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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
    Chapter 16

    General Wedge Antilles was not yet accustomed to having Garm's office.

    It wasn't that he disliked the office, although when he thought about the fact that it had been Ysanne Isard's, his skin crawled and he felt the need to have the room swept for espionage equipment and parasites. It was, in fact, a very nice office, well-furnished with wood paneling and plenty of holoprojectors and flatscreens to allow him a full understanding of the strategic and tactical environments he faced. He could run full battle sims here, linked into Lusankya's impressive main computer for the best possible projection of enemy action. He, in fact, ran probably too many of those battle sims, to the point where Sena had locked the system with her override and wouldn't let him do it without her permission first.

    So despite everything, he actually rather liked the office, minus the creepy-crawly sensation. But the creepy-crawly sensation vanished every time he remembered that Iella had also shot Isard to death here. Good riddance.

    No, the problem was what the office represented. The weight of responsibility, of command. The knowledge that Lusankya alone had hundreds of thousands of crew, each and every one under his direct command. Each and every one's life depended on the quality of his decisions.

    When he thought about it that way, Wedge dearly missed his cabin on Ession Strike, with the desk that folded out of the wall and the communal refresher.

    Luckily, Sena knew the weight he carried and helped him bear it. They were sharing their morning caf, working their way slowly through the fleet's readiness, and—when Captain Kre'fey and Lando arrived in an hour or so—they would go through the most updated battle plan for the reconquest of Bespin.

    "I'm not worried about their mobile forces," Sena was saying thoughtfully, holding her cup of caf in both hands as she examined the plot Wedge was slowly spinning between them. Cloud City rotated as his hand gently spun the display, showing off the Sky Fortress and the Carrack-class cruisers that were the platform's primary mobile and low-orbit defense. "Even if they do reinforce Bespin the way NRI suggests they're trying to do, nothing they can bring to help protect Cloud City will match up to Fifth Fleet."

    "Agreed," Wedge confirmed. "But we've got the same problem we did at Ukio. An Imperial garrison on the ground, potentially with orders to destroy everything we want to capture intact." He furrowed his brow, glaring not at the Sky Fortress or the Carracks, but at Cloud City and the tower near its apex that was occupied by the Empire's Baron Administrator and the stormtroopers under his command.

    "We'll have to coordinate our internal and external attacks," Sena said with a shrug. "Use whatever forces are already present among the workers and slaves to rise up and hold off the Empire until we can get Major Page's forces down to reinforce them."

    "Lando is prepared to instigate that uprising, but the fighting will be fierce," Wedge cautioned, thinking back to battles on Thyferra, Coruscant, Ciutric, and a dozen other worlds where the Rogues or their allies had been impressed into ground as well as aerospace combat.

    Sena's violet eyes gazed at him levelly. "Wedge. I know you've handled large formations and fleets, but all your reflexes are still accustomed to commanding a squadron. Twelve pilots. And in the last few years, you've done a remarkable job of keeping those pilots alive. But this is not going to be bloodless. There's no way to take Bespin without suffering casualties—among the fleet, and among our allies on Cloud City."

    Wedge firmed his lips together, biting back a retort. He knew that. And he might have done a better job of keeping his pilots alive the last few years than he had the years before Endor, or the years right after Endor—a dozen faces flashed by, bringing with them the agony of remembered loss—but he was no stranger to the concept of acceptable losses. He didn't like it, but he wasn't about to flinch, either.

    He took a breath, let it out again. There was no sense in getting irritated with Sena, and she was right besides. "I know," he said. "I don't like it, but I know." He used both hands to manipulate the display, magnifying the Imperial garrison tower. "We have a good idea of how many stormtroopers and other Imperial army troops are on Cloud City," he said. "We also have a good idea of how many people Lando says will rise up to resist them when the time comes. As long as we are able to land Major Page…" he frowned, looking at different locations which could both potentially be secured and be good staging areas, then gestured at a series of landing pads which could accommodate a troop transport, "in one of these locations, we should be able to get support down fast enough to—"

    There was a door chime. Wedge glanced at his wristchrono, but it was still too early for Lando or Kre'fey to arrive.

    "Captain Kre'fey and Commander Needa to see General Antilles," came the report from the sentry outside.

    Wedge glanced at Sena. She shrugged. "I don't know either."

    "Come in," Wedge called.

    Kre'fey's uniform was impeccable, but the way he carried himself—slightly off balance, without his usual poise—and the way his fur stood on end along his forearms made Wedge think that this arrival had been in haste. Beside him, Needa was much more presentable, but…

    Wedge swallowed hard. Needa looked like he'd just been told the Empire had another Death Star. "What is it?"

    To his credit, Kre'fey was the one who stepped forward. The Bothan swallowed hard, blinking with a nervousness that Wedge had not heretofore seen from him. "General… Madam Adjutant." Kre'fey's hesitation only added to Wedge's concern… "I am afraid," Kre'fey said heavily, "that I bring bad tidings."

    * * *​

    Kyp Durron stared at his hands and waited.

    He could feel Jacen and Jaina's twinned, confused terror. They were in the next room, a comfortable waiting room which had been prepared for the families of the wounded, with Winter watching over them. Doctors and nurses—droid, human, and alien—rushed in every direction as the Manarai Medical Center worked to treat their injuries. The Force dripped with pain and uncertainty, blazed with fury and fear. He could feel the devastation of loss, echoing all around him from the dozens of people who had already been told that their loved ones were dead or in critical condition.

    At least thirty people were already reported dead, including every member of a Palace Security team. They had arrived at the landing pad to investigate the Violet Envy right before the vessel had exploded, ripping apart the top two floors of the Molalla Astor and doing serious structural damage to the rest of the building. All fourteen of them had been killed in the explosion, and many others had been wounded throughout the building.

    The wrenching pain of loss was echoed in his own heart. When he closed his eyes he saw Mobvekhar fall, his body burned and marked by multiple wounds. He saw Han hit by the same brilliant light and falling to the ground—but at least Han's desperate voice, shouting at the medical staff, desperately asking "Is Leia all right?!" confirmed that he would live, but be hobbled until his injury fully healed.

    Chewbacca had insisted he was fine, but the scorch marks on his fur where he had taken not one, not two, but three blaster bolts said otherwise. The medical staff would have argued and forced him to receive treatment, but they were too busy to provide care to a non-critical patient.

    Kyp could feel Leia, beyond the door that Han was trying to get through. She was so vibrant, so full of life and determination and verve. Her Force presence was usually a vivid, unmistakable glow (unless she was trying to suppress it, which she did not do well), a permanent marker, a reassurance that even when she was late for dinner that she would eventually get home to share the meal with her husband and kids.

    That reassurance faded as she did.

    He had no idea what yerite was or did, but it was killing Leia Organa Solo, and that was killing Han.

    He remembered … was it only a few hours before? When he had saved Han's life, and Jacen's, and Jaina's, and Winter and Chewie… when he had reached into the Force and found the power he needed. When he closed his eyes, if he was not seeing Mobvekhar's mutilated chest, he was seeing the bodies of the three assassins, bloody and still. The look of surprise on the face of the leader, at his sudden, unanticipated death. That same face, filled with hate as he killed Kyp's friend, the quiet Noghri, who was always in Kyp's shadow and always catching Jacen before the toddler could fall.

    Kyp realized he was crying only when his hand came away from his forehead wet.

    He could feel the Force at his fingertips, could feel all the power of the galaxy there for the taking, and he had no idea how to use it. Surely, surely if Luke were here, he'd know how to help Leia! He had to! The Force could do anything!

    It was the Empire's fault, a distant, quiet corner of his mind whispered. It was all the Empire's fault. They had banished him to Kessel, stolen his brother, ensured the death of his parents! They refused to admit they were wrong and stand down, no matter how hard Leia tried to convince them to! They would kill and kill and kill and everyone and everything Kyp cared about would fall before them, just as his family, his new family, almost had. The only thing that had stopped them was the Force, and Kyp would learn to use it, he would take it and he would find that power again, and the death of the assassins did not fill Kyp with horror but with pride.

    They had to be stopped. And, Kyp now realized, he had the power to stop them.

    And I will stop them, he promised himself again and again. I will. I must.

    * * *​

    Brakiss thought this was a really stupid idea.

    The Manarai Medical Center was beyond busy. It was crammed with everyone imaginable, with rows of Palace Security keeping back civilians and sludgenews. The press was out in force, with hundreds of reporters from every news service in the galaxy crammed into its corridors, bribing or sneaking their way in to get every scrap of news they could.

    In such a mess of people, sneaking in was not so difficult. But what Brakiss couldn't figure was why? Why take the risk of putting themselves so close to Palace Security, when they had only barely escaped the Rebellion's forces at the garden?

    There are moments, my Apprentice, around which the galaxy turns, Exar Kun whispered. Those moments where all potentials are present, and can be pushed—with careful manipulation—towards a desired end.

    Brakiss frowned, doing his best to stay out of the sight of the numerous surveillance holocams as he edged his way closer and closer to the waiting room. And? He concentrated on Exar Kun's presence, doing his best to eavesdrop on the Sith. It was difficult—he was not as skilled as Exar Kun at telepathy, or anything else really, and the Sith's presence was slippery and elusive, like trying to catch a fish in the deepest waters, viscous and concealing.

    He didn't catch much. Just a recitation of words. I will stop them, Exar Kun was thinking, focused and concentrating. I will stop them. I will stop them. I will stop them. I will stop them.

    Stop who? he asked.

    Exar Kun's flash of irritation was all too obvious. Do not take liberties, Apprentice, the Sith whispered scornfully.

    Brakiss winced. Yes, Master.

    For a moment, he thought there might be further punishment coming. But Exar Kun seemed content with the scolding. You would not be a promising apprentice if you were not ambitious, he said instead. But now it is time—

    His voice vanished and was gone.

    It was gone? Brakiss groped out with the Force, searching for Exar Kun's presence. He touched the amulet on his chest, which was warm to the touch. It still pulsed with presence and power, as it had since he found it, but the presence that touched his mind was gone.

    Panic tightened his throat. Had he done something wrong? Had he broken the bargain between them with his espionage? Or this place, was there something here that—

    Behind him doors burst open. People scattered in every direction, pressing themselves to the corridors on either side; Brakiss felt himself gripped and pushed against the wall, and he started to lash out in his anger as he turned towards whoever had just grabbed him—

    Luke Skywalker had his hand up as he forced every person in the corridor up against the walls. The invisible, telekinetic grip pushed against not just Brakiss' chest, but all of their chests, driving them back. Brakiss' back pressed into the wall as he panicked, suppressing his strength in the Force as the trio of Jedi—for Skywalker was flanked by Kam Solusar on one side and Mara Jade on the other—ran down the corridor at a breakneck pace, followed by, of all things, a silver-haired woman clutching a large musical instrument.

    Then they were past and the grip on Brakiss' chest slackened. He gasped for breath, terrified from the brief brush with the Jedi. If they had noticed him, if they'd seen him, they would surely have—

    Fly you fool! Exar Kun hissed, his voice the thinnest of whispers from beyond the greatest of distances.

    Brakiss ran.

    * * *​

    Kyp looked up just as Luke and Kam swept into the waiting room, their long brown and white robes billowing behind them. Kam channeled the Force like a shovel, pushing the gathered sentients and newsies out of his and Luke's way. Luke angled his way through the resulting parting of the masses, dodging limbs and bodies as he moved with determination through the crowd.

    The commotion drew Han's attention. "Luke!" he shouted, hobbling on one badly-wounded leg, trying to manage a crutch and only half-succeeding in his haste. "Leia's hurt bad, Luke," Han said desperately as Luke finished making his way, Kam at his side. Mara followed farther behind, glowering at the more aggressive newsies, her fingers creeping towards the lightsaber she had on her belt. Perhaps wisely, they kept their distance.

    "I'm here, Han," Luke reassured him. "Where is she?"

    "She's back there," Han snarled angrily. "They won't let me see her."

    "They'll let me," Luke said darkly. He pushed past Han and strode at an even pace towards the medical staff that stood between them and the treatment rooms where Kyp could feel Leia's dimmed presence; no doubt, Luke could as well, and he sought that beacon of life with the unerring focus of a locked-on concussion missile.

    Whether he used the Force for persuasion or not—Kyp didn't think he did—it took Luke only half a minute to talk his way past the gauntlet of medical personnel that had been an impenetrable barrier to Han. Han followed on his heels, hobbling with awkward pace; Kam slipped into their wake.

    Once the doors swung open, New Republic security was everywhere. There were sentients lining the corridor, fully-armed and armored and holding their rifles like they expected—and wanted—a fight. But the sight of Luke Skywalker in his Jedi robes took the fury from their expressions and replaced it with a dire sympathy that seized Kyp's heart.

    "I'm here to see my sister."

    Every single blaster muzzle dropped toward the floor as the veteran soldiers stepped slightly to the side to make way.

    Kyp had saved Jacen and Jaina… but it hadn't been enough. It would never be enough, not while the Empire lived—

    The lure of Leia's presence led Luke and the Jedi to a large emergency center. Bacta tanks lined the room, each one monitored by a 2-1B medical droid. The droids murmured in binary to one another, and spoke in basic to the non-droid medical staff. Kyp stopped dead, because he recognized the face in the first bacta tank—and it wasn't Leia's. "Mon Mothma?!" he gaped in surprise.

    The whisper-soft footsteps would have caught him by surprise. They did not catch Luke by surprise, and he turned slightly to accept Iella Wessiri's one-armed embrace. "Luke," she greeted him, sounding hoarse, and then she gave Mara a hug also.

    The Corellian agent was masked by bandages and had a cast on her left arm. Access to the blaster on her right side was unimpeded. "Kapp pulled me free while Cakhmaim saved Mon." Iella said quietly, ceding honor to the dust-coated Noghri to her left.

    "The Chief of State will live," hissed Cakhmaim. "Her injuries are not fatal."

    The nearest 2-1B chittered in agreement. "A few days in bacta," it said in its awkward electronic voice. "She will be good as new."

    "And Leia?" asked Luke. His attention only lingered on Iella for a moment, because at the other end of the room was Leia's limp form, floating in a large, slightly bubbling bacta tank. Her skin was reddened as if sunburned, taking on a slight purple cast when combined with the blue coloration of the bacta.

    "Councilor Organa Solo has been unresponsive since she was recovered," said the 2-1B emotionlessly.

    "Well thank you you rotten hunk of—"

    Iella briefly braced herself with her good arm and cut in over Han's outburst. "She went into some kind of Jedi trance after the Yerite was released into the conference lounge. Garm realized what had happened first; he probably saved her life by getting her into the trance as quickly as he did." Iella's breathing hitched momentarily—Kyp could feel emotion and sorrow flooding through her—but only momentarily, as she quickly regained control.

    "Is Garm all right?" Kyp asked nervously.

    The dire expressions that passed between the others in the room answered the question before any of them vocalized it.

    "Oh," Kyp said softly. His head fell, further sorrow adding to his swamp of emotions. He'd liked Garm, and Garm had liked him… it wasn't fair… it wasn't fair.

    Next to Iella, Mara very subtly rested her hand on Iella's arm.

    Iella offered her friend a slight nod, steeling herself. Her voice hitched as she spoke. "Councilor Bel Iblis was killed. So was Grand Moff Kaine. We're still trying to figure out how the Yerite got into the room." The normally blonde, currently white-haired NRI agent took a slightly unsteady breath before speaking again. "It took us almost four hours to get her out after the explosions," Iella explained to Luke. "The doctors all agree she should be dead. She's not dead, but…"

    "But she's close," Luke agreed. He stepped close to the bacta tank. He rested his palm against it, his fingers flat, and closed his eyes.

    Kyp could feel the way Luke extended his consciousness, pushing into the tank. The twins had a bond in the Force that even Kyp could recognize, and something in Leia's spirit stirred as she instinctively recognized her twin, but her soul and spirit remained firmly dormant.

    Luke's voice was thick with emotion. "She's in a hibernation trance," he explained huskily.

    "She'll be okay, right?" asked Han.

    "I'm not sure," Luke said cautiously. "The poison is still in her system, I can feel it." His voice faded as she leaned towards the tank, his eyes closed tight. He spoke, sounding strained. "I think I can help her fight it… then help her into a healing trance to deal with the damage it already did." Slowly he opened his eyes and turned towards the 2-1B watching the tank.

    The 2-1B chattered in binary to the other 2-1Bs in the room, then turned to look at Luke. "There is no record of such a treatment in our medical system," the droid said. "Unfortunately, if Jedi have performed such before, those records would have been purged by the Empire." The droid's voice took on the distinctly clinical, warning tone of a physician. "Even if you are able to denature the existing yerite and help her begin the healing process, she may require some neural pathway regeneration."

    "She'll be okay, right?" asked Han again, sounding slightly more confident.

    "I think so," repeated Luke, though Kyp found his reassurance more than a little forced. Luke put his arm on Han's arm. "I'll get to work right away," he promised.

    * * *​

    Luke could hear the movement of people swirling around behind him. Hospitals had a distinctive scent, one he'd gotten to know quite well since leaving Tatooine: the scent of disinfectant, the kind of freshness that came with constant cleaning. They also had a distinctive feel in the Force, the combination of hope and despair, of lives saved and lives lost. The steady thrum of doctors tending to patients, of patients searching for hope.

    In front of him, Leia floated in the bacta tank. She looked dead.

    In the records, the Jedi of old had made clear that there were certain Force-talents that were rarer than others. Healers were the rarest of all, in part because being a Force healer was not as simple as channeling the Force and healing a wound. A healer needed to know the Force, but a healer also needed to know anatomy: to know how to use the Force to encourage a body's natural healing processes. Most accurately, a Force healer encouraged a body to heal itself. And while Luke had received a fair bit of field experience in treating wounds, dealing with what had been done to Leia was far outside of his normal expertise.

    He could feel the Yerite still in her system. Reaching out with the Force, concentrating on Leia's unconscious form, he could feel how she clung to life… and he felt how her still, nearly frozen form, paralyzed by the voluntary hibernation trance, was laced through with the tiny particles that had assaulted her. How the life was leeching out of her where those particles did their deadly work.

    "I can sense the poison," he said. "It's still in there…" the knot in his chest transformed itself into agony he couldn't keep out of his voice. "It's still killing her, despite the hibernation trance, just more slowly."

    "You are Jedi," said an unfamiliar voice. He turned to face Tionne, who had placed her instrument down and now instead held the Jedi holocron in both hands. From the holocron emerged the ethereal form of Jedi Master Nomi Sunrider. The long-dead Jedi Master had kind eyes, paired with a calm confidence. "And this place has many doctors and their expertise. That combination is a potent one."

    Her words brought back some of his inner calm. She was right—and she sounded like Yoda, in her own way, if not quite the same. The combination of the wisdom of her words and the reminder of his training settled his heart. "2-1B," he asked the nearest droid. "What treatments exist for Yerite poisoning?"

    He sat, not even really noticing as Kam slid a chair behind him so he could sit next to him. Luke focused on those particles, hearing the 2-1B explain that they could introduce a counteracting agent, but that with Leia in her hibernation trance, it would not distribute through her body easily—and that if Leia came out of that trance, it would be a race between the Yerite and the counteragent to see which could do its work first—a race they were already losing.

    Luke nodded, a corner of his mind processing that information. Beside him he could feel Mara with him, offering her ability in the Force, soothing his worry and exhaustion, but this was not necessarily a problem which could be solved with raw power.

    Slowly he extracted himself from his close examination of Leia's wounds, bringing his consciousness back to the people around him. Han paced awkwardly, limping and cursing each time he put too much weight down on his wounded leg. Cakhmaim was ramrod straight by the entrance to the room, diligent as ever, even more determined to fulfill his role as Leia's protector now than he had been before. Tionne stood close to him, looking both heartbroken and awkward, like she wasn't sure what she was doing here, and the way Cakhmaim occasionally stared suspiciously at her surely wasn't helping.

    He worked his way through the problem. Came to a potential solution. Wished he was a real healer and not a desperate neophyte.

    "2-1B," he asked. "If I were able to prevent the Yerite in her system from doing any more harm to Leia while the counteragent was distributed through her body, would that be enough to protect her from further harm?"

    The droid considered this. "Yes," it said, beeping in binary at the other medical droids in the room, who beeped back furiously as they collectively considered the problem. "I cannot guarantee that the damage that has already been done will be reversible," the droid cautioned.

    Luke offered a wry, painful smile. "You don't know my sister." He turned to Mara and Kam. "I can't do this alone," he said. "I need your help for this. You too, Tionne."

    The troubadour started, head jerking in Luke's direction. "Me?" the singer said, "I barely feel the Holocron, what makes you think that I—"

    Luke placed a hand on her shoulder, and she quieted.

    "You're here." His eyes swung over Mara and Kam to land on Kyp, who quailed slightly under his gaze. Luke regarded the young man steadily. "We're all here, and we're right where we should be." He turned back to look at his sister and took a deep breath. "We're all here," he repeated. "Let's save her life."

    They worked for a long time. Loved ones came and went, paying their respects. Winter and Threepio came and went, taking Iella with them; Luke barely heard as a stone-faced Winter told Han that there was an emergency meeting of the Provisional Council, and that she had been asked to serve as Leia's proxy. Chewbacca came in briefly, but he was watching the twins and Han didn't want them to see their mother as she was, so he didn't stay long either.

    Four hours later, Leia had been eased out of her hibernation trance and into a healing trance. Her blistered skin had begun to heal, thanks to the bacta and her body's own Force-empowered healing abilities.

    Most importantly, the counteragent had neutralized the remaining Yerite, so the damage that had been done was all the damage that would be done.

    The army of 2-1Bs and doctors were amazed and relieved. The Jedi were exhausted. When Luke finally sagged into sleep in an uncomfortable chair not far from his sister's bacta tank, the last thing he remembered seeing was his brother-in-law, quite awake, wringing his hands as he watched his wife and silently asking the Force to please, please bring her back.
     
  2. Gabri_Jade

    Gabri_Jade Fanfic Archive Editor Emeritus star 5 VIP

    Registered:
    Nov 9, 2002
    When I'm behind, I'm really behind :oops:

    Aw [face_love]

    Ha, give her another year and she'll be this sentimental all the time. She just won't let on :p And we all know she's not drinking any harsh versions of caf, anyway [face_coffee]

    This is exactly how Luke is [face_love]

    lolol

    Not a lot [face_thinking]

    I will never not love Owen and Beru reminiscences [face_love]

    Not only is this story the first time I've seen any real personality in Tionne, it's the first I've seen much of one in Kam, or seen any chemistry between them. I admit that I haven't read whatever books they have the most presence in, but in the ones I've read, they're pretty two-dimensional. This is just a delight [face_love]

    Such a good line :cool:

    [face_laugh] [face_laugh] [face_laugh]

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

    This is a really seamless and effective way to transition POVs in the middle of a scene, and I am very impressed :D

    I love that Tionne is already the historian they're all looking to :D

    LOL

    I love this glimpse of them as a couple, talking through difficult memories and situations [face_love]

    [face_laugh]

    They're just so unpleasant o_O

    This is a fantastic and very insightful description of Mon Mothma!

    I really have to agree with Garm here [face_thinking]

    I love that Winter is really and truly part of the family here. After TTT, she seemed to be reduced mostly to a plot device to babysit the Solo kids and keep them out of the way as the adults went on adventures :rolleyes:

    I also love that Mara's the point at which the fantasy falls apart and why :p

    Incredibly understandable

    This is an excellent detail :cool:

    This whole section is extremely well done and effective and heartbreaking

    Han's come a long way :cool:

    I really feel like Yoda should have said that greed was the path to the dark side, not fear.

    Love seeing Han and Winter work together like this (although obviously I don't love that they're in a situation where they need to)

    Excellent descriptions :cool:

    Well, that's just going to be trouble o_O

    Still laughing over Tionne pretty much every time she shows up...

    That's my girl, Mara :cool:

    Very accurate description of hospital smell, and an equally believable sense of how they'd feel in the Force

    I really like this, that Force healing isn't treated just as some hand-waving magic here. Some of the Force stuff in the EU, it's like nobody put any real thought into it, they're just using it as a substitute magic system. I really don't care for that. This gives it some underlying logic, and it's great :D
     
    Bel505 likes this.
  3. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
    @Gabri_Jade thank you so much for taking the time. I know reading these stories is incredibly time consuming and leaving reviews is even more so, and it takes creative energy to write a review, so I appreciate the effort!

    I am tempted to write a short story version of this, but I'm not sure I have the pure romance chops for it.

    Kam and Tionne are both really fun to write. Tionne especially is entertaining, but Kam... he's almost the stoic archetype, but at the same time he's not. He's very defined by his past and experiences.

    Luke and Mara are just the best.

    In the original outline of this story, Mon Mothma was going to be a much more centered character. We were going to meet her daughter and learn about her son who died at Hoth... ultimately she took a back seat so that Garm could take the forefront, but still every once and a while she shoulders her way to the forefront.

    Yes.

    Rules are important.

    I'll post the next chapter in a bit!
     
    Gabri_Jade likes this.
  4. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
    Chapter Seventeen

    Pellaeon's comlink chimed. "Admiral Pellaeon, Admiral Daala is here to see you."

    The holoboard in the strategic command center was illuminated with shapes. Smaller ones, wedge-shaped, represented the ships of Pellaeon's burgeoning fleet. It was becoming something akin to a fleet, now. Chimaera led the formation, along with her sister ships Exigent and Gonfalon. Neither ship had been part of Thrawn's formation, but they had good reputations among the officers of the Starfleet, and they made a good core. The recent addition of the Venator-class Star Destroyer Magistrate gave them a fully-loaded carrier, one that came with four squadrons of TIE defenders to lead the fleet's growing flight wing. He was still hoping to talk Grand Moff Kaine into letting him have some more of Thrawn's core Star Destroyers, but Kaine had been incommunicado for the better part of two weeks, with no word on when that would change.

    "Anything else I should know about Daala's service record before we bring her in?" he asked Dreyf.

    Dreyf crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair, a slight scowl marring his dark features. "Nothing you are not already aware of, sir."

    Pellaeon nodded slowly. Admiral Natasi Daala had been one of the Empire's finest cadets at Carida a few decades before, but she'd been held back by her gender. Then Cadet Daala had caught the eye of one Wilhuff Tarkin, and her steady march up the ranks of the Imperial fleet had begun.

    Fair or not, after Tarkin's death she had been summarily exiled to Outer Rim patrol duty. A more boring, unnecessary task was difficult to imagine, but Daala's reports had for years been professional and punctual. She had waited as the Empire crumbled under the weight of the Rebellion's pressure, waited to be called back into action—the letters she sent to the Admiralty asking to be given a real combat assignment made that exceptionally clear—but she never had been.

    Not until the Empire's most desperate hour.

    Which, Pellaeon thought dourly, was now. "Send her in."

    Daala cut a striking figure. She entered alone, her back stiff as a stormtrooper's, and her expression might as well have been carved from stone. She knew how the game was played just as well as he did: first, show no weakness. That was especially true for a woman who had spent the years since Tarkin's ignominious death in the purgatory of the Outer Rim.

    Pellaeon had read her academy records with interest. She had been an exceptional cadet, and she had deserved rapid promotion, if not quite as rapid as she had received. And to have drawn Tarkin's eye was not her fault; the responsibility for professionalism had been his, as her superior. But she was an unknown quantity, and the stiff-necked, blank-faced professionalism she now wore like armor offered no new insights.

    "Admiral Daala, reporting as ordered!"

    She stared over Pellaeon's shoulder, not meeting his gaze.

    "Admiral Daala, by order of the Imperial Starfleet, you and your squadron have been assigned to me. When you return to Gorgon, please communicate to the men under your command that we are now the Empire's first line of defense. It is our responsibility, and our privilege, to stand as the first line of defense against the forces of disorder and rebellion."

    "I understand, Admiral."

    Her response was not enthusiastic. Neither was it dour. It simply was a statement of fact. "As my senior subordinate…" he continued, watching her expression as he did. After all, technically she outranked him. They were both Admirals, but her promotion had taken place more than ten years before, while his was only a few weeks old. By seniority alone, she ought to command the fleet.

    If that fact occurred to her, she didn't show it. "...You will serve as the fleet's executive officer."

    That got her attention. For the first time since she walked in, her green eyes flicked to him. They were shadowed with decades of frustration, and there was a certain molten quality to them that could presage anything. Anger over years of mistreatment? Bloodlust? "I will, sir?"

    "You will," Pellaeon agreed. He probably could have gotten away with cutting her out of the chain of command, but it would not have been fair to do so. Teren Rogriss had often complained about the harassment his daughter Asori had been subjected to at the Imperial Academy, and specifically complained about how Tarkin had treated Daala. If Rogriss were alive, Pellaeon had no doubt that he would have accepted Daala and attempted to work with her.

    With his passing, it came to Pellaeon to live up to the memories of his mentor and his friend. Of Thrawn and of Rogriss. He would not disappoint them.

    Daala's reaction was subtle, but Pellaeon didn't miss it. The lines in her expression, ridges in the stone that was her face, relaxed. Stone became flesh; her spine went from the parade rigid of a nervy cadet to the relaxed stance of a confident officer. That was good, Pellaeon thought, because he had no need of more nervous cadets, and a dire need of good officers.

    "Your four Star Destroyers will be integrated into our formation," Pellaeon continued. He manipulated the holotable, and the three Imperial-IIs that were already there were supplemented by Daala's four Imperial-Is. "At the moment we have seven Imperial-class Star Destroyers, but I'm hoping that we'll be given at least three more. We also have a Venator-class fleet carrier, loaded with a full flight wing: twelve squadrons of TIEs, ranging from defenders to bombers. Grand Moff Kaine will be providing us with a number of Victory-class Star Destroyers as they become available, and I've been informed that we should expect to be given at least a half-dozen Enforcer-class cruisers."

    The ships multiplied on the display, paired with a number of smaller vessels that would provide escort: Katana dreadnaughts, Carrack-class light cruisers, and a handful of Lancer-class frigates. It was a formidable formation—or would be once all of the ships had actually arrived, Pellaeon thought—but not as formidable as the one the New Republic had assembled around Lusankya.

    Not even close.

    "And our assignment?"

    "Our assignment is simple," Pellaeon replied. He swept his hand and the Imperial ships vanished, replaced by their best estimate of the New Republic's formation. In the center, surrounded by the enemy's Imperial-class Star Destroyers and Mon Calamari Star Cruisers, was Lusankya. "Engage the Rebels… and destroy them."

    Other Imperial officers, given such patently ridiculous orders, might have objected. But Natasi Daala's lips actually twitched into a small, almost anticipatory smile. After so many years on the Imperial periphery, perhaps she saw even suicidal orders as better than purgatory.

    "Can I count on you, Admiral Daala?"

    "Of course," she said. Her smile grew, becoming almost friendly… except for the lupine edge. "Until I am dead, or rendered unfit to serve," she quoted the Starfleet oath. Even after all her years of inglorious scutwork, she spoke the words with the gravity of a museum curator charged with irreplaceable artwork, Caridan refinement slightly enhanced by a rougher patois.

    "Very good," he replied. "Then let us discuss our battle plans."

    * * *​

    It didn't take Pellaeon long to realize that Daala was good at her job. It took Dreyf the better part of two hours to fully brief them on the New Republic's Fifth Fleet, and by the end of the first half hour Pellaeon had decided that she would be an excellent second-in-command for his new fleet.

    Whatever fleet is left after Antilles finishes with us.

    Daala's questions were precise and incisive, without any of the fancy frippery that some fleet officers used to make themselves sound smarter than they actually were. Her time on the Outer Rim chasing pirates and watching infrequently-traveled trade routes had not dimmed her instincts for greater strategy.

    It was in the last half hour of the briefing that he had been most impressed. Dreyf had walked them through Imperial Intelligence's assessment of Wedge Antilles, his history, and his strengths and weaknesses as a commander. "As a commander," Dreyf declared, "Antilles has demonstrated independent initiative and creativity. During the Thyferra and Zsinj campaigns he operated without higher command authority most of the time, and with extremely limited resources. In each campaign he successfully defeated his foe despite that lack of resources." Dreyf swept his hand, dismissing the holomaps and replacing them with a new set. "Since he became a General, the Rebellion has utilized his skills primarily as a starfighter wing commander. He is known to be beloved by the men under his command and to prioritize logistical control and casualty-aversion, especially in campaigns where he has the luxury of time."

    "Starfighter generals rarely make good fleet commanders," Pellaeon said skeptically. "There are some exceptions, but only a few I can think of. The time spent developing piloting skills hews towards reacting rather than planning, and is not generally spent developing a broader tactical perspective."

    "If he is averse to casualties," Daala said thoughtfully, her green eyes narrowing as she examined a map of Imperial and Rebel space, "that restricts his target options. If we can identify what places he might hit, we may be able to prepare an ambush and force him to react to us."

    Dreyf smiled. "I've already prepared a list of potential targets. There are obvious targets, like Corellia and Carida, but I've assumed the New Republic is not prepared to sustain the losses that would be required to capture those systems. Less prominent targets include Celanon and Orinda—"

    Pellaeon's comm buzzed. Grumbling, he fished it out of his pocket and flicked it on. "Pellaeon."

    "I'm sorry to disturb you, Admiral," said the voice of Lieutenant Tschel, "but we've just received a HoloNet transmission I think you should see."

    "A HoloNet transmission? From fleet command?"

    "No, sir. It came through in the clear, over the standard news frequency."

    "News?" Pellaeon blinked. "What could come over the open-access frequency that is so important?"

    "I think you should judge that for yourself, sir."

    Pellaeon's expression darkened. He thought Tschel had matured beyond the sort of evasive reporting better suited to a scolded child. His lips met in momentary annoyance, but correcting Tschel now would be a waste of time. "Send it to our station," he bit out, promising himself to bring Tschel aside and rake him properly over the coals—

    "Yes sir," Tschel said, his voice audibly relieved.

    The holotable images of Antilles' campaigns vanished. In their place blared the Imperial Seal, the Imperial March, and the harsh, insistent script of the Imperial News Network. The seal and music floated there for a moment, then faded to reveal a human female commentator who wasted no time. "Grand Moff Kaine was killed on Coruscant today—"

    Pellaeon, Dreyf, and Daala all stiffened in surprise. Dreyf half-stood, both his palms on the table in front of him, staring at the image slack-jawed and rendered momentarily speechless. Daala gasped, then her eyes narrowed.

    Pellaeon stared at the flatscreen. Kaine was dead? On Coruscant? Nothing about that made any sense!

    The report did not start making sense as the commentator blathered on. In fact, Pellaeon's confusion mounted with each word. "The Grand Moff had been invited to Coruscant by representatives of the Rebellion to discuss possible prisoner exchanges, and the Rebellion had assured his safety on their word of honor," the commentator scoffed, "for whatever that was worth. During negotiations, the Rebellion assassinated him with the banned chemical toxin yerite, last used by Rebel forces in a cowardly attack on the Star Destroyer Subjugator."

    The words made no sense. None whatsoever. Each word compounded on the others, and Pellaeon sank into his chair, feeling dazed. Yerite?

    "To ensure neither Kaine nor any of his agents could escape, when his transport attempted to flee to bring word of this barbarous event back to the Empire, it was destroyed by a perfidious Rebel assault, despite being located in the middle of a highly-populated district of Imperial Center," the commentator continued. The commentator vanished, and in her place was a holorecording of a yacht atop a building in a dense Coruscant district. As Pellaeon watched, a pair of B-wings fired proton torpedoes into the defenseless yacht and it exploded, tearing off the top two floors of the building, shattering transparisteel and sending debris raining down in a torrential downpour of deadly debris.

    "An emergency meeting of the Council of Moffs has been convened on Entralla," the commentator said as she re-appeared in place of the holo. "According to the previously-recorded will and wishes of Grand Moff Kaine, they are discussing possible options for succession into the role of Grand Moff of the Oversector Outer with representatives of the Imperial Security Bureau and the Imperial Inquisitorius."

    Pellaeon paused the holo. "Lieutenant Tschel, contact Reaper. I want to speak with Admiral Deshorn at once."

    "Sir, all the com lines to Reaper are jammed. Every Star Destroyer in the fleet is currently attempting to contact the Admiral."

    That made all-too-much sense. Pellaeon had not known that Kaine was on Coruscant—what had Kaine been doing on Coruscant!—and if he had not, then chances were no one else had either. But, Pellaeon thought, there were alternatives to formal communication. "Bring us within comlink range of Reaper," he ordered.

    "Yes, sir."

    Dreyf's expression had returned to his normal calm. "You want to talk with Lieutenant Deleste, sir?"

    Pellaeon just nodded.

    In the tumult, he had forgotten Daala. She had stood and was working on her own datapad. It took her a minute to do whatever she was working on, and then the holotable shifted again. "—terrorist attack on Coruscant today," said a distinctly horrified female voice with a Ryloth accent. "Details remain scarce, but initial reports suggest that the target was a peace conference between the Empire and New Republic. We can confirm that both Chief of State Mon Mothma and Councilor Leia Organa Solo of Alderaan were wounded in the attack and are in critical condition at Manarai Medical Center—"

    If Pellaeon's jaw had dropped at the first news broadcast, this second one had him positively gasping.

    "—Newly elected Councilor Garm Bel Iblis, representing Corellia, was killed in the attack, as was at least one as yet unnamed senior representative of the Imperial government—"

    Pellaeon reeled. Bel Iblis was dead? Mon Mothma and Leia Organa Solo were in critical condition? This was a decapitation strike aimed squarely at the top of the New Republic's political leadership!

    "—Palace Security has so far refused to comment, but we are told by a senior representative of the New Republic's Provisional Government that the Imperial Security Bureau is believed to be responsible for this heinous attack."

    His comlink chirped again. "We're within link range of Reaper, Admiral," Tschel said.

    Unable to come up with anything to say, Pellaeon fumbled with the link to change its intended recipient. The hushed voice that murmured back over the com spoke with the deep tone and familiar inflection of Lieutenant Deleste. "Yes. Sir?"

    Pellaeon fought past his shock to find his voice. "Lieutenant, have you seen the news report?"

    "I have. Sir." Pellaeon could almost see Deleste's solid, confident expression.

    "Do you know anything?"

    The link was silent for a long moment. "Off the record. Sir?"

    "Off the record, Lieutenant."

    "Grand Moff Kaine departed Reaper more than a week ago, in the yacht the HoloNews showed in their broadcast. He was accompanied by at least one senior ISB operative, Colonel Carias. I do not know his intended destination or how long he planned to be gone, but his ship was well provisioned. That's all I know. Sir."

    "Very well, Lieutenant," Pellaeon said. "Thank you. Carry on."

    The link went dead.

    Pellaeon turned to stare at Dreyf. "Find out. Full autonomy, whatever resources you need. Keep both of us, and only us, informed as you go."

    "Yes, sir," Dreyf replied obediently, subdued.

    "If this is true, if any of it is true," Daala said thoughtfully, the least perturbed of the three of them, "I would expect the Rebels to accelerate their timetable."

    "If Bel Iblis is dead," Pellaeon ground out, "and they believe ISB is responsible, they will be out for blood. If Organa Solo or Mon Mothma dies…" he shook his head. "They will vent their fury on us until it is exhausted, and then they will destroy themselves in civil war."

    * * *​

    The stillness of Lusankya had become eerie as the massive Super Star Destroyer floated in the void above Coruscant, her dagger shape clearly visible to all who resided in the palace district. It was the kind of stillness, Wedge thought, of the moments before battle—or the moments after. When pre-mission jitters finally faded into anticipation, tempered fear, determination. Or the sharing of post-mission grief, as the survivors of a squadron gathered together in silence, united in their knowledge of who had survived, and who had not.

    It was odd that this moment felt like both at once.

    Wedge stared at the holomap of Bespin, at the carefully-constructed battle plans, at the litany of prepared orders he had so confidently written and signed, fully prepared to send them, to begin the new operation.

    Sena Midanyl had barely spoken. She sat on the other side of the room, on the far side of the combat display, staring at a holographic representation of a window, fake stars twinkling. She had not cried when the news came in, nor yelled, nor raged. She just sat, staring.

    When she spoke, the words were quiet, as if fighting to fill a vacuum and losing. "Twenty-nine years old," she said.

    "What?" Wedge asked, taking a step nearer to her.

    She turned to face him. "Garm. He was elected to the Republic Senate from Corellia at twenty-nine years old. A few years later, I became his Senatorial aide." She sniffled, rubbing her nose. "I was an idealist then. So was he. We were both—" she sniffled again, laughing through her sorrow "—opposed to the idea of arming the Republic. Corellia was behind us and we fought the political battle of our lives." She took a deep, calming breath, and when she resumed speaking her voice was steadier. "Then each crisis became a new one. What we'd thought was the worst thing that could happen to the Republic was revealed to be merely a prelude to something worse. Then the Clone Wars—the worst catastrophe the galaxy could endure, we told ourselves each and every day, hoping to see the end of it, to go back to making people's lives better—they ended, and once again, things were even worse than we had imagined."

    "You both went through a lot," Wedge said, drawing on all his commander's expertise, on every letter he'd written to the family of a fallen pilot, and finding it all came to nothing in the face of her long experience. There was nothing to say, so instead he just let her talk, and he listened.

    "Things got so bad," she laughed again, without humor, "that two people who had spent their young adult lives trying to prevent the militarization of the Republic chose to become soldiers. It's been so long that sometimes I forget I was ever anything else. But I was, once, and so was he." She offered Wedge a weak smile. "I was so happy he was going back to the Senate," she said plaintively. "So happy. He was going to get to do what he did best again. He was nervous, but I never doubted him. Garm was a good general, but he was a magnificent Senator."

    Wedge joined her on the couch. "I'm so sorry, Sena."

    "Me too," she agreed sadly. "I hoped the war was about to be over. But now… there's no chance of that, now, and my son's in this fleet. On Orthavan." She took a weary breath. "Going back to battle."

    Wedge's wristcom pinged with a unique signature, one he recognized instantly. He shot Sena an apologetic glance and slapped at his wrist, his gut suddenly aching with fear and hope. "Iella? Are you all right?"

    "I'm all right, Wedge," Iella reassured him. There was no exhaustion in that voice, nor fear. No, Wedge heard something else: Iella Wessiri was furious. "A bit bruised, but all right. I just got out of a meeting with the Provisional Council. I've never seen Sian Tevv so animated."

    "How are Mon Mothma and Leia?"

    "They're stable. The Chief of State is in bacta and will stay there for a few days. She got hit with debris after the Imperial transport exploded, but there's every expectation she'll make a full recovery. Leia's prognosis is less certain, but Luke arrived a few hours ago and she's stabilized since then."

    Wedge sagged forward, rubbing his face with relief. "Thank the Force."

    Sena's voice was strong. "Iella, what's the status of the Provisional Council with the Chief of State and Councilor Organa Solo indisposed?"

    "I'm so sorry about Garm, Sena." Iella's voice took on a hint of that exhaustion now. "You should know that he saved Leia's life. I don't think she would have survived if he didn't react as quickly as he did."

    Wedge saw Sena actually smile—a real smile, not a bitter one. "He always did have good instincts."

    "To answer your question, the Provisional Council is still functional. If anything this seems to have united them; there was very little bickering in the meeting I just got out of. Fey'lya, Kerrithrarr and Sian Tevv seem to be the most prominent voices, and they also seem to be cooperating. That's actually why I'm calling." There was a pause, the sound of motion, and when Iella spoke again her voice was quieter. "Wedge, I think you're going to be their next call. I would expect to receive it in the next hour or so, maybe less."

    "You think my orders are about to change."

    "So do you," Iella said confidently. "So, I suspect, does Sena."

    "Yes," Sena said, and her voice was cold.

    "If they give that order… Wedge, we might not be seeing each other again for a while."

    "I know."

    "You'll be on campaign, and I… I have a murderer to catch." Iella's tone was calm, but Wedge could hear the fury lurking just underneath the surface. A kind of cold, rational fury—angry, but not berserk. Furious, but not frantic. Iella's fury was the most terrifying kind: perfectly under her control. "ISB hit the negotiations to disrupt the peace talks. Kaine is dead. Winter and I agree that the most likely culprit is Colonel Carias, his aide at the first meeting. He's vanished. I'm going to find him. The government has frozen all incoming and outgoing traffic without serious security checks, so if he hasn't escaped already, he's not leaving."

    The last time Wedge had heard that tone of voice from Iella Wessiri, it was when she'd been going after Ysanne Isard. It filled him with pride, sorrow, and fear to hear it from her now. He'd hoped she would never again need that sort of edge.

    "Just watch your back," she added. "The Provisional Council… Well, it's hard to know how they're going to react to this, and I don't trust—" she cut herself off, and he heard her take a deep breath "—you know who I don't trust. Go with my love, and stay as safe as you can."

    "I will, and I love you too. Good hunting, Iella."

    "Good hunting, Wedge." He heard her wolfish grin, the one she wore when she was out stalking her prey, and then her voice vanished with a click as the comlink closed the line.

    "How long do you think it'll be?" Wedge asked Sena.

    "Not long."

    Wedge's comlink beeped again, this time with a priority sound. "Yes, Commander Needa?"

    "Priority signal for you from Coruscant, sir," said Needa. "It's the Provisional Council."

    "Best not keep them waiting. Send the message to me here."

    "Very good sir. Just a moment."

    "You were right," he told Sena as they waited. "It wasn't long."

    Wedge could feel his stomach twist as the holo-display transformed into the forms of the three now-senior members of the Provisional Council. Kerrithrarr towered over the other two, his massive Wookiee frame providing a backdrop for Fey'lya's more human-sized body and Sian Tevv's comparatively tiny person. Threepio's gleaming form stood beside Tevv, to translate.

    Wedge and Sena stood side by side, at matching positions of respectful ease. Wedge folded his hands behind him. "Councilors."

    "General Antilles," said Councilor Fey'lya. The Bothan's eyes found Sena. "Miss Midanyl. The Provisional Council wishes to express its sincerest sympathies for your loss. You and Councilor Bel Iblis were friends and colleagues for many years, I know."

    "Thank you, Councilor," Sena said, sounding choked.

    Sian Tevv chattered in Sullustan, while Threepio acted as his voice. "The peace negotiations with the Empire have failed." Kerrithrarr roared in furious outrage, which drew some additional words from Tevv. Wedge knew enough Sullustan to get the sense of the meaning, and despite the fact that Wedge did not speak Shyriiwook, Kerrithrarr needed no translation. "Yes, of course," Threepio agreed. "The peace negotiations were attacked by treacherous Imperials. The Empire is not interested in peace," the droid said to Wedge.

    "We were prepared to grant some of their concessions," Fey'lya growled. "There was a chance we might come to an agreement." He leaned towards the holocamera, baring his teeth. "But peace is not what the Empire wants."

    Kerrithrarr growled again, and Threepio resumed his translation. "Councilor Bel Iblis was of the opinion that ISB would have to be dug up from the roots before there could be peace with the Empire," the Wookiee opined through the droid. "It is the opinion of this Council that he was correct."

    Fey'lya snarled. "Those Tewasztas killed one of the Council, and nearly killed two more! This was an attack on our very sovereignty as an institution. It cannot stand!"

    "General Antilles," said Threepio for Kerrithrarr, sounding much more peaceable and calm than the clearly infuriated Wookiee. "Your previous rules of engagement were extremely restrictive. That was at the request of Councilor Organa Solo, in the hopes that peace could be negotiated." The droid glanced at Tevv sideways as the Sullustan added a few words. "The Honorable Councilors do not doubt Councilor Organa Solo's good intentions by these orders, and the fact that she may have succeeded without ISB's intervention proves her wisdom—"

    Fey'lya's dismissive ripple of fur was a momentary distraction.

    "—but clearly circumstances have now changed."

    "Go and teach them the meaning of treachery, General," Fey'lya snarled the moment Threepio stopped speaking. "Our honor, and Bel Iblis' memory insist on it. As of this moment, you have our full and unified support to call on whatever personnel and resources you require to see your mission through."

    "Forgive me, sirs, but what exactly is my assignment?" Wedge asked.

    The Bothan's left eyebrow twitched. Wedge stared ahead soberly, like a good soldier, and fought hard not to think about the Katana fleet, and how Fey'lya had left the Rogues to die and held a blaster on a pregnant Leia. He focused on Kerrithrarr instead.

    "Your orders, General," said Threepio's prim voice as he translated for the Wookiee, "are to destroy the Empire."

    "Sir?"

    Kerrithrarr's growls were harsh. "The Provisional Council has given you full operational authority, General," Threepio said. "The honorable Councilor from Kashyyyk offers some colorful commentary, but the spirit of his message is to destroy every ship and capture every world until the Council of Moffs or its inheritor is compelled to offer a full and unconditional surrender. How to do that, they leave in your most capable hands."

    He had been expecting these orders, Wedge thought dazedly, but to hear them stated so bluntly… and he realized, too, that this was Fey'lya's influence. These orders should have gone to Ackbar, but Fey'lya would not countenance giving his rival such an enormous political opportunity. Wedge, though… Even if Wedge succeeded and came home as the Republic's greatest war hero, he had no political ambitions. He was not a threat.

    But however the orders had come to him, the responsibility for executing them was now his. With Kerrithrarr and Sian Tevv flanking Fey'lya, it was clear the Council was unified. Which meant there was only one thing he could say.

    "Yes, Councilors. I'll begin at once."

    "May the Force be with you, General," said Threepio, an unprompted reassurance, and the Council disappeared.

    He and Sena stared at the empty holotable in silence.

    "What do we do?" asked Sena softly, uncertain for the first time since he'd met her.

    Wedge wasn't sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing that he already knew the answer to that question. He stared at the larger starmap, took a breath in, and with a slow exhale the entire campaign unfolded in his mind.

    With it came a sense of bone-deep certainty. "The Provisional Council just wrote us a blank check for military action. I'm going to cash it."
     
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  5. Gabri_Jade

    Gabri_Jade Fanfic Archive Editor Emeritus star 5 VIP

    Registered:
    Nov 9, 2002
    Okay, I'm not super familiar with the parts of the EU where Daala's around, but I always got the impression that she was written as genuinely foolish and owing her advancement entirely to Tarkin, and I like this much better.

    I love "a certain molten quality to them" - very evocative :cool:

    Excellent nuanced description here!

    And this too :D

    You know, as readers, we're so personally familiar with the characters that sometimes the greater impact of what's happened to them takes a back seat in our minds. I like that this showcases exactly how galaxy-shaking these events are. It's not just "this character readers love almost died and her family is upset"; the impact of all of this genuinely turns the political and military reality of the galaxy upside down [face_thinking]

    And I like that Daala had the sense to acknowledge this: that initial reports are not always true or accurate.

    That's our Iella, all right.

    =((

    lol, oh, Fey'lya o_O

    welp [face_worried]
     
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  6. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
    Daala, maybe more than any other character, was subject to seriously inconsistent characterization, to the point where the novel Death Star basically implied (if not outright stated) that she had minor brain damage during the events of the Jedi Academy Trilogy. By Darksaber, Daala looks more like the figure we've presented here, and it's Darksaber Daala that we've brought into our story.

    The events of Interregnum I were, on the whole, pretty minor. They were galaxy-disrupting, in the end it was all the story (basically) of one relatively minor campaign (and one at the time relatively minor crime lord). Interregnum II is not that. These events are galaxy-changing.

    Yeah. Kaine and Leia tried. Now it's Wedge and Pellaeon's turn.
     
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  7. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
    Chapter Eighteen

    A year before, Wedge would have used the holocom to have a virtual meeting with the New Republic's other major fleet commanders to inform them of his intentions and request their support. But, despite all the additional security measures the New Republic had adopted in the last six months, there were still concerns about the security of the HoloNet and Wedge was unwilling to use it for a conversation this sensitive.

    So Wedge forewent the normal fleetwide briefing. Instead, he settled for a meeting with the senior fleet officers available on Coruscant. He'd shuttled from Lusankya over to Admiral Ackbar's Home One for the briefing. The room should have been packed with staff, but instead there were only three officers inside: Wedge himself, Admiral Ackbar, and General Etahn A'baht. The bright salmon hues of Ackbar's smooth skin contrasted starkly with the purple leather skin and exposed quills of the Dornean, but both officers wore identical looks of patience as Ackbar's security team completed a sniffer sweep before exiting.

    Once the room was empty, A'baht spoke first, the fine quills around his eyes illustrating each bass rumble of his voice. "General Antilles, I could not help but notice that once vested with command by the Provisional Council, you requested and received reinforcement of no fewer than six additional capital warships—taken from each of the New Republic's primary defense fleets—and a much larger number of smaller warships." The rough fabric of the Dornean General's day uniform—a holdover from his time in Dornea's system defense fleet—contrasted sharply with Ackbar and Wedge's own impeccable dress whites.

    "That's right," Wedge agreed. "I wanted to inform you that Fifth Fleet would be departing Coruscant imminently, and that I intend to dispatch orders to each of the New Republic's defense fleets to commit incursions into Imperial space." Wedge moved to Ackbar's large holotable and inserted his datapad, then waited for his finalized battleplans to decrypt. When the process was finished a map of the galaxy appeared, with Imperial space tinged in blue while Republic space gleamed with Rebellion red. With another button press, arrows appeared all over the map, indicating fleets moving to mount invasions of Imperial space.

    Not one invasion. Or even two invasions. But dozens.

    The astonishment on the faces of Ackbar and A'baht—who between them had no fewer than two hundred years of military experience—was enough to make Wedge swallow hard. He reminded himself that he'd considered this plan over and over, talked it through with Lando and Sena and Tycho, not to mention Wes and Areta Bell and his other senior commanders.

    This was a bold thing, and some of his staff had questioned its sheer audacity, but Wedge remained undeterred. He knew it was the right thing.

    When he resumed speaking, he did so slowly and evenly, honoring their experience but refusing to let their initial surprise dent his confidence. "So," he said to Ackbar, "as circumstances stand, with Mon Mothma and Leia indisposed, the standing Provisional Council—including Councilors Fey'lya and Kerrithrarr—have instructed me to attack the Empire, and this is how I propose we proceed."

    "What you plan here, General," Ackbar said slowly, "is more than any simple attack. It would be the most ambitious assault of the entire war. It might be the most ambitious attack since the Clone Wars, and stands in contention with even those."

    Wedge knew this was true. "The Provisional Council has given me the kind of operational freedom any officer craves," he said. "Their orders are also more than enough rope for me to hang myself if it goes wrong." He nodded at the map. "I am a brand new commander, and a pilot at that. I know how the Imperial Starfleet views pilots—they think we're all tactically bold to the point of recklessness and incapable of deeper strategic thought. That combined with my novice status—and the fact that you, Admiral, put me on my back in most of our battle drills, and that information surely has filtered through their intelligence services by now—means they will expect me to be loud and amateurish, blundering my way through an incursion of Imperial space." Wedge smiled thinly. "I intend to be exactly what they expect."

    Ackbar's eyes widened, but he said nothing. A'baht crossed his arms, watching Wedge with narrowed eyes.

    "So I'm going to be loud and amateurish. I'm going to divide my forces and hit insignificant targets. I'll attack small garrisons and supply worlds with Star Destroyers, with all the precision of using a turbolaser battery to splat a groundgrub."

    "Why would you do that?" asked A'baht… but there was a gleam in the Dornean's beady gaze that suggested that A'baht already knew.

    "We are used to being outnumbered," Wedge said steadily. "We're used to fighting with sparse resources against a superior opponent. That has become our expectation." He lifted an eyebrow and gestured towards the holodisplay. The major Republic formations gleamed, representing hundreds of capital warships and thousands of support craft, with squadron on squadron of snubfighters—many of them freshly built, but helmed by veteran pilots with years of experience. "But that is no longer the case. We have the force advantage, and that force advantage is growing with every passing day."

    "They will see a massive attack," Ackbar rumbled, shifting in his chair to peer more closely at Wedge's battle plans. "They will think it mounted out of a desire for vengeance rather than strategic imperative."

    "I hope so," Wedge said seriously. "But I do not intend for this to be a series of hit-and-fade operations. I intend to pick ten star systems and conquer half of them—whichever half they decide not to reinforce. At the other half I expect there will be brutal combat." Wedge's face became stone. "We will take losses and we will inflict losses… but Admiral, we have the ships to lose. They do not."

    "A cold calculus," said A'baht. "A cold calculus indeed."

    "Yes, sir," Wedge agreed softly.

    "What would you have Home Fleet and the other Fleets do in the interim?" asked A'baht.

    Wedge looked between Ackbar and A'baht. While Ackbar was technically in command of Home Fleet, as well as the senior officer of the New Republic Defense Forces, his position on the Provisional Council ultimately took precedence. As both a senior military and senior political official, everyone in the fleet knew that Ackbar would eventually have to choose between one or the other… and everyone in the fleet knew which Ackbar would eventually choose.

    He wasn't about to leave Fey'lya uncontested in the political realm, after all.

    The expectation was that when the Grand Concordat was fully crafted, Ackbar would resign from the Fleet to take up his political role fully. A'baht was his hand-picked successor.

    "We have to worry about our flank," Wedge explained with a sweep of his arm. "With Eriadu exiting the war, that eliminates one potential source of danger. But there remain two others: the Deep Core Warlords, and Corellia." Wedge gestured at the map, spinning the holo to focus on the southern half of the Galactic Core. "The Imperial fleets stationed in the Core could attack our rear in the hopes of drawing our forces back to a more defensive posture, which would make it difficult to sustain the offensive for as long as I would like to."

    "And if they do?"

    "If they do," Wedge said steadily, "I would hope that you take Home Fleet and our other defensive battle groups and meet them in a decisive battle." Wedge pointed at the map again, this time in the direction of Bothawui and the large number of New Republic capital ships stationed around it. "With the loss of Linuri and Eriadu, the Empire has no place from which to mount a serious assault in the Galactic Southeast. I would suggest that you move Fourth Fleet to Denon to keep an eye on Corellia, while Home Fleet keeps watch on the Core and stays available to reinforce Fifth Fleet if needed, and Third Fleet hits Columex, Trojan, Makem Te, and Pakuuni."

    "All at once?"

    "Yes sir. All at once."

    They stared at him. Wedge refused to allow the tension he felt to show on his face. If they went through with his plan—if the New Republic mounted the kind of incursion into Imperial space… well. Fey'lya had told him to destroy the Empire, after all. But it would not be costless. It would, in fact, be exceedingly bloody.

    But this was war. "We have to force them into battle on our terms," Wedge said passionately. "And then destroy their ships and fleets. Take their planets. Leave them no respite, no safe ports of harbor, and no supplies to keep their ships operational."

    Ackbar and A'baht, with their two centuries of combat expertise and strategic genius, looked at one another, and then back at Wedge. They did not nod, either of them, but it was like something in the air of the room had changed. Resolve reinforced Wedge's worry as it became clear that the two men would back his play.

    Etahn A'baht gave Wedge a small, satisfied smile, quills rippling across patches of leathery purple skin exposed by his uniform's tailoring. "And here I was, thinking you weren't going to be any fun."

    "What is your ultimate target?" Ackbar asked.

    "My ultimate target is the Imperial fleet itself," Wedge said. "But if you mean where I expect the stiffest resistance…" Wedge manipulated the display and pointed at the dagger-shape of Lusankya. Then he pointed at a tiny, gleaming blue dot positioned far too close to the center of the nascent New Republic.

    With that settled, the meeting shifted from proposal to execution. The number of people in the room grew from three to nearly a dozen, as different commanders from Home and other Fleets were ushered in to discuss the coming offensive. They began to match commanders to assignments: General Calrissian, suave and stylish in a swirling cape which concealed the steady nerves of a seasoned gambler, would lead the assault on Bespin with a scratch force; Admiral Bell, her determination burning like her flaming red hair, would head the assault on Chazwa from the bridge of Endurance, old Admiral Vantai the assault on Dorin, and the saturnine Sair Yonka the attack on Joiol. Fourth Fleet would strike Bestine under the exacting gaze of Admiral Scaur, while Admiral Nammo and Third Fleet would divide its forces to strike numerous systems in a series of moves almost as flamboyant as its commander.

    Down the list they went, assigning commanders to fleets… until only Lusankya remained.

    * * *​

    When the plans were finalized, the fleet prepared, and the couriers dispatched to carry orders personally to the New Republic's commanders around the galaxy, Wedge found that some of the stress had lifted. To his surprise, once he had proposed this string of incursions into Imperial territory, Ackbar and A'baht had not only accepted the recommendation, but embraced it wholeheartedly. What had started with an idea he and Sena had masterminded in the aftermath of the ISB attack—perhaps too lost in anger and grief—was now a plan Wedge shared with the rest of the New Republic's leadership.

    But it was still his plan. Even if it went well, Wedge was going to have to live with the knowledge that he had ordered the fleet to engage knowing it would mean heavy casualties for both the New Republic and the Empire. If it went badly…

    Well. If it went badly, they would have Ackbar and A'baht in reserve.

    It wasn't going to go badly, Wedge thought confidently.

    The other officers were departing, shaking hands and then exiting Home One's round planning room. Each had a great deal of preparations to make aboard their own ships now. A'baht had already left. Ackbar was one of the last to prepare to take his leave to ready his fleet.

    "Sir?" Wedge called, somewhat hesitantly removing and pocketing his rank insignia,"A moment before I depart?"

    The Mon Cal turned back and swung his turreted eyes toward the Corellian, taking in his changed ensemble. "Very well, Wedge. How may I be of service?"

    Wedge hesitated, not certain how to approach this. Eventually, he just went with his gut. "Garm was a fellow Corellian, a fierce friend, and a capable mentor. I'll grieve his loss, but… I've never considered him any kind of surrogate for the parents I've lost." He hesitated again, but the words spilled out of him without thought. "You've been important to me, Admiral, and I'm sure that you're going into danger before this operation is through and it will have been my brainchild that put you there. That put… so many people I care about there.

    "Please, sir, don't die under my orders."

    Ackbar watched him, his big eyes blinking slowly. "And now you know," the old Admiral said soberly, "how I have felt before every mission I have ordered you on. It is one of war's great injustices, that parents are so often forced to bury their children, rather than the reverse happening in a natural manner, and only after many happy years together. Swim in safe waters, avoid the treacherous rocks and the shallow shoals, and I shall endeavor to do the same. In the end, it is all we can hope for."

    "Thank you… Gial."

    "Thank you, Wedge."

    * * *​

    On the trip back to Lusankya, the weight of what he had just set in motion laid heavy on Wedge, and he closed his eyes against the artificial brightness of the shuttle's cabin. Thousands of warships, tens of thousands of snubfighters, and millions of people would, in a matter of a few short days, be undertaking the most aggressive offensive action against the Empire ever. And their goal would not be the goal of the Ukio or Bespin campaigns, which had as their objective the liberation of worlds and the freedom of civilians.

    This time the goal was not to free anyone. The goal was to destroy as many Imperial ships, conquer as many Imperial worlds, and kill as many Imperials as possible.

    Wedge knew many Imperials and ex-Imperials. They were, for the most part, not evil people. Some were—more than their fair share, especially among those humans who comprised ISB and the Imperial political leadership—but many were people conscripted, or who enrolled because they had heard all the old Imperial propaganda and nothing else.

    He had just ordered their deaths by the hundreds of thousands.

    Far worse was all the New Republic personnel who would die for the sake of that victory. Wedge had fought hard to protect the lives of every single person he was responsible for from the moment he was first given command of Rogue Squadron. He could name every pilot he had lost over the years—in most cases, he could name their parents and siblings and lovers as well, because he had written the condolence letters—and he had spent years fighting to keep his people alive.

    He didn't know the name of every person he had just ordered into combat. Lusankya alone had a crew of almost three hundred thousand people!

    He had said they had the ships to lose, but he had made a very clear separation from ships and people in his mind. Right now, left with the knowledge of his duplicity, he felt a burning ball of shame and nausea coalesce in his gut.

    The trip from the hangar to his quarters was a blur. The holotable he and Sena had used to develop the original assault plan—the one he'd briefed Ackbar and A'baht on—was still active, rotating in a slow circle. Long red arrows reached out from current New Republic deployments, pointing at each of the systems he had chosen to target.

    At the bottom of the display the name they'd settled on gleamed in blocky black print. OPERATION GARM'S HAMMER.

    He wished Iella was here, but she wasn't. He didn't know where she was exactly, except that she too was seeking vengeance—or justice, but sometimes it could be hard to tell the difference—out hunting down the man who had killed Garm Bel Iblis and a dozen members of Palace Security, and nearly killed both Mon Mothma and Leia Organa Solo.

    He wished the Rogues were here, but he wasn't a pilot anymore. He was the General, in command of not twelve men and women but hundreds and thousands of people he didn't even know.

    So he sat alone, in his spacious command suite, staring at a mocked-up battle plan that he could no longer change, wondering how many people would die because he had decided the New Republic could afford to lose ships and the Empire could not.

    There was a door chime.

    Wedge killed power to the display and locked it, striding over to the door under a murky cloud of annoyance.

    Who could possibly need me at this hour? The only possibilities that came to mind were Sena and Captain Kre'fey, and either of them arriving unannounced boded only ill.

    It wasn't either of them.

    He opened the door to find Lando, the Rogues, and their support staff clustered outside. The two commandos on watch stood still, stonefaced—or a close facsimile of stonefaced. In deliberate opposition to the uniformity of Imperial troopers, Alliance—now New Republic—ground forces didn't run as much to spit and polish.

    None of his people were in uniform. Most wore civilian formalwear, complete with shined shoes and starched collars.

    Wes Janson drew eyes like a heat-seeking missile. He was resplendent in a green Corellian-style wedding gown with massive shoulderpads. On his arm was a massive Wookiee, who Wedge recognized as one of Lusankya's chief mechanics, dressed in a coreworld dinner jacket and pants that somehow suited her. A translator droid gleamed from its position on her baldric, accented by its own fine moustache of suitably-darkened hair.

    As she rumbled, it translated.

    Wedge stared at both the couple and especially at the droid. It chittered senselessly. His brain sluggishly tried to make sense of the nonsense.

    "It's in Ewok," said Tycho helpfully. Unlike the commandos standing watch at the door, his expression was actually stonefaced, but Wedge had known Tycho too long for the Alderaanian to successfully conceal his amusement.

    "Allow me to translate!" Wes suggested cheerfully. He cleared his throat theatrically. "By order of the New Republic's Morale Officer assigned to Lusankya—"

    "Morale officer?"

    "—And in recognition of the General's secret romance—"

    "My what?!"

    "—And considering that the ranks of the bachelors among the Rogues and ex-Rogues have rapidly diminished through the unfortunate embrace of matrimony, with the expectation of a continuing decline—"

    "You'd better not let Mara hear you say that," Lando warned with a grin. "But then, she's not here."

    Wedge folded his arms across his chest and glared at Tycho, the only one still dressed in his obnoxiously perfect uniform, offset slightly by a comically oversized Alderaanian necktie.

    Tycho shrugged, looking far too innocent and wafting the necktie in a parody of genteel elegance. "This was not my idea."

    "I don't believe you."

    "—I hereby pronounce that a rehearsal for a Corellian Wedding will take place at once." Wes finished, then glanced back at the crowd of Rogues standing outside. "Well. Maybe not the wedding itself. The reception. Or just the Last Liberty Night."

    "Right now?" Wedge glowered, words grinding like ancient boulders.

    "Well of course." Wes said, fluttering long lashes Wedge swore had been extended. "I had to see if the gown would fit. Do you have any idea how much work it took to put this celebration together?" He peered over Wedge's shoulder. "We thought we'd use the General's anteroom for the party. Do you mind?"

    Wedge briefly covered his eyes with his hand. "I should have all of you fired into the sun."

    "We've got Whyren's!" drawled Hobbie, handing Wedge a bottle, then handing him a second bottle. Wedge found himself holding two bottles of what appeared to be very expensive Corellian whiskey of a pre-Imperial vintage. They were not the only ones carried by the squadron and its support crew.

    "And Salted Koona Crisps," added Inyri.

    "Spun Fluff-Crystal Crunchies," offered Tycho, still infuriatingly calm.

    "I thought you said this wasn't your idea."

    The squadron crushed his objections with a merciless fusillade of unhealthy offerings. "My best attempt at ryshcate," Corran said, holding up something only slightly singed on an ornate platter stolen from the Mess.

    "Ooryl attempted to regulate his wingmate's experiments," added Corran's Gand wingmate, who had forgotten to remove a colorful apron tied over his exoskeleton. "Ooryl regrets to report Ooryl was only partially successful."

    "And I've got something really special. A new holodrama called Luke Skywalker and the Crimson Temptress, available before it's official release thanks to some wheeling and dealing from yours truly," said Lando. He stepped in close and threw his arm around Wedge's shoulders. With the bottles of whiskey in his hands, Wedge couldn't stop him. "I understand it's a sequel to the earlier Luke Skywalker and the Emperor's Assassin, but they had to change the name of the assassin character because of the threat of a lawsuit… and also probably murder."

    Wedge scowled. "We are not using my office for this."

    A cheer went up from the squadron, though Tycho merely laughed.

    "That's all right," Lando said. "That is just fine. We weren't really expecting to."

    Wedge shook Lando off his back and stabbed the formerly-retired General with the two bottles of Whyren's. "Take these," he hissed, though his aggravation was rapidly retreating under amusement. It hadn't been that long ago that he'd been the one spearheading a bit of fun before a dangerous operation, after all… and they could all use a bit of relaxation before the assault on the Empire. "Just a minute," he said, then reached down to his wrist.

    "We've got Jento-cakes" came Gavin's muffled voice, belatedly adding to the list of desserts.

    His wristcom responded to his prompting. "Yes, General, what do you need?" asked the precise, Coruscanti accent of Commander Needa, Lusankya's comms officer.

    "Commander Needa, inform the crew that I am declaring twenty-four hours of liberty. No one may leave the ship unless already authorized, but otherwise we'll be operating with minimal requirements until this time tomorrow. Tell the crew the General orders them all to cool off a bit as they come off duty."

    "Sir?"

    Wes leaned in and spoke as clearly and authoritatively into the wristcom as he did in combat. "Under direction of the New Republic's Morale Officer assigned to Lusankya, I hereby order you and Captain Krey'fey to make available the party supplies in storage bay Besh-Seventy Three and utilize them to their fullest extent."

    Wedge didn't wait for Needa to respond. Instead, he pulled the wristcom away from Janson and spoke into it himself "You heard the Major, consider that an order."

    He could have sworn he heard a muffled cough of laughter after Needa's utterly-professional "Yes sir."

    With that taken care of, he folded his arms across his chest and turned to glower at his Rogues. "Fine, you win, you rogues," he announced to the squadron. "You'll all pay for this later—especially you, Wes—but you win. I'll be right back." He left the door open behind him, allowing the squadron to enter the excessively large lounge space that Lusankya's Imperial makers had allotted to its commanding officer, while he secured the doors to more sensitive rooms in his suite.

    Security assured, he went to change. His wardrobe on Lusankya was more than large enough to accommodate a number of civilian outfits, and with a shrug he selected the least businesslike item he owned—a gift Iella had purchased on their vacation after Ukio.

    He emerged into the now public-space and some of the newer pilots goggled. He wore a tropical-patterned lavender tunic and grass-weave hat—and he didn't feel particularly abashed about it, either.

    "Well what do you know," said Wes in a low murmur pitched to carry, "Lavender really is his color."

    "Well. Now that you've taken me hostage, shall we do our best to forget our worries?" Wedge asked, adjusting his hat, and manfully ignoring the Tanaabian.

    * * *​

    It was far from the wildest party Wedge had ever attended. In fact, for all the colorful dress and sweet food (and copious amounts of inebriants), the celebration was subdued. Wedge himself couldn't afford to get too drunk—detox meds had never worked all that well on him—but the banter and discussion and laughter were all a welcome reprieve from the previous stresses of command.

    Wedge found himself slipping back into the mindset of a squadron commander. The Rogues had had significant turnover since he had left command, with five new pilots entering the squadron. He didn't know any of them well, but he'd heard about them and he found himself watching them subtly, looking for signs of camaraderie and standoffishness.

    The unit's new rookie, a spindly Quarren Flight Officer by the name of Kral Nevil, was clearly still adjusting to being part of the squadron. Barely older than Gavin had been when he had joined, Kral had evidently been taken under Gavin's wing—the two of them had been inseparable for most of the evening—and it warmed Wedge's heart to see Gavin transition fully from youthful rookie to veteran Rogue.

    It also made Wedge feel really, really old.

    By contrast, Lieutenant Alinn Varth had fit into the squadron as though she had always been a part of it. Wedge had known her father, a long-time General in the Rebellion and later New Republic's Starfighter Corps, for almost ten years before he had been killed at the Battle of Generis. Stocky, gray-eyed Alinn was one of a growing number of "Baby Rebels," children of Alliance fighters raised on Rebel bases who had followed their parents into New Republic service.

    How many of the people I'm sending to fight the Empire are going to leave behind orphans like Alinn?

    Tycho nudged his shoulder. Unlike the rest of the squadron, he was still only drinking tea. "Credit for your thoughts?"

    "No credits," Wedge said, tossing back the last of his Whyren's and feeling its smoky burn. "You can pay me in whiskey, though." He sighed. "Although maybe I should stop. I'm not as young as I used to be."

    "I bet if we put you in a sim you'd still put up the highest scores."

    Wedge offered him a grin. "As long as Luke isn't there for the day." He grinned wider. "Though without the Force it'd be an even fight."

    "There's that famous modesty I've come to expect from you, Wedge."

    The Corellian just smirked, and surveyed the room again.

    The only pilot in the squadron who appeared to still be fighting discomfort was the most notorious of the new Rogues. Major Runamaren Vehourr—whose unwieldy formal Hapan rank of "Banner-Lady of the Forward-Striking Panther" roughly translated to Colonel—was quite tall, looking refined and dangerous in her Hapan dress robes. Her discomfort wasn't that obvious—her default expression was somewhere between a scowl and a grimace—but her body language was more relaxed than it had been the last few times Wedge had seen her.

    Next to her, Hobbie was murmuring something, then nodding in Wedge's direction. On her other side, the recently-promoted Captain Inyri Forge took up the whispering when Hobbie finished. Wedge decided that being subtle was pointless and regarded the trio openly, noting that Vehourr had a small box in one hand, and her right arm was concealed behind her back.

    They approached.

    Wedge lifted an eyebrow. "Yes?"

    "General," Vehourr said as she approached, jumping slightly in response to what appeared to be a covert elbow from her wingmate.

    Wedge hesitated for a moment. Technically, Vehourr outranked Tycho—officially they were both Colonels (or the equivalent), and Vehourr and had held the rank for longer than the Alderaanian. But she'd agreed to serve in the Rogues as a Major, so as to not outrank the squadron commander. Wedge decided that it was better to go with the rank she currently held and not mention the slight downgrade she'd taken. "Major Vehourr. I hope you're enjoying Wes' little … celebration of excess."

    Inyri scoffed. "This is a party, not an officer's meeting. Wedge, Runa. Runa, Wedge." She gestured between them dramatically.

    "Wedge," Vehourr agreed.

    "Runa, then."

    Hobbie and Inyri both looked at Vehourr pointedly, and the Hapan's grimace grew slightly. "It has taken me some time to accustom myself to the myriad of cultures I have encountered on this assignment. I understand it took a great deal of patience for us to grow used to each other. I wish to thank my squadmates for their generosity and forbearance."

    Inyri's expression was that of someone who had just scored a great victory. Her proton torpedoes had just mission-killed a Star Destroyer, perhaps. Not a Super Star Destroyer, though. Maybe just an Imperial I.

    "I was informed by my wingmate," the Hapan continued with a nod at Inyri, "that it would be the height of rudeness to come unescorted." She brought her hand around from behind her back and held up the stuffed form of a plush Ewok wearing scanty Hapan male court robes, with a New Republic pilot's tag that identified him as Lieutenant Kettch.

    "I did the stitching," Hobbie said proudly.

    "I do not understand why exactly," Vehourr added, spitting Hobbie with an evaluative, side-eyed glance, "but I am told that the Ewok will bring good luck."

    Wedge accepted the Ewok, then handed him to Tycho. "When we get back to Coruscant, I want you to present Kettch to Winter. I'm sure he'll keep the little Celchu company."

    Tycho laughed and patted the Ewok's head. "We just won't tell the little one that Ewoks eat people in addition to destroying Stormtrooper platoons with rocks, I guess."

    "I have also been told that as the newest member of the squadron, I would be expected to offer up a gift—" Runa glanced at Hobbie sideways "—or bribe, in honor of the wedding."

    "I'm not getting married!" Not yet, anyway.

    "This is a wedding rehearsal, boss," Hobbie said sagely, as if that explained everything.

    "The Rogues tell me you are to be consort to a noble," Vehourr continued.

    Wedge furrowed his brow. "Well, I've said that Iella would make a great Queen of Corellia…"

    The Hapan extended a sealed ebonwood box with an elegant inlay across it. Wedge took it, confused, and then opened it quickly to peek inside. He was greeted by a deadly-looking midsized blaster pistol with arodium tracery winding along its outer surface in the shape of flowers.

    "Noble women back home often carry such things to protect against potential assassins or other threats to their household," Vehourr explained.

    Wedge shook his head in astonishment, then laughed. He gave Hobbie and Inyri both glares of moderate intensity—the kind intended to communicate chastisement without making them fear for their lives—and then offered Vehourr a genuine smile. "You know something, Runa? I reckon you speak Rogue just fine."

    She smiled in response. A real one this time.

    * * *​

    By the time the party was finally winding down, Wedge was—unfortunately—compelled to return his attention to other matters. Commander Needa had arrived with a datapad with communiques in one hand and a fresh glass of Whyren's in the other. While the Rogues made flagrant use of his lounge, Wedge retreated to his office to read them.

    "Commander, will you find General Calrissian in the chaos outside and send him in, please?" he asked his comms officer.

    "Of course, General," Needa replied, looking only slightly frayed from running the gauntlet of Rogues that had guarded the door to Wedge's office. With a deep breath, Needa visibly steeled himself, then charged out into the wild.

    It took a few minutes for Lando to enter. As per the usual, Lando's outfit and smile were spotless. "What is it, Wedge?"

    Wedge tossed him the datapad and Lando caught it. "I've got your ships. Since Bespin is our most distant target, you have to leave first if we're going to get the timing right. Tomorrow morning you're taking command of Mon Remonda and heading for Bespin."

    "Mon Remonda!" Lando gaped. "Han's old command ship?"

    Wedge nodded. "Now you can gamble with Han over who gets to be recorded as her commander in the history holos. I'll be getting you some reinforcements by the time you leave, and Commodore Tabanne will be detailing some of her new ships for the squadron along with one of my dragships. You'll meet up with a division from Third Fleet—they'll bring your fighter squadrons, mostly X-wings and Y-wings—and I'm also giving you Major Page and his commandos. The ground combat on Cloud City is likely to be the most difficult of the entire offensive."

    Lando nodded slowly. "That oughta be enough," he agreed. "Especially when things get as hairy as they're gonna get everywhere else. But don't worry, I can make up the numbers to make sure it's a real sure thing. I've got an old friend who owes me a favor or two, and Drea's never let me down… especially if I offer her a cut of the profits once the Tibanna is flowing again."

    "There is one other thing I want you to do," Wedge cautioned.

    "Oh yeah? What's that?"

    Wedge smiled. "Nothing you're not already good at. Be a big, bombastic distraction."

    "Hey now," Lando grinned. "I'll have you know that I'm far better at being subtle."

    * * *​

    It took exactly three shift cycles for Lusankya's performance ratings to return to optimal levels, and Wedge was certain he saw a few more smiles everytime he walked the ship's labyrinthine halls.

    The Super Star Destroyer's bridge hummed with taut anticipation. The ship's crew was ready—the entire fleet was ready—and the time had come. "I have Admiral Bell for you, sir," Commander Needa announced from his position at the communications station. "We've just received the 'ready to depart' signal from the Vanguard formation."

    Wedge glanced at the chrono. On the large, easily visible computer monitor beside it were almost thirty numbers, each listed with two times: the assigned departure time, and the estimated arrival time. "Five minutes until Vanguard's departure time," murmured Sena from her spot beside him.

    General Cracken had assured him that the short-range hypercom communications were absolutely secure, so Wedge had allowed its use. The glowing holographic form of Admiral Areta Bell offered Wedge a confident grin over tightbeam. She wore a fleet uniform nearly identical to his, while her arms were folded neatly behind her back. "Vanguard formation is prepared to depart," she announced. "Endurance, Rising Tide, and Rebel Dream will do their duty."

    Wedge nodded. "You know your assignment," he confirmed. The two of them had only gone over it about a hundred times. "Draw Pellaeon in and keep him pinned."

    "Oh, we'll hurt him," Bell promised, her smile wolfish. "You don't have to worry about that."

    He was going to worry regardless.

    "Three minutes until departure," Sena commented.

    Bell looked away from the communications system. "All hands, hyperspace in three minutes!" she called. On the far side of the comm, Wedge could hear the echo of confirmation from Bell's bridge crew. She looked back at Wedge. "This is a far sight better than Hoth, General," she said with a grin. "We've come a long way."

    At Hoth, Areta Bell had commanded a nearly unarmed bulk freighter, stuffed full with supplies and troops. Wedge and Luke had covered her escape; Wedge could still remember the nervy terror as they'd raced past a disabled Star Destroyer, desperately hoping that it wouldn't recover control of its weapons before they made it to the hyper limit…

    "One minute."

    "May the Force be with you, Admiral," Wedge said.

    Bell tossed him a salute. "May the Force be with you. We'll do our part, General." She turned away, the holoimage sputtering and vanishing as she did. Wedge gazed through Lusankya's bridge window as the three ships under Admiral Bell's command, with their half-dozen escorts and carrying a full load of starfighters and pilots, flickered with pseudomotion and then vanished into a hyperspace leap.

    Wedge glanced at the chrono, then at Sena. "Is Mirage Formation in motion?"

    Sena nodded. "Just received confirmation from the Commodore."

    "Good," Wedge muttered. He glanced at the board. "General Calrissian should be a day out of Bespin," he murmured to Sena. "And Commander Yonka is eight hours out of Joiol, while Admiral Vantai has about an hour before he has to leave for Dorin."

    "If the timing is right," Sena agreed, "and assuming no one gets delayed in transit, all the Fifth Fleet formations will be hitting their targets in twenty-four hours."

    Wedge took a deep breath. "We will go to hyperspace in eight hours," he announced. "With the expectation of combat in twenty-four. We all know our duty." He nodded at Captain Kre'fey. "Captain, keep an eye on the crew and make sure they've recovered from the sudden outbreak of fun. I want them rested and ready when we stand them up for battle stations. If everything goes the way it should, we'll be fighting several battles over the next few weeks."

    His Bothan flag captain saluted. "Yes sir!" Kre'fey agreed excitedly, then lifted his comm pickup to give the order.
     
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  8. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
    Chapter 19

    Mara was not fond of Manarai Medical Center. As Emperor's Hand, she had cumulatively spent months convalescing there. She already had multiple notable scars that functioned as a permanent reminder of countless battles and the hospital stays that had followed them. The scars were enough, she didn't need to hang out with the 2-1Bs to reminisce.

    Not as though any of them would remember me anyway. Palpatine was thorough.

    But the Jedi weren't leaving, not until they were absolutely sure that Leia's wounds were fully attended to, so she would just have to grit her teeth and live with it. It wasn't as if she was in the bacta tank, after all. Besides, she owed Leia.

    Luke had worked himself past the point of exhaustion and lay passed out on a couch that the security troopers had lugged in for him. When she'd woken from her own nap, she'd found Luke's head using her lap as a pillow, while Kam and Tionne resumed their own efforts to neutralize the Yerite that remained in Leia's system. The two of them had been teaching Kyp to aid with the effort when Mara had left, seeking caf and breakfast.

    She wasn't really surprised when she turned around in one of the nearby tapcafs—having just ordered roughly enough caf to supply the entire New Republic Defense Forces, and an equivalent number of ridiculously expensive breakfasts—and found Artoo-Detoo trundling along behind her. "Following me?" she asked with a scowl.

    Artoo whistled apologetically, then popped open his storage compartments. He offered her one of his translation datapads, and in exchange he took the carafe of caf in a grasper arm.

    I WAS DENIED ACCESS TO THE MEDICAL CENTER. WILL YOU HELP ME GET INSIDE? Artoo rocked from side to side on his wheels, gurgling mournfully. PLEASE?

    Mara fumbled, collecting the breakfast sandwiches. "Come on," she sighed, and headed off back towards Manarai with Luke's astromech following close behind.

    The news about the attack was everywhere and everything Mara read made her more concerned. NEW REPUBLIC IN TURMOIL, one sludgenews headline read. Another, one from a more respectable media outlet that had, only a few years before, been an unrepentant part of the Imperial propaganda machine, read EMPIRE ACCUSES REPUBLIC OF MURDERING GRAND MOFF KAINE. Thankfully, few outlets had much to say about Leia. As high profile as she was, the names of Mon Mothma and Ardus Kaine had seized the headlines.

    Behind her, Artoo let out a low, sad coo.

    "Yeah," she muttered back, feeling much the way the droid sounded. "I know what you mean."

    The pass Iella had provided her got them past the first layer of security. The second layer required a physical screening, and Mara was led into a small airlock-like space that separated the more public parts of the hospital from the more secure wing. Inside was a hastily-constructed scanning unit with a man dressed in a Palace Security uniform, who walked with a slight limp. "Are you armed, ma'am?" He asked. His limp slowed him down some, Mara noted, but he nonetheless carried himself with the confidence of a man who knew very well how to use the blaster rifle he had slung across his chest.

    "I have a holdout blaster strapped to my right wrist and a lightsaber," she said, stepping into the scanning booth. On another day she would have had vibroblades too, but she hadn't bothered to get fully armed leaving Tempered Mettle on their arrival from Coruscant; their only concern at the time had been getting to Leia as quickly as possible.

    The Palace Security agent looked up with consternation. "You do?" He blinked as the computer obediently reported that she was, in fact, telling him the truth. "You must be Mara Jade. You still can't take those inside," he said, stammering. "Well, certainly not the blaster, my instructions don't say anything about lightsabers…"

    Artoo whistled at the guard. "Caf and sandwiches?" the guard read off his datapad.

    "It's all right, Lieutenant, she's with me," Iella said, poking her head into the small room. "And we could use both the caf and the sandwiches." Iella took Mara by the arm and led her out, Artoo following. "Good thinking," Iella murmured to Mara as they walked with haste through the sterile halls towards the operating theatre where Leia and Mon Mothma were still in bacta. "I'm starving."

    "How did the Empire pull this off?" Mara asked.

    Iella shook her head, her lips pursing together as they moved. "Somehow they got Yerite through all the security measures we had in place," she said. "Then they blew up the transport they came in." She scowled. "That second one is on me," she muttered. "I should have insisted we move the negotiations to a secondary location the moment I was put in charge of security. Whether Kaine would have agreed..." She shook her head. "Well. it's fuel through the afterburner now. Still. A biological attack conducted on humans. I'm not sure ISB thought through the precedent they just set."

    "ISB doesn't care about precedents," Mara muttered. Lethal chemical weapons had never been Mara's weapon of choice. Non-lethal gas she'd used many, many times, but the more virulent gases were usually too difficult to use outside of a very controlled environment, and her theaters of operations had never been that controlled. Despite that, she was well-versed in their use—if only because being prepared for your enemy to use them was important for any covert operative who wanted to live through botched missions. She had sat through hours of study of different kinds, learning their different characteristics… "The Yerite. You think it came in through the air supply?"

    "That's the only thing I can think of."

    "Who died first?"

    Iella frowned. "Grand Moff Kaine succumbed first. A few minutes before…" her voice caught, and when she finished the sentence it was with a softer, mourning tone, "… before Garm."

    "Minutes? One minute, three minutes, five minutes?"

    Iella's frown deepened. "More than three minutes," she answered, finally. "Garm got through multiple verses of the Spacer's Lament before he died."

    Mara stopped abruptly. Artoo nearly ran into her from behind, blatting his annoyance, but Mara barely noticed. "I know how they got the Yerite in."

    "You do?"

    Mara nodded. "Yerite has a few properties that set it apart from most nerve agents. One of them is that you can alter its chemical composition—I can't remember how exactly, but I'm sure one of the doctors here in the hospital should be able to tell you—and introduce it to a subject in food or drink. It stays in the body's system for a little while, maybe an hour, before it becomes virulent again. The infected subject then releases some of the Yerite, and it kills them and anyone in close proximity." She shakes her head. "It's not something that's taken advantage of very often, because there are easier ways to kill someone and there's no real way to control where the subject dies or who will be near him when he does. The amount of Yerite released—usually through hiccups, burping, or coughing—is not very large."

    She reported all this matter-of-factly, and Iella stared at her as she did. "But in this case," Iella said thoughtfully, recovering some of her poise, "they knew exactly where Kaine would be, who he would be with, when they would be together, and more or less where everyone would be sitting." Her expression paled. "And they thought that Mon Mothma would be attending that morning, not Garm."

    "As I said, it's hard to control who will be near the subject when he dies."

    "I still can't believe they were willing to kill Kaine just to have a chance to kill Mon Mothma and Leia," Iella said, her tone somewhere between astonished and outraged.

    "Iella… how do you know that Kaine wasn't the primary target?"

    "You think ISB killed their own Grand Moff because he was negotiating with the New Republic?"

    "Would you put it past ISB?"

    She watched Iella think about it, then the Intelligence agent sighed. "No. No, I wouldn't."

    * * *​

    The Massassi Temple where the Rebel Alliance had their base on Yavin was bustling with activity. The heat from machinery and repairs mingled with the natural humidity of the thick jungles of Yavin 4, and the combination was even more oppressive than Tatooine's dry heat. Biggs slapped him on the shoulder, and the two of them laughed about air so wet they could practically drink it.

    Luke thought about what a vaporator would do on Yavin 4. He'd have the whole year's harvest in an afternoon.

    "You made it!" said a familiar voice.

    In astonishment Luke turned and found himself staring at his Uncle Owen. "Uncle Owen!"

    He was in his uncle's arms in an instant, nearly in tears. "I saw… I thought…"

    "I know, son," Owen said. He drew back, holding Luke at arm's length, examining Luke's carbon-scored helmet with a critical eye. "Can't say I was happy to see you go up in that Skyhopper you got," Owen said gruffly. "Almost killed yourself half a dozen times." He pointed at the X-wing simulator Luke had just hopped out of. "Now you're going up in something with lasers!"

    "That's just the half dozen times you saw," Luke returned lightly. "Who knew bringing home dinner through Beggar's Canyon would be a sim run for this?"

    "Your father," Owen said heavily, "Would be proud of you, but not nearly as proud as we are of who you've become. You don't have to go up there, you know."

    "Yeah." Luke said, giving a soft smile. His father… there was something important about his father… His attention was drawn to the sky. He looked up through the temple hangar bay, through the humid envelope of the atmosphere, and imagined the metal terror-fortress, a planet-sized chain weight, racing towards them.

    His mechanical fingers twitched nervously. "Yeah I do, Uncle Owen," he said, seeing that looming, perfectly crafted moon coming closer in the sky above, its enormous eye pointing directly at him. "I do."

    "Remember," his uncle said. "We all must die, so live as free as you can, lest you be chained again."

    "I remember, Uncle."

    His uncle's eyes were sad but shed no precious tears. "Oh, my boy, I only wish you had more time to live."

    Owen embraced him, and held him close, the older man's forehead touching Luke's as the rough homespun of his tunic scraped against Luke's scrounged orange flightsuit, and as his uncle became lighter in his arms, Luke cried freely at the sweet smell of ash that hung in the air as Owen's clothes and skin and hair sloughed away.

    His hands were covered in ash. Cheeks salted with tears, he found himself staring up at the sky, watching with horror as the Death Star came closer… and closer… and closer. The sphere turned black as it loomed, filling the entire sky, so close that Luke felt he could reach up and touch the falling moon. The Death Star fired. Its mighty green laser vaporized the X-wings and Y-wings first, and then the temple started to scream.

    Luke woke up with a start. It took him a moment to remember where he was, but the sight of his sister floating in bacta brought everything back. He glanced to his side, but Mara wasn't there.

    "Are you all right?" asked Kam.

    Luke rubbed his temples. "Yeah," he groaned. "Just another Force dream." He shook his head. "They've been coming fast and furious the last week or so." He offered Kam a wry smile. "I feel like they're dragging me all over the galaxy."

    "When you're truly attuned to the Force, it will tell you where you need to be," said Tionne. "Well, that's what the old stories claim, anyway."

    "I wish it would communicate a bit less forcefully," Luke sighed.

    "Where do we need to be now, then?" asked Tionne. Next to her, the Jedi holocron pulsed its steady blue, and Luke found his gaze drawn to it. He thought about the dream, and only one conclusion came to mind.

    Han was not going to be happy.

    * * *​

    The arrival of fresh caf—which Mara withdrew from Artoo's heavy grasper arm and was swiftly gone after the rest of their company started pouring—and sandwiches gave Mara time to check on Luke. She brought him his typical cup of black caf, careful not to confuse it with her own rather more doctored concoction, and he offered her an exhausted smile that made her dearly wish they were alone.

    In front of them, Leia was still immersed in bacta. Mon Mothma had been moved, some hours before, from the long-term care unit to one more suitable for intensive, short-term treatment (and more importantly, Mara suspected, one that was more easily secured by Palace Security). Leia floated limply, looking peaceful.

    Luke was not as conscious of the onlookers as she was. His hand slipped into hers, turning her palm over so he could interlace his fingers with hers. She resisted momentarily, glancing at the others in the room. Tionne was tuning her instrument for what was probably the fifth time since they arrived, despite the fact that the double-viol did not look or sound like it required any adjustment. Kam was sitting with Kyp, trying to help the Jedi Order's sole apprentice meditate, though from Kyp's distressed expression it didn't seem like Kam was finding any success. Next to them, Han was asleep on the couch, dressings askew and dead to the world, snoring loudly.

    Chewbacca, Winter, and the twins were gone.

    With a resigned sigh, she closed her hand around Luke's and relaxed against him. It wasn't like anyone here didn't already know. "Where's Chewie?"

    "He and Winter are moving the twins to the new apartment on the Senatorial Skyhook," Luke explained, sounding exhausted. "They've decided it's safer there than anywhere on the surface of Coruscant. They weren't going to move until Winter's baby was born, but under the circumstances…" he shook his head. "Someone tried to kill them, after all, and nearly succeeded. Han and Chewie are putting the security of the twins first."

    That Mara could well understand. What she couldn't understand was why they'd been targeted at all. "I understand the attack on the peace negotiations," she said, refusing to let the sudden ache of anger overwhelm her. The very thought that the Empire would have tried to kill Han and the twins provoked in her a familiar righteous anger, righteous anger that had once been the one true weapon of the Emperor's Hand. "But why attack Leia's family?"

    "I don't know," Luke said, leaning against her.

    "ISB is ruthless enough for it," Mara said with a scowl. "But…" ISB's mandate had always been very specific. As a branch of COMPNOR, ISB's function was to destroy all traitors to the Empire: to find and eliminate the threats within. They could have interpreted that more broadly, enough to target Leia—who, as a former Imperial Senator, could be reasonably charged with treason against the Empire—but to target her family… Perhaps she was ascribing reason and logic where there was none. Perhaps it was all the work of one vengeful, addled ISB Colonel, and trying to reason out his motives was a pointless exercise.

    Their conversation drew attention from the others in the room. Kam stood, Kyp following one step behind him. "We learned something on Vjun," the tall Jedi pointed out, his usually resonant voice as subdued as they all were. "ISB is cooperating with the Inquisitorius."

    Mara added that factor to her mental calculation and it spit out the obvious answer. "They were after the twins," she said, and allowed herself to be horrified. Her hand squeezed hard around Luke's as she processed the likely truth. They were after Jaina and Jacen. And they were after them simply because—

    Kam explained it for her, and she was grateful. "Inquisitors destroy any Force potential they can't control," he said. "They'll be targeting us, now more than ever. But the fact that Jacen and Jaina are Force-strong is an open secret, sludgenews has been speculating about it ever since they were born. As far as the Inquisitors are concerned, that means they must be either cultivated or destroyed."

    A sudden surge of rage curdled in Mara's gut, thrashing with the expensive caf and cream concoction she'd been drinking. It fought furiously for control against a sudden spasm of self-loathing. This was the Empire she'd served so loyally for so long? A monstrosity that would murder children? That had taken her from her own family? How had she ever, ever thought it was—

    "Mara," Luke said softly, and she relaxed her grip. The bout of self-loathing fled as his presence mingled with hers, warm and reassuring. As torn up as he was about these events—about his sister, and his brother-in-law, and Chewbacca and his niece and nephew and the dangers they had all been in—he turned his full attention on her for a moment, with the same, sure adoration and hope that he'd offered her unhesitatingly ever since Myrkr.

    In the face of that, her rage felt small and petty. It flickered out, leaving behind a wearied indignation that lacked the serrated barbs of the Emperor's Hand.

    "It's more than that," Luke said, looking up at Kam. "There is another hand at work here."

    "What do you mean?"

    Luke waved at the troubadour sitting near the door. "Tionne?"

    Tionne jerked, her double-viol making a resonant sound as she accidentally plucked one of its bass strings. "Whatchmusit?"

    "Bring the Holocron over here, please."

    Mara watched as Tionne brought the glowing cube close, placing it reverently in Luke's proffered hand. Surely they'd all realized that his other hand was busy, still laced through hers as it was… indeed, she caught Kyp's notice. Her cheeks would have flushed with embarrassment, if she had any emotional reserve left.

    The Holocron glowed a brighter blue, then the insectoid form of Jedi Master Vodo Siosk-Baas formed above the box. "Master Vodo," Luke greeted the long-dead Master.

    The hologram bowed in return. "Jedi Skywalker. What can I or my fellows do for you?"

    "You said when we last spoke that you could sense that your fallen Apprentice still had a presence," Luke said. "Tell me, Master… the Dark shadow that I feel hovering over these events… is that him?"

    Mara's eyes widened. Stretching out with the Force, she enhanced her awareness, searching for a potential foe—

    Vodo bowed his head. "Yes. I believe so."

    "What are you talking about?" asked Kyp nervously, glancing around as if he expected another attack. "Is the Empire—"

    Luke raised his hand, a gesture which quieted Kyp without a word. "Master Vodo," Luke continued as if Kyp had not spoken, "the place where your Apprentice must be fought and vanquished… that is still Yavin 4?"

    It was not Vodo who answered. Master Nomi Sunrider replaced him, and her hologram met Luke's gaze levelly. "The place remains Yavin 4," she confirmed. She looked at each of them in turn—Luke, then Mara, then Tionne, and finally Kam. "And the people are you."

    "Then we must leave," Luke said, with the certainty of a man who was hearing the answer he expected, if not the answer he wanted.

    "Wait," Mara objected. "If Exar Kun's presence is here, then don't we need to fight him here?"

    "No," said Luke. His hand squeezed hers. "They're right. Yavin 4 is the place."

    She gave him an incredulous look. "We're just taking their word for it?"

    "Not just their word. I had another dream tonight." Luke nodded seriously. "Yavin 4 is the place we need to be."

    She hated Force dreams.

    "You're not leaving." Han's voice was gravelly with sleep, but his eyes were clear and locked on Luke. "Someone just tried to kill your sister and your niece and nephew. Mobvekhar is dead. We need you here to protect us." His clothes were ragged and unwashed—but then, that was true for all of them—and he pointed at Leia's body in the bacta tank. "They're gonna try again, and Kerrithrarr might'a said something about an honor guard but clearly the security precautions we had before aren't good enough!"

    "Han," Luke said soothingly, though Mara could feel the way he flinched at Han's tone.

    "Oh no," Han shook his head, "no, no no. You don't get to use that tone of voice on me, not now, not after what happened yesterday. The only reason my kids are alive is—" he pointed at Kyp "—Kyp was there and saved us!"

    Kyp flushed with embarrassment. Mara focused on him for the first time since they had arrived, and her breath caught in her throat. The Force swirled around the young man, even more strongly than it had when they found him on Kessel. Light and Dark cast shadows over him, clinging briefly as one washed the other away. His inner turmoil had largely settled over the months since they'd brought him home, and Han and Leia had as good as adopted him. But that inner turmoil was back now, and with a vengeance.

    Her lover's gaze followed hers, and he could see all she saw, and more. "We owe him a great debt," Luke said seriously. "And—I'm sorry Han—If he feels up to it, we need to take him with us."

    "What?!"

    Han's indignant outrage was louder than Kyp's quiet surprise, but that didn't matter, because Mara's focus was on Kyp. His voice might have been hidden under Han's otherwise. "I need to be here to protect…" his voice faded, and the young man swallowed hard. When he spoke again, it was little more than a whisper, barely heard and yet unmistakable. "My clan."

    "The Force is with you, Kyp," Luke said steadily. "You can feel it now, stronger than ever before."

    Kyp hesitated, then nodded.

    "It is a dangerous moment," Luke said comfortingly. "One full of potential and peril. We must go to Yavin 4 to confront Exar Kun, and we need everyone. I know you're scared, I know we haven't trained you fully, but we need you, if you're willing to go."

    Kyp nodded haltingly, handed Han the baby bag, and said no more.

    Mara watched Kyp, her concern growing. She had long recognized that the young man had been touched deeply by his grievous life experiences. Now, though, it was more than just that. Since she had last seen him, he had touched the Dark Side—and it had touched him. Luke might claim that they needed Kyp, but his concern—like hers—was not so much that his presence would be required to achieve victory over Exar Kun at Yavin. Rather, the young man needed guidance, guidance that only Luke and Kam could provide.

    "The kid's not going anywhere. Are you even listening to me?" demanded Han.

    Luke's cool blue eyes fixed on Han. "I always listen to you Han. Agree is another story. Leia will be fine." His voice was confident, and Mara was relieved to realize that he was as confident about that as he sounded. "It will take some time, a few days, maybe a few weeks, but she will make a full recovery. She is strong, and the Force is strong with her, and with its aid she will heal. Move your family to the Senatorial Skyhook. Bring in a squad, or even a platoon of Noghri to protect you. But the Darkness that threatened your family is not here any longer, and it must be confronted and vanquished or it will not stop."

    Han scoffed. "You're going to go and take on the entire Empire yourself? That's a little much, kid, even for you."

    "No, not the Empire." Luke shook his head. "Han, Exar Kun is bad. We're not talking about some petty ISB officer or even some Force adept. This is a four-thousand-year-old Sith ghost that no one has ever been able to kill. He assisted the Inquisitorius and the ISB in their attack, and we know where we have to go to fight him."

    Mara could feel Luke's spike of pointless guilt and pressed her lips together with annoyance. It was just like Luke to feel responsible for this, just because the destruction of the first Death Star might have been the reason Exar Kun had awakened. He hadn't known that at the time—and even if he had, what should he have done?

    She resolved to give him a piece of her mind later.

    "Oh," Han said with a frown. "Just your average week then." The Corellian winced and muttered a curse. "It's always something, isn't it?"

    "Sure seems that way."

    "So you're not going to go and defeat the Empire?"

    "No," Luke said. A small smile tugged at his lips. "I'm leaving the Empire to Wedge."

    * * *​

    Ever since their flight from the Manarai Medical Center, Exar Kun's voice had been quiet. His presence was still there; Brakiss could feel the Sith Lord stewing in the dark recesses of his mind. Filling the dark spaces, then receding again, ebbing and flowing as if drawn like the tides. He had offered Brakiss little in the way of guidance, and Brakiss was in entirely unfamiliar circumstances. The combination had the Apprentice Inquisitor very much on edge.

    Coruscant was unlike any world Brakiss had previously visited. His own homeworld, Msst, was not densely populated and largely overrun with swamps, other than the single truly populated continent. His life subsequent to recruitment by the Inquisitorius had been isolated in Inquisitorius compounds on Entralla or Sartinaynian, or more commonly aboard one ship or another, serving as an aide or a servant to some higher-ranked Inquisitor, like Lanu Pasiq or Drayneen. Compared to those experiences, Coruscant was overwhelming. There were so many people—so many aliens—both their physical presence and their sense in the Force was almost oppressive in its weight, pressing down on Brakiss and threatening to drag him under.

    Worse, Brakiss had felt fear from Exar Kun during their brief brush with the Jedi. Fear of Luke Skywalker and his apprentices, and fear of what they might be able to do if they caught the Inquisitor and his reborn Sith partner unawares.

    So Brakiss fled. Fled down into the Undercity, down below the levels where the Coruscant Constabulary was expected to operate. Down into the depths of darkness, where the warmth and heat of the sun's rays was blocked by too many towering spacescrapers, packed too closely together. Down into the muck and moss that was the real Coruscant, hidden away by the world's glittering heights, better forgotten.

    Despite all his uncertainty, Brakiss had three things that gave him confidence. He had his blaster. He had credits. And he had the Force. Surely, those would be enough.

    He wasn't really that far from the Senate District, but it felt as though he had landed on a whole different world. There were a few signs, mostly to give names to businesses, and several of them had "Uscru" in their name, so he guessed that was where he'd ended up. Humans and aliens moved along at a hurried pace, careful not to make eye contact. He passed a few businesses that were slightly more upscale—a few restaurants which looked like they were frequented by people from the Upper City, who arrived and left via airspeeders—but they were surrounded by seedier establishments promising all kinds of exotic (and illegal) delicacies.

    When Exar Kun whispered into his mind it almost startled him, but after the burst of surprise he felt only relief—relief, that the Sith ghost had not abandoned him. The amulet that hung around his neck warmed some. Danger has an allure, the ghost whispered as Brakiss watched a new airspeeder disgorge a company of wealthy-looking sentients in front of a tiny, barely-marked restaurant. Those who live in privilege sometimes find that allure irresistible. But we must keep moving.

    Where are we going? Brakiss thought to the Sith as he continued down the walk, keeping his head down as he felt a great many eyes watching him from the shadows.

    To find what we need.

    Shouldn't we find Colonel Carias?

    He has already served his purpose. If we go to him now, he will demand we subordinate our goals to his. Our goals must come first.

    Exar Kun resumed his silence, but Brakiss could feel the tug of guidance as he traveled along the maze of structures. He peered up and could see the darkening night sky high above, peeking out above Coruscant's spacescrapers and the myriad of running lights which gave the evening sky an almost day-like glow. A skyhook gleamed ruby above them all, like an overlarge star. Returning his attention to the ground, he hurried along, wondering both what Exar Kun was seeking and when they would find it… and if they would find it before or after his growing hunger became impossible to ignore. Adrenaline was carrying him for the moment, but he would need to eat and sleep and… he really hoped Exar Kun had a better plan than finding a dark alley.

    A prickle of warning coursed down his back and he stopped and turned to peer behind him, attempting to school his expression into something more Inquisitorial than confused, but it was all for naught. There was nothing to see, not at first, but he could hear footsteps.

    A moment later, a motley group of human and alien gangers swept around the massive stub of ferrocrete that formed the block's corner, resplendent in a set of mismatched cloaks embossed with faded glow-spider webs. In a trice they sighted Brakiss and moved to surround him. All manner of cruel blades and tarnished blasters appeared miraculously in their hands as if they too were Force-strong.

    Brakiss let them. It wasn't clear he could have stopped them—there were too many, and he was tired—and Exar Kun's silence offered no guidance or power. Each of the gangers was pale and unhealthy-looking, glistening with sweat from spice-shock damp air, with skin too-long absent sunlight.

    A portly Devaronian with flaking, gilded horns was evidently their leader. He stepped in front of the rest, the others grinning menacingly and brandishing their weapons. The Devaronian's right hand rode the grip of an absurdly large blaster, tucked into a worn leather holster on his right side.

    It took Kun stiffening his spine and all the willpower he had for Brakiss not to step back or flash the blaster tucked inside his cloak.

    The interloper spoke, and Brakiss could feel the greasy fear in his belly,

    "Dahn' yew knaw the's a tax on parsin' frew Gloh Spidah lan' den, Cii-zen?"

    That sort of sounded like Basic, Brakiss thought, but it was hard to be sure. Nervous, he probed the dark corner of his mind where Exar Kun lurked, and felt the shadows reach back. A simple command emerged, a prompt, and Brakiss' expression was no longer his own. The Apprentice Inquisitor felt his body drawing up into a more predatory posture than his usual slouch.

    As his lips skinned back in a smile and his voice suddenly resounded with Exar Kun's smoothly confident tones, he felt the Sith ghost's satisfaction, overlaid with Brakiss' frisson of fear that the Sith might not ever let go.

    "My dear Devaronian," Brakiss' mouth said smilingly as Exar Kun's spirit spread out its psychic tentacles, "as it happens, I was hoping you civic-minded sentients would offer me a lift. Assuming your resources run to a starship of course."

    "Course we 'ave a ship," spat out the portly Devaronian. Brakiss better understood him now, but he wasn't sure if it was because he'd now heard the accent before… or because Exar Kun was easing the communication. "Question is, what's stoppin' us from slicing open your belly, makin' yer entrails yer extrails, and tossing what's left into the underlevels?"

    Brakiss' fear spiked momentarily, despite Exar Kun's presence. It was not as though such threats were new to him. Compared to some of the things that Halmere had said to him, that particular threat was anemic at best. But his fear grew, and grew some more, and he felt Exar Kun stoking it, taking the emotion and drawing out a swell, as if he were the conductor of the Coruscant symphony. Brakiss observed with amazement, his fear becoming a thing almost outside of himself, something he could regard with awe, and he gloried in Exar Kun's majesty before the Sith broadcast the sensation to the group. Brakiss' fear became their fear, and Exar Kun's touch extracted it from each of them—it was not so very hard, Brakiss realized, for these sentients were ones who lived in fear, either their own or that of others. They shrank back, suddenly wary.

    The Devaronian did not retreat, but that was because he could not. Brakiss' hand was lifted towards the red-skinned humanoid, holding him in place with the Force. Brakiss could feel Exar Kun manipulating the Force, drawing the power he needed… and he could see the Devaronian's throat tighten as the pressure upon it increased.

    "Why, nothing other than your public-spirited behavior, of course."

    The red-skinned alien's eyes bulged in surprise as he clutched his throat.

    "What is your name?" Exar Kun demanded, releasing the chokehold just enough for the Devaronian to draw short, reedy breaths.

    "Noz-Nozho Ba-Ba-Baz-Bazvargo," the Devaronian choked. His eyes were wide and panicked. The expression was shared by the other members of his gang, but none had fled… yet.

    Exar Kun surveyed the other gang members. "Rest assured gentles, there are two ways this encounter ends. The first is that you attempt to extract your passage tax and I kill every single one of you."

    His smile had a viciousness that Brakiss could not have hoped to match, one that aged the young man's face a thousand years.

    "The second is that your organization provides me with a ship, a crew, and a pilot. You do a job for me, and I reward you beyond every conceivable dream of avarice."

    "S-ship ain't no good," stammered the Devaronian apparently named Nozho Bazvargo. "The NR's locked everything down. Nobody's leavin' Coruscant without a full search."

    Exar Kun stepped back from Nozho. "You leave that to me," he growled, using Brakiss' vocal chords to produce a dark, gravelly sound that was quite beyond what Brakiss could produce himself. Then Exar Kun reached into one of Brakiss' pockets, palmed a thousand-credit chit, and tossed it casually in front of him. It squelched into the lichen lining the decrepit glidewalk.

    The sound of astonished surprise, the sudden, frozen lunges of competition, and the way each of the sentients was now watching not just Brakiss, but one another with a jealous suspicion.

    "You can consider that a taste of your future reward, or you can try me. But do make up your mind, I grow weary of this senseless posturing."

    They did not have to wait long.

    As it turned out, the gangers—Brakiss finally translated the Devaronian's original gibberish into the name Glow Spiders—did not actually have a ship. Not one that worked. But it mattered little, as they knew where to steal one. It took them only a few hours to appropriate a battered SoroSuub bulk freighter, and then the members of the gang who knew how to operate such a craft joined them, plus some heftier looking fellows who might be useful in a fight. Once aboard they were confidently joshing about what they'd buy with their reward and reeling in the throes of carefully-stoked avarice.

    To Brakiss' eternal relief, once they were aboard Exar Kun relinquished his grip on Brakiss' body. Somewhat begrudgingly this time, the ghost's presence oozed back into the dark corners of Brakiss' conscious mind, whispering once more. We are going back to Yavin 4, my apprentice. The Jedi will come for us there… and there, we will destroy them.

    "Yes, master," Brakiss murmured obediently. Doing his best Exar Kun impression, he grinned toothily at his impromptu minions, and gave them their orders. They obeyed as if he spoke with the voice of the Emperor himself, and after a time Brakiss forgot just how terrified he was, too.

    The return of his Master's voice caught him off guard.

    But… before we depart, we have one last thing we must retrieve. There was a sense of lazy confidence, and of anticipation. Did they think they could hide it from me? Or has it been so long that they have simply forgotten?
     
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  9. Gabri_Jade

    Gabri_Jade Fanfic Archive Editor Emeritus star 5 VIP

    Registered:
    Nov 9, 2002
    Those are some great descriptive details :D

    Yeah, that would do it...

    A very cold calculus, and also likely a winning strategy. Heaven knows the Empire used it often enough.

    lol

    I really appreciate this section illustrating that "the enemy" is not some uniformly evil monolith. No enemy ever is, and it's a profoundly lazy and self-serving excuse to tell yourself that they are.

    There's nothing about this ridiculousness that I don't like :D

    Of course it is :p

    Poor Mara, everyone still talking about her love life :p

    Nor should he :p

    lololol

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

    [face_laugh] [face_laugh] [face_laugh]

    I sympathize with this :p

    Once a cocky fighter jock, always a cocky fighter jock :p

    Iella will love it :D

    Yeah, no one wants to hang out in a hospital anyway, but if you've been a patient there many times yourself...

    Artoo and Mara are going to be buddies. They are.

    This poor security agent. That would truly be a difficult situation :p

    Mara and Iella make such a great team, I love them together :D

    This was how I felt when I flew from Phoenix to Orlando in August :p

    This would be a horrible, horrible dream to have [face_worried]

    Aw [face_love] And yeah, this "Mara loves fancy caf" is completely headcanon for me now [face_coffee]

    [face_love] [face_love] [face_love]

    This is some great psychological introspection for both Mara and their relationship :D

    Fair :p

    Ah, Mara. So unyielding in her self-castigation, but also so unyielding in her support of Luke because "he couldn't have known." We're always our own worst critics.

    Coruscant is such a cool and interesting place, and I would so hate to live there.

    This is some gorgeously creepy writing [face_worried]

    So, so creepy [face_worried] [face_worried] [face_worried]
     
    Bel505 likes this.
  10. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
    It's taken the New Republic some time to change their thinking in this regard. They've gone from the underdog to the dominant power, but most of their leadership still thinks like they're the underdog. Wedge is changing that.

    Showing all the facets of the Empire is a real goal of this fic!

    Tycho is great! And he knows Wedge needs this.

    They already are, even if neither of them would admit it.

    They both are. It's one of the reasons they're good for each other: each one can recognize when the other is self-flagellating and pull them out of it.

    Good! It'd be a real shame to use Exar Kun as a main villain and not amp up the creepiness!
     
    Last edited: Feb 26, 2022
    Gabri_Jade likes this.
  11. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
    Chapter 20

    The Grand Museum of the New Republic was closed but, relying on his Inquisitorial training and Exar Kun's instincts, Brakiss was able to disrupt the security scanners and telekinetically release the latch on one of the museum's otherwise sealed external doors.

    Their travel through the museum was decisive; Exar Kun led him through the darkened halls, and around the rolling forms of security droids. They had a destination; they were going somewhere in particular… somewhere specific and known in a museum that neither of them had ever entered before.

    When you are attuned to the Force, it will guide you, Exar Kun whispered. But this is not so complicated. Concentrate on my presence and feel how I reach out to taste the Force.

    Brakiss closed his eyes, his feet continuing to move even as his attention wandered. He could feel Exar Kun's concentration, the extension of his will out into the space around them. It focused like a cone, oriented towards… something. There was something in the Force, bound to Kun, gleaming in the dark, glinting like moonlight off a mirrored sword. Brakiss was headed towards it, guided by the Sith spirit's intent.

    We all are bound to things, the Sith murmured, as if awed. To people, to places, to ideas, to objects. I am bound to my Jedi Master, Vodo Siosk-Baas, because he was my teacher, and because I was his killer. Even beyond death, his presence is never far.

    Drayneen's face sprang unbidden into Brakiss' mind's eye, her face flushed with fear, but he pushed it aside. "What are we looking for?" he asked.

    The tool of his destruction, my young Apprentice.

    They stopped before a large pair of doors, both ornately decorated and hidden away, presented without fanfare or marking. The door control blinked red when he ran his hand over it. In response he could feel the Sith lord he carried concentrating, focusing. Give me your hand.

    Brakiss put his hand over the panel and, with a moment of trepidation, allowed Exar Kun to have it. The Sith pressed a series of buttons in quick succession, and then the door controls blinked green, and the large doors parted without complaint.

    The room was long and rectangular, with old footsteps etched in the thick layers of dust on the floor. Broken spider webs cleared the central path, and he followed the footsteps. As they progressed, a chill ran down Brakiss' spine and he inhaled sharply. The sense of malevolence, of stinging chastisement, of dark, unrestrained gloating…

    It was magnificent.

    An inheritor indeed. Exar Kun's voice was suitably impressed. A great Sith made this one of his treasure rooms once. You can feel him, almost as you can feel me… but he did not retain his consciousness beyond the death of his body, as I did.

    Brakiss shivered despite trying not to.

    They stepped into a long room, full of relics. Statues and holo-images, all of defaced Jedi. Each one told a story that ended with death. As they looked at each of them, Exar Kun's voice came, low and admiring. So many dead. This Palpatine was truly my heir. Brakiss' lips twitched in a smug smile that came more from Exar Kun than from his own heart. He prepared the way for my return. We will remember and celebrate him in our new order.

    They wandered through the halls, and while Brakiss felt lost and nervous, he was buoyed by Exar Kun's sense of clarity. "Where to now, Master?"

    Patience.

    It was in a small room at the end of a small hallway, still thick with uncut web-strands, that they found a small box carved with ancient warding runes written in a flowing script.

    * * *​

    The Glow Spiders—Brakiss had decided to let the gang of thugs that Exar Kun had… recruited… for the expedition back to Yavin keep their name—were running the ship ably and gave Brakiss a wide berth. The Force users had provided the needed… encouragement… to convince the New Republic customs team to allow their ship to depart.

    Brakiss took over the machine shop to the side of the cargo hold of his stolen freighter, which was cautiously inhabited by the larger gangers: Gamorreans, Devaronians, and even a large-eared Lepi, who unrolled makeshift bedrolls—this mid-sized light freighter was optimized for cargo, never intended to carry more than a small number of crew and passengers.

    With a conscious effort, he stilled his doubts, and submitted himself to the guidance of Exar Kun, letting the Sith guide his hands. He undid the latch on the box, holding his breath as he lifted its top.

    Inside was a velvet case, and in the middle of that case was a long, double-length lightsaber handle.

    Brakiss took up the cool metal in his hand and luxuriated in the sensation of power. Only a select few Inquisitors had lightsabers, and he'd seldom gotten to so much as touch a training blade. Exar Kun paid him little mind as he did—the Sith was focused instead on the Glow Spiders, the intensity of his regard a constant hum in the back of Brakiss' mind—so Brakiss was free to dream of the future. He could see himself at the head of a loyal army—the Glow Spiders didn't fit the mold, but they would do for now—charging into battle against decadent foes.

    Brakiss stroked his hand over the cylindrical handle, his finger riding roughly over the roughness of the grip. He thought of all the fools who had mocked him and remembered Drayneen's advice: "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."

    His smile was thin. She had underestimated him. He would give it back a hundredfold.

    He raised the handle and tilted it to the side, feeling the thrumming of power yet to be released, though the room stood silent. His heart pounded with anticipation as he leaned forward towards the device, hesitating to touch it. "Master?" he asked.

    It took a moment before Exar Kun's voice came. Let us see how it has weathered the ages. Give me your hands.

    Brakiss exhaled, anticipation warring with rising tension. But there was nothing to fear, he decided. He closed his eyes and waited for the prompting through the Force, and then his hands started to move.

    The motion was slow and uncertain at first as Exar Kun got used to Brakiss' limbs, testing fingers and strength. We have many exercises to perform before you will be ready, Exar Kun thought with obvious discontent. Like the mind, the body of a swordsman requires extensive training that you have not received. The Sith must have felt Brakiss' sudden surge of resentment. Do not lament your lack of training. I will teach you everything you need to know.

    Brakiss watched in awe as his own hands moved with surety that he did not possess. The secret catches within the weapon depressed and the cylinder split, giving his hands access to the interior of the weapon.

    Within were a pair of crystals, glittering with fell glory.

    Then his hands moved, laying out newer components on the table before him, which were swapped out for millennia-old wiring. It was all done with a master's precision, with only a few moments of hesitation, each following a twitch in Brakiss' fingers that Exar Kun had not expected. Though it may take a great deal of practice.

    Reassembling the micro-circuits took steady hands and more time than the rest of the process put together. Brakiss could feel his heart in his throat as his hands sealed the tube, tightening the components together. Then he gripped the extended cylinder with both hands, turning it so that he could see the activation switch.

    Yes, my Apprentice, Exar Kun whispered almost fondly. You may.

    Brakiss thumbed the activation switch.

    The cylinder sprouted a beam of coherent energy. The plasma extended until it reached its maximum length and then hummed with constant, crackling power, illuminating the cargo hold with light. The lightsaber's blade was the dark of an ocean storm, and Brakiss felt as though he held the entire storm in his hands.

    Brakiss thumbed the activation switch again, pushing it to the second setting. With a fresh snap-hiss, a second beam extended from the opposite end of the lightsaber's handle, doubling the light in the cargo hold.

    He stared at the double-bladed lightsaber and wished that Halmere and Pasiq and Drayneen were here to see him now. Twirling the blade slowly and carefully, he imagined their expressions, their awe and fear, luxuriating in fantasy.

    Yes, my Apprentice, Exar Kun encouraged him. They will fear you, and you will demand their love and obeisance.

    Let me show you how.

    * * *​

    Security around the Sadashassa Senatorial Skyhook had been doubled since the attack on the peace negotiations. A constant patrol of New Republic snubfighters circled the floating platform, while a pair of small Mon Calamari frigates offered some more intimidating discouragement to anyone who might wander too close.

    Kyp had tried to help, but ultimately he decided it was impossible. Instead, he watched as the mover droids and a team of armored Wookiees—who had been sent by Councilor Kerrithrarr personally to assure the security of Leia's family while she recovered—unloaded everything that Han and Winter had wanted to keep from their previous apartment in the Imperial Palace. Between the droids and the Wookiees, all the furniture had been moved in a matter of hours.

    Han and Winter were currently bickering about how best to arrange the living room in the new apartment. Winter lounged on the single divan whose placement she had deemed acceptable, a mug of grassy-smelling tea in one hand and her holdout blaster on the table beside her. She and Han exchanged falsely-aggressive tones and strident objections with the fervor of long-practiced debate partners as Han—wounds, crutches, and all—pushed heavy furniture back, and forth, and back again, activity burning off some of his fear and nervous energy.

    There was also a new, larger team of Noghri bodyguards. Under the command of a new Noghri named Meewalh, the team had gone about securing the new Solo residence, then the surrounding area, and Kyp thought they were now likely in the midst of a search of the entire skyhook as they sought out every possible security vulnerability.

    Kyp missed Mobvekhar. The other new Noghri arrivals—Kyp didn't even know any of their names—had not been interested in talking with him. Even Cakhmaim had grown quiet and serious, with a determined attentiveness that left no room for camaraderie with his charges.

    Kyp stayed out of the way.

    By the time the chaotic mess of the move was finished, Kyp had isolated himself to the couch across from Winter. The new apartment's living room had a huge, reinforced transparisteel window that looked out over Coruscant's orbit. In the distance he could see the curvature of Coruscant's surface, with an enormous number of ships still streaming down for landings—though he noticed that there were many fewer ships leaving than normal. He turned his head, instinctively going to ask Mobvekhar what had changed… and closed his mouth again.

    The sudden emotion of the day hit him like a sledgehammer. He took a hitching breath, sorrow flooding him and expressing itself with a half-sob. He doubled over, looking away from the lights of the Coruscant sky to bury his head in his lap.

    Before the attack everything had been… normal. His life had never been normal before—he'd been habituated to Kessel, but Kessel hadn't been normal—and now it was all slipping away. Leia was in a bacta tank and no one knew how long it would be before she recovered—or if she would make a full recovery at all. Garm Bel Iblis, the old General who Mobvekhar had told him to listen to, was dead, and with his death Kyp had lost everything he might have learned. Mobvekhar was dead. The old apartment was gone and they were never going back, and now he was living in the sky and it was wondrous but somehow that wonder was now hidden by the sensation of a fist gripping around his heart. They had been attacked, and the only reason they were even alive…

    Kam and Luke had taught him about the Dark Side, of course they had. They'd warned him about the dangers of giving into fear and anger. He could see in his mind's eye the fight at the gardens. Han being shot and falling back, struggling to bring his blaster to bear. Winter's desperate expression. Jaina's cries against his chest, terrified.

    The moment he'd reached into the Force, fear and fury tangled around his heart, and felt it reach back with more power than he'd ever had… and then it was over.

    Over, with three corpses falling dead at his feet. Over, with the fearsome features of Arb Skynxnex going blank, clutching a blaster wound in his gut. The murder of his parents, avenged.

    If he hadn't… no, he'd had to. He'd had to.

    I will stop the Empire, he thought to himself, holding firm to that thought. He tried not to think about the dead, instead thinking of the living—of Jacen and Jaina, and Leia and Winter, and Chewie, and Han. Of his family. He would stop the Empire, he had to stop the Empire. How many other families had they destroyed? How many more would they destroy if given the chance?

    I will stop them, he thought, with increasing ferocity. I will—

    The hand on his back made him jump. "Hey, kid," said Han. The reformed smuggler didn't smile. "Winter is lounging, so why don't you come help me in the kitchen? I'll teach you the right mix of Corellian spices for my famous ribenes."

    "Okay," Kyp said, pulled fully out of his thoughts. He followed Han into the new kitchen—with its nice new freezer unit, adjustable shelves and all—and stood beside Han and watched.

    Han took him through the recipe, letting him do the work. He was awkward at first, but Han was patient—and, Kyp could tell, utterly exhausted. "Leia will be alright, Han," Kyp said, surprising himself as he vocalized the sentiment.

    "I know," Han said with a nod. He glanced up at Kyp, not smiling. "Luke said she will be, so she will."

    Kyp swallowed. "I need to go with him," he said quietly. "I need to do my part to fight back."

    "You're just a boy, Kyp, I was younger'n you when…" Han's voice faded away. Kyp turned towards him and found Han watching him. Kyp stared into Han Solo's suddenly aged face. "I know you do," Han conceded, that concession torn from him reluctantly. "I just want you to promise me one thing."

    "Okay," Kyp repeated. "Anything."

    "Listen to Luke," Han said, his voice fervent. "What you did yesterday… you saved our lives, Kyp. You saved our lives. But that was dangerous, too."

    Kyp swallowed and nodded. "Okay," he repeated again.

    Kyp found himself locked in Han's sudden embrace, and despite the fact that he was very nearly as large as Han, Kyp still felt swallowed in Han's arms. He found his breathing hitching again, and another half-sob was torn from his chest as Han held him close. "Two things," Han whispered. "Come home safe, kid."

    Kyp couldn't speak. He merely nodded his head against Han's shoulder, feeling the moisture of his tears soak into Han's shirt. "Okay," he mumbled.

    And then the moment passed and Han was turning back to the dinner-in-progress. "Next," Han continued the preparation as if nothing had happened, "we have to…"

    * * *​

    Kam Solusar watched as Mara Jade ordered the loader droids around with clipped, precise language. Each of them carried fresh supplies up into the cargo hold of the Tempered Mettle, giving Luke's X-wing a wide berth as they slid up and down the lowered cargo ramp.

    Beside him, Tionne carried the case for her double-viol in both hands. The only other thing she carried was a small shoulder bag.

    "Is that all the baggage you have?" called Mara.

    It took Tionne a moment to realize that Mara was talking to her. "Me?" she asked. Then she shrugged. "Yes! Other than the accumulated weight of years. I've never needed much. And ISB destroyed my ship at Exis Station so… this is all I have."

    "You're coming with us?" Kam asked. "I thought you just wanted a ride back to Coruscant."

    "And miss the end of this story?" Tionne replied, as if he was speaking pure nonsense. "I wouldn't be anywhere else! Besides, I've spent my whole life wanting to meet and talk to Jedi, and here I am with three—"

    "Two," interrupted Mara.

    Tionne glanced at Mara as if the redhead's words were a rancor's snarl. "T-two Jedi," she finished warily. She looked at Kam again, and her pearly-white eyes had an odd intensity to them. "Besides, you still need the Holocron," she added. "And I'm not letting it out of my sight."

    "It's going to be dangerous," he cautioned.

    "Playing spaceport cantinas on the rim for tips is dangerous," Tionne scoffed dismissively. "Besides, you've gotten me out of a lot more trouble than you've gotten me into. I'm safe enough."

    "Then come aboard," Mara ordered, waving them up the forward ramp. "We're leaving as soon as Luke gets here with Kyp. Artoo, go finalize our clearance. Customs is manually searching every departure for stowaways, and I want to get the search started as quickly as possible because reports are that each one is taking hours."

    The last of the loader droids trooped down Tempered Mettle's cargo ramp. Artoo-Detoo whistled a goodbye to his temporary compatriot before he spun away and vanished into the ship.

    Kam and Tionne shared a look. "I don't think it's a good idea to disobey her," Tionne stage-whispered.

    "It really is not," Kam agreed, hiding a smile.

    Kyp's departure from Han and Leia's new apartment was only almost-teary. But Han and Kyp had gotten all their tears out of the way the night before, and while Luke could feel the mix of emotions quivering in the air between Han and his adopted son, in the end two dominated above all the others. Worry and determination.

    Luke's eyes flickered to the smuggler-style gun belt that ran around Kyp's waist. Its pockets had room for rations, power packs, and even a multitool, while a tiedown holster on his outer hip held an old, reliable BlasTech DL-18 from Han's not-so-secret stash. Kyp was prepared for anything… but then, the Dark Side could come at you in unanticipated ways. Luke knew that better than most.

    His attention went back to Han. "Don't worry about me," Luke assured Han as they waited for Kyp to finish his teenage-typical last-minute packing—although in this case, the last-minute nature of the packing was somewhat forgiven by the fact that they'd only moved into this apartment the day before. "We'll figure something out."

    Han scoffed, and Luke could tell that while Han did indeed worry for him, he didn't worry much. "Kid, I've seen you blow up a Death Star, wander off to face Vader and Palpatine, and get an Imperial assassin who wanted nothing more than to kill you to decide she loved you instead. Believe me, of all the unbelievable things you do in your life, finding and getting rid of a Sith ghost is going to be much less remarkable than finding Mara a wedding dress she'll be happy with."

    Luke's cheeks went red. "We're not… I mean, we haven't…"

    "You will, though," Han said with certainty.

    "Well…" Luke stammered for a moment. This was a conversation he had to have with Mara before he had it with Han, or Leia, or anyone else… he couldn't commit to anything without having that conversation, and who knew if Mara even wanted to get married! But, then he felt Han in the Force, and he understood. Putting Luke on the defensive meant that Luke wasn't asking about how Han was feeling. And Han didn't want to have that conversation, didn't want to talk about Leia in the medcenter or a half-trained Kyp leaving Coruscant to go help face down a Sith.

    Han's emotions were far too fragile, and his brother-in-law was at least a little concerned that if Luke probed him he might lose the facade of blasé calm.

    So, Luke didn't respond to Han's statement. He didn't press, either. Instead, he stepped in close and gave Han a hug.

    It took a moment before Han reciprocated.

    "Look after Kyp, hey?" Han said as the embrace slackened.

    "I will," Luke promised. And that was half the reason to bring Kyp along—whatever he had told Kyp originally, he knew, both from what Han had described of the fight and of how Kyp felt in the Force, that Kyp had touched the Dark. Kyp needed to complete his training and needed to be with others who knew what it meant to touch the Dark and return from the experience stronger. People like Kam and Mara.

    Chewbacca's growl, accompanied by Kyp's greeting, brought their attention back to the room. Chewbacca had one arm in a semi-mobile sling, a bacta patch attached to his arm and a second over his stomach, both helping to heal blaster wounds.

    "I will, Chewie, I promise," Luke agreed, and the Wookiee wrapped him up in a hug so tight—even despite his wounded arm—that Luke thought he might have trouble breathing. Then Han and Chewie and Kyp clustered together, sharing a final goodbye.

    It was from Kyp that Luke felt the second emotion. From Han came the worry, for Kyp and for Leia most of all. From Kyp came some worry, all of it for his adopted family. The kernel of fear that if he wasn't there to protect them, that next time Han and Chewie and Winter wouldn't be enough, just as they hadn't been days before. But far outweighing that worry was the determination. Kyp's deep, devoted determination to fight the Empire, to hunt down and destroy all the threats to that family. Kyp submerged his worry under his need to act.

    On the way to the Tempered Mettle, Luke asked him a question. "Do you feel ready?"

    "For what?" Kyp asked.

    "To leave." Luke stopped, turning to Kyp. "I do want you with us, and I think you should be with us, but if you want to stay, you can stay. I'm not forcing you to come."

    Kyp's expression hardened. "I'm ready," he said stiffly.

    "You want to do something," Luke said knowingly.

    The nod he got in return carried the weight of all Kyp's determination. "I have to do something. I have to protect the people I love." Then his voice grew more hesitant. "I've already lost my family once. My parents, my brother. They're all dead or gone. I won't lose another." He peered down at Luke, and in those eyes Luke could see the corpses of his own Aunt and Uncle shining back at him. "I'll stop them. I have to stop them."

    Luke gently started to lead him down the corridor again. "There's something Mara told me once," he said. "That even the most powerful Jedi can only make a small difference." Kyp started to object, but Luke continued. "But there's something that I told her and Kam. Even if all of us can only make small differences, if enough of us make small differences, that all adds up to a big change." He patted Kyp's back. "Don't forget Kyp, you're not alone. There's me and Kam and Mara, not to mention Han and Leia and the entire New Republic. We will stop Exar Kun—all of us, together."

    Kyp was silent for the rest of their trip to the hangar.

    * * *​

    Later, Kyp watched as Kam and Mara sparred, driving one another back and forth across Tempered Mettle's internal hangar with a practiced, easy exchange of blows that were almost fluid in their grace. Their Solonese airwood spar-sticks whistled softly as they wove through the air and cracked against one another.

    Above them, in his socket within Luke's X-wing, Artoo moaned trepidatiously as the bout moved towards the snubfighter. Mara ducked under the ship's S-foils, using the fighter as temporary cover as she turned to face Kam's slower, more powerful strikes.

    "It's an interesting matchup," Luke said from behind him.

    Kyp jumped in surprise; no one had snuck up on him like that since Mobvekhar, and that thought sent a pang of loss and anger through him. "Oh. Yes." he said awkwardly and turned back to watch the fight, remembering being told of another match between Luke and Kam in the middle of a massive battle—with real blades. One that had occurred only too recently.

    Mara had turned on the athletics, faking one direction and then coming at Kam from another. She twisted, catlike through her strikes, her wooden training sword lashing out at Kam, brushing channels in the folds of the larger Jedi's robes but failing to impact solidly with his chest.

    "Kam has the advantage of size and strength," Luke continued. "But Mara's faster and more graceful. See how she can shift her weight one way but then go a completely different direction when he commits?"

    It was hard to miss. The way Mara moved was not unlike some of the best smashball players in the matches Kyp had gone to with Han, who had pointed out their fakeaways and deceptive spins.

    "They're both very skilled," Kyp said

    "They are," Luke agreed, but Kyp could hear the admiration in his voice and Kyp knew that admiration wasn't for Kam. "They both learned to fight from a young age and had to work for decades to hone those skills. They know very well what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how to wield them against each other… but you'll probably never see two fighters more physically different from one another."

    Kyp fought down a reluctant surge of resentment and tried to calm his breathing.

    Kam and Mara had been training their whole lives. They'd had mentors and masters who worked with them to perfect their skills, to make them better and stronger. She had a palace. He had a father. I had the Spice Mines and I had to learn on my own, fighting for survival against all the hard cases the Empire had sent to Kessel.

    But it was worse than that, wasn't it? Both fighters were trained by the Empire. They'd fought for the Empire and killed for the Empire. He appreciated Kam and Mara, and he was pretty sure that they both meant well, but come on! The Empire was the Empire. Everyone knew the Empire was evil! How could they have served it for as long as they had and still be so blithely welcomed by everyone?

    But there was no point in mentioning any of that to Luke, he thought as he glanced sideways at the Jedi. Luke's expression left no doubt about his feelings for Mara. And Han thought well of her too… and he knew Mara had helped save Jacen and Jaina once. Better not to bring it up.

    Still, though, it needled at him.

    "Where's Tionne?" he asked instead.

    "Oh, she's up chatting with Slips—Mara's piloting droid," Luke said, glancing back at Kyp. "She said something about droids being better tippers than people and didn't want him to get lonely flying the ship."

    Kyp blinked. "That's weird."

    Luke shrugged. "I know Artoo and Threepio get lonely sometimes. Why should Slips be any different?"

    Across the room, the duel came to an end as Mara slipped through Kam's defenses and landed a solid blow to his midsection. Grimacing, Kam retreated and patted down his chest with a sigh. "I don't suppose we could do this again, but with me wearing my armor this time?"

    Mara smirked and tossed her training sword to Luke, who caught it. "We've already had that fight once," she said dryly. She brushed past Luke with a subtle smile. "I'll be upstairs," she said, then jogged up one of the two semi-spiraling staircases in the Tempered Mettle's nose that led up to the freighter's bridge.

    Kam chuckled wryly and handed his training sword out to Luke.

    "Give it to Kyp," Luke suggested.

    Kyp took the offered training sword, holding it awkwardly. "I don't know how to use this," he pointed out uncertainly.

    "I know," Luke said. "But neither did I the first time I picked one up, and I was only a little older than you are now. And I didn't get to start with a wooden one." He flexed his gloved hand. "You don't have to start from a young age to master the art. Come on—if you're willing."

    Luke and Kam gave him suggestions about how to hold the sword, spending a solid ten minutes just perfecting his stance and grip. Then they took him through a series of flowing motions which, after ten minutes, had him almost gasping with exhaustion. "This is much harder than a blaster," he groaned.

    "Not really," Luke said. "But you're using muscles you don't use much and practicing new motions. It's different from a blaster—which requires lots of practice too—in how physical it is." Luke adjusted Kyp's stance. "Don't let the blade dip so much, and keep your elbows higher," he suggested. "And don't worry about not getting it right. You'll be better tomorrow than you are today, and you'll grow better every day you practice."

    "You really think I can be a Jedi?"

    Luke patted his back. "I do. But what I think doesn't matter. Do you think you can be a Jedi?"

    Kyp remembered the expressions of three dead ISB agents, caught in Force grip, slain by his will moments before they could kill Han, Winter, and Jaina. The sensation of power that had electrified him, the desperation of despair followed by the exultation of victory.

    In his mind's eye, he could see the Empire. Faceless and inexorable, killers of parents and children, enslavers of innocents like Chewie and Kyp's own long-lost brother. Murderers and torturers and traitor

    I will stop them, he promised himself. I must. He turned to look at Luke, feeling the righteous anger burn in his heart, and feeling an echoing fire, so much greater than himself, offering itself to him.

    To Luke, he said only: "Yes, Master."

    He felt a flash of pain from Luke at that word, and the older man smiled sadly at him. "Luke is fine, you know. Jedi Skywalker if you absolutely have to be formal. I'd like to think we have as much to learn from you as you do from all of us."

    "All right, Luke." The younger man smiled, somewhat shakily, and raised his wooden blade into a better guard stance as his tired muscles burned.

    He had to learn, and fast.

    He would not be unprepared to defend his family a second time.
     
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  12. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
    Chapter 21

    The bridge of the Super Star Destroyer Reaper was quiet. The only sounds were the rustle of movement, as officers changed their station or used their equipment, and the sounds of that equipment whirring and beeping as it was used. It had been like that ever since the announcement of Grand Moff Kaine's death. Reaper was Kaine's command ship, and had been Kaine's command ship ever since it had left Kuat. This was Kaine's crew, hand-picked in many cases by Kaine himself.

    Cienis Deleste kept his head down and did his work.

    Kaine had not been known for fraternizing with members of the Starfleet, but he had semi-frequently attended official Starfleet functions, like Deleste's own Last Meal. No one admired him the way Pellaeon was admired by the officer corps and the rank and file, but Kaine had been respected.

    For the first few hours after the announcement of his death, the response among Reaper's crew had been simple denial. But for Deleste the report had always had a ring of truth. It had been the expression of Admiral Deshorn after he'd seen the report—a look of dull, dismayed grief, completely absent of any surprise—that had confirmed for Deleste that Kaine was, in fact, dead.

    There was the louder clank of footsteps along Reaper's long bridge walk, above him. They approached from behind, coming close… Then they passed by Deleste's station, continuing towards the forward bridge window where Admiral Deshorn stood, looking out through the reinforced transparisteel at the armada of ships that defended the Carida system. Deleste allowed himself a quick glance up from his position in the crew pit and saw, as expected, now-Colonel Welko walking past, wearing his brand-new cream-colored ISB Colonel's uniform.

    "Admiral Deshorn," Welko said. The exchange was not so very far past Deleste's station, so it was easy enough for him to overhear it, but he kept his head tucked down in the hopes that he would not draw Welko's attention.

    "Colonel Welko," replied Deshorn. The Admiral looked like he'd aged a decade in the last week. To Deleste's eyes, it seemed the Admiral's hair had gone even more white than it had already been, and the frown lines etched into his face had entrenched themselves deeper. He also looked tired, Deleste thought, like he had not slept a night since the news of Kaine's death. "Congratulations on your promotion."

    "I wish it were under different circumstances," Welko said. The ISB man leaned in, lowering his voice; Deleste had to strain to hear. "We have yet to hear from Colonel Carias and assume that he was captured by the Rebellion along with the Grand Moff. I've been promoted in his stead."

    Deshorn's expression was dead, filled with neither horror nor despair, respect nor disgust. He just looked at Welko, void of expression, droid-like. "I see."

    Welko's back was still turned to Deleste, so the young Lieutenant couldn't see the man's face. But there was something menacing in the man's tone, quiet and threatening. "I am told that negotiations over succession to the position of Grand Moff are continuing. High Inquisitor Halmere, representatives of the ISB, and the Council of Moffs are discussing precisely how the matter of succession ought to be decided."

    "Grand Moff Kaine left rules for his succession in place," Deshorn said, as if reading from an encyclopedia entry. His tone was mechanical, matching the dull expression he continued to wear. "He did not want things to be as chaotic as they were after Endor if he should die unexpectedly. I am under the impression that Moff Ferrouz of Candoras Sector was his choice."

    "ISB has some lingering questions about Moff Ferrouz's loyalties," Welko said calmly, but despite his apparent calm the edge of menace never left his voice. "And he lacks the necessary seniority for such a post."

    "Grand Moff Kaine did not share those concerns."

    "Grand Moff Kaine is dead," Welko said firmly. The Colonel's voice dropped to a growl. "Dead at the hands of the Rebellion. He died a martyr to our cause and will be remembered as a hero to the Empire."

    The statement was made with finality. It was an instruction, not a statement of fact, Deleste realized.

    Deshorn turned away such that Deleste could no longer see his face. "The Starfleet does not involve itself in politics," Deshorn said stiffly. "We serve the Empire, its Emperor, and his legitimate heirs."

    Deleste couldn't be sure, but he thought there had been just a hint of emphasis on the word legitimate. From the way Welko was staring daggers at the Admiral, he had heard it too. Welko took a quick glance around the bridge—Deleste ducked his head casually back down into the crew pit, putting him out of sight—and he couldn't hear the words exchanged. He could hear, half a minute later, the heavy clank of Welko's footsteps as he stormed back the way he'd come, across the long walk of Reaper's bridge. Deleste didn't look up again until the footsteps had faded, followed by the loud sounds of the bridge lift doors closing.

    He relaxed, though the pounding of his heart refused to fade. What did it mean?

    He didn't hear Admiral Deshorn's much quieter footsteps until the Admiral was peering down at him from the bridge walk. "Anything to report, Lieutenant?" The older man's voice was calm and precise, with the clipped Coruscanti accent so common in the Starfleet. The vacant look in his eyes was gone, replaced with the typical officer's attentiveness.

    "Status normal. Sir," he replied.

    "Excellent." Deshorn's gaze narrowed. "You will inform me if that should change." The words were not an inquiry, but an instruction, and Deleste was suddenly all too aware that he had been the only other member of the Starfleet present when Kaine departed Reaper on his doomed, final mission… and that he had already shared that information with Admiral Pellaeon.

    He was now wondering if he should not have done that.

    "Yes. Sir."

    "Very good. Carry on, Lieutenant." Deshorn offered him an officer's nod, and then strolled off down the walk, looking completely in command: of Reaper, of the situation, of himself.

    Deleste took a deep breath and did his best to emulate his commanding officer.

    * * *​

    Reaper's officer's mess was quiet at this hour. Deleste had a habit of eating late—he preferred to get his afternoon workout and shower in before he sat down for supper, a product of his father's odd work schedule while he'd been growing up—and most officers had already eaten. The only people there were a handful of members of the evening shift, getting in their breakfast in the remaining minutes before it started—or, more accurately, pounding down their second cup of caf, since there was no time left for food.

    He ate slowly, savoring the flavorful meal. It was nothing special, but it was still better than anything his parents had been able to afford, and significantly better still than anything he'd been served at the academy—outside of dinners he'd earned with his good performances. After his long shift and his workout he was starved, but he did his best not to eat as ravenously as his stomach would prefer.

    "May I join you?"

    Deleste looked up in surprise, both at the question and at the fact that he hadn't heard anyone approach. The man he saw was wearing a Commanders' stripes, and he was vaguely familiar—

    The man's identity hit him all at once. "Commander Dreyf," he said in surprise. "Sir. Of course."

    Dreyf offered him a perfect, toothy smile, then did as he was invited. "Lieutenant Deleste. I hope your assignment to Reaper has been treating you well so far?"

    "It has been a most educational experience. Sir."

    "I would hope so. It is intended to be." Dreyf fished a small object out of his jacket pocket, then carefully placed it down on the table in front of him. Deleste watched with a frown as Dreyf activated the device. "It's a jammer," Dreyf told him. "It will make sure we're not being eavesdropped on."

    "Does that mean you don't wish to be overheard? Sir?"

    Dreyf offered him another toothy smile and didn't answer his question. He probably assumed he didn't need to, and he was right.

    Deleste frowned even more. "What can I do for you, Commander?"

    "I'm not sure," Dreyf said, leaning back in his chair—but not so much that the jamming device moved far from his chest. "I'm hoping you might be able to help me answer a few lingering questions."

    "About?"

    "About what Grand Moff Kaine was doing on Coruscant and who was responsible for his death."

    Deleste took a covert glance around the mess. No one was paying them any mind, so he turned his attention back to Dreyf, leaning in and lowering his voice. "I already told Admiral Pellaeon all I know."

    "I know you did, Lieutenant," Dreyf agreed. "But that doesn't mean you can't help me." The intelligence officer leaned in himself, one hand on the table, the other hidden away underneath it. "The Grand Moff is dead. Someone is responsible. We accuse the Rebels of complicity, and they accuse us. We both have a different story about why the Grand Moff was meeting with the Rebels. It seems to me the best way to start getting to the bottom of it is to find out what he was really doing there. Wouldn't you agree?"

    Deleste glared at him, not caring that Dreyf was a superior officer. "It's a logical conclusion," he growled angrily.

    "Who on this ship would know more about Kaine's intentions?" Dreyf asked, lifting both eyebrows. "If you… had to guess."

    Despite himself, Deleste thought back to Kaine's departure from Reaper. It took him only a few moments to reduce the likely names to two. "Admiral Deshorn and Colonel Welko."

    "Reaper's senior officer and ISB's senior representative aboard Reaper." Dreyf nodded. "Anyone else?"

    "No. No one else was aware of Kaine's departure," Deleste said, his voice gravelly with annoyance. "I am not sure Welko knew but…" he thought back to both the departure and the confrontation between Deshorn and Welko—

    "But you think he must know something."

    "He was Colonel Carias' direct subordinate. Sir."

    Dreyf smiled. With a subtle movement he pressed the button on the jamming device and then tucked it back into his jacket. "Thank you, Lieutenant," he said. "Please, enjoy your dinner."

    Deleste watched him go, then cleared his tray. He wasn't hungry anymore.

    * * *​

    Chimaera's bridge hummed with the quiet activity typical of patrol duty. In the middle of Carida's defense fleet, there was little reason for it to have even that much, but Pellaeon believed in constant vigilance and drilled his crew mercilessly.

    "Admiral, there's a com for you." Lieutenant Tschel had approached, his boots clicking on the deck, and stood at Pellaeon's side with his now-typical silent grace. The young officer handed Pellaeon a datapad that indicated the incoming signal. "It's Moff Disra, sir. He's live now."

    Pellaeon grunted and nodded. "Very well." He glanced at the datapad, quickly absorbing where the signal originated. He stiffened some, pulling his uniform down to work out the wrinkles. "Put the Moff through."

    The familiar face of Vilim Disra appeared as a holo on Pellaeon's bridge. Moff Vilim Disra was not on the list of Pellaeon's most favorite people—Pellaeon knew that Admiral Rogriss had found Disra insufferable, although he did not fully know why—but Moffs were Moffs. He frowned as another figure appeared in the background behind Disra, one it took him a second to recognize. Is that Grand Inquisitor Halmere? Why is he on this call?

    "Admiral Pellaeon," Moff Disra greeted him graciously. "Before we begin, I wish to offer my congratulations on your promotion. It has been long-deserved."

    "Thank you, sir," Pellaeon replied stiffly. "May I return the compliment—I am told you have been named Moff of the Braxant sector."

    Disra's smile was positively corpse-like. Pellaeon tried not to let his eyes wander obviously, but his gaze was drawn again to the man in the background. Taller than Disra, he had visible black eyebrows beneath a black hood attached to a flowing black cloak that disappeared around his feet. The cloak was overlaid with a heavy armored vest that added a calculated touch of brutality to the silken refinement of the ensemble. The look was all Pellaeon needed to confirm his suspicion: that was indeed Grand Inquisitor Halmere.

    "I have that honor and responsibility, yes," Disra spoke, interrupting his thoughts. "The Council of Moffs is still in consultation to determine all the restructuring that will be done in the wake of the Rebellion's cowardly assassination of the Grand Moff. I can assure you that the final arrangement will be the optimal one for returning the Empire to power."

    With men like you making those decisions, the only thing that will be optimal is your own income. Despite the thought, Pellaeon's gaze flicked to Halmere once more. Although with him I'm not so sure.

    The Imperial Inquisitorius did not have the same reputation that ISB did in the Imperial Starfleet. ISB was widely recognized as a pain in the ass among the officer corps, more concerned with purity than victory. The Inquisitorius had a much smaller profile and was less well known—and, Pellaeon thought, they did not have a history of planting their officers on Imperial vessels to watch commanders for disloyalty. But what is he doing here now? Pellaeon wondered. What possible reason does he have to be on this call?

    "I have additional good news, Admiral," Disra continued. "The Council of Moffs has managed to secure you an additional Star Destroyer. Captain Brandei and his Judicator have been dispatched to reinforce your fleet. Between you and Admiral Daala your formation now has eight Star Destroyers."

    "That is good news," Pellaeon replied, wondering why that required a live HoloNet communication. It could have been communicated via text, as such assignments usually were. Again his eyes were drawn to Halmere, but he quickly jerked his gaze away—the man was staring at him! He swallowed hard. "Please extend my thanks to the Moffs."

    "Yes, of course." Disra bowed his head in acknowledgement. He held the bow long enough that Pellaeon felt it became awkward, but just as he was about to speak, Disra looked up at him again. "Tell me, Admiral, while you served under Admiral Rogriss' command, did you ever see any sign of disloyalty to the Empire?"

    Pellaeon stared at the man in astonishment. "Excuse me?"

    "You see, the Imperial Security Bureau has recently brought it to the attention of the Council of Moffs that Admiral Rogriss did not fight as hard as he might have in defense of the Ukio and Linuri Systems during your last campaign," Disra said.

    Pellaeon felt a fury building in his gut. He didn't fight as hard as he could have because you ordered us to abandon Linuri, you gutless coward! He hid the snarled thought behind a mask of indifference. "No sir," he said firmly. "Admiral Rogriss followed every one of your directives to the letter and fought as hard as he could."

    "That isn't what the report I have here says," Disra countered coolly. "ISB indicates that they believe he had the option of fighting the Rebellion even after they took down Ukio's planetary shield. He retreated with six Star Destroyers, while the New Republic had only five capital ships of their own."

    "With all due respect, sir, the Rebellion's starfighters and smaller ships had us outnumbered three-to-one." Pellaeon had to fight to keep his voice from growing in anger—that would not help Rogriss' legacy, and it certainly would not help Pellaeon's own ISB file. "Their fighter strength is something we're still searching for a counter to. Had we continued the fight the New Republic would have torn us apart."

    The way Disra's lips firmed together told Pellaeon that his answer had not been the one Disra had been hoping for. "He also ordered a planetary withdrawal by our garrison force, rather than carry through with the planned guerilla resistance campaign."

    "General Bel Iblis offered us the option of retreating with the fleet intact if we withdrew. We saved six Star Destroyers—"

    Disra held up his hand and Pellaeon stopped speaking instantly. "Admiral, did you know that Admiral Rogriss' two children are both currently absent from their posts without proper authorization?"

    Pellaeon blinked. "Sir, I did not know that."

    "ISB has reason to believe the man and his children were traitors to the Empire," Disra said, as if the words were etched in transparisteel. "Will you allow an ISB inspection team aboard Chimaera in order to investigate these accusations?"

    There was only one right answer to that. "Yes, sir. Of course, sir," Pellaeon agreed, dread and indignation warring for control of his gut.

    "Very good Admiral. That will be all, and we will be in touch." The holo abruptly ended, leaving Pellaeon sagging.

    "Are you all right, sir?"

    The concerned voice came from behind him. Pellaeon straightened in surprise and offered Lieutenant Mytov a reassuring nod. "Of course, Lieutenant. Please tell Lieutenant Tschel he may announce that Judicator will be joining the fleet."

    He turned away as Mytov departed, opening his fleet formations to adjust them for the addition of a fourth capital ship.

    It only occurred to him later that Halmere had observed the entire call and not said a single word.

    * * *​

    Through Chimaera's starboard bridge window, Pellaeon watched as the Imperial II-class Star Destroyer Judicator slid neatly into formation, with the kind of precision that Pellaeon expected from the best Imperial officers. The holoprojector flicked to life, revealing the familiar face of Judicator's captain. "Admiral," Captain Brandei offered a respectful nod. "Congratulations on your promotion. It's nice to be working with you again."

    "Good to see you too, Captain. Welcome to the fleet. Judicator will be part of the fleet's first division with Chimaera. All of the fleet's formations and battle strategies will be dispatched to Judicator's computer in the next few minutes." He frowned. "I'm afraid I am not anticipating time for comprehensive drill."

    "Are you also expecting a Rebel assault?"

    "I am."

    Brandei's scowl carried the sour note of old hatred. "That would make sense. They are probably hoping their assassination of Grand Moff Kaine will leave our fleet hierarchy in chaos." His scowl deepened. "We will show them the error of their ways."

    "Defending against their attack will no doubt require every ship we have," Pellaeon agreed. Silently he wondered if Brandei believed the obvious propaganda about Kaine's death, or if he—like Pellaeon—was simply unwilling to express skepticism where ISB's monitors were likely to overhear.

    "Judicator stands ready and eager, Admiral." Brandei saluted, and Pellaeon returned it. "Judicator out."

    The blue-tinged hologram faded, leaving Pellaeon looking out over his formation. It was an impressive fleet, but it also had a ramshackle feel to it. Each of the ships was scrounged from places where the Empire could make sacrifices, and they had not yet had near enough drill time for Pellaeon to feel fully confident in his commanders. But Judicator would serve as a strong right arm for the fleet, and Brandei could step in as a new executive officer if Daala proved incapable in battle.

    He frowned and looked at her four ships. They maintained the traditional four-corned box formation with the precision that he demanded of his ships. Daala had seemed capable enough and he was glad to have her and her ships in the fleet, but he knew he wouldn't trust her in combat until they actually saw some together. It had been too long since she'd fought anything more dangerous than a pirate.

    He was more worried about her being too aggressive than he was about her lacking fighting spirit. In every conversation they'd had together there'd been something almost feral about her. She carried barely restrained ferocity leashed by training and hierarchy. She had the talent and the skill, he had no doubt of that, but the years of exile had clearly taken their toll.

    "Admiral." For the second time in the afternoon Pellaeon found himself surprised, jumping a bit at Commander Dreyf's quiet voice. He turned towards his Intelligence officer, smoothing out his uniform as he did.

    "Welcome back Commander."

    Dreyf smiled. The dark-complexioned man had grown in confidence since he had been assigned to Chimaera, and with that confidence came a more relaxed, almost cheeky disposition that was all too rare among the Imperial officer corps. "Back, sir? I wasn't aware that I'd gone anywhere."

    Pellaeon huffed affectionately and favored him with an expression of belabored annoyance; one that lasted until they reached a secluded corner of the bridge and Dreyf had drawn out his jammer. "Out with it Commander, what have you learned?"

    "Nothing yet, sir," Dreyf said apologetically. "At least, nothing confirmatory. But I have established a handful of ongoing intelligence gathering operations that should bring answers to your questions sooner or later."

    "Nothing treasonous, I hope?"

    Dreyf's expression cooled. "Given the accusations I've heard leveled against Admiral Rogriss, sir, it would seem that treason is increasingly in the eye of the beholder."

    Pellaeon could not hide his scowl, even if he had tried to. "Both of Teren's children are missing without authorization, with defection or desertion implied?" he asked. "That was what Moff Disra told me when he commed earlier."

    "Without authorization?" Dreyf shook his head slowly. "On the contrary sir, my record checks show they both received legitimate transfer orders, and neither order came from Agonizer or anyone that Admiral Rogriss knew. When last I looked, their records said only that their current assignments were classified. When I asked Captain Nidal, he told me that when the order came in to re-assign Commander Rogriss from his XO slot, she was blindsided by it—nearly irate, as he told it."

    "That means you haven't managed to track them down?"

    "I'm afraid not, sir."

    "Keep looking."

    "I won't stop until I know where they are, sir." He handed Pellaeon a second datapad. "Turning our attention to other issues, I've received the latest update on the New Republic Defense Forces. There are rumblings all over the galaxy of new orders. Ships aren't appearing on previously reliable patrols, although—" he scowled a bit "—with Eriadu going over to the enemy, we've lost most of our eyes in the Galactic South." He brought up the map on the holodisplay, highlighting the various known New Republic fleet formations. "As you can see, our sources on Bothawui have reported that elements of the New Republic Fourth Fleet have departed the system. It would appear the fleet is dispersing—"

    Both Dreyf and Pellaeon looked up as the ship's combat alarm began to wail. Pellaeon heard before he saw Lieutenant Tschel, his feet slapping against the desk as he sprinted down the bridge's long walk, skidding to stop in front of the two more senior officers. He threw a hasty salute, then handed Pellaeon a fresh datapad. "Sir! The Chazwa picket reports a Rebel incursion!"

    "So it begins," Pellaeon muttered, examining the report.

    "The preliminary report from the picket indicates three Rebel capital ships—two Star Destroyers and a Mon Calamari Star Cruiser."

    Pellaeon frowned. "Is that all?"

    "Chazwa is a strategically vital system," Dreyf murmured. "You would think, if they were serious about hitting it, they would do so with a more powerful force."

    "If we lose Chazwa we won't be able to resupply Carida," Pellaeon grunted. The system fell along the Perlemian Trade Route, and while control of that hyperlane was contested it remained the most reliable trade route between the Empire's main holdings in the Galactic North and Carida. "All ships, prepare for hyperspace!" He turned back to Tschel as the hum of Chimaera's bridge grew, officers and crew shuffling as they prepared for the jump. "Tell Admiral Deshorn that we will be on our way in a few minutes to engage the Rebels at Chazwa."

    "Yes, sir!" Tschel took a step back, his hand going to his ear. "Reaper, priority message for Admiral Deshorn from Chimaera—"

    Pellaeon frowned at Dreyf, lowering his voice so that the conversation would not carry. "Do you think General Antilles is making a mistake?"

    Dreyf watched the plot. "It occurs to me, Admiral, that none of the three ships reported is a Super Star Destroyer."

    "Hardly something a picket would mistake," Pellaeon agreed. "So where—"

    The plot suddenly changed. New red dots gleamed as HoloNet messages were received and input into the computer, and the pre-combat murmur on the bridge took on a sudden hush… followed by an even more scrambled, increasingly frantic pitch.

    Two… four… eight… The instant HoloNet reports of invading Rebel forces were suddenly everywhere. Orinda was a gleaming red, and so was Dorin… and Bestine…

    "Sir." Dreyf pointed at the map, drawing Pellaeon's attention to the other side of the galaxy. "There she is."

    At the blue dot that was the Imperial base at Bespin, there was suddenly a dagger-shape pointing directly at the system. The massive indicator of a Super Star Destroyer, which alone would dwarf Cloud City's defenses. The garrison did not have a chance—and Lusankya had at least one Mon Calamari Star Cruiser in its company.

    Antilles was going after their Tibanna supply. Logistics, thought Pellaeon. Always logistics and indirect attacks with Antilles. Always the fighter pilot.

    But Cloud City was too distant for him to do anything about it. It would take Chimaera days to arrive, and by then the fight would be long over. "We don't have anything near enough to intervene," Dreyf said flatly. "The Eriadu fleets all took damage during the system's revolt. At last report they were on their way to Corellia for refit and repair."

    "They'll probably be redeployed to defend Bestine," Pellaeon said. "The Corellia fleets can worry about it." He pointed at the map. "We need to get ships to Dorin and Chazwa. Inform Admiral Daala that she's being sent to Dorin. We'll take the main formation to Chazwa, including Magistrate. Chazwa is the more vital system."

    Even as he watched, more red dots indicating attacks appeared on the map. Ten… fifteen… twenty…

    Gilad Pellaeon swallowed hard. This wasn't just any attack. "Ambitious of them," he muttered, and then he started ordering his response.

    * * *​

    Lieutenant Hacery Nalle bounced on his toes with excitement, holding his gleaming TIE pilot's helmet under one arm as the techs finished arming his Defender. It was a beautiful fighter, an angular death-dealer, and all he'd ever dreamed of at the academy. The Admiral had even given the order for a full weapons load. Each concussion missile cost more than his yearly salary, and he was going to get to fire them all!

    He was nervous, too. He was about to go into combat. But at least he was in a Defender! TIE interceptors were good fighters, but Defenders had shields and could take more of a punishment and didn't sacrifice much in the way of maneuverability for it.

    When he thought about how much his Defender cost, that made him nervous. He didn't want to bring the fighter back in all banged up or anything. Not that he would. No, I know exactly how good I am, he thought proudly. And after today, so will everyone else.

    "Ready to go, Hack?" one of his flightmates called as he climbed up towards the Defender's top-hatch. He wasn't sure which one, but that wasn't unusual—half the squadron's pilots were clones of the legendary Turr Phennir.

    "Am I ever, uh, sir!" he called back with a grin.

    "Good man." The other pilot flashed Hack a victory sign, then vanished into the cockpit.

    "All set, sir," the maintenance tech announced, sealing the missile bay with a definitive hiss-thunk, and then moving his hoverlift of ordnance towards the next TIE in line. "Make them count."

    Hack scrambled up the ladder before the third syllable was out of the tech's mouth. He flashed his flightmates a victory sign of his own, then dropped down, pulling his helmet over his head and booting up his HUD. On the helmet's internal screen, he saw a set of diagnostics for his fighter—His readouts were in the green—but he double checked everything again just to be safe. Engines, shields, lasers, ions, missile launcher, comms, inertial compensators (those he dialed back just a touch; he preferred to feel his fighter move instead of having the simulator-like experience of full compensation)... it all looked good.

    "Here's the deal, gentlemen," his commanding officer's prim, confident Coruscanti accent spoke into his ear over the comm, his helmet automatically modulating the volume to make the words easy to hear. "The Rebels decided to be ambitious today. We've reports of at least a half-dozen attacks on Imperial worlds all over the galaxy, but our worry is just this one. We're heading to Chazwa to reinforce the local garrison. The new updated report says one Impstar, one Fishhead cruiser, and it turns out the last one isn't another Impstar but one of their new Endurance-class carriers. Our job is to keep their B-wings from doing to any of our ships what they did to Death's Head at Ukio while our big guns eat them up."

    There was a chorus of acknowledgements over the comm, and Hack hastily grappled with his comm pickup to offer his own a bit belatedly.

    "I know we're a new unit and I wish we'd had more shakedown time," his CO went on. "But believe me when I say, you're all ready. You've got the training, you've got the skills, and you've got the hardware. Let's go save the Empire! When this is all over, the first round at the Landing Strip is on me."

    Magistrate dropped out of hyperspace, and the man's voice vanished, replaced by the ship's flight ops officer. "212th Imperial Flight Wing, launch!"

    One of the best things about the old Venators was that vast hatches along their centerlines peeled back to offer plenty of space for a launch. The warning light flashed green and Hack didn't hesitate, his heart pounding with excitement as he kicked the throttle to full and his TIE Defender screamed out and up into open space.
     
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  13. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
    Chapter 22

    Hack Nalle emerged into the middle of a firefight. His latticed TIE cockpit flashed with the orange of a robust explosion, and as he and his wingman brought their Defenders around to race out after the Rebellion snubfighters he saw what it was that had exploded.

    A Star Destroyer, edged in Rebel red and with the absurd name Rebel Dream emblazoned in huge letters on its bow, was pummeling the wrecked hull of an Imperial Nebulon-B escort frigate. The smaller ship's crew, what was left of them, were already launching their escape pods, which erupted in every direction as the ship's slender neck snapped like a dry twig. The larger forward hull started to spin end-over-end off into infinity, while the rear drive section erupted with a second, much larger explosion. Thankfully, the polarized material of his helmet protected his vision from the glare.

    "Eyes up, Two!" his wingman snapped in his ear, and Hack tore his vision away from the dying frigate to sweep his sensor board.

    The battle was in full bloom even before Pellaeon's relief force had arrived, but with their arrival a small battle had suddenly become a large one. Rebel Dream filled space above him, its enormous turbolaser batteries spitting flashes of light at the closing Gonfalon. The two Imperial-class Star Destroyers, one true to the New Order and one who had betrayed it for the service of insurgents, fired upon one another with enough energy fire to liquify his Defender, so Nalle twisted his controls and twirled his fighter down and away from the storm.

    "Two, on me!"

    Hack followed his wingman, his HUD flashing as Rebel fighters appeared before them. Instincts took over, instincts that had been drilled again and again by hours of training and simulations—and Hack had always been fast. He clenched his hand on the stick and his Defender spat green and blue fire, lasers and ion cannons leaping out to intersect with the X-wing that had appeared in his sights. Ion cannons destabilized the Rebel's shields; laser cannons ripped through the fighter's engines and fuselage and it exploded.

    "Good shot!" his wingman congratulated him. "Stay with me, kid, there are a whole lot more of them!"

    There were a whole lot more of them. The Rebels had launched at least ten squadrons of fighters, and his HUD illuminated with a proliferation of red icons.

    It's just another sim, he told himself, and to his surprise he found part of him actually believed it. Let's do it.

    Hack and his wingman boxed in and vaped a lone A-wing setting up on one of their bombers, and his career kill count rose from one to two.

    * * * ​

    Chimaera and Judicator came out of hyperspace together, followed seconds later by Gonfalon and Exigent. The battle had been raging before their arrival, with the New Republic forces sending the ships of the understrength Imperial picket scattering—if they had been lucky.

    Most of them had not been.

    "Exigent, Gonfalon! Target the enemy Star Destroyer!" Pellaeon snapped as he took in the sight of the ongoing battle. "Chimaera and Judicator will engage the Star Cruiser and the fleet carrier!" Two on one ought to force Rebel Dream to retreat, he thought fiercely, and keep the New Republic from getting deep enough into Chazwa's orbit to target any of the shipping infrastructure.

    That was the true target, Pellaeon knew. On his combat display there were hundreds of freighters that used Chazwa as a key shipping lane to supply Carida. If the New Republic took Chazwa it would cut off yet another supply route, and there weren't that many of those left.

    Logistics, logistics. He shook his head. Antilles was predictable. Always the fighter pilot, aware of his need for fuel and torpedoes to be effective.

    His crew followed his orders with the instant obedience that he and Thrawn had spent long years instilling. Chimaera advanced on Rising Tide and Endurance, green turbolaser fire spitting at the well-shielded form of the Mon Calamari Star Cruiser.

    Dreyf hadn't left his side since the Rebel incursion had begun. "They're jamming the HoloNet so the connection can be spotty," Dreyf scowled, dropping his hand from his ear and shaking his head. "But there are at least twenty different incursions ongoing as we speak. Orinda is under attack, and it sounds like they're even hitting our holdings out near Mon Calamari. This is a full push on every front."

    Pellaeon nodded out at the battle unfolding. Starfighters clashed beyond Chimaera's bridge window; an enormous melee punctuated by occasional explosions. "We need to punch a signal back to Carida. Antilles may have spread his forces too thin," he growled. "They should have brought Lusankya here instead of sending her to Bespin."

    "Yes, sir," Dreyf said, but his tone was not convinced. "They may have ships in reserve."

    "We have ships in reserve too!" Pellaeon snapped. "Helm, alter course five degrees to starboard! Comms, tell Captain Brandei that we're duplicating the maneuver we pulled at Ord Mantell. All hands, prepare for full port broadside!" He watched as his crew obeyed. Thankfully, Brandei's memory was as good as should be expected from an Imperial Captain, and Judicator surged to box in Rising Tide's between her and Chimaera. The two Star Destroyers both came in close, one on the Star Cruiser's right and the other on its left, and sheets of green energy tore into Rising Tide.

    The Star Cruiser rolled as they bore in, shifting the impact points to spare her shields, and fired a spread of red bolts back, partially spoiled by the ship's motion.

    The Mon Calamari build tough ships, Pellaeon thought grudgingly. And we're in trouble if Endurance's fighters can bring in extra firepower! He pointed at Tschel. "Lieutenant, remind Magistrate to rededicate her fighters to combat the enemy bombers! They must keep those B-wings off us while we handle Rising Tide!"

    "Yes, sir!"

    "We do have more ships in reserve at Carida, sir," Dreyf finally conceded. "Admiral Deshorn has Reaper there, but some of his ships have been deployed to counter this offensive. The Rebels aren't the only ones being spread thin."

    Pellaeon gazed out at the outnumbered Rebel force. "They may be trying something clever," he relented after a moment. "But they haven't had a lot of time to plan this." Space flashed before him with the familiar green and red blasts of heavy laser fire. "Bel Iblis is dead. Mon Mothma and Organa Solo may be as well. They're angry and they're fighting with their heart more than with their head." He shook his head. "That's always been one of the Republic's biggest flaws."

    * * * ​

    Hack caught the first B-wing and its wingmate attempting to line up Judicator for a torpedo run. The oddly designed fighter was one of the more difficult targets and in his first few simulator runs he'd found them deceptively difficult targets.

    "Remember," he heard the voice of one of his combat instructors in his head. "The B-wing's center of mass isn't where its wings cross with its body. The B-wing's center of mass is its cockpit, wherever the rest of the ship is at the moment."

    His HUD tracked over the B-wing, flashing green, and he pulled the trigger. The burst of fire didn't kill the B-wing—its shields were too strong for that—but it clearly reconsidered the wisdom of making a torpedo run and went evasive, jerking to port and weaving. Hack's Defender was more maneuverable, and he throttled back and jammed the stick to pursue, his fighter screaming as inertia pressed him awkwardly against his pilot's couch.

    The maneuver paid off, and the B-wing stayed locked in Hack's sights. His second and third blasts of fire punctured the fighter's already weakened aft shields, and Hack put three blasts of green energy clearly through the fighter's cockpit. The crossed shape that was left behind spun off aimlessly, but Hack knew better than to admire his kill—that was something else had had been drilled ceaselessly into him during basic training—and spun his fighter off in a new direction—

    That spin saved his life. A trio of red lasers ripped through space where he had just been, and then two of the Rebellion's new, streamlined E-wings rocketed past him, already splitting apart to come back around.

    A rookie mistake, one they'll pay for. "Got a pair of the new ones over here," he said into his com, shocked at how calm his voice sounded.

    "Coming, Two."

    He saw a few proton torpedoes launch and slam into Judicator—but only a few. Nothing like the enormous, massed salvoes that had doomed Death's Head at the Battle of Ukio. And every second Judicator and Chimaera went untouched by the Rebel fighters was another second they made Rising Tide pay for its part in that defeat.

    He tightened up on the stick and found himself looking forward to dueling with the E-wings. Our best fighter versus your best, he thought eagerly at them. But I'm better than you are. I've been trained by the best the Empire has to offer, and that makes all the difference.

    * * * ​

    The bridge of a Super Star Destroyer was always a busy place, but Cienis Deleste found he had very little to do. None of Reaper's fighter squadrons had been dispatched with the ships sent to meet the Rebels at each system currently under assault. Instead, Deleste found himself collecting all the communications that had come in from around the Empire, cataloging attacks and reports, trying to understand the scope of the current offensive.

    It was massive.

    There was practically no corner of the Empire that had reported that things were all clear. In the heart of the Oversector there were Rebellion raiding teams striking supply lines and mining facilities, and there was even a tentative report of a raid on the shipyards at Jaemus—which wasn't all that far from Deleste's native Sartinaynian. Luckily, so far it appeared his homeworld had avoided any rebel attacks… but his homeworld was also about as far from Rebel-held territory as it was possible to be.

    The reports were chaotic at best. With massive jamming as the battles unfolded it was difficult to punch messages through, and what made it came out garbled. What he did know was that yesterday the Empire had been off-balance, still reeling from the unexpected death of Grand Moff Kaine and clinging to every scrap of rumor about what the Council of Moffs intended to do in response. The rumored political reorganization remained just a rumor, but the appointment of several new Moffs to govern sectors which had previously been part of Kaine's personal Oversector fiefdom suggested that they didn't want to just select a replacement.

    Today the Rebellion was trying to deliver a punch to the gut of its off-balance opponent, and the Empire was finding its footing. The Starfleet was responding, countering threats and meeting its foes. All through the Empire, Imperials were battling Rebels, fighting and dying to keep the Empire intact.

    They were fighting for the men they'd been trained by, and the men and women they'd been trained alongside.

    His board beeped, suddenly flooding with a spasm of new messages, and he felt his heartbeat quicken as that pride vanished under a wave of disbelief, and his resistance to fear wavered.

    "Status change!" someone else on the bridge called.

    He looked up to the bridge's long walk. A cluster of officers was gathered around Admiral Deshorn, including Colonel Welko. Their energetic conversation gained volume as the insistence of the officers participating grew.

    "Six new systems have just reported Rebel attacks, each system with at least one Star Destroyer or Star Cruiser present!" exclaimed one of the officers.

    It was difficult for Deleste to see Deshorn, but the man stood calmly, holding a datapad in one hand and keeping his other hand behind his back.

    "The only ships we have left are here in our squadron," the officer continued insistently. "We need to dispatch more of the Carida picket!"

    Deshorn's voice was the calm, precisely accented voice of a well-trained veteran Imperial officer, one who had been in the service for longer than Deleste had been alive. Unlike his subordinates, there was no tension in it, no passion… merely an articulation of facts. "With all these reports," he said, "it's clear the Rebellion has mounted a full offensive. They can't have very many of their own ships in reserve either." He frowned. "Our best response may be to go on offense."

    "Sir?"

    "We're within striking distance of dozens of high value targets," Deshorn explained. "We could hit Coruscant, Anaxes, or Brentaal in a matter of hours. If their defenses have been reduced in order to make this push, they may be vulnerable… and an attack on any one of them would force the Rebellion to recall ships for their defense."

    "We have six systems already under attack!" the officer rebutted. "We'll lose all six if we don't—"

    "None of those six is as high value as Brentaal, which is our closest potential target by travel time," Deshorn countered firmly.

    "Your officer is correct, Admiral," interrupted the deep voice of Colonel Welko. "And if you were to attack Brentaal, you'd be leaving Carida vulnerable. We cannot afford to lose this system. The academy and repair yards are vital to the long-term health of the Empire."

    "Not as vulnerable as you think," Deshorn countered stiffly, his voice going cold as ice. "If we have the forces to meet the Rebellion at each of their points of advance, we also have the forces to hit Brentaal. Six Star Destroyers would force the Rebellion to either leave Coruscant vulnerable or break off their offensive to protect the system. We could even send ships to attack Kuat—"

    "I speak for the Council of Moffs," Welko interrupted him. "The defense of Carida is our prime objective."

    The air that Deleste breathed seemed to go cold and stale. He speaks for the Council of Moffs? He's just a Colonel!

    Deleste was not the only man thinking those words. Looking up at the conversation, he saw Deshorn staring at the Colonel with an expression far from befitting an Imperial Admiral. "You speak for the Council of Moffs?"

    Welko smiled thinly. From Deleste's vantage point he seemed gaunt, with hollowed cheeks, but his eyes gleamed with an inner fire that made the young man shiver. "There are many changes afoot, Admiral. We cannot afford to lose Carida. Protect this system at all costs."

    But Admiral Deshorn was not willing to just let it pass. Reaper's commander handed his datapad to his aide and then folded both his arms behind his back, giving Deleste a view only of the Admiral's shoulders. He had to strain to hear, especially over the bridge's combat chatter. "Sometimes the best defense is a good offense, Colonel."

    "You'll have your chance to attack," Welko replied in a smoothed Agmarian drawl. "Soon enough, Admiral. For now, protect this system." With that, the ISB man turned his back, his heels clicking as he strode down the long walk.

    "Who is he to give you—"

    Deshorn's lifted hand cut off his aide's outrage. "Send one Star Destroyer to each system the Rebels are currently invading that have not yet been reinforced," he ordered. "Tell them their orders are to defend the systems if possible, but to keep themselves in one piece. We cannot afford to lose them or their fighters. Send one Enforcer cruiser with each Star Destroyer as an escort and prepare our Katana dreadnaughts for rapid response and further reinforcement. Remind each commander that flexibility is required because their orders may change." His orders given, he turned back to his aide. "Draft me a letter of protest to the Council of Moffs, and a letter of resignation."

    "Sir!"

    "I don't plan to use it," Deshorn assured his aide. "Not if I have any other option. But I may need it as leverage. I will not have an ISB magpie standing on my shoulder second-guessing my orders. Either I command this fleet or he does, and I intend to know which."

    "Yes, sir," replied his aide, sounding subdued.

    "Now, we have some battles to win." The Admiral's gaze cast over the crew pit, and for the briefest of moments his eyes met Deleste's. Deleste jerked, breaking the contact instantly, staring intently at his panel, and the rows and rows of pristine starfighters that currently lay waiting in Reaper's belly.

    * * * ​

    Commodore Atril Tabanne sat in her command chair on the bridge of the brand new Mareschal-class Escort Carrier Rendili Vigil, tried not to glance down at the brand-new rank insignia on her day uniform, and hoped that Wedge knew what he was doing. She trusted him implicitly—he'd more than demonstrated himself capable of leading sentients into battle—but still, this entire operation was so incredibly risky… and even if it went well, a whole lot of people they knew very well were still going to die.

    But then, she'd joined the Imperial Starfleet knowing she might get killed trying to help protect people. She'd defected to the Rebellion when it became clear that doing right in the Starfleet was the next best thing to impossible, and if her prime concern had been her own survival she certainly would not have done either of those things.

    Still, Vigil was a brand-new ship, a new design of sleek curves and deadly lines that cut through space like a vibroknife. She even had that new ship smell, sharp and astringent. It would be a shame to lose her, especially after all the time and effort Atril had put into getting her bridge and personal quarters arranged just the way she liked them.

    "Is the squadron ready?" she asked.

    Her Bothan communications officer, a businesslike survivor of her old bridge crew, nodded. "Ready."

    "How far out are we?"

    "We're well outside the hyper limit, Commodore. About three light minutes."

    She nodded, bringing the estimated distance up on her combat display. The fancy new holographic projector was definitely better than what she'd had to work with on Ession Strike, but she wasn't sure if they were worth the extra expense. At least none of the cost of Rendili Vigil and her growing shoal of sisters came out of her own pocket!

    That didn't mean, though, that she wasn't intimately familiar with what they did cost. She'd been present at the Rendili Hyperworks when ISB had staged its cowardly terrorist attack. She still had nightmares of watching three massive construction platforms simply fall apart in silent puffs of explosions, a dozen or so of her ships going from half-built to debris in a matter of minutes. She'd lost hundreds of people, and the construction crews she'd grown close to, worked hand in hand with, had lost thousands more.

    The Mareschals had not yet seen combat—unless the ones that had been dispatched to Bespin had unexpectedly found themselves in a fight—but that didn't mean they didn't already carry a grudge.

    The distance to the hyper limit ticked down from three light minutes to less than one. She watched it fall, eager anticipation gnawing at her.

    "One minute outside the hyper limit, Commodore! We've reached the engagement point."

    "Well," Atril smiled confidently, as any good CO should, "let's bamboozle the bastards. Send the go-ahead to Captain Iillor and spool up our signal enhancers. Execute Mirage!"

    * * * ​

    "Status change!"

    The sudden dread in the officer's voice was all-too obvious, and from the way every officer around him turned towards the call, Deleste could tell that he wasn't the only one who noticed.

    Silence was a rarity on a warship's bridge. An impossibility, really, the equipment never stopped making noise. But the beeps of the combat updates, the reports of engagements all around the galaxy, all faded into the background noise as, with bated breath, Reaper's massive bridge crew waited to find out what fresh havoc had been unleashed.

    "Report one Executor-class Super Star Destroyer at extreme sensor range," the voice rasped out. If the silence had been deep before, it was now positively thunderous.

    It faded as officers recovered, adrenaline keeping their bodies in motion as their minds struggled to catch up.

    "Confirm that sensor reading," Admiral Deshorn's calm voice called in response. "The Rebellion only has one Executor and it's already been reported at Bespin. Lusankya can't be in both places at once. Is the ship alone?"

    "Only the one contact so far. It's a bit fuzzy because of the range, but it does appear to be closing on our position. They're about forty minutes outside of Carida's gravity well at their current speed and trajectory, Admiral."

    "One Executor against the fleet we have assembled here?" Deshorn asked, his voice almost contemptuous. "Everyone knows our crews are better than theirs. Lusankya wouldn't stand a chance in a straight up fight against Reaper alone—and we're not alone." Deleste looked up at the Admiral, whose arms were folded confidently across his chest. "They're bluffing, they're stupid, or they're planning something. Inform the fleet to be prepared for further Rebellion arrivals. Tell Carida Command to prepare to launch snubfighters but hold the launch under further orders, we don't want to waste fuel."

    "Yes, Admiral!"

    "Are you not going out to fight them?" came a new, familiar voice, paired with the sound of boots clicking audibly against Reaper's command walk.

    "No reason to. They need to come to us," Deshorn told Colonel Welko without looking at him, his tone dismissive. "If we exit Carida's gravity well they could drop additional ships on top of us without warning. Within the well we control the battleground." He finally turned towards Welko, gesturing out through Reaper's forward bridge window at the starscape beyond. "If they're not bluffing, they're trying to lure us out to ambush us away from the Golan platforms."

    There was something about the tightness in Welko's expression, Deleste thought. A nervous anticipation, interrupted by surprise. The ISB man was used to being in control of the situation, and he didn't feel fully in control of this one—but whether that was because he was facing down Admiral Deshorn on Deshorn's own bridge, or because of the Rebellion's aggressive action, Deleste had no idea.

    What he could tell was that Welko had absolutely no patience for Deshorn's tone. "We should make a show of strength," Welko said, with the kind of certainty that could only come from ignorance. "Rally the fleet. Lusankya is here and is vulnerable—and if we destroy it, we will crush the Rebellion's spirit. We should not miss the chance."

    "I thought my job was to protect Carida at all costs," Deshorn replied lightly. Clearly he had no patience for Welko at all, and was increasingly bad at hiding it.

    "Your job," Welko said, his voice cutting through Reaper's bridge like a well-honed and fully powered vibroblade, "is to serve the Empire when it calls upon you to do so."

    "I am serving the Empire," Deshorn replied, and now the light tone was gone, replaced by a glacial coldness tinged with mounting anger. "And I serve it best when I use my best judgment, not when I subjugate my experience, training, and wisdom to the whims of a neophyte. This is still my ship, Colonel Welko, and until you are promoted to Admiral and I am ordered to turn my command over to you, I will give the orders to this fleet." He turned towards Reaper's comms officer. "Commander, order the fleet to hold position and formation. We stand as we are until we know more."

    Deleste tried to avert his gaze, but he couldn't help sneaking a peak at the ISB man. Welko's expression had gone deathly still, and his glare was casting ire worthy of a Death Star's superlaser. "Very well, Admiral," Welko said, but if the words were a concession, nothing else about his posture was. "We will try it your way. For now."

    The Admiral ignored Welko pointedly, turning to face forward and put Welko fully at his back. He folded his hands behind his back and stared out in the direction of Lusankya, still much too distant to see with the naked eye. "Stand ready to engage the enemy, assuming that is them out there," the Admiral said. "Any updates on the ongoing engagements?"

    "We have an update from Admiral Daala, sir. She reports the destruction of…"

    Deleste did his best to put the ongoing conversation out of his mind. He had TIE fighters to manage and prepare, sending orders for squadron readiness and handling CAP assignments. But out of the corner of his eye he watched the combat plot as the tiny blip marked Lusankya came steadily closer.

    * * * ​

    Pellaeon grunted as Dreyf updated him. "Admiral Deshorn reports that a sensor signal matching a Super Star Destroyer has appeared one light-minute outside of Carida's gravity well." Dreyf's voice was clear and calm, but his expression was as drawn as Pellaeon could remember.

    "Lusankya can't be in two places at once," Pellaeon said grudgingly. "Which one is the real one?"

    "Maybe neither, sir."

    "If Antilles is trying to keep us uncertain about which way we should jump, it's working," Pellaeon growled. "We assumed Lusankya was on the other side of the galaxy. If that's not the case…" He thought quickly, eyeing the battlefield. Judicator and Chimaera were battering Rising Tide while Endurance kept its distance, retreating deeper and deeper into Chazwa's gravity well. We need to end this quickly so we have the flexibility to respond to new threats. "Bring us to point blank range with Rising Tide. Order Judicator to do the same."

    * * * ​

    There was absolutely nothing like the adrenaline rush of flight.

    Hacery Nalle had spent three years at the Caridan academy, and he'd known a lot of people in those years—a lot of young men in their late teens and early-twenties who were finding themselves at the academy. Not all of them made it. His first roommate—a fellow conscript from Capza—had been conscripted despite a spice addiction, and never kicked it. Hack would come back to the small bunkroom they shared and find him in a dazed stupor, talking nonsense about being able to see into people's minds and knowing the future.

    If Hack had to be addicted to something, better flight than glitterstim.

    It was during the intake physical that he'd first been marked for flight school. His reflexes tested off the charts, so they'd put him through a battery of other physical and mental examinations and discovered that his spatial awareness was close to the highest mark they'd ever seen. There'd been only one higher mark on record, and they'd been keeping track going back to the Clone Wars. Then they'd started giving him work and discovered, to their delight, that what the son of Capza farmers lacked in formal education he made up for in work ethic.

    Graduating first in his class—not just from the flight school, but from the whole Imperial Academy—had not been Hack's goal, not like it had been Cee's or Phelik's. He just wanted to fly, and the higher he scored, the more they let him.

    It's just another sim.

    Hack glanced over his threat and status boards, his wingman staying in close to protect him. "Take the lead, Two."

    "Yes sir!" Hack replied, grinning. He rotated the flight yoke thirty degrees and pushed it down, sending his Defender into a spiraling downwards spin. The X-wing which had been tracking him couldn't keep up and cut velocity while Hack skimmed his fighter over the hull of the Star Cruiser Rising Tide, pumping some largely ineffectual laser and ion cannon fire into the big ship, leaving scarred paint in his wake. He flicked his HUD over to concussion missiles and fired one off; it slammed into a turbolaser cluster but failed to knock it out of commission. Concussion missiles really aren't meant for hard targets, he thought with disgust, wishing his Defender was properly armed.

    But there was no reason for him to try to take out Rising Tide himself. He spun away from the Rebel capital ship, clearing out as Judicator closed in. The two big ships splashed turbolaser fire against one another, some blasts breaching protective shields and doing far more damage than Hack had with his one tiny missile.

    "All fighters get out of Judicator's way," the fighter operations commander aboard Magistrate ordered. "Reminder from command to focus on enemy B-wings."

    "As ordered," Hack acknowledged, looking for targets. He curled around, giving the sea of multicolor laser fire that stretched between Rising Tide and Judicator a safe distance, and blinked as his missile targeting alert blinked on. He jerked and weaved his fighter as he clicked through his HUD and found the same X-wing which had been pursuing him before still on his tail. Stubborn rebel, Hack thought as he twisted his fighter through a tight loop that broke the targeting lock before the X-wing could fire.

    He cut his throttle and came out of the loop with his pursuer dead in the middle of his scope. He pulled the trigger, pumping the X-wing full of laser fire, and unlike Rebel Dream the X-wing was not well armored. It disintegrated into debris, the central fuselage shattering while the four S-foils spun away.

    "That's three," he said to himself, grinning with the exuberance of victory. He flicked through his HUD, looking for fresh targets—

    His computer screamed an alarm and sent a bloodred update across his screen. NEW ENEMY CONTACTS REPORTED.

    He clicked through his HUD, saw something flash past as he went too fast and skipped by the newly arrived Rebel ships… and his heart stopped.

    He twisted the flight yoke, wanting to see for himself, and there she was. An enormous wedge in space, her nose pointed directly at the warring Imperial formation, the Super Star Destroyer Lusankya had arrived, and was already disgorging snubfighters by the dozen. B-wings and X-wings, and other snubs too numerous to count slotted rapidly into perfect formations.

    Suddenly this battle didn't seem nearly so fun.
     
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  14. Gabri_Jade

    Gabri_Jade Fanfic Archive Editor Emeritus star 5 VIP

    Registered:
    Nov 9, 2002
    I can just imagine how well Palpatine would react to being called anyone's heir :p

    And I love this. We see all the big flashy lightsaber fights in the movies and shows, but rarely is it even mentioned just how much work goes into attaining those skills. (I'm rewatching TCW right now, and I know it's a half hour kids' show, I know, but I just watched a few episodes where a bunch of prepubescent younglings make their lightsabers and then fight adults with them in a real life combat situation in practically the same day, and I was about ready to pull my hair out.) I know that visual and literary mediums are different, but having more time and narrative ability to acknowledge reality is one of the huge bonuses of the written word for me.

    It's so nice to see Winter getting to be genuinely part of the family rather than sidelined the way she was in the EU [face_love]

    As someone who's spent most of her adult life working customer service, I feel this deep in my bones :p

    lolol

    I can't wait until we get to the point in this saga where Mara and Tionne are buddies, even if Mara still rolls her eyes at times :D

    There is nothing about this paragraph that I don't love :D (Is now where I get to rant that we go through a whole sequence of Mara being frustrated by wedding dress shopping in Union, only to decide that an extremely run of the mill white dress was just the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen? No? Okay then - but it's just that they had so much potential to do something really special and unexpected, but NO, they gave Mara an ordinary white gown and veil. Who's to say that blue dresses aren't traditional for Coruscanti weddings? Or green? Why was the art in Mara's comic books so bland? Whhhyyyy)

    Thank you. Okay, sometimes you might have to practice with a live blade, but it just makes no sense to do it all the time, or even most of the time. I will never get over Jacen cutting off Tenel Ka's arm because Luke was such an idiot that he had children fighting each other with deadly weapons instead of practice blades. And how does it make sense to use a lightsaber in a ship unless it's genuinely a life or death situation, or it's a truly massive ship like a Star Destroyer? That blade will go right through the hull if you mess up, and then what?

    Aw [face_love] I am all for treating droids with the same consideration that you would a living being. SW droids are sentient and shouldn't be treated like things.

    I love the realism :D

    That's going to be trouble :p

    As is this :p Disra is such an awful person o_O Now he would have been a challenging character to try to make sympathetic...

    Still loving this characterization of Daala :D

    Oh, that's right, we haven't seen that plotline play out yet [face_thinking]

    The full impact of this assault by the NR is very well conveyed, and I appreciate the collected understatement from Pellaeon, which is just what you'd expect from an officer of his rank and experience :D

    lolll :p

    "ISB magpie" is just a great turn of phrase :D

    And "let's bamboozle the bastards" is a great war cry :p

    I'm starting to like Deshorn :p

    Welp :p
     
    Bel505 likes this.
  15. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
    Especially with Exar Kun running around in Brakiss' body, it's important to convey that he can't just be his swordmaster self of old. He's got the brain for it but not the body.

    At least not yet.

    It's going to be interesting when she has a baby of her own toddling about with Jacen and Jaina!

    Oh, I'm not entirely sure they're not there already. Mara just doesn't really know how to have normal friends yet, I think.

    *sighs* because 1990s art and sensibilities.

    :D

    I do wonder what I'm planning there!

    Hack is really fun. Energetic and chaotic and just wants to get in a cockpit and fly! He kinds of reminds me of how Luke might've been at the same age.

    Me too. And I made a mistake not putting him in the Dramatis Personae, he's quite important. His little rivalry with Welko is clearly escalating.
     
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  16. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
    Chapter 23

    Lusankya
    came out of hyperspace with all her engines at full combat burn, building speed. X-wings, B-wings, A-wings, and E-wings poured out of the massive Executor-class Super Star Destroyer's hangar. They raced out ahead to reinforce their fellows already engaged in a series of messy furballs with Pellaeon's TIEs.

    It was times like this that Wedge really regretted hanging up his helmet, because right now, all he could do was watch and manage.

    The battle was in full bloom. He saw TIE bombers send a flurry of torpedoes into Rising Tide's starboard flank. The resulting explosion spit fire, debris, and bodies into space, and Wedge's stomach soured with memories of Gus Treta.

    Rising Tide's squadrons blazed away at the bombers as they attempted a second pass. Lasers blew through unshielded, unwieldy hulls and pilots died, only to have the faster, more maneuverable, and better shielded TIE Defenders exact their own vengeance for that small victory. The snubfighter battle was vicious, and his heart tightened as he ordered Commander Needa to send Tycho and the Rogues into the heart of it.

    Kre'fey's voice carried through the bridge as the Bothan captain spoke clearly into his headset. "Now hear this! Helm, make for Endurance and Rising Tide. Tactical, reinforce forward shields and prepare for sustained enemy bombardment. Split our fire between Chimaera and Judicator once we have the range. Guns, make your firelanes exact, mark them, and inform Fighter Command to stay clear."

    His crew knew what they were about, they knew what their targets were. Captain Kre'fey barked orders, listing priorities and adjusting Lusankya's trajectory to maximize her field of fire. The New Republic crew occupying the crew pits called back their confirmations, doing their jobs with professionalism and focus and no small amount of passion.

    "General," said Commander Needa from beside him, Lusankya's comms officer holding a datapad. "Message from Admiral Bell. She says Rebel Dream has taken serious damage. Rising Tide is still battle-capable. Endurance has no major damage to report."

    "Lusankya will relieve Rising Tide. Four of our fighter squadrons are being dispatched to engage the Star Destroyers assailing Rebel Dream," Wedge recited the battle plan with an almost rote muscle memory. "Send my compliments to Admiral Bell."

    "Yes sir." Needa held his hand to his ear, talking quietly into his com pickup. "The Admiral says she wishes we'd gotten here a few minutes earlier."

    Wedge gave a rueful smile, but there was nothing to be said to that. Wedge wished they'd gotten here a few minutes earlier too, but they had to be sure that Commodore Tabanne was in position—both to decoy the fleet at Carida, and more importantly to keep an eye on it so that Wedge would know if the formidable Imperial formation there decided to come to Pellaeon's aid.

    If they did, the Battle of Chazwa would probably grow to become the largest fleet engagement since Endor, with all of Wedge's dispatched ships converging on the system to fight it out once and for all with Reaper.

    But again, there was nothing for Wedge to do but wait and find out.

    He caught Needa staring nervously out the bridge window, in the direction of the Imperial formation. "Are you all right, Commander?"

    Needa shook himself and offered Wedge a small, nervous smile. "Sorry sir, it's just that… Well, outside of one time when I couldn't shoot back, I've only seen an enemy in training."

    "Maybe not, but I'd imagine being trapped on an unarmed orbital mirror station at the liberation of Coruscant gives you some perspective."

    Needa blinked in surprise. "You knew where I was sir?"

    Wedge chuckled softly. "I don't often miss when officers were at battles I fought in, especially battles with as little direct combat as that one. I've seen your file, Commander. You were about to graduate from Carida with honors before your cousin Lorth displeased Vader at Hoth."

    Wedge watched as Needa swallowed hard. "Yes, sir. ISB executed most of our family for treason, but they let me live with just exile."

    "Everyone deserves a second chance, Commander. Especially people who lost everything because of the Empire's tyranny. You joined the New Republic Defense Forces the day it was formally created, and you may not have seen combat before now, but you've trained hard and I have faith in you. You'll do fine."

    The younger man swallowed, but his tremor subsided, and he spoke with hard-edged Coruscanti precision. "Yes sir," Needa said, his voice retaining a durasteel edge, "I won't let you down. Sir."

    "Very good Commander. Return to your station." Needa retreated, and Wedge folded his arms behind his back and turned to stand facing Lusankya's forward bridge window just as the ship's main batteries opened fire.

    He couldn't twitch or show any signs of nervousness. He had to trust that he'd trained his people right and made good plans.

    He couldn't just whip his X-wing through a multigee turn and rip off a quad burst into an enemy TIE.

    He had to stand there, with poise, and look like a fleet commander, like Han and Garm had taught him to.

    Even if he still didn't feel like one.

    * * *​

    Colonel Tycho Celchu felt his X-wing's engines flare, the momentum pushing him back in his pilot's couch. His HUD came to life, flickering as his astromech fought through the mess of allies and enemies, working with the X-wing's computer to give Tycho a clear understanding of the battlefield. Tycho was glad to have Gate—the little astromech's experience managing the duties of both a squadron commander and pilot was invaluable, and Wedge had said he felt better with both of them to look after each other.

    "Rogue Leader, this is Lusankya," he heard Commander Needa's voice. "The General instructs you to clear the board of the enemy TIEs engaged with Rising Tide and Endurance. Secondary priority is reinforcing Rebel Dream."

    "Acknowledged, Lusankya. We'll clean them up." Tycho took the moments he needed to get his bearings and felt the familiar calm that always came at the beginning of battle settle over him. He let his mind drift briefly to Winter and to their child, so close to being born. Then he brought his attention back to the battle and devoted himself to the role of Rogue Leader with all that he had, because anything less would mean disaster. "All fighters, this is Rogue Leader. Second division fighters, reinforce Rebel Dream. Everyone else, we're going after the fighters menacing Rising Tide and Endurance. Watch your wingmen and keep your heads on a swivel for those TIE Defenders. Squadron leaders, report in."

    There was an echo of confirmations, and Gate clicked off a series of green lights as each squad leader checked in. Forty-eight of his ships—four full squadrons of X-wings, A-wings, and B-wings—broke away towards where Rebel Dream was engaged in a firefight with two other Impstars, with massed proton torpedo launches soon to follow.

    Tycho's attention, however, narrowed to his immediate responsibilities. "One torpedo launch against the nearer Star Destroyer," he ordered. "Just get its attention. Then break and take the fighters. Attack plan: ripsaw, repeat ripsaw! Champion Leader, we execute on your mark. Polearm, you're fully autonomous when we break."

    He still had no idea how Wedge managed it all while still sounding as calm as he always did.

    * * *​

    The HoloNet communication with Chazwa was weak. Between shields, the chaos of combat, and the extensive jamming everyone was doing to try to gain an advantage in the ongoing battle, Reaper was barely able to communicate with Chimaera, much less do so with any clarity.

    It wasn't his job, but Deleste worked to try to clear up the signal.

    " . . . incursion including Lusankya . . . at least . . . tional snubfighter squadrons . . . "

    The communications team tapped into the Chazwa HoloNet station relay, and Deleste reinforced the signal with Reaper's own hypercomm unit. Pellaeon's holographic, blue image stabilized.

    Pellaeon continued his briefing steadfastly. "Admiral, my formation . . . outnumbered and outgunned. . . have word from Admiral Daala . . . . signaling her has been difficult as she is also in active combat. But I . . . an opportunity we should not pass up."

    An opportunity? The words were not the ones that he had expected from Pellaeon. Preparing to retreat, yes. Begging for reinforcements, yes. But what about the battle of Chazwa constituted an opportunity for the Imperial forces?

    But when Deleste allowed himself to stop and think about it, it started to make sense. Lusankya had arrived to reinforce Chazwa, but had seemingly done so alone… and with Reaper in striking distance.

    Admiral Deshorn merely nodded. "Agreed, Admiral. I'll have Reaper underway as soon as possible. Hold Lusankya there until our arrival."

    It was as if all the air was sucked out of Reaper's bridge as Deshorn turned away from the still-open HoloNet link to Chimaera. "All hands to battle stations. Prepare for hyperspace jump, destination Chazwa. I want maximum combat speed, we need to arrive as soon as possible. Order three divisions of Star Destroyers to accompany us, we'll need all the firepower available to take on Lusankya with minimal casualties"

    "What about the Super Star Destroyer signal we still have here, Admiral?" Deshorn's aide asked, sounding concerned.

    Deleste found his mouth opening to explain, then closed it quickly.

    His commanding officer shook his head decisively, then explained for him. "It's not real. If the Rebellion had two Super Star Destroyers we would know, they aren't easy to hide, much less two here and one at Bespin. Antilles has overplayed his hand and expects us to be bluffed into inaction by his phantoms."

    "Aye, sir."

    "Time to hyperspace jump?"

    "Engines are coming up now, sir," called the man at the engineering station. "You'll have full thrust in fifteen seconds, and we'll exit Carida's gravity well four minutes after that."

    "All ships, hold jump until we have full combat formation!" Deshorn ordered. "We want to exit hyperspace ready to fight. All TIE pilots to your fighters. Load bombers with proton torpedoes for anti-ship combat. We have a Super Star Destroyer to kill."

    Deleste put his hand over the earpiece and keyed the snubfighter comm network. "All TIE pilots to your fighters," he echoed the Admiral. "Repeat, all TIE pilots to your fighters." Then he altered the loadout instructions on his panel and received a green affirmative light as the maintenance techs and droids started the arming process.

    He looked up at the sound of jogging and footsteps. Colonel Welko swept down the long walk of Reaper's bridge, approaching where Deshorn stood at the wide forward bridge windows. On either side of him were ISB stormtroopers, both with blaster rifles in large holsters slung from their belts. "Belay all those orders," Welko's Agmarian drawl cut through the din.

    The Admiral turned away from the forward window towards the approaching ISB team, his expression thunderous. "Excuse me?" he asked, and though his voice was soft, there was not a man on the bridge who could not hear him.

    The holo-image of Admiral Pellaeon flickered and fuzzed but reformed, and Deleste could see the way Pellaeon's expression stiffened at the sudden, unexpected intrusion into his and Deshorn's battle plans.

    "I said belay all those orders," Colonel Welko repeated, and there was no mistaking the relish the man took from saying the words. "Our orders from the Council of Moffs are clear. Reaper is to remain at Carida to ensure the defense of the system."

    "I cannot assure the defense of the system if Chazwa falls, and if we decline to meet Lusankya in battle it won't be just Chazwa that falls," Deshorn explained, slowly meticulous, as if explaining astronavigation to a toddler. "Combined with her escorts and fighters Lusankya has sufficient firepower to defeat any Imperial formation that does not include Reaper. If Reaper does not engage her, we'll either lose all our ships or our supply lines. We will likely lose both."

    "Once again, Admiral, I remind you of the importance of Carida. If Reaper—"

    The Admiral's patience was exhausted. "If, and I stress if, the Rebellion strikes Carida, we will have more than enough ships—"

    "The decision is made!" Welko declared.

    "I command this fleet, Colonel," Deshorn glowered. "Not you."

    "That may be, but you serve the Council of Moffs—"

    "You speak for the Imperial Security Bureau," Deshorn shot back. "If the Council of Moffs wishes to countermand my orders, they are going to have to do it themselves." He turned away from Welko. "Time to hyperspace!"

    "Uh, ninety seconds, sir!"

    "Admiral!" barked Welko. "You really should discuss the matter with the Moffs before you make a decision you regret."

    Watching Deshorn turn back, slow and deliberate, Deleste genuinely feared that the Admiral might strike the ISB officer right there on the bridge. To his relief, the Admiral raised his arm, rather than throwing his fist. "Hold hyperspace jump. Comms, give me a priority link to Entralla."

    The ninety seconds before their intended hyperspace jump time passed. The entire Imperial formation—Reaper and six Imperial II-class Star Destroyers—were all waiting to receive the order to proceed to Chazwa and join the battle. Everyone could see the fluttering, intermittent blue holographic form of Admiral Pellaeon, directing his ship against a clearly superior foe.

    Every second they wasted was one more second that Pellaeon would be under fire without reinforcement—and it wasn't like they would arrive to help him instantly. The trip to Chazwa was not a long one, but neither was it instantaneous.

    Finally, the main holo-display spooled up. Blue holo-images of two people fizzled into existence. It took Deleste a moment to recognize the man in the background, and his heart tightened when he saw the distinctive garb of Grand Inquisitor Halmere, with his black robes and white armor. In the foreground, however, was a man in a Moff's uniform that he did not recognize.

    "Moff Disra," Deshorn greeted the man without hesitation. "I intend to take Reaper to engage Lusankya at Chazwa. My ship and I must leave at once to participate in the battle. We're losing time."

    "I understand your desire," Disra said, holding his hands up in a placating gesture that made Deleste's heart tighten and caused the Admiral's expression to darken to something approaching thunderous. "And I commend your eagerness to fight the forces of the Rebellion. Nevertheless, Admiral, on the recommendation of ISB, and after consultation with the agents of the Inquisitorius, I'm afraid I must order you to stand down. We cannot risk Reaper or Carida at this time."

    Deshorn stared at the Moff blankly. He looked perfectly calm and composed, yet even down in the crew pit Deleste could feel the Admiral's rage. It radiated off him, burning in the Admiral's laser gaze and clenched fists. "Sir, this is an opportunity we will never have again, and if Reaper does not proceed to Chazwa, we will lose the system and likely many others in its vicinity. Without Reaper and the rest of my formation, Admiral Pellaeon and Admiral Daala do not have the forces needed to defeat—"

    "I have faith in Admiral Pellaeon," Moff Disra interrupted. "The orders stand, Admiral."

    Deshorn's gaze flicked to Halmere, standing unobtrusively in the background, then back to Disra. "I'm afraid, sir, that I have no choice but to resign my command in protest. This decision will cost the Empire ships and lives it cannot afford to lose, and perhaps even the war itself." Deshorn reached to his chest, and in total silence Reaper's entire bridge crew watched him strip the formidable rank bars from his own chest.

    The Moff's expression was one of stunned disbelief. Disra glanced in Halmere's direction, then his gaze flicked to the smug, self-satisfied expression worn by Colonel Welko. After an elongated heartbeat, Disra took a breath. "I cannot accept your resignation at this time, Admiral. Resume your post and prevent any Rebel incursions into Carida. We will discuss this matter further when circumstances permit."

    And with that, Disra and Halmere vanished.

    Deshorn, holding his rank in his hand, turned towards the figure of Admiral Pellaeon. The Old Man's expression was as stunned and confused as Deleste had expected, but Deshorn, at least, was already past his sudden outbreak of gawking disbelief. "Gilad, get your ships out of there! You can't hold Lusankya alone, Chazwa is lost, save what you can!"

    Pellaeon didn't say a word. He just nodded, and his image vanished as he turned away.

    "You should not be so pessimistic," Welko said airily. "Though a retreat would be in character for Admiral Pellaeon. He has a history of fleeing from battles and then claiming them hopeless after the fact."

    Deleste felt all the blood drain out of his face.

    Deshorn secured his rank plate back on his chest, then took two steps towards Welko. He was smaller than the other man, and much smaller than the two armor-clad troopers standing on either side of the ISB Colonel, but he did not look intimidated. "Get off my bridge," the Admiral growled.

    "As you wish, Admiral. If the Moffs have any further instructions, I will return to deliver them."

    "If the Moffs have any further instructions, they will deliver them," Deshorn ground out, clenching his fists. "Your presence will not be required. Helm, turn us around and get us back into Carida's gravity well! All TIEs return to standby readiness!"

    That brought Cienis Deleste back to his duty. He returned his hand to his earpiece, instructing Reaper's pilots to reduce their readiness level. As he did, he remembered something Deshorn had told him, not that long ago:

    "You do not want to irritate ISB. Only Admirals can get away with that, and even then it is a risk."

    From Colonel Welko's stony expression, it was a risk indeed.

    * * *​

    While commanding Chimaera and giving orders to his fleet meant Pellaeon had no time or attention to spare being angry with the Moffs for abandoning him, a small corner of his heart tightened with aggravation nonetheless. First Grand Moff Kaine refused to support Thrawn the way we needed. Then Moff Disra abandoned Rogriss in an impossible position at Ukio. And now it's my turn to be staked out for the Loth-wolves.

    He issued a storm of orders as he rapidly keyed shorthand directives into his command datapad. "Launch all remaining TIEs! All bombers, your primary target is Rising Tide; secondary target is Endurance. Judicator, Chimaera close to point blank range with Rising Tide, we need to finish it off as soon as we can! Gonfalon, Exigent, make a withdrawal towards the hyper limit and acknowledge my last!" He stared at the plot as Lusankya carved through space, her enormous, pointed nose aiming straight at Chimaera and the smaller Magistrate, the comparatively tiny Venator-class Star Destroyer that housed all too many of Pellaeon's TIEs.

    Unfortunately, unlike Gonfalon and Exigent, whose engagement with Rebel Dream had strayed towards the edge of Chazwa's gravity well, Chimaera, Judicator and Magistrate had pursued Rising Tide and Endurance closer and closer to the planet, and there weren't many avenues away from it that would permit them to evade Lusankya. The only option they had was to put on speed and burst around the planet and out the other side, but Lusankya was closing the range. Already the Super Star Destroyer's main batteries were firing ranging shots, and while the ones that struck Chimaera and Magistrate's shields were absorbed easily at this range, that would not be true for long.

    "Guns, designate Rising Tide's engines and tractor beam emplacements as primary targets," Pellaeon ordered. "We don't need to kill her; we just need to get around her."

    The Rebel snubfighters which had been launched by Endurance had been greatly reduced in numbers over the course of the engagement. Six squadrons, a full seventy-two fighters, were now reduced to just more than forty. The ragged remainders swarmed over Pellaeon's TIE bomber squadrons, but screened by the formidable TIE Defenders—including, Pellaeon noted absently, the small icon that represented Hack Nalle, performing more than admirably in his first combat engagement—the bombers got their salvo off.

    Proton torpedoes burst against Rising Tide's multilayered shields, already close to overloaded from the constant barrage from Chimaera and Judicator. Armor buckled as the torpedoes ripped deep into the Mon Calamari construction and exploded, vaporizing shield generators, turbolaser clusters, and personnel. The spinning Star Cruiser bucked, all its running lights flickering as its power shifted from primary to secondary, but more importantly its huge array of engines went half-dark.

    Given a choice between maintaining shields or maintaining speed, Rising Tide's commander chose shields. Wisely, Pellaeon thought, as the alternative would have meant losing the ship altogether.

    "Judicator, Chimaera target Endurance!" Pellaeon barked, viewing the brand-new Republic fleet carrier, still leading him deeper and deeper into Chazwa's gravity well. "We'll knock her out and then take a slingshot around the planet and head out the other side." He nodded at Lieutenant Tschel. "Tell Captain Brandei to stick with Chimaera and prepare to flank Endurance."

    "Copy!"

    "All TIE bombers, reprioritize targeting!" Pellaeon barked, watching on his bridge readouts as Lusankya's massive wing of fresh, veteran fighters raced towards the fight, led by eager B-wings.

    * * *​

    "All TIE squadrons, prepare for incoming fighters," the calm voice of the 212th's squadron commander said. Hack viewed his HUD, quickly getting a sense of the battle. Rising Tide was out of the fight, falling behind the charging Chimaera and Judicator, whose forward guns were now battering Endurance. Out ahead of them, TIE bombers were making their first missile launches, covered by a few TIE interceptors trying—mostly in vain—to protect them from what was left of Endurance's fighters.

    Hack put that side of the battle out of his mind. Lusankya was pursuing the pair of Imperial II-class Star Destroyers, and just as Chimaera and Judicator were firing on Endurance, building speed as they aimed to try to escape by racing past Chazwa, Lusankya clearly aimed to stop their escape.

    If Lusankya's fighters started pegging their engines with proton torpedoes, there was a good chance it would succeed.

    As he watched, the threat that Lusankya posed became all too clear. His squadron's home base, the Venator-class Magistrate, had been flying in Chimaera's wake. That had protected the ship from Rising Tide, but now left her vulnerable to Lusankya. Despite her capacity, Magistrate was tiny compared to the massive, lethal bulk of Lusankya, and the Super Star Destroyer's attention seemed almost casual. Like it had barely noticed Magistrate and was crushing her as one might dispose of a small, flightless insect.

    The torrent of turbolaser fire stretched out for kilometers as Lusankya poured gobbets of energy into the ship that had been, oh-so-briefly, Hack's home. His quarters were there—he'd been given a single room, a privilege of his rank—and so were his possessions. His dress uniform. His award for his graduation ranking. The techs that maintained his fighter, that pretty Commander he'd met in passing at lunch; they were all aboard that tiny, fragile-looking vessel whose outdated shields were straining to hold back the tides—

    They broke.

    Hack gasped as he saw green morph into red as turbolaser fire breached Magistrate's shields. Vast sectors of once-pristine grey deck plate were now ablaze, and Lusankya's port turbolaser batteries continued their assault. A fist clamped around his heart as they drilled through hull and armor, blasting through hangars, and fire erupted from inside the ship and then it vanished and a bright, eye-searing eruption.

    Magistrate was gone.

    "All fighters," came his commander's voice, still somehow sounding as calm as it had been before. "All wings form up, stick tight, and hit their bombers. They cannot be allowed to break through to Chimaera. Try for concussion missile locks."

    "Copy, leader," he said, his heart pounding. It's just another sim, he told himself again, regulating his breathing beneath the mask. Just another sim.

    He flicked through his HUD and found the Rebel fighters closing. Four squadrons of unescorted B-wings—more heavy bombers, heading to do to Chimaera and the Old Man what their mothership had just done to Magistrate. He flicked his controls over to concussion missiles and found the lead B-wing, pinning the less maneuverable ship squarely in the center of his crosshairs. His HUD blinked yellow, the interface in his helmet beeping to match.

    "Steady," said his commander's voice, the comm crackling.

    Before he could have a solid lock, the line of advancing B-wings opened fire. Proton torpedoes leapt out ahead of them, racing out towards Hack's TIE Defender squadron and its mates, and instinctively Hack pulled the trigger, launching his own concussion missile before the lock was solid, and swapped back to lasers. He pulled down the trigger, sending a burst of green fire to intersect with an incoming torpedo and it exploded—

    The torpedoes all exploded. A ripple of fire in space, an extended line of eruptions as the line of torpedoes burst as one, scattering his sensors. Instinctively, he slammed the stick down and sent his fighter evasive.

    "Go evasive!" came a belated cry from one of the squadron members.

    " . . . A-wings in the rear!"

    The communications signals fuzzed with static and some of them died, and his HUD screamed as members of his squadron vanished. He twisted the stick back up and saw a flash of A-wing and X-wing engines as the faster craft suddenly erupted from behind the line of B-wings, charging out in the moment of blindness created by the torpedoes.

    The A-wings filled space full of concussion missiles. Judging from the utter screaming of his missile lock-on warning system at least two were targeting Hack, and he jerked his Defender into another spiraling evasive maneuver. The scream died as he shook his pursuer, and with a vicious curse he chopped his thrust to turn more quickly and brought the offending A-wing into his sights. It was painted with blue stripes, and Hack used all the massive firepower of his Defender to dust it.

    Hack found himself in the middle of chaos. Fighters were everywhere, lasers were everywhere. His wingman was gone, he realized—the clone must have been killed during the initial clash—and Hack gave himself fully over to his combat instincts.

    He hauled back on his flight yoke and charged into the densest crowd of enemy fighters. Focusing on a B-wing he flicked his Defender's tractor beam and grabbed the larger starfighter. He sent a burst of ions into the fighter and twisted his yoke again, using his momentum and the lasso of the tractor to force the B-wing out of line and into the path of its wingman.

    The two B-wings collided and crumpled, wings going in every direction. There was no spectacular explosion, but the pair of disfigured snubfighters spiraled away, out of control.

    He didn't have time to celebrate the maneuver. Instinctively he jerked his yoke, making the fighter twitch just as red laser fire burned past his upper wing. The Defender's computer obediently reported that his new foe was an X-wing just as more laser fire splashed against his aft shields.

    The Defender's shields absorbed the blow, but his HUD blinked red at him, letting him know that their ability to absorb damage had been stripped away. Sithspit! he thought, rocking the defender to shake the X-wing as he shunted all power aft. The pilot was damn good, and despite Hack's advantages in speed and maneuverability he still couldn't shake the mynock!

    He stamped his left foot to engage the etheric rudder and hauled back on the throttle, all while scanning for his adversary. As his ship rotated, lasers lashed out at his fighter again, making his HUD blink with the red report of combat damage.

    Instinctively he juked to the left then down to the right, spinning away. It ought to be impossible for any X-wing to follow him through that maneuver!

    Hack jerked in surprise as a fresh laser blast scorched his canopy, because how in all the nine hells of Corellia did anyone manage to anticipate him! He pushed hard on the controls, trying to—

    * * *​

    Tycho finished his upward spiral, letting loose a final burst of quad fire. Three of the four lasers slashed into the enemy Defender, shredding through the cockpit, and his target exploded. He flew through the fireball, then chopped his throttle to let his wingman leapfrog his position as he readjusted. "Take point, Two."

    "Copy, Rogue Leader," Alinn Varth responded. She dove straight back into the fray, targeting another TIE Defender, this one also menacing their B-wing squadrons. She wove through a debris field and zipped ahead, merrily stitching the second Defender with a chain of dual-linked fire.

    The fact that the enemy ship was not instantly destroyed said a lot about the advantages of the Defender over more traditional TIE designs, Tycho thought grimly, and added a surgical shot of his own to finish it off.

    Gate whooped in alarm. "Cover me, Two," Tycho ordered, then flicked over his HUD, allowing Gate to bring up the new alert.

    "You're all clear, Lead."

    Gate highlighted the change in status and Tycho's expression tightened.

    Commander Needa's voice came over the comm. "Report arrival three Imperial I-class Star Destroyers, all closing on Lusankya!"

    We didn't hear anything from Atril about detecting departures, Tycho thought, so they're not from Carida. "Gate, can you identify any of the Star Destroyers?"

    LEAD STAR DESTROYER IS GORGON, UNDER THE COMMAND OF ADMIRAL DAALA. LAST REPORTED IN THE DORIN SYSTEM BY ADMIRAL VANTAI.

    "Have we heard anything from Vantai since that report?"

    NO MESSAGES RECEIVED.

    Tycho sighed. "Understood."

    * * *​

    The arrival of three Imperial I-class Star Destroyers was not enough to turn the tide of the battle, but they were a welcome addition to his forces nonetheless. Daala's squadron had begun with four ships—Hydra was missing, and Pellaeon assumed the ship had been destroyed at Dorin—but the remaining three bored in-system towards Chimaera at flank speed, straight from hyperspace.

    Chimaera and Judicator were past Rising Tide now—the big Star Cruiser was still nipping at their heels, but her engine damage left her falling steadily behind—which meant the only threat left in front of them was the New Republic's fleet carrier Endurance. The stubborn ship and its remaining fighters were harassing his pair of Star Destroyers—even as Pellaeon stared out at Endurance, framed with the blue-green globe of Chazwa behind it, one of the New Republic's A-wings made a strafing run across Chimaera's hull, splashing lasers and missiles against his bridge shields—but Pellaeon ignored the noise. The real threat was Lusankya.

    The massive Super Star Destroyer was hard on their heels. It was already moving faster than Rising Tide and was still gaining speed, and if it caught any of his Star Destroyers in its tractor beams there would be little chance of escaping Chazwa's gravity well in one piece.

    "Can we get a communication to Admiral Daala?" he asked Lieutenant Tschel.

    His comms officer looked up at him, his expression twisted into a frown. "The jamming over there is so strong that it's hard to get anything at all, sir."

    That was the answer he had expected. He gazed at the combat plot and tried to divine Daala's decision-making. He didn't have to wait long. Manticore and Basilisk were on the offensive, exchanging probing volleys fire with Lusankya, attempting to bypass the bigger ship with their superior acceleration and join his main formation. If Pellaeon was right about their intention, the maneuver was intended to help Chimaera and Judicator destroy or break past Endurance, then head out past Chazwa to break out towards the hyper limit. But that strategy would only work if they didn't all get caught by Lusankya

    Now, where was Gorgon?

    With a precise gesture, he highlighted Daala's flagship on the plot. Gorgon was ringed with the red of combat damage—although the computers weren't sure how much damage, exactly—and she either couldn't or wasn't keeping pace with her sisters. And that wasn't all… there was something about the trajectory…

    "Sir, I believe Admiral Daala intends to ram Lusankya," Commander Dreyf said behind him, his eyes gazing at the same combat plot.

    Pellaeon looked between the two ships, checked the rest of the battle—out towards the edges of the system, Gonfalon and Exigent were preparing to jump to hyperspace, their sparring with Rebel Dream and the New Republic's fighters nearing a close—and then checked the trajectory again. "Alter our course five degrees to port and cut velocity to allow Judicator to take the point position. All starboard gunnery teams aboard both Star Destroyers prepare to engage Endurance as we pass. Tell engineering we're going to have additional combat, and that I want to go to hyperspace as soon as we can jump."

    "Sir?"

    "Gorgon came into the system with damaged sublights," Pellaeon explained, turning his attention back to Daala, and wishing that he had the ability to talk to her. "She must have taken combat damage breaking out of Dorin. She can't escape Lusankya, so Daala is saving the rest of us."

    * * *​

    Wedge swallowed with a suddenly dry throat as he watched Gorgon bear down on his flagship. The arrival of three new enemy Star Destroyers was bad news—not just for what it meant for this battle, but for what it implied about the outcome of the battle at Dorin—but the third of the new arrivals was either suicidal or desperate.

    "At its present velocity," Captain Kre'fey was saying, "a collision with Gorgon would not be fatal, and it doesn't appear she has the ability to build up much more speed. We can take the hit, sir. We're nineteen times her size, and by the time she reaches us she might not even be in one piece; our tractors can handle it."

    But even if that was true, the damage Lusankya sustained would likely knock the ship out of the rest of the campaign. "Your recommendation is noted, Captain," he said. "All guns, target Gorgon and open fire! Helm, reduce speed to avoid the worst of the collision, and rig for emergency tractors!" Lusankya's tractor beams ought to be able to deflect most of Gorgon's bulk; that plus the trajectory alteration should preserve his flagship's combat ability. He turned to Needa. "Get me Admiral Bell if you can. Order her to disengage at best speed!"

    Needa looked up with wide eyes and relayed the orders.

    Kre'fey vanished, his lyrical voice relaying Wedge's instructions to Lusankya's bridge crew. Through the port bridge windows Wedge could see the distant form of Gorgon, and then space filled with green light as the Super Star Destroyer opened up with all her forward guns that could bear.

    Gorgon did not break off. The Star Destroyer came closer and closer, shields burning away under fire. The Star Destroyer shed life pods and shuttles, all fleeing down towards the surface of Chazwa, while her remaining crew rolled their ship.

    Wedge waited, watched the plot, and judged his moment like the freight-handler and smuggler he'd once been.

    "Tractors, now!"

    Gorgon slowed slightly as she neared her final turn, her underside taking the full brunt of Lusankya's firepower, returning a drizzle of fire for the torrent she received. More escape pods flared out from the ship—Wedge assumed that was the last of the ship's crew evacuating—and then the entire Star Destroyer started to break apart. Debris crashed against the shields over Lusankya's prow, but most of Gorgon's remains shot past the Super Star Destroyer's nose and out the other side as they were redirected by Lusankya's massive tractor beam projectors.

    Lusankya shuddered from the impact, but Wedge's attention had already moved on. He stared out towards Endurance. "All ahead full!" he and Kre'fey barked at the same time, willing Lusankya to accelerate. If they could put on enough speed fast enough, maybe they could break out to help Endurance. The carrier was now engaged with both Chimaera and Judicator—fighting back with verve but now outgunned badly—and both Manticore and Basilisk were moving to engage her as well. There was no way Endurance would last long against four Star Destroyers…

    Wedge swept a control on his combat plot. Endurance grew to give him a better look, and he took in her port side and engines awash in flames as the carrier's own escape pods sloughed off her starboard side like a reptilian shedding its skin, while her guns barked defiantly back at her foes.

    Come on, Areta. Get to the pods!

    "Transmission from Endurance, sir!" Needa's voice was nearly frantic.

    Wedge stabbed his console, bringing up the message. "Admiral Bell, this is General Antilles. Evacuate, repeat, evacuate!"

    The image of Areta was staticky and showed little, but through the fuzz came occasional moments of clarity. Admiral Bell was stumped in a chair near a console, fires burning in the background as the holo shimmered with smoke. She was wounded—Wedge couldn't tell how badly—and her words came only with difficulty. " . . . skeleton crew on guns . . . snubfighter squadrons ordered to . . . still have proton torpedoes . . . "

    Endurance's remaining fighters engaged the remaining TIEs. As Wedge watched, Tycho and the Rogues—and the rest of his fighter contingent—raced after them, just now entering long-range proton torpedo distances. Tycho didn't hold back his fire; despite chances of a solid hit being low at this range, the Rogues shot a salvo of torpedoes, which raced out ahead of the slower snubfighters, hoping to score the hit that might save Endurance.

    They did not. Endurance took a full broadside from Chimaera's second pass, following closely on the heels of Judicator's volley. A flurry of turbolaser fire pounded into Endurance's wounded hull, blasting through the carrier's reinforced bulkheads and into the cavernous interior where fighters would be stored. Thankfully there were no fighters left aboard, but secondary explosions made themselves known as fuel and munitions stores were hit.

    There was an explosion somewhere behind Areta. She was still talking, but Wedge couldn't make out any of the words.

    When Chimaera was passed, Manticore and Basilisk took their turns on the stricken ship. Gorgon's sacrifice had cost Lusankya speed, and all Wedge could do was watch as the last two Star Destroyers ripped Endurance apart.

    "Areta!" Wedge's voice was thick with sorrow, because he'd known Areta Bell for years, she'd been at Hoth—

    " . . . been an honor . . . a drink for me in Coronet . . . until Corellia . . . "

    Endurance flared its engines and thrusters again in defiance before the almost brand-new ship broke apart and the communications feed went dead, Areta's staticky holo-image sputtering to fragmented noise. To his shock, Wedge realized that in his desperation to try to save Areta—and his knowledge that he could not—he had almost missed her parting gift. The carrier's prow, still mostly intact, plowed into Manticore's side. Where Gorgon's debris had been only a minor inconvenience for the much more massive (and more prepared) Lusankya, Endurance's remains sheared through armor, tearing a gaping wound in Manticore. Manticore shed shrapnel as a maelstrom of metal punctured her hull.

    Now beyond Chazwa and out of Wedge's reach, Chimaera, Judicator, and Basilisk escaped into hyperspace.

    For a brief moment, the bridge was silent around Wedge. He caught Sena's supportive gaze out of his left eye, and he choked back his agony and rage and spoke with cold deliberation. "Stations. Fighter command, kill that ship! Then report readiness for further action." He stroked his finger over his display, sweeping Endurance's profile off his screen. "There are other battles ongoing. If we move fast, we can still catch some enemy ships away from Carida. Once our fighters finish off Manticore, get them back aboard, rearm them, and turn them around again. We're going to hunt down and kill every Imperial ship in a three-sector radius!"

    Heartfelt acknowledgements rang around the bridge, Lusankya's fighters spun towards the dying Manticore, and Wedge stared over at the large sector map, searching for fresh targets.
     
    Chyntuck and Gabri_Jade like this.
  17. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
    Chapter 24

    New Republic Intelligence was still a young institution. Originally born out of the ad-hoc, awkward marriage of many different solo intelligence operatives, the Rebellion's intelligence apparatus had been a disorganized mess. Held together by the bravery and determination of many now-dead humans and aliens—not to mention by the memory of one Winter Retrac, who had for years substituted for a real computer mainframe—General Airen Cracken had spent the years after Endor professionalizing and organizing that disorganized mess into something that could compete on an even footing with Ysanne Isard.

    After the reconquest of Coruscant, Iella had walked by his side into the heart of Imperial Intelligence. Hidden away deep in the Imperial Palace—close to the Emperor but not too close to the Emperor—Isard's lair had been like the woman herself. Largely utilitarian, but with a brutalist edge that got more and more jagged the closer to the heart you got.

    Isard had booby trapped all of it. Clearing those traps and then restoring the facilities for NRI's use had taken years, but thanks to those efforts NRI now had access to an intelligence suite on par with the very, very best that even Imperial money could buy.

    Among those restored facilities was the galaxy's best chemical weapons analysis lab. (Although it wouldn't surprise Iella if the Hapans had a better one, what with all the palace intrigue among the higher echelons of the Hapan court.)

    Iella and Kapp waited in the lab's office, its receptionist droid watching them both with the rapt intensity that came with a security concern. Iella tried not to take its suspicions personally—all NRI droids were suspicious. That was part of their basic nature.

    The office was well-furnished, with a large interior glass wall that looked into the lab itself. On the other side, more droids were performing what appeared to be their basic functions, while a cluster of humans and aliens were clustered together, talking quietly.

    "Think they found anything?" asked Kapp.

    "Yerite isn't exactly common, even on Coruscant," Iella replied. "If we're lucky they'll find something we can use to trace it to its source."

    "And if they don't?"

    "Then we'll have to follow another lead."

    Kapp both sounded and looked uncertain. "I wouldn't be so sure we can find something. Certainly not before Colonel Carias can slip past the export checks—if he hasn't already—or the Municipals successfully lobby to lift them."

    "If he's already offworld," Iella replied, her tone lighthearted, "we'll just have to track him down offworld." She wondered if he could hear in her tone the words she didn't say. Even if that means waiting for Wedge to conquer Yaga Minor so we can go through every last Ubiqtorate file.

    From Kapp's tone, he did. "It won't be easy."

    "No," she agreed, keeping the same lighthearted tone. "It won't. But we'll do it anyway."

    Kapp went quiet and the conversation ended. On the other side of the glass, the techs and their droids continued their meeting, occasionally glancing at Iella and Kapp, then resuming their conversation with even more animation.

    The silence left Iella nothing to do but worry about Wedge.

    It wasn't just that he was going into danger. Wedge was an X-wing pilot. He'd flown against not one but two Death Stars. The fact that Wedge did terribly dangerous things—things even more dangerous than what she did for her own occasionally dangerous job—had produced more than a few of Iella's sleepless nights. The last time she'd been in a relationship it had been with Diric, and Diric had been safe and normal and she could count on him to have the caf made in the morning and to talk about work if she wanted to talk about work, or about sports or art if she wanted to talk about anything other than work.

    Wedge was neither safe nor normal.

    He was worth the nightmares, of course. She loved him too much to be put off by those; she had plenty of them, and only a few of them featured Wedge.

    Besides, Wedge wasn't going into battle in an X-wing cockpit. He was going into battle in a big, safe Super Star Destroyer, the biggest, most robust and well-defended ship in the whole New Republic.

    And the biggest target for the Empire to focus on.

    So she was still worried. While Wedge might be physically safer now, Iella knew better than most just how deeply every death among the Rogues cut into Wedge. She'd watched him work deep into the night, a half-empty glass of Whyren's Reserve sitting on his desk, writing condolence letters to the families and friends of his fallen pilots.

    In her nightmares, she didn't dream about Wedge not coming home. She dreamed about Wedge never leaving that desk.

    "Colonel Dendo, Agent Wessiri," a voice brought Iella out of her imagined unhappy future and back to the already unhappy present.

    At least in the present she had a clear objective. "What do you have for us?" she asked.

    There were three techs, led by a short, smartly dressed Selkath. Her large, flat head had two large eyes on either side, shallow nostrils paired together at the front of her head, and a pair of hanging lobes on either side of her wide mouth. Her skin was a gleaming, almost polished green, though it appeared at least somewhat dehydrated. Her fellows—a human and a Rodian—both stood aside to let her talk.

    "We have finished our examination of the chemical traces of Yerite found at the scene, as well as the samples taken from the deceased." The Selkath handed Iella a datapad; she glanced over it before handing it off to Kapp. "The best samples were those taken from Grand Moff Kaine. You were right about him being the entry vector for the weapon. He was infected with it about an hour before he started showing symptoms."

    "Is there any way of tracing the Yerite back to its source?"

    "Normally I would say no," the tech said. "But we may have at least something useful for you." She stepped behind the nearby desk and pressed a button, and dark shades fell over the glass window looking into the lab, hiding them from the view of the droids and techs that remained inside. Then she brought up a holoprojector, which displayed a series of chemical formulas. "I can't tell you where the Yerite was made. But in order to delay the activation of the Yerite, they had to combine it with another substance." She tapped on the holodisplay, and one of the formulas grew larger. "I'll spare you the technical name. This is a substance which is usually combined with flavors or intoxicants in a vape quill. It is used to delay the full effect, so that the flavor or intoxicant grows more effective with time. A very similar substance was found combined with the Yerite and allowed the poison to remain in Grand Moff Kaine's system long after his initial exposure." The Selkath's large, flat eyes blinked. "It also diluted the Yerite—that may have been why Councilor Organa Solo survived."

    But not Garm, Iella thought bitterly. "You can't track the Yerite itself, but you can track this additive?"

    "I believe so." The tech waved at the display and the chemicals vanished. In their place was a list of manufacturers—with nearly a hundred candidates—and their locations on Coruscant. "If the Yerite and the delayed release compound were brought from off-world, there's nothing we can tell you. But if they came from Coruscant, they came from one of these facilities." The Selkath blinked again, her hanging lobes swaying a bit. "If you give us another day, we may be able to narrow the search based on a comparison with their existing products."

    "Send the list to my datapad," Iella said, removing her secured pad from her pocket and plugging it into the display. "You work on narrowing it down on your end, and Kapp and I will see if we can narrow it down on ours. If we're lucky, we might actually have a lead."

    "I hope so," the tech said with a dire nod. "The Empire enslaved my world. Mon Mothma and Garm Bel Iblis helped free us. I can assure you, Agent Wessiri—we will not retire until we have uncovered every jagged stone."

    * * *​

    Iella Wessiri liked her office.

    When she'd served in CorSec she'd had a cubicle—which she'd shared with Corran—because space in Coronet City was always a luxury that few, including CorSec, could afford. After joining the Rebellion and becoming an asset on Coruscant, she'd gotten used to using a small office in the apartment she'd shared with Diric as her working space, but the lack of security and the constant fear of Imperial security sweeps had deprived her of the ability to sprawl.

    Her office in the Imperial Palace—hidden deep, deep within the NRI complex that occupied far more of the building than General Cracken would ever publicly admit—was an incredible gift. A large, sprawling rectangular space replete with holo-displays and data shunts, it had its own caf-maker (a gift from Wedge; he'd bought an identical model for the Rogues after being appointed Lusankya's commander and it had received high marks from the notoriously hard-to-please Rogues) and a circle of comfortable chairs (which she'd happily appropriated from the room's previous Imperial owners).

    On the long wall before her, she had detailed information on each and every one of the companies that could manufacture Yerite on short notice. She, Kapp, and Winter—who Iella had invited in the hopes that her holographic memory could help expedite the process—had been in that room for the last six hours, and they were on their third pot of caf.

    Kapp made a disgusted sound and put his fresh cup down. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but I think I'm sick of caf."

    Winter inhaled deeply. "I'm not. I cut myself off hours ago." She shook her head despondently. "No spring wine, limited caf… being pregnant is just a bundle of inconveniences."

    Iella barely heard them. She was staring at one of the last manufacturers on the list—one she had put aside as an unlikely option—and her heart was sinking. She traced her finger down the wall-unit, skimming through the list of details. "This is a biochemical manufacturer," she said aloud, more for her own benefit than for her comrades. "It makes a number of chemicals not dissimilar to Yerite—it would only take them a few hours to repurpose their machinery to produce a small quantity of Yerite, and it could be done without much fuss." She pursed her lips, frowning. "The same kind of plant was repurposed by the Wookiees during the uprising on Kashyyyk, before the attack on Subjugator."

    There was a shuffle of footsteps, and Winter came to stand beside her, leaning in for a closer look at the display. "It's a government contractor," she said after a minute. "That's why it was towards the bottom of our list of suspects."

    "Yes," Iella agreed unhappily. "It actually was one of the facilities that was repurposed to help fight the Krytos virus. They tried to develop non-bacta counteragents that would fight the virus, but never succeeded." She tapped the board. "Milked the government for a hefty number of credits though."

    Kapp scoffed, wincing as he drank some more of his caf, then sputtering. "Yuck," he muttered. "That's Coruscant. Half the manufacturers on the planet make their living by overbilling the government. That's been true for, oh, probably the last fifteen or twenty thousand years."

    Normally that would have elicited a laugh, but Iella wasn't in the mood for humor. "Two things stand out to me, looking at this display. First, the manufacturer is located in Argosy District—"

    "The heart of Black Sun on Coruscant," Winter hummed thoughtfully.

    "—and the second is this." Iella scrolled down further, to the list of reported products. "Take a look," she said, stepping back to let Winter look at the factory's sales figures.

    Winter's eyes narrowed as she focused, and Iella could almost see the way Winter's brain automatically took the visual input and compared it against everything in her memory. Not for the first time, Iella was both jealous of Winter's brain, and incredibly glad that she didn't possess it herself. "They can't possibly be making a profit if this is all they're selling," Winter concluded. "Not a chance. Even with the lower property and lease prices in Argosy District compared to other high-industrial parts of Coruscant, there's absolutely no way that the facility is profitable based on this alone."

    Kapp kicked his feet up, lounging in Iella's favorite chair. He was, Iella noted, at least careful to make sure he didn't do any damage to it with his horns. "That kind of tax evasion is a Municipal problem, not ours. Local businesses don't pay any taxes direct to the New Republic anyway."

    "In Argosy District, Black Sun is the Municipal government," Iella pointed out. "Or have you forgotten our little shootout with the Constabulary the last time we were in Argosy Distract?"

    "So what?"

    Iella looked over at Winter. "What do you think?"

    "If you're thinking that Carias used Black Sun to source his Yerite… you might be onto something," Winter said thoughtfully. "He'd have to go to a criminal element, and even on Coruscant it would be difficult to get on short notice—unless you used Black Sun, which is large enough and diverse enough in its business interests to have a finger in every pot." She frowned and spoke very carefully. "But… I was under the impression that Black Sun's leadership had agreed not to do this sort of thing."

    "I was too," Iella muttered. "Not that I trust Fliry Vorru farther than I can throw him."

    Winter waved at Kapp. "Get me everything we have on Black Sun's activities on Coruscant for the last six months. If they're involved, I'll find it."

    "Right."

    "Have you had any communication with Vorru since Linuri?" Winter asked Iella.

    That was a question that Iella could most definitely not answer. At least, not wholly. "I have a way of making him hear me," she said instead. "And I know that if he wants to talk to us, he can. But we haven't exchanged anything since… well, for a while."

    "I take it you'll want to be making him hear you now."

    "If we can prove that Black Sun was involved in the attack at the Molalla Astor? He'll hear me, Winter. Whether it's with words, a blaster, or an orbital bombardment, I promise Fliry Vorru will hear what I have to say." Iella shook her head. "Vorru wants me to believe that he's a Corellian patriot, but if he had any part of this, he's at least partially responsible for the death of one of Corellia's greatest heroes."

    "Ladies, you should see this," Kapp interrupted.

    "You found something already?"

    "No," Kapp shook his head. He picked up a commtroller and used it to activate one of the holodisplays, then flicked it over to one of the planetary news channels.

    "—of fighting throughout the galaxy. The Imperial HoloNet is newly reporting battles in the Orinda, Chazwa, and Bestine systems, with other reports still coming in. Repeat, the New Republic has launched a massive invasion into Imperial-held territory, with incursions reported from systems as far apart as Bespin and Columex—"

    Iella's heart stopped. Winter gripped her arm as she swayed with sudden fear, the two of them lured closer to the projected image.

    "—would appear this is in direct retaliation for the assassination of Senator Garm Bel Iblis. This is without a doubt the single largest military operation the New Republic has ever launched. Even the invasion of Coruscant and the attack on Bilbringi were not so ambitious. We're up to at least fifteen confirmed systems under attack by the New Republic. It would seem General Antilles is sending a message—"

    "—would not have launched this attack without approval from the New Republic's Provisional Council. You have to wonder, was Mon Mothma recovered enough to give her permission before this attack was underway? Or was this authorized by Councilor Fey'lya while—"

    "—we have a representative of the New Republic Defense Forces. General A'baht, deputy commander of the New Republic's First Fleet—"

    The image shifted. The tall, purple Dornean was sitting in front of a large Starbird emblem, gleaming crimson red, and wearing a perfectly tailored New Republic dress uniform. His long eyelashes and mustache were impeccably groomed. "I have a statement," A'baht announced. "The New Republic has commenced Operation Garm's Hammer. It has been made clear that elements within the Empire are not interested in peace with the New Republic, and that whatever the desires of the Moffs or the Starfleet, those elements are effectively in control of the Empire. They were willing to kill their own Grand Moff in order to prevent peace, and have left the New Republic no choice but to respond—"

    "Turn it off," Iella said, her voice hoarse and her stomach roiling, sour with stale caf and fear as she tried not to picture Wedge's body drifting in deep space. As she watched the light in Diric's eyes go out while the blaster hung heavy in her hand—

    Kapp flicked out a taloned finger and the holodisplay flickered out.

    The silence hung heavy for long, treacherous moments and neither Winter nor Kapp said a word.

    "Let's get back to work," Iella whispered.

    * * *​

    When Winter was done, the proof was well-nigh incontrovertible, Kapp was twitchy, and Iella had progressed from clammy fear to cold fury.

    Not only could Iella prove—prove—that the factory in question was owned by Black Sun, involved in the illegal production of at least three different contraband substances, and protected by the Coruscant Constabulary, but she had enough circumstantial evidence that it had been the source of the Yerite that had been used to poison Leia and Mon Mothma and kill Garm to convince her that she had the right place.

    While Kapp conferred with General Madine, the two of them planning everything from a circumspect raid to a series of major raids all through Argosy District, Iella prepared a very different line of attack.

    General Cracken had banned direct access to the HoloNet from any NRI computer ever since the HoloNet's vulnerability to infiltration had been revealed six months before, so Iella had to use one of NRI's secure comm centers to make the connection.

    "Record message using standard message encryption," she ordered.

    The screen blinked at her. MESSAGE RECIPIENT?

    "Iella Wessiri," Iella said.

    SUBJECT?

    "No subject."

    MESSAGE PROFILE PREPARED. YOU MAY BEGIN RECORDING.

    Iella leaned towards the holocam. "Fliry," Iella announced, with a smile like a vibroknife. "I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this, but it would seem your house has a borrat infestation. I'm not surprised, of course—given the company you keep your house is no doubt full of the pesky creatures—but this one seems to have escaped and started gnawing through your neighbors' walls." She dropped her voice to a low, whispery growl. "I know you consider yourself a patriot. You always claimed to be so proud of how our home prospered under your beneficent rule. I wonder, did you know your borrat was responsible for the death of one of our greatest heroes? Did you know your borrat had violated the terms of your lease?

    "Tell me—are you so bad at keeping order in your own house that you didn't even know your rat had escaped and bit the neighbors? Or did you know and decide that you weren't happy with our homeowner's contract and wanted to go to war with me?" She folded her arms across her chest. "Because I promise you, if you want a war, I will give you one.

    "So, now I am interested in your house. You tell me, when I come busting through the door, am I going to be fumigating the basement? Or am I going to be bringing a full tactical team and enough incendiaries to burn down the whole city block and wipe out the entire nest-hive?"

    She flicked her hand to end the recording. "Send message."

    MESSAGE SENT. YOU HAVE RECEIVED AN ENCRYPTED MESSAGE FROM IELLA WESSIRI. DO YOU WISH TO DECRYPT IT?

    "Delete message," she ordered, and tossed the datapad into the recycler.

    * * *​

    "Is it done?" Winter asked as Iella returned to her office.

    Iella nodded. "It's done. I know Black Sun keeps tabs on my HoloNet communications, which is why I don't send any messages under my own name anymore. Even with the encryption, Vorru is probably already viewing it."

    "Good."

    Winter's voice sounded funny. It took Iella's hazy, exhausted mind a minute to realize that was because the white-haired woman was crying. "Winter!" she gasped in surprise, taking Winter's arm. "Are you alright?"

    Winter just nodded a few times. "Yes." She offered a genuine smile through her tears as she showed Iella the most recent message on her wristcomm. "Leia is awake!"

    * * *​

    The first thing Leia saw was a smear of light, red and glaring against the inside of her eyelids. Flailing, attempting to breathe brought the confused combination of resistance and weightlessness, and it took her dazed brain far too long to fight past her fear to the logical conclusion.

    She was in a bacta tank.

    Again.

    The slight metallic taste from the mouthpiece that covered her nose and mouth, the somehow pervasive itching sensation where the bacta stimulated healing, and the sense of floating weightlessness were all sure confirmations that she was, indeed, in a bacta tank. This wasn't new, after all—Leia had spent time in bacta tanks during the years of Rebellion. Once, as a child after a particularly nasty fall, Bail and Breha had taken her to the medical center, and instead of a salve or a patch the doctors had decided that it would be easiest to do a quick dip. At the time, she'd loved it—the novelty of the experience, the sense of weightlessness—but since then the preciousness of bacta meant that every time she used so much as a drop of the stuff, she felt a sense of extreme guilt.

    Why was she in a bacta tank? Bacta should be reserved for the people who really needed it, people like—

    Garm!

    Suddenly she had to get out of the tank. She flailed, waving her arms and legs to get the attention of the 2-1B or medic that had to be keeping an eye on her, waving her limbs. After a minute, there was a heavy, pounding sound, followed by the muffled sound of evacuation as the bacta drained from the tank.

    She sputtered as two pairs of arms helped her out of the tank, detaching the mouthpiece and draping her with a large, fluffy towel. She wiped her eyes, the reddish glare returning to blurry vision. It was a hospital room—Manarai Medical Center, if she wasn't mistaken—and there was an odd, warm tingling sensation in her fingers and toes, almost like they were held too close to an open flame. "Take it easy, Councilor," an unfamiliar voice said, the two pairs of arms settling her down onto a chair as her eyes adjusted. "It'll take a few minutes for everything to get back to normal. You might feel some tingling, that's the last of the counteragent neutralizing the Yerite."

    Leia found that speaking was difficult. So was breathing. And moving in general. It took her twice the amount of time she should have required to gather her wits to speak, but she was proud to find that despite the effort her voice was rock steady. "Councilor Bel Iblis?"

    "Garm is dead, Leia," said Mon Mothma's distinctive, soothing tones, thick with sorrow.

    "Mon? What are you doing here?" She blinked, her vision resolving to reveal the New Republic's Chief of State, flanked by a half-dozen bodyguards and as many doctors.

    "I was also wounded in the attack. I'm fine, Leia," Mon Mothma continued, preempting Leia's next, panicked question. "But it's taken some time to recover from my injuries. You're out of bacta earlier than we expected, actually. How do you feel?"

    "Sluggish," Leia said with a groan. "Exhausted."

    "I've called Han, he'll be here as soon as he can. He's moved your children to the Senatorial Skyhook for added security."

    Leia frowned. That didn't make any sense. "My children?" The attack had been on the negotiations, not on her children— "Is Grand Moff Kaine dead? Are we back at war?"

    "Leia," Mon Mothma's voice was soft, and Leia really looked at her for the first time, her gaze focusing on the face of the New Republic's Chief of State. Mon Mothma looked as tired as Leia felt—Leia had never seen her look so weak—and had a bacta patch affixed securely to the back of her neck. "At the same time the Molalla Astor was attacked, someone, we think ISB, maybe the Inquisitorius, made an attempt on the lives of Han and your children."

    "What?" The words still didn't make any sense. When they did make sense, Leia felt her soul nearly flee her body, as if it could be carried away to her children, where she could see them and protect them and—

    "They're all right," Mon Mothma reassured her. "Han and Chewbacca were both wounded, but Winter and the twins are fine." She took Leia's hand. "One of your Noghri guards was killed."

    That had to be Mobvekhar. Cakhmaim had been with Iella. "And Kyp?" asked Leia.

    "He's also fine," Mon Mothma said, although there was a hint of hesitation, as if she had to remember the answer before providing it.

    Leia could feel her instincts at war with each other, pulling her in every direction at once. The Councilor wanted to ask about the negotiations, the state of the Concordat, and the war. The wife wanted to ask about Han and her children, about Chewbacca and Winter, wanted to extract herself from this hospital and go see them right that instant because what else could a woman who had just been told that someone had tried to kill her children do?

    She reached out with the Force and found, to her relief, that it was all too easy to pick out her children. Even in the smeared morass of endless life that was Coruscant, Jacen and Jaina were impossible to miss, and her bond to them was an unbreakable one. She felt two, twinned little minds suddenly brighten with excitement, reaching out for their mother, making the lives of their minders that much more difficult… and they were close, they were nearby! They were only a few—

    "Leia," Han said, his voice husky with unshed tears.

    And then she was in his arms, and her children were between them, and Chewbacca and even Mon Mothma joined the embrace, and Leia sagged against her husband and buried her head in the crook of his neck and did her best not to cry.

    She failed, and her family held her closer.

    * * *​

    "So you think Colonel Carias is responsible," Leia said.

    She was exhausted, and she missed their old quarters. She liked the new apartment—she liked it rather a lot, actually, with its incredible view of Coruscant below, and the enhanced security offered by distance from potential threats—but it wasn't the place she was used to calling home, and there was an odd sense of loss as she'd missed the chance to walk through the Palace one last time.

    It didn't help that Kyp was gone. She'd gotten used to having him around. Being told about what he had done in her absence, how he had saved the lives of her husband, adopted sister, and children, gave Leia a powerful desire to see and thank the young man. She felt his absence keenly, just like Mobvekhar's… and the collection of new Noghri and Wookiee bodyguards felt somehow intrusive in a way that Mobvekhar and Cakhmaim had not been.

    "Yes, I do," said Iella Wessiri. "In fact, at this point I think it's something of a certainty. And we're also certain that the Yerite they used to attack the conference was obtained with the help of Black Sun's Coruscanti Vigo."

    The tingling sensation had finally subsided, and while Leia still felt a little uneasy—like her body was slightly miscalibrated, struggling to find its natural rhythm as it relied on hazy muscle memory—she was feeling stronger than she had at the hospital.

    "What do we do?" asked Leia tiredly. "It seemed like Vorru was keeping up his end of the bargain we made until now."

    "I've sent him a message," Iella said evasively. "When he gets back to me—if he gets back to me—we'll know more about how to respond. In the meantime, I've got Kapp running surveillance on known Black Sun facilities on Coruscant while I work to identify where Carias might be hiding."

    Leia nodded. "And politically?"

    "The Provisional Council responded to the attack by coming together," Winter said. "They ordered General Antilles to intensify his plans and stage a direct attack on the Empire." Her lips pressed together with worry. "We received word that the attack is underway a few hours ago. Reports are hazy, but there are battles going on right now in at least a dozen star systems."

    Leia sagged in her chair, feeling her strength leave her. "This is exactly what we wanted to avoid," she murmured.

    "Yes," agreed Winter softly. "But that isn't our fault. This is ISB's doing."

    "What else?"

    "We have another draft of the Concordat," Winter said after a moment. "We found an annotated draft on Garm's datapad. It's already making the rounds among the Provisional Council. There are many on the Council who find his suggestions more amenable now, than they would have if he'd been alive to make them himself." She shook her head. "The power of a martyr."

    "I'm sick of martyrs!" spat Leia with sudden fire. "I'm sick of holding up dead friends as tools to rally people. I'm sick of it!" The anger in Leia's own voice had surprised her, and she took a slow, calming breath. "What about the Empire? How is it responding to Kaine's death?"

    "No one's sure," Iella said, folding her arms together. "But it would appear that ISB and the Inquisitorius are playing a key role behind the scenes now."

    "Then there is no chance of peace," Leia said, heartbroken. She thought about Kaine, about the agony and surprise in his eyes as he died. She hadn't liked him—she'd hated him, even—but it was clear in hindsight that, for whatever reason, he had been genuinely committed to the project of peace.

    She hadn't liked him. But just now she missed him terribly.

    Iella's voice was apologetic but firm. "No, I don't think so."

    Leia let that sink in. She weighed it slowly, turned it over in her mind and gazed at it. She worked her way through all the implications. She thought of Garm.

    She accepted it.

    "So be it." Leia sat up, energy restored as a righteous fire burned like a furnace within her. "We will end this war, one way or another. And we will hold responsible every selfish, evil person who is willing to treat lives like kindling to feed the fires of their own ambitions. We will do this and all the other things not because we want to, or because we have no alternative. We will do it because it is right."
     
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  18. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
    Chapter 25

    Mara wondered when exactly it was that she'd started running a passenger service.

    One of the best parts of working for Karrde, especially now that the Smugglers' Alliance was operating like a well-oiled—well, an occasionally-oiled machine—was that she didn't have to deal with people much. The first few months had been an almost unbearable parade of dignitaries and senators bartering for her service (or smugglers she needed to persuade to sign on). She was good at it—surprisingly, she really was—but she found it stressful and exhausting, not to mention deeply frustrating. But once operations had settled into place and their customers had become confident with the automation—and once Mara and Karrde had acquired the small army of droids to help with managing both people and computers—she had stopped feeling like she was being pulled in a hundred different directions at once.

    It wasn't that she didn't like people. She liked people just fine. She just … preferred to be alone, most of the time. Or with Luke. Alone with Luke. Was that really too much to ask?

    Right now, she had Luke—he was handing her a steaming cup of hot caf, with exactly the right proportions of caf and sugar that she liked and would never, ever admit she preferred—and there was still something bizarrely wonderful about that. From the co-pilot's seat he smiled at her as she sipped the concoction that made mornings tolerable, and that smile evoked a warmth in her chest that had nothing to do with the heat of the caf.

    But Luke wasn't the only person aboard. Kyp was sitting in one of the bridge's passenger seats, peering out the forward window and watching the stars spin. In the common space behind the bridge, Kam was cleaning up the galley to the incessant (very good, but ever-present) music from Tionne's double-viol, sometimes with choral accompaniment. Her droid, Slips, beeped unhappily at having been made to give up his co-pilot job to Luke, and exchanged a series of incomprehensible beeps with Artoo.

    Her neat ship had become a menagerie.

    "Are we there yet?" Luke asked.

    Drawn from her musings, she lifted her eyes to Luke. "You know we are," she replied, indicating the ComScan board with a flick of an eyebrow.

    Luke merely smiled. "Yes, but—" he took her hand in his, either ignoring or not noticing the way Kyp watched as he turned her hand over and kissed her palm "—asking you got your attention."

    She felt him reaching out in the Force. The bond between them strengthened as he followed the thread that connected them, his mind taking up residence next to her own. If someone had told her that she would desire a mental connection with the kind of deep intimacy of the one she shared with Luke, she would have said they were insane. But now she had that kind of intimacy, and she couldn't imagine losing it.

    "I'm going to need both hands when we come out of hyperspace," she said with mock annoyance, but her tone was a lie and they both knew it.

    "How long, Artoo?" Luke asked. His droid whistled in response, a quick but not particularly complicated communication that even Mara understood without need for translation.

    "Three minutes," supplied Kyp from the back.

    The reminder of Kyp's presence killed the romance, and Mara found herself again wishing that she and Luke could have her ship to themselves. Giving her a wry look that said he understood, Luke released her hand. She put it back on her ship's controls and concentrated on the navicomputer as they raced towards the Yavin system.

    Tempered Mettle erupted into realspace, the spinning white of hyperspace stretching into cylinders and then into the blackness of their destination. The bright green dot of Yavin 4 was ahead of them, rapidly growing in size as they approached it at near-lightspeed, decelerating as they finished the transition to realspace.

    A sudden icy chill washed over her, and Mara went rigid. On the planet below she could sense malice, alive and fresh with energy even as it rotted within. And all around her, in space above the planet, she could feel—

    Luke was doubled over next to her, grimacing. "This wasn't how it felt the last time I was here… or I wasn't attuned enough to the Force to feel it." He shook his head, his expression bearing both the green of an upset stomach and something that went far deeper. "We just passed through the remains of the Death Star."

    Mara nodded, biting her lip. "A lot of people died," she murmured.

    Behind them, Kyp either wasn't attuned enough to the Force to feel the full effects of what they had, or he had recovered quicker. "A lot of Imps died," he corrected.

    Luke prevented the exchange from any potential escalation by bringing their attention back to the matter at hand. "You can feel the presence down on the surface too?" he asked her.

    "Yeah," she muttered.

    "I was right," Luke said, his voice laden with regret. "It's linked to the… wound… we just passed through." He sighed heavily. "I did wake him up."

    "Stop blaming yourself," Mara said hotly. "What were you going to do, not blow up the Death Star?" She shook her head. "Let's see if we can do this the easy way. Kyp, go get Tionne and the Holocron—I have a question for it."

    "I don't think there is an easy way," Luke said doubtfully.

    "We'll find out. Start trying to find the center of that Dark Side presence down on the surface. Artoo, bring up the main gun and find us our target."

    Kyp was settling back into his chair when Kam and Tionne arrived behind him. Kam, like Luke, was dressed in a cream-colored Jedi outfit, with nondescript brown desert-like robes hanging loosely around his limbs. Tionne, by contrast, wore a somewhat flamboyant outfit in neon colors, which she now paired with a blaster-resistant vest festooned with an impressive, seemingly oversized blaster rifle that Mara had given her. Between the rifle and her instrument case, Mara wasn't sure how she could possibly carry everything, but she didn't seem concerned about the burden. In her hands was the glowing blue cube of the holocron.

    The holocron sprouted a Jedi image almost before Tionne was fully inside Tempered Mettle's cockpit. "What is it you intend?" asked the projected form of Jedi Master Vodo Siosk-Baas.

    "We're going to find that Sith Temple you spoke of and blast it from orbit," Mara said as the ship's main gun reported that it was fully charged.

    "Oh, that's a good idea!" said Tionne. "It's always better to provoke a millennia-old Sith spirit from a distance." She shrugged. "At least, that would make sense to me. It's true of drunks."

    "I don't know…" Luke still sounded doubtful. "I doubt it's going to be that easy."

    "I do not know where Exar Kun's temple is located," Master Vodo said. "I never visited this world. Master Sunrider would know best."

    He faded, and was replaced by the graying, familiar form of Jedi Master Nomi Sunrider. "On the planet's northern hemisphere, on the larger of the two main continents, very near the center of its central longitudinal line. There is a series of mountains and a large valley spotted with small rivers. There were a number of Massassi temples; some ancient, some newer."

    Luke nodded. "The largest of those temples was a base for the Rebellion," he explained to the Jedi echo. "That's where the Rebel Alliance massed its forces before the Death Star attacked."

    Mara watched the planet loom larger, angling the ship to orbit the planet. Once the ship's course was set, she turned the controls over to Slips. "See anything yet, short stuff?" she asked Artoo.

    The droid whooped in response.

    "He's found the old Rebel Base," Luke translated. "The Great Temple. It was damaged during our retreat—the Empire was all over us after the Battle of Yavin."

    "Can you help us find Exar Kun's temple?" Mara asked.

    Nomi Sunrider frowned. "Yes, but I doubt destroying it will also destroy Exar Kun. It should be the last temple on a row laid out with the Great Temple at its point of origin. It's located in the center of a small lake."

    "Find it, Artoo," Mara ordered.

    Artoo blatted at her. She knew from growing experience that his response meant something close to "You already told me that."

    "The foothills of the third mountain of the range," Luke murmured, tracing his hands over a projected holo of Yavin's topography. "In the middle of a small lake… there are a lot of lakes down there, but most of them are quite overgrown."

    "It's just one giant jungle," Tionne complained, leaning on her double-viol while they all examined the map. "You can't see much of anything."

    "Yes," Nomi agreed. "And what we are looking for may be hidden by the Dark Side."

    Artoo blatted again, then whooped. A wireframe structure resolved itself on the ship's targeting display, the ship's targeting scanners already calculating an optimal firing trajectory for Tempered Mettle's main gun.

    "I must urge caution," Nomi said urgently. "When we came here after the war, we found no evidence of Exar Kun's presence. If he has awoken now, after so much time has passed, he has done at least two different things the Jedi of my time would have thought impossible. We have no idea what he is capable of."

    "That's why we're going to try this before going down there," Mara replied curtly. But, despite her words, she looked over at Luke. His expression was tight and uncertain, but he gave her a firm nod.

    Mara wasn't going to wait for him to change his mind. She sighted her ship's spinal turbolaser on the structure—even on a monitor, even from orbit, she could feel a sensation of sickly rot—and she fired.

    The bolt of green turbolaser fire launched down towards the planet, precisely targeted, and—

    Pain.

    Had Mara not been sitting down she would have been hammered to her knees. She almost hit her chin on the console in front of her as she doubled over in agony; beside her she could see Luke jerk in his chair. She could hear the others in equal pain, and she could hear something else, something that slammed her telepathically, a chorus of tortured screams…

    It passed, and she gripped the chair and forced herself back under control. "What in all the nine Corellian hells was that?" she gasped.

    "I… I don't know," Luke panted beside her, still trembling from the sudden shock.

    They both glanced towards the Holocron, but Nomi Sunrider's projected form was gone. Tionne was clutching the cube in her hands, and as they watched a flickering blue started to return to its more typical slow pulsing—though no ancient Jedi Master emerged to offer them counsel.

    "I take it back," Tionne groaned. "Closer is gonna have to be better. Did we destroy the temple?"

    Mara blinked at her panel, but it was Artoo's weary moan that said it all. She shook her head in astonishment. "We didn't even scratch it. So much for the easy way."

    * * *

    It took about thirty minutes for the Holocron to return to normal and Nomi Sunrider to re-emerge. She had no more idea than Mara did what had caused the psychic surge, but she agreed that whatever it had been, it was best not to make it happen twice.

    "It was a good idea," Luke assured Mara, his hand on her back. "But I agree, let's not try that again."

    "That leaves us with landing and going to the Temple on foot," Mara said. Without a real plan, hoping we can find some solution to this problem, after it just demonstrated how much power it has at its disposal.

    "We'll need a place to land then," Luke agreed. "I know we can set down at the Great Temple. It's easily got enough space for the ship. I don't see many other places with clearings large enough, and none close by."

    "Exar Kun's temple was not within easy walking distance of the Great Temple," Nomi cautioned.

    "Great," Mara muttered. "Well, it may not be within easy walking distance of the Great Temple, but Luke is right, I'm not seeing anywhere else to put down. We just have to make the hike. Are you able to guide us through the jungle once we're on the ground?"

    "I … think so," Nomi said cautiously, sounding much less confident than Mara would have preferred. "But it will be a journey of several days, and if Exar Kun has been at work on this world for millennia, he may be well-prepared for our arrival. It will not be an easy journey."

    "No, it won't," said Luke, but despite the dire words his voice was confident. "But if it were easy, we wouldn't have to be here."

    * * *

    Tempered Mettle
    set down in the middle of a long-abandoned hangar which Luke remembered all too well.

    He hadn't spent much time at the Rebel Base on Yavin 4—there hadn't been much time, given that the Death Star had been coming in behind him—but despite the brevity, his memories of the base were etched clearly into his mind. It wasn't that far from where they'd landed, that he and Artoo had settled into his X-wing for the very first time.

    Artoo rolled down Tempered Mettle's cargo hatch, towing two backpacks behind him. He whooped at Luke, released his pincer grip on the bags and left them at Luke's feet, then turned to wheel back up the ramp.

    Chuckling, Luke took one of the packs and checked it over. It was, he was unsurprised to see, stocked with supplies for a several-day overland trip. "I'm tempted to leave one of us here," Mara said as she walked down in the wake of Artoo's passage. "That way we can use the ship for combat support if we encounter anything smaller than a Dark-infused temple."

    "We'll leave Artoo," Luke suggested. "We know well that he's trouble in a forest, and Yavin is more treacherous than Myrkr was. If we need him, he and Slips can fly Tempered Mettle and offer us some heavy firepower. They might not be able to land her, but…"

    "Point," she sighed, bringing down the goggles she wore to cover her eyes with their protective lenses. "I'm guessing it will be three days' travel."

    Luke nodded unhappily. "Maybe two if we're lucky. More if we're not."

    Mara stepped nearer, lowering her voice. "I know Kam can handle himself, and Tionne's confidence suggests she's as tough as she looks. But are you sure bringing Kyp is a good idea?"

    Luke turned away from the hangar interior and peered out towards the jungle. Yavin didn't feel like Vjun had—Vjun had been smothered in ancient pain and loss, dripping with agony as surely as it was wet with rain. Yavin did not have that same overt sensation. And yet…

    And yet there was something Dark here. Something waiting for them. Something that had been waiting for the arrival of a Jedi for a long, long time.

    "He's not trained in overland travel," Mara continued. "He's not bad with a blaster, and his danger-sense is strong, but—"

    "But there's more out there that's a threat to us than the jungle predators," Luke finished.

    Mara just nodded.

    "I don't see that we have any choice." He lowered his voice. "From what Han and Winter said, he's already touched the Dark Side once—"

    "Twice, at least," Mara corrected. At his inquisitive look, she sighed. "On Kessel, when we were making our escape, he killed Arb Skynxnex. There's no doubt Skynxnex deserved it, and if Kyp hadn't done it I was getting ready to do it myself, but Kyp didn't kill Skynxnex because he needed to. He killed him because he wanted to."

    Luke firmed his lips. "Right," he agreed. That had been, in fact, one of the reasons Han had asked Luke to train Kyp in the first place. "Pass on what you have learned," his masters had instructed him. Kyp was his first true apprentice, not counting Leia (and her apprenticeship was still half-hearted at best). He had the distinct impression that he was losing his grip. "We still have to bring him with us," he decided. "He needs training."

    "I know we do," Mara agreed. "We can't leave him on the ship alone with the droids, not with whatever evil is lurking on this planet."

    She stopped talking as Kam, Tionne, and Kyp came out of the cargo hold together. Kam and Tionne had their own packs—Kam's was enormous, matching his frame, and Kyp had a hefty pack of his own, while Tionne was clutching both her pack and her double-viol case—and Tionne also had the holocron, which was currently glowing a light, transparent blue.

    "I'll seal up the ship," Mara said, jogging back up the ramp. "Hop down, everyone," she ordered, and they stepped off the ramp and then it rose up to seal the cargo hold shut. The humming of the ship stopped as Mara disengaged most of her systems, then the locking seals engaged with a click.

    Tionne gazed around the hangar. "The Rebel Base was here?" she asked, with the same awe that Luke had felt upon his first arrival to this base. "I've heard stories, but I never expected to visit. All the songs I've heard don't do it justice… I'm going to have to write a few new ones."

    Mara emerged from the front of the craft, sealing the passenger ramp behind her. "All locked up," she announced. "Artoo says good luck." With a nod at the others, she started to walk towards the yawing exit, an endless expanse of green ahead of them.

    * * *

    The intent had been for Kyp to continue his training on the trip, but as his barely-worn combat boots squelched through the muck, it quickly became clear that most of their attention would have to be focused on simply moving. The paths that had once connected the network of temples had long ago been overgrown, and while the Rebellion had attempted to clear those paths, it had done so only halfheartedly.

    Mara and Tionne blazed the trail. Mara held a long vibroknife that she used to carve away errant branches and vines, dotting signature trees with distinctive markings, while a datapad strapped to her left bracer offered them basic directions. The guardians of the Holocron in Tionne's possession occasionally chimed in as well. Beside him, Luke was still trying to make best use of the time they had, encouraging Kyp to use his Force-sense to keep track of the animals that proliferated through the jungle. It was difficult, but Kyp was getting better at focusing his senses to identify individual animals out of the blanket of life draped all through the jungle.

    Kessel had been dark and dry and mostly flat; Yavin 4 was bright and wet and there was always a tree root or a small hill to climb over or through. His tunic was soaked with sweat, and he was acutely aware that the rest of their party did not appear as physically strained as he felt.

    Luke leaned towards him. "Concentrate on the Force," he encouraged quietly. "And think about your muscles. Call its light to your aches and tiredness."

    He nodded breathlessly. The blanket of life was also heavy with the Force, with potential and energy, and it was far easier to do what Luke suggested than it would have been a few months earlier.

    He felt a little better.

    His legs still hurt a lot.

    "Where did you get that map, anyway?" Tionne asked Mara cheerfully, holding the dimly-glowing blue Holocron in both her hands. Her breathing was heavier than Mara's, but she didn't look as tired as Kyp felt.

    "I got it from General Madine," Mara replied, sounding as calmly composed as ever. Kyp had never seen her any other way. "Before we left Coruscant I asked him for everything the Rebellion had on Yavin."

    "Good thinking," Luke said. He and Kam had left the heavier brown cloak that finished their Jedi ensembles behind with the ship and were dressed in the lighter adventuring tunics. The lighter colors of the tunics were already smeared with green and brown from the trip, but Luke didn't seem overly bothered. "This reminds me of Endor. I wish we had thought to bring speeder bikes."

    "Even if we did, I wouldn't want to try to use one in this terrain," Mara replied. "The density of the trees is too tight, and the ground is pretty uneven. It would be a treacherous ride."

    "Threepio talks about Endor sometimes," Kyp said. He could hear the fatigue in his own voice and was annoyed at how composed the others sounded by comparison—even Tionne! Searching for glitterstim on Kessel had been difficult and dangerous, but not a contest of drawn-out endurance. Something else the Empire had stolen from him. "He says Endor was the most treacherous planet he ever visited."

    "Threepio says that about every planet," Luke said with a laugh. "Myrkr was worse."

    Mara shot Luke a look that Kyp didn't quite understand. Luke just smiled innocently at her in response.

    "Once," Tionne groaned as she stumbled over a particularly well-hidden tree root, "I was scheduled to give a performance at some dive on Wor Tandell. My rented speeder broke down in the outer wilds and I had to lug this thing—" she knocked on the case containing her double-viol "—on foot down a jungle path until a nice passer-by offered to give me a ride."

    "You could have left it on the ship," Mara said dryly.

    "It's all I've got left of Gram-Gram! I could never let it out of my sight. Besides, I might need it!"

    Kyp doubted that the instrument would be much use in the jungles of Yavin, but he understood the sentiment. If I had anything left of my family beyond fading memories, I'd want to keep that too.

    From the amused grin Luke was wearing, he suspected the Jedi agreed—but Luke didn't say anything, so he didn't either.

    "Wor Tandell," Mara mused. "I've been there."

    "You have?" Tionne asked with surprise.

    Mara nodded. She glanced over at Luke, and at his curious expression she sighed and continued, bracing herself on a tree as she stepped carefully. "The planet's Imperial governor was assassinated a few years before the Battle of Yavin. Palpatine sent me to find out what had happened—it was one of my first off-world missions."

    "What did happen?" asked Luke curiously.

    "His aide was a Rebel agent," Mara explained. "He caught the aide stealing information on Imperial fleet movements and assignments. The aide shot him and escaped." She grimaced. "Part of the test was I had to find out what happened, without letting anyone on the planet find out I was there—not even Imperials. It took me two days to travel on foot through the Wor Tandell jungle to Governor Cuvir's secure compound, infiltrate it, investigate, then get back out again."

    "You hunted down a Rebel?" Kyp asked. He was surprised by the fire in his own voice, he realized, and even more surprised by the swell of anger roiling his stomach. She served the Empire, a quiet voice reminded him, tone dark with anger. She served the Emperor. How can Luke trust her?

    Mara's face froze, and Kyp could feel Luke open his mouth, preparing to play conciliator, but Mara's hesitation lasted only a moment. When she continued, replying before Luke could step in, her tone was even, as if asked an easy question. "No, that wasn't part of my mission," she said. "He had escaped before I arrived."

    Is that supposed to make it better? The voice whispered. She didn't kill that one Rebel. How many did she kill? She's insinuated herself into the very heart of the New Republic. How can she ever be trusted?

    Luke's discomfort was obvious and growing, but once again his was not the voice that spoke. Kam Solusar didn't talk much, but when he did it was usually with a booming, resonant voice, charismatic and full of presence. His voice now lacked all that presence, small and pained, despite his obvious lack of fatigue—like Mara and Luke, he appeared largely unaffected by their extended hike. "I found Olee Starstone in a place like this."

    "Who?" asked Tionne curiously.

    "She was a Padawan—a Jedi apprentice," Kam explained heavily. "After the purge, she was able to escape into hiding. She stayed hidden for years, living a normal life, until she used her Force abilities to resolve some kind of disagreement on Duunir—some dispute between a smuggler and his buyers. The smuggler sold information about her to the Inquisitorius, and I was sent after her."

    They all slowed to a halt. Kyp stared at Kam, astonishment and understanding dawning as he realized what Kam was admitting to. Tionne, by contrast, had a confused expression, her head tilted to the side as she regarded Kam. "You know other Jedi?" she asked. `

    Kam's expression tightened, and he looked down. "No."

    Tionne's eyes widened. "O-oh."

    "Kam has lived a difficult life," Luke explained, his voice full of compassion and forgiveness and it made Kyp sick to his stomach, like the time Han had brought home a large bag of fluff-crunchies. They'd been delightfully sweet—an extreme rarity in Kyp's life on Kessel, whenever sweets had been smuggled into the mines it had been an event—and Kyp had eaten them until his stomach was agony. "He and Mara were both impressed into service with the Empire from very young ages and freed themselves after the Emperor died."

    "Palpatine," muttered Mara.

    Does that make it acceptable? the voice whispered to Kyp. Does that make what he did any less terrible? Any less evil? Should we be so forgiving of murder? Maybe Olee Starstone would have helped destroy the Empire or freed the Wookiees. Maybe she would have made sure Han and Leia and Chewie and Jacen and Jaina and Winter were all safe and taught me better. After all, Kam and Mara weren't there to save our lives when ISB attacked us, were they? No. They were off with Luke dealing with something his father left behind when he served the Empire.

    "I've always been fond of redemption stories," Tionne mused, still watching Kam. Kyp couldn't understand how her expression could be so free of judgment, her voice so lighthearted—but her silvery gaze was intense. "Which of us hasn't fallen off the walking bridge on the main street in Vasstin City, panicked and splashed around frantically, getting everyone wet until a kindly passer-by helped us out of the canal?" The words were ridiculous; Tionne's tone was deadly serious. "We regain our dignity and get right back on the bridge, watching our footing more closely this time."

    "That doesn't make it right," said Kam, his voice still quiet.

    "It is a special provenance of the Dark," said the Holocron, with Vodo-Siosk Baas' voice. His image projected, a shimmering blue, and the voice in Kyp's head went quiet as he spoke. "To twist and confuse. To make it impossible to see the difference between true and false, right and wrong, selfish and selfless. It is in the moment of confusion that Darkness is most seductive to those of good intentions, but untested tempers."

    "Hatred," added Nomi Sunrider, "can blind you with a gilding of false righteousness."

    Somehow that made Kyp even angrier than everything else that had already been said. Was it not righteous to hate the Empire for all it had done? To him, to his family? The Empire had stolen his brother and taken him off to Carida to serve its evil. The Empire had tried to kill his adopted siblings, only because they had a gift! His hatred wasn't blinding, his hatred was cast with clear eyes!

    "We should stop for the night," Mara said, pointing towards a stretch of mostly flat land. "The map says that land won't sink on us if we put a tent on it, and we're about a day from Exar Kun's temple. If we get a good night's rest and an early start, we should arrive by afternoon."

    "All right," agreed Luke. He rested his hand on Kam's back reassuringly, a gesture that made Kyp's ire flare yet again. Who deserved compassion, he thought witheringly—the killer? Or the victims? Olee Starstone wasn't here for a reassuring pat on the back and a kind look!

    Calm, the voice whispered. If they see my rage, they will watch me more closely. I must not raise their suspicions.

    Kyp frowned. For a moment all his anger fled as he interrogated that wayward thought. Why would he need to worry about raising their suspicions? But then thought seemed to slide back out of his mind, and he stopped worrying about it.

    * * *

    Kyp stewed silently as he helped the others assemble shelters for the night. The process was made easier by Kam, who single-handedly managed to assemble one of the shelters while the rest of them put up the other. They were nothing fancy, just surplus survival gear from the Rebellion days, but the group took solace from Luke's sense of ease as he took in the faded military brown walls of their shelters.

    Kyp had thought that Coruscant's skyhook was the most spectacular thing he had ever seen, but that was before he took the time to look up. The gas giant looked enormous in the sky above, bigger than any star. It moved across the sky as he watched, light fading as Yavin 4 rotated out to face the depths of deep space.

    Darkness fell just as they finished hammering the shelters into the hardest ground they could find, securing them to nearby trees and ground. In addition to being faced out towards space, the sun was now fully eclipsed by the gas giant, leaving the jungle in a thick blanket of blackness.

    It reminded him of Kessel.

    He was at home in the dark, he thought. The sun was so bright, almost searing sometimes. The Space Mines of Kessel had been without light, and so Kyp had become comfortable operating without sight. Now, with Yavin's night upon them, he found that—despite the sounds and sense of predators operating in the jungle beyond—he felt safer.

    "How long do you think it'll be before the Empire is defeated?" Kyp asked.

    "I don't know," Luke admitted. "Militarily, the New Republic gets stronger every year, while the Empire's forces shrink. Every system that defects to us is a double win—they lose, and we gain. But…" Luke grimaced, shaking his head. "The Empire keeps conscripting young men and women, brainwashing or otherwise forcing them into service. Just because we win the war militarily doesn't mean the conflict is over—Leia is very worried about the Empire turning into something more like the Rebellion was and becoming a wound that will never fully heal. Not all solutions are military ones. That's part of why I resigned."

    "And the other part?" Kyp asked.

    "Because I got tired of seeing people die following my orders." Luke said tiredly. "Especially people not much older than you who joined because I inspired them."

    "So if everyone gets tired of fighting eventually, what do we do to stop the Empire?" Kyp could hear the edge of desperation in his own voice, of uncertainty and fear and desire.

    Luke shrugged. "Trust. Trust and time. We have to encourage and enable people to be their best selves and give them the tools to chart their own free paths. First though, we all must figure out how to deal with the ghost of Exar Kun, because it's clearly driving at something that helps the Dark Side."

    But that's not the Empire, Kyp thought plaintively. The Empire was the real threat! The Empire was still conscripting people—just as it had his brother. It was still killing people, as it had his parents. Just as it had killed Garm Bel Iblis.

    Luke turned to regard Kyp with concern in his eyes. "If there's anything you'd like to talk about, at any time, I'm here for you, you know."

    As if Kyp had been prodded inside, he let none of the turmoil show on his face. "No, Luke. I'm fine. Well. Nervous. But fine."

    "Well. Get some rest, Kyp," Luke encouraged, fluffing a sleeping roll and laying it out. "Tomorrow is going to be a long day, and we have no idea what we're going to face once we reach the temple."

    "Okay. Goodnight, Luke."

    "Goodnight Kyp. I'm glad you're with us."

    He pictured the dark tunnels of Kessel, safe pathways marked out in his mind and the tantalizing Force-taste of glitterstim deposits humming in his mind. A prison with rules where nothing came free.

    There has to be a way to destroy the Empire once and for all.

    I will stop them. I will. I must.

    * * *

    Kam had intended to take the first watch alone, but Tionne sat beside him, humming softly. "Mara told me not to play my double-viol," she lamented. "It might attract predators."

    He didn't say anything, but he did offer her a nod. She didn't seem bothered by his lack of a verbal response, continuing to hum cheerfully. They watched the jungle together, listening to the whisper of leaves brushing against leaves in the breeze, the occasional crackle of branches snapping as an animal rushed through the underbrush, wondering if any of those movements might be a predator.

    He could feel the Dark Side. It wasn't oppressive, as it had been on Vjun. Instead, it crept in the corners of his vision, lurking closer as if carried by one of the jungle's predators.

    Kam wasn't sure if the Dark Side was in the jungle, or if it was in him.

    He thought of Lanu Pasiq, staring accusingly at him, hatred blazing in her eyes. The Dark Side had been in her. Her resentments had devoured her from the inside out; her deeds and her need to justify them as right and necessary had broken her on an ever-turning wheel of escalation, until there had been nothing left of the girl who had aspired to be a good Jedi. The one who had, even as an Inquisitor, showed him an occasional kindness.

    "What do you do for fun, Kam?" Tionne asked suddenly, lambent eyes gazing at him, as if she could hear every one of his darkest thoughts. "Mara dances, Luke flies, Kyp said he thinks he likes skiing. What about you?"

    He thought about it. "Work on my armor. It and my lightsaber are the only things I have that are really mine."

    "I like your armor," Tionne said. "You made it yourself?"

    He nodded. "After I left the Inquisitorius."

    "It's like something out of an old spacetale," Tionne mused. "I think you put your heart into that armor. It's a perfect reflection of who you want to be—who you ought to be."

    "What's that?"

    She shrugged. "Shiny."

    She grinned at him, and he chuckled softly despite himself.

    "See?" she said, prodding his shoulder lightly. "Shiny."

    "I don't know what that means," he said.

    "Yes, you do." She wasn't looking at him anymore, gazing off into the impossibly blackness of the Yavin jungle, humming to herself. "And you are worthy of it."

    "Am I?"

    "I'm a good judge of character. You have to be in my line of work."

    On an instinct, Kam reached into his tunic and withdrew Ranik's lightsaber. He gazed at it, remembering the last time he'd seen it before Luke had presented it to him—clutched in his dead father's hand, Darth Vader looming over his corpse. But despite the creeping shadows that threatened to sneak up around them out of the Yavin jungle, that wasn't what he saw now.

    He saw his father, as he remembered him from training. A Jedi through the eyes of a child.

    A beacon in the Force.

    Shiny.

    He extended the lightsaber to Tionne. She jerked in surprise as he did, stared at the unlit blade, and then took it warily. "Huh?" she asked.

    "You need it," he said.

    "I do? What for?"

    "You'll make your own eventually, but a Jedi should have a lightsaber."

    She gaped. "I'm not a Jedi," she denied, her silver eyes wide.

    "And I am?" he countered. "We're all trying to figure out what it means to be a Jedi now, but once we do, you will be."

    Tionne took the weapon with uncharacteristic solemnity. "Thank you, Kam. I'll wield it with honor."

    The big man smiled, and then spoke. "I would expect nothing less."

    "Well, now that I have this!" she held up the lightsaber's handle triumphantly, her energetic flair returning with a vengeance, "I can keep watch. Go get some sleep, Kam, you look like you've been trudging through a jungle all day."

    Kam was tired, but… "You're not tired?"

    Tionne shook her head. "Nope. Those Imperial goons that captured me weren't good for much, but they did keep me awake for days at a time. I've gotten used to it. I think I might like it better this way."

    He has no idea if she was joking or not, but she kept a straight face. "You're sure you'll be alright?"

    She scoffed at him. "I need to start writing the music and lyrics for a new ballad. The verses are simmering, and the chords are bubbling, but once I've got them in my head, it's almost impossible to sleep until I write them down just so." Her expression softened. "You go get some sleep. I'll be big and scary enough for the both of us."
     
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  19. Gabri_Jade

    Gabri_Jade Fanfic Archive Editor Emeritus star 5 VIP

    Registered:
    Nov 9, 2002
    Look, I know that time has been a meaningless thing for the last two years, but it's honestly unsettling how I come to this thread thinking I'm a week behind only to see three updates I haven't replied to. And I was going to reply to all of them tonight, but I ran out of time because adulting [face_frustrated], but something is better than nothing, right?

    Ordering anyone into serious danger and possible death would be incredibly hard, but to order your own closest friends into that same situation - I don't even know what to say about it, except that I don't think I could do it.

    So much easier to do something, especially when one's usual something involves turbolasers and proton torpedos

    Aw, Gate! I love the astromechs. Remember that party in one of Allston's X-Wing books where no pilot was allowed in without their astromech? [face_love]

    Which is really saying something, coming from Tycho...

    The tension throughout this whole scene was practically tangible, I just love it, and I love Deshorn telling Pellaeon to get out instead of fighting a hopeless battle :D

    Such, such good descriptions, so effective :cool:

    This transition was just seamless, beautifully done :cool:

    :eek:

    Very good visual description, I can see it clearly

    How very dare you [face_not_talking]
     
    Bel505 likes this.
  20. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
    Believe me, I know. I had intended to vote in all the yearly awards going on right now but I keep losing track of time... I'm going to have to make sure I don't miss the make-up voting at the end. So don't rush on the comments on my account!

    Wedge is growing to really hate his job.
    Deshorn is another in the line of (comparatively) sensible military officers being pushed to fight ridiculous battles on behalf of an authoritarian government too blinded by ideology and corruption to see past its nose.

    *looks sideways at current events*

    I'll let you in on a little secret: that was the very first scene of Interregnum 2 that was written. I still have the email to my coauthor where I sketched it out.

    Daala got shot down! I wonder if she was on one of those escape pods and small-craft that were all evacuating the ship...
     
  21. Gabri_Jade

    Gabri_Jade Fanfic Archive Editor Emeritus star 5 VIP

    Registered:
    Nov 9, 2002
    That's Winter for you :p

    Right? That exactly sums it up.

    The one problem with Winter in the EU is basically just that she got sidelined. Zahn got to bring Mara back into a starring role, but Winter was introduced as Leia's adoptive sister and then we almost never heard from her again, let alone got to see her truly being Leia's sister. (Zahn did get to bring Winter back too, in Scoundrels, but it didn't stick like Mara's starring role did by necessity, since she married Luke. Of course, considering Mara's eventual fate, maybe it's better that Winter got forgotten...) It's nice to see her being genuinely part of the family.

    That's Leia, all right :p

    This is so in character for Mara, I just love it [face_love]

    Aw [face_love] Good, in character Luke and Mara romance/fluff is pretty much always going to be like this: subtle, and probably with practical undertones. They adore each other, but even Luke isn't the gushy sentimental type, let alone Mara. I'm not saying that they'll never make any big sweeping gestures, but they're a fantastic example of showing how much they love each other with little ordinary everyday things like knowing exactly how the other one takes their caf and making it that way for them, and most of the more overt expressions of affection are going to be in private, not in front of other people. This is perfect [face_love]

    lolol

    I'm also honestly really happy that in this AU, Slips doesn't get blown up. That always made me sad.

    [face_plain]

    Have I mentioned lately how much I love your version of Tionne? Because I do [face_love]

    As someone who spent close to two decades working in food service, yup :p

    Artoo has the best snark :r2:

    I will never, ever get over the fact that those days in the Myrkr, with Mara desperately sleep-deprived and threatening Luke's life and them both being hunted by vornskrs, will become exactly this: a fond memory and a perpetual in-joke :D

    Olee :_| :_| :_|

    Atta girl, Mara

    Welp

    Yeah, that would do it [face_plain]

    Awww [face_love]

    I know just how she feels. I wish my writing would do that a little more often. Or maybe not, I'd never sleep :D
     
    Bel505 likes this.
  22. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
    Chapter 26

    Brakiss' trip back to Exar Kun's temple was easier than it had been when he was just an apprentice. In fact, this time it felt downright anticlimactic. He had expected a long trek through the jungle, Force-lessons from his new master, and revelations about the true power of the Dark Side of the Force. Instead, Exar Kun had merely guided them to a hidden clearing within a klick's walk of the temple that was large enough to land in, and they'd made the final leg of the trip in less than fifteen minutes.

    The first thing they had done was take the Glow Spiders into the temple.

    "A reward for your trust," Kun had said through Brakiss, and the gangers had followed trepidatiously. Once inside their eyes had sprung open in avaricious amazement, as deep underneath it, in a large chamber that appeared open to them—and entirely empty to Brakiss—Exar Kun made manifest a vibrant illusion that promised a feast for the senses.

    Tables laden replete with food and drink bearing ancient, forgotten names, arodium cutlery and goblets that sparkled with gems, and plush poufs that seemed to shimmer in the jungle's light. As the Sith stoked their passions they rushed to the illusions, cavorting and quaffing before tendrils of inky blackness enraptured each gang member with considerate, almost loving gentleness.

    Brakiss watched as his master called on his ancient, long forgotten Sith alchemy. And it was long forgotten, because the Inquisitorius had never once mentioned such powers, never dreamed of them—power over life and death, over form and function, over body and soul. It was wonderful, and it was horrible, and one by one the Dark tendrils reached out to each Glow Spider, shimmering with a malign energy drawn from the gangling alien sculptures at the room's center. One by one they… changed.

    Now they were his.

    Now they are ours, Exar Kun corrected.

    It unnerved Brakiss badly, and he'd thought that was no longer possible. But Exar Kun had kept him busy; even before the final metamorphosis was complete Brakiss had a new mission. The old Sith master had guided Brakiss through the jungle, through dens of predators and over rough terrain, and with his help Brakiss had covered in half a day a distance that would have taken a less knowledgeable traveler two or more. His arrival at the great Massassi Temple—which had once been the Rebel Base on Yavin 4—was, like his trip to Yavin itself, anticlimactic. He arrived late in the day, as darkness settled over the dense greenery.

    Within the temple, Brakiss found a ship. It was not a particularly fancy-looking ship, seeming a classic, overworked medium freighter. But it was here, on Yavin 4, which meant it was more than it seemed.

    This is the Jedi's ship, Exar Kun murmured.

    What do you want me to do with it? Brakiss asked, scoping the vessel out from the deepening shadows.

    Minor sabotage. Something that will keep it from flight, but that will not be noticed at once by whatever machines the Jedi left aboard.

    Brakiss considered and placed his hand on the double-bladed lightsaber hanging from his belt.

    Electricity coursed through his veins, a surge of adrenaline and awareness and malice making him gasp with something close to lust. The lightsaber was not just a vessel for power, it was power, and the memory of power, and the promise of power, and with it in his hand Brakiss felt he could take on the universe himself.

    You do not need to take on the universe, Exar Kun reminded him, sounding amused. A simple cut in the right place.

    His training with the Inquisitorius might be incomplete, but there were certain things even a novice knew. Stalking was one of them, and on silent feet he darted towards the freighter, careful to stay out of sight of the bridge. He could feel Exar Kun reaching out in the force, darkening the shadows, and he slid between them. Triggering the lightsaber, igniting one of its two blades and fighting the desire to add the second, he jabbed the blade into the freighter's engine. He cut deep through armor, sundering connections and wires and coolant lines. The strike took barely a second, and with the blade's power still humming through him he triggered its activation switch and the glow and hum of the weapon both vanished, restoring the hangar to darkness.

    Now we must retreat, Exar Kun whispered. We have somewhere else we must be.

    With a nod, Brakiss slinked back out of the hangar, drawing on the Force to relieve his fatigue and letting his master guide him in the path of their quarry.

    It is time to remind the Jedi what it means to face a Sith.

    He was not sure if that thought was his or Exar Kun's.

    * * *​

    The Lars family speeder skimmed across the sands of Tatooine, driving into the night. The familiar clear starscape was above Luke's head, the elongated, abstract form of the Dragon like an arrow that stretched out in the heaves.

    "Your head is in the stars again, Luke," Owen said from beside him. "You know there's nothing up there but hardship. Even if you go Fleet."

    "That isn't what the recruiting ads say!" Luke retorted resentfully. "The Academy—"

    "The Imperial Space Academy," Owen shook his head scornfully. "Where they take poor kids from the Rim and turn them into grist for the military machine that oppresses their homes. That isn't a future, Luke, it's voluntary enslavement."

    "It doesn't have to be!" Luke retorted. "I know the Empire is bad, but it's all there is! I don't have to join the Starfleet, I can join the merchant service, pilot a freighter! That's what my father—"

    "Your father was chewed up and spit out by the Clone Wars along with billions of other boys just like him," Owen retorted. "They destroyed him, just like they'd destroy you!"

    Luke turned to stare at Owen, the desert flashing past through the speeder's driver-side window on the far side of his uncle's profile. "You and Aunt Beru have always told me that my father was a freighter pilot. If I can't fly fighters, that's what I want to be!" He hesitated, but he couldn't let it pass. "You never said he fought in the Clone Wars."

    Owen cursed, the kind of curse that Luke had only heard from him during Tusken raids. He slammed his foot down on the speeder's brake and it came to a halt, the steady loud hum of the engine fading as they idled.

    "W-who was my father?"

    "Now you listen to me, Luke," Owen glowered. "Don't ask me that question, not now and not ever. And don't ask your aunt either, because—"

    "Why not!" Luke glared back just as hard. "Why shouldn't I know! He's my father, and everything you've ever told me about him was a lie! I have the right to know where I came from! All I've ever wanted is to—"

    "To what?" Owen cut him off. "To be just like him? Well, guess what, Luke, that's what I've spent my whole life afraid of. That you'll be just exactly like him. Aren't you? Well?" Owen loomed forward, towards where Luke sat in the passenger seat. "Selfish? Violent? Deadly?" He pointed his finger into Luke's chest. "If I let you go off to the Academy, what do you think is going to happen? How many people are you going to kill in the Empire's name? How many will you kill out of a perverse sense of duty, and how many will you kill because you end up enjoying it!"

    Luke stared at him, horrified. "Uncle Owen, I would never!"

    "Wouldn't you?" Owen pressed his finger harder into Luke's chest, pushing him back into the worn cushions. "If they put you in a fighter instead of a freighter? That's what you really want, isn't it—to get to fly your Skyhopper but out in space, with speed to burn? They'll let you do that, Luke, oh will they ever let you, but the cost of it will be the fighter comes armed, and they won't let you choose your targets. If you're told you can have that rush of flight, all it will cost you is pulling a trigger, what will you say!"

    Luke swallowed. "I don't know."

    "Don't you?" Owen scoffed. "You've made that choice, haven't you? Over and over again. Do you remember the first person you killed, Luke?" Owen's finger had all the weight of a Star Destroyer. "When you killed that first TIE fighter? Do you remember how excited you were? Or is there so much blood on your hands that you've forgotten all the people you've killed without ever seeing their faces?"

    "But if I hadn't—"

    "It was self-defense? That's what everyone says, Luke! Everyone!" Owen shook his head, his expression stony calm. "Don't you see? There's no real difference between the Jedi and the Sith, just like there's no difference between you and your father. I've always been afraid that you have too much of your father in you, Luke, and after all this time we both know that you do, don't you?"

    Talon Karrde's eyes bored into Mara's. They were sitting in a familiar cockpit—the Uwana Buyer, one of Karrde's small yachts, for when he was both trying to avoid attention and needed to provide the impression of wealth. Karrde was at the controls—Mara sat in the co-pilot's seat, but her controls were dark and unresponsive.

    "You've earned a considerable reward," Karrde said to her. "Just name it."

    There was only one thing Mara wanted. She wanted to stop running, to stop hiding. She wanted to stop feeling aimless and pointless. She wanted to have a purpose again. "I want a job," she said.

    Karrde looked surprised. "What kind of job?"

    "Any kind. I can pilot, fight, play come-up flector—"

    "Hyperdrive mechanic?"

    "That too. Anything you've got, I can learn it."

    Karrde swiveled his chair towards her. "Assassin?"

    Mara felt a cold fist grip her heart. That wasn't how this conversation was supposed to go… why would he ask her that? Her mouth felt dry as she stared into Talon Karrde's eyes. There was something wrong about them… "I said I can fight."

    "Yes, you did," Karrde drawled. The cadences of his words were almost right, they had the right rhythm… "But there is a difference between fighting and cold-blooded assassination. You want so badly to return from the purgatory you have suffered in. What would you give? What would you do?"

    She looked away, unaccountably ashamed. She'd been so desperate at the end. If Karrde had been a different man, one with fewer scruples, and had asked her this question… what would she have said? Would she have agreed to kill his enemies, one at a time? Become the Fringe's deadliest assassin? Would she have told herself they deserved to die, so it wasn't really wrong?

    She wanted to tell herself that she would never have gone with him.

    She wasn't sure that was true.

    Karrde's grey eyes bored into hers.

    A snarl crossed her lips and she rose half out of the co-pilot's seat, reaching for her blaster. "You're not Talon Karrde!"

    "Am I not?" Karrde held his hands, palms-up, and leaned back in his chair with a smile. "So what? Am I wrong? You have a killer inside you, Mara Jade. You can never be a Jedi, and you're not worthy of Luke Skywalker's love." His smile became menacing and predatory. "So many deaths on your hands," he whispered, almost forgiving. "So many lies, believed because they came from your lips. And you enjoyed it all, didn't you? You loved the authority, the respect, the power and the fear. You enjoyed the hunt, and you relished the kill."

    She stared at him, furious. "You're Exar Kun."

    "So I am," Karrde agreed, folding his hands together. "And you are the Emperor's Hand."

    * * *​

    The forests of Duunir were thick with fog and night, but Kam still did his best to step lightly. It was difficult. Even when he had sure footing for a few steps, he would inevitably step into a rut, or trip over a root, and while he would not curse or complain the sound of bothered foliage and aching limbs would carry out into the dark.

    He was still growing into his frame. He was barely eighteen, and he knew he wasn't yet at his full height—his memory of his father, still casting dim light in dark spaces, was of a giant of a man—and his endless stumbles weren't his fault. Not that the other Inquisitors had any sympathy for him.

    "Come on, Apprentice," Lanu Pasiq hissed at him from where she stalked ahead, her own movements silent and precise, stepping easily over the ruts and roots. Her tone lacked all the respect that one Jedi Apprentice had been expected to offer another… but then, she was a failed Jedi Apprentice, and he had never been a true one. "Move faster and move quieter!"

    Kam did his best to obey. His best was still imperfect, though.

    Their quarry had made her home outside of Duunir's sparse urban areas. She lived close enough to the cities that she could make the trip easily enough in an airspeeder, but far enough away that anyone in the sky overhead would be spotted instantly. It was a reasonable security precaution, which combined with Duunir's notoriously dangerous animal life gave her protection against threats to her life. That, combined with her anonymity, should have been enough to keep her safe from the Inquisitorius… but like so many other hidden Jedi, she had an impulse to help others that made her vulnerable.

    That thought sent a strange, sympathetic pang through Kam's chest.

    Lanu stopped ahead of him, her grey eyes flashing with caution. "Don't lose your nerve now, Apprentice." She stepped in close and peered up at him, and those grey eyes were wrong— "This is your final test," she whispered, fingers calloused from gripping a lightsaber caressing his cheek. "Remember what gives you power."

    That pang in his chest tightened again, and he ignored it. He had to ignore it, because in addition to the hand on his cheek, he could feel the hilt of her lightsaber press against his chest, and he knew the price of failure.

    "The Jedi betrayed you," she whispered. "They betrayed all of us. They knew the Force was so much bigger than they admitted, and they thought to keep that knowledge from us. That it would break us, and are we broken, Apprentice?"

    "No," he rumbled, the words thick in his throat.

    "No," she agreed. "We aren't broken. We're strong. We're invulnerable. We're not the naive whelps that they thought we were. We are greatness, and we will make them understand, one by one." Her fingers stroked along his jawline. "Now," she murmured intimately, "find your hatred."

    Kam inhaled deeply. He thought of the Jedi Masters who had cast his father out for the singular sin of having had a son. He thought of the pain in his father's face when they had departed Coruscant for the final time. They hadn't wanted Ranik to train Kam, either… they had wanted to take Kam from his father and raise him themselves, so that he could be properly indoctrinated.

    The rage didn't come.

    "Now!" Lanu hissed. "Find it!"

    He tried, but he'd forgiven the Jedi—

    "Now!"

    A man in black armor, standing over his father's corpse. A man in black armor, holding a red lightsaber to Kam's throat.

    "There it is," Lanu whispered with satisfaction, a predatory smile crossing her lips. "You still have it in you, Kam, no matter how much you believe you've left it behind. The hate. The rage. You'd tear him apart with your bare hands if you had the chance! And you should! He deserves it! They all deserve it! They took your mother, took your father, took your childhood, took your innocence, took your hope. They made you a killer!" She put her hand behind his back and turned him to look ahead of them, and he saw the structure, hidden among the trees, that was the home of Olee Starstone. "Let them have your vengeance."

    She pushed.

    Kam hurtled forward, slamming through the door of the wooden house. Splinters erupted all around him, and his lightsaber was in his hand, and the Jedi's lightsaber was as blue as his father's. She hurtled towards him and he defended himself, deflecting her assault with casual ease. She was capable, but out of practice and not as talented, and the fight was over quickly. He battered aside her blade, and with a twist of his wrist he deprived Olee of hers. She fell with a cry, clutching the stump of her arm with her other hand, and he held his lightsaber against her throat.

    "Finish it," Lanu whispered in his ear.

    He stared down into Olee's eyes. She looked so small, so pathetic, fear and despair written all over her face. And in those eyes, he saw reflected the boy he'd been.

    "Finish it!"

    This was wrong. He wouldn't do this again.

    Kam double-tapped the ignition switch on his lightsaber, and the red blade vanished. "No."

    A hammer blow struck him and all his breath flooded from him. He stared down at the blue lightsaber buried to the hilt in his chest, and into Olee Starstone's suddenly slate-grey eyes, full of hatred. "Never forget, Jedi," she hissed as she twisted the lightsaber, carving out his heart, "that this is what mercy gets you."

    * * *​

    Kyp Durron was comfortable in the dark.

    He'd had no choice but to become comfortable in the dark. Spending day after day in the Spice Mines of Kessel, deprived of sight, fumbling around looking for tiny filaments of glitterstim. There was no reason to use human labor for the task, and any number of reasons not to, but the glitterstim was only part of the point.

    Punishment was the rest.

    The other prisoners were all criminals of one kind or another. Smugglers, murderers, thieves were common, but so too were political prisoners: dissidents, radicals, revolutionaries, protestors. When a prison ship full of thousands of people whose only crime had been to say something uncomplimentary about the Empire—and those ships arrived often—there was a mad rush by the hardened criminals to bargain for their possessions and dignity. The Empire had imprisoned them, the criminals stole everything they had, and Kyp found their corpses in the mines.

    That was just the way it was.

    He had to do something about it. He had to. The Empire had to be stopped. Too many people had suffered, too many people had been killed, all in the name of the Empire's sadistic ideology and the corrupt people who held it up as right. On Kessel, there was no one who believed the Empire's propaganda, everyone knew better, and Kyp had never been subject to it the way the rest of the galaxy had been. That gave him clear eyes, untainted by lies, and he saw the Empire for the abomination that it was.

    It had to be destroyed.

    Kyp crawled over a corpse as he spread his hands over the floor of the mines, looking for glitterstim. The Force guided him, helping him pick the spindly strands out of the dirt, roll them between his fingers without snapping them, and then push them into his pouch.

    It had to be destroyed.

    There was no other way, he thought as he worked. Leia wanted to reform it, to end the war peacefully and punish the Empire with law. But law had been the Empire's weapon, the tool the Empire had used to vilify dissent and stifle criticism.

    It had to be destroyed.

    He finished stuffing his pouch with the final glitterstim filament, found the edge of the cave and a smooth section of cave wall, and propped his back up against it. He relaxed in the perfect blackness, hearing the other prisoners continuing their search, finding more corpses, but Kyp put them out of his mind. His attention was reserved for two things he knew to be true, knew with every fiber of his being.

    The Empire had to be destroyed.

    The Empire would continue destroying families until it was.

    Because the Empire had taken his family. It had taken his parents, it had taken his brother. It had nearly taken Chewie and Han, nearly taken Jacen and Jaina, nearly taken Leia and Winter. As long as it existed, as long as it was out there, looming in the dark, it would come for his family. The only way to be safe, the only way to be sure, was to scatter its ashes across the cosmos.

    Kyp lay there in the dark, marinating in that thought. He breathed it in, exhaled it, allowed it to fill his being with purpose. But how? He was just one man, after all—and barely a man at that. He didn't have the strength in the Force that Luke or Mara or Kam did. He could feel the power out there to be had, but he did not yet have the ability to harness it. To destroy the Empire, first he needed that power.

    He needed it.

    What would he give to have it?

    That thought echoed in the dark. Kyp weighed it carefully… and thought of his parents. He thought of his brother, dragged away to Carida, never to be seen again. He thought of Han. He thought of baby Jaina, crying in his arms as they huddled behind a reinforced hoverstroller while the Empire tried to kill them. He thought of Mobvekhar, lying dead in the square. He thought of Leia, bobbing in a bacta tank. He thought of Han, face ashen, staring at her. He thought of Garm, who had been kind to him, now just another body left in the wake of the Empire's injustices.

    It didn't matter, he realized. No matter the cost, he had to stop the Empire.

    It had to be destroyed.

    In the mines his eyes were useless, so the glitter of distant blue light was a sudden, impossible marvel. Confused he struggled to his feet as the mines began to pulse, a corridor of light moving towards him. It swelled in the usually total darkness, hurting his eyes, so he covered them with a hand to shield them from the glare. When he put his hand down once again, the light had passed, leaving him once again in total darkness.

    "Tell me," a voice whispered in his ear. "What would you give?"

    He spun towards the voice, his arms flailing, but there was nothing there. He reached out with the Force, stepping forward and reaching out and cursed as he walked into the wall, his hands coming away scraped and slightly bloody.

    "What would you give?" the voice whispered again, this time in his other ear. He spun and once again there was nothing and no one there.

    "Who are you?" he demanded.

    "Who am I?" the voice asked. "I am a true Jedi."

    "A … true Jedi?" Kyp asked, his voice hoarse. "What do you mean?"

    "So much has been forgotten… so many secrets. So many powers that came naturally to those who possess the powers of a Jedi. Like you."

    "I'm just an apprentice, at best," Kyp objected, still searching for the voice. He didn't find it, and yet it hovered just behind him, next to him, whispering in his ear.

    "A true Jedi is never an apprentice," the voice replied, contempt cutting. "A true Jedi owns his own powers and uses them to his own purpose. I know your purpose, Kyp Durron."

    "My purpose?"

    The voice hissed in his ear. "You know what I mean. Just because Luke Skywalker would not accept it does not mean that I would not."

    "He is a true Jedi!"

    "He does not even know what it means to be a pretend Jedi. How could he be a true one?" The voice became sympathetic, almost affectionate. "It is all right," it reassured him. "I will not judge you."

    Kyp's breathing was ragged, confusion leaving him dazed. He spun, reaching out for the voice, and was left dizzy and bruised. "I… I have to protect my family," he begged. "I can't let what happened to my parents and brother happen to the Solos. I can't!"

    "And what is preventing you from protecting them?" the voice asked quizzically. "You have the Force. You have all the power the universe offers. It's all right there, you can feel it. Reach out with your senses, boy."

    The final words were a lash across his skin and he closed his eyes, hoping the dream would end as he reached out with the Force. The dream did not end, keeping him bound in the dark of the Spice Mines—

    The Dark reached back.

    "You do feel it, don't you?" the voice whispered. "So much power there for the taking. Power a true Jedi can use for whatever he wishes. With it, you could remake galaxies in your own image. You could twist souls to service… or free them from bondage. You could watch Empires rise, or fall, at your whim." The silken lash of the voice's words tickled over the back of his neck, almost loving. "You know I'm right. You've always known."

    Kyp squeezed his eyes shut despite not being able to see. "Yes," he stammered.

    "Tell me what you want," the voice repeated its earlier question.

    "I want to protect my family," Kyp repeated.

    "Tell me what you want!" the voice insisted.

    "I want to protect my family!"

    "TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT."

    Kyp's eyes squeezed tighter shut, his fingers digging into tight fists. "I want to destroy the Empire!" he cried. "I want to burn it all down, to make them pay for what they did to us! That's the only thing that will keep us safe!"

    "I know," the voice caressed. "And to have it, all you need is to become a true Jedi."

    "H-how do I do that?"

    He could hear the voice's smile, hidden in the Dark. "Find me, and I will show you."

    Kyp's hands were shaking, and he clasped them to try to get them to stop. They didn't. "But Luke said—"

    "If you want to destroy the Empire, why would you trust a man who serves it?" the voice asked.

    The dizziness was becoming too much. Kyp fell back to the ground, his hand pushing through the familiar, stabilizing thin layer of dirt that he knew so well.

    "He doesn't mean to," the voice assured him sympathetically. "But he's here, not out there fighting it, isn't he? He's here with Mara Jade and Kam Solusar—both Imperials." The voice quieted, forcing Kyp to strain to hear it. "Both murderers." Kyp realized he was crying, and as he took a hitched breath, the voice whispered once again. "Can you really trust them? And if you can't, how can you trust him?"

    "I… but…"

    "Find me, young Jedi," the voice whispered. "And I will show you how you can destroy the Empire. Together, we will burn it all down."

    * * *​

    Mara jolted out of sleep, her lightsaber flying off the ground next to her to her hand.

    She could feel him, in the back of her head, clawing at her. Tendrils pushing against her mind, demanding entry, stealing from her.

    When she'd been the Emperor's Hand, that same sensation had presaged communication with the Emperor. She'd found it almost comforting, a bond to the most powerful, most important, and greatest man in the galaxy. It was something unique to her, it was what made her special, and right now it made her sick!

    Nausea rippled in her stomach and she retched as she clenched her hand hard around her lightsaber, putting layer after layer of shields, pushing the intrusion back out of her mind.

    GET OUT!

    "Mara?!"

    That was Tionne's voice. The other woman, who had been keeping watch, tore open the flimsy door to Mara's tent and stared at her with wild, silvery eyes full of concern.

    Mara could still feel Exar Kun out there. The deep, dark night of Yavin cast over the landscape she could see beyond Tionne's slim form, and in that darkness was Exar Kun. She could feel his presence now, an omnipresent force. Exar Kun was the Yavin night, and the night was Exar Kun, and he was oppressive in the pressure pushed down upon her.

    She snarled, "I'm fine!" and immediately felt bad as Tionne flinched and recoiled. Mara took a deep breath, remembering the weight of Palpatine's remembered voice, of YOU WILL KILL LUKE SKYWALKER, and fought Exar Kun with all her mettle.

    You can't beat me, she told the presence. Palpatine couldn't, and you can't.

    She could feel him laughing at her, but despite his arrogance, she did feel the weight start to lift. With a determined calm, she reached out to the Force as she asked Tionne, "how are the others?"

    "They're still sleeping," Tionne said nervously. "Did you have a nightmare?"

    Sudden fear seized her. She pushed past Tionne hurriedly, tearing open the flap to the other tent. Kam was clutching his chest in his sleep; Luke was rigid. "Wake them up!" she ordered Tionne, falling at Luke's side and trying to merge her Force sense with his.

    Luke!

    * * *​

    "I am not my father!" Luke said, horrified. His memories of Vjun, of Bast Castle, of just how far his father had fallen, were far too fresh. He knew what Vader had done to Leia, to Han, and to so many others, and for Uncle Owen to accuse him of—

    "Aren't you?" Owen whispered, his voice now slickly soothing, as if it were all right, that Vader had not really done anything wrong. "You're just like him. You're both pilots, both strong in the Force, both headstrong and reckless. And you both know what it is to hate. Don't you hate Palpatine, Luke? For what he did to me and Beru? For what he did to Mara?"

    Luke felt sick.

    "He killed her parents, didn't he? He must have. He stole her from a loving family and trained her to be a killer. An innocent corrupted… there is nothing worse. You love her, and you hate him."

    Owen was coming closer, grey eyes boring into Luke. He put a hand on each of Luke's shoulders and drew him close. Luke gasped as the hug became a vice, the hands became grasping claws, and Owen wrapped him tighter and tighter…

    Mara drove her shoulder into Owen's side, knocking him away, her eyes fired with anger. "GET OUT!"

    Luke jolted awake, his chest inadvertently slamming into Mara's chin as he sat up. "Ow!" she gasped, licking her slightly bloodied lip.

    "Mara?" he asked, dazed and confused, and then he melted into her embrace as she hugged him fiercely.

    On the other side of the tent, Kam sat up more slowly, clutching his chest, Tionne helping him much more gently. Her silver eyes were wide with confusion. "What happened?"

    It was Mara who answered. "Exar Kun attacked us through the Force," she said, her voice momentarily muffled by Luke's shoulder. "Sithspawn!" She shook her head. "We have to keep moving," she said, helping Luke to his feet. "Even if it is dark out, we need to—"

    "Oh no," Tionne gasped. She reached into her pocket and drew out the Holocron. Its bright blue glow was dull once more, pulsing intermittently like an erratic heartbeat. "I think he wasn't just after us."
     
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  23. Bel505

    Bel505 Jedi Grand Master star 2

    Registered:
    Jul 4, 2006
    Chapter 27

    Commander Sair Yonka, very late of Imperial service, and presently on detached service with a wing of the New Republic's Fifth Fleet, stared out through the bridge viewports of the still-pristine Star Destroyer Freedom.

    Though the ship was pristine, his crew was exhausted. This was the second system they'd hit, and it wouldn't be the last before this was over.

    "Guns, maintain fire," Yonka ordered, and Freedom's weapons flashed out towards her enemies.

    The stripped-down Imperial defensive forces of Castell made their stand above the ecliptic. It was not a fair fight—but that was the whole point of Garm's Hammer. Hit the Empire everywhere at once, take advantage of their superior numbers, and crush the enemy fleet piecemeal. Freedom and her sister Emancipator lashed out against the pair of enemy vessels: their wayward Imperial loyalist sister Tyrannic and its escort, the Enforcer-class cruiser Martinet.

    Between them, the flashes of fire between their squadrons of fighters continued, but the small Fifth Fleet flotilla had a clear advantage. Yonka's X-wings and A-wings were more than a match for the Imperial TIEs, and Emancipator's four squadrons of Y-wings had already reduced two dreadnaughts, a Carrack-class cruiser, and a frigate to cinders. Tyrannic and Martinet had arrived too late to save them and were clearly not all that interested in staying to fight it out.

    "Switch priority to ion cannons," Yonka ordered. "Fighter squadrons, focus on the enemy's engines! If we can keep them here, we can kill them here."

    Just a little bit longer, he thought, watching the clock. Just a little bit longer…

    * * *​

    Wedge counted down the seconds to Lusankya's reversion. With the familiar lurch of a return to realspace the Super Star Destroyer dropped into the Castell system, and he told himself he could feel the vibrations of the city-sized ship as her fighters launched.

    It would be the third such reversion since they'd secured Chazwa. His reinforced flotilla had been bouncing from system to system for days, chasing away or destroying Imperial ships they caught, and pushing the Imperial presence in the northern Core back to Carida.

    This time Wedge lingered in the tactics room, briefly absorbed in the play of the red enemy icons disappearing from the Comscan plot, one by one. Captain Kre'fey was managing the ship from the bridge, leaving Wedge with a chance to recover, report in, and sleep.

    Sena had gotten some rest, but like Wedge she hadn't slept well. They'd found themselves back in the tactics room, watching the battles unfold, or catching up on the reports from all the other battles that had taken place as part of Garm's Hammer.

    Some reports were good. Some reports were bad. All reports came with casualty counts.

    Sena stood in front of the display where the battle lines clashed, the red light of the enemy bathing one side of her face, and the bright blues of the Republic ships the other. The mixture of indirect artificial light cast her features into sharp relief, and in that moment, the grandmother who remembered everyone's birthdays and played a mean game of Holochess was replaced by a woman who made a good facsimile of a vengeful Ysanne Isard.

    The war was taking a toll on all of them.

    Wedge shook himself and made a quiet promise as he watched hundreds of thousands of sentients execute his combat plans… as he remembered the look in Areta's eyes in the moments before Endurance's destruction.

    Someday soon, sooner than anyone in High Command or my squadrons will like, I'm going to walk away for good. Just take off my rank pips like Myn, go sit in a grassy field on Corellia with Iella. Somewhere I can build things instead of destroying them. Because if I don't, I'm going to wake up one day and be fifty and even more jaded, and the glow from that holotable will be the only light left in my life.

    I do not want to count dead children like pieces exchanged on a dejarik board.

    Lusankya's forward batteries erupted with fire. Tyrannic's shields held long enough for the Impstar Deuce to slip past the hyper limit, and with a flicker of pseudomotion it vanished into hyperspace.

    Martinet was not so lucky. Its aft shields flickered as a barrage of proton torpedoes collapsed against them, and then turbolaser fire from Freedom and Emancipator poked out her engines.

    Wedge started to go for his com, to order Kre'fey to switch to ions, but by the time he had his wristcomm raised, the green had already been fully replaced by blue. Martinet was awash under waves of cerulean light, and then all her guns and running lights went dark.

    "Secure the system, Commander Yonka," Kre'fey's voice said over the com. "And excellent work. We've got more Imperials to chase."

    Lusankya's thrusters fired, killing all her forward momentum. The big ship turned slowly, already aligning for another hyperspace jump as tired pilots docked with the remaining ships in his flotilla, greeted by tired mechanics.

    How many ships will we catch and kill, Wedge wondered. How many ships until the Empire surrenders?

    There was a door chime. "Commander Needa for the General," the guard outside the door announced over the speaker.

    Wedge pressed the intercom button. "Send him in."

    Needa walked in, his face showing the same fatigue as Wedge and Sena, but with a far more energetic stride. "General!" he saluted. "Captain Kre'fey sends his compliments, sir. We have secured Castell. We have two remaining engagements within easy combat range. The Captain has set course for Poderis—another Imperial and Enforcer combat pair has been reported there by our Katana combat division."

    "That's fine," said Wedge. "Atril's still keeping an eye on Carida—her ships are nimble enough to stay out of the reach of the Imperials and they can hop into hyperspace if things get too hot. Send her a message, though, ordering Corusca Rainbow to join us at Poderis. The Mareschals and Rainbow did their job well—tell them I said that—but I don't want to take any unnecessary chances with one of our Interdictors, and it should help us pin down some of the remaining loose Star Destroyers. At this point there's no reason to continue the facade of Lusankya's presence there anyway."

    "Yes, sir." Needa grinned tiredly at him.

    Wedge chuckled without much humor in it. "And get some sleep, Commander—you look even more tired than me."

    "I haven't been this tired since serving with the rapid response teams on Coruscant during Krytos, sir," Needa admitted.

    Wedge tilted his head. "Commander, you were on a mirror station during the invasion. How did you go from mirror duty to medical duty in the few days between the invasion and the virus?"

    Needa shrugged his shoulders, looking somewhat abashed. "I got to see the invasion of Coruscant up close, sir. I saw how hard you tried to keep casualties to a minimum. The same day I formally surrendered the mirror, I was processed and interviewed. I heard about the virus, and I was told as a human I was immune, and… well, sir, I received additional medical training at the academy. I volunteered."

    "That was brave of you, immune or not," Sena said, the first words she'd spoken in what seemed like hours. Wedge glanced back at her. She still looked exhausted, and Wedge could practically feel the anger still simmering under her skin—anger that had been banked like a furnace ever since the news of Bel Iblis' death, at war with her sorrow—but the look she directed at Needa was almost motherly.

    "I suppose, ma'am," Needa allowed. "That's why I joined the Defense Forces, actually." At Wedge's inquiring look, he sighed and continued. "I was stuck on that mirror as punishment for a relative's disgrace, but I still thought I was serving something worthwhile. But Krytos… that showed me the true depths the Empire could sink to. I saw who Ysanne Isard was and heard stories from the other volunteers of other horrible things. Alderaan and Caamas, or Deyer and Toprawa. Once I really understood what Palpatine and Tarkin and the rest had really done, I couldn't look away or stand idle anymore."

    "That makes you a Rebel," Sena said firmly. "No matter when you came to the cause."

    "Thank you, ma'am." Needa turned to Wedge. "I'll recall Corusca Rainbow as ordered. Was there anything else, sir?"

    Wedge took a breath and smiled. "Just one thing. Thank you, Commander."

    "Sir?"

    "In all the battles, I had started to lose track of who I was fighting for. You just reminded me."

    "Oh." Needa looked a little awkward. "Well… you're welcome, sir."

    "Dismissed, Commander."

    * * *​

    "Are you sure you're up for this?"

    Her husband's voice had carried a note of slightly-skeptical concern, and Leia didn't really blame him. But she was feeling better—much better—after just over a week of mandated rest and mostly excellent sleep.

    The Provisional Council's first full meeting since the attack on the Molalla Astor had concluded a few hours before, and it had been remarkably productive. Far from splitting them apart, the Empire's attack had served to remind the Council's members just why they had come together in the first place. Fey'lya had turned his complete, belligerent focus on knocking out the Empire, and appeared to have concluded that accomplishing that immediate goal required he collaborate with the other Council members.

    It was nice to be able to really work with Fey'lya, rather than half-or-more against him. But the next time that Vrelt-for-brains holds a gun on me, I'm blasting his mangy carcass across the room.

    General A'baht had briefed them on the overall course of Operation Garm's Hammer. The New Republic had lost no fewer than eleven capital ships in almost forty engagements, with casualties in the hundreds of thousands. But, the General had said proudly, they had destroyed more ships than they had lost, and captured a dozen important systems all over the galaxy. The 'rate-of-exchange', as he put it, was favorable.

    Wedge, who had attended via the HoloNet, had not looked like a man who had presided over a victory. He had looked drawn and tired, seemingly aged years in a matter of weeks.

    First, win the war, Leia thought soberly. Then check in on your friend. But as Gial is so fond of saying, time and tide stop for no one. This is the best opportunity to push the new Concordat through, while the feelings of cooperation are at a spirited, high ebb. She and Mon Mothma had agreed to do one last set of rewrites, based in large part on the suggestions that Bel Iblis had made before his death. Winter was, at that moment, hard at work back at the new Solo family apartment, working with a gaggle of legal droids and a few advisors to get those rewrites done, with the intent of aiming for a vote within the week.

    Leia would have preferred to be working alongside her adopted sister, but acting-Councilor Doman Beruss—temporarily restored to her previous position of Senator for Corellia-in-exile in Garm's absence—had asked her to be here and speak, and Leia could not say no.

    By Coruscant's standards, the Corellian Sanctuary was a small building. Despite expansions after the Liberation of Coruscant, its warm walls and welcoming halls could only hold a few thousand sapients comfortably at a time, and this particular morning many times that number had arrived to witness the interment of Garm Bel Iblis.

    Each world of the galaxy had its own burial practices. Leia had long since arranged for her own body to be returned to Alderaan upon her own death, in the new traditions for Alderaanian Survivors, but she appreciated the tradition of Corellia's exiles. Among Corellians who lived on their homeworlds a traditional burial was typical—from Corellia they came, and to Corellia they would return. But among the Corellians who had chosen to fight for the Rebellion, and thus been exiled by the Imperial loyalists who controlled those homeworlds, that burial was impossible.

    Corellian exiles had thus created a new tradition. Using industrial-grade gravity generators—the kind that created the artificial gravity on Corellian-built warships, for instance—they compressed the cremated remains of their dead into synthetic diamonds.

    The mausoleum of the Corellian Sanctuary held those diamonds. While the lower passageways were redolent with memorial engravings of the departed, its main dome was painted black, and each diamond was affixed against it and lit with gentle illumination. For a Corellian native, they could come to the Sanctuary and look up and see the constellations visible from their homeworld. A tiny glimpse of home that came with a promise: someday Corellia would be free, and they would all be returned home, bar those who requested to stay and keep a lonely vigil to remind others.

    Leia wasn't Corellian, but as far as many Corellians were concerned she might as well be. Her children were certainly Corellian, after all, and she was married to Han—and, blood claim or no blood claim, Han was practically a prince of Corellia in the eyes of many a Corellian exile. And, perhaps most importantly, she had been with Garm when he died.

    "—Garm and I had our differences over the years, I believe everyone knows that," Mon Mothma was saying to the crowd of mourners and newsies. "But I never doubted his patriotism, I never doubted his courage, and I never doubted his ability. The glittering light of the Republic is diminished by his loss, and it is up to those of us who remain to rise to meet the challenges that remain in his place."

    Mon Mothma's eulogy was reverent and respectful. It was exactly what everyone expected from her. Leia felt a pang, knowing that Garm, perhaps, would have teased Mon about its lack of jabs from their rivalrous personal history, and questioned its authenticity.

    Leia looked down at the datapad she held, the words she had written just that morning, and the edits she'd made after the Council meeting. She realized not much remained of the original draft of the speech, and she quickly reviewed the final draft to make sure the words still flowed the way she needed them to.

    It was not what the people would expect. But she hoped it was what Garm deserved.

    Mon Mothma descended the podium, and Leia strode forward to claim it in her place. She waited for the brief stir to die down, then took a breath and began to speak.

    "Garm Bel Iblis was Corellian to the bone, and he died saving my life, with a spacer's ditty on his lips. Unlike Mon and the other old Alliance hands, I didn't know Garm as long or as well as they did, but in the few short years we worked together, he became part of my family. I hope he knew that, because as the years drew on he seemed to feel the loss of his own family—the loss of all they would have done, who they would have been—even more keenly than he did the day the Empire took them from him.

    "Garm was a proud father, a devoted husband, a reluctant general, a canny statesman, and a beloved friend. Most of all, Garm carried the Corellian spirit.

    "When the Imperial Security Bureau poisoned their own Grand Moff at a peace conference—" she ignored the slight stir at the words, continuing past it and gaining power as she spoke "—when they sabotaged a genuine opportunity to end the war and finally regain the peace that Garm deserved to live to see, they stole that peace from us, and they stole Garm from us. From all of us, Corellian and Alderaanian, human and non-human, soldier and scholar, parent and youngling.

    "And yet, if Garm were here, he would be the very first to remind all of us that his death, though tragic, is just one of a thousand tragedies that unfold every day, across the galaxy, because of the Empire. And he would remind us, as Mon Mothma has, that with him gone, it falls to us to fight for the freedom of every sapient being in the galaxy.

    "Garm Bel Iblis is not the Republic."

    She paused, letting those words hover in the air between her and the audience, between her and the newsies. She waited, feeling the moment, feeling her heartbeat in her chest, and found Han's sober gaze, Jacen and Jaina's tiny hands held in his, and brushed her Force sense over the blazing supernovas of their love and intent.

    "Garm Bel Iblis is not the Republic, and Mon Mothma is not the Republic, and I am not the Republic. Gial Ackbar and Borsk Fey'lya and Wedge Antilles are not the Republic.

    Her fiery gaze swept the surrounding throng.

    "You are the Republic, and the Republic is you. All of you, every day, every week, every month and year you choose to believe in it and help it stand. And if any one of us falls—" her voice hitched, as she thought of just how many there were among the ranks of the fallen; she raised her hands at the glittering constellations of fallen heroes "—someone else will pick up the banner and keep moving forward, into the brighter light of tomorrow. This Garm believed, this I believe.

    "The Republic, born of necessity and paid for in blood, will continue to stand because as long as there's a single one of us out there who believes in liberty, justice, and democracy, we are the Republic. So it is the sworn duty of all of us, and all of you, to serve the Republic, and for the Republic to serve the common good. That protects all of us, and it serves all of us. And with this commitment, we will not just live to see the future. We will make that future.

    "In accordance with Garm's wishes, he will not be laid to rest here in the Corellian Sanctuary"

    That caught the audience off-guard. The Corellian contingent suddenly manifested confused expressions. Han did not.

    "Corellia was once the heart of the Republic. A microcosm of the Republic, it was a place where human and Selonian and Drall lived and loved and learned as one. Where, as the Jedi once taught, despite all the superficial differences that separate us, we are all as one in the Force. The Empire took that from us."

    There were murmurs and nodding in the crowd now, but Leia barely noticed.

    "He kept the faith, and we will keep it for him in his absence. Come all challengers, the Republic stands, because of sapients like Garm who, when the light dimmed lowest and the darkness beckoned, bent down to pick up a torch to lead us. He leads us still."

    Her breath caught in her chest and her voice hitched.

    "So we're taking Garm home. Garm wished to be laid to rest on Corellia, in his family plot in the hills overlooking Coronet City. He cannot be laid to rest there, not as long as the Imperial Diktat rules Corellia. Not yet. Not today. But tomorrow…"

    Leia gave her words a moment, and then continued, because she knew Garm wouldn't begrudge sharing space with a fellow Exile. Even at his memorial.

    "Along with the brave members of the Palace security teams, another Corellian, like so many who chose to fight for Corellian ideals, was killed this week fighting the Empire. Admiral Areta Bell fought four Imperial Star Destroyers with a single ship. Her final message ended with two words that I offer to you now: 'Until Corellia!'"

    It was a declaration of war, a battle cry echoed fervently by the crowd around her.

    It wasn't what she had wanted. She had wanted peace.

    But there was no longer any other choice.

    Garm had been right. ISB and the Inquisitorius, the entire edifice of Empire would have to be destroyed before there could be peace. And just as she had when the whole mess started, she stood in a cemetery, surrounded by memories, and pictured the endless field of grave markers, more filling in at the edges as the crowd took in her words.

    * * *​

    Iella had wanted to attend Garm's memorial service, but she was much too busy trying to track down Colonel Carias. She increasingly feared that, despite the export precautions and the self-imposed blockade that became more onerous for the average Coruscanti with each passing day (and about which the Municipal Government was growing very, very loud and angry), Carias may have slipped off world. But the most recent intelligence reports didn't place him on Entralla participating in the negotiations over Kaine's successor as Grand Moff, so she still had some hope.

    She was alone in her office. Winter and Kapp had both gone to the ceremony—she didn't begrudge them that—and she could see Leia speaking on the flatscreen broadcast, but Iella had it muted so she wasn't sure what was being said. Whatever it was, it was clearly passionate; Leia had evidently made a full recovery from her poisoning.

    Her datapad beeped at her. INCOMING HOLONET COMMUNICATION. ORIGIN UNKNOWN.

    Iella sat up. Origin unknown? She scooped up the datapad and left her office behind, heading at a quick pace towards one of NRI's secure comm centers—places where their operatives could access the HoloNet, but where there was no chance anything within would be able to access anything else. Cracken had been very precise about his requirements, and they all took NRI's operational security very, very seriously.

    Her quick walk became a jog as she worked her way through all the possible people who could be calling. The list was short, and she would very much like to talk to anyone it might be.

    The secure comm center was the same small, boxlike space she'd made the call to Vorru some days before. She plugged the datapad into the interface, then tapped to confirm that she wanted to accept the HoloNet connection.

    The aged, patrician features of Fliry Vorru, appeared on the screen. The Underlord of Black Sun—former Moff of Corellia, and very secret NRI informant—sat alone, with the poise of a potentate, resplendent in a dark suit that draped like an Ottegan Silk blend, further accentuated by a bright scrollwork tracery across his narrow shoulders. His office was large, ornately-furnished and featured a huge bay of open windows that overlooked a beautiful mountain and forest vista, which was probably itself a careful holocapture that she couldn't match to any geographic location.

    "Agent Wessiri," Vorru said with a winsome smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "How lovely to see you."

    Iella crossed her arms and glowered at him. She lifted a single eyebrow, her brown eyes burning holes in the screen. She hoped he could feel the flames.

    Vorru's smile faded. "Let me start by assuring you that I had no idea the complicity of Vigo Roeder in the terrorist attack on the Molalla Astor. It was, in fact, an action taken against my express instructions." Vorru sounded like he was really trying to convince her. "Garm Bel Iblis was a loyal son of Corellia and one of our homeworld's greatest heroes. He spent his entire life acting in what he saw to be Corellia's best interest, and though he and I did not always agree on what that was, I can assure you that I would never have willingly been party to his death."

    Iella held up her datapad. "You've seen what I sent you. Black Sun was a party to his death, and you are complicit." She leaned forward aggressively. "Is your word worth so little?"

    "You never had any faith in my word," Vorru replied lightly, but his expression grew serious. "Nevertheless," he tapped his chest, "I acknowledge my failure in this matter. I can assure you, I will ensure that all the responsible parties are brought to justice."

    "Because they murdered Garm? Or because they disobeyed you?" she asked archly.

    "Both are crimes that I would see punished, my dear. You may perhaps only care about one of them, but I can assure you in this matter—as in so many matters—our interests are aligned." Vorru reached over and typed into his datapad.

    Iella's screen blinked. INFORMATION TRANSFER INITIATED. CONFIRM?

    "You can put it through NRI's screening if you insist," Vorru said. "But I promise you that nothing I offer now is done with ill purpose." He smiled thinly as he amended, "Well. None towards you and yours."

    Iella took her datapad in hand and opened its back casing. She lifted it up for Vorru to see, then placed it down on the desk before it. Then she grabbed the heaviest thing she could find—an attendance plaque—and smashed it down on the datapad. Once, twice.

    Calmly, she reached into the ruined end of the datapad and found its signal transceiver. Confirming that it was thoroughly wrecked, she tossed it into the waste disposal.

    "How uncivilized," Vorru remarked idly.

    "Just want you to know I'm taking precautions," she replied, keeping her voice deceptively casual. Then she took the now half-disabled datapad and plugged it back into the computer. "Accept information transfer."

    INFORMATION TRANSFER IN PROGRESS. TIME TO COMPLETION: 90 SECONDS.

    "What are you giving me?" she asked.

    "Everything. Every Black Sun official. Every member of the Constabulary who receives bribes from Black Sun or its agents. Every informant, voluntary or involuntary." He held up a hand. "On Coruscant."

    "Do you honestly expect me to believe that?"

    "That's up to you. I suspect you'll make up your mind once you've had a chance to review the files." Vorru's expression stilled, and in it Iella saw the casual viciousness that he couldn't quite keep concealed behind his genial facade. "They killed Bel Iblis, and they betrayed me. No one on Coruscant is trustworthy. When you have a cancerous tumor, you do not allow it to infect the rest of the body. You cut it out." His expression returned to genial. "I suspect you will make an excellent corpsman. Or exterminator. Whichever title you prefer."

    "We'll see."

    "There's one other thing." Vorru's smile was positively sharklike. "Colonel Carias. You believe he gave the order that killed Bel Iblis?"

    "He was certainly involved."

    "Then you should hurry. Despite his attempts, he's not yet been able to smuggle himself off Coruscant. As of—" he checked his wristcomm "—twenty minutes ago, he was still safely hidden away under the protection of soon-to-be former Vigo Roeder in Eyrie Tower." He smiled. "You wouldn't want to let him slip past your cordon."

    Iella stared at him, half-rising in her chair. "What?!"

    Her datapad beeped. INFORMATION TRANSFER COMPLETE.

    "I hope all this reassures you that we need not be enemies, my dear. Do please extend my compliments to General Antilles—his assault on the Empire has proved nothing short of magisterial."

    The screen went dead.

    HOLONET COMMUNICATION TERMINATED. ATTEMPT TO RECONNECT?

    "No," Iella said. She grabbed her crippled datapad in one hand, pushing at the secured exit with the other. On her way out she checked the charge on her blaster and grabbed her comlink, activating it as she went. "Get me General Madine! I don't care where he is! Whatever he's doing, I need him now!"

    * * *​

    Leia was sitting with Winter, going over the latest draft of the Concordat and sharing a pot of Winter's green tea, when the com beeped with a priority signal. The two women shared a glance.

    "Who do you think it is?" Winter asked gingerly, her tone clearly conveying a silent "uh-oh."

    It was a sentiment with which Leia profoundly agreed. "I don't know. I hope Coruscant isn't under attack again." She picked up her com and activated it. "Yes?"

    "Leia, I'm patching you into a call with General Madine and Agent Wessiri," came Mon Mothma's crisp, businesslike voice. "It can't wait."

    Winter's eyebrows rose and she sat up. "Have they found Carias?" she asked quietly, hopefully too quietly for the com to pick up.

    Leia offered her a silent shrug. "I'm ready, Mon."

    There were a few seconds of silence, and then the familiar voice of Crix Madine came confidently over the speaker. "Chief of State, Councilor," the General said. "I can confirm we've identified Colonel Carias' safehouse. He's still here on Coruscant, but we're not sure how much longer that will be true."

    "If that's the case," Mon Mothma said, "why have you not already mounted an operation to capture him?"

    "We have such an operation in the final planning stages," said Iella. "And we are prepared to launch it, but we thought we needed your permission before we did so."

    "Why is that?"

    "Because," Crix growled, "the last time we got into a firefight with Black Sun in Argosy District, it caused a minor planetary incident and the tension between the Municipal Government and the Senate has never fully faded. We thought we should at least tell you before we started a bigger one."

    Leia groaned. "He's being protected by Black Sun?" Then she frowned. "Even after our creative negotiations?" She added that last cautiously, not entirely certain how frank she should be about the bargain the New Republic had struck with the Underlord of Black Sun to avoid an outright clash between the two.

    "Our creative negotiations were with the big head. The hydra's smaller heads are not always so cooperative," said Iella, sounding annoyed. "I have in my possession what appears to be Black Sun's entire personnel roster on Coruscant. Everyone from Vigo Roeder on down to their newest recruits in the Constabulary." She hesitated. "Carias is in Eyrie Tower."

    Leia had to fight the urge to groan again. Eyrie Tower was Black Sun's headquarters on Coruscant—the organization didn't even pretend otherwise—and it was in the heart of Argosy District. There would be no way to do this quietly. "How much of the Argosy constabulary is on Black Sun's payroll?" she asked, fearing the answer.

    "Judging from this? About seventy percent."

    "Which is why we're calling," Madine said. "After the last time we promised we'd give the Municipals notice before we mounted any raids on Coruscant. But Black Sun owns most of the constabulary, and any notice—"

    "—will tell Black Sun we're coming," finished Mon Mothma. Unlike the others, her voice held none of the frustrated resignation of the others. "I understand the situation now, thank you General Madine. You have my permission to mount the raid. We'll deal with the repercussions once we have Colonel Carias in custody."

    Leia pointed at Winter. "Go get my lightsaber," she whispered.

    Winter's eyes widened, then she shook her head in denial. "No!" she whispered back.

    "Go get my lightsaber," Leia repeated, more firmly, with the look that she knew from experience that Winter would obey, no matter her objections.

    With a sigh, Winter rose and shuffled towards the door.

    The others were still talking. "—we'll have the team prepared in thirty minutes," Madine was saying. "We'll launch it from the Imperial palace and do a close-orbital hop to Argosy. I'm putting Home Fleet on standby in case we run into serious resistance. The last time we ended up needing A-wing support, and it wouldn't surprise me if—"

    Winter returned, wearing a mutinous scowl but bearing Leia's lightsaber, the handle resting on an extended filigree tray suitable for high society aperitifs.

    Leia scowled back and held up a hand to let Winter know she was still on the com, before reaching out with the Force to bring the weapon sailing into her hand. "General Madine, Agent Wessiri, I'm shuttling back to the Imperial Palace to join the assault team."

    Everyone else spoke at once. "Will all due respect—"

    "I'm not sure that's a good idea, Leia—"

    "We're going in heavy, Council—"

    "I'm going," she said, putting her metaphorical foot down. "Do you have any idea how many traps Black Sun might have laid in that facility? Or just what someone as vile as Carias might do when they're cornered? Luke and Kam aren't here and you could use a Force-sensitive—" she very carefully did not say Jedi "—with you." Even though the conversation was audio only, she held up her hand, holding Winter's silence for a moment longer. "This is not a matter for debate. I'm going."

    "We're leaving in thirty minutes," Madine finally relented. "I'll have armor waiting."

    Mon Mothma sighed. "All right, Leia. I'll make a call to the Municipal government once the attack is underway. Better a late notification than none. Good luck."

    Leia clicked the com off.

    "Leia!" Winter exclaimed. "You're not fully recovered from your last bit of excitement! You should be resting, not—"

    Leia leaned over and kissed Winter on the cheek.

    Winter rolled her eyes. "How many times did you get us into trouble and then try to charm me out of being mad about it?"

    "Try to?" Leia offered a winsome smile.

    "Well, I'm not the one you really need to convince."

    As Leia stepped to the side and activated her green saber, the one Luke had built for her—which she had recently refurbished with Han's assistance—she reached out to feel the Force as she spun through a half-remembered training kata, blade buzzing as it supercharged the air.

    A limping shuffle outside announced Han's approach, and the office door hissed open to reveal her husband, his expression pained and his hand on his blaster. "So, I take it you're going after Carias and Black Sun and nothing I can say or do is gonna stop you, even though you're a sitting Councilor and Luke had some pretty specific things to say on the subject of Jedi and vengeance?" His drawl was pointed.

    "That's about the size of it, Han," she said, finishing the twirl and deactivating the saber. Her eyes met his confidently, and she did a reasonable impression of his Corellian drawl. "You gonna talk me out of it, hotshot?"

    "If I could, I would." Han said dryly, "but I ain't that stupid. Besides, I figure we've got Chewie, two Mon Cal frigates, a Noghri kill team, and some of Kerrithrarr's Honor Guard between the kiddos and any potential trouble."

    "Don't forget me," Winter added.

    "I may not have your memory, but I could never forget you, Winter." Han said as he limped gingerly over to the office's largest interior wall, which was covered with a large painting of Alderaan. "You're the most dangerous of them all." He hoisted it off the wall, revealing a small panel, and then punched in a code. Hidden panels in the wall slid aside to reveal a deep locker stocked with top-of-the line armor and enough wicked-looking weaponry to provision a pirate cruiser.

    Leia stared. "I don't remember you saying anything about an armory in my office."

    "Well, that's what happens when you miss the tour, hon."
     
    Chyntuck likes this.
  24. Gabri_Jade

    Gabri_Jade Fanfic Archive Editor Emeritus star 5 VIP

    Registered:
    Nov 9, 2002
    That's just never a good sign

    Neither is this [face_worried]

    And this is where I knew something was wrong. Luke may have been frustrated in ANH, he may have been briefly rude because of it, but there were no indications of a serious, lasting rift between him and Owen or Beru. Lovely subtle character touch here used as a narrative tell

    This probably goes down as Luke's worst nightmare ever, and he's probably had thousands of profoundly terrible ones =((

    Poor Mara =((

    This is just a beautifully constructed little passage, with Exar Kun's words in what is unmistakably Talon Karrde's speech pattern, and that rising awareness of Mara's. It really gives you the feeling of being in her exact position, dreaming and aware of it.

    Yup, which is why this sentiment made such an effective tagline for the Obi-Wan show... Also, Olee =((

    This is all just very bad

    This is more excellent characterization, and basically why Luke resigned, too. Can't blame any of them. This is too much for anyone to bear for long.

    Sena's great [face_love]

    LOL

    This is some really excellent world building and I love it

    He would, too :p =((

    Leia gives one heck of a rousing speech, doesn't she?

    That was unexpected - but also makes perfect sense [face_thinking]

    Have I mentioned that I love seeing Leia and Winter really portrayed as sisters? Because I do [face_love]

    lol, if that isn't just classic H/L right there [face_love]
     
    Bel505 likes this.
  25. scienfictionfan

    scienfictionfan Jedi Knight star 1

    Registered:
    Jan 1, 2020
    I always liked Vorru in the X-Wing series since he was a more subtle and precise villain then the average Imperial warlord and all the more dangerous for it. You have done a good job in both this story and the previous one in showing just why Palpatine considered him a threat that needed to be removed yet also why he was potentially valuable enough not to be immediately killed. In some ways I would be more concerned with Vorru then the ISB since from everything we see in both Legends and this story they are thugs whose only solution to problems is to shoot it and only pose a problem in this story because they are acting as muscle for the Inquisitors and particularly Exar Kun who are the real threat. Remove the Inquisitors and especially Exar Kun and I expect the ISB to have problems since they are hated by everyone on both sides while Vorru on the other hand is both a threat but also an asset to the heroes since he can be negotiated with and is willing to aid others when it's in his best interest.

    If an armory was in Leia's office I wonder what's in say Mon Mothma's since she has to be an even bigger target, then Leia. Also, I love Leia and Han's banter it's one of the joys of good Star Wars stories much like Luke and Mara's banter.