and Mara drew in a steadying breath. “You’ve been in there?” she asked.

“Twice,” he admitted. He wondered if he should admit what he saw both times before deciding against it. This was her task and she would have to face it alone. “You won’t need your weapons,” Luke said and her face tightened even more. With a heavy sigh, she nodded and slowly set Anakin’s lightsaber on a relatively flat surface. Kneeling, she pulled a pair of tiny vibroknives from concealed sheaths on her lower legs and placed them alongside the saber. Another pair of knives joined them, this time from hidden scabbards at the small of her back. Finally, she reached up and pulled the fastener holding her hair out of her eyes free. At Luke’s look, she shrugged.

“Doubles as a garrote,” Mara admitted before dropping her wrist chronometer onto the growing pile. “Don’t ask,” she ordered before turning to face the tree. Without another word, she strode toward it, head held high.

A dull ache began building within his stomach the moment Mara disappeared from sight, and Luke drew a slow breath in an attempt to steady himself. What if he was wrong? What if she wasn’t ready to face whatever the cave would show her? Could he truly sit by and do nothing? Luke grimaced, instantly wondering if this heart-rending terror was what Yoda felt so many years ago when Luke himself descended into that cave.

“Indeed it was,” an unexpected voice answered and Luke nearly jumped in surprise. A familiar chuckle seemed to drift across the air in the half second before Yoda appeared. He seemed younger than Luke had ever seen him, more vibrant and energetic, though still wizened with age and bowed with hard-earned wisdom. “Surprised you appear, young Skywalker,” the Force ghost chortled, and Luke offered a sheepish smile.

“I am,” he replied. “I thought you and Ben couldn’t visit me anymore.”

“Difficult it is,” Yoda said in response. “But not impossible. Easier it is here on my home.” The long-dead Jedi Master pinned Luke with an appraising look. “A difficult time this is for you,” he mused before glancing in the direction of the cave. “Want to help her, you do, but this she must do alone.”

“I know,” Luke replied sadly. Once again, his old master gave him another look.

“See through you, I do,” Yoda commented. “Feelings for her you have.” Before Luke could reply, the ghostly image shook its head. “A dangerous thing for a Jedi love is. A dangerous thing.”

“I won’t let my feelings for Mara cloud my duty, Master,” Luke murmured, his eyes once more returning to the cave’s entrance. He could feel the Force surge within and knew that Mara was facing her inner demons. Every atom in his body cried out to lend her aid, but he held himself back. She had to face this alone. He turned his attention back to Yoda, unsurprised to discover his old master studying him. “Why did you appear to me now, Master? After all these years, you show up now … why?”

“Learned much you have, young Skywalker.” Yoda’s voice was filled with pride as he spoke. “A tradition it is for one master to hold vigil with another while a padawan undergoes the Trials.”

“But I’m not a master,” Luke replied softly. “There’s so much I still don’t know…”

“Always learning we are,” Yoda smiled, “but no more can I teach you. Confer upon you the rank of Jedi Master I do.”

Luke sat silently for a moment as he absorbed the moment. Around him, the Force seemed to flicker and swell as if approving Master Yoda’s pronouncement. Skywalker drew in a tense breath, realizing that he couldn’t recall being this scared in a long time. It was a different sort of fear than the usual life-threatening type; what if he failed? How could he possibly measure up to the task before him, one laid upon his shoulders by a Jedi Master who had never failed in his life?

“Not so,” Yoda said in response to Luke’s thoughts. “Failed your father, I did.” He hung his head. “Blinded by pride, I was. Came to me with his fears about your mother’s death and gave him poor advice, I did.” The Jedi Master snorted in derision. “Paid for my foolishness did the Jedi Order and returned to power the Sith did.”

“I think the Sith are returning again,” Luke said slowly, his eyes frozen on the entrance of the cave. Mara’s sudden terror flared through the Force, so intense his breath caught, and he gripped his pants tightly to keep from leaping to his feet.

“Difficult to kill the Sith are,” the ghostly image murmured. “Like roaches they seem, always where no one expects them.” Luke offered his old master a wan smile at the poor joke and Yoda seemed to sigh. “A gift I have for you,” the diminutive Jedi Master announced before turning away and striding toward a clump of trees some three meters distant. For a moment, Luke was torn as he glanced between the entrance to the cave and his venerable instructor. “Worry not, young Skywalker,” Yoda said quickly. “Be here for her you will. Come!”

With a sigh, Luke forced himself to his feet and followed.

“Buried here it is,” Yoda said as he pointed to an otherwise unremarkable bush climbing up out of the swamp. “Need it for the future you will.” Luke stretched out with the Force, drawing in a sharp breath at the sudden reciprocal flash of power he detected. As cautiously as he could manage, he pulled it toward him, coaxing the soil around it to part as carefully as he could manage without damaging the roots of the bush.

“What is it?” he asked as he hefted the cube-shaped object. It was warm to the touch and somehow seemed lighter than it should be.

“A holocron,” Yoda replied, resting his insubstantial chin upon his equally insubstantial gimer stick. “Aid you in your tasks it will,” the ancient Jedi Master said with a slight smile. He was already beginning to fade from view. “Proud of you I am, young Skywalker,” Yoda said, his voice sounding as if it came from a deep hole. “A powerful Jedi you have become.”

A moment later, Yoda was gone.

Luke studied the holocron reverently for a moment, swallowing the sense of awe swelling within him. In his research, he’d learned of them but had thought Palpatine destroyed the last of them. His eyes lifted from the cube, returning to the entrance of the cave, and he drew in a deep breath. There would be time for study later. Silently, he returned to his seat outside the cave and waited.

He was still sitting there when a dirty, disheveled, and distraught Mara Jade emerged an hour later.

Rigil Kent
31 October 2008, 05:48 AM
CHAPTER 10

AN hour had passed since he’d received the last status report, and Gilad Pellaeon was beginning to get curious.

Seated behind the massive hand-carved desk he’d grown to see as a prison over the last six months, Gilad glanced once more at the nearby chronometer on the wall and frowned. Ninety minutes had passed since Major Torul had informed Pellaeon that the security teams had apprehended a smuggler attempting to escape Bastion and, based on previous experience, Gilad knew the major should have broken the man by now. Normally, the admiral wouldn’t give much thought to the interrogation, but this was different as the smuggler had ties to the info-merchant, Talon Karrde.

And that meant Skywalker was involved somehow.

Exhaling with frustration, Pellaeon rose to his feet and reached for the sidearm resting atop the desk. He hated that it was necessary – an Imperial admiral should be able to feel safe in the confines of Fleet Command, after all. Though there hadn’t been any new assassination attempts on his life in months, he still felt it was better to be prepared for any contingency, especially when he was so close to the nest of vipers that was the Moff’s Council. After making sure his computer system was locked out, he strode toward the door, buckling on the gunbelt as he did.

The corridors of Fleet Command were busier than normal, and Gilad fought to keep from frowning at the slumped shoulders and dejected expressions he saw. A tangible atmosphere of defeat seemed to shroud the halls as the officers and senior noncoms went about their duties. Many were calling it Daala’s Debacle though Pellaeon had done his best to stamp the phrase out; having rather extensively studied the data intercepts from the aborted Maw engagement, Gilad doubted he would have done any better if he had been in command. Even still, knowing that one of his best and brightest had been outmaneuvered and outplanned by a smuggler smarted.

With Daala’s task force unavailable for combat, Pellaeon’s overall strategic battle plan had ground to a virtual standstill. Across the galaxy, Imperial battle groups were holding their own but were no longer advancing. Even worse, the Rebels had taken heart from Solo’s bloodless victory and were offering stronger resistance on all fronts.

“Kriffing Corellians,” Gilad growled under his breath as he slowed before a massive wall monitor displaying the latest casualty lists. It was updated hourly and new data was just coming in. He paused for a long moment as he studied the names crawling across the screen, all the while wishing there was some other way he could honor these fallen heroes. A digital image of their names, ranks, and operating numbers hardly seemed enough in the wake of their sacrifices.

On the way to the turbolift, Pellaeon glowered darkly at sight of an off-duty stormtrooper chatting up a female junior officer, but he held his tongue despite the temptation to reprimand the two for fraternization. Times were changing and he needed to change with them or he ran the risk of becoming as obsolete as some of the fools on the Council.

The lift deposited him on the fifth level moments later, and Gilad barely waited for the doors to curl open before stepping into the corridor beyond. He gave a nod of greeting to the two stormtroopers standing guard on either side of the turbolift access hatch and smiled tightly in approval when they made no effort to respond. Instead, they watched him carefully, their eyes hidden from view by the concealing helmet. Putting them out of his mind, Pellaeon started to take a step toward the door leading to the detention facility when movement to his left drew his attention.

There, not three meters away, Major Torul was fast-walking in the opposite direction, clad in the familiar-looking stormtrooper armor but without his helmet. Without appearing to notice Gilad, the major rounded a corner sharply, his expression a riot of conflicting emotions. There was excitement and fear, anger and surprise, hope and despair, all for anyone to see. On the face of the normally taciturn ex-storm commando, the emotion was jarring.

And troubling.

Without knowing why, Pellaeon didn’t call out to the major as he began to discreetly trail after his distracted bodyguard. The hairs on the back of Gilad’s neck stood up as he caught glimpses of Torul’s face in the reflective surfaces of the doors along either side of the corridor. Something was very, very wrong and Pellaeon wanted to know what it was.

Gilad’s frown deepened as they approached the Archives wing of Fleet Command, and he wondered what the major thought to accomplish here, especially since Torul’s security clearance wasn’t high enough to gain access. Still evidently ignorant of Pellaeon’s silent observation of him, Torul barely hesitated as he approached the security checkpoint but, rather than offering a code cylinder, the ex-storm commando gestured with his left hand and murmured something Gilad was too distant to hear. The helmeted stormtrooper standing before the entrance to Archives stepped aside.

Torul entered without another word.

Fury pulsed within Pellaeon’s breast and he stormed toward the waiting trooper, his face a thundercloud. He drew up sharply before the stormtrooper and glowered at him.

“What is your operating number, trooper?” Gilad demanded. A shiver crawled down his spine when the stormtrooper cocked his head oddly and responded.

“His business was urgent,” the trooper said in an eerie voice. “He could not be delayed.”

“What?” Pellaeon’s ire trickled away to be replaced with confusion … and rapidly dawning fear. He clenched his hands tightly together as a frightening theory began racing through his mind. A veteran of the Clone Wars, he could recall having seen hand gestures by the late and unlamented Jedi Knights similar to the one Torul had made to this guard.

“May I help you, Admiral?” the trooper abruptly asked, his voice sounding normal once more.

“You just let Major Torul into Archives,” Gilad said cautiously. “Why?”

“I’m afraid you’re mistaken, Admiral,” the trooper responded without the telltale hesitation of a man speaking a lie. “The last person I allowed into Archives was Grand Moff Kaine five hours ago.”

Pellaeon’s blood ran cold. Without a word, he turned on his heel and began retracing his steps to the detention facility, his mind racing. Alerting security wasn’t an option – Torul had been given almost unilateral control over the protection details of Fleet Command and sounding the alarm would be the same as alerting the man personally. If he was going to act, Gilad realized he needed to know what had set Torul off.

He entered the holding cell without warning and the prisoner within – a smuggler by the name of Aves – looked up from where he sat in the restraint chair with wide, terrified eyes. Gilad took in the man’s appearance, noting at once the blood trickling from the man’s eyes, ears, and nose.

“Tell me everything you told him,” Pellaeon ordered harshly, and the smuggler recoiled as much as the restraint chair would allow him.

“I don’t know anything!” the prisoner whimpered, wincing as he spoke. Gilad leaned forward, bracing himself with his fists upon the durasteel table between them.

“He left here in a hurry,” he growled, “and I want to know why.”

“I don’t know!” The smuggler was almost in tears and Pellaeon fought the urge to shake some sense into him. “I mentioned Korriban and he-”

“Korriban?” Gilad interrupted sharply. “What about it?”

“We’ve been tracking shipments to a facility there for the last month,” the man revealed, wetting his lips with his tongue as he spoke. “I was trying to find out if you Imps were behind it.”

“We don’t have a facility on Korriban,” Pellaeon said flatly. “The place is a rock without any strategic use whatsoever.”

“Well, somebody’s shipping Spaarti cylinder parts there,” the smuggler declared.

Gilad rocked back on his heels, his eyes widening at the implication before him. Over the last year, there had been unsubstantiated rumors of Jedi activity across the galaxy, stories involving Skywalker and that traitor Jade fighting other lightsaber-wielding foes, but Pellaeon had dismissed those stories as little more than Rebellion disinformation designed to conceal what Skywalker was actually up to. But if Torul was behind it…

“Guard,” Pellaeon called, reaching for his blaster pistol and thumbing it to full-charge stun. He waited until the responding stormtrooper had stepped fully into the room before nodding in the direction of the seated prisoner. “This prisoner,” Gilad said flatly, “needs a lesson in obedience.” The trooper nodded and took a step closer.

A moment later, Pellaeon shot him in the back of the head.

The smuggler’s eyes were wide when Gilad fumbled with the unconscious trooper’s belt to find the release key for the restraint chair but didn’t hesitate to leap up when Pellaeon unshackled him. He backed away from the chair quickly.

“Get dressed,” Gilad ordered, toeing the unmoving body of the stormtrooper. “You don’t have much time.”

“And you expect me to trust you?” the prisoner – Aves, Pellaeon reminded himself – asked while eyeing the sealed door of the holding cell.

“You don’t have a choice.” Gilad gave him a hard stare and the man visibly swallowed before nodding in obedience. He knelt and began stripping the trooper of his armor. “Once you’re clear of Fleet Command,” Pellaeon instructed quickly, “get word of the Korriban facility to Skywalker at any cost.”

“Skywalker?” Aves repeated, suspicion resurfacing in his eyes.

“Yes. Tell him a Force user named Flint Torul has been manipulating the Empire.” There was never any doubt what Skywalker would do with that information, especially if his actions regarding C’baoth were any indication. With any luck, Gilad reflected, the two would kill each other and take care of both problems. “Take this,” Pellaeon added, pulling one of the command cylinders from his uniform jacket and offering it to the half-dressed smuggler. “It should open most doors in Fleet Command and let you get out.” He shot a dark look at the time it was taking the other man to strip the armor from the stormtrooper and don it. “Hurry up!” he growled.

Long minutes later, Pellaeon led the prisoner out of holding cell and jerked his head in the direction the man should go. Without waiting to see if the smuggler obeyed, Gilad took the opposite path, walking faster than was entirely appropriate. Junior officers and noncoms scrambled to get out of his way and he could hear their hushed whispers as he swept by them.

“I need your speeder,” he told a helmet-less scout trooper outside the Fleet Command building. The trooper sputtered a reply as Pellaeon climbed aboard the bike and kicked it into motion. Within seconds, Gilad was racing away from the squat-building, his eyes tearing as the wind tore at his exposed face. His heart began pounding rapidly, beating like a triphammer in his ears, and the admiral coaxed a bit more acceleration from the bike as it screamed toward his destination.

The executive building housing the Moff’s Council and their respective adjutants loomed before him and Pellaeon braked harshly, aware of the curious eyes upon him. He slid off the bike and took the stairs leading into the building two at a time. Already, his breathing was coming in ragged gasps as he pushed his aged body harder than it had been pushed in years. The guards at the doorway – a pair of gray-suited Army troopers – exchanged a confused look but didn’t try to stop him as he darted into the building.

“You can’t go in there,” another guard informed him as he advanced toward the inner sanctum of the Council, but Gilad put every gram of the authority he possessed into a withering stare and the man quailed.

“Open the damned door,” Pellaeon said coldly, and the guard leaped to obey.

“What is the meaning of this interruption?” Moff Disra demanded as Gilad entered the wide, octagonal room. There were only four of them present, with Moff Tavira offworld so she could lead the diplomatic delegation to the Maw in order to meet with Admiral Solo and retrieve Commodore Daala. As was their custom in recent months, each man had a pair of Royal Guardsmen at his back but, for the first time, Pellaeon wondered if they were enough.

Before he could speak, the door to his left opened and Major Torul, still wearing the white stormtrooper armor, entered. His eyes locked onto Gilad’s and they glittered with fury.

“How dare you-” Kaine began to shout, but Torul gestured sharply. As if struck by a runaway speeder, the moff flew backwards, smashing into the wall with bonecrushing force. He crumpled without a sound, his limbs bent at unnatural angles. The surviving moffs looked at the body with horror as the red Guardsmen sprang forward to avenge Kaine.

They never had a chance.

With a loud snap-hiss, Torul ignited a lightsaber and met the charge of the Guardsmen headlong. Two fell at once, bisected by the humming scarlet blade, followed by a third and fourth as Torul somersaulted over their lunging strikes and severed limbs with a single, sweeping strike. He hit the ground lightly, gesturing in the direction of the now fleeing Moff Balfour and one of the attacking Guardsmen went flying directly into the running moff, knocking both of them off their feet. As Pellaeon was bringing his blaster up, he felt an invisible wall slam into his chest and send him sprawling. Stars danced in his eyes as he tried to climb back to his feet, but his muscles would not respond. Around him, the screams of the dying echoed in his ears and he wondered how long until he would join them.

With a suddenness that was unexpected, silence descended upon the room.

With a slow, heavy stride, Torul approached, his ignited lightsaber still in hand. The major gestured and Pellaeon felt himself float up off the floor. He struggled to free himself from the invisible grip that held him aloft but it was like trying to move a star destroyer with his bare hands.

“You betrayed me,” Torul hissed softly as he came within a meter of where Gilad floated. Over the major’s shoulder, Pellaeon could see the shattered wreckage of what had once been the Council table and bodies littered the floor. Disra’s headless corpse was still in his seat. “To them,” the major spat, contempt and simmering rage in his voice.

“It was my duty,” Gilad rasped through lips that didn’t want to work. An unseen grip wrapped itself around his throat and began to squeeze.

“Always the patriot,” Torul growled as he raised his left hand. Pellaeon’s lungs began to burn. “I should kill you for this treachery,” his tormentor added and Gilad closed his eyes. He refused to let this scum see fear. “But no,” Torul abruptly said and the grip on Pellaeon’s throat vanished. He sucked in oxygen with a loud gasp. “I have need of a patriot such as you,” the major announced coldly. “My new Imperium will need a figurehead. Someone the other patriots will trust.”

“I’ll never help you,” Pellaeon said sharply.

“You will be surprised,” the major declared with a smile colder than the vacuum of space, “what a man will do to survive.” He stepped closer and Gilad could see madness dancing in the man’s eyes. “Kneel,” Torul said, “or be knelt. You will serve, or you will be made to serve.” He began to laugh – a chilling sound like glass being crushed underfoot – and Pellaeon could feel a searing pain slice into his mind.

And then, blessedly, the world vanished in a flash of light.

|-*-|

Starlight glittered off the hull of gunship as it drifted silently through the silent void, and Corran Horn fought against the urge to fidget.

Though it was unnecessary, he once again studied the layout of the flight controls in a desperate attempt to familiarize himself with the unfamiliar craft. When Katarn had informed him that he would be the pilot for Troop Two, Corran had expected to be flying a Sienar Sentinel-class landing craft and had spent dozens of hours in the simulator to prep for this operation. At the last minute, though, the less than legal acquisition of the Sentinels fell through, forcing them to seek alternate transport for the assault teams. Mirax’s father, Booster, had acquired the Ye-4 gunships from the Force knew where and, with less than an hour to figure out how to fly them, they’d launched.

“Quit that,” Iella Wessiri ordered from where she sat before the co-pilot’s station. How she had managed to convince Katarn that her presence was necessary defied Corran’s comprehension but he had learned over the years to never underestimate the woman especially when it concerned someone she cared about.

“I can’t help it,” Horn replied as he glanced over the internal sensors once more. “I’ve got no idea how half these systems work!”

“So compensate,” Iella snapped. Corran gave her a sidelong glance, noting instantly the worry on her face. He said nothing though, knowing she wouldn’t appreciate it if he called her attention to it especially since it would only confirm his deep-rooted suspicions about her relationship with Wedge.

They had been lurking on the periphery of this system for nearly six hours now, waiting for the arrival of their backup, and with each second that passed, Corran could feel the tension within the gunship ramp up another notch. Iella was bad enough, but thirty-six frustrated and eager SpecOps commandos crammed into a relatively tiny metal box was hard to handle, especially to someone with strong empathic abilities like Corran. He’d lost track of how many times he had bit his lip to keep from cursing aloud when another wave of emotion rolled over him.

Beyond the transparisteel viewport, Corran could see no sign of their ultimate destination. Even the passive sensors really didn’t tell him much beyond what he already knew. A cursory scan would reveal an unremarkable-looking rockball of a planet surrounded by a deadly ring system that had once been a moon. A sullen-looking white dwarf twinkled in the far distance, bathing the rockball with a pale, almost eerie light. Had it not been for the Victory-class star destroyer and the trio of Strike-class medium cruisers in orbit over the planet, the system would have seemed to be an insignificant speck of nothing in the middle of nowhere.

Which, Corran supposed, was entirely the point.

“Contact,” he murmured a full half-second before the sensor board in front of them pinged, alerting them of new mass signatures. Iella gave him a quick, disgruntled look – she hated it when he did that – before quickly glancing at the incoming feed. Rather than doing the same, Corran closed his eyes and stretched out with his senses. Instantly, he detected a number of familiar psychic signatures as the newly arrived ships – twelve in all – began maneuvering toward the star destroyer.

“Read eleven X-Wings,” Iella said off the data crawling across her scopes, “and one light cruiser.”

“Here we go,” Corran whispered as he began feeding power to the gunship’s engines. “Stand by to charge up those guns,” he said into his headset. A cacophony of rapid clicks answered him and he nearly winced at the sudden sense of grim resolve pulsing through the Force.

“Imperial warship,” a cultured voice announced over a wideband communications transmission, “this is Colonel Tycho Celchu of Rogue Squadron. I believe you have something that belongs to us.”

“We’re here to take it back,” Wes Janson interjected calmly.

Already, the Victory was dropping its TIE fighter compliment as the three Strike-class cruisers moved to flank their much larger cousin. They too were deploying fighter cover and, with a glance at his sensor display, Corran estimated the Imps to have five full squadrons. On paper, it would have looked lopsided: sixty TIE fighters, three Strikes, and a Victory against eleven X-Wings and an obsolete Thranta-class war cruiser.

“Hardly seems fair,” he muttered as the Rogues thundered into the engagement zone. Even at this extreme distance, he could see the flashes of light that were lasers and exploding TIE fighters, and he swallowed the jealousy swelling within his stomach. It should be him out there in a T-65, not Pash Cracken or Feylis Ardele or Plourr Ilo, all retired Rogues eager to join a mission to bring back their wayward leader. He should be the one leading Three Flight, not Hobbie. It should be him flying alongside Gavin and Myn and Ooryl in an insane strafing run against the Victory-class. If only his leg had healed better, or his X-Wing wasn’t so much scrap. If only his physical therapist hadn’t forbade him from even getting near a high-performance starfighter for the next six months.

If only…

“We have a green light,” Iella suddenly said, her words ripping Corran out of his brief lapse into self-pity. He nodded sharply and kicked the gunship into full thrust. The engine howled aggressively as they shot forward and detection alarms began sounding almost at once. The Imps had noticed them.

“I read one squadron of TIEs deviating toward us,” Iella announced.

“Go hot with those guns,” Corran informed the waiting SpecOps troopers. He grimaced at the immediate power drain that resulted and did some rapid calculations in his head. Without hesitation, he altered their approach vector and aimed the nose of the gunship directly toward the detritus of the planetary ring system.

“What are you doing?” Iella asked sharply and Corran gave her a grin. “Ah, kriff,” his old CorSec partner muttered as she double-checked the safety harnesses securing her to her seat. “This is why I never let you fly when we worked together.”

Forty seconds later, the TIEs reached firing range and began peppering them with lasers. Corran didn’t bother trying to dodge – the gunship was about as maneuverable as an aerodynamic rock – but he did try to coax more speed out of the crate. There was no way they could outrun the eyeballs, but they’d be crazy to follow him into the rings so the sooner he got there, the better.

Seconds later, the turreted weapons on the gunship opened fire, instantly forcing the TIEs to go evasive. One of them wasn’t quick enough – crimson lasers sliced into the cockpit of the craft, punching through both the pilot and the ionization reactor behind him. The man was dead even before his fighter vanished in a fireball.

“Hold on!” Corran shouted as the gunship entered the outskirts of the ring system. Chunks of rock and ice began hammering into the ship, and the proximity alert system went berserk as it tried to track every dangerous threat within range. Iella reached forward and flicked it off.

To Horn’s surprise, three of the eyeballs kept on their six, laser cannons chattering almost nonstop. One of them clipped an asteroid and the momentary loss of control gave the Ye-4’s gunners plenty of time to line up a well-placed shot. The remaining two dipped and weaved around the debris, their lasers systematically battering down the shield strength of the gunship. Corran cursed softly as his controls suddenly went wobbly. Damage control alarms began howling.

“Port thrusters are out,” he stated unnecessarily. Iella’s breath caught but Corran paid her no mind. “Engine One is misfiring and I’m reading stress fractures all over.” He glared at the controls. “Kriffin’ Booster and his kriffin’ good ideas,” he growled. “Does this thing have grapplers or a tractor beam?”

“Neither,” Iella answered quickly as she cycled through the available systems.

“Wonderful,” Corran muttered. “Fine. We’ll have to do this the old-fashioned way.” He banked the Ye-4 toward the densest portion of the ring and began feeding more power to the engines.

“What are you doing?” Iella demanded instantly. “We need to land not go on a joy ride!”

“Shut up you,” Horn retorted though there was no heat to his words. “Try to lock down that stabilizer,” he instructed as he began feathering the remaining maneuvering thrusters. Slowly – ever so slowly – the gunship began to rotate along its horizontal axis. With bare meters to spare, they skirted the largest of the rock chunks and continued to spin. Expertly hiding the worry thundering through his veins, Corran skimmed the surface of another giant slab of shattered rock.

Desperate to avoid the lethal fire of the Ye-4 gunners, one of the TIEs dove sharply but miscalculated and instead slammed into a speeder-sized slab of rock, vanishing instantly in a fierce explosion. The sole remaining eyeball fell away, opting to focus more on surviving the treacherous environment than getting another shot off at the gunship. In his focus on the immediate threat, he failed to notice the arrival of a pair of X-Wings whose cannons ripped him apart.

“Sorry we were late,” an unfamiliar-sounding voice declared over the com-line, but Corran didn’t bother responding as he fought with the controls. At his side, Iella gave him a sidelong look.

“Better late than never, Wraith Four,” she said into her headset. “Ionosphere in forty seconds,” she announced a moment later. “Engine One is losing power.”

“Of course it is,” Corran grumbled. He didn’t look up from his datafeed, not even when the gunship hit the outer edge of the planetary atmosphere and began vibrating roughly. He was vaguely aware of two more Ye-4’s slide into formation behind him, and idly wondered if Captains Farlander and Ors had let him take point knowing he would draw the most attention. A shudder ran through the deck of the gunship and the ambient sounds of the landing craft dropped sharply.

“Engine One has failed!” Iella suddenly shouted, panic in her voice. Corran snorted in dark amusement, his eyes locked on the sensor display relating their destination.

“Crash positions!” he bellowed into his helmet comlink. A series of rapid clicks across the communication line answered him as the commandos in the troop compartment scrambled to obey.

They leveled out slightly as they approached a massive mountain range, and Corran began decelerating as they entered a wide canyon that seemed to have been carved out of the rock by a giant vibroax. Wind wailed around the gunship, hammering it with hurricane-gust winds and thousands of tiny rocks. Black clouds hung heavy in the air above the mountains and thick bolts of blue-green lightning stabbed earthward, exploding against large boulders or jagged cliffs. Large hunks of debris rained down into the canyon, pelting the already heavily damaged Ye-4 and turning an already hazardous route into a deadly one.

Corran desperately fought to maintain control of the gunship as they drew closer to the target. Through the viewport, he could see their final destination: a massive tower situated squarely within a still larger canyon. Even to someone accustomed to Coruscanti-sized buildings, it seemed a tall structure, though Horn knew it was little more than half a kilometer in height. From a distance, the tower appeared to have a smooth exterior surface, but a closer inspection of it revealed that to be a mistake. Weapon emplacements marred its aesthetics and the hazy distortion surrounding it was indicative of heavy-duty deflector shields. Already, the sky was crisscrossed with battery defense fire and TIEs – both eyeballs and squints – were pouring into the sky toward them. The X-Wings of Wraith Squadron raced to meet them and the air above the prison was suddenly alive with explosions.

An unexpected flash enveloped the topmost section of the facility and, to Corran’s amazement, the barely visible force screen protecting the prison began flickering before ultimately collapsing entirely. He exhaled in silent relief – Katarn had been evasive when explaining how they’d manage to breach the shield and had taken on that mission himself. Evidently, his reputation wasn’t entirely undeserved.

At his nod, Iella began activating the docking cycle and Corran could hear the lower vertical stabilizer begin to fold up in preparation for landing. It abruptly froze in place at the halfway point, a fierce grinding noise echoing loudly throughout the entire ship. A half-second later, a brilliant burst of lightning slammed into the Ye-4. The controls flickered – on, off, back on – and Corran felt his stomach lurch as the gunship dropped sharply.

“Shields are gone,” Iella announced, her voice flat and dull. “Hull integrity at critical levels.” As if to mock them, the entire control board went dead.

“Sithspit,” Corran said softly, “there goes the main drive.” He sounded strangely calm, even to his own ears.

Their final approach was more a controlled drop than an actual landing. The gunship slammed into the ground hard just outside the open landing bay door, bounced once, and then slid across the floor into a wall.

“Go! Go! Go!” The shouted command echoed from the troop compartment and Corran blinked away the stars dancing in his vision as a hollow boom rumbled through the wrecked gunship. He recognized it instantly – the airlocks had been blown by the overeager commandos – and through the splintered forward viewport a second later, he could see Page’s soldiers racing to secure the landing bay. Defending Imperials – mostly stormtroopers – were already retreating through the main access point from the bay, a massive blast door the size of an AT-AT. The door rumbled as it began its ponderous slide shut.

His vision still swimming, Corran fumbled with the mostly useless controls of the gunship, closing his eyes as he did. He let instinct guide his fingers and struggled to block out the searing agony pulsing through his left leg. A spark from the control board caused him to jerk his fingers back, but he promptly attacked the panel again.

With an explosion of blaster fire, the chin turret of the gunship activated, its crimson lasers slicing into the mammoth door and burning through the actuators driving it. Secondary detonations ripped into the metal, knocking it askew and stopping it in its tracks.

“Good job,” Iella said as she clambered out of her seat. She grabbed a blaster rifle. “Let’s go get Wedge back,” she declared. Corran nodded and followed her out of the Ye-4, barely hiding his limp. He gave the smoking wreck that had been his gunship a glance and shook his head. Not my best landing, he reflected as the other two Ye-4’s touched down lightly beside it. Their commandos were already spilling out of the troop compartments, rushing to join Page’s team already wreaking havoc within.

They found Wedge twenty minutes later, barricaded within the medical dispensary with ten other prisoners. Still wearing the bright red jumpsuit of an Imperial detainee, he was armed with a captured blaster rifle and had a stormtrooper utility belt around his waist. Half of his face was dark with bruises and his left arm was hanging at an awkward angle, but his eyes gleamed with joy when Iella rushed to embrace him. A strangely familiar-looking man was standing at Wedge’s side, clad identically. Corran brushed the thought aside.

“What took you?” Antilles asked with a grin.

“You know us Rogues,” Corran retorted. “Always looking to make a dramatic entrance.”

|-*-|

It was certainly a dramatic entrance, but Leia Organa-Solo wasn’t impressed.

Five Imperial star destroyers, each accompanied by a trio of Carrack-class cruisers, slowed from lightspeed with a flicker of pseudomotion and promptly began maneuvering into a defensive formation. No attempt was made to come any closer, though dozens of TIE fighters dropped from the launch bays of the star destroyers and promptly began circling their mother ships. Minutes later, a quartet of ships deployed from the central-most destroyer – a Lambda-class shuttle and three TIE Defenders – and began racing toward them.

“Incoming transmission,” Captain Adrimetrum said from where she stood at Han’s back. The dark-haired woman touched the small comm.-device in her ear before looking up. “Confirmed: Moff Tavira on approach.”

“The ball’s in your court now,” Han said to Leia with a smirk. “I’m going to be in the Falcon with the kids and Chewie.” He shook his head in slight amazement. “I can’t believe how big they’ve gotten,” he muttered under his breath.

“Any requests?” Leia asked as she fell into step beside him, Cakhmaim and Meewahl silent ghosts behind her. Han grinned.

“Well,” he drawled with his lopsided smile, “I’ve always wanted a summer home on Bastion.” Leia laughed softly.

“I’ll see what I can do,” she told him as they neared the turbolift. Out of the corner of her eye, Leia could see Han give the two Senatorial Guardsmen standing on either side of the lift’s doors a sour glance but, surprisingly, he made no comment about their presence.

“While you’re at it,” her husband added as they entered the lift, “see if you can’t get the backpay the Imps owe me.” When Guardsman Hsieh barely stifled a soft chuckle, Han shot the young man a look of mock incredulity. “It speaks!” he exclaimed with feigned surprise.

“Han,” Leia said warningly. He’d never taken well to the fact that she needed a protection detail, though whether it was some sort of Corellian sense of responsibility or just an idiosyncrasy of his personality she’d never been able to determine. Solo shrugged.

“Just sayin’,” he replied before zeroing in on the silent Captain Quin. “Never got to thank you for keepin’ her alive,” Han told the captain.

“I was merely doing my duty,” Quin said stiffly in response.

“Uh huh,” Han nodded. He studied the guardsman for a long moment, finally giving Quin a slight nod that the captain returned without a word. It was such an unbelievably male gesture that Leia nearly rolled her eyes. “Go do your thing,” Han said to her as the door of the lift slid open, “but don’t take too long.” He waggled his eyebrows in an exaggerated manner and she chuckled softly before leaning forward to kiss him softly on the cheek. Han waited until she and her four protectors filed out of the lift before playing his trump card. “When you get done,” he said with a wicked grin, “I’ll tell you about the crazy meeting I had with your brother a couple of months ago.”

The lift door slid shut before she could respond, but Leia knew Han was laughing.

She swept into the landing bay minutes later, consciously utilizing her royal upbringing to evoke an image of authority. A poorly hidden frown on her otherwise delicate-looking face, Viqi Shesh stood silently, flanked by a pair of the blue-garbed Guardsmen. The Kuati senator was dressed impeccably in flowing purple and violet silks that likely cost more to produce than every gown in Leia’s wardrobe. Rows of tiny Corusca gems climbed down the length of the dress and sparkled under the harsh lights of the landing bay. In contrast, Leia felt underdressed in the simple white senatorial gown she had selected for this meeting.

As she approached her colleague, Leia could not help but to notice the waves of tension radiating off the other woman. They hadn’t talked much since Fey’lya’s unexpected decision to send Shesh with her, and the Kuati senator had spent nearly the entire trip from Coruscant alone in her cabin. If Leia didn’t know better, she’d think Shesh was afraid of her.

Before them, the Lambda-class shuttle settled in for a landing with the trio of TIE Defenders breaking off and returning toward their distant baseship, escorted by an equal number of X-Wings. The Republic soldiers assembled within the landing bay snapped to attention as the ramp of the shuttle slowly descended. Mere seconds later, four scarlet-clad Royal Guardsmen emerged and took up honor guard stations before the ramp. Another moment passed before Grand Moff Leonia Tavira strode from the shuttle.

She was a small woman, barely as tall as Leia herself, with shoulder-length black hair tied back in a distinctively Eiattan style. At the base of the ramp, Tavira paused and gave the assembled Republic troopers a quick, appraising glance, though her face betrayed no hint of her thoughts. Her eyes found Leia and Shesh; the only known female moff frowned slightly before beginning a slow, measured walk toward them and the Royal Guardsmen flowed forward behind her, moving so smoothly they appeared to be floating across the deck instead of walking.

“Your Highness,” Tavira said by way of greeting, and Leia gave her a fractional nod of recognition.

“Your Excellency,” she replied before gesturing to the woman at her side. “May I introduce Senator Viqi Shesh of Kuat?”

“I know who she is,” Tavira said flatly, anger at Kuat’s defection over a year earlier flaring briefly in her violet eyes as she gave Shesh a dark glare. It was gone almost before Leia saw it and the moff addressed her next comments to Organa-Solo. “Will Admiral Solo not be joining us?” she asked. Leia gave her a tight smile.

“Han has no stomach for diplomacy,” she answered. “He has asked me to oversee our negotiations regarding Commodore Daala and her battle group.” Discomfort flared within Leia’s stomach at the utterance of the commodore’s name and she pushed away her irrational dislike of the woman. She knew for a fact that Han wasn’t attracted to his old Academy friend, but every time he referred to her as ‘Nat’ instead of by her rank, Leia had felt a surge of unwarranted jealousy.

“The conference room is this way,” Shesh stated, drawing another heated look from the diminutive moff.

“I have been aboard the Lusankya before,” Tavira retorted. Leia gave her a sweet, condescending smile.

“We’ve made some changes since then,” she pointed out as they began slowly walking toward the turbolift. “For starters,” Leia said smoothly, “we’ve removed the torture rooms and execution chambers.”

Tavira’s face tightened, but she offered no reply.

The presence of several dozen holo-journalists within the conference chamber caused the moff’s stride to falter and Leia bit back another smile at how uncomfortable Tavira appeared for the long seconds it took her to realize she had been outmaneuvered once again. By the time she donned a false smile of good cheer, it was already too late as at least three of the more reputable journalists had snapped images of her startled expression.

They settled quickly into the usual back-and-forth of high-level diplomatic talks such as this one. An hour passed as they exchanged the requisite pleasantries that neither truly believed. Once back in her element, Tavira proved to be a quite effective negotiator and expertly deflected many of the Republic’s requirements for Daala’s return to Imperial space with meaningless platitudes. As they entered the second hour of negotiations, Leia could see any hope for an amenable resolution to this crisis slipping through her fingers. She knew – and, from the glint in Tavira’s eyes, was meant to know – that the Empire would publicly agree to everything but had no intention of actually following through. I should have let Han deal with this woman, she reflected darkly.

A bustle of activity drew her attention to the doorway currently blocked by journalists and Leia frowned when she saw Winter squeezing through the crowd. An Imperial naval lieutenant was a half step behind the silver-haired woman, and, the moment they pierced the ring of reporters, they made separate beelines toward their respective sides.

“Something’s happened,” Leia guessed, her voice pitched low so as to not carry, as Winter came closer. Her aide nodded sharply and offered a dataslate. Accepting it without hesitation, Leia quickly scanned over it, noting at once that it was a recently decrypted intercept from Imperial communications traffic. Her breath caught at the first line: confirm reports of Pellaeon-led coup, Moff Council KIA.

Across the table, Tavira rose to her feet, her neutral expression dissolving into one of incandescent fury. Clutched in her hand was a similar dataslate and she gave Leia a dark look.

“Clear the room, Captain,” Leia ordered softly, her voice carrying nonetheless. An eruption of questions from the journalists followed the command, but she tuned them out as the four Senatorial Guardsmen began ushering the reporters from the room. At a nod from Tavira, the four Red Guards at her back slid forward to join their blue-garbed brethren. In seconds, the last of the journalists were gone and the door had been sealed.

“I’m not going to ask how your people found out,” Tavira nearly snarled. She took her seat once more and locked eyes with Leia. “I need Daala’s fleet now,” the moff declared sharply.

“So you can throw them away in a useless attack on Bastion?” Leia inquired. “If Pellaeon has seized control,” she added calmly, “there’s a good chance the commodore will side with him.”

“That’s a risk I’ll have to take,” the moff said grimly. “I can’t do nothing.”

“On the contrary,” Shesh interjected, “doing nothing may be the best thing for you to do.”

“If these reports are accurate,” Leia added quickly, “you are all that remains of the Moff’s Council.” Tavira grimaced at the notion but didn’t interrupt as Leia continued. “And we’ve intercepted enough of Admiral Pellaeon’s correspondence with Commodore Daala to know you are the only one of the Council he respected.” She leaned forward, silently urging the woman opposite her to set aside her pride for the moment and actually listen. “My husband has proven here that our respective forces can work together without trying to kill each other.” Leia steepled her fingers. “You need to think long and hard on what is more important, Your Excellency: rushing back to Bastion to throw more wood on the fire or keeping as many of your people alive for as long as possible by not sending them die.”

For a long moment, Moff Tavira was silent. She frowned slightly as she studied the table and Leia could almost feel the woman’s thoughts racing. Think about it, she silently implored. As if in response, the moff nodded.

“I will … consider what you have suggested,” Tavira announced as she rose to her feet. Leia stood as well, aware that Shesh was already on her feet. Sensing an opportunity, Leia spoke first.

“Shall we adjourn until tomorrow?” she asked.

“Until tomorrow,” the moff agreed stiffly with a response before inclining her head in a slight bow Leia returned. “Your Highness,” Tavira said. “Senator.”

A moment later, she and the Red Guards were gone. Feeling Shesh’s eyes upon her, Leia gave Cakhmaim and Quin a subtle gesture; without comment, they filed from the room, leaving her alone with the Kuati senator.

“You surprise me,” Shesh announced before Leia could speak, “and your mastery of the White Current is astounding given your lack of formal training.”

“Excuse me?” Leia asked, frowning slightly at the unfamiliar phrase. She supposed it was an alternate name for the Force – Luke had often said different species throughout the galaxy called it different things, but she had never heard it called that.

“I refer only to the way you influenced her thoughts,” the Kuati woman explained. “She was going to walk away and ignore everything you said until you used the Current to suggest otherwise.” Shesh offered a smile. “It was a masterful action.”

Revulsion bubbled within Leia’s stomach as she abruptly recognized the truth of the woman’s comments. Now, after the fact, she could distinctly recall urging the Moff to give her words careful thought; use of the Force to ensure Tavira hadn’t simply ignored the words had been instinctive. But it was for a good reason, wasn’t it? How many lives had she just saved because of her actions?

“I do what I must,” she told her colleague, successfully hiding the conflict raging within her heart. “Though I hate to admit it,” Leia continued, lowering her voice slightly, “there are times when the ends do justify the means.” She reached out with the Force and smiled slightly at the jubilant feel of her children’s minds; they were gleefully playing with Han and Chewie and were happier than she’d felt them in a long time. “And I will do whatever I must to make sure this galaxy is safe for my children,” she added.

“On Kuat,” Shesh said softly, “we have a saying: stand not between the love of a mother and her children for it shall burn you with its intensity.” The woman smiled tightly before narrowing her eyes and studying Leia intently. “To any with eyes,” the Kuati senator stated coolly, “it is clear you have set yourself against the chancellor.” Leia tensed and returned the appraising look.

“And you’ve allied yourself with him,” she retorted.

“A mistake it would appear,” Shesh admitted. “He presented an image of strength, of power that could be harnessed for the benefit of Kuat.” Her lips thinned as she frowned. “The truth I have learned is that he is weak,” she said coldly. Inexplicably, Leia felt her heart begin beating faster and her every sense suddenly seemed to sharpen. She fought to maintain the illusion of control. “He worries more about how he is perceived by the public than about doing what must be done to ensure the stability of the Republic.” Shesh pinned Leia with a look. “You, however,” the Kuati woman said, “are more than capable of doing what he cannot do.”

“I’m listening,” Leia said slowly.

“You seek evidence that will prove he is immoral and corrupt,” the senator declared. “I can provide you with this evidence.”

“Why?” Leia crossed her arms. “Nothing is free in this galaxy, so why turn on him now?” The other woman laughed.

“Kuat is my only concern,” Shesh said darkly. “When we allied with the Republic,” she continued, “it was under the belief we would not be forced to bend knee to a tyrant again.” The Kuati woman’s face darkened. “If the Empire demanded Kuat’s return to end this war,” she said, “I have little doubt Fey’lya would gladly agree and cast us aside.” Something aggressive flared within the woman’s eyes. “And we will not kneel before the Empire again,” Shesh declared hotly and Leia could feel the fervent truth behind the words pulse through the Force. “I offer you a way to challenge him,” the woman continued, “and ask for nothing in return but the security of my world.” She offered her hand – a gesture of subservience within the Kuati society – and waited patiently for Leia’s answer.

She didn’t have to wait long.

|-*-|

The waiting was driving her insane.

Crouching before the tangled mass of circuitry, wires and the all important focusing lens, Mara slowly touched the omnitool to each of the exposed leads, biting her lower lip as she double-checked her work. She felt rather than saw Luke’s amused glance in her direction, but did her best to ignore him. After all, he’d already built a couple of lightsabers and this was her first.

A warm breeze poured through the open window, bringing with it the distinctive smells and tastes of Socorro. They had been planetside for nearly nine days now, having come here directly from that miserable swamp world Luke liked so much two weeks after her encounter within the Dark Side cave. Mara involuntarily shivered at the memory of what had happened there and could feel Luke’s subtle mindtouch as he sensed the direction of her thoughts. Absently, she pushed him away and carefully checked another of the circuitry leads. More than anything else, she didn’t want to think about the Cave, not while she was constructing her saber.

“You can’t hide from it forever,” Luke said from where he sat in front of the holocron he’d acquired on the slimy mudhole. He’d been studying the curious device since even before they left Dagobah and had started to annoy her with the spontaneous tidbits of useless information he’d spout.

“Yes, Master,” Mara replied sarcastically, intentionally using the title that was his by right even if he insisted that he didn’t feel like he deserved it. She felt him recoil slightly and drove the knife in a little deeper. “I bow before your superior knowledge, Master,” she said in a distracted-sounding voice. “Will there be anything else, Master?”

“Cut that out,” Skywalker grumbled, and Mara shot him a darkly amused grin before returning her full attention to the exposed innards of her future saber. It was nearly done…

“It would have been done an hour ago,” Luke declared abruptly, “if you just would stop second-guessing yourself.”

“Stay out of my head, Skywalker,” Mara ordered quickly. Her omnitool chirped and she leaned back, suddenly fighting trepidation. Everything checked out, all the circuits were functioning and every wire was securely fastened. All she needed to do now was to…

“Turn it on,” Luke suggested. He rose to his feet and slowly walked toward the spot she’d staked out as her own. It was in the middle of the floor of the suite Lando had arranged for them before their arrival. Mara tried not to notice the massive, heart-shaped bed to her left and silently pledged to never again accept a gift from Calrissian without knowing the specifics firsthand. She still wasn’t sure whether it had been her or Luke who had been more aghast that Lando had arranged to rent the honeymoon suite for the two of them while they were on Socorro.

Still, there had been certain benefits to it, especially since it was all on Calrissian’s credit chit. Displaying a mean streak she hadn’t expected, Luke had promptly suggested they run up the bill in retaliation for Lando’s veiled innuendo about the nature of their relationship. Mara had jumped at the idea and, for the last nine days, they had lived like decadent royalty. They’d replaced every stitch of clothing they owned with newer, more comfortable gear, had eaten thousands of credits worth of overpriced food, arranged for a long overdue tune-up for Artoo, and had even spent an entire day in massage and spa therapy.

“You’re stalling,” Skywalker said firmly as he knelt before her. He gave the saber a quick glance before turning his focus on her.

“Is it the future?” Mara asked abruptly, looking up to meet Luke’s eyes. He understood at once and shook his head.

“No,” he said firmly, “though it may hint at a possible future.” Skywalker glanced away and, for just a moment, his eyes turned inward. “When I first entered the Cave,” he said, “I fought an image of my father.” Mara frowned slightly.

“Anakin or Vader?” she asked.

“Vader,” came the immediate response. “I killed the image but the mask fell away and I saw my own face.” Mara grunted as she absorbed the unresolved emotions rolling off Luke. “It wasn’t until later I understood what the Force was telling me.”

“That he was your father?”

“That I could become my father if I wasn’t careful,” he corrected. Abruptly, Skywalker smiled. “The second time,” he said, “I saw you for the first time.” He nodded toward the saber. “And you’re still stalling,” he reminded her.

Mara sighed. She returned her eyes to the saber and slowly reached for it. Her left hand tingled slightly as she began locking the cylinder into place, but she ignored it as she tried to concentrate on anything but the memory of hate-filled amber eyes.

“I need some more time,” she said of the Cave vision, knowing Luke would understand. He always understood. Somehow, he always knew when to push her to face something and when to let her find her own way. Even when he was busy driving her crazy, she knew she could trust him.

“I’m here when you need me,” Skywalker replied, his tone more patient than he had any right to be. He rose to his feet and took a step back as she finished locking the handgrip into place. Anticipation pooled within her belly and her finger hovered over the activation stud plate. She glanced up and met Luke’s eyes.

“If this thing explodes and takes off my arm,” she started to say but he interrupted her with a laugh.

“We’ll get you a new one,” he said with a snicker. He gestured with his left hand – a clear ‘get on with it’ expression – and Mara activated the blade.

It ignited with a sharp snap-hiss and a dark violet blade of pure energy extended instantly. Mara took several quick practice swings, her confidence growing with each second she held the weapon in her hand. Already, she felt closer to this weapon than she ever had to the one the Emperor had issued her or even Anakin’s blade. A smile began creeping onto her face and she looked up to meet Luke’s eyes, seeing her joy reflected in his face.

“What did I tell you?” he asked with a grin. “But there’s only one real way to test a lightsaber,” he remarked as his own blade jumped into his hand and flared into existence. Mara laughed and sprang toward him.

Luke was already somersaulting backwards, landing lightly on the horrible-looking bed, and Mara pursued eagerly. Their blades crossed with an electric screech and she twisted around his next attack, pirouetting in place to slash at his midsection. Skywalker caught the attack and pushed it back before springing away. A mischievous glint shined in his eyes and Mara felt the Force flicker around them. The bed she was standing atop shivered and she jumped away, twirling in mid-air. Her danger sense flared and she brought the saber up instinctively.

A second later, she was covered with feathers.

“You cheated!” she shouted as the remnants of the pillow Luke had hurled at her continued to flutter to the ground. Skywalker was laughing hysterically as he backed away from her, and Mara jumped forward, her humming blade howling. He caught the wild swing and diverted it into the long couch. Upholstery exploded around them as the energy blades scorched through the couch, but neither noticed as they continued to trade blows. In seconds, the suite was alive with the sharp tang of ozone and everything not bolted down suddenly became a weapon.

Recognizing she could never match Luke’s raw power in the Force, Mara slid closer to him, her blade locked against his. Before he realized her plan, she hooked a foot behind his left ankle and pulled sharply. With a startled yelp, Luke fell backwards, unconsciously reaching out for the closest thing available to arrest his fall.

That thing happened to be Mara.

They hit the floor hard, though her landing was much softer than his, and for just a second, Mara had the breath knocked out of her. Her saber slipped from her hands and rolled away, deactivating instantly the moment the pressure sensor in the hilt’s grip was released. The feel of Skywalker moving beneath her caused Mara to quickly glance up, suddenly worried he had been injured.

Luke was laughing.

“Are we interrupting anything?” Talon Karrde’s voice broke the moment and Mara looked in the direction of the newcomer, unaware that Skywalker did the same. Standing there just inside the suite’s doorway, Karrde, Shada and Calrissian were looking around the room with wildly differing reactions. Talon’s eyes were twinkling with poorly concealed mirth, Shada was openly smiling but Lando … he was staring at the destruction with a look of abject horror on his face. As if to mock him, the large bed abruptly collapsed under its own weight.

“Jedi training,” Barkhimkh rasped from where he and the other Noghri lounged in the attached dining room. “It’s very physical.”

“But exciting,” Sakhisakh added. “I especially liked the foot sweep.”

“The pillow, however,” Olmahk interjected, “was inspired.” The other two Noghri nodded quickly in agreement before returning to the table where Khabarakh was seated. Even he looked amused.

“We were testing out my lightsaber,” Mara explained as she scrambled to her feet. She glanced at the mess and winced. “Guess we got a little carried away,” she admitted before using the Force to call her saber to her hand.

“A little carried away,” Lando repeated. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. Mara made a conscious effort to not look at Luke, knowing that if she did, she’d start laughing. “How the hell am I going to explain this to management?” Calrissian demanded.

“Make something up?” Mara offered. “You could say Skywalker was the lead singer of Boba Fett and the Assassin Droids.” Shada snorted loudly before quickly turning away to hide her mouth. Calrissian started to reply, before shaking his head once more and collapsing onto the unburned part of the couch.

“Something’s wrong,” Luke guessed, his eyes locked on Karrde, and Mara felt her good humor evaporate at the bleak expression on the face of her old boss. As if summoned, the four Noghri exited the dining room, every line in their bodies hinting at readiness.

“Aves was on Bastion,” Talon said grimly, “and narrowly escaped before a coup.” He exhaled slowly. “The entire Moff’s Council has been killed and Pellaeon has seized power.”

“Pellaeon?” Mara blinked in surprise. “That doesn’t make sense. He’s a patriot, not a revolutionary.”

“We’ve got confirmation from four different sources,” Shada said as she slid a half step closer to Talon. “Tavira survived because she was at the Maw.”

“She may or may not have requested diplomatic asylum from Solo,” Karrde added. He shrugged. “Reports are sketchy there.”

“Why was Aves on Bastion?” Luke asked. He was staring at Mara’s lightsaber, a distracted expression on his face.

“He found the cloning facility,” Talon revealed and Mara felt the air seem to crystallize around them. She met Luke’s eyes and could see he sensed it as well. “And wanted to see if the Imps were behind it,” Karrde added.

“Were they?” Lando asked.

“Apparently.” Talon crossed his arms and addressed his next comments to Luke. “According to him,” he continued, “Pellaeon helped him escape but only after making sure Aves would carry a message to you.”

“What message?” Mara demanded quickly. She instinctively shuffled closer to Luke.

“He told Aves that a Force user named Flint Torul is controlling the Empire,” Karrde said.

“Flint?” Luke repeated, his Force sense suddenly flaring like a supernova. He half turned away, a shocked expression crossing his face.

“I know that name,” Lando murmured with a frown.

“Friend of yours?” Mara asked softly as she dropped a hand on Skywalker’s shoulder. He gave her a quick look.

“It’s a name I’ve not heard in a long time,” he said, frowning as he spoke. “He was one of my father’s apprentices.”

“Vader had apprentices?” Mara asked with surprise. She shook off the moment as Khabarakh spoke.

“What now?”

“The cloning facility needs to be destroyed,” Luke said firmly.

“We’re going to need some help,” Calrissian pointed out. Skywalker nodded.

“I’ve got an idea who to call,” he said, a worried expression on his face. Mara grimaced and quickly glanced away.

She had a bad feeling about this.

Rigil Kent
7 November 2008, 09:06 AM
CHAPTER 11

HE couldn’t shake the bad feeling he had about this plan.

Standing before the tiny viewport at the front of the ship carrying them to their destination, Luke Skywalker stared at the swirling hyperspace vortex and struggled to center himself. Muted conversations from the team crammed in the tiny cargo hold mixed with the subtle hum of the starship’s engines, resulting in a soft, unintelligible buzz that filled the hold, ebbing and flowing like waves. Tensions were high, and Luke knew he wasn’t helping with his barely concealed anxiety.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mara fidget slightly and fought the urge to glance at her, knowing he wouldn't be able to look away if he did. The outfit she was wearing – skintight black, with high boots, a weapons belt, knee pads, protective pauldrons, and light midriff armor – was more distracting than it had any right to be and Luke struggled to keep his mind on the mission in front of them. Despite his best efforts, though, he found himself watching Mara’s reflection in the viewport as she holstered the pistol on her right hip and checked the power cell of her newly constructed lightsaber for the sixth time in the last ten minutes. The expression on her face was calm but vigilant – the façade of a well-trained soldier going into battle – and Luke realized he was seeing a hint of how she must have looked when she undertook missions for Palpatine. She clearly knew there existed the possibility of death but was so focused on the task before her that she simply had no time to waste with fear. All that mattered was the mission.

It was easily the most erotic thing he had ever seen.

Blinking the errant thought away, Luke closed his eyes and focused on calming his frayed nerves. He shifted his stance a little, fighting back a grimace at the uncomfortable feel of the clothes he was wearing. It had been Mara’s idea for him to don the black-on-black robes worn by the clones in the hopes that the non-clones aboard the facility wouldn’t look past the robes, but Luke couldn’t shake his discomfort. He hated how similar the arms and leggings were to those worn by his father.

Once more, he made a silent vow to never again wear black when they got out of this.

“You’re sure about this data?” Kyle Katarn was asking from where he stood before Talon, a hand-portable holo-transmitter in his hand. Luke glanced in their direction, smiling tightly at the lightsaber hanging from Kyle’s belt alongside several grenades and additional weapons. When contacted, Katarn hadn’t hesitated to volunteer his strike team for this operation, knowing from firsthand experience the danger of rogue Dark Siders, and Luke realized he couldn’t think of a better man to have at his back.

“Absolutely sure,” Karrde replied, leaning back against the bulkhead and crossing his arms as he did. He had insisted on joining them, claiming it was entirely due to his desire to see this through to the end because he didn’t like to do things halfway. Mara had laughed in her old boss’ face at the less than adequate explanation, but Luke hadn’t argued the point. “I’m quite good at what I do, Colonel,” Talon added calmly, smiling as he spoke, “so trust me when I tell you this data is the most up to date possible.” In response, Katarn grunted.

“I don’t like this,” Mara abruptly murmured. Somehow, she had crept closer without him noticing and Luke jumped slightly at her unexpected words before shooting her a disgruntled look. She didn’t seem to notice as she faced the viewport, her eyes locking on the swirling hyperspace tunnel. “If they know we’re coming,” she whispered, her voice pitched only for Luke’s ears, “this entire mission could be over really fast.”

“I know,” Luke admitted softly. Hijacking an automated supply ship carrying parts to the cloning facility had been Corran’s idea and, at the time, had seemed like the only way to get aboard the station over Korriban without detection. Little more than a cargo bay with an engine, it was perfect for concealing a team of commandos on a stealth approach. Now, however, Luke was starting to second-guess the plan, especially at the sense of déjà vu beginning to creep into his thoughts. “You didn’t have a better idea,” he remarked, earning himself a scornful glance from the redhead.

“Doesn’t mean there wasn’t a better idea,” she pointed out crossly. Glancing at her wrist chronometer – and once again, Luke’s mind jumped to the question he’d been wondering since Dagobah: how was it a weapon? – she exhaled deeply and turned toward the ship’s computer.

“Everyone knows their jobs,” Katarn said loudly, looking over his waiting commandos with a stern glint in his eye. “So stay alert.”

“Stay alive,” the commandos replied as one in what was clearly a rote answer. Kyle grinned.

“Horn,” he said and Corran looked up from where he sat next to a dozing Lando. “Stick with Calrissian and Karrde.” The colonel gave a sidelong glance toward Shada. “That way,” he finished, “D’ukal can keep all three of you safe.”

“One minute,” Mara announced, and Luke winced at the sudden flash of eagerness, fear, and worry that pulsed through the Force from the assembled team. He closed his eyes, inhaled deeply and concentrated on opening himself to the will of the living energy field surrounding him. Tension flowed out of his body and peace settled upon him.

He was ready.

The hyperspace vortex fell away, revealing a twinkling blanket of stars. Hundreds of thousands of kilometers away, the space station hung suspended against the dark backdrop, slowly revolving in place. It instantly reminded Luke of a sword, with a long hull that tapered to a narrow point seemingly aimed at the pale planet below. Slender arms climbed from the surface of the structure, designed to capture docking ships. To Luke’s eyes, the station seemed to dance with light as psychic signatures – far more than he had expected – burned brightly within the Force.

More damning, however, were the sheer number of Imperial warships cruising the system. At a glance, Luke counted over fifty capital ships; in tight patrol clusters, hundreds of TIEs raced through the void and one such trio banked hard toward them. Karrde’s data had called for a maximum of two star destroyers present.

“That can’t be good,” Shada said almost at once.

“There’s an Executor out there,” Mara declared grimly. She looked up from the sensor feed. “And we’re already being scanned.”

“It’s Torul,” Luke murmured, his eyes locked on the star dreadnought. “He’s here.”

“Whatever you’re going to do,” Mara said, directing her comments entirely to Luke, “do it fast.”

|-*-|

“They need to be faster.”

The comment seemed to come out of nowhere, interrupting Han Solo’s train of thought, and the Corellian glanced up from the dataslate he was studying in mild surprise. He barely managed to bite back the retort already forming in his throat as he gave the speaking officer a sour look. Leia had worked too hard to arrange this joint operation for him to screw it up with a loose tongue.

“Excuse me?” he asked calmly, eyeing the Imperial captain standing beside him. They were standing before the main viewports of the Independence’s bridge, barely a meter from the command walkway. The captain – Julias Kratas – was a rail-thin man of indeterminate age but with a shock of copper hair so bright, it instantly brought to mind Threepio. Combined with the Imp’s precise, almost prissy manner of speech, the comparison inevitably caused Han to smirk.

Now was no different.

“Your command crew,” Kratas said coolly. He was watching Adrimetrum’s team go about their duties with disdain glittering in his eyes. “They are far too lackadaisical in the performance of their duties.”

“Is that a fact?” Han drawled, all the while wishing Nat had sent someone else – anyone else – to act as her liaison. In the two days Kratas had been aboard Independence, he had offended every single sentient he’d interacted with. On at least two occasions, the man had come close to getting his arms ripped out of their sockets – once by Chewie and once by a Barabel marine named ‘Ulak. Solo couldn’t help but to wonder if Kratas’ inability to keep his damned mouth shut was the reason Daala had dropped him into Han’s lap. Maybe she was hoping somebody aboard the Indy would mortally wound this numbskull.

Unconsciously, Han’s eyes drifted back to the starfield beyond the viewport and his stomach clenched at the sight before him. Thirty capital ships cruised through the silent void around the Independence, all awaiting his command for action. Discomfort swirled within his stomach and Solo exhaled bitterly.

This was all Luke’s fault.

His brother-in-law’s urgent request for assistance had come at exactly the right moment; the drawn out negotiations between Leia and the Imperial moff had hit an impasse, but Luke’s revelation – and the accompanying data proving it – that Pellaeon was likely being controlled by a Force user had been seized upon by Tavira as an opportunity to do something. Before Han knew what was happening, half of Nat’s fleet had been seconded to his and he was put in command of a joint expeditionary force with enough destructive power to destroy a small planet.

Now, all they had to do was wait here just out of sensor range for Luke’s signal so they could sweep in, scare off the Imps defending the clone site, and then blow the blasted thing to scraps. In theory, it was a simply plan.

In theory.

“Admiral,” a calm, feminine voice cut into his musing and Han quickly turned to face Captain Adrimetrum. She was staring coldly at Kratas, as if daring him to open his mouth, but responded to Solo’s look without hesitation. “We’re receiving a transmission from Commander Skywalker,” she said, using the rank Luke had given up years ago.

“He’s ahead of schedule,” Kratas remarked, a hint of grudging respect creeping into the man’s voice. Han didn’t bother responding, though the hairs on the back of his neck started tingling. Here comes the hammer, he reflected darkly as he followed Adrimetrum to the hologram pod at the back of the bridge. A half-sized holographic image of Luke flickered before him, freezing and stuttering at random moments though the audio seemed fine.

“We’ve got a problem,” Skywalker said in greeting. “There’s a lot more ships here than we expected.”

“Define ‘a lot,’” Han replied.

“We count upwards of fifty capital ships,” came the grim answer, “including an Executor and fifteen ImpStarDeuces.” Behind him, Kratas breathed a foul curse and Han barely kept from agreeing with him. “There’s more,” Luke continued. “Flint is here.”

“Damn,” Solo muttered. This was starting to look like Endor all over.

“We may need to scrub this mission,” Luke said bleakly and Solo frowned. From what Han knew of their insertion plan, aborting the operation would leave the entire infiltration team to the mercies of the Imperials already in-system. It would mean abandoning the man he loved like a brother to a fate worse than death.

Not a chance in hell.

“Get the commodore on the line,” he ordered more harshly than he intended. “Can you send realtime telemetry from that tub?” he asked of Luke. The tiny image of his brother-in-law frowned and glanced to his left.

“Mara?” the Jedi asked. The image froze for a single, extended moment. “Transmitting now,” Luke announced.

“Hold on, kid,” Han said. “Cavalry’s coming.” He shifted his attention to the full-sized image of Commodore Daala now standing in the holopod. “You get all that?”

“I did,” she replied calmly. “What are you planning?” she asked cautiously.

“Something stupid,” Han replied with a grin. He sobered instantly. “But I need your people, Nat. We’re only going to get one shot at this.”

“Agreed.” Daala was silent for a moment before nodding. “What are your orders, Admiral?” she asked with only the barest hint of a smile on her face.

“Battle stations,” Solo said loudly, directing his comments to both Adrimetrum and Daala. “Stand by to execute a Thrawn Surprise.” Daala laughed lightly before her hologram winked out, and Adrimetrum smiled in dark approval. A moment later, klaxons began sounding throughout Independence and Han drew a deep breath. Here we go.

He hoped this wasn’t a mistake.

|-*-|

She wondered if this was a mistake.

Standing before the mirror, Leia Organa-Solo studied her reflection with a critical eye while a nest of gundarks played smashball within her stomach. She had lost track of how long she had stood there, though she supposed it was at least an hour. In that time, she’d been peripherally aware of Cakhmaim’s occasional glances into the dressing room, as well as his random security sweeps throughout the apartments, and even C-3PO’s almost constant murmurs of worry, but none of those interruptions had done so much as momentarily distract her from the important task at hand.

She was trying to recognize the woman before her.

Hesitantly, Leia wet her lips before adjusting the heavy gown she was wearing, all the while wondering when she’d acquired the fine network of worry lines upon her face. It was one of her more extravagant dresses, with a high collar, flared smokesilk arms, and a dark grey bodice inset with sparkling silver, but did little to hide the exhaustion in her eyes or the fact she was turning old before her time. At least there aren’t any gray hairs yet, she reflected sourly.

A subtle rasp of fabric upon skin warned her of Winter’s silent approach, and Leia shifted her attention away from her own face to the new reflection appearing in the mirror. Her friend was wearing a similar dress, though far less ornate in design, and was bearing a heavy, hooded cloak of deepest maroon.

“Any word?” Leia asked without fanfare, and the silver-haired woman shook her head slightly.

“No, Your Highness,” she answered as she began settling the cloak over Leia’s shoulders. It was cut in an old Nubian way decades out of style but matched the Alderaani dress quite well; more importantly, the deep hood would allow Leia to conceal her identity until the moment was right. One of the first rules of combat, whether in diplomacy or in less bloody arenas like hand-to-hand combat, was to strike when the opponent was least expecting it.

And Fey’lya certainly would not be expecting this…

“I’m sure they’ll be fine,” Winter continued, speaking of both of their families currently engaged in the latest bout of inspired insanity. Leia blew out her breath, vaguely wondering whether they had all gone mad. After spending days and days trying to convince Moff Tavira to not throw away ships and sentients in a senseless gesture of aggression, all it had taken for Leia to do that very thing was Luke’s simple ‘I need your help.’

“Are we doing the right thing, Winter?” Leia abruptly asked, meeting her friend’s eyes in the mirror’s reflection.

“Fey’lya is dangerous to the Republic, Your Highness,” the silver-haired woman replied smoothly as she finished adjusting the heavy cloak. Leia frowned – that was no answer.

“But are we doing the right thing?” she repeated. To her surprise, Winter sighed.

“I cannot answer that, Your Highness,” the other woman said softly. “This must be done,” Winter continued, “and I cannot say I do not look forward to seeing Fey’lya receive his due.” She frowned tightly. “But as to whether this is the right thing to do? I cannot say.”

“There is no other way,” Leia said sadly. Ever since returning to Coruscant, she had tried to get a one-on-one meeting with the Bothan chancellor in an attempt to avoid a public showdown like this, but, at every stage, he had blocked her. Still, a part of her was looking forward to facing him across the Senate one last time.

“It is a pity,” Cakhmaim growled with a toothy smile from where he lounged near the doorway, “that you will not allow me to simply kill him. It would be quicker and less bloody.”

“Oh, my!” Threepio exclaimed in response.

“I could even arrange for it to look like an accident,” the Noghri continued, smiling maliciously at how flustered his words were making the protocol droid. Winter – whose sense of humor had always been morbid even when she and Leia were growing up on Alderaan – laughed lightly.

“Perhaps he’d drown in the sonic shower?” she joked. “Or choke to death on his morning oxygen?”

“Something like that,” Cakhmaim said with a gleeful nod. For the briefest of moments, Leia let herself envision a universe without Borsk Fey’lya, a galaxy free of his backstabbing politics and self-serving actions.

It was a surprisingly pleasant dream.

“Mistress Leia,” C-3PO quickly urged, his words breaking into her momentary daydream, “please don’t listen to them! I’m sure we can come up with a perfectly reasonable alternative to homicide!”

“They’re joking, Threepio,” Leia pointed out with a mild smile of her own. She vaguely wondered when she’d become so hardened, so callous to find amusement, no matter how minor, in the idea of a fellow sentient being murdered. Alderaan, she decided after a moment. That was when her innocence died alongside her parents and nearly everyone she had grown up with.

“Is everything in place?” she asked as she carefully adjusted the holo-torc at her throat. It was currently deactivated, but would be essential to get her into place for this coming deception.

“It is, Your Highness,” Winter answered. If she disapproved of the plan, there was no hint of it in her voice or face. Leia glanced in Cakhmaim’s direction.

“We too are ready,” he said grimly. “I have coordinated our deployment with Captain Quin,” he continued, all traces of humor wiped away. “No one will move against you, Lady Solo.”

“Good.” Leia frowned and studied her appearance once more. She nodded.

“I’m ready.”

|-*-|

She was ready to get off this tub.

Seated before the rudimentary computer system of the automated loader, Mara fought the urge to fidget as another flight of TIE Interceptors buzzed them. The sensor baffles Calrissian had acquired from Force knew where hummed loudly as they beamed false signals to the Interceptors, and, once again, the TIEs continued on their way, leaving the slow-moving supply craft to continue its lethargic plod toward the space station. As she had the six times previously, Mara exhaled in soft relief.

Luke shifted in place, and the movement instantly drew Mara’s attention. She successfully fought back a frown at his appearance and quickly returned her eyes to the computer system, still wondering why seeing him in the black robes was so disconcerting. It had been her idea, after all, and even now was pretty sound thinking, but with each second that passed, it seemed less and less like a good idea. She blamed it on the sleeves of the robes and the leggings – they were far too Vadery for her tastes.

Satisfied the autopilot wasn’t going to suddenly alter their course unexpectedly, Mara gave the cramped cargo bay a quick glance. Khabarakh and his team were seated just behind her, playing an unbelievably complicated-looking version of four-person dejarik on a small, portable board that she didn’t even bother trying to figure out. Most of the commandos were wearing bored expressions and more than a few were dozing, sure signs that they were veterans. To her surprise, Calrissian – dressed in surprisingly sensible-looking field fatigues – was asleep as well. Talon and Shada were sitting next to one another before the aft bulkhead, speaking in hushed, almost intimate tones. Mara swallowed her grin and silently vowed to harass Shada about it later.

Her eyes narrowed at the sight of Corran Horn and she nearly frowned at the sight of him absently fiddling with his lightsaber. It was, as far as she could tell, the same one she’d seen him wielding in the vision she’d had on Coruscant nearly a year earlier. As if sensing her eyes upon him, he glanced up. Green eyes met green eyes, and Mara looked away, aware of his brief appraisal of her in return.

“You’re thinking too hard,” Luke said with a slight smile as he gave her a sidelong glance and a wink. She suddenly felt self-conscious, though she had no idea why. It was all Skywalker’s fault. Those looks he had been giving her since she tracked down her old battle harness were really disconcerting.

Or so she told herself.

Before she could respond, the sensor board pinged, announcing a new contact. Instantly, the tension inside the cramped loader skyrocketed and Mara hit a button on the panel before her. The small holo-transceiver they’d brought aboard so Skywalker could contact Solo sputtered to life and a holographic image materialized in the middle of the cargo bay.

It was an Interdictor.

“Gear up,” Katarn ordered his troopers, though they were already doing so. A second later, more pings began sounding from the sensor board as the newly activated gravity well generator on the Interdictor ripped Solo’s fleet out of hyperspace. Streams of superheated light flashed from the newly arrived warships, slamming into the hulls of a pair of defending warships with crippling force. Starfighters – A-Wings, B-Wings, TIEs, and X-Wings – streaked into the engagement zone and it came alive with explosions.

An alert chime sounded on Mara’s board, warning her that the station’s computer was trying to override the loader’s slave circuits and alter their heading, but she input a rapid command that killed the ship’s receive capability. To the people on the station, it would look like the loader had suffered a malfunction, always a danger on decrepit pieces of junk like this.

“Two minutes,” she announced as she keyed in another instruction, simulating the loader’s antiquated droid brain recognizing danger and accelerating to safety. Around her, everyone began bracing themselves and Mara looked in Skywalker’s direction only to find him watching her. He smiled and she couldn’t help but to smile back.

“I hate this,” Karrde’s voice echoed around them.

“It’s my favorite part,” Colonel Katarn revealed, a grim smile on his face. It faded quickly. “Somebody wake up Calrissian,” he ordered with a sigh. “He’s going to miss our grand entrance.”

“As long as I’m here for the grand exit,” Lando retorted, not moving from where he was reclining against the bulkhead, “I don’t mind missing it.” He grinned. “All this shooting is bad for the health.” Laughter answered the comment, but Mara recognized it as the release of tension, nothing more.

“One minute,” she said loudly.

|-*-|

Barely a minute had passed since their arrival, and Wedge Antilles had already killed six Imperials.

The engines of his X-Wing howled as he pushed the craft to its limits and beyond, but Wedge was so completely focused on destroying the target before him – a TIE Interceptor – that he barely noticed. His targeting computer flashed, indicating a solid lock, and he depressed the firing stud on his flight stick. A lance of fire speared the TIE, burning into its engines and causing a massive explosion that atomized the pilot. Wedge sent his X-Wing spiraling through the expanding cloud of gas and debris, his eyes already scanning the sensor display for another target.

[THAT’S SEVEN,] Whistler informed him calmly. Corran’s green astromech was proving to be a more than adequate replacement for Gate, but Wedge still wasn’t sure how he’d been talked into agreeing to take the droid into battle. It had probably been Mirax’s idea, though Wedge was touched Horn was so willing to let the astromech go for a mission this dangerous.

“You’ve got one on your tail,” his wingman suddenly declared and Wedge snap-rolled the X-Wing instinctively, pulling back hard on the flight stick as he kicked in the acceleration. The inertial compensator struggled with the sudden maneuver and g-forces pushed Antilles back into his seat. Emerald lasers flashed by his canopy as the TIE stuck to his six.

“Come on, Fel,” Wedge growled as he banked the X-Wing hard, rolling into a hard evasive turn that carried him closer to one of the Republic’s star destroyers. A heartbeat later, another X-Wing settled in behind the pursuing TIE and, with a single burst of fire from its quadlasers, reduced the eyeball to so much scrap. “You sure took your time,” Antilles snapped as his brother-in-law fell into formation behind him.

“Just making sure you were awake,” Soontir Fel replied calmly. There was a harsh edge to his words Antilles had become accustomed to in the almost five months they’d been sharing a cell.

Engines screaming, a flight of TIE Interceptors roared by them, weapons barking, and Wedge barely managed to keep from opening fire on them as he inverted his X-Wing and slid into a pursuit course. The flashing green targeting reticle stubbornly reminded him that these Imps were the good Imps, part of Commodore Daala’s battle group and on his side. I wonder how many of them would like to accidentally vape Rogue Leader, he mused darkly as he identified another target: a cluster of Interceptors trying to conduct an attack run on the Jansons.

“Form up,” Wedge ordered as he rolled the X-Wing and dove toward where Inyri and Wes were dueling with three times their number of squints. “Whistler, I need more power.”

[THERE IS NO MORE POWER FOR ME TO GIVE YOU,] the droid remarked as Wedge squeezed the trigger once more. Lasers flashed out, slicing into the port solar array of one of the TIE Interceptors. Suddenly unbalanced, the squint wobbled awkwardly and was unable to even try to dodge Wedge’s second shot. The Imp vanished in a ball of flame. [THAT’S EIGHT,] Whistler announced. [ARE YOU GUNNING FOR A NEW RECORD?]

“All Rogues, this is Lead,” Wedge said into his com-line. “Form up on me. Let’s take the fight to their base ships.”

“Great idea, Boss,” Hobbie’s voice answered. “Can I pick which ship to shoot this time?”

“Cut the chatter,” Tycho ordered sharply. “They’re concentrating all fire on Independence,” he said, and Wedge quickly glanced in the direction of Solo’s command ship. He grimaced at the number of hostile Imps maneuvering to engage the Executor-class.

“Let’s go say hi,” Wedge decided.

|-*-|

His decision to tag along was looking to be a really dumb idea.

Braced against the bulkhead, Talon Karrde watched the station’s docking airlock grow closer as the automated loader neared it. At the same time, he kept an eye on the flickering hologram in the center of the cargo bay currently displaying the lightfight going on in the hard vacuum around them. The small transceiver was struggling to keep up with the number of ships involved and, a few seconds before they reached the station, the images abruptly froze and vanished.

“Hold on!” Mara shouted from where she was crouched before the computer system a mere heartbeat before the loader slammed into the docking port with a hollow clang. A metallic grinding noise echoed through the cargo bay as the ship made a hard seal, but a second thump was more worrying.

“Mara?” Skywalker asked. He was standing in front of the cargo airlock, his lightsaber in hand but not yet activated. The hood of the black robes he was wearing was pulled up over his head, lending him an almost sinister appearance.

“I’ve been locked out,” Jade announced fiercely. She slapped the computer console with her hand before snarling an angry curse in Huttese. “They’ve manually sealed the airlock on their end,” she said as she hit the computer again. “I can’t open the kriffing thing from here.”

“It’s a good bet they know we’re here,” Colonel Katarn stated calmly as he hefted an impressive-looking repeating blaster rifle. Luke nodded.

“Agreed.” He frowned before exhaling deeply and pushing the hood back from his head. There was no hint of worry on his face. “Mara, Kyle,” he said, never looking away from the airlock, “I need your help.”

Without replying, the two stepped forward and joined Skywalker before the airlock. As one, the trio raced their left hands and closed their eyes. Seconds later, Talon could hear the squeal of protesting metal as the airlock hatch began to crumple. His breath caught.

“Stang,” one of the commandos murmured softly as the heavy duranium metal began to collapse before some unseen pressure. Karrde exchanged a quick look with Shada before glancing in Horn’s direction. The short Corellian shrugged at the unspoken question.


“I suck at telekinesis,” he admitted. His eyes narrowed and he glanced in the direction of the hatch. “We’ve got a greeting party!” he snapped, and his words jolted the commandos into action. They surged forward to take up defensive positions before and around the three Force users.

With a loud boom, the airlock hatch fell inward, now warped and distorted beyond any hope of salvage. Even before it struck the deck, the air came alive with blaster fire as waiting stormtroopers sprang into view and the commandos opened up with their own weapons. Luke was moving almost at once, his emerald lightsaber igniting with a snap-hiss, and Mara was a half-step behind him, her own violet blade springing into existence. Together, they advanced toward the defending stormtroopers, their blades living walls of light that caught and reflected blaster fire with frightening accuracy. Two stormtroopers fell at once, victims of their own blaster fire, followed by a third and fourth as Katarn’s commandos began an assault of their own.

“Move!” Katarn bellowed as he stepped into the breach, the heavy repeater he was carrying carving a gruesome swatch across the stormtrooper ranks. Three toppled at once, their armor smoking, and the unexpected ferocity of the attack sent the remainder of the Imps scrambling in retreat. Luke and Mara pursued, their sabers humming as they disappeared out of Talon’s line of sight.

“What the hell was I thinking?” Karrde muttered as he clung to his blaster rifle and followed the last of the commandos onto the station. Beside him, similarly armed, Lando gave him a knowing grin.

“Welcome to the club,” Calrissian said. “I say the same thing every time Luke ropes me into one of his crazy adventures.” He shrugged. “You get used to it.”

Smoke was curling up to the ceiling as they stepped into the corridor, and alarms were howling. The commandos had already split into multiple teams and were vanishing around the corners of the corridors. Shada blew out a frustrated breath.

“We’re falling behind,” she said before gesturing in the direction Luke and Mara had gone. “That way,” Shada declared before striding forward, her own exotic-looking blaster rifle held at the ready. Horn was already moving to join her, pausing long enough to salvage some spare blaster packs from fallen stormtroopers, and Talon glumly fell into step behind her. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Calrissian pull the helmet from one of the dead Imps and begin extracting the integrated comlink within. Lando shrugged at Karrde’s glance and casually replaced the helmet on the corpse’s head once he had the comm. free.

“Just in case,” Calrissian said with a smile before securing the trooper’s link to his own headset.

“Good thinking,” Talon remarked as they picked up their pace to rejoin an annoyed-looking Shada. She was standing before a closed blast door and waited until they drew closer before depressing the activation button.

The door slid open with a rumble.

|-*-|

A soft rumble of conversation filled the Senate chamber, and Leia Organa-Solo shifted awkwardly in her seat.

Discomfort trickled through her legs as she sat at the back of Viqi Shesh’s pod, but Leia concentrated on maintaining an image of stillness. To anyone observing her, she had to appear as nothing more than one of the Kuati woman’s handmaidens. With the deep hood of her cloak pulled forward, Leia knew her face was concealed from sight.

“I thank the chancellor for this opportunity,” Shesh was saying, her voice ringing loudly, “and wish my reasons for speaking were other than they are.” The Force pulsed around her and Leia momentarily marveled at the finesse being shown by the Kuati woman. It was a subtle application, one Leia hadn’t considered before, and one that served to draw all eyes to the speaker. There was no attempt to sway the minds of the senators present, only to pressure them to actually listen to her words.

“Promises were made to Kuat when we joined this august body,” Viqi continued coolly. “The Republic was held aloft as a beacon of stability and honor, truth and law.” Shesh paused as she discreetly maneuvered the pod closer to the chancellor’s seat; it was a subtle reminder to all present that she had allied herself with Borsk Fey’lya.

Which was exactly the reason she had volunteered to begin the assault on the chancellor.

“But I have discovered this to be false,” the Kuati woman declared, her voice hardening. “The Republic is not what it was claimed to be,” she said with a fierce gesture. “There is no interest in the common good,” Shesh stated, her words causing yet another rumble of discontent from amongst the senators listening, “and there is corruption in even the most unlikeliest of places.”

Under her hood, Leia smiled tightly as she sensed nearly every senator glance in the direction of her empty pod. The antipathy between her and Fey’lya’s faction – as defined by Shesh herself – was common knowledge and there was no doubt most of the senators believed the Kuati woman was speaking of the noticeably absent delegate of Coruscant. A sense of triumph seemed to roll off Fey’lya through the Force.

“But I am not the one who has uncovered this corruption, this treachery.” Shesh’s comment caused another ripple of muted conversation, and Fey’lya’s victorious smile faltered. “There is another who has brought this to my attention and who must be allowed to speak.” She gestured to the back of the pod and, at this cue, Leia slowly rose to her feet. “To that end,” Shesh announced, “I exercise my right to turn over the bulk of my time to the sentient with knowledge of this corruption.”

Hiding her smile, Leia stepped forward and took the Kuati woman’s place before the controls of the pod as Shesh smoothly stepped aside. A flash of alarm crossed Borsk’s face – this obviously wasn’t part of the plan – but Leia pressed on before he could speak.

“Senators of the Republic,” she said calmly, her voice booming from the pod’s built-in enhancement system, “I come to you under the gravest of circumstances.” With both hands, she reached up and pushed the hood back, revealing her face.

An audible gasp ran through the Senate and Leia looked directly into Fey’lya’s eyes.

|-*-|

His eyes burned as sweat trickled down his face, but Wedge Antilles ignored it.

Whistler was shrieking warnings as Antilles sent his X-Wing into a tight, spiraling dive, and the space around them was alive with turbolaser fire. The TIE Interceptor he was pursuing banked hard in a desperate attempt to shake him, but Wedge grit his teeth and followed the Imp into another stomach-lurch maneuver that carried them both even closer to the two star destroyers pounding away at one another. His targeting computer flashed once and Antilles fired without hesitation, the crimson lasers carving a lethal scar across the squint’s engine housing. It didn’t immediately destroy the TIE but the sudden failure of all maneuvering systems was still catastrophic; without even slowing, the squint plowed into the hull of the destroyer and vanished in a fierce explosion.

“I’m hit!” someone shrieked over the commline in the second before static announced that pilot’s demise. Wedge cursed darkly as he rolled his X-Wing into a looping climb to carry him out of the killing zone between the two destroyers. He glanced quickly at his targeting computer.

Beyond his canopy, the fleet action had degenerated into mass chaos. The Independence, surrounded by the hulls of broken corvettes, was unleashing a withering barrage against the defending Imperial battle group even as it absorbed massive amounts of damage. Explosions wreathed the immense ship, and Wedge had to wonder how much more damage it could take.

By way of contrast, the Allegiance continued to lurk on the periphery of the engagement, protected by a wall of Imperator-class star destroyers and Carrack-class cruisers.

“Break right!” Fel’s voice ordered sharply, and Wedge obeyed without hesitation. Lasers flashed through the space he’d just vacated as a TIE Defender dropped into a pursuit course, its guns barking. Antilles cursed darkly as he went purely evasive. Even as the Defender pursued, it suddenly became the hunted as Soontir Fel, once acclaimed as the greatest Imperial pilot to have lived, slid behind it and opened fire. Rocking under the unexpected assault, the Defender broke off from chasing Wedge which gave Antilles the perfect opportunity to bank hard and counter-attack.

“This is the best they have now?” Fel murmured contemptuously, his voice carrying across the commline as he and Wedge began to systematically rip apart the TIE Defender. It shuddered under their concentrated fire and Antilles could almost imagine the pilot’s growing desperation as his shields were battered into nonexistence. A streak of cerulean light flashed by Wedge’s cockpit as Gavin Darklighter joined the fray; the proton torpedo slammed into the Defender’s hull and vaporized the fighter almost instantly.

“Good shot, Six!” Wedge said. He glanced in the direction of the space station. “Come on Luke,” he muttered under his breath. “Hurry up…”

|-*-|

“Can you hurry up?”

The question nearly caused Luke Skywalker to smile as he batted away another blaster shot, reflecting it into the shooter with almost casual ease. He gave Mara a sidelong glance, fighting back the surge of pride at how well she was handling her saber. She’d been skilled with it before, but now? Now she moved as if it were an extension of her body.

“I’m working as quickly as I can, Jedi Jade,” Sakhisakh replied sourly to Mara’s request. The Noghri was kneeling in an alcove before the exposed innards of a computer console, his specialized slicing gear already plugged into the system. A small hologram hovered over his left arm, displayed there from the wrist-comp he was wearing, and he consulted the image several times as he fought against the station’s automatic defenses.

A flicker in the Force warned Luke of impending danger, and he threw himself forward without hesitation, easily covering the three meter distance with a single leap. Even as he landed, a pair of lightsaber-wielding clones rounded the corner before him and sprang to attack. Luke caught the first saber stroke with his own blade and parried it into the bulkhead beside them as he rolled away from the lethal thrust of the clone’s companion. He let the momentum of the spin carry him away from the pair, knowing they would instinctively orient themselves toward him. They did.

And then, they died.

Her personal saber in her left hand and Anakin’s in her right, Mara surged forward, spearing the two clones from behind with the twin blades. They toppled without a sound. She gave the two corpses at her feet a sour glance before shutting down the blue-white blade Luke had carried until Bespin and reattaching it to her belt.

“Nice job,” Luke remarked as he glanced in the direction of the four Noghri. The three of them guarding Sakhisakh hadn’t budged from their defensive positions and held their blaster rifles at the ready. Skywalker took a half step toward the quartet when the slicer suddenly cursed.

Less than a second later, a blast door slammed shut, cutting them off from Luke and Mara.

“We should have brought Ghent,” Mara grumbled as she shook her head. Luke smirked as he stepped closer to the door to examine it. He frowned at how thick it was; even with the saber, it was going to take some time to get through it.

“Don’t bother,” Mara told him as she began slicing through the floor. “On a station like this,” she added, “there’s probably some blast shielding in the door.”

“Aren’t you a font of information?” Luke remarked with a smirk as he thumbed on his comlink. “Change of plans, Khabarakh,” he said into it. “Mara and I are going through the floor. Plant your charges and get clear.”

Mara stopped cutting before the hole was complete and pounded her boot against the mostly severed slab of deck plating. It bent under the force of the blow and she gave the deck below a quick look before dropping through it without a sound.

With a wry shake of his head, Luke followed, wondering how the battle was going for Han.

|-*-|

It wasn’t going well.

“Gorgon is lost!” one of the comtechs shouted, and Han Solo cursed softly, his eyes instinctively searching out the named star destroyer. He winced at the damage it had absorbed in defense of the Indy – both sensor globes were gone and the entire midsection was ablaze with internal fires and explosions. The trio of defending star destroyers responsible for the ship’s demise continued to pound away at the ravaged ship, despite the nearly constant stream of escape pods darting away from it.

Alarms continued to howl as Han stepped closer to the hologram of the engagement zone currently hovering above the command walkway. He grimaced at the state of affairs – on almost every front, they were losing and losing badly. Their battle formation had collapsed into chaos and Independence was reeling from heavy damage; shipwide system failures were rapidly robbing the Indy of its offensive capability. If it wasn’t for the Rogues cutting a brutal swath through the Imperial starfighters, this entire engagement would have been long over. With Wedge leading his X-Wings in fierce sorties that inevitably resulted in more Imperial casualties, the defenders hadn’t even tried to deploy their TIE Bombers yet.

And still, the Allegiance remained out of the fight.

One of the two Mon Calamari MC-80s lumbered into view, weapons blasting away at the three star destroyers in a vain attempt to protect the dying Gorgon. Its shields came alive under the resulting barrage of fire from the three destroyers as they switched targets. Even with the specialized Mon Cal field generators, Han doubted it would last very long if he didn’t do something and fast.

“This isn’t Pellaeon,” Kratas abruptly declared. He was standing before the hologram, an intent expression on his face as he studied it. When Han looked at him, the Imperial captain gestured to the Allegiance. “Our command codes aren’t working,” he said grimly. “Whoever is on that ship is blocking our comm. transmissions, even the secret ones the commodore has.”

Solo nodded in understanding. One of Nat’s requirements for aiding him was to give the defending Imps a chance to switch sides or retreat from the engagement unhindered by broadcasting a message from Grand Moff Tavira regarding the illegal nature of their orders. Unfortunately, only a single star destroyer had done so and the loss of one destroyer certainly wasn’t going to sway this battle.

Han gave the holo image of the Allegiance another look and frowned. That was the key, he realized. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the firepower to destroy it in a stand-up fight.

“We need to take out that command ship,” Kratas said, unexpectedly verbalizing Solo’s thoughts.

“Captain Adrimetrum,” Han said quickly. “Sound collision. I want all stations set to automatic and the crew to begin abandoning ship.”

“Sir?” Both Adrimetrum and Kratas were looking at him with disbelief on their faces.

“Set a collision course for the Allegiance,” Solo ordered. “Ramming speed.”

|-*-|

The speed in which Fey’lya responded was stunning, even to Leia.

“You are out of order!” he snapped, his voice laced with a hint of fear. His hand slammed down on the override switch, effectively killing the Kuati pod’s external microphones. The system had been installed months earlier ostensibly in an attempt to reduce the level of rancor and squabbling among the senators, though even then, Leia had argued it silenced dissent.

This time, however, she was ready. A trick she’d once seen Luke do to quiet an angry crowd flooded into her mind’s eye, and she let the Force flow through and around her.

“I will not be silenced!” Leia shouted, and her Force-enhanced voice boomed through the Senate chamber, amplified beyond human norm. She could see a couple of the delegates – those with greatly enhanced senses of hearing – quickly cover their auditory organs, but her focus was principally on Fey’lya as he recoiled from the unexpected sally.

“Let her speak!” The voice of Senator Ackbar echoed loudly in the momentary silence following Leia’s declaration, and his chant was taken up almost instantly by others: Corellia, Chandrilla, Elom, Hapes, Iridonia, Kashyyyk, Naboo, Ryloth, Sullust, Tapani. It went on for a long moment, gathering strength and numbers with each second that passed until the sound was so loud it shook the very walls of the Senate. Fey’lya spent several fruitless minutes trying to calm the din down but, with each attempt, the chant was taken up once more, this time louder than previously.

“We have him now,” Viqi murmured from where she stood alongside Leia. His eyes alive with fury, Fey’lya collapsed in his seat and glared at them.

Leia tried not to smile.

Instead, she raised her right hand in an effort to end the booming chants. Instinctively, she drew the Force around her, copying the technique she’d observed Shesh use earlier. Slowly, the noise subsided.

“Thank you, my friends,” she said calmly. Her voice echoed loudly, emphasizing the utter stillness of the Senate in that moment. “I come before you today with a heavy heart,” she continued confidently, “because I am forced by circumstances to do a thing I do not want to do.” She drew another breath and began laying out her case, knowing that it would destroy Fey’lya.

And still, she tried not to smile.

|-*-|

The smile on his face almost hid the terror pulsing through his body.

A storm of blaster bolts screamed by him as he crouched on the opposite side of the slowly descending blast door, and Lando Calrissian fought to keep from laughing maniacally as he emptied a second ammo pack in the direction of the approaching stormtroopers. His own rifle smoking from overuse, Corran Horn fumbled with a pulse grenade and sent it sliding across the deck toward the stormtroopers, while the tall, dark-haired beauty that Karrde had brought with him was struggling with the wires of the blast door.

Bellowing a heartfelt curse, Karrde darted from where he had been hiding on the opposite side of the blast door and sprinted toward where the three of them were crouched. In mid-step, he took a glancing blaster shot to the lower leg and his curse transformed into an inarticulate cry of pain. He dove forward, hitting the deck and sliding underneath the blast door while wildly firing his rifle in the general direction of the stormtroopers. Lando doubted the shots even came close to hitting anything important.

Karrde was barely past the lip of the blast door when it slammed shut with a thunderous boom, nearly taking off his foot in the process. He shot a glare at the dark-haired beauty – Shada, Lando thought was her name – before wincing at the smoke climbing up from his leg. It wasn’t bad, but Calrissian knew from experience it would hurt like hell.

“The next time I even think about doing something like this,” Karrde told the woman, “stun me and lock me in a closet.”

“Is that an order?” she asked with a smile. Lando sighed at the worried glint in her eyes as she helped Talon to his feet and wondered why it seemed like all the best women were already spoken for. At least that leaves the bad ones for me, he thought with a wicked grin. Horn gave him a sidelong glance and Lando wondered if the pseudo-Jedi was peeking in his head.

“Do we have any idea where we are?” Horn asked as he threw his useless blaster rifle to the deck with disgust stamped on his face. He frowned as he pulled the lightsaber from his belt.

“Not really,” Lando replied. He slammed another ammo pack into his rifle and consulted the wrist-comp he wore. “But Skywalker is that way,” he remarked. At their startled looks, he grinned. “Olmahk put a tracer bug on Luke’s belt,” he admitted, “and I talked him into letting me know the frequency.”

“Does Luke know the Noghri are tracking him?” Corran asked. Lando shook his head.

“No,” he said, “but Mara does.” He shrugged. “I think it may have been her idea in the first place.”

“Don’t even think about it,” Karrde said at the look Shada gave him.

“Who says I haven’t already put one on you?” she asked with another smile.

“Let’s get moving,” Horn said. “There are clones approaching.”

|-*-|

There were a lot more clones than she’d been expecting.

Her lightsaber drawn but not ignited, Mara studied the massive chamber she’d just dropped in with slowly dawning horror. The Spaarti cylinders stretched on for as far as the eye could see, disappearing around the gentle curve of the bulkhead, and in each one, she could see a partially completed clone. There were even tubes crammed up against the viewport that encircled the entire deck. She spent a brief moment trying to count the number, but gave up almost before she started.

“Kriff,” Skywalker muttered the moment he dropped through the hole in the ceiling. He frowned as he stepped closer to the nearest cylinder and studied at the face within. Before he could comment, a flicker in the Force drew both of their attention.

Lightsabers drawn, a quartet of clones – a Windu, an Unduli, and two Koths – approached in eerie silence. They surrounded a fifth figure, also clad in black but wearing armor and a death’s head mask. He moved with easy grace and a sense of controlled power.

“Go,” Mara instructed, even before Luke could say anything. He gave her a quick look and she smiled. “I can handle the clones,” she said as she nodded toward the newcomer. “You go handle Darth Wannabe.”

“Stay safe, Mara,” Luke whispered as he turned to face the group, brushing her psyche with a tendril of the Force as he did. Her breath caught at the barely hidden emotions behind the touch, but she pushed the revelation away for future contemplation.

There were clones to kill.

They struck quickly, leaping over the Spaarti cylinders, but Mara was already springing forward to meet them headlong. She speared the Windu with her saber before he even landed, and let her momentum carry her into a quick roll that took her out of the immediate danger zone. The two Koths doggedly pursued, their blades howling as they made wild overhand swings that severed power cables maintaining the cylinder. Sparks exploded around them as Mara jumped up and back, somersaulting in mid-air and landing lightly atop a dormant cloning tube. The Unduli clone was there in an instant, once again trying to power through Mara’s defenses with a Djem So style ill-suited for the clone’s lithe frame. Recognizing an unexpected opportunity before her – Djem So was excellent for raw power but with a corresponding lack of mobility – Mara twisted off the Spaarti cylinder, lashing out with her humming blade as she did. The clone quickly jumped to avoid losing her feet at the ankle.

And in that instant, Mara sent her flying backwards into the bulkhead with a flick of her wrist.

Blades wailing an unholy song, the two Koth clones lunged into view, and Mara rapidly began to backpedal as she blocked each stroke. The air stank of ozone as the blades crackled, and she reached deeper into the Force to seek the shatterpoint of this engagement. The terrain was her enemy as much as the silent figures before her, and Mara let her senses expand.

And everything became clear.

|-*-|

He was startled at how clear everything had become.

Eyes calm, Luke Skywalker watched as the armored figure slowly approached and silently wondered if there was any way out of this that did not involving the man before him dying. The desire to monitor Mara’s progress was distracting, but Luke pushed it away. One misstep, and he knew Torul would kill him.

“Hello, Flint,” Luke said, allowing his senses to expand and hints of future events flickered across his mind’s eye, warning him of possible threats. That step there was not sturdy. The lip of that Spaarti cylinder was cracked. Those cables could complicate his footing. He could sense the subtle shift of atmosphere around the man he’d thought to save from Darkness once long ago as the Force began to swirl. Already, Luke knew how Flint would attack, and how to counter the strike.

“I knew this day would come,” the man he’d once known said coldly, and Skywalker narrowed his eyes at the raw emotions pulsing off the man before him: anger, desire, despair, fear, hatred, lust, madness. “I prayed for this day.”

“What happened to you, Flint?” Luke asked. He almost instantly staggered back at the fury swelling from the would-be Sith.

“I am Darth Veng’yr!” the man snarled as he lunged forward, his scarlet blade hissing. Luke caught the stroke and knocked it away, backpedaling rapidly as he did so.

“Your name is Flint,” Luke replied calmly as he deflected another lethal stroke from the would-be Sith. The rage rolling off the man before him battered at his mental shields, and Skywalker let the fury wash around him like a wave. He planted his feet and let the Force swell within him. Without conscious thought, he fell into the Soresu fighting style. Each of Flint’s attacks he met easily, remaining in perfect balance as his blade shifted only as much as necessary. At no time did he offer a counter-strike, and instead focused entirely upon reaching the soul of the man he’d once known.

“Turn away from this path,” he urged, redirecting Flint’s attack into the bulkhead with a flick of his wrist. “You did so before,” Luke reminded him, “you can do so again.”

“I was a fool to listen to you!” the would-be Sith roared as he redoubled his furious onslaught. His blade became an almost solid wall of crimson light as he hammered away at Luke defenses. Around them, a whirlwind of wind erupted as Flint’s madness became manifest. Debris and small objects screamed through the air toward them, spinning wildly as Luke nudged them away from his body.

“I can feel the conflict within you,” Luke said calmly. He caught the man’s overhand stroke upon his saber and directed it into the deck below them. Metal shrieked as the superheated blade burned through it, and Luke casually sidestepped away from the man’s aggressive Force slam, deflecting it into one of the nearby Spaarti cylinders. The cloning tube crumpled under the assault. “Don’t make me kill you, Flint,” he implored.

Growling, the would-be Sith threw himself at Luke, his blade slamming into Skywalker’s with crushing power. Luke gave ground, knowing the moment of opportunity had passed. Even now, he could sense no hint of sanity within Torul’s mind, only an unreasoning hatred for Skywalker that could not be pierced with reason.

And, despising himself slightly, Luke gave himself over to the will of the Force.

|-*-|

The force of the impact knocked him to his knees.

Growling a curse, Han Solo scrambled back to his feet, hefting the unconscious form of Captain Kratas in a fireman’s carry and resuming his rapid walk toward the launch bay. Around him, emergency alarms continued to shriek as Independence thundered toward Allegiance. Recognizing the danger, the Imperial command ship had tried to hyperjump to safety only to discover the Interdictor that had been used to rip Han’s fleet out of lightspeed was still in-system.

Unable to maneuver fast enough to avoid the impending collision, Allegiance and her picket ships were unleashing every joule of destructive power they had to mitigate the damage, but Han knew it wouldn’t be enough. The kinetic impact alone would likely shear the Allegiance in half and explosive decompression would do the rest of the job.

An explosion of sparks rained down upon them and the Indy shook once more under what had to be a particularly fierce salvo of fire. This time, Han was braced, and managed to stay on his feet. He staggered forward toward the open hatch leading to the launch bay.

And the Falcon.

Chewie was standing at the base of the freighter and darted forward the minute he caught sight of Han. The Wookiee didn’t ask why Solo was carrying an unconscious Imperial captain – even an ass like Kratas – but instead simply snatched the man away from Han and started his quick, loping run back to the Falcon. Adrenaline pumping through his veins, Solo followed.

The boarding ramp was already closing when Han reached it and he quickly ducked under the overhang to avoid smacking his head into it. A dozen frightened looking techs were crammed together in the main corridor, and Solo pushed his way through them to get to the cockpit. The engines were already growling as he dropped into the pilot’s station.

“This was certainly one of your crazier ideas,” Chewie remarked as Han slewed the nose of the Falcon around to face the magcon field. He hit the throttle without hesitation and the freighter sprang forward.

They screamed out of the docking bay and into a river of turbolaser fire. The Falcon rocked and shook as impact after impact slammed into their shields, but, to Han’s surprise, the deflector screens held. He rolled the Falcon and aimed them toward one of the Imperial star destroyers flanking the Indy. The gunners on the ImpStarDeuce were so focused on trying to shatter the dying Executor-class they paid no attention to the YT-1300 racing away from the immense warship. Han glanced at his sensor scope and mentally calculated how long until the Indy hit its target.

“Hold on!” he shouted. A moment later, the Independence, trailing fire and debris, slammed into the hull of the Allegiance. Han drew in a sharp breath.

And the galaxy exploded around him.

|-*-|

The Senate exploded with noise.

Braced before the onslaught, Leia Organa-Solo watched with detached calm as Fey’lya’s supporters reacted with obvious horror at the sheer amount of evidence she had presented and many of them were clearly recognizing the absolute destruction of their careers. A good portion of it was admittedly circumstantial, but Bothan fingerprints were all over it and anyone who had opposed Fey’lya in the past recognized his handiwork.

Not all of the senators appeared taken aback by the chancellor’s wrongdoings. Ackbar, for example, was reclining in his pod, chortling as if he were attending a smashball championship, and the Corellian delegation were discreetly offering wagers as to the final result. And the journalists present? They were watching the proceedings with almost orgasmic excitement.

“The chancellor’s wrongdoing extends beyond these crimes I have enumerated,” Leia announced once silence settled in once more. She locked eyes with the Bothan and endured his hate-filled glare as she continued. “This data chit,” she said, raising the storage device taken off of Polo Se’lab months earlier, “contains information on key senators opposed to his administration, information acquired from criminal elements here on Coruscant.” As Leia paused for dramatic effect, she made a subtle hand gesture with her free hand, signaling Winter to send the data.

Instantly, a wave of agitation swept through the Senate once more as each of the unnamed senators abruptly received a copy of the blackmail material Fey’lya had obtained. Leia had taken care to make sure that only the senator in question received the information in a secured data packet; she didn’t want to be accused of trying to blackmail them herself, though it did still feel a little like she was. Despite her better judgment, she found herself hoping they would mend their ways or even resign. The Senate wasn’t supposed to be filled with corrupt bureaucrats.

As this latest disturbance dwindled, Leia brought the data chit down and, with an exaggerated gesture, snapped it in half. It was a PR move, one that publicly denounced Fey’lya’s methods, and she knew everyone present would see it as such. Once more, she locked eyes with the Bothan.

“In the light of this evidence of wrongdoing,” she said, well aware of every eye upon her, “I call for … no, I demand a vote of ‘no confidence’ for Supreme Chancellor Borsk Fey’lya.”

And once more, the Senate erupted with noise and every sound was a cry of agreement. His face frozen in an expression of despair and fury, Fey’lya fell back in his seat, broken and defeated.

|-*-|

Defeating the clones turned out to be easier than she expected it to.

As the two jumped toward her, their sabers held aloft, Mara sprang forward. She caught the clone on the right with a low body-check, the armored pauldron on her shoulder slamming into his stomach and knocking the breath right out of him. His brother clone stumbled as Mara shoved the gasping Koth into him and, in the half second he tried to recover, she drew her blaster and shot them both in the face.

Letting them fall, Mara quickly turned away, her eyes desperately seeking out Luke. Her breath caught at the placid expression he wore as he defended against the furious flurry of strikes by the armored figure. Despair flashed across Skywalker’s face and he closed his eyes. Mara took two rapid steps toward the pair, fear suddenly surging into her throat as the would-be Sith howled a cry of victory. He lunged forward, his saber shrieking.

And in that heartbeat, Luke casually slipped past the man’s defenses and stabbed him in the chest.

Gasping with pain and surprise, the would-be Sith froze in place. He looked down at the humming blade piercing his heart and his own saber fell from nerveless fingers. With barely a sound, the man dropped to his knees, still looking at the weapon that had killed him. His Force sense swirling with anguish, Luke deactivated the blade and it retracted with a soft hiss.

The Sith toppled.

Releasing the breath she’d unconsciously held and fighting to contain her relief, Mara began picking her way toward where Luke stood. He knelt, removing the death’s head helmet and tossing it aside. The man underneath gasped something softly to Luke, something Mara couldn’t hear, and Skywalker’s Force sense shivered.

“She?” Skywalker muttered, every line in his body screaming with surprise. The would-be Sith said nothing else as his presence in the Force flickered and winked out like a candle. Luke looked up, his eyes glittering with sadness, and Mara reached his side. She dropped her hand on his shoulder, wincing at the emotional pain radiating from him, and started to speak, to tell him he couldn’t have saved the man, when a fierce flash of light drew her attention to the viewport.

She barely had time to gasp before the shockwave from the two exploding star dreadnoughts smashed into the space station, knocking both of them off their feet. Booms echoed throughout the facility and alarms began howling as the station began listing. Flat on her butt, Mara glanced at the viewport in the half second before debris punched through it.

Oxygen wailed as it was ripped from station. Mara reacted without thought as she reached for one of the Spaarti cylinders. With her other hand, she grabbed Luke’s right arm and clung tightly to him. A tornado of wind tore at them, and the dead Sith’s body was almost instantly sucked through the breach along with two of the cloning tubes. Mara felt the one she was clutching begin to shift and, a second later, could sense Luke use the Force to anchor it – and them – in place.

Protective blast screens slid into place and the tsunami of wind died instantly. Mara hit the deck and groaned.

“Are you all right?” Luke asked as he scrambled to his feet. Mara nodded as she slowly followed suit. A shudder ran through the floor of the station and emergency evac alarms began sounding.

“Mission accomplished, I guess,” she muttered. Luke, she noticed, was staring at the way they’d come in, and Mara followed his line of sight. She winced at the debris clogging the escape route. At the rate the station’s orbit was decaying, they’d never get through this mess in time to escape.

“Blast,” Skywalker muttered. He gave her a sad look. “I’m sorry, Mara,” he said. “I didn’t want to put you in danger like this.”

“In case you didn’t notice, Farmboy,” she replied, “I like danger.” As if to punctuate the fact they were minutes from death, the station creaked and groaned around them. Their eyes locked and Mara felt her stomach clench at the unspoken emotions dancing in his eyes. Without thinking, she gave into the impulse that had been building for months and leaned forward to kiss him.

And, for just a moment, the galaxy fell away.

|-*-|

The galaxy slowly returned to focus.

Blinking away the spots that spoiled his vision, Wedge Antilles stared at the shattered and burning hulls that had, until moments ago, been two of the mightiest warships in the quadrant. The ring of debris surrounding the two derelicts was still expanding and Wedge could see it had nearly claimed a trio of star destroyers; their hulls alight with damage and fire, they were limping away from the system, unable and clearly unwilling to continue the fight.

[SHIELDS ARE GONE,] Whistler stated dispassionately.

“So noted,” Wedge replied as he jiggled the flight stick. It had a little more play in it than he recalled, and he sighed.

“The station’s losing orbit,” Fel remarked, and Wedge gave it a glance. Steady streams of escape pods were racing away from the heavily damaged station, followed by suborbital transports and shuttles; many of them were already pinging New Republic transponder codes, indicating they were Katarn's commandos getting clear now that they'd accomplished their task.

[I CALCULATE SIX POINT THREE MINUTES UNTIL IT REACHES THE UPPER ATMOSPHERE,] Whister interjected.

“All Republic ships, this is Admiral Solo.” Han’s voice echoed across the commline and Antilles exhaled in relief. “Pull back from engagement zone.”

Glancing down at his sensor feed, Wedge could see that the Imperials were already doing so. Having lost a command ship [i]and the station they were here to defend, they clearly didn’t see any reason to continue the fight.

“Glad you’re still alive, Admiral,” Antilles said into his headset. He located the Falcon on his sensors and altered his vector to escort the battered freighter.

“That makes two of us,” Solo replied dryly. “So much for the Lusankya,” he remarked casually.

“Couldn’t have happened to a better ship,” Tycho said bitterly. Wedge glanced once more at the space station. A thought occurred to him and he voiced it without hesitation.

“What about Luke?”

|-*-|

Luke was quite thoroughly kissing Mara.

At any other time, Talon Karrde would have cleared his throat or simply made a discreet exit and come back at a later time, but the rapid disintegration of the station’s orbit robbed him of that opportunity. While he was glad the two had evidently gotten past their emotional issues, he did wish they had picked a better time to investigate one another’s tonsils.

“Couldn’t you have picked a better time?” Calrissian asked, voicing Talon’s thoughts, and the two Jedi sprang apart. Both flushed with embarrassment at having been caught in such an intimate moment, but Karrde gestured in the direction of the exit.

“If you don’t mind,” he said with a grin, “we’d like to leave.”

“Right,” Skywalker muttered as he quickly shot Mara a glance. She ignored him as she jogged toward the hatch where Shada and Horn were waiting.

“Nice of you to join us,” Corran said to Skywalker, his eyes dancing with mirth, and Luke flushed once more.

Beyond the hatch, the corridor stretched out in several different directions and Mara chose one seemingly at random. When Skywalker didn’t question her selection, Talon chalked it up as a Jedi thing. Several meters beyond the hatch, they encountered the Noghri, with a wounded Barkhimkh supported between two of his companions. Khabarakh was speaking softly into a comlink when they appeared and barely glanced up.

“COMPLIANCE,” a mechanical-sounding voice declared from Khabarakh’s small comlink. Mara rounded on the Noghri, her eyes narrowing dangerously.

“What the hell is that droid doing to my ship?” she demanded.

“Hone in on my signal,” Khabarakh ordered before looking up to meet Mara’s flashing eyes. “He wanted to help so I instructed him to stand by for an emergency extraction.” As if to punctuate their situation, the station shook underfoot.

“We don’t have time to argue this,” Lando growled. “Let’s get off this thing!”

The race to the nearest docking port was a blurred nightmare though later, Karrde could not recall exactly how they managed to get there. What he could recall was the sense of utter relief that washed through him when the Second Chance made a hard seal against the station. Even Mara seemed to temporarily forgive Skywalker’s astromech as the freighter roared away from the dying station. Behind him, Talon could hear Corran and Lando laughing and whooping at their escape, but Luke was staring at the ugly planet with unease in his eyes.

“Cheer up, Farmboy,” Mara ordered with a relieved smile on her face. Talon blinked in surprise at the nickname; it had the sound of an endearment. “We won!”

“Did we?” Skywalker asked softly, his eyes still on the dying station.

Talon shivered.

Rigil Kent
18 November 2008, 09:47 AM
CHAPTER 12

LUKE Skywalker shivered.

He wasn’t sure what brought it on – here, in the diplomatic ballroom of the Senate building, the temperature was a constant twenty two point five degrees, even with the balcony windows thrown open – but a cold chill nonetheless crawled up his spine. Years of exposure to danger sent a frisson of alarm through his body, instantly causing Luke to look up from where he had been staring at his wine glass and begin studying the room intently. His every sense came alive as he reached out with the Force to find the source of the sudden flare of unease.

Leia noticed at once – she always did – and gave him a sharp look from across the ballroom. At almost the same time, the woman his sister was talking to looked in Luke’s direction; mental shields snapped into place as Viqi Shesh retreated within her White Current training, but Luke didn’t bother testing himself against her. He still didn’t trust the Kuati woman – and couldn’t comprehend why Leia did – but she didn’t appear to be the source of this particular problem, so he continued his subtle scan of the room. Both Corran and Kyle broke off their conversation and looked in his direction, but made no attempt to join him when he gave them a short hand gesture and instead returned their attention to their respective wives. Within a heartbeat, Luke realized the threat was a distant one and expanded his awareness, hoping to gain some clue as to its origin.

Almost as soon as he detected it, though, the sense of danger was gone, vanishing from his consciousness like smoke on a windy day. Luke frowned.

“Is there something wrong, Master Skywalker?” The question came from Phredd Delorai, the annoying NRI bureaucrat who had been dominating Luke’s time all evening and most of the day. The instinctive answer that sprang to mind – yes, you’re bothering me so go away – was hardly the most diplomatic one, so Luke instead adopted a placid expression of mild disinterest.

“I don’t know,” he replied honestly, noting the instant look of calculation that flashed across Delorai’s face. Inwardly, Luke sighed, knowing the man would insist on another inane meeting to discuss the premonition. In the month since what was being called the Battle of Korriban, New Republic Intelligence had done everything short of planting a tracker beacon inside Luke’s skin to keep track of his location and wanted to know his every thought, whether it involved glimpses of the future or his musings on what to eat for dinner. Most of them had taken to calling him ‘master’ instead of ‘commander’ and, while it was technically accurate given Yoda’s all too brief visitation on Dagobah, Luke doubted the honorific was intended to be sincere. He hadn’t told anyone but Mara about his elevation to the rank of Jedi Master by Yoda, after all, and she certainly wouldn’t have mentioned it to these fools.

“You have a meeting scheduled with Admiral Drayson tomorrow,” Delorai said with an obsequious smile that didn’t touch his eyes, “but if you don’t mind, I would like to discuss certain aspects of the Korriban situation with you.” As if Luke’s acceptance of this was a fait accompli, the bureaucrat added, “I believe your schedule is open at fifteen hundred hours, yes?”

Luke grunted noncommittally, knowing Delorai would take it as acceptance. A flash of pure emotion burst from the bureaucrat, so intense it nearly caused Skywalker to wince; contempt and distrust were foremost in the man’s thoughts, laced with a considerable amount of fear. It was yet another reminder to Luke that his decision to secretly leave Coruscant at first opportunity was the correct one: there was no way the New Republic would let him leave without trying to find a way to tie him to the government, especially now that Leia had been named Supreme Chancellor of the Senate.

As soon as Delorai turned away, Luke drew the Force around himself like a cloak. It was a technique Mara had taught him during their yearlong clone hunt, one she had learned from Palpatine during her time as his Hand. At first, Luke had worried it was a tainted Force skill, but extensive study of the holocron Yoda had provided revealed it to be a simple ability the ancient Jedi Sentinels used during the Sith Wars to conceal themselves during investigations. Similar to the mind trick, it was at once more difficult to master and harder to maintain. Rather than concentrating on altering the perceptions of a single sentient, it instead muted Luke’s Force presence and encouraged people to look past him, almost as if he wasn’t there. In a sense, it was a sort of Force camouflage, though it had limited applications. Droids and other electronic devices were unaffected, and sentients who had natural Force resistance like Hutts or Toydarians were equally untouched.

Fortunately, the only droids Luke had to avoid were the servers cruising through the crowded ballroom, and there weren’t any Hutts or Toydarians attending Leia’s inaugural banquet. He glanced once more in her direction, frowning slightly at the fragile way she held herself as she spoke with visiting dignitaries from the Hapes Consortium. Something had happened to her in the year he’d been away from Coruscant, something that had shaken her to the core, but his every attempt to get her to open about it met with prevarications and half-truths. If his meditations over the last week hadn’t shown him the urgency of his mission to find Flint’s mistress, Luke would have pressed harder.

Instead, he swallowed his concerns and prepared to abandon her once more.

Turning away before he lost his nerve, Luke began weaving his way through the crowd, clinging tightly to the Force camouflage. Instinctively, sentients shuffled out of his way as he passed them, most not even realizing they were doing so. A small minority – those who had a closer connection to the Force – would glance around for a moment, confusion stamped upon their face, before returning to the conversations they were involved in.

Several meters from the exit, Luke altered his course sharply to the left when he caught sight of the blue-garbed Senatorial Guardsmen standing before the great double-doors. The men did not worry him, but the scanning devices set between them did. Even if he used the mind trick to get by the Guardsmen, Luke knew the scanners would identify his departure and flag it to a monitoring station somewhere else out of sight. And if Skywalker knew his sister as well as he thought he did, that monitoring station would have orders to inform Supreme Chancellor Organa-Solo of his exit.

Angling toward one of the open doors leading to a balcony, Luke circled around a nest of vapid-looking noblewomen and narrowly avoided Threepio. With the droid preoccupied – he was arguing with one of the server droids over the quality of the wine being served to the Supreme Chancellor – Luke stepped through the open doorway and breathed in the crisp Coruscanti night air. He strode directly to the railing encircling the balcony and ejected the contents of his wine glass over it with a flick of his wrist.

“That better not have been the good stuff,” Han said from where he lounged in the shadows just beside the open door. Luke gave him a quick glance, noting at once the bored expression on Solo’s face as well as the square glass in the Corellian’s hand. There was no sign of the Kalidor Crescent awarded to Han earlier this evening in honor of his role in the Korriban clash.

“It might have been,” Luke admitted with a shrug. He glanced in the direction of the open doors and released the Force camouflage. Han blinked – likely noting that there was something different about him, but not exactly sure what it was.

“Haven’t see much of you lately, kid,” Solo said as he joined Luke at the railing. He leaned onto it and looked out upon the glittering Coruscanti skyline. “How’re you doing?”

“I’ve been better,” Luke replied honestly. He’d never been able to lie effectively to Solo so he rarely bothered trying. “Why are you out here hiding?” he asked. “Shouldn’t you be in there with Leia?” Han snorted and raised the square glass.

“So the Coruscrats can point at the tame Corellian war hero?” He downed the contents of his glass. “I’ve had enough of that dog and bantha show for tonight, thank you very much,” Solo grumbled darkly. He gave Luke a sidelong look. “And you?”

“Likewise.” Skywalker stared at the drive trails of the sky traffic for a moment. “If I have to listen to one more bureaucrat telling me they’ll follow up on my report as soon as possible,” he said sourly, “I may have to turn to the Dark Side.”

“You’ll give me fair warning, right?” Han asked with his lopsided grin. “For old time’s sake?”

“Absolutely. Besides,” Luke said with a chuckle of his own, “I may need the Falcon for a quick getaway.”

“Standard rates apply,” Solo said instantly, “even for Dark Jedi. Two thousand up front, fifteen on arrival.” They shared a smile and Luke enjoyed the silence for a moment. He blew out a breath.

“I can’t stay here,” he admitted softly. Solo barely reacted, so Luke pushed on. “It’s been thirty-two days, Han,” he said flatly, “and they’re still not doing anything about her.” He glared at the skyline. “I can’t just sit here and do nothing while Shira is out there.”

“You’re sure Flint was telling you the truth?” Han studied his glass, as if hoping it would magically refill. “Way I understand it,” he continued, “the man was already dead. He might have told you what he did to send you after a ghost.”

“No,” Luke said, shaking his head firmly. “This entire cloning fiasco wasn’t his style. He was a stormtrooper, for kriff’s sake. His idea of subtlety was to use the stun setting.” Han chuckled at that, but didn’t comment. “No,” Luke repeated, “I should have seen from the beginning that this operation had Shira’s fingerprints on it.”

“You mean Lumiya’s,” Solo corrected. He was staring at Luke with a knowing expression on his face. “I know you want to save her, kid,” the Corellian remarked, “but some people can’t be saved.”

“I know,” Luke murmured. “But I have to try.” He looked at his old friend. “I’m surprised you’re not trying to talk me out of this,” he said.

“To be honest, kid,” Han said, “I halfway expected you to blow out of Coruscant two weeks ago.” Once again, Solo glanced at his empty glass with a frown. “When you didn’t,” he added, “I figured you had your reasons.”

“Leia,” Luke confirmed with a slight grimace, “and the twins.” He shook his head in slight amazement at how big they’d gotten since he’d last seen them. Now two and a half, Jacen was already beginning to read while Jaina was turning into quite the grease monkey.

“Huh,” Solo grunted. “I would’ve thought it had something to do with a certain green-eyed lady you’ve been hanging around with. What is it with you and redheads anyway?” he asked with a wry grin. Luke quickly looked away, hoping his thoughts didn’t show on his face but suspecting they did. It had been over two weeks since he’d last seen Mara, and even then only in passing. She was still on-planet since, like him, she’d been virtually imprisoned by the NRI with their never-ending mission briefings. Without thinking, Luke lifted his left hand to his lips.

Almost at once, he felt a wave of amusement roll off of Han and slowly lowered the hand, fighting to keep from flushing in embarrassment. Luke wasn’t sure how Solo had found out about the kiss – smart money was on Lando telling him, though Luke hadn’t ruled out Corran’s big mouth – but the wily Corellian used every opportunity he could to harass Skywalker about it. Never in Leia’s presence, of course, though whether that was because of her past issues about Mara or some other reason Luke didn’t know.

“Speaking of,” Han said with an exaggerated leer, “where is the lovely Miss Jade?” He leaned closer and gave Luke a childish jab with his elbow. “Maybe you should track her down,” Solo suggested, “and see if you can’t get her all worked up again.”

“Leia’s going to be furious tomorrow,” Luke said, doing his best to ignore his brother-in-law’s innuendo as he pulled the beckon call for his airspeeder from his belt and triggered the device. “So will the NRI.”

“The hell with ‘em,” Han declared. “This is Jedi business, right?” At Luke’s nod, he continued. “Then go take care of it. Do what you’ve gotta do and come back home.” He shot a sour glance in the direction of the open door. “When you get back,” he added sotto voce, “you can help me get Leia straightened out.”

“You’ve noticed it too?” Luke asked, his voice equally soft. He frowned slightly at Han’s tight nod. “Take care of her, Han,” he instructed as the beckon call chimed softly. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Without waiting for a response, Luke sprang over the edge of the balcony and onto the hood of his waiting speeder.

|-*-|

Her speeder pulled away from the curb, leaving her standing before the long stairs leading into the consulate building, and Mara found herself fighting a case of the nerves.

She hid it well, of course – one did not grow up in the shadow of Emperor Palpatine and not learn how to conceal one’s shortcomings or fears – but the discomfort continued to twist her stomach into knots. With a deep breath, Mara stored the insecurities away for future introspection and began striding up the stairs, her expression one of resolute confidence.

“I don’t think you’re dressed for this sort of party, Captain Jade,” a familiar-sounding voice commented from behind her and Mara slowed her pace slightly to allow Lando Calrissian to catch up. He was dressed to impress, with dark trousers, shirt and boots of the finest material. Mara nearly smiled when she realized the cloak completing his ensemble was an armorweave one. “Unless, of course,” Lando continued, smiling brightly at her as he spoke, “you’re trying to make a statement.”

For the briefest of seconds, Mara hesitated as she self-consciously re-examined her wardrobe and her motives behind selecting it. Brown and dark jade in color, the uniform she wore was intentionally cut in the style of the Old Republic Jedi Knights, complete with hooded brown cloak, dark leather boots and utility belt. When she’d decided to attend the inaugural banquet at the last minute, Mara had decided to use the uniform as a way to highlight her connection to the Jedi.

That Luke would smile when he saw her in it had absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the decision.

“I might be,” Mara admitted to Calrissian as they continued up the stairs. Directly before the doorway, an unusual sight awaited them. Four men stood at the ready – two blue-garbed Senatorial Guardsmen and a pair of Imperial Red Guards – and they appeared to be eyeing one another as much as they watched the people entering. The presence of the Royal Guardsmen should not have been a surprise, not with High Consul Tavira of the newly reorganized Second Imperium in attendance, but Mara nonetheless stared at them for perhaps a moment too long. Through the Force, she could sense them tensing under her scrutiny, so she smiled tightly and showed the closest of them her invitation.

To her surprise, the weapons detector installed before the doorway did not register either of her lightsabers as a threat. She quickly recognized Organa-Solo’s hand in that; it certainly wouldn’t be good headlines if the new Supreme Chancellor’s brother was incarcerated for a weapons violation.

“You know,” Calrissian remarked as he joined her in the turbolift just inside the main foyer, “I’m still paying the hotel on Socorro for the damage you and Luke did to the honeymoon suite.” His eyes were glinting with humor and Mara gave him a sweet smile.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Governor,” she replied. “There is no record that Luke and I were ever on Socorro.”

“Just make sure I’m invited to the wedding,” Lando said with a grin the moment before the lift stopped. He was stepping through the opening doors before she could retort, and Mara swallowed her retort at sight of the holo-journalists waiting outside the lift. Most of them paid her little attention, but there were a couple she recognized as virulent anti-Imperials. Even as their eyes narrowed in dislike, she was giving them polite nods, hoping they had other people to harass today.

Several steps beyond the lift and just past the ring of journalists, the corridor opened up into the ballroom proper. A golden protocol droid – Mara thought it might be the one Artoo was always complaining about, but she wasn’t sure; she could never tell droids of that model apart from one another – was standing just past the threshold and inside the ballroom, announcing the identity of the guests as they entered. It was an old system, one that had been around before Palpatine became emperor, and relied on a combination of simple sensor technology and a microchip embedded within the invitation itself. Upon crossing the threshold, the chip would be interrogated by the sensor relay which would then pass on the identity of the person carrying the invitation. Senatorial Guardsmen and well concealed Noghri were on-hand to step in should someone try to crash the party without an invitation.

“Governor Lando Calrissian of the planet Socorro,” the golden protocol droid declared loudly as Lando stepped over the threshold. Mara hesitated for a long heartbeat – she had barely glanced at the invitation and didn’t know how she would be addressed – before swallowing her trepidation and stepping forward. Icy shock washed through her as the droid spoke once more.

“Mara Jade, Jedi Knight.”

She was almost instantly aware of eyes upon her and drew upon the training she’d received in her youth to hide how startled she was at the title assigned to her. It had to be Luke’s doing, Mara decided quickly, even as she felt a flare of pride that he thought her worthy of it.

“Lando!” Organa-Solo’s voice snapped her out of her musings and Mara gave the diminutive woman a quick glance, frowning slightly at the way Skywalker’s sister held herself. For some reason, it reminded Mara of a wounded bird. “I’m so glad you could make it,” Leia said with a smile. Calrissian took her hand and kissed it.

“How could I miss your day?” he asked. “You look wonderful, Supreme Chancellor.”

“For you,” Organa-Solo said quickly, “it’ll always be Leia.” Her smile cooled noticeably as her eyes shifted to Mara but did not vanish entirely. “Mara,” she greeted. Her eyes darted back and forth between the two new arrivals. “Did you come together?” she asked, and Mara could almost sense the smaller woman’s thoughts racing.

“I ran into Jedi Jade outside,” Lando said easily, his subtle emphasis on the title causing Leia’s polite smile to falter ever so slightly. Before either woman could make another comment, Calrissian’s eyes lit up. “If you ladies will excuse me,” he said before arrowing toward the cluster of Imperial dignitaries, among them a woman Mara recognized as Natasi Daala. Good luck, Mara thought with a smile, unsure which of the two she was directing her thoughts toward.

“Luke is around here somewhere,” Leia remarked, her diplomatic smile once more fully in place. “But you better find him quickly,” the smaller woman added. “He had this look in his eyes…”

“The caged animal one?” Mara asked as politely as she could. Organa-Solo gave her an appraising look – one that made Mara feel like her every sin was being bared to the world – before nodding slightly.

“If he’s not hiding in the refresher,” Organa-Solo added with a tight smile, “he’ll probably be with the Rogues.” She eyed Mara’s outfit once more before adding, “Please enjoy the party, Mistress Jedi.”

A moment later, Leia was gone, swept away by a group of junior senators eager to know her thoughts on the reorganization of the Empire under the joint leadership of High Consuls Gilad Pellaeon and Leonia Tavira.

“An interesting wardrobe choice,” Talon said as he and Shada approached, “and an even more interesting entrance.”

“Hello, Karrde,” Mara said as she glanced at the skintight dress Shada was wearing. It almost looked as if it had been sprayed on. “Three?” she guessed after a moment of observation.

“Eight,” Shada replied and Mara whistled softly in admiration. Barring specialized equipment, she didn’t know if she could conceal that many weapons on her person while wearing a dress that sheer.

“Do I want to know what you two are talking about?” Karrde asked. He seemed incapable of tearing his eyes away from Shada, Mara noticed with a poorly hidden smile.

“Mara was complimenting me on my dress,” Shada said before frowning. “Ten?” she guessed.

“Two,” Mara replied, her hands instinctively dropping to the silver cylinders hanging from her belt. She flushed slightly at the surprised yet knowing look in Shada’s eyes, but quickly changed the subject. “Karrde,” she said calmly, “I need Ghent to take a look at clearing out the gremlins from my transceiver array.” His eyebrows shot up at the coded reference to her need for new transponder codes, but that was the only indication of surprise.

“I’ll see if I can’t arrange something,” he replied calmly. As he began to turn away, he smirked. “The last time I saw him,” he remarked, the innuendo in his words leaving no doubt who he was referring to, “he was heading toward the balconies.” Chuckling at his own joke, Karrde began leisurely walking toward Garm bel Iblis, newly re-elected to represent Corellia in the Senate, and a stiff-looking Ackbar.

“Only two?” Shada asked softly, a smile in her eyes. “Truly?” Mara shrugged.

“Does the Force count as a weapon?” she asked. The older woman laughed lightly before gliding forward to join Talon.

As she made her way toward the balconies, Mara gave the Rogues a wide berth while they relived the Battle of Korriban for the benefit of Colonel Katarn and Major Horn, neither of whom were openly wearing lightsabers. Katarn gave her a nod of greeting, but Horn openly smiled at her distinctive choice of clothes before discreetly directing her attention toward a familiar-looking NRI agent skulking near the group who was trying – but failing – to look like he belonged in the cluster of pilots. The man’s presence nearly caused her to frown, especially since he was actively searching for someone. Mara assumed it could only mean one thing: Luke had disappeared. An even more recognizable presence in the Force caused her to angle toward a particular balcony.

“When did he leave?” she asked the moment she stepped through the doorway, and Han Solo glanced over his shoulder to smirk at her. An empty wine glass was resting on top of the stone railing that encircled balcony and, even without touching it, Mara knew it had been Luke’s. His intoxicating Force presence lingered behind him, like a pleasant cologne or musk, and seemed centered upon the fluted glass.

“And hello to you too, Jade,” Solo said before returning to his study of the Coruscant skyline. He had a square glass of his own in hand and a bottle of something alcoholic was half-concealed beside the open door. Mara sniffed, recognizing the distinct smell of vintage Whyren's Reserve. “Pretty night,” the Corellian remarked as he sipped his whiskey. His eyes were dancing with humor as he gave her a sidelong glance and Mara sighed.

“Yes,” she said heavily in response to his unspoken question, “I’m looking for Luke.” Solo’s smirk grew wider. “So if you could just tell me where he went and when, that’d be great.”

“Can’t,” Solo said.

“Can’t or won’t?” Mara asked, wondering how Luke kept from strangling this man. She had obviously underestimated Skywalker’s strength of will.

“Can’t,” the Corellian repeated. He calmly sipped from his glass.

“I have a lightsaber,” Mara announced abruptly, “and if you don’t start making sense right now, I’m going to use it.” Solo laughed.

“If that’s supposed to intimidate me, sister,” he said, “try again.” He grinned. “Or you could just ask politely,” he added. “It’s what normal people do when asking friends questions.”

“He left!” Organa-Solo’s voice prevented Mara from making an immediate response and she took a step away from Solo as Skywalker’s sister swept onto the balcony, her Force presence flickering with annoyance. Leia gave Mara a quick glance before focusing her ire on her husband. “He didn’t even tell me he was leaving!”

“He does that,” Mara pointed out without thinking, “when he doesn’t want to argue with someone.” Too late, she realized her mistake: she was telling the two people in the galaxy who knew Skywalker better than she did about his personality. Already, Han was smirking, his eyes twinkling with poorly suppressed mischief, while Leia was studying her with another one of her appraising looks. Before the chancellor could speak, a golden protocol droid bustled out of the ballroom.

“Mistress Leia!” the droid exclaimed, almost vibrating in its eagerness to get her attention. “Mistress Leia!” Organa-Solo closed her eyes in mild annoyance before turning to face the droid. “You asked to be reminded about Consul Tavira’s itinerary,” the droid said quickly. “She’s scheduled to depart in twenty minutes.”

“Thank you, Threepio,” Leia said. She inhaled deeply, donning her false smile as she did. “Duty calls,” she murmured, directing her words to Han, before striding back into the ballroom, the golden protocol droid a half-step behind her. Solo’s eyes followed his wife’s exit and Mara couldn’t help but to notice the worry in the Corellian’s expression. Under the weight of her understanding gaze, he exhaled softly and returned his look to the Coruscant skyline.

“If you leave now,” Solo said softly, “you might be able to catch him before he leaves.”

“He’s leaving?” Mara asked with a frown. Understanding came at once. “He’s going after her,” she guessed. Solo nodded. Mara sighed and pulled the beckon call for her speeder off her belt. For some reason, Han chuckled as she activated the device.

“Keep an eye on him for me, will ya?” he asked. Mara nodded.

“I’ll do my best,” she replied before springing over the side of the balcony. Solo’s laughter followed her.

|-*-|

Her presence sang to him and Luke Skywalker looked up from the task before him, a smile on his face.

He had returned to the Jedi Temple to gather key artifacts he didn’t want to fall into the hands of non-Jedi while he was away and had been in the process of finishing his packing when he sensed Mara’s arrival. Artoo’s excited greeting of her – a wild cacophony of beeps, chirps and whistles – echoed through the cavernous Temple and spoiled any ideas she may have had about surprising him. Hefting his travel bag, he gave the peaceful meditation chamber another quick look before turning to meet her.

“Going somewhere?” Mara asked as he walked down the stairs. She was leaning against one of the temple pillars, arms crossed and expression bland, but Luke knew she was fully aware of everything around her. Light streamed in from the towering windows, bathing her with the purest of radiance, and Luke’s breath caught at the vision before him. In that moment, he decided, she could not have been more lovely.

“I’m hoping to,” he admitted, smiling as he took in her choice of clothes. Mara flushed slightly under his appraisal, but said nothing. Luke’s smile broadened. “You wouldn’t happen to know somebody with a fast ship,” he said as he covered the distance between them, “who could smuggle me off-planet, would you?”

“Smuggling is illegal, Master Jedi,” Mara retorted with a soft smile of her own, “especially here in the capital.”

“Then think of it as … hostage rescue,” Luke said. He drew abreast of her and lowered the bag to the floor. “Help me, Mara Jade,” he added, injecting a note of pleading in his voice, “you’re my only hope.”

“Somehow,” she replied, “I doubt that.” She studied him a moment longer. “I might be able to squeeze you into my busy schedule,” she said after a moment, “but only if Artoo comes along.” The astromech responded to that with a jubilant series of hoots and tweets, and Luke smiled.

“I don’t go anywhere without him anyway,” he said before patting the droid. “He keeps me out of trouble.” The wry electronic raspberry Artoo gave the comment caused Mara to laugh.

“He tries,” she corrected with a smile.

“Tell you what,” Luke said quickly, the words tumbling out of his mouth before he was entirely aware of what he was saying, “I’ll cover all your expenses. Think of it as a long-term charter.” He gave her another grin. “Besides,” he added, “I figure you want off this planet as much as I do.”

“Probably more,” she admitted. “I keep expecting NRI to throw me into a cell and keep me there.” She gave him a long look before nodding. “Standard rates apply, plus thirty percent for hazardous duty.”

“Ten percent,” Luke argued. “You like danger, remember?” To his delight, Mara blushed at the reminder of her words over Korriban and she nodded in silent agreement. Without another word, she turned away.

Grinning, Luke lifted his travel back and followed her, barely dodging out of the way as Artoo raced ahead of him.

Thirty minutes later, he was aboard the Second Chance as Mara readied the freighter for departure. It felt odd not having the Noghri aboard, and Luke silently decided to suggest they deviate to Honoghr to see about picking them up. He reflexively took the pilot’s seat and began running through the pre-flight.

“Don’t get too comfortable there, Farmboy,” Mara told him as she entered the cockpit moments later. “This is still my ship.”

“Sorry,” Luke muttered as he started to stand up. Mara surprised him once more when she dropped her hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down into the seat.

“We may need some of your fancy flying on the way out of here,” she said as she slid into the co-pilot’s chair. “I don’t think the NRI would be happy knowing we’re leaving without permission.”

“Right.” Luke gave her a quick glance. “You’re not carrying anything illegal, are you?”

“Only an annoying Jedi Master and his crazy droid,” came her quick response. She activated the comm. “Control, this is Nostrum Fortuna on Platform seven-two-three requesting departure.”

“Stand by, Platform seven-two-three.” Luke held his breath during the brief pause. “You are cleared for departure, Nostrum Fortuna. Clear skies.”

The tension didn’t entirely leave his shoulders until they broke atmosphere and the sky fell away, revealing the endless blanket of stars. With Coruscant behind him and Mara at his side, Luke suddenly felt whole again, a feeling he’d missed in the long month since Korriban. He exhaled in sudden relief and leaned back into the chair.

“So,” Mara said softly, trailing off almost before she began. Luke gave her a sidelong long before replying.

“So,” he repeated, smiling softly at the slightly shy glance she gave him. Who would ever believe, he wondered, that Mara Jade could be shy?

“We should talk,” she muttered, her eyes riveted on her controls, “about the kiss.”

“What about it?” Luke fought back a laugh at her suddenly outraged expression.

“You kissed me,” Jade accused and his smile grew.

“The way I remember it,” he pointed out with a grin, “you kissed me. Not the other way around.” It was the wrong thing to say and he knew it, but his brain seemed to be two steps behind his mouth. Her temper flared, hot and fast.

“Look, Skywalker,” she snapped, anger causing her eyes to glitter like emeralds, “just because you hired my ship doesn’t mean you get to sleep in my bed. I’m not a whore!” Instantly, Luke’s mirth vanished as he realized what this was about: she was confused and instinctively lashed out.

“I know that,” he nearly whispered. He leaned toward her slightly, making sure to not invade her personal space while letting her know that he meant what he said. Mara was, at the best of times, prickly and he didn’t want to get this new partnership off on the wrong foot. “I don’t want you to think that you owe me anything, Mara.” She gave him a searching look and it took every gram of Luke’s self-control to not take her hand when he saw the fear lurking in her eyes.

“Stang, Skywalker,” she muttered a heartbeat later, “you know how I am.” It was said softly, with a hint of the old bitterness and more than a little despair. Luke nodded in understanding; the psychological damage Palpatine had inflicted upon her was appalling and not a day passed that Mara didn’t experience another reminder of how emotionally crippled she was. Gestures most people took for granted left her reeling in confusion or fear; her reflexive sarcasm was armor against most people comprehending her trust issues. A million deaths aren’t enough for that bastard, Luke reflected darkly.

“I do,” he said simply in response to her comment. This time he did take her hand, smiling at the way she stared at their intertwined fingers with wide and deceptively innocent-looking eyes. “Never forget,” Luke told her calmly, “that I am your friend, Mara. Before anything else you want us to be.” He felt a light mental caress as she reached out with the Force and, to prove how much he trusted her, kept his barriers down.

“Thank you,” she murmured, still staring at their joined hands. Once again, Luke fought to keep from smiling at the innocence she exuded. Meaningless sex she understood, but honest caring? Genuine emotions? Those were completely foreign to her.

And he desperately wanted to be the one to teach her about them.

“We can talk about it when you’re ready to talk about it.” Luke let go of her hand and pretended not to notice how skittish she looked in this moment. “Besides,” he said with faux annoyance, “I think Shira is going to be lying low for a while. So we’ve got plenty of time.”

“Did you love her?” The question seemed to come out of nowhere and Luke gave Mara a surprised look. He couldn’t help but to notice how she avoided meeting his eyes and, from his sense of her, he recognized how important the answer was.

“No,” he said truthfully. “I was infatuated with her,” Luke continued, pretending not to notice her relieved exhalation at the statement, “but I never loved her.”

“Then why…” She trailed off, clearly unsure how to phrase her question.

“Because I’m responsible for what she’s become,” he revealed. Mara gave him a frown.

So he told her everything, from his first meeting with Shira when she was infiltrating the Alliance at Vader’s behest to their climatic duel on Kinooine when he left her for dead. He left nothing out, not even his overwhelming sense of guilt over the injuries she’d suffered because of his actions or his still unresolved anger at his father for having used her in the fashion he did. Mara said nothing, offered no judgment as he laid out the damning case, but her eyes softened fractionally. When he finished, she sat silently for a long moment.

“You’re too hard on yourself,” Mara said flatly, as if pronouncing a verdict. “Some people can’t be saved,” she added, unconsciously echoing Han’s words from earlier. Luke started to frown, started to point out that she was similar to Shira in many ways, but Mara spoke again. “But if you say this is what you need to do,” she said, “then I’ve got your back one hundred percent.” She flushed under his intense scrutiny and gestured to the controls. “Where do we start?” she asked calmly.

“Korriban,” Luke decided. It was a longshot, but there might be something within the debris of the station that could give them insight into where Shira was hiding.

“Wonderful,” Mara snarked. “Another long voyages with just you for company? I must be insane.” Once more, she was retreating behind her mask of sarcasm. Luke wasn’t fooled though; he could see the cracks. Even more telling, though, was that she seemed okay with him seeing through them. We’re going to be okay, he mused with a happy smile as he turned his attention back to the task before them.

|-*-|

The task before her seemed to be impossible.

Standing before the lip of the mighty canyon, the woman who had once been Shira Elan Colla Brie screamed her hatred and fury into the uncaring sky. The debris field from the destroyed space station stretched out for hundreds of kilometers in all directions, littering the landscape with the shattered shards of broken hopes and dreams, and she let her hate for the man responsible course through her veins. A single, immutable promise pounded through her mind:

She would kill Luke Skywalker.

Before her wrath, rocks shattered and exploded, sending tiny fragments spinning through the air like shrapnel. Dirt erupted before her Force scream, showering the canyon with billions of tiny pebbles. Wind wailed around her, howling along with her and slamming into the stone walls with hurricane force. A moment later, her anger waned and the storm slowly subsided.

In its wake, it left only destruction.

Through the Force, Lumiya could sense one of her mute servants calling out to her and she slowly began to walk in the direction of the summons. Her disfigured face was concealed by cloth wrappings and the rhythmic sound of the respirator keeping her alive echoed loudly in the implants that had long ago replaced her auditory nerves. A sharp pain began building at the base of her skull, a familiar agony that had become her constant companion in the years since she’d been reborn.

She paused to stare at a curious rock outcropping and tilted her head to observe it. In a certain light, it almost looked like her face before Skywalker betrayed her and left her for dead. Fury bubbled up from within her stomach and she vented her wrath against the outcropping, exploding it with a concentrated Force blow. She spent long moments there, smashing all traces of the rock formation with the power at her fingertips, before finally turning away and resuming her slow descent into the canyon.

Once again, her eyes – or rather, the cybernetic implants that had replaced her eyes an eternity ago – drifted to the debris field stretching out around her. It was all that remained of ten years of long and difficult work. An entire decade of deceit and stealth washed away because of a fool she’d once thought worthy of the title Sith. If Veng’yr were not dead already, she would kill him. Or her. Lumiya touched her forehead as she tried to coax the memory of Veng’yr’s face back into her mind’s eye, but to no avail. The damage was too great. Once more, agony pulsed through her mind and she rode the wave of misery, focusing it into strength. Your pain can make you strong, she recited mentally. Use it or be destroyed by it.

Closer she drew to the waiting servant and, with each step, her despair grew. A decade lost hung heavy upon her shoulders and she tried to control her fury. There were only a few dozen servants remaining yet loyal to her and already, her other treacherous apprentice had moved against her holdings before she could replenish them. Lumiya knew not how Darth Vidious learned of her cloning banks, nor how she – or was it he? Through the haze of the mindpain that had become her constant companion, Lumiya could not recall – was able to mount a strike against them so quickly. None of it mattered, though. Her greatest prize, the one true servant she’d spent a decade perfecting was lost.

Lost, like her.

You are a failure, the spirits of long-dead Sith masters whispered to her across the wind, stirring in their silent tombs hundreds of kilometers away. Our legacy will die because you have failed.

Shut up! she tried to snarl, but it came out hard and foreign from the vocabulator that had long ago replaced a throat too damaged to work again.

Failure, said the wind. Failure, repeated the sun. Failure, groaned the earth.

The servant reached for her through the Force once again, begging for her notice, and Lumiya turned the full might of her fury upon him. He she could touch. Bones splintered, blood vessels ruptured, and flesh tore at her gesture. The servant collapsed, a blood-drenched sack of lifeless flesh, and she gestured once, hurling him from her sight. He smashed against the cliff face with a wet, pulpy sound, but already, he was gone from her thoughts. Instead, her eyes were locked upon the scorched and blackened husk of metal protruding from the ground. Had she lungs, her breath would have caught. Were she capable of it, anticipation would have caused her heart to race.

But such emotions were beyond her now, so she merely hated less.

At her gesture, the ground trembled and shook as Lumiya called upon the Force to extract the massive cylinder. She could sense the approach of her remaining servants, but focused the entirety of her being upon the hardened container before. Reaching out with a trembling hand, she brushed dirt from the access panel. An application of the Force snapped the panel open, revealing a row of blinking lights. A foreign sensation crawled within her gut and she vaguely recognized it as hope.

Closing the ocular implants that served as eyes, she strained with the Force and lifted the container free of its earthly prison. Holding it aloft with a firm telekinetic grip, she slowly maneuvered it to a more level clearing before easing it to the ground. Rocks crumbled under its ponderous weight and Lumiya touched her fingers to the access pad. Upon recognition of the coded entry, the heavy blast shielding retracted to reveal a fully functional Spaarti cylinder.

And the one servant who would never betray her.

Joy burst through Lumiya’s mind, burning her with its intensity, and she pushed the painful emotion away with a grimace as she focused on comprehending the data crawling across the access port. Secondary power circuits were functioning and there was no indication of failure. She ignored the pain in her head as she stared at the features of the servant she’d risked so much for. It was for him that she’d sent her Reborn legions into the galaxy so he could reap the benefit of their experience. It was for him that she’d dared to return to Korriban despite the dangers present. It was for him she’d faced death traps to recover obsolete ships of war and genetic material from secret Imperial archives. He would be reborn soon and be ready to take his place at her side.

Soon, my love, Lumiya crooned as she stroked the transparisteel surface of the cylinder. If she had lips, she would smile. Soon, we will be together again and the galaxy will burn…

But the clone of Anakin Skywalker did not reply.



The End

Watch for Episode II: Shattered Dreams coming…



In regards to Lumiya, I figure some notes need to be included for those of you who know her from the profic (not my version) and those of you who don't know a thing about her. Elements of her backstory from the Marvel Comics run in the 80s remain intact: she was a Force-sensitive operative/apprentice sent to infiltrate the Alliance and locate Skywalker at the behest of Vader; like Mara, she had red hair and green eyes; she was (briefly) a love interest for Skywalker, though its fairly probable this was simply to get closer to him and not due to any actual feelings for him; she was accidentally shot down during a SpecOps mission by Luke when he used the Force to determine threats (his targeting system was offline or something) - she pinged as a threat so he vaped her without knowing who he was shooting at; she survived and was heavily cyborged (at Vader's orders) so she could continue to survive; she later fought Luke on Kinooine. Beyond those elements, however, I'm discarding ALL other elements (as far as the Heroes of Yavin are concerned, she died on Kinooine when Luke kicked her ass and did not follow them to Saijo) and the various retcons put into place by the EU to shoehorn her back into continuity (specifically that she was an Emperor's Hand like Mara - at no time did my version ever have contact with Palpatine and its unknown whether the Emperor even knew of her existence. For that matter, Mara never interacted with her and had never even heard of her prior to this). So, anything you know about her from Del Rey's latest abortion or think you know based on EU retcons, toss them out the window if they're not covered by the above.

'Cause I did.