Since the end of the Galactic Civil War between
the New Republic and Empire, there have been
five years of peace.
Now, though, a new enemy begins to appear
from the depths of the Unknown Regions.
In the ensuing conflict, Lady Lumiya emerges
once again to challenge Luke Skywalker, who
must confront her in the grim knowledge that
it may cost him all that he holds dear...
It was perhaps the mightiest fleet in the history of the galaxy.
Thousands of ships from every system in the New Republic and Empire had assembled above the planet Coruscant. Hapan Battle Dragons, Mon Calamari Star Cruisers, Imperial Star Destroyers, and hundreds of other classes of ships hung in space. In the middle of the fleet lay two Super Star Destroyers of the Imperial Fleet, their size dominating every ship present, except for one. The SSDs flanked the flagship of the New Republic fleet, the immense Republic-class starship Galactic Defender. Roughly three times as large as the Super Star Destroyers, it carried over three quarters of a million crew and troops, an entire four wings of starfighters, and had been designed to be capable of taking on and defeating an entire battle fleet without any support.
Many in the New Republic, led by the Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, had argued strongly against the idea of such a formidable starship, viewing it as coming dangerously close to the concept of superweapons like the Death Star. Super Star Destroyers themselves were deadly enough, let alone a ship of such augmented size and power. In the end though, the construction of Galactic Defender had been approved, in view of the new threat from the Unknown Regions, the employment it would bring for shipyards and crewing, and to act as a symbol of the New Republic, although those opposed to its construction had eventually won the concession that no other Republic-class battleships would be built.
Now it lay quietly in the centre of the fleet massed over Coruscant, in readiness for a journey of exploration, and war if necessary, into the Unknown Regions. The New Republic and the Empire had joined forces to do so, with the Imperial forces commanded by Vice-Admiral Ardiff of the Imperial fleet from the Super Star Destroyer Renown. Both the SSDs had been built since the end of the war between the New Republic and Empire five years ago, on the orders of Supreme Admiral Pellaeon.
On the bridge of the Galactic Defender, Princess Leia Organa Solo stared out over the massive fleet. The bridge itself was so enormous that a Corellian Corvette could almost fit inside it. The fleet had been ready to depart for a few days now. They merely waited for one more arrival before they could leave.
A familiar voice spoke behind her, disturbing her from her reverie. "Quite a sight, isn't it?"
Leia turned, smiling. "Wedge!" She hugged him warmly. "I should have known Rogue Squadron would have been roped in on this event."
Wedge laughed. "Another chance for us to add to our everlasting fame as heroes of the New Republic. Still, it's a change from hunting down pirates and smugglers, or teaching starstruck fighter cadets who can't believe that they're being taught by General Wedge Antilles himself. Peace is all very well, but it can become monotonous. Anyway, you didn't come here to listen to my complaints. Isn't Han with you?"
"Oh, he's here all right," Leia said. "He never changes. No prizes for guessing that whatever he's doing involves the Falcon, Chewie, and a starship maintenance kit."
"Well, that's Corellians for you," Wedge commented. "I ran a check on New Republic ship classes the other day. You can count the YT-1300 freighters still in active service on one hand. How are Luke and Mara these days, by the way?"
Leia shrugged. "I don't really know. We speak to them over the Holonet occasionally, and I know they sometimes visit the Academy, but they spend most of their time travelling around the galaxy with some of the advanced students on the Chu'unthor II. They told me Kyp had asked them to pay a quick visit to Yavin 4 before coming here, I don't know why. Actually, they should be arriving-" she closed her eyes and reached out with the Force, "-now."
From the outskirts of the fleet, there was an abrupt flicker of pseudomotion and a strange looking starship appeared.
"Looks like that's them," Wedge commented. "Give the Skywalker Spirit clearance for docking bay 34," he instructed an aide as a sleek and well armed ship emerged from the Chu'unthor II's hangar. "Do you mind if I come with you?" he asked Leia.
"Not at all. I'm sure Luke will be pleased to see you." She looked around the bridge.
"We are ready, Lady Vader," came a mewing voice as Cakhmaim appeared seemingly from nowhere.
The Skywalker Spirit touched down gently on the deck of the docking bay. Leia, Han, and Wedge, together with the children, Chewbacca and Threepio, and Leia's Noghri bodyguards, watched as the ramp slowly lowered. Even before it had finished lowering, Luke Skywalker sprinted down the ramp to seize Leia and lift her clear off the deck in an exuberant embrace. "Easy, Luke," she gasped as he swung her round and set her down.
Stepping back, she looked at him. He looked content, and his blue eyes were still those of the farm boy who had rescued her from the Death Star so long ago, but the once blond hair had faded appreciably since she had last seen him, and to her shock, she realised that he had more than a few grey hairs, which were compounded by the lines in the corners of his eyes.
"That's what comes of being married to Mara," Luke commented, knowing what she was thinking, "not that I regret it, of course. Are you still tinkering with that piece of junk you call a ship, Han?"
"Watch it, Luke," Han growled, although the expression on his face belied the tone of his voice, as they gave each other a fierce bear hug. The children rushed forwards to greet Luke as soon as he and Han let go, nearly knocking him off his feet in the rush.
"I thought even Jedi children were meant to have control of their emotions," a voice said dryly from behind them.
Leia turned to see Mara coming down the ramp, leading what looked like a four year old clone of herself. Han had taken great pleasure in describing to Mara what she had to look forward to once Alina Skywalker reached her teens. She already showed signs of having inherited virtually all of Mara's personality, with only a thin slice of Luke's patience mixed into it. She came forwards and crouched down to hug her niece. She had seen very little of Alina in the last eighteen months, and it was clear that she hardly recognised Leia. She certainly didn't recognise the Noghri, shrinking back in fear as they approached.
Luke, who had managed to free himself from the clutches of the children and was speaking to Chewbacca and Wedge, turned away and came over. "It's all right," he said, crouching down besides her reassuringly. "They're not dangerous."
"We would never harm an heir of the Lord Vader," Cakhmaim agreed. Even now, some of the Noghri found it hard to free themselves of their reverence for Darth Vader, despite his cold blooded exploitation of them. Luke nodded. He took Alina's hand and gently held it out to Cakhmaim, who bent forwards and sniffed it. She giggled involuntarily as the Noghri's nostrils tickled her skin.
Mara watched for a second before turning away. "Come on," she said to Jaina. "I'll show you the new modifications we've installed in the Spirit." Jaina, always fascinated by starships, eagerly followed Mara up the ramp into the ship. Anakin, who had almost as great an interest in them as Jaina, trailed closely behind her. Jacen hesitated for a moment. He did not share his sibling's interest in starships, but then turned and followed them up the ramp.
Luke watched them go into the Spirit before straightening up. "I'll have to return to the Chu'unthor II in an hour or so," he said. "Some of the Padawans are ready to be declared full Jedi Knights."
"You're not coming?" Leia said in surprise and some disappointment. She hadn't seen Luke for several months and had been looking forward to some time with him. "I thought..."
Luke shook his head. "I'm afraid not. Someone has to stay and teach the remaining Padawans on the Chu'unthor II. Besides, I don't think Alina should be in a position of danger."
Leia saw Mara glare at him. Both of them had differing ideas on how to bring their daughter up, ie they both thought she should be brought up the same way each of them had been. Luke was adamant that she would not be involved in such risk while she was so young, while Mara maintained that experiencing dangerous situations and looking after herself would be good practice for adult life. She had seen the two of them argue bitterly over this several times before, and it looked like this might be the latest example.
"Surely a Jedi Master should come on the journey, though?" she asked, attempting to defuse an argument before it began. "Since we only have two Masters, that means you or Kyp. I know he has his hands full at Yavin, and aren't the Padawans on the Chu'unthor II advanced enough to take care of themselves for a while?"
"Kyp and I really can't spare the time," Luke said. "A Master will be going with you, though. We have three Masters now, not two. Why do you think Kyp asked us to come to Yavin?"
A slow smile spread across Leia's face as Luke's words sank in. "Congratulations, Mara," she said.
"I felt Mara was ready to be declared a Master for some time now," Luke said. "I didn't feel that I could do it myself, for obvious reasons. I've been dropping hints to Kyp about it for a while. He finally put it before the others and they agreed."
Leia nodded. Three years ago, when Luke had decided that Kyp was ready to be declared a Master, he had asked the opinions of Streen, Tionne, Kam Solusar, and several other prominent members of the academy, as he had not felt it should be his decision alone. Kyp had clearly done the same in considering whether Mara should be declared a Master.
Luke met her eyes. "I'm sorry. I'll try and sort something out with Kyp about temporarily overseeing our students as soon as this Unknown Regions crisis is resolved, so the three of us can come to see you."
At that moment, Wedge's comlink beeped, and he took it from his belt to answer the incoming transmission. "Sorry, I've got to get back to the bridge," he announced when he had received the message. "We're getting the final pre-lightspeed jump confirmations from the fleet." He looked at Luke. "Good luck. May the Force be with you."
Luke nodded. "You too," he answered before Wedge turned away towards the turbolifts at the back of the hangar.
Han threw a look at the Skywalker Spirit. "Couldn't Mara wait to get Jaina and Anakin on board that thing you call a ship for some free maintenance work?" he asked tauntingly, never able to let a slur on the Falcon pass.
An hour later, Luke, Mara and Alina waited in the hangar bay as a transport being piloted by one of the students from the Chu'unthor II set down in the hangar. "Go and wait in the transport, Ali," Mara said to her daughter as the boarding ramp lowered.
"Won't!" Alina instantly retorted with her typical determination. Mara frowned at her, and Alina scowled back with an expression frighteningly reminiscent of Mara herself.
Luke was unable to suppress a smile as he watched the two of them glare at each other. He crouched down in front of Alina, putting his hands on her shoulders. "Do as your mother says, Ali," he said firmly. "We have things to discuss on our own."
Alina nodded. "I will wait in the ship," she agreed and trotted towards the transport.
Mara watched Alina go up the ramp into the transport in amazement. She had seen Alina do what Luke asked, but not her, more times than she could count. She glowered at Luke. "Why does she always do that for you and not me?" she demanded. Her eyes narrowed abruptly. "If you're using mind tricks on my daughter..."
Luke grinned. Mara, although she maintained a casual attitude to Alina around people like Han and Lando for the sake of her reputation, was fiercely protective towards her daughter, treating her with the same obsessive pride that she had once shown towards the Jade's Fire. He shook his head. "Nothing so devious. It's just something that happens. Jacen and Anakin acted the same way towards Han when they were her age, and so did Jaina towards Leia."
He changed the subject. "Anyway, enough of that. I'm going to miss you," he said, pulling her into an embrace.
"Same here," Mara said, although the effect was offset fractionally by the hint of a grimace that passed across her face. She would never completely free herself from the last lingering shades of the Emperor's Hand, who had considered emotions a weakness. "Take care of Ali for me."
Luke nodded. "I will. Look after yourself as well." He ignored her inevitable scowl. "I mean that," he said firmly. "Whatever's been making these raids into the Outer Rim is clearly highly dangerous." He turned and went up the ramp into the transport, pausing briefly at the top to turn and give her a last smile. The ramp hissed shut and with a hum of repulsorlifts, it rose from the deck.
Mara watched the transport pass through the magnetic seal and turn towards the Chu'unthor II. Using Jedi sensory enhancement, she was able to follow it until it entered the ship's hangar bay. The Chu'unthor II abruptly began moving towards the fringes of the fleet, its engines glowing in the distance. As it reached the perimeter of the fleet, she saw it begin to move forwards impossibly quickly as it ran up to lightspeed velocity. A few seconds later, it vanished into hyperspace.
The other ships in the fleet were also beginning to move into position for their own hyperspace jump. The previously chaotic formation was beginning to assume an orderly appearance as the starships moved to their assigned coordinates, and turned to face the same direction.
Flickers of pseudomotion in the distance caught her eye. In the vanguard of the fleet, some of the heavier ships, such as Battle Dragons, Star Destroyers, and Star Cruisers, were jumping to lightspeed. As soon as the ships behind had a clear run ahead of them, they began following the first wave into hyperspace, and so on until it was the turn of Galactic Defender and the two Super Star Destroyers, Renown and Pre-Eminence. Stars outside the hangar rotated madly, became lines, and merged into a flickering tunnel effect.
She took a breath as the glowing walls of hyperspace raced past beyond the hangar's magnetic seal. At last they were on their way, to find out what was attacking the New Republic from the depths of the Unknown Regions.
It had begun fourteen months ago. Vague, intermittent reports of strange ships being sighted had started filtering in from systems along the Outer Rim. At first these were dismissed as simply exaggerated stories of odd or unusual ships. The reports rapidly increased both in numbers and details, though, and it soon became clear, from the quantity of similar descriptions, that there was indeed a type of previously unknown alien starship being sighted.
Then the real trouble had started. Reports of small colonies and outposts being utterly wiped out began to appear along with the sightings. These incidents increased at an alarming ratio, along with stories of horrific massacres from the very few survivors, and soon the whole Outer Rim was in a state of near-panic. Seeking to resolve the crisis, New Republic Fleet ships were sent to try and deter whoever was responsible. They merely met the same fate as the colonies. In addition, their presence merely seemed to provoke the attackers. The attacks steadily increased in intensity and daring, as though the unknown aggressors had been probing the New Republic's defences and found them unable to withstand the onslaught.
Before long, a state of emergency was declared in the Outer Rim. Large numbers of warships were deployed in the sectors where activity was most widely concentrated. It soon became clear, as even this measure failed to deter the attacks, that drastic measures were needed. An unprecedented buildup of ships from every system in the New Republic began. For once, the entire Republic Senate acted in concert on this matter. The danger facing them was too great for even the most intense rivalries to take priority. The construction of Galactic Defender was given absolute priority, for it to be ready to lead the gathering fleet. Even the Empire contributed twenty Star Destroyers and two of it's three Super Star Destroyers. A score of the Jedi Knights were chosen to go with the fleet, as well as those noted for their diplomatic skill, such as Councillor Organa Solo and many of the Caamasi Remnant, in the hope that they might be able to negotiate with the invaders. It was decided that the fleet should take up positions in the sectors that had been most severely hit, and release scout ships and PRB-81 probe droids in an attempt to track down the alien ships. If no traces were found, then the fleet would proceed into the Unknown Regions. That at least was the plan drawn up by some of the top military commanders from both the New Republic and Empire, among them Admiral Ackbar, General Rieekan, and Vice-Admiral Ardiff.
Needlessly to say, though, what appeared simple on a datapad would prove considerably more complicated in practice.
After a hyperspace jump, the fleet arrived in the devastated areas of the Outer Rim. There it split into three battlegroups, which were led by Galactic Defender, Renown, and Pre-Eminence, to cover a total of thirty sectors that had been victims of alien attack. As per the mission parameters, all three groups began releasing their probe droids and remote controlled scout ships in each of their allotted sectors.
Yet this initiative did not get very far. Without exception, both the probe droids or scout ships only got past visual scanning range of their control ships before they were destroyed, without any transmissions being sent. Finally, no more were launched, since it was clearly an exercise in futility. Instead, the fleet ships pushed their sensor ranges out to their fullest, and began searching that way. Even that was anticipated, though. Readings of starfighter sized ships were detected on the edges of sensor range with depressing regularity, since the alien invaders were clearly toying with the fleet, and seemed to know the limits of their sensor technology inside out.
Nearly a month passed in this way, with morale gradually sinking under the combined weight of boredom, operational fatigue, and humiliation at the news of fresh raids that arrived, which the fleet's presence seemed to have done nothing to deter.
Finally, with the fleet making no progress in tracking down the invaders, it's commanders made a decision. The three battlegroups would rendezvous at the point where the reports of attacks had first begun to appear, attacks which had spread out from that point in a cone shape, the Atris system. It was a nearly uninhabited sector, with only a few colonies and smuggler nests scattered around it, but there was one fact about it that had made Mara in particular feel uneasy when the reports of attack began coming in. It was the last system between the Nirauan sector and the Unknown Regions...
Flanked by Rogue Squadron, the Skywalker Spirit soared out of it's docking bay and descended towards the planet Nirauan lying below Galactic Voyager. The Rogues had been chafing at the past month's lack of activity, having being largely confined on board ship, and Wedge had his own particular reasons for wanting to visit Nirauan. Well, she thought, they were about to have a chance to let off some steam. The sublight drives of the Spirit had recently been upgraded, and she had been waiting for a good time to test them out. This seemed like the perfect moment, with Rogue Squadron flying escort for her. Shoving the throttle to full power, she grinned as the Spirit shot ahead of Rogue Squadron. A surprised exclamation came over the comm from one of the pilots - Janson, she thought. "What's the matter, Rogues?" she asked sweetly. "Don't tell me you've gotten slow in your old ages. A race to the Hand of Thrawn."
There was no answer, except for the rapidly gaining fighter icons on her displays as Rogue Squadron collectively accepted her challenge. They gained on her quickly, the X-wings being slightly faster than the Spirit. She would need to use her piloting skills to win this race. One by one, five of the snubfighters shot past her cockpit canopy as the ships descended into the atmosphere of Nirauan. Wedge was unsurprisingly the first, followed narrowly by Tycho Celchu and Wes Janson. Gavin Darklighter and Ooryl Qyrgg came close behind them, in hot pursuit.
By then, though, the effects of atmosphere began to tell, negating the X-wings' speed advantage. Corran Horn's X-wing appeared to hang over the Spirit's canopy, although it was unable to gain any further ground. The other Rogues were left trailing in the wake of the Spirit's drive trails. Gradually, the starship began to creep up on Gavin and Ooryl, as it's superior atmospheric aerodynamics began to tell. Abruptly, Corran's fighter sideslipped to port and dropped past the canopy in a near-freefall. Ahead, the other five X-wings tipped forwards and dove towards Nirauan in a similar manoeuvre.
Mara's lip twisted as she watched the X-wings dwindle as they fell towards the planet's surface. Did they really think a cute stunt like that would surprise her..? She threw the Spirit into a steep dive, rapidly gaining on the fighters. Wind screamed past the canopy in the speed of her descent. Gavin and Ooryl's X-wings quickly grew nearer, expanding from small dots to full sized starfighters, and then she was upon them. There was just time for her to give them an ironic salute as she flashed past them to leave them lagging hopelessly behind.
That left Wedge, Tycho, and Janson, as well as Corran, who had managed to overtake Gavin and Ooryl when he initiated his dive. By now, though, the ground was getting dangerously close. Wedge and the others had already pulled up so they were flying level with the surface, using the inherited momentum from their dives to open as large a gap between them and Mara as possible. They were flying in a rough diamond formation, with Wedge in the lead, Tycho and Janson side by side close behind him, and Corran lagging a little way behind them.
The Spirit closed slowly on Corran, but at this rate, she would never get past Tycho and Janson, let alone Wedge, before they got to the Hand of Thrawn. It would require more than straightforward flying over terrain. If they thought they could use a freefall to gain a lead on her, then she could throw that back in their faces. She pulled the Spirit up into a steep but brief climb, and then sharply arrested the climb and turned the starship into a gently arcing curve that brought her significantly closer to Corran's X-wing. Several more identical manoeuvres later, she was so close to the snubfighter that she could clearly see the top of Corran's helmet moving in the cockpit as he concentrated on keeping ahead of her. As she brought the Spirit up into a final climb-and-coast to overtake Corran, he abruptly slashed power to his engines and drifted up into her projected flight path, forcing her to pull aside to avoid a collision. The two ships came so close that she clearly saw the X-wing rock from the backwash of the Spirit as it cut to one side. With an irritated hiss at having been outmanoeuvred, she tried to cut in below the X-wing. Unfazed by the near collision, Corran accelerated to full speed again and managed to get in front of her, and they were back to where they had been a minute ago.
Ahead, the terrain began growing rugged and desolate, a mix of cliffs and deep gorges and ravines. She knew that she had to get ahead of Corran before they got there, or she would have no chance, and from the speed they were going at, it wouldn't be long before they got there. She began drifting the Spirit from side to side, forcing Corran to match her tactics in order to block her. A deep gorge, flanked on either side by steep cliffs, was looming ahead of her, and she slipped the Spirit hard to starboard. Corran immediately moved to obstruct her, and she stayed behind him as the gorge approached. As he reached the gorge, Corran turned to port, momentarily losing sight of the Spirit in the process, as Mara had intended, and entered the opening in the cliffs. Only then did he glance behind him, and tensed as he found that the Spirit was no longer behind him. A second later, a shadow fell across his canopy as it fell like a stone from the rim of the gorge. Repulsorlifts cut in, arresting its descent, and the main engines flared triumphantly as the Spirit shot down the gorge in pursuit of Tycho and Janson.
Mara spared a glance at the displays to see Corran's X-wing climbing out of the gorge to join the rest of Rogue Squadron. Corran's voice crackled from the comm. "Nice flying, Mara. We'll have to have a rematch some time."
"Any time," Mara answered before switching her entire attention to how she was going to get past Tycho and Janson. It wouldn't be easy. They were the two best pilots in the squadron after Wedge, with distinguished service records going back to the Battle of Hoth and beyond. As if reading her thoughts, they moved into a blocking formation, with Janson climbing towards the top of the gorge, while Tycho dropped a few metres, although they stayed close enough to each other to stop any attempt that she might make to fly through the gap between them. All three of them jockeyed for position as they flew down the gorge, with Tycho and Janson easily anticipating and countering every manoeuvre possible in the confined area of the gorge. Sunlight suddenly flared around them as they soared out of the trench, and Mara tensed. She now had a much better chance to get past Tycho and Janson, but ahead of her she could see the ravine that led directly to the Hand of Thrawn. The race was nearly over, and she still had Wedge to contend with even if she managed to get past these two.
She brought the Spirit down until it was flying barely two metres over the ground. Janson immediately brought his X-wing down directly over the Spirit to stop Mara from suddenly climbing, while Tycho began weaving from side to side in front of her to prevent her from getting past him. It was an effective stunt from keeping another pilot from overtaking, but it had it's flaws.
Mara smiled as she saw her opportunity to demonstrate those flaws to Tycho and Janson. A low line of cliffs lay ahead of her, perfectly suited for her plans. She waited until she was flying parallel with the cliffs, and then made her move, twisting the Spirit around its axis until it was flying on its side, and simultaneously sliding sideways to avoid crashing into Janson's X-wing. She shunted the ship towards the starfighter, and grinned as she saw him sharply sideslip and reduce power to evade her. She didn't give Tycho any time to think, cutting in towards the cliffs to get past him. Despite being caught unawares, though, Tycho proceeded to demonstrate all the coolness and quick thinking that he was renowned for in combat. He forced her in towards the cliffs so closely that any normal pilot would have had no option but to either throttle back or risk colliding with the cliff faces. He had made one small mistake, however, namely the fact that she had a third option. Reaching out with the Force, she saw the cliffs, the Spirit, and the X-wing in her mind. Gritting her teeth, she pushed the ship forwards through the slim gap between Tycho's fighter and the cliff face, a gap so narrow that even with the Force as her ally, she could not avoid hitting the cliff. An ear-piercing scream of metal scraping along rock at ultra high speeds ripped though the hull, accompanied by showers of sparks that she could see from the cockpit.
"Warning!" the ship's voice announced calmly. "You are in danger of causing a catastrophic loss of hull integrity. You are recommended to take evasive action immediately."
Mara swiped at a switch to cut the warning off. By now she had pulled ahead of Tycho, and was able to put some space between the Spirit and the cliffs. On the displays she saw Tycho and Janson reduce speed to allow the other Rogues to catch up with them.
Now only Wedge was the only one left in contention. Mara took a deep breath. Corran had been difficult, and overtaking Tycho had involved near-suicidal recklessness. She wasn't sure she wanted to think about what getting past Wedge would entail. She pushed the thought away, and was right behind Wedge as he entered the final ravine, the quad engines of the X-wing glowing just ahead and to starboard of the cockpit. Mara gritted her teeth as the Spirit shot down the canyon. Wedge was good, all right. The fighter moved to block every attempt she made to take pole position. Against Janson and Tycho, the Spirit's greater size had been an asset. Here it became a liability, as Wedge deftly turned it to his own advantage. The fighter constantly checked, accelerated, and drifted from side to side, capitalising on the Spirit's greater inertia by forcing Mara to keep at a safe distance behind to avoid the risk of crashing into the sides of the ravine or Wedge himself. She swore vehemently as she checked her displays and realised that they were already halfway through the ravine. She saw Wedge twist in his seat to check her position and then throttle back sharply to force her to slow down.
Mara had already decided that she wasn't going to play into his hands, though. By channelling all available power from the shields and lasers and into the engines, she managed to gain a slight increase in speed. The Spirit leapt forwards until it was flying just over the X-wing, parallel with the trailing edges of the S-foils, before Wedge could react. Expecting her to throttle down to avoid a collision, he was taken aback when the Spirit instead came forwards, hanging barely half a meter over the aft of his fighter. An alarmed series of trills and whistles filled the cockpit as Gate began pointing out to him exactly how close the Spirit was, and that he had almost lost the pole position. The two ships shot down the ravine together, neither pilot deviating from their course by as much as a micrometre. The thrum of the Spirit's heavy drive engines pulsed rhythmically through the hull as it hurtled down the ravine, the cliff walls going past at a terrifying speed. Bit by bit, the Spirit gradually began inching forwards over Wedge's X-wing. Ahead, the ravine suddenly narrowed drastically, and Wedge was forced to swerve to avoid crashing into the cliff walls. He recovered quickly, but by that time, the Spirit had drawn level with him, and as the ravine widened again, it pulled to one side so that Mara and Wedge were flying side by side.
The two ships shot out of the ravine neck and neck. Gradually they slowed to a halt, hovering on repulsorlifts, with the end of the race. "Very good flying," Wedge complimented. "I'll have to put you down on a list of possible candidates for the Rogues."
"I think I'll pass," Mara said lightly. "Rogue Squadron isn't large enough for two planet sized egos like Corran and me."
Wedge's laughter filled the cockpit. "Anyway, we'd better check out the Hand of Thrawn," he observed. "Time for business. Rogues, form up on the Spirit and lock S-foils in attack position."
The X-wings moved into formation around the Spirit, four each front and behind, and two flanking it on either side. No trouble was expected - they certainly wouldn't have gone careening through the canyons and ravines if there was a possibility of real danger, and sensor scans had indicated that they should have nothing to worry about. Nevertheless, they hadn't lasted this long by being rash, and they weren't about to start now.
A few minutes flight brought them to the bluff where the Hand of Thrawn stood. Mara felt her throat tighten as she circled the site in the Spirit. Close up, it was even worse than the sensor scans from Galactic Defender had indicated. The devastation was amazing. Chunks of shattered and melted stone lay everywhere. Hardly anything had been left standing above head height. The ground was blackened and scorched, and the bluff and cliffs around bore evidence of intense heat and laser fire. Clearly the garrison of the fortress had been utterly wiped out in the attack that had destroyed it. She grimaced at the thought of the power needed to blow apart the nearly impregnable fortress with such violence.
"Doesn't look like we're going to find anything here, Rogue Leader," Hobbie observed to Wedge.
"Copy that," Wedge acknowledged grimly. "Mara, you got any ideas?"
"Actually, yes," Mara replied. "Just because you can't ask the garrison doesn't mean there aren't other ways to find out what happened here."
"Can we have that again, in Basic this time?" came the request.
"Follow me in," Mara ordered. "Just trust me." She engaged the Spirit's repulsorlifts and brought the starship down on the bluff. Rogue Squadron followed her down, settling all around her.
The Rogues were already out of their fighters by the time she came down the Spirit's ramp. "Okay, Mara, what's your idea..." Tycho began, but got no further as she waved him to silence.
She opened her mind and reached out with the Force. It did not take long before she felt several presences nearby, one of them very close. She turned in it's direction, and saw, as she had expected, one of the Qom Qae sitting on a nearby stunted bush at the edge of the bluff, watching her and the Rogues. "I wish to speak to the one called Friend of Jedi," she said, addressing it.
The creatures gave an involuntary screech - of surprise, she thought - and almost fell off the bush. A second later, it took off, gliding down over the edge of the bluff.
"Well, that was a great help," Hobbie noted dryly. "We really learned something from that."
Mara and Corran glanced at each other, sharing a quick thought: A Jedi must have patience. "Just wait," Mara told Hobbie.
A few minutes passed, and then Mara sensed the approach of several more Qom Qae, all of them adults. One in particular looked very familiar, although now considerably larger, with adult characteristics.
"Welcome, Friend of Jedi," Mara said in greeting.
Friend of Jedi, or Child of Winds as she still thought of him, had lost none of his youthful brashness. "It is Mara Jade," he exclaimed exuberantly. "The beloved of Master Skywalker."
Mara flushed slightly, grateful that none of the Rogues could understand Qom Qae, at least until she saw the amused glint in Corran's eye, and cursed herself for forgetting that he would be able to understand them as well. "Can you translate what they're saying for the others?" she asked Corran. "Not the first bit," she warned, giving him a frown.
Corran nodded in confirmation and she began. "What happened here?" she asked.
Friend of Jedi hunched his wings tightly over his back in a gesture of fear or anxiety. "Two seasons ago, strange flying machines appeared here. They were not the same as the ones the Threateners used. A giant flying machine came with them, and the land all around burnt for many days. We do not know what happened to the Threateners. We hid in caves, as did the Qom Jha, while the battle took place. When it finished, we found the High Tower destroyed."
Mara nodded. "Thank you. We have been attacked ourselves by the enemies of the Threateners."
"It is the least we can do for Master Skywalker's beloved," the Qom Qae answered, which Corran was alert enough not to translate. "We regret we cannot be of more assistance."
"You've already done enough," Mara said. "We know what happened here now, thanks to you."
Friend of Jedi lifted his winds slightly, in what seemed to be a Qom Qae nod. "We are pleased you have formed a nesting between you and Master Skywalker. The Qom Jha learned of it from listening to the Threateners, and in turn told us. The Qom Qae hope that you will be successful in your battle against your enemies. Farewell, Mara Jade." Spreading his wings, he took off from the bush he had been perched on and glided down over the rim of the bluff, followed by his companions.
Mara watched them go and then turned back to look at the ruins of the Hand of Thrawn. So that was that. Parck, Fel, and the New Republic's hopes of finding weapons to use against the invaders - all gone. She threw a glance at Wedge, sensing his disappointment. Fel had been captured by Ysanne Isard years before, after defecting to the New Republic, and had been presumed summarily executed - until Han and Leia came across the clones of him on Pakrik Minor, and Luke and Mara had met the real Fel in the Chiss fortress. None of the Rogues knew that Wedge and Fel were brothers-in-law, even after all this time. It was Wedge's one secret, in the same way that Corran kept his Jedi abilities secret. He hid the disappointment well, though. "Okay, Rogues, back to Galactic Defender," he ordered evenly.
He started to turn towards his fighter, but stopped as Mara grabbed his arm. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry you weren't able to find anything out about your sister," she said after making sure the other Rogues were out of earshot.
Wedge shrugged. "Probably just as well. I'd have likely done something very unpleasant to Fel if he'd been here. I've gone twenty years without knowing what happened to Syal after she disappeared. It wouldn't have taken Fel much to at least send a message." He gave her a nod. "Thanks for keeping it a secret."
"Any time," Mara said, letting go of his arm and turning towards the Skywalker Spirit. "Come on, General, let's go home."
"Through the Force, things you will see. Other places. The future ... the past. Old friends long gone."
Yoda's words to Luke echoed in Mara's head, even although she was asleep in her quarters on Galactic Defender. What she was experiencing was not strictly a dream, since she knew she was asleep. Such events had happened to her before, and they invariably presaged a Jedi vision. The Force was about to show her something, and Yoda's words had been intended to prepare her for that. Sure enough, the vision arrived instantly. As so often with Jedi visions, what it showed her was unsettling. Like Luke's own vision on Dagobah of Han and Leia being tortured, it was a profoundly disturbing one. This time, though, it was not a vision of the future, but of the past - her past.
After Luke had unlocked her true memories of childhood, she had examined them carefully for further information about her life before Palpatine, but to no avail. They were merely clouded memories of trivial events in her childhood. A few snippets of early Jedi training that her parents had given her, and some recollections of typical significant events in her early life. Only the memory of her parents's deaths stood out clearly. She didn't even know what their names were or her home planet.
Therefore, the clarity of the vision nearly overwhelmed her. In it, she saw her surviving memories suddenly lose their haziness and become razor sharp. Countless more that she had lost forever came back to her. Scenes of her youth flicked before her at a staggering speed, but she was somehow able to understand exactly what was happening in each one, and even to relate it to events in the galaxy. They formed a montage of images of her as a young girl. Much of it was irrelevant, but some parts stood out. She saw her parents - whose names she knew for the first time: Qun-Voi and Allya Jade - explaining to her how she had special powers that set her apart from most other, and how to begin to use them for simple control of the Force, although she was too young to see it as more than an interesting game. As time wore on and she became older, they began teaching her that such powers were not to be taken lightly. They demanded a special discipline and morality if they were to be used properly. She went cold as she saw what came next: their teaching her a skill that she was naturally gifted in, and which would have profound and terrible consequences for her future: the Jedi power of receptive telepathy.
As her vision progressed, she began to sense a grave fear and concern from her parents over the events shaking the galaxy: the Jedi purges, the civil war between the Rebellion and the Empire, and the increasing Imperial repression, and the possibility of Palpatine, Vader, or their Jedi hunters sensing her growing strength in the Force while she could not understand what a dangerous time it was for the Jedi and mask her powers accordingly.
Yet she also knew that there was another, far more immediate cause for their consternation. As the Jedi were gradually hunted down, many fled into hiding, among them her parents, seeking to avoid Vader and the Jedi hunters. Some even began joining Palpatine and Vader to escape their own deaths, ruthlessly hunting down their former friends and associates. It did them little good in the long run though. Palpatine despised opportunistic traitors and as the Jedi purges came to an end, he had them destroyed one by one. Mara's parents were too strong in the light side to even contemplate such a course, however. The real danger was of being betrayed, and sure enough, they lifted her from her bed one night and fled for their lives.
She knew what happened next, having relived it a thousand times. The pursuit did not last long. The betrayal and trap had been intricately planned, and a few hours later her parents had been destroyed, her father struck down by Vader, and her mother killed by Palpatine.
She expected the vision to end there, but instead it continued. What came next was new. She saw Palpatine implanting the memory lock in her mind once he had killed her mother and taken her aboard his ship, and testing it, gauging the effectiveness of her false memories, to see if she would make a reliable and dedicated servant, before the vision faded into darkness.
With a start, Mara snapped awake, breathing hard and sweating. It took her a few moments to collect her thoughts. She knew that such a vision was meant to tell her something, clearly about her family. Someone close to them had betrayed them, selling them to Vader and the Emperor. Her parents had told none of the other Jedi where they were hiding, yet someone had known. She remembered their words, that one of them had been lost to the Empire. That seemed to indicate a family member had betrayed them, very likely with Jedi powers, since the ability to use the Force ran in families. She knew from the vision that the Jedi traitors had been executed, yet some instinct told her that whoever had betrayed her parents was still alive.
A sudden terrible thought came to her, as she realised that Roganda Ismaren fitted the profile nicely. Another of the Emperor's Hand's, with Force powers...
She swung her legs out of bed. The thought that she could be related to that piece of Sith-spawned slime had really unsettled her. She would have to find out the truth of the matter ASAP, for her own peace of mind. Crossing to the comm board in her quarters, she keyed for a transmission to Coruscant. It took a couple of minutes for the recipient to appear in the hologram projection field.
"Oh hi, Mara," Ghent said, blinking at her, his hair tousled. He had plainly been asleep when the transmission came through.
"Sorry, Ghent, I just need some information quickly," Mara said. She knew what time it was on Coruscant but she didn't want to wait till morning there to speak to Ghent.
Ghent rubbed his eyes and shook his head clear, as another figure appeared in the transmission beside him. Lachaa, a woman roughly the same age as him, who had an almost equal obsession with computers. Even now, two years after Ghent had found his soulmate, there were still a few isolated jokes and some disbelief that Ghent had left his computer for long enough to notice her.
Mara shook the thought away. "I need you to slice into Palpatine's Special Files section and find information on Qun-Voi and Allya Jade," she said. "Jedi Knights in the Old Republic. In particular, how they were betrayed to Vader and Palpatine, and by whom.
Ghent's face dropped. He had sliced his way into all the Special Files shortly after the resolution of the Caamas Issue. Finding the information Mara wanted would merely be a question of running a database search through the files. He suddenly looked at her sharply. "Your family?" he asked.
Mara nodded. Once upon a time, Ghent wouldn't have given their names a second thought, he was so wrapped up in his computers. "I want the files on me and Roganda Ismaren as well. All the information you can find. Backgrounds, genetic profiles and comparisons, everything. Cross reference your search with the libraries at Obroa-skai and Yaga Minor."
"I'll get right onto it," Ghent promised, taken aback by her vehemence. "I'll send it through to you as soon as I have it. See you around."
Ghent was good as his word. Only four hours later, Mara had all the information he had been able to find. It answered some of her questions, left some unanswered, and posed even more. To her great relief, the genetic analysis proved conclusively that she and Roganda were completely unrelated, and therefore Ismaren would not have betrayed her parents. It only raised the question of who had, though.
In addition, the files on her parents that Ghent had found contained comprehensive biographical information, apparently taken from the records of the old Jedi Council, listing their homeworld as Chandrila. It even contained a short section on Mara herself, noting that she had the potential to become a powerful Jedi. Yet it did not help answer the question of who might have betrayed them. Despite an addendum added by Imperial archivists recording that they had gone into hiding on Chandrila, where they had been tracked down and executed as "traitors to the Empire", albeit by Vader alone and omitting the Emperor's role, it did not say who had sold them to the Empire to begin with. Clearly the Emperor did not put everything he knew into even his Special Files.
Mara scanned through the file one more time, hoping she might somehow have missed something, but in vain. Finally, she put the pad aside and went back to sleep. This time her sleep was undisturbed by any Force visions, although she would have welcomed any this time around if they revealed the identity of her parents' betrayer.
The firing of Galactic Defender's weapon batteries sent steady vibrations through the hull. At the bridge admiral's station, Admiral Ackbar examined the three-dimensional holographic tactical display hanging in front of him. All the Fleet ships were precisely marked on the hologram, with thin blue lines denoting ion cannon shots saturating the space around Galactic Defender.
Behind him, the bridge doors slid open to reveal Leia. "Admiral, what's going on?" she asked, hurrying over to him.
Ackbar nodded to her gravely. "We have an unexpected guest, Councillor Solo," he explained, gesturing to the hologram. A single small starfighter size ship was darting between the capital ships, showing incredible speed and agility as it evaded the hail of ion beams being fired at it. "Isolate and zoom in on it," he ordered. A second later, a large scale projection of the starfighter appeared in the place of the Fleet ships.
"It's the same class of fighter that's been attacking our Outer Rim territories," Leia noted.
Ackbar agreed. The image showed a sleek, angular ship approximately one and a half times the size of an X-wing. It had a dark grey hull, and carried two pairs of dual laser cannons halfway along the fuselage.
The hologram switched back to an overview of the fleet, where the fighter was still eluding the laser fire being directed at it. It made several passes along the entire length of Galactic Defender's hull, seeming to mock the ability of the fleet gunners to hit it by cutting in close to the hull and skimming by the ion batteries. It completed one last run along the hull, and then vanished into hyperspace, leaving the ion cannons firing vainly at where it had been for a minute before falling silent.
Ackbar had crossed to the bridge viewports during the last run it had made, and he now turned away from contemplating the place where it had vanished. "A pity the Hand of Thrawn had been destroyed," he observed calmly. "We could have used their knowledge in fighting such enemies. Still, we have some experience of what we are fighting now." He turned to a staff officer. "See if you can calculate their vector from their trajectory. I assume you were able to track them for a few microseconds after they jumped to hyperspace."
He nodded to a Calamarian colonel standing near him. "Congratulations on your insight, Colonel Avola. You were correct to surmise that if we headed for the Nirauan system in an attempt to join the Chiss, it would draw our enemies out. Plainly they fear an alliance between our two groups."
Colonel Avola inclined his head. He was one of the most promising of the new breed of tacticians and commanders emerging in the New Republic fleet hierarchy, and it had been a considerable boost to his already impressive reputation that Ackbar had personally selected him with a view towards him becoming the Fleet admiral in Ackbar's own place once he retired, which would not be long now.
Sweat glistened on Mara's forehead. "No, not that one," she said between gritted teeth. "Try the next one down. Blast it, Solo, can't you do any better than that?" There was a brief pause and then a vehement oath. "Oh, for Sith's sake, I'll do it."
Leia, standing just inside the Falcon's hatch, listened to Mara's comments for a couple of seconds. She had found Chewbacca working outside on the aft inertial dampers, annoyed that Han had not appeared to help as he had promised. She had soon found out why he had not emerged to help Chewie.
Stepping to the edge of the Falcon's maintenance pit, she looked down at Han and Mara. Both of them glanced up at her in surprise, and then Han proceeded to scramble out of the maintenance pit. "Just upgrading the hyperdrive, sweetheart," he explained.
"So I gathered," Leia said dryly. "If anyone heard you two, they might get the wrong idea." She turned her attention to Mara. "Having some difficulty with the Falcon?"
Mara gave Han a disgusted look. "That's the understatement of the year. How Solo keeps this thing running, I don't know. He doesn't even know that a broad phase ion convertor cannot be connected to a hyperdrive motivator unless you want it blowing up in your face." She gestured to some of the systems. "I mean, look at those Mapra-30 switchback loops. They're museum pieces. Even a blind Jawa wouldn't bother stealing them."
Leia filtered the rest of Mara's diatribe out. By now, she knew Mara well enough to know that her frequent sniping at Han and the Falcon was merely a front. In reality, the two of them had grown to like each other. Mara had once admitted to Leia, in a moment of weakness, that Han was the only man she knew apart from Karrde and Luke who wasn't completely intimidated by her. She supposed that it would be difficult for Han and Mara to completely dislike each other, since they both had an obsessive pride in their personal ships. Both of them had spent a good deal of time working together on the Falcon and Spirit since they arrived on Galactic Defender, exchanging a stream of barbed remarks about each other and their ships in the process, although anyone who listened to them arguing for more than a few minutes would have realised that it was an utter charade.
The wailing of the alert snapped her out of her thoughts. "What's happening?" she demanded into her comlink as soon as she could get it activated.
"We have some more of those alien fighters making a fly past, Councillor Solo," one of the bridge crew explained quickly. "It looks like they're here to fight this time. We're launching our own fighters now."
Wedge was impressed by the quick reactions of Rogue Squadron. Despite the fact that they hadn't been involved in any real crisis or combat situations for the last year, they hadn't allowed it to slow their performance. Three minutes after the alert sounded, they were out of their hangar, with S-foils in attack position, heading for the alien fighters. An increasing amount of chatter was beginning to build up on the comm frequencies as other fighter squadrons began launching, and talking between themselves and back and forth to Starfighter Command. He grimaced as he saw that Y-wings and B-wings were launching. Judging from the review holos he had seen detailing the speed of the previous alien fighter, the Y-wings and B-wings would never get near it.
He switched the comm to the squadron's private frequency, cutting off the comm chatter. "Stay sharp, Rogues. We aren't chasing down pirates or smugglers this time." Ahead of him, he saw a group of A-wings launching. That was better. "Green Squadron, this is Rogue Leader," he said, switching the comm back to the standard Fleet frequency. "See if you can get in front of the enemy fighters. We'll try to catch them between us."
He toggled the comm back to the Rogue Squadron frequency. "Okay, we're making an attack now. Let's see if we can trap them between us and Green Squadron." Kicking the X-wing's drive to full power, he set off towards the alien fighters in the distance, closely followed by the other Rogues.
Ackbar hurried onto the bridge of Galactic Defender and automatically sank into his command chair. He had retired for the night, only to be summoned back by the alert alarm. He took in the situation on the tactical displays in a few seconds, and opened his mouth to issue orders...and then checked as he caught sight of Colonel Avola standing to one side. The situation was not a critical one, and it would be useful for the young Calamarian to experience real battle conditions. There was certainly little enough opportunity for that, with the peace between the New Republic and Empire.
He beckoned Avola over. "Colonel, you are in command on the bridge as of now."
Avola hesitated, then nodded. "Thank you, Admiral."
"Cut left, Two. There's one on you," Wedge instructed Tycho, watching as the fighter spat an incessant stream of yellow laser fire at Tycho's X-wing. "Six, pull in now."
"Copy, Rogue Leader. I'm on my way," Gavin Darklighter answered. A second later, an X-wing shot past Wedge's fighter, all four laser cannons blazing. The shots drilled through the fuselage of the enemy fighter. A secondary explosion flared inside the hull, and the starfighter blew apart into a shower of debris.
"This is too easy, Lead," Gavin observed as he turned away, seeking another target. "It's like shooting womprats in a barrel."
Wedge thought so too, but before he could say as much, Admiral Ackbar cut in on an emergency frequency. "All ships, Colonel Avola is in command on Galactic Defender," he announced tersely.
Janson whistled. "Be interesting to see if he's good as Ackbar," he mused. Ackbar had been in command of the New Republic Fleet for so long now that it was hard to imagine anyone else in his place.
"Cut the chatter," Wedge ordered. Rogue and Green Squadrons seemed to have the alien starfighters well in hand, but they could not afford to become complacent. He glanced around, and was impressed by what he saw. Colonel Avola seemed to be handling the battle well. Two Corellian Gunships had appeared to further contain the enemy fighters. Galactic Defender and Renown were closing in on both sides, to offset the traditional difficulty of capital ship turbolasers being unable to adequately track enemy starfighters. In the shrinking space, the Y-wings and B-wings were able to cut a swathe through the alien fighters without their lack of speed being a disadvantage.
"Rogue and Green Squadrons, this is Galactic Defender," a Quarren voice announced. "Take up stations behind the Gunships and intercept escaping enemy fighters."
"Copy, Galactic Defender," Wedge confirmed. "Rogues, set course for the port Gunship." The A-wings had already taken up position behind the other Gunship, he noted as the Rogues headed for their Gunship, and the B-wings and Y-wings had already pulled out of the battle zone, clearing the way for the Gunships, Galactic Defender, and Renown to open fire without fear of hitting their own fighters. A few minutes later, they had made a fast, thorough sweep of the remaining enemy fighters.
Ackbar sat in his command chair on the bridge of Galactic Defender, watching and listening as Colonel Avola coordinated the capital ship attack. So far he seemed to be managing competently. He had picked up on what Rogue and Green Squadrons were doing, and had ordered a pair of Corellian Gunships to backstop them. The enemy fighters were surrounded, although even a cadet could have seen that they had let themselves be deliberately trapped. Galactic Defender and Renown were filling the target zone with a storm of turbolaser fire, while Rogue and Green Squadrons intercepted and destroyed any that tried to escape.
The battle only lasted a few minutes longer before only glowing shards of what had a short time ago been two squadrons of alien fighters were left drifting in the battlefield. It had been a suicide attack, he reflected. Judging from the way the earlier fighter had so easily evaded their ion fire, they should have had no trouble escaping this time, even though they had let themselves be surrounded. If Colonel Avola had made a mistake, it had been to use turbolasers rather than ion cannons. If they could have captured one of the fighters and it's pilot intact, it could have been a valuable source of information.
Ackbar beckoned Colonel Avola over. "My compliments on your success, Colonel."
Avola nodded. "Thank you. I understand why you wished for me to take command. No simulation can compare to a real battle."
"No, they do not," Ackbar agreed. "I think it is time we carried the battle to the invaders." He turned to a Twi'lek aide. "Do we have a calculation for the hyperspace vector of the first alien fighter?"
"Yes, Admiral," the aide answered, passing him a datapad. "An unknown system just within the Unknown Regions. It may of course be that they made several small jumps to throw any pursuit off."
"Perhaps," Ackbar agreed. "We will not find out until we arrive. Colonel Avola, set course for this system." He rose from his command chair. "I shall be in my quarters."
A day later, the fleet came out of hyperspace in the system that they had tracked the alien fighter to. Starfighters were immediately launched to fend off any potential ambush, while a comprehensive sensor sweep was made of the system. At length, though, the sensor probes turned up no signs of life in the system and an impromptu conference developed between Admiral Ackbar, Colonel Avola, Ackbar's entire staff, several of the senior captains in the fleet via hologram, and Wedge, who had been making his report to Ackbar on the previous day's battle when the sensor sweep reports arrived. As the discussion progressed on how best to proceed with tracking down the aliens, Wedge found his attention wandering.
At that moment, he caught sight of one of the sensor operators out of the corner of his eye. The man was frowning at his displays. "Something wrong?" he asked as he walked over to the aide. "Have you got a reading on one of those alien ships?"
The man hesitated. "No, sir. A Lambda-class shuttle has just dropped out of hyperspace. They aren't transmitting any codes and refuse to answer our hailing signals."
"Give me a visual," Wedge ordered. A few seconds later, an image of a black hulled Lambda shuttle appeared on the display. He frowned. Most such shuttles had a standard Imperial Grey livery. It was unusual to see a customised one. On the displays, the shuttle kept approaching Galactic Defender. "Target and shoot with ion cannons only," he ordered, watching the display.
No lines denoting ion beams appeared on the display, however. "Why aren't they firing?" he asked.
"Hold on," the aide said, swivelling to his comm board and switching frequencies. "Ion battery crew GU-169, come in. Why aren't you firing?"
There was only silence. Wedge followed the shuttle's projected course on the display, and frowned. "They're coming into docking bay 22. I want two squads there on the double. Move!"
Lady Lumiya of the Sith watched as her shuttle dropped out of hyperspace on the fringes of a vast fleet. In the centre of the armada, a massive starship lay almost dead ahead of them, dwarfing the two Super Star Destroyers on either side of it. "Set a course for one of the docking bays on that ship," she ordered.
The pilot obeyed silently, a gleam of anticipation appearing in his eyes as he watched the giant ship approaching. Like Lumiya, he was a Sith, and her most powerful student. Since her defeat five years ago, Lumiya had not been idle. She had planned her attack on Skywalker carefully, and had trained a group of Sith Adepts. "Soon I will confront the Jedi," he said exultantly.
"Be patient, Kariss," Lumiya warned. "Do not let your impatience bring your destruction. Mara Skywalker is a dangerous foe."
Kariss did not reply, merely letting out a breath in disdain of her caution. He despised the placid weakness of the Jedi. They were too obsessed with preaching restraint and compassion to call on the immense power of the dark side. Once he had felt the dark side coursing through him for the first time under Lumiya's instruction, he knew that his destiny lay before him in the ways of the Sith. None of the other Sith students were his equal, either in lightsabre combat or the use of the Force. Only Lumiya could best him, and then only with difficulty. "They're hailing us," he reported.
"Ignore them," Lumiya instructed. She stretched out with the Force, taking control of the minds of the gunners along their entry vector to Galactic Defender to prevent them firing on the shuttle. As she had expected, they were weak minded fools, exactly the sort the New Republic would use.
The shuttle proceeded in towards Galactic Defender and entered the docking bay, a slight vibration rippling through the hull as it passed through the magnetic seal, and settled to the deck, it's wings folding up like a giant avian's.
"They've sent us a welcoming committee," Kariss observed mockingly, staring at the guards in the hangar.
Lumiya took her lightwhip from her waist, retracting it to reveal the coiled metal strands. "We should not disappoint them then, should we?"
The shuttle's ramp began to lower, and the squad commander signalled his men to set their weapons on stun. They levelled their blasters in readiness, only to stop in amazement as Kariss strode down the ramp, clad in a black cloak, his face hidden in the shadows of the hood. Except for the palpable menace hanging around him, he could easily have been mistaken for Luke Skywalker. They were even more astounded by Lumiya as she followed Kariss down the ramp. A midnight blue cloak revealed part of a steel grey cyborg frame. An inverted triangular mask concealed her entire face except for her eyes. Kariss strode calmly towards the hangar doors, utterly ignoring the weapons pointing at him and Lumiya. The squad commander recovered from his amazement at the sight of Lumiya and Kariss, and stepped forwards. "Stop where you are," he ordered.
Kariss ignored him, continuing towards the hangar doors. The commander hesitated for a moment in disbelief. He had never met anyone who would ignore an order when a score of blasters were trained on them. He signalled to the guards to fire, but almost before he had done so, Kariss spun, snatching a lightsabre from his belt and igniting it. In less than a second, the blade sliced cleanly through three blasters in a sweeping arc. Bolts ricocheted around the hangar as the red blade moved to deflect each laser blast.
Behind Kariss, Lumiya activated her light whip and swept it at the guards. Seeing the glowing strands coming towards them, they reflexively opened fire, but the bolts merely scattered off the energy lashes in all directions. The whip strands came down, cutting at the guards. Two strokes of the lightwhip proved enough. The guards broke and fled, bleeding from various wounds, as Lumiya raised the lightwhip for a third stroke. She watched them flee in panic, then turned to Kariss, who was not so refined in attack, as the four injured guards on the floor around him vividly demonstrated. Kariss regarded them scornfully. They hadn't even been worth the effort of killing.
The commander was still standing, but began to back away as they turned towards him, then turned to run. Kariss tensed and leapt into the air in a twisting somersault that brought him down facing the commander. With one hand, he lifted the man off the ground by his throat, slowly crushing his neck, and watching the expression of fear as he fought for air.
"Enough of this, Kariss!" Lumiya snapped. What happened to the commander was utterly inconsequential to her, but they had a mission to carry out. The more time they wasted, the more likely they were to fail.
Kariss nodded and threw the commander aside, where he lay gasping for air. He felt the ripple in the Force as Lumiya reached out, searching for Mara Skywalker's presence, before she strode from the hangar.
Leia spun round, snatching the lightsabre from her belt as she felt the disturbance in the Force. A cold glare of dark side power swept through her mind, searching. It settled briefly on her, then passed on. Han was already drawing his blaster as he saw her reaction. "There's a Sith here," Leia said, activating the lightsabre. She made a quick probe of her own. "Make that two. They're near the hangar bays. Tell Wedge or Ackbar to get everyone out of there immediately."
Han was speaking into his comlink even before she had finished. Her mind raced. The way the probe had settled on her indicated that they were seeking Jedi, and the only other Jedi on board was Mara, who was clearly their target. She hesitated, realising that she would have to try and stop them alone. The twenty Jedi that had come on the mission were scattered around the fleet and they would take too long to get here. She stopped abruptly, cursing herself, and snatched the comlink from a surprised Han. "Get Corran down here now," she snapped, and got a confirmation from Wedge. Two seconds later, she was out of the door, running towards Mara's quarters.
Kariss strode through the corridors, closing in steadily on Mara Skywalker. She was staying in one position, waiting for them to arrive. His Force senses alerted him to two other Jedi racing to intercept them, but they were too far away to be any threat yet. Lumiya followed silently close behind him. This time, she vowed, she would capture Mara Skywalker and take her revenge on Luke Skywalker for inflicting this pretence of an existence upon her.
Mara felt the Force probe at the same moment that Leia did. It cut through her mind, then abruptly vanished as Lumiya found her prey. She wondered whether to retreat, but then rejected it. Here at least, it would only be the three of them, with no else getting in the way, and it would give Leia and Corran more time to arrive. She drew her lightsabres and waited. That was something even Lumiya might not be expecting. Five years of using the two blades had made her one of the most formidable Jedi in lightsabre combat. Besides, retreating wasn't her style. She always liked her enemies to come in a group.
She didn't have to wait long. They arrived a few minutes later. Kariss didn't bother with niceties like actually opening the door. It began to buckle inwards from top to bottom as he brought the Force to bear on it. Finally it gave way under the pressure, breaking in two with a scream of abused plasteel, both pieces falling into the room.
"Impressive trick," Mara said dryly as Kariss entered the room. "I'd ask for a refund for not being taught how to use doorpads as well, though."
Kariss's answer was to push back the hood of his cloak, revealing his face for the first time. He was an unremarkable human male, except for two things. The first was the twin black lines which began at the corners of his eyes and ran down his face to the corners of his mouth, accompanied by a thick black band running across his forehead from left to right, both ends terminating in a pair of clawlike arcs. The second was the shiny silvery pupils in his eyes. Mara wondered briefly if they were implants or his natural eye colour. Certainly standard humans did not have such eyes.
Giving her an icy stare, which was helped in no small part by the silvery pupils, Kariss ignited his lightsabre. Mara did likewise, lifting her lightsabres to a defensive position. Against a Jedi with two lightsabres, Kariss would be at an disadvantage. Kariss seemed unconcerned by that, though, as he commenced hostilities, lunging forward. Mara brought her blue lightsabre up to meet it and stabbed with the purple one. Kariss sidestepped with casual ease as the blade came at him. Taking one hand off his lightsabre, he slammed his palm hard into her stomach, sending her reeling back two steps with a gasp. He then proceeded to demonstrate why he was not concerned about Mara's use of two lightsabres. Spinning his lightsabre to a horizontal position, he brought his left hand down to the base of the weapon, which Mara noticed with a twinge of unease, had a strangely long hilt. The feeling of unease grew stronger as Kariss activated a second blade.
"Ah," she said, understanding. Kariss took a firm grip on the hilt, holding the lightsabre like a staff, and attacked. His speed nearly caught Mara by surprise. Feinting with one blade, he brought the other forwards, cutting at her legs, and passing her guard with uncanny ease. Only her Jedi honed reflexes saved her as she twisted quickly away.
And the duel began in earnest.
Mara stepped back, taking a few seconds to quickly appraise Kariss. Time spent evaluating an opponent was a good way of guaranteeing victory, something she had learned from both Palpatine's training, her Jedi knowledge, and years of combat experience. Kariss's speed was formidable, but it could be turned to her advantage. She began running through ways of how best to achieve that.
Before she could decide on a strategy, though, Kariss attacked again. He struck, checked as though he was feinting, and then continued the blow. This time, however, she was prepared. The two lightsabres met each blade of Kariss's double ended lightsabre with a savage crackling and stench of ozone. Mara and Kariss stood rigidly, both trying to keep the other at bay. Kariss had the advantage, though, being able to hold his lightsabre with both hands while Mara could only use one hand for each of hers. Seeing her straining, Kariss jerked his head forward in an attempt to headbutt her. Mara didn't bother trying to avoid it and so break her concentration. Gritting her teeth, she matched his move. Their skulls met with a resounding crack, and they both staggered back, momentarily dazed.
At that moment, Lumiya entered the room, having been briefly delayed by half a dozen guards who had tried to stop her. Mara shook her head clear and glanced at Lumiya. "Come back later," she said sardonically. "I'm in a lightsabre duel right now."
Kariss shifted his lightsabre to a diagonal position, and she ducked to avoid the ensuing head height stroke, and then leapt over the other blade as it again cut at her legs. She vaulted clear over Kariss, who swung around just in time to block her attack, and the contest intensified, both of them fighting with every ounce of skill they possessed.
Seeing the increasing battle, Lumiya intervened. Once again, Kariss was losing sight of the overall objective. Taking matters into her own hands, she brought the lightwhip up. It slashed through the air and wrapped around Mara's blue blade. With a quick pull, Lumiya tore it from Mara's grip. Kariss lunged forwards, cutting at the purple blade, then twisted his lightsabre to bring the other blade towards Mara's head in a decapitating stroke. At the last moment, he shut down the blade and slammed the deactivated end into Mara's temple. She collapsed without a sound.
Lumiya met Kariss's eyes. "Learn to control your impetuosity," she said icily, hoisting the unconscious Mara onto her shoulder.
Leia had met Corran halfway to Mara's quarters, and the two of them were racing through the corridors. They turned around the last corner, and stopped dead as Lumiya stepped out from Mara's quarters. She gave them a look of mixed scorn and triumph. With a snap-hiss, Corran and Leia activated their lightsabres. Lumiya did not move, though, and the reason why became clear as Kariss stepped out into the corridor after her. He reignited the deactivated end of his double bladed lightsabre and raised it to an attack position. In response, Leia and Corran raised their own lightsabres to a guard position.
Kariss's mouth curved in what might have been a smirk, and then he lunged forwards with amazing speed, spinning the lightsabre to a horizontal position. He drove one end of the lightsabre against Corran's, and in the same motion, kicked Corran's legs out from under him. A flick of his hand sent the silvery blade spinning down the corridor, leaving Corran temporarily defenceless. The other end of the lightsabre came round, catching Leia's blade. He forced her lightsabre aside and turned his own into a vertical position, sliding it down along the opposing blade and cutting down towards her head with the other end. Leia spun away just in time to avoid the blade, which cut deeply into the wall a bare inch from her head.
Kariss began slowly pacing backwards, though, rather than continue the attack. He had tested their speed and skill, and found it no match for his own. He knew that even Luke Skywalker, who had faced and conquered opponents as dangerous as Darth Vader, would find him a deadly adversary. He was disappointed, having expected more from the Jedi. These two were no competition, and even Mara Skywalker had been less challenging than he had hoped, despite her expert use of two lightsabres against his double-bladed one. In addition, he could sense Lumiya's impatience as he toyed with his two enemies, urging him to cease wasting time before her carefully planned revenge could be ruined.
He backed calmly down the corridor, watching the two Jedi as they followed him. They had seen his fighting ability and were now watching for an opening, however slight, for attack. Corran had regained his feet and called his lightsabre back to his hand, and with a sudden concerted rush, they attacked again. As Leia lunged forwards, Corran ducked under the other blade and tried to trap Kariss. Again, Kariss proved too quick for them. He dropped and rolled past Corran, knowing that he could not allow himself to be caught between the two of them in the narrow corridor and cut off from Lumiya. The lightsabre brushed Corran's leg as he rolled past, and he felt a brief flicker of satisfaction as he caught the gasp of pain.
Regaining his feet, he brought his lightsabre up in time to counter another lunge from Leia, and pushed forwards, the strength of his attack sending her sprawling. Corran immediately moved to cover her while she scrambled up, desperately blocking Kariss' blows. The strokes came blindingly fast from both sides, forcing him back onto his injured leg. Gritting his teeth and using Jedi techniques to suppress the pain, he grimly blocked Kariss's lunges. Leia rejoined the fight, and both of them fought back together. They fought their way through the corridors, the lightsabres humming as they went, and crackling violently when they met each other. Kariss retreated before Corran and Leia, who fought him relentlessly, determined not to let him and Lumiya escape with Mara. Kariss blunted every attack they made, though, striking and parrying with a skill and strength that far outstripped their own. They duelled each other through an incessant series of corridors. Mara's quarters were quite close to the hangar bays, but even so, it took nearly a quarter of an hour for the three of them to cover that distance while fighting, time in which Corran and Leia's stamina gradually dwindled, while Kariss seemed nearly unaffected by the effort. Both of them were keenly aware that had Kariss truly been fighting them, it would not have been much trouble for him to have finished them. They turned into another corridor, and as they did so, Corran and Leia realised that they were staring failure in the face. At the end of the corridor lay the entrance to the hangar bays.
Kariss blocked a lunge from Corran and spun away, taking a quick look behind him to also see the doors to the hangar bay. He gave Corran and Leia a sneer of contempt, and then lowered his lightsabre and turned and sprinted for the hangar. Both of them raced after him, knowing that they had almost failed. Kariss's speed was incredible, and both of them fell behind, unable to keep up. In desperation, Corran found new reserves of energy, and outstripped Leia, despite his injured leg. He was hot on Kariss's heels as the Sith warrior charged up the ramp of the Lambda shuttle, which immediately began lifting on it's repulsorlifts. Kariss stopped and turned at the top of the ramp, attacking Corran with a brute ferocity. The double lightsabre flashed in a series of blows, almost too fast to see. In seconds, Corran's lightsabre was beaten aside, and then the tip of Kariss's weapon stabbed into his arm, to send the lightsabre clattering over the end of the ramp. Kariss pivoted on his right foot and kicked Corran savagely in the stomach, knocking him off the ramp. Without sparing a glance, he vanished into the shuttle, the ramp hissing shut behind him. The shuttle rotated to face the hangar entrance, it's wings unfolding. In seconds it passed through the magnetic seal and was gone.
Leia raced to where Corran lay. They had failed to stop Kariss escaping, but there was no point in worrying about that now. Corran winced as he opened his eyes. "I feel terrible," he said through clenched teeth. He had fallen fifteen feet onto a solid metal deck, not to mention being hit in the arm and leg by Kariss's lightsabre.
Leia gave him a hint of a smile. "You'll be fine," she said, examining the wounds. Neither of them was particularly serious. The leg injury would heal cleanly with a course of bacta treatment, although the arm wound would very likely leave a nasty scar.
At that moment, the doors on the other side of the hangar slammed open to reveal Han, Wedge, and three squads of guards, all with blasters drawn. A pair of medics followed them in, although not before a very worried Mirax Terrik pushed past them.
"You alright, sweetheart?" Han asked Leia quietly, watching as the medics lifted Corran onto a repulsorbed.
"I am," Leia said sombrely. "That's not the problem, though."
Han nodded. Mara had just been captured by a Dark Jedi, for Vader-only-knows what. Even worse than that, they were going to have to tell Luke what had happened. That was not going to be easy. He turned to look at where the shuttle had been, expressing a short and violent Corellian oath. "I'll get the Skywalker Spirit ready for takeoff," he said, knowing her well enough to realise what she was going to do.
"Thanks, Han," Leia said. "I'm going to have to tell Luke personally."
"You don't have to tell me," Han chided gently. He stopped briefly as the medics hurried past, with Mirax walking alongside the repulsorbed holding Corran's hand. "Chewie and I'll look after the kids. Just don't start blaming yourself for what happened. You and Corran did all you could. Now go on. I'll let you know when the Spirit's ready."
Leia gave him a grateful smile, then hurried away. A grim faced Wedge appeared beside Han as he left the hangar on the way to the Spirit's docking bay. "Sith scum," he said softly and bitingly, the tone of his voice displaying his rage far more effectively than any amount of simple anger could have done.
Han nodded in agreement, trying to control his own anger. Despite all the backbiting that he and Mara engaged in, the two of them had grown to genuinely like each other. She counted him, along with Wedge, Leia, Shada, Karrde, and a few others, as a friend, an honour that Mara Jade did not lightly bestow. "It's the same Dark Jedi we fought five years ago," he told Wedge.
Wedge glanced at him. "That explains it," he said. "They took control of our whole starboard gun crews. They're in the medbays right now. That doesn't include the guards I sent to the hangar bay to detain them, or the other guards who tried to stop them outside Mara's quarters. And Corran's going to be out of it for a few hours, of course."
By now they had reached the Spirit's docking bay. "Come on," Wedge said. "I'll give you a hand getting the Spirit ready."
Lumiya's shuttle headed away from Galactic Defender and towards the edges of the fleet. This time, Lumiya was not controlling the minds of the gunners on Galactic Defender. It was scarcely needed this time, since the New Republic ships were hardly likely to fire on them while they had Mara Skywalker captive. As soon as it cleared the fleet, it jumped to lightspeed.
Once the shuttle had escaped to hyperspace, Kariss engaged the autopilot and entered the ship's passenger compartment. Lumiya was making some adjustments to a small band studded with winking red lights on Mara's forehead. Satisfied, she sat back. "That will keep her under control," she noted.
"It is a Sith mind control device," she said by way of explanation to Kariss. "The Jedi Knight you fought-" at this, Kariss gave a derisive snort "-once had his wife held captive by a group of Force users who used one of these on her to break her resistance and place her in a hibernation trance. He in fact resisted me during my prior attack on Skywalker. At the time, I was reckless and impetuous like you. Do not let it become your undoing."
She tapped the device. "These can break even the resistance of a Jedi Master for a short period. I have set it to suppress her strongest resistance, while still leaving her open to my control. It will be amusing to pit her against Skywalker when he arrives."
Kariss frowned. "She is strong in the Force. It is not likely you will be able to turn her to the dark side. And this device will not control her forever. Do not place too much faith in it. Skywalker may well succeed in removing it and if he does, you would then have to fight the two of them together. Perhaps it would be as wise to kill her now. For that matter, I still do not understand why you feel the need to capture Mara Skywalker."
Lumiya swung to face him, her eyes glinting dangerously between her mask. "No," she said icily. "Do not refer to her as Mara Skywalker in my presence."
She took a breath and seemed to calm slightly. "I will be able to control Mara Jade until I have destroyed Skywalker. I will make sure that Skywalker is unable to free her. Even if he removes the device, I will still be able to control Jade through the Force. This makes it easier but I can control her without it if necessary. Jade will still be useful even if she refuses to turn to the dark side. I have made plans for all contingencies. A valuable tool is not destroyed carelessly."
"As for attempting to capture and turn her, I have a personal interest in the matter." Her eyes met Kariss's as she explained why to him, and saw his own eyes widen in shock.
"That cannot be," he said incredulously, his eyes flicking between her and Mara.
"I assure you it is true," Lumiya said. "Now you know why I seek to turn her, and what I have in mind for her if she does refuse to turn."
Kariss nodded. "Will you summon Skywalker immediately?"
Lumiya considered for a minute before shaking her head. "It is tempting, but I have waited long enough for my revenge on Skywalker. It will be piquant to make him suffer in doubt and anxiety before I call him to his fate." A cold grin spread across her face beneath her mask, one which was utterly devoid of warmth or compassion. "They say revenge is a dish best served cold."