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  1. In Memory of LAJ_FETT: Please share your remembrances and condolences HERE

Beyond - Legends Interregnum II (Action/Drama | Luke/Mara, Kyp, Pellaeon, Wedge | Epic) [Complete]

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction- Before, Saga, and Beyond' started by Bel505, Sep 30, 2021.

  1. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
    [​IMG]

    Title: Interregnum II: The New Order
    Author(s): Bel505 (Admiral Byzantium) and DrMckay
    Timeframe: Six months after Interregnum
    Characters: Mara Jade, Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa Solo, Wedge Antilles, Garm Bel Iblis
    Genre: Action/Adventure, Drama, Romance
    Keywords: Luke/Mara, Imperial Inquisitorius, the Galactic Civil War
    Summary: See below
    Notes: This is a novel-length fanfiction, a sequel to the previous novel-length fiction Interregnum! It is approximately 2/3rds written, and its posting is beginning now to hopefully elicit feedback!

    It represents our continuing attempt to write a Zahn-style continuation of his original trilogy, borrowing from material from the X-wing novels and comics (as well as the broader Legends continuity) to help flesh out plots.

    Enjoy!

    Summary

    The balance of power has shifted. ARDUS KAINE, the last of the Imperial Grand Moffs, must make a daring play with the EMPIRE'S fading strength—or the Empire may fly apart entirely!

    On Coruscant, LEIA ORGANA SOLO is crafting a new galactic ruling document to be ratified by the rival NEW REPUBLIC, while General WEDGE ANTILLES prepares to take the fight to the heart of the Empire from the bridge of the captured Super Star Destroyer Lusankya.

    As more systems look toward the rising New Republic, the IMPERIAL SECURITY BUREAU conducts a brutal repression campaign to prevent or punish their defection, while the IMPERIAL INQUISITORIUS grapples with the re-emergence of the Jedi on the galactic stage. LUKE SKYWALKER and his new Jedi order—including his newly adopted nephew KYP DURRON—are a prominent threat that the remaining Inquisitors cannot ignore.

    Amid this dangerous dance of diplomacy and death, the greatest threat of all is one they cannot see: An insidious shadow from the distant past, determined to subject the galaxy to its capricious whims!

    Thanks
    My sincerest gratitude goes to my coauthor DrMckay [https://archiveofourown.org/users/DrMckay/pseuds/DrMckay], who has given so much of his time to help write and edit this, and who is responsible for coming up with many of the best lines in this story.

    I also owe thanks to Michael Stackpole, Aaron Allston, Kevin J. Anderson, and especially Timothy Zahn. You four authors are the primary inspiration of this story, and almost all of the characters in it belong to one of you. To me, the Zahn Trilogy is more vital to Star Wars as a franchise than the Prequel Trilogy; Star Wars is as defined by Zahn as it is by Lucas. Thank you all.
     
    Last edited: Oct 6, 2022
  2. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
  3. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
    Dramatis Personae
    Citizens on Coruscant
    Chewbacca (Wookiee male from Kashyyyk)
    Han Solo (human male from Corellia)
    Cakhmaim (Noghri male from Honogohr)
    Mobvekhar (Noghri male from Honogohr)

    Jedi Order
    Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker (human male from Tatooine)
    Jedi Knight Kam Solusar (human male from Solon)
    Kyp Durron (human male from Deyer)
    R2-D2 “Artoo” (astromech droid from Naboo)

    New Republic Provisional Government
    Chief of State Mon Mothma (human female from Chandrila)
    Councilor Leia Organa Solo (human female from Alderaan)
    Winter Celchu (human female from Alderaan)
    C-3P0 “Threepio” (protocol droid from Alderaan)

    New Republic Armed Forces
    General Garm Bel Iblis (human male from Corellia)
    General Wedge Antilles (human male from Corellia)
    Colonel Tycho Celchu (human male from Alderaan)
    Captain Traest Kre’fey (Bothan male from Bothawui)
    Adjutant Extraordinary Sena Midanyl (human female from Corellia)

    New Republic Intelligence

    Iella Wessiri (human female from Corellia)

    Smugglers’ Alliance
    Lando Calrissian (human male from Socorro)
    Mara Jade (human female from Coruscant)

    Imperial Forces

    Grand Moff Ardus Kaine (human male from Sartinaynian)
    Admiral Natasi Daala (human female from Irmenu)
    Admiral Gilad Pellaeon (human male from Coruscant)
    Commander Nzem Dreyf (human male from Poln Major)
    Cadet Cienis “Cee” Deleste (human male from Sartinaynian)
    Cadet Phelik Mytov (human male from Coruscant)
    Cadet Hacery “Hack” Nalle (human male from Capza)

    Imperial Security Bureau
    Colonel Kaday Carias (human male from Coruscant)
    Major Adrian Welko (human male from Agamar)

    Imperial Inquisitorius

    Grand Inquisitor Halmere (human male from Coruscant)
    Inquisitor Drayneen (human female from Yir Tangree)
    Inquisitor Lanu Pasiq (human female from Coruscant)
    Apprentice Inquisitor Brakiss (human male from Msst)
     
    Last edited: Sep 30, 2021
  4. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006




    Chapter One

    If the Empire was a realm in decline, then the Oversector Outer was where its talons remained sharpest, offering an untapped reservoir of pristine fighting power. A dense cloud of Imperial and Victory-class Star Destroyers patrolled its hyperlanes, each one directed by orders generated deep within the bowels of the Executor-class Super Star Destroyer Reaper. And unlike the rest of the Empire, which had steadily dwindled in strength since the collapse of the Imperial hierarchy after Endor, the Outer Rim Imperial Fleet—colloquially known as Scourge Squadron—had been reinforced with even more ships that had been designed and built in the Oversector.

    Reaper's primary hangar resounded with the hum of constant activity. Unlike most ships in the Imperial Starfleet, Reaper still carried a full complement of TIEs, with more than a hundred fighters, interceptors, and Defenders racked in neat lines, even the smallest scuffs on their solar wing arrays attended to by the best techs left in the Empire. All around them, and on the rest of the ship, Reaper's crew went about their business with Imperial precision that gave no hint that Endor or the years afterward had ever occurred.

    For Kaday Carias, a compact bruiser of a man in his late middle years, it felt like home. The New Order that once reigned everywhere still ruled here, and that Order could rule everywhere once again.

    Beyond the TIEs were a number of larger vessels; starships of every make and external hull condition were arranged more haphazardly, constantly coming and going. The regular Imperials were diligent in giving those freighters a wide berth, never coming near and in many cases making a point of not even looking at them. On occasion men would appear on a starship's docking ramp, descending and marching purposefully through Reaper's hangar. Reaper's pilots and spacers would respond as oil to water, parting instantly to give a clear path for the cream-colored formal duty uniforms, armored and otherwise, worn by the personnel of the Imperial Security Bureau.

    Carias stood at the bottom of the ramp of the most recently-arrived vessel, a well-designed, well-disguised intelligence vessel of the sort that made up the backbone of ISB's operations. Originally, Violet Envy had been a typical Minstrel-class space yacht and it still had the external appearance of one, but ISB had heavily modified it for combat and reconnaissance work. He waited until the rest of his detail locked down the vessel and could escort him properly, and then began his trek into Reaper's massive interior. Even five years after Endor, appearance counted.

    It was comical watching pilots, so frequently the top neks of their yards, scramble out of the way in the stifling pressure suits necessary for TIE operations, nearly tripping over their own feet as he and his men carved a channel through the flood of humanity. Carias did not wear just any ISB uniform. The rank of Colonel stood proud on his rank plaque and everyone knew a Colonel in ISB outranked an Admiral in the Imperial Starfleet. Everyone also knew that the cost of inconveniencing an ISB officer of any rank—from private on up—could be very high indeed.

    Perhaps even more damningly, Reaper's crew knew Carias personally. They knew he was a good personal friend of Grand Moff Kaine, their commander-in-chief. Whether it was Carias' allegiance or the quality of his friends, every man in Reaper's hangar had ample incentive to get out of Kaday Carias' way.

    Carias liked that.

    When he and his ISB team finished passing through the makeshift gauntlet of Reaper's crewers, Carias turned to face them. "See that Violet Envy is ready for departure within the next four hours." He waited until he received tense nods of agreement, then relaxed. "And have something to eat and refresh yourselves."

    "No leave time, Colonel?" queried Major Welko, a tall, rangy Agmarian whose gunnery skills more than made up for the occasional insubordinate question. Caris let a lot slide for skill. Next to Welko, the massive Lieutenant Brinner stood by with his typical stone silence.

    "I'm afraid not. The Grand Moff has made clear that we have another mission. I don't know the details yet, but expect a long journey and be prepared for planetary action with support to passengers."

    "Yes, sir."

    He glanced around the hangar. The other Imperials were still giving the small ISB contingent a careful berth, putting them well out of range of easy earshot. "Also," he added, lowering his voice to be sure he was not overheard, "see what you can find out about these rumors of Moff Mosbree seeking détente with the Rebellion."

    His two ISB men glanced at each other uneasily, then saluted.

    Carias turned to his men and offered them a stiff, perfect Imperial salute in return, holding them there a brief moment. He'd learned that salute when he was young, when he and a then-young Ardus Kaine had been among the first class of ISB officers. Sometimes, Carias thought wryly about how long ago it had truly been, but good ritual bred order and when he saw the old rituals echoed by good, loyal, dedicated young men the years seemed to fall away. "I expect the best because you are the best," he said warmly. "You both have my highest regard for the work you did at Rendili. It's thanks to you that our efforts there were so successful. Dismissed."

    "Yes, sir!"

    It took Carias almost fifteen minutes to make it all the way from Reaper's hangar to Reaper's conning tower. The upside of a Super Star Destroyer was they were so massive, you could cram a fleet's worth of combat capability into a single, intimidating frame. The downside was they were so massive that a morning commute took longer than it had on Imperial Center. But the express lift was furnished to the expectations of Grand Moff Tarkin, which meant it was opulent even by the standards of Coruscanti high society.

    The Imperial Starfleet personnel continued to brace to attention and stayed out of his eyeline the entire way there. A quartet of ensigns—recent graduates from Carida, it appeared—split into two groups of two and pressed themselves against the walls of the corridor to let him pass between them with plenty of space to spare on either side. Even Stormtroopers on patrol avoided him.

    Delicious.

    Kaine's office was settled in the center of Reaper's conning tower, safe behind stacked layers of shields and armor. The door to the office slid open as he approached, revealing wood-furnishings, plundered art, and walls covered with bookshelves or vidscreens that gave the illusion of sunlight, trees and blue skies beyond. In the middle of the room was Kaine's desk, covered with datapads and computer monitors, as well as multiple holographic displays that presented maps of the galaxy. Behind the desk was Ardus Kaine himself, white-haired, still fit even as he reached the end of middle age.

    Carias thumped his polished boots together and snapped off another perfect salute. "Colonel Carias reporting as ordered, sir!"

    "I see ISB hasn't lost its flair for the dramatic since I resigned from its leadership board," Kaine growled, but Carias knew the annoyance in his tone was feigned and the amusement was not.

    Carias' lips twitched. "You know ISB, Ardus. First, find the enemies of the New Order. Second, eliminate them with extreme prejudice. Third, do it all with style." He winked. "For the Empire!" He relaxed and accepted Kaine's hand in a firm grip. "It's good to see you."

    "It's good to see you too," Kaine said with feeling. "ISB has been keeping you busy. You haven't had a chance to get back to Entralla in what, six months?"

    "Four," Carias corrected. "But I didn't have a chance to stop by Reaper the last time I was here." There had been no time to chat with old friends; the news about Rendili's betrayal of the Empire had arrived only a few weeks before, and that had demanded an appropriate response.

    Kaine released Carias' arm and led him back to the desk. They sat on either side of it; Kaine poured them each a cup of extraordinarily expensive caf, still steaming thanks to the even more extraordinarily expensive caf machine. "Grand Inquisitor Halmere offered nothing but praise after your last assignment," Kaine commented. "I take it that the collaboration between ISB and the Inquisitorius is working as well as we hoped?"

    Inwardly, Carias sighed. Working with the Inquisitors had its benefits, to be sure, but Halmere could be mercurial at best. Still, his heart was in the right place, and loyalty to the Empire went a long way. "ISB and the Inquisitorius have very similar mandates," he pointed out. "They always did: find the enemies of the Empire and neutralize them. The Inquisitorius focused on the Jedi, we focused on everyone else. Things being what they are, a closer collaboration between us always made sense." He smirked. "But you know that, it was your idea."

    "Our idea," Kaine corrected, lifting his caf in a salute.

    "So what does he want now?" Carias guessed.

    Kaine offered a rueful smile. "Predictable as ever?" He sighed. "Halmere has requested you escort a pair of his Inquisitors on another of his archaeological expeditions."

    Carias sighed, unable to hide his annoyance. "Why do I have to do it?"

    "Halmere trusts you."

    High praise indeed, Carias mused. I am trusted by Halmere, who tends not to trust anyone. It was a great and noble honor. It was also annoying. "And I trust him—to do what's in the best interest of the Empire, and in the best interest of himself," Carias conceded. "And, most importantly, in that order. But it still rankles, Ardus. Every single one of these expeditions has been a waste of time. What does he even expect to find that could possibly turn the war around?"

    "The Dark Side of the Force is powerful," Kaine said mechanically, with no passion or belief in the words. "And so are its artifacts."

    "Yes, yes, the long-vanished Glove of Darth Vader, the Alchemic Blaster of Freedon Nadd, the Valley of the Jedi, all positively brimming with deep historical provenance and the potential for power," Carias muttered. "Unless an ancient Sith lord stashed a Death Star away somewhere, I don't see what any of them could do to help end the war." He grimaced with annoyance. "I would rather be out punishing traitors like we did at Rendili. But there is no use complaining about it." He sipped the expensive caf, lifting a suddenly keen gaze to look at Kaine. Silently, he wondered if the rumors that some of the Moffs were considering peace with the Republic were true… and he wondered what Kaine was doing about it, if they were. "I'll miss the caf at least. Was there something else you wanted to talk about?"

    Kaine's eyes flickered as he hesitated minutely. A man who hadn't known him for years might have missed the tell. "Plans. Strategies for the future. Nothing we need to discuss right now," he said. "It'll keep until we meet up at Carida after your mission." Kaine smiled warmly. "How about instead you tell me about the wife and children, I could use some reassurance that somebody besides me is suffering inventive tortures."

    Carias gave a soft smile, one he had to partially feign. "Well, speaking of Carida, Geiton and Duvorian are hard at their studies at the Academy—you remember how much fun that was—and Stellaria sends her warmest regards. She's gone full Royal Matchmaker trying to finally line up a suitable companion for you, but I told her…"

    * * *​

    Carias' trip back to Reaper's hangar was as extended and boring as his trip from it had been. It was good to see Ardus, he thought. Kaine had always been marked for greatness—his parentage had assured that, Vilardo Kaine had been one of Palpatine's earliest supporters and a vehement defender of the New Order, and his premature death had been a real loss for the Empire and for humanity as a whole—and Ardus had taken every opportunity he had been given and made the most of it. Tarkin's death and Kaine's promotion to replace him as Grand Moff of Oversector Outer would have been one of the happiest memories of Carias' life, if only it had not been preceded by the loss of the Death Star.

    The thought still provoked a swell of anger, but Carias put it back out of his mind. He had other things to concern himself with at the moment. Duty called, as it so often did, and while Grand Inquisitor Halmere's assignments might be a nuisance and rarely productive, that did not change the fact that they came from the Grand Inquisitor. Carias had worked with many Inquisitors during his years with ISB, and he wondered which he would have the pleasure of serving beside this time. Tedryn-Sha, perhaps. Or Lanu Pasiq. There were not that many possibilities left.

    He was pleasantly surprised to find one of the few he genuinely liked. "Inquisitor Drayneen," he greeted the attractive brunette. Drayneen was one of the more accomplished interrogators left in the Empire and one of the only members of the Inquisitorius who didn't expect to be treated with excessively fawning respect.

    "Colonel Carias," she replied, flashing him a bright smile. "I heard you were going to be joining us."

    Be serving as our courier service, Halmere or Pasiq would have said, but Drayneen was too polite to point out that he'd been rendered little more than a glorified taxi service. That was one of the reasons he liked her. "Are you traveling alone, Inquisitor?" he asked, his return smile equally bright, but likely far more feigned.

    "One of our apprentice Inquisitors will be accompanying me," she replied. She gestured towards the ramp of the freighter, where a young man with white-blonde hair was unhelpfully assisting two highly-trained ISB covert operatives carry baggage aboard. "Come here, Brakiss," she said, her tone changing to that of a mildly put-upon matron looking after a ward.

    "I see you have been pushed into training duties," Carias murmured to her as the young man—Brakiss, apparently—disentangled himself awkwardly from the increasingly annoyed ISB team, then stumbled back down the ramp.

    "The Grand Inquisitor hasn't the time or patience for it," Drayneen murmured back softly, "and Lanu lacks the gift."

    Brakiss was a tall, lanky young man. Barely out of his teens—if he was out of his teens, it was hard to tell—he was too skinny for his frame. He was too young to be an ISB man, as most ISB operatives started their careers in Imperial Intelligence, the Imperial Starfleet, or the Stormtrooper corps, but Inquisitors were born as well as made. Give him a few years, Carias thought, and perhaps he'd have the look and menace the role required.

    "Sir, ah, Colonel," Brakiss said as he presented a sloppy salute which might have been enough, all on its own, to get him flunked out of the Caridan military academy.

    Until he does have that menace, Carias thought, he is just a pup. "Apprentice Inquisitor," Carais replied, his tone calmly dismissive.

    The young man flushed. Carias wasn't sure if it was with embarrassment or anger, but it didn't really matter. An ISB Colonel was not subordinate to an Inquisitor, especially not to an Apprentice Inquisitor, and Carias offered respect when respect was earned and not a second before. Carias turned to Drayneen. "If you'll tell me our destination, Inquisitor, we'll be underway as soon as you're ready."

    Drayneen's expression dimmed slightly; Carias wasn't sure if it was in response to his dismissal of Brakiss or something else. "Of course." She bowed her head. "Our destination is an ancient Sith temple," she explains. "Unfortunately, traveling to the ruins may take some time even after we arrive at our destination, due to difficult terrain. But from what Halmere tells me, there's a good chance there will be powerful items there to find. There is an ancient Jedi tale of an ancient Sith amulet that amplifies the Force powers of its wielder, and which may even permit access to forgotten Sith knowledge."

    Carias had heard it all before. He knew better than to let his annoyance at the recitation show—this was hardly Drayneen's fault, she was merely one of Halmere's errand girls—and he suspected that she was as aggrieved by the Grand Inquisitor's instructions as he was. "Of course," he said as cheerfully as he could. At least, he thought, the ship was a luxurious one; ISB worked hard to keep its operatives comfortable even on assignment. "And which planet?"

    Drayneen's expression dimmed further and he realized her lack of enthusiasm had nothing to do with the object of their search and everything to do with their destination. "Yavin IV."

    Carias felt heat bloom in his chest; long-forgotten and sometimes suppressed rage building. "Yavin IV?" he said, more heatedly than he really intended, unable to keep his sudden anger out of his voice. Yavin IV? Was this some kind of sick joke? Surely if there was anything to be found on Yavin IV, the Rebellion would have found it already. And to be sent to Yavin IV, the site of the Death Star's destruction, where millions of good, loyal men and women had been murdered in the galaxy's second-most catastrophic terrorist attack—

    "Yes," Drayneen's voice was calm now, and firm. "Yavin IV."

    Carias' eyes flicked to Brakiss. The young man's composure had returned, and he was watching Carias with a calm if slightly confused gaze. That fed Carias' anger even more. One of the lowliest of the Inquisitors and a boy, and Halmere was demanding the services of an ISB Colonel. He was not a lowly pawn who could be ordered around Halmere's dejarik board at whim! Not to Yavin IV!

    Gritting his teeth together, he forced back his anger. Now was not the time, but Ardus would be hearing about this when they returned. "As the mission dictates," he grated. "Let us go."

    * * *​

    The voyage from Entralla to Yavin IV took a few days, days Inquisitor Drayneen used to work on Brakiss' Force abilities. Despite his best efforts, Brakiss struggled. Drayneen's tone had dimmed from encouraging to patronizing, and from patronizing to positively dismissive and occasionally scornful. The embarrassment as Brakiss tried and failed to lift the datapad or grip the training remote with the Force deepend with each additional attempt. Her ability to use telekinesis was hardly impressive, he thought with anger borne of repeated humiliation, but at least she had some.

    Drayneen was less dismissive of him than the other Inquisitors. Lanu Pasiq had been outright contemptuous, openly wondering whether Halmere was even right that Brakiss was Force sensitive. Halmere himself had barely said a word during the handful of training sessions he'd had with Brakiss, remaining aloof. Drayneen was not as young as Brakiss—none of them were—but she was closest to him in age, and time and again her energetic malevolence crackled through her controlled exterior.

    "Try again," Drayneen's voice cracked. "Again!"

    He strained, concentrating on the datapad, trying to lock it in his mental grip. It lifted a few centimeters and then fell, tipping over the edge of the table and falling to the ground with a clatter.

    "Pathetic," Drayneen's voice was as contemptuous as Pasiq's had been. He could feel her presence behind him, her body smaller than his but her presence in the Force so much larger. Her words whipped across his back like a lash. "Are you going to fail again, Apprentice? It seems to be all you are capable of. Perhaps Lanu is right—even a child can levitate a datapad. Are you still a child? I am beginning to think that you are," she hissed in his ear.

    His cheeks flushed and he reached out towards the datapad, gripping it with the Force. It rose higher this time, coming off the ground enough to reveal its cracked screen, spinning, and—

    "Look, a millimeter," Drayneen scoffed. "Infantile. You really are a failure. The Inquisition has no need for youth-spawn with the barest whisper of Force ability. All that training, all the trust of the New Order. All that time spent by your betters, wasted. Given all the power in the universe, you cannot even pass the simplest test." Her voice dropped to a hiss. "All the Inquisitors talk about you behind your back. I never understood why, but now I do. How did you come to be such a failure?"

    Rage and humiliation flared, his cheeks and chest going hot. Fury bloomed, the universe shrinking to a single point. His teeth ground together, his fingernails digging into his palms, Fury offering focus, hate offering power; the Dark was there when he called and he clenched his fist around the datapad—

    The device crumpled in his grip. Metal fragments popped in every direction as it folded in on itself, transparisteel cracking and twisting. The ruined device rocketed off the floor, slamming into the ceiling and exploding into a shower of fragments which cut into his clothes and skin, the pain welcoming and rewarding as the sheer pleasure of destruction and success electrified his veins and heart.

    "Good," Drayneen murmured. He could feel her smile behind him. "You found it, Brakiss. Your passion, your fear, your hate. That is the source of your power." Her voice lowered to a whisper. "Never forget that they hate you, Brakiss. Never forget that they despise you. Their hate will feed yours and you will give it back tenfold."

    Brakiss wanted to break her neck.

    "Halmere was the same to me," she said quietly, "But in the end, we all shape up, we all serve, and the New Order is stronger for it." The intercom beeped and Brakiss heard Drayneen activate it. "Yes?" she asked.

    "Your presence is necessary on the bridge, Inquisitor Drayneen."

    "I'll be there directly, Colonel. Come, Brakiss," she said, and he heard the door slide open. Brakiss waited a moment, still reveling in his victory and his rage before turning to follow. The freighter was not particularly large and they walked down the interior hall to the bridge, where the ISB crew were seated at their posts.

    Carias didn't bother to turn his head to look at Brakiss and Drayneen as they entered, but he did swivel in his chair to keep them in his peripheral gaze. "We have arrived," the ISB man said, making a minute gesture at the world ahead of them. It did not look like much, Brakiss thought contemptuously. It was no Coruscant, no Entralla. It did not even compare to his own homeworld of Msst. "We must now decide on a landing site," the Colonel interrupted his thoughts.

    Drayneen's deceptively kindly visage turned to regard Brakiss with a calm ease. "I think we ought to test your abilities again," she said. She gestured at the world below, its endless jungles and rainforests, constant smattering of rain cascading over much of the world. "Where shall we land, Apprentice?"

    So that was it, Brakiss thought to himself. His lips firmed as he considered the planet. They didn't have much to go on to find what they were looking for—all they had, in fact, was the name of the world. But there was a Sith ruin here somewhere, Vader's records on Vjun had been clear about that, which meant there was power. And Drayneen wasn't asking him to find it as a test of his abilities, he thought contemptuously. No, her control of the Force was mediocre at best, inadequate to the task, but she did not want to admit her inability in front of ISB—or to him. So she offered him the chance to humiliate himself before Carias first.

    He let his bitterness grow to anger and resentment, barely concealed by a thin film of placidity. Let them think he was a child, too young and too untutored. Let them think him a prideful fool, confident without cause. They all did. He kept his expression carefully calm as he added kindling to the fire of his resentment, let it burn brighter, harnessing it for his needs, and then cast his attention down over the world below.

    The world reached back.

    It was an inchoate sensation, weak and unformed, but it was there! He was certain of it! His own anger had found a twin and the connection, once made, only grew as he concentrated on it. A gossamer thread, stronger than it looked, and he could put his hands on it and pull himself closer.

    He laughed. His teacher and the crew of the freighter all turned towards him with confused expressions. He gloried in Drayneen's expression of sudden uncertainty. "It is there," he said. "I know where we must go."

    * * *​

    Unfortunately, it was not as simple as that. Violet Envy was not as large as a bulk freighter, but it was sizable enough to need a large open clearing to land. The rainforest and jungle around their destination was too thick to set down, so the Inquisitors had been forced to land quite a distance away and travel on foot through a treacherous, deadly collection of plants, animals, and geography that was dead set on keeping them out. Drayneen's misery increased with each day of the journey, but they both knew they could not return to the Grand Inquisitor empty-handed. On the fourth day they arrived, stepping out of the jungle onto the bank of a deep lake.

    "Is this the place?" ask Drayneen, her usually perfect hair wild and unkempt. Brakiss found he preferred her looking uncertain and unkempt. She regarded him with barely concealed annoyance. "Apprentice?"

    He didn't hide his own annoyance. "This is it." She has been a poor mentor. Barely a proper student of the Force.

    Drayneen stepped to the edge of the lake, testing its depth. Then she pointed to a long line of stepping stones barely visible through the water. "Over there," she said. Hiking up her trousers, she started to make her way across with careful steps, watching her feet.

    He hurried to follow behind her, not wanting to let her arrive at the temple long before he did. Who knew what secrets of the Force would be found here, what powers would be granted, or what artifacts would be unearthed. The Grand Inquisitor would no doubt reward their success—his success—but if Drayneen were to find whatever called them here before he did, Brakiss might once again find himself shunted to the side as a child.

    His feet were soaked by the time they were across; his pants dripping with warm water.

    Anticipation swelled around him. The temple was larger than it had looked, made of a polished black obsidian and studded with corusca gems. The building was covered in hieroglyphics and pictographs, symbols and iconography that Brakiss could not understand but nonetheless produced a feeling of dread and fear that thrilled through him enticingly.

    It is magnificent. A proper home for the Sith Lord. "We have to go inside," he said, grinning. "I'm sure there's something here."

    Drayneen took a deep breath then nodded her agreement. "Yes. Surely we'll find what Grand Inquisitor Halmere is looking for."

    The interior of the temple was much like the exterior. The hieroglyphs that continued inside, etched on every wall and covering the ceiling, an oddly compelling artistry to the alien handwriting. Brakiss could feel the way he responded to it, even with his ignorance of the meaning of each image. Fear and anger and rage and resentment and pain and loathing and hate merged in the air around him, but most of all he felt anticipation.

    Yes, there is something here to find.

    The interior was one large open space, a series of unlit torches in a large circle around the exterior, following a concentric circle of statues. Brakiss examined the braziers, found them filled with kindling and ready to be lit.

    "I found something," called Drayneen from the other side of the chamber. Brakiss hurried over, frowning, as she stood and held up a neatly-bisected combat vest. An oddly familiar-looking combat vest. "The Rebellion has been here," Drayneen said with a frown. "There's a smattering of equipment and other items. But—" she gestured at a large obsidian stone door, emblazoned with more hieroglyphs "—it doesn't look like they got this door open. What do you make of that, Apprentice?"

    He examined the collection of gear. They died here. "They died here," he repeated the thought aloud. "But there are no bodies." They were not worthy, just as she is not. A smile crossed Brakiss' lips, one of sudden swelling ambition. No one who came here before now was worthy.

    "So it would seem," agreed Drayneen.

    Brakiss found his gaze being drawn back to the concentric circles of torches and statues. "We should light the braziers," Brakiss suggested, already moving towards the nearest one. Using a dazzle-flare from his survival pack, he circled the room and ignited each one. Each fire was small, dim, barely more than embers even with all the kindling, illuminating the Sith runes on the walls with an eerie orange glow. Brakiss stopped and examined them, then turned to look at the now illuminated statues. Each one was faceless, an alien form that he had never seen before.

    "They're Massassi," said Drayneen, standing beside him. "The original natives of this world."

    They are meaningless. Servants only. They matter only insofar as what they can do. Brakiss frowned and stepped back, examining the large circular chamber once more. His heart leapt as he saw it. "The center of the chamber is now cast in shadow," he murmured in awe, seeing how each of the shadows merged into the center of the room, a perfect alignment of the absence of light.

    Drayneen peered into the darkness at the center of the chamber. "Do you feel it too?" she murmured to him. "The presence?"

    The void seemed darker now than it had before the braziers had been lit, and as Brakiss gazed into the center of the chamber he was pretty sure he could indeed feel a presence. The gossamer thread he tugged to lead them here had spooled itself around him, beckoning him to progress deeper.

    The door Drayneen had found remained securely closed. Lit now in the dim torchlight, Brakiss could see the hieroglyphs more clearly, his gaze traveling over each one slowly. You know that only one of you can keep what this place offers, Brakiss's mind whispered to him as he made his examination. His breath cut short. If there is something to be found, she will take it for herself. She does not have my potential, my strength, or the depths of my anger.

    Fear and anger at the dispossession that Drayneen would surely inflict on him—because how could he stop her?—burned in his soul. The combination fed fury, fed a white-hot rage that he was still learning how to use, and before his eyes the hieroglyphs went from meaningless squiggles to instructions, guidance, and stories.

    Here lies Exar Kun, Dark Lord of the Sith. He has been waiting for you, Brakiss, he read, the words whispered in his ear, their meaning made plain. He touched the glyphs with reverence and could feel the rage with which they had been inscribed. He has been waiting to take his revenge. If you agree to serve him, he will agree to serve you.

    A vision of power. Of lightsabers and lightning, of death and rule, of dark glories and gloating, of humiliation and victory. A vision of the future, of his future, of what this place offered to any strong enough to seize it.

    Grand Inquisitor Halmere had been right. There was power here.

    Do you want it? The whisper was louder now, forgotten rage mingling with his own, sympathetic. The hate that Drayneen had found in his soul met its match, and in that ancient shadow Brakiss felt a deep well of hate and pain and loathing and power.

    Do you want it? The voice said again, stronger still. It had personality now, a unique timbre, an archaic accent.

    Do you want it?

    "Yes," Brakiss said. He felt Drayneen's sudden surprise at the spoken word, felt her turn towards him… and felt her suddenly tense as she felt the ocean of strength he had found.

    His strength. Rage melted away into contempt as her fear grew, and he saw in her all those who had humiliated him, the older boys, Halmere and Pasiq, Carias and his early teachers. She saw his strength, his rage, and she was afraid. Her fear was intoxicating.

    Prove it.

    As he turned towards Drayneen, his fingertips crackled with blue sparks and his eyes flashed with hate.

    * * *​

    The boy returned alone.

    Carias folded his arms across his chest as Brakiss approached. Brakiss walked with a more confident step, emerging out of the jungle with a calm, negligent disregard Carias found unsettling. He and his men had fought off numerous beasts while they waited, sustaining some injuries as they did; Brakiss now seemed unfamiliar with the fact that the jungle was dangerous at all.

    "Apprentice Inquisitor," Carias said stiffly, adopting a perfectly superior, annoyed tone. "Where is Inquisitor Drayneen?"

    The boy's pale blue eyes had not had that same intensity when they arrived. For the first time since Brakiss emerged from the jungle, Carias noticed that he had a new item of clothing: an amulet, gold with a large ruby gemstone, which hung from a chain-link necklace around Brakiss' neck.

    Brakiss' expression was calm, his words were calm, but as he spoke shivers went down Carias' spine. "She perished," the Apprentice Inquisitor stated simply.

    Carias kept his own expression and tone calm. "How did she die?"

    The corner of Brakiss' mouth curled with contempt. "She was unworthy of what we found."

    Carias gazed at the amulet again, then back at Brakiss. "I see," he said. "Then you have found something valuable for the Grand Inquisitor after all?"

    "I did," Brakiss said with a calm confidence he had not possessed a week before. "Grand Inquisitor Halmere will be most pleased when we return." He moved towards the ship. "Let us depart, Colonel. With or without Inquisitor Drayneen, we must get on with the business of the Empire." His smile was slow and belonged to a much older man.

    Carias had no idea what had occurred, what exactly had happened to Drayneen. But he knew for a certainty that the boy who had departed was not the one that had returned.

    Another man might have responded with fear. But Carias had spent a lifetime with ISB. He'd worked with Ardus Kaine and Wilhuff Tarkin; he'd served Vader and Palpatine. He knew that something had been missing from the Empire ever since Endor and he thought that maybe, just maybe, Halmere had been right after all and the salvation of the Empire was at hand.

    It would be fitting if that salvation had been found at Yavin IV.

    "Yes, Inquisitor," he said obediently, bowing his head a millimeter in supplication.

    Brakiss' smile gleamed with a terrible magnificence, and it chilled Carias to the bone.





     
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2021
  5. WarmNyota_SweetAyesha

    WarmNyota_SweetAyesha Kessel Run Champion star 8 VIP - Game Winner

    Registered:
    Aug 31, 2004
    Fascinating! =D= Your writing is vivid and immersive, as always. A very pleasant surprise that this has started. @};-
     
    Bel505 likes this.
  6. Gabri_Jade

    Gabri_Jade Fanfic Archive Editor Emeritus star 5 VIP

    Registered:
    Nov 9, 2002
    It's here! [face_dancing]

    Love this wording :D

    Ah, the ISB. So friendly and approachable o_O It's to both Vader and Mara's credit, I think, that they held the ISB in such contempt, but it also speaks to their own personal levels of rank and power, that they could hold such a view and get away with it.

    Extravagant opulence even in the express lift, that's Tarkin for you :p

    This is absolutely the unofficial mission statement of the ISB, it's perfect

    Love this :D

    Ah, the sweet scent of hypocrisy o_O

    Dark side users are just so unpleasant. I sure don't see how any measure of power is worth a life like this. That said, this is all written extremely well.

    This boy's going to be trouble

    Yup, there we go

    Makes sense that a Sith-founded Empire just wouldn't be the same without the dark side leading it. Our heroes are going to love this development :p
     
  7. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
    We'll see if we can keep up the one chapter a week pace! Right now we've got written somewhere between 2/3rds and 3/4ths of the novel, but I was starting to lose steam so it's time to get the creative energy flowing again with some feedback!

    (Also, I've started a new job which eats into creative time. I used to be able to write in afternoons, no longer.)

    They're probably the two people in the Empire—maybe four, with Isard and Tarkin—who could get away with it. No one else would dare express discontent with ISB so openly. Isard and Tarkin would both have disliked it because it was outside of their own personal authority / a threat to their influence. Vader hated them because ... well, probably the same reason as Mara, he thought they were mostly a bunch of self-righteous incompetents.

    Sadly, there are all too many people in the real world who live like this. Addiction to anger or rage, a focus on who you hate rather than who you like... the Force may not be real, but I think there's a real argument that at least in this small regard the Dark Side is.

    This is probably the single most unpleasant scene I've ever written, to be honest. You don't see much, but ... this is still a brutal way to start the book. *shivers* I am sorry about that, but it's necessary to set the tone...
     
  8. Cowgirl Jedi 1701

    Cowgirl Jedi 1701 Force Ghost star 5

    Registered:
    Dec 21, 2016
    Exar Kun. Bad news.
     
  9. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
    Yep! He is very much bad news! The question of course is ... how bad exactly?

    The New Order will be updated on Thursdays!
     
  10. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006




    Chapter Two

    Coruscant's outer orbit was busy.

    Just inside the planet's gravity well, Home Fleet maintained a steady near-orbit around the world. Admiral Ackbar's venerable Star Cruiser Home One held its central place of pride in the formation amid a swirl of other warships: Smaller Mon Calamari Star Cruisers, Imperial and Victory-class Star Destroyers, frigates and corvettes, X-wings and A-wings, all on their constant watch protecting the New Republic's capital world. The fleet rarely left Coruscant these days, ensuring the world's constant protection from lightning strikes by ambitious Imperial commanders.

    The massive flaring engines of the Super Star Destroyer approaching Home Fleet's perimeter indicated that those days were over and that routine was about to change.

    From the Admiral's ready room aboard Lusankya, high up in the Super Star Destroyer's bridge spaces, General Garm Bel Iblis relaxed back into the squashy, battered office chair he'd brought from Peregrine, put his feet up on the ebonwood desk Ysanne Isard had ordered for herself, and watched the ships maneuver on a smaller display. Then he turned his attention from the Home Fleet to his own formation.

    The New Republic's Fifth Fleet did not have nearly so many ships. It did not need them: Lusankya was a fleet all her own, capable of fighting a dozen enemy capital ships to a standstill. But even still Lusankya was not alone: Admiral Bell's Endurance provided a home to squadrons of A-wings, X-wings, B-wings and the new E-wings that were at the heart of the New Republic's military doctrine. Then there were the Star Destroyers Freedom and Emancipator, the Star Cruisers Orthavan and Rising Tide, and a plethora of smaller ships including Bel Iblis' own Katana dreadnaught Peregrine.

    It had been six months since the Fleet had been given Lusankya and the designation "Fifth Fleet." First through Fourth Fleets were the New Republic's primary defensive formations: rapid response units, stationed close to Imperial territory and given the mission of fending off Imperial thrusts at worlds less vital than Coruscant. Fifth Fleet would be the New Republic's primary offensive formation, with the mission of driving a stake into the heart of Palpatine's abomination.

    But it would have to do that without him. If all went well this would be Garm's last day in command.

    Sena Midanyl stepped up beside him, her once-raven hair now entirely gray. Once, when they'd both been young, she'd been a young Senate attaché assigned to then-Senator Garm Bel Iblis; an idealist, a dreamer. When the Republic had fallen they'd transformed themselves into rebels and revolutionaries and he'd become General Bel Iblis. Now that the Republic was on its way towards restoration, it was time to put down that title and return to the Senate. And find a way to reckon with the nightmares.

    "Are you sure?" she asked gently.

    "I'm sure," he replied gruffly. In the distance, he could see the swirl of ships as Home Fleet and Fifth Fleet moved towards one another. Star Destroyers and Star Cruisers swiveled their turbolaser batteries, preparing to fire; starfighters merged into a spectacular melee. There were no real weapons fired, but computers transmitting to his desk display registered hits and fighters found their weapons systems locked down as the simulated battle went on; pilots told they were dead pulled their fighters out of the combat area so those who still lived could fight on. "I know he's ready," Garm continued as they watched, "but he needs an aide, a right hand, and he doesn't have one." He turned towards her. "He needs you, Sena."

    "So do you, Garm," she pointed out. "You're returning to the Senate. It's been decades since you last served."

    He sighed heavily. "I know," he said with feeling. "But the Senate is a place where battles are fought with words, not lasers. If I make a mistake, I will be humiliated, not killed." He nodded at the simulated battlefield as Lusankya pushed hard into the center of Home Fleet's formation. "Not unlike a battle drill. Wedge will be taking the Fifth Fleet back to war, and if he makes mistakes because he doesn't have an agile mind to aid him, he will die, and so will thousands of others."

    "It's not that simple and you know it," Sena said with a frown. "The Provisional Council is working on drafting the new Concordat, and everyone has a stake in the structure of the new government. If that is not done right the cost could be a fractured galaxy, maybe even a return to civil war."

    "I won't be alone," Garm said with a small smile. "I'll be working with Mon Mothma and Councilor Organa Solo."

    But she knew how much that still quietly rankled him. "All the more reason to have me at your side," she insisted. "Wedge has other people who could advise him. Colonel Celchu could be his aide. Or Commodore Tabanne."

    "Colonel Celchu commands Rogue Squadron and the Fleet's starfighters," Garm said patiently. "Commodore Tabanne is overseeing the production of the new Mareschals at Rendili. And neither of them has your experience in this role. In a few months, yes, one of them could be moved to serve as his aide. But until then, he needs as much continuity as possible in my absence. He needs you, Sena."

    Sena sighed. They'd had this entire conversation no fewer than two times already and it always ended the same way. He could see her unwillingness to let him go off without her there to protect him, but also her reluctant agreement with his logic. "Fine," she muttered. "A few months. Then I'm resigning and coming back to Coruscant to go back to doing the job I've been doing for the last thirty years."

    "Making sure I don't tie my shoelaces together?"

    Her lips twitched with amusement. "Yes, Garm."

    He nodded out at the unfolding battle. Home One loomed in the window now and they walked along the observatory as Lusankya brought its full broadside to bear. "Wedge is trying something new," Garm observed.

    "He's finally learned that Lusankya is not an X-wing," Sena muttered.

    Garm chuckled. For the first few months in command of Lusankya, Wedge had been much too tentative in his command of the big ship. But he was slowly coming to understand that Lusankya was nineteen kilometers of armor and turbolasers. The ship could give out a tremendous amount of pain… and more importantly, the ship could take a lot of pain.

    This time Wedge had taken Lusankya and driven her right into the heart of Ackbar's formation. Lusankya was surrounded by a dozen Star Destroyers and Star Cruisers, all tearing into her. The massive Super Star Destroyer was firing back at all of them on near even terms, turning space to liquid multicolor which evaporated any starfighter stupid enough to stray between the formations. But while Lusankya might be fighting all of them, Wedge's command was focused on just one ship: Home One. Most of the Super Star Destroyer's simulated fire poured into Ackbar's flagship and if her fire had been real it would have torn deeply, pounding through multilayered shields and armor, blasting through bulkheads and crew quarters and hangar bays, leaving Home One a broken, bleeding wreck.

    "Wedge is going to win this time," Sena observed.

    Garm nodded his fond agreement. "Yes, he is. Pity the Imperials he comes for next."


    * * *​


    A live-action battle simulation was not as dangerous as an actual combat engagement, but it was close. Warships charging into close proximity was always risky, and as good as collision-avoidance software was there had been many battle simulations that had ended in tragedy and destruction almost on the scale of real combat. Most of those catastrophes, however, had involved inexperienced crews commanding unfamiliar ships, and after five months of careful preparation and practice, Lusankya's crew was no longer an inexperienced crew commanding an unfamiliar ship.

    Still, the aftermath of the mock-engagement involved the two battle formations carefully disengaging, returning to their assigned orbits. In the distance hundreds of curious civilian vessels had watched the battle as best they could; several New Republic military vessels had shadowed them, overwhelming their sensors with a thick cushion of jamming to render them useless. The civvies had all been warned to keep their distance, and had been additionally warned that monitoring the fake engagement would likely result in damage to their systems, but some of the sludgenews-paid crews had been bold enough to come close anyway. No doubt they were hoping to use telescopes to capture purely visual footage that could headline the HoloNet for a few hours.

    After so many years in command of Rogue Squadron Wedge was used to being famous, but sludgenews had doubled down on stalking him since he'd been given Lusankya.

    Wedge was still getting used to being a fleet commander. The transition from simple pilot to squadron leader had been tough. This? This was incredibly, excruciatingly difficult. As Rogue Leader, Wedge had to split his attention between his responsibility to the squadron and his flying. It was a constant battle with exhaustion and prioritisation, and Wedge could think of more than one time his instincts or Tycho had saved his life when he'd gotten too engrossed in instructing the squadron and insufficiently attentive to his own safety.

    But as a fleet commander, Wedge focused on one thing: the fleet. And once his orders were given, it was often impossible for Wedge to do anything to change the outcome. The two-hundred and seventy thousand people who comprised Lusankya's crew were responsible for fighting the ship, for aiming the guns, for tuning the engines and adjusting the shields. Wedge just stood in the middle of the bridge and watched.

    After the second mock fleet-engagement General Bel Iblis had taken him aside and put his large arm around Wedge's shoulders. "Wedge, you have to realize that a lot of the fleet commander's job is playing the role of the confident fleet commander. You have to look like a fleet commander, sound like a fleet commander." He'd gestured out across the bridge. "They all know how to do their jobs, and if you stand over their shoulder and badger them, or try to help them, they'll be distracted and make mistakes. They need to glance over their shoulder and see the General standing in the middle of the bridge, calm and confident."

    Wedge had found that impossible. Impossible. At first.

    It was during dinner with Han and Leia, one of the times he'd gotten back to Coruscant to see Iella and they'd been able to get together for a meal, that Wedge had finally gotten the advice he needed.

    "Yeah, that was hard," Han had told him. "But when I started fidgeting, I'd just pretend I was Chewie." Han had shifted his posture, standing up straighter, folding his arms across his chest and glowering confidently. "You just have to be sure you don't start growling, it completely ruins the image you're going for."

    It was good advice, but Wedge hadn't grown up with a Wookiee parental figure. He did have other role models he could look to, though. His parents, Jagged and Zena, had lived and died with a quiet, indefatigable courage that he remembered well, and in their absence he'd had Booster Terrik's implacable frame shielding him, if at somewhat of a distance, as he was thrust so rudely into adulthood. So now he summoned up the sheer bloody-minded gall of the elder Corellian and tried not to growl. Wedge crossed his arms as he stood in the center of Lusankya's bridge, attempting to loom every millimeter of his incredibly average height as he supervised the titanic vessel's bridge crew working under the crisp and utterly professional command of its Bothan captain.

    It was easier when you were winning.

    Traest Kre'fey turned towards Wedge with faintly bared teeth, a Bothan attempt to mimic a human smile. "Exercise concluded sir, reporting catastrophic damage to the enemy. We have taken control of local space."

    Wedge surveyed the bridge for a moment, then nodded his agreement. "Very good, Captain Kre'fey. Please transmit my compliments to the fleet, and then convey them most especially to the ship and crew. I asked a lot of Lusankya this time. You've done admirably."

    "Yes sir!" Kre'fey said with a gravitas that belied his age, and departed the flag bridge for the bridge proper. Wedge still had mixed feelings about Kre'fey. He was too young and too inexperienced to be given command of the New Republic's only Super Star Destroyer on the basis of age and experience, which meant that his familial connection to Fey'lya had undoubtedly been a key element. But Ackbar had vouched for him, and Wedge thought that Kre'fey was the only member of the ship's crew who had improved more in the last six months than Wedge himself.

    "General Antilles," his com officer, Commander Needa, called. "Admiral Ackbar for you, sir."

    Wedge hid his victorious smirk. Four defeats in a row Ackbar had inflicted on him. The first had been a one-sided clobbering; the other three had been closer. For the fifth and final skirmish, Wedge had adopted an entirely new tactic and just slammed Lusankya smack into the middle of Ackbar's formation. The move had disrupted Home Fleet's careful battle plan, given the other ships of Fifth Fleet the opportunity to target them one by one, and Lusankya's ruthless barrage of Home One had knocked Ackbar himself out of the fight and left his fleet to fight on without his leadership.

    "Put him through," Wedge said, putting on a headset and moving near the com station.

    The New Republic's foremost strategist and senior military officer appeared on the two-dimensional screen. "General Antilles," Ackbar said, bobbing his head forward slightly in a nod of acknowledgement. "Congratulations on your victory. Your strategy was unexpected and effective."

    "Thank you, Admiral," Wedge replied. "I hope it works as well on the Imperials as it did on Home Fleet."

    "It is a strategy Home Fleet will be working to find a counter for," Ackbar said gravely. "I am told that Grand Moff Kaine is moving his own Super Star Destroyer to Carida."

    Wedge frowned. As far as anyone knew, there were only two Executor-class Super Star Destroyers left in the galaxy: his own Lusankya, and Ardus Kaine's Reaper. "Carida puts them within striking distance of Coruscant," Wedge said, concerned. "Are you anticipating an attack?"

    "New Republic Intelligence is attempting to answer that question as we speak," Ackbar replied, his own tone equally grave. "But I do not think so. The Grand Moff has never sent his forces to attack the New Republic directly, except in the skirmishes after the dissolution of the Ciutric Hegemony which put his borders at risk. Since the Emperor's death he has remained resolutely defensive in posture. An attack against us now, when we are in a position of strength, would be out of character."

    Wedge's frown deepened. "I'm hearing a 'but' at the end of that sentence, Admiral."

    Ackbar's laugh was gravelly with rueful amusement. "Remind me never to play sabacc with you, General Antilles."

    "That's Corellians, Admiral. We're perceptive and we improvise well as a rule. But war isn't sabacc. In war you cheat."

    "As you should in war," Ackbar agreed seriously. "The Provisional Council is concerned that Kaine's presence at Carida suggests he intends to change his pre-existing strategy. Some of the Councilors fear he may declare himself Emperor, and attempt to use the title to rally the warlords to his cause."

    "If that was all it took to rally the warlords," Wedge said doubtfully, "someone else would have done it by now. Thrawn, for one."

    "The Imperial Starfleet accepted Thrawn as their military commander," Ackbar countered. "But as a non-human, Thrawn would never have been accepted as Emperor. Kaine might be." Ackbar shrugged his large shoulders. "Regardless, the decision has been made to resume offensive operations. The Provisional Council wishes to keep the momentum on our side and force the Empire to defend against our advances rather than allow them to take the initiative." The Mon Calamari's mouth opened and closed a few times. "My fellows have learned the lessons of Thrawn's campaign well."

    Wedge's mouth went dry. "Fifth Fleet is being activated?"

    "Yes, General," Ackbar confirmed. "It is. As of today Fifth Fleet will be officially transferred from General Bel Iblis' command to yours. You will be vested with full operational command of our main offensive formation with full freedom of action, and then it will be your job to decide how to proceed." He offered a small smile. "The campaign is yours, General Antilles."

    And with that, Wedge found himself not just in charge of the Fifth Fleet, but in charge of the majority of the New Republic's available punching power. Not just as the tactical commander of the fleet, but the strategic driver of the entire war, trusted and praised as a colleague of the men who had mentored him. He swallowed hard. "Do you have any suggestions, Admiral?"

    "Only to trust yourself, Wedge," Ackbar said seriously. "I have trained you for this position for almost as long as I have known you. General Bel Iblis and General Solo have both vouched for you as a commander, as a leader, and as a strategist. Continue to trust your subordinates, as you always have. Do not bear this burden alone." Ackbar bowed his head, barbels twitching slightly with sorrow. "That is a mistake I have made, on occasion. I would not wish it upon you as well."

    "Yes, sir," Wedge said obediently. "I won't let you down, sir."

    "I know you will not," Ackbar replied. "As the Corellians would say, go sink the whole Imperial Starfleet straight into the nine Corellian hells."

    "Yes, sir," Wedge repeated softly, promising himself he would do just that. "Count on it."

    Ackbar gave one of his slow nods as he leaned back in his command chair aboard Home One. "Then there is only one last thing that we must do," he said. "General Bel Iblis, are you ready?"

    "And even willing."

    Wedge blinked in surprise when he heard Garm's voice—and not over his headset, but standing behind him. Wedge turned and found Bel Iblis and Sena Midanyl standing behind him, flanked on either side by Major Page and Colonel Celchu. On either side of Lusankya's bridge, the starboard and port side crew had all stood at attention.

    Bel Iblis stepped forward and handed Wedge a datapad, his expression the typical calm that Wedge had learned to expect from Bel Iblis during his time in Fifth Fleet. He took the datapad, read the first line, then swallowed down a sudden knot in his throat. "To General Wedge Antilles, Captain Lusankya. You are hereby directed and required to report to the commanding officer of the New Republic Fifth Fleet, to serve as his relief. By order of Admiral Ackbar, Supreme Commander New Republic Defense Fleet." His voice wavered slightly as he lowered the datapad. "General Bel Iblis, I assume command."

    "General Antilles, you have command," Bel Iblis affirmed. "But as of now I'm not a General anymore," Bel Iblis said with a nod as they exchanged a handshake. "Congratulations."

    Wedge grinned. "Then get off my ship, Senator," he returned, deadpan.

    Bel Iblis barked a genuine laugh, Kre'fey's snout twitched minutely, and it completely ruined the solemnity of the moment. Wege and Bel Iblis offered one another identical Corellian shrugs and shared a laugh. "Good luck, Wedge," Garm replied, smiling.

    "You too, Garm. Compared to the job you're being asked to do, I have it easy."


    * * *
    There were advantages to being fleet commander. Lusankya had been designed as a fleet command ship, and it had been augmented to become Ysanne Isard's home-away-from-home. While space on a warship was always at a premium, Wedge's new quarters were bigger than the apartment he shared with Iella on Coruscant and it wasn't even remotely close. They featured a small library, a private workout space, a drafting table he'd had custom built by the deck gang, and the command holotable he spent far too much time staring at.

    The lounge space was circular, with a short hallway that also served as a coat closet at the apartment's front entrance. When anyone entered they were presented with a view of a large holo-table surrounded by comfortable chairs, with the red New Republic crest on the wall behind, illuminated in gentle orange lighting.

    The holo-table hummed quietly as Wedge manipulated the image it projected for a closer look at the galactic map. Imperial space gleamed a dim blue. There wasn't much blue left. In the Galactic South there was a smattering of Imperial systems, centered on the world Eriadu. Coreward of Eraidu were a string of Imperial systems along the Corellian run, with Corellia itself at their heart. Then there was the Deep Core, which was divided between multiple Imperial warlords, each more concerned with sparring with the others than fighting the New Republic. Finally, the Empire's main territory was in the Galactic North, starting with their fortress at Carida, and then the massive Oversector Outer: fourteen Sectors under the rule of Grand Moff Ardus Kaine, bordered by some additional territories ruled by other Moffs who answered to Kaine, all clustered against the Unknown Regions.

    Opposite the holoprojections of the Imperial territory were Wedge's top commanders and Senior staff: Kre'fey, Midanyl, Page, Tycho, and Admiral Areta Bell of Endurance, a no-nonsense fellow Corellian who had taken it upon herself to oversee the Endurance's shakedown and develop the doctrine of Wedge's entire fighter wing.

    They all had high clearance and need to know.

    "We're running out of soft targets," commented Major Page, the commander of Wedge's ground forces. He leaned in to examine the map more closely, pointing at the Deep Core. "I assume attacking the Deep Core is off limits," he said, glancing at the others.

    "That's right," said Sena Midanyl, who had graciously assigned herself the unobtrusive title of Adjutant Extraordinary. Her violet gaze was calm and measured, her tone equally so. Wedge was more grateful than he could say that she had decided to stay with the Fleet even after Bel Iblis had departed; he knew she had wanted to leave with Bel Iblis, but her presence was a rock he could rely on. With Tycho busy commanding the Fleet's fighter complement (and, he thought silently, probably considering retirement himself), and his working relationship with Kre'fey still a work in progress, he could not possibly replace her. "Unless there's been a change since my last major briefing from NRI. We don't want to encourage the Deep Core Warlords to settle their differences with one another and start focusing on us."

    "Then we really don't have many viable targets," Page replied. "Corellia is too tough a target even for the Fifth, and Carida might even be worse." He gestured at the map. "That doesn't leave very much."

    "It gets more complicated," Wedge said with a sigh. He lifted a datapad off his lap and waved it at his companions. "I've just finished my first command briefing with General Cracken and representatives of the Provisional Council. We've been instructed not to make any serious efforts to attack either Eriadu or the Oversector."

    Tycho, who was standing next to Sena, was the first to respond, his expression twisted into a frown. "Wedge, that leaves almost no viable targets," he pointed out, his aristocratic Alderaanian accent clipped with his confusion. "Why?"

    Wedge leaned back in his chair, putting the datapad back down. "This doesn't leave the room, but the rumors you've all heard are true. The Quintad Houses of Eriadu are quietly negotiating with the New Republic for peace. Moff Mosbree has been talking with Councilor Organa Solo through intermediaries for the last three months, and she believes that they're on the verge of a preliminary agreement. If that happens, Eriadu will agree to ban slavery—under the supervision of New Republic observers—and formally dissolve its ties to the Empire. In exchange, they'll be given political concessions and the trade blockade of Eriadu will be ended."

    A gasp went through the room. Eriadu had a reputation for being the most Imperial of Imperial worlds. It had an overwhelmingly human population, and one that had been furiously committed to the New Order and its characteristic racism and human-centrism. It was the home of Grand Moff Tarkin. It also heavily depended on slavery for its economy, with slaves providing cheap industrial labor that had long facilitated the planet's economic might. Gial Ackbar himself had been a slave of Tarkin's on Eriadu.

    For Eriadu, of all worlds, to be contemplating peace with the New Republic…

    Tycho and Page both bore stunned looks as they processed this unexpected information. Midanyl, by contrast, was watching Wedge with a hawklike sharpness and suspicion that reminded Wedge of the times he'd faced down Borsk Fey'lya on one of the Bothan's good days. "And the Oversector?" she asked.

    Wedge inhaled. "I don't have as many details," he said slowly. "Admiral Ackbar and some other members of the Council are concerned that Kaine may be preparing for an offensive against us… But Leia believes there is a chance that a similar arrangement can be made with Grand Moff Kaine as well."

    "Then the war would be over," said Page, recovered, his deliberately-bland face slowly taking on an elated cast. His voice—usually staid and serious—grew in excitement as he spoke. "Without Eriadu or the Oversector, the Empire is just scattered garrisons. The rest will have to do the same."

    "A chance?" interrupted Midanyl. "Just a chance?"

    "That's what Leia said," Wedge confirmed. "There's a great deal of uncertainty about Kaine's intentions, and we've been ordered not to do anything that might erase that chance," he gestured at the map, "so our potential targets have been drastically limited." He manipulated the map, zooming in on the galactic south, centering on Eriadu and then pushing out to the galactic southwest. "But I do have a target in mind."

    Tycho leaned in to take a look, then shot Wedge an arched eyebrow. "Bespin?"

    "Bespin," Wedge agreed. "I've got some calls to make, but I want plans and proposals on my desk by tomorrow morning." He grinned confidently. "Who wants to take an all expenses paid trip to the City in the Clouds?"


    * * *​

    "You know you don't have to come with us, Tych," Wedge said after the others had departed. He poured them both cups of Atrisian herb tea from the carafe on his desk, knowing that for the moment Tycho had sworn off alcohol. It wasn't fair for him to enjoy Alderaanian spring wine if Winter couldn't do the same, he'd said.

    "Winter and I have talked about it," Tycho responded, abrupt without being curt. "But the Fleet needs me right now, and Winter has Han and Chewbacca to help look after her." He offered a small, slightly awkward smile. "She said if I let Hobbie lead the Rogues he'd just let Wes run wild. She's still working, too. Leia has tried to get her to relax, take some time off, but you know Winter. She's pregnant, not an invalid."

    "She can still tag a target at fifty meters with anything in the armory?" Wedge shot back.

    Tycho smiled. "Sixty."

    "You know," Wedge mused, "when you told me the news and then Leia offered to officiate your ceremony, I thought I'd finally get to see the previously unheard-of Alderaanian slugthrower wedding."

    "Oh please," the aristocratic Alderaanian volleyed, "you know as well as I do that the blasters are staying in the armory for every wedding until Luke's. When the Boss gets hitched, every bottom-feeding merc, assassin and Imperial holdout is going to emerge to give those two a rough time." He crossed his arms. "We'll have to mine all the entrances just to keep out sludgenews."

    Wedge laughed, knowing that Tycho was probably right. "Maybe I'll just marry them here. Did that for Mirax and Corran and that's worked well so far." He sobered. "I'm glad to have you, Tych. Glad and guilty."

    "You can get us another wedding present with your General's salary. Be profligate, with our posting to this roving pleasure barge, I've grown used to the finer things," Tycho said with a grin, attempting to savor a sip of his tea.

    Winter's unexpected pregnancy had provoked a spectacular Alderaanian wedding ceremony. Every Alderaanian wedding was an event among the small refugee community on Coruscant, but the members of the Alderaanian Council had treated Winter's wedding with almost as much pomp and circumstance as they had Leia's. Other than Leia, Winter was the closest thing Alderaaan's refugees had to planetary royalty, and a marriage of two Alderaanians had become something to celebrate, a promise for the future.

    "I know you'd rather be with her," Wedge said heavily.

    Tycho sent him a moderately amused look. "Don't be stupid, Wedge, of course I'd rather be with Winter. But the war is almost over. We both know it. The Empire is on its last legs and this campaign could be the one to finish it." Tycho held his mug, rubbing it with one of his fingers. "I know how sloppy people can get when they think they can see the end. So I'll be here, the sharp-tongued flitter-lizard on your shoulder telling you not to get complacent." Tycho trailed off for a moment, and then he continued more quietly, soft sincerity tinging every word he spoke. "I want to be with my wife and child, but I also want my child to grow up in a galaxy where the Empire has been relegated to the dustbin of history." He raised his cup. "To one last campaign."

    Wedge joined the toast. "To one last campaign."

    The tea tasted like wet, warm grass. It had a reputation for being calming, but despite being in command of the most powerful warship in the sector, Wedge still felt a cold trickle of fear creep up his spine. Or perhaps the fear came because he was in command.




     
    Last edited: Oct 14, 2021
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  11. WarmNyota_SweetAyesha

    WarmNyota_SweetAyesha Kessel Run Champion star 8 VIP - Game Winner

    Registered:
    Aug 31, 2004
    Fantastic discussions in both scenes weighing options and reflecting on wins and losses, potential and otherwise =D=
     
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  12. Gabri_Jade

    Gabri_Jade Fanfic Archive Editor Emeritus star 5 VIP

    Registered:
    Nov 9, 2002
    You always set the scene so well, it feels like a pro novel :cool:

    Ah, strategy. Another thing you're excellent at. (I get bored and grouchy and frequently confused when I try to write it, so I'll just admire your writing of it :p )

    lolol

    I love this, it's so in character for everyone :D

    lolllll

    I'd probably be sick if it was me

    That's our Wedge :cool:

    I just love this expansion of Winter's character. Even in Zahn's books (except for Scoundrels), she doesn't get a lot of character-building attention; she's smart and competent and kind, but the big thing is her memory. Here she's a badass much like Leia herself, which makes a lot of sense considering that they were raised together by the same badass parents and both fought in the Rebellion for years. I also appreciate her insight about Hobbie and Leia's utter hypocrisy in trying to make Winter relax during pregnancy :p

    And of course you know I love Wedge and Tycho already assuming that Luke and Mara will wind up married [face_love]

    I'm a black tea girl myself [face_coffee]

    Also, yeah, being in command of the most powerful warship in the sector would freak me out o_O
     
    Last edited: Oct 9, 2021
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  13. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006




    Chapter Three


    The spectacular, unreal miracle that the others insisted on calling a skyhook was still the most impossibly wonderful thing that Kyp Durron had ever seen. After living most of his conscious life on Kessel, largely underground in total darkness or the dim artificial life of an under-maintenanced prison facility, the skyhook was beyond even his wildest dreams.

    He stood at the edge of a massive ring that stretched for kilometers in diameter. The entire stretch of it was lined with transparisteel that allowed him to look down over the world below. The city—Coruscant—stretched to every horizon, gleaming and glittering, tiny moving lights of airspeeders flowing in every direction in endless lines of carefully controlled traffic. Higher he could see the larger lights of moving freighters and starships, rising and descending, all carefully giving the skyhook a wide berth. The skyhook's long tether stretched down and vanished below, securing the orbital platform high above the Imperial Palace.

    He saw small reservoir lakes scattered around the planet, but few were large enough to be visible from near-orbit, with the kilometers-high towers shading them in darkness. Far to the west he could see the only remaining nature on the world: the rippling blue waters of the artificial Great Western Sea, Imperial City's primary reservoir and nature preserve, and the Manarai Mountains beyond, carefully preserved in the world's largest park.

    The sun glared through the windows and he turned away, grimacing. Even with the protective lenses that Han had purchased for him, there were times the raw golden glare of that gleaming ball of fire was searing for his unaccustomed eyes.

    "Hey kid," Han Solo said, resting his arm around Kyp's shoulders. "How're you doing?"

    "Good," said Kyp honestly, offering him a smile. "How much longer are Leia and Winter going to be?"

    "Oh, you know," Han said breezily, but Kyp could see the way the corners of his mouth tightened, and even more Kyp could feel the way Han's emotions darkened with annoyance and frustration—and the way Han took a breath and let those emotions reluctantly go. "They're meeting with Mon Mothma again. I know they've got Kerrithrarr and Fey'lya in there, and if I'm not mistaken I saw Jesnsaar SoBilles and Sian Tevv's ships in the hangar." He sighed. "This was supposed to be an unofficial meeting, but I think it's going to turn into a full council session."

    Kyp knew all the names now. He heard Leia and Winter (and Han) discuss them near every night at their apartment in the Imperial Palace.

    He'd been so sure that Han would just forget him after a while. That Coruscant would return Han's attention to more important things, like his twins or his wife or the Republic, that surely Kyp, a prisoner who had been left on Kessel as a child to grow old and die, would be beneath Han's notice. Be forgotten again. That feeling had only redoubled when Kyp had realized that Han and Leia were not just normal people. They were important people. They were perhaps even the most important.

    But Han hadn't. And Leia hadn't. Kyp had moved into their apartment and had never left. Never been made to feel unwelcome. Han had started to teach him to cook and both had entrusted him with their children. And for the first time since his parents died Kyp felt truly, unconditionally loved.

    "That sucks," he said.

    Han laughed. "Yes it does." Around their feet ran Jacen and Jaina, with a confident pair of Noghri—not that much taller than the twins, really—keeping a watchful eye. Jacen placed both hands on the transparisteel, his nose pressed to the transparent material as he oohed at the sights below.

    Jaina stumbled over and tugged on her father's pant leg. "Dada, 'payship!" she exclaimed, pointing at the looming form of the massive dagger-shaped Star Destroyer, one of the few ships big enough to be clearly visible despite the mandated distance between it and the skyhook.

    "That's a spaceship all right," Han said, lifting Jaina up and turning her to face it. "A big one too. It's Lusankya."

    "'Sankya!"

    Over at the window, Jacen drew back, leaving an imprint of his face on the transparisteel. He almost tumbled over backwards; was caught and steadied by a quick Noghri hand, which left him peering around with a small, suspicious look. Kyp was rewarded with the sight of Mobvekhar effortlessly staying out of Jacen's view, a miracle of silent movement on two feet.

    There was a whisper of sound next to him and Kyp turned. Cakhmaim, the leader of Leia's Noghri security detail, appeared with his typical near-silent movement. "I have secured your new residence, Han clan Solo." Cakhmaim turned his alien eyes on Kyp. "And Kyp clan Solo," he added.

    Kyp swallowed. The first time the Noghri called him that he'd told them that he wasn't a member of the family. Cakhmaim had explained, with grave precision, that clan was not a matter of blood alone.

    "I'd really rather wait for Leia to look at the place," Han said with a sigh. "But if she's gonna be stuck in that Council meeting for the next six hours…" he shrugged. "Fine, let's go. I want to see my new kitchen and make sure it lives up to expectations."

    "I assessed it on the basis of the criteria you laid out," Cakhmaim replied, very seriously. "It has the required countertop space, and the provided burner unit can reach the desired maximum temperature in as short a time as five minutes. The refrigeration unit can hold more than the requested volume, and—" the Noghri's voice carried a hint of pronounced pride "—it has adjustable shelving."

    "Outstanding recon work," Han said cheerfully. If a Noghri could glow, Cakhmaim did. "C'mon kids!"

    "Han, I'm seventeen," Kyp shot back, amused. He lifted his hand up to his head, as if measuring himself against Han.

    "I don't care if you're as tall as I am. You live with us, we feed you, you're a kid."

    Kyp allowed himself a smile. He looked back through the window as they retreated towards the interior of the skyhook, a quiet corner of his mind wondering just how he had been so lucky. An even quieter corner whispered that nothing was ever given for free.


    * * *​


    Like the Imperial Palace on the surface of Coruscant below, the construction of the Emperor's skyhook had spared no expense, but unlike the Palace the skyhook had actually existed before the Empire. Originally the Herdessan Skyhook, it had been built by a powerful trade guild in the latter millennia of the Old Republic and eventually served as the home for Senators and other dignitaries, particularly those uncomfortable in the dense, urban environment of Coruscant. When Coruscant's municipal government had persuaded the New Republic's government to allow the world's skyhooks to return to the sky, the skyhook had been given to the New Republic so that it could resume that ancient purpose.

    Now formally renamed the Sadashassa Senatorial Skyhook, after the Senator from Herdessa who had been arrested and put to death by Palpatine when she had objected to the formal declaration of Empire, it had been chosen to serve an even greater purpose: the very seat of the provisional galactic government.

    Buried deep in the heart of what had been the Emperor's Skyhook was the room that currently served as the Provisional Council chambers. A large, circular wooden table ringed the room, with wooden panels and columns lining the exterior of the space. Above a tinted transparisteel ceiling permitted light to cascade down over the space, illuminating the table with almost perfect columns of light, dust flickering as it passed through.

    Leia fought hard not to put her head in her hands. It was difficult. The discussions about the latest draft of the Concordat had started well enough, with a calm discussion of the importance of balance between the interests of the Outer Rim and the Core, how to structure the new assignment of Senate seats, and how the rules would be set for the various levels of the Republic's judiciary.

    Sadly, from there the conversation had quickly deteriorated.

    "The Councilor from Sullust would like to respectfully remind the gentlebeing from Kolthis that while the Bothans were indeed indispensable to the war effort, their vaunted intelligence about the Second Death Star was deliberately provided in order to lure the Rebellion into a trap, and that many more Sullustans fought at Endor than did Bothans. To claim otherwise is an insult to their memory. And, he adds, that he was personally present at no fewer than eleven engagements against the Imperial military and was wounded in action, while Councilor Fey'lya has no personal combat history—"

    Threepio's voice vanished under the rumble of annoyed voices. Fey'lya's distinctive voice in particular cut through the crowd: "That is a personal insult! And it is irrelevant to the matter at hand, but if—"

    "The Councilor from Sullust would like to respectfully suggest—" Leia wasn't sure if Threepio was adding that, but Sian Tevv didn't sound like he was respectfully suggesting anything "—that insults would not be required if anything else succeeded in getting through the—oh my—excessively thick skull of the gentlebeing from Kolthis—"

    "Enough," Mon Mothma's hand came down on the table with all the authority of a gavel—or an orbital strike—making Leia's head snap back up. Or maybe that was Winter poking her subtly with a writing stylus; Leia sent her aide an annoyed look. "Need I remind the Honored Councilors that infighting within the higher echelon of the Senate is what weakened it to the point that Chancellor Palpatine was able to usurp it? You may have your disagreements," Mon Mothma's voice was steel, "but you will have them civilly, and always with an aim to resolve them." Her voice went from steel to soothing. "Always remember, my friends, the cost of Senatorial dysfunction."

    Fey'lya looked less than convinced, but he knew better than to challenge Mon Mothma directly. With a nod he sank back into his chair. Sian Tevv, by contrast, looked properly chastened and offered a deep nod. "The Councilor from Sullust recognizes the wisdom of your words, Chief of State Mon Mothma," Threepio translated, his tone respectful and conciliatory. "And accepts that the lessons of the Empire should never be forgotten, especially not while its horrors continue to unfold in so much of the galaxy."

    "Thank you," Mon Mothma said with a small, regal smile. "I believe we can table the debate over the Concordat for now. We have two additional matters we must attend to." She thumbed a switch on her desk. "Please send in Senator Bel Iblis."

    The attention of the Council all turned to the room's main entrance. The sliding doors, half-transparent to reveal the tall form of a human male beyond, slid open and Garm Bel Iblis walked in, resplendent in green Corellian robes of office, and the first civilian garb she'd ever seen him wear. His gait was calm and resolved, but Leia could feel his silent concerns, buried deep so they were not revealed by his face.

    "Senator Bel Iblis," Mon Mothma greeted him, and Leia could feel Bel Iblis' tension grow. The relationship between the two founders of the Rebel Alliance had been strained for years, and while they had resolved to work together again the tension in the air between them could be cut with a knife. "Congratulations on your election as Senator for Corellia-in-exile," she said, with no hint of the misgivings that Leia knew she still felt over Garm's return to politics. "Your extensive credentials and qualifications need no introduction and your seat on this Council is well-deserved," Mon Mothma added gently. "Please, come take it."

    "Thank you," Bel Iblis replied. He circled the table and took his seat to Leia's right.

    The Wookiee member of the council, Kerrithrarr, growled a greeting. "The Councilor from Kashyyyk offers his greetings to Councilor Bel Iblis, and his admiration for the Councilor's long military service, including his recent successful campaigns against the Empire," Threepio translated.

    "Thank you, Councilor Kerrithrarr," Bel Iblis replied, his gravelly baritone equal to the Wookiee's impressive voice. "I offer my own admiration for your long service and your leadership of the rebellion that freed your world and people from the slavery of the Empire."

    Bel Iblis' initial nerves were calming, Leia noted, feeling a growing relaxation and confidence emanate to match the wily old Corellian's outward poise.

    "Our last issue of business is an intelligence briefing," said Mon Mothma, drawing the focus back to herself. "As you all know, Councilor Organa Solo—" Mon Mothma nodded at Leia, sending all attention in the room towards Leia momentarily before it returned to the Chief of State—"has been negotiating a peace treaty with the Quintad Houses of Eriadu. What is not as well known is that there has also been an overture made to Grand Moff Kaine and the Oversector."

    There was a rustle of movement, some disgruntled, some surprised as the other Councilors assimilated that information. Kerrithrarr in particular looked disgusted but not surprised; the Wookiees were not fond of any accomodations with worlds where slavery remained common. That, more than anything, was why Leia made clear that peace with the New Republic came with a full, unambiguous ban on slavery, enforceable by the New Republic military, or peace did not come at all.

    "Councilor Organa Solo?" Mon Mothma prompted.

    Leia pushed forward and rested both her hands on the circular table they sat around. She glanced right and left, meeting Bel Iblis' calm gaze with her own, then Mon Mothma's, before she began. "To date I have not had any detailed negotiations with Grand Moff Kaine or his representatives," she said, "and there are reasons to believe that peace with the Oversector will not be as easily achieved as peace with Eraidu. The Oversector is self-sufficient while Eraidu is not, and it has room for potential expansion into the Unknown Regions. It also possesses the Empire's most formidable military formation, Scourge Squadron—twenty-four Imperial-class Star Destroyers, led by the Executor-class Super Star Destroyer Reaper, Kaine's flagship."

    There was another rustle as the Councilors adopted various frowns or sabacc faces.

    "However, there is reason for hope. Grand Moff Kaine has assiduously avoided serious combat with our forces ever since the Battle of Endor and declined to fully commit to Grand Admiral Thrawn's campaign two years ago. Our intelligence sources—" the Smugglers' Alliance, mostly, which still had extensive contacts in both the New Republic and the Empire—"indicate that many of the businesses in the Oversector wish to restore their traditional trade relationships with worlds that are now part of the New Republic."

    Leia paused, letting her gaze track over each of the other Councilors. Their skepticism was clear—especially among the non-humans. "Is that all?" asked Fey'lya, his tone dismissive.

    "There is one other thing I find particularly curious," Leia replied. "Grand Moff Kaine has adopted a practice unknown through the rest of the Empire: He has recruited non-humans to serve in the Oversector's military."

    Even Fey'lya sat up straighter at that, his expression pursing with surprised curiosity. "In what capacity?"

    "My understanding, and General Cracken can provide a more in-depth briefing on this at our leisure, is that some have even risen to the officer corps. They don't serve aboard the Oversector's Star Destroyers, but they do serve as pilots and crew on smaller ships, especially the Oversector's home-built Enforcer-class cruisers"

    "Interesting," Bel Iblis mused softly. "They must have been desperately in need of crew for ISB to tolerate that."

    Leia nodded. "The Oversector's military buildup faced the same problem that Thrawn did during the last campaign—they could build or acquire ships faster than they could train new crew. Kaine, thankfully, did not have access to clones."

    The shudder that went through the Council chambers was one Leia fully sympathized with.

    "However, there are two major problems which make the prospects for peace uncertain at best." She lifted a finger. "First, Grand Moff Kaine has personal ties to the New Order. He helped create COMPNOR and in that capacity was one of the founders of ISB, which remains devoted to war against the New Republic at any cost. The terrorist attacks at Rendili after its independence were committed by ISB operatives, and ISB is far stronger within the Oversector than it was at Rendili."

    Sian Tevv said something in Sullustan. "The esteemed Councilor from Sullust would like to point out that the ISB attacks at Rendili killed nearly fifteen thousand people and destroyed two of Rendili StarDrive's major construction facilities," Threepio translated. "And subsequent attempts at sabotage have been a major hindrance for the production of new warships."

    "I know," Leia said heavily. "But Kaine's ISB history may help us here. As one of its founders, he is one of the only people in the Empire who might be able to persuade ISB to seriously commit to peace with the New Republic. He did manage to convince them to accept non-human crew on some ships."

    "I don't think so," Bel Iblis said skeptically. "Kaine is well respected, but ISB is more likely to respond by calling him a traitor. Those personnel have been brainwashed for decades and they have power and wealth and prestige, even in a dying Empire. That would all be lost under the terms of any peace deal we could accept." He shook his head. "ISB will have to be destroyed, root and branch."

    "If that is the case, Kaine's ISB history may also help us accomplish that as well," Leia pointed out. "Who better to help us dismantle the Imperial Security Bureau than the man who helped create it?"

    "That assumes he's willing to participate."

    Kerrithrarr objected with an explosive, angry growl. "The Councilor from Kashyyyk objects to this entire discussion. Grand Moff Kaine has been complicit in the perpeutation of slavery in the Oversector," Threepio recited, doing his best imitation of an angry Wookiee's tone.

    "Any peace with the Oversector will require the total dismantling of slavery, with mechanisms for observation and verification," Leia replied firmly. "That is an unbreakable requirement, as it is with Eraidu."

    The big Wookiee shook his head furiously, grumbling as her droid continued translating. "The Councilor from Kashyyyk respectfully points out that even if Kaine is willing to accept that, the Oversector has many prominent businesses which rely on slavery as an integral part of their operations. For instance, the Amber Sun Mining Corporation relies on slaves for—"

    Leia cut him off with a growl of her own. "If we cannot assure the end of slavery and the repatriation of all Imperial-held slaves through negotiations, Councilor Kerrithrarr, we will assure it through war."

    The declaration stilled conversation as each member of the council considered that. Kerrithrarr offered a big, fang-bearing smile and crossed his enormous arms across his chest to make clear which of the two options he thought was more likely.

    "You said there were two problems, Leia," Bel Iblis interjected smoothly. "What is the second?"

    Leia glanced at Winter, who offered her a subtle nod. "The second threat to negotiations with the Oversector is the Inquisitorius." Leia leaned back in her chair, adopting confident body language in a way that she hoped the others wouldn't read as overcompensating, silently thankful that none of the other Councilors were Force-sensitives with a strong empathic sense. "With the permission of General Cracken, I have invited an expert on the Inquisitorius to brief us on the threat." She pressed one of the buttons on the board in front of her; the computer responded with a brief, acknowledging hum.

    The man who walked into the room was extraordinarily tall, nearly two meters in height. Kam Solusar had hair as white as Winter's, and he wore the cream-colored tunic and homespun brown robes that Luke had recently adopted for the new Jedi Order, modeled after the holos of Obi-Wan Kenobi from the Clone Wars. His belt bore two sabers: His own on his right, while his father's lightsaber hung from his left side, closer to his heart. Most importantly, he had been an Inquisitor, captured and broken to the will of Darth Vader, and served it for decades before he had, with the patient, unrelenting aid of Luke Skywalker, finally put that history behind him.

    Not that the Provisional Council was likely to let it go quite that easily.

    "Jedi Solusar," Leia greeted him. The brief, nervous flinch in his expression was matched by his Force-sense. "Thank you for agreeing to speak with us."

    "Of course, Councilor," Kam responded with a bow of his head, his resonant voice filling the space.

    Leia knew better than to leave silence that might let the other Councilors ask questions. "You have agreed to brief us on the Inquisitorius and its role inside Grand Moff Kaine's Oversector," she prompted him.

    "Yes," Kam said somewhat stiffly. His back was tight, his hands folded behind his back as his gaze swept over the Councilors assembled at the circular table. "Though I should start by pointing out that I have not been a member of the Inquisitorius since Endor, and the organization is not what it was while I was an Inquisitor."

    "Of course—"

    Kerrithrarr's gravelly growl overpowered Leia's voice, the interruption catching her off guard. "The Councilor from Kashyyyk wishes to know how a member of the Inquisitorius came to leave its service and become a Jedi," Threepio translated, putting as much of the Wookiee's aggressive tone into his own cadences as he could manage.

    Kam winced, the expression subtle but obvious to humans and aliens as practiced in the arts of politics as the ones in this room. "My service to the Inquisitorius was compelled since childhood," he admitted. "Recruits were picked for Force ability and put through intensive trials to elicit responses that opened them to the Dark Side of the Force. The death of the Emperor and Vader at Endor offered me an opportunity to escape—"

    "How many Jedi did you kill?" Bel Iblis' voice was cutting. "That was the mandate of the Inquisitorius, after all. From your record, you were recruited by the Inquisitorius not long after Palpatine seized power. You served the Inquisitorius for nearly two decades." Bel Iblis' hand rapped lightly on the table, his eyes dark and intent as he watched Kam. "Surely you killed some."

    Leia flinched. She had worried that the Councilors might be aggressive in this meeting, and for more than one reason, but she had hoped Garm would be more conciliatory than Kerrithrarr or Fey'lya.

    As much as she flinched, Kam's reaction was far more pronounced. He took a deep breath, his anguish obvious. Finally, after regaining his composure, he looked up to meet Bel Iblis' gaze. "Five."

    The tension in the room grew thick. Leia took the opportunity to glance at the other councilors; Bel Iblis, Fey'lya, and Kerrithrarr's expressions were blank and unreadable. Mon Mothma's pained expression, heavy with mourning, was paired with a bitter hardness. "Forgive us for being skeptical," Mon Mothma said slowly. "But Councilor Kerrithrarr asks an excellent question."

    "Yes, ma'am," Kam responded soberly. "It is a difficult question for me to answer." He took another deep breath; the Councilors let him. "Many of the Inquisitors, including myself, are… were… former Padawans. Others were members of the Jedi Agricultural Corps—Jedi who washed out of training before they became Padawans. A few were even Knights. We were selected by Vader. He set us against one another, found ways to tempt us with the Dark… to break us, or kill us, or have us kill one another. When we were broken, we all hated him, but hate… hate is easily manipulated, misled and redirected." Kam closed his eyes, his anguish deepening. "I hated him. I wanted to kill him, to kill myself... he took my hatred and self-loathing and used it as a weapon against others. Used me as a weapon." Kam swallowed hard. "If there is one thing I have learned, it is that self-loathing damages others as much as it damages one's own self."

    "Be that as it may," Mon Mothma's voice was calm, but unforgiving. "How are you different from the rest of the Inquisitors?"

    Kam refused to look away. "When I was given the chance to leave, I took it. The Inquisitors who remain with the Empire had that same chance to leave that I did." Kam paused, looking at each councilor slowly, saving his fullest attention for Bel Iblis and Kerrithrarr. "They chose to stay."

    "I should add," Leia put in, "that Jedi Skywalker has vouched for Jedi Solusar."

    "Are you a Jedi?" Mon Mothma asked Kam, her voice cutting. Leia winced as Mon declined to even look at her; the fight between them about the independence of the Jedi Order from the Republic had never been entirely resolved.

    "Jedi is a title that was given by the Masters of the Order to those they deemed worthy," Kam replied. "There are no masters now. Jedi Skywalker believes the title is important and that I am worthy of it, but I do not demand it." He shrugged his massive shoulders. "Whether I am or am not worthy of it is the will of the Force, and best left to the judgment of others."

    Mon Mothma looked like she was about to sally forth with another round of questioning, but she was preempted by Bel Iblis. "The Rebellion was always willing to accept defectors and offer forgiveness," he said, and his tone was far more conciliatory than it had been. Next to him, Kerrithrarr was also more relaxed, his arms crossed but without the looming aggressiveness that the Wookiee could sometimes adopt. "If Jedi Skywalker declares that you are a Jedi, then I for one am willing to accept his judgment."

    Leia glanced at Mon Mothma. The Chief of State wasn't looking at Bel Iblis, but the firming of her lips and the targeted glare she was currently sending above Kam's head said it all. Leia felt her back tighten and sent Winter a quick look; Winter's returning expression bore the same tension that Leia felt.

    It wouldn't take a betting man to lay odds that the longstanding tension between Bel Iblis and Mon Mothma was going to come to a head sooner rather than later. Leia was saddened, if unsurprised, their slugging match had started so soon.

    If they keep this up, Leia grouched, I'm locking them in a closet with a bottle of Savareen brandy until they can get whatever it is out of their systems.

    "Thank you for answering our questions," Mon Mothma said, her gracious tone belied by an evident frown. "Please continue your briefing."

    "Of course," Kam said, either oblivious to the tension or ignoring it. "As I was saying, the Inquisitors who remain chose to remain." He glanced at Leia. "There is much I could say, but I'll start with the bottom line. The men and women of the Inquisitorius are not Inquisitors because they are misled, or because they are trying to make the galaxy a better place in their own way. They are Inquisitors because they like it. They like the power, they like the prestige, they like the unfettered authority to inflict suffering. They are this way because they were broken—deliberately—by Vader, the Emperor, or by one another." He shook his head. "Or perhaps they are who they always were, and the Dark Side merely revealed their true selves. I do not believe they can be saved. If the war with the Empire is to be ended, the remaining Inquisitors will be an obstacle not easily surmounted."


    * * *​


    When Mon Mothma finally gaveled out the Council Leia turned to Winter. The two women wore matching expressions of exhaustion, and Leia offered Winter a hand as her white-haired aide started to stand.

    "Leia," Winter said, her tone frustrated and her glare sharp. "I'm just pregnant."

    Leia grimaced, belatedly remembering how frustrating Han's constant worrying during her own pregnancy had been. At least he'd had the excuse of her being hunted by Imperial assassins and going on diplomatic missions to hostile worlds. "Sorry," she said with a sigh.

    Winter smiled at her. "It's alright, this is clearly revenge for how delicately I treated you, but given how you felt at this stage you don't need to worry," Winter reassured her.

    "I will anyway," Leia said dryly.

    "I know," Winter agreed, rolling her eyes. "You hide it well, but you worry about everything." Winter leaned in close, lowering her voice to a whisper. "There's only one person in the New Republic who worries more than you, and that's Mon Mothma."

    Leia glanced over her shoulder, where the greying former-Senator, current Chief of State of the New Republic, was collecting her pads as she made her exit. "She has a lot to carry on her shoulders."

    "And she puts a lot of that weight on yours," Winter pointed out.

    "That's not true," Leia said defensively. "If I didn't take care of it she'd work herself into a catatonic daze."

    Winter looked like she was about to respond, but her voice faded out as she saw something behind Leia. She nodded in that direction.

    Leia turned. Kam was approaching, his expression weary and uncertain, both his hands tugging awkwardly on the cream-colored robes he wore. "I hope I didn't make anything more difficult," he said warily. "I didn't realize they were going to discuss my personal history."

    "You did fine," Leia assured him. "Some of the Councilors are still unhappy with my brother's decision to keep the Jedi independent of the New Republic, and they took that frustration out on you. You handled it as well as he would have." Leia hooked her arm through Winter's, making the other woman roll her eyes, then headed towards the exit. Beyond it, she could feel Jacen and Jaina's presence—and Kyp's. "How is Kyp's training going?"

    Kam followed. He loomed over both women—he loomed over most humans, and most aliens unless they were Wookiees—but despite his size, he could sometimes have a quiet, almost unnoticeable presence. Leia had become better acquainted with him over the last month, since Luke had left Coruscant on an errand with Mara and Lando. In that time, Kam had taken the role of Kyp's instructor in the vagaries of the Force. Leia's too, when she had time for it, which wasn't often.

    "Acceptably," he said, with his typical terseness. He hesitated for a moment, then offered a tiny shrug of his shoulders. "He's a natural."

    Leia nodded, feeling Winter's presence beside her. The white-haired woman was carefully silent; Leia knew that she liked Kyp—if Luke and Kam were the boy's teachers about the Force, Winter had been his primary academic instructor (and Han his primary teacher about everything else). But Leia also knew that she worried about Kyp.

    "That makes it even more important for him to have structured training," she said, instead of voicing the thought.

    Kam nodded in agreement. "Yes."

    Leia waited for him to continue. When the silence stretched, she only barely managed to resist the urge to roll her eyes. She was a talker, Han was a talker, and Kam's terseness was already verging on unsettling. Either Luke would have to get him to loosen up or she'd have to grow used to carrying that conversational weight as well.

    The brief hallway was one of multiple entrances from the meeting hall out into the public space. The furnishings were plas-wood, with low benches on either side for people to sit or place personal items. On each end of the hall was a security door, and Leia, Winter and Kam had to wait for the monitoring equipment to confirm their identities before it opened. They exited into the large waiting hall; today it was mostly empty, but in the future it would likely be filled with observers, family, and newsies. Threepio tottered after them, the sounds of his mechanical gears unmistakable.

    "Do you want to come with me to see the twins and Kyp?" Leia asked Kam. While Kyp wasn't anything like Kam's apprentice, and they weren't nearly as close as Han and Kyp were, Kam had assumed a paternal role.

    The tall Jedi turned in the direction of Leia's family. "I do actually," Kam said. "But I have some things I need to attend to. Luke asked me to examine some of the materials we recovered from Vader's tower here on Coruscant."

    "All right," Leia agreed, wincing at the mention of Vader. "I'll see you soon, then."

    Kam nodded, then withdrew.

    Han was there, with her children and Kyp. Jacen was standing next to Mobvekhar, who had become the twins' primary bodyguard; the Noghri watched both Jacen and their surroundings with an attentiveness that seemed excessive given the absence of people, but which Leia was grateful for nonetheless. Jacen saw her first, brightening and stumbling a bit—Mobvekhar offered him the barest hint of aid, almost imperceptible—and waved at her with the frantic excitement of a two-year old. "Mama!"

    The excitement swiftly drew the attention of the others and Leia separated herself from Winter to meet her twins in two awkward one-armed hugs. "Hey!" she laughed, grinning at Han and Kyp as she grappled with the twins. "I wasn't gone for that long."

    "Too long!" pouted Jacen.

    "Too long!" chanted Jaina.

    "Too long," echoed their father. "You missed the apartment tour."

    "Oh, right," Leia said, blinking. She glanced at Winter, who shrugged.

    "There didn't seem to be any way to escape for it."

    Leia grimaced. "True… but it would have been best for us all to have a chance to see it," she pointed out. "We're going to need more space than we have in the apartment in the Imperial palace, especially with three babies running about." After Winter's wedding, there had been a brief discussion of her moving into a separate apartment, but ultimately they had decided that a single apartment with more space made more sense.

    "I trust Han's judgment," Winter said calmly, her lip twitching with the faintest amusement.

    "I'm going to remember you said that," Han said, "and I'm going to remind you of it the next time you criticize my cooking."

    "Don't worry, Han. I won't forget."

    Han rolled his eyes and gestured at Cakhmaim. "Go ahead, tell Leia and Winter about the apartment." He winked. "It's perfect."

    "It has a refrigeration unit with adjustable shelves," announced the Noghri, the words and inflection utterly incongruous with the gnashing, inherently menacing sound of his voice.

    Luckily, Leia no longer found his voice disturbing to listen to, and it had never bothered Jacen or Jaina at all. "Does it," Leia said dryly. "And that surely was at the very top of our priority list."

    "I had it put in the top five, along with counter space and a proper burner unit," Han blustered.

    "It was deemed important," Cakhmaim confirmed. He didn't bother adding that the extensive security features were non-negotiable; for a Noghri, that went without saying.

    Leia shared a silent look with Han. He beamed back unapologetically, and she slowly felt herself start to reluctantly grin at him. After a few hours in a Council meeting, he knew exactly what she needed to feel good about the galaxy again.

    "Leia," a new voice came from behind her, a familiar one. She turned as Garm Bel Iblis approached. Unlike all the other Councilors, he walked alone, without any aides or staff. "Do you have a minute?"

    She glanced at Han, whose resigned shrug suggested that she keep it to as few minutes as possible. "Of course, Garm," she replied with a welcoming smile. "Why don't you walk with us, I think we were about to catch a transport back to the Palace." She gestured in the direction of the Skyhook's landing pads. "What do you need?"

    "I was hoping to talk to you about the latest draft of the Concordat," he said, his tone serious. "I have concerns about the degree of centralization implied by the draft document, and wanted to hear your insights from the latest rounds of negotiation."

    She sighed softly. It was, she suspected, a good thing Garm had not been able to join the Council meeting until after the debate over the Concordat. The personal wrangling would likely have annoyed him more than it annoyed Leia. Unfortunately, the problem wasn't really interpersonal dynamics, but some deeply felt disagreements about how best to structure a new galactic government, and it really was a problem they had to solve. The provisional arrangements made no one happy—not that the final version was likely to make anyone really happy either, in the end—but with the Empire's power waning, it became more and more important to present the galaxy with the new arrangements for consideration and ratification. "Of course, Garm," she repeated. "Why don't you come by the apartment tomorrow. In the morning, after breakfast? I can get you up to date on the current state of affairs. In the meantime," she gestured at all the people surrounding her family. "Have you met everyone here?"

    Garm hesitated again and she could feel his uncertainty. "I believe I've met everyone but the young man next to your husband," he finally said, nodding at Kyp.

    Kyp's sudden spate of nervousness matched Garm's. A lonely old man who has spent a lifetime doing his duty, and a lonely young man looking for a place in the world, she thought.

    "That's Kyp, Kyp Durron," Han said gruffly, and Leia's heart swelled at her husband's obvious protectiveness. "He's part of the family."

    The elder Corellian's eyebrows rose. "Your side of the family?"

    Han lowered his brow slightly and crossed his arms. "Yeah. You could say that."

    The crash of emotion that washed over Kyp hit Leia like a tidal wave. "Kyp's family was killed by the Empire," Leia said, steadying herself. It didn't seem like a good time or place to discuss Kyp's full history, and his Force abilities were something they definitely wanted to keep a secret. "So he's staying with us."

    "I see," Garm said, giving Kyp a longer look.

    "Councilor Bel Iblis has spent the last three decades fighting the Empire," Leia told Kyp. "He created his own military and helped found the Rebel Alliance. He's been one of the most important figures in the war against it."

    The words had the desired effect. Kyp straightened. "I want to fight the Empire too," Kyp said, and Leia could hear the quiet sincerity, the fervor, in his voice that she had heard in so many voices over the years. All the young humans and non-humans who had joined the cause. All the fervor of youth and purpose.

    All the medbays she'd visited over the years. All the premature grey hairs and worry lines.

    "Well," Garm's voice had the same dark, slightly gravelly quality that it always did. "Can you keep a secret?" he asked, beckoning Kyp over.

    Kyp leaned in with a suspicious cast of face.

    Garm's voice was conspiratorial now. "Did you see that big ship," he pointed at Lusankya in the distance.

    "I saw it," Kyp answered. Leia turned her own attention on Lusankya, the dagger-shape looming in the distance, the enormous red New Republic seal painted on the hull visible even from here.

    "Keep an eye on your newsfeeds. The people I left in charge of her are going to go after the Empire, and it won't be easy, and it won't be pretty, but I have faith that they'll give the Imps the thrashing they deserve."

    Kyp's sudden, eager smile wilted as Han glared at Garm. "The military is not for everyone. Lots of discipline, early mornings," Han interjected sourly. "Kyp prefers to sleep in."

    Garm pivoted back to Han almost apologetically. "That's true. And the food is truly terrible."

    Leia blinked slowly, trapped in a stretched-out moment of time. All she could see were fields of grave markers stretching out into the endless distance.




     
    Last edited: Oct 22, 2021
    Chyntuck and Vialco like this.
  14. WarmNyota_SweetAyesha

    WarmNyota_SweetAyesha Kessel Run Champion star 8 VIP - Game Winner

    Registered:
    Aug 31, 2004
    Superb introspection and reflection on personal and galactic things from Leia. Love seeing Kyp settled into the Solo family. :)
     
  15. Gabri_Jade

    Gabri_Jade Fanfic Archive Editor Emeritus star 5 VIP

    Registered:
    Nov 9, 2002
    Aw [face_love]

    I can't even tell you how much I love this [face_love]

    That's right :p

    Because of course you have to sneak some foreboding in there :p

    I like Kam. I never felt like I knew him in the books, but I like him a lot in your writing.

    Yeah, has anyone warned him about Luke's determination to redeem people? That may be an issue :p
     
  16. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
    I love Domestic!Han so much. I think that character transition, from smuggler and scoundrel to Dad and supportive husband first and foremost is perfect for Han, especially when the kids are at this age and when Leia is basically running the galactic government.

    He knew who he was marrying.

    I mean... [face_whistling]

    I never really felt like I knew him in the books either, so it's been nice to try to grow the character beyond what we got in Dark Empire and scattered other sources. (Union, mostly.) Kam went on to become the leader of the Jedi Order in many ways... although... I mean, if I get that far I have someone else in mind for that role...
    He'll always try! I think Kam knows that too.
     
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2021
  17. Gabri_Jade

    Gabri_Jade Fanfic Archive Editor Emeritus star 5 VIP

    Registered:
    Nov 9, 2002
    He totally did, and I think he couldn't be happier to take care of the home and family stuff, especially once the twins come along. He never had that, so he's determined that his kids will. Plus he gets to become Dewlanna to his own family, essentially, and I think he'd be incredibly happy to get to do just that.

    Tionne? [face_batting] Honestly, that would be kind of amazing...

    So admirable, and so inconvenient :p
     
  18. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006


    Chapter Four

    "Can this thing go any faster?"

    The streamlined, stolen airspeeder Sweet Seena careened through the cloud-puffed skies of Bespin, engines howling, jinking through minute course changes. It needed all of that speed, because its opponents were in hot pursuit.

    Despite the dangers its pilot, the Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker, was unable to restrain a face-splitting grin.

    For the once-farmboy from Tatooine, there were few parts of his life more enjoyable than sitting in a flimsy shell wrapped around an overbuilt engine, especially one that had been tweaked to just under unsafe running tolerances.

    When he'd been a teenager, bored and lonely and craving excitement that would never be found maintaining vaporators, he'd saved all the credits he could and purchased a T-16 Skyhopper. He'd then turned the flying tin into the closest he could get to a racing airspeeder and pushed its limits doing all kinds of dangerous things that probably should have gotten him killed five times over.

    Force, it had been fun.

    "You know, I think you're the only person aside from Han or Wedge to ever ask me that," Luke remarked when he had enough attention to spare. "The last time I took Fixer for a ride in my skyhopper he told me: 'You're going to kill us both!'" To be fair, Luke thought, he had been doing something incredibly reckless at the time. But on the other hand, he'd lost his primary flight stabilizer and still managed to shave five seconds off his best time and land the Skyhopper mostly in one piece…

    "You're going to kill us both," Mara said laconically, her attention barely on his flying. She had an electroscope in one hand and was holding an advanced datapad in the other, peering back at their pursuit and the enormous, sloping shape of Cloud City. With a frown she turned to face forward, putting the scope down and turning her attention to the datapad.

    Luke kept grinning. After all, the only part of his life better than flying was sitting in the flight engineer's seat as serenely as though she was on her morning commute in a droid-driven autotaxi.

    Mara looked back over her shoulder again, then checked the flight controls on her side of the airspeeder. "If we're not careful we're going to win," she pointed out. "Might want to lose some time around the next turn."

    Unlike Luke she had a mission for this flight that went beyond following the assigned route with (almost) as much speed as possible. The Baron Administrator's Cup Open was certainly a lot of fun, but hardly the reason they'd come to Bespin. Despite her focus, despite the way her much-more-advanced-than-it-appeared-to-be electroscope surreptitiously tracked over the floating garrison that served as the Empire's headquarters on Bespin, their bond in the Force—not to mention the gleam in her eyes—made it plain that Mara was thoroughly enjoying herself. His heart thudded in his chest as she turned towards him. Her hair was not its usual red-gold, nor were her eyes their usual green, but that grin was all Mara.

    "Why is winning a bad idea again?" he asked, even as he used a tight turn on the race route as an excuse to reduce his speed.

    With the airspeeder's pace slowed to something that was no strain at all for a pilot of Luke's skill and Force instincts, Mara clearly felt it was now safe to take small liberties. She leaned towards him, her voice shifting from purely professional to a playfully-husky that Luke was never going to get used to. "Because if we win, not even that red hair of yours is going to be enough to keep you from being recognized." She tilted her head and just watched him as he guided the airspeeder down one of the long, straight stretches, and Luke's cheeks flushed hot under her regard. Through the Force, Luke could feel her silent, amused gloating at having provoked him so easily, but sadly they both still had to pay some attention to the mission. She checked the datapad again. "Third marker, coming up port, at thirty degrees off-center."

    "You know—" Luke said absently as he threaded the speeder through the turn while icing out an adversary "—your current blonde makes you look like you and Tycho could be siblings."

    The last time they'd been together before the trip to Bespin had been Tycho and Winter's wedding. Luke had coaxed Mara into sitting next to him and they'd even managed to make it through the celebrations afterwards without any fatalities among the Rogues (and ex-Rogues). Then they'd been apart for the better part of a month, with Karrde and Iella pulling Mara off on a jaunt around the Outer Rim while Luke and Kam worked to establish the new Jedi Order.

    When Mara had come back, in need of a partner with piloting skills for a trip to the City in the Clouds, he had jumped at the opportunity. He'd been most eager to replace all the old memories of Cloud City with new ones, and with Mara dutifully recording every bit of data that her reconnaissance equipment could pull off of the Imperial Sky Fortress, Luke could not think of a single place in the entire galaxy he'd rather be.

    Mara briefly looked up from the datapad, which also connected to a myriad of concealed electronic warfare gear and scanners; her temporarily blonde hair was drawn back into a loose ponytail instead of her usual braid. "That would make Winter my sister-in-law. She's better at intelligence gathering than me and would be deadly armed with any of the decorative items at her wedding. I approve." She gestured ahead. "Fourth marker. Slow down a bit, I want to get a good impression of the Sky Fortress while we have the best view."

    Luke throttled back gently, the vibrations of Sweet Seena beneath them growing louder for a moment as the airspeeder's heavily modified engine adjusted to the shift. Although it bore an obnoxious orange and green checkmark pattern over a gloss white hull, and was marred by the holotabs of numerous Corporate sponsors, Sweet Seena's aerodynamics were impeccable and the engine ran as fast as if it had been stolen hot off a rich dilettante's landing pad.

    Which wasn't that far from the truth.

    The racing duo of Bytor Ibellik and Seena Nefyr did business in the Corporate Sector and throughout Imperial-held (and neutral) territory. More importantly, Ibellik and Nefyr were both natives of Eriadu, and like most upper-crust members of Eriadan society, they 'employed' labor they had purchased at market. Ibellik and Nefyr were also at present frozen in carbonite in the hold of their own ship while NRI slicers (and some of Karrde's people) went meticulously through their books, page by excruciating page, drawing out whatever information they could about the galactic slave trade.

    When the mission was over, Ibellik and Nefyr would be drugged, doused in very expensive alcohol, and then dropped in their suite on Etti IV. They would find what had been a profitable racing and customization company in tatters, stripped of free labor and open to some very nasty audits.

    For a Jedi of old, this was treading on dangerous ground. For the son of a slave and the nephew of freeborn farmers occasionally hassled by Hutt slave-catchers, whose Uncle had trained him to lispingly direct Jabba's goons off into Tusken territory or too close to Krayt burrows? This was mercy.

    But all of that aside, the arrest of Ibellik and Nefyr had presented an entirely unrelated opportunity, because they had been scheduled to compete in the Baron Administrator's Cup Open. It was serendipity that they looked enough like us.

    Mara had her electroscope out, directing it at the massive Sky Fortress. It was distinctly Imperial, hovering in a slightly higher orbit than Cloud City did. Luke spared it a glance; TIE interceptors were doing a patrol, keeping the racers too far away for most electronic espionage equipment to get good scans.

    It was a reasonable precaution. But, Luke thought with a swell of pride and affection, a mere reasonable precaution was never enough to stop Mara. He let the speeder drift slightly, not enough to draw the ire of the TIEs but enough to let Mara's scope work until he heard her confirmation that they had what they needed. "Got it," Mara said, retracting the scope.

    It was only the Force that saved them from disaster. Luke hammered the throttle and jerked the flight controls hard to port. A knifelike airspeeder, painted with a jagged mixture of red and yellow lines, whizzed past, cutting much too close. The airspeeder's engines roared, deafening for the brief moments it had cut within bare meters of Sweet Seena, the sudden turbulence rocking Luke and Mara with uncomfortable violence.

    Luke cursed under his breath and pushed the throttle back to maximum. Jedi business was Jedi business, and this was also a favor for friends, but this was also a race. Racing was serious business. For him, throwing a race was like Lando cheating at sabacc—if the other con wasn't using a skifter themselves, that was.

    If Mara noted his sudden burst of competitive ire, she didn't mention it. She also didn't seem even slightly phased by their near-death experience. "Fifth marker, vertical at point five. Flare the attitude jets as we pass, we want to see what kind of threat detection the tower has."

    Of all the things they needed to scout, 'the tower' was both the most important and the least exposed. As they continued the circuit around the settled areas of Bespin, with the clouds a billowing white all around with the horizon gleaming in the distance beyond, they also came almost dangerously close to the massive dome-like shape of Cloud City. The last leg of the race did this deliberately, ensuring that the gamblers who were betting on the contest got a good look at the racers during the final stretch. This also meant Luke and Mara got a good look at the buildings that topped Cloud City, most importantly the structure that had become Cloud City's Imperial HQ.

    Luke wrenched the yoke back and cranked the throttle. He glanced over at Mara. This was, without a doubt, the most dangerous thing they had planned, and it was important to get the timing exactly right. "Ready," he said.

    Mara traced her finger over her controls and activated Sweet Seena's targeting scanners. They weren't carrying any weapons, but the flicker would certainly be noticed by the local Imperial garrison—assuming they were even marginally competent—and gave their small craft the sensor signature of possible guided ordnance. Quad laser turrets and turbolaser batteries on the defense platform instantly swung around to cover the sky around Sweet Seena, and with them came the steady thrum of Luke's danger sense. Mara, who clearly felt it too, deactivated the targeting scanners just as they were hit by an automatic IFF confirmation query, demanding that Sweet Seena confirm its identification. Sweet Seena's IFF beacon responded instantly, confirming for the Imperials that they were, in fact, a racing airspeeder currently engaged in one of the more famous airspeeder contests in this part of space, and the turrets went dormant again.

    With a sigh of relief, Luke swept the throttle back to full and dipped lower, engine thrumming, just in time to scream past the primary observation lounge and the enormous crowd of invested gamblers.

    Mara tapped at her datapad, "So their threat detection is good." He could hear the frown in her voice. "It would be bad press to blow away some famous racers. Besides, the flicker on our systems was so fast, they probably assumed it was a glitch."

    "Did you get the full specs?"

    "I'm not sure. We'll go through all the data after we're on the ground. Sixth marker up in twenty seconds, Down fifteen degrees, left thirty."

    They were coming up on the final stretch, and Luke was incredibly tempted to push the airspeeder to its limits. It could take it—Luke could feel the speed still waiting to be unleashed—and Luke pushed a bit harder. But not as hard as he could. Mara was right, of course, winning the race would draw them unwanted attention. They'd have to stand on the podium and accept the Cup from the current stooge the Empire had installed as Baron Administrator, the focus of all the newsies, and as good as their disguises were, someone would notice that he wasn't Bytor Ibellik.

    But he'd be damned if they didn't at least come in second.

    The final landing of Sweet Seena was at her assigned landing pad at Racer's Row. Like the other not-winners, each of the racing airspeeders settled to the elevated, circular landing pads with a certain reluctance, as if unsatisfied with their placement. "We could have won," Luke said, allowing himself just a hint of adolescent petulance.

    Mara, still in character, smacked his arm lightly. "No self pity in my presence," she scolded him. "If we'd been trying to win, of course we would have won."

    Luke sighed indulgently. "The favors we do for friends," he lamented. "But I know Lando appreciates it, and I'm sure he made a hefty sum betting against us, not that he'd ever admit it. Shame there isn't a Second Place pot for this race. Maybe after we—"

    His voice caught as Mara leaned over the narrow gap between the two bucket seats and covered his mouth with her own. His arms snaked around her as he shifted his body to make the awkward embrace just a little less awkward.

    I missed you. Luke had no idea with which of them that thought had originated, but he could tell they both felt it fervently.

    There was still a dazed disbelief whenever they came together like this, like neither of them could really believe it was real. How could what had started on Myrkr have become this kind of gentle, shared intimacy? They hadn't even had a major fight yet.

    While the other pilots gave the traditional loser's interview, lamenting lost chances and offering meaningless platitudes about lessons learned, Luke and Mara took the opportunity to just be together.

    It was convenient, Luke mused in the corner of his mind that was still worried about such things, that Bytor and Seena were notorious for ending races this way.

    * * *​

    "Good job," said Iella Wessiri as Mara walked in. The cargo hold of Tempered Mettle was large, doubling as an in-flight launch bay for a snubfighter. Luke's X-wing sat in the middle of the painted landing lines, right where Mara had kept her Z-95 while she had been Emperor's Hand. Briefly, she glanced over—with inscounciant satisfaction—at the Rogue Squadron red adorning the battered snubfighter and pictured Palpatine's furious expression.

    Tempered Mettle had been commissioned from the Gallofree Yards as L6000-H-82688, an ISB infiltration and recon vessel. The Emperor's Hand had co-opted the vessel as one of her numerous transportation options. Since NRI had given it back to her, Mara had spent a fair number of hours debating whether or not to keep it. On the one hand, it brought back memories of the years she served Palpatine, memories Mara did not enjoy reliving. On the other hand, it was a fast, deceptively dangerous ship with ample cargo capacity and could be operated with a minimal crew.

    And it had space for Luke's X-wing.

    "But I have to point out," Iella continued, pursing her lips. "Bytor and Seena usually only kiss once at the end of a race. As I estimate it, you and Luke kissed at least—"

    Mara threw her obnoxiously sloganed jacket at Iella. It landed on Iella's head, and Mara smirked as the Corellian intelligence operative disentangled it with a deft sweep of her left hand. "Any other questions?" Mara asked sardonically.

    Iella chuckled, folding the jacket over her arm. "I'll just put this in the coat closet," she said primly. "And yes, actually. Did we get it all?"

    "I think so, but we'll need to go through all the information on the way back to Coruscant," Mara replied. "I'm sure we got a good peek at the Sky Fortress and the tower, which were the two main targets, but I'm a bit less sure about the readings on the two Carrack-class cruisers they have on patrol. And they had TIEs on CAP for the race, so I can confirm that the Sky Fortress has at least one squadron of TIE interceptors." She shook her head. "I'm sure General Antilles—" Iella lifted an eyebrow at her, silently correcting, and Mara allowed her friend the victory "—sure Wedge can take Bespin with the fleet he's been given. But we'll also need to make sure the Empire can't burn off the Tibanna gas reserves or destroy Cloud City, like they did to those shipyards at Rendili."

    The thought of stealing Bespin out from under the Empire had many members of the Smugglers' Alliance salivating. Not only would it be a serious blow to the Imperial war machine, which relied on Bespin's Tibanna gas more and more as its territory shrank, but it also would be a lucrative new trade good.

    "Right," Iella agreed with a nod. "It's not an easy job." They walked together towards the front of Tempered Mettle's cargo hold, where the primary entry ramp was located. Iella stopped and pulled open one of the docking bay's stowage areas that had become an ad-hoc cloakroom, depositing Mara's jacket unceremoniously on a hanger, then they took one of the two symmetrical spiral staircases that went up to the ship's passenger deck along the interior of the ship's blunt, rounded nose. "So we don't want to do any additional recon while we're here?"

    The staircase led them directly to the Tempered Mettle's bridge. Artoo-Detoo whistled a cheerful greeting from his preferred spot (which was next to the chair that Luke usually occupied). At the helm, Mara's pilot droid, Slips, twittered his own deeper greeting. The two droids had initially been wary of one another, but eventually they'd come to an agreeable detente with Slips asserting authority over the helm but still allowing Artoo to interface directly with the Tempered Mettle's main computer.

    "All clear," Mara told the droids. "Your master will be along in a few minutes," she told Artoo. "He's having a chat with Lando." She led Iella through the bridge and into the lounge behind, which Mara had turned into a workspace for herself and Iella, as well as a galley, recreation, and dining space. "I don't think so," she finally answered Iella's question. "Bytor and Seena aren't known for sticking around after a race, and the longer we're here the higher chance someone who actually knows them tries to say hello. Better to put some distance between us and Bespin before anyone starts asking questions." She stopped near the computer system which lined the port bulkhead, placing the datapad carrying all the precious intelligence down next to it. With a few quick taps on the computer she instructed it to download all the information and begin sorting it for human analysis.

    "No time for a romantic dinner with Luke at one of the luxury bistros?"

    Mara's lips twitched into a brief smile. Luke had asked the same question. They hadn't told anyone they were together—Luke swore he hadn't—but despite the attempt at subterfuge their friends and family had figured it out in a matter of days and stopped bothering to pretend they didn't know after about six weeks of polite pretense.

    She couldn't even blame it on Luke's incredible lack of subtlety. Karrde had figured it out in a matter of hours, and either he'd told the rest of Wild Karrde's crew or they'd figured it out themselves. Such information was gold among smugglers—worth a sabacc pot, or a favor—which was why Aves had dared to tease her about it the last time she'd seen him.

    "No," she said, surprising herself with a swell of longing. She silently admitted to herself that she would enjoy a romantic dinner with Luke. She looked around the interior of Tempered Mettle, remembering briefings with Kaythree and communications with Palpatine, plotting and planning, coming up with the ideal plan to eliminate a threat to the Empire or force a hidden threat to expose itself. And instead of ruminating on those memories, she thought instead about dinner with Luke. A wide open transparisteel window, billowing clouds beyond, and the endless blue-orange sky gleaming with twilight. A decadently expensive meal. Taking a scenic walk and holding hands.

    And with that, she had put another unpleasant memory to rest. For the time being at least.

    "Maybe next time?" Iella asked. "After Wedge comes in here and kicks the Empire out? We can have a proper double date."

    Mara could not think of anything as unlikely as the Emperor's Hand going on a date, let alone a double date. Instinctively, internally, she recoiled from the idea. Her romantic fantasy had been of her and Luke, together, alone.

    Somewhere, not too far from the ship, Luke felt her moment of consternation. His mind reached out to hers, as if interlacing their fingers together. A reassurance and encouragement.

    "Maybe," Mara found herself saying. "Sure."


    * * *​

    Lando's disguise wasn't as elaborate as Luke and Mara's had been, but he'd spent the entirety of the trip to Bespin hidden away aboard the Tempered Mettle, acting as the mission coordinator. His knowledge of Cloud City was unmatched, and his wide range of skills made him a surprisingly good handler. He was standing on the landing pad, staring out at Cloud City.

    "I won it in a sabacc pot," Lando said as Luke came to stand beside him. The city gleamed brilliantly, white and clean—but now Luke could see scuffs, slime and grime, visual clues to how the Imperial depredations had degraded it in the years since his first, tragic visit to Bespin. "But I was a pawn, you know."

    Luke hadn't heard this story. "A pawn?"

    "Yeah," Lando laughed softly. "The local laborers fronted me most of the entry fee. They wanted to get out from under the previous Baron Administrator." He shook his head. "I wasn't completely corrupt, they said."

    "That sounds like high praise, coming from them."

    "Mmhmm," Lando hummed noncommittally. He said nothing more; a few of Cloud City's cloud cars flitted distantly around the structure, the evening lights illuminating as the sun set. "And maybe it was. I took it to heart." He held up his hand, flashing Luke one of his famous grins. "Don't get me wrong! I made a fortune as Baron Administrator! But I didn't make nearly as much as my predecessors." His smile faded. "When Vader arrived… well." He sighed, still looking pained despite all the years since.

    "You want it back? The Baron Administrator job?"

    "Yeah," Lando agreed softly. "I really do. I was happy here. And I felt like I could do the right thing and have it benefit everyone, myself included. The galaxy doesn't always work like that." He shook his head. "Let's be plain. The galaxy almost never works like that."

    "Maybe if more people believed it could work like that, it would," Luke suggested.

    Lando laughed and slapped Luke's back. "Luke, has anyone ever told you that you're a relentless optimist?"

    Mara, rolling her eyes. "Yes," Luke said with a laugh.

    "Well it's true," Lando confirmed. He took one last look at the city. "Come on. I love this place, but not so much that I want to be locked up here. Besides, if we leave preparing dinner to the lovely ladies, the only thing we'll have to eat tonight is ryshcate and ration bars."

    * * *​

    Lando turned the generously-oiled onion arcs in the galley's largest skillet. He was deeply appreciative of the numerous amenities offered by Tempered Mettle; he'd used the trip from Coruscant to Bespin to get accustomed to the ship, complaining—mildly—that the galley wasn't as large or luxurious as the one on Lady Luck. Next, he had playfully teased Luke and Mara for taking "The only good room" and had made much of the spartan nature of the crew's quarters and what the pallet had done to his back.

    Meanwhile, Iella drooled over the sheer possibility of the extra cargo space, the concealed weapons, and finely-tuned bigger engines paired with thicker armor and heavier shields. All three of them, and Artoo, had caught her casting evaluative glances at the X-wing stored inside the capacious hangar.

    The galley took up the starboard side of the large open area that was both lounge and workspace, with a large circular table with chairs arranged around it, the holoprojector in the center. That holoprojector fuzzed, flickering from silent ads back to a pan shot across an enthusiastic studio audience.

    The rich scent of the frying bulb segments paired with appealing herbs wafted through the ship. Iella noticed first, turning her head in their direction. Mara was too invested in reviewing their intelligence to notice; Artoo-Detoo worked next to her, helping her sort through it all and whistling when he found something interesting.

    Luke stopped mincing herbs and retrieved the commtroler, canceling the mute function just as the camera centered on the bubbly Rutian Twi'lek host Nal'Dezal as she beamed her dazzling smile.

    "Welcome back to the budding experts in clothing and first-time fashionistas, it's time to DRAPE! THIS! CAPE! Our first contestants are..."

    Mara groaned without looking up. "And this is who the Rebellion chose to promote to General," she muttered under her breath, glaring at Lando. "Wes Janson has a lot to answer for."

    She had a point, Luke thought. Wes had been one of chief cheerleaders for Drape This Cape and other similar HoloNet programs. He hadn't been the only one, though, and for a brief moment Luke paused in his chopping as he thought about Wes, Dak and Cinda Tarheel clustered around a tiny holoprojector in a frigid lounge on Hoth, laughing and placing bets just days before the Imperial attack on the base. New episodes had been smuggled in with as much anticipation as rations and munitions.

    "I think Tul-fan's got this one in the bag," Iella said brightly, gesturing at the Talz contestant with her bottle of lomin-ale. "The contrast of the sleek Irudian velvet with her tufted fur really helps bring out all four of her eyes."

    Mara's head whipped around, her normally-composed features marred by a haze of confusion spiced with hints of bitter betrayal. "How do you know about this holoprogram?"

    "What do you think we listened to on stakeouts, smashball?" Iella rolled her eyes. "No. If Corran had so much as touched the channel control, Gil would have taken a finger with his backup stiletto. Not to mention that occasionally the flash-drama between the contestants and host offered perspective on our cases." She offered a wry grin. "It is a Corellian program, after all."

    "Besides," Lando said, with a very saturnine smile, "Nal'Dezal has quite the eye. The cape makes the man after all. Choose a bad cape, and your con may stall before you even cross the threshold." He tipped Mara an acknowledging nod. "You were at Jabba's, what did you think about that Jedi hood Luke wore in? I helped him pick it out, going for this air of stylish, mysterious, with a delectable hint of danger."

    Mara arched a single eyebrow while considering her response, "It certainly made him look competent and dangerous. Far more serene than I expected… right up until he got dropped in the rancor pit."

    Luke winced and sent Mara an amused look. "I should have been paying more attention to where I had my footing," he conceded.

    The onion had stopped sizzling and began to brown. Lando stepped out of the way, gesturing to Luke. Luke quickly swept all the chopped vegetables into the skillet, added some frozen poultry sections, and then retreated as Lando added spices and started stirring it all together. A new mixture of fragrant scents immediately flooded the room as the Oryza grains hissed away merrily in a small pot on a side burner.

    That task done, Luke offered Mara a grin. "So did we get everything we needed?"

    Iella stepped next to the holoprojector and re-muted the game show, just as the Talz was about to face the panel of judges. "I think so," she replied. "The Sky Fortress is very well armed and armored, but is inherently vulnerable to an assault from orbit. The bigger problem will be the Tower and the Imperial force on Cloud City itself. Boarding the station and recapturing it before they can sabotage it will be hard."

    Lando let the meal sizzle for a moment. "That's why we made contact with the locals," he pointed out. "The resistance force on Bespin is small but can be mobilized to action. They might be able to act, if they have support." He sighed. "But no matter what we do, it's not going to be easy."

    "Wedge will come up with something," Luke said confidently. "He always does."

    Mara's quarters aboard Tempered Mettle served a number of purposes. It was, of course, where she slept. It also had an ample armory, mostly complete from when she had been Emperor's Hand, with a large selection of blaster pistols and rifles, armor, and other items. Luke knew that she was thankful to have gotten all of it back, after General Cracken and New Republic Intelligence had been satisfied with their analysis. It still bothered her sometimes—Luke could see the times her eyes were haunted by the memories that came with the armor, the blasters, the empty spot on the wall where her lightsaber had been kept—but those moments had grown more infrequent as the months had passed.

    After she had saved his life and, more importantly saved him from deskbound boredom, General Madine had also sent her a gift basket full of some top of the line hidden trackers, spoofers and other hidden gadgets probably "stolen" from Cracken. Mara had thought that was sweet.

    Some girls like flowers, some like chocolate, and some like lockpicks and illegal disruptors disguised as hairdryers and hydrospanners, Luke thought wryly.

    While she had been the Emperor's Hand, this room had also been her operations area. There were shelves with books and datapads and a number of miscellaneous items, most of which were relics of one successful mission or another, and a computer terminal and holoprojector well suited for researching and planning out covert operations. After the Smugglers' Alliance began working with NRI, Mara and Iella had turned the central lounge space into their planning area instead, which had left quite a bit of extra empty space.

    That space became his.

    Not officially, of course. Mara had never sat down and told him that it was his. But it was his all the same. The closet where he kept his new Jedi robes, the cream and brown he'd seen in old holos of Obi-Wan Kenobi that he and Kam had decided were proper for Jedi, and his more casual clothes.

    Mara was most comfortable here and had even given up her apartment on Coruscant in favor of just sleeping aboard her ship… although, when she had the chance she stayed with him, in his apartment in the Imperial Palace.

    Luke sat on the edge of their bed. She was asleep. The temporary blonde hair dye had largely been washed out, creating a mix of pale yellow and red-gold that evoked a Tatooine sunset splayed over her pillow. Mara was a remarkably still sleeper, except during nightmares, and she wasn't having one at the moment. Content.

    He gently stroked his finger over her cheek, then slid into the bed next to her. She stirred, not waking, but he could tell that even asleep she recognized his presence. Otherwise her normal vigilance would have instantly brought her back upright, likely with a blaster in hand. Instead, a hint of a smile curled her lips, and Luke's heart melted all over again.

    She moved, an uncharacteristic shift, and her hand rested on his chest, fingers grasping gently.

    "Good night, Mara," he murmured, resting his hand over hers. He silently suspected that when they got back to Coruscant these calm moments wouldn't last beyond hitting atmosphere, and he resolved to make the most of the ones they had for as long as they could.

    * * *

    The twin suns of Tatooine hadn't come over the horizon yet, and the sky was full of stars. Luke could hear the sound of Owen puttering in the kitchen, preparing the morning legmi. The cool drink gave energy and spirit, both necessary for moisture farmers facing the morning suns.


    Luke collected the tools for vaporator repair, before instructing his droid Treadwell to go communicate with the machines and see which ones weren't operating at peak efficiency, so they could set their morning priorities.

    When the droid had moved away, Luke leaned back and peered up at the sky. It was so clear it was like they were flying through space; Luke could almost feel the planet moving underneath him, traveling at astonishing speeds. But the stars were distant and still, out of reach.

    He futzed with his macrobinoculars, trying to draw them nearer, imagining what the worlds that went around them were like. He'd read about a world of water, but found he couldn't even imagine it. How would it not just … fall apart?

    The sounds from the kitchen faded, and the light went out. Owen emerged with two tall, clear glasses of legmi and handed Luke one. "Drink it slowly," Owen cautioned, looking somehow younger than Luke remembered him. Owen noticed the macrobinoculars, and his expression twitched with resignation and fondness. "Looking at the stars again?"

    Luke nodded. He sipped the drink, feeling the way it relieved tension, provided focus.

    Sometimes, on the best mornings, Treadwell would come back and tell them that the vaporators were working at peak efficiency already, and they would just sit and watch the stars, or go for a ride in Owen's speeder. As if on cue, Treadwell returned, offering a few of his low, deep beeps—the ones that Luke hoped for, every morning.

    "It seems we have some free time today," Owen commented. "Want to go for a ride?"

    The Lars family speeder was a staid, reliable vehicle probably older than Owen. It almost never broke down, and when it did, it usually needed only simple fixes. The cool, pre-dawn Tatooine air cosseted them both as they swept by some of the more distant vaporators that belonged to the farm.

    They traveled farther out than they ever had before, and despite the sense of adventure, there was a growing knot in Luke's heart that he wouldn't be able to find his way home. The morning darkness seemed to grow deeper, as if stalking them on a hunt.

    His uncle must have noticed Luke's growing unease. Owen brought the landspeeder to a stop and swept his arm up to point at the stars. "See that one, Luke?" Owen pointed out a trail of stars, two rows deep, that somehow Luke had never noticed before. "That's the Dragon. Follow its back, down two dorsal ridges and see the tail? Keep it forward, as you walk with the Bantha Herd to your right, and you'll always find your way home. Let me show you."

    They pointed the speeder's nose at the Dragon's tail. The ridges of Tatooine passed on either side of them, seeming to part to grant them passage. Darkness lightened into dawn, and the twin suns of Tatooine rose behind them, casting the world in brilliant red-gold light.

    When Luke woke, he was home.
     
    Last edited: Oct 28, 2021
    Chyntuck likes this.
  19. WarmNyota_SweetAyesha

    WarmNyota_SweetAyesha Kessel Run Champion star 8 VIP - Game Winner

    Registered:
    Aug 31, 2004
    I love this! I love that Mara has found a professional niche working with Iella, and occasionally Luke, and that they can come together now and then for some sweet growing closer time.
     
  20. Gabri_Jade

    Gabri_Jade Fanfic Archive Editor Emeritus star 5 VIP

    Registered:
    Nov 9, 2002
    If by any chance I didn't already love Luke and Mara, this section would have done it. Mara's utter unconcern despite Luke being in full racing mode is just a thing of beauty [face_love]

    They're a matched pair, they really are :p

    I love both Mara's analytical assessment and the fleshing out of Winter's own character :cool:

    I rather like Luke's interpretation of the matter. And I love that Luke is not a Jedi of old, nor really trying to be.

    He's so proud of her being smart and sneaky and determined [face_love]

    Thank you for writing a Jedi!Luke who's still Luke. We don't get that nearly often enough.

    That's right :cool:

    [face_love] [face_love] [face_love]

    Isn't it just :p

    Truly a form of healing: thinking of all the ways her current life would piss Palpatine off :p

    Yay, Slips! Honestly, I'm still a little sad about Slips going down with the Fire.

    Six weeks of pretending? Those are some pretty good friends.

    Aw, Mara has a bunch of friends now [face_love]

    I have always thought that Lando got a raw deal every which way in ESB. He didn't ask to have Vader come take over his city. It wasn't just his life at stake if he tried to defy Vader, it was everyone else there too - and Lando still tried repeatedly to mitigate the damage, not just for him or Cloud City or Han or Chewie, but also for Leia and Luke, who he'd never even met. He tried to argue with Darth Vader. He tried to save Luke, a total stranger, from being frozen in carbonite. He risked his life to get Leia and Chewie free and try to get Han back. He for sure put a target on his own back with the Imperial military by openly warning the populace of what was happening and telling them to evacuate. Lando was just sitting here in Cloud City, minding his own business, enjoying his life, and along comes Darth freaking Vader to ruin it all, and Lando puts his own neck on the line over and over and over again to try to help everyone else, loses everything he had in the bargain, and still has Han and Leia and Chewie mad at him throughout (and Chewie almost straight up murders him). I get that Han and Leia and Chewie had plenty of reason to be angry, but dang, Lando didn't do any of it and he's trying to help you guys without getting a whole city blasted or put under Imperial occupation.

    The lovely ladies have much better things to think about than food :p But also, this scene made me hungry, now I have to go cook something

    All the kudos for this amazing reality tv show name :cool:

    I maintain that one of the very best things about the GFFA is that capes are clearly a fashion staple. Capes are awesome, and we should all wear them more often, and I am not even joking. Look how dang stylish Lando and Bail Organa were in their capes. We should all aspire to looks like these.

    Two of these things are much more useful than the other two; I cannot argue with Mara's priorities.

    Watch her be best buddies with Madine now :p

    Aw [face_love]

    Can you imagine the stargazing you could do on Tatooine? Especially in the winter when the air is steadier. Talk about a dark sky environment [face_love]

    You know, I could understand that view coming from a lifelong Tatooine resident [face_thinking] Imagine what the Mon Calamari and Quarren think of Tatooine :eek:

    I will never get tired of family moments between Luke and Owen and Beru [face_love]

    I also adore the concept of entirely different constellations from different planets. Of course Tatooine would have Dragon and Bantha Herd constellations [face_love]
     
    Bel505 likes this.
  21. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
    Mara trusts him! Just about anyone else and she'd insist on behind behind the controls herself...

    Full credit to DrMckay, who wrote most of this passage. It was his idea to highlight Owen and Tatooine's history with slavery.
    :D I'm glad you think we got him right! Again, all the credit to DrMckay, who did the first drafts for a lot of this section.

    Lando is one of my favorite characters in Star Wars. He absolutely did nothing wrong in ESB. He had obligations and he did his best to live up to him. I want to use him more, it was a shame he didn't appear in Interregnum and I'm glad to give him a role in The New Order!
    This also is DrMckay's doing! He drafted a whole lot of this chapter! I promise you, I would never have come up with a Capes reality HoloNet show...

    He's not a main character... but his name will appear again in this story, I promise! And I wonder what Mara is going to do with those gadgets...

    Time for Chapter 5!
     
  22. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
    Chapter Five

    Kyp did not want to meditate.

    The Solo residence in the Imperial Palace was not enormous by the standards of some beings on Coruscant, but it was not small either. It had four bedrooms, all of which were occupied by one member of the extended family or another, a kitchen, a large dining and leisure space, a few utility closets, and Leia's office. Kyp was in the leisure space, sitting near the large windows overlooking the city, as Han finished cleaning up from breakfast. Chewbacca was elsewhere, likely working on the Falcon in preparation for a trip back to Kashyyyk. Jacen was ambling around after his father; Jaina was playing with a toy droid that had become her favorite (she had a tendency to take it apart and then cry when she couldn't figure out how to put it back together again).

    Kyp stood up and circled the room. A stack of datapads were on a bench against the wall, along with a few flimsi-bound tomes. That was Kyp's homework, assigned by Winter. Kyp didn't resent it, exactly, but he'd still rather have gone with Chewie to help the Wookiee work on the Falcon.

    The meditation was his homework assigned by Luke and Kam. He liked them, if he found Kam a bit standoffish—Kam was the kind of person who, had he been sentenced to the Spice Mines, would have claimed his corner and not let anyone approach that corner for the duration of his stay—and Kyp found Jedi training about the Force far more interesting (perhaps because he found it less difficult) than Winter's endless lessons about galactic history, the Basic language, mathematics (although Chewie had convinced Kyp he would need it for space travel, so Kyp put in a real effort), and the rest of his assigned courses.

    There was a door chime. "Hey kid," Han called from the kitchen. Jacen poked his head out the side of the door frame, peering at the front door, and Jaina momentarily stopped her dismantling of her toy droid to look up as well. "Get the door, will you? That'll be Bel Iblis."

    "Sure," Kyp called back, already in motion. He nearly stumbled as Mobvekhar seemed to appear from nowhere just behind him, standing attentively near the door—just in case whoever was beyond it was a threat, Kyp supposed. "How do you do that?" Kyp scowled.

    "Practice," the Noghri growled, embellishing his guttural Basic with harsh consonants.

    Kyp frowned at him and opened the door.

    Garm Bel Iblis was as tall as Kyp. Neither of them were quite as tall as Han Solo, and neither reached the gargantuan heights of Kam Solusar, but Bel Iblis' eyes were level with Kyp's as the door opened. "Ah, Master Durron," the tall Corellian greeted him. "I take it the Councilor and her husband are distracted at the moment?"

    "Han is in the kitchen," Kyp replied, taking a step back to allow Bel Iblis to enter the room. From the kitchen there was a sound of Jacen's babbling while Han dealt with domestic chores.

    Jaina popped her head over the couch. "Unca GAM!" Next to her was her toy droid, now dismantled into its component parts, and Kyp wondered if this time she would succeed in putting it back together on her own, or if Chewbacca would find his way back to the apartment to help her reassemble it.

    "Well hello there, Miss Jaina," Bel Iblis greeted the brown-haired toddler with a smile.

    Jaina grinned back, holding up the head of her dismantled droid. "Droid!"

    Bel Iblis' expression flickered with something undefinable, but Kyp had an advantage he was still learning to use. The sudden wave of sorrow that crashed over the Corellian Senator was enough to almost make Kyp's knees buckle. Jaina seemed to note it too, her tiny expression scrunching in dismay.

    Bel Iblis' eyes widened in understanding and he immediately stepped past Kyp. He took Jaina's small hand in his, offering her a reassuring touch, then helping her fit the droid's dome back atop its tiny, pretend-brain.

    "Ta-ta," said Jaina, having easily moved past the moment. She fell down on the couch and went about trying to put the other pieces together with a studious look on her face.

    "I'm sorry," Bel Iblis murmured to Kyp, now that Jaina was settled. "I didn't mean for you to…" his voice trailed off, and he offered a slight shrug. "I'm not used to being among Force sensitives again. It must be an odd experience, having so many together in the same space."

    "You get good at shielding your feelings," Kyp said. "Jacen and Jaina pick up on intense emotions quickly." He watched Bel Iblis curiously, thinking about things his newfound family had said. He tried some of the unfamiliar words, flashes of memory of his own parents and how they'd taught him to treat others. Words which would have been utterly alien, were he still on Kessel. "Are you all right?"

    Bel Iblis sighed softly. "Just an unexpected memory, that's all," he replied. He offered Kyp a sad smile. "The Empire took my family from me, too," he explained. But Bel Iblis, Kyp realized, had taken that pain and turned it into purpose, and refused to linger over it. "But that's why it's important we keep moving forward. This thing that Han and Leia have built, a marriage, children, family, it's as precious as spun emberglass, and just as fragile sometimes." He shook himself from his reverie. "I take it Councilor Organa is in her office?"

    Kyp nodded. "With Winter and Threepio." He passed a happy Jaina still putting legs back on her droid and knocked on the door to Leia's personal workspace. "Leia?" he called, still not entirely comfortable using her first name but just as uncomfortable using any of her titles. "Gener— err, Senator Bel Iblis is here."

    The door slid open. "Oh my," Threepio said apologetically, appearing on the other side of the threshold. "I'm so sorry for keeping you waiting. Please, do come in Councilor."

    Garm offered Kyp a smile, then entered the office. The door slid closed behind him.

    "Learn from that one," Came a rasp from behind him. Kyp spun around. He had entirely forgotten Mobvekhar's presence. "To grow so old as a warrior shows much wisdom," the Noghri growled from beside him, making Kyp jump and scowl yet again.

    "I'll keep that in mind," Kyp growled back, furious at allowing himself to be startled yet again. And yet, the Noghri's presence was a reassurance, too, because Kyp knew Mobvekhar and Cakhmaim were here to protect the Solos, and anyone dedicated to protecting his family Kyp considered a friend.

    Even if Mobvekhar was more terrifying than anyone he'd known on Kessel.

    * * *​

    Leia looked up as the door slid open, her cheeks going flush with embarrassment. "Oh no, Garm, I'm sorry I lost track of time or Winter and I would have met you when you arrived." She silently chastised herself for not setting an alarm.

    "Oh, it's no problem," Garm replied. "Kyp and Jaina let me in."

    That made Leia smile. "Kyp then. Jaina tries but she's not tall enough to reach the door controls yet." She gestured for Garm to come join her and Winter by her desk. "We were just reviewing the latest draft of the Concordat," she explained. "The structure of the Senate and the process by which the Committees will be appointed."

    Garm nodded seriously as he settled into the chair across from Leia's. Winter settled into her chair next to him. Leia's desk was covered with datapads and flimsi-bound volumes, computer screens busy with texualt comparisons and references to ancient legal traditions and the governing documents of a thousand different worlds. Being able to refer to all the old traditions was vital, Leia was convinced, to persuade all the worlds of the Old Republic to commit anew to a galactic government.

    Winter's side of the desk was entirely empty. She needed no references for the sake of comparison, a fact of that Leia was both envious of and horrified by.

    "I'm afraid that's not what I wanted to discuss," Garm said seriously. He paused, glancing between the two women, then sighed heavily. "Leia,I think the Provisional Council is approaching this problem in entirely the wrong way."

    Leia's breath caught in her throat. The last thing they needed was a division in the Council itself about the Concordat. Even a hint of discordance, especially from someone as prominent as Garm Bel Iblis, could potentially be disastrous when it came time for ratification. Leia schooled her expression into something that she hoped was less panicked than she felt. "What do you mean?"

    Garm gestured at all the datapads. "Leia, the Council—" Leia knew in her gut that by 'the Council', what Garm really meant was 'Mon Mothma' "—is intent on reconstituting the Old Republic. The structures you're describing here are largely identical to the structures that I remember from my last tenure in the Senate, which are largely identical to the ones you remember from the Imperial Senate." He held up a hand, forestalling her objection. "I know there are differences, but they're marginal differences. I'm afraid the emphasis is in the wrong place."

    "Go on," Leia encouraged, her panic subsiding. Bel Iblis wasn't attacking the project itself. That was good.

    "Instead of thinking about how to rebuild the Old Republic," Bel Iblis went on, "we should be thinking about what went wrong with the Old Republic. How did Chancellor Palpatine manage to subvert the institution?" He suddenly looked very tired and very old, Leia thought, as he hunched over the far side of the desk, leaning towards her and Winter. "I was there too, along with Mon Mothma and your father. I mourn Bail's absence, Leia, more than you know, because I think now is the moment we miss him most. He did so like to build."

    Leia took a slow breath, fighting back a wave of sadness. It was a thought she'd had herself, more than a few times, in the last year. Along with Mon Mothma, Bail Organa had been the finest political mind Leia had ever known—with the possible exception of Breha Organa—and Garm was right. She felt their absence mightily now, even more than she had in the months after Yavin. Then, she had merely mourned them and lamented their absence from her life. Now, she lamented their absence from the galaxy, and wished dearly she still had their guidance and wisdom.

    "But he and I used to sit down and talk about this, with Sena and your mother," Garm continued. "The Old Republic was corrupt. It had been for centuries, but in the last decades it had reached the point where graft was the only factor that many Senators even considered when making voting decisions. It was stagnant, unable to act on virtually any issue until it was decades past the moment of maximum impact, which left millions to suffer indignities, especially on the Rim. And all this was complicated by its sheer size."

    "The New Republic will not be as large as the old one was," Winter said, with her clean, aristocratic Alderaanian accent. "And it will have stricter rules about who can and cannot have a Senate seat."

    "Of course," Leia agreed readily. "We're trying to take steps to deal with each of these issues, Garm, but it can be hard—"

    "Leia," Garm interrupted. "I've read the latest draft of the Concordat. I think it's very good in a lot of ways. I like the extensive Committee system, and how it takes some of the legislative and executive authority out of the hands of the Senate and gives it to appointed specialists while maintaining oversight mechanisms. I like how the Chief of State's authority is heavily restricted, to make sure we can't have another Palpatine emerge. But like any government, whether or not it functions well will rely on the good will of the members of the Senate, and that's not something you or I or Mon Mothma can guarantee." He removed a datapad from his jacket pocket and handed it to her. "I think we ought to transfer more authority from the Senate to the Sectors, and let the Sector governments have a lot more autonomy and authority than they did under the Old Republic or the Empire. So that if the Senate does return to its old, dysfunctional ways, that doesn't mean the end of effective governance."

    Leia took the pad, skimming it quickly. She hid a grimace, then handed it off to Winter so that her aide could memorize it. "If we decentralize too much, Garm, we risk the Republic becoming an empty monument."

    "The Old Republic had been declining for centuries," Garm countered. "It had grown too large to be governed effectively. If we don't decentralize and defer more power to the Sectors, the same resentment that Palpatine harnessed to break the Old Republic will build up again. We need an institution that can manage and mitigate, not one that can control."

    It doesn't hurt though, Leia thought with a hidden frown, that in a more decentralized galaxy, your home system would be one of the most powerful players, if not the most powerful. But that wasn't fair—Bel Iblis was a Corellian and proud of that fact, just as Han was, but Bel Iblis had always been a Republican patriot, too.

    She brought up a different point instead. "How do we ensure that the Sectors look after the interests of all their member worlds? Or ensure that resources don't flow just to the Core, leaving the Outer Rim deprived of resources needed to prosper?"

    Garm shrugged. "I have ideas on each of these points, but I was hoping that you might be willing to help me develop them." His expression darkened. "Mon Mothma will trust me with a Generalship, Leia, but she won't trust me with drafting the Concordat. And I am convinced that this is the route we need to take—for the good of the Republic, and for the good of the galaxy."

    Leia sighed softly, then glanced at Winter. "Thoughts?"

    "There are benefits and drawbacks of each approach," Winter said with a shrug. "You're never going to come to an absolutely right decision that is best in every case." She held up the datapad that Garm had given Leia. "I can see the advantages. I would point out, though, that the biggest difference between the New Republic and the Old Republic is already enshrined in our ruling documents: any world that wishes to depart may. If people decide that the Senate's authority is too onerous, they may simply leave. I believe that does relieve some of the pressure that General Bel Iblis has identified."

    "But we don't want them to leave," Garm said flatly. "Every world that leaves is a conflict point. It's a potential border dispute, or resource conflict, and we won't have as many tools to address those issues if we don't all exist under the Republic's common authority. I've spent enough years fighting wars to know we want to avoid them as often as possible." He jabbed his finger at the desk. "And we need to get this right, and we need to get it right the first time. It will be easier to increase the Senate's authority later, after it has proven itself capable, than it will be to convince worlds to accept it still unproven."

    That was more than Leia could process quickly without taking some time to confer. Leia took a breath, then reached for her cup of caf. She sipped it and winced; the liquid was lukewarm, and the wrong sort of bitter. "All right," she said after a moment. "You haven't convinced me, but we can spend some time working through the issues." She looked across the room and smiled at Threepio, waiting attentively. "Threepio, would you get us some fresh caf, and—" she winced "—tell Han we're going to be working through lunch again."

    "Of course, Mistress." Threepio turned and ambled out, closing the door behind him.

    "You realize," Leia said to Garm, "that making any changes of this magnitude will be extremely difficult, and first you will need to persuade me that it is necessary?"

    "I do," Garm replied. He looked weary, though determined. A typical Corellian. "It is better to put the effort in now than it would be to find ourselves needing to correct later errors that cost in lives."

    * * *
    Tempered Mettle came out of hyperspace at the edge of Coruscant's detection grid and was immediately pinged by three different proximity sensors and a Nebulon-B frigate's targeting array. Slips, who had been relegated to the co-pilot role with Mara back aboard, let out a range of baritone beeps to convey its alarm.

    "It's nothing to be alarmed about," Lando told the droid. "It's normal procedure."

    Mara pressed her controls, sending the freighter's IFF and requesting a landing procedure. "Calm down, Slips," she instructed. "It's the New Republic's capital, they're bound to have security measures more ornate than the ones we run into at other places."

    There was a pause after Mara sent the request. The frigate keeping watch powered down its targeting array, then sent Mara a response. She frowned at it in confusion. "We've been rerouted. Military priority," she said with a growing scowl. She sent her scowl in Lando and Luke's direction. "We're being told to rendezvous with one of the ships in the Fifth Fleet. Maybe you've heard of it? Lusankya?"

    "I'm not surprised," Lando said calmly, his smooth voice almost as annoying as Karrde's. "Wedge probably wants to debrief us and get a look at the intel we managed to pull."

    "Listen here, Calrissian," Mara snarled. It had been a couple days since they'd left Bespin, and she knew her irritation had been building at Lando's presence—and even Iella's—and their intrusion into her personal space and the precious time she and Luke had together. Now her annoyance flared into full-blown temper, because this wasn't a mere inconvenience. "This is my ship, and I prefer to keep a low profile. If I go around docking it on Super Star Destroyers, sooner or later someone is going to realize that it belongs to me, and the moment I lose my anonymity is the moment I become vulnerable. So if you think I'm going to—"

    Artoo-Detoo wheeled around next to her, chirping an interruption. She snatched the translator out of the droid's outstretched grasping arm and read it. "Who gave you permission to switch out our transponder code with a false one?" she glared.

    The droid whistled again, his large eye rotating from Mara to Luke, to Slips, then to Lando before going back to Mara. He backed up a few centimeters, warbling nervously.

    Mara glared at the astromech droid and wondered why it was she had become fond of the hunk of rolling tin. Then she glared at Luke. "He says he anticipated my concerns." Her finger pointed directly at his chest. "You give him too much latitude to do what he wants."

    Luke raised both his hands in a gesture that was half-apologetic, half-passing the blame. "Artoo does what he thinks best. I find the galaxy works better that way."

    She glared at Luke, then at Artoo. "Next time ask me," she muttered, handing him back the translation device.

    Artoo whistled his agreement and made his way back—speedily—to his place near Luke. Luke favored her with a smile, the innocent one that simultaneously irritated her to no end and made her want to kiss him. He knew it, too.

    She tried to maintain her scowl. "Fine. Lusankya first. But," she looked in Artoo's direction. "You're paying all my docking fees when we finally get dirtside, short stuff. And don't tell me you don't have the credits, I know better." The astromech droid had, after all, had enough credits to enter the betting pool on how long it would take her and Luke to get together, even if he hadn't won.

    Artoo moaned mournfully.

    For better or worse, Luke could feel her irritation. His empathic skills—and his sensitivity to her emotions in particular—were easily strong enough for that if she wasn't deliberately trying to shield from him. And she wasn't. She made an effort, more and more, not to keep him out. The gradual, building intimacy was wonderful, even if she needed to run off with Karrde on the occasional short-haul job so she could have her mind fully to herself again.

    Every time she did, though, she missed him fiercely.

    Luke nudged Slips out of the co-pilot's seat and settled into it, replacing the pilot droid. Luke's presence settled in against hers, soothing without being intrusive, taking the edge off her irritation. So they weren't alone. They were at least together. She glanced at him sideways and caught him smiling at her. She shook her head, refusing to smile back—but having to resist the incessant tug on her lips to avoid it. Her irritation lifted, banished once again, and she had no idea how he always knew how to do that.

    She followed the instructions the frigate had sent them. Ahead of them, the Republic's Fifth Fleet loomed larger, an impressive array of Mon Calamari Cruisers, Star Destroyers, and Katana Dreadnaughts all surrounding the enormous Lusankya.

    The sight of Lusankya brought back a rush of memories for Mara. She'd been aboard Executor a time or two—none of those visits had been enjoyable—and seen Vader's command ship more than a few times. Sitting in the cockpit of what had been her transport as Emperor's Hand, heading in for a landing aboard Lusankya… for a moment it was as if the intervening years had not passed, the Emperor was still alive, and the Empire—her Empire—was alive and well.

    But she wasn't accompanied by Stormtroopers or Imperial officers. Luke was at her side, and Lando and Iella were at the freighter's other bridge posts. The snubfighters now pacing and guiding her towards Lusankya's secure hangar weren't TIEs, but fancy new E-wings painted in New Republic colors. The moment of tension at the Imperial memory faded as she adjusted to the New Republic reality.

    Mara eased Tempered Mettle down into a perfect landing.

    "Never thought I'd be glad to be aboard a Super Star Destroyer," Lando said dryly.

    "Lusankya isn't so bad, now that we've upstyled Isard's decor," Iella said brightly, like a design consultant. "Oh, and removed that pesky prison complex."

    They all stood. "Slips, keep an eye on the ship," Mara instructed. "After we're out, lock up and don't let anyone unauthorized enter." Mara's list of authorized personnel included exactly three people: herself, Luke, and Iella.

    Slips responded with a series of deep, confirming beeps.

    They took the stairs down, walking out into the hangar. Aside from the two commandos who took up positions on either side of the hatchway and turned ostentatiously away, there were three people there to greet them. Wedge Antilles, looking more at home wearing a rugged grey Starfighter Command day uniform than he had at the Adarian Building in his full dress uniform, stood flanked by Sena Midanyl and a Bothan Captain who Mara didn't recognize.

    Iella clearly did not care for formality. She didn't run or jump, exactly, but one moment she was coming down Tempered Mettle's ramp, the next she and Wedge were locked in a tight embrace murmuring endearments, and Mara thought that maybe a double date with them wouldn't be so bad after all. "The new uniform suits you," said Iella as she released him, adjusting his rank insignia and collar after she'd left them untidy.

    Wedge grinned and kissed her lightly. Then he turned to Lando and Luke with a grin, parting his arms. "Gold Leader!"

    "Red Leader," Lando replied with a laugh. The two men hugged, slapping each others' backs. "We got what we needed," Lando announced proudly as Wedge moved to hug Luke as well. "Thanks to a bit of quick thinking, some Force powers, and some good old fashioned gambler's luck."

    "Great," Wedge laughed, sounding relieved. "You're still going to be joining us on campaign?" Wedge asked Lando as he released Luke, the two men sharing a quick greeting.

    "I don't know that I have much choice," Lando chuckled softly. "I've been reactivated, after all. But Ackbar promised this would be the last time, and I managed to get his support for re-opening the mining operation on Nkllon in exchange. Besides, you're gonna need my help if you're gonna take back my city."

    "That seems to be the fleet's job these days," Wedge said wryly. "Taking back planets without breaking them." He finally turned towards Mara. She was relieved that he didn't go for a hug, instead extending a hand; she took it, returning the handshake. "Jade, I hope you and Iella haven't gotten into too much trouble?" Wedge asked with a smile, his gaze flicking back to Iella.

    Iella offered him an innocent smile. "I try not to."

    Wedge rolled his eyes. "What was it you told me, Luke? Do or do not, there is no try?"

    "Something like that."

    Wedge stepped back, gesturing at the two people flanking him. "I believe most of you know Sena Midanyl. She's agreed to stay with the fleet for our first campaign before returning to the Senate to serve as Garm's aide." Then he gestured at the Bothan. "And this is Lusankya's commanding officer, Captain Traest Kre'fey. The seven of us are going to go find a nice large stateroom, two pots of caf, the best meal my stewards—" he laughed, shaking his head "—imagine saying that at Hoth, Luke? The best meal my stewards can make for us, and we're going to discuss how best to pry Cloud City and its Tibanna gas out of the claws of the Empire."

    * * *​

    It was good to see Lando, Wedge thought. Almost as good as it was to see Luke. (It wouldn't be fair to compare them to Iella, she fit into a whole different category of Wedge's life.)

    In the center of the room, Wedge's briefing table was illuminated dimly. A map of the Bespin system—the gas giant, its moons, the Imperial Sky Fortress, the patrol routes of its Carrack-class Cruisers—rotated slowly, with different approach avenues laid out, with a list of advantages and disadvantages ascribed to each. It was zoomed in on Cloud City, with the city's interior visible. Lando and Iella had produced an impeccable map of the Imperial facilities on the city proper, with counts for the number of Stormtroopers and officers who actually served on Cloud City, and all their auxiliary forces responsible for Tibanna gas export.

    Empty mugs of caf and dirty plates were stacked awkwardly. They'd worked well into the night, so Wedge had sent his stewards to get some sleep and left the mess for the morning shift to take care of.

    Lando was asleep on a couch. Mara and Iella had gone to stretch their legs, promising to return soon. That left Wedge and Luke. Luke was lying awkwardly in a comfortable chair, one of his legs slung over the chair arm, his head resting tiredly against the arm. His smile reminded Wedge of when they'd been younger, before Hoth, before a dozen battles, a hundred deaths. Mara was good for him, Wedge decided. Not that there was ever any debate, Iella considered Mara one of her closest friends and that was good enough for Wedge, besides which he trusted Luke's judgment (a certain incident or two notwithstanding). He knew there were hundreds of people, if not more, who would laugh and shake their heads disbelievingly if Wedge told them that Mara Jade made Luke happy, made him look younger, made him look like the burdens of the galaxy lay less heavily on his shoulders, but it was true. To Wedge (and the Rogues), who loved Luke and wanted nothing more than for the Boss to be happy, that was more than enough.

    Of course, the Corellian whiskey probably helped. "Not too much," Luke laughed as Wedge poured. "I don't want to have to use the Force to filter out the alcohol, and if I wake up with a hangover Mara will tease me mercilessly."

    Wedge snickered. "Good thing she wasn't with us at Hoth, then." He took his own tumbler and settled into his chair across from Luke. "Your sister wants us all for dinner while we're here. She's planning a celebration of some Alderaanian holiday. "

    Luke shrugged. Wedge was certain this did not surprise him; Leia always wanted to have little dinner parties when they were available, and with Winter pregnant (and the real possibility that Tycho might not make it back to Coruscant in time to see his child born) this particular moment held special significance.

    "So, spill, o' mighty Master Jedi, how's your new Jedi order coming along?" Wedge asked.

    Luke sipped his whiskey and shrugged again, swirling the amber-colored liquid in the glass. "Slowly. It's just me and Kam," he replied.

    Wedge glanced at the door. "Not Mara?" he asked carefully.

    His friend's hesitation was obvious. Luke glanced at the door, his eyes tracking in the direction Iella and Mara had gone. Wedge knew that Luke could sense Mara through the Force—at least if they weren't deliberately shielding their presence from one another—so the chance of Mara coming back and catching them talking about her was negligible.

    "We've discussed it," Luke said finally, putting his glass down. He leaned forward in his chair towards Wedge, placing his elbows on her knees as he did. When he spoke again, it was with an almost conspiratorial whisper. "Mara is reluctant to make commitments she doesn't fully understand," he explained. The soft smile that appeared on Luke's face brought one to Wedge's as well—it was good to see Luke so obviously happy. "When Mara makes a decision or a commitment, it may as well be for good," Luke added, with clear fondness and appreciation. "There's no half-measures, no diversions. For her to change her mind… well, it's an infrequent occurrence."

    Wedge snorted. "Sounds like Iella. It takes an act of the Senate or a planetary collision to get her to change her mind after it's made up." He nodded at Luke. "So Mara doesn't make commitments to things she doesn't fully understand, and that includes what it means to be a Jedi?"

    "I'm not sure I fully understand it," Luke said with a laugh, leaning back in his chair and retrieving his drink. "In fact, I'm sure I don't." He shook his head. "It doesn't matter. Whether she realizes it or not—" he glanced at the door warily, then back at Wedge, "—I think she is a Jedi, already. The title isn't what is important."

    Wedge thought about that. "I suppose it doesn't matter if she's an official Jedi or not. She has your back, and she makes you happy," he said. "That's obvious to everyone who knows you well. And you make her happy. Even when you're apart for months at a time, off… commanding a battle fleet and spying on Black Sun." Wedge paused for a moment, then winced. "We were supposed to be talking about you, not me," he lamented with a sigh.

    "True," Luke drawled slowly. "But don't let that stop you," he said, with a light, arch tone.

    Wedge crumpled up a napkin and threw it at him.

    * * *​

    Iella's room aboard Tempered Mettle was good-sized and comfortable, with its own private refresher. The freighter could be operated with a minimal crew—Slips could manage simple operations alone—and it had been built with the comfort of its crew in mind. When Iella and Mara had begun their joint operations, working to track down a pirate operation that had threatened one of the Smugglers' Alliance's key Outer Rim trade routes, Iella had become a semi-permanent resident.

    Her partnership with Mara was not at an end, Iella thought as she slung her travel bag over her shoulder, hoisting her larger bag with her opposite arm, but they were going their separate ways for now.

    "Got everything?" Mara asked, sticking her head in.

    "Yeah," Iella replied. She offered Mara a smile, and the two women started making their way back towards the exit. "I'm going to miss Tempered Mettle, although Lusankya's stateroom is a bit of an improvement."

    Mara scoffed. "You could billet a platoon of Imperial stormtroopers in Lusankya's stateroom and have room left over for a pair of AT-ATs." She reached over and took Iella's bag, slinging it over her shoulder easily, displaying some of her deceptive strength.

    Living with Mara had been a learning experience in more ways than one, and Iella had quickly learned that even her own extensive fitness routine paled next to the one that Mara maintained—and Mara barely seemed aware that it was out of the ordinary. Iella chuckled. "True. Although…" she sighed, fleeting melancholy possessing her momentarily, "I won't be staying aboard for long. Wedge is going to be sent back to the front in a few weeks. He'll be commanding Lusankya's first combat operations against the Empire."

    They circled down the semi-circular stairs in Tempered Mettle's nose, then stepped down the ship's ramp. Mara closed it behind them, clicking a button to confirm that her ship was secure, then they made their way back towards the express lift that would return them to Wedge's stateroom.

    "What are you going to be doing on Coruscant?"

    "I'm not sure," Mara replied. "Karrde won't be back from his trip to Denon for at least a few weeks, there's a smuggling cartel interested in associating with us. Probably just training with Luke and Kam for a few days and waiting to see what imposes itself on my time."

    They stepped into Lusankya's express lift. Not for the first time, Iella marveled at just how luxurious it was. The lift had been meant for Isard's personal use, and as the head of Imperial Intelligence she had been worthy of the most excessive luxuries available. The lift was more like a small, plusly furnished office, with its own wardrobe (complete with a refresher unit).

    They stowed Iella's bags for the trip then took seats across from one another. "Can I ask you a question?" Iella asked.

    "Sure."

    Iella hesitated, knowing this was precarious ground. Mara was her friend, and she was Mara's friend, and that meant something different to Mara than it did to most people. After the time they'd spent together in the six months since Cracken and Karrde had made them partners, Iella had gained a better understanding of her new partner—and Mara had confessed to her, shortly after their third week working together, that their partnership had lasted longer than any working relationship she'd had as Emperor's Hand.

    But part of having a friend was giving them a little push when they needed one. "Why haven't you joined Luke's new Jedi order?"

    Mara's flicker of surprise was subtle and Iella would have missed it had they not spent six months as partners. Her slight frown was just as subtle, and Iella noted the way Mara's hand moved to her knee and squeezed slightly. "I expected to get that question from Leia or Han before you," Mara admitted.

    "I've known Luke a long time too." Iella pointed out. "May be best to get some practice answering it before you have to 'face the family'."

    The wince this time was much more obvious. "Yeah," Mara sighed. She released her knee and leaned back in the comfortable upholstery, her discomfort never quite fading from her expression. Iella recognized Mara's expression—she'd seen it on any number of people she'd interrogated. Most of them had been innocent, but that didn't make the experience any more enjoyable. "When I joined Karrde, it wasn't out of any sense of altruism," Mara finally said. "I was miserable. For five long years I'd hid from Isard and the Empire, from the Rebellion, from…" she shook her head, "from Palpatine's voice in my head. I was desperate and I did not expect it to last. But Karrde was more than I expected him to be, and he was worthy, so convenience became commitment."

    "So you don't want to break your commitment to Karrde to become a Jedi?"

    Mara hesitated, then shook her head. "That would be the easy answer, but I could spend some time disentangling myself from his organization. Karrde doesn't need me, no matter what he claims. And he knows that even if I leave, I'll always have his back if he does need me." She met Iella's eyes. "The first commitment I made knowing I was making it… the first time I consciously chose to commit to someone, to something… was to Luke." Her smile was almost shy. "I'm still getting used to the repercussions of that decision."

    "You don't regret it, do you?" Iella asked, already knowing the answer.

    Mara's response was as explosive as she'd expected. "Of course not!" Her lips pressed together, offering Iella a slightly apologetic look. "But joining Luke, becoming a Jedi, that's a whole different kind of commitment. It's a commitment to the galaxy, to all beings in it, to all life. Sure, I can be loyal, but to the people I choose to be loyal to. Becoming a Jedi is so much bigger."

    "And that scares you?"

    Mara shrugged. "Wouldn't it scare you? I'm not ready to open myself up to anyone who walks in off the street. I have Karrde, I have Luke." She offered Iella one of her small, subtle smiles. "I have you."

    Coming from Mara, Iella knew that was tantamount to a declaration that Mara would go to any measure required to help her out of trouble. And Mara was capable of a great many measures. "I'm honored," she said haltingly, unable to think of any more suitable response.

    The express lift hummed as they traversed the distance between the hangar and Wedge's suite. Eventually the lift slowed to a stop and beeped to alert anyone who may have fallen asleep that they had arrived. Retrieving Iella's bags, the two women made the rest of the trip back to the suite on foot.

    "So, dinner with Leia and Han tomorrow?"

    "Mmhmm," Mara hummed.

    "Not a lot of alone time with Luke on this trip," Iella continued, offering Mara a sympathetic smile. She knew that Mara had been chafing with Lando along on the Tempered Mettle's mission to Bespin.

    "Mmhmm."

    "You know, Wedge and I can put Lando up in one of the guest rooms in his suite." She nudged Mara's elbow with her own. "Let you and Luke have the Tempered Mettle to yourselves for the night? Not counting the droids."

    "Hmmm," Mara murmured noncommittally.

    Iella nodded. "Sounds like a plan, then." She snuck a glance at Mara out of the corner of her eye. She really enjoyed the moments she could make Mara smile.

    * * *​

    Kam Solusar, founding member of the new Jedi Order, and one of the two living members of that order, had a bad feeling.

    He was working in the Jedi Museum, where Palpatine had collected all the relics of the Jedi he didn't destroy. There wasn't all that much there, unfortunately, beyond the broadest outlines about the names and lives—and deaths—of members of the old Jedi Order. Palpatine had destroyed everything of substance he got his hands on, leaving Luke and Kam with precious little. They had two assets of note: a trove of records from Dathomir, and Darth Vader's private collection.

    The first, unfortunately, was large but limited. Mostly, the records were technical: Force techniques, unique Force abilities, the history of how the Jedi of old had trained in the art and what they had been able to push their abilities to accomplish. The second, neither Luke nor Kam had really wanted to touch. Luke preferred to remember his father as Anakin Skywalker, the man who had slain Palpatine and ended the Sith line for good. Kam preferred not to think of Vader at all, lest he be consumed by the memories of his father's death.

    And yet…

    Kam sighed, glancing up at the statue of his father. Ranik Solusar's statue was, like so many others in the museum, faceless. The flat, smooth stone had been shaved by a lightsaber, and Kam could still feel Palpatine's vile gloating when he concentrated too much on each of those mutilated statues. Ranik had been a maverick of a Jedi, student of an independent-minded Jedi Master, and he had always believed most in two things. First, always doing what you felt was right. Second, always sticking around to accept the consequences for it.

    It was that memory, of his father's determination, not of his death, that had led Kam to finally examine the relics that Luke had inherited from his father. Vader owned property all over the galaxy, but he'd owned a massive building on Coruscant, one that had formed a triumvirate of structures with the Imperial Palace and Prince Xizor's tower. Luke had, nearly a year before, gone through that structure and removed everything of value, before turning the property over to the New Republic for destruction and reclamation.

    With reluctance, Kam started to examine it all. In truth, there wasn't as much as he had expected; Vader had not been as interested as his Master in macabre trophies of the sentients he killed. There was, however, a great deal of Force obscura, some of which made Kam blanche. Vader had evidently gone through an extended period of obsession with trying to bring people back to life, but Kam had no idea why. Kam took that knowledge, put it with the rest of the Sith knowledge that Vader had accrued, and set it all aside for destruction.

    No matter what the Dark pretended to give that the Light might not, Kam thought, it wasn't worth it. It was never worth it.

    The next thing Kam found was an auto-updating dossier, constantly searching every Imperial database for every mention of the name 'Luke Skywalker', embedded on every one of Vader's computer systems. Apparently Vader had been obsessed with his son. That was not of use or interest to Kam, so he disabled it and continued his search.

    Kam wasn't sure what he was looking for, or why it was so important he started looking now, but he kept searching nonetheless. It was as if the Force stood over his shoulder, pushing him to go on, keep braving the Darkness he had found, pointing with his father's stone hand towards…

    Kam stopped. It was an innocuous looking datapad, one like hundreds of others. Like those hundreds of others, it could be useful, useless, or potentially dangerous. In this case, he skimmed the summary section and found a treatise on vergences of Dark Side power. A vergence was a center of Force energy, locations that had been imbued with power by the actions of Jedi or Sith. The document listed several such places: the Valley of the Jedi on a world called Ruusan, or another on a world called Korriban. Kam had never heard of either place.

    But the third name on the list was Vjun, and that name Kam did know. Vjun was the location of Bast Castle, which had been Vader's primary headquarters. It was often from Vjun that Vader had commanded the Inquisitors, and to Vjun he had summoned them if they were in need of praise or discipline. Kam had never had either the honor or dishonor of a trip to Vjun, but he knew where it was… all Inquisitors had known where it was.

    His finger rested on the name, and he felt like he could feel his father on his shoulder, whispering to him. Yes, there. You have found it.

    He read on, growing baffled. That was all there was. Vjun was home to a Force nexus, the product of some catastrophic event in the world's past. It was a place of great power in the Dark Side, and had a corrupting influence not just on people, but on the world of Vjun itself. It was, apparently, an ideal place for a Sith Lord to study the Dark Side, which explained why Vader had selected it for his fortress. But … that was all.

    So why did his instincts say it was so important?



     
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2021
    Chyntuck likes this.
  23. Gabri_Jade

    Gabri_Jade Fanfic Archive Editor Emeritus star 5 VIP

    Registered:
    Nov 9, 2002
    I love the Noghri [face_love]

    The very thought of this is exhausting - so of course Leia is going to take it on :p

    I share this opinion :p

    I have to agree with this [face_thinking]

    As you'd think everyone would agree, just coming off a galactic civil war

    Artoo, the true main character of the SW saga :r2: [face_love]

    This is just impossibly adorable, and totally in character :p

    [face_love] [face_love] [face_love]

    This is one of my favorite aspects of the Interregnum saga, that Luke and Wedge's friendship gets screen time, and is portrayed as being as close as it would have to be, having gone through everything from Yavin to Endor together, and that the Rogues in general are also still friends with and loyal to Luke. The EU was sadly neglectful on this front.

    I really, really agree with this interpretation. Another thing I disagree with the EU - even Zahn's installments - about. I think that Mara took all the actions necessary in TLC to make her a Jedi, certainly a Jedi of Luke's new Order.

    This is a really good detail that I feel gets overlooked too often. Of course Mara is much stronger than would be expected of a human woman her size. She didn't carry out the duties of Emperor's Hand without significant physical strength and endurance.

    This really does seem excessive - but on the other hand, Star Destroyers are pretty big. Even in the express lift, I can see possibly needing the refresher :p

    This is simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking, that Mara sincerely seems to consider three close, genuine friends to be practically an embarrassment of riches. Also, I will never not love the idea of most of Mara's natural expressions being so subtle that only those close friends really notice the extent of them.

    Ah, Vjun, tropical paradise and tourist's delight o_O
     
  24. WarmNyota_SweetAyesha

    WarmNyota_SweetAyesha Kessel Run Champion star 8 VIP - Game Winner

    Registered:
    Aug 31, 2004
    =D= =D= Superb discussion amongst Bel, Leia, and Winter. I agree that they do have to get it right the first time and that balancing how much the central government has authority with not letting it get bogged down in endless wrangling is a hard one.

    Loved the chats between Luke and Wedge and Iella and Mara. Full of candor and character insights.
     
  25. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
    Seriously underused characters.

    Aren't they just!