A GALAXY NOT FAR AWAY...
IT IS FIFTEEN YEARS AFTER THE DEATH OF THE
EMPEROR AND THE BIRTH OF THE NEW REPUBLIC, AND A
NEW DARK JEDI, MALARIN BELSARIOS, HAS TEAMED UP
WITH IMPERIAL VICE ADMIRAL PELLAEON TO RESTORE THE
EMPEROR. TO ACCOMPLISH THIS, LORD BELSARIOS
SEEKS THE VADER DISK, A FORCE-ENHANCING DISK ONCE
OWNED BY DARTH VADER. ALREADY POSSESSING TWO
THIRDS OF THE LEGENDARY DISK, BELSARIOS NEEDS
ONLY THE FINAL THIRD TO COMPLETE HIS POWER.
MEANWHILE, LUKE SKYWALKER AND LEIA ORGANA
SOLO HAVE DISCOVERED THE EXISTENCE OF A TRIPLET
SISTER PREVIOUSLY UNKNOWN TO THEM. SECRETED
AWAY ON A DISTANT PLANET IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY,
IT IS THIS SISTER WHO UNKNOWINGLY HOLDS THE
REMAINING THIRD OF THE VADER DISK.
ALONG WITH HAN SOLO, CHEWBACCA, AND MARA
JADE, LUKE AND LEIA RACE TO REACH THIS SISTER
BEFORE LORD BELSARIOS...
A small, dark, landing shuttle was sitting idly on the ground, surrounded by a squadron of A-wing fighters, stolen from the New Republic shipyards at Sluis Van. The air outside the shuttle was warm and dry; a desert, but it was winter time locally, so it was not too hot. Lord Belsarios was only slightly warm in his heavy red cloak as he sat in the commander's chair, patiently waiting for his stormtroopers to return. They had accomplished their mission, of that he was sure, thanks to his Force sense, amplified by the two small pendants he wore about his neck.
Nearly identical, the pendants were wedge-shaped, each making up about one third of a complete circle. They both hung at their tips from silver chains, and each was embedded with a dark, crimson stone. Together, they made up two-thirds of the Vader disk, a legend Belsarios had spent the better part of his life pursuing. And now, finally, two-thirds were already in his possession, with the third soon to be.
The exterior door slid open smoothly, allowing the bright morning sunlight to pour into the dark shuttle. Belsarios rose to greet his guest. "Ah, Gamiel Tumaric, I presume. So good of you to come," he said politely.
The man whom he was addressing was a short, gray-haired man of about sixty. He wore a rough brown robe that looked as if it had been singed in a recent blaster battle. His face looked similarly singed and rather bruised and bloody, as if he had been beaten about with the back end of a blaster. Probably his hands looked just as bad, but Belsarios could not tell from his vantage. His "guest's" hands were cuffed behind him.
"And who might you be?" the old man asked contemptuously as the stormtroopers dragged him before Belsarios.
He looked half-dead, but he sure didn't sound defeated.
"I am Lord Malarin Belsarios, Dark Jedi," Belsarios said with a small flourish. "And future Emperor."
Tumaric laughed humorously, then coughed in pain. "Delusions of grandeur. You're no Jedi."
"Oh no?" Belsarios smiled. He saw that one of the troopers was carrying a lightsaber handle--probably Tumaric's-- which Belsarios plucked out of the troopers hands. It flew gently towards him and he reached into the air and caught it.
"Okay, now try it without help," Tumaric sneered, looking directly at the two pendants around Belsarios' neck.
Belsarios frowned. He had lost his patience with his guest. "Jedi Tumaric, I am in no mood to play games with you, delightful as your company may be. Just tell me where I can find the last piece of the disk, and you may go free."
"What disk?" the old man asked innocently.
Belsarios came towards him in one quick stride. "Do not toy with me, old man. I will have the complete disk."
"When Gamorreans fly," Tumaric answered sweetly.
His patience now completely gone, Belsarios reached out with the Force and grabbed Tumaric by the neck. The old man started to gasp for air, but his eyes never lost their rebellious light. Closing them, he touched the Force as well, willing the choke-hold to lessen. It did, just enough to allow him to breathe, creating a stalemate.
Without the whole disk, Belsarios' powers just weren't strong enough, even against an old, worn-out Jedi who was badly injured.
Angrily, he let go of the old man, who took a deep breath immediately. "I don't know who you are, Lord Belsarios," he said contemptuously. "But your Force skills are meager at best. You are no Emperor. You are not even a Darth Vader."
That was the last straw. Belsarios glared at Tumaric, his eyes full of malice. "We shall see about that, Jedi," he hissed, his voice low and menacing. With a swift movement, he brought his gloved hands to the old man's shoulders. Holding him tightly, he extended his Force sense into the man's mind, searching for any image he could find, anything that would break the man. Tumaric cringed in pain, then tried to slam up Force barriers, but it was too late. Belsarios had seen all he needed to. He smiled in triumph.
"Perhaps we need to pay a little visit to your grandchildren."
Luke Skywalker sat at the pilot controls of a small landing shuttle, concentrating. He was using the Force to carefully guide the cloaked shuttle into the atmosphere of the small, blue-green planet. Even with his concentration thus occupied, he could sense that they hadn't made it in time.
"What's wrong?" a voice behind Luke asked him. It was Mara Jade.
"We're too late," Luke replied. "They've already got Gamiel." He kept his eyes on the viewscreen in front of him, but he could feel Mara's Force sense boring into him, sensing his disappointment at being too late to keep the old Jedi Knight out of danger.
"I know," Mara agreed solemnly. "Belsarios is nearby, I can feel him."
"Hey, Kid," Han put in from the copilot's seat, "we're not licked yet. We got Leia out of the Death Star, didn't we? Breaking a Jedi out of anything this planet would have should be a piece of cake."
Luke managed a grin at Han's smuggler's confidence.
Leia Organa Solo leaned forward in her seat beside Mara and put her hand on Luke's arm. "What about our sister? Why don't I sense her anymore?"
The sister to which she referred was their triplet, born just minutes after Luke and Leia. A triplet that they hadn't known existed. A triplet that had been hidden away even more effectively than Leia had been. She had been brought to a completely different galaxy and raised by Jedi Knight Gamiel Tumaric, a colleague of Luke's mentor, Ben Kenobi and Leia's adopted father, Bail Organa.
"I don't know. I sensed her when we were in orbit, but now I don't. I know we're near where Gamiel Tumaric lives--his presence feels a lot like Ben's--but I don't sense anyone else strong in the Force." Luke shrugged. "That may be because she's had no Jedi training. We don't even know if Gamiel told her who she really is."
The shuttle landed with a soft thud. "Okay, gang, we've arrived," Han said as he unstrapped himself from the pilot's seat. "Welcome to Earth."
The group quickly grabbed their gear and headed out of the shuttle. As soon as they were all out, Han and Luke covered the shuttle as best they could with camouflage netting.
"Well, that's about as hidden as we can get her, out in the middle of the desert like this," Han said, brushing dust off his hands. He turned to Luke: "Okay, Kid, which way?"
Luke took a deep breath. "Northeast," he replied. "It's not far." But he stayed rooted where he was, a strange look on his face.
"Luke, what is it?" Leia asked.
"I don't know, I feel like I've been here before. Reminds me of...the Sarlacc on Tatooine."
"And what a lovely memory that is," Han said dryly.
Luke shook his head. "Must be my imagination. Come on, we'd better hurry."
They headed off together in the direction Luke had indicated, making pretty good time over the rocky ground. Before long, Luke saw a small dwelling that once again reminded him a little of Ben Kenobi's home on Tatooine. What is it about Jedi Masters? Seems they always chose to live in deserts or swamps. Someplace hot, anyway. As they neared the mud-brick house, he could quickly see signs of a fight. Blaster scars covered the small dwelling.
"Looks like we are too late," Leia said, discouraged. "Do you sense anyone?"
"Why don't you try?" Luke suggested. He watched as she closed her eyes, and he felt her reach out with the Force, scanning the area.
Suddenly, her eyes flew open. "There's someone coming!"
All four of them hit the dirt, watching the small house through the desert grasses. Soon they saw what Leia had sensed: a small land vehicle pulling up to the house. A young blond woman, dressed in what appeared to be some sort of military camouflage uniform, got out of the car and disappeared inside.
"Maybe we're not too late after all," Luke said softly. He reached out with the Force, very gently, not wanting to startle the young woman. He brushed passed her mind and knew right away. "I think that's her. I think that's our sister." He looked over at Leia, who looked back, dark brown eyes wide and grave.
"So what now?" Mara cut in, ever the practical one.
Luke shrugged. Now that they were here, he wasn't really sure what to do next. His impulse was to try and contact her through the Force--if she were his sister, she would probably pick up his sense fairly easily. The problem was, she was scared--he had sensed that when he brushed her mind. And he knew virtually nothing about her: how she was raised, what kind of values she had, whether she'd been taught anything of the Force, or even where she came from. It made for a rather dicey situation.
"Well," Han prompted, "you're in charge of this mission. Do we just walk up and introduce ourselves, or what?"
Luke smiled wanly. "I guess that's pretty much the only choice we have. I don't want to try and contact her with the Force just yet. Might scare her more than help."
The others agreed, and they carefully made their way down the small embankment towards the house. As they approached the doorway, Luke froze.
"She knows we're here." So she did have some skill with the Force. He decided now was the time to try and contact her. Don't be afraid. We're here to help. Then he realized she might not have ever been taught Basic, so he tried repeating the message using the English they'd learned on the voyage here. It didn't work--he could sense her adrenaline pumping as she prepared to flee or fight.
"She's either going to run or attack," Luke warned the others.
"Where is she?" Han asked, drawing his blaster and setting it on stun.
"In a back room," Luke replied. "Do you have to use that?"
"Depends on what she's gonna point at me," Han answered curtly. Mara nodded in agreement, and likewise drew her blaster. Luke and Leia, however, kept their weapons holstered.
"I'll go in first," Luke said quietly. He cautiously stepped through the empty door frame into the tiny clay-like structure. Please don't be afraid, he tried again, this time in English only. We're here to rescue Gamiel.
The attack came moments after he finished. Luke felt the Force flicker at the same time he heard the sharp snap-hiss of a lightsaber blade coming to life. Almost immediately, he saw the blade--a yellow-gold color--and its bearer, the blond woman they had seen earlier. She leapt out at him from the doorway, screaming something unintelligible, and slashing the blade expertly towards his torso. But Luke's reflexes were far too quick for her. Before she could even bring her blade to bear, he had whipped out his own lightsaber and ignited it, just in time to block her thrust. The blades crackled and hummed as they met.
"Drop it!" he heard Han cry from behind him. He knew without looking that both he and Mara were aiming their blasters at the young woman. Leia put her hand on her own lightsaber, ready to come to her brother's aid, but she did not ignite it.
"Han, Mara, it's okay. You don't need the blasters," Luke said, keeping his voice calm. It did no good; both kept their blasters up at ready.
"What have you done with Gamiel?" the girl growled viciously at Luke.
Luke looked at her in surprise. "You know Basic!"
"The question is, how do you know it?" she retorted. "My father made it up." Ignoring the fact that she was outnumbered four to one, the Terran--Allia, Luke thought, this must be her-- twisted away, freeing her blade, then came in for another parry. Luke was surprised to find that she was quite good. Nevertheless, he was ready for her, and blocked her again.
"I want to know what you've done with Gamiel," she repeated viciously, eyeing Luke.
"Allia, we haven't done anything with him. We're trying to rescue him," Luke told her, still keeping his voice calm and level.
"How do you know my name?" she snapped. Her eyes flicked from Luke to the three others behind him, as if seeing them for the first time. Luke could feel her mind working quickly, trying to figure out the next move.
"Drop the lightsaber or I'll shoot," Han said menacingly over Luke's shoulder.
"No!" Luke said sharply. "Holster your weapons--we are not enemies." His eyes met Allia's. "Allia, did Gamiel tell you who you are?"
She eyed him over the glowing yellow and green blades. "Oh, God, don't tell me your part of his concoction about being from Outer Space," she almost groaned.
Luke grinned. She knew, but she didn't believe it. Not quite. Trusting the Force, he decided to take a chance. Straightening up suddenly, he flicked a switch on his lightsaber and the green blade retracted into its handle. He then re-attached the weapon to his belt. "Allia, I'm your brother." He saw her eyes widen in surprise, and felt a similar response through the Force. "And this is your sister," he said, sweeping his arm back at Leia. She stepped forward cautiously, despite a disapproving glare from Han.
Allia looked from Luke to Leia, still holding her blade en guarde. Luke tried again. "Allia, search your feelings, you know this to be true." He remembered his father saying the same thing to him so many years ago. He hoped she would react to this revelation with somewhat less dread than he had experienced back then.
Allia looked torn, and Luke could feel her confusion. On the one hand, she had obviously rejected Gamiel's claims long ago, and it was difficult for her to let go of those beliefs, but on the other hand, she could sense the truth.
"My brother and sister?" she asked.
Leia took another slow step forward. "I'm Leia. Leia Organa Solo. And this is Luke Skywalker."
Luke was surprised when Allia blinked in surprise and actually laughed. "Luke? You're name is Luke? As in 'the Gospel according to?'" She rolled her eyes. "This is perfect! Not only do I come from another planet, but I have an alien brother named Luke. Couldn't you at least have had the decency to have some unpronounceable alien name like 'Graznook' so this could be like a real sci-fi thriller?"
Luke didn't know what she meant by that, but somehow the private joke she was having with his name was putting her at ease. He sighed with relief when she actually extinguished her blade and clipped it to her uniform.
"Gamiel told me I was a triplet--that I had a brother and sister who lived in another galaxy. I never believed him," she added incredulously.
"And do you now?" Leia asked softly.
Allia shook her head slightly. "I--I don't know. But..." she floundered, and Luke could feel her searching herself, trying to make sense of her conflicting emotions. "But I know you're not lying. I don't know how I know, but I know."
"Hey, remember us?" Han said suddenly, startling Luke. He stepped over to his wife and put his arm protectively around her shoulders. "I'm Han Solo, Leia's husband. I guess that makes me your brother-in-law," he said, putting out his hand for her to shake.
She looked at the hand, surprised again. "You even shake hands," she said, shaking her head in wonderment. "This can't be real." She grabbed his hand and shook it.
"I'm Mara Jade, and I'm not related to any of you, thank the skies," Mara put in sassily.
"Okay, introductions are out of the way, can we please get down to why we're here?" Han not-so-gently reminded them.
Luke felt Allia's fear return. "Gamiel! He's my foster father. He's in some sort of trouble."
"We know," Luke told her, "that's why we're here. We--" he cut off, not sure where to begin. He couldn't hardly recite the entire history of the Galactic Civil War. But Mara finished for him.
"We followed someone here from our own galaxy, a man named Malarin Belsarios. He runs a faction of--enemies to our government..." Luke had to smile at her calling it "our government." Mara had always claimed to be completely neutral in politics.
"...the New Republic," she went on. "He came here to get an artifact that you posses. At least, you posses part of it."
Allia nodded. "The medallion."
"Then you know about it?" Leia asked her.
She paused, considering. "Gamiel told me. Told me to take my husband and my children and the medallion and run. I couldn't understand what he meant--I hadn't thought about that pendant in years."
"Wait a second," Han said suddenly. "What do you mean, he told you? Have you talked to him since this happened?"
Luke could sense her discomfort at the question as she eyed Han nervously. "Not exactly--I heard his voice in my mind."
Luke nodded, smiling. "That's the Force. You are strong in the Force, as are Leia and I."
Allia rolled her eyes and mumbled "The Force. Another one of Gamiel's stories. I always told him I just had great women's intuition."
"Anyway, back to the point," Han prompted. He had always hated small talk, especially about the Force.
"Yes," Mara agreed. "The point is, Belsarios already has Luke's and Leia's pendants. He wants yours as well. When all three are put together to form a disk, it apparently enhances his own minimal Force abilities." Luke winced slightly at the bitterness in her voice. She had a strong personal grudge against Belsarios, and he was afraid it would cause her to go against all he had tried to teach her the past three months.
"Then he would be the bad guy?" Allia asked, half sarcastically.
Mara nodded. "Definitely." Luke felt something bubble in Mara, but she kept her temper under control. "He's power- hungry and ruthless." She looked at Luke. "And he's on the dark side of the Force."
"That doesn't sound good," Allia said with that same wise- cracking tone. It reminded Luke of Leia when she was under stress. "But why would they go after Gamiel? He doesn't have the thing, he gave it to me."
Luke shrugged. "Probably because he was easy to find. That's why we came here." He paused, looking at her earnestly. "Allia, I know you don't know us and you don't owe us anything, family or no family. But we need your help. We have to keep this medallion away from Belsarios or he will use it to wreak havoc in our galaxy."
She considered this. "Okay, but it's Ally. Gamiel's the only one who still calls me Allia. Now, what was your plan for getting Gamiel back from this Belsarios guy. You do have a plan, don't you?"
Leia chuckled, and Luke knew she was remembering her nearly ill-fated rescue from the first Death Star: "Some rescue. When you came in here, didn't you have a plan for getting us out?"
Mara, however was not amused. "I always have a plan," she said icily. "I know Belsarios. He'll see what he can get from Gamiel, maybe use him as a hostage, maybe just kill him..."
Luke grimaced as Ally gasped at the harsh words.
"...but what he'll really be looking for is some leverage--" She was cut off when Ally suddenly cried out.
"Aaron and Casey. He's going after my children!" * * * * *
In orbit high above Earth's surface, on the modified yacht Gambler's Edge, Chewbacca ran another systems check as he waited for Han and the others to report. The worst thing the Wookiee could possibly imagine was allowing them all--his honor family, the ones to whom he owed a life debt--to go down there without him. The reasoning had been logical enough. The people of this planet had obviously not encountered alien species and were not likely to react kindly to a two-meter tall Wookiee with a bowcaster. More importantly, however, was the fact that Han and Leia's three children, Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin Solo, were aboard. And his life debt to Han extended to his children, as well. So Chewbacca bided his time.
"Chewie, can't I please help you do the systems checks?" came a plaintive human voice. It was Jaina Solo. "I can do it, Chewie, you know I can," she insisted.
Chewbacca gave her his opinion of that idea with a short, quick grunt.
"I can too!" she pouted. It was true, she was something of a child prodigy when it came to mechanics, but he wasn't about to let a ten-year-old touch the controls of a ship he was in charge of.
"How about me?" Anakin, Jaina's eight-year-old brother chimed in. If Jaina was a child prodigy, Anakin was a child genius. Nevertheless, Chewbacca growled a negative to him as well. What was it with human children?
Before the third Solo child, Jaina's twin brother Jacen, could pipe in, Chewbacca gave him a warning look, baring his teeth. He needn't have bothered--Jacen wasn't paying any attention to the squabbling of his brother and sister.
Unlike Jaina and Anakin, Jacen's talents did not lie in things mechanical. More like his mother, Jacen had a connection to living things, both sentient and non-sentient. Therefore, Chewbacca was not surprised that Jacen did not join in his siblings' interest in "helping," but he was surprised to see Jacen staring blankly out of the viewport, completely oblivious to their presence. He growled a quick inquiry. When there was still no response, he repeated himself, louder this time.
"Huh?" Finally, Jacen turned around and faced him. "You say something, Chewie?"
The Wookiee repeated his question a third time.
"I'm okay," Jacen replied blankly, then turned back to the viewport. Jaina gave Chewbacca an odd look, then went to stand beside her twin.
"What is it, Jacen?"
"I don't know," he replied, his voice still far away. He reminded Chewbacca a little of Luke.
"Do you sense something? Is something wrong with Mom and Dad?" Jaina asked worriedly.
"I know, Chewie, but I do sense something," Jacen replied. "Someone's in trouble, but it's not Mom or Dad or Uncle Luke or Mara."
"Who then?" Anakin asked, finally taking interest in his brother's strange behavior.
Jacen shook his head slowly. "I don't know, but they're kids. Like us," he said, indicating his sister and brother.
Chewbacca started to ask another question, but suddenly the color drained from Jacen's face. Chewie cocked his head, worried.
Jacen turned to face him. "The Imperial ship! Chewie, we have to find the Imperial ship!"
"I'm sorry, Lieutenant, but Captain Dale hasn't returned yet." the duty clerk was telling her on the phone, trying to be helpful. But Ally was rapidly approaching full- blown panic.
"Well, when is his squadron coming in? I need to talk to him immediately!" she snapped into the phone. She felt Luke's hand--my brother's hand-- on her shoulder, but she shrugged him off.
"I'm sorry, Lieutenant," the clerk repeated, getting a little frazzled herself, "he should be in any time. Can I take a message?"
Allia took a deep breath. No point in screaming at her, it wasn't her fault Tom's squadron was late. "Please. Tell Captain Dale to call me on my cellular the very second he lands. It's urgent."
"I'll see that he gets this as soon as he lands," the clerk told her.
Ally thanked her and hung up the phone. She turned towards the others. Four people she had met less than fifteen minutes earlier, and who claimed to be her long-lost brother, sister, brother-in-law and friend from another planet--no, make that another galaxy--and now she had to depend on them for her children's lives.
The children weren't in danger at the present, that much she knew. Just as she had sensed Gamiel's capture three hours before it happened, she knew this image in her mind--her children, small and frightened, being taken up into the sky--was in the future. She also realized that the man who was responsible for this, this Belsarios Mara had told her about, was the man from her dreams--dreams she'd been having frequently over the past three months. She should have paid them more attention--should have paid Gamiel more attention. But for now the most important thing was the children's safety. They didn't have much time.
"We have to get back to Tucson," she said, switching from English to Basic without even thinking about it. She tried to stay calm; she was an officer in the best Air Force in the world and had been trained for crisis. But this was different. Her own two children!
"Ally, what did you see?" her brother was asking her.
My brother, she thought again. Amazing how easily she had accepted this as a fact. "I saw someone in a gaudy red cloak taking them up--taking them away. Only it hasn't happened yet. But it will soon."
"Sounds like Belsarios," the red-head--Mara Jade--said, teeth clenched and green eyes as hard as ice. Ally almost shivered.
"We may still have a chance," Luke comforted her. "The future is always in motion--it won't necessarily happen that way. We can get there first."
Ally looked at him, fighting her panic. She forced her voice to stay calm. "You don't understand. My children are in Tucson. That's a three-hour drive from here! We'll never make it, and God only knows when Tom will call me back."
"So we go in our shuttle," Mara told her matter-of-factly.
Ally stared at her. "Your shuttle?" She suddenly realized what the other was saying. "Of course, you're aliens from outer space, you must have a flying saucer," she said, half sarcastically.
"Flying saucer?" Leia, her sister, asked.
"Never mind," Ally replied quickly, shaking her head. "You have some sort of spaceship nearby?"
"Not a ship, a shuttle. The ship's in orbit," Mara corrected. "We'd better get a move on."
A ship in orbit and a shuttle on the ground. "What, you didn't just beam down?" she muttered.
The others looked at her, mystified, so she just shook her head and followed them out of the house. To their space shuttle.
It was going to be a very long day.
From the cockpit of his A-10 bomber, Captain Tom Dale looked out at the desert and mountains below him. Almost home.
"Blue squadron, this is tower," his radio squawked. "We've got you on approach into the base coming in on vector oh-six-seven."
"Copy that, oh-six-seven," came the reply of Tom's squadron leader, Major Clayton. To the squadron, Clayton said, "Okay, boys, we had a good run. Let's take her--"
"Ah, Blue squadron, we're picking up something strange on the radar," Tower interrupted. "I've got a whole mess of unidentified blips coming toward you from the west..." He let out a loud curse. "They're coming in awfully fast!"
Tom looked around him to try and get a visual, but saw nothing.
"Say again, Tower," came Clayton's voice on the radio. "You don't know what's coming?"
"Roger that, Blue Leader." Tower sounded confused. "They're too fast for commercial, and we've got no military flights scheduled..."
Tom heard another expletive from one of his fellow pilots. "I've got a visual! They look like....Jesus, I don't know what they look like!"
Tom twisted his head to the right, then he saw them, too. It looked like a whole squadron of fighters, but they didn't look like any kind of aircraft he'd ever seen before. If anything, they reminded him, oddly, of the Space Shuttle.
"Tower, you want us to wave off until we figure this out?" Blue Leader asked.
"They're really hauling the mail!" another pilot cried out.
"Who the hell are they?"
All of a sudden, the sky lit up as some kind of green bolt of electricity shot out of one of the approaching fighters.
As the green bolt hit an A-10 just off of Tom's wing, it exploded into a brilliant fireball, then vaporized into nothing. Tom cursed under his breath.
"Tower, we've got hostile aircraft firing at us!" came Blue Leader's voice, surprisingly calm under the circumstances. To his squadron, he ordered "Attack formation!"
Tom swallowed hard. What the bloody hell was going on? How could there be enemy aircraft attacking them over his own home town? Who were they, and what were they shooting?
He didn't have time to think about it long--a swarm of the strange fighters were all over them, firing green and red bolts everywhere, lighting up the sky over Tucson. In a reflexive action, Tom went for his gun.
The A-10 was a bomber, built for air-to-surface attack, not air-to-air combat, so they were ill prepared for shooting at air targets--especially ones that moved so fast. What made it even worse was that when he did score an occasional hit, the weapons seemed to bounce right off of the enemy's hull, as if each aircraft were protected by an invisible shield.
"My God, this can't be real. This must be some kind of weird nightmare...."
"Tom, you've got one coming in at one-seven-three!" came a cry on the radio.
"I see him!" Tom responded, then pulled up hard to try and shake the weird fighter on his tail. The sky outside of his cockpit flared brilliant green as another of those bolts zipped past him, just missing him.
In the meantime, two more of his teammates disappeared in an angry ball of fire.
"Where the hell is the ground support?" Tom cried in frustration. But he knew no one had been ready for this--it was like Pearl Harbor all over again.
He went after another fighter, trying his missiles rather than the gun. These, too, had no effect, bouncing off and exploding harmlessly in the sky.
Another bolt lit up the sky, this one singing the side of his plane. Losing control, Tom went into a steep dive. He struggled with the stick, trying to pull out of it. He was only two hundred feet above the ground when he finally managed to pull out of the spin and level off. His plane was too badly damaged, however; he would have to land.
"Tower, this is Blue Seven, I've gotta make an emergency landing!"
"Copy that, Blue Seven, get your butt down here!"
Tom limped his crippled plane down to the ground. It landed hard, but Tom believed the axiom: any landing you walk away from is a good one.
On the ground it was bedlam. Pilots and ground crew scrambling to get fighters up into the sky to help out the hopelessly outnumbered and outmaneuvered A-10s. Tom practically dove out of his dead plane, and hit the tarmac running. He could only think one thing: where was Ally?
As Tom ran for cover from the bizarre battle raging overhead, he saw an even stranger sight. Some kind of boxy- looking aircraft emerged from the middle of the Space-Shuttle- looking things and descended to the ground on a runway not far from where Tom was. What it was, he couldn't imagine. It looked like it shouldn't even be capable of flight. Tom was no engineer, but every pilot knows that on an aircraft, lift is everything. This thing looked like it had about as much lift as a tank. But one thing was for sure: the fighters had been in escort formation when they first appeared. Which meant this thing, whatever it was, was what they were there to protect.
Ally momentarily forgotten, Tom decided to take a look at this thing. Trying to stay in the shadow of some of the hangars, he darted south, towards the strange vessel.
When he got within a hundred yards of it, he stopped short. A door had opened and a group of soldiers clad in some sort of white armor poured out. Behind them strode a tall, dark- haired, bearded man in a red cape.
Red cape? Who is he, Superman?
Tom ducked for cover and watched as the caped man shouted out orders in a language he didn't recognize, but sounded vaguely familiar. Then a group of the white-armored soldiers, each carrying some kind of high-tech rifle, unloaded several strange-looking vehicles from the tank-like aircraft. These things was even more bizarre than the craft that produced them. As far as Tom could tell, they had no wheels.
They just hovered a couple of feet off of the ground.
Tom's mouth dropped open as he watched the soldiers and the caped man--their commander, obviously--pile into the impossible floating vehicles and take off, heading north towards the base and the city beyond it.
Tom swore silently, then ran in the same direction as fast as he could. He knew he had to follow these soldiers and find out what they were up to.
Luckily, the next hangar over was the motor pool, which was deserted. Tom found a government car which still had the keys in the ignition. He threw himself into it, started up the engine, and took off in pursuit of the odd floating vehicles as they exited the base.
Jacen Solo sat in the Edge's copilot seat beside Chewbacca, looking out the viewscreen. "Hurry Chewie, or it'll be too late," he urged.
Chewbacca grunted as he slowly piloted the ship around the curve of the planet towards the other side. As he did so, Jacen felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Jaina.
"Who do you sense, Jacen?" she asked quietly. Normally Jaina got huffy when he could feel something she could not, just like he got mad when she could figure out a way to make some mechanism work that was a mystery to him, but now they understood this wasn't the time for competition.
"I don't know," he replied. "I just know they'll need our help." He turned to Chewie again. "Did you find the Imperial ship yet?" he asked impatiently.
Chewbacca's reply was short and angry. Typical grown- up.
"Is it Mom's sister?" Jaina tried again.
Mom and Dad had explained all about how Mom and Uncle Luke had another sister that they never knew about and that they had to find her before that Imperial bad guy did.
"No," Jacen replied hesitantly. "I told you already, they're kids." But she wasn't far off. The presence he felt reminded him a little bit of Anakin's.
Finally the sensors showed that the Imperial ship was just over the planet's horizon. Chewbacca bellowed a quick question.
"I know they're bigger than we are, but we have to be near them."
Another grunt from the Wookiee.
"I don't know why. We just need to be ready to help."
For a second, Jacen thought Chewbacca wouldn't do it. He was, after all, a grown-up, and grown-ups rarely took children seriously. But maybe he remembered how well he, Jaina, and Anakin had handled themselves on Drall. Or maybe, like Dad, he had just resigned himself to trust a Force he was unable to sense. Whatever the reason, Chewbacca did what Jacen asked and thrusted the Edge slowly forward above the planet's surface.
Over the horizon, a large Imperial ship appeared.
Han swore as he pushed the miserable shuttle as fast as it could go. Glancing at Luke out of the corner of his eye, he said: "Looks like we found those stolen A-wings."
"What is going on up there?" asked a frightened-sounding Allia.
"Looks like our friend Belsarios got here ahead of us."
Ahead of them, above a small, but not too primitive city skyscape, was the wreckage of a very recent dog fight. Through a haze of smoke, Han could see A-wings circling, lazily blasting away at Earth fighters, most of them before they could even get off the ground.
"He just blasted his way in?" Leia cried indignantly. "These people have no defenses against lasers and ion guns!"
"What, did you expect him to come in with a big banner, 'I come in peace'?" Mara sneered derisively.
"Oh my God!" Ally cried in English, her voice choked, as they surveyed the wreckage ahead. Charred remains of fighters and other aircraft littered the ground around the base, and there were huge, blackened scars in the ground from the A-wings guns.
Out of the corner of his eye, Han saw Luke reach out and put a comforting hand on Ally's shoulder. "This is why we have to stop him."
"Solo, is there any way we can cause any damage in this thing?" Mara asked from behind him.
Han shook his head. "Not if we want to live to tell about it. We have zero speed and less maneuverability. I wish we had the Falcon."
Mara started to say something--probably a derogatory remark about the Falcon-- but she stopped when he shot her a vicious look.
"What do we do now?" Leia asked, leaning forward to see out the viewscreen.
"I think the best thing to do is land this tin can, get some ground transportation, and get to those kids."
The effects of the strange battle occurring in the skies above Tucson were quickly felt citywide. Nowhere was this more evident than at Lyon's Elementary School, just east of the base itself. In the moments following the first shots, the principal, who was of the cold war "duck and cover" generation, had hastily come on the intercom and instructed the teachers and children to get under their desks and keep their heads down and covered. This, of course, was exactly the wrong course of action to take, as it resulted in turning the school into a scene of complete chaos. In the younger classrooms, children were crying in fear, while in the upper grade levels, children had rushed to the window to watch the battle taking place overhead.
Aaron Dale's fourth grade classroom was once such place. A wave of students had charged to the windows while a nervous and exasperated teacher tried in vain to get them to return to the relative safety of their desks.
Aaron, who had been seated near the window to begin with, had a pretty good view. He saw A-10s, like the ones his Dad flew, and he saw some other kind of fighters that he didn't recognize. Which was strange, really. Aaron had inherited his parents' love of all things flying and there was not a military jet in existence that he couldn't identify. But these strange things with their glowing green and red bolts were completely foreign to him, and they were shooting A-10s out of the sky.
And Dad was flying today.
So Aaron, like his classmates, most of whom were "military brats," kept his nose pressed to the glass, terrified and fascinated by the clash in the sky.
Aaron tensed with every A-10 that went down, praying that it wasn't his dad's. Then suddenly, his worry evaporated when a strange sensation came over him. It felt like--well, it felt like some sort of prison escape movie, where the prisoner presses himself to the wall in order to avoid the spotlight sweeping over the yard.
Someone was sweeping a "spotlight," and looking for him. And that someone was not good.
Unconsciously, Aaron ducked away from the window, as if the someone were trying to see him through the glass.
"Oh Aaron, thank God," his teacher said, her voice high and squeaky. At first he wasn't sure what she meant, but then he realized she had misunderstood his motive for leaving the window. "Maybe you can help me get some of the others away."
The "spotlight" brushed him again, then moved on. He could almost feel it scan the hallways of the school, towards the kindergartners and first graders...
"Uh, Mrs. Tonnison, I have to go to the bathroom," he said quickly, then ran from the room.
"Aaron, get back here!" she called after him. But she had a whole room full of students to worry about, and at least Aaron was away from the window.
Aaron darted down the halls until he found his sister's first grade class. The scene in here was even more chaotic than his own room. Children were sitting under the tables and desks, most of them crying.
Aaron quickly looked around the room until he saw Casey. Unlike the other children, she was peering out from under her desk, trying to look out the window. Then she saw Aaron and her eyes locked with his. Aaron knew right away that she had felt it, too.
Casey's teacher was doing the best he could to comfort several of the screaming students, so Aaron was able to sneak in virtually unnoticed. He grabbed his sister's arm and pulled her out from under her desk. "Come on, Casey, we've got to get out of here!"
She nodded numbly, allowing him to pull her to her feet. They slipped out of the classroom, still unnoticed.
"Aaron, where are we going?"
"I don't know. We've just got to get away." He really didn't know, either. Maybe they should go to the base and look for Mom and Dad. But then again, that's where all the fighting was happening.
"Who's looking for us?"
He stopped and looked at her. "Then you did feel it too? That weird feeling that someone was looking for us?"
She nodded, brown eyes wide. "Someone really bad. Is he the one shooting at the planes in the sky?"
"I don't know."
He took her by the arm again and they quickly left the school. Once outside, Aaron immediately looked skyward, towards the base. The fighting had pretty much died down by now. He saw those strange-looking fighters circling, but they weren't shooting anymore. But where were all the A-10s? Where was Dad?
Fighting panic, he ran across the playground and out the gates, still holding tightly to Casey's arm, and headed towards the only safe place he could think of: home.
Suddenly, Casey stopped short.
"Come on, Casey, let's get home!" he urged her, looking worriedly at the sky overhead. Another strange plane--or something--was arriving. It was box-shaped and didn't look at all like something that could actually fly. It made a wide sweep around the circling fighters, as if trying to avoid them, then settled down on the runway. It landed straight down, like a helicopter or a harrier.
"Aaron," Casey said, her voice almost a whisper.
"What, Casey?" he cried a little irritable. Little sisters....
"There's someone else looking for us. I think--" she paused, wrinkling her nose. "I think it's a kid, like us!"
Aaron frowned and concentrated. He'd never had these strange feelings before, except maybe just before Casey saw that gun go off in the school yard a while back. Mom had had a weird feeling, too, but she had called it "Mother's intuition." Maybe this was "brother's intuition." Strange as it seemed, he knew right away what Casey was talking about. It was as if another spotlight was looking for them now, but this one felt further away and much more friendly. And young. A kid like them. But he still had no idea what any of this meant.
"Come on, let's just go home. We can try and call Mom or Dad--"
He stopped short as he saw a tall man step into their path. He was wearing a very funny looking red cape.
"Aaron, Casey," he said, then smiled. Aaron knew immediately this was the man with the spotlight--the one they were trying to get away from.
"Casey, run!" Aaron cried, giving his sister a hard shove in the opposite direction. She hesitated a moment, then took off as fast as she could. It was not fast enough. Before she could get more than twenty yards, a group of men in some kind of white armor surrounded her. One of them grabbed her and picked her up.
"Aaron!" she screamed, beating her fists on the man's chest and kicking him as hard as she could.
Aaron ran headlong towards the strange group. "Let go of my sister!" he screamed protectively, kicking the one holding her as hard as he could in the shins. All he succeeded in doing was hurting his sneaker-clad foot on that strange armor. He tried to kick up higher, where it would hurt more, but two of the other men grabbed him before he even had a chance. He wrenched his arms as hard as he could, but he could not free himself.
The red-caped man was saying something to them, but Aaron couldn't understand him, he wasn't speaking English. If only Mom were here....
"I sorry. Sure you do not understand Basic. Just be good," the man said, this time in broken English. Then he smiled, and Aaron shivered.
He thought wildly, but then felt that second spotlight--the one that felt friendly. If he and Casey could just stay calm, that other person would help them. At least, he hoped so.
They had just about made it to Aaron and Casey's school when Ally saw Luke stop and stiffen.
"What...?" she started, but he held up his hand for silence.
Finally, he whispered, "There's someone here. Someone looking for someone else, but it isn't Belsarios."
"Maybe a stormtrooper?" Leia asked, her voice also a whisper.
Luke just shrugged.
"Where?" asked Han.
"Up ahead, near the school building. It's a man, and he's very anxious, under a lot of stress."
"Gee, really? With the skies falling down on us? Now why would anyone feel stressed?" Ally asked sarcastically.
Luke gave her a half smile, then motioned the others to follow him towards a wall that ran along one edge of the school property. He then peered over the wall.
"There he is," he replied, crouching back down. The others all looked.
Standing in the corner of the school yard, looking around as if he had lost something, was a man in an Air Force flight suit. He looked very familiar...
"Tom!" Ally cried suddenly, then without thinking hoisted herself over the wall. The man by the school turned. It was, indeed, Tom. A look of relief and surprise crossed his face.
"Ally! What are you doing here?" he cried as she threw herself into his arms.
"What am I doing here? I saw all those downed A-10s and I..." She couldn't finish.
"I crashed, but not too hard," he replied. "Listen, those guys who started this whole mess, I followed them here, but I lost them."
By this time, Luke, Han, Leia, and Mara had jumped the wall and joined them.
"What did they look like?" Mara asked in English.
Tom frowned at her. "Who are they, some of your Russian pilots?"
"It's a real long story, Tom," Ally said.
"What did they look like?" Mara repeated insistently.
"Some kind of platoon of soldiers in white armor, and their commander was this tall man in a red cape..." Tom broke off and looked suddenly at Ally. "Oh my God, Al, it was the guy from your nightmares!"
"Belsarios," Mara said grimly, as Ally nodded at Tom.
"Yes, Tom. Where did he go? We have to stop him--he's already kidnapped Gamiel and he's going after the kids."
"What kids, our kids?" Tom asked incredulously. "What the hell is going on here...?"
Ally grabbed his arm, stopping him short.
"What is it?" Luke asked in Basic. Ally knew he had sensed something, but not as strongly as she had felt it. She cried out in anguish.
"We're too late, he's got them!"
"We'll find him, we'll get them back," Leia was saying quickly. Ally looked at her and suddenly had the feeling that Leia had been through all this before.
"Ally, what's going on? Why would someone want our children?" Tom asked her.
"What?" she cried angrily, turning towards Mara, the last person to say her name. Wasn't the situation bad enough without all of them clamoring for her attention? She was about to snap something to that effect, but closed her mouth abruptly when she saw Mara's face. It was taunt and drawn, as if she were concentrating on something while at the same time showing such a look of disgust and hate that Ally almost backed away from her.
"He does have your children," she said, her voice strange and far away. "He wants to make a trade. Your medallion for their lives."
Gamiel, still weak from his many injuries, struggled to sit up as Belsarios returned to the shuttle.
He had Casey and Aaron.
"Grandpa!" Casey cried out, noticing him in the corner.
Gamiel felt miserable. He had failed in the worst possible way. He had failed Allia's children.
The stormtroopers released the kids just as the shuttle rose up off the ground and headed up towards space. The children rushed over to Gamiel, who opened his arms and gave them a quick hug. "I'm so sorry," he told them. "Everything will be okay, I promise." He looked up over Casey's blond head to the smiling, twisted face of Belsarios.
"Even Darth Vader was never so cowardly," he sneered. "He at least stuck to torturing adults!" He knew Darth Vader was some sort of sore point with this man.
The taunt did not work, however. "Please. Vader was one of the ones responsible for the destruction of Alderaan. I'm quite sure there were children on the planet when it became an asteroid field."
Gamiel winced. He had been right about Alderaan, but it still hurt to actually hear it spoken of, and so casually, as if it didn't matter.
"Grandpa, I tried to get away, but they got Casey," Aaron was saying to him, but then Belsarios made a motion and the stormtroopers pulled the kids away from Gamiel. He looked up angrily, tried to get to his feet, but failed. He simply had no strength left.
His voice remained strong and steady, however. "You cannot win, Belsarios. Even with Vader's disk, the Force is stronger than you can imagine."
"And the Force will be under my command," Belsarios growled back.
Gamiel only shook his head. "That is where you wil fail," he said. "You cannot control the Force, especially not the dark side. In the end, it controls you. I may have been gone a long time, but even before I left I saw what the dark side was doing to Palpatine...."
"Old man, I grow tired of your lectures," Belsarios cut him off impatiently. "Now that I have the children, you are of no further use to me."
He nodded to the stormtroopers who dragged the children, struggling, back into a rear compartment on the shuttle. With a loud snap-hiss, Belsarios ignited his lightsaber, its red blade casting a weird glow throughout the small shuttle.
Gamiel only smiled.
Jacen Solo, flanked on either side by his sister and brother, looked intently out the Gambler's Edge cockpit viewscreen, across the surface of the blue-green planet below, to the huge Imperial ship.
Now. Something was going to happen now.
There was a shuttle coming from the planet below. A shuttle that contained two young, frightened minds. It was these minds that Jacen could sense, and they were growing stronger, more clear, until he could even make out that one was a boy and the other a girl.
"They're taking off," Jacen said dreamily to Chewbacca. "They're on that shuttle and they're really scared and--" he paused, almost choking. Something terrible had happened; someone was dead.
"Jacen, what is it?" Jaina asked, squeezing his hand.
Jacen squeezed his eyes shut, searching for the two minds that had become familiar to him. He found them a moment later and opened his eyes in relief.
"They're okay. Someone died, though, and they're scared. But they're okay."
Chewbacca barked a short inquiry.
"Yeah, they should be coming from this way," Jacen said, turning to face the Wookiee. "Do you think we could catch them before they can get to that Imperial ship?"
Chewbacca acknowledged him and Jacen smirked; Chewie sounded just like Dad.
"I see something coming!" Anakin cried out suddenly, and Jacen turned his attention back to the viewscreen. He saw it too, a small group breaking out of the atmosphere and heading towards them.
"That's them," he said, nodding. He almost lost his balance when Chewie yanked the ship around to head them off.
The approaching speck rapidly grew larger as they headed towards it. Jacen could now make out the form of a ground-to-space transport shuttle, surrounded by a squadron of A-wings. Then, as abruptly as Chewie had started the Edge, he stopped it. Right between the shuttle and the Imperial ship. With a quick movement, the Wookiee brought his furry, clawed hand down on the tractor beam switch. Jacen felt the ship shudder around him as the beam kicked into life.
Then he smiled as the shuttle became locked in the tractor beam's grip. "We got 'em!" he cried triumphantly, but then felt Jaina tugging at his arm.
"Uh, I hate to sound like Dad, but I've got a bad feeling about this," she said. Then Jacen realized what she meant.
Like some animal mother protecting her young, the huge Imperial ship was bearing down on them.
Once again, Allia stopped short, crying out in pain.
Tom, who had just been given the short version of the story, looked at her, his face full of worry. "What is it, Ally?"
"They're going to kill him." Her voice was a hoarse whisper.
She could sense him now, even stronger than she sensed the children when Belsarios had grabbed them. Yet she scarcely recognized him. The man who had taught her to fight, to trust her intuition, and had instilled in her the longing for justice and to do something good for her world. Now his presence felt weak and worn and badly hurt He felt much like the pitiful crazy man she had imagined him to be for nearly eighteen years.
"Gamiel," she whispered aloud, hoping he could hear here as well as she had heard him earlier that day. "I was wrong, Gamiel. I'm so sorry, can you ever forgive me? I should have listened to you."
In her mind, she felt him smile. Allia, it's all right. Don't worry about me, now. You have to rescue the children.
We will rescue all of you, she insisted silently.
Allia, it's too late for me. Go home, find the medallion I gave to you when you were a child. You must keep it from that man at all costs, but you can use it to your advantage and get back Aaron and Casey.
Gamiel-- she tried to protest, but, stubborn as always, Gamiel wouldn't listen.
You've been reunited with your true family. Go with them and they will help you. With that, she felt his presence vanish from her mind.
"Gamiel!" she cried frantically, aloud. Tom was at her side, trying to make sense of her strange behavior.
"It's okay," she heard Luke tell her gently. "He's part of the Force now."
Ally looked at him and realized that he had overheard the entire exchange. There was so much about the Force she didn't understand; she wished she had listened to Gamiel when there had been a lot of time to learn everything she needed to know. But there was no time now.
She could hear Han behind them, shouting for someone called "Chewie" into some sort of penlight-sized walkie-talkie. He looked over at them, and Ally was surprised to see he was actually grinning.
"You're not going to believe this," he said. "Chewie has Belsarios' shuttle in a tractor beam."
Tom grabbed Ally's arm. "What's going on?" he asked. She had forgotten he didn't know Basic.
"I don't know, but I think someone on our side named 'Chewie' just captured the shuttle with our kids," she responded.
"How'd he get there in time?" Mara asked, shaking her head.
Han grinned wider. "Jacen. He sensed that his cousins needed their help. They were right in position when the shuttle tried to get to the Force Storm and they were able to intercept." Ally translated for Tom, though she didn't really understand what Han meant.
"Then the kids are safe?" Tom asked.
Han shook his head. "Not yet. The Force Storm--Belsarios' ship--is attacking them. We've got to get back right away. Chewie won't be able to hold 'em off for long with only two droids and three kids to help." He winked at Leia proudly. "Even if they're rather exceptional kids," he smiled lopsidedly.
"Your fatherly pride is all very adorable," Mara scoffed, though not without some humor, "but don't you think we'd better get that medallion of Ally's and get back to the Gambler's Edge?"
Ally decided she liked Mara Jade. Smiling at the redhead, she translated for Tom, then Luke came up behind them.
"Are you okay? About Gamiel," he asked, concerned.
Ally nodded. "But explain this all to me after we get my children back."
Luke promised her that he would.
Allia and Tom stared out the shuttle's side viewport as the Earth receded behind them. They were actually going up into space. Though both military pilots, they had never experienced anything like this. After two failed applications to NASA, Tom was finally getting his astronaut wings.
Both of them were surprised by the less-than-expected g- force as they took off, which Leia explained as Ally translated for Tom: "Artificial gravity can be found on any ship larger than a fighter."
They were further awed--and alarmed--when they turned away from the planet behind them and towards the space into which they were headed. There they could see one rather large space ship, surrounded by numerous fighters, firing on a much smaller ship, which itself was attached to an even smaller ship.
"That's the Force Storm," Luke was explaining, pointing to the largest ship, "Belsarios' ship. The other one is our ship, the Gambler's Edge, and the shuttle in between, that's where your children are."
"Hang on, gang," Han was saying as they flew towards the Gambler's Edge. "This shuttle's not the greatest for going into a battle, but we're going to have to get through those fighters to dock on the Edge." He flipped on some kind of communication device. "Chewie, we're coming in. See if you can pick off some of those fighters so we can dock. And don't let go of that shuttle!"
Their own shuttle soared into the fight. Ally and Tom leaned forward to watch in wonder at the red and green laser flashes coming out of the fighters heading towards them. Obviously Han was a fantastic pilot; he was able to outmaneuver them, even in this obviously slower ship, but soon two more were coming at them.
"I have an idea," Tom said suddenly.
Ally was about to translate this, but Han already understood him. "I'll take any help I can get."
"In the Gulf War, I once had to fly a bomber up against a group of much faster fighter jets," he told them. "So I used their own speed against them until I could get away."
Han nodded. "Way ahead of you." He suddenly pulled back hard on a lever, and the shuttle came to a sudden, stomach-turning halt, dead in space. The two enemy fighters blew right past them.
"That'll buy us about three seconds," Mara put in.
"That's all I need," Han retorted. He pushed hard on the throttle, and they were off again, straight at the docking bay of the ship that the yet-unseen Chewie person must be piloting. Han picked up his comm unit again. "Chewie," he barked, "do you have a slave circuit lock on Belsarios' shuttle?" Ally heard a roar from the device which sounded like an odd cross between a cat purring and a bear growling. Some kind of static, she mused, although Han didn't seem to have any trouble understanding the reply. "Then as soon as we're in, seal up and make the jump."
Ally translated automatically for Tom, and both of them wondered what "the jump" meant. They were still wondering when they made it into the docking bay, and the outside door sealed around them. They waited briefly, presumably to pressurize the hanger, then they exited the shuttle. Ally, nearest the door, was the first out. She had barely made it through the hatchway when she ran square into a shaggy wall of fur. She looked up.
Towering at least seven and a half feet high was some sort of creature that looked like a bear or gorilla. It had glowing yellow eyes and made some sort of growl out of the back of its throat, showing her a mouthful of sharp teeth. Ally cried out and stumbled backwards into Tom, who was equally startled.
Then she saw Han flash her a comical smile as he walked calmly around her and up to the huge monster. "Thanks for getting us out of there, Chewie," he said.
"That's 'Chewie?" Ally cried shakily. She watched, stunned, as Han casually grabbed the furry mammoth's arm and herded him away.
"Come on, we've got to find a good place to get us back into realspace so we can board that shuttle," he was saying to it.
"Don't worry, he's on our side." Luke was beside her, grinning. Come to think of it, Leia and Mara looked rather amused as well.
"You could have warned us," Tom muttered as he and Ally followed the others out of the hanger through a maze of corridors, then into some kind of cockpit. There they found Han hunched over, hugging a young boy that appeared to be about ten years old. Two other children, a girl of about the same age and a younger boy, were gathered around him, clamoring for attention.
"Great job, Jacen--all of you guys. You really did it," Han was telling them. He then looked around. "Where are the droids?"
What the hell are droids? Ally thought. The tall, hairy, bigfoot-ish creature-- Chewie--bellowed out something.
Han straightened up and looked at his huge companion with a dumbfounded expression on his face. "They're where?"
Chewie bellowed again, and Ally could swear he was chuckling.
"I'll be," Han whistled. "Artoo and Threepio in the gun turrets shooting down Imperials. Now I've heard everything."
"But we haven't heard everything," Ally interrupted impatiently, motioning to Tom and herself. "Like, how did we get away from those fighters, and where are our children?"
"I'm sorry," Leia put in, obviously the diplomat of the group. "This must all be very confusing for you two. We jumped into hyperspace with Belsarios' shuttle slaved to us."
Ally translated her words for Tom, then asked her: "Which means?"
Luke jumped in to help. "Hyperspace means we've gone to lightspeed."
"Like warp speed on Star Trek," Tom nodded after Ally translated.
Luke continued. "Chewbacca had the controls of Belsarios' shuttle slaved to ours so that when we went to lightspeed, it came with us. Now we just have to find a good place to jump back into normal space. The shuttle will come with us, still captured. We should be able to negotiate for the children's release in exchange or our releasing the shuttle."
"When can we contact our children?" Ally asked anxiously after she had translated Luke's explanation to Tom.
"We can't contact another craft while in hyperspace," Han explained. "We have to get back into normal space."
"That's not true."
They all turned to look at Mara Jade, who was leaning on the door frame of the cockpit. Her eyes looked far away.
"What do you mean, 'that's not true,'" Han argued, "You can't use a comlink in hyperspace."
"Who said anything about a comlink," Mara answered, her voice sounding somewhat dreamlike. "I'm in touch with him right now. Through the Force."
This seemed to startle both Han and Leia, but Luke didn't look a bit surprised. "He has a strong connection to you," he nodded.
"You can talk to him? Are Aaron and Casey okay? What has he done with them?" Ally asked in a rush, forgetting to translate for Tom.
Before she could answer, Han put his hand up to stop her, then looked down and addressed his three children. "Listen kids, you guys go back to your cabin and strap in. We're gonna jump out of hyperspace real soon." This produced a chorus of protests from the children, but Leia backed up her husband and the kids relented and left the cockpit. Han turned to Mara.
"Are the children okay?" he asked her.
Mara nodded slowly. "He wants to exchange them for Ally's pendant."
Han wagged his head back and forth. "No deal! He's been captured."
"Captured or not, he says he'll kill them unless their mother brings him her medallion. In person."
"What are they saying?" Tom whispered to Ally, and she remembered to translate for him. "No way!" he cried when she had finished. "I'll go."
Mara shook her head. "He wants Allia. Alone." She paused and looked directly at Ally. "He doesn't want just the disk, you know. He wants to keep you and Luke and Leia apart. He knows you'll be very powerful together."
"He's been captured," Han repeated before Ally could say anything. "He doesn't get to dictate terms."
Mara shook her head slowly, her eyes far away. "He's got something else up his sleeve...I can't tell what it is, though." The look on Mara's face sent a shiver down Ally's spine.
"I don't care what he's got up his sleeve, as long as my children are in danger, I'll do whatever he wants," she stated firmly.
"Ally, we can't send you alone," Leia reasoned, but before she could go on, Mara interrupted.
"She won't be alone. I'm going with her."
Her declaration created pretty much the expected reaction.
"No, Mara. You're not ready," Skywalker told her in that overly earnest way of his.
"I don't remember asking your permission," she retorted.
"I thought you said he wanted me to go alone," Ally interjected.
"He did, but we don't always get exactly what we want," Mara told her defiantly.
Skywalker tried again. "You're still too angry with him. You're at a place in your Jedi training that makes that anger very dangerous." He stepped towards her, his blue eyes locking onto her green ones. "I can't keep you from doing this, but please don't face him yet."
Something in his eyes almost made her lose her resolve. Almost. "It's the best thing, really," she said, taking a small step back from Skywalker. "Ally can't go alone; she doesn't know how to use a blaster or pilot a ship if the need should arise. That's why he wants her. But he'll accept me. He wants to face me as much as I want to face him."
"I will not jeopardize Aaron and Casey's lives by getting him angry," Ally told her. "Are you sure it'll be okay?"
Mara nodded. "He'll want to show off for me." She turned to Solo. "As soon as we jump out of hyperspace you can pull the shuttle aboard. They'll let Ally and me on board without a fight." She looked back at Ally and Tom. "Without endangering the children."
Ally translated for her husband, who looked very unhappy with the arrangement.
"What about Ally's portion of the disk?" Leia asked.
"We'll have to bring it in with us," Mara replied.
Leia shook her head. "We can't let him have it. Not if it could be used to make him like Vader or..."
Mara saw her shudder as she trailed off. "We won't let him have it," she assured Leia. "But it's the only thing we have to negotiate with for the kids' safety."
"We have him." Solo put in hotly. "He doesn't get out of here until the Dales' kids are safe and sound."
"That's all well and good," Ally said, "but as long as he has Aaron and Casey, he calls the shots. I think Mara's plan is the only thing we can do." She then repeated herself in English for her husband's sake.
Tom looked at Mara. "You obviously know this guy, if you say this is the best way, then let's get on with it."
She looked at Skywalker, suddenly feeling the inexplicable need for his approval. He didn't look happy about it, but he seemed resigned to the fact that she had to do this. "Just be careful," he told her solemnly.
Mara held out her hand to Ally. "Give me the disk. I'll have a better shot at keeping it away from him."
The other woman looked numb, but she reached inside the collar of her uniform and pulled a chain from around her neck. On the end of it hung the wedge-shaped pendant with a small red stone embedded near the spot where the metal came to a point. Mara took the pendant in her hand, then put it around her own neck and tucked it into her black jumpsuit.
"All right, let's get out of hyperspace then," Solo said, turning back to the ship's controls. "Come on, Chewie, lets make the jump."
Outside the viewport, starlines flared into view, then shortened into points of light. Chewbacca worked on the tractor beam controls and finished pulling the captured shuttle aboard the yacht. While he did so, Solo contacted them on an open channel.
"Imperial shuttle, you are a prisoner of the New Republic. Surrender immediately," he said, trying his best to sound official. It was really just for show; Belsarios knew that they knew he had the upper hand.
A voice crackled on the comm unit. "We have the Skywalker woman's children," a deep voice replied. Mara recognized it instantly as Belsarios'. "Unless you want them returned a little--shall we say, well done--I suggest you send her in with her portion of the Vader disk. Alone."
"You're in no position to be dictating terms," Solo snapped back, more for show than anything else.
"Then you're refusing my demand?"
Solo leaned over to Ally. "What's your rank?"
"Your rank in your Air Force. Does it have some equivalent in our military?"
Ally nodded, looking confused. "Lieutenant."
Solo turned back to the comlink. "All right. Lieutenant Dale will be boarding." He shut it off again. "Sometimes how we say something is just as important as what we say." He nodded at his wife. "A skilled diplomat once taught me that. If we call you by your rank, it let's him know you're someone of authority, not just a pawn in his little hostage exchange program." He then handed her a hand-held comlink and briefly showed her how to contact Belsarios with it.
"Let's get on with it," Mara said impatiently. She took Ally by the arm and guided her out of the cockpit and into the corridor, Skywalker, Leia, and Tom Dale following them. Solo and Chewbacca stayed in the cockpit.
As they walked, Mara pulled out a blaster and handed it to Ally. "Take this. He'll probably disarm us when we go in, but we want him to know you know how to use it."
"I'm not sure I do," Ally admitted to her.
"You did learn how to shoot in the military?" Mara asked.
"Before that. I learned how to shoot a shotgun when I was twelve. But that's gunpowder and bullets, not energy bolts."
"Same difference, only there's less of a kick when you fire a blaster." Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Skywalker and Leia exchange surprised looks. "Yes, I've used weapons with gunpowder and bullets," she told them smartly. "Remember, my training was very thorough."
"What about my lightsaber?" Ally asked. Mara noticed she still wore her lightsaber clipped to her uniform.
"Bring that, too. Could come in handy," Skywalker advised from behind them. "You too, Mara." Mara patted her weapon, already clipped to her belt.
They reached the door to the hanger bay and stopped. Mara took a deep breath. This was it. After eighteen years, she was going to face the man who had been her first love; the man who had maliciously killed her only brother. But she was not going in on her own terms. Innocent lives--children's' lives-- were at stake. She glanced at Ally and her husband as he gave her words of caution in their own language. She would have to put aside her desire for revenge until the children were safe.
Suddenly, Skywalker surprised her by taking her by the shoulders. He looked so intently into her eyes it made her a little uncomfortable.
"Remember, anger and aggression--and revenge--are the dark side.'
"I know, I know," she said quickly, averting her eyes to avoid his intense gaze.
"I'm serious, Mara. I don't want to lose you to the dark side."
She looked up sharply, her green eyes meeting his. They held for just a moment: this time it was Skywalker who averted his gaze. He released her shoulders and took a half step back.
"You have the potential to be a very great Jedi," he said, almost hastily.
Mara looked away from him to Ally. "Ready?" she asked.
The Terran nodded, and Mara reached out and tapped the controls for the hanger door. It opened with a hiss, they stepped through, and Mara shut the door behind them.
May the Force be with you, she heard Luke's voice in her head. She saw Ally start. "You'll get used to that," Mara said as they headed towards the captured shuttle parked near the exterior hatch. She nodded towards the shuttle. "At least you don't have that bloated parasite's voice running through your mind."
Ally cocked her head and eyed Mara. "This isn't just about my kids, is it? This is personal for you."
Mara crossed her arms. "Let's just say we were once on the same side, and now we're not."
"Then he defected?"
"No," Mara smiled, eyes narrowing. "I did."
Ally raised her eyebrows, but didn't reply. Mara motioned to the comlink in the other woman's hand. Ally nodded, then thumbed it on.
"This is Lieutenant Dale," she said into it, her voice low and steady. "I'm ready to come aboard."
The shuttle hatch came open with a rush of air, and four stormtroopers came out, blasters first. They motioned the women into the shuttle, then shut the hatch behind them.
She saw him immediately. In the rear of the shuttle, seated in a grand swivel chair, was Malarin Belsarios. He looked much the same as she remembered him: he was dressed grandly in a flowing red cloak, similar to the style favored by Lando Calrissian. The hair on his head and his beard was streaked with gray, but otherwise the same as she had seen him last.
When he had supposedly been executed for murdering her brother.
Before she could say anything, or even really meet his gaze, two small voices called out in English and almost in unison: "Mommy!"
"Aaron! Casey!" Ally cried back in return.
The two children were being held near Belsarios' chair by two stormtroopers. They looked scared but somehow defiant, reminding Mara of the Solo children.
"First thing's first," Belsarios said, then the four stormtroopers who had guided them in frisked them and confiscated both women's blasters and lightsabers. They placed all four weapons at their commander's side.
Belsarios glared at them. "Lieutenant Dale, I thought I specifically asked you to come alone," he snapped.
"What's the matter, Malarin, didn't want to see an old friend?" Mara interjected before Ally could respond. Belsarios turned to her, clicking his tongue.
'Well, well, well. Mari Jade!" He smiled, but it was utterly without humor. "No, of course not, Mari. It's always a pleasure to see you."
"Sorry I can't say the same," Mara grinned in return.
He clicked his tongue again. "Still holding old grudges, I see. Such a shame, too, that you cling to grudges so much more readily than to loyalties."
Mara's eyes narrowed to emerald slits. "Why don't we continue this conversation after you've let the Terran woman and her children go," Mara said nodding her head in Ally's direction. "I'll even turn my back for you, I know that's how you prefer your battles."
If her barb stung at all, Malarin showed no sign of it. He simply shook his head, trying to look pitiful. "Mari, Mari. Surely you know I can't do that. Not until I have what I came for." He turned his attention from Mara to Ally. "Your children will be put off the shuttle as soon as your captain jumps us back into orbit around Earth. Then the three of us will take a little trip back to my ship, where we will discuss the rest of the terms."
"There are no other terms," Mara sneered. "Your shuttle will be released as soon as the children and their mother are safely off." She paused. "I, however, could be convinced to enjoy your charming company a little longer. I'm so looking forward to finishing what the Emperor was unable to."
At this, Belsarios laughed viciously. "Oh, Mari, how could you have learned at the feet of the greatest man who ever lived and still be so ignorant."
Mara put her hands on her hips. "If you're referring to the fact that the Emperor purposely faked your execution, I already know that."
Belsarios only laughed again. "There are a great many things you don't know, my dear." He turned suddenly to Ally. "But I'm being rude to my other guest." He made a slight gesture with his hand, and the two troopers released their hold on the children.
In a split second, they were on top of their mother, who knelt down to scoop them into her arms. They babbled excitedly in their own language, their words flying so fast and running over each other that Mara couldn't make any of it out. But Ally seemed to understand every word. She nodded alertly, occasionally commenting, "I know, I know." Mara watched the scene briefly, then turned her attention back to Belsarios.
"Am I supposed to be impressed by your remarkable generosity?"
He grinned at her, but directed his words at Ally. "Your children have been quite a delight, Lieutenant. Nonetheless, I'd be perfectly willing to part company with them and see them returned to their father. Just as soon as we are back in orbit around your lovely planet."
Mara eyed him suspiciously. He had some other plan, something else she was missing. But he must have sensed her trying to search his intentions, for he turned back to her.
"Mari, my dear, I must say I'm very disappointed in you." His mock pitiful look returned, and he wagged his head. "Did you really learn nothing from the Emperor?" He paused for dramatic effect. "And if not you, than Chief of State Organa Solo should have known better."
Leia? Mara thought. What does Leia--
Her heart froze. Leia Organa Solo. Of Alderaan. Of course, he was right. They had been unbelievably stupid to have missed it. They had thought that jumping into hyperspace with Belsarios' shuttle in tow was giving them the upper hand, but it had been a fatal mistake.
They had left behind an Imperial strike-class ship with a full squadron of starfighters orbiting a completely defenseless planet.
Luke tried to use his Jedi calming techniques as he watched Han pace around the cockpit. His friend's nervous habit was not helping.
"Any idea what's going on?" Han asked for what must have been the fifth time in as many minutes.
"I only know what they're feeling," Luke tried to explain again. After Han's eighteen years of friendship with him, not to mention eleven years of marriage to Leia and three Force-strong children, he should really have a better working understanding of the Force. But then, Han was just being Han; he hated when he couldn't fix things with a decisive act.
Luke continued: "The kids are okay but scared, Belsarios is cocky, and Mara is feeling--well, combative."
Han rolled his eyes. "It doesn't take a Jedi to know Mara's combative."
"Han, please, you're not helping matters." Leia reached out and took his arm as he passed by her on one of his trips across the cockpit. "Sit down, please," she requested softly. Han snorted in frustration and Chewbacca roared in agreement. Nevertheless, Han relented and sat down beside his wife.
Luke then turned his attention to Tom. This man who less than twenty-four hours earlier had been blissfully unaware of the existence of Malarin Belsarios; now his children's and wife's lives were in his hands.
"They'll be fine," Luke tried to reassure him. He stumbled through the words in English, even though the droids had been brought down from the gun turrets and Threepio was there to translate.
The Terran captain simply nodded. "I know."
Luke took a deep breath and tried the calming technique again. He was worried about all of them, but for some reason, he was especially concerned for Mara. Just as he had rushed off in anger to face Darth Vader before his training was complete, so Mara was facing what could be her greatest challenge--at least as far as her Force abilities were concerned--with incomplete training. And she was such an angry person! He tried again to reach out to the shuttle, feel their feelings.
Abruptly, Luke sat bolt upright. Something in Mara's sense had changed.
"What is it?" Leia asked, alarmed.
Luke shook his head. "Something's wrong with Mara. She just--" he fumbled, trying to capture the swirling scene in his mind. "Some really bad thought just occurred to her--something we've missed."
"What?" Tom asked horrified.
They all jumped when they heard Mara's voice calling for Han from the comlink. The Corellian leapt for the controls and picked up the handset, glancing at Tom. "Looks like we're about to find out."
Ally was so happy to have her children safely in her arms again, she almost forgot where she was, and she stopped paying attention to what Mara was saying to Belsarios. But then she heard Mara let out a string of words that were completely unfamiliar to her. By the tone, she guessed the other woman was swearing. Ally looked up at her over the top of Casey's tousled blond hair, alarmed.
"What is it?"
Mara wouldn't look at her; she only closed her eyes.
"She just realized she and your other friends have made a very key tactical error," Belsarios supplied helpfully. "The crew of my ship, which remains in orbit around your planet, has orders that unless this shuttle is returned to them within the next half an hour, they are to start firing.
Ally's stomach churned. "Oh my God!" she muttered. Her world had no defenses against the kind of weapons Belsarios had--her base's pitiful attempt at engaging them when the shuttle and its escort fighters first arrived was an example of that. They could probably reduce the planet to rubble in a matter of moments.
"What's wrong, Mom?" Aaron asked her, sensing her horror. Ally was glad they didn't know Basic.
"Nothing, honey. It'll be okay." She gave him a pat, then stood up, keeping her arms protectively around him and his sister. She glared at Belsarios.
"What do you want?"
He smiled at her, as if trying to be nothing more than a charming host. "I already told you. I want you--and the lovely Ms. Jade--" he motioned towards Mara who looked ready to kill him with her bare hands-- "to stay with me. As my guests," he said, putting an emphasis on the word that told her they would be anything but guests. "And I want the disk. You do have it, don't you?"
"I have it," Mara snarled.
Belsarios turned his attention back to the angry redhead. "Give it to me." He raised his right arm straight out in front of him, all five fingers pointing at his adversary. As Ally watched, Mara suddenly clutched at her throat. Impossibly, Ally saw the pendant pull tight around Mara's neck. Ally looked back and forth between Belsarios and Mara, wanting to fly to her new friend's aid, but unsure what to do. But Mara, for her part, obviously had no intention of acquiescing without a fight. Her face relaxed slightly, and she closed her eyes, while holding the pendant tightly against her chest. All at once, the chain slackened and hung loosely around her neck. Mara took a deep breath and opened her eyes, glaring at Belsarios victoriously. "Not until you let the children go."
"Not until you get your friends to return us to orbit around Earth," he snapped, obviously miffed at his loss in that strange battle of wills.
Mara glared at him a full second, then turned towards Ally. "Give me the comlink," she said brusquely, holding out her hand. Ally had forgotten she still clenched the communication device in her fist. She handed it to Mara, who thumbed it on.
"Solo, this is Jade."
While they waited for Han's response, Ally looked over at Belsarios, trying to weigh the situation. If she could find a way to retrieve her lightsaber...
Abruptly, Belsarios stared at her. "I'd put any ideas of going for your weapons out of your mind. You are outnumbered, and I'd hate for your precious children to be harmed."
How in the hell...?
Solo's response from the comlink interrupted her thoughts.
Mara spoke into the comlink, her voice as hard as steel. "Jump us back to orbit around Earth. As soon as we're there, the children will be released. Then you're to let the shuttle go."
There was a pause. "What about you and Lieutenant Dale?"
"We're staying," Mara declared flatly without bothering to ask Ally's opinion. With their ship circling her planet, Ally wasn't much inclined to argue anyway.
Another pause. "Negative. The shuttle stays put until all four of you are back on board the Edge," Han stated testily.
"Solo, we left the Force Storm in orbit around a defenseless planet.
This time there was no pause. Ally heard another string of words that Gamiel had never taught her spewing from the comlink. Some of them were the same words she'd heard Mara use earlier.
"Colorfully put, Solo," Mara quipped. "I suggest you make the computations for the jump back to Earth."
There was a longer pause this time. Han must be discussing the situation with his companions, Ally mused.
"Affirmative, Jade," the restrained response finally came. "We'll advise you when we've arrived. Solo out."
As they waited, Ally soothed her frightened children and kept an eye on Belsarios. He looked very smug, and was glaring at Mara, his small defeat apparently forgotten. Mara met his gaze and returned one that looked even more deadly, causing Ally to again wonder what Mara's past history with this man had been.
"Compute for the jump back to Earth!" Han barked at Chewie as he slammed the comlink down on the control panel.
Damn! he thought to himself. Damn damn DAMN! How could they have been so stupid? Of course Earth would be completely defenseless against weapons of this sort; he really should have thought of that before he attempted to drag Belsarios' shuttle into hyperspace. Damn!
Chewie set to work on the navicomputer and quickly did the computations to reverse the jump they just made, while the others strapped themselves in. When he was ready, the Wookiee pulled back on the hyperspace lever, and the stars outside the viewport became starlines, then disappeared altogether. They were in hyperspace. Again.
Han unstrapped himself and turned away from the control panel, still angry at this setback. He faced the others in the cockpit and was instantly was sorry he did so.
Tom Dale looked as white as Winter's hair as he listened to Threepio's running translation. Just this morning he had been an ordinary captain in one of his planet's strongest military forces. Now he faced an enemy his military couldn't hope to conquer, and who had his children and wife to boot.
And speaking of wife, Leia wasn't looking very well herself. His frustration at the situation abated a little as he looked at her stony face.
"Hey, it'll be okay," he said to both Leia and Tom, his manner softening and his usual cocky bravado returning. "We'll come up with a plan. We always come up with a plan."
Leia simply sighed. "We should have known. I should have known. I feel like I'm back on the first Death Star watching Tarkin fire on Alderaan."
Luke put his arm protectively around his sister's shoulders. "Han's right. We'll come up with a plan."
"I've experienced your plans," Leia responded, her sassiness returning.
Han felt a little better. "What's the matter, Your Worshipfulness, still griping about your rescue from the Death Star?" He was rewarded with a wan smile.
"What happens now?" Tom spoke up from the corner in English. Threepio started to translate, but Han waved him off, and for once the droid shut up.
"We go back to Earth. Hopefully, Belsarios keeps his word and lets your kids go," Han replied, struggling with the English.
"Yeah, but how likely is he to keep his word, and even if he does, what happens to Ally and what's-her-name?" Tom returned.
"Mara's been in worse situations than this," Luke joined in, also struggling through in English so he could talk to Tom directly. "And she's the best. If anyone can turn the tables on Belsarios, it's Mara."
Chewie growled at Han, who turned his attention towards his Wookiee friend. "Okay, then let's jump back to normal space." He paused. "You know, this could be an ambush. We'd better be ready for anything." He nodded at Leia and Luke. "You two might want to man the guns."
"What about me?" Tom asked suddenly.
Han looked at him. "You a good shot?"
The Terran captain straightened up, finally looking confident again. "I'm the best," he replied. A man after Han's own heart.
"Then Luke can show you how to work the gun turret. Let's get going," he directed, and they all scurried from the cockpit.
"You ready for this, Chewie?"
Chewbacca responded affirmatively.
"Then let's do it." He slid into the pilot's seat beside the Wookiee, who already had his claw on the hyperspace lever. He pushed it forward and they were back. Through the front viewport, they could see the blue and green planet below them. And they could see the Force Storm.
Han reflexively went evasive, but the Imperial ship showed no signs of trying to engage them. There weren't even any fighters out any more.
"Looks like they're not gonna shoot," Han advised Chewbacca, who snarled in agreement. "At least not while we've got their boss."
Leia's voice came over the intercom. "Looks like we're okay for now. Better contact Mara and tell her we're back."
Ally jumped when she heard some kind of a beep emanating from Mara. Still glaring defiantly at Belsarios, the feisty redhead plucked the beeping comlink off her belt. "Jade here."
"We're back in orbit," came Han's voice. "Have that--have Belsarios call his ship and keep them from firing. At us or at Earth."
Mara nodded to Malarin, who motioned to one of his commandos. The officer grabbed the shuttle's handset from the control panel in the cockpit and handed it to his leader, who issued a brief order to his troops aboard the Force Storm. He then directed his attention back to Mara. "Tell Captain Solo to release us."
Mara scowled at him. "Not until you release the children."
Belsarios nodded to his stormtroopers that surrounded the two women and children. They made a move towards Aaron and Casey, but the two youngsters clung to their mother.
Ally kneeled down to her children's level.
"It's okay, it's okay," the young mother soothed. "These men are going to take you off this ship to Daddy."
Casey shook her head violently, blond hair flying everywhere. "No, Mommy, I wanna stay with you!"
Ally grasped her daughter's shoulders. "Honey, I have to stay here, but Daddy will be waiting for you outside. I'll be back soon, I promise." She hoped fervently that that was a promise she would be able to keep.
"Perhaps you would like your children to remain with us," Belsarios declared impatiently.
Ally's temper flared and she glared up at him. "They're frightened," she said hotly in Basic. "They've never been plucked from their school yard and taken up into space before!" She turned back to her children. "You have to go with these men now, okay?"
Aaron put a protective arm around his little sister. "It's okay, Casey, I'll take care of you." He smiled at his mother, and Ally smiled back proudly.
Ally heard Mara speak into her comlink. "The children are being released now. You'd better send their father down to the hanger to get them."
The four stormtroopers surrounded the two children and ushered them gruffly towards the shuttle's hatch. One of them hit a control panel at the side of the door, and it opened outward, forming a gangplank. Then they roughly pushed their two small captives down and out into the hanger bay.
Ally cried out, "You don't have to be so rough!" but they ignored her and shut the hatch, leaving the children outside, alone. Ally could actually feel their fright turn into joy through her intuitive connection with them--the Force. Their father must have been waiting for them.
She breathed a sigh of relief. The children were safe. Now if only she could say the same thing for her planet.
Leia, and Threepio were waiting with Tom outside the hanger door when the children were so cruelly shoved off of Belsarios' shuttle. Their father ran out and swooped them joyfully into his arms, the children prattling at him in their own language.
"Come on, let's get them out of here," Leia said to Tom, Threepio translating for her. "You can take them to the cabin with my children. The two adults, two children, and droid swiftly left the hanger and went to the Solo children's cabin. After a brief introduction, Tom let his kids know they needed to stay here with the twins and Anakin, and that they were now safe and with friends. After all they had been through, Leia was surprised at how quickly they warmed up to the situation, delighted to meet cousins they had never known existed. Delighted even more that they were actually on a real spaceship. Leia shook her head, smiling. Kids were so resilient.
When the kids seemed secure with their new circumstances, Leia and Tom left with Threepio and rejoined Han, Chewie, and Luke in the cockpit. Han was already making arrangements for the shuttle's release.
"Now what?" Leia asked, joining her husband at his side.
Han shrugged. "I don't know. Seems Belsarios is holding all the cards. He's got his warship orbiting Earth, and he's got Ally and Mara."
"They'll be fine," Luke said a bit too forcefully. Leia wondered if he was trying harder to convince them or himself. She knew he was worried about Mara facing Belsarios with her training incomplete. Luke had seen too many of his students battle the dark side--some unsuccessfully. But he seemed even more concerned than usual about Mara's safety. Leia stepped away from Han and put a comforting arm around her brother.
"She trained for years under the Emperor and never went to the dark side," Leia reassured him. "And Belsarios is no Emperor."
Luke looked up at her. "It's just--" he paused, frustrated. "Remember when we went up against Joruus C'baoth on Wayland?"
"Did you know she was actually so afraid of going over to his side that she asked me to kill her rather than let that happen?"
Leia blinked in surprised. She had never known Mara Jade to be afraid of anything.
Luke continued. "And C'baoth was just some crazy clone to her. She didn't have any emotional attachments for him to exploit. He didn't murder her brother and--" Luke stopped short, and Leia realized there was more to Mara's connection with Belsarios than just her brother's murder. But if she had told Luke something in confidence, he wasn't about to share it, not even with his sister. "He's her Darth Vader," he finished simply.
"And in spite of all the emotions Vader could exploit in you, the light side won out," Leia reminded him. "It will here too. Besides," she added, "you can still keep an eye on her through the Force."
"And is she doing all right?"
Luke paused, then nodded slowly. "She's upset with herself for letting him get the upper hand on us, but other than that she seems to be pretty calm."
Leia smiled. "See? She'll be fine. And Ally, too."
Luke patted her hand, which was resting on his shoulder. "Thanks for the pep talk. I just hope you're right." * * * * *
Once the shuttle had been released from the Gambler's Edge hanger, Belsarios' men piloted it back to his waiting ship. Once there, he directed his troopers to take his two prisoners up to the bridge where he stood before them, glowering victoriously in his flowing red cloak. Mara wondered with disgust what she could have ever seen in this vain, inflated blowhard who made even Lando Calrissian seem humble.
"Now then, where were we?" Belsarios gloated. "Oh, yes, I remember. I believe I was about to have that lovely little planet below us destroyed, one city at a time, unless the delightful Ms. Jade turns over the pendant she is wearing."
"Glad to see you haven't lost your charm," Mara quipped sarcastically. She looked over at Ally, who's eyes were full of anger mixed with fear. Her children were safe--relatively speaking, anyway--but now the only world she'd ever known was in danger. Mara turned back to Malarin. She didn't trust him as far as she could throw a full-grown Wookiee, but she had no choice. With a sigh, she reached around her neck and pulled off the medallion, holding it out towards Belsarios. It was yanked abruptly out of her grip, and flew into Malarin's outstretched hand.
He looked at her, his eyes filled with a malevolent glee. "Now I have the last tool I need. Today marks the beginning of the return of the Empire!"
Mara laughed bitterly. "Please spare us the dramatics, Malarin. You sound utterly ridiculous."
He was unaffected by her slur. His eyes narrowed, and he tilted his head. "You know, Mari, it's not too late. I could be persuaded to forgive your desertion of the Emperor."
"It was the Emperor who deserted me," Mara retorted.
"Nevertheless, it is not too late for you to return to the position you were born and trained for. You could be my Hand, and rule the new Empire with me."
Mara laughed again. "I'd sooner bathe with a Hutt!" she returned. "The Emperor was pond slime, but even on your best day, you're no Emperor. Your Force skills are laughable."
Finally, Mara's barbs struck home. He glowered at here fiercely. "We'll see about that," he snapped. He took Ally's pendant and fit it together with two similar ones he produced from the folds of his cloak. Skywalker's and Organa Solo's, no doubt. He then held out his completed disk in front of him. Using it to focus the Force like a magnifying glass focuses rays of sunlight, Belsarios shot out a Force-blast that knocked Mara off her feet and tossed her like a rag doll back against a row of viewscreens.
"Mara!" she heard Ally cry out as she tried to regain her breath. She looked up in time to see Belsarios perform a similar trick on the Terran.
"Impressive," Mara heaved, trying to regain her feet, "but I don't remember the Emperor needing toys to augment his Force abilities."
"You know nothing of the Force," Malarin shouted angrily. "I will strike you down as easily as I struck down Mykos Jade!"
That did it. At the mention of Mykos, Mara lost her temper. Having made it back up on her feet, she lunged at him with a suddenness that took the stormtrooper guards completely by surprise. But Belsarios was ready for her and using the disk again, he sent a blue burst of energy out towards her which hit her full-force, not only repelling her assault, but knocking her backwards again, and singeing her hair and clothes in the process.
Belsarios laughed viciously. "Do not play games with me, Mara Jade." He gave a wicked look in Ally's direction, who had also regained her feet after his attack on her. "I'm afraid I've lost my patience with my old comrade here. It's a pity your planet will have to pay for her obstinance." He made a slight hand motion to young Imperial officer standing behind him at a bank of controls. "Fire on the planet--beginning with our young friend's military base."
The Wookiee, four humans, and two droids were all in the cockpit of the Gambler's Edge , waiting impatiently for some word from the Force Storm.
"This is no good," Han said, giving in to his frustration yet again. "We've got to come up with a way to get them--" He was interrupted when Chewie let out a roar that shook the walls of the cockpit.
Before Han could reply, Threepio blurted out, "Oh my! The Imperials are attacking the planet!" Then, remembering his duty to Captain Dale, he quickly translated the exclamation.
Han leapt for the control panel, Luke, Leia, and Tom close behind him. Sure enough, the Force Storm had pulled out of orbit and was diving towards the planet.
"He's making a run on it? In a strike-class ship?" Han cried, disbelieving.
Tom's fist pounded on the console. "That's it! We've sat around long enough-- I'm ready for some action."
"I couldn't agree more," Han said in English, not waiting for Threepio's translation. "Chewie, fire up the sublights, we're going after them."
Chewbacca roared in protest.
"I know, I remember! But we've got better defenses than that planet down there. Maybe we can draw away their fire." He turned back to the others. "Get back to the gun turrets."
"But Ally and Mara--" Luke started to protest.
"Can take care of themselves," Han finished firmly. "I'm not letting that windbag go after an undefended planet. Not without a fight." He glanced at his wife out of the corner of his eyes and saw her determination exceeded his own. Leia was not about to let another planet--any planet--fall victim to Imperial forces. With no further protest, she, Luke, and Tom hurried from the cockpit.
Han turned back to Chewie and the task at hand. "Full throttle, Chewie. If we can cut them off maybe they'll abort the attack and go after us."
With that, Han leaned hard on the controls, and the Edge went into a nauseating dive. Smaller and faster then the Imperial ship, they were able to hit atmosphere ahead of her. With the ground rushing up fast to greet them, Han pulled back on the controls and leveled off, flipping the ship over almost completely. He now was heading more or less parallel to the planet's surface, cutting off the approaching Force Storm, which was coming in rather quickly for a ship of its size.
"Get ready to fire when we get in range," Han shouted into the ship's intercom, hoping his three companions had made it to their guns. They must have, because a split second later, the aft gun was firing at the incoming Imperial ship. Han and Chewie cheered together. They had taken the bait--the Imperials were leveling off and following them, rather than continuing their dive on the planet.
"Rear shields up full!" Han ordered his Wookiee copilot, who responded with an affirmative howl. The Imperials began firing back at them, rocking the ship as energy bolts hammered on the shields. Han prayed that his kids and their new-found cousins were buckled in tight. Not a great ride for children.
Han put the ship into a deep loop, and they came back for another pass, putting him terrifyingly close to the planet's surface. Chewie bellowed his opinion of the stunt.
"I know, I know. Just keep up the shields and let me do the flying!"
The Force Storm came at them again, lighting up the sky around them with green laser fire. They were back over the continent Ally and Tom had come from, and the sky there was just beginning to darken as night approached.
Suddenly, a proximity alarm went off, nearly startling Han out of his chair. "What is it?" he asked Chewbacca. He didn't like the answer. The Dale's home planet was apparently not completely defenseless--they were firing some kind of weapons at them.
"Forward shields up!" Han cried as he pulled the Edge into an evasive maneuver. "Tom, what the hell are those things?" he asked in English into the intercom.
"Probably Patriot missiles--I'd get out of their way, fast" the Terran captain replied.
Han was able to avoid the missiles, which, he noted with satisfaction, then locked onto the Imperial vessel. But the strike- class ship's shields were too powerful; the missiles exploded harmlessly on their outer hull. Not only that, the missiles succeeded in diverting the Imperials' attention back towards the planet.
As they flew over the desert that was his sister-in-law's home, Han watched helplessly as the Force Storm fired past them, directly at the planet. In a flare of brilliant green, the Dale's military base and much of the desert immediately surrounding it was vaporized.
Mara clutched a railing for support as the ship begin it's fast dive towards the planet. She heard Ally cry out behind her: "You bastard! We did everything you asked!"
"Then you were fools," Malarin laughed wickedly.
Mara watched as Ally snapped. Repeating Mara's futile attack, the lieutenant lunged at Belsarios, evading two stormtroopers who tried to grab her, and growling something that resembled a war cry. But Belsarios was ready for her, and she, too, was thrown back with a singeing bolt of blue light. Before Ally could catch her breath, however, Mara's and Belsarios' attention were drawn back to the viewscreen. Seemingly out of nowhere, the Gambler's Edge appeared, cutting them off from their dive on the planet below.
"The idiots!" Belsarios cried, "They're no match for an Imperial strike-class ship, haven't they learned?" He ordered his pilot to go after them.
Good thinking, Solo, Mara thought, brightening. Not only was he distracting them from getting a shot in at Earth, but he was keeping Belsarios' attention focused on the battle outside and away from Mara and Ally. The former Emperor's Hand looked around wildly, trying to find some way to use the situation to her advantage.
Then she saw the answer: sitting in a pile near Belsarios, forgotten, were Mara and Ally's confiscated weapons. Two blasters and two lightsabers. Mara glanced back at Ally, who looked ready to make another lunge for Belsarios. She shook her head, warning the Terran to stay put. Ally nodded, understanding.
Mara looked back towards the weapons. Belsarios' attention was still focused on the battle outside, as were all the stormtroopers. But Mara knew she was no match for that disk. She had to find some way to get it back.
Outside, the Edge made a loop and came at them again, while the Force Storm pounded at them with laser fire. Mara saw Solo make some kind of evasive move, as if trying to avoid something that was shooting at him from below. Then she saw that's exactly what was happening; the planet had fired some kind of weapon in their direction, but it missed the Edge completely and exploded harmlessly against the shields of the Force Storm. But the attack served to renew Malarin's anger. He ordered his pilot to break off following the New Republic ship and resume the attack on the planet below.
As Malarin laughed in wicked delight, they swooped down on the desert and destroyed the Air Force base that Ally had taken them to just hours before. Ally cried out in anguish, but Malarin kept his attention focused on the evaporating military base below.
It was then that Mara saw her chance. Mustering all the skills Skywalker had been teaching her over the past few months, Mara reached out of the Force and snatched the Vader disk right out of Belsarios' grasp. It flew across the bridge and into her waiting hand.
Malarin cried out in outrage, but he was too late; Mara pulled again with the Force, and the four confiscated weapons flew towards her.
"Ally!" she cried. The Terran lieutenant had been watching her, and was ready when Mara tossed her a blaster and a lightsaber. Before the stormtroopers nearby could even react, Ally whipped around and shot at them with the blaster. Mara did likewise with her own weapon, showering a blaze of fire across the bridge. Naval officers and stormtroopers ducked for cover while Belsarios screamed in rage.
"You will pay for this, Mara Jade!" But Mara was too busy to pay attention to him. She grabbed Ally's arm and dragged her back towards the exit.
"Come on, we've got to make a run for it!"
The two women backed towards the exit, spraying blaster fire everywhere. "Cover me," Mara told her companion as she turned and keyed open the hatch. When it opened, she cautiously poked her head out, blaster first. Fortunately, the corridor was empty; all personnel were at battle stations.
Dragging Ally behind her, Mara dove through the hatchway, then spun around and blasted the controls. The door swung down and sealed behind them.
"Come on, we've got to find a way off this ship."
The two women raced through the hallways, Mara relying on her extensive knowledge of Imperial designed ships to guide her to the hanger bay. They found it relatively easily, but it was heavily guarded.
"Now what?" Ally asked.
There was a whole squadron of stolen A-wing fighters docked there, but they would have to pass over a narrow walkway that extended from the main corridor to flight deck over a long drop. Though Mara was not afraid of heights, it would be difficult to get over such a narrow bridge while at the same time trying to avoid getting shot. But they didn't have a lot of time to try and sneak up on them.
"Well, we can try and find a way to sneak in there," Mara explained, answering Ally's question, "but seeing as Belsarios has to know this is where we'd come, we won't have a lot of time. I say we just blast our way in and hope we're better shots than they are."
Ally smiled. "I like your style, Mara Jade."
The two women burst onto the catwalk, weapons blazing. The guards inside the hanger bay ducked for cover and fired back. Mara looked around for something else to use against them. Looking up, she spotted a huge crane that was used to move incapacitated fighters to and from the flight deck. Size matters not, she remembered Skywalker telling her. She hoped he was right.
"Cover me," she shouted at Ally, then closed her eyes and reached out with all the strength she could muster. To her complete astonishment, she was able to push the crane just enough so that it wobbled unsteadily. Pushing again, she was able to topple it from it's less-than-sturdy base and she heard it land with a tremendous crash.
"What happened?" Ally cried in amazement.
Mara opened her eyes. The huge crane had crushed a dozen A-wings and a few of the guards, with many more of them trapped behind it, unable to move or shoot around the huge piece of machinery. That left only five stormtroopers on their side of the crane. Odds much more to Mara's liking.
"No time," she called out, trying to answer Ally's question over the battle din. "You make a run for one of those fighters-- one that wasn't crushed. I'll cover you. When you get there, you cover me and I'll come in behind you."
"Can two people fit in one of those things?"
"Not really, but they were designed so that even a Wookiee could fit in one. We're both just barely over a meter and a half--we should be able to squeeze in."
The Terran nodded. Mara shot off some rounds on her blaster at the remaining guards, as Ally made a dash for the nearest A-wing. She made it, diving head first into the cockpit of the small starfighter. When she was inside, she ducked out from behind the transparisteel canopy and fired at the guards. Mara was about to make a run for it when a blaster blot singed the floor near her feet. This one came from behind.
In one flowing movement, Mara swiveled around and ducked for what little cover she could get on the narrow walkway. She fired out into the hallway. Through the noise and smoke of the blaster bolts, she heard Malarin's bellowing voice call out to her.
"You'll never make it alive, Mara! Surrender!"
"Eat a chooba slug!" Mara shot back with both her voice and her weapon.
Suddenly, he appeared through the smoke. Mara brought her blaster up to aim at him, but he was just a little faster. He shot at her, hitting her squarely in the left arm. She cried out in pain, and her left hand flew open, dropping the object it had been clutching since the melee began on the bridge. The Vader disk. It flew out over the catwalk railing, falling down into the abyss below. Mara made a desperate attempt to grab at it, but with her wounded arm, she wasn't able to move fast enough. She was about to make an attempt using the Force, but Malarin was still shooting at her. Bringing her good arm up, the one holding the blaster, Mara fired off a burst of energy bolts, forcing Belsarios to back out into the hallway.
"Mara, give me the disk and I'll let you and the Terran woman go!" he shouted after her. Mara stared towards the hallway. He hadn't seen her drop it!
"I believe that!" she called back, then dove back across the catwalk towards the hanger bay.
Ally was still pouring out fire from behind the A-wing's canopy. Mara ran headlong towards the fighter, diving in on top of Ally, almost crushing the petite blond. Fortunately, Mara herself was small and light, and she didn't hurt the other woman.
"Let's get out of here," she cried, firing up the A-wing's engines and pulling down the canopy on top of them. It was cramped with two of them in the cockpit, but it would have to do. She revved up the engines and pushed the throttle forward. The fighter shot out of the hanger bay and out into the sky just above Earth's atmosphere.
Belsarios watched in rage as the A-wing made it out of the hangar. "I want them stopped immediately!" he screamed at the stormtroopers around him. "Send some fighters after them, but I want them alive, is that understood? If anyone shoots them down he will be immediately executed!"
Not that he cared about Mara and Ally per se, but as long as they had that disk...
He turned and headed back towards the bridge.
"You've been hit!" Ally exclaimed, noticing the burn mark and blood soaking through the arm of Mara's black jumpsuit.
"It's nothing. Unfortunately, when I got hit, I dropped the disk."
"Then he can still use it against us," Ally remarked.
"He doesn't know I dropped it," Mara answered, flying the A-wing as fast as she could into open space. "The bad news is, since he still thinks we have it, he'll be all over us. The good news is, that should keep him too busy to make any more attacks on your planet."
As if to confirm her theory, the scanner in front of her showed four fast- approaching fighters behind her. Normally, Mara would have been able to easily outmaneuver so few pursuers, but this was not normal circumstances. She was injured, and with Ally squashed behind her, she had no room to adequately pilot the thing, so she knew the other fighters would be screaming down her neck in a matter of seconds. She looked around desperately, searching with her eyes and the Force for some sign of the Gambler's Edge.
She felt Skywalker's presence in her mind at almost the same instant she saw the space yacht roar out of the Earth's atmosphere, past the Imperial ship, towards them. Hang on, Mara and Ally, we're coming.
Mara felt Ally squirm, startled. She had obviously received the message as well, and was still unaccustomed to hearing someone else's voice in her mind. "That was Skywalker," Mara confirmed. "But I don't think they'll get here before those fighters do."
"Can you take them on?" Ally asked.
Mara didn't have time to answer when one of them roared into firing range and began shooting at them. "Don't have a choice, do we?"
Knowing she couldn't outrun them, Mara pulled the ship into a loop and headed directly towards them, guns blazing. She managed to hit one, and it exploded in a brilliant cloud of flames. She was surprised to find that, rather than continue their attack, the others broke off in a mad dash to escape her.
"They couldn't possibly be that cowardly," Ally observed behind her.
Mara tried to think. No, they wouldn't break off when they outnumbered her three to one, even after one of their number had been destroyed. So what were they up to?
Abruptly, Mara swore. Pulling back on the controls as hard as she could, she tried to reverse direction, but she was too late. With a jolt that threw both women together and into the restraining harness, the A-wing stopped dead.
They were caught in a tractor beam.
Sitting in his gun turret, Luke watched helplessly as the Terran military base disappeared in flash of green. He felt the disturbance it caused in the Force: the death of hundreds on the planet below, and the anguish of the Terran captain in the next gun turret. It was almost overwhelming, and the young Jedi Master could do nothing but ride it out. It lasted for a full minute, and when it finally began to dissipate, Luke realized that there was some other kind of disturbance--one that had been masked by the destruction below. He closed his eyes and reached out.
In an instant, his eyes flew open again. He grabbed his intercom headset and flipped it on.
"Han, Mara and Ally are making a run for it. We've got to help them!"
"Slow down, Kid," came Han's response through the headset. Luke could hear Chewbacca snorting in the background. "What's happening?"
Luke tried to concentrate, his senses still a little shaky from the Force assault. "I think they got their weapons back while Belsarios was distracted. They're trying to shoot their way out."
"Then they'll be making a try for a shuttle or fighter to get off that thing," Leia put in from her gun turret.
"What's going on?" Captain Dale asked in English, bewildered.
Luke heard Han bellow for Threepio, then the droid's prissy voice came on as he recounted their conversation for Tom. The Terran replied with a string of short, terse words that Threepio didn't bother to translate.
"They don't have an ice-cube's chance on Tatooine of getting out of there," Han said grimly. Threepio would have to translate that.
Luke stretched out with the Force again. He could feel the presence of both Ally and Mara; both women were on high adrenaline. Then he felt a surge in the Force come from Mara. She had just managed to move something very big with the will of her mind. Luke couldn't help but grin proudly. They just might make it. "I think they might make it," he related aloud on the headset. "But not if we don't get over there and try to intercept them."
Ever since the Force Storm had fired on Earth military base, it had been moving steadily away from the planet back up into space. Luke could feel the acceleration of the ship beneath him as Han followed suit.
"I hope you're not just being optimistic," the pilot said warily. "The last thing we need is to get too close to that ship again."
Luke started to reply, but instead jumped as another outcry in the Force hit him. "Mara's been hit!" he cried.
"Is it bad?" Leia asked, concerned.
Luke reached out again. "No, no, I think it's her arm. But she's gonna have a tougher time piloting now."
"We'll be there in a minute, Kid," Han responded.
Luke maintained his light contact with Mara, wanting to call to her, tell her they were there, but he didn't dare distract her from the fight surrounding her. So he waited. But he didn't have to wait long.
"They made it," he breathed as he sensed their escape into open space. Now he could contact her more directly; Ally too. He closed his eyes again. Hang on, Mara and Ally, we're coming.
"I've got five A-wings on my scanner," Han's voice crackled over the intercom. "Looks like four of them in pursuit of the other."
"They must be in the one the others are chasing," Leia observed.
Two women in one fighter? Luke thought to himself.
"Thank you, Your Highness, I wouldn't have figured that out myself," Han quipped to his wife. Leia didn't reply, but Luke could sense that she was not bothered by the retort. It was typical Han/Leia sparring.
Luke heard Chewie growl, then Han said "You're right, they're not trying very hard to shoot her down."
At that moment, Luke's heart jumped into his throat. If they weren't trying to shoot them down, then--
"Han, they're gonna try and get 'em with a tractor beam! We've got to beat them there!" Luke cried out, but he knew right away that they were too late. The Imperials' tractor beam had already locked onto the women's fighter.
Han swore into the intercom, but Luke shut it out, trying to think. He was interrupted by a blur of excited beeping coming over the headset. Artoo.
Threepio's voice came next: "Master Luke, Artoo said you knew of a way to escape a tractor beam--"
Luke slapped his palm down on the gun controls in front of them, remembering. His X-Wing had been caught once--no, twice--in a tractor beam back in the days of Grand Admiral Thrawn. His escape had been tricky--the first time he had managed to completely fry all of his ships systems in the process--but he had escaped. And it had been Mara who had rescued him. He closed his eyes, and reached out to her with the Force.
"What was that?" Allia cried when she caught her breath again.
"Tractor beam," Mara growled through clenched teeth, furious with herself. For the second time in one day, she had missed the obvious. If Belsarios thought they still had the disk, he wouldn't want them blown out of the sky, he'd want them captured. The fighters had been sent out to keep her in tractor beam range, not kill them. And she'd fallen for it. She swore viciously.
"So now what?" Ally asked.
Mara was about to bite out a reply, but before she could, she felt a voice fill her mind. It was Skywalker.
Mara, you can get out of it. Remember how we met.
How we met? Mara thought, trying to remember. She had first seen Skywalker in Jabba the Hutt's Palace on Tatooine- -no, not that. He meant how they had first met face to face.
She had been working for Talon Karrde at the time, her only goal in life to find and kill Luke Skywalker. While on their way to make a delivery aboard Karrde's flagship, the Wild Karrde, she had sensed someone calling out through the Force. She dropped them suddenly out of hyperspace, where they came upon a damaged X-wing fighter. Skywalker's X-wing. He had been stranded in the middle of nowhere after--
Mara sat up straight, jabbing Ally in the process.
"Sorry," Mara apologized quickly, then she closed her eyes and reached back to Luke.
I remember, but it's too risky. You fried all your systems and were stranded in the middle of nowhere.
You found me, Skywalker pointed out.
But we're in an uncharted galaxy! I can't just jump blindly--
Use the Force, Mara. It will guide you safely. And I will find you.
So will he, Mara thought back, knowing that Belsarios had a strong connection to her. Then again, he no longer had the disk, or at least he didn't know he had it. But he also would be that much more desperate to find them. In her mind, she told Luke that.
But I'm stronger. And Allia is my sister. Our connection is the strongest there is. Mara knew right away he was right; she could sense Ally was hearing the whole conversation in her own mind.
"What's he talking about?" the Terran asked her.
"He's talking about doing something completely insane." But there wasn't time to think about it much longer. The tractor beam was pulling them slowly forward into the hanger bay of the Imperial ship.
Mara, it's the only way.
"Luke has an idea, but it could easily get us killed," Mara told Ally, realizing the other woman had a right to be part of the decision.
"I'd rather die trying to get away than have to go back there." She jerked her head back towards the ship they were moving inevitably towards.
Mara agreed. We'll do it.
With his forehead bent over his gloved fists, Belsarios frowned in concentration. He couldn't make out the words, but he could sense some kind of plan being hatched between Mara and Skywalker. But what? Her A-wing was trapped in a tractor beam, what could she do? He wished he could hear their words, but without the disk he could not. But they obviously had some sort of plan.
"Lieutenant," he addressed the tractor beam operator.
"Yes, my lord?"
"Keep a very close watch on the prisoners as you bring them in. They're plotting something, and if they escape you will be executed."
"Yes, my lord," the young man gulped.
Luke opened his eyes, his senses tense. They were taking a tremendous gamble, but it was the only way. Do you know what to do? he thought at Mara.
Suddenly, Leia's voice broke in on the intercom. "Are you sure they can do it?" she asked. Obviously she had been in on their entire conversation.
"Do what?" Han asked. Luke told him.
"Are you insane?" Han cried. "That stunt worked for you, but just barely. And you were in charted space!"
"The Force will guide her," Luke told Han firmly.
"Then what? How will we find them? They won't even know where they are."
Leia answered for Luke. "We can find them. We'll be able to sense Ally."
There was a brief silence. "So then we'll have to jump blindly into hyperspace after them."
"The Force will guide us," Luke repeated. "Han, we've got to get out of here."
"Pardon me, Masters, but Captain Dale wants to know 'what about Earth?'" That was Threepio. Obviously he had understood enough of what they were talking about to realize they would be leaving his planet behind. Again.
Luke took a deep breath, hoping he'd be right on this. "Belsarios thinks Mara has the disk. He's more likely to go after her than to waste time firing on Earth."
There was another pause as Threepio translated this.
"Whatever we have to do," Captain Dale assented, his voice strained. Luke knew his priorities were divided: his wife in the A-wing, his planet below, and his children on this ship. There was no really good solution.
"It'll work," Luke said firmly. It had to.
"Hang on, this is gonna be rough," Mara advised her passenger, but it was really unnecessary; they were crammed in too tightly to really go anywhere. Mara flipped a control, switching the ship's thrusters from forward to reverse. She put her right arm on the accelerator and her left hand on the proton torpedo firing mechanism, then took a deep breath.
With everything she had, Mara jammed down hard on the accelerator, giving it full power. The ship screamed in protest, and she felt it shudder around her as she was thrown against the harness. Ally in turn was thrown back against Mara's back. But it worked. For a split second they had wrenched free of the tractor beam. In that split second, Mara slammed down on the trigger, releasing a pair of proton torpedoes as she simultaneously pulled the A-wing's nose up, ignoring the blast of pain that came from her injured arm.
As the A-wing pulled off its course, the Force Storm's tractor beam tried desperately to lock onto it again. Instead, it locked on to the torpedoes, pulling them in towards the ship's hanger bay.
"Hang on!" she cried at Ally again. Closing her eyes and summoning every bit of Force ability she had, Mara put her hands on the hyperspace controls. Trusting the Force to guide her on a safe path, she pulled back on the hyperdrive throttle. The sky ahead burst into starlines and then they were gone.
The lieutenant in charge of the tractor beam looked up, his eyes wide with fear. "My lord, I don't know--"
"You will be executed immediately, Lieutenant!" Belsarios growled, barely able to contain his rage. He turned to the pilot: "Set course for the rebel yacht, weapons at full. Do not let them make it into hyperspace."
"Yes, my lord," the pilot replied.
Belsarios clasped his hands together in a way that almost appeared to be folded in prayer. Leaning his forehead on them, he closed his eyes and concentrated, searching. Surely he knew her sense better than anyone. He would find her. Even without the disk, he would find her.
By the time Mara and Ally's A-wing made the jump into hyperspace, Luke had joined Han and Chewie in the cockpit. As soon as he saw the fighter disappear, he closed his eyes, reaching out.
He caught Ally's sense almost immediately, then Mara's soon after. He opened his eyes and looked down at Han.
"I know where they are. Give me the hyperspace controls. I can find them."
"Are you sure you know what you're doing, Kid? One wrong turn in hyperspace--"
"It'll be fine." Luke cut him off.
Chewbacca relinquished his seat at the nav controls, and Luke sat down. But before he could get anywhere, a blast of laser fire flared past them. Belsarios, apparently very angry at losing Mara and Ally, was coming after them.
Han immediately grabbed the controls and went evasive, as Leia and Tom, still in their gun turrets, did what they could to fire back on the imposing Imperial ship.
"You'd better get us out of here fast!" Han cried to Luke.
Luke put his hands on the controls, letting the Force guide him. He could feel Ally and Mara's presence, thousands of light- years away in real space, but only seconds away in hyperspace. It was time. Reaching for the hyperdrive lever, Luke pulled it back.
Mara swore again as the displays in front of her showed the damage. It was nearly complete. They had no sublight engines, no hyperdrive engines, no communication systems. And they had less than ten minutes of life support, and that was not taking into account that there were two people in a cockpit that had only been built for one. But on the bright side, they were not on Belsarios' ship, which they would have been by now if they hadn't tried the maneuver.
"You weren't kidding," Ally said, rubbing her neck, "that was rough."
"It's going to get rougher. We've got maybe five minutes of life support left, and none of our other systems are operational."
Ally let out a low whistle. "That sounds bad." Then she stopped. "It's Luke. I can feel him searching for us," she said. A second later, Mara felt it too. Not since the days as the Emperor's Hand, when the Emperor used to contact her through the Force, had she been so happy to sense someone else's presence in her mind. Luke knew where they were. Now he only had to get there in time.
Luke pulled the Gambler's Edge abruptly out of hyperspace. When the starlines receded back into stars, Luke saw with relief that they were no more than a hundred kilometers from Ally and Mara's A-wing.
Chewbacca growled joyously as Han reached over to the comm unit and tried to hail them. Nothing.
Luke put his hand on Han's arm, shaking his head. "Their comm system is down. So are all their systems."
"What about life support?" Leia asked, alarmed, as she and Tom joined them in the cockpit.
Luke reached out again. "Five minutes max. We'd better get them on board in a hurry. We'll have to tractor them in."
Before the words were out of his mouth, Chewie had the tractor beam up and tracking the small fighter. Soon it locked on and pulled them slowly in towards the yacht's hanger bay.
"Can't that thing pull them in any faster?" Luke asked, worried. He could feel both Ally and Mara get lightheaded as their own carbon dioxide began to choke them.
Chewbacca snarled at him, baring his teeth.
"I'm sorry!" Luke cried, "I know you're doing the best you can. I'm just worried. We didn't come this far to watch them die of asphyxiation!"
He felt Leia's hand on his shoulder, but she said nothing. Together with Han, Tom, Chewbacca, and the droids, they watched the tractor beam slowly pull the crippled A-wing in.
Ally thought she was about to lose consciousness, when suddenly they were there. They had made it to the hanger. Within seconds after they had been pulled to the deck, the exterior hatch shut behind them and the room around them repressurized. Mara pulled back on a control and the canopy around them flew open as air rushed in. They had made it. Alive.
She felt Mara crawl weakly off of her and tumble out of the fighter's cockpit onto the deck below. Ally followed suit, breathing heavily.
Suddenly she heard the inner hatch open with a rush of air. All of her new friends were there, and Tom was with them. He rushed towards her and had her in his arms in an instant.
"Thank God you're all right," he moaned into her hair. "I can't believe we're all all right."
She hugged Tom back. Hard. "Where are the kids, are they okay?" she asked him.
"They're in with Han and Leia's kids," Tom nodded. Ally breathed a sigh of relief. She couldn't believe how good it felt to know they were finally all safe again.
That feeling was not to last.
"Belsarios is coming--he knows where I am."
Ally jerked her head away from Tom's shoulder and looked over at Mara. Luke, who was down on the floor beside her, examining her arm, looked at her as well.
"Are you sure?" he asked.
Mara nodded as Tom prodded Ally to translate for him. She did so.
"We've got to get out of here, fast. We've got to get back into hyperspace," Mara said, mostly to Luke and Han.
"What about the Dales?" Leia asked.
Ally froze. What about them? They were aboard a spaceship, light-years away from their own planet, and they were still in danger. She quickly explained the situation to Tom.
"Can you get us back home?" he asked the others when she had finished.
Ally saw Han consider this. "We could, but Belsarios will probably only follow us there. We wouldn't even have time to get you back down to the planet before he arrived, and we'd be back where we started," he said, speaking English this time.
Ally looked at her husband as he took it in. "Then we'll have to go with you," he said finally.
Ally stared at him, her mouth dropping open. "Tom, we can't just pick up and go to another galaxy!" she cried. "We're officers in the United States Air Force, for God's sake. We'd be deserting!"
"Deserting what?" Tom replied, his voice full of emotion. "He destroyed our base! Our squadrons, Ally. All of our friends! As far as I'm concerned, staying here and helping these people fight him is about the most patriotic thing we can do right now. Besides, if we go back he'll destroy our whole planet."
"He might do that anyway!" Ally protested.
"Not likely," Mara interjected. "He's too mad at me right now to think about anything else. And he thinks we have the disk. He won't waste time going back to Earth. Unless we go back."
"So we don't have a choice," Tom said. To Ally, it looked like he was actually enjoying this. The ultimate Trekkie dream.
"This is not some TV show," Ally told him. "We cannot just 'boldly go where no man has gone before!' What about the children?"
"What about them? They have children in their galaxy. Three of them right aboard this ship. And they're your family, Ally. My family's gone, which makes these people the only family we've got." He paused, then went for the kill. "Don't you think this is what Gamiel would've wanted, for you to be reunited with your brother and sister?"
Ally closed her eyes in frustration. She was the one who was born there, in that far away galaxy, but yet she couldn't imagine leaving the only life she'd ever known. She felt a small hand on her arm and opened her eyes. It was Leia.
"I'm so sorry, Ally. We didn't mean for any of this to happen. We had no intention of taking you away from your home. But believe me, people like Belsarios just don't care. Someone like him, an Imperial commander, destroyed my whole planet right before my very eyes. And he did it just to punish me. So I know what it feels like to lose your home. But at least if you come with us, your home will be safe from any more attacks from Belsarios. It won't be gone, like Alderaan."
Ally looked from her to Tom. "Tom, are you sure?"
Her husband nodded, a look of excitement in his eyes. He had always loved adventure.
"We don't have time," Mara said urgently. "He'll be coming out of hyperspace any moment now."
Ally made her decision. "Then let's go. We're going with you."