Leia returned to her suite exhausted from the day's long council meetings. The news of the Sun Crusher's activities had sparked a major debate, with arguments ranging from fear and outrage to applause for the elimination of the hard line Imperial Academy world of Carida. Throughout the vicious "I told you so" and "Empire lover" accusations, Leia had been hard pressed to keep from becoming just as rowdy as the rest. From her position at the front of the chamber, she realized that the dominant feeling, despite the ferocity of the debate, was one of fear.
A motive was easily established in the destruction of Carida. But the Cauldron Nebula was another matter. Uninhabited, there was no logical reason for it to have been targeted. Speculations had run wild, even including a rumor that two Star Destroyers were the intended victims of the seven-star detonation. And if whoever was flying the Sun Crusher would destroy seven stars to kill two Star Destroyers, who could say what he would do if an Imperial fleet just happened to be near, say, Coruscant when he found them?
Leia sighed as she entered her personal code in the door lock. She had barely succeeded in adjourning the session, and was eager to get at least a little sleep before going back, though she seriously doubted sleep would come. The door slid open. Han stood at the door with a face that sent a shiver down Leia's spine.
"Why didn't you tell me?" he asked, his voice every bit as frightening as his face.
"Tell you what?" Leia replied weakly.
"Don't give me that. You know perfectly well what I'm talking about. The Sun Crusher's been used, hasn't it?"
"Han, I... I didn't want to tell you because you've taken this matter with Kyp so hard. I was afraid of what you might do. Han, please don't let Luke know yet. He..."
"He already knows," Luke replied from the couch in the next room. He walked in and stood next to Han. "You should have told us right away. Instead, we've been wasting time here."
"Luke, you're still in no condition to be chasing after the Sun Crusher. I knew you'd want to run off as soon as I told you. Same with you, Han."
"Well what do you expect? I'm the one responsible."
"No, Han, I'm to blame. He was my student, and I failed him. I let him fall to the Dark Side."
"Well, before he was your student, he was my friend. I brought him to Yavin, if you recall."
"Stop it, both of you!" Leia shouted. This is just the thing I hoped to avoid. You two blaming yourselves, then rushing off on a reckless pursuit of the Sun Crusher."
"So that's what we're supposed to do next. I was so busy blaming myself I forgot. Thanks for reminding me, sweetheart," Han said with a slight grin.
Leia scowled at him. "I knew it would happen eventually. I just hoped to delay it. Guess I was fooling myself."
"Leia," Luke said, "I understand your concern. You're placing your family first. But we're dealing with potentially billions of lives, and that's more important. And I know you understand that."
"But what are you going to do? He's in an indestructible ship that can blow up stars!"
"Last I saw him, we were still friends. He might listen to me," Han replied. "It's the best chance we've got."
"No buts. Leia, this is not only the best chance, but the only chance. You and the senate can talk all you want, but there's nothing any of you can do. This is our problem."
"Han..." Leia started. She stopped short, coming to grips with the fact that Han was right. She didn't like it, but she had to admit it was true. "Han, Luke, please be careful."
"Hey, I'm always a careful guy."
"Han, I mean it," Leia said. She leaned closer to her husband, and spoke again in a strangely suggestive tone. "You will be careful."
"I will be careful," Han repeated.
"You will take no unnecessary risks."
"I will take... Hey! Cut that out!" Han said, shaking himself loose from Leia's Force influence. He then turned to Luke. "Come on, kid. Let's get the Falcon ready."
He felt awake, yet asleep. Things looked real, but at the same time, unreal. The only truly appropriate description he could apply was dark. A simultaneously tangible and intangible darkness that surrounded him. He had no idea how long or how briefly he had been here, having lost all sense of time. Whenever something seemed to take form, it would quickly blur away, blending back into the darkness. There was no sound; not even that of his own breathing and heartbeat. In this place, he couldn't even truly confirm his own presence, much less anything else.
Some time had passed. Or had it? He really didn't know. At some point, one of the shapes had become more seemingly solid than those he had seen before it. It gradually took on the hazy shape of a man standing in front of him. More curious still was that this mysterious figure seemed to be even darker than the blackness that surrounded him. He contemplated speaking, but the figure spoke first.
"Who... who are you?"
"Kyp, I am here to help you. You have done well so far, but you are in need of further guidance."
"Exar Kun, is that you?"
"Yes, Kyp. It is. I have been watching you. You have grown in the Dark Side. But you do not yet realize what you are meant to accomplish."
"Exar Kun, tell me what you mean! I don't understand."
"Your anger and hatred toward the Empire has made you powerful. You have used this power to destroy some of them. This step is just the beginning."
"Yes, Exar Kun. It is just the beginning! I will destroy the Empire, a system at a time, until it is wiped from the galaxy without a trace!"
"Kyp, your desire for revenge is admirable, but misguided. You want to punish the Empire for what they did to you. Good. But is destroying them all truly the best revenge? Wouldn't it be better to do to them what they did to you? You have the power to make the Empire into your servants."
"I don't need servants."
"What is the Dark Lord of the Sith without his minions? No, Kyp. For the galaxy to know your power, you must show that you can subjugate and control your enemy as well as destroy him. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, I see it now," Kyp replied, noticing that the figure of Kun had by this time become the only absolutely solid thing around him. "Just one thing, though. I must kill Admiral Daala. The rest I will enslave, but she dies. No one orders me executed and lives!"
"Yes! Draw on your hatred! None can stand in your way! Soon, Daala will be dead at your hands, and the Empire will be yours to command!"
"Exar Kun, will you continue to help me?"
"Of course, Kyp. Now go."
The image of Kun faded quickly, and Kyp was again in the thick black nothingness. But gradually, his body felt more and more real until, finally, he opened his eyes
He was still aboard the Sun Crusher. He could see nothing nearby, but quickly remembered where he was: near the place that Carida no longer inhabited. He had no idea how far the shock wave had carried him, but it really didn't matter. He started the navicomputer on calculating position and plotting courses for other Imperial held worlds.
In a polished panel, he caught a glimpse of himself, and almost shouted in fear. He had been unconscious for longer than he had thought. A thick layer of stubble and dried blood covered his face. He found a hideous gash on the side of his head, then located the blood stained spot on the cockpit frame that the shockwave of Caridia's exploding star had thrown him against. He realized that he should have died from it. But he hadn't. A wave of proud defiance came over him. "I am the Dark Lord of the Sith!" he declared aloud. "Nothing can stop me!"
Brimming with confidence and pride, he selected a destination from the ones the navicomputer had come up with. He sat back in the pilot seat and drew on the Force to pull back the hyperspace levers. With the streaking of the stars, the Sun Crusher jumped to lightspeed, on its way to confront the Empire again.
"Master Skywalker, please take us with you!"
"No, this is my mission."
Kam and Streen stood near the Millennium Falcon's ramp, trying to present their case to Luke Skywalker, who was quite preoccupied with stocking up the ship for its imminent departure.
"But we can help you," Kam said. "You couldn't handle Kyp alone, but maybe we could together."
"Artoo, check the ramp servos while you're over there," Luke said before turning his attention back to his former students. "Kam, Streen, listen to me. I appreciate this. But I will not allow novice Jedi lay their lives on the line for my own mistakes."
"But you could train us while we search," the normally quiet Streen replied. "There would only be two of us. Or one, if you only allow one of us to go."
"I figured as much. Look, I am not ready to teach you. After I return, I may be. But not before."
"But Master Skywalker!" Kam pleaded.
"Don't call me that! I am not a Jedi Master."
"You can't just demote yourself like that!"
"Why not? I had the audacity to declare myself a Master in the first place!"
"But you had to! There are no other Masters alive who could have promoted you!"
"And there are no other Masters who could slap me back in line."
"Hey Luke, I don't want to be bossy, but could you give me a hand down here?" Han shouted from outside.
"Sorry, Han. I'll be right there." He turned back to Kam and Streen. "Perhaps after I confront Kyp, I will be a Master. But not before. I promised that I will teach you, and I meant it. Be patient."
Kam and Streen turned to leave, disappointed. Luke followed them out of the Falcon.
"Remember, the Force will always be with you," Luke said as they headed off toward the hangar's turbolift with their backs to him.
Luke joined Han at one of the Falcon's always open access ports. He glanced back again, just in time to see Streen throw a quick glance back at him before the turbolift doors closed. I will make it up to them, Luke promised himself.
A tear slid down Leia's face. In the distance, the Millennium Falcon was merely a bright speck. Soon, it disappeared entirely. Her brother and husband were off again, trying to save the galaxy, while she stayed at home, playing political babysitter. She shuddered, realizing what she had just equated her position in the New Republic to. Here she was, the acting chief of state of the new galactic republic, but she couldn't do anything about the situation from there. Except keep the senators from ripping each other apart in debate, and taking the Republic with them. And with Mon Mothma showing no signs of improvement, and all signs of deterioration, she had her work cut out for her. Before she turned to head inside, she quietly whispered.
"I love you Han. I love you Luke. May the Force be with you."
After the last of the Maw scientists were escorted out of the Grand Admiral's chamber, Captain Pellaeon entered. He stood at attention, waiting for Thrawn to address him. He didn't have to wait long.
"It would appear that the researchers we captured are really nothing more than boastful intellectuals."
"What do you mean, sir?"
"I mean, Captain, that these Maw scientists had almost nothing to do with the Sun Crusher. Though they fell all over themselves trying to take credit for it."
"But if they didn't design it, who did?"
"Another scientist who escaped with Han Solo. She is the one responsible for it. And from the way the others denied it, I think she had much to do with the Death Star as well."
"Then we must get her back!"
"I'm having intelligence look into the matter right away. This is not to say that I intend to ignore the Sun Crusher in the meantime. As arrogant as they may be, the others did give me a small amount of useful information about the Sun Crusher. You have something to report, Captain?"
"Yes sir," Pellaeon replied, shaken by the sudden change of subject. "A report from the Star Destroyer Relentless."
"Does Captain Dorja report success?"
"No, sir. At least, not with the intended goal. The slicer escaped."
"Then what goal did he succeed in, Captain?"
"He lost the slicer due to the intervention of an unexpected party, which he did manage to capture. One that happens to be on the dispatch of most wanted offenders that you sent to the fleet."
"Exchanging an urgent detain order with a standing one is unacceptable, Captain. Disciplinary measures are in order."
"Sir, Captain Dorja stated that his intentions were nothing of the sort. He stated that the slicer would have been apprehended if not for the interference of the 'Emperor's Hand.'"
"Mara Jade is aboard the Relentless?"
"Yes, sir. Her identity is confirmed."
"This changes matters considerably. I want her brought to me as soon as Dorja returns."
"As you wish, sir."