IT IS ONE YEAR AFTER THE DEATH OF DARK JEDI
MALARIN BELSARIOS, AND PRINCESS LEIA ORGANA
SOLO, FORMER CHIEF OF STATE, HAS RESUMED HER
PREVIOUS POSITION AS MINISTER OF STATE AND IS
DEEPLY INVOLVED IN THE PLANNING OF A MAJOR
ECONOMIC SUMMIT OF NEW REPUBLIC LEADERS. HER
BROTHER, JEDI MASTER LUKE SKYWALKER, A JEDI
ADVISOR AND AMBASSADOR TO THE SENATE, IS
RETURNING TO CORUSCANT AFTER A FRUSTRATING AND
LARGELY UNSUCCESSFUL DIPLOMATIC MISSION TO THE
MEANWHILE, DEEP BENEATH THE GROUND OF A
FROZEN PLANET, A NEW "IMPERIAL" PLOT IS TAKING
A thin, angular figure heavily bundled into a chiana fur parka trudged through the deep, blinding white snow, heading for the only nearby shelter: a small warming hut. Upon entering the tiny cabin, the figure shrugged off the parka's hood, revealing a long mass of black hair and a human female face, beautiful in spite of the lines that were beginning to etch their way around dark eyes. She shook her head, snow falling out of the places in her hair where it had managed to get past the voluminous hood. Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a small device, tugged off one fur-lined glove with her teeth, and punched a combination of numbers into the device. A soft mechanical hum sounded, very out of context in the simple wood cabin. Even more incongruous was the smooth, modern metallic lift that rose effortlessly out of the thick wood floor and the two armed guards that rose up with it.
"My lady," one of them gave a curt nod and took a small sidestep to allow her room to stand beside him.
She boarded the lift, nodding in return, keeping her face a careful, solemn mask as the lift began its long, slow descent. It was almost difficult to contain the feeling of glee that suddenly came upon her--and it wasn't just the planet's fabled atmosphere that had her feeling giddy, either.
Finally, after years of service to the Emperor as his Hand, after years of hiding and plotting after his death, after the false start eight years ago attempting to claim what was rightfully hers, her time was now finally at hand.
No, she corrected herself. Her son's time was at hand.
Eight years ago he had not been ready; at fourteen years of age he had still been a boy, unable to control his fits of temper and his own emerging power. Now he was a man, twenty-two standard years. He was still willful and uncontrollable, but then so was his father. And he was strong with the Force. The powerful side of the Force. The dark side.
He would make a commanding Emperor and she, the Queen Mother.
As the lift carried Roganda Ismaren down beneath the planet's frozen ground to where her son, her genius Irek, was attending to the final details, she had to force herself not to clap her hands in joy--very unbecoming of a lady in her position. Only one more week before they could strike their devastating blow to the New Republic (she couldn't contain the sour smirk that came unbidden at the thought of the so-called Galactic Government) and the galaxy would once again know the rule of a true leader, a true heir to the Emperor's throne. His Royal Highness, Emperor Irek Palpatine.
Luke Skywalker sighed deeply as he walked through the corridors of the Imperial Palace on Coruscant. It was good to be back--especially after Kinyen. It was so frustrating, when he was ready and able to help them.
I'm getting too old for this, he thought to himself, though he knew it wasn't really true. While he was no longer the brash teenager who thought nothing of dashing into detention areas to rescue captured princesses, he was only thirty-seven. Mon Mothma had lead the entire Rebel Alliance when she was in her forties; there was no reason that he should feel old. But there was no question, all the bickering and squabbling about his personal life was so tiresome and exasperating. That's what made him feel old.
Luke took a deep breath to clear his head. No point in dwelling on that now. The only thing he wanted to think about right now was spending time with Mara Jade.
Mara. Now there was someone who in one instance could make him feel young, then the next feel ancient. Their relationship over the past year had been a rollicking speeder- bike ride: going smoothly along, then all of the sudden--wham! Slam on the brakes or collide with a giant tree trunk. With virtually no effort he could ignite her fiery temper and they would have a shouting match that could probably be heard throughout the Imperial Palace. But they always made up again.
And the make-ups were well worth the fights, he thought with a wicked grin.
But lately it seemed that they hadn't had enough time for either fights or make-ups. He hadn't seen Mara in over three weeks--and then it was only for two days. Between his new duties as Jedi Liaison to the Senate and her trade business with Talon Karrde, one of them always seemed to be headed off-world just as the other one returned. It was a bit aggravating--he finally had a relationship with someone who actually lived on the same planet and they still never saw each other.
Today would be no different. If they were lucky they'd get a few moments together before Luke got hauled off for another interminable debriefing on yet another unsuccessful effort. Then it was off to Yavin 4 for two days to check on the Academy, which he also had not seen for a while.
But then, after Yavin 4, one blissful week. Somehow, some way, he and Mara had both managed to clear a week-- the same week--from their schedules to go away together. A camping trip to a mountainous, forested planet known as Sanoi. After that, they would once again hit the ground running: the New Republic leaders were convening a very important economic summit on the planet Kyth. But at least they would be at the same place at the same time for that one. Along with Leia, Han, Ally, Tom, it would almost be a family reunion--but for the hundreds of New Republican dignitaries from every planet and system in the New Republic. I wonder if all family reunions consist of sisters, their husbands, their children--and hundreds of New Republic dignitaries, he wondered with tight grin. Must be a Skywalker thing.
But that was still more than a week away, after Sanoi, after Yavin 4...
And after tonight.
His let his frustrations from Kinyen and all the busy-ness evaporate as soon as he was standing before the door to Mara's apartment. She must have sensed his presence because she had the door open before he even pushed the ringer. She looked dazzling in an oversized green tunic belted at the waist and form-fitting black leggings, her long red hair spilling loose over her shoulders. Like Luke, Mara was thirty- seven standard years, but her slender build and dancer's grace belied her age. The only noticeable indication that she was not in her twenties were the fine lines around her emerald eyes and the creases in her forehead from years of scowling.
"Luke!" she cried, her usually hard-edged face softening in surprise. "You're back early!" She stepped aside and let him into the room, then embraced him tightly.
"I missed you," he whispered huskily into her hair.
"Me too," she replied, then kissed him deeply. When they parted she looked up at him, studying his face. She frowned. "You look tired. Rough time with the Grans?" The Grans were the main species that inhabited Kinyen. "Or are you just tired of being Mon Mothma's errand boy."
"This is very important, Mara--she can't do it all alone," Luke bristled, feeling suddenly defensive for the New Republic's first leader.
"I know, I know, all hail the Great Mon-Mothma, who knows no wrong and--"
"Mara..." Luke interrupted.
"What?" she asked innocently, voice heavy with sarcasm. "Isn't free speech still sacred in the New Republic? Or is that a privilege enjoyed only by its leaders? Certainly Mon Mothma's been having her fill of things to say about me."
Luke started to reply, but she cut him off. "But that doesn't answer my question. How did it go with the Grans?"
"Don't ask," Luke grimaced.
"Uh-oh. Why don't we sit down and you can tell me all about it."
"I just got back and you wanna talk?" Luke asked, eyes twinkling mischievously as he tried a near desperate ploy to change the subject.
Mara rolled her eyes, her sudden tempest gone as quickly as it had come. "Cool your jets, flyboy, and tell me about Kinyen."
Luke laughed in spite of himself as he followed her to the couch, where she sat in the corner, tucking her legs up underneath her. He sat down beside her and she pulled him close so that he was leaning back against her shoulder. He sighed deeply; it was good to be home even for a short while.
"There's not much to tell, really," Luke began. "I had to waste a lot of time on political red tape before I could even present Mon Mothma's proposal for the Economic Summit. By the time they were ready to listen to me the meeting was over." That was an oversimplification, but Luke hoped she wouldn't question him further. A vain hope, of course.
"Translation," she said, her eyes narrowing, "the Grans didn't want to take the advice of a Jedi Master who would allow himself to become involved with a former assassin for the Emperor."
So much for not being questioned further. Luke sighed again. "More or less."
It had been an on-going battle they'd faced in the year since he'd told her he loved her. It was widely known that Mara Jade had once been the Emperor's Hand--his servant, spy, assassin, whatever job Palpatine called her to do. One such assignment had been to kill Luke when he arrived at Jabba the Hutt's palace on Tatooine to rescue Han Solo some sixteen years earlier. It had been the only assignment she'd ever failed for the Emperor. A few weeks later, her Master was killed in the second Death Star above Endor, but not before giving her one last order: find and kill Luke Skywalker.
After five years and about a million fantasies about the different ways she would end his life, Mara finally came across Luke--and ended up saving his life. Despite her Imperial past, she was drawn into the fledgling New Republic's battle against Imperial Grand Admiral Thrawn. After killing a clone of Luke, the impulse the Emperor had fed her was quieted and Mara went on to become a close friend and ally. She eventually learned of the many things the Emperor had kept from her: the existence of other Hands and, more seriously, that he had ordered the death of her brother, Mykos. Her past, almost religious devotion to her Master festered into a deep loathing for him and his betrayal. She had served him well, and he had repaid her with lies and the blood of her brother.
For ten years she stayed on the outskirts of Luke's life until a mutual adversary brought them together. As Luke came to know her, he came to love her as well, seeing beyond her past and her reputation and into a heart he found quite beautiful.
"Sith, Skywalker," Mara hissed, "she's setting you up!"
Luke sat up to face her. "Mara..."
"Stop defending her! When will you realize what she is doing? Mon Mothma is deliberately sending you out on missions she knows will fail just to prove her point!"
"Do you really think my relationship with you is more important to her than the success of this summit?"
"What am I supposed to think? Did you ever consider that maybe the Grans wouldn't be so quick to question your loyalties if Mon Mothma wasn't giving them such a stunning example to follow? Do you think that there is anyone on any backwater system in the furthest reaches of the galaxy that has not heard her rather loud and frequent opinion on the topic of Jedi Masters forming relationships with ex-Imperials?"
"She--they all just need time to get used to it."
"Time?" Mara spat. "I've been risking my neck, fighting their causes for ten years now! How much more time will it take?"
Luke rubbed his temples in frustration but said nothing.
"For almost twenty years I manage to stay clear of emotional entanglements only to get involved with arguably the most noted public figure in the galaxy," she muttered.
"Don't let it get to you, Mara. It just doesn't matter what the Grans or Mon Mothma or anyone else thinks."
"Please, Skywalker," she snapped, "at least do me the favor of not pretending it doesn't bother you."
"Of course it bothers me," Luke protested. "It bothers me that people are so quick to judge."
Mara leaned back on the arm of the couch and eyed him carefully. "I don't think you completely disagree with them."
Luke opened his mouth in surprise. "How can you say that? I wouldn't be here if I didn't disagree with them! My own father was Darth Vader--who am I to judge anyone's past?" He reached out to stroke her cheek, her chin. "Besides, you know how I feel about you."
She pulled away abruptly, as if he had scalded her. Rising quickly, she snapped "Do I?"
Luke looked up at her. Somehow he had managed to once again ignite that infamous temper. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Mara gave him a vicious, icy stare. "It means I'm not stupid. I know how this has affected you. You say the past doesn't matter, but you're always finding reasons for us to be apart."
Luke stood up. "Now wait a minute," he said, trying to control the anger he could feel creeping into his words. Only Mara could bring this side out in him... "It's not like you're sitting at home waiting for me with dinner on the table."
"Is that what you expect?"
This was getting out of hand. "Of course not! I'm just saying the fact that we don't see much of each other has as much to do with your job as it does mine."
She eyed him a moment, her arms folded across her chest defiantly. "But my job and our relationship are not in conflict with each other. I'm afraid that one day you'll be forced to choose between your commitments to the New Republic and me, and I won't like your decision."
He took a step towards her, trying again to reach out for her, but she backed away from him. He blew out his breath in frustration. "Don't you know how important you are to me?"
She didn't answer him, only turned away. Luke felt his anger rise again: why could she get under his skin like this?
"I don't think you're being fair, Mara," he exploded, sounding almost like the eighteen-year-old boy he once was, complaining to his uncle about having to stay on the farm one more season. "I'm not the one who even after a year together hasn't been able to say 'I love you.'"
She turned back brusquely. "I thought you were the great Jedi Master. What do you need words for, to know how people feel?"
"It would still be nice to hear every once in a while," he shot back.
Again, she said nothing, but she was right, he could feel her emotions. He knew she loved him, it would have been clear by her actions even if he couldn't sense her emotions--at least, when she wasn't picking a fight with him--but there was also a lot of turmoil. Even after a year their relationship was still very threatening to her. He had tried to understand it, tried very hard, but she was in many ways as much a mystery to him as she ever had been. Maybe even more so. It occurred to him that maybe all this was just a way to give her more distance, to keep herself safe from the emotions that she so instinctively fought against. Finally, Luke reached for her a third time. This time he succeeded, finding himself holding her by the shoulders.
"I love you, Mara Jade," he said firmly. "I know that that is hard for you. And I don't expect you to say that to me, either. You will when you're ready." He felt her stiffen a little in resistance. "But I don't want to fight with you. We only have a couple of hours together now before I have to meet with Mon Mothma and the rest, and then Leia wants us at a family dinner before I leave for Yavin 4. But when I get back, we'll have a whole week together. No Mon Mothma, no Leia or Ally, no Talon Karrde..."
"Sure, until the next crisis comes along," she said sourly, but her face softened ever so slightly. He pulled her towards him and put his arms around her. She did not resist.
"I'm sorry," she said at length. "I don't know why I fight this so hard."
"Because every time you've put your trust in someone in the past, you've been betrayed," Luke said gently. "I know that. And I'm trying really hard not to pressure you."
"But I stand by what I said," Mara responded looking up at him. "I don't think I'm the only one who has a lot of doubts. It seems to me you may have a choice to make. Maybe our relationship and your life as a Jedi just aren't compatible."
Luke groaned. This was not how he wanted to spend their first evening together in three weeks. He coiled a strand of her hair in his fingers. "Mara, I love you. Mon Mothma and everyone else will accept that in time--they did with Leia and Han." His sister had received almost as much flack about choosing a smuggler instead of someone more suited to her royal and political upbringing.
Mara sighed, clearly unconvinced. "It's just that I'm afraid if it ever did come down to a choice between me and the vaunted ideals of the New Republic, I'd lose." She then shook her head as if to clear her mind. "But I don't want to rehash this now, not when I haven't seen you in three weeks." She leaned on his shoulder. "I'm just glad we've got a whole week on Sanoi without having to deal with anyone else."
"And a couple of hours tonight..."
Mara pushed him back playfully. "My, my, Jedi Master, just what did you have in mind?"
"Come here and I'll show you," he smiled, pulling her back towards him. Leaning down he gave her a long, slow kiss.
Now this was much more like it.
Dav Tormana walked quickly down the dusty path, his lekku, or headtails, draped around his shoulders. It was unlike his human friend to miss three days of work, and he was concerned. True, her waitress job at the Rusted Freighter cantina was far from the most important thing in her life, but Callista was nothing if not responsible. For her to call in sick three days in a row...
Finally, the Twi'lek arrived at the small bungalow his friend rented. He cautiously rapped on the door and waited. When he received no response, he tried the handle. The door was unlocked.
"Callista?" he called, peeking into the door. "Are you all right? It's Dav."
Again, no response. He grew even more worried. What if she were very ill and couldn't get to a holocomm to call someone. He quickly ran to the bedroom--where he found Callista sprawled on the floor over a pile of data cards and ancient papers.
"Callista!" he cried out. "Burning stars, are you all right?"
She opened her eyes with a start. "Dav?" she asked, sitting up and rubbing her eyes.
Dav bent down beside her. "What happened to you, are you okay?"
Callista nodded. "I fell asleep studying. What are you doing here?" Her voice sounded groggy.
"I was worried about you! You've called in sick for the past three days."
Suddenly Callista's eyes widened as she came fully awake. "That's right! Dav, I'm so glad you're here!" She threw her arms around the surprised Twi'lek's neck, almost squeezing the life out of his poor lekku.
"What is it?"
She pulled away from him and he could see an almost wild look in her eyes. Maybe she was sick.
"Dav, I think I've found the answer!" Her gray eyes were shining brightly.
Dav was confused. "Answer to what?"
She laughed. "What do you think? I think I found a way to get back my contact with the Force."
"What?" he asked her incredulously.
Callista shook her head gleefully. "No, I think I've found it. After eight years, I think I've finally found it."
Ever since he'd met Callista three years ago, when she came to this dustball backwater planet looking for a job and free time to herself, Callista had been obsessed with studying Jedi history, tradition, and folklore. After several months, they had become quite good friends and she had told him her story.
Callista had once been a Jedi Knight, back in the early days of the Empire before the Emperor had all the Jedi murdered. Her last mission had been to stop an Imperial ship, the Eye of Palpatine from carrying out its mission to destroy a planet full of Jedi children--the end result of which was Callista spirit embedding itself into the ship's computer.
There she stayed for thirty years until the ship was accidentally brought out of its hibernation by none other than Jedi hero and Master Luke Skywalker. The living Jedi and the spirit Jedi fell in love as together, with two of Luke's students, they managed to stop the ship from once again attempting its goal. In the process, one of the students, Cray Mingla, sacrificed her own life and Callista's spirit was transferred into the dying Jedi's body. But the price of the transfer was the loss of Callista's Force powers. A price Callista was not prepared to pay. Eventually she realized that she would have to set out on her own if she ever hoped to regain her missing abilities. Leaving her new love behind, she went out into the galaxy, searching for the answer to her missing powers.
"Well, what do you think?" Callista asked him, her gray eyes bright with enthusiasm.
Dav shrugged his lekku. "I don't know what to think. Are you sure?"
"Not totally," Callista admitted. "But I believe so."
"How will you do it?" he asked her.
Callista leaned forward excitedly. "Do you remember me telling you that the only way I could touch the Force was through the dark side?"
"Obviously that's unthinkable"--she shuddered involuntarily--"so I've spent the last eight years trying to bypass that to reach the light side." She paused to catch her breath. "But I've been going at it all wrong. According to these records I found--" she indicated the pile of data cards littering the floor-- "I can't circumvent the dark side--I must go through it to get to the light side."
Dav frowned. "That sounds dangerous."
"It may be," Callista agreed, though she seemed too happy to show any real concern. "But at least I have the chance to find out."
"According to most of these Jedi traditions, a Jedi initiate must face the dark side before truly becoming a Jedi. One way to do so is to find a place where the dark side is particularly strong and confront it there."
"But I don't understand," Dav shook his head, lekku swinging gracefully. "I thought you already have faced the dark side. I thought that was the problem."
"No, I had it all wrong," she clasped her hands together with joy. "I tried to do it alone. That was my mistake. What I need is help. I need another Jedi to face this with me. The light side of the Force thrives on teamwork and cooperation, not isolation. According to everything I've read the past three days, if I face the dark side with another Jedi, I can get through it and re-establish my contact with the light side."
Now Dav nodded, understanding. Another Jedi--he knew, of course, who she meant. And that was not good, if there was any truth to the rumors...
"I take it you're referring to Luke Skywalker."
She nodded. "Of course, who else would I turn to?"
The Twi'lek frowned. "But even if he does help you, where will you go to seek out this dark place?"
Callista smiled broadly. "That's the beauty of it. I already know of such a place. On Dagobah, where Luke himself trained."
"Callista," Dav interrupted. "Tell me, are you doing this for yourself or for him?"
She frowned. "Both."
Dav sighed. Obviously she still had feelings for him, despite her decision a year ago to let him go. Perhaps now was a good time to share the stories he had heard...
"Callista, I hope you're not setting yourself up for a disappointment," he began.
She shook her head vigorously. "After eight years, what have I got to lose? At least I have a chance to get my abilities back, and then..." she trailed off.
"No, I don't mean about your abilities." He paused. "You're still in love with Skywalker, aren't you?"
"Of course I am," she replied sharply, looking up at him. "Did you think I would stop loving him just because I told him he shouldn't wait for me?"
Dav took a deep breath. "Then you should know that I've heard rumors that--" he stopped short, unsure how to best put it.
"What?" Callista prompted, her brow creasing slightly.
"It is my understanding that Luke Skywalker is involved with someone."
Callista took a step backward as if he had slapped her, her gray eyes wide. After a long silence, she asked, "Are you telling me in the past year he's actually met someone?"
"No, I don't believe so," Dav shook his head slightly. "I believe the woman is someone he met long ago, before he even knew you."
Callista frowned, then abruptly her face changed to a sigh of relief. "Oh, you must mean Gaeriel Capistan! Luke told me about her when I saw him last year. She was someone he'd met right after the Emperor's death, but they couldn't be together because she was needed on her planet and he was needed elsewhere. He saw her again a couple years ago." Her face grew more serious. "She was killed during the attempted Corellian coup."
"No, that's not who I'm talking about," the Twi'lek said, concerned.
Callista frowned again. "Then who?"
"I believe her name is Mara Jade."
Her mouth popped open in surprise, her eyes widening again. "Mara Jade?" Mara Jade the Emperor's Hand? That Mara Jade?"
"No, that's not possible. Luke couldn't possibly be interested in her. Why, she's the one who came to get me last year when Luke was hurt--" her mouth suddenly snapped shut. "Oh, she maneuvered this beautifully, didn't she? She must have known that I couldn't stand to watch Luke hang on to me when we weren't sure if we had a future. She brought me to him on purpose!"
"I don't know, Callista, I just know that half the galaxy's buzzing about the Jedi Master and the woman who used to work for the Emperor. I just thought you should know before you go rushing off to see him and ask for his help."
She was silent for a long time. When she did speak again, Dav heard a stubborn resolve in her voice that he knew better than to challenge. "Regardless, I need his help to regain my Jedi powers. Maybe the rumor's false. It must be, I know him," she nodded, reassuring herself. "He could never have feelings for someone like that. He needs someone who's warm, and--"
Going against his better judgment that he should just leave her alone when she was like this, Dav grabbed her wrist, cutting her off. "And what if the rumors are true? What then? Do you really expect him to drop everything and everyone for you? Do you really think you are the center of his universe?"
She pulled her arm free of his grasp, then hastily bent down and started straightening up the pile of cards and papers on the floor. "I'm sure he'll remember what he felt for me when we're together again," she said with a confidence in her voice that defeated Dav. There would be no talking her out of it. "Our love is stronger than anything," she continued, her face darkening. "Nothing Mara Jade could have deluded him into thinking he feels for her could be like the bond we shared on the *Eye of Palpatine*--Jedi to Jedi. But regardless, I'm leaving. I will get my powers back. And I know Luke will help me do it."
"Mom, how many chairs do we need again?"
Leia Organa Solo looked up from her data pad and gave her daughter, Jaina, an exasperated frown. "Jaina, you know how to count," she sighed. "There are eleven of us. And tell your father to set up one of the folding sabacc tables."
"I was just about to do that," came her husband's voice from behind Jaina. "And young lady, I thought I told you to leave your mother alone. She has homework to finish."
Jaina seemed to find it immensely funny that her mother would have homework. She began laughing, then darted away before her father could get stern with her. As soon as she disappeared, Han poked his head into the door. "How's it coming?"
Leia sighed. "You would not believe the things the Senate expects me to know about Kyth."
Han gave her one of his famous crooked, smuggler smiles. Even at forty-eight standard years, he somehow managed to look almost the same as the day she had met him, Leia reflected. True, his hair was more than just peppered with gray, and the creases in his face were much deeper. He was a former General and a father of three, but when he smiled he seemed to be the same rogue smuggler she'd fallen in love with. Of course, Leia knew she was no kid herself. She was thirty-seven and had already seen more than most beings twice her age. By the time she had lived a mere twenty-nine standard years she had been a princess, a member of the Imperial Senate, a leader of the Alliance to restore the Republic, a wife, a mother, and finally, Chief of State of the New Republic. Now she was no longer the Chief of State--she had resigned after eight years to search for her newly- discovered sister--but somehow she still managed to find herself perpetually buried in data cards. Like Han's smile, some things never changed.
"Well, you're the politician, sweetheart," Han teased her as he entered the room and stood behind her chair. He began to massage her tired shoulders. "I thought you loved this stuff."
"Oh, I suppose I do," Leia agreed reluctantly, closing her eyes for a moment to enjoy the feeling of Han's strong hands working the kinks out of her neck and shoulders. "But this is more than protocol do's and don'ts," she said wearily.
"What do you mean?"
"Like this," Leia said, opening her eyes and scrolling through her data pad. "They've got planetary geology in here! Did you know," she continued in mock fascination, "that the planet Kyth is a solid planet composed of various forms of dense rocks and minerals. It is approximately 153 billion kilometers from its star, Kaysol, and is therefore almost completely covered with ice and snow..."
"Sounds like Hoth," Han said with distaste.
"...and is largely uninhabited except for the equatorial regions," Leia continued reading, ignoring the interruption. "Hundreds of kilometers beneath Kyth's frozen surface the mountains are laced with veins of jogathronite, a highly unstable metallic substance. In many places throughout the planet's surface, the rock has eroded away, exposing small amounts of jogathronite to the atmosphere. It corrodes almost immediately, forming highly ionized particles that are released into the atmosphere, thus forming Kyth's legendary ionized atmosphere."
She put down her data pad and tilted her head upwards to look at her husband. His eyes were closed and his head was nodding forward. He gave a huge, loud snore, then opened his eyes and jerked his head upright as if he had been abruptly awakened from a deep sleep.
"I'm sorry, were you saying something?" he asked in a voice that feigned drowsiness.
Leia reached up and swatted the top of his head. "See what I mean?"
Han laughed, then continued rubbing her shoulders. "So why do they want you to know this stuff?"
"Apparently Kythans have a rather voracious appetite for geology and physics. That's their idea of small talk."
"I thought Kyth was a resort planet," Han pointed out.
"It is," she agreed, "but the Economic Summit will not be a vacation. I'll be expected to spend some time finessing the Kythans before and during the meetings."
"Sweetheart, you excel at 'finessing,'" Han replied. By his tone, Leia wasn't sure if it was a compliment or not.
"I thought you were going to find a sabacc table for dinner," she returned.
Han gave her shoulders a final squeeze. "You're right. Family duty calls, and you have to get back to your homework." He bent over her, upside-down in her line of sight, and planted a kiss on her forehead before leaving her alone to her mountain of data cards filled with more boring information on Kyth.
At least there was the family dinner to look forward to. Leia greatly enjoyed the rare occasions when her family could gather together and share a meal. And tonight would be almost the whole family, too. Everyone just happened to be on Coruscant at the same time, something they hadn't accomplished since just after the defeat of Lord Belsarios and Vice Admiral Pellaeon. Only Chewbacca was missing, though he was planning on attending the Kyth Summit with them next week, once again taking time away from his own family to be with his honor family. As much as she treasured his company, Leia always felt guilty when he was with them rather than his own family on Kashyyyk. But Wookiee honor required him to place the family of Han Solo, to whom he owed a life-debt, on an equal importance with his own family. To do any less would be to bring shame and scorn upon himself and his mate and son. Leia had had a hard time understanding that until Han reminded her how often she had to sacrifice time with her family for something that she felt was her duty. So she learned to put aside her feelings of guilt whenever Chewbacca was with them and allowed herself to just enjoy his company. If only he could have made it a little earlier to share this evening. She had to admit, the family wasn't quite complete without him.
As Leia tried to concentrate on the Kythan history card she had just inserted into her data pad, her thoughts drifted back to the six months they had all spent together aboard the *Gambler's Edge* on their round trip to another galaxy and a small planet called Earth. There she and Luke had found their triplet sister, Allia Dale, and her family and had brought them back to Coruscant. At the time the trip had seemed unending and they had all been anxious to get back. Now Leia found herself wishing she were back on the ship again, surrounded by her family every day, not having to deal with hectic schedules and the day-to-day crises that came out of the political lives they all led.
And speaking of politics...Leia returned her attention to the data pad. She really had to concentrate better. As boring as all this Kythan history and geology was, it was very important for her to have a thorough understanding of the planet, its people, and their customs. She was responsible for most of the arrangements for the Economic Summit, and it was crucial that no faux pas endanger the important meetings that would take place.
As Leia scrolled through her data pad, a million details crowded her head. So many economic issues had been taking up time on the Senate floor lately. Her husband's home system of Corellia was one of the areas in most dire need--its economy crushed by the recent coup attempt. Other worlds had been shattered economically by war as well: Polneye, Galantos, Wehttam, and other planets in the Farlax sector were still struggling to overcome the devastation wrought by the Yevethans four years ago. Kinyen, close to the Core Worlds, had never really hit its stride after decades of Imperial domination. Tatooine as a whole still struggled, dependent as it was upon the meager economy of moisture farming--despite a somewhat flourishing tourism in Mos Eisley and Anchorhead, home of the famed Jedi Master and Civil War Hero Luke Skywalker. Each world in the New Republic, it seemed, had its own economic concerns, different from the next . Thus, the Economic Summit on Kyth was born.
It had been in the planning for over a year, and both Mon Mothma and Leia had become quite involved in the arrangements. Leia, with her diplomatic expertise, was to be the main liaison between the Senate and the leaders on Kyth, while Mon Mothma acted as liaison to the thousands of member systems and planets. Due to the vast number of worlds involved, Mon Mothma had recruited many ambassadors and other personnel to help her, including Luke. Leia, on the other hand, bore most of her responsibilities alone. Which was why it was extremely important for her to digest the mountains of information before her and condense it into a form that the attendees would find more usable.
When she was almost three-quarters of the way through the history file, the door buzzer sounded. "I've got it!" she heard Han yell from the living room. Leia stretched, then turned off her data pad, rose, and headed for the living room. Before she got there, she was almost run over by two blond children.
"Hi, Aunt Leia!" the oldest one, Aaron, called out. "Are Jaina and Jacen in their rooms?"
"I'm not sure," Leia responded as she let them pass, then continued on to the living room. Then she heard a woman's voice: "Hey Leia, need a hand with anything?"
Leia emerged from the hallway to see her sister Ally standing in the doorway holding a bottle of wine. Her husband, Tom, was already helping Han with the Sabacc table--which was still not up, Leia noted.
"Put that in the refrigerator," Leia directed, leading her sister into the kitchen, where a kitchen droid was busily preparing the large meal. Ally followed her, put the bottle in the refrigerator, then gave Leia a huge Wookiee-hug.
"How are the language classes going?" Leia asked, looking up at Ally. Her sister's features were a strange mix of Luke's and her own. She was shorter than Luke, but slightly taller than Leia and had Luke's straight, wispy blond hair with Leia's round, dark eyes. But her personality reminded Leia more of Han than of Luke or herself. "What language are you teaching now?" she added.
"German," Ally replied. She had been an interpreter and linguist on her own planet. She had perfect audio memory and knew hundreds of languages. When she and her husband Tom, a fighter pilot in Wedge's Rogue Squadron, first arrived here, they had managed to use one of those Earth languages as a code to communicate secretly with the New Republic leaders after the Rogues had been captured. It worked so well that Admiral Ackbar and the other military leaders jumped on the idea and offered Ally a position teaching her planet's languages, unknown in this galaxy, to members of the military. They then utilized the new languages as a form of military code.
"I'm a regular Navajo Code Talker," the petite blond grinned, mystifying Leia. "Hmmm, maybe I should teach Navajo next..."
"Whatever you think is best," Leia nodded, not really sure what her sister was talking about. Of course, that wasn't unusual. Ally, her husband, and their two children were the only residents of this galaxy--as far as Leia knew, anyway--that came from another one.
"Hey, I here Luke's back from Kinyen," Ally said, stealing a small taste from one of the steaming pots. Leia batted her hand away and Ally gave her a Han-style "who me?" grin, then continued: "He and Mara coming tonight?"
"They should be," Leia nodded.
"How did it go on Kinyen?"
Leia shrugged. "I don't know, I haven't seen him yet. I think he's in a meeting right now with Mon Mothma, Chief of State Fleghan, and some others."
"Do you miss being Chief of State, in on everything?" Ally asked her.
Leia laughed. "Yeah, right. I'm just not busy enough being an Ambassador and raising three children. And planning this monstrosity of a Summit." She looked around her at the pots that the kitchen droid was stirring and adding spices to. "Well, looks like everything's under control in here. Let's see if Han's managed to unfold that sabacc table yet."
The two sisters headed out into the living room where five children--Jaina, Jacen and Anakin Solo and Aaron and Casey Dale--were scattered, shouting loudly as they played some form of Imperials and Rebels. Meanwhile Han and Tom stood in the middle of the room trying to open up the folding legs on a sabacc table. Leia heard Han mutter something under his breath and shot him a warning glance. She did not need the children to start using Corellian slang.
"Need any help with that?" came a voice from the apartment's entrance. They looked up to see Luke and Mara, bearing a box from a nearby bakery.
"No, I don't think you need to be a Jedi Master to open a blasted sabacc table," Han growled in reply. Luke laughed.
"Oh, just ignore him," Leia said, giving her brother and his companion a hug. "You're just in time, if Master Mechanic Solo and his apprentice ever get that table open, we'll be eating soon."
"Should I put this in the kitchen?" Mara asked, indicating the box.
Leia lifted the cover and peeked inside. "Mmmmm, Jouiukean limon cake, my favorite," she said. "Yeah, just give it to the kitchen droid."
The sabacc table was finally opened and set up close to the large dining table and they all sat down to dinner. As he munched on salad greens, Han looked over at Luke. "So how'd it go on Kinyen?"
"Don't ask," Luke replied quickly and Leia saw Mara give him a cold glance. It was very clear exactly how things had gone on Kinyen, and why.
"Well, don't let it get to you, kid," Han said quickly, obviously not wanting to do anything that might evoke anger in Mara. "They'll come around."
But Leia sensed that something more was bothering her brother. Knowing full well she was plunging into uncomfortable waters, Leia regardless asked him, "What did Mon Mothma say?"
"Never mind what Mon Mothma said," Han cut in harshly. "Mon Mothma may be sending you on these missions, but she does not rule your life, Luke. Don't let her tell you how to live it."
Leia sighed. Her husband still carried a small amount of resentment towards Mon Mothma from so many years ago when she disapproved of his union with Leia. It would probably be smart to change the subject before both Han and Mara started on a full-blown tirade. "How are plans for your camping trip coming?"
This produced the desired effect: Mara's faced softened, Luke relaxed, and Han went back to eating his salad. "Great, we leave as soon as your brother gets back from Yavin 4," Mara replied, giving Leia what almost looked like a smile of gratitude. Or at least as close as Mara Jade would come to one.
"Oh, that's right, I forgot you're going away in a couple of days," Ally joined in. "Shoot, I was going to ask you, Mara, if you wanted to come with Leia and me to Kyth."
"Kyth?" Mara asked. "Isn't that where the Economic Summit is being held next week?"
Leia nodded. "Yes. Ally and I are going there early to get in a few days of turbo-skiing before the conference."
Mara raised her eyebrows. "Why do I think turbo-skiing and Ally are not a very good combination?"
Ally playfully stuck her tongue out at her friend. "I'll have you know I was a brilliant skier back home." She turned to Leia. "Though I'll admit I've never seen an entire planet covered in ice."
"Well, you won't get to see most of it," Leia commented. "Kyth is mostly uninhabitable except for near the equator. There's an incredible mountain range, and the climate is just right for skiing and other winter sports. The area has developed into one of the galaxy's most popular and luxurious ski resorts."
"This message brought to you by the Kyth Chamber of Commerce," Han smirked. The others laughed.
"Sorry," Leia said sheepishly. "Too much Kyth geology for me."
"Please," Mara rolled her eyes. "I don't buy that propaganda about Kyth's 'beautiful mountains' or 'perfect equatorial climate.' Those things are a credit a dozen. Skies, the skiing's just as good here at Coruscant's poles as it is on Kyth." She leaned towards Leia. "You know as well as I do the real reason Kyth's so popular is the ionized atmosphere."
"Ionized atmosphere?" Ally asked.
"Some say it's better than glitterstim spice," Mara nodded knowingly.
"What's she talking about?"
"Under the planet's surface there are huge veins of a metal called jogathronite," Leia explained. "Because of the corrosion of the jogathronite, Kyth's atmosphere is charged with negative ions, which has quite a positive, almost euphoric effect on humans and most alien species. It's similar to the feeling you get right after a large electrical storm--and it is not at all like a spice trip," she said pointedly, flashing Mara an exasperated look. The former smuggler merely smiled innocently.
Leia continued to Ally: "The ionized atmosphere was one of the reasons the New Republic leaders had decided that one of Kyth's resorts would be the host of the Galactic Economic Summit. Meetings of this type need all the positive energy they can get."
"Ooh, now I'm really looking forward to going," Ally replied, rubbing her hands together enthusiastically and giving Mara a wink. "I'm glad you had to be there early anyway, Leia."
Not long ago, Ally had mentioned wanting to try turbo- skiing, so they decided to take a small vacation there before the summit, something Leia desperately needed.
"And I'm even more glad we're leaving the excess baggage behind," Ally added.
"Hey!" Tom protested. "Who you calling 'excess baggage?'"
"If the boot fits..."
"Wait a second," Mara cut in. "You mean it's just the two of you? No men, no children?" She gave Luke a devilish grin. "You should have told me..."
"Wait a second, you're coming camping with me," Luke put in playfully.
"I know," she scowled at him. "Oh well, maybe next decade when I get my next vacation."
"I'm kind of glad you can't go," Tom said. "It's bad enough when Ally goes away with one woman for the weekend."
"And what's that supposed to mean?" Ally asked her husband in a menacing tone.
"Let me put it this way: Han, I suggest that when Leia comes back you have the kids off at a babysitter's, dinner on the table, and maybe some flowers. 'Cause when women get together without men, all they do is complain about us and what Gamorreans we are."
"Maybe you shouldn't give us so much ammunition," Ally sneered.
"All I'm saying is," Tom continued to Han, deliberately ignoring Ally's taunt, "your wife's gonna come back from this trip with her head full of every fault you've ever had, have, or could some day have. Just be forewarned."
Han laughed. "I don't think Leia needs to go away to figure out all my faults. She's already well aware of them."
"It'll be worse, trust me," Tom added, receiving a punch in the arm from his wife for the trouble.
"I think I'm glad you're going away with me," Luke said to Mara, also laughing.
"Oh, you wouldn't have anything to worry about anyway. A weekend isn't nearly long enough for me to begin to get into all your faults," Mara snorted.
"See, it's starting already," Tom said, munching on a piece of tarba greens.
"Oh please, Tom!" Ally rolled her eyes dramatically. "If you think Leia and I don't have much better things to talk about while we're at a fabulous ski resort than you and Han, then you're either the most arrogant or the stupidest man in the galaxy. You think with all those muscular ski instructors there we're even gonna give you a second thought?"
"Ski instructors," Leia smiled thoughtfully. "Hmmmm, I never thought about that..."
"Now wait a minute!" Han cut in.
"Oh, yes, ski instructors," Mara put in, a delighted, evil glint in her eyes. She took a small sip of her wine, then continued. "Aren't there a lot of Hapan men working on Kyth? Maybe Luke and I can postpone our camping trip."
"Thank you, Tom, for getting them started," Luke groaned.
"Hey, where's that kitchen droid, isn't the main course ready yet?" Han added hastily, trying to change the subject.
Leia laughed. Well one thing she could count on with her family, never a dull moment.
Irek Ismaren sat in his workshop, hundreds of meters below the surface of Kyth, carefully soldering two micro- mechanisms together. It was careful, exacting work, but he was almost finished...
"How is the project progressing?"
The voice in the doorway made Irek jump, which caused the laser-torch to slice across the delicate wires, destroying them.
He swore viciously, then turned to the doorway, pushing his protective visor away from his face. "What the hell do you think you're doing? I told you not to bother me!"
In the doorway, his mother stood, her dark eyes narrow. She crossed her arms. "You needn't use that tone of voice, Irek. I'm still your mother," she said defiantly.
Irek crossed his arms as well, mimicking her pose. "That doesn't stop you from being an ignorant sow," he shot back. He paused, but she didn't even flinch at his attack.
"You should have sensed me in the Force."
Irek glared at her. "What is this, some kind of test?"
"Of course not," Roganda replied quickly. "Why would I test my own son? All I'm saying is, you are very strong with the Force. I should not have been able to sneak up on you."
"I was concentrating on my work," he snapped through clenched teeth.
"That should not matter, Irek. You are the son of Emperor Palpatine. You should know everything that's going on around you, before it happens, even."
Irek felt something boil up inside of him. He hated when his mother talked to him like this. He knew he was Palpatine's son, he knew he was strong in the Force--the dark side, the powerful side of the Force--and that he should have sensed her coming. But for some reason, whenever he was working on electronics, he lost himself. Perhaps it was the brain chip that had been implanted in his mind when he was very young. Though it did enhance his Force skills, it enhanced his connection with mechanics and schematics even more so. He could make a piece of equipment do anything he wanted to. He could figure out ways to destroy entire planets--ways that were far more creative than the Death Star. Quite simply put, he was a genius. And weren't most geniuses noted for becoming lost in their work? But a part of him knew his mother was right--as much as he hated to admit it. He was the Emperor's son and would soon be an Emperor himself. He needed to be concerned with a much wider assortment of things than mechanical schematics.
Defeated, he simply sneered at her: "Do you want the work to be done in time or don't you?"
"Of course I want it to be finished," she soothed, uncrossing her arms and coming over to him. "We've been waiting our whole lives for this, Irek. For you to follow in your father's footsteps--"
"Yeah, yeah," Irek waved her away, as if dismissing her. "Then I need to get back to this."
Suddenly Roganda stepped forward and grabbed his arm. "Do not take that lightly, Irek. You are the only heir to the Emperor's throne. You must understand how important that is."
He looked at her, his blue eyes narrow and cold. "Do you think I don't understand? All I've heard all my life is how I must be worthy of following in my father's footsteps! Do you think I need to hear it again?"
"No," Roganda purred, soft and mothering again. "Of course not, darling." She reached out and toyed playfully with Irek's curly, dark hair. He hated when she did that, but this time he let her. He was much more likely to get his way when she was in these lovey-mothery moods.
"I'm just so anxious for you," she continued. "It's important that everything goes right, not just here, but afterwards. When you're the Emperor, you can't afford to make mistakes. That's how your father lost his life."
"I know," Irek replied without scowling. "But if you want things to go right here, you have to let me work in peace. This is extremely exacting, I cannot be disturbed."
She ruffled his hair quickly, as if he were a child of five, while he stifled an urge to lash out at her for it. "You're right, dear. I'm sorry, I'll try to leave you alone. It's just so exciting, though, after waiting so long..."
Irek looked at her thoughtfully. "Why did we wait so long, Mother?"
She paused, looking a little stricken. He sensed that there was something she was keeping from him.
"Why didn't we join up with Vice Admiral Pellaeon and Lord Belsarios last year, like we'd planned?"
For a moment, his mother looked like a nerf caught in a speeder's headlights. But just for a moment. She quickly recovered herself, and the look was gone. However, she was now guarded, her vulnerability in the Force suddenly masked.
"Look what happened to them," she said disdainfully. "I knew they weren't good enough for you. For the Emperor's son."
Why did she keep saying it, as if he needed to be reminded over and over again who his father was? He thought about questioning her further, then decided it was more important--and much more interesting, really--to get back to the work he was doing. She stood watching him for a moment, and he could sense her cloying pride swelling. Then she left him alone.
He flipped his visor back down over his face and tried again with two new components while he thought of the havoc these little devices would wreak. Not as much as he would have liked, of course. What he really would have liked was to bring in some Star Destroyers or other capital ships and just hammer this ice ball out of existence. But his mother, ever sensible, had dissuaded him in that sweet malicious way of hers. It was then that he had come up with this plan. And it was a good one. Best of all, that annoying Princess Leia, the Jedi from his mother's home planet, the woman whom he had not been allowed to kill eight years ago and who had played the most major role in ruining his rise to the throne eight years ago, would be on Kyth. And she, along with all the others, would die.
Irek smiled as her started his soldering. Perhaps this would be better than an attack from space after all.
Luke was in his quarters in the Great Temple on Yavin 4, packing his small bag to head back to Coruscant, his brief visit to the Academy over. Jedi Master Kyp Durron seemed to be doing a fine job keeping things running smoothly, with the help of Jedi Streen and Jedi historian Tionne. It was nice that he could trust the Academy to them so he could spend more time on Coruscant and traveling for the Senate. And spend more time with Mara, of course. He smiled in anticipation as he threw the last of his things into his bag. Very soon they would be on there way to Sanoi--no holovids, no comlinks, no crises. He could hardly wait.
Just as Luke was pulling the zipper closed on his bag, he heard a soft knock on the door. Like the Imperial Palace on Coruscant, the Massassi Temples on Yavin 4 were very old and utilized mostly old-fashioned hinged doors.
The door opened and Kyp Durron stepped lightly in. He stood in the doorway, looking hesitant.
"What is it, Kyp?" Luke prompted.
"I wasn't sure if I should bother you," Kyp said hesitantly, "I know you're getting ready to leave. But there's someone here to see you."
Luke shook his head. "No, no, no. I'm not going to see anyone, you can take care of it yourself. I'm going back to Coruscant and then on the first vacation I've had in a standard age and I don't want any more crises."
Kyp looked a little torn, and Luke could sense the turmoil in him. "I don't know," he said finally, "I know you want to get back, but I think you'll want to see this person. She came a long way to talk to you."
"She?" Luke raised his eyebrows. "Who is it?"
"See for yourself, she's waiting in the foreroom."
Curiosity getting the better of him, Luke reached out with the Force to sense the waiting presence, but too his surprise, he felt nothing. Shrugging, he grabbed his bag and headed out. It wouldn't hurt to at least see who was here.
He was not prepared for the person who was waiting for him.
"Luke, it's so good to see you," she said softly, her gray eyes shining.
Luke's mouth opened in surprise. "Callista!" For a moment he just stood there gaping at her. Then he remembered his manners. He strode across the floor and hugged her with a stiff formality.
"It's good to see you, too. What brings you to Yavin 4?"
She squeezed him tightly, as if she was afraid to let go. Uncomfortable, Luke pulled back from her embrace.
Undaunted, she looked him in the eye. "I need your help, Luke."
His shoulder's slumped. "Now is a really bad time, Callista."
She took a step backwards, but her face remained impassive. "I see."
He looked at her a moment, feeling a little guilty about refusing her anything after what they had once meant to each other. He opened his mouth to speak again, but she spoke up first.
"Luke, I may have found a way to get my abilities back."
His eyes widened, all awkwardness gone. "Really? Callista, that's wonderful! How?"
"By facing the dark side. On Dagobah."
Luke frowned. "I don't understand. Didn't you already do that?" He had taken her to Dagobah once before, before she had decided she needed to go it alone."
Callista shook her head. "No, this is different. I have to go to that cave. The one that's strong with the dark side. And I need you to go with me."
Luke shivered involuntarily at the mention of the cave. It had been the site of his first dark side encounter and it still made him uneasy. "I still don't understand."
Callista quickly explained that her studies had indicated that in order to regain the light side, she had to fight her way through the dark side, rather than around it. And with the help of another Jedi. "Isn't that how you and Leia defeated the reborn Emperor, by joining together?"
Luke nodded numbly, amazed by what he was hearing. Could it really be that simple, after all these years? "Are you sure, Callista?" he asked her.
She shook her head. "No, I'm not sure. But I want to try."
"Do or do not, there is no try," Luke stated automatically.
"Okay, then. I will go there and I will get my powers back." She took a step closer to him. "Will you help me?"
Luke sighed. "Callista, this really is a bad time. Maybe in a few weeks--"
"A few weeks!" She exploded, cutting him off abruptly. "I've been searching for this for eight years! And you want me to wait a few more weeks? What could be so important that you can't even take the time out to help someone who once was the most important--"
This time it was his turn to cut her off. "Callista, our relationship is in the past. You have to understand that."
She swallowed, eyeing him nervously. "Then the rumors are true?"
"That depends on what rumor you happened to hear," he snapped, his voice a bit more harsh than he'd intended. "There are so many of them I can't keep track."
"There's someone else," she said flatly.
"Yes," he replied simply, trying to look her in the eye. It was not easy.
Callista bit her lip. "Well, you're famous--a legend. Rumors go with the territory."
"Don't remind me."
She paused, meeting his gaze. "Is it serious?" she asked finally.
Luke nodded. "Yes."
"I see," Callista replied. She took a small step backwards. "I don't want to be a problem to you," she said quickly. But then she looked at him, eyes imploring. "But I really need your help Luke. You of all people must understand how important this is to me."
Luke considered her a moment. As much as he wanted to, he couldn't really say no to her. Not on this. He was not in love with her; he was certain of that. It had died long ago. However, he did feel partly responsible for her loss of Jedi abilities. Hadn't she taken Cray Mingla's body because he wanted to be with her? No. He could not say no to Callista. Unfortunately, it would mean saying no to Mara, and he winced at the thought of that encounter, but he just couldn't say no to Callista.
Luke sighed. "All right, I'll do what I can."
Callista cocked her head. "Was it really such a hard decision?" she asked.
Ever since she'd lost her powers, it had been as if she didn't exist in the Force. Luke, therefore, was unable to sense her feelings or even her presence before him. But he could hear the hurt in her voice.
"Of course not," he said softly. "It's just a little complicated. Mara and I had plans..." he drifted off, knowing a vacation on Sanoi would sound petty next to what Callista was facing.
"I really am sorry, Luke. I don't want to make things difficult for you."
He sighed. "You can't make things any more difficult for me than I make them for myself."
She gave him a wan smile. "Thank you, Luke." Taking a deep breath, she said "Then let's leave for Dagobah right away. I don't want to waste another standard minute."
"Hold on," Luke cut in, holding up his hand. "First we've gotta make a stop at Coruscant. I don't have a two-person ship on Yavin 4 and I don't think we should travel separately to Dagobah. That planet's hard enough for one ship to land on." He didn't add that he also wanted to tell Mara of the change in plans in person. Of course, it would be a lot harder for her to strangle him over the holonet, but that notwithstanding, he at least owed it to her to tell her face to face. Besides, he thought to himself grimly, if Mara was going to kill him he might as well get it over with.
Mara Jade was not in a good mood. One reason was that she was dressed in a cloying long robe: very business- like, but not very comfortable. Another reason was that she was doing the part of her job she most hated: inventory.
She stood in a docking bay at Coruscant's Main Port, data pad in hand, duly going over the inventory that was being off-loaded from the freighter *Jaded Lady.* A typical Talon Karrde name--he was forever using bad plays-on-words to name ships. All of the freighters that Jade-Karrde Enterprises owned outright had names that were particularly dreadful puns based on either hers or Karrde's name: *Kitehawk's Talon,* *Credit Karrde,* and the personal bane of Mara's existence, the *Mara Me.* Well, at lest she could be grateful that she wasn't doing inventory on that ship.
Besides, this was her last task before leaving on vacation and she was grateful for that. Vacation. It had been so long since Mara had actually taken a vacation--had she ever? She couldn't even think of one off-hand. Well, Skywalker was due back any time now--
Suddenly she became aware of a familiar presence in the docking bay--Skywalker had already arrived. Eagerly she headed for the other side of the freighter towards where he was standing. Her steps slowed, however, as she gradually began to sense that something was not right.
"What's wrong?" she asked, not bothering to even greet him first.
He looked down, as if suddenly his own boots had become of great interest to him.
"Skywalker, what is it?" she repeated.
Finally he looked back up at her. "I've got bad news. I'm afraid I have to postpone our trip."
Mara took a few steps towards him, alarmed. "Is everything okay? Did something happen to your family?" she asked with concern.
"No, no, everything's fine," he replied hastily. "I just--" he paused. "I have to help someone--"
Mara stopped in her tracks. "Oh no, you are not going to do this," she growled, putting as much threat into her voice as she could. Which was a lot; it was a well-practiced tone of voice for her.
"Mara, I know we've been planning this for a long time--"
She cut him off again. "No. Absolutely not. This is our week, just you and me."
But she wasn't about to let him get a word in. "Do you even remember the last time we've had any time together, let alone time for just us? No sisters or bureaucrats or former smugglers or Jedis begging for your attention or mine? Do you have any idea how long I had to fight Karrde for this? And now just because someone cried 'help,' the Mighty Hero of the New Republic, Jedi Master Skywalker has to go rushing off on another crusade!"
When she finished, he waited, probably to make sure she was really done and wasn't going to cut him off again. But it wasn't Mara that interrupted him this time.
"Luke, I--oh, sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt."
Mara and Skywalker both turned to face the docking bay's entrance, Mara almost dropping her data pad when she recognized who it was.
"Hello, Callista," Mara said coldly, forcing herself to smile. She gave Skywalker a hard glare, which he returned with a self-conscious shrug.
"Callista, I'll be with you in a moment," he said, his voice sounding a bit irritated. Well, good for him. Mara was by now well beyond irritated.
"Okay," Callista replied tentatively. "I--I'm going to drop by and say hello to Leia."
Callista looked sheepishly at Mara. "Hello, Mara. Sorry again for the interruption."
Mara only nodded in response, and Callista turned to go. She wasn't sure, but Mara could swear she actually caught a glimpse of the lanky blonde smiling as she left. She did that on purpose! Mara thought, furious, and for the first time since becoming a Jedi she entertained a brief murderous fantasy, contemplating the feeling of a delicate trachea collapsing beneath the pressure of her hands.... Then she quickly pushed the thought away; not only was it particularly un-Jedi-like, she had no intention of giving Callista the satisfaction of seeing that she'd gotten to her.
So she waited patiently until Callista was out of sight-- and earshot--and then pounced on Skywalker. "Is that who needs your help?" she asked, her tone of voice moving from threatening to deadly rage.
"I was getting to that," he replied lamely, obviously embarrassed. He looked for all the galaxy like a child who'd been caught looking at holo comics under the covers after bedtime.
"I'm waiting. I'm sure this will be a delightful story," Mara snapped.
"Mara, she really needs my help."
"Oh, I'll just bet she does!"
"Are you going to listen to me or not?" he asked, his own irritation level rising.
Mara gave him an icy smile and tapped her data pad against her palm. "I'm listening."
"She needs me to go to Dagobah with her."
"Dagobah? What in the worlds is on Dagobah?"
"A place where she can get her Jedi abilities back. With my help."
She stared at him a moment, not believing what she was hearing. "And then what?" she asked at length.
He looked confused. "What do you mean? She gets her powers back and is restored as a Jedi Knight for the New Republic."
"Please spare me the farmboy innocence, you know exactly what I mean! This is just what you both have been waiting for for eight years."
Skywalker stared at her, his blue eyes as icy as her own. "How can you say that? You know that's in the past! It's over, Mara. It's been over for years, and I don't intend on going back."
"It's not your intentions that concern me," she shot back.
"She just wants her Force abilities back," he replied, sighting deeply. "That's all."
"Oh, I'm quite sure," Mara bit out, voice heavy with sarcasm. "And all the Emperor ever wanted was to be your pal!"
"As much as I enjoy that acerbic wit," he responded dryly, "do you think we can keep this civil? I assure you, Callista is no threat to you."
"Me, threatened by her? It takes more than a spindly little Jedi who can't use the Force to be a threat to me!" Mara said with a bitter laugh. "But let's look at the facts here: One, she is still in love with you."
He started to protest, but a hostile eye from Mara made him think better of it.
"Two, she is exactly just the kind of person Mon Mothma and the Grans and everyone else in the galaxy have in mind when they think of a good little Jedi wife for their beloved Master Skywalker. A hero to the Alliance many times over, no embarrassing past, and she can provide you with a whole gaggle of little Jedi progeny. And three, she knows exactly how to get your attention. I'm afraid I don't do the 'damsel in distress' very well."
With this, Skywalker's mood went from embarrassment and irritation to full-blown fury. He took two steps towards her and glared down at her. For all his Tatooine charm, he knew how to look imposing. Mara, however, was not one to be easily intimidated. Especially not when she was angry.
"Do you really think that little of me?" he spat. She started to turn away in disgust, but he grabbed her arm and held her fast. "I asked you a question!"
She returned his stare but didn't answer.
"Do you think I give a damn about 'Jedi progeny' and Mon Mothma's opinion about who would and would not make a 'good little Jedi wife?'"
"I don't recall you ever asking me to marry you," she replied through clenched teeth.
He threw her arm down in disbelief, pushing her slightly backwards. "I don't believe you! You've never once told me you love me, and now you're upset that I haven't proposed marriage to you?"
"I didn't say I was upset, I was just pointing it out! You obviously have reservations about me."
"Of course I have reservations! But your 'facts' fell a little short. One, whether or not Callista is in love with me is irrelevant. Two, I don't love her. I love you, although sometimes I would like nothing better than to throttle you."
"The feeling is mutual," she returned.
"And three," he continued, ignoring her interruption, "she is not a 'damsel in distress.'"
"Then let her go to Dagobah on her own," Mara challenged.
Skywalker closed his eyes, shaking his head. "You have to understand, I can't. I owe her."
"You owe her nothing! You did not cause her to lose her abilities, she did that to herself."
"Because of me."
"And she's going to remind you of that every chance she gets!"
He took another deep breath, trying to calm himself. "I don't like this any more than you do, but I have to help her. I need you to understand that."
"Oh, I understand perfectly," she replied icily. "But if you think I'm going to sit around pining the same way you did for her for seven years, you are sadly mistaken. I have better things to do with my time."
"What are you saying?" he asked, eyeing her cautiously.
"You're the Jedi Master, you tell me."
He shook his head again. "Mara, don't do this. Do not make me choose between you and what I feel is my duty."
"Why not? You're going to have to choose sooner or later. Why not settle it here and now? What's it going to be?"
He looked at her for a long time, looking like a wounded bordok. At last, he said softly, almost whispering, "Don't do this Mara, please."
She almost wavered; he did know how to use those blasted innocent blue eyes to his advantage. But she held fast. She was tired of feeling like she had to prove herself "worthy." Mara Jade proved herself to no one.
"I'm not the one doing it," she said evenly.
"I have to go," he said, voice still soft and low.
"Then go," she said, turning her back and throwing up a Force barrier. She did not want him to see her eyes nor sense her emotions right now.
For a while he just stood there behind her while she pretended to pay attention to the inventory on her data pad. Then without saying another word, he left.
She waited until she could no longer hear his footsteps, then turned around to look after him, almost as if she couldn't believe he really wouldn't be there. Stifling an urge to hurl her data pad at the side of the *Jaded Lady,* she resolutely went back to the boxes of Hapan silk, Verrat wine, and Kessel spice. Skywalker or no Skywalker, there was still the shipping inventory to be done. She would deal with what had just happened when her work was finished and not before.
All the same, she was glad that she was skilled at using Force barriers. The last thing she needed was for him to know the extent to which his leaving was affecting her. She couldn't say it, but she knew it. He knew it. She loved him.
Han Solo walked quickly down the corridors of the Imperial Palace, grateful to be out of his apartment and the tension that was brewing. Leia, ever the diplomat, may have managed to play the gracious hostess, but Han wanted no part of it. Besides, Ally Dale, who was probably Mara's closest friend next to Luke, had been there and Han was convinced by her demeanor that there was likely to be bloodshed. Mumbling something about the *Falcon* and repair work, he slipped out and went to find Luke. He had to find out just exactly what the hell was going on.
He found his brother-in-law more quickly than he expected; Luke was on his way up to Han and Leia's apartment. And judging by the look on his face, he'd either had a run-in with a Sith Lord or Mara knew Callista was here.
"Hey Luke, just the person I wanted to see," he said, watching the man he still thought of as "kid" approach.
"Han, I'm really not in the mood to talk right now," Luke said darkly.
"I noticed. But since when did that stop me?" Han answered brightly, hoping to get a smile out of Luke. It didn't work, but Han proceeded anyway. "I take it you know who's in my apartment right now talking with Leia."
"Why is she here, Luke?"
"Because she needs my help."
"But aren't you going away with Mara?" Han reminded him.
Luke gave Han a sour look. "Don't start."
Han shook his head. "Have you informed Mara of this yet?"
"What do you think?" he snapped.
"Well I don't know, you're still alive..." Han pointed out.
"Just barely," Luke said, finally giving Han a wan smile.
Han walked alongside his brother-in-law in silence for a moment, then said slowly, "I know I'm not Leia, but would you mind taking a little advice from an old smuggler?"
The wan smile widened slightly. "Do I have a choice?"
"No," Han laughed. "Listen, Luke, I've known you longer than anyone, longer by a few hours than even Leia has known you, and I thought of you as a brother long before I married your sister. So know it is out of love that I say this--" he took a breath. "You're an idiot."
"Thanks a lot," Luke said, a bit of the old cocky sarcasm creeping back into his voice.
"I'm serious, Luke. You're in danger of blowing the best thing that's happened to you since you became a Jedi."
"The best thing that's happened to me?" Luke repeated, sounding surprised. "Are you talking about Mara? I thought you thought I was crazy to get involved with someone who once wanted to kill me."
Han shrugged. "At first, sure. But I've watched the two of you this past year and I'm telling you, this relationship is the best thing that's ever happened to you and you're gonna blow it."
"It was just a fight," Luke protested, though Han could tell it had been far more serious than that. "We've had fights before," Luke continued. "You and Leia have had worse fights..."
"I'm not talking about a fight," Han interrupted. "Anyone who's known Mara for five seconds knows her favorite state of being is 'ticked off.' You two will probably spend the rest of your lives arguing about one thing or another--if you're lucky."
"Okay, then what is it that you think I'm doing that's so 'idiotic?'"
Han sighed. "You're just like your sister."
"And that's a bad thing?" Luke asked, looking dumbfounded that Han would compare him to the woman he loved, yet somehow make it sound like an accusation.
"It is if you make the mistake she almost made."
Han grinned his crooked smuggler's smile. "Marrying Isolder instead of me."
This time Luke actually laughed.
Han leaned forward and raised his eyebrows. "I know you think I'm just being cocky, but I'm not. I'm speaking with the confidence of someone who has twelve years of marriage under his belt. Look at our marriage--look at our kids. Can you honestly say that not getting married wouldn't have been the biggest mistake of our lives?"
Luke had to agree with that one. "Okay, you've made your point. But what does that have to do with me? Callista is not exactly a wealthy princess waiting to whisk me away from Mara, and I have no intention of getting involved with her again."
"No, but you're missing the point," Han replied. "It wasn't Isolder himself that was the temptation for Leia. As beautiful and wealthy as he was, she hadn't known him long enough to really care for him. It was the alliance that she found irresistible. She knew what a benefit an alliance with Hapes could be to the New Republic and that was almost enough to make her sacrifice her own personal life. This government will always be her first love, and I've come to accept that. But Leia has come to accept that some things are more important than duty." Han stopped walking and jabbed an accusing finger at Luke. "That's where you're just like Leia. You're duty always comes first. And you're testing Mara, and she's not likely to put up with that for long."
"Testing her, how am I testing her?" Luke objected.
Han leaned against the corridor wall. "By doing this. By running off here and there to see how she handles it. I know that some of the people you have to deal with are opposed to your relationship because she used to be the Emperor's Hand. I also know that Mon Mothma has been giving you a hard time. She was against me and Leia marrying at first, too. But remember that Mon Mothma's first priority is what's good for the New Republic. My first priority is what's good for you. And Mara Jade is good for you. She brought back your sense of humor just when I thought it had vanished forever."
Luke let out another breath in frustration. "So what am I supposed to do, quit my position with the Senate because the rest of the galaxy has an opinion about my personal life? I can't do that."
"I'm not suggesting you quit. Leia didn't quit when she married me--three years later she went on to become Chief of State! I'm just suggesting that you take a good look at your priorities. The work you do as a Jedi is important, but so is your personal happiness. You yourself once said a Jedi has to learn to--what was it--withdraw from people who always want you to fix things for them?"
"You would use my own words against me," Luke groaned. "Okay, I've been busy lately, but so has Mara. I don't think that means my sense of duty is too overdeveloped."
Han leaned forward and looked Luke in the eye. "Then why haven't you married her?"
"Why is my marital status of such concern to everyone all of the sudden?" Luke exploded. "From the very beginning she's been the one who's hesitant about our relationship, not me. She still can't even say she loves me, so don't blame me that we aren't married."
Han shook his head. "Come on, it's not like I'm making this up out of thin air. This isn't the first time your sense of duty has interfered with your personal life. Why didn't you stay with Callista, for example?"
"I thought this was about me and Mara."
"It's about you period," Han retorted. "Why didn't you stay with Callista?"
"That was her choice, not mine," Luke protested. "She was the one who felt we couldn't be together if she wasn't a Jedi, not me."
"I know, but if you'd have left the Academy and gone after her, she would have relented."
"How was I supposed to do that? The Academy was barely a year old and I was the only full Jedi in the galaxy at the time."
"I'm not suggesting that it would have been the right thing to do, I'm just saying that you picked your duty over being with Callista." Han pointed out. "And why didn't you stay on Bakura with Gaeriel Capistan?"
Luke sighed, defeated. "Because we had only just won the war and there was so much left to do."
"Your duty," Han replied. "Again, I'm not saying you made the wrong choice. But you've been doing your part for the galaxy for almost twenty years now. There are dozens of graduates from your Academy, including one Master, so you're not the only Jedi anymore. Maybe it's time for you to put your personal life first for a change. Let's face it, you and Mara aren't getting any younger. If you're at all interested in starting a family, you don't have a lot of time."
"Actually, that's not an issue," Luke replied with a hint of bitterness in his voice. "Mara can't have children."
This caught Han by surprise. "What?"
"She told me a few months ago. She can't have children," Luke repeated. "It was part of the Emperor's employee benefits package."
Han could hear the contempt in his voice. "Is that part of what's bothering you?" he asked.
"What, that I won't have children if I marry her?" Luke shook his head. "No, that doesn't bother me. I've got a whole academy full of Jedi kids I'm responsible for, and I've got five great nieces and nephews. I don't really feel the need to have kids of my own. What does really upset me, though, is that the Emperor didn't bother to discuss it with Mara before he had the surgery done."
Han shook his head and whistled. "Why doesn't that surprise me? But it doesn't make sense, why would the Emperor want to make sure she didn't have any children? I thought using kids as pawns against their parents was one of his old standbys."
Luke shrugged. "You know Mara, fear's not a really big motivator for her. I guess he figured that if she ever had a child, her first loyalty would be to it and not to him."
Han shook his head again. Each time he learned of a new atrocity committed under the Emperor's regime he felt nauseated with disgust, even sixteen years after the man's death. He wondered if there was more to the story than Luke was telling him, but Luke wasn't volunteering any more, so Han decided it was none of his business. "Well, whether or not you can have children is not really the issue. I still say that she's the best thing that ever happened to you, and you'd better realize that before it's too late and she's gone."
"It may already be too late," Luke muttered so quietly Han almost didn't hear him.
"Then go and fix it," he advised.
"I can't," Luke said, looking up at Han. "She doesn't understand why I have to go with Callista."
"I'm not sure I understand, either."
"I owe her, Han. She lost her abilities because of me. The very least I can do is help her get them back."
Han considered this before replying, "But that's not all she wants back."
Luke shook his head. "Not you too. This is not some grand scheme to get me back, okay?"
"I wouldn't be too sure of that. She's up with Leia right now just oozing with charm. It sure seemed to me like she was looking for an ally. And speaking of, Allia was there too, and I think she was getting ready to do something really nasty and violent."
This produced a small laugh from Luke. "It figures. Ally and Mara are pretty close."
"Well, if she sees something and I see something, then maybe we're right and you're wrong. I know you're a Jedi Master and all, but I've gotta tell you, sometimes you're pretty obtuse."
"Thank you very much," Luke grinned sardonically.
"Mark my words, she's looking for more from you than guidance in the ways of the Force," Han warned.
"I think you're wrong," Luke replied, "but even if you're not, it doesn't matter. I already told you, I have no intention of starting up with her again. Whether Mara ever speaks to me again or not."
Han shrugged helplessly. "It's your funeral, kid. I just hope you don't lose Mara just because you feel it's your personal responsibility to rescue every single being in the galaxy."
"Uh, isn't that how this all started?" Luke reminded him. "You wouldn't have a wife and I wouldn't have a sister if I didn't like rescuing people."
"That may be true, but there comes a time when you've got to stop living your life for everyone else and start living it for you. You do love Mara, don't you?"
Luke paused, his face growing serious again. "Yes Han, I do. I love her so much sometimes I can't breathe. Never before have I known anyone who could simultaneously inspire me to want to spend every waking moment with her and also strangle the life out of her."
Han laughed. "I know that feeling!"
"But I'm a Jedi," Luke continued. "I can't ignore someone who needs my help."
Again, Han shrugged. "Like I said, it's your funeral. And since we're talking about Mara Jade, that could be literal. But I think you're making a really big mistake."
"Wouldn't be the first time," Luke responded, giving him a sly smile.
"No, it sure wouldn't," Han agreed. "Well, come on, we'd better get up there before Ally starts behaving like an enraged Wookiee and Callista ends up sporting an arm like that hand of yours."
Luke nodded, flexing his cyborg hand as he followed Han down the corridor towards his and Leia's apartment.
After sitting in the Solos' apartment listening to Callista go on about her eight-year search to regain her powers (and not completely succeeding at pretending to be pleasantly interested) Ally Dale was grateful when Han and Luke appeared at the door, giving her an opportunity for escape. She rose quickly from her seat, made some lame excuse about checking on the children, then headed for the door where Han and Luke were still standing.
Having been assured by Callista's excruciatingly detailed story that she had no contact with the Force, Ally took the opportunity to flash Luke a message when she passed by him on her way through the door: Watch out for this one!
Luke rewarded her with a small, sarcastic grin and replied, I can take care of myself, thank you very much.
Ally scowled at him, said a quick good-bye to Han, Leia, and Callista, then left.
The excuse she'd given for leaving had been a lie; Tom had taken the kids out for a father/son/daughter excursion earlier that afternoon, so Ally didn't have any children to check up on at all. But there was someone she did want to check up on.
She made her way through the winding corridors of the Imperial Palace and out onto the platform nearest the Main Port. Hailing a transport, she directed the droid driver to Docking Bay 74. Jade-Karrde Enterprises' docking bay.
She found Mara on the far side of the freighter, apparently doing inventory. She looked calm enough in her inefficient, yet elegant gray robes, quietly going over figures on a data pad. But Ally had had enough training in the Force that she could very easily feel the anger that surrounded the ship and the docking bay. She also sensed that Mara had put up some kind of wall in the Force to keep her from sensing anything more accurate than a pervading aura of hostility.
"I am in no mood to talk to you right now, Ally, so you can just go back where you came from," Mara snapped suddenly without looking up from her data pad.
Ignoring the implied threat--she knew Mara well to know that it was harmless posturing--Ally approached her friend and sat down on a large crate opposite her.
"I'm not joking, Ally," Mara growled, "go away."
"Give the assassin's act a rest," Ally quipped in response. "I'm not going anywhere. What's going on?"
Mara finally stopped what she was doing, put down her data pad and looked up at Ally. "What's going on? You mean besides the fact that I've renewed my vow to kill your brother? Or is that what you want to know about?"
"Your bark is worse than your bite," Ally replied, risking Mara's wrath.
"I bite pretty hard," Mara retorted, giving Ally a tight, grim smile.
"So he's standing you up to go help Callista get her powers back, and you're just going to sit here and have a little jealous fit," Ally taunted.
Mara gave her an icy glare. "I am most certainly not having a 'jealous fit.' He can go anywhere he likes with that little manipulative sow."
Ally nodded. "You're right, you don't sound a bit jealous."
Mara slapped her hand angrily on a crate marked *Glass: Fragile.* "I am not jealous, I'm just angry! I am sick to death of his condescending little Jedi platitudes about being open to your emotions when he won't even admit that he's scared to death of me."
"Scared of you?" Ally raised her eyebrows. "What do you mean, scared of you?"
"I don't mean scared of me, I mean scared of who I was and of what people think of me. He pretends to ignore it, but I know it makes him crazy. And he uses any excuse he can to run away rather than face up to that. That's all this is, another excuse."
"I don't know, it seems to me you do a lot of running away yourself."
Mara glared at her, green eyes narrow and hard, then closed them and rubbed her temples. "All right," she relented, "you're right. I'm not afraid of many things, but this relationship with Skywalker, it absolutely terrifies me."
Ally looked at Mara, sensing her letting down the Force barriers a bit. She could feel the other woman's anger and almost more strongly, the hurt that was underlying it. It was unusual to see anything penetrate Mara's usual deadly calm, and Ally's mind whirled, searching for a way to comfort her friend. Nothing presented itself, so she opted for probing further.
"Why does it terrify you, Mara?" she asked softly.
"Because of this. Because he has a power over me; I'm not in control."
"But why do you always have to be in control?" Ally questioned.
"Because when you don't have control, you wind up dead."
"He's not your enemy," Ally gently reminded her.
"Sometimes I wonder," Mara laughed humorlessly. "He swears he'll never betray me, but the first chance he gets he's off and running to help her."
Ally decided to try a new approach: provoking her. For all Luke's warnings about anger being from the dark side, Ally knew it could sometimes be just the catharsis that someone like Mara needed. "So then this is about Callista?"
"No, this is not about Callista," Mara fumed. "This is about my not being able to live up to some impossible standard of perfection. I may be a Jedi, but I'll always be the Emperor's Hand in everyone's mind, including his." She looked away towards the docking bay's entrance, as if she were expecting Luke and Callista to come walking in, hand in hand. "It's much easier with her," Mara said, still looking towards the hatchway, "she's this perfect little Jedi who's done nothing but serve the Alliance--"
She stopped abruptly when Ally burst out laughing. "Mara, please, she is far from perfect. Maybe I'm not giving her a fair chance because of you, but I happen to think she is the most self-centered person I've ever met. Taking over someone else's body? Leaving behind someone who loves her and she claims to love just because she feels sorry for herself that she can't touch the Force anymore?" Ally shifted on the crates, pulling up her legs to get more comfortable.
"On my planet," she continued, "we don't have cybernetic prostheses to replace body parts that don't work any more. I've known people who lost their vision, or their hearing, or the use of all four limbs. And most of these people come to realize that the value of their lives is not determined by their senses and their ability to function in a normal way. Callista has never accepted that. All she's done is whine and complain about how awful it is to not be able to touch the Force. I knew a professional athlete who broke her neck diving into a pool that was too shallow. She can't walk or move her arms or even take care of herself anymore, yet she never once acted as if she were less of a person because of it. And Callista's upset that she can't use the Force? As if being a Jedi is the only worthwhile thing to be. Look at Han and Chewie and Lando and Tom and Wedge and Talon Karrde and Mon Mothma and Ackbar, or any number of people who have done amazing things without having the slightest bit of Jedi ability. Look at you, you had to overcome years of brainwashing at the hands of the Emperor to get where you are. And none of you complain about what you don't have. You use what you do have and make it work for you. That's what makes a mature adult."
Her little tirade seemed to work; Mara actually smiled. "I suppose you're right. But that doesn't change the fact that despite the fact that this is pretty much our only chance to spend a week together, he considers helping her to be more important."
Ally shook her head, then an idea occurred to her. "You know what you need, Mara?"
"I'm sure you'll tell me," Mara quipped with a wry smile.
"Of course I'm going to tell you," Ally returned, slapping both of her hands down on either side of her. "You need to get the hell away from here. You've got a free week now and you said you like turbo-skiing. Why don't you go to Kyth with Leia and me?"
"Oh, I don't know," Mara shook her head quickly. "I'm not sure going on a trip with Skywalker's sisters is a good idea."
"Oh, don't think of us as his sisters," Ally replied. "We're fellow women who have all dealt with male stupidity."
Mara gave a small laugh. "Then Tom was right, this will be a little men-bashing excursion."
Ally waved in an exaggerated gesture of dismissal. "Puh-LEASE, Tom doesn't have a clue! I meant what I said, we've got much more interesting things to talk about than them. It's just a good chance to get away, girls' weekend out. Say you'll come with us."
"Don't you think you should find out what Leia thinks before asking me?"
"We were planning on inviting you anyway, but you were going away with Luke. Now you're not. So come with us." Her eyes glinted devilishly; she knew just how to give Mara that last little push. "Or would you rather sit here alone, pining after him like you're some kind of pet..."
Mara's eyes flashed angrily. "I do not pine," she snapped. "I think I will come with you. A nice Hapan ski instructor may be just the thing."
Ally smiled, slapping Mara on the leg. "Now you're talking!"
With a heavy sigh, Leia shut the old-fashioned hinged wooden door behind Callista and Luke, then leaned against it wearily.
"Well, that was fun," Han said with sarcastic cheerfulness.
Leia shot him an exasperated look. "You're impossible. You and Ally both. You could have made a little more of an effort to be nice to her," she chided her husband.
"Who, me?" Han asked innocently. "You know me, I'm always charming."
"Yeah, charming as a Hutt," she growled.
"Well, can you blame me? What business does she have coming back here after all that time begging for Luke's help and messing things up for him and Mara? She's the one who left him."
"I know, I know," Leia sighed, "but getting her contact with the Force back is so important to her. I can't say that I blame her."
"Always the diplomat," Han grinned. "I just wish Luke would have done the smart thing and told her no. He's making a huge mistake helping her right now."
"I'm sure he knows what he's doing," Leia snapped defensively. "He's a Jedi Master and teacher, his first responsibility is to help Jedi reach their potential--"
"You and he both worry about your 'responsibilities' too much," Han replied, jabbing a finger at her. "And you and I both know it isn't always worth the price you pay."
Leia sighed again. She had to admit he had a point; before Luke and Mara had gotten involved, she had often wished that her brother would put aside his Jedi duties long enough to find some personal happiness. And the change in him when he finally did so had been remarkable. Ever since becoming a Jedi, a darkness had come over him, as if he carried the weight of the worlds on his shoulders. Somehow, ironically, the one person in the galaxy who was darker and moodier than he was had been able to draw him out of that shell he'd constructed around himself. Over the course of the past year, Leia had seen shades of the brash young man who had once disguised himself as a stormtrooper to rescue a princess he'd never met: "I'm Luke Skywalker. I'm here to rescue you."
Nevertheless, Leia more than anyone understood Luke's responsibilities and understood why he felt he had to help Callista; she just couldn't fault him for it. And it was certainly not a good enough reason for Mara to get upset enough to end the relationship.
"I'm sure this is not the disaster you're making it out to be," she said at length. Then the doorbell chimed, and as she crossed the room to answer the door, she added: "I think Luke can take care of himself, don't you?"
"Sometimes I wonder," Han muttered.
Leia shot him another exasperated look as she opened the door. It was Ally.
"Is the coast clear?" Ally joked in a mock whisper.
"Yeah, she's gone," Han replied laughing. "You can holster your weapons."
Leia rolled her eyes then stood aside to let Ally in.
"I was just with Mara."
"Brave girl," Han whistled in mock admiration.
"I take it she's not too happy with the situation?" Leia asked.
"Uh, that's one way to put it," Ally agreed. "Anyway, she's going to come with us to Kyth."
Leia gave her sister an apprehensive look. "Oh, I don't know, Ally. If she's upset with Luke I'm not sure we're the best people for her to be around."
"Why not? I know we're his sisters, but we're also her friends. And as long as he insists on being pig-headed..."
"Pig?" Han asked.
"Like a Gamorrean...only smarter. And cuter," Ally replied.
Leia felt her defensiveness for her brother rise again. "I don't see why everyone's so concerned about what Luke does. Do you think he's going to turn Callista down if she needs his help just because Mara's jealous? I would think she would trust him--he's not the kind of person that would cheat on her or hurt her."
Ally put up her hands as if to ward Leia off. "Whoa, nobody's accusing Luke of anything."
"Well it sure sounds like it to me," Leia snapped, eyeing both her husband and her sister.
"Don't look at me, I just live here," Han mumbled, taking a step backwards.
"Leia, it's not that Luke's done anything wrong. It's just that the timing is so bad, with all the grief they've been getting about her past. I think Mara's just feeling a little insecure."
Leia snorted. "That'll be the day when Mara Jade is insecure about anything."
"Well, you don't know her as well as I do," Ally rejoined. "With all this pressure from Mon Mothma and the public, she figures Luke's bound to feel his obligation to the New Republic is more important than his personal life. Can you really blame her for that, we all know Luke's pretty dedicated."
Han rolled his eyes. "I told him this was going to happen."
"I thought you 'just lived here,'" Leia reminded him.
"Leia, this isn't about ganging up on Luke," Ally explained. "I just think that it would be good for Mara to get away for a while, with just us women."
"I think it's a great idea," Han put in.
"You sure didn't think so the other night when we were discussing ski instructors," Leia scoffed.
"Hey, I've been in Mara's boots before. I know what its like to feel like the whole galaxy thinks you're not good enough for the person you love. Maybe getting her out on those turbo- ski slopes will keep her from doing anything rash--like kidnapping someone..."
Leia grinned, remembering how Han, in a fit of desperation at the possibility of losing her to Prince Isolder, had spirited her off to Dathomir. "I don't think Mara would do anything so half-witted," she flashed back at him.
"Hey, your Royal Highness, I don't hear you complaining about the end results," he retorted, sweeping his arm around the apartment.
"No, no complaints," she agreed with a chuckle. She turned to Ally. "If she comes with us, we're not going to sit around and bash Luke the whole time, are we?"
Ally shook her head and held up three fingers on her right hand. "Girl Scout's honor. I think she needs to get Luke off her mind, not talk about him."
"I suppose you're right," Leia relented.
Ally gave a small squeal of delight and hugged her sister. "This is gonna be great, just wait and see. I used to do women's retreats all the time back home and believe me, the more the merrier." She then gave a quick glance to her chronometer, than added hastily, "but it's getting late and Tom and the kids will be back soon. And I still haven't packed yet."
"Oh, you're right," Leia replied. "I haven't packed either, and I've got a lot of files for the Summit I need to take with me. And Winter's had the kids out all day, they should be home soon, too."
"Well, I'll get out of here then, and I'll see you tomorrow morning?"
"Tomorrow morning," Leia agreed as Ally gave Han a quick kiss on the cheek then departed.
Leia turned to her husband. "Are you sure you're okay with me going away like this? I know what a handful the kids are, and I'm already away so much as it is..."
"No, you need a vacation," Han responded, slipping his arms around her slight waist. "Besides, Chewie comes in tomorrow, and he and I have some repairs to do on the *Falcon* before we take her to Kyth next week. That stuff bores you to tears anyway."
Leia smiled and leaned against his chest. "But when are we going to get some time for a vacation together?" she asked wearily.
"Oh, I don't know, we could get Winter to stay out with the kids a little longer tonight..."
Leia beamed at him. "For an old scoundrel, you're all right, Han Solo."
"You like scoundrels," he smiled back, then gave her a long kiss.
Roganda Ismaren walked quickly through the corridors of her underground cavern. The light, almost gleeful feeling that had been so hard for her to control just a few days ago had rapidly evaporated. Now she felt like the weight of the worlds was on her shoulders, despite the energizing ionized atmosphere. Five days. They only had five days until the New Republic Summit was to begin on the surface several hundred meters above them. She could only hope they'd be ready in time.
She considered checking in on Irek in his workshop, then thought better of it, remembering what had happened the last time. She felt a small shudder go through her. No, she didn't want to risk that again, not now.
Instead of heading to the workshop, she opted to return to her room. There was really nothing more she could do, so she would have to be content with daydreaming, planning Irek's future as the Emperor. A familiar past time.
But today she found herself thinking only of the past. She thought of their failed attempt at resurrecting the Empire eight years ago, when Irek was still just a boy. She thought of the moving around they had done since then--the would-be Emperor and the Emperor's Hand, reduced to the status of fugitives--and the various Imperial sympathizers who had supported them. Then, a year ago, Irek reached twenty-one. It was a perfect age--virtually the same age Luke Skywalker had been when he had defeated the Emperor. And there seemed to be a new resurgence in Imperial activity: Vice Admiral Pellaeon had been going about the galaxy rounding up a modest armada. He had even been rumored to be in possession of a Super Star Destroyer. The timing had seemed so perfect that she and Irek had begun planning. They would contact Vice Admiral Pellaeon, and with his military expertise and Irek's Force skills, the Empire could be resurrected.
As it turned out, however, someone else had already had that idea. Just before she was about to make her move, she found out with whom Pellaeon was working: Malarin Belsarios. A man who had supposedly been executed by the Emperor some eighteen years previous. She could clearly remember the first time she knew he was still alive, when she saw him in that broadcast. He had just captured the famed Rogue Squadron and was sending a broad-band holovid across the galaxy to brag about his accomplishments. Roganda had almost dropped to the floor when she saw it. How could someone the Emperor had executed be alive?
Abruptly, Roganda had changed their plans and bided her time, waiting to see what would happen. If he succeeded in tearing apart the New Republic, perhaps she could somehow make it all work to her advantage. Irek had been livid, of course, but Irek was often livid and Roganda knew how to handle him. Just as long as she could keep him distracted working on some bit of mechanical engineering or another, she could keep him from getting too curious.
But despite her forced optimism that perhaps she could twist Belsarios' presence to her advantage, she knew deep down that he was a threat to everything she had worked for, for herself and especially for Irek. Belsarios wanted to be the next Emperor; only Irek deserved that title. So it was with a large amount of satisfaction that Roganda received the news of his death. And in a special twist of irony, it had occurred at the hands of a simple concubine. The same concubine who had been responsible for his supposed execution eighteen years earlier: Mara Jade.
Roganda had been so thrilled by his timely demise that she almost found herself feeling warmly towards Mara Jade. Almost. But no matter how convenient Belsarios' death was, it could not make up for the other, unspeakable things that woman had done. The worst, of course, was that she had stolen Roganda's identity.
For years Mara had been going about the galaxy claiming to have been the Emperor's Hand. That was, of course, a lie: the Emperor had bestowed that honor on only one--Roganda. Mara Jade was nothing more than a simple concubine, a bit of Palace fluff with a big mouth and delusions of grandeur. At first it had been merely amusing, but it was getting worse and worse as time went on. Not only had she prostituted the name of "Emperor's Hand" by helping the New Republic on occasion, she had actually formed an alliance with them. Fine for a former concubine, but certainly not for the Emperor's Hand! Then to make matters worse, she had started a relationship with the man who was most responsible for the Emperor's death: Luke Skywalker. Before Mara's wild claims, Roganda had been able to use her former title to her advantage when foraging for allies in the Core Worlds. Now when anyone mentioned the name "Emperor's Hand," instead of the terror and respect that should have been evoked, people actually laughed. Laughed!
"Emperor's Hand?" they'd say, smiling, winking. "You mean that woman who's taken up with Luke Skywalker? Kinda makes you wonder why she was called the Emperor's *Hand...*"
For this reason, not even killing Belsarios could vindicate her in Roganda's eyes. It was bad enough to steal her title, her identity, but to then drag it through the dirt as if it meant nothing? That could not go unpunished. No, Mara Jade must be one of the first to die.
At this, Roganda's spirits rose again. She would, in fact, be one of the first to die. She would be at the Summit. She would be there when the place was vaporized. Along with Leia Organa Solo, Han Solo, and Luke Skywalker. All the people that had been responsible for her and Irek's failure eight years ago.
And it would all happen in only five more days.
Yes, she was feeling much better now. Much better.
Almost from the moment she stepped off of Leia's consular ship, the *Alderaan,* and onto the frozen deck of the Kyth port, Mara could feel the famed ionized atmosphere working its magic. The tension in her head, neck, and back seemed to melt away, and she suddenly felt like she could take on the galaxy.
Luke, Callista, and her life as the Emperor's Hand all seemed very remote.
"Wow," Ally marveled beside her, looking up at the mountains that surrounded them. "This is amazing. It's so cold, but it feels like the desert after a thunderstorm." Her voice had a strange, rarefied quality to it that reminded Mara vaguely of a lightsaber's hum. "And my voice sounds so strange!" Ally added.
"That's the ionization," Leia agreed, with the same hum to her voice. "They say you get used to the strange sounds after a while, but doesn't it feel wonderful?" She set down her bag at her feet and clapped her hands together to keep warm.
"Ambassador Organa Solo!" cried a deep, voice in heavily accented Basic. Mara saw a tall biped, almost two meters tall with thick leathery skin and short, course white fur covering his body. A Kythan.
"Chancellor Godor," Leia said warmly, extended her hand. But instead of shaking it, the Kythan grabbed her arm and sniffed her hand. Mara caught Ally's face when he did so and had to choke down a laugh. Ally had obviously never seen the traditional Kythan greeting before.
Leia, however, had done her homework, and patiently endured what many would consider to be a rude intrusion. When Godor finished with the ritual, Leia bowed slightly. "I am honored that you came to meet us here in person," she said, her voice regal. The well-practiced princess. "You were informed, I hope, that our early arrival is not an official visit, but a vacation?"
Chancellor Godor returned her bow. "Of course, Ambassador. But I still wanted to greet you personally. We are grateful that you chose our planet for such an important occasion as the upcoming Economic Summit." He then turned to Mara and Ally, giving another shallow bow with his head. "And this must be Lieutenant Dale and Captain Jade. We are honored."
Mara narrowed her eyes suspiciously, waiting to see if there was any more. But the Chancellor remained very cordial and pleasant; no snide comments about her past Imperial affiliations. Of course, like most high-end resort planets, Kyth had not fared badly under Imperial rule, so there didn't tend to be the hard feelings towards ex-Imperials that she encountered on many other worlds. Strange that for fifteen years her Imperial past had not been of much concern to anyone until she started a relationship with Skywalker, Illustrious Hero of the New Republic...
Mara shook her head; she was on vacation. She pushed him out of her mind, wishing with a small smile that she was pushing him off the roof of the Imperial Palace instead....
She looked over at Ally, who was eyeing their host warily, clearly afraid that she would be required to offer her own arm to be sniffed. Mara decided to give the poor Terran a break. Only the highest ranking member of a party is greeted in that way, she told Ally in her mind. She saw her friend give her a relieved smile, then turned her attention back towards Chancellor Godor, who was directing them towards an elegant snow speeder that would take them to the resort.
"I couldn't help but notice your lightsabers," Godor was saying to Leia. All three women, out of habit, were wearing their lightsabers attached to their belt. "Of course, I'll have to request that you surrender them with your blasters before we leave the port."
Mara's hand reflexively came to rest on the handle of her lightsaber. She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "What do you mean, we have to surrender our weapons? I don't go anywhere without my weapons."
Leia gave Mara a harsh look, obviously afraid that she had offended their host, but Mara didn't care. They could take her blaster over her dead body and her lightsaber over her severed one.
"I'm sorry, Chancellor," Leia said hastily, giving Mara another stern look. "I was unaware that lightsabers were banned along with blasters, and I forgot to brief Captain Jade about your laws..."
"I don't need briefing; I don't surrender my weapons to anyone," Mara growled.
"Oh my, I'm so sorry, but I really must insist," Godor replied, apologetic. "You see, we cannot allow conventional weapons such as blasters on Kyth because of the ionized atmosphere. If you tried to fire your blaster, it would not react as you would expect. Instead the particles would explode out in fragments; very devastating. Lightsabers are equally dangerous. They're not as common as blasters, so we never did post them officially in our customs laws, but we do not permit such weapons beyond the port. No exceptions."
Leia appeared deeply embarrassed. "Chancellor, I am so sorry, this is my fault, I should have briefed the Captain. Of course we will surrender our weapons immediately." To emphasize the point, she turned over her own lightsaber.
"Now wait a second," Mara put in, receiving another angry look from Leia. "I do not give my weapons up to anybody. If we can't use them, fine, but I'd like to keep them with me all the same." The thought of someone else taking her lightsaber or her cherished arm-holstered blaster...
"I'm afraid I cannot allow that, Captain Jade," the Kythan replied quickly, still sounding apologetic and getting quite flustered. "It is our law, no conventional weapons permitted outside the port. I hope you will understand, we simply cannot risk it. You are all quite skilled in battle. Were there to be any sort of incident, you would reflexively go for your weapons, before even realizing you had done so. To fire a blaster or ignite a lightsaber would be disastrous. I hope you understand," he said, his large black eyes imploring for her to relent without making a further issue of it.
Mara raised her eyebrows. "Are you expecting an incident, then?"
Chancellor Godor looked disconcerted and turned to Leia for help. The former Chief of State's face turned crimson with anger and embarrassment.
"You will surrender your weapons immediately, Captain!" she said with all the authority of her royal upbringing and presidential past.
As if to try and soothe things over, Ally quickly handed over her deactivated saber, then the two women looked expectantly at Mara.
"Fine," Mara said icily. Although every fiber of her being rebelled at allowing anyone to order her around, she realized that starting what could become an interplanetary incident would not be in anyone's best interest. Reluctantly, she unclipped her lightsaber handle from her belt and handed it to the distressed Chancellor.
"Everything," Leia said firmly.
Mara gave her a hard look, then removed her blaster from its arm holster, and handed that over as well.
"Thank you, Captain," Chancellor Godor said, obviously grateful that the tense moment was over. But not quite...
"Wait, Chancellor. I hope you will indulge me," she said, putting on her best diplomatic voice to soothe Leia, "but where do you plan on holding our weapons while we are here, and how can we retrieve them?"
"You can leave them on your own ship, if you'd like," he replied hastily. "And if you'd feel more comfortable, we can provide you with substitute weapons that function normally in our ionized atmosphere."
"That will not be necessary, Chancellor," Leia said firmly before Mara could say anything. "And again, please forgive me for not informing my companions about your laws. Rest assured, I will personally see to it that the leaders arriving for the Summit are informed in advance."
The Kythan had their lightsabers and Mara's blaster stowed back aboard the *Alderaan,* then once more guided the three women towards the waiting snow speeder. He gave a brief tour of the area, babbling endlessly about the geography and geology of the planet as they flew toward the main resort lodge where the summit would be held. All of the leaders coming in for the summit would stay in the luxurious suites within the lodge itself, but for their vacation beforehand, Leia had arranged for a private cabin away from the main building. Godor showed them to their accommodations, told them he would personally see to anything they wished, apologized again for the weapons misunderstanding, then finally left them alone to unpack and enjoy the rustic mountain cabin.
He had no sooner shut the door behind him when Leia started in on Mara. "Did you have to be so rude? I hope we haven't offended him!"
"Offended him?" Mara snorted. "I'm sorry, but I get a little offended when someone tells me that I have to give up my lightsaber and my blaster!"
"Well, this was my fault," Leia repeated. "But you still shouldn't have given him such a hard time."
"I don't like it, and I think we should have taken him up on his offer to provide substitute arms--"
"This is a vacation," Ally snipped, cutting Mara off. "You need to relax, Jade. You can manage three days without your weapons."
"You forget, trouble has a way of following us wherever we go."
"Well, what's done is done," Leia said testily. "I will not jeopardize the countless hours that went into the preparation of this Summit. Ally's right. I for one like the idea of being somewhere where there are no blasters around. Let's just make the best of it, shall we?"
Mara scowled. "I am highly adaptable. But I still don't like it."
"Let's take a look around, this place looks fabulous," Ally said, quickly changing the subject. She took a deep breath. "Remember the negative ions!"
Mara took her own deep breath, allowing the electric feeling in the air to once again ease away her tensions. If push came to shove, she was trained in hand-to-hand combat...
"I'll bet this place has a hot tub," Ally said, smiling. "All good ski resort cabins have hot tubs." She disappeared down a hallway, then cried out, "I was right! Oh, wow, it's huge!"
Mara smiled at Leia. "Might as well enjoy our vacation while we can. Summit starts in four days."
"Four days," Leia repeated, returning the smile. "Well, we'd better stop arguing and start relaxing then."
Ally reappeared. "Are you two gonna just stand here, or are we going skiing?"
"Let's go skiing!" Mara and Leia said in unison, and the three women laughed together, the stress from their disagreement and from their duties back on Coruscant already forgotten in the cold, ionized Kyth air.
Leia stood at the top of the powdery-white slope and slid her skis back and forth across the snow. Removing her goggles, she took in the view from the mountain top. Ally had been right, this is just what she needed.
"I can't believe how beautiful this is," Ally said as she sidestepped up beside Leia. "The mountains on Earth are breathtaking, but I've never seen anything like this."
"This was a good idea," Mara agreed as she joined the other two women. "I think this is just what I needed to get my mind off of...uh what's his name?"
"What's who's name?" Ally asked playfully, laughing.
Leia beat her gloved hands together to warm them as she expelled her breath, steam pouring out of her mouth. "Well, are we just going to stand here all day, or are we going to ski?" she asked.
"Let's do it!" Ally cried. She pushed off with her poles, igniting her turbo-skis, and was off down the mountain. "Last one down is Bantha food!" she shouted gleefully, giggling like a child.
Leia and Mara looked at each other, smiling. "Sounds like a challenge to me," the slim redhead said. She pushed her goggles down on her face and pushed off, following Ally. Leia came right behind her.
The three women wove their way down the steep terrain, Leia thoroughly enjoying the icy wind whipping through her hair and reddening her cheeks. She could see Ally up ahead. Hunching down over her skis and tucking her poles under her arms, Leia picked up speed, passing Mara and gaining on her sister. The dark shapes of tree trunks flew by, dangerously close, but Leia was in complete control of her skis. She leaned hard on her right ski, cutting a sharp precise turn, narrowly missing another tree. Ally was only a few meters ahead of her now...
Suddenly Ally was airborne, having hit a large mogul in the trail. Leia could hear her squeal with delight as soared through the air, struggling to get her body positioned over the skis. A few seconds behind her, Leia hit the mogul. Crouching low, she let the mound of snow push her into the air. She used the Force to keep her balance over the skis, then she was on the ground again, landing beside a wildly out-of-control Ally.
"Use the Force to regain your balance!" she shouted over the shrieking wind. But it was too late. Ally lost her balance completely and tumbled head first into the powdery snow. Leia slid to a stop beside her, Mara right on her heels.
"Ally, are you all right?" she asked.
The Terran pulled herself up, shaking snow out of her blond hair. "Let's do that again!" she cried, laughing wildly and sounding like a little girl. "That was fun!"
Mara looked at Leia, then bent down to switch the turbos on her skis from "ski" to "up." "Let's see if we can't teach this girl to ski," she said with a smile, then headed back up the hill.
They skied for several hours, trying many different trails. There were a few other skiers out on the slopes, but most everyone was getting ready for the Economic Summit, so they mostly had the mountainside to themselves. Finally, hungry and chilled to the bone, the three women returned to their cabin to grab a quick lunch. Ally, reveling in the chance to practice her cooking skills with no droids around, went off to the kitchen to prepare a warm meal for the three of them. While they waited, Leia and Mara sipped hot chocolate by the fireplace.
"I'm really glad Ally dragged me out here," Leia said as she sipped her drink. "I haven't had an actual vacation in...oh, I don't want to think how long."
"Me, too," Mara agreed. She looked much better after the exhilarating exercise, almost cheerful, which was an unusual thing for Mara Jade. Now that they were sitting quietly, however, Leia noticed the trader's face turn more somber.
"You okay?" Leia asked her, concerned.
Mara nodded. "I'm fine." She smiled, but Leia wasn't convinced.
"Mara, you do know that you can trust him, don't you?" she said at length.
Mara sighed. "Yes, I do. It's not really Callista I'm concerned about. It's all the other stuff..."
Leia put her cup down, grimacing. "I know. Han and I went through the same thing. I was the last of the Alderaan royalty, so what business did I have being with an arrogant smuggler?"
"Hey, at least he wasn't the Emperor's Hand," Mara snorted. Then she looked at Leia, her eyes suddenly intent. "Leia, you know him better than anyone. Am I just being selfish? Maybe I should just leave him alone; the last thing I want to do is interfere with what he wants for his life.."
Leia looked at her, surprised. Though she had known Mara for a long time and had been aware of her feelings for Luke before they had even begun their tenuous relationship, Mara had always guarded her emotions very closely. But for the first time, Leia could sense just how deep Mara's feelings for her brother were.
"You really love him, don't you?" she asked at length.
Mara was silent for almost a full minute. "Yes, Leia. I love him. I've loved him for a very long time." Then she let out a small, dry laugh. "Strange that I can tell you that when I haven't even been able to say it to him."
"Why is it so hard for you?" Leia asked.
Mara shrugged. "All the usual reasons. Vulnerability, that sort of thing. I suppose you had no problems telling Solo how you felt about him."
Leia almost choked on her hot chocolate. "Are you kidding? That was the hardest thing I've ever had to admit to myself, that I'd actually fallen in love with that--that arrogant, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder."
Mara laughed in spite of herself. "Okay, so maybe it wasn't so easy."
"No," Leia agreed, "it was not easy. The last thing I wanted was to get involved with someone like him. But..." she trailed off, her face growing somber at the memory.
"But?" Mara prompted.
"But then Vader had him frozen in carbonite. I finally told him I loved him just before he was lowered into the carbonation chamber." She shuddered at the memory that was so sinister even Kyth's charged atmosphere couldn't soften it.
"That must have been very difficult," Mara said softly.
"Yes," Leia said, then took another sip of the hot, sweet concoction. "But everything turned out fine. And it will for you and Luke, too."
Mara sighed. "I'm not so sure." She looked Leia in the eye. "I spent a lot of time denying how I felt about him because it didn't seem to be the smart thing. For either of us. But he convinced me to take a chance, so I did. Maybe I was right after all. Maybe we'd all be better off if I just went away for a while."
"Oh Mara, please don't do that," Leia said so earnestly she surprised even herself. "I don't think you realize how good you've been for Luke. This past year, he's actually been happy. I don't think I've seen him happy since before the Emperor died." Leia sighed. "The war, becoming a Jedi, it all took a terrible toll on him. Finding out Darth Vader was his-- our father," she intentionally corrected herself, "was very, very difficult. Then having to watch him die just when he had returned from the dark side. When I first met Luke, he was this reckless, wise-cracking kid who just ran headlong into trouble without even thinking it through. He used to smile all the time. I thought that boy died with the Emperor and Vader, but you brought him back. He laughs, he jokes, he doesn't brood."
Mara smiled and shook her head. "Well, that has to be the first time anyone has ever accused me of being a cheery presence in their life."
"I know, you've had your own dark times. Maybe that's why you and Luke are so good for each other." Leia looked at Mara solemnly. "Mara, he loves you very much. I know that it's been difficult with all the grief you two have been getting, and then Callista reappearing out of nowhere, but I know my brother. He has never loved anyone like he loves you. *Anyone,*" she repeated with deliberate emphasis. "Please stick it out, just a little longer."
"I don't know," Mara sighed, taking another sip of hot chocolate. "I want to, I really do, but more and more it feels like I'm doing him more harm than good. And I swear, that's the last thing I want. I know I'm not known for my generous spirit," she said, smiling to herself, "but that last thing I want is to make his life miserable. Sometimes I think that's exactly what I'm doing."
"Hey, no seriousness allowed! We're here to have fun," Ally interrupted loudly as she brought a tray heaped with steaming food into the room. "Now I don't know about you ladies, but I'm starved!"
Mara and Leia joined her at the table, but Leia couldn't put their conversation out of her mind. Despite Mara's reservations, Leia hoped that she and Luke would stick it out. She wanted her brother, for once, to have a shot at happiness. He deserved that much.
The trip to Dagobah was a long one, but they finally arrived. As Luke guided the small, two-person ship down into the atmosphere thick with a heavy white mist, memories of his first trip here flooded his mind.
Dagobah, the site of his Jedi training. The one-time home of Master Yoda.
Luke heard a whistle behind him as Artoo-Detoo rolled into the cockpit of the small craft. "Bring back memories, Artoo?" Luke asked the small droid.
Artoo whistled again, a distinctly negative sound. Luke grinned--the poor astromech droid had not been made for swamps. Dagobah was not his favorite place.
"How about you?" Callista asked from her seat beside Luke. "It must be hard for you every time you come back here."
Luke spared her a glance before turning his attention back to landing the spacecraft. "Yeah. Sometimes I really miss Master Yoda. It was nice having someone around to advise me."
"Now you're the Master," Callista pointed out.
"I know. Sometimes--just sometimes--I wish I weren't." He glanced at her again. "But that's not really the encouragement you need. We're here to get your Jedi abilities back."
She swallowed, nodding. "Yes."
The ship rocked as it plunged through the atmosphere. Luke guided it by instinct and the Force, aiming for the side of the planet where Yoda had once lived. That side of the planet was currently turned away from its sun--night time.
Carefully Luke guided the ship down, trying not to think of his near crash-landing his first time here. He had been barely twenty-one years old--just a kid, with virtually no understanding of the Force. Now he was its Master, using it to guide him to a safe landing--this time on solid ground, he hoped, rather than in the middle of the bog.
Finally, the ship settled on the ground below. Luke turned to Callista. "Well, here we are."
"Here we are," Callista repeated. Even without being able to sense her in the Force, Luke could tell she was nervous. He took her arm.
"It will be fine. You'll get it back, I'm sure of it."
She nodded, looking at him. "I hope so."
"Remember, you have to believe it." He thought of a something Ally had quoted him from her own religion: "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed you can move mountains," he remembered.
"What's a mustard seed?" Callista frowned.
Luke smiled. "Nothing. It's just a saying Ally taught me." He got up and peered out the viewscreen into the darkness and the mist. "It must be the middle of the night here. We'd better make camp--we won't want to face the cave at night."
Callista grabbed his arm. "Maybe we should just sleep on the ship. Remember the nightbats the last time we were here..."
Luke nodded. "I remember. That's why I brought Artoo along." He patted the small droid on the top of his head.
"Why, what can he do?"
"Show her, Artoo," Luke smiled.
Nothing happened, or at least nothing appeared to happen.
"I don't get it," she said, her hands on her hips as she eyed the astromech droid.
"Yes, but the bats will." Luke pointed to a scope on the ship's control board that was spinning crazily. "Artoo's emitting a frequency too high for us to hear, but it will keep the bats away. Screws up their sonar."
Callista nodded. "Then lets set up camp."
The two worked together, carrying tents and rations off the ship and setting it up on a relatively solid plot of ground, working by the light of a few glow rods. Luke couldn't help but think of Mara and the camping trip he was supposed to be on right now with her.
"You look sad," Callista said suddenly, cutting off his thoughts. She had just finished propping up a make-shift shelter and was sitting down beneath it.
Luke looked at her. No point in saying anything that might hurt her...
"I was just thinking."
Callista didn't respond. She watched him for a moment, the said, "Hungry? I'm starved. Lets say we break out those fabulous food rations."
"Sounds great," Luke said sarcastically, but he opened up the box of rations and tossed a food bar to Callista then helped himself to one. Artoo, meanwhile, stationed himself at the edge of the camp, continuously emitting his signal too high for the humans to hear.
Luke sat quietly, munching his food bar and listening to the life teeming around him. Insects, reptiles, fish, birds, mammals--every kind of non-sentient life imaginable lived on this planet, in these swamps. Luke could feel their presence all around him in the Force--strengthening it, adding to it and drawing from it, ebbing and flowing.
"I wish I could feel the life here," Callista said wistfully. Startled, Luke looked at her and realized she'd been watching him.
"You will," he said confidently.
"That's what you said the last time we were here," she reminded him.
"But you didn't know what you needed to do then. Now you do." He moved closer to her. "It's okay to be afraid, Callista, I know there's a lot at stake for you here. But you will succeed--we will succeed."
"Thank you for coming with me, Luke," she said earnestly. "I know we can do it together."
He looked into her gray eyes for a moment, then suddenly felt uncomfortable. He quickly glanced down, then rose from his seat. "I'm gonna get another food bar--you want one?"
She put her hand out and caught his leg. "Luke, I won't bite. You don't have to be afraid of me."
He felt his back stiffen as he turned from her and rummaged through the food rations, selecting another stale bar. He then sat down beside her again--but a little farther away. "I'm not afraid of you," he said at length. He gestured to the swamp around him. "This place is my past, Callista. It's where I trained, where I became who I am. All of that's very important to me, but I don't want to live in the past."
"And I'm your past," she finished softly.
This time she looked down. "It's okay. I just want my Jedi powers back, that's all I ask."
Luke relaxed a little. "And you'll get them." He looked around him again. "But not if we don't get some sleep. We'll need to be well rested before going to the cave tomorrow."
Luke unrolled his bedroll, again placing it at a respectable distance from Callista's. He crawled inside and zipped himself in.
"Good night, Luke," she heard Callista say softly as he extinguished the glowrod.
"Good night, Callista," he said.
Closing his eyes, he thought of Mara.
Leia glided to a stop at the top of the trail and leaned on her poles, looking down at the valley below her. Even after three days of skiing, she never tired of the view. Ally and Mara skied up beside her.
"Well, our last day of vacation before the dignitaries start arriving for the Summit meeting," Ally said breathlessly. "Let's say we really make it count and try some of those more difficult back trails."
Mara laughed. "You sure you can handle it? Or do you enjoy going head first into snow banks?"
Ally stuck her tongue out at Mara. "Hey, I've improved a lot the last couple days. You have to understand, I'm not used to having engines on my skis. On Earth we rely on a little thing called gravity."
"Yes, and you know all about gravity, don't you," Mara shot back, laughing again.
Leia laughed too. "If you kids don't settle down, we're going right back home..."
"Okay, okay," Ally giggled. "But do you or do you not want to try the back trails--or are you chicken?"
Leia and Mara looked at each other, then at Ally. "What's chicken?" They asked in unison.
Ally suppressed a giggle. "Umm...tastes just like Ewok."
"Sounds like an insult to me," Mara growled. "No one calls me an Ewok..."
"Then follow me!" Ally pushed of with her poles across the top of the mountain, heading away from the main trail and towards the back side of the mountain. Leia and Mara followed her.
She had improved considerably, Leia noticed as she watched Ally make her way down the narrow slope. She was a reckless skier, however, often taking on challenges that were beyond her level of expertise. Today she seemed to be holding her own, but Leia wasn't going to let any newcomer show her up.
Giving herself an extra boost from her turbos, she passed Ally by, zipping ahead down the trail, weaving in and out of trees and moguls in her path.
During the past three days, the slopes had been a bit deserted as the locals prepared for the pending Summit Meeting. At first it had seemed almost eerie, as all three women were accustomed to the hustle and throng of beings on Coruscant, but by the third day they had grown accustomed to the solitude. Which was why Leia stopped short when she saw someone on the other side of a line of trees, trudging through the snow. It was clearly a human woman, dressed in long furs rather than a more conventional ski parka. Immediately her instincts told her something was wrong. Carefully positioning herself behind one of the trees, she watched the woman, who appeared to be doing some sort of geological survey. Not unusual for Kyth, but then it was usually the Kythans themselves who did that sort of thing, not humans.
Leia turned to see that Mara had skied softly beside her. Ally was still further up the hill.
"You see that woman?" Leia pointed. "Don't you think it's rather strange to see someone now, when the place has been so deserted?"
Mara looked out and watched the woman for a moment, frowning. "Something's definitely wrong," she agreed. "My danger sense is really acting up. Do you know who it is?"
Leia shook her head. "She's too far away, I can't see her face."
"So, you're a Jedi, aren't you?"
Leia flashed Mara a sarcastic grin. "Thank you for reminding me," she shot back. She took a deep breath and put out a tenuous "feeler" with the Force.
Almost immediately, the woman looked in their direction, as if she knew she was being watched.
"She's Force sensitive!" Mara whispered fiercely, and Leia felt her put up a barrier, making herself less noticeable through the Force. Though Leia was not as skilled at that as Mara, she did likewise and they continued to watch the woman.
She looked around a moment, then shook her head as if to shrug off an uncomfortable feeling, then returned to her work.
"Did you get a feel for who she is before she noticed you?" Mara asked when the woman's attention was back on what she was doing.
"No," Leia said. "But she sure felt...familiar."
It was then that Ally joined them, sliding to a stop somewhat ungracefully beside them.
"Why'd you guys stop?" she asked a bit too loudly.
"Shhhh!" Leia said quickly.
"There's someone there, we're trying to figure out what she's doing," Mara whispered, nodding her head towards the fur-clad figure. "Something doesn't feel right."
Ally hunched down beside them and peered around the tree. "Who is it?"
"We don't know, but I think I know her from somewhere," Leia answered.
"What do you think she's doing?" asked Mara.
"It looked like some sort of geological survey. Which makes me very suspicious. The Kythans are always studying their planet's geology, but I doubt they'd let a human do the surveys. Their sense of smell makes them much better at it than we are," Leia replied, actually grateful that she had read all of that material on Kyth after all.
"Why would someone do an authorized geological survey?" Ally asked.
"Precious metals?" Mara guessed.
"Well, these mountains are laced with jogathronite, but as far as I know it's not a precious metal. In fact, it corrodes immediately upon exposure to the atmosphere," Leia told them.
"We need to take a closer look," Mara said matter-of- factly.
"But she's Force sensitive, we have to be careful," Leia warned.
As they talked, the woman apparently had finished what she was doing. She straightened up, took her long tool and whatever sample it had retrieved, and started heading away from them, across the base of the mountain and towards the only shelter Leia could see: a small, wood warming hut.
"Come on," Mara said as she skied slowly forward. "I want to know who that is and what she's up to."
Staying as close to the cover of the trees as they could, the three women started very slowly down and across the mountain, paralleling the stranger's path. As they went, they kept up the mind patterns that would render them practically invisible in the Force. Ally was not as skilled at that as Mara and Leia, who were both full Jedi, but she was close enough that Mara could boost her barrier with her own.
As the woman approached the small hut, another figure appeared from inside. It was a human male, tall and thin, with very dark hair. He shouted something to the woman, but they were too far away to hear what it was. Leia could sense his presence in the Force, however, much stronger than the woman's, and very malevolent. She stopped at the edge of a sharp drop-off and turned towards Mara to see if she had felt it too. She didn't even have to ask the question; Mara's eyes widened in recognition.
"Irek!" she cried softly, and instantly Leia felt Mara intensify the Force barrier.
Irek? Then the woman must be...
"And Roganda," Leia finished for Mara.
Just then, Ally reached them, still struggling with her turbo skis.
"Ally, be careful, it's pretty steep!" Mara hissed, but before she could even reach out to help steady her, Ally stumbled, her arms pinwheeling as she tried to regain her balance. Still too new to turbo skiing to recover swiftly enough, she teetered on the edge of the drop-off, then fell, sliding noisily down the hill.
At the bottom of the hill, both Irek and Roganda noticed her. They shouted something, then three guards carrying long rifles burst out of the warming hut and rushed up the hill towards Ally, who finally landed in a heap about a hundred meters away from them.
Leia stifled a cry as Mara grabbed her and pulled her behind a tree, swearing profusely under her breath and intensifying the Force barrier which Leia could feel covering herself as well. She saw the trader reach reflexively for the place her blaster usually was holstered on her arm, then begin a new round of curses.
"I knew it was a bad idea to give up our weapons!" she spat.
"What good would it do to have them, we can't use them here," Leia whispered back.
"Tell them that," Mara said, jerking her thumb towards the guards with their rifles. They were now pulling Ally roughly to her feet and out of her skis.
"Those must be some of those 'alternative weapons' Chancellor Godor was talking about," Leia observed.
Mara nodded her agreement. "I haven't seen weapons like that since my training. They look like semi-automatic projectile rifles."
Leia raised her eyebrows. "You know your weapons."
"Of course I do," Mara whispered dismissively. "But we've gotta get out of here before they search to see if she was alone." Her voice was edged with frustration.
"Wait a second," Leia said, motioning for Mara to be still. She peeked around the tree and watched for a moment as one of the guards dragged Ally toward the hut while the other two kept their rifles trained on her. Meanwhile, Irek and Roganda were looking up the mountain towards them.
Through Mara's Force barrier, she could almost feel Irek's sense reach out, searching over the mountain like a spotlight. Eventually, it withdrew, and Roganda and Irek followed the guards into the hut.
"The Force barrier worked, he missed us completely!" Leia said, amazed. "He must have assumed that Ally was alone when he couldn't sense us."
"Now what?" Mara growled. "How do we get her out of there without weapons?"
"We could get back on the main trails and contact the Kythan authorities," Leia suggested, knowing Mara wouldn't like it.
"We don't have that kind of time," Mara snapped. "By the time we get all the way up the mountain and back down the other side, who knows what that little harlot and her megalomaniac son will have done to her." Angrily she pulled herself up with her ski poles. "I swear, he's as bad as his father."
Leia froze and looked up at Mara. "His father? What are you saying?" she asked warily, then pulled herself up as well. "Has she been telling the truth, is Irek Palpatine's son?"
Mara gave a tight, dry laugh. "Don't tell me you've bought that little fantasy of hers," she said viciously. "You've seen what the dark side did to Palpatine. Do you honestly think he could have fathered a child even if he'd wanted to?" She laughed again, a shrill, harsh sound that sent a chill down Leia's spine. "And why would he want to have a child? He had his clones, his plan. He was going to live forever. Why should he want an heir?"
"But you know who his real father is," Leia observed.
"Of course I do," Mara replied sharply. "He's Malarin's son."
Leia frowned. "Malarin?" Then her eyes widened in understanding. "Malarin Belsarios?"
"Your insight serves you well," Mara said sarcastically.
"How do you know?"
"Are you kidding? I've known since before he was born. I was only fifteen and Malarin thought he was so brilliant he could keep anything from me, but I'd seen them together. It was pretty easy to figure out whose child it was when she got pregnant. Of course at the time I thought they both would be executed, her being the Emperor's concubine, but they were only chastised and separated. I never understood that until I found out who she really was. The Emperor had his concubines and he had his Hands; he did not sleep with his Hands," Mara told Leia. Then, almost as an afterthought, she added bitterly: "Apparently that was Malarin's job."
Suddenly another piece of the puzzle that was this woman her brother loved fell into place. Before she could stop herself, Leia blurted out, "You had an affair with Belsarios?"
Mara arched her eyebrows but said nothing, and Leia immediately regretted her hasty words.
"I'm sorry, that's none of my business."
But the redhead's face softened just slightly. "Don't worry about it," she said quickly. Then with a dry smile she continued: "At least I know Skywalker can keep his mouth shut."
Leia said nothing, still embarrassed over her intrusion.
"Well, as fun as all this sharing is," Mara continued acerbically, "it's not getting Ally back."
"You're right," Leia agreed. She leaned on her ski poles and looked at the tiny hut into which they had all disappeared. "Obviously that's no warming hut. There must be some kind of underground bunker beneath it."
"And it will be teeming with security systems," Mara agreed.
Leia straightened her back and looked over at her friend. "Well, I know the two of us are pretty good at breaking out of places. I think it's time we found out how good we are at breaking in."
Ally cursed herself silently as three armed guards and their apparent leaders, the ones Mara and Leia had called Irek and Roganda, dragged her into the impossibly small warming hut. When they were inside, Roganda pulled some sort of device out of her huge fur coat and pressed in a sequence of numbers. Ally was surprised to find that the device sounded strikingly similar to a touch-tone phone. She was even more surprised when the smooth wooden floor separated and a huge, durasteel lift rose up from the floor.
Without saying a word, one of the guards shoved her onto the lift. When all six of them were aboard, Roganda punched another sequence and they began a slow descent.
After what seemed to Ally to be a very long ride, the lift finally stopped. The doors opened, and she was once again shoved from behind.
"Okay, okay," she growled, "I'm going, no need to be so rough."
Ignoring her remarks, the young man--a kid really, couldn't be much beyond his teens--barked at the guards: "Take her into my workshop so we can question her."
She was led into a room cluttered with bits of wires and machinery.
"Who are you, and are you alone?" Irek asked suddenly.
"I already told you, I'm alone," Ally replied quickly. He had already asked her that when she was first captured. Of course, he hadn't believed her, and Ally had felt him use the Force to search around them, but miraculously he did not detect Leia and Mara's presence. Ally concentrated on a mind- barrier technique that Luke had taught her, hoping she would not give her friends away.
"I still don't believe you," Irek shot back. Then she felt him sweep over her again with the Force. "You're Force sensitive!" he cried, sounding somewhat surprised.
"Force sensitive!" the woman, Roganda, repeated. "Irek, are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure, you think I can't tell when someone is using a Force barrier?" He glared at Ally. "Who are you and why are you here?"
Ally rolled her eyes. "My name is Aleta Doran. I'm a language instructor on Coruscant and I'm here for a vacation."
"You're lying!" Irek said bitterly. "Do not lie to me, I can sense the truth. Now what is your real name?"
"I'm not lying," Ally said firmly.
"If you're just a language instructor, why were you spying on us?" Irek asked.
"I wasn't spying on you, I was skiing."
"This far away from the resort?"
"I like to stay off the beaten path," Ally replied, keeping her voice light.
"No, there's more to it than that," Irek stated flatly, shaking his head. "You're Force-strong, so I'm guessing you came from Yavin 4. Probably one of Skywalker's little minions."
"Yavin 4? I don't even know where that is," Ally growled That was the truth; Luke was training her on Coruscant and she had not yet had an opportunity to see his facilities on Yavin 4.
Suddenly enraged, Irek put his face so close to Ally's she could smell his sour breath. "You are lying to me, I know you are. I should just kill you right now."
"Irek, stop it!" Roganda cried, suddenly pulling him back. "You're out of control!"
Ally temporarily forgotten, Irek lashed out at his mother. "I am the one who's to be the Emperor, Mother! Do not presume to tell me what to do!"
Ally's eyes widened. "Emperor? You've got to be joking!"
That was a mistake; Irek turned around swiftly and slapped her face. "You think I'm a joke? I am Emperor Palpatine's son, heir to his throne--"
"Irek!" Roganda cried out again. "Let me continue the questioning."
Finally he backed away from Ally and stared at his mother again. "Fine. But I will expect her to pay for her insolence."
"After we're finished here," Roganda soothed. She then turned her attention back to her captive. "Tell me why you are here, or I will be forced to use less pleasant means of interrogation..."
Ally swallowed, remembering that her husband had been "interrogated" once. His description of the process had not been enjoyable. But she held her ground. "I told you, my name is Aleta Doran. I'm a language instructor on Coruscant and just came here for a little vacation."
"Yes," Ally nodded. "Imperial City is a crowded place. I wanted some solitude."
"But why would you come here just before the New Republic Economic Summit if you didn't have something to do with it," Roganda queried suspiciously.
"Of course I have something to do with it," Ally replied, an idea coming to her. "I was hired by the New Republic to act as an interpreter."
Roganda smirked. "I hardly think the New Republic would hire a person to do a droid's job."
Ally glared at her. She hated the fact that interpreting, her job back home on Earth, had been relegated as a lowly task to be handled by mechanicals. "Surely you realize that there are many worlds where droids are looked down on. The government leaders thought it was wise to hire some human interpreters for beings who did not care to associate with droids." Again, this was not a complete lie. She had been asked by Leia to handle some interpreting chores at the Summit should any of the attendees request an organic interpreter.
Roganda frowned again. "You are telling half-truths. I can sense it. What is your name again?"
Ally sighed. "Aleta Doran," she repeated.
Now Ally could feel the woman try and probe her with the Force. It was a distinctly unpleasant experience which made her feel naked and exposed.
Roganda shook her head slowly. "No, you are still lying..." she trailed off, then turned and nodded at the guard who was still stationed in the room. He nodded in return and disappeared.
"Now I shall give you one more chance to be honest," Roganda warned, her voice stern.
Ally looked from her to her son, who was grinning maliciously. Something about that grin reminded her of someone...
"Well?" he snapped suddenly.
"I told you everything," Ally insisted, concentrating a little more on the Force barrier.
Roganda gave her an icy smile. "Well then, you leave me no choice."
Just as she finished speaking, the guard returned to the room with something in his hand. Ally caught sight of a glint of metal as he handed it to Roganda. The dark-haired woman's smile widened as she accepted whatever-it-was, then turned back to Ally. Slowly, she held before her the item the guard had handed her--a huge hypodermic needle.
Instinctively, Ally backed away, but Irek grabbed her and held her firmly as Roganda plunged the long syringe into her upper arm. Immediately, her arm felt as if it were on fire, and she begin to feel nauseous and dizzy.
"One more time," Roganda said, her voice starting to sound fuzzy and her face blurring. "What is your name?"
"Allia Dale," she heard herself say before everything went black. * * * * *
Something was wrong, Han was sure of it.
It was the day before they were supposed to leave for the Summit on Kyth, and he couldn't reach Leia.
"Let me tell you about these retreats of Ally's," Tom Dale tried to comfort him. "They like to stay out of touch. It's supposed to remind us behemoths to not take them for granted."
Han shook his head slowly. "No, something's definitely wrong. I'm no Jedi, but I know when to trust my instincts. Leia and the others were supposed to check out of their cabin and into the main lodge for the Summit this afternoon. But they haven't checked in, and no one has seen them all day."
"So they're out skiing later than they expected," Tom suggested.
"You don't know Leia. She would never be late to anything this important--not if she can help it."
"But the Summit doesn't start until tomorrow. She's not late."
Han shook his head again. "But most of the attendees are arriving this evening. No, I'm telling you, Leia would not be out of touch the day before an important meeting like this."
Chewbacca, who had just come in from grabbing a quick snack in the kitchen, snarled his agreement.
"So what do you think is wrong?" Tom asked, looking from Han to Chewbacca.
"I don't know. Maybe one of them got hurt skiing. I don't know. I just have this feeling..."
Chewie growled again.
Han nodded at his Wookiee friend. "I agree, I think we should leave right now. If they're back by the time we get there, then great. But if not, we can look for them ourselves, rather than trust some ski patrol to do the job."
Tom looked at his brother-in-law closely. "If you think there's something to be worried about, I'm going with you. Can Winter watch my kids with yours?"
Han nodded, then turned to Chewie. "You get the *Falcon* prepped. I'm gonna say good bye to the kids, and then I want to leave a message for Luke."
"Yeah, he's supposed to be there for the meeting, but who knows how long this thing with Callista will take. And I'd sure like to have a Jedi around if Leia and the others are missing."
Mara and Leia stood at the bottom of the hill, as close to the warming hut as they could without leaving the protection of the huge coniferous trees.
"Any ideas?" Leia whispered, taking the macrobinoculars she'd been holding away from her eyes. She handed them to Mara.
Mara gave her a sour smile. "You're the leader of this little expedition," she replied, looking through the macros herself. Leave it to Leia to carry a set on a ski trip; she wished she'd thought of it.
"Now you defer to me," Leia rolled her eyes.
It was unusual for Mara to defer to anyone, but the truth was, she had no idea what to do next. "We don't even know what kind of security setup they have. And we have no weapons," she added with deliberate emphasis, handing the macros back to Leia.
"Is there a way we can check for security setups?" Leia asked, ignoring the jibe about weapons.
"Not unless you've got a scanner in your pocket," Mara growled. Then she stopped. "Wait a second, that's it!"
"Scanners!" Mara replied, her eyes brightening. "There's going to be a huge Summit of galactic leaders here, surely Kythan security must have gone over this place with a scanner array."
Leia nodded thoughtfully. "You're right, they would have. But obviously they didn't detect anything."
"Which means jamming," Mara prompted.
"Which means they'd be unable to use scanners of their own," Leia finished.
"So they've got a visual setup," Mara smiled.
"You're right," Leia agreed. "Then they've probably got holocams set up around the cabin." She quickly raised the macrobinoculars to her eyes and scanned the cabin again. "That's it, I see some kind of security camera near the door."
"They must have more than one."
"Probably not on the outside, they wouldn't want to look suspicious," Leia said thoughtfully. "I definitely only see one in front. We could probably take it out with the Force."
"Like throwing a smashball through a window," Mara agreed, suddenly feeling a little better. If they could disable the visual setup, then at least they could approach the cabin. "But what if we're wrong and they've got a more elaborate setup?"
"Then it'll be a really short break-in attempt," Leia grinned, suddenly sounding like her husband.
"Well, it wouldn't be fun if it were easy," Mara grimaced.
"They've probably got guards inside, and some kind of lift that takes you down underground," Leia mused. "How are your 'Jedi mind trick' skills these days? We could 'convince' the guards to take us down, then maybe procure their weapons and uniforms."
"They're not stormtroopers," Mara observed, "it's not like they have helmets to conceal their identity."
"But we can use the Force to blend in. They won't even notice we're out of place."
Mara frowned. "With all that Force usage, don't you think Irek's bound to notice? I hate to say it, considering who his father was, but Irek's pretty Force-strong."
"What about your barrier? You're pretty strong with that. Weren't you able to keep even Darth Vader from knowing you had the Force?"
Mara's frown deepened. Leia was right, but it wasn't that simple. She would have to put up a wall around them big enough to cover their activity and wide enough around them that they would be able to manipulate the guards inside the barrier. And if she were doing that, Leia would have to take care of the cameras and "convince" the guards pretty much without any help from her. But then again, they didn't have a lot of options.
"All right, let's go for it," she answered, consciously avoiding the use of the word "try." Damn Skywalker and his sermons, she thought briefly as she closed her eyes and concentrated on the barrier, imagining herself and Leia as tiny specks that did not even exist in the Force. "Making the waters still," Skywalker had called it.
While she did so, she felt Leia reach into the Force, then a moment later heard the sound of breaking glass. She opened her eyes.
"Well, that ought to get their attention."
"Then let's get moving," Leia said firmly, her voice taking on that authoritative tone again. She then skied out from the shelter of the trees towards the warming hut, with Mara in her wake.
Before the two women reached the door, two guards came out, rifles bared, and looked around. They spotted Leia and Mara approaching, but before they could aim their weapons or even shout out in surprise, Mara felt another burst of the Force from Leia. Amazingly, the two guards lowered their weapons. Leia reached them, then stepped quickly out of her skis. Mara followed suit.
"We need to see the prisoner that was just brought in," the former princess said regally and commandingly. Mara couldn't help but be impressed; the lady knew how to lead.
"You need to see the prisoner," the first guard agreed dully, then motioned them into the hut.
Once inside, he punched up some kind of code on a remote-control device and a huge lift rose up from the floor. Mara and Leia exchanged glances, then stepped onto the lift, the guards right behind them.
With another punch into the remote, the lift started slowly downward.
Mara looked around to see if there were any security devices on the lift itself. There was another holocam; she indicated it to Leia with a small nod. She then gave a small push with the Force and one of the camera's wires pulled free. The guards looked up, but Leia strengthened her 'mind trick' and the two men forgot all about the broken camera.
"Where can I find the prisoner?" Leia asked casually.
"Level fourteen. In Lord Palpatine's workshop."
Mara almost choked. Palpatine? Obviously Roganda was playing up the "Emperor's son" routine as far as she could take it.
Leia gave her a sharp look before thanking the guard. It was then that Mara acted: in one swift move, she pulled up her heavy turbo skis and swung them at the head of the guard nearest to her. He slumped to the ground, and before the other one could even react, Leia had similarly dispatched him with her own skis.
"Okay, let's see what kind of guards we make," Leia said quickly as she and Mara quickly relieved the men of their uniforms.
By the time the lift came to a smooth stop on level fourteen, the two women had donned the uniforms. Leia was almost swimming in hers, but it would have to do.
When the door opened, Mara peeked outside, rifle at the ready. Fortunately, the corridor was empty. Motioning to Leia, the two women emerged from the lift, dragging the unconscious guards. After depositing them in the first room they came to, the two women continued quietly down the hall, Mara surrounding them with a Force barrier, and Leia surrounding them with the illusion that they somehow belonged there.
But at least now they had weapons.
Trying to appear casual, yet somehow alert for trouble, they made their way down the corridor, glancing in doors hoping for a glimpse of Ally.
"This place is enormous," Leia whispered. "I wonder how many levels deep?"
"I don't know, maybe twenty or so?" Mara speculated. "How in the worlds could the Kythans miss a place so huge?"
Leia looked around her. "Looks kind of old. Maybe the Kythans themselves built it to hide from the Empire during the war..." She stopped abruptly, tilting her head. "Listen."
Mara listened. From somewhere down near the other end of the long hallway, she could hear voices. More specifically, Roganda's and Irek's voices.
"Pay dirt!" Mara exclaimed.
They picked up their pace as they headed down the corridor. When they were almost to the end, they heard the voices become louder and they could pinpoint which room they were coming from. It sounded as if Irek was lecturing his mother.
Suddenly a guard emerged from the same room, startled at seeing them. Immediately, Leia threw up her Force illusion, until the guard gradually relaxed, then walked past them as if he had seen them every day of his life.
Mara expelled a breath of air, unaware until that moment that she'd been holding her breath. "Come on, we've got to get out of the open." She motioned towards the room next-door to the one the guard had come out of. "Let's duck in there and do a little eavesdropping."
"What about Ally?" Leia asked.
"If she's in there, we can't exactly just walk in and take her. I doubt your little illusion will work on Irek and Roganda," Mara pointed out. "If she is in there, we'll wait until they move her, then go after her. If she's not in there, they're bound to mention where she is. Besides, we need to find out what they're up to. I doubt it's a coincidence that they're here at the same time as the Economic Summit."
"You're right," Leia assented.
They ducked into the darkened room, which was some sort of storage room. Sitting in the shadows, they could hear Irek quite easily.
"This is perfect, Mother," he was saying. "According to this sample you took, the jogathronite is about two hundred meters below the mountainside."
"Isn't that awfully deep? How will we get the thermo- radiation pack down that deep?"
"Yes, it's deep," Irek sneered contemptuously. Mara rolled her eyes; he even sounded like his father. "That's what the thermal detonators are for."
Mara saw Leia's eyes widen. "That doesn't sound good," Leia groaned. Mara only nodded.
"The lowest level of this bunker are only fifty meters or so above the jogathronite vein. If we put a few small charges down on that level and set them off one at a time, they'll effectively drill their way down to the vein. Then one thermal detonator, enough to blow the whole place in, and the jogathronite will be exposed."
"That doesn't make sense," Roganda argued. "Exposed to what? This place will be destroyed."
"That hardly matters, Mother. All that's necessary is for the thermo-radiation pack to be down there. It'll do its job whether the bunker's here or not."
Mara shook her head. "This doesn't make sense," she whispered. "Even a thermal detonator isn't going to be enough to reach the resort where the Summit is, and what good is a thermo-radiation device going to do two-hundred meters underground?"
Suddenly she saw Leia's face go pale. "Oh, sweet Star of Alderaan!" she whispered hoarsely.
"What about it?" Mara frowned, not understanding her.
"Jogathronite, the metal that runs in huge veins under the surface of the planet. It is very volatile and corrodes instantly upon contact with the air. That's what ionizes the atmosphere."
"So?" Mara prompted, still not following.
"So a thermo-radiation device would cause the mass to go supercritical. The heat would build up so fast, the surface for thousands of kilometers would just vaporize. Everything in this hemisphere would be destroyed!"
"Are you sure?"
Leia nodded, her face still pale. "Yes, I'm sure. I had to read a whole stack of geology texts before coming out here. I could quote you the molecular structure of jogathronite."
"Don't bother, I believe you," Mara replied quickly. "Well, that would answer our question about what they're up to." She then put her finger to her lips as she realized they had missed some of what Roganda and Irek were saying.
"--radiation pack just be destroyed by the thermal detonator?" Roganda was asking.
"It'll all be well shielded."
"A shield that survives being at a thermal detonator's ground zero?" she asked dubiously.
"It only has to last long enough for the actual blast. Then it will detonate the jogathronite."
"And the New Republic is history. In one big steam bath!" Roganda agreed gleefully. "Good-bye Leia Organa Solo! Good-bye Mara Jade!
"How nice to be remembered," Mara muttered.
"Good-bye Luke Skywalk--" she stopped short.
"What is it, Mother?" Irek asked cautiously.
"That's it! I knew I'd heard the name Allia Dale before! She's that other sister--Luke Skywalker's and Leia Organa Solo's other sister!"
Leia and Mara exchanged glances. "I think we'd better find Ally and get out of here," Leia said anxiously.
"Are you sure?" Irek was demanding angrily from the next room. "If that's true, then they must be here, on this planet now!"
"It doesn't sound like she's in there with them," Mara whispered. "Probably have her in a detention block somewhere."
"Now wait a second, Irek," Roganda continued on, "not necessarily. They don't always travel together."
"Nevertheless, we should conduct a search immediately. Skywalker's a Master. If he was with her, he could easily hide from our guards, and maybe even from my detection."
Mara snorted. "Apparently it doesn't take a Master."
"Shh!" Leia warned.
They listened as Irek and Roganda emerged from the room next-door and rushed off down the hallway back towards the lift.
"Come on, we've gotta find the detention block before Irek figures out we're already here," Mara motioned.
"It's probably on lowest level," Leia told her. "But we've got to hurry; we have to warn off the NR leaders and get the Kythan authorities down here. I don't want this planet to be destroyed, especially not with several hundred New Republic dignitaries here all at once."
"I'm not too thrilled about being here myself," Mara barked. "Let's get Ally and get the hell out of here." * * * * *
Ally slowly opened her eyes, but all she could see was a dark gray fog. Where was she? All she knew was she was someplace dark and cold and lying on something uncomfortably hard.
Then in a rush it came back to her.
She sat up abruptly and was rewarded for her trouble with an exploding pain in her head. Rubbing her temples vigorously, Ally remembered being drugged and telling them her real name. What else had she told them? Had she given Leia and Mara away?
Ally rubbed her eyes and tried to make the gray fog disappear. Her brain wouldn't clear; try as she might, she could not remember if she'd said any more to Roganda and Irek. The fog in her vision, however, did finally start to disappear. Unfortunately, what replaced it wasn't much better-- she found herself half-reclined on a hard cot in the middle of a stone cell.
"Quite the Hyatt Regency," she muttered to herself as she tried once more to sit upright, this time more slowly.
"What the hell did they give me?" she wondered aloud. But she made it: she was now sitting upright on the cot. If she could actually stand, maybe she could explore her small cell and figure out a way out.
It only took a few minutes for her head to clear enough that she could stand; it took even less time to explore her quarters. Four walls made of stone, one cot, and a huge metal door. Not even so much as a window with bars.
"Any more bright ideas?" she asked herself, again speaking aloud just to hear her own voice. Anything was better than the deadly silence.
No ideas came to her. Like it or not, she was trapped.
Sighing, Ally returned to the unyielding cot and sat down, trying to think of a way to get herself out of this mess. But her mind wouldn't stay focused on the problem--it kept drifting to images of her children, of Tom.
Eventually, she heard a soft noise from outside. It sounded like muffled footsteps. Almost immediately afterwards she felt something strange in her head, like a probe, searching for something. Remembering the horrible, exposed feeling of Irek's Force search, Ally reflexively put up a barrier. Almost immediately afterward, the footsteps stopped outside her door. She could make out the sounds of someone pushing a series of buttons outside the door.
The guards were coming after her!
Ally quickly looked around her cell for something heavy to throw. If she could take out the guard, maybe she could get away. In the corner, near the cot, she saw a few stones that appeared to have broken away from the wall. She knelt down, picked up the largest one and prepared to hurl it as the door slowly slid upward, revealing two pair of black boots, gray pants, gray jackets...
...topped off by Leia's and Mara's faces.
Almost immediately the two woman saw the rock in Ally's hand, slung high over her head. "Ally, it's us!" Leia cried almost at the same moment as Ally recognized her sister and her friend.
She let the rock fall down behind her, then rushed forward to greet Leia and Mara. "It's about time," she said, relieved. "I was beginning to think I'd be here a while."
Mara waved a rifle she was holding, urging Ally forward. "Come on, we don't have a lot of time. Roganda figured out you're Leia's sister, and she and Irek are searching the mountain and the bunker for Leia, and Luke too."
"I'm sorry," Ally said a bit sheepishly, "I tried giving them a fake name, but they drugged me. I hope I didn't tell them anything else."
"It doesn't matter," Leia said, her voice full of anxiety. "They know everything they need to know. They've found a way to destroy most of this hemisphere..."
"The Summit meeting!" Ally finished for her.
The three woman walked hurriedly down the cold, dark corridor. Ally looked around her.
"Aren't there any guards?"
Mara pointed with her rifle down the hallway. "There were two at the lift entrance to this level."
"How'd you get past them?"
In response, Mara patted the butt of her rifle.
Ally groaned. "You shot them? The noise must have--"
"We didn't shoot them," Leia reassured her, "we knocked them out with the rifle butts."
Ally gave a small sigh of relief while Mara chuckled. "Just because I was an assassin doesn't mean I don't know when not --" she stopped short, frowning.
"What is it, Mara?" Leia asked nervously.
"Danger..." Mara said vaguely, pausing. Then suddenly she exploded: "They're on the lift! Go for cover!" diving for a doorway even as she shouted to them.
Without questioning her, Leia and Ally followed suit, rushing for the nearest doorway they could find even as they heard the lift doors open.
"You were right, Irek, she's escaping!" Ally heard Roganda's voice from inside the lift.
Four guards poured out and began firing down the hallway. Leia and Mara returned fire while Ally tried to stay out of the way as best she could. It was strange how foreign bullets sounded after living with blasters and lightsabers for a year...
"You're outnumbered!" Irek called out from behind the guards. "You'll never escape!"
"We've been outnumbered before," Mara muttered, firing off a shot in their direction. But they were right. They had only managed to take out one of the guards before a shot managed to nail Leia in her leg. With a cry of pain, she collapsed to the floor, dropping her rifle in the process.
"Leia!" Ally called out, rushing to her side.
"I'm okay, get the rifle!" Leia shouted back, but it was too late. Ally and Leia, out of the protective covering of the doorway, found themselves looking directly into the barrels of two rifles.
"Drop your weapon or your friends are dead!" the third remaining guard called out to Mara. With a small curse, Mara did as she was told.
Roganda and Irek came out from their cover and approached them.
"Well, well, well, looks like you were right, Irek," Roganda said, smiling. She looked over at Leia. "Ambassador Organa Solo, always a pleasure. Sorry about the leg, hope it doesn't hurt too badly."
"Nothing a little bacta treatment can't take care of," Leia hissed.
"Oh, so sorry, there will be no bacta treatments today." She stood back and eyed Leia carefully, her arms crossed in front of her. "I'm sorry to see that you've really come down in the galaxy since we last met. No longer Chief of State, I understand."
"I'm not like you, I never relished having a position of power," Leia shot back.
"Well good, then you'll like it here where you have no power." She then looked over at Mara. "And Mara Jade, what a pleasant surprise! We were really expecting Master Skywalker, but his little tart will do. Even better, as a matter of fact. You have no idea how I've been hoping to run into you."
"Why, looking for someone to reminisce about the glory days in the Emperor's Palace?" Mara scoffed. "Sorry, Roganda, but I'm just not into fond memories these days."
Roganda smiled at her bitterly. "You have no idea who I really am, do you?"
Mara smiled back, equally as bitter. "Sure I do. You're one of the Emperor's cheap Palace trinkets."
"No, Mara Jade." She leaned in so close to Mara, Ally thought she was going to spit in her face. But she instead she said, "I am the Emperor's Hand."
Ally's eyes widened in surprise. Emperor's Hand! But that was Mara...
Mara, however, looked completely bored. "So?"
"So," Roganda said through clenched teeth, "I do not appreciate you going around the galaxy impersonating me."
Ally was expecting some kind of barb from Mara, but instead she just burst out laughing.
"Impersonating you!" Mara laughed. "Don't tell me you actually still believe the Emperor only had one Hand. And I thought I had been naive!"
But Roganda was not amused. She frowned, giving Mara an icy look that made Ally shiver. "I know I was his only Hand--and the mother of his son."
"Tell your lies to someone else," Mara spat. "Palpatine couldn't have children! And do you really think I don't know who his real father is?"
"Shut up!" The young man behind Roganda suddenly charged over to Mara and slapped her. "You don't know what you're talking about."
The slap did nothing to take the amused look off Mara's face. "Please spare me the righteous indignation," she grinned, then turned back to Roganda. "Roganda dear, it's time for you to wake up. The Emperor had at least four Hands that I know of, probably more."
"You know nothing about the Emperor!" their captor cried out angrily. "You're just a cheap Palace dancing girl who is trying to make a name for herself by pretending to be something she's not! A concubine with a thing for Force- sensitives. First a consort to Palpatine, now to Skywalker..."
Mara shook her head, ignoring the barb. "Believe me, my life would be a whole lot simpler right now if I had never even met the Emperor." She cocked her head in Leia's direction. "Take a look at who my friends are, Roganda. Leia Organa Solo, Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, Luke Skywalker... What possible reason would I have to claim I was once an assassin for their enemy?"
"How should I know how a petty little mind like yours works," Roganda shot back. "But whether you admit the truth or not is of no concern to me. You will die either way."
"Glad to hear you aren't holding a grudge," Ally put in once Mara's words had sunk in.
"I'd keep my mouth shut," Irek said stepping over to her, "unless you want to be the first to die."
Leaning back, satisfied that he had asserted himself Lord and Master of all, Irek then produced a small, spherical object. Ally had no idea what it was, but judging from Mara and Leia's reaction, it was not good. After he waved the thing around for them to see, he handed it to one of the guards. "Go place it down at the end of the corridor, along with the other explosives."
"I don't know who you think you're fooling," Mara snapped. "A thermal detonator may blow this place to dust, but it's not going to be enough to take out the whole Summit."
"Don't bother fishing for information," Irek snapped back. "All you need to know is that it will, indeed, be enough."
Ally, however, got the distinct impression that Mara was only pretending to try and get information. Mara--and Leia, too, for that matter--seemed to know exactly what Roganda and Irek were up to. Apparently she'd missed some fun while unconscious.
The guards then returned from planting the explosives. Then Irek produced a hand link similar to the one Roganda had used to call for the lift when they were up in the warming hut.
"All that's left is to set the thermo-radiation timer..." he punched in a series of numbers into the handset... "and the shields..." more numbers... "and finally the small charges and the thermal detonator--"
Suddenly Ally saw a movement out of the corner of her eye. She turned her attention away from Irek just in time to see a rifle jump out of one of the guards hands and land in Mara's. Before the other guards could react, she ducked for cover and began shooting at them again. While she did so, Ally scrambled for the rifle that Leia had dropped.
"Don't be stupid!" Irek called out angrily. "You're still outnumbered!"
Mara replied only with another shot from her rifle, while Ally did the same. But these were not blasters: Ally was worried that they would soon run out of ammunition.
While she tried to think of what to do after that happened, Ally saw Roganda step out from cover. She's up to something, Ally thought as she tried to aim at the dark- haired woman, but missed. Roganda took something from her waist--
Immediately Ally remembered Chancellor's warning about laser-based weapons in Kyth's atmosphere: "If you tried to fire your blaster, it would not react as you would expect. Instead the particles would explode out in fragments; very devastating. Lightsabers are equally dangerous."
"No!" she cried out, reaching out with the Force and pulling at the lightsaber. She managed to pull it from a surprised Roganda's grip, but only after Roganda had pushed the switch to ignite it...
Red light exploded in all directions, lighting up the hallway in a red glow.
"Mother!" she heard Irek scream as he pushed his mother away. She didn't see if he got her away in time or not; due to the Force grip she had on the saber, a large portion of the exploding fragments flew at her, bombarding her face, her chest, her hair. She threw up her hands to protect her face, but she could feel burning particles everywhere, like she was in the middle of a meteor shower.
"Ally!" she heard someone scream near her; Leia probably. She could feel the rain of laser particles began to subside as Leia knelt at her side. "Your chest," Leia cried out anxiously, "you're hurt!"
Then they heard dark, chilling laughter as the lightsaber particles finally disappeared. Irek.
"You fools," he spat, as if it had been them rather than his mother who had tried to use the lightsaber."
Now Ally felt Mara at her side as well. "Ally, can you hear me?" She heard a sound like tearing fabric, then felt someone press down on her chest.
"In exactly six hours, just as the last of the Summit delegates arrive, you die!" Irek continued, giggling like a lunatic. Where was Roganda? Had the lightsaber killed Roganda? Ally then heard what sounded like more numbers being punched into the handset, but she was in too much pain to tell for sure.
She wasn't sure what happened after that, except that she was hovering somewhere near semi-consciousness. More shots were fired (Mara maybe?) and Irek yelled out something that Ally couldn't quite catch. Finally there was the sound of something clattering to the ground near them, a hissing noise, and then once more, merciful blackness.
Callista woke up early, as soon as dawn worked its way through they thick white mist that covered the ground. She looked over at Luke who still slept peacefully in his own bedroll.
He still looked beautiful to her.
She turned away and got up quickly. Best not to think about that now. Best to concentrate on the challenges ahead.
Today was the day she would once again be a Jedi Knight.
That thought filled her with a strength that partially filled the void where the Force had once been. She had been blind and deaf to it for eight long years, and today, she was confident, her sight and hearing would be restored. And after that... She stole another glance at Luke's sleeping form. Well, she'd deal with "after that" when it got here.
"You must be excited."
Callista jumped and looked at Luke more closely this time. He was awake after all.
"Sorry, didn't mean to startle you." He sat up.
"I was just thinking about being a Jedi again," she said.
"I know. You must be excited," he repeated.
Stretching, Luke got out of his bedroll. "Well, we'd better get moving. The cave's not far, but every time I go in there, time seems to get away from me. We may be gone a while."
Callista noticed how uncomfortable he was whenever he mentioned the cave. "You're afraid of it, aren't you?"
Luke shrugged. "I guess I am, still. It was my first true failure."
"You never did tell me what happened to you in there."
"Well, I was there twice," he told her. "The first time I went in and I saw Darth Vader. We battled and I beheaded him. His helmet rolled off and dissolved, and I saw my own face there."
Callista grimaced. "That must have been frightening."
"It was," he nodded. "Of course, I didn't understand what it meant at the time, but now I know it showed me not only that Darth Vader was my father, but the risk that I would become just like him. I almost did, too, when the Emperor was reborn after the death of Grand Admiral Thrawn."
"And what was the second time like?"
Luke closed his eyes. "That was a vision of my past--or rather, a past that could have been."
"I don't understand."
"I was back on Jabba's skiff over the Pit of Carkoon. It was just like it really happened, except when I reached out for my lightsaber, it arced away from me and was gone."
"How is that a past that could have been?"
Luke didn't look at her. "Mara," he replied. "She was there at Jabba's Palace, sent to kill me. If Jabba had let her on that sail barge..."
Callista cocked her head and looked at him, but he still wouldn't look back at her. How could he possibly be in love with a woman like that, a woman who very nearly killed him and his sister and friends with him?
"Well," he said suddenly, and this time he did turn to face her, "the only thing I'm accomplishing talking about it is psyching us out. We'd better have some breakfast then get a move on."
"Sure," she said, still looking at him curiously.
They sat together and ate a few more of the food bars and watched the sun start to burn off the mist.
When they finished their breakfast, they packed up two small backpacks with water and more food bars, then tromped off through the swamp, Luke leading the way. Before too long they came to a huge, gnarled tree.
"There," Luke pointed to the extensive root system. "There's the entrance."
For the first time in eight years, Callista could sense something in the Force, but it was not good. She could feel the dark power emanating from the cave at the base of the tree.
"I can feel it," she said shuddering. "How did this place get to be so evil?"
Luke shrugged. "I think a dark Jedi died here. I'm not really sure, though, Master Yoda never told me."
Callista nodded. "Now what?"
"You're the boss, you tell me."
"I guess we go in," she said taking a deep breath.
"Then lets go." He grabbed her hand with a suddenness that almost surprised her, then the two walked slowly forward. Soon they were at the base of the huge, dark tree.
"Ready?" Luke asked, squeezing her hand.
"Ready as I'll ever be," she squeezed back.
They stepped into the cave.
As soon as she was inside, she was enveloped in blackness. She tried to squeeze Luke's hand again, then realized suddenly that he was no longer there.
"Luke!" she cried out, her heart leaping to her throat. But there was no answer; only her own voice echoing around. Spinning wildly, she searched for him, calling his name again. But she couldn't see anything except the darkness. Then a thick white fog slowly filled the room, replacing the blackness with an eerie white glow.
When the fog dissipated, she was surprised to find herself in a ship's hanger. I'm on the *Eye of Palpatine,* she thought. And there before her was Geith, her former Jedi partner!
"Callie, come on, we've got to make a run for it," he was saying to her.
"No, no, we have to stop the ship. We can't let it kill all those children..."
"I can't do it," Geith said. "I'm gonna leave, it's the only way."
"You can't leave me," she screamed back at him, but he was gone.
Callista felt the anger rising in her. "How can you leave me to die alone like this? How can you leave me to live like this, inside a computer for thirty years?" She could feel the Force start to run through her. It was the dark side, but she relished the power it gave her.
"YOU CAN'T LEAVE ME LIKE THIS!" she screamed as she let her rage resonate throughout the hanger bay around her. She could feel the ship begin to tremble beneath her feet as her anger grew and attacked the walls around her.
Then suddenly she wasn't on the ship any more, she was on Yavin 4 with Luke, but he was far away from her.
"Luke!" she cried out his name again and again, but he didn't hear her. He just kept walking away from her. Eventually he reached a figure dressed in a black hooded cloak. The figure reached up with gloved hands and pulled back the hood to reveal a mane of dark red hair.
Mara threw her head back and laughed as blue lightning flashed around her, enveloping Luke.
"No!" Callista screamed, her anger turning to fear. But Luke was gone, and then Mara was gone too, and Callista was alone once more, standing before a tall throne. Seated on the throne was another hooded figure. At first she thought it was Mara and she rushed at her in rage, but she was stopped cold by an invisible wall. The cloaked figure then pulled back the hood to reveal a skull-like face with glowing yellow eyes.
"Ah, Callista, you've come at last," he said, smiling at her.
"I have nothing to say to you," she growled. "You're not real." She desperately looked around her, trying to make out the cave walls, but all she could see was the Emperor, his throne, and blackness.
"My dear, you have nothing to fear from me. On the contrary, I wish to strike an alliance with you. We have a common goal, you and I."
"That could not possibly be true," Callista spat. "I despise everything you stand for."
"But there is someone you love, is there not?" He waved his hand an image of Luke's faced flickered before her then disappeared.
"I have nothing to say to you," Callista repeated.
"But I can help you if you help me. You see, you want your Jedi, and I want my hand."
His hand? It was Luke who lost his hand, not the Emperor. What was he talking about? Then it hit her. He didn't want his hand...
He wanted his Hand.
"If we work together, we can both get exactly what we want," the old man's yellow eyes gleamed.
Callista could feel the rage flowing through her, making her powerful. Of course, it was so simple. She could have everything she wanted: Mara would be out of the way, back with the Emperor where she belonged, and Luke would be free. Free to remember his love for her.
"That's right," the Emperor cackled. "Feel your anger, your hatred. She stole the only thing that mattered to you, and she betrayed me. It's just a simple matter of justice, restoring to you what is yours and to me what is mine."
The more she thought about it, the more sense it made. Mara was evil, Callista knew that. She had tricked Luke when he was vulnerable; she deserved to be punished. Such a simple thing, really. A small, little alliance. Just for this one matter, that's all, then she could go back.
"Your anger grows, young Jedi, as does your power. Together we can both have what we want..."
Yes, with his help she could have what she wanted. She felt the strength, the power. Then abruptly she shook her head to clear it--this was the Emperor, what was she thinking?
"Never!" she spat suddenly, feeling a calm, cold clearness replace the anger in her heart. "I will never help you! I am a Jedi, and I will never use the dark side, not even to get Luke back!"
"So be it." The Emperor reached out with his bony hands, flashing blue lightning out at her. She started to grab for her lightsaber to try and deflect the energy away from her, but she stopped short.
"I don't have to do this alone. A Jedi is never alone." She drew herself up to her full height, reached out her hand...
As soon as Luke stepped into the cave, Callista vanished.
"Callista!" he cried into the darkness, trying to feel for her. "Where are you?"
There was no reply, only the mist that was growing around him.
Another vision was coming.
Soon the mist cleared, and Luke was standing in a very cold, dark cavern. The air around him buzzed strangely, and he could feel something bad in the Force--someone was in pain. He rounded a corner and almost tripped on someone lying on the ground. She looked up at him.
It was Mara.
"Luke, help me, it hurts so much!"
He could see she was in tremendous pain--she was trapped under something huge and heavy. He knelt down beside her.
"What do you want me to do?"
But another voice called out his name from behind him. It was Callista.
"Luke, help me!"
He whirled around to find Callista dangling over a long drop. She could barely hang on. "Luke, you have to help me or I'll fall!"
"Hang on," he cried as he started to head over to her.
"Luke!" Mara called out from behind him. "I'm bleeding to death. If I don't get free soon I'll die!"
"Luke, I can't hold on much longer," Callista called back.
Luke stood between them, unsure what to do. How could he help one and let the other die?
Then another voice came to him--this time, it was Leia. She too was in danger and needed his help right away. Then Ally, then a whole chorus of voices screamed in his head. The whole galaxy needed his help right now!
He covered his ears with his hands as the noise grew to an unbearable level.
"I can't do it all!" he screamed. "How can I choose?"
Then he stopped himself. "No, I will not choose between them." he straightened his back, drawing himself up to his full height. "I am a Jedi, and so are these. We work together, not against one another."
He reached out with the Force in all directions. "One cannot do it alone, but together we can accomplish anything," he whispered fiercely. He then reached out his hand and felt someone gripping it.
Together they stood hand in hand, letting the light side of the Force swirl around them, between them, and in them. He felt their strengths grow and combine, making an impenetrable wall of light around them.
"A Jedi is never alone!" he heard Callista say, and he echoed her as the light around them grew stronger. Holding her hand tightly, Luke pulled backwards as hard as he could.
The next thing he knew, they were standing together outside the cave on Dagobah. As Luke had predicted, time had somehow slipped past them while in the cave; it was already dusk.
"Come on, we've got to get back to the camp and to Artoo before the nightbats come out," Luke cried. Grabbing her hand, they ran through the swamps until they reached their camp by Callista's ship. A relieved Artoo twittered at them.
Luke quickly lit a couple glow rods, then turned to face Callista.
"Are you okay?"
Callista stared at him. "Luke, I can feel it. I can feel the Force!" she whispered hoarsely.
He reached out to her, and was filled with her presence in the Force; a warm, light presence, full of life.
"I can sense you!" he smiled at her.
Callista whirled around, then faced a nearby boulder. She closed her eyes and reached out her hand... and the boulder rose a meter into the air.
Her eyes opened and it dropped with a crash.
"I did it! I moved that rock!"
"Try something else."
Callista closed her eyes again, and Luke could feel her reach out and touch his mind, touch all the life that was around them. "I can feel it all. It's like being able to see again!" Her eyes flew open again. "Luke, we did it. I'm a Jedi again!"
She joyfully flew into his arms and he picked her up off the ground, spinning her around. He felt as exhilarated as he had when he returned to the Rebel base after destroying the first Death Star.
She hugged his neck tightly as he set her back down again. "I knew you could do it!" he shouted, laughing with her. She looked radiant, her gray eyes shining with excitement as she held him close, looking into his eyes. He could feel her emotions swell...
Abruptly, Luke pulled away. "No," he said softly as he turned his back. He could hear her behind him, breathing heavily.
"Luke--" she began.
"Callista, please," he cut her off, still not looking at her.
"Luke, I'm still in love with you."
He felt his shoulders slump. "Please don't do this," he whispered.
"Do what," she countered, "tell the truth?"
"Don't deny you still have feelings for me," she interrupted. "I can feel the Force again--I can feel your emotions..."
"I'm excited for you," Luke protested, turning around to face her again. "You've been waiting eight years for this moment. We should be celebrating--please don't spoil it."
"I also waited eight years to be with you."
"That's not fair!" He looked her in the eye now. "I never asked you to be a Jedi--if you recall, I begged you not to go! I would have married you on the spot, Jedi or not."
"I had to go, I couldn't be with you like that."
"That was your choice. And I respected that choice. But seven years, Callista. I didn't even hear a word from you for seven years!"
"I thought it was best..."
"Again, your choice, not mine. Besides, you told me I should move on, that I shouldn't wait for you."
She closed her eyes. "I was wrong," she said softly. Opening her eyes again, she added, "We were meant for each other, Luke."
"And what about Mara? Am I supposed to just pretend the last year with her never happened? I swore I would never betray her."
Callista shook her head. "I know it must have been hard for you last year when I told you to forget about me. I'm sure Mara has been very comforting--"
"Is that what you think?" He stared at her, feeling his temper start to rise. "Do you think I would use Mara just to replace you? Don't you know me better than that?"
"No, I don't mean that," she stammered, searching for the right words. "I just think that she took advantage of you at a vulnerable time--"
"Took advantage of me! Callista, I--" he stopped short, pushing back his anger. "Please don't make me say anything that will hurt you."
But she wouldn't let go. "Can't you see it, Luke? She's the one who brought me to see you when you were sick. She must have known I couldn't stay and you'd be lonely."
"But she didn't know everything," Luke snapped, his temper flaring again. "Do you want to know the truth? I fell in love with Mara during the trip to Earth. That was six months before I knew how she felt about me, and before I saw you again. If you hadn't have said that it was time for us to go our separate ways, I would have."
She stepped back as if she had been slapped. "I know she's making you miserable," she said finally. "You're always fighting. You can't be happy constantly fighting."
"And this is not fighting?"
Callista tried again. "If it were anyone else, Luke...but her? You couldn't possibly love her, of all people."
"Why not? You don't even know her!"
"I know enough," she spat.
"And just what do you know?" he shot back.
"I know exactly what kind of person she is. The whole galaxy knows--"
"You are on very dangerous ground," Luke warned, his voice as icy as Mara's herself. "You don't want to go there." He turned away from her, hands clenched, hoping to stop the conversation before it got out of hand. He really had been letting his temper get the best of him far too frequently.
She put her hands on her hips defiantly. "Luke, you are a Jedi Master--you are *the* Jedi Master. You know as well as I do that you don't belong with an assassin."
At that, Luke lost what remained of his control. He whirled to confront her again, grabbing her by the shoulders. "Do you have any idea how sick I am of hearing that?" he said, his teeth clenched.
Callista stood her ground. "Maybe you hear it a lot because it's true."
"No!" he shouted. "No, it is not true."
"Luke, she was the Emperor's Hand!"
"And my father was Darth Vader. That should make us a perfect match."
Callista let her breath out in frustration. "You can't be judged by who your father was."
"But is it fair to judge someone on who they were fifteen years in the past?" Luke returned. "How much more does she have to do to prove herself? She's saved my life countless times, and has been invaluable to the New Republic."
"But you yourself said she would have killed you at Jabba's Palace! And how many times did she try after that? How can you just forget that?"
Luke ran a gloved hand through his hair and glared at her fiercely. "Let me tell you something. If Mara Jade had truly wanted me dead, I'd be dead. It's that simple."
Callista rolled her eyes. "Whether that's true or not is beside the point, Luke. You are the greatest Jedi Master of your time. It is very important that your mate be someone worthy of that--"
Luke gave a dry laugh. "As if Mara is somehow not worthy? You know Callista, I think that's one of the big differences between you and her. Ever since I've known you, you have constantly reminded me that I'm a Jedi Master. Ever since I've known Mara, she's constantly reminded me that I'm just a person. No better than anyone else. And far from perfect." He chuckled slightly to himself. "In fact, she takes great pleasure in reminding me of that daily. And I need to be reminded of that. I may be a Jedi Master, but that doesn't set me above anyone else, least of all Mara."
"You are a legend," Callista argued, "you are called to do so much more with your life."
"I am not a legend!" he returned, his anger back. "I'm a living being! I fought for almost twenty years, Callista--twenty years--so that the galaxy could be free. But I did not do it so my own life could be ruled and controlled by others. Mara's the best thing that's happened to me in a long time, and I think I deserve the right to decide that for myself. My work as a Jedi is important, but my personal life--" he snapped his mouth shut suddenly. Where had he heard that before? Then he remembered his conversation with Han. He was repeating Han's exact words.
"What?" Callista asked him, surprised by his sudden halt.
Luke shook his head. "Han was right, I've been a complete idiot. I was ready to let it all fall apart..."
He looked up at her and his anger evaporated. "I'm sorry I lost my temper, Callista," he said softly, "I truly don't want to hurt you."
As he spoke, Luke looked into those gray eyes. Her face was lovely with the light from the lamps casting a warm glow across it, but somehow she looked suddenly different to him. He was seeing Cray's face. This was not Callista--not the Callista he'd met on the *Eye,* the Callista he'd fallen in love with. But she was not Cray, either. She was a strange mixture- -Callista's memories with Cray's penchant for pettiness. Why hadn't he seen it before? Had he really wanted to know her as a flesh-and-blood person so badly he could have completely ignored the obvious? The thought made him shutter. But really, none of it mattered anyway. It wasn't that she wasn't Callista or wasn't Cray--it was that she wasn't Mara.
Callista studied him a moment, her hands still on her hips. Then dropping her arms to her side, she closed her eyes and Luke could feel her touch him with the Force. For a long while she just stood there.
Finally, she whispered softly, "You can't love her, Luke. You can't really love her." She opened her eyes again.
"But I do, Callista, I love her very much. I'm sorry I've hurt you, but not sorry enough to change how I feel about Mara."
She turned away from him abruptly and sat down at the edge of the camp. Luke's impulse was to go over to her, comfort her somehow, but he knew that his pity would be wrong. Wrong of her to ask it of him and wrong of him to give it to her. Instead, he turned around and went into the ship.
He sat down at the controls and stared out the viewport for a moment. Finally, he picked up the ships comm unit and placed a subspace call. It would be late on Coruscant, but he needed to hear Mara's voice, to see her face in the hologrammic image.
He was surprised when it was her message that answered. Frowning, he wondered where she would be at this hour. He waited for the end of the message, planning what he would say, when suddenly Mara's image disappeared and Han's face took it's place. Luke blinked in surprise.
"If this is Luke, please contact me as soon as you can. I can be reached by subspace on the *Falcon.*" Then Han's face, too, disappeared.
Luke frowned harder. What was Han doing on Mara's holo unit, and why did he look so uptight? Luke quickly put in the call to the *Falcon.* It was Threepio who responded.
"Oh, Master Luke, thank the Maker it's you! General Solo has been trying to reach you..."
"Put him on, Threepio," Luke said, rubbing his eyes. It had already been a long day, and he feared it was about to get longer.
Han appeared. "Luke, I'm glad it's you. We've got trouble."
"Leia, Ally, and Mara are missing."
Luke's eyes widened in alarm. "What do you mean, missing?" Immediately he searched for them in the Force, but all he felt was a strange buzzing that he could not cut through from a distance.
"They left a few days ago for Kyth--Mara decided to go with them after all. They were supposed to check into the main lodge this afternoon, but they never arrived and no one's heard from them in almost eighteen hours."
"Leia would never be late for something like this," Luke said under his breath.
"My sentiments exactly," Han agreed. "So Tom, Chewie and I are on our way to go look for them. We could sure use some Jedi help right about now."
"I'm on my way," Luke replied.
"Okay, just get here as fast as you can. We'll meet you at the port." Han moved as if to turn off his comm unit, then stopped. "Just out of curiosity Luke, how'd you get my message?"
"What do you mean...?" Then he smiled, understanding. "I called Mara's. You were right, Han."
His brother-in-law smiled. "Good. Now get yourself over here and find her and your sisters."
Luke flipped off the comm unit and rushed outside.
"I really don't want..." She started bitterly, but then trailed off as she saw his face. "What's wrong?"
"We have to go. Leia, Ally, and Mara have disappeared on Kyth."
Without saying another word, Callista snapped to action and started to break down the camp as Luke helped her.
It would be her first mission as a restored Jedi.
The first thing Leia became aware of was a dull throbbing in her head, which gradually gave way to a not-so- dull pain in her left calf.
I've been shot, she thought, but she couldn't remember how she got shot. Where was she?
She slowly opened her eyes, seeing only a dark gray fog. But she did hear something--a low moan. She was not alone.
Then it all came back to her in a rush--the ski trip with Ally and Mara, Ally's capture--
Ally! Ally had been seriously wounded.
She fumbled around her, trying to find her sister in the damned fog. She felt a hand, an arm...and something warm and tacky. Blood. And a lot of it--its heavy, coppery smell was almost a living entity beside her.
"Ally!" she tried to call out, but her tongue was thick, stumbling over her sister's name.
"Take it easy," a voice mumbled. She thought it was Mara, but it sounded like her mouth was full of spice.
"Ally's hurt, there's a lot of blood," Leia moaned, rubbing her eyes in fervent hope that the fog would dissipate. Her voice was starting to sound more natural.
She heard Mara make a quick movement, obviously once more alert.
"Where is she, I can't see a blasted thing," Mara growled.
"Right here," Leia answered, still trying to cut through the damnable fog.
"They must have dropped a gas-grenade on us," Mara said as she fumbled around for Leia and Ally.
"Mm-hmm," Leia mumbled in agreement as a hazy light began to filter back into her eyesight. "What about Irek and Roganda? Was Roganda injured? Did they get away?" she asked Mara.
"I'm not sure. I think they both got away," Mara replied grimly.
Finally Leia's vision cleared, but she found herself wishing for the blurriness to come back: what she saw was Ally sprawled on the ground beside her, painted over in various shades of scarlet gore. Her chest looked the worst, still a deep, bright crimson, while her hands and face were covered in a more crusty brown as the blood began to dry.
"Oh, this is not good," Leia moaned as she checked for signs of life in her sister. When she found a weak pulse, she let her breath out in a rush, unaware that she'd been holding it. "Thank the Force," she whispered shakily.
Then Ally stirred as if trying to regain consciousness, but Leia knew that even if she did wake up she'd need immediate medical attention. At least Leia had managed to stop some of the blood flow before they were gassed. She had torn of some fabric from he ski parka and made a crude bandage. Plus, the lightsaber particles had partially cauterized some of the wound.
"Oh wow," Mara whistled softly. Apparently her eyesight had also returned. "Leia, we've got to get her out of here. If that was a gas-grenade, we've probably been out for hours. She'd probably be dead if you hadn't have--"
Suddenly a cold dread settled on Leia. Out for hours? "Mara, the explosives!" she cried out. "How long have we been unconscious?"
Mara swore under her breath then checked her chrono. An even longer string of curses followed. "It's been over four hours!"
Leia tried to think, remember what Irek had said. In exactly six hours you die. "That means we have less than two hours to get out of here and stop the Summit--"
"It'll never work," Mara said shaking her head. "We're on the lowest level, we've got to move Ally slowly, and we're both injured ourselves." She was right; Leia's leg was hurting enough that it would be difficult to stand, and both she and Mara were covered in blistering burns from the lightsaber fragments. "We'll never be able to pull off an evacuation in time."
"What about the thermal detonator and the other explosives? They're on this level. If we can get rid of them before they go off..." she trailed off as Mara quickly left her side and hurried down the hall.
Leia turned her attention back to Ally while she waited to see if Mara could do anything. She returned quicker than Leia would have liked.
"No good," she replied in response to Leia's hopeful look. "Everything's shielded. I can't touch the detonators.
Leia and Mara both looked down at Ally in surprise.
"Shhh," Leia soothed, "don't try to talk. We're going to get you out of here, okay?"
But Ally shook her head. "No. No. How..." she struggled for a breath... "How will Roganda and Irek blow up the Summit? I...need to know."
"Give her the short version," Mara told Leia, "we've got to get off this level. The first of those explosives are set to go off pretty soon."
"They've rigged some explosives to blow a hole in the mountainside to expose one of the jogathronite veins. Then they've got a thermo-radiation pack that will heat up the jogathronite, which will vaporize most of this hemisphere."
"How can...we stop it?" Ally asked somewhat urgently.
"We can't," Mara answered bitterly. "Everything's shielded. You need a code to turn off the shields, turn off the timers."
"I...know the codes."
Leia and Mara froze and stared down at Ally. Finally Leia found her voice. "How could you know the codes?"
"I heard him punch them...in before Mara grabbed...the guard's rifle."
Leia looked at her incredulously. "What do you mean, you heard him?"
"The handset...it had touch-tones. A different tone...for every...number."
A slow smile spread across Leia's face as she remembered. Allia's perfect audio recall. She would remember every tone she had heard coming from that handset exactly as she they had been produced. "Do you know which tones are which numbers?" she asked hopefully.
"I saw Ro...Roganda use a similar...handset to operate the...lift." Ally moaned softly.
"The handset!" Mara said suddenly as once again she rose from Ally's side, this time going the opposite direction towards the lift doorway.
"Is it there?" Leia asked.
Mara uttered another curse. "No, he must have taken it with him."
Leia's mind whirled. "What about his workshop? Wouldn't he have a master access board there?"
Mara returned to their side. "Maybe. It's worth a look."
"I didn't...hear them all," Ally told them.
Leia's heart sank. "What did you hear?"
"The shields...and radiation timer."
"But not the timer for the small charges or the thermal detonator?" Mara asked.
Leia looked at Mara. "So we can't keep the place from going up."
"No," Mara said thoughtfully, "but we can save the rest of the planet. If Ally can disable the shields and the thermo- radiation pack, then it won't matter if this bunker goes up, it won't take anything else with it."
"Just us," Leia said grimly.
"Not if we get out in time."
Leia nodded. "But I don't think Ally's in any shape to stay conscious during a trip all the way up to the workshop."
Mara began rummaging through her pockets, producing a small pocket data pad. "Write down the numbers," she said giving the pad Leia, "then you can go shut everything down and I'll try to get Ally out of here."
Leia nodded numbly, then turned to Ally. Her sister read off a string of numbers in a low, sickly voice. When she had finished typing them in, Leia put the data pad into her parka's pocket.
"Let's get her to the lift," Leia said. "You can drop me off on level fourteen."
Mara nodded and went over to hit the call button. Nothing happened.
"Oh no, they must have disabled it," Leia moaned.
"Only one way to find out," Mara replied. She found an access panel in the wall beside the lift door and she popped it open with a Force nudge. She then crawled halfway through the opening and peered into the shaft.
"I don't see the car, it must be all the way at the top," Mara called back from inside the shaft. "It's pretty dark in here, but there's a ladder that runs up the side of the shaft. We can go up that way."
Leia craned her neck to see up into the dark shaft. "A ladder? How are we going to get Ally up a ladder?"
Mara pulled herself out of the opening. "The Force. I can levitate her up the shaft while you go shut down the shields and the radiation detonator."
"You sure you can handle her yourself?" Leia asked Mara worriedly.
"It won't matter if you don't take care of the rest of it--this whole side of the planet is going to be space vapors."
Leia nodded again, then checked on Ally one last time. Her sister had just lost consciousness again. Looking back up at Mara, she said "We've got to hurry."
She started to rise and head for the access panel when abruptly the frown that creased her forehead smoothed out and a slow smile of relief spread across her face as she felt a familiar presence fill her, buoying her spirits.
"What is it?" Mara asked curiously.
"It's Luke. He's here on Kyth."
Luke opened his eyes in alarm, then quickly scanned the space around the planet, searching. Nothing.
He was standing in Kyth's spaceport, between the *Millennium Falcon* and his own smaller ship. Callista was beside him, leaning on his ship while Artoo twittered nervously at her feet. Tom Dale was pacing up and down the *Falcon's* ramp, while Han was standing off to the side arguing with some Kythan--the Chancellor, Luke thought. Every now and then Chewbacca, standing beside Han, would punctuate some point Han had made with a menacing growl and a wave of his bowcaster while Threepio, also standing with them, tried to placate everyone. Around them all, the last of the New Republic senators, governors, and world leaders were arriving, most of them in huge, elegant ships accompanied by large entourages.
"Did you find them?" Callista asked.
Luke looked at her, then nodded. "Go find someone from port authority and see if any unauthorized ships have left Kythan space. I've got to tell Han..."
Han, meanwhile, was shouting at the poor, apologetic Kythan at the top of his lungs.
"What kind of security does this backwards excuse for a planet have that would allow a former Chief of State and her party to disappear without a trace?"
Then a growl and a wave from Chewbacca.
"Please, General Solo, I must ask again that your Wookiee friend relinquish his bowcaster--"
"He's right, General Solo..." Threepio.
"Han!" Luke called, interrupting the confused argument.
"What is it, did you find them?" a worried Han asked him.
"They're not far, but they've all been hurt," Luke replied anxiously. "Leia has a leg wound and burns on her face and hands, Ally's unconscious--"
"Oh my God, is she going to be all right?" Tom cut in, stopping short and jerking around to face Luke and Han.
"I don't know," Luke replied grimly. "And there's more. They're in some kind of underground bunker that's been planted with a thermal detonator. And when it goes, it'll set off some kind of thermo-radiation device that will vaporize half the planet."
Han cursed under his breath. "The Summit." He leaned towards Luke. "How much time do we have?"
"Just over an hour."
"Oh my!" Threepio exclaimed, as the Kythan Chancellor took in a sharp breath of air.
Han swore again. "That's not enough time to evacuate the planet!" He looked around wildly. "We've got to warn as many people as we can..."
"I will do what I can to begin evacuation procedures," the Kythan said quickly, his voice squeaking slightly.
"All right," Luke replied, "But do it calmly or more people will get hurt. In the meantime, Leia's going to try and disable the explosives--or at least the thermo-radiation one. But she can't prevent the bunker from going."
"Where is this bunker, can we get them out in time?" Tom asked worriedly.
"I hope so," Luke responded. "We've got to go now, though. There's a warming hut on the other side of the mountain. That's the entrance to the bunker."
Chewbacca gave a short growl as he whirled and stalked up the ramp into the *Millennium Falcon.*
"Right behind you, Chewie," Han replied as he and Tom raced after Chewbacca, who had already initiated the ship's start-up sequence just as Callista returned, out of breath.
"Port authority said a small, unknown ship escaped Kythan atmosphere a few hours ago."
Luke nodded. "I figured as much," he said grimly as he and Callista started up the ramp, the droids close behind.
"Wait, General Solo, Master Skywalker!" the Kythan Chancellor called after them, trying to follow them up the ramp. "You cannot leave without clearance, and you must surrender-- "
"Here's my clearance," Han snapped, wheeling around in the hatchway and drawing his blaster, almost knocking Threepio over in the process.
"No! No blasters!" the frightened Kythan called, surprising Luke by diving for cover. Several other Kythans, who had been watching from a distance, scrambled over themselves to get away. In contrast, most of the NR dignitaries did not even take notice of the disturbance.
"General Solo, I suggest you listen--" Threepio tried.
"Shut up, Goldenrod!"
"Come on, Han, I think you've scared enough beings for one day," Luke said smiling as he took his friend by the arm and directed him up the ramp.
"Guess they must have heard some of the old Galactic Civil War stories," Han said with a cocky grin. He then blew across the barrel of his blaster, twisted it in his hand, and re- holstered it. "I don't know my own legendary strength."
"Right," Luke said dubiously.
"But Master Luke, you don't understand..." Threepio tried again.
"Luke, if you don't shut that droid up I'm going to have Chewbacca do it!" Han threatened.
"Oh very well," Threepio said huffily.
Artoo twittered something that sounded almost like a laugh, earning himself a clanking slap on his domed head from Threepio. He whistled in protest.
"Serves you right," Threepio muttered.
Once they were all seated in the cockpit, Han turned to Luke and asked: "Do you know who did this?"
"Roganda and Irek Ismaren."
Callista gasped. "The same people who tried to use the *Eye of Palpatine* on Plawell?"
The start-up sequence complete, Chewie punched the drive and the *Falcon* rose up on its repulsors, then shot out of the spaceport. Carefully guiding the controls, he let the ship skim close to the planet's surface as they flew up over the main turbo-ski mountain towards the back side.
"Where are the now?" Han asked darkly.
"I don't know," Luke admitted. "Long gone. Port authority said an unidentified ship escaped Kythan space a few hours ago. Though Leia's not sure if Roganda's alive--she got injured when Ally did. But Irek knocked them out with some sort of gas-grenade, set the explosives, and bugged out. Plus he activated a shield, so we won't even be able to get in there to help them unless Leia can--" he stopped abruptly, crying out as a dull pain came to head.
"What is it?" Han asked anxiously.
Luke took a breath, using a Jedi calming technique. "It's Leia. She's hurt even worse."
Leia reached out gingerly for the ladder, wincing as her blistered hand grabbed onto the durasteel rung. She tried to grasp it tightly and hoist herself onto the ladder, but the rung felt like molten metal under her scorched skin. She simply could not grasp tight enough to support her weight.
Letting her breath out in frustration, Leia realized she would have to resort to her Jedi skills instead. She closed her eyes and allowed the Force to surround her and lift her into the air. Ignoring the sickening sensation that was not unlike zero- G space travel, she slowly levitated upwards alongside the ladder. making it up about three levels before she was forced to stop to rest, hanging onto the ladder with her arm. Unfortunately, this particular Jedi skill was not only something she loathed, but something that she found particularly exhausting.
Grimacing, she called the Force back to her again, let go of the ladder, and continued rising. Another three levels, stop and rest. Three more levels, stop and rest.
This was taking too much time. Glancing at her chronometer, Leia saw with horror that there were less than thirty minutes left until the explosions went off. But there were only four more levels to go.
She took a deep breath and started up once again, this time forcing herself to go without resting. One level, two levels, three....
Suddenly the shaft trembled around her. Startled, Leia grabbed for the ladder, heaving with exhaustion. The first small charge explosive had gone off.
Her immediate thought was Mara and Ally: were they far enough above the detention level to escape the worst of the blast? Searching in the Force, she desperately sought their presence. When Mara's reassuring sense reached up to her, she exhaled in relief. Ally was still unconscious, but relatively stable.
But the bunker was falling apart around them: rubble and debris were pelting her from above, raining down in clouds of dust and shrapnel, making it even more difficult to maintain her grasp on the ladder. She waited out the squall as best she could, until it finally cleared and she could look up again. Only one more level to go.
Taking another deep breath, Leia let go of the ladder again and allowed the Force to buoy her upwards. She breathed a sigh of relief as she stepped onto the ledge, pried open the lift doors, and limped out of the shaft and onto the deck. She could feel the whole place rumble around her, but at least she was on the right floor.
She closed her eyes again, trying to remember which way the workshop had been. She and Mara had come off the lift and turned right. She went that way now.
Just as Leia reached the doorway she thought was the right one, the floor and walls shook more violently. Another explosion! Crying out, she grasped for some kind of handhold, wincing as her blistering hands scraped against the stone walls. She heard a loud crash above her and looked up in time to see some sort of heavy light fixture tear loose from the ceiling and come crashing down towards her.
As hard as she could, Leia pushed with the Force at the same time as she rolled out of the way. The light glanced off the back of her head, tore through her parka's shoulder, narrowly missing her flesh beneath, then crashed to the floor. Sitting up, she put her hand up to her head, then pulled it away. She was bleeding, and not lightly, either. But no time to worry about that now. She glanced at her chronometer.
Twenty-two minutes to go.
Mara had stopped for what seemed like the umpteenth time on some floor above the detention level--how many levels had she gone?--to fix the dressing on Ally's wound one more time. The cloth strip Leia had torn from her parka was now soaked through. Mara hastily tore a another strip of material from her own jacket, then wound it around Ally's chest as tightly as she could. Satisfied that she had stopped as much of the bleeding as possible under these conditions, she carefully hoisted Ally into her arms and looked up, estimating that she was a good twenty or so levels below the surface.
"Well, the surface isn't going to get any closer while I stand here looking up at it," Mara muttered to herself.
Abruptly, the ledge beneath her began rocking and the walls in the wide shaft began to shake.
"What the--" Mara cried out as she lost her footing. She almost tumbled down the interior of the passage, but struck out with her left hand, grasping the cold ladder rung tightly as she teetered above the long drop. Her other arm clutched at Ally, supported with a shaky tendril of the Force. The first explosive had gone off--just what she needed, the place to collapse around her. Moments later she felt a questioning probe from Leia, and returned it. They were all right. For now.
Mara took a breath and used the Force to lift Ally up into the air. As she watched from below, she raised Ally's almost lifeless body through the shaft, one level at a time. When she grew too tired to continue, she pushed open the set of doors on the level where Ally was, then set her carefully down on the deck outside the doors.
Panting heavily, Mara wiped the sweat off her forehead and rested for a minute. Then she reached up as far as she could and jumped.
Her hands caught hold of the floor at the level where she had left Ally. Exhausted again, she dragged herself up and onto the floor beside Ally, where she rested for another brief moment. She then looked back into the shaft trying to determine how far they'd made it. ten levels--still almost two thirds of the way to go.
With a heavy sigh, she started to float Ally's body back into the shaft to raise her up another few levels when the ground began shaking again. Huge hunks of duracreet and light fixtures tore loose from the ceiling above them, and Mara almost lost her Force-grip on Ally. Reaching out physically, she grabbed her unconscious friend around the waist and pulled her back into the hallway, then crouched over her, sheltering her from the debris. Loud crashes reverberated through the corridors above her and around her. How many more explosions before the thermal detonator would go off?
The tremor finally stopped, and Mara stood up cautiously. She had managed to keep Ally from getting injured further, but she was badly shaken. She had come too close to dropping her down some ten levels. Way too close for comfort. There was no doubt about it, she was exhausted. While Skywalker's little platitude "size matters not" may be true, using the Force--especially to move something as heavy as an unconscious person--required a huge amount of energy. She still had to lift Ally and herself up fifteen or so more levels and that was a mentally and physically draining task. She couldn't afford to make mistakes.
Then she had an idea. The bunker more than likely had standard safety equipment--including fire closets which almost always housed a hose and a vibro-ax. She could use the ax to cut through the hose, then fashion a make-shift sling for Ally. She looked around her, but saw nothing near the lift. Maybe there was another lift or ladder down at the other end of the hall.
Checking once more to see that Ally was okay, she quickly got up and hurried down the hallway, her ski boots clanking heavily on the metal deck. She reached the opposite end where there was indeed a ladder well. Next to it there should be...
There it was, a fire box. She quickly smashed it open.
The hose was there, but the ax was missing.
Mara cursed, then decided to try the next level down. She hastily climbed down the ladder one level where she found another box, and this time she was in luck--it had an ax strapped to the wall. She yanked it out of its holder and went to work on the hose. A short time later, it was free. She coiled it up into a large bundle, then started to head for the ladder just as another explosion rocked the bunker around her. It knocked something loose above her in the ladder well and hundreds of tiny stones and debris pelted Mara, forcing her to back away from the shaft. Better to go back and use the lift shaft.
She started off down the hallway when a fourth explosion knocked her to the ground in an open doorway. She fell hard, twisting her right ankle and losing her grip on the fire hose as she went. The bundle skittered down the hallway, uncoiling as it went. Swearing again, she sat up and tried rotating her sore ankle.
It was then that Mara's sense of danger went haywire.
An electrical spark flickered at the controls to the blast door she was sprawled under, bringing the heavy door crashing down from above. Mara reflexively rolled to one side, landing flat on her back.
She almost made it.
The door crashed down, shattering her ski boot and crushing her right leg just above her ankle.
Mara screamed as agonizing pain shot through her whole body. Then the universe went gray.
The *Millennium Falcon* swooped towards the backside of the mountain at a dizzying rate. They had just found a place to set down--clearing near the mountain's base-- when Luke suddenly felt a jarring pain rip through his body, causing him to cry out.
"What is it?" Han asked, nearly jumping out of his seat.
Luke glanced at Callista, whose face was very pale. She had felt something, too, only not as strongly as he had.
"What happened, Luke?" Han asked again.
"It's Mara--she's in terrible pain," he whispered as he felt his heart jump to his throat. "I'm not sure what happened, but I think she blacked out."
"Then let's set this baby down and get over there and help them," Han said grimly through clenched teeth.
Luke ran through a Jedi calming technique, but to no avail. He then reached out for Leia to see how she was faring.
There were nineteen minutes left.
Leia found the control room just as the fourth tremor ripped through the bunker. She hunched down on the floor, covering her head with her arms to protect herself from the debris that rained down on her. Then the electricity flickered again, and Leia suddenly felt a wave of pain radiate out into the Force.
Something had happened to Mara--she was unconscious.
Which meant she was the only one left alert.
Biting her lip, Leia got up and searched the room. It was almost pitch black, but she was able to find a glow rod in a workbench. It worked, thank the Force, casting an eerie glow around the room. She glanced at her chronometer again-- nineteen minutes left.
It was then that Leia felt Luke's presence in her mind, reassuring and warm. They were almost there. She only had to disable the shields and the thermo-radiation timer. If there was a master access board as they had speculated. If not, this party was over.
Ignoring the throbbing in her head, Leia used the Force and found a power source that had to be the control panel. Pushing her hair, damp with sweat and blood, away from her eyes, she looked in the corner she saw it--a numerical pad that was a larger version of the handset she'd seen both Roganda and Irek carrying. It ran under some sort of auxiliary power so it was unaffected by the flickering electricity.
With the glowrod clenched in her teeth, Leia pulled Mara's data pad out of her pocket. She held the pad in her left hand as she touched the keypad with the trembling fingers of her right hand. Now as long as the tones were correct...
"May the Force be with me," she said quickly, then punched in the first set of numbers, the ones Ally had said would disable the shield.
Holding her breath, she waited for confirmation. After what seemed like a millennium, a metallic voice declared: "Shields disengaged."
Expelling a breath of relief, Leia quickly punched in the next code.
"Thermo-radiation pack disengaged."
With another sigh of relief, Leia collapsed to the floor, exhausted. But she had done it. Ally's codes were correct; the jogathronite would not detonate.
However, the thermal detonator was still active and set to explode in just over fifteen minutes and they were all still trapped inside.
Hurry Luke! she thought, reaching out to him as far as she was able.
Luke breathed a sigh of relief. "Leia disconnected the shields and the thermal explosives in the mountainside."
"Then the thing's not going to blow?" Tom asked hopefully.
"No, the bunker's still going to explode in about fifteen minutes, but at least it won't take half the planet with it."
"That's quite a comfort when my wife is still down there," Han snapped sarcastically.
"We'll get them out," Callista said quietly.
The *Falcon* set down and Luke looked out the viewport. He could see a small warming hut at the base of the mountain.
"There, that's the entrance," he pointed.
"Then let's get a move on," Tom said quickly.
The four humans and one Wookiee exited the freighter and dashed onto the hard-packed snow towards the warming hut.
"Do you know where they are?" Han asked Luke.
"They're not far from each other, about fifteen levels down. Leia's pretty dizzy, I think she took a blow to the head," Luke responded. "Ally and Mara are further below. It's hard for me to sense them, since their both unconscious--no, wait," he amended, "I think Mara just came to. But she's in an awful lot of pain." He reached out to her in his mind: Use the Force to control the pain. We'll be there soon.
Mara's eyes snapped open and another rush of agony washed over her. As best she could, she sat up and examined the situation.
Her leg was completely crushed under the blast door and she was losing blood. And she was trapped. But then she felt something warm and reassuring touch her mind-- Skywalker.
Use the Force to control the pain. We'll be there soon, he instructed her. She sent a particularly graphic reply in return.
Just do it!
Grimacing, Mara concentrated on her crushed ankle, sending the Force down through her body. The pain eased-- slightly--but at least now she was able to stay conscious. Which made her wonder how much time she had already spent unconscious--if it had been too long, it may already be too late.
She looked at her chronometer and was relieved to find there were still about thirteen minutes left. There might still be time.
* * * * *
Luke and the others found Leia on the fourteenth level down, limping down the hallway towards the lift shaft.
"Leia!" Han cried out in relief as they rushed to her side. She all but collapsed in his arms.
"Ally and Mara are trapped down below somewhere," she breathed.
"We'll take care of them," Han reassured her, then turned to Chewbacca. "Give me a hand, Chewie."
As Chewbacca gently lifted Leia, Luke told Han: "You two get Leia out--and get her some first aid, that leg injury looks like it's already infected. We'll search for Ally and Mara," he added, indicating Tom and Callista.
Han nodded. "Here, take this comlink so we can keep in touch." He handed Luke the small device, then he and Chewie headed back towards the surface while Luke, Tom, and Callista headed downward.
"I think they're only a level or so below us," Luke told them.
"Are you sure?" Callista asked. "It's hard for me to sense anything--the air has a weird buzz to it."
Luke nodded. "This planet has an ionized atmosphere. But I can still feel them." Even though she was unconscious, he could sense his sister's presence just below them.
When they reached the next level down, Luke could see a disturbingly lifeless form lying in the hallway next to lift shaft. "I found Ally!" he cried up to Tom and Callista. Kneeling down at her side, he was horrified to see that she was covered in blood. But she was alive.
"Ally, oh my God!" Tom cried out as he stepped into the corridor, Callista right behind him. "Look at all that blood!"
"She'll be okay," Luke reassured him, then glanced at his chrono. They had just under ten minutes. "You and Callista get her out of here. I'll go find Mara."
Leaving the two of them to help Ally, Luke quickly climbed down one more level, then made his way down the corridor.
Up ahead in the dim light, he saw a closed blast door.
And trapped underneath, Mara.
Luke's vision from the cave came back to him in a flash. Mara trapped under something heavy--it was real! Biting his lip, Luke rushed to her side.
"It's about time, Skywalker," she wisecracked, but her voice sounded weak.
"What happened?" he asked her.
"Guess I'm not as young as I used to be--couldn't get out of the way in time when the door came down," she grimaced. Luke could feel her agony and the tremendous amount of concentration it was taking just for her to remain conscious.
He looked into her beautiful green eyes and gave her a lopsided smile. "I hope this wasn't the only way you could think of to get my attention."
"Right," she smirked at him. "That, and I figured your cybernetic hand worked so well for you, I'd get a foot to match."
"Let's see if we can get you out of here," he replied as he started to rise.
Then from up above, Callista called down at him. "Luke!" There was a pause before she continued, sounding frustrated and almost embarrassed. "I don't think I can lift Ally myself."
Mara looked at Luke, her eyes narrowing slightly. "Callista has her powers back," she stated flatly.
"Yes," Luke replied, keeping his voice equally flat.
"Luke!" Callista called again.
"You can do it, Callista!" he called back. "You have to, I'm kind of busy down here!"
Mara shook her head. "Go help your sister. She's been hurt pretty badly--she needs medical attention as soon as possible."
Luke looked at her, hesitating.
"Go," Mara insisted as Callista called for him again.
"I'll be right back," he said standing up.
"I'm not going anywhere," she replied.
He started to turn to go back up the hallway, but she reached out and touched his leg.
He stopped and looked down at her.
"I love you," she said softly.
He paused for a moment, then gave her a slight smile. "I know."
Turning, he sprinted down the hallway, vaulted himself up the shaft to where Tom had Ally cradled in his arms. Callista was standing beside them.
"I'm sorry," she said sheepishly, "I thought I could do it, but I can't.."
"Yes you can," he said gently.
"No..." she shook her head vigorously, "it's been too long."
"It's okay," he said quietly, touching her arm. "We can do it together."
She nodded solemnly.
"Are you ready?"
Together, the two of them pushed outward, using the Force to lift Ally gently out of Tom's arms and up into the lift shift. Tom stood by, biting his lip nervously. They floated Ally's body up, then when she neared the top level, Luke used the Force to pry open the lift's doors, then he and Callista gently placed her on the floor outside.
Callista let out her breath, obviously exhausted from the strain. Luke, too, was a little out of breath.
"Can you two take it from here? I have to go back for Mara; she's trapped under a blast door."
Callista grimaced. "Come on, Tom, let's get Ally out of here." She swung out into the lift shaft, grabbing onto the ladder that ran down its side and hoisting herself onto it, Tom right behind her. Luke headed in the opposite direction.
They had seven minutes before the bunker exploded.
Mara focused all her Force abilities on the screaming pain in her leg, fighting to stay conscious. Finally, Skywalker reappeared and knelt beside her.
"Did you get Ally out okay?" she asked, gritting her teeth against the pain.
"Callista and Tom took her," Skywalker nodded. "Now let's get you out of here." He stood up and reached for his belt.
"No, don't!" Mara cried out. She then gave a violent push with the Force, sending the lightsaber clattering out of a surprised Skywalker's hand. The effort caused her leg to scream in pain and she felt her mind go gray again.
"What in the worlds is wrong with you?" Skywalker was asking. "Mara?" He knelt beside her again, then gave her a little boost with the Force and she snapped back to full consciousness.
"The ionized atmosphere," Mara moaned through clenched teeth. "It does something to the lightsaber blade-- pulls it apart. That's how Ally got hurt."
"What? I've never heard of such a thing!"
"Didn't the Kythans confiscate your weapons at the port?"
Skywalker groaned. "They tried to, but Han--"
"Just take my word for it, Skywalker, you can't use your lightsaber," Mara barked weakly but testily.
He stared at her, his blue eyes wide. "Then how am I supposed to get you out from under this blast door?"
"I don't know, you're the Jedi Master!"
"Okay, okay," Skywalker said quickly. "I'll just have to raise the door." He examined the controls in the wall beside the door. "These are completely fried," he muttered. Then he turned to face the huge blast door. Closing his eyes, he reached out his hand and Mara felt the Force concentrate around her. She could see beads of sweat break out on his forehead as he strained to raise the door. Finally, it moved--but only a centimeter.
Heaving with exhaustion, Skywalker opened his eyes. "It's too heavy."
"I thought size matters not!" she snapped.
"But time matters plenty," he answered. "It will take me ten minutes to lift that thing."
"We don't have ten minutes," Mara cried, feeling the panic rise in her. She looked at her chronometer. They barely had five minutes.
They weren't going to make it.
She looked up at Skywalker. He was getting ready to make another try at the door--his eyes were closed, and his hair was plastered to his forehead, wet with perspiration. What was it she had told him on Coruscant? I don't do "damsel in distress" very well.
Suddenly she made a decision. "You have to get out of here," she said quietly.
"What are you talking about?" he cried. "I'm not leaving without you!"
"Skywalker, please, you'll never get me out in time. You have to go!" She threw as much authoritativeness into her voice as the pain would allow.
"Mara, I'm not leaving you!"
She stared up into his eyes--his beautiful crystal blue eyes. "Please," she pleaded softly. "I've never begged for anything in my life, but I'm begging you. Please go."
"No! I'm going to get you out of here!"
She threw up her hands, exasperated. "First I can't get you to find five minutes to spend with me, now I can't get you to leave!"
He knelt down beside her again. "Mara, I was wrong before," he told her.
"But they need you," she insisted.
"And I need you!" he returned. She looked away, frustrated.
"Mara, look at me!" he cried. She turned slowly to face him again.
"You are the most important thing in my life, do you understand me? Nothing else matters," he said, his face intent.
Suddenly something crackled on Skywalker's belt. A comlink.
"Luke, what the hell's going on down there?" It was Solo's voice.
Skywalker pulled the comlink off his belt. "Mara's trapped under a blast door and we can't get it opened," he said grimly.
"So cut her out with your lightsaber and get out of there. There's only about five minutes left till this place blows."
"The ionized air makes the blade unstable," Skywalker replied, swallowing. "I can't use my lightsaber."
There was a moment of silence as Callista listened to Luke's words over Han's comlink. The two of them were sitting on the ramp of the *Millennium Falcon,* Threepio rattling on about how he had tried to warn them until Han threatened to shut him down. Inside, Tom and Chewbacca tended to Ally's and Leia's injuries.
He's going to stay with her. If he can't get her out, he's going to stay with her, Callista thought, stunned. That fact hit her hard. But it was just like him, always playing the hero. Except this was different. She knew it was different. For the first time, she knew for sure that she had lost him.
But she wasn't about to let him die. Ripping the comlink from Han's hand, she blurted into it: "How about the Force? Can you raise the door with the Force?"
"Not fast enough," came Luke's grim reply.
Callista's mind whirled furiously. "What if I helped? And Leia, she's not injured too badly."
"It's still to heavy to lift in under five minutes," Luke responded.
Callista thought hard. What were their other options? The lightsaber was the best bet, but how to get that working again.
Then it came to her. "Luke, what if we went in reverse. Forget the door, and concentrate on the ions themselves. Could we neutralize a pocket of air around you long enough for you to use your lightsaber?"
There was a brief pause, then Luke answered, "That just might work."
"Should I get Leia?"
"The more help the better."
Callista handed the comlink back to Han than dashed up the *Falcon's* ramp to get Leia.
Mara listened to Callista's plan over Skywalker's comlink while she still struggled to keep the pain at bay. "It'll never work," she said cynically. She felt herself start to gray out again...
"Mara!" Skywalker cried out sharply, clapping his hands in front of her. He succeeded in rousing her somewhat.
Suddenly he grabbed her hand, a strange, determined look in his eyes.
That snapped Mara back to full alertness. ""WHAT?"
"Marry me," he repeated.
"MARRY YOU? Are you completely INSANE?" she cried. "We're going to be dead in three minutes!"
"No, this will work," he said intensely, still gripping her hand. "And I want to walk out of here knowing you've agreed to be my wife."
Mara stared at him. "You have completely lost your mind!"
"No. I just know what's important to me."
She continued to stare at him, speechless.
Then Callista's voice crackled on the comlink again. "Luke, Leia's here, are you ready?"
He was still looking at Mara. "Say yes."
He stood up, then reached out and called his lightsaber back into his hand from where it had landed after Mara had yanked it away from him. "Say yes," he repeated.
He meant it, she realized. He might regret it in the morning, but right now he meant it.
She shook her head slightly in disbelief and managed a small smile. "Yes."
Smiling back, Skywalker spoke into the comlink. "We're ready." He looked back down at Mara. "You keep concentrating on your leg and let us worry about the ions. I need you conscious."
Mara nodded and watched as he concentrated. She could feel the Force swell around her, could feel Callista's and Leia's senses joining Skywalker's, pushing at the air, clearing a small bubble around them where the atmosphere was not electrified. The air around her gradually felt dull, lifeless. Then Skywalker ignited his lightsaber.
Mara breathed a sigh of relief--the blade held together.
He quickly brought the green blade around in a sweeping arc, slicing through the door around her ankle. As the small piece fell aside, fresh pain tore through Mara and she almost blacked out again.
But then Skywalker had his lightsaber off and re-clipped to his belt and was gently lifting her in his arms, trying not to jostle her crushed leg. She gripped him tightly around the neck.
I've got her, she felt him say in her mind, forgoing the use of the comlink to communicate with Callista and Leia above. Then he gave her a quick kiss.
"I love you," she told him as he started to carry her out. * * * * *
"He's got her!" Leia called out and Callista breathed a sigh of relief. But it wasn't over yet--they still had to get out of there and had about two minutes left to do it.
She couldn't just sit here and wait. She was, after all, a Jedi.
Abruptly, Callista jumped up and dashed across the hard-packed snow towards the warming hut.
"Callista!" Han cried out behind her. "There's nothing you can do!" But it was too late--she was already entering the small building. * * * * *
Luke could feel the sweat bead on his forehead as he gently lifted Mara upwards. He knew he should stop to rest, but there just wasn't time. He had to get her all the way to the top in about a minute and a half, and she wasn't able to help at all- -now that her foot was actually free to move around she was in even more pain, and it took all her concentration just to stay semi-conscious.
Just when he thought he couldn't lift her any further without a rest, he felt her weight lighten.
Someone else had joined with him, helping pull her up through the Force.
"I've got her!" he heard Callista's voice call out from above. "Get up here!"
He tentatively released his hold on Mara, then waited a beat to see if Callista had enough command of the Force to hold her. For one terrifying flash he thought she was going to drop her, but her Force-grip stayed firm. When he was sure she had a solid grasp, he leapt upwards, stretching out as far as he could.
He reached the top of his arc about three levels down from the top. Grabbing onto the ladder, he quickly climbed up the rest of the way.
In the hallway above him, Mara was more or less standing on her good left leg, leaning heavily against Callista.
"Thank you," he breathed gratefully.
She looked at him with somber gray eyes. "What else could I do? I'm a Jedi."
From the relative safety of the *Falcon's* ramp, Leia watched as the bunker exploded.
The ground shook beneath their feet as she and Han stumbled on the ramp. He grabbed Leia's arm and turned her towards him.
"Well?" he asked, his face full of concern.
Before Leia could even answer him, they saw three figures emerge from the black smoke that was pouring out of the warming hut.
"They're fine," she smiled, letting out her breath. She hadn't even realized she had been holding it. "We're all fine."
Luke poked his head out from behind the huge pot of blue and red acorja flowers he was carrying and into one of the rooms in the Imperial Palace's medical center. Inside, recovering from their injuries on three separate cots, were Leia, Ally, and Mara.
"Hey, look what I found roaming through the halls," he said smiling at the three women.
He stepped aside, allowing five anxious children to rush past him. "Don't jump on your mothers!" he cried out, laughing as Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin swarmed Leia and Aaron and Casey surrounded Ally.
"Hey, guys, great to see you!" Ally called out, still sounding a little weak, but smiling as she gathered her children to her.
It had been touch and go for a while, but after three bacta treatments she was nearly recovered. Leia had only needed one tank dip to heal the bullet wound in her leg and the burns on her face and hands, but she still wore a bandage around her bruised head. Mara hadn't needed any bacta dips at all--but her right foot had to be amputated, and a medical droid was now checking its bionic replacement.
"How are my three favorite ladies?" Luke asked with a smile as he went over to Mara's bedside.
"Just in time to see me test the new equipment." Mara grimaced as the medical droid poked her. "Ouch, watch it with that thing!"
"Hey, Luke, where are Han and Tom?" Leia asked as she studied the drawing Anakin was proudly displaying for her.
"Oh, they're somewhere with Chewbacca arguing about number of visitors or some such thing. I think Lando and Tendra are coming to see you, too."
The medical droid finished his examination and rolled out of the room.
"What do you say we take that thing for a test drive?" Luke asked.
Mara scowled at him. "That 'thing' you're referring to is my leg."
"I know. Matches my hand, remember?"
She scowled harder, but allowed Luke to hand her the cane that was leaning against the wall. Leaning somewhat heavily on it and with Luke right at her shoulder, she limped away from the bed.
"Hey, have fun," Ally called out to them, but she raised her eyebrows at Luke when Mara wasn't looking. She knew something was up--and Leia did, too. They exchanged meaningful glances with each other over the tops of their children's heads.
Luke and Mara slowly entered the corridor, Mara limping badly. "The doctor said it'll take a few weeks to get used to. After that, I should have normal usage."
"Good," Luke smiled down at her. "I want to see you dance at our wedding."
She stopped and looked up at him, her expression unreadable, even for a Jedi. "About that," she started. "You know how I feel about things said under duress."
Luke put his hands on his hips in mock annoyance. "You said 'I love you.' Twice. You can't take it back.
She gave him a sour smile. "Who said anything about taking that back?"
"You also said 'yes.' You're not trying to back out on me, are you, Jade?"
She matched his stance--with some difficulty, due to her leg. "Not necessarily."
"What does that mean?" Luke said, but he relaxed slightly. There seemed to be a soft edge to her eyes that wasn't there a moment ago. But then they hardened again and turned serious.
"Nothing's really changed, Luke. You still have thousands of demands, I still have a terrible temper, and I still was the Emperor's Hand." Another sour smile. "Even if I wasn't the only one."
"Listen, Mara," Luke sighed. "I can't promise you that I won't constantly be rushing off to help this planet or that system, but I can promise you that I will not let anyone dictate my personal life to me--except maybe my wife. Is that fair?"
She cocked her head, considering this. "I suppose so. And I guess I could try not to pick so many fights with you. And be a little less cold."
"But that's part of your charm," he chuckled.
"Watch it, Skywalker, or you're going to find yourself with a cybernetic foot planted somewhere rather uncomfortable..."
Now he laughed outright. "As fun as that sounds, I believe we have a deal to close." He grinned mischievously as he stuck out his hand for her to shake.
Still Mara hesitated. "Don't forget," she said, serious once more, "I can't have children."
"I have an Academy full of young people on Yavin 4, and five nieces and nephews. I don't need children, I need you. Do we have a deal?" he repeated.
Slowly, she smiled, then stuck out her hand to shake his. "Deal."
As soon as she grasped his hand, he used it to pull her towards him and kissed her--a long, slow kiss. "I love you," he breathed when they finally parted.
Mara just smiled, then turned to walk on, leaning more on Luke's arm then on the cane. "You know," she said in a mock scolding tone, "on Ally's planet men get down on one knee to propose. And they give their intended some kind of valuable gem."
"If I remember correctly, I was down on both knees," Luke returned.
"Well, I suppose--"
Abruptly Mara stopped short, cutting off in mid-sentence. Luke followed her gaze down the hall.
Callista had just come in from the main Palace wing.
Without a word, Mara let go of Luke's arm and hobbled towards Callista with more grace than Luke would have thought possible. Before Callista could even react, Mara was standing in front of her.
"Thank you, Callista. You saved my life, I'm very grateful."
Callista had been caught completely by surprise and said nothing at first. Then she recovered herself. "Just doing what a Jedi does," she mumbled.
Mara nodded, then turned back towards Luke. "My foot's pretty sore, I'm going to head back now."
He nodded at her, then she was gone.
"I didn't mean to interrupt anything," Callista said quickly as she cast her eyes down to the floor.
"No, you didn't," Luke assured her. "I needed to talk to you anyway."
She looked up at him and Luke could feel her embarrassment. It was wonderful to be able to sense her at all in the Force...
There was a long, uncomfortable pause as they looked at each other. She knew, he realized. Finally, he said the words. "Mara and I are getting married."
Callista quickly looked down again. "I figured as much."
"I just wanted you to hear it from me before the rumors started."
She nodded, continuing her examination of the medical wing's floor tiles. Finally, she looked up at him. Luke could see she was a little hurt, but not surprised.
"I have something I want to talk to you about, too. I have a favor to ask."
"Name it," he replied, though not without some apprehension.
"Now that I'm a Jedi again, I'd like to go to Yavin 4 and brush up on my skills. After eight years without the Force and thirty years without a body, I'm pretty rusty."
"Is that all?" Luke asked, a little relieved. "You know you're welcome on Yavin 4 anytime you'd like."
"I know. It's just I--" she seemed to struggle for a moment. "I would like to know when you aren't planning on being there. I think it would be better if--" She couldn't finish.
Luke swallowed and nodded. "Whatever you'd like," he replied softly. "I don't plan on going there for a couple of months, so you can leave immediately if you like. I'll call Kyp and make all the arrangements."
"Thank you," she said, risking a look into his eyes. Then she moved forward and lightly kissed his cheek. "I...I want you to be happy," she said, then quickly backed away.
She faced him a moment longer, then turned and headed back towards the main Palace.
"Callista," Luke called out, stopping her in mid-stride. She turned to face him.
"May the Force be with you...Jedi."
She allowed herself a small smile, nodded at him, then left.
Luke watched her until she disappeared around a corner, then headed back towards Mara, Leia, and Ally's room. When he arrived he found Mara sitting outside the door, waiting for him.
She gave him a questioning look, but said nothing.
He smiled at her encouragingly, then asked, "Why are you out here?"
The seriousness left her face and her trademark scowl returned. "It's a regular Circus Horrificus in there. Solo, Chewbacca, Dale, Calrissian, and his wife just got here and Leia and Ally already know something's up. I wasn't about to face them alone."
Luke laughed, then offered her his arm. Together they went inside the med room to share the good news with their family and friends.
*** 3 months later...
Dav Tormana sat at the Rusted Freighter's crowded bar, sipping a Guvastan ale and watching the galactic sports report on the 2-D vidscreen behind the bar.
"Hey, Twi'lek, buy a girl a drink?"
Dav spun around to face the source of the voice.
He quickly gave his long-lost friend a tight hug. "What in the galaxy are you doing back here?"
Callista shrugged, grinning. "Can't a Jedi visit an old friend?"
"Jedi?" A wide smile spread across Dav's blue-white face. "Then you did it?"
Callista nodded and spun around, modeling her black Jedi tunic. He could see her lightsaber dangling from her belt. She had always had that lightsaber, but he had never seen her wear it before.
Dav hugged her again. "I'm so happy for you! I knew you could do it!" He pulled back again and waved to a seat beside him at the bar. "But now I'm really wondering what you're doing back here. Shouldn't you be on Yavin 4 or Coruscant or something?"
Her attention flicked away from him and her face suddenly became a little sad. "Actually, Yavin 4 is the last place I wanted to be today."
Dav followed her gaze to the 2-D, where the sports report had given way to the Events segment. An immaculately coifed Firrerreon female was chirping on happily about the big event of the day--the wedding of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker.
He looked back at his human friend. "Rough day?"
She nodded. "Rough day."
Life moved in circles.
Nearly twenty years ago--two decades--Leia had stood in this very spot, the Grand Hall of the Great Temple on Yavin 4. The occasion then, just as today, had been a celebration. Only then it had been a dark celebration of war. Today, it was a celebration of life.
Just as he had twenty years ago, Luke Skywalker stood on the floor several steps below her, with Han Solo beside him. Only, then they had simply been two men--no, a boy and a man, really--that she hardly knew. Today they were her beloved brother and husband.
And just as it had occurred twenty years ago, the huge crowd of people assembled on the stone floor turned to watch as a figure moved down the aisle toward the front of the hall. Only, then it had been Luke, Han, and Chewbacca. Today it was Mara Jade. Well, she certainly looked as uncomfortable as Han and Chewbacca had on that day. She had lived her entire life in the shadows, unaccustomed to this much attention. But she was a bride, and that was part of being a bride, so she bore the situation with grace. She looked lovely, her brilliant red hair cascading in loose curls down her back. She was wearing an exquisite, teal green, off-the-shoulder gown. Leia thought it was perfect for Mara; green was very much her color. Ally, however, had tried cajoling her into selecting a white gown, a tradition on her planet. Here, of course, it usually represented a member of the Senate or an Alderaanean, so Mara had declined.
Leia then looked at her brother. He also "cleaned up pretty good," as Lando had put it. He looked quite elegant in his formal Jedi jacket, void of any medals or insignia. She saw him look up at her with a quick smile before returning his attention to Mara, much to Leia's relief. There were still things she didn't want him to know, not yet. Surprising someone you were close to was hard under any circumstances, but when those persons were Jedi, it was damned near impossible. It had been a week of surprises, and trying to keep both Luke and Mara in the dark had been very tiring. Just a little longer until the last surprise would be sprung.
Originally they had wanted a small and private wedding, but Leia and Mon Mothma had convinced them that as an ambassador, Luke simply couldn't afford to offend any government official by not inviting them. So Luke had agreed to a large formal wedding in the Great Temple, with the appropriate "tea" reception--or "life-sucking, I'd-rather-shoot- myself-than-go" reception, if you wanted to use Han's words. Mara, for her part, had stubbornly--and colorfully--resisted all attempts at grandeur, until Han had taken her aside for a private conversation, one out-of-place smuggler to another. Leia never knew what it was her husband had said, but when he was through, Mara relented, albeit grudgingly.
"I was the Emperor's Hand. I know how to blend," she had said with a tight smile.
Of course, she had made her opinions known: a scowl for this bit of protocol, a grimace for that ceremonial touch. But she allowed it all, even the huge guest list that included some of the most pompous and arrogant senators and dignitaries in the New Republic, all very pleased that at least the wedding was going to be respectable.
Mon Mothma, meanwhile, had done an about-face on the subject of Luke and Mara--even gone so far as to throw them a very public engagement party, setting the tone for all the others who had grumbled about Luke's association with a former Imperial.
Leia smiled, wondering what they would think if they knew about that one last surprise: the somewhat less-than- respectable, full-out smuggler's bash that Han, Lando, and Talon Karrde had secretly planned. A party that would begin as soon as the bride and groom could be politely extracted from the "respectable" reception in the Great Temple and sent over to one of the smaller temples farther out in the jungle. Only their good friends--mostly the less dignified ones (with the exception of Mon Mothma and Admiral Ackbar)--knew about it. Luke and Mara themselves were kept in the dark, though keeping a surprise from a pair of Jedi was like trying to keep a rancor in a cardboard box. They had known for weeks that something was up, but two days ago Tom had introduced the men to something he referred to as "the great American tradition of the bachelor party." Luke had figured that was the end of the surprises. Well, Luke was preoccupied with other things.
Leia watched her brother, feeling his happiness as his bride approached. When Mara reached the end of the aisle, Luke stepped forward and took her hand, catching Leia's eye once more. Afraid he'd also catch her thoughts and the surprise would be ruined, Leia deliberately sent him a different message through the Force.
At least I was on time for your wedding.