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. BELIEVING IT TO BE IN THE POSSESSION OF MARA JADE, ABOARD
THE GAMBLER'S EDGE, BELSARIOS PURSUES THE NEW REPUBLIC SHIP
BACK TO THEIR HOME GALAXY.
AS THE GAMBLER'S EDGE MAKES ITS LONG JOURNEY HOME, ALLIA
AND TOM DALE--ALONG WITH THEIR TWO CHILDREN--START TO ADJUST TO
THEIR NEW LIFE. DURING THE THREE-MONTH VOYAGE, JEDI MASTER LUKE
SKYWALKER BEGINS TO TRAIN HIS NEW-FOUND SISTER IN THE WAYS OF
THE FORCE. OTHER LESSONS INCLUDE GALACTIC HISTORY, STARSHIP
PILOTING AND NAVIGATION, AND LANGUAGE INSTRUCTION FOR TOM AND
MEANWHILE, ABOARD THE PURSUING FORCE STORM, ONE OF
BELSARIOS' MEN MAKES A DISCOVERY...
"Did you ever think when you signed on you'd be gone for six bleeding months?" Corporal Tobin stretched his arms, then leaned forward on his service blaster.
"Yeah, I'll be glad to get off on some planet--any planet," Private Chanders replied lazily. "Only another month-and-a- half to go..."
"Don't remind me," replied Tobin.
The two men were making routine rounds of the hangar bay and ship storage facilities on the Imperial strike-class Force Storm. Just another routine shift on what had turned out to be an exceedingly dull voyage. There had been some excitement a while back, what with the capture and subsequent escape of Mara Jade and some other rebel, but since then it had been quiet, their leader content to brood on his own as they chased the rebels back to their own galaxy.
"Well, it's almost time for chow," Chanders said as they walked across the narrow catwalk that extended from the main corridors to the hanger bay. Many hundreds of meters below them was deep storage and repair. "Let's skip deep storage tonight. I mean, we're in hyperspace, what the hell could we possibly find?"
Tobin shrugged. "I don't know, at least let me flash a light down there." He removed a glowrod from his belt and shined it below, making just a cursory pass into the darkness. He was about to turn it off and put it back on his belt when something flashed at him from below.
"Did you see that?" he asked Chanders.
The private shrugged. "There's all kinda stuff down there, I'm sure it's just a reflection off of a piece of a fighter or something."
"But it reflected back red," Tobin shook his head. "We'd better take a look, just to be safe. Lord Belsarios is still in an executing mood from those Jedi women escaping."
The two soldiers quickly crossed the catwalk into the hanger, then took a lift down to the level below. The storage facility was large and dark, lit only by ambient light from the hanger bay above them.
"I don't see anything," Chanders groused. "I'm hungry, let's go!"
"Wait a second, will you?" asked an exasperated Tobin. Maybe Chanders didn't mind being executed if they overlooked something, but Tobin was in no hurry to die. Looking up to the catwalk above, he moved beneath it to the spot where he had thought he had seen the red light come from. He smiled as the light from his glowrod illuminated a dark corner. There was something there, all right.
"What is it?" Chanders asked as Tobin picked up the thing that was reflecting back their light. It was a circular disk made up of three separate pieces and embedded with a red stone in each piece, near the center of the disk.
Tobin turned to his companion, a slow smile spreading on his face. "We're gonna get promoted for this," he said, barely able to contain his excitement.
"Why, what is it?" asked Chanders.
"It's that thing that Lord Belsarios wants. The Jade woman didn't have it after all."
"The reason we came out here, you idiot!" Tobin cried, exasperated. "The Vader disk!"
"I'm getting pretty sick of the ship rations, too."
Ally looked up from pushing the strange food around her plate when she realized they were all staring at her. It was dinner time, and all the adults were gathered around the large table in the lounge, while the five children were eating together at a smaller table. It reminded Ally of a TV family's holiday dinner--her own family had never been big enough to include more than her own two kids. While they were eating, Chewbacca had made a comment about ship rations, and Ally had responded. She looked around the table, wondering why they were staring.
"How did you know what he said?" Han asked, sounding a little bewildered.
"What who said?" Ally asked. "You mean Chewie?"
"Yes, I mean Chewie," Han snapped. "You actually understood him?"
Ally smiled and shrugged. "Why do you think I've been following him around so much, to get tips on firing a bowcaster?" she shot back.
"Ally, it's been less than two months," Luke marveled. "I've known Chewie for eighteen years and I still don't always understand Wookiee."
"What's going on?" Tom asked, nudging her. He was getting better in Basic but still got lost in dinner conversations.
"They don't understand how I learned Wookiee so fast," Ally explained in English.
Tom laughed. "Not a language in...universe she can't learn...two months," he said, stumbling a little on the Basic.
Chewbacca, sounding more than a little impressed, questioned her.
Ally shrugged again, suddenly embarrassed at all the attention. "I'm an interpreter, remember? Languages is what I do."
"She got perfect sound memory," Tom supplied helpfully. "Never forgets anything she hears."
"Really?" Leia asked. "You know, I have a close friend who has perfect memory. I never thought about how useful that would be when learning a new language."
"Once I hear a sound and what it means, I just remember," Ally told them. "It's no big deal. It took a little longer with Wookiee--and I doubt I could actually reproduce the sounds accurately, but understanding's not too hard."
"You should..." Tom started, then stopped. "Translate, would you Al?"
Suddenly Threepio, the tall, gold-colored protocol droid stood up. "That's not necessary, Mistress Allia, I can--"
"I've got it," Ally snapped quickly, not allowing him to finish. She nodded for Tom to proceed.
Tom started again in English. "You should have seen her try and learn ASL. That one about killed her. The first time she ever had to work at a language."
Before Ally could even start translating, Mara asked "What's ASL?" They had all learned English on the trip to Earth from their galaxy and understood it fairly well.
"American Sign Language--a manual language used by the deaf," Ally replied.
Luke frowned. "Deaf?"
"People who can't hear."
"Why don't they just get their ears replaced if they can't hear," Luke asked. Ally noticed he unconsciously flexed his right hand--the mechanical one.
Tom nearly choked on his food--of all times for him to understand Basic, Ally thought. The son of two deaf parents, Tom had grown up in deaf culture. He was about to launch into a windy speech about the politically correct philosophies of deafness, but Ally waved him off. "Tom, this is not Earth, okay? I'm sure they don't need to hear the whole history of deaf rights. If something doesn't work here, they just fix it, okay?"
"Did I say something wrong?" Luke asked, puzzled.
"No, it's just Tom's parents were deaf. A lot of deaf people are really proud of their language and culture and would be offended at the suggestion that they should try and 'fix' their hearing."
Luke frowned again, still puzzled, but then went on to ask Tom how the piloting lessons with Han were going. Ally was grateful for the change of subject--she didn't like to make too much of her language ability. But as she continued her dinner and helped interpret for Tom, she noticed Chewbacca looking at her with something that resembled respect.
Once they had decided they would not be going back to Earth, Ally had decided the first thing she wanted to do was start learning alien languages. And what better place to start than the big Wookiee who was obviously like family to her new-found sister and brother. So she started following him around, soaking in every growl, bark, and snarl he uttered. It didn't take her long to learn her first phrase, which loosely translated meant something like "Leave me alone, you short hairless biped, or I'll rip your arms out." She learned several variations on that theme before she finally convinced Chewie that she could observe him without getting in his way.
Now, however, he seemed genuinely pleased that she had picked up his language. Which was a great relief to Ally, who was rather attached to her arms, and preferred them to stay attached to her.
When she wasn't trying to absorb the nuances of Wookiee, Ally spent a lot of time in training in Luke's make-shift gym in the ship's storage hold. That had been a hard sell, actually--Ally wasn't sure she really wanted to learn how to use the Force or be a Jedi. It seemed contrary to her religious beliefs which, even thousands of light-years from home, mattered to her.
It was Tom who finally convinced her to train. "I don't think believing in the Force means you can't believe in God," he had said. "Who said God didn't create the Force?"
So she began Jedi training. She was quite skilled--Gamiel had taught her more than she even realized--but she was still far behind Leia and Mara. While the other two women could jump from the gym's ground floor to the catwalk circling a good twenty meters overhead, Ally found it difficult to lift anything larger than a 5 kilo weight. And she had thought USAF boot camp was rough!
But hard as it was, Ally found herself enjoying the training, enjoying feeling the Force flowing through her. And between the training, learning Wookiee, and learning piloting skills from Han, Ally found her days pretty full. It was somewhat exhausting, really, but she found herself enjoying the trip more than she expected.
Except for one thing.
"Mistress Allia, there is really no need for you to bother yourself translating for Master Tom. I am, after all, fluent in over six million forms of communication--"
"I am perfectly capable of handling it," Allia growled at the protocol droid. That was the one thing that was driving her crazy--that annoying, whiny droid. She took it as a personal insult that a job she had been quite proud of on Earth was relegated to machines in the galaxy to which they were headed.
"Well, I never!" the droid exclaimed in a voice that reminded Ally of a prissy English accent. "Interpreting is, after all, my primary function."
"Mine too," Ally snapped back.
"Take it easy, Goldenrod," Han chuckled.
"I'm just trying to offer my assistance," Threepio pointed out.
"How about this, is this part of your six million forms of communication?" Ally asked as she flashed him a quick ASL sign.
"Although I am not familiar with that particular mode of communication, I do understand a great deal of the Twi'lekki communication that occurs manually through their lekku," the gold droid declared.
"What the heck's a 'lekku?'"
"Why, a Twi'lek's head tails, of course," Threepio said disdainfully. That earned him another quick sign from Ally.
Tom shot her a disapproving look. "Ally, the kids are right at the next table!"
"Well, I'm sure I know when I'm not needed," Threepio sniffed, walking stiffly away from the table.
Mara snorted. "You'll have to teach me that sign language of yours if it wards off annoying droids."
"Me, too," Han agreed.
"Oh, you three are too hard on poor Threepio," Leia scolded. "He's just trying to be helpful."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Han shot back to his wife.
Chewie barked, changing the conversation topic again. Ally was pleased to find that she understood this, as well.
"Thanks Chewie, I'd love to learn about Kashyyyk." * * * * *
Malarin Belsarios stood in his private quarters staring in wonder at the object in his hands--the thing Sergeants Tobin and Chanders had brought him.
The Vader disk.
Mara Jade didn't have it after all--she had dropped it here, on this ship, before making her escape. He turned it over in his hands, marveling at the way the three pieces fit together. He could feel the focusing effect it had on the Force, the power flowing through him.
For the first time since they left Earth behind, Belsarios could clearly sense his enemies. They were ahead of him, but now that he had the disk back, that would change. Force amplification was good for more things than just sensing others and attacking them with Force lightening.
Carefully, he pulled apart the three pieces. One of them he slipped around his neck. The other two he held in his hands, wanting to hold them a moment longer. A lifetime he had spent looking for these three objects, and now it was time for them to be put to use. One would be placed in the engine room at the starboard side of the ship, on a special dais he had created. The second piece would go in a weapon's battery on the port side. The third would remain with him. Though powerful when put together, these three pieces were even more powerful when spaced apart in a rough triangle, where they could feed off each other and amplify the Force in a greater area. This way, not only would Belsarios be more powerful, but the ship itself would have increased power.
All that was left was to devise a way to use that power. He would have to test it, and what better way then to make Mara Jade and her friends suffer for defying him?
Belsarios smiled. This was going to be a most enjoyable trip.
Mara sat upright in her cabin, the data pad she had been reading forgotten. She had felt something in the Force, something eerily familiar...
Before she could think too long about what it was, the buzzer on her door sounded. Mara stretched out her senses and discovered that the person on the other side was Ally Dale.
Mara smiled, her momentary uneasiness vanishing. In spite of herself, Mara found herself becoming quite fond of the blond lieutenant. Even if she was a Skywalker.
Mara thumbed the hatch controls and the door slid open. "Hey, Mara," Ally said casually. "Mind if I come in?"
Mara waved her into the room. "Sure. I thought you had history lessons or something like that."
Ally wrinkled her nose. "I'm sick to death of all this stuff I have to learn--Jedi lessons, history lessons, piloting lessons, language lessons," she said wearily, flopping onto a chair. It contoured itself around the woman's slight form, causing her to start. "I just can't get used to that!" she cried, looking at the chair around her.
Mara laughed. "Just another sign that this ship belongs to Lando Calrissian-- always going for the ostentatious." She sat down opposite Ally, in a chair that was not form-fitting.
"I've been hearing a lot about this guy. A good friend of yours?" Ally asked.
"I wouldn't go that far," Mara snorted. "We were business associates for a while, but he fancied himself something of a ladies man and I got tired of his constant lines."
Ally nodded. "I thought he was married."
"He is now," Mara agreed. "Tendra's a really wonderful lady, I have absolutely no idea what she sees in him. They're due to have a baby right about the time we get back, I think."
"Well, Han talks fondly of him, so I'm looking forward to meeting him. And remember, I was in the military, I'm used to men who think rather highly of their own charms." She then noticed the data pad lying on Mara's bed. "I'm sorry, did I interrupt your reading something interesting?"
"No, just files I wanted to study up on. I do have a business to run when I get back."
"Gee, not many business women I know stop what they're doing to rush off and save the galaxy," Ally commented wryly.
"It's not saving the galaxy that interests me," Mara countered. "I want Belsarios."
Ally nodded thoughtfully. "I may be new to these Force skills, but I sense there's something personal between you and him."
"I told you before, we used to be on the same side and now we're not," Mara said, eyeing Ally warily. So far she had managed to avoid discussing this with anyone but Skywalker, and even that was not comfortable for her. She preferred the past to stay in the past.
"It's more than that," Ally continued, undaunted.
"All right," Mara conceded, deciding Ally wasn't likely to let it drop. Too much like Skywalker. "He killed my brother."
Ally's eyebrows raised slightly. "I'm sorry, Mara, I didn't know that."
"Now you do."
The two women were silent for a moment. "And he killed the only father I ever knew," Ally said softly.
"Then we have something in common," Mara said dryly. "We both want to see him get what he deserves."
Again, Ally was silent. Finally, she said slowly, "I guess you're right. I'm not supposed to want revenge; my religion teaches forgiveness. And of course, it's against what Luke's trying to teach us as well, but that's how I feel."
"Skywalker would say that comes from the dark side," Mara agreed.
"Speaking of," Ally said, clearly wanting to change the subject, "I'm really curious. How long have you and Luke been together?"
This question caught Mara completely off guard. She gave Ally a hard look and bit out "I am most certainly not 'together' with Skywalker!"
Ally cocked her head slightly. "Really? You two are so close, I just figured--"
"You figured wrong," Mara said, her voice so icy it almost dissipated the warmth she felt in her cheeks. Almost.
"Okay, I'm sorry," Ally said quickly. "Didn't mean to broach a sensitive topic."
"It's not a sensitive topic," Mara said hastily. "I just find the thought a little appalling." Not an out and out lie. "Did he tell you how we met?"
Ally shook her head.
"I wanted to kill him."
Ally's eyes widened, but she said nothing.
"I mean that literally, too," Mara added.
"They told you about the battle of Endor and the Emperor's death?"
"Mm-hmm," Ally nodded.
"Well, the Emperor was my Master."
Ally frowned, sitting forward in her chair. 'What do you mean by that."
Mara settled back in her own chair, as if retreating from Ally's advance. "I was known as the Emperor's Hand. I was his personal assistant, spy, assassin." Ally's eyebrows raised further at the word assassin.
"He could communicate with me through the Force, and I went all over the galaxy, carrying out his orders. One of my last assignments was to kill Skywalker. It was my first and only failure for the Emperor."
"So what happened?"
"Vader killed the Emperor because of Skywalker, and my life was basically over, or so I thought at the time. No one in the upper echelons of the Empire knew of my existence, and the few who did thought I was a concubine or some Palace dancer. I went from being one of the most powerful people in the galaxy to a cantina waitress overnight."
"How did you end up working with the New Republic?"
Mara sighed. "Not by choice. I finally got a good position in a smuggling group run by Talon Karrde, who's now my business partner. It's a long story actually, but Karrde felt he owed something to the New Republic, so we helped them defeat Grand Admiral Thrawn. After that Skywalker asked me to be a liaison between Karrde's smuggler's coalition and the New Republic government."
"But I thought you wanted to kill him," Ally observed.
Again, Mara sighed. "I finally realized that I was acting on an impulse implanted by the Emperor. I stopped the impulse by killing Skywalker's clone."
Ally shuddered. "I don't even want to know about that."
"Anyway, that was all about ten years ago. I guess I decided he's not so bad after all," Mara said cautiously.
Ally considered this a moment, then asked, "And how do you feel now about having been an assassin for the Emperor?"
She was definitely Skywalker's sister. "I don't cringe in shame, if that's what you mean," she said warily. "But I've since made some discoveries about the Emperor, and I'm sorry I ever did anything to help that decrepit piece of filth."
Ally looked at her curiously, and Mara could sense that she wanted to know more, but Mara made it clear in her emotions that she did not want discuss either the Emperor or Skywalker further.
"Well," Ally said at length. "I've never had a friend that was an assassin before."
Mara relaxed slightly. The questioning was apparently over. "And I never had a friend who could talk with her hands. You were going to teach me some of that sign language of yours."
"Lord Belsarios, the disks are in place," a tall officer saluted smartly. Belsarios acknowledged him with a nod. He really didn't need this information; he could feel the amplified Force coursing through him.
"I want full speed from the hyperdrive," he said quickly to his pilot. "I want to catch up with the rebels before they reach our own galaxy."
"Aye, sir," the pilot responded crisply. "At the present speed we should reach the Minos cluster in twenty standard days. According to the heading you've provided, sir, we should overtake the rebels in just under fourteen standard days."
"Good. Very good." Very soon Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, former Chief of State Organa Solo, General Solo and that damned Wookiee companion of his, and of course, the traitor Mara Jade would be just a footnote in the history data cards. The beginning of the chapter entitled "the rise of the New Empire."
It was very early in the morning when Luke entered his makeshift Jedi training room full of plans for his two sisters and Mara. He was surprised to find, however, that Mara was alone in the room, practicing her levitating skills. Artoo-Detoo, forever the object of Jedi training drills, was hovering a meter off the ground.
"Not bad," he complemented her, "but where are the others?"
Distracted, Mara lost her concentration and Artoo came tumbling to the ground with a high-pitched wail.
"Don't do that!" she cried, looking up at him.
Luke put his hands on his hips and tilted his head. "You should have sensed my presence," he chided her, but with a smile.
Mara scowled but didn't answer him.
"Where are Leia and Allia?" Luke asked again.
"Some kind of parent thing, I think," Mara replied, rolling her eyes. "I think our five little future Jedi Knights got into some kind of trouble and all the parents decided to get together to give them a little lecture." She smiled. "Guess it's just you and me, Skywalker."
That suited Luke fine; there were some things he wanted to work on with Mara anyway.
"So why did you drop Artoo?" he asked her, not wasting any time.
Mara put her hands on her hips and gazed at him evenly, not about to play the subordinate student. "You startled me," she replied tersely.
"Because I was concentrating on the droid."
"So?" he asked, deliberately challenging her.
Mara scowled again. "So, I was concentrating on the droid. I didn't hear you come in."
"Or sense me?"
Mara folded her arms. "What's your point, Skywalker?"
"My point, Jade," he returned, "is that you need to be able to divide your focus. While concentrating on using the Force for one purpose, you should still be aware of its presence in all things around you." He paused, waiting to see if she'd say anything. She didn't, but he could feel her irritation just under the surface. Mara Jade plainly did not like to be told what to do.
"Just like you did when you were able to move something very large while in the middle of a shoot-out on Belsarios' ship."
This surprised her. She raised her eyebrows and seemed about to ask him a question. Then she changed her mind and told him simply, "It was a crane."
Luke nodded. "And how were you able to move it, yet still keep your attention focused on the stormtroopers who were shooting at you?"
Mara dropped her defensive posture as she considered this. "I don't know," she said after a moment. "I just did it."
Luke nodded again. "Then why is it harder here?"
Again Mara responded, "I don't know."
"I do," Luke told her.
Without warning, he reached out with the Force and grabbed the small seeker remote that had been sitting idly in the corner of the training room. In just a fraction of a second it hummed to life and dove after Mara.
In one smooth move, Mara had her lightsaber off her belt and activated the blade with a sharp snap-hiss. Even as she did so, she brought it up to bear as the little remote came after her. Before it could get off even one shot, Mara sliced it neatly in two.
"What was that for?" she demanded angrily, her eyes narrowing as she turned on Luke.
He only smiled. "Just proving my point."
"What exactly is your point?" she hissed.
"You were able to defend yourself without thinking. It was pure reflex." He shook his head at the shattered seeker, then looked directly back at Mara. "You have a highly developed sense of danger. That's why you do so well in battle, and why you were able to so easily destroy the remote before it even could take a shot at you. But your danger reflexes are based in anger and aggression. The Force--the light side of the Force-- needs to flow from a place of calm and tranquillity."
Mara's hands flew back to her hips and gave him an icy stare. "I'll remember that if I ever need to attack while I'm feeling calm and tranquil," she sneered.
Luke could see he had really gotten her dander up. Which is exactly what he wanted.
"You're missing the point, Mara," he told her, his voice a little softer now. "The Force isn't about attack. That's the dark side. It isn't even always about defending yourself." He made a sweeping motion with his arm, as if motioning to the whole universe. "It's about life. It's about the energy that's created by life, and flows through it and surrounds it. And it's about understanding. Not anger, and not aggression."
Mara's eyes lost some of their iciness. She relaxed her posture and sighed. "In case you haven't noticed, Skywalker, anger and aggression are pretty much who I am." She paused. "Perhaps I'm just not cut out to be a Jedi."
"Mara, you're wrong," Luke said earnestly, stepping towards her. "You have it in you to be one of the greatest Jedi Knights." He looked at her seriously. "You could be a Master."
He surprised her again, and her emerald eyes opened wide. But she shook her head and turned from him. "I'm not like you, Luke."
Luke moved around to face her again. "Who said you have to be like me? You don't even have to be a Jedi if you don't want to. I'm not out to force you to be what you don't want to be. And I'm certainly not here to train you to fight or defend yourself--if that were the case, you'd probably be teaching me."
"Then why the lecture? Why is all this so important to you?" she asked, looking up at him.
He took her by the shoulders. "Because we both know that some day you'll have to face Belsarios again. And I don't want you to succumb to the dark side."
"That again," Mara said, shrugging free of his grasp. "I faced him once and I didn't fall."
Luke shook his head. "You had people depending on you for their safety--Ally and the children. Your first priority was escape. Next time it might be revenge."
He could see that he was not far from the mark. Mara let her breath out in frustration. "Am I supposed to just forget what he did to my brother? That he just struck him down from behind?" she demanded. "Am I supposed to just let him walk away?"
"No. You face him, but not in anger and not with aggression. You face him in strength."
"I'm not cut out for this," she grunted. "The only strength I know is my anger."
"And how does that make you different from any other Jedi?" She looked puzzled by this, so he went on. "Every Jedi and trainee I've ever known has had to fight their anger." He counted on his fingers: "Ben Kenobi's anger at my father's becoming Darth Vader. Kyp Durron's anger with the Empire over the destruction of his family. Kirana Ti and Teneniel Djo's anger with the Nightsisters. Cray Mingla's anger at her fiance's illness. Callista's anger at the loss of her abilities. Allia's anger with Gamiel and with herself for not believing him. Leia's anger at the loss of Alderaan. My anger at the loss of my father."
Mara started. "You?" She almost smiled. "I find it hard to believe you ever had to fight your own anger."
Luke grinned, feeling a bit like the cocky farmboy he once was. "Yoda almost refused to train me because of my anger. And my impatience." He smiled at the memory. "He told me he couldn't teach me because I had no patience. 'Much anger in him.' Those were his exact words. 'Much anger in him. Like his father.'" Luke continued, quoting his one-time Master: "'Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join in a fight.'"
Mara stared at him, apparently astonished that he had ever had his own inner conflicts.
Luke continued: "But you already have the key; what I had to struggle to learn, you posses already."
"And that is?"
"Yeah, like flinging a computer console across a ship's lounge," Mara chided herself.
"That one instance notwithstanding, Mara," Luke continued, "you have an amazing capacity to control your anger when it's in your own best interest to do so. I'd be dead if that weren't true."
He saw that he had hit his mark again; she remembered as well as he did that she had refrained from killing him years ago in spite of not only an intense desire for revenge for herself, but a direct order from the Emperor. She considered this a moment, then actually cracked a smile.
"I still can't picture you not in control."
Luke laughed. "Come on, Mara, I know you've read all the records the Emperor had on me. Surely you know I wasn't always the poised, self-confident, sophisticated Jedi Master you see before you."
At this, Mara actually laughed with him. "So how did you do it? How did you learn this patience and tranquillity."
Luke laughed again and told her a little about his own training on Dagobah--the exercises that had seemed so pointless at the time. He told her about his failed attempt to lift his X-wing out of the bog, and of the many drills where he had to do things like balance upside down while keeping Artoo suspended in mid-air, and Yoda perched on his foot.
Mara laughed again, this time much harder.
"What?" Luke asked a bit sheepishly.
Mara shook her head, laughing too hard. Finally she was able to get out: "The image of that little being, perched on your foot while you hang upside down--" She burst into a fresh round of laughter. "I've seen holos of him, you know."
Luke was amazed by her reaction. In all the years he'd known her, he couldn't remember ever seeing her really laugh. All at once he was struck by how truly beautiful she was with her guard down. But her laughter was contagious, and soon Luke was laughing with her until his stomach hurt. After all, he had looked pretty ridiculous, if you think about it.
Finally, swiping at her eyes, Mara began to calm down. Luke saw it was a good time for his next surprise.
"I want you to take me on in a lightsaber duel."
"What, now?" Mara asked, still smiling.
"Sure," Luke smiled back. "You're arm's pretty well healed, right?"
"I thought you weren't trying to teach me how to fight."
"I'm not," he answered mischievously. "You already know how to do that. The goal here is not victory over me. It's victory over yourself. Now, while you're happy and at peace, is the perfect time for you to see you don't need your anger to be strong."
Stepping back, he took his lightsaber off of his belt and ignited the green-white blade with a flourish.
"You're serious," Mara said.
Luke waved the blade back and forth, causing it to hum. "Yes, I am."
Mara shrugged off her jacket and pulled out her own blue-bladed lightsaber. The same one Ben Kenobi had given Luke so many years ago. Luke, in turn, had given it to her after their defeat of Joruus C'baoth and Grand Admiral Thrawn. She held the blade up before her in the classic two-handed grip, her face once again tense and serious.
Luke made the first advance, swinging his blade up in a smooth arc. She stopped it with her own, blades crackling as they came in contact with each other. Pushing backwards, Luke spun around, then came at her with another jab. This time she had to fight to make the block, but almost immediately she went on the offensive, arcing her blade down, then back up and around to come down on top of Luke's blade.
"You're starting to get aggressive," Luke cautioned over the electric snapping of the two blades.
"I tend to do that when I'm fighting," she shot back, but heeding his warning, she took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. While she did this, Luke went in for another attack, but he couldn't catch her off guard. She blocked his attack and nearly pushed him over backwards in the process. Using her own momentum against her, he ducked down and dashed past her as she nearly stumbled over his head.
Luke whirled around to face her again, charging before she'd completely regained her balance. With a dancer's grace, Mara spun around, low to the floor, slicing upward with her blue blade. To escape her, Luke took a deep breath, then jumped high, back-flipping onto the catwalks up above. But Mara was not to be so easily dodged. Summoning the Force, she followed him, landing deftly in front of him, blade extended. He attacked as soon as she landed, knocking her back against the railing. He could feel her anger and aggression start to rise as she struggled to push him off. She did not give in to it, however; she used his own maneuver on him and ducked down under his arm, knocking him forward into the railing. As he pushed himself backwards away from the railing, he felt her take another deep breath, reining in feelings.
They battled on for another full five minutes, first Luke taking the offensive, then Mara as they dueled around the upper level, then back to the main deck. They were both drenched with sweat and breathing heavily when Mara moved in for one final attack. Holding her blade almost horizontally in front of her, she charged, pressing Luke back as he held his lightsaber out in a similar fashion. Their blades met again and their faces were so close he could feel her breath. Luke stared into her eyes, narrow emerald slits. She looked fierce, but Luke could tell she was calm inside. He could feel strength coursing through her, even as she pressed him. They'd reached a stalemate.
Luke took a step back, bumping into the wall behind him. He extinguished his blade then slid down the wall to the floor, exhausted. Mara likewise shut off her lightsaber and sank to the floor beside him, panting heavily.
"How do you feel?" Luke asked when he could somewhat catch his breath.
"Not bad," she breathed. "Calm. And exhausted."
Luke nodded, his heart suddenly swelling with pride. "You did it. The Force was with you, and you did not give in to aggression."
Mara looked at him, smiling and obviously quite pleased at her accomplishment. She absently wiped loose, wet strands of red hair away from her flushed cheeks, and for the second time that day, Luke was struck by how lovely she was. His eyes locked with hers and he savored the openness of her emotions to the Force, something unusual for Mara Jade. Motionless except for their heaving breath, they stared at each other, his face centimeters from hers. Slowly he reached forward, brushing his finger against her cheek...
Then the moment was gone. Abruptly, Mara got up and grabbed for a towel that was hanging nearby. She faced away from him, wiping the back of her neck with it, and Luke could feel a wall go up in the Force.
"Mara, wait," he said, rising. As he did so, Mara stooped down, examining something on the floor. She rose again and faced him, but did not look at him.
"Tell me, Skywalker, how is Callista doing in her quest to regain her Jedi abilities?"
Callista? Where did that come from? He was about to ask her when he became aware that they were no longer alone.
"Was that a lightsaber duel we heard?"
Luke turned quickly, startled to find Leia and Ally in the doorway of the cargo hold, dressed for training.
"Yes," he told them trying to keep his voice calm. "I was taking advantage of your absence to help Mara work on her connection with the Force."
"Who won?" Ally asked, looking back and forth between Luke and Mara with an odd expression on her face.
"It was a stalemate," Mara answered as she draped the towel around her neck. Stepping forward and facing Luke she added, "You're a good swordsman, Skywalker." She turned back towards Leia and Ally. "Your turn now--I'm exhausted. If you'll all excuse me, I'm going to hit the showers."
She headed towards the door, then turned around, as if in afterthought. "Oh, Skywalker. You must have dropped this during the fight." She gently pitched him something very small and white, then left the room.
Luke reached into the air and caught the object she'd tossed. It was his seashell ring. The one Callista had given him. Confused and more than a little frustrated, he slipped the ring into his pocket. He had no idea what had just happened, but now was not the time to figure it out. He looked up at his sisters, concealing his emotions as best he could, knowing it wasn't really working.
"Ready for your workout now?"
Leia sat alone in the lounge trying to read a data pad, but her mind just wouldn't stay on it. It kept going back to the day's training session with Luke and how distracted he was. Something had happened between him and Mara; she had sensed his turmoil the moment she and Ally had entered the training room after dealing with their errant children. She had hoped he would talk to her about it after the day's lessons were over, but he never did and Leia debated whether or not to ask him about it. In the end she decided to leave him alone--he'd come to her when he wanted to talk. He always did, eventually.
Leia tried again to concentrate on her data pad when Allia entered the room, dressed in a pale green jumpsuit borrowed from Mara. It was lucky for all of the Dales that they were able to find clothes to fit them, seeing as they had brought nothing with them but the clothes on their backs. Ally was almost exactly Mara's size, Tom was just a bit shorter than Han, and Aaron and Casey more or less fit into Jacen's and Anakin's clothes.
"Hey, Leia, whatcha reading?" her sister asked casually as she flopped onto the couch beside Leia and propped her feet up on the table in front of her. Leia admired the way Ally was always so laid back. Her adopted Alderaanean aunts would have highly disapproved, always expecting Leia to sit and stand regally. She had actually been quite a disappointment to them--much more rough-and-tumble than they thought proper, but Ally reminded her more of Han, who was never regal about anything.
"I don't even know," Leia answered her, tossing aside the data pad. "Can't keep my mind focused."
Ally nodded thoughtfully. "Listen, Leia, can I ask you something?"
"Sure," Leia replied, rearranging herself on the couch to face Ally.
"What's the story with Luke and Mara?"
Leia raised her eyebrows curiously. So she hadn't been the only one to notice something was up. She looked at her sister innocently. "Why don't you ask them?"
Ally scowled, wrinkling her nose. "I already tried that. I asked Mara if she and Luke had been together long and she about took my head off."
Leia laughed. "Don't take it personally, that's pretty much how Mara reacts to everything."
"I know," Ally said, curling her legs around underneath her. "But she protested so vehemently I couldn't help but think there had to be something going on. Then I was going to ask Luke about it, but..." She trailed off, thinking. "I don't know, it just didn't feel like something I should ask him." She paused, then leaned towards Leia. "A Jedi Master's not like a priest or anything, is it? I mean, is there some rule that he's not supposed to get involved in relationships?"
"No, it just seems like it," Leia sighed. She often found herself wishing for Luke the kind of happiness she and Han had, but something always intervened.
"So what's the big deal?" Ally asked her. "If Luke and Mara care for each other-- and judging from what I've seen the last couple of months, I'd say they do--why don't they just go for it?"
Leia smiled. "It's more complicated than that."
"I know, I know. She was the Emperor's Hand and wanted to kill him." Ally waved her hand dismissively. "But that was, what, ten years ago?"
"I don't mean that," Leia said, shaking her head. She paused, looking for the right words. "Luke has-some unfinished business with someone else."
Ally's brown eyes widened with curiosity. "There's another woman?"
Leia nodded. "Callista."
"A Jedi Knight who lost her powers." Ally looked at her questioningly but said nothing, so Leia continued. "He met her about seven years ago on a ship, the Eye of Palpatine. It was programmed to destroy a planet full of Jedi children but Luke, Callista, Threepio, and two of Luke's students stopped it. Luke's students were killed and Callista lost her Force abilities."
"How?" Allia asked with interest.
Leia sighed again. "It's a rather long story. She--she was just a spirit when Luke met her. When Cray--one of the students--died, she allowed Callista to take her body."
Ally's eyes widened in horror. "That's--a little bizarre," she said, shaking her head.
"I know, it was hard to get used to at first," Leia admitted. "But it was Cray's idea. And gradually she stopped looking like Cray--her eyes were a different color and her hair started to change color, too. But apparently the exchange stripped her of her connection to the Force. And that kept her and Luke apart."
"Oh God, please don't tell me Luke refused to be with someone just because they weren't a Jedi," Ally rolled her eyes.
"No, no," Leia responded quickly, shaking her head. "Luke didn't care if she was a Jedi or not. It was Callista who decided she couldn't be with him until she could be a Jedi again. Made her feel less than his equal, I guess.
"Anyway, the two of them tried finding the answer to her problems together, but the only bit of Force she could touch at all was the dark side. She told Luke that being with him tempted her to use that dark side connection and she went off on her own, promising to return when she regained her powers."
"And Luke promised to wait for her," Ally finished.
"More or less."
Ally pondered this a moment, then suddenly her eyes lit up as if something had just occurred to her. "She's the one who gave Luke that ring he always wears, isn't she?"
Leia nodded. "She comes from the planet Chad, which is mostly covered by oceans. Seashells are very special to her."
"When was the last time he saw her?"
"About seven years ago."
Ally rolled her eyes again. "No offense to your brother-- our brother," she corrected herself, "but seven years is an awfully long time. I mean, I'm all for long-term commitments--I expect my marriage to last forever--but it doesn't sound healthy to hang on to something that might never happen. What if she's met someone else and just hasn't bothered to tell him?"
"Oh, I doubt that--she was pretty intent on focusing just on her abilities," Leia said quickly. But she had to admit she had similarly felt that it wasn't good for her brother to hang onto something that was only a mere possibility. She even suspected he might have used his connection with Callista as a way to avoid getting close to others. His status as Jedi Master had been bought at a terrible price--he had seen much evil and was occasionally haunted by dark moods--and he was reluctant to inflict that side of him on another.
But then, even on his darkest days, Luke was still the cheerful, naive boy of his youth compared to Mara Jade.
"So Luke's still in love with Callista?" Ally asked suddenly, shaking Leia from her thoughts, "Even after all these years?"
The former princess frowned. "You know, I really don't believe he is. I think you were right to begin with; he just might be falling in love with Mara. Something was going on before we interrupted them today."
"No kidding," Ally agreed.
"But he feels guilty about it," Leia continued. "Like he's breaking a commitment. And that is something Luke Skywalker would never do."
Ally tucked her knees under her chin and looked thoughtful. After a moment she asked Leia, "What do you think about all of this."
Leia shrugged. "It's none of my business."
"That's the politician talking," Ally smiled mischievously. "What does the person who loves Luke think?"
Leia couldn't help but smile at her sister--Ally did seem more like Han than like Luke or herself. "I want my brother to be happy. I want him to find someone to share his life with, like Han and I, or you and Tom. And I don't think that will happen with Callista. But," she added, "I don't think we should meddle. If Luke has feelings for Mara--and she for him--they have to come to that realization in their own way."
Allia scowled playfully. "You're no fun. I like to meddle." Then she laughed. "But you know Luke better than I do. I won't bug him if you think it's best not to. And Lord knows I fear for my life enough to not bring it up to Mara again!"
Leia laughed with her. But she had to admit, her new- found sister had given her a lot to think about.
"Prepare for the jump back to normal space!"
Belsarios, seated in his command chair on the bridge of the Force Storm, squeezed his hands together in anticipation. Today would be the day they caught up with the rebels.
Outside the viewscreens, the mottled gray of hyperspace abruptly became star lines, which quickly receded into pin- points of light.
"Hold your position," Belsarios ordered. He closed his eyes and reached out...
They were not far. And they would be jumping back to realspace here. And he would be prepared for them.
He started to give the order that would deploy the fighter squadrons, but suddenly he felt something that made him stop. Lightly tracing the outline of the pendant around his neck, he concentrated.
Then he knew. She had sensed him.
Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Tom Dale were in the cockpit of the Gambler's Edge, making last minute preparations for the jump back to realspace. They were one month away from home and this was likely to be their last stop before reaching the Outer Rim of their own galaxy.
"Okay, Tom," Han was saying, pointing to the navicomputer. "Before we jump out of hyperspace, we need to be ready to make the calculations for the jump back in. You never know when you'll need to make a hasty exit, as you saw when we left Earth."
Tom nodded. His Basic was still far from perfect, but he seemed to be catching on.
"And correct calculations are very important," Han said, and Chewbacca snorted to emphasize the point. "You jump so much as one degree in the wrong direction and you could pass right through the hyperspace shadow of a planet and you're history."
"Sounds like fun," Tom said dryly.
"Okay, now once the computer's primed and you've got the countdown clock for the jump started, you--"
"Solo! Pull out short of the mark!"
Han swiveled in his seat to find Mara standing in the doorway, a somewhat wild look in her eyes. Luke, Leia, and Ally were right behind her.
"What are you talking about?"
"It's a trap," Mara said firmly, her teeth clenched. "Belsarios is waiting for us."
Han shook his head. "Mara, that's not possible. There is no way his ship could catch up to this one."
"I felt him," she insisted. "He has the disk back."
Han gave Chewie a sideways glance, then looked back to the three Jedi in the doorway. "Are you sure? Luke?"
"I felt nothing, but she's much more connected to him than I," Luke said slowly. "I think it might be wise to pull out early and take a look at the situation."
"What good would that do? It's not like he knows--"
"He does know," Mara interrupted impatiently. "Solo, I'm telling you, I felt him searching for us. He knows exactly where we are and where we plan to jump out of hyperspace and he's waiting for us. Remember the trip here?"
She had a point there. "Okay, then let's get to battle stations. Are the kids all strapped in?"
"They're all together in the Solo kids' cabin," Ally nodded.
"Okay," Han said, turning to back to Chewie and Tom. "We're gonna jump back manually at T minus thirty seconds, okay?"
Chewbacca nodded while Han set about explaining to Tom exactly what they were going to do. Luke, Mara, and Leia left to man their gun turrets, and Ally sat down behind Tom to participate in the flying lessons.
"Okay, on my mark," Han warned. "Okay, Chewie, now!"
Chewbacca pulled back on the lever while Tom and Ally watched. They were back in realspace.
Han made a close inspection of the sensors even as Chewie roared a question. "No, I don't see anything. It's perfectly clear." He reached for the comlink. "Mara, are you sure you got that right? There's nothing out there, not even ahead where we were supposed to jump out.
There was a long pause, then Mara answered slowly. "I don't sense him anymore. But he was there, I know it."
Han glanced at Chewie who shook his head slightly. "Are you sure you're not getting a little jumpy, Kid?"
"I am not your kid, and I'm not jumpy!" she shot back testily.
"Okay, okay. But whatever you felt, it's gone now?"
"Well, let's just keep our eyes open while we recharge and see what happens," he said, then swiveled to face Tom and Ally. "Okay, you two, this time I want you to make the calculations for the jump back. You get good enough at this and I'll even put in a good word for you with General Antilles for his Rogue Squadron," Han told them.
"No thanks, my fighter pilot days are over," Ally answered quickly, but Han could tell the idea appealed to Tom.
"If I ever get fluent in Basic," he said sheepishly.
"Nah, you're doing pretty good," Han encouraged him. "Now, what's the first thing you do when setting up the calculations for a hyperspace jump?"
They had made it back into hyperspace just moments before the rebels jumped out--thirty seconds short of their mark.
He had tipped them off. He had tipped her off.
Of course, he could have just stayed where he was--his ship clearly had superior firepower, not to mention fighter squadrons at the ready. But somehow he sensed that wouldn't be good enough. Everyone aboard that yacht, down to the children, were legendary for their ability to get out of situations where they were vastly outgunned and outnumbered. They had even proved their abilities to him directly in their escape from Earth.
No, he would need surprise on his side. So he had ordered the Force Storm to make a hasty retreat back into hyperspace. There would be other jump points. He could bide his time. And next time, he would be sure that he did not give his presence away. But how?
There was really only one way. Smiling, he turned to his communications officer. "I want you to prepare to send a message to Vice Admiral Pellaeon as soon as we get to the Outer Rim," he said quickly. "I need him to send a ship to the Minos Cluster. An Interdictor."
It was very late at night when Mara entered the quiet, deserted lounge. Her dark red hair was loose, flowing over her shoulders, and she was wearing a leotard and a breezy, flowing skirt with no boots; she was dressed for dancing. Stepping silently into the room, she keyed on the lights. Unable to sleep, she had decided some exercise might help put her mind at ease. It wasn't working.
Two things were bothering her. The first was Belsarios. She had sensed him, she was sure of it. And that meant he had found the disk. And that meant real trouble. But their time in realspace had been completely uneventful. Why could she no longer sense him? Was Solo right, was she just getting jumpy?
Could be, after that damned lightsaber duel with Skywalker the other day.
Which was the other thing that was keeping her from sleeping.
Sighing, Mara tried not to think about that, but the memory of his presence intertwining with hers lingered. She had enjoyed it, and that's what bothered her the most.
"I have been cooped up on this tin can for too long!" she said aloud through gritted teeth. Well, perhaps she could dance the disturbing thoughts and feelings away.
Crossing over to the entertainment console, Mara selected an Alderaanean piece with a driving rhythm and punched it up on the music synth. She turned up the volume as loud as she dared this late at night, then moved gracefully to the middle of the lounge floor.
The music started and Mara moved to it, letting it flow through her almost as if it were the Force itself. Actually, she liked music better; it demanded nothing of her. It washed over her in powerful waves as she allowed all her emotions to flow out, unchecked, through her movements. Passion, rage, confusion, longing, it was all there and dancing was the one way she allowed herself to express it all.
Before the song was even halfway over, Mara sensed that she was not alone. She could feel a presence behind her, eyes following her every move, but she ignored her audience and continued the dance until the music ended with a loud flourish and Mara all but fell to the floor in a graceful heap. Silence hung heavy in the air, punctuated only by Mara's breath. Without looking up, Mara said coolly, "This isn't Jabba's Palace--I don't dance for an audience, Skywalker."
If he was surprised that she had sensed his presence, he didn't show it. Obviously not put off by her cool tone, he quietly entered the lounge.
"Beautiful," he said, almost dreamily. "I forgot what an exceptional dancer you are. You are...stunning."
Mara rose from the floor and faced him. "Well, like I said, I'm not a show girl anymore."
"No," Skywalker replied, not taking the hint, "but I am amazed at how expressive you are when you dance."
That was about the last thing she wanted to hear from him at this particular moment. Brushing past him in the doorway she said quickly, "Well, it's late, I'd better get back to my room."
With an intensity that took her completely by surprise, he grabbed her arm as she walked by him, then turned her abruptly around to face him. "Why the barriers, Mara?"
Startled, Mara found herself looking into his clear blue eyes. He actually looked a little angry and--hurt?--something she'd never seen in him before. She quickly turned away from those prying eyes and tried to wrench her arm out of his grasp, but he held her tightly. "Mara, why are you shutting me out?"
Now it was her turn to lose her temper. Looking back at him through narrowed eyes, she shot back, "Why are you trying to get in?"
Undaunted, he held her gaze. "Because I care about you."
"And how would that make me any different from the other trillions of beings in the galaxy?" she growled.
He dropped her arm, frustrated. "I thought we'd become quite close friends on this trip. Then you have a major breakthrough in your Jedi training, and all of a sudden the barriers are up and it's like we just met."
"Did it ever occur to you that I don't want to be that close, to anyone?" she hissed angrily, taking a step back away from him. "I like my solitary life. I don't need any Jedi Masters to psychoanalyze me!"
Skywalker blew out his breath, sending his wispy blond hair up away from his eyes. "I have never tried to psychoanalyze you. I just wanted to get to know you better."
"Well, I don't want to be known," she said quickly, then tried to get past him again. He stepped between her and the door.
"I don't believe that Mara, everyone needs to be known. I sense--"
"That is exactly what I'm talking about!" she exploded. "Don't go playing Jedi Master with me. I'll not have you telling me what my emotions are."
"I'm not telling you what you feel, I'm trying to get you to tell me."
She was in dangerous territory now, she knew. The last thing she had any intention of discussing with Skywalker was her emotions.
"What are you afraid of?" he asked.
"I'm not afraid of anything," she bit back.
"But I know you cherish friendships, I've seen you become quite close to Ally, so I don't buy this solitary act."
Oh, but Ally was completely different. Closing her eyes, she said softly "I can't do this!"
"Can't do what?"
She stopped and looked at him and in her anger she almost told him. Almost threw ten years of denial and carefully constructed indifference down the drain. But in the end, her sense of self preservation won out. She would not have this man, who fifteen years ago had completely shattered her universe, turn her life upside down again.
When she didn't answer, Skywalker just shook his head and moved closer to her. For a moment she felt like the air was electrically charged; she couldn't breathe.
"You are very... complex, Mara.," he said, "I don't understand, what can't you do?"
Feeling like a wild vornskr backed into a corner, she struck out blindly, trying to hurt him, anything so he'd back off.
"Why don't you stick to simple women, Skywalker! Women who's only complexity lies in the fact that they live in someone else's body!" she snarled, sounding as much like a vornskr as she felt.
He recoiled from her as if she had slapped him, and instantly she was sorry she had said it. "Skywalker..." she started, but he held up his hand to cut her off.
He looked as if he were about to say something, then bit it back. "Never mind," he said shaking his head, his hand still up as if to ward her off. Then he turned and left.
Drained, Mara sunk down into one of the lounge's plush couches. Well, at least she had gotten rid of him. But somehow, that didn't make her feel any better.
Allia was in the children's large cabin watching Aaron proudly display a model starship that he had built with Jaina's help.
"It's called a B-wing," he told her, quite pleased with himself. His Basic was getting quite good.
Ally was about to comment on her son's creation when Han appeared at the cabin doorway.
"I want to have a meeting in the main lounge in about ten minutes, " he told her. "That includes you kids."
All five children cheered, always happy to be included.
It took about ten minutes for her to round them all up and herd them into the lounge where the others, droids included, were waiting. Ally took a seat between Tom and Mara.
"Okay, Solo, what's your big meeting," Mara demanded in her usual irritated tone. For the past several days she had been even more testy than usual. Something had happened between her and Luke, Ally knew. The tension between them was palpable enough that even Han and Tom had noticed, and as they were both non-Force sensitive and male, the fact that they had observed anything at all seemed doubly remarkable.
"We'll be jumping out of hyperspace in about an hour," Han said, answering Mara's question. But Ally knew something else was going on. He was trying his best to keep from breaking into a wide grin.
"We know the drill," Leia said, sounding a little tired.
"But today is different." He paused and looked up at Chewbacca, who was doing an even worse job of hiding his smile. Han continued: "When we get back into real space today, we'll be just outside the Minos Cluster in the Outer Rim-- just twelve days away from Coruscant!" His grin exploded onto his face as he let his cat out of its bag.
Everyone in the room became exuberant. After three long months--six for the non-Terrans aboard--they were almost home.
Ally felt strangely quiet as the others cheered around her. Home. This place known as Coruscant, which she never knew existed, was going to be home. Not Tucson, Arizona, the United States, or even Earth. The Imperial City on Coruscant. For the first time since she had reluctantly agreed to go with her new- found family, the reality of the situation hit her squarely in the face. She would probably never see Earth again.
"You okay?" a voice at her shoulder asked. It was Mara.
Ally nodded. "Yeah. It just hit me how different my life's going to be. It's one thing to live on a spaceship and meet a Wookiee and a couple of droids and learn galactic history. It's another to be living it."
Mara squeezed her arm in a gesture of unusual warmth for her, especially given her mood as of late. "When the Emperor died, my life fell apart. I lost everything I'd ever known. But I now have to say it was the best thing that ever happened to me."
"When God closes a door, he always opens a window." Ally smiled at her friend.
"Huh?" Mara looked at her quizzically.
"It means I'm sure you're right," Ally told her.
Han quieted the room again. "Okay, okay. No one is more excited to be getting home than I am, but we still have a lot of work to do.
"First of all, I want Jaina, Jacen, and Aaron to--"
He was cut off abruptly when the ship suddenly lurched forward, knocking all of them into a heap on the floor. Alarms went off all through the corridors.
"What the hell--" Ally heard Tom cry out and she noticed-- quite irrelevantly-- that he, too, was doing very well with Basic.
Han and Chewbacca were up off the floor in a flash, Chewbacca bellowing.
"How can we have jumped out of hyperspace?" Ally asked the Wookiee, disbelieving. "That's--" She was cut off as the ship rocked violently again and she lost her balance.
"It must be an Interdictor field! But what's one doing all the way out here? We haven't even hit the Outer Rim Territories yet!" Han shouted.
"We're doomed!" came Threepio's plaintive cry.
"Shut up, Goldenrod. Han snapped. He turned to Chewie. "We've gotta get up to the bridge and see what's--"
Another powerful tremor rocked the small space yacht, and this time Ally thought she heard an explosion from somewhere inside the ship.
"Belsarios. I knew I felt him before!"
Of course, it made perfect sense, but it was still hard to believe. His ship should have been much slower than their own.
"Are you sure?" Luke asked Mara. Ally saw him close his eyes to verify it for himself.
She nodded vigorously, her eyes far away. "And I was right, he did find the disk."
"But how in the worlds did he get an Interdictor?" Leia asked, but before the words were even out of her mouth, Han, Luke, and Mara said in unison:
What the hell was a Pellaeon?
Another explosion shook the ship and the lights flashed off for a moment, then emergency lights flickered on.
This time Han didn't even try to get up to the bridge. "Artoo, get over to that terminal and see what the hell's going on!" he ordered. The small astromech droid, who had rolled across the length of the lounge when the first blast hit, somehow managed to remain upright. He trundled over to the wall and stuck his computer arm into the circular jack.
While he did so, Han continued shouting orders. "Chewie, haul it up to the cockpit and get the shields up. Leia and Tom--"
Another blast, then Artoo began twittering wildly.
"Oh my!" Threepio moaned. "Captain Solo, it seems that our hyperdrive reactors have been damaged. We'll never escape!"
Han swore, and Leia gave him a sharp look, pointing out that the children were all still in the room.
"Allia, grab all the kids and get them to one of the cabins!" he yelled.
As she started to do so, Luke stepped in. "I'll go into the engine room and see if I can do something about the hyperdrive." Before Han could even reply, he was gone.
Ally managed to round up all five children and herd them down the hall. Han, Leia, Tom, and Mara ran out behind them, presumably headed towards the cockpit.
The first cabin Ally came to was Han and Leia's. She bustled the kids inside and searched frantically for emergency straps to get everyone buckled down.
"Mommy, what's happening?" Casey was crying, hanging on to her legs.
Ally bent down to comfort her daughter. Six years old and she'd been through so much in the last three months. Suddenly she felt someone else at her side. She turned to find Anakin pulling on her tunic.
"Aunt Ally, I'll make sure she's okay," the young man said solemnly. He then put his arm around his younger cousin's shoulders and comforted her. "My dad's the best pilot in the galaxy. He can get out of anything," the boy told Casey.
Ally stared at him in wonder. Eight years old--just two years older han Casey and a year younger than Aaron--yet he seemed to be an old hand at dealing with crises. Come to think of it, Jacen and Jaina were pretty calm too--even a little excited. Ally didn't know whether to be impressed or sad. Obviously they were old hands at crises. For not the first time, Allia wondered what she had gotten herself and her children into.
While Anakin comforted Casey, the twins and Aaron located the safety harnesses and were fastening themselves to the furniture. Ally buckled in Casey and Anakin and gave them both a kiss on their foreheads.
"Everything will be okay. Now I have to go help Uncle Han."
She managed to make it to the cockpit just as a sixth explosion jarred the Gambler's Edge, propelling Ally into Mara's back. When she regained her balance, she could see out the viewport that things were very bad: Belsarios' huge ship was almost on top of them, hammering them mercilessly with both blasters and ion cannons. A second, larger ship could be seen in the distance.
"Threepio!" Han barked into a comlink, "what did that last explosion do to us?"
Ally heard Artoo whistle--I'll figure out his language yet: another useless and irrelevant thought popping into her mind--then Threepio's fussy voice came on the line.
"Oh Captain Solo!" the droid fairly wailed, "that last blast hit our main reactors again. Radiation and coolant are leaking into the engine room!"
"Luke's in there!" Leia screamed.
Ally saw all of the color drain from Mara's face. It was the first time since they'd met that Ally had seen anything resembling fear in her new friend. For what seemed like an eternity, Mara stood as if rooted to the deck. Then the hard edge abruptly returned to her eyes. She narrowed them, then spun around and was out the door, Leia close on her heels.
"Leia!" Han called after his wife, "there's nothing you can do!" But the two women were already gone.
Ally caught Tom's eye. Welcome to our new home, she thought bitterly.
Leia's heart was in her throat as she and Mara ran down the space yacht's corridors at a dead run, pausing only long enough to grab three breath masks from the emergency supplies. Radiation and coolant. Even with masks on the stuff could be lethal. And Luke didn't have a breath mask.
But Luke's a Jedi.
The engine room had automatically sealed itself off as soon as the leak occurred. Leia quickly sealed off the engine room's outer doors as she and Mara slipped on two of the masks. She then hit the override switch, allowing the inner hatch to be opened. The override successfully broke the seal and the hatch slid upwards, allowing a noxious white cloud to stream out of the room beyond.
Leia struggled to see through the white haze. What she was able to make out made her gasp: not only had the explosion broken the coolant mains, the entire room was littered with broken pieces of heavy machinery. And her throat and eyes were already starting to burn, even through the mask. They probably had about five minutes, max, until the fumes overpowered them. Five minutes to not only locate Luke under all this equipment, but to get him safely out.
He's a Jedi, she repeated firmly to herself. And so am I.
Reaching out with the Force, Leia searched for some sign of her brother's presence. She felt a faint glimmer. He was alive, somewhere at the back of the engine room.
"He's back there," she cried, motioning to Mara. The two women picked their way over the debris.
"There!" Mara pointed.
Under a broken hyperdrive reactor pipe Leia saw a figure in black.
Instantly they were at his side. Leia's heart jumped to her throat again when she saw that Luke lay completely motionless, pinned under the heavy pipe.
"We're too late!" she heard Mara whisper hoarsely.
"No," Leia shook her head, "he's a Jedi. His body would have disappeared. He's alive." As if to confirm this, Luke's eyelids fluttered and he tried to look up at them. There was an audible sigh of relief from Mara.
Leia coughed as the white haze began to penetrate into her chest. Then she remembered the third breath mask and quickly put it over Luke's face.
"We don't have much time," Mara told her, coughing herself. "We've got to get this pipe off of him."
"I know," Leia agreed. "How are you at lifting with the Force?"
"I knocked over an entire crane on the Force Storm," the other replied, "but let's do this together just to be safe."
Leia nodded. Rising, the two women joined hands and closed their eyes. Leia reached out with as much Force strength as she could muster. Incredibly, she felt Mara's sense join with hers. The two women pushed in unison, and Leia felt the massive duct lift into the air. They directed it away from Luke's unmoving body, then let it fall with a crash.
Leia quickly knelt down at Luke's side even as she was seized with another coughing fit. Suddenly she felt dizzy and the room around her started to gray out, but then she felt Mara grab her arm and squeeze it. Hard.
"Ow!" she cried out, rubbing her arm. But it had done the trick; she felt somewhat alert again.
Carefully the two women lifted Luke, Mara grabbing him under the arms and Leia taking his legs. They slowly backed out of the room, picking their way back over the pile of hyperdrive machinery.
After what seemed like forever, they finally reached the small alcove between the inner and outer engine room doors. They gently laid Luke down, then Leia slapped the control switch that resealed the inner hatchway, then another switch that started a large pump that suctioned off a great deal of the noxious coolant fumes so that they could open the outer doors without exposing everyone on the ship.
As they waited, they both knelt at Luke's side, peering anxiously at him, hoping for any sign of life. Leia touched him with the Force. She could still feel him, but just barely. Mara stroked his face gently, wiping some of the white residue off of his cheek as she looked down at him with concern.
Then her hand froze and she looked up.
"What?" Leia asked nervously.
"The explosions. They stopped."
She was right--there hadn't been an explosion since the one that caused the coolant leak. "What do you think happened.?"
Mara's eyes had that faraway look again. "Belsarios is gone." * * * * *
Belsarios watched with satisfaction from his command chair on the bridge as his strike-class ship pummeled the small space yacht. Behind him he could see the large Interdictor that Pellaeon had brought just in time. This time he had succeeded in taking the rebels completely by surprise. This time, they would not get away.
Closing his eyes and savoring his triumph, Belsarios stretched out, caressing the pendant around his neck. He was even more satisfied by what he could see in the Force: Jedi Master Skywalker was injured, slowly being poisoned by coolant, while Mara Jade and Leia Organa Solo struggled vainly to save him. Just as they were about to lift a large pipe of some sort off of the fallen Jedi, Belsarios was snapped back to reality by the voice of his communications officer.
"I'm sorry, my lord," the man said tentatively. "Vice Admiral Pellaeon is hailing us."
Belsarios shook off the pleasing vision and brought his attention to the hologram displayed before the communications console. "Yes, Vice Admiral?"
"Lord Belsarios, I've just received word my repair crews aboard the Super Star Destroyer Annihilator. She is approaching the final phase of reconstruction. They would like us to approve the final plans."
Belsarios stroked his beard. The Super Star Destroyer was much closer to being ready than he had dared hope. It could be ready for its first attack much sooner than he had thought, which meant he could do fewer preliminary blows and move more quickly to a hard hit. If they got there quickly and gave the final approvals.
"What's the condition of the space yacht?" he asked his sensor operator.
"Sensors show hyperdrive is destroyed and life support is severely damaged."
After some quick computations, the officer replied, "Looks like they only have three or four hours at the most."
"And how far are we from civilization?"
"Oh, a good two hours from the Minos Cluster, which doesn't really count as civilization. And that's traveling in hyperspace. The closest New Republic system is a good three days away in hyperspace."
That settled it, they had done enough damage already. His time could be much better spent getting back to his base and making use of that Super Star Destroyer.
"Vice Admiral," he said, turning back to the hologram, "I want to cut off the attack. Prepare to make the jump back into hyperspace, we'll return to the Annihilator immediately."
"Yes, my lord," Pellaeon bowed curtly, then his hologram vanished. * * * * *
Han Solo cursed again. That last blow must have at the very least seriously injured Luke, and now Leia was going to get herself killed trying to help him.
This was not his idea of a happy homecoming.
But there wasn't time to dwell on that. The Imperial ship was hammering away at them, and he had to focus his attention on piloting--no mean feat, since the ship was virtually crippled. But trying to escape was really the only thing he could do: he considered having Tom and Allia man the guns, but there was really little point to that. With no maneuverability, he couldn't get in position to return fire anyway.
While screaming orders at Chewbacca, Han racked his brain trying to think of a way out. He couldn't.
But then, the Force must have been with them. Without warning, the Force Storm ended its relentless attack and vanished into hyperspace, the Interdictor not far behind.
Chewbacca snorted in surprise.
"I have no idea," Han responded, equally astonished.
Behind him he heard Tom exclaim something in his own language, then add in Basic: "What happened? They had us, why would they just retreat like that?"
"I have no idea," Han repeated. "but I'm not going to look a gift tauntaun in the mouth."
Chewbacca quickly ran a systems check, giving Han a short report. The news was not good. Hyperdrive systems: failed. Sublight drive systems: near failure. Shields: gone. Life-support systems: three hours left, tops. And that was if the coolant from the engine room hadn't leaked into the atmosphere.
Han turned around to the Dales. "Well, looks like Belsarios didn't need to bother blowing us out of space. We're pretty much dead as it is."
"Can we call for help?" Ally asked hopefully.
Han nodded. "Miraculously, all our comm systems are operational. The only problem is, we only have about three hours of life support left and we're about as far out on the Outer Rim of the galaxy as you can get. No one from Coruscant or any other New Republic world that I know of could get here in three hours."
The intercom on the flight panel beeped, and Han reached for it, desperately hoping it was Leia. Hopeless as their situation seemed, Han was not anxious to have her killed by coolant and radiation poisoning.
The Force was with them again: it was her.
"Han, we're down in sick bay." She coughed viciously, and Han winced. Must have coolant in her lungs. "Luke's alive, but just barely, and Mara and I got a little too much of that stuff ourselves. Any chance of finding somewhere to land and seek medical help?"
Han started to reply, but then decided they should discuss it face to face. "I'll be right down," he told her, then thumbed off the comlink. He got up and started out of the cockpit, motioning for the others to follow.
Putting his huge furry arm on Han's shoulder, Chewbacca barked helpfully.
"Good idea," Han told his friend. "Thanks, pal."
'What did he say?" Tom asked, but before he could answer, Ally translated:
"He's going to go see how the kids are. Thank you, Chewbacca."
Han shook his head, still amazed at how fast she had picked up Wookiee.
As Chewbacca headed towards Han and Leia's cabin to look after the children, the three humans proceeded towards sick bay. When they arrived, Han gasped in dismay.
Luke was lying on the sick bay's cot, covered in a filmy white residue and looking near death. Leia and Mara were hovering anxiously over him, with Mara protectively holding his hand. The two women were covered from head to toe, their hair and clothes a grayish-white, with only their faces showing any color where their breath masks had obviously been. Han rushed over to hug his wife, but she held up her hands, holding him off.
"Don't get too close, I don't want you to breath in any of this stuff." She coughed again, proving that she herself had already taken in too much.
"You guys all okay?" he asked with concern, looking from Leia to Mara to Luke's unconscious form.
Leia finished coughing, then nodded. "But we've got to get Luke into a bacta tank, and pretty soon. Any chance of finding somewhere to land?"
Han shook his head grimly. "We've got no hyperdrive, no sublight drive, only about three hours of life support, and we're about as far on the edge of the galaxy as you can get."
"Just where are we?" Mara asked, coughing as viciously as Leia.
Han shrugged. "We were pulled out of hyperspace about two hours outside of the Minos Cluster. Our navicomputer systems are down as well, so I can't be sure of our exact location."
Mara's green eyes flashed. "Isn't Torvine just outside of the Minos Cluster?" Her eyes turned upward as she tried to remember.
"Never heard of it," Han responded. "Why, do you know of an inhabited planet nearby?" he asked hopefully.
"Not an inhabited planet. But if I'm right, I just might know a smuggler who has a base on a moon that orbits the gas planet Torvine."
A smuggler! Han immediately brightened. His kind of people! He quickly leaned on the intercom switch on the wall. "Threepio, you there?"
There was a brief pause, then the droids prissy voice responded: "Captain Solo, you're alive, thank the Maker! I was--"
"Shut up and listen. I need Artoo to tell me if a there's a planet called Torvine, and where it lies in relation to the Minos Cluster."
"Yes, sir. Right away sir." The protocol droid must not have turned off the comlink, because Han heard him yell to Artoo in the background: "You heard him, you overgrown trash collector! Get busy!" Han heard Ally snicker behind him.
There were some low whistles coming over Threepio's comlink, then Threepio came back: "There is indeed a planet called Torvine, Captain Solo. It's a gas planet with three moons and it apparently lies at oh-three-seventy outside of the Minos Cluster."
Han did some quick mental calculations. That would put it about an hour's hyperspace travel outside of the Minos Cluster, just off to the side of the path they had been headed on before being yanked out of hyperspace. "Sounds like it may only be an hour or so away," he turned to Mara hopefully.
"Do we have any comm systems?" Leia asked.
Han nodded. "That's pretty much the only thing we do have." He looked back at Mara. "Think your smuggler friend will help us?"
She shrugged. "Ever heard of Tjan Quayn? Not really fond of government types like yourselves, but he owes me a favor."
"Well, lets call him up, then. He may be our only hope."
He started to head back up to the cockpit, but was surprised when Mara hesitated. She looked worriedly down at Luke.
Leia touched her arm. "It's okay, there's nothing else you can do here," she said softly.
Mara looked up and Han thought he saw an unusual softness to her eyes, but then the hard edge returned. She nodded, gently released Luke's hand, then followed Han back up to the bridge.
Selecting a wide-band channel, Mara put out a call. She managed to get through to Quayn's camp, but had to go through several underlings before she was finally connected with Quayn himself.
"Quayn, this is Mara Jade," she told him when she was finally connected. "I need your help."
"Mara Jade!" the voice at the other end responded, a mixture of delight and suspicion. "To what do I owe this pleasure?"
"I was in your neighborhood when we ran into a little trouble," she said glibly. "I'm afraid we're in need of a rescue." She paused. "And your medical facilities."
Quayn also paused. "Medical facilities? Who's injured?"
Mara sighed. Han could tell she was reluctant to reveal who she was with, but lying would probably make matters worse. "Luke Skywalker."
There was a low whistle from the comlink. "I heard you were moving in pretty influential circles. I don't suppose his sister, the former Chief of State is also with you?"
"Yes, and her husband and several others," Mara snapped. "We don't have time to chat, Quayn. Skywalker may die, and our ship is completely crippled."
Another pause. "How do I know this isn't a ploy so the New Republic can get a look-see at my operation?"
Mara snorted in disgust. "Listen, Quayn. Organa Solo's brother is dying, and her children are also on board and will die when we run out of life support in about three hours. I don't think she's really all that concerned with your operation."
"Still, it's an awful big risk--"
"You have two choices," Mara hissed icily. "You can send help and offer your medical and ship repair facilities-- which I know are among the best--and profit quite handsomely. Or you can ignore us. In which case we'd have to contact Coruscant."
She paused. "Of course, they're too far away to help us, but when we inform them that the one person who could have saved the lives of their former Chief of State and three of their most decorated war heroes--" Mara winked at Han "--refused to send aid, I'm sure they will become most interested in your operation."
She paused again to let this sink in. "I think Admiral Ackbar in particular might want to pay you a little visit."
Han grinned at Mara with admiration. The Mon Calamari were renowned for their dislike of smugglers.
"Besides, Tjan," she added, "you owe me one."
"All right, all right, no need to get nasty," Quayn sputtered back. "Beam me your location and I'll send a rescue team after you."
Mara looked at Han, and he took the comlink from her. "We don't know our location. We got pulled out of hyperspace by an interdiction field and our navicomputer's down."
"Ah, the illustrious Captain Solo, I presume. Can you broadcast a distress signal for us to zero in on, then?"
"That we can do," Han said and slapped the control that would start the signal.
"Then I'll send a team right out." The smuggler paused. "We can discuss just how handsomely I will profit when you arrive."
Mara snatched the comlink back from Han. "You'd better send a good medical frigate," she snapped. "Your profit decreases considerably if Skywalker dies."
Han raised his eyebrows. Quite a lot of concern for someone who once wanted to kill Luke herself. But then, he was really in no position to judge people about their past loyalties and priorities--his own past wasn't exactly sterling.
"Understood," Quayn responded. "Quayn out."
Now all that was left to do was wait.
The Annihilator was even more beautiful then Belsarios imagined it would be. A full eight kilometers long, it was over seventeen times larger than the Force Storm, and had approximately twenty times the fire power. He walked along the newly refurbished bridge, with Vice Admiral Pellaeon behind him.
"You like it, my lord?"
"Oh, it's beautiful. A ship worthy of the Emperor himself."
"Or his successor," Pellaeon said with a smile.
Belsarios stopped and turned, his red cloak settling around him. "Yes. You have done very well, Vice Admiral. This ship will make a most excellent command ship. I'm anxious for it to be completed."
"I'm glad you're pleased, my lord. It should be completed in under a standard month."
"Perfect." There was still much to be done if they were going to make use of this ship. Together, Belsarios and Pellaeon boarded the shuttle that was waiting to take them down from the ship in orbit to the planet below. To Belsarios' new base.
Actually, the base had been Pellaeon's idea, something he remembered from his service under Grand Admiral Thrawn. It had been destroyed in battle, of course, but like the Super Star Destroyer, it had been rebuilt and refurbished nicely. It would do, at least until they were powerful enough to regain their rightful capital: the Imperial City on Coruscant.
But first things first; Coruscant was a long way off, and he was happy to be anywhere right now that was in his own galaxy. There were many other New Republic worlds that would be much easier primary targets until he got the Annihilator up and running. And with the Vader disk carefully set up in his new base: one near the main power reactors on the west side of the base, one in the east side power reactors, and the third around his neck, he could feel the Force radiating throughout the entire mountainside. Of course, when he left the base, he would place the disks in a similar configuration aboard his ship, but for now they were most helpful right where they were: increasing his own strength, increasing his base's strength, even increasing the weaponry strength.
"Vice Admiral, I don't want to wait until the Annihilator is finished to strike our first blow. Do you have any ideas of some preliminary targets where we could do some easy damage without a Super Star Destroyer, and that would make a good example for the rebels?"
"Actually, sir, I have an idea."
"Go ahead, Pellaeon. I'm all ears."
For five years of her life, Mara Jade had dreamt of nothing but seeing Luke Skywalker dead. Waking or sleeping, she had endlessly fantasized the umpteen different ways she could bring about a slow and torturous death for the man she believed had destroyed her life.
The irony of that was not lost on her as she sat sullenly in the back of Tjan Quayn's medical facility on an unnamed moon, surrounded by Luke's most cherished friends and family, listening to the medic say the Jedi Master might not survive. She felt terrified and helpless and fervently wished she could take his place.
And that scared her most of all.
It wasn't that she was a completely self-absorbed person- -once she pledged allegiance to anyone, she was loyal to the end, and always willing to die fighting for them. But this was different. The anguish she felt at the prospect of losing Luke went well beyond loyalty. Well beyond, even, anger that the man who had killed her brother had hurt yet another of her allies. This went much deeper, into feelings Mara Jade, ex- Emperor's Hand, ex-smuggler, and current hard-line, no-nonsense trader wanted no part of.
Of course, the powerlessness she felt wasn't exactly helping her mood either. She was a person of action, yet here there was nothing she could do. So she sat, idly smoothing out her long red hair which hung loose on her shoulders, still wet and sticky from her own bacta treatment, and listened to the medic drone on.
"If he were anyone but Master Luke Skywalker, I'd say he'd have no chance at all," the medic, short, gray-furred Drall, was saying rather bluntly. "Heck, he'd have died as soon as the coolant hit the air. But he appears to have gone into some kind of Jedi trance that's slowed down his body's systems, so he probably breathed in a lot less of the stuff than an ordinary person would have. But," he paused dramatically, "he was exposed to a huge amount of toxins and radiation. The bacta treatment helped, of course, but he still hasn't come out of his trance."
"Is there anything that can be done?" That was Leia, who stood near Luke's bed, leaning on her husband for support. Allia Dale was also there. Tom and Chewbacca were elsewhere, keeping the five children from climbing all over their unconscious uncle.
The Drall was shaking his fur-covered head. "Nothing but stay close by. He's got to come out of it on his own, and the only thing that may help is to be surrounded by the people about whom he cares most."
Great, Mara thought bitterly. More helpless waiting. She carefully rearranged herself in her seat and looked around her for something to keep her hands busy before she went stark-raving mad. Next to her on a low table lay a pile of things that had been collected from her, Leia, and Skywalker before their bacta treatments: a child's toy Leia had had in her pocket, Mara's blaster, Skywalker's lightsaber and the shell ring he always wore. Her hand absently traced over the switches on the lightsaber. Skywalker's cherished Jedi weapon. If only she could pick the thing up and fight . If only that were the answer. She needed to act! Sighing, her hand moved from the saber to the ring, which she distractedly rotated through her fingers.
Mara looked up to see Allia looking down at her with concern. Great, just what she needed.
"Just fine," Mara lied. She doubted Ally bought it, but she nodded and moved away.
"I'm sorry we can't do more," the Drall medic went on as Mara tossed the ring lightly into the air, catching it again in the palm of her hand.
Suddenly her hand clenched, tightening around the small band. Something the medic had said.... She sat up abruptly. Maybe there was something she could do. A minor thing, really, but at least it was better than sitting here stewing. And it was also something she was sure only she had the resources to do.
Quietly, she stood as the medic finished his spiel. "Excuse me," she said as Leia gave her an odd look. Ignoring it, she slipped from the room, glad to no longer have to look at Skywalker's deathly pale face.
Or deal with her feelings for him.
She quickly strode down the hallways of Quayn's large complex until she found someone who directed her to Quayn's office.
"Tjan," she said, entering without waiting to be invited. "I need to ask a couple favors from you."
The short, paunchy, middle-aged human looked up at her from behind his elaborate desk. "Anything, my dear Captain Jade. As long as you can pay the price."
Mara smiled sourly. "Of course, Tjan. Actually, this favor will allow me to pay you sooner. I need to contact my associate on Dakroon. He'll be able to wire all the credits you require."
The smuggler smiled. "Of course, why didn't you say so?" He rose from his desk, punching a small console protruding from the smooth wood finish. Out of the center of the desk popped up a somewhat large-ish holo communication system. He motioned to it with a sweeping gesture, obviously quite impressed with himself.
"My office is at your disposal." He came around from behind the desk and headed towards the door as Mara moved over to his seat.
"Tjan, one more thing," she said as he was about to leave. The smuggler turned around expectantly.
"I'd like to purchase a starship."
Quayn blinked in surprise. "A starship?"
"Something small and fast, preferably a two-seater," Mara responded.
"Twenty thousand," Quayn smiled.
Mara waved dismissively. "Fine, fine. Now if you'll excuse me, I'll contact my associate and make all the arrangements."
Fairly drooling with greed, the smuggler left her alone.
Mara sat behind the pretentious desk, frowning in distaste. She much preferred subtle elegance. But however ostentatious it may be, the high-end holocomm unit was exactly what she needed. She quickly placed her call and waited until Ghent's smiling face appeared before her on the desk.
"Mara!" he cried ecstatically, "you're home!"
"Not quite, Ghent, but we are at least back in the galaxy."
Her second in command fairly gushed. "I'm so glad to hear from you--Karrde's driving me crazy! Where are you and when will you be back?"
"I'm way out in the Outer Rim Territories," Mara said briskly, "and I've got a couple of things I've got to take care of before I come back. We...ran into some trouble."
Ghent frowned. "What kind of trouble. Is everything all right?"
No. Everything was as far from all right as possible. But to Ghent she said "Never mind that. I need you to transfer some credits for me. To one Tjan Quayn."
"Done. Just send me the figures," Ghent nodded efficiently.
"And tell Karrde I'll be calling him as soon as I can. He hasn't dissolved our partnership while I've been gone, has he?"
"No, no," Ghent smiled, "but I think he's getting tired of dealing with me instead of you. Still thinks of me as nothing more than a kid slicer."
Mara smiled back. "Well, I'll be back as soon as I can." Then she leaned forward towards his image. "I need something else from you."
"You bet, boss."
"I need you to contact someone named Garindan for me."
Ghent's eyebrows raised. He had obviously heard of the Kubaz spy before, but Mara was pleased that he said nothing.
She continued: "My private files will tell you how to reach him. Tell him I need the record he's been compiling for me. He can transmit it to me in care of Tjan Quayn."
"Will do," the young man gave her a quick nod. "Anything else?"
Mara shook her head. "Just have Garindan get me that information as quickly as possible. I need it right away."
Ghent nodded again then signed off, obviously relieved that his superior was back in charge. Mara stretched, then rose from behind Quayn's mammoth desk. Now to see to that ship Quayn promised her, and maybe a quick shower and change of clothes while she was waiting--the residue from the bacta tank made her feel a little sticky.
She felt a little better now that she was actually doing something. And just maybe, Skywalker would be all right after all.
He had to be.
The information from Garindan came sooner than she'd expected. She had just barely finished dressing after the quick shower she'd taken in one of Quayn's guest suites when one of his employees appeared at the door with a coded data disk. When she'd had it decoded, she was pleasantly surprised. The planet mentioned at the end of the file was not far from here-- probably only a couple hours in hyperspace. That meant she had time to go there in person, rather than rely on a subspace communication.
She was much more persuasive in person.
She quickly gathered together her things then headed out to find out about the ship Quayn had sold her. It'd better be a good one, or she wasn't paying twenty thousand for it. As she moved towards Quayn's spaceport, she almost ran right into Leia who was headed in the opposite direction, back towards the medical wing. She too had showered and changed, but Mara knew that she had only left her brother's side because of Solo's insistence.
"Mara, where are you going?" Leia asked, obviously a little irritable. Mara hadn't been in to see Skywalker since she'd left to make her calls.
"I've got some business to take care of," she said tersely.
Leia folded her arms regally, looking every bit the disdainful princess. No wonder Solo sometimes called her "Your Worshipfulness."
"Business," she said coldly. "I see."
Mara was in no mood to defend herself to Skywalker's sister; her own emotions were a little too raw. A fact she didn't need Leia to know.
"There's nothing I can do here," she said quickly. "Now if you'll excuse me."
Leia said nothing as Mara walked away, but Mara could feel her anger through the Force. Well, let her be angry. After Mara took care of this one last thing, Skywalker and his family would no longer be her problem.
Then she could move on to her real business: finding Belsarios and making him pay. For Mykos and for Skywalker.
It was a small, dark, musty cantina on a small, out-of-the- way world in the Outer Rim Territories, but for the tall, shapely blond waitress, it was home.
At least until she found what she had come here in search of.
It was late in the morning, local time, so the Rusted Freighter cantina was pretty much empty. The waitress was alone in the back room, carefully wiping glasses clean with dishtowel. She reveled in the peaceful morning hours, when she could do her work without being harassed by slobbering customers. When she had time to study without being interrupted. As soon as she was finished with the glasses she could hit the books.
But when she saw the tall Twi'lek--her one friend here-- approach, she knew instinctively that her studies were going to be put on hold.
"There's someone here to see you," he said simply.
She frowned. "If it's that disgusting Flind again, tell him--" She stopped in mid- sentence when the Twi'lek shook his head, his long lekku swaying elegantly behind him.
"It's not Flind. It's a woman."
Her eyes widened in surprise.
Now she almost dropped the glass she was holding. No one off-world knew she was here--at least that's how she had arranged it. She couldn't even think of more than a handful of off-world women she knew, let alone any that would track her down to a backwater hell-hole like this.
"What does she want?"
Her friend shrugged his head-tails. "She wouldn't say, but she looks pretty--I don't know, intense. And she asked for you by name."
So that ruled out a visitor just looking for a waitress to serve her.
"Where is she?"
"Waiting out front."
The blond woman frowned again. Carefully, she took a small blaster from behind the counter and tucked it under her tunic. Who knew what this person could want?
She cautiously left the back room and headed to the main tables out front. The correct table was easy enough to find--it was the only occupied table in the room.
The stranger was seated with her back towards her, but the waitress could see that she had long red hair that she wore in a thick braid down her back. She looked somewhat familiar...
Then she recognized her visitor and almost tripped over a chair in front of her.
What's she doing here?
Feeling more on edge than ever, she moved around to the front of the table, facing her guest.
"Mara Jade," she said evenly, her hand near her blaster-- just in case. Their last meeting had been friendly enough, but this woman had once been, after all, the Emperor's Hand.
Mara Jade looked up at her, her eyes narrowing to emerald slits.
Allia stretched and stood up from her seat at Luke's bedside. She'd been trying her best to chat amiably with him as if he could hear her--perhaps he could, after all. But she was tired and irritable and she wanted to see her kids. She reached down and squeezed her brother's still hand.
That thought still seemed foreign to her, even three months and a zillion light- years later. She left his small room and out into the hallway where Leia and Han were sitting together.
"How's he doing?" Leia asked, her brown eyes wide and frustrated.
Ally shrugged. "Same."
"We still need to get back," Han said softly.
Ally sighed. He and Leia had been having this argument for most of the two days they've been here. They had called Coruscant as soon as Luke was out of immediate danger, and the New Republic government was sending a ship to retrieve them, piloted by Han's friend, Lando Calrissian. Han thought that they should leave as soon as the ship arrived, taking Luke with them. Leia disagreed.
"Han, I'm not going anywhere until Luke's better." She shook her head emphatically. "For eight years I've been the Chief of State, and duty always came first. For seven years before that I was on one diplomatic mission after another, and for the twenty-one years of my life before that I was involved in the blasted war. Well, I'm not Chief of State anymore, and I'm not putting anything above my family's well being!"
Han sighed. "Leia, it'll be perfectly safe to transport him. We moved him here all right, didn't we? And if we sit around here, Belsarios gets to go on using that disk and pretty soon he's resurrected the Empire."
"Please, Han, you've been telling me for years that I should let someone else step in. I'm willing to do that now. Admiral Ackbar and the rest can handle it."
"But it's not doing us any good to stay here," Han protested.
And so it went. Ally had heard it a hundred times already. Personally, she didn't care if they stayed or went. This smuggler's base was not home, but neither was Coruscant. Home was light-years away.
She wandered somewhat aimlessly down the corridors, searching for her children, who were somewhere with Tom and Chewbacca, and wishing rather pointlessly that Mara hadn't left. It had been such a sudden decision, and Allia had been quite surprised when Leia told her that Mara was going. She wasn't angry like Leia, just confused. Mara had been deathly worried about Luke, of that she was certain. The sudden decision to leave seemed...well, sudden.
As she walked, she became aware that someone was behind her. She turned and found Leia following her.
"I'm sorry, Allia. First we practically kidnap you and your family away from your home, and then we welcome you to our galaxy like this." She indicated the space around her with a sweep of the arm.
"It's okay. I'm worried about Luke, too." Ally sighed. "This is all just--I don't know, a bit much."
Leia stepped beside her and put an arm around her waist. "I know. You know, I didn't know--" she stopped abruptly, laughing at herself when she realized she'd managed to say "know" three times in seven words. She started again. "I didn't know Luke and I were brother and sister until about three years after we'd met--or that Darth Vader was our father," she added, shuddering slightly. "I still can't get used to that."
"Was he that bad?"
Leia started to nod, but stopped herself. "I shouldn't judge. Luke was the one who was with him when he died, and he says he turned back."
"Deathbed repentance," Ally mumbled.
"Yes. And he did appear to me shortly after his death, begging my forgiveness."
"See, now it's that kind of stuff that unnerves me," Ally stopped her. "All this 'being one with the Force,' it's just a little strange."
Leia smiled. "You'll get used to it."
They walked on together a little longer before Leia told her she wanted to go back to see Luke again. Ally planned on continuing her search for her husband and children, so the started to part company when they heard footsteps approaching from the direction Ally was headed. Both women were quite surprised when Mara strode into the corridor.
"Mara!" Ally cried, giving her friend a quick hug. "You came back."
She stepped back and looked at Leia, who didn't seem to know what to say, when they heard another voice from behind Mara.
Ally watched as Leia stared at the newcomer, completely stunned. A tall, lanky, and very beautiful blond woman with startling gray eyes approached her tentatively.
Leia's quickly came to her senses and she reached over and hugged the woman. "Callista! I'm speechless! How in the worlds..."
Callista! Ally gave Mara a questioning look, but Mara's eyes avoided hers.
"Mara told me Luke was very ill. I--" Callista faltered. "I had to come," she finished softly.
Leia nodded, still looking a bit dazed.
Callista then turned to Ally. "You must be Allia, Luke's other sister. Mara gave me a quick rundown of your latest adventures." She stuck her hand out, and Ally shook it automatically.
"It's Ally. And I've heard some good things about you, as well." She wasn't sure what else to say. The fact that this woman's body had once been someone else's would not leave her mind. Another of those strange things she was having trouble getting used to. Aliens and droids and hyperspace travel, that was all fine, but switching bodies with people?
But Callista didn't seem to notice her awkwardness. She turned back to Leia. "Where's Luke? I'd like to see him if I could."
"Of course," Leia stammered. "Please forgive my manners! It's just that I'm so--stunned. I--"
Callista smiled warmly. "I know, you weren't expecting me to show up here."
Leia nodded, then pointed down the hall. "The medical wing's that way. You can go on ahead, if you'd like. I'll catch up with you in just a minute."
The former Jedi Knight nodded, then headed off in the direction Leia had indicated, as Leia turned to Mara.
"Mara, I don't know what to say," she started softly. "I'm afraid I owe you an apology."
Mara shrugged, and Ally could tell she was having a hard time controlling her emotions. "The medic said he needed to be surrounded by the people he cares most about."
"But how did you know where--"
Mara cut her off with a wave of her hand. "I have my resources. But before you start feeling too warmly towards me, you should know that I am leaving again."
This time Leia only nodded. "Thank you," she said simply, giving Mara a quick hug. She then turned and went after Callista towards the medical wing.
Allia waited until Leia was out of sight, then turned to Mara.
"You have more class than anyone I've ever known," she said with deep feeling.
Mara again waved her hand dismissively. "I have to go," she said simply.
Ally gave her another hug. This time Mara embraced her in return, and Ally could feel her sorrow. Then Mara pulled back and grabbed Ally's shoulders, her face intense.
"I need you to do me a favor. "Please contact me every couple of hours to tell me how he's doing. Quayn can show you how to reach me. And let me know right away if he wakes up or--" She broke off, unwilling to finish that thought.
Ally looked at her friend sadly and nodded. "Just find him, okay? Find that man who did this to Luke, and who kidnapped my children and attacked my home and killed my father and make him pay." Not a very Christian attitude, she knew, but there it was.
She sensed Mara's pain shift subtly towards anger and saw a look in the other woman's eyes that made her shiver.
"I will. If it's the last thing I do."
Ally watched her head back down the hall the way she had come and for the first time she was able to see the assassin that Mara Jade had once been.
The Force Storm and several other capital star ships burst out hyperspace and into orbit around the small planet, fourth in its system. Even from this high up, Belsarios could see the devastation that had been wrought on this planet generations before.
"It has no real military value," Pellaeon was saying, "but I think it would be an appropriate statement. The inhabitants were traitors to the Empire, and the New Republic would suffer a great political defeat by failing to protect her."
"Yes, yes," Belsarios agreed hastily. "But don't think for a moment I don't know your real motive for choosing this planet for our first attack. Grand Admiral Thrawn was murdered by a Noghri."
Pellaeon nodded. "His bodyguard," he said with disdain.
Belsarios, of course, was familiar with the story. The Noghri were a primitive, savage hunters who's world had been nearly destroyed during the Clone Wars. Darth Vader had found this planet and fooled the niave natives into believing he was attempting to save their planet when in fact he was keeping it desolate. Indebted to the man they believed to be their savior, the Noghri became loyal to the Emperor. That changed when they discovered that Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa Solo were the son and daughter of Vader, and that the Empire had tricked them. Almost overnight they had turned traitor and one of their number had assassinated Grand Admiral Thrawn.
"Nevertheless," Pellaeon started, but Belsarios waved him off.
"Vice Admiral, I assure you, if I did not approve of your strategy, we would not be here. Prepare the attack on Honoghr."
The Lady Luck, a modified yacht similar to but smaller than the Edge, landed in the small port outside of Tjan Quayn's base on the unnamed moon orbiting Torvine. Its lone crew member strode purposefully down the ramp to find himself face to face with an old friend.
"Han Solo, you old smuggler, what did you do to my ship?"
Han smiled as Lando Calrissian came forward and embraced him heartily. "It wasn't my fault," he said. Of course, that was exactly what Lando expected him to say.
"What if I had done such a deplorable job watching after the Falcon when we made the run on the second Death Star?" Lando kidded his friend.
"Hey, your not comparing that old rusted out yacht to my Falcon, are you?"
"Speaking of, how is she?"
"Fine, fine," Lando replied still laughing. "So where's the rest of your family? I was expecting a better welcome than this."
Han grew serious a moment. "They're in with Luke; he still hasn't regained consciousness."
"I'm sorry." Lando squeezed his friend's arm.
Inside the base, which had been stripped of any and all incriminating equipment and cargo, Lando noted with amusement, they quickly walked through the corridors until the came to the medical wing. Outside on of the rooms Lando saw Leia and Chewbacca sitting with a blond woman and dark-haired man he'd never seen before.
Leia rose to greet him as soon as she saw him. "Lando, thank you so much for coming. We're in your debt," she said warmly, giving him a huge hug. Chewie followed suit, almost knocking the wind out of Lando.
"And I'd like you to meet Leia's sister and brother-in-law, Ally and Tom Dale," Han added. The two newcomers rose and took turns shaking his hand. "This is Lando Calrissian," Han finished.
"We've heard a lot about you," the woman smiled. She looked tired and strained.
Lando returned the smile. "Well I promise, I'm not nearly as bad as I'm sure Han's led you to believe." Lando looked around. "Where are the kids?"
"They're over playing somewhere," Leia said a bit absently.
Han cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, "Kids! Uncle Lando is here!"
"Han, this is a medical wing!" Leia cried in horror. Han gave her a sheepish grin.
Whether or not it was the appropriate thing to do in a medical wing, Han's call unquestionably worked. Five children appeared out of nowhere and the Solo children all but threw themselves at Lando's feet.
"Uncle Lando!" they cried in excitement. He bent down and hugged them all as Han introduced the other two children, Aaron and Casey Dale.
Looking up at his friend, Lando asked "So when do you think we can get off this rock?" He saw Han and Leia exchange looks and knew instantly he had stepped into a disagreement between them. Trying to lighten the situation, he hastily added, "I mean, I'm anxious to get back to my wife--and son."
His statement had the desired effect. "Son!" Han cried as he and Leia once more crowded at him to give him a huge hug. "Congratulations!"
Chewbacca was so enthusiastic he picked up Lando a half a meter off the ground.
"All right already, Chewie!" Lando choked out, and finally the huge Wookiee set him down.
"When was he born, what did he weigh, how's Tendra?" Leia asked in a rush.
"A week ago, 3.4 kilograms, she's fine," Lando laughed. He then looked at Han. "And his name is Han Risant Calrissian."
This stopped Han in his tracks. "I don't know what to say," he said softly, shaking his head.
Leia put her arm around her husband and looked at Lando. "That's very sweet, Lando," she said for him.
Lando brushed it off; neither him nor Han were much for touching moments. "Now that I've told you the good news, I suppose I should tell you the bad news."
"Uh-oh," Han groaned. "I've got a bad feeling about this."
Lando nodded. "You should. Just before I landed I got word from Coruscant-- Honoghr's been attacked."
"Honoghr!" Leia cried out in alarm. "Why in the worlds would anyone attack Honoghr?"
"To make a statement. Fleghan thinks it's Pellaeon's way at getting back at the Noghri for Grand Admiral Thrawn's death."
"Then Belsarios must be involved," the blond woman, Ally, put in. It was the first thing she had said since her introduction.
"Yes," Lando agreed. "And it gets worse. The NRI believes Pellaeon's gotten a hold of a Super Star Destroyer. It wasn't used at Honoghr, but they think there's one hiding out somewhere, waiting in the wings."
"A Super Destroyer? Oh wonderful, just what we needed," Han said rolling his eyes. "How's Fleghan handling it?"
"Ackbar's been sent to personally defend the planet, but I doubt he'll get there in time. And I'm sure they'll want you to go there, Leia. The Noghri trust you the most."
"See," Han said to her, "we should leave right away."
"Han--" Leia started, but before she finished another woman stepped out of the room.
"Callista?" Lando asked with some surprise.
"Lando, hello," she said nodding at him.
"Any change?" Leia asked Callista as Lando tried to figure out what in the worlds she was doing here. And then it occurred to him that he had expected to see someone else.
"Where's Mara?" he asked Han.
His friend merely shrugged. "Took off like a mynock out of hell. After bringing Callista here."
Lando raised his eyebrows. This was definitely strange. But first thing's first.
"I'd like to visit with Luke myself if I could," he said gently to Leia.
"Oh, of course, Lando." She linked her arm in his and walked with him towards the room, Han behind them.
Luke was laid out on the bed, looking very pale. Lando looked at him worriedly, then turned to Leia. "Is he going to be okay?"
Leia nodded, "We hope so. The medic hopes he'll wake up soon."
"And you want to stay here until he does," Lando finished for her.
"Lando, I'm sorry. I hate to ask, I know you want to get back to your wife and new baby, but I'm really worried that moving him before he regains consciousness would make matters worse. I--"
"I understand, Leia," he said gently. "We'll stay until he wakes up."
"Thank you," Leia said gratefully. Lando caught a disapproving look from Han.
"Hey, you know I could never turn down the request of a beautiful woman."
He was searching for something.
Something in the fog. But the fog had a life of its own, and it swirled around him, blinding him, choking him. His lungs burned and his limbs felt like dead wood and something important remained just beyond his grasp, but he didn't know what.
Then he heard the voices.
At first they weren't like voices at all--just jumbled sounds like music or like the desert wind on Tatooine. But they gradually became more and more distinct and he could just make out brief snatches of phrases:
"...please come back..."
"...kids are driving us crazy..."
"...when we get back to Coruscant..."
'...sorry I stayed away for so long..."
His mind hung on that last phrase, turning it over and over. Something was surprising about it. He recognized suddenly that it was not the phrase that was catching his attention, it was the voice itself.
It was then Luke realized he was dreaming.
It had to be a dream. He hadn't seen Callista in seven years.
So he was dreaming, but where was he dreaming? He had no idea. The last thing he could clearly remember (and clearly was a relative term--everything was coated with that damn fog!) was fighting a lightsaber duel with Mara Jade.
Mara Jade. Maybe that's who's voice he was hearing, though it did sound an awful lot like Callista's. Slowly he opened his eyes.
He was wrong. It wasn't Callista and it wasn't Mara who's face was hovering over his anxiously. It was Leia's.
But before he could even open his mouth to say something to her, she jumped up and out of his line of sight, yelling for a medic. A very short time later she returned, with an alien--a Drall--who poked and prodded him with some kind of medical instrument.
"Hey!" he called out, but it came out more like hah! His tongue felt like it was as thick as a Hutt's.
"Oh, Luke, thank the Force you're all right!" Leia was saying, tears in her eyes. "We were so worried!"
The Drall continued to poke him, checking for further signs of life.
"I've called the others," Leia was prattling on. "They're all out getting something to eat."
Luke nodded stiffly, not really sure who "the others" were. Han, of course, and their children. And some other family member--Allia! he remembered triumphantly. He had a new sister named Allia.
Finally the Drall, obviously a medic of some sort, finished his examination. "I think the worst is over," he said to Leia. "He should be fine in a few days." Then he left, and Luke was alone with his ecstatic sister.
She sat down beside him and squeezed his hand. "Can you hear me, Luke? Are you okay? How do you feel?"
Already Luke's tongue felt more like normal, so he replied weakly, "I'm okay. What happened?"
Leia squeezed his hand again. "We were attacked. You were trying to repair the hyperdrive thrusters when the main reactors took another hit, and coolant and radiation leaked into the engine room."
As she explained, it all came flooding back. The explosions, the huge thruster pipe falling down on top of him, then the white cloud of coolant that exploded into the room. Well, that explained the fog anyway. Then he remembered something else: Leia had been there also. She had come to rescue him, along with Mara.
Luke sat upright, immediately wishing he hadn't as a thousand crazed banthas rushed into his brain.
"Luke, you've got to rest, you're still sick!" Leia cried out in alarm.
"Mara," Luke said. "Where's Mara? I saw her in the engine room, with you. Is she--"
"No, no, Mara's fine," Leia told him quickly. "Everyone's fine."
Luke laid back down again as relief flooded over him. "Where is she?"
Leia was silent for a moment. "She left."
Luke groaned. She'd gone after Belsarios alone. He rested a moment, then asked Leia, "Where are we?"
"On some moon near the Minos Cluster in the Outer Rim. A smuggler acquaintance of Mara's has a base here. He's been quite generous with his facilities--for a price, of course," she added, smiling. Smugglers amused Leia because of her husband, who never did get around to making use of the handsome reward he was promised for rescuing her.
Luke nodded. Then he remembered his dream. "Leia, I had the strangest dream. I kept hearing all these voices, and one of them was Callista's."
Leia looked at him strangely. Had he been stronger, he would have used the Force to find out what she was feeling, but as sick as he was he thought it best not to expend the energy. It was unnecessary anyway--right away she told him.
"Callista is here, Luke."
Luke almost sat up again, but he remembered the crazed banthas in time and just opened his eyes wide instead.
Leia nodded. "Mara brought her."
Mara? Why in the worlds.--and how?
Before he could collect himself enough to ask Leia, the room filled with people: Han, Chewbacca, Ally, Tom, Jaina, Jacen, Aaron, Anakin, Casey, and even Threepio and Artoo were clamoring to see him. He was surprised to note that Lando Calrissian was also there.
And behind all of them, Callista.
She hung back, waiting tensely as the others gave him their good wishes. Eventually the Drall medic returned and ordered them all, crying "One at a time, one at a time!"
Leia, ever the diplomat, quietly herded her happy family and friends from the room. "You stay," she told Callista quietly, "you came an awfully long way."
So the others left and Luke was alone with Callista.
And it wasn't a dream.
"Long time no see," she said nervously after an uncomfortable silence.
"Yes," Luke agreed.
Callista sighed. "I wanted to come and see you so many times, but I just couldn't. I haven't had a whole lot of luck regaining my abilities."
Luke nodded sympathetically, feeling strangely aloof. Maybe it was the effects of the coolant, not quite worn off. "I'm sorry, Callista."
She was suddenly seized with emotion. She grabbed his hand tightly and bent over, giving him a small kiss. "I've missed you, Luke."
"Me too," he replied. This was so overwhelming, seeing her again so suddenly after so long. It had to be a dream!
There was another uncomfortable silence, until Luke finally asked, "Where have you been all this time?"
"Oh, here and there. Mostly working odd jobs waitressing or something like that. And studying anything I can find about the Force." She smiled bitterly. "I'm quite the expert now. I could be a teacher at your Academy."
Luke wasn't sure how to respond, sensing that the last thing she wanted was for him to pity her.
Instead he asked her the million-credit question. "Why are you here now?"
"Mara Jade told me you were ill and that you needed me," she answered simply.
So Mara had been the one responsible. He should have felt grateful, but instead he found himself feeling a little hurt.
"I have no idea how she knew where to find me," Callista went on when Luke didn't say anything.
"I gave up questioning her sources long ago," Luke smiled weakly.
Then the Drall medic returned. "I'm sorry, you must let him rest now. He's still weak from the coolant poisoning."
Callista stood up and gave his hand a final squeeze. "I'll be back later, when you're feeling better." Before he could answer, she left.
Leaving Luke feeling strange enough to wonder if he hadn't been right in the first place.
Maybe this all was just a dream.
Once he regained consciousness, Luke recovered with remarkable speed, and in two days the group made plans to return to Coruscant.
In that time, Luke had had several conversations with Callista--all of them superficial and uncomfortable. He knew she was going to leave again, and she knew he knew, but he was surprised at how little that fact really affected him. Surprised and a little guilty.
He had once promised to wait as long as it would take. Now he knew it was a promise he couldn't keep.
They had to talk--seriously--before she left again, but Luke was having difficulty sorting through his own feelings. So instead he found himself talking to Leia.
"Luke, what's troubling you?" she asked. She had always known when anything was on his mind.
"When we leave, Callista won't be going with us," he began.
Leia frowned. "Did you expect her to?"
"No, of course not," he responded quickly. "It's just--" he broke off, not knowing what to say.
"It hurts you that she's leaving again?" Leia questioned.
"That's just it. It doesn't hurt at all. I mean, not any more than when I have to say good-bye to you or any of my friends."
"I see," Leia nodded, and Luke knew that she did see. "And that's what's bothering you."
"Yes." He was grateful she understood. Floundering for the right words again, he went on: "It's been a long time since I ever really believed that Callista and I would be together--I pretty much figured I was going to be married to my work, and that was the end of it. But I feel like--I feel like I'm breaking my word."
"Because you don't love her anymore."
Luke nodded, again grateful to have a sister who so easily understood him.
She reached out and put her hand on his arm. "Luke, you have nothing to feel guilty about. Callista made her choice- -it was more important for her to regain her Jedi powers than to be with you. It just wasn't meant to be. Seven years is an awfully long time."
"You waited for Han almost that long," Luke pointed out.
Leia snorted. "It's a completely different situation. Han was there with me, not completely out of touch for seven years. Besides," she added, "if you recall, I almost married someone else."
"I don't believe for a second that you would have gone through with marrying Isolder," Luke smiled.
"But my point is, if Han hadn't come around when he did, I would have had to move on. Sometimes hanging on isn't noble, it's just...hanging on. Especially if it's to something that's not meant to be. If you and Callista were meant to be, she wouldn't have stayed away for so long. And in all that time, it's only natural that your feelings for her would start to fade." Leia paused. "Or that you'd start to have feelings for someone else."
Luke looked up at her sharply, but her soft brown eyes did not waver from his.
"You're falling in love with Mara, aren't you." It wasn't a question.
Luke let out his breath, suddenly feeling frustrated. "I don't know! I've seen a whole different side of her over the last six months, and I don't know what to make of it. And then she just cut me out. Slammed up those barriers of hers." He shook his head. "Not that it really matters--the feeling apparently isn't mutual."
"I wouldn't be so sure of that," Leia responded knowingly. "She did risk her life to save yours."
"And so did you," Luke returned.
Leia looked at him pointedly. "Because I love you."
But he was far from convinced. "Then why isn't she here? I know how important going after Belsarios is to her, but she left without even waiting for me to regain consciousness." He realized he sounded a little petty, but it felt good to finally vent.
"I was angry with her myself, at first," Leia admitted. "But don't forget, she brought Callista here first."
"Which is another thing," Luke argued. "Do you remember that day you and Ally were late for training, and Mara and I had a lightsaber duel?"
"Something happened between us that day; a connection in the Force. It was incredible--her emotions were completely open to me. Then this wall goes up and she asks me about Callista. And a few days after that we had an argument, I guess. She said something pretty vicious about Callista then, too."
Leia smiled at him, almost maternally. "Don't you see, Luke? She thinks you're in love with Callista! Why do you think she brought her here? The medic said the only thing that could help you was to have the people you care about around you. So she brought the person she thought you loved most. And judging by how quickly she found her, my guess is she already knew exactly where to look.
"Now ask yourself," she continued, her eyes narrowing, "why would Mara keep track of Callista's whereabouts?"
That was a question Luke hadn't thought to ask. True, the woman was an information hound and she was forever surprising him with the things she knew. But what possible interest could a Jedi Knight without her powers be to Mara? The only thing the two women had remotely in common was him. Could she have actually been tracking Callista's whereabouts because of him?
But still, why did she leave?
He asked Leia that, but she only sighed.
"Luke, I'm going to tell you a story, but you have to promise me you won't tell Han I told you. He'd die of embarrassment if he knew you knew this."
Luke raised his eyebrows, his curiosity piqued.
She leaned forward conspiratorially and continued. "Do you remember when you told me I was your sister, in the Ewok village on Endor, just before you went to face Vader?"
He nodded--it wasn't a moment he was likely to forget.
"Han came out just after you'd left. I was pretty emotional--my closest friend was really my brother, my worst enemy was my father, and I was terrified that you were going to your death. Han asked me what was wrong, but I couldn't tell him. Not yet, anyway.
"Well, he was pretty mad. Thought I'd confided in you something I was unwilling to share with him. We almost had a fight, but then he felt bad and didn't say anything more. We did have a war to win, after all."
Luke smiled. If only it had really been that simple.
"Anyway," Leia continued, "the next day, when the second Death Star blew, Han and I were together outside the bunker. As far as any of us knew, you were still on the thing when it went up, so needless to say, I was a little worried. Han noticed right away and gave me that cocky little 'everything's- under-control' grin and tells me he's sure you made it off.
"By then I had already sensed that you were safe, so I told him that you did make it off. That I could feel you." She smiled then, as if coming to the punch line of a fabulous joke.
"So I'm looking up at the explosion, and Han says to me, 'you love him don't you?'
"To which I, of course, reply 'Yes.'"
Suddenly it dawned on Luke what she was saying. He started to laugh, his eyes wide with amazement. "He didn't know I was your brother, did he?"
Leia shook her head, laughing as well. "No, he didn't. So he looks at me and tells me, 'I understand. When he gets back I won't stand in your way.'" She imitated Han's manner perfectly, as only a wife could.
This brought a fresh burst of laughter from Luke. Poor Han, trying so hard to do the noble thing!
"I finally realized we had our wires crossed, so I told him you were my brother. But that gets away from my point," she added hastily.
"Which is?" Luke asked, still chuckling.
"Han loved me enough to step back when he thought I was in love with someone else. But," she said pointedly, "if he had been right, I doubt he would have wanted to stick around and watch."
Luke grew serious again. "And you think that's what Mara did."
"I know that's what she did," Leia responded. Then she smiled. "Don't forget, I'm a Jedi-in-training. And I've been taught by the best."
Luke smiled, once again grateful to her. "What would I do without you--you always know just what to say to make me feel better."
Of course, he still didn't know where Mara was, and she was still going after Belsarios alone, despite his previous warnings. And he still had to talk to Callista before she left, though he wasn't yet sure exactly what to say to her. But at least now his feelings were clearer, less jumbled. Talking to Leia always helped him in that respect. When the time came, he'd find the right words to say to Callista.
And later, he hoped, to Mara.
Callista sighed, her heart heavy as she walked away from one of Quayn's employees, with whom she'd just made arrangements for a lift back home.
Home. Quite a euphemism for the slimy little mud hole on which she currently resided. In reality, she felt she had no home. Just as her spirit had remained detached from any physical body for nearly thirty years, so now her body remained detached from any sort of permanent home--at least until she regained her Jedi abilities.
But then what?
She knew what she wanted the answer to that question to be: she wanted her home to be with Luke. Being with him these past few days as he recovered only reminded her of that.
But something was different. After so many years apart, she had thought being near him again would be so wonderful. Not that it wasn't--it just seemed a little...well, empty.
As if the distance were still there.
Of course, it could have been much worse. Her greatest fear was that he would have forgotten all about her in the intervening years, but that wasn't the case. He was just...distant.
It must be because she was leaving again. He had known right from the beginning that her visit here was just that-- a visit--and that she would be returning to her quest as soon as he was well. And that was something she felt very guilty about. Something that she had felt guilty about for a long time. It had been her decision to separate herself from him while she was still searching for her lost talents. Her decision alone--hadn't he told her time and time again that he wanted to be with her, Jedi or not? But as much as she loved Luke, she couldn't love him more than the one thing that had gotten her through those long years trapped inside a computer.
It killed her not to be able to touch it, to feel it around her. Some day, she was certain, she would find the key, and the Force would be with her again. But in the meantime, was it really fair to Luke to keep him waiting indefinitely?
No, it was not.
Which is why she had to tell him he needed to move on without her.
Callista sighed again. The thought of telling Luke that, of him not being a certainty in her life hurt almost as much as her loss of the Force. But the key word was "almost." When she boiled it all down to the most important thing in her life, the Force was first and Luke was second.
Screwing up her courage, she headed through the smuggler's complex to the medical wing where Luke was having some final tests done before he and his family went back to Coruscant. He smiled at her as the Drall doctor tapped on his knees and shined a glowrod in his eyes, checking for any lingering effects of the coolant poisoning. She waited in the back of the room.
"Amazing," the Drall was shaking his head. "I've never seen such a quick recovery. You're almost back to one hundred percent. Certainly well enough to travel."
"The Force has some pretty amazing healing aspects," Luke told him. He hopped down off the examining table and grabbed his cloak as he joined Callista at the back of the room.
"Let's take a walk," he said seriously. "I could use a little fresh air after being cooped up on ship in hyperspace for six months."
She nodded, following him out of the medical wing and across the complex to a small garden. For a while the walked together silently, each absorbed in their own thoughts.
Summoning her courage, Callista took a deep breath. "Luke," she began, just as he turned to her and said her name.
They both laughed, at ease with each other for the first time since Luke awoke.
"Go ahead," he told her.
"Luke," she tried again, "I just want you to know how sorry I am that things can't be different. I have to do this--I have to keep searching until I regain my contact with the Force."
"I understand." He smiled at her gravely.
Callista took a deep breath. Now the hard part. "Luke, it's been a very long time, and sometimes I think I'm no closer to finding the answer."
"But you will, Callista. You will be a great Jedi once again, I know it," he said with intensity.
"I hope so," she replied, "but what I'm trying to say is I don't think we should lay all our hopes on that." She took another deep breath. "I think we need to let go of each other. This hanging on is not fair to either of us."
She braced herself for his protest, but none came.
"I think you're right," he said quietly.
Callista looked at him, suddenly feeling a little alarmed. She had expected him to fight her on this, or at least to give some resistance. But if anything, he looked a little relieved.
He was planning on telling me the same thing, she thought wildly and felt her resolve melting away. It was one thing to be firm for his sake, but quite another to find that he'd already made the decision himself. It was then that she realized how much she depended on his faith in them. And she wanted to take it all back.
But Luke was already talking. "Seven years is a long time, Callista. I think I knew a long time ago that you wouldn't be back. At least, not to me."
A long time ago. Callista wanted to grab him and shout that they would be together--just wait a little longer! But she had said that hanging on was not fair to either of them, and his agreeing with it didn't make it any less true.
Tears came to her eyes and she turned away, ashamed. "I didn't think this would be so hard," she said softly, biting her lip. She felt his arms encircle her.
"I'll always love you, Callista," he said softly. "Just not in the same way I thought I would."
Callista turned back to him and looked into his clear blue eyes for a moment, then hugged him fiercely. "And I, you, Luke." Then she gave him a small kiss and left him quickly, before she started crying. This had definitely been harder than she had expected.
And for the first time since she discovered the loss of her powers, Callista was glad she was, for all intents and purposes, non-existent to the Force. That way, Luke couldn't sense her emotions.
Their return to Coruscant was much more exuberant than any of them had imagined. Chief of State Fleghan had assembled most of the Senate to meet them there, right at the port. He was the first one to step forward when they disembarked from the Lady Luck, stepping forward and embracing Leia so tightly Han thought the Calamarian was going to crush his petite wife.
"Madame Chief of State, so good to have you home!" he said warmly.
"I believe that title is yours now," Leia responded. "Without the 'Madame,' of course."
"And General Solo, Ambassador Skywalker. You have been greatly missed."
Han nodded briskly, hating all this attention. He felt like he was back on Yavin 4 receiving his award for helping Luke blow away the first Death Star.
"And this must be Captain and Lieutenant Dale," Fleghan was saying. "As Chief of State to the New Republic of this galaxy, we welcome you."
The formal greetings went on until Han felt himself getting quite anxious. "Uh, Mr. Chief of State, I hope you'll understand if we're anxious to get home. It's been a very long trip," he said quickly as he tried to round up his children.
"Of course, of course," the Calamarian answered. "But I'm afraid I have an urgent request for you."
"Leia, I know this has been a very hard time for you and your family," Fleghan began, "but I must ask this. You've heard of the Imperial attack on Honoghr?"
"Admiral Ackbar is already there trying to help them recover, but you are the only person they truly respect and trust. You and Master Skywalker, that is."
"We just got back," Han started to protest, seeing where this was going. But Leia, ever the diplomat, cut him off.
"Of course I'll go. Give me a day to settle back in, and I'll be ready to leave."
"Thank you, Leia. You--all of you--have been sorely missed."
The formal greetings and requests over, the group of weary travelers headed towards the speeders that were waiting to take them back to the Imperial Palace. Once he was settled inside one of them with Leia and their three children, Han lit into her. "I thought you were going to let Ackbar take care of things for a while!"
"I thought you wanted me to go!" Leia countered.
"I just wanted to get the hell off that moon!"
"Han, Luke's better now, and you know he and I are the only ones--"
"So let him go! He's the ambassador, remember? You...you're just a private citizen. Like me."
Leia laughed, shaking her head. "The day either one of us is just a 'private citizen' will be the day of our funerals." She took his arm. "Han, I have to go. I was the one who brought the Noghri to the New Republic in the first place. It really should be me."
Han sighed and leaned back into his seat. Back for barely half a standard hour and it was already as if they'd never left.
The first thing they did upon returning to the Imperial Palace was visit Lando's wife, Tendra, and their new baby, Han Risant Calrissian. He was a beautiful boy with huge brown eyes, creamy coffee-colored skin, and a mop of curly black hair on his head.
"He doesn't look like a Han," Luke said laughing.
"Of course not, he's not ugly," Lando returned, elbowing Han in the ribs.
"Hey, I'll have you know I was the most beautiful baby ever born on Corellia," Han said quickly, giving Lando a crooked smile and holding his finger out for Han Calrissian to wrap his own tiny hand around. Almost as beautiful as Jaina, Jacen, and Anakin had been. Almost.
After leaving the Calrissians', the next order of business was finding a place of residence not only for Tom and Ally and their kids, but for himself and his family. Now that Leia was no longer Chief of State, they would no longer be living at the Presidential residence. Luckily for all of them, there were several elegant suites available in the Imperial Palace right near the apartments he and Leia used to occupy when she was a mere minister of state, and about two floors up from the apartment Luke kept for his stays on Coruscant.
Bone tired from travel and anxious to call any place home, the Dales were quite pleased with their new accommodations. Leia even arranged for them to have their own 3PO protocol droid, but she first made sure that it had never been an interpreter. They were well aware of the conflict between C-3PO and Ally over their mutual area of expertise.
Early the next morning, true to her word, Leia departed for Honoghr, reminding Han of just how much time he and his wife had spent apart since their marriage. He had gotten spoiled over the past six months, getting to see her every day and he missed her immediately. Chewbacca also left about an hour after Leia. Whereas Han had enjoyed spending the last six months with his family, Chewie had been away from his. So in the space of an hour, Han's wife and his best friend were gone.
But there was plenty for him to do: he had promised Tom he'd introduce him to Wedge and see if they couldn't find a place for him with the Rogues.
The meeting went quite well. Of course, Tom didn't have quite enough training yet to earn a full-fledged position in Wedge's squadron, but Wedge set him up for two weeks of intensive training, after which he would be able to apply for a position with the Rogue Squadron. If he did well, as Han expected he would, Wedge would give him a commission allowing him to retain his Terran rank of Captain.
The next order of business was getting his kids re-registered at the school they had been attending before their little six-month long odyssey. He brought Ally with him so she could get her children signed up, as well. Surprisingly, Threepio's tutoring had been adequate enough to keep his children current, and Aaron and Casey had done so well in learning Basic and their other classroom lessons that they tested average for their age: Aaron was placed a year behind Jaina and Jacen, with Casey two years behind Anakin, just where their ages indicated they should be.
All in all, the Dales seemed to quickly acclimate to their new home. Only Ally still seemed a bit out of place--the New Republic didn't have any need for human interpreters, and she had insisted that she did not want to be a pilot because someone had to take care of the kids. Han could relate: though he had retained his title of "General" received during the war, he really was at heart just an old smuggler. And a smuggler was as out of place in government as a Quarren out of water. Of course, Ally was still continuing Jedi training with Luke, but Luke himself was already quite busy with the demands of resuming his position as Jedi ambassador to the Senate, so training could not occur as regularly as either Luke or Ally would have liked. So Ally spent her time getting to know the Palace and the city, and studying various alien languages.
"You gonna be okay?" Han asked her one morning a few days after their return to Coruscant. Tom was out doing his training and Leia was still on Honoghr, so Han had gone to check up on his new sister-in-law.
"I'm fine, really," she said quickly. "I just feel a little out of place, that's all. It's strange, really. I'm the one who was born in this galaxy, yet I seem to be the one who finds it the most difficult to adjust to."
"You'll find your niche, Kid," Han said playfully. "Besides, raising Jedi children is a full time job. Trust me, I know."
Ally laughed. "And I thought being a mom was hard when your kids couldn't levitate things and talk to each other in their minds."
"At least you can share that with them," Han groaned, shaking his head. "Sometimes I feel like an outsider in my own family. All this Force-sensing going on and I'm completely in the dark."
Ally nodded thoughtfully, then said, "You and Leia are separated a lot, aren't you?"
"Yes. The trip to and from Earth was quite a change for us. I can't remember the last time we spent more than a week at a time together before that."
"It must be very difficult, striving to create a new government," Ally replied. "So much turmoil. You know, my last assignment before all this happened was to interpret for a group of Russian pilots. They come from a country that is going through a similar struggle--they had only recently ousted one form of government and were trying to rebuild almost from scratch."
"Believe me, the last thing I ever thought I'd be doing was be part of the building of a government. I'm a smuggler, not a politician."
"But Leia is a politician."
"Yes," Han agreed. "See what love drags you into?"
Ally smiled. "Like poor Tom. Married to an extra-terrestrial and he didn't even know it."
"Yeah, but he seems to be adjusting pretty well."
"Oh, he thinks he's died and gone to heaven," Ally snorted. "He loves the idea of space travel and all the things that go with it."
"But you don't?" Han asked.
"No, it's not that I don't. I find it all very fascinating. I just feel, I don't know, out of place. It's funny, really, my whole childhood I felt like I was different because of Gamiel and the things he taught me, so when I left home and went to the Air Force Academy, I made a conscious decision to really become a part of that world. I threw myself into American culture, even adopted a new religion. And now I have to leave it all behind, so I feel left out once again."
"I don't think you have to leave it all behind," Han observed. "I mean, sure I'm married to a politician and I've accepted military commissions and I've lead a pretty respectable life for a smuggler, but ask anyone. I'm still a Corellian, still a smuggler. Not even Leia can change that."
"I doubt she'd want to."
"Right," Han agreed, "she wouldn't. And no one wants you to change, either. Keep your religion, keep your culture. Just make it work for you here."
Ally cocked her head for a moment and looked at him in a manner that reminded him very much of Leia. "You're pretty smart for an 'old smuggler.'"
He laughed. "Smugglers have to be smart or they end up dead."
"Well, don't get cocky yet. Belsarios is still out there somewhere. If he has his way, we'll all end up dead."
"We won't let that happen," Han said firmly, suddenly feeling serious again. "The Empire is dead. And it's gonna stay that way."
"To the rebirth of the Empire!" Belsarios and Pellaeon clinked their glasses of Verrat wine together, celebrating their first victory.
"You were right, Vice Admiral," Belsarios said jovially, "Honoghr was a wonderful place to start. Good practice, no casualties, and the New Republic is rushing all over themselves trying to prove they're still in control."
"Well, they still are, sir," Pellaeon observed.
"But not for long," Belsarios growled. "Before they've even finished licking their wounds on Honoghr, we'll be proceeding with our next attack. Hopefully it will be our last before the Annihilator is ready."
Pellaeon took a sip from his wine. "Have you decided where that will be?"
"Yes, actually, I have. It's another rather unmilitarized planet, very primitive natives, but it is very important to the stability of the New Republic. Besides which, it will be quite a personal blow to our 'friends'." He still hadn't gotten over his anger at hearing that somehow Skywalker and his friends had managed to survive and make it back to Coruscant.
"Which planet is that?"
"Think about it, Pellaeon. It's the home planet of one of them.'"
Pellaeon though for a moment. "Well, Alderaan is already gone, so it can't be that. And I doubt you'd have any interest in Tatooine, it's too far out on the Rim."
Belsarios nodded, "You're on the right track.
"No, no, not Corellia. That whole system is crawling with New Republic military after the recent events there."
"Then I'm at a loss," Pellaeon admitted.
"Of course you are, because you're thinking like an Imperial officer, not a rebel."
"The planets you've named are all inhabited primarily by humans, so naturally you'd think of them first. But remember, rebels don't think like we do. They allow aliens to retain equal status in their government."
"Mon Calamari, then?"
"No, they are also too well fortified. Remember they survived an attack from both your Grand Admiral Thrawn and the reborn Emperor himself."
Pellaeon nodded, thinking. Then a smile spread slowly across his wide face. He took another sip of wine. "You're talking about the Wookiee, aren't you?"
Belsarios raised his glass in triumph. "Congratulations, Vice Admiral, you have won the prize. You will get to lead our next attack: Kashyyyk!"
Leia sighed deeply as her diplomatic ship, the Alderaan, began its slow descent into Coruscant's atmosphere. She had done what she could, but there wasn't much to be done: the damage on Honoghr was great.
The Noghri were courteous as always, but she could see that the strain of having a battle centered over what little inhabitable land was left on their planet was very trying. Through much negotiating, she got them to agree to remain part of the New Republic and promised emergency funds to help them repair the damage.
When her ship finally landed, she came quickly down the ramp and was surprised to see the Falcon sitting on the pad nearby, and Han waiting for her. His face looked very grave and impatient. Leia also noticed Luke was standing a little ways behind Han, and in the distance his X-wing, also looking as if it were being prepped for flight. She knew instantly that something was very wrong.
"What is it?" she asked worriedly.
"We have to go," Han said, his voice a little hoarse. "It's Kashyyyk--the Imperials have attacked Kashyyyk."
Chewie's homeworld! Leia gasped, "Oh Han, I'm sorry! What are we doing about it?"
"Fleghan's already contacted Ackbar and got him to head there straight from Honoghr, and Wedge and the Rogues have already left. And we're going, right now."
Normally Han didn't like for her to jump from one mission to another with no time for rest between, but this was personal-- this was his best friend's home.
"Of course. The kids?"
"Ally's taking care of them," Han replied quickly. "Tom's flying with the Rogues, by the way. Passed his test."
"That's good," Leia said a little numbly. "And what about Luke, is he coming to Kashyyyk, too?"
At the mention of his name, Luke stepped forward. "No, Leia, I need to go back to Yavin 4. This is something the Jedi need to be involved with. Belsarios uses the dark side, like Vader and the Emperor. Using the light side against him will be crucial to victory."
"Of course," Leia nodded. Reaching up, she gave her brother a tight hug. Any word from Mara? she asked him in his mind.
Luke gave his sister a wan smile. No, and quit worrying about me. Mara will be back when she's good and ready. But Leia sensed his anxiety. He was afraid that she would try and go after Belsarios alone.
Releasing him from her grasp, Leia said aloud, "I'm sure we'll win this one, all of us. May the Force be with you."
"And you," Luke gave her a small, jaunty salute, hugged Han briefly, then trotted off towards his waiting X-wing, where Artoo-Detoo was already being loaded.
"Come on, let's get some help over to Chewie," Han said taking her arm gently. They quickly strode towards the Falcon, where Leia was surprised to see Lando waiting in the cockpit.
"Lando!" she cried, "What are you doing here? You've got a new baby to look after!"
"And I've got a friend who needs my help," Lando replied grimly. He was almost as close to Chewbacca as Han was.
"Okay, then let's get going. You did get all the necessary clearances, didn't you?" she asked her husband.
Han gave her a wide grin. "Hey, it's me."
Leia groaned. "That's what I'm afraid of."
"Oh boy, it looks worse than I thought!" General Wedge Antilles groaned from the cockpit of his X-wing as he and his Rogue Squadron burst out of hyperspace over Kashyyyk. There were at least five capital ships, including an Interdictor and a strike-class, and a whole mess of TIE fighters everywhere. On the planet's surface below them he could see some spots that glowed, probably fires caused by AT-ATs or AT- STs or some other form of land attach vehicle.
"Rogue Squadron, this is Rogue Leader," Wedge said briskly into his comlink. He liked the feel of that name--as a General he didn't often get to fly with his beloved squadron, inherited from Luke after the Battle of Hoth--but when he had accepted his General's commission, it had been with the provision that he be allowed to fly with the Rogues when it suited him. And this was just such a time, with his friend Chewbacca's planet under attack. "Lock X-foils into attack position," he continued to his pilots, "Let's see if we can't deflect some of that firepower away from the planet."
One by one, the Rogues checked in, including his newest pilot, Captain Tom Dale, Rogue Twelve. Then they dove in for attack.
At first, things went very well: they had the TIEs on the run and the capital ships were being kept busy with Admiral Ackbar's fleet, fresh in from hyperspace. Which meant there would soon be more fighters joining them.
"Group up in formation, Rogue Squadron, we have help coming!" Wedge called out. The fighters, who had scattered to take on various TIEs, regrouped around Wedge.
"Okay, I want to take a go at one of those ships. Let's start with the strike-class."
"That looks like the Force Storm," he heard Tom say over com.
"Even better. Let's go for it!"
He dove in towards the 450-meter-long ship, the eleven other X-wings in formation around him, when suddenly he came to a lurching halt.
"What was that?"
Wedge looked frantically at his readouts. "Tractor beam!" he cried. But that was impossible, how could a tractor beam hold twelve fighters?
"X-wing Squadron, you are surrounded. Surrender immediately or be destroyed," came a harsh voice, cutting in over their com channel.
"This can't be!" Rogue Four exclaimed.
"I think I know what happened," Tom Dale said softly.
"What is it, Rogue Twelve?" Wedge asked as his mind swiftly ran over their options. It didn't take long: there weren't any.
"It's that Vader disk. He's been using it to amplify weapons capability, ship speed, all kinds of things. Even got ahead of us coming back from Earth."
Wedge groaned; they should have thought of that ahead of time. Now it was too late: the whole squadron was being pulled in together towards the strike-class' hanger bay. Wedge made his decision.
"This is Rogue Leader. We're going to surrender." For now, he added softly to himself.
Han pulled the Falcon out of hyperspace above Kashyyyk, only to find the battle was already over. Ackbar's fleet was parked in orbit above a planet that even from this distance looked battle-scarred. The ships themselves also looked battle-scarred, but there were no enemy ships in sight.
He hailed Ackbar's Command Ship, Home Two. "Admiral Ackbar, this is General Solo. What happened? Did we win?"
"I'm afraid not, General," he heard the course voice of the Calamarian reply. "The planet has sustained quite a lot of damage and twelve of our fighters were captured before they broke off the attack and jumped back to hyperspace."
"Twelve?" Lando whistled. "How did he capture twelve fighters?"
"The consensus is he had a tractor beam that was being partially amplified by energy from that Vader disk. He was able to hold the entire Rogue Squadron in a tractor beam at one time."
"Rogue Squadron!" Leia cried out in alarm. "Are you saying he captured the entire Rogue Squadron, including Wedge?"
"Yes, including Wedge," Ackbar confirmed gravely.
"That means Tom was captured, too," Leia said to Han. "This is going to be rough on Ally, she's already having a hard time adjusting to her new home."
Han nodded at his wife, then turned his attention back down to the planet below. "Admiral," he said into the comlink, "if we're not needed up here, I'd like to lend a hand planetside."
"Of course, General," Ackbar replied.
Han ended the transmission then set course for Kashyyyk. "I only hope Chewbacca and his family are all okay."
By the time they returned to their base, Belsarios was fairly glowing with triumph. The rebel fleet had been unable to stop them, and they had managed to capture twelve--twelve!-- fighters. A most wonderful day in the rise of the New Empire.
As soon as they returned, Belsarios had the twelve rebel pilots thrown into holding cells. Let them get good and nervous before interrogation. And oh, how he was looking forward to interrogation! His favorite drug to use was one that caused a great deal of pain--sometimes prisoners even developed a fatal reaction to it, known as toxin sickness. But this was a small matter, really. These people were merely fighter pilots, of no real use to him except for their information and to parade around in front of the so- called New Republic leaders to make them feel awful. Although there were two prisoners that interested him. One was the husband of that Terran Jedi woman. Not likely to know anything useful, but as family to the rebel leaders, he could be quite valuable. The other was the leader, General Antilles. He had been part of both Death Star attacks, Belsarios remembered, and was a close personal friend of Jedi Skywalker and his family. And he would be much more likely to know some good, useful information. Yes, the General would have to be first.
About ten hours after their arrival, Belsarios sent for Antilles. While he was waiting, a communications officer approached.
"Excuse me, my lord," he began.
"What is it, Commander?" Belsarios demanded impatiently.
"Vice Admiral Pellaeon has sent a message from the SSD Annihilator. Reconstruction is almost finished and the ship should be ready for next week's attack on Sullust--" He stopped suddenly, and Belsarios looked behind him. Two stormtroopers had just brought General Antilles into the room.
"That will be all, Commander," Belsarios said quickly. "Tell the Vice Admiral I will be in contact with him.
He then turned to his prisoner and studied him for a moment with a light Force probe. Had he heard what the comm officer had said? If so, he was hiding it well. And in the end, it didn't really matter. He was, after all, a prisoner.
"General Antilles, it is quite a pleasure to have such a distinguished officer as my guest."
"The pleasure's all yours," Antilles quipped. Well, that was good, wouldn't be interesting if he didn't have any fight in him.
"Now, General, let's make this easy. I'd hate to have to put you at risk to toxin sickness..." he paused dramatically. "Tell me, General, what do your leaders plan to do about me and Vice Admiral Pellaeon?"
"Antilles, General, oh-six-seven-one-nine," Antilles spouted, droid-like.
"I see," Belsarios smiled. "Well, I suspected as much. Aren't likely to make the rank of General if you're one to cave in easily, now are you?"
"Antilles, General, Oh-six--"
"I heard you the first time, General," Belsarios sneered. He stood silently a long while, considering his next move. He tried another Force probe, but for some reason he was having no luck reading this man. Perhaps Antilles had spent too much time around Jedi and had just built up natural defenses. Belsarios didn't know if that was likely, or even possible, but he was getting nothing out of the stoic pilot.
"Now where were we," Belsarios said at last, his voice even and calm. "Ah yes, I remember, you were about to tell me a little bit about Coruscant's defenses."
"Antilles, General, oh-six-seven-one-nine."
Belsarios smiled. "It is of no concern, General. You will be of use to me one way or another." He walked across the floor before his prisoner, hands clasped together thoughtfully. "I think I'd like to do a little broadcast over the holonet for all your friends on Coruscant," he said amiably. "You and your squadron are to be the stars of the show. Actually, you'll be more set design than anything else, but I'm sure you will be quite the stars in their eyes. I want your feeble New Republic government to see who is in control here. What do you think of my idea, General?"
"Antilles, General, oh-six-seven-one-nine."
"I'm glad you like it, General, I knew you would be pleased. It will be on a wide band to make sure everyone sees it. You'll have to wave and say 'hi Mom' to the folks back home. Oh, on second thought," Belsarios put on his most sorrowful expression, "maybe that would not be such a good idea. But I do think it would be nice if you looked your best. And that would be hard to do after undergoing interrogation, don't you think?"
"Antilles, General, oh-six-seven-one-nine."
Belsarios sighed. "Very well, General." He motioned with his hand, allowing the interrogator droid to come forward, needle extended....
The first round of interrogations over, Belsarios and Pellaeon sat down to discuss the results. There were none to speak of, though at least one of the men had developed toxin sickness.
"This is the legendary Rogue Squadron," Pellaeon pointed out, "you didn't really think you'd get anything out of them?"
"No, of course not," Belsarios waved dismissively. "But I still don't even know if Antilles overheard that idiot commander blathering about the Annihilator and Sullust."
"My fault, my lord, I told him it was important."
"Yes, but those troopers should have been more careful before they brought him in."
"Maybe he'll think it was done on purpose, a trap," Pellaeon commented.
"Perhaps. But it is of no importance, he won't be communicating with his allies any time soon." He leaned forward in his chair. "But I want to discuss a way I think these pilots can be of use to us."
"Yes, my lord?"
"I want to strike another demoralizing blow to the rebels. I want to make a broadcast over the holonet, and I want all twelve pilots lined up behind me. I want to remind them just who they're dealing with."
"Some of the pilots have toxin poisoning," Pellaeon reminded him.
"So much the better to upset their leaders. I want you to set it up for tomorrow morning, after all of the prisoners have been interrogated."
"Yes, my lord."
"And then I want to have a conference about the attack on Sullust."
"Then we are proceeding, in spite of the possibility that General Antilles overheard."
"I told you, it is of no importance. Sullust will be an excellent maiden voyage for the Annihilator, and a blow to the rebels on many levels. Remember, Sullust was where the rebel fleet massed before the Battle of Endor."
"And is the home of the SoroSuub Corporation," Pellaeon added.
"Of course, the SoroSuub Corporation. It'll be an economic blow for the New Republic to lose it."
"Very well, my lord, I will arrange the broadcast and a war council with all your top officers."
"Thank you, Vice Admiral. And it seems I have a speech to write."
Captain Tom Dale paced restlessly back and forth in his cell, frustrated. His first battle with his new commission and he'd already been captured. Captured!
But at least he had survived the interrogation--and a rather brutal interrogation it was. He found himself wishing for the Geneva Convention. But he had precious little to tell, being so new to the galaxy, and Belsarios knew that, so he had made it through relatively unscathed.
Another who had managed to come through interrogation in pretty good shape was his commanding officer and cell-mate, Wedge Antilles. The first commanding officer he'd ever had that insisted on being called by his first name.
"Tom, you're gonna wear yourself out pacing around like that. Why don't you take it easy?" Wedge advised.
Tom sat down next to him on the cold metal floor. "Sorry, sir. I'm just a little restless. Isn't there anything we can do to get out of here?"
"I know what you mean. We've got to find a way to let Coruscant know about that Super Star Destroyer and the attack on Sullust."
"Are you sure that wasn't just a decoy, sir?"
"No, I don't think it was. Belsarios tried really hard to probe me to find out what I knew, but I managed to keep it to myself. It may be just a hunch, but I think what I heard is true."
Tom nodded. "What the hell is a Super Star Destroyer, anyway?"
Wedge grimaced. "It's a very very large capital ship with a hell of a lot of firepower and fighter-carrying capabilities. They could control quite a few systems with that kind of firepower."
"And they have one here?"
Wedge nodded, "They're rebuilding one, anyway."
"Do we even know where here is?" Tom asked.
"I saw the navicharts before we landed. We're on a planet called Wayland. This once was the Emperor's storehouse--we never even knew this place existed until about ten years ago."
"So how do we send back our location and the other information?"
Wedge looked thoughtful. "I know Belsarios wants to do some kind of broadcast with us in the background. Typical bragging stuff. If we can think of some way to use that..."
"I don't know, it sounds like a trap to me."
"No, it isn't. I may not be a Jedi, but I've been a soldier for a long time."
Tom nodded, but didn't know if he could be of much help- -he was still so unfamiliar with a lot of the galaxy's technology.
Without warning, the hatch to their cell opened, and a third pilot was pushed roughly into the room.
"Gotta new roommate for you," the stormtrooper guard that had pushed him said. He then stepped out and resealed the hatch.
Tom and Wedge moved to the man who was lying on the ground. Tom recognized him as Captain Chave, a young human native of Coruscant. He remembered hearing that his parents had been civil servants under the Empire, but when he was a teenager he defected to the Alliance during its first raid on Coruscant.
Now he was only half conscious and his body was twitching violently.
"What's wrong with him, sir?" Tom asked Wedge.
The general bent over his young officer giving him a quick once over. "Looks like toxin sickness," he said pressing his lips together.
"It's from the chemical they use for interrogation--which is a euphemism for torture, by the way."
Tom nodded in agreement.
"Some people can't handle it, and their neurons get permanently screwed up. It's called toxin sickness." Wedge carefully took off his flight jacket and made a small bundle out of it, placing it under Chave's head.
Tom shook his head. It never ceased to amaze him the new ways they could come up with to inflict pain. In that, sadly, this galaxy was no different from his own home planet.
"Is there anything we can do for him?"
Wedge shook his head grimly. "Just make him as comfortable as possible. Chave's got it pretty bad; he can't even sit up. Mostly people with toxin sickness can still stand and walk around, but their brains aren't working right. And their hands move around like that."
Tom grimaced as he watched what was left of his former comrade wave his arms around and chatter his teeth together. It definitely looked painful. Though in a way, the movements reminded him...
Tom froze. "Hey Wedge, who's going to be seeing this broadcast of Belsarios'?"
"Probably everybody. Why?"
"Then you think Ally will see it?"
"Probably," Wedge nodded slowly. "Do you have an idea?"
Tom smiled. "I just might. Give me all the information we need them to know. If we can make sure I'm in the shot when he broadcasts, I think I can get a message back to Coruscant."
Leia trudged through the hallways of the Imperial Palace, exhausted. She, Han, and the others had just returned from Kashyyyk, leaving Chewbacca--himself and his family unhurt but very, very angry--behind to help salvage the battle-torn planet.
Not all the others had returned, however. A whole squadron captured! she thought angrily.
Including her new-found brother-in-law.
Which is why, exhausted as she was, Leia had to see Allia.
Her sister was in her new apartment, just putting her children to bed when Leia arrived. She waited in the living room until Ally came out.
When she did, Leia thought she looked even more tired than Leia herself felt.
"Ally, I'm so sorry," she said softly, hugging the other woman.
"I know," Ally replied wearily. "I just can't believe this. He's never been remotely close to being captured or shot down or anything in all the time he served in the US Air Force. Then he comes here and serves for--what, a week? And he's captured."
"It's the disk," Leia told her with a little more anger in her voice than she intended. "It amplifies everything that man does! His Force skills, his ship's speed, his interdiction field, his tractor beam capabilities..." she trailed off.
"Leia, please tell me the truth," Ally turned to her, brown eyes pleading, "what do they do to prisoners of war here? Are they under any kind of protection? Are they tortured? What's going to happen to him?"
Leia paused before answering. She considered a "diplomatic" lie, but rejected that immediately. This was her sister, and with the Jedi training she'd already received, she'd know Leia was lying anyway.
"It depends. On the one hand, Belsarios knows who Tom is and must know he hasn't been in this galaxy long enough to know anything useful, so I can't imagine he'd have any reason to do any prolonged interrogation. But then...well, you met him."
Ally shivered, and Leia knew she had no reason to hold out for hope of any kind of mercy.
Leia started to say something else, but she heard a commotion out in the hallway. Reaching out with the Force, she tried to determine what was going on out there, but she only got a sense of confusion and hurry.
Might as well do this the old fashioned way, she thought to herself. Opening the front door to Allia's apartment, she stepped into the hallway and stopped a young page running by.
"Excuse me, what's going on?"
"Oh, Madame Organa Solo!" he cried, looking a little ruffled. "Apparently Belsarios is beaming in some kind of wide- spectrum broadcast."
Leia thanked him quickly, then turned back to Ally. "Come on, I think we'll need to see this."
The two women, leaving the children in the care of the Dale's 3PO-model droid, hurried downstairs and across the Palace to the main Senate Chambers, where the broadcast was already being projected into the center of the room. Also in the room were Admiral Ackbar, Chief of State Fleghan, Han and Lando with See-Threepio and Artoo- Detoo, Mon Mothma, and a handful of senators. Luke was absent--probably still on Yavin 4.
Though they had missed the beginning of the broadcast, it was easy to pick up on its general gist. A large image of Belsarios, dressed in his elaborate red cloak, boasted of his accomplishments at Honoghr and Kashyyyk, and of the capture of the "rebel" squadron, which stood in view behind him.
"We've been the ruling government for the better part of fifteen years now, and Imperial hopefuls still refer to us as 'rebels,'" Mon Mothma whispered tersely to Leia.
"Are we tracing the broadcast?" Leia asked back.
Mon Mothma shook her head. "They're trying, but apparently it's being routed all over the galaxy. We haven't been able to find an origination point."
Leia felt a tug on her arm and remembered Ally was still beside her.
"Leia, what's wrong with Tom?"
Leia frowned, looking at the broadcast. At first it was hard to tell which one was Tom, but then she found him, standing in line next to Wedge.
Leia's heart sank. His arms were twitching uncontrollably.
"What's wrong with him?" Ally asked again, the edge of panic forming in her voice.
"It looks like toxin sickness," Leia answered softly.
"A reaction to the chemical they use in interrogation."
"Okay," Ally said, obviously fighting to stay calm. "Does it last a long time? Is it painful? Will he be all right?"
Leia didn't know what to say. Toxin sickness was almost always permanent and eventually fatal.
"Leia, is he going to be all right?" Ally demanded more firmly. A few of the senators turned their attention towards them.
"It's usually permanent."
"Oh my God," Ally said under her breath.
Han, having noticed the commotion, joined them.
"Hey, Ally, let's get out of here," he said, flashing her his best lopsided "everything's-okay" grin. "You don't want to listen to this guy bluster on about how he's gonna be the next Emperor. Let's go get some coffee or something."
"I don't want coffee, I want my family back!" Ally shouted, a bit too loudly. Now most of those present were looking at them.
"Come on, let's talk outside," Leia said, and she and Han ushered the frightened Terran out of the room.
"Stop it!" Ally fairly screamed when they were out of the Senate Chambers. "Stop treating me like a child!"
"We just didn't want to make a scene," Han explained. Leia knew instantly it exactly the wrong thing to say.
"Make a scene!" Ally snapped. "In the last three months I've had my father kidnapped and killed, my children kidnapped, been shot at, watched part of my home town disintegrate, been yanked away from the only home I've ever known, seen my husband captured, and now I'm told he has some kind of poisoning or sickness that's got him twitching like an epileptic, and it's permanent. I think I have the right to make a scene!"
"Of course you have the right to be upset--" Leia tried, but Ally didn't let her finish.
"Upset? Upset? My life has been nothing but one disaster to another from the moment I met you people!"
Leia cringed as her sister turned on her heel and started off back in the direction of her apartment. She started to go after her, but Han held her back.
"Leave her alone, Leia. She needs to deal with this her own way."
Leia looked up at her husband. "She's right. She's our sister, but I can't say knowing us has improved her life any. I wish Luke were here, he'd probably know the right thing to say."
Han hugged her gently. "I don't think there is a right thing to say. I think we just need to let her be. She'll be all right." He looked down at her. "Don't forget--she is a Skywalker." * * * * *
Allia returned to her apartments, slamming the front door as hard as she could. At least the living quarters in the Imperial Palace had regular doors that swung on hinges! The commotion she created brought out the rattled 3PO droid.
"Mistress, is there any assistance I can offer?" it said in a grating metallic voice.
"No! Just leave me the hell alone!" she shouted viciously.
Ally whirled around as she heard the small voice. In the doorway to their bedrooms stood Aaron and Casey in their pajamas. Casey looked near tears, while her older brother had a protective arm around her.
"Is everything okay, Mom?" Casey asked, her lip quivering.
Ally immediately felt awful. The situation was bad enough without frightening her children on top of it. Of course, it had always been Tom's even disposition that kept her from losing her temper too much in front of the children.
And Tom wasn't here.
She quickly kneeled down, sweeping both children into her arms.
"I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to scare you. I just--I miss Daddy, that's all."
"But he's coming back, right?" Aaron asked her.
How was she supposed to answer that? "Yes, honey," she said finally. "He'll be back as soon as he can." She debated telling them that he was sick, then decided against it. At least for now.
Pulling back, she tousled her children's blond hair. "Why don't you two go back to bed. I'll read you a story, if you'd like."
Casey looked up at her with big brown eyes. "Mommy, should we pray for Daddy?"
Ally embraced her daughter again, tightly. Out of the mouths of babes... "Yes, sweetheart, let's do that. I think that's a wonderful idea."
She lead the kids to Casey's room, where they all knelt beside the bed.
"Why don't you start, Casey?" Ally prompted her daughter.
Folding her small hands under her chin, Casey began: "Dear God, please take care of my Daddy who is fighting bad guys. Please let him come home soon, 'cause we miss him."
Tears welled in Ally's eyes, and she hoped her children wouldn't notice.
"God bless Daddy and Mommy and Aunt Leia and Uncle Han, Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin. God bless Uncle Luke and Chewbacca and Threepio and Artoo and Mr. Lando and Miss Mara. And God bless the bad man in the red cape. Please tell him to stop being so mean to people. Amen."
Ally opened her eyes and looked at her daughter, astonished.
"Why did you ask God to bless the bad man?" Ally asked her.
Casey looked up at her and frowned. "Mommy, aren't we s'posed to pray for our enemies?"
Ally was speechless. Suddenly she remembered a verse from Matthew: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Casey was right. Finally, she hugged her again, and Aaron, too.
"Yes, Casey, you're right. You're a very smart little girl." She kissed her on the forehead. "Now you and your brother need to go to sleep, okay?"
"Okay, Mommy. I love you."
"I love you too."
She tucked her daughter in for the second time that night, then took Aaron to his room and tucked him in as well. She then returned to the living room and sat down on the couch, her head in her hands.
It had taken her six-year-old daughter to remind her what was important. She suddenly felt ashamed of they way she had exploded at Leia and Han. None of this was their fault. In fact, if they hadn't have shown up on Earth, Belsarios would have killed them all.
Ally sighed, then following her daughter's lead, she did something she hadn't done since she left home--she folded her hands and began to pray.
"Father, I don't know if you're even out here, this far from home, but I really need you. Forgive me for being so horrible to Leia and Han, who've been nothing but helpful. And forgive me, too, for wanting revenge on Belsarios. Help me to be like Casey: 'unless you change and become like little children...'
"But most of all, Father, please be with Tom. Please heal him from whatever kind of sickness he has, and bring him home safely. Bring all of the pilots home safely."
She looked up, feeling a little better.
Now, if only her prayers would be answered.
It was very late, and most of the living beings had gone to bed after hours of examining Belsarios' message. C-3PO also wanted to power down for the night, but Artoo had volunteered himself and Threepio--without the taller droid's permission, of course--to continue to go over the recording and look for anything that might help them find where Belsarios was broadcasting from.
"Really, Artoo, we've been over this recording thirty- seven times. I'm quite sure that if there was something to find, we'd have found it by now. Besides," he added, putting a touch of sadness into his voice synthesizers, "I don't think I can bear to watch poor Master Tom and his toxin sickness."
Artoo beeped back at him sharply.
"What do you mean, Master Tom doesn't have toxin sickness? Are your visual receptors damaged? You saw the way he was twitching. Classic toxin sickness."
His short companion whistled indignantly.
"Is that so, you poor excuse for a sail barge servant! I think I know the signs of toxin sickness when I see it."
Another indignant-sounding hoot came from Artoo.
"Yes, of course I know that!"
Artoo beeped and whistled.
"Pattern, what pattern?"
Threepio replayed the message for the thirty-eighth time, this time watching Master Tom carefully. If they'd been able to, his visual receptors would have widened and his vocal output would have dropped open. "Why, Artoo, Master Tom doesn't have toxin sickness at all! I just knew there was something not right about his seizures! We must see Mistress Allia right away!"
He started off, but Artoo let out a long whistle.
"Of course I realize what time it is, but I'm sure Mistress Allia would want this information right away!" He hurried off, his smaller companion trailing behind him.
At Mistress Allia's door, he rang the ringer and waited. Finally, their 3PO droid-- a really very shabby version of what a 3PO model should be, Threepio noted--answered the door.
"All residents of this domicile are currently sleeping. You are requested to return tomorrow--"
"We must see Mistress Allia right away," Threepio interrupted impatiently.
"All residents of this domicile..." the other 3PO unit repeated.
Artoo hooted rudely, cutting off the servant droid again.
"Language like that will get you nowhere," the 3PO unit snapped huffily. Then Threepio heard a voice behind the droid.
"What is going on out there, you droids could wake the dead!"
At the door behind the 3PO droid appeared Mistress Allia.
"Oh, Mistress Allia, thank the Maker! I've made an important discovery--"
Artoo's long series of angry beeps cut him off.
"I hardly think that's relevant," Threepio chided his associate, but amended his speech anyway. "We've made an important discovery--"
This time it was Mistress Allia who cut them off. "Threepio, I'm really not in the mood right now. Would you please just go away?"
"But Mistress Allia," Threepio protested. "We believe Master Tom is not ill after all."
The human women had been in the process of closing the door on them, but she stopped it in mid-swing. "What do you mean, he's not sick?"
"Artoo-Detoo and myself have been reviewing the recording of the broadcast, and it seems that Master Tom's convulsions are not consistent with the seizures caused by toxin sickness."
Artoo whistled in agreement.
"Not consistent how?" Mistress Allia asked, clearly losing what little patience she had.
"Well," Threepio began, "toxin sickness is a neurological reaction to the chemical used in interrogation. It produces seizures and convulsions that can vary greatly in degree of seriousness, from small tics and jerking movements in the hands and arms, to full- blown seizures in which the victim cannot even remain standing."
"Get to the point, Threepio, it's oh-three-hundred hours!"
Nonplused by the interruption, Threepio continued. "The convulsions are caused by permanent neurological damage sustained during interrogation, and are always completely random."
"And?" Mistress Allia prompted.
"Master Tom's movements, though they appear to mimic the convulsions of toxin sickness, were not random at all. In fact, if one is to look quite closely, one would notice very definite patterns to his arm and hand movements."
"Yes," the protocol droid replied, "his movements show clear patterns. One could even say they have a certain syntax."
At first the human woman looked confused, but then her eyes lit up as if they were made out of the same luminescent material as his own visual receptors.
"Syntax, of course!" she cried out. Then with a sudden movement that took Threepio completely by surprise, she grabbed his head and kissed him squarely on his voice-output unit. He almost fell backwards in his astonishment, while Mistress Allia then bent down and planted a similar kiss on the top of Artoo's domed head!
"You two are wonderful!" she cried as Artoo purred affectionately. Then she gazed upward and said, "Thank you, Lord!" Threepio looked up, but couldn't see who she was talking to. Obviously there was no one there, and no communication device either. He shook his head as Mistress Allia darted back inside to change out of her sleep clothing.
"I'll never understand the behavior of humans," he sighed to his small companion.
Han was awakened in the middle of the night to an insistent pounding on his apartment's exterior door. He and Leia were both up in a flash and at the door.
"Han, Leia, open up, it's me, Ally. I need to talk to you right away."
Han flung the door open and he and Leia peered out in the hallway to find Ally, fully dressed in a tunic, pants, and boots but with her hair wildly askew, standing in the hallway with C- 3PO and R2-D2.
"Ally, do you have any idea what time it is? We were up half the night trying to--"
She cut him off. "Han, Leia, I'm sorry about earlier. I shouldn't have snapped at you," she said excitedly, "but I need your help now. Threepio and Artoo say that Tom isn't sick after all."
Han exchanged glances with his wife. "What do you mean?"
"I think he was faking it. I have to see that message again."
"Ally, why would Tom fake toxin sickness?"
"Mistress Leia, toxin sickness is a neurological reaction--"
"Threepio, let's go with the short version," Ally interrupted the droid. Then to Han and Leia she said, "Please, I need to see that message again to know if I'm right. He may have been trying to communicate with us."
Han and Leia exchanged glances again, then Han opened the door wider and invited her and the droids in. They waited in the living room as Han and Leia quickly changed, then the five of them returned to the Senate Chambers to replay the recording of Belsarios' broadcast.
"Can you zoom in closer on Tom," Ally asked as Leia paused the image, "or will you lose too much resolution?"
"No, we can zoom in." Han motioned to Leia, who pushed a button on the holo projector's control panel. The picture magnified and focused in on Tom. Leia resumed play.
"There!" Ally cried suddenly, and Leia froze the recording again. "That's my name-sign!"
"What's a name sign?" Han asked, hoping she hadn't lost it.
"It's a sign for my name. Tom's not sick, he's signing to me!"
Han suddenly sat forward with interest. "Play it, Leia," he said, then watched the Tom closely. The jerky movements looked like toxin sickness to him, but Ally began joyfully translating.
"[Ally...don't worry...not...sick!.]..see, I told you he was okay! His signs aren't the clearest, 'cause he's doing them really jerky to look like he's convulsing, but he's definitely..." she broke off then and continued translating Tom's communication. "[Here...in...mountain...long-ago...king]--no wait, that's emperor, not king-- [emperor...make ...C-L-O-N-E-S.]"
"C-L--Clones?" Leia asked quickly. "He said there are clones?"
"He said the place where they are is in a mountain and it's where the Emperor made clones a long time ago," Ally explained, then looked back at the recording and finished Tom's sentence: "[World...name...W-A-Y-L-A-N-D.]"
"Wayland?" Han snapped, his eyes brightening. "Are you sure that's what he said?"
"Do you know any other place where they Emperor used to make clones?" Leia asked sharply as she slapped on a comlink built into the control panel. A gravely, groggy Calamarian voice answered.
"Mister Chief of State, sir, this is Ambassador Organa Solo. I'm sorry to disturb you so late, but I think we've discovered the location of Belsarios' base!"
"What?" roared the Calamarian, now sounding fully awake. "Are you certain?"
"We believe so, yes," Leia said quickly. "They appear to be on Wayland, where the Emperor used to have his secret storage."
"Leia, there's more," Ally interrupted her.
"What else does he say?" Leia asked looking up from the comlink.
Ally looked closely at the holographic image. "Something about plans and a big boat. I missed some of it, you'll have to play it back."
Leia quickly thumbed the controls to rewind the recording, then played it over.
"Looks like: [Bastard]--I think that's the name-sign he's using for Belsarios," she laughed. ".[..have...plan...use...big boat...S-S-D...one week...attack...S-U-L-L-U-S-T.]"
Han frowned. "Sullust? They plan to attack Sullust next?"
"It makes sense," Leia put in, "they went for political and emotional blows with Honoghr and Kashyyyk, the next step would be something with an economical impact, and the SoroSuub Corporation is rather vital to our economy. The only thing I don't understand is, Sullust has much better defenses than either Honoghr or Kashyyyk. How can he expect to be successful there?"
"And didn't you say something about a big boat?" Han asked Ally. "What does that mean?"
Ally wrinkled her brow, thinking. "I think he might have meant ship. Boat and ship are the same sign--there is no ASL sign for space ship."
A cold dread suddenly settled on Han as he realized what Tom was trying to say. "Did you say 'SSD' after 'big boat?' Han asked Ally quickly.
"Mm-hmm, he spelled out SSD. I don't know what that means."
Leia looked up in alarm. "Super Star Destroyer!"
"The NRI report Lando told us about," Han agreed. "They must be planning to attack Sullust with a Super Star Destroyer. When did he say?"
"Uh, I think he said in one week," Ally replied.
"Skies! Sullust would never survive an attack from a Super Star Destroyer," Leia said softly under her breath. She turned back to the comlink where Chief of State Fleghan was still waiting. "Mister Chief of State, I'm afraid the situation is worse than we thought. Belsarios is apparently planning to attack Sullust. We've got to go after him before he gets the chance."
"Stay there," Fleghan snapped over the comlink. "I'm going to call an emergency war council. Fleghan out."
Leia thumbed off the comlink. "Does he say anything else?"
Ally shook her head. "Just love to me and the kids, oh and [Qwi, General sends love .]"
Han smiled. Leave it to Wedge to make sure his wife knows he's thinking of her, even in prison. "We'll have to make sure she gets the message."
"Listen," Ally said to both of them. "I'm really sorry about earlier. I was just so upset. I shouldn't have taken it out on you."
"Don't worry, Kid, we don't blame you. Your life's been pretty much uprooted."
She nodded. "I really am grateful to know you--all of you. and I'm thankful that Tom's not really sick."
"And that he was able to send us that information. Very clever, really," Leia said with admiration in her voice. "No one but you would be familiar with that language. Makes a pretty solid code."
"So what now? Do we go after Belsarios at this Wayland place?"
Han raised his eyebrows. "Well, seeing as the Chief of State just called a war council, I'd say we're about to find out."
The room is dark, lit only by the glowing of two lightsaber blades. One is red; his own. The other is blue.
The two blades cross, humming with energy as they connect. He can see nothing else in the darkness, only the two blades.
As if under their own power, the two blades battle, until finally, the blue one disappears. Then the red blade slices through the darkness, making the final blow...
Malarin Belsarios awoke and sat up in his bed, his hand immediately moving to caress the one-third Vader disk that remained around his neck even as he slept.
It was a dream.
No, it was a vision. He had seen the future, he was sure of it.
Closing his eyes, Belsarios tried to recall the vision, but it did not come. Instead, he saw Coruscant, and the rebels having a war council. They are planning some kind of attack-- they know his location.
How? he thought, but the answer did not come.
Instead, he watched the vision closely. this was not the future, this was happening now. A war council on Coruscant, and they would be coming to attack him soon.
And not only that, some Jedi were coming.
That explained his dream. That was the future, his blade against another Jedi's. He couldn't see who's yet, but one thing was clear: his blade had struck the final blow. He would be victorious.
Rising from his bed, Belsarios prepared to summon Pellaeon out of his. They would have to be ready when the rebels attacked. And when the Jedi came.
Luke Skywalker arrived back on Coruscant, Jedi Master Kyp Durron and Knights Kam Solusar and Kirana Ti in tow, just in time for the war council. Leia had contacted him on Yavin 4, using an ultra-high level security code, to tell him that Tom Dale had managed to transmit the location of Belsarios' base. She would have used the Force, but as long as Belsarios had the Vader disk, that was riskier than even a normal subspace transmission.
Luke entered the Senate Chambers, his three former students following him. Looking around, he quickly found Leia; Han; Lando and his wife Tendra; Ally; and Qwi Xux Antilles, Wedge's wife, sitting together near the center of the room. Chewbacca, newly returned from Kashyyyk, had also just arrived and was currently squeezing the life out of Han. Luke made his way across the crowd and took an empty seat between his two sisters, who each hugged him fiercely before he sat down. He briefly scanned the room for any other familiar faces.
"Don't bother, she's not here," Leia whispered to him sympathetically.
Luke shrugged. "I didn't think she would be."
He then turned to Ally and Qwi, who was sitting behind her. "I'm sorry about Tom and Wedge," he said solemnly. Both females nodded grimly. "But I understand Tom's the reason we're here today," he added.
Ally managed a small proud smile. "He stood behind Belsarios and signed his whole plan to us."
Two tall Mon Calamari, Admiral Ackbar and Chief of State Fleghan, rose and stood in the center of the crowded room, and all became quiet.
"As many of you, no doubt, may already know," began Fleghan, his gravely voice rolling out over the group, "we now know where the New Imperials' base is--a largely unknown world called Wayland. This information was provided through the quick thinking of our newest pilot, Captain Tom Dale, who was captured with General Antilles' X-wing squadron; his wife, Lieutenant Allia Dale;" The Calamarian nodded in Ally's direction, "and the droids C-3PO and R2-D2. This information was confirmed by our New Republic Intelligence just under an hour ago.
"Also confirmed: Imperial Leader Malarin Belsarios is currently in possession of a Super Star Destroyer, the Annihilator, which he plans to use in an attack on the planet Sullust."
A low murmur crossed the room, as many in attendance had not heard that piece of news yet. Which was good, Luke thought. The last thing they needed was to advertise everything they knew.
Fleghan held up a fin and waited for the commotion to die down again. "Admiral Ackbar will now detail the course of action we will be undertaking. Admiral?"
Fleghan stepped aside, and his white-uniformed compatriot stepped forward.
"We have watched over the last several weeks as Commander Belsarios has pulled one surprise attack after another on unsuspecting Alliance worlds. We will no longer allow this continue. We will be taking a direct, full-scale attack on his base at Wayland."
An appreciative cheer arose from the crowd: though they cherished peace, most of the beings here were, at heart, warriors.
When the room had settled down, Ackbar continued. "This attack is going to be a three-pronged attack.
"First, our main fleet, led by myself, will be making a full frontal attack on the planet itself.
"Meanwhile, a small detachment, led by Lando Calrissian and Han Solo, will concentrate their efforts on the Annihilator, in orbit on the far side of Wayland from the base itself. Our current information shows it to be unfinished and its weapons non- operational, but as those of us who were present for the Battle of Endor will recall, our information is not always accurate."
Out of the corner of his eye, Luke saw Lando roll his eyes. "I'll say," the former smuggler muttered.
"We will go into this attack assuming that the SSD is fully functional and capable of a lot of damage," Ackbar continued.
"The third, and possibly most crucial prong of our attack is slightly more clandestine. We all know that Commander Belsarios is in possession of an artifact that once belonged to Darth Vader. This artifact, known as the Vader disk, has the capabilities of focusing energies, thus enhancing all weaponry, and even the Commander's own dark- side Force abilities. It is therefore absolutely crucial to the complete success of our mission to strip Belsarios of this disk.
"In addition to this, twelve of our top pilots, under General Wedge Antilles, were captured over Kashyyyk and are currently being held on Wayland.
"For these two reasons, we will be sending a small strike team into Wayland. With any luck, and if the Force is with us, the two massive attacks going on above the planet should keep the Imperials too busy to notice what's going on around them planetside.
"This strike team will be led by Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, and will consist of three other Jedi Knights."
"Excuse me, Admiral?"
A murmur rippled through the crowd as a human female voice interrupted the proceedings. Luke heard Ally gasp in surprise as he spun around so fast he almost toppled over his chair.
Leaning against the doorway to the Senate Chambers, stood Mara Jade.
She looked absolutely stunning--and deadly--her long red hair spilling loose over her shoulders. She was wearing a black tunic, covered with a flowing black cloak--the uniform of a Jedi.
"I'm sorry to interrupt, Admiral, but I was wondering if Master Skywalker was in need of another volunteer for this mission."
Ackbar chuckled quietly. "That would be up to Master Skywalker," he said, turning one goggle-eye towards Luke.
Luke found himself rising to his feet, unable to suppress a broad grin. "I would be honored," he said, bowing slightly.
From her post at the doorway, Mara bowed in return, the faintest trace of a smile edging the corners of her mouth. She then quickly took a seat by the doorway.
Ackbar continued outlining the course of action and the interruption was momentarily forgotten by all but Luke and his friends. As soon as they were dismissed, he jumped up from his seat and rushed over to Mara's.
Ally, however, was faster and before Luke was halfway across the room, Ally had tackled Mara in a huge hug.
"Mara! I'm so glad you're back!" Ally cried happily.
Mara returned her friend's embrace. "I'm so sorry about Tom," she said quietly. "We'll get him out, though."
Ally nodded, then stepped back. Luke stepped forward.
"It's good to see you, Mara," he said softly, reaching out to give her a quick embrace.
"Does this mean I'm forgiven?"
Luke frowned, puzzled. "Forgiven for what?"
"I said some things I shouldn't have. On the Edge."
Luke smiled, remembering. "How could I hold a grudge against you? You saved my life, after all."
"I'm..." she faltered. "I'm glad you're well."
"Thanks to you."
Mara only shrugged, and Luke went on: "I won't ask how you knew we'd found Belsarios." He then stepped back and appraised her outfit. "Nice clothes," he teased.
She spun around as if she were a model touting the latest Chandrilan fashion. "Like it?" she asked coyly. "I hope I'm not being too presumptuous. I just thought it-- appropriate for facing Belsarios."
Luke nodded. "It is appropriate--and not at all presumptuous. But I thought you wanted to deal with him your own way," he added seriously.
Mara shrugged, a wicked glint in her green eyes. "I figured if I were going to dress like a Jedi, I should probably behave like a Jedi. And I know how you Jedi are about teamwork."
"Speaking of Jedi," Luke said looking around him, "I'd better round up the others. We've got to get moving."
Mara smiled. "After you, Master Skywalker."
The fleet was ready to leave within the hour. Admiral Ackbar himself was leading everything from his flagship, Home Two. Both Leia and Allia were with him. Not long after the command ships made the jump into hyperspace, they were followed by the Millennium Falcon, which held Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, and Chewbacca and was leading a squadron of X- and Y-wing fighters.
Just before they made their own jump, Han contacted a small freighter that was just leaving Coruscant. "May the Force be with you."
"Thanks, Han," came Luke's reply. He was piloting the freighter, with Mara, Kyp Durron, Kirana Ti, and Kam Solusar. Soon they, too, made the jump into hyperspace.
And into battle.
The rebels were in hyperspace. Lord Belsarios felt it the moment they had made the jump. But Pellaeon was already orbiting the planet in a Star Destroyer, with several other capital ships under his command. And on the other side of Wayland orbited the SSD Annihilator, ready for its attackers. And then there were the Jedi.
He would be ready for them all. * * * * *
Wedge sat in the corner of his cell, huddled close to Tom Dale. "So you understand the plan?"
"Got it," Tom said, though Wedge sensed some uncertainty.
"Is there a problem, Captain?"
"Well, sir, if you don't mind my saying, it's not a very good plan."
"No, I don't mind," Wedge grinned. "I know it's not a good plan. But one way or another, we're getting out of here." * * * * *
Luke sat back in the freighter's pilot seat, stretching as they entered hyperspace. He turned to Kyp, who was in the copilot's seat.
"You ready for this?"
The other Jedi Master nodded. "My first mission as a Master," he said.
Luke smiled and patted his friend on the arm, then turned around to face the others seated behind him: Kirana Ti, Kam Solusar, and Mara Jade. "Everyone know what to do?"
The all nodded--they had been over it several times already.
"Good," Luke said. "We've got to be careful--practice keeping your thoughts close to you, so Belsarios won't sense us coming."
"Oh, he already knows we're coming," Mara put in, almost casually.
The others looked at her, alarmed.
"Did you really think we could slip past him?" she asked them. "He may have low-level abilities on his own, but with that disk, he's almost as powerful as the Emperor was. He's known from the beginning about this whole attack."
"Then what are we doing this for?" Kirana, the Dathomirian warrior, demanded explosively.
Luke looked steadily at Mara. "Because he's not invincible," he replied.
"No," she agreed. "And he's overlooked something. I don't know what it is, but he's overlooked something important. It might even be this team," she said, her arm indicating the others seated around her.
"Regardless of what Belsarios may or may not know, we are Jedi," Luke said calmly and insistently. "We are Jedi united, and I know all of you have experienced the power of the Jedi united."
They each nodded in agreement, then Kyp stood up from his copilot's seat and stretched. "I'm gonna grab something to drink from the galley. Anyone care to join me?"
Luke didn't know whether it was something pre-arranged by Kyp--who must have surely sensed Luke's desire for a quick moment alone with Mara--or whether it was just a happy accident, but Kam and Kirana both followed Kyp, while Mara remained.
Luke leaned back in his chair. "You know," he began, "you left Quayn's place before I got a chance to thank you."
Mara shrugged, not meeting his gaze. "I lost track a long time ago of who owed whom in the life-saving department."
Luke chuckled. "True," he said, "but that's not all I wanted to thank you for. I understand you're the one who found Callista."
She glanced up at him, but only for a moment. "Yes." She paused, her eyes looking around as if searching for Callista right on this ship. "I take it since she's not here that she was unable to stay."
"She hasn't found her way back to being a Jedi yet," Luke replied evenly. "It's a path she feels she must take alone."
Mara did look up at him this time. "I'm sorry, Luke," she said, and he could hear the genuine sympathy in her voice. "I'm sure she'll find what she's looking for soon, and then she'll be back."
"I hope she will find what she's looking for, but whether she does or not, she won't be back," he said slowly. "At least not to me."
Now Mara looked up sharply, her eyes narrow. "What does that mean?"
"It means Callista and I have accepted the fact that we are not meant to be. And it means that I'm not in love with her anymore."
Mara stared at him for a full thirty seconds before speaking. "You mean I took two days out of my life to find her and bring her to see you for nothing?" She folded her arms and gave him her fiercest look, but Luke could detect a note of humor in her voice.
"I thought you did it because you felt guilty about what you said in the lounge," he returned, smiling. "Actually, it wasn't for nothing; it's always good to see old friends. And I really needed to see Callista, to clarify my feelings. I've suspected for a long time that my feelings towards her had changed, but I think I needed to see her to know for sure. We both needed the closure."
"So glad I could be of service," Mara quipped. "That's just why I went out of my way--so you could have closure."
Luke grinned. "Why did you do it, Mara?"
She sighed, looking down again. "I don't know. The doctor said the thing you most needed was to be surrounded by the people you care about."
So Leia had been right. Luke looked at Mara, his blue eyes very serious. "Then why didn't you stay?" he asked.
Mara again looked at him sharply, but before she could answer, Kirana Ti came back to the small cockpit and took her seat beside Mara. Mara quickly turned her face away from Luke, and he could feel her put up her barriers again. If it was the last thing he did, he promised himself, he was going to bring down those damned barriers.
"We coming out of hyperspace soon?" Kirana asked, unaware that she had interrupted anything.
Luke swiveled around to face the controls again. "Should be there in another fifteen minutes," he replied. "I'd better get Kyp and Kam back up here." He thumbed on the ship's intercom and called for the two men to return to the cockpit. There would be time to finish his conversation with Mara later.
Assuming they both survived the mission.
Ally sat next to Leia on the bridge of the huge Mon Calamari star cruiser, Home Two. She stared around her in awe: the ship was bigger than anything she could have imagined: certainly bigger than Han's pride, the Millennium Falcon, or the Gambler's Edge, or even the Imperial strike-class ship she and Mara had escaped from, the Force Storm. This ship was like an entire city in space, (or hyperspace, to be exact) headed off to battle.
Her stomach clenched nervously. Her first real battle. Though she had flown many different missions while a pilot for the Air Force on Earth, she had never been in an actual battle. Here she was not piloting, but she had been given an important job just the same. Due to her perfect audio memory, she was given the task to monitor all frequencies, listening for leaks in the Imperial defenses.
"We're about five minutes from the jump back to real space," Leia told her. "You ready?"
Ally nodded, rubbing her leg nervously. She thought of her children on Coruscant, left in the care of Leia's most trusted aide, Winter. "I'm just thinking of my kids back home," she told her sister.
Leia looked at her oddly.
"What?" Ally asked her.
"Do you realize you just said 'back home?' That's the first time you've referred to Coruscant as home."
Allia smiled. She was right. "Tell you what: I'll consider anything home if Tom and I are both there, alive and well with our children."
Leia smiled and pat her arm. "We'll make it. The Force is with us."
Han was sitting in what had to be his favorite spot in all the galaxy: the pilot's seat of the Millennium Falcon. Chewbacca was beside him at copilot, with Lando Calrissian behind them. It would be perfect if only Leia were with them.
And, of course, if they weren't about to go up against another dark Jedi.
Chewbacca purred nervously.
"You just be ready for action as soon as we get out of hyperspace. I have a feeling this isn't going to go as smoothly as Ackbar would like to think."
"You're getting jumpy," Lando chided from behind.
"I'm not jumpy, I've just 'been there done that'," Han replied, borrowing an expression he learned from Ally. "This Belsarios character may be no Emperor, but he's not exactly the Saccorian Triad, either."
"Don't forget my wife's a Saccorian," Lando snapped back playfully.
Chewbacca growled at them, trying to stop the bickering, but Han knew it was just pre-battle nerves. Any minute they'd be jumping out of hyperspace and the battle would begin.
"I just hope Ackbar's crew has them so surprised they don't have time to notice us," Lando put in.
"Something tells me we're not gonna be that lucky." Of course, Leia was on Ackbar's ship, so the idea of too much attention being drawn that way wasn't really all that appealing to him anyway.
An alarm went off, jolting Han. He looked over at Chewbacca and took a deep breath. "Okay, pal, this is it. Let's take her out of lightspeed."
The universe around Home Two flared into starlines, which quickly reduced down to pinpoints of light. The armada had arrived.
To be greeted by an impressive Imperial armada that was already firing on them.
"Battle stations!" Ackbar commanded from the bridge as troops scrambled to their guns or fighters. "How did they know we were coming?" he asked of no one in particular.
"The Vader disk," Leia fairly hissed. "It's just like the Emperor--he knows our every move."
Not that there was anything to be done about it now: the battle was joined.
X-wings, Y-wings, A-wings, and B-wings came pouring out of the hangers of the larger battle ships, even as Imperial TIE fighters dove out to greet them.
Alarms screamed as Ally tried to hear the communications coming from her comm panel over the racket, as the Admiral shouted orders.
"Red group, head for sector RT-92. Gold group, take the K3-7 sector..."
"Admiral, enemy fighters approaching vectors C through G..."
"Incoming ion torpedoes!"
"Starboard shields up full!" the Admiral roared.
A blinding flash of light flared across the main viewport, which quickly darkened to protect the eyesight of the crew inside.
Outside, New Republic fighters joined Imperial TIE fighters in vicious dogfights.
"Gold Two, this is Gold Five. You've got two incoming at point oh-one."
"Copy Gold Five. I'm on 'em."
"Red Seven, you've got one on your tail!"
"I can't shake him!"
"I'm on him, Jank! Hold on!"
Leia leaned over Ally's shoulder, listening. "We've obviously not surprised anyone," she said. "I hope we're at least providing a good diversion away from Han and Lando's team."
Han breathed a sigh of relief as the starlines faded into stars and he found himself in empty space. No waiting enemy ships, no fighters attacking them. The only other signs of life above the surface of Wayland was the fighters from their own squadron appearing around them as they came out of hyperspace.
"So far so good," he breathed.
Chewbacca snorted derisively.
"Would you rather they were screaming down our necks?" Han shot back. He quickly checked his sensors. There, at point one-seven, was a large blip that could only be one thing: the Super Star Destroyer.
Slowly guiding the Falcon into a graceful turn, Han grimaced as he saw the ship actually come into view. It was huge, reminding him of Darth Vader's flag ship, the Executor, which had been destroyed in the Battle of Endor.
But it was completely unprotected.
Chewbacca had a pretty strong opinion about that.
"I have to agree with Chewie on that one," Lando said suspiciously. "I find it hard to believe they'd leave the thing completely unguarded."
"Maybe they all heard about the battle on the other side of the planet and ran off to join in," Han said hopefully. But he, too, thought he smelled a womp rat. You didn't leave an unfinished Super-class ship completely unprotected unless you were an amazing idiot. And Belsarios, as much of a son of sow as he was, did not strike Han as an idiot.
Han got on the comm system and contacted his squadron. "Looks like they've made it easy for us," he said, "but let's not get too over-confident. It looks like a trap."
"I agree, sir," came the voice of Blue Leader, the head of the fighter pilots accompanying them. "How do you wanna play it?"
Han thought for a moment. "Let's just go in slow and easy-like. As soon as we get close enough, open up your guns."
They flew slowly towards the mammoth ship, when suddenly Chewbacca barked out a warning.
"What kind of energy fluctuations?" Han queried. Then he stopped short.
"Pull up hard!" he commanded over the comm unit to the rest of the fighters, even as he did so. The fighter pilots all must have had pretty good reflexes.
"What happened?" Blue Leader asked.
In a second, he had his answer.
The Annihilator began firing.
Malarin Belsarios watched his viewscreens with delight, Vice Admiral Pellaeon at his side.
It was all going according to plan. Exactly as he had foreseen it.
Above his base, a huge Imperial armada was attacking the rebel fleet and pounding them mercilessly. Meanwhile, the Annihilator had fired its first shot at its would-be destroyers. True, it wasn't at full power, but it was strong enough to blow a small modified freighter and some fighters out of the sky.
Now only one thing remained: the Jedi.
And Mara Jade was with them.
Mara Jade felt a knot in the pit of her stomach as they entered the atmosphere on the dark side of Wayland. Memories of the last time she was here, to destroy Grand Admiral Thrawn's cloning facilities and to face the insane Jedi Master Joruus C'baoth. She watched Skywalker's back as he piloted the ship down, wondering if he was feeling the same way. Actually, she didn't have to wonder. She could feel his apprehension.
But when she had faced C'baoth, she had had very little training in her Jedi skills. And Skywalker had not yet been a Master. So she had every reason to believe if the Force had been with them then, it would be with them now even more so.
Except Malarin knew they were coming. Knew she was coming.
So she tried her best to keep her feelings deep down inside of her, so as not to call attention to herself in the Force. Malarin may know they were coming, but he didn't need to know exactly when and where. He might not even expect them for days, thinking they'd have to put down in the jungle far away from the actual base.
But like her, Skywalker had remembered their last trip here, and their long trek through the jungle. Rather than do that again, he was planning to put down right at the base of the mountain. A seemingly stupid move: what they gained in surprise they lost in lack of stealth, but then it might just be the thing needed to throw Belsarios off guard.
And she needed him off guard when she faced him.
Ally listened closely as the battle raged around her. Whenever she could, she called out positions to the Admiral. She would listen carefully to the chatter between Imperial TIE fighters, and before long she could decipher their code and give precise locations and maneuvers planned.
"Admiral, two TIE's planning to hone in on vector TE-17!" she called out.
"Concentrate shield power in sector TE-17!" the Mon Calamarian responded.
"I'm after them, Home Two," came the voice of one of their fighter pilots.
"Watch it, you've got one on your tail Gold Leader!"
"Get him off me!" cried Gold Leader in response, but he was too late. Ally winced as she heard him scream into his comlink, then static as a fireball erupted outside.
Then the ship lurched, knocking people and aliens alike from their seats. They'd been hit.
"Concentrate on forward shields!" Ackbar growled. Two more fireballs erupted outside the viewport, and the ship pitched to the side again, nearly throwing Ally from her seat.
"We can't hold out much longer," Ackbar said gravely to Leia. I hope Han destroys that Super Star Destroyer soon!"
"Blast, this is like the Battle of Endor all over again!" Lando cried to Han as they watched blaster fire flare out from the giant ship. Fortunately, the energy build-up had given it away, and all ships had pulled up in time to avoid getting fried. But they wouldn't be so lucky the next time.
"I knew it was too good to be true," Han groaned.
But Chewbacca was more optimistic.
"Not the same how?" Han queried him.
Chewbacca barked a quick reply, pointing at the energy readings.
"You're right, Chewie. That didn't put off as much energy as an SSD usually would. That looks like just a little more than a regular Star Destroyer's firepower."
"Which is just so much better," Lando snapped sarcastically.
"But if that's true, then it must not be fully operational. That'll give us a shot at getting in there after all." Han turned to Chewbacca. "Let's dive in as fast as we can. Maybe we can get in under their blasters' range and do some damage."
Chewbacca roared his approval.
"Blue Team, we're going in, top speed."
They had made it inside the mountain base with surprisingly little difficulty, which made Luke extremely suspicious.
"It's too quiet," Kyp said softly, echoing Luke's sentiments.
Luke nodded, but motioned them forward. Trap or no trap, they had a job to do. Two jobs, really. First they had to find and free Wedge's squadron, then they had to destroy the Vader disk.
The five Jedi made their was quietly through the ventilation tunnels in the side of the mountain, Mara leading the way. Though they had destroyed the mountain ten years ago and everything here had been completely rebuilt, Mara still had an uncanny knowledge of Imperial facilities, and Luke was not surprised when she found her way around easily. The first thing she found was a computer terminal. Quickly removing the grill above it, she jumped down into the dark, empty hallway below and began punching in a code number--where she got it, Luke was afraid to ask. From there, she got into the main schematics program and called up a map of the facilities. Unfortunately, their two goals lay in opposite directions.
"I think we should split up," Kyp recommended. "Why don't I take Kam and Kirana and get to the detention level, and you and Mara can go after the disk in the command center."
Luke nodded. "Good idea. You know what to do?"
"Then may the Force be with you, Master Durron."
"And with you, Master Skywalker."
With that, the five Jedi separated.
Luke closed his eyes and concentrated on the disk, and was surprised to find his focus drawn to three distinct locations.
"I don't think the disk is all in one piece," Luke frowned, opening his eyes.
Mara nodded in agreement. "He's got it split into thirds. One on the east side, one on the west, and one up in the Throne room."
Luke felt her shudder at the mention of the Throne room, and he was sure she was remembering their battle with C'baoth there.
"It'll be okay," he comforted, his hand on her shoulders.
Mara shook her head slightly as if to shake it off. "I know. Let's get going. Which way first?"
"Let's start east," he pointed, and they headed off.
Kyp Durron led Kam Solusar and Kirana Ti through the maze of ventilation shafts until they reached the one he was looking for.
The one above the detention area.
Carefully looking through the ventilation shaft down to the floor below, Kyp watched as four stormtroopers patrolled the hallway below.
"There's four of them," Kyp whispered to his companions.
"Perfect," Kirana whispered back, smiling.
Silently, Kyp pulled a blaster out of his holster. He would have preferred a lightsaber over a blaster, but lightsabers didn't have stun settings.
Kyp and Kam stood on opposite sides of the grating covering the shaft. Kyp waited until the troopers were all facing away from them, then motioned to Kam.
With a mighty push, Kam used the Force to knock the grill out of place, while Kyp jumped nimbly to the ground below. He fired at two of the stormtroopers before they could even turn around to see what was happening. He then spun to face the other two, but Kirana Ti, hanging upside-down through the opening, had already taken care of them.
So far so good.
Quickly, the three Jedi levitated the four troopers up into the ventilation shaft, then took three of their uniforms and changed into them. Kirana was a little small for hers, but it would have to do.
Again checking to see that no one was around, the three "stormtroopers" dropped back into the hallway. Using the Force, Kyp replaced the grill and they headed down the hall to the main control room of the detention hall.
They entered the control room together to find four more troopers standing guard.
"Commander Belsarios has requested the rebel prisoners be taken for interrogation," Kam said, making his voice as deep as he could.
The leader of the guards looked at them through his plasteel helmet. "Which prisoners?" he asked suspiciously.
"All of them," Kam replied without missing a beat.
"All of them?" the leader repeated incredulously. "Where are your transfer orders?"
"Right here!" Kirana cried as she pulled out her blaster and shot him.
Before the other guards could react, Kyp and Kam had their lightsabers out and humming. They deflected the shots the surprised stormtroopers fired at them, then Kyp neatly sliced through the trooper closest to him, while Kam took out the other. Kirana, meanwhile, got off another round of shots with her blaster and managed to dispatch the third guard.
"Well, that made a lot of noise," Kyp commented, surveying the damage. "We'd better make it quick."
They rushed down the hallways, opening the first cell they came to. Three New Republic pilots, two of them shaking with toxin sickness, were inside.
"We're Jedi Knights, here to rescue you," Kam announced proudly as Kirana rushed in to try and help the sick pilots. Kyp and Kam then moved onto the second cell.
Kyp keyed it open, and Kam entered, only to be jumped by an orange-clad figure. Kyp immediately recognized General Wedge Antilles.
"Wedge, wait!" Kyp cried out, even as his cell-mate rushed at him. Using the Force, Kyp deftly leapt aside and let the man rush past him into the hallway. Then Kyp quickly removed his helmet.
"Wedge, it's Kyp Durron! We're here to rescue you!"
Wedge looked up from Kam, surprised.
"Kyp! Wow, I'm sorry! Who'd I hit here?" he indicated the groggy form beneath him.
"Kam Solusar," Kyp replied, kneeling down beside his friend. "Kam, you okay?"
Kam sat up, rubbing the back of his head. "I think so," he said through his helmet. "You pack a mean punch, Wedge."
"Sorry. Guess I picked a bad time to plot an escape."
Then Wedge's cell-mate joined them, and Kyp recognized him as Luke's new brother-in-law, Captain Dale.
"Hey, you're Captain Dale, right? Great idea using that sign language to let us know where you are. Ackbar's got a whole armada attacking out there."
Dale gave a slow smile. "Then it worked?" He looked a little amazed. "I wasn't sure if Ally would understand the signs, I had to do them really jerky to make Belsarios think I was just sick."
Kirana Ti then joined them with the one healthy pilot from the previous cell. "We've gotta get a move on. It's gonna be slow work moving the sick men," she said.
Kyp nodded, then he and the others continued down the hall, opening cells, until all twelve pilots were free. Four of the twelve, however, were quite ill with toxin sickness.
"We're going to have to carry them to the ventilation shaft," Kyp said. "Let's just hope we don't run into anyone on the way."
But even before the words were out of his mouth, they heard someone calling from the direction of the control room: "Hey, what's going on in there?" Without waiting for an answer, shots rang out down the hallway.
The three Jedi and eight healthy pilots quickly dove for cover, dragging their sick companions with them. Kyp, Kam, and Kirana drew their lightsabers even as they passed their more conventional weapons on to some of the other pilots.
The fight was on.
High above Wayland's atmosphere, the battle between Ackbar's forces and Pellaeon's Imperial defenders thickened.
Dozens of dogfights raged around the huge Mon Calamarian Cruiser as Ackbar continued to monitor from within, shouting orders.
"We've been on the defensive since we arrived here," Ackbar bellowed. "It's time we take the offensive!" He swiveled in his chair and began barking commands to his pilot and navigator. "Set us on a course for that Star Destroyer--we're going to engage her directly!"
"Aye sir!" the pilot responded, then followed his commander's instructions.
"Ready ion cannons on my mark!...Fire!"
Two cannon blasts rang out from Home Two, and flared out towards the Imperial Destroyer ahead of them.
"Shields took most of the impact, but we've weakened them, sir," one of the sensor technicians informed the Admiral.
"Ready to fire again," replied the Calamarian.
Han had just started the Falcon in its kamikaze dive toward the Annihilator when his comlink crackled.
"Commander, fighters coming in at point two-three!"
"Take your Y-wing team and engage them. Try and keep 'em off our backs while we make a run for the ship," Han snapped back, not slowing his dive at all. "Get ready to fire, Chewie!"
Chewie made a short guttural roar as he kept his hands on the trigger controls. But before they were in position, three TIE fighters roared in front of them, blocking their shot.
Chewbacca fired reflexively, taking out one of them in an instant. The other two TIE's fired back, and Han found himself pulling the Falcon into an evasive maneuver.
"Stang!" Han cried out, borrowing a curse from his wife's homeworld. He slapped his comm controls. "Blue Leader! Get these TIEs off me!"
"Copy, Commander. Blue Two, Blue Seven, peel off and take out those fighters tagging the Falcon."
Han felt two Y-wings zip past him, going after the TIE's tailing his ship.
"Let's try to make another run for that Destroyer."
In the Throne room of his base on Wayland, Belsarios smiled. Ackbar's armada had scored some token hits on Pellaeon, and the Annihilator's first shot had not produced any casualties, but these were small matters.
In his mind's eye he saw two lightsabers clash: red against blue. It was time to call for his young challenger.
Luke and Mara were heading through a narrow ventilation shaft on the east side of the mountain when Mara suddenly stopped short.
"What is it?" Luke asked, though he already knew. He couldn't hear the words, but he could feel the power in the Force concentrating around Mara.
"It's no good," she shook her head. "He knows we're here." She turned and gazed at Luke, her eyes glassy. "He's got one of the three pieces of the disk. He's wearing it," she told him.
"We'll deal with that when--"
Mara cut him off with a wave of her hand. "No. I have to face him. Now. You go on to the other two parts and destroy them. Once they've been destroyed, the piece he has won't matter anymore. He's so busy focusing on me, I don't think he really knows you're here."
"We'll face him together," Luke insisted desperately.
"No. I have to do this, you know I do. It's my destiny, just like facing Vader was yours."
Luke looked at Mara and sighed. He was afraid for her, but he knew she was right. "Okay. I know you're right, but please remember--"
"Yeah, yeah," she cut him off impatiently, "anger and aggression are the dark side. I know."
Luke grabbed her by the shoulders. "Mara, this is serious! You were able to fight me without letting loose your anger--you have to do that again, now! If you don't, you will become just like him. And like Vader and like the Emperor."
Mara appeared to be startled by his sudden intensity. "Okay, I understand. I'll try."
"No. Do or do not. There is no try."
Mara stiffened her back. "Then I will do it," she said crisply.
Luke slowly released her shoulders. "May the Force be with you."
Mara smiled. "Thank you, Master Skywalker." For the first time he could remember, the phrase wasn't a taunt--there was a hint of actual respect in her voice.
She turned to go as Luke struggled to control the fear that was rising in him. If either of them were unsuccessful, this would be the last time he'd ever see her.
"Mara!" he called out suddenly.
She was halfway through an opening that branched into another vent shaft. She turned back to look at him, waiting.
Luke swallowed and looked directly into her eyes. "I love you."
Mara's eyes widened in surprise. "What?"
For one dizzying, terrifying moment, Luke thought she just might kill him after all. He started talking again, his words coming out in a rush: "I love you, Mara. I have for a long time. Please be careful, I don't want to lose you--"
He was cut of suddenly when in two long, fluid strides she moved back to his side and kissed him with such intensity he almost fell over backwards. He reached forward, his arms encircling her neck , pulling her closer to him. It was almost intoxicating: her taste, her smell, her sense pouring open to him. He clung to her almost desperately, afraid to let go.
Then all too soon, it was over, and Mara pulled away. Breathless, she gazed into his eyes one more time, then without saying a word, turned back towards the branch opening and was gone.
To face her destiny.
The three Jedi and eight healthy escapees fought valiantly, trying to keep stormtroopers from advancing into the cell area. But there were too many of them, and they wouldn't be held off for long.
"We've gotta go up!" Kirana shouted at Kyp over the din, pointing upwards, even as she used her lightsaber to deflect a green energy bolt.
Kyp nodded. Summoning the Force, he leapt upwards, his right arm holding his lightsaber outstretched. It lodged into the ceiling even as Kyp's body swung over and attached itself to a water pipe protruding from the wall and running the length of the hallway. Hanging on tightly with his legs and left arm, he used his right arm to guide the lightsaber in a smooth arc, cutting out a large circle in the ceiling above. As it started to give way, he used the Force to push the freshly-cut panel upwards so it would not crash down on his companions fighting below. That accomplished, he slid along the pipeline until he was directly below the opening, which led to another ventilation shaft. He deftly pulled himself inside, then leaned back out again and motioned for the others to follow.
He saw Wedge look up at him. "How are we supposed to get all the way up there?" he cried.
"We'll help you," Kyp answered, indicating Kirana and Kam.
While some of the X-wing pilots fired cover, Kirana and Kam worked together and gently levitated the others--starting with the four ill ones--one by one up to Kyp, who pulled them into the vent shaft. When only Wedge and Tom Dale were left, Kyp jumped down again. He grabbed a blaster and sprayed a wide volley of fire in the direction of the control room, while Kam and Kirana quickly floated the two remaining pilots up to the shaft.
Once they were all safely inside, Kam nodded to Kyp, who sprayed one more volley of fire out towards the advancing stormtroopers while Kirana and Kam deftly leapt up into the gaping hole. Dropping his blaster, Kyp vaulted after them as the stormtroopers rushed the hallway. As soon as he cleared the opening, Wedge ducked out of it with a blaster and rained fire down upon the enemy. He managed to get a few of them before Kyp pulled him back in.
"Come on, we've got to get out of here before they bring a ladder and come after us!"
As quickly as they could while carrying four sick men, the band of fifteen started off down the long shaft.
Han cheered as he managed to finally score a hit on the mammoth ship. But his cheer quickly faded as Chewbacca reported that the deflector shields had absorbed most of the blow.
"Well, the shields can't hold forever," Han said.optimistically. "Let's concentrate on the--" He was forced to break off as two more TIE fighters roared after them.
Quickly pulling the Falcon into a steep dive, he pulled out behind the fighters and began firing. He caught one of them, but the other evaded him.
"I've had about enough of these TIE fighters. We need to take them out before taking another crack at that Destroyer," Lando advised.
Han agreed, and he pulled the battered freighter away from the Imperial ship and entered into a dogfight skirmish, blowing a TIE fighter off Blue Three's back, but not getting to another in time to stop it from destroying Blue Five.
Another comrade lost.
Chewbacca howled a rage-filled Wookiee war cry, and Han joined him, pulling the ship up to engage another TIE fighter. It looked like it might be a long battle.
Mara dropped down from the vent shaft into a dark, empty storage room. It was a room very similar to the storage hold on the Gambler's Edge where Skywalker had set up his mini-training facility--large and empty, with the exception of a ring of catwalks that encircled the room five meters above her head. This was where the Force had lead her.
"All right, Malarin," she called aloud and through the Force. "I'm here. Let's get on with it."
Behind her she heard a movement. She quickly whirled around to see her adversary clothed in his flowing red cloak.
"Mari, so impatient." he cackled gleefully. "But then, you are right. The time has come for us to meet each other, face to face."
Mara smirked. "I thought you preferred it face to back."
He ignored her jibe. "There's still a chance for you, Mari. You don't have to die. I renew my offer to accept you back into the fold, my prodigal sister. You could rule the new Empire at my side."
"There will be no new Empire," Mara retorted sharply. "And you will be dead."
Malarin smiled at her wickedly. "No, my dear, I'm afraid that is not my destiny. It is for me to strike the final blow--I have foreseen it."
"Just like the Emperor foresaw his victory at Endor?" Mara quipped.
"The Emperor's powers were nothing compared to mine," Malarin shot back.
"Only because of the disk. Without it you're nothing."
"But I am not without it, so that's a moot point, my love." He grinned maliciously. "I will extend my offer one more time. Join me or die."
"Eat my blade!" she hissed. In one swift movement, she shrugged off her black cloak and ignited her bright blue blade, thrusting it towards Belsarios. But he was ready for her: his own blade ignited with a flash of red and met hers. The two blades crackled as the joined, and he, too, shrugged off his cloak.
Then, sounding so much like the Emperor it sent shivers down Mara's back, he began to laugh.
Kyp put his hand up, and the procession behind him came to a halt. With one finger, he silently pointed down through another mesh grating that was in the floor. Tom, who was near the front, cautiously peered down through the grill.
"We're above the hanger bay," he said as quietly as he could.
Kyp nodded. "I was going to try and get us all out on the freighter we came in, but I'm sensing that the battle is not going well for either Ackbar's our Han's teams. What do you say we try and liberate some of your fighters?"
Wedge smiled at him, a gleam in his eye. "Sounds good to me, but what about the four with toxin sickness?"
"Kam, Kirana and I can continue on with them to our freighter."
"All four of them? There's only three of you."
"But we're Jedi," Kirana said proudly, drawing herself up to her full height.
Wedge looked over the grating into the hanger below. "What do we do about the guards? There's an awful lot of them down there."
Kyp smiled. "Leave them to me."
Luke Skywalker crept stealthily through the vent shafts directly above the main power reactors for the mountainside base. The panels around him throbbed with the loud, continuos hum the reactors put out. He came to a grill in the floor that led down into the cavernous chamber. Carefully lying prone, he looked out through the metal mesh into the dimly lit chamber below. Able to see nothing in the dark, he reached out with the Force.
He could instantly sense the Vader disk--or at least the third of it that was located here. It throbbed in the Force, connected in an unseen triangle to the other two pieces. If he could destroy this one piece, the triangle would be broken, and much of the disk's power would be gone.
The bad news, however, was that he could also sense fourteen guards below, just waiting for someone to make a try for the pendant.
Fourteen guards! How was he supposed to single-handedly dispatch fourteen guards? But then, the odds were usually against him and he had made it this far. And the Force was his ally.
Do or do not. There is no try.
Luke cautiously stood up and thought how to best handle the situation. Divide and conquer--it was the only way. But how?
Then he smiled as an idea came to him. He quickly crept along the air ducts, leaving the reactor room behind and moving out over the hallway just outside of it. He found what he was looking for: another mesh grill. Once again he lay prone over the opening and screamed a blood-curdling, inhuman howl.
The call of a krayt dragon.
He could feel the guards as they were startled and frightened by the horrible noise. As he walked quietly back to the grill over the reactor chamber, he heard the guards discuss who was to go check out the noise. As all of them were afraid to go alone, six of them went together. Almost half. Much better odds.
As soon as the six guards left the chamber, Luke quickly removed the grill from its place and leapt lightly down into the room below, landing near the entrance hatch that the six troopers had just exited through. As he landed he pulled out his lightsaber, and in one quick slash, destroyed the controls for the hatch. Now he and the remaining eight guards were locked in-- but at least all the other guards were locked out.
The eight remaining guards turned on him as soon as they realized there was an intruder, but he had taken them completely by surprise, coming out of thin air as he did, so he was able to take out two of them before any of them could even get a shot off. After that, however, they recovered pretty quickly.
Luke crouched behind a bulkhead, taking up a defensive position as the six remaining troopers fired at him. He deflected some bolts with his saber, and others burned into the bulkhead protecting him. It was now a stand-off. Time to shift the balance again.
Calling on the Force, Luke made a huge arching leap into the air, flipping over twice as he did so. He landed squarely behind the six guards, once again taking them by surprise. A quick few slashes with his lightsaber, and three more guards were gone.
Three to go.
Once again regaining their senses, the remaining guards ducked for cover, then fired at him again. Luke tried his back flip trick once more, but they were ready for him this time. They squeezed off several quick blasts as Luke landed, some of them coming so close he could almost feel his hair singe. Ducking down behind another bulkhead, Luke sheathed his lightsaber and switched to a blaster. He fired a few rounds out at them, but they had good cover. Another stand-off.
Between shots, Luke carefully checked out the guards positions. All three of them were behind huge reactor columns. If Luke could bring down just one of those columns...
Firing a quick spray of blasts just to keep them from jumping out from cover, Luke closed his eyes and concentrated on the reactor column. Summoning everything he could, he reached out and pushed.
And with a mighty groan, the reactor column pulled loose from its mooring and began to sway, showering sparks everywhere. The lights, which had already been dim, went out altogether, with only the steady stream of blaster fire and the sparks from the broken column giving any illumination to the huge cavern.
The stormtroopers began shouting to each other. In the confusion, Luke gave one more push with the Force, and the column toppled over, knocking against the next tower in line, which also began to crack under the strain. Before long, a chain reaction was going, with towers knocking into each other, trapping the three stormtroopers underneath.
Luke saw his chance. He dashed out from behind the protection of the bulkhead and across the room, re-igniting his lightsaber as he went and being careful to avoid the sparks that were flying everywhere. There, straight ahead of him, was what he came for.
Lying on a dais in the center of the room was the pendant that made up one third of the Vader disk.
Luke charged at it, blade held high over his head. As soon as he reached it, he sliced downward with his lightsaber, right through the pendant and the dais beneath it. As soon as the green-white energy blade came in contact with the disk, it disintegrated with a tremendous sizzle of ozone. Luke could feel the Force around him shudder with power as the triangle was broken.
He had succeeded in breaking part of Belsarios' power hold. Now only one more piece to go, while Mara hopefully took care of Belsarios himself and the pendant he had with him.
But there wasn't time to reflect on his success: the six guards who had left to search for the krayt dragon had returned as soon as they heard the commotion inside. As Luke had been fighting the other stormtroopers, they had been working on getting the hatch open, and just as Luke was finishing off the medallion, they succeeded. Now they charged in, spraying blaster fire in all directions.
Luke deflected what he could with his lightsaber, but there were too many for him. His best shot now was retreat, since he had finished what he came to do. Looking upward, he leapt again, flipping over until he was directly under the grating he had come through. He reached up with his strong cybernetic right hand and grasped the edge of the opening. Hanging precariously fifty meters above the ground with stormtroopers shooting up at him, Luke hoisted himself up into the vent shaft and disappeared.
One down and one to go.
Mara Jade grunted with exertion as Belsarios pushed her backwards, his red lightsaber flashing out at her. She blocked quickly, then circled around, both hands gripping her lightsaber's handle in classic position. She quickly brought the blade down, Belsarios bringing his up to cut her off.
They circled again.
"What's the matter, Mari, the Great Emperor's Hand a little rusty on her lightsaber technique?"
"Not as rusty as your snappy repartee," Mara shot back. She made another attack, which Belsarios parried with ease.
"Come, come, do you think any move you make will surprise me?" Malarin cackled. "I know every move you're going to make before you even think of it."
Without responding, Mara feinted a high jab, then spun around low, kicking out with her leg instead of her lightsaber. The move momentarily knocked Belsarios off balance, but he regained his stance in time to block her upward thrust. Now she was on the ground, trapped.
"All too easy," he sighed, bringing his blade down hard.
Mara extinguished her blade and tucked into a roll, slipping out from under him just as his blade came crashing down. The force of the blow pushed the blade into the durasteel flooring, and Malarin had to use part of his concentration to free it. Meanwhile, Mara regained her feet and came at him again.
Malarin pulled back hard, using the Force, and his sword came free. He brought it to bear, again blocking her blow.
"Didn't expect that, now did you?" she sneered.
Suddenly, the lights around them flickered and went out, leaving the room lit only by the eerie glow of the blue and red energy blades.
"Looks like your base is falling down around you," Mara taunted.
Malarin chose that moment to attack, switching to a one- handed stance to increase his thrust. He pushed in at her, but Mara spun out of the way just in time, letting his momentum bring him past her. He quickly recovered and grabbed his lightsaber handle with both hands again, then turned to face her. He rushed in for another attack, this time knocking her backwards, as his blade crackled against hers. He kept pressing her, backing her into a wall. She tried ducking under, but he anticipated her and blocked her. Similarly, he blocked her when she tried going up and over. For a brief second, Mara thought he had her.
Then everything changed.
Mara felt a powerful surge in the Force, then a feeling as if a power cable had been disconnected somewhere. Malarin staggered backwards, freeing her, as an anguished cry escaped him.
Part of the Vader disk had been destroyed.
Kyp crept along the ventilation duct above the hanger, heading out towards the main corridor. When he reached the mesh grating above the hallway, he carefully removed it and peered down below. The hallway was deserted.
He quietly leapt down to the floor below. He then very calmly strode right through the hatchway into the main hanger.
"Excuse me!" he called out waving. "Mind if I borrow one of these X-wings here?"
The guards turned, stunned. What was this man--almost a boy, really--doing here alone?
Quickly they unholstered their blaster rifles and began firing.
Kyp nimbly sprang to one side, then ducked back through the hatch out into the hallway, twelve stormtroopers in full pursuit. Reaching out with the Force, he jumped back up into the air and through the opening in the duct above, then quickly replaced the grill before the guards even made it out. The scrambled into the hallway, frantically looking both ways for him.
Again reaching with the Force, Kyp thumped on the walls far down the corridor away from the hangar bay.
"Hear that?" one of the troopers yelled, motioning to the others. "He must've gone that way." And they all dashed down the hall, chasing after the sound.
Chuckling to himself, Kyp ran back to the shaft over the hanger bay.
The battle there had already begun. As soon as the one group of guards had left, Kirana and Kam vaulted down from the high ceiling fifty meters down to the floor of the hangar bay. As was the case in the reactor chamber with Luke, this maneuver caught the troopers so off guard that the two Jedi were able to dispatch three of them with their lightsabers before anyone even figured out what was happening. They then quickly ducked for cover, the remaining guards charging after them. This left Wedge, Tom, and the other pilots a free shot from their vantage point above. They quickly rained down blaster fire onto the hapless troopers while Kirana and Kam dove for the doors to seal off any outsiders from joining the fray.
They had just barely done so when something unexpected happened. The power flickered, then died, and Kyp felt a tremendous surge in the Force. Then that also died, as if someone had cut some kind of invisible cord.
"I think Luke and Mara just got the Vader disk," he whispered joyfully.
Emergency lights quickly flared on, but in the ensuing confusion, the Jedi and X- wing pilots were able to pick off several more troopers. Finally they managed to clear the room.
"Now how do we get down there?" Wedge asked Kyp.
"Same way we brought you up here over the detention area."
"Yeah, but we're a good fifty meters up here."
"Then I hope you're not afraid of heights," Kyp responded lightly. "Who wants to go first?"
"Commander, incoming at point oh-seven!" Blue Leader shouted at the Millennium Falcon over the comlink.
"Copy that, Blue Leader," Han responded, banking his ship into yet another steep dive. He fired at the approaching TIE fighter, which fired back.
"Forward shields full!" Han shouted to Chewbacca, who growled affirmatively, slapping the shield power. The Falcon lurched with the impact, but the blast did no real damage.
"I'm getting real tired of this. Let's say we make another try at the Annihilator."
"I'm with you," Lando commented grimly.
"Blue team, we're going in for another pass--"
Chewbacca cut him off with a short snuffle. Energy was mounting from the huge ship again.
"It's preparing to fire again!" Han cried, "all craft prepare to go evasive!"
Han pulled the Falcon up short, diving away from the Destroyer, a TIE fighter on his tail.
"Chewie, get that fighter!"
Chewbacca slapped the aft firing controls and the small fighter disappeared in a cloud of fire.
Then a series of blaster bolts poured out of the Annihilator, but all of a sudden, the blasts dissipated in the vacuum around them.
"What the--" Han shouted as Chewie bellowed simultaneously.
"It just lost all its power!" Lando cried happily.
Han's face lit up. "Luke's team must have gotten to the disk!"
"Did you see that?" Blue Leader asked gleefully.
The TIE fighters must have seen it too. They suddenly grew panicked and disoriented. Blue Team quickly picked off a few more of them while they scrambled around, trying to make sense of the situation.
"This is our chance," Han announced. "Cover us--we're going in."
Mara grinned maliciously. "What's the matter, Malarin? Someone break your little toy?"
He looked at her, fierce anger in his eyes. "No matter. If you think I need that disk to defeat you, think again! I certainly didn't need it to defeat Mykos!"
Mara lunged at him furiously, even as she realized in the back of her mind that that was exactly the response he was searching for. Using her momentum against her, he dived out of the way, then spun around and charged at her from behind. Mara stepped aside just in time.
"Still going for your opponent's back, I see."
"You can't win, Mara. Disk or no disk, the Empire will rise again, and you and your new friends will be destroyed."
"I'm getting a little tired of the rhetoric, Malarin." She volleyed in for another attack, but he blocked her, and their blades crackled and hummed as they met.
"And I dislike wasting my time with traitorous fools!"
Mara felt her anger rise as she spun around, swiping at him viciously. "I'll see you writhing in agony if its the last thing I do!"
And in the back of her mind, she could feel the dark side closing in.
Lieutenant Allia Dale sat silently before her comm board, listening intently to the battle raging all around her. One moment Ackbar's ships were advancing, the next retreating under a rain of fire from the nearby Star Destroyer.
Suddenly she felt something shift in the Force. She looked up at Leia, who looked back at her. She had felt it too.
"Admiral, I think Luke's team has succeeded in neutralizing the Vader disk," Leia began.
"No, just a part of it," Ally corrected, feeling the power still fluctuate from the planet below.
Leia nodded in agreement. "Yes, but it's significantly cut down on Belsarios' power. I think the base is ready to fall."
With this news, Admiral Ackbar became more aggressive, calling out orders for an attack on the Imperial Star Destroyer facing them.
They exchanged fire with the ship for several minutes, then one of the sensor technicians called out from her board: "Admiral, eight more fighters were just launched planetside and are headed this way."
Ackbar called out to one of the other cruisers in the fleet. "Ready ion cannons--I want them blown out of the sky before they can engage our fighters."
Ally was still searching the planet below with the Force when she felt the presence of the approaching fighters. Something wasn't right...
"Admiral!" she cried, jumping to her feet. "Hold you fire!"
Ackbar swiveled his huge fish-eyes at her. "Lieutenant--"
"Sir, I'm sorry sir," Ally said quickly, "but I'm pretty sure they're on our side. I think they're General Antilles' squadron!"
Leia looked at her in surprise, then reached out to confirm for herself. But it was already unnecessary: the eight fighters were now in range of the battle and they pulled into formation and began attacking various TIE fighters around them.
"Admiral, General Antilles here," came a bright male voice over the comm system. "Need a hand?"
Ackbar smiled his Mon Calamari smile. "Always a pleasure, General!"
Ally couldn't help herself. She grabbed for the microphone in her headsets. "Tom, are you there?"
"Hey, Ally whatcha doing out here? Who's with the kids?" came back her husband's cheerful--and healthy--voice.
"Listen you chauvinist," Ally grinned, "just shut up and kick some Imperial butt!"
"Anything for you, darlin'" he drawled in English.
And the balance of the battle shifted ever so slightly in favor of the New Republic. * * * * *
After the first piece of the disk had been destroyed, the base went into bedlam. The power was out in several sectors, and troopers were scrambling everywhere. Luke ignored all the commotion below him and ran through the many ducts in the ventilation system, heading for the west side of the mountain. Towards the second pendant.
He found it relatively easily, although now that the triangular connection between the three parts was broken, its presence in the Force was much weaker. It sat on another dais in a chamber similar to the east-side power reactor room. This room was smaller and held the power systems for the base's weaponry and shields.
The chamber below him was already in bedlam due to the power flickering on and off, so Luke was able to jump down into the room unnoticed. Only two guards stood between him and the disk, and two quick strokes with his lightsaber took care of them before they even knew they were under attack.
Repeating his move in the other chamber, Luke brought his lightsaber down hard across the dais and pendant, and it vaporized under his bright green blade. Again the Force surged then dissipated as the second third of the energy magnifier was destroyed.
Now all that was left was the one Belsarios had with him.
Luke reached out with the Force, feeling Mara's battle with the man who killed her brother. And feeling the powers of the dark side whirling around them.
No longer bothering with the duct system--the place was now in complete upheaval--Luke sprinted out of the weapons chamber and followed the Force towards Mara.
He only hoped he wouldn't be too late.
The Millennium Falcon made another dive directly towards the unfinished Super Star Destroyer, guns blazing.
"Go for the power cells," Han ordered his Wookiee companion, "we've gotta knock out those shields."
Chewbacca acknowledged him with a snort then pounded fire down at the mammoth ship. TIE fighters roared vainly after them, but their Y-wing escorts were keeping them busy, allowing the Falcon to hammer at the weakening shields around the Annihilator.
Chewie let out a loud bellow and Han looked at the sensor display.
"All right, we've knocked out the shields! Let's go for it!"
He brought his battered freighter into a long dive over the shell of the ship, close enough that had they been in atmosphere, they would have felt the wind whipping by the Falcon's underside.
"Ready proton torpedoes!" Han cried, and now it was Lando's turn. From his control panel he aimed the modified freighter's impressive proton gun. Han kept the ship low over the Annihilator, then dipped even lower when they reached the stern of the ship. Where its main power source lay.
"There's the main power reactor. Let her rip!" Han cried.
Just as he had done some fifteen years earlier to the second Death Star, Lando fired the proton torpedoes. And just as he had fifteen years ago, he scored on his first shot.
"Direct hit!" he cried. "Better get us out of here, buddy!"
Han obliged by pulling the Falcon steeply away from the enemy ship and out into open space. "Head for the main battle on the other side of the planet," he directed his three remaining Y-wing escorts. "This baby's gonna blow."
As if to confirm that sentiment, the Annihilator exploded, pushing the Falcon with an unseen hand of energy. But they were far enough away to be safe from any real damage.
"Ya-HOO!" Han cried, while Chewbacca bellowed his Wookiee cry of triumph.
"Now let's see if Ackbar needs a hand." * * * * *
Vice Admiral Pellaeon stared out the viewport of his Star Destroyer, shaking his head in dismay. It was always the same- -just when he thought they had the rebels dead to rights, somehow the tide always turned against them.
Something had happened on the base below and he had lost all communication with Commander Belsarios. Meanwhile, eight more rebel fighters had joined the fray--from Wayland's surface, which could only mean the captured pilots had somehow escaped--and his sensor technician had just reported a massive explosion in space on the far side of the planet that could only be the Annihilator going up in flames.
Once again, Pellaeon was second-in-command to a losing cause.
And once again there was only one thing left to do.
"Major," he said, turning to the officer beside him. "Contact the rest of the fleet. Order a full retreat."
Mara stood back triumphantly as she felt the second third of the Vader disk wink out of existence.
"It's over, Malarin. All you have left is that little trinket around your neck. And it won't help you now." Even better, she could feel the twin battles raging in space above the planet. She could feel the Annihilator evaporate high above the far side of Wayland, and could feel the fleet in orbit above them pound at the Imperial armada.
"The battle is falling apart all around you," she jeered, allowing eighteen years of anger and hatred to swell in her. "Why don't you just surrender?"
Malarin laughed. "Me? Surrender to you?" He laughed again. "I am Malarin Belsarios, the Emperor's most trusted servant. He took away from you to give to me. You think you were his Hand--I was his Arm!" he cried, cackling wildly.
"Malarin, you're insane," Mara put in, still circling with her blade en guarde.
"Oh, my sweet innocent Mari. There is so much you don't know about. So much the Emperor kept from you. I hold all the cards, my love. You will never be as powerful as me. And you're certainly no Jedi," he spat.
"No, but I am unquestionably stronger than you. I was trained by the best."
"I, too, was trained by the Emperor, lest you forget."
"I wasn't talking about the Emperor," Mara scoffed. "The Emperor was a fool and is now nothing more than space dust. I was referring to Luke Skywalker."
Malarin eyed her with a wicked glee. "Why Mari, don't tell me--you're in love with the boy!"
Mara smirked at him, savoring the power her rage gave her. She knew she could strike him down at will. "What's the matter, Malarin, did you think I've been pining after you for eighteen years?"
He threw back his head and laughed again, once more sounding enough like the Emperor to give Mara a chill down her spine. "Poor little Mari. You're even a bigger fool than I thought. I would have thought that you'd at least have learned that lesson. What would a Jedi Master want with you? He'll use you and toss you aside just as I did!"
Mara let the insult roll off her like water off a Calamarian's back as she reached out with the Force and plucked the third and final pendant from around Belsarios' neck.
"NO!" he cried, grasping for it and almost losing his lightsaber in the process. But he was too late--Mara flung the pendant as far away as she could.
Then without warning, she viciously charged at Belsarios. She drove him back relentlessly, pressing her advantage now that he no longer had the Vader disk to amplify his power. Her onslaught pushed him backwards, blue blade against red blade, until he was cornered under the catwalks that encircled the room. She was in control. She was filled with power, could feel it coursing through her.
She was again, for one final moment, the Emperor's Hand.
But she also felt something else--another presence in the Force.
Mara--anger and aggression are the dark side!
Skywalker was here! She could feel his worry, his fear for her. And his love. It swirled around her, mingling with her own anger and bitterness. Remember what you told me the last time we came to Wayland.
The last time they'd come to Wayland?
You wanted me to promise I'd kill you rather than let you go over to his side, he reminded her. C'baoth's side. Malarin's side, the Emperor's side.
The dark side.
Mara stiffened her back and smiled as she allowed her anger to melt away. Taking strength from Skywalker's warm presence behind her, Mara faced Belsarios.
"Malarin, I'd love to kill you right now. For Mykos and for Allia Dale and her children and her planet, and for almost killing Skywalker in the Outer Rim. But the truth is, you just aren't worth it."
With that, she lunged forward, but she did not go after Belsarios himself. Instead she brought her blade upwards, slashing at the support beams holding up the catwalk above his head. The railing above him came crashing down.
Malarin threw his hands up defensively, tossing aside his lightsaber in the process. It skittered harmlessly across the floor as the catwalk came crashing down around Belsarios, pinning him to the ground. He lay motionless, completely trapped, but alive. Mara stood above him like a hunter over her kill. She turned off her lightsaber and the blue blade retracted into the handle.
Behind her, Mara could feel Skywalker's relief. It was an almost palpable presence. He really had been concerned for her.
Smiling, she turned proudly to face him. She had done it. She had not only beaten her brother's murderer, but she'd beaten the worst side of herself. The Emperor's Hand was dead.
Skywalker stepped out of the doorway where he had been watching the battle. He smiled at her as he came slowly forward, then abruptly his face changed to a look of alarm.
"Mara! Look out!"
She felt the disturbance in the Force even before Skywalker had shouted out his warning. In one swift, graceful movement, Mara reflexively whirled around, igniting her lightsaber and bringing it up to bear in a smooth arc--just in time to deflect the blade of Belsarios' lightsaber. In one final desperate attempt, he had hurled it at her with the Force.
While her back was turned.
But now his blade glanced off hers and spun backwards, directly towards him. Trapped under the catwalk, Malarin was unable to dodge out of the way. Even his weak control of the Force, overexerted from throwing the blade, could not divert his oncoming lightsaber. He screamed as the red blade sliced through his mid-section.
It all happened in a split-second, and then it was over. Belsarios was dead.
Skywalker was at her side before she could even switch off her lightsaber.
"Mara, are you okay?"
"I'm fine," she told him without taking her eyes off of Malarin. She was surprised at how steady her voice was. "I'm really fine," she repeated.
She felt his arms encircle her and hold her tightly, but she still kept her eyes on her adversary, as if she were afraid to turn her back again. But she did feel fine. She leaned back against Skywalker, exhausted and exhilarated all at once.
She felt very fine indeed.
When the New Republic forces landed on Wayland, there were many reunions: Tom and Allia Dale, Leia and Han, Luke and his band of Jedi, Luke and his sisters. There were still more reunions and celebrations when the force returned to Coruscant: Lando's wife and son, Tendra and Han, were waiting anxiously for him, as were Qwi Xux Antilles for Wedge and the Solo and Dale children for their parents. It was in this post-battle atmosphere of celebration that Ally Dale decided to throw Tom and herself an "apartment warming" party.
Everyone was there: Luke, the Solos and Chewbacca, Winter, the Calrissians, Admiral Ackbar, Mon Mothma, the Antilles, Kyp Durron, Kirana Ti, and Kam Solusar. Even C-3PO and R2-D2 were newly polished for the occasion. The only person conspicuously absent was Mara Jade.
Allia found Luke in the crowd, looking a little dejected. She started to tell him something, but he spoke up first.
"So does this party mean you finally are beginning to feel at home?" he asked, blue eyes sparkling.
Ally smiled at her brother. "Yes, I do believe I am feeling a little better. I just had to find my niche--had to feel needed," she said.
"Well you sure were needed--Belsarios would still be out there if you and Tom hadn't figured out a way to communicate with each other."
"You have to give Tom the credit for that," Ally replied. "But did you know that Admiral Ackbar has asked me to teach language classes to his military? He's hoping to be able to use some of our Earth languages as codes since no one else knows them."
Luke grinned widely. "So then you have indeed found your niche."
"You know, I've even made peace with Threepio." Ally laughed.
Luke laughed with her, then grew more serious. "I hope you will continue your Jedi training."
"Well, I can't exactly drop everything and go to Yavin 4," Ally began. "With Tom flying for Wedge, I have to stick around Coruscant and take care of the children."
'What if I train you here?" Luke suggested. "I spend most my time here anyway now that Kyp's a Master and I'm an Ambassador. Do we have a deal?"
"Deal," Ally replied. "Now what about you?"
"What about me?"
Leia, who had been standing nearby, overheard this and moved closer to join the conversation.
"Mara," she supplied helpfully.
Luke sighed. "I don't know. I haven't really seen here since we got back from Wayland. I think she's leaving."
"Of course she's leaving, she has a business to run. A business, I might add," Leia said mischievously, "that is moving to Coruscant soon." The Senate had overwhelmingly approved Mara's and Karrde's plan.
"And that has nothing to do with me," Luke insisted.
"I didn't say it did," Leia countered. "It just makes things-- more convenient."
Luke laughed at his well-meaning sisters. "Okay, okay, you win. But I still don't know where she is or why she's not here."
"I do," Ally said quickly.
Luke looked at her eagerly. "You know where she is?"
Ally raised her eyebrows. "How much is that information worth to you?"
"How about I promise to go talk to her right now if you tell me where she is," Luke laughed.
Ally tilted her head, considering this. "Deal. Try the Emperor's Memorial room."
Luke nodded. "I should have guessed that. If you ladies will excuse me..." he saluted his two sisters, then rushed out of the apartment, almost knocking over Han, who was returning with Lando and Tom after getting more ice for the drinks.
"Hey, where's he off to in such a rush?" Han asked as they joined the two women. Tendra Calrissian, carrying little Han, joined them as well.
"Oh, leave him alone," Leia chided her husband.
"He's in love," Ally cooed like a schoolgirl.
Han's eyes widened in surprise. "Is Callista back?"
Ally laughed at this, while Leia only sighed patiently. "No dear," she said in the tone of a mother talking to a dull child. "He's not in love with Callista. He's in love with Mara."
At this proclamation, Han promptly dropped the bag of ice he was still carrying.
"Mara!" he and Lando cried out in unison.
Tom only raised his eyebrows. 'You had something to do with this, didn't you?" he asked his wife, jabbing an accusing finger at her.
Ally smiled and shrugged innocently.
"Mara Jade?" Han stammered, still shocked at this new information. "The woman who tried to kill him?"
"That was ten years ago," Leia reminded him.
"Now tell me you never wanted to kill me," Leia shot back.
Han started to respond, then thought better of it. "I will never understand this family," he muttered as he bent to retrieve his bag of ice, then he and Lando went to deposit it in the kitchen.
Jacen, Jaina, and Aaron then ran up, tugging at their mothers' skirts, jabbering on about their latest invention. Ally felt a warm glow fill her as she and Leia allowed themselves to be dragged onto the back balcony to see heaven-only-knows what monstrosity their children had created.
This was her family, and she was finally home.
Luke stood in the entranceway to the Emperor's Memorial room, quietly watching Mara as she stood before one of the names etched into the wall. Mykos' name, he knew. He waited patiently until she was finished.
"Hello, Skywalker," she said to him after a while, without turning.
"Can he rest in peace now?" he asked her.
Still not turning away from the plaque bearing her brother's name, Mara nodded. "Yes. And I can, too." Finally she did turn to face him. He noted that she was wearing a flight suit.
"You're leaving," he stated.
Again she nodded. "This is twice now that I've run off on Karrde--he's about ready to dissolve the partnership," she said casually.
"And were you planning on just taking off, or were you going to say good-bye this time?" he asked her. His voice was not accusatory--it was simply a question.
Mara came closer to him and leaned on the wall nearest the door. "Actually, I was planning on finding you as soon as I finished here. And Ally and the others, of course," she added hastily.
"I see," Luke said, a hundred different feelings coming up in him. He had so much he wanted to say, but he didn't know where to begin. He was quite relieved when Mara went first.
"Listen, Skywalker," she began, "I know people say and do a lot of things under intense situations that they wouldn't ordinarily say or do."
"I meant what I said," Luke responded simply.
She looked at him intently, and he could feel a hundred different emotions in her, too. But she only sighed. "Luke, I'm not cut out for this Jedi stuff."
He frowned at this seeming change of topic until he understood what she meant. "First of all, Mara, I told you already, I don't care whether you decide to be a Jedi or not-- it's totally up to you."
"Callista had to be a Jedi," Mara said a coolly.
Luke let out his breath in frustration. "Would you please stop bringing her into this? That's the past, Mara. Besides, that was always her choice, not mine. I don't care if you're a Jedi or a trader or a smuggler or a dancer or a spy. You can be whoever you are. But you should know," he added pointedly, "that you already are a Jedi."
This clearly surprised her. Her green eyes widened and her face lost that hard edge. "But I haven't completed the training," she protested.
"Neither did I," he reminded her. "I became a Jedi when I faced Vader--and faced the dark side. You said yourself that facing Belsarios was the same for you as facing Vader was for me."
Mara shook her head, amazed. "I never thought I, of all people, would ever be a Jedi."
"I always knew you'd be a great Jedi," Luke replied.
"So what do I do now?"
"The same thing you were planning on doing. Only you'll do it as a Jedi."
"I always thought you had to have a graduation and build your own lightsaber to become a Jedi," she said incredulously.
Luke shrugged. "You can build your own lightsaber if you'd like, but it's not really necessary--it's just a tradition."
"I don't know, I kinda like the one I have. A friend gave it to me." She smiled.
"Just a friend?" he asked, taking a small step closer.
Mara immediately looked downward, uncomfortable again. "This is crazy," she said finally.
Her eyes now met his. "Because you're a Jedi Master and I used to be the Emperor's Hand. And because I once wanted to kill you!" she cried.
"And Han was once a smuggler who cared about nothing but where he was getting his next credit, and Leia was a princess. Lando was a scoundrel and Tendra was a Lady. Wedge is a human and Qwi is not. The list goes on and on. And you're still talking about the past." His eyes stayed locked on hers.
"I love you, Mara. That's all that matters to me. Now, if you tell me you don't feel the same, fine. I'll walk away now and I'll never bother you again. But that's the only way I'll walk away."
He saw her struggle. She really tried to say it, tried to tell him she didn't love him, but in the end she couldn't. He would have known she was lying anyway. So instead she cried out in frustration: "What do you want from me?"
"Nothing!" Luke responded, equally frustrated. "I just want to see you when you're here. Is that really a lot to ask?"
She looked down again, so Luke gently cupped her chin in his hand and brought her face up to look at his. "Mara, what are you afraid of?"
She didn't answer him, but he knew anyway. She had once made a promise...
"You are not a naive girl of eighteen, and I'm not Malarin." he said softly. "I promise you, I will never betray you."
She broke away from him abruptly. "Damn it, Skywalker, you don't understand! I've been fighting this for too long! I can't have my life turned upside down like this."
"Like this!" she said fiercely. "No one has ever made me feel so much before, not Malarin, not the Emperor, not anyone!"
"I will never betray you, Mara," he repeated ardently.
Before she could finish, he grabbed her shoulders again and pulled her to him, kissing her with a fervor that could only come from years of keeping his own emotions in check--he was not so different from her, after all. At first she resisted; he could feel her stiffen and pull slightly backwards, but he held her firmly. He could sense her resolve melting until she was returning his kiss with even more passion. Her arms reached up and encircled his neck, while his fingers moved up and entwined themselves in that incredibly soft, thick red hair.
Then he felt their bond in the Force, almost as if she had become a part of him. It was like no feeling he had ever known before. This time the barriers stayed down, and Luke savored the sensations. "I love you," he whispered, closing his eyes and burying his face in her hair. It had the most wonderful musky smell to it...
When they finally parted, they stared into each other's eyes for a moment, then Mara finally smiled. "I'll be back in three weeks," she said breathlessly. "Will you be here?"
Luke returned her smile as he again noticed how beautiful she was--the curve of her neck under exotic red hair, eyes like green glass. "I'm still an Ambassador to the Senate. Besides, I promised Ally I'd train her here on Coruscant so she could stay with her children. So I'll be here a lot," he said huskily, tracing the curve of her cheek with his finger.
Mara's smile widened as she lightly reached up and brushed his hair away from his eyes. "Good," she replied.