Added on December 12, 1999
Category: Science Fiction/Star Wars
Author: Commander Antilles

Mara Jade - Jedi Knight

It is a time of rejoicing in the New Republic.
The peace treaty between the Republic and
Empire has finally brought to an end the four
decades of the Galactic Civil War.

A new and deadly threat looms, however.

The peace and the impending marriage of
Luke Skywalker to Mara Jade creates an
alliance between renegade elements of the
Empire and Lady Lumiya of the Sith, who
lives only for revenge on Skywalker for her
bitter and tortured existence...


PROLOGUE:

He turned away from the viewports as his second in command, Lieutenant Kellon Fors, approached. "Sir, we're ready to proceed," he reported.

Captain Narven nodded. "Good. You understand what is required?"

"Yes sir," Fors replied. "I'm just not sure this is the proper course of action for us to take. We are deserting Admiral Pellaeon and the fleet, after all."

Narven's face hardened. "Be thankful I am not the Lord Vader, Lieutenant," he said icily. "Such words to him would have earned your death. Admiral Pellaeon has forfeited any right to command the Imperial Fleet by appeasing the Rebels, and this is not the Empire we swore to serve. We are what remains of the true Empire. You have your orders. Make sure you follow them." He turned back to the viewport. "Instruct helm to proceed."

A slight vibration began in the deck beneath his feet as the Obdurate started to move towards the perimeter of the base, slowly at first, but gaining speed as its momentum built up. Narven walked back to his command board, noting that the carefully planned scheme was proceeding entirely correctly. Behind the Star Destroyer, three Nebulon-B frigates and several Corellian Corvettes were following them towards the Golan platforms.

On board one of the Golan platforms, an officer approached General Hestiv. "Sir, the Obdurate and several other ships are moving to the perimeter without authorisation," he announced. "They refuse to answer our transmissions."

Hestiv nodded and crossed to a viewport, to see the ships bearing straight down on them. "They're mutinying," he said incredulously. "They must be mad. They know they can't escape, certainly not with such a weak force." He turned to one of his aides. "Establish an all-frequencies comm link with the Obdurate."

Narven's senior comm officer approached. "Sir, we have a priority message coming in from General Hestiv," he announced.

"Do we indeed?" Narven said, not bothering to hide his contempt. A close friend of Pellaeon's, and like him, a weak fool.

A quarter size hologram of General Hestiv appeared as he stepped into position in front of the hologram pod. "Captain, you are ordered to immediately shut down all engines and weapon emplacements, and prepare to be boarded," Hestiv ordered.

Narven merely laughed. "You are in no position to give orders, General. I shall enjoy seeing a weak minded bootlicker like you die."

Hestiv scowled as the hologram of Narven vanished as the man stepped out of the hologram transmission field, knowing he would have to take the difficult method of capturing the ships. "Divert all power to the forward shields," he ordered. "Ion and turbolaser batteries, stand by. Tractor beam crews, lock on as soon as they come in range. Drop ships, make ready to launch on my mark."

Narven glanced at his tactical board. His Star Destroyer had been one of five in the Yaga Minor base, and the other four were beginning to move in pursuit, as expected. Other ships were doing likewise, including three more Nebulon-B frigates. He knew what Hestiv would do. They would trap him and the other ships between the four Star Destroyers and the Golan platforms, which would use their ion batteries and functioning tractor beams to pin him in place while boarding craft made a forced docking. It was a stratagem which had worked many times before, and would work this time... had they not planned to counter it. The pursuing ships would be no threat if one of the Golan platforms could be knocked out, creating a hole in the defensive perimeter. However, it would be impossible for a single Star Destroyer and three frigates to do so before the pursuing ships caught up with them.

Ranging shots were being fired from the Golans. Narven did not particularly care. The more they concentrated on him, the more vulnerable they would be to the real attack. He checked his chrono. Any second now, General Hestiv would receive a nasty surprise. "All batteries acquire the command platform," he ordered. "Fire on my command...now."

A hail of turbolaser blasts and proton torpedos immediately erupted from the hull of the Obdurate.

Hestiv watched the barrage impact on the forward shields, which shook but held. A few insignificant holes opened in the energy field. "There, they've tried and failed," he said calmly to an aide. "Order all batteries to fire at will. Tell the boarding parties that I want Captain Narven taken alive."

The words were barely out of his mouth before his confidence turned to shock. A trio of dots appeared on the tactical display as three areas of space beyond the battle station rippled and changed into Star Destroyers that had just dropped their cloaking shields. Battle alarms sounded on the Golan as a storm of turbolaser fire and proton torpedos were fired at the unshielded side, and Hestiv, monitoring the situation on the tactical display, knew he was dead. His last action was to stand calmly a second before a wall of white flame engulfed the bridge.

Narven watched silently as the turbolaser bolts and torpedos struck the hull of the Golan. Hull armour plates were blasted to atoms by the impact, creating a glowing hole in the surface. Flames erupted inside the battle station briefly before they died as oxygen funnelled out of the hull breach. Successive salvos widened and deepened the breach, and out of the corner of his eye he saw the hologram pause symbol turn to static as the transmission signal was lost. Lights on the Golan began flickering madly as the reactor core started to overload and an energy feedback began building up, reminding him of the final moments of the Death Star II.

"Full shields now," he shouted. "Helm, come right 20 degrees. Brace for impact!"

Collision alarms sounded as the crew frantically grabbed onto bulkheads, control equipment, and anything unmoveable. The orders were barely in time. At that moment, the reactor core melted down, and the battle station vanished in a massive explosion and shockwave that shook even ships as large as the Star Destroyers with wave after wave of energy and blast effects.

As the shockwaves slowly faded, the Obdurate and its companions corrected their courses and came through the gap in the base defences, disregarding the laser fire from the other platforms. Behind them, the pursuit ships had come to a halt, both in shock at the loss of the Golan platform and the fact that they were suddenly outnumbered.

Captain Narven smiled, opening a comm channel to the other ships. "This is the Obdurate. Tyrannic, Obliterator, and Ironhand, congratulations on a successful mission. All ships, prepare to jump to hyperspace on your marks. We will assemble at the arranged rendezvous point."

He was still smiling as he watched the stars stretch into lines and then to the mottling of hyperspace. The escape had been a textbook operation. Now they would proceed with the second part of their plan, to inflict a painful defeat on the upstart New Republic.

***

THE JEDI ACADEMY, A WEEK LATER...

Sunrise on Yavin 4.

For once, the normally humid and oppressive air of the jungle moon was absent. A fresh breeze blew across the Massassi Great Temple. The normally dull sky was a vivid blue. Warm sunlight shone down on the Great Temple.

It was, reflected the Jedi Master Luke Skywalker as he stood watching the dawn from the summit of the Great Temple, a good day, appropriately considering its significance. In a few hours, he would stand in the Temple throne room before family, friends, and dignitaries from across the New Republic as he and Mara Jade were joined in marriage.

He gazed out over the jungle, remembering the many pivotal events of his life that had taken place here. Here he had joined the Rebels in their desperate attack on the first Death Star, and become a Hero of the Alliance. Here, years later, he had set up his Jedi academy, and lived for a short time of happiness with Callista.

Not all the memories were good, though. His memory of the destruction of the Death Star was clouded by the loss of his friend Biggs Darklighter, who had died buying Luke a few more seconds to hit the battle station's thermal exhaust port. The spirit of the Sith Lord Exar Kun had nearly destroyed Luke and the academy before he was conquered. And there was his most bitter memory, of the departure of Callista, who had not been able to accept the loss of her powers and had left him in an attempt to regain them.

His reverie was abruptly broken as he sensed a familiar presence emerge on the summit behind him. "Come on, kid," Han Solo yelled. "We were beginning to think you'd gone off to hide in the jungle. I know I would if I was getting married to Mara."

"Be careful," Luke warned, grinning as he turned to face Han. Ever since he and Mara had announced their engagement, Han had been unable to resist constantly baiting Mara. Mara, being Mara, rose to the challenge with vigour, which as Luke and Leia well knew, was about as wise as rancor-wrestling. It only spurred Han on to greater effort to provoke her. They watched with wry amusement and more than a little deja-vu, as Han and Mara fought each other tooth and nail. It reminded them both of the long gone days when Leia and Han had done exactly the same thing during the Rebellion. "It would be awkward if Mara heard you, and I had to announce to the guests that the bride had just thrown the best man off the top of the Temple."

Behind Han, Leia appeared on the summit. "Leave him alone, Solo," she said sternly. "Luke doesn't need you distracting him today. Go and make sure Kyp and Tionne are ready."

"Yes, your worship," Han said irreverently, giving Luke a conspiratorial wink before he turned away. "See what you've got to look forward to."

Leia came up beside Luke as Han went to find Kyp. She put an arm round his waist. "Nervous?" she asked.

Luke smiled. "Very. Can't you tell?"

Leia laughed. "Well, you're not the only one. For once, Mara isn't icy calm. She's so anxious she's practically having woklings." She turned serious. "Once you get to the actual wedding bit, it'll be fine. You'll be concentrating on what to say and do too much to be nervous. Trust me, I've been there."

She touched his hand. "I'll let you meditate a bit in peace. See you at the wedding."

She slipped away silently, and Luke let his thoughts drift back over the recent events, back to his and Mara's return from the Nirauan system four months previously...

The two of them had returned to find Han, Leia, President Gavrisom, General Bel Iblis, Admiral Ackbar, Talon Karrde, and the entire New Republic High Council and Senate running around like headless tauntauns, attempting to thrash out the details of the peace agreement between the New Republic and Empire with Admiral Pellaeon and the Imperial Moffs.

Somehow in all the commotion, they had managed to find time to have a private dinner with Han, Leia, Chewbacca, Lando, Wedge, Karrde, and their respective partners. They had gathered in Luke's temporary quarters on the Galactic Voyager, talking awkwardly to each other and wondering what was so important that it couldn't wait until after the negotiations.

Luke and Mara waited until they ran out of things to discuss, then nodded to each other. Luke coughed loudly, making sure he had everyone's attention, and stood. "Mara and I have an announcement to make," he began tentatively, and was interrupted by Han grinning and saying "Let me guess - you're going to get married."

There was a dead silence. Han's grin faded as he saw the expressions on Luke and Mara's faces. "You're joking, aren't you, Luke?" he said incredulously. "You and Mara?"

Luke found his tongue. "No, Han, we're not joking. I asked Mara to marry me and she accepted." He looked around at the others, who were staring at him, their mouths open wide enough to admit a Star Destroyer, and tried unsuccessfully not to laugh.

Han recovered from his surprise first. "You actually asked Mara to marry you? You're braver than I thought." He gave Luke his cockiest smuggler's grin. "There's no way she'd have agreed to marry you willingly. Did you use a Jedi mind trick on her, kid?" he asked, and ducked to avoid the Force-propelled holodisk that was the nearest object within Mara's reach.

Leia kicked him. "Stop teasing them, Han," she said affectionately and got up, coming over to Luke and Mara and kissing them. "Well done, both of you," she said warmly. "Don't worry Mara, I won't give any long speeches. I'll save that for the wedding. I'll just say that I know you both well enough to see that it will not be an easy marriage for either of you by any means, but it should certainly be an interesting one."

The others followed her lead, offering their own congratulations. Han stepped forward to kiss Mara as well, and swiftly reconsidered in view of the look she gave him, settling for giving her a grin and slapping Luke on the back. Lando and Wedge both shook Luke's hand and hugged Mara. The notoriously formal Karrde stayed true to form, confining himself to offering his congratulations. "Chewie," Leia said in alarm as the Wookiee stepped forwards, "I'm not sure you should..." but she was too late to stop him grabbing Luke and Mara in a hug which nearly suffocated them both.

Only Threepio did not share the positive mood. "Master Luke," he protested, "I must remind you that Mara Jade used to be the Emperor's personal agent, and vowed to kill you for his death. Furthermore, my analysis of your personalities clearly shows that you are as unsuited for each other as Artoo and I am. It has been repeatedly proven that such partnerships never work."

He hesitated for a second. "I think there may be a flaw in my logic there. Nevertheless, I have calculated that the chances of your marriage lasting more than six months are 16,386 to 1...," at which point Wedge switched him off, to everyone's great relief.

Three days later the peace treaty was officially signed, and then Luke and Mara returned to Coruscant to begin planning the wedding. They had chosen Tionne to officiate at the wedding, and she arrived a few days later to help them plan it and discuss what they wanted to happen and would need to do. Leia's comment that it would not be an easy marriage for either of them soon seemed prophetic. Both of them found their patience severely tested as Mara's quick temper came up against Luke's intractability. They also found it strangely invigorating though. Luke found himself musing rather guiltily how passive Callista now seemed compared to Mara.

Four months passed, which both of them thought would be enough time to plan a wedding several times over, but they had not reckoned on the number of problems they had to resolve, starting with the actual location of the wedding, which both of them wanted to be held on Yavin 4, in view of the fact that they were both Jedi Knights and that it would be easier to hold a private wedding there than on Coruscant. Gavrisom, however, was not in favour of the idea, and only backed down after a considerable amount of arguing between the three of them.

Then there was the matter of guests. President Gavrisom was adamant that the entire Senate would have to attend the wedding of the galaxy's only Jedi Master, and refused to be persuaded otherwise this time, despite the combined efforts of Luke, Mara and Leia.

Luke and Mara both agreed that Karrde was the obvious and only choice to give her away. The matter of the best man, however, proved considerably more problematic, severely testing the Jedi patience of both of them. Luke was determined to have Han as the best man, despite Mara's fierce objections. She threatened to call the whole wedding off several times, and only gave in when Luke told her that Lando would be the best man instead. "If Solo makes bantha fodder out of my wedding, I'll use him for target practice in my next lightsabre practice session," she said grimly.

Eventually, to their great relief, all the details of the wedding were settled. Admiral Ackbar had arranged that they, Han and Leia, and the Senate would travel to Yavin 4 in an honour escort led by the Galactic Voyager.

The problems didn't end there though. A couple of days before they were due to depart for Yavin, Luke and Mara were in their apartment, trying to get ready to leave, when they heard the chime at the door. They shared a brief feeling of irritation at the interruption before the same thought struck them simultaneously. They should have sensed anyone approaching long before they got to the door. Only another Jedi would be able to approach them undetected.

They both looked at the door. "Do you think it's Leia?" Mara asked.

Luke shook his head. "I doubt it. I don't think Leia's advanced enough in the Force to cloak herself from both of us. That takes a lot of practice and latent Force strength. Personally, I'd think that only Kyp would have the ability, but he's on Yavin. I can't sense any ysalamiri Force-dampening, either."

He got up and went to the door, with one hand ready on his lightsabre, and as he opened the door, it struck him like a hammerblow that there was one other person who would have been able to evade his detection, not through their strength in the Force, but rather through the fact that they were so entirely cut off from the Force that it was impossible for a Jedi to sense any presence.

The door slid open. "Hello, Luke," Callista said quietly.

Mara sat in her chair, her expression giving nothing away. Luke glanced at her, trying to read her emotions, but she blocked his Force probe. "Stay out of my mind," she snapped. "I'll leave you two to talk," and left the room.

Callista sat awkwardly in the chair opposite Luke after Mara had gone, staring at the floor. The silence in the room slowly thickened. Eventually Luke leaned forward and took her hands. "Callista, why did you come back?" he asked.

Callista raised her head to look at him for the first time and he looked into her grey eyes, remembering how beautiful he had once thought them. Now, though, his mind formed an image of Mara's brilliant green eyes, against which Callista's seemed lifeless by comparison.

"I'm sorry to appear like this, Luke. I know what this must seem like to you, but I had to come back," she said softly. "After Nam Chorios, I wandered through the galaxy for four years, following any lead to try and regain my powers. Four years of pain and loneliness," she said slowly, her eyes far away. "I know now how Mara must have felt after Endor. Finally, I found myself back on Chad. It was the only place in the galaxy that I could find some peace. I've been there for the last two years."

She paused. "Then a fortnight ago I heard the announcement of your wedding on the Holonet."

Luke winced. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to hurt you. I should have found you and told you."

"No, Luke," Callista said sharply. "It suddenly made me realise how selfish I'd been. I didn't come back to take you back from Mara, and I couldn't live with myself if I did. I am truly the last of the old Jedi." She swallowed. "Even though I have lost my powers. You and Mara represent the new Jedi. Your path lies with her, not with me. I hope it will be a good one for you both."

She continued after a minute of silence. "I came back because I wanted to apologise for leaving. I had no choice, though. I loved you too much to feel unworthy of you. I hope you can understand."

"I do understand," Luke said. "I told you that on Nam Chorios. Trusting your feelings is one of the most important things for a Jedi to understand. You will never regret it, even if you hurt others by doing so."

Callista smiled. "Thank you, Luke. There's one other thing. I'd like to train students at Yavin 4. As I said, I am the last of the old Jedi. So many of the old records were destroyed on Palpatine's orders. It seems wrong not to pass my knowledge on to the new Jedi."

Luke nodded, knowing what a sacrifice it was for her to offer to train students and be constantly reminded of the loss of her own powers in doing so, and seeing Luke and Mara in a place where she and Luke had shared some happiness. "Mara and I are thinking of setting up a roaming academy like the Chu'unthor where we can train some of the advanced students, and leaving Kyp in charge of the Yavin academy, so we wouldn't be living on top of each other."

"I'll stay here until after the wedding," Callista answered, "and then I'll go to Yavin."

"You don't have to, Callista," Luke said. "You could come to the wedding. I'll talk Mara round."

Callista turned away quickly, but not before Luke saw the glint of tears in her eyes. "No," she said. "I can't. I loved you with all my heart." She paused. "And I always will. I dreamed that one day we would marry. I couldn't watch you marry someone else."

Luke put his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him. "I wish it could have been different," he said quietly. "It seems it was not meant to be, though." He drew her gently into his arms. "You will always have my love."

They held each other for a long time, until long after twilight had descended.

Luke was standing by the transparisteel windows, Callista having long since gone, when the door opened and Mara came in. Neither of them spoke as she came to stand in front of him, also facing the windows. After a minute, she reached out and took his hands, wrapping them around her shoulders.

They stood there silently for a long time, gazing out over the lights of Coruscant in the dusk. Finally, Mara stirred in Luke's arms. "Did you think that I would feel threatened by Callista?" she asked him.

She felt him shrug. "You certainly acted like you were."

Mara sighed wearily. "Luke, will you stop acting like a wet behind the ears farmboy. I'm quite able to cope with your previous relationships. I only feel pity for Callista. For a Jedi, she has surprisingly little insight into her soul. She has been trained in the Force, but it hasn't taught her something that you and I, Han and Leia, and half the galaxy know. What she did not learn until it was too late is that love is stronger even than the Force."

She was silent for a minute. "Luke, I could see that neither of you wanted to talk in front of me. I left you alone because when you love someone, you trust them. If I didn't want to leave you alone with Callista, then I couldn't go on with this relationship."

She shook her head incredulously. "I don't believe I just said all that. Wash your mouth out, Mara," she muttered to herself, then smiled knowingly. "Besides, I'm a Jedi. If she had tried anything, I'd have known about it soon enough."

Luke turned her to face him, staring into her eyes. He opened his mouth to speak.

"Don't go mushy on me, Luke," Mara said, and kissed him.

The sun had risen higher in the sky above Yavin by the time the memory ended, Luke noted. He glanced at his chrono and grimaced. There were still a few hours to go before the wedding. He wondered why time always seemed to pass so slowly at moments of stress and nervousness like this. He took a deep breath to calm himself, the Jedi Code echoing in his head: There is no emotion; there is only peace...

He felt his tension fade as he recited the Code, and his thoughts slowly drifted back to the recent events.

Three days after Callista's brief return, he and Mara were on Galactic Voyager, en route to Yavin. The preparations were nearly complete at that point, but both of them found themselves prey to severe pre-wedding nerves. They spent most of their time trying to ease their tension, both by improving Mara's skills in the Force - she had always been a quick learner and by the time Galactic Voyager arrived at Yavin, she was able to hold several items of furniture over each other in midair while simultaneously using her lightsabre to block two remotes - and in lightsabre practice. Leia joined them for some of the sessions and she and Mara made exhaustive, if unsuccessful, attempts to beat Luke, although he was put under greater pressure each time they fought. That brought him back to the main event of the journey, his using the Force to bring back Mara's memories of childhood. It had begun after one particularly intensive lightsabre practice session...

Luke's lightsabre clashed against Mara's. For a second, it remained there, and then the green-white blade vanished as Luke deactivated his lightsabre. The duel had ended in a stalemate. They had fought each other for nearly an hour, and had finally been forced to stop as neither had been able to gain an advantage.

"There's little more I can teach you, Mara," Luke said between breaths. "Your lightsabre skills are complete. You just showed me how well you can fight when you put your mind to it. When you and Leia fight me together, you don't fight to your full abilities. You rely on the two of you being able to overwhelm me."

"Thanks for the lesson, Master," Mara said sarcastically.

There was a brief pause in the conversation. Luke replaced the lightsabre on his belt, and then noticed the look on Mara's face as he did so. "What is it?"

Mara hesitated. "Luke, you said Jedi could bring out hidden memories. Could you help me remember my past?"

Luke considered. "How much do you remember?"

Mara thought. "I can remember most of my training. Starship maintenance, unarmed combat, espionage, and other such skills. Not much of a childhood, is it? I can take it back to when I was about five or six years old. I can't remember anything further back than that, though."

"All right," Luke said. "Close your eyes and concentrate on what you remember." He reached out and put his hands on her temples. Mara sensed his presence in her mind probing at her memories, and tried to recall anything from before the Emperor took her, but nothing came.

She sensed Luke's presence withdraw and opened her eyes. "Nothing happened."

Luke nodded. "This won't be easy. Your memories of childhood don't seem to have gone, they seem to have been deliberately sealed off by a dark side memory block. I imagine it's something the Emperor must have done.

Mara frowned. "Why would he do that?"

Luke shrugged, his face grim. "I don't suppose it was out of the goodness of his heart. No doubt you knew something that he didn't want you to remember."

Mara looked at him. "Can you remove the memory block?"

Luke was silent for a minute. "I don't know," he eventually admitted. "I'll try to remove the block but I can't guarantee it'll work. If you lie down on one of the benches..." When she had done so, he began stroking her neck and cheek in the way he had done after she had been wounded in the Chiss fortress. "I'm putting you into a memory trance," he explained, his voice and face seeming to recede down a long corridor as he did so. "It may take a while..."

An indefinite period of time later, Mara woke up. She looked round to see Luke watching her from the bench opposite, looking strained. "It wasn't easy, but I managed to remove the memory block," he said, pre-empting her question. "I don't think you're going to find it pleasant, though."

Mara opened her mouth to retort that she was perfectly capable of dealing with anything that might have been buried in her mind, but stopped as she saw Luke's expression. "Bad?" she queried.

Luke nodded sombrely. "I think you'd better find out what happened yourself."

Mara took the hint. She closed her eyes, probing her memories - and gasped involuntarily as a flood of images surged up to almost overwhelm her. One, though, stood out like a rancor in a crowd of Ewoks. She focussed her mind on it, sensing an overwhelming impression of fear and desperation, and let it fill her mind...

       She was standing in a clearing in a forest. Two figures clad in Jedi robes and wearing lightsabres stood in front of her, their faces hidden by the hoods of their cloaks. There was a sense of despair and terror in the air. As she watched, one of the figures stepped towards the other. "They're not far behind now," it said grimly, the voice revealing it to be a man.

He reached out and pushed the other's hood back, and as he did so, Mara's world seemed to collapse around her. She stared in shock as the face of the other Jedi was revealed. It was a woman with the same flowing red hair and emerald green eyes as her. Even the face was similar. A thousand questions passed through her mind in an instance. Was this a memory of her past? Had she been a Jedi who had been captured and somehow had her memory erased during Palpatine's Jedi pogrom? Had her memories of her upbringing on Coruscant all been implanted? Or was it a Jedi vision of a point in her future?

"It's a memory of your past, Mara," said the presence of Luke in her mind calmingly, and as he spoke, she noticed a small child, who she was sure had not been there a moment before, clinging to the hand of the woman. The child had the same red hair and green eyes...

And suddenly it was all clear. This was indeed her past. She was the child and the two Jedi were her parents. She knew somehow that they were fleeing from a great danger, and it didn't take much to work out that only one thing would present such a great danger to the Jedi. "No," she thought, knowing what was going to happen.

Her father straightened and spoke to her mother. "The two of you can still escape if you go now," he said quietly. "I'll stay here and hold them off."

Mara's mother shook her head desperately. "I won't leave you," she said. "You can't win. That Sith Lord will destroy you. He has already defeated many stronger Jedi before. We can fight him together."

"He will destroy all of us if you do not go now," her father said grimly. "Better it is just one rather than all three. One of us is already lost to the Empire. Take Mara and escape."

He knelt down before the young Mara. "Mara, you are strong in the Force. You have the potential to be a great Jedi Knight. Mind what we have taught you. The Force will be your ally and protector, always." He reached out and placed a hand on her forehead. "Remember me, my daughter."

He stood and turned to her mother. "I'm sorry. This is the last test of a Jedi, to face becoming one with the Force. If you escape, teach Mara the ways of the Jedi. It is her destiny." He smiled, reaching out a hand to stroke her cheek. "Remember, we can never be truly separated. We are forever joined in the Force. Go now, before it is too late."

The young Mara was lifted by her mother, and the pair of them hurried into the trees. Her last sight of her father was of him gazing after them as he drew and ignited his lightsabre.

Imperial stormtroopers burst into the clearing a minute later, moving around the clearing to cut off any possibility of escape. In their wake, a giant figure dressed in black entered the clearing behind them.

Darth Vader nodded in satisfaction. "Today another Jedi fool will be defeated. Your family will die as well. My master has chosen to enjoy the destruction of your wife and child. They are lost. But you have a last chance to escape your destiny, if you kneel before me and swear to serve the dark side, the true side of the Force."

Mara's father smiled. "The dark side is for those who do not have the discipline to master the light side. And your empty words cannot fool a Jedi. You will strike me down whatever I do. You will win this battle and no doubt others, but one day, a Jedi will rise and defeat you and your evil master. I have foreseen it."

Vader's sibilant breathing filled the clearing. "So be it, Jedi."

He ignited his lightsabre and struck. Mara's father blocked the blow, and the two began a battle to the death. Her father fought well and managed to match Vader at least temporarily. A pair of stormtroopers, hoping to earn a reward from the Dark Lord, opened fire. Their interference merely enraged Vader, though. He reached out with the Force and caught the two stormtroopers in a Force grip. The troopers began to choke, but before they asphyxiated, Mara's father used the Force to break Vader's Force grip. "Even the weak minded do not deserve death," he said.

Vader's answer was to launch a savage attack, using the dark side to augment his strength and beat down the Jedi's defences. "You will die instead," he rasped. In a series of vicious blows, he drove his opponent's lightsabre aside and then knocked it from his hand.

Vader paused, savouring his triumph, then struck, cutting the Jedi down. He watched as the empty cloak and lightsabre fell to the ground, and wondered, not for the first time, why the bodies of the Jedi always vanished when he defeated them. He called the dropped lightsabre to his hand and placed it and his own lightsabre on his belt, then remembered the two stormtroopers that he had begun to choke. This time though, there was no Jedi to break his Force grip.

"Remove the bodies," he ordered when the troopers lay still, and strode from the clearing.

Mara's mother fled through the forest, holding her daughter. She used the Force to ease the burden, but nevertheless, she was slowed by Mara's weight. She could sense the ripples in the Force as her husband and Vader fought, and then there was a sudden emptiness and she knew the Jedi were one less.

She stopped, utter despair filling her, despite her efforts to drown it. She could sense Vader's presence approaching, but there was another, even more evil presence very close by, and she knew there was no escape. She looked round. On her right, there were a few more rows of trees. Beyond them there were a series of rockfaces. She could see that one of them opened into a small gully. She made a last effort and headed for the opening.

She barely made it. As she reached the opening in the rockface, a platoon of the Emperor's Royal Guard emerged from the trees and came towards her. She put Mara down and pushed her behind a pile of rocks just inside the opening, then drew and ignited her lightsabre, adopting a defensive stance, but the Royal Guardsmen merely stopped and faced her in a line.

A large airspeeder appeared over the trees, and landed on the open ground between the trees and cliffs. It was heavily armoured and well-armed, clearly a transport for a high ranking dignitary. With a hiss of well oiled hydraulics, the ramp lowered.

A bent figure in a black cloak came down the ramp. Emperor Palpatine smiled at seeing a trapped Jedi, a smile which looked like the agonised final grimace of a corpse. "Good. I shall have the pleasure of removing another accursed Jedi from the galaxy this day." A blaze of dark side lightning erupted from his fingertips. The power of the bolts knocked the lightsabre from Mara's mother's hand and hurled her to the ground. The attack continued remorselessly until finally she lay motionless.

Palpatine laughed, a chilling sound. A deep silence fell upon the forest as the native animals froze in terror, and even the wind seemed to drop. The Emperor walked towards to where Mara was crouching behind the rockpile. Mara slowly shifted her gaze from the dead body of her mother to look into the sickly yellow eyes of the Emperor. She saw his hands raise and point straight at her in readiness to unleash another blast of lightning. She shrank back and closed her eyes. But nothing happened. After a minute, she cautiously opened her eyes, fearing that the Emperor was toying with her before he destroyed her.

Palpatine was staring at her. His hands were at his side and there was a thoughtful look on his face. After a long time, he spoke to Darth Vader, who had arrived and was standing beside him. "This child-" he paused, probing her mind, "- Mara Jade, is strong in the Force. If she had been trained as a Jedi, she would be a dangerous enemy. However, the Jedi are nearly exterminated and her parents are now dead. There is no one to teach her the ways of the weak and pretentious light side."

He nodded. "Yes, she would make a promising servant, particularly if she is taught how to utilise her Force sensitivity. It will have to be done carefully, though. She will only be taught basic skills so that she cannot become a threat. I will place false memories in her mind so that she will not remember this day, and to ensure her reliability through blind devotion to me."

He smiled icily. "The Jedi have at last done something of use for the galaxy by providing me with an useful asset to my New Order." He signalled to one of his Royal Guards. "Take this child to my shuttle." He turned and walked towards the air speeder, with Vader following him, and then the scene faded away into blackness...

Mara opened her eyes. It took a few moments to orient herself. She thought of what she had just seen in her mind, and a deep black well of anger rose inside her, greater even than the hatred she had once felt towards Luke for the part she believed he had taken in the Emperor's death. Vader and the Emperor had killed her parents and used her as a pawn for their own purposes. "Those murdering Sith scum," she snarled. She stopped, unable to find words to express her rage.

"Control your anger," Luke said softly.

Mara looked at him in surprise and some embarrassment, having almost forgotten he was there. She took a deep breath and ran through Jedi calming techniques. She felt the rage fading, leaving a hollow feeling inside her. "I know, anger leads to the dark side," she said, quoting one of his favourite phrases.

Luke nodded. "If you give in to your anger, you play into their hands. The Emperor tried to turn me to the dark side by provoking me into attacking him. Learn from your past and use it to become stronger, rather than choosing the quick and easy path."

Much to his surprise, Mara's tough exterior suddenly broke for only the second time since he had met her. She didn't weep, but there was a look of terrible vulnerability in her eyes and face. "They killed my parents," she said. "My whole life was a lie. The Emperor betrayed me by making me believe that my parents sold me to the Empire, and used me for his own ends. I know he lied to me about being his only Hand and fooled me into believing you killed him, but I never thought that even he would do something like this. He must have enjoyed making a puppet out of me."

Luke took her into his arms, trying to give her some comfort, despite his own shock. Ben Kenobi had told him how Vader had helped hunt down the Jedi, but seeing him destroy Mara's father suddenly made it real, instead of a story. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "My father was responsible for what happened to you as much as Palpatine, after all."

Mara shook her head. "He was, but he turned from the dark side at the end and saved you by destroying Palpatine, didn't he? Besides, I can hardly start throwing stones. I helped them do the exact same thing to other Jedi, and no doubt destroyed other people's lives on my missions."

Luke was silent for a minute. "You shouldn't blame yourself, though," he finally said. "The Emperor fooled and betrayed many people who should have seen through him, not least my father. You would have been easy enough for him to persuade."

To his surprise, Mara abruptly pushed him away. "Do you think I'm selfish?" she asked.

Luke blinked, caught off guard by the sudden change of subject. "No," he said honestly. "You're one of the least selfish people I know. You've spent most of your life serving others."

Mara laughed weakly. "I am," she said. "I've just learnt that Vader and the Emperor killed my parents, and used me as a pawn, but I was more upset about the loss of the Jade's Fire. What does that say about me?"

"Nothing at all," Luke said quietly. "You barely knew your parents. Neither did I. I never knew my mother and hardly knew my father. I found it nearly impossible to grieve for him as well." He kissed her. "You said you wanted to have the same sort of emotional openness as I do. It looks like you're starting to."

He held her for a while, before Mara put her grief aside in the same way that she had done after the destruction of the Jade's Fire. "Just don't think about telling this to Solo," she said with a flash of her usual self. "At least I know where my Force abilities came from. I always wondered why Palpatine would single me out to teach me how to use the Force. The untrained child of two Jedi must have been tempting." She frowned. "My parents said that one of them had already been lost to the Empire. I wonder what that meant." She shivered, remembering their deaths, particularly her mother's. She knew what being on the receiving end of Force lightning was like, both from Luke's stories and personal experience...

Luke's reverie ended abruptly as he sensed Leia return. He waited as she came to stand beside him, and put her arm around his waist. "Thinking about something?" she queried. "You look rather grim."

Luke nodded. "Can I try something?" he asked, and leaned towards her, putting his head against hers, and transferring the memory of Mara's childhood to her. When he had finished, Leia stood quietly for a while. "As Mara said, it explains why the Emperor would have trained her in the Force," she said at last. "I didn't think it was a purely random selection. I always thought she must have had one or more Jedi parent, to be so strong in the Force. They would have been proud to see what she's become. She was strong enough not to give into hate of the Emperor for what he did to her. I don't know if I could have done that in her place."

She shook her head. "Anyway, I'll be Kesseled if I'm going to stand here and let you go over all this," she said adamantly. "It's your wedding day and I don't want you walking around looking miserable. I don't care what you do as long as you're not standing around thinking."

"Yes, sister," Luke said sardonically, and got a glare from her.

"Don't start that," she snapped. "I have to put up with enough of it from Han without you as well. Are you ready?"

Luke straightened himself up, checked his clothes briefly, and smiled at her. "I'm ready..."

***

The Jedi were renowned for maintaining a calm demeanour in the most desperate circumstances. Today, though, Luke Skywalker was far from displaying any kind of calm. Three hours later, he was standing in the throne room of the Great Temple. He remembered Leia's advice that he would be too preoccupied during the wedding to be nervous.

He couldn't imagine how she could have been so wrong.

Han, standing next to him on the ceremonial platform, was unable to hide his amusement as Luke shifted anxiously from foot to foot, watching the back of the room like a starving rancor as he waited for Mara's imminent arrival. "Where in the Force is she?" he heard Luke mumble in exasperation.

"Relax, kid," he hissed to Luke. "Mara's only a couple of minutes late. Remember, you were the one who was almost late for my own wedding."

His remarks seemed to break the tension. Luke smiled. "That's different. You didn't have to worry about being left standing at the altar." He reached out with the Force to Mara. "Do you plan to stop wasting time and grace us with your presence any time soon?" he asked her dryly.

He was unable to suppress a smile at her response. "If you think you can start shooting your mouth off like Solo to me, you've got a surprise coming," Mara answered. "Callista may have liked it, but I'll be Kesseled if I'm going to put up with it."

The link was abruptly broken as Han nudged Luke sharply in the ribs. Luke glanced at the back of the throne room, where two doorwardens were pulling the doors open, to see Talon Karrde enter the room, clad in his official robes of the head of the newly formed New Republic/Empire Galactic Intelligence Service.

Luke, however, scarcely noticed, his attention fixed on Mara. His breath caught in his throat as she stepped through the doors. Tionne had told them that Jedi weddings were a customised form of the standard galaxy wedding service, itself an ancient ceremony the origins of which had long been forgotten. Mara wore a traditional Jedi wedding gown, consisting of a pure white Jedi cloak and tunic. A filmy white hood emphasised her intense green eyes to stunning effect. She was striking enough as it was, but it was the radiant look in her face and eyes, an expression Luke had never seen before, which transformed her from merely lovely to hauntingly beautiful. Not even Callista had ever looked so attractive.

Life was a wheel that no one could stand on it for long.

And it always, at the end, came round to the same place again.

19 years ago, he had stood in this same place, aware that he was on the threshold of a new stage in his life. Today, he was at another turning point in life. He wished briefly that his father, Ben Kenobi and Yoda were here one more time to see him marry Mara. Ben had long ago said that he would no longer appear to Luke, and Luke assumed that it applied to Yoda and his father. He knew that they would be watching him proudly from somewhere, though.

He was more right than he knew. Five shimmering translucent figures, invisible to the entire gathering, stood in front of the doors at the back of the throne room, all wearing Jedi robes. Yoda stood in the centre, dwarfed by the four others on either side of him. On his right stood Anakin Skywalker and then Ben Kenobi. On his left stood a tall man with shoulder length black hair and dark eyes. A slightly smaller woman with waist length red hair and sharp green eyes stood next to him, her arm around his waist. Anakin inclined his head to them in greeting, and Mara's parents nodded back to him, all three of them watching with pride as their children prepared to marry each other.

At the far end of the hall, Luke came down to the bottom of the steps as Mara came slowly up the aisle on Karrde's arm. When she reached him, Karrde stepped back, leaving them alone. "There's something I should tell you before we go on," Mara said to Luke.

Luke took her hands, knowing perfectly well what she was going to say, and sensing her nervousness at what was still a major display of her feelings. Nevertheless, he was unable to resist teasing her. "You're not secretly in love with Lando, are you?" he asked.

Mara gave him a pitying look. "Any more remarks like that and you can find someone else desperate enough to marry you." She braced herself. "I love you, Luke," she said softly.

Luke smiled. "You certainly took long enough to say it. It was well worth the wait, though. I know this is generally meant to happen at the end of the ceremony, but I don't think I can wait that long."

His lips met hers in a gentle kiss.

Han coughed impatiently after a few seconds, and they reluctantly disengaged. "I suppose we'd better do this before everyone falls asleep," Mara commented wryly.

They went up the steps to where Tionne was waiting, and she stepped forward. She took their lightsabre hands and placed them palm to palm. "Kneel in the sight of the Force," she said.

Later, Luke could remember little of what had happened after that point. The rest became a blur. He was only conscious of staring into Mara's green eyes and repeating the required words and actions after Tionne. He only returned to reality as Tionne finished the standard ceremony by raising her arms with the palms facing outwards in a Jedi blessing. "I now confirm Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade joined in the Force. What the light side has brought together, let not the dark side drive asunder."

She scanned the crowd. "These two Jedi have chosen to be joined by a Force bonding ceremony. This is an event which has not occurred since the Jedi purges. It may be a long process and is extremely painstaking, so I ask you not to cause any distraction while it takes place."

She nodded to Kyp, who as the most gifted Jedi Knight, had been chosen to perform the ritual. He stepped forward and closed his eyes, calling upon all his control of the Force. Luke and Mara tensed momentarily as Kyp created a barrier around them, feeling their Force awareness of the people in the audience chamber fade to nothing. It was like the Force dampening effect of a ysalamiri, with one difference. They could still sense each other. Tionne caught their eye and nodded, and they began.

After much thought and meditation, Luke and Mara had decided to go ahead with the bonding ceremony. Tionne had told them that it would be an extremely intense experience for both of them. She had also warned that it might also prove to be a mistake. Some of the Old Republic Jedi had been unable to cope with the results of the bonding ritual, with disastrous consequences for them. She had therefore been pleased to learn that Luke and Mara had already successfully undergone a similar experience during their battle in Thrawn's cloning chamber.

Tionne was right about both things, Luke realised as he joined his consciousness with Mara's. He could understand how some Jedi failed to accept this. The ritual was literally an extension of the idea that marriage joined two people into one. It let one share the other's thoughts and memories, and to a degree, even think and react as the other would. In a sense, each of them would forever have part of the other's mind in their own consciousness.

It was also a deeply exhilarating sensation. It felt almost identical to their semi-bonding in Thrawn's cloning chamber, but it differed in that they did not need to use the Force to do so. He felt every thought, every memory, every feeling Mara had ever had, and knew that the same was happening to her simultaneously. New memories coalesced in both their minds.

One took them both by surprise. "That was you on Hoth?" each asked simultaneously through their mind link.

Luke shook his head. "Talk about your purpose in life being to kill me," he observed.

"I didn't have much choice," Mara shot back. "You had me trapped. Anyway, it's water under the bridge now."

After a long time, the mind transfer slowed and then stopped. Both of them spent a while longer coming to terms with what they had just experienced. When it became apparent that they had finished, Kyp gradually lowered the Force barrier around them.

They looked around the audience chamber at the guests, who were clearly waiting for them to say something. Their new link let them share Mara's thought of "I think you're the one best suited for this."

Taking his cue, Luke opened his mouth to speak, expecting to hear himself say something profound and illuminating as befitted a Jedi Master. Instead, to his embarrassment, all he could think to say was "Wow."

A ripple of laughter ran through the crowd and Tionne stepped forward. "The ceremony is finished," she announced. "The Jedi Knights Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade are now married."

She looked at Luke with a twinkle in her eye. "You may kiss the bride...again."

At the back of the hall, Anakin Skywalker and Ben Kenobi exchanged a quiet smile with each other, as did Mara's parents. Anakin placed a hand on Yoda's shoulder, and the five of them gradually faded from view, leaving the living to celebrate.

***

The post-wedding celebration was in full swing. Leia was standing talking to General Bel Iblis, Admiral Ackbar, General Rieekan, and Mon Mothma, who as the former chief of state of the New Republic, had been invited as the guest of honour, when Talon Karrde approached them. She winced, anticipating what Ackbar, who was no exception to the Mon Calamari loathing of smugglers, would say to Karrde, or, more precisely, not say.

She soon found her anticipation to have been entirely correct. The others readily enough accepted Karrde into the conversation, but Ackbar refused to talk to him or even acknowledge his presence.

After putting up with this for a while, Leia took a deep breath. "Admiral, I know you despise smugglers, but this is not the time or place to indulge old hatreds." She could see heads turning as they sensed the tension in the atmosphere. Luke and several of the Jedi Knights were looking anxiously towards the group, nervous of an open argument.

Ackbar turned towards her. "Pardon me, Councillor Solo," he rumbled, "but I would be honoured if you would remain silent." Leia stopped, taken aback by Ackbar's rebuke, and he turned back to look at Karrde.

"The Mon Calamari have no love for smugglers. I will never forget their complicity with the Empire in enslaving us," he said grimly. He stared at Karrde for a minute. "However, perhaps it is time to forgive. The New Republic and Empire have made peace, and our only Jedi Master has married one of the Emperor's closest agents. It seems fitting for us also to lay our grudges to rest." He held out a hand to Karrde.

It was a handsome gesture, and it was equally handsomely accepted by Karrde. "Thank you, Admiral," he said as he took Ackbar's hand. "I admit I have engaged in questionable activities over the years, but kidnapping or slavery were the two things I absolutely refused to countenance in my organisation. I know it's too little, too late, but I would like to express my regret at the treatment of your race by other smugglers."

In another part of the room, Mara and Shada stood talking animatedly. They had become close friends, despite the difference in their ages, since Karrde had introduced Shada to Mara, telling her that he would train her as his new second in command. Mara had been slightly annoyed at Karrde's speed in finding a replacement for her, but soon grew to like Shada as it became apparent how much they had in common. Both were highly trained and formidable women who had existed to serve their masters, and in return been betrayed by them, Mara by the Emperor and Shada by the Mistryl.

"...And then we took the datacard to Admiral Pellaeon," Shada said as she finished telling Mara about her journey with Karrde to find Jorj Car'das in the hope that he might have a copy of the Caamas Document.

"It must seem like a bit of a comedown, going from being one of the Mistryl to second in command of a smuggling group," Mara commented when Shada had finished.

Shada smiled. "Second in command of Galactic Intelligence, you mean. At first, I felt ashamed at being part of a smuggling organisation, at least until I learned the true story about Emberlene. Karrde's a good man, though. He gave me a second chance when not even the New Republic would have me."

Mara nodded. "He gave me the chance to get out of the dead end life I spent five years in after Endor." She laughed. "We must sound like the Talon Karrde Appreciation Society."

"So what do we call you now?" Shada asked. "Is it Jade, Jade Skywalker, or just plain Skywalker?"

Mara looked down at her feet briefly. "Mara Skywalker, I think. It's strange. Only a few months ago, I'd have died rather than lose the Jade part of my name, let alone actually agree to marry Luke. I suppose I'm getting conservative in my old age. Either that, or it's something to do with being a full Jedi. It just seems that if we're going to get married, we might as well do it properly. I never do things by halves, as any of Karrde's people will tell you. And besides, it has a nice ring to it."

Shada gave Mara a thoughtful look. "I'm surprised you married Luke, actually. I would have thought Karrde was more your type than Luke."

Mara grimaced and shook her head. "Karrde and I know better than to wreck a good partnership. He's too calculating even for me, and besides, he's too old. The two of you would probably suit each other nicely, though."

Shada laughed. "You just said he was too calculating even for you."

Mara grinned. "Pay no attention. Karrde's as soft as an Ewok underneath it all. I've seen enough of his sort to know exactly what they're like. They always put on an ice cold front to hide their true nature. I told Luke once that Karrde was an even worse idealist than him. If anything, that was an understatement."

Luke and Leia sat in a corner of the throne room by themselves, Leia having managed to get Luke on his own for a few minutes.

"It all seems to be going well," Luke commented, watching Han, Chewbacca, Lando, and the whole of Rogue Squadron loudly and not entirely soberly reliving the battles of Yavin, Hoth, and Endor.

Leia nodded and took a deep breath. Discussing personal matters with Luke was never easy at the best of times. "Luke," she began. "I'm glad you and Mara decided to marry. It feels like this is your right path. You both complement each other. Mara keeps you from being too much the Jedi Master and you give her the support and relationship that she needs. Being taken from her home as a child and brought up by the Emperor didn't do her much good. She's only just coming out of that." She was silent for a minute. "It seems odd that you both took ten years to get to this point. Do you remember just before we took Marnoo back from the Empire and you and Mara faced Kam on Nespis VIII?"

Luke nodded. "It nearly but not quite happened. We were both unready for a relationship. Mara was still torn about being a Jedi and wanting to work with the Smuggler's Alliance, and I was still affected by my experiences with the dark side." He gestured at the scene in front of them. "It took all that time for us both to get to this point, what with Callista, Lando, and everything else."

"I hope it will have been worth it," Leia said. "Since you came back from the Nirauan system, there's been a sense of peace about you that you haven't had since Callista left. Even Mara seems much more serene these days, as incredible as that seems. Han wouldn't have said a fraction of the things he's been saying about her in the last few months before she ran him through with a lightsabre. I don't know what you talked about together while you were there, but it must have been interesting to listen to."

She grimaced. "I must sound like an actor in a bad holovid," she said ruefully.

Luke laughed. "More like Mon Mothma. All those speeches obviously rubbed off on you."

Mara turned away from Shada and came towards them. "I've had enough of this circus," she said. "You ready for takeoff, flyboy?"

Luke glanced around the throne room. "Not yet," he said. "I don't think we've spoken to everyone yet."

Leia and Mara both gave him a dangerous look. "Go on, Luke," Leia said firmly. "The door's that way. I'll sort everything out."

Luke smiled, accepting the inevitable gracefully. "Thanks, Leia. I'll see you when we get back".

"Hold on, Luke," Leia interrupted. She signalled to Han, who was standing talking with Kyp, Lando and Chewbacca. "You don't get rid of us that easily. We're coming with you to the landing grid." She smiled. "We've got something to show you."

The three of them were waiting for Han to make his way through the crowd to them, when Leia abruptly stiffened. "My stars!" she exclaimed. Luke and Mara followed her gaze to the middle of the throne room. Some of the guests were dancing in the middle of the room, including Lando and Tendra, and Kyp and Tionne. What had caught Leia's attention, though, was the sight of an acutely embarrassed Talon Karrde dancing with Shada, aware that he was being watched by every one of the guests. Shada looked round at the impromptu audience, and then wrapped her arms round Karrde's neck, demonstrating her indifference to their amazement.

"Did you have something to do with this?" Luke asked Mara, with an amused glint in his eye.

"Who, me?" Mara replied innocently and fooling no one. "Dream on, farmboy."

Han joined them, grinning from ear to ear. "Why doesn't anyone listen to me about strong women?" he said. He dragged his gaze away from Karrde and Shada with difficulty. "Ready to go, Luke?"

Han turned to Luke and Mara, who were staring at the ship sitting on the landing grid. "Welcome to the Skywalker Spirit, kid," he said with an expectant grin. "The name was Leia's idea. One of those crazy Force things. Well, what do you think?"

"It's a gift from the New Republic," Leia said. "We had some Mon Calamari and Verpine techs adapt it specially. They've upgraded the weapon systems, shields, and engines, and enlarged the internal spaces."

"They've done that alright," Luke agreed. The ship was slightly larger than the Jade's Fire, and like nothing either he or Mara had ever seen before. It looked like a combination of pieces of several ships, but due perhaps to the work of the Mon Calamari techs, it had a surprisingly graceful look. The sleek hull and powerful drive units indicated that it would be fast and agile, while the three heavy turbolasers, four light laser and ion cannons, and two twin proton torpedo launchers would make it a dangerous enemy in a battle. The standard dull grey/white starship hull paint had been replaced by an elegant silvery finish, with three closely spaced pale green bands running along the centre of the upper hull.

"I quite like it, actually," Leia said wistfully.

Han scowled. "What, you mean you prefer that rustbucket to the Falcon?" he said indignantly.

"Well, why not?" Leia asked. "They stopped producing YT-1300 freighters a long time ago. That ship hasn't got a single original part left. I'm amazed every time it takes off in one piece. And besides, it's the least suitable transport imaginable for a New Republic Senator."

Mara interrupted Han's retort. "You can sort out what you prefer by yourselves," she said. "I'll get the ship ready for takeoff." She kissed Leia and turned to Han, who was expecting a sarcastic remark. Instead, he was amazed to find himself being hugged by Mara. "Thanks, Han," she said. She let go after a few seconds. "Don't think I've suddenly gone soft, Solo," she said grimly, and headed towards the ship.

Han gave Luke a pitying look. "I feel sorry for you, kid. Mara's bad enough on her own. Imagine what your life will be like when you've got three or four little Mara's running around."

Leia shook her head in mock exasperation. "Just ignore him, Luke. He's secretly dying to be an uncle. By the way, we've already put all the parts you asked for on board, including the Adegan crystal. Make sure Mara makes her new lightsabre. So do we get to find out where you're going?"

Luke shrugged. "I don't know what we're going to do. Somehow I can't see Mara being overwhelmed at the prospect of visiting any luxury resorts."

Leia smiled, then stepped forward and kissed him. "Take care," she said. "Give Mara my love."

Luke nodded. "I will. See you, Han."

Han laughed. "Go on, get out of here. May the Force be with you. I think you're going to need it with Mara."

"You're probably right there," Luke agreed. "She's telling me to get moving right now." He went up the ramp, which began closing as soon as he was on it.

Leia watched the ship take off and climb towards space until it vanished from sight.

"Something the matter?" Han asked.

Leia shook her head. "It just reminds me of our own wedding," she said. "It doesn't seem possible it's been eleven years. My whole life seems to have been spent fighting one threat after another. I sometimes wish I could go and hide somewhere far away from the Empire and New Republic, or that I had never agreed to go and find Ben Kenobi for my father."

Han shook his head. "You know you don't mean that, sweetheart. What you need is a break from it all and you'll come back ready to fight all the old battles again. We'll have to ask Gavrisom for some time to ourselves again, and make absolutely sure not even he knows where we're going this time. Nearly crashing into a planet once is enough for me."

He gave her a searching look. "By the way, you didn't really mean what you said about the Falcon, did you?"

Leia was unable to suppress a smile. Despite being married, the father of three children, and old enough by now to know better, he had lost none of the roguishness of the smuggler who had blasted his way into her cell on the Death Star so many years before.

"No, Han," she said. "I didn't."

***

The next morning, Galactic Voyager left Yavin to head back to Coruscant, carrying the dignitaries who had attended the wedding. Han and Leia watched from the cockpit of the Falcon as the Galactic Voyager vanished into hyperspace with a flicker of pseudomotion.

The comm crackled. "Han, old buddy, Tendra and I are leaving," Lando said from the Lady Luck. "I found an interesting possibility for investment in the Ukio system. I don't suppose you're interested in forming a partnership to capitalise on this unique opportunity, are you?"

Han grinned. Lando was forever on the lookout for a chance to earn a few easy credits. He had gotten enough first hand experience of Lando's money making ideas to know that:

a) Lando was again in desperate need of some credits,

b) Lando's schemes never worked, for one reason or another.

"I'll think we'll pass on this one, Lando," he replied.

Lando sighed regretfully. "See you around, Han," he said.

Han acknowledged him, and a second later the Lady Luck vanished into hyperspace. He glanced at Leia. "She can still beat that souped up piece of junk the New Republic gave Luke and Mara as a wedding present hands down," he said, patting the Falcon's consoles lovingly. "Here we go. Next stop Coruscant," he observed as he pulled the hyperdrive lever, only to groan as the Falcon failed to go to lightspeed.

Leia slumped in her seat with a resigned sigh.

"Watch this," Han growled, goaded by her blatant derision. He kicked the consoles hard and grinned triumphantly as the Falcon jumped forward into hyperspace as though she had been stung.

***

A Loronar Strike Cruiser hurtled through hyperspace on the way to a rendezvous with the renegade Imperial forces. The Dark Jedi Lady Lumiya sat in her private quarters on the Strike Cruiser, considering the recent events. After the conclusion of the Caamas Issue, the three Star Destroyers involved in the battle over Bothwui had deserted, both to avoid the inevitable trial they would face, and in disgust at the peace treaty between the Empire and New Republic. Captain Narven of the Obdurate and other Imperial Captains had been similarly outraged, and Lumiya had taken the opportunity to persuade them to work with her. At any other time, she would have ignored them, as there had been other, far better chances at overthrowing or merely hurting the New Republic, that she had disregarded, such as the brief campaign of Grand Admiral Thrawn and the mad Jedi Master Joruus C'baoth. For a time, she had been tempted to join them, when they seemed to be winning, but Thrawn was too strongwilled for her to dominate and she did not want to work with an insane Jedi. All the other options, like the egomaniacal and pathetically incompetent Admiral Daala, had been rejected instantly.

The event which had persuaded her to join this small force, however, had been the announcement of the imminent wedding of Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade. Upon hearing the news, she had gone into a savage, dark side fuelled rage, and immediately decided to join the renegade Imperials. Skywalker had destroyed her life and left her to suffer. She had let him escape her for far too long, and then there was the matter of Mara Jade. The former Emperor's Hand, once sworn to kill Skywalker for her master's death, had abandoned her true path so completely that she had become a Jedi and agreed to marry Skywalker. C'baoth had once believed that he held the key to Skywalker's soul. He had been utterly wrong, Lumiya thought. She had the true key to the soul of Mara Jade. Once Jade learned the truth about her past, she would join Lumiya. There would be no other choice...

The Imperial Star Destroyer Chimaera hung quietly above the Imperial capital world of Bastion, only a few running lights showing. On the bridge of the Chimaera, however, things were far from peaceful.

Admiral Pellaeon, Supreme Commander of the Imperial Fleet, strode up and down the deck, a red-hot mist of anger filling his mind so powerfully that he did not care about the lapse in Imperial discipline being witnessed by the bridge crew. He stopped and took the handheld visual display, which had been paused at the point during the attack on the Yaga Minor base when General Hestiv's Golan battle station had exploded, from a nervous aide. For a long moment, he stared at the image before hurling the display against the nearest bulkhead with all his strength, where it shattered into pieces.

Captain Ardiff, standing inconspicuously to one side, took a deep breath. "I'm sorry about General Hestiv, Admiral," he said tentatively. Pellaeon spun round, eyes flashing, and the men around Ardiff took a step away from him, half-expecting the Admiral to shoot Ardiff down on the spot. But Pellaeon closed his eyes for a minute, and when he opened them again, the rage had gone, to be replaced by an icy determination.

"Send a priority message to every ship and planet in the Empire," he ordered the comm officer. "I want those scum found. Instruct Intelligence to mount a search for their possible current location. Anyone who fails to give this their full attention will personally answer to me. Order the Star Destroyers Bellicose, Relentless, Judicator, Nemesis, Stormhawk, and the Interdictor Cruiser Constrainer to assemble here in readiness to move as soon as we locate the traitors."

One of his aides coughed hesitantly, and he turned, a new flash of anger surging up inside him. "What is the matter, Lieutenant?" he demanded.

The Lieutenant braced himself. "Sir, with respect, may I remind you that Imperial Intelligence has been replaced by the new Galactic Intelligence Service."

Pellaeon cursed himself silently for the oversight. "Thank you, Lieutenant. Establish a comm link with Head of Galactic Intelligence Talon Karrde - a private one."

He left the bridge and made his way to the command room. The hologram pod was already projecting an image of Talon Karrde when he arrived. "Greetings, Admiral," the hologram said. "This is an unexpected honour."

"You may dispense with the pleasantries, Karrde," Pellaeon said curtly. "The three Star Destroyers involved in the attack on Bothawui have helped a group of defecting ships escape from the Yaga Minor base. During the attack, my friend General Hestiv was killed."

Karrde nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, I heard about that. May I express my regret on the death of General Hestiv? We will of course begin an attempt to locate the perpetrators immediately."

Pellaeon nodded. "You may pass this information onto the New Republic. You may also inform them that Moff Disra is due to be tried for betraying the Empire and plotting against the New Republic. They are invited to send observers to the trial if they wish to verify its fairness."

Karrde acknowledged the offer and the hologram vanished.

The Star Destroyer Obliterator lay inert in space as Lumiya's Loronar Strike Cruiser came alongside it. Unlike most capital starships, this one was completely black hulled, save for a pair of red stripes running along the top and bottom of the ship. Captain Trazzen watched as a Lambda shuttle, also black-hulled, entered the main docking bay of the Obliterator and settled to the deck. A squad of of stormtroopers took up guard positions as the ramp on the transport lowered. A group of guards emerged from the shuttle, carrying blaster rifles. Following them, a figure clad in a black robe came down the ramp.

Trazzen stepped forwards. "Lady Lumiya, this is a pleasure. I remember the glory of the Empire under Lord Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. If we are fortunate, we will able to hurt the New Republic together."

Lumiya managed to conceal her scorn with a supreme effort. "Do these fools really think they would last five minutes against the New Republic?" she thought. "If the Force permits us," she said instead. "I do not wish to listen to your wretched attempts to ingratiate yourself with me. I trust I will not have to repeat myself in this." She strode away, leaving Trazzen staring after her, and wondering if they had made the right decision to join forces with Lumiya.

***

Three days later, it seemed to Leia as though her short break during Luke's wedding had never happened. She stifled a groan as Councillor Borsk Fey'lya rose to address President Gavrisom. Forever faithful to the Bothan code of political backstabbing and advancement at any price, it had not taken him long to recover from the effects of the Caamas Issue.

Gavrisom's face remained impassive, but Leia could easily sense his agitation at the prospect of Fey'lya speaking, agitation which quickly proved well founded.

Fey'lya turned a poisonous glare on the Ishori Senator Ghic Dx'ono. "President Gavrisom, I wish to debate the matter of the Ishori attack on Drev'starn," he said, his fur rippling madly. "An unprovoked attack, I would emphasise. Roughly two thousand, three hundred and thirty eight Bothans died when the Predominance fired on Drev'starn. The Ishori were quick enough to demand compensation from us for the destruction of Caamas but conveniently overlook their role in the attack on Bothawui."

Dx'ono snarled and rose to his feet, his face mottled with rage. "The attack was due to Imperial agents gaining control of a turbolaser battery," he hissed. "We made every effort to stop them as soon as they opened fire."

"We have only your word for that," Fey'lya observed.

Dx'ono's hand dropped to his hip, and Leia was sure that if he had his blaster, he would have shot Fey'lya down, Senate or no Senate. "Councillor Organa Solo and President Gavrisom himself were there," he screamed. "Do you doubt their veracity?"

Fey'lya, unfazed, was verbally deft enough to avoid either calling Leia and Gavrisom outright liars or backing down, but stopped as Gavrisom touched a button and the sound system shut down. "Senators Fey'lya and Dx'ono, I would remind you that the New Republic Senate is not a private forum for your personal grudges. If you are unable to observe diplomatic protocol, I will have you temporarily suspended as New Republic Senators."

Fey'lya and Dx'ono both fell silent at the unexpected force in his voice, and Gavrisom turned towards Dx'ono. "Senator Dx'ono, intended use of force against another Senator is entirely unacceptable. The laws of the New Republic specifically forbid such intimidation and I would be entirely justified in stripping you of your senatorial position. I will not do so on this occasion in light of the Ishori disposition towards such action. If I witness such a reaction again, however, you may be assured that I will immediately have you summarily and permanently removed from the Senate. Do I make myself clear?"

Dx'ono nodded mutely, taken aback by the strength of the rebuke. Gavrisom held his gaze for a minute longer before turning his attention to the Senator from Corellia, but stopped as one of his aides abruptly burst into the Senate's Grand Convocation Chamber and handed him a datapad. The Senators waited as Gavrisom studied it for a minute.

Gavrisom put the datapad down. "I regret to announce that a Fleet patrol force has just been obliterated on our border with the Empire," he said without any preamble. "The data we have indicates that a group of Star Destroyers and other ships made an apparently random attack on our forces."

A wave of shock ran through the chamber. "This proves our gullibility in trusting the Empire to keep any agreement we make," shouted one of the Senators.

Gavrisom raised a hand. "The details are still sketchy. We should not jump to conclusions before we know all the facts. The head of Galactic Intelligence, Talon Karrde, has already informed us that several Star Destroyers have mutinied. It is very probable that they and the ships involved in this attack are one and the same."

"And who told him that they have mutinied?" demanded the same Senator. "The Empire, naturally. No doubt they believe they can attack us with impunity while laying the blame at the door of renegade elements of their military."

"Enough!" Gavrisom answered. "The first task to accomplish is finding out who was behind this attack and why. This meeting is adjourned. Will all members of the New Republic High Command please assemble in the High Command briefing room."

Half an hour later, the briefing room was thronged with various military commanders and their staff. Looking around the room, Leia could see General Rieekan, Admiral Ackbar, Admiral Drayson, and plenty of other New Republic commanders.

Admiral Ackbar stepped up to the briefing podium in the centre of the room. A hologram depicting part of the New Republic/Empire border appeared in front of the podium.

Ackbar indicated the hologram with a pointer. "As you are aware, a border force has just been wiped out in this area. Details are still sketchy, but it appears that our forces were attacked without warning by Imperial ships. General Javell was in command. As you probably know, Javell is a good commander. Unfortunately, his frigate was one of the first ships destroyed. There were no survivors."

"From what we do know of the battle," Drayson said, "something strange was going on. The few survivors of the battle, mostly fighter pilots, report that the Imperials came out of hyperspace far enough away from them to let a battle line be formed. What happened next is unclear. They report that whole squadrons of fighters began panicking. The TIEs had an easy time disposing of them. The whole chain of command became chaotic. Approximately ten minutes after hostilities commenced, our forces had become a mob."

"Could they have been panicked by some sort of superweapon being used by the Imperials?" asked a colonel.

"Extremely improbable," Rieekan said. "If they did have such a weapon, they would have used it before now. The reports and sensor data do not indicate anything unusual. It seems to be merely a case of extreme battle confusion."

The hologram changed to show four Star Destroyers and their identification. "The Obdurate, Tyrannic, Ironhand and Obliterator, commanded by Captains Narven, Nalgol, Argona, and Trazzen respectively. All four are staunch Imperial officers and competent commanders. Apparently they took violent exception to the peace treaty, the latter three no doubt prompted by fear of being tried alongside Moff Disra for their part in the Caamas Issue. It seems likely that they will merely strike at random, like Admiral Daala, although they are considerably more formidable."

"Thank you, General," Ackbar said. "Until we locate the Imperials, all forces will remain at a code yellow alert. This meeting is concluded."

***

The four Star Destroyer captains had assembled in the briefing room on the Ironhand.

"We should attack Yavin 4 or Endor," Captain Argona said, as they debated their next target. "They are the sites of great Rebel victories. By gaining our own victories there, we would humiliate the Rebels."

Narven nodded slowly. "Of course," he said contemptuously. "Let us all bow before the heir to Grand Admiral Thrawn's genius. We can score a legendary victory over the truly deadly Ewoks, or be utterly defeated by the Jedi Knights. Did Admiral Daala train you?" he growled, spitting the word out like it was poison. "No doubt she would have been overjoyed at the idea of attacking a defenceless world like Endor or choosing an 'easy' target, like the Jedi Knights or the Mon Calamari. We should strike important Rebel bases, such as the Sluis Van shipyards. What is your opinion, Lady Lumiya?"

Lumiya, who up to now had been standing with her back turned and her arms folded, indicating her disdain for them, turned. "I am relieved to discover that at least one of you is not entirely brain-rotted," she said scathingly. "The destruction of the Rebel border force is a start. In doing so, we have shown them that we are dangerous. If we continue to make such attacks, they will have to send out a full battle group to deal with us. When they do, we will make the New Republic navy the laughing stock of the galaxy."

She raised a hand and the captains watched in amazement as a depiction of the Sluis Van shipyards materialised over the table. "Our first target. We will avenge Grand Admiral Thrawn's defeat."

The image metamorphosed quickly into an image of Wayland. "We will have revenge on the Noghri for their treason against the Empire and Thrawn, and the Rebels for destroying Joruus C'baoth and Mount Tantiss."

The image changed again. "At this point, they will be forced to track us down." She indicated the image. "We will wait here, and let the Rebels come to us. When they do, we will destroy them at the site of our greatest defeat. At Endor."

She looked at them. "Do we agree?"

One by one, they nodded slowly.

"Good," she said. "Then we can proceed."

Sluis Van had scarcely changed since Thrawn's attack, Captain Nalgol noted as the Imperial ships came out of lightspeed on the base perimeter. It was still just as heavily defended as it had been then, perhaps slightly more so, and the defences were still as efficient. Scarcely ten seconds passed after the first Star Destroyer arrived than the first ranging shots began reaching out from the perimeter battle stations.

This time though, he knew, the attack would not fail. The accursed Rogue Squadron weren't here and their plan was merely to cause as much destruction as possible, a much simpler exercise than stealing ships from the New Republic. Finally, of course, they had Lumiya to generate fear and despair in the shipyard personnel. He glanced to where she was standing at the viewports, her eyes closed in concentration as she used the Force.

He watched the tactical display. The Ironhand and Obdurate were exchanging fire with one of the battle stations, although its fire was slackening as Lumiya used her powers to cloud the minds of the gunners. Three of the Corvettes were using the cover of the Star Destroyer attack to slip past into the shipyards. Laser bolts sparkled as they began tracking and firing on freighters and bulk cargo carriers. One targeted an unmanned group of newly built B-wing fighters, blowing them apart with turbolasers. TIE fighters followed them in to neutralise the handful of fighters attacking the Corvettes. To starboard, one of the Nebulon-B frigates was engaged with an old Dreadnaught cruiser.

"Sir, Ironhand and Obdurate have disabled the battle station's port turbolasers," an aide announced.

Nalgol nodded, stepping up to the viewports. Finally, he was expiating his failure at Bothawui. He smiled as he saw the Dreadnaught explode under a combined barrage from the Nebulon-B and the Obliterator. The Ironhand began to move past the battle station, carving a swathe through the shipyard. Ships began desperately breaking for the safety of open space as the turbolasers began firing at anything within range. A large freighter was torn apart by a concentrated salvo of laser fire. Bacta fluid sprayed out from the cargo holds, freezing instantly in the cold of space. A lone Corellian gunship, firing at one of the Corvettes, was hit by multiple torpedos from a flight of TIE bombers. The guns fell silent as the ship was exposed to vacuum and the crew asphyxiated. By now, the few Rebel fighters had been destroyed by the TIEs.

Lumiya opened her eyes. "That will do," she ordered curtly. "All ships will reform and withdraw."

Nalgol felt a flash of anger at being ordered around by Lumiya, but dared not anger her. He nodded to an aide. "Order the TIEs to return to their hangars. Transmit the coordinates for Wayland to the other ships."

A few minutes later, the Imperial ships jumped to lightspeed, leaving the smoking remains of the Sluis Van shipyard behind them.

Wayland was an unremarkable world consisting mainly of forest and plains, Captain Narven noted as the Obdurate lay above the planet. A perfect place for the Emperor to have his private storehouse. During the Rebellion, its location had been known only to his top aides, such as Darth Vader. Now it was home to the Noghri. He gazed at one of the viewscreens which was displaying a transmission from an Imperial probe droid. A Noghri clan dukha was currently on the screen. He nodded in satisfaction as a salvo of laser bolts abruptly blew the building to pieces. A second later, a massive metal foot crashed down in the remains of the building. The shape of an AT-AT appeared on the screen as the probe droid's cameras zoomed out. The droid turned to follow the walker as it strode past, with other walkers flanking it on each sides. The walkers systematically blew the buildings in the small settlement apart, and then targeted any fleeing Noghri that they could see. A line of probe droids moved into the forest, seeking targets for the smaller AT-STs. TIE fighters and interceptors zoomed overhead, destroying the few airspeeders that were mounting a token resistance. TIE bombers crisscrossed the forest around the settlements, systematically dropping lines of concussion grenades.

Narven did not particularly like attacking those who presented little threat, but he rationalised it with the thought that the Noghri were too dangerous an enemy of the Empire, not to mention their having betrayed the Empire and been responsible for Thrawn's death. This was merely a long overdue punishment. He watched as similar attacks were made on the other settlements until the probe droids could no longer detect any lifesigns within a two kilometre radius of the ruined settlements.

"Set a course for Endor when all personnel have returned," he ordered as transports began landing to pick up the AT-ATs, AT-STs and probe droids. No ground troops had been deployed since they would merely have been slaughtered by the Noghri. They had done quite well, he noted, studying the reports. Over a third of the probe droids had been destroyed and four AT-ST crews killed. It had been a one-sided battle, though. The Noghri had not been able to withstand the relentless attack of an Imperial ground assault force.

***

The New Republic Senate was silent for a moment as Gavrisom finished detailing the Imperial attacks on Sluis Van and Wayland, before anger took over.

"This is intolerable," the Senator from Tandell snarled. "How much longer will we have to endure the humiliation of these Imperial raids? On behalf of my people, I demand that a reprisal attack is made on the Empire. Perhaps that will teach them that we cannot be faced down so easily."

Shouts of agreement rose from other Senators, to be met by vehement opposition from others. In seconds, the entire Senate became a rancor pit, as each group sought to drown the other out.

"Silence!" a voice thundered.

The chamber fell silent in shock, all eyes focussing on President Gavrisom. He touched a switch to mute the entire sound system, and stood silently for a minute, his eyes sweeping the room. "The chair does not recognise the Senator for Tandell at this time, or any other Senator. If there is a similar collapse of civility and order in this room again, I will have no alternative but to disassociate myself from it by resigning as President of the New Republic."

He looked down to his podium. "The Imperial raids are indeed entirely unacceptable. Data records from the attack on Sluis Van indicate the same confusion and sudden loss of coordination that afflicted the destroyed border force. It also seems to have affected the Noghri on Wayland when they were attacked. Clearly, this must be investigated thoroughly. An experienced and proven force, which everyone in the New Republic will be able to rely on, will have to be sent to search for the Imperial marauders."

He looked around the room. "I trust that a battle group led by Admiral Ackbar and spearheaded by Rogue Squadron will meet these requirements. They are currently out in the Kanchen sector..."

"Watch it, Rogue Leader," Rogue Three warned. "You've got a tail."

Wedge twisted in his cockpit to see a TIE fighter close behind him. He grinned. He had been in this situation so many times that it was virtually routine. "Rogue Eight, we'll do a Darklighter interception manoeuvre," he ordered. "On two: one, two." He pulled his X-wing up hard and to starboard, and frowned as he glanced at his display. The TIE pilot was good alright, almost too good. Most TIE pilots had difficulty matching the manoeuvre with their less agile fighters, but this one matched Wedge's manoeuvre exactly. In doing so, however, he wouldn't notice the other X-wing approaching him from above until it was too late.

That, at least, was what usually happened. Rogue Eight blazed in above the TIE, lasers spitting at the projected flight path...and missed completely.

Wedge blinked in amazement as a split second after matching his feint manoeuvre, the TIE pilot cut his engines sharply and turned the fighter to bring it to a near standstill in a display of flying prowess that even Wedge couldn't match. Rogue Eight's X-wing followed the laser blasts through the space the fighter would have occupied, and the TIE's engines surged back to full power as it dived after Rogue Eight, letting loose a volley of green laser bolts at point blank range. Wedge's lips tightened as the X-wing disintegrated in less than a second. He hauled his X-wing hard to starboard, permitting himself a moment of satisfaction as his lasers blew Rogue 8's destroyer into space dust.

He glanced towards the Imperial Star Destroyer Implacable which was exchanging turbolaser fire with the Star Cruiser Liberty. "Rogues Four, Five, and Six, form up on me," he ordered. "Let's see if we can take out the Implacable's shield generators."

"Right with you, boss," Rogue Six acknowledged.

The four ships dived in tight formation towards the Star Destroyer, which was not slow to respond to their attack. A hail of turbolaser fire rose to meet them, and three TIE interceptors came in behind them, their lasers blasting continuously. A scream came from the comm channel, and Wedge glanced round to see one of the X-wings become an expanding cloud of debris.

"They got Five, Rogue Leader," Rogue Four said grimly.

Wedge shook his head in disbelief at yet another loss, watching the shield generator towers grow larger as they approached. He let out a breath as they entered the 'clear zone' around the Star Destroyer's bridge, where the turbolaser batteries were unable to fire for fear of hitting the superstructure. Now they only had to worry about the pursuing TIEs. He adjusted his targeting computer, setting the lasers to the maximum convergence range in order to hit the shield generators at the greatest distance.

"Watch out, Rogue Leader!" Rogue Six snapped.

Wedge looked up to see a stream of green bolts coming towards him, and knew that he could never avoid the laser blasts. A sudden impact shook his X-wing, and then everything went black.

The simulator pod canopy hissed up and Wedge shook his head in disbelief. He looked round to see several of the Rogue Squadron pilots standing by their own simulators. "What in Vader's name happened?" he demanded incredulously, and with more than a little chagrin at being shot down, as he climbed out of the simulator.

Corran Horn grinned. "You're getting careless in your old age, Rogue Leader. Star Destroyer shield generators sure make good camouflage for a lurking TIE Interceptor."

Several other simulator pods in the training room opened and a couple of surviving Rogues and half a dozen other pilots emerged. "Never underestimate Baron Soontir Fel," Carib Devist taunted. "I thought Rogue Squadron were meant to be good. I've seen space tug drivers fly X-wings better."

"At least we don't hide behind shield generators to ambush people," Wedge retorted. He knew Devist was right, though. They had been comprehensively outclassed by the clones of Baron Fel. Too much success had made them complacent. At least this should shake them up. He slapped Devist on the back. "You can make up for this by buying the drinks."

"You can forget about the drinks," a voice said from behind him, and Wedge turned to see Bel Iblis standing there.

"President Gavrisom has ordered us to mount a search and destroy operation for the mutinying Imperial ships," Bel Iblis said. "Apparently, the attacks have rattled the Senate, and your reputation meant that we were the obvious choice." He looked at Devist, changing the subject momentarily. "Thank you for agreeing to take part in the simulation exercise. How did the Liberty scenario go?"

Devist grinned. "We destroyed the Liberty and eight members of Rogue Squadron, including the distinguished Captain Antilles, for an Assault Frigate and five of my... brothers. A fair exchange, I'd say."

Bel Iblis nodded. "Indeed. I expect you to even honours in the next simulation, Captain Antilles, or I'll have the whole squadron flying Y-wings as punishment."

His mood of levity faded. "We have been informed by Galactic Intelligence that the Imperial ships have been seen at Endor. We'll be jumping into hyperspace shortly. Make sure you're ready when we get there."

***

Lumiya stared out at the forest moon of Endor outside the Obliterator's bridge. "We've finally drawn the New Republic's attention," she announced to Captain Trazzen coldly. "Soon we will have some guests arriving. We shall have to prepare a warm welcome for them indeed. We will eliminate the approaching force and wipe out the shame of the Death Star's destruction."

She laughed silently. The Imperial captains were incredibly easy to manipulate. She hadn't even needed to influence their minds to have them do her bidding. Soon Skywalker would come, and when he did, she would destroy him.

***

"President Gavrisom," Leia called, hurrying after him as he padded down the Grand Corridor.

Gavrisom stopped and waited for her. "Yes, Councillor?" he asked as she caught up with him.

"I'm returning to Yavin with Han to meet Luke and Mara when they arrive," Leia said.

Gavrisom nodded. "Very well, Councillor. I wish you well."

"Thank you," Leia answered. She gave him a wry smile. "You certainly made an impression back there in the Senate chambers."

Gavrisom shifted his wings awkwardly. "I am beginning to learn the value of action rather than words, particularly with regard to the New Republic Senate," he observed. There was a pause as Borsk Fey'lya hurried past them. "I begin to understand why you resigned your position as President of the New Republic. It becomes tedious trying to keep the members of the Senate from declaring war on each other."

***

Hyperspace shrank to stars as Admiral Ackbar's taskforce came out of lightspeed.

"There they are," Wedge said softly to himself. Four Star Destroyers, three Nebulon-B frigates, eight Corellian Corvettes, and a black-hulled Loronar Strike Cruiser were almost straight ahead of them. He keyed his comm. "X-wings, B-wings, this is Rogue Leader. Lock S-foils into attack position. All groups, assume battle formation. May the Force be with you."

Ahead of and around him, X-wings opened their S-foils and B-wings rotated into their upright attack position. In the front of the formation, A-wings were racing forward to meet any incoming TIE interceptors. The X-wings were assuming escort position around the B-wings and Y-wings to protect them from enemy fighters.

"TIE fighters coming in, Rogue Leader," Green Leader warned. "I only count five squadrons though. Surely they aren't going to give us fighter superiority this easily, are they?" he asked in some surprise.

"Vader only knows, Green Leader," Wedge replied. Considering the numbers of New Republic fighters coming at them, to only launch five out of a possible thirty, six each from the ISDs and two from the escort frigates, was a flagrant disregard of the first law of space combat. It meant that the enemy fighters could pound capital ships into rubble with impunity. Either the Imperials were committing mass suicide, or they weren't worried about the approaching New Republic fighters. He tightened his grip on the control stick in anticipation as the two groups of fighters closed on each other. Once again, he was about to dogfight TIE fighters. He wondered if there would ever be a time when he would no longer have to battle Imperial forces. Ahead, the A-wings of Green Squadron were approaching a forward squadron of Interceptors. The first flashes of laser fire began appearing as both squadrons began firing at each other in a pre-emptive strike.

And at that moment, the whole battle collapsed into chaos as the true attack hit the New Republic forces.

Trazzen watched the New Republic ships in amazement. "We've certainly drawn their attention. This is better than even I hoped for. That Star Cruiser is the flagship of Admiral Ackbar, and even that Sith-cursed Rogue Squadron is here."

"Rogue Squadron?" Lumiya queried, suddenly assuming interest in the New Republic ships.

"An elite group of X-wing pilots, led by General Wedge Antilles," Trazzen explained.

Lumiya glared at him. "I know who they are, Captain. I once infiltrated Rogue Squadron on the orders of Darth Vader. I shall take great pleasure in their destruction. They will learn the full power of the dark side before they die." She closed her eyes, calling on all her strength in the Force and thinking of what Luke Skywalker and the entire Rebellion had taken from her, and left her with in return. They had destroyed the Emperor and Vader, and Skywalker had given her this cruel mockery of life. The moment that her X-wing had disintegrated around her as he fired on it was forever burnt into her memory. Her only regret in killing Skywalker was that no matter how agonising it was, it would only be a thousandth part of the torture she had suffered then, and still suffered. She only had to close her eyes to see the red-hot shrapnel ripping through her and the fireball engulf her. She felt her anger rise and the dark side flow through her like a living thing as it quickened to her fury. It unleashed itself in a searing wave of hate, anger, and despair that swept over the New Republic fleet. It was so strong that every crew member on the bridge of the Obliterator briefly cowered in fear.

And then, impossibly, it was met and countered. Her eyes snapped open again in amazement.

"Is something wrong, Lady Lumiya?" Trazzen asked.

Lumiya stared out at the battle. "There is a Jedi Knight with Rogue Squadron," she said softly.

Corran Horn didn't know what had hit him. One moment, he had been flying in formation with the rest of Rogue Squadron, and the next he was slammed back in his seat by an almost physical wall of hate. He caught a fleeting glimpse of Green Squadron breaking apart in alarm even as they engaged the incoming TIEs. He knew what was happening, having experienced it once before in Exar Kun's temple on Yavin, but this time it was vastly stronger, with the icy cold sensation of dark side power. With an supreme effort, he cleared his mind, reciting the Jedi Code, and fought back as much as possible. He felt the attack ease, and then the touch of a Force mind probe.

Lumiya reached out with the Force, probing the Jedi's mind. Her first thought, that it had been Skywalker, was wrong, she realised. Obviously it was just one of his students. Her eyes narrowed as she discovered an interesting memory. So he had shot down a spy within Rogue Squadron, had he? How ironical, she thought. Her hate reached new heights as she focussed her mind and struck.

In front of Wedge, Green Squadron came apart, making themselves easy prey for the TIE Interceptors . At least three exploded from direct hits by TIEs as they took evasive action. A second later, the other four TIE squadrons swept through the dogfight, heading for the other New Republic fighters, who were also breaking apart. "Break off," Gold Leader gasped as the B-wing and Y-wing squadrons crumpled, fighters heading in all directions.

"Negative. Stay in formation," Wedge snapped, trying to fight down his own unreasoning terror. As quickly as it had come, though, it was gone. "What the Sith was that?" he muttered.

"Rogue Leader?"

"What, Nine?" he demanded.

"Break off the attack now, repeat, break off now," Corran said urgently. "They're using the Force against us. That's why they managed to hit Sluis Van and Wayland so hard. Wait.."

"Nine!" Wedge barked as a fresh attack, albeit a weaker one this time, hit the New Republic fleet. He twisted in the cockpit to see Corran's X-wing, uncontrolled, start drifting from side to side and around its axis. "Tell Whistler to take over and get them back to Galactic Voyager," he snapped at his own astromech, Gate. The droid beeped in acknowledgement, and a few seconds later, Corran's fighter steadied and then turned back towards Galactic Voyager. TIE's were swarming all around Wedge, furiously attacking the confused and panicked Republic fighters. He caught a brief glimpse of Green Leader swooping through the battle, hot on a TIE fighter. He had been lucky. Wedge's displays were showing only three survivors from Green Squadron. In seconds, Green Squadron had been decimated. Much the same thing was happening to the other squadrons. They had been thrown into chaos by the dark side attack, and the TIEs were going through them like a lightsabre through transparisteel. He glanced around. Rogue Squadron and Blue Squadron were managing to hold steady, able to cope with their fear this time. The other squadrons were also beginning to reform. Nevertheless, it would be folly to stay and risk another strong attack. "This is Rogue Leader. All fighters, withdraw immediately. Rogues and Blue Squadron, cover their retreat. Admiral, we're pulling back now."

"I copy, Rogue Leader," Ackbar acknowledged. "All fighters, return to your ships."

Corran had enough time to tell Wedge to pull back before the Force attack came again. A second later, a wall of sheer hate washed over him, beating against his mind like the onslaught of a Super Star Destroyer. He felt the X-wing turn under Whistler's control as a familiar, and yet unfamiliar, figure formed in his mind.

"What's the matter, Corran?" asked Erisi Dlarit mockingly. "Having problems?"

Corran didn't answer, knowing it was only a dark side illusion. It was amazingly strong, though, far beyond the ability of his own Jedi powers to counter. "Erisi's dead. I shot her down," he thought, in an attempt to focus on reality. "And when did Erisi ever have red hair and brown eyes?"

"Oh, you shot me down all right," came the reply. "See what you did to me, Corran Horn, and suffer in pain."

The cockpit of the X-wing abruptly seemed to vanish around Corran, to be replaced by that of a TIE Interceptor. A sudden violent shock marked the impact of lasers on the solar panels, which he saw disintegrate around him. Out of control, the Interceptor turned over and dived towards the surface of Thyferra's moons at full power. Corran watched in helpless terror as the TIE plunged towards the moon, unable to change course as much as a micron. Then it hit. It didn't explode, but merely tore into the surface and kept going. The transparisteel viewport shattered instantly, a rain of shards stabbing through the cockpit and Corran himself. Through the instant spray of blood, he saw the surface of the moon from dozens of angles in a few seconds, as the wrecked TIE slewed around, bounced up once, and then slammed back down. The impact crushed the lower cockpit, shattering his legs beyond repair, and he screamed in agony. The ruined fighter still kept going. Finally, it came to a gradual halt. That wasn't the worst, though. Corran lay in the cockpit, somehow still alive. His spine had been broken during the crash, and his sealed flightsuit torn in several places. He suffocated in the vacuum of space, unable even to move, until everything went black...

He was back in the cockpit of an X-wing, and had just time to see incoming quad laser bolts from another X-wing before they destroyed his port S-foils and sent the snubfighter into a wild spin. He managed to fasten his helmet seals before the port engines exploded, tearing through the body of the fighter. A fireball flared in the cockpit a few seconds before he lost consciousness. The next thing he remembered after that was floating in a bacta tank, and looking down in horror to see that his arm had been amputated. Then he saw himself encased in a cyborg frame, in agony from injuries that he knew would never truly heal, and in mental torment at what he had become.

He suddenly found himself in the cockpit of his own X-wing, shaking for the first time in his life, and covered in sweat. The attack seemed to have abruptly ended. With a flood of relief, he saw the bulk of Galactic Voyager looming in front of his fighter. "Thanks, Whistler," he said weakly as the droid brought the X-wing into the Star Cruiser's hangar bay.

Admiral Ackbar sombrely watched the fighters fall back as the wing leaders relayed the command to retreat. TIE fighters and interceptors were pursuing them every step of the way, determined not to let them escape, with only Rogue and Blue Squadron keeping them at bay in a rearguard action. Beyond them, the Obdurate, Ironhand, and all three Nebulon-B frigates were approaching at flank speed. "Bring us broadside to the Star Destroyers," he ordered. "Tell Starwind and Mon Renalla to hold in the same position relative to us. Order a pair of gunships to make sure that no TIEs try to outflank us."

He watched as Galactic Voyager began swinging around to bring its entire bank of port turbolasers to bear on the approaching ships, and its sister Star Cruisers moved into position on either side. The Imperial ships appeared to want to fight, as they approached the three Star Cruisers. Targeting shots were fired from both groups of ships to establish gunnery information, and then they both opened up with salvoes of turbolaser fire as they came into firing range of each other.

From the bridge viewports, Bel Iblis could see dozens of New Republic fighters approaching, still being given a rearguard defence by Rogue and Blue Squadrons. Once the fighters were on board, the entire fleet would be able to withdraw and reinforce. The Imperials were as aware of that fact as he was. The Tyrannic, Obliterator and the Corvettes were hastening to join the attack group before the New Republic ships could retreat.

He watched the exchanges of turbolaser fire between the Star Destroyers and Star Cruisers. The fear that the New Republic fleet was suffering from was affecting the gunners, as the turbolasers were not firing as quickly and accurately as normal. The shields were strong enough to offset the worst of the disparity in laser fire, however. The other capital ships were at more risk. TIE bombers, unhindered by New Republic fighters, were swarming around the capital ships and launching volleys of proton torpedoes. One group sent a spread of torpedoes against an Assault Frigate. The first half dozen merely impacted against the shields, but then a hole opened in the shields, and the rest of the torpedoes exploded against the frigate's hull. One after another, they ripped an increasingly wide hole in the armour plating, sending fire and air erupting from the breached hull. TIE fighters and Interceptors swept in, drawn like flies to the damaged frigate, and making strafing runs. Two corvettes and a Nebulon-B moved in to bombard the ship at point blank range. Under the bombardment, escape pods began exploding from the dying frigate.

Unless they recovered the fighters quickly, Bel Iblis knew, the same thing would happen to them all. The Tyrannic and Ironhand had moved to engage Mon Renalla, and were pounding it unmercifully. Galactic Voyager and Starwind were unable to intervene, as they were being pinned down by the Obdurate and Obliterator. The Nebulon-B frigates and Corvettes were keeping the rest of the fleet occupied.

Abruptly, the ISDs attacking Mon Renalla switched to ion cannons. Blue lightning began playing over the shields of the beleaguered Star Cruiser. Galactic Voyager, a Strike Cruiser, and two gunships were firing at the Star Destroyers in an attempt to distract them from Mon Renalla, but they simply ignored the incoming fire. The Nebulon-B frigate Malice moved to interpose itself between the Mon Renalla and the other ships, and opened up on them with a full turbolaser barrage. Behind it, Mon Renalla's shields finally collapsed under the ion bombardment, and the ion blasts skittered up and down its hull like lightning. Explosions flared at the points where the blasts touched the hull, and the turbolasers fell silent as the Star Cruiser control systems were paralysed.

The Imperials were not slow to react. Both attacking Star Destroyers closed in on the helpless Star Cruiser and opened up with a savage hail of turbolaser fire. Laser fire raked Mon Renalla from bow to stern, systematically annihilating the turbolasers, torpedo clusters, ion cannons, and tractor beam emplacements. TIE bombers made steady torpedo runs, firing their missiles before breaking off and moving into position for a fresh attack run.

In a desperate last attempt to save Mon Renalla, Galactic Voyager and Starwind disengaged from the Obdurate and Obliterator, ignoring the turbolaser salvoes that tore into their shields, and surged forward to form up on either flank of their sister ship. By now Rogue and Blue Squadrons had finished escorting the other fighters back to their ships, and they grouped around Mon Renalla, making superhuman efforts to drive off the strafing TIE bombers and fighters.

Not even Rogue Squadron could do the impossible this time, though. Mon Renalla was already too badly damaged, and there were simply too many attackers for them to stop. Wedge gritted his teeth in helpless anger as Mon Renalla began to break apart in a series of violent explosions. One final explosion nearly tore the Star Cruiser in two, and then it vanished in a detonation that hurled massive pieces of debris into the shields of Galactic Voyager and Starwind. He glanced at his displays, but they indicated no escape pods - Mon Renalla had exploded too quickly for that. An entire ship's crew of nearly seven thousand people had been lost, and he didn't even know what for. He wondered what the Imperials hoped to accomplish by this. It was a pointless battle that would do nothing to further the cause of the Empire. He pushed the thought aside. They would pay for this, he vowed. For now, though, the New Republic fleet would have to retreat, regroup and reinforce, and decide what to do next.

Elsewhere, the battle was going equally badly. Three of their four gunships had been destroyed and two Assault Frigates left dead in space. Galactic Voyager and Starwind were forming a perimeter line to give the surviving ships a clear run to hyperspace. There were multiple flickers of pseudomotion as they began running up to lightspeed velocity.

"Rogue and Blue Squadrons, prepare to jump to hyperspace on your marks," Admiral Ackbar ordered as Galactic Voyager and Starwind came about and began their own jump to lightspeed.

"Copy, Admiral," Wedge said, a bitter sense of failure filling him. For the first time in a long while, they had been comprehensively trounced by the Imperials. As the stars stretched into lines around him, the silent comm showed that the other members of Rogue Squadron shared that sense of failure. It was a feeling they didn't like at all...

On the bridge of the Tyrannic, Captain Nalgol smiled as he saw the New Republic ships vanish into hyperspace. "Typical alien-loving Rebel scum," he said contemptuously. "How did such a feeble riffraff ever manage to win any victories against us?"

On board the Obliterator, Captain Trazzen was not so satisfied. He watched Lady Lumiya, who was standing motionless at the forward viewports, gazing at the empty space where the New Republic fleet had just been. He was having to exert all his control to keep silent. They had inflicted a painful defeat on the New Republic, but not a shattering one. Despite destroying Mon Renalla, several other capital ships, and plenty of fighters, the battle had only been a minor success. Rogue Squadron had escaped unhurt, together with Admiral Ackbar. The next time they would be back with reinforcements and knowing what to expect. If Lumiya had concentrated on the battle as a whole, rather than getting distracted by a single Jedi Knight, the New Republic would be in mourning for the fabled Rogue Squadron and Admiral Ackbar by now. Instead, all they had achieved was to stir the New Republic up against them further. The Jedi in Rogue Squadron would inevitably report that there was a Dark Jedi with them, and the next force sent against them would surely be accompanied by more Jedi, perhaps even Luke Skywalker himself. Vader only knew what would happen then. He had a strong sense that things were rapidly slipping out of control...

Galactic Voyager lay in space two lightyears away from the Imperial forces, surrounded by the remaining ships of the taskforce. The mood on board all the ships was sombre. They knew they had been beaten, and beaten badly.

In Ackbar's quarters on board Galactic Voyager, a grim discussion was underway. Wedge and Corran were standing in front of Bel Iblis and Ackbar, explaining what had happened.

"What happened, General Antilles?" Ackbar asked. "Why did our forces experience such a mass panic?"

"I don't know what happened," Wedge replied. "Corran can probably explain it better than I can."

Ackbar's eyes swivelled towards Corran. "Captain Horn?" he prompted.

"Basically, we've got a problem," Corran said, and briefly explained what had happened to him during the battle. "Whoever's out there is extremely powerful and dangerous. The hate I felt - I've only felt anything similar from the spirit of Exar Kun."

Bel Iblis nodded slowly. "So what do we do about it?"

"Only one thing we can do," Corran observed. "I'm not strong enough to handle this on my own. I'm going to Yavin. We need Luke here ASAP. He and Mara should have returned by now."

"How long will it take to get back here?" Bel Iblis asked.

Wedge considered for a few seconds. "About four days to get there and back."

"You can leave immediately then," Ackbar said. "If this Dark Jedi is strong as you say, then the sooner Master Skywalker arrives, the better. We will need him desperately, as well as you two, if the Imperials attack again. You saw the losses that resulted from even a brief dark side attack. General Antilles, Commander Horn, good luck."

Wedge was halfway up his X-wing's cockpit ladder when he sensed something was amiss, and turned to see Corran standing beside his own X-wing, gazing into the distance. He hesitated for a moment, then jumped down and walked over. "Something wrong?" he asked.

Corran shrugged. "I could have done more to prevent this dark side attack. If I'd tried harder, we might not have lost Mon Renalla. And what I saw - I don't think even Erisi deserved to die like that. Perhaps not even someone like Ysanne Isard. It doesn't exactly encourage you to pilot a fighter."

Wedge looked at him silently for a minute before speaking. "To be blunt, Mr Horn, that's a load of bantha poodoo. Firstly, you don't even know how Erisi died. Chances are she died on impact. I'd be wary about accepting anything the dark side shows you."

"Oh, I don't know," Corran said. "Even the truth can be a powerful weapon of the dark side. Vader told Luke the truth that he was his father to try and turn him, after all."

Wedge ignored him. "I felt the power of that attack. I imagine even Luke would have difficulty beating it. Don't blame yourself for what isn't your fault." He paused. "If you want to stay here, you can. I'll go to Yavin myself."

Corran hesitated, then shook his head. "No, I'll come. If I don't, the dark side wins by default. I wouldn't be much of a Jedi if I did, would I?"

Wedge grinned and slapped him on the back. "Good man, Mr Horn. Come on, let's go."

***

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Commander Antilles

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