A TIME NOT LONG AGO...
IT IS FIFTEEN YEARS AFTER THE DEATH OF THE EMPEROR AND THE
BIRTH OF THE NEW REPUBLIC. A COUP ATTEMPT AT CORELLIA HAS
RECENTLY BEEN THWARTED, AND THE GALAXY IS ONCE AGAIN AT PEACE.
ON THE CAPITAL PLANET, CORUSCANT, JEDI MASTER LUKE SKYWALKER
HAS EXCHANGED HIS ROLE OF TEACHER FOR ONE OF STUDENT. UNDER
THE TUTELAGE OF CHIEF OF STATE LEIA ORGANA SOLO, HE ENDEAVORS
TO LEARN POLITICS AND DIPLOMACY FOR HIS NEW POSITION AS JEDI
AMBASSADOR TO THE SENATE.
BUT THE DARK SIDE DID NOT DIE WITH THE EMPEROR. MALARIN
BELSARIOS, AN EX-IMPERIAL AND DARK JEDI, IS TRYING TO CREATE A
RESURGENCE IN THE EMPIRE.
A SMALL GROUP OF HIS COMMANDOS BREAKS INTO LUKE'S
QUARTERS IN THE JEDI ACADEMY ON YAVIN 4, WHILE THE JEDI ARE OUT IN
THE JUNGLE TRAINING WITH JEDI HISTORIAN TIONNE AND NEW JEDI
MASTER KYP DURRON. AN OLD, WEDGE-SHAPED MEDALLION THAT LUKE
HAS HAD SINCE CHILDHOOD IS STOLEN...
Malarin Belsarios strode onto the bridge of his flagship, the strike-class Force Storm, and watched his crew squirm. While it was true he didn't have quite the ominous aura of, say, a Darth Vader, he was adept with the dark side of the Force all the same, and his presence always kept his crew a little ill at ease.
Just the way he liked it.
He walked with purpose, his cardinal cloak flowing behind him elegantly. Vader may have favored the solemnity of black for his robes, but Belsarios preferred the fire of red. Red, the color of the Emperor's Guard. Red, the color of...
No, that was the past. His concern here was the future. His future. A future in which the power of Vader and even of the Emperor himself would seem pale in comparison.
Arriving at his destination, the communications console, Belsarios leaned forward on gloved hands and put his face near the nervous comm officer's ear.
"Have we received word from Alpha team yet, Lieutenant Grissm?"
The young man swallowed uneasily. "Yes, Sir. The connection should be finalized in just a moment."
"Good." Belsarios straightened to his full height and stroked his graying beard thoughtfully. If he was right and everything went well with Phase I, then Phase II should present little difficulties. Then he could move onto the real challenge of Phase III. That he would oversee personally. He licked his lips with anticipation.
"Lord Belsarios, we have a connection," the tense Grissm said.
"Very good. Put it on the main holovid."
Belsarios turned smartly on his heel to face the holovid, which glowed briefly, than displayed the hugeimage of the Alpha team leader. "Have you succeeded?" he asked expectantly.
"Yes, Sir, it was surprisingly easy. The Jedi were in training on the other side of the moon and didn't even register our presence."
"And you found what you came for?"
The man in the image pulled back a little and held something up for Belsarios to view. It was a silver- colored metal wedge, about one-third of a full circle, dangling at its tip from a silver chain. It was approximately four centimeters from its circular edge to its tip, with a circumference of about nine centimeters. Embedded into the tip, right below the chain, was a gemstone that was a deep shade of scarlet.
Belsarios smiled. Another example of the vibrancy of red.
"Well done, Alpha Leader. Very well done."
The image nodded slightly at this praise--about as gushing a compliment as Belsarios was likely to give-- then vanished.
Belsarios turned back to his crew, grinning broadly. "As you were," he said loudly, his voice brimming with satisfaction. He had been right--or more precisely, he had interpreted the holocube correctly--Skywalker did have part of the disk!
Now all that was left was to get the rest of it.
And I thought training to be a Jedi was tough!"
Luke Skywalker blew his breath out in frustration. His sister, Leia, was diligently trying to explain to him the finer points of Hapian etiquette in preparation for his first diplomatic mission as Jedi Ambassador. At first he had thought it would be a simple task of remembering when to bow to whom, but it was much more complex than he ever imagined.
"Mon Mothma was right, your job is much more difficult than I ever gave you credit for," he said admiringly.
Leia smiled at him, brown eyes warm and encouraging. "You'll get it, it's just a matter of time."
"Just wait, I'll get there and the first thing I do will be wrong and the whole Hapian system will secede from the New Republic," Luke said through clenched teeth. But there was an edge of humor to his voice.
Leia laughed. "It's not that serious. You still have a few weeks before you leave." She put her hand on his shoulder. Besides, Isolder and Teneniel Djo help you along."
Luke couldn't help but grin mischievously at his twin. "Yes, dear old Prince Isolder..."
Leia swatted at him playfully. "Oh, please! Will I never live that down?" Just before she and Han were married, Prince Isolder of Hapes had proposed to her--and she had considered accepting.
Now, she stood up, letting her flowing white Senatorial robes billow around her. Glancing at the chrono on her wrist, she said "Enough lessons for now. The Senate convenes in fifteen minutes--you're first meeting in your new official capacity- Ambassador Skywalker."
Luke rose beside her, then stooped into a low bow. "At your service, Your Most Gracious and Elegant Royal Highness."
"Now you sound like Han," Leia laughed again.
"Speaking of," Luke said as he took his sister's arm and started down the corridors of the Imperial Palace towards the Senate Chambers, "when do you expect him back?"
"Tonight or tomorrow," Leia replied, her voice full of anticipation. Han had taken their three children to Kashyyyk to visit Chewbacca and his family. They had only been gone a few days, but Leia's voice betrayed how much she missed them. Then she wrinkled her nose at Luke, her eyes as mischievous as his had been a moment before. "I can't wait until he sees how diplomatic you are. I'm sure he'll be impressed."
Now it was Luke's turn to laugh. "Yeah, right. I know how much politics and royalty and diplomacy impress Han."
Leia was about to reply, but instead stopped short. Luke looked at her questioningly.
"Luke, that isn't who I think it is, is it?"
Luke followed her gaze down the corridor towards the huge wooden doorways that led to the Senate Chambers. Standing near the entrance was a woman of medium height wearing a pale-blue robe that draped elegantly around her slight frame. Luxuriant red hair was coiled into tight, neat braids on top of her head. Normally such a sight wouldn't cause either Leia or himself to react with much surprise--it was the common conservative dress of a woman who intended to address the Senate. But this woman was anything but conservative.
"Mara!" Luke exclaimed, pleasantly surprised.
The woman turned towards them and he saw that it was indeed Mara Jade.
"Hello, Jedi Master Skywalker," Mara replied. Only Mara could make that title sound like an insult and an endearment at the same time.
"It's good to see you," Luke said as he and Leia quickly met her at the door. He gave her a quick hug.
"I'd say the same, but every time I see you it usually means trouble," Mara returned, the gentle teasing still in her voice. "And that goes double for you, Madame Chief of State."
"That's what we're here for," Leia quipped in return, then followed Luke's hug with one of her own.
Luke had noticed that his sister's respect and trust for the one-time smuggler, one-time Emperor's Hand had increased dramatically since the two women had managed a perilous escape from the capital on Corellia during the attempted coup. He also noticed that this respect and trust seemed to be returned in kind.
When Leia and Mara parted, Luke said, "It's been a while, Mara. What brings you to Coruscant?"
"Business, what else?" She shrugged.
"That would explain the outfit. A little more frivolous than the tunics you usually wear."
Mara only smiled. "The Emperor taught me well, Skywalker. I know how to fit in anywhere."
There was a time when Mara couldn't mention the Emperor without seething rage at Luke for his part in her master's death. She had even planned on killing him for it. But over the years the intensity of those emotions faded. Her days as the Emperor's Hand were far behind her, and her reverence for her former Master had dwindled as well, even as her respect and friendship with Luke deepened. Though she had never expressed any such sentiments to him out loud, he sensed that she even had some regrets about her time in the Emperor's service. But now, fifteen years after his death, she talked of him as if he was just another employer she had on her way to a successful business of her own.
"What kind of business?" Leia put in, bringing Luke out of his reverie.
"Oh, my new partner and I have a little proposal for your Senate," she said mysteriously.
"Partner? Since when do you have a partner?" Luke queried.
"Since about three months ago."
The response came from a deep voice behind them. Luke and Leia both turned around to see Mara's former boss, Talon Karrde approaching them from behind.
"Talon Karrde," Luke whistled as he shook the other man's hand. "I thought you retired ages ago."
Mara snorted and rolled her eyes. "This man retires more often than I change my socks," she sneered. "I'll believe he's retired when I see him stretched out on the funeral pyre."
"I suppose that's true," Talon agreed heartily. "Actually, I had planned to stay in retirement this time. That is, until a certain beautiful trader with an amazing head for business came to me with a proposal I couldn't pass up."
"So just what is this big proposal?" Luke asked, turning back to Mara again.
"I thought Jedi Masters knew everything," Mara returned. "Or does your new position on the Senate fill up your head with so much political drivel and block out those famed Jedi senses, Ambassador Skywalker?"
Before Luke could think of an appropriate rejoinder, Leia cut in. "The session is about to start. We'd better get in there."
"Looks like you'll just have to wait and see what we have in mind," Mara taunted. Then she and Karrde quickly entered the room and headed for the audience gallery while Luke and Leia took their seats on the chamber floor.
It was Luke's first meeting as an official member of the Senate, but he found it difficult to concentrate on the mundane matters being addressed. He couldn't stop wondering what Mara and Karrde were up to--he even almost missed Leia's introduction of him as the new Jedi Ambassador--not that there was anyone in the room who didn't already know who he was and why he was there.
Finally the routine matters of state were taken care of, or at least tabled, and the time came when the general public could address the Senate. Top of the list: Talon Karrde and Mara Jade.
Mara gracefully rose from her seat and strode toward the podium, her ethereal blue gown billowing gracefully around her. Talon Karrde was not far behind, but it was Mara who stepped up to the microphone.
"Ladies and Gentlemen of the Senate," she began, impressing Luke with her warm and respectful tone--unusual for the scowling, sarcastic Mara Jade he knew. "In the fifteen years since the inception of the New Republic, peace has slowly been spreading through the galaxy. The days of civil war ravaging our galaxy seem behind us as every day more and more systems join the ranks of the Republic."
Luke had to grin at the irony of these words coming from the mouth of the former Emperor's Hand.
"And as such, the focus of this Senate, and even of the galaxy, has shifted from war concerns to more everyday concerns such as housing, legislation, and trade," Mara continued. "More and more the military is being called upon to perform mundane tasks, such as establishing trade routes and providing escort through hazardous regions."
Mara paused and eyed the members of the Senate, her green eyes briefly meeting Luke's, then moving on.
"But as recently as several months ago, events have shown us that the New Republic cannot afford to be ill- equipped for battle when necessary. When civil war broke out in the Corellian system, your own navy was not readily available, forcing you to turn to others--the Bakurans, in this case--to help win the battle. What happens when some other insurrection breaks out and the Bakurans are not available?"
Luke could feel the tension in the Senators around him. What was Mara up to, he wondered, that would cause her to be so blunt about the New Republic's shortcomings?
"Yet the New Republic cannot afford to be so concerned with military power that it neglects the aspects of government necessary for everyday functioning. Namely, the things I've already mentioned--especially trade. Which puts the government in a possible no-win situation: concentrate on military pursuits and lose the peace, or concentrate on mundane pursuits and potentially lose a whole lot more." She paused again to let her words sink in, then stepped back to allow Karrde room at the podium.
"Today, Jade-Karrde Enterprises"--Luke couldn't help but wonder how long they battled over the order of that name--"is in the position to help the New Republic in this area. By pooling the tremendous resources in capital ships, manpower, and armament that both Captain Jade and I have amassed over the last several years, we are able to offer you, the Senate of the New Republic, an exclusive contract for trade and other shipping services."
Luke couldn't believe his ears. Talon Karrde and Mara Jade, who both had sworn political neutrality until the end of time, offering to put themselves under government contract? If Luke hadn't been able to sense Mara's strong, cool presence in the Force, he might have suspected that the speakers were mere clones of the originals. He could also sense Leia's reaction, and it was much the same as his own.
But don't forget, Han once swore he'd never ally himself to any government... Leia reminded him silently.
Luke smiled at that. And now he's the husband of the Chief of State.
When Karrde had let his words settle on a surprised Senate, he continued. "With Jade-Karrde Enterprises handling all of the New Republic's trade runs, escort duty, and other non-military functions, the Navy will be free to attend to what should be any navy's first concern--maintaining an organized, fully prepared military."
"Excuse me, Mr. Karrde," a gravelly voice from beside Luke cut in. It was Senator Fleghan, a Calamarian and Leia's second-in-command. Calamarian's were noted for their distrust of smugglers--and ex-smugglers. "Trade and escort and the like are extremely vital to the economy of the New Republic. How can the Senate be expected to leave such concerns in the hands of mere traders?"
Luke shifted in his chair, waiting to hear the response. It came almost immediately from Mara who once again took the microphone.
"Senator Fleghan, I would respectfully submit that Mr. Karrde and myself are hardly 'mere traders.' On the contrary, both of us have distinguished ourselves in service to the New Republic in such military endeavors as the Battle for the Katana Fleet, the Battle of Bilbringi, and the Corellian Conflict. And that was when we had no political ties. Imagine how useful we could be in a direct alliance with the government of the New Republic."
Luke caught Leia's eye. They certainly came prepared, his sister noticed.
The discussion continued for quite some time with Senate members firing questions at Mara and Karrde, and the two partners firing back responses. In the end, it was decided that the Senate would take the proposal under advisement and discuss it in closed session, where a final vote would be taken. Both Leia and Luke went on record as withdrawing themselves from the vote due to their personal relationship with Mara.
More public matters were discussed, but Luke found his mind drifting from the discussion of tariffs in the Orto system to Mara and Karrde's unusual proposal. He still was amazed that Karrde and especially Mara would willingly and somewhat bindingly ally themselves with the New Republic government. The profit margin must be staggering to have not only brought Karrde out of semi-retirement, but to get them to willingly sacrifice some of their independence. Of course, he was sure that any contract Mara and Karrde put their signature to would be sure to include numerous provisions protecting their autonomy.
And then there was the hassle and the cost of relocating. In order to accomplish what they proposed, Mara and Karrde would have to base their operations on Coruscant., a planet on which neither of them really enjoyed spending time. Mara, for her part, had spent most of the first twenty-some years of her life here, under the Emperor's dominion. But then, memories fade, and it had been fifteen years. Truth be told, the idea of Mara setting up permanent residence on Coruscant greatly appealed to Luke, especially now that he would also be spending more time here and less on Yavin 4. He had become quite close to Mara over the years--if anyone could really consider themselves close to the evasive Mara Jade-- and it would be nice to have her close by.
Ambassador Skywalker! Leia's stern voice in his head startled him out of his thoughts. This is your first Senate meeting. The least you could do is pay attention.
Luke nodded contritely at his sister and forced himself to attend to the matters at hand. But not before making a mental note: after the meeting he would corner Mara and find out exactly why she was proposing this strange venture.
Phase II should just be getting underway.
Normally, Belsarios wouldn't be so hasty in moving to the second phase of an operation before the first was even fully completed. Ideally, Alpha team would have returned to the Force Storm for debriefing-and delivery of the precious pendant, of course--before being sent on their next assignment. But word from Coruscant was that he might not get a better opportunity than right now. Solo was off-planet with his children, and Organa Solo was tied up in one of the so-called "New Republic's" endless Senate meetings. It was their best chance of making it in and out without detection. So he opted to send Alpha team directly from Yavin 4 to Coruscant.
Now he was once again waiting for word. This time, however, he chose to do so in his private quarters, much to the relief of his crew. But his crew's comfort had no bearing on his decision--the privacy merely afforded him another opportunity to watch the holocube. After all, he hoped to be embarking on Phase III in under a month, and the information the holocube contained was vital.
He smiled as he thought of his cherished holocube. And to think, he had come across it completely by accident. For nearly a quarter of a century Belsarios had devoted his life to the search for the elusive Vader disk, only to turn up no real evidence that it ever even existed. And now, after finally giving up the quest as hopeless, he stumbles across the very key he had so long sought--on a routine freighter "acquisition." His men had almost tossed the damned holocube out when they couldn't open it. But Belsarios could open it. Belsarios had the Force.
Actually, it was really more of a holocron than a holocube--a message inscribed by Jedi for Jedi. Only Force adepts could penetrate its barriers. But holocrons were usually ancient--this cube was modern, less than fifty years old. Drawn to anything pertaining to the Force, Belsarios opened the cube and discovered the prize of a lifetime. The information held within its tiny form alone was worth millions to the right people. But to him it was worth much, much more. There on the cube, strung around that damned Obi-Wan Kenobi's neck, was the disk. Based on the message the cube contained, Belsarios knew exactly where the disk must now be. And Alpha team had proved him right. It was obvious, really, and he wondered why he had missed it before. He should have known from the moment he learned that they were Vader's children that Skywalker and Organa had parts of the disk, but even if he had figured it out years ago, he still would have been missing an important piece to the puzzle.
Until the holocube.
Now, he headed towards his private safe to retrieve his treasure--and was interrupted by a buzzer from the comm system.
"Lord Belsarios here," he said impatiently into the speaker. It was too early for Alpha team to be checking in.
"My lord, a holo transmission is coming in for you. Coded Gamma-three violet sigma."
Gamma-three violet sigma? It was an Imperial code. Back when there was an Empire. It signified a high-ranking officer. He considered this for a moment. What high ranking Imperial officer would be trying to contact him?
"Transfer the link to my quarters," he instructed the comm officer--possibly the same nervous man who had received his holo transmission from Alpha team.
Belsarios paused a moment, waiting for the link to establish, then switched on his holo unit. The image of a heavy-sit, aging man in Imperial gray materialized before him. He wore the insignia of a Vice Admiral.
"Ah, Lord Belsarios. It is a pleasure to finally speak with you face to face, so to speak," began the other.
"And you are?" Belsarios queried impatiently. He had no time for pleasantries.
"Vice Admiral Gilad Pellaeon," came the quick reply.
Pellaeon? Belsarios had heard the name before. The man had been second-in-command to Grand Admiral Thrawn in the early post-Imperial years. When Thrawn was killed at Bilbringi, Pellaeon disappeared, then resurfaced three years later under Admiral Daala. Another ill-fated leader.
"What can I do for you, Vice Admiral?" In spite of the fact that Pellaeon's rank was quite high and he himself was a civilian, Belsarios spoke to the Vice Admiral as one speaks to a subordinate. Pellaeon, for his part, must have been comfortable in that role. He answered with the respect of a subordinate to his superior officer.
"I understand you have some interest in the Sluis Van shipyards."
Belsarios was instantly furious. How could Pellaeon have received this information? The New Republic shipyard was indeed of interest to him--in fact, it was the prelude to Phase III. How in the Force did this man know that? Belsarios made a mental note: heads-or whatever body part was applicable, should the offender be alien--would roll.
"I see by your reaction my information is correct," Pellaeon continued. Before Belsarios could cut him off, he went on. "I think I may be able to help you along those lines--and I have another proposition you might find interesting. If you're interested, I'd like to set up a meeting with you. At your convenience, of course."
Belsarios thought for a moment. By all accounts, Pellaeon was a loyal and trustworthy second, just short of being an excellent leader.
Though both of the Admirals (no, one of them was a Grand Admiral) he had worked under had failed against the New Republic, Pellaeon might be a valuable aid. After all, he'd need someone to watch over things while he was on Phase III, and he had yet to find anyone suitable in his own ranks.
"I believe we can work something out. I'll make arrangements to send a coded transmission with a suitable location. Would three standard days be too soon to set up such a meeting?"
"The sooner the better," Pellaeon replied amiably. "I'll be waiting for your transmission."
"Very well. Belsarios out."
Belsarios thought about this turn of events for a moment. The workings of the Force never ceased to amaze him. Just when his plan required a large group of starfighters, along comes a Vice Admiral who had been second-in-command at a successful assault on the SluisVan shipyards. This could be a very profitable alliance.
But there was time to think of that later. Now he wanted to view his holocube.
Once again he headed towards his private safe, a sense of deep satisfaction settling on him. He unlocked the safe...
It was empty!
Enraged, Belsarios reached for his intercom. "Captain of the Guard, report to my quarters immediately." The threat in his voice would have been enough to frighten even the most seasoned veteran of the Vader years.
Belsarios slammed down the comm unit and stormed about his roomy chambers. How could this happen? How could someone have deprived him of his priceless cargo? This was the captain's quarters for the dark side's sake! How could security be this lax in his private chambers? His mind whirled. When did he last view the cube? It must have been yesterday. He looked at it at least once a day.
A buzzer sounded, signaling the arrival of the Captain of the Guard, Major Tessel, an ashen-faced, middle-aged man who hailed from somewhere in the core worlds.
"Major Tessel, who has been on guard duty at my quarters over the past twenty-four hours?" he growled."I-I don't know, My lord," the quivering man stammered. "I'll h-have to check the r-roster."
"Then do so, and have all those men report to me immediately. You and your second-in-command will join them."
"Did something happen?" the major asked.
It was a very foolish thing to do. Belsarios let his rage flow out from him and watched as the man started to clutch his throat. But he did not have the Vader disk, and without it he did not have the same abilities in the dark side as Vader had. He couldn't do the job completely, so he let the man go.
"Consider yourself fortunate that I am giving you one last chance to carry out your orders, Major," he said menacingly, as if his failure to kill the officer was his own choice.
"Yes, Sir!" the frightened major gasped then turned and fled.
He was back less than three minutes later, with six guards and one other officer.
"I want a full report. Has anyone been in my chambers during the last twenty-four hours?" he asked the six duty guards, forcing his voice to stay calm.
"No, Sir," they each answered hastily, almost in unison.
"Then explain how a holocube locked away in my private safe has disappeared?" the Dark Jedi seethed. He went down the line of guards, eyeing them individually, allowing the Force to reach out and faintly press in on their throats before releasing them.
"Are you sure no one has been in my quarters?" he tried again.
"Only you, Captain Yavis, and your valet," one young ensign spoke up.
Belsarios glared at him, taking in the name printed on his nameplate. "Sergeant Daws--I do not have a valet."
Slowly, the meaning of Belsarios' words dawned on the poor guard. His face quickly drained of color and his knees, stiff at attention, buckled slightly.
"Would you care to explain, Sergeant?"
"M-m-my l-lord," he stammered, terrified. The other guards subtly sidestepped away from him.
"This valet," Belsarios prompted, his voice low and even, "please describe him."
The coolness of his voice must have somewhat soothed the rattled guard. "He was an old man, sixty or so standard years, about a meter and a half, white hair, no beard..."
Belsarios thoughtfully stroked his own beard with a gloved hand. Moving to the computer display in the wall, he quickly called up the ships log from the day the freighter containing the holocube had been taken. There he found a picture of the ship's captain. An old man of about sixty.
"That's him!" Daws shouted, relief creeping into his voice.
"Very good, Sergeant. Dismissed," he said with a suddenness that took them all by surprise.
The relieved man started to leave when Belsarios suddenly added, "oh, one more thing." All eight men stopped and turned back towards him, faces full of dread.
"Captain Hawin," he addressed the second-in- command, "you are hereby promoted to Major and assigned to relieve Major Tessel as Captain of the Guard. Your first assignment will be to search the ship for this 'valet.' Your second is the execution of Major Tessel, Sergeant Daws, and the guard who was on Daws shift."
"Aye, Sir," the new major said in surprise. Before the doomed men could respond, Hawin nodded to the other guards present, who immediately drew their blasters on Tessel, Daws, and a Sergeant Matoole. Anxious to leave before Belsarios decided any more of them deserved execution, the four guards and their new commander herded out the three new prisoners, leaving Belsarios alone.
Belsarios stared at the computer screen. He had no doubt that the man would not be found on the ship; he was obviously too smart for that. Somehow this old freighter captain, who had been so easily boarded and pirated, had managed to sneak aboard his flagship, gain entrance to his private quarters, and steal something out of his safe. Clearly he had underestimated the man's determination and ability.
Then a thought occurred to him. Quickly, he called up his personal records on the computer console, then breathed a sigh of relief. His copy of the holocube's contents were still there in the computer's databanks. The information was not lost. But now he did have to assume that Organa Solo would soon be in possession of the cube. Of course, it really didn't change anything-- Alpha team should be completing Phase II by now. But it would be wise to step up his plans for Phase III.
Perhaps he should move up the meeting with Pellaeon. Maybe even see him today.
Captain Thymus Corander stared out the front viewport of his ship into the mottled-gray of hyperspace, his eyes red and bleary and largely unfocused. He knew he really should sleep--he wouldn't be pulling out of hyperspace for another thirty- eight hours, and he hadn't slept in two days, but as hard as he tried, he could not fall asleep.
He had screwed up. Badly. And now all he could think about was fixing it-- as best he could, anyway.
Then he would kill himself.
Sighing deeply, he tried not to think of his horrible failure. Yet over and over in his mind he could see Viceroy Organa's face, full of disappointment. Eighteen years after its death, he had failed his beloved home Alderaan.
He should have turned over the cube to the Princess years ago, he realized. There really was no reason not to, once the Emperor was dead. But he had waited, looking for the right time. There were always excuses: first it was, wait until the Alliance takes Coruscant, then it was wait until the Princess' brother established himself as a Jedi, then it was wait until Grand Admiral Thrawn and Joruus C'baoth were defeated, and then there was the resurrection of the Emperor.
That last event had terrified him. He had almost destroyed the cube then and there, but remembered how important Viceroy Organa had said it was. "When the Emperor has been defeated and the Republic restored, give this to my daughter. She needs to understand,." the Viceroy had told him. "But most importantly, this must not fall into the Emperor's or Vader's hands."
It was that last admonition that had put the fear of the Force into him. So he kept the cube, waiting for the right time. Eventually, he had waited so long he nearly forgot its existence.
Until three weeks ago, when his freighter was boarded by Imperials. Imperials under the command of a man who claimed to be a Dark Jedi.
Of course, Corander had heard of Belsarios. He was no Vader, and certainly no Emperor, but Corander knew that the information contained in the cube could be deadly in the hands of any Dark Jedi, even one with such nominal powers as Belsarios possessed. But his powers were enough to command a strike-class vessel with a battery of storm troopers, so Corander was sure he was dangerous.
Fortunately, Imperial storm troopers were not the crack soldiers they once were. After only three weeks of planning, he had been able to sneak aboard the Force Storm, pose as a valet to Lord Belsarios, and break into his cabin, retrieving the cube.
But it was really too late. Belsarios had managed to open the cube, and had probably made a copy of it. The only thing left for Corander to do to try and fix things was to deliver the liberated cube directly into the hands of the Princess, who was now Chief of State of the New Republic. Eighteen years late, but at least she would finally have it.
Corander himself did not know what the cube contained. It could only be opened by a Jedi or a Force adept, but he could clearly remember the importance the Viceroy had placed on its contents.
He sighed deeply, scratching the day-old growth on his chin, then rubbing his aching eyes. Maybe he could try one more time to get some sleep.
But sleep still would not come.
Mara stood beside Karrde in the massive corridor just outside the Senate Chambers, waiting for Skywalker and his sister to emerge. Briefly she considered slipping away before he and Leia could detach themselves from the rest of the Senate, but discarded that idea. She could feel his curiosity almost as strongly as if the emotion was her own and knew he would seek her out until he understood exactly why two former smugglers who cherished their political neutrality would align themselves directly with the government.
The truth is, she wasn't sure herself why she wanted this. It certainly wasn't for political reasons-- though she had long ago given up any allegiance to the Empire, she hardly considered herself a flag-waving New Republican. She had accepted that the NR was here to stay, and had even grown to respect its ideals, but she was no patriot. And it wasn't strictly for the money, though the profit potential looked good. She was a very successful--and somewhat wealthy--trader who enjoyed her independence. Yet here she was, setting herself up in a partnership with Karrde and vying for a government contract--about as far from independence as traders-- especially two who used to be smugglers--could get. So why was she doing it?
The only answer she could come up with was, she wanted to come home.
Mara had grown up on Coruscant, under the Emperor's wing. It was the only home she had ever known, and she had lost it when the Emperor died. She had returned briefly about five years later to act as a liaison between a smuggler's alliance Karrde had formed and the fledgling New Republic government, but she had left about a year later, around the time the reincarnated Emperor had re-taken the planet.
And she had wanted nothing to do with that, not after she had betrayed the Emperor by teaming up with his enemies to defeat Grand Admiral Thrawn. So she once again left Coruscant, setting up base elsewhere. For a while she had a partnership with Lando Calrissian on Kessel, but she got out of that when it became clear that she could not dissuade Calrissian from his romantic intentions--a proposition that nearly turned her stomach. Since then she had set up a variety of businesses for herself on a variety of planets. But now, for some reason, she felt drawn back to Coruscant. It was time to go home. She didn't know if she could explain that to Skywalker, but he was sure to hound her until she did, so she might as well not bother trying to avoid him.
Besides, she wanted to see him. She didn't like it-- especially didn't like that his presence here had also had an effect on her decision to try this little enterprise-- but there it was.
Finally he appeared, Leia in tow, and the two New Republic heroes joined the two ex-smugglers.
"That was quite a presentation," Leia started, shaking first Karrde's hand and then Mara's.
"Yes," Luke agreed. "Quite a surprise. Sounds like a new version of the old Smuggler's Alliance. What gives?"
At least he was true to form--no trace of subtlety. Mara looked at Karrde, then at Skywalker and Leia, feigning innocence. "What do you mean? You were all for the Smuggler's Alliance when it was formed. I would think you'd like the idea."
"I didn't say I didn't like the idea," he countered, his blue eyes filled with curiosity and a hint of mischief. "All I'm saying is you dissolved the Alliance because you didn't want to be so closely connected to the government. So why in the worlds would you two be interested in a government contract?"
Karrde answered for her. "Money, of course."
"Surely there are more profitable ventures than this," Leia said doubtfully. "If political contracts were that profitable we'd be up to our ears in smugglers trying to get in on it."
Karrde waved his hand dismissively. "It will only be profitable if it is run correctly. Mara and I know how to run it correctly. And between the two of us we have more capital ships to invest than even the Smuggler's Alliance had."
"But there still has to be other trading ventures-- even legal ones--that could be just as profitable," Leia insisted. "Whatever gave you this idea?"
"Actually, it was Mara's idea," Karrde replied, placing his hand on Mara's shoulder. Skywalker exchanged a glance with his sister, then the two of them looked at her expectantly.
"Your idea?" Skywalker asked, and she could feel his interest increase a notch.
"Yes," Mara replied, crossing her arms somewhat defensively, "it was my idea. I got a little bored trading habbis-root, so I figured it was time to head back to where the action is. Coruscant," she said, indicating the space around her with a sweep of her arm.
Skywalker cocked his head, still not satisfied. "I thought Coruscant held too many memories for you."
Mara sighed. He just wasn't going to be satisfied with a simple explanation. "It's been fifteen years, Skywalker. I think I've pretty much banished my demons." That wasn't entirely true--she still had some memories here that were quite painful, but it was well past time to get beyond that. She paused, searching for the right words, then added simply, "Coruscant will always be my home."
He nodded thoughtfully. "But there's more." It was not a question.
Mara felt her cheeks redden, though she wasn't sure why. No, that wasn't entirely true. She did know why, she just wasn't prepared to admit it. Not to Skywalker--not even to herself, really.
Fighting to regain her cool edge, Mara started to reply, but she was thankfully interrupted by a member of the Palace Guard.
"Excuse me, Madame Chief of State, Ambassador," he said quickly, ignoring Mara and Karrde. "There's a matter that needs your urgent attention."
Leia sighed. "No rest for the weary." She smiled brightly at Mara and Karrde. "I'm very interested in knowing more."
"Me, too," chimed in Skywalker, seeming more the Tatooine farmboy than an Ambassador and Jedi Master.
"Perhaps the two of you could join Luke, Han and I for dinner some time before you leave Coruscant."
Karrde matched her diplomatic tone. "We'd be honored," he answered without bothering to ask Mara if she would in fact be honored. "We're always willing to discuss our business with a member of the Senate, especially the illustrious Chief of State." He gallantly reached for Leia's hand and gave it a kiss. Mara groaned.
"Madame Chief of State?" the Palace guard urged.
"Yes, we're coming," Leia replied, starting to follow the guard. "Luke?"
Skywalker nodded, but before he left he looked at Mara intently. "I'm looking forward to hearing more about this venture of yours." He then gave her an odd smile and turned and followed his sister down the corridor.
"Looks like we have their support," Karrde said after a moment.
Mara nodded. "Of course, they took themselves out of the vote."
"Doesn't matter. If Leia Organa Solo and Luke Skywalker support us, the Senate isn't likely to turn us down."
"Mm-hmm," Mara nodded thoughtfully.
She looked up and saw Karrde eyeing her with amusement. "There is more to this little venture than profit, isn't there?"
Mara snorted in disgust. "I don't make any business decisions for any reason other than profit."
"I suppose, then, that delivering message cubes to politicians at trade conferences is highly profitable?" he countered, referring to how she got involved in the recent events on Corellia--delivering a message to Organa Solo.
"Information is often very profitable, yes," Mara snapped. "Besides, why would you want to get involved if you doubt my intentions?"
Karrde laughed. "I never said I doubted your intentions. I merely think you have more than one reason for wanting to set up camp here on Coruscant. That notwithstanding, this venture should be highly profitable, not to mention interesting."
Mara cocked her head and narrowed her eyes at Karrde, sensing that his last statement had some kind of double meaning. Well, she was certainly an expert at that game.
"Yes, it should be very interesting," she replied cryptically, then turned on her heel and left Karrde standing in the hallway.
"How could this have happened?" Leia cried, not trying to hide her anger.
"They were very skilled, Madame Chief of State," the guard stammered uneasily.
"Very skilled," Leia repeated incredulously. "And the Palace Guard is not?"
"Yes, Ma'am," he replied quickly.
"Yet they were unable to prevent my home from being broken into?" Leia shook her head angrily. This was unbelievable. She was Chief of State of the largest government in the galaxy, yet the security around her home was lax enough to allow a group of thugs to break in. Leia was not normally authoritarian, but this was unacceptable. Heads would roll for this.
Leia sunk angrily back into the seat of the speeder that was whisking them through the streets of Imperial City towards the presidential residence. In the front seat, beside the driver, sat the Palace guard that had interrupted her conversation with Talon Karrde and Mara Jade. Beside her in the back seat was Luke.
He put his hand on her shoulder, trying to calm her down. "Leia, I'm sure everything is fine. He said they didn't seem to get anything."
Leia shrugged his hand off. "That may well be, but what if my children had been home? The presidential residence should be more secure than that!"
"Yes, Madame Chief of State," the poor guard spoke up quickly. "We're looking into the matter as we speak."
"You're not the only ones who will be," Leia snapped.
"Yes, Ma'am," the guard responded miserably.
"And if you think I'm upset, General Solo is going to hit the roof when he returns tomorrow."
"You don't have to shoot the messenger," Luke chided her gently. Leia just glared at him. She was not in the mood for any Jedi lectures.
After what seemed like hours, the speeder finally reached her home. They were greeted by the head of Security himself, a stout Bothan named Kany'lya.
"I'm sorry about this, Madame Chief--"
"Just tell me what happened," Leia cut him off abruptly. "Did they take anything?"
The Bothan shook his head quickly. "No, Ma'am. Not that we could tell. It's really rather odd."
"Odd how?" Leia demanded peevishly.
"Odd in that they didn't seem to be interested in anything. They didn't search through your files or your computer. We found them in your bedroom, searching through your personal belongings."
"My bedroom," Leia repeated. "Then they've been apprehended?"
Kany'lya shuffled his feet uncomfortably. "I'm afraid they got away."
Leia nodded curtly, unable to shake the thought: what if Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin had been here? "If they didn't go for my files, were they perhaps looking for items of value--computers, holoprojectors, jewelry?"
"It's possible," the Bothan shrugged. "They certainly didn't seem interested in any of your computer, communication, or entertainment systems, but they might have been looking for jewelry of some sort. In some circles you are still thought of as a Princess, and that conjures up images of crown jewels.
Leia caught Luke's crooked grin out of the corner of her eye. This is not funny! she snapped at him through the Force. She saw with satisfaction that her rebuke caused him to take a step backwards and lose the smile.
"I assure you I have no 'crown jewels,'" she said, returning her attention to Kany'lya. "Some trinkets from Alderaan that have sentimental value, but no market value."
Kany'lya nodded sympathetically, then lead her and Luke into the house and up to the master suite. A small army of security personnel where swarming over the room, scanning for evidence.
"They dropped this box when we approached." Kany'lya handed her an ornate wood box. It was indeed the box that held her mementos from Alderaan. She quickly took it from him and searched through its contents.
"Most of it is still here," she said quietly, then stopped. "Wait, I know what's missing." She rummaged a bit more, not finding what she was looking for.
"What is it, Leia?" Luke asked.
"A pendant my father--Bail--gave me. It wasn't valuable--just a metal pie- wedge with a red stone in it. What would they want with that?"
Kany'lya shook his head, but Leia noticed Luke looked surprised. "Did you say a metal pendant with a red stone?"
"Was it about this big," Luke made a small circle with his hands, "and about one-third of a circle, hanging on a chain?"
Again, Leia nodded. "Did I show it to you once?"
"No," Luke said slowly. "I have one just like it. I found it in a trunk of Father's things that Ben left for me."
Leia's mouth opened slightly, but before she could say anything, Kany'lya cut in. "Where is your pendant, Master Skywalker?"
Luke's eyes turned upwards as he thought about it. "Probably still in the trunk in my quarters on Yavin 4."
Kany'lya looked from Luke to Leia and back again. "Perhaps you should send for it."
The sun shone brightly over the rugged red desert, and the old man had to shield his eyes as he surveyed the landscape from his perch atop a large boulder. Fortunately, it was nearly winter, so the sun was merely warm, rather than the intense heat of summer. Even so, the dark, hooded robe he was wearing was absorbing quite a lot of heat. But Gamiel Tumaric hardly noticed.
There was a disturbance in the Force.
Not a large one. Not like eighteen years ago, when a huge surge of agony from very far away had awakened him in the middle of the night. He knew even without knowing that somehow, Alderaan was gone. Impossible to know such a thing, isolated as he was on this backwater planet, but he knew just the same. It was the first time he had felt even a trickle in the Force since he had arrived here. But he was a Jedi, and time did not erase one's ability to connect with the Force. Distance, perhaps, but not time.
Neither was this current disturbance like the one he had felt three or four years after Alderaan, when the Emperor had died. Again, he had no way of seeking confirmation, but he knew the Emperor was gone.
And he had celebrated alone, sure that their exile would soon be over, that they would come for him and for Allia. He had even gone to see her at the Academy that same day, bursting with joy, finally telling her everything.
That had been a mistake. Not only did she not believe him, she accused him of being insane. She would have nothing to do with him for several years after that.
No one ever came.
Finally, Allia allowed him back into her life, probably at the urging of the man who would later become her husband. And only then with the sternest of warnings: he was not to put his "crazy notions" into the heads of her children. Deciding that it didn't matter so long as they remained isolated out here at the edge of the universe, he agreed and never discussed the matter with Allia or with the children. Her husband, however, was a different story. He was quite intrigued with old Gamiel's tales. Oh, he didn't believe them, mind you, but at least he didn't threaten to keep the children from him.
But now Gamiel realized he could no longer stay safely quite. He would have to broach the subject with her again.
He sighed, pulling his robe tighter around him despite its stifling heat. She had invited him to their holiday dinner--he would have to tell her then. He knew she would be angry, probably throw him out of the house and tell him he could never see the children again. He dreaded that kind of confrontation, but it simply had to be done- -Allia simply had to be prepared.
Because if he was reading the disturbance he felt correctly, someone was coming after all. Fifteen years late, true, but definitely someone was coming.
The only problem was, he wasn't quite sure which side they were on.
Malarin Belsarios appraised the man sitting across from him. Medium height, stocky human male, sixty or so standard years, white hair, and unassuming air, despite the Vice Admiral's uniform he wore starched to perfection.
"Not many people are sporting Imperial military uniforms," Belsarios observed.
"Not many people are as loyal to the Empire as I am," Pellaeon answered.
Belsarios nodded. Enough small talk. He leaned forward: "Why now, Vice Admiral? It's been seven years since the defeat of Admiral Daala. What have you been doing with yourself?"
Pellaeon leaned back in his seat, perhaps to compensate for Belsarios' leaning towards him. The Vice Admiral shrugged. "I have been waiting for someone worthy of command to come on the scene."
"Why not take over yourself?"
Again, Pellaeon shrugged. "I'm a wonderful second- in-command. But I'm no leader."
"Yet the leaders you've served under have been somewhat inadequate," Belsarios stated flatly, leaning away from Pellaeon again.
"They lost, yes," Pellaeon agreed. "But then, so did the Emperor." He shifted his stance slightly, as if he was about to take the offensive. "I could ask the same question of you, Lord Belsarios," he added.
Belsarios smiled. "Why did I wait fifteen years after the Emperor's death to reveal myself?" The Vice Admiral nodded.
"Because I didn't have the tools necessary to do the job well. As we have seen with leaders such as Thrawn, Daala, and even the reborn Emperor himself, moving too early can be fatal. I believe we can even look to the Rebels as an example here: it was nearly fifteen years after the Emperor came to power before the rebellion really kicked into full gear. And they were quite successful."
"Then you now feel you have waited long enough?" Pellaeon asked, a little eagerly. "You now have the 'necessary tools?'"
Belsarios leaned forward again. "You sought me out; you tell me."
Pellaeon nodded, taking a sip from his Sullustan ale. "Yes, I did. I understand you've found the mythical Vader Disk."
This took Belsarios by surprise. "How did you...?"
"I have many contacts among Imperial troops," Pellaeon said softly. "Is it true?"
"What does it matter?" Belsarios countered.
"Because if you do have it, then you're in position to be the next Vader--or perhaps," his eyes twinkled slightly, "the next Emperor."
Belsarios had harbored such thoughts himself, of course, but it was quite gratifying to hear them from someone else's lips. "Perhaps," was all he said, however.
"Then I'd like to be of service," Pellaeon continued.
"I can help you with your attack on Sluis Van," the Vice Admiral replied. "His eventual defeat notwithstanding, Grand Admiral Thrawn made a very successful attack on the Rebel shipyards ten years ago. I believe we can do it again--it's been long enough that security has slackened somewhat."
Belsarios thoughtfully rested his chin on his fingertips. "Yes, that could be very helpful. I'm in need of fighters, mostly. A-wings."
"Because they're best suited for my next mission. I need ships that will do well in atmosphere--TIE's are terrible for that, absolutely no aerodynamics. Eventually I'll need larger ships as well."
Belsarios realized this was not an idle question. Suddenly he remembered that in their holo conversation earlier, Pellaeon had mentioned another proposition.
"Why, do you have something in mind?"
Pellaeon nodded thoughtfully. "Something I've been working on for quite some time. I'm working on putting together a fleet. It could take the better part of a year to get in working order, but the flagship of the fleet will be a Super Star Destroyer."
Belsarios sat bolt upright. "Did you say a Super Star Destroyer?"
Pellaeon nodded, eyes gleaming.
"But I thought the Rebels destroyed them all!"
"Not all," Pellaeon disagreed. "I found one that was in pretty bad shape. Been quietly working on fixing it up. Quite a big job."
Belsarios nodded, amazed. Of course, that would explain what the Vice Admiral had been doing these last seven years. "And you expect you can have it ready in less than a year?" He was fairly drooling now.
"That's perfect," Belsarios clapped his gloved hands together. "I'll be going on an extended voyage after Sluis Van, I may be gone almost that long." Then he had a thought. "But what's in this for you?"
Pellaeon shrugged. "Service to the Empire. And I want to be your second in command. I've been hoping to find another good leader after Grand Admiral Thrawn."
Belsarios noted his omission of Daala. Pretty much summed up his opinion of her as well. He eyed Pellaeon, used the Force to see if he could detect any subterfuge. He found none.
"Very well. I believe we have a deal."
Han Solo was not a happy man.
After a somewhat exhausting trip--with his three children in tow--to Kashyyyk to visit his Wookie partner, Chewbacca, and his family, Han had been looking forward to returning home to Coruscant and to Leia. His arrival, however, had been anything but pleasant. Somehow,someone ,had gotten through security at the presidential residence and stolen something from them. Well, from Leia to be specific. True, all they got was some old family heirloom, but what if they had been after some important governmental files? Or worse, what if the children had been there? Of all the places on the planet, and perhaps even the galaxy, you'd think the home/office of the New Republic's Chief of State would be virtually impregnable.
No, Han thought, I take that back. An even more impregnable place would be the Jedi Academy on Yavin 4. After all, the planet was full of Jedi and Jedi trainees, right? But no. Someone--probably the same someone who had gotten past NR security--had managed to break in to Luke's quarters in the Massassi Temple, apparently taking a trinket that Luke owned that was exactly like Leia's. It would have been downright funny if it weren't so infuriating.
"So tell me again," Han said slowly, barely controlling the irritation in his voice. "How in the galaxy did someone not only get into the New Republic presidential residence, but into the Jedi Academy? And what in the worlds would they want with matching pendants that have no apparent value?"
Leia sighed. "We don't know, Han. That's what we hope this meeting with Captain Kalenda will tell us."
Han threw his hands up in disgust. He hated having to get his information second-hand from the New Republic Intelligence--he preferred the go-in-blasters- blazing approach to all the NRI's sneaking around. On the other hand, Belindi Kalenda had proven herself to be a very skilled agent, winning Han's respect for her efforts during the Corellian coup attempt. In fact, it was that assignment that had won her a promotion from Lieutenant to Captain.
"Fine," he grumbled, settling back into one of the cushy couches that lined Leia's office.
It was only a few moments later when Leia's assistant rang the office comm unit to announce that Captain Kalenda had arrived. The young, dark-skinned, ebony- haired woman was escorted into the room. Leia rose from behind her massive desk as Kalenda saluted smartly. Han suppressed a snicker, remembering that his wife was, after all, the commander-in-chief.
"Captain," Leia began, ignoring her husband, "please be seated. I understand you may have some information for us regarding the unusual break-ins here on Coruscant and on Yavin 4."
"Yes, Ma'am," Kalenda began, eyeing Leia with that disconcerting, not-quite- cross-eyed look of hers. She then looked around the room, taking it in with an expression close to surprise. "Will anyone else be joining us?"
Leia looked confused for a second, then her eyes lit up in understanding. "You mean, where are all the bureaucrats?"
Kalenda only nodded.
Leia waved her hand impatiently. "I'm sick to death of having five hundred beings attending every meeting I have. The thefts were of a personal nature, so I don't see why anyone else besides Master Skywalker, General Solo, and myself need attend." Han once again suppressed a smile. Perhaps his distaste for politics had been rubbing off on his wife.
"Actually," Kalenda said as she took a seat opposite Leia, "I don't think the thefts were personal at all."
"What do you mean?" Luke asked, speaking for the first time since having explained to Han about the break- in on Yavin; Han had almost forgotten he was there.
"Have you ever heard of an Imperial named Malarin Belsarios?"
Han racked his brain, but the name was unfamiliar to him. Luke and Leia shook their heads as well.
"He was some kind of underling for the Emperor years ago. Not long before the destruction of Alderaan, the Emperor had him executed."
"Why should we care about an Imperial who died over eighteen years ago?" Han asked impatiently.
Kalenda eyed him evenly. "Because he somehow escaped. We believe he's the one behind the thefts."
Leia shook her head. "People don't just escape executions by the Emperor."
"Nevertheless, our sources say he's alive and well and trying to rebuild the Empire." She opened her briefcase and pulled out a holovid recording. "May I, Madame Chief of State? It's a holo of Belsarios."
Leia nodded her ascent, and Kalenda rose and crossed the office to the holovid projector recessed in the wall. She popped in the recording and played it.
A holographic image appeared in the middle of the room. First it displayed an Imperial era strike-class ship. "That's his flagship, the Force Storm," Kalenda explained. Then the image changed to that of a somewhat dashing man in his late forties or early fifties. His hair was curly and dark, peppered with gray, as was his neatly trimmed beard. His eyes looked like cold, black steel. He also wore a somewhat garish red cloak that but for the color reminded Han of Vader's grandiose style.
"But what does this have to do with the trinkets he took from us?" Luke asked.
"Ever hear of the Vader disk?" Kalenda asked, returning to her seat.
Luke and Leia both frowned and Han saw them exchange looks that indicated that they had just shared something over that weird twin-Force link they had. Simultaneously they responded in the negative.
"I've heard of it," Han said suddenly, surprising everyone there. "What?" he added a bit defensively, "You think maybe because Vader was your father I couldn't possibly know something you don't about the legends that surrounded him? You forget, I used to be in the Imperial Navy," he addressed both his wife and brother- in-law.
"Go on," Leia replied tersely.
He turned to Kalenda. "I remember hearing some kind of story about a Vader disk in my Academy days. I don't remember much, but supposedly it was some kind of power thing that Vader had lost. A lot of cadets thought if they could find it they'd boost their careers pretty quickly."
Kalenda nodded. "We don't know much more than that. Apparently Belsarios is one of those who believed the legend and spent a great deal of time looking for the Vader disk."
"I still don't understand what this has to do with us," Luke prompted.
In response, Kalenda pulled a data card out of her briefcase. Han wondered idly what else she had in there.
"Take a look at this." She handed the card to Leia who inserted it into her desktop player. Instantly a holographic image appeared to float above the desk. It was a line drawing from some sort of history card labeled "Vader disk." The drawing itself showed a flat circle embedded with three stones spaced evenly around its circumference. He was at a loss as to why this was important, but Leia and Luke both gasped in comprehension.
"Our pendants look like that--or at least part of it," she amended.
"Yes," Kalenda agreed. "Judging from the images of the stolen pendants that you gave Palace Security,"--Han was lost for a moment until he realized Leia must have given them their Inventory card which would have had a recorded image of their possessions, including the stolen pendant--"if you put both of your stolen disks together, they make up about two-thirds of the Vader disk."
"Two-thirds?" Leia asked. "Then where would the other third be?"
"That we don't know," Kalenda shrugged. "We were hoping you might have some ideas."
Leia and Luke again shook their heads, but Han interrupted, "Belindi, this is all very interesting, but I still don't understand. Let's say for the sake of argument that Luke and Leia did have pieces of the fabled 'Vader disk.' So what? Why is it so important to this Belsarios character, and why does the NRI care?"
"To answer your first question, we don't really know that, either," Kalenda admitted. "But as to the second question, the NRI is always interested in the actions of people who not only worked for the Emperor at one point in time, but who has managed to escape execution and has recently been seen meeting with an Imperial Vice Admiral."
Leia suddenly leaned forward. "Who?"
"Vice Admiral Pellaeon."
Han let out a low whistle and exchanged glances with the others in the room. "Pellaeon," he said softly. "I thought he was killed with Daala..."
"He was not," Kalenda replied. "And his activities of late have been very interesting to the NRI." She paused. "He seems to be on a quest for ships."
Leia looked as alarmed as Han felt. "Perhaps I should call Admiral Ackbar..."
"Let Captain Kalenda finish," Luke cut in, "and then we can all meet with Ackbar and the rest of the Senate if need be."
Kalenda turned her disconcerting gaze to Luke, then back to Leia. "You can see why we're concerned. If the rumors about this Vader disk are true, and it is some kind of power source, then we should be very concerned about it ending up in the hands of a man who has been meeting with an Imperial who is currently trying to assemble a fleet."
"But what kind of power are we talking about?" Han asked, but before he even got the statement out of his mouth he saw Luke start.
"Leia, do you remember the Kaiburr Crystal?"
"What's that?" Han asked.
"It was a crystal Luke and I ran across years ago, not long after the first Death Star was destroyed," Leia answered. "It was a Force enhancer."
"The stones in my pendant were red, same as the Kaiburr crystal," Luke said.
Leia answered his unspoken question, "Mine, too."
"Could the disk be some kind of Force-enhancer?"
Kalenda shrugged. "We don't really know, but supposedly this Belsarios is some kind of Force adept. Our files say he wanted to be the next Vader."
"Just what the galaxy needs," Han mumbled, getting a vicious glare from his wife for his trouble.
"Even if this Vader disk is just some trumped-up legend, we can't let a Force-adept with dark-side tendencies to team up with an Imperial officer and build up arms," Luke said alarmed.
"That's why the NRI is concerned," Kalenda replied. She paused, then directed her next statement to both Luke and Leia. "We were hoping you might know more about this Belsarios or the Vader disk."
"I'm sorry, I didn't even know what you've told us, let alone have anything to add," Leia said apologetically. "I really do think we need to take this before the military command..."
"First let me do some digging," Luke interjected.
"Why, do you know something about this Belsarios?"
"No, but I know someone who just might." He stood up and stretched his arms. "I think I'll go pay a visit to a certain ex-Imperial friend."
Luke pressed the ringer beside the door to the Guest Suite and waited. He heard a movement inside, sensed someone reaching out to him with the Force, then the door opened to reveal Mara Jade. She was wearing robes similar to those she had worn the day before for the Senate meeting, but this one was a light cream color with burgundy trim; she undoubtedly had meetings scheduled with various senators in order to push her project.
"Skywalker, what brings you here?" she asked, giving him a rare smile.
"Do I need a reason to see you, Mara?" Luke returned, also smiling.
Mara scowled. "No, but you always have one. Come in." She motioned him into the room.
Luke laughed. "You're getting good at sensing people's intentions with the Force."
Mara narrowed her bright green eyes. "Who needs the Force with you, Skywalker?" she shot back. "You're as transparent as a deflector shield."
Luke laughed again. "I know, I know. It's that straight-out farmboy upbringing."
At this, Mara smiled again and motioned for him to sit on one of the plush couches that lined the Guest Suite's living room area. "Can I offer you a drink?"
"No thanks," Luke waved his hand as he sat down. "You know," he said eyeing her with a crooked grin, "I like the outfit, but I'm not sure it's you."
She returned his half-smile. "Why, not flashy enough."
"No, not--" Luke considered this a moment.--"not dangerous enough."
Her eyes crinkled in amusement. "Ah, but the loose sleeves are great for concealing blasters." With that she lifted her arm and let the sleeve fall away, revealing her favorite arm holster.
He should have known. "That's more like the Mara Jade I know. I have to admit, I'm still surprised by your business proposition," Luke continued, "but I really hope the Senate goes for it. I'd like to see you on Coruscant more often." Even as he said it, he was surprised at how earnestly he felt that. He was even more surprised to see her blush.
"Why are you here, Skywalker?" she asked quickly as she sat down on a couch opposite Luke. "If it's to discuss my future with the New Republic--"
"Actually," Luke cut her off, sensing her unease, but not understanding it, "I'm here because of your past. In your time with working with the Empire, do you ever remember hearing about something called the 'Vader disk?'"
Mara's eyes narrowed as she sat back in the couch, seemingly more at ease now that they were in familiar territory. "I've heard of it, yes. It was kind of a legend, actually. Back before he turned to the dark side, Vader-- your father, I mean-- he supposedly found some sort of energy disk that could be used to increase weapon power. Some say it was what lead to the idea of super weapons, like the Death Star. Some also believed it may have even had Force-enhancing powers. According to the story, though, Vader lost it in that battle he had with Obi-Wan Kenobi. That's the legend, anyway."
Luke raised his eyebrows. "The NRI knew about the Force-enhancing legend, but this super weapon stuff is new."
"It's just a story, Skywalker."
"Then you don't believe it's true?"
Mara shrugged. "I don't know. I knew some people who thought if they could find that disk they could get in good with the Emperor, but nobody ever had any luck."
"Do you know what it looked like?"
Mara thought a minute. "I think I remember seeing pictures of it. It was a small, round disk, about the size of a human fist. It was made out of some kind of metal, and had stones in it. Why the sudden interest in an old Imperial myth?"
Luke leaned forward toward her. "It may not be a myth. There have been two strange break-ins lately. One in my personal locker on Yavin 4, another in Han and Leia's home here on Coruscant. The only things missing were these." He tossed a data card over to Mara. It was his inventory card, a record of all his personal effects similar to the one the NRI had received from Leia. Mara inserted it into a player located in the end table next to the couch she where she was seated and keyed in the file number Luke gave her. Immediately displayed, she saw a small, wedge-shaped piece of metal attached to a chain.
"It was something I've had since I joined the Alliance. I found it in a trunk of things in Ben's place on Tatooine. It was with some other stuff that was supposedly my father's, so I kept it, but in everything that's happened since, I pretty much forgot about it; I just had it in a locker with a bunch of other odds and ends I've picked up through the years. Then Leia's place was broken into. Turns out she had one just like it."
"So you think these missing souvenirs are pieces of the Vader Disk?" Mara asked incredulously.
"I know it sounds strange, but if you put our two pieces together, it forms about two-thirds of a complete circle which looks a lot like the fabled Vader disk."
Mara shook her head. "That's pretty far-fetched, don't you think? And why two-thirds? Where's the other third?"
"That's why I'm here," Luke said. "I was hoping you'd have some ideas."
Mara shook her head again. "No, I was never really all that interested in the legend myself. Besides, what made you think of the Vader disk in the first place?"
"Rumors we've heard, of some ex-Imperial who's looking for it," Luke replied.
"I'm afraid I'm not much help this time," Mara said, handing the disk back to him as she rose from her couch. Luke rose also. "I just didn't deal with legends when I was in the Emperor's service. I was too busy exposing real threats to his reign."
Luke nodded. "Well, it was worth a try. Let me know if you think of any information that could help us find the third piece." He rose, heading for the door, then stopped and turned back, adding "One more thing. Ever hear of an Imperial named Malarin Belsarios?"
He had hoped the name would be familiar to her, but he was completely unprepared for her reaction. She froze, her eyes narrowing to hard, green slits, and a wave of anger and hate rippled out from her through the Force, so strong he almost recoiled. He hadn't felt anything like it since he had first met her, when she wanted to kill him.
"The only thing you need to know about Malarin Belsarios," she hissed with so much venom she was almost spitting, "is that he's dead."
Luke considered this a moment, a thousand questions reeling through his mind. What had this Belsarios done to her? He swallowed and tried again. "Are you sure? Our sources say he's the one who's after the disk pieces."
Mara glared at him. "I witnessed his death myself," she said with a level and icy voice. "He was executed by the Emperor himself."
Luke frowned, unsure what to do next. He didn't want to contradict her when she was this angry, but on the other hand, he needed accurate information about who they were up against. "The NRI said that Imperial records show he was executed, but that he somehow escaped."
"No one escapes an execution by the Emperor," she spat.
"I did," Luke pointed out, then added cautiously, "Maybe someone is using his name. Can I show you a hologram we have? Maybe you can identify who it really is."
Luke looked at her, concerned. He could feel her rage and something else-- was it pain?--almost as well as if it were his own. He considered trying to find some words that would comfort her, realized he knew none--he didn't even know what was wrong--then gave up and turned to the communication panel in the living room wall. He opened it in and inserted the recording Captain Kalenda had given him. He turned to watch Mara's reaction as she watched the image, her arms folded across her chest, as if to dare the recording to really be Malarin Belsarios.
His concern turned to worry when he saw the change that came over her when the image appeared. Her face turned from crimson anger to ashen white and her green eyes opened wide. She watched the hologram of the man that had been identified as Belsarios until it disappeared, then in one fluid movement, reached past Luke and replayed the image. He could feel her emotions in the Force; a mixture of shock, anger, confusion and hatred so powerful it was causing her to tremble.
"Mara, are you okay?" he asked, his worry for her growing as her face became even more pale.
"It's not possible," she whispered, her voice ragged. "He's dead. I saw him die. I saw the Emperor kill him."
"Mara?" Luke took hold of her shoulders and looked into her wide eyes. She looked up at him blankly.
"He can't be alive, he can't be." Then she wrenched herself from Luke's grasp and turned away. Luke could feel her shock give way once more to rage, which did nothing to abate his concern.
"Mara?" he repeated, then she whirled back to face him again.
"Yes," she said, the color returning to her face. "That is Malarin Belsarios."
"What did he do to you?" Luke asked softly, no longer caring about the Vader disk.
She looked directly at him, sending a chill down his spine. "Something worse than killing the Emperor," she said, her voice low. She was, of course, referring to the reason she had wanted to kill Luke when they had first met.
Luke swallowed. "What?" But Mara said no more.
Mara Jade wandered around the Imperial Palace in a daze. She hardly even remembered how she got Skywalker to leave her alone, he had been so worried about her. Nor did she remember leaving the suite herself. She wasn't even exactly sure where she was, though she could find her way around the Palace blindfolded. She had grown up here. And she had watched Malarin Belsarios die here.
Or so she had thought.
Malarin was alive. The thought kept reeling through her brain, giving her a headache. It wasn't possible. But she had seen the recording.
She had recognized him instantly. He looked much older; his curly dark hair and neatly trimmed beard were now streaked with gray, but it had been Malarin just the same. But how was it possible? The Emperor himself had had Malarin executed. And people the Emperor executed simply did not come back. How had he done it?
Mara shook her head. It didn't matter, she told herself firmly. What mattered was that he had done it. The Emperor had failed in seeking justice for her, which meant one thing. She'd have to do it herself.
Mykos. She hadn't thought of Mykos in years, but now memories of him flooded her. His angular face, his warm smile, his long red hair he always wore pulled back in a neat ponytail. It was only then that Mara realized where she was standing; where she had headed when she left her suite.
She was in front of the Emperor's Memorial room, the place where he had engraved placards listing the names of all those who had died in special service to the Glorious Empire. For some reason, the New Republic had left it alone when they took over Coruscant. They had even restored it when it was partially destroyed in the battle between the New Republic and the reincarnated Emperor. She didn't know why they did it--they names listed here were those of their enemies--most of them killed by the rebellion in one fashion or another. But then, that was typical of the New Republic leaders, full of respect, even for their enemies. The ironic thing was, they had more genuine respect for this memorial than the Emperor had; to him it had really been just for show, to give guests at the Palace the impression that he actually cared about those who served him.
Nevertheless, the room was very important to Mara.
Taking a deep breath, she went inside, heading directly to the far wall. There, third plaque on the right, near the floor, was Mykos' plaque. She squatted down and looked at the marble slab engraved with his name. Taking her finger, she carefully traced the letters of his name while she thought of the good memories: She and Mykos training together under the Emperor's supervision. Mykos telling one of his endless jokes. Mykos encouraging her when she didn't think she could make it through one more of the Emperor's harsh training drills. She and Mykos--and Malarin.
It had happened here, on this planet, right in the Imperial City, more than eighteen years ago and she had witnessed the whole thing. Mara tried to block that final memory, but it came to her unbidden, filling her mind with painful, disjointed images. Images of the two people she had cared most about in the galaxy, Malarin and Mykos, standing face to face. Malarin trying to draw Mykos into an argument, but Mykos not buying into it. Mykos turning his back to end the confrontation. And the last in slow-motion: Malarin pulling out his lightsaber and striking down an unarmed Mykos from behind. She remembered screaming, remembered going after Malarin with her own lightsaber, when the Emperor materialized from nowhere and stopped her. "Justice is mine. I will take your revenge, my Mara."
So Malarin Belsarios had been executed two days later, and Mara was forever in the Emperor's debt. Her loyalty to him was forever sealed--until his death four years later at the hands of Darth Vader.
But now, impossibly, Malarin was alive. He had somehow escaped the Emperor's execution--even though she had witnessed it herself. Mara shook her head again, knocking wisps of fiery red hair loose from the tight braid wrapped around her head. No. It didn't matter how he had escaped. All that mattered was that he didn't escape again.
Luke sat alone in the Imperial archives.
[SEARCH FOR?] the computer inquired. Luke typed [BELSARIOS, MALARIN.]
[BELSARIOS, MALARIN:] the computer responded after a brief search.
2/21/17 IMPERIAL ERA
EXECUTED BY ORDER OF HIS HIGHNESS, THE
END OF RECORD.]
Luke frowned. End of record? With only his birthdate and supposed death date listed? What about the work he did for the Emperor? And his connection to Mara?
That gave Luke another idea. He typed in [NEW SEARCH:] [JADE, MARA.]
The computer hummed for a few seconds, then came up:
[JADE, MARA. NO INFORMATION FOUND.]
He should have expected that: Mara had said that her work as the Emperor's Hand was unknown to anyone but herself and the Emperor, and that no records were kept. Nevertheless, he tried again.
[NEW SEARCH: EMPEROR'S HAND.]
Again, the computer hummed briefly, then responded:
[EMPEROR'S HAND. NO INFORMATION FOUND.]
Oh well, it was worth a try. Luke thought for a minute more, then tried a new approach.
[NEW SEARCH: EXECUTION ORDERS, YEAR 17 IMPERIAL ERA.]
This time the response was almost immediate:
[1237 RECORDS FOUND. NAME?]
Luke grimaced. Leave it to the Emperor to have 1,237 beings executed in a single year. He shook his head and typed: [BELSARIOS, MALARIN.]
After a brief search, the response came: [FOR BETRAYAL TO THE EMPIRE, I EMPEROR PALPATINE, ON THIS, THE TWENTY-FIRST DAY OF THE SECOND MONTH, IN THE SEVENTEENTH YEAR OF MY REIGN, ORDER THE EXECUTION OF ONE MALARIN BELSARIOS, FOR CRIMES COMMITTED AGAINST MY SERVANTS AND THEREFORE MYSELF. EXECUTION TO BE CARRIED OUT IMMEDIATELY. CRIME: MURDER OF MYKOS JADE. END OF RECORD.]
Luke stared at the last part of the order. Mykos Jade? Was he some relative of Mara's? How was that possible? She had said herself that the Emperor had taken her away from her family when she was too young to really remember. Incredulously, Luke typed: [NEW SEARCH: JADE, MYKOS.]
[JADE, MYKOS. NO INFORMATION FOUND.]
Luke snorted. Just like the Emperor: execute someone for the murder of a person his own data banks said didn't exist. He leaned back in his seat, thinking. Who was this Mykos Jade? Could he have been Mara's relative: father, uncle, brother, cousin, or was the name simply a coincidence? Luke shook his head. No, it couldn't be a coincidence. Mara had been too upset at the mention of Belsarios' name for it to be mere coincidence that he was supposedly executed for the death of someone named Jade. So he must be somehow related to her. But how, if she hadn't known her own family?
Then a new thought occurred to Luke. It was far- fetched, but certainly possible. Since she was about Luke's own age, she would have been around seventeen or eighteen when Belsarios was executed. Young, yes, but certainly not so young that it was impossible. What if Jade hadn't been her family name? What if this Mykos Jade had been, not a blood relative, but her husband? It seemed unlikely, but he had to admit it was not impossible. And it would explain why his death would be so horrible for her; even more horrible than the death of the Emperor had been.
Suddenly he realized that, though he had considered her a close friend for the past ten years, there was really very little Luke knew about Mara Jade. And just as suddenly, he wanted to know more.
The morning after their meeting with Belindi Kalenda, Leia sat behind her desk, massaging her temples to ward off the headache that was threatening to squeeze into her brain. On the other side of the desk, seated in a rough semi-circle, were Senator Fleghan, her second-in- command, and the top brass of the New Republican military.
"This is very disconcerting," Admiral Ackbar was saying, voicing what they all felt. "We've had our share of military difficulties over the last few years, what with the Yevethans and the Corellian Conflict, but I was hoping that the days of the Imperials were behind us."
"I somehow doubt that will ever happen, Admiral," Leia observed as she stopped rubbing her head and folded her hands before her. "Palpatine wasn't the only megalomaniac in the galaxy. As long as there are would- be emperors, there'll be Imperials."
"That is self-evident," a tall Dornean, General A'baht, put in impatiently, "but it does nothing to address our problem. What do we do about it?"
"What can we do? We must bolster our defense. Perhaps the trade contract proposed by Captains Karrde and Jade is a good idea; we could certainly use the ships that are currently serving escort duty," Ackbar responded. Leia was surprised that support for Karrde and Mara would come from a Calamarian, noted for their distrust of smugglers. But then, Han and Lando were ex- smugglers, and Ackbar learned to trust them.
"Defense isn't good enough," a Manoan humanoid, General Hedonat, disagreed, wagging her finger in Ackbar's direction. "We must strike first, destroy this fleet before it is even formed." Manoans were aggressive warriors, especially the females.
"Then we're no better than the Emperor," A'baht protested.
"I agree," Leia put in. "It's important--" she was cut off abruptly by the loud buzzing of her emergency comm unit. Startled, Leia switched it to speaker setting. "Organa Solo here."
"Madame Chief of State, we've just received word from Colonel Devado, commander at Sluis Van. The shipyard is under attack!"
The Senate chambers were crowded as senators and members of the press gathered to hear the report on the Sluis Van attack. Han stood in the back of the hall, Luke beside him, watching with some admiration as his wife and her military Chiefs of Staff--minus General A'baht, who had been immediately dispatched to Sluis Van with reinforcements--tried to sort through the information coming in from the battle zone.
"As far as we know," Leia was saying, "the attack was very brief. They destroyed three corvettes and two assault frigates that were docked for repairs. Several other ships were damaged and a squadron of newly constructed A-wings was captured." She glanced down at the notes in front of her. "At this time, casualties are unknown."
"Madame Chief of State, do we know who is responsible for this attack."
Han saw Leia flash him a look, then she replied, "We believe the attack was led by Imperial Vice Admiral Pellaeon."
This created quite a stir among the reporters. "Are you saying that the Imperials are once again posing a threat?"
"Anyone with imperialistic tendencies is a threat to our Republic," Leia answered quickly. "We do not know for certain that this signals an Imperial revival. Pellaeon could easily be acting on his own."
In a Gammorean's eye, Han thought.
"I'll bet that Belsarios was involved," Luke whispered.
"By the way, what did you find out from Mara?"
But Luke just shook his head, a strange, unhappy look on his face. Han let it drop and brought his attention back to the podium.
"Why A-wings?" another reporter was asking. "Don't the Imperials still have access to dozens of TIE manufacturing facilities? What would they want with A- wings?"
Ackbar fielded this one. "We are not sure at this time," he said in his gravely voice. "General A'baht and the NRI are looking into the matter even as we speak."
"What do you think?" Han leaned in to Luke. "Why the sudden interest in A- wings? Didn't Kalenda say that Pellaeon was building up a fleet for himself? You'd think he'd have some Imperial fighters stashed somewhere."
Luke shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe if we look into the reasons someone would choose an A-wing over a TIE, we have a shot at figuring out what he and Belsarios are up to."
The press conference went on for another fifteen minutes or so before Leia finally took the last question, then left the podium. Han and Luke ducked out of the Senate chambers to try and meet up with her. Before they even got through the doorway, Luke suddenly stopped short, a far-away expression on his face that Han had learn to recognize as the Force at work.
"What is it?"
"It's Leia, someone's trying to get past her security entourage!" Luke cried in alarm.
That was all Han needed; he took off running down the hallway towards where Leia would be waiting for them, Luke close on his heels.
When they turned the corner, they discovered that something was indeed amiss. Palace guards were swarming everywhere, and Leia was nowhere in sight.
"Where is she?" Han asked Luke.
Luke paused, then replied, "She's okay, they shoved her into cover."
"What the hell is going on?" But before Luke could even answer, Han could see for himself. Three security guards were hauling someone to his feet, someone who was ranting incoherently that he had to see "the Princess." Princess? She hadn't been called that in years.
Han and Luke pushed their way through the throng of guards to get a better look at Leia's attacker. He hardly looked like a threat--he was a small human, about sixty standard years or so. He was a bit wild-eyed and rumpled, with a few days growth on his chin. He looked as though he hadn't slept in days.
"What's going on here?" Han demanded of the guards nearest the prisoner. "Is Leia okay?"
The guard nodded. "This man appeared out of nowhere, General Solo. He tried to get at President Organa Solo, but we stopped him in time."
"Where's she now?" Han continued.
"I'm over here," he heard her irritated reply as she pushed her way through the guards towards him. They tried to keep her away from her attacker, but Leia had a mind of her own and had never been one to let others protect her.
Suddenly the old man caught sight of her. "Princess, I need to see you, it's urgent!"
"Listen, Pal, the only person you'll be seeing is a lawyer," Han growled.
"Take it easy, Han, he doesn't mean her harm," Luke said suddenly from behind him.
"Doesn't mean any harm?" Han asked incredulously.
"No, he's terrified and--" he paused. "And deeply shamed."
Leia finally reached them, despite her entourage. "Who are you?" she asked, ignoring Han and Luke and questioning the prisoner directly. "What do you need to see me about?"
"Your Highness," the man began, actually attempting a bow even as he was being held by three Palace guards. "I was a servant of your father's on Alderaan."
Great, Han thought. The quickest way to get Leia's ear was to say you were from Alderaan. Sure enough, Leia regally motioned for the man to rise. Some habits die hard, Han thought ruefully.
"Who are you?" Leia repeated, her voice softer now.
"Madame Chief of State--" a guard attempted to cut in, but Leia waved him off. "I would like to speak with this man. Who are you?" she asked him a third time.
"I am Captain Thymus Corander of Alderaan. I was a servant of your father."
"So you've said," Leia replied. "Why do you need to speak with me?"
"Your father entrusted me with something that I was to give to you when the time was right." Han noticed the man looked positively anguished. "I'm afraid I failed, Your Highness. I am only now bringing this to you, after an Imperial dark Lord has already seen its contents."
Han heard Luke take in a quick breath at the mention of the Imperial "dark Lord."
"Who?" Luke asked softly.
"Lord Belsarios," the captain replied.
Han, Luke and Leia all exchanged glances. "What do you mean?"
"I have a message cube, recorded by your father and some of his compatriots. I do not know the contents myself, but Viceroy Organa had made it clear to me that it must not fall into the Emperor's or Vader's hands."
"Then why didn't you bring it to us when they died?" Han snapped, earning a disapproving scowl from Leia.
The man hung his head. "There is no excuse for my failure."
"No," Leia replied gently, giving Han another vicious glare, "it's okay, you're bringing it to me now."
"Yes, but Lord Belsarios must have learned of its contents by now."
"How did he get it?" Luke asked.
Again, Corander hung his head shamefully. "It was stolen from me when he boarded my freighter."
"And how did you get it back?" Leia asked, her voice still gentle, soothing.
"I posed as his valet and stole it back."
"This is ridiculous!" Han erupted. "This guy attacks you and now you're trying to make him feel better?" he shot at Leia.
"He did not attack me; security is just overzealous," Leia insisted.
"She's right, the captain has no malicious intent." Luke put in helpfully.
"Captain Corander, may I have this message cube?" Leia asked, holding out her hand.
"Of course, Your Highness. It's in my bag--the guards have taken it away from me."
"Madame Chief of State, we have to check the devise before we give it to you. It could be anything, a bomb..." insisted one of the guards.
"Fine. How long before I can have it?"
"About an hour--if it's safe."
Leia turned to Corander. "Is that acceptable? I will have the cube in an hour."
"Yes, Your Highness. I only wish I'd have given it to you when the Emperor died."
Leia nodded, still holding her head in that regal way that annoyed the hell out of Han.
"They'll still have to take him in for questioning," he warned her.
Before the guards could even move a centimeter, however, Corander made a sudden twisting move, breaking free from the guards who held him. In one swift motion, he grabbed a blaster out of the holster of one of them. Twenty or so guards dove on top of Leia even as Han and the remaining guards lunged at Corander. But Luke beat them to it. Just as the man turned the blaster on himself and was about to pull the trigger, Luke used the Force to yank the blaster from his grasp.
"No!" Corander cried, distraught. "I've failed the Viceroy! Death is the only honorable thing left."
"No," Luke said firmly. "That would not be honorable at all."
Han gaped at the captain, furious. What if Luke hadn't pulled the blaster away in time, and what if he had been aiming towards Leia instead of himself? For the second time this week, security had done a poor job of protecting either Leia's person or her property. Something would have to be done about this. "Take him away, but stay on suicide watch," Han instructed the guards imperiously. They responded by dragging Corander down the hall, away from Leia, who had by this time pushed off the guards who had covered her.
"Are you okay?" Han asked, both concerned and annoyed.
"I'm fine," she replied tersely, eyeing her security detail. "Let's just go to my office. As soon as the message cube is checked out, I want it delivered directly to me," she instructed.
Then she turned to Han and Luke, and Han noticed for the first time the emotion in her eyes. "Let's go wait in my office to see what my father has to say."
While they were waiting for the mysterious message cube to be delivered, Leia received another message from Captain Kalenda. She frowned as she read it.
"What is it?" Han asked.
"It's Belsarios. The NRI found him way out in the rim territories, near the Minos cluster, making preparations for some kind of extended journey."
"Journey to where?"
Leia shrugged. "They don't know. But they did intercept a partial message from him to Pellaeon--it says he'll be leaving in a couple of days, as soon as the A- wings arrive." She looked up from the data pad. "So then Belsarios did have something to do with the attack on Sluis Van."
"We'd better get Ackbar on out to the Minos cluster and see if we can't get those A-wings back," Han said.
Leia nodded. "Ackbar has already seen a copy of this. But I don't think it'll matter. If he's going to be making a jump right after the A-wings arrive, we won't get there in time." Looking at the data pad once more, she told them "It says they don't know where he's going, but he's packing enough provisions to be gone for--" she stopped and frowned again. "This can't be right."
"What?" Luke asked, leaning forward to get a view of Leia's data pad.
"It says he's packing enough to be gone for six to nine standard months."
Han whistled. "Where in the galaxy could he be going that he needs nine months of provisions? Even the rim worlds aren't that remote, and he's already there anyway."
"Yes, but our ships are out for months or years at a time," Luke pointed out. "Maybe he just wants to stay mobile."
"But when our ships go out for an extended duty, they don't take a year's worth of provisions with them, they restock," Leia told him. She had a very strange feeling about this--a sense of dread that seemed blown out of proportion for the information she'd just received.
"Maybe that message cube Captain Corander brought will explain," Luke said, and Leia noticed that he, too, seemed uneasy.
Han snorted. "What is with that guy? I can't believe the melodramatics: 'Death is the only honorable thing left...'"
Leia glared at her husband--he could be so insensitive sometimes. "I'll remind you that he is Alderaanean. Our honor is very important to us. He thought he failed my father."
"Yeah, but when you've failed at something, you dust yourself off and start over. That's honorable," Han argued.
He had a point. "But I'm not from the old school. Many of the elders who served my father believed that death was preferable to failure." Suddenly Leia felt a pang of longing for her destroyed homeworld. She looked up at Han and Luke. "I'd like Winter to be here when we open the message cube. She's the only person close to me who knew my father."
Han's face softened. "I think that's a good idea."
Winter was a tall, majestic, white-haired woman who had been Leia's playmate when they were children on Alderaan. Later, during the war, Winter had been an agent for the Alliance. She had perfect memory, which she used to memorize schematics of Imperial supply houses. After the war, she served as Leia's aide, a nanny to her three children, and a close friend. It was fitting that Winter should be here when the cube was opened.
Leia's friend arrived at about the same time as the message cube was finally delivered.
After the guard left, Leia turned the old message cube over in her hands, examining it carefully. It was of an Alderaanean design, of that she was sure. It was enough to flood her mind with memories.
"Are you ready?" Luke asked gently, pulling her out of her reverie.
"I guess I'm as ready as I'll ever be." she put the cube down on the table in front of her and sat down between Han and Luke. Winter remained standing behind them. Leia went to activate the cube, then realized there was no mechanism to open it. "I don't know how to start it," she said, puzzled.
Luke picked up the cube and examined it. "Wait a second, this looks a little like the old Jedi Holocron you stole from the Emperor," he said to Leia. "Maybe you activate it with the Force. In confirmation of this, the cube came to life as soon as Luke set it down again.
Tears immediately filled Leia's eyes as the image of her adopted father, Bail Organa, was projected out from the cube. He was standing next to two other men, one of whom appeared to be a young Obi-Wan Kenobi. The other she did not recognize. Bail Organa looked much younger than Leia remembered him, probably in his late twenties or so, which would date this recording to about the time she and Luke were born.
"I am Senator Bail Organa of Alderaan," the message began. "I am here with my dear friends, Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi of Tatooine, and Gamiel Tumaric of Alderaan. This is the only record that will be made of the events which are transpiring here today."
Leia looked at Luke. "Do you know who Gamiel Tumaric is?" Luke shook his head, then turned back to the hologram. Bail Organa was now the only one pictured.
"The Galaxy is in great turmoil: the Republic has fallen, and Senator Palpatine has declared himself Emperor and established his New Order. The Order of Jedi Knights is, even as I speak, being mercilessly destroyed by Palpatine's forces."
Leia glanced at Luke, who looked back at her, eyes solemn.
"One of the greatest of these Jedi Knights was my dear friend, Anakin Skywalker."
At this, Leia felt a stab of pain ripple out from Luke through the Force.
"It pains me to say that this dear friend must now be considered one of our most feared enemies: Palpatine has turned him to the dark side. He is now a Lord of the Sith, renamed Lord Darth Vader by Palpatine. He leaves behind many dear friends and a wife who loved him. What he does not know is that his wife was pregnant. Pregnant with more than one child. These children were born just last night."
Leia swallowed. "This is a record of our birth!" she exclaimed, grasping Luke's hand. From her left, Han put a comforting arm around her shoulders.
Suddenly, the three-dimensional image of Bail Organa stepped aside, and into the picture stepped Obi- Wan Kenobi.
"Ben," Luke smiled, looking as if he wanted to reach out and touch his former mentor. But it wasn't nostalgia that caught Leia's attention.
"Luke, look!" she cried, using the Force to pause the message. The image of Obi-Wan froze.
"Around his neck, he's wearing the pendant!"
Luke and Han both leaned closer to examine the holographic image.
"She's right," Han agreed. "Only he's got the whole thing--a whole circle."
"With three red stones," Winter added.
"Start it up again, maybe Ben or your father explains where the third piece is." Han motioned to the cube and Leia started the message again.
"Our dear friend is very powerful in the Force," the image of Kenobi continued, "as will be any children he fathers. Children who could be turned , like their father, to the dark side and become powerful enemies of the light." He paused dramatically. "Or, children that could be hidden from him and the so-called Emperor. Raised in the light side, not knowing of their parentage, these children could become a means of rebuilding the Jedi Knighthood and destroying the Emperor. Palpatine and Vader both know this, that is why the children must be hidden from them. " Obi-Wan took a deep breath.
"Late last night, the children were born. The first was a boy, who we have named Luke Skywalker, just as his father, the true Anakin Skywalker had always wanted."
Leia felt Luke elbow her. "I knew I was the oldest," he joked, but she saw his eyes swell at the mention of how he was named.
"We have no doubt that Palpatine and Vader will one day discover that Vader had a child. His son will likely be the focus of his attention. I will take him to Tatooine to be reared by my brother, Owen Lars. If Vader should discover that he has a child, young Luke will, unfortunately, not be difficult for him to find. This will, hopefully, divert him from knowing that Luke was not his only child."
"Great," Luke muttered, "I was the decoy." Leia squeezed his hand.
"However, we do hope to delay this discovery for a long, long time. I myself will retire to Tatooine to keep on eye on they boy, despite my brother's desire that I stay away and leave him and his wife to raise the child as they see fit. Hopefully, he will stay out of Palpatine's and Vader's way long enough for him to grow up and begin training as a Jedi Knight. Should this fail, however...."
As Obi-Wan let this thought trail, Han turned to Leia and Luke. "I know this is important to you two to see this, but is this really telling us anything we don't already know?"
"We won't know until we see it all," Luke answered. Leia then hushed them all as Obi-Wan left the picture and Bail Organa returned.
"Shortly after Luke, a second child was born. We, all of us," Bail motioned to the two men behind him, out of view, "have decided that she and her mother will stay here, on Alderaan. I will raise her as my own daughter, and have named her Leia Organa. She will be Alderaanean Royalty, and will be raised to hold dear the beliefs of the Republic. Only the three of us present here," again he motioned behind him, "her mother, two of my top aides on Alderaan, and Jedi Master Yoda, Obi- Wan's Master, know of her existence. Hopefully, some day she, too, will receive training in the ways of the Force."
Leia looked at Luke a little guiltily. He touched her mind with the Force: "You've done just fine, Leia."
Bail continued: "Siblings who are strong in the Force are always strongest when they work together. Their bond to each other is always strong. This is even more true of siblings who share the womb: however strong they may be individually, their greatest strength lies in their ties to each other."
Leia thought of how she and Luke were able to defeat the reborn Emperor together, and she thought of her own twin children and the bond they shared. She only wished she had been able to grow up with Luke, sharing that bond all through life as Jacen and Jaina have.
Bail Organa once again stepped out of the picture, and was replaced by the third man, Jedi Knight Gamiel Tumaric, the man none of them had heard of before.
"This is why it is important to keep the children separated. If Palpatine is able to turn one, he will still not have the full strength of Anakin Skywalker's children on his side. It has occurred to us, however, that despite our efforts, both Luke and Leia may be discovered. This will, indeed, be tragic, if the so-called Emperor is able to discover and turn two of Anakin's children: he will have twice the strength with him and the dark side. That is why we will go to even greater pains--and greater risks-- to hide Anakin's third child."
Leia sat bolt upright, accidentally knocking the message cube off the table. She stared at Luke, though she could already feel his shock rippling through the Force.
"Third child!" It was Han who managed to find his voice first, breaking the stunned silence that surrounded the group gathered around the message cube. "What in the name of the galaxy is he talking about?" Leia's eyes were still locked with her brother's, but she felt Han twist around behind her to Winter.
"Winter, do you remember ever hearing anything..." Leia turned to Winter just as Han trailed off, in time to see her friend shake her head, eyes wide.
"No, but I was only a baby myself when they were born. I never knew about Leia's parentage until she herself..." she, too, trailed off. They were all too surprised to know what to say.
"I think," Luke said, with a calm in his voice Leia sensed he did not feel, "that we need to finish watching the message to get any answers."
Leia nodded numbly, then bent to retrieve the fallen cube. She placed it back on the table and clicked it on again.
"...hide Anakin's third child," the recording of Gamiel Tumaric continued, automatically taking up where it head left off. "The third child, a daughter, was born right after Leia. She has been named Allia, in honor of the Alliance we desperately hope to form to restore the Republic and topple Palpatine. "
"Allia," Leia repeated softly. Luke took her hand again. They had a sister named Allia.
"Only her mother, Senator Organa, Jedi Kenobi, and myself know of her existence," the hologram continued.
"With three children--triplets--the need to keep all three from Palpatine's knowledge is crucial. Triplets strong in the Force could easily mean the end of justice in the galaxy forever, if they should be turned. That is why we, all of us, have decided that the only course of action is to remove this third child from the galaxy altogether.
Many years ago, under the auspices of the Republic, six Jedi Masters undertook a perilous journey to discover what lies beyond our own galaxy. This project was known as the Outbound Flight Project."
Leia had heard of the Outbound Flight Project before. About ten years ago, when the New Republic was only five years old and battling Imperial Grand Admiral Thrawn and the cloned Jedi Master Joruus C'baoth, Luke had done some research on the Outbound Flight Project. Jorus C'baoth, the Jedi Master that Joruus C'baoth had been cloned from had been one of the six Jedi Masters that had been part of the project. All of them died before they ever left the galaxy, she recalled.
"...believed all of them died before they ever left the galaxy," the image of Jedi Gamiel Tumaric was saying as Leia brought her attention back to the message cube, "but it has been recently discovered that one of the team, Jedi Master Itoka Slopl, did in fact make it out of the galaxy. She even completed the project's mission: she found a planet in a distant galaxy that did, in fact, have intelligent life. What is even more surprising, is this planet has intelligent human life. Unfortunately, the people of this planet were not as technologically developed as we are. They had no space- faring capabilities, let alone hyperdrive capabilities necessary for exploration beyond their own system. Thus, they had never come into contact with alien life, and as Master Slopl was Bith, not human, when she was discovered, the people were very afraid of her and she was killed. Not before, however, she was able to send a detailed message back here, to our own galaxy, explaining exactly how to travel to this planet.
I myself received this message from the late Master Slopl just seven months ago, and after detailed analysis, have concluded that travel to this planet, though dangerous, is indeed possible.
As no one but myself, Senator Organa, and Jedi Kenobi knows of the existence of this passage into another galaxy, we have all agreed that this may be the only place that is safe for this third child of Anakin Skywalker. I will take her there myself, where I hope to be able to blend into one of the planet's cultures and raise her as my own daughter.
In addition, Master Slopl's message contained detailed recordings of several of the many languages used on this planet. I have transferred this information to a suitable translator droid, and expect to begin learning one of the planet's languages as soon as the trip begins. The travel time is expected to take five months, even in hyperspace at top speed, and is fraught with danger, but not nearly as much danger as they entire galaxy will face if Palpatine and Vader get a hold of all three of these children. It is with heavy heart that I prepare to leave all my dear friends and our fight for justice behind, in the hopes that someday this child will have the chance to be reunited with her brother and sister, when the galaxy is at peace and Palpatine has been destroyed. Until then, we prepare for our new life on a planet known as Terra, or Earth."
There was more to the message: brief explanations of the wide variety of cultures, all human, that this planet held; the fact that the residents were known as Terrans; details on how the arrangements were to be carried out; specific instructions on where to locate the information needed to travel to this planet Earth; and where to find the language recordings needed to learn one of their languages, called English. Leia, however, heard none of it. She was in a complete fog, as were the others listening with her. A sister. How could she and Luke have a sister and not known?
She turned to her brother, who look equally dazed. "Did you sense any of this?" she asked, searching for some kind of answer. "Did you ever sense that there were three of us?"
Luke shook his head. "No. I'm completely at a loss. But then, I didn't have any idea that you were my sister until Ben told me. I mean, I guess I sort of knew from the moment we met, but I didn't really know.... But this," he shook his head again. "I had absolutely no idea."
Han turned to Leia and Luke. "This would explain why the medallions you two had were thirds of a disk, and not half. It also would explain where the other third is located."
Luke looked up sharply, and Leia felt his mind come to a sudden focus. "The preparations Belsarios has been making to go into space for so long. Now it all makes sense! He's going after our sister!"
Allia Dale awoke with a start, her heart pounding. It was only another nightmare, Ally, she told herself firmly, but the image of that man in the red cape would not fade away. She reached out automatically for Tom, remembering only when she touched his empty pillow that he was on duty in Italy. Like most Air Force wives, Allia was used to her husband being away for long periods of time. Unlike most of the other wives, however, Ally herself was an Air Force lieutenant; a former fighter pilot and current interpreter and language specialist. Her husband, a captain and A-10 pilot stationed at Davis- Monthan Air Force base in Tucson, Arizona, was currently on a one-month tour of duty in Italy. He had left yesterday, the day after Thanksgiving, and was due in just before Christmas. At least they would be together for the holidays.
The holidays. Exactly what had started this series of nightmares Ally had been having-- the little revelation that Gamiel had when he was here for Thanksgiving.
Pushing that thought out of her mind, Allia sat up with a sigh and looked at her clock. Six-thirty. Might as well get up.
Ally pushed her heavy comforter out of her way and padded quietly into the bathroom, squinting against the harsh light as she flipped it on. When her eyes finally adjusted to the light, she quickly emptied her bladder, then examined herself in the mirror, sticking her tongue out in distaste. Her short, straight, blond hair was sticking out wildly in all directions, rumpled with sleep, and her brown eyes were laced with red. Turning away from her own image, she grabbed a thick robe and bundled her diminutive, five-foot-three frame into it, then headed out to the kitchen, where she placed a kettle of water on the stove for some tea. She looked out the window at the sky, which was just beginning to show the faintest signs of light in the east. The kids would be up soon, she thought, then remembered that they, too, were gone. It was Saturday morning, Thanksgiving weekend, and they had spent the night at a neighbor's house. She had the whole house to herself.
Normally, Ally relished solitude, something a mother of a nine-year-old and a six-year-old rarely had the luxury of enjoying. This morning was different, though. She wished for Aaron's teasing, or even Casey's loud "MO- om!" to push the strange nightmare image from her mind.
The kettle whistled, startling her. She quickly pulled it off the stove and poured the steaming water over a tea bag and into a large mug that read "No. 1 Mom!" in child-like writing. She then took her mug and curled up with it on the couch near the bay window, which faced east, so she could watch the sun come up.
As she watched fingers of red creep into the winter sky over the desert, Allia reflected on how beautiful it was here. Raised not far from Yuma, Arizona, she was a born desert rat and had been more than a little thrilled when she and Tom learned they would be stationed at Davis-Monthan. After three miserable years in humid, sticky, Florida, it had been wonderful to come home. Winter in the desert was especially her favorite time, though even in the summer the early morning hours were beautiful. When she was a child, she had loved to get up very early and look for lizards or jackrabbits or roadrunners, while Gamiel explained to her about the life Force that bound them all together...
Gamiel. Apparently she would not be able to get her foster father out of her mind. It wasn't that she didn't love the old guy--he was the only father she'd ever known, the one who had taught her to love nature, to savor life, and most of all, he had given her the love of flying--the love she had given up in order to spend more time with her children. No, she would always love Gamiel, but there was one problem.
Gamiel was insane.
She tried to think back. Was he always crazy? Maybe a little. From early on he had been different, teaching her about something he called "the Force," which he claimed was "an energy field generated by all living things which surrounds and penetrates everything, binding the [universe] together." No one else Ally knew believed in anything called "the Force." In addition to that, Gamiel had been obsessed with her learning how to fence, of all things. She had become quite good at it, even winning many ribbons in fencing competitions throughout the country. But Gamiel wanted her to fence differently: he wanted her to use a two-handed grip. He had even given her some sort of "sword" that looked like a flashlight, but when turned on shot out some sort of laser. It was heavy enough to require a two-handed grip, but with some work she had mastered it, though she never did figure out where Gamiel got the strange thing. He had called it a "lightsaber."
And then there was the language. When Allia was growing up, she had spoken two languages: English, like her friends, and at home a language Gamiel called, loosely translated, "Basic." At first this had not seemed so unusual: she did, after all, live near Indian reservations and not far from the Mexican border. Many of her friends spoke Navajo or Hopi or Spanish at home. But what was strange was that in all her travels with the Air Force, and her extensive knowledge of foreign languages, Ally had never run across anyone else who spoke or had even heard of Gamiel's Basic.
Languages had always been a fascination for Ally, second only to her love of flying. She had discovered early in life that she had an affinity for learning languages, picking up Spanish and several tribal dialects from her school friends. The reason it was so easy for her was her memory. She had a perfect audiographic memory. Everything she had ever heard in her life she remembered as clearly and exactly as if she had a tape recorder in her head. So once she heard a new word and what it meant, she never forgot it. It took her two weeks to learn Spanish, three for Navajo, one each for French, German, and Italian. By the time she was ten years old, she was fluent in most of the major world languages, including Russian, Japanese, Chinese, and several African dialects. Yet, even with her exhaustive knowledge of world languages and her perfect memory, she had never heard a single person, outside of herself and Gamiel, utter a single word in Basic. Which led her to only one conclusion: Gamiel had made it up.
She had to admire the incredible intelligence of a man who could make up an entire language, complete with its own grammar, syntax, and idioms. Though she had heard of several other invented "languages," such as Pig Latin or Esperanto, these were based on other languages and did not have a grammar of their own. Basic did; it was distinctly different from English or any other language she had come across. Actually, it was an amazingly simple language; easy to pronounce, easy to learn. Unlike English, the rules seem to be pretty standard. For Gamiel to be able to create such a simple, yet complex, eloquent language all on his own was quite an astounding feat. A little bizarre, but astounding just the same.
The language thing and the lightsaber thing and the Force thing notwithstanding, Gamiel had provided a fairly normal childhood for her, and had never seemed crazy. A little eccentric, perhaps, but never dangerously insane.
That changed when she was twenty-one years old, a senior in the Air Force Academy in Colorado.
She had returned home late one night after going out with several of her friends to find Gamiel waiting for her in her room. Her surprise at seeing him quickly turned to concern when she noticed how wild eyed he looked. She no sooner entered the room when he picked her up and swung her around joyously, crying, "It's over, it's over! He's dead!"
Allia pulled back, alarmed. "Who's dead, Gamiel?"
Ally remembered how puzzled she had been. "What Emperor?"
"Oh Allia, there's so much I have to tell you. I didn't want to tell you when you were little, because I didn't want you to feel different from your Earth friends."
"Gamiel, what are you talking about. Sit down, you look positively out of your gourd."
She had never been prepared for what had come next: a long, convoluted story in which she was the child of some kind of horrible "dark Lord" who served "the Emperor"--in another galaxy.
Gamiel believed he and she were from outer space.
According to him, she was a triplet with a brother and sister, and all three of them had been hidden away from their maniacal father. Allia herself had the honor of being the most hidden, taken away from her home galaxy. Her father was called Darth Vader, which Allia thought sounded like Dutch for "dark father." That wasn't his real name, however; he had been born Anakin Skywalker (Skywalker? she could remember thinking it sounded like something a Native American would be named) and had once been a Jedi Knight, who were the ones who believed in this "Force" of Gamiel's (who was himself a Jedi, of course.) Her father, however, had been turned by the evil Emperor before knowing that his wife was pregnant with triplets. Together, Vader and the Emperor ruled the galaxy with an iron grip. But fortunately, the Emperor had just been killed by a group of rebels. Vader was dead, as well. How did Gamiel know this? Why, the Force, of course! He could "sense" the Emperor's death in the Force. It was all very much like an episode of Star Trek mixed with Flash Gordon and a dash of Dungeons and Dragons thrown in for good measure.
Now that the Emperor was gone, Gamiel had figured that someone would probably come to Earth looking for them, to bring them home. It was at this point that Allia kicked Gamiel out of her room.
For several years afterwards, she would have nothing to do with him; she refused to speak with him at her graduation from the Air Force Academy and returned unopened all the letters he sent her when she was on her first assignment.
It was only after she met Tom Dale that Ally had a change of heart. An avid believer in family, he had brought her home to meet his parents soon after they started dating. His parents were both deaf, which fascinated Ally: another language to learn. American Sign Language, however, proved daunting to her. It was not auditory, like the other languages she knew, so her audiographic memory was of no help to her. For the first time, Ally took longer than a few weeks to learn a language. She mastered it quickly, taking only a year where most people needed seven to be truly fluent. In the meantime, Tom wanted to meet her family. Allia stalled as long as she could, but finally relented, telling Tom the whole story of her insane foster father. To her surprise, Tom though it was delightful. Then again, she shouldn't have been surprised at all. An avid Trekkie and lover of all things that have to do with space, Tom had applied twice to be a pilot astronaut for NASA, falling short of the cut both times. It stood to reason that the idea that his girlfriend was really an alien from outer space and could be whisked back there at any time would appeal to him.
So Allia hesitantly renewed her relationship with Gamiel, who had been surprisingly well behaved. Having given up on the "rebels" coming for him and Ally, he never mentioned Darth Vader or the Emperor or the Force or her triplet brother and sister. When she and Tom got married, Gamiel gave her away.
Perhaps whatever had possessed Gamiel that day at the Air Force Academy was gone. Perhaps her life could be normal after all.
No one said a word for a long time. The four of them, Luke, Han, Leia, and Winter just sat staring into the space where the holo message had been.
They had played it over several times, and each time it seemed to Luke to be more and more unbelievable. Another sister? Why hadn't he known this, why hadn't he felt this?
Of course, he hadn't known about Leia, either, until Yoda's declaration, "There is another Skywalker." According to the cube, Yoda may not have even known that there were two other Skywalkers. But it seemed impossible. He could understand Ben taking him to Uncle Owen's on Tatooine, he could understand Bail Organa raising Leia as his own daughter, but this? Wasn't sending her to a completely different galaxy a bit extreme?
"So what now?" Han asked suddenly, breaking the thick silence. He was sitting very close to Leia, holding her.
"We can't let Belsarios just go and get her," Leia said quietly, her voice thick and a little hoarse. "From what this cube says about the planet she's on, there are no defenses, nothing to stop him."
"There's Jedi Tumaric," Winter pointed out, her voice also hushed.
"We don't even know if he's still alive," Luke countered. "Or, for that matter, if she--" he hesitated, finding it difficult to say her name-- "if Ally is alive."
"But Belsarios doesn't want her, he wants the disk," Han put in.
"We definitely can't let him have that," Leia observed, her voice stronger now. She was the consummate leader, Luke observed.
"How do we stop him?" he asked her.
"We have to stop him before he leaves," Leia answered quickly. "We can't hardly go on a year-long trip to another galaxy chasing after him."
"We may already be too late for that," said Winter. "You said so yourself, our fleet won't reach him in time."
"Hey, wait a second, are we actually considering going after him?" Han said suddenly. "To another galaxy? Is that what we're talking about?"
There was another long silence, no one wanting to answer the question. Then Luke felt his sister reach out with the Force and replay the message cube yet again. She fast-forwarded it to the part that mapped the particulars of the planet Earth, its galaxy, and the passage there.
"It says it takes five months just to get there," Leia said miserably.
"Then we are talking about doing this," Han said. It was a statement, not a question.
"Five months, Han," Leia replied.
"Yeah, but that was thirty-six years ago," Han disagreed slowly. "With today's faster hyperdrives, it would probably only take, oh say three months."
"Three months," Luke whistled, shaking his head. "And three months back."
"I'm Chief of State, I can't be gone for six months!" Leia protested.
"Leia, we have to go after her. If we don't, Belsarios will probably kill her. She's our sister," Luke said, with more emotion than he had intended.
"I know that," Leia snapped back. "But there are literally dozens of commanders we could send..."
"So as Commander-in-Chief, you're going to order troops to leave the galaxy for six months when your not willing to do so yourself?" Luke challenged.
Leia blew out her breath in frustration. "Luke, how can I just abdicate my responsibilities here?"
"You have responsibilities to your family, too," Han said softly, stroking Leia's arm. She pulled away from him roughly.
"That's another thing, do you expect me to leave our children for six months?"
"They could come with us," Han told her.
"Who's side are you on?" she exploded. "Do you really want to do this?"
"Beats sitting around here waiting to see what happened!"
"Leia, Han," Luke said, putting his hands up. "There are no sides here. Leia, we have to do this because we're Jedi and our sister's Jedi. We're the only ones she'll know to trust, you and I. For all we know she doesn't even know who she is. The only way to reach her will be through the Force. Besides, a planet is not a very specific location. We'll need the Force just to find her and Gamiel."
"Luke's right," Han agreed. "I think we should go."
Leia looked from one to the other, than to Winter, who had wisely kept herself out of the discussion. "What do you think?"
"It's not my place," the other woman began.
"But tell me what you think anyway."
Luke felt some emotion from Winter--was it sadness? Loss? She took a deep breath. "We lost our families when Alderaan was destroyed. You were fortunate, Leia, to have found a brother you didn't know existed, and to establish a relationship with him, and fortunate as well to find someone to start your own family with. Now you are being blessed yet again in finding that there is another member of your family who may be alive." She blinked her large eyes, and Luke was impressed by her incredible grace. The loss of Alderaan never went away for her; her perfect memory replayed it over and over again as if it had happened yesterday.
"If it were me," she continued, "I would not even think twice. I would go."
The press conference was two days later. Imperial City was flooded with rumors, none of which were even close, Leia thought with some satisfaction. Only the Senate and the military Chiefs of Staff knew what she was about to announce. They were also the only ones who knew why--something she would not announce to the public.
Once the decision had been made, everything else went fairly smoothly. Chewbacca was called on Kashyyyk and had arrived two hours earlier. Plans were made as to who exactly would be going on this journey. The final decision was: Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, Jaina, Jacen, Anakin, See-Threepio, and Artoo-Detoo. They had decided not to take any other military personnel as they would be sorely needed here to ward off any more attacks by Pellaeon. The children were included because neither Han nor Leia were willing to be separated from them for half a year, and because the trip, though dangerous, was no more dangerous than just being the children of Han Solo and Leia Organa Solo. The 'droids were included for more practical reasons: Artoo could help them with any tactical information they needed and could also help pilot or prepare the ship if need be. Threepio was necessary for two reasons: The children needed a tutor, and they all needed to learn the language called English that had been encoded into the message cube. Threepio had been easily programmed with the information, and could now boast that he knew over six million and one forms of communication.
There was one other person they had wanted to bring: Lando Calrissian. The problem was, Lando had been recently married, to a wonderful woman named Tendra. And Tendra was three months pregnant, which put her due-date at around the time they hoped to be returning. So Lando would have to remain behind. He had, however, agreed to loan them a ship. It was a modified yacht called the Gambler's Edge, which Lando had recently purchased and was in the process of turning into a passenger liner/casino. Being that it was Lando's ship, it had a full weapon battery and was large enough to be comfortable for a long journey, but small enough to require only a small crew. Han, of course, had wanted to take the Falcon, but it was too small for three adult humans, a Wookie, three human children, and two droids to live on for six months without killing each other.
Lando had also helped Han plot the course, since Chewie had not yet arrived from Kashyyyk. Using the information contained in the cube, they had plotted hyperspace direction and distance, and places to occasionally drop out of hyperspace to make course corrections and to recharge the solar fuel cells.
Leia sighed as the time neared for her announcement. Though the planning had gone very smoothly, she felt a lot of turmoil about the decision she was making. It was the right one, she knew, but that didn't make it any easier.
As the members of the press corps took their seats, Leia stepped up to the podium. The members of the Senate were seated around the chamber, surrounding the press corps. Luke, Han, the children, Chewbacca, and Senator Fleghan, the Calamarian representative and her second-in-command stood behind her. Seeking strength, she looked back at them. Han gave her a solemn wink, and she felt Luke fortify her with a touch from the Force. Taking a deep breath, she turned to face the crowd.
"For the past eight years, I have had the honor and privilege of serving as Chief of State to the New Republic. Much has happened in these eight years: the New Republic has grown and flourished, and I hope that I have grown as well. We have overcome many challenges since the days of Empire, and I am proud to have been a part of them." She took another breath.
"Therefore, it is with a very heavy heart that I must announce my resignation as Chief of State of the New Republic, effective immediately."
If the news of Leia Organa Solo's resignation had come as a shock to most, the thing that surprised Mara Jade was the fact that she was not surprised. Somehow, she had known. And she knew something else, too.
Her resignation had something to do with Malarin Belsarios.
The first of the four days since she had discovered that he was alive, Mara had operated in somewhat of an uncharacteristic fog. She had canceled two crucial meetings with members of the senate, allowing Karrde to handle it alone. When he asked for an explanation, she told him she wasn't feeling well, a story Karrde plainly didn't buy. Mara had never been sick a day in her life.
Finally later that evening, she had come back to her senses, though she couldn't really take credit for that. She had been shoved out of her daze by a shock wave in the Force that felt as strong as her reaction to learning about Belsarios. Only this feeling did not come from inside.
It came from Skywalker.
Something had happened that had completely rocked him. Mara immediately suspected it had something to do with Belsarios, but she couldn't be sure. Though she could plainly read his confusion and shock, she could not decipher its meaning. Nevertheless, it had served a purpose; it had brought Mara out of her own fog. And that was when the plotting had begun. Whatever it took, she had to find Belsarios and finish what the Emperor had failed.
She still had all her old information sources on Coruscant, so it hadn't taken long for her to discover that the NRI believed Belsarios was involved in the attack on Sluis Van and the capture of the A-wings, and that he was planning a journey somewhere. Where, exactly, Mara couldn't fathom--he was taking on enough provisions for a six- to nine-month journey, and Mara couldn't think of anywhere in the galaxy that would take that long to get to.
And now, this. Organa Solo was resigning to handle something she called a "personal matter" and that involved an extended absence.
Wherever they were going, they were going after Belsarios. Where exactly that was, well Mara had no doubt that she'd discover that, too. And then....
And then, she was going with them.
Belsarios watched the announcement from Coruscant, torn between anger at those stupid oafs who dared to call themselves guards that had allowed the holocube to be stolen from him, and excitement at the prospect of a new challenge. It was clear that Organa Solo had seen the cube--it was the only explanation for her sudden resignation. Which meant she and Skywalker, and probably Solo and his Wookiee would be trying to make the journey as well. On the one hand, it made matters much more complicated, forcing him to rush preparations so he could get as much of a head start as possible. On the other hand, it shouldn't seriously disrupt his plans, and the challenge that a race to another galaxy would provide just might fill the long three months there. They wouldn't be around to challenge him on the way back, he would make certain of that.
Belsarios stretched back in his chair and watched as the press on Coruscant hurled questions at the Chief of State--make that former Chief of State. It was the usual boring blather--what are your reasons, are you confident Senator Fleghan is up to the job, etc. etc.
Suddenly, something in the hologram caught his eye. He leaned forward to get a closer look. There, in the small throng behind the press corps, he could see someone who looked very familiar.
Someone with striking red hair.
Belsarios smiled slowly. So the rumors he had heard were true: Mara Jade had turned traitor. The woman who had once been the Emperor's Hand, who had been the cause of his own "execution," by the Emperor, was now seated comfortably in the Senate Chambers of the New Republic. Did she know he was alive? He thought about this a moment, then decided she probably did. He was almost sure that the sorry excuse for an intelligence agency known as the NRI had at least managed to blunder its way into one of his holo transmissions with Vice Admiral Pellaeon. That meant they probably also knew who he was and that he was alive. And what the NRI knew, surely Mara Jade knew.
For all the amazing and utter stupidity she had shown when he knew her, she had turned out to be a very capable agent/assassin for the Emperor, and Belsarios doubted she would let those skills go soft. But did she know the real truth? Probably not.
It was then that a delicious thought occurred to Belsarios. Surely if Mara knew he was alive and knew that Skywalker and the Solos were coming after him, she would join them. This could make matters even more interesting. A final confrontation with the exquisite Mara Jade. What more could he ask for?
For her to know a little bit more of the truth, that's what. Not all of it, of course, but just enough. That would surely destroy her much more effectively than a mere lightsaber duel.
Yes, he decided, leaning his chin on his fingertips and smiling broadly. It was high time Mara Jade knew exactly how he had escaped the Emperor's wrath. And he would see to it that the information wound up in her hands.
Allia Dale sat in the driver's seat of their Jeep Cherokee listening to Aaron and Casey argue in the back seat. Normally by now she would have threatened to give them a "time out" if they didn't behave, but today she was thankful for the distraction for two reasons.
The first was that she was happy to hear anything that wasn't in Russian. A squadron of Russian pilots, on a good-will exchange program with an American squadron, had just arrived at the base and would be there for the next four months, which meant long hours interpreting. She was happy the Air Force had a reason to keep her in Tucson, especially with Tom being away, but it was exhausting, mind- numbing work.
The second was the nightmares.
It was Tuesday evening, five days after Thanksgiving, and Ally was driving the kids home from daycare. It was also about four weeks until Christmas, which meant four weeks until Tom returned.
Normally, she didn't mind when he was gone, she was used to it. Hell, before they had kids, when she was a fighter pilot, she was, more often than not, the one that was gone. Even with the kids she had a variety of assignments that required her leaving home. After all, an interpreter had to be where there were different languages to interpret. No, under normal circumstances, Ally bore up pretty well when Tom was home. But under normal circumstances, she didn't have recurring nightmares.
They weren't horrible, really, just strange, unsettling images of a man with dark hair and beard, streaked with gray, wearing an absurd red cape. It should have been a funny dream, but there was something that disturbed her about him. Of course, the fact that she had been having that dream every night since Thanksgiving could be what was disturbing her, but she didn't think so. It was something that gave her a twinge inside, like the twinges she sometimes got when she knew something had happened to one of the kids.
Ever since the Aaron was born, Ally had developed a quite remarkable intuition regarding him, and later, Casey. She felt connected to them in a way that somehow felt stronger than your average mother-child bond. One time she was in the middle of interpreting a teleconference when she got a sudden flash--a brief image of a smoking gun and Casey screaming. It was quite unsettling and she missed an entire phrase while interpreting. About two hours later, Tom found her. There had been an incident at the kids' school. A child had brought a gun and had fired it on the playground. No one was hurt, but Casey's class had been out for recess and she had seen the whole thing. There had been other such incidents, which she chalked up to very strong women's intuition.
Of course, Gamiel would call it the Force.
In spite her best efforts, Ally found herself once more thinking about Gamiel and his strange behavior at Thanksgiving. It was so frustrating, really. Just when she had finally been able to put the scene at the Academy out of her mind, just when she felt comfortable around Gamiel again, he went completely bonkers on her.
The holiday had started out normally enough. She had cooked a great big turkey, much too big considering the only ones eating it would be herself, Tom, Aaron, Casey, and Gamiel. Both Ally and Tom were only children, and Tom's parents had died a few years ago, so Gamiel was the only family they had. That was one of the reasons it was so important for Gamiel to keep his sanity; the kids needed a grandfather.
But Ally had known from the minute he arrived that something was wrong. Just like that strong emotional connection she sometimes felt with her children, Ally was very connected to Gamiel and could usually tell exactly how he was feeling. On Thanksgiving, she had noticed a strange mix of excitement and apprehension. She even remembered thinking, Uh-oh, he's up to something. But even after the incident at the Academy, she hadn't been prepared for what Gamiel would say to her.
After dinner, while Tom was recruiting the kids to help clean the dishes, Gamiel had approached Ally and maneuvered her into the bedroom.
"We need to talk," he had said. Ally's stomach rolled over. He was speaking in Basic.
"Gamiel, if you want to talk to me, use English."
"Fine," he had replied testily. "I know you don't want to hear this--"
"Then don't say it!" she interrupted harshly.
"I have to, Allia, you and your family may be in danger."
Ally sighed. "All right, Gamiel, I'll bite. What kind of danger?"
"Someone is coming for us. I've felt it in the Force."
At this, Ally turned her back on him angrily. "Gamiel, we had an agreement. I will not have you spreading your nonsense in my home, where my children can hear you!"
For the first time she could remember, Gamiel responded gruffly. He grabbed her arm, twisting her around so she had to look at him. "You have to listen to me, Allia. I know you don't believe who I am--who you are, but you must listen to me. For whatever reason, your brother and sister did not send for you when the Emperor died. Fine, I'm happy here, and I know this planet is the only home you've ever known." She had tried to pull away again, but he held her arm with surprising strength. "But now they are coming. Only I'm not so sure it is your brother or your sister. From what I can feel through the Force, a dark Jedi, like the Emperor or your own father, has discovered your identity and is searching for you."
"And I suppose he'll just look me up in the Earth Yellow Pages under Lost Jedi Triplet," Ally sneered spitefully.
"They will find you--and me--through the Force. Like it or not, you are a Jedi!"
"I am a mother and a wife and a Lieutenant in the United States Air Force. I am not a 'Jedi!'"
"Then you wish to risk your children's lives?"
Ally felt a sudden stab of fear, and for a brief second she could feel danger surrounding her children, suffocating them. She shook her head, and it was gone. She then lost whatever bit of her temper was left. "You leave my children out of this, do you understand me?" she seethed, her voice low and threatening. "I will not have them involved in your demented little fantasies."
"It may not be your choice. If this dark Jedi chooses to involve them--"
"Gamiel, so help me God--"
"--then they will be involved. I am telling you this to warn you. You need to be prepared."
"Is anything wrong?"
Ally and Gamiel both looked up, startled, to find Tom standing in the doorway. "Tom, your family may be in danger," Gamiel said quickly before Ally could stop him.
Tom looked worried. "What do you mean?"
"He's crazy, Tom, that's what he means!" Ally exploded. She whirled to face her foster father. "Gamiel, I want you to leave. If you want to get help, we'll support you. But until then, I do not want you coming anywhere near my children."
Gamiel responded as if he had been stabbed, but he didn't look surprised.
"Ally," Tom put in.
"No, Tom, I'm serious. I've lived with this garbage all my life, and I will not have Aaron and Casey affected by it." She turned back to Gamiel. "Now, will you agree to get help, or is this good-bye?"
For a long moment, he had said nothing. Then, shaking his head, he said simply, "Just be aware, Allia. Use the Force." And he had left.
But the dreams had only begun. She was sure it was his influence, scaring her with talk about her children being in danger. That and the fact that she was upset that the father she still loved had completely lost it and was refusing to get help.
"Mom, Aaron's hogging my side of the seat!" came a plaintive wail that broke Ally out of her reverie.
"I am not, she's on my side," Aaron's response came quick on the heels of his sister's.
Ally glanced in the review mirror and quickly signed Stop it! in American Sign Language--the kids had learned it from Tom parents while they were still alive-- then turned her attention back on the road. The kids settled down instantly, knowing that when Mom signed to them she meant business. They were almost home anyway.
As Ally pulled onto their street, she looked back in the rearview mirror again to catch another glimpse of her children's round faces. Suddenly, she felt that stab of fear again, as if someone were indeed coming after them. And then as quickly as it had come, the feeling went away.
Belindi Kalenda stared at the data pad, unsure what to make of the huge file before her. It was entrenched in layers of code, that was obvious. She wasn't even sure if the NRI's best slicers would be able to break it. But something else was equally obvious.
This file was personally written by the Emperor himself.
She had received it only a few hours earlier from an agent in the Outer Rim. He, in turn, had received it from a stormtrooper on Belsarios' ship whom they had been paying to leak information. Said trooper claimed it was a section of a journal the Emperor kept--a section where he had written about Belsarios. Belsarios had supposedly stolen it from the Imperial Palace sometime between the Emperor's death and the New Republic's taking of Coruscant.
At first, Belindi had been skeptical. The Emperor was known for his detest of written records--his word was law, and that was enough. Why, then, would he keep a journal? But when she saw the file, she knew it was authentic. She recognized the Emperor's personal encoding, which was nearly impossible to duplicate. But even if it was from the Emperor, she still had many questions about the document. Why all of the sudden did they're trooper feel it was important? Belindi had her suspicions. She didn't trust paid informants, and given Belsarios' reputation as a Force adept, she doubted a trooper could easily disguise his treachery. Which meant one thing: she now had this file because Belsarios wanted her to have it. Which, in turn, left another question: should she take the bait?
She stared at the mass of codes, trying to make up her mind. Finally, she decided. Whether or not Belsarios wanted them to have it, this was clearly an authentic document from the Emperor, and any information it contained could be valuable. She would have to turn it over to Chief of State Organa Solo--no, she corrected herself, it was now Chief of State Fleghan.
That put another twist in the matter. Whereas she felt comfortable that Organa Solo would know what to do with such information, she did not feel similarly comfortable with Fleghan. Of course, he was Chief of State, and therefore her boss, so her opinion as to whether or not he would do the right thing was irrelevant. It was her duty to report to him. But then, Belindi had stepped out of the strict guidelines of duty before--she had gone on her own to warn Solo about the situation on Corellia before he and his family had gone there, and that had proved to be the right decision.
Right now, the Solos and Master Skywalker were preparing for a long journey that was bound to result in a major confrontation with Belsarios. They were the ones who needed the information in this journal, not Fleghan. Besides, Master Skywalker hadn't resigned his position with the Senate--he had merely taken a leave of absence, relegating his duties to other Jedi. Strictly speaking, it wouldn't be completely out of line for her to give the file to him. Was he not, after all, one of the great heroes of the Rebellion?
Yes, that is exactly what she would do. She would give the file to Skywalker.
Luke was walking quickly through the Imperial Palace, his mind on the last details he needed to take care of before they left. The Jedi Academy on Yavin 4 was taken care of, with Kyp Durron in charge, but there was still much to wrap up before he could leave for such a long journey. And then there was that file Belindi Kalenda had given him--what was he supposed to do with that? With his thoughts thus occupied, he didn't even sense that someone had stepped into his path until he almost ran her over.
He looked up, startled. "Mara!"
Standing before him was Mara Jade. Gone were the flowing business robes and tightly braided hair she had been wearing when he last saw her. She was dressed completely in a tight-fitting black jumpsuit. Her fiery red hair was done in a loose braid that hung gracefully over her shoulder. On her arm she wore her forearm holster and a blaster; clipped to her waist, a lightsaber. No, Luke thought in the split- second he took it all in, not just a lightsaber. It was the lightsaber he had given her ten years ago--the one that had once belonged to his father.
This was not Mara Jade, the business woman. This was the Mara Jade of old; Mara Jade the smuggler. Mara Jade the Emperor's Hand.
"Skywalker," she said, her voice like steel. "You're going after Belsarios." It was not a question. "I want to come with you."
Luke blinked in surprise. "How did you--"
"I can usually get any information I really want," she interrupted, dismissing his question with a wave. "I would like to come with you," she repeated, her voice softening just slightly.
"Mara--" Luke started. He didn't know what to say. "Do you have any idea what you're asking? Where we're going? How long we'll be gone?"
Mara's emerald eyes looked directly into his. "You're leaving the galaxy, going to a planet called Earth. You're going after your triplet sister, whom you didn't know existed until a few days ago. You, as well as Belsarios, believe that she has the third piece to the Vader disk, and that he'll kill her to get it if he has to. You'll be gone a minimum of six months--longer if it takes a while to locate her."
Luke's mouth opened in surprise, then he shook his head, smiling. "I should know better than to question your ability to get information."
"Now that you know I know what I'm talking about, let's get back to the point. I want to go with you," Mara repeated a third time.
Luke looked at her thoughtfully. He could feel her anger, her hatred. "So you can kill him," he said. That, too, was not a question.
Mara put her hands on her hips. "I don't want any Jedi lectures," she said sourly. "He somehow avoided his rightful execution. I seek justice only."
"I'd hardly call what the Emperor handed out justice," Luke countered.
"Nevertheless, Belsarios deserves to die."
"You once thought that of me," Luke reminded her.
Mara scowled and crossed her arms. She tried a different approach. "Listen, Skywalker. I'm going after Belsarios. I can do it with you and your group, or alone. I'd rather do it with you. It's an awfully long trip to make alone, and I don't think us being at cross-purposes will be helpful. But if I can't go with you, I will go alone. It's your decision."
Luke considered this a moment. She was a stubborn person, and he knew there was no way of talking her out of something she had set her mind to. Yet suddenly, he was afraid for her. All this anger, it was from the dark side, and Mara was skilled enough in the Force to be very susceptible...
"Mara. Anger, hatred, revenge. Those are from the dark side. I'm afraid for you: you're strong in the Force, a potentially great Jedi. I know this Belsarios is a Dark Jedi. He could use this anger against you. Turn you to the dark side. You'd end up like him, or Vader, or the Emperor. I don't want to see that happen," he said earnestly. He hated to see the dark side take over anyone, but he felt especially concerned for Mara. She had come so far from her past with the Emperor and had become quite important to him. He cared a great deal for her.
Mara seemed to sense his genuine concern. Her face softened slightly and she took his hand in hers. "Luke," she began, surprising him by using his first name, "I have to do this. I have to face him."
Luke's anxiety abated slightly; the darkness from her seemed to recede, but he still was worried for her. Nevertheless, he considered what she said.
"Tell you what, Mara. You can come with us if you tell me one thing. Who's Mykos Jade?"
Mara's eyes widened in surprise as she dropped Luke's hand. "What do you know about Mykos?" she growled, the iciness returning to her voice.
"You're not the only one who has access to information," Luke said, then added, "The only thing I know is that Malarin Belsarios was executed for his murder. And that his name was Jade."
Mara bit her lip and put her hands back on her hips. She seemed to consider his question a moment. "Fine. Mykos Jade was my brother."
Luke nodded thoughtfully. Her brother. But it still didn't make sense. "I thought you had told me you never knew your family."
"You said one thing. I answered it."
"I could have figured that out myself," Luke responded firmly. "Knowing he's your brother doesn't really tell me anything."
Mara sighed. "All right, Skywalker, you win. Mykos was my older brother, about two years older than me. We were both taken by the Emperor when we were children. We were trained together, as a team. We were both strong in the Force, which is why the Emperor chose us, though I suppose I was a little stronger while Mykos was more disciplined. We were very close; he was the most important thing in the universe to me."
"And Belsarios killed him," Luke finished.
"Killed him?" Mara laughed humorlessly. "He cut Mykos down with a lightsaber when he was unarmed and his back was turned."
Luke swallowed hard. Even Darth Vader had never been so cowardly.
"And I saw the whole thing," Mara added, her voice rising slightly.
Suddenly, Bail Organa's voice came to mind: "Siblings who are strong in the Force are always strongest when they work together. Their bond to each other is always strong." He thought of Leia, and even of the sister he had never met., and he shuddered. "Mara, I'm so sorry," he said softly. "It must have been terrible for you."
Mara shook her head, as if to dispel the memories. "I've answered your question," she said, forcing a hard edge back into her voice. "Do I join you, or go alone?"
"Don't you have a business proposition pending with the Senate?"
"Karrde can handle everything that needs to be done, with the help of some of my employees."
"I'll bet he loved that," Luke smiled.
"Well, he didn't have much of a choice. Then again, any time I go out and help you New Republic heroes, I increase my stock with the Senate."
As always, she had it all figured out. "Fine, then I'll arrange it with the others." He held out a gloved hand, which she grasped with hers. "Welcome aboard."
"Thank you," she said, her voice softening again. She dropped his hand and straightened her back. "I can be ready to leave immediately."
"Okay," Luke said. "We're leaving in two days. From the Imperial City Main Port." He started to leave her, when a thought occurred to him. "Mara, I'll bet you have access to some pretty high-end slicers. Much better than the New Republic Government has."
Mara snorted. "My second in command is the best in the business. Remember Ghent?"
Luke did indeed remember Ghent, who's expertise in code slicing had not only cleared Admiral Ackbar from false accusations of accepting bribes several years back, but had helped break the elusive Delta Source, an information leak used by Grand Admiral Thrawn during the early days of the New Republic. "A young kid, as I recall. Top notch slicer, but pretty oblivious to the rest of the universe."
"Well, he's still a top-notch slicer, but he's not quite so oblivious any more. He's the one taking over my end of the partnership with Karrde while I'm away. Do you need something decoded?"
Luke told her about the file Kalenda had given him. Mara's eyes widened in interest.
"Another surprise the Emperor kept from me," she muttered, then to Luke said, "Give it to Ghent. He's here on Coruscant, his room's somewhere near Karrde's. He should have it sliced by the time we leave."
"Thanks Mara. Then I'll see you at the Main Port in two days." He smiled at her. "And in spite of my feelings about this whole revenge business, I'm glad to have you along." * * * * *
The last two days before they left were frantic ones for all of them, and Mara was no exception. She hurriedly scheduled dozens of meetings to wrap up any business she could before she left, then turned over the rest to Karrde. She hated to do it--this whole thing had been her idea to begin with--but she didn't have a choice. Her first priority had to be Belsarios.
Finally, however, she had done all she could do, packed everything she could throw together (she had anticipated quite a long stay on Coruscant, fortunately, so she had many of her things there with her), and she was on her way to meet Skywalker and his family at the Main Port. On her way there, she ran into Ghent.
"Mara!" the younger man said, his somewhat sleepy look hiding a very sharp mind. "I've been looking for you."
"Was there something I forgot?" she asked, thinking this must be in regards to the authority she had vested in him in her absence.
"Just this," he replied, smiling. He pulled out a data card.
"What's this?" she asked, taking the card.
"That file you asked me to slice."
Mara raised her eyes in admiration. "You mean you sliced the Emperor's personal files in two days?"
Ghent shuffled his feet. "Actually, I got as far as I could with it."
"Then you couldn't break it."
This raised his hackles. "Oh no, I broke it all right. Not a code around I can't slice," he said pridefully. "It's just been written in some kind of language I don't understand."
"I don't know, some kind of language I'd never heard of. The computer didn't recognize it, either. I figured that maybe Master Skywalker's protocol droid might know what it is. He seems to be pretty fluent--"
"In well over six million forms of communication," Mara finished, rolling her eyes. "I know, I've heard the spiel before."
"Anyway, there's the file. Hope it tells you something useful."
"Thanks, Ghent." She paused a moment, then told him, "I trust you'll do a good job for Karrde and me while I'm gone?"
"You can count on it, Captain Jade," he nodded solemnly, respectfully.
"Thanks Ghent. See you in, oh, about six months."
With that, she continued towards the port, thumbing the data card absently. What kind of language would the Emperor use....?
In a flash, a memory came to her. When she was very young, part of her lessons had involved intensive language studies. While she couldn't boast of six million languages, she did know most of the major ones in use in the galaxy, in addition to many local dialects that the Emperor thought it was important to know. As his Hand, she had needed to fit in anywhere, and you couldn't fit in if you didn't know the local language. One such language was an archaic language called Ta'tonni. It was a dead language--the culture it had come from was extinct--but the Emperor had her learn it because it had a very complex written form, more complex, even, then some of the military codes in use. Very few people had ever heard of it, let alone knew it. The Emperor had thought that perhaps it would be useful to use such a language to communicate with each other. Of course, that was before she had reached her full potential and he knew she would be able to communicate with him through the Force alone. Nevertheless, she vaguely remembered Ta'tonni. If the Emperor's files had been written in this language, she should be able to decode them.
Her mind was so occupied with this thought, she almost didn't realize it when she reached the port. She might have missed it all together if it hadn't been for the throng of people.
Just outside the main gate to the landing pad, a crowd of reporters and onlookers were gathered, trying to press forward to see what was happening. She should have known. This trip had been the reason Leia had resigned; it stood to reason that it would be causing some interest in the public. But how was she ever going to navigate through that crowd?
Before she could even come up with an idea, a Port Authority officer approached her. "Captain Jade?"
"Yes, I'm Captain Jade."
"Master Skywalker asked me to escort you through security. He and General Solo and Madame Organa Solo are expecting you."
"Thank you," she said, following him. Well, at least security was keeping the crowds away from the pad itself, and at least she wouldn't have to try and navigate her way through the throng.
When they reached the pad, Mara found it to be unusually quiet. Solo and his Wookiee friend were engaged in some kind of argument with a traffic controller-- typical, Mara thought--but no one else was in sight. Mara stopped by the ship and gave it the once- over while she waited for someone to notice her.
It was not the Millennium Falcon, that was the first thing she noticed with quite a lot of gratitude. She knew it was Solo's pride and joy, but she was not interested in spending six months aboard that bucket of bolts. No, this was a very elegant space yacht. Obviously Calrissian's doing, she thought. Yachts were not Solo's style, nor his wife's, nor Skywalker's, but they were right up Calrissian's alley. It was fairly large, too. Looked more than adequate for such a long journey. At least if it was Calrissian's it would be comfortable.
Finally, Solo noticed Mara. Actually, it was the Wookiee that noticed her, and he nudged Solo, who looked up in her direction.
"Oh, Mara, you're here. You can go on up, the others are inside," he nodded distractedly, then turned back to his argument. Mara started up the ramp, wondering how Solo felt about having her along. She knew that as recently as Corellia, he hadn't trusted her much, but if he didn't want her along he didn't show it.
"Mara, you made it!" That was Skywalker, who was coming out the hatch to join her on the ramp. "I was wondering what was keeping you."
"Had a little conversation with Ghent on my way here," she replied as she met him halfway up the ramp. He turned around and walked beside her back into the ship. "He's sliced your files," she continued, producing the data card.
Skywalker looked surprised. "Already? Man, he works fast."
"He's the best," Mara agreed.
"Then let's take a look. It might be a while before we get underway." He nodded in Solo's direction.
Mara shook her head. "Actually, it's not quite ready yet."
"I thought you said he'd finished."
"He did, but it was written in a language he didn't recognize. Neither did the computers."
Luke frowned. "Maybe Threepio knows what it is."
"Actually, I think I might." She told him about Ta'tonni. "I'll work on it in my spare time. I think I'll have quite a lot of that over the next three months."
They reached the hatch and entered, finding themselves in a large, tastefully decorated reception area. One hallway lead to the left, towards what Mara assumed must be the cockpit. Another led to the right, towards the stern of the ship. A third, shorter hallway ended at a lift which must access the lower levels and crew cabins. Just as they arrived inside, the lift doors opened, and three unruly children came pouring out, followed close on their heels by their stiff protocol droid, See-Threepio.
"I wanna fly the ship!" Jaina Solo was crying as she raced out of the lift and headed toward the cockpit.
"Mistress Jaina, you are to stay away from that cockpit and leave the piloting to the adults," Threepio wailed in vain.
"Why, we flew the Falcon on Drall," Jacen put in, not far behind his sister. Before reaching the cockpit, however, he caught sight of Skywalker and Mara. Changing his direction in mid-stride, he flew at his uncle.
"Uncle Luke, Mara, you're here!"
"Yes, we're here," Luke laughed. Suddenly, all three kids were there as well, each one of them wanting their Uncle Luke's attention. Mara smiled in spite of herself.
"Kids, give Uncle Luke room to breathe!" cried Leia, who had emerged from the lift behind Threepio. She approached them, smiling. Since Skywalker had his hands (and legs, Mara thought) full with the children, Leia went over to Mara and gave her a quick hug. "Glad to see you," she said.
Almost unconsciously, Mara reached out with the Force to see if she really meant it, or was just being polite.
"No, I mean it," came the surprising reply to her unspoken question. "Actually, I'm a little relieved to have another woman along."
Mara nodded. She shouldn't have been surprised. Leia was, after all, Skywalker's sister.
Finally disentangling himself from his niece and nephews, Skywalker noticed the exchange between the two women. "Making use of those Force skills, I see." He nodded approvingly. "That reminds me, I have a surprise for the two of you."
Leia and Mara exchanged glances. "Why don't I like the sound of that?" Mara asked, the humor in her eyes betraying the dread in her voice.
"Threepio, take the kids into the cockpit and let them play pilot until Han gets here," Luke told the golden droid.
"Master Luke, do you think that's wise?" But before he could even get the sentence out, the three children had let go of Luke and headed for the cockpit, shrieking in joy."
"It'll be fine, Threepio. Just don't let 'em start the engines," Luke chuckled. Threepio trundled off after them, muttering.
It was then that Mara noticed something was missing. "Hey, Skywalker, where's that astromech droid you always have around?"
Luke grinned mischievously. "You'll see. Ladies, follow me."
Mara and Leia followed him into the lift and down to the lowest level.
"The cargo hold?" Mara asked.
Skywalker only nodded.
When the lift doors opened, he ushered them into the corridor, than in through a large hatch that led to the cargo bay. Mara stopped short when she saw what was there, recognizing immediately Skywalker's intentions.
The hold was mostly empty, which made sense, since they weren't carrying any cargo other than provisions, and those were normally stored in a separate hold near the galley. It was a cavernous area with ceilings at least twenty meters high. Up above, a narrow catwalk, surrounded by a thick durasteel railing, encircled the hold. Below it, the hold had been transformed into something that resembled a gymnasium. Or military boot camp. There were bars and rings and ropes and obstacles for physical training, and there was also an assortment of weights scattered about the room. Mara also saw Skywalker's astromech droid in the corner, surrounded by what appeared to be seeker remotes.
The kind Jedi used to train with.
"Luke, you've turned this into a training facility," Leia said with wonder, echoing Mara's thoughts.
Skywalker flashed them a wide, farmboy smile that stretched from one ear to the other. "That's right," he replied proudly. "The two of you have given me about a million excuses each as to why you couldn't complete your training." He gestured around the hold with his arm. "With six months ahead of us and very little to do, I believe you have both run out of excuses."
Again, Leia and Mara exchanged glances. This time it was Mara who spoke. "I should have know you'd have some alternative motive for me joining your little excursion," she growled.
"You were the one who wanted to come," he reminded her. "I'm just suggesting a way to fill the time. Unless either of you have any better way to spend the next few months?"
"How about learning English and spending time with my family," Leia said quickly, though Mara could tell she wasn't really against the idea.
"There'll be plenty of time for all of that," Luke responded. "What do you say, are you ready to become Jedi?"
"I suppose it's about time," Leia agreed.
Mara hesitated. "I don't know, Skywalker, there is the Emperor's file to decode..."
"That's okay. If you're scared, I understand."
He had said that just to bait her, she had no doubt of that. But no one challenged Mara Jade and got away with it. "That's it, Jedi. Your little training camp here is hardly enough to make me even sweat, let alone scare me. I accept your little challenge." He smiled triumphantly. "But don't expect me to call you Master."
"Of course not," Skywalker laughed. "It wouldn't be right for my friend or my sister to call me that. Besides, I think I'd pass out if you ever used an honorific of any sort with me," he added merrily.
"No danger of that," Mara returned. "But one more question. What's the astromech droid for?"
"He was a crucial part of my training, and has been there through the training of most of the students on Yavin 4. He's great for levitation exercises."
At this the little droid gave a mournful hoot.
"Don't worry, Artoo. Leia and Mara won't bang you up too much, I promise."
"Don't be too sure of that," Mara shot back, returning his mischievous grin.
After Skywalker gave them a brief tour of his cargo hold/training room, they all headed back up to the main deck, where Solo and Chewbacca were just coming aboard.
"I thought I'd never get through all that red tape," Solo mumbled, shaking his head. He looked up at the three humans and droid that had come up on the lift. "You guys all set?"
"Did my things get here?" Mara asked.
Solo nodded. "Your trunks were stowed in your cabin. You might want to check them over to make sure you have everything before we leave." Turning to Chewbacca, he said, "Come on, Chewie, let's get prepped for liftoff."
The Wookiee snorted a quick response, then followed Solo towards the cockpit.
"I'd better get the kids out of there, Han's gonna have a fit if they've touched anything," Leia said quickly, trailing after her husband.
Mara turned to Skywalker. "Where's my cabin, I think Solo had a good idea."
"Follow me," he replied.
The cabin was quite spacious for a ship--this would have made quite a luxurious cruise liner. She quickly checked over her things to make sure everything was there, then returned to the cockpit where she found the others plus a new addition. Lando Calrissian and his wife, Tendra, had come aboard.
"You take good care of her," Calrissian was saying as Mara approached.
"Hey, it's me," Solo replied, giving a quirky crooked grin.
"Hello, Calrissian. Not a bad little ship you have here."
"Why thank you, Mara." Mara remembered his failed romantic overtures several years ago. If he remembered them as well, he showed no signs of it. Thank the Force for small favors.
"You look wonderful, Tendra," Mara said to his wife, who was just beginning to show the faintest bulge in her midsection. "I understand congratulations are in order. When are you due?"
"In about six months," she replied, smiling. "Thank you."
After a few quick good-byes, the Calrissians finally left the ship and the hatch was sealed. All of the passengers, including the children and droids, gathered in the cockpit to watch liftoff. They strapped into their seats as Solo and Chewbacca went through the final preparations. At long last, the ships repulsors came to life and the Gambler's Edge rose smoothly off the pad and into the Coruscant skies. Within a few minutes they had cleared atmosphere and orbit.
"Ready for the jump to lightspeed," Solo called out.
Chewbacca barked an acknowledgment and pulled back on a lever. The stars ahead of them stretched into starlines, then became the mottled gray of hyperspace.
They were on their way.
Tom Dale arrived home early Christmas Eve morning, just in time to sack out for five hours before going to church for Christmas Eve services. Personally, Tom wouldn't have minded if they'd have skipped church for once--he was dog-tired from his long trip and from jet-lag, but Ally had insisted. Though he admired her faith and her dedication to regular church attendance, Tom was pretty sure in this case it had more to do with rebelling against her father and his "Force religion" than it did her own beliefs.
Once they were there, however, he was glad they had come. The service was beautiful, full of Christmas carols and a children's pageant in which Aaron made a fabulous Joseph, and Casey was a shepherd. At the end of the service was the traditional candle-lighting ceremony, where once flame is passed on from one member of the congregation to the next, until the entire sanctuary was awash in a warm glow. It was always Tom's favorite part of Christmas. Ally's too. Except now as he smiled at his wife, he saw that she had a slight frown on her face.
"What's wrong?" he whispered.
She shook her head, as if shaking away a disturbing thought, then smiled. "Oh, I don't know, I've been having morbid thoughts lately," she whispered back. "I just got the feeling for a second there that this was the last time I'd ever get to be at a Christmas Eve service."
Tom frowned as well. Normally a bright, optimistic person, this was an unusually dark thought for her. "Are you okay?"
The troubled look abruptly left her eyes and she looked herself again. "I'm fine. Really." Tom wasn't so sure.
After the service they rushed home, then Aaron and Casey raced to their rooms to put on their pajamas. The one night a year they were actually in a hurry to get to bed. Thank God for Santa Claus, Tom thought.
Faces scrubbed, teeth brush, and pajamas on, the kids came back into the living room where Ally was preparing a plate of cookies.
"Make sure you leave plenty of Oreos," Casey said, standing on her tiptoes to observe her mother's work. "Santa likes Oreos are the best."
Tom wondered where she got her information.
"Right. Plenty of Oreos," Ally laughed, then spread six of the black and white cookies onto the plate along with some chocolate chip cookies she had baked earlier with the children's help.
"And don't forget the water and carrots for the reindeer," Casey added helpfully.
"Maybe Aaron could do that," Tom suggested.
In response, Aaron rolled his eyes, but he went and got the carrots out of the refrigerator anyway. He was at that age when he was starting to think believing in Santa was for babies, but he was still hedging his bets.
After the snacks were laid out for Santa and his reindeer crew, the kids scurried back to their rooms and to bed, willing the best morning of the whole year to come quickly.
After the kids were in bed, Tom got out a bottle of wine and poured two glasses. It was their little tradition- -a few glasses of wine while they waited for the children to fall asleep, then "Santa" would put out all the gifts under the tree and into the stockings. But not until they were sure the kids were really asleep.
Wine glasses in hand, Tom settled onto the couch, handed one of the glasses to Ally, then patted the seat beside him. She sat down and curled up against him.
"I missed you," he said softly.
"Me, too." Once again, her voice had a sad edge to it. Another thing that was unusual. An officer herself, Ally usually wasn't bothered by their unavoidable separations.
"What's wrong, honey? You don't seem yourself."
She sighed and pressed herself a little more firmly against him. "I'm fine. I've just been having a lot of nightmares lately."
"What kind of nightmares?"
"I don't know," she took a sip of her wine. "Just these weird images. Some man in a red cape who wants me or the kids or something. It's a little different every night."
"Every night?" Tom asked, alarmed. "You've had the same dream every night?"
She hesitated. "Not quite, but most every night."
"Ally, since when?"
"Since Thanksgiving," she said, a little bitterness in her voice.
Now it made sense. Thanksgiving was when she had thrown Gamiel out of the house. "Maybe you're feeling guilty about Gamiel," he said cautiously.
Suddenly she stiffened, pulling away from him. "What do I have to feel guilty for?" She turned to face him, brown eyes blazing. "He's the one who made crazy statements about someone coming for us. He's the one who put this in my head. I didn't ask for his little Space Invaders story!"
"Ally," Tom began, trying to pull her back to him. She wouldn't budge.
"I'm sorry you've been having bad dreams, but I don't see why you let your dad upset you so much."
"He's not my dad," she shot back, more than a little bitter now. "Remember, my dad is some kind of Ming the Merciless ruler of the galaxy!"
"So Gamiel's a little whacked..."
"A little whacked?"
"It's harmless, Ally. Why do you let it get to you? He's the only family we have--don't you think the kids have a right to know their grandfather?"
"It is not harmless!" she cried, frustrated. "Do you have any idea how bizarre my childhood was? Speaking a language no one else has ever heard of? Learning to fence with some kind of weird light toy? The 'Force,' for God's sake! I do not want that for our children!"
"Okay, okay," Tom said, trying to placate her. "I'm on your side, Ally, really I am. I'm just concerned that this is bothering you enough to give you nightmares."
"Which is exactly what I'm talking about," she replied, but her voice was a bit calmer now. "I don't want him to say something that would give Aaron or Casey nightmares. I want..." she trailed off.
Tom gently pulled her back down beside him, holding her. "I'm really sorry. I know Gamiel's fantasies are hard on you." He stroked her hair. "I just don't want you to have any more nightmares. Or any more 'feelings' that there won't be any more Christmases for you."
She was silent for a moment before responding. "Neither do I."
Luke was relaxing in the Edge's lounge, absently toying with a small ring made of seashells that he always wore on his right little finger. He was watching Han and Chewie huddled in a rather noisy confrontation over a gameboard. They were about a month into their voyage- -a third of they way there.
"Sometimes I think I have four children--five actually, with Chewie," he heard Leia's voice sigh from the doorway. She had just come from getting the twins and Anakin settled into bed. Crossing the room, she sat down next to Luke.
"You love it and you know it," Luke countered, smiling.
Leia smiled back. "Yes, I do. You know, I'm actually enjoying being cooped up on this ship for so long. It's the first time I've really gotten to spend a lot of time with my family."
Luke nodded. It must be hard, being a mother of three and the Chief of State--former Chief of State, he amended. Still, Luke couldn't help but feel a little envious. Leia had managed to have a family in the midst of all the craziness that permeated their lives. He doubted he would ever be so lucky.
He looked down at the ring he was playing with, suddenly thinking of the woman who had given it to him. He hadn't thought about Callista in ages, really. It had been about seven years since they had first met and fallen in love. Seven years. Luke could hardly believe that much time had passed.
Callista, who came from the water world of Chad, had been a Jedi Knight in the days of the Old Republic, before the Emperor and Vader had all the Jedi hunted down and killed. In those early days of the Empire, she had gone on a mission to stop a computer controlled ship, The Eye of Palpatine, from killing the hidden children of the Jedi. She almost lost her life in the process, but ended up instead with her spirit trapped inside the ship's computer, the Will, watching over it to keep it from ever completing its mission.
Years later, Luke accidentally brought the ship to life again, and he and Callista, along with two of Luke's students from the Academy on Yavin 4, stopped the ship- -this time, for good. Both of Luke's students lost their lives, but Callista's spirit was able to take over the body of one of them, a beautiful young woman about Luke's own age. The price she paid was the loss of all her Jedi powers.
Her Jedi abilities hadn't really mattered to Luke-- they were together, and that's all that counted. But Callista had felt differently. She desperately wanted to re-establish contact with the Force, feeling that to be with Luke under any other terms would make her less than his equal. In the end, she went out on her own, promising to return as soon as she regained her powers, and leaving behind nothing but memories of their short time together and a small ring made of seashells from her home world. Luke had been saddened by the loss, but felt confident that some day she would return, a full Jedi once again.
He had lost contact with her in the seven years since she left him. Now he doubted he would ever be with her. Not that he thought she wouldn't someday regain her Jedi abilities; he felt certain that it was possible. But after seven years, it no longer felt like they were possible. He wondered suddenly how he would feel if he saw her again. Probably nothing but a distant sadness at the loss of what could have been. But he was pretty sure he didn't love her anymore.
Still, watching Leia watch her family, Luke again felt envious. His years of devotion to the Jedi Academy had left little time for a personal life, and he was unsure if that would ever change.
"You okay?" Leia asked, breaking him from his reverie.
Luke smiled at her. "Yeah. Just thinking..." Before he could finish, Mara Jade strode into the room, caring a data pad.
"Well it's taken the better part of a month, but I think I've got it," she announced to the room.
Han turned away from his game. "The Emperor's Journal?" he asked anxiously.
Mara nodded. "Gather round, kids, and let's see what our friend the Emperor had to say about Malarin Belsarios.
She went to the computer console at the center of the room and plugged in her data pad. Luke and Leia gathered behind her, while Han and Chewie looked on at a similar pad across the room.
"Okay," Mara said, calling up the Journal. "I was right. The thing was written in Ta'tonni. I don't remember it well enough to read it on my own, but with Threepio's help I was able to devise a program that would transcribe it to Basic." Luke watched as information flew by on the screen.
"Here it is," Mara muttered, scrolling through the file. "Let's see if it really is about Belsarios."
As it turned out, it was. Luke and Leia returned to the couch, as they couldn't see much over Mara's shoulder, and Mara started reading aloud. "Okay, 'Malarin Belsarios, born 3/17/14 pre-Empire. Son of an aide to Senator Palpatine in the last days of the Old Republic. Recognized for his minor abilities in the Force and his propensity for the dark side.' So far, nothing we don't already know," she said, looking over her shoulder at Luke.
"I'm sure there's something new in all this," Leia pointed out. Mara continued.
"'Let's see, in the Fifth year of the New Order--'" Mara did a quick calculation: "that would make him about 19--'he was assigned to Project Green.'" Mara frowned.
Chewbacca growled, but Mara ignored the question and continued reading, faster now, mumbling more than reading aloud.
"Did you find something?" Luke asked.
"I'm not sure," she responded. "This doesn't jive with what I know about Belsarios." She continued reading, mostly to herself, while Han tried to figure out what she was looking at on his own screen.
"'...stay close, especially to Green Two,'" Mara mumbled. Then she burst out in sudden anger: "That low-down, filthy, worm-infested..." She didn't finish the thought, but read further. Luke caught Leia glance at him, and he shrugged. They were now sitting forward in their seats, watching Mara closely. Han and Chewbacca were also looking at her from their corner, over the top of their computer screen.
All of the sudden, Mara froze. Her body went stiff, and all color drained from her face, just as it had done in her suite back on Coruscant when Luke had showed her the holo of Belsarios. "Mara?" he asked, jumping up from his seat.
Mara didn't respond, but in one sudden movement, with a fury Luke had never seen, not even from her, Mara snatched the console off of the table and hurled it across the room. It crashed into a wall a few meters from where Han and Chewie sat, and smashed into pieces.
"Hey!" Han yelled angrily, rising to his feet. "What do you think--"
Before he could finish, Mara turned on her heel and strode from the room.
"What the hell is the matter with her?" Han yelled, as Chewbacca roared in agreement.
Luke just looked after her in amazement, then turned to Leia. She looked like she had been slapped in the face.
"You felt that, didn't you?" he asked. Leia nodded. Luke had felt it too: raw emotion rippling out from Mara through the Force with enough pressure to almost knock both him and Leia over. It was like before, in Mara's suite on Coruscant. Only this time it wasn't just anger. It was anger mixed with intense feelings of pain and betrayal.
"What was she reading?" Luke asked Han, who was still red-faced from watching the computer console shatter against the wall.
"I really don't give a--"
"Han, just read the journal, please," Leia interrupted.
"I don't care what she read," Han repeated angrily, "she has no business losing control like that! I'm responsible for returning this ship to Lando in one piece, and she could have damaged something a lot more important than a data console! We have to live on this ship for the next six months!"
"That may be true," Luke said, trying to soothe him, "but we need to know what's in the journal that upset her so much."
Han mumbled something, then sat back down in his seat. "Okay, fine. Here it is: 'Fifth Year of the New Order, assigned to Project Green. Task: to keep an eye on progress.'" Han scanned further. "Okay, 'year sixteen, Imperial Era, assigned to stay close, especially to Green Two. Use whatever methods necessary.'" Han looked up. "Any idea what this Green Project is?" he asked.
"I think I may know," Luke said. "Keep reading."
Han turned back to his console, reading the Emperor's words. "'Year 17 IE. After receiving the latest report on Project Green, I have decided that the team concept simply will not work. They are far more loyal to each other than to me, and that simply cannot be. As Green Two shows more talent than Green One, I have assigned Malarin the task of terminating Green One.'"
"So that's it, it was the Emperor's decision, not Belsarios'," Luke said softly, shaking his head.
"Would you like to enlighten the rest of us, Kid?" Han asked.
Luke sighed. "Mara had a brother. He was taken by the Emperor at the same time she was, when they were children." Leia gasped.
"A brother?" Han asked, incredulously.
Luke nodded. "I'm guessing Project Green refer to them. Green as in Jade." He continued. "Mara said she and her brother trained together to work for the Emperor, but when she was about seventeen, she saw Malarin Belsarios murder her brother. Supposedly the Emperor had him executed for it, but judging from this..."
"...It was his decision in the first place," Leia finished.
Han looked back at his screen. "There's more," he said, reading. "Looks like the Emperor purposely faked Belsarios' execution in order to 'seal the loyalty of Green Two.'"
Leia shook her head. "It never ceases to amaze me how, even after he's been dead for fifteen years, we continue to find new evidence of just how twisted he was."
Chewbacca roared in annoyance, and Han nodded his agreement. "I'm with Chewie. I don't see what the big shocker is here. He destroyed thousands of worlds, are we really surprised that he had one person executed? Is she really surprised?" Han jerked his thumb towards the door Mara had left.
Luke felt suddenly defensive for Mara. "Wait a second, Han. Remember how you felt when Lando turned you, Leia, and Chewbacca over to Vader on Cloud City? Remember how you felt when you thought I had turned to the dark side and was working with the reborn Emperor? Don't forget, Mara was on his side. She wasn't his enemy, she was his servant. And he was the closest thing to a father she ever knew, outside of her brother, who had just been murdered! She trusted him, and he betrayed her."
"All right, I see your point, Kid," Han growled. "But it still doesn't justify destroying a computer console and possibly the whole ship in the process. Besides, why the sudden defensiveness for her?"
Luke looked at him a little angrily. "Because she's a friend and she's in pain. And I happen to think that's more important than a computer console." With that, he turned on his heel and strode from the room.
The Gambler's Edge was fairly small, so even without the Force, Luke would have found Mara quite easily. With the Force, he was able to go directly to her: he could feel waves of betrayal and anger coming from the cargo hold/training room.
When he entered the hold, he found her, lightsaber ignited, ferociously battling a seeker remote.
"Go away, Skywalker," she growled without taking her concentration off the remote, "unless you have a death wish."
Luke reached out with the Force and turned off the seeker. It fell to the floor with a crash. "Not like this, Mara. That's the dark side."
She glared at him, her green eyes narrow slits. "I don't care," she spat.
"But I do. Give in to the dark side, and you're no better than them."
Mara turned off the lightsaber and the blue-white light disappeared into the handle, which she tossed angrily aside. "Go away, Skywalker, " she repeated. "I want to be alone."
"Why, Mara?" Luke asked, taking a step toward her. "Talk to me. It might help."
"Help? Help? "Mara snarled. "What do you want me to say, that I've been a naive fool? Is that supposed to help?"
"You're far from naive."
"Right. I believed the most incredibly self-serving, lying egomaniac the galaxy has ever seen. And I continued to believe him fifteen years after his death. Even after I knew he couldn't be trusted. What a fountain of wisdom I am!" She turned away from him angrily.
"Mara," Luke said softly, coming up behind her. "Don't do this. You had reason to trust him. He was supposed to be on your side."
"You couldn't possibly understand," she growled.
"Don't be so sure. Remember that the man I thought was my greatest enemy turned out to be my own father," he reminded her.
She whirled back around to face him. "That's not even close to the same. You had a whole armada of friends to back you up. Everyone I've ever trusted has betrayed me. Except Mykos, and he's dead."
"I will never betray you, Mara," he said, surprising even himself with the force in his words. "You can trust me. Please, let me help."
Mara glared into his eyes, then her shoulders slumped. "Malarin and I were lovers, Skywalker."
This caught Luke by surprise. He hadn't been that far from the mark when he had wondered if she could have been married; he had just gotten the wrong person.
She looked at him closely, sensing his feelings with the Force, waiting to see if he was going to judge her for that statement. When he didn't, she continued.
"I'd had a crush on him since I was, oh, thirteen years old. He was twice my age, and seemed very strong in the Force. He wasn't, really, but I was young and he seemed invincible. Next to Mykos, I admired him most in the world. Even more than the Emperor, who was already a shriveled old man. Malarin was supposed to be our best friend, the only person we came in contact with that wasn't an instructor of some sort.
"When I was seventeen, he told me he loved me. I couldn't believe it! This man I'd loved all my life in love with me." She smiled sourly. "Apparently that was the 'any means possible' used to 'stay close to Green Two.'"
"Anyway," she continued, "Mykos thought getting involved with him was a bad idea. Told me I was too young and that I was bound to get hurt, but I didn't pay any attention. Then one day, I overheard them--Mykos and Malarin--talking about me. Malarin was trying to pick a fight, saying that he knew Mykos was trying to come between Malarin and me. But Mykos wasn't biting. 'Whatever makes Mara happy,' he'd said. 'I just don't think you really love her.'"
Mara paused. Luke looked at her with concern. "What did he say?"
"He said, 'I don't love her.'"
Luke looked at her, incredulously. "He said that to your brother?" For a second he tried to imagine how he would have reacted if Han had said something like that to him about Leia. It would not have been pretty.
Mara nodded. "Mykos was angry, but he could tell Malarin was just trying to get him in a fight. So he said, 'I'm not going to fight with you.' and he turned his back."
Mara stopped again, and Luke saw tears come to her eyes. She wiped them away angrily, embarrassed. "The next thing I knew," she continued, her voice now a hoarse whisper, "Malarin pulled out his lightsaber and struck Mykos. He never even knew what hit him; he wasn't as good at sensing danger in the Force as I was. But I missed it too. I just stood there and watched as the man I thought I loved murdered my brother. The only family I had."
"That must have been horrible," Luke said quietly, suddenly hearing Vader's voice in his head: Sister? If you will not turn to the dark side, perhaps she will...
Mara continued the story. "I went crazy. I just charged after him with my own lightsaber. He was caught completely off guard. Some Force sensitive!" she scoffed. "He had no idea I was there. I would have killed him on the spot, but then the Emperor appeared out of nowhere. Told me that anyone who raised a hand against me or Mykos was committing treason against the Emperor himself, and that he would see to it that justice was served. Two days later, Malarin was executed--or so I thought," Mara added bitterly. She looked at Luke, as if she expected him to say something, but he remained silent.
"It was the defining moment of my life, Luke. Do you understand that? Before that I was loyal to the Emperor, yes. I had even pledged my life to serve him. But my first priority was to Mykos, and then to Malarin. And now the one had murdered the other and the Emperor was the only person I had left." Mara again wiped angrily at the tears welling in her eyes. "I vowed I would never be tricked again. I would never fall in love again, never set myself up to be betrayed like that. And I'd do anything, anything for the Emperor, the one person I thought had stood by me. But it was all a lie! He ordered Mykos killed. Belsarios murdered my brother because the Emperor commanded him to. So, not only was I betrayed by the person I thought I loved. It turns out my whole life as the Emperor's Hand was nothing but a lie!"
At this, Mara did something Luke thought he'd never see her do. She buried her face in her hands and sobbed.
Luke felt her anguish as if it were his own, and was surprised to find himself fighting anger--not coming from her, but rising up from inside himself: anger at Belsarios and anger at Palpatine for doing this to her, hurting her like this. Feeling absurdly protective, he reached out for her and pulled her into her arms. "It's okay, Mara," he soothed, stroking her hair. "It's okay."
Mara awoke early the next morning, then spent the first several hours of the day pacing around her small cabin, her mind replaying the events from the night before: her ferocious attack on the remote, Skywalker stopping her with his usual lectures about the dark side, his getting her to tell him about Malarin and Mykos, and finally, crying in his arms. She cringed at that memory. She had never let anyone see her that upset before, let alone cry. It was a sign of weakness, and Mara Jade was not weak. She was always in control, and it bothered her that she had been so out of control the night before. She had actually cried. Something she hadn't done, well, since Mykos died.
And what was worse was she had let Skywalker comfort her. She remembered him holding her, talking softly to her. Then he had walked with her back to her room and sat with her here for a long time. The last thing she remembered was falling asleep with her head in his lap. In his lap. She didn't know who she wanted to kill more: herself, Skywalker, or Malarin.
There was another part of her, however, that was relieved. Relieved that after almost twenty years, she was finally able to tell someone about Mykos' death-- and even about Malarin. That was surprising, actually. As the Emperor's Hand, then later a smuggler, and finally, a business woman, she had learned to trust no one and to never show her hand. But last night it had felt good to let some of that go, to finally trust someone. It felt good to have him hold her, soothe her...
With a sudden intensity, she slammed up barriers to her own thoughts and feelings. She did not want to go there, not with Skywalker, not with anyone. Emotions were dangerous; they left you vulnerable. Except for anger--anger was safe. She retreated into that familiar emotion, allowing it to strengthen her, despite Skywalker's lectures.
Her pacing came to a halt as she heard the sounds of three children playing a deck above her, then heard Solo's irritated voice admonishing them to play quietly. She felt her anger drain away again, leaving only embarrassment as she remembered her behavior in the lounge in front of Solo, Leia, and Chewbacca. She glanced at the chronometer on the wall and realized it was getting late. The others would be gathering for breakfast soon. Well, she told herself, she'd have to face them sooner or later.
She took a quick shower, then changed into the leotard, tunic, pants, and boots she wore for Skywalker's Jedi training. She tied her hair back in a quick braid, then gave herself a quick once-over in the mirror. Other than being a little pale, she looked as she always looked: perfectly in control. No sign of the distress from the night before. She straightened up and smoothed out her tunic. Time to face the music.
When she arrived in the lounge, all of the others were already at the table enjoying a large breakfast. Their protocol droid was the first to notice her.
"Mistress Mara! I do hope you rested well."
The Wookiee and six humans at looked up at her as Threepio blathered on about her breakfast choices. Solo seemed about to make a comment, but after a warning look from his wife, he only muttered good morning.
Skywalker stood up from the table as Mara approached. She half cringed, afraid he would be oozing with pity, but he merely smiled brightly at her. "Good morning, Mara."
Before she could even reply, Anakin Solo suddenly jumped up from the table and was at her side, tugging at her tunic.
"Mara, Mara! Wait till you see what I did!" He grabbed her hand and dragged her across the room, pointing proudly to a computer console on the floor. "See," he told her, puffing up his chest. "It was all in pieces this morning, but I made it work right."
Mara took a closer look at the console he was pointing to, and realized with some embarrassment that it was the one she had smashed the night before. She remembered that Anakin was known for being something of a child genius when it came to mechanics. Leave it to him to remind her of her little tantrum the night before.
"What do you think?" Anakin was asking her. "I did it all by myself."
"Anakin, sit down and let Mara have her breakfast," Leia said, throwing an apologetic look at Mara. But Mara, looking at the boy's small face, full of pride, suddenly felt better.
"That's okay," she said to Leia, then turned to Anakin with a smile. "You did a wonderful job." Out of the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of Skywalker with an amused grin on his face. She scowled at him.
Anakin, beaming at her compliment, scampered back to the table to rejoin his family.
"Show off," Jaina muttered as he sat down. Anakin merely stuck his tongue out at her.
"That will be quite enough, Mistress Jaina and Masters Jacen and Anakin! It is time for your lessons," Threepio cut in as he tried in vain to usher them away from the breakfast table.
"What did I do? I didn't say anything," Jacen complained.
"All of you, go with Threepio. You know you have to do your school work," their father told them.
After a flurry of activity and complaints from the children, the fussy protocol droid was finally able to herd them out of the lounge, with Skywalker's astromech droid close on his heels. When the commotion died down, Mara finally grabbed a glass of juice and sat down next to Skywalker.
"I owe all of you an apology," she started, before anyone could say anything to her. Solo looked up at her sharply, and she eyed him evenly. "I had no business behaving like I did, especially in front of all of you. You've all experienced far worse at the hands of the Emperor. Especially you, Leia," she said, giving the Alderaanean a careful look before returning her gaze to Solo. "And your son's mechanical expertise notwithstanding, smashing your ship was out of line. Captain," she added, almost as an afterthought.
"Don't mention it," Solo mumbled. "I've come close to blowing my top a few times myself." Chewbacca snorted a correction.
"Okay, okay, so maybe I've more than come close. No one's perfect," he said, more to the Wookiee then to her.
Mara felt Leia reach across the table and squeeze her arm. Mara eyed her suspiciously, not wanting Leia's pity any more than her brother's. But like her brother, she must have sensed this. "And some of us are less perfect than others," she teased, looking at her husband, who flashed her a winning smile. Mara breathed a small sigh of relief. Thank the Force that's over.
Breakfast continued non-eventfully, until Solo rose from the table, tossing back a final forkful of greasy sausage. "Come on, Chewie. I want to take a look at the power coupling before Goldenrod comes after us for our language lesson."
"Yeah, but when was the last time you trusted Lando to do a job right?" The Wookiee chuckled in agreement as Solo leaned over and kissed his wife's cheek. "See you in school," he told her.
"Speaking of school," Leia said as her husband and Chewbacca left the lounge, "I want to get in a little lightsaber practice before we start with the Jedi lessons today. Is there time, Luke?"
Skywalker nodded, his mouth full. He quickly swallowed. "I thought we'd take it a little easy today. You two have been progressing well." Mara shot him a suspicious look, but if he were easing off for her sake, he showed no sign of it in either his demeanor or in the Force.
"Okay, see you in the hold," his sister was saying, then she too left, and Mara and Skywalker were alone. She wondered if it were coincidence or by design and waited to see if he would say anything, but he silently chewed his food. She swallowed some juice.
"Luke," she began with some difficulty, "I want to thank you for..." she trailed off, unsure how to finish.
Skywalker's gaze met hers, then like his sister had earlier, he reached and squeezed her arm. "That's what friends are for," he said simply.
"You know, I'm not usually so emotional."
Skywalker gave her one of his irritating grins. "So you're human." She ignored the comment.
"Anyway, I would appreciate it if you didn't say anything to the others."
"About you being human? I think they've already figured it out," he teased.
"You know what I mean, Farmboy..." she growled.
"I told you Mara, you can trust me," he said, taking another bite of his breakfast. And she was surprised to find that she did trust him.
Malarin Belsarios sat alone in his quarters, holding the precious two-thirds of the Vader disk. His eyes were closed and he just let the power surge through him.
Mara Jade had learned the truth--at least, as much of the truth as he wanted her to know. He could feel it in the Force, even in hyperspace. The two-thirds disk was amplifying his Force sense in a way that was almost dizzying. Imagine what the whole disk will do...
Well, it was time to put some of that Force sensitivity to work. This trip had been uneventful long enough.
Han Solo walked restlessly through the corridors of the Gambler's Edge. After one month cooped up in this tin can--only one-third of the way to their destination-- he was going nuts. Though he loved space and had spent at least as much of his life on a ship as he had planet- side, he was a man of action. Long, empty voyages did not suit him. Even his anger at Mara's little tantrum from the night before had been a pleasant diversion, but she had apologized so contritely he couldn't find it in himself to stay mad. Which left only boredom.
He had to admit, though, that the evenings were quite nice. After their daily English lessons, all ten crew and passengers--droids included--would gather in the lounge, where the groups organic members ate dinner and Artoo and Threepio re- charged their power cells while arguing about some inane fact or another. With the children aboard, these meals were usually quite lively-- even Mara seemed to be enjoying the family atmosphere. After dinner, he could spend time playing games with his children, or teaching them about space travel, or whatever struck their interest. After they went to bed, he and Leia were usually able to spend some time alone together. Not once since he'd met her--and this included their honeymoon-- had he been able to enjoy so much uninterrupted time with his wife. Yes, the evenings on board the Gambler's Edge would be a time he would always cherish. They almost made up for the days.
With the children in school with the droids and Leia and Mara in Jedi training with Luke, Han and Chewbacca were left with their days pretty empty. They had played sabaac and holo games until they both agreed if they'd rather shoot themselves with Chewie's bowcaster than play one more game. So Han had taken to roaming the halls.
Now he found himself outside the door to the children's cabin, where Threepio was busy teaching them history. Han leaned against the wall and listened in.
"Master Jacen," he heard Goldenrod lecture stuffily, "can you tell me the date of eruption of the Kanz Disorders, and what caused--Master Anakin, please return to your seat and put down that condenser--" Han heard something fall to the ground with a crash. Obviously Anakin had been levitating the condenser unit with the Force, and had simply released it when Threepio told him to.
"--I did not intend for you to drop--Mistress Jaina, please leave that alone!" Threepio whined miserably from inside the room.
Han smiled to himself, debating whether he should go in and get his children to settle down. No, he decided, let Threepio try and reestablish order. Besides, he had to admit he kind of liked to know his kids could wreak havoc once in a while. With the talent for the Force which they all shared, Han sometimes felt they were more Leia's children than his. Causing trouble, now that came from his side.
Han started to walk away when he heard heavy footsteps behind him. He turned to greet Chewbacca, who grunted at him.
"That's right, I almost forgot. Thanks for reminding me, pal." They were due for their next jump back to real space for re-powering. And none too soon; it would give Han and Chewie something to do for the next few hours.
The two of them made their way back to the "bridge"--really just a glorified cockpit. Han sat down at the navicomputer and did some long computations, while Chewbacca readied the sublight drive systems.
His computations finished, Han reached for the ship intercom. "Okay, gang, we're about five minutes from dropping out of hyperspace. Find a seat and strap in." He toggled the switch off, then turned to the pilots console to run a quick system check as the navicomputer's countdown neared zero.
"Okay, Chewie. Ready for reentry." Chewbacca gurgled his assent. "Ready--now."
Han pushed forward on the control to the hyperspace engines, while Chewbacca switched power to the sublight engines. Abruptly, the mottled gray of hyperspace became starlines, then flared into pinpoints of light. They were back in normal space.
Han unstrapped himself and rose from his chair, giving Chewbacca directions as he did. "You do the power checks--" He was cut off by a sudden alarm. Chewbacca roared.
"What do you mean, another ship?" Han cried, "we're a hundred million light- years from nowhere!"
Chewbacca roared again, stamping a furry claw down on the console. Han sat down again and checked the readouts. Chewie was right. The sensor's detected a ship. Imperial strike-class. And it was headed towards them at high speed.
Han swore. "Look's like we've got company! It must be Belsarios. Chewie, see if you can get Leia and the others out of their Jedi training. We're gonna need some gunners." Chewbacca snorted a question.
"Because if I use the comlink, the kids will know there's something wrong," he snapped, "Just do it!" But before Chewbacca could rise from his seat, Leia, Luke, and Mara appeared in the cockpit behind him.
"Belsarios is here, isn't he?" Luke said. Han should have known the three Jedi wouldn't need to be told something was up--they already knew.
"Looks like it," Han replied. "Each of you better go take a gun turret--they're coming in fast."
"I'll go make sure the kids are locked down first," Leia said, as the three of them turned around and left the way they had come.
Chewbacca roared again. They had a visual.
"I see it, I see it! Shields on full!"
Chewbacca slapped the shields control, while Han took hold of the pilot controls. Good thing Lando hadn't sacrificed speed and maneuverability when he'd had the Edge refurbished to be a passenger yacht.
"Ready in the forward gun turret," he heard Mara's voice come in over the comlink, her voice hard as steel. Han found himself feeling glad for her grudge against Belsarios. Mara fought pretty damned well when she was angry.
Luke signaled that he was in position in the aft turret just as the Imperial ship roared into range, ion cannons blazing.
With a roar, Chewie threw more power into the forward shields, as Mara's gun started blazing away at the Imperial vessel. Chewie roared again.
"All right!" Han cried back. "Just do what you can to keep the shields up." With that, he pulled back hard on the lever, taking the ship into a dizzying loop, which brought the Imperial ship out of Mara's gunsights, but into Luke's. The kid started shooting, while Han tried to avoid being hit by enemy fire.
Just then, Leia's voice came over the comm system: "The kids are all buckled down in their quarters with Threepio and Artoo. I'm ready on the dorsal gun."
Chewbacca roared again. "We can't take much more," he agreed, "that ship's just too big. How about getting us back into hyperspace?" Chewie snorted.
"I know we're in an uncharted galaxy and we have no idea where we are, but we aren't going to last against that ship!" Han retorted. "Rear shields on full!" he cried as the Imperial made another pass at him. Both Leia's and Luke's guns were blazing, but they were barely making a dent in the larger ship's shields.
"Solo," came Mara's voice over the intercom. "I have an idea. Head straight for them."
Han shook his head. Maybe Mara's personal grudge with Belsarios was clouding her judgment after all. "I'd love to, Mara, but I have this crazy desire to survive."
"It'll work, Solo, trust me," Mara snapped back. "I'm familiar with the shields on strike-class ships. If we change course suddenly and head right for them, their tracking system gets thrown all out of whack, giving us--" She was cut off as an explosion rocked the Gambler's Edge. Chewbacca bellowed, and Han glanced over his shoulder to the shield readouts. Almost gone, and they had some exterior hull damage.
"This better work, Jade!" Solo called into the comm system. He had to try something. "Chewie, divert everything we've got into the forward gun and what's left of the forward shields." With that, he pulled the yacht into another stunning loop, and found himself staring straight into the Imperial cruiser. As he did so, he saw Mara's guns firing furiously. Impossibly, it was working. They had gotten a dent in the enemy's shields, and were finally causing some damage. Now if they could only do some good damage, like maybe to the sublight engines, or even...
"Luke, Leia," Han called, flipping on his comlink. "I've got an idea. Mara's opened a hole in their shields, and we may have them on the run. I don't think there's a snowball's chance on Tatooine that we'll destroy the thing, but if we can get a crack at the hyperdrive, we may be able to buy some time to get to your sister first."
"What's your plan?" Luke asked.
"While Mara's having such success with the forward guns, they won't expect us to change position suddenly. But I'm gonna pull up hard and fly over. That should give each of you a shot at the rear where the engine's power cells are."
"Okay, okay, we're doing it now. Ready?"
"Ready," Luke and Leia responded in unison. With that, Han pulled up hard, slamming himself and Chewie back into their seats. He flew up and over the mid- sized strike-class ship, while Luke and Leia concentrated fire on the rear of the ship. It seemed to be working: the Imperial's forward and aft shields were cracking, and it looked like they just might blow the hyperdrive engines. Then suddenly, the ship was gone, in a blaze of light as it jumped into hyperspace.
"What the--?" Han cried, as Chewbacca roared simultaneously. How could they have made the jump so fast, with so much power being used for shields and weapons? Han flipped on the comlink. "Did anyone see that? Did we do that, or did they just jump into hyperspace?"
Mara's voice crackled on the line. "Couldn't tell. The hit on their engines may have sent them into hyperspace--or they may have jumped on purpose."
"Either way, that should be bad news for them, right?" came Leia's voice. "I mean, they couldn't have re- calculated so fast, especially in an unknown galaxy."
Han grimaced. In theory, she was right, but his gut told him differently. But Mara answered Leia before Han had a chance.
"No," she said. "Malarin did that on purpose. He's very much in control," she said. Her voice had that eerie quality that reminded Han of something. It came to him almost immediately. Luke's voice had sounded just like that back just before the Battle of Endor, when they were on the stolen Imperial shuttle trying to get to Endor to destroy the shield generator. When he'd said, "Vader's on that ship. I can feel him."
"I've got a bad feeling about this," Han said.
After briefly checking on the kids, who were frightened (less so than Threepio, however) but otherwise okay, Han and Leia joined Chewbacca, Luke, and Mara in the ship's lounge to plan the next course of action. As soon as they arrived, Chewbacca gave a brief summary of the damage to the ship: shields out, some hull damage and some damage to the sublight engines, but otherwise the ship was fine.
"Are we gonna lose any time getting this fixed, or can you do it in hyperspace?" Han asked his Wookiee companion. Chewbacca snorted.
"Then hyperspace it is. Artoo and I will help you during the day, and Threepio can in the evening, when he's not playing school or English teacher."
"Captain Solo, may I remind you, my programming is not designed--"
"Can it, Goldenrod!" Han snapped. He turned back to the others. "If Chewbacca says we can fix her in hyperspace, then we'll stick to our schedule."
Luke nodded in agreement. "We need to get there as soon as we can. We have no idea if Belsarios is capable of beating us there or not. I just hope the Force will give us an edge at finding Allia and Gamiel once we do get there."
Mara shook her head grimly. "No chance. I know you're a Jedi Master, Luke, and Belsarios is no Emperor-- or even a Vader--but he's got the Force. He'll find them easily."
Even though Han had no sense of the Force, he could feel his wife and her brother shudder. Even though they hadn't met her yet, they already felt a close connection with their triplet sister.
"Okay, okay," Han continued. "So we're in agreement that we need to stay on schedule. Also, from now on, every time we come out of hyperspace to re- power, the kids are going to be locked down in the cargo hold, which is the interior-most section of the ship, and should be the safest. The rest of us will be at battle stations." No one argued.
"Now that that's settled," Leia put in, "we've got to figure out how it is we came out of hyperspace at the exact same time and place as Belsarios, and--more importantly--how did he recalculate for hyperspace so fast, while under attack, no less?"
Chewbacca snorted, but Luke shook his head. "I don't think it's just coincidence. I know they probably have the same navigational information we have, but their ship is much bigger, so it should be much slower, and need to drop back to normal space more often than us, and at different places."
Mara agreed. "I don't believe in coincidence, anyway. I think he knew where we were coming out of hyperspace, and planned to stop there himself."
"But how?" Leia asked.
Mara shrugged. "I don't know, spies? How does anyone get information?"
"But he can't have spies on this ship," Han said skeptically. "There's only the five of us, plus the kids and the droids."
"But he has the Force," Luke put in quietly. "Mara said so."
They all looked at him in surprise. "But wouldn't you know if he were tracking us with the Force?" Han asked incredulously.
"I knew he was there as soon as we got out of hyperspace. So did Leia and Mara," he said, motioning to his two pupils.
"Still," Han frowned, "that was after we arrived. He couldn't have been tracking us before that without you knowing--could he?"
Luke shook his head, but didn't look convinced. Han sighed. That put them back at square one.
Suddenly, Mara sat bolt upright. "The disk!" she cried, snapping her fingers.
"The disk?" Han asked.
"The Vader disk," she replied tartly. "You know, the reason we're taking this little pleasure cruise."
"What about it," Luke said.
"Remember, it's supposed to have Force- strengthening qualities. Kind of like--" she struggled for the right words--"Kind of like the focusing eye on the Death Star."
Han saw his wife shudder at the mention of the super weapon that destroyed her home world. "What do you mean?" Leia asked Mara.
"She means, it can focus the Force, so someone who's a rather average Jedi, like Belsarios, can become more powerful," Luke answered for her. "Am I right?"
Mara nodded. "If I recall correctly. I think that was one of the reasons Malarin had always been so interested in finding it. It really bugged him that the Emperor was closer to Vader because Vader was stronger with the Force." She paused and smiled sourly. "It bugged him even more that I was stronger than he was."
"But remember, he only has two-thirds of the disk," Luke reminded them.
"Then I'd hate to see what he could do with all three parts," Mara shot back.
"Wait, wait, wait," Han cut in, waving his hands. "What are you saying here? Are you saying that if he gets a hold of the third pendant, he could be stronger than Luke?"
"Maybe," Mara said grimly, looking at Luke. He looked back at her, and Han hoped he was going to contradict her, but he said nothing.
"Great. Just great," Han said. He splayed his hand out on the table, then pushed himself up out of his chair, looking down at the rest of them. "Then we have more reason than ever to beat him to Earth. We'd better get busy."
Well, at least now the trip wouldn't be boring.
After the incident with Belsarios, a new, slightly altered routine was established. After breakfast, the kids and Threepio would go off to school, Luke, Leia, and Mara to the hold for Jedi training, while Han, Chewie, and Artoo would work on repairing some of the damage done by Belsarios' ship. Luke was pleased that both his "students" were coming along very nicely. Mara and Leia were both very strong in the Force and were quickly mastering the skills needed to be a Jedi.
The whole group would meet again for lunch, then Threepio would give the humans English lessons while Chewie took some R-and-R. Then dinner, after which Chewbacca and the droids picked up where the morning's repairs left off, while the humans took their R-and-R.
With this schedule, Luke was often finding himself alone with Mara in the evenings as Han and Leia used the evenings for family time. This arrangement seemed to irritate Mara immensely, but Luke found himself enjoying it. Ever since her uncharacteristic display of emotion after learning about the Emperor's part in Mykos' death, he had strongly felt the desire to get to know her better. Ten years of friendship, and only now was he beginning to see through some of the mystery that surrounded Mara Jade.
Mara, for her part, showed absolutely no interest in sharing more about herself, but after a couple weeks of spending their evenings together, he could sense her warming up to him. Occasionally, he could even get her to talk a little bit about Mykos.
"You would have liked him, Skywalker," she said one evening as they sat in the lounge. "You kind of remind me of him. All that youthful idealism and all," she smiled.
Luke laughed. "I haven't felt like a 'youthful idealist' in a long time."
"Well, you haven't always acted like one," Mara agreed. "But he's still in there somewhere." She poked his chest to emphasize her point. Suddenly her eyes narrowed and took on an evil glint. "Although, I thought he'd disappeared altogether a couple of years ago, before the Black Fleet Crisis. What was up with that hermit- thing?"
He started in surprise. "How did you...?"
"Skywalker," she said, hands on her hips, "how many times are you going to be surprised by my resources. I know everything."
Luke found himself laughing again. "You're right, I shouldn't be surprised."
"About the hermit thing?" she prompted. "If you want me to talk about my personal life, you've gotta give some in return."
"Not much to tell," he shrugged. "It was a phase, I guess. But I was wrong, Mon Mothma was right."
"Yeah. Just before we all went to Corellia, Mon Mothma gave me a little lecture about being a Jedi in the universe, not apart from it."
"Wise woman," Mara nodded thoughtfully. "Reminds me of a religious proverb I heard somewhere. Something about spice only being worthwhile when it was mixed into the food it was supposed to be spicing. Bad paraphrase, but you get my point."
"I get your point." He was silent for a moment. "So, what else about my deep dark past do you want to know?"
"Deep dark past. About as dark as summer on Tatooine," she replied, wrinkling her nose. "I told you, you're about as transparent as a deflector shield."
"You're the one who said I had to 'give something in return.'"
She eyed him a moment, then said, almost hesitantly, "All right. I've told you about Malarin. Tell me about Callista."
This had caught him off-guard. He never talked about her much anymore. Didn't really think about her much, either. Once since they'd been on the Edge-- before that he couldn't remember the last time he'd thought of her.
"What's there to tell?"
"I'm just curious. You guys seemed pretty tight, then all of the sudden she disappears. What happened?"
"I thought you knew everything," Luke replied. For some reason, he felt very uncomfortable. Callista was the last thing he wanted to be talking about with Mara.
"She wanted to find her Force ability again. Thought being around me was getting in the way."
"I know that. What I mean is, why'd you let her go?"
Luke struggled to get a grasp on his emotions, which suddenly seemed very slippery. "What was I supposed to do, force her to stay? She had a path to follow, I couldn't choose it for her."
"Were you angry?"
"A little. And hurt a little. But I also felt glad that she was doing what she needed to do for herself, and not just what I wanted."
"Ah, the ever noble Jedi."
"Mara, why the sudden interest in Callista?"
"Why are you interested in Mykos?" she challenged back.
"Because I want to get to know you."
"Well, maybe I want to get to know you, too."
There was a long, somewhat uncomfortable silence as they both digested this, but Luke was relieved that at least he had managed to steer her off the topic of Callista. Why was that so awkward for him, anyway? Finally, Mara broke it by jumping up off the couch. "All this delving into the past is giving me a headache." She went over to the communication console and turned on some music. It had a fast, driving rhythm, and Mara began moving gracefully to it. "I'm a woman of action," she said. "Come on, Skywalker, let's see what kind of moves a farmboy has."
He watched her for a second longer, admiring her grace and agility, then he stood up, accepting her challenge. Of course, he was hopelessly outclassed--in addition to her many other talents, Mara had trained as a professional dancer--but he found himself enjoying the feeling of letting go, letting the music guide his movements. It was not unlike the feeling of the Force. But knowledge of the Force sometimes exacted a high price--the music was free.
"No, no, Skywalker, don't just flail your arms around like that!" Mara laughed, her voice uncharacteristically light. "Feel the music. Like the Force," she said, echoing his own thoughts. She took his hand and came closer to him, her lithe body swaying to the beat of the music. He tried to imitate her movements.
"That's better," she said approvingly. "You'd better be careful, Skywalker, I don't think Jedi Masters are allowed to actually have fun."
"I don't know, sometimes I think Yoda saw everything as one big joke."
"Really? The vaunted Jedi Master-of-all-Masters had a sense of humor?"
"Yeah," Luke remembered sheepishly, "did he ever. He didn't tell me who he was when I first met him. Let me make a complete fool out of myself."
"Doesn't sound hard," she said impishly.
The song ended and Mara pirouetted away from him, finishing her dance with a flourish he couldn't hope to match. Suddenly, from behind him, came the sounds of clapping.
They both looked towards the source of the sound, a bit startled, to see Han and Leia standing there, applauding them. Han whistled appreciatively.
"Hey, if I'd have known there was going to be a floor show on this cruise I would have come down here earlier," he teased, giving them a roguish grin.
"Yes, Luke, you didn't tell me you had such a talent for dancing," Leia laughed.
"He doesn't, couldn't you tell?" Mara joked back, but Luke thought he caught a hint of tension in her voice. "That's why I was giving him a lesson. Can't have a Jedi Master with no rhythm."
"Well, it looked like fun," Leia replied, then turned to her husband. "Han, how come you never take me dancing?"
"Thanks a lot, Kid," Han grumbled, but Luke knew they were joking. "Mind if we come in for the late show?"
"Sorry, show's over," Mara returned as Han and Leia sat down anyway.
Luke was surprised to note that he felt a little annoyed by his sister and brother-in-law's intrusion--he had really been enjoying the time alone with Mara. Come to think of it, more and more he was finding that he valued the time spent with her very much.
Later that evening, Leia sat in her bed, thinking about Luke and Mara dancing.
"What's on your mind, Your Worship?" Han asked casually, coming out of the refresher. He sat down beside her and gave her a playful nudge.
"Luke. I can't remember the last time I saw him enjoying himself so much," Leia replied.
"It's about time, if you ask me," Han yawned mightily. "All this Jedi Master stuff--he's been too serious lately. I miss the good ol' days when we'd just rush in to rescue a captured princess and not worry about the greater theological implications."
"No, you only worried about the greater monetary implications," Leia shot back, this time giving him a nudge.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm a scoundrel. We've already established that. But don't you think Luke needs some more scoundrels in his, grave, somber, contemplative little Jedi life?"
"Like Mara?" Leia wondered aloud.
"Sure, she's an ex-smuggler. Have you ever been to a smuggler's party-- now there's some people who know how to have a good time."
Leia smiled, shaking her head. As usual he had missed the point altogether. After seeing Luke and Mara together tonight, a suspicion that had been forming in the back of Leia's mind came forward. She hadn't seen her brother acting so spirited and light-hearted since--well, since Callista left. Maybe Mara was good for Luke in more ways than just getting him to cut loose again. True, she had once wanted to kill him, but then Leia had pretty much spent the first couple of years she knew Han wanting noting more than to personally choke the life out of him. Passion was like energy: it couldn't really disappear, it could only be transformed into a different form of passion.
"I just hope when you finally reach that vaunted Jedi level you won't get all pensive and solemn," he was saying, unaware that he had missed anything at all.
"Someone's gotta be the brains in this family," she shot back, smiling.
"Why, Your Exalted Jedi Worshipful Majesty, it was never your brains I was interested in."
Casually, Leia practiced her Force skills by using them to slam her pillow into her husband's face.
The Force Storm pulled out of hyperspace right on schedule: almost three months to the day since leaving the Minos Cluster. Malarin Belsarios watched from the bridge as the ship's pilot pulled back on the lever that brought them back into realspace.
They had arrived.
Holding the two parts of the Vader disk that he already possessed, Belsarios used them to amplify his Force senses.
He knew instantly that they had arrived ahead of Mara Jade and her rebel friends, but just barely. They would be here in less than a day.
The other thing he knew was that he had the right place.
Looking out the main viewscreen, he could see a small, blue-green planet in the distance. It was teeming with life; he could sense that right away. But there were two lives that he could sense that stood out from the rest.
"Lord Belsarios, according to the coordinates, that planet up ahead should be the one."
"It is, Captain," he replied, smiling. "Put the ship into orbit and prepare my shuttle immediately," he ordered. "We'll be leaving in two hours."
Two more hours, and the Vader disk would be his.
"Well, everyone, hang on to your seats. This is it," Han said over the intercom to Luke, Leia, and Mara, who were strapped into their respective gun turrets. They hadn't had any more confrontations with the Imperials, but if ever there was a time they were likely to, this was it.
They were about to jump out of hyperspace and into the Earth's system.
"Okay, Chewie, let her rip!" he said, turning off the com and giving his friend a pat on the arm. Chewbacca acknowledged him with a short bark, then pulled back on the hyperdrive control. Starlines became stars and they were back in realspace.
"Okay, gang, you can breathe again. Scanners show no sign of any ships." He looked out to the planet ahead. It was mostly blue, indicating a large percentage of its surface must be covered by oceans.
"It looks like Alderaan," he heard Leia breathe over the comlink.
"Well, sensors or not, Belsarios is here," Mara warned from her gun turret. "They're probably on the other side of the planet."
"Then we don't have a lot of time to waste," Han replied as he quickly checked over his instruments. "Chewie, drop us into orbit. Maybe we can stay on the opposite side of the planet from the Imperials. Might help us avoid another confrontation, at least until we get those Jedi." Speaking of which...
"Hey Luke," Han said into his comlink. "You reading anything? We do have the right planet, don't we?"
There was a short silence. "We're in the right place," Luke said softly. "She's here."
"I can sense her, too," came Leia's voice, as hushed as Luke's. Great, Han thought, their weird twin thing just became a weird triplet thing.
"All right, no time to get dreamy," Han warned his wife and brother-in-law. "We've got to get a shuttle and a landing party ready."
Chewbacca growled a question.
"I'm sure, buddy. Judging by this planet's reaction to that Jedi Master Slopl, I don't think they're used to seeing non-human aliens. You and the droids need to stay up here. Besides," he added conspiratorially, "you don't think I'm gonna leave the kids up here alone with no one but Threepio and Artoo, do you? The ship would be destroyed by the time we came back."
Han's face became more serious. "Really, Chewie, if the Force Storm decides to engage the ship while we're down there, I need someone I can trust to protect the kids. Got it?"
Leia, Luke, and Mara appeared in the cockpit behind Han and Chewie, apparently deciding there was no point being in the gun turrets if there was nothing to shoot at. "We'd better test that shuttle cloaking device one more time," Luke said to Han. "I don't trust that thing."
Han groaned. "Are you sure we need it? I mean, to cloak the ship from sensors and visual...she's gonna be awfully hard to pilot. We'll be flying blind." Cloaking technology was still in its infancy. It had not been used very successfully on ships because not only did it keep all incoming sensor arrays out, it kept outgoing sensor array in, rendering the navigation equipment useless. Dangerous in space, this could be quite lethal in atmosphere.
"We've got the Force," Luke assured Han. "Remember, this planet is pre- lightspeed technology. They'd probably be a little jumpy if they saw a shuttle coming in for a landing."
"All right, we'll use it," Han agreed reluctantly. "But I still don't like it."
"Then lets stop talking and start moving," Mara said sharply. "Belsarios is already on his way down there."
"Then what are we waiting for?" Han asked. He decided to try out the English Threepio had been drilling into them for the past three months. "Welcome to Earth."
Gamiel Tumaric awoke with a start just as the first rays of dawn were creeping in through the window of his tiny home outside of Yuma, Arizona.
There was a disturbance in the Force.
Not a far away one, like last November. No, this one was very near. And way ahead of schedule.
Gamiel quickly got out of bed and pulled on his rough, brown robe. How could they already be here? It's only been three months. It had taken him and Allia five months to get here.
Of course, that was more than thirty years ago. Stood to reason that technology had improved in the past three decades.
Moving quicker than his age would seem to allow, Gamiel went over to the dresser in the corner. Digging through the linen in the bottom drawer, his hand finally closed upon what he was seeking. He withdrew it from the drawer and examined it closely.
He hadn't used it in over ten years, mostly in deference to Allia. But now it was necessary. The one who was coming for him was not Allia's brother or sister, though he sensed they weren't far.
No. The one who was coming was from the dark side.
Turning the dark handle over in his hands, Gamiel flipped the switch. A loud, electronic hum reverberated through the air and the room took on a purple glow as the brilliant violet shaft of light ignited into being. * * * * *
Lieutenant Allia Dale stood in the doorway of the mess hall, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dim light after being out in the brilliant morning sun. When she regained her sight, she headed for the crowded serving line, picking up a tray on the way. A corporal behind the counter slapped something that vaguely resembled eggs onto a tortilla, then slid it onto her tray. She grabbed a cup of coffee, then looked around for a familiar face. Anyone who spoke English. Tom would be her first choice, but he wasn't due back from his flight until later that afternoon. Luckily, Ally saw one of their friends, Captain Hiller, and she took her tray over to where he was seated.
"Hey, Dale, long time no see!" Hiller called, waving at an empty seat across from him.
"Hi, Hiller, how's the wife and kids?" she asked she plopped her tray down, took off her heavy military coat, slung it over the back of her chair, and fell wearily into her seat.
"Fine, fine," he said, his mouth full. "You're looking good. Better than the last time I saw you."
"Really? When was that?"
"Oh, around Christmas, I think."
"Well that explains it. Christmas time was a little rough on me this year." She thought about the dreams she had been having. For some reason, they had all but stopped just after the Christmas season ended. She had chalked it up to the combination of Gamiel's little revelation, the stress of Christmas season, and Tom's absence during that time all crashing down on her simultaneously. It had probably just been a little much for her all at once.
As soon as New Years was over, however, the dreams seemed to dwindle down to once or twice a week at the most. The last time she had dreamed or even thought about that man with the red cape had been around Super Bowl time, and now they were well into February. She felt like her old self again.
"But you look tired," Hiller continued.
Ally nodded. "I've been with those Russian pilots since oh-five-hundred."
"Poor baby," Hiller said, playing an imaginary violin for her as he chewed on his breakfast. "Two whole hours. What do they think this is, the military?" He swallowed. "Hey, did you hear the buzz this morning?"
"Not unless it was in Russian."
"Guess we got about a million calls last night. A UFO."
Ally looked at him over her coffee mug, eyebrows raised. "UFO?"
"Yeah, out over the desert. Calls have been coming in all night."
"Oh, great," Ally rolled her eyes, "the wacko patrol."
Hiller took another bite of his egg burrito. "What's a matter, Dale, don't believe in little green men from Mars?"
"No, I don't," she said a little too quickly as Gamiel popped into her mind.
"Well, the good people of Yuma seem to," Hiller said lazily. Ally stared at him.
"Yeah, that's where they saw it. Out over the desert near Yuma."
Perfect. Probably the Mother Ship coming to get Gamiel, she thought a little savagely, taking a bite of her burrito.
She barely got the runny glob of eggs in her mouth when she suddenly spit it out into a napkin.
"Hey, Dale, you're supposed to swallow," Hiller was saying, but she only heard him from a distance, as if through a haze. She stared straight ahead, but wasn't seeing the mess hall in front of her. She was seeing Gamiel's house.
Gamiel? One mention of UFO's and my mind starts running away with me, she thought, trying to force the image out of her mind, but it wouldn't go. Nor would the feeling. The same feeling she had had just before that gun fight at Aaron and Casey's school. That feeling of danger. But this time, it wasn't her children who were in danger.
Gamiel's house was filling with smoke as the door burst in under the force of laser fire. Laser fire? Suddenly men dressed in what appeared to be white fiberglass armor poured into the room, bearing guns that looked like something out of Buck Rogers. They were calling for Gamiel. But not in English. Or Spanish. Or German, or Russian , Japanese, Navajo, or even Sign Language, for that matter. They were speaking Basic. The language Gamiel had raised her with. The language he had made up.
Ally snapped back to reality. Hiller was staring at her, snapping his fingers in front of her eyes.
"Hello, is anybody home?" he repeated.
"Sorry," Ally mumbled. Something was wrong with Gamiel. No, she told herself firmly. No, no NO! I will not let his crazy ideas affect me. There are no UFOs and Gamiel is not in danger! This is no different than those nightmares!
Except it was different. She was not asleep and this was no imaginary image called up by this UFO nonsense. It was real, she felt it inside and knew it as well as she knew her own name. Gamiel was--no, would be--in great danger. Whatever-it-was hadn't happened yet. There was still time.
"Excuse me, I just remembered something," she said vaguely in Hiller's direction. She rose from the table, grabbed her cap and coat, and headed for the door, leaving him and her half-eaten burrito behind.
First Ally found a phone and dialed Gamiel's number. The phone rang, but no one answered.
"Damn!" she swore, hanging up the phone. The feeling was still there.
Next she went to Major Brummel's office, but when she got to the door, she had no idea what she was going to say. She straightened her camouflage blouse, took a deep breath, then plunged into the outer office.
"I need to see Major Brummel right away," she told his secretary. "I have a family emergency."
The secretary called the major on the intercom, then motioned her into his office. She entered, saluting smartly. He saluted back.
"At ease." She did so. "What is it, Lieutenant Dale?"
"Sir, I just received a call from my father in Yuma. He's very ill. I have to leave to see him right away."
The major frowned. "How did you receive this call? Usually calls of this nature come through me.
"I don't know," Ally shrugged, thinking wildly. "They just found me in the mess hall, sir."
"I'm sorry, Lieutenant. Do they know what's wrong with him?"
"No, sir, but they think he may die," she lied. No, she told herself, that wasn't a complete lie. She felt like he was going to die if she didn't get to him in time. "I need leave to see him right away, sir."
The major paused to consider her request. "Of course, Lieutenant. You know, it just so happens they're sending a flight out to Yuma in a couple of hours to check out those UFO complaints." There was no mistaking his opinion on that subject. "I could arrange for you to fly out with them. Would that help?"
Ally cringed at the mention of the UFO. It's coincidence, it has nothing to do with whatever's wrong with Gamiel. "No sir, thank you, but my father lives about an hour's drive from Yuma into the desert. I could drive there in about three hours. It'll probably be faster."
"That's fine, then Lieutenant. As soon as we can get an interpreter to cover your duties for you--"
"Sir, Lieutenant Doschev has been working with the Russians also. I'm sure he's more than capable to handle the interpreting duties alone, until someone else can be brought in," Ally cut him off. Normally not a wise thing to do to a superior officer, but she was too frantic to care about military propriety.
"You're in quite a hurry, Lieutenant."
"Yes, Sir, I am. I'm afraid I won't see my father alive." And that was the God's honest truth.
"Very well, Lieutenant. You're granted a two-day leave, with possible extensions, effective immediately."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Ally turned to leave, then turned back. "One more thing, if I may Major? Could you tell Captain Dale when he returns that he'll need to arrange to have the kids picked up from school?"
"I'll take care of it, Lieutenant. I hope you're father's okay," he added.
"Thank you, sir," Ally repeated, then left the office.
She almost made it.
It was about ten in the morning, and Allia was speeding down Interstate 8 just half an hour from Gamiel's home when she heard the voice in her head. Allia, don't come after me! Take Tom and the children and your father's medallion and run.
Her father's medallion? What on earth did that mean? But she had no sooner asked herself the question when an image came to her mind, sharp as a photograph. It was a silver, wedge-shaped pendant with a red stone embedded in it. She remembered it instantly--a family heirloom that Gamiel had given her when she was a child, telling her it was something from her birth father. She hadn't thought of it in years, wasn't even sure where it was. Why would it come to her mind now?
Ally shook her head. She was getting as crazy as Gamiel. It was bad enough to come out here on a whim because of some kind of hallucination she'd had while eating bad military eggs and hearing UFO stories. Now she was hearing Gamiel's voice and seeing pictures in her head.
Yet she knew she wasn't crazy. Maybe she didn't believe in this Force of Gamiel's, but her intuition had never been wrong yet. No, Gamiel was in some kind of trouble.
"But why Gamiel?" she asked herself out loud. He was a harmless, thoroughly insane old man. He had no money, nothing anyone else could want.
...your father's medallion...
She remembered what he had told her at Thanksgiving. "Someone is coming for us. I've felt it in the Force. "
"No, no NO!" she shouted to herself aloud. "I am not buying that. This has nothing to do with Gamiel's demented fantasies!"
But here she was, rushing headlong into the desert wilderness. Why was she doing it, if she didn't think he was in some kind of serious trouble. And why had she imagined men in armor? Speaking Basic?
"Get a grip, Ally!" she told herself firmly. She flipped through stations on her car radio until she found a clear one--an oldies station--only to turn it off again in disgust when the Byrds' "Mr. Spaceman" came on.
"Just my luck," she mumbled as she stuck a cassette into the car's deck and cranked up the volume. Maybe some REM would soothe her rattled nerves.
Before long, Ally reached the freeway exit. She pulled the car off, and turned almost immediately onto a dirt road.
Gamiel had lived a hermit's life for as long as she could remember. She had been raised in the desert, miles away from civilization. When she was school-aged, they had moved to Yuma so Ally could go to public school, but as soon as she had left for college, Gamiel had moved back to the desert. Ally hated driving out to visit him, even with Tom and the kids in tow. She hated it even more, now. She would be out in the middle of nowhere, with no one to call on for help if...
Men in white armor.
...there were some sort of trouble.
It was mid-morning when she finally arrived at Gamiel's small adobe house-- almost a hogan, it was so small. She pulled her car up slowly and considered hiding it alongside the road somewhere and walking to the house, but she knew it was unnecessary. There was no one there. So she pulled the car up directly in front of the house.
The first thing she noticed, especially in the bright morning light, was that the house looked like it had been on fire. No, not quite on fire. More like shot at with a blowtorch. There were burned scars all over the front of the house around the door. Make that the door frame. The door itself was gone. As if it had been shot off.
...the door burst in under the force of laser fire. ..
Ally shuddered. This was one time she wished her intuition had been wrong.
She climbed out of her car and walked nervously through the burnt doorway and into the house.
This is insane, she told herself. I should just call the police and let them handle it. Yeah, right. And tell them that men in white fiberglass armor carrying Star Trek phasers broke in and took Gamiel away. Because they wanted a pendant that supposedly belonged to her real father. Oh yes, and we're from outer space. Get real.
She moved through the living room, trying to be as quiet as possible. Men in white armor or not, someone had been here, and they might be back. She even had a brief feeling that someone was there, watching her, but it was only for a moment, then she felt alone again. She let her eyes adjust to from the outdoor glare to the relative gloom of indoors, and when they did, she opened them wide in surprise. The room was a shambles. Even the furniture had been up-ended. In one corner, the farthest one from the door, a sofa and coffee table had been turned on their sides to form a barricade of sorts. She went to that corner, and turned back towards the door. She could see that there were blowtorch-type scars on the inside of the door as well.
He fought back! she thought incredulously.
Suddenly she pictured him as he was when she was a child, when she had thought he was her real father. He had been quite agile, teaching her to shoot at tin cans in the desert. Teaching her martial arts-style self defense moves. Teaching her to fence with his strange lightsaber.
Ally stopped short. Gamiel's lightsaber! Was it around somewhere? No, of course not. He would have it with him. He always had it with him. Then she remembered something. Ally made her way through the ransacked living room and down the hall to the small back bedroom. Surprisingly, the bedroom had remained untouched, as if the intruders had either found what they were looking for when they captured Gamiel, or else knew it could not be found in this house.
Her father's medallion.
Ally shook the thought away again. What on earth would they want with a pewter pie-shaped wedge on a chain? But the feeling wouldn't leave her. Gamiel had told her to take the medallion and run.
"No!" she told herself aloud. "He did not talk to me! He cannot talk to me in my head!"
She made it to the back of the bedroom, where she found an old wood dresser. There, in the top drawer, under a pile of her old Air Force t-shirts, was the object she was looking for. She pulled it out carefully and examined it.
It was a short, metal cylinder, thick enough to grip comfortably with her hand, though as she recalled Gamiel's instructions, she was really supposed to grip it with two hands. It had some switches set into the side, and at one end a circular metal disk. Her lightsaber. The strange laser-thing Gamiel had taught her to fence with when she was young. "The weapon of the Jedi," he had told her in that strange Basic of his. He had given her this one when she was sixteen--when he had told her the whole crazy story about their coming from another galaxy, and her triplet brother and sister and good- turned-evil father. She had wanted no part of this story, and no part of the lightsaber that went with it. But now, she couldn't shake the feeling that it would come in handy.
Suddenly, Ally jerked her head up, and dropped down into a crouch behind the bed. Someone was there.
Don't be afraid. We're here to help.
Ally suppressed the urge to let loose the scream that was forming in her throat. She had heard a voice in her head again--first in Basic, then the same message repeated in halting English--but this time, it was not Gamiel's.
It was the voice of a much younger man.