Added on June 01, 1999
Category: Science Fiction/Star Wars
Author: R. John Burke

Innocent Blood

STAR WARS: FREEDOM'S Price Episode Fourteen

DESCRIPTION: Our heroes have a final confrontation at the skyhook.

NOTICE: Star Wars is a copyright of Lucasfilm. This is simply fan faction, no profit has been made.


The door hissed open, and Garreth rolled, avoiding a laser blast that would have taken his head off. He came up in a kneeling position, enduring complaints from muscles he hadn't heard from in years. His blaster pistol fired twice, and the second shot actually hit something. An Imperial stormtrooper went down with a grunt. Garreth then turned his weapon on the facility, taking out security cameras and monitors, anything to make it harder for Imperial watchdogs to figure out what was going on.

Something slammed into him from the side, and Garreth was knocked to the floor, his breath leaving him in a gust. As he gasped for air, he felt a dead weight atop him. He grimaced and rolled out from under it - revealing a dead Bothan commando who'd taken a blast meant for his admiral.

The human winced. Perhaps Bothans did have some concept of honor... this trip was turning out full of surprises.

He realized that the noise had stopped, and struggled to his feat. The team leader, Commander Tran'lya, held his right arm with the expression of pain. The other Bothan of their strike team was unarmed, and already working on the computer core here on the Imperial-held planet Carida.

Not knowing if it was the Bothan custom, but hard-pressed to see how it would hurt, Garreth close the eyes of the Bothan who'd saved him.

Another casualty on my head, he thought. Why do young people keep dying, when an old warhorse like me seems to have a dozen lives?

A question for another time, he decided. "Can you access the main terminal?"

The Bothan next to Tran'lya grinned. She held up a small, metallic box. "This device can access anything, given time."

"We have no time," said Garreth.

"That's where your daughter comes in," Tran'lya said. "She's been asked to make some for us."

Mention of Trina sent a chill through Garreth's blood. She'd better be all right, he thought...

A comm light bleeped.

"Take it, Admiral," said Tran'lya, hunched over the computer with his operative, "We're busy."

"What shall I say?"

The Bothan shrugged. "Stall them."

"Stall them... lovely." He touched the comm. "Er... yes?"

"What's going on down there?" said an annoyed voice, "We have reports of laser fire."

"Laser fire?" said the admiral with a laugh, "That's, um... preposterous."

"What happened?"

"Er...some of the men were playing...er, a computer game. On the mainframe." He chuckled again. "Volume's a bit loud."

"That's highly irregular."

Garreth grimaced. Typical Imperial stiff. Did I really work for these people once? "Er... well, certainly. But then, boys will be boys. They'll be disciplined."

The voice grunted. "I'm sending a squad down."

"Er...negative, negative. We're...ummm...reviewing classified data. If your men see our work, they'll have to be shot." That's not even a lie, Garreth thought, rather pleased with the double meaning.

"Who is this? What are you doing?"

The rebel leader groaned. "I'm sorry, you must have reached the wrong number."

He flicked off the comm, and looked at Tran'lya. "Guess who's sending a squad down?"

"Blast it, where is that..." Tran'lya blushed. "I mean, where is the admiral's daughter with our diversion?"

"She'll be here." Garreth had experienced quite a few difficulties with Trina in her twenty-seven years, but her fierce determination and loyalty to the Alliance were beyond question. "If she can help us, she will."

"We seem to be one short," said the old admiral with the droid eye, as he stalked back and forth past his five captured Rebel operatives - three of whom had already been imprisoned. The other two had arrived on an ill-fated rescue. "Where's the Jedi?"

"What Jedi?" This came from the lean, dark-skinned Corellian in the brown jacket, who seemed to be in charge.

Grand Admiral Screed of the Imperial Fleet smiled. "You came with a Jedi. I do have my sources."

"If there is a Jedi with us," said the Corellian, "You'll never catch him."

"Her," said the Admiral as his mechanical eye focused on the Corellian. "How stupid do you think I am?"

"How much time have you got?"

Screed frowned, but backed off. He had not become Senior Grand Admiral by allowing such rabble to annoy him. He focused on the other new arrival, a man with icy blue eyes and a goatee whom they had identified as a smuggler.

"What about you, Captain Karrde? Surely you have no particular loyalty to Rebels?"

"Certainly I don't," said Karrde, face impassive. "The Jedi is here."

"Where is she?"

Karrde arched an eyebrow. "We sent her to the reactor core. Within moments, this skyhook will be a flaming ruin."

Though old, Screed was still strong enough to backhand Karrde across the face with considerable force. "Liar."

Karrde shrugged. "It was worth a try."

"You're also a fool," said Screed, and the smuggler's eyes flashed. This was a man who believed deeply in his own intelligence, and Screed knew that attacking the same was the way to hurt him. "You were an up-and-coming man in the trade. You'd drawn the attention of the Emperor himself. You could have been rich."

Not one to admit defeat, Karrde shrugged. "Easy come, easy..."

Screed cut him off. "Now you'll be executed. And when word of this gets out, your entire group will be destroyed as an example."

Karrde's voice remained even, but his eyes were very cold. "Then I suppose I'll have to make sure you don't live to spread the word."

"The Empire can be forgiving," Screed pressed, "towards its friends. One last time: Where is the Jedi Knight?"

"Right here," said a quiet voice.

Screed turned, to behold a striking woman about the same age as the Corellian, wearing a simple tunic and a utility belt with a lightsaber attached. Her skin was somewhere between Karrde's color and the Corellian's, and her long, dark hair hung about her shoulders.

"Excellent," he said. He gestured to a quartet of stormtroopers. They approached warily, weapons raised. The Jedi moved forward, prepared to submit to arrest.

And sudden the two lead guards had their weapons yanked from their grip, and the Jedi leapt over them, saber appearing in her hand. She appeared on their other side, and had dealt with all four stormtroopers in two strokes.

Screed's own blaster appeared in his hand, and he squeezed off two quick shots at the Jedi's heart.

She reached up almost casually, and deflected both shots with her bare hand. The admiral stepped back, intent on getting out of the front lines. He had not attained his rank and age by being a fool, either.

Then one of the Rebels pried a blaster rifle from a stormtrooper, and bedlam erupted. The detention area was criss-crossed by flames as a few dozen stormtroopers focused on six targets. Unfortunately, it seemed that every time they got a clean shot at a Rebel, the Jedi appeared just in time to bat aside the blast with her laser-sword.

And Screed understood that, to succeed, they'd have to kill the Jedi first. She'd deflected his blasts earlier, but now she was concentrating on the troopers. Her back was turned. She'd never know what had happened, until she was dead.

From his protected spot in one corner of the detention area, Screed aimed and sighted carefully.

"No!"

A swirl of blonde hair blinded the admiral as something hard smashed into him from the side. He smashed against the wall, only his surgically-added skeletal frame (added to allow him to walk under his own power, despite his advanced years) preventing broken bones.

The Rebel agent, Taryn Clancee, who'd been scheduled for execution this very night, struggled with him, her fingers collapsing on his wrist, smashing his gun hand into the wall.

Fortunately, Screed's droid frame also gave him the ability to focus droid-level strength into his aged limbs, though only for a short time.

A short time was all he required. He exerted pressure on the Rebels arm, and heard the satisfying pop as her wrist broke. His gun hand slowly turned, until the blaster's muzzle pressed into her neck.

"Stop!" A form in black robes strode effortlessly through the battle, approaching from the same entrance the Jedi had used. He moved through the midst of the battle, ignoring the blaster bolts that sizzled past him as thought they were mere annoyances. He indicated Clancee with the tip of his silver lightsaber. "I want her alive, Screed."

Screed scowled to himself. The young Dark Jedi's affection for the Rebels would get them all killed.

Of course...

The battle raged all around them. It would be a simple matter to claim that the chaos had distracted him.

"I can't hear you, my lord!" he called. His finger pressed on the firing button.

Taryn Clancee cried out, and slumped to the ground.

"NOOO!!" Jev Parrak, newest Dark Jedi of the Empire, ran past the squabbling troops. Screed felt himself lifted off the ground to float in the air. His windpipe began to collapse, and the metal braces under his skin warped and snapped.

The wall rushed up at him, pounding him into darkness.

Jev knelt by the crumpled form of Taryn Clancee. Her blonde hair was mussed, and obscured part of her face. She still breathed, but only shallowly, and not with any particular rhythm.

"Taryn, no..." Jev choked back tears. "I never meant for this to happen..."

Taryn groaned, and stirred. Her pulse was thready where Jev's fingers rested on her neck. "Nothing you could have done."

Jev strained to hear the whispered voice over the ongoing firefight. "I should have listened to you. I should have stopped him... before this happened..."

"Too late for regrets," Taryn said, her breath coming even harder. "It's over, kid. You have to... move on..."

"I never wanted to hurt you."

She smiled at him, but the ugly burn just below her chin marred the expression. "I know. Tell Rik the ship is his."

"No. Come on, you're not gonna die here..."

"Of course I am," she said, and gasped. "I've seen it enough to know...hurts more than I would've liked."

Jev felt heat rise to his cheeks. Here he was, a full Dark Jedi, crawling on the floor in tears, like a little child. "I can save you. I can still save you."

"No," she said, and a small choking sound came from somewhere deep in her throat. Her eyes watched something Jev couldn't see. "'Died heroically, saving the life of a Jedi...'" Not exactly a blaze of glory..."

Her breath expelled in a hiss. "But not bad..."

Her eyes closed, and she collapsed into unconsciousness. Jev knew death would follow in a moment, but he had an idea. It was possible to heal with the Force, Kerri had mentioned that. Jev himself had done it, a long time ago. He was connected to Taryn's ebbing life energy. There was no reason he couldn't add to it. Absorb the devastation from her burns. Jev gathered the Force inside him...

And stopped, stricken. He had trained himself to touch the Force through anger. The level of commitment and peace required to restore life instead of taking it was beyond him.

The Dark Side had no power to heal.

His connection to Taryn Clancee fell away, and she died.

Jev screamed.

Screamed not just with his mouth and lungs, but with his mind, waves of the Force energy he'd built inside himself rippling outwards, pounding all those in the room, himself included. His anguish shot out through the Force, Dark energy bleeding off him like a storm.

A Jedi of the Old Republic would have called it a Force scream, a common occurrence when a Dark Jedi reaches his mental limit.

No old Jedi were around to tell Jev what it was. He only knew it was the worst torment he'd ever felt. Pain battered him, like a heavy weight that kept smashing into his skull. The others in the room, especially Kerri, cried out and grabbed at their heads, in varying degrees of torment.

And finally Jev was exhausted. The Force energy in him spent, he curled up in a fetal position next to Taryn's body, shaking uncontrollably.

Around him, the others in the room were recovering - except for Kerri, who was alive but out cold. She'd been open to the Force at the time of the wave, and was the most sensitive to its power anyway.

The stormtroopers regrouped first. With their assault slowed and their most powerful weapon out of the fight, the Rebels present were forced to surrender.

In the aftermath of his tantrum, Jev pulled himself to his feet. He experienced a moment of clarity: For the first time, he knew what to do.

He was far too tired now, unable to touch the Force at all. But later, when he'd rested, when his strength had returned and Kerri's could be joined to his, then he would leave the Empire, taking his friends - if they still fit that description - with him.

The Dark Side's grip was broken, and with that thought Jev could not help but smile.

Taryn's sacrifice would count for something. He'd make it count.

He had to.

In the Caridan computer center, things had gone from bad to worse. When their diversion did not come, Tran'lya had been forced to download what information he could from the Imperial computer. They'd fought their way out of the computer core just ahead of an unhappy stormtrooper squad. Now Garreth and his two Bothan companions were forced to take cover in a small supply closet with only one exit.

There was nothing to do but wait for the Imperials to detect them. Or so Garreth thought.

"When the stormtroopers draw close," said Tran'lya, "I will lob our last thermal detonator at them. Reim and I will hold them off, while you escape with the data, Admiral."

Garreth looked from one Bothan to another. "No. I can't analyze it fast enough. Besides, something that important should be held by someone who's likely to live out the day."

Tran'lya frowned. "What do you mean?"

The admiral hissed. "When we get out of here - assuming we do - I've got to get into the Naval Academy. See what happened to Trina and Gaar."

"That's extremely risky, sir."

"It is," said the other Bothan, Reim. "And he should have an escort."

Reim held out his palm for the thermal detonator, and after a moment, Tran'lya nodded. He handed the explosive to Reim, whose fur rippled in an odd pattern. Tran'lya returned the gestire, and Garreth realized it was some sort of farewell.

"On three," said the commander. For a moment, Garreth wondered why Tran'lya, obviously a good military man, hadn't insisted on doing the job himself. Then it occurred to Garreth that, for the politically-minded Bothans, the commander's safety was likely their the primary concern.

Tran'lya's count reached "one," and Reim dove through the open door. The senior Bothan was already dragging Garreth through the corridor, in the other direction.

A brilliant flash of light behind him turned the area in front of Garreth into shadows, and laser fire followed it. A few bolts flashed near Tran'lya and Garreth, but none came close.

The last thing he heard before dashing for the exit was the cry of another Bothan soldier, destroyed by the Empire.

Admiral Screed stood up, supporting his own weight for the first time since Jev Parrak had crippled his support frame. He nodded to himself, looking down at the green regular admiral's uniform he wore. The brilliantly white Grand Admiral uniform was now stained with blood, and would need to cycle clean.

He addressed the Twobee droid. "Excellent work. It's as good as the original."

The Twobee hummed thoughtfully to itself in droid language, then said, "Actually, due to medical advances and the replacement of stressed parts, it's 17.5 percent better."

Screed grumbled. He hated droids. He had ever since that blasted 3P0 droid and its R2 counterpart had crossed him way back...

An intercom halted his train of thought. "Screed."

"Admiral, sir. A shuttle is arriving with Priority markings. It will only identify as 'The Emperor's Hand.'"

Screed hissed. As Senior Grand Admiral, he was one of the few beings who knew what the code name meant. "Jade..."

"I can't believe she's really gone," Evverd muttered to himself.

Kerri, who had awakened from her mental pounding but was still weakened, leaned up from her spot on the room's bunk. "I keep wondering why she'd die saving me. She didn't even like me."

"She liked you fine," said Karrde. His eyes were rimmed by dark circles, but that was his only outward sign of strain. "You had to understand Clancee. She never made it easy on herself or anyone else. That's why she was an excellent smuggler."

Zellar, the one commando who still lived after their firefight with the Empire, groaned. "I'm just sorry her death is in vain. We're scheduled for execution in an hour, you know."

Evverd turned away from where he'd been staring at the wall.

"Not gonna happen," he said, "We've still got a few surprises left in us."

Jev stood side-by-side with Screed as the shuttle docked. He didn't want to do this, but he couldn't show his change of loyalties until the proper time.

The ramp descended, and a woman in a jumpsuit with long, red-gold hair walked down it.

"You're not going to tell Jade how I almost killed you, are you?" he whispered to Screed.

"No," said the admiral thoughtfully, "But one day, I'll make you wish you'd finished the job..."

Mara stood in front of them now, surveying them with sparkling but cold green eyes. "Gentlemen."

"We weren't aware you'd be paying a visit," said Screed.

"I like to keep my itinerary private." A hint of pain passed through those eyes, but was gone before Jev could wonder about it. "What's the matter with you?"

It took Jev a moment to realize she was talking to him. "Taryn Clancee is dead..."

"Good," said Mara without missing a beat. "It's about time somebody accomplished their mission around here."

She started walking back, out of the hangar. "I understand Kerri Lynden is in custody?"

"That's right," said Screed.

"I'll want to see her immediately."

Tran'lya frowned at the data he was reading on his computer screen. "This is bad."

The sun had been setting on Carida by the time he and Garreth had returned to their ship. Tran'lya had immediately set to work with their sophisticated slicing equipment, looking for both the information they'd come for and - at Garreth's directive - news about their missing people.

Garreth frowned over his shoulder, and the Bothan shot him a look. Garreth stepped back. "Sorry. What is it?"

"For one thing, we have no news one way or another about our Death Star plans. There wasn't time to get deep enough into the system."

Garreth sighed. The whole point of coming here had been to verify the veracity of the stolen Bothan Death Star plans. "What about Trina?"

The Bothan frowned. "Four conspirators were captured at the Imperial Naval Academy and charged with sabotage. They're scheduled for transfer tonight to a prison garrison." Tran'lya looked up. "If they're taken to the central prison, the game is up."

Garreth nodded. "If they leave tonight, then we free them tonight."

Kerri was led back into their cell about a half-hour after she'd left - unharmed, Evverd was relieved to note.

"What'd Screed want?"

"Not Screed," said Kerri, "An old friend. She took my crystal, and offered again to let me join the Empire."

"And you refused?" the Corellian guessed.

"As always. How much longer?"

"Twenty-eight minutes and fourteen seconds," said Zellar.

"Relax," said Evverd, "We ain't gonna be here longer than another five minutes."

"How do you know?"

His lip twitched. "I just know."

"I still don't understand what that was all about," said Screed, highly annoyed.

"You don't have to," said Mara. In between thumb and forefinger, she held a jagged piece of alien crystal, taken from Kerri Lynden. The Emperor had indicated that the crystal would help Mara seek out Jedi undetected. It might be very useful - when she next went after Skywalker.

She turned to Jev Parrak. "You've been quiet."

"Thinking," said Jev, "Contemplating the Dark Side, if you prefer."

Mara snorted. "Jedi contemplation. I think you're still upset over that woman's death."

Jev's expression was even. "It's not your concern, is it?"

"No," Mara admitted. "It's not."

With no warning at all, the skyhook shook around them.

"What was that?" Jev asked.

"Let's find out," said Screed, and he punched the comm button. "Tactical, report!"

"Admiral, we have twelve X-Wing fighters on scopes! They're attacking at full throttle!"

"That's suicide," the admiral said. "Scramble our TIE Interceptors..."

"Sir, I'm trying. But they're attacking our power relays with double-loads of proton torpedoes. Power is fluctuating in all systems--including the hangar bay doors."

Jev Parrak stepped forward. "Ready my fighter. I'll handle the doors."

Another hit made the lights go out. When they returned, he was halfway out the door already.

Jade looked to Screed. "Do you trust him?"

"No. Do you?"

The Emperor's Hand shook her head. "Not at all. This whole thing smells like a Rebel trap. Maybe you should prepare your shuttle."

"That's ridiculous," said Screed, "This skyhook can beat off a few X-Wings."

"Suit yourself," said Mara, as the power failed again. She squeezed the crystal tightly. "I have what I came for. I'm leaving."

When the power started shorting out, Evverd nodded to himself. "Right on time."

He removed his boot and took out a small disk. He attached it to the door and spent a few minutes programming it. After a moment, the door hissed open.

He nodded to Zellar. "Portable slicer, with power supply. A must for any good infiltration."

Kerri and Karrde were already on their feat, with the commando hurriedly struggling to catch up. As Evverd had counted on, the cell bay guards - already shorthanded after the fight - had been reassigned to emergency positions with the skyhook under attack.

Evverd next used the slicer on the weapons lockup, and removed four blaster rifles. He kept one, and passed the others on. He frowned at Kerri. "What about your saber?"

"Jade probably has it. I can always build another."

"You go through those quickly," he deadpanned. "Let's move. Head left at the corridor."

Karrde frowned. "The hangar is right, isn't it?"

"Power core's left." For once, there was no humor in the Corellian's expression. "We're gonna hit 'em back for Taryn."

Multiple blaster shots sizzled out, destroying all the cutoffs and safeties of the skyhook's power core.

Evverd moved off, looking for a new target. "Karrde, you done with that slicer?"

"It'll be a minute! Ten minute timer enough?"

"Fine," he hissed, "Just do it!"

"Get down!" Kerri yelled.

The four rebels ducked in unison as a squad of stormtroopers charged in, firing blaster rifles. Evverd ducked behind a computer bank. He stuck his head up long enough to sight and fire, taking a trooper down.

Then he ducked back. He caught sight of Karrde, still furiously working the terminal.

The Corellian groaned. He figured the odds were about twenty-to-one against.

And for once, the odds worried him.

Jev had to discard his crystal to track for Kerri, now that Jade had taken hers. He didn't care. He didn't want to hide from the Empire anymore. If he got his friends out of this alive, that would be enough.

He paused to concentrate. The power core. Dark cape fluttering behind him, he ran to help.

"I've got it!" Karrde crowed, then winced as a bolt spattered far too close to his head. He returned fire, knocking down another stormtrooper, but they just kept coming.

In the middle of the room, the massive power core began glowing a dull red. Soon it would be orange. When it was white-hot, there'd be no stopping it.

Karrde worked his way over to the others. "I've installed a timer. With a press of a button, we can activate this at any time - if we can get out."

Evverd nodded to the other three. "Get out. I'll cover you."

"Are you crazy, Rik? You can't..."

"'Course I'm crazy, sweetheart. Did you think I'd ever change?"

Kerri began to protest, but Karrde pulled at her wrist. "Come on - he's no safer coming with us."

Zellar said, "Sir, two can lay better cover than one."

"Fine," said Evverd, nodding to the other side of the room. "Move it!"

After a moment, the two Rebels had the room covered, red light spattering out from either side to drive back the Imperial advance. Deadly green bolts flashed occasionally, then slowed. Then stopped.

Evverd nodded at Kerri and Karrde. "Go - GO!"

The two began to move, darting between the various consoles and power regulators towards the room's only door. A stormtrooper poked his head in. Evverd brought his blaster up to keep the man from getting too close...

Green light flashed out, nailing the Corellian squarely in the stomach. The force tossed him halfway across the room to slam into a computer bank.

Dimly, he heard Kerri cry out. He struggled to open his eyes, and saw her rush across the field of battle, disregarding the renewed Imperial fire, to his side.

He saw her eyes widen as she surveyed the damage. Evverd, who was beginning to feel it, struggled to keep the pain off his face.

"All right," she said, "All right...We'll get you out of here."

"How?" he asked, and flashed her his familiar grin. "You'll never make it to the ship, dragging me along.

"I won't leave you," she said, "I can... I can heal you."

"In the time we have left?" he asked. The reactor was already glowing a bright orange. "This place is gonna blow."

He thought her eyes might have contained tears. She knew what he did; the damage was far too extensive for anything but a prolonged, concentrated effort. Not something that could be improved in the time remaining.

"I'll stay here," he said, "And hold the room. I'll give you as long as I can. Good luck, sweetheart."

"I will not leave you behind," she repeated.

Evverd winced as a particularly sharp pain struck him. He motioned to Karrde, who had followed Kerri and remain at a distance.

"Karrde," he said, "If she won't go, pick her up and PUT HER IN THE DAMN SHIP!

"How do you propose I do that?" Karrde asked, tapping thin air that had suddenly become a forcefield between him and Kerri.

Evverd was rarely sentimental, but he couldn't help feeling touched. "Kerri... sweetheart, listen to me. Do you think I ever expected to survive this war? You think I could've taken all those crazy chances you're always yellin' at me for if I had to protect my hide?"

He grimaced, and fought the pain to a standstill. "I wanted you to live. That was my goal for this war. And you're gonna live - because I always win."

"This isn't a victory," Kerri said.

Not able to contain it anymore, Evverd choked in pain. "Close enough, by Corellian standards. We're famous for our heroic deaths."

Kerri leaned over, openly crying now, and kissed him. "I love you," she whispered.

He opened this mouth for a typically cocky reply, but it died in his throat. "I love you, too."

"Come on," said Karrde, pulling at her shoulder.

Zellar was still fending off the Imperials across the room. "I'll stay with him! Get out!"

The reactor began to glow white.

Jev was halfway to the reactor room when he got the vision. He saw Kerri leaning over a dying Rik Evverd, while the other two held back stormtroopers. He knew, also, that it was too late. He would not arrive in time to change anything. His mind cried out in denial - but he couldn't be surprised.

Once again, he'd come too late to save a friend. Another person who had cared about him was gone - because of him. The Dark Side had consumed him - and now Jev understood his vision in the Dagobah cave. He had not seen his own death. He had seen good people, people who had trusted him, dying. Their blood on his hands.

It was too much for Jev to take. He ran.

A modified TIE-Defender starfighter dropped out of its personal hangar. TIE Interceptors were out now, dogfighting with a dozen X-Wings marked by the insignia of Rik Evverd's Maverick Squadron.

Jev closed his eyes against the reminder, and had the nav computer prepare a hyperdrive course at random.

He didn't care where he went. He just had to get out.

An X-Wing dropped onto his tail. The Defender's advanced encrypt computer broke the relatively simple battle code - and a familiar voice became clear.

"This is Mav Two," said the voice of Davin Serlin, an arrogant blowhard Jev remembered from his own days in Maverick Squadron. "Got some weird kind of three-winged TIE fighter here. I'm gonna take it."

"Careful, Serlin," said Avers' voice. "We need all our fighters in one piece for the big party. We're only a distraction."

"I want this one," said Serlin, and cut his comm.

Red laser bolts slammed into Jev's aft shields. With a roar of pure fury, Jev clenched his fist.

"Get off my tail. Get off my tail! GET OFF MY TAIL!"

The comm crackled back on, to reveal a choking Serlin. "This is Mav Two - got a hull breach or something... I can't breathe..."

But the terror in his tone was too much for Jev. The Dark Side in him had claimed too many lives. He released Serlin.

In doing so, he remained in the X-Wing's sights too long, and Serlin lit him up.

He was still in one piece, but his drive had failed. He began plunging through space towards the interlocking deflector shield of Coruscant.

This is good, thought Jev. I can just die, and it'll be over, and I won't have to deal with any of this...

DESPAIR IS OF THE DARK SIDE, said a familiar, hoarse little voice. USE THE FORCE. THE TRUE FORCE WITHIN YOU.

Jev took a deep breath and concentrated. By enhancing his reflexes with the Force, he was able to steer the almost-dead fighter onto the same vector as a freighter departing the planet.

He barely avoided a dead-on with the freighter, soared through its window in the planetary deflectors, and fell towards Coruscant below.

The planet's surface rushed up at him. Jev closed his eyes, and concentrated. He would get in safely.

But then what?

The stormtroopers were gone, Zellar was dead, the reactor was white-hot, and Evverd figured he had about ten minutes of life left - even without the coming explosion.

The blast doors hissed open, and Evverd fingered the tiny slicer disk's trigger.

Four stormtroopers stepped inside, with Admiral Screed bringing up the rear.

"Just the man I wanted to see," said Evverd.

Screed eyed the reactor in terror. "What have you DONE?"

Evverd grinned. "This is for Taryn, you one-eyed piece of garbage."

He pressed the button.

Kerri had been manning the UWANA BUYER's gunnery station, feeling nothing but a dull kind of ache, for an indeterminate amount of time when the skyhook exploded. She imaged the looks on the faces of the Imperial Center populace - the Emperor's own skyhook, a symbol of his power - destroyed in front of their eyes.

Thinking of Coruscant brought a flash of insight, and she smiled grimly.

She saw Karrde staring at her sympathetically. "Captain, I do wish I had the words..."

"Drop me off on Coruscant before you leave," she said, her eyes blazing with anger. "I have something to do..."

Continued in Episode 15

R. John Burke



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