Mara Jade: Emperor's Hand

Four days after the Battle of Yavin...

       Luke Skywalker sprinted through the hangar of the Massassi Great Temple from where the Rebel Alliance had so recently launched its near-suicidal mission against the Death Star. Now it was facing an equally desperate mission to evacuate from Yavin 4 before the Imperial Fleet could arrive. Outside the Great Temple, swarms of transports were ferrying personnel and equipment up to the Rebel capital ships massed above Yavin. X-wings and Y-wings were lifting off from the hangar in steady waves, raising the already deafening noise inside the Temple to an almost unbearable pitch. He stopped as he somehow managed to hear his name being bellowed above the din, and turned to see Han Solo and Chewbacca fighting their way towards him through the chaos. "General Dodonna says we've almost finished the evacuation procedure," Han yelled over the roar of fighter engines as he reached Luke.
       "We've nearly gotten all the fighters and equipment away now. We've just got to get the remaining personnel lifted out," Luke shouted back.
       Han nodded. "Chewie and I'll be on the Falcon. We're going to get some unwelcome company if we stay here much longer. We'll see you at the rendezvous point."
       He turned away and nearly ran into Princess Leia. "Leaving so soon, Captain?" she asked with one eyebrow raised in a manner that Han found intensely insufferable.
       "Sure am, your worship," he retorted. "I don't especially like the idea of hanging around to give the entire Imperial Navy a wave."
       Luke sighed. Since they had met, Han and Leia had constantly been trying to score points off the other, a process that they had only briefly suspended during the celebrations following the destruction of the Death Star. He turned away, leaving them to bicker, and was halfway to his X-wing when a voice called him. Wedge Antilles approached, wearing an ornate medal around his neck. "I see you've still got your medal," Luke said with a grin. "They finally got round to giving you one for your part in the Death Star attack. I thought it seemed unfair you didn't get one when Han and I did."
       Wedge laughed. "Well, better late than never, I suppose. I'll see you at the rendezvous. Take care."
       "You too," Luke said, and jogged to his X-wing, one of the few still in the hangar. A fusillade of anxious beeps and whistles greeted him as he climbed the ladder to the cockpit. "Yes, I know, Artoo," he said. "I'm sure you've calculated the ETA of the nearest Star Destroyers to a microsecond. Don't worry, we're going, we're going."
       The X-wing left Yavin for what would be the last time for many years, and climbed through the atmosphere towards the Rebel fleet.

       A sombre mood pervaded Coruscant, the capital of the Empire. Ten Star Destroyers lay in orbit around the planet, ready to tear apart any rioting or insurrection with a savage bombardment from space should it break out. Coruscant was quiet, though, the population venturing out as little as possible to avoid the detachments of Imperial stormtroopers that were everywhere.
       Inside the Imperial Palace, the sombre mood reached a peak. The normally thronged Grand Corridor was almost empty, save for platoons of Imperial stormtroopers every few hundred metres. Grim faced Imperial officers hurried through the Palace, issuing quiet orders to their troops. Deep inside the Palace, a turbolift rose swiftly through the myriad floors to the very peak of the vast building. Finally, it stopped at the very highest level, where only a very select few were ever permitted. The turbolift doors slid open without a sound to reveal two figures. One, clad all in black, stood taller even than the Emperor's Royal Guards. Wheezing breaths broke the silence. The other was smaller but no less distinctive. Red-haired and with a slim dancer's figure, she nevertheless had an air of formidable competence. She had been trained in all forms of combat and other skills, such as espionage, starship piloting and maintenance, and last but not least, basic force skills.
       Both of them entered the dimly lit throne room of Emperor Palpatine, passing the red-cloaked Royal Guards standing silently along the walls, and crossed the wide floor between the doors and the stairs leading up to Palpatine's throne. They climbed the stairs and knelt at the proper distance from the throne. The throne was facing away from them, completely hiding the Emperor. They waited.
       Eventually the Emperor spoke. "The Death Star has been destroyed," he said coldly, ignoring Vader. "A small group of Rebels found a weakness which enabled them to destroy it. Grand Moff Tarkin, General Motti, and General Tagge were all killed. As of an hour ago, I have imposed galactic-wide martial law. This pitiful uprising will be ruthlessly stamped out. Too many systems already support the Rebellion, and others will no doubt follow once the news spreads." He addressed Vader, his voice as sharp as a vibroblade. "You failed to stop the Rebels succeeding. I do not accept failure, Lord Vader. Have you any reasons why you were unable to stop such a weak group of traitors?"
       Vader bowed his head. "My Master, I took my own fighter and a pair of TIE fighters against the Rebel attack, and managed to destroy two Rebel fighter groups. I was about to finish the last survivor of a third group when the same Corellian freighter on which Kenobi had been travelling destroyed one of my wingmen and the other panicked and crashed into the trench, hitting my fighter and sending it out of control. As a result, the Rebels succeeded in their attack. There is, though, a new development of grave importance, far more troubling than the loss of the Death Star. The Rebel pilot who destroyed the Death Star had a strong connection to the Force."
       There was a grim silence as the throne turned slowly to face them. The Emperor leaned forwards on the throne, his yellow eyes burning into Vader. "Are you quite sure, Lord Vader?" he demanded. "The Jedi have all been destroyed."
       "He was not a Jedi, Master," Vader answered. "The Force is with him but he is untrained."
       The Emperor appeared to relax slightly and nodded thoughtfully. "Good. Without training, he will be no threat. The Jedi Masters are gone. Nevertheless, he must be hunted down and destroyed."
       "Yes, Master," Vader said. "Not even Obi-wan Kenobi can help him now." He rose and came forwards, taking an object from his belt, which he held out to the Emperor. "Obi-wan's lightsabre."
       The Emperor smiled. "At least we have gained something from this disaster. Perhaps you have not failed as badly as I first thought, Lord Vader." His gaze turned to the woman kneeling next to Vader. "Rise, my servant. Come closer," he ordered, beckoning. She obeyed, coming forwards silently and gracefully. The Emperor's eyes passed over her, appraising her thoroughly. Her Force skills were able to sense his probing her mind and she stood calmly while he did so. Finally, the Emperor nodded approvingly. "You have trained Shira Brie well, Lord Vader," he said. "You have taught her well indeed. She has control of her fear in my presence. I am almost tempted to test her against Mara Jade. They are equals in skill."
       He spoke to Shira. "You have studied the files on Mara Jade?"
       "I have, my lord," she replied. "My feelings in this matter are clear. My loyalty is to the Dark Side and the Empire only."
       "See that it remains so," the Emperor warned. "It is a pity that Jade cannot be allowed to learn the truth about you and her past. Our experiment in creating Force sensitive agents has done well so far though, Lord Vader, with my own Hand and your agent here. You will use Shira Brie to help hunt down the Rebellion and eliminate this mysterious pilot."
       He rose from his throne. "Come with me, my servants."

       R2-D2 shrilled in alarm. "All right, I see them," Luke snapped. He pulled his X-wing hard to one side, barely avoiding the three TIE fighters that were intent on blowing him into space dust. "Wedge, Dack, pull in," he ordered.
       "I'm on them, Luke," replied Dack, a cadet who had barely learnt how to fly an X-wing, but who now found himself pressed into active service due to the Alliance's desperate need for pilots after the losses in the Death Star attack. He dived in behind the TIEs and managed to score a direct hit on one. The other two immediately took evasive action, but not quickly enough for one to escape Wedge.
       Luke took a breath. "Thanks, you two." He took a second to examine the strategic situation, which had worsened considerably in the two minutes since he had last checked. The fleet had been on the verge of making the jump to lightspeed when six Star Destroyers and an Interdictor Cruiser had come out of hyperspace and a desperate battle erupted, with the Rebels trying frantically to drive the Interdictor away before they were annihilated. The Star Destroyers had so far destroyed four of their capital ships, and it looked like they were just about to add the Strike Cruiser Valour to the list.

       On board the frigate Redemption, Princess Leia stared at the tactical display grimly. The Valour's shields were failing rapidly under a bombardment from two Star Destroyers. It already had hull breaches in several places, and the turbolasers were being systematically knocked out by precision firing. "Give me that comlink," she snapped at an aide. "Captain Tanh, this is Princess Leia Organa. Get your crew to the escape pods now."

       On the bridge of the Valour, Captain Tanh looked down to the damage reports on his board and then around at his command crew. They met his gaze quietly, and he knew they would follow him to the death. "Negative, Princess," he replied. "We don't have enough intact pods. May the Force be with you all." He turned off the comlink, cutting off Leia's frantic pleas. "Divert all power to the engines. Helm, turn to course 3-7-50 and proceed full ahead." He walked to his command chair and sat down, ignoring the fact that the bridge lights had gone dark as power was channelled to the engines, and stared calmly ahead until the end.

       "Valour, this is Princess Organa," Leia nearly screamed. "Please respond!"
       A hand fell on her shoulder. "It's no good, Princess," said General Rieekan, who was co-ordinating the battle, sombrely. He could see what Captain Tanh was planning. "Order all ships to jump to hyperspace on my mark," he told an aide. He put an arm around Leia and watched the Valour making its final attack. Turbolasers blasted from the Star Destroyers in an attempt to stop the Valour, but somehow the dying ship withstood the fire and moved relentlessly ahead until it found its target. Leia swallowed hard as she saw the Valour plough into the Interdictor Cruiser, and both ships erupt in a fireball second only to that of the Death Star. She lowered her head for a minute, tears pricking at her eyes. So many brave men, women and aliens had died fighting for an inalienable right, the right to live in freedom.
       "The gravity wells are gone, sir," one of Rieekan's aides announced unnecessarily.
       Rieekan nodded. Comm chatter had ceased for a few moments as the Valour exploded. "All ships jump to lightspeed," he ordered over the silence. "Captain Tanh and the crew of the Valour are hereby declared Heroes of the Alliance."
       The Star Destroyers intensified their attack in a last attempt to stop the Rebels from escaping, but in vain. In a few seconds, the entire Rebel fleet jumped to hyperspace, leaving the Star Destroyers behind.

       The Emperor's royal Lambda-class shuttle had left the atmosphere of Coruscant and was now rising past the massive hull of an Imperial Star Destroyer that was lying quietly in space. The Emperor, seated at a viewport, turned and beckoned Vader and Shira to his side. "Your fleet has already assembled, Lord Vader," he said with a cold smile. "Behold your flagship."
       The shuttle rose slowly over the hull of the Star Destroyer. Beyond it, the distinctive knife shape of the bow of another Star Destroyer began to appear, although this one seemed much more elongated and sleeker, Shira noted. She frowned as more of the hull appeared. It wasn't a typical Star Destroyer, she realised. Her gaze moved along the hull as it emerged, to the point where the command superstructure should be. It wasn't there, she noticed with a shock, and still the hull kept lengthening and widening. Finally, the bridge structure came into view and she let out a breath of amazement. The ship was truly immense. It didn't end there, though. A hilt like extension jutted out behind the bridge, on the underside of which three immense drive nozzles could be seen. A score of Star Destroyers could be seen in an escort formation beyond it. The ship utterly dwarfed them, by a scale factor of almost eleven, Shira quickly estimated, comparing it to the Star Destroyers.
       Vader leaned forward, almost touching the viewport transparisteel. "Most impressive, Master," he said.
       The Emperor nodded, satisfied. "The first of a new class of warships. Super Star Destroyers." His voice hardened. "This ship, the Executor, was intended to be used in conjunction with the Death Star to force the galaxy into absolute submission. Instead, it will now be used to exact revenge on the Rebellion for the loss of the Death Star. You will use this fleet to ensure that the Rebellion is utterly stamped out, Lord Vader."

* * * * * *

Sixteen Months Later...

       With a flicker of pseudomotion, twelve X-wings dropped out of hyperspace.
       "There it is," Wedge Antilles breathed, staring out at the enormous bulk of the Star Destroyer Repressor as Red Squadron moved into attack formation.
       "Red Squadron, lock S-foils in attack position," Luke Skywalker ordered, reaching up to toggle his S-foils open. "All fighters, target and fire torpedoes at the Repressor." Behind him twelve Y-wings came out of lightspeed and began following the X-wings towards the Repressor. "Blue Squadron, we'll cover you."
       "I copy, Red Leader," Blue Leader acknowledged. "We're starting our attack run now."
       "Targeting solution acquired," Wedge reported.
       "Red Squadron, fire on your marks," Luke said as six torpedoes shot away from Wedge's fighter towards the Repressor.
       "TIE fighters launching," Red Six reported as Red Squadron began launching other torpedoes. "12 marks at point 115. No, 24 now."
       "Copy, Red Six," Luke acknowledged. He studied his displays. The TIEs were launching in two groups, one further ahead of the other. "Artoo, designate them as Alpha and Beta. Red Squadron, accelerate to attack speed."
       The two groups of fighters closed rapidly. Red and green laser blasts erupted as they came into firing range, and the formations broke apart into individual battles between fighters.
       "Steady, Red Two," Red Eleven warned. "You've got one on you."
       "I see it," Wedge acknowledged. "Red Leader?"
       "One moment," Luke replied. A sudden flash briefly lit up Wedge's cockpit. "Okay, you're clear."
       Wedge glanced around. He could see fifteen TIEs left, but then a hail of red and blue bolts appeared as Blue Squadron entered the dogfight, firing their lasers and ion cannons. The TIEs, unable to match the Rebels either in skill or firepower, proved easy prey.
       "Red Leader, we're clear," Blue Leader reported three minutes later.
       "Thanks, Blue Leader," Luke answered. "Red Squadron, reform on Blue Squadron. Any losses?"
       "Red Eight's gone," Red Ten reported.
       "Lost Blue Four and Seven," Blue Leader said.
       There was a brief moment of silence.
       Artoo whistled. "I see it, Artoo," Luke acknowledged, glancing at the image of the Repressor on his display. "Blue Leader, our torpedoes have taken the aft starboard shield down."
       "Got it," came the reply. "Targeting that section."
       Luke saw the blue streaks of more proton torpedoes racing towards the Repressor. One by one, they slammed into the unshielded hull. Explosions erupted on the hull, sending pieces of hull armour plating flying out into space. Secondary blasts flared deep inside the Star Destroyer.
       "Look at that!" Dack shouted as the explosions died away.
       "Good work, Blue Squadron," Luke said, looking at the damage. A huge hole had been torn in the Repressor's hull. "All fighters, move in."
       "More TIEs launching, Red Leader," Red Seven announced.
       "Copy, Red Seven. Red Two to Ten, follow me," Luke ordered as he turned his X-wing towards the incoming TIEs. "Eleven and Twelve, keep an eye on the Y-wings and suppress any turbolaser fire."
       Once again, the two opposing forces met in a dogfight. The TIEs were slightly faster and more manoeuvrable, but Red Squadron had shields and greater skill, so they were evenly balanced.
       Dack pulled his X-wing into a weaving flight pattern as the fighters reached each other, in order to avoid enemy fire. At the last second, he pulled straight in front of one of the TIEs, firing all four lasers at once. Unable to evade in time, the TIE took all four shots in the cockpit and exploded spectacularly, as Dack's X-wing shot through the fireball.
       Zev and Hobbie swept in behind a pair of TIEs and blew them into twin clouds of red and black.
       One TIE came in behind Red Four and scored a direct hit on the fighter's port S-foils, and there was an agonised scream as Red Four plunged towards the Repressor. An explosion flared as the X-wing smashed into the Star Destroyer. Janson dropped in behind the TIE, which had made the mistake of forgetting to watch its six, and two shots crumpled a solar panel, sending the fighter spinning out of control through space until a stray shot from the Repressor blew it apart.
       A few minutes later, the fight was over. Wedge's X-wing shot through the twin clouds of space dust that had been TIE fighters a few seconds ago, and headed for the Y-wings, which had been making continual attack runs on the damaged section of the hull. The crippled Star Destroyer was beginning to pick up speed as it prepared to make the jump to lightspeed, its turbolasers blasting in an attempt to keep the Rebel fighters at bay. Wedge watched it moving away. They could nothing to stop its escape, but then they didn't have to. His astromech whistled as a counter reached zero.
       A second later, the Rebel Nebulon-B frigate Sertina came out of hyperspace next to the Repressor, its turbolasers opening up immediately on the damaged hull. The Repressor began manoeuvring to bring its own intact turbolasers to bear in the knowledge that it considerably outgunned the frigate, but even as it did so, Red and Blue Squadron began making strafing runs on the turbolaser emplacements. Waves of torpedoes were launched from the Sertina, tearing into the breached section of hull and weakening the shields and intact hull. Under the relentless assault, a bright glow began to build up inside the Star Destroyer as gunnery, shield and control systems started to overload. New explosions began appearing as an energy feedback began building up and travelling through the systems.
       "Look at that," Red Ten said in amazement as an explosion ripped apart a portion of the centre of the upper hull.
       "Cut the chatter," Blue Three said. "TIEs launching at point 231. No, wait. They're heading away from us. Looks like they're running."
       The abrupt disintegration of the Repressor's command superstructure confirmed his theory. A few seconds later, the Sertina ceased fire and began to move away from the Repressor at flank speed. Escape pods began shooting away from the dying Star Destroyer.
       Artoo beeped urgently. "I know," Luke answered curtly as the image of the Star Destroyer on his display began flashing red. "All fighters, pull out now."
       X-wings and Y-wings fled away from the Repressor at maximum speed, barely in time, as moments later, the Star Destroyer blew apart in a tremendous explosion and shockwave. Not all the Rebel fighters escaped. Two Y-wings, unable to get clear in time, were caught in the explosion and disintegrated. Luke grimaced briefly as the signals from the fighters vanished.
       Ahead, the Sertina was running up to lightspeed velocity. With a flicker of pseudomotion, it vanished into hyperspace.
       "All craft, jump to lightspeed on three," Luke ordered. "One, two, three...."
       In perfect synchronicity, the Rebel ships jumped to hyperspace and vanished.

* * * * * *

       A grinning Wedge Antilles climbed onto the S-foil of his X-wing and turned to face the pilots of Red and Blue Squadron. "Do we know where in Vader's name we are?" he shouted.
       "No!" the pilots roared in unison.
       "Did we let the Repressor escape us?"
       "Are we going to let the Empire win the war?"
       "Did we blow up the Death Star and kick the Imperials from here to Coruscant?"
       Princess Leia stood a short distance away in the docking bay of the Alliance command frigate, smiling as they celebrated. The destruction of the Repressor by the Sertina and Red and Blue squadrons had left both squadrons feeling jubilant, a feeling which, despite the destruction of the Death Star, had been in short supply since the Alliance had fled Yavin. In that time, they had been driven across the galaxy by Darth Vader's fleet. Base after base had been discovered and hastily evacuated. The pressure on the Alliance had been relentless. Knowing they could not possibly hope to match the Imperial fleet in a pitched battle, they had adopted guerrilla warfare tactics, luring ships away from the main part of the fleet and destroying them, or launching sudden surprise attacks. The destruction of the Repressor had been the latest such attack, and one of their most successful, as the Repressor was one of the best crewed and armed Star Destroyers in Vader's fleet.
       The victory had not been easy, however. Two pilots from Red and four from Blue had died in the attack, not many against such a formidable Star Destroyer, but the loss of a quarter of the attacking pilots was a considerable blow when they needed every pilot they could get.
       She nodded at the people standing around her, and walked towards Wedge. A cheer arose as the pilots saw her approaching. "Congratulations on taking out the Repressor, everyone," she said. "I'm sorry to hear about your losses. I know they can't be replaced, but we have some new pilots here to take their place. Yet again, we have some recruits to join us who have lost family and friends at the hands of the Empire." She indicated four of the small group of six standing behind her. "Dal Ryukyuan, Deb Shiba, Cerda Yisl, and Osar Nyarrin will join Blue Squadron. The other two, Shira Brie and Jotunn Sinter, will join Red Squadron." She looked at Wedge and smiled. "Finally, General Rieekan and I have agreed to Captain Antilles' request for Red Squadron to be renamed Rogue Squadron for killing the Repressor."
       Her expression became serious. "High Command has decided to establish a new base in the Marriss system. Our advance scouts have indicated that it is a long way from any Imperial bases or outposts. General Rieekan has chosen you to help set up the preliminary outpost. You'll leave as soon as you're ready. Good luck."
       Shira felt elation fill her as the pilots split up, heading to their quarters to get ready for an imminent departure. Finally, she was getting somewhere. She had infiltrated the Alliance nearly fourteen months ago, and had spent the time since in a small outpost on Jortal III. Finally, her piloting skills and other abilities had prompted the commander of the outpost to recommend her for transfer into Red Squadron. Finally she would be able to hurt the Alliance, she thought. The outpost personnel had soon revealed who had been responsible for the destruction of the Death Star, and she had taken great pleasure in reporting it to Darth Vader. Being posted to Red Squadron was greater luck than even she had hoped for. She would be able to destroy the greatest heroes of the Alliance from the inside.
       "Excuse me," she said to Luke as he walked past her, giving him an embarrassed smile, "could you tell me where Commander Skywalker is?"
       "Sure," Luke said. "I'm right here."
       Shira went red. "Oh, Kessel!" she exclaimed. "I'm sorry..."
       "It's all right," Luke said a grin. "Look, I've got to get ready. See you around."
       "Sure," Shira said, giving him a dazzling smile before he turned away.

* * * * * *

       Darth Vader stood on the bridge of the Super Star Destroyer Executor, deep in thought. Despite the Emperor giving him command of a mighty Imperial task force, the Rebels had not been manoeuvred into a pitched battle which they would inevitably lose. They had instead chosen to attack lone Imperial ships, gradually wearing down his command by a process of attrition. Then two months ago, following the destruction of the Repressor, the Rebel fleet had vanished into the galaxy, and no amount of work by Imperial Intelligence could produce any leads...until now. The transfer of Shira Brie to Red Squadron had been an amazing piece of luck. She had identified the pilot who destroyed the Death Star as Luke Skywalker, which had given Vader much to think about. His son's sudden appearance with the Alliance was unsettling, especially if Obi-wan Kenobi had been guiding him. Potentially, he was a very dangerous threat to the Empire.
       He held a datacard in his hand, which contained the latest information that Shira had sent. His cloak swirled around him as he turned and strode down the walkway towards Admiral Ozzel, standing as usual at the back of the bridge.
       "Set a course for the planet Asola in the Marris system, Admiral," he ordered, and left the bridge.

* * * * * *

       Alarms erupted in the Rebel barracks and Luke Skywalker rolled out of his bunk, grabbing his blaster and lightsabre as he did so. The rest of Rogue Squadron were already up and assuming defensive positions in the two doorways, not knowing what was happening but assuming the worst.
       Wedge toggled the comm he was holding. "Headquarters, this is Captain Antilles. What's going on?"
       "Antilles, we have three Star Destroyers in orbit around the planet," one of the headquarters personnel announced. "The rest won't be far behind. Get to your fighters and prepare for a ground assault. The Star Destroyers are launching landing craft right now."

       The Star Destroyers Avenger, Retribution, and Nemesis were in orbit around Asola.
       On the bridge of the Retribution, which was leading the preliminary assault, Captain Nade Mazzin studied the sensor probe data on the Rebel base. They had no shields or anti-starship ground weapons.
       "The prototype AT-ATs have been deployed as Lord Vader ordered, sir," an aide reported.
       Mazzin nodded. "Hold here. We will wait for Lord Vader to arrive with the main fleet."

       Rogue, Green, and Grey squadrons emerged from the base hangar in their X-wings.
       "Rogue Leader, multiple marks in sector 9," Rogue Six reported.
       "I see them," Luke answered, checking his sensors. He pulled his X-wing around to intercept the Imperial ground attack, cursing the sluggishness of the X-wing in an atmosphere.
       In tight formation, the X-wings swept forwards. "What in Vader's name are those?" Hobbie gasped as small black dots appeared ahead of them. The vehicles ahead of them resembled Imperial Flying Fortresses, but were walking on four legs instead of hovering on repulsorlifts. Bolts began spraying out from the sides and underneath of the AT-AT cockpits as the X-wings began closing in.
       "Whatever they are, they're a lot better armed than Flying Fortresses," Wedge observed as he pulled his fighter up to avoid a volley of shots that were aimed directly at him.
       Bolts shot past the canopy of Luke's X-wing as he made an attack run on one of the walkers. Pulling to the right, he turned his X-wing into a steep climb and then turned and dived towards the unprotected flank of the walker. Laser bolts blasted from his cannons and punched through the weak armour on the AT-AT. Wedge's X-wing followed him in, blasting at the junction between the AT-AT leg and body. A proton torpedo was fired and smashed into the top of the leg with a brilliant flash, completely severing it. The AT-AT leaned to one side as it lost balance, and then crashed sideways into the ground.
       "Not so heavily armoured, though," Wedge noted.
       Other pilots had seen what had happened. Hobbie's X-wing swept head on towards a walker, dodging its fire, and fired two torpedos into the cockpit. The fireball narrowly missed engulfing his X-wing as he pulled up. Sinter tried the same attack but was less fortunate. His X-wing was hit squarely by the fire from a walker, and spun into the ground, sending chunks of debris spraying out as it hit and exploded.
       The base ground defences opened up as the walkers came into range, and the laser and ion shots quickly destroyed or immobilised the remaining AT-ATs.

       An entire fleet of Star Destroyers began coming out of hyperspace over Asola, led by the Executor. Admiral Ozzel assessed the situation. As he expected, the prototype AT-ATs had not had adequate armour to withstand laser fire, a flaw which the factories would have to make sure was corrected, and the attack had been wiped out. It was not a strategy he would have allowed. Darth Vader had wanted to test the new ground assault vehicles, though, and Ozzel had not dared defy him or even question his decision. "All ships, form a blockade around the planet," he ordered.

       In the Rebel headquarters, Princess Leia checked the tactical situation, which was hopeless now Vader's fleet had arrived. A second ground attack force was landing, but the defeat of the first wave had given the Rebels enough time to evacuate most of their personnel and equipment. "Signal for emergency evacuation," she ordered her aides. "We'll just have to hope most of the transports get past the Star Destroyers. Instruct all fighters to give them cover."

       "Okay, Rogues, you heard the Princess," Luke ordered as a transport shot out of the main hangar and climbed through the atmosphere. "Rogues Two and Three, follow me. We'll escort the first transport out."
       "I copy, Rogue Leader," Wedge and Shira Brie acknowledged together, pulling in behind him.
       "Give the other transports three fighters each as escorts," Luke told Rogue, Green and Grey Squadrons. The sky began fading to stars as they climbed away from the planet. The shape of a Star Destroyer appeared, growing larger as it moved to intercept them. "Accelerate to attack speed. Try and draw the Star Destroyer's fire onto you and away from the transport."
       The three fighters accelerated to their maximum sub-light speed and headed towards the Star Destroyer. "Switch to torpedo targeting mode," Wedge advised. "That should get their attention."
       Streams of green turbolaser bolts began reaching out from the hull of the Star Destroyer. "Right, we've drawn their fire," Luke observed, thanking the Force that Star Destroyers were not the best ships for fighting starfighters. "Just give the transport a few seconds to make it to hyperspace." Bolts streamed past his X-wing as he made a mock attack run on the huge ship, but then Artoo beeped and he glanced out of his canopy just in time to see the transport enter hyperspace. "Wedge, Shira, break off," he ordered, turning his X-wing away from the Star Destroyer. "Well done. Jump to hyperspace on your marks. Are the co-ordinates ready, Artoo?"
       The astromech droid warbled a confirmation and Luke pulled back the hyperdrive lever, watching as the stars elongated into hyperspace.

       Another transport raced up from the surface, escorted by the Millennium Falcon and two more X-wings, but this one was less fortunate. A Star Destroyer and the Executor moved to intercept it, sending an impenetrable sheet of laser fire at the transport, which was torn apart in less than ten seconds by the onslaught. In the Falcon's cockpit, Chewbacca bellowed in alarm as the Executor abruptly shifted aim to fire at them.

       On the Executor's bridge, Darth Vader stared intently at the tiny shape of the Corellian YT-1300 that had thwarted him in the Death Star trench as it raced away from the Super Star Destroyer. His rage had erupted when he had seen it escorting the transport, and he had ordered its capture. Admiral Ozzel stood silently at the back of the bridge, wondering how he was meant to maintain his authority and conduct a military campaign if Vader kept overriding him on a whim.

       The Falcon corkscrewed wildly in a frantic attempt to avoid the turbolaser fire. Two other Star Destroyers had broken off from the main attack and were approaching rapidly from either side.
       "Can we go to lightspeed yet?" Han demanded, and received a negative roar from Chewbacca. "Well, just make a micro-jump in any direction," he yelled as the Falcon's aft shields collapsed under the bombardment. "If we stay here much longer, we're going to become bantha fodder."
       Chewbacca let out a bark of agreement and in front of them the stars stretched into lines.
       They were safe.

* * * * * *

       Once again, the Alliance had been driven from another base with heavy losses. Nearly a third of their personnel and equipment transports had been destroyed. Princess Leia stood in the main docking bay of the cruiser A New Hope, which had been given its name following the destruction of the Death Star and the consequent surge of morale throughout the Alliance. She watched as X-wings and Y-wings landed in the hangar, noting the losses the squadrons had taken in giving the transports cover.
       With relief, she saw three X-wings appear in the hangar entrance, recognising one of them as Luke's. She waited as the fighters touched down.
       "Leia!" Luke called as his X-wing canopy lifted. He jumped to the deck, not waiting for the ground crew to bring a ladder.
She smiled at him. "You must have a charmed life, Luke - you and Wedge. The two of you seem to be invincible. You've both survived far longer than the average for Alliance pilots, not to mention being the only two pilots to live through the Battle of Yavin." She deliberately omitted Han.
       Luke laughed. "You shouldn't have said that. We'll probably both get shot down next time we go out."
       He stopped as Shira Brie suddenly appeared. "Come on, flyboy," she said, "you promised to buy me a drink to celebrate surviving our latest battle." She hesitated, glancing between Luke and Leia. "Sorry, am I interrupting something?"
       Leia smiled politely. "Not at all," she said and walked away.
       Luke hesitated uncertainly for a moment, torn between the two of them, but then followed Shira.

       Leia watched Luke and Shira vanish down the corridor leading to the cantina, an odd feeling filling her. Strangely, she didn't feel jealous. Luke often felt more like a close friend than anything else. She instinctively didn't trust Shira, though. She knew it was illogical; Shira had proven herself often enough since she had joined the Alliance, seemed pleasant and straightforward enough, and checks on her background had all come up clean, but there was just something about her that wasn't right.
       Her thoughts were interrupted by a loud laugh. Startled, she turned to see Han Solo leaning against the Falcon, grinning broadly. "I've seen Hutts who lost a cargo of 95% pure spice to a competitor looking more pleased than you," he observed.
       Leia drew herself up to her full height, which didn't help much considering her small size, and assumed her most regal posture. "What makes you think I'm jealous?" she asked haughtily.
       Han put on a great pretence of thinking deeply. "Well, looking like a rancor that's swallowed a poisoned womprat was a pretty good clue. Why can't you just admit it?" he demanded. "You're as jealous as anything. Why don't you forget about Luke, and try someone else, like perhaps a certain charming smuggler not a million parsecs from here? Or can't you just stand having competition?"
       A thousand retorts went through Leia's mind, but she knew they would just bounce off Han. There was only one sure way of getting to him. She gave him a penetrating look. "So you think you can come up to my expectations as a princess, do you?" she asked.
       Han nodded, slightly taken aback by her sudden change in mood.
       "Well, let's see, shall we?" Leia asked. She stepped up to him and put her arms round his shoulders. "Not bad," she said, turning and forcing Han to duck slightly to avoid hitting his head on the underside of the Falcon. She stretched and managed to reach his ear, and whispered in it.
       The results exceeded her wildest hopes. "What!!" Han roared, only to stop abruptly as he straightened up and smashed his head against the underside of the Falcon.
       Leia regarded him without an ounce of sympathy, noting the dent in the hull plate with satisfaction. She had certainly got through to him. "I don't think you're my type after all, Captain Solo," she said coolly and walked away.
       Han blinked several times to get rid of the tiny X-wings flying around his head, and glared furiously after her, seething over what she had said about the Falcon. He reached up and patted the Falcon's hull. "Pay no attention to her," he said. "What does she know?"

       Luke and Shira stood at a viewport in the pilot quarters on A New Hope, staring out at the small uninhabited planet that the ship was orbiting. "It was terrible," Shira said quietly as she told Luke the story of her homeworld's destruction by the Empire. "We refused to recognise the Emperor's claim to jurisdiction of Shalyvane. He didn't waste any time negotiating. Star Destroyers arrived and wiped out our defence fleet. My whole family, except for my sister, was killed in the preliminary attacks. Then they destroyed every structure more than a storey high from orbit. Finally, just for good measure, they released chemicals that turned the planet into a desert. Those who survived had to eke out a living scavenging in the ruins like animals. Like many before me, I swore revenge on the Empire for what it had done to us, and so here I am."
       Luke nodded grimly. "I lost my uncle and aunt at the hands of the Empire. Darth Vader murdered my father, and Biggs died buying time for me to destroy the Death Star. I swore to become a Jedi like my father. What happened to your sister?"
       Shira shrugged. "The Empire took her. I don't know any more than that."
       There was a long silence.
       "Do you ever think about settling down with someone?" Shira eventually asked.
       Luke smiled. "Is that a hint? You certainly don't waste any time."
       Shira laughed. "I don't mean with me. What about Leia, for example?"
       Luke frowned. "I don't know. It just feels...wrong for some reason." He reached out to push some of her hair back. "Anyway, I prefer redheads. Someone tall and slender, with long red hair and green eyes, and strong-willed."
       Shira punched him lightly. "And you accused me of dropping hints," she teased. "Sounds like every male fantasy I've ever heard about. Well, I've got everything but the green eyes."
       Any further banter was interrupted by a shout from Wedge to the effect of whether they were planning to stand there until they died of old age, and they reluctantly made their way towards him.

 * * * * * *

       Three months later, Darth Vader sat in the meditation pod in his quarters, studying the latest report from Shira Brie, which contained the information that Rogue Squadron and Han Solo had arrived to set up an outpost on the planet Sed Tihonia a week ago. Shira had proved very useful so far. Her report that Skywalker was trying to learn the ways of the Jedi was worrying. Clearly the sooner he was captured and shown the true nature of the Force, the better. He had issued Shira with orders to capture Skywalker in the attack that was being planned on Sed Tihonia. A stormtrooper assault force would land to catch Rogue Squadron by surprise during the night. In the confusion, Shira would take Skywalker prisoner. The resulting loss of Skywalker, Solo and Rogue Squadron would dishearten the Alliance, for whom they were important figures. The whole attack was being carefully planned to take them by surprise. The minimum amount of personnel were being used to ensure secrecy. The Rebels would only find out that they were under attack when stormtroopers appeared in their barracks.
       The pod opened as he turned to face the wall display. Admiral Ozzel appeared on the screen. "Send the Star Destroyer Revenge to the planet Sed Tihonia as planned, Admiral," Vader ordered, and the pod closed again.

* * * * * *

       Luke opened his eyes and looked around the darkened barracks of Rogue Squadron. The sense of someone calling him in a dream had been very strong, so much so that he had woken up. The barracks was quiet, though, as the whole squadron was asleep. He frowned, feeling a strong sense that something was wrong.
       "Luke," the voice called again in his head, and this time he recognised the voice.
       "Ben," he breathed.
       "Beware, Luke," Ben Kenobi's voice answered. "The Imperials are attacking."
       There was no more, but Luke had learned the value of Ben's advice a long time ago. Rolling out of his bunk, he seized his blaster and lightsabre, and shook Wedge awake. "We're being attacked," he warned.
       Wedge blinked, still half asleep. "Are you sure?" he asked dubiously. A sudden volley of laser bolts through the door woke him up fully and dispelled any doubts. The rest of Rogue Squadron was instantly up and grabbing blasters, as the sound of firing woke them.
       "Stormtroopers!" one of the Rogues shouted over the din as they returned fire.
       Wedge muttered a curse under his breath. "Six of you, get to the rear door," he barked. "We'll cover you. Give us covering fire when you get there."
       Half the pilots stepped back and headed for the rear door. The others, including Shira, intensified their own fire. "We're clear, Wedge," Zev called from behind him.
       "Right, come on," Luke ordered. They pulled back from the door quickly, and were nearly there when a shot caught Rogue Four in the side, throwing him to the ground. Shira was immediately at his side, despite the danger, dropping her blaster and grabbing the injured man by the arms.
       "Shira!" Luke yelled as stormtroopers burst into the room and the Rogues dived for any available cover. In desperation, he ignited his lightsabre, and charged the troopers in a near suicidal attack. Fortunately, he was saved from his foolishness as he was grabbed and pulled behind an overturned bed, just as a hail of bolts filled the space where he had been.
       "Don't be an idiot, kid," Han snapped from behind Luke. "We heard the shooting and thought you might need some help." Blaster fire sizzled through the air above them. The Rogues had enough cover to get through the rear door, except for Shira, who had taken cover behind a table, but was cut off from them by a row of small closets.
       "Keep back," Luke called to her. He used his lightsabre to cut through the closets and made a hole large enough for her to crawl through after they pushed and pulled the injured Rogue Four through.
       Wedge passed his blaster to Han. "Come on, let's go," he shouted, slinging Rogue Four over his shoulder. Firing rapidly, the group managed to get out of the barracks, and fell back down the corridor to the hangar.
       Laser bolts from both directions filled the corridor as Rogue Squadron retreated. Luke saw Rogue Nine take a blaster bolt full in the chest and collapse as a particularly bold stormtrooper came ahead of the main group to open fire at point blank range. His lightsabre flashed twice, first through the blaster rifle, and then through the white armour. The man went down without a sound.
       "Come on," Han yelled, grabbing Luke's arm and pulling him down the corridor. "Nine's gone."
       The Rogues entered the hangar and broke for their X-wings. A few moments later, stormtroopers appeared in the doorway, but got no further, as the Falcon, hovering on its repulsorlifts in the middle of the hangar, opened fire from its lower quad laser. In a few seconds, the door was piled with dead and wounded stormtroopers.
       Han took the unconscious Rogue Four from Wedge and sprinted up the Falcon's ramp. Threepio was standing anxiously at the top of the ramp, and he pushed Rogue Four into the droid's arms. "Get him attached to the medical kit," he snapped.
       "But Captain Solo, I'm not a medical droid," Threepio protested to thin air, as Han ran to the cockpit.
       "Nice shooting, Chewie," he said to the Wookiee as he dropped into the pilot's seat.

       Shira stopped by Luke as she ran to her X-wing. "Thanks for helping me out back there, flyboy," she said, smiling at him. "I know this hardly evens things between us but..." and kissed him.
       Luke grinned at her. "Oh, I don't know. I'll have to save you from stormtroopers more often."
       Shira laughed and ran to her fighter, and Luke climbed quickly up his ladder and jumped into the cockpit. "Close the canopy, Artoo," he ordered to the astromech, who was already doing just that. Ahead of him, X-wings were already lifting on their repulsorlifts and leaving the hangar.

       Wedge's X-wing climbed through the atmosphere of Sed Tihonia to see the depressingly familiar wedge shape of a Star Destroyer in front of him. "Not again," he muttered wearily. "Okay, Rogues, let's see if we can pay them back a bit for Rogue Nine. I'm going in, follow me."
       The fighters split up and began making attack runs on the Revenge, evading the turbolaser fire from the laser batteries.

       Luke's X-wing swept over the top ridgeline of the Revenge as he made a strafing run on the starboard turbolaser batteries.
       From her cockpit, Shira saw his fighter vanish from the sight of the other Rogues. She smiled in anticipation as she turned her X-wing to follow him. She had played Luke like a chordokeylo from the moment she joined Rogue Squadron. Trust a simple Tatooine farmboy to fall for the most blatant enticement hook, line and sinker, she thought coldly. She had been waiting a long time for the right moment to capture Skywalker, and it had just arrived. It would be a simple task to disable his X-wing in the confusion of battle, and none of the Rebels would suspect anything. The Alliance would lose one of its most revered heroes.
       She shifted all power to the engines and raced after him. The fighter came over the ridgeline, easily dodging the fire from the intact turbolaser batteries. Not far ahead, she saw Skywalker's X-wing. She acquired a lock on his X-wing, which had now finished its run and was headed away from the Revenge, and gripped the trigger tightly, waiting impatiently for her fighter to come in range of Skywalker's.

       Luke turned his X-wing back towards the Revenge in preparation for another strafing run. Ahead of him, he could see a lone X-wing approaching rapidly. Artoo abruptly let out an alarmed flurry of beeps and whistles. Luke frowned as words scrolled across his display.
       "They're targeting us?" he said incredulously. He checked his sensors. "It must be a mistake. That's Shira's X-wing!" He hesitated, not believing that Shira would deliberately target him, and yet there seemed to be no signs of malfunctioning systems in her X-wing or distress signals being transmitted. His finger wavered over the firing button, unsure what to do.
       And then Ben Kenobi's voice once again filled his mind. "Luke, use the Force," the voice urged. "Remember, Luke, let go. Trust the Force to guide you."
       Luke took a deep breath and nodded. Closing his eyes, he remembered how he had seen the remotes in his mind during his first training session on the Falcon. He felt the presence of minds all around him for a brief moment, but it was long enough to sense the hostile mind in the X-wing. He opened his eyes again and acted.

       Shira smiled grimly as Skywalker's X-wing came in range and her finger tightened on the firing button. She would aim for the starboard engines, which would leave his fighter out of control. It would be a simple task for the Revenge to pull him in with a tractor beam later.
       A second later, the smile was gone. The X-wing pulled out of her line of fire with amazing speed and fired all four of its cannons simultaneously. There was no time for her to react. The bolts smashed into her port S-foils, vaporising them instantly. The sudden loss of balance sent the fighter into a wild spin. Frantically, she fastened her helmet seals and grabbed for the ejection lever, but even as she did so, the port engines, damaged by the attack, blew apart in a cloud of shrapnel that tore through the body of her X-wing. Red-hot pieces of metal slashed into her back, arms, and skull. For a moment she felt no pain, but then all rationality vanished in a wave of agony such as she had never experienced before. A ball of fire erupted in the cockpit, engulfing her, and the agony reached new heights for a few seconds before everything went black...

       Wedge's X-wing, accompanied by the Falcon and Rogues Five and Six, came over the Revenge's ridgeline just in time to see Luke's X-wing fire on Shira's and send it spinning away into space.
       "What are you doing, Luke?" Han shouted in amazement over the comm.
       Luke shook his head, still not believing what he had just done himself. "She was going to open fire," he said softly, as much to convince himself as to explain his actions.
       Wedge glanced at the receding shape of the ruined X-wing. Even from here, he could see the fire in the cockpit, which was diminishing rapidly as it consumed the cockpit oxygen, and the glowing remains of the port S-foils. "If she hasn't ejected by now, she's already dead," he said. "Rogue Squadron, go to hyperspace on your marks," he ordered, and the entire group jumped to lightspeed a few seconds later. He coughed nervously as the fighters raced through hyperspace. "Uh, Luke, I'm going to have to report this to General Rieekan."
       Luke lowered his head for a second and closed his eyes. "All right, Wedge," he said softly, knowing that he would be facing a court-martial.

* * * * * *

       Luke's X-wing touched down in the hangar bay of the Rebel flagship, to see a grim faced General Rieekan and two guards waiting nearby. The three of them came forwards as he climbed down the ladder.
       "Commander Skywalker," General Rieekan said heavily as he turned to face them. "Did you fire on Rogue 3 while you were engaged with the Revenge?"
       Luke nodded. There was no point denying it. "Yes."
       Rieekan nodded to the guards, who came forward. "Commander Skywalker, you are under arrest pending a court-martial into the shooting down of Shira Brie." He watched silently as the guards led Luke away.
       By now, the other pilots and Han and Chewbacca had gathered around them. Han's face hardened as the guards left. "Look, General," he said, "I know Luke. If he shot Shira down, he had a very good reason for it. He said that he could feel Shira intending to shoot him down. I don't believe in the Force, but if he says she meant to fire at him, then I believe him. He blew up the Death Star single-handedly. If you're going to put him on trial, then you're all idiots."
       Rieekan's distaste at what he had just had to do burst out. "I'm not doing this for amusement, Solo," he growled. "I don't like it any more than you do. For what it's worth, I believe Luke. Given our security measures, I have no difficulty accepting that Shira was an Imperial agent. Luke shot her down without apparent provocation, though. If we don't investigate this, we're no better than the Empire."
       "So you'll send slicers to try and see what information the Imperials have on Shira, will you?" Han demanded.
       Rieekan shook his head. "High Command will not authorise it. Trying to obtain such information is too dangerous. I'm sorry, Solo."
       Chewbacca bellowed angrily. "I'm with you," Han agreed. "I'm sorry too, General. We're both out."
       Rieekan's eyes narrowed. "You'll never going to get information on Shira from the Imperials. They don't exactly welcome you with open arms."
       "We'll take our chances," Han replied. "We got Princess Leia out of the Death Star. Getting some files can't be any harder."
       Rieekan smiled faintly. "It'll be easier with some help. Wedge, Dack, you are placed on leave of duty until further notice. You're a good man, Solo. May the Force be with you." He turned and strode away.
       Wedge sighed. "Why do I get the feeling that attacking the Death Star again would be easier than trying to get into an Imperial database?"

* * * * * *

       The Revenge lay in orbit around Sed Tihonia, escorting the Executor, which had arrived shortly after Rogue Squadron's escape.
       Darth Vader stood in a hangar bay on the Executor, watching as naval troopers cut away the wreckage of Shira Brie's X-wing. He was enraged by the failure of the attack. Somehow the Rebels had been ready for them, despite the planning and secrecy. He would have to find out how Rogue Squadron had anticipated and therefore escaped the attack. Shira's unmasking as a spy by Skywalker compounded the failure. Now she was useless as an intelligence source. Skywalker and Solo had escaped yet again.
       He came forward as medical personnel lifted Shira carefully onto a repulsorbed. The fireball had burned her hair away and she was covered in terrible wounds from the shrapnel. An officer stepped forward. "My Lord, she's too badly injured to survive. She won't last more than a few hours. She has collapsed lungs, cranial trauma, severe internal injuries, massive burns, and at least one of her arms will have to be amputated. It would be kinder just to let her die."
       "No, Captain," Vader hissed. "She will live. She is strong in the Force. Take her to Imperial Centre and begin cyborg reconstruction on her. I will hold you personally responsible if she does not survive."
       The man went white. "Yes, my Lord. I won't fail you."
       Fear was an admirable motivator, Vader noted, as the officer began bellowing at the medics to get moving. A sudden thought struck him. He could report to his master that Shira had been killed, and no one would dare contradict him. He would then be free to train Shira in the advanced powers of the Dark Side. She would make an interesting student. He believed that suffering and anger intensified strength in the Dark Side. It certainly worked for him. Shira would have a huge amount of pain and hate to draw on. Most of it would of course be directed at Skywalker, but Vader could control her. His son was too promising to waste on Shira's revenge. As long as he survived, Shira would not even contemplate attacking Skywalker, or she would face the full wrath of a Dark Lord of the Sith.

* * * * * *

       Han approached the Falcon's ramp to see Princess Leia standing waiting for him. "Well, your Highness, you finally got your wish," he said, grinning sardonically. "I'm going. Couldn't you bear to let me go without saying goodbye first?"
       Leia sighed. "You really have an inflated ego, Han. Why do you even begin to think I want anything to do with you?"
       To his surprise, she reached out and took his hand. "Take care, Han. Good luck on Shalyvane. May the Force be with you." She glared at him as he opened his mouth. "Get out of here before I change my mind," she said and turned away.
       Han gazed after her for a moment, then went up the ramp.

       Wedge and Dack were already strapped into the rear crew seats when Han entered the cockpit.
       "Threepio's in the cargo hold, switched off," Wedge reported.
       Han nodded. "Good. I don't want to have to listen to him the whole time. Personally, I'd rather sell him to the first Jawa I meet. I'm going to regret having let you two persuade me that he might actually prove useful for translating."
       "So what's the plan?" Dack asked Han.
       Han shrugged. "I was hoping you had one. Where did Shira say she came from?"
       "Shalyvane," Dack answered.
       Han nodded. "Then that's where we'll start and hope we learn something".
       He punched the repulsorlift controls and the Falcon lifted from the docking bay and left the Rebel ship. As soon it cleared the fleet, it jumped to hyperspace.

       One of the flight crew maintenance staff watched the Falcon leave the hangar bay. So they were going to Shalyvane, he thought, having overheard Han and Leia's conversation. He knew someone who would pay very well for this information...

* * * * * *

       Five days later, the Falcon came out of lightspeed above Shalyvane. Threepio gazed out of the cockpit at the planet. "What an awful place this is," he said. The whole world was an yellow and brown colour from space, showing the extent of the devastation.
       "It used to be a cultured planet," Wedge commented. "It was held alongside Alderaan and Caamas as one of the most noble planets in the galaxy. Of course, when the Emperor demanded their unconditional allegiance, they refused point blank. He turned the planet into a desert as punishment."
       "It certainly would have made the survivors sworn enemies of the Empire," Han observed, "or excellent cover for Imperial agents, of course. Come on, let's see if we can find anything out."
       The Falcon descended into the atmosphere. "No technology and few lifeform readings," Wedge observed, studying the displays.
       Han leaned over to take a look. "That looks like a large concentration right there," he said. "It must be a settlement. Chewie, bring us around to course 4-13-92."
       A few minutes, the Falcon landed outside a collection of crumbling stone buildings. The ramp lowered and Wedge,        Han, Dack and Chewbacca came down it cautiously, blasters at the ready. A small welcoming committee had already formed, Han noted as he came down the ramp. They stood around watching the four strangers, but didn't seem hostile, although he wasn't particularly surprised. They were mostly dressed in rags, and all of them had a desperate, half-starved look. One of them stepped forwards and held out a hand, saying something Han didn't understand. "Threepio?" he asked. "Can you understand him?"
       The protocol droid stepped forwards. "Oh yes, Captain Solo. He's speaking in Middle Shalyvanian. An old language, evolved from the dialect spoken by the inhabitants of the northern continents between approximately 2600 years to 470 years Pre-Empire."
       "We'd be better off with an intergalactic phrase book," Han muttered in exasperation. "Threepio," he said, trying to stay calm, "I don't want to know the history of every dialect on the planet. Just tell us what he said."
       "He wants to know if you had any food, Captain Solo," Threepio answered with an air of wounded pride. "Really, some humans have no patience whatsoever."
       "Hold on," Han said, fumbling in a pocket of his jacket. "I've got a ration bar here," he said, finding it, and giving it to the man, who immediately seized it and grabbed Han in a joyful bear hug.
       "I think we've got spare ration bars in the cargo hold," Dack said, he and Wedge trying not entirely successfully to keep from laughing as they watched a distinctly unimpressed Han trying to break free. "I'll go and get them." The other villagers had come forwards and were waiting expectantly for more food to appear. They nearly trampled Dack into the ground when he came down the Falcon's ramp with extra ration bars. In seconds, they had taken all the ration bars.
       "Can't we do anything for them?" Dack asked Wedge once the villagers had seized all the ration bars. "Surely there must be something we can do."
       Wedge's face hardened in helpless anger as he watched the villagers tearing into the ration bars as though it was the first meal that they had for a month. "The Alliance barely has enough food for itself. The only way we can help them is to make sure the Empire can never do this to anyone again."
       The man who had first spoken to them finished eating and came over to them and shook Wedge and Dack's hands, again saying something. "He thanks you for the food and asks if he can help you at all," Threepio translated.
       Wedge hesitated. From what they had already seen, there seemed precious little chance that there were any population records left on Shalyvane, and there was virtually no chance of anyone here having heard of Shira. "Ask if they know of a Shira Brie," he told the droid nevertheless, and waited as they conferred.
       "He says not," Threepio announced, as Wedge had expected. "He does say, however, that some Shalyvanians were taken to the Imperial base at Ord Mantell if that helps."
       Wedge grimaced. "I doubt it." Ord Mantell had once been an important Old Republic supply planet, and the Empire had built it into one of their strongest bases. The chances that anyone remembered Shira here or on Ord Mantell were slim, and the chances of finding them even more so. On top of that, it was more than possible that Shira had lied about coming from Shalyvane, in which case they were completely wasting their time. He glanced at Han. "What do you think?"
       "I'm trying not to," Han answered. They had almost no hope of finding anything out on Ord Mantell, but they seemed to have even less chance of finding anything out here. "I don't think we have much of a choice, though. If Shira was an Imperial agent, though, Ord Mantell has the most extensive records database after Coruscant."

* * * * * *

       The bounty hunter Dengar smiled as he studied the transmission from his source inside the Rebel Alliance. So Solo and his Wookiee companion had decided to leave the safety of the Alliance, he noted with pleasure. He glanced up at the Trandoshan bounty hunter Bossk standing beside him. "Soon we will have Solo and the Wookiee," he said, already imagining the reward they would get from Jabba the Hutt. "For once, Fett won't beat us to the prize."
       Bossk's scales lifted slightly, the Trandoshan equivalent of a nod. "You may do what you like with Solo, but the Wookiee is mine," he hissed.

* * * * * *

       Two days later, the Falcon came out of hyperspace over Ord Mantell. Three Star Destroyers and eight Telgorn Corp XQ/6 platforms lay in orbit around the planet, as befitted an important Imperial supply base.
       Wedge shook his head. "I hope we know what we're doing."
       Han grinned. "Can't be any worse than sneaking around the Death Star disguised as stormtroopers," he said, ignoring the sceptical look that Wedge gave him.
       A voice came from the cockpit comm. "Unknown freighter, we have you on our screens. State your identity and purpose."
       Han glanced at Wedge, who nodded. "This is the Corellian freighter Millennium Falcon, with a cargo of TIE fighter targeting sensors."
       There was a pause, during which Chewbacca kept his hands on the controls, ready for an immediate 180-degree turn and jump to lightspeed. "You may proceed," the controller said. "We are transmitting the co-ordinates for your allocated landing site now. Do not deviate from the course, or you will be fired on."
       "Friendly people," Dack commented, as the Falcon passed between two of the XQ/6 platforms. They were close enough to one to see turbolaser batteries swivelling to track them.
       Wedge took a breath. "That was the easy part. Now we have to somehow get into a high security Imperial base, download files, and get out without being spotted."
       The Falcon cleared the platforms and began its descent towards Ord Mantell.

       Wedge came cautiously down the Falcon's ramp and looked around the docking bay, unable to shake off the feeling that an entire brigade of stormtroopers would suddenly appear. Han slapped him on the shoulder. "See, nothing to worry about," he said airily, and wished he actually felt that confident. The whole plan seemed a lot less intelligent now they were right in the middle of the largest Imperial base for a hundred sectors.
       The three of them left the docking bay. Chewbacca had reluctantly agreed to stay with the Falcon after Han had pointed out that the Empire's prejudice against non-humans would surely make them conspicuous if he came and that they would need him on the Falcon in the event of a quick escape being necessary.
       They found themselves standing on the edge of a teeming street. Dozens of civilians hurried along, nearly of all them keeping their heads down to avoid attracting attention. Stormtroopers stood every 50 paces along on both sides of the street. Military airspeeders and speeder bikes glided past overhead, mingling with cargo carriers and landspeeders.
       "Wonderful place," Dack commented grimly.
       Wedge nodded in agreement. "Typical Imperial control. Make sure no one steps out of line. Anyway, we've got a job to do, and the sooner we get out of here, the better."
       "You won't catch me arguing with that," Han observed as they entered the crowd, and began heading towards the main Imperial record facility.

       Twenty minutes later, they were outside the facility, studying it from inside a small tapcafe. "It doesn't look good," Dack observed. The plan, if it could be called that, was looking less intelligent by the second.
       "You're right there," Wedge replied. "They've turned it into a fortress. Look at those checkpoints at the main entrance. They've got a squad of stormtroopers, identification systems, and laser turrets. And then that building on the right looks like a good spot to have some support element like speeder bikes or even AT-STs. You'd need at least half a brigade of commandos, fighting a small war, just to get inside."
       "Come on," Han said, getting up. "Let's see if we can find any weak spots before you two make me nervous."
       Behind them, a figure in a robe lifted a comlink and spoke into it briefly before following them out of the tapcafe.

       Han, Wedge and Dack moved through the crowd when suddenly the figures in front of them stopped suddenly enough that they nearly ran into them. "Careful," Dack said, before he realised that the people surrounding them had blasters in plain view.
       Wedge looked around. There were others behind them, all grim faced and holding blasters as well. He glanced around, hoping to see stormtroopers for the first time in his life, but the stormtroopers, so numerous when they weren't needed, seemed to have momentarily vanished into thin air. The circle began closing in around them, herding them towards an alley, and down it into a dimly lit cantina. Some of their escort vanished as they entered the cantina. Two stayed with them and guided them to a particularly dark corner of the room, where a cloaked figure was sitting waiting for them. The three of them hesitated briefly before the figure motioned for them to sit down. He nodded to the two men behind them, who turned and walked away.
       There was an uneasy pause. "So are you going to give us to the Imperials?" Dack asked lightly, despite his apprehension.
       The man laughed, his features hidden by the hood of his cloak. "If we were, we would have done it a long time ago. Are you Rebels?"
       After a moment, Wedge nodded. "Yes, we are."
       The man nodded. "Good. We've being waiting for the Rebels to come." He beckoned and an old man appeared beside him. "Skarl here has been wanting to fight the Empire for a long time, but we don't know how to find any Rebel bases or cells." He sat back in his chair. "We would be honoured if you would let us join you."
       There was a short silence. "You've got to be kidding!" Han snorted. "A bunch of Imperial agents trying to get information out of us? Go kiss a Hutt!"
       "A pity," came the reply. "You came here to get into the records centre, yes? You won't get within 500 metres of it before you're shot."
       Wedge placed a hand on Han's arm, cutting off the retort. "Can you help us?" he asked.
       The man nodded. "I'm an Imperial Intelligence Colonel, one of the senior staff in the records facility. If you want to get information out of there, you'll have to trust me. We'll help you get the information you want if you take us to the Alliance. There's a lot of us, but we have our own Corvette."
       Wedge nodded slowly, much to Han's amazement. "You're not seriously going to trust him, are you?" he said disbelievingly.
Wedge frowned, not liking it very much either, but not seeing any other way to get information on Shira. "Come on, Han, you saw the defences around that place. As our friend here said, we'd never even come close to getting inside, let alone get to a computer. This could be just what we need. And besides, we take people on trust in the Alliance. We took Biggs on trust, and a certain Tatooine farmboy, Corellian smuggler and Wookiee."
       Han scowled, but took Wedge's point. "All right, you've got a deal. Any wrong moves, though, and your name is on my blaster. One more thing, you can go with our protocol droid just so we know we're getting accurate information. Call it an insurance policy."
       The man nodded and rose. "Very well. Who or what do you require information on?"
       "A suspected Imperial agent called Shira Brie," Dack answered. "Who are you, by the way?"
       The man pushed the hood of his cloak back, revealing a bearded face. "Madine. Crix Madine."

* * * * * *

       A senior controller on board one of the XQ/6 platforms was running through the list of ships that had arrived that day when the name of one rang a bell. Switching to another directory, he accessed the list of starships that were wanted by the Empire. Near the top of the list lay the same name. He rose and went to a Holonet terminal, switching to a high level military frequency, and proceeded to make a report.

       On board the Executor, a comm officer approached Admiral Ozzel. "Sir, we have a report that the Corellian freighter Millennium Falcon has recently arrived at Ord Mantell."
       Ozzel nodded. "Very good, Ensign. Carry on." He came up out of the crew pits and strode down the walkway to Darth Vader.
       "You have something to report, Admiral Ozzel?" the Dark Lord asked.
       "Yes, my lord," Ozzel answered. "Ord Mantell Space Control has informed us that the Millennium Falcon arrived there a couple of hours ago."
       "They should have sent word immediately," Vader said ominously. "Set your course for Ord Mantell."

* * * * * *

       A few hours later, Han, Wedge and Dack were back on the Falcon, waiting for Madine to accomplish his mission. The old man, Skarl, had come back with them, and they soon discovered that he hated the Empire bitterly.
       "We spotted you from the moment you left the docking bay," he said as they sat around the game table. "I've seen what they do in the name of their New Order. Hardly anyone on the planet dares lift their head. You were different. You hadn't been beaten down by fear, and then you looked like fighter pilots." He glanced at Wedge and Dack. "Y-wing pilot and gunner?"
       "X-wings," Wedge corrected, taken aback. "How did you know we were pilots?"
       Skarl laughed. "It takes one to know one. I flew a Headhunter in the Clone Wars, similar to your X-wings. If I was younger, you wouldn't be able to keep me out of one."
       Wedge smiled. "I was one of the pilots who attacked the Death Star. I gave my wingman Luke Skywalker cover while he tried to hit the thermal exhaust port."
       Skarl stared at him for a moment, then slapped him on the back. "The famous Rogue Squadron, eh? Yes, even here on Ord Mantell we know of the Alliance's battles. It gives us some hope when we are almost devoid of it. You did a great deed there, Antilles. You struck a blow for all of us who live under the Empire's tyranny. I wish I had been there to humiliate the Empire," he said wistfully.
       "It cost us dearly, though," Wedge commented. "We lost nearly all our pilots and almost failed until Han took the TIE fighters off Luke's back, and we had to flee across the galaxy to avoid the Emperor's retribution. Perhaps you may have a chance to do something to help the Alliance, though."
       Skarl laughed again. "Maybe I will, if the Force is with me. This information you seek, why do you need it so much?"
       "Luke is under suspicion of shooting down one our pilots. He is attempting to become a Jedi, and believes that she is an Imperial spy. We came here to learn if she is - was- an Imperial agent."
       Skarl's eyes closed. "I remember seeing the Jedi stationed here. They were a force for good throughout the Old Republic, until the accursed Emperor hunted them down. We shall have to ensure that Skywalker can continue his training by obtaining the information you need."

       Crix Madine came up to the security post at the entrance of the record facility, with Threepio following behind him. He began to understand why the Rebels had been so pleased to see the droid go with him, as he had spent the last hour listening to his complaints and small talk, and was almost tempted to stay with the Empire as a result. The stormtroopers at the checkpoint straightened as he approached. "Your identification," one demanded curtly. "What do you need this droid for?"
       "THX-1138," Madine answered, stepping up to a laser identification reader to have his corneas checked. He gestured to Threepio, who was being scanned for espionage programming or hidden weapons. "The droid is here to help translate some documents written in Old Dreeite."
       "All right, you can go," the stormtrooper said, as a light flashed green on the laser reader and Threepio was given the all-clear.
       Madine entered the building, knowing that this would be the last time he ever did so, although he would certainly not miss it. His colleagues were a backstabbing, arrogant group of cowards who would happily sell their mothers to a Hutt if it earned them some reward, no matter how slight, from a senior official. He regretted that he could not tell them exactly what he thought of them. He entered his private office and accessed his computer terminal. He had planned what he would do for a long time, and he finally had the chance. Watched by Threepio, he searched through the records for Shira Brie and smiled as he found one file on her. He copied the file to a datacard he had brought with him, and then inserted another datacard. He ran the small program on it, and laughed quietly. In a few hours, the program would begin destroying the files on computers throughout the facility. They would certainly remember Colonel Crix Madine for a long time...

       Skarl's comlink beeped, and he took it from his belt. "I have the information," Madine announced tersely. "Go and tell the others to get the Corvette ready. I'll meet Solo at the Millennium Falcon."
       "No," Han said, instantly wary of a platoon of stormtroopers arriving at the hangar bay. "We'll meet you at the Thirsty Mynock cantina. "Come on, let's go," he said. "You stay here, Chewie."
       Skarl shook his head. "It should be safe for the Wookiee to go with you this time. The Imperials will be in their barracks by now. They don't venture out after dark. There's a lot of resistance here. So many lone stormtroopers kept disappearing that they eventually stopped night patrols. The Imperials took severe reprisals for every dead stormtrooper, of course, but it only increased the number of attacks."
       Han glanced at him, and then nodded. "Okay, come on, Chewie."
       The four of them left the Falcon, followed by Skarl on his way to the Corvette. The walk to the cantina was uneventful, and they met Madine there with Threepio and the datacard.
       The journey back was destined to be less uneventful, however. They were taking a shortcut down a narrow, dimly lit street on the way back to the Falcon when Chewbacca gave a loud roar. "Yeah, I've got a bad feeling about this too," Han said, easing his blaster out from under his cloak.
       The words were barely out of his mouth when three shapes on speeder bikes appeared at the far end of the street. Wedge turned to see another two behind them. "They've got us surrounded," he warned.
       Two of the figures dismounted and came towards them. "Ah, Solo," one said. "I won't bother saying this is an agreeable surprise." He gestured. "You know the drill, before I have to settle for the death fee."
       "We're doomed," Threepio said nervously. "Captain Solo, I believe surrender would be the most prudent course at this point. You do have a responsibility for me. Someone has to keep an eye on Artoo."
       Han ignored him. "You always were the pleasant one, Dengar," he said dryly as he dropped his blaster and kicked it away.
       Dengar laughed as he stepped forward into the light to pick up the blaster. A scar ran down one side of his face, all the way to his black hair, the legacy of an old vibroblade fight. "Believe me, Solo, Jabba's going to be even less pleasant with you for not reimbursing him for his lost spice. You should have stayed with the Alliance. A source told us you were going to Shalyvane and we followed you there, and then here."
       "Look, Dengar," Han said, "I've got the money to pay Jabba with. I was just going to pay him a visit when you turned up."
       "I'm not as stupid as Greedo," Dengar growled. "Let me guess, you haven't got the money with you, not that it'll help you now. Jabba just wants your hide. Anyway, enough small talk." He looked at Wedge, Dack and Madine. "I don't know who you three are, and you're lucky I don't care. Start walking," he ordered, waving Han's blaster for emphasis.
       "Yes, of course," Threepio said promptly, hurrying towards the entrance to the alley as quickly as possible. Wedge held his hands up in submission and the three of them turned away towards the alley entrance. As they approached the speeder bikes, Dack saw Wedge's hand twitch in a barely noticeable movement, which he recognised it as an Alliance hand signal code. The two of them moved to pass either side of the speeder bikes, which lifted up away from them slightly as they passed. Dack abruptly spun and crouched, kicking out at the foot throttles of the right hand bike, which shot forwards towards Dengar and his accomplices. Taking advantage of the surprise, Wedge grabbed the other rider, and yanked him off the speeder bike with one hand, slamming the other hard behind his ear, and the man crumpled. In a few seconds, he was on the bike and had its laser blaster pointed to cover the bounty hunters.
       Han grinned as he stepped away from them. "Sorry, Dengar, maybe next time."
       Dengar slowly drew himself to his full height. "Oh no, Solo," he said softly. The figure on his right abruptly lunged forward towards Han, the lizardlike hiss of rage revealing it to be Bossk, but stopped short as Chewbacca sent him sprawling with one blow. Behind them, the blaster on Wedge's speeder bike spat and the rider at the far end of the alley was thrown off his bike.
       Han sprinted for Bossk's empty bike, and Dack jumped on behind Wedge. "Get back to the Falcon," Han yelled to Chewbacca and Madine as he leapt onto the bike and gunned it out of the alleyway, followed closely by Wedge and Dack's.
       Behind them in the alley, Dengar jumped onto his own speeder bike. "Get them," he bellowed to the rider Dack had taken by surprise, determined not to lose his reward from Jabba. A few seconds later, they were in hot pursuit, with a shot from Chewbacca's bowcaster narrowly missing them.

       Bossk picked himself up and lunged for Chewbacca, knocking the bowcaster away with a blow. Enraged, the Wookiee seized Bossk's wrists and threw him hard against a wall. Undaunted, the Trandoshan again lunged forward and sent Chewbacca reeling back with a powerful punch to the chest. Chewbacca bellowed in rage and grabbed Bossk, shoving him hard down the alley, and giving Madine, who had grabbed a blaster from the unconscious mercenary, a chance to hit the Trandoshan with a stunblast. Bossk collapsed, stunned.
       Chewbacca glared at the Trandoshan, growling in rage, and prodded the still form with a foot. He bellowed angrily at Threepio, who was trying to flatten himself against the wall as much as possible. "Oh, do be quiet, you clumsy oaf," the droid snapped. "What was I meant to do? I am a protocol droid and not intended for combat situations."
       Chewbacca gave a series of exasperated barks. He nodded to Madine, picking up his bowcaster, and led the way out of the alley, heading back to the Falcon.

       Dack twisted his head around to see the two speeder bikes approaching. "Wedge, Han, they're still with us," he shouted over the slipstream, as laser bolts shot past them.
       "OK, split up and see if we can lose them. We'll rendezvous at the Falcon," Han yelled back. His bike broke away from them and vanished down a wide thoroughfare to the right.

       "Solo's mine," Dengar shouted to his accomplice as he saw the bikes split up. "Take the others." He turned his bike after Han's.

       Dack began shifting around as much as he dared on the speeder bike, trying to pull his blaster from the holster under his cloak. Eventually managing to draw it, he again twisted around and snapped off a hasty shot, which went wild as Wedge swerved to avoid a collision with an airspeeder, nearly throwing Dack off in the process. "Can't you keep this thing steady?" he yelled.
       "It's not like flying an X-wing, you know," Wedge snapped as the bike heeled hard over to go around a corner.
       Both of them instinctively ducked as a laser bolt shot over their heads. "Marvellous," Wedge muttered, taking a hasty look behind him to see another bike, doubtlessly Dengar's backup, join the other one pursuing them. He made a quick measurement of the width of the street they were flying down. "Hold on," he warned, and brought the bike around in a stomach wrenching circle, jamming the brakes on as he did so, only his pilot's skill keeping them from crashing into the buildings. The bike's laser cannon spat at the now oncoming thugs and hit one bike directly on the forward vanes, sending it careering into a building with a massive explosion. Dack fired several shots at the remaining bike as it flashed past, and managed to hit a glancing blow on the back of the bike, sending smoke pouring out. The rider decided that, with his bike damaged and the other destroyed, discretion was the better part of valour and raced off down the street.
       Wedge let out a sigh as he saw the speeder bike vanish. "Come on, let's get back to the Falcon. I just hope Han's as lucky."

       Laser bolts shot past Han as Dengar fired in an attempt to cripple his bike. In an attempt to avoid the shots, he jammed on the brakes for half a second. It was the oldest trick in the book, but Dengar fell for it, and his bike came alongside Han's before he could react.
       "Give up, Solo," Dengar grated as the two bikes began banging into each other. "You haven't got a chance of escaping this time."
       "Never tell me the odds," Han shot back, using one of his favourite ripostes.
       "I used to be the best swoop rider on my home planet," Dengar warned as he began forcing Han's bike towards the closest buildings. "I'd be disappointed if you made me dig bits of you out of the wall."
       "You're breaking my heart," Han muttered, watching the buildings anxiously as they came dangerously close. "Alright, I'll stop," he said, beginning to cut his speed.
       "Very wise," Dengar said approvingly, matching Han's speed, and watching him carefully in case he tried any tricks, which was his mistake.
       Abruptly, Han tilted the bike upwards and jammed the throttles down. Dengar immediately matched his action and looked forwards...and his eyes widened.
       The building ahead had large pieces of ovoid ferrocrete ornamentation jutting out, and he realised in a flash that he was heading straight for the first one at full speed. Desperately, he hurled himself off the bike half a second before it hit and exploded. Bits of metal and ferrocrete sprayed out as the bike exploded, several pieces hitting Dengar in the side of the face and sending a spray of blood out. Dengar landed hard in the street, stunned by the impact.
       Han's bike shot through the gap between the ferrocrete oval and the building, and then circled back.
       He hovered over the dazed Dengar. "The best swoop rider on your planet, and you still forgot to look where you're going?" he commented, and raced off down the street.

       Bossk staggered to his feet and hissed in rage at their failure to capture Solo and Chewbacca. He climbed on the remaining speeder bike and set off to find Dengar. A few streets later, he stopped as he saw Dengar limping down a street, blood streaming from a wound that ran down one side of his face. He glared at Bossk as the Trandoshan came alongside him. "That's the last time we work together. Trust you to turn this into bantha fodder."
       Bossk hissed in anger at Dengar blaming him for the incompetence of his own hired mercenaries, and shot off down the street on the way back to the Hound's Tooth.
       Dengar snorted as he watched him go, and then walked up to a reflective sheet of metal on one of the buildings. He wiped the drying blood away with a discarded white cloak that was lying in the street, ignoring the pain, and inspected the injury. He realised that it would leave a massive scar. He looked thoughtfully at the cloak, and then ripped the hood away, wrapping it around his head. He glanced at his reflection in the metal, and satisfied, strode off back to his ship. Solo would pay for this, he reflected.

       Han pulled his speeder bike up outside the docking bay, and entered, relieved to see Wedge, Dack, Chewbacca and Madine waiting for him. "We're ready to go," Wedge said.
       "Skarl says the Corvette is ready," Madine announced.
       Han nodded. "Then let's get out of here before we get into any more trouble."

* * * * * *

       Followed by the Corellian Corvette, the Falcon climbed away from Ord Mantell, passing the Star Destroyers and XQ/6 platforms. Han let out a breath as they moved out of range of the platform turbolasers. "Piece of ryshcate," he commented, reaching for the hyperdrive controls.
       Dack stared out of the cockpit. "I've got a bad feeling about this. A really bad feeling..."
       And at that moment, the Super Star Destroyer Executor came out of hyperspace directly ahead of them.
       Chewbacca bellowed a warning. "Yes, I can see it. It's kind of hard to miss," Han retorted angrily, pulling the Falcon away as every starboard turbolaser on the Executor opened up in an immense broadside. He turned in the seat briefly to look at Dack. "You had to say that, didn't you?" he snapped.
       The Falcon suddenly shook violently and stopped moving. Han didn't need to look at the controls to know that a tractor beam had them. He watched helplessly as the Falcon was pulled remorselessly towards the massive ship, and knew that he could never break free of the tractor beam.

       On the bridge of the Executor, Darth Vader watched in satisfaction as the tiny freighter was drawn towards the Super Star Destroyer. Finally he would have his revenge on Solo for humiliating him.

       The main docking bay on the Executor loomed steadily closer as the Falcon approached. Han had the quads firing away at the hull in a desperate attempt to knock out the tractor beam projectors. "They won't get me without a fight," he vowed, loosening his blaster in its holster. At that moment, the Corvette suddenly loomed in front of the Falcon, breaking the tractor beam lock. The Falcon shot backwards as though stung. "I don't believe it," Han muttered as he pulled the Falcon round and raced away from the Executor. The comm crackled and he recognized Skarl's voice.
       "Get out of here, Solo," the old man said. "Make sure the information gets back to the Rebellion. Antilles, you said I might get to help the Alliance. It looks like this is it. Don't let the Empire win the war. May the Force be with you." The comm went dead.
       "We won't let them win," Wedge promised as he stared out of the cockpit, amazed that they would sacrifice themselves for people that they had never met, in a struggle that they would never know the outcome of, on the mere word of a Rebel pilot that this information was important to the Alliance. The Falcon was flying parallel to the Executor and he could see red turbolaser blasts as the Corvette fired on the Executor.

       Darth Vader gazed in mute rage as the Corvette suddenly appeared to put itself between the Falcon and Executor. Beyond it, he could see the Falcon turn sharply and drive hard away from the Super Star Destroyer. "Destroy the Corvette immediately, Admiral Ozzel," he ordered.

       On the Corvette's bridge, Skarl held tightly to one of the crew chairs as the Corvette shook under the bombardment of the Executor's entire bank of starboard turbolasers. The Corvette was firing back, but it was caught in the tractor beam, and had no hope of matching the Executor's barrage. He knew he and the Corvette's crew would die here, but they had finally had their revenge on the Empire for enslaving them. He straightened up and made a ritual gesture of contempt towards the SSD as the final remnants of the shields collapsed and the hull was pounded by laser blasts. The last thing he saw was a white flash as the bridge imploded.

       The explosion silenced the observers in the Falcon's cockpit momentarily, but they had other things to worry about.
       "TIE fighters coming in," Wedge warned.
       "Well, don't just stand there," Han snapped. "You and Dack get to the quads. Chewie, switch all power to the shields. If that Star Destroyer gets one lucky shot, we're done for. Get ready to jump to lightspeed." He banged the navicomputer angrily. "Come on!"
       TIE fighters swarmed in, trying to drive the Falcon back into range of the Executor's tractor beams. Han thanked his stars that Wedge and Dack were experienced gunners, as blasts from the quads filled space around the Falcon, blowing TIEs apart.
       And then the navicomputer gave a warbling. Han grabbed for the hyperdrive lever and pulled it, watching as the stars stretched and became lines. They had escaped.

       Darth Vader watched impassively as the Millennium Falcon vanished into hyperspace. He had vowed to catch the Corellian freighter. Once again it had eluded him, but sooner or later he would have them, and when he did, he would take revenge for his failure at the Death Star.
       An officer approached Admiral Ozzel. "Sir, we have been informed that the records facility on....
       Ozzel glared at him and he fell silent. "Good or bad news?"
       "Bad, sir."
       Ozzel nodded, glancing at Vader, and decided not to risk his anger just yet. "It can wait, Lieutenant."

* * * * * *

       The Falcon raced through hyperspace on automatic pilot. Sitting around the game table, Han, Wedge, Dack and Madine examined the datacard that Madine had managed to smuggle out of the Imperial computers.
       Wedge whistled. "Looks like we got just what we need. Look at this," he commented, scrolling through the contents.
       Shira Brie (alias). Real name and background restricted. Appointed to Lord Darth Vader's staff. All previous and current operation details highly restricted.
       Dack grimaced. "Standard Imperial secrecy. Give as little as possible away. Still, this should be more than enough to get Luke off the hook."
       "Hold on," Han said. "I just remembered, Luke said she had a sister."
       Detail Shira Brie's family.
       Background restricted.
       "Wait a minute," Madine said. "I'm not cleared for the operation details but I should be able to access the background details. Here..."
       Detail Shira Brie's family. Code clearance 3263827.
       Shira Brie. Parental details ultra highly restricted. Cleared for Imperial Admirals, Grand Admirals, Lord Darth Vader, and Emperor Palpatine only.
       Other family details: One sister. Further details ultra highly restricted. Cleared for Imperial Admirals, Grand Admirals, Lord Darth Vader, and Emperor Palpatine only.
No other information available.
       Han's eyes narrowed. "Looks like Shira was really cosy with Vader and his friends. Unusual for information on someone to be so highly restricted. Obviously, there's a lot of secrets in her past. I wonder who her sister was."
       "I don't suppose we'll ever know," Wedge observed. "Probably an Imperial official somewhere or perhaps even dead."

* * * * * *

       The Falcon touched down in the main hangar bay in the Rebel base on Vanis 6. Han grinned broadly as he strode down the ramp to an anxious Princess Leia, who had been waiting in the hangar since the Falcon entered the atmosphere. "We got it," he called. "Shira was an Imperial spy for Vader, no less." He gestured to Madine, who had come down the ramp behind him. "We even managed to pick up some defectors. Madine was one of the senior Imperial Intelligence staff on Ord Mantell."
       Leia gave him a warm smile. "Perhaps you're not so bad after all, Solo," she said, unbending for a moment. "Go and tell Security to release Luke on my authority."
       Han winked at her. "Don't I deserve a kiss for getting Luke off the hook?" he asked.
       Leia didn't even bother dignifying his question with an answer. "Madine, come with me. No doubt General Rieekan will want to speak to you. We may even have a place for you in Alliance Intelligence."

       Luke looked up as the door to his cell slid open. "You were right, kid," Han announced without any preamble. "Shira was working for the Empire. You're free to go."
       Luke slapped him on the back. "Thanks, Han. That's another one I owe you."
       "I'll just put it on the tab," Han said as they came out into the corridor. "Leia?" he said into his comlink. "We've got Luke."
       "Good," Leia said. "Meet me in the briefing room. General Rieekan has requested all personnel to assemble there immediately."

       A cheer went up as Luke Skywalker, cleared of all charges, strode into the briefing room with Han, Chewbacca, Wedge, and Dack. Princess Leia smiled at them, and General Rieekan nodded to them gravely. "Congratulations on recovering evidence that Shira Brie was an Imperial spy," he said, before turning to the main purpose of the meeting. "This may have given us a splendid opportunity to strike a powerful blow against the Empire. Captain Solo and the others were able to retrieve a complete copy of the files on Shira Brie from Ord Mantell, including all the Imperial authentication codewords and details needed to fool the Empire into believing that she is still sending information about us. We can use this to draw the Imperials out by giving them information that we are massing the fleet in the Corlane system."
       Gold Leader spoke. "Excuse me, sir, but the Imperials will come down on us like a ton of ferrocrete if we send them that information, and we aren't strong enough to stand up to more than six Star Destroyers in a pitched battle."
       Rieekan nodded. "Not with the ships we have currently, which is precisely why the Imperials will take the bait so eagerly. When they do, we will spring our trap. If all goes well, the Empire will suffer a defeat second only to that of the Death Star." He proceeded to explain the strategy...

       Wedge and Dack came out of the briefing room to see General Rieekan striding down the corridor. "Excuse me, General," Wedge called after him, and he turned and waited for them. "Go on, tell him," he said to Dack as they caught up with the General.
       Dack hesitated. "Sir, when we landed on Shalyvane, we found the people starving. Can't we help them by sending food?"
       Rieekan looked at Wedge. "You told him that we can hardly feed our own people?"
       "Yes, sir," Wedge answered.
       Rieekan nodded. "I'm sorry, Dack. We can't send them any food."
       "But-" Dack began, and stopped as Rieekan raised a hand.
       "However," he continued, "we may be able to spare some ships to move them to another planet. I think High Command will be amenable to such a suggestion, particularly if it's to somewhere suitable for intensive food production, where we can get the surplus food they produce. And at the risk of sounding callous, it's also excellent propaganda for us."

       Leia followed Luke out of the briefing room. He seemed deep in thought, striding quickly down the corridor, and she had to hurry to catch up with him. "Is something the matter, Luke?" she asked.
       Luke glanced at her, and then seemed to come to a decision. "It's just Shira. I suddenly realised how easy I must have been for her to fool. She must have laughed at how naive I was. I mean, I told her I destroyed the Death Star, and made myself, Han, Chewie, and Wedge targets for Vader." He fell silent, not wanting to say anything else.
       Leia took his arm, forcing him to stop, and kissed him on the cheek. "I don't think you're stupid, and neither does anyone else. You made a mistake, but everyone does. Even Ben Kenobi lost Vader to the Dark Side, and then there's all the people who were taken in by the Emperor before he showed his true nature."
       She smiled at him. "Come on, flyboy, snap out of it. We've got a battle to get ready for."

       Chewbacca entered the Falcon's cockpit to see Han staring out of the canopy at nothing in particular. He growled softly, placing a hand on Han's shoulder.
       Han turned. "Yeah, I'm fine, Chewie. Just those bounty hunters. Perhaps we should pay Jabba a visit after all. I thought we'd be safe enough here, but if Dengar and Bossk could track us down, perhaps not."
       Chewbacca roared a question.
       "No, I'm not going back to Jabba for good," Han answered. "We'll just give him the money and leave. I don't think we'd last long there now. There'll be more bounty hunters after us. We might even get Boba Fett coming after us, and then we'll be bantha fodder alright."
       He was silent for a few seconds. "Have you fixed the port motivators yet?"

* * * * * *

       Admiral Ozzel strode onto the bridge of the Executor to see Darth Vader standing by the viewports and gazing out into space. "What is it, Admiral?" Vader asked without turning as Ozzel approached.
       Ozzel smiled, confident that his news would please Vader. "My lord, your agent Shira Brie has sent a top priority signal informing us that a large part of the Rebel fleet is massing in the Corlane system. Captain Ralhon of the Retaliator has taken a force of Star Destroyers to annihilate the Rebels with my permission. They should be engaging them in battle very soon now."
       Vader turned slowly to face him and Ozzel felt a terrible fear rise inside him as he stared at the inscrutable mask. "Shira Brie has been nearly killed by the Rebels," the Dark Lord hissed. "She would find it difficult to send any information on the Rebels at this point. You are a fool, Admiral Ozzel. Prepare the Executor to hyperspace to the Corlane system immediately."

* * * * * *

       The Rebel fleet was massed and waiting over the second planet of the Corlane system.
       Standing on the bridge of the frigate Freedom, the current flagship of the Rebel fleet, General Rieekan stared out at the void of space. "All ships to battle positions," he ordered. "Starfighter Command, assume defensive positions. Prepare to receive Star Destroyers."
       Around the Rebel ships, X-wings and Y-wings moved into screening positions. "All wings report in," Luke Skywalker ordered. A flurry of acknowledgements followed.
       "Green Leader standing by."
       "Red Leader standing by."
       "Blue Leader standing by."
       "Gold Leader standing by."
       "Rogue Leader standing by. Lock S-foils into attack position," Luke ordered. "Han, are you with me?"
       "Right here, kid," Han Solo said, for once not quite able to hide his tension as he prepared to go into battle against a full scale Imperial force. "How did I get myself into this?"
       "Stay sharp," Wedge ordered. "Star Destroyer ETA in 30 seconds."
       "May the Force be with you," Luke said.
       And suddenly there were multiple flickers of pseudomotion as the Imperial fleet arrived. "Twelve Star Destroyers and three Interdictor cruisers in sector 3-8," one of the tactical controllers announced. "Exiting hyperspace in encirclement onfiguration. TIE fighters launching now."
       "Twelve ISDs!" one of the wing leaders muttered, mirroring the fear felt by nearly everyone in the Rebel fleet at the prospect of such an uneven battle. "We're going to be wiped out."
       Ahead of him, Luke could see the distinctive H shapes of a swarm of TIE fighters against the hulls of the Star Destroyers. Already, ranging shots were flickering out from both sides.
       "Rogue, Green and Red Squadrons, move to attack," Rieekan ordered. "Blue and Gold, remain in screening position. All ships, begin gradually pulling back towards the planet. Draw the Star Destroyers in."
       "They're coming in fast," one of his aides pointed out.
       Rieekan nodded. The Star Destroyers were approaching at their maximum sub-light speed, TIE fighters sweeping ahead of them to engage the X-wings and Y-wings. "They're overconfident. Good."

       On board the Star Destroyer Retaliator, Captain Ralhon stared out at the Rebel fleet. "Two Loronar Strike Cruisers, five Dreadnaughts, four Nebulon-B frigates, and eleven Corellian Corvettes. Is this all the Rebels can offer?" he snorted. "We'll just make a head on attack and crush them ship to ship."
       He smiled, imagining a glorious future for himself as the man who had succeeded in destroying the Rebellion where Darth Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin and the Death Star had failed. He would be able to supplant Ozzel and become Admiral of the Imperial Navy. With an effort, he reluctantly turned his mind from such pleasant thoughts and back to the task at hand. "All ships, attack at will," he ordered. "Helm, set course for the Rebel flagship. We'll take it ourselves. It should at least provide some target practice."

       A solid wall of turbolaser fire erupted as the Imperial fleet came into firing range of the Rebel ships and both sides opened up with all batteries. Between the capital ships, a swarm of X-wings and Y-wings, with the Millennium Falcon in the vanguard of the attack, headed towards the incoming TIE fighters. In the cockpit, Chewbacca barked. "OK, shields at full," Han muttered. "Lets see how good these gunners we've got are." He patted the controls fondly. "Right, let's show Rogue Squadron what a real ship can do."
       Chewbacca bellowed in agreement and the Falcon's sublight drive flared as it accelerated to maximum speed, rapidly overtaking the Y-wings and leaving the X-wings struggling to keep up. TIE fighters came at them in close formation, making themselves an ideal target. "Not bad," Han said approvingly, as the Falcon's quad lasers opened up and half a dozen TIEs disintegrated.
       X-wings and Y-wings swept past the Falcon on all sides to engage the TIEs and space filled with red and green bolts.

       A flurry of green bolts shot past Dack's fighter, and he glanced around to see two TIE fighters behind him. He pulled his X-wing into a climb, but the TIEs managed to stay with him, and kept firing. He grimaced as one bolt seared his canopy. These TIEs were too good.
       "Stay sharp, Six," Zev warned. "I'm on them."
       "Get a move on," Dack growled, weaving his X-wing around to avoid the laser bolts streaking past his fighter. He broke hard towards a Dreadnaught. Turbolaser batteries on the Dreadnaught began spitting fire at the TIEs. Both stayed on Dack's tail, although they stopped shooting to concentrate on avoiding the laser fire. A stream of red bolts shot past his canopy as an X-wing came in, firing at the TIEs.
       "Got one," Zev reported, watching the survivor break away to find easier prey.

       Wedge pulled his X-wing into a hard turn to avoid a pair of TIEs that tried to catch him in a fore and aft attack. Both TIEs veered to follow him, and promptly made themselves easy targets for the Falcon as it came in, quad lasers blazing. "Thanks, Han," he said as the twin clouds of debris dissipated behind him. "You've got three on you, though.
       "No problem," Han commented. The top quad cannon opened up with several bursts and two of the TIEs exploded. A second burst from the lower blew the last apart a few seconds later.

       Luke turned a TIE into space dust and took a quick look at the overall battle. In the distance, he could see a Star Destroyer exchanging fire with a hopelessly overmatched trio of Corellian Corvettes.
       "Dack, Zev, Hobbie, and Blue Squadron, close up," he ordered. "Let's see if we can give the Blockade Runners a hand." He watched as the Y-wings from Blue Squadron formed up around him. "Blue Squadron, use proton torpedoes on the ISD. "Target the starboard shields. We'll cover you."
       "I copy, Rogue Leader," Blue Leader acknowledged. "Okay boys, here we go."
       Escorted by the X-wings, the Y-wings dove to pick up speed as they started their attack run. Turbolasers blasted up at them as they headed in on the Star Destroyer. "Stay evasive," Blue Leader advised. "They'll have trouble hitting us if we keep manoeuvring."
       Luke was splitting his attention between his displays and the laser bolts that curved around through space as the gunners attempted to track his X-wing. Fortunately, there seemed to be no TIEs in the immediate vicinity and as with the Death Star attack, the ISD turbolaser batteries, designed to work against capital ships, were ineffective against starfighters.
       And then they were in range and a hail of proton torpedoes emerged from the Y-wing launching tubes. Luke watched as, one by one, the torpedoes impacted against the Star Destroyer's shields and the starboard section of the blue shell on his display almost vanished. The attack gave the Corvettes a breathing space and renewed energy. All three opened up with a vengeance and on the Star Destroyer, turbolasers exploded, missile clusters were blasted away, and sections of hull breached. Desperately, the wounded Star Destroyer began to move away, trying to keep its starboard side out of the line of fire.
       "Yes!" Dack yelled exuberantly as he saw it retreat.
       "I see it," Luke acknowledged. "Good work, everyone."
       "Rogue and Blue Squadron, this is the Corvette Ranger," a voice said over the comm. "Thanks for the assistance."

       Captain Ralhon examined the battle situation. So far the Rebels were fighting well and holding their own, but eventually they would crumple under the attack of a score of Star Destroyers and waves of TIE fighters. The Rebels were doomed.

       General Rieekan studied the tactical display. "Frigate Lathan, watch your portside," he warned. "You've got an ISD and TIEs coming your way. Green Squadron, give Lathan cover." So far they were holding their own, he noted as the image of the frigate on the tactical turned to meet the Star Destroyer. They had managed to lure the Imperials in by showing a numerical weakness, and it was now time to spring their trap. With the two fleets in the gravity well of Corlane II, the Imperials would be unable to escape.
       "General, we've got the fleet command ship, Retaliator, approaching," an aide called.
       Rieekan nodded and glanced at his chrono. Nearly time...
       He turned to the viewports to see the Star Destroyer approaching amid a storm of laser fire from its turbolasers. "All batteries target it but hold fire for my command," he ordered. "Torpedo clusters, likewise."

       Captain Ralhon stared at the frigate, which lay silent before him despite being raked by laser fire. "Why aren't they firing back?" he wondered aloud. "Establish an all frequencies comm link with the command ship," he ordered his communications officer. "The Emperor will be pleased if we can capture the Rebel leaders alive."

       The Freedom's bridge comm crackled. "Rebel commander, you have one minute to surrender or be destroyed," a cold Imperial voice said. "You will not have a second chance."
       Rieekan ignored the voice and drew himself up, keeping an eye on his chrono. It was time.
       "General, we have multiple starfighter squadrons exiting hyperspace in sector 3-6," an aide warned. "Class and identity unknown." He paused. "Also ten heavy capital ships. Shall I order a retreat?"
       Rieekan gazed out at the ships that had come out of lightspeed behind the Star Destroyers. "Negative." He smiled. "We are about to witness the first battle test of Mon Calamari Star Cruisers and the new A-wing and B-wing fighters."
       He turned. "All weapon emplacements, fire on the Retaliator now."

       Captain Ralhon whirled, sudden consternation filling him. "Identify the ships in sector 3-6 immediately!" He knew every class of Rebel and Imperial ships, even the prototype Imperial ones, but he had never seen the strange ships that had just appeared before.
       "The capital ships are modified Mon Calamari Star Cruisers, sir," his second in command advised. "The others...we do not know what they are."
       Ralhon glared at him but said nothing. He examined the tactical display. The strange fighters had split into two groups, one moving towards them extremely rapidly, faster even than X-wings. He remembered the rumours that had been floating around Intelligence for several months. "A-wings and B-wings!" he exclaimed.
       His officers blinked. "Sir?" one asked.
       "A-wings and B-wings," Ralhon repeated. "The new fighters being developed by the Rebels. Interceptors and heavy bombers respectively." He suddenly realised that his fleet was in grave danger. With the new arrivals, the Rebels now considerably outnumbered them. "Order the Interdictors to lower their gravity wells. Prepare to make the jump to lightspeed."
       His officers hesitated. "Sir, we can't," one said nervously. "We've moved too close to Corlane II to jump to lightspeed."
       Ralhon went ashen. In a flash, he realised how comprehensively he had been fooled and trapped by the Rebels, and that his fleet was doomed. At that moment, as if to confirm his realisation, the turbolaser and torpedo fire from the Freedom smashed into the Retaliator's shields.

       A strange gravelly voice spoke on the Freedom's bridge comm. "General Rieekan, this is Admiral Ackbar on board the Star Cruiser Home One. Do you need assistance?"
       Rieekan smiled. "Yes, Admiral. We have the Star Destroyer Retaliator attacking us as it believes we aren't much of a challenge."
       A thick chuckle answered him. "The Imperials once thought the same of us. Shall we teach them otherwise?"
       "Be my guest, Admiral," Rieekan replied.

       The Mon Calamari Star Cruisers were already moving to engage the Star Destroyers, leaving two to eliminate the Interdictor Cruisers, which found themselves suddenly in the thick of the battle, fighting much more heavily armed ships.
       Ahead of them, the A-wings had entered the battle and were turning the tide of the starfighter contest in the Rebels' favour, as the TIEs suddenly found themselves outnumbered and left standing by the speed of the A-wings. The B-wings, by contrast, were unable to match even the slow TIE bombers for speed but punched a hole through both them and the TIE fighters by dint of their overwhelming weaponry and shields.
       "All right!" Wedge yelled triumphantly as he saw the havoc that the two new types of starfighter were wreaking on the Imperials. TIE fighters and bombers were being wiped out wholesale, and the Star Destroyers were coming under ever mounting attack as the Rebels, buoyed by the sudden reversal of the battle, went to the offensive. B-wings and Y-wings mounted heavy torpedo attacks on the Imperials and the Rebel capital ships, led by the Star Cruisers, smothered the Star Destroyers in a devastating ion and laser barrage.

       Rieekan watched the battle from the bridge of the Freedom as it and Home One pummelled the Retaliator's defences. Further away, other Star Cruisers were exchanging fire with Star Destroyers. Two Star Cruisers were making an attack on a Star Destroyer identified as the Turbulence. They came past it on both sides, pelting it with turbolaser and ion blasts, and ignoring the return fire.

       "Sir, a second Mon Calamari cruiser is approaching," an aide announced to Ralhon. "They have us surrounded. The Interdictor cruisers have been destroyed, and seven Star Destroyers have been critically damaged."
       Ralhon ignored him, gazing out at the scene that marked the death knell of his ambition. Home One and Freedom were slamming laser bolts into the weakening shields and increasingly hitting the hull. The bright flash and shockwave that marked the death of a Star Destroyer caught his eye as it exploded under an unremitting bombardment from two Star Cruisers. Another pair of Star Destroyers had been surrounded by a group of Rebel ships and been crippled by attacks that had removed their shields and destroyed their weapons. Even as he watched, the Rebels ceased fire as dozens of escape pods began shooting away from the doomed Star Destroyers. Two minutes later, they resumed firing on the Star Destroyers, intent on permanently denying them to the Empire.
       "Captain, we have multiple hull breaches in decks 15, 16, 18, 21 and 29," one of his officers reported. "Shall we evacuate?"
       Ralhon nodded silently, not really caring what they did and thinking only of his disgrace. He turned and strode off the bridge, heading for his private docking bay. The Retaliator and its task force might die, but he would not. Behind him, two more Star Destroyers blew apart in massive explosions.

       Admiral Ackbar gazed out at the battle, which was gradually dying out as the Star Destroyers were eliminated. Only four were left in any shape to keep fighting. The Retaliator was still firing from its remaining turbolaser batteries, despite the futility of further resistance. The other three had formed into a loose three pointed star formation, generating a deadly hail of fire in a desperate last stand. A group of B-wings formed up for a torpedo run on the ships, but the Imperials were determined to extract the maximum price for their defeat. Even as the B-wings began their attack run, several ion batteries spat fire from the Star Destroyer Dominance. The bolts smashed into the starfighters, overwhelming their shields and overloading their control systems, to leave them dead in space. Proton torpedoes were fired from the Star Destroyers in a deliberately sadistic attack, as the missiles, unlike lasers, were slow enough to let the B-wing pilots see their death approaching and know that they could do nothing to prevent it.

       Wedge hissed in anger, his fingers tightening on his control stick, as he saw the B-wings being cold-bloodedly destroyed. He hadn't believed that even the Imperials would stoop so low as to destroy helpless ships. "Rogue Squadron, form up. We're going to make the Imps pay for that, all right."
       Grim acknowledgements came over the comm from the other Rogues and several other pilots, who were equally determined to avenge their friends.
       "Okay, we're going in," Luke ordered. "Rogues, we'll make an torpedo attack run on the bridge of the Dominance. The rest of you, follow us in and take the laser batteries out. Wedge, Zev, Hobbie, we'll make the first run. Dack, Janson, Merek, you can lead the rest in. Here we go..."
       His X-wing tipped over and dived towards the Star Destroyer, closely followed by three other X-wings, all of them moving at maximum speed, but even they were overtaken by the Millennium Falcon as it shot past them, its quad lasers blazing. An indignant Wookiee roar from the comm nearly deafened Luke. "You don't think we're going to let you have all the glory, do you?" Han demanded, and Luke smiled. Behind them, the second group began their own attack run, and still more began firing on the ISD defences.
       The four X-wings and the Falcon raced over the hull of the Dominance, turbolasers spitting fire at them from all directions. "Switch to torpedoes," Wedge ordered, watching the command tower looming over them as they approached. There was an sudden scream over the comm, which cut off abruptly, and his astromech whistled mournfully. "They got Merek," Janson announced. Wedge's lips thinned briefly but his targeting box suddenly went red as the command tower came in range, and he pressed the trigger three times to send six torpedoes towards it. Around him, more torpedoes shot away from the other X-wings. Ahead, the Falcon was heading straight at the command viewports.
       "Give me an all frequency comm link with the Dominance," Han ordered Chewbacca in the Falcon's cockpit, as the X-wing torpedos exploded against the bridge armour, sending chunks of debris hurtling out into space. He armed the Falcon's Arakyd missiles and acquired a lock on the viewports. "Here's a gift from the Alliance," he shouted, launching concussion missiles at the viewports. The missiles smashed through the transparisteel viewport and impacted against the back wall of the bridge. The force of their explosion was enough to blast a gaping hole clear through to the back of the command tower. Systems began to overload from the damage, generating a chain reaction.
       "Han, pull up," Luke warned in alarm, too late. The Dominance's command superstructure exploded, and the Falcon vanished into the fireball. Other explosions blossomed from the main one, and for a second, Luke thought the Falcon had been destroyed. A moment later, though, the freighter shot out of the fireball. "Han, are you all right?" Luke demanded.
       "Fine, kid," Han replied. "The sensors and shields are down, but apart from that, we're OK."

       Behind the Falcon, the Dominance lay dead in space. Ahead, the other two Star Destroyers had been crippled by a group of Rebel capital ships, which were blowing them apart with torpedoes. "We've won!" Wedge yelled exultantly. The Retaliator had been disabled by the Freedom, and was beginning to drift towards Corlane II as the planet's gravity began pulling it in. Escape pods were shooting away from the ship in all directions.

       General Rieekan surveyed the scene of triumph. Most of the surviving TIE fighters and bombers had surrendered, although a few were fleeing in all directions. He watched as the Retaliator entered the atmosphere of Corlane II, acquiring momentum in the gravity well. As it crashed into the planet, the Star Destroyer vanished in an immense ball of fire. Huge pieces of debris were visible as they were flung high into the atmosphere by the force of the explosion. "All fighters, return to your ships," he ordered, knowing that the Imperials would not be slow to respond to such a defeat. "Prepare to jump to hyperspace on your marks. Assemble at the rendezvous point." He turned to the newly appointed General Madine, who had watched the battle. "What is this planet you suggest as a suitable base like?"
       "It's the sixth planet of the Hoth system," Madine replied, as the Freedom jumped to hyperspace. "An ice world. It's completely uninhabited and should be the last place the Empire would think of looking. The below freezing temperatures, although brutal, should mask any lifeform or equipment heat emissions from detection."
       Rieekan nodded. "It sounds promising. We will have to investigate its suitability as a last ditch base in case it proves necessary to hide there. By the way, can you start putting together enough transports to ferry the inhabitants of Shalyvane to their new world. You'll need to move about 2 million people, all that's left on Shalyvane after the Empire finished with it," he said grimly.

* * * * * *

       The Executor dropped out of hyperspace in the Corlane system. Standing in his customary area at the forward viewports, Darth Vader gazed silently at the wreckage floating in space around Corlane II which marked the graveyard of a mighty Imperial force. Admiral Ozzel stepped forward a few paces, fearing Vader's reaction to such a humiliating defeat, but the Dark Lord remained still and silent.
       There was an abrupt flare of engines near one of the larger pieces of wreckage and a small shuttle moved away from it towards the Executor. Admiral Ozzel's comm officer beckoned him. "We're receiving a transmission from the shuttle, sir," he reported. "It has identified itself as Captain Ralhon's shuttle."
       At the far end of the bridge, Vader turned and strode slowly towards them. The crewmembers in the crew pits below him quickly occupied themselves with their tasks, not wishing to draw the Dark Lord's attention. Ozzel stepped forward. "We have a datalink with Captain Ralhon, my Lord," he announced to Vader, who ignored him and strode past him to the hologram.
       "Report, Captain Ralhon," he ordered.
       Ralhon took a breath, controlling his fear. "My Lord, I moved to intercept the Rebels as ordered," he began. "Unfortunately, they led me into a trap. My entire command was wiped out in an underhand and overwhelming ambush."
       "So you failed to destroy the Rebels," Vader observed.
       Ralhon swallowed. "Yes, my Lord. I apologise for my failure."
       Vader studied him for a few seconds. "Your apology is accepted, Captain," he said at last. A look of amazement and then relief spread over Captain Ralhon's face as Vader's words sank in. He opened his mouth to thank Vader, but before he could do so, the Dark Lord spoke again. "Tell me, Captain, what is the thermal resistance limit of standard starship armour?"
       Ralhon hesitated for a second, caught off guard by the sudden change of subject. "I don't know, my Lord," he admitted. "I will find out when my shuttle docks."
       "You will certainly find out, Captain," Vader replied. "I do not wish to wait until your shuttle lands to find out, though." He turned from the hologram to look out at the shuttle, stretching out with the Force. The image of Captain Ralhon abruptly stumbled as the shuttle's engines died. It did not stop moving, but merely found a new course as the gravity of the star Corlane began pulling it in.
       Sudden absolute terror filled Captain Ralhon's face as he realised what was happening. "Please, my Lord," he begged. "I have apologised for my failure. It was not my fault. The Rebels tricked me. Please..."
       Vader gestured and the sound shut off. "You are about to find out the thermal resistance of starship armour, Captain," he said, his voice turning terrifying low and sibilant. "Acceptance of your apology does not mean that you will escape punishment for failure. You have failed me, Captain. You know what the price of failure is."
       Behind Vader, Ozzel took a step back, fearing a similarly brutal death for giving the effectively deceased Captain Ralhon permission to attack the Rebels, but Vader merely gestured again to end the transmission, then strode back to the viewports to watch the fate of Ralhon's shuttle. He remained there until the shuttle vanished from sight in the glow of Corlane, then turned and paced down towards Ozzel once again. "The Rebels will flee deep into the Outer Rim to avoid my anger," he said. "No doubt they hope to use hit and fade attacks to wear the fleet down if we inevitably have to break it up to locate their base. Probe droids will therefore be used instead. Admiral, begin assembling enough probe droids to search every uninhabited system in the Outer Rim territories."
       Ozzel coughed. "My Lord, a probe droid search of such proportions will be prohibitively costly and time-consuming, with no guarantee of success. Imperial Intelligence can have the location of the Rebel base in a week."
       "Excuses are the one thing I will not tolerate," Vader warned. "Assign one Star Destroyer each to release probe droids in every sector of the Outer Rim once you have enough. Do not disappoint me, Admiral Ozzel." He turned and left the bridge.
       Ozzel stared after him. He tried to serve Vader to the best of his ability, but his best was never good enough. Vader frequently ignored important objectives in favour of trivial ones. The attack on the Rebel base at Asola was one example. Vader had ordered the Executor to pursue the Millennium Falcon. If the Executor had remained in its assigned position in the demarcation line, it could have put an end to the Rebellion as an organised movement right there and then. There were countless other stories of Vader giving other similar commands to achieve something that could be done much more effectively another way. His insistence on using probe droids to find the Rebels was merely the latest such example. And then there was the high turnover rate in the Executor's crew. He wondered briefly how long he would survive under the Dark Lord's command...

* * * * * *

       An Alliance transport came out of lightspeed over Hoth. Standing at a viewport on board the transport, Han, Luke, Wedge and Dack gazed down at the blue-white planet below them. The destruction of the Imperial forces at Corlane had redoubled the Imperial pursuit of the Alliance. It had not been long before the Alliance had been forced to follow Madine's advice that Hoth would make a good last-ditch base.
       "Makes me feel cold just looking at it," Wedge commented.
       "Well, at least I won't be here for long," Han said smugly. "I'll be out of here as soon as the base is set up." He glared at Luke. "That precious princess of yours has already kept me around here for long enough." He scowled as he remembered the eight months since the battle of Corlane. He had intended to leave and pay off Jabba immediately after the battle, but somehow Leia had consistently found reasons why he should stay a little longer, starting with helping relocate the inhabitants of Shalyvane, and then mundane tasks like bringing back shipments of weapons and food. This time, he vowed, she was not going to stop him from going.
       "At least you'll be able to leave," Dack said as he gazed at Hoth, an odd feeling of foreboding filling him. "If the Empire finds us here, a lot us won't be."
       "Come on, snap out of it," Luke said, slapping him on the back. "Let's start getting the base set up. We'll just have to make sure the Empire doesn't find us."

* * * * * *

       Darth Vader strode off the bridge of the Executor, a feeling of satisfaction filling him at the discovery of the Rebel base on Hoth. It had taken nearly twelve months since the battle of Corlane for the probe droids to locate the Alliance. This time, the Rebels would not escape, and Skywalker, Solo and the Millennium Falcon would be his. He entered his private chambers and knelt before the hologram projector. A giant image of the Emperor appeared in front of him.
       "I have located the Rebel base, Master," Vader announced. "The Alliance will soon be destroyed, and Skywalker will pay for destroying the Death Star."
       The Emperor nodded. "You may deal with Skywalker as you see fit, Lord Vader. However, I wish to learn more about him. The disturbance in the Force he causes has grown stronger."
       "Shall I select a team of commandos to infiltrate the Rebel base, Master?" Vader asked.
       "No," the Emperor said curtly. "This calls for more skill and finesse than the average commando has. I have already selected a suitable agent. The Emperor's Hand, Mara Jade, is already on her way to join you."
       Vader hid his anger at the mention of Mara Jade. Once again, the Emperor had foisted his pet Force-sensitive assassin upon him, but he knew that refusal would be futile and incur the Emperor's wrath. "Is that wise, Master?" he asked. "Jade is not a Dark Jedi, and if she learns that Skywalker is strong in the Force, she may join him. She is, after all, more powerful than we have led her to believe, and if Skywalker is able to break her memory barrier, she would be our mortal enemy. I have meditated on Skywalker, and the Force has shown me a vision of him and Jade as allies."
       The Emperor's yellow eyes narrowed. "Interesting," he mused, then shook his head. "They will be allies with us, rather than against us. Jade will not turn." He smiled coldly. "She believes I was her saviour from her 'pitiful existence', with the false memories I have given her, and Skywalker does not have the skill in the Force to reveal her true memories to her. Give her the assistance she needs, and ensure that Skywalker and the Rebellion are wiped out once and for all."
       Vader bowed his head obediently. "Yes, my Master."

       The Imperial fleet came out of hyperspace in the Hoth system. Star Destroyers moved into escort formation around the Executor, and the entire force began moving towards the sixth planet of the system.
       Mara Jade strode through the passageways of the Executor, passing dozens of officers who were scrambling to prepare the attack on the Rebel base. She stopped outside the entrance to Darth Vader's meditation chamber and pressed the entry panel. With a hiss, the doors slid open and she stepped inside. Vader was sitting in his meditation pod, with his back to her. "You have failed me for the last time, Admiral," he said to a screen showing Ozzel, who was gasping for air as Vader choked him. "Captain Piett?"
       "Yes, my lord?"
       "Make ready to land our troops beyond their energy field and deploy the fleet so that nothing gets off the system. You are in command now, Admiral Piett," Vader said as Ozzel collapsed.
       Piett swallowed. "Thank you, Lord Vader." The display went blank.
       Vader turned to face Mara. "I have been ordered to report to you, Lord Vader," she said.
       Vader nodded. "The Emperor has instructed me to obtain further information on Luke Skywalker, the pilot who destroyed the Death Star. You are to enter the Rebel base during the attack and obtain this information. Report to General Veers. He will provide you with the necessary equipment."

* * * * * *

       Mara raced over the surface of Hoth on a speeder bike, cursing whoever had the bright idea of giving the bike to her. Hoth was bone chilling at the best of times. Travelling at speeder bike velocities meant that even the normally excellent Fleet cold weather gear was absolutely useless, as the cold and wind went straight through her protective clothing.
       In the distance, she could see continuous laser blasts, as the Rebels and Imperials fought outside Echo Base, punctuated every so often by shots from the heavy ion cannon outside the base. Pulling her bike to the right, she headed for Echo Base, looking for an entrance, and smiled as she saw one. Bringing the bike to a halt behind a large snowdrift, she dismounted, drew her blaster and ran towards the Rebel base. She stopped to one side of the entrance and carefully eased her head around the corner, alert for any noise or movement, but the corridor seemed empty. Taking a deep breath, she stepped into the corridor, blaster held ready, and moved noiselessly down the passage.
       A few corridors later, she peered around another corner, and promptly ducked back. A guard was standing in front of a door, holding a laser rifle ready. So far she had seen no personnel, and presumed they had mostly been evacuated, with those who were left busy fighting the Imperials. This was where the operation became risky. She dared not use her blaster, since a shot would inevitably draw other Rebels, and she had no other weapons.
       Bracing herself, she pushed her blaster into her jacket and stepped around the corner, grateful that her cold weather gear was similar to the guard's. The guard was alert enough. As soon as she appeared, the rifle whipped up to point up at her and then lowered, as it became apparent she wasn't an Imperial snowtrooper. Walking casually down the corridor towards the guard, she tensed in preparation, every muscle going taut.
       Her opportunity was perfect. As she reached the guard, the base shook from the shock of the attack, and several chunks of ice fell from the ceiling. The guard ducked slightly to avoid the ice, and for half a second, his attention was distracted. Mara seized the opening. She whirled 90 degrees to face him. Grabbing his wrist with one hand and the rifle with the other, she tore it out of his grip. Barely pausing, she reversed the rifle and slammed the muzzle hard behind the guard's ear, and he collapsed without a sound.
       She looked up and down the corridor, listening carefully for any noise. Hearing nothing, she glanced at the door panel, and smiled. It looked like she had been lucky enough to find the exact room she wanted. She pressed the door entry and entered the room. Four techs looked up as she entered, and froze as the saw the two guns Mara was holding. One began frantically stabbing buttons on a keyboard, and she aimed and fired a shot just over his head. The tech gave a strangled gasp and went rigid.
       "Are you married?" Mara asked.
       The man blinked, taken aback by the question. "Yes," he eventually managed to say.
       "Get away from that console then, unless you want your wife to become a widow."
       The man nearly leapt from his seat, stopping just in time as her finger tightened on the trigger. Slowly and carefully, he stood up and backed away from the desk.
       Mara nodded. "That's better. On the floor, all of you."
       They were quick to obey her, and she went to the door, keeping one eye on them. Grabbing the guard by a leg, she dragged him into the room and closed the door. Seating herself at a desk, and switching her attention between the techs and the computer, she began downloading all the information to an ultra high capacity datapad that she had brought with her. When she finished, she rose and went to the door. Several shots wrecked the internal lock mechanism. She left the room and sealed the door, leaving the occupants stuck inside the room.

       Outside the base, Rebel troops were beginning to retreat as the AT-ATs approached. Imperial snowtroopers advanced past the remains of the defences and began entering the base.

       Mara hurried down a corridor, pushing the datacard into a pocket of her jumpsuit, which left her momentarily distracted and having to hold both guns in one hand. She turned into another corridor and ran straight into a pair of Rebel soldiers. One of the soldiers pushed past her, but the other stopped and stared at her carefully. "I haven't seen you around here before," he said suspiciously.
       Mara scowled. "We're in the middle of a battle with the Empire and you start asking who I am?" she snapped. "Besides, it's a big base. How can you remember everyone's face?"
       The soldier laughed as his blaster came up to cover her. "I don't need to. That red-gold hair's very distinctive. I know I've never seen it around here before." His voice hardened. "A spy, eh? Drop the guns. Hands up now. Jattor, get her weapons."
       Mara obeyed, smiling inwardly as Jattor came forward to pick up her weapons. So they thought she was some sort of ordinary spy, did they? They would find out exactly how well the Emperor's Hand had been trained. Jattor crouched to pick up the guns and she lashed out with a foot, catching him hard on the side of the jaw. He collapsed and Mara stepped to one side to avoid the instant blaster bolt. Taking two steps forward, she kicked up to send the blaster flying down the corridor. Unfazed by the loss of his blaster, the man produced a vibroblade from a sleeve sheath and held it ready in an attack position. Mara merely smiled icily. She had been trained extensively in such combat situations. As he lunged forward, stabbing the knife towards her, she spun aside and seized his wrist with one hand, controlling his knife hand. Twisting his wrist, she forced him to drop the vibroblade. She gave one hard blow to the throat and a powerful knee kick to the stomach, and he doubled over, gasping for air. It was a simple matter to deliver one blow to the back of the neck and he joined Jattor on the floor.
       Mara stepped over the two unconscious bodies to pick up her blaster and hurried down the corridor in the direction the snowtroopers would be coming from, hoping there would be no other complications. She had to get this to the Emperor as quickly as possible.
       There was to be a further delay before she could report, however. Two corridors further, Mara scowled as she turned a corner and found herself in a dead end. She stepped back into the corridor she had just left and froze. At the far end, a figure wearing a distinctive orange jumpsuit had appeared. She instantly ducked back and thought quickly. She would not be able to get to the next corridor before she was spotted, and she was not going to let herself be caught in a dead end, which left only one choice.
       She peered round the corner and took careful aim at the approaching Rebel...

       Luke Skywalker limped through Echo Base, his leg hurting from the fall from the AT-AT, with his blaster held ready in case any Imperial snowtroopers suddenly appeared. He was still shaken from Dack's death, although he had at least paid the Imperials back for his death. "This is for Dack," he had thought as he used his lightsabre to cut open an access panel on one of the AT-ATs and toss a concussion grenade inside.
       He turned into a long corridor, and was halfway down it when a shot slammed into the wall barely a centimetre from his head. He ducked behind a small outcropping of ice just as a second bolt came down the corridor.

       Mara squeezed the trigger gently, knowing that she could not miss the Rebel. As she did so, another shock rocked the base, and several chunks of ice fell from the ceiling, one striking her wrist and throwing her aim off. She swore violently as she saw her shot miss, and fired again, but the Rebel had managed to take cover.

       Luke risked a look around the outcrop, and jumped back just in time to dodge another shot. Whoever was shooting was good. They had him pinned down. He glanced back down the corridor, wondering whether to find another route. He had been only a couple of minutes ahead of the Imperials and he did not relish being shot at from two directions. Once the snowtroopers arrived, he would have to surrender. He looked around, seeking inspiration, and found it. A piece of metal was lying on the floor near him. Edging down the corridor, he crouched and managed to grab the object before yet another shot smacked into the floor. Moving back to the outcrop, he carefully extended the piece of metal past it. In the metal, he could see an opening in the wall, where the shots were presumably coming from. He grimaced. He had little chance of hitting the other person if they had that kind of cover.
       And then he noticed the ceiling immediately over the two corridors. It was almost ready to fall in. He looked back down the corridor and stiffened. The first snowtroopers had appeared in the corridor. It was now or never. He closed his eyes for a second, and then leapt out from behind the outcrop, his blaster firing at the ceiling.

       Mara peered around the corner and instinctively flinched as she saw a volley of shots coming down the corridor, all going high for some reason. She aimed at the Rebel who was running down the corridor, knowing that she would not miss this time. The next second, she threw herself backwards as the ceiling caved in. Dozens of chunks of ice fell from the ceiling, completely blocking the corridor she was in. She hissed but could not help feeling grudging admiration for the Rebel. By the time she dug her way out, he would be long gone.
       She climbed to her feet and began throwing pieces of ice aside.

       Luke sprinted past the blocked corridor as shots from the snowtroopers smacked into the walls and floor of the corridor. A few seconds later, he reached the next corridor. At the far end, he could see daylight. He reached the end and emerged into sunlight. As he struggled over a snowdrift, a familiar engine roar caught his attention. A few seconds later, the Millennium Falcon burst out of the hangar bay and climbed rapidly into the atmosphere of Hoth.
       Not far away, he could see the last transport and a group of X-wings, and he made his way towards them.
       "Good luck, Luke," Wedge called as he approached. "See you at the rendezvous."

* * * * * *

       Three days after the duel at Bespin Cloud City, Mara Jade and Darth Vader knelt in the Emperor's throne room in the Imperial Palace. "Rise, my Hand," the Emperor ordered. "You have done well indeed. The information you obtained has proved very useful. It confirmed my suspicions that Skywalker poses a threat to us. He has developed his innate ability in the Force. No doubt that is how he was able to discover that Shira Brie was your agent, Lord Vader." He gestured to Mara. "You may go. Lord Vader and I have other matters to discuss."
       He waited until she had left before continuing. "Lord Vader, you have not been as successful. I am gravely disappointed. You failed to bring Skywalker to me."
       "He has grown strong in the Force, my Master," Vader replied. "His unmasking of Shira Brie was what might be expected of a largely untrained Force-sensitive, but his skills have developed considerably since then. He has learnt the art of lightsabre combat and advanced Jedi abilities."
       The Emperor nodded. "The information Mara Jade brought back showed his growing Jedi powers, which is why I warned you that we have a new enemy, and was persuaded to let him join us, but I am troubled by the skills you attribute to him. He has clearly been taught by a Jedi."
       "Obi-wan is gone, Master," Vader said.
       The Emperor's voice grew dangerous. "Do not insult my intelligence, Lord Vader. I do not refer to Kenobi. Skywalker has clearly been trained by no less than a Jedi Master. If Kenobi managed to elude us, then it is possible for a Master to do so. I will consider this matter carefully. If Skywalker is to be turned, we will have to work together to do so. Meanwhile, I have another task for you. You will oversee the construction of the new Death Star which is orbiting the moon of Endor."
       Vader bowed his head, rose and left.
       When he had gone, the Emperor turned his throne away from the doors and closed his eyes, reaching out to Mara Jade. He had been more disturbed by Skywalker's sudden improvement in Jedi abilities and his failure to turn to the Dark Side than he had revealed to Vader. On top of that, Vader had beaten Skywalker, which showed that he was not as strong as the Emperor had first thought.
       "Yes, my Master?" he sensed Mara ask.
       "You, my Hand, will go to the planet of Tatooine and infiltrate the palace of Jabba the Hutt. Skywalker will eventually arrive to free Han Solo and when he does, you will kill him. Lord Vader must not know of this."
       He paused. "There is one other thing. Lord Vader told Skywalker during their battle that they could join together as allies and take my place." He knew that Vader had merely said this to persuade Skywalker to join them, but it would generate a killing rage in Mara, who served him devotedly.
       It worked perfectly. "Rest assured I will kill Skywalker, Master," Mara answered grimly. "As for Lord Vader, he has committed treason in plotting against you."
       The Emperor smiled at Mara's tone of voice. "Lord Vader will not betray me while he has no allies. You must destroy Skywalker to quell Vader's feelings of rebellion."
       "I will not fail you, Master," Mara replied. "Skywalker will die."

* * * * * *

       Far across the galaxy, Luke and Leia stood with R2-D2 and C-3PO at a viewport on board the Rebel medical frigate, watching the Millennium Falcon, piloted by Lando Calrissian and Chewbacca, vanish into the distance of space. Rebel X-wings and Y-wings cruised past the ship before leaving the fleet and heading out into the far reaches of the galaxy in the search for Han Solo.
       Luke gazed out into space, thinking how badly he had failed Yoda, Ben and the Alliance. The two Jedi had warned him not to confront Vader before he was ready, advice that he had ignored, and in consequence paid dearly for. In addition, the revelation that Vader was his father filled his mind like a Tatooine sandstorm. Deep down, he knew that Vader had not lied, but he could not comprehend why Ben Kenobi had hidden the truth from him.
       He was disturbed from his thoughts as the doors hissed open. A Rebel officer entered. "Commander Skywalker, you are required to report to the briefing room on Home 1 immediately," he said.

       The doors slid open and a guard motioned Luke into the briefing room. As he entered, Luke stopped, seeing the white clad figure and wondering how Leia had managed to be in two places at once.
       His confusion only lasted for a second. Like Leia, she wore the elegant white robes of an Imperial Senator, but there the resemblance ended. Luke had often seen holovids of her in the Senate before Palpatine disbanded it and she was forced to flee for her life, but they had not shown the dignity and wisdom that she wore like a cloak.
       Mon Mothma, Supreme Leader of the Rebel Alliance, inclined her head in greeting to him. "Welcome, Commander Skywalker," she said in a grave but soft voice. She stared into his eyes for a minute, assessing him thoroughly. She smiled gently. "I have heard much about you from Princess Leia, not all of it complimentary, and still less so about Captain Solo."
       Luke coughed in embarrassment, not knowing what to say, but Mon Mothma gestured to the officers standing around her. "You of course know General Rieekan. General Crix Madine is the head of Rebel Intelligence. Admiral Ackbar is the High Admiral of the Mon Calamari race."
       General Madine stepped forward. "Our sources indicate that the Emperor has conceived the plan of building a new Death Star. It will be larger than the original, have a more powerful and quickly fired superlaser, and be protected by a shield. Obviously, once it is complete, the Alliance will effectively have lost the war. To stop this, it is vital we find out where the Death Star is being built, and launch a pre-emptive strike before it is operational. Our cells on the planet Bothawui have indicated that they may be able to obtain the location of the station. If we obtain these plans and mount a successful attack, it would be a powerful blow to the Empire."
       Mon Mothma nodded. "Thank you, General. I understand from Princess Leia, Commander Skywalker, that you have been undergoing Jedi training."
       Luke nodded. "I'm not sure if I'm worthy to continue the training, though. I was beaten by Vader and nearly fell to the Dark Side, as well as putting Han and Leia in danger. I was warned not to confront Vader before I was ready, but I was too reckless to listen. The Jedi Master who taught me-"
       General Rieekan's face hardened. "A surviving Jedi Master!" he barked. "Why the Sith isn't he here? You know what we're up against, Skywalker. A Master would be a great asset to the Alliance. Instead, he decides to sit and watch us fight Vader, Palpatine and his entire Empire by ourselves."
       Luke hesitated. He himself had wondered more than once why Yoda would hide on Dagobah instead of helping the Alliance. "I don't know," he admitted. "All I can say is that he may think he is too old."
       Rieekan snorted at the excuse, but Mon Mothma raised her hand. "No doubt Master Yoda has perfectly valid reasons for remaining hidden. The Jedi often act in ways that seem strange to those not guided by the Force." She smiled at the expression of amazement on Luke's face. "How did I know Yoda trained you? You told me, or at least gave me enough hints to make an intelligent guess. You already told me he was very old, and there were never any claims of Yoda having being destroyed in the Jedi Purge. Fitting the two together seemed obvious enough." She was silent for a minute, remembering. "I met Yoda a few times. He was considered one of the greatest Masters in history, and certainly the wisest and most skilled alive."
       She looked straight into Luke's eyes. "You have been beaten by the Dark Lord. That is not an excuse for giving into despair, however. The Alliance needs everyone it has. A Jedi would be invaluable to us. Without them, we ultimately cannot hope to conquer Vader and his Emperor. Blasters and starships cannot win some battles. Learn from your failure and grow stronger from it."
       Luke nodded, feeling the wisdom of her advice pierce the despair and confusion he felt like the sun through mist, and giving hm new determination. He would never again act in haste or impatience, he vowed. "Thank you, Mon Mothma," he said. "May the Force be with you."
       "May it be with us all," Mon Mothma answered. "Our greatest test approaches. If we locate the Death Star, our entire fleet will be necessary to destroy it. Such a battle could bring us a final victory, or utter defeat. We will need all our strength and courage in the days ahead. I hope that you and your friends are able to rescue Captain Solo from Jabba the Hutt."

* * * * * *

       Mara Jade stood in her small one man skiff, with a bitter sense of failure, as she gazed at the smoking ruins of Jabba the Hutt's sail barge following the showdown with Skywalker and his friends. She had not been able to kill Skywalker in Jabba's palace, and had come too late to catch him here. She closed her eyes, stretching out across the galaxy to the Emperor. "I have failed you, my master. Skywalker has defeated Jabba the Hutt and his organisation."
       "How?" the Emperor demanded icily.
       "Skywalker was thrown to Jabba's pet rancor when he arrived," Mara answered. "I attempted to ensure his death at this point, but was stopped by one of Jabba's guards. When I sought to accompany Jabba to the Pit of Carkoon where he intended to execute Skywalker and his friends, he refused. By the time I arrived, it was too late and they had escaped."
       She hesitated. "There is one more matter. The survivors report that Skywalker had a lightsabre."
       The Emperor was silent for a minute. "Very well, my Hand. You will return to Imperial Centre and report to me fully. I am gravely disappointed in you."
       "I can track down and finish Skywalker, my master," Mara urged, not wanting to fail him.
       "No," came the reply. "Perhaps I made an error in attempting to have Skywalker killed. If he has constructed a new lightsabre and accepted the truth of his parentage, I may have underestimated him. Lord Vader and I will deal with him on the Death Star."
       Mara hesitated. "Master, is that wise? If Skywalker is powerful in the Force, and Lord Vader has thoughts of treason, they could be a threat." And suddenly her throat went dry as a sudden horrible premonition swept over her. She knew that the Emperor and Vader could see glimpses of the future, but her skills were too undeveloped for her to do likewise. Nevertheless, she had heard the Emperor describe them well enough to know that this was one. It was more sensations than an actual vision, and only lasted a second, but in that second she felt betrayal, anger, and consuming fear.
       It vanished, and she realised the Emperor was speaking. "Lord Vader will not betray me," he said. "The Dark Side is too strong in him. Together, we will turn Skywalker. In the meantime, my Hand, I have another task for you..."

       A short time later, a JV-7 Escort Shuttle, similar to a Lambda shuttle, but more heavily armed and shielded, and with forward angled wings and a camouflaged hull, climbed away from Tatooine. Mara sat in the cockpit as the planet receded behind her, wondering if the Emperor was right to trust Vader and Skywalker together. He was more powerful than both of them, she reflected, and seemed confident enough, but she knew from long experience that overconfidence often proved fatal. She wondered if she should have told him what she had sensed. For a moment, she thought about that. The Emperor had told her that only strong Jedi could see or sense the future. She wondered briefly if he could he have underestimated her powers. Her mind turned back to the Emperor. She had tried to change his mind repeatedly about Skywalker and Vader, but in the end he had curtly ordered her silent.
       She shook her head. She was getting too jumpy. The Emperor knew what he was doing.
       Or did he...?

* * * * * *

Six months after the battle of Endor...

       A figure sat in the shadows filling the Emperor's throne room in the Imperial Palace, musing on the events of the past half-year. Darth Vader and the Emperor had perished on the Death Star, which had been destroyed in a climatic battle with the Rebel Alliance. The cream of the Imperial Fleet had been destroyed or scattered in that battle. The Alliance had renamed itself the New Republic and begun establishing a new Galactic Senate and Council modelled on that of the Old Republic. The remnants of the Empire were led by a group of Imperial grandees, such as the Emperor's Grand Vizier, Sate Pestage, and the Head of Imperial Intelligence, Ysanne Isard, although some warlords had declared themselves.
       Such squabbling did not impress the person who sat in the throne room.
       Feeble rays of light glistened off metal as the woman who had been Shira Brie rose to her feet. A triangular mask hid most of her face, showing only the eyes, and concealing the terrible scars. A black cloak flowed around her, but only partially hid the wires and metal frame of a cyborg. A control panel like that of Darth Vader's lay at her waist, and served a similar purpose of keeping her alive. She lived now merely for revenge on Luke Skywalker, who had inflicted this living death on her. After her cyborg reconstruction, Darth Vader had taught her advanced skills in the Dark Side. His giving her a semblance of life and giving her the means to obtain revenge on Skywalker meant that the Imperial reports of Skywalker murdering him and the Emperor fuelled her hate of Skywalker. Vader had warned her explicitly of the consequences if she attempted to confront his son, but his death meant that she was now unrestrained by fear of the Dark Lord.
       Two weapons hung from her waist, one a lightsabre and the other an ancient and deadly Sith weapon - the lightwhip. It had been feared greatly by the Jedi of old, and for good reason, for its dual energy and metal strands, under the control of a Sith Lord, could strike like serpents to overwhelm all but the best lightsabre users. She drew and ignited her lightsabre, its orange glow lighting up a small area of the room, and touched it carefully to a finger that was not covered in metal or wires, watching as a few drops of blood dripped from the wound.
       She spoke clearly into the empty room.
       "Luke Skywalker, I swear revenge on you for what you have done to my master and I, no matter how long it takes or what it takes. I, Lady Lumiya of the Sith, pledge this with my blood."