3 months after Vision of the Future...
The Imperial Star Destroyer Obdurate hung motionless in the Ubiqtorate base of Yaga Minor. Standing at the forward viewport on the Star Destroyer's
bridge, Captain Paud Narven gazed out at the Golan battle stations that formed the perimeter defences of the base, and in particular the tractor beam
emplacements which had still not been completely repaired after the New Republic attack three months ago. His plans hinged on the tractor beams being
non-functional, but he could not help feeling contempt at the level that the once-glorious Empire had sunk to. Darth Vader had known the value of fear as a
motivator, and would never have permitted such laxity. However, the Empire had no-one of such standards in charge. It had been betrayed by a spineless fool
who had agreed a peace treaty with the human and alien rabble that dared call itself the New Republic.
He turned away from the viewports as his second in command, Lieutenant Kellon Fors, approached. "Sir, we're ready to proceed," he reported.
Captain Narven nodded. "Good. You understand what is required?"
"Yes sir," Fors replied. "I'm just not sure this is the proper course of action for us to take. We are deserting Admiral Pellaeon and the fleet, after all."
Narven's face hardened. "Be thankful I am not the Lord Vader, Lieutenant," he said icily. "Such words to him would have earned your death. Admiral Pellaeon has forfeited any right to command the Imperial Fleet by appeasing the Rebels, and this is not the Empire we swore to serve. We are what remains of the true Empire. You have your orders. Make sure you follow them." He turned back to the viewport. "Instruct helm to proceed."
A slight vibration began in the deck beneath his feet as the Obdurate started to move towards the perimeter of the base, slowly at first, but gaining speed as its momentum built up. Narven walked back to his command board, noting that the carefully planned scheme was proceeding entirely correctly. Behind the Star Destroyer, three Nebulon-B frigates and several Corellian Corvettes were following them towards the Golan platforms.
On board one of the Golan platforms, an officer approached General Hestiv. "Sir, the Obdurate and several other ships are moving to the perimeter without authorisation," he announced. "They refuse to answer our transmissions."
Hestiv nodded and crossed to a viewport, to see the ships bearing straight down on them. "They're mutinying," he said incredulously. "They must be mad. They know they can't escape, certainly not with such a weak force." He turned to one of his aides. "Establish an all-frequencies comm link with the Obdurate."
Narven's senior comm officer approached. "Sir, we have a priority message coming in from General Hestiv," he announced.
"Do we indeed?" Narven said, not bothering to hide his contempt. A close friend of Pellaeon's, and like him, a weak fool.
A quarter size hologram of General Hestiv appeared as he stepped into position in front of the hologram pod. "Captain, you are ordered to immediately shut down all engines and weapon emplacements, and prepare to be boarded," Hestiv ordered.
Narven merely laughed. "You are in no position to give orders, General. I shall enjoy seeing a weak minded bootlicker like you die."
Hestiv scowled as the hologram of Narven vanished as the man stepped out of the hologram transmission field, knowing he would have to take the difficult method of capturing the ships. "Divert all power to the forward shields," he ordered. "Ion and turbolaser batteries, stand by. Tractor beam crews, lock on as soon as they come in range. Drop ships, make ready to launch on my mark."
Narven glanced at his tactical board. His Star Destroyer had been one of five in the Yaga Minor base, and the other four were beginning to move in pursuit, as expected. Other ships were doing likewise, including three more Nebulon-B frigates. He knew what Hestiv would do. They would trap him and the other ships between the four Star Destroyers and the Golan platforms, which would use their ion batteries and functioning tractor beams to pin him in place while boarding craft made a forced docking. It was a stratagem which had worked many times before, and would work this time...had they not planned to counter it. The pursuing ships would be no threat if one of the Golan platforms could be knocked out, creating a hole in the defensive perimeter. However, it would be impossible for a single Star Destroyer and three frigates to do so before the pursuing ships caught up with them.
Ranging shots were being fired from the Golans. Narven did not particularly care. The more they concentrated on him, the more vulnerable they would be to the real attack. He checked his chrono. Any second now, General Hestiv would receive a nasty surprise. "All batteries acquire the command platform," he ordered. "Fire on my command...now."
A hail of turbolaser blasts and proton torpedos immediately erupted from the hull of the Obdurate.
Hestiv watched the barrage impact on the forward shields, which shook but held. A few insignificant holes opened in the energy field. "There, they've tried and failed," he said calmly to an aide. "Order all batteries to fire at will. Tell the boarding parties that I want Captain Narven taken alive."
The words were barely out of his mouth before his confidence turned to shock. A trio of dots appeared on the tactical display as three areas of space beyond the battle station rippled and changed into Star Destroyers that had just dropped their cloaking shields. Battle alarms sounded on the Golan as a storm of turbolaser fire and proton torpedos were fired at the unshielded side, and Hestiv, monitoring the situation on the tactical display, knew he was dead. His last action was to stand calmly a second before a wall of white flame engulfed the bridge.
Narven watched silently as the turbolaser bolts and torpedos struck the hull of the Golan. Hull armour plates were blasted to atoms by the impact, creating a glowing hole in the surface. Flames erupted inside the battle station briefly before they died as oxygen funnelled out of the hull breach. Successive salvos widened and deepened the breach, and out of the corner of his eye he saw the hologram pause symbol turn to static as the transmission signal was lost. Lights on the Golan began flickering madly as the reactor core started to overload and an energy feedback began building up, reminding him of the final moments of the Death Star II.
"Full shields now," he shouted. "Helm, come right 20 degrees. Brace for impact!"
Collision alarms sounded as the crew frantically grabbed onto bulkheads, control equipment, and anything unmoveable. The orders were barely in time. At that moment, the reactor core melted down, and the battle station vanished in a massive explosion and shockwave that shook even ships as large as the Star Destroyers with wave after wave of energy and blast effects.
As the shockwaves slowly faded, the Obdurate and its companions corrected their courses and came through the gap in the base defences, disregarding the laser fire from the other platforms. Behind them, the pursuit ships had come to a halt, both in shock at the loss of the Golan platform and the fact that they were suddenly outnumbered.
Captain Narven smiled, opening a comm channel to the other ships. "This is the Obdurate. Tyrannic, Obliterator, and Ironhand, congratulations on a successful mission. All ships, prepare to jump to hyperspace on your marks. We will assemble at the arranged rendezvous point."
He was still smiling as he watched the stars stretch into lines and then to the mottling of hyperspace. The escape had been a textbook operation. Now they would proceed with the second part of their plan, to inflict a painful defeat on the upstart New Republic.
* * * * * *
THE JEDI ACADEMY, A WEEK LATER...
Sunrise on Yavin 4.
For once, the normally humid and oppressive air of the jungle moon was absent. A fresh breeze blew across the Massassi Great Temple. The normally dull sky was a vivid blue. Warm sunlight shone down on the Great Temple.
It was, reflected the Jedi Master Luke Skywalker as he stood watching the dawn from the summit of the Great Temple, a good day, appropriately considering its significance. In a few hours, he would stand in the Temple throne room before family, friends, and dignitaries from across the New Republic as he and Mara Jade were joined in marriage.
He gazed out over the jungle, remembering the many pivotal events of his life that had taken place here. Here he had joined the Rebels in their desperate attack on the first Death Star, and become a Hero of the Alliance. Here, years later, he had set up his Jedi academy, and lived for a short time of happiness with Callista.
Not all the memories were good, though. His memory of the destruction of the Death Star was clouded by the loss of his friend Biggs Darklighter, who had died buying Luke a few more seconds to hit the battle station's thermal exhaust port. The spirit of the Sith Lord Exar Kun had nearly destroyed Luke and the academy before he was conquered. And there was his most bitter memory, of the departure of Callista, who had not been able to accept the loss of her powers and had left him in an attempt to regain them.
His reverie was abruptly broken as he sensed a familiar presence emerge on the summit behind him. "Come on, kid," Han Solo yelled. "We were beginning to think you'd gone off to hide in the jungle. I know I would if I was getting married to Mara."
"Be careful," Luke warned, grinning as he turned to face Han. Ever since he and Mara had announced their engagement, Han had been unable to resist constantly baiting Mara. Mara, being Mara, rose to the challenge with vigour, which as Luke and Leia well knew, was about as wise as rancor-wrestling. It only spurred Han on to greater effort to provoke her. They watched with wry amusement and more than a little deja-vu, as Han and Mara fought each other tooth and nail. It reminded them both of the long gone days when Leia and Han had done exactly the same thing during the Rebellion. "It would be awkward if Mara heard you, and I had to announce to the guests that the bride had just thrown the best man off the top of the Temple."
Behind Han, Leia appeared on the summit. "Leave him alone, Solo," she said sternly. "Luke doesn't need you distracting him today. Go and make sure Kyp and Tionne are ready."
"Yes, your worship," Han said irreverently, giving Luke a conspiratorial wink before he turned away. "See what you've got to look forward to."
Leia came up beside Luke as Han went to find Kyp. She put an arm round his waist. "Nervous?" she asked.
Luke smiled. "Very. Can't you tell?"
Leia laughed. "Well, you're not the only one. For once, Mara isn't icy calm. She's so anxious she's practically having woklings." She turned serious. "Once you get to the actual wedding bit, it'll be fine. You'll be concentrating on what to say and do too much to be nervous. Trust me, I've been there."
She touched his hand. "I'll let you meditate a bit in peace. See you at the wedding."
She slipped away silently, and Luke let his thoughts drift back over the recent events, back to his and Mara's return from the Nirauan system four months previously...
The two of them had returned to find Han, Leia, President Gavrisom, General Bel Iblis, Admiral Ackbar, Talon Karrde, and the entire New Republic High Council and Senate running around like headless tauntauns, attempting to thrash out the details of the peace agreement between the New Republic and Empire with Admiral Pellaeon and the Imperial Moffs.
Somehow in all the commotion, they had managed to find time to have a private dinner with Han, Leia, Chewbacca, Lando, Wedge, Karrde, and their respective partners. They had gathered in Luke's temporary quarters on the Galactic Voyager, talking awkwardly to each other and wondering what was so important that it couldn't wait until after the negotiations.
Luke and Mara waited until they ran out of things to discuss, then nodded to each other. Luke coughed loudly, making sure he had everyone's attention, and stood. "Mara and I have an announcement to make," he began tentatively, and was interrupted by Han grinning and saying "Let me guess - you're going to get married."
There was a dead silence. Han's grin faded as he saw the expressions on Luke and Mara's faces. "You're joking, aren't you, Luke?" he said incredulously. "You and Mara?"
Luke found his tongue. "No, Han, we're not joking. I asked Mara to marry me and she accepted." He looked around at the others, who were staring at him, their mouths open wide enough to admit a Star Destroyer, and tried unsuccessfully not to laugh.
Han recovered from his surprise first. "You actually asked Mara to marry you? You're braver than I thought." He gave Luke his cockiest smuggler's grin. "There's no way she'd have agreed to marry you willingly. Did you use a Jedi mind trick on her, kid?" he asked, and ducked to avoid the Force-propelled holodisk that was the nearest object within Mara's reach.
Leia kicked him. "Stop teasing them, Han," she said affectionately and got up, coming over to Luke and Mara and kissing them. "Well done, both of you," she said warmly. "Don't worry Mara, I won't give any long speeches. I'll save that for the wedding. I'll just say that I know you both well enough to see that it will not be an easy marriage for either of you by any means, but it should certainly be an interesting one."
The others followed her lead, offering their own congratulations. Han stepped forward to kiss Mara as well, and swiftly reconsidered in view of the look she gave him, settling for giving her a grin and slapping Luke on the back. Lando and Wedge both shook Luke's hand and hugged Mara. The notoriously formal Karrde stayed true to form, confining himself to offering his congratulations. "Chewie," Leia said in alarm as the Wookiee stepped forwards, "I'm not sure you should..." but she was too late to stop him grabbing Luke and Mara in a hug which nearly suffocated them both.
Only Threepio did not share the positive mood. "Master Luke," he protested, "I must remind you that Mara Jade used to be the Emperor's personal agent, and vowed to kill you for his death. Furthermore, my analysis of your personalities clearly shows that you are as unsuited for each other as Artoo and I am. It has been repeatedly proven that such partnerships never work."
He hesitated for a second. "I think there may be a flaw in my logic there. Nevertheless, I have calculated that the chances of your marriage lasting more than six months are 16,386 to 1...," at which point Wedge switched him off, to everyone's great relief.
Three days later the peace treaty was officially signed, and then Luke and Mara returned to Coruscant to begin planning the wedding. They had chosen Tionne to officiate at the wedding, and she arrived a few days later to help them plan it and discuss what they wanted to happen and would need to do. Leia's comment that it would not be an easy marriage for either of them soon seemed prophetic. Both of them found their patience severely tested as Mara's quick temper came up against Luke's intractability. They also found it strangely invigorating though. Luke found himself musing rather guiltily how passive Callista now seemed compared to Mara.
Four months passed, which both of them thought would be enough time to plan a wedding several times over, but they had not reckoned on the number of problems they had to resolve, starting with the actual location of the wedding, which both of them wanted to be held on Yavin 4, in view of the fact that they were both Jedi Knights and that it would be easier to hold a private wedding there than on Coruscant. Gavrisom, however, was not in favour of the idea, and only backed down after a considerable amount of arguing between the three of them.
Then there was the matter of guests. President Gavrisom was adamant that the entire Senate would have to attend the wedding of the galaxy's only Jedi Master, and refused to be persuaded otherwise this time, despite the combined efforts of Luke, Mara and Leia.
Luke and Mara both agreed that Karrde was the obvious and only choice to give her away. The matter of the best man, however, proved considerably more problematic, severely testing the Jedi patience of both of them. Luke was determined to have Han as the best man, despite Mara's fierce objections. She threatened to call the whole wedding off several times, and only gave in when Luke told her that Lando would be the best man instead. "If Solo makes bantha fodder out of my wedding, I'll use him for target practice in my next lightsabre practice session," she said grimly.
Eventually, to their great relief, all the details of the wedding were settled. Admiral Ackbar had arranged that they, Han and Leia, and the Senate would travel to Yavin 4 in an honour escort led by the Galactic Voyager.
The problems didn't end there though. A couple of days before they were due to depart for Yavin, Luke and Mara were in their apartment, trying to get ready to leave, when they heard the chime at the door. They shared a brief feeling of irritation at the interruption before the same thought struck them simultaneously. They should have sensed anyone approaching long before they got to the door. Only another Jedi would be able to approach them undetected.
They both looked at the door. "Do you think it's Leia?" Mara asked.
Luke shook his head. "I doubt it. I don't think Leia's advanced enough in the Force to cloak herself from both of us. That takes a lot of practice and latent Force strength. Personally, I'd think that only Kyp would have the ability, but he's on Yavin. I can't sense any ysalamiri Force-dampening, either."
He got up and went to the door, with one hand ready on his lightsabre, and as he opened the door, it struck him like a hammerblow that there was one other person who would have been able to evade his detection, not through their strength in the Force, but rather through the fact that they were so entirely cut off from the Force that it was impossible for a Jedi to sense any presence.
The door slid open. "Hello, Luke," Callista said quietly.
Mara sat in her chair, her expression giving nothing away. Luke glanced at her, trying to read her emotions, but she blocked his Force probe. "Stay out of my mind," she snapped. "I'll leave you two to talk," and left the room.
Callista sat awkwardly in the chair opposite Luke after Mara had gone, staring at the floor. The silence in the room slowly thickened. Eventually Luke leaned forward and took her hands. "Callista, why did you come back?" he asked.
Callista raised her head to look at him for the first time and he looked into her grey eyes, remembering how beautiful he had once thought them. Now, though, his mind formed an image of Mara's brilliant green eyes, against which Callista's seemed lifeless by comparison.
"I'm sorry to appear like this, Luke. I know what this must seem like to you, but I had to come back," she said softly. "After Nam Chorios, I wandered through the galaxy for four years, following any lead to try and regain my powers. Four years of pain and loneliness," she said slowly, her eyes far away. "I know now how Mara must have felt after Endor. Finally, I found myself back on Chad. It was the only place in the galaxy that I could find some peace. I've been there for the last two years."
She paused. "Then a fortnight ago I heard the announcement of your wedding on the Holonet."
Luke winced. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to hurt you. I should have found you and told you."
"No, Luke," Callista said sharply. "It suddenly made me realise how selfish I'd been. I didn't come back to take you back from Mara, and I couldn't live with myself if I did. I am truly the last of the old Jedi." She swallowed. "Even though I have lost my powers. You and Mara represent the new Jedi. Your path lies with her, not with me. I hope it will be a good one for you both."
She continued after a minute of silence. "I came back because I wanted to apologise for leaving. I had no choice, though. I loved you too much to feel unworthy of you. I hope you can understand."
"I do understand," Luke said. "I told you that on Nam Chorios. Trusting your feelings is one of the most important things for a Jedi to understand. You will never regret it, even if you hurt others by doing so."
Callista smiled. "Thank you, Luke. There's one other thing. I'd like to train students at Yavin 4. As I said, I am the last of the old Jedi. So many of the old records were destroyed on Palpatine's orders. It seems wrong not to pass my knowledge on to the new Jedi."
Luke nodded, knowing what a sacrifice it was for her to offer to train students and be constantly reminded of the loss of her own powers in doing so, and seeing Luke and Mara in a place where she and Luke had shared some happiness. "Mara and I are thinking of setting up a roaming academy like the Chu'unthor where we can train some of the advanced students, and leaving Kyp in charge of the Yavin academy, so we wouldn't be living on top of each other."
"I'll stay here until after the wedding," Callista answered, "and then I'll go to Yavin."
"You don't have to, Callista," Luke said. "You could come to the wedding. I'll talk Mara round."
Callista turned away quickly, but not before Luke saw the glint of tears in her eyes. "No," she said. "I can't. I loved you with all my heart." She paused. "And I always will. I dreamed that one day we would marry. I couldn't watch you marry someone else."
Luke put his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him. "I wish it could have been different," he said quietly. "It seems it was not meant to be, though." He drew her gently into his arms. "You will always have my love."
They held each other for a long time, until long after twilight had descended.
Luke was standing by the transparisteel windows, Callista having long since gone, when the door opened and Mara came in. Neither of them spoke as she came to stand in front of him, also facing the windows. After a minute, she reached out and took his hands, wrapping them around her shoulders.
They stood there silently for a long time, gazing out over the lights of Coruscant in the dusk. Finally, Mara stirred in Luke's arms. "Did you think that I would feel threatened by Callista?" she asked him.
She felt him shrug. "You certainly acted like you were."
Mara sighed wearily. "Luke, will you stop acting like a wet behind the ears farmboy. I'm quite able to cope with your previous relationships. I only feel pity for Callista. For a Jedi, she has surprisingly little insight into her soul. She has been trained in the Force, but it hasn't taught her something that you and I, Han and Leia, and half the galaxy know. What she did not learn until it was too late is that love is stronger even than the Force."
She was silent for a minute. "Luke, I could see that neither of you wanted to talk in front of me. I left you alone because when you love someone, you trust them. If I didn't want to leave you alone with Callista, then I couldn't go on with this relationship."
She shook her head incredulously. "I don't believe I just said all that. Wash your mouth out, Mara," she muttered to herself, then smiled knowingly. "Besides, I'm a Jedi. If she had tried anything, I'd have known about it soon enough."
Luke turned her to face him, staring into her eyes. He opened his mouth to speak.
"Don't go mushy on me, Luke," Mara said, and kissed him.
The sun had risen higher in the sky above Yavin by the time the memory ended, Luke noted. He glanced at his chrono and grimaced. There were still a few hours to go before the wedding. He wondered why time always seemed to pass so slowly at moments of stress and nervousness like this. He took a deep breath to calm himself, the Jedi Code echoing in his head: There is no emotion; there is only peace...
He felt his tension fade as he recited the Code, and his thoughts slowly drifted back to the recent events.
Three days after Callista's brief return, he and Mara were on Galactic Voyager, en route to Yavin. The preparations were nearly complete at that point, but both of them found themselves prey to severe pre-wedding nerves. They spent most of their time trying to ease their tension, both by improving Mara's skills in the Force - she had always been a quick learner and by the time Galactic Voyager arrived at Yavin, she was able to hold several items of furniture over each other in midair while simultaneously using her lightsabre to block two remotes - and in lightsabre practice. Leia joined them for some of the sessions and she and Mara made exhaustive, if unsuccessful, attempts to beat Luke, although he was put under greater pressure each time they fought. That brought him back to the main event of the journey, his using the Force to bring back Mara's memories of childhood. It had begun after one particularly intensive lightsabre practice session...
Luke's lightsabre clashed against Mara's. For a second, it remained there, and then the green-white blade vanished as Luke deactivated his lightsabre. The duel had ended in a stalemate. They had fought each other for nearly an hour, and had finally been forced to stop as neither had been able to gain an advantage.
"There's little more I can teach you, Mara," Luke said between breaths. "Your lightsabre skills are complete. You just showed me how well you can fight when you put your mind to it. When you and Leia fight me together, you don't fight to your full abilities. You rely on the two of you being able to overwhelm me."
"Thanks for the lesson, Master," Mara said sarcastically.
There was a brief pause in the conversation. Luke replaced the lightsabre on his belt, and then noticed the look on Mara's face as he did so. "What is it?"
Mara hesitated. "Luke, you said Jedi could bring out hidden memories. Could you help me remember my past?"
Luke considered. "How much do you remember?"
Mara thought. "I can remember most of my training. Starship maintenance, unarmed combat, espionage, and other such skills. Not much of a childhood, is it? I can take it back to when I was about five or six years old. I can't remember anything further back than that, though."
"All right," Luke said. "Close your eyes and concentrate on what you remember." He reached out and put his hands on her temples. Mara sensed his presence in her mind probing at her memories, and tried to recall anything from before the Emperor took her, but nothing came.
She sensed Luke's presence withdraw and opened her eyes. "Nothing happened."
Luke nodded. "This won't be easy. Your memories of childhood don't seem to have gone, they seem to have been deliberately sealed off by a dark side memory block. I imagine it's something the Emperor must have done.
Mara frowned. "Why would he do that?"
Luke shrugged, his face grim. "I don't suppose it was out of the goodness of his heart. No doubt you knew something that he didn't want you to remember."
Mara looked at him. "Can you remove the memory block?"
Luke was silent for a minute. "I don't know," he eventually admitted. "I'll try to remove the block but I can't guarantee it'll work. If you lie down on one of the benches..." When she had done so, he began stroking her neck and cheek in the way he had done after she had been wounded in the Chiss fortress. "I'm putting you into a memory trance," he explained, his voice and face seeming to recede down a long corridor as he did so. "It may take a while..."
An indefinite period of time later, Mara woke up. She looked round to see Luke watching her from the bench opposite, looking strained. "It wasn't easy, but I managed to remove the memory block," he said, pre-empting her question. "I don't think you're going to find it pleasant, though."
Mara opened her mouth to retort that she was perfectly capable of dealing with anything that might have been buried in her mind, but stopped as she saw Luke's expression. "Bad?" she queried.
Luke nodded sombrely. "I think you'd better find out what happened yourself."
Mara took the hint. She closed her eyes, probing her memories - and gasped involuntarily as a flood of images surged up to almost overwhelm her. One, though, stood out like a rancor in a crowd of Ewoks. She focussed her mind on it, sensing an overwhelming impression of fear and desperation, and let it fill her mind...
She was standing in a clearing in a forest. Two figures clad in Jedi robes and wearing lightsabres stood in front of her, their faces hidden by the hoods of their cloaks. There was a sense of despair and terror in the air. As she watched, one of the figures stepped towards the other. "They're not far behind now," it said grimly, the voice revealing it to be a man.
He reached out and pushed the other's hood back, and as he did so, Mara's world seemed to collapse around her. She stared in shock as the face of the other Jedi was revealed. It was a woman with the same flowing red hair and emerald green eyes as her. Even the face was similar. A thousand questions passed through her mind in an instance. Was this a memory of her past? Had she been a Jedi who had been captured and somehow had her memory erased during Palpatine's Jedi pogrom? Had her memories of her upbringing on Coruscant all been implanted? Or was it a Jedi vision of a point in her future?
"It's a memory of your past, Mara," said the presence of Luke in her mind calmingly, and as he spoke, she noticed a small child, who she was sure had not been there a moment before, clinging to the hand of the woman. The child had the same red hair and green eyes...
And suddenly it was all clear. This was indeed her past. She was the child and the two Jedi were her parents. She knew somehow that they were fleeing from a great danger, and it didn't take much to work out that only one thing would present such a great danger to the Jedi. "No," she thought, knowing what was going to happen.
Her father straightened and spoke to her mother. "The two of you can still escape if you go now," he said quietly. "I'll stay here and hold them off."
Mara's mother shook her head desperately. "I won't leave you," she said. "You can't win. That Sith Lord will destroy you. He has already defeated many stronger Jedi before. We can fight him together."
"He will destroy all of us if you do not go now," her father said grimly. "Better it is just one rather than all three. One of us is already lost to the Empire. Take Mara and escape."
He knelt down before the young Mara. "Mara, you are strong in the Force. You have the potential to be a great Jedi Knight. Mind what we have taught you. The Force will be your ally and protector, always." He reached out and placed a hand on her forehead. "Remember me, my daughter."
He stood and turned to her mother. "I'm sorry. This is the last test of a Jedi, to face becoming one with the Force. If you escape, teach Mara the ways of the Jedi. It is her destiny." He smiled, reaching out a hand to stroke her cheek. "Remember, we can never be truly separated. We are forever joined in the Force. Go now, before it is too late."
The young Mara was lifted by her mother, and the pair of them hurried into the trees. Her last sight of her father was of him gazing after them as he drew and ignited his lightsabre.
Imperial stormtroopers burst into the clearing a minute later, moving around the clearing to cut off any possibility of escape. In their wake, a giant figure dressed in black entered the clearing behind them.
Darth Vader nodded in satisfaction. "Today another Jedi fool will be defeated. Your family will die as well. My master has chosen to enjoy the destruction of your wife and child. They are lost. But you have a last chance to escape your destiny, if you kneel before me and swear to serve the dark side, the true side of the Force."
Mara's father smiled. "The dark side is for those who do not have the discipline to master the light side. And your empty words cannot fool a Jedi. You will strike me down whatever I do. You will win this battle and no doubt others, but one day, a Jedi will rise and defeat you and your evil master. I have foreseen it."
Vader's sibilant breathing filled the clearing. "So be it, Jedi."
He ignited his lightsabre and struck. Mara's father blocked the blow, and the two began a battle to the death. Her father fought well and managed to match Vader at least temporarily. A pair of stormtroopers, hoping to earn a reward from the Dark Lord, opened fire. Their interference merely enraged Vader, though. He reached out with the Force and caught the two stormtroopers in a Force grip. The troopers began to choke, but before they asphyxiated, Mara's father used the Force to break Vader's Force grip. "Even the weak minded do not deserve death," he said.
Vader's answer was to launch a savage attack, using the dark side to augment his strength and beat down the Jedi's defences. "You will die instead," he rasped. In a series of vicious blows, he drove his opponent's lightsabre aside and then knocked it from his hand.
Vader paused, savouring his triumph, then struck, cutting the Jedi down. He watched as the empty cloak and lightsabre fell to the ground, and wondered, not for the first time, why the bodies of the Jedi always vanished when he defeated them. He called the dropped lightsabre to his hand and placed it and his own lightsabre on his belt, then remembered the two stormtroopers that he had begun to choke. This time though, there was no Jedi to break his Force grip.
"Remove the bodies," he ordered when the troopers lay still, and strode from the clearing.
Mara's mother fled through the forest, holding her daughter. She used the Force to ease the burden, but nevertheless, she was slowed by Mara's weight. She could sense the ripples in the Force as her husband and Vader fought, and then there was a sudden emptiness and she knew the Jedi were one less.
She stopped, utter despair filling her, despite her efforts to drown it. She could sense Vader's presence approaching, but there was another, even more evil presence very close by, and she knew there was no escape. She looked round. On her right, there were a few more rows of trees. Beyond them there were a series of rockfaces. She could see that one of them opened into a small gully. She made a last effort and headed for the opening.
She barely made it. As she reached the opening in the rockface, a platoon of the Emperor's Royal Guard emerged from the trees and came towards her. She put Mara down and pushed her behind a pile of rocks just inside the opening, then drew and ignited her lightsabre, adopting a defensive stance, but the Royal Guardsmen merely stopped and faced her in a line.
A large airspeeder appeared over the trees, and landed on the open ground between the trees and cliffs. It was heavily armoured and well-armed, clearly a transport for a high ranking dignitary. With a hiss of well oiled hydraulics, the ramp lowered.
A bent figure in a black cloak came down the ramp. Emperor Palpatine smiled at seeing a trapped Jedi, a smile which looked like the agonised final grimace of a corpse. "Good. I shall have the pleasure of removing another accursed Jedi from the galaxy this day." A blaze of dark side lightning erupted from his fingertips. The power of the bolts knocked the lightsabre from Mara's mother's hand and hurled her to the ground. The attack continued remorselessly until finally she lay motionless.
Palpatine laughed, a chilling sound. A deep silence fell upon the forest as the native animals froze in terror, and even the wind seemed to drop. The Emperor walked towards to where Mara was crouching behind the rockpile. Mara slowly shifted her gaze from the dead body of her mother to look into the sickly yellow eyes of the Emperor. She saw his hands raise and point straight at her in readiness to unleash another blast of lightning. She shrank back and closed her eyes. But nothing happened. After a minute, she cautiously opened her eyes, fearing that the Emperor was toying with her before he destroyed her.
Palpatine was staring at her. His hands were at his side and there was a thoughtful look on his face. After a long time, he spoke to Darth Vader, who had arrived and was standing beside him. "This child-" he paused, probing her mind, "- Mara Jade, is strong in the Force. If she had been trained as a Jedi, she would be a dangerous enemy. However, the Jedi are nearly exterminated and her parents are now dead. There is no one to teach her the ways of the weak and pretentious light side."
He nodded. "Yes, she would make a promising servant, particularly if she is taught how to utilise her Force sensitivity. It will have to be done carefully, though. She will only be taught basic skills so that she cannot become a threat. I will place false memories in her mind so that she will not remember this day, and to ensure her reliability through blind devotion to me."
He smiled icily. "The Jedi have at last done something of use for the galaxy by providing me with an useful asset to my New Order." He signalled to one of his Royal Guards. "Take this child to my shuttle." He turned and walked towards the air speeder, with Vader following him, and then the scene faded away into blackness...
Mara opened her eyes. It took a few moments to orient herself. She thought of what she had just seen in her mind, and a deep black well of anger rose inside her, greater even than the hatred she had once felt towards Luke for the part she believed he had taken in the Emperor's death. Vader and the Emperor had killed her parents and used her as a pawn for their own purposes. "Those murdering Sith scum," she snarled. She stopped, unable to find words to express her rage.
"Control your anger," Luke said softly.
Mara looked at him in surprise and some embarrassment, having almost forgotten he was there. She took a deep breath and ran through Jedi calming techniques. She felt the rage fading, leaving a hollow feeling inside her. "I know, anger leads to the dark side," she said, quoting one of his favourite phrases.
Luke nodded. "If you give in to your anger, you play into their hands. The Emperor tried to turn me to the dark side by provoking me into attacking him. Learn from your past and use it to become stronger, rather than choosing the quick and easy path."
Much to his surprise, Mara's tough exterior suddenly broke for only the second time since he had met her. She didn't weep, but there was a look of terrible vulnerability in her eyes and face. "They killed my parents," she said. "My whole life was a lie. The Emperor betrayed me by making me believe that my parents sold me to the Empire, and used me for his own ends. I know he lied to me about being his only Hand and fooled me into believing you killed him, but I never thought that even he would do something like this. He must have enjoyed making a puppet out of me."
Luke took her into his arms, trying to give her some comfort, despite his own shock. Ben Kenobi had told him how Vader had helped hunt down the Jedi, but seeing him destroy Mara's father suddenly made it real, instead of a story. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "My father was responsible for what happened to you as much as Palpatine, after all."
Mara shook her head. "He was, but he turned from the dark side at the end and saved you by destroying Palpatine, didn't he? Besides, I can hardly start throwing stones. I helped them do the exact same thing to other Jedi, and no doubt destroyed other people's lives on my missions."
Luke was silent for a minute. "You shouldn't blame yourself, though," he finally said. "The Emperor fooled and betrayed many people who should have seen through him, not least my father. You would have been easy enough for him to persuade."
To his surprise, Mara abruptly pushed him away. "Do you think I'm selfish?" she asked.
Luke blinked, caught off guard by the sudden change of subject. "No," he said honestly. "You're one of the least selfish people I know. You've spent most of your life serving others."
Mara laughed weakly. "I am," she said. "I've just learnt that Vader and the Emperor killed my parents, and used me as a pawn, but I was more upset about the loss of the Jade's Fire. What does that say about me?"
"Nothing at all," Luke said quietly. "You barely knew your parents. Neither did I. I never knew my mother and hardly knew my father. I found it nearly impossible to grieve for him as well." He kissed her. "You said you wanted to have the same sort of emotional openness as I do. It looks like you're starting to."
He held her for a while, before Mara put her grief aside in the same way that she had done after the destruction of the Jade's Fire. "Just don't think about telling this to Solo," she said with a flash of her usual self. "At least I know where my Force abilities came from. I always wondered why Palpatine would single me out to teach me how to use the Force. The untrained child of two Jedi must have been tempting." She frowned. "My parents said that one of them had already been lost to the Empire. I wonder what that meant." She shivered, remembering their deaths, particularly her mother's. She knew what being on the receiving end of Force lightning was like, both from Luke's stories and personal experience...
Luke's reverie ended abruptly as he sensed Leia return. He waited as she came to stand beside him, and put her arm around his waist. "Thinking about something?" she queried. "You look rather grim."
Luke nodded. "Can I try something?" he asked, and leaned towards her, putting his head against hers, and transferring the memory of Mara's childhood to her. When he had finished, Leia stood quietly for a while. "As Mara said, it explains why the Emperor would have trained her in the Force," she said at last. "I didn't think it was a purely random selection. I always thought she must have had one or more Jedi parent, to be so strong in the Force. They would have been proud to see what she's become. She was strong enough not to give into hate of the Emperor for what he did to her. I don't know if I could have done that in her place."
She shook her head. "Anyway, I'll be Kesseled if I'm going to stand here and let you go over all this," she said adamantly. "It's your wedding day and I don't want you walking around looking miserable. I don't care what you do as long as you're not standing around thinking."
"Yes, sister," Luke said sardonically, and got a glare from her.
"Don't start that," she snapped. "I have to put up with enough of it from Han without you as well. Are you ready?"
Luke straightened himself up, checked his clothes briefly, and smiled at her. "I'm ready..."
* * * * * *
The Jedi were renowned for maintaining a calm demeanour in the most desperate circumstances. Today, though, Luke Skywalker was far from displaying
any kind of calm. Three hours later, he was standing in the throne room of the Great Temple. He remembered Leia's advice that he would be too preoccupied
during the wedding to be nervous.
He couldn't imagine how she could have been so wrong.
Han, standing next to him on the ceremonial platform, was unable to hide his amusement as Luke shifted anxiously from foot to foot, watching the back of the room like a starving rancor as he waited for Mara's imminent arrival. "Where in the Force is she?" he heard Luke mumble in exasperation.
"Relax, kid," he hissed to Luke. "Mara's only a couple of minutes late. Remember, you were the one who was almost late for my own wedding."
His remarks seemed to break the tension. Luke smiled. "That's different. You didn't have to worry about being left standing at the altar." He reached out with the Force to Mara. "Do you plan to stop wasting time and grace us with your presence any time soon?" he asked her dryly.
He was unable to suppress a smile at her response. "If you think you can start shooting your mouth off like Solo to me, you've got a surprise coming," Mara answered. "Callista may have liked it, but I'll be Kesseled if I'm going to put up with it."
The link was abruptly broken as Han nudged Luke sharply in the ribs. Luke glanced at the back of the throne room, where two doorwardens were pulling the doors open, to see Talon Karrde enter the room, clad in his official robes of the head of the newly formed New Republic/Empire Galactic Intelligence Service.
Luke, however, scarcely noticed, his attention fixed on Mara. His breath caught in his throat as she stepped through the doors. Tionne had told them that Jedi weddings were a customised form of the standard galaxy wedding service, itself an ancient ceremony the origins of which had long been forgotten. Mara wore a traditional Jedi wedding gown, consisting of a pure white Jedi cloak and tunic. A filmy white hood emphasised her intense green eyes to stunning effect. She was striking enough as it was, but it was the radiant look in her face and eyes, an expression Luke had never seen before, which transformed her from merely lovely to hauntingly beautiful. Not even Callista had ever looked so attractive.
Life was a wheel that no one could stand on it for long.
And it always, at the end, came round to the same place again.
19 years ago, he had stood in this same place, aware that he was on the threshold of a new stage in his life. Today, he was at another turning point in life. He wished briefly that his father, Ben Kenobi and Yoda were here one more time to see him marry Mara. Ben had long ago said that he would no longer appear to Luke, and Luke assumed that it applied to Yoda and his father. He knew that they would be watching him proudly from somewhere, though.
He was more right than he knew. Five shimmering translucent figures, invisible to the entire gathering, stood in front of the doors at the back of the throne room, all wearing Jedi robes. Yoda stood in the centre, dwarfed by the four others on either side of him. On his right stood Anakin Skywalker and then Ben Kenobi. On his left stood a tall man with shoulder length black hair and dark eyes. A slightly smaller woman with waist length red hair and sharp green eyes stood next to him, her arm around his waist. Anakin inclined his head to them in greeting, and Mara's parents nodded back to him, all three of them watching with pride as their children prepared to marry each other.
At the far end of the hall, Luke came down to the bottom of the steps as Mara came slowly up the aisle on Karrde's arm. When she reached him, Karrde stepped back, leaving them alone. "There's something I should tell you before we go on," Mara said to Luke.
Luke took her hands, knowing perfectly well what she was going to say, and sensing her nervousness at what was still a major display of her feelings. Nevertheless, he was unable to resist teasing her. "You're not secretly in love with Lando, are you?" he asked.
Mara gave him a pitying look. "Any more remarks like that and you can find someone else desperate enough to marry you." She braced herself. "I love you, Luke," she said softly.
Luke smiled. "You certainly took long enough to say it. It was well worth the wait, though. I know this is generally meant to happen at the end of the ceremony, but I don't think I can wait that long."
His lips met hers in a gentle kiss.
Han coughed impatiently after a few seconds, and they reluctantly disengaged. "I suppose we'd better do this before everyone falls asleep," Mara commented wryly.
They went up the steps to where Tionne was waiting, and she stepped forward. She took their lightsabre hands and placed them palm to palm. "Kneel in the sight of the Force," she said.
Later, Luke could remember little of what had happened after that point. The rest became a blur. He was only conscious of staring into Mara's green eyes and repeating the required words and actions after Tionne. He only returned to reality as Tionne finished the standard ceremony by raising her arms with the palms facing outwards in a Jedi blessing. "I now confirm Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade joined in the Force. What the light side has brought together, let not the dark side drive asunder."
She scanned the crowd. "These two Jedi have chosen to be joined by a Force bonding ceremony. This is an event which has not occurred since the Jedi purges. It may be a long process and is extremely painstaking, so I ask you not to cause any distraction while it takes place."
She nodded to Kyp, who as the most gifted Jedi Knight, had been chosen to perform the ritual. He stepped forward and closed his eyes, calling upon all his control of the Force. Luke and Mara tensed momentarily as Kyp created a barrier around them, feeling their Force awareness of the people in the audience chamber fade to nothing. It was like the Force dampening effect of a ysalamiri, with one difference. They could still sense each other. Tionne caught their eye and nodded, and they began.
After much thought and meditation, Luke and Mara had decided to go ahead with the bonding ceremony. Tionne had told them that it would be an extremely intense experience for both of them. She had also warned that it might also prove to be a mistake. Some of the Old Republic Jedi had been unable to cope with the results of the bonding ritual, with disastrous consequences for them. She had therefore been pleased to learn that Luke and Mara had already successfully undergone a similar experience during their battle in Thrawn's cloning chamber.
Tionne was right about both things, Luke realised as he joined his consciousness with Mara's. He could understand how some Jedi failed to accept this. The ritual was literally an extension of the idea that marriage joined two people into one. It let one share the other's thoughts and memories, and to a degree, even think and react as the other would. In a sense, each of them would forever have part of the other's mind in their own consciousness.
It was also a deeply exhilarating sensation. It felt almost identical to their semi-bonding in Thrawn's cloning chamber, but it differed in that they did not need to use the Force to do so. He felt every thought, every memory, every feeling Mara had ever had, and knew that the same was happening to her simultaneously. New memories coalesced in both their minds.
One took them both by surprise. "That was you on Hoth?" each asked simultaneously through their mind link.
Luke shook his head. "Talk about your purpose in life being to kill me," he observed.
"I didn't have much choice," Mara shot back. "You had me trapped. Anyway, it's water under the bridge now."
After a long time, the mind transfer slowed and then stopped. Both of them spent a while longer coming to terms with what they had just experienced. When it became apparent that they had finished, Kyp gradually lowered the Force barrier around them.
They looked around the audience chamber at the guests, who were clearly waiting for them to say something. Their new link let them share Mara's thought of "I think you're the one best suited for this."
Taking his cue, Luke opened his mouth to speak, expecting to hear himself say something profound and illuminating as befitted a Jedi Master. Instead, to his embarrassment, all he could think to say was "Wow."
A ripple of laughter ran through the crowd and Tionne stepped forward. "The ceremony is finished," she announced. "The Jedi Knights Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade are now married."
She looked at Luke with a twinkle in her eye. "You may kiss the bride...again."
At the back of the hall, Anakin Skywalker and Ben Kenobi exchanged a quiet smile with each other, as did Mara's parents. Anakin placed a hand on Yoda's shoulder, and the five of them gradually faded from view, leaving the living to celebrate.
* * * * * *
The post-wedding celebration was in full swing. Leia was standing talking to General Bel Iblis, Admiral Ackbar, General Rieekan, and Mon Mothma, who as
the former chief of state of the New Republic, had been invited as the guest of honour, when Talon Karrde approached them. She winced, anticipating what
Ackbar, who was no exception to the Mon Calamari loathing of smugglers, would say to Karrde, or, more precisely, not say.
She soon found her anticipation to have been entirely correct. The others readily enough accepted Karrde into the conversation, but Ackbar refused to talk to him or even acknowledge his presence.
After putting up with this for a while, Leia took a deep breath. "Admiral, I know you despise smugglers, but this is not the time or place to indulge old hatreds." She could see heads turning as they sensed the tension in the atmosphere. Luke and several of the Jedi Knights were looking anxiously towards the group, nervous of an open argument.
Ackbar turned towards her. "Pardon me, Councillor Solo," he rumbled, "but I would be honoured if you would remain silent." Leia stopped, taken aback by Ackbar's rebuke, and he turned back to look at Karrde.
"The Mon Calamari have no love for smugglers. I will never forget their complicity with the Empire in enslaving us," he said grimly. He stared at Karrde for a minute. "However, perhaps it is time to forgive. The New Republic and Empire have made peace, and our only Jedi Master has married one of the Emperor's closest agents. It seems fitting for us also to lay our grudges to rest." He held out a hand to Karrde.
It was a handsome gesture, and it was equally handsomely accepted by Karrde. "Thank you, Admiral," he said as he took Ackbar's hand. "I admit I have engaged in questionable activities over the years, but kidnapping or slavery were the two things I absolutely refused to countenance in my organisation. I know it's too little, too late, but I would like to express my regret at the treatment of your race by other smugglers."
In another part of the room, Mara and Shada stood talking animatedly. They had become close friends, despite the difference in their ages, since Karrde had introduced Shada to Mara, telling her that he would train her as his new second in command. Mara had been slightly annoyed at Karrde's speed in finding a replacement for her, but soon grew to like Shada as it became apparent how much they had in common. Both were highly trained and formidable women who had existed to serve their masters, and in return been betrayed by them, Mara by the Emperor and Shada by the Mistryl.
"...And then we took the datacard to Admiral Pellaeon," Shada said as she finished telling Mara about her journey with Karrde to find Jorj Car'das in the hope that he might have a copy of the Caamas Document.
"It must seem like a bit of a comedown, going from being one of the Mistryl to second in command of a smuggling group," Mara commented when Shada had finished.
Shada smiled. "Second in command of Galactic Intelligence, you mean. At first, I felt ashamed at being part of a smuggling organisation, at least until I learned the true story about Emberlene. Karrde's a good man, though. He gave me a second chance when not even the New Republic would have me."
Mara nodded. "He gave me the chance to get out of the dead end life I spent five years in after Endor." She laughed. "We must sound like the Talon Karrde Appreciation Society."
"So what do we call you now?" Shada asked. "Is it Jade, Jade Skywalker, or just plain Skywalker?"
Mara looked down at her feet briefly. "Mara Skywalker, I think. It's strange. Only a few months ago, I'd have died rather than lose the Jade part of my name, let alone actually agree to marry Luke. I suppose I'm getting conservative in my old age. Either that, or it's something to do with being a full Jedi. It just seems that if we're going to get married, we might as well do it properly. I never do things by halves, as any of Karrde's people will tell you. And besides, it has a nice ring to it."
Shada gave Mara a thoughtful look. "I'm surprised you married Luke, actually. I would have thought Karrde was more your type than Luke."
Mara grimaced and shook her head. "Karrde and I know better than to wreck a good partnership. He's too calculating even for me, and besides, he's too old. The two of you would probably suit each other nicely, though."
Shada laughed. "You just said he was too calculating even for you."
Mara grinned. "Pay no attention. Karrde's as soft as an Ewok underneath it all. I've seen enough of his sort to know exactly what they're like. They always put on an ice cold front to hide their true nature. I told Luke once that Karrde was an even worse idealist than him. If anything, that was an understatement."
Luke and Leia sat in a corner of the throne room by themselves, Leia having managed to get Luke on his own for a few minutes.
"It all seems to be going well," Luke commented, watching Han, Chewbacca, Lando, and the whole of Rogue Squadron loudly and not entirely soberly reliving the battles of Yavin, Hoth, and Endor.
Leia nodded and took a deep breath. Discussing personal matters with Luke was never easy at the best of times. "Luke," she began. "I'm glad you and Mara decided to marry. It feels like this is your right path. You both complement each other. Mara keeps you from being too much the Jedi Master and you give her the support and relationship that she needs. Being taken from her home as a child and brought up by the Emperor didn't do her much good. She's only just coming out of that." She was silent for a minute. "It seems odd that you both took ten years to get to this point. Do you remember just before we took Marnoo back from the Empire and you and Mara faced Kam on Nespis VIII?"
Luke nodded. "It nearly but not quite happened. We were both unready for a relationship. Mara was still torn about being a Jedi and wanting to work with the Smuggler's Alliance, and I was still affected by my experiences with the dark side." He gestured at the scene in front of them. "It took all that time for us both to get to this point, what with Callista, Lando, and everything else."
"I hope it will have been worth it," Leia said. "Since you came back from the Nirauan system, there's been a sense of peace about you that you haven't had since Callista left. Even Mara seems much more serene these days, as incredible as that seems. Han wouldn't have said a fraction of the things he's been saying about her in the last few months before she ran him through with a lightsabre. I don't know what you talked about together while you were there, but it must have been interesting to listen to."
She grimaced. "I must sound like an actor in a bad holovid," she said ruefully.
Luke laughed. "More like Mon Mothma. All those speeches obviously rubbed off on you."
Mara turned away from Shada and came towards them. "I've had enough of this circus," she said. "You ready for takeoff, flyboy?"
Luke glanced around the throne room. "Not yet," he said. "I don't think we've spoken to everyone yet."
Leia and Mara both gave him a dangerous look. "Go on, Luke," Leia said firmly. "The door's that way. I'll sort everything out."
Luke smiled, accepting the inevitable gracefully. "Thanks, Leia. I'll see you when we get back".
"Hold on, Luke," Leia interrupted. She signalled to Han, who was standing talking with Kyp, Lando and Chewbacca. "You don't get rid of us that easily. We're coming with you to the landing grid." She smiled. "We've got something to show you."
The three of them were waiting for Han to make his way through the crowd to them, when Leia abruptly stiffened. "My stars!" she exclaimed. Luke and Mara followed her gaze to the middle of the throne room. Some of the guests were dancing in the middle of the room, including Lando and Tendra, and Kyp and Tionne. What had caught Leia's attention, though, was the sight of an acutely embarrassed Talon Karrde dancing with Shada, aware that he was being watched by every one of the guests. Shada looked round at the impromptu audience, and then wrapped her arms round Karrde's neck, demonstrating her indifference to their amazement.
"Did you have something to do with this?" Luke asked Mara, with an amused glint in his eye.
"Who, me?" Mara replied innocently and fooling no one. "Dream on, farmboy."
Han joined them, grinning from ear to ear. "Why doesn't anyone listen to me about strong women?" he said. He dragged his gaze away from Karrde and Shada with difficulty. "Ready to go, Luke?"
Han turned to Luke and Mara, who were staring at the ship sitting on the landing grid. "Welcome to the Skywalker Spirit, kid," he said with an expectant grin. "The name was Leia's idea. One of those crazy Force things. Well, what do you think?"
"It's a gift from the New Republic," Leia said. "We had some Mon Calamari and Verpine techs adapt it specially. They've upgraded the weapon systems, shields, and engines, and enlarged the internal spaces."
"They've done that alright," Luke agreed. The ship was slightly larger than the Jade's Fire, and like nothing either he or Mara had ever seen before. It looked like a combination of pieces of several ships, but due perhaps to the work of the Mon Calamari techs, it had a surprisingly graceful look. The sleek hull and powerful drive units indicated that it would be fast and agile, while the three heavy turbolasers, four light laser and ion cannons, and two twin proton torpedo launchers would make it a dangerous enemy in a battle. The standard dull grey/white starship hull paint had been replaced by an elegant silvery finish, with three closely spaced pale green bands running along the centre of the upper hull.
"I quite like it, actually," Leia said wistfully.
Han scowled. "What, you mean you prefer that rustbucket to the Falcon?" he said indignantly.
"Well, why not?" Leia asked. "They stopped producing YT-1300 freighters a long time ago. That ship hasn't got a single original part left. I'm amazed every time it takes off in one piece. And besides, it's the least suitable transport imaginable for a New Republic Senator."
Mara interrupted Han's retort. "You can sort out what you prefer by yourselves," she said. "I'll get the ship ready for takeoff." She kissed Leia and turned to Han, who was expecting a sarcastic remark. Instead, he was amazed to find himself being hugged by Mara. "Thanks, Han," she said. She let go after a few seconds. "Don't think I've suddenly gone soft, Solo," she said grimly, and headed towards the ship.
Han gave Luke a pitying look. "I feel sorry for you, kid. Mara's bad enough on her own. Imagine what your life will be like when you've got three or four little Mara's running around."
Leia shook her head in mock exasperation. "Just ignore him, Luke. He's secretly dying to be an uncle. By the way, we've already put all the parts you asked for on board, including the Adegan crystal. Make sure Mara makes her new lightsabre. So do we get to find out where you're going?"
Luke shrugged. "I don't know what we're going to do. Somehow I can't see Mara being overwhelmed at the prospect of visiting any luxury resorts."
Leia smiled, then stepped forward and kissed him. "Take care," she said. "Give Mara my love."
Luke nodded. "I will. See you, Han."
Han laughed. "Go on, get out of here. May the Force be with you. I think you're going to need it with Mara."
"You're probably right there," Luke agreed. "She's telling me to get moving right now." He went up the ramp, which began closing as soon as he was on it.
Leia watched the ship take off and climb towards space until it vanished from sight.
"Something the matter?" Han asked.
Leia shook her head. "It just reminds me of our own wedding," she said. "It doesn't seem possible it's been eleven years. My whole life seems to have been spent fighting one threat after another. I sometimes wish I could go and hide somewhere far away from the Empire and New Republic, or that I had never agreed to go and find Ben Kenobi for my father."
Han shook his head. "You know you don't mean that, sweetheart. What you need is a break from it all and you'll come back ready to fight all the old battles again. We'll have to ask Gavrisom for some time to ourselves again, and make absolutely sure not even he knows where we're going this time. Nearly crashing into a planet once is enough for me."
He gave her a searching look. "By the way, you didn't really mean what you said about the Falcon, did you?"
Leia was unable to suppress a smile. Despite being married, the father of three children, and old enough by now to know better, he had lost none of the roguishness of the smuggler who had blasted his way into her cell on the Death Star so many years before.
"No, Han," she said. "I didn't."
* * * * * *
The next morning, Galactic Voyager left Yavin to head back to Coruscant, carrying the dignitaries who had attended the wedding. Han and Leia watched
from the cockpit of the Falcon as the Galactic Voyager vanished into hyperspace with a flicker of pseudomotion.
The comm crackled. "Han, old buddy, Tendra and I are leaving," Lando said from the Lady Luck. "I found an interesting possibility for investment in the Ukio system. I don't suppose you're interested in forming a partnership to capitalise on this unique opportunity, are you?"
Han grinned. Lando was forever on the lookout for a chance to earn a few easy credits. He had gotten enough first hand experience of Lando's money making ideas to know that:
a) Lando was again in desperate need of some credits,
b) Lando's schemes never worked, for one reason or another.
"I'll think we'll pass on this one, Lando," he replied.
Lando sighed regretfully. "See you around, Han," he said.
Han acknowledged him, and a second later the Lady Luck vanished into hyperspace. He glanced at Leia. "She can still beat that souped up piece of junk the New Republic gave Luke and Mara as a wedding present hands down," he said, patting the Falcon's consoles lovingly. "Here we go. Next stop Coruscant," he observed as he pulled the hyperdrive lever, only to groan as the Falcon failed to go to lightspeed.
Leia slumped in her seat with a resigned sigh.
"Watch this," Han growled, goaded by her blatant derision. He kicked the consoles hard and grinned triumphantly as the Falcon jumped forward into hyperspace as though she had been stung.
* * * * * *
A Loronar Strike Cruiser hurtled through hyperspace on the way to a rendezvous with the renegade Imperial forces. The Dark Jedi Lady Lumiya sat in her
private quarters on the Strike Cruiser, considering the recent events. After the conclusion of the Caamas Issue, the three Star Destroyers involved in the battle
over Bothwui had deserted, both to avoid the inevitable trial they would face, and in disgust at the peace treaty between the Empire and New Republic. Captain
Narven of the Obdurate and other Imperial Captains had been similarly outraged, and Lumiya had taken the opportunity to persuade them to work with her. At
any other time, she would have ignored them, as there had been other, far better chances at overthrowing or merely hurting the New Republic, that she had
disregarded, such as the brief campaign of Grand Admiral Thrawn and the mad Jedi Master Joruus C'baoth. For a time, she had been tempted to join them, when
they seemed to be winning, but Thrawn was too strongwilled for her to dominate and she did not want to work with an insane Jedi. All the other options, like the
egomaniacal and pathetically incompetent Admiral Daala, had been rejected instantly.
The event which had persuaded her to join this small force, however, had been the announcement of the imminent wedding of Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade. Upon hearing the news, she had gone into a savage, dark side fuelled rage, and immediately decided to join the renegade Imperials. Skywalker had destroyed her life and left her to suffer. She had let him escape her for far too long, and then there was the matter of Mara Jade. The former Emperor's Hand, once sworn to kill Skywalker for her master's death, had abandoned her true path so completely that she had become a Jedi and agreed to marry Skywalker. C'baoth had once believed that he held the key to Skywalker's soul. He had been utterly wrong, Lumiya thought. She had the true key to the soul of Mara Jade. Once Jade learned the truth about her past, she would join Lumiya. There would be no other choice...
The Imperial Star Destroyer Chimaera hung quietly above the Imperial capital world of Bastion, only a few running lights showing. On the bridge of the Chimaera, however, things were far from peaceful.
Admiral Pellaeon, Supreme Commander of the Imperial Fleet, strode up and down the deck, a red-hot mist of anger filling his mind so powerfully that he did not care about the lapse in Imperial discipline being witnessed by the bridge crew. He stopped and took the handheld visual display, which had been paused at the point during the attack on the Yaga Minor base when General Hestiv's Golan battle station had exploded, from a nervous aide. For a long moment, he stared at the image before hurling the display against the nearest bulkhead with all his strength, where it shattered into pieces.
Captain Ardiff, standing inconspicuously to one side, took a deep breath. "I'm sorry about General Hestiv, Admiral," he said tentatively. Pellaeon spun round, eyes flashing, and the men around Ardiff took a step away from him, half-expecting the Admiral to shoot Ardiff down on the spot. But Pellaeon closed his eyes for a minute, and when he opened them again, the rage had gone, to be replaced by an icy determination.
"Send a priority message to every ship and planet in the Empire," he ordered the comm officer. "I want those scum found. Instruct Intelligence to mount a search for their possible current location. Anyone who fails to give this their full attention will personally answer to me. Order the Star Destroyers Bellicose, Relentless, Judicator, Nemesis, Stormhawk, and the Interdictor Cruiser Constrainer to assemble here in readiness to move as soon as we locate the traitors."
One of his aides coughed hesitantly, and he turned, a new flash of anger surging up inside him. "What is the matter, Lieutenant?" he demanded.
The Lieutenant braced himself. "Sir, with respect, may I remind you that Imperial Intelligence has been replaced by the new Galactic Intelligence Service."
Pellaeon cursed himself silently for the oversight. "Thank you, Lieutenant. Establish a comm link with Head of Galactic Intelligence Talon Karrde - a private one."
He left the bridge and made his way to the command room. The hologram pod was already projecting an image of Talon Karrde when he arrived. "Greetings, Admiral," the hologram said. "This is an unexpected honour."
"You may dispense with the pleasantries, Karrde," Pellaeon said curtly. "The three Star Destroyers involved in the attack on Bothawui have helped a group of defecting ships escape from the Yaga Minor base. During the attack, my friend General Hestiv was killed."
Karrde nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, I heard about that. May I express my regret on the death of General Hestiv? We will of course begin an attempt to locate the perpetrators immediately."
Pellaeon nodded. "You may pass this information onto the New Republic. You may also inform them that Moff Disra is due to be tried for betraying the Empire and plotting against the New Republic. They are invited to send observers to the trial if they wish to verify its fairness."
Karrde acknowledged the offer and the hologram vanished.
The Star Destroyer Obliterator lay inert in space as Lumiya's Loronar Strike Cruiser came alongside it. Unlike most capital starships, this one was completely black hulled, save for a pair of red stripes running along the top and bottom of the ship. Captain Trazzen watched as a Lambda shuttle, also black-hulled, entered the main docking bay of the Obliterator and settled to the deck. A squad of of stormtroopers took up guard positions as the ramp on the transport lowered. A group of guards emerged from the shuttle, carrying blaster rifles. Following them, a figure clad in a black robe came down the ramp.
Trazzen stepped forwards. "Lady Lumiya, this is a pleasure. I remember the glory of the Empire under Lord Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. If we are fortunate, we will able to hurt the New Republic together."
Lumiya managed to conceal her scorn with a supreme effort. "Do these fools really think they would last five minutes against the New Republic?" she thought. "If the Force permits us," she said instead. "I do not wish to listen to your wretched attempts to ingratiate yourself with me. I trust I will not have to repeat myself in this." She strode away, leaving Trazzen staring after her, and wondering if they had made the right decision to join forces with Lumiya.
* * * * * *
Three days later, it seemed to Leia as though her short break during Luke's wedding had never happened. She stifled a groan as Councillor Borsk Fey'lya
rose to address President Gavrisom. Forever faithful to the Bothan code of political backstabbing and advancement at any price, it had not taken him long to
recover from the effects of the Caamas Issue.
Gavrisom's face remained impassive, but Leia could easily sense his agitation at the prospect of Fey'lya speaking, agitation which quickly proved well founded.
Fey'lya turned a poisonous glare on the Ishori Senator Ghic Dx'ono. "President Gavrisom, I wish to debate the matter of the Ishori attack on Drev'starn," he said, his fur rippling madly. "An unprovoked attack, I would emphasise. Roughly two thousand, three hundred and thirty eight Bothans died when the Predominance fired on Drev'starn. The Ishori were quick enough to demand compensation from us for the destruction of Caamas but conveniently overlook their role in the attack on Bothawui."
Dx'ono snarled and rose to his feet, his face mottled with rage. "The attack was due to Imperial agents gaining control of a turbolaser battery," he hissed. "We made every effort to stop them as soon as they opened fire."
"We have only your word for that," Fey'lya observed.
Dx'ono's hand dropped to his hip, and Leia was sure that if he had his blaster, he would have shot Fey'lya down, Senate or no Senate. "Councillor Organa Solo and President Gavrisom himself were there," he screamed. "Do you doubt their veracity?"
Fey'lya, unfazed, was verbally deft enough to avoid either calling Leia and Gavrisom outright liars or backing down, but stopped as Gavrisom touched a button and the sound system shut down. "Senators Fey'lya and Dx'ono, I would remind you that the New Republic Senate is not a private forum for your personal grudges. If you are unable to observe diplomatic protocol, I will have you temporarily suspended as New Republic Senators."
Fey'lya and Dx'ono both fell silent at the unexpected force in his voice, and Gavrisom turned towards Dx'ono. "Senator Dx'ono, intended use of force against another Senator is entirely unacceptable. The laws of the New Republic specifically forbid such intimidation and I would be entirely justified in stripping you of your senatorial position. I will not do so on this occasion in light of the Ishori disposition towards such action. If I witness such a reaction again, however, you may be assured that I will immediately have you summarily and permanently removed from the Senate. Do I make myself clear?"
Dx'ono nodded mutely, taken aback by the strength of the rebuke. Gavrisom held his gaze for a minute longer before turning his attention to the Senator from Corellia, but stopped as one of his aides abruptly burst into the Senate's Grand Convocation Chamber and handed him a datapad. The Senators waited as Gavrisom studied it for a minute.
Gavrisom put the datapad down. "I regret to announce that a Fleet patrol force has just been obliterated on our border with the Empire," he said without any preamble. "The data we have indicates that a group of Star Destroyers and other ships made an apparently random attack on our forces."
A wave of shock ran through the chamber. "This proves our gullibility in trusting the Empire to keep any agreement we make," shouted one of the Senators.
Gavrisom raised a hand. "The details are still sketchy. We should not jump to conclusions before we know all the facts. The head of Galactic Intelligence, Talon Karrde, has already informed us that several Star Destroyers have mutinied. It is very probable that they and the ships involved in this attack are one and the same."
"And who told him that they have mutinied?" demanded the same Senator. "The Empire, naturally. No doubt they believe they can attack us with impunity while laying the blame at the door of renegade elements of their military."
"Enough!" Gavrisom answered. "The first task to accomplish is finding out who was behind this attack and why. This meeting is adjourned. Will all members of the New Republic High Command please assemble in the High Command briefing room."
Half an hour later, the briefing room was thronged with various military commanders and their staff. Looking around the room, Leia could see General Rieekan, Admiral Ackbar, Admiral Drayson, and plenty of other New Republic commanders.
Admiral Ackbar stepped up to the briefing podium in the centre of the room. A hologram depicting part of the New Republic/Empire border appeared in front of the podium.
Ackbar indicated the hologram with a pointer. "As you are aware, a border force has just been wiped out in this area. Details are still sketchy, but it appears that our forces were attacked without warning by Imperial ships. General Javell was in command. As you probably know, Javell is a good commander. Unfortunately, his frigate was one of the first ships destroyed. There were no survivors."
"From what we do know of the battle," Drayson said, "something strange was going on. The few survivors of the battle, mostly fighter pilots, report that the Imperials came out of hyperspace far enough away from them to let a battle line be formed. What happened next is unclear. They report that whole squadrons of fighters began panicking. The TIEs had an easy time disposing of them. The whole chain of command became chaotic. Approximately ten minutes after hostilities commenced, our forces had become a mob."
"Could they have been panicked by some sort of superweapon being used by the Imperials?" asked a colonel.
"Extremely improbable," Rieekan said. "If they did have such a weapon, they would have used it before now. The reports and sensor data do not indicate anything unusual. It seems to be merely a case of extreme battle confusion."
The hologram changed to show four Star Destroyers and their identification. "The Obdurate, Tyrannic, Ironhand and Obliterator, commanded by Captains Narven, Nalgol, Argona, and Trazzen respectively. All four are staunch Imperial officers and competent commanders. Apparently they took violent exception to the peace treaty, the latter three no doubt prompted by fear of being tried alongside Moff Disra for their part in the Caamas Issue. It seems likely that they will merely strike at random, like Admiral Daala, although they are considerably more formidable."
"Thank you, General," Ackbar said. "Until we locate the Imperials, all forces will remain at a code yellow alert. This meeting is concluded."
* * * * * *
The four Star Destroyer captains had assembled in the briefing room on the Ironhand.
"We should attack Yavin 4 or Endor," Captain Argona said, as they debated their next target. "They are the sites of great Rebel victories. By gaining our own victories there, we would humiliate the Rebels."
Narven nodded slowly. "Of course," he said contemptuously. "Let us all bow before the heir to Grand Admiral Thrawn's genius. We can score a legendary victory over the truly deadly Ewoks, or be utterly defeated by the Jedi Knights. Did Admiral Daala train you?" he growled, spitting the word out like it was poison. "No doubt she would have been overjoyed at the idea of attacking a defenceless world like Endor or choosing an 'easy' target, like the Jedi Knights or the Mon Calamari. We should strike important Rebel bases, such as the Sluis Van shipyards. What is your opinion, Lady Lumiya?"
Lumiya, who up to now had been standing with her back turned and her arms folded, indicating her disdain for them, turned. "I am relieved to discover that at least one of you is not entirely brain-rotted," she said scathingly. "The destruction of the Rebel border force is a start. In doing so, we have shown them that we are dangerous. If we continue to make such attacks, they will have to send out a full battle group to deal with us. When they do, we will make the New Republic navy the laughing stock of the galaxy."
She raised a hand and the captains watched in amazement as a depiction of the Sluis Van shipyards materialised over the table. "Our first target. We will avenge Grand Admiral Thrawn's defeat."
The image metamorphosed quickly into an image of Wayland. "We will have revenge on the Noghri for their treason against the Empire and Thrawn, and the Rebels for destroying Joruus C'baoth and Mount Tantiss."
The image changed again. "At this point, they will be forced to track us down." She indicated the image. "We will wait here, and let the Rebels come to us. When they do, we will destroy them at the site of our greatest defeat. At Endor."
She looked at them. "Do we agree?"
One by one, they nodded slowly.
"Good," she said. "Then we can proceed."
Sluis Van had scarcely changed since Thrawn's attack, Captain Nalgol noted as the Imperial ships came out of lightspeed on the base perimeter. It was still just as heavily defended as it had been then, perhaps slightly more so, and the defences were still as efficient. Scarcely ten seconds passed after the first Star Destroyer arrived than the first ranging shots began reaching out from the perimeter battle stations.
This time though, he knew, the attack would not fail. The accursed Rogue Squadron weren't here and their plan was merely to cause as much destruction as possible, a much simpler exercise than stealing ships from the New Republic. Finally, of course, they had Lumiya to generate fear and despair in the shipyard personnel. He glanced to where she was standing at the viewports, her eyes closed in concentration as she used the Force.
He watched the tactical display. The Ironhand and Obdurate were exchanging fire with one of the battle stations, although its fire was slackening as Lumiya used her powers to cloud the minds of the gunners. Three of the Corvettes were using the cover of the Star Destroyer attack to slip past into the shipyards. Laser bolts sparkled as they began tracking and firing on freighters and bulk cargo carriers. One targeted an unmanned group of newly built B-wing fighters, blowing them apart with turbolasers. TIE fighters followed them in to neutralise the handful of fighters attacking the Corvettes. To starboard, one of the Nebulon-B frigates was engaged with an old Dreadnaught cruiser.
"Sir, Ironhand and Obdurate have disabled the battle station's port turbolasers," an aide announced.
Nalgol nodded, stepping up to the viewports. Finally, he was expiating his failure at Bothawui. He smiled as he saw the Dreadnaught explode under a combined barrage from the Nebulon-B and the Obliterator. The Ironhand began to move past the battle station, carving a swathe through the shipyard. Ships began desperately breaking for the safety of open space as the turbolasers began firing at anything within range. A large freighter was torn apart by a concentrated salvo of laser fire. Bacta fluid sprayed out from the cargo holds, freezing instantly in the cold of space. A lone Corellian gunship, firing at one of the Corvettes, was hit by multiple torpedos from a flight of TIE bombers. The guns fell silent as the ship was exposed to vacuum and the crew asphyxiated. By now, the few Rebel fighters had been destroyed by the TIEs.
Lumiya opened her eyes. "That will do," she ordered curtly. "All ships will reform and withdraw."
Nalgol felt a flash of anger at being ordered around by Lumiya, but dared not anger her. He nodded to an aide. "Order the TIEs to return to their hangars. Transmit the coordinates for Wayland to the other ships."
A few minutes later, the Imperial ships jumped to lightspeed, leaving the smoking remains of the Sluis Van shipyard behind them.
Wayland was an unremarkable world consisting mainly of forest and plains, Captain Narven noted as the Obdurate lay above the planet. A perfect place for the Emperor to have his private storehouse. During the Rebellion, its location had been known only to his top aides, such as Darth Vader. Now it was home to the Noghri. He gazed at one of the viewscreens which was displaying a transmission from an Imperial probe droid. A Noghri clan dukha was currently on the screen. He nodded in satisfaction as a salvo of laser bolts abruptly blew the building to pieces. A second later, a massive metal foot crashed down in the remains of the building. The shape of an AT-AT appeared on the screen as the probe droid's cameras zoomed out. The droid turned to follow the walker as it strode past, with other walkers flanking it on each sides. The walkers systematically blew the buildings in the small settlement apart, and then targeted any fleeing Noghri that they could see. A line of probe droids moved into the forest, seeking targets for the smaller AT-STs. TIE fighters and interceptors zoomed overhead, destroying the few airspeeders that were mounting a token resistance. TIE bombers crisscrossed the forest around the settlements, systematically dropping lines of concussion grenades.
Narven did not particularly like attacking those who presented little threat, but he rationalised it with the thought that the Noghri were too dangerous an enemy of the Empire, not to mention their having betrayed the Empire and been responsible for Thrawn's death. This was merely a long overdue punishment. He watched as similar attacks were made on the other settlements until the probe droids could no longer detect any lifesigns within a two kilometre radius of the ruined settlements.
"Set a course for Endor when all personnel have returned," he ordered as transports began landing to pick up the AT-ATs, AT-STs and probe droids. No ground troops had been deployed since they would merely have been slaughtered by the Noghri. They had done quite well, he noted, studying the reports. Over a third of the probe droids had been destroyed and four AT-ST crews killed. It had been a one-sided battle, though. The Noghri had not been able to withstand the relentless attack of an Imperial ground assault force.
* * * * * *
The New Republic Senate was silent for a moment as Gavrisom finished detailing the Imperial attacks on Sluis Van and Wayland, before anger took over.
"This is intolerable," the Senator from Tandell snarled. "How much longer will we have to endure the humiliation of these Imperial raids? On behalf of my people, I demand that a reprisal attack is made on the Empire. Perhaps that will teach them that we cannot be faced down so easily."
Shouts of agreement rose from other Senators, to be met by vehement opposition from others. In seconds, the entire Senate became a rancor pit, as each group sought to drown the other out.
"Silence!" a voice thundered.
The chamber fell silent in shock, all eyes focussing on President Gavrisom. He touched a switch to mute the entire sound system, and stood silently for a minute, his eyes sweeping the room. "The chair does not recognise the Senator for Tandell at this time, or any other Senator. If there is a similar collapse of civility and order in this room again, I will have no alternative but to disassociate myself from it by resigning as President of the New Republic."
He looked down to his podium. "The Imperial raids are indeed entirely unacceptable. Data records from the attack on Sluis Van indicate the same confusion and sudden loss of coordination that afflicted the destroyed border force. It also seems to have affected the Noghri on Wayland when they were attacked. Clearly, this must be investigated thoroughly. An experienced and proven force, which everyone in the New Republic will be able to rely on, will have to be sent to search for the Imperial marauders."
He looked around the room. "I trust that a battle group led by Admiral Ackbar and spearheaded by Rogue Squadron will meet these requirements. They are currently out in the Kanchen sector..."
"Watch it, Rogue Leader," Rogue Three warned. "You've got a tail."
Wedge twisted in his cockpit to see a TIE fighter close behind him. He grinned. He had been in this situation so many times that it was virtually routine. "Rogue Eight, we'll do a Darklighter interception manoeuvre," he ordered. "On two: one, two." He pulled his X-wing up hard and to starboard, and frowned as he glanced at his display. The TIE pilot was good alright, almost too good. Most TIE pilots had difficulty matching the manoeuvre with their less agile fighters, but this one matched Wedge's manoeuvre exactly. In doing so, however, he wouldn't notice the other X-wing approaching him from above until it was too late.
That, at least, was what usually happened. Rogue Eight blazed in above the TIE, lasers spitting at the projected flight path...and missed completely.
Wedge blinked in amazement as a split second after matching his feint manoeuvre, the TIE pilot cut his engines sharply and turned the fighter to bring it to a near standstill in a display of flying prowess that even Wedge couldn't match. Rogue Eight's X-wing followed the laser blasts through the space the fighter would have occupied, and the TIE's engines surged back to full power as it dived after Rogue Eight, letting loose a volley of green laser bolts at point blank range. Wedge's lips tightened as the X-wing disintegrated in less than a second. He hauled his X-wing hard to starboard, permitting himself a moment of satisfaction as his lasers blew Rogue 8's destroyer into space dust.
He glanced towards the Imperial Star Destroyer Implacable which was exchanging turbolaser fire with the Star Cruiser Liberty. "Rogues Four, Five, and Six, form up on me," he ordered. "Let's see if we can take out the Implacable's shield generators."
"Right with you, boss," Rogue Six acknowledged.
The four ships dived in tight formation towards the Star Destroyer, which was not slow to respond to their attack. A hail of turbolaser fire rose to meet them, and three TIE interceptors came in behind them, their lasers blasting continuously. A scream came from the comm channel, and Wedge glanced round to see one of the X-wings become an expanding cloud of debris.
"They got Five, Rogue Leader," Rogue Four said grimly.
Wedge shook his head in disbelief at yet another loss, watching the shield generator towers grow larger as they approached. He let out a breath as they entered the 'clear zone' around the Star Destroyer's bridge, where the turbolaser batteries were unable to fire for fear of hitting the superstructure. Now they only had to worry about the pursuing TIEs. He adjusted his targeting computer, setting the lasers to the maximum convergence range in order to hit the shield generators at the greatest distance.
"Watch out, Rogue Leader!" Rogue Six snapped.
Wedge looked up to see a stream of green bolts coming towards him, and knew that he could never avoid the laser blasts. A sudden impact shook his X-wing, and then everything went black.
The simulator pod canopy hissed up and Wedge shook his head in disbelief. He looked round to see several of the Rogue Squadron pilots standing by their own simulators. "What in Vader's name happened?" he demanded incredulously, and with more than a little chagrin at being shot down, as he climbed out of the simulator.
Corran Horn grinned. "You're getting careless in your old age, Rogue Leader. Star Destroyer shield generators sure make good camouflage for a lurking TIE Interceptor."
Several other simulator pods in the training room opened and a couple of surviving Rogues and half a dozen other pilots emerged. "Never underestimate Baron Soontir Fel," Carib Devist taunted. "I thought Rogue Squadron were meant to be good. I've seen space tug drivers fly X-wings better."
"At least we don't hide behind shield generators to ambush people," Wedge retorted. He knew Devist was right, though. They had been comprehensively outclassed by the clones of Baron Fel. Too much success had made them complacent. At least this should shake them up. He slapped Devist on the back. "You can make up for this by buying the drinks."
"You can forget about the drinks," a voice said from behind him, and Wedge turned to see Bel Iblis standing there.
"President Gavrisom has ordered us to mount a search and destroy operation for the mutinying Imperial ships," Bel Iblis said. "Apparently, the attacks have rattled the Senate, and your reputation meant that we were the obvious choice." He looked at Devist, changing the subject momentarily. "Thank you for agreeing to take part in the simulation exercise. How did the Liberty scenario go?"
Devist grinned. "We destroyed the Liberty and eight members of Rogue Squadron, including the distinguished Captain Antilles, for an Assault Frigate and five of my...brothers. A fair exchange, I'd say."
Bel Iblis nodded. "Indeed. I expect you to even honours in the next simulation, Captain Antilles, or I'll have the whole squadron flying Y-wings as punishment."
His mood of levity faded. "We have been informed by Galactic Intelligence that the Imperial ships have been seen at Endor. We'll be jumping into hyperspace shortly. Make sure you're ready when we get there."
* * * * * *
Lumiya stared out at the forest moon of Endor outside the Obliterator's bridge. "We've finally drawn the New Republic's attention," she announced to
Captain Trazzen coldly. "Soon we will have some guests arriving. We shall have to prepare a warm welcome for them indeed. We will eliminate the approaching
force and wipe out the shame of the Death Star's destruction."
She laughed silently. The Imperial captains were incredibly easy to manipulate. She hadn't even needed to influence their minds to have them do her bidding. Soon Skywalker would come, and when he did, she would destroy him.
* * * * * *
"President Gavrisom," Leia called, hurrying after him as he padded down the Grand Corridor.
Gavrisom stopped and waited for her. "Yes, Councillor?" he asked as she caught up with him.
"I'm returning to Yavin with Han to meet Luke and Mara when they arrive," Leia said.
Gavrisom nodded. "Very well, Councillor. I wish you well."
"Thank you," Leia answered. She gave him a wry smile. "You certainly made an impression back there in the Senate chambers."
Gavrisom shifted his wings awkwardly. "I am beginning to learn the value of action rather than words, particularly with regard to the New Republic Senate," he observed. There was a pause as Borsk Fey'lya hurried past them. "I begin to understand why you resigned your position as President of the New Republic. It becomes tedious trying to keep the members of the Senate from declaring war on each other."
* * * * * *
Hyperspace shrank to stars as Admiral Ackbar's taskforce came out of lightspeed.
"There they are," Wedge said softly to himself. Four Star Destroyers, three Nebulon-B frigates, eight Corellian Corvettes, and a black-hulled Loronar Strike Cruiser were almost straight ahead of them. He keyed his comm. "X-wings, B-wings, this is Rogue Leader. Lock S-foils into attack position. All groups, assume battle formation. May the Force be with you."
Ahead of and around him, X-wings opened their S-foils and B-wings rotated into their upright attack position. In the front of the formation, A-wings were racing forward to meet any incoming TIE interceptors. The X-wings were assuming escort position around the B-wings and Y-wings to protect them from enemy fighters.
"TIE fighters coming in, Rogue Leader," Green Leader warned. "I only count five squadrons though. Surely they aren't going to give us fighter superiority this easily, are they?" he asked in some surprise.
"Vader only knows, Green Leader," Wedge replied. Considering the numbers of New Republic fighters coming at them, to only launch five out of a possible thirty, six each from the ISDs and two from the escort frigates, was a flagrant disregard of the first law of space combat. It meant that the enemy fighters could pound capital ships into rubble with impunity. Either the Imperials were committing mass suicide, or they weren't worried about the approaching New Republic fighters. He tightened his grip on the control stick in anticipation as the two groups of fighters closed on each other. Once again, he was about to dogfight TIE fighters. He wondered if there would ever be a time when he would no longer have to battle Imperial forces. Ahead, the A-wings of Green Squadron were approaching a forward squadron of Interceptors. The first flashes of laser fire began appearing as both squadrons began firing at each other in a pre-emptive strike.
And at that moment, the whole battle collapsed into chaos as the true attack hit the New Republic forces.
Trazzen watched the New Republic ships in amazement. "We've certainly drawn their attention. This is better than even I hoped for. That Star Cruiser is the flagship of Admiral Ackbar, and even that Sith-cursed Rogue Squadron is here."
"Rogue Squadron?" Lumiya queried, suddenly assuming interest in the New Republic ships.
"An elite group of X-wing pilots, led by General Wedge Antilles," Trazzen explained.
Lumiya glared at him. "I know who they are, Captain. I once infiltrated Rogue Squadron on the orders of Darth Vader. I shall take great pleasure in their destruction. They will learn the full power of the dark side before they die." She closed her eyes, calling on all her strength in the Force and thinking of what Luke Skywalker and the entire Rebellion had taken from her, and left her with in return. They had destroyed the Emperor and Vader, and Skywalker had given her this cruel mockery of life. The moment that her X-wing had disintegrated around her as he fired on it was forever burnt into her memory. Her only regret in killing Skywalker was that no matter how agonising it was, it would only be a thousandth part of the torture she had suffered then, and still suffered. She only had to close her eyes to see the red-hot shrapnel ripping through her and the fireball engulf her. She felt her anger rise and the dark side flow through her like a living thing as it quickened to her fury. It unleashed itself in a searing wave of hate, anger, and despair that swept over the New Republic fleet. It was so strong that every crew member on the bridge of the Obliterator briefly cowered in fear.
And then, impossibly, it was met and countered. Her eyes snapped open again in amazement.
"Is something wrong, Lady Lumiya?" Trazzen asked.
Lumiya stared out at the battle. "There is a Jedi Knight with Rogue Squadron," she said softly.
Corran Horn didn't know what had hit him. One moment, he had been flying in formation with the rest of Rogue Squadron, and the next he was slammed back in his seat by an almost physical wall of hate. He caught a fleeting glimpse of Green Squadron breaking apart in alarm even as they engaged the incoming TIEs. He knew what was happening, having experienced it once before in Exar Kun's temple on Yavin, but this time it was vastly stronger, with the icy cold sensation of dark side power. With an supreme effort, he cleared his mind, reciting the Jedi Code, and fought back as much as possible. He felt the attack ease, and then the touch of a Force mind probe.
Lumiya reached out with the Force, probing the Jedi's mind. Her first thought, that it had been Skywalker, was wrong, she realised. Obviously it was just one of his students. Her eyes narrowed as she discovered an interesting memory. So he had shot down a spy within Rogue Squadron, had he? How ironical, she thought. Her hate reached new heights as she focussed her mind and struck.
In front of Wedge, Green Squadron came apart, making themselves easy prey for the TIE Interceptors . At least three exploded from direct hits by TIEs as they took evasive action. A second later, the other four TIE squadrons swept through the dogfight, heading for the other New Republic fighters, who were also breaking apart. "Break off," Gold Leader gasped as the B-wing and Y-wing squadrons crumpled, fighters heading in all directions.
"Negative. Stay in formation," Wedge snapped, trying to fight down his own unreasoning terror. As quickly as it had come, though, it was gone. "What the Sith was that?" he muttered.
"What, Nine?" he demanded.
"Break off the attack now, repeat, break off now," Corran said urgently. "They're using the Force against us. That's why they managed to hit Sluis Van and Wayland so hard. Wait.."
"Nine!" Wedge barked as a fresh attack, albeit a weaker one this time, hit the New Republic fleet. He twisted in the cockpit to see Corran's X-wing, uncontrolled, start drifting from side to side and around its axis. "Tell Whistler to take over and get them back to Galactic Voyager," he snapped at his own astromech, Gate. The droid beeped in acknowledgement, and a few seconds later, Corran's fighter steadied and then turned back towards Galactic Voyager. TIE's were swarming all around Wedge, furiously attacking the confused and panicked Republic fighters. He caught a brief glimpse of Green Leader swooping through the battle, hot on a TIE fighter. He had been lucky. Wedge's displays were showing only three survivors from Green Squadron. In seconds, Green Squadron had been decimated. Much the same thing was happening to the other squadrons. They had been thrown into chaos by the dark side attack, and the TIEs were going through them like a lightsabre through transparisteel. He glanced around. Rogue Squadron and Blue Squadron were managing to hold steady, able to cope with their fear this time. The other squadrons were also beginning to reform. Nevertheless, it would be folly to stay and risk another strong attack. "This is Rogue Leader. All fighters, withdraw immediately. Rogues and Blue Squadron, cover their retreat. Admiral, we're pulling back now."
"I copy, Rogue Leader," Ackbar acknowledged. "All fighters, return to your ships."
Corran had enough time to tell Wedge to pull back before the Force attack came again. A second later, a wall of sheer hate washed over him, beating against his mind like the onslaught of a Super Star Destroyer. He felt the X-wing turn under Whistler's control as a familiar, and yet unfamiliar, figure formed in his mind.
"What's the matter, Corran?" asked Erisi Dlarit mockingly. "Having problems?"
Corran didn't answer, knowing it was only a dark side illusion. It was amazingly strong, though, far beyond the ability of his own Jedi powers to counter. "Erisi's dead. I shot her down," he thought, in an attempt to focus on reality. "And when did Erisi ever have red hair and brown eyes?"
"Oh, you shot me down all right," came the reply. "See what you did to me, Corran Horn, and suffer in pain."
The cockpit of the X-wing abruptly seemed to vanish around Corran, to be replaced by that of a TIE Interceptor. A sudden violent shock marked the impact of lasers on the solar panels, which he saw disintegrate around him. Out of control, the Interceptor turned over and dived towards the surface of Thyferra's moons at full power. Corran watched in helpless terror as the TIE plunged towards the moon, unable to change course as much as a micron. Then it hit. It didn't explode, but merely tore into the surface and kept going. The transparisteel viewport shattered instantly, a rain of shards stabbing through the cockpit and Corran himself. Through the instant spray of blood, he saw the surface of the moon from dozens of angles in a few seconds, as the wrecked TIE slewed around, bounced up once, and then slammed back down. The impact crushed the lower cockpit, shattering his legs beyond repair, and he screamed in agony. The ruined fighter still kept going. Finally, it came to a gradual halt. That wasn't the worst, though. Corran lay in the cockpit, somehow still alive. His spine had been broken during the crash, and his sealed flightsuit torn in several places. He suffocated in the vacuum of space, unable even to move, until everything went black...
He was back in the cockpit of an X-wing, and had just time to see incoming quad laser bolts from another X-wing before they destroyed his port S-foils and sent the snubfighter into a wild spin. He managed to fasten his helmet seals before the port engines exploded, tearing through the body of the fighter. A fireball flared in the cockpit a few seconds before he lost consciousness. The next thing he remembered after that was floating in a bacta tank, and looking down in horror to see that his arm had been amputated. Then he saw himself encased in a cyborg frame, in agony from injuries that he knew would never truly heal, and in mental torment at what he had become.
He suddenly found himself in the cockpit of his own X-wing, shaking for the first time in his life, and covered in sweat. The attack seemed to have abruptly ended. With a flood of relief, he saw the bulk of Galactic Voyager looming in front of his fighter. "Thanks, Whistler," he said weakly as the droid brought the X-wing into the Star Cruiser's hangar bay.
Admiral Ackbar sombrely watched the fighters fall back as the wing leaders relayed the command to retreat. TIE fighters and interceptors were pursuing them every step of the way, determined not to let them escape, with only Rogue and Blue Squadron keeping them at bay in a rearguard action. Beyond them, the Obdurate, Ironhand, and all three Nebulon-B frigates were approaching at flank speed. "Bring us broadside to the Star Destroyers," he ordered. "Tell Starwind and Mon Renalla to hold in the same position relative to us. Order a pair of gunships to make sure that no TIEs try to outflank us."
He watched as Galactic Voyager began swinging around to bring its entire bank of port turbolasers to bear on the approaching ships, and its sister Star Cruisers moved into position on either side. The Imperial ships appeared to want to fight, as they approached the three Star Cruisers. Targeting shots were fired from both groups of ships to establish gunnery information, and then they both opened up with salvoes of turbolaser fire as they came into firing range of each other.
From the bridge viewports, Bel Iblis could see dozens of New Republic fighters approaching, still being given a rearguard defence by Rogue and Blue Squadrons. Once the fighters were on board, the entire fleet would be able to withdraw and reinforce. The Imperials were as aware of that fact as he was. The Tyrannic, Obliterator and the Corvettes were hastening to join the attack group before the New Republic ships could retreat.
He watched the exchanges of turbolaser fire between the Star Destroyers and Star Cruisers. The fear that the New Republic fleet was suffering from was affecting the gunners, as the turbolasers were not firing as quickly and accurately as normal. The shields were strong enough to offset the worst of the disparity in laser fire, however. The other capital ships were at more risk. TIE bombers, unhindered by New Republic fighters, were swarming around the capital ships and launching volleys of proton torpedoes. One group sent a spread of torpedoes against an Assault Frigate. The first half dozen merely impacted against the shields, but then a hole opened in the shields, and the rest of the torpedoes exploded against the frigate's hull. One after another, they ripped an increasingly wide hole in the armour plating, sending fire and air erupting from the breached hull. TIE fighters and Interceptors swept in, drawn like flies to the damaged frigate, and making strafing runs. Two corvettes and a Nebulon-B moved in to bombard the ship at point blank range. Under the bombardment, escape pods began exploding from the dying frigate.
Unless they recovered the fighters quickly, Bel Iblis knew, the same thing would happen to them all. The Tyrannic and Ironhand had moved to engage Mon Renalla, and were pounding it unmercifully. Galactic Voyager and Starwind were unable to intervene, as they were being pinned down by the Obdurate and Obliterator. The Nebulon-B frigates and Corvettes were keeping the rest of the fleet occupied.
Abruptly, the ISDs attacking Mon Renalla switched to ion cannons. Blue lightning began playing over the shields of the beleaguered Star Cruiser. Galactic Voyager, a Strike Cruiser, and two gunships were firing at the Star Destroyers in an attempt to distract them from Mon Renalla, but they simply ignored the incoming fire. The Nebulon-B frigate Malice moved to interpose itself between the Mon Renalla and the other ships, and opened up on them with a full turbolaser barrage. Behind it, Mon Renalla's shields finally collapsed under the ion bombardment, and the ion blasts skittered up and down its hull like lightning. Explosions flared at the points where the blasts touched the hull, and the turbolasers fell silent as the Star Cruiser control systems were paralysed.
The Imperials were not slow to react. Both attacking Star Destroyers closed in on the helpless Star Cruiser and opened up with a savage hail of turbolaser fire. Laser fire raked Mon Renalla from bow to stern, systematically annihilating the turbolasers, torpedo clusters, ion cannons, and tractor beam emplacements. TIE bombers made steady torpedo runs, firing their missiles before breaking off and moving into position for a fresh attack run.
In a desperate last attempt to save Mon Renalla, Galactic Voyager and Starwind disengaged from the Obdurate and Obliterator, ignoring the turbolaser salvoes that tore into their shields, and surged forward to form up on either flank of their sister ship. By now Rogue and Blue Squadrons had finished escorting the other fighters back to their ships, and they grouped around Mon Renalla, making superhuman efforts to drive off the strafing TIE bombers and fighters.
Not even Rogue Squadron could do the impossible this time, though. Mon Renalla was already too badly damaged, and there were simply too many attackers for them to stop. Wedge gritted his teeth in helpless anger as Mon Renalla began to break apart in a series of violent explosions. One final explosion nearly tore the Star Cruiser in two, and then it vanished in a detonation that hurled massive pieces of debris into the shields of Galactic Voyager and Starwind. He glanced at his displays, but they indicated no escape pods - Mon Renalla had exploded too quickly for that. An entire ship's crew of nearly seven thousand people had been lost, and he didn't even know what for. He wondered what the Imperials hoped to accomplish by this. It was a pointless battle that would do nothing to further the cause of the Empire. He pushed the thought aside. They would pay for this, he vowed. For now, though, the New Republic fleet would have to retreat, regroup and reinforce, and decide what to do next.
Elsewhere, the battle was going equally badly. Three of their four gunships had been destroyed and two Assault Frigates left dead in space. Galactic Voyager and Starwind were forming a perimeter line to give the surviving ships a clear run to hyperspace. There were multiple flickers of pseudomotion as they began running up to lightspeed velocity.
"Rogue and Blue Squadrons, prepare to jump to hyperspace on your marks," Admiral Ackbar ordered as Galactic Voyager and Starwind came about and began their own jump to lightspeed.
"Copy, Admiral," Wedge said, a bitter sense of failure filling him. For the first time in a long while, they had been comprehensively trounced by the Imperials. As the stars stretched into lines around him, the silent comm showed that the other members of Rogue Squadron shared that sense of failure. It was a feeling they didn't like at all...
On the bridge of the Tyrannic, Captain Nalgol smiled as he saw the New Republic ships vanish into hyperspace. "Typical alien-loving Rebel scum," he said contemptuously. "How did such a feeble riffraff ever manage to win any victories against us?"
On board the Obliterator, Captain Trazzen was not so satisfied. He watched Lady Lumiya, who was standing motionless at the forward viewports, gazing at the empty space where the New Republic fleet had just been. He was having to exert all his control to keep silent. They had inflicted a painful defeat on the New Republic, but not a shattering one. Despite destroying Mon Renalla, several other capital ships, and plenty of fighters, the battle had only been a minor success. Rogue Squadron had escaped unhurt, together with Admiral Ackbar. The next time they would be back with reinforcements and knowing what to expect. If Lumiya had concentrated on the battle as a whole, rather than getting distracted by a single Jedi Knight, the New Republic would be in mourning for the fabled Rogue Squadron and Admiral Ackbar by now. Instead, all they had achieved was to stir the New Republic up against them further. The Jedi in Rogue Squadron would inevitably report that there was a Dark Jedi with them, and the next force sent against them would surely be accompanied by more Jedi, perhaps even Luke Skywalker himself. Vader only knew what would happen then. He had a strong sense that things were rapidly slipping out of control...
Galactic Voyager lay in space two lightyears away from the Imperial forces, surrounded by the remaining ships of the taskforce. The mood on board all the ships was sombre. They knew they had been beaten, and beaten badly.
In Ackbar's quarters on board Galactic Voyager, a grim discussion was underway. Wedge and Corran were standing in front of Bel Iblis and Ackbar, explaining what had happened.
"What happened, General Antilles?" Ackbar asked. "Why did our forces experience such a mass panic?"
"I don't know what happened," Wedge replied. "Corran can probably explain it better than I can."
Ackbar's eyes swivelled towards Corran. "Captain Horn?" he prompted.
"Basically, we've got a problem," Corran said, and briefly explained what had happened to him during the battle. "Whoever's out there is extremely powerful and dangerous. The hate I felt - I've only felt anything similar from the spirit of Exar Kun."
Bel Iblis nodded slowly. "So what do we do about it?"
"Only one thing we can do," Corran observed. "I'm not strong enough to handle this on my own. I'm going to Yavin. We need Luke here ASAP. He and Mara should have returned by now."
"How long will it take to get back here?" Bel Iblis asked.
Wedge considered for a few seconds. "About four days to get there and back."
"You can leave immediately then," Ackbar said. "If this Dark Jedi is strong as you say, then the sooner Master Skywalker arrives, the better. We will need him desperately, as well as you two, if the Imperials attack again. You saw the losses that resulted from even a brief dark side attack. General Antilles, Commander Horn, good luck."
Wedge was halfway up his X-wing's cockpit ladder when he sensed something was amiss, and turned to see Corran standing beside his own X-wing, gazing into the distance. He hesitated for a moment, then jumped down and walked over. "Something wrong?" he asked.
Corran shrugged. "I could have done more to prevent this dark side attack. If I'd tried harder, we might not have lost Mon Renalla. And what I saw - I don't think even Erisi deserved to die like that. Perhaps not even someone like Ysanne Isard. It doesn't exactly encourage you to pilot a fighter."
Wedge looked at him silently for a minute before speaking. "To be blunt, Mr Horn, that's a load of bantha poodoo. Firstly, you don't even know how Erisi died. Chances are she died on impact. I'd be wary about accepting anything the dark side shows you."
"Oh, I don't know," Corran said. "Even the truth can be a powerful weapon of the dark side. Vader told Luke the truth that he was his father to try and turn him, after all."
Wedge ignored him. "I felt the power of that attack. I imagine even Luke would have difficulty beating it. Don't blame yourself for what isn't your fault." He paused. "If you want to stay here, you can. I'll go to Yavin myself."
Corran hesitated, then shook his head. "No, I'll come. If I don't, the dark side wins by default. I wouldn't be much of a Jedi if I did, would I?"
Wedge grinned and slapped him on the back. "Good man, Mr Horn. Come on, let's go."
* * * * * *
Two days later, Luke was standing in one of the Jedi training rooms in the Great Temple, half watching Callista teaching some of the new Jedi trainees,
while thinking over what had happened in the last few days. It had been an interesting time, he reflected, as he thought back over them.
He and Mara had returned six days ago, to find Callista already deeply involved helping Kyp, Tionne and Streen run the academy. Tionne had told him that Callista was doing a fine job teaching the students, despite the obvious strain it placed on her. Tionne herself could sympathise, not being particularly strong in the Force. It had formed the basis of a bond between the two of them when Callista had originally arrived at the academy.
Han, Leia, Chewbacca, the children, Barkhimkh, Sakhisakh, and the droids had arrived a day after that. Leia had been greatly relieved to see Luke. The two Noghri had been in a killing rage ever since the news of the attack on Wayland arrived. It had taken all her Jedi and diplomatic skills to restrain them from attempting to take revenge on the Imperial attackers. Their silent fury had unnerved her, as she had spent too much time with them to fully remember how lethal they could be. At her request, Luke had spoken to them, which seemed to placate them slightly.
The evening they arrived, Leia and Han invited Luke, Mara, Kyp, Tionne, Streen and after some deliberation, Callista, to a meeting to discuss Mara's idea of travelling around the galaxy with some of the advanced students. In the end, Leia decided that Callista, in view of her input into running the academy, should attend, despite the awkwardness it might cause. At the meeting, Kyp agreed to Mara's idea, although he wanted to keep the main academy on Yavin and teach the new students. Once all the ramifications had been sorted out, the discussion drifted towards other subjects. During a break in the conversation, Leia asked Luke where he and Mara had been for their honeymoon.
Luke laughed. "We spent the entire time cruising through space. I told you Mara wouldn't be interested in visiting any tourist resorts. Actually, it was quite refreshing just to be on our own for once. Anyway, that wasn't the only thing that happened, is it, Mara?"
"Not in front of the droids please," Han said sardonically.
"I don't mean that, Han," Luke retorted. "Mara built her new lightsabre."
"Yes, not that I needed another," Mara growled at Leia. "Trust you and Skywalker to do something like this. Oh, don't look innocent. I know you gave Luke that Adegan crystal to use for the focussing jewel. With our link, he can't hide anything from me."
Luke smiled. "I had to use a little inducement on Mara before she built it," he said, remembering her reaction. "I had to take my old one back temporarily and threaten not to return it before she gave in.
Mara drew a lightsabre from her belt. A pale purple beam appeared as she ignited it. "Here it is," she said, and ignited her other lightsabre as well.
Callista leaned forwards, a sudden interest in her eyes. "That's unusual," she said. "Jedi who used two lightsabres were very rare in the Old Republic. It demanded a lot of skill and practice. Using one can be dangerous enough, let alone two."
Mara nodded. "I've tried using them together a couple of times, and nearly lost an arm."
"I can teach you how to use them together, if you want," Callista offered. "I had some training on using two blades, as well as some even rarer weapons." She looked at Luke. "Remember I told you I knew General Kenobi in the Clone Wars? Did he ever tell you that he fought an early Sith apprentice of Palpatine's who had a double-bladed lightsabre? He killed Kenobi's master before he himself was beaten by Kenobi."
"He never told me that," Luke said thoughtfully. "It sounds intriguing. You'll have to tell Tionne and me the full story sometime."
Callista nodded. "Anyway, you're welcome to learn how to use them together if you want," she said to Mara.
Mara hesitated for a few moments, then agreed, much to her surprise.
"Tomorrow morning then," Callista said.
The next three days passed quickly. When Callista wasn't training the students, she spent her time showing Mara how to use her two lightsabres. Luke came to watch them occasionally, and was impressed by what he saw. Under Callista's guidance, Mara learnt lightsabre techniques that even Luke didn't know, and rapidly became proficient in using both lightsabres together. By the end of the third day, Mara felt sufficiently advanced with both to test herself with both in lightsabre practice against Luke for the first time.
The ensuing duel was one of the most testing Luke had ever been in. Mara was skilled enough with a lightsabre to give Luke a run for his money, and her skills had grown considerably of late, enough to almost beat him on several occasions. With two lightsabres, she forced Luke to call on all his skills just to keep her at bay. As they fought, with the blades crackling around them as they met and filling the air with the stench of ozone, he could see some of Callista's lightsabre fighting style in Mara's own moves, notably the long side cut that Callista had often used. He drove aside a lunge of Mara's that nearly passed his guard, and somersaulted backwards to open a gap between them as she came forward with her other lightsabre.
He wiped sweat from his forehead, breathing hard, before resuming the battle. They fought for several minutes more, with neither gaining the advantage, but finally Mara again nearly passed Luke's guard, forcing him to step back quickly to avoid her new purple blade. His foot slipped fractionally as he did so, and for half a second his defence dropped as he regained his balance. Mara instantly saw the weakness, and struck hard. Luke blocked the blow, but he had still not fully recovered, and to the amazement of both of them, his lightsabre went spinning across the room.
Mara was momentarily stunned by her success, but stepped forward, intending to make her victory indisputable and knowing that Luke would call his sabre back in a second if she gave him the chance. She drove him back into a corner of the practice room, blocking his efforts to get past her and regain his lightsabre, and finally stopped with her blue lightsabre at his throat. She grinned at him over the blade, savouring her triumph. "I win, I think."
Luke returned the grin. "Not quite. Look behind you. I think it's a draw."
Mara turned to see Luke's lightsabre hovering in the air behind her, aimed at her own head. "Talk about a poor loser," she muttered indignantly, shutting down her lightsabres.
Luke called his sabre to his hand. "It's not a game, Mara," he said. "Lightsabre practice is intended to prepare you for the real thing. In a true fight, stopping to gloat can be a lethal error. You especially should know better than to give your opponent a breathing space, particularly a Jedi opponent. The Jedi fight in defence, never attack, but they do not fight to lose."
He smiled. "But you fought well indeed. You have advanced considerably in your lightsabre skills in a short time. We'll make a formidable pair."
Mara laughed. "You're right there, Luke. We're a pair of shooting stars."
Her comment did not have the effect she expected. To her surprise, Luke stiffened and she could sense a deep turmoil in his mind. After a few seconds, he abruptly turned away and left the room.
Mara stood there for a minute, wondering what could have provoked such a reaction from Luke, before hurrying after him. She followed Luke through the Great Temple until he reached the summit.
She looked round the roof, and was surprised to notice an enclosed pyramid of transparisteel, which she was sure had not been there when she last came to Yavin. Beyond the Great Temple, apart from jungle that stretched as far as the eye could see, the only thing visible was an old Rebel sentry post rising from the trees.
She joined Luke in front of the transparisteel pyramid, which was empty except for a small pedestal in it's centre, which was projecting a hologram of a group of pilots in X and Y-wing issue orange jumpsuits. A plaque mounted on the pedestal read: "In remembrance of all those who gave their lives so that the Galaxy might be free of tyranny."
Mara looked at the squad insignias, wondering why they seemed so familiar, and suddenly remembered. Luke had an old, treasured, jumpsuit in his apartment with an identical insignia.
"Yes, they're the pilots I flew with at Yavin," Luke said quietly beside her. "A couple of years ago, Wedge and I suggested setting up a memorial to all those who died fighting the Empire, particularly those who attacked the first Death Star. This seemed like the most appropriate place to have it, although I think the Senate also put one in the Imperial Palace."
He pointed at one of the pilots. "That's Biggs, my closest friend on Tatooine. Just before we attacked the Death Star, he said we were both shooting stars. That was practically the last thing he told me."
"I'm sorry," Mara said softly.
Luke shook his head. "Don't be. You just caught me by surprise saying the same thing as Biggs."
He was silent for a minute, remembering Bigg's death in the last ditch attempt to destroy the Death Star. "We won, Biggs," he said quietly. "It wasn't easy, but we defeated the Empire."
He gazed out over the forest, remembering the adrenalin rush of piloting an X-wing for the first time. Despite the years, he could still hear every engine roar, laser blast, and communication from the battle of Yavin in his mind.
He stood there for a long time, remembering all the crazy adventures the two of them had shared as they grew up together on Tatooine. Night had long since descended by the time he and Mara eventually left the temple summit.
Luke was abruptly jerked out of his reverie as Callista finished and the students began leaving. He waited at the back of the room until all the students had gone before approaching her. "So how does being a teacher suit you?" he asked. He had been meaning to ask her how she felt for a couple of days, but only now had the opportunity to speak to her quietly. "I appreciate your teaching Mara how to use her lightsabres."
Callista hesitated briefly before answering. "I won't pretend it's easy, when I have to watch them doing things that I can only tell them about. They're coming on well though, I think." She shrugged awkwardly. "As for Mara, I was just doing what I came here to do: pass my knowledge on."
Luke nodded and took her hands. "Callista, I just wanted to say I know how difficult all this must be for you. Tionne's told me how well you're coping." He smiled at her. "You were always the strong one."
Callista shook her head. "I'm not. I left you because I couldn't cope with the loss of my powers. I'd hardly call that being strong."
"You are," Luke said quietly. "I know how hard it was. Leia told me how much it took for you to leave. I don't know if I could have done it in your place. You had the courage to take the hard way instead of the quick and easy path." He stopped suddenly, concentrating hard.
"Something wrong?" Callista asked anxiously.
"No, we've just got a couple of guests arriving," Luke replied, just as Artoo entered the room to announce that. "Let's go and see who they are."
A few minutes later, Luke and Callista were standing outside the Great Temple with Mara, who had also come to see who was arriving, as two X-wings set down on the landing grid. The canopies hissed open to reveal two familiar faces.
"Wedge," Luke called in greeting as one of them climbed out and jumped to the ground. "Corran too, I see. Have you finally decided to become a full-time Jedi?" he asked lightly.
"Sorry, this isn't a social call," Wedge said grimly. "I think we've got some bad news, or rather Corran does."
Corran stepped forward. "I assume you've heard about the marauding Imps that have shot up Wayland and Sluis Van. The Senate sent us to track them down."
Luke nodded. "It's been the talking point around the academy for the last few days."
"Anyway," Corran said, "a couple of days ago, we finally tracked them down and launched an attack." He paused a second for emphasis. "We nearly got wiped out. I'm not surprised they've been so successful. There's some Dark Jedi with them, using the Force to generate fear and despair." He shook his head. "Whoever it is is incredibly strong. We only escaped because I was able to shield our forces, or rather I drew their attention. As soon as I began to try and block the attack, they focussed almost exclusively on me. I've never felt such hate."
Wedge nodded grimly. "Corran's astromech had to pilot the X-wing back to Galactic Voyager, the attack was so strong."
"And you want me to come and help," Luke noted. "All right, give me a little while to get ready." He glanced at Mara, who was looking at him threateningly. "No, I'm not going to tell you to stay here," he said quickly. " I value my life too much for that. Callista, can you tell Han and Leia what we're doing? I'm going to get the Spirit ready for takeoff."
A couple of hours later, the Skywalker Spirit and Falcon were sitting ready to go on the landing pad. Han and Leia had insisted on coming, pointing out that three Jedi would be better than two, and that things had been too dull of late. Besides which, Han had pointed out smugly, why break the habit of a lifetime by not coming?
Luke approached the Spirit, to see Callista standing by the ramp. Han, Leia, Chewbacca, Threepio and the Noghri were already on board the Falcon, the children having been left temporarily with Kyp and Tionne; and Mara was waiting in the Spirit's cockpit with Artoo. "Luke," she said hesitantly as he came up to her, "do you mind if I come with you? Han and Leia don't mind if I go on the Falcon, but it's too crowded."
Luke stared at her for a second in amazement. What the Sith did Han and Leia think they were playing at, allowing Callista, unable to use the Force, to come with them and possibly face a Dark Jedi? He opened his mouth to say no, and then stopped abruptly. A memory of Mara telling him after Builder with Vines' death that he couldn't protect everyone from themselves and had no right to stop them doing whatever they did went through his mind, and he remembered how his instinctive protectiveness towards Callista had been one of the factors that combined to make her leave. And besides, he realised, it would be hypocritical to let Han, Leia and the Noghri walk into that situation, but not Callista.
He took a deep breath. "Alright," he said. "I never could keep you out of trouble, could I?"
Callista smiled, remembering how she had impulsively gone to single-handedly take out the Knight Hammer. "I'll try not to this time," she said, and followed him up the ramp.
With a whine of repulsorlifts, the Falcon and two X-wings rose from the ground and began climbing into the atmosphere. "Ready to go, flyboy?" Mara asked Luke as he joined her in the cockpit. Without waiting for an answer, she engaged the repulsorlifts and the ship lifted gently into the air.
All four ships passed through the atmosphere of Yavin and out into space. "Ready, everyone?" Wedge asked over the comlink, and waited for Corran, the Falcon, and Spirit to acknowledge him. "On three: one, two..."
"Here we go again," Threepio observed gloomily as Han reached for the hyperdrive controls.
"...three," Wedge finished. In the blink of an eye, all four craft leapt forwards and vanished into hyperspace with a silent bang."
* * * * * *
Captain Trazzen stepped up to Lumiya, and was surprised to find her smiling. "Skywalker and his friends are coming," she said with a feral glee. "Finally, I
will have my revenge. You and your pitiful group of weak minded fools have served your purpose. I do not wish to waste any more time with you." She turned
and strode towards the bridge turbolifts.
"But you promised to help us," Trazzen objected. "We have hurt the Rebels. Together we can destroy their heroes - Ackbar, Bel Iblis, and Rogue Squadron. You have already said that Skywalker is on his way. How can we fight him without your help?"
Lumiya turned. "You still do not understand, do you? You plainly cannot understand. Everything - the attacks at Sluis Van, Wayland, and here - was done for the sole aim of luring Skywalker into a trap. Did you truly think that I meant to help a weak group of simpleminded fools like you? I used you to fulfill my purposes and now I no longer need you. If you are true Imperials, you will no doubt die like ones when the New Republic reinforcements arrive to destroy you."
Trazzen stood silently, staring at her in disbelief, before anger surged inside him. "If we are to die, then we will ensure that you die with us." He spoke into his comlink. "Security, to the bridge immediately." A detachment of stormtroopers, led by a naval officer, clattered onto the bridge. "Stop her," Trazzen ordered.
Lumiya laughed. With a contemptuous flick of her hand, she threw the stormtroopers against the back wall of the bridge or down into the crew pits before they could even level their blaster rifles. The officer stared incredulously at what she had just done, and then drew a blaster pistol and fired several shots, only to see them ricochet around the bridge as Lumiya used the Force to deflect them. The blaster was abruptly torn from his grip, nearly breaking his fingers. Lumiya took it in both hands, and using her cyborg strength, snapped it effortlessly in two. She kept coming, backing the officer against a wall.
"Witness the power of the Sith Lords, Captain Trazzen," she said icily, taking a long cylinder from her belt. At the touch of a button, half of the cylinder retracted to reveal coiled metal strands. "If you still feel inclined to stop me after this demonstration, then you will be the next to feel my wrath." The metal strands unrolled as she lifted the cylinder. At the press of another button, blue-white energy began to flow along each of the strands. The strands crackled and sparked malevolently against each other as she lifted the light whip. "Nothing personal," she said mockingly to the terrified officer, who was unable to move as she pinned him in place with the Force. "I just want to have some practice before I use this on Skywalker."
She raised the whip high and struck.
Captain Trazzen stood silently as he saw the whip come down and a scream of agony ring out. He watched as the whip struck home again and again, not daring to move and scarcely breathing until Lumiya had finished. She turned away from the body of the naval officer, switching off and beginning to coil the strands of the light whip. She had not finished yet, though. She turned to face Trazzen, who was abruptly slammed back hard against the viewports. Raising one arm, she slowly extended a hand towards him, and with an ominous cracking sound, a thin fracture appeared in the transparisteel beside him, gradually lengthening. "Any more foolish attempts to stop me, and I will tear this bridge open to space, Captain."
She looked around the bridge. "Does anyone else have any objections to my leaving?"
No one did.
* * * * * *
The coordinates were logged in, the navicomputer set to fly the ship, and now there was nothing to do but wait. Luke entered the lounge of the Skywalker
Spirit to find, somewhat to his surprise, Mara and Callista discussing Mara's recovered memories of her induction into the Emperor's service.
"I imagine you'll be able to find out more about your parents from some source," Callista observed as Mara finished. "Not all the records can have been destroyed. Luke had access to information about his mother, after all."
Luke hesitated, trying to work out what she meant, before he realised. "How do you know about my trying to find out about my mother during the Black Fleet Crisis?" he asked. "I went halfway round the galaxy looking for information, but never found anything, though."
Callista frowned. "Why did you do that? You had all the information available easily enough. I knew your mother-"
Luke went rigid. "You knew my mother?" he asked incredulously. "You never told me that."
"Why would I need to?" Callista asked. "The droids-" She stopped, uncertainty spreading over her face. "Surely Threepio or Artoo told you that they belonged to your parents? Your father actually built Threepio, and Artoo was an astromech on your mother's Royal Starship."
Luke stared at her, feeling his grip on reality loosen. "That can't be. Don't tell me I went all over the galaxy trying to find out about my mother when the droids knew about her all along." He rose slowly from his seat. "I'm going to remodel them with my lightsabre for this."
"Calm down, Luke," Mara interrupted impatiently. "Very likely anything they knew would have been erased as per standard practice, particularly if they were part of the Royal House of Alderaan. Whatever they knew must have been wiped years ago."
Luke nodded, regaining most of his calm. "I suppose Ben told you this, did he?" he asked Callista. "Yet another thing he and Yoda didn't tell me. I could strangle them if they were standing in front of me right now. What else do you know about my parents?"
"General Kenobi told me some of it," Callista confirmed. "I learned the rest from other Jedi and records. Where to begin...? Your mother was Queen Amidala of Naboo. Her planet was invaded in a scheme orchestrated by Palpatine to help him gain power. Kenobi and the Jedi Master he worked with were sent to negotiate a settlement. Things didn't go according to plan and they had to flee with your mother. To cut a long story short, they ended up on Tatooine, where they found your father Anakin and his mother Shmi Skywalker working as slaves. Kenobi's master freed Anakin and took him to be trained as a Jedi, since he was incredibly strong in the Force. He had the highest midichlorian count ever recorded."
She stopped, noting Luke's confusion. "Another thing Kenobi didn't tell you? Midichlorians are organisms inside us that act as a bridge between us and the Force. They're why Jedi powers tend to run in families. I don't know why you were never told this, since I was trapped in the Eye's computer. Presumably there was a good reason for it. It can't have been to protect the Jedi or potential Jedi from Palpatine's hunters. Palpatine very likely knew about them - midichlorian tests were used to find Jedi in the Old Republic - and Anakin would have told him if he didn't.
"So that's how those Jedi detection paddles work," Luke realised. "They measure the midichlorian levels in blood."
"Anyway," Callista said, continuing, "obviously your father and Amidala fell in love. I never learned much more than that, like exactly how your father fell to the dark side or what happened to your grandmother, before I went to try and stop the Eye. I'm sorry, Luke. I know it seems stupid, but I was sure the droids would have told you this."
She stopped and silence fell as Luke digested what she had just told him. "Where's a Corellian with a clever remark when you need one?" Mara asked almost wistfully.
The rest of the journey to Endor was unremarkable. Mara and Callista spent most of their time refining Mara's use of her two lightsabres. When they arrived at Endor, the three of them were engaging in three way lightsabre practice sessions. With neither Mara or Luke being able to anticipate Callista's attacks, and Mara's excellent use of her lightsabres, all three of them found their lightsabre skills extensively tested.
A warbling alert from the ship's computer brought the lightsabre duel to an end, and Luke and Mara hurried to the cockpit just as they came out of lightspeed. The Falcon lay to starboard alongside them, and the two X-wings were half a kilometre ahead of them.
Endor lay in front of them, behind first the New Republic fleet and then the Imperial ships. Luke and Mara gazed at the forest moon, both experiencing strong memories. It was the first time Luke had returned since the Battle of Endor. He had not had any great desire to return, despite the significance of the system to the New Republic. It held too many painful memories. He wondered briefly if anything was left of Darth Vader's armour after the intervening years.
Mara was having similar thoughts. Here the Emperor had died, after fooling her into thinking that Luke had killed him. That hate was long gone, but she could still remember the shock of feeling his death, and the five bitter years that followed. It had at least set her on her true path. She shivered as she thought of what might have happened if the Emperor had not died. She could have become another Darth Vader, twisted and evil...
Wedge's voice over the comm shook them out of their thoughts. "Ackbar wants to see us as soon as we land," he reported. Luke and Han acknowledged him, and changed course for Galactic Voyager. They passed through several newly arrived Dreadnaughts, Strike Cruisers, and an additional Star Cruiser, the Meteor. In the distance, X-wings and A-wings could be seen forming a starfighter picket line between the two forces. Using Jedi sensory enhancement techniques, Luke was able to identify the X-wings as Rogue Squadron.
A short time later, the Falcon and Spirit touched down in the main hangar bay on board Galactic Voyager. Accompanied by Wedge and Corran, Han, Leia, Luke and Mara were promptly escorted to Ackbar's private office.
"Master Skywalker," the Mon Calamari Admiral said in greeting as Luke entered, turning away from his contemplation of a score of ornately coloured fish swimming through an intricate pattern of floating globes and tunnels of water along one wall, and acknowledging the others as they followed Luke in. "We have been sent enough reinforcements to replace our losses in the previous engagement and overwhelm the Imperial renegades, but we cannot attack until this Dark Jedi is neutralised or destroyed."
"Which should be as soon as possible, if they're half as powerful as Corran says," Leia pointed out. "It seems fairly straightforward, though. We'll deal with this Dark Jedi on board the Strike Cruiser. I doubt they'll be a match for three of us together, regardless of how strong they are. Once that's done, we'll signal you to begin the attack, Admiral."
"Don't be over-confident," Luke advised. "The plan for the attack on the Death Star II seemed fairly straightforward as well, after all. Remember, we'll be fighting on their ground, on their terms."
Ackbar nodded. "I do not think we need to discuss this any further. Defeating this Dark Jedi must be our priority. May the Force be with you all."
"Good luck," Wedge said as they left the room. "I think you're going to need it, from what Corran's said.
"Always the optimist, aren't you, Wedge?" Han remarked.
"Well, what else do you expect from a Corellian?" came the quick reply.
* * * * * *
Less than an hour after arriving on board Galactic Voyager, the Falcon was out in space again, heading for the Strike Cruiser. It was some distance from the
other Imperial ships, which meant that the Falcon would not have to pass within range of the Star Destroyers. The problem though, as Han pointed out, was that
they were in range of a Strike Cruiser with a powerful Dark Jedi on board. He watched warily as the Falcon approached the Strike Cruiser, expecting it to open
up on them at any second.
"It's alright," Leia said. "I don't think whoever's in charge on board wants us dead...at least not yet."
"Oh, that makes me feel a whole lot better," Han said sourly. "Chewie, keep an eye out for any laser batteries tracking us."
The Falcon continued in towards the Strike Cruiser, the ship's hangar bay looming in front of them as they came nearer. Han tensed, ready for an immediate escape, as they approached. Much to Han's amazement, though, no turbolasers fired though, and a few minutes later, the Falcon touched down in the hangar bay.
Luke and Mara were the first down the ramp when it lowered, lightsabres held ready for any sudden ambush, but the hangar bay was empty, save for a score or so of circular metallic objects lying along the walls. The others followed them down as soon as they were sure the hangar was deserted.
"All clear?" Han asked.
Luke nodded. "Seems to be. I can't sense anyone nearby. No ysalamiri on board either." He looked around the hangar. "Be careful, though. There's something not quite right here."
"Mara and Callista, see if you can get the main doors open," Leia said. "We'll try the others."
Mara nodded and the two of them headed towards the back of the hangar. When they reached the doors, Mara pressed the door pad, and sighed as the door failed to open. "Trust them to make us do the hard way," she said, and began working on the control panel.
Callista watched Mara for a few moments before turning away. Mara was the expert on this sort of thing, and she didn't seem to need any help. She noted that Han and Chewbacca were also trying to hotwire the side doors. She wandered towards the objects along the walls, wondering idly what they were, and stopped dead as she took a careful look at one for the first time. It couldn't be-
Mara whirled as her danger sense flared, snatching both lightsabres from her belt and igniting them as she saw motion throughout the hangar-
Callista ignited her lightsabre as the object in front of her began to move and change-
"Get back!" Luke snapped to Han, Chewie and the droids. Behind him, he heard Leia activate her lightsabre-
In seconds, the wheel like form split open. Three crooked legs emerged and it rose to a standing position. An arched torso and arms ending in dual blasters unfolded. "Destroyer droids!" Callista shouted in warning as the blasters moved to target her. She slashed her lightsabre through it before the deflector shield could activate, sending the upper part crashing to the hangar deck, and leaving the lower half standing motionless.
Mara watched in amazement as the destroyer droids unfolded throughout the hangar, deflector shields activating to envelop them in a pale blue sphere. A fusillade of laser blasts filled the hangar as they opened fire. Mara parried the bolts back at them, but they merely ricocheted uselessly off the shields. The droids skittered forwards, catching her in a searing crossfire. She caught a fleeting glimpse of Luke and Leia deflecting bolts before a blast door slammed down to cut them off from each other.
The fire slackened as the blast door blocked some of the incoming fire, and leaving six destroyer droids firing at her and Callista. The only good thing about them, Mara realised as she deflected blaster bolts from both sides, was that despite having considerable firepower, they were also slow and ungainly, as Callista was convincingly demonstrating. Despite not being able to call on the Force, her reflexes, which she clearly had not allowed to atrophy, would have put many other Jedi to shame, as she ducked, lunged, and whirled to slice through the shield on one of the destroyer droids and hack away both sets of blasters. The fire from that direction ceased, and gave Mara a breathing space. She gestured to send two destroyer droids slamming back into a wall with crushing force, and another, spitting blaster bolts, slewing around to face the one opposite it. In a few seconds, the droid's shields failed and it exploded.
In a few moments, the odds had been considerably evened, but then the doors behind Mara burst open, and a group of guards burst into the hangar, laying down a savage wall of fire. The wild and intense volley actually broke through the shields of one of the two remaining destroyer droids, blowing it apart. Mara slashed both lightsabres through the shields of the last to cut it into two pieces, and turned just in time to see Callista charge the guards. She hissed quietly, remembering Luke telling her how reckless Callista could be once she decided on a course of action. If she wasn't careful, she was going to get killed. She tightened her grip on her lightsabres and made her own attack.
For the first time, she was appreciative of all the training Luke had given her recently. The limited abilities the Emperor had taught her had given her a solid edge over most opponents, but being a full Jedi made it seem like child's play. She sensed the Force flowing through her, quickening her reflexes, as she opened her mind to it. A pair of soldiers directly in front of her were the first to go down as she reached them. She cut the first in two, and pivoted around him as he collapsed to run her blue lightsabre through the stomach of the other.
To her right, Callista was ducking, sidestepping, and lunging with amazing quickness as she cut her way through a semicircle of guards. Even without the ability to predict and deflect shots, or to use the Force to heighten her reactions, she was more than a match for the soldiers. Mara watched for a few seconds as she spun and advanced on the nearest guard, and sent him to the deck with one stroke of her lightsabre. A bolt flashed harmlessly over her head as she ducked to avoid it. She straightened and lunged to slash her sabre down across the torso of another.
Another sudden flicker in Mara's danger sense alerted her to a new attack. Two groups of three guards had moved in on either side to catch her in a crossfire. The lightsabres hummed and crackled as she deflected the first volley. She took a long step to her right, ducked, spun, and then used the Force to propel her over the nearest group of guards in a twisting somersault. She landed facing the guards, who were not slow to react. Half a dozen bolts sizzled through the air towards her as they whirled to face her, but they were easy to deflect. There was a brilliant flash as she caught two bolts on her blue sabre and then twisted to avoid another. She deflected one with the purple sabre and leapt straight up to miss the other two. To her right, she saw Callista cut one of the soldiers in the other group down, and came forwards, her blades crackling as she sent laser bolts ricocheting around the hangar. She extended her hand towards the centre soldier to send him sprawling like he had been hit by a charging bantha; tore the blaster from the grip of the one on the right; and brought both her blades down on the last, one slicing through his blaster and the other cutting both his hands off at the wrists.
She looked up to see Callista whirl, duck, and cut down two of the three guards left. One man only remained standing, and he dropped his blaster, realising its uselessness against lightsabres, to snatch a vibroblade from a sleeve sheath. He backed towards the blast door as they switched off their lightsabres and began walking towards him. Callista took a long step towards him, and he immediately lunged towards her, sweeping the knife down in a dangerous but clumsy attack. Callista easily dodged and kicked up to send the vibroblade skittering across the hangar deck. "Your turn," she said to Mara.
Mara smiled and delivered a roundhouse blow to the side of the guard's jaw which sent him reeling back against the blast door before sliding slowly down it to the floor. "Sometimes there's no substitute for a good solid punch," she noted, drawing a laugh from Callista. "Good job," she said, gesturing around at the bodies in the hangar. She waved at the ruined destroyer droids. "I take it you've met these before, if you know what they are."
"I've only heard about them," Callista said. "General Kenobi once came across them. They were used by the Trade Federation in the Old Republic. The Federation used remote controlled droid soldiers. There must be a control station for the destroyer droids somewhere on board. Destroyer droids were lethal, but expensive and difficult to produce. The Trade Federation mainly relied on battle droid soldiers." She grinned. "They were even more stupid than stormtroopers."
"Kenobi must have had an interesting time of it," Mara observed. "Destroyer droids and Sith Lords with double bladed lightsabres."
Callista laughed, and then hesitated for a second. "I know this isn't the best time to say this, but I'm glad you married Luke. He seems even more content with you than he ever did with me."
Mara shot her a surprised look. It was the last thing she would have imagined Callista saying. She had expected the other woman to maintain an icy dignity. "Are you?" she asked.
"Of course," Callista replied. "I still love Luke enough to want what's best for him."
"Thanks," Mara said awkwardly, taken aback by Callista's honesty.
Callista hadn't finished, though. "I want to apologise for what I said to you when we met at the academy," she continued. "I must have sounded very petty and jealous. I can only say that it was a bad time for me, trying to cope with the loss of my powers."
"Don't worry about it," Mara replied, starting to get embarrassed at the impromptu confession.
Callista noted Mara's discomfort and looked at the blast door. "I don't think there's much point trying to get through that," she said. "It looked too thick for that." She glanced dubiously at the open main hangar doors. She didn't like the idea of walking into another trap, but they had to get back to Luke, Han and the others, and they might find a way to the side doors. "Come on," she said. "Let's go."
Mara nodded and they headed quickly towards the doors.
Luke saw Mara spin round and begin coming back out of the dip towards them before the blast door came down. There was no time to think, though, as laser blasts began filling the air around them.
"Leia, take the other side," he shouted as he began blocking the incoming fire, and heard the snap-hiss of her lightsabre. He could feel her concentrating on reflecting the shots, but his concern was for Han and Chewie. With the intensity of the laser fire coming in at several angles, it was only a matter of time before they would be hit by a shot which he or Leia had failed to stop. Behind him, Artoo beeped and whistled frantically as bolts crisscrossed the air around him, his dome spinning rapidly backwards and forwards as he looked for cover.
"Get to the ramp," Leia called from behind him, thinking along the same lines.
"Go!" Luke shouted back in confirmation. Giving Han and Chewie cover, he and Leia began backing towards the Falcon's ramp, the only cover available in the hangar. Red bolts suddenly filled the hangar from behind him as, under Barkhimkh and Sakhisakh's control, the Falcon's lower quad laser and the swivel blaster turned to target the destroyer droids. Laser blasts slammed into the blue shield spheres, which quickly failed, unable to absorb the greatly enhanced power of starship laser weapons. One after another, destroyer droids exploded into shards of scrap metal as the guns systematically targeted them. Two minutes later, the hangar was silent, with pieces of shattered droids strewn across the decking.
Luke took a breath as he lowered his lightsabre. The whole thing, brief as it was, had been too like the sentry droid attack in Thrawn's cloning chamber for comfort, with the added problem of having to shield Han, Chewie, and the others as well. "Come on," he said. "We'd better find Mara and Callista."
"They'll be all right," Leia said, sensing his worry. "They aren't exactly pushovers."
Han grinned. "Are you kidding? The only thing Luke's worried about is what they're saying about him behind his back," he said.
Luke ignored him. "There must be a control station for those destroyer droids on board," he said. "Probably on the bridge. We'd better make sure we don't run into any more."
"Captain Solo, what shall I do?" Threepio asked, cautiously emerging from behind one of the Falcon's landing struts.
"Stay here, of course," Han said curtly.
"Oh, that is a relief," Threepio said gratefully. "I do so hate being shot at." He brightened. "I shall be able to practice my starship repair skills on the Millennium Falcon during your absence."
Han went white at the thought of Threepio doing anything with his beloved Falcon. "You so much as reprogram the food synthesisers, Threepio, and I'll sell you to the next Jawas I meet."
Threepio shuddered, remembering the Jawas on Tatooine and on the Eye of Palpatine. "Disgusting creatures." He began to embark on a detailed discussion of the more repulsive habits of Jawas and was expanding the topic to include Gamorreans when Chewbacca gave him a hefty shove in the direction of the hangar doors.
The six of them left the hangar, with Barkhimkh and Sakhisakh trailing behind, ignoring Threepio's indignant remarks and Artoo's answering beeps and whistles. The passage forward through the ship towards the bridge was suspiciously easy. After a few corridors devoid of any crew or guards, it was obvious that they were being watched. Luke and Leia expanded and increased their monitoring of their sphere of responsibility, wary of a trap, but there seemed to be no evidence of any ambush being planned. Several passages later, they finally detected presences ahead in large numbers near what could only be the bridge. Luke nodded to Han and Chewbacca, and they levelled their weapons. Leia halted at the junction of two corridors, waiting for Luke to ignite his lightsabre, then stepped around the corner, closely followed by Luke. A blizzard of blaster fire immediately tangled the corridor from four guards standing in front of a heavy armoured door. Luke's lightsabre flashed, sending the blasts ricocheting off the walls or back at the guards. Leia extended a hand, and two of the guards were slammed back into the door, their skulls connecting with a thud audible above the blaster fire. Chewbacca's bowcaster caught a third, and the other took a Noghri throwing knife in the chest.
"I really don't like this," Han said. "Only four guards on duty outside the bridge?"
"What, no 'I've got a bad feeling about this,' Han?" Luke asked.
"No, I'm saving that for when we really need it," Han said dryly, levelling his blaster as Leia cut a hole in the door. His worst fears were confirmed by what he saw inside the bridge.
The room was full of unarmed techs and crew members.
"This is getting worse," he said. "They've got something planned. I just don't know what."
Chewbacca and the Noghri covered Luke as he herded the crew members into a corner, while Leia used the Force to warn her of any impending attack. "This must be the destroyer droid control panel," Han noted, sitting down in front of a display. He pressed some of the control buttons and grimaced as it began requesting various security codes and passwords. "Artoo, plug in and see if you can override the security systems."
The droid whistled obediently and rolled over to the control panel, extending his computer arm and inserting it into the terminal, and then warbled insistently. "He says the system is heavily protected against unauthorised access," Threepio reported as Han looked at him. "It's an X-30 type Krallon control computer. Bypassing the security systems should take-"
"Well, do it as quickly as possible," Han interrupted impatiently. "We don't have much time."
This time it was Callista's turn to swear instead of Mara, as they turned a corner and found themselves at the branch of a T-junction. Their attempts to find another way into the hangar had so far been futile. They were quickly getting further and further away in the process. She looked up and down the corridor, completely disorientated. "Which way do you think?" she asked Mara.
Mara thought for a second. She normally had an excellent sense of direction but even she was unsure which way to go right now. She shrugged. "That way?" she guessed, pointing to the right.
Callista hesitated and then started down the corridor. As she did so, more guards appeared at the far end to fill the passage with a hail of laser fire. Mara saw Callista's blade flashing as she somehow managed to deflect some of the shots while backing away.
"Move!" Mara shouted, sprinting forwards.
Callista didn't need to be told twice. She flattened herself against the wall as Mara came past her, both blades moving of their own accord to block the incoming shots. She noticed the BlasTech that Mara hadn't yet stopped carrying, and reached out to pull it free of the holster. The incoming fire began slackening slightly as her return fire found targets. Glowpanels began exploding as some of the guards started shooting them out to give them cover. The corridor grew dark, lit only by smouldering holes in the walls where bolts had hit, the flashes of blaster fire, and the glow of Mara's lightsabres.
"Look out," Callista snapped as the front rank of guards abruptly split to reveal two more destroyer droids, which immediately opened fire. A solid stream of blaster bolts lanced down the corridor at them. Mara's lightsabres swung to block the stream of fire, but the intensity of the fire began forcing her to back down the corridor. Both of them retreated as quickly as they dared back to the T-junction and past it down the corridor, followed by the fire from the destroyer droids and the pursuing guards.
Lumiya sensed Mara Jade approaching. She smiled in satisfaction. Her plan was working perfectly so far. She had succeeded in splitting them into two groups, keeping Skywalker and the others occupied in wasting time trying to deactivate the destroyer droids. She did not care whether they succeeded, as long as it kept them busy long enough for her guards to drive Jade to her. Jade was no match for the dark side, and once she had Jade captive, Skywalker's feelings for his wife would force him to surrender to her, and then she would have her revenge on him. She would eliminate his sister and her husband. With them gone, Jade would be easily turned back to the dark side, particularly once Lumiya revealed the truth about the two of them.
Mara swore continuously as she and Callista fell back down the corridor, round a corner and along another passage, with laser fire tangling the air around them. All they needed now was for only two guards to appear behind them, and they would be dead. They retreated a few feet further only to halt as Callista backed into a wall. The firing stopped suddenly. The destroyer droids and guards had stopped dead, with their guns held ready. Mara took a step forward and the destroyer droids promptly opened fire again, only to cease as she stepped back.
They turned to see a pair of doors behind them, standing open, although it was too dark inside to see anything. Both of them looked at each other, sharing a single thought. They had been meant to come here. Obviously, they were about to meet whoever was behind this.
Callista passed the BlasTech back to Mara, and held her lightsabre ready in a two handed grip. "I'll go first," Mara said, knowing that her powers would give her a better chance in a confrontation than Callista, and taking a tight grip on her lightsabres. She grinned. "I don't think this is the time to start getting dogmatic about a lack of Jedi powers, or not needing special protection. Stay behind me, I'll check this out."
She entered the room, closely followed by Callista, and stopped dead as all the glowpanels in the room lit up at once. They were standing in a Sith temple. Dozens of statues of what Mara presumed were Sith lords stood along the walls, all looking sinister and imposing. Among them, she recognized Palpatine, Vader, Exar Kun, and one that Callista identified as the apprentice of Palpatine's that she had told Luke and Mara about, Darth Maul.
"Look at this," Callista said, stepping towards a wall niche between two of the statues as a glint of light reflecting from crystal and metal caught her eye. "A Sith Holocron. It looks ancient."
"Well, just do the right thing and put your lightsabre through it," Mara advised. "We have enough trouble with the Sith as it is without leaving that lying around for them to use."
That was when the doors slammed shut with a resounding boom, and the glowpanels went out again, leaving them in a disorienting total darkness. Mara's lightsabres were immediately in guard position against a sudden attack. Behind her, she could hear Callista whirl, dropping the Holocron, as she also assumed a defensive position. They both waited for a couple of minutes, but nothing happened. "Stay there," Mara said, picking her way carefully towards what she hoped were the doors they had come in by, with her lightsabres casting a feeble glow around her. She felt herself bump into a wall and worked her way along it, trying to find the doors.
The sudden blaze of light temporarily blinded her. She staggered back, throwing an arm up to shield her eyes, and then felt herself thrown across the room to slam into a wall. The back of her head hit the wall, and everything went black.
The flare of light as the glowpanels came back on, this time lighting the room in a sinister red glow, briefly dazzled Callista. It took a few seconds for her eyes to adjust. Blinking them clear, she stepped out from the wall niche to see a figure appear through a door at the back of the room and stride towards the stunned Mara, holding what looked like a lightsabre hilt in one hand. She reacted instinctively as she saw it activate, stepping in front of Mara and igniting her lightsabre.
Lumiya walked towards the unconscious Mara Jade, activating her lightwhip and raising it to strike. A few wounds to his precious wife would make Skywalker much more amenable to surrendering, she reflected. She stopped dead as she saw a yellow lightsabre ignite in front of her.
"Sorry, did I startle you?" Callista asked mock-sweetly. "Couldn't you sense me?"
Lumiya's eyes narrowed. "Another of Skywalker's women," she said with anticipation. "This will be a day to remember."
Callista nodded, as Lumiya had expected. She lifted the lightwhip and struck. Dozens of the dual metal/energy strands wrapped round the lightsabre blade, crackling savagely as the two energy weapons met. More still whiplashed at Callista, forcing her to step back to avoid them, and weakening her grip on the blade. With skill born of years of long practice, Lumiya expertly and effortlessly tore the lightsabre from Callista's grip. The blade vanished as the deadman button was released, and the lightsabre went clattering into a corner of the room behind Lumiya. Without pausing, she brought the lightwhip back around to strike at Callista's face in a blur of motion. Moving equally quickly, Callista dropped under the whip and rolled to where Mara lay. There was a quick flash of movement, and a few seconds later, she was back on her feet with Mara's purple lightsabre held ready and ignited.
The lightwhip cut through the air towards her again, but this time Callista was ready for it. As Lumiya swept the light whip in a left to right stroke, she ducked with Jedi speed, swept the whip strands aside with her lightsabre, and straightened up, taking a step forwards. Lumiya gazed at her in surprise. Few Jedi would be able to block such a stroke successfully. "Most impressive," she observed, before striking rapidly and repeatedly with the light whip, hoping to force Callista into a mistake.
Artoo whistled emphatically as he managed to bypass the security locks. "Great," Han said. "Deactivate all the destroyer droids."
The droid beeped again a minute later, indicating that he had shut down the destroyer droids. Luke nodded. "Okay, let's go find Mara and Cal-"
He went rigid as he sensed a sudden and brief wave of surprise and alarm from Mara, and then nothing. "No," he whispered, his hand tightening on his lightsabre. The thought of Mara injured or even dead, and Callista facing a Dark Jedi alone... "Leia?"
"I know," she said. "Chewie, Barkhimkh, Sakhisakh, stay here. Keep an eye on the crew and see if there's a self destruct system."
The three of them hurried through the corridors. They didn't need to think where to go. The disturbance in the Force was enough to guide them.
Callista twisted to avoid a blow from the light whip and fell back, catching her breath for a moment. So far, Jedi trained reflexes had let her avoid Lumiya's attack, but she was sweating heavily and tiring from the strain of fighting. She was increasingly being forced onto the defensive, and knew that the longer they fought, the more likely the cyborg was to win.
Lumiya was thinking much the same thing. Her plan had been going perfectly until this Jedi interfered. With Jade stunned, and Skywalker and the others occupied with trying to deactivate the destroyer droids, she had practically won. She had not anticipated having to fight a prolonged duel. The more time she lost fighting, the less chance she would have of defeating Skywalker. Her anger rose as she sensed how near he was getting. She felt the dark side flowing through her as her rage increased, letting her intensify the speed and aggression of her attacks. The lightwhip cracked and hummed malevolently in a deadly series of blows.
Callista saw the fury in Lumiya's eyes, and knew that her anger was betraying her. Despite the speed and power of her attacks, they were becoming increasingly wild and actually becoming easier to avoid as she sought to gain a quick victory. She stepped toward Callista, sweeping the lightwhip in a diagonal left to right stroke, and leaving herself momentarily vulnerable as the lightwhip's momentum dragged it down to the floor. Callista instantly darted in, dodging the whip coils again as they came back towards her, and brought the lightsabre down on Lumiya's hand, slicing halfway through it. There was a shower of sparks from the cyborg circuits and a stench of seared flesh. Lumiya was still human enough to gasp in pain and drop the light whip. Seeing her chance, Callista struck at Lumiya's neck in her characteristic cross-cut, hoping to finish her quickly.
Even wounded and weaponless, though, Lumiya was still deadly. As Callista struck, she grabbed the lightsabre hilt with cyborg speed. Callista strained to push the blade forward with both hands, but even one-handed, Lumiya was too strong for her. The two of them stood rigid for a few seconds, and then Lumiya gave a mocking smile of triumph as she easily pushed the lightsabre up, away from her, and down again.
Callista's eyes went wide with shock as the purple blade stabbed down through flesh and bone, from below her shoulder to the centre of her back. There was no pain...yet.
Lumiya calmly switched the lightsabre off and pushed Callista back against the wall. For a second, she stayed upright, and then sank to her knees. She lifted her head to look at Lumiya briefly before collapsing sideways to the floor. Lumiya tossed the lightsabre aside and regarded the dying woman scornfully. She smiled momentarily at the thought of Skywalker's despair at seeing his former love mortally wounded. His death would not be so quick, though. She stepped towards the unconscious Mara Jade, retrieving the light whip and raising it again.
Leia came through the door to see Lumiya standing over Mara, with the light whip raised, and reacted immediately. She hurled her lightsabre at the cyborg, and saw her step quickly aside to avoid the weapon.
Behind her, Luke entered the room. Lumiya's eyes flicked towards him as he appeared, and the hate he saw in her eyes stopped him cold. He could feel a tide of anger, pain, and bitterness pulsing out from her, and with them came a strangely familiar feeling. It was reminiscent of the hate he had felt from Mara the first time he had been brought on board the Wild Karrde, but there was something else, which he couldn't quite pin down, that reminded him of Mara. Shaking it off, he moved to stand between Lumiya and Mara, casting one agonised glance at Callista's still form, as Leia called the lightsabre back to her hand.
Han followed him into the room and raised his blaster, then thought better of it, remembering Vader in Cloud City and C'baoth in Mount Tantiss. He hurried over to Mara and shook her roughly until her eyes opened. "Come on, get up," he growled, glancing over his shoulder at where Luke and Leia were standing warily facing Lumiya.
Mara groaned and slowly got to her feet. "Okay, Solo," she said, rubbing the back of her head briefly before igniting her blue lightsabre, just as Luke and Leia attacked Lumiya together.
Lumiya retreated slowly and grudgingly before Luke and Leia's combined attack. With her good hand injured, she was only just fending them off. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mara Jade climb to her feet, and knew that she had lost. Even in death, Callista had still beaten her. It was only one battle in a war that she would eventually win, though. She would have to plan the next more carefully.
"There'll be another time, Skywalker," she snarled, and extended a hand towards the three of them, her rage and bitterness at her failure fuelling the Force lightning that erupted out at them. Brilliant bolts of blue-white electricity filled the room, crackling and coiling around the lightsabre blades like living things, and slamming Leia back into the wall as she missed some of the bolts.
The Force lightning ceased abruptly as Lumiya fell back suddenly, opening a gap between her and Luke, Leia, and Mara. Reaching out with the Force, she activated a control panel to her right. Two hatches hissed open in the walls and a pair of destroyer droids that were controlled separately from the others emerged in their wheel form, unfolding rapidly and opening fire. Under cover of the crossfire, Lumiya vanished through the doors at the back of the room. As Luke and Mara reflected the blaster bolts, Han and Chewbacca fired a dozen shots into the control panel. The displays vanished in a shower of sparks and smoke, and the destroyer droids went dead. Luke sprinted past the immobile forms to the doors, determined not to let Lumiya escape. He was too late, though. He felt her vanish from his senses as she cloaked herself with the Force, and there were too many corridors to know which one she had taken. He fought down his anger and frustration at her escape, and came back into the room, hurrying to where Callista was lying, her eyes shut.
He took her hand gently and she opened her eyes. "Luke," she said.
He glanced down and grimaced, noting the terrible wound. He placed his other hand on the wound and reached out to the Force, knowing even as he did so that it was futile. As a Rebel pilot, he had seen enough similar injuries to know that they were invariably fatal. Karrde had told him how Yoda had healed Jorj Car'das, but he lacked Yoda's skill in the Force or even Cilghal's aptitude for healing.
Callista's hand closed over his and lifted it away. "Don't, Luke," she said softly. "Just hold me."
He swallowed, but nodded and took her in his arms. Behind him, Mara took Leia and Han by the arms and gently but firmly pulled them away, leaving Luke and Callista alone.
Callista raised a hand to touch his cheek, and he moved his own to hold it, seeing in her grey eyes both serenity and her love for him, broken only by stabs of pain. She looked towards her lightsabre, knowing she would never use it again.
Luke gazed at her in anguish, seeing the increasingly frequent expressions of pain cross her face. He stretched out again, using the Force to try and ease her pain.
"Thank you, Luke," she whispered in his mind.
Luke nodded, and then went still as the realisation of what had just happened sank in. Her powers had returned. His hand tightened on hers. "I can sense you with the Force," he said softly.
Callista smiled weakly. "I can feel you too. Look." She stretched a hand towards her lightsabre and it rose a few inches from the floor. After a few seconds, it trembled and then fell back to the floor as her strength failed.
She gazed into his eyes. "Luke, promise me you'll take my lightsabre. You will know why when the time comes." She coughed weakly. "Don't grieve for me, Luke. I'll always be with you. This is only a brief parting. Remember what Yoda said: luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. The Jedi never truly die. One day, you will make this journey, and I'll be waiting for you when you do."
Luke nodded, and she sagged in his arms, her eyes closing for the last time, as a final look of peace crossed her face. "My master has come for me."
Blackness hovered at the edge of Callista's mind as her eyes closed. She knew she was dying but she was not afraid. Her task was done and this was the last trial of a Jedi, to face death without fear. As the darkness closed in on her, a sense of peace pervaded her as a last image came. She saw herself standing on her ark back on Chad, with the only noise that of the waves and the calling of the cy'een around her. She turned slowly as she sensed a presence behind her. Her long-dead teacher, the Jedi Master Djinn Altis, stood behind her. "Your destiny is fulfilled, Callista," he told her. "You have done well. You have walked the path of a Jedi." He smiled at her warmly and held out a hand. "Come with me, my student."
Callista nodded. "Yes, Master," she said, and took his hand...
Without warning, Callista's body faded into nothingness even as Luke held her. Her Jedi tunic and robe slid gently from his fingers and floated to the floor. He stared at them for a second, knowing that she had gone forever, and then bowed his head in mute sorrow.
After an indefinite length of time, a hand touched his shoulder. "She's gone, Luke," Mara said quietly.
Luke nodded and slowly rose to his feet, still staring at the empty clothes. He turned away and called Callista's lightsabre to his hand, then silently followed the others out of the room, without looking back. Artoo whistled mournfully as Luke approached. "I'll be alright, thanks, Artoo," he said, patting the droid's dome.
"Are you sure?" Leia asked anxiously.
Luke swallowed briefly before replying. "I'm fine, Leia. Let's go."
Ahead of them, Han was speaking into his comlink as he hurried down the corridor. "Have you found a self destruct, Chewie? Right, tell the crew to get to the escape pods, and meet us in the hangar."
* * * * * *
The Falcon shot away from Endor and Lumiya's Strike Cruiser, heading towards the New Republic ships. Behind them, dozens of escape pods could be seen
shooting away from the doomed ship. "Should be any second now," Han said, anxiously watching the distance between them and the Strike Cruiser gradually
increase. A small group of guards had engaged them in a brief but intense firefight in the hangar, and cost them valuable time in escaping. If they weren't at a safe
distance before it blew...
A moment later, a jet of fire and air erupted from the side of the Strike Cruiser as the self destruct countdown reached zero. An explosion tore away the bow of the starship, followed almost instantly by another that blew the hulk into millions of glowing shards.
"Brace yourselves!" Leia snapped, watching the blast ripple out through space far more quickly and powerfully than she had expected. The shockwave hit the Falcon a few seconds later, shaking the small freighter violently for a minute before it gradually diminished.
Han checked the displays and grimaced. "That explosion took our shields down by 30%," he announced. "And just to make matters worse, we've got guests arriving." Ahead of the Falcon, the Star Destroyers and frigates were forming a perimeter line to prevent the New Republic ships from intervening. Five squadrons of TIE fighters and interceptors were driving towards the Falcon, together with the entire group of Corellian Corvettes. Already ranging laser blasts were lancing out from the Corvettes.
"At least they're trying to take us in one piece," Leia commented.
"Only so they can have an insurance against attack," Mara replied.
"That doesn't really help us," Han snapped. "Have you been taking lessons from Threepio in how to tell us what we can work out for ourselves? Hold on."
He pulled the Falcon into a twisting downwards turn, and was followed by a score of TIE fighters. Laser bolts sizzled past the canopy from underneath the Falcon. "They're trying to drive us towards the Corvettes so they can disable us or get a tractor beam lock," Luke said.
"Tell me something I don't know," Han retorted. "If anyone has any Jedi tricks up their sleeve, now's the time."
Leia leaned forward to toggle the comm to the cargo hold. "Barkhimkh, Sakhisakh, take the quads," she ordered.
"We are already there, Lady Vader," Barkhimkh mewed in reply.
"Alright, here goes," Han said as blasts from the quads started finding targets. The Falcon twisted, turned, climbed and dived madly to avoid the mass of TIEs swarming around them. Fighters disintegrated with nearly every shot fired, but more swarmed in to replace them, pelting the Falcon with a relentless hail of fire. Turbolaser and ion blasts from the Corvettes cracked into the clustered TIE fighters, blowing many apart and disabling still more, but some of the shots smashed into the Falcon's shields.
"This is hopeless," Han snapped as a warning light lit up on the control panel, indicating that the shields were getting dangerously low. "There's too many of them. Even if we get rid of this lot, we'll never get past those Star Destroyers with the shields this low. They're jamming us, so we can't even signal for help. I need ideas, and fast."
"There's only one thing we can do," Mara said slowly as she stared out at the Star Destroyers.
"Great," Han said. "What's your plan?"
"Simple," Mara said. "We let them bring us on board."
There was a dead silence. Luke gave no reaction, as he had known what she was thinking through their Force bond, but Leia and Chewbacca turned slowly to stare at her in amazement. Han shook his head incredulously. "I knew it," he muttered. "She's gone crazy. I should have realised it when she agreed to marry Luke."
"Shut up, Han," Leia snapped. She looked at Mara. "Why?"
Mara nodded appreciatively and proceeded to quickly explain her plan.
"I don't know," Luke said dubiously when she finished. "We'd have to fight our way through an Imperial Star Destroyer. It doesn't sound like the sort of thing a Jedi should do. I think it's too aggressive."
"I think it's carrying out justice," Mara shot back. "It's exactly the sort of thing a Jedi would do. What about Wayland? What about Mon Renalla? Do we just destroy the Imperials, and then say justice has been done?"
Luke hesitated for a moment, and then nodded, unable to suppress a feeling of irony that Mara had suddenly become a stickler for justice. "Leia?"
"I agree," she said. "Let's do it."
Han groaned. "You're all crazy," he growled. "OK, I agree as well. Doesn't look like we have much choice."
"Why does no one ever ask me what I think?" Threepio said plaintively to Artoo in the back of the cockpit.
On board the Tyrannic, the comm officer hurried up to approached Captain Nalgol. "Sir, the Millennium Falcon has ceased fire," he reported.
Nalgol blinked in surprise, and some regret, at how easily they had surrendered. He had expected more resistance from the legendary Han Solo. This was, after all, the Corellian who had made the entire Imperial fleet chase him through an asteroid field. "Instruct the Corvettes to escort the Millennium Falcon in until it is within tractor beam range. If they resist, have them destroyed." He felt relief course through him. With the Jedi Knights Luke and Mara Skywalker, and Leia Organa Solo and her husband their prisoners, the New Republic would never dare attack them.
He watched as the Falcon, flanked by the Corvettes, approached the Tyrannic until it vanished underneath the hull of the Star Destroyer.
Three squads of stormtroopers, their blaster rifles held ready, lined the docking bay as the Falcon appeared in the entrance and passed through the magnetic
field. Two E-web blaster cannons were being quickly assembled as it settled to the deck with a hiss of repulsorlifts. Fingers tightened on triggers as the ramp
gradually lowered. The officer in charge waited for a minute, then raised a megaphone disk to his mouth when it became clear that no one was coming out. "You
have 30 seconds to come out of your ship before I order it destroyed," he announced, his voice booming across the hangar.
They came out.
Luke and Mara leapt from either side of the ramp to the deck, their lightsabres already ignited and in a defensive position. The stormtroopers immediately opened fire, but their shots were merely deflected to ricochet around the hangar. Behind Luke and Mara, Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and the two Noghri opened fire. In seconds, a storm of blaster fire was filling the hangar. The stormtroopers, with no cover and their shots being steadily blocked by Luke and Mara, rapidly began becoming targets. The officer was one of the first to fall. A shot caught his megaphone disk dead centre, blowing it into tiny fragments, and then another shot caught him squarely in the chest, slamming him back into a wall.
Via a holocam, Nalgol watched the firefight with alarm and shock. Blaster bolts crisscrossed the hangar, blowing smouldering holes in walls, smacking into the Falcon's hull, and burning through stormtrooper armour. The Wookiee's bowcaster spat precisely aimed bolts of energy, tearing holes in the line of stormtroopers. Next to him, Organa Solo, her husband, and the two Noghri were wreaking similar havoc on the stormtroopers. As their fire slackened, Mara Skywalker charged forwards. The remaining stormtroopers shifted aim to fire at her, but both her lightsabres flashed rhythmically as she deflected the few shots that came anywhere near her. The rest whipped harmlessly through empty space as she whirled, ducked, leapt and flipped, working her way systematically around the hangar to cut down stormtroopers with every stroke from her lightsabres.
Nalgol watched it all with a kind of appalled fascination until the holocam suddenly went blank as a stray blaster bolt smashed into it. "I want reinforcements in hangar 27 immediately!" he thundered at an aide. "Tell the stormtrooper captain I want to know exactly what's happening."
In the hangar, Mara slashed a lightsabre through the armour of one of the last two stormtroopers, and a shot of Han's sent the other flopping backwards. She took a breath. "Alright, that's this lot taken care of," she said. "We'd better get moving before more arrive. We need to get a message to the fleet as well."
"There's a computer over there," Luke said, gesturing towards the deck officer's station.
Mara nodded and hurried in that direction. She reached the office and began accessing the computer. The Imperials had jammed the Falcon's transmissions, but they would hardly be jamming their own transmissions. She quickly entered two messages, switching to a frequency known only to very few people in the New Republic for the first message, and then a wide band frequency for the second.
Wedge Antilles snapped out of a light sleep and cursed as his comlink began warbling, indicating an incoming message. With a groan, he keyed the comm, and his eyes widened as the message began playing...
Two minutes later, he was sprinting towards Rogue Squadron's hangar, with the duty call wailing. Beneath his feet, he could feel the vibration as Galactic's Voyager's sublight drive surged to full power. Clearly Ackbar had just received a message as well, he noted.
"Okay, that's it," Mara called to the others as she finished.
"Right, let's go," Luke shouted back as she ran to join them. "You know the way around a Star Destroyer. What's the quickest way to the bridge?"
"That way," Mara answered, waving at one of the blast doors. "There should be some turbolifts leading straight to deck 33. From there, we should be able to work our way back towards the command superstructure, and then take another turbolift up to the bridge. Useful knowing Rogue Squadron's private frequency, by the way. I don't think even Karrde, with all his sources, knows what it is."
"Come on," Leia said. "There'll be more stormtroopers here soon."
"Too late," Han snapped back as the turbolift doors slid open. "They're already here." Both groups opened up in a new volley of laser fire, punctuated by the crackling and humming of Luke and Mara's lightsabres as they deflected more blaster bolts.
The audio feed was being relayed over the bridge comm system. "What in Vader's name is going on?" Nalgol snarled at the stormtrooper captain over a background of solid blaster fire.
"They're wiping us out, sir," came the panicked reply. "We need to fall back."
"No!" Nalgol snapped. "Hold your positions. They mustn't- "
There was an abrupt gasp of agony, and the transmission died in a burst of piercing static before it cut off.
The archway leading to the turbolifts became a deathtrap for the stormtroopers. Caught by walls on three sides, they had nowhere to hide from the hail of blaster fire that saturated the archway. They all went down in less than two minutes. A green flash marked the journey of Luke's lightsabre as he threw it overarm, guiding it with the Force to slice through the last two stormtroopers before it cut the captain in half from shoulder to hip.
Twelve X-wings swept out from Galactic Voyager, locking their S-foils in attack position. Behind them, a swarm of other X-wings, B-wings, Y-wings, and A-wings emerged from the fleet hangars. Galactic Voyager moved into the centre of the New Republic battle line that was forming, flanked by Dreadnaughts, Strike Cruisers, Escort Frigates, and Corellian Gunships. The Meteor and Starwind took position on the very end of the lines.
Captain Narven stared out at the New Republic ships that were moving into a battle formation in front of him, knowing that they had lost their guarantee
against attack. Nalgol had failed to capture Skywalker and his friends, who were running amok aboard the Tyrannic. They were enemies of both the Empire and
New Republic now, with their destruction staring them in the face. Anger rose inside him. If nothing else, they would at least give the New Republic a bloody
nose. "All ships, begin the attack on the New Republic fleet," he ordered. "Helm, proceed ahead at flank speed. All weapons emplacements, fire at will. Deploy
all TIE fighters now."
"Rogue Leader, look to your right," Rogue 7 said.
Wedge glanced out of his canopy and whistled. The entire Imperial force had moved into an attack formation and were heading straight for them.
"Multiple drive trails, Rogue Leader," Rogue 10 advised. "Looks like they're launching every fighter they've got."
"Sure does, Ten," Wedge commented. "Here we go...
"They're not trying any subtle attack, then," Bel Iblis mused, watching the approaching enemy ships as he stood beside Ackbar.
Ackbar shook his head. "They appear merely to be making a suicide attack, hoping to cause as much damage as possible."
Wedge looked around at Rogue Squadron flying in formation around him, back at the other New Republic fighter squadrons, and down to check his laser, shield, and engine displays. "Rogues, get ready. May the Force be with you."
And with a sudden hail of green and red laser blasts, both sides met. TIE fighters and interceptors hurtled past his X-wing, and the battle dissolved into chaos.
Wedge pulled his X-wing around, tracking a TIE fighter, and scored a direct hit. The fighter blew apart, both solar fins spinning away from the disintegrating cockpit structure. He caught a fleeting glimpse of turbolaser batteries spitting fire as Galactic Voyager exchanged salvoes with the Ironhand at close range. Sharp flashes marked the impact of proton torpedoes as they slammed into each ship's shields. More torpedoes shot away from a group of TIE bombers ahead and below of him as they fired at Galactic Voyager. "Eleven, pull in," Wedge ordered. "Let's take those bombers. Mark them as Delta 1-6. Ten, Twelve, cover us." He throttled down to two-thirds power to match the slower bombers.
"I'm with you, Rogue Leader," Eleven acknowledged. "I'm locked on Delta Five." All four lasers fired from the X-wing that had appeared alongside Wedge, and a bomber erupted into a cloud of debris.
"Good shooting, Eleven," Wedge acknowledged as his own target exploded and he acquired another target.
Three of the remaining TIE bombers abruptly vanished in clouds of red and black as a burst of laser fire and several torpedoes ploughed into the group. "Sorry, Rogue Leader," Green Leader apologised as a concussion missile shot past Wedge's canopy to destroy his target.
"No problem," Wedge replied, accelerating back to full speed, and acquiring a TIE interceptor.
"Where are they now?" Nalgol barked at an aide. Skywalker and his friends had cut their way through all the stormtroopers and naval troopers who tried to stop them, and were quickly working back towards the bridge. Their arrogance was amazing. Actually daring to fight their way through an Imperial Star Destroyer...
He had heard enough stories of the abilities of Skywalker and the Jedi before now, but always dismissed them out of hand. That opinion was now undergoing a rapid reappraisal.
"They've just arrived here," the aide reported. "Team 87 reported their presence there before we lost contact with them."
Nalgol glanced at the section of the Tyrannic that the aide was indicating on his displays and grimaced. It was getting worse all the time. As well as trying to control a Star Destroyer in battle, he was having to worry about the intruders who were getting steadily closer to the bridge. "I want every stormtrooper and naval trooper available sent to that deck to start taking up defensive positions. Deploy E-webs if you have them. Lock down all the turbolifts. I don't want them getting any further. We'll have to forget about taking them alive."
Ackbar stood watching the battle raging outside the bridge of Galactic Voyager. Two Gunships had flanked a Corellian Corvette, and were hammering it with turbolaser fire. B-wings and Y-wings were making attack runs on the ship, firing torpedoes and ion blasts into the rapidly weakening shields. As he watched, an A-wing blew apart as a TIE fighter scored a direct hit. A second later, the TIE itself ceased to exist as a shot from a Dreadnaught caught it dead centre. There was a searing flash as the Corvette exploded, taking a B-wing, two Y-wings and several TIEs with it.
Bel Iblis examined the bridge tactical hologram. "Concentrate fire on the Malice," he ordered, noting its fading shields.
"I copy," Wedge acknowledged, blasting a TIE apart, and turning towards the frigate, along with a dozen B-wings and a Strike Cruiser. He switched to torpedo mode, and waited until the targeting display turned to red. Two pairs of blue flashes marked the launch of four proton torpedoes as he stabbed the fire button. He pulled his X-wing away from the frigate, giving himself a few moments to assess the battle. Things seemed to be going well for the New Republic so far. Two Corvettes, three squadrons of TIEs and half a squadron of bombers had been destroyed, and the Malice severely damaged. He glanced towards the frigate to see the first two torpedoes he had fired impact on the shields. The shields managed to disperse the energy blast, but failed a second afterwards, leaving a hole for the second pair to enter and explode against the hull. Amour plating was blasted away and buckled inwards by the explosions. Other torpedoes came in at the Malice at varying angles, battering down the other shields and further weakening the hull.
As the X-wing came around to head away from the frigate, it revealed the Obliterator being bombarded by Starwind and two Dreadnaughts. The ion blasts playing up and down the arrow shape showed that the Star Destroyer's shields had collapsed. With each ion salvo fired, the answering turbolaser blasts became increasingly few and spasmodic. The Obliterator began listing to port as the ion blasts scrambled it's control systems.
"Well, that's one less to worry about," Janson observed.
A second later, six Star Destroyers reverted to realspace directly in front of him.
"Ships coming out of hyperspace in Sector 8," one of Ackbar's aides shouted. Ackbar and Bel Iblis turned sharply to see the Star Destroyers drop out of lightspeed behind them, but that was not the worst. Beyond the Star Destroyers, an Interdictor Cruiser had appeared to prevent them from escaping.
"All ships, prepare to jump to hyperspace," Ackbar ordered urgently. "Display the status of the gravity well projectors."
The aide checked his displays and seemed to slump. "Admiral, it's a Class II cruiser," he announced. He had no need to explain further. Everyone on the bridge knew what that meant. Class II Interdictors were a refined model, able to generate gravity wells instantly upon leaving hyperspace, unlike the original Interdictors.
"Blue and Gold Squadrons, move to attack the Interdictor," Ackbar ordered. "Dreadnaughts Glory and Korletta, likewise. Rogue Squadron, cover them." In the middle of the battle, two groups of B-wings broke off from their targets and headed towards the Interdictor, with X-wings moving into escort position around them. Glory and Korletta were already moving forward from the battle line, and then turning towards the Interdictor.
"Wait!" Bel Iblis ordered, examining the tactical displays. "Belay that order. That's the Chimaera."
Wedge watched the Star Destroyers looming in front of them in disbelief. There were three ships approaching rapidly, one of which was a very familiar looking Corellian Action VI bulk freighter. He switched frequencies on his comm. "Karrde, we've got to stop meeting like this."
Laughter greeted him. "Don't worry, I'll be sending you my fee as soon as this is over," Karrde said. "In the meantime, we have a battle to fight."
Followed by the Starry Ice and Dawn Beat, the Wild Karrde moved to engage a Nebulon-B frigate. Even together, they were hugely outgunned by the frigate, but they kept it tightly pinned down.
"Admiral?" an aide called on Galactic Voyager's bridge. "We're getting a transmission from one of the Star Destroyers."
Ackbar hesitated briefly. "Put it through," he ordered.
An image of Admiral Pellaeon appeared on the viewscreens. "Admiral Ackbar," Pellaeon said. "I apologise for arriving at an awkward moment. Talon Karrde informed me of the location of the mutinying Star Destroyers three days ago. I would be honoured to fight alongside you to destroy these traitors. With your permission..?"
Ackbar's first thought was to refuse point blank, suspecting a trap. His enslavement by Grand Moff Tarkin was something he would never forget, and the suffering of his people at the hands of the Empire had bred a deep distrust of any Imperial commander in him, which no peace treaty could completely allay. On the other hand, Princess Leia had said that Pellaeon was honourable. In a quandary, he glanced at Bel Iblis, who nodded in confirmation.
"Very well, Admiral Pellaeon," he acknowledged. "We will be appreciative of your assistance."
Corran whistled softly as he saw the new group of Star Destroyers moving to attack the renegade Imperials. The Nemesis and Judicator were launching drop ships to board the Obliterator. The Chimaera was in the vanguard of the attack and moving to close with the Tyrannic. As he watched, the two ships came into range of each other and began exchanging turbolaser fire.
"There's something you don't see every day," he observed. "Imperials fighting Imperials?"
"Stay sharp, Nine," Wedge ordered, staring out at the Obdurate and Ironhand. The two Star Destroyers had closed up and were pummelling Starwind, which was lying broadside to them, from both sides at point blank range. The Star Cruiser was firing back, but it was considerably overmatched by the two ISDs. "Rogues, form up. We're going after those two Impstars. It's time we paid them back for Mon Renalla. We'll make a straight line run down between the two of them at full throttle, and then pull up and target the shield generators when we come in line with the command superstructures."
"Rogue Leader, at that speed, will we be able to pull up in time?" Gavin Darklighter asked anxiously.
Wedge grinned. "Okay everyone, we heard Six. You know what to do. On two: one, two..."
"...It'll be just like Beggars Canyon back home," they chorused in unison.
"Trust a Tatooine farmboy to ask these questions," Wedge said, laughing. "All right, Rogues, here we go."
The twelve X-wings tipped over and dived towards the two Star Destroyers. Sheets of turbolaser fire rose to greet them, filling space in a terrifyingly beautiful yet useless pattern of light. Wedge wondered briefly why the Imperials still used such outmoded technology. It had been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that TIEs, with no shielding, hyperdrive, or torpedo launchers, were no match for X-wings, or that Star Destroyers, as awesome and effective against other capital ships as they were, could not defeat a starfighter attack.
Luke and Mara, followed by Han, Leia and the Noghri, stepped into a new corridor, and were immediately greeted by a stream of fire from a pair of E-web heavy repeating blasters. They reacted immediately, blocking the bolts, but the power and intensity of the laser fire forced them back into the passage they had just left.
"We have them pinned down, sir," the lieutenant in charge reported to Captain Nalgol. "They can't handle the fire rate of the E-webs."
Nalgol smiled. Finally something was going right. "Send another E-web crew up behind them to surround them," he ordered. "If we can do that, they will be trapped. Make sure you kill them. If you succeed, consider yourself promoted to Captain."
In the passage, much the same conversation was taking place. "We'd better get out of here quickly," Han pointed out. "If we just stand around, they're going to send another group to catch us in a crossfire. Thanks for getting us into this mess, Mara. What a great idea you had, suggesting taking on an entire Star Destroyer."
"Well, perhaps you'd like to have a go with the lightsabres instead?" Mara retorted, offering them to him. "If you think you can do better, you're welcome to try. By the way, you hold the glowing part away from you, in case you were wondering."
Leia closed her eyes briefly, stretching out to the Force to examine the nearby corridors and rooms, as Han and Mara argued with each other. She ignited her lightsabre and drove it up into the ceiling between the two of them, which had the effect of instantly silencing them. "Will both of you shut up?" she snapped as they stared at her in disbelief. "Talk about the Death Star detention block all over again..."
Spinning her lightsabre in a circle, she cut a bevelled section of metal out of the deck and used the Force to lift it aside. Another deck level could be seen through the hole. With a Force leap, she jumped up through the hole. "Come on," she said to Mara. "We'll take out the E-webs."
"I'll keep them occupied," Luke said as Mara leapt up to join Leia. Gripping his lightsabre tightly, he stepped out into the corridor, deflecting the laser bolts that came at him for half a minute before retreating back to join Han and Chewbacca.
"Not much for starship layout, are they?" Leia observed as she and Mara ran down the corridor. This level seemed to be identical to the one immediately below them.
"No, they aren't," Mara answered, coming to a stop. "They're right below us. Ready?"
Leia nodded, and Mara sliced a crude rectangle in the decking. The thick slab of metal crashed down, crushing an E-web into useless scrap. Leia leapt down through the hole, her first stroke of the lightsabre slicing through the barrel of the other E-web. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Luke sprinting to join her, as Mara jumped down, her lightsabres slashing through the armour of two stormtroopers.
Nalgol cursed as he saw the ensuing chaos on his displays. The air was alive with laser fire, but he somehow doubted that it would take more than a couple of minutes before the stormtrooper detachment was eliminated. The E-web crews had been dangerously close to the bridge for his liking, and with them destroyed, there wasn't much left between him and the Jedi.
"Close all the blast doors," he ordered. "I want the bridge stormtrooper squads positioned outside all the blast doors."
He knew they wouldn't be able to stop Skywalker and the others for long, if the way they had disposed of all the other stormtroopers was anything to go by, and the blast doors weren't designed to stop lightsabres. The designers had failed to consider the possibility of Jedi fighting their way through a Star Destroyer when the drew up the plans.
He had another idea, though. The battle might be lost, but he was going to ensure that the New Republic would pay dearly for their victory. "Helm, turn to course 2-1-19," he ordered. "Lock the course into the navicomputer and withhold all access. Fire all ion batteries."
Pellaeon was watching the broadsides being exchanged between the Chimaera and Tyrannic, when the Star Destroyer abruptly disengaged and moved away at flank speed. "They've given up," Captain Ardiff said in surprise. "I didn't think Nalgol was a quitter."
Pellaeon watched the Star Destroyer moving away, anticipating it's course. "They haven't," he said grimly as ion blasts laced the void of space in front of the Tyrannic. "They're making a suicide run."
The crackling of laser fire suddenly erupted outside the Tyrannic's bridge blast doors, continuing for two or three minutes before fading into silence. Nalgol turned and watched as a green lightsabre blade was thrust clear through one of the blast doors. Metal began to glow white-hot and drop away as a rectangle was cut in the blast doors.
"Lower your blasters," he ordered as some of the bridge crew levelled their weapons. "They've failed."
A second later, the rectangle of metal fell inwards with a resounding crash. "Jedi Master Skywalker," Nalgol said calmly as Luke entered the bridge. "You've arrived just in time for us to die together." He gestured towards the viewports. "We're on an impact course with Galactic Voyager. At least we will succeed in critically harming the New Republic, with your death, and those of Admiral Ackbar, Bel Iblis, Councillor Organa Solo, and Mara Skywalker."
Luke followed his gesture. The ion blasts being fired from the Tyrannic were scrambling the Star Cruiser's control systems enough to prevent it from taking evasive action.
"The course is locked into the computer," Nalgol continued. "There's no way you can bypass the access controls in time."
"No, but you can," Mara said, pushing past Luke.
Nalgol smiled coldly. "What will you do, Mara Skywalker? Kill me in cold blood? Hardly a proper course of action for a Jedi."
"I'm sure we can work something out," Mara said, matching his smile. Barkhimkh and Sakhisakh appeared beside her. "I don't think they have the same compunctions I do, especially not after what you did to Wayland."
Nalgol paled momentarily as Barkhimkh took a step towards him, needle teeth clicking ominously together, before recovering his composure. "Kill me if you like," he said dismissively. "You can't stop what's going to happen."
"Think so?" Mara shot back, crossing to the helmsman's station, followed by Sakhisakh and Barkhimkh, hands ready on their knives. The helmsman hastily stood and backed away from his station as he saw the Noghri approach.
Nalgol merely smiled as he watched Mara try to access the navicomputer. "Your codes as the Emperor's Hand won't work," he informed her. "Admiral Pellaeon had the override access codes removed from all Star Destroyer main computers over three years ago."
Mara cursed violently as she found out that he was telling the truth. None of her codes were working. The computer flatly rejected every one. She hesitated, wondering whether to try to get back to the Falcon, but she knew they would never make it. They were already too close to Galactic Voyager.
Nalgol gazed at them in triumph. "As I said, you can't stop what's going to happen."
In contradiction of his words, the navicomputer screens in front of Mara abruptly went blank and the characteristic vibration from the sublight engines died. The ion cannons also stopped firing. Nalgol turned sharply to see the rate of closure between the Tyrannic and Galactic Voyager dwindle rapidly and then stop. He turned back to stare at Mara in amazement that she had managed to shut down the navicomputer, but stopped as he saw the expression of disbelief on her face.
"You did it," Luke said, crossing over to Mara.
Mara shook her head in confusion. "I didn't do anything. The main computer just spontaneously shut down. Why in Vader's name would that happen?"
Admiral Pellaeon nodded in satisfaction as he watched the Tyrannic's ion cannons fall silent and the glow of the Star Destroyer's three main engines fade to nothing, bringing the starship to a halt. As the ion cannons stopped firing, Galactic Voyager quickly began moving away from the Star Destroyer.
"How unfortunate for Captain Nalgol that he never suspected that I had my own override code hardwired into the main computer at the same time that those for the Emperor's agents were removed," he observed dryly to Captain Ardiff, who was standing next to him.
Wedge felt like he was flying down a long tunnel. Turbolaser blasts lanced out at Rogue Squadron from the Ironhand and Obdurate as they flew between the two Star Destroyers, forming a cylinder of light around the X-wings. Gate was emitting a continuous screech of terror, but he was too involved in avoiding the laser fire to hear Gate. The whole experience was eerily reminiscent of the Death Star trench run, with walls of metal to both sides, and laser fire coming at them from all directions. Ahead of him, he could see Tycho, Gavin, Hobbie, and Janson's X-wings, making the first run on the shield generators, in the most dangerous part of the attack. To obtain a torpedo lock, they would have to keep their fighters still, increasing the chances of being hit. One blast seared the canopy of Gavin's X-wing, but the fighter continued on course. The three fighters abruptly changed course, turning to port and climbing sharply towards the command superstructure of the Ironhand. Two streaks of blue fire shot out from Tycho's X-wing as the snubfighter came into range of the shield generators, followed by six more a second later as Janson, Gavin and Hobbie fired their torpedos.
"Two Flight, turn to starboard and climb on my mark," he ordered as Gate stopped screaming to whistle a timing tone. "One, two...mark." Followed closely by Rogues 10, 11, and 12, the X-wing soared upwards in a steep climb. Gate whistled to warble a targeting lock, and he flicked a switch to transmit the telemetry data to the rest of Two Flight. Eight torpedos appeared, accelerating rapidly away from the X-wings. The bridge gunners switched their aim in an attempt to knock out the incoming missiles, and actually managed to hit two of the torpedos. The other six avoided the laser fire and homed in on their targets. Twin balls of fire blossomed on the top of the Ironhand's superstructure as the torpedos found their mark. The Starwind immediately opened up with it's ion cannons, engulfing the bridges of Ironhand and Obdurate in a storm of blue fire.
"Okay, Rogues, start taking out the turbolasers," Wedge ordered, pulling his X-wing away from the damaged bridge of the Ironhand.
"No need, Rogue Leader," Tycho said. "It's over."
Wedge took a quick look around him. Tycho was right, the battle was over. The Obliterator had already been disabled, the Tyrannic had ceased fire, and Ironhand and Obdurate had been crippled with the destruction of their shield generators. Already dozens of assault transports and drop ships were launching to board the Star Destroyers. The remaining renegade ships were gradually ceasing fire as they saw the Star Destroyers surrender. Between them, the Wild Karrde, Starry Ice, and Dawn Beat had inflicted serious damage on the Nebulon-B frigate.
Only now did the novelty of the situation strike him. It was not the first time they had fought with the Imperials against a common enemy, but it was the first time they had done so as true allies, in a state of peace. It seemed like a good omen for the future, a solid basis for building a relationship of trust and cooperation between old enemies.
Luke, Mara, Han and Leia stood at the bridge viewports of the Tyrannic, gazing out at the mopping up operations. The Star Destroyer was already swarming with New Republic and Imperial commandos. Captain Nalgol had been taken to a detention cell and placed under suicide watch.
"You're in a strong position to claim the Tyrannic for yourselves," Leia pointed out to Luke and Mara. "You said you'd need a large ship for this Jedi school of yours. You can't get much larger than an Imperial Star Destroyer."
"No thanks," Mara said with a grimace. "I've seen what the Errant Venture costs Booster Terrik to maintain. Besides, I don't imagine Pellaeon would let us have it. They haven't got enough Star Destroyers to let a fully intact one go without a fight."
"Besides, I don't think having a Jedi school on board a Star Destroyer is the image we want to project," Luke added.
"You could have it," Han said to Leia. "You were the one who said the Falcon was hardly the ideal transport for a New Republic Senator. You'd certainly make an impact with a private Star Destroyer for a ship."
"I think I'll pass on it too," Leia said. "I've got too many bad memories of Star Destroyers to want one as a personal ship."
"No, you just can't bear to be away from the Falcon, can you?" Han said smugly.
* * * * * *
An hour after the battle, Leia was back on the bridge of Galactic Voyager, discussing the situation with Admiral Ackbar and Bel Iblis, when the comm
officer approached. "Excuse me, Admiral, but we have an incoming transmission from Supreme Admiral Pellaeon," he reported. "He wishes to speak to
The three of them glanced at each other. "Transfer it to my quarters," Leia instructed. "I'll take it there."
She left the bridge and hurried to her quarters, passing dozens of crew members who had not yet been instructed to stand down; hangar bays that were still swarming with arriving and departing transports and fighters, pilots, and flight staff; and commandoes assembling ready to be taken over to the surrendered Star Destroyers and other ships. Entering her rooms, she sank into a chair in front of her desk and briefly composed herself, then reached out and touched the comm key. The display flickered and resolved itself into an image of Admiral Pellaeon.
"Councillor Solo," Pellaeon said in greeting, inclining his head. "It is a pleasure to speak to you again. Regrettably, we cannot meet face to face this time."
Leia nodded. "Thank you, Admiral. No doubt there will be another time for us to meet. Your help against the renegade Star Destroyers was most appreciated."
Pellaeon's face hardened. "They mutinied against the Empire, killed General Hestiv, and made an unprovoked attack on the New Republic. Such actions are still high treason, and therefore punishable by death. The Empire is not as lacking in spirit as the New Republic." He hesitated as he realised he had overstepped the mark. "I must apologise for that outburst, Councillor. General Hestiv was a good friend. It is important to respect our differences, even if we do not agree with them."
Leia nodded. "A worthy sentiment, Admiral. If I may ask, why did you join the Empire? You seem like an honourable man."
Pellaeon's eyes narrowed slightly. "Contrary to popular opinion in the New Republic, the Empire is not a haven for the scum of the galaxy, Councillor Solo. We are not all power crazed mass murderers. Many of us hold loyalty, duty and order dear. You may deplore the flagrant acts of genocide, the general suppression, and anti alien bias that characterised Palpatine's New Order, as did many Imperial officers, if the truth be known, but it brought the galaxy peace and stability. Even your vaunted New Republic has just demonstrated that it has severe weaknesses. The Caamas Issue brought you to the brink of civil war."
He gave a rueful smile. "A great number of us were appalled at the destruction of Alderaan and it's people, but we dared not say anything against the Emperor. We were secretly pleased when the Death Stars were destroyed, and the Emperor finally overthrown. He had become a power crazed tyrant. Grand Admiral Thrawn at least knew the difference between order and tyranny. The Empire now is what Palpatine should have made it. We give our people the contentment of stability without excessive control and the choice to live under either our or your system of government if they so wish."
Leia nodded. Pellaeon's comments confirmed a common view in the New Republic that most of those who served the Empire approved of Palpatine's strong leadership, even if they loathed the palpable evil of weapons like the Death Star or the savage Imperial tyranny. She herself believed absolutely that the New Republic was the only system of government that offered true justice, freedom and prosperity to the galaxy, but sometimes she was not wholly unsympathetic to Pellaeon's viewpoint, especially when she saw disputes like the Caamas Issue erupt or the Senate tear itself apart in arguments. If a planet or system wished to live under the Empire's rule, then she could accept that, provided they were given the freedom to leave it if they so wished. "We have both learnt that we can live together in harmony despite our differences," she pointed out. "We were able to work together to destroy a common enemy. Perhaps we can develop a relationship of trust and peace rather than one of war and hate."
"Let us hope so, Councillor," Pellaeon noted. "The Galactic Civil War need never have happened. Perhaps we may be able to resolve our differences by discussion and working together rather than by war."
"We may indeed," Leia said. "I have an idea how we may start. Between us, we managed to capture Captains Narven, Nalgol, Trazzen, and Argona alive. I suggest that we hold a joint trial to try them and Moff Disra for crimes against the New Republic and Empire."
Pellaeon nodded. "An excellent idea, Councillor Solo. Talon Karrde has informed me that you, General Solo, and Luke and Mara Skywalker made an attempt to personally capture Captain Nalgol. You may have been surprised by the sudden shutting down of the Tyrannic's main computer. I had the Emperor's backdoor codes removed a few years ago and took the opportunity to install my own at the same time."
"Mara was certainly surprised," Leia replied. "She was unable to use the codes given to her as the Emperor's Hand to access the navicomputer, and was consequently taken aback when it shut down." She glanced at her chrono. "I am due to leave in a few hours. I have duties on Coruscant. Admiral Ackbar will remain here for a time to supervise the clean up operations if you wish to contact the New Republic High Command. Before I go, however, may I make a request?"
Two hours later, Han, Luke and Mara returned from the Tyrannic, where they had been doing a few impromptu repairs to the Falcon's shields and a few other systems which had been damaged during the battle with the TIE fighters. They entered Leia's quarters, and stopped dead in amazement.
"Well, what do you think?" Leia asked expectantly.
The three of them gazed in bewilderment at the strange holographic artworks in the middle of Leia's quarters. "Where in space did you dig these up from?" Han asked. "Has Lando managed to sweet-talk you into buying them?"
"No, I didn't get these from Lando," Leia answered. "I asked Admiral Pellaeon to give them to me. They're from Grand Admiral Thrawn's personal art collection. As we know, he thought that art was a way of understanding an enemy."
"But why do you want them, though?" Luke asked. "What good are a few bits of miscellaneous art work going to do us in understanding the psyche of whatever races created these?"
"You don't understand," Leia said. "These aren't just pieces of art that Thrawn collected, they are his art. Apparently, he had some artistic talent. These are what he did when he had the time. I thought we could get some insight into him by studying these." She raised an eyebrow. "Let's see if you would make art critics."
Mara nodded slowly. "How about this one?" she said, indicating one that showed half a dozen images of Thrawn's face, all slightly different. "Obviously an inconsistent personality."
"How do you work that one out?" Han asked sceptically. "I can hardly see you as an art critic. It doesn't tell me anything"
"Nothing to it, really," Mara said sardonically. "Being an art critic is one of the easiest jobs in the galaxy. All you have to do is look like you're analysing it deeply, nod wisely a few times like you've suddenly realised something amazingly enlightening about it, make a couple of enigmatic remarks, and there you are. Of course, I imagine doing even that might be out of your league, Solo."
She ignored Han's scowl and carried on. "Anyway, when I met Parck in the Chiss fortress, he said that Thrawn was only concerned with fighting whatever's out in the Unknown Regions, and thought highly enough of me to intend recruiting me once he had crushed the New Republic. If so, why didn't he just explain this to the New Republic so they could team up, rather than trying to completely destroy it; and why did he deliberately alienate me when I tried to get him off Karrde's back by giving him the Katana fleet? The hologram just helped confirm it."
Leia nodded. "Very good. Your turn, Han?"
"Not me," Han said. "Anything more artistic than a space yacht, and I lose interest. You have a go, Luke."
Luke took a breath and gestured to another hologram. "Well, that one seems revealing..."
An hour later, Leia was sitting alone in her quarters, studying a datapad report on the latest Senate meetings. Han had dragged Luke off to help him finish the repairs to the Falcon, and Mara had vanished into one of the cabins to meditate. "Yes, I know," she had said as Leia gave her an incredulous look, not believing that Mara would ever do anything like that. "I can hardly believe it either."
Leia shifted to a more comfortable position in her self-conforming chair, and turned her entire attention to the reports. Borsk Fey'lya was, as ever, up to his usual tricks, she noted. She managed to read a third of the first report before her attention began wandering. It was concerned primarily with the latest and most tedious economic analysis of the industrial production figures for Graxill sector that she had yet seen, and yet another argument between the Ishori and Diamalan Senators. She sighed. Meditation sounded extremely tempting at this point.
She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. Even that proved short lived, however. She jumped involuntarily, her eyes coming open, as she felt a powerful wave of shock ripple through the room. A few seconds later, Mara appeared from the cabin, her face white. "Mara, are you all right?" she asked anxiously.
Mara looked at her for a few moments without seeming to notice her, and her face hardened when she did. "I'm fine," she snarled. "Your brother won't be when I find him, though." She stalked out of the cabin, leaving Leia gazing after her in bewilderment, and wondering if she would ever quite understand Mara.
* * * * * *
A Lambda-class shuttle raced through hyperspace on automatic pilot. Sitting in the cockpit of the shuttle, Lady Lumiya gazed out at the tunnel of starlines outside the canopy without really seeing them. Her thoughts were a swirling mix of anger, hate, and failure. She had failed to kill Skywalker due to the interference of the Jedi woman. She had, she realised, been overconfident and complacent. The next time, she would have to be better prepared and careful. Clearly, the increasing numbers of Jedi was a problem she would have to take into account. She had allowed herself to be distracted by the Rogue Squadron Jedi and thus let the New Republic fleet to escape, and she had been unprepared to fight Skywalker, his sister and wife together. Next time, though, she would make no such mistakes. Already a new plan for dealing with Skywalker was beginning to form in her mind...
* * * * * *
Four days later, the Millennium Falcon touched down on Han and Leia's private landing pad at the Imperial Palace.
Behind Han, the door to the cockpit slid open and Leia entered. "I see we're back," she said with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, coming to stand just behind him.
"Not for long," Han replied. "We're only stopping to get a few things, and then we're going to a very quiet and exclusive resort that Mara told me about. Not even Gavrisom is going to know where we've gone. Why do you think Luke said he'd look after the kids for a little longer? I sorted the whole thing out with him and Mara while we were repairing the Falcon."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her tense. "What?" he asked suspiciously, turning to look at her.
Leia hesitated. "Well, the thing is..."
As if on cue, the door slid open again to reveal Threepio, closely followed by an enraged Chewbacca. "No, I will not be quiet, Chewbacca," the droid snapped in response to a particularly intimidating bellow from the Wookiee. "Princess Leia was scheduled to meet with a Gran delegation yesterday for the start of a three day trade conference, Captain Solo. They are insisting that she attends as soon as possible," he explained.
Han scowled. "Thank you so much, Threepio. Sorry, you're not going," he said to Leia, stepping past her to block her exit.
Leia sighed. "You're in my way, Han," she said. "I don't want to see the Gran delegation, but it's unavoidable. Don't make it worse than it already is."
Han ignored her. "Threepio, go and tell the delegation that Leia is unable to see them for the foreseeable future, or something like that," he ordered.
Leia glared at him. "Han, I have to go. You're not going to stop me. It'll only be three days. You said the Falcon needed more work doing on the way back here. I imagine it'll take you at least three days to fix this piece of junk."
"Thank you so much," Han growled, ever sensitive to any slur on his beloved Falcon. He turned away abruptly. "Go on then," he said brusquely. "I'll stay here and work on the Falcon. Come on, Chewie, the starboard drive feedback absorber needs looking at."
Leia followed them down the corridor. "I'm sorry, Han," she said. "I'll see if I can get through the conference quickly."
Han nodded silently as he rummaged through a container of tools. Leia hesitated for a moment and then reluctantly turned and left, followed by Threepio. Han straightened up as he found the tool he was looking for, to find Chewbacca staring at him. "What are you looking at?" he demanded irritably. "I know what I'm doing. Here," he said, tossing the Wookiee a hydrospanner, "go and make a start."
The work proved complicated. In only a few minutes, Han was sweating heavily and rapidly running out of patience. "Okay, try it now," he shouted to Chewie, connecting a group of circuits together. The Wookiee flicked a set of switches on a control board, and bellowed negatively. "Right, hold on," Han called back, separating the circuits and then reconnecting them differently. "Run it again."
There was a momentary pause, and then Chewbacca roared in alarm as lights began flickering wildly on the control board. A second later, there was a bang and flash from where the circuits joined an energy dissipater, followed by a shower of sparks and smoke. Han coughed several times, fanning the smoke away, and then kicked the feedback absorber in disgust. "That's it," he growled. "Come on. We're going to get Leia."
By the time they had learned where the meeting was being held and found Leia, she was already talking to the head of the Gran delegation outside the conference room. A flicker of anxiety crossed her face and she stepped away from the delegation towards Han and Chewbacca. "Not now, Han," she warned.
Whatever Han might have said was cut off as the Gran delegate came up to them. "We are due to have a conference that is already a day late in starting," he said. "We will not accept the conference being further delayed or postponed."
Han raised his hands. "The thought never crossed my mind. Leia, stay here for a minute." He winked at her. "Trust me."
"If you can come this way," he told the Gran delegates. "Threepio, you go first," he said, waving the droid into the room, and waited until they had taken their seats. "Unfortunately, Princess Leia will be unable to attend the conference," he said from the doorway when they had done so.
"Han!" Leia snapped angrily, taking a step forward, only to stop suddenly as Chewbacca grabbed her arms.
"Since you don't wish to cancel the meeting, her protocol droid will host the conference in her absence," Han continued. He grinned at Threepio. "Enjoy the meeting, Goldenrod," he said. A blaster shot vaporised the internal lock, and he stepped back and hit the doorpad to seal the Gran delegation in the room.
Leia glared at him, enraged. "Trust me, you said," she snapped at Han. "Will you let go of me, Chewie. Open that door right now, Solo. Can you imagine the diplomatic repercussions if I refuse to see the Gran?"
Han gave her his best smuggler's grin. "Yeah, trust me to do what I just did," he shot back. "You know me better than that by now. Yes, I can imagine the diplomatic repercussions, but I don't care, sweetheart. Gavrisom can sort it out. That's his job, isn't it? You can say we kidnapped you if you want. Either you get back on the Falcon yourself, or Chewie and I will drag you on board."
Leia looked at him for a moment, her anger dying as she imagined Chewbacca dragging her to the Falcon. She shook her head. "Sometimes I think I don't deserve you, Solo," she said. She drew herself into her most regal posture and slipped her arm through Han's. "Come on, Captain, let's go."
Threepio's muffled voice, interspersed with a loud and indignant pounding on the door from the infuriated Gran delegation, could be heard as they walked away. "Captain Solo, this is too much," the droid protested. "I must insist that you open this door and let us out at once," but Han and Leia paid no attention as they strolled down the Grand Corridor on their way back to the Falcon...
* * * * * *
Far across the galaxy, the Skywalker Spirit landed on Yavin 4.
In her co-pilot's seat, Mara checked the instruments, and then looked at Luke, who was sitting silently in his seat, as he had done for the entire journey. This had gone on long enough, she decided. He might be able to fool Han and Leia into thinking he was alright, but not her. "Do you want to talk about anything?" she asked.
Without looking up, Luke said "There's nothing the matter, Mara. You needn't bother worrying."
Luke had rarely seen Mara truly enraged, so the force of her anger caught him by surprise, not to mention the disconcerting sensation of feeling it in his mind through their Force bond had on him. "Nothing the matter?" she snapped, slamming a fist against a bulkhead. "Don't treat me like an idiot, Skywalker. You sit there all the way back from Endor, barely saying a word, and then you tell me not to worry?"
She took a breath to calm herself. "After all we went through together on Nirauan, you're not going to start acting like the all-powerful Jedi Master again if I can help it. We're a team. If there's something wrong, we'll talk about it. Neither of us really talked to each other over the last ten years, and look where it got us. Look, I know how you feel about Callista. You don't have to try and hide it, especially not to me. Do you remember the Jade's Fire? Mara Jade, tougher than a krayt dragon, crying over her ship. If I can behave like that in front of you, then there's nothing for you to feel ashamed about."
Luke nodded. "I know. Sometimes you have to be on your own though," he said. "I'll be alright. I just need a few minutes alone to think."
Mara looked at him sceptically, but she could see that he was being honest. If he wanted to act like this, it was his choice. She had done her best to talk to him. "Fine," she said coldly. "I'll be in the Temple. You come when you're ready." She stood and left the cabin, and a minute later, Luke saw her walk away from the Skywalker Spirit. He watched her vanish into the Temple, and then leaned back into his chair, closing his eyes.
He was not surprised when the voice called him a minute later. He opened his eyes to see Callista's shimmering blue form sitting in the co-pilot's seat next to him. "I told you not to mourn for me, Luke," she chided.
Luke looked at her. "I loved you. I can't just put that aside so easily, despite what you and Mara might say to the contrary."
Callista shook her head. "You must. That is the way of the Force. Once you become one with it, there are no more secrets. It was my destiny to die attempting to destroy the Eye of Palpatine. That would have been the time to grieve for me. Nevertheless, I cheated death by using the power of Life Transfer first to enter the Eye's computer, and then in taking Cray's body, in violation of the Jedi Code. Such an action is incompatible with the light side if used on the living, and I lost my powers as a result. Because it was done willingly by Cray and out of love for you on my part, though, the Force did not completely abandon me, but it left me dangerously open to the temptation of the dark side, as you saw on Dagobah and Yavin. Other Jedi have done it before, for their own ends, and fallen to the dark side as a result."
Luke nodded as one of the memories he shared with Mara came to the surface. "Mara once faced a Jedi, Vantos Boda, who was convinced he was destined to destroy Palpatine. His brother disagreed with him over it and killed him, or so he thought. Boda was able to attach his spirit to his brother's. When my father killed him in the Jedi Purge, Vantos was able to reanimate the dead body."
An expression of horror passed over Callista's face. "That is truly an act of the dark side. If he used Life Transfer for such a purpose, he would have forever been lost to the light side."
Luke nodded gravely. "As a result of taking his brother's body, Vantos succumbed completely to the dark side. He became as much a servant of the dark side as Palpatine or Vader."
Callista was silent for a few seconds. "I redeemed myself in the end by dying to protect another, as the Jedi should. One life ends and another begins," she said softly. Her eyes dropped to her lightsabre, which was hanging at Luke's waist. "Go to Mara to know why I gave you my lightsabre."
She smiled. "Remember me," she said, and faded from view.
Luke left the Skywalker Spirit and entered the Great Temple. One advantage of his and Mara's Force bond was that they could instantly sense each other's presence anywhere without the other being able to conceal themselves. A few minutes later, he was on the top of the Temple. In the twilight, he could just see a silhouette standing motionless at the edge of the summit. Mara didn't turn or speak as he came up beside her.
"I'm sorry," he said to her, knowing that it would only make it difficult to say something if he didn't say it now, particularly since she was clearly waiting for him to speak first.
Mara nodded. "Callista talked some sense into you then," she said.
Luke started, before remembering that she knew everything he experienced. "Yes, she did," he said. "She said I'd know why she asked me to take her lightsabre after I'd spoken to you. Not so I'd have to defend myself from you, I hope," he added teasingly.
Mara shook her head. "Forget it, Luke. I'm not angry. I haven't exactly shared everything with you either." She turned towards him, taking his hand, and pressed it against her stomach, covering it with her own hand. "Let's see if you can work out why Callista gave you her lightsabre."
She was impressed favourably by Luke's skills of deduction...
Kyp and Tionne, studying the latest records that Tionne had found, looked up together as they sensed a wave of pure exhilaration ripple through the Force. "Well, it looks like Master Skywalker has something to celebrate," Kyp noted with a grin.
* * * * * *
Eight months later, Leia and Han waited impatiently in the medical wing of the Imperial Palace. It had been a long and stressful time for Luke, during which
his elation at the prospect of being a father had been tested to the limit. Pregnancy had not made Mara any calmer or indolent, far from it. She had actually
increased her daily activities as if to prove that it wouldn't make any difference to her routines. She intensified her lightsabre practice sessions, spent every
available moment teaching the Jedi students, and engaged in a Tatooine sandstorm of tasks and duties until she almost fell asleep on her feet at the end of every
day. Luke was no stranger to hard work, but even he became exhausted merely by watching her. He knew far better than to suggest that she might be wise to
slow down, though.
When Mara's expanding stomach finally started imposing limits on her activities, she began complaining bitterly about looking and feeling like a bantha that had swallowed a Star Destroyer, cast savage aspersions on every aspect of the Skywalker family, and generally maligned Luke for getting her into this situation. Luke was extremely relieved when even that became too much effort for her during the last two months of her pregnancy.
Two weeks before the baby was due, they had returned to Coruscant, due to Mara insisting adamantly that she was not going to give birth on Yavin. "My stars, I am not going to have Cilghal, Tionne, Kirana, or anyone else start saying 'There is no passion, only serenity,' or similar things while I'm having the baby," she said emphatically. Their return to the Imperial Palace had given her a chance to divide her grievances equally between Luke, Han and Leia instead of heaping them exclusively on Luke. Han had returned her sarcasm and jibes as vigorously as he had done in the run up to the wedding, spurred on by her temporary inability to exact any kind of physical retribution.
Finally, at 0300 hours Coruscant time this morning, Mara's labour had begun. The consequent disturbance in the Force had woken Leia up. She was unable to suppress a smile at Mara's reaction, which had not been a calm one, to say the least. Every Jedi and Force sensitive in the Palace and for some distance around had picked up a stream of invective during which every oath imaginable in Basic and a dozen other languages, including but not limited to Rodian, Ishori, Devaronian, Verpine and Sullustan, had cropped up at least once, and at least fifty new ones were invented, some of which Han made careful note of for future use.
Leia had dragged Han down to the medical wing with her, despite his protestations that the prospect of waiting to see a miniature version of Mara was not quite enough to get him excited, particularly if it warranted his sleep being disturbed. They had then had to wait for the next nine hours, during which time Han had made remarks of increasing vitriol as the hours passed.
The waiting was finally at an end, though. They looked up as the doors hissed open and a medic emerged. She gave Han and Leia a smile. "It's over," she said. "You should be able to go in shortly."
"Great," Han muttered. "I can't wait. Mara and the baby, two psychotic redheads."
Leia poked him in the ribs. "Isn't that an exaggeration, Han?" she said, the corner of her mouth twitching in amusement. "You don't know what the baby's going to be like yet."
"Oh yeah," Han said, picking up on her cue. "She might not even be a redhead."
Inside the birth room, Mara gazed at the small baby in her arms. Luke smiled as he watched her expression, a mix of bemusement, exhaustion, and something that might actually be softness. "Getting all maternal, are you?" he asked teasingly.
The old fire flooded back into Mara's eyes. "Hardly," she growled. "If you think I'm ever going to start playing the demure little wife, or mother for that matter, you're going to be extremely disappointed."
Luke leaned over and kissed her. "I should hope not," he said warmly. "It would be like being married to Threepio." He reached out and put one of his fingers into the baby's hand, smiling as it instinctively closed around his finger. "What are we going to call her, by the way? We never did agree on a name in the end. How about..."
Mara's finger jabbed him hard in the chest. "No!" she snapped. "We are not, repeat, not calling her Amidala, Shmi, Leia, Callista, Jade, Beru, Shada, Winter, or anything similar. Surely you're not that unimaginative, are you?"
Luke frowned thoughtfully. "Well, Leia gave us the Galactic Book of Baby Names. I'm sure we can find something in there."
Mara rolled her eyes. "Vader save us," she muttered. "You're a Jedi. See what the Force suggests."
Luke nodded. It was as good a suggestion as any. He gazed at the sleeping baby, and suddenly a wicked thought struck him. "Hmm, she's nearly bald, wrinkled, has a large head and protruding ears. Who does that remind me of?"
He grinned. "Yoda? Yoda you call her?" he said, mimicking his old master.
Mara's eyes narrowed to sharp green diamonds. "Say that again, Skywalker, and you'll see Callista again quicker than you expected to," she said in a voice colder than a Hoth blizzard.
Luke raised his eyebrows. "So you are getting maternal. Anyway, I thought women liked men with a sense of humour."
"Generally speaking, I do, except right now," Mara said dryly. "I'd get more sense out of Solo, or even Calrissian."
Luke grimaced. "That bad, eh?"
Mara nodded. "That bad," she confirmed. "Looks like it'll be up to me to pick a name." She was silent for a few minutes, dozens of names running through her mind. Finally, she looked at Luke and raised her eyebrows questioningly.
Luke smiled. "I like it," he said, knowing what name she had chosen. He glanced at the door. "We'd better let Leia and Han in before they beat the door down."
He crossed to the door, and a second later, Leia, followed closely by Han, burst into the room and hurried over to Mara. They stared silently at the baby for a minute. "Oh, Luke, she's beautiful," Leia whispered. She asked the inevitable question. "What's her name?"
Luke and Mara looked at each other. "You tell them," Mara said.
Luke nodded and took a deep breath. "Han, Leia, I'd like you to meet-" he paused, stringing the tension out for all it was worth, "-Alina Skywalker."
Leia smiled. "Well done, you two," she said. She kissed Luke and gave Mara a brief hug, which Mara tolerated for once, to the surprise of them all.
Han slapped Luke on the back. "I guess I'll have to stop calling you kid now," he said regretfully. He turned to Mara, opening his mouth to say something sardonic, but stopped as she quickly pushed the baby into his arms.
Leia laughed. "That's a novel way of keeping Han quiet," she observed.
Han gave her a withering look. "It takes more than that to keep a good smuggler down," he retorted. "You know why Mara really married Luke?" He grinned. "She couldn't bear to let a gorgeous guy like me out of her sight."
Mara's eyes hardened. "Why, you..."
"Stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy looking nerfherder?" Leia suggested helpfully.
Mara nodded. "Exactly."
There was a pause. "Perhaps you'd better let the others in," Leia said. "Karrde, Wedge, Lando, and the others arrived just before we came in. I think they're getting fairly anxious."
Mara sighed resignedly. "Go on, let the mob in."
Much later, the door closed behind the last of the visitors, and Luke and Mara drew a mutual sigh of relief.
"That was worse than being an exhibit in the Circus Exotica on Hbar," Luke groaned, sinking onto the bed beside Mara. "Everyone congratulating you to the nth degree, asking the baby's name, and demanding to hold her."
Mara raised an eyebrow. "Well, well. The Jedi Master is showing his true feelings for once." She poked him in the chest. "Anyway, what are you complaining about? You didn't have to give birth and then do all the above as well. And don't keep apologising for everything," she said as he opened his mouth.
They were silent for a few minutes. Luke's mind drifted back to Lumiya, her promise that she would return floating in his head. He knew that one day they would confront each other again, but that was something the future would bring. This was the present, and for now he was content to be with his new family. He moved next to Mara. "I love you, Mara Skywalker."
Mara sighed. "So you keep telling me," she said, but her hand joined his where it lay between them. "Here, you can have Alina for a bit," she said, passing the baby to him with her other hand, and provoking an abrupt barrage of furious crying.
Luke laughed. "I can see who she takes after. She's got your temper, alright. Look, she's even got the exact same scowl you have when you get angry. Han warned me this might happen."
Mara glowered at him. "She does not scowl like me," she shot back. "Wait till I get my hands on Solo. He's going to regret that. I'm going to enjoy making him suffer for everything he said while I couldn't do anything about it."
Some people never changed, Luke reflected as Mara launched into a frank diatribe on Han. Han himself seemed content to tinker with the Falcon until every last circuit on it had been replaced a hundred times, Lando was forever the gambler on the lookout for an easy credit, Wedge seemed to be aiming to be buried in his X-wing, and Mara herself, although a Jedi and very recently a wife and mother, would forever be the acerbic and formidable former Emperor's Hand/Master Trader, if her predictions for Han's short term future were anything to go by....