The vacuum of space sucked the air from Kyp Durron's chest as if it was trying to take his lungs along with it. Reaching out through the Force, the Jedi leaped. Air from the ship rushed past him and into the open cavity of space. Kyp could feel the Force and the power it possessed. Nonetheless, even with all his ability, he could only manage to grasp the edge of the vessel's opening with his fingertips.
Bleeding, his weak digits gripped the brim of the hole; with another Force push, he launched himself through and into the hallway of the alien ship. The wind tugged at him even from inside the vessel, but now it was more like a heavy breeze than the tornado of empty space. He crawled slowly away from it, the last bits of his strength beginning to flutter.
Shreds of steel and shrapnel flew past. Screams, both alien and human, filled the Jedi's ears from every direction. Some words were as clear as a cloudless night, others as unfamiliar as Basic spoken backwards. They all meant the same thing, however. The ship was dying, and everyone was scuttling throughout it to escape.
Creeping further away from the opening, Kyp Durron finally smiled. It was humorous?even he had to admit. The room's outer wall had been blasted clean off; he barely escaped being rocketed out into space. Now, he was lugging away on his stomach like a man whose legs couldn't function. How dignified he must look at that moment.
To add to the misfortune, the disease in his body was moving throughout him like a dozen pickpockets throughout an expensive suit. He had only been infected with it a few days before and already, he felt it spreading. It certainly wasn't what he expected when he accepted the assignment.
The ship abruptly rocked; the wall he was once crawling across shifted into the wall to his side. He dropped helplessly to the surface next to him. Struggling for consciousness, Kyp blinked and glanced up to the end of the hall. Doors were there. They were shrilling desperately as they fought to close with an alien corpse in their center. The wind lifted the body's legs from the ground as the void demanded that the ship release it. Only its arms kept it trapped, blocking the doors from closing completely.
The ship roared, jerking again; Kyp gripped the light fixture on the wall as his body inched toward the hole close-by. Dangling, he stared at the corridor around him and frowned. No, he couldn't die this way. He had too much to prove?too much to show the galaxy.
He was worth more than people bargained.
Even Luke Skywalker?the Jedi Master. Kyp would prove his worth to the Jedi, especially that one. He couldn't die now. He wouldn't.
The determination flooded into him, and with it, Kyp calmly allowed the Force to flow. He jumped. The ship spun around again; the hallway he had been clinging to a moment before twirled in circles about him. It didn't matter. Kyp wasn't relying on the ship's walls for support anymore.
In the center of the hallway, the leap took him to the doors as they continued to jerk. They were revolving out of control as well, but Kyp didn't care. He straightened his body. Arms raised above his head, he burst through the door's crack. As his legs soared past the corpse, Kyp instantly booted it with his heel, and the doors began to shut. With that, he toppled to the ground.
All the energy zapped from his body, Kyp watched the doors finally adjoin. The wind immediately stopped, and Kyp felt a hint of relief touch the back of his mind. It didn't last long. The illness inside his body started to become more apparent; the wounds he'd obtained, not just from the pressure of the wind, but from the incidents before it, resurfaced inside him. Without warning, his vision began to blur, and Kyp Durron's world turned into the dark shades of nothingness.
The wilderness was surprisingly quiet that morning on Yavin Four. There were a few random cries of animals and bugs, and a gentle breeze which gave an extra chill in the morning's air. No matter how bright Yavin?s sun streamed down, it couldn't fight off the frigid chill.
At least, not to Mara Jade Skywalker.
Calmly, she lay near the edge of wildlife, the Jedi Academy?s Temple close enough to block out the sunrays. Her lips remained still like the rest of her as she attempted to ignore the plane of goosebumps developing across her arms. She had thick skin, and a rigid stubbornness about her. Besides, it was her own fault for wearing a sleeveless top, anyway.
Eyes shut, Mara adjusted her attention back to the present. Floating at least half a meter off the ground, Mara imagined she looked more like a tabletop than a human. The only piece of her that dangled down was her fire-red hair. Under the present circumstances, she had to wonder why she decided to participate in a student exercise like this in the first place.
By her side sat Jaina Solo, her niece. Not quite a young woman at the age of eleven, Jaina?s concentration was solid. She locked eyes with Mara, and utilized her Force abilities to keep the woman steady in the air. Mara observed as the girl gazed at nothing and everything at once. It was almost entrancing?the way Jedi stare out when immersed in the Force.
In actuality, the lesson wasn?t really for Jaina. The girl was learning the Force quickly; it wouldn?t be long before she would be suspending starfighters over her head. Mara was the one getting the true session that day. It was not one in the Force, but in trust.
The Academy had used the test for years now. Swinging a lightsaber and elevating objects with your mind didn?t always mean you were Jedi potential. Having a deeper comprehension was just as relevant. Jedi had to work together, through their thoughts and loyalties. It was a newer lesson for Mara.
Of course, there was only one person that could persuade her to undertake such a task in the first place.
"You?re both doing well," Luke Skywalker spoke from Mara?s left. With it, Mara felt a new confidence surge from her niece.
Silently, Mara twisted her head to face her husband, and sighed. With Jaina?s twin brother Jacen sitting beside him, Luke Skywalker lingered in the air.
His black robe swaying underneath him, the Jedi Master appeared to be sleeping rather than instructing. He had his hands resting in the center of his chest. His eyes remained shut?his expression in a deep state of trust and serenity.
A smile forced itself to Mara?s lips. It was almost comical just how much Luke Skywalker stood out. Perhaps it was due to his face constantly on the holo, or the mere fact he always seemed to have a Jedi robe draped across his shoulders. For Mara, however, she imagined it was more.
They had been married for close to six months. Ever since their courtship, they had grown greatly connected with each other's senses and ideas. It wasn?t like Luke with his sister or Jacen with his. It wasn't natural?the connection had been created mainly from Luke and Mara?s sheer will rather than blood. Of course, almost all of Luke?s family was Force-sensitive. With the exception of Han and Chewie, everyone kept their emotions in the spotlight; Mara having a personal thought was no longer easy. To her own surprise, Mara found that she didn?t mind so much. It wasn?t as if anything she thought didn?t get spoken out loud sooner or later.
"You can move me higher, Jacen," Luke instructed, and crossed his ankles.
The young man gave an uneasy expression, and then shifted his eyes between Mara and his sister. Nonetheless, he said nothing, and then Luke was above them all. Jaina seemed anxious to follow her brother?s example; before Mara could say anything, she was already another quarter-meter up from the ground. The shove was startling, and on impulse, she reached out with the Force?
"Trust, Mara," Luke explained. "Remember?"
Shooting a look at her husband and his confident expression, Mara smirked. It was trust he wanted, huh?
"Higher, Jaina," Mara exclaimed, keeping her crooked grin.
The girl exhaled a tiny groan. "Are you sure?"
"Of course," Mara explained, and shot a glare at her husband. "I trust you."
With that, Mara was placed another quarter up. Jacen seemed quick to follow her sister?s example; Luke was parallel with his wife an instant later. With that, Mara shouted down, "Higher, Jaina. We aim to please here."
"Uh?you?re already kinda high?"
"The higher the better. Luke looks bored up here."
For the first time since the lesson begun, Luke?s eyes bumped into Mara?s. The crystal blue circles expressed shock?clearly questioning her sanity. Mara merely smiled. "Trust, Skywalker. Remember?"
With that, Luke allowed his own mischievous grin to emerge. Keeping his eyes hooked to his wife, the Jedi Master instructed Jacen, "Higher, please."
"Um, Uncle Luke?"
"It?s all right," he explained. "You?re doing well."
"Higher," both Mara and Luke spoke in unison.
It was almost like being shot out of a missile?s port. Both Mara and her husband bolted up another solid meter. Jaina and Jacen could no longer be seen from their sides.
With that, Mara scanned the open air around her, and sighed. "Well, now you?ve done it, Skywalker. You realize this lesson normally ends with the participants dropping?not landing?right?"
Eyes closed again, Luke merely replied, "What?s this? Is Madam Jade showing signs of worry?"
Mara set her jaw. "Knock off the devious teasing, Skywalker. You can?t pull it off."
"Knock off the tough smuggler?s act, and I?ll think about it."
"Will you two stop arguing up there?" Jacen shouted from below.
"Yeah, it?s distracting," Jaina added with a strain to her voice.
With that, Mara released a tiny breath, and then turned her head towards the sky. From the corner of her vision, she could see the smallest grin on her husband?s face. He was loving this.
On impulse, Mara rolled her eyes, but her mouth twitched to smile. Luke?s tranquility was almost infectious at times. Mara was not one for trust or openness, but she seemed to handle both when it came to Luke and his family. She was accepted, and strangely, that trait seemed contagious as well.
"Wow!" a youthful voice suddenly shouted. "They look like flying corpses!"
Then again, trust was an odd thing. Mara, not stretching out with her own abilities to prevent herself from collapsing, immediately found herself hitting dirt. The thump of her butt and head colliding with the ground echoed loudly enough to scare away some neighboring birds. Pain jostled up her back and head, and forced all the wind out of her lungs.
Of course, there were good points for caution as well?
To her left, Luke was already beginning to recover from his own plunge.
"I?m sorry!" Jacen and Jaina shouted at once.
From her side, Jaina dropped to her knees, and took Mara's arm. "I thought I had you?I swear!" She shot a glare to her side. "It was all Anakin?s fault! If he hadn?t distracted us?"
"What did I do?" the other youth spoke, his presence now apparent as Mara reached out with the Force to control the throb in her head.
Anakin squeezed between Mara and Luke, glancing back and forth from one to the other with his gleaming blue eyes. "You guys okay?"
Luke was already rolling over from the fall, a grimace set upon his face like a coat of slime. Not looking at Anakin or anyone else, the Jedi Master replied, "No, it?s okay. A tree root broke my fall."
"Aunt Mara?" Jaina inquired when Mara didn?t pull herself up.
Gaping at the bright clear sky, Mara merely explained, "Your turn next time, Jaina."
The girl displayed a look of worry, but then Luke approached her, and wrapped an arm across her shoulders. "She?s kidding, honey," he explained to the youth, and then knelt down, and placed his hands underneath Mara?s arms.
"You really shouldn?t scare the children, Mara," he explained lightly as he pulled her partly up to his chest. "They don?t quite understand your kind of humor yet."
"Who says I was joking?" Mara asked, and raised both eyebrows to Jaina.
The young girl's expression finally cooled; she crossed her arms. "I?m not a child. And, I knew you were teasing."
"Really?" Mara retorted, and then said to her husband, "Is that what you were sensing, Lu?"
Instead of the comforting presence she was used to receiving, something cold and alarming rushed by. She gasped, jerking herself away from her husband.
It was as if a thousand cries shrilled into her ears, and bounced throughout her mind like an echo off a canyon wall. Reaching out in the Force, she got control of herself, and swiftly realized that the noise wasn't coming from her.
She faced Luke. His smile was gone. His face was somber?eyes glazed over as if possessed by something she couldn't see or feel. Reluctantly, she brought herself closer to him and focused. At first, the screams were the only thing to sharpen. They were bitter, angry, and afraid, and they waved throughout her brain like a speaker whose volume was swerving up and down. The visions hit a moment after.
They were all discolored.
Children and adults alike lay together. The only ones not crying out were too far gone to bother with any type of plea. Even through the freezing haze of torment and sorrow, something odd crossed Mara's mind.
They were all human. There wasn?t one alternate being among them. Then, just as swiftly as the screams had come, the vision blacked out, and Mara was back with Luke and the rest of her family on Yavin Four.
"What?s wrong?" Anakin questioned. "I didn?t mean to shout so loud!?"
"It?s not you, Anakin," Mara explained, and reached out a hand to her nephew. "It?s not you."
With that, she veered her eyes back to Luke, and was certain that the dark expression on his face was now reflected on hers.
Neither needed to say it; nonetheless, they both did.
"Leia," they spoke together and stood. Jacen, Anakin, and Jaina followed behind as Luke and Mara hurried back into the Jedi Temple, their recently developed injuries irrelevant to their minds.
As it happened, seven other Jedi had experienced the vision. Grakin, who was merely an apprentice, had been awoken by "screams of death," as he called it. Uramay, who Luke had known for the past two years, had seen sores all over the dead bodies of human victims. The strangest, however, was from Kam and his wife, Tionne. Both had been about as clear as Luke's and Mara's, except theirs flashed through a ship in the middle of nowhere. Kyp Durron was there, tinted a bizarre shade of green, and bleeding to death.
Luke, who had gone through more than a few disagreements with the younger Jedi, still felt a little insulted he wasn't close enough to his student to sense him in danger. Needless to say, Kyp might have actually attempted to throw the vision out to anyone that might see it and aid him. Luke, he realized gravely, wasn't necessarily someone Kyp would ask for help.
Luke reached Leia in a matter of minutes. His twin sister, who he'd sent more than just a couple signals out to in the past, looked at him with a touch of surprise as she appeared on the holo. Her chocolate eyes gleamed with a strong, but exhausted beauty. Luke smiled thinly at her and decided best to go ahead and explain the call. "Leia?"
"I was about to contact you," she cut him off, and then glanced him over as if just noticing his mess of dirt from Yavin?s surface. He assumed she'd ask him about it, but instead, she reverted to his face again without question. "Luke, something's happened here. I need you to come to Coruscant as soon as you can."
"Why?" Mara asked as she loomed behind him.
Leia stated plainly, "Something's happened. That's all I'm allowed to say. Please, both of you, come to Coruscant. Bring what Jedi you can. Ones you can trust, Luke. Only ones you trust. It's very serious." Then, just like that, his sister's vision disappeared and the signal died.
Luke glanced at his wife and merely found it in himself to shrug. "You feel up to traveling, sweetheart?"
It took a long while to reach Coruscant. Considering that Yavin was a part of the Outer Rim planets, and Coruscant was a Core world, light-speeding from one to the other, even at the fastest velocity, took at least five standard days. During the time, the reports given between Luke and Leia had been scattered. The channels were as secure as the New Republic could supply, but even in these times 'secure' was a deceptive term.
Luke had done what he promised, however. Another freighter was following their ship to Coruscant, and inside were a dozen Jedi geared up to assist the Republic. The only dilemma was that Luke couldn't tell them what assistance the Republic had in store.
There were some questions answered. Kyp Durron had just been transported to Coruscant from a rescue vessel. Apparently, he had been injured while handling an investigation for the New Republic. This was a surprise; the New Republic was not inclined to trust the Jedi known for killing millions of people. To many, Kyp carrying out a task for the government was like a Hutt doing charity work. That was the first hint something more complex was slithering its way into the situation, but the data offered to him and Mara was too disjointed to piece together. The only thing that remained identical was the result of Kam and Tionne's vision. Kyp was dying.
"You are marked to land. Hangerbay 24-617. An escort ship will show you the way," a voice fizzled through.
"The escort ship is unnecessary," Luke replied into the speaker. "24-617, received. I know where it is. Thank you." With that, Luke flicked off the comm, and glanced at Mara by his side.
Her head was resting comfortably on the chair behind her, her scarlet hair spread around it as if alive?Luke loved her hair. She appeared almost asleep, but her eyelids were open. Calmly, she angled her face his direction; he smiled, a little surprised by her abrupt movement, and glanced towards the horizon.
"Here already, huh?" she muttered. "Felt more like a day than a week."
"Well, you haven?t been handling the ship for the past eight hours," he explained. "I'm almost ready to fall asleep myself."
She blinked at him, surprised. "Why didn?t you tell me you wanted a break? You know I?m always willing."
"I know, but you were snoring so delightfully, and I didn?t want to wake you," Luke replied as he surveyed the yellow and white clouds of Coruscant loll over the small ship. It was truly amazing how natural the planet appeared from its atmosphere considering what was underneath.
Even with the traffic of the huge planet-city, Luke and Mara arrived at the Imperial Palace within twenty minutes. Despite his reassurance that an escort was unnecessary, one was there anyway to show the path into the bay. By that time, Mara had gotten control of the vessel. The ship hovered, and then gently connected with a graceful thump onto the hangerbay's metal platform.
Luke glanced at his wife. "Wonderfully done."
"Was there any doubt?" she replied with a crooked smile.
Blowing out a breath of laughter, Luke followed his wife out of the ship. The escorts were there, attempting to direct them where to go. Luke waved them politely aside, slightly annoyed with their insistence.
Besides the other pile of Jedi exiting their ship, Luke could already feel his sister's presence striding to the hangerbay. She was exuding more anxiety than Luke was accustomed to sensing. By all aspects, Leia was worried.
It didn't take Luke's sister any time to reach them. A few steps from the bay's large doors, her petite form emerged. She was adorned with a light cream suit, a formal short-sleeved ivory robe, and her braided locks of thick chestnut hair which swayed as she walked.
Following swiftly behind her were two Noghri. As was customary, their usual outfits consisted of heavy armor and deadly Noghri fighting blades?quite the opposite of his sister. After over a decade, Luke was familiar with seeing them around.
He spread his arms out for his sister to embrace him; immediately, Leia wrapped her arms around his back and held tight. She was strangely tense?tired and even partially blocked through the Force. What had happened to cause such dismay?
Leia attended to Mara a moment later, hugging her sister-in-law. "I'm so glad you were able to make it," she told them both with a relieved grin. "I'm sorry I've been so unclear these past few days. But, with communications?"
"I understand, Leia," Luke assured her, and then expanded his senses to find Kyp. There was an odd speck of the Force; he couldn't even locate it properly in the Palace. He turned back to Leia and somberly confirmed, "Is that Kyp?"
Pressing her lips together, Leia slowly nodded.
Luke inhaled a breath, and flung a glance back at the other Jedi. They were silent, their own presence in the Force troubled by the news. Luke returned to his sister. "May I see him, please?"
What Luke received wasn't necessarily what he expected. From the information sifted through the days aboard their ship, Luke had gathered that Kyp was wounded in battle, and the wounds were killing him. He should have assumed different, especially after Kam and Tionne's description. Kyp was certainly dying, but the injuries inflicted on him from the attack were not the source.
Standing inside his room of the Medical section of the Palace, Luke felt his stomach tighten. The other Jedi behind him, including his wife, seemed to have similar reactions. Kyp was submerged inside a horizontal bacta tank. His skin, normally a soft tan, was a strange color of light olive with crimson-black spots from burst blood vessels cloaking his entire form. He was in a comatose state, and from the looks of it, had been that way for quite some time. Most of his wounds from battle had healed. It was the disease that was killing him now.
"They found him this way, aboard an alien vessel that had been almost completely destroyed during a New Republic attack," Leia explained from beside him. "A few weeks before, Kyp and his crew had stumbled across a ship near the edge of the Outer Rim territory that appeared to have been abandoned. He decided to investigate. The ship was filled with bodies, in the same condition as?," she placed a hand on top of the bacta tank.
"Was the rest of his crew infected as well?" Luke asked, stretching out his senses to see if he could touch Kyp at all. There was hardly a whisper of life.
"No?no," Leia explained. "None of the crew, not even Kyp went on board that vessel. They sent out a probe droid, and then reported their findings with us later. It was quite a surprise to hear anything from him, but?," she paused. "Even Kyp felt uneasy about investigating farther without informing us."
"They actually gave him an assignment?" Mara asked with a touch of shock as she stood behind her husband.
Leia shrugged. "President Gavrisom didn't believe the problem was serious. Certainly not this." She motioned her head toward Kyp. "No one thought it was."
Luke glanced at Mara, who merely opened her hands as if waiting for the point. Luke turned back to Kyp. "So, how did this happen to him?"
"They found another vessel," Leia explained. "Except this one wasn't carrying dead human beings. Kyp and his crew were suspicious about a freighter attempting to use unmarked tags, and surrounded the ship. They boarded, and the disease was in the vessel's ventilation system. They were infected immediately."
"Have you spoken with President Gavrisom as to what to do next?"
Leia closed her eyes. "Several ideas have been given. Even handing back my duties as Chief of State early so I can deal with it."
"What have you decided?"
"I told him that I felt freer to handle things without a rather large diplomatic crown on my head," she replied. "People are already suspecting something?s wrong. The last thing they need is to wonder why President Gavrisom gave me back my diplomatic position earlier than scheduled."
"Have things already gotten that out of hand?"
"Worse than you realize, Luke. It's a nightmare out there." Silently, Leia removed her hand from the bacta tank, and stepped back as if paying respects to a coffin.
Everyone was still for a moment. Luke examined his sister?s grim expression, the intensity set in her chocolate eyes. Leia was a woman of elegance and control. She handled authority, and understood where she was needed. Nevertheless, even with all the control in her nature, he still managed to find a glint of fear in her eyes. It contradicted Leia Organa Solo?s demeanor like a rebel flag. The Jedi Master frowned.
From his side, Mara apparently noticed the tension inside the room. She asked, "So, who in the worlds did this to him? Kyp isn?t on my list as most likable, but this is a bit cruel?even for him."
"Radicals," another voice, familiar and deep, echoed through the small metallic room.
Luke had already sensed his presence stomping their way, and had hoped it would pass by. Unfortunately, the Bothan seemed to always do exactly what Luke didn't desire. There should have been no exception in that case.
With that, Luke aimed his eyes toward the other being as Mara did the same. The Jedi Master extended a hand for the sake of polite politics, but the Bothan was too busy glaring at him to notice. Casually, Luke retracted his hand. "Senator Fey?lya."
"Master Skywalker," Borsk Fey?lya replied with little respect. "I was wondering when you'd make it here. Busy at your Jedi Academy?"
"Always," Luke replied, ignoring the other being's rude implications.
The Bothan snorted. "Teaching the young ones mind tricks. Not exactly what I'd call a smart thing, Skywalker. What happens if one of those apprentices of yours wants to use a trick on me or another politician? It's dangerous, you realize."
"Well, they do only work on the weak-minded," Mara blurted from behind Luke's shoulder.
Through his long snout-like face, Borsk sneered at Luke's wife. It was more from the insult than a warning, but Luke still cast Mara a sharp stare. It was not the time to make extra confrontations, but Mara merely granted a devious smirk. She shrugged.
With that, Luke twisted back to Fey?lya. "We came here at the request of the New Republic. Where's President Gavrisom?"
"Busy at another diplomatic meeting. I'm here to advise you. Will that be a problem?"
"I don't see how." Luke casually wrapped his hands behind his back. "You have my full attention, Senator Fey?lya. What do you want?"
Without a word to Luke, the Senator beckoned a hand to the door. "Senator Retafured, Senator Tenanete, come in, please."
Two aliens tottered into the room. Luke mildly observed their faces and attire, but inside his mind he was already pondering. Both species were similar to each other. They were rather large creatures, with plated scales all over their bodies, and their skin was strong shades of gray and green. Their eyes had resembling violet and black tints. Both species Luke recognized.
Retafured was a Scyos, a close race to his Senatorial comrade.
Luke would recognize a Falleen anywhere.
It was a species Luke had caught sight of another time from his past. In that case, the alien was attempting to murder him. It was a bit of an alarm just how much Tenanete looked like the crime lord, Prince Xizor. The late Xizor had spent his last remaining days putting an assassination price so high on Luke's head, even one of Luke's comrades had tried to shoot him. Over fifteen years later, Luke still didn't quite understand why the Falleen had acquired so much malice toward him. Perhaps he never would.
There was a surge from Mara. The emotion was subtle and glided out of her like a calm breeze around a yard, but it was enough to net Luke's attention. He threw a look to her. Her eyes snagged his, a curiosity engraved in both.
It's nothing, he sent out to her through the Force. Old memories.
Mara seemed content at that, and regressed to Fey'lya and the others.
"I would like to present Senator Tenanete from Falleen, and Senator Retafured from Hyhmatyz," Fey?lya declared.
To Luke's surprise, Senator Retafured approached him without a heartbeat's delay. Arm extended, he seized Luke's right arm and shook it. Like a madman. The other being was so feverish in his greeting, for an instant Luke thought he was trying to pop off his artificial hand. Retafured appeared ready to cry.
"Thank the universe you've arrived!" he shouted with a smile masking his face. "I've been counting the minutes. You?you and your Jedi are welcome here. Please, you must help us!"
Unsure what to do, Luke smiled kindly at the other being, and gently drew his hand away. Retafured twirled to Leia and Mara, and repeated the greeting. Both women had to yank their arms back just to get away.
The Falleen, Tenanete, did not seem as impressed as his comrade. He stood by the door as his eyes danced about the room with a glare that bolted a chill down Luke's back. Tenanete said nothing. His vision finally collided with Luke's and remained.
"Well, I suppose we should tell you why you're here," Retafured explained. He licked his lips, bowed to the quiet Jedi behind Luke, Mara, and Leia, and then gestured a hand to Tenanete. Ready for the queue, Tenanete stepped forward.
"Master Skywalker," the Falleen spoke in an even voice, "I hope that you will excuse me if I do not overthrow this room with zeal at your arrival. Considering my circumstances."
Luke pitched a glance to Leia. Her eyes were sharp on Tenanete. Silently, Luke turned back. "Actually, the information from Yavin to here has been?unclear."
Tenanete smirked unpleasantly. "Surely, you know why you're here."
"There's been an outbreak of some sort. I'm still not certain of the details."
The Falleen snorted as if Luke's reply was preposterous. "Do you know anything of my people, Master Skywalker? Of Senator Retafured's race? You have had encounters with Falleen and Scyos before?"
"Then, tell me, what do you know of us?"
With that, Luke craned his neck around to view Mara and Leia, both silently staring at him with their own expressions of wonder. Mara, the more vexed of the two, didn't remove her hard gaze from Tenanete's view. She, just like Luke, realized that the Falleen was attempting to challenge Luke in front of his students.
Slowly, Luke's vision slipped back to the Senators. "The Falleen and Scyos are related species from the system, Falleen. The orbiting moon of the planet?Hyhmatyz?is the native world for the Scyos. During the reign of the Empire, a civil war broke out between the Scyos and Falleen after the Imperial army destroyed an entire Falleen city. Bioweapons, explosives and other such devices were used at the time. By the end of the war, almost all Falleen and Scyos on both the planet and the moon were killed. Only off-worlders were still alive to continue both races." Luke respectfully bowed his head at the other being, displaying his apologies for summarizing such a horrific tale.
The Falleen snorted again. "Very close, Master Skywalker. In fact, I'm impressed. Most humans never bother to learn the history of other species at all. However, you missed a very important detail."
Luke lifted his head, and furrowed his brow at the other being. There was something in his voice that sparked Luke's attention.
"You're right," the Falleen continued. "Bioweapons were used during our war. Falleen trying to kill Scyos?Scyos attempting to kill the Falleen. But the bioweapon, the first bioweapon, started years before our civil war, Master Skywalker. And, it wasn?t for us," he paused and gave an eerie smile, "it was for you."
Puzzled, Luke looked back at Mara. Her glare was gone. A dismayed expression was all that remained. Luke twisted back to Senator Tenanete.
The Falleen spoke flatly, "During the time of the Empire, my race was seeing more and more non-human species being turned into slaves. Bothans, Mon Calamari, Wookiees?the list goes on. We were afraid. So, we formed an alliance with our neighbors," he cocked his head toward Senator Retafured, "to create a bioweapon to destroy all human life forms. We succeeded."
Luke glanced at Kyp. Covered in crimson splotches and green skin. A terrible shiver rushed up the Jedi Master's back.
"So, why are we still here?" Mara suddenly asked from behind.
With that, Tenanete sneered. "Because, alliances never last, my dear Jedi. A person?a single being?can alter a 'would-be' history forever. The Empire discovered the Falleen's plans through spies and resources. They negotiated with the Scyos to recover the exact location of the virus facilities within the Falleen world. And, together, they destroyed our largest city, killing 200,000 of us in a matter of minutes. Nothing was left."
To Luke's surprise, Tenanete glanced to the Scyos Senator at his side and placed a hand on his shoulder. They both grew quiet.
"Wait a second," Mara inquired again, "I've always heard that the Falleen city was destroyed by the Empire because the Falleen were working with the Empire to create a bioweapon."
"A lie created by the Empire," Tenanete replied. "Our victory was too close to place in history's archives. If another race learned of it?," he shook his head. "Then, perhaps they would have attempted something as rash."
When Tenanete didn't speak again, Borsk Fey?lya slid in front of them. "I hope you're making a connection with all of this, Master Jedi?"
With a grim face, Luke nodded.
"Where did they find this disease if the Empire destroyed it?" Mara asked.
"Nothing is ever completely destroyed," Retafured explained. "Information?bits and pieces always remain. Someone has found this one?and now, they're blaming us for it."
He was silent again. Luke waited for someone else to speak up, but when no one managed, he turned to Fey?lya. "This ship that Kyp found. Who were the passengers?"
"Falleen," the Bothan answered. "All of them. The entire freighter was blown to pieces with the exception of a small compartment. Jedi Durron and one Falleen were the only survivors."
"Where is this Falleen?" Luke asked.
Borsk grunted as if asked to name off all the solar systems in the galaxy. He waved a hand. "Security hold. We've tried everything to get him to talk. Interrogation?drugs. Everything. We were almost ready to attempt some Imperial methods. He just keeps saying he won't betray his master. Whatever that means."
"The humans don't trust anyone," Senator Tenanete explained. "The politicians are attempting to put me in prison. Maybe even Senator Retafured as well. They're uneasy about allowing any non-human to do an investigation."
Luke arched an eyebrow at the Senators. Retafured warily grinned. "We?well, I?was wondering, Master Skywalker, if you could help us? We want to prove to the galaxy that the members of this radical group are not a part of our species' majority. If we could prove to the Senate that we wanted you and your Jedi to assist, then perhaps they would trust us better. Please, Master Skywalker. Help us."
Luke exchanged looks with his wife, who merely sighed in contempt. Then, he went to Leia, who crossed her arms, but remained silent. Finally, his eyes fell on the Jedi. They were quiet beings standing in the background like miniature statues, and gazing at him with reassurance on their faces. Whatever Luke requested, they seemed prepared to accept.
With that, Luke twisted back to the Senators and Fey?lya. "What type of help do you require?"
"Human Jedi," Fey?lya came back sharply, and gave some of the non-human Jedi fierce looks. "We need to do scouting missions?investigations. We already have a few out and about already. Corran Horn is working with Rogue Squadron near the Mid Rim. Via Wesla is going to the Falleen homeworld. Your sister," he flung a hand lightly in Leia's direction, "is handling any political dilemmas here. But, we want as much understanding with the Senate as possible on this. No non-humans are allowed."
Luke already sensed the energy from his alien Jedi flutter. Others, such as his wife, seemed to flare.
Instantly, she stepped beside Luke. A finger pointed back to the other Jedi behind her, she hollered, "All of these Jedi are willing to assist. In fact, non-human Jedi would be more adequate for the job. They don't have the potential of not becoming a disgusting green chaos like Kyp over there," she jerked her head toward the sick Jedi's form. "It would be ludicrous not to take advantage of that."
"Everyone that's on assignment is given a temporary vaccine for this virus type," Fey?lya defended flatly. "It should keep them safe."
"For how long?" Mara snapped. "Temporary vaccines might last only a few weeks in some people. There's not even a warning as to when the body will reject it."
Fey?lya frowned. "I didn't make the paranoia in the Senate, Jedi. In fact, if it weren't for Senator's Retafured insistence, I would keep human Jedi out of this as well."
Mara looked taken aback by the Bothan's words. She sneered at him, opening her mouth to say more?
"Mara," Luke said, his voice soft but firm.
It wasn't a surprise when Mara's eyes came to challenge him, alarmed, and even a little insulted. Luke still didn't soften his gaze; after a second, she crossed her arms and attached her attention to the wall.
Leia's tender hand came to rest on Luke's shoulder a moment later. Her emotions were just as clear as his wife's, but unlike Mara, they were more from compromise than protest. She spoke, "I'm sure your Jedi will understand. This isn't because they aren't capable or even under suspicion. People are afraid. And, you know what happens with fear."
He sighed, placing his artificial hand upon hers. "Unfortunately, yes."
There was a moment of tranquility. The emotions from the Jedi behind them calmed. Mara still sent a glare Senator Fey?lya?s way, but her irritation had diminished.
Of course, through the calm, Borsk Fey'lya was the one who didn't hesitate to interrupt it. Raising his long snout above Luke's head, he explained, "This isn't a prejudice. It's politics. The humans don't trust the aliens. The aliens are enraged by the humans. And, so the cycle continues. Believe me, I didn't start it."
"I never proclaimed you did," Luke reminded the Bothan.
Biting the inside of his cheek, Luke crossed his arms and put a hand to his chin. He breathed slowly, closing his eyes and opening himself to the Force. There was a marvelous peace there?no visions or worries. He pondered the possibilities before them. He didn't want to simply leave a pile of ready Jedi behind; however, Borsk's point could not be ignored. The humans were afraid, not of other beings, but of the unknown threats., and they didn't know who to trust. And, unfortunately, just like Fey?lya, many didn't even trust human Jedi. Luke felt defeated before he'd even begun.
"Please, Master Skywalker," Retafured's emotional words sang throughout the room. "Help us in any way you can. We?the Falleen and Scyos?have made peace. Through all our conflicts, we are finally starting to make a difference in the galaxy. There are so few left. Help us to save them."
Gradually, Luke peered up at the Scyos, and made his decision. "I'll send for more Jedi. The three humans," he gestured to the group behind him, "can take on whatever missions you have in mind. The non-humans can remain here if any problems arise that the Senate cannot control. If someone's trying to destroy human life, then Coruscant will be an inevitable target."
"What about you?" Tenanete grilled. "Don?t you do these things as well?"
"Possibly," Luke replied. "I would like to see this Falleen prisoner. But, at the moment?"
"You're supposed to be the Jedi Master, right?" the Falleen interrupted more loudly. "The great Luke Skywalker. What's the hesitation, then?"
Luke's face hardened; the Falleen's angry exterior seemed to soften. Frowning, Luke countered, "I can't just go out and start swinging my lightsaber at anything that moves. Whatever answers you think I possess, you're mistaken. I assure you."
"Yes, yes," the Falleen waved an uninterested hand. "Fine, then. Are you going to do this, or not?"
Luke shot a look at Mara. She smirked at him, her hips tilted to the right and her hands connected to them as if welded on. Force or no, he already knew what she meant. His wife wanted to go. She wasn't the type to merely stay behind and squeal from the sidelines. Luke could have felt her readiness from the other side of the Imperial Palace. He smiled at her, and then turned back to Tenanete. "Where do you want us?"
With a roar, the unmarked freighter came to life. Commander Matic Pace smiled as he stood beside the small craft inside one of the Imperial Palace's hangerbays, and then grabbed the comlink from his belt. "Okay, Weo, check out the main weaponry, then shut it off."
There came a, "yes, sir"; with that, Matic clipped his comlink back to his waist, and climbed down from the ship. There to greet him was his squad, a group of human men and women signaling a thumps-up at the vessel's checklist.
They had been renovating the broken-down freighter for their mission since word of Kyp Durron's mishap in space. It was certainly a hope that Matic's chances were superior to the dying Jedi's. He couldn't say he didn't feel a little sorry for the man. Durron was just a few years younger than the commander himself, but Matic had little doubt the Jedi wasn't asking for it. Force-users had a way of playing the lone hero. Chances were, Durron had gotten into something he couldn't slip out of.
Since then, Matic had been briefed by Borsk Fey?lya on how the situation would proceed. Senator Retafured and many other politicians had demanded that the Jedi be asked to assist. Matic had agreed only if he would be able to keep the Jedi under control. He merely hoped the Force-users' sense of higher judgment wouldn't get in the way.
"Commander Pace," Ross, the crew's computer slicer, hollered and started to jog toward him.
Matic dropped his eyes to the younger man as he reached him. The slicer was six feet tall, but still didn't match Matic's larger size. In fact, most men didn't. Matic hadn't met anyone besides Princess Leia's Wookiee friend that hadn't marveled at his stature.
"Sir, Master Skywalker, and his wife have just come out of their briefing," Ross explained, exasperated.
Matic pressed his lips together, and nodded. "Good. Has the Jedi Master decided on what Jedi will be joining us?"
A strange look clouded Ross's expression, and instantly caught Matic's attention. "No, sir, that's why I'm here," the slicer hesitated as if he couldn't believe it himself. "They're sending them with us. Him and his wife."
Matic blinked. "What?"
"I'm serious. They've been assigned to your unit, sir."
It took Matic a moment to register what his slicer had announced; it took even longer to sputter out a coherent sentence. "You?you mean, the Skywalkers?"
"I know, Commander. They talked about it for almost half an hour. The Skywalkers felt your mission assignment best suited?"
"Blast it!" Matic suddenly bellowed, sending his crews' eyes to his direction. They had talked about the mission?discussed who would go for the past three days. Matic didn't even want a Jedi Knight with him. Now, he was stuck with a Jedi Master and his Jedi wife?
"Sir, they're waiting for you inside the prison ward," Ross murmured.
Matic's body tensed. "Why?"
"I think they're interrogating the Falleen, Terrin?"
Matic's restraint caved in like a Taun-Taun with a Hutt on its back. He whirled away from Ross. Terrin, the Falleen discovered with Kyp Durron, had been assigned to Matic Pace just earlier that day. He hadn't even gotten the chance to interrogate him. Cursing under his breath, Matic bolted to the hangerbay's turbolift. What was Fey'lya thinking?
Matic reached the prison ward within five minutes. It was a small division of the Imperial Palace typically used for prisoners of war. From the end of the hallway, Matic could already spot a man in the distance, relaxing in a chair outside the Falleen's room. Beside him was a figure wearing a medic's uniform. They were chatting, and didn't notice Matic down the hall.
As Matic trekked closer, the figure next to Terrin?s room gradually manifested into a man Matic had seen on the holo ever since he was a teenager. Dressed in a black suit and brown robe, the man's eyes shifted to Matic, and then back to the medic. Matic kept his head high; he wouldn't be viewed as weak in front of the Jedi Master. He marched down the hall with his eyes angled towards the ceiling.
It only took a second to reach Skywalker. His body straight with arms tight to his sides like two heavy canes, Matic halted in front of the Jedi and looked down?
By the Force. Matic choked down a laugh.
Even from his chair, it was clear the Jedi Master couldn't be taller than Matic's chin. Slender, he still seemed to have the slightest bit of youthful roundness to his face that made him look about as dangerous as an Ewok with a stick. This was Luke Skywalker?
"Now, remember," the medic instructed to the small man as he catered to the Jedi's arm, "this vaccine is guaranteed for only two weeks. After that, it will be up to your own body as to how much longer it can hold out."
"I don't suppose you can tell the Falleen of my tight schedule, huh?" the Jedi Master joked.
"Would they listen?" the medic replied, and then lifted an injector gun to the Jedi's shoulder. "Hold still." Without hesitation, the medic pressed the trigger. With its four thin needles, it took less than a second for the vaccine to be injected into the Jedi's arm.
Unresponsive to any pain the shots might have caused, Skywalker bowed his head to the medic. "Thank you, Dr. Ooles. Hopefully, I won't see you again for awhile."
The medic laughed. "Just don't turn green on me, Luke. That's all I ask."
With that, the medic packed up his things and left. Matic watched him go, and then regressed to the Jedi Master. In unison, Skywalker kindly stood for a more formal greeting. As he did, Matic bit his lip so he wouldn't burst out laughing. The Jedi didn't even reach his chin.
"Commander Matic Pace, I presume," Master Skywalker stated with a polite grin. Any hint of intimidation from Matic's size didn't show in his features.
Gazing at the smaller man, Matic silently accepted his hand.
"I hope you don't mind?my wife is speaking with Terrin. She'll be out to meet you in a minute," Master Skywalker informed, and returned to his seat.
Regathering his thoughts, Matic's expression hardened. "Actually, I do mind, Master Skywalker. Terrin is mine to interrogate. He was assigned into my custody, and therefore, is my responsibility. Not yours."
The strong reply didn't seem to take the other man off guard by much. Keeping his eyes steady on Matic, he replied, "I'm sorry?I was unaware of this. Mara wanted to speak with him. No one objected."
Matic glanced at the white door of Terrin's room, his anger fleeting. "She has a special Jedi talent of interrogation?"
There was an abrupt bang from inside the room; Matic jumped, Skywalker merely crossed his arms, and slouched back in his seat. "Actually, I would say more of a Mara talent of interrogation." Just then, Master Skywalker altered his attention to the doors. A second later, they opened.
As they did, Matic heard the whimpers of his prisoner trailing out into the hallway. Then, a woman, he could only assume was Mara Jade Skywalker, came into view at the room's entrance with a satisfied sneer on her expression. She was also a face Matic had seen on the holo. Although attractive, she was still not Matic's taste. He liked his women sweet, and young?her smirk alone validated that sardonic edge to her personality that had been rumored about ever since she married the Jedi Master.
Silently, she stepped toward Matic, and thrust out a hand.
"Mara Jade Skywalker," she introduced herself.
He received her hand, and shook lightly. "Commander Matic Pace."
"Commander Pace," she repeated, and then glimpsed back at Terrin?s room. "I didn't mean to upset you. My husband and I heard that your prisoner refused to talk. I thought I would give it a shot."
His eyebrows narrowed. Confused, he exchanged a look with Skywalker, who seemed less intrigued by his wife's declaration. A shudder edged up Matic's back. Curse Jedi telepathy.
Silently, the commander brushed off his annoyance, and motioned a hand to the datapad in Mara Skywalker's grasp. "You have any luck with him?"
Without delay, she passed the device to Matic. "You could say that."
Staring down at the datapad, Matic started to skim the mammoth files from Terrin's confession.
"I suggest you smile, Commander," the Jedi woman declared. "We have a lead now. That's more than we could have said half an hour ago."
Matic gawked at her from above the datapad's screen and swallowed hard.
Hundreds of humans had already died.
Trillions were about to join them.
It would happen so quickly?the disease would kill them all.
Blame would fall on the Falleen, of course.
It was something Fhamir, Queen of the Suon Region of the homeworld, was certain of.
Standing outside the prison hold on the first moon of Ttremyrin, Queen Fhamir observed in silence. The humans inside the room, all a repugnant black and olive, lay motionless on the floor. The mothers still clinched their arms tightly around the children. The fathers were curled up in the corner, a helpless expression still roaming through their dead corpse eyes.
Without any words, Fhamir shut off the energy shield by the prison's door. She stepped inside. The stench caught her nostrils like a blaster bolt; she choked, and cupped a hand over her nose. The entire room was filled with waste. Along with the bodies were puddles of ooze that splat with each footfall. The humans' eyes were angled up to the ceiling as if begging a question their lips couldn't mold. It was pitiful, and Fhamir knew it. What a blessing the group of humans inside the room would be the last. The experiments were complete. Now, Fhamir wouldn't have to look at them anymore.
"I'll have someone clean this up," a familiar voice resounded through the room.
It was tender, but far too abrupt. Fhamir jumped, her heart doing somersaults in her chest. She whipped around to the source behind her.
"You frightened me, Jeire," she exclaimed with a mild hiss.
To her surprise, his skin slowly mutated into a slight shade of orange. He bowed to her mischievously. "I assure you, my queen, it was not intentional. I would never do anything to displease you."
Staring at him, Fhamir found the will to grin. Jeire. Years younger than she, the Falleen male had always treated her like a goddess. A part of the nobility of her region of their homeworld, he was a marvelous creature to ogle. He was tall, well built, and had violet eyes that sparkled when he grinned. His hair was always in a simple ponytail, cut short, leaving only a handful of black-blue strands. Like many humanoid species, the Falleen did not possess much hair. The Falleen women, such as Fhamir, normally had a receding line from the middle of their scalps, which displayed their foreheads. Most Falleen girls didn't cut their locks. Fhamir's alone went well past her waist. It was something that Falleen men appreciated?especially Jeire.
Shaking her head at the orange man in front of her, Fhamir sighed. "Is it possible to control your colors, sir? You're embarrassing me with them."
The brightness in Jeire's skin merely fluctuated. "It's uncontrollable, your highness. Pure male emotions. You know that."
Oh yes, by that point, she knew that well.
Jeire's smile abruptly faltered. He scanned the room, the color in his skin finally calming, and then frowned at her. "What are you doing within this foul matter?"
Eyeing the humans on the floor, she shrugged. "Just observing the chaos. Wondering?"
"Don't do this," he immediately cut her off, his skin back to dull green. "Not now. You should know better than to become attached."
"Then, what would you suggest?have no compassion at all?" she countered.
Jeire walked to her. His skin shifted to a somber purple; he took her hand. "You're compassion is what makes you shine, Fhamir. I feel for them as well. Humans are beautiful. But, the other Falleen," he readjusted his eyes to the floor, and then met with hers again. "We're a simple race, my love. Only the truly gifted of our species gives the rest of us any credit. You're one of those gifted. The others will follow you, no matter where you lead?your highness."
Silently, Fhamir set her jaw. It was easy to see Jeire as a friend or even lover, but now he had to be more. He was her second-in-command. As such, she had to treat him objectively, no matter how difficult the task.
"If this is true, Commander," she started, putting her hands behind her back, "if I am such a highly qualified leader, then why I am allowing another being?one I've never even met?to order me around?"
Jeire already knew what she meant. Their master?the one who had ordered their devious plans in the first place. Jeire merely jerked a shoulder. "Because he's right. The New Republic will just end up being another Empire. The humans will gain control again, and enslave us all. You know that."
"No, I don't," she hissed back. "Look around you, Commander. Look at these people. They didn't kill us. They didn't start our war. We did that."
"It doesn't matter," Jeire replied. "It's already begun. If our master hears you speak such heresy, he'll kill all of us, Fhamir. Let it go. Please."
"I?" she stopped herself, almost choking again, but this time it wasn't from the stench. "I'm afraid, Jeire," she told him. "I'm afraid that after our mission is complete, it won't matter if we're alive or not. I'll be dead inside."
She focused on the humans surrounding her. The children?the adults?men and women with simple lives and dreams. Just like her. A simple tear trailed down her cheek, but then she swiped it away and looked impassively at her commander.
"Send a message to our master," she instructed Jeire. "Inform him that the tests are complete. Everything's is going according to plan. We leave Ttremyrin One in fifteen standards days."
Terrin had confessed little information about his faction's agenda. Mara's persuasive methods were not to blame; being a mere soldier, Terrin didn't possess as many facts as she, Luke and the others would have preferred. The mission in front of them was hazy at best, but one positive still lingered?they had a lead.
As Luke discovered the planet on Terrin's list was Bakura of the Outer Rim, he knew that Matic's crew of twelve had plenty of time to plan. They had attempted to reach someone else closer with the data, but with the exception of one inexperienced scouting crew, Pace's team seemed no further away than the members of Rogue Squadron or the Wraiths. They needed someone qualified to pull it off?or at least idiotic enough to try.
The trip to Bakura took nine standard days in all. A distant, human-populated planet just short of the Outer Rim, Bakura had traversed through a lot since the fall of the Empire. Luke had helped to save the planet right after the Battle of Endor from the Ssi-ruuk species. Nevertheless, the concept of returning was not a pleasant one. A former love interest, Gaeriel, had lived there once. She died just a few years before, leaving a daughter behind. The thought of Bakura always added an extra weight to Luke's shoulders.
His emotions didn't matter at that moment. His mind was preoccupied with creating a plan for their arrival. The crew argued, of course. They argued like two droids preaching philosophy to each other over a game of sabacc. Most of the trip to Bakura was spent in debate; the worst complaints spurred from Matic. Pace questioned everything. They plotted?he disagreed. Luke offered a suggestion, and Pace shook his head. The man didn't trust Luke or Mara's abilities anymore than he would trust a Wookiee to shave his armpits. Alone, that was a severe disadvantage to the entire project.
Things resolve themselves, thankfully. Luke and Mara were able to convince Pace of their idea. It merely took some persuading.
"You can't be serious," Pace had stated darkly as they explained their scheme inside one of the ship's rooms.
"I can handle it?I assure you, sir, no one will recognize me," Luke replied calmly.
"You want to pretend to be Terrin?" Pace exuded a breath, and stood. "How, precisely, do you intend to pull off such a feat?"
With that, Luke used the Force to cloud Pace's mind, pushing the image of the Falleen into it, and making Luke's own face disappear. It was a trick he'd learned years before, and didn't normally like doing unless in was truly needed. Unfortunately, it was needed then.
Pace had blinked a few times, and then rolled his eyes toward Luke. It seemed as if the commander had spotted a hungry krayt dragon not more than two feet from him. All the blood rushed from his face.
After a few minutes, he found the will to ask, "You can keep that up through an entire conversation?"
"I?m keeping it up through this one," Luke replied without missing a beat.
Pace just shook his head in disgust. With that, they continued to prepare. Luke and Pace found some roguish attire that would fit into Terrin's wardrobe. And, Mara?
"You just remember that this is a one time event," she groaned from inside the refresher of Pace's ship.
Standing next to Pace, Luke had to drape a hand over his mouth just to keep his composure, especially since Mara had picked out her own outfit. As they had already addressed to her, however, cantinas were not the place for nice girls that visited operas. Mara needed to play the part. Being the wife of the Jedi leader made her stand out a bit, so in the end, she had decided to become a Twi'lek.
"You hear me, Skywalker?" she yelled.
Dropping his hand, Luke shouted back, "You know I do, Skywalker."
He felt her emotions surge from that one. She spoke nothing more, and a second later, the doors of her room slid open. If Luke hadn't learned years before to control his astonishment, his mouth would have dropped completely.
Mara stood in front of them, her tight black and green outfit wrapped around her like it was new skin. It showed off every curve she possessed. The skirt part, which slit all the way from her ankles to her belt on both sides, revealed her legs and thighs on each side as if the attire was designed for her body and hers alone.
Nevertheless, as beautiful and as sensual as she appeared, inside the poor woman was miserable. Staring at him with her gleaming forest eyes, her skin dyed to match the color, she spoke to him without muttering a word. You owe me.
I know, he replied
With that, Luke picked up both his and Mara?s lightsabers. He packed both in his tunic. Given that Mara had no place to sufficiently hide hers, this would have to do.
Pace observed him, and then declared, "You sure you want to do this?"
"Want isn?t exactly the term I would use," Luke corrected.
"I would say need is the more appropriate word," Mara said as she wrapped her tiny wrist blaster around her forearm; she paused as she examined herself in disgust. "Much like this outfit."
"If it's any consolation," Luke said gently, "you look rather beautiful as a Twi'lek."
She pursed her lips as if chewing her cheek, and then teasingly flipped her Twi'lek lekku behind her shoulders. "I don?t recall this as being a lesson in your Jedi archives, Skywalker."
"Remind me to make some new archives for you, sweetheart."
"Funny. Let?s just do this before my blasted outfit decides to eat me whole."
Commander Futin loitered at the bar of the Avin's cantina, a glass of whiskey in his hands, a long cigar in his mouth, and anger streaming through him like a really bad drink. He was not a patient Falleen, and waiting for anyone was not on his list of talents.
His contact was late. There was little doubt Futin's leading Captain wouldn't devour him alive if he didn't return soon. They were supposed to port the blasted planet, exchange information with another Falleen ship, and leave. What was so difficult about that?
Then again, with slicers, holos, and other security flaws in the galaxy, conveying information ship to ship was committing mission suicide. Futin would wait.
As if the other man had read his mind, another Falleen entered the cantina. A long-legged Twi'lek woman strode through the entrance a moment later, never glancing their way. Futin surveyed her, the skirt around her green thighs swaying back and forth, exposing her hips. His skin shifted into orange, but as she finally sat by another man who had come in just a few minutes before, Futin lost interest and went back to the Falleen by his side.
"What took you?" he questioned in his Falleen tongue, almost ready to punch the other man.
The Falleen merely bowed his head as his skin gently darkened into purple. "Speak Basic, please ," the other Falleen replied. "I don't want to arouse suspicion."
"You're kidding?" Futin replied in Falleen.
The other man merely smiled, and raised his eyebrows. He tugged the bartender's shirt?asked for whiskey. He received it, gulped down the entire glass, and reverted to the conversation. "I'm not joking?I assure you. And, to answer your question, my leading Commander decided to drop me off and then move his ship out of orbit. I had to walk here from the other end of the town."
Futin analyzed the other being for a moment, and then shook his head. With the cigar still in his mouth, he sipped his own drink. The other Falleen watched with a strange calmness to his expression, and then lifted his glass for the bartender to re-fill it.
Futin wiped his mouth and asked, "So, who are you? What's your regiment number?"
"Terrin, number 24-68 of the vessel, Sun's Passage," the other Falleen replied. "I believe you have a new assignment for my captain. It would be my honor to deliver it, sir."
Parked beside Matic Pace, Mara Jade Skywalker made sure to keep her eyes averted from her husband as the conversation between he and Futin continued. Through the Force, however, she witnessed every body-movement, and stretched out to pick up the pieces of Falleen chitchat as they greeted each other.
You catch that last one?, her husband's thought merged into hers.
Falleen talk quickly, she replied, gently scrambling on the translator datapad in her lap. Just one more?there. He asked you, "what took so long?", then, "you're kidding?"
Got it?thanks, he said, and was silent.
The rest of the conversation converted into Basic; Mara sighed in relief, and deactivated the translator. Calmly, she sat back in her seat in the corner of the cantina. Mara had to admit her husband was performing his role with ease. He might have even become a better con artist than Mara, which was almost a paradox to the farmboy's persona. Jedi were amusing creatures.
"Can you tell what's going on?" Pace asked from her side, appearing more anxious than any fear Mara or Luke were experiencing.
With that, Mara reclined back in her seat, and propped her feet on an empty chair beside her. Throughout the entire trip, Pace had been questioning the Jedi's intentions, their abilities, and most of all, their experience. It was starting to turn Mara sour.
"He?s doing just fine, Pace," Mara replied. "No problems."
"I don't like this," he grumbled anyway.
With that, Mara rolled her eyes, turning them sharply at the other man. "Luke's been handling things like this for almost twenty years." She gave him a smirk. "You seem to forget what Luke was before he became a Jedi, Commander."
She put extra umph into the title, considering it was the same one Luke had used for years in the Rebellion.
Either Pace didn?t notice her statement, or he was simply ignoring her. Silently, he took a swig of his drink, and grimaced as if it was rancid.
Frowning, Mara returned her focus back to Luke and the Falleen. Just in time. The Falleen was handing a datapad to Luke. Luke graciously accepted it, but as he held it in his hands, he hesitated as if pondering something on its screen that Mara couldn?t see.
Something wrong? Mara asked mentally, only to receive a shiver from her husband.
We have a problem, he explained and then without warning, he hurled an image to her through the Force. It was outside the cantina. A small freighter they had seen in orbit awhile before was landing?
Mara almost jumped from seat. Matic flung his gaze to her as if he'd seen the image himself.
There were at least a dozen Falleen. Their olive bodies herded out of their ship as they rushed to the bar. But, that didn't make sense. Everything was executed perfectly; Futin hadn't suspected a thing. What was happening?
Tell Pace to contact his crew, Luke instructed bitterly. This datapad just went dead.
She glanced at Pace; he seemed as concerned as Mara as if he had heard the communications between Luke and her himself. After only a second, his face flashed with dread; he leaned closer to her. "What?s wrong? I might not be a Jedi, but I can see worry on someone?s face. Did the Falleen recognize him?"
The Falleen charged into the bar as if an explosion outside had shoved them through the doors. Blasters drawn, knives at the ready, they were behind Luke and Futin before her husband even had a chance to turn around. To Mara's surprise, Futin froze as if he was the one in trouble.
All right, Skywalker, a voice, much like a static-filled radio that was just turned all the way up, poured into Mara?s mind, this is as far as you go.
Already, Luke was lifting his hands in a peaceful surrender. Futin finally got his head straight, and un-holstered his weapon.
Suddenly, Luke's eyes shut, and with it, the Force flooded Mara like rainwater in a ditch. Get ready.
His words were soft, yet firm, and with it, Mara spun back to Pace. "Duck."
It happened so quickly, Matic was hardly able to understand what had just transpired. He saw the Falleen surround the Jedi Master, saw as he calmly raised his hands in defeat. Then?
It was like watching a holo that was moving three times faster than it was supposed to. In an eye's flash, the Jedi Master?s hands grew out into two long rods, one green, the other blue. He whipped around, dropping to his knees to face the four Falleen behind him. Blaster shots rained throughout the cantina, sparking from one direction, and then another. The Jedi was already back to his feet, snagging the beams as they wheeled at him. The lightsabers skipped around; he never looked where the shots originated from. In the next second, four opponents were down on the floor, all with dark lines across their chests. They were still smoking from the lightsaber?s slashes.
Matic spun to Skywalker's wife. She was already shooting into the group of Falleen. The bystanders of the cantina were running around like wild sand people in the middle of a raid. Mara fired toward the ceiling, shouting into the crowd to get out.
Matic twisted back to Skywalker as the Jedi Master turned his gaze to three other Falleen. Without warning, they simply leaped into the air. The wall behind them crumbled as their motionless bodies slammed into it. They fell to the floor and stayed there.
The shots continued blazing, and the people continued to scramble. Finally, watching as they started to break down the windows, Matic?s mind caught up with him.
He pulled out his comlink. "Ross!" he yelled over the blasts. "Did you see where the Falleen came from out there?"
There was static, and then?"A freighter. It tried to drop off a pile of Falleen, then blasted back off into orbit. We've got them grounded, but they're pulling off one hell of an attack."
"I'm coming out to help!" he shouted, and then spun to Mara by his side. Her eyes were there to meet him. Inching closer to her, he shouted, "Does he need help?"
"Yes," she replied with more speed than Matic would have liked. "You?go. I can't leave him here alone."
Matic nodded, and with that, Mara jumped up from his side. Tiny blaster in hand, she moved toward the Falleen as they fired. In the Falleen's hand was a tiny dart pistol. The Jedi woman dodged one projectile by jerking her head to the left, another by lifting her foot?she caught the Falleen square in the face with a blaster bolt, and then brought her attention to another one.
Matic smiled, and then stood and ran out to his crew.
It was an odd feeling, the Force. When completely consumed by it, there's nothing but peace. Death didn't matter?death was a future. Luke's mind was set in the present, and presently, he was alive with the Force.
He sensed Mara as she struggled to reach him. Her mind was open, full of energy and life. It was open to him.
Another Falleen brushed Luke's side with a large vibro blade in his grasp. He stabbed at Luke's thigh; the Jedi Master twisted to the left, evading the weapon with no more difficulty than deflecting a blaster bolt.
The Falleen appeared more stunned than afraid when his attempt to strike Luke failed. He fell toward the ground, stabbing the wooden floor with his blade instead of Luke?s leg. Seeing his opportunity, Luke kicked the long knife out from under the Falleen, causing the other man to flip completely to his back.
Other Falleen bolted into the cantina from outside. They blasted through the windows, and stumbled on each other to aim their weapons Luke and Mara's direction. They were scared. Scared of the Jedi, but it was more than that. It was the concept of defeat that fueled their fears. It was a raw emotion, and held little rationale. They wouldn't stop unless someone stopped them.
I?m left, you?re right, Mara?s voice suddenly flashed inside Luke's mind. It was filled with confidence, calmness, and passion.
Just in time. The Force rippled through his mind like a boulder smashing into a glass ceiling. He raised both his and Mara?s lightsabers?
Then, half of the Falleen to his left simply crashed backwards. The other half, surprised by their comrade's collapse, shot either poorly or not at all. Luke immediately took the advantage.
Both sabers at his sides, he charged the remaining Falleen. Like an X-wing in a tailspin, Luke lashed the lightsabers about him and cut down one weapon after another. He spotted Mara to his far right; without hesitation, he tossed her lightsaber across the line and watched as it landed perfectly in her willing hands.
She ignited it, and brought down two Falleen before they even knew what happened. Shots flew around in a chaotic fashion as the Falleen tried to stop the inevitable. As Luke spun, he threw a glance at his wife, dancing about with her own skill and certainty.
With a back-flip, she was beside him. Luke felt her strength through the Force, and he shifted his attention away from the Falleen. He reached out for her power.
It only took a second for her reply.
Focusing together, they gazed at the nine remaining Falleen in front of them, and pushed. The wind was abrupt?staggering; it swept by Luke's clothes like a hundred running children.
The energy knocked the Falleen all the way across the room. One hit a window, demolishing it and landing on the dirt outside. Others collided into tables, and flipped over until they toppled to the floor. Most made it all the way to the wall, puncturing the clay and wooden pieces and heaving dust into the air. In the end, all of them found a spot to rest.
The cantina, which a moment before had been filled with the panicked patrons, screams, and blaster shots, was now quiet enough to hear the bugs humming outside.
Luke looked at Mara; she didn't possess so much as a glint of sweat in her light green skin.
With that, he gave her a tiny, exhausted smile. "Thank you."
She merely shrugged, extinguished her lightsaber, and fastened it to her belt. "You could have handled it. I just wanted to be a little more useful."
Gently, Luke reached out and took his wife's hand; he glanced at the open doors all over the room. Matic was nowhere in sight.
"Come on," he instructed his wife, and they hurried from the cantina.
Outside, Luke and Mara weren't even half a meter from the bar before they were breathing in relief. There, in the center of the landing pad stood Matic Pace with his New Republic crew. Beside them was a pile of unconscious and dead Falleen. Just to the right, a smoking Falleen freighter.
Silently, Luke nodded at Matic. The man replied by crossing his arms with a smirk to his cheeks. Luke cocked an eyebrow.
"You see? It doesn?t always take a Jedi to do a job right," he shouted to both Luke and Mara.
Luke exchanged a glance with his wife, who merely rolled her eyes. Silently, she followed him to their commander.
The planet was especially dark. It wasn't like an evening someone might witness on Coruscant?or any other technically advanced world. The stars were blazing in the sky without artificial light there to block them out.
It was nature?forests and tranquility. Peaceful, it would seem.
The vision twirled through Luke Skywalker's mind like a Tatooine cantina dancer. No matter how stunning it was, the cold shivers skipping down his back told him otherwise. Something sinister was brewing there.
Even with all the life around him, everything still managed to feel dead to his fingertips. Luke Skywalker examined every detail?every little piece that might aid their quest. He engulfed himself within the Force, and continued to watch as the stars sparkled in the sky.
"You decoded it yet, Ross?" Matic Pace asked his slicer as they sat inside the cockpit of their vessel. Ross had decided to name the freighter, Fast Pace, for kicks. Matic had discouraged it, but the crew found it humorous. The blasted thing stuck.
"No, nothing yet," Ross replied with his own touch of disgust. "Whoever coded the Falleen vessel's database was smart. Probably another slicer."
Huffing out a breath, Matic scanned the computer screen. It was still a pile of wordless phrases and symbols, and for an instant, he wondered why in the worlds he had bothered asking his slicer in the first place.
It had only been six hours since the incident at the Avin's cantina on Bakura. No one was sure what had gone wrong; Matic's men had kept to themselves, no one transmitted any messages from the planet's surface, and despite Matic's uneasiness about Jedi abilities, even he had to admit that Skywalker's disguise hadn't faltered.
Unfortunately, the Falleen that had survived the battle had been forced into Bakuran custody. As much as Matic had insisted they needed all the Falleen for questioning, Bakura's government wouldn't allow it without explanation. And, since Matic couldn't announce to the human-dominated planet about the threat of a lethal disease infesting the galaxy, he had to settle with gaining custody of the Falleen's vessel. Damn politics.
With that, he turned to Mara Jade Skywalker, and observed as she peered at the screen without her husband beside her. Of course, if it wasn't politics, it was Jedi.
He set his jaw, agitated. "When is he going to be done in there?"
Maintaining her eyes on the screen, she merely replied, "When he's done, Pace."
Ross flicked a look at Matic, obviously surprised by the Jedi woman's lack of respect, but Matic was already leaning over the woman's shoulder. "Would you mind going down to the storage unit and informing the Jedi Master that he's needed up here?"
"He's meditating, sir. Believe me, that has the potential of importance as well."
Finally, she shifted her gaze to him, more curious than annoyed. "What, precisely, do you need him for? I'm a Jedi. Maybe I could assist instead."
Matic considered a moment, and then gestured a hand to the computer. "Can you speed this process up somehow? Use the Force to pull the codes out of their vessel's database or something?"
"That's what slicers are for," she replied without hesitation, and then patted Ross' left shoulder.
His irritation growing, Matic came back, "Then, how should your powers be used? You can disguise yourself, deflect bolts, read minds, but you can?t decode a data chip?"
"You're generalizing. It?s more complex than that, and you know it."
"How? How am I even supposed to understand Jedi?voodoo?"
"Perhaps you should ask," another voice suddenly emerged inside the tiny room.
Matic flinched, startled. He spun around to the room's entrance. Master Skywalker stood there, looking more refreshed than when Matic had seen him last.
Skywalker strode to his wife; giving Matic a tiny smirk, she gently placed a hand on her husband's face. "Any news?" she asked.
Skywalker seemed less enthusiastic than his wife. "Nothing that makes sense at the moment. I wish visions were as easy to read as a chart. It'd make my meditations more relaxing."
The Jedi woman tilted her head playfully. "What would be the fun in that?"
"What are you talking about?" Matic asked, perplexed. "You have new information about this?"
"Nothing that will aid us at the moment," the Jedi Master replied mysteriously.
Matic groaned. "You know, my R-5 unit makes more sense than you, sir."
"I would hope so. It plugs into a readout computer."
Matic shot the other man a glare; from Skywalker's side, Mara already had her mouth covered. She coughed her laugh out and went back to the screen.
"I don't know about you guys," Ross stated in a more upbeat voice as his fingers raced wildly on the database, "but I, for one, would like to know how that Falleen group attacked us. The only people that knew we were going to Bakura were the Senators and a couple of delegates. The sub-space channels have barely been used since we left."
"Not only that," Mara pointed out, hand returning to Ross' shoulder, "but why, if they knew we were coming, would they still meet us on Bakura? There's always a risk when it comes to setting traps. I'd like to know why they decided to chance it just for us."
"I would like that as well, Mara," Luke added.
Listening to them, Matic decided to return to more important matters. He readjusted his eyes to the screen.
"Sir, I found the sequence!" Ross? voice suddenly shouted through the entire cockpit.
Matic opened his mouth to ask what in the worlds his slicer was blabbering about, but before he received the opportunity, the strange phrases on the computer started to mutate into something more real.
"Just one more second to modify the codes," Ross said, and then, the unrecognizable gibberish transformed into symbols as clear as Basic.
With it, Matic Pace felt his heart sink into a bitter and cold place within himself. Everything that had irritated him a moment before dispersed.
Ross and both Skywalkers were in their own state of shock, their eyes fastened to the screen's map with awe. Matic didn?t need the Force to understand how everyone felt. He gazed wildly at the map of the universe on the datapad screen, at the hundred little red dots that covered it, including one at Bakura. And, all of them aimed for Coruscant.
Five more days, Fhamir thought to herself in the darkness of her own courtiers. Just five.
Ttremyrin One was surprisingly calm that night. The air was cool, leaving a freshness in the Falleen's station. There were hardly any windows in the structure; it was never designed for creature comforts. It was military, and for whatever reason, military equaled endurance. Queen Fhamir looked out at the horizon of the tiny moon from the stained-gray window in the station's main archway. It was supposed to be beautiful out there.
She didn't see beauty. She couldn't see the elegance of the world around her, the splendor of life just outside the window. Her father once told her you could only feel fear if there was fear inside you. Fhamir assumed the same could be said for beauty. All she saw was death. She was death.
Just five more days.
"There's exactly one hundred and seven dots, sir," Ross finally declared to Matic and the rest of the crew. "Most are in hyperspace, aimed at the Core."
By that point, everyone had showed up to review Ross' findings. The entire galaxy was cloaked with scarlet dots. All were progressing from the Outer and Mid Rim into the Core. Matic had to wonder just how many distress calls the New Republic had responded to since they had left. Even without using the main Trade Routes, it was certain that the first Falleen vessels could reach the Core within a matter of days.
Matic wiped his hand down his face as if trying to remove a layer of skin. He said, "We need to contact Coruscant about this."
"Not a good idea, sir," Ross replied without peeking up. "If our security has been compromised, then whatever routes these ships are taking into the Core will be altered if we alert anyone to their presence. It won't do any good contacting them."
"How about another group?" Master Skywalker suggested. "The Rogues?"
"Same problem," Ross replied. "We don't know where this leak is coming from. I wouldn't advise it, sir."
Matic sighed, and then glanced at Mara Jade Skywalker for other suggestions. The woman's eyes didn't catch his, however; they were studying the screen as if reading a textbook.
"Pin-point the dots in this region," she suddenly requested, and with a finger, circled around a part of the screen.
Without reply, Ross danced his hands on the database's computer board. The red specks around Bakura, Endor, and the other planets of their current region appeared a second later.
"The vessel set at Bakura is displayed just orbiting around the planet," Mara spoke, and then tapped the planet Ison on the map with her nail, "but, this one is set on the planet. Why wouldn't they put it on the surface? They did land on Bakura."
"That's true," Matic paused, and bit his lip, "but, they weren't intending to stay."
From the look of the map, the Falleen vessels had only a few planet rendezvous?their intention was to hit the Core. A few were like Bakura, orbiting to leave?
It hit him like a smack across his eye. He flung a look at the Skywalkers. From the expression on their faces, it was clear they understood as well.
"Ross," Matic ordered the slicer, "can you isolate every dot in the Falleen database set directly on a planet?"
"Uh," he drummed his fingers on the keyboard. "Sure?why?"
"They're military bases," Mara declared for everyone.
The slicer threw a look over his shoulder, mouth ajar.
Mara pointed again at the screen. "That's how they're organizing it. They not only have ships moving all over the place?going from planet to planet and infecting us...they already have military stations set up along the way to keep themselves secured. Ross? Ross, the database?"
Ross immediately blinked out of his daze; he went back to the screen, and twenty dots were isolated for their view.
"Blast it," Matic cursed under his breath.
"Not quite yet," the Jedi Master spoke as his eyes remained steady on the screen.
Matic's eyes met Skywalker, but instead of skepticism, the commander paused with curiosity. No, the Jedi Master wasn't staring at the screen. His eyes were more dazed by it. Matic cocked an eyebrow, but said nothing.
Slowly, Skywalker leaned forward and touched the screen. "Ross, can you display that location for me, please?"
"It's not one located on a planet," Ross explained.
"I know," the Jedi replied. "I want to see it anyway."
The slicer merely shrugged and set to work. It took no more than a heartbeat to zoom in on the dot.
"Ttremyrin," Ross informed. "It's a smaller gas planet. The ship's orbiting it."
"No," Mara Jade Skywalker proclaimed, and motioned at the screen. "Look."
The woman pushed a button on Ross' console, and enlarged the orbiting dot. Except, it didn't display whatever Falleen vessel might be around the gas planet. It presented a dot directly on one of Ttremyrin's moons.
"Ttremyrin One," Ross confirmed. "Forest moon. Little technology."
"How far away?" Skywalker asked with a strain.
Again, Ross shrugged. "About two standard days. One and a half if we push it."
Skywalker's eyes bumped into Matic's. The commander crossed his arm, his face deadpan. He spoke, "I suppose this has to do with your Jedi visions, right?"
Skywalker offered a roguish grin. "You wanted to know the relevance."
"And, you expect me to just allow this crew to be shuffled around by Jedi instincts?"
"Better than a politician's," Mara retorted.
Matic gazed at the two. Skywalker's eyes didn't weaken. He was serious?confident of himself. Mara was the same?just as sincere.
Matic huffed out a breath. "The hell with it." He grabbed the comlink from his belt. "Weo," he spoke to the pilot of the Fast Pace, "set coordinates for the planet Ttremyrin. We have a lead."
The Jedi Master nodded at Matic. Not believing what he had just agreed to, Matic merely waved a hand at the other man as if flicking away a bug, and walked away.
Coruscant never slept. The city stretched past the horizon, and the lights always blared. Towers were built on top of towers like building blocks in a child's construction set. The skylights waved back and forth, and speeders cloaked the sky like packs of birds on other worlds. There was no real nature. Technology and time had made sure of that.
Then, how ironic Leia Organa Solo found it, with so little nature, the Force and life could spread like wild flowers across the grand city from one end to another. Everything was rippling. She was certainly keeping busy these days.
Distress calls had started as soon as Luke and Mara had left on their mission. One planet in the Outer Rim was experiencing odd deaths in their cities; another was becoming infected with a fatal illness in their forests. Death and destruction were rising from puddles of nothing, and Leia didn't know what to do.
The politicians howled orders to quarantine the sectors, blocking off all trade and marketing. Calls continued to come, however, and Leia couldn't reach her brother.
On Coruscant, people were already manifesting rumors. The rumors were beginning to become knotted with the truth, and the population was piecing things together. Human and non-human alike were terrified.
Leia knew that soon, the crisis would begin there. All it would take was one infected human?and then the illness would soil the entire world.
Silently, Leia turned her attention away from the view by the Imperial Palace?s many windows. Through the small room, the wild beeps of droids and other devices filled whatever quiet tranquility she hoped to experience. There, lying motionless inside his bacta tank, was Kyp Durron?s sickly green and red body. His face was partially cloaked by the medical mask. Monitors beeped around him at a constant rhythm. Through the Force, Leia sensed the young man?s determination. His stubbornness to survive. Beyond personal emotions, Leia felt cold tremors on her arms as the Jedi tried desperately to hold to life.
Crossing one arm over the other, Leia twisted back to the window. Coruscant's skyline filled her vision from one end of the room to the other.
"Ttremyrin, straight ahead," Captain Weo explained to her commanding officer through the ship's comm system. "I'm setting in a course now."
Inside the ship's cargo bay, Commander Pace lifted his comlink to his mouth. "Nice and slow, Weo. The first sign of detection, call me." With that, he flicked an inquiring eye to Luke and Mara. "You sense any danger out there?"
Standing beside Pace in the cargo bay, Luke felt the compulsion to roll his eyes at the other man. He was tempted, but merely shook his head at him instead. Did the commander honestly think Luke wouldn't tell him if he sensed a problem? As unbelievable as it was, the other man was annoying Luke to no end. He was still in shock the commander had agreed to investigate the moon in the first place.
Want me to knock him out and stuff him in a storage unit for you? Mara's thoughts streamed through him.
Luke bit his cheek as not to laugh?glanced at his wife. You think he'd mind?
Her lips curved into a smirk, but she said nothing. Silently, she buckled her lightsaber to her belt, tilting her hips as if they were getting in her way.
"All right!" Pace's voice cut through the entire room. "Our slicer's found an energy source on Ttremyrin One's surface. We have three minutes to prepare, people. Be ready!"
Sighing, Luke allowed his mind to focus on the task. Just like Mara, Pace, and the rest of the crew inside the cargo bay, Luke was dressed in a completely black uniform. The only item that distinguished Luke and Mara from the others were their lightsabers. They dangled almost like festive silver decorations from their suits.
Pace suddenly approached Luke, an arm extended with a blaster. "Here," he said, and dumped the weapon and its holster into Luke's care.
Glancing at it, Luke frowned, and then handed the weapon back. "I won?t need it."
With that, Pace huffed, seized Luke's hand, and forced the weapon back into it. "Humor me. Everyone has a blaster. No debate."
Staring sharply at the other man, Luke could sense a strange determination flowing out of him like a vein pulsating on someone's forehead. Seeing no point in protesting further, Luke lifted his hand with the weapon in agreement. The other man walked away to speak with another crewmember.
Finally rolling his eyes, the Jedi Master hooked the blaster to his waist and leg. It felt funny to have one on again?almost as if it wasn't right.
Mara checked out the blaster as she strapped her own pistol to her wrist, and then faced her husband. "Looks good."
"Feels awful," Luke complained, readjusting his belt to a more comfortable position. Blasted, clunky things?
"Two minutes!" Pace yelled again. "Move into position."
Everyone stepped to the wall, one after the other. They were silent.
"Sir," Ross? voice called through Pace's comlink, "we?re reaching the coordinates. We?ll have a window of only fifteen seconds to drop down undetected. More than that, and any sensor databases will spot us for sure."
"What's the exact time until we drop?" Pace questioned from Luke's side.
"One minute, thirty-four seconds from now."
"All right, Ross. Now, get down here. I don't want to have to wait."
"Y?yes, sir. Got it."
With that, the comm went dead, and Pace addressed the crew. "Helmets on," he ordered.
Luke didn't delay?neither did Mara. Her hair twisted into a tight bun on the back of her head, she strapped on the helmet as expertly as she would her wrist pistol. It took Luke a second more, not used to the full face-cover design and sensors. The thing was equipped with coordination outputs, comlink, and memory logs. It was more like wearing a computer on top of your head than a helmet. Mara seemed amused as he struggled to snap the last band into place.
"I miss anything?" Ross voiced as he darted into the cargo bay. He was latching the bottom of the mask to his chin.
"Nothing worth mentioning," Matic replied, and then lifted his watch to this face. "Twenty seconds, people?look sharp," he stated as the seconds started to dissolve away.
"Fifteen seconds," Ross said for him, and then pushed the open hatch button on the cargo bay?s wall.
The mission crew steadied themselves as the wind from Ttremyrin One started to drive them towards the opening doors. Using the Force, Luke grounded himself. Mara had the same convenience.
Peering out at the night on the tiny moon, Luke smiled. His vision couldn't have been more accurate.
"Five seconds," Ross declared.
"On my mark," Matic continued. "Three?two?one. Mark."
Without hesitation, his squadron began to leap into the dark and grayish night of Ttremyrin One. Each person dropped from the ship immediately after the other as if connected by a cord. Luke was fifth in line, right after his wife. Not a rigid muscle in his body, he dived off the opening of the ship as if he were to land on a comfortable sofa instead of plunging into the moon?s atmosphere.
With the Force, Luke sensed the crew. The older ones, such as Pace, were undergoing the drop as if they were in a training course for a military academy. The younger and less experienced were becoming somewhat tense?even nauseated. Mara was enjoying herself. To Luke's surprise, he found it refreshing as well.
After a minute of nothing, Pace's voice buzzed through the helmet, "Commanding officer to mission crew. We're past the ten thousand mark. Level your descent and place yourself in flight formation 3-1-7. Now."
Finding the tiny red button on his suit, Luke pressed it. The outfit reacted immediately, utilizing similar energy a land speeder created to calm an abrupt dive. Of course, plunging from twenty thousand feet was a bit more complex than what most speeders usually endured. The sudden activation seemed to jump the thing into overdrive for the first few seconds.
Luke was shoved upwards a good ten meters, and a little too far to the left. Regaining his control, he turned his body and glided himself into his previous position. With the exception of Pace and Mara, the rest of the crew was still attempting to reclaim their spots.
Pace suddenly twisted his masked face Mara and Luke's way, curiosity waving through his emotions. "How many of these things have you done before?"
"Only a few?working for the Empire," Mara came back instantly. "Required Imperial dribble."
"Only in simulation," Luke replied. "It was a required training technique in the Rebellion."
Pace's emotions shone with surprise. He asked swiftly, "You've never done this before?"
It took Luke a second to reply. When he did, it didn't seem like the answer Pace was expecting. "Falling with a safety suit?or simply falling?"
Through the Force, Luke could sense Pace's irritation. The commander turned back to the rest of the crew as they circled him in the sky. Luke peeked down at the planet. The ground was like an empty black sea, with only a few little lights to show that there was actually something down there besides a continuing void. To top it off, it was approaching fast. Luke aimed a curious glance Pace's direction.
The commander was already on it. "Ross," Pace called to the slicer, "have you locked on to the power source yet?"
"Just one more second," Ross replied, sounding preoccupied.
Shooting another look at the ground, Pace spun his head to his right where Ross was positioned. "We don't have another second. What's taking so long?"
"Just one?wait?sir. I've found the power source?huh, it's not even five acres, maybe not even that."
"Is it the strongest one?"
"Then, plot! We're running out of sky here."
"Got it," Ross declared. "Set course 5-2-6. I simply hope we don't all end up landing on a storage facility."
Lifting his wrist up to his face, Luke set the coordinates into the tiny navi-computer on the sleeve of his jacket, and immediately felt the air thrusters inside the suit push him to the right. The rest of the group followed, soaring through the night toward their destination.
Fhamir paced through the crumbling building on Ttremyrin One. The station had been created by natives of the moon; the walls had been decorated with line carvings of the people's lives from childhood to the day they died. Then, the Empire came; now, the walls were plated with metal?gray, rusty and lacking any character the building once contained. With the exception of corners and a few missing steel pieces, all the natives' artwork had been concealed by military perfectionism. It was really a pity.
The stream of yellow lights that glowed delicately from the top of the station's walls was soft enough to sleep by. It was late in the evening; only night security was still up. Then, there was Fhamir. If she could manage three hours of sleep, she was grateful.
Her blaster-rifle was set and charged; a handcrafted blade lay restlessly on her leg. Her hands were placed firmly at her sides. Scouting the hallways at night was not her typical assignment, but Fhamir made it one. Securing the base?watching out for her people. Besides, she enjoyed the walks.
The night was calm, the only trickle of noise was from the few Falleen grazing by her in the corridors. In all essence, they were bored with their assignment.
Silently, Fhamir continued to patrol, keeping her head high as she marched through the station.
Mara Jade Skywalker landed on the dark brown building of the first moon of Ttremyrin without so much as a footstep of noise. Beside her, Luke Skywalker was already removing his helmet and other unnecessary components to his suit.
Matic Pace was quick to pursue, along with the rest of the group who had to rely on their suits to glide them to safety. Mara, just as her husband, was able to use the Force to maneuver herself more than just with the suit, which made landing far less complex.
Within a minute, however, everyone had placed their landing equipment and helmets on the roof, ready for the next step. Mara, her hair unknotted from her helmet, had the bright red strands flowing around her in the windy air like Tatooine sand caught in a dust storm. Annoyed, she grabbed a hair clip and fastened the strands back before she even glanced up at the rest of the group.
Ross already had a datapad out, surveying the small opening centered on the roof. If Mara were to speculate, she'd assume old Imperial freighters used to land on the station's roof and unload their cargo through the shaft. Mara came up beside her husband, but already knew the problem they were facing with such an access-way.
Sensors, she told her husband through the Force.
Eyes hooked to Ross and the roof, Luke replied, It's an enforced grid. If the shield is deactivated without authorization, then?
Then, we'll just have to get rid of the word, 'surprise', in our 'attack', huh, Skywalker? She retorted, and crossed her arms.
"Well sir," Ross finally spoke to Pace and the other nine members of the group, "I have some good news?and some bad news."
Across from Mara on the other side of the roof's opening, Pace gestured his hand in a circle-motion to Ross. "Okay, let's hear it."
"I can access the main console from this shield grid," replied the slicer.
"And, the bad?"
"It's going to take at least half an hour to decode and shut off."
"Blast it," Pace hissed, dropped his hands to his sides, and then to Ross, he asked, "Any other suggestions?"
"Well," Ross suddenly shot a look at Mara and Luke, catching Mara's full attention. "We might be able to send a hiccup into the system."
Pace blinked. "A hiccup?"
Ross swallowed hard, but didn't budge his eyes from the Jedi. "The computer grid is directly under the shield. I could shorten out the system for a second, maybe even two?enough to fit someone through?" he trailed off.
The emotions pulsating from Luke were unquestionable. Part of it was due to Mara being so adjusted to her husband's presence. But, it was also because Mara felt it inside herself as well. Together, they knew what Ross was suggesting.
Pace seemed to understand just the same. Gazing at Luke and Mara, the commander asked Ross, "There's no way we could shorten out just a tiny access point on the grid?say, one big enough to put a rope through?"
"No, sir, the shield can't be deactivated that way," Ross replied to no surprise.
Pace was still staring at Mara and her husband. It took him a second, but he finally asked, "Which one of you is better with mechanical devices?"
Mara didn't need to move. She was good at mechanical workings?very good, in fact. Nevertheless, the job required a Force trick Mara had yet to master, and Luke was the type of person that would dismantle and re-assemble his X-wing for kicks. Luke was already extending a hand to Pace, gesturing for his datapad. Silently, the commander handed it over. Luke attached it to his belt and knelt down to the opening's edge.
"You know what you're doing, right?" Pace questioned.
"Typical Jedi voodoo," Luke replied, and then twisted his head to Ross. "Anytime you're ready, sir."
"Jump on my mark," the slicer stated, eyeballing his datapad. "Three, two, one?"
The shield sparked off. With a gust of wind, Luke plunged like a speeding vessel into the hole. Mara watched him dive. The shield jumped back to life right after.
It was difficult to see in the night, but through the Force, Mara observed with high amusement. Only three feet from the roof's top and only one from the shield, Luke floated on the air. Like a mechanic on a ladder, he played with the wires inside the shield's computer console as if they were a part of Artoo or his X-wing.
"There's a trick you don't see everyday," Ross spoke, and then stole a glance to Mara. "You guys fly around a lot?"
"Only in ships," she replied, still watching her husband.
How's it going? she asked him.
They didn?t bother updating the system, he explained. It's an old Imperial console. I bet my lightsaber this place used to be a fully functioning military station once.
With the Empire, what wasn't military?
Got it, Luke declared through the Force.
Mara adjusted her eyes to Pace's and nodded. A second later, the shield grid dropped, leaving nothing but air between Luke and the rest of the crew.
Body leaning against the edge of the wall, Luke looked almost like an insect clinging for support rather than a man. Nonetheless, through the Force, it was obvious to Mara that her husband wasn't holding to anything except his concentration.
He looked up at Mara and asked, "You sense anyone around this part of the station?"
She stretched out with her senses, and replied, "Not unless they're dead."
Without a word further, Luke permitted himself to drop. Through the narrow tunnel of the shield's opening, his black-suited form disappeared into the dimness of the ancient station's floor. He landed with hardly a thump a heartbeat later.
Pace spun his eyes to Mara. "He's nuts, isn't he?"
"Extremely," she countered. "It's a Jedi disease. Risking your life for others?trying to save the galaxy. We've had him committed before, but he kept using mind tricks on the guards."
Before Pace could reply, Mara flipped herself into the opening. Pace's eyes remained hooked on her as she dropped. There wasn't much need for slowing down, given it was only twenty meters or so. Mara hit the ground directly by her husband, tilting her body with a somersault to execute the remnants of energy.
Ropes from the roof toppled down a second later.
With one simple move, Mara was on her feet to greet her husband. The other members of the crew followed, slowly streaming down their ropes like puppets in a cheap theater act. Mara viewed them, and then turned back to her husband. She smiled.
Pace's entire crew was there to greet the Jedi on the station's floor within a minute of the grid's deactivation. Including Pace, they were all swift and quiet?even the younger ones performing like skilled commanders. Mara was impressed.
"All right," Commander Pace whispered, "we have little time to do this, so let's make it quick. Our main objective is to get to the station's database and look around. Simple. Anything more?," he tossed a look at Mara and Luke. "We'll just have to play by ear."
"Main power source is sketchy," Ross said by Pace's side, eyes glued to his datapad. "There isn't much power in this place anyway, but?" He looked up at everyone and shrugged. "I won't be able to pinpoint an exact location."
"Looks like we get to hunt," Pace replied. "This station isn't large, but we don't have much time. Jedi, you have any idea just how many Falleen we're dealing with in here?"
It was a question Mara was expecting. Both she and Luke were already in the process of counting them.
"Skywalkers?" Pace imposed, but Mara raised a hand for him to quiet.
"They're mostly asleep," Luke told him, face toward the ceiling. "About twenty guards are scouting. Some of them outside." He dropped his eyes back down to the group as Mara did the same. "Ninety-six in total."
"Ah-ha," Mara pointed a finger at him. "You forgot about the two scouting around in the woods."
Luke was silent. He titled his head upwards again, sensed out, and then smiled to himself. "Ah?oops. Must have missed them."
"Any around this section?" Pace inquired.
"Not yet," Mara replied.
"Okay, you four," Pace continued, pointing at various people, "you're coming with me. We'll check out the West Side of the station." He motioned a hand to Luke and Mara. "Jedi Skywalker," he referred to Mara, "I want you to take Traya, Chadal, and Scofe with you. Check out the East Side. And, Master Skywalker," Pace seemed almost reluctant. He blew out a breath, and then placed a hand on Ross' shoulder. "I want you to take Ross to the North Wing. We have only one slicer with us. If we lose him?" he didn't bother to finish the statement. Silently, he removed his hand off Ross, and nodded his head to the members of his group. With that, they vacated with their commander.
With that, Mara glanced at her group, and opened her hands to them. "Well, no sense standing here like stormtroopers. Let's go." They started off, but as Mara rounded the first corner, she called out to her husband, Good luck, Skywalker.
Good luck to you as well, Luke replied and then glanced at Ross. The boy was undisputedly nervous, but the determination in his stare could not be alleviated. Luke gave him a smile. "You ready to go?"
With that, Ross offered a grin of his own. "Any chance of flying there?"
Luke's smile dropped. "No."
"Oh, never mind, then. I'm ready."
It didn't take long to find trouble. Falleen were humanoid, but even through the Force, their characteristics?their sense?wasn't like anything a human would exude. The presence sent warning bells in Mara's head instantly.
"Two Falleen," she whispered to the others beside her, "coming this way from the right."
The other crewmember's weapons bounced from their holsters as if stationed on springs. Mara immediately snatched away the closest blaster to her, which stunned everyone. "Hold down," she informed, and tossed the weapon back to its owner. "I can handle this."
"How?" Chadal asked.
A tiny smirk crinkled the edge of Mara's lips. Then, she began to walk.. The others, not sure what else to do, accompanied her. To them, they were following a crazy Force-user into a suicide mission. Mara could sense their fears. Nevertheless, as the Falleen turned the corner, Mara was already set in the Force.
She had seen Luke pull off the trick on a Star Destroyer while attempting to rescue her former boss, Talon Karrde. It wasn't so much a mind trick as merely calming the enemy's emotions. Instead of using words, Mara merely imagined that she and the other members of her group were nothing more than officers in the station. Normal Falleen walking by in the halls. The image transferred to the Falleen as they walked passed. Talking to themselves, they didn't even give Mara and the others an upward glance.
Turning a corner, Mara stopped and twisted back to her group. "See? That wasn't so bad."
Chadal merely exhaled as if she had been holding it for the entire time. Giving Mara a sharp stare, she declared, "A little forewarning would be courteous, you realize?"
With that, Mara smiled. "I'll remember that the next time."
Chadal frowned. "Next time?"
"Yep. There's another Falleen coming down the way. He'll be in this hall in about ten more seconds."
The lights in the station were dark?many burnt out, and dim. It was certainly an advantage Matic Pace was enjoying. The first Falleen didn't even see his group coming. He walked by without a care in the world. Pace would have allowed him to pass if he hadn't looked up from his datapad and spotted them.
Pace had already been ready. Blaster set for stun, he fired. It created some noise?the blaster itself, and then the unconscious body's fall. No alarms sounded. Everything was just as much at peace as it had been a moment before.
The second Falleen was a little more difficult. He noticed them before they even had their blasters ready; he was pulling out a comlink when Matic shot him. The comlink was never activated.
They hid the bodies in various rooms that were fortunately empty. Datapad out, they continued to trek through the wing, but to no avail. Very annoying, indeed.
"What else can you do?" Ross asked from Luke's side as they continued their venture.
They had passed two Falleen in the hallway, chitchatting about this and that. Luke had used the Force to disguise him and Ross; the two aliens hadn't registered them as anything more than shadows on the wall.
Ross had been nervous at first, but after the incident, the only emotion blaring through him was wonder. He stayed by Luke's side like a little lost animal that followed strangers on a street. And, talked. It was quiet, but through the old Imperial station, the slicer's voice carried like a cymbal hitting tiled floor.
"I heard you guys can create Force-storms," Ross continued, giving no regard to their direction, "with lightening and Force-wind, almost like a tornado. That true?"
"Uh," Luke sensed out for any nearby Falleen. There was the slightest brush of alertness through the Force. He shook his head at Ross. "Not normally. It depends on the situation."
"Oh," Ross blinked as if confused. "You think you'll have to do it sometime during the mission?"
"Hopefully not," Luke replied, keeping his senses on alert. Something was there?
"You know," Ross spoke casually, "I have a cousin that seems to know it's going to rain the night before a big storm. You think he's Force-sensitive?"
There was a presence coming down the way?Falleen, and yet?
"How can you tell someone is Force-sensitive, anyway?" Ross asked again. "I mean, when I was younger, I could balance a hypersprayer on my thumb for over ten minutes. That's not normal."
"Ross," Luke finally whispered, and threw a firm stare at the younger man. The slicer's eyes widened as if recouping from a trance. Taking in a breath, Luke replied gently, "I can test you later if you want. It takes half a minute. I'll even watch your hypersprayer trick. Just not now."
"Oh," Ross gave an affirming nod. "Okay. I'll be quiet."
With that, Luke turned his senses outward again. The presence was closer, turning?
"Here," Luke exclaimed, and un-holstered his blaster. "Take this."
"What?" A puzzling look sparked Ross' face as he grabbed the blaster. "Why?"
Luke didn't have time to explain. The Jedi Master dashed to the intersection of the hallway, stretching out with the Force?with his own judgments. They felt right.
The Falleen circled the corner. When Luke had first sensed her, he had expected to pull off his typical mind-clouding trick. She would have strolled by without another look to them. Yet, there was something instinctive carrying him on. He couldn't deny that.
She didn't see his attack. Luke already had her arm before she could complete her turn, gripping tight. She shouted, trying desperately to escape his hold. Kicking and twisting, she was like an insane Tuskin Raider who had just been caught by farmers. With a swing of her hand, she yanked out the knife at her thigh. Grasping her wrist, Luke rammed his palm into her clenched fingers like he would a piece of wood. She cried out, and the knife flew across the hallway.
A second later, Luke had her secure. Blaster dangling from her belt, she could not pull it out. With his left hand, he was able to hold both her arms behind her back. Her mouth was sufficiently covered with his right. Any more attempts to scream would be in vain.
Ross gazed in unreserved shock. The blaster in his right hand was trembling.
"I want you to listen to me," Luke told the woman. He stretched out with the Force, and pushed it at her mind. There were several factors running through her emotions. There was confusion, irritation, and most of all, anger. Softly, Luke spoke again into her thoughts, "Calm yourself, and listen. I need to find the main database for this station. Tell me where it is."
She didn't seem interested in informing Luke of anything. She stepped on his foot, sending a jolt of pain up to his ankle. He winced, holding tight to her as she jumped up in an attempt to get away.
"Master Skywalker?" Ross expressed, lifting the blaster.
"No," Luke replied, and gave Ross a sharp stare. "Everything's fine. Right?"
Already exhausted, the Falleen woman slowly nodded.
There was no doubt; a mind trick wouldn't work on her. Her mind was too complex and alert?she was ready for anything he might try. Slowly, Luke dropped his hand to her throat, holding it gently.
He spoke again, "I'm not going to hurt you. I just need to know where the database is. That's it."
"Oh, of course," she replied hoarsely, sarcasm dripping off her words like drool from a Gamorrean?s mouth. "I tell you, and you'll just let go. We'll shake hands, and go our separate ways. Right?"
Luke bit the inside of his lip. Things had abruptly become more complicated than necessary. There was no logical need to attack the woman, but it had felt so right. Luke glanced at Ross. The slicer seemed unsure what to do. He shrugged at Luke.
"Well?" the woman questioned.
Defeated, Luke released her. She seemed stunned by the move, and then twisted as if to escape. As Luke held her tightly with the Force, her hopes to flee declined quickly. She tried to move, pulling at her legs, but finally gave up and frowned at him. "You're that Jedi Master, aren't you?"
She sneered at him. "I was wondering when one of you were going to show up. You won't make it out of here alive. I'm warning you now."
"The main database," Luke inquired again.
The Falleen woman gestured a hand outwards toward the hallway she had just ventured from. "This way, kind sir. You'll be dead before you'll be able to decode it. Will that be a problem?"
You did what, Skywalker? were the only words Mara could form in her mind. It was true through the Force, words did not transfer from one mind to another as they did through mouths. The emotions were direct, however, and their meanings were vivid. There was no doubt in Mara?s mind. Her husband was nuts.
She was turning the corner, and I grabbed her. It was like a reflex. That?s the only way I can describe it.
"Jedi Skywalker," Chadal?s voice interrupted her thoughts, "we need to move."
"Just one more second," she replied, and then stretched out through the Force. A reflex, huh?
A very odd reflex, he replied.
A layer of goosebumps formed on Mara?s arms. Normally, when her husband or any Jedi had a reflex from the Force, it ended up leading to some wild events. Unconsciously, Mara rested a hand on top of her lightsaber hilt.
We?re heading to the West Wing of the station, Luke called to her.
Mara smiled. Commander Pace might become angered at your failure to follow his orders, sir.
Commander Pace will just have to live with it, Luke insisted. This Falleen?Fhamir?she?s not lying to me, Mara. It?s possible Pace will find the database before we will.
All right, we?re coming, Mara replied, and then turned to the crewmembers around her.
Tapping her foot, Chadal asked, "Well?"
With that, Mara arched her eyebrows playfully at the woman. "Time for a detour."
"Please tell me you know what you?re doing," Ross said from Luke?s side.
The Falleen woman, Fhamir, marched beside Luke. Her pace was just as fast as theirs?even casual. There was no fear flowing from her emotions. In all essence, she seemed indifferent.
Luke gave her a funny look, but didn?t mutter a word. He turned to Ross. "Everything?s fine. Trust me."
"I trust you," the slicer replied, and then motioned his head to Fhamir. "It?s her I?m worried about."
Luke decided not to respond. He kept his attention on the Falleen woman. Her movements?expressions. He reached out with the Force. Her presence was almost?dim. It was as if she were dead from sensation?like all the life in her had been zapped out.
They followed her through the hallways of the ancient station. Passing Falleen after Falleen, none gave an upward glimpse. Luke made sure Fhamir did not alert them to their presence, but she didn?t even attempt for escape. She led in silence, no more protests emanating from her mouth.
It took a few more minutes, wandering from section to section, but as they ventured closer to the West Wing?s corner, Luke could sense it. There wasn?t much power being generated, but the Force rippled up his back as they moved closer. He glanced at Ross and his datapad. The slicer was grinning.
They arrived at the room. On the corner of the West Wing, it had no windows and only one door. Covered with dirt from the outside and mold on its corner, there was little doubt the place hadn?t seen much care. There was sketches all over the walls which appeared almost like children's' scribbles. They too were cloaked with fungi, and it reeked as if a Hutt had gotten sick in there. Luke's nose twitched. Silently, Fhamir walked to the far right side of the room, and reclined against it with her ankles crossed. Luke and Ross hurried to the database by the room?s wall. Ross had been right. The system couldn?t have been bigger than the Falcon?s main computer.
The slicer immediately started to work on the console. His fingers skipped on the buttons with as much skill as Luke swung his lightsaber.
Luke turned to the Falleen. "I don?t suppose you would be kind enough to give us the access codes."
She cocked her head to the side. "You?re the Jedi. Why don?t you slice my head open with your lightsaber, and find it?"
Not the reply I was hoping for, Luke thought and pulled out his comlink. His commander's voice fizzled through an instant later.
"Matic Pace," the other man called. "What is it?"
"We?ve found the main database," Luke informed him.
The other man paused; he breathed into the comlink, and then questioned, "Well, where are you, precisely? We?ll catch up."
"West Wing?s far corner."
There was a gasp, and then, "Skywalker, I?"
"We also have a guest with us," Luke continued, staring at Fhamir. The woman glared, shook her head, and averted her eyes to the wall.
Pace seemed just as amused as the Falleen. He roared into the comlink, "You took a hostage?"
"We needed to find the database. She knew where it was. It seemed practical."
"You don?t guess what?s practical. That?s my job, Jedi!"
"Yell at me later, please. We need to regroup and get out of here as soon as Ross is done."
Although enraged, Pace seemed to take consideration with that one. "All right," he finally gave in. "All right, we?re coming. But, this isn?t over, Skywalker. I will be making a report."
The comlink shut off. Luke happily placed it back on his belt, and then went back to Ross.
The slicer frowned at him sympathetically. "Sounds mad, doesn?t he?"
Luke casually wrapped his arms behind his back. "He?ll calm down. I think becoming angry is just his way."
"Maybe he should take some meditation classes from you."
"He would hyperventilate before the first hour was over."
Ross' expression softened; he went back to his work. Luke observed for a moment, sensing the strange bits of time ticking oddly in his mind. The Force was rippling. He shot a glance at Fhamir. The Falleen woman leered.
She never returned to bed. It wasn?t the first time Fhamir trailed through the station all night without sleep. In fact, with the current state of her crew and the mission in general, when she received a few hours per night, Jeire was happy. Unfortunately, it didn?t appear that night would be one of the better ones.
Jeire had been lounging in bed with his eyes open like a translator droid. Finally sick of waiting, he removed himself from the sheets, and set out to find his beloved.
"Has anyone seen Queen Fhamir?" he asked some of the Falleen on patrol.
"She was heading toward the West Wing," they replied and continued their shift.
Curious, Jeire proceeded down the hallway of the North Wing, scanning the hall. Fhamir?s patrol never involved the West Wing. She always roamed near the North and East, close to her courtiers. How odd?
From the way the hall lights hit its surface, it resembled a shard of glass glimmering in moonlight. Narrowing his eyebrows, Jeire paced closer until he was able to pick up the item with his fingers. As he did, every bone in his body locked.
It was a knife.
A handcrafted knife.
There were carvings on it, similar to the ones on the station's walls.
Jeire had come across the dagger during their first day in the station.
He had presented it to Fhamir as a gift.
She never left it behind.
"Fhamir," he muttered, gaping at the knife.
His mind didn?t require time to react. Clasping the dagger, Jeire snatched out his comlink. He didn?t bother calling his love. It was already too late for that. Instead, he signaled for the rest of the commanding officers.
"This is Commander Jeire. We have intruders in the West Wing of the station. Wake the troops, and get them ready. I don?t want any of them to escape here alive."
The blaze of awareness froze Mara in place. The Falleen were waking, and the tension in the air was mounting like wild fire. They knew. Somehow, they had discovered them.
Mara spun to the others in her group. Many seemed taken aback by her sudden movements; Mara already had her lightsaber pulled. "Everyone take out your blasters. Traya, call Commander Pace and tell him?," she hesitated and then panted a breath. "Tell him this mission has just gotten a lot more complicated."
"Stay here, Ross," Luke told the slicer flatly.
Without another word, he removed his lightsaber from his belt and held it loosely in his grasp. Ross? mouth dropped at that; his emotions raced up the charts with concern.
He tossed a look over his shoulder. "What?s happening?"
Mara?, Luke called out, but his wife seemed ready for him.
I feel it?I feel it, she told him. They?re all getting up and about. Blasters, daggers?someone alerted them.
With that, Luke cast an eye at Fhamir. The Falleen remained still by the wall as if she were at a boring lecture. Her glare refused to ease. Luke didn?t need to ask her. He already knew she hadn?t found a way to contact anyone.
The curiosity grew in him, but Luke shifted it aside. It didn?t matter. The present was the only thing that did. And, at that instant, the present had too much going on to be distracted by futile things.
Luke marched to Fhamir and grabbed her by the arm. Without a word, he pulled her from the room. He spotted one more stare from Ross. Shutting the door, Luke replied, "Just decode the database, Ross. Leave the rest to us."
He closed the door. Igniting his lightsaber, Luke gently tapped the edge of the thick slab of metal with the green blade?s tip. The steel melted instantly, forming a seal around the door. Short of a detonator or lightsaber, the door was sufficiently in place.
Fhamir opened her hands to him. "Is it time to kill me now?"
Luke slouched his shoulders. "Why does everyone always think that?"
Her mouth dropped. Luke didn?t allow her the luxury to question him. The move was swift; she couldn't have endured any pain. His right arm flew up with his lightsaber. The hilt scrapped the back of her skull in one smooth swing. She didn?t cry out. Her long black hair waved in the air like a calm Ithorian ocean. Silently, she collapsed, her expression displaying the first hint of serenity Luke had seen on her. Swiftly, Luke lifted her, and placed her in a nearby room. She lay there, breathing in and out as if dreaming about something peaceful.
Wasting no more time, Luke closed the room?s door and began to run. Mara was rushing his way, and already he could hear the blaster fire rock the station like colliding asteroids. He belted around a corner and continued forward.
Well, isn't this just peachy.
It was as if every Falleen in the station was telepathically linked. Each bolted out of their rooms with the energy of three TIE fighters. Blasters charged and daggers out, they stampeded toward them with their eyes blazing in determination.
Matic switched his blaster from stun to its highest level. His four men behind him, the shooting began without hesitation. The Falleen aimed, fired?
The four men behind Matic became three.
"Move!" Matic screamed.
There were at least ten Falleen now, shoving them back?shooting with anger drenching their features.
Matic was overwhelmingly outnumbered, but he had good aim.
He concentrated?calmed his nerves. Fired.
A Falleen screamed and stumbled to the floor. Dust puffed up into the hallway, slowing down the Falleen.
Matic fired again.
Again, one of them dropped.
"We have to retreat!" one of his crew cried.
"No kidding!" Matic shouted back, annoyed.
Keeping his eyes secured to the Falleen, Matic and the others whisked around a corner. Their pursuers were hasty to follow.
It almost felt like racing in a marathon. Mara and the others were running fast, but the Falleen were right behind.
"Can't you do your mind-cloaking trick?" Chadal questioned.
"Too many?too alert," Mara replied.
They were getting close?almost in firing position.
"Everyone get behind me!" Mara screamed.
Lightsaber in one hand, blaster in the other, she lashed around. At the other end of the hall, The Falleen came into view?
Mara already had one down before he could raise his weapon.
The others reeled back from their fallen comrade, and aimed their weapons at Mara?
Mara waited, consuming herself with the Force. In the front, three Falleen pulled smaller pistols from their boots, similar to the types Mara had encountered inside the Bakuran cantina. The others began to fire with their own blasters. Surprisingly, they shot at the crew to Mara's sides.
With a skilled twist, Mara caught the blasts without an awkward step. The blue glow of her husband's old blade flashed through the dim Imperial station with so much speed it appeared more like a field of light than a line.
She continued to watch the three Falleen in front. They loaded their weapons as the other Falleen covered them.
What in the worlds? she thought to herself, but then pushed it aside.
She would realize what they were doing very soon, anyway.
There were eleven in total. Three, however, lay unconscious on the ground.
The green glow of Luke's blade slashed through the night. The blaster bolts were deflected the same direction they had sprung. There was no hesitant move?no wrong twirl. The Force guided him; his instincts were doing most of the work.
Nonetheless, through the ringing blasts, Luke couldn't help but notice the shots were not directed at his chest or head. They were attempting to get him down, not kill him.
Through the corner of his eye, he noted the few Falleen to the side, desperately attempting to load dart pistols as they awaited his attack.
He frowned, and deflected the bolts away.
"You heard me!" Fhamir screamed into her comlink as she attempted to hold her consciousness. She didn't know how long she'd been out, but the agonizing ache from her skull was all she required to know it couldn't have been long. Lying on the ground, she still couldn't find the will to sit up.
"Where are you?" Jeire shouted through the comlink again.
"There are Jedi in the station!" she shrieked. "I'm fine. I'm fine, I'm fine?just get them. You know what our master said!"
He seemed reluctant to leave it at that, but finally said, "Yes, my queen."
It was the last response Fhamir registered. Eyes rolling back, she slumped over again on the room's dusty metal floor.
The tiny pistol in the Falleen's hand shot out at Mara. With only a tiny whistle, the projectile soared at her as if just another blaster bolt in the line of many. Curious, Mara dropped her blaster to the ground, lowering her saber. She lifted her empty hand?
The projectile came to an unnerving halt as Mara trapped it in her grasp. Gripping it, she was able to get on solid look before having to go back into battle. It was a dart. At its end was a thin capsule filled with clear liquid.
Mara's senses shrilled as she brought her lightsaber up to catch the next dart. It was so hot, the blade obliterated the entire piece within a second. With each passing moment, however, her heart quickened.
Luke? she called out. Luke?
The Jedi Master didn't need his wife's voice to tell him something was wrong. The darts flew at him like wild banthas. The blaster bolts were mixed with the other weapons; everyone had pulled pistols from the belts. Every Falleen was using it along with their typical weaponry.
Through the firing, there was only one thing Luke could hear his wife say.
They're trying to infect us.
"What?" Matic Pace shouted out through his comlink.
He and his crew were far enough away to easily avoid the Falleen's fire, but even his disciplined body was beginning to throb.
"I think there's a fail-safe device on this system," Ross came back instantly. "It's old Imperial, and I?"
Matic groaned. "Can you decode the system?"
"Well, yes, but?,"
"Decode it, Ross! They've already been alerted to us. What else can they do?"
"Yes?yes, sir. I'm on it."
With that, Matic switched his comlink's channel. Instantly, there was a reply. "Chadal here."
"Where the hell are you?" he frantically shouted.
"We're heading down the main access corridor of the West Wing," she yelled back over the rumble of blaster fire. "Sir, they're throwing darts at us."
"Diseased projectiles," Chadal informed. "Almost ten of them now. I think they're trying to infect us. Is that possible?"
"The vaccine only works for the airborne virus!" Matic shouted back. "Any other forms and it's no good!"
"Great," she hissed, and then nothing.
A blaster bolt rushed by his head. Matic flinched, and shot a glance at the burning hole in the side of the wall. He frowned, spinning back to his opponents. Another group of Falleen had joined the others in pursuit. There were at least twenty now. Goody.
Matic and his crew continued to run as they fired at their pursuers. Through that time, only one emotion was surging from Matic?confusion. No Falleen had attempted to poison him or the other crewmembers with him. No darts. No disease.
It didn't make sense.
The station shook with impacts of blasters and screams from the dying. Ross kept his eyes on the database. The codes were all but organized; the encryption slowly shifting to Basic. The fail-safe didn't seem to be doing anything.
His datapad was ready to be filled.
There was a ripple through the Force. Three Falleen circled Luke, attempting desperately to put him down. Nonetheless, Luke's concentration broke. The Force was joggling him like a fist crashing into his temples. It was distant and yet?
Luke flashed a glimpse at the end of the hallway?at the lightsaber-melted door, where Ross was decoding the Falleen's database.
Luke's heart began to pound.
Sweat formed on his brow.
Something, beyond the Falleen, wasn't right.
That wasn't logical, of course. The only danger to Ross would be the Falleen. And, Luke was holding them back?
?Fhamir lifted a hand. "This way, kind sir. You'll be dead before you'll be able to decode it. Will that be a problem?"
A new energy consumed him; Luke wheeled back to the Falleen. He had attempted to put them down without killing them, deflecting their own bolts back their way. He no longer possessed the time.
Using the Force, Luke pushed himself. With the wind directed at his body, the shove brought him and the Falleen within inches of each other. None of them expected it. None of them had time to react.
Luke's lightsaber twirled. He cut one of the Falleen's pistols in two, and then he threw the other being hard against the station's wall. The others met with Luke's blade; their bodies remained standing even after their heads had completed rolling down the hallway.
With that, Luke yanked his comlink from his belt. "Ross!" he hollered as he raced back to the room. "Ross?pick up your comlink!"
Static filled the comlink and then Ross came through, "What?oh, hi, Master Skywalker. Where are you?"
"Stop decoding the system!" Luke screamed.
"But, I'm almost done," the slicer replied, the faint noise of typing in the background. "I think this is it, sir. I think the information?"
"No!" Luke shouted back. "Stop right now, Ross! Stop!"
"I can't! It was a direct order!" Ross said, more irritated. "It'll just take another?"
A scream resounded through the comlink. Then, there was nothing.
"Ross!" Luke cried.
He reached the door. Lightsaber ignited, he slashed through it like a knife to a blade of grass, and shoved the heavy metal out of his way.
It was too late. The keyboard to the database was still fuming. Ross' body lay motionless by its side. Even from the door, Luke could see the smoke still waving up from Ross' arms.
And, there, dangling from the cable cord of the computer, was Ross' datapad. Quietly, calmly, filling with data.
Three were left. Matic had watched his other crewmember drop. Withering on the ground from the blaster shot to his hip, the Falleen were quick to put him out of his misery. Matic had shot four, perhaps even five Falleen by himself. They continued to pursue, however. There was no stopping them.
This game was running out of places to go. And, through it all, there was no showing for Mara Jade or Luke Skywalker. Blasted Jedi.
The three of them rushed around a corner, firing into the mess of Falleen. Matic no longer aimed. The hallway was so cramped with enemies, not hitting one was difficult.
"Sir!" the crewmember beside him shouted and stopped.
Grabbing Matic's arm, they all halted and peered forward.
At least seven Falleen stood at the end of the hallway, their backs facing Matic and his crew. The other pursuing Falleen swiftly caught up.
"Come on!" Matic screamed, pointing his blaster.
To his surprise, the blaster bolt soared past the Falleen in front of them?and somehow bounced back his way. Gasping, he hit the floor as the blast soared into the other crowd of Falleen behind him.
"What just happened?" he yelled as the others yanked him from the ground.
Instead of fear, however, both crewmen's faces were smiling.
Even between the blaster fire, the glow of her lightsaber slashed up and down, its light swerving with so much speed, it seemed almost like it was a pen leaving a signature in the air. A similar grin grew upon Matic's face; immediately, all three dashed down the hallway, the other Falleen promptly following.
"Breathe, Ross," Luke muttered to himself.
The life was there. It was faint?so terribly dull?but there. Yet, his body didn't want to inhale. His heart was barely able to grant a beat.
Knelt beside him, Luke released himself to the Force. He pushed...not at the slicer's lungs, but his mind, attempting to wake it. The boy was so burnt, even his legs had suffered the shock.
That was what Fhamir had meant?what she had almost warned them about. The database itself was a trap. Its fail safe wasn't an alarm or shut off; it was an electronic shock. One that was meant to kill whoever attempted to hack in.
"Please, Ross," Luke spoke again, and shut his eyes.
The Force was strong, but so was the damage. Placing a hand gently on the boy's forehead, Luke pushed again.
Mara felt the ache from her husband, and knew something terrible had occurred. Nonetheless, her hands were too busy, and her mind too set to attempt communicating with him.
Through the Force, she bounced the bolts back where they had originated from. From the Falleen, two shots had made it past her minutes before; one ended up striking Chadal in the arm. Tough, the other woman brushed off the injury as if it were a splinter and continued to fire.
It was then Mara caught sight of the other crewmembers. Matic was in the lead as the three ran to them with another pack of Falleen shortly behind. Speeding down the hall, one of the Falleen was fortunate again. To Matic Pace's right, one of the other two crewmembers fell, his chest smoking.
The seven Falleen in front of the Mara noticed Pace and the other man. They turned, and twisted their blasters away?
Mara smirked to herself. It was just the opportunity she needed.
Leaping into the air, she dropped in the middle of the seven Falleen. They attempted to spin back to her, but Mara never allowed a good advantage to be squandered. Circling her saber from the right and left, two in the group screamed as she cut them down.
Desperate, one charged her with a dagger. Her wrist pistol in her left hand, she caught the knife with its barrel, and then lifted her saber. The Falleen tumbled back, his chest crossed with one solid charcoal crease.
Another attempted to shoot her hand; it was close enough, and Mara merely kicked the blaster from his grip, soared around, and caught him hard in the chest with her other leg. He staggered backwards, landing hard against the metal wall.
Matic and the other crewmember met with Chadal and the rest of them seconds later. Mara looked at him. "Where are the others?"
"Dead," he replied, and pointed down the hall.
Mara followed his finger.
"Oh, blast it," she said to herself and raised her saber up to attack position.
Carefully, Fhamir opened her eyes. The room swirled for a moment; the gray from the walls was merging with the gray on the ceiling. Nevertheless, as she began to breathe, her vision finally focused.
She sat up.
The pain at the back of her head was unfathomable. It felt like the Jedi Master had sliced a part of it out with his saber. Of course, the miracle wasn't that Fhamir was conscious. The miracle was that she was alive at all.
He hadn't killed her. He had all the chances in the universe, and yet?
Fhamir rolled her eyes up to the ceiling, and then calmly got her feet under her. Gingerly, she removed herself from the empty room.
It was a strained breath, rasped and resonating with agony; Luke could almost feel it in his own lungs. Nonetheless, with another throbbing inhale, Ross finally unshut his eyes.
Luke smiled gently.
With a painful wince, Ross attempted to open his mouth.
"Stay still," Luke told him softly. "Just focus on your breathing. Calm?"
The misery on the boy's face was unbearable. Fear?reality?it seemed to stab him like a Rancor bite. With it, two small tears emerged from his eyes. Even those seemed to hurt the slicer's face.
"You need to relax," Luke said again, pushing with the Force. Ross was exceptionally smart, but in his weakened state, Luke doubted any influence to his mind would be a problem. Placing a hand on the boy's forehead again, Luke told him, "Relax, Ross. Simply breathe and relax. There is no pain. There are no worries. Relax."
The words echoed in Luke's mind; watching as the slicer's tense body eased, his eyes dry, it was clear they had in Ross' mind as well.
With that, Luke stood up. He stretched out with the Force. Mara?
There was nothing.
He felt her urgency, her determined nature flowing through the walls of the station. He called out again, Mara?
Luke! she called, almost like a yell. Where are you? We need you here!
Ross has been injured, Luke replied.
She hesitated, but then replied, Matic's lost three men. Chadal is injured, and I haven't been able to move a step in five minutes. Luke, I can't keep this up.
Huffing out a breath, Luke turned to the injured boy on the floor. His eyes were still partly opened, but in a daze. If he was aware of anything at that moment, even Luke wasn?t aware.
I'm coming, he told her through the Force.
Kneeling down to Ross once more, Luke whispered, "I'll be back. I promise you."
The slicer's face didn?t react. He was entranced by his own calm blankness.
With that, Luke hurried to the datapad overhanging the computer's corner, unplugged it, and attached the thing to his belt. He darted to the door. Calmly, he turned back after exiting and lifted a hand. Through the Force, the metal door floated up. It slid back to its position by the door's frame; as he did before, Luke sealed its sides with his saber.
Extinguishing the blade, Luke ran down the hallway of the ancient Imperial station.
Chadal continued firing, but as her face became more like chalk, Matic knew it was time for her to put the blaster down. Matic graciously took it, complimenting the one already in his right hand. He maintained his stance.
The Falleen, still over a dozen, were too stubborn to back off, even with the Jedi in their path. A few, herding through the hallways, came to aid their comrades. It felt like the battle would never end.
"Is he coming or not?" Matic shouted to Mara, about a foot behind her.
There was only enough time for her to give him one solid glare before twisting back to the fight. Twirling her saber in one circle to catch two red sparks, she yelled back, "He must have forgotten how to do his Jedi-teleporting-trick, Pace. Just shoot straight ahead, and keep quiet, all right?"
Shaking his head at the Jedi woman, Matic frowned, but did as instructed.
Minutes went by. Seconds being shaved away?tick tick tick.
And, then, as if guided by some spontaneous decree, Mara Jade Skywalker jumped at the Falleen. Lightsaber slashing, she went into them with a ferocious zeal that even stunned Matic. The Falleen were quick to look her way as she danced about, slicing through one, and then another. Still, there were so many. Some were too busy with her to notice Matic and the others.
Some were not.
About five stepped forward, lifting their weapons as Matic and his crew lifted theirs?
The bright green glow of Luke Skywalker's blade deflected the first bolt headed Matic's direction. The saber was so close to the commander's face, he could hear as the red streak from the Falleen's weapon sizzled on the beaming rod's edge. The harsh stench of ozone waved up his nostrils as if attempting to plunge into his stomach. Matic's heart quickened, but the relief in his gut almost melted his tense muscle into goo.
The Jedi Master stepped to where his wife had once been. The Falleen seemed to notice; more whirled his way, their tiny pistols ready. Skywalker deflected the first dart, and stepped closer to them; immediately, they inched back.
In front of them, Mara was too busy to even glance at Matic or her husband.
Her eyes were focused, her blade stationed to her side and ready for any strike. Immediately, one Falleen charged at her with a dart in his hand; moving hardly a step, the Jedi glided out of his way, lifting a foot as he charged past. It was almost comical, watching the Falleen man tumble over her raised ankle. The movement crashed him directly into the nearby wall.
Mara turned back to the other Falleen merely a heartbeat later, hoisting her blade.
From the sidelines, Matic and a crewmember fired out. Another, Traya, was beside Chadal, holding her arm to keep in as much blood as possible.
It was another minute later, but as the lightsabers? blades hummed peacefully throughout the station's quiet hallway, Matic lowered his blasters to the ground.
From behind him, one of the crew members commented, "That certainly worked."
"Yes," was Matic's only reply.
Cocking an eyebrow as the Jedi Master deactivated his saber, Matic walked up to him. "Where's Ross?" he asked.
A strange look shadowed Skywalker's features. No one needed the Force to recognize it. Matic's stomach tightened.
The Jedi Master merely explained, "The database sent out an electric shock. It caught him completely in its path?"
"Where the hell were you?"
Skywalker hesitated, the glint in his eyes brightening with speculation. "I was outside, guarding the hallway. He's alive, but we need to get him out of here."
With that, Matic clenched his jaw; his teeth ached. He glared at the Jedi Master. "I asked you for one thing. One thing! Protect our slicer. That was it. How could you let this happen? Huh, Master Jedi?"
The Jedi's expression shifted. It wasn't anger or bitterness, but more of a sharp seriousness Matic had never seen before. The commander could recall politicians talking about Skywalker's almost haunting presence in the Senate Hall. Suddenly, Matic understood the statement.
"He told me he was following orders," Skywalker came back, staring Matic down even from his shorter disposition. "I assume you talked to him, then?"
Matic's mouth opened, but he didn?t conjure a word.
"He told me he wasn't allowed to stop."
With that, Matic merely turned his gaze the other way.
Huffing out a breath, Skywalker came back, "Sometimes, you can't predict the unforeseen, sir. Sometimes, neither can I. You understand?"
Truly, Matic didn't, but he nodded anyway.
Skywalker returned his nod, and then twisted to his wife. Sweaty and exhausted, she embraced him. Skywalker spoke quietly to her for a second; her expression hardened.
Silently, Skywalker pulled out a datapad from his belt, and handed it to his wife.
Matic cocked at eyebrow. "What's that?"
"Whatever Ross was copying," the Jedi Master replied. "I think she would be the best person to carry it."
Holding his lightsaber in one hand, Skywalker replied, "I told you, he's alive. We still have some time. I'm going back for him."
"Like hell you are," Matic barked, staring eye-to-eye with the other man. "This is my mission. My crew. If you're going, then I'm coming along."
Skywalker was already shaking his head. "I don't think that's such a good?"
"I don?t care what you think about it," Matic shot back. "My mission?my crew. My friend. Clear?"
Skywalker gave a tight, but unpleasant grin. He blinked at Matic, but bowed his head. With that, he turned to Mara. "We'll be done shortly."
"Then, why are you giving this to me?" she asked, waving the datapad in her hands.
"You can make a direct exit to the roof by the main hallway," Skywalker replied, placing his hands on her shoulders. "I don't want to take a chance with our detour."
Licking her lips nervously, she nodded at him. With a nudge of the head, she instructed the rest of the crew to follow her. Weakly, Chadal managed to get to her feet.
They began to walk. With a hand on her hips, the Jedi's wife observed as they all shuffled past her. She started to follow?
The movement was so swift, Matic hardly noticed until it was over. Almost instinctively, Skywalker grabbed his wife by the arm. The energy of his movement seemed to catch Mara off guard; instead of merely stepping back around, she lost her footing and ended up in his arms. The Jedi Master didn't seem to care. Without a word, he placed his lips on hers, lifting a hand to press against her hair.
Matic gazed on quietly. Skywalker held his wife; she seemed more confused than flattered or shocked. After another moment, he released her, and peered into her eyes.
"I love you," he said, the words seeming to spill from his mouth. "You realize that, right?"
To Matic's surprise, she snorted a laugh, both eyebrows narrowed at him. "Are you going nuts? I'll see you in ten minutes."
"Of course. I was just wondering."
Mara's dazzling features sobered. She frowned at him. "You're not planning on doing something unorthodox?are you, Skywalker?"
He didn't smile at her question. Normally, Matic had noticed that the couple had an annoying tendency to tease each other. Skywalker wasn't teasing this time. Quietly holding her, he merely replied, "Get to the roof, Mara. I'll see you soon."
She pulled away from his arms, gazing at him with a worry she hadn't possessed before. Shooting a look at Matic, she only said, "Just?make sure he doesn't do anything foolish, all right?"
Matic merely blinked, surprised. After a short second, he gave a wary nod.
She turned back to Skywalker. "You see? If you do, I will find out. Eventually."
With that, she gave him one quick kiss on the mouth, and then walked away to be with the crew. Silently, the Jedi Master's eyes twisted to Matic; there was something grave in them that snared the commander?s attention. Almost as if there was an unknown will within the Jedi's realm of understanding that was lost to Matic. That thought bestowed absolutely no comfort.
"Let's go," Skywalker instructed, and walked past Matic and the pile of Falleen bodies covering the ground.
The hallway was quiet in that part of the station. Falleen ran past in the distance as they attempted to reach their enemies. Queen Fhamir merely wandered forward, the thumping in her head somehow reverberating down her entire body.
Breathing slowly, she arrived at the end of her venture, and she peeked up at the door. She gasped. The edges were still melted shut, the metal congealed to the frame like burnt soup to a rusted pot.
Placing a hand on the door to the database, Fhamir merely stared at it?
The venture to the station's database was nothing more than a continuous blood bath. Luke attempted to create as little damage as possible, but Ross' presence in the Force was wavering. He didn't have the time to be merciful.
Pace had no intention to try, either. With all the blind hate fluctuating through him, it was clear the thought of compassion hadn't passed his mind. He aimed and fired with as much satisfaction as Luke had once possessed shooting at womp-rats in his youth. It was unnerving?certainly distracting. Pace's emotions made it feel as if the Falleen were shooting ice shards at them instead of laser beams.
Luke ignored him to the best of his ability and continued their pursuit. From one side to the other, the Falleen were becoming a more solid wall in their pathway; Luke's confidence was beginning to shudder. In front of him, there were at least a dozen Falleen?to his back, another ten.
Matic attempted to stay between Luke and the wall. He avoided the blaster fire and shot back rounds himself, but all he truly did was force Luke to remain slow and consistent. No leaping. No swinging. If Luke attacked one group, the other one would kill the commander before Luke could complete the first strike.
Once again, Luke desperately wished the other man wasn't so damn stubborn.
"How far away are we?" Matic asked, and fired off his blaster.
"Down the hall?to the right," Luke replied, deflecting three shots away from his legs, two from Matic's head.
With that, Matic's gaze clapped into Luke's. "Will we make it that far?"
A dart flew from nowhere. The Force shrilled with an urgency that would have caused most men to topple. Gasping, the Jedi Master jerked his head to one side, the tiny projectile flying by his neck so closely, the larger end brushed by his skin. Frantically, he brought a hand up to check. There was no injury?.no puncture.
Relief would have to wait, however. Two more darts soared into the air, rushing to meet with Luke and his lightsaber.
The ropes had been easy to hitch up. The ceiling was tall in the main corridor, but every member of Pace's team were well-experienced. They shot up the thin cords to the opening as if they did it everyday of their lives, and hooked the ends to their blasters. Mara's wrist pistol was small, but the cord held tightly. She decided to go up the mortal way.
"Here," Mara spoke, tying an extra rope around Chadal. "That should keep you steady."
"Thanks," the other woman replied with a tiny grin.
Oh, great, Mara thought to herself. Saying thank you, grinning?she's ready to pass out at anytime.
Mara tossed a look at the other members beside her. The three merely shrugged, tugged at their ropes and gave Mara an affirming nod.
And, then?naturally?the Force rippled with danger.
Not just once, but repeatedly like an annoying toddler tugging at the side of her pants.
Rolling her eyes with aggravation, Mara released her pistol and hoisted her lightsaber into attack position. Spinning back to the other crewmembers, she yelled frantically, "If you're going with any hopes of not being shot down in the process, I suggest you do it. Now. "
It didn't take them but a heartbeat. Even Chadal, her eyes glazed over with an almost drunken expression, was working the ropes in second's time. Within a few seconds, all of them were already halfway up.
As speedy as their group was, the Falleen were too close for Mara to ignore anymore. With the clank-clank of almost Imperial-sounding boots, the Falleen dashed through the hallway. They were passing from one walkway to another in the distance, but as a few bothered to look down the massive corridor, they were swift to alert the others.
Before ten seconds had ticked by, at least ten Falleen were running to Mara.
Why can't anything be easy? Mara thought to herself.
Calming herself in the Force?allowing it to fill her like her husband had taught, Mara lifted her saber. She looked up at the others, still scaling up the ropes, and then back to the Falleen.
They hadn't expected the move. Most sane beings didn't.
Far from the others, Mara reached out with the Force, guided by it, pulling with it.
The hallway rumbled.
She was caught in the wave of Falleen only an instant later.
They gazed madly at her as she swung with her lightsaber.
The shock wore off swiftly, however.
Within seconds, they had recovered; circling her, they lifted their tiny pistols, and hauled out their blades.
Engulfed by the Force, her wild eyes surveyed them from one side to the other, catching each being, and memorizing each movement.
The hallway rumbled again.
Lightly, the dust on the walls and floor drifted into the air.
The first Falleen swung at her with his dagger. Attempting to be creative, he dropped his body to the ground millimeters from her saber and slashed at her ankles. She almost hadn't expected the move.
Leaping over the blade, she landed hard on his stomach. He heaved. The energy consumed her, and she flipped completely to the other side of the circle. Her leg arced, her body tightening?
The Falleen tried to dodge, but he was far too slow.
Mara's body hit him dead on, her lightsaber catching the two Falleen by each side of him.
The hallway shook again.
That time, Mara closed her eyes and yanked at it with all the power she could summon.
The Falleen were prepared to start at her, their frustration and fury shimmering a solid red in their eyes. As the thunderous quake of the hallway ruptured throughout its metal and stone walls, however, their attention was immediately diverted away.
Again, Mara pushed.
The grids of metal bent. The pieces of cement underneath did not agree with them.
The second was so swift, even Mara was shocked. From the large upper sides of the hallway, the pieces of metal and stone crumbled down like Death Star debris. The Falleen screamed, some managing to evade the chaos. Most were not so lucky. She was so close, Mara had to use the Force to spring herself from the destruction.
Nonetheless, a chunk of metal pierced her leg.
She screamed, dropping stomach-down on the floor.
The dust in the hallway was drowning the air. Mara laid on the ground, covering her face as she attempted to inhale a solid breath. Coughing, she exhaustedly twisted her body around to the mess in front of her.
For the most part, only bits and pieces of the Falleen could be seen from under the enormous weight of rock and metal. Crushed underneath, their life forces were dim?most gone completely. Even the ones that had escaped the main downfall, still remained unconscious on the ground with cuts and dust all over their bodies.
Mara forced herself up. Her right leg protested, the crimson blood dripping madly down from its under-side. The cut itself was only a few inches long, but the impact was deep. The damn piece of metal was still stuck inside.
With that, Mara stretched out with the Force.
Grabbed the end of the metal shard with her fingers.
She groaned, but didn't scream. Silently, she lifted the bloody thing into view, and frowned. Not very elegant. If Luke had decided to pull down a chunk of a military station, he certainly wouldn't have gotten a piece of it impaled in his leg. Rolling her eyes, she dropped the rigged shard to the ground, and then shot a glance down the hallway.
There, dangling in the air, was her pistol and rope. Dragging her stubborn right leg, Mara reached the opening in the hallway. The other crewmembers were peeping down from their spots on the roof. Nodding once, Mara swept a hand over her sweat-drenched forehead, and began her climb.
The West Wing was full.
There were at least fifteen behind Luke, and a dozen in front. It was becoming almost impossible to block every blaster bolt from both him and Matic. Again, Luke threw a glare at the commander, who was too busy shooting at the crowd of Falleen to notice. Stubborn, self-righteous?
The Force flashed?Luke reacted. More blaster bolts flew at his legs, darts at his chest and neck. He caught a bolt on his lightsaber's blade, veering up to block the darts. He jerked his foot off the ground, avoiding a blaster bolt aimed for his ankle.
Through the entire course, he could feel the group of Falleen massing near the database. He sensed Matic's ship entering the atmosphere to pick up the crew. They had run out of time. Mara and the others were already prepared to leave.
He shouted out, "There's over twenty-five Falleen around us, Matic. Another twenty waiting for us by the data?"
"We're doing fine," the commander replied and fired again.
Luke groaned, deflected another set of projectiles, and came back, "No, we're not. Do you still have your attachment cords?"
"I'm not leaving."
"I can't stop them all with you here!" Luke shouted. "Pull out your cable. I'll make a hole in the roof?"
A blaster bolt raced to his shoulder; with hardly a second to react, Luke swung his blade to deflect it. Barely skipping away, it slammed into the wall just behind the commander.
All right, that's enough, Luke thought to himself, and stretched out with the Force.
It was difficult. There were no moments to truly concentrate, no seconds to gather strength. He would have to make do with the power he was already applying, and worry about it later.
The Force merged with him, allowing him to flow from it.
The dust from the floor swept up into the air.
Gazing, Luke could see each it in his mind?every speck.
He gathered them up, driving them madly about as if they were alive.
Surging?twirling in a dance.
The firepower from the Falleen was still rampant, but weakening as they began to gawk wildly at the dust.
Taking in a breath, Luke pushed.
The dust and air exploded with power.
The Falleen from behind and in front of them screamed.
The wind flew past them, engulfing them in a funnel.
The light fixtures on the walls sparked.
It was swift, but Luke saw the energy and grabbed it.
The lights blew apart, sending thin razors of blue electricity into the wind.
The Falleen tumbled to the ground.
?And, then, a cold chill burst up Luke's back.
It surprised him; his concentration broke.
The wind vanished as fast as a passing breeze.
The electricity disappeared into the air.
Gasping, Luke dropped to one knee.
He looked at the commander.
The other man scanned the Falleen as they started to recover from the incident, and then back at Luke. "What happened?" he asked. "Why did you stop?"
"I?," Luke panted, catching a breath. "Something wasn't right. This isn't right."
"They're trying to kill us!" Matic screamed, and pulled on Luke's arm.
Luke snatched it back. Slowly, he allowed his body to relax, and stood back up. He turned back to the Falleen. From the front and back.
They had their blasters drawn, glaring at Luke and Matic as they stood by the sides of the corridor like decorative statues. They were looking on, awaiting the next move. Nonetheless, none attacked. Quietly, Luke thumbed the switch on his lightsaber. The green glow disappeared from the hallway.
Matic shot him a look. "What are you?"
"Put your weapon down, Matic," Luke instructed.
The commander looked at him as if going mad. "What?" he exasperated.
"Put it down," Luke demanded again. "They haven't killed Ross, and they've already filled up the entire West Wing. They don't want to kill us. Not yet."
"That's very reassuring," Matic snapped back, his words saturated with sarcasm.
He aimed his blaster?
"No!" Luke shouted.
He spun back to Matic, grabbing the other man's wrist as he attempted to aim. With one move, Luke placed his thumb on a pressure point and jabbed it. Hard. Matic screamed, his blaster clumsily firing into the hallway. A Falleen shouted. The Force tingled?
A bolt flew by Luke's leg. Again, Matic cried out. Finally dropping his weapon to the ground, the commander tumbled to the floor. Luke looked down. Pace's lower right leg was still on fire. Falling to his knees, Luke tried to smoother the flames.
"Get away from me!" Matic yelled back, smacking Luke's hand away as he put out the wound.
"Well done," a voice, familiar, entered Luke's mind.
Slowly, he stood back up, and stared down the hallway.
Fhamir stared back. Two other Falleen by her sides, blasters drawn.
"I was wondering when you'd finally get the hint," she continued, glancing from one side the other hallway to the other, "considering that my entire crew has filled this part of the station. You wouldn't have made it much farther. We were about ready to pull out detonators."
Another chill rushed up Luke's back. He merely ignored it, and replied, "You're the leader here."
"I suppose that's the appropriate term," she explained. Slowly, she walked down the hallway to him and Matic.
Still on the ground, the commander didn't budge. He was listening, too busy attending to his injury to do more.
Luke kept his eyes on the Falleen commander. Her height was about an inch taller than Luke himself. Her long black hair was neatly back in a new braid. She extended a hand. "Your lightsaber."
"My friend," Luke countered. "He's with your main database."
The woman choked down a laugh. "You mean the slicer? You actually expect me to do you a favor?"
"Yes," Luke merely stated, and set his jaw.
Fhamir stopped her chuckles. She blinked at him, stunned. There was a moment of silence in the hallway. Finally, she offered a tiny grin. "You're very direct. I find that honorable." She casually stepped out of the way.
"Your highness!" one of the men from her sides shouted.
"Keep your tongue, Jeire," she barked, and hooked her eyes to Luke's. "He could have killed me and didn't. I believe that deserves respect."
Silently, Luke grabbed Matic's arm and lugged him up. The commander cursed, barely able to hold himself straight. Luke ignored his cries and began to walk. Still in his grasp, the commander groaned, but followed.
They turned a hallway. Just as with the last one, Falleen stood beside every spot the walls provided. Men and women alike, they kept their heads held high, blasters up and ready for use. Luke reserved his attention to the door at the end of the hallway.
Fhamir and her bodyguards behind them, Luke reached the door. It was still melted shut. He gave Fhamir a puzzling expression. "You assumed I'd be back?"
She crossed her arms. "Most people don?t fuse a door to its frame when they're leaving it behind." She cocked an eyebrow at him.
Gently putting Matic on the ground, Luke ignited his saber. Some of the Falleen flinched, and lifted their blasters; Fhamir shouted in her native tongue. They stopped.
With one stroke, the metal door crashed on the room's floor with an echoing thud, the dust rising into the air as if Luke was attempting another Force storm. Silently, he extinguished the saber and paced into the room.
On the floor, Ross lay. His face and arms covered in charcoal burns and blisters; his eyes were halfway open, but there was no spark of consciousness within them. Luke knelt down, reaching out with the Force. He was breathing, his heart softly pounding in his chest. Weak, but steady.
With that, Luke twisted back to Fhamir.
By the wall she had originally been at the last time they had been together, she glared down at him with her comrades to her sides. Her eyes were set, but tired. Her dull green skin was drenched with sweat. It was clear she hadn't been conscious for very long.
Curiously, she tapped her fingers to her crossed arms, waiting for him to finish.
With that, Luke lifted himself from the ground, and gave her a sharp, but calm eye. She tilted her head to the side, her skin giving off the slightest tint of blue. Luke spoke, "I'll give you two options, your highness. They're the only two I'll offer."
"Offer?" the other Falleen, Jeire, started, but Fhamir raised a hand to silence him.
Luke continued, "It's clear you want me alive. For whatever purpose, you've been attempting to infect me with that disease since we were first discovered. However, it hasn't worked well." He paused.
"Go on," she inquired.
"How does this sound?" He gestured a hand to Ross. "Permit my comrades to live, and I'll allow you to infect me. For whatever reason you have, I'll cooperate with you."
"Skywalker, what are you?" Matic couldn't finish.
His weapon set for stun, Jeire shot the commander directly in the face. Matic dropped more like a corpse than a man, his eyes glazed over with blankness. The only thing to reassure Luke that he was alive was his presence in the Force. From his distance, he couldn't even hear Matic's breathing.
Shaking his head, Luke turned back to Fhamir. "Does that sound fair?"
She placed a hand to her chin, studying him. After a second, she gently asked, "What's the second option?"
"We all die together," he simply replied.
Fhamir was the only one not to chuckle. She threw glares at the other Falleen, and then went back to Luke. "How, precisely, do you intend to accomplish that?"
With that, Luke pulled at the Force. The room was more old stone than metal. Opening his hands, he gazed silently at the Falleen woman as the entire area gave a thunderous quake. The dust jumped back into the air; all of the Falleen nearby staggered back. Fhamir eyed the ceiling, and then him.
"You'll end up killing yourself," she explained.
He released the room, and shrugged at her. "I'll die soon anyway. It's your choice, but I warn you, the idea of death doesn't concern me."
"I'll make a note of that," she hissed, and conversed with the other Falleen by her sides.
After a minute, Jeire removed a dart from his belt. He walked to Luke?
"No," Luke came back, and nudged his head to Fhamir. "I want you to do it."
She blinked at him, bewildered. "Why?"
"Because you?re the leader here," he replied. "My death will ultimately be your doing. Therefore, you should be the one to handle the entire job."
There was something in his words that struck her. She gazed at him as if his declaration had just socked her in the stomach. She was sweating again. Silently, she moved to Jeire and lifted a hand.
Reluctantly, the male Falleen handed over the vial.
Without a word, she walked to Luke and gently placed her free hand on his neck, angling it away from her. She brought the needle to his skin?
There wasn't any real pain. The needle went in, the small drops of liquid a second later. Through the Force, Luke felt as it swiftly flowed into his bloodstream, separating to different parts of his body.
She pulled out the instrument, and then gingerly took Luke's lightsaber from his care. Her eyes didn't meet with his again. She returned to her place by the wall.
"Get them into the ship," she told Jeire. "We're leaving."
It wasn't like a warning?but a chill?dark, profound?that shook her entire body. Boarding the Fast Pace, Mara felt as if her heart had stopped.
Luke. Luke was dying.
The sensation was subtle like a whisper in the wind, but its message forced Mara to jump. Immediately, she bolted out of the ship's bottom hatch and back to the station's opening just a few meters away.
"No!" Traya shouted from the ship. "What are you doing?"
"He's dying!" she cried, her right leg buckling with protest. "I can feel it!"
"Stop!" another crewmember yelled.
Chasing behind, the crewmember grabbed Mara's arm. She tried to seize it back, but he wheeled her around instead. "Are they dead?" he asked.
Calming herself, Mara opened herself to the Force. No, not dead. Not even Luke. His presence was just as strong?just as powerful as normal. Merely tired. Reserved. Blocked.
He was blocking her.
He knew exactly what he was doing, and didn't want her involved.
"Well?" the crewman asked.
Luke, she called out, ignoring the other man. Luke, listen to me?
It was pointless. Just as she could push him out of her mind, he was capable of doing it to her as well. He was just as stubborn?just as wild as she was. Perhaps not in the same way, but on the same level. He thought what he was doing was right. It was the end of the discussion.
Slowly, Mara got a grip on herself. She turned back to the other man, the knots in her throat and stomach making it impossible to talk. Luke didn't want her there. Every beat in her heart protested no, but there was something beyond her?beyond Luke?that screamed urgency. She had to use the Force to will herself to speak. When she did, they were not the words she expected to hear. "It doesn't matter. We need to leave. Now."
From inside the station, Luke Skywalker trekked behind the Falleen Queen and her subjects. There was the faint noise from the roof; the station rumbled for a second, but no one stopped their pace. Slowly, the bright presence of Luke's wife began to grow faint. It continued to dim as she sped off with the others.
Luke drifted his eyes to the ceiling for a moment, and then dropped them back to the floor. Quietly, he smiled.
"I'm tellin' you, hon, it's nuts," the sweet voice of Leia Organa Solo's husband, Han Solo, boomed throughout her apartment from the transmitter holo. "Humans and non-humans alike are ready to start a war."
Offering a grin to her ruggedly handsome spouse, she merely asked, "Are you certain there isn't a touch of exaggeration to your story, Han?"
With that, he tugged the edge of his shirt's collar to one side. Underneath was a cut at least nine centimeters in length. "This from an old woman with exceptionally tough nails," he replied, and shifted his hands to his hips. "No exaggeration, Leia. The New Republic can put up all the trade blocks and inspection stops they want, but these Falleen would risk uncharted space to get where they're goin'."
"Coruscant," she sighed, and plopped down at the edge of the living compartment's small table. She shook her head at her husband. "I'm lost, Han," she told him. "I realize my place is here, but still?"
"I want you here as well," he finished for her. Flaring off one of his outrageous smiles, he told her flatly, "I've requested for me and Chewie to be sent to the Yavin system to protect it. It's pretty-close, anyway."
"I think Kam and Tionne can handle the Academy."
"Maybe from Sith Lords and asteroids," he came back, "but, I've heard of two unmarked ships floating around that system on and off for over two days. I'm not gonna let a pile of out-right wild lizards get a hold of my kids."
It was then that Leia sensed his presence in the room. Shocked, she snapped up from the table to address Senator Retafured by the door. He lowered his head bashfully, and twiddled his fingers in a subtle wave hello.
"I'll have to speak with you later, Han," Leia informed her husband.
"What?why?" he shot back.
"Later, Han," she continued, and then switched off the holo.
Han's face vanished from its screen; readjusting her robes, Leia walked to the Senator and extended a hand. He softly received it?holding it?staring at it.
Leia frowned. "What's wrong, Senator?"
With that, the Scyos finally gawked at Leia, his eyes tear-stricken. "Senator Tenanete has been placed under arrest."
"What? When?" Leia immediately questioned.
The other being slowly wandered into the room, and clumsily sat on the living courtier's sofa. His eyes were overwhelmed like there was too much emotion for him to contain. Leia placed a hand on his back; he gently muttered, "They took him this morning. There's a meeting starting this afternoon to discuss it." He tossed her a look, eyes pleading. "You?will be there, right?"
Calmly patting the Senator's back, Leia explained, "I'll be right by your side, sir. I assure you, this will be straightened out."
Her comment didn't seem to soothe him. The other being consumed himself in tears. Placing both hands to his face, he exclaimed, "We just joined the Republic. We wanted a chance to be part of the galaxy. We went against our planet's desire. No wonder everyone hates us!"
Leia opened her mouth to say something, but couldn't. There was nothing to say. Sitting beside the sobbing Scyos delegate, Leia Organa Solo could merely peer out through the balcony at the tranquil horizon and the speeders soaring serenely by.
"The entire database?" Fhamir asked through the freighter's transmitter. Her voice was strained, and the sweat beaded together on her forehead. It had been a day in space with the remainder of her crew. There were forty-seven in total?eight others remained behind on Ttremyrin One to care for the wounded and bury the dead. In total, the Jedi and their comrades had killed almost half of her Falleen.
"They compressed and copied everything on the main drive," the other Falleen informed her from the holo. Even with his face a vague static blue, it was clear his expression bore the same dread as the Queen's. "All the codes, locations?the virus."
"I heard you," Fhamir rasped back, her tone darker than she intended. She inhaled dramatically, and then twisted to Jeire by her side. "Did the Jedi or his companion's datapads contain the information from our database?"
"No," he replied. "We've scanned them twice. Nothing."
Silently, Fhamir's eyes flipped back to the Falleen on the holo. His face was set on hers, awaiting her command. There was none to provide. If the Jedi's comrades had their virus' components?
Their entire mission would be destroyed. All the Falleen would suffer the consequences.
She felt ready to scream; forcefully, she bit the inside of her cheek to stop herself. Blood instantly flowed from the wound, calming her with its pain. Softly, she told the other Falleen through the holo, "Send a report on our wounded as soon as you get the chance. That is all, Palyonn."
"Yes, my Queen," he said with a bow. A second later, his face disappeared from the holo.
Her eyes hooked to the viewpoint, Fhamir told Jeire, "If they've stolen all the data on the virus, we've failed."
"Don?t say that," he replied, and rested a hand on her back. "Perhaps their comrades never got the datapad. And, even if they did, it would take months for them to create an anti-virus from?"
"Or weeks!" she screamed, and whirled around to him. His hand was thrown off her back. She glared. "Do you realize the implications of this, Commander? Can you even process them?"
"Perhaps we should speak in private." He nudged his head at the others on the bridge.
Rolling her eyes, Fhamir clutched him by the collar. The movement stunned the younger Falleen. He placed a hand on hers as she gripped his shirt, but said nothing. She spoke for him. "There is nothing private about this, Commander. Unless we can catch up to that New Republic's vessel, then we are all going to die!"
"You're hurting me, Fhamir," he choked, grasping her wrist.
"Our master doesn't accept failure," she continued, clasping down. "If even one human is left standing, then every Falleen will face the same punishment, Jeire! There are trillions of humans out there?.if they can create that anti-virus, we'll be lucky to wipe out a million! It doesn't matter what rank in nobility?we will all suffer the same death. Is the reality seeping in, Commander? Or, do I need to squeeze harder?"
"Let go," he barely managed to spew out.
With that, Fhamir dropped him. Coughing, he glared at her from the bridge's floor. His mouth remained shut; his eyes said it all. For all the support he could give, for all the love and optimism, the reality of their lives was quickly locking into place.
Inhaling a breath, Fhamir wrapped her hands behind her back, and silently twisted to the viewpoint. The colorful void of hyperspace was soothing, but her heart was still exploding with each beat. Their only chance was to catch the other ship and attack. The humans would select the fastest route to Coruscant; Fhamir's freighter was set on the same path. The other vessel only had a half hour head start, and didn't know Fhamir was behind them. The Falleen could find them. They had to, even if it meant colliding Fhamir's ship with theirs. It would be a small price to pay for her species' survival.
It was true?so desperately real. Unless Fhamir did something swiftly, her entire race was going to die.
"They're panicking," Luke informed Matic Pace to his right. Sitting inside the confining prison of the Falleen vessel, the Jedi Master's eyes were cast to the ceiling as if searching for a bug. He continued, "It's Fhamir. She's afraid."
"How wonderful," the commander replied from the room's damp corner, the sarcasm in his words almost drowning. "Perhaps she would like to come down here. You could comfort her?tell her everything's going to be just fine."
With that, Luke's eyes met his. "Don?t you think it's odd that the commanding officer set to kill trillions of other people, is the one that's terrified?"
Pace merely shrugged. "I never claimed to understand women, Skywalker. They move to a beat all their own."
Luke paused?blinked his eyes. "You're an idiot."
"Better than a Jedi. At least I know what I can and can't do," he paused, flicking a hand toward Luke's side. "You going to help him or what?"
Silently, Luke carried his gaze back to the man in front of him. Lying on the only sheet in the room, the young slicer was awake. He blinked, but never did his head, arms or legs budge. His entire body was covered with the sores and burns that had inflicted him the day before. Luke had spent his time alleviating Ross' agony and blocking any infections from forming. Still, it was almost impossible. Ross wasn't a Jedi. He didn't possess any connection to Luke like one of his Jedi might. In that case, Luke would put the Force-user in a healing trance, working with them to heal the injuries. With Ross, Luke would have to handle everything on his own.
Of course, he had offered to aid Pace with his leg injury as well. The commander had insisted Luke stay back, keeping his healing abilities for Ross and Ross alone. It was true Ross needed more dire aid than Pace, but an infection was already developing on the commander?s wound. And still, the commander refused Luke?s help.
Huffing out a breath, Luke focused his attention to the present. He lowered his hands to his lap, leaned forward, and whispered into the slicer's ear, "Ross, I need you listen carefully right now. Do you hear me?"
Slowly, the slicer opened his mouth. He attempted to shape a word, but Luke raised a hand to halt him. "Just blink if you understand," Luke replied.
Ross' eyelids dropped, and then reopened.
Luke tenderly rested a hand on the slicer's forehead, and continued, "I have to put you in a trance right now. Your injuries are severe, and there's not much more I can do for them in this state. But, if you're in a trance, it'll slow your body down, and give it more time to heal. You understand?"
Again, the younger man blinked.
"What are you talking about?" Pace suddenly hollered through the room.
Closing his eyes, Luke breathed in the Force, and then turned to the other man in the corner. "I need to put him in a trance. It'll keep him more stable."
Already, Pace was shaking his head. "You?you mean, like a coma?"
"Something of the sorts," Luke replied. "It would give us more time."
"More time for what?" Pace instantly snapped back. "Just heal him. How long could that possibly take?"
"Longer than whatever amount you're thinking of," Luke instantly countered. "He's been severely injured, Matic. I can't just snap my fingers and make him well again."
With that, Pace stood from his place in the corner. Limping to him and Ross, the commander hovered over Luke with a glare. "How long?"
Luke lifted his hands for reasoning. "I don't know. This isn't something I encounter every day. Why can't you understand that?"
"Will he die?" Pace questioned instead.
Ross' emotions surged. Luke instantly spun back to the slicer, instructing him to calm himself.
Pace continued, "Well?"
Placing a hand gently of Ross' forehead, Luke decided to ignore the commander and put Ross in the trance at that moment. Nevertheless, Ross' eyes were wide, his heart beating much faster than it should. Slowly, Luke bent forward to his ear again.
"There's nothing to be afraid of," he told the younger man. "I can't promise you anything, Ross. Nothing, except when this is over, you will feel no more pain. Either way."
Slowly, the slightest amount of air exited the slicer's mouth. He tried to speak, but the words were so faint, Luke had to use the Force to catch them.
"I don?t want to die."
"I know," Luke replied. "And, I'm going to do everything in my power to ensure you don't. But, I can't promise that you'll wake up, Ross. I can promise you no more pain. No more. You understand?"
It took a second for him to reply. He was terrified; there was nothing Luke could say to appease him. Ever so slowly, however, his eyes closed. He lay silently, waiting for Luke to take over.
"That's just it, then?" Pace questioned in the corner of Luke's mind. "That's all you can give?"
"I'm busy, Matic," Luke replied, squinting his eyes shut. He blanketed the Force onto Ross? mind. Already exhausted, the younger man reacted immediately.
"I'm not going to let you do this," the commander protested from his side.
"You don't have a choice," was Luke?s only reply.
The Force rang in the Jedi Master?s mind, shaking. The Jedi's reaction was immediate. Pace was fast?even with his injuries?but Luke's skill was too adept. Releasing Ross, Luke jerked his head to the side, avoiding Pace's fist. He snatched the commander by the wrist, pulling the larger man to the ground.
Heaving out a yell, the commander struggled for a moment with Luke. Clawing at Luke?s arms, he cursed and shouted until his face flushed red. Nonetheless, his body tired rapidly, and he finally dropped his head to the floor. Silently, he stared up at the ceiling.
"Are you finished?" Luke questioned, holding tightly to the other man?s wrists.
"I didn?t mean it to be this way," Pace suddenly declared, eyes still set upwards.
"I know," Luke told him. "No one does. But, your anger?you?re not helping him, Matic. And, you?re not helping me to help him."
"I was just?" he paused, snorting out a wary laugh. "I was hoping for a miracle. He?s my friend, Skywalker. And, I let this happen to him."
"It doesn?t matter now," Luke replied, and released Pace's arms. "I wasn?t lying to him, Matic. If nothing more, his pain can stop. Don?t you want that?"
"Then, let me treat him."
Silently, Matic Pace stared at the Jedi Master. Luke didn't know what to expect?for the other man's anger to explode once again, or for any reason from Luke's words to seep in. After another moment, the other man nodded. He avoided eye contact, gazing up at nothing but his own ponderings. Luke went back to Ross, who lay in a quiet, but light slumber. Gently, he positioned his hand back on the slicer?s forehead, reaching out with the Force to submerse him in the deepest sleep Luke could provide.
Set aboard the Fast Pace, Mara Jade Skywalker attempted to contact her husband. Through the Force, his presence sparkled like the warm light of a distant star. Nevertheless, any reassurance?any communication was impossible. Even closer together, Mara didn?t think she?d be able to speak with him. He was determined to keep her out of his mind?out of danger.
Of course, any thought along the line of, ?your danger is my danger, Skywalker,? didn?t seem to have transferred through Luke?s warped mind. Why did he always do it? Take on all the responsibility?all the risk? It wasn?t a crazy Jedi-thing. It was a Luke Skywalker one.
"Jedi Skywalker," the voice of Traya entered from the door of the small living compartment. It was strained?excited. "I need to speak with you."
Focusing herself back into the realm of the living, Mara opened her eyes from meditating, and arched both eyebrows. "Yes?" she inquired.
With that, Traya took in a breath. Sweat trickling from his forehead, he approached Mara and declared, "We?ve found it. The components to the virus. It?s all there. In the datapad."
Mara was tempted to sigh in relief, but then her thoughts caught up with her. Her lips slanted down.
Traya?s zeal seemed to waver with that. He blinked. "Jedi Skywalker?"
"That?s good news," Mara replied softly. "Have they compiled all the information yet?"
"Not yet," Traya informed, and then lifted his shoulders. "I?m sorry to ask, but you don?t seem too happy about this. This is what your husband sacrificed himself for. Don?t you see?we?ve won."
With that, Mara clenched her jaw. "Won? Is that what you honestly think?"
"Well," he swallowed hard. "What else is there?"
She merely shook her head. "Without knowing exactly where the Falleen have been spreading this virus, millions are going to die before we?ll be able to break it and get to them. Millions. That doesn?t sound very victorious to me."
Silently, Traya gawked at her as if waiting for another punch-line. After another second, his expression sobered. He apologized for interrupting her meditation, and then tottered away.
Closing her eyes again, Mara stretched out with the Force. Absorbing herself within it, she called out for her husband through the emptiness of space.
It was a routine now. She would eat her first meal of the day, and then check on the Jedi. The second meal?check. She would get a simple dish of rations, and then go and check the Jedi Master. It wasn't that she enjoyed it. But, the damn man was stubborn, insisting only she do the work. And, her master was determined to keep the reports on the Jedi and his conditions consistent. Until his little experiment was complete, Fhamir was a slave to both her master and her captives.
Holding the container of medical supplies, Fhamir cursed quietly to herself as she wandered to the small prisoner's ward of her ship. True, the large freighter didn?t possess an actual prison cell, but the storage unit was as secure as a starfighter's cockpit during lightspeed. To add to the security, there were no other ships and no escape pods to her vessel. It was bad for her and the crew, but good at keeping prisoners in their place. Especially Force-sensitive ones.
Pressing a hand on the security pad by the door, the room's thick metal plate slid to the side. Inside were three men. The large one, Pace, snapped a glare at her from the corner the instant his eyes collided with hers. The younger one on the bed sheet didn't possess the will.
Skywalker sat peacefully by the younger man. Legs crossed, he seemed too transfixed by his own concentration to notice her. Of course, after three days in space, she knew that was not the case.
"Again?" the Jedi Master's voice rang softly through the room.
Groaning to herself, Fhamir merely marched into the storage unit. The first few days, she had been escorted by guards, but it seemed almost silly by that point. If the Jedi wished to kill her, he could succeed. He would be attacked by her entire crew soon after, but Fhamir would be dead in any circumstance. She went by herself these days.
"Get up," she instructed him flatly.
Immediately, he stood, and extended a hand. Silently, Fhamir placed a small tube-like jar into his care. He glanced at it, and his face contorted as if sniffing something foul. "Do we have to do this so many times a day?"
She merely raised and dropped her eyebrows sardonically. "Believe me, Jedi, this isn't on my list of thrills, either. Just fill the tube."
Shaking his head, he lumbered to the corner of the room away from everyone else. Fhamir waited, eyes upwards. After only a second, he returned, and handed the full jar back into her care.
Silently, she put it in the medical case, and then hauled out two other devices. The first one was simple; Skywalker opened his mouth as she put it under his tongue. The second was not quite so easy. The medical droid had shown Fhamir how to use it; still, the damn instrument gave her the jitters. As normal, the Jedi Master rolled up his sleeve, awaiting her next move. He made it easy?too easy sometimes. Fhamir always had the suspicion he was up to something.
Nonetheless, she positioned the thing to his skin, and then activated it. The device exuded a funny noise, straining out blood from one needle, and then tearing up a small sample of skin with the other. Most people groaned with the pain. Skywalker merely kept his eyes away, glancing around the room as if in another world.
Another moment dragged by, and then Fhamir was finished. Taking the device from the other being's arm, she placed it back in her bag. With a flick of her wrist, she plucked the other instrument from Skywalker's mouth, and examined its readings.
She chuckled drearily. "Well, congratulations, Master Jedi, it's official. You have a fever. A whole percent above normal, in fact. You should be bed-ridden with black sores all over your body by now. But, hey, it's a start."
"I have a headache as well, if you're interested to know."
"I'm always interested," she came back with a sarcastic tinge to her words.
Closing the container, she gave a tiny nod, and then turned to leave?
"You realize," Skywalker's suddenly started from behind, "that Ross could use some of those medical supplies in your bag."
Halting in her tracks, Fhamir slowly rotated around to glare at the man. He merely tilted his head innocently like a child awaiting a reason why he couldn't have a treat. She was swift to answer him. "That wasn't a part of the deal, Skywalker," she hissed. "Perhaps you should think through your little, 'option' contracts before you settle them with others. Or, maybe not kill off three dozen of my men. There's a thought."
"He's going to die," Skywalker continued, and stepped forward. "Unless he gets real medical attention soon, I doubt he'll make it more than a few days."
Gradually, Fhamir flicked an eye at the young man lying upon the bed sheet. His burns?
"That was your own fault," she protested. "I even warned you."
"Yes, you did," he replied, "but, he's still dying. And, it'll be your fault now. You have the means to help him, and yet you refuse. Why?"
"You would all die if I were allowed the privilege, Skywalker. What makes you think I care?"
"Because I know you do."
Even the commander, lying silently in the corner, lifted his head to listen. Fhamir opened her mouth to reply, to give a retort or curse, but the mere confidence in his declaration was shooting shivers from her feet to her forehead. Always a controlled dull green, her skin shaded into a dark violet. Quietly, she turned around to leave.
"Trillions could die, your highness," the Jedi Master's voice called from behind. "It doesn't matter how many Falleen are involved. You can stop it?here and now. Therefore, if they die, all their deaths will rest on you."
Whatever other words the Jedi were preaching became lost to Fhamir. Gripping the medical case in her right hand, she hurried down the hallway of her vessel, attempting to eradicate the Jedi's words from her mind.
"What is your problem?" Chadal's scream resonated throughout the Fast Pace's cockpit. Considering the small size of the area, Mara found the woman's echoing effect to be quite a feat. Chadal continued, "We have the information?we have all the components! This virus is all but extinct, and you're saying?no?"
Surveying the other woman and her encased arm, Mara explained, "Last thing I remember is that we had a leak inside the New Republic's wall. Whether it?s with our transmitter or with someone sneaking information out from Coruscant, the problem still remains. No."
Chadal grasped her own strands of hair. Groaning, she pulled at them until a pile of jet-black pieces ripped from her skull. Mara grimaced; the anger from Chadal was mutating the small room into ice.
Weo, in her pilot's seat, was the next to speak. "What I believe Chadal is trying to say, Jedi Skywalker, is what difference does it make now? So what if they realize we have the means to make an anti-virus? What are they going to do?curse at us in a fit of rage?"
Another Force-ripple hurled up Mara's back. The injury on her leg, mostly healed from hours of meditation, somehow managed to ache. The Force alerted her to danger every time someone even mentioned sending the information to Coruscant.
So, again, she refused.
"All right!" Chadal suddenly shrilled, and grabbed Ross' datapad lying on the cockpit's console. "I don't care what our paranoid Jedi comrade wants or thinks. I'm not about to let millions of people die because she's got a feeling." With that, the other woman leaned forward to hook the datapad into the ships transmission console?
Even Chadal gasped when the small device flew from her care. Calmly, Mara caught it in her hand only a second later. She frowned.
Chadal came to face her, eye to eye. "Give it back."
With that, Mara granted a tiny smirk. "In the wise words of my husband?," she glared at the other woman. "No."
Chadal tried for the datapad anyway, but it was too late. Hurrying out the cockpit, Mara jabbed her hand on the door's release. The thin slab of metal came sliding through only a second later, leaving a narrow but secure barrier between Mara and the others in the cockpit.
"You're insane!" Chadal screamed, her voice muffled through the door. "Delaying could kill millions, you idiot!" Mara wished she could merely explain, 'something isn't right,' to the others, but as her abilities in the Force continued developing, it was growing too obvious her understanding of non-Force-users was becoming more difficult to withstand. She wanted Luke there. She felt almost alien in a ship full of non-Force-users.
From the corner of the hallway, Mara sensed Traya eyeing her. He was fidgeting, pondering the idea of snatching the datapad from her grasp. Gently scooting her back down the door until her butt rested on the floor, she merely shouted to him, "Don't even think about it. Not unless you want to spend the rest of your trip cramped in a storage unit."
He instantly backed away.
Silently, Mara focused her attention to the datapad in her hands.
Why couldn't they send the information? What was she missing?
Another Force wave hustled up her back; her leg throbbed. Rolling her eyes, Mara gently dropped her head back to the metal door behind her, and sighed.
Five days into the trip, and Luke was feeling it. Uninjured from the mission to Ttremyrin One, the virus was the one and only thing plaguing him. As Luke suspected all those days before in the station, that?alone?would be enough for him. It wasn?t a matter of control; Luke could feel the disease in every part of his body. Nonetheless, Luke?s attention was set on Ross. In all essence, Luke still had time to treat himself. Ross could not afford that luxury.
Supporting his back against the wall beside the younger man, Luke opened himself in the Force to sense the boy?s vitals. Everything was reduced to the speed of a Jedi in a hibernation trance. His heart steadily beat every few seconds or so, his breathing so serene, there were times Pace had frantically informed Luke that Ross had stopped completely. Luke knew better, but his concern for the younger man was mounting. Even with all of Luke?s work, infection was starting to touch at parts of Ross? body. It wasn?t going far, Luke made sure of that. As time trudged on, however, so did Luke?s power to control the burns. Soon?too soon?Ross? fears were going to become reality.
A cough erupted from Luke?s mouth like a wild snow creature. Yanking a hand up to his face, he closed his eyes, sucked in a breath, and coughed again. The movements were more like spasms, shuddering his lungs until his throat felt ready to dry up and wither off his neck. He allowed another breath to be consumed with the strained heaving, and then used the Force to control the rest.
Slowly, he took in another breath, and brushed his hand across his forehead. He felt horrible.
"You look terrible," Pace expressed from the corner. "Is it finally catching up with you?"
"It?s trying," Luke replied, cleared his throat, and then pitched a tiny grin at the other man.
The commander didn?t return the gesture. Lying in the corner, he let out a cough of his own, and then brought his eyes up to meet with Luke?s. A spark of worry glimmered within them. Slowly, Pace declared, "I think I?m sick."
A chill rushed up Luke?s back. He pulled his aching body from the wall and dragged himself to Pace. He grazed a hand on the commander?s forehead. The Force wasn?t needed to feel the heat fuming from the other man?s face. Luke frowned, gazing down at him.
Pace seemed to catch the expression on Luke?s face. He only shrugged. "Hey, blasted vaccine wasn?t supposed to last forever."
"Ross doesn?t have it yet," Luke informed him, stretching out with the Force. "Despite all his injury, the vaccine seems to be holding well."
"Some good news. Let?s not hex it."
Taking in another breath, Luke reluctantly asked the commander, "Do you want me to help with the pain?"
"Me?" Pace replied, and waved a hand. "Look at you. You look worse than I do. No, save that good Jedi voodoo for those who need it."
"You?re going to need it. Very soon, Matic."
"You know, for a Jedi, you?re awfully bossy."
Luke's mouth parted, feeling a retort mounting in his throat. At the very last moment, however, he decided to forget it. Silently, he toddled back to Ross and sensed out with the Force.
There was an abrupt push throughout the room. Not a quake as if something on the vessel had been hit. Rather a small thrust backward, so gentle, Luke didn?t flinch from his spot.
Instead, he allowed the smallest grin to escape his lips. They were out of hyperspace.
"What the hell?" Jeire shouted from beside Fhamir on the bridge. It wasn?t as simple a declaration as it normally would be. The words from her commander?s mouth were the same roaming wildly inside the Queen?s head. What the hell?
"Where is it?" Fhamir yelled throughout the room, shooting razor-eyes at her navigator. "Well??where!"
"I?," he trailed off, scanning his instruments as if looking for an activated detonator under his desk. "I?I don?t?I don?t know. It?s supposed to be here."
"Where?" Fhamir screamed, gesturing a hand madly at the viewpoint. "Thyferra! It?s a planet. A massive, over-populated planet!" She spun her eyes to the viewpoint, and then back at him, "Do you see a massive planet from your view, sir?"
"Uh," he frantically toyed with his console, going from this piece to that. After another second, his fingers nervously dropped from the instruments; his eyes came to meet with hers, defeated. "No."
"I don?t understand," Jeire muttered to her side. "How could we be this far off course?"
"I?" the remainder of Fhamir?s air escaped her lungs. She gasped, and clasped to the edge of the console beside her for support. Jeire gazed at her as if she?d gone mad. Fhamir merely knelt over, taking in the breaths as not to faint, the reality finally crashing into her.
The blasted, Force-manipulating Jedi!
He was responsible.
And, now, they had no chance of catching the other vessel.
"Fhamir?" Jeire inquired, placing a hand on her arm.
With that, Fhamir shot a glance at her commander. Slowly, staring at his worried expression, her lips curved upwards. It was like an impulse, but as she gazed at his sweet, concerned face, a wave of laughter exited her lungs. Nothing kind?nothing comforting. It was the laugh of a woman gone insane. After another second, she merely shook her head at Jeire. "We?re all going to die."
"Please," he shook his head, but no more words assembled.
Blankly, Fhamir straightened herself and peeked at her bridge crew. Most had their eyes on the floor in front; only a few brave souls dared to gaze her way.
Nonetheless, she said nothing to them. Taking in a refreshing breath, she twisted back to Jeire with a tiny grin to her mouth. "Will you handle the bridge for a moment, Commander?" she asked light-heartedly.
"Um," he paused, swallowed hard, and then replied, "Of course, my Queen. But, where?"
He couldn?t complete the sentence. Fhamir was already out the door, heading toward the prison ward.
The fury throughout the vessel could have thrown some Jedi to their backs. It was like a poison all its own. Luke was ready for it. Stationed beside Ross, he could sense her long before she made it to the storage compartments. The anger was blinding, yes, but as she drew closer, the tiny sparks of terror became just as evident.
Not of him.
It was for her ship's ultimate failure.
They would never reach Mara and the others, and Fhamir knew it.
The doorway of the storage unit shot open. From its entrance, the Falleen woman stood, sweat drenching her face as if she had somehow contracted Luke and Pace's ailment. Her skin was a soft, but grave shade of violet. A dagger lay casually in her hands.
Panting, she entered the room, and moved directly to Luke. "Get up," she ordered with a strained rasp.
Silently, Luke did as instructed.
Gripping the knife at her side, she looked at him with her wild violet eyes, and shouted, "I thought you were honorable. If nothing more, I assumed you, above all other humans in this galaxy, would keep your word?Jedi."
He merely shook his head. "I did."
"Liar!" she screamed, pointing the dagger's end at his face. "You told me you'd cooperate! We had a deal!"
"But, I have cooperated," he came back softly. "With you. I didn't say anything about your ship?as not pre-arranged by our original contract."
Knife trembling in her hand, Fhamir's eyes brimmed with tears. She tried to control them, to at least hide them, but it was useless. Even as a Falleen, a naturally controlled species, Fhamir could no longer keep her anguish under authority. Teeth locked together from fury, Fhamir merely told him, "Turn around."
"No," was Luke's only reply.
"Turn around! " she cried out again, her dagger waving in her hand.
"I'll let you kill me," Luke told her calmly, titling his chin slightly up to expose his neck, "but I won't turn around for you to do it."
Lip quivering, she softly asked, "Why?"
"I want to watch," he said tranquilly, "to see the look on your face as you do it. To look at your eyes. When you have to look in mine as I die."
The last words struck her. Eyes cloaked in tears and defeat, she dropped her dagger to the ground. Only a second later, she was there to meet it, collapsing in her own despair.
Softly, Luke kneeled down to her.
"You can't keep this up anymore, Fhamir," he whispered into her ear. "You're not a killer. Who wants you to do this?"
"I?I can't," she whimpered back.
"You have to," Luke replied, and cupped a hand to her chin. Silently, he forced her to look up at him. "You're the reason I'm here. The only reason."
Her shivers lessened. Narrowing her eyebrows, she asked, "What do you mean?"
"You're a peaceful being, your highness. I know it. I can feel it. Peaceful beings don't go around attempting to kill trillions." He leaned forward, and whispered, "Please, give me his name."
She closed her eyes, holding back another sob, but still refused to answer.
"It's obvious what we found on your database is important," Luke continued softly. "Otherwise, you wouldn't be chasing down the others so desperately."
"It was the virus' components," she finally replied, choking on her tears. "All of them. The natural?the synthetic. Every element it contains. And, now?"
"And, now, you've lost," he told her, clasping his eyes to hers. "Your virus will still kill millions, Fhamir, but the human race will live on. Whoever has convinced you to accept this mission," he took one of her hands. "They will know very soon it failed."
"No!" she shouted, attempting to get away. Luke held her tight. "No, please! There has to be another way! There has to be!"
"Why is it so important?" Luke demanded to know. "What has the human race done to justify this slaughter?"
Slowly, Fhamir's sobs became as subtle as a whisper. Drawing in breath after breath, she shook her head furiously at Luke, and replied, "It isn't the humans! It has nothing to do with humans! It's us! The Falleen!"
"What do you mean?"
"Our master hasn't convinced us of anything," she told him flatly. "The human bioweapon wasn't found recently. He's kept it, fearing another rise in the galaxy's government?"
"The rise of another group of authority."
She wiped frantically at the tears rolling down her face. "He hated the Empire. The fear of the New Republic?the humans gaining control again?"
"But, the New Republic isn't merely humans. Other beings?"
"He won't listen. He wants it destroyed. The sooner the humans are dead, the closer he is to ruining any hopes of uniting the galaxy. He wants all races separate. And, now, he has the means to accomplish it. It's not just the human virus in his grasp."
"Your war," Luke replied with a nod, the final pieces molding into place. "He has a bioweapon for the Falleen as well. He found it with the human's. Didn't he?" Slowly, she looked up at him, and nodded.
Luke shot a glance at Matic Pace in the corner. Eyes gazing out at them as if searching for light, he didn't seem to have the will to move nor speak. Everything had suddenly fallen into place.
Closing her eyes as the tears ran down her cheeks, the Falleen woman spoke softly, "Falleen are cursed with long lives, Skywalker. Myself, I'm over a hundred years old. I've had a dozen children in my lifetime, and I lost half of them in that war. Now, there's a chance I could lose the others. I can't let that happen. I can't."
"I won't let it," Luke declared, but the words more spilled from his mouth than a true conviction.
With that, the woman coughed out a laugh. "Oh, good. For a moment, I was worried!"
"Do you know who this, 'master', is, Fhamir? His name?"
"Anything about him?"
"He has contacts all over the galaxy. Lots of power, even in the New Republic."
"The leak," Pace called out from the wall, and coughed.
Blowing out a breath, Luke turned back to Fhamir. "Let me get a hold of my ship."
She smirked at him. "Please don't tell me you're serious."
"As much as you are," he replied, never losing his composure.
His words appeared to catch Fhamir. Not blinking, she finally confirmed, "You are serious."
"You've failed, Fhamir," Luke explained. "There is nothing any Falleen can do to stop this now. We have the virus, but your master is still holding yours. He's the enemy, Fhamir. Not me. Not any human. It's him."
"Why would you help me?" she asked.
"I know what it's like to find myself between two difficult choices," he told her gently. "But right now, you only have one that has a chance of working. Let me contact my ship, Fhamir. Please."
Staring at him as he held her, the Falleen Queen finally agreed with a nod. Peeking around the room, she stood back up and wiped the rest of the tears from her face.
"I'll bring some medical supplies for you and your crew," she explained calmly. "If nothing more, it should slow the pathogens in your systems."
"How about a cure?" Pace called out. "You know, an anti-virus or something?"
With that, the Falleen woman actually sneered at the commander. "We're not spreading this disease around the galaxy just to cure it later. We don't have one. You'll just have to make do."
"When can we contact my ship?" Luke asked.
"It'll take some time," Fhamir explained, and walked to the door. "The corridors of this vessel are cramped with my crew. If they catch me in this act of betrayal?" her words hung in the air.
With that, the Jedi narrowed his eyebrows. "Could we reason with them as well?"
"Most of them are ignorant of the details of our mission," she replied. "However, they know our race is at risk. Once we're discovered, every Falleen is going to try and kill you. And, unless I can convince almost fifty beings to trust a dying Jedi to save them from a massive bioweapon, they're going to try to kill me as well." She suddenly hesitated, put her hands on the door's frame, and then eyed the floor. "Blast?even to me, it sounds idiotic." She was gone before Luke could reply.
Luke turned his attention to Matic Pace. Giving off another exhale of coughs, the commander merely looked at Luke and shrugged.
A day lingered by, and Luke?s concern began to accumulate. Not for Fhamir?he already knew the Falleen Queen was sincere in her agreement to aid them. She hadn?t returned to the prison, however, and Ross and Matic were worse.
Comatose by Luke's side, the young man's breaths had transmuted into wheezes. His heart was still holding steady, but infection was setting into his body, and Luke couldn?t prevent it anymore. His own body twinged with pain. If he didn?t start focusing more of his energy on himself, he would end up resembling Matic Pace within just a few more days.
The other man became vexed each time Luke opened his mouth to offer aid. There was no convincing him; he didn?t want Luke?s attention off the computer slicer. Only a day into the virus, Pace?s fever was practically sizzling. He coughed, sometimes gasping for air. He was progressing far more swiftly than Luke's own body. Then there was his leg. Infection had captured its edges, gradually snaking its way around the wound. His sweat dripped to the floor. His breaths were heavy and tired. And, still he refused Luke.
So, it actually surprised Luke when he felt Fhamir?s presence just as Pace and he were planning to lie back for a few moments of slumber. Coming with her were two other Falleen.
"Matic," Luke spoke, rolling off the floor. "Stay where you are. And, don?t look at me."
"Yes, Commander, sir," Pace retorted by the corner.
Silently, Luke crept to the door. A second later, Fhamir and the others reached them. The other two Falleen, Luke could only assume were guards, were first to enter the room. Blasters raised, they marched in, and scanned the area. Luke stepped forward, ready to strike them?
"Good night," Fhamir spoke from the door at Luke?s side. Luke dropped his eyes to her. Casually in her grasp was a simple silver pistol.
The other Falleen's eyes flashed to her; it was the only reaction Fhamir would allow. She fired on heavy stun, flying them to their backs. They crashed to the floor, and were still.
Luke arched his eyebrow at her. "You have a plan?"
She tottered her head back and forth as if unable to decide herself. "I would say, more of an idea than a plan. Here." She tossed a case to Luke. "This should handle everything."
Licking his lips, Luke opened the container. He smiled. Inside were medical supplies, healing sticks for burns?
"You?ll have to figure out where to hide it," she told him. "The guards don?t use medical supplies. Perhaps, you could put it under the tunics. It took me forever to get that thing out of storage without anyone around."
Luke didn?t reply. Full of fervor, he tossed an injector and healing stick to Pace. True, the antibiotics wouldn?t cure them. But, it would send a shock through their systems as the synthetic components propelled their bodies into overdrive. Even for a virus, it would grant them more time.
Quietly, Luke aimed one of the injectors to his own arm, and pressed the release button. He knelt down to Ross. His chest already bare, it was easy to brush the healing stick over the wounds. After another minute, he was finished with his arms. His face took just a second more?his legs after that.
"Will that heal him?" Pace questioned as he finished brushing the gel of the healing stick over his leg's wound.
"No," Fhamir replied somberly. "They?re good for injuries, but healing sticks are old. They?ll stop the infection, and will even heal some of the less damaged areas, but?"
"They need to be reapplied constantly," Luke continued. "For days or even weeks. Most likely, we won?t have the time, or the supplies."
Pace opened his mouth impulsively, but swiftly closed it, resolved.
Luke bowed his head once at the commander, and then spoke to Fhamir, "Where do you want us?"
Marching down the corridors of Fhamir?s ship wasn?t that difficult. True, it wasn?t as roomy as the Imperial station; the halls were cramped with Falleen. Even sick, however, Luke sufficiently kept his disguising mind trick at full play. Pace limped, but he managed to follow beside Luke and Fhamir. The outfits from the Falleen guards weren't a bad touch, either.
Pace seemed more nervous, but for once, he said nothing.
Falleen strolled by, most acknowledging Fhamir. She nodded to them silently, and continued by as if striding across a beach. Her control in such a dire situation marveled Luke.
"Yuvin cha-al," a Falleen passing by suddenly expressed.
Fhamir replied in her foreign tongue, and continued her trek.
Turning a corner, another group of Falleen breezed by?
"Ey!" one shouted cheerfully, giving Matic a playful punch in the shoulder. "Guv-ic convav-id-oc?"
"Twytateet!" Matic merely replied with a wary grin.
The other Falleen cocked one eyebrow, and snorted a laugh. He stared at Matic for a second, and then shook his head and left with the others.
Luke exhaled the breath he had unconsciously been containing. Walking again, he asked Matic, "How did you do that?"
"I?" he paused, and jerked his shoulder like he couldn't believe it himself. "I don?t know. It was something I heard them saying a lot in the station."
"To answer your question," Fhamir came back, her expression not so cheerful, "he?s not fluent in the Falleen language. The other man asked how things had been that day. Your commander gleefully replied, "shoot the humans."
Matic?s eyes went wide; even with its greenish tint, his face flushed red. Luke placed a hand over his mouth, suppressing a laugh.
"We?re here," Fhamir declared as they halted by a large door in the middle of the hallway. "Just remember, follow my lead."
Both Luke and Matic nodded in unison, and then passed through the sliding doors. The bridge wasn?t that large, but it possessed mounds of equipment. There were six stations in total, one for navigation near the front. There was one for piloting. Another was a database?and the others seemed to be for a copilot, communications and weapon controls.
"Everyone!" Fhamir shouted, and stalked to the center of the room, "I need to send a transmission. All of you can leave early. And, tell the next shift to remain outside until I say. Am I clear?"
She glanced at Luke and Matic. Both held still, watching her work.
Slowly, the others in the room started to vacate. A particular Falleen near Fhamir clapped his hands to hurry everyone out. Luke recognized him. It was Fhamir?s second in command, Jeire.
"All right, move," he told them. "You know the routine?"
"You included, Jeire," Fhamir declared.
Immediately, he went on the defensive. "But, your highness?"
"That?s a direct order, Commander," she replied. "New information has come to my attention, and I need this room cleared. Understood?"
With that, Jeire jerked his head toward Luke and Matic. "What about them?"
"Must I explain everything?" She rubbed her eyes. "The Jedi?s commander accidentally gave me some information. These two," she fanned a hand at Luke and Matic, "were witnesses. Clear?"
"No, ?buts?, Jeire. I want you to leave. Understand?"
He frowned at Fhamir as if she'd just pushed him two feet back. Nevertheless, he was gone a second later, leaving Luke, Matic, and the Queen inside the bridge alone.
Wrapping his arms around his back, Luke smiled at the woman. "Thank you."
"This is a partnership, Master Skywalker," she replied firmly. "Not mercy. Here," she spoke, and drew a tiny chip from her belt, "I want you to see this."
Luke walked to the woman?s side as Matic followed. Sliding the tiny chip into the database near the right of the bridge, she activated the screen by its side.
"This is what every royal house on Falleen received close to three months ago," Fhamir explained, and waited the screen to flashed alive.
It only took a second. As it did, Matic Pace gasped, taking a step away from the database. Luke gazed on as his mouth slowly dropped with disgust.
The picture that played out was just like his vision all those weeks before on Yavin Four. Except now, it was Falleen. A pasty light gray, all of them lay heaving on the floor, blood, vomit and other fluids surrounding them like puddles from rain. There were children in the room, their dead bodies being cradled by adults. It was just like the humans?the same revolting scene with the same agony. Luke lifted the back of his hand to his lips, and released another massive cough. He avoided looking at the screen again, and focused on Fhamir. Apparently, she noticed his expression, and then shut off the screen.
"We got a message from the master about an hour later," she explained, and pulled out the chip from the database. "He explained that the Falleen in the pictures were from a transport vessel away from our planet. He captured them, infecting them?" she trailed off. "His orders were simple. He gave each royal house the human virus, ordering them to disperse it everywhere they could. Get our servants, our noblemen?everyone to follow our orders without question. We were to start at the Outer Rim and move inwards. That way, by the time Coruscant discovered what was happening, it would be too late to create any type of cure."
"Why didn?t he merely try doing this on his own?" Matic asked as he came back up to them.
With that, Fhamir presented an unpleasant smirk. "One man against a universe? No, even if he ended up killing thousands of humans, the virus would never spread quickly enough. The New Republic would eventually discover the virus? components on their own, and fix the problem. Unlike Falleen, humans are everywhere in the galaxy. We merely live on our planet. A disease would spread like fires to a jungle there. By the time we would find a cure, most of us would already be dead." Tearing up, Fhamir wiped a hand across her face, and then motioned to Luke. "Are you ready to contact your ship?"
He bowed his head. "Yes. Again, thank you."
"No, ?thank you?s?," she immediately snapped, and pointed at the transmitter near the front of the bridge. "Move?transmit?contact. Simple, yes?"
"Very," Luke replied, and hurried to the console.
It was an unusual blend of old Imperial, Old Republic, and Falleen switches. The odd configuration took him a second. Matic approached his side, witnessing, and desperately considering any way to assist.
"There we go," Luke declared.
Surveying the viewpoint of space, a thin, long part of the bridge?s wall sparked to life.
Luke shut his eyes for a moment, relieved; he glanced at Fhamir. Cross-armed, her expression was glued to the wall, her skin an uncomfortable shade of blue-ish gray.
Mara had discovered a way to get along with everyone on Pace's ship. She was tempted to keep Chadal and Weo trapped in the cockpit. Both had almost reached the point of pulling weapons to retrieve the blasted datapad. Fortunately, it didn't need to come to that. By the time Mara was through with it, Ross' datapad had so many codes, numbers and encryptions, only a master slicer like Ross would be capable of un-scrambling it. Once again, her former experience in the world of smugglers had paid off.
Reclining in the galley of the ship, Mara ate her bowl of rations, and observed to the right as Traya and Chadal attempted madly to uncover the information inside the tiny database. Mara grinned as Chadal's eyes met hers with a glare?
"Jedi Skywalker," a voice?Weo's?boomed through the comm system of the ship. "Move your butt up here. Now."
Swallowing the last bit her dinner, Mara removed herself from the table, and started to the front of the ship. Chadal was quick to follow, keeping her pace with Mara.
Pressing her hand across the door's opening plate, Mara peeked inside the cockpit. Her heart sank. Staring at the tiny screen attached to the console's main systems, her entire body froze. The Force rippled?her bottom lip began to tremble.
"Hello, sweetheart," he spoke through the holo. "How are you?"
"Luke!" she shouted, and scrambled into the seat beside Weo. "Where are you? Are you all right?"
"We don't have time for this," a deep female's voice barked from the holo.
Luke redirected his gaze away, nodded, and then twisted back to his wife. "Mara," he spoke more critically, "have you transmitted the information from Ross' datapad to Coruscant yet?"
"No!" Chadal screamed from behind. "She won't let us! She?"
"It's imperative that you hold that information until you reach Coruscant," Luke elaborated. "Otherwise, the entire Falleen race will be killed."
Mara blinked; she flung a glance at Chadal. The other woman's face had drained from dark tan to milky white as if she had been shot again.
For the next few minutes, Luke explained the situation. The Falleen?their war?the human disease?all of it. They transmitted a disturbing video of the dying Falleen as the climax. By the time he finished, Mara and everyone else in the cockpit were in utter disarray. There were no words to be proclaimed. The entire circumstance had just become ten times more complicated.
Using the Force to shake off the quivers roaming through her spine, Mara got back to business. She asked her husband, "Why did they want you, then? The Jedi?"
"Have never been experimented on," Luke replied. "Whoever this 'master' is, he wanted to see if the virus could kill us as well. That way, if the disease spreads, he wouldn't have to worry about the human Jedi being able to survive."
"Good luck," Mara grumbled. "If you've been attempting to heal Ross as much as you say, then their experiment isn't valid. You've been busy trying to heal him as opposed to yourself." She paused, staring at Luke's exhausted expression. "You look terrible, Skywalker. Please tell me it's not getting the best of you?"
"Not yet," he replied and licked his lips. "Mara, when you get to Coruscant, I need you to look through logs, transmission records?everything. Someone there is?"
"Wait," Mara spoke, lifting a hand. Her heart suddenly skipped a beat; she eyed her husband. "You?you said this master wanted us to be infected, right?"
Narrowing his eyebrows, Luke gave a nod.
Evading her eyes away, Mara's thoughts started to catch up with her.
The only people who insisted on having the Jedi even accept the missions were Tenanete and Retafured. And, Tenanete clearly showed his appall with Luke and the other Jedi. He had the motive?the past.
And, the power.
She flashed her eyes to her husband. He blinked, awaiting a response.
"It's Senator Tenanete," Mara declared. "He was one of the Senators that?"
"Our master isn't Falleen," a Falleen woman suddenly emerged on the holo. "Why would a Falleen threaten his own race?"
"Do you know that for certain?" Mara inquired.
The other woman hesitated. She heeded Mara's accusation, and then finally seemed to give in. "No," she conceded, "I've never seen his face. It's always been hidden in the transmissions."
"But, she's right, Mara," Luke replied. "A Falleen wouldn't threaten his own race. They have too much respect for each other."
Mara pursed her lips. "Well, someone's not sharing the same feelings. Someone high enough in power to cause trouble...Luke? "
He wasn't listening to her. His eyes?always so deep in thought?appeared ensnared in their own wonderment as if he had shoved reality away from him as easily as he would a blaster bolt.
His dismayed expression pushed Mara back, not like a ripple through the Force, but more from curiosity. Something she stated had set him off?something about Tenanete?the Falleen. Unconsciously, Mara drummed her fingers on the console.
There was something there. Something hidden, something she was missing. Tenanete had treated all of the Jedi with disrespect, even resentment. But, it wasn't for being human. He didn't seem to like any of them. She dropped her gaze to the floor. It wasn't a word or name, but something that felt like a recollection permanently plastered to the tip of her tongue. Slowly, the tiny clicks of reason echo throughout her mind. No, they were right. A Falleen would never harm his own race. They were already so few left?
?"Thank the universe you've arrived!" he had shouted out with smile masking his face. "I've been counting the minutes. You?you and your Jedi are welcome here. Please, you must help us!" No, not a Falleen?
?Borsk frowned. "I didn't make the paranoia in the Senate, Jedi. In fact, if it weren't for Senator Retafured?s insistence, I would keep human Jedi out of this as well."
Yes, they were right. A Falleen wouldn't be the threat.
But, a Scyos?
Mara's vision banged into her husband's only a second later.
A leak in the New Republic?
Was desperate to retrieve as many human Jedi as possible?
Would have the motive, the power, and the connections?
"Retafured," Mara and Luke proclaimed in unison.
Everyone in the cockpit remained in a silent awe. The little electronics on the ship's console softly beeped as they performed their tasks. Mara gazed at her husband until his face began to blur in her vision. Even with the Force, Mara's heart was pounding.
"Please! Please, you must set him free! He has done nothing wrong!"
Senator Retafured's voice bounced through the large meeting hall of the Imperial Palace. Standing beside Borsk Fey?lya, the Scyos opened his hands in a pleading motion to the room. "Senator Tenanete has done nothing but attempt to create a connection between his race and your government. This act alone could mean death to any hopes in the future."
"As far as I'm concerned," one Senator called from his seat, the transmitter droid flying near his head, "any future hopes don't seem to be possible at this rate, anyway. Senator Tenanete might mean well, as you've said, but his race obviously doesn't share his views."
"That's unconfirmed!" Borsk Fey?lya shouted from Retafured's side. "The fact is, we don't know all the details to make the facts yet. One or two radical groups?"
"One or two?" a young human Senator, Viqi Shesh, stood from her seat. "Are you actually going to declare that type of number to the Senate, Senator Fey?lya? I mean, from my understanding, our scouts and mission squadrons have seen dozens of unmarked freighters running through uncharted space in the past few weeks. And, you dare to say, one or two?" Her eyes suddenly zipped past Borsk and Retafured, to another seat across the room. "And, what about you, Madam Organa Solo?" she hissed. "Have you even heard anything from your rogue Jedi yet?"
Muffling a groan, Senator Fey?lya dropped to his seat. Stationed beside President Gavrisom, Leia Organa Solo affirmed, "My brother and the other Jedi are doing all they can. I assure you, simply because they haven't contacted Coruscant does not mean they've decided to call off their sworn duties."
"Jedi don't even work with the government!" another Senator shouted. "They're loose cannons, bound by no one. They do what they want. You honestly think your reassurances count in that regard?"
"Then, I have nothing more I can give you," Organa Solo replied. "By the exaggerations you're proclaiming, sir, it sounds as if the Jedi are out in cantinas, becoming drunk and dancing the night away."
"All right!" Borsk Fey?lya?s voice rumbled. "That is enough! This is becoming just as ridiculous as the Bothan and Cammasi accusations from less than a year ago. And, we all recall how that ended."
Everyone shut their mouths. Retafured observed, listening as the beings considered what to say next?what to do. How ironic that through all their squabbles?all their debates?nothing potent ever surfaced. They were afraid.
Even the non-humans were becoming worried.
Everything was aligning into place.
"I'm sorry it didn't go well today," Leia Organa Solo said to Retafured as he regressed to his apartment inside the Imperial Palace. "Like I said, I'm going to do everything to make sure Senator Tenanete is released soon."
Retafured smiled. "I know you are. I merely hope I don't end up joining him."
"I doubt that will be an issue," Organa Solo replied. "No Scyos seems to be involved with this. In fact, a lot of people in the Senate are considering you and your race victims as well."
His grin expanded with that. Organa Solo's expression immediately tensed. Allowing his grin to fall, he cloaked a hand over his eyes. "I'm sorry," he told her tenderly. "I'm trying to be strong. To be appreciative. It's just so hard right now?"
"Things will work out," she said. "I promise you that."
She gently patted his shoulder, and then exited the apartment. Retafured waved good-bye, and closed his door. Turning around, he softly placed his back to the metal slab, and engulfed a breath. Emotional control. It required so much emotional control around that human. Retafured realized it would be difficult to be deceptive around the sister of Luke Skywalker, but he had never assumed she had been trained in the Force at all. Every facial expression he donned, every vocal shift?all amounts of zeal he might be feeling had to be subdued. Leia Organa Solo could detect it all. His ability to heave out tears with a snap of his fingers was most likely the only reason she wasn't on to him.
Soon, however, it wouldn't matter.
Soon, she would be dead.
Just like her brother, and all the human Jedi.
Slowly, another grin curved Retafured's lips. Removing himself from the door, he strode to his transmitter holo at the edge of his living courtiers, and switched it on.
The Falleen on the other end responded immediately.
"Prince Roonac," Retafured called, making sure his face was blocked from the holo. "This is your master calling. Where are you?"
"Close to the Duro system," the young prince replied, his face worn. "It'll be just another day, my master. We'll be entering the Coruscant system by standard nightfall."
A few hours passed, and everyone in on the Fast Pace was quiet. Sitting behind Mara in the cockpit, Chadal silently re-bandaged her arm. Her eyes never crossed with Mara's, her emotions so full of regret, even Mara felt sorry for the woman.
Nonetheless, it was not the time for comfort. Mara analyzed the video stream her husband had transmitted to her of the Falleen. It was supposed to be a relief when you realized what you were dealing with. It wasn't.
Every time Mara viewed the images of the Falleen's demise, the Force jostled shivers up her arms. It wasn't just a matter of the humans anymore. The Falleen required help, and unfortunately, Mara didn't know where to start.
Get Retafured?as all the others in the crew had so passionately replied to her inquiries during the previous hours. It wasn't just a matter of Retafured, though. He possessed an unknown virus for the Falleen, a disease that none of the Falleen had ever had the chance to dissect and cure. If it was supposedly destroyed during the war, then the records on it were obliterated as well. And, if someone else recovered Retafured's work?
Then, the problem could start all over again.
Biting her lip, Mara leaned forward and shut down the holo. She rolled her gaze to Weo beside her, the other woman's eyes fixated on the ship's console. Obviously sensing Mara's focus on her, she reluctantly twisted around. "Hey."
Mara gave her a tiny grin. "Hey, back. How far until we reach Coruscant?"
"Another day or so," she replied, and scanned the instruments. "This ship's going as fast as it can. Too bad it's not fast enough."
"It'll have to do," Mara explained, and rocked in her seat. "Any thoughts on what we do when we get there?"
"Kill Retafured," Chadal spoke up.
Mara huffed out a breath. "Something more?productive."
Weo shrugged. "We could get permission to search through all of his things?"
"Unless he has a self-destruct on his data systems, and back ups somewhere else." Mara rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Something less?risky."
"Why don't you just use the Force and snag the encryption codes from his brain," Chadal replied.
With that, Weo groaned. "Something possible, Chadal. Think harder."
Weo turned back to Mara, a satisfied grin on her lips. Mara, however, didn't reciprocate the expression. She stopped rocking her chair.
"Jedi Skywalker?" Weo stated, but Mara was already in action.
Shuffling her hands across the boards, she turned to Weo. "Where's the transmitter switches on this thing?"
Blinking, Weo merely pointed. Following her direction, Mara switched on the device, and put in her coordinates. Chadal instantly lifted a hand. "I thought we were waiting until we got to Coruscant?"
"To inform them, yes," Mara replied, playing with the console. "Coruscant's communications are most likely bugged. On their end. But, not on ours."
"Well, who are you calling, then?" Weo asked.
Her answer muffled through the ship's transmitter a second later. There was no image; the ship she was calling was a mere starfighter. Nevertheless, the voice was as comforting as any face could be.
"This is Colonel Darklighter of Rogue Squadron. You better have a good excuse for using this frequency."
"Hi, Gavin," Mara spoke, her lips curling upwards. "It's Mara Jade Skywalker."
"Oh, Mara," he called back, a tiny hint of laughter shooting through the speakers. "I was wondering how someone got a hold of our secured frequency. How are you?"
"Sorry to cut the conversation short, Gavin, but I need to speak with Corran Horn. Could you transfer me to his X-wing?"
"Not meaning to disappoint you, but Corran's off on the Errant Venture with his wife. Apparently, his father-in-law got a lead on a Falleen ship, and asked Corran to help out."
Mara frowned. "How did his father-in-law find out about this?"
"Ah, you know Booster Terrik. That man would know if all the stars were about ready to spontaneously explode."
Weo laughed; Mara tapped a finger on her chair. "Well, can you transfer me there?"
"It's a little far off, but sure. Just remember to play nice, Mara."
"Thanks, Gavin. May the Force be with you."
The transmitter suddenly went dead. It took a few minutes of waiting and wondering, but eventually, a voice shot through the system like a wild Tuskin Raider in a battle cry.
"This is Booster Terrik of the Errant Venture. You have three seconds to explain your call before I shut this damn thing off and leave you hanging."
"This is Mara Jade Skywalker, Terrik. That better be explanation enough."
He paused, and then, "You realize you woke me up, Jedi! This is my private frequency!"
"Ah, poor baby," Mara retorted. "I need to speak with your son-in-law. Be a good boy, and transfer me through."
"Why should I do that?"
"Because, if you don't, then I'll just have to use a mind trick. And, believe me, Terrik, I won't use a nice one."
"You little?all right. Hold on."
A second lolled by, and then the holo flashed blue. On the screen, the distinguished face of Corran Horn angled into view. Rubbing his eyes, he yawned. "Oh, hi, Mara. What do I owe the pleasure?"
"Hi, Corran. Is Mirax there as well?"
"Sure, but she's asleep."
"Can you wake her? I need some information."
"Something I can't handle?"
"Not unless you're an educated historian like Mirax."
He blinked a few times, and with a playful grin retorted, "Okay, but I'm not taking responsibility for any future hostilities."
He moved out of the screen. A second later, the black-haired image of Mirax Terrik Horn joined her husband on the holo. In the same groggy state as her husband, she looked at Mara and pursed her lips. "You realize I'm going to kill you for this later, right, Mara?"
"I'll let you kill Luke as well, as long as you listen up."
Exuding a tiny giggle, Mirax glanced at her husband. Smiling at her, then Mara, Corran merely replied, "All right, our ears are ready. What's going on?"
With that, Mara started, "Mirax, do you know anything about the Falleen's civil war?"
The other woman averted her eyes away. After a moment of thought, she came back, "Bits and pieces. It's a more difficult point in history. The Empire destroyed so many records?"
"How about the Falleen bioweapon? Anything about that?"
Pressing her lips together, Mirax nodded. "It was created after the Empire destroyed a large Falleen city. The Scyos attempting to get revenge on the Falleen."
Mara instantly cocked an eyebrow. "Why would they want to get back at the Falleen? The Scyos were the ones that helped the Empire."
Mirax just shrugged. "The Falleen were the first to create the bioweapons after the Empire's attack. They retaliated on the Scyos, attempting to annihilate all of them during the war."
"Where is it?" Mara suddenly found herself asking. "Does the Scyos disease still exist?"
"Not anymore," Mirax replied. "It's turned into lost relics. The data was destroyed years ago during the war. Good riddens, too." She peered deeper in the holo as if examining Mara's face for anomalies. "Why are you asking me this, anyway?"
"A hope," Mara replied, and huffed.
"I have records on it," Mirax explained. "Data files?text. If you're interested."
For a moment, Mara Jade Skywalker paused. Her heart quickened; the Force tickled her senses.
Shaking her head, she turned back to Mirax and Corran, and asked, "How far away are you from Coruscant?"
"Uh," Corran brushed a hand through his hair. "About a standard day. Why?"
"Because, I have an idea, and your help is imperative."
"Planning to go to war, are ya'?"
"Not exactly, but close." Mara gave him a smirk, one that Han Solo, Talon Karrde and every other conning smuggler would gawk at with admiration.
Corran's expression fell flat. He frowned at her, and cocked one eyebrow. "Uh, oh?I think I see something sinister forming in your eyes, Mara. You're not intending to blow up anything, are you?"
"Perhaps for a plan B," she replied, keeping her crooked grin. "How would you like to pull off the greatest Jedi illusion in the face of the galaxy?"
Staring at Mara, Corran Horn's face began to soften. The grogginess in Mirax's eyes flushed away. They exchanged glances, and then turned back to the holo. Both displayed the same large, mischievous grins.
Another day passed on the Falleen vessel. It surprised Matic Pace just how quiet things had become. By that point, he had expected blaster fire, daggers swinging?
And, one crazy Jedi Master in the center of it.
Nonetheless, Skywalker and the Falleen woman were resourceful. They had exited the bridge the same way they had entered the previous day, and returned to the prison. There, the Jedi had pulled off mind tricks on the dazed guards. They stood, and marched out of the room as if nothing had transpired at all.
Since then, Fhamir completed her daily routines. Instead of bringing more instruments to test Skywalker, however, she donated healing sticks for Ross, antibiotics for Matic and Luke?even a few extra blankets and food.
Skywalker stashed his lightsaber, never igniting it. He seemed at peace, but even he was plagued with the disease. Despite all the injections Matic and he received, it didn?t matter. The disease was escalating.
As Matic watched the Jedi Master meditate beside young Ross, a small but powerful cough rasped from the commander?s mouth. Drawing a hand over his lips, he cleared his throat. His body shivered. Silently, he panted, and lifted his fingers away. He froze. All five digits were shrouded with crimson ooze.
Fhamir lay in her bed, but didn?t sleep. Most beings probably couldn't survive on the amount of slumber the poor woman received, but for the first time in a long while, Fhamir's eyes were open for another reason. She was content?perhaps even excited.
There was no telling where the next few days would carry the Falleen, but at least now, they had cards to play. Now, they had a chance.
Slowly, Fhamir curled up in her bed, her eyes turning toward the door?
In the dark room, the figure was impossible to make out. His tall body blocked all the light from outside; his face contorted from the darkness. The only thing that seemed to shine was the dagger, trembling in his hand.
Quietly, Fhamir raised herself from bed, squinting to view the other being's face.
It was unnecessary. He spoke only a second later, his gentle voice veiling the room with an agonizing resonance. "Get up," Jeire ordered, and pointed the knife at her.
Without a word, Fhamir dropped her legs to the edge of the bed. Her coarse hair fell around her, unpinned and tangled. She stared up at her beloved, but couldn't find the will to speak.
He did it for her. "You betrayed us?" He sniffled back tears. "You, my queen?"
Lip quivering, Fhamir inhaled a breath. "Jeire?"
"Shut up!" he screamed, and slammed the side of his free hand into the door. "I?I checked the transfer logs, Fhamir. All of them. You hide your trail very well, my love, but not well enough." He pulled a small datapad from his pocket. With a flick of his wrist, the device soared, and landed beside Fhamir on the bed.
"You sent a data stream to a New Republic vessel," he declared, pointing his dagger again. "You?you sent them information. You sent them our data!"
Not bothering to pick up the datapad, Fhamir stood. She stepped toward Jeire, her bosom almost parallel with his blade. "I had to, Jeire," was her only reply.
Closer to him, Fhamir could finally detect the odd shade of purple he had become. His crystal violet eyes locked with hers, drenched with tears. Groaning, he placed both hands to his head, leaving the knife idle in his grasp. Slowly, he knelt down as if the bones in his legs had turned into mud.
Fhamir rested a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Please, Jeire," she whispered, "I would never betray my kind. I love you. I love them. Please, understand me."
"Was it the Jedi?" he asked.
She shook her head. "No, Jeire?no. No mind tricks?no illusions. I made a decision, my love. One I can't take back."
She closed her eyes. "Because, our master will kill us, Jeire," she explained. "We've failed. As much as you wish to deceive yourself, I can't allow us to be fooled by our own useless hopes. He has no remorse for the humans. He has no remorse for anyone. Now, maybe we'll have a chance to?"
Her words were cut in half. Jeire's hand flew so suddenly, Fhamir screamed with the impact. She whipped around, and toppled to the floor an instant later. Lying on the ground, she panted, holding the left side of her face with one hand. The tender green skin had already gone numb.
"No, my queen," Jeire spoke again, his sobs gone. He towered over her, his larger form appearing more like a phantom than a man. "You've made your decisions, but the Falleen will not share your fate. I can't let that happen. I won't."
Panting for air, Fhamir raised a hand to her beloved. Slowly, he extended his hand, and delicately touched the tips of her fingers. The moment passed quickly, however. Again his expression hardened. Seizing her wrist, he yanked her from the floor, and forced her down the hallway toward the bridge.
Matic Pace's body leaped. He almost looked like a fish flailing on a beach shore as he desperately removed himself from the corner of the room. Skywalker shouted again. Nonetheless, Matic's frantic movements were short lived; with a sudden, invisible push, he found himself sitting beside the wall by the door. Right in front of him was Skywalker, his lightsaber already burning.
The green glow appeared to alert the two guards immediately as they entered, but the Jedi Master didn't care. The Falleen bolted through; he reacted. The blasters in their grasp were slashed in half before they even had a chance to aim. Shocked, the Falleen gasped, spinning to the Jedi.
One flew into the ceiling, plummeting a second later like a bug that had lost its footing. The other lashed at Skywalker himself, using the remaining handle of his blaster as a weapon. The Jedi grabbed his wrist without hesitation, and twisted his own body away. The Falleen cried out as his larger form flipped over Skywalker's shoulder, and slammed to the metal floor. With the exception of Skywalker's panting, the room was still again.
Glancing around, Skywalker's eyes centered on Ross. Instantly, he extinguished his saber, and darted to the slicer. "Here!" he shouted at Matic. "Help with his legs!"
"What?" Matic questioned, but hurried to his side nonetheless. "Why?"
"We need to hide him," he explained as he pulled the younger man from the ground. "And, we only have about one minute to do it. Hurry!"
They hustled out of the room. There was a storage unit in the corridor, narrow, but long enough. Skywalker slid it open, and removed the access gear inside. Matic helped, throwing it back into their room?all except the blasters.
A moment later Ross was in the unit. Letting out one solid gasp, Skywalker twisted to Matic; he cocked an eyebrow. Hooked to various spots on Matic?s body were five blasters. The Jedi's eyes widened at Matic. The commander thought the other man might laugh, but instead, he explained, "We need to get to the bridge."
"I guess we're doing it the hard way," Matic explained as he checked the power supply on the blaster in his grasp.
Sweat dripping down his face, Skywalker merely glanced away somberly and nodded.
"Sir," a familiar voice rang through Jeire?s comlink, "we?ve reached the Jedi?s room, but they?re gone. Even the wounded one."
Clenching his teeth, Jeire leaned forward, and laid a hand on the console. To his side, Fhamir sat, her arms and legs bond to her royal chair.
"What should we do?" the other Falleen asked him through the device.
Blowing out a breath, Jeire replied, "Inform all your crew of the situation. But, don?t trust anyone. Keep all communications in Falleen dialect. The Jedi might attempt a cloaking trick. You hear me? No Basic."
"Yes, sir," the other being spoke.
The comlink went dead.
"This won?t work, Jeire," Fhamir told him softly. "Even if you kill them, the Jedi?s wife is already on her way to Coruscant. She already knows about Retafured?"
"And, you believe her," he hissed out. "Honestly, my queen, I wish the Jedi had entranced you. It would at least explain your insanity."
"It?s not insane to protect your race," she countered, keeping her eyes to the viewpoint. Almost sardonically, a tiny smile emerged on her lips. "But, it won?t matter now. Everything is already in motion. If we?re doomed, then it?s too late to stop it."
"Don?t make me strike you again, Fhamir," Jeire found himself saying. Drawing his attention to the communications officer, he called, "Have you contacted any Falleen vessels yet?"
"None are in our radius, sir," the other Falleen replied, and then licked her lips nervously. "The closest one is almost four standards days away, heading for the Core."
"If you?re so certain of yourself, Commander," Fhamir interrupted again, "then, why don?t you simply contact our master? I?m sure he?d love to hear our report."
A wave of nausea rose through Jeire?s gut. He heaved in a breath as he gripped the edge of the console for support. If the master knew?
"He?s going to know," she continued. "Soon, Jeire. Too soon. Then, we?ll just have to see who?s in the right here?and who is not."
"Silence!" he screamed, raising a hand.
Fhamir closed her eyes as she awaited another blow across her cheeks. Staring at her, however, Jeire?s arm weakened; quietly, he lowered his hand, and gazed at the viewpoint.
"Can't you cloak us or something?" Pace's voice shouted through the hallway.
It had just taken a moment to find trouble. Or more appropriately stated, for trouble to find them.
"They're already alerted to us!" Luke replied, and hauled up his lightsaber. "I don't think I can explain a long glowing blade and my apparent ability to deflect blaster bolts, anyway." He rolled his eyes. "Will you stay behind me, please?"
"I'm trying!" Matic wailed, and aimed his blaster.
The Falleen fell before he even realized what had happened.
"Don't try!" Luke yelled back, sending another wave of blaster bolts back to the small Falleen group in front of him. "Do it! There isn't a try here!"
Firing again, Pace questioned, "Is that Jedi philosophy?"
With the Force, Luke grabbed a hold of Pace and pushed. The commander yelped in surprise, a blaster bolt from the Falleen zooming through the spot his head had recently been. Luke shot him a glare. "Right now, it's a philosophy of, do it if you don't want to get shot!"
Luke whirled back around to the Falleen. Sweat dripped down the Jedi?s face, arms and legs as his body attempted to keep up with his mind. Cold chills charged his limbs like tiny shards of ice, but his concentration held sturdy. He could control the pain.
He wouldn't allow a virus to take him so easily.
Eyes fastened to the Falleen in front of him, he pulled his lightsaber back and extended his free hand. The Force reacted to his command like a reflex. The Falleen were thrown back, but not far. They landed hard on their backs, and groaned in pain.
Stealing the advantage, Luke snatched one of Pace's wrists and ran. The commander's weak body staggered from fatigue, but the other man didn't complain. They continued down the corridors, heading for the bridge.
Coruscant. It had taken Mara and the crew another solid day to reach the city-planet. Mara sat in the pilot's seat of the Fast Pace, and gawked at all the lights. They alone could display just how many lives were at stake. Unconsciously, Mara re-adjusted her hands on the controls as Weo watched by her side.
Not bothering to glance at the other woman, Mara spoke, "You ready for this?"
"Ready?" Weo came back, and blew out an exaggerated whine. "Oh, there's no 'ready' in this, sister. I have my restraining belt on. That's about as ready as I'm gonna get."
Mara smiled, but still didn't turn to her. For the past day, they had attempted to strategize how they could reach Leia Organa Solo without alerting Retafured to their presence. It was true that through the Force, Mara was close enough to the capital planet to merely reach out and alert Leia that way?
Of course, when has anything ever been that simple? While Leia was close by, she was busy speaking with an ambassador on a nearby transport vessel. Mara had already contacted her, but there was no way Leia could help them enter Coruscant from their present state. They were too close to the vast planet to move away. In all essence, they were on their own.
"Chadal?Traya," Mara called out over her shoulder. "You ready?"
"As much as Weo," Traya replied. With the Force, Mara could tell the man was sweating.
As the Fast Pace soared past the positioned satellites hovering around Coruscant like an electronic halo, their transmitter was quick to receive the call.
"This is Coruscant security," a voice sizzled through the comm system. "Identify yourself, then wait for an escort vessel."
"I'm sorry?" Mara called back as she zoomed the ship closer to Coruscant's atmosphere. "What was that?"
The man sighed, and repeated, "This is Coruscant security. Slow your vessel to according limits, and give your identification marks."
"What?" Mara shouted back. "Describe our ship's parts?"
"Slow your vessel!" he yelled that time. "I'm not asking again!"
"What?" was Mara's last reply. Flipping a switch of the console, the angry cries of the other being went dead throughout the ship.
With that, Mara gave Weo a sardonic smirk; she asked, "Gee, you think they fell for that one?"
"Playing dumb?" Weo replied, and then shook her head. "By this point, I don't think we are."
Mara didn't have time to laugh. The Force rippled as if Mara was in the center of a field full of stormtroopers; hands clasped to the ship's controls, she stared down at the planet and gasped. A whole squadron of New Republic starfighters was racing up to greet them. Even a few modified X-wing fighters, and B-wings. Mara licked her lips. She hadn't expected that much of a welcoming party.
"Looks like they've tightened security," Chadal called from behind. "Good thing we have our restraining belts!"
"Hold on!" Mara shouted, and jerked the controls to the right.
The Fast Pace spun off from the starfighters in front of them like a speeder gone mad. Flipping over once, Mara immediately sensed the fighters behind her.
The Force shook. She yanked at the controls again. The vessel launched upwards, and then down as it avoided blaster fire. Coruscant's lights were becoming bright in the viewpoint. Pulling deeper into the atmosphere, other bystanding transport vessels mutated into a new line of blockade.
Chadal shouted; Weo and Traya cursed.
Mara swerved their ship from one port to another, almost clipping a Mon Calamari ship's outer satellite saucer. Her comm system was blinking like crazy. Everyone wanted to speak with them.
The Force was in her grip. She felt it?flowed with it. The sensation was calming, but her body was still a rigged board. The security fighters kept right behind her, never deserting their tail. No matter how many maneuvers she spewed out, there was no losing them.
A blaster bolt jostled the ship. Mara blinked, clenching the controls in her hands.
Weo checked the systems. "Back shields just went dead!" she shouted, and tossed a look at Mara.
From behind, Traya's curses rang throughout the cockpit.
Chadal only spoke one thing. "We are going to die."
"Just keep the optimism up back there!" Mara snapped, and then switched on the comm system again. There were no more chances of a peaceful getaway. If she allowed the Fast Pace to be shot down, then the entire human race would crash with it.
The angry voices of the starfighter pilots, Coruscant's ground security, and even a few bystanding transport vessels hissed through the cockpit like Traya's cursing. Pressing the output button, Mara shouted, "We don't want to fight you! You have exactly two seconds to call off your fighters before I turn my guns your way."
Static engulfed the comm, and then, "All right, peaceful explorers," a voice snapped back, "then, would you mind explaining why you're running off?"
"Your two seconds are up," Mara reported. "Just remember, I warned you."
"Warning noted," the man replied darkly.
The comm was silent.
From her right, Weo frowned at her. "Don't tell me you actually expected that to work?"
"No," Mara explained, "but, I had to try. It's a Jedi thing."
"Okay?" the last of Weo's statement trailed off into a gasp.
The Fast Pace abruptly soared upwards. Drawing the controls back to her chest, Mara groaned. The vast lights of Coruscant shifted to the stars of space. The ship rumbled with her piercing roll as if it was ready to split into two. Clenching her teeth, Mara snapped the controls to the left. Darting upwards from Coruscant, the ship was almost in a tailspin.
Everyone shouted in panic.
Everyone but Mara.
The Force consumed her. She breathed with it, becoming a part of it. She could see the fighters in the back of her mind?see them attempt to pull off the same maneuver. Some passed through in their tiny ships. Others were losing altitude, their vessels not willing to follow behind. One veered too far to the left?
The tiny starship couldn't manage. The low orbiting satellite was small, but the size didn't matter. The fighter collided with it the same it would another ship. The explosion was like a dim spark of life, and then nothing.
Mara winced. Her hands loosened on the controls, her heart pounding with guilt. Nonetheless, the Force was still blaring, and her emotions were still set; after another second, she found her composure again.
And, just as she had pulled the Fast Pace up through the wild atmosphere of Coruscant, she allowed it to plummet.
Yanking the controls away from her body, she twisted them right. The tip of the vessel spun back toward the planet. The other starfighters would have never expected the move. None were prepared.
Too close, the fighters scrambled to escape.
Mara had one in her sights. She pressed the button at the tip of her controls. Without the Force, there was no doubt in Mara's mind that she couldn't pull off such a feat. Nevertheless, as the energy filled her, her vision crisp in both her eyes and mind, the red sparks of fire rang from her ship, and snagged the fighter. Its wing instantly fractured as if made from rotted wood; the pilot ejected from his ship. Mara passed by without another thought, moving toward the others.
They were not ready, either.
She fired again.
Again, another pilot ejected.
She was on to the fourth one when a wild wave of the Force zipped up her back. Even set in her emotions, a breath of air was forced out of her lungs. There was no Force needed. The mass of ships shooting up from Coruscant to greet them was visible to all peering eyes.
"Mara," Weo gently muttered, and pointed.
"Yeah," Mara mumbled back, her lip trembling.
Reaching out with the Force, she closed her eyes for the last seconds of peace her and the rest of the ship's crew would endure. The few tiny moments, however, did not go to waste.
Pushing out with her mind, Mara called out for the last ounce of hope?to the only one who had a chance of helping them.
Mara's voice struck Leia like a bantha howling three inches from her ear. Scurrying across the hangerbay of the Imperial Palace from Ambassador Niea?s vessel, Leia Organa Solo almost collapsed.
Her sister-in-law was strong and determined. So was her plea.
Gasping, Leia grabbed the edge of her light blue dress, and lifted the hem off the ground. Other Senators pitched her funny looks as she darted down the vast corridor of the Palace, her long brown strands falling from their pins.
Waves of fighters were there to block the way. Inner city speeders sped up from the lowest parts of the atmosphere to create a barrier for the single vessel before it could reach the vast city-planet. There were too many for Mara to count. Even with the Force.
"Well," Weo spoke from her side, "I think we can consider this the blunder of our plan."
"Or, an omen," Traya replied, gripping the edges of his seat.
"Or, an execution," Chadal added.
With that, Mara merely huffed. "Again, your optimism is sending me to tears, guys. Thank you."
They spoke nothing after that. Of course, it probably wasn't Mara's retort that had silenced them. The first surge of Coruscant fighters wheeled passed, sending off a wave of firepower as they flew.
The next group to come in was just as deadly.
"I think this can be considered a blunder, yes," Mara muttered as she twisted the controls this way and that.
It didn't matter. Coruscant?s fighters were in every direction. There was no escape. Even with the Force, with all her abilities, Mara knew they were losing.
Then, it happened. It wasn't so much as a relief as a feeling of comfort?a dim glow in the middle of all the chaos. At first, Mara thought that somehow?some way?Leia had found a ship and decided to join the fight.
Nonetheless, as the presence drew closer, Mara was already thanking the Force. It didn't take long for it to reach her. As it did, the comm system on the Fast Pace beeped.
Jerking at the controls, Mara swiftly flipped on the comm before going back to the fight.
"Need a little help?" the voice of Corran Horn said through the system.
"Yes!" Mara shouted back, and corkscrewed her ship to avoid another blast. "Yes, Corran?please! I'll even marry you. Just help!"
"A proposal?wow. I'm flattered."
"I'm here?I'm here," he called back.
An X-wing shot through the vast sea of Coruscant fighters. Spinning one way, it screamed as a tide of red fire discharged from the ends of its wings. The other ships seemed to hesitate at that, unsure what had just transpired. Mara could sense their shock.
Its affect was only momentary. Half of the ships broke off, following Corran. The others?
Blasts came and went. Fire hit her ship. She replied with her own blaster power. The fighting continued.
"You must have really pissed them off, Mara," Corran spoke, his voice strained.
Groaning as she throw the Fast Pace into another round of turns and twirls, the Force shot up her back. "You've got five behind you, Corran!"
"You have seven!" he shouted. "Didn't you notice we're a touch outnumbered?"
"Corran!" Mara screamed as she watched his ship disappear through the middle of the starfighters and vessels.
Her heart pounded. Goosebumps formed on her arms and legs. The Force tried to calm her, but there was no use. She attempted to sense for his presence, but the belt of starfighters wouldn't allow her to do anything but dodge blaster bolts.
Then, just as easily as it had vanished, the X-wing of Corran Horn came to Mara's side. Mara sucked in a breath in relief, and scorned, "Don't do that."
"Wasn't trying to," he replied. "In fact, three were still tailing right behind me?then suddenly stopped pursuit."
"They?," he paused, and then yelled in a feverish tone, "Mara?look!"
Corran didn't have to say it. Slowly, the immense body of ships dropped their attack. One after another, they reverted towards the Coruscant as if connected by an invisible cord.
"What in the worlds?" Weo started, but Mara already had a hand on the comm.
Switching the frequency, the voice of Coruscant's security spoke, "Repeat?unmarked freighter. You're permitted to venture forward. Courtesy of one Leia Organa Solo."
"You heard me!" Jeire shouted at his officer.
The other Falleen blinked at him, but was otherwise motionless. Aggravated, Jeire rolled his eyes.
"Destroy the navigation system!" Jeire yelled. "If we're going to fail, then we all fail together. Us, and the Jedi!"
"We'll end up just floating in space," the other being finally explained. "Our mission?"
"Just do what he wants," Fhamir said from Jeire's side. "He insists on a victory. No matter how pathetic."
"Shut up, Fhamir," he snapped. "Just?sit there."
Her reply was so filled with sarcasm, its residue could almost be seen throughout the air. Jeire clenched his jaw as he glimpsed back at his communication's officer.
"Contact the closest Falleen vessel!" he ordered.
The other Falleen licked his lips. "Sir, they're over three and a half days away?"
"And, we need help!" he replied. "Send the message, sir. Or, I'll do it."
The Falleen merely looked down at his console, and nodded.
Jeire's eyes returned to the viewpoint. Softly, he listened to the faint noise of blaster fire resonating through the airs vents on the bridge. He rubbed his eyes, and motioned a hand to another Falleen near the corner of the bridge. "Craluw, come here, please."
Silently, the soldier faced Jeire, his eyes locked respectively to the commander's. Silently, Jeire extended a hand, pulling a small device from the side pouch of the other man's jacket. With a flick of his fingers, he adjusted the dial on the instrument's front; its buttons flashed active.
Fhamir was right about one factor; everything was already in motion. There wasn't anything Jeire could do to prevent it?if he merely stood there, and allowed it to occur. That was something he had no intention of doing.
"Take this to the main power grid," he explained to the other Falleen, and handed back the device. "The Jedi is coming down the main hallway, so use the ventilation shaft to reach the West corridor. If I don't contact you in ten minutes?"
He paused, glancing at Fhamir. Her eyes were wide.
Nonetheless, he ordered the Falleen, "Blow up the ship's power supply. Like I said, if we're going to fail, we fail together."
The guard merely bowed his head, and then left the bridge without a word spoken.
Slowly, Jeire twisted his eyes back to his beloved. A frown was chiseled on her face. "What are you doing, Jeire?" she asked, more like a mother than his queen.
With that, his eyes hardened to stone; he smiled nevertheless. "It's simple, your highness. I can't defeat a Jedi Master. But, I can play his dirty little games." Placing his hands behind his back, he stood strong and tall. "If he likes mind games, then I am certain of one thing. He is going to truly love mine."
Luke and Pace ran down the ship's corridor. Pace coughed, attempting to keep up with Luke, but his legs wobbled. He had already fallen twice on the way to the bridge, heaving as the sweat on his face dripped to the floor.
He was in so much pain, some of it was affecting Luke. He could feel the other man's agony, but Pace never once asked for help or complained. He removed himself from the floor, and struggled forward.
On their tails followed a squadron of Falleen. They shot out; Luke deflected their bolts, sending several of their pursuers to the ground.
"How much farther is it?" Pace asked as he aimlessly pointed his blaster and fired into the pursuing crowd.
"Down the hallway?to the right," Luke replied. "You can't recall?"
"Too busy trying not to get shot," he came back, keeping ahead of Luke.
Normally, Luke would roll his eyes at the other man. Nonetheless, his body ached?his disease was progressing. The Falleen donated no sympathy. They continued to fire, the red beams soaring at Luke from his face to his legs. Whatever hope they had once possessed for experimenting on him seemed lost. Luke continued to deflect their shots as he hurried to the bridge to find Fhamir.
Mara had decided to land her vessel on a landing pad near the Imperial Palace, but not on it. Every ship was checked there, and anyone would recognize her and Corran in a flash. On a smaller tower to the Palace?s right, Mara and the others spotted Leia Organa Solo waiting to greet them.
As usual, the other woman was in proper form. A Senator?s dress wrapped around her figure, the petite sister-in-law strolled toward them. Her hair was put up in braids, but some had fallen, and were now draping her shoulders. She reached Mara, and embraced her.
"Thank you," Mara spoke, and released her sister-in-law. "You saved us."
"You're welcome," Leia replied with a nod. "I was hoping my political influence would be useful someday. I'm just a little curious as to why I had to use it in the first place."
Mara frowned. "What did you tell Security?"
Leia's soft expression didn't waver. "Basically, what they needed to here. Classified this...such nonsense."
"They bought that?"
"Why wouldn't they? I have to inform President Gavrisom what's going on, but he?ll go along with whatever?s needed if there?s a reason. As far as anyone else is concerned, it was a pile of drunken pilots playing games." She suddenly cocked an eyebrow. "What is going on, by the way?"
"Long story," Corran Horn interrupted from the side.
"Hello, Corran," Leia said. "What are you doing here?"
"Master plan," was his reply.
Mara threw him a smirk, then spoke to Leia, "Mirax is on her way as well."
"Flying in?" Leia asked.
"Using normal channels," Mara replied. "Unlike her husband, she didn?t have to worry about concealing information from the New Republic?s capital."
"Speaking of spouses?," Leia trailed off as she raised an eyebrow.
All Mara could offer was a frown. "He?s onboard a Falleen vessel. That?s why I need to speak with you. The situation has become a lot more complex."
It had taken a short time to explain everything to Leia. Thankfully, Mara?s sister-in-law could listen once and understand it all. She merely nodded at Mara through the conversation, popping questions here and there, but basically just absorbing it all.
By the time they finished, Leia's jaw was clenched together as if her upper teeth were trying to crush the lower ones into powder.
"We can't just assume that Retafured is behind all of this," Leia explained after a minute. "We have to make sure for ourselves."
"What do you have in mind?" Weo asked from her side.
With that, Leia merely looked up at the group, and lifted her chin with the same mischievous twitch that would even have sent Han Solo back a pace or two.
All four arrived in the Imperial Palace minutes later, leaving Weo, Chadal, and the others behind. Their job was to contact Dr. Ooles, Leia and her family's trusted doctor, and present Ross' datapad. At the moment, neither Mara nor Leia wanted to take chances with it.
Just like Corran, Mara had her Jedi robe with her. She veiled herself completely with its hood, angling her head to the floor as she ventured inside the Imperial Palace. It was unlikely anyone would recognize them as more than mere Jedi.
In the tower's turbolift, Mara glanced at her sister-in-law. Leia was calm, staring at the wall with an impassive face. Just like her brother, there was tranquility about her that contrasted the rest of the galaxy. It was times like those when Mara could truly see the similarities in her husband and his twin. Leia never permitted her demeanor to shudder?her stance to stagger. Silently, Mara lowered her head back to the floor as the turbolift eased to a halt. They exited the lift, and strode down the hallway.
"It's this one," Leia told them as they approached an apartment's door. "He's in a diplomatic meeting at the moment."
"Probably attempting to gain sympathy in the Republic," Corran explained.
Leia was already fiddling with the door; Corran instantly bent down to help. Any Force-use could set off the security alarms, and demand explanation. There was no need with a former rebel, security man, and two retired smugglers in the area. Toying with a few wires in the door's computer system, the thin metal slab opened partway.
They entered, and shut the door. The entire place was pitch black.
"Doesn't enjoy letting the light in," Mirax commented, and turned on a lamp.
"I suppose not," Leia muttered back, and wandered toward the edge of the room.
Mara, Corran, and Mirax followed. Sitting comfortably on a simple wooden table was Retafured's communications holo.
"If he's smart," Leia spoke, "then, he would have erased all the memory cells from his contact transfers. That way, if anyone decided to check?"
"All they would find was erased data," Corran replied, and then glanced at Mara. "Could you pass me that statue?"
Standing next to another small table, Mara snatched up the metal decoration and handed it to the other Jedi.
Corran turned back to Leia and smiled. "May I?"
Silently, Leia shifted her body out of the way, and gestured a hand at the holo. "By all means."
Corran didn't reply. Steadying the heavy metal statue in his hands, he slammed it into the holo with a thundering crack. The device dented, but didn't break. He tried again; the same result. Staring at it, he pressed his lips together. "Expensive piece of junk, huh?"
"Here," Mirax stated, and grabbed the statue. "Why must you make everything so complex, my love?"
With one simple move, she jabbed the end of the statue into one of the holo's edges. It fractured, splintering apart. A satisfied grin on her face, Mirax turned to her husband, and passed the statue back to him.
He slouched his shoulders. "Show off."
Silently, Mara stepped forward, and peeled off the holo's side completely?the top a second later. There was extra wiring?extra filters. A drunken pilot could see the modifications Retefured had conceived. Lousy backstabbing little creep that he was.
Leaning forward, Mara yanked out one of its panels, scanning it over. She spotted an extra contraption connected to the device; gently, she pulled it off, and displayed it for everyone to view.
She could already hear Leia groan in anger. Mara merely smirked.
"Let me ask you something," Mara asked everyone. "What type of Senator has an encrypting system hooked into his transmission holo?"
"One that doesn't want an angry mass of Falleen tracking down his signal," Leia came back, and fetched the device from Mara's hand. "And, to think, I was actually trying to help him."
With that, Mara smiled. "Oh, don't worry, Leia. You're going to get your chance to get him back. Very soon, in fact."
Minutes went by. From behind, the Falleen were pursuing Luke and Pace. Everyone on the ship was alert to their presence. All were attempting to block their path.
The sweat dribbled down Luke Skywalker's brow, but he strived forward. The pace was slow but steadfast, and as he and Pace finally turned the corner of the alien vessel, the door to the ship's bridge was in sight.
Luke smiled, but the grin vanished as another set of firepower flashed near his face. He brought his lightsaber up, shoving the red beams for him and Pace back the same direction they had sprung. A Falleen screamed, and fell over.
"Get behind the door!" Luke shouted at Pace, and pointed at the bridge's entrance.
Raising a curious eyebrow, the other man abided by Luke's instructions. Pulling with the Force again, Luke hooked his eyes to the Falleen
Just as before, he took that power?and pushed.
The Falleen vaulted backwards in the air, and toppled together on the floor. Even the ones Luke hadn't propelled fell as the others rammed them hard into the ground. The blaster fire halted. With that, Luke rushed to the bridge's door.
He would only get one chance.
"The blast door has been closed," Pace explained, and ripped off the side panel the door's controls on the wall. "If you give me a second?"
"No time," Luke explained, and then stabbed the end of his saber into the entrance.
It eased in like a needle through a tunic. Silently, he twisted it, rotating the blade gently around. He could feel the metal on the other end start to melt?
"Skywalker!" Pace shouted.
Luke didn't require more warning. Yanking the saber from the door's thick metal, he observed as the Falleen he had just thrown down started to recover. Shaking their heads, some already had their blasters out.
"Get behind me," Luke explained to Pace.
The commander did as requested, but seemed surprised as Luke started to back both himself and Pace away from the door. Sick, sweaty and tired, Luke still stretched out with the Force. If he couldn't do things the easy way?
Then the hard one would just have to suffice.
Closing his eyes, he held his lightsaber loosely in his right hand, dropping his head back to face the lights on the ceiling?
He lifted his other hand.
The bridge's door screeched.
He drew his hand back.
In his mind, he could see the display as easily as with his eyes open. Almost like an explosion, the thick metal slab ruptured from its frame. An agonizing shrill was enough for everyone in the corridor. Pace yelled, kneeling down to place hands to his ears.
Eyes remaining shut, Luke still surveyed the Falleen in front of him. They gazed madly at the floating door in the hallway as if it was a Wampa snowcreature and they were Taun-Tauns. Their blasters trembled.
Luke offered a second for them to retreat. Only a few took advantage. Reaching down for one final wave of energy, Luke lifted his hand again. He shoved it away from himself. The metal door was quick to comply. Some of the Falleen screamed, finally retreating away.
It didn't matter.
The door came crashing down. Most of the Falleen escaped its chaos in their flight. Some, unfortunately, did not. As the rumbles of the massive metal door came to a halt, one thing was clear. The Falleen on the other side of it were not coming through.
The barrier stood tall in the hallway from the ceiling to the wall. Slightly tilted, the corners on both the upper right and lower left dented the corridor's metal sides as if they were made out of soft clay instead of metal.
Clinging to his concentration, Luke took in a breath, and released. The Force cooled; the virus touring around his body didn't waste time. Aching shivers swarmed over his limbs, and causing an ironic display of both sweat and goosebumps. Luke had just enough time to shut down his lightsaber before a terrible cough spewed from his lungs.
Bending over, he caught the spasms with each breath; he called to the Force to control them. It wasn't enough. Inhaling, he coughed again, and steadied all the concentration as he could muster. Slowly, the spasms complied. He stood back up, taking in a new breath of air.
It was becoming harder to manage now.
Soon, it might be impossible.
"Having problems?" a voice echoed in the room, sending Luke back into reality.
Bringing his tired eyes to bump into the other being's, Luke sighed. Commander Jeire stood in the center of the room, arms crossed. He held no blaster, but the others around him were swift to compensate. All except Fhamir, sitting beside the man, her arms tied behind her back.
With that, Jeire gestured a hand toward the room. "Are you planning to come in, or loiter by the door? It's rude, you realize."
Quietly, Luke entered. Lightsaber still in his grasp, he kept it deactivated. Pace followed suspiciously, making sure to remain behind Luke.
Flicking his eyes at one Falleen to the other, Luke silently brought his hands down. "I apologize," he replied. "The last thing I want to be accused of is sloppy manners."
"I'm sure," Jeire hissed with the sarcasm practically oozing down his lips. Tilting his head to the side, the commander casually shrugged. "So, how many of my men did you kill on this run, Skywalker? A dozen?"
"I have no intentions to harm your crew?," Luke started, but was immediately cut off.
Infuriated, Jeire slammed his fist into the table by his side. Fhamir flinched, but said nothing. Jeire kept his eyes fixed on Luke's. "You're a sick man, Master Jedi. Sick! It's one thing to attack my people?honestly?honorably?but to lie about it?"
"Shut up!" the commander screamed, and grasped his large hand to the back of Fhamir's throat. She winced, but held still.
Gently licking his lips, Luke stared softly at the other man. His face. His disposition. Jeire was desperate. He would do anything to keep Luke and Pace from capturing his ship.
Calmly, Luke stepped forward. Some of the other Falleen reacted, hoisting their weapons. Luke kept his eyes to Jeire, and peacefully lifted his hands up to his shoulders. He spoke, "There's no need for this, Commander. I don't want to harm you or your crew. No one. Please, believe me."
With that, Jeire sneered. "A Jedi mind trick, Skywalker?"
"Just the truth. I promise you."
"Ah," Jeire nudged his head up, then glanced at the timer on his database's console. "Three minutes," he spoke, and sniffed his nose at the Jedi Master.
Luke frowned. Lowering his arms, he asked, "What's in three minutes?"
"The fate of this vessel," Jeire replied, and gently placed his hands on Fhamir's shoulders. "You see, Master Jedi, you're not the only one with options on this ship. In fact, I'm going to give you my two." He smiled again, but the expression was already jittering chills up Luke's spine. "Either you tell me the exact location of your crew's vessel?or, we all get to die together."
Luke immediately stretched out with the Force. He connected with Jeire, searching for a fail-safe device?a detonator in the other being's grasp. There was nothing. No weapon. Nothing more than a simple dagger on his belt. The findings, however, didn't satisfy Luke's senses.
"You can't stop it," Jeire explained. "One of my crew men has put a detonator on a sensitive part of this vessel. If I don't call him in three?no, wait, two and a half minutes, then it'll blow. All I have to do," he crossed his arms, "is stand here, and wait. How about you?"
"Luke," Pace suddenly murmured from his side.
Luke tossed him a glimpse, but said nothing. He reached out with the Force, for every presence on the ship?every light. Nonetheless, there were many roaming through all parts of the ship. It was impossible to distinguish which one Jeire was talking about. Sighing, Luke twisted back to the Falleen commander. "You're right," he declared, contorting Fhamir's expression into more dismay. "I can't stop you. You have the power right now?the objective. However, there's a problem with your options, sir."
"Oh, yes?what is that?"
"Our ship has already reached Coruscant," Luke replied.
Silently, Jeire dropped his arms. His face suddenly shifted color, a deep dark violet shading all of his features. The other Falleen were the same?silent, afraid. All but Fhamir, who sat with a bright green glow about her.
Taking in a breath, Luke explained, "They've already had enough time to reach the planet?to hand over your data. There's nothing I can do to stop them, Jeire. Even if I desired." He paused, and then spoke in a tone no louder than a whisper, "But, things don't have to end this way. You still have a chance to stop the violence. Right now."
Jeire's gaze pierced into Luke. His lip trembled, but he was unable to speak.
Luke took another step forward. "I'm not your enemy, Commander. It's your master that has done this. Not you. Not me. He's the traitor."
"No," Jeire's voice trembled loudly throughout the bridge. "The humans will regain control again. They'll take power, enslave us all?"
"You're already enslaved, Jeire. Doing the bidding of one man as opposed to an Empire. There is no difference except size."
Jeire was taken aback that, and his breathing mutated into pants. The statement caught a nerve, and Jeire didn?t seem to know what to do with it. Closing his eyes for a moment, he muttered, "But, I suppose you're going to stop this, right? You, Jedi, are going to save us?"
"With every ability I possess. But, that's all I can offer."
"That's not good enough."
"It might be?if we work together."
"Liar," Jeire shot back, his eyes sharp and twisted like a Bantha's horn. "All Jedi do is spout lies to control the weak. Like your crew, and everyone around you."
"Actually," Pace's voice suddenly called out into the silenced room. Jeire turned to him, surprised. Emerging from behind Luke, Pace looked out at the Falleen and grinned. "I don't like Jedi, either. In fact, this has been the first time I've had to work with one. And, to be honest, it hasn?t been my best mission to date."
Jeire groaned. "Make a point!"
Pace lifted a hand. "My point is this, Commander. I don't like Jedi. A pile of arrogant beings going about, attempting to play hero. I've never liked them, and probably never will. But," he paused, glancing at Luke. There was something in his expression that caught the Jedi off guard. A softness. An understanding. Pace twisted back to Jeire and smiled. "I like this one."
Jeire cocked an eyebrow, but spoke nothing.
With that, Pace stepped in front of Luke, and opened his arms. "He's not doing this because he's a Jedi, sir. Any Jedi can invade a station, kill his enemies?"
"A point," Jeire cut him off again.
Pace nodded. "This one has done nothing but attempt to save others. My computer slicer. Your queen. Being a Jedi isn't what makes this man compassionate. Being compassionate is what makes him a Jedi."
It took amazing feats to stun a Jedi. As Luke gazed at Matic Pace, however, his mouth dropped.
Oblivious to the Jedi Master?s reaction, Pace stepped toward Jeire. "Please, allow him to help you. There aren't a pile of choices at your disposal, Commander. Not anymore. He's your best one. And, he means it. I promise you that."
"You're in this with him," Jeire replied.
Pace fluttered his eyelids, appearing somewhat perplexed. After a second, he shrugged. "Of course I am. I'm human."
Jeire's anger rebounded with the declaration. He seemed almost ready to pull out his dagger. Luke stepped between Pace and Jeire.
"We want to help you, Commander. And, I assure you, so does my wife and our crew. They know what's happening?"
"You're just attempting to save yourself."
Silently, Luke lifted his lightsaber hilt into Jeire's view. Without using the Force, he flicked his wrist; the weapon flipped across the room. It hit the wall, and then dropped with a tiny clash to the floor. The room was still.
"You're in denial," Luke proclaimed. "I know how much you want to hate me. How angry you are. But, this war?this violence?it isn't you, Jeire. We can stop it. Right now."
"Thirty seconds, Jeire," Fhamir spoke to his side. "Make a decision."
"I?," he paused, bringing his arms up to his forehead. Body slouched, he shook his head. "I?I can't. I can't let them win!"
"There is no win!" Fhamir shouted. "Make a choice! Kill all of us, or trust someone! Trust me! Jeire, do something!"
"No!" he screamed. "I?I don't know."
From the corner of Luke's eye, he spotted Fhamir's arm twitch.
"Twenty seconds, Jeire," she replied. "Just call the guard, and get this over with!"
"Shut up, Fhamir!"
It was then Luke acknowledged the queen's movements. With a clap, the cuffs around her wrists fell to the floor behind her. She whipped around from her seat, facing Jeire.
She rushed the commander, and clenched her fist. It slammed into his stunned expression; he toppled back.
Luke started for Fhamir and her commander, but the Force snapped him back into place. From his console, one of the Falleen aimed his blaster. Fired?
The red beam flew toward Luke's face. The Force consumed him, flowing through him. He lifted his left hand, palm out.
The bolt crashed into it, spreading like a wild vine. There was no pain. There was no injury. The blast dissolved into the air.
Terrified, the Falleen released his weapon, and staggered behind a computer console.
Jeire shouted as Fhamir's foot rammed into his knee. Knife out, he dropped to his other leg as he gazed at his queen. He swung his dagger once at her shoulder. Dodging the blow, she spun around him, and snaked an arm around his neck?
The Force blared in Luke's ear like an X-wing exploding ten feet away. Desperate, he grabbed Pace, throwing him to the ground.
The explosion rumbled throughout the entire ship.
Screams instantly emerged from the Falleen crew. Some attempted to hold to their computer consoles for support, but the feat was useless. The explosion quaked through the hallways?the bridge. Everyone tumbled over, hitting their heads on the floor.
The lights in the bridge burst. The databases sparked, then went dead. The entire place turned pitch black.
Then, everything was still.
The Falleen were silent. There was no light. No movements.
The only hint of life was Luke's own breathing, mixed in with Pace's at his side.
And, then, the Falleen commander screamed.
"Please!" he cried out, his despairing sobs echoing through the entire room. "Please, no, Fhamir! No!"
Closing his eyes for moment, Luke didn't need but a second to realize what had transpired.
Still, Jeire screamed, "Please, Fhamir?stay with me!" With the tiniest flicker of life, two emergency lights on separate corners of the room flashed on. Their dim beams shinned through the bridge; Luke sat on the floor, gazing at Jeire. Watching as he held his beloved?
As she swiftly bled to death in his arms.
"I'm sorry," he spoke, his dagger limply clasped in his hand as it shimmered a bright red. "I didn't mean to. I wasn't trying to."
Fhamir lifted a hand to his face. Gently, she touched his chin.
Taking in a breath, Luke pulled himself up. Carefully, he walked to Jeire and the queen. From the ground, it was impossible to see the wound. Standing above them, Luke's eyes could do nothing but stare.
Fhamir's heart beat, and the blood flowed out.
Pace was beside Luke an instant later. He frowned, and shook his head. "Her heart," he spoke, and put a hand on Luke's shoulder.
He didn't ask Luke to fix the problem. Silently, he placed his arms together, bowing his head.
Sniffling back the tears, Jeire's eyes finally met with Luke's. He pleaded, "Help her. Please."
Luke could already sense Fhamir in the Force. Her body's imbalance?her light. With each rasped breath, it dimmed. Dulling into a soft, black void.
He stared at Jeire, wishing desperately there was something he could do or say. Yet, when Luke opened his mouth, all he could give him was the truth. "I can't."
For a moment, Luke thought the Falleen commander would protest. Demand for the Jedi to heal her. Even call him a liar. Jeire said nothing. Gazing up at Luke's eyes, begging silently for a miracle the Jedi could not give, he appeared to see the sincerity on Luke's face. Quietly, Jeire closed his eyes, and held his beloved.
"I'm sorry," the commander continued to say to her. "Please, forgive me, Fhamir. Please"
"I?do," she faintly spoke.
Shocked, Jeire lowered his eyes to face her. She merely smiled, and placed her bloody hand to his face. "I forgive you?my love."
Luke thought the words would comfort the Falleen man. At least show a hint of assurance. There was nothing. Trembling, Jeire slowly released Fhamir's body. Placing her softly to the ground, he stood, and scanned the room as if searching for a lever that would wake him up. Fhamir remained calmly on the floor. Slowly, she turned her vision toward Luke. He gazed down at her, attempting to pull off a comforting smile.
He could see that strong spark of life in her wild violet eyes. She grinned back.
Then, her vision glazed over.
The life in her body gently flowed away as if cradled in a breeze.
Her smile was gone.
Kneeling down to her motionless form, Luke brought a hand to her face, and closed her eyes. Pace merely stepped back, his own emotions full of regret and loss.
It was then that the Force sparked inside of Luke. There was no danger, no alarm. He heard the igniting of his lightsaber in almost the same instance.
Shooting his eyes up to meet with Jeire, it was too late. The commander's dead body was already on the ground, the smoke still fuming from his chest. And, there, lying calmly in the Falleen's hand was Luke's lightsaber hilt. The emergency light's reflecting off the weapon's metal as if nothing had transpired at all.
"So, is everyone here?" Mara Jade Skywalker asked as she surveyed the room.
To her left were Corran and Mirax. They nodded. To her right was her sister-in-law, Leia Organa Solo. With her, were five other Jedi. It had taken no effort to locate them, considering they were the ones Chief Fey?lya and the other Senators had ordered to remain on Coruscant. Each alien Jedi glanced up at Mara, and gave the okay. Not only were they happy to help, but also thrilled at the idea of shoving the fact back to the politicians after they were finished.
Mara turned to Leia. "You replaced that busted holo in Retafured's office, right?"
Her sister-in-law's face sharpened as if insulted. "I can save your life from an entire band of Coruscant authorities?and you're questioning if I can find an identical holoproj for Retafured?"
"I just don't want our little surprise spoiled. Remember, the prime talent in being manipulative, sneaky and cunning is the surprise."
"I think Han's been an excellent teacher, Mara. Thank you."
With that, Mara gave the room a once-over, and then dropped her arms to her hips. "Well, no reason to hang around here like a busted R-2 unit. Should I bring in the welcoming party?"
"Don't worry," Leia replied. "We'll make the guest of honor feel right at home."
Spotting a twitch of mischief in Leia's eyes, Mara's grin stretched. She gave her sister-in-law a quick pat on the back, and walked out of the room. They were ready.
"With all the Falleen soaring through hyperspace, Senator, I just don?t see any way around this. I?m afraid for the human race. So terribly afraid."
"Calm down, Senator Retafured," the other Senator on the holo replied. "This isn?t your fault. The truth will come out. I?m certain of it."
Are you? Retafured thought to himself as he stared at the holo on his desk. Sitting in his office, he truly felt at peace.
"We?ll have a meeting within the next day," the other Senator explained. "Move things along?get Senator Tenanete out of custody. This has really gone too far."
"People are afraid right now, Senator," Retafured replied, mustering out a decent smile. "Senator Tenanete understands."
"I hope so." He huffed a breath. "I have to go, Senator Retafured. My thoughts are with you, sir."
"Thank you, Senator."
With that, the holo flashed off. As it did, Retafured rolled his eyes. Day in and day out, they were calling to offer their comfort. When would it end? From the rate he was going, all the Senators in the entire New Republic would be pestering him within the next week. It was a small price to pay, of course. Soon, the human race would be exterminated. Then, the governments from each system could separate; they would work for their own planet instead of the entire galaxy. The Scyos would be free from it all. No more worries. No more fears.
Rocking back in his seat, Retafured brought his hands behind his head, and drew his eyes upward. He was tired, but the excitement that sparked inside him couldn?t be calmed. Everything was working to plan.
"Am I interrupting?" a voice?a woman?s?bombarded the room.
Surprised, Retafured recoiled in his seat, and hurled his vision to the source. He spotted her almost instantly as she stood composedly by the door.
As he recognized her, every muscle in his body tightened.
The Jedi, Mara Jade Skywalker, arched her eyebrows.
Taking in a few cooling breaths, Retafured extended a hand for the woman to enter. "Of course not. A knock on the door would be courteous, however." Reality suddenly hit him; he narrowed his eyes. "When did you get back?"
"When I arrived," she jeered. It might have been taken as a joke if not for the heavy edge to her tone.
Striding to his desk, her hands were quick to drop to its metal surface. She leaned over, eyes aligned to his. Retafured?s heart skipped a beat.
"We have a tiny problem, Senator," Jade Skywalker spoke, flaunting a smirk. "There are over a hundred Falleen vessels attempting to invade and infect the entire human race across the galaxy. And, unfortunately, all of them seem to be heading toward the Core."
"Uh," he blinked, warily shaking his head. "I realize this, Madam Jedi. Believe me, we?re attempting to rectify the situation even as we speak."
"How kind of you. I hope you?re not expecting a medal."
He licked his lips nervously. Something wasn?t right. Mara Jade Skywalker was always a bit of a crude woman, but this?
"I know it was you, Senator," she suddenly declared, inching her face closer his. "I know who you are."
Gazing up at her?so confident, so real?Retafured?s mouth opened. He attempted to speak, but no words would develop. The impact of her statement jarred through his gut like a drill boring into it.
With that, Jade Skywalker merely seated herself on the edge of his desk. Brushing a handful of red strands from her shoulder, she picked up a small glass statue on the desk's corner, and played with it. She spoke, "I know all about your attempt to use the Falleen, Senator. Your pathetic confidence that an entire race can be controlled. However, there?s a problem."
"I don?t know what you?re talking about," he spilled out.
Even to him, it didn?t sound convincing.
The Jedi twisted towards him, leering. "Come now, Senator. My husband can pull off a better lie."
"Get out!" he shouted, standing up.
He aimed a finger to the door. It was trembling.
"Oh, now that?s not very courteous."
"I believe you should listen to me, Senator," she continued, crossing her legs on his desk. "Because, I have some new information to offer. That is, unless you want to end up dead."
He opened his mouth to yell once again, but choked as her declaration rummaged through his skull. "What do you mean?"
"It?s very simple, Master," she explained. "It?s not just me that knows who you are. So do the Falleen. They?ve been playing you for a fool ever since you got a hold of them."
"That?s not possible," he finally explained.
"Oh, but it is," she declared, still fiddling with the statue. "You see, while they?ve been dropping this human virus all over the galaxy, the Falleen were busy attempting to find another one. Just as deadly. But, it isn?t for us." She turned to him and sneered. "It?s for you."
"No," he exhaled a breath, and fell back to his seat. "It was destroyed."
"So it was believed," Jade Skywalker replied. "Just like the Falleen and human bioweapons. You and the Falleen are very clever beings, Senator. Too bad it?s been wasted on attempts to kill each other."
He paused at her, staring. Jade Skywalker gazed back without a blink?no flinch in her features. Her pose was serene and collective?even for a Jedi, she looked too confident. Slowly, he lifted his hands, and grinned. "All right?all right, let?s say I am this person you think I am. Why would I even believe you?"
"Because, I?ve been to their experimentation facilities," Jade Skywalker replied, placing the statue back on the desk. Then, her eyes met his. "On Ttremyrin One."
Retafured swallowed hard. "I still don?t believe you."
"That?s all right?you don?t have to," she countered, and hopped off the desk. Extending a hand, she gestured for the door. "Our crew brought a few guests back with us. I want you to see them for yourself."
They ventured to the lowest level of the Imperial Palace. Normally, the place was used for storage?access files. Lost relics. Senator Retafured followed the crazy Jedi woman through the labyrinth of hallways, his patience wilting.
"Where is it?" he shouted. "Are you just attempting to have us circle this level all day?"
"Just like a maze," she replied, and un-pocketed a small device.
Retafured didn?t notice what it was until she jabbed it into his arm. He shouted, snapping his arm away. Jade Skywalker merely flung the injector instrument to the floor.
Retafured glared. "What was in that?"
"Temporary vaccine," she replied, and halted at a door. "We?re here."
Retafured stood, shocked. His entire body locked up. Mara Jade Skywalker seemed less concerned. Without hesitation, she pressed the door?s entrance button, and then waited for it to open.
It only needed an instant. As it did, every fiber in Retafured?s body turned to mush. Lying inside the room were Scyos?his species. Eight of them in total, arranged in eight separate beds. Around them were medical supplies, tubes, and monitors. All of them were terrible shades of black.
For a moment, Retafured couldn?t breathe. His throat cleared; his lungs compressed. The room began to sway. His eyes drifted to the ceiling?the lights. No, it wasn?t possible. It simply wasn?t.
"This is what we discovered on Ttremyrin," Jade Skywalker?s voice entered the back of his mind. "Currently, my husband is securing the holds there. Attempting to keep all the Falleen from escaping to inform others of their discovery."
Lip trembling, Retafured wandered into the room. The Scyos men and women rested motionlessly in their beds, their eyes closed to reality. Slowly, he knelt down to one of the young females. He watched as she inhaled and exhaled in a desperate fight for life. A tear ran down his cheek. It was believed in his culture that the love of another Scyos could heal the most tragic ailments. He bent over, and pressed his lips to hers for a brief of moment. He hoped in that instant all the silly fables of his ancestors would magically cure her. She didn?t react, of course. There was no magic in the room to help him.
Gazing madly at the scene in front of him, Retafured merely stated, "I?ll kill them. All of the Falleen. I swear it."
"Oh, I can?t allow that," Mara Jade Skywalker said from the door. "It?s not good politics."
Slowly, Retafured?s eyes met hers. "What do you mean?"
The Jedi woman retrieved a datapad from her side pouch. With a gentle wrist flick, it landed on the bed beside Retafured. Heart pounding, he picked it up.
"We have a deal to offer," she explained. "The Falleen and us. It?s quite simple, really. They give us the components for the human virus, and," she motioned her head at him, "you give us the Falleen?s."
The information poured out of the datapad like an army of starfighters from hyperspace. It was all there?every aspect of the human virus. His virus.
"You?ve lost, Retafured," she explained. "By now, all the Falleen know who you are. If you don?t hand it over, then I?m sure one of them will end up killing you soon enough. Or, an infuriated human. We?ve already contained the compound on Ttremyrin One. But," she paused and shrugged a shoulder, "accidents happen."
Her words finally registering in his mind, Retafured gripped the datapad in his hands. "You wouldn?t."
"You would allow my entire species to die!" he cried out, standing back up to face her. "You?re a Jedi! You?re supposed to be peacemakers!"
She shrugged. "Hey, as far as I?m concerned, it?s simple mathematics. The human race is the largest group of a single species in the galaxy. The Falleen race is triple the size of the Scyos. So, either I allow for you to kill two rather large species for?what?a million Scyos?" She cocked an eyebrow.
Retafured body quivered. "You?re not a Jedi. Not like your husband."
"Oh, no," she pointed a finger. "I am a Jedi. I?m just a little more devious than my husband."
Hobbling, Retafured returned to the Jedi woman by the door. They had the human disease. Even with the Falleen?s in his grasp, he would never get a chance to administer it. His head to the ground, he asked, "What do you want?"
"Just the Falleen virus," she explained. "All of its components. Every part."
"Why? I won?t be able to use it."
"Just in case someone else decides to," she explained. "Besides, I made a promise. I intend to keep it."
Battling all the logic in his body, Retafured pulled a small datachip from his sleeve. It was no larger than a credit. Silently, he handed it to the Jedi woman.
Immediately, she used the Force and called her datapad to her hand from the edge of the Scyos? bed. Inserting the chip inside the device, she scanned the screen, and smiled.
Disgusted, Retafured whirled back to the Scyos in the room. The tears dripped from his eyes; he no longer had the will to stand. Slowly dropping to the floor, Retafured placed both hands over his face and cried.
Chadal and Traya trailed to the lower levels of the Imperial Palace a few minutes after Retafured?s confession. Mara Jade Skywalker stood by the entrance as he was put into custody. The datapad still in her hands, she closed the door, and then turned back to the others inside the room.
The image of eight dying aliens was gone. Sitting up from their positions, Corran and five other Jedi smiled. Mirax, in the bed next to her husband, seemed mildly impressed. Corran turned, and kissed his wife.
Leia Organa Solo, however, remained stationary on her mattress.
Eyes gazing up at the ceiling lights, she only spoke as Mara reached her.
"He kissed me."
With that, Mara cupped a hand up to her own mouth, suppressing the laughter.
Leia merely blinked. "He kissed me on the mouth."
Mara shook her head, and pitched a glance at Corran and the others. All were snickering to themselves. With that, she sat beside Leia, and forced the other woman to sit up. "Put it this way," Mara replied, "it means you?re still desirable."
Finally, Leia?s eyes snapped sharply at Mara. She removed Mara's hand from her arm. "The next time you have a plan, Mara Jade, I get to play the part of interrogator."
"Hopefully, Leia, I won?t need another plan. Nothing like this."
Gently, Mara placed the datapad into Leia?s care, and stood.
Leia glanced down at the device, surprised, and then back to Mara. "What are you doing?"
"This isn?t over," Mara said as she put her hair back into a ponytail. "There?s still a lot that needs to be done."
"Well, we need to somehow inform all the Falleen what?s happened," one of the Jedi explained, but Mara merely shook her head.
"That?s your job," she replied. "I have something else."
Leia already understood. Quietly, she removed herself from her bed, and wrapped both her arms around Mara. Close to her ear, she whispered, "Go help your husband." Silently, she pulled away.
Mara smiled at her. "And, you?"
Leia lifted the datapad into view. "I have a galaxy to worry about. I can?t help Luke anymore than you can. So, go. Help him."
"Of course," Corran Horn suddenly stepped between them. "The odds would work more in your favor with another suicidal Jedi on your side."
Mara nudged her head at him. "You offering?"
He gestured his hands outwards as if pointing out the obvious. "Suicide missions are my specialty."
"Strange. They seem to be mine as well."
"You have a tiny dilemma," Mirax squeezed in beside her husband. "You can?t take your crew?s vessel. That thing has more wounds on it than a stormtrooper would in the center of a Rebel Base."
"I wasn?t intending to," Mara replied. With a flick of her wrist, she un-holstered a comlink from her belt. "Weo? You got your ship ready?"
"It?s hot and willing to fly," the other woman replied.
Silently, Mara shut off her comlink. "It?s always nice to prepare."
It was less than an hour later. In his X-wing, Corran Horn was already away from Coruscant, gaping out at space as his navigation computer set its coordinates. Right in front of him was Weo?s ship, the Crazy Raid. The navigation system beeped; he lingered there a moment until Mara and Weo burst off faster than the speed of light. Instantly drawing the levers forward in front of him, Corran?s X-wing was hasty to follow.
Two days in space. Normally the galaxy, with its endless array of stars and planets, was comforting?even peaceful. Void of worries or problems, the universe glided on like a speeder across an empty horizon. Nothing was there except the continuing ride.
The agony in Luke Skywalker's body was reaching a new limit. If it wasn't his disease, it was the cold. It wasn't just freezing on the Falleen vessel?it was stale. If it wasn't the cold, then it was the numbing of the Falleen on the ship. Pace's ailments. Ross' burns.
From time to time, he felt more plagued by the Force than assured by it. Everyone was suffering, and Luke couldn't aid them.
In total, ninety-five percent of the vessel's power was gone. The heat managed to stay inside, but with each passing hour, it slowly faded into the void of space. Oxygen was trickling away as well. With the lack of recycling filters working on the vessel, carbon dioxide was suffocating as the oxygen disappeared. It wouldn't be long before the hope of rescue passed.
With Luke and Matic Pace's help, the Falleen had secured the bridge and two compartments by its side. No one was interested in killing each other. They were no longer enemies, but survivors merely attempting to continue their survival. They had managed to tow out some heat blankets, and emergency lights for the ship. It didn't provide much comfort, but certainly assisted.
A few of the Falleen even asked for Luke's help to keep warm. It was a useless feat. Luke's energy was dedicated to Ross and himself. He could keep the boy warm, but that was all. Even the idea of aiding anyone else?even Pace?wasn't possible.
Therefore, Luke sat beside Ross inside one of the two compartments beside the bridge, and meditated. His concentration prevailed, but his power wasn't expanding. Instead a long, overwhelming cough spasmed up his throat. Reopening his eyes, Luke gripped a hand over his lips. With each cough, his head pounded. With each breath, he felt the chills of fever sprint through his body. Even with antibiotics and his own healing, he wasn't getting close to curing himself.
In all essence, the cold and Ross' dependency on him was slowly killing him. He needed a healing trance. He had needed one for two days. Nonetheless, he remained beside Ross and coughed instead.
From his side, there wasn't a cough, but more of a gag. Reaching out with his abilities, Luke forced his chest to relax. It took a minute?longer than he desired. The spasms stopped, however. Slowly, Luke twisted around to the right.
There, Matic Pace lay. A heat blanket cloaked his entire body. The cover didn't provide much comfort. The sweat glistened off his brow. His face, the only thing sticking out from the blanket, was a pasty green shade, masked with the red splotches of broken blood vessels. His eyes were blood shot. His expression trapped in a daze. And, there, quietly running down his lips to the floor was a gentle stream of blood. It merged with the reeking mess he had gagged up only an hour before.
The picture sent a wave of nausea to Luke's stomach. He closed his eyes. It wasn?t due to mere disgust at Matic?s current appearance. The commander had been swiftly declining throughout the course of the two days as if he were already decomposing. Every antibiotic Matic swallowed was as affective as sipping a cup of sugar water. Desperate, Luke had even tried putting the other man into a trance. With his abilities kept to Ross, however, the Jedi-induced coma did nothing but stop the Commander from breathing, and drain even more of Luke?s powers snapping the other man out of it. It hadn?t been a good mission for Matic Pace. It hadn?t been a good mission for any of them.
As if reading his thoughts, the commander?s eyes abruptly found the Jedi?s. Even with his sickly features and poor eyesight, Matic grinned.
"You can say it," he rasped softly into the room.
Licking his lips, Luke merely shook his head. "I wasn't going to say anything."
"Oh." the commander paused as if thinking, and then muttered, "Okay. I will, then. Yuck."
Not expecting the declaration, a tiny grin formed on Luke's face. He immediately dropped it.
Matic Pace merely breathed out a faint laugh. "You try to hide it. Jedi or not, I can tell that's what you were thinking."
With that, Luke finally turned back to him. "I don't think your pain is funny?"
"Too bad. I do."
Luke sternly lowered his eyebrows. "It isn't funny, Matic. It never is."
"Perhaps not to you," the commander countered, "but, look at it from my perspective. The irony. I've spent over ten years of my life going on crazy missions?risking my butt for the thrill. Not for anyone, really?just the thrill. I love the thrill?" he trailed off, his eyes slowly shifting their daze toward the ceiling.
The room was still again. Even the Falleen on its far side were sleeping?quiet. Inhaling a breath, Luke went back to Ross. The Jedi closed his eyes?
"I can admit that," Pace's voice interrupted the silence again. "You know, like admitting if you liked killing someone during battle. It's nothing you should be proud of, but?" he stopped himself again. After another instant, he spoke, "You ever liked the adventure, Master Skywalker? The thrill of the fight?"
With that, Luke sighed. Eyes remaining closed, he came back, "When I was younger. About Ross' age. It was before I became a Jedi."
"You're not allowed to like the thrill now, are you?"
Luke shook his head.
"You ever wish you could?"
"There's nothing to like," Luke replied, and stretched out with the Force to check Ross' vitals. "Killing?death. It's all death and destruction. That's not my way. Not anymore."
"So, why do you still do this?"
Slowly, Luke opened his eyes. He turned to face the commander. "It?s something that needs to be done. Quite simple, really."
"Why can't someone else handle it?"
"I don't know, Matic. It's just that?I can feel when something horrible is happening. All Jedi can. Almost like it's calling for you, telling you it needs to be fixed."
"Sometimes. Other times, it's just a feeling."
"I bet it feels good when you fix it."
"So, you do it for the accomplishment."
Luke hesitated at that. Blinking, he diverted his eyes away, gazing at the floor by Ross' feet. Truly, he hadn't thought about it that way.
Matic Pace coached a chuckle. "It feels good to do good, Master Skywalker. No harm in it. You should be proud. You've saved a lot of people."
"Possibly, yes. Humans." Luke spoke grimly. "I don't know. I've learned to follow the Force?my feelings, but?"
"Fhamir didn't deserve this," Luke muttered back. "Not even Jeire. They were fair people with unfair choices. I couldn't imagine the Force would lead them to such consequences."
"Nope," Matic spoke sluggishly. "Nope?nope?a twisted Senator did that. Not your fault. Actually, I think we did pretty-good."
With that, Luke turned back to him with a tiny smirk. "There were several parts at play. I merely hope Mara and the others were able to hold up theirs."
"You miss her?" Pace abruptly questioned.
Again, Luke gawked at him, perplexed. The commander's face was practically dazed as he peered up at the ceiling. Truly, Luke didn't know just how much of the commander?s facilities were still in his grasp. Nonetheless, Luke answered, "She's my wife. I always miss her when she's not with me."
"She's quite a handful?isn't she?"
Luke attempted not to smile, but the statement was so direct, his lips couldn't help but lift upwards. After a second, he finally conceded, "Always."
"She's so different from you. You know?loud. You're not loud. How did you two end up together, anyway?"
"We were friends for a long time," Luke replied as he directed the Force to Pace. The commander's breathing was rasped and imbalanced. The Jedi Master's continued, "She found a way to trust me, and I admired her spirit. Typical things."
"I wouldn't like a girl like that," Pace mumbled. "You know?loud. I can't stand the yelling. Gives me headaches."
"Well?" Luke leaned forward with his eyes intently hooked to Pace's, "she normally doesn't yell at me. She's honest, and from my experience, finding a woman who can be honest with a Jedi Master is rare."
Huffing out a laugh, Luke replied, "She makes me happy. In all truth, that should be explanation enough."
To Luke's surprise, the commander frowned. His eyes still hung on the ceiling, a tiny tear ran down the other man's face. It was mixed with a diluted red from his blood stained eyes. Quietly, Pace sucked in a quivering breath. He explained softly, "I have a daughter."
Luke narrowed his eyebrows. He spoke nothing.
After another second, the commander continued, "She's about five now. Lives with her mother."
"I'm sorry," was Luke's only response.
To his surprise, Matic Pace's face softened. "Well, I'm not. My wife was loud. Always yelling about this and that. A handful. Be careful, Master Skywalker. Don't turn your eyes from your wife for a second. She'll stab you right in the heart."
"I've learned my lessons for Mara long ago. But, thank you."
"Only good thing that came from that marriage was our daughter. Crisa. Isn't that name beautiful? I picked it."
Silently, another red tear emerged from the commander's eye. "That's all I gave her. That, and some money to help her mother. Never see her anymore. What type of father does that?"
"One that doesn't think she needs him."
Pace sniffled back a breath, and nodded. "Thanks for the attempt. You're too kind, sometimes. Gets annoying."
Ignoring the comment, Luke said, "I'm sure she's fine with her mother. You were trying to help the galaxy. She'll understand one day."
With that, Luke huffed out a breath. Silently, he shook his head at the commander, and then twisted back to Ross. Pulling with the Force, he hovered both hands above the boy. The healing sticks were performing their job nicely. Preventing infection?even mending some parts of his body. It was better than what Luke was doing. Making sure Ross was breathing correctly and that he was warm enough was all the power Luke had left. He was so tired. Sleep hadn't found its way into his schedule for so long, he could hardly recall what it was like.
From his side, there was another gag?louder now. Yanking his eyes open, the Force rippled down Luke's back like a cup of cold water. He shot a look at Pace. By that point, the man had already finished. Chin covered in crimson slime, his glazed expression turned to Luke. The pile of blood was large enough to expand, reaching the edges of Luke's blanket. As stale as it was, the air still managed to blend with the fluid's stench. The Jedi Master ignored it, and kept his eyes intent on the other man.
Laying his head back down on the floor, Matic Pace went back to his original position?face aimed towards the ceiling. For a moment, Luke wondered if the other man would speak. Laugh. Cry. He didn't do any such thing, however. He merely gazed.
Licking his lips, Luke brought his attention back to Ross?
"You ever done a mercy killing?"
A dark shiver jostled up Luke's back. He spun back to Pace, and narrowed his eyes nervously at the man. It took him a moment to reply. Gently, the Jedi Master asked, "What do you mean, precisely?"
"You know?like a friend, or family. Or?," he paused, and licked at the blood on his chin, "commanding officers?"
"Oh," Pace spoke lightly, and readjusted his body underneath his covers. The room was silent. Eerie. Luke didn't go back to Ross. After another minute, Pace's calm expression crumbled. His breaths became heavy. Taking in a deep handful of air, his eyes finally twisted toward Luke. They shimmered with agony. A plea for help. Luke's heart began to pound. He raised his eyebrows at the other man, but couldn't find the will to speak.
His face serious, his eyes red, but alert, Matic Pace finally asked, "Would you mind doing one?"
Luke was already shaking his head.
The commander merely smiled. "I don't suppose I could argue that I'm dying anyway?"
"We don?t know if someone's coming or not," Luke countered. "What would happen if someone found their way here, and?," he closed his mouth.
The other man maintained his grin. "You honestly think they could help me? By this point?"
"I?," Luke paused, and sank his eyes to the floor. "We don't know yet. A healer?Mara, or another Jedi could be on the ship. We just don?t know."
"And, of course, she or another one of them would just leave you lying on your back, right?"
Luke kept his eyes downward. "If I asked?"
"Great. Then, I would be responsible for the death of a legendary Jedi Master."
Luke turned to him with a firmer stare. "You?re exaggerating this, Matic. I can take care of myself."
"You?re making excuses."
"Of course I am. I?m coughing up a half gallon of blood every few minutes?my entire body feels like a throbbing glob of pudding. You?d make excuses, too."
Scanning his eyes around the room as if attempting to find logic dangling off one of its walls, Luke shook his head again. "I can try putting you in a healing trance again. Just to see?"
"Great, so I can choke to death on my own blood. A nasty way to go, but?"
"I?d monitor you this time. Just like Ross."
"Will you have to take some of your concentration off of Ross?"
"There?s only one of me here, Matic. You know I?d have to. It wouldn?t work otherwise."
"Then the answer?s no. I?m not gonna let him die after all this."
Finally, Luke's jaw clenched. He aimed a glare as harsh as Palpatine?s to Matic. "What makes you think I need your permission?"
Luke assumed the other man's confidence would crack?his eyes full of concern, but leeway. No, not Matic Pace. The commander was able to keep his expression still for a solid half-second before a belt of laughter shot out from his blood-covered lips. "Oh, man! Your wife is right, Master Skywalker?you pull off a devious glare about as good as a baby Taun-Taun."
Luke rolled his eyes away. "Oh, shut up, Matic. I?m not playing here."
Matic stopped his chuckles; he kept his grin. "I know. You don?t think I know? I see you?I see how much you hate the idea of it. But, I?d be the one dying?remember? What about what I want?"
"You don?t know what you want. You?re sick and impatient, and it?s a simple as that."
"I know you wouldn?t force me into a coma if I didn?t want it. It?s not your style."
Luke closed his eyes. "You?re asking me to go against every moral I possess."
It was then that Matic?s lips fell. He paused for a moment, blinking calmly as if chitchatting about an idle day. After another second, he nodded. "I realize that. I?m sick?not stupid. A cure couldn?t help me by this point. I wouldn?t expect a Jedi to do better. Don?t you think I can feel it? I don?t need the Force to understand my body?s dying. A cure?s only good if your body can recover after. Am I lying?"
With that, Luke?s eyes found the floor again. "Please don?t ask this?"
A hand came out of Pace's blanket. Covered in green and red, it held tightly to Luke's wrist. Quietly, Luke turned to look at the commander in the eye. The other man's was already there, shimmering with more awareness than Luke had seen in them for the past day.
"I'm suffering," Pace finally declared. His hand gripped to Luke's arm, not painfully, but with a hope. Luke frowned at him, but didn't answer. Taking in another breath, the commander added, "I'm not like Ross, Master Skywalker. I know what chances I take with each duty I perform." He paused again, and pulled Luke toward him.
Pace was weak; any attempt to force Luke wasn't possible. Nonetheless, the Jedi Master leaned over. Softly, Pace spoke into his ear, "I'm not afraid to die."
The words were so gentle, it took Luke a moment to truly grasp their meaning. Eye to eye with the other man, the declaration roamed through the Jedi Master's mind like a stranger that had lost his way. More than the words themselves, was their faith. Their sincerity. Matic Pace had meant what he had said. He wasn't afraid. He wasn't worried. He trusted his life?his death?to the Jedi. The light in him was dimming, and Luke could do nothing to stop it.
Slowly, Luke placed his hands on the other man's face. Without a word, the commander leaned back, and peered at the ceiling again. Reaching out with the Force, Luke closed his eyes, drawing out all the energy?all the strength he had remaining.
"Close your eyes, Commander Pace. Close your eyes and listen to my voice. Only my voice. There is no pain. There is no more disease. You can feel the breaths entering, one by one. One by one. Each filling your lungs, lifting your chest?"
"It's time to sleep, Matic Pace. To fall back. You're tired. You need to sleep?"
"Listen to my voice, Commander Pace. Listen to my words. There is no more pain. There are no more breaths. Don't be afraid. Allow them to pass. Allow them to go. You don't need them anymore. Matic Pace."
Quiet. The prison was still. It was a part of the Imperial Palace, and the confinement in the lower levels possessed concrete walls. It was used for prisoners of war, appointed officials?
Traitors of the peace.
Sitting on his tiny bunk, the Scyos was silent. The faucet in the corner dripped now and again, and interrupted his thoughts. He had attempted to fix it. Had worked on the blasted thing for three hours. But, it continued to drip.
Into the metal bowl beneath it.
There was no window to the small room. They were too deep under the planet's surface. Only plain metal walls, and a thick sliding door. No window to look out from. Just a slot to pass food. The light in the center of the ceiling was his only comfort. The mattress underneath him was hard.
Clenching his teeth, Retafured grabbed his pillow. He tossed the off-white thing at the sink. Missed. It fell to the floor by its side.
It had been three days. Three. Trapped inside that room. Stuck between four concrete walls. He would be there for a long time. He already knew that.
Leia Organa Solo had already lectured to the Senate. Senator Tenanete had been pardoned. One by one, they were transferring the information about the Falleen's virus to as many vessels as they could locate. Already, they were receiving data, pinpointing every spot the Falleen had dispersed the human disease. Some of the Falleen were expecting to be tried for their crimes. No one expected many to take the responsibility.
They were victims, people would say.
They were afraid, people would reason.
The tension would be vast, but the human race would forgive. The Falleen would make amends. Retafured hadn't heard that from any guard; he knew it in his heart. Their races would unite, and drive the galaxy that much closer together.
And, now, the Scyos would never be free of the New Republic.
Placing his hands over his face, Retafured cried. Softly, he allowed the tears to stream down. The tiny echo of his moans ricocheted in the room.
The human race would know it was he who caused it all. They controlled the New Republic. The essence of the cause. They would execute him. He would die soon. Die at the mercy of all the humans of the galaxy.
It was then that another noise erupted throughout the room. It startled him, forcing his entire body to jump. It was a noise he was familiar with, however. After three days, it was almost as recognizable as the sink.
The door was opening.
It was time for dinner.
The bright lights of the outside world filled Retafured's tiny room as if Coruscant's sun had been smuggled into the prison. There, standing at the door, was a figure?
Retafured squinted. It was too tall to be a guard. Almost all of them were human, and none of the aliens were that large. Desperately, Retafured tried to focus.
It was then that the being spoke quietly. "You've disappointed me."
Somehow, the soft voice managed to hurt the Scyos' ears. Retafured backed away, the terrible ring propelling chills through his entire body.
The other being merely snorted a breath. "Well, aren't you at least going to say hi? My friend."
"Tenanete," Retafured mumbled. All other words instantly wedged in his throat.
Slowly, the Falleen entered. A tiny grin on his face, his color was a vast sea of violet. His eyes were soft, even lively. Yet, nothing?no kind expression could calm Retafured's beating heart. As he stared at the long dagger in the Falleen's hand.
Gasps escaped his lips as if all the air in the room was fleeing; Retafured opened his hands in plea. "Please," he started. "I never meant any harm. I needed help. That was all."
"Help?" Tenanete replied, and calmly played with the dagger in his grasp. "Oh, yes, my friend. Some help would certainly do you good right now."
"I never meant to lie to you?"
"You used my people?threatened my race. Almost started a war. Oh, and let's not forget?" The Falleen glanced around the prison cell, and then smiled at Retafured, "this was my room."
Sitting on his bed, Retafured silently lifted his legs to his chest as if that alone could protect him.
Quietly, Senator Tenanete stepped forward. Standing over Retafured, his face shaded into darkness as the light overhead poured from behind his shoulders, the Falleen merely spoke, "It appears you've had some bad luck, Retafured. Such a pity. It seems you're going to have a bit more."
The dagger glistening in the prison's light, Retafured closed his eyes. Awaiting the fate the Falleen was ready to give him.
In the corner, he still heard the faucet.
He could detect the tiny spouts of water.
Dripping, and dripping?without a care in the universe.
A light sheet of ice cloaked the Falleen. The heating blankets had run out of energy hours before, and the air had stalled. Three more days had lagged by like a man trekking across the Dune Sea on his knees. Everything was freezing. No one was awake.
No one, except Luke.
Ross' temperature was like the others, cooling?going beyond Luke's abilities. In the corner, a pile of Falleen lay. Clumped together, Luke could sense all their essences throughout the Force. Even stacked together, side-by-side, a number of the Falleen were dead. The rest were asleep, awaiting the same fate.
Luke wanted to aid them?to make the ship warm once again. There was no use. His face was covered in frozen vapor, his hair tangled and stiff to his head. Even the sprouts of whiskers on his chin seemed three times more coarse than normal. His only hope was to keep Ross alive, and even as he lifted his hands up, the shivering through them kept his concentration wary. Even his mechanical hand wasn't functioning right. Its circuits were supposed to simulate the same sensation Luke would experience with a real hand, but there was so much a hunk of technology could accomplish. It was practically numb.
Silently, Luke glanced to his side. Matic Pace laid there, his face cloaked with a plain gray sheet. The blood around him was frozen to the floor. The stench was gone. Luke's body's tensed sympathetically; he had to wonder if the commander would have survived for that long. Three days in space. Attempting to fight off the disease and the cold. It was something Luke could never truly guess?pondering what the future had in store for all of them. He couldn't have saved Matic Pace by the time of his death. He could only ensure no more pain. At the very least, Luke did know one thing. If he had spent his time attempting to heal Matic Pace, there was no doubt in his mind Ross wouldn't be alive at that moment. As far as the future was concerned?
Weakly, Luke twisted his eyes back to the computer slicer. His arms still lifted above the boy, he felt the fingers ache?the frost gathering?his own heart pounding. Even as he watched Ross breathe, he could no longer feel the slicer through the Force. He sensed nothing except his own body screaming to be healed.
Taking in another hard breath, Luke reluctantly lowered his hands. He watched the slicer for a minute as the boy fought for breath and heat. The disease still hadn't plagued him. His burns were healing. There was nothing Luke could do now.
With that, the Jedi Master gently placed a hand on Ross' forehead. Quietly, he leaned forward, and whispered, "I'm sorry."
It was then that the cold consumed him. Reaching out with the Force, he felt his body wavering?his heart beating. He fell backwards, his head landing painfully on the floor behind him.
He pulled with the Force?counting the seconds.
The air seemed almost dead. The room reeked of death.
He obtained all the energy he could muster. He plunged himself as deep as he could within it.
Silently, the eyes of Luke Skywalker fell. The Force was comforting. The frigidness overflowed the room. It didn?t matter. As the Jedi Master lay motionlessly on the floor, his breaths softly coursed through his body, and the cold melted away.
"That's what I said."
"We're going to pass them."
With that, the engines of the Crazy Raid, arrived at a halt. Standing inside the cockpit, Mara Jade Skywalker examined the vastness of open space before them. Her mouth curved upwards. To her side, Weo's expression was the opposite.
"I don?t see anything," the other woman proclaimed.
"That's because they're behind us," Mara replied. "There's two. Two vessels out there."
"Two?" Weo questioned, and pushed at the ship's controls. The vessel swung around, and the entire picture became clear.
From the right was a Falleen ship. Almost like little dots, Mara watched silently as the other one floated by its side, pulling away. With that, Mara patted Weo's shoulder. "We need to contact that vessel."
"What?" Weo questioned, and tossed Mara a frown. "Are you nuts? Any attempt at a surprise attack will go supernova."
"They might be one of the ships Leia has spoken to."
"What's the chance in that?"
"Not good, but we have to try."
"Yeah, yeah," Weo grumbled, and switched on the comm system, "it's a stupid Jedi thing."
Mara playfully squeezed Weo's shoulder and then dropped her hand. Almost four days in space, and Weo had been her only company. The rest of Pace's crew was busy on Coruscant as they worked to calm the citizens and provide evidence. Of course, Mara didn?t mind that a bit. Having the vessel filled with a large batch of people didn't sound so great, anyway.
"Should we inform Jedi Horn that we've stopped?" Weo asked by her side.
Mara shook her head. "He's been following us for four days through the Force. He knows."
"Should we wait for him?"
"He'll be here soon," Mara replied, eyes fastened to the vessels in front of them. She pointed to the ships. "They're attempting a rescue. Boarding the ship, supplying it with some power. That's why they're here."
"How can you tell?"
With that, Mara frowned at her. "Because I sense my husband. And, all the beings around him."
"Well, what's the verdict here?"
Mara kept her expression. "They think he's dead. Just like everyone around him."
"Is anyone else alive? Ross, or Pace?"
"I?I don't know. I don't think so."
Weo's complexion darkened, and she faced the viewpoint again. Silently, her hands moved on the ship's controls. Ever so slowly, the Crazy Raid inched forward.
Mara narrowed her eyebrows. "What are you doing?"
"He's alive, right?" Weo asked without looking.
Mara blinked. "Yes."
"Then, we do what we were intending to do," Weo expressed. "Rescue mission. Get into the cargo bay, and put on a vac-suit. We're about to have some fun."
Staring down at the woman, Mara grinned. Gently, she bowed her head, giving her a tiny smirk. "Yes, Captain."
"Don't be smart, Jedi Skywalker. Just move."
Saluting the woman, Mara Jade Skywalker exited the cockpit. Lightsaber bouncing up and down on her hip, she raced through the narrow hallways of the vessel.
Dead. Human and Falleen. To one side of the small compartment, rested a pile of her species? corpses. They were frozen and pale. The ones that managed to survive were already on their way to the other vessel.
Silently, guardsman Henale looked down at the three humans on the opposite side of the room with her bright violet eyes. Two were clearly dead. Covered with a sheet, it was obvious he had been cared for by his friend. The other one had fallen over, his face beaded in frozen sweat. His eyes were shut as if caught in an afternoon slumber.
Henale recognized the human. His name was unfamiliar, but his title was known to everyone throughout the galaxy. Jedi?
"You certain he?s dead?" another Falleen from behind Henale asked in their native tongue. "I mean, Jedi don?t?"
"I can?t feel a pulse," Henale replied. "No breathing. What other qualifications does a dead man need?"
"What about the other one?"
Henale knelt to the young boy beside the Jedi Master. His breaths were heavy, struggling. His eyes twitched every so often, but there was no consciousness within them. With that, Henale sighed.
"Leave him," she explained. "He?s not going anywhere."
Nodding his head, the other Falleen guard did as instructed. Moving past Henale, he strode to the Falleen in the corner, and checked their vitals. Henale knew it was a useless feat. Another group from her race was dead.
Not at the human's hands, but their master.
Whoever he was.
"Guard Henale," another Falleen shouted, and bombarded into the room, "we need you on the bridge. Now."
Blinking, the Falleen woman?s skin shifted to a subtle blue. Silently, she hurried out of the compartment and onto the bridge. Inside, five other Falleen were working the controls. Datapads and energy packs at hand, they were attempting to salvage at least part of the ship?s lost power. In all truth, the only areas they could manage were the main access hallway and one cargo bay. It would be enough to keep them stable on the ship, but not for long.
Turning to her commander, Henale bowed her head. The other Falleen immediately pointed his finger. "We have company, Henale."
Slowly, Henale rolled her attention to the viewpoint. There, a distant speck in space shifted. Henale might have mistaken it for a star. If it weren?t for the fact it was coming straight for them.
"What are they doing?" was all she could ask.
Her commander shrugged. "Who knows? There?s no markings on the ship, so there?s no way to tell if it's New Republic, or just a stupid pirate freighter attempting to claim this vessel for parts. In either case?" He trailed off, and offered a sharp stare.
Henale didn?t need more explanation. Spinning around to her other guards, she declared, "I want this ship?s weapons operational. If you have to pull energy from life support, so be it!"
Of the five Falleen on the bridge, all looked up at her. Already, they were at the consoles, working with the controls.
"You ready to do this?" Weo's voice called through the comm system of the ship.
Dressed in a pilot?s simple orange environmental suit, Mara Jade Skywalker pulled the oxygen mask from her face and replied, "About as much as I can be. Bring her in."
Rolling her eyes, Mara placed her mask back on. They had already decided what to do; it was doing it that was the problem. The cargo bay on the other vessel was swarming with Falleen as the aliens attempted to snatch up the supplies from the dead ship. If she desired to enter, it would have to be from another route.
"They're trying to spin around," Weo announced. "Pulling away from the other ship to face me. Funny. I didn't even consider us a threat."
"Did you try speaking with them?"
"Uh," Weo paused for a second, the noise of switches being flipped and buttons being pushed hinting through the comm. "They spoke something in their native language, then the holo went dead. So, sort of and no. Sorry."
"Just get to the West Wing of the ship," Mara replied. "I'll handle the rest."
Weo didn't bother to reply. Perhaps there simply wasn't a need. Or, more logically, it was due to the massive blaster fire suddenly shooting around her ship. Without a word, Mara tightened the oxygen mask on her face, and stood with one hand lifted beside the cargo bay's control panel. The other one gripped tightly to her inactive lightsaber.
Again, the ship rattled.
"They're not too happy!" Weo declared. "We're reaching the coordinates. Just hold on. This'll have to be quick!"
Mara reached out with the Force; she sensed Weo?s ship swerve underneath the Falleen vessel?the beings onboard the ship?
And, then, Luke. Cold. Dim. He was at peace?alive, but cold. She tried, but couldn't feel Ross or Commander Pace. If they were alive, it wouldn't be for long. Like her husband.
"Three seconds!" Weo shouted into the comm system. "Three?two?go!"
Without a second's thought, Mara jammed her palm into the ship's eject button. With her lightsaber raised above her, she felt as the garbage shoot fired her out of the ship like a blaster's red beam.
Focus, Mara! Focus!
Open space struck her, and would have disoriented most people. Jedi or no, there was no center in space. The garbage shoot's thrust continued to shove her upwards.
There was no opportunity to look. The bottom of the Falleen ship was approaching fast.
Employing the Force, Mara gripped her lightsaber. The seconds passed like a detonator's ticks. She tossed the saber high above her.
The striking blue blade shinned in space like a spark of electricity inside a pitch-black cave. It collided with the Falleen vessel, and cut through metal and pipes?its protection from the outside nothingness.
Even with all of Mara's concentration, the process was slow, and her body was ascending too swiftly. Heart pounding, she closed her eyes, and shifted her back toward the Falleen ship. The lightsaber continued to cut, but the time wasn't there.
Giving a tiny groan, Mara Jade Skywalker's back rammed into the bottom of the ship. Pain erupted into her body as if her spin was pushed into her chest. The sheer force heaved all the wind from her lungs.
Nonetheless, her concentration held. The lightsaber continued to slice.
The metal snapped, and flew out into space. Grabbing her lightsaber with one final maneuver, Mara engulfed the Force. The bottom of the ship was thick. A good meter between technology and the emptiness of the galaxy. With one final push, she forced herself through the open cavity, and into the Falleen's vessel.
The wind from the tiny room consumed her as she pulled herself through. One hand after another, she crawled into the ship like moving up a smooth mountainside with no rope. The wind continued to beckon her to slip back out.
Another groan escaped her lungs, but she still shuffled forward. Climbing to the room's door, she stretched out with the Force. It opened without question.
Dragging herself past it and into the vessel's main hallway, she used the Force again. The sliding door closed without hesitation. The wind stopped.
Panting, Mara silently dropped her breathing mask under her chin. Her hair matted to her head like strips of wet clothe, Mara glanced around the hallway. She sensed for anyone, but it was clear.
She felt her husband. The Falleen on the bridge. They didn?t realize she was on the ship. That wouldn?t last long.
Weakly, Mara managed to get her feet underneath her. Pulling at every ounce of strength in her body, Mara gently held her lightsaber within her right hand. In her left, she placed her tiny wrist pistol.
Okay, Luke, she thought to herself, I hope you're ready for this. Because, if you're not, then we might have some serious trouble ahead.
She started to run.
Entering real space from lightspeed was normally not a problem, but as Corran Horn heaved back on his ship's controls, the Force shook as powerfully as his X-wing's photon-torpedoes. Corran didn't expect to end up in the center of a battle. Then again, when do things ever truly go the way one expects?
He veered his X-wing's controls to the right, and barely missed a line of Falleen blaster fire.
It was then that Weo's voice came shouting through the comm. "Watch it! Both ships are firing now!"
"Yeah, I got that?thanks," he replied, and tugged his starfighter into a tailspin to avoid another attack.
Yanking on the controls, he watched as one of the two Falleen vessels belted around a full one-eighty, its engines lighting up like flares. The other one remained as still as a corpse. Through the Force, a tiny chill rushed up his back. "Where's Mara?"
"Where do you think?" Weo replied.
Another batch of red sparks came flying. Relying on the Force, he evaded the bolts, and steered towards the dead Falleen vessel in his viewpoint.
His sense was dim, but there. It was like an exhausted fire; its warmth could still be felt even as the spark of light was fading into the wood. Mara ran to it as she kept her senses on guard. There were close to twelve other Falleen on the vessel. Some in the cargo bay. None was close to her.
Good for you, Madam Skywalker. Grab the hubby, then get the hell out.
It wasn't the most complex strategy, but normally the best ones weren't. The main access hallway was less narrow than the other corridors she had perceived throughout the ship. Nevertheless, its twists and turns reminded Mara of a secret entrance. The Falleen had a tendency to create something more appealing to design than common use. It still provided a nice advantage. Through each curve, she stopped, and called out to the Force.
Everyone was in the cargo bay or near the front. Near Luke.
Oxygen mask under her chin, the cold stale air of the ship coursed through her lungs. The chill was actually a relief, but her head hurt. Her back protested every movement. The unforgiving metal of the ship's exterior was not the nicest welcome, apparently.
Panting, she used the Force to keep her vision focused. As she continued to stretch out, she slowed her pace. She was there.
In total, there were seven Falleen. Five were on the bridge?one in another compartment. One with Luke?.and Ross. The presence was faint, but Mara felt it. Ross was still alive.
She was tempted to contact Weo. If her plan didn't work, however?if she couldn't get out Luke and the computer slicer, then bringing the pilot's hopes up too early would do no good.
Her hands remained still. Slowly, she stepped toward Luke's compartment. She peeked inside. A Falleen male stood by the corner with a datapad. Lifting up dead Falleen hands and legs, he glanced at the faces of the beings in the corner, then wrote in his datapad.
Counting the dead.
Ignoring her primal instincts to just slash the poor little creep where he stood, Mara hooked her lightsaber to her belt. Her wrist pistol was put securely on her forearm. If she wanted to do it right, then she would have to resort to more Luke based tactics.
Cautiously, she slithered into the room. The other being didn't bother to peek up. Step by step, she edged closer to him, and reached out with the Force.
Easy does it, Skywalker. Don't mess up.
Punching at the buttons on his datapad, the Falleen didn't see her right at his back. He had no time to prepare. Mara lifted a hand, and pulled with the Force. The door of the compartment abruptly slid shut. The Falleen spun around, but Mara already had her arm snaked around his neck.
Taller than she, he bent over, and hauled her off the ground. Her grip held. Staggering back, he threw himself to the wall by their sides. The wind umphed out of Mara's body. Head pounding, she locked her grip around his neck until the knuckles were white.
Gradually, the Falleen's power withered. He tried to punch her, throw her?but Mara ended as the victor. He slumped to his knees, and then collapsed completely to the floor.
Gasping, Mara released the other being. Silently, she rolled him over, listening as his breathing started to return to normal. Staring at his unconscious form, Mara leaned over his ear. "I'm sorry."
Without another word, she tottered to the other side of the room. Lying tranquilly on the floor were three figures. One covered with a simple gray sheet, Mara could already assume the worst. The others were side-by-side.
Even with his burns, Mara recognized the youthful computer slicer. His breaths were steady, but weak. His heart didn't seem much better. There was little doubt in Mara's mind that young Ross had no chance of strolling out of there.
To Ross? right was the motionless form of Mara's husband. More pale than the one-time farmboy should have been, Mara was swift to kneel down beside him and reach out with the Force. His face was covered in sweat; his hair a tangled mess of dirt and neglect. Mara bent over, and kissed his lips. The Jedi Master didn?t bulge.
"Okay," she told herself calmly. "It's a healing trance. Fair enough."
Hibernation trances were odd things. Bringing another Jedi out of it either required a lot of Force use, or a catch phrase?almost like unlocking a code in a database. Mara neither had time nor concentration to bother contacting a Jedi Master through the Force. Her head rumbled with pain. The Falleen hadn't helped by whacking her into the wall, that was for sure.
Licking her lips, Mara sat up straight, and then declared, "Jedi."
Luke didn't stir.
"Okay, wrong one," Mara considered for a second. "Mara?"
"Anakin? Farmboy? Tatooine? Come on, Luke?you put it in Huttesse?"
Her husband remained as unconscious as Ross.
Shutting her eyes, Mara reflected back. They had spent so much time together?so many hard times. A healing trance wasn't unusual in their work. Neither were the phrases?
Slowly, Mara re-opened her eyes. Carting a tiny grin, she stared at her husband. There was one password he would think up. One that only she would try. Quietly, she leaned down to his ear and declared, "I love you."
She expected him to jerk awake. To look up at her and grin with amusement.
He did nothing. His eyelids remained as closed and as blank as before.
Rolling her eyes, Mara placed a hand to her forehead as the last bits of her concentration wilted.
Come on, Mara. What would Luke say? What would he use if he thought you would come? Remember, this is Luke. Nothing is off limits?
It hit her with such might, her hand flinched away from her forehead. Taking in a breath, Mara gazed at the Jedi Master in front of her, and softly said, "Welcome aboard?"
His eyes twitched.
Like flicking on a lightsaber, his entire body revived, stretching. After only another second, he smiled and his bright blue eyes faced Mara?
His expression dropped.
"Mara!" he screamed right as the metal rod made contact.
The impact knocked her across the room. There was no time to scream. Like a weightless doll, Mara slid to the other side of the compartment and collided with the wall.
The Falleen, his neck a bright shade of red, still had his eyes on the Jedi woman as he lifted the metal beam in his hands toward her husband.
"Repeat," Corran Horn shouted through his X-wing's comm system, "this is Colonel Corran Horn of the New Republic. We're not here to start a war. Just rescue our men, like you are."
"And, this is Prince Iles of the vessel Revor," the voice at the other end hissed back. "Your comrades are already dead. There's nothing neither you nor I could have done. If you remain here, we will consider it a hostile act on your part. Do you understand?"
"Hostile act, yes," Corran snapped back as he rolled his eyes. "You're dealing with two military-trained starfighters, sir. One a Jedi. We're not leaving without our men. It's actually quite simple."
"Then, you leave us no choice."
"Normally never do."
The comm went dead after that. Huffing out a breath, Corran flung a glimpse at the Crazy Raid as Weo raced across the stars. She was whipping around all over the place, dodging red sparks like a Jedi confronting an Imperial Walker.
Stalling, he thought to himself, we've resorted to stalling.
Shaking his head, Corran wrenched back the controls of his vessel, and avoided another blaster bolt from the Falleen ship. They weren't getting anywhere doing somersaults in space. Even for a Jedi, Corran's patience was fleeting.
Switching on his comm again, he called out, "Weo, you there?"
"Little busy," she came back with a pant.
Ignoring the strain to her words, Corran asked, "You think you can manage for a second without me?"
"I need to contact someone."
"Sure," she groaned with an edge, "then, after, we can all go out for whiskey, and play a round of sabacc. Are you nuts?"
"Then, contact!" she replied, shouting out the last word as her freighter spun throughout the void of space. A shot tapped the corner of her vessel, but Weo held on tight.
With that, Corran backed his X-wing away, then punched the frequencies on his comm system. There was no time for conversation. The signal cleared, and he merely called out, "This is Corran Horn. We've stopped dead center on the intersection of the Correllian Trade Spine and the Rimma Trade Route. Coordinates?1-7-3-5-0-4. I need you to send a transmission to this exact location?regarding the Falleen anti-virus. Don't let me down, Leia."
Mara didn't move. Beside the wall, her arms cloaked her face; Luke couldn't tell how badly she was hurt. Not that he could help her.
It was the Falleen that gazed down at him now. The metal rod in his hand, anger shrouding his face and heart, there was no doubt what his intent was. The crude steel of the bar dimly gleamed in the room's only light; he raised it above his head.
Through the exhaustion and pain?the virus and the struggles of the past few days?Luke Skywalker felt renewed. It wasn't a complete reclaim of his strength or health, but the awareness in his body and the Force reassured him that the time he'd spent in a trance hadn't gone by wastefully.
In the Force's light, everything withered to a creep. The rod started to come crashing down at Luke's head. Laying on his back, staring up at the other being, the Jedi Master observed in a strange tranquility as the object plunged toward his face.
The impact sent the Falleen's arms into a spasm. The long metal pipe vibrated, and a loud clapping of metal against metal boomed throughout the room. His head only millimeters away from where it had been a heartbeat before, Luke winced as the echo of the rod hitting the floor by his side bounced within his head.
It took the Falleen a second to realize what had just transpired, and a Jedi lacked hesitation. Luke's leg flew up like a blaster bolt. Elegant and sturdy, it made contact with the Falleen's stomach for only a split-second before the other being leapt backwards from the blow. The metal rod flew into the air, and eventually bashed the wall behind the unconscious attacker.
Reeling off his back, Luke scrambled to get his feet under him. The fever from the virus and its terrible aches streamed all over his body. Nevertheless, the pathogen no longer had the control. Luke had fought it back.
The Jedi Master knelt down to his wife's side. Even with her head facing the wall, the trail of blood coming from the split across her forehead could have been seen by Luke if he were standing in the hallway. Leaving a tiny puddle of ruby ooze on the ground, the wound plagued over half of her brow. Luke immediately placed a hand on her injured forehead, and then summoned the Force.
A moment later, consciousness poured back into Mara like awaking to a cold cup of water splashed at her face. She coughed, instantly jumping up as if attempting to get back into attack position.
"Relax," Luke told her, his voice strangely rasped even to his ears. "You're hurt."
"Oh," she groaned, and started to drop back to the floor. Luke intervened, bringing her head to rest on his lap.
"Hold still," he replied. "Just breathe and try to focus."
Rolling her eyes as if not able to pinpoint his voice, she warily came back, "You playing hero again?"
"Just for you," he replied, and gently took one of her hands. He held it tenderly, caressing her palm.
Giving another second, her eyes finally greeted his. Slowly, he could feel her pulling?stretching out with the Force to find the control she always strived to possess. Her vision cleared; her expression reverted to reality. She placed a hand on his chin, gently touching the cleft in its center. "And to think," she spoke with a tiny smirk on her lips, "I came here to rescue you."
Something whacked at the room's door. Through the Force, Luke could sense the other beings, at least five Falleen trying desperately to get in. He shot a look down at his wife. She was already lugging herself up.
"We need to get out of here," she replied with a serious edge to her voice. "One comatose slicer, an injured Knight, and a fever-struck Jedi Master isn't really the greatest combination."
Ignoring the headache in his skull, Luke hurried to Ross. The boy rested as peacefully as when Luke had left him all those hours before. One good thing.
"Here," Luke instructed. Grabbing the boy by the arm, he carted the slicer up to his side. It was surprisingly difficult; younger or no, Ross' body was tall and lanky, and Luke's smaller form couldn't boost him completely off the ground. It was times like these when Luke wished he was just a few centimeters taller.
"You got him?" Mara asked, and wiped the blood from around her eyes.
Wrapping an arm around the boy's waist, Luke glanced at his wife, and nodded.
"Then, let's start this," Mara declared, and unclipped her lightsaber.
The shimmering blade erupted into the room. It was complimented by another neon glow?a wild green?as Luke balanced young Ross over his left shoulder.
Mara was the first to go. The wild bangs on the compartment's metal door immediately halted as the blue lightsaber made contact with its surface. Cutting across the metal, the thick steel had no chance. Through the Force, Luke sensed the Falleen stagger back.
"We need to make this quick!" Mara shouted past the noise of the lightsaber. "I don't think they're interested in experimenting on us this time!"
Scurrying to the door, Luke witnessed as his wife finished the final cut, and then stepped back with her. Both the Jedi Knight and Master extended their free hands?
The metal slab exploded away from them and into the hallway like a Rancor running through an Ewok's hut. Crashing into the metal wall behind it, the rumble echoed throughout the ship. Luke closed his eyes, and used the Force to control the thunderous ringing in his ears. Mara said nothing, but as she took in a deep breath, Luke could tell she was trying to control her own agony.
The Falleen were already backed away near the bridge's doorless entrance. Neither Mara nor Luke bothered to look at them. Maintaining Ross securely on his shoulder, Luke rushed out of the room, Mara right by his side as she guarded both her husband and the slicer. Together, they raced down the main corridor, the Falleen swiftly gaining back their composure.
Her back toward Luke, Mara pulled out her comlink with one hand and switched it on. "Weo?" she shouted.
There was static, and then, "Yeah, still here. You ready?"
"Not quite yet, but Luke, Ross, and I are on our way."
Another pause. "Ross?"
"Yeah. He's in bad shape, Weo. We need you to be ready for us when we get back to my entrance. You got that?"
"What about Commander Pace?"
Taking in a breath, Mara merely explained, "He's dead, Weo. I'm sorry."
There was a sigh through the comlink, but it was short. "Your entrance?pretty-self explanatory. Just be sure you make it."
"That's the plan."
The comlink went dead; Mara shoved it into a pocket on her suit. She glanced at her husband. "We'll have to take turns with the oxygen masks. I only brought two?" she paused, narrowing her eyebrows at him. "What's wrong?"
"They're not pursuing," he explained, the fragments of confusion jabbing at his mind. "They're just down the hallway, but?"
The Force sent a mind-splitting jolt of alertness throughout Luke's mind. There was no time to reflect. Just enough to scream.
"Mara!" Luke cried out, but the impact was too much even for him.
The explosion was near the end of the hall, between them and the Falleen. It didn't stop Luke and his wife from leaping backwards. Landing painfully on their sides, both Luke and Mara instantly jolted themselves up. With one swift move, he grabbed Ross by the arm, and flung the slicer over his shoulder again.
Squinting, Mara placed a hand to her forehead to wipe off the new blood from her wound. She glanced at Luke just as he reached out to grab her hand.
"Run," he spoke softly, but with a deep strain to his voice that could silence a Senate hall.
They darted off instantly. Breath after breath, the Force quivered down Luke's back as if that alone could move him faster. And, with it, the smallest, most tranquil sound of a ball rolling throughout the hallway gently entered Luke's ear. Using the Force, he twisted around just in time to push it partly back to its owners.
Nonetheless, the explosion burst through the corridor. Luke shouted, and staggered back to the wall. Mara dropped to her knees, just to get back to her feet a second later. She tossed him a glance. "What are they?nuts?"
"By now?" He nodded. "This hallway is in the center of the ship. There's nothing around it except rooms, compartments, and levels of metal. Using a few detonators won't damage anything but this corridor."
"And us," Mara came back, and whipped around.
Through the twists and turns of the hall, they could still feel the Falleen. From the far edge of the passageway, one of their green heads peeked out. The flashing metal ball soared at them an instant later.
"It's an impactor," Mara explained as Luke grabbed her arm to move. "It'll explode when it makes contact with the floor."
The ball flew at them. Mara stood there. Silently, Luke released her arm.
Her jaw clenched, Luke sensed as his wife beckoned the Force. She raised a hand?
The flashing ball toppled with her. Flipping her body back, she caught the detonator with her free hand, leveling its descent. Crouched on the floor, the beeping device in her grasp, Mara's smirk was all the warning the Falleen would require.
She gave them three seconds to run. All the Falleen took the advantage.
With a flick of her wrist, the detonator sailed through the air. Guided by the Force, the tiny object made it all the way to the curve in the hallway before Mara permitted it to drop.
The wild flames heated the entire corridor. From where Luke and Mara stood, it felt like a warm breeze during a Tatooine summer.
Nonetheless, as Luke studied his wife, the only thing he could see was exhaustion. Still knelt on the ground, the fiery woman was out of breath. The arm holding her lightsaber trembled. The wound on her forehead was still bleeding, and the sweat across her expression was as heavy as Luke's.
Reaching out through the Force, Luke could feel the anger in the Falleen rising in the distance. Their determination was mounting. They were recovering. And, that time, they were prepared.
"Here," Luke explained, and handed Ross into Mara's care.
Forcing herself up, Mara extinguished her saber and wrapped both arms around the boy. She cocked an eyebrow. "What's this?"
"Take Ross to your escape route," Luke explained as he stepped forward. "Commander Pace died for him. I don't want to put him in further danger if we don't need to."
"And?you?" she snapped back with a dark tone to her words.
He looked at his wife. "I want to finish this. Right now."
"I'm not leaving."
"We don't have time to argue. Just?," he trailed off, his eyes gazing wildly into hers. "Please, Mara."
"I'm asking you."
"As my wife."
"Use that against me?"
The Force stirred. Luke felt as the tiny group charged back to finish the job. He turned back to Mara.
There was a sadness to her face, but the confidence gleamed brightly in her emerald eyes. A strength that couldn't be measured. He frowned at her.
"I trust you, Luke," she explained, and gently placed Ross down on the hallway's floor, "but, I have to see this through with you. We started this together. It's time we finished it the same way."
Luke continued to gaze at his wife, to see the doubt in her eyes. Yet, all he could detect was compassion. Love. Love for him, and the endurance that accompanied it. She knew what it would take to be the wife of Luke Skywalker. Through all the disagreements, all the debates, that blind faith in each other kept them going. Silently, Luke nodded at his wife. He gripped her hand.
Leaving Ross by the corridor's wall, Luke and Mara Jade Skywalker walked down the hall. Their emotions alert to the Force and each other, they awaited the next line of fire from the Falleen.
With her guardsmen at her side, Henale peeped around the corner of the vast corridor. Nothing. Silently, she nudged her head, and continued forward as the other Falleen kept by her side.
Adrenaline flaming through her like a scorching summer's sun, Henale silently pulled another detonator from her belt. To her side, her second in command did the same, followed by another one.
As their rage fueled them, they dashed down the hallway of the Falleen vessel until at last, two figures stood in their path.
Peeking out from the edge of the hallway, Henale stared for a second at the man and woman standing motionlessly in the hall. It was the same man that, less than half an hour before, she had declared dead. She hadn't handled things well then. It was time to rectify the situation.
Strangely, neither human budged. Arms calmly together around his back, the man stood as if happily accepting an execution. The woman had her arms crossed, appearing more annoyed than afraid.
Silently, Henale nodded at the others. Without hesitation, they flipped on the detonators, and viewed for only a second as the three flashing balls went flying into the air before escaping to safety.
"Being a Jedi isn't what makes this man compassionate. Being compassionate is what makes him a Jedi."
"No more," Luke spoke softly.
"No more," his wife gently added from his side.
The tiny devices came towards them.
Silently, Luke extended a hand. Using all the energy still left within him, he watched in a serene peace as all three detonators gently landed on the floor by his and Mara's side.
The flames erupted, mutating everything around them into a gulf of fire. In their minds, there was no galaxy. No ship. No fear. It was just them. Them, the fire?and the Force.
The sprouts of fire were only there to be controlled. The heat only to be simmered. There was no difference between flowing with the flames as there was flowing through the Force. Lifting a pebble. A rock.
The fire was all around them. The heartbeats felt like hours. He sensed his wife as her energy joined him, and his control merged into hers. Whatever she lacked in ability, he could aid. Whatever strength he needed, she was there to provide. A perfect tangle of concentration and understanding.
The sparks of the inferno attempted to consume them. They were gently brushed aside. Flowing out. Bit by bit, the flames started to shift to the Jedi's command.
Trapped within its power, Luke surveyed as they danced about him and his wife, waving more like water than flames. Stunning.
Gently, Luke lifted a hand into the blaze. The flames heard his call. By his side, Mara's tender fingers clutched to his wrist, aiding in the power. Slowly, the fire compacted. Not moving outwards, but instead within.
Luke kept his hand out.
The seconds came and went until finally, as the fire subsided, the explosion calmed, and Luke gazed down at his left hand. There, gently flowing and dancing, was a tiny orb of fire.
Luke glanced at his wife, but already knew what she was feeling?thinking.
With Mara beside him, Luke began to walk. It was a simple stride. The Falleen, realizing the explosions didn't last as long as expected, were swift to investigate. Nearing a curve in the main hallway, Luke met eye to eye with the group. He lifted the ball into view.
Instantly, two of them pulled out their blasters. Just as swiftly as they were hoisted, the barrels of the weapons slowly lowered their aim to the ground. The Falleen gazed at the simple, quiet glow in Luke's hand.
Holding tightly to the Force, Luke stared at the group in front of him and explained, "This is what's left of your attempts to harm me and my wife."
He paused, attempting to hold his concentration on the fire. The Falleen continued to gawk at him with shock.
Softly, Mara continued for him, "It's just as potent as the wild flames of three detonators. And, yet?" she shot a look at the sphere in Luke's hand, then back at the Falleen with a tiny smirk, "here it is. Resting gently in someone's hand."
"What are you intending to do?" one of the Falleen?a woman?asked.
Mara shook her head. "That all depends. Do you believe us?"
The Falleen woman merely nodded.
"Then, you realize?right now?he could unleash this power again. Killing us all."
Slowly, the Falleen peered at Luke and Mara, her purple eyes staring with a new flash of reality. Without a word, she nodded again.
With that, Luke pushed on the Force again. It wasn't as difficult as before. The Force was already with him, being focused to the tiniest molecule. It only took a second. As the quiet glowing ball of fire gently circled in his hand, the flames began to dissipate. One after the other, they vanished into the air until the last flame faded with the rest.
The Falleen said nothing. All the weapons remained by their sides.
Luke didn't need them to speak. Expressionlessly, he told them, "We're leaving now. Please don?t follow."
None of the Falleen reacted. The anger had died out with the flames. They stood motionless as Luke and Mara turned away. Gripping to the Force for a few extra ounces of strength, he started to walk down the corridor with Mara right by his side.
"You're insane! You actually expect me to accept that type of nonsense!"
Jerking his controls left in a desperate attempt to dodge the oncoming blaster fire, Corran Horn still managed to roll his eyes. "Why do you think we haven't started a full scale war with you?" he asked the Falleen prince through the comm.
"You're awaiting other vessels. Stalling us," Prince Iles replied with a hiss.
Stalling?well? "We're attempting to retrieve our companions, you idiot! Just let us snatch them up, and we'll?"
"No one risks themselves with this much foolishness for a few comrades."
A groan exploded from Corran's lungs. Using the Force to control the frustration, he flipped off his comm system, and then turned back to the battle at hand. He tried not to harm them; the Falleen were fighting out of ignorance and fear?nothing more. It wasn't right to attack. And still, the impulse to protect his friends urged him forward.
In the distance, he watched as Weo's freighter soared quickly in space. Eluding one shot with a twist of her ship, she rushed at the crippled Falleen vessel, awaiting Luke and Mara.
Now, all they had to play with was time.
They marched. Mara?s arm around Luke?s waist, his doing the same around hers, they supported each other as they continued down the hallway. Ross was securely hunched over Luke?s shoulder, the boy?s limp arms and legs swaying back and forth as the Jedi Master trudged on. Mara attempted to aid her husband, lifting some of Ross? weight off him through the Force. She knew Luke was just as exhausted as she.
The Force was strong in both, but they had endured so much. The Falleen?the ship. Injuries. Viruses. And, the list went on.
So did they.
The stench of ozone and smoke drenched their clothing. It seeped into their nostrils as if attempting to remind them of why they were so fatigued. Nevertheless, everything else was peaceful. The Falleen hadn?t followed; the ship was surprisingly calm.
Through the peace, however, there was a chill in the air. Mara was certain her husband felt it as well, but neither of them spoke of it. There was nothing to be said on the matter.
Curbing around another corner, a wave of relief shuffled down Mara's back. She tightened her hold on Luke, and gently smiled.
"We?re here," she declared, and casually pointed a finger at the last door to the corridor?s right.
"I don?t think they were lying," Henale explained to her commanding officer. "They could have killed us, and yet?"
"They?re human, Henale," her commander replied, his eyes staring wildly out the viewpoint of the bridge. "Jedi, at that. It doesn?t matter whether they mean peace. You know what the master proclaimed. Their survival means our destruction."
"No, Henale," he came back, finally turning to meet his eyes to hers. "Don?t make this more difficult." Without another word, the commander snatched his comlink from the side of his uniform. "Prince Iles," he called into it with a dark, almost reluctant tone, "we have intruders in the East Wing of our vessel. There is no possibility for us to retrieve them. We?ve cut off the section from all the other parts, including life support, but that will take time. The shields are down." He paused, giving Henale one more glimmer of somberness, then continued into the comlink, "It?s my best judgment in this matter to destroy the East Wing of this vessel. Before they can escape."
"Are they doing what I think they?re doing?" Weo?s voice suddenly shot through Corran Horn?s comm system like a shouting Jawa.
Staring out into space as one Falleen vessel turned its front port slowly away from Corran and Weo, gradually twisting to face the other crippled ship, all Corran could do was frown.
"Yep," he declared with a shake of his head. "It looks like Luke and Mara have made some nasty enemies. You better get down there, Weo. They?re waiting for you."
"What do you intend to do?"
The wild buzz rang so abruptly through the tiny X-wing, Corran jumped. If it weren?t for his restraining belt, there was little doubt he would have rammed his head directly into the top of the cockpit.
"Corran?" Weo?s called.
"One sec," he replied, and flipped a button on the far left side of his control panel. Within a heartbeat, a wave of information came shooting through his readout. List after list of data?all at his disposal. All from the wonderful city-planet of Coruscant.
A tiny crooked grin clasped to his lips, Corran merely replied into his comm system, "I?m gonna shove a pile of information in the Falleen?s faces."
"Just get to the coordinates, Weo," he explained, gazing at his readout. "I?ll take care of the rest."
"They?ve cut life support," Mara explained to her husband as they stood at the door of the room Mara had used to enter the ship.
Without hesitation, Luke grabbed one of the oxygen masks from Mara?s side poach. Silently, he secured it to Ross? face, and turned back to Mara. "I suppose our attempt at a truce didn?t go as well as assumed."
"No," Mara muttered, averting her eyes to the ceiling. "There?s a lot of regret on this ship. I can almost smell it."
"Probably orders from the other ship," Mara replied, and then slouched against the room?s door. Sliding down its smooth metal surface, she sat on the ground. "We did well. Jedi rules, philosophy and understanding right down to the fine details. It?s not our fault someone still wants to kill us."
"Our rescue vessel is still far away," Luke continued, and gently placed Ross on the ground. Sitting beside Mara, he rested his gaze on the ceiling. "They?re turning the other ship this direction. I?m not sensing anything good coming out of it."
"Trying to blow us up?"
"I?ll give them points for persistence."
"I?ll add a few myself."
"Anything we can do to stop them?"
"It?s not in our hands. We just have to trust Corran and Weo now."
"Ah. I recall this lesson. How did it end last time?"
Luke turned to her, his eyes and mouth displaying an almost devious edge. "You're the one that always wants to push it up a notch. I believe this can be called fate's irony."
Mara felt a tiny laughter escape her lips. Gently leaning her head next to Luke?s shoulder, she closed her eyes. The blood had stopped trickling from her wound, but her vision didn?t seem eager to focus. More than anything, she wanted to sleep.
"Well," Mara spoke softly, wrapping an arm around Luke?s, "it could be worse. At least we?re together."
To her surprise, Luke huffed out a chuckle.
Narrowing her eyebrows, she inched away to get a view of her husband?s face. "What?"
"I love it," he explained, his lips still curved upwards. "Your attempt at optimism."
"A very good one," he came back, and set his crystal eyes to hers.
Mara stared back until a tiny grin caressed her lips as well. "You?re teasing me?now?"
"No time like the present. Like I said, the future?s out of our hands."
"Well," she leaned her head back on Luke?s side, "if I?m going to die, might as well take you with me. That was my original plan from the way beginning, anyway."
Luke didn?t say anything. Eyes closed, he let out a few light chortles, and then checked on Ross. Silently, Mara closed her eyes, listening in the quiet hallway as she, Luke, and the computer slicer breathed. The Force still alerted her; she felt the tension growing more steadily in the air like a Rebel officer listening to the clank-clank of stormtroopers moving closer to her position.
However, she did nothing. Like her husband said, it was no longer in their hands. To be a Jedi was to be content. No matter what hand the universe dealt. Mara was new to the concept, but her husband was not. And, his calm tranquility could relax any nerves Mara might experience. She held still.
"You have what?" Prince Iles questioned through the comm.
"The Falleen virus!" Corran shouted back as he finished spinning his X-wing through a loop.
It was now up to him. Weo was soaring into position, but other than Corran?s tiny X-wing in the way, there was nothing to stop Prince Iles from shooting havoc into the other crippled vessel.
"I don?t have time to sit here and explain everything!" Corran replied, dodging another red bolt. "We know about your master?the Falleen and human virus?the works! Just?stop for a second, and I?ll send you the information."
"How did you get it?"
"Does it matter?"
"How do I know it?s not a fake?"
"Look," Corran finally spoke in a somber tone. Calling out with the Force, he aimed his starfighter at the bridge of the Falleen vessel. "I?m not going to let you kill my friends. Now, you can either take this information, and stop this war right now?or," with a flick of Corran?s finger, the four proton torpedoes on his X-wing became armed, "I can do as much damage to your vessel as I can with every Jedi ability I possess. Your choice."
Arm loosely draped over Luke?s front, Mara opened her eyes. It was an odd feeling coursing through the ship?through the space outside. The tension had been as thick as mud, swinging between the Falleen and the Force.
Almost like a passing breeze, the Force stopped its ripples inside Mara?s mind. Slowly, she removed her head from Luke?s shoulder, and glimpsed around. "What just happened?"
With that, her husband merely smiled. "I think it?s over."
There was another alarm through the Force. That one, however, wasn?t of worry or fear. In fact, just the opposite. Mara looked at Luke. He was already hauling Ross from the ground.
Silently, Mara grabbed the comlink from her belt. "Weo?"
"The Falleen have called back the arsenal," the other woman replied. "I?m sending a force cylinder to the ship even as we speak. Thought you?d appreciate it better than space-walking with three people and two masks."
Mara shrugged to herself, but her smile held like cement. "Hey, if we have the time to secure a force cylinder?"
"Got all the time you need. Leia just sent the Falleen information to Jedi Horn. He?s in the process of handing it over to the Falleen right now."
"Thank you, Weo," Luke said as he secured Ross over his shoulder.
"No problem, Master Skywalker. It?s nice to hear from you again."
The comlink was silenced; Mara gladly attached it to her belt, and then cocked an eyebrow at him. "You knew we would be all right, didn?t you?"
"Why would you say that?" he replied, suddenly confused.
Slowly, Mara?s expression fell. "No vision?" she questioned.
"Uh?," he blinked his eyes. "Not that I recall."
"No feelings? No idea?"
"Trust. Remember, Mara?" His features lightened up again. "What type of life would it be if I already knew how everything was going to play?"
Gradually, Mara?s smirk resurfaced on her mouth. Pressing the door?s controls, the metal slab slid to the right. Already, Weo?s force cylinder was securely in place. The hole Mara had created just awhile before was now sufficiently guarded by a long clear tube, connecting the Falleen ship to Weo?s freighter.
Silently, Mara gestured a hand to her husband, and stepped out of his way. With a nod, he stepped toward the cylinder, and gently positioned Ross inside. The slicer?s body vanished out of sight. Kneeling on the floor, Luke turned back to Mara, and extended a hand.
Slowly walking across the room, Mara stopped beside the hole. Without hesitation, she threw herself inside of it, awaiting for her husband to exit down to safety.
"I want it known," President Ponc Gavrisom announced to the Senate of the New Republic, the holocams buzzing around him like flies, "that even in the face of adversity, the dividing factors that separate one being from another should never be used as excuses of hate. Of fear, or of distrust. To the Falleen and Scyos?even to the family of the late Senator Retafured?and every human that lost loved ones during this horrible crisis, I hope that this one break of those factors will not lead to others. We are the New Republic?a government for all species. Human and beyond. Thank you."
The applause was not immediate. The final words hung in the air as if all the Senators were awaiting another speech. They gazed at the podium. There, Leia Organa Solo sat beside President Gavrisom. Neither a spark of concern nor fear of disapproval twitched on her expression. Through the air, there was nothing but tension. Through the Force, Leia could sense the other Senators in the room. Outside, the people of Coruscant listened at home through the holo. Worries were there?suspicion and fear. Nonetheless, they were hopeful as well. For the future. It was wishful thinking for a united galaxy.
The applause was not immediate, but it arrived nonetheless. One by one, the Senators stood, raising their hands toward President Gavrisom. He nodded at them in return as they cheered for a galaxy that would gather and heal.
Leia remained quiet, but she gently clapped with the rest, especially toward President Gavrisom. He glanced down at her, and then back at the others. There was a touch of disappointment in his eyes, but the confidence was radiant. Silently, he lifted a hand; the loud applauding halted. He smiled almost bashfully into the crowd. Without a word, Leia stood by his side.
And, with that, President Gavrisom declared, "Through this chaos, all of its horrid destruction and betrayal, several decisions had to be made. Some of them by me personally. And, while my role as Head of the New Republic?as temporary as it was?has been grand, I feel that now is the time to give it back to its rightful owner." He gestured a hand to Leia. "It is on this day that I make my final act as President of the New Republic. By giving back my position to the person I and so many others trust?Leia Organa Solo."
There was no delay in the applause then. Several Senators seemed to clap for mere presentation; Leia felt their reluctance in the Force. Senator Borsk Fey?lya was one of them. Grimacing from his spot in a line of other Senators, he stared down at Leia with an almost rhythmic clap to his fur-covered hands.
Leia ignored him. Silently, she bowed toward the crowd and holocams, and then waved a hand to the public watching her on the holo.
The sun was setting by the time Luke Skywalker and his wife reached Ross? room inside the towers of the Imperial Palace. A datapad in his hands, Luke rapped on the door only once before hearing a pleasant, "Come in," from the other side.
Twisting around to his wife, Luke hinted a grin before entering the room. Mara remained outside for her husband. Luke desired her to come in and join him, but Mara had refused, claiming it wasn?t her place. Luke didn't bother to argue.
Stepping into the room, the door closed behind the Jedi Master as he turned his light-hearted expression to the bedside in the far left corner of the room. There, Ross laid; he tilted his head to look at Luke, and a new energy seemed to fill him.
"Oh, Master Skywalker," the computer slicer exclaimed with a rasp to his voice. "You came to visit me?"
Huffing out a laugh, Luke approached the boy?s side and positioned himself on the stool by the bed. "I thought a visit was in order. How do you feel?"
Immediately, Ross? warm expression calmed. The tiny glimmer in his eyes faded. Almost reluctantly, he extended his right arm. It was covered with medical devices and tubes. Ross frowned. "They had to take the entire arm on this one. Only a few fingers from the other side. I guess I should feel lucky. They seem real."
"There are worse things," Luke replied, and lifted his own artificial hand into view. Silently, he twiddled his fingers.
The computer slicer?s frown lightened slightly, but a somber expression still plagued his face. Luke knew the look well?it was the same one he had seen in his own eyes after his experience with his father at Bespin. Luke had lost his childhood na?vet? that day. Ross had lost his on Ttremyrin One. No matter who you were, trauma affected you the same in the eyes of youth.
Nodding his head once at Ross? new mechanical right arm, Luke asked, "Does it hurt?"
Ross? eyes shifted toward his bed. "It aches. The medics said that was normal."
"It?s phantom pain. Your mind dealing with the trauma. It?ll pass. I promise you."
With that, Ross casually shrugged. "I?ll get used to it. My arm and these fingers." He wiggled the partially constructed mechanical pinkie and ring finger.
Luke merely nodded, and then glanced at Ross? bedside. Laying casually on the nightstand was a datapad. Silently, Luke picked it up, and switched on the device.
Ross merely blew out a breath, gently reaching out with his new hand to retrieve the machine from Luke?s care. "It?s just a letter," he explained, and deactivated the datapad, "to Commander Pace?s daughter. To tell her he died bravely."
"I?m sure she?ll cherish it."
"I don?t think so."
Blinking his eyes, Ross almost carefully explained, "I?I?m the reason he?s dead. How can she cherish a letter from me?"
"It wasn?t your fault, Ross," Luke replied. "Matic made a choice. He knew the risks, and picked his own way. He preferred that you lived, and would have blamed himself for your death. Just like you?re doing now for him." Leaning forward, Luke stared the younger man in the eye. "He had the choices. You didn?t. You?re at no more fault for his death than me."
Ross was silent after that. Averting his eyes to the wall beside him, he sighed. Luke watched him, wondering through both his eyes and the Force just how long it would take Ross to recover from all the pain.
After another moment, Ross twisted back to the Jedi Master and glanced at the datapad Luke had brought with him. "What?s that?" he asked.
"Oh," Luke replied, bringing his own thoughts back to him. He fidgeted with the datapad's corner. "I heard you were writing, and thought I would add a few things myself?if that?s all right. For Matic?s daughter."
Raising his eyebrows, Ross extended his hand again, and gently took the device. Activating the datapad, he scanned it for a second; he reverted to Luke with a stunned expression. "You wrote this?"
Luke offered a nod. "I realize it isn?t much, but it might help his daughter understand better. Considering I was there when he got sick and passed away."
"Yeah," Ross replied. "I?m sure it?ll help. Making sense of any of it would help anyone."
Patting Ross once on the back, Luke stood, and walked to the door. "I hope you feel better, Ross," he spoke as the metal slab opened to the hallway. "If nothing more, you?ve become a hero to billions. Rightfully so, as well."
Luke stayed only long enough to see the tiny gleam of life sparkle in Ross? eyes before making his exit from the room, and back to Mara?s side.
The bright lights of Coruscant could be viewed through the high rise of the Imperial Palace like decorations for a holiday. Speeders raced by the skyline all the way to the horizon. Calm?oblivious. The planet never truly had a nighttime. There were far too many things occurring from one hour to another for there to be any rest.
Observing from the large window of his medic?s room, Kyp Durron seemed almost mesmerized by the lights. The activity. Silently, he stood in his patient?s clothing and ebony Jedi robe. The attire alone could describe the Jedi?s disposition. Just waking from the ailments that had plagued him for over a month, it was clear he only felt content within the comfort of his Jedi garments. The robe was actually a gift from Han years before when Kyp was still a boy. Even after all the pain he had endured and caused, the Jedi still donned it with tranquility and pride.
Silently, Luke and Mara Jade Skywalker stood in the center of Kyp?s room. Luke didn?t have to say anything to already feel the light amount of tension in the air. Neither did Kyp.
Nonetheless, the other Jedi was not one to allow tension to slip away. With his arms crossed in front, Kyp didn?t even bother facing to the Jedi Master to talk. "Courageous, Master Skywalker," he proclaimed with almost a sardonic edge, "I?ve heard nothing for the past day except for your unbelievable entanglements in space. You must be proud."
Luke Skywalker instantly peeked at his wife. He could sense her impulse to retort, to snap the crude touch of Kyp?s statement back in his face. Luke didn?t need to lift a hand or give her a look for her to know that it was not the time for such things. Through the Force, she felt his presence and emotions, and remained still.
Adjoining his hands in front of him, Luke stepped deeper into the room. "You know that?s not the reason, Kyp. I didn?t do this for pride."
"Really?" the other Jedi came to look at Luke with a firm gaze. After only two days out of his coma?the new antivirus flowing through his body like the Force?Kyp looked rather healthy. "Then, perhaps you should enlighten me. You didn?t put yourself on the front line of this fiasco? With all the other Jedi that could have done the job?"
Sensing Luke?s feelings or no, Mara seemed to have taken enough. Hurrying to Luke, Mara placed her hands on her hips, and stared the Jedi down. "How about a nice, 'why, thank you, Master Skywalker?for finding the human virus that ultimately saved my life?? That would be courageous, Kyp?just for you to swallow your pride, and say it."
To Luke?s surprise, Jedi Durron merely grinned. "From my understanding, I?ve been in a healing trance for over four weeks now. Waiting for that human anti-virus, and as stable as anyone could hope for. I would have beaten it myself. Eventually."
"Why you little?" Mara was almost ready to punch him.
"Mara," Luke called out, and shifted his hard expression from Kyp to his wife.
"No, Luke," Mara countered. "This is too ridiculous, even for me. We saved his life, and still, he can?t give one ounce of gratitude."
"There's no gratitude to retrieve," Kyp explained, and then motioned his head to Luke. "You?re a Jedi. A Master?at that. As far as I?m concerned, you did your sworn duties. If you were expecting more?," he paused, and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Master Skywalker. You won't receive it here."
With that, Mara groaned, and waved a hand dramatically in Kyp's direction. "He?s impossible, Luke," she explained. "Let?s just go."
However, Luke didn?t turn to his wife. Eyes securely locked on the other man across the room, Luke serenely walked to Kyp by the window. Gazing at the other man, Luke spoke, "There is one thing I want to say before I leave, Kyp."
Luke paused. After a second, Kyp cocked a curious eyebrow. "What?"
"I didn?t do this to earn your gratitude," Luke declared. "It was something that needed to be done. By me?or someone else." He came in closer to Kyp's face. "But, I didn?t come here this evening to demand appreciation. I came to see how you were doing. Nothing more. I?m sorry you took it for something else."
Kyp opened his mouth, the urgency to retort gleaming inside his eyes. Nevertheless, after only a second, the Jedi silently closed his lips and went back to the view from the window of his medic room.
Luke surveyed him for a moment, wondering what ideas were roaming inside the other man?s head. Nonetheless, as Mara?s presence became more apparent in his mind, Luke merely bowed his head at his former student, and twisted away. Gently accepting Mara?s hand, both Skywalkers walked to the door to leave?
"You did well, Master Skywalker," Kyp?s voice softly echoed inside the room. "Just as I hope I would have done in that situation."
Mara stopped dead center by the door. She instantly pitched Luke a glance; her mouth was partially ajar.
Luke didn?t bother turning around. One hand already touching the door?s controls, he merely replied, "Thank you, Kyp." Silently, the door slid open. Luke strode calmly through it, Mara following a moment later into the hallway.
The door shut itself, leaving Mara and Luke quietly alone inside the empty corridor. Huffing out a breath, Mara merely shook her head. Luke spoke nothing. He offered his wife a smile, and started to walk down the hallway with her by his side.
"Well, be thankful, Skywalker," Mara finally said as she entangled his arm with hers. "That was about the closest form of gratitude you're ever going to receive from that one. I was surprised?it actually sounded genuine."
Luke grinned lightly to himself, but didn?t look at Mara. "I think it was."
"I doubt it will last."
With that, Luke finally looked at his wife. With her braided red hair, devious and lively emerald eyes, Luke Skywalker merely placed his hand upon hers, and smiled. "It doesn't matter, Mara. As much as I appreciated Kyp's words, I didn't need them. I already have everything I need."
Mara's smirk was full of sarcasm, but she held him tighter nonetheless. "Don't get romantic with me, Skywalker. I don't fall for it."
It was then that Luke Skywalker stopped in the middle of the hallway. Holding to Mara's arm, she was immediately pulled to his front without choice?so close, her breaths dissipated on his chin. He placed a hand on her face; she blushed and her smirk faded into a smile of compassion and modesty. Edging closer to her, he whispered softly into her ear, "Of course you fall for it, Mara. We all do." He moved his lips to her cheek, gently grazing the corner of her mouth. "Even bashful, romantically hopeless farmboys, and tough, former Emperor Hands."
"No," she spoke, her grin growing larger, "you're not hopeless. Not to me."
With that, Luke smiled. "Are you getting romantic with me, Madam Jade? I should warn you, I always fall for it."
There was no hesitation. No subtle doubts. Inside the hallway of the former Imperial Palace, Luke tenderly pressed his lips to his wife?s.
They held each other there, gently and silently, opening the Force to every emotion?every movement. But, it wasn't as Jedi to Jedi. It wasn't as the legendary Jedi Master or the infamous Emperor's Hand. It was as husband and wife. The simple bonds of livelihood that bring two people together. And, as they kissed, with a bitter sweet flavor of each other's lives, it was clear that bond was the most sacred of all.
Original cover by Niralle. HTML formatting copyright 2011 TheForce.Net LLC.