A three-part story (Shooting Stars, Rising Stars, The Sith System) that follows the adventures of two original characters whose lives are tangled up with the rise and fall of the Sith. Biggs Darklighter and the Tank Boma share Luke's destiny, their lives intertwined with his. The fates of all three have come together at the planet Yavin, for an encounter with the Empire's most fearsome weapon. NOTE: this story has been revised to fit with Episode I.
Part One: Shooting Stars
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...
The whole galaxy is about to learn about the young hero, Luke Skywalker. But champion rests on the shoulders of other unsung warriors.
Biggs Darklighter and Tank Boma share Luke's destiny, their lives intertwined with his. The fates of all three have come together at the planet Yavin, for an encounter with the Empire's most fearsome weapon.
And if they survive the assault on the Death Star, there is another challenge to face... the lurking evil of the ancient Sith.
The soft rose and gold light of the giant planet Yavin touched the melancholy face of Luke Skywalker. The young Rebel's eyes restlessly searched the four broad stone stairways that gave access to the flat summit of the Massassi temple on which he stood. He had been there since the days-end rain showers had soaked the lush jungle, leaving behind the sound of leaves dripping all around while alien wildlife emerged into the night. Deep within the towering trees, Luke could hear grunts, sighs, squeals and high-pitched jabbering. Occasionally, there was a brief shriek as some hidden prey met an unseen end.
Luke paced the stone platform, his feet avoiding the cracks and holes that were scattered across the partly ruined surface. Across the lazy jungle river, he could see the imposing bulk of the Great Temple that concealed the Rebel base. Also visible was another palace-like ruin, currently infested with Woolamanders, whose chattering carried from across the river in the misty air. Luke sat down on what might have been a low stone altar, reflecting for a moment on the vanished race that had left behind such enigmatic monuments. The temple on which he was perched was the smallest of the three. The main decorative motif on its faded, crumbling stones was the blueleaf cluster, a carving of the cobalt-blue plants that formed a dense ground cover all around the temple. A spicy fragrance rose up from the blueleaf, making Luke feel stifled. He gazed at the over-arching sky, now free of clouds and glittering with stars. The translucent, softly glowing gas giant Yavin filled half the sky. Somewhere up there, in a orbiting graveyard, were the remains of countless Imperials, as well as those of Luke's closest friend. "Biggs..." Luke breathed.
The sound of hesitant feet on broken stones made Luke turn to the farthest set of stairs. A younger man stepped up onto the platform and slowly walked over to Luke. Luke could see the emotions chasing each other across the other's face - shame, grief, and the remains of a recently deceased hatred. The other had a short, thin frame, on which hung a spare flight suit, a size too large. His eyes and unkempt hair were both very dark. His skin was tough like Luke's, having been baked in the same desert oven. He sat down on the platform cross-legged, near enough to talk, but no closer.
"Tank," said Luke, trying to sound welcoming, "I was afraid you wouldn't come." There was a long silence between them. Tank met Luke's eyes, finally, and spoke with a little catch in his voice.
"I was too ashamed. I needed to be alone, to think it over...I didn't tell you before, but I'm sorry for what I did to you. I wanted you to know that. That I was sorry."
"Tank," said Luke, putting up a hand, "I didn't ask you here so you could apologize, or so I could apologize. I'm not angry any more. The things I've been through lately...It kind of puts kidnapping into perspective." Tank looked chagrined, but didn't reply. "I asked you here because we've both lost someone. I've lost a lot of people. My Aunt and Uncle, murdered by Stormtroopers, Ben Kenobi, killed by Vader...and Biggs. You might not feel the loss of the loss of the others, but we both share the loss of Biggs. He meant a lot to both of us. I've always thought it helps to share the loss with somebody. I know it helps me. And despite our problems, I hoped we could remember Biggs together, the way he was. So he can never really be gone."
Luke gave Tank a little time to digest this. He hadn't been sure what the younger man would do. Turn around and leave, maybe. But now, watching him, Luke could see a maturity in Tank's face that hadn't been there when he had known him on Tatooine. It was with a sense of gratification that he heard Tank say, "Yeah - I want to remember him. I really need to remember him." Tank looked steadily at Luke. Luke decided to begin, to give Tank time to get settled, and because it was his idea. There were a lot of stories to tell, and the memorial in the sky Luke had planned would be visible before the night's end.
"I met Biggs in Anchorhead when I was fourteen," said Luke, settling back. Images of Tatooine came easily to him, seeming more real than this dark jungle with its wet stones. "I was in Anchorhead with Uncle Owen, tagging along while he did some business or other for the farm. He thought I might pick something up, learn to be more like a farmer. He really wanted that...I guess I disappointed him. Anyway, I didn't want to hang around while he discussed selling crops, so I whined and complained until he got mad and told me to get out of his sight and let him work..."
Luke wasted no time in scampering away from his gruff Uncle, and dashed out into the sun. Anchorhead lay at the center of a farming community of some seven hundred people. It was just a cluster of buildings - a trade center, a single restaurant, a transport station to Mos Eisley (Luke had never been there), and little else. Luke set his sights on a grimy mechanic's lot, full of spare parts and half-assembled vaporators. It wasn't the farming equipment that made him catch his breath and run forward as fast as he could, desert shawl flapping around his arms - it was what sat in the burning sun at the edge of the lot. A Skyhopper.
He reached it, panting, and immediately began to study its every detail. It was just like the model he had built, but so much more exciting. He caressed the Incom T-16 identification plate and gazed up at the high central fin. Luke knew that this airspeeder could attain a speed of well over a thousand kilometers per hour and still nearly turn right angles. He tried to get high enough to see into the triangular window, to check out the tactical holodisplay panels. Just peering over the edge, Luke was startled to see another face looking into the window on the other side of the Skyhopper. He ducked down and backed away, as an older boy with thick black hair and a long straight nose came around the front of the craft and walked confidently towards him. He was wearing clothes of a finer cut than Luke's, and looked to be about seventeen. He smiled beneath the scruffy beginning of a mustache and laughed good-naturedly.
"Did I scare you? Sorry. My name's Biggs, Biggs Darklighter. What's yours?"
"Luke Skywalker," said Luke guardedly. "So...you like Skyhoppers too, huh?"
"Yeah! My father's going to buy me a new one this season, and I wanted to check this old one out, see what kind of modifications it has."
"Your Dad is buying you a Skyhopper?" asked Luke, trying to keep the jealousy and disbelief out of his voice.
"Oh, yeah. My Dad's Huff Darklighter, the food magnate. He can certainly afford it. He owns dozens of farms. So, you're getting one, too?"
"Actually, my old one just got too beat up, tearing around Beggar's Canyon," Luke lied. "It's cheaper just to get another used one than to fix mine. I was just checking this one out for damage."
"Oh," said Biggs, with a hint of skepticism. "So, you're one of those gully jumping hotshots I heard about."
"What else is a Skyhopper for?" Luke asked, once again going over to caress the wings.
"Well, my Dad's getting it for me so I can get used to piloting - he thinks I'd be good Academy material in a few years."
"What, you're going to the Academy?" Luke exclaimed, this time unable to hide his envy.
"I don't know. It's what the old man wants. His son in uniform. Out of his hair is more like it. Way out of his hair."
"I'd give anything to leave like that, someday," Luke said quietly. "My Uncle will never let me go, though. Whenever I talk about it, it always puts him in a bad mood."
"Well at least he wants you around, right?" Biggs gestured towards the trade center. "My father's in there, making deals. I just strolled away from his side, and he never even noticed." Biggs took a good look at Luke, sizing him up frankly, then grinned suddenly. "Hey, what am I telling you this for? Listen, when you get your new 'Hopper, why don't we go flying together? I could use some pointers on getting started from a real Hotshot."
Luke was taken by surprise. This near-adult wanted to go flying with him? Yet, he was finding Biggs very hard to resist. Something in the older boy strongly attracted him. Forgetting for the moment that he didn't really have a Skyhopper, Luke smiled eagerly. "I'd like that. I'd like that a lot. Do you think -" Suddenly, Luke was interrupted by the bellow of Owen Lars, who had emerged from the trade center and was standing impatiently by the family landspeeder.
"Luke! Get over here! We haven't got all day for wasting time. There's work to be done back home."
Embarrassed, Luke gave Biggs a look of apology. "I have to go, but I do want to see you again."
"That Uncle of yours doesn't seem like the most easy going person," observed Biggs, as Luke turned to leave.
"No," said Luke simply, "he's not." Luke hurried over to the big landspeeder and climbed into the passenger seat, closing the door. "Sorry, Uncle Owen," he said dutifully. Then, the image of Biggs' confident grin still fresh in his mind, Luke spoke up over the whine of the engine. "Uncle Owen, there's something I want to talk to you about buying..."
Luke sat back against the Temple stonework, smiling at the memory of simpler times. He had been so very eager to get out into the Galaxy. He and Biggs had always imagined themselves as heroes of the spaceways, defeating pirates and winning the affections of their beautiful captives. They had both planned to go to the Academy, serve their time, then get a ship together. What they would do next, they didn't know, but it was destined to be something daring.
Tank spoke up from where he was still sitting at a distance. "Biggs was right, you know. You were lucky you had your Uncle around. At least he was there for you. After my parents died, I had nobody, until Biggs came along."
"I know," Luke replied, "your friends always find things about you to envy, that you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. The way Biggs' father always gave him everything but real love...I can kind of see how it looked to him, my Uncle watching over me all the time. It was a tough love, but I guess it was love. Now that he's gone, I can even find a few things about him that I'll miss."
"So, did he buy it for you then?" asked Tank. "The Skyhopper?"
"At first," Luke replied, "he said no, absolutely not. I felt more fed up with him then than I'd ever been. That night, I think Aunt Beru talked it over with him. I guess she told him that having the Skyhopper would keep me happy, content to stay on the farm. So he decided to buy it for me if I did extra work to help pay for it. I had to set up some more vaporators close to the Jundland Wastes, and use the Skyhopper to check on them. I ended up getting the same Skyhopper I saw in Anchorhead. I took to it right away, and when Biggs and I got together, look out! Biggs was number one around Anchorhead, and Fixer didn't call me Wormie when Biggs was around. Biggs always seemed to make things happen. He and I really stuck together...he was like an older brother to me. But that didn't mean I held back from trying to beat the pants off him when we were flying."
Tank seemed to be interested so far, so Luke decided to tell him about a particularly cherished memory. "In fact, there was one time, about nine months after we met, we were flying over the Wastes, when we had a little adventure I'll never forget..."
Biggs and Luke shot out of the narrow opening in the rock wall with Biggs just slightly in the lead, Luke pounding his control panel in frustration. He was still fine-tuning his older, second-hand engine, while Biggs' had been brand new. That gave the older Darklighter the edge in the straightway, though Luke was more daring in the twists and turns. "Come on, come on, give me a little more," Luke pleaded, but it was no use. Biggs managed to cut him off and get ahead of him. Luke veered sharply down to avoid Biggs' engine exhaust, diving directly under Biggs' Skyhopper from behind. Biggs lost sight of Luke for a moment, then he felt the smallest scraping impact on the underside of his airspeeder. Thinking he had accidentally touched the canyon floor, Biggs pulled back on his stick, gaining altitude. An instant later, he was stunned to see Luke swoop out from underneath him, skimming less than a meter above the blurred rocks of Beggar's Canyon. Luke hurtled past and looped once around the Stone Needle, ending the race.
"Nice move, Hotshot," came Biggs' grudging congratulations over the comm. "But you're paying for my new paint job, farmboy."
"When was the last time you ever cared about your paint job?" Luke retorted, and Biggs laughed. Both their vehicles had seen so many scrapes, it was no longer obvious which had been recently purchased new. Luke looked at his chrono in dismay. "Oh no, look how late it is. Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are going to kill me. I said we'd both be there for supper by nightfall." Tatooine's twin sunset had begun.
"Let's burn it for home, then, Hotshot," said Biggs, coming about. The two Skyhoppers raced the sunset out of the Wastes and over the desert.
"Hey, Luke," Biggs called suddenly, "what's that over there, where the Wastes come to an end?"
Luke squinted in that direction, and spotted a group of distant vehicle shapes in the diminishing light. A multitude of tiny lights were visible among them. "I think it's a big Jawa camp," said Luke. "I've heard of them, but I've never seen one..."
"Neither have I," said Biggs. "Think maybe...?"
"Well..." Luke hesitated, glancing at the time.
"Live for the day!" said Biggs, and veered off towards the distant camp.
"Hey!" protested Luke, but his hands were already steering after his friend. He was curious, and they were already late. What difference could a few more minutes make?
Luke was used to seeing just one Sandcrawler at a time. As he neared the camp, he was a little awed to see eight of the enormous mining vehicles lined up on the desert plain beneath a high cliff face. The sunset picked out hundreds of Jawas in its orange glow, gathered around fires and artificial light sources. Luke and Biggs hovered quietly on repulsors near the edge of the camp, but the Jawas below seemed to care little for their presence. Many Jawas were engaged in animated trading of scavenged machinery, while others seemed to be simply enjoying the sunset. The ore loading ramps of the Sandcrawlers were wide open, revealing cavernous interiors, with Jawas scurrying in and out.
Luke knew that such gatherings were rare, for the slow wanderings of the Sandcrawlers ranged far and wide across the temperate zone. Perhaps this was a gathering of Jawa clans. As the suns dipped lower, many of the Jawas began to congregate in the center of the camp, until it became apparent that this was to be some sort of ritual gathering. Luke was glad they weren't down there, because he doubted he could have braved the smell of that many Jawas in one place. A rather tall Jawa climbed on top of a heap of machinery and began to wave its short arms dramatically to the crowd. Luke couldn't tell if it was a religious ceremony or a seminar on how best to swindle the moisture farmers. Maybe it was both.
Luke had just decided to tell Biggs, Look, this is interesting, but we really ought to get home, when he spotted something that froze the words in his mouth. Moving along a winding crevasse that opened out near the camp was a long column of Sandpeople on Banthas. The fierce raiders were visible from the air, but the Jawas out on the plain wouldn't be able to spot them. The Sandpeople came on in single file, so any lookout might see only a few of them, but there didn't even seem to be a sentry. The Jawas were oblivious, and focused on the ceremony in the center of the camp.
"Biggs," Luke snapped, "We've got Sandpeople, coming towards the camp - a lot of them, there, in that canyon. We've gotta do something! Those Jawas are defenseless - they need time to get to the Sandcrawlers." Luke knew that if the Tusken Raiders did too much damage to the Jawas, the survivors might decide to change their trade routes, and the local moisture farmers could suffer.
"I'm right with you, Luke," Biggs said. "Those Banthas look kind of sleepy from up here. Let's go down and wake them up!" Biggs' Skyhopper roared off towards the canyon. Luke followed, his tactical display helping to target the column of Sandpeople snaking between the rock walls. The raiders spotted the oncoming ships and sent a volley of blaster bolts skyward from their crude rifles. A few shots splashed across Luke's windows, momentarily dazzling him and sending a jolt through his Skyhopper. Then he was above the Banthas, stun cannons firing. Long practice shooting Womp Rats had honed his marksmanship, and he easily landed several shots on the broad backs of the beasts. The huge hairy creatures weren't stunned, but they were terrified. The twin roars of Luke and Biggs' engines sent them into a heaving frenzy, clogging the canyon with chaos. On the plain beyond, the Jawas had taken full notice of the threat and were scattering in all directions, scampering into the safety of the Sandcrawlers.
Luke and Biggs soared up and away from the enraged raiders and put the setting suns at their backs. Luke was whooping with excitement.
"Biggs! We really showed 'em, didn't we!"
"We sure did, Hotshot, we sure did."
"We're a couple of shooting stars, Biggs, and we'll never be stopped!" said Luke happily.
"You said it, Luke."
Tank watched Luke tell the story with an unexpected feeling of warming to the young hero. It was very strange to feel that after hating him so recently. It was finally sinking in that Luke was really the good person he claimed to be, that he had not betrayed Biggs to his death, that he had loved Biggs for many years, too. Perhaps it was the tale of preventing the Tusken Raider attack. Tank's parents had been killed by the Sandpeople, and he still loved to hear about any suffering they might undergo. Tank slowly got up and drifted a little closer to Luke, who had fallen silent. An expression of profound sadness had taken over Luke's features.
"It's...it's only really just now hitting me," Luke said, "He's really gone. Just gone, forever." He looked at Tank, clutching his padded orange jacket close around him. "That was what I thought of when he died, that we were a couple of shooting stars, and that we couldn't be stopped. I used to say that, years ago, playing star pilots behind the buildings of Anchorhead. Now...I'll never say it to him again."
"I know how you feel," said Tank, sitting down, this time close by. "He was everything to me, too. He was my father, really, because I didn't have one. You know, almost from the moment we met, he was trying to protect me. He was good at it, too..."
Biggs strolled lazily through the cramped streets of Mos Eisley, taking in the alien sights and sounds of the decadent starport city. Under the baking sun, Humans, Rodians, Jawas, Gammoreans, Duros, and many more rubbed shoulders and other appendages. Or, in the case of the Jawas, avoided rubbing altogether. He was on business for Huff. Lately, Biggs called his father by his first name more and more. The elder Darklighter saw it as a mark of respect and adult camaraderie, but it was really just that Biggs had trouble thinking of the man as 'Dad'. Huff had sent him into the spaceport to look through Market Place for any struggling single farmers who might want to work for his growing business. Biggs was in no hurry, having the carefree attitude of his eighteen years. Before going to Market Place, he decided to stop at the rough and tumble cantina, in hopes of hearing some stories from smugglers and other spacers. But as he entered the heart of the central sector, an odd sight distracted him.
Across the street from the entrance to the cantina was a large pile of wreckage, the remains of an old colony ship that crashed there long ago, mixed with a free-for-all clutter of cast-off parts of all kinds. Perched precariously atop a gutted engine cylinder was a wild-haired, sun-browned robed man. He was gesturing widely, and seemed to be preaching. Biggs didn't exactly think of Mos Eisley as a haven for the religious, and he couldn't resist a closer look. He couldn't picture the scum of the city as being interested in religious messages, and so it was no surprise to see that the preacher's audience consisted of exactly one person, a slight figure entirely cloaked in the same sort of woven hair robe as the preacher. The listener was bowed, sitting cross-legged at the feet of the odd holy man, swaying from side to side. The passing crowds were completely ignoring the pair.
Biggs threaded through the moving throng, giving lots of space to a huge brown Wookiee walking past, and found himself next to the preacher. "Welcome, my son!" said the holy man without looking at Biggs. The preacher continued his litany. "The way of the Bantha is to live in peace with other creatures. It gives of itself for food and transportation. It does not ask us for anything in return. So, too, should we treat our fellow sentients. Look - all around at this evil place! All you can see is conflict between beings. Smugglers against the authorities, buyers against sellers, thieves against their victims, bounty hunters against their quarries. And what does it all bring them? Death and Misery! The humble Bantha can show us the way to better things. The Bantha is present on so many worlds in order to show us that way. We must follow in their broad footsteps, join one another in the great circle of their horns. Build a better future on their strong, giving backs..."
As the preacher went on, the other listener stood up so suddenly that he bumped full into Biggs. The two of them stumbled, and the cloaked figure steadied Biggs, telling him, "My apologies, Brother, may you walk in the way of the Bantha." With that, he stepped into the milling crowd and was gone.
Biggs stared after him, while his hand made an automatic check of his pockets. In an instant, he realized his credit voucher was missing. He spun on the preacher. "Did you see that? He robbed me! Is he from your Monastery?"
The preacher spread his hands in confusion. "I've never seen him before in my life, my son."
Biggs choked off a yelling reply, and elbowed his way into the crowd. He knew he had little hope of actually catching the thief, but his determination to try was fierce. The great variety of life forms around him was to his advantage. He wouldn't have to waste his time chasing after a Wookiee, or a Squib, or anything with more than two arms. Suddenly, he spotted a robed figure across a slow-moving landspeeder, headed away from him. With a yell, he was after it. ducking around a Barabel and two Corellians, and vaulting over the hood of the speeder, to the anger of the Humans inside it. The cloaked form was hurrying towards docking bay 94, past Spaceport Speeders, and Biggs pelted after it. As he caught up, he demanded, "All right, give me back my money, or I'll beat it out of you, you hear?"
The figure turned to face him, and Biggs was suddenly staring into a pair of small round goggles above a huge, leathery snout. The creature squeaked at him in outrage, or maybe fear - it was hard to tell. But Biggs immediately knew he had blown it - this one clearly couldn't speak Basic. "Sorry - my mistake," he said, running away from the bizarre alien. Now what? The robe had seemed like a good lead, but what if the thief had the smarts to take off the robe and throw it away? Then, he could be any of the shorter humanoids in the crowd. Or, he could have ducked inside a building. It was rapidly beginning to seem hopeless.
Then, a commotion arose at Spaceport Speeders. The owner, an agitated Arcona, was yelling at someone in his lot. "You! Get out of that speeder! You don't look like you have any money - none of you Bantha preachers do! Now go on! You'll chase away my customers, smelling like a Bantha, stinking up my merchandise!" The Arcona was chasing a small robed humanoid out of an XP-38 speeder, and with a start, Biggs realized it was his thief. He'd been hiding in there! Biggs backed into the shadows of a building, hoping the thief wouldn't see him. The robed and hooded being ran away from the angry salesman, then, taking a few looks around him, set off down the street at a jog. Biggs decided he hadn't been spotted, and began to follow at a distance.
The thief headed north, brazenly passing the Mos Eisley Police Station. Biggs followed right past the station. He wanted to take this thief by himself, by surprise, and on his own terms. On they went, past docking bays and one-or-two story houses, the thief moving briskly along, checking around himself occasionally, Biggs following, trying to avoid being seen. Eventually, they reached a more run-down section, and the thief went into an old building. Biggs waited for a minute, then went in after him. The doorway lacked a device for repelling sand, and was partly clogged. Inside was an abandoned home, stripped of furniture and belongings. The thief was nowhere to be seen.
Biggs took out his blaster, and checked each of the rooms, finding nothing. He was baffled, until he spotted tracks on the sandy floor leading to an overturned table. Behind the table was a square shaft, leading down, a ladder mounted in it. Biggs hesitated, listening. Then he climbed down into the silent, dimly lit hole, unwilling to give up. At the bottom was an old mining tunnel, from the days when Mos Eisley had been the headquarters of Republic miners. The tunnel was cool, carved out of the evaporated sea bed, and shored up with durasteel supports. Biggs again looked for tracks, and thought he saw some heading off to his left. The tunnel floor was a filthy jumble of stones and garbage, and it was hard to tell for sure.
Trusting his instincts, Biggs followed the left-hand direction, touching the wall as he moved into darkness, his blaster in his other hand. Ahead, he saw a faint glow, and he slowed down and moved as quietly as he could. The tunnel opened into a large room, the junction of several more tunnels. A portable lamp supplied a little light, showing a littered floor, a small table and chair, and a mattress in one corner. His thief was in the middle of the room, handling the credit voucher Biggs had brought to show prospective workers that he meant business and could afford to offer them jobs. Biggs stepped into the room, blaster pointed squarely at his thief. "I see you found my credit voucher. I'll thank you to return it to me, now," he said firmly. The thief jumped like a scared Womp Rat, and started towards one of the tunnel exits. Biggs placed a blaster bolt a few feet in front of him, lighting up the dim chamber with a sudden glare. "Sorry - you're not going anywhere. Now put the voucher down and take off that hood so I can see you." The thief complied, moving carefully, and Biggs was amazed to see beneath the hood the face of a young Human boy.
The boy looked steadily at Biggs. He had a shock of black hair and dark eyes. His coloration was that of a Tatooine native. He looked to be about twelve years old. "You don't have to keep that pointed at me," he said with defiance, "I'm not going anywhere. You can take your money back. I needed it for food, and you looked rich, like you could afford to lose it." Biggs was dismayed at the thief's age and living conditions. As he picked up his money, all he could think was that when he was this boy's age, he had been living with his mother and father in a well-kept home with good food. He looked around, noting the dirty old mattress, the chill of the place, and the darkness of the tunnels. Small mechanical items were piled on the table, probably all stolen. A vibroknife was among them, but the boy wasn't making a move for it.
"You live here?" asked Biggs. It was a stupid question.
"I do, unless you kill me," the boy replied sarcastically.
Biggs looked at the blaster in his hand, and finally lowered it. The two of them stared at each other, Biggs trying to think of something to say, the boy just hoping Biggs would leave him alone. Biggs' mind was racing as he adjusted to the situation. He had been expecting a hardened thug, who might put up a fight. Someone he might have had to shoot. It had appealed to his desire for adventure, he realized; he hadn't even thought of the danger. And now, he was facing this boy. Biggs was the kind of person who acted quickly. He was also basically a good person. He almost surprised himself with the speed of his realization that he had to do something for this boy. He couldn't just walk away.
"Listen, kid," he began, thinking as he spoke. "You're a thief, right? But you're just a kid. You can't live like this."
"I'm doing okay," said the boy defiantly. "I manage on my own."
He evidently viewed the accommodations differently than Biggs did. "No, kid, this is no life. Don't you want anything better than this? Don't you have parents? Do they know you're here?" Biggs protested.
"Look, rich man, I don't know why you're talking to me. You got your money. Why don't you just leave? And you want to know? I don't have any parents - they're dead. They were like that crazy preacher up there, and the Sandpeople killed them. I've been here in Mos Eisley for years, on my own. I can take care of myself just fine."
Biggs cut in, "I was just concerned, that's all. I mean, you're just a kid. Why don't you come with me? You don't have to stay down here. If you come with me, I can get you a place to stay that's a hell of a lot better than this."
"What - you think just 'cause I'm a kid, I'm stupid? I go with you, you turn me in to the police. The only thing keeping me from leaving by those tunnels is that blaster. So you either use it, or I'm out of here."
"Oh, yeah? You think you're so smart? Well, let me tell you something you don't know, kid. You think you can be a freelance thief around here? You may have escaped any one's notice up until now, but there's more to worry about than the police. Jabba the Hutt runs Mos Eisley. I don't think he wants criminals running around that don't work for him. Sooner or later, his goons will catch up to you, and that'll be that. You come with me, you've got a chance. Who else is going to give you that? Maybe I'm crazy, but I'm not the police. I just want to help you out, that's all. Okay, I'm putting the blaster in my holster. It's your choice, kid. What do you say?"
Biggs waited. The boy looked at the dark tunnel, and at Biggs. Then, his streetwise exterior seemed to crumble. The twelve year old boy beneath said, "My name's Tank, not kid, and yeah - I'll come with you. Anything's going to be better than this."
What am I getting myself into, thought Biggs. And what was he going to tell his father? Huff, I want you to meet Tank. He's a thief l brought home. What's for dinner?
Biggs remembered the credit voucher and his reason for coming into the city. "Listen, kid - Tank - I think I may have some honest work for you, too, if you're interested..."
Luke caught himself staring open-mouthed at Tank, and looked away. "That's how you met," he said neutrally.
"That's how it was," said Tank, also looking away. "'Course, that was a long time ago. I've...come a long way since then."
"Well," said Luke, hesitantly, "It does explain what was going on the first time we met..."
"No," protested Tank, with unexpected intensity. "That's not what was going on. You think you know, but you don't. You think I was just a thief, but you were as wrong about me as I was...about you."
Luke looked down. "Well, I'm sorry about all that. It was a long time ago, and you have to admit, you didn't get things off to the best start. I mean...all I meant was, I understand, it was your old habits, hard to break -"
"Luke, you just don't get it. You think I stole because I wanted to. I would think you, of all people, would understand. Didn't your own parents die, too? Imagine if you didn't have your Aunt and Uncle - if you had nobody. We're not that different. I think you'd steal, too, if you had to."
"I said I was sorry," Luke insisted. "I guess, what's hard for me to understand, is how you couldn't find something else to do. There's always work to do, if you look hard enough. I couldn't get away from working. You did get a job, with Huff Darklighter. Before I met you. Even if you didn't have a choice in Mos Eisley -"
"- then why did you have to steal from me?"
Luke completed what repairs he could to the aging vaporator and sighed with resignation. What he wouldn't give to have new equipment instead of this junk-heap surplus. It was as if Uncle Owen favored vaporators he knew the Jawas would turn their noses up at.
The Treadwell droid nearby made an electronic noise of sympathy, perhaps trying to avoid the abuse Luke usually heaped upon it in his frustration. Turning towards it with a frown, Luke said, "I don't want to hear anything from you, either. You break down more often than this vaporator."
An approaching sound, recognizable as a Skyhopper, distracted him, lifting his spirits. It must be Biggs! Sure enough, when the craft had settled on its repulsors, the irrepressible Biggs Darklighter climbed down the short ladder. But someone else was exiting the passenger side. It was a boy, younger than Luke, dressed similarly in a floppy hat, glare goggles, and a shawl. Biggs and the stranger walked over to the rise where Luke, Treadwell, an old landspeeder, and the tall vaporator were the only objects breaking the sandy monotony.
"Hey, Luke!" called Biggs. "There's someone I want you to meet." Now Luke could see the boy in detail, and his first impression was that he didn't want to be here. There was a furtive quality to the way he stood behind Biggs and avoided Luke's eyes. Biggs said, "Luke, this is Tank Boma. Tank, Luke Skywalker. Tank is working for Huff, helping with the underground gardens in Bestine. He's from Mos Eisley. I, uh, found him living on the streets last time I was there. I saw he just needed a good environment, you know?" Biggs watched Tank wander off a bit, then looked apologetically at Luke. "He's not really used to people. He doesn't mean to be rude."
"Yeah, I guess not...Biggs, it's good to see you. What brings you out this way?" asked Luke.
"Actually," said Biggs, "it was so I could introduce you to Tank. He's just two years younger than you, but he's five years younger than me. I sort of thought you two might hit it off, being closer in age. He could work with you, even learn to fix vaporators. Huff would continue to pay him, and pay you for your time. Then Tank would be more useful, and if you did become friends..." Biggs smiled his winning smile.
"Well, I don't know," said Luke. "It would be good to have some extra money, and it does get kind of lonely out here. I'd have to ask my Uncle, I guess." Luke peered at Biggs. "Wait a minute. What's really going on here? Are you trying to get him off your hands, or something?"
Biggs' eyes revealed the truth. "Okay, Hotshot, you got me. My father did suggest that deal, but..." He made sure Tank was out of earshot, and lowered his voice. "Tank was a little more than I bargained for. He seems to have taken me as a kind of father figure. And I'm only eighteen. I don't mind it altogether, but I need a break sometimes. So I suggested this to Tank. He wasn't happy. I see him getting too attached to me...his world shouldn't be that narrow. What do you say?"
Luke was thinking, when he noticed that Tank had been messing with the droid patch-in unit near the vaporator. "Hey, be careful with that stuff if you don't know what you're doing." He moved in on the boy, who backed off quickly. Luke gave the unit a once-over, and immediately had a sinking feeling. He turned to Tank.
"Okay, give them back."
Tank, wide-eyed, turned on Biggs.
Luke was firm. "There were two restraining bolts stored there. I need those. You took them. So give them back."
"I didn't take anything," Tank said, scowling. "He's a liar, Biggs. I wouldn't take anything from him."
Luke didn't back down. "We can't afford to replace things like Biggs' family. I need those bolts. Now I asked you to give them back. Or do I have to take them?"
Tank's young face hardened. Biggs stepped in to defuse the situation. "It's okay, Luke, I'll handle this. Tank, this isn't the streets of Mos Eisley any more. If you took something, apologize and give it back." Tank's face fell. "So, what, you believe him? I guess he's your real friend, then!" He yanked two small objects from his pocket and hurled them into the sand at Luke's feet. They were the missing bolts. Tank ran to the Skyhopper and climbed in.
"That little thief!" said Luke. "I was right. Biggs, you really have got more than you bargained for."
"I'm sorry Luke," Biggs sighed. "I'll see you later. I've got to go deal with this."
Speeding over the sands in the Skyhopper, Biggs was silent all the way back to Bestine. Tank was equally silent. As they landed near Biggs' home, Tank jumped out and started to walk away.
"Hold on Tank," Biggs demanded. "I'm not done with you. I think I know what that little scene was about, back there. You were trying to sabotage the thing with Luke, weren't you?"
Tank looked sullen. "And what if I did? I don't want to be with him, I want to be with you."
Biggs felt his control slip a little in the face of Tank's defiance. "Tank, what you did was wrong! Luke is my best friend! I was trying to help you by setting you up with him. And you had to ruin it!"
"Luke's not so great. He was looking down at me - the moment he heard I was from the streets. Like I wasn't as good as he was. And I don't want to fix vaporators in the sun all day. I want...I just want to be with you. You're all I've got, Biggs. Don't you see that? I need you." Biggs' hands dropped to his sides, and he exhaled noisily. "I guess when I took you out of those tunnels, I was taking on the responsibility for you. That's not an easy thing, for anybody. I don't even have a good role model, to show me how."
"I can take care of myself, Biggs, but I need you to show me what to do with my life. I want to go where you go. For now, at least." Biggs frowned. "That might be to the Academy, Tank. I can't put off going forever, not with Huff pushing me. How would you feel about that? Would you follow me to the Academy, if you got in?"
Tank looked around. "I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but there's not a whole lot to look forward to here, is there? If you're gonna take me out of Mos Eisley, why not take me way out of Mos Eisley?"
Luke and Tank were quiet for a while after that. There was little need for words. The grudges between them had begun to heal, naturally, as a result of getting those things out in the open. The night around them was full of distant animal sounds. Somewhere, there was the loud report of what Luke guessed was one of those exploding fungi another pilot had told him about. Luke could hear the Woolamanders across the river fighting with one another. The heady fragrance of the blueleaf was really starting to get to him, and he imagined that the Woolamanders were his Uncle Owen, yelling about Luke's application to the Academy. He burst out laughing. Tank looked sharply at him.
"I'm sorry - it's just...something I was remembering," Luke said. "It's nothing..." After a minute, he said, "You know, I wanted to go to the Academy more than anything. I asked Uncle Owen for the first time when I was sixteen, the earliest you could get in, after they lowered the age. But of course, he said no. The year after that, he said no, too. But I didn't give up. I had this recruitment tape, and I played it to death, hoping that someday...but it was always, 'It's just one more season', and 'The harvest is when I need you the most". Really, he just wanted to keep me there where I was forever, going nowhere. I wonder..."
"You wonder what?"
"...how it would have been different, if I had gone to the Academy. Where we'd all be, now..."
"I guess we'd all be dead," said Tank.
Luke felt a shadow pass over his heart. "Or maybe...worse."
"So, maybe it was that Force of yours, keeping you out of the Academy." Tank smiled. "I bet you've wondered how I got in, haven't you?" Luke's eyes narrowed. "Yeah, I have. And about that time, I want you to know that I realize I was unfair to you when you and Biggs left. I was very jealous, and I took my anger at my Uncle out on you."
Tank frowned. "Oh, yes. I remember. I hated you that day..."
Tank ran breathlessly up to Biggs, who was tapping a printout in one hand, his face expressionless. "Is that it? Is that the reply? Come on, Biggs, did we make it?"
Biggs suddenly had a crestfallen look as he turned to Tank. "Tank, I have some bad news for you."
Tank stopped, cold. "No. Oh, no. Not after we tried so hard." An abyss had opened up inside him.
Biggs put a comforting hand on Tank's shoulder. "I hate to be the one to tell you this, but...you'll never get to enjoy my mother's cooking again! We both made it! We're in!"
The sun came out on Tank's face, and he whooped suddenly with delight. He grabbed Biggs by the hands, and danced a circle around him. Biggs laughed, his false sadness evaporating.
"Then the bribes went through, and my fake history held up," said Tank, wonderingly.
"Well, it helped that the local recruiter owed my father a favor. And the Outer Rim Academy on Ord Nardell isn't exactly Carida. The way they're expanding the commercial space lanes, they want all the warm bodies they can get. Even a couple of Tatooine boys with sand still in their ears."
Tank was reading the letter excitedly. "Biggs, it says we leave in two days! We've got to pack! And what's this? It says here they've accelerated the program. The course of study is only going to be one year."
"I know. I asked around about that." Biggs grew more serious. "It seems that it isn't only the commercial space lanes that are expanding - it's the military, too. They rush you through, and when you graduate, they offer you a pile of credits to go into the Imperial navy. But you can still request a non-combat post. We're going to stick together and keep our eyes open, okay?"
"I'll stick to you like a Gundark's tongue," said Tank, smiling slightly.
"Okay, there's a lot to do, but first I want to take care of something. We have to stop and say good-bye to Luke."
They found Luke in his garage at the Lars homestead, hard at work on his Skyhopper. As Biggs and Tank walked into the shadowy, cluttered room, they could hear some banging and cursing coming from underneath the tri-winged craft. "Son of a jumpin' - blast this stabilizer!"
"Hey! Hotshot!" Biggs called.
Luke crawled out and blinked at them. He was filthy with lubricants. "Biggs ! I didn't hear you come in."
"Of course not, with all that banging going on. What are you doing? Trying to get this sorry hunk of junk into good enough shape to outrace Fixer?"
"This 'hunk of junk' can beat yours nine times out of ten, and Fixer's anytime," said Luke, rising to the bait. "Want to try me?"
"Sorry Luke, no time, or else I'd show you that you really mean one time out of ten, if the wind was in your favor. No, I stopped by to tell you I got into the Academy. We leave in two days."
Luke put on a brave face. "Congratulations. I guess you know what my Uncle said about my application."
"Yeah," said Biggs sympathetically. "'Not this year Luke, we don't have enough droids, we finally stand to make a profit, I need you here, I promise, it's just one more year.' I know the drill. But Luke, one day you're going to see that he may have raised you, but he doesn't own you. He uses your sense of obligation to keep you here. I know how you feel; I grew up here too. To make it out here, you put family and the community ahead of your own needs. But you're better than this, Luke. You belong somewhere else. I know you'll get there someday, too."
"Thanks, but for now, it looks like I'm going nowhere. I'm going to miss you, Biggs. It just won't be the same around here without you. Keep in touch, all right? So, you leave in two days? What did you mean when you said 'we leave'?"
"Tank is coming with me. He got accepted, too."
"What?" Luke's face darkened. "You're kidding, right? They let him in? Boy, when they lower the admission standards, they really lower them. So now they accept common thieves and street trash? That's all I needed to hear."
Tank took two angry steps towards Luke. "What did you say? Who do you think you are? Listen, Luke, just because you're not good enough to get in -"
"I'm better than you'll ever be," grated Luke. "At least I have a sense of responsibility, and integrity. Does the Empire know what it's getting, or did you lie all over the application?"
Tank scowled; that was too close to the truth.
Luke's hands balled into fists. "And for your information, I am good enough to get in. I just don't want to leave my family stranded. But you wouldn't know about that, would you? If you don't have anybody, it doesn't matter where you go."
For a moment, Tank looked like he was going to fight, then, containing himself, he turned to Biggs. "I don't have to listen to this! Biggs, I'll see you outside." He looked at Luke. "Have a nice harvest," he sneered, then marched out into the sun.
Biggs stared from one to the other, helplessly.
Luke stared fiercely at his feet.
Finally, Biggs said quietly, "Take care of yourself, Luke. I will stay in touch." And he walked out after Tank, regret in every step.
Luke took the tool he was holding and hurled it against the wall. It clanged loudly as it chipped the surface, and fell into the oil bath where it sank out of sight.
It was an older and wiser Luke who recalled his angry words with chagrin. Tank sensed that, and gently said, "I know you're sorry. I should have forgiven it a long time ago. I do forgive it now. I mean, what I did to you last night, that makes a few bitter insults pale by comparison."
Luke said, "Well, we're both here, alive and well. It could be worse. And we're not here to talk about blame. I want to hear how it was with Biggs on Ord Nardell. He wrote me some letters, but they didn't say much about what was really going on there, about what happened to change him..."
"About what led him to come here," Tank finished. "I can try, Luke. The problem is, Biggs kept on trying to protect me, and that included keeping certain things from me. When he found out how rotten the Empire was, he didn't want me to know, so I'd be in no danger of getting taken in for questioning. He came this close to leaving me behind 'for my own good.' But let me start from the beginning. A year ago, we left Tatooine, and I was pretty glad to leave that place behind. If I'd been in my parents' place, I just never would have settled there. A short hyperspace jump later, and we were in another system. It felt strange at first, to finally be away...I hadn't believed it was real until we got there.
"The Academy was built on the site of an Old Republic military base. There were classrooms, hangars, flight simulators, target ranges...I remember Biggs said the place looked like it was designed to crank out military pilots, and forget the merchant fleet. But we knew there was still that way out, I mean, they still needed freighters to haul rare metals, medicines, replacement parts, and everything else an expanding military needs.
"We got settled in okay, and after that, it was hard work, all the time. They tested us at the beginning, and they decided Biggs would make a good pilot, and I would make a better gunner. So Biggs and I didn't see much of each other. But we bunked in the same place, and we looked out for each other.
"I really did learn a lot. They taught me the basics of flying anything from a TIE fighter to a Corvette, and I took to gunnery like I was made for it. But we had to swallow a lot of propaganda at the same time. Stuff like, how the New Order is the way to true order in the Galaxy, and how the Emperor will protect and preserve us all. They insisted the Rebels are terrorists, too. Well, we know how much of that's true, and to tell the truth, I could tell then, too. Something didn't add up. We heard reports of things that various Imperial Governors had done, and if you thought about it, it started to seem really wrong, even if the Rebels were terrorists. Those reports just seemed so...proud of what they described, like Rebel suspects being rooted out, rounded up, and executed. Someone, actually a lot of someones, seemed to enjoy all of that.
"But we realized we had to support that mentality, or else draw attention to ourselves. We had one scandal in our class - a bunch of students were rounded up, right out of the classroom, and taken away. We were later told they were Rebel spies. I don't know if it was true, but we never saw them again. Biggs and I learned to stay very quiet, after that." Tank paused for a rest. Luke produced some water, and they drank while gazing at the beautiful planet hanging above them. "Biggs tried to keep things from me, but I think he knew one of the ones who disappeared. A month before the scandal, I walked in on a conversation he was having with one of the students. They quieted down right away, and the other student left. Biggs looked troubled, but he wouldn't talk about it. He spent the night in the library, going through recent holovids and news reports. When I woke up, I found him sitting on his bunk, still in uniform. He hadn't slept..."
Tank rubbed his eyes and looked groggily at Biggs. "Wha's wrong," he yawned.
Biggs looked at Tank with a hint of pain in his eyes. "Get dressed. We're going to log some flying time today, just the two of us."
Tank did as he was told, sensing the grim mood of the morning. After a brief meal, they went to the hangar and signed out a combat airspeeder. Biggs took the pilot seat, and Tank took the gunner position. Saying very little, Biggs took them out of the hangar and flew towards the target range. The airspeeder dipped down into the narrow artificial valleys of the range, causing the always-open channel to base to crackle with interference. Biggs chose that moment to begin talking rapidly.
"Keep firing at the targets as we come to them, Tank. Act naturally."
"What's this all about?" Tank demanded, anxious. He put a laser shot dead center into the first target as they banked past it.
"Tank, I've been hearing things...things I didn't want to tell you about. It isn't safe to know too much about this. About the Rebellion." Tank took in a sharp breath, and barely managed to hit the second target as they shot over it.
"But I finally realized I had to tell you. I've heard stories of massacres and atrocities...Ghorman, Atrivis - places where planets were beaten into submission for political resistance. Innocent people killed, ships wiping out cities from orbit. At first, I didn't want to believe it. But I did some checking on my own. There are enough facts in the official reports to support the stories I heard. The people in charge of the Empire are corrupt. Maybe only the threat of rebellion keeps them from doing even worse things. Tank - the Rebels aren't terrorists." Biggs pulled a hard left to make it around a difficult obstacle. "Quiet for a minute," he warned. The interference blocking the open channel stopped suddenly as they soared high over the center of the course. In another moment, it resumed, as they swooped down into another canyon. "The Rebellion is an organized resistance to the Emperor's rule. It's being supported by some of the Senate, and there's even a formal declaration of rebellion. I've seen a copy. Tank, I'm not sure we're on the right side any more. I think...I think I'm going to try to find the Rebels and join them."
Tank gasped, and completely missed the next target. "What do you mean? You weren't going to tell me about this?" he demanded, his voice getting a little panicked. "You were going to leave me behind? You wouldn't do that! You couldn't!"
"Hold on! Tank, this isn't like on Tatooine. These are life and death matters. I could be captured or killed, or I might not make it to the Rebels...I've raised you from a situation where you had no future to one where you do. I don't want to see you throw it away just to get killed somewhere. But the thing is, knowing the Empire is rotten, I can't just let you be a part of it without having a choice. But you have to make a real choice. Not just to follow me. You have to do what you believe in, because this is going to have serious consequences. I don't want to hear a knee-jerk reaction. I want you to think about this, really hard."
The airspeeder reached the end of the course, and Tank fired his last shot directly into the target. A voice came over the open channel. "Good flying, Cadet Darklighter. Cadet Boma, you'd better watch that shooting score. It'd be too bad if we had to delay your graduation to send you back to remedial gunnery."
"Base Command, we're coming in," Biggs said. He and Tank said nothing for the rest of the flight.
"I did think hard about it," said Tank, his eyes shut. "I wanted to make an idealistic choice like Biggs was making...to do the right thing. But in the end, I chose based on selfish reasons. I'd been following Biggs so long, I really didn't know what I'd do on my own. And I was afraid that, knowing what I knew, I might be rounded up myself, and disappear. I didn't want to vanish. That student I told you about? The one who was taken in? Biggs found out he died in interrogation. I had nightmares about it. So I told Biggs I wanted to go with him and look for the Rebellion. He didn't question my reasons; he just accepted it at that point. The Rebels here didn't question my reasons, either. You're the only one I've told."
With kindness in his voice, Luke said, "The reasons don't matter. People end up in the Rebellion for all kinds of reasons. Some are noble, but others have no choice. What matters is what you do when you get here."
"Well, I guess I blew that..."
"No, not really. There's still a decision for you to make. There are still choices. You followed Biggs to get here, but what matters is, you arrived. Yes, you made some mistakes, but you can make amends for them. I think you'd want to do something that would make Biggs proud of you. Something that would give meaning to the sacrifice he made. I got to talk to Biggs about his choices, just before he shipped out. He stopped by to say good-bye, knowing he might never see home again. I remember everything he said. Maybe it'll help you to hear it..."
Luke and Biggs left Luke's noisy, so-called friends in the Power Station, and walked along the nearly deserted, hot streets. They were a study in contrasts. Biggs was wearing a white uniform jacket over a blue shirt, brown pants with high boots, and a snappy black cape. Luke was dressed in a worn white tunic. The older man was serious and well- groomed, the younger, excited and bragging about his latest daring feats in his old Skyhopper.
"You ought to take it a little easy, Luke," Biggs cautioned. "You may be the hottest bushpilot this side of Mos Eisley, but those little Skyhoppers are dangerous. Keep it up, and one day, whammo, you're going to be nothing more than a dark spot on the down side of a canyon wall."
Luke still hadn't picked up on his old friend's changed demeanor, caught up in the happiness of having his ally back. He took Biggs' comments as only half-serious, and scoffed, "Look who's talking." He poked at Biggs' insignia. "Now that you've been around those giant starships, you're beginning to sound like my Uncle. You've gotten soft in the city."
"I've missed you, kid," said Biggs, giving in to Luke's playfulness a little.
Luke sighed. "Well, things haven't been the same since you left, Biggs. It's been so...quiet."
Biggs seemed to come to a decision, and leaned in close to Luke. "Luke, I didn't come back just to say good-bye. I shouldn't tell you this, but you're the only one I can trust..."
Luke noticed the exclusion of Biggs' parents.
Biggs finished, "...and if I don't come back, I want somebody to know."
Luke, serious now, asked, "What are you talking about?"
"I made some friends at the Academy," Biggs began, then faltered, as if hesitant to say more. He swallowed, then said instead, "When our freighter goes to one of the outer rim systems, we're going to jump ship, and join the Alliance."
Luke was incredulous. "Join the Rebellion? Are you kidding? How?"
Biggs replied, somewhat defensively, "My friend has a friend on the planet Bestine who might help us make contact."
"You're crazy," Luke said. "You could wander around forever trying to find them."
Biggs stood his ground, the old rivalry rising up in him to mix with his new feelings of responsibility. "I know it's a long shot, but if I don't find them, I'll do what I can on my own. It's what we always talked about."
Luke was going to disagree, to say that what they talked about wasn't running with outlaws, maybe terrorists for all anybody knew, but Biggs pressed on earnestly.
"Luke, I'm not going to wait for the Empire to draft me into service as a fighter pilot. The Rebellion is spreading, and I want to be on the right side, the side I believe in."
Listening to the intensity of his old friend's voice, Luke could almost believe in the Rebellion really being out there. It was enough for him to dredge up some self pity as well. "And I'm stuck here."
Biggs half-heartedly tried to lift Luke's spirits. "I thought you were going to the Academy next term. You'll get your chance to get off this rock."
"Not likely," Luke interjected bitterly. "I had to cancel my application. There's been a lot of unrest among the Sandpeople since you left. They've even raided the outskirts of Anchorhead."
Biggs frowned skeptically. "Your Uncle could hold off a whole colony of Sandpeople with one blaster."
"I know," said Luke lamely, "but he's got enough vaporators going to make the place pay off. He needs me for just one more season. I can't leave him now..."
Biggs put his hand on Luke's shoulder. "I feel for you, Luke, but you're going to have to learn to tell what seems important from what really is important. What good is all your Uncle's work if it's taken over by the Empire? You know, they're starting to nationalize commerce in the central systems. It won't be long before your Uncle is merely a tenant, slaving for the greater glory of the Empire."
Luke stared at Biggs, unable to believe that this was his old carefree companion talking. "You've changed, Biggs..."
"Things always change," said Biggs, flatly.
"It couldn't happen here," Luke said, looking away into the desert.
"You said it yourself, the Empire won't bother with this rock...I wish I was going. Are you going to be around long?"
"No, I'm leaving in the morning."
"Then...I guess I won't see you again," said Luke, a catch in his voice keeping him from saying more.
Biggs refused to be so morose, and summoned up his old, live-for-the-day smile. "Maybe someday...I'll keep a lookout."
Luke tried to smile too. "Well, I'll be at the Academy next season...after that, who knows? I won't be drafted into the Imperial Starfleet, that's for sure." He looked longingly at Biggs. "Take care of yourself, you'll always be the best friend I've got."
Biggs nodded, slowly. "So long, Luke." He turned back to head for the Power Station where the noisy crowd of Fixer, Camie, Deak, and Windy awaited their more shallow good-byes.
Luke couldn't bring himself to follow.
"...And before I knew it," said Luke, "I was caught up in the Rebellion myself. I didn't even have time to think about it. Biggs was right. Things always change."
Tank absently began to toss stones from the top of the Temple, into the dark, dripping foliage below. "He wasn't crazy, Luke, about finding the Rebels. Because by the time he talked to you, there was already a plan in motion. We didn't have to go looking for the Rebels at all. They came looking for us.
At Luke's questioning glance, Tank explained, "That friend of Biggs in the Academy was a Rebel sympathizer. He looked for other students who might share similar views, watched them closely, and gave their names to the Alliance. Academy graduates can make good Rebel pilots. Biggs' friend sent the information on our new commission, and the merchant ship's schedule, to someone on Bestine, who was supposed to set up a time and a place where we could jump ship. We signed onto the Rand Ecliptic, and hoped for the best. Needless to say, Biggs was nervous as hell, and I was scared silly..."
Space was deadly, thought Tank. Deadly dull. For all the Outer Rim tales of pirates, deep space monsters, and the like, Tank's maiden voyage on the medium freighter merchant ship Rand Ecliptic consisted mainly of the tedium of hyperspace travel. He had plenty of time to stare at his weapons console and sweat it out. Despite the boredom of the trip, the foreknowledge of their rendezvous with the Rebellion made Tank unable to think of anything else.
Tank had been picked up by the freighter at the Academy on Ord Nardell a few days ago. He'd been officially welcomed aboard by Captain Oxus, an Imperial who had been demoted out of the military for his ill-controlled temper and sullen disposition. Oxus didn't consider the Rand Ecliptic to be a pleasant or satisfying command post, and in truth, it was not. But he had learned to internalize his anger so as not to get booted out of service altogether. Oxus had put on a reasonably civil display, curtly commending Tank for his high marks in the Academy, and 'confidentially' telling him that from here, there was no way to go but up. When asked why he hadn't chosen service in Starfleet, Tank had lied that he preferred a quieter life.
Tank had been shown his quarters, a tiny bunk off of the crew lounge, and was given a tour of the ship. The Ecliptic was a blocky craft, built around four cubic cargo holds. Cargo supervisor Den Roth had been proud to point out that, unlike the common Corellian YT- 1300 stock light freighter, the HT-2200 had four separate cargo environments, each able to present different life support conditions. The HT-2200, therefore, held eight times the cargo of a YT- 1300. Tank was bored. He simply tried to stay out of the way of the four cargo workers, who gained his sympathy by looking as bored as he felt. The Ecliptic's engines were tended by one Trent Rummox, who, like all engineers, seemed simply to want to be left alone to work. Lastly, Tank was shown his gunnery station, which was positioned in back of the small bridge. The station controlled the two pulse laser cannons, one atop the freighter, one below. It was a very light arsenal, but then, one hoped one wouldn't have to go into combat with a medium freighter. The extra cargo space came at the price of losing maneuverability, making the ship a likely loser in a fight. They depended on extra heavy shielding to give them time to escape.
The ship had stopped at Tatooine to pick up the new first mate, Biggs Darklighter, who, Tank said, he had known in passing at the Academy. Biggs had come aboard and gone straight to work, ignoring Tank until mealtime. Then, he had subtly managed to tell Tank that the rendezvous was a go. Since then, Tank had manned his station, which was not strictly necessary in hyperspace, worrying and picturing the worst. Maybe they had already been discovered, and were being taken to a prison planet right now. Maybe the desertion would go badly, and one or both of them would be killed. Maybe the Rebels wouldn't be there at all, having changed their minds... Unfortunately, worrying only made the time pass more slowly.
Finally, after what had seemed like days, Biggs and Captain Oxus began to make preparations for coming out of hyperspace. Biggs worked efficiently, looking sort of dashing in his caped uniform. He spared a discreet glance at Tank, nodding once. Tank swallowed hard. This was it. He turned in his chair and looked ahead at the bridge viewports. As Biggs pulled a lever, the pearl-colored, hellish clouds of hyperspace were replaced by star-filled normal space. The freighter had emerged into the emptiness of the Outer Rim Leisure Corridor for its rendezvous with the luxury liner Culroon Minstrel. The Ecliptic's holds were full of expensive supplies for the liner, but after that delivery, they were due to pick up TIE fighter sensors and capital ship navigational software from Fabritech, for transport to the Core.
Captain Oxus' voice was clearly audible from where Tank sat. "Where is the Minstrel? She should have been here an hour before us. I can't detect her on any of our sensors. Darklighter, are you getting anything on the trade frequencies?"
"No distress calls, Captain, nothing from the Minstrel," said Biggs, and waited for Oxus to issue an order.
The captain stood, thinking. "There haven't been reports of pirates in the Corridor recently, and no other hazards have been reported...I wonder what could be keeping that blasted pleasure boat. We've got a schedule to keep." He looked at Biggs, sternly. "Send out a long range message along the Minstrel's last known course. Tell them we're only going to wait an hour. Then they can find someone else to deliver their supplies. The Empire has better things to occupy itself with than -"
Oxus was cut off by the sudden flash of an explosion near the ship. His hands flew to the scanners as he checked the shields. "Darklighter! Boma! I think it might be pirates, after all! Four starfighters have just come out of hyperspace, and they're firing proton torpedoes at us."
"Got them, Captain," said Biggs, "four ships, X-wing class, coming up behind us. I think that last shot was just a warning. Maybe they want to take us alive, capture our cargo. Could be they hit the Culroon Minstrel and got our coordinates."
But Oxus seemed to be thinking suddenly along different lines. "X-wings...then it could be Rebels. But what would they want with Corellian Whiskey and holovids? No matter, we've got to get out of here. Maybe the shields will hold up while I program in the coordinates for Fabritech. Boma! Let's see how good you are! Target those Rebels, or pirates, and destroy as many as you can. Darklighter, I want maximum speed, straight ahead, and angle the deflectors where they'll do the most good. Tell Rummox I'll need all he's got." Oxus' chubby face was grim as he watched two more torpedoes flare close by.
Biggs looked at Tank and nodded. "You heard the Captain, gunner. Now do what you're supposed to do."
Tank faced his laser cannon controls. The X-wings appeared on his scopes as bright symbols, darting around the Rand Ecliptic. Tank glanced at the Captain, who was tensely working at the navicomputer. He braced himself, and pressed the controls that vented all the blaster gasses into space as an emergency measure against overheating.
Oxus noticed the warning lights immediately. "Boma!" he shouted, whirling on Tank. "What are you doing? We'll be defenseless ! What in the name of the Emperor are you thinking -"
Oxus stopped talking as he saw Biggs' blaster pointed at him. He looked with dawning hatred at his two crew members. "So it's mutiny, then, is that it? Are you with the Rebels? Is that what's going on?"
"I'm sorry, Captain," Biggs said firmly, "there's nothing you can do. I've shut down the shields and put them into a diagnostic cycle. They can't be raised for an hour. Please give me your blaster, sir."
Oxus glared at Biggs, toying with the idea of making a play for his weapon, but then seemed to decide it wasn't worth it. Tank sympathized. It was two against one, and what was Oxus' command worth to him, anyway? He owed little to the Empire, and certainly not his life. The Imperial surrendered his blaster.
"Please open a channel to the Alliance X-wings, and tell them you surrender," suggested Biggs, his blaster unwavering. Oxus did as he was told, but he was clearly past being polite.
"This is the Rand Ecliptic, Captain Oxus commanding, calling the Rebel scum in the X-wings. I surrender my ship to you, but I want you to know that if I had a real crew on board, and not these traitors, you wouldn't be getting my cargo intact. Either you or I would be dead. But the joke's on you. You obviously knew my schedule, but you were apparently ignorant of my cargo manifest." Oxus let a sneer enter his voice. "All we're carrying is Corellian Whiskey, Cassandran Choholl, new holovids, and frozen meats. Unless you're planning to throw a fancy party, I don't see what good those things will do you. If your intelligence had been a little better, you'd have known we'd be picking up TIE fighter scanners and navigational software for Star Destroyers on our next stop. As for this ship, you're welcome to it. If this is your idea of a fine addition to your military forces, then good luck to you in your eventual defeat." Oxus flipped off the channel and sat down in the Captain's chair, stubbornly unmoving.
Soon, the teardrop shape of a big Rebel transport moved across the viewport as it docked with the freighter. Biggs motioned to Tank, handing him the Captain's blaster as he approached. "All right, Tank, let's go. We don't want to take up any more of the Captain's valuable time. Captain. it's been...decent, serving under you. This is nothing personal. And don't worry about our pay, we don't have a forwarding address."
Biggs and Tank backed to the airlock, still covering Oxus with drawn blasters. The Captain looked dumbfounded. "What, you're leaving me with my ship?! What's going on here?"
As Tank opened the airlock, Biggs took one last look at his first duty assignment. He waved a final salute at Oxus. "You may not be able to understand this, Captain, but these Rebels are just here to pick up Tank and I."
Oxus sputtered, "You two? You sorry excuses for crewmen? I knew the Rebels were crazy, but this beats all! By all means, go!" He laughed meanly. "I'd even throw in a few bottles of Corellian Whiskey for those terrorists to take you off my hands!"
"Well," said Biggs, "I didn't think you'd understand." And he shut the airlock door.
They crossed over to the transport and entered their new lives. Waiting to greet them was a severe-looking woman in a flight suit. Her brown hair had a streak of white in front, and her flinty eyes and disciplined smile flashed them a respectful welcome. "Okay, Wedge," she said into her comlink, "We've got them. Let's head for Massassi Base." The young woman held out a gloved hand. "You're Biggs Darklighter and Tank Boma, right? Welcome aboard. I'm Slaughter."
Biggs shook her hand, looking relieved, the stress finally melting from him. Tank found himself smiling foolishly at the oddly attractive pilot before him, but he didn't care. Things were looking up, at last.
"Thank you," said Luke, "for telling me that story. Biggs and I had so little time before the battle, we didn't even get to tell each other how we got here. I'm really starting to understand how much Biggs had changed. He really had grown up. I only hope I can be like he was."
"You keep at it, Skywalker, and you'll get there," teased Tank.
Luke felt relaxed at last. He knew their talk was doing both of them a world of good. There were still some difficult things to sort out, some painful things, but Luke knew they would see it through. He might never have Tank's friendship, but neither would they be enemies. Luke noticed that Tank was looking suddenly downcast, and dared to go over to where he was standing at the edge of the platform. He put a hand on the rumpled, oversized shoulder of Tank's borrowed flight suit.
"That brings us to recent events, doesn't it?" said Luke gently. "Now it gets hard to talk about. But we have to. There's quite a bit I don't understand about what happened last night, and I really have to know."
Tank didn't try to escape Luke's hand, and he sighed, staring out into the planet-lit mists. "My last times with Biggs were too short, too. I didn't use them the way I would have...if I'd known." Tank kicked a large stone fragment over the edge, sending it bouncing down the steps and crashing into the blueleaf carpet far below, where it vanished. "Instead, I was chasing after a woman..."
Tank had listened to as much of Biggs and Wedge talking about the Empire and the Rebellion as he could. They talked over an open channel from the transport to Wedge's X-wing, Biggs an eager listener, the youthful Wedge Antilles an eager talker. Tank learned that they were on their way to the main Alliance base on the fourth moon of Yavin. Although there were smaller bases scattered across the Galaxy, the greatest need for personnel and pilots was at Massassi base. If it was lost, the infant Rebellion could well die out, and now there was a real threat of that happening. According to Wedge, Princess-Senator Organa had been on a mission to retrieve the stolen technical readouts for a new Imperial battle station, more destructive than anything built before. But instead, she had been captured and most likely interrogated. And she knew where the main Rebel base was hidden. Any time, now, that battle station could be on its way. Massassi base needed all the people it could get, as fast as possible, should the need for an emergency evacuation arise. Biggs and Tank, Slaughter and Wedge, and a handful of other pilots and soldiers were chewing up hyperspace in a desperate race to throw themselves into enormous danger. At least, thought Tank, it wouldn't be dull.
Which was what the conversation between Biggs and Wedge eventually became. Tank could only absorb so much information about Imperial crimes, Rebel cells, fighter combat, and politics, while Biggs seemed to thrive on it. Biggs and Wedge became fast friends, but Tank finally wandered away from Biggs' side and went looking for Slaughter. He found her hard at work on her Y-wing, in a cramped bay barely large enough for the two-seated star fighter. Engine components were scattered about, and Slaughter was perched atop the ship, repairing the heavily damaged canopy. She noticed him the moment he walked in, giving him a sharp, attentive look that went straight to his teenage heart. "Tank," she said, "Glad you could come. Grab a hydrospanner and get up here. I could use another pair of hands."
Tank climbed up quickly, his interest in the older woman flaring up. No woman had shown interest in Tank before, and while this wasn't exactly interest, for Tank it was close enough. He stole a glance into her gray eyes, admiring how her shoulder length brown hair framed a strong-boned face. Her thin lips smiled a greeting, and Tank was suddenly conscious of his small frame and vaguely messy hair. Then she spoke to him in a way that made him even more conscious of his youth; she probably had about ten years on him, and to his dismay, he was inspiring a maternal response. "Are you scared, Tank, about what we're heading into? Maybe this is more than you bargained for." She rubbed a greasy hand across her already grease-stained forehead. "Next stop is a hidden base in the middle of nowhere that might become space-dust any day now...You don't have to tell me, but I'll tell you - I'm scared. I'm scared a lot."
Tank found himself unable to lie, looking into her frank gaze. "Um, Slaughter, I think maybe I should be scared, but I don't know enough about all this to know how much to be afraid. I've really just been following my friend, Biggs. He's the one who knows what he's doing. I've clung to him, like a father I guess, for years and years. I followed him to the Academy, and when he decided to join the Rebellion, I followed again. And here I am, and I don't even know enough to be terrified."
Slaughter nodded, and directed Tank's eyes to the burned, shattered Y-wing canopy she was removing. "Let me tell you how scared you should be, Tank," she said, a little of the coldness of space in her voice. "My...partner died in this ship, and I came very, very close to joining her." She turned her head and lifted her hair. Tank could see a thin tracing of scars all along her neck. "The medical droids did what they could with synthflesh, but even they can't hide all the traces of someone nearly losing their head."
Tank was silent, staring.
"Do you want to hear the story of how I came to be here?" asked Slaughter softly.
Tank nodded, still not speaking.
"Best to begin at the beginning, then," she said, making herself comfortable. "My sister and I grew up with my father on a small planet called Balfor. It was a pretty nice place, as planets go." She smiled thinly.
"But I guess nice places don't stay that way any more, these days. When the Empire found us, they let our government continue as it was. They established a military base, of course, but it was a low-key operation. No resources to exploit, no alien races to enslave - there wasn't much on Balfor to hold their interest. Then suddenly, young men started to disappear. Over the course of a year, over a hundred were lost. The Imperials made a show of investigating, but of course, they didn't find anything. It was a complete mystery. We didn't think too much about it, because it was always happening to someone else, in some other city...Then, one day, my own father vanished. We woke up one morning, and he was gone. My sister said she'd heard him get up to check out a noise outside, but she'd gone back to sleep. We were terrified. No one knew anything, no one could help. I decided to find out what was going on by myself.
"I had a lot of skill with computers, thanks to a slicer who taught me everything he knew. The first place I thought to investigate was the Imperial base. For some reason, I just didn't trust their claims. I began to obtain documents from their files. I figured that if the men who'd vanished weren't dead, they might have been taken off world. So I began to study records of outbound space vessels. I found that on a few ships, more supplies than usual were taken aboard, and there were a number of supposedly empty crew quarters, making the excess conspicuous. Imperials don't usually waste space or supplies. The departures of these ships coincided with the disappearances of men from Balfor. So there it was. The Empire was taking people from my planet in secret. But why? I decided to go off-world and find out. If there was a chance my father was still alive, I had to help him. I found someone...who hated the Empire as much as I did. We managed to buy this Y-wing together, Genta and I, and we set out to follow the trail of the suspect ships. They all had the same destination, the Riosh system.
"Riosh was an out-of-the-way planet in the Outer Rim, with an Imperial base and a population of near-humans. Genta and I went into a town near the bases where we posed as vagabond spacers, down on our luck. We found a couple of Officers, drunk in a bar, on leave from the base. They were starved for female companionship, and it seems they found the appearance of the local inhabitants distasteful. Something about the nose slits, I think. We lured them to our rooms, promising a good time, and slipped them some drugs that encourage the flow of information, so to speak."
Tank was completely absorbed in the story so far. Now the subject had turned to matters closely matching his own interest, and he became even more intent. "What did they tell you? And did you - did you..."
"Yes, we...gave them their good time. We needed them to remember it that way instead of remembering the questioning. But it was worth it. The officers liked to brag. They told us that their base was selected for a special Stormtrooper indoctrination program. It was still experimental, but it was very important work. The Empire needed troops who would carry out any orders, no matter what. There had been problems with some of them balking at some of the more distasteful tasks involved in pacifying rebellious populations, and it was very necessary that this be done. The indoctrination would fix all that. Men were being brought in from several planets to be subjects. But the officers assured us that those men wouldn't be of interest to us, because they were only at the base for a short time, for the indoctrination, then they were shipped out. They never came into town looking for a good time...
"We put my slicer skills to work again, and we were able to trace the path of personnel from Balfor to Riosh to another system called Felshesst. And off we went. The Galactic NewsNets gave us a good idea of why troops were being sent there. Felshesst was in the middle of an uprising against the Empire. It didn't say that explicitly, of course, instead they reported a small problem with a dissident faction of the local government having staged a tax protest. But when we entered the Felshesst system, we found a Star Destroyer in orbit around the planet. The Felshessti were under martial law, and a city had been blasted from orbit. We were too late to do anything about it, even if we could have.
"We avoided the Star Destroyer and landed on the outskirts of the destroyed city. There was a lot of traffic going in and out, bringing supplies, evacuating the wounded. We weren't noticed, especially. We wandered around the ruins for a while, and it was pretty horrifying. Somebody grabbed us aside and stopped us at one point, warning us not to go into one section where a special detachment of Stormtroopers was interrogating Rebels. The Rebellion really had been there, and they'd miscalculated badly. They hadn't expected the Empire to use so much force against them. And the Felshessti paid the price. The Rebels were rounded up by the Felshessti themselves, and delivered to the Imperials. Those Rebels were being publicly executed in a square ahead of us. Despite the risk of becoming suspects ourselves, we had to investigate the story of the special Stormtroopers. So, we crept closer to the square, and there was a raised platform with a few filthy-looking men and women on it, surrounded by Stormtroopers. As we watched, they said something about how these Rebels had been responsible for the destruction of the city. They had been stockpiling extremely destructive weapons, and were planning to take over the planet's government. When the Imperials arrived to restore order, several of these devices had exploded prematurely, leveling the city."
"Was any of it true?" asked Tank.
"True?" said Slaughter bitterly. "What does it matter if it was true? The Empire creates truth to suit their purposes. And don't look for this story on the Galactic NewsNets. It's a big Galaxy, Tank, and atrocities can be hidden in it without too much trouble. You either don't hear about it, or worse, you hear their lies. And it just doesn't matter. What matters is, people died. They were innocent, and they died horribly. without knowing why."
After a pause, Tank ventured, "And what about your father? Did you find him?"
Slaughter's grief was plain as she replied, "Yes, I found him. As they were burning the Rebels with blasters on low settings, one of the Stormtroopers suddenly ducked out of his group and stepped into a back alley. I told Genta to stay put, and I snuck after him, my small blaster in hand. I found the trooper in the alley, his helmet off, tears on his face. It was my father. We were equally shocked to see each other, even though I should have expected it. He tried to explain, but he didn't fully understand it himself. His conditioning had been effective for a while, but it hadn't fully taken hold of him. During the massacre of the Felshessti, he had come fully back to himself. And he hated himself utterly for what he had become. He told me that what he had done was a slaughter of innocents, no less. There had been a Rebel cell on Felshesst, but it had been promoting nonviolent resistance through the withholding of taxes. They hadn't guessed that the Emperor wouldn't tolerate even that. And so he had helped to slaughter a city. He...he begged me to restore honor to his name, and to slaughter Imperials in return, until the scales were balanced. And then he -" Her voice caught and she looked away. "He shot himself before I could stop him." She shook slightly, crying dry tears. Tank did his best to comfort her without touching her, afraid of what inappropriate feelings that might create. "I found Genta, and we made it back to our Y-wing. I was hardly aware of what I was doing. We lifted off and climbed for space, and that was when we really got into trouble. It seems the Imperials cared a lot more about who got off planet. We were spotted by a TIE fighter patrol, and when we tried to escape, they fired at us. I'm a good pilot, and Genta was good with the ion cannon, but there were too many of them. One of their shots broke through our shields, and hit the canopy. Genta was killed instantly, and I was unconscious."
Tank looked at the canopy in front of him, shuddering. He could picture the explosions, the burning, the rush of escaping air. "How did you survive?"
"The Rebels had sent a small force to rescue anyone from the cell they could find. They were too late for that, but they found me, floating and left for dead. My suit was full of blood, and I was on the last of my oxygen. When they picked me out of this ship, it looked like I wasn't going to make it. But they were curious as to who I was, and why I was there, so they put me in a Bacta tank and took me to a nearby base. They fixed me up, as best they could, and luckily, in spite of some serious neck wounds, I made it. They were very interested in what I knew about the indoctrination program. I told them everything I knew, to repay them for saving me, except for two things. I didn't tell them about my father's death, and I didn't tell them my name. I told them it was just 'Slaughter'. The old me was dead, after what happened. It was my new name, so I wouldn't forget what to do with the second life I'd been given. When the call came to go to Yavin, I answered it. I left Genta's body at that base, where I buried it. And so here I am."
She looked directly at him. "Tank, you've got to have your own reason to be in the Alliance. It doesn't matter what it is, so long as it's your own. You'll need it to keep you going..."
"Genta was your sister," said Tank, hesitantly.
Slaughter looked sharply at him, but this time, there were real tears in her eyes. And this time, Tank held her hand while she cried.
"Look," said Biggs, standing in the doorway, "I don't mean to interrupt, but there's something you should both know."
Slaughter neatly hid the fact that she'd been crying and turned to Biggs. Tank let her hand slip from his.
"The battle station we heard about has been used, in one of the primary systems. The planet Alderaan has been totally destroyed. That's Senator Organa's homeworld. I thought you ought to know..." Biggs turned and left, his face ashen.
Slaughter asked Tank, "Now, do you know how terrified to be?"
"Then, she asked me if I would be her new partner. I didn't know what to say. It seems Biggs had told her all about me, and how good I was as a gunner. With her sister dead, she wanted someone to fly with. It was why she told me all those things about herself. She wanted me to be able to trust her, to know who she was, so that in combat..." Tank paused. "I hate it, Luke. I had her trust, too, and last night, I destroyed it."
"What happened, Tank?" asked Luke. "What happened to make you do what you did?"
Tank put some physical distance between them, to make room for the hard feelings that had to be taken out and examined. "It's hard to explain. You wouldn't think I'd still have hated you, after all that time, but I did. So when you arrived at the base, a day after I did, I was surprised myself at how I felt."
"I didn't even know you were there," protested Luke.
"I know, and I wanted it that way. The last time I saw you, we weren't exactly on the best of terms, and it bothered me that Biggs went all the way back to Tatooine to see you. He missed his graduation ceremony for that, and I honestly didn't think you were worth it. Then, totally without warning, you show up here. What a scene! There was Senator Organa, rescued right from the Death Star, this pair of smugglers, one of them a Wookiee, and you, of all people, with everybody saying you were a big hero for rescuing the Princess and bringing back the technical readouts of the Death Star! I felt like no one but me really knew you for the nobody you were. I just couldn't believe it. So I certainly couldn't let you see me. The base is a big place, and it wasn't hard to stay out of your way. During the briefing I just stood in the back with Biggs. You should have seen his face when you said that thing about Womp Rats back home, and he realized you were there! He took me outside and asked me if I'd known, and why I hadn't told him, but I just didn't want to talk about it. I think he understood. Afterwards, Biggs went to find you in the hangar. Meanwhile, I was still trying to come to terms with the fact that our evacuation had suddenly turned into a fight. I thought it must be all your fault, somehow. I did understand later that it was Leia Organa's idea, to stay and take a chance on the Death Star's weak spot, rather than allow any more worlds to be destroyed. Enough of those and we'd have to give up anyway. But mostly, I just didn't want to die."
Luke frowned, digesting all that. It was hard to see himself in a negative light, but he tried. "I did meet Biggs in the hangar," he said after a moment. "It all happened so fast. We needed more time, but we didn't have it. Not with the Death Star coming..."
Luke carried his helmet across the crowded hangar towards his waiting X-wing fighter, his heart heavy. Loss was very much on his mind. He had just said good-bye to Han, and it hadn't gone well. Then Leia, his dream girl, had said good-bye, and he'd gotten maybe his last kiss from her. And he'd already lost Ben, and everybody he knew on Tatooine was light years away... Luke felt someone grab his arm and spin him around. "Luke!" cried Biggs. "I don't believe it! How'd you get here? Are you going out with us?"
Luke's heart leaped. It was as if he had conjured his old friend out of thin air. "Biggs! Of course, I'll be up there with you! Listen, have I got some stories to tell..."
Red Leader's arrival interrupted him. "Are you...Luke Skywalker? Have you been checked out on the Incom T-65?"
Biggs stepped in hastily to cover his friend, who hadn't. "Sir, Luke is the best bushpilot in the Outer Rim territories." In truth, Luke's practice with his Skyhopper had prepared him to fly an X-wing better than some of the other inexperienced pilots going up.
Red Leader surprised Luke by patting him on the back. "I met your father once when I was just a boy; he was a great pilot. You'll do all right. If you've got half of your father's skill, you'll do better than all right." A thrill went through Luke. He knew so little about his father, and here was someone who had met him. Ben, too, had said his father was a good pilot. Luke wanted to stop his wing leader and question him, get all he knew, but sadly, there wasn't time.
All Luke said was, "Thank you Sir, I'll try." Red Leader hurried off to his own fighter.
Biggs smiled fondly at Luke. "I've got to get aboard. Listen, you'll tell me your stories when we come back. All right?" The moment stretched out. Neither man allowed himself to think that they might not come back.
"I told you I'd make it someday, Biggs," said Luke.
Biggs started towards his ship. "You did, all right. It's going to be like old times, Luke. We're a couple of shooting stars that'll never be stopped!" That brought a clear, happy laugh out of Luke, who could recall that long-ago day shooting Sandpeople in their Skyhoppers as if it were yesterday.
Tank saw Biggs leave Luke and approach the Y-wing where he and Slaughter waited. Biggs stopped in front of them and gave Slaughter a snappy salute. "Here's to beginner's luck," he said. She smiled and gave him a thumb's up, then walked away to give Biggs and Tank a moment to themselves.
"Biggs, I -"
"Tank, we don't have much time. And there's something I need to tell you."
"There's something I want to tell you, too -"
"Tank, it might be that we don't make it back. I want you to know, I'm very, very proud of what you've become. You've become a man I'm proud to call my friend." He took Tank by both shoulders and gripped him firmly.
Tank wanted to say, I haven' t become a man, I haven' t become anything, I've just been following you, but he didn't let those words come out. "Biggs," he said, "You've been a father to me, and I know it hasn't been easy. But if I'm a good man, it's thanks to you. I -"
A loud voice over the speakers cut him off. "All flight troops, man your stations! All flight troops, man your stations!"
Slaughter came back and began climbing into the cockpit. Tank reluctantly climbed into the seat behind her, giving Biggs a long look as the canopy slowly lowered. Biggs returned it steadily until Tank's face was out of view. As the Y-wing canopy sealed, the sounds of the hangar were suddenly muffled, and Tank could hear his own breathing again. A crawling feeling suddenly inhabited his stomach as he realized he might die without ever getting out of his seat again. Then he looked at Slaughter's battered helmet with its cascade of brown hair escaping the back and he felt better. At least he wouldn't be alone. Then the ship's comm crackled to life and the cockpit was filled with the voices of the other pilots, reassuring each other, doing final checks, and wishing each other luck. Biggs' voice could be heard over the others for a moment as he said, "Luke, Wedge, Tank, Slaughter, may the Force be with you all!"
No, not alone. Not by a long shot.
"All right partner, here we go," said Slaughter, and the Y-wing rose gently on its repulsorlifts. Tank switched on the visual scanners and the targeting computer as the ship drifted across the hangar to the lift platform, settling there with a whine next to several other ships. The lift took them up to the launch bay, where they were surrounded by the original stone of the great Temple. In front of them, a wide exit to the jungle glowed with morning light. Tank gripped the firing sticks with sweaty hands and began to review in his mind what he and Slaughter had studied all through the night. They had gone over the Death Star plans diligently, something that surprisingly few other pilots were doing. Slaughter had even loaded a copy of the plans into her Artoo unit, R2-B6; in case the attack failed and she survived, there would be a chance to save the information for the Alliance. Slaughter accelerated forward, and they shot out of the Temple with three other Y--wings. The misty jungle blurred beneath them for a few moments, then they were climbing into the thick cloud cover. Massassi control sent a message, "Stand-by alert. Death Star approaching. Estimated time to firing range, fifteen minutes."
"Fifteen minutes !" cried Tank, gulping air.
In moments, they were in space, a universe of stars shining steadily all around. Tank could see the rest of the fighters gathered in a flock around him. There were thirty ships in all, twelve of the rare X-wings, and eighteen Y-wings. The battle plan was simple. Three Y-wings would make the first trench run at the thermal exhaust port. If they failed, then two flights of X-wings were prepared for the task. There wouldn't be time for any more tries. The other twenty-one fighters had the task of distracting the Imperial battle analysts from the true purpose of the attack for as long as possible. While the real attack was made on the equatorial trench, the others had to draw the TIE fighters away towards the poles.
Gold Leader, a man named Dutch, spoke crisply over the headsets, "All wings report in."
One by one came the confirming replies as the fighters hurtled around the giant planet Yavin towards the Death Star.
"Gold five standing by," said Pops.
"Gold two standing by," said Tiree.
"Gold four standing by," said Slaughter, and Tank had the totally inappropriate question in his mind of what it would have been like to kiss her.
"Gold seven standing by," said another pilot, and Tank tuned the others out as they checked in. It was a crazy time to be thinking about relationships, but he couldn't help it.
"Slaughter," he said tentatively, "I want to thank you for taking me on as your partner...and I want you to know...even though I'm younger than you, and I haven't really been around or anything, um, I like you a lot. I really do. And I wish I was older."
"Thanks for telling me that, Tank," Slaughter said. "I sort of knew you felt that way already. You can't see it, but I'm smiling. I like you, too, and maybe age isn't that important. I hope there'll be time to find out."
Tank grinned foolishly, and his heart felt like it had come home after a long absence. "Slaughter, what was your name before...you know?"
She was quiet for a moment, then she said softly, "Shally. But it's Slaughter today... Tank! There it is!"
Tank checked his visual scanner. Ahead of them was a moon-shaped object. It grew steadily, and as they approached, Tank could pick out details on its surface that destroyed the illusion that it was a natural satellite. He saw straight lines that intersected at right angles. One hemisphere was dominated by an enormous laser dish, the "Eye", and the equatorial trench became visible. Next, Tank picked out lights everywhere, like cities seen from high above. There was an impression of giant artificial mountains and valleys. Tank was overwhelmed. It was exactly as if they were attacking an entire planet. He let out a groan of dismay. "We're all going to die..."
"Hey!" said Slaughter, "Keep it together! Remember what we studied. That thing is supposed to make you afraid. That's its purpose. But we're not going to let it get to us. It' s just a big machine, and we're here to destroy it."
Or die trying, thought Tank.
Red Leader's voice came over their headsets. "Accelerate to attack speed. This is it, boys!"
"Boys indeed," Slaughter muttered. "I'll show him what a girl can do." She poured on the velocity and the fighter entered a terrifying nose-dive towards the battle station's planet-like surface.
"Red Leader, this is Gold Leader."
"I copy, Gold Leader."
"We're starting for the target shaft now."
Tank saw three Y-wings peel away from the main group. Then Slaughter hurtled over the equator and sped towards the pole, accompanied by a crowd of fighters that began to break up into small groups and seek out predetermined targets. They flew low, as huge structures blurred dizzyingly close below them. Space above the station was suddenly filled with the glare of explosive charges and the bright green streaks of turbolaser bolts, as the Imperials struck back as best they could against the tiny, darting fighters. One X-wing, above and to the right of Tank, wasn't flying low enough, and became the battle's first casualty, bursting into a fiery shower of fragments that rained down onto the surface.
"Remember what we planned, Tank," called Slaughter. "Those turbolasers won't fire below a certain angle, to avoid hitting the station. We stay low and fast, and we take apart one of those city sprawls. It's time to fulfill my promise to my father."
Tank thought back to the night before, when they had been poring over the technical readouts of the Death Star. "Tank, look at this," Slaughter had said, pointing at the complex schematics. "The surface is covered with 'city sprawls' . They're like self-contained cities...Each one has hangars, barracks...there are turbolasers and shield projectors, though. Tank, this is my chance to pay the Imperials back for Felshesst, for my father. If I can figure a way past those defenses, they're going to know what it feels like to be in a city in flames."
Now they were streaking towards the city sprawl Slaughter had chosen. It bordered on the great superlaser dish. She had learned from the plans that the shields were weakest at the edge of the "Eye". They shot over the edge of the Eye, and dove down along its metallic slope. It looked like it stretched out before them for kilometers. A chill coursed through Tank as he imagined the fearsome blast of the superlaser emerging close by and incinerating his ship like a leaf in a forest fire.
A sudden warning from Massassi base came over Tank's headset. "Squad Leaders, we've picked up a new group of signals. Enemy fighters coming your way."
There weren't any TIE's in the area of the Eye yet, but the comm was suddenly full of pilots reacting to the attackers. "My scope's negative. I don't see anything," came the voice of Luke Skywalker.
"Keep up your visual scanning," warned Red Leader. "With all this jamming, they'll be on top of you before your scope can pick them up."
A moment later, Tank's heart constricted. "Biggs! You've picked one up," cried Red Leader. "Watch it!"
"I can't see it!" shouted Biggs, panicking. "Where is he? He's on me tight, I can't shake him...I can't shake him!"
Tank writhed in his seat, his entire body wanting to go to Biggs' defense. With a jealous relief, he heard Luke say, "Hang on, Biggs, I'm coming in." A few hellish moments passed, then Luke cried, "Got him!" Tank relaxed his grip on his firing sticks.
Slaughter called out, "We're coming up on our target...get ready, Tank!" The Y-wing now sped along the upward slope of the laser dish and sailed over the rim. Tank had a moment to target the operations station that lay at the base of three towering shield projectors, then he let loose with two proton torpedoes. They streaked towards the structure, and, as Slaughter had predicted, the weaker shields allowed the missiles to penetrate. The Y-wing soared clear as a tremendous fireball billowed out between the three towers. As secondary explosions flared, the three towers began to topple ponderously in towards each other, descending in arcs of blazing destruction. Slaughter had swung wide around the conflagration, racing low past the communications dome towards the trio of turbolasers protecting the city sprawl. Searing turbolaser bolts lanced above them, as Tank took the ion cannon controls. The swivel-mounted guns atop the Y-wing flared to life, and blue-white pulses of energy quested for the base of the first turbolaser tower, where the tracking and targeting computers were housed. The ion bursts splashed into the target, and a few moments later, the more heavily protected upper portion of the tower ceased to rotate and fire. Coming rapidly about, the excitement of victory filling both of them, Tank and Slaughter proceeded to put the other two towers out of action.
Their headsets crackled again, and Tank picked out Gold Leader's words, "This is Gold Leader. We're starting our attack run."
"I copy, Gold Leader. Move into position," called Red Leader. The first trench run had begun.
"All right Tank," said Slaughter, "Let's do some personal damage before they blow this whole station." She soared over the now-defenseless city sprawl, and cut across the open hangar bays. With great satisfaction, Tank let loose a proton torpedo into each one, engulfing the personnel and TIE fighter pilots scrambling for launch in an inferno.
"The exhaust port is marked and locked in!" came Gold Leader's voice. "Switch power to front deflector screens."
Tank and Slaughter listened anxiously, even as they unleashed a storm of laser cannon and ion cannon fire at what they knew to be the city sprawl's command center. It exploded quite satisfactorily. "That's for you, father," said Slaughter.
"How many guns do you think, Gold five?'' asked Gold Leader on the headset.
"I'd say about twenty guns. Some on the surface, some on the towers."
"Death Star will be in range in five minutes," said Massassi control.
"Switching to targeting computer," said Gold Leader.
"Computer's locked. Getting a signal," said Gold two. "The guns...they've stopped!"
"Stabilize your rear deflectors. Watch for enemy fighters," said Gold five.
"They're coming in!" shouted Gold Leader. "Three marks at two ten."
Tank's heart sank. He could picture the Y-wings, shooting down the trench, with their maneuverability so limited, and TIE fighters coming at them from behind. That meant their plan had been discovered. There was little time to worry, though, as Slaughter came up fast on the next target, a huge structure that housed over a thousand troops. Part of it was already destroyed by the falling shield towers, and Tank finished off the rest with a proton torpedo. The communications dome went up last, taking their last two torpedoes. The city sprawl was now completely ravaged, its atmosphere rushing out into space, fueling a sea of flames across the station surface.
"And that's for the Felshessti," said Slaughter with a grim laugh of triumph.
"Uh...Slaughter?" said Tank, his eyes going wide. "Maybe we shouldn't stick around." His visual scanners had just shown him a force of ten TIE fighters heading their way. "I think we made them angry..."
Slaughter cursed as she accelerated away from the burning city sprawl. No doubt, she was recalling the unbalanced odds that had led to her sister's death over Felshesst. And they were cut off from the main group of Rebel fighters, having broken away to pursue Slaughter's revenge. It was a novice's mistake, and they were about to pay the price for it.
Gold Leader's trench run wasn't doing much better. His panicky shouts came over the headsets, "I can't maneuver!"
Gold five was somehow calm. "Stay on target."
"We're too close!" cried Gold Leader.
"Stay on target!"
There was the sound of two explosions, and the sad voice of Gold five, the veteran known as Pops, reported, "Lost Tiree, lost Dutch."
"I copy, Gold five," said Red Leader.
"They came from behind..." There was the sound of another explosion as Pops was hit, then nothing. But Tank and Slaughter didn't have time to mourn the passing of their comrades, not when death was screaming towards them at that very moment. They flew at top speed back out over the Eye, where there were no turbolasers to worry about. The destroyed city sprawl dwindled quickly in the distance, making it depressingly clear how little real damage had been done to the world-sized battle station.
"I'm sorry, Tank," Slaughter said, choking on the words. "This is my fault. If I hadn't wanted revenge, if we'd stuck with the others -"
"Take us up!" he interrupted her, "Take us straight up!"
She pulled up instantly, and shot tangentially away from the surface. Half the TIE's reacted in time, and followed closely behind. "Look, I trust you, but what's this going to -" She checked her scanners. "Ah! We're letting the station's rotation bring us over the rest of our forces!"
Slaughter waited until she could see the lights of explosions from surface dogfighting, then she put the Y-wing into an equally sudden dive. They found themselves heading straight for one of the TIE's, and Tank's fingers hit the firing buttons. The Y-wing' s forward-mounted lasers turned the Imperial into an expanding fiery cloud that they flew straight through. Now the turbolasers began to reach up towards them, as they spiraled down towards the surface.
"Red Leader, this is Base One," came the voice of General Dodonna over the headsets. "Keep half your group out of range for the next run."
"Copy Base One. Luke, take Red two and three. Hold up here and wait for my signal to start your run."
As the Y-wing banked crazily to avoid the laser fire, Tank had a moment to scoff at the idea of Luke leading a trench run. They'd have to be pretty desperate...Then they reached the surface, and he had no time for thought. It became a simple fight for survival. Slaughter's piloting skills were pushed to the limit, and Tank worked the ion cannon feverishly, but at least now they had the cover of a few ships from Red and Gold flights. Still, there seemed to be no end to the screaming TIE fighters. The brave attack run of Red Leader formed a tense background for the harrowing dogfight. Tank listened, but he felt like the situation was light years beyond his control. At least Biggs was still all right.
"Keep your eyes open for those fighters!" called Red Leader.
"There's too much interference!" protested Red ten. "Red five, can you see them from where you are?"
"No sign of any...wait!" said Luke. "Coming in point three five."
"I see them," said Red ten.
"I'm in range," said Red Leader. "Target's coming up! Just hold them off for a few seconds."
"You'd better let her loose," yelled Red ten.
"I can't hold them!" Red ten yelled, then his scream of anguish was drowned out by a horrifying explosion.
"It's away!" shouted Red Leader.
A moment later, Red nine shouted, "It's a hit!"
"Negative," said Red Leader flatly. "Negative. It didn't go in. It just impacted on the surface."
"Red Leader," said Luke, "we're right above you. Turn to point...oh-five. We'll cover for you."
"Stay there," came Red Leader's grim voice. "I just lost my starboard engine. Get set to make your attack run."
Tank shuddered at what followed. There was the sound of a laser hit, and a long, long hopeless scream, ending in an explosion. Tank fought the urge to look at his chronometer. There must be no more than a minute or two left. He wondered, if the Death Star really destroyed Yavin Four in the next minute, would Slaughter take them out of there, to try to escape into hyperspace as planned, or would she fight to the death?
"Biggs, Wedge, let's close it up. We're going in. We're going in full throttle," said Luke.
"Right with you boss," said Wedge.
"Luke, at that speed will you be able to pull out in time?" asked Biggs.
"It'll be just like Beggar's Canyon back home."
"You better hope those two friends of yours from Tatooine are very, very good," said Slaughter. "Everything's in their hands, now."
Tank started to say, Luke's not my friend, but instead, he decided to pray for all three X-wing pilots, even if one of them was a jerk.
"We'll stay back, far enough to cover you," said Biggs.
"My scope shows the tower, but I can't see the exhaust port!" said Wedge. "Are you sure the computer can hit it?"
"Watch yourself! Increase speed full throttle!" said Luke.
"What about the tower?" Wedge insisted.
"You worry about those fighters! I'll worry about the tower!" said Luke. Typical Luke Skywalker, thought Tank.
Seconds ticked by. Tank and Slaughter had fought clear of the TIE fighters, but to their dismay, they saw that they were the only Rebel ship in sight. The little drama they were listening to was taking place just ahead, on the battle station's horizon. Slaughter took her bearings and began to fly towards the trench.
"I'm hit! I can't stay with you," shouted Wedge.
"Get clear, Wedge. You can't do any more good back there," ordered Luke.
"Sorry!" said Wedge. Tank and Slaughter saw his X-wing, tiny in the distance, climb suddenly out of the trench, marking the position of Biggs' desperate flight.
"Hurry, Luke," said Biggs worriedly. "They're coming in much faster this time. I can't hold them!" Tank listened, frustration filling him. Why was Biggs flying the dangerous cover position? Why wasn't he in the lead? "Hurry up, Luke!" cried Biggs. Then Tank heard his oldest friend and mentor give one fearful cry, "Wait!" and a thundering explosion filled his headset and turned his heart to ice.
When he could speak, he screamed. "Biggs! NO!"
Tank's thoughts spun out of control. The next thing he heard was Massassi base, "His computer's off. Luke, you switched off your targeting computer. What's wrong?"
"Nothing," came the clipped reply. "I'm all right...I've lost Artoo!"
"The Death Star has cleared the planet. The Death Star has cleared the planet."
That's it, thought Tank. We lost. Biggs lost. And l lost Biggs. He felt a bleakness through his entire soul. Up ahead, something was happening, but Tank was only partly aware of it. A light freighter was diving out of the sun and down at the trench where Luke was. A few bursts from its quad laser guns lit up the artificial canyon, and sudden explosions bloomed. A TIE ship came flying out of the trench, out of control, and spun away from the Death Star.
"You're all clear, kid," came a confident voice. "Now let's blow this thing and go home! "
"We're getting out of here, right now," said Slaughter, decisively. "I've got a good feeling about this one!" The Y-wing shook with the force of her accelerated climb away from the station. She overtook Wedge Antilles, who was turning his X-wing away from the battle station as well. Far below, barely visible against the surface, Luke's fighter blurred out of the trench and began to climb. In a rough formation, Wedge, Slaughter, the freighter, and Luke raced away together. Tank's eyes were on his scanners, riveted on the battle station, expecting to see the superlaser roar out at them. Small flashes dotted the surface of the station. Without any other warning, the Death Star erupted into an all-consuming supernova. Tank shut his eyes and turned his head away from the stabbing glare. Moments later, a violent shock wave buffeted the Y-wing, but they rode it out. Tank slumped in his seat, dazed. He rode back to Yavin Four, unaware of his surroundings.
The first thing he saw was Slaughter's face, bending over him in concern. He thought it was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. For a moment, he drifted. All around was the sound of cheering, laughing, and shouting. Tank sat up.
Not far away, he saw Luke Skywalker climb out of his X-wing and step into a cheering, adoring throng. Senator Organa rushed past, and flung herself at Luke. The smuggler also ran up, and the three of them embraced, deliriously happy, slapping each other on the back.
"Hey! Hey!" the smuggler shouted.
"I knew you'd come back! I just knew it!" said Luke.
"Well, I wasn't gonna let you get all the credit and take all the reward," said the smuggler.
Tank's vision blurred, as swift, angry tears welled up. What about Biggs? How could Luke be laughing? How? Impossible! But he was laughing! Tank felt rage awaken in him, and he vaulted over the side of the fighter, intending to go deck Luke. Suddenly, the crowd of cheering Rebels moved their way, led by Wedge Antilles. Slaughter climbed down, and catching a glimpse of Tank's face, asked with sudden concern, "What is it? What's wrong? Tank?"
But he ducked out of reach of the revelers and ran into the shadows. Slaughter attempted to follow, but Wedge suddenly had her in a huge hug, and Commander Willard was pounding her on the back. Disturbed, she searched the shadows for some glimpse of Tank, but it was to no avail.
Five minutes of silence followed between Tank and Luke.
"I think I can explain," said Luke, finally, struggling for words. Tank was huddled into an unmoving ball, crouched on the rough stone. "I didn't...I wasn't aware of the loss, at first. What I've been through in the last few days...I was going nowhere, and all of a sudden, I was in the middle of something I wouldn't have dreamed of. It happened so fast. I found the girl of my dreams, I found a teacher who showed me I could use the Force...then I lost him. I went from nobody to...to being somebody. And I almost died quite a few times. I think maybe...maybe I grew up some, too, and Biggs wasn't my older brother any more. I was still hurting from the loss of Ben, and Biggs' death, it just didn't hit me at first.
"Tank, I'm sorry that the way I acted caused you to hate me. Was that why you thought all those things about my betraying Biggs to his Death?"
"No," said Tank, his voice muffled. "It was a lot more than that." When he looked up, Tank's dark eyes seemed like bottomless pits.
Tank left the Great Temple, and went out into the jungle, putting as much distance between the sounds of celebration and himself as possible. Soon, he was alone, surrounded by towering trees, mist, and distant animal noises. He was full of pain and anger. Why had Biggs died? Why hadn't Luke died instead? Everything was all wrong. Tank went to his knees on the wet ground and wept.
He looked up sharply. Someone had whispered his name.
He hadn't imagined it. It was real. He stood up and looked around.
"Tank...across the river."
He stumbled towards the sound, and came out of the trees by the wide, slow jungle watercourse that meandered past the Great Temple. Across the water, half-devoured by jungle growth, was a long rectangular stone ruin, shaped roughly like a palace.
Tank, only half-aware, slogged into the mud and clumsily swam the murky, weed-choked river. Clambering out onto the muddy far bank, he heard the voice again.
He shook his head to clear it, but it didn't help. A woolly haze had enveloped his mind.
"Tank...inside." This time, the voice was insistent.
Tank trudged over to the ruined palace, compelled to follow the voice. He threaded his way around gigantic stone blocks, fallen thousands of years ago, and entered the cold, dark interior. He found himself in a black chamber. There was an impression of large spaces, but he could see nothing. The usual noises of the Woolamanders had stopped. He stood still, shivering in the mid-day heat.
Before him, a purplish light had begun to glow. There was a ripple in the air, and slowly, the light coalesced into a roughly human form. The body was indeterminate, but the face was clear. It was Biggs, exactly as Tank remembered last seeing him. Biggs wore an expression of stern sorrow.
"Tank," said Biggs.
"You...who are you? Biggs is dead," said Tank, shivering.
"I'm not fully dead, Tank," said Biggs, in a chilling monotone. "The Force exists, and through the Force, I exist. I've come to tell you of the betrayal that led to my death. Only you can punish the one responsible, and allow my spirit to rest. That one is Luke Skywalker."
Tank felt a shock of rage as his own anger suddenly increased in intensity. He shook with it.
"Yes, feel the anger. With that anger, you will punish Luke Skywalker as he must be punished. He cannot be allowed to betray a friend and escape punishment. In the final attack in the Death Star trench, Luke Skywalker, Wedge Antilles, and I were chased by the Dark Lord of the Sith. Antilles' ship was damaged, and Skywalker told him to leave the battle. It was so that no one would see his treachery. He had placed me behind him, to protect him as he neared the target, and as the Sith Lord tried to shoot him down, Skywalker flew very close to my ship, using it as a shield. I couldn't maneuver, or escape, and the Sith Lord was forced to destroy me. He wouldn't have bothered, otherwise, and like Antilles, I would have been able to get clear. The Sith Lord wanted Skywalker, and as my ship was destroyed, Skywalker accelerated away. Skywalker only had to purchase a few seconds, while his smuggler friend approached, as they had arranged. The smuggler removed the threat of the Sith Lord, and Skywalker destroyed the Death Star. Even now, he is relishing the glory he so coveted, taking the credit and the reward. And no one but you knows how he sacrificed me to save himself."
Tank reeled. A rushing wind had arisen, and it threatened to drown Biggs out.
"You must punish the traitor."
Tank nodded loosely.
"He cannot be allowed to remain with the Rebels. He will contaminate the purity of their cause. Luke Skywalker must be taken to the Empire, and given over to the Sith Lord. And so he will be punished."
Tank stared at the specter of Biggs, tears streaming down his face.
"Now go. You know what you must do."
With a shimmer, the image dissolved, plunging the room into darkness. The voice lingered for a moment as a hollow echo, then it, too, was gone.
Tank collapsed on the stone floor.
Night fell on Yavin Four. Luke stumbled into the stone bedchamber that had been provided for him, and collapsed onto the bed. He was exhausted. It had been a day to end all days. The celebration had lasted long into the evening, but finally, Luke managed to get away from Han and Leia, and creep off to bed. Once in bed, he fell asleep immediately. A little while later, he began to dream.
He was flying his X-wing down an endless trench. Except there was a ceiling, too, so that he was speeding down a sort of claustrophobic corridor. His scopes were blank, as were all his instruments. He couldn't control or slow the ship. Behind him, Darth Vader was firing at him, again and again. Each shot carved away a piece of his ship like a knife slicing meat. He couldn't do anything to stop it. There was no stopping at all. Luke felt a sharp pain in his arm, and he shuddered awake in the dimness of his room. A figure was silhouetted against the doorway, standing over him. Luke shook his arm, and he saw a syringe land on the floor in a pool of light from the hall. He tried to sit up, but couldn't. Unconsciousness came like a heavy rubber blanket pressing tightly against his face.
This time, he dreamed about Ben. Ben was trying to tell him something. Ben needed him to know. But Luke was asleep. He had to wake up. He had to get up, so he could hear what Ben had to say...
When he awoke, he found himself with a pounding headache. He was tied by the hands and feet, and propped in the gunner's seat of a Y- wing starfighter. He was in space. In the pilot's seat was someone with thick black muddy hair. Luke groaned.
The pilot startled, and turned to look at Luke with a scowl. Luke blinked in astonishment. "Tank?! Tank Boma?!" Luke gasped.
"Yeah, that's right, Skywalker. I didn't expect you to come around until after we were in Imperial space, but it doesn't matter. This way, you'll know who's taking you to get the punishment you deserve." Tank grated out the next words. "How could you do it, Luke? How could you sacrifice Biggs, just so you could get all the glory? I thought you were his friend! Biggs thought so! But you let him die!"
Luke was dumbfounded, and still groggy. "I don't know...what you're talking about - I don't know how I got here. I don't know how you got here!" Luke was unable to clutch at his throbbing head, because his hands were tied behind him. He fruitlessly checked for his lightsaber.
"Don't pretend you don't know, Luke. I know what happened. The Sith Lord was going to kill you, and you used Biggs as a shield until that smuggler could get there. Biggs could have gotten away, but you didn't let him. The Rebels don't know, and they don't have to. As long as I deliver you to the Empire, I'll be saving them from having a traitor in their midst."
"Deliver me to the Empire?! Tank, what's going on? Where are we? Look - you've got it all wrong! I didn't betray Biggs. Vader shot him down, and would have killed me, too, if Han Solo hadn't unexpectedly shown up."
"Of course, you'd lie to save yourself. You've been doing it all day," Tank sneered. "I knew there was something rotten about you the first time I saw you on Tatooine. I just never knew how rotten. You're a murderer, Luke, and I'm taking you in."
"Wait, can't we talk about this? I really don't know what you're talking about. It wasn't that way at all. You've got to believe me. Look - Tank, if you take me to the Empire, they'll kill me. Then it'd be you who'd be the murderer, Tank. Don't do this - you don't have to do this..."
Tank turned away angrily. "Enough of this stupid talk! I'm trying to program this thing for the jump to hyperspace. It's hard enough with that droid refusing to cooperate and help me."
The angry sounding beeping of an Artoo unit sounded over the cockpit speaker.
"Shut up, droid. You can't do anything about it. And neither can you, Skywalker." Tank worked for another minute, then sat back in triumph. "Done! Time to put Biggs' spirit to rest." He reached for the control lever to make the jump to hyperspace.
A woman's voice came over the comm, stopping his hand. "Tank! Tank, can you hear me? It's me, Slaughter. I know you have Luke, but I don't know why. Will you talk to me, Tank?"
Tank hesitated, then slapped at the comm. "Stay out of this! It isn't any of your business! You don't know what Skywalker did!"
"I'd know if you tell me," she said cautiously.
"He -" Tank turned and glared hatefully at Luke. "He killed Biggs. He used Biggs' ship as a shield when the Sith Lord fired at him. He sacrificed Biggs so he could live a few more seconds until his smuggler friend could rescue him. He did it to get the glory! Biggs...he could have survived if Luke hadn't trapped him like that. Now leave me alone! I'm taking Luke to turn him over to the Empire."
Luke craned his neck to get a look out the window. The sight of the Millennium Falcon cruising alongside filled his heart with bright joy.
Another voice, Han Solo's, came over the channel. "Look, this ain't workin! You said you could talk this kid out of it. That's Luke in there with that crazy person! I say we blast his engines and put a stop to this kidnapping right now!"
Tank shouted, "You just try! I'm one second away from a jump to hyperspace -"
"It's an open channel ," came Leia's angry voice. "He can hear you, laser-brain!"
"Well you're the high and mighty diplomat, your royalness - you think of something to say!" shouted Han.
Chewie's roar of impatience rumbled over the channel, followed by a few beeps and whistles.
"Excuse me," came a polite metallic voice. "Artoo Detoo here says he has an idea. Frankly, I don't place much confidence in his ideas lately. I've made the mistake of going along with them a few too many times, and it has only brought me misery!"
Artoo blatted loudly.
"What do you mean, 'don't talk that way to a hero'!" exclaimed Threepio.
"Threepio! Shut up, will ya?" said Han. "Tell us what his idea is!"
"Oh. Well, Artoo says that he can transmit a message to the Artoo unit on that fighter, and that that will clear everything up."
"Go ahead Artoo," said Leia, "and hurry!"
The cockpit of the tiny Y-wing was suddenly filled with an electronic string of noises. The Artoo unit on the Y-wing rocked back and forth in excitement, and plugged an arm into a socket. Its dome spun around, once.
Tank jumped back as his control panel suddenly became the miniature stage for a holofilm. Before his eyes, tiny holographic representations of the trench battle appeared. A trio of TIE fighters was coming up behind an X-wing, fast. The point of view was from a second X-wing's droid socket, looking back at the other ships. There was a gap of about ten ship lengths between the X-wings. The distant X-wing was trying desperately to interpose itself between the TIE fighters and the nearer X- wing. Laser fire suddenly emerged from the TIE with the curved wings, and the distant X-wing exploded in a ball of flame. The images ended, and with a flicker, they repeated in a short loop.
Tank gaped at the display. Over and over, the glowing miniature ships asserted their truth. But ever since his encounter in the palace, a rushing sound had constantly filled Tank's mind. Sometimes, it sounded like wind, sometimes like a multitude of voices. It made it very hard to think. Tank shut his eyes against the holoimages, one sweaty hand grasping the hyperdrive lever. He was awash in a sea of confusion. If the droid's hologram data were telling the truth, then the spirit of Biggs had lied. I've come to tell you of the betrayal that led to my death. Such a cold and ponderous voice. Not like Biggs at all. Another time, another conversation swam into his consciousness. 'Luke is my best friend!' Biggs had told him, once. And during the battle, Luke had saved Biggs' life. Hang on Biggs, I'm coming in! Got him! But the chill voice continued to insist on its justice. He cannot be allowed to betray a friend and escape punishment. You know what you must do. Luke Skywalker must be taken to the Empire, and given over to the Sith Lord.
Tank let go of the lever and put his head in his hands. Instead of feeling right, this still felt all wrong. Biggs didn't know anything about any Dark Lord of the Sith, whatever that might be. Then, Slaughter's worried voice came over the comm.
"Tank! Please don't do this! Talk to me. You're not yourself - you're not the person who just risked his life against the Death Star! That Tank wouldn't turn someone over to the Empire. Tank, listen to me..."
Tank lifted his head. Her clear voice was driving away the shadowy whispers in his mind. He watched the holodisplay flicker before him. Biggs veered from side to side, trying to hold off the Imperial fighters. He couldn't, and he died. The meaning of it finally sank in. He had been wrong. Whatever that thing was in the palace, it had lied to him. Luke hadn't sacrificed Biggs. Biggs had sacrificed himself for Luke. Biggs had loved Luke that much. His dying wish had been to see Luke safe, and now Tank was betraying that wish.
Tank crumbled. With a weak hand, he shut down the hyperdrive, and wearily said into the open channel, "I surrender."
"So now you know everything," said Tank. "I wouldn't blame you if you hated me, just like I hated you."
"No," said Luke, "I couldn't hate you, because Biggs wouldn't have, either. And I think I can forgive you, for everything. I don't really understand what happened yet, but..."
"I don't understand it either, Luke," said Tank. "Maybe I never will."
There was another quiet period between them, but it was a peaceful silence. Suddenly, Tank stood up and pointed to the sky. "What's that?" he exclaimed.
"A little memorial I arranged for Biggs," said Luke. "I went up in my X-wing today, and blasted apart some of the wreckage from the Death Star. I had planned for some of it to fall just like this."
The sky above the two figures atop the ancient stone Temple was full of glorious streaks of light. Meteors by the hundreds were falling into the atmosphere. Everywhere Luke and Tank looked, there were shooting stars. Tank gazed at Luke, his breath taken away. A tear was rolling down the young hero's face, golden in the light of Yavin.
"We're a couple of shooting stars, Biggs," Luke breathed, "and we'll never be stopped..." Luke raised one hand, holding a silvery cylinder high. A moment later, his lightsaber blade blazed blue-white against the starry sky, burning as brightly as his memories of his best friend.
The chill of the dark interior of the palace of the Woolamander got a little colder, as an ethereal figure shimmered into being. It was the image of a big man, with long black hair and archaic armor. He had a black, sun- shaped tattoo on his forehead, and below his sharp, glittering eyes, his face bore three parallel scars. His name was Exar Kun, and four thousand years ago, he had been the Dark Lord of the Sith. But the Jedi had defeated him during the Great Sith War, leaving his disembodied spirit to cling to a shadow of life. The Massassi ruins were ancient structures for focusing Sith magic, and by inhabiting them, the Dark Lord had survived.
Exar Kun was disappointed now. His plan had failed. The young man, Luke Skywalker, had not been delivered to Darth Vader, the Dark Lord of the Sith. Luke Skywalker was the son of the Sith Lord, and shared his potential for the dark side Sith magic. With Skywalker's help, Vader might defeat Palpatine and return the Sith to their rightful glory. Exar Kun hated it that the Sith order had been so betrayed by Emperor Palpatine. Oh, how the Sith had fallen. But there was time. Time to try again. He need only wait.
Exar Kun had become very much accustomed to waiting...
Tank walked slowly through the Rebel base, towards the turbolift. The other Rebels he saw didn't seem to recognize him, which was fine with him. He stepped reluctantly into the lift, and descended to the hangar level. As he sank, he thought his heart could sink no lower. A while ago, Wedge had found him, and told him that Slaughter wanted to see him in the hangar. Tank supposed she wanted to chew him out and tell him she never wanted to see him again.
His footsteps were heavy as he approached her Y-wing fighter. No one else seemed to be in the hangar, and his boots echoed.
"Tank," Slaughter called to him. "Come on over here."
She was waiting by the ladder to the Y-wing's cockpit, her face stern. Tank stopped a few feet from her.
"No - closer," she told him.
He stepped right up to her, but couldn't look her in the eyes.
Suddenly, Slaughter grabbed Tank by his clothes with both hands, spun him, and slammed him against the fighter. She looked directly into his eyes, commanding him with her angry ones. "Don't ever," she grated, "steal my ship again."
Then she kissed him full on the lips.
"As long as you can manage not to do that, we'll get along just fine, partner." She gave him a wide smile, even as he stared at her in shock. "Luke told me all about it...if he can forgive you, I guess I can, too." Tank finally found his voice. "I...I...thanks! Uh...could you put me down?"
Grinning, she let his feet fully touch the floor again.
"Slaughter? I've been thinking. About what you said about how I have to have my own reason to be in the Alliance...Well I do. All I have to do is think about two things. One is that Death Star, and the evil people who built it. They can't go on doing that kind of thing and get away with it."
"And the other thing?"
"I'm looking at her. Slaughter, I want to stay in the Alliance and be your partner, if you'll have me."
"Tank, with you and me together out there, the Empire doesn't stand a chance!"
Part Two: Rising Stars
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...
The fires of revolution sweep across the galaxy, calling all freedom fighters to stand against the Empire. Alliance agents Tank Boma and Shally Edrin are ready to embark on a mission to save vital new starships for the Rebellion.
But there are other, darker calls to be answered. For too long, the order of the Sith has lain dormant. A voice from the past summons Darth Vader to resurrect the ancient evil.
Above the ocean world of Calamari, the stage is set for a confrontation between the forces of freedom and the students of darkness...
The vast arrowhead shape of the Super Star Destroyer Executor hung in space above the verdant moon of Yavin, its cityscape hull glittering with thousands of lights. One tiny light detached itself from the rest and fell away towards the cloudy jungle world below. The tri-winged shape of the Imperial Lambda class shuttle gave it the aspect of an improbable bird, hunting for metallic prey in the misty trees blurring past beneath it. The shuttle's destination was a large clearing next to a cluster of towering stone ruins. The predatory ship cleared the last of the great trees and gently drifted down among an orderly group of assault shuttles and TIE fighters. The clearing was a hive of activity, full of Stormtroopers and officers hurrying to pick up the pieces of the recent Imperial fiasco. The ancient temple which hulked above all of them had been the main Rebel base from which a successful attack on the Death Star had been launched. By all rights, it should have been the Rebels' tomb as well.
After the battle of Yavin, an Imperial blockade commanded by Admiral Griff had pinned the Rebels down while the Executor was completed. It had suited Lord Vader to annihilate them personally with his impressive new flagship. But the Rebels had had two strokes of good fortune. First, the planet of Calamari had gone into open revolt and attacked Griff's blockade while Yavin base was evacuated. Second, Griff had obstructed Lord Vader's attack on the Rebel fleet, seeking to win the glory for himself. The Admiral had paid for his foolishness with his life, but the Rebel fleet had escaped from Yavin.
The Executor had proceeded to the Yavin system to sift the ruins for some clue to the Rebels' destination. Stormtrooper boots now echoed in the stone hallways and empty hangars of the Massassi Great Temple, where once alien feet had walked. A signal alert suddenly brought the soldiers to attention and sent them moving briskly out of the Temple and into the clearing, where they lined up in a precise formation. The ramp of the shuttle that had just landed lowered with a hiss of steam that mingled with the ground mists. Out of the billowing whiteness strode a figure of absolute blackness. Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, stood at the bottom of the ramp in silence, looking not at the ranks of troopers, but over their heads at the enormous ruins. He was pensive. Something stirred in him at the sight of the huge stepped pyramid. There was a sense of familiarity to it that disturbed him.
The approach of General Veers distracted Vader. Veers was an eminently calm and practical man, who felt that as long as he did his duty efficiently, he had nothing to fear, not even the angry Sith Lord whose will had been so recently thwarted. Veers stepped up to gaze dispassionately at Vader's black breath mask. "My Lord, the Rebel base is completely deserted," said Veers. "The computer banks have been swept clean of any information, and we have found no clues as to the destination of the Rebel fleet." Veers gestured at two Stormtroopers who were holding a filthy, aged human slumped unconscious between them. "We found this survivor in a smaller temple across the river. He evidently stayed behind to set off concussion charges that destroyed a TIE bomber flight as it came in. We found him barely alive in the rubble of the building."
Vader looked closely at the bleeding, gaunt old man in question, and felt a surprised recognition. "This is Jan Dodonna, one of the most important military commanders in the Alliance. There is a standing order for his execution. No doubt the Emperor will wish to speak with him. See that he remains alive, General."
Veers saluted. "Yes, My Lord."
Vader strode past as Dodonna was taken to a waiting assault shuttle. He was focused on the ruins again. There was something familiar about them. He could pick out vast carvings, eroded with time and barely visible amongst the crawling vines on the steep walls. Vader's eyes widened behind his polished mask. The carvings were old Sith symbols. But Vader had not heard of a Sith outpost existing in the Yavin system. The troops moving around him were unaware of their Commander's astonishment. Nor did they hear it when a low voice, sounding like the rumblings of a distant storm, spoke Darth Vader's name.
Vader looked up sharply and reached out with the Force. He immediately pinpointed the source of the call, a long rectangular palace ruin across the river, its fallen stone blocks buried in the under growth. The Dark Lord left the clearing and the Imperial forces behind, and walked decisively into the jungle. The lush plant life parted before him at a touch of his mind, revealing the choked, muddy river just ahead. Before even a smear of mud could soil his gleaming boots, the Sith Lord rose silently into the air and glided over the meandering watercourse, settling in front of the foreboding palace entryway. He hesitated at the absolute darkness beyond, but something within it knew him and was calling to its own.
Soon after he entered, he left the light behind. He found himself in a cold chamber, the great size of which was only felt. The small lights of his life support controls did nothing to illuminate the space around him. For a moment, there was only the slow sound of his mechanized breathing, then a bleak voice intoned, "Welcome, Lord Vader." There was a ripple in the darkness, and a purple glow was born there. The light grew, and condensed into a detailed human shape. It was a large man in archaic armor. His majestic face bore three parallel scars, and an odd symbol was on his forehead. The shimmering apparition regarded Vader with a hint of disdain.
"So, this is what has become of the Dark Lord of the Sith," he said, staring at Vader's armor. "A cyborg, a cripple, kept alive only by machines. You're as much of a prisoner as I am, forced to exist in these four thousand year old ruins."
Vader's lightsaber ignited at the same moment as his anger. The crimson blade pulsed hotly in front of the cold mocking spirit, dimming the figure's radiance with its own. "Who are you!" Vader demanded, his deep voice full of danger.
"I warn you, Lord Vader, do not think to attack me with that weapon in this place. I can channel enough power back through it to destroy you. This structure does more than maintain my existence; it is a focus for Sith magic that I myself constructed four thousand years ago, when I was Dark Lord of the Sith."
Vader lifted his blade away. "You are Exar Kun."
"Yes, it's good to be remembered," Kun smiled darkly. I have been wanting to speak with you about the order of the Sith, Lord Vader." The smile became a frown. "In particular, why it no longer exists!"
Vader shut down his lightsaber. The purple light thrown off by Exar Kun glinted on his highly polished helmet as he stood immobile, his stare fixed on the accusing face before him. "The Sith are as they have been for a thousand years," he began, "two Dark Lords, my Master and myself -"
"A thousand years," interrupted Kun sharply, "is nothing to the Sith. We have existed for much longer than that! And we were once many. Now the Sith is but a pathetic remnant. Your Master has failed the Sith and betrayed its legacy."
Vader recoiled, offended at Kun's words, then collected his own dark dignity. "History teaches that your own defeat left little of the Sith either. The survivors went into hiding and their descendants lost much of your fabled knowledge and power."
Kun looked sullenly at Vader. "I know what happened to the Sith. I watched events transpire over the millennia, while I was trapped here. I know how far my followers fell. But that was a defeat. Your Master chooses this path of his own free will. And it is all for his own glory, not that of the Sith. Listen well, Lord Vader, to what I have to tell you. Your Master intends for there to be no more Sith order - only himself, in power forever."
"What do you mean?" Vader demanded.
"Your Master's Master followed the guidance of the Force long ago to find a young boy named Espaa. He took him, raised him, and trained him in the ways of the Sith." Kun paused, looking closely at Vader for any hint that he already knew this, and finding none. "That boy learned quickly, but his goals were very different from those of his Master. His Master wanted only to preserve the Sith legacy, in hiding, as it has been since the days of Darth Bane. But Espaa, and the dark side, wanted more. In some real way...the Force chose Espaa as the agent it wanted to work through. He killed his own Master and became the greatest living Master of the dark side, the Emperor Palpatine. Eventually, he found and trained you. But you will never take over for him as the Master, Lord Vader, whatever your ambitions may be. You have been used to destroy the Jedi, that is all. One day, instead of you replacing him, he will replace you with another servant. But he will rule forever."
Vader struggled with what he was hearing. "He is my Master," Vader insisted, "He gave me all that I have. You can keep your lies, Exar Kun-"
"You are supposed to be the next ruling Dark Lord of the Sith, but now you will only ever be the Emperor's servant. When your title was mine, it was a station of power. Palpatine has made it a mockery. You believe all of his lies," sneered Kun, "and he uses you most of all."
"The Emperor is my Master!" Vader raged, pushed over the edge. "I will not hear you heap scorn upon his name! What you say does not make any sense. Not even my Master can rule forever! Your imprisonment in these walls has made you mad!"
Kun's light form blazed, matching Vader's anger. "The Emperor has already died, like me! He has misused his power, and it has killed him! But like me, he found a way to cheat death. He found a way to return to life."
Vader backed down, confused. He recalled that his Master had regained his youth after the destruction of the Death Star, but he had not imagined that it had involved dying and being reborn.
"Yes," Kun continued, "you must learn what kind of creature he is. He intends to live on and on, and there will be no new Sith to rule in his place, ever again. He is not fit to bring a final end to the Sith. You are still a Dark Lord. I charge you to restore the order. Pass on what you know, and the Sith will be reborn as they once were, strong and many in number."
Vader struggled for control. Kun had him right where he wanted him. His beliefs were being challenged, and he felt vulnerable. "My Master would not allow it, if what you say is true," he grated.
"I will show you how to hide your thoughts from him, as you seek out and train the first of the new Sith. It will only require a few. In my time, the order was restored by four people." Exar Kun held out his spectral hands in a gesture of peace. "We should not be enemies, you and I. We can help one another."
Vader still trembled slightly with repressed hostility. "Then I know who the first of the new Sith will be. I am searching for my son, and when I find him, I will train him in the Sith ways."
"I felt your son's presence, on this moon," said Kun. "His actions preserved my existence. I even tried to deliver him to you, but circumstances beyond my control led to my failure. However, even if you don't find him, you must still rebuild the Sith. There will be others who will be suitable. You will know them for what they are. "
"And what will I teach them? Only what my Master has taught me?" Vader rumbled.
"I know you possess only a few books and artifacts of Sith power, which you hide from Palpatine. But I have some help to give you in that matter. Lift the stone at my feet."
Vader bent and grasped the edge of a dimly lit flagstone. With a smooth effort of his cyborg strength, he cast the stone aside. In a shallow hole beneath, he found a small cube that glowed softly with a purple light. He lifted it out, cradling it in his gloved palm.
"What is this, Exar Kun?" he demanded.
"A gift for you, my successor. My own Sith Holocron." The glowing face of Exar Kun held a look of deep satisfaction.
Bast Castle was Darth Vader's private refuge on the barren world of Vjun. It rested atop the flat surface of a huge tower of rock, surrounded by a sky full of violent acid storm clouds. The great up thrusting spire had been sliced horizontally, creating a lofty plateau, reachable only by flight. The dark side stronghold was made of both stone and gleaming metal, a reflection of both Vader's ancient heritage and his current physical nature. Vader had designed it as a shell-like enclosure with a central tower, a replica of a lost Monastery which had once housed the Sith.
The halls of Bast Castle were empty and echoing as Vader strode through them towards the central audience chamber. Waiting for him there would be the first two of the new Sith, just returned from their artifact quests. He had required both initiates to seek out and rediscover pieces of Sith lore as a final test of their abilities and commitment. Now he was going to meet them and pronounce their acceptance into the order of the Sith. He entered the large dome-shaped room, glancing briefly at the murals on the ceiling that depicted the long history of the Sith. Images of Dark Lords of the past formed a majestic parade high above. Among them was Exar Kun, whose final resting place, Vader now knew, was a moon of Yavin. Kun seemed to meet his eyes for a moment, telling him, good work. This is a start.
Waiting in the center of the room were two people, a man and a woman, both young and both highly unusual in appearance. The woman was named Shira Brie, and Vader had known of her all of her life. She had been raised on one of Palpatine's estates and had been part of COMPNOR's adolescent indoctrination program. An impressive Academy record had led Shira to work in Imperial Intelligence. She was biologically altered to reject pain and accelerate healing, and Vader had selected her to infiltrate the Rebel Alliance. Shira went into deep cover after the battle of Yavin, posing as a Rebel and waiting for a chance to damage the Rebel cause without wasting her own life. She had joined a small base on the planet Kulthis in the Belderone system, a starfighter base where her piloting skills made her a valuable recruit. The planet Belderone had been the site of an AT-AT factory, which was soon discovered by the Rebels on Kulthis. Such an important target drew the attention of Luke Skywalker and his newly formed "Rouge Squadron". Vader had received news from a minor official that his son had been spotted on Belderone, and had gone there at once with the Executor. He had also made sure that the AT-AT factory was prepared for the inevitable Rebel attack. When the Rebels struck, they were violently pushed back. Vader's fleet arrived in the system, and Kulthis base was driven to use a clever tactic to delay the strike fleet while they evacuated. The Rebels had a number of TIE fighters that they equipped with hyperdrives. Rebel pilots had flown them among the Star Destroyers and caused a great deal of damage. One of the pilots had been Shira Brie, another, Luke Skywalker. Shira had planned to shoot down Luke's fighter, depriving the Rebels of a valued Commander. In the chaos of battle, with so many TIE's firing, her act would go unnoticed. Vader felt it was fortunate that she had not succeeded, despite the consequences to Shira. His son's fledgling skill in the Force must have been enough to reveal Shira as an enemy, and he shot her down before she could fire. Luke had escaped into hyperspace, and Kulthis had been evacuated successfully. Shira's damaged ship had drifted among the Star Destroyers while her bio-augmentation kept her alive. Her life signs were detected, and she was taken aboard and placed into a Bacta tank.
Vader had gone down to Belderone to investigate the sighting of his son. There, perhaps led by the Force, he had come upon the other person who now stood before him as a Sith initiate. His name was Flint, and his Jedi father had been killed in the Emperor's purge. Flint had lived with his mother on Belderone, running a small tavern. The place had burned when the Rebels had been forced to retreat through town, fleeing the AT-AT's. When Vader found him, Flint was kneeling over the dead body of his mother, stricken with grief. He had faced the Dark lord bravely, and Vader had told him that he could sense Flint's potential in the Force. Flint's main desire had been for power, to become someone who mattered, never again to be as helpless as he was at that moment. He blamed the Rebels for his mother's death, and agreed to come with Vader and be trained by him. Vader had begun to see the unfolding future described by Exar Kun. Upon returning to the Executor, Vader had been surprised to learn of the presence and fate of Shira Brie. He decided that it was necessary to cyborg her to save her life. In close contact with her for the first time, he had sensed her Force potential as well. Vader was aware of the workings of destiny, and decided to train both Shira and Flint as the first new Sith. His task contrasted sharply with his memories of his own conflict- filled training in the dark side. With his new students, there was no influence of the light side to break free from. Lumiya smoothly followed her anger along the path of power, and Flint's desire for strength made his road clear as well. Using the Holocron and working away from the eyes of the Emperor, Vader had educated them in the lost Sith powers of Exar Kun's day. They became adept at the use of illusion, and penetrated secrets of alchemy and transformation. Both had been open to the use of anger to unlock and unleash power, and both learned how to broadcast their emotions to influence others. Their final test had been to recreate a Sith artifact, in keeping with the ancient use of artifacts to focus and multiply power.
The new Sith gave Vader their full attention as he entered. Shira was partly masked with an angular helmet that left only her eyes visible. She had a gaze like sharpened steel. Sleek, smooth gray metal armor covered most of her exterior, with some areas modular in appearance like a circuit board. Her slim hips supported a small control belt. Her cyborg body was far more sexual than Shira's had been before; she looked like a mortal threat, contained in an incongruously attractive package.
Vader was far beyond any concern for physical attraction, but he sensed that Flint was interested in her. Flint was a somber-looking man with a large, strong face, neat, short brown hair, and cool blue eyes. He wore a suit of heavy plate armor like something out of legends, complete with a cape. He held a horned helmet with a mirror like surface in one gauntleted hand, and a lightsaber hung at his side.
Flint and Shira went to their knees and waited for Vader to tell them to rise. The Dark Lord regarded them for a long moment. They gave him a feeling of pride. Exar Kun had been right. The Sith should not stagnate and perish, no matter what his Master wanted. These were his students, his creations. They gave his life more meaning than it otherwise would have had. Flint seemed to Vader to be a younger version of himself, in his old life, when he had just begun to explore his power in the dark side. Shira was more like what he had become later, part machine, a creature less connected to life than to death, and stronger in the dark side as a result. Both of them were his children.
Deep within, on a level just below awareness, the bonds of servitude that made him Palpatine's creature began to loosen.
"Rise, my students," said Vader. "Are your artifact quests now complete?" He looked at Flint first.
"Lord Vader," said Flint with evident satisfaction, "I have rediscovered a kind of metal called Mandalorian Iron, that resists the blade of a lightsaber. I have built this suit of armor from it."
Vader nodded in approval. "And you have constructed a lightsaber. Your skills are complete. I pronounce you to be Flint of the order of the Sith."
Flint bowed deeply. Vader turned to Shira.
"My Lord," she said tensely, "I have rediscovered a Sith weapon called the light whip." She held up a cylindrical hand grip bearing a single activation stud, attached to a long coil of metal strands. "When I activate it, it channels energy along the physical strands. It was a weapon created to defeat the Jedi lightsabers of long ago." She waited, holding something back, coiled like her weapon.
Again, Vader showed his approval. "Your skills are complete," he intoned. I pronounce you to be Shira of the-"
"My Lord," she interrupted firmly, "I ask to follow one Sith custom, and change my name. I feel it is fitting, because my old self, Shira Brie, died at Kulthis, killed by Luke Skywalker. In her place, another was born. I take the name of Lumiya, the creator of the light whip, to show that I am a weapon for the destruction of Skywalker and his Rebellion."
Vader moved in on her, towering over her and radiating a sudden threat. "You may take whatever name you wish, Lumiya, but you will not destroy Skywalker. He is mine to deal with and mine alone. You may do what you wish to the other Rebels, but you will not seek him out. He may one day become one of us. If you disobey me...I will destroy you."
Lumiya had backed up a few steps, and she tried to recover her composure. It was clear that she bore considerable hatred for Luke, and that she was repelled by the idea of him joining them, but that she would obey him for now. "My Lord," she stammered, "I meant no disobedience. Now that I know your wishes, I will carry them out. In service to you, I will lay down my life for the destruction of the Alliance."
Flint had been watching the confrontation with concern, divided by his loyalty to Vader and his attraction to the beautiful cyborg. When Vader relented, Flint seemed relieved that the moment had passed. "I will tell you how you will both serve me," said Vader. "As you know, your existence is not known to the Emperor, but you cannot be hidden forever. When you finally go before him, it will be necessary that he sees you as his servants in the dark side, mere Dark Jedi like High Inquisitor Tremayne. To that end, you must be able to show that you have served the Empire. Otherwise, he may destroy you or claim you for his own. You do not want his full attention upon you...he is an unforgiving Master. Your first assignment will be to lead the new blockade of the Mon Calamari shipyards. They have openly rebelled, and are attempting to produce Capital ships for the Alliance. This must not be allowed. The Emperor feels he cannot spare the forces necessary to completely overwhelm the Mon Calamari. One day, he will punish them, but not yet. They are too unimportant to him, but I see it differently. I have persuaded my Master to create a blockade, which you will command. Do not disappoint me, and we will face the Emperor when the time is right."
And perhaps that time will never come, Vader hoped. He wondered if Exar Kun had told him the whole truth about his Master. Certainly, Palpatine had kept his intentions well hidden, if that were the case. Perhaps the Emperor would tolerate Flint and Lumiya in the interest of maintaining that fašade over his plans. Vader sensed the firm connection between his students, created by the new assignment. He sensed a mutual attraction as well, but in Lumiya, it was blended with pain, a reflection of the self-loathing he knew lurked within her. He felt their loyalty to him, and decided that he trusted them. Once again, he looked up at the painted image of Exar Kun, and imagined that the spirit of the old Dark Lord was pleased. The Sith lived again.
Biggs really should have been here, thought Tank sadly, as he waited to get married. He stood in the front of the briefing room of the Alliance Frigate Mercy, thinking about his one time father figure, oblivious to the happy little group of Rebels relaxing in chairs as they waited for the ceremony to start. It was nearly three years ago that Biggs had died, leaving Tank alone and forcing him to find his own direction in life. Fortunately, a new life had been there for the taking. Biggs had led him to Yavin Four, where Tank had fought against the Empire's Death Star. Biggs had been killed in that battle, but Tank had lived to decide to stay with the Alliance and carry on the important struggle that Biggs had sacrificed himself for. As an Academy trained gunner, Tank was a valuable recruit, and furthermore, he was surprised at the notoriety and respect he earned simply by being one of the very few survivors of the Battle of Yavin. The Alliance had been very willing to accept him, and Tank had been very willing to accept the Alliance, largely due to the young woman who had piloted the Y-wing with Tank as gunner in that battle, the woman who was about to become his wife.
Shally Edrin, known to her fellow field operatives in Alliance Intelligence as "Slaughter", was a formidable person. Tank had met her on the way to Yavin, and had fallen in love with her right away. To his great surprise, she had returned his interest, showing it by sharing her tragic story and trusting him to be her gunner and partner. Shally's father had been forcibly made into a Stormtrooper in a radical indoctrination program aimed at producing soldiers who would blindly follow the most sadistic orders. She and her sister Genta had hunted across space for him, finding him only in time to see him commit suicide as his conditioning failed. During their flight from the city their father had helped to destroy, Genta had been killed by Imperials, and Shally had nearly died herself. Rebel medics had saved her life, and she had joined the Alliance to deal out some measure of revenge on behalf of her family. She had taken on the name of Slaughter as a self-reminder of the purpose of her new life, and in large part, she had put the spirit of her father to rest at Yavin. Such was her subsequent reputation, however, that the name Slaughter had stuck firmly among the Rebels with whom she served. But to Tank, she would always be Shally.
"Excuse me," said a slightly squeaky, officious voice. "Perhaps we could get started? We have a schedule to meet, and we are running distressingly behind it. Even if you organics do not care about efficiency and your other duties, I, as an astromech droid, am very much concerned. There is a mission to prepare for! There are a thousand technical details to coordinate and confirm! I personally am responsible for the maintenance of- "
"Beesix!" said Tank sharply. "I know you have work to do. So do I! But this is an important occasion. Have a little patience, will you? Besides, shouldn't you be checking on the bride, and not rolling around complaining, holding things up even more?" Tank frowned at the short green cylindrical R2 unit that was moving agitatedly at his side. A gray box had been mounted on top of its dome, where it resembled a sort of metal hat. This object was an astromech voice box, a new device that translated the electronic language of the R2 series into basic. Tank had bought it for Shally's droid as a wedding present, knowing how much she cared for the little machine, with the idea that it would make her happy to be able to communicate with the loyal unit more easily. He had ignored several warnings that the R2 series had never been meant to talk, and that their headstrong personalities were best left to beeps and whistles that one could ignore when they got argumentative. Too late now, he thought, sighing.
Artoo Beesix seemed chagrined at Tank's reprimand, and he scooted off to find his Mistress. I shouldn't be so hard on the little guy, thought Tank. He did save me from making the biggest mistake of my life. After the battle of Yavin, Tank had fallen under the influence of an evil entity, which caused him to believe that Luke Skywalker had sacrificed Biggs to save himself. Tank had been about to turn Luke over to something called a Sith Lord when Shally and Luke's friends had caught up with him. Working with Luke's R2 unit, Beesix had forced Tank to see that belief as a lie. Tank had surrendered Luke and was grateful for the Rebel hero's forgiveness afterwards. Tank had grown up on Tatooine knowing Luke, but they had disliked each other. Biggs had stood between them, caring for each of them very much and trying not to let either one get hurt. But Tank had been all too willing to believe the worst about Luke, and was easily controlled by the dark entity he had encountered in Yavin's ruins. After Tank had reconciled with Luke, they had looked for evidence of that malevolent spirit, but had found nothing.
Tank had left Luke on Yavin, and had gone with Shally to serve on an Alliance starfighter base on the planet Kulthis. He didn't see his fellow Tatooine native until after the evacuation of Massassi base, when Luke had brought his Rouge squadron to Kulthis to help attack an AT-AT factory on nearby Belderone. Tank and Shally had discovered the factory on their first mission for Airen Cracken. When Tank briefed Luke about it, the two of them had managed to work together without much discomfort. Then, in a whirlwind series of events that amazed Tank, a huge Imperial strike fleet had arrived in the system and forced the evacuation of Kulthis. Luke had gone up in a TIE fighter to delay the Imperials, and Tank hadn't seen him again. He had, however, heard that Luke had survived. Which was lucky for Luke, because other good people hadn't. Like Shira Brie, a young woman at Kulthis base whom Tank had admired. She had given her life to delay Darth Vader's fleet while he and Shally escaped. Shira should have been here at the wedding too, he decided. She had helped to make this day possible. She could sit next to Biggs, and Genta, and Shally's father. Dead people didn't take up any space at weddings. It was, in fact, the empty spaces where they should have been that were so painful.
An excited murmur from the gathered Rebels drew Tank back to the present. He glanced up at the entrance to the briefing room, and suddenly his breath was taken away. His bride walked gracefully in, preceded by Artoo Beesix, who was emitting small showers of flower petals from one of his portals. Tank swallowed hard. He had never seen her looking more beautiful. Certainty that she was the one for him filled him completely.
Shally was wearing a floor-length green gown, according to the customs of her homeworld, Balfor. Her long brown hair was tied in a simple knot and crowned with green flowers. Her feet were bare. Her usual severe expression was replaced by a gentle smile below sparkling gray eyes. Tank smiled back helplessly. For his part, he was dressed in a simple, unadorned green robe, and he was also barefoot.
The gathered Rebels cheered as their comrades, Tank and Slaughter, met at the front of the room, while Beesix rolled off to one side. The bride and groom clasped tightly to each other, holding close for a long moment. They had come through fire and death to reach this day, and both felt like it was an incredible gift.
"You look wonderful," said Shally, admiring how neat Tank's black hair was for a change. His dark eyes admired her in turn, looking up at her from several inches below. Tank was a short, thin man, and Shally had greater stature and was seven years older than him. To one another, these things didn't matter. They were equals.
Shally grinned. "Tank, I have a surprise for you. We're going to be able to do this ceremony in the old Balforran way after all."
Tank's eyes widened. "But doesn't that require a Jedi Knight to officiate?"
"Well," she replied, looking back to the entryway, "I was able to get the next best thing."
Tank was amazed to see Luke Skywalker walk in, to the renewed cheers of the crowd. A big smile was on Luke's boyish face. He strode up to Tank and Shally, then faced the room.
"I didn't know Luke was a Jedi," hissed Tank out of the side of his mouth.
"He's sort of in training," whispered Shally. "It'll be enough, now be quiet."
"Are you two ready?" asked Luke quietly.
"Are you kidding?" said Tank, eyeing Luke uncertainly. "I was born to do this."
"All right then," said Luke loudly. "We can begin. I've been told that the Balforrans invited a Jedi Knight to conduct their weddings because through the Force, the Jedi are in touch with all life. Today, we're celebrating life, and how it has joined these two people. Marriage is highly valued on Balfor. Their belief is that a person who lives alone is imprisoned in bonds of loneliness." Luke turned to Tank and Shally, and brought out two green cords. "These cords represent those bonds." He looked at Shally questioningly, and she nodded, raising her hands. Luke proceeded to tie them loosely together, leaving her hands about fifty centimeters apart. He turned to Tank, who held up his own hands after a reassuring look from Shally, and tied them in the same fashion.
"True freedom in life," Luke continued, "comes when the bonds of loneliness are cut and one is free to reach out and grasp the loving hands of another."
Tank jumped as Luke suddenly produced and ignited his lightsaber. Luke carefully dipped the humming blue energy blade between Shally's outstretched wrists, burning through the cord in an instant. He turned to Tank.
"Uh...Luke? No hard feelings about that time I kidnapped you, right?" Tank asked nervously.
Luke looked out over the audience, catching the eye of Wedge Antilles. His lightsaber, meanwhile, drifted dangerously close to Tank's green robe. Then, not looking at Tank at all, Luke smiled mischievously and brought down the lightsaber, slicing the bonds at Tank's wrists blindingly fast. Tank yelped and looked wildly at his freed hands. They were unharmed.
"No hard feelings," said Luke, still smiling.
Shally quickly stepped in and firmly took Tank's trembling hands in her own. "I take your hands in mine," she said, "as I accept you into my life. I give myself to you freely. Take these words as my gift to you. Tank, I love you for who you are and what you are to me. When you came into my life, I was alone in the universe. After I lost my family and nearly died, I saw my remaining life only as a last chance for revenge. You helped me to see that there was something better to live for. I want everyone to know that finding you was enough to make up for all my losses. You were all I had then, but now you're all I'll ever really need."
"I take your hands in mine," Tank replied, "as I accept you into my life. I give myself to you freely. Take these words of mine as my gift to you. Shally, I finished growing up with you. You came into my life just as I was losing Biggs, who was like a father to me. You helped to shape the man that I am, and so you're a part of me now. The only one I could imagine sharing my life with is you."
Still holding hands, they faced the gathering with Luke, who then finished the service. "All of you are witnesses. Join me in cheering for the new married couple, Tank Boma and Shallnestra Edrin Boma!" Luke held up an encouraging hand, but instead of cheers, he was faced with an incredulous silence.
Wedge Antilles was the first one to break it. "Shallnestra ?!?" he said loudly.
Tank caught the swift change from happiness to furious dismay on his wife's face, even as the room began to fill with hoots and snickers from the Rebel soldiers and pilots.
"Shallnestra!" someone said. "That's our Slaughter!"
"Shallnestra, deadly enemy of the Empire!"
"Another Death Star? Call in Shallnestra!"
Shally's expression had passed dangerous and was nearing critical. She finally managed to squeeze out a strangled yell. "Who told !?!"
Luke and Tank backed off slowly. "I just asked Beesix what your proper names were," whispered Luke, "and he told me."
"I think it's kind of a pretty name, myself," said Tank.
"You know," said Luke, "I was jealous a minute ago, wishing it was me up there with Leia, but now I'm not so sure."
"Thanks Luke," said Tank, eyeing his wife as she went after Wedge. "Thanks a lot."
One wedding guest remained seated after the rest had left, some of them limping. General Cracken regarded Tank and Shally seriously. He brushed his graying hair away from his lined face and quietly said, "Well, you two, I hate to remind you about the mission briefing, but as a rule, the Empire doesn't give us much time for celebrating. Shall we get down to business?"
Tank looked up from where he was tending to a few of his wife's bruises and nodded reluctantly. "Leave it to you to get into a brawl at your own wedding," he said to Shally as she stood, wincing.
"Those people insulted me," she insisted. "You should have been there defending me."
"It was just your name," protested Tank.
"You know I hate my name," she replied sullenly. "Besides, it was the way they said it."
"All right, all right," prompted Tank. "We have a mission briefing to go over now, and this is one we might not come back from."
She took him by the shoulders. "I know. But at least I'll know I was married to you," she said softly, leaning down to kiss him gently.
They joined General Cracken by the large tactical holodisplay center across the room. He activated it, and the image of a planet shimmered into view in the air above the powerful computer.
"The Mon Calamari need our help, if they are going to help us," the General began. "As you may know, the Empire attempted to take possession of Calamari when they first discovered it, but the inhabitants rose up and drove them off. They were an artistic, peaceful people, but the Empire taught them war. They intend to see to it that the Empire regrets doing so." Cracken began entering information from a datapad file into the holodisplay computer. "The situation reminds me of my own homeworld of Contruum. The Empire invaded us, too, and my people turned to guerrilla warfare, hiding in the mountains. We resisted the Imperials for years, until finally, it was too costly for the Empire to stay. Sadly, there are no mountains to hide in on Calamari. If the Empire launched a full scale attack on their world, the Mon Calamari could survive in the deep oceans, but their surface cities and their space going civilization would be destroyed. Now, because they're in open rebellion, they will eventually suffer such an attack. The Emperor hasn't gotten around to it because he sees the need to use his forces elsewhere. The growing Rebellion has created that need, and the Mon Calamari know it. They see their only chance of long term survival in joining us and helping us to try to win the war. The Emperor, in his disdain for non humans, doesn't care if they join us or not, but that is because he does not yet realize what the Mon Calamari can give us - Star Cruisers that can match Imperial Star Destroyers in battle."
"He'll never allow that to happen," Shally protested.
"The first of the new ships are already under construction," said Cracken with a grim little smile. "The Mon Calamari outmaneuvered the Empire by building cruisers out of converted deep space explorer ships, and used them to fight off the Imperials. The Alliance moved in right away and set up an orbital shipyards, protected by Golan III defense stations."
Cracken made six blue spheres appear next to the holoimage of Calamari, representing the Golan stations surrounding the shipyards.
"Currently, there are three brand new cruisers under construction, powerful enough to serve us in a fleet to fleet confrontation. Admiral Ackbar wants one of them to be the Alliance flagship." Three elongated orange shapes appeared above the computer, within the space protected by the defense stations.
"The Imperials have responded by setting up a blockade, consisting of five Interdictor cruisers and a Victory II class Star Destroyer." Six red wedge shapes appeared in the hologram, pointed at the shipyards that floated between them and the planet.
"The Mon Calamari system is crowded, and there is only one window for a fast hyperspace escape. That window is here." He touched a control, and a pale green cylinder extended away from the planet. Contained within it were the shipyards, the Mon Cal cruisers, and the Imperial ships.
"The situation as it exists now is a stand-off. The shipyards are too heavily defended for the Imperial forces to attack without risking great losses. On the other hand, the cruisers can't leave the shipyards and the protection of the defense platforms without risking destruction themselves. If they did, it would be a ship to ship battle, six against three, with the outcome uncertain. Frankly, we can't afford to lose those cruisers the moment they're finished, so we can't risk it. The Interdictors are blocking any chance of hyperspace escape with their gravity well projectors. So, as I said, a stand-off. But sooner or later, an Imperial strike fleet will be spared by the Emperor to come and erase the Mon Calamari annoyance. It's a stand-off we can't win. That's where you come in."
Tank and Shally looked at each other, sharing determination and support.
"We need you to infiltrate the Victory Star Destroyer as part of a supply ship crew," said Cracken. "Once inside, you'll take your astromech droid and slice into their main computer. The droid has been equipped with the latest programs for that purpose. You'll have to sabotage their weapons systems in a way they won't detect until it's too late. I have faith in you both. You've proven your bravery at Yavin and your infiltration skill at Belderone. I want you to know that, as dangerous as this sounds, you can do it. I also want you to know you're not alone. Five other teams will be going aboard the Interdictor cruisers on similar missions. I won't tell you who they are, in case you get captured, but with any luck, all the missions will succeed, and you'll be able to get out safely. With the blockade neutralized, we can remove the Star Cruisers before more Imperial ships arrive. Full information on the mission is included in your briefing materials. Technical information concerning Victory II Star Destroyers is included, and has been loaded into your R2 unit. A ship has been prepared to smuggle you to one of the supply points feeding into the blockade, and identification has been created for you as well. Intelligence has done its usual amazing job, rest assured. Any other questions I can answer, Tank...Slaughter?"
Tank raised his hand. "Just one, boss. When we get back, how about a honeymoon for us on the Kuari Princess?"
Commander Romodi stood at attention in the docking bay of the Victory II Star Destroyer Guardian, watching as an Imperial shuttle carried his new superiors into his life. He followed the stately progress of the craft as it drifted down on its repulsors to settle on the gleaming deck, feeling a mixture of resentment and fear.
The resentment stemmed from how far his career had fallen. Just three years ago, Romodi had been an Admiral. It had been the summit of his long climb, his greatest satisfaction. He had survived against long odds to reach it, and he had deep scars on his face to prove it. On the far side of middle age, he had expected to end his career in honor. That was before he became a strong supporter of project Death Star at the urging of his close personal friend, Willhuf Tarkin. At the time, Romodi had felt the threat of the Rebellion to be minimal. He believed it would continue only as long as the cowards had a sanctuary to retreat to, and he said as much to Tarkin, Motti, and Tagge during a meeting on the completed Death Star. Romodi thought the battle station would deprive the Rebels of their hiding places, and thus end the Rebellion. He had left the station before it traveled to Yavin. Thus, he wasn't on the Death Star when it was destroyed, but he hadn't escaped all the damage done by that fateful explosion. The Emperor had been furious, and had ravaged the military command structure in his need for scapegoats. Romodi had been punished for his association with the project by demotion, in a personal meeting with the Emperor himself. That meeting was what Romodi's fear stemmed from.
He had never before come face to face with Palpatine. After all, the Empire was huge, and the Emperor was very reclusive, relying on Sate Pestage and Ars Dangor to communicate for him. So he was unprepared for what he found. Romodi had met Darth Vader already, and unlike General Tagge, he found the Dark Lord's 'sorcerer's ways' to be frightening. But, like many others, Romodi had believed Vader to be an aberration, a curiosity, a unique, if dangerous relic of the past. He assumed the Emperor had been lucky to find such an unusual and powerful servant. But when Romodi came before Palpatine, he was forced to conclude that the Emperor had, in fact, created Lord Vader. He sensed, for the first time, the power of darkness lurking within that shadowy hood. He realized that the Force was no dying religion, but the center of Imperial power.
The Emperor had listened to Romodi's politely phrased argument as to why he bore no direct responsibility for the loss of the Death Star, then he had raised one hand slightly from the arm of his throne. A sudden bolt of energy had leaped from his fingers and struck Romodi, filling him with the horrifying sensation of his life being drained away. It had stopped quickly, but Romodi had cowered where he had fallen.
"You are now Commander Romodi," the Emperor had said quietly, then left the terrified man alone on the floor.
Now, three years later, Romodi had not told anyone of his experience. The Emperor must have known that he could not. The fear, born on that day, remained locked within him.
His assignment to the Calamari blockade had seemed at first like an undesirable, low-prestige posting designed to perpetuate his punishment. If only that had been the worst of it. Standing watch over an insignificant non human shipyards was bad enough, but in addition, Romodi's ordeal with the Force was coming back to haunt him. His new superiors were of Vader and Palpatine's kind - Sith adepts out of legend.
As the shuttle ramp lowered, and Lord Flint and Lady Lumiya came into view, Romodi's worst fears were realized. These were indeed the children of Darth Vader. Like Vader, Lord Flint was completely armored and helmeted, with a flowing midnight blue cape. The shiny plate armor was styled like something out of an old tale, but modern control panels and electronics were located at Flint's belt and on his gauntlets. Lumiya, too, was covered in metallic surfaces, but they were too form-fitting to be armor. Romodi realized she was a cyborg, and wondered how much of her was human besides her glaring eyes.
The Sith walked purposefully up to Romodi, and Flint removed his mirrored helmet. The well-groomed face beneath gave an impression of somber strength, easing Romodi's fears a fraction. Here was a man who could be reasoned with, he decided. One glance at Lumiya's focused, angry stare, however, told Romodi that she was quite the opposite.
"Commander Romodi," said Flint in a deep, rough voice, "we're here on behalf of Lord Vader to take command of the blockade. You can show us to the bridge, and then, our quarters."
"Yes, my Lord," said Romodi. "Welcome aboard." He turned and bowed slightly to Lumiya. "My Lady."
"Your pleasantries are not welcome, Commander," Lumiya snapped, her voice filtered through the angular mask covering her nose, mouth, and forehead. "We're here to do an important job. All I need from you is your cooperation. If you can give me that, I won't have to hurt you." She gestured with one smooth metallic hand at the stars beyond the magnetic field. "As I understand it, the Rebels are building warships out there, and this blockade is designed to prevent those ships from escaping. A stand-off, Commander, is not the goal I have in mind. We're going to find a way to destroy those ships, using the resources we already have."
Lumiya's eyes narrowed in concentration, and without warning, miniature Rebel cruisers shimmered into being in the air above her. She unhooked her light whip and let its coils unroll, then flicked on the activation stud. Searing tendrils of energy coursed out along the coils, and she struck high and fast with them, slashing through the images of the cruisers. All three Rebel ships broke apart in bright little fireballs, scattering flaming wreckage that winked out of existence before it touched the polished deck. "That's what we're going to do to the Rebels and their Mon Calamari allies," said Lumiya, deactivating her light whip and coiling it up efficiently. Then she strode off towards the turbolift, expecting the two men to follow her immediately.
"She takes a little getting used to," said Flint, as Romodi swallowed dryly.
"You certainly went out of your way to intimidate the Commander," accused Flint as he relaxed in Lumiya's quarters. "He was already very much afraid of us, even without such a display."
"He needed to be reminded of his purpose," she replied sternly. "He's weak, like everyone else on this ship. They think this duty is boring and unimportant. Unimportant! Any blow that can be struck against the Rebels is important. A success here could gain us the Emperor's favor. Maybe he would let me go after Luke Skywalker, even if Lord Vader won't."
"You still want to go against our Master's wishes?" asked Flint incredulously. "I heard you promise him you would leave Skywalker alone- "
"What was I supposed to do, with him threatening me like that? I can't let go of my hatred that easily. I owe Luke Skywalker a great deal for giving me this...this existence in place of my life. Our Master can have what's left of him when I finish paying him back."
"Lumiya," Flint cautioned her, "this is a delicate time for us. We have power now, you and I, but it could be taken away by Lord Vader's Master, the Emperor. We have to be very careful not to attract the wrong kind of attention. Let's take things one at a time. Right now, our mission is to turn this blockade into a military victory."
"You're right," said Lumiya after a few moments. "Skywalker can wait. I don't want to lose my chance at him by moving too fast. And winning here does matter to me. We can't let the Rebels have those Capital ships. I've lived with the Alliance. I know what kind of impossible things they could do if they got their hands on them." She leaned gracefully against the wall. "Right now, I'm tired...too tired to plan any strategies." She reached behind her helmet and unfastened it, removing it wearily.
Flint moved a chair next to her. He knew that her cyborg systems, strong as they made her, also exerted a great deal of stress on Lumiya's organic parts. The strain was evident on her face, and as Flint looked there, his eyes were drawn to the mass of scar tissue that marred the left side of her face and forehead. It was normally concealed by her mask, and Flint strongly suspected it was the reason she wore one. As was the case with Romodi, some scars were just too deep to heal completely.
Lumiya sank gratefully into the chair, leaving Flint standing next to her. He watched her for a minute as she brooded, then hesitantly reached out a gauntleted hand to brush her long red hair away from her scars.
"Lumiya," he said tentatively, "I've told you before that I feel a connection to you. It goes beyond being Sith adepts together. I feel something for you...these scars...they don't take away the rest of your beauty." Her felt her stiffen, and he tensed, removing his hand. She looked directly into his eyes, and he felt cold inside.
"Don't do this, Flint. You have no hope with me. You don't know who I am. You think you're interested in Shira Brie, but you've forgotten, she's dead. Lumiya can't be close to anyone."
"I'm talking about my feelings for you," Flint said. "I never knew Shira Brie. I know who you are, Lumiya."
She stood up, facing him eye to eye. "I'll have to show you how wrong you are," she said flatly. Placing one slim hand on Flint's armored chest, Lumiya shoved. Unprepared for her cyborg strength, he staggered and collapsed on his back. Lumiya stood over him, looking down with a scowl. "This body has nothing to give you but pain," she said. "It's a mockery of life. You think you see a beautiful woman, but she's not real. I made them make me look this way so everyone could see what I'd lost. I'm only half a woman, kept alive by a machine!" She slapped the gleaming metal of her breast with her artificial hand, producing a sharp ringing sound. "I only want to have to tell you this once, Flint. I can never be what you need me to be. I've known how you felt about me for a long time. Shira could have returned those feelings, but I can't. You have no hope with me."
She walked away, and Flint got up slowly. He stared at her rigid back for a minute, then turned to leave. "Then I'm sorry," he said without anger. "I wish it could have been different."
Flint went out, not seeing the tear that rolled over Lumiya's scars and past her gritted teeth.
Shally hadn't been this scared since the Battle of Yavin. She was surrounded by the power of the Empire. It gleamed from the polished decks of the Star Destroyer Guardian, marched in step with its naval troopers and Stormtroopers, and hummed within the contained energies of its turbolaser arsenal. At any moment, should their subterfuge fail, she and Tank would be overwhelmed by that power. This deep inside enemy lines, they wouldn't have a chance. But she didn't regret being there. As their supply ship had been tractored towards the Guardian's hangar bays, her eyes had been full of the distant sight of the Mon Calamari shipyards and the tiny, vulnerable points of light that had to be the desperately needed MC-80 cruisers. They had to be safeguarded. The conviction of her mission enabled Shally to live with her fear, but that fear was still considerable. More than anything else, she feared losing Tank. She had come to love him so much that it was hard to go on these missions and face that risk.
She was afraid to be alone again, and perhaps no Alliance victory was worth that to her. The past three years had been a struggle to put her painful past behind her. Tank's companionship had been both guiding and healing to her. When they had been just Y-wing pilot and gunner together, somehow that had seemed less dangerous than the intelligence missions they had begun to undertake for General Cracken. Usually, she tried not to think of the danger, but when they had heard about this mission, that had become impossible. So she did the only thing she could. She asked Tank to marry her, so that if this was their last time together, at least she would have given as much of herself to him as possible. And, if by some miracle they survived, she knew he would make a great husband for life. If they made it...
Tank must have been hiding his fear as well. She glanced at him across the huge repulsor cart they were guiding and was rewarded by a quick smile. They were both wearing the gray coverall uniforms of the Support Fleet's Supply Division, and they were guiding the floating platform, piled high with boxes, down narrow corridors towards the Crew Living Section. Such was the width of the cart that they had to squeeze past one annoyed officer after another. Despite the fact that they were bringing needed supplies, none of the crew liked to be in close contact with manual laborers of obviously lower intelligence. Beesix rode quietly at the back of the cart, patched into the simple control panel. Tank and Shally made a show of confusedly consulting datapad corridor maps, griping at the complicated ship's layout, and arguing over which way to go next.
Just as one particularly disgruntled Star Destroyer Trooper was trying to squeeze past the cart, the ponderous vehicle lurched, bumped the wall, and lost the repulsors along one side. One corner slammed onto the deck as the entire contents of the cart slid and tumbled off, clogging the corridor. The Trooper backed off, cursing and stumbling, as Tank and Shally stood frozen, aghast.
"What do you think you're doing?!" shouted the Trooper.
"Oh no!" stammered Shally. "This is such a mess! Some of this stuff needs to be refrigerated, too, or it'll spoil. I'm so sorry! Ohhhhh - how are we going to get this back on the cart?"
"The blasted cart is the problem!" Tank broke in angrily. "The lousy equipment they give us - no wonder these things happen. I say we go back to our ship and let our boss handle this. I told him this floater needed repairs, and he ignored me. Let him clean it up."
"No - we can't just leave," Shally protested, "We'll get in trouble. We have to call for maintenance or something - maybe they can fix it..." She bent and struggled ineffectually with one of the heavy boxes. "Ohhhhh," she groaned. "I don't want to get fired. I need this job." She turned to the disgusted Trooper. "Can you find us some help? Please? Maybe we can get this fixed and deliver these supplies and not have to tell our boss about this at all..." She looked hopefully at him.
The Trooper glared at the blocked corridor. "Wait here," he commanded in a clipped tone, and turned on his heel. As he walked briskly away, he could be heard speaking in his comlink. "Deck 37, Corridor 155 is closed until further notice. Reroute all foot traffic to corridors 154 and 156."
The moment the Trooper was out of sight, Tank and Shally were all business. "All right Beesix," snapped Tank. "Get down from there and tell us which room in this hallway has the computer terminal."
"Gladly," piped up Beesix from behind the pile of boxes. "I was made for bravely piloting a Starfighter in battle, not for driving a stupid, ungainly binary load lifter."
"Yeah, well you're going to be just as dead as you'd be in a battle if you don't hurry up!" Tank said, shoving boxes aside. They lifted the droid into the clear, and the indignant Artoo unit rolled directly to one of the heavy blast doors.
"Locked," Shally said, pounding once on the door. "Tank, how are we going to get inside?"
"No problem," said Tank snappily, reaching into his coverall pockets. He produced a dozen key cards, of a variety of colors and patterns.
"How did-" Shally began, then she grinned. "All those people you bumped into along the way."
"Old habits die hard," said Tank, hurriedly shoving cards into the slot.
"Are you referring to your past as a miscreant and a street thief?" accused Beesix. "Frankly Mistress, I find your taste in life companions to be somewhat morally ambiguous. A childhood spent on the wrong side of the law cannot be overcome so easily. Why, the first time I met Tank Boma, he stole your ship with me inside it!"
Tank clapped his hands once in satisfaction as the door suddenly slid up and open. "You want to stay out in the corridor and debate morals with yourself," he said, leaning over Beesix, "that's fine with me."
The droid sped into the room after Tank and Shally, not saying another word. The blast door hissed shut behind him, and he rolled over to the terminal. Beesix extended his information retrieval arm and plugged into the Imperial equipment.
Shally leaned over the small terminal screen. The exhilaration of their deception had quickly faded away, leaving only worry and tension. She forced herself to stay calm and focus only on her task. "Okay, we're going to slice into the network, starting with a real entry code - the one we picked up back on the supply ship." Numbers and letters began to scroll rapidly across the screen. "That's it. We're into the data files on inventory. All right, Beesix, here's where your Intellex IV computer comes in. I need you to find me the entry codes for connected systems until we get into the Gunnery Computer. And you have to do it fast enough not to trigger a system alert."
"You can rely on me, Mistress Shallnestra," said Beesix. Shally shot Beesix a dark look, but didn't correct him. "From Supply Inventory, we need to link to Personnel, Shifts, and then Duty Stations."
The droid's interface arm twisted in the socket, and the display screen came alive with numbers. The flow of data was too fast for Tank to follow, and he passed tense seconds watching the closed blast door. How long did they have? The Trooper would bring others to the disabled floater, but they wouldn't immediately check the rooms nearby, assuming the inept laborers had gone back to the hangar and their ship.
"Great," said Shally, "we're in. Now go to the subshell on Gunnery Personnel files, and access Gunnery Computer passwords."
A minute passed, and Shally began to look worried. "Beesix, hurry it up! If you take too long, the system will be alerted to your presence, and then we've had it."
"This system is rather large and cumbersome, Mistress. I am working to the best of my abilities - wait - there. That was a very devious bit of code. But I am now able to access the Gunnery Computer."
"Okay, Tank, this is where you come in," said Shally.
"Right, we have to get into the Sensor / Firing Parameters program. Then I can input a new parameter linking the Firing computers to the gravity well proximity sensors. If the Star Destroyer comes in close to the shipyards to attack, their guns will just shut down from Calamari's gravity well, and they won't know it until it's too late. We send the finished ships planetward, the Imperials chase them, and that's it. Good-bye Star Destroyer."
"Accessing that program will require a separate password," said Beesix. "I'm computing it now...Oh no! They're doing a periodic entry code change on the Firing computers. I'll have to wait for them to finish before I can get in all the way."
"How long will that take?" demanded Shally.
"I don't know Mistress! I can't get fully in, and I can't get out either."
"Then the system's going to detect him any second!" cried Shally, fear rising in her throat. Suddenly, the display screen blanked out and the terminal shut down.
"I've got a bad feeling about this," said Tank.
Shally crossed to the blast door. "It's locked!" she shouted, beating her fist uselessly against it. "We're trapped here!"
"Zurnt!" grunted Beesix. "We were so Zarking close! Why the Flarrsh did this have to happen now?!"
Shally stared at the little green droid in shock.
"It's a cursing module," Tank explained. "It came with his new voice box. It sort of takes over in times of heavy stress."
"Well, this certainly qualifies," Shally groaned. "All right. Let's not give up yet. We need a story for when they get here."
"I don't think we can con these guys," said Tank. "All we can do is wait." He put his arms around Shally.
They didn't wait for long. Within minutes, the blast door opened, revealing an older, scarred Imperial Commander, and a squad of Stormtroopers. Blaster rifles were leveled at the Rebels.
"Oh, thanks," said Shally, "we came in here looking for a broom to clean up that mess outside, and the door locked behind us."
Tank gave her a look only slightly less disbelieving than the grim Commander's.
"I had to try," she said, gripping Tank's hand as her fears became reality all around her.
Flint and Lumiya stood at the end of the command walkway on the Guardian's bridge, looking out the main viewport at the distant Rebel shipyards. They were engaged in a strategy conference, focused on their assignment, neither one acknowledging their recent conflict.
"Those Golan stations are the main problem," mused Lumiya. "The Golan III Nova Gun has heavy shields, fifty turbolasers, twenty four proton torpedo launchers...each one of them is more heavily armed than this ship."
"Yes, a frontal assault won't work," said Flint, crossing his arms.
"If they direct all their firepower at us at once...no. But what if we could divide their arsenal, force them to shoot at a lot more targets?"
"Illusory ships?" asked Lumiya. The tactic hasn't been used since the Sith War. They might be taken by surprise, thinking the Empire has already sent reinforcements..."
"And there is another Sith power we can use," said Flint. "We can broadcast fear and despair to the crews of the defense platforms. It might give us the edge we need."
"We have to think carefully about this," said Lumiya. "There's a lot at stake for us. If we win, but take heavy casualties at the same time...it could end up hurting our future, as Lord Vader warned."
"But we don't have a lot of time," replied Flint. "It's hard to tell on those lumpy alien ships, but our sensors indicate they're nearing completion. Then this could turn into a pitched battle."
"No," said Lumiya. "They don't want that. They-" A comm signal on her belt interrupted her. "What is it?" she demanded.
"This is Commander Romodi. We've captured a couple of Rebel saboteurs trying to damage the main computer. We have them in the detention area. Do you wish to see them?"
"Rebels!" said Lumiya. "On this ship! How dare they!"
"It's in their nature to be daring," said Flint, frowning. "Come, let's see who they've found."
The harsh simplicity of Tank's prison cell was more than enough to remove any traces of bravado or hope. He was alone in a small chamber with a flat metal bench and no windows. The only sound was a dull vibration that told him the detention block was located near the rear engines of the ship. He hadn't seen Shally for hours, and he was desperately worried for her safety. He knew he might never see her again, and that was even worse than knowing they had failed their mission. By the time the cell door opened again, Tank was ready to say anything that would let him see his wife again.
The person who entered was in no way what he expected.
"On your feet, Rebel," commanded Lady Lumiya, stepping over the threshold. Tank wearily obeyed, gaping at her shapely metallic form. "You know what's going to happen here, don't you?" Lumiya said. "You are a Rebel prisoner of the Empire, and you were captured in an attempt to sabotage this ship. I'm going to ask you some questions, and you're going to tell me-"
"I'm going to tell you whatever you want to know," interrupted Tank. "All right, I know the drill. This is just like when I was picked up by the police when I was a kid in Mos Eisley, except here you have torture droids. But you won't need them. I just want to see my wife again. I'll give you any information you want. Only I don't know a whole lot. I'm not that important in the Alliance."
Lumiya stood for a minute, glaring at Tank. "You seem to have a lot of confidence for someone in your position," she said finally. "But then, Tank Boma, you did when I knew you on Kulthis, too."
Tank was startled. "You know me? Who are you?"
"Why don't you figure it out for yourself, Rebel?" said Lumiya.
Tank looked hesitantly at the only visible part of his captor, her eyes. "There's something familiar...and your voice..." Tank stepped suddenly towards her. "Shira? Shira Brie? But everyone thinks you're dead!"
Before he could come any closer, Lumiya swiftly grabbed Tank and tossed him painfully onto the bench. Stunned, Tank looked up at her. "It can't be. You're not Shira."
"No Tank, you were partly right. I was Shira Brie, but now I'm Lady Lumiya. Shira died at the hands of Luke Skywalker." She paused. "Not so confident now, are you?"
"What happened to you? What did they do to you?" Tank stammered. He was badly shaken by this unexpected reunion, not quite able to accept that a respected comrade could be his deadly enemy.
"I was always part of the Empire, Tank. When you knew me, I was in deep cover as an Imperial Major in Intelligence. And the only thing the Empire did to me was to save my body when Skywalker nearly destroyed it. He shot me down before I could kill him, and then they turned me into a cyborg."
Tank stared at her, losing any thoughts of resisting her physically. He began to feel a growing fear. "Listen Lumiya," he said, "I meant what I said before...I'll tell you anything."
"Yes," she said, her eyes narrowing, "you will. Starting with your mission here on my ship."
"All right," Tank swallowed. "We came here to try to sabotage the Gunnery Computer system. We were trying to allow the Calamarian Star Cruisers to escape the blockade. I know you'll only torture this out of me, so I'll tell you right now. There are other teams on the other ships. I don't know who they are, or what their missions are. They might even be finished by now, and gone. That's all I know." He paused, slowly standing back up. "I ask that I have a chance to say good-bye to my wife...before..." He trailed off.
Lumiya regarded him silently, removing a cylindrical object with attached metal coils from her belt.
"What are you doing?" Tank asked, his voice rising. "I told you everything I know-"
"What you have told me voluntarily" said Lumiya coldly, "is a good beginning. But it's only a beginning. You and I will have much more to talk about." She let the coils of her light whip unroll onto the floor. "Before, it was all just a dangerous game to me, fooling all of you, playing at being a Rebel. Now, it's deadly serious. Now, it's about retribution. Although I owe a particular debt to Luke for taking my old life away, that debt is shared in some measure by the entire Rebellion. Especially by Rebels from Kulthis." At the touch of a switch, curling tendrils of energy began to flow down the light whip. "And the currency I'm repaying that debt with...is pain."
She drew back her metallic arm, and Tank saw a searing cascade of bright strands arc towards him. Then he took his first steps into a new universe of agony.
Lumiya left the cell as a medical droid entered it to tend to the prisoner. Tank would be healed enough to survive another round of interrogation. He had indeed been able to supply a good deal more information, but Lumiya was still not satisfied. Frustratingly, the Rebel seemed to be telling the truth about other Rebel missions to the blockade. He knew of them, but little else. In any event, a fleet-wide search was now underway to root out more of the Rebels before they could carry out their brazen schemes. Lumiya was disturbed by the thought of all those agents. She knew what a hidden Intelligence operative could do, having been one herself. The Alliance's reputation for foolhardy Commando missions was now legendary. After the Death Star disaster, it seemed there was nothing they might not be capable of. At least she had captured these two before they could harm the flagship. But she needed to know much more before she could feel secure.
As she was leaving the detention area, Lumiya spotted the Rebels' droid, sitting off to one side of the security station, deactivated. She paused. While she and Flint interrogated the prisoners, could there be something that they were overlooking? She strode over to the silent R2 unit and contemplated it. Perhaps there was something more to be learned here, after all. Lumiya activated her comlink and summoned a technician.
"Of course, we both know that this interrogation droid is capable of inflicting a great deal of pain," said Flint reasonably. "Electroshock, sound waves, heat, and the like. But I'd prefer to avoid all that. The interrogation drug I've injected into you should help you to answer all of my questions without pain. It doesn't take long to start working."
Shally lay slumped on the metal ledge as the drugs coursed through her system, infusing her with a vast lethargy and weakness. "What have they done to Tank?" she mumbled.
"Don't be concerned for him right now. He is still alive for the present, answering questions like you are. Now, let's start with your name."
"Shally Edrin...just got married...Shally Boma," she said, her words slurring. She peered at Flint as if through a fog. "What are you...some kind of Knight?"
"I created this armor from an ancient drawing," he replied patiently, "but not one you would ever have seen. So, Shally, what was your exact goal in slicing into our computers?"
"We had to...fix it so the firing computer would shut down...close to Calamari gravity well," she said slowly.
"I see," said Flint. "So we would be unable to attack the shipyards, is that it?"
"And were you responsible for designing this strategy?"
"You must be a valued member of the Rebellion, Shally, with skills like those. Let's discuss your fellow Rebels and superiors back at your base. I'd like to know who they are."
"Base...evacuated," she murmured, leaning her head on the cold wall.
"And where was the base before it was evacuated?" asked Flint. "Kulthis...Belderone system."
Flint's calm was ripped from him. "Belderone? You served in the Belderone system? What...what were your duties there?"
Unable to see his agitation, Shally continued, "Tank and I served in Field Operations... Alliance Intelligence...we found a factory on Belderone...making Walkers. Helped plan attack but somehow..." Her eyes fluttered and she groaned.
"The attack on the factory," pressed Flint, shaking her shoulders.
"They knew...we were coming. Super Star Destroyer showed up in system...Commander Skywalker said...looking for him. Poor Luke..." She gave a little choking cry. "He was...hero at Yavin. Now they want to make him pay..."
She slipped into unconsciousness from too high a dosage, but Flint didn't notice. He was turned completely inward, his thoughts racing. The Rebel attack on the AT-AT factory had failed because the factory had been forewarned and able to deploy Walkers in its own defense. The resulting battle had spilled over into the neighboring village. His village. A fire had burned down his mother's tavern and claimed her life during the battle. The battle had gotten out of control because the factory had been prepared. The Rebel attack must have been based on the element of surprise. And who had alerted the factory? The answer was obvious; the Commander of the Imperial strike fleet that had been on its way to the Belderone system, Lord Vader. And Lord Vader had only involved himself for the chance to capture Luke Skywalker. How had he discovered that Luke was in the Belderone system? The answer to that question was obvious to Flint as well, and with the realization, a sickened flush came over him. The memory returned vividly, and took him away...
...Flint ran recklessly through the marketplace on the outskirts of town. He felt free on his day off, a rare feeling on an isolated Imperial factory world where most of the population toiled away for the sake of a distant Emperor, slaves in all but name. The work was hard, and he didn't even know exactly what kind of machines he was making. Once every two weeks, he was allowed the illusion that he was a free man. On this day, he had decided to use his spare money to buy his mother a bright scarf, to cheer her up. She had become a shadow of her former self, living on Belderone, running a grimy tavern for the grimy workers in a grimy little village. A long time ago, she had been happy. Her husband, Flint's father, had been a Jedi Knight, and they had been well-to-do. But then, word had come that the Jedi were being hunted, and Flint's father had left them on backwater Belderone while he went off to fight. It had been for their safety. They had never seen him again, and Flint's mother, Zana, had never forgiven her husband for abandoning them. Eventually, the Empire had come, and Belderone was no longer a place of safety, if indeed anywhere was. Zana had slid into a seemingly permanent depression. Flint knew he couldn't really fix things for her, but he tried to lift her spirits whenever he could.
Just as he was nearing the clothing shop, Flint saw another young man walking past, sandy haired, serious, and wearing nondescript spacers gear. He was almost unnoticeable, save for one detail. At his belt hung a lightsaber. Flint was almost sure of it. He had very early memories of his father's weapon. This man was a Jedi Knight! Excited, Flint abandoned his destination and ran up to the other man. The other looked startled and quickly searched the marketplace with anxious eyes. His hand moved to the hilt of the lightsaber.
Flint hastily tried to calm the stranger. "Hello, I'm Flint. Listen, you don't know me, but I wanted to talk to you. I noticed your lightsaber. Don't worry, no one else saw it. You're a Jedi Knight, right? Listen, my father was a Jedi. Do you know where to get training? I think I might have the potential. If I was a Jedi, I could get my mother and me off this rock. Maybe you could train me?"
The other man's face softened, and he said gently, "Was your father killed, Flint?"
"Yeah, how did you-"
"Because you remind me of myself. My father was a Jedi, too, and he died a long time ago. But I'm not one. There are no more Jedi left. I had a teacher for a while, but he was killed, too. My father left me this lightsaber as an heirloom. I'm sorry, Flint. I can't help you."
Flint's heart sank. "But you do know some things, right? Can't you teach them to me?"
"I'm no teacher. And I have important things to do here. I really am sorry." The other man turned from Flint and hurried away. Flint made no move to stop him. He stood there full of bitterness, his day off ruined.
During the walk back to Zana's tavern, Flint's disappointment turned into resentment. When he told the story to Zana, she echoed his feelings. "I've always tried to tell you Flint, the Jedi don't care about other people. They look out for their own, and that's all. Hey, maybe you should see if there's a reward for turning this man in? Now that the Jedi are outlawed...we sure could use the money."
Flint had gone straight to the local Imperial government office and spoke to a bored-looking official.
"Jedi sightings?" the bureaucrat had asked doubtfully. "Well, there is a law against their order, has been one for a long time. Are you sure you saw his lightsaber?"
Flint was sure. The official had tiredly looked in his computer records, no doubt trying to finish with this dubious case and get back to his real work. Flint was surprised when the man gave a low whistle. "Maybe you did see something. There's an Empire-wide notice for the capture of a Luke Skywalker, posted by Lord Vader himself! Came up when I cross- referenced the word lightsaber with the wanted files. This Skywalker is supposed to carry one...Sons of Jontor! There's a reward of 500,000 credits for him! Perhaps your sighting should be brought to the attention of someone higher up. Hmm. Better make sure. I'll call up some images, and you pick out the man you saw."
Flint easily identified Luke Skywalker.
"All right, all right..." the official said nervously. "Look, there could be a lot of money in this for both of us, if we keep this between you and I. I can transmit the sighting directly to Lord Vader's fleet. I'll list both of us as the finders. There's enough of a reward to make us both rich. Do we have a deal?"
"We have a deal," said Flint, smiling. Let that arrogant Jedi have what was coming to him. And let the reward for turning in a criminal go to Flint and his mother, so they could have the better life they deserved. His good mood was coming back, after all...
...Lord Flint of the Sith stood in the cell with an unconscious Shally Boma, focusing on the present once more. He felt just as tortured as the Rebel before him. He himself had set in motion the events that led to the destruction of his village and the death of his mother. Full of petty resentment, he had naively summoned the raging Civil War to his very doorstep. He had not imagined the terrifying power of Vader's forces, nor predicted the ferocity with which the Rebels fought against it. Once begun, events had spiraled out of control at a mortifying rate. The ground battle had been beyond anything Flint had experienced before. The Rebel fighters had been brave, but unprepared for the huge armored Walkers. Could they really be blamed if their desperate retreat had taken them over Flint's village? Was it really the fault of the Alliance that the Walkers pursued them, crushing buildings and starting fires all through town? The more Flint thought about it, the more he found only one person to blame. Himself.
And there was one final fact to face, he realized. The events that he had set in motion had also led to the forced evacuation of the Rebel base on Kulthis, and the 'death' of Shira Brie. He was responsible for the creation of the tortured Lumiya.
Now that Flint was unable to blame the Rebels, he found himself facing complex issues of personal responsibility for his and Lumiya's future. He needed time to meditate on these matters, but the sudden opening of the cell door seemed to steal away any chance for that.
"Are you finished here?" asked Lumiya impatiently.
"For the present," Flint replied, not looking at her. "There was an overdose. She'll recover in several hours, perhaps, but for now..."
"Then come with me. I've learned something very important. It's time to make a battle plan. The Calamari shipyards are ours for the taking." Lumiya seemed afire with purpose.
Flint didn't move right away. He closed his eyes and tried to focus. Despite the questions swirling through his mind, the fact remained that they had to neutralize the threat of the Emperor. He must see the Sith as his servants, not as something to be destroyed. Flint turned and followed Lumiya out of the cell, leaving Shally slumped motionless in the corner.
By the Five Fire Rings of Fornax, thought Commander Romodi, the Rebels have a lot of guts trying to pull off a bluff of this magnitude! Their formidable defenses had an enormous weak spot that he hadn't even suspected. But Lady Lumiya had discovered it by chance while sifting through the memory systems of the captured R2 unit. Now the shipyards would fall.
It was poetic justice, in a way. Information hidden in an R2 unit had led to the destruction of both the Death Star and Romodi's career. Now such information would allow Romodi a measure of payback. For the critical piece of data was this : the Rebels were critically short of personnel, and lacked the necessary 880 people to fully man each of the Golan III battle stations. The Rebel R2 unit had recently been used for repairs on the stations, and the memory records of that assignment strongly indicated that half of the stations were almost entirely automated. This made all the difference. An automated station was no match for a skilled human crew, and was also more vulnerable to ion cannon attacks. Furthermore, the droid's records indirectly revealed which of the stations were automated. Repairs on those Golan III's involved a great many more operations that were carried out by the droid independently. It turned out that the three stations closest to the planet were automated. This made sense; the blockade had been arrayed on the other side of the shipyards. And, there was the interrupted sabotage mission that would have left the Guardian helpless close to the planet. It was a clever way to compensate for the weakness in the shipyards' defenses, but now the secret was out. The Imperials could attack and easily overwhelm the automated stations, then fly in and destroy the cruisers.
Flint and Lumiya had a plan to neutralize the other three stations as well; an illusory attack of several Imperial Star Destroyers would fully occupy them. In addition, they would confuse all the Rebel gunners by broadcasting fear into their minds. Commander Romodi smiled. His new allies made him nervous, but they certainly knew how to take care of a Rebel problem.
He faced the main viewport, and spoke loudly to the bridge crew in the pits to either side. "Start main engines. Advance on the Rebel position." The huge engines of the Guardian roared to life as it began to move massively against the starfield. The five companion Interdictor cruisers took up formation surrounding it in a rough circle, and the former blockade fleet went swiftly and fiercely on the offensive. Romodi felt alive for the first time in years. He hadn't faced battle for a long time; his duties in the Admiralty had taken him far from the shriek of turbolasers and the roar of proton torpedoes. Perhaps his demotion hadn't been an entirely negative thing.
As the shipyards began to grow in the viewport, Romodi turned back to look into the Aft Bridge. Flint and Lumiya were there, kneeling motionless on the deck. Flint was completely armored and helmeted, and Lumiya's fierce eyes were tightly closed. Every crew member gave them a wide berth as they passed by. The Sith were deep in a potent communion with the Force.
At Romodi's command, the fleet swung gracefully around the shipyards as one unit, keeping out of firing range of the Golan stations. Soon, the enormous water world of Calamari filled the viewport. Flickers of pseudomotion filled the space recently vacated by the Imperial ships. Despite being forewarned, several of those in the Crew Pit cried out in surprise as their scanners showed eight Imperial class Star Destroyers emerging from hyperspace facing the Rebel shipyards. Romodi spared an admiring glance at the Sith.
"Turn the fleet," he ordered. "Prepare to attack the automated Golan Stations. Launch TIE fighters. All ships, attack!"
Two TIE squadrons streamed out of the Guardian's launch bays, forming an angry cloud around the point of the wedge-shaped Star Destroyer. Then the entire attack force shot forward and ran full against the Rebel defenses.
In the chaos of battle that followed, Romodi's experienced mind was able to pick out critical details. He could see that the firing patterns of the Golan stations matched those expected for a computer controlled attack. Gratified that their analysis had been correct, Romodi turned to the Crew Pit. "The stations are automated as we predicted," he said crisply. "Prepare to fire all ion cannons at their central computer housing. Fire!"
Pulses of ion energy leaped away from the Guardian and struck a critical section of the nearest station. This was the location of the computer that fire-linked the turbolasers in the absence of live gunners. Had the station been manned, the damage could have easily been overcome by using manual controls, but not so here. As the Interdictor cruisers continued to hammer away at the other two sluggish and imprecise automated stations, Romodi watched with pleasure as the first station's enormous arsenal fell into an ineffective random firing pattern. Now it could do damage to them only by chance.
Romodi peered through a cloud of explosions and darting TIE fighters at the far distant side of the shipyards. The Golan stations there were firing steadily at the impressive illusory force that threatened them. There were even illusory explosions simulating damage to the Star Destroyers. The illusions could do no real damage to the Golan stations, but between the firepower of a TIE squadron left behind in that location, and the fear being broadcast by the Sith, their crews should feel as if the threat was real. It seemed to be working perfectly, as none of those stations were firing in the Guardian's direction.
Soon, the second automated station was disabled, and the blockade fleet roared through the gaping void in the shipyards defenses. "We're through!" he cried. "All ships, move up to attack the Mon Calamari shipyards. Target the Rebel Star Cruisers under construction. All guns fire on my command!"
There ahead, floating in the void of space, he saw them. A vast orbital scaffold had been constructed, and nestled within kilometers of support beams and access tunnels were three gigantic elongated hulls. Each one was unique in appearance, covered with pods and bulges that contained sensors, weapons batteries, and shield generators. But most of those systems would be unfinished. This would be a total victory for Romodi. In his moment of triumph, he even dared to hope that his career might be revitalized through the grudging admiration of the Emperor.
Leave it to the Rebels to rely on ships that look like Drexellian Sea Cucumbers, he thought to himself. Then, relishing the moment, he loudly said, "Ready...Fire!"
The blockade fleet spread out to surround the Rebel cruisers. Then they released a punishing barrage of weaponry at the vulnerable targets. Bursts from quad lasers shot from the interdictor cruisers, and the Guardian unleashed its turbolasers.
"Commander," called a voice from the Crew Pit. "I'm getting strange readings from the Rebel cruisers. They seem unusually dense, Sir."
"What?" snapped Romodi, not wanting to take his eyes from the main viewport.
"Ships that size should register as mostly empty space inside, especially when they're under construction. My sensors show all that space as full. It's as if they're packed with some dense substance-"
That got through to Romodi. He jumped down into the Crew Pit and quickly verified the readings. A sudden deadening sensation began to spread outwards from his heart. Facing the viewport and its image of the burning, fragmented Rebel cruisers, he suddenly saw it as a scene of horror. "All ships, fall back!" he screamed. "It's a trap!"
But it was too late. Far too much planning had gone into the elaborate snare for its victims to win free now. As the first Rebel cruiser began to split apart, it erupted like a supernova, its enormous cargo of explosives transformed into unimaginable force in an instant. The other two cruisers exploded a moment later, creating a triple starburst of expanding light in the middle of the shipyards.
The scaffolding was consumed in the first second, and then the energy waves hit the blockade fleet. The smaller, more weakly shielded Interdictor cruisers fared the worst, buckling and tearing apart into billowing clouds of burning ship fragments. TIE fighters were seared out of space in an instant, snuffed against the blossoming eruption filling the former shipyards. The Guardian's shields held for a few more moments, but the ship was sent tumbling away like a leaf in the wind. Romodi had time, in his final moments, to grasp the ease with which they had been fooled. His respect for the Rebels went up a grudging notch for their incredible strategy. Perhaps the Rebellion would not be as fleeting as he had once thought.
Then the shields failed, and the main bridge was broken open to space.
Far below, the endless ocean surface of Calamari began to heave. Vast objects were rising from the depths, creating a great surge of water ahead of them. With a glorious tidal burst, they emerged from the waves and began to rise into the sky, shedding huge waterfalls from their surfaces. With a sudden roar of sublight engines, the three Mon Calamari War Ships thrust away from the churning, boiling sea and climbed for space.
They passed the conflagration of the false shipyards, unmolested by Imperial fire. No Interdictor cruisers remained to prevent their jump to hyperspace. The Rebel cruisers gracefully swept past the remaining Golan stations, which now floated alone in space, abandoned by the strange Star Destroyers that had suddenly winked out of existence. Then they began to dwindle against the starry heavens, climbing away like rising stars in the night. With a triple flash, they shot into hyperspace and vanished.
Flint and Lumiya sensed the coming explosion moments before it happened, as a disturbance in the Force. They struggled out of their meditative states and staggered to their feet as the main viewport lit up with a blinding flare and the deck tilted under them. When the vacuum of space shrieked in upon them, pulling the bridge crew out into the midst of the energy storm, Lumiya was able to grasp the wall next to the turbolift with her machine strength, holding Flint to her with her other arm. She nearly lost her grip on Flint when a terrified crew member swept past and smashed into the armored Sith, but her cyborg body prevailed. Flint's armor was environmentally sealed, and Lumiya's mask allowed her to breath for the moments it took her to force open the turbolift doors and heave both of them inside. Within the temporary safety of the lift, they descended to a lower deck of the Command Section. The turbolift dropped unsteadily, as power fluctuated and the artificial gravity began to weaken. Lumiya braced herself and fought for balance.
The fire and vacuum of the bridge still filled Lumiya's senses and strongly reminded her of the death of Shira Brie. That had been a terrible experience. One moment, she had been lining up her targeting computer on Skywalker's TIE fighter, filled with a sense of triumph. The next, her world had exploded, shattering her body with her ship. She had felt herself die, as her torso was pierced by large shards of her viewport and her legs were crushed by the collapsing hull. After a few moments of indescribable pain, darkness had taken her, but that hadn't been the end. Even as her mind surrendered, her bio-augmented body refused to give up. It imprisoned her soul during its long, grim struggle. The fear and horror she had felt upon awakening in a crude cyborg frame surged up in her memory, and she instinctively clutched at Flint. She carefully removed his helmet, and cursed as she found him to be unconscious. Perhaps it had been a concussion or even feedback from the Force. Whatever the cause, she needed him, but couldn't have him. She was alone. Alone, but not helpless. Not as long as the Force was with her.
Fear was a way to reach the dark side. Especially if that fear could be channeled into anger. She focused her emotions and let them fill her with power. The rage came easily, flowing from her hatred of the Rebels and their victory over her. It seemed impossible even now, but the Rebel shipyards had been a trap designed solely to destroy her fleet. The Rebels had taken her old life, and now her new command as well. They had tricked her personally. She had found and believed the information that lured them into the trap. Information carried in the droid belonging to the two captured Rebels. The same Rebels that had been at Kulthis, where Shira had died. Tank and Slaughter.
A new certainty filled Lumiya. She may have lost her fleet, but she could still have revenge. The two Rebels responsible for her losses were still her prisoners. She was going to find and kill them both.
When Flint regained consciousness, he found himself in Systems Control, lying on his back and looking up at a haggard Lieutenant. "What's happening?" he groaned. Flint couldn't recall how he had gotten from the doomed bridge to this lower deck. "Where's Lady Lumiya, Lieutenant..."
"Lieutenant Yoff, Sir. Lady Lumiya brought you here, and told me to watch over you."
"How long ago?" he demanded, getting slowly to his feet.
"Ten, maybe fifteen minutes, Sir. She left you here and said she was going to kill some prisoners."
Flint grimaced. Kill some prisoners...it must be those two Rebels they had interrogated. "What is the status of the ship?"
"Not good, Sir. The Rebel trap took out our shields and weapons systems. Power is down to twenty percent. Artificial gravity is sporadic, and we have over a thousand dead. We lost the other ships in the fleet...no survivors." Yoff hung his head.
"Do we know what happened?" asked Flint.
"Most of it, Sir. As far as our sensor logs show, the Rebel ships were decoys of some kind, loaded with powerful explosives. Detonite, or perhaps Megonite. The explosion destroyed the Interdictor cruisers outright, and crippled us."
"But why?" Flint scowled. "It doesn't make sense. Why build those ships, only to destroy them? I thought they needed them desperately."
"Sir," said Yoff hesitantly, "as I said before, the ships appear to have been decoys. Just after the explosion, we received fragmentary readings from our aft sensors - the only ones that weren't obliterated. They seemed to detect three Capital ships emerging from the oceans below and flying past us into space. They went to hyperspace before we could get a clear image, but..."
Flint looked at the display indicated by Yoff. The signals were consistent with ships similar to the Calamarian cruisers they had been blockading. Suddenly, everything was clear. "Those were the real ships," he said somberly. There must be another shipyards underwater. But they couldn't get those cruisers past the Interdictor cruisers either. They knew we wouldn't be thinking in alien terms, just human ones. They gave us a human style orbital shipyards to focus on, but they had to get past us in the end. We were guarding the only window for a fast hyperspace escape. Those Rebels...they weren't here to sabotage the ship, they were here to bring information to us, to lure us into their trap, to make it look like we figured out their weak spot by ourselves."
Flint fell silent. He found himself admiring the two captured Rebels. They had risked their lives, faced terrible odds, and why? So that they could become...someone who mattered. Which was only what he had wanted when he became part of the Sith. The question was, in what way did he want to make a difference, now? He had forgiven the Rebellion itself, so he must also extend that honor to the prisoners. They had fought with great cunning, and Flint decided he had been beaten fairly. If the Rebels were still alive, they should be released. There was no longer any point to their captivity. The battle was over. Then he remembered. Lumiya had gone to kill them.
Something hardened inside Flint, filling him with resolve. His defeat had brought him to a new understanding of the path he had to follow. He had to convince Lumiya to follow that path as well, in order to fulfill his responsibility to her. For, the path she was on now could only lead to her destruction.
He had to find her, before she found the Rebels. It was a race, and Lumiya had a head start. He picked up his mirrored helmet and settled it onto his shoulders. "Thank you for your help, Lieutenant," came his filtered voice. "Send out a distress signal and get this ship evacuated as best you can. I have something...personal to attend to."
With that, Lord Flint left the shaken Lieutenant and strode into the smoking corridors, grasping his lightsaber.
Immediately after the explosion, the lights in Tank's cell went out, and the artificial gravity ceased. A deep thundering sound vibrated through the walls, and Tank woke up. It took him a moment to figure out that he hadn't died, but once he oriented himself in the weightless blackness by finding his sleeping ledge, his wits returned. Fighting the lingering pain of his lacerations, he pushed off towards the cell door. If the power had gone out, then the magnetic seal on the door would have broken. Without artificial gravity, he might be able to push it open. He found the door ajar, with a small crack opened at the bottom. Tank wrapped his fingers under it and pushed against the floor with his feet. Despite the ministrations of the medical droid, every wound seemed to be raw and open just below his skin.
He strained, and the door slid up a meter with surprising ease, then jammed. Tank pulled himself under it and floated out into the darkness of the angular detention corridor. He supposed he could thank whatever disaster had struck the ship for his being alone in the cell block. He had no idea what had happened, but he felt that the Imperials had probably gotten what they deserved. In any case, he was free, and now he had to get his wife out.
Tank was troubled by a memory of dozens of cells in the immediate vicinity, but he decided to trust to good old, boring Imperial predictability. He reached for the door release for the cell to the immediate right of his own. The door didn't budge. Tank cursed. Of course, the power was out. He tried to shove the door open, but he couldn't get any leverage. There was no crack open at the bottom this time. Tank thought hard for a long minute, but came up with nothing. Still, he wouldn't leave without Shally, even if it meant becoming a prisoner again. He pulled himself out into the detention block control room, feeling blindly at the dead consoles. Suddenly his floating foot bumped something low to the floor. His questing fingers discovered the familiar shape of Shally's R2 unit, distinctive for the voice box on its dome.
"Beesix!" he whispered. "Are you activated?"
There was no response. Tank felt around the droid's front and found the protruding shape of a restraining bolt, probably set to maintain the droid's deactivation. With no time for subtlety, he pulled off his boot and used the heel to batter the bolt off. The seal finally broke, and the little green droid's dome lights awakened to a steady glow. Beesix suddenly threw off a blinding spotlight into Tank's face, forcing him to shield his eyes.
"Would you point that thing someplace else?"
"Thank the Maker! It's you," piped Beesix. "How did you escape? Where is Mistress Edrin?"
"Mistress Boma," snapped Tank. "And by the way, I'm your Master now, too, and don't you forget it. You have to help me get Shally out of her cell. We don't have much time."
Beesix magnetized his treads and rolled towards the corridor Tank pushed off into, brightly lighting the way. Tank helped him with the stairs, and soon they reached the cells.
"I need you to feed power to the door mechanism. Let's try this one to the right of mine first."
Beesix extended an instrument arm and plugged into the control panel. Small colored lights blinked on, and the door slid upwards. Beesix's spotlight revealed the cell to be empty.
"All right, now the one to the left. Try this one."
Beesix rolled over and complied. This time, Tank felt relief and joy when the bright light revealed Shally lying on the ledge in the rear of the cell. His happiness quickly became concern when he saw she wasn't moving. A hasty inspection showed she was still alive, but she wasn't responding to anything. He decided she was drugged. Tank pulled her to her feet and supported her limp body with his own. He felt her weight and wished he was larger. Then he realized the artificial gravity had returned, and he jumped a little when red emergency lighting came on.
"Oh, sure, now they turn the power back on," muttered Tank. Then he realized that it could mean the Imperials were on their way back. They had to get out of the cell block, fast. Beyond that, they had to get off of the ship itself, which meant crossing more than half the length of the vessel, past who knew how many Stormtroopers, to reach the hangar bays, and steal a ship. And somewhere, Lumiya might be waiting.
"Beesix, we have to get off this ship," said Tank. "You have the schematics in your memory. Can you find us a way to the hangar bays with a minimum of exposure? Service tubes? Air ducts? Anything like that?"
The droid turned itself to the analysis as they started down the corridor. At that moment, Shally began to stir. Tank set her down gently and held her face. "Shally, it's me, Tank. Can you hear me?"
She focused on him, and her eyes filled with tears. She reached for him, and they held tight for as long as they felt safe. Tank quietly explained what was going on, and finished by helping her to her feet. "We have to get out of here. Can you walk?"
Beesix rolled gently against her. "I am so pleased to see you improving, Mistress Boma. If you were lost, I would have missed you a great deal, especially because I would then only be the property of Master Boma-"
Tank swatted the droid. "Give it a rest, will you? How are those calculations coming along?"
"I have projected a route comprised of turbolift tubes, lesser corridors, maintenance chutes, and droid access corridors. It can take us to the hangar bays, but it will take more then an hour, and we may be hunted, once our escape is discovered. It is also possible that some areas of the ship are damaged, including the escape route, and may be impassable."
"Wait," said Shally weakly. "Why go to the hangar bays? There are only three of us. We can find an escape pod a lot closer..."
Tank turned on Beesix. "You're supposed to be a smart droid. Why didn't you think of that?"
"I was only solving the problem you assigned to me, Master Boma. If you wanted other information-"
"Shut up Beesix," grumped Tank.
Lady Lumiya stormed into the deserted detention block control room. The emergency lighting gave her metallic body the illusion that it was soaked in blood. Her light whip was in her hands and uncoiled. Her fury was honed to a razor edge. All during her slow journey to the detention center, hampered as she was by the loss of artificial gravity, her anger had been growing. Lord Vader had shown her how to use it to unleash the power of the Force. Now, it was uncertain how she would destroy the prisoners first, by slicing them to ribbons, or crushing their hearts with the power of the dark side.
Lumiya vaulted up the stairs and ran to the Rebel cells. She was shocked to find them empty, her quarry fled. How? How had they escaped? Could it be the work of the other Rebel agents? Despite an intensive search, no other Rebels had been found, but that didn't mean they weren't here, somewhere. No matter. If Tank and Slaughter had help, she would simply destroy all of them together.
Closing her eyes, Lumiya reached out with the Force, her extended senses questing for the Rebels' life energies. She sensed wounded people all around, as well as others helping them in a disciplined way. The Imperial minds had a certain feel, a sense that they were in their natural environment. Lumiya disregarded them, reaching out further. There! She had them. Three decks up, and heading aft, were a pair of minds that were full of desperate fear. There was an overwhelming desire to escape. One of the minds was dull, drugged perhaps. They had to be the Rebels, and they were alone. Lumiya whirled and leaped into the control room, plunging towards the door. Her cyborg legs sped her on her way. They would not escape her, she vowed. Their lives belonged to her.
Tank, Shally, and Beesix ran, stumbled, and rolled through the smoke filled corridors of the Star Destroyer. Now it was obvious to them that the ship was severely damaged. Dead and wounded were scattered about, and in the confusion, the fleeing Rebels in their dirty Support Fleet uniforms were not noticed or stopped. Beesix guided them towards the nearest bank of escape pods, but twice their route was blocked by collapsed corridors, and they had to retrace their steps. A call went out for the evacuation of the ship, and they soon found themselves traveling with a few limping, bleeding officers and Naval Troopers. They spoke no words to the Imperials, but simply helped them along.
Finally, weary and choking, the small group reached a long room that was lined on one wall with access hatches to escape pods. Tank tried to breath a sigh of relief, but he ended up coughing spasmodically instead. When he raised his eyes from the floor, they met the glaring eyes of Lady Lumiya, who was standing directly in front of him. She had been waiting for them.
Lumiya spoke commandingly to the Imperials who came in with Tank and Shally. "Get to the escape pods. These Rebels are mine to deal with." The confused Imperials were too weak to argue, or perhaps they just didn't care. They slowly climbed into some of the pods as Lumiya faced her prey.
Tank and Shally backed up against the wall, stricken with sudden terror from the Force, as Lumiya activated her light whip. The deadly strands burned through the air as the cyborg swept them grandly over her head. Suddenly, Beesix rolled straight at the Dark Lady, his laser cutter, circular saw, and shock prod all extended. But before he could close with her, she extended one hand towards the droid, palm outwards. Beesix was hammered by an invisible force and flung backwards against the wall. The droid hit hard, and crashed onto the deck, where he lay still. His dome lights flickered and went out. Lumiya faced Tank and Shally again, raising the whip.
There was the sudden humming vibration of a lightsaber igniting. Lumiya faced the entryway, and stiffened in surprise. It was Flint. He was fully armored, and his horned helmet covered his head, hiding his expression. All she could see in its mirrored surface was her own face with her rage-filled eyes. "Flint," she called out uncertainly. There was something about his sense that felt threatening. "I have the Rebels that escaped. The ones that caused this to happen to us."
"No, Lumiya," said Flint, his rough voice mechanically filtered through his helmet. "We did it to ourselves. They simply gave us the means to defeat ourselves. I can't let you kill them. You have to let them go, and give up your hatred of the Rebellion. They're not the ones who destroyed your life. I did that. But I can save your life, if you let them go, and come with me now."
Lumiya angrily pointed at Flint's crimson lightsaber blade. "Are you going to fight me to stop me from killing these two?" she demanded.
"If you force me to, Lumiya," Flint said calmly. He took off his helmet and looked at her steadily.
"So be it, Flint."
They stared at each other, not moving. Lumiya locked her gaze with Flint's. Long moments of indecision passed. Then Lumiya's eyes narrowed suddenly with chilling violence, and Flint's eyes lit up with angry disbelief. Lumiya swept the light whip up and around, forcing Flint to leap backwards to escape the searing lightning strike. The Sith circled each other warily, even as Tank and Shally cowered in the corner, trying to stay out of range of the fight. Lumiya attacked with frightening skill, the light whip seeming to come alive in her hands. Its electric and metal strands were everywhere, striking at Flint like a whirlwind of fiery serpents. They struck sparks off the walls and ceiling, screaming through the air as Flint was forced to retreat. He was quickly coming to understand how her ancient weapon had been able to defeat the Jedi lightsabers of old. Each time he tried to fend off her blows, his saber blade was tangled in the chaotic energy tendrils of the whip, while the metal coils lashed against him, staggering him and nearly making him lose his grip on his weapon.
Finally, Flint could retreat no further. Behind him were the wall and the two helpless Rebels he had tried to save. He held up his lightsaber, sweat beading on his face.
"Just remember, Flint," grated Lumiya, "you gave me no choice in this." With inhuman speed, she struck, ripping Flint's lightsaber out of his grasp and slicing his exposed face, dazzling him. The lightsaber clattered to the deck, deactivated and out of reach.
But Flint wasn't finished. As the punishing coils slashed into him, he grasped as many of them as he could and wrapped them around his arms. Then he threw himself at Lumiya, spinning as he charged. The energy strands arced wildly against him, but his armor was made of Mandalorian Iron, a metal capable of deflecting the blow of a lightsaber. He wrapped himself in the strands of the light whip, coiling it around his armor until he ran full into Lumiya. Suddenly the destructive fire of the whip threatened her, too. Shocked and surprised, she instinctively deactivated her weapon as she and Flint fell to the floor. Before Lumiya could recover, Flint reached out a gauntleted hand and his lightsaber flew into it. He switched on the humming red light blade and held it across Lumiya's throat. "You Rebels!" he shouted. "Go, now!"
Tank and Shally needed no urging. They staggered over to their droid and lifted it up. Struggling with the burden, they opened an escape pod door and dumped the droid inside. Then they climbed in and shut the hatch. Soon, there was the sound of explosive bolts firing, and the pod was gone. Lumiya lay very still. The violence had been shocked out of her by Flint's sudden victory, and the object of her anger was now out of reach. And still Lord Flint held the lightsaber blade at Lady Lumiya's throat, because her cyborg body itself was a weapon. Their eyes remained fixed on each other's. Finally, Lumiya spoke.
Flint's expression was tense. "Now you listen to some things that I have to say."
She nodded, carefully.
"We're on the wrong path, Lumiya," said Flint. "We don't belong as part of this conflict between the Rebels and the Empire. We're the new Sith, and we're outside all of that. If we try to be a part of it, you, and I, and the Sith will die."
"What are you talking about, Flint?" Lumiya retorted. "Why did you stop me from killing those Rebels?"
"Lumiya, I need you to hear what I'm telling you. We are the new keepers of the Sith power. Now, think about what Lord Vader said about how the old Sith tradition was sacrificed for the Emperor's political power. Lord Vader never learned anything from that. He's trying to recreate the Sith, but he still thinks in terms of political power. He foolishly placed us within the Imperial command structure, under the Emperor, even though he knew we could attract the wrong kind of attention from Palpatine. It was the only way he could think. In the end, he's the Emperor's servant, and he can't see past that. But I can."
"Go on," said Lumiya quietly.
"Lumiya, the Rebels weren't responsible for what happened to my life on Belderone. I brought Luke Skywalker's presence in the system to the attention of Lord Vader, and everything followed from that. Even what happened to you." Flint looked in her eyes for a hint of anger at his admission, but found none. Encouraged, he went on. "Once I couldn't blame the Rebels any more, I was able to see that I was free to choose my own path. Being a Sith and being part of the Empire aren't the same thing. We don't have to concern ourselves with this Civil War. In fact, I see it as destruction for both of us. Either Palpatine will see us as his rivals and enslave us, or the Rebels will get just a bit luckier than they did today. I know better than Lord Vader how the Sith have to go on. It's not a matter of politics. It's a matter of the Force."
Lumiya knew Flint spoke the truth. After their defeat at Calamari, she and Flint would stand no chance with the intolerant and unforgiving Emperor. Flint was right, there was really no choice, but his interference with her desire for vengeance still rankled. "And those Rebels we captured?" Lumiya asked coolly.
"I had to let those Rebels go, because there was no reason to kill them. They beat us, and they deserve to live. I wanted to force you to let them go, to make you give up your hatred of the Alliance. It's a trap...that's all it is. And I want you to come with me, away from the Empire, and recreate the Sith. We're not meant to be the Emperor's pawns. The true future of the Sith is with you and I together." Flint finished, and waited. Lumiya let out a long breath. She was moved by his words. Flint made a lot of sense. Perhaps he was right. Her life as a Major in Intelligence had meant a lot to her, but she was a Sith now, and that should be most important to her. Her personal war against the Alliance could be a trap. And what were those two Rebels to her, anyway? They were nothing. Now that the distraction of vengeance was removed, she was able to see just how close she had come to dying for her political beliefs. And, she suddenly wondered, how much of it had been her choice, really, considering the long indoctrination of her youth? It was very hard, but she found she could begin to let it go, after all. There were better things in the future Flint described. One thing, however, she could not let go. Flint had been kind to try to take responsibility for her pain, but there was really only one man who truly was responsible. One day, she knew she would settle her score against Luke Skywalker. Nothing could change that.
She let the handle of her light whip slip from her hand, and said, "I've said over and over again that Shira Brie is dead. It's time I started acting like it. All right, Flint, I'll go with you."
Flint deactivated his lightsaber, and Lumiya slowly sat up next to him. The anger had drained out of her eyes, and the violence had left her. She reached out a metal hand and slowly caressed Flint's scored, blackened armor, so like her own cyborg body. Their earlier confrontation came back to her, when her loathing for her physical state had reduced her to tears. Now, she could see that they shared a purpose that could unite them in ways above and beyond the physical.
"Perhaps, Flint," she said quietly, "we're more alike than not, after all."
Flint stood, and held out his gauntleted hand. She took it in her cyborg one, and gracefully rose, clipping her light whip to her belt. Then she reached up and peeled away her face mask, revealing her scars and letting her long red hair fall free. She let the mask fall to the deck.
"Now I'm ready," she said.
Lord Flint and Lady Lumiya of the Sith turned together and went back into the dying Guardian. On their way through the Star Destroyer, the Sith cloaked themselves in illusion, and they were not seen by any crew member. They entered the main hangar bay and claimed a Gamma class assault shuttle, which they also cloaked in invisibility. Piloting the shuttle to the rear of the defenseless Star Destroyer, Lumiya waited patiently until no more escape pods remained to be launched. The enormous vessel was finally empty. Then she fired her full complement of concussion missiles at the unprotected main engines. As Lumiya and Flint accelerated away in the shuttle, the Star Destroyer Guardian was annihilated in an awesome detonation that marked their departure from the Empire and the uncertain beginning of their new life.
Tank and Shally were picked up, along with the surviving crew of the Guardian, by a Rebel Escort Frigate a day later. The Imperials were taken into custody, and, after questioning, they would be released somewhere out on the Galactic Rim. Meanwhile, the Frigate was cruising serenely through the empty reaches of space, flanked by three enormous Mon Calamari MC-80 cruisers. Shally gazed at them through the viewport of her passenger quarters on the Frigate. Tank stood beside her, his arm draped across her shoulders.
"I feel the worst about Shira," said Tank. "I trusted her. We all did. Then she turns out to be someone like Lumiya."
"She's a tortured individual, from what you told me," said Shally.
"She nearly died, and that has a way of changing a person. Believe me, I've been there. But I had you to help me to avoid making my life one big act of vengeance. I don't know. Maybe Flint can help her. I'd like to think so. I still think he's an honorable man, after he saved our lives." She moved even closer into his embrace. "I don't know what I would have done without you. But this mission made me think about having to face that. I began to question whether the cause I was fighting for was worth it, if it meant losing you. Now, after all this, I'm still not sure. I just hope it never comes to that."
"I know how you feel," said Tank. "I was ready to put your life before the Rebellion, too. I think maybe there's nothing wrong with that. Part of what we're fighting for is to preserve a world for people like us to live in. So we matter as much as the cause."
"What matters is, we made it," sighed Shally.
"And they made it," said Tank, looking at the proud new Capital ships. A vast feeling of relief was all he felt. They had survived against all odds, and succeeded in their mission, although Tank still wasn't clear on how. As far as he could tell, they had failed.
There was a gentle knock on the door behind them, and when Shally opened it, there was Admiral Ackbar, with a fully repaired Artoo Beesix trundling brightly behind him.
"May I come in?" rasped the Mon Calamari leader, rotating his huge eyes at Shally.
"Of course," she said, smiling down at her droid. "That was a brave thing you did, Beesix, trying to save our lives."
Tank came over and gamely offered his own thanks. "Yeah, good job, little guy. I didn't think you had it in you."
Beesix beeped and blatted in reply. Tank was surprised to see that the voice box had been removed. Admiral Ackbar had it in his large flipper like hands.
"The techs wanted to give this back to you," he said, "for installation at your own discretion. I came by to thank the both of you for what you did. The new ships will be crucial to our cause. One of them is going to be my flagship, Home One."
"Look," said Tank," there are a few things we don't understand yet...like what happened."
"I'm sorry you haven't been debriefed yet," said Ackbar kindly. "For now, I can explain some of it to you. We built the ships you see in an undersea shipyards. At the same time, we constructed decoy ships in space, and set six mostly automated defense stations to guard them, predicting that the Imperials would set up a blockade to prevent the cruisers from escaping. We gambled that the Empire wouldn't send an attack fleet, based on the disdain we know they feel for us. But we still had to get our cruisers past the blockade. That's what your mission accomplished. We felt that the Empire would be fully willing to believe you were there on a dangerous mission of infiltration, while your real purpose was to smuggle in false information inside your R2 unit. Your sabotage mission had a real chance of success, of course, but we knew you might be captured." Ackbar looked uncomfortable. "There were no other Rebel agents, just the two of you. I just want you to know that either I or General Cracken would take the same risks."
"It's all right, Admiral," said Shally. "We still knew what we were getting into."
Ackbar bowed slightly to her. "In any event, the Imperials found the information, and it led them to believe they had found a weakness in our defenses. But when they were lured in, the decoys exploded, taking the Star Destroyers with them. Our real cruisers escaped, and thankfully, we were able to rescue you afterwards. However," Ackbar said sadly, "this victory might be what finally turns the full attention of the Emperor to my world. We can only hope that it will have been worth it. I'll leave you alone now. I understand you need some rest. But General Cracken wanted me to give you these when I saw you, with his deepest thanks." Ackbar passed them a slim box. "May the Force be with you."
After the Admiral left, Tank opened the box. "Look at this - medals of honor! Now I'm just as good as Luke, right?" Tank grinned widely.
"Better than Luke, darling," said Shally, admiring her medal. "Biggs would have been so proud of you."
Tank pulled out a data card next. "This is a notice of promotion. We're both Lieutenants, now."
"Just so you remember who's the boss, no matter what," said Shally. "Wait, something fell out of the box." She bent to retrieve two plastic cards from the floor. "Okay, Lieutenant, want to go on our next mission on the Kuari Princess? These are two tickets!"
"Yes, Sir," said Tank, stepping into her arms. Beesix beeped and whistled at them, but they were too caught up in one another to pay him the slightest attention.
Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, stood on the bridge of the Executor, gazing out at the movements of his fleet and brooding. He had just received some unpleasant news. The Calamari blockade had been destroyed, and it seemed that Flint and Lumiya had not survived. His Sith disciples were gone, and the loss troubled Vader. For a brief time, he had felt like his own person, instead of a servant. Now that time was over. If only he could find his son. That could bring back the feeling he craved. There was a good chance of that happening, too, due to the massive Probe Droid project now under way. If he could find his son, he might still fulfill the destiny envisioned by Exar Kun, or perhaps find an even greater one...
Vader felt an unaccustomed pain at the loss of Flint and Lumiya, but the story of the Sith was not over. As long as he remained Dark Lord, he felt certain that the Sith would rise again.
Part Three: The Sith System
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...
In the aftermath of the fall of the Empire, the ancient orders of the Jedi and the Sith were reborn. Now the new Dark Lords desire a truce with Master Luke Skywalker.
But Luke must not face the Sith alone. At his side will stand a rival from his youth, and in his hand will lie a talisman of unfathomed power.
For the Jedi Master, ahead lies the challenge of forging a new peace between ancient enemies, if he can survive the wrath of a vengeful Dark Lady...
The Emperor was dead. Darth Vader was dead. That news took little time to spread across all of Imperial space. It signified something different to all who heard it. To members of the Rebel Alliance to Restore the Republic, it meant victory, revenge, freedom, or hope. To some within the Empire, it meant defeat, or despair. To others, it meant opportunity, relief, or redemption.
To Lord Flint and Lady Lumiya of the new Sith, it meant that the treacherous Emperor who would destroy them was himself destroyed, and that the Dark Lord of the Sith who would rule them was gone forever. It meant that the time of Sith ascendancy had begun again at last. Piloting their stolen assault shuttle through the acid storm clouds of the barren world of Vjun, Lumiya turned to her gruff companion with a patronizing smile. "You see Flint? It's just as I said. The Dark Lord's troops and guards have deserted his castle, now that they don't have him to fear any more. When the Devastator left orbit, it took everyone from Bast Castle with it."
"Hmm. Perhaps you're right," mused Flint. "I'm not picking up any scanning or tracking signals from the castle. And I don't sense the presence of anybody skilled in the Force, either. It would seem to be safe for us to go in and get what we came for." He placed a gauntleted hand on his cyborg companion's metallic gray shoulder from where he stood behind her, looking out the rain spattered viewport. Lumiya tolerated the contact, and even seemed to draw strength from it.
She turned back to look up at him, her long red hair falling away from her deeply scarred face. "Always the cautious one," she said, slightly mocking. "Even if Bast Castle was full of troops, they couldn't stop us from walking in right under their noses, and back out again, too. Only Lord Vader could, and he's as dead as everyone thought we were for all these months."
"You sound almost pleased that our old Master is dead," Flint said.
"I'm pleased with the freedom this gives us, to start fresh, and recreate the Sith our own way. The passing of a Dark Lord has always meant the rise of a new one, or, in our case, two new ones. And we have so many plans." Lumiya turned in her seat and put one gleaming finger in the middle of Flint's armored chest. "Plans you dreamed up and made me believe in. Plans we could never have made real if the Emperor hadn't been destroyed. And if Vader had survived the battle of Endor, there might still be an Order of the Sith, but it would be his, not ours. Don't get me wrong, Flint. I know we owe him a great deal, but I also enjoy being in charge."
"It still bothers you, doesn't it, that Vader refused to let you go after Skywalker?" Flint asked, looking steadily into her eyes. He saw a spark there, always burning, flare slightly at the mention of that name. Flint frowned. He had hesitated to bring this up, but now that they had come to an important juncture, he had to know. "Now that you're free of him, is that what you're going to do?"
Lumiya looked away and faced out the wide viewport. She began piloting the shuttle towards the high stone spire on which the Sith castle was perched. She was silent as they approached, until the dark structure, a replica of a lost Sith monastery from Horuz, loomed out of the storm. "I've thought about that..." she said quietly, "and I've decided that my commitment to the Sith is stronger than my need for revenge. Luke Skywalker's death can wait for the day when our order is secure." Flint knew she could sense his relief at her answer. He simply let the matter drop and sat down next to her in the co-pilot's seat. Without talking, they maneuvered the Gamma class shuttle to a gentle landing on the empty platform next to the deserted looking, helmet shaped complex. After suiting up in protective gear, they crossed the acid lashed landing area and entered the Castle, unobserved and unmolested. The inner halls were equally deserted. It did appear that, after Vader's death, the keepers of his private sanctum had quietly abandoned it, taking anything of value with them. Flint and Lumiya walked the long corridors of durasteel-reinforced stone in silence, haunted by memories of their year-long training in this place. Well-remembered Sith carvings and heavy statues remained, as did the great domed hall with its painted parade of Dark Lords of the distant past. Now, no one would be there to paint Darth Vader's image onto that ceiling. This place would be left behind as a mute testimony to a long history, whose continuation would belong to another future time and place.
Once past the central hall, the Sith climbed a spiral staircase that led to the castle's single high tower. They paused at the sealed entryway to Vader's own private room. Flint keyed in a recognition code on the door's control panel, and it slid smoothly aside. Inside, they crossed to the gleaming black meditation pod, ignoring the brooding Sith statues that inhabited various alcoves around the room. Lumiya opened a panel on the side of the meditation chamber, and entered a code that she and Flint had been entrusted with a year ago by their Dark Lord. She and Flint stood back. There was a deep mechanical groan, and instead of the top and bottom halves of the chamber separating to open it, the entire pod rose towards the ceiling on a black cylindrical column. On the face of the column was a magnetically sealed door, with no visible controls.
Flint looked at Lumiya. "All right, this is it. Are you ready?" She nodded, a hungry expression on her face.
Both of them closed their eyes, and opened themselves to the Force. Through the Eyes of the Force, they could see past the closed door to the opening mechanism behind it. With a combined push from their minds, it grudgingly shifted into position and the door swung smoothly open, revealing a large storage compartment within the column. It was what the Sith had come for.
Lumiya immediately knelt beside the opening and began to pass the contents to Flint. These included a number of thick leather-bound books, obviously of great antiquity, an ornate dagger with a glowing yellow jewel set into the hilt, a collection of scrolls, several medallions, and a purple box made out of crystal and inscribed metal. Flint held up the latter.
"Here's the greatest treasure," he said reverently. "The Holocron of Exar Kun, given to Lord Vader by the spirit of Kun himself." Lumiya passed him a long gray sword and began to get up. "That's everything," she said. "Not much after so many millennia, but it'll have to do. Then a tiny gleam caught her eye, deep in the shadows of the hidden compartment, where she had almost missed it. "Wait a moment - there's something else here." She reached in a slim metallic arm and withdrew a small box lined with dark velvet. It was open, and nestled in its soft interior was a deep red crystalline sliver. The fragment glowed softly, a rich light that seemed to dance on the crystal like red sunlight on water. Lumiya handed the box to Flint.
"What's this?" he asked, taking it. "I've never seen it before. Is it new, or did Vader hide it from us?"
"I have no idea," she replied, "but whatever it is, it's attractive. It makes me want to touch it..."
Flint removed one gauntlet and carefully lifted the splinter from its box. He was moving to pass it to Lumiya when a startling shock pulsed through him from his hand. He recoiled and dropped the crystal to the floor.
"What's wrong?" Lumiya demanded. "Did it burn you?"
"No...no, I'm all right," said Flint, recovering. "It isn't hot at all. It was more like...a sudden rush of the Force, pouring into me. I was just surprised, that's all. I think it magnifies the Force, somehow."
Lumiya bent to pick it up. She held it in her prosthetic palm and frowned in disappointment. "I don't feel anything...well, no matter - we'll take it with us for study." She snapped the small box shut with the sliver inside, then swung the compartment door closed. When the secret door's seal was restored, the column descended again, lowering the meditation chamber to the floor.
Flint looked at the tooth-shaped closure of Lord Vader's pod, somehow expecting it to crack open, rise apart, and reveal the Sith Lord glowering at them within. But of course it never would again.
Lumiya was looking at the small pile of Sith artifacts. "This won't be enough," she said thoughtfully. "We'll need more knowledge to accomplish our goals."
"Then we'll just have to find it out there somewhere," said Flint. "We'll sift through what we have here, study the Holocron. Maybe we'll find clues, lost trails to follow to the places of old Sith power..."
"Let's get out of this heap of cold stones and head for space then," said Lumiya impatiently. "It's just full of old ghosts anyway."
The Sith returned to their ship and lifted off without looking back. Behind them, Bast Castle crouched like a crustacean huddling alone in the pounding rain. Darth Vader's lofty house was empty, for now...
Eleven Years Later...Yavin Four...
Master Skywalker stared disconsolately at the huge, empty chamber at the heart of the decayed Palace of the Woolamander. The ceiling stones had recently caved in and tumbled to the floor, allowing dusty light to invade where it hadn't been welcome for four millennia. The weak sunbeams cast light on the eroded flagstones at the Jedi Master's feet, but they provided no illumination for him. There are no answers here, thought Luke. Exar Kun is gone forever. We destroyed him ourselves. But somehow the Sith live on...and I don't have the slightest idea what to do about it.
A tentative electronic warble reminded the Master of his faithful droid companion, R2-D2. The little blue R2 unit was always able to sense Luke's moods somehow, and like a patient and compassionate pet, listen to Luke's troubles while offering simple support. This was certainly a time when Luke needed that. He felt overwhelmed by the burden of his choices, weak with indecision, and entirely bereft of the optimism he needed to see this through. Artoo had no idea what he was up against, but Luke appreciated the droid's trying.
"Oh, Artoo..." said Luke, letting his inner despair come out in his forlorn tone, "what am I going to do? Part of me, a crazy part I guess, just wants the dark side to go away forever. For the battle to just be over. But it seems like I can never have that. Even when the Emperor and Vader were gone, there were still the Nightsisters of Dathomir, and then Master C'Baoth." Luke snorted. "Then the Emperor reborn, and Exar Kun. Why can't we defeat the dark side once and for all?" Artoo emitted a sympathetic sound.
"And now there's the new Sith," Luke sighed. The new Sith had seemed to come out of nowhere, an order fully formed, to rival the fragile new order of Jedi Knights. Luke was full of anxiety for the survival of the Academy he had worked so hard to build. Another Sith War, like the one fought against Exar Kun so long ago, would most likely destroy the Jedi, so soon after their rebirth. But the specter of war was not what most disturbed the Jedi Master. War was something he could understand. What particularly unbalanced him was that the new Sith claimed to want peace. A truce. Luke couldn't believe it. That simply wasn't how the dark side operated.
"Artoo," said Luke, "play me back the message from the Dark Lords again." Luke didn't know why he asked. He had already seen it a dozen times. From the first time, when the holomessage hyperspace capsule had been delivered into his hands after being picked up near Coruscant, to the most recent, the message continued to bewilder him with its implications. The patient droid's holoprojector lit up, and soon two figures were standing by Luke, flickering in the dusty gloom: Flint and Lumiya, the Dark Lords of the Sith.
After seeing the message for the first time, Luke had been shaken by the sense that he had met both of them before. Somewhere, years ago, he had encountered Flint, the tall, stern man in the black plate armor. And Lumiya, the slim, red-haired woman clad entirely in gleaming, form-fitting silver-gray metal. Luke had used Force-enhanced memory skills to solve the mystery, but what he found only puzzled him more.
He had met Flint on an Imperial industrial world called Belderone, during the galactic civil war. The young man had wanted Luke to train him in the Force, and had accosted Luke in a crowded marketplace. Luke had firmly told Flint that he could be no one's teacher - Luke had not even met Yoda yet - and moved on, putting the encounter out of his thoughts. As for the other Dark Lord, Luke remembered her as Shira Brie, a Rebel pilot from Kulthis Base when Luke was briefly stationed there. She and Luke had been introduced, and had talked a few times, but that was all. Before he could learn more about her, she had been killed in a raid on Vader's fleet, during the evacuation of the base. Yet, here she was, apparently alive.
None of it added up.
As the holoimage played, Luke heard the rough, deep voice of Lord Flint speak the words that were becoming very familiar to him.
Greetings, Jedi Master Skywalker. We are Lord Flint and Lady Lumiya, Dark Lords of the new Sith. We are aware that you have reestablished the Jedi Order, and we want you to know that the order that gave rise to Darth Vader has also been reborn through our efforts. It thrives in a hidden location far from New Republic space. The Jedi and the Sith have been enemies for countless centuries, and in the most recent conflict, both orders came to near extinction. Now, two young new orders have arisen from the ashes of the old. It should be clear to you that a new conflict could wipe out both of us. But we don't have to be slaves of the past. I say we can learn from it instead. We can create a truce between the Jedi and the Sith, and flourish independently. We thought that you, who has walked the line between the dark side and the light, would understand the Force enough to see the importance of this proposal. We invite you to the Sith System, for formal negotiations to establish a truce. Your personal safety, as well as that of any companion you bring, is assured. We will meet on the Sith homeworld on the last day of the third standard galactic month, if you agree to come. The precise location of our world must remain, understandably, a secret until negotiations are concluded. For this reason, we have arranged a rendezvous in the Dagoris system. From there, you will be taken to the Sith System on one of our ships -"
"That's enough, Artoo," said Luke abruptly. "Turn it off." Flint and Lumiya winked out, leaving the Master alone with his thoughts again. Luke simply didn't trust the offer of the message. No darksiders he had ever met before would keep their word once a truce was established. Why should these two be any different? The invitation itself could well be a trap, designed to capture or kill the only Jedi Master left, himself. On the other hand, could he afford to ignore the message? Lord Flint's point about a conflict between the orders was important - it could destroy both. Could a truce really work, Luke wondered? Could he ever trust the dark side enough to make any agreement worth the risk?
Luke had lived with the dark side for a long time now. It had corrupted and killed his father, separated him from his twin sister, and taken his mother away. In the form of his second Master, Emperor Palpatine, the dark side had almost corrupted Luke himself. Only his Jedi sister had saved him from his doom. Luke suspected that his level of conflict with the dark side set him apart from even his Master, Yoda. Had Yoda ever faced so much darkness? On his less charitable days, Luke sometimes thought that Yoda had taken the easy way out by hiding from the conflict on Dagobah. But he knew that wasn't true. The true conflict with the dark side was internal, not external. Luke had faced, and gone beyond, his own darkness, years ago. He shouldn't be so torn up about it at this point. So why was he? Why was it so personal after all this time?
The answer was there, just behind a wall of pain in his mind.
Callista. Callista, his lost love, had been taken from him by the dark side. Her powers in the light side had been blocked, and they had been horrified to find out that Callista could only surmount her block by giving herself to dark side. Unable to live with Luke but without the Force, she had left him to search for answers on her own. Alone and miserable, Luke had fallen into a depression, a deep rut in which he still remained. Worse, he had become fatalistic and pessimistic, changes his friends could see were dangerous to him. A few months ago, he had even come close to a kind of suicide. Tortured by the Force-disrupting influence of the crystal star, Luke had faced being consumed by an alien creature called Waru. He had felt such bleakness in his soul that he had whispered, "Yes, take me...", and only Leia had saved him again. Now Luke seriously wondered if he was emotionally fit to go and face the Sith. He might harbor a reckless lack of concern for his own fate, or a desire for vengeance against the dark side itself.
After hearing the message for the first time, Luke had shared it with some of those closest to him, hoping for advice to push him into a decision. Predictably, his sister Leia, the Chief of State of the New Republic, had been skeptical...
"Luke," she had said, "think about who must have trained these people! It could only have been our father, and you know what that means. How can you trust anyone who had Darth Vader as their teacher? Besides..." Leia's face had creased with concern. "I'm worried about you. And I think you know what I'm talking about. Han's worried too. Maybe you shouldn't go on this mission. Could you send someone else to represent you?"
No, Luke couldn't. Because of who he was, Vader's son, he felt responsible for dealing with what his father had left behind.
"At least take lots of Jedi with you," she had said. "Take Kyp, and Kam at least. Promise me."
Luke had promised he would think seriously about everything she said.
Kam Solusar and Kyp Durron had been all in favor of coming along. Luke had contacted them in their respective systems, where each was acting as a Jedi Guardian. Kyp had been rather agitated at the news. "The Sith!?" he had exclaimed. "I can't believe it! After we went through so much agony with Exar Kun around, suddenly a whole bunch more of them show up? This is ridiculous!"
Kyp had been taken over by Exar Kun and used to nearly kill Master Luke and Han Solo. He had killed his own brother during the destruction of Carida. There was no love lost between him and anything connected with the Sith.
"I say we go in with a New Republic fleet and blow them into little pieces, before they have a chance to come to Yavin and do the same to us. This is one problem we can solve before it gets out of hand."
Kyp's volatile response was of little use to Luke, and while Kam Solusar was more reasonable, his advice ran to the opposite extreme. "I wouldn't worry about it, Luke. They're probably worried about us! Think about it...they're alone out there, somewhere, few in number, and they know we're this no-nonsense Jedi force that can take down people like the Emperor, and wipe out places like Byss. As far as they know, once we find out where they are, they're next. So they send this message, asking for a truce. It really shows that they're weak. Listen, Luke, I say you tell this Flint that he has to come to you. Don't let these posturing pretenders dictate terms to you. And whatever you decide, I'm there if you need me."
But Luke's instincts told him he couldn't do what Kam said. They told him that this truce was too important for the future, and that he had to play it straight. Luke had learned to trust those instincts. He had been right about his father, and he was right about this...or was it his death wish creeping out again, as it had with Waru? How much of that despair on Crseih Station had been due to the crystal star, and how much had come from inside him?
Luke's comlink rudely interrupted his thoughts. He held it up, annoyed. "Luke, this is Tionne," the comlink crackled. "I'm sorry to disturb you, but you have an urgent message. The caller said you would want to hear this right away."
"Well, who is it?" demanded Luke, frowning.
"She says her name is Halla," said Tionne. "She's calling from Tatooine. She says it's not her that needs to talk to you. Something called the Kaiburr Crystal does. Luke, does that make any sense to you?"
Luke couldn't answer for a long moment. His eyes were wide, his body frozen. Finally, he stammered, "I - I don't know. I mean yes. Maybe. I'll be right there!" Luke switched off the comlink. "Come on, Artoo. Things have just gotten a whole lot better...or a whole lot worse!"
Luke ran from the ruined Palace.
"Come in, come in boy," said Halla, motioning Luke into the doorway of her simple one-story stone dwelling. "You're probably not used to the heat anymore. Come on in and I'll bring you some water. Hey, still got that little droid, I see. Hello, Artoo. You keeping this high and mighty Jedi Master from getting into too much trouble?"
Artoo beeped affirmatively as he rolled in after Luke.
Halla's home was crowded with looms and weaving machines, heaps of fabric and bundles of thread. Luke found a seat among the clutter and relaxed. In a moment, Halla bustled in carrying two glasses of cold water.
"How's business?" asked Luke, taking the glass gratefully.
"Oh, same as usual. Always a demand for quality clothing in a place like this. Do you know I even sell to the Sandpeople? 'Course I have to bring the merchandise out of Anchorhead to the desert, 'cause they won't come anywhere near here, unless it's for a raid. But you should see some of the beautiful crystals they give in trade." The gray haired, tough looking woman eyed Luke critically. "You could use a new set of Jedi robes yourself, you know. That one's looking pretty ragged." She smiled. "And your credit's good with me." Halla took a long drink and sighed. "It's good to see you, boy. Been a few years since the last time, hasn't it?"
"Halla," said Luke gently, "about why I came."
Halla's face fell and she paled slightly. "Yes, yes of course, Luke. I know I made you rush here, and I'm thankful that you did. I was just scared, and I didn't know what to do. All these years, I've taken care of the crystal for you, and nothing's happened. It's been peaceful, and I've been happy here. Got lots of good friends, good people. People stick together out here, but you know that...Then, all of a sudden, the crystal seemed to...to wake up. In the middle of the night, it started blazing away in its hiding place and calling for you! I was so frightened, I thought Pomojema himself might show up. It's been quiet since then, and I've calmed down, too. I suppose you'll want to see it right away...?"
"I think that would be best," said Luke. Halla led him to her small bedroom. She moved the bed to one side, and cleared away a variety of weaving supplies to reveal a small trapdoor in the floor. Her wrinkled fingers lifted it up, and immediately, a warm red glow bathed her time-worn face. She reached in and lifted out a multifaceted crystal as large as her head. The crimson radiance pulsing steadily from the gemstone seemed almost alive. Luke immediately felt the stirring in the Force as Halla's flesh and minor Force sensitivity caused the crystal to react.
"Here it is, Luke," she said reverently. "The Kaiburr Crystal. All that time, I hunted for it on Mimban, thinking it would bring me such power, then I found out it simply wasn't for me...and it ended up hidden here under the bed, just waiting...I wonder if maybe it just got tired of waiting...?"
"I left it here for a reason," said Luke, gazing into the shifting luminescence. "At first, I didn't want it to fall into the hands of Vader, or the Emperor. At the time, I knew that if it came to a fight, I couldn't keep them from taking it. And that would have had some awful consequences. Things just seemed to come thick and fast, even after the war ended. I never had the time to study it any further. And really, it was just as well. The Emperor wasn't really gone, and I fell into his service for a while...If Palpatine, or even Master C'Baoth had possession of the crystal, there might not be a New Republic today. I've been afraid of the crystal, too, I guess. I didn't understand it, and I wanted to be a Master before I dared to use it..."
"Oh!" said a high-pitched, gravelly voice behind Luke. "Master, are you? Hmm? Heh heh heh!"
Luke nearly jumped out of his skin. He spun as Halla recoiled in surprise, her eyes wide. Sitting on the bed was the transparent blue apparition of a wrinkled little alien with long pointed ears and stubby clawed hands and feet. It smiled impishly at Luke and Halla.
"Master Yoda," gasped Luke. "I - I don't believe it!"
The softly glowing figure raised one finger and pointed critically at Luke. "Don't believe it? Taught you these lessons before, I have. Always students forget what they have learned. Obi-Wan told you, always with you would I be."
Luke shook his head and blinked, but Yoda remained. "I'm sorry, Master, it's just that...well, Ben said he could no longer contact me, so I assumed -"
"And yet," Yoda interrupted him, "here I am, with you. The crystal changes matters. Powerful it is. It allowed me to call you. Now, we have much to discuss. Yes, important challenges do you face, young Skywalker."
Luke marveled at how quickly he had gone from Master to student in Yoda's presence. He also felt a pleasure he had missed for a long time. The pain of Callista's loss receded for a while. Luke had his old teacher back. He couldn't help but smile, even as he raised the topic that had troubled him so much. "You mean about the return of the Sith."
"Yes, Luke. In your hands, the future rests. A better future, if you succeed. A long time have the Sith and the Jedi fought...Hmmm. But peace you must achieve, for the Jedi to survive."
"Excuse me," said Halla weakly, "but what's going on here, boy?"
Luke had forgotten Halla. He turned to her apologetically. "Halla, this is Master Yoda, my teacher. Yoda, this is Halla, a good woman who helped Leia and me find the Kaiburr Crystal and guarded it here for years."
Halla stood stiffly, and gave a little nervous bow. "Glad to meet you, Master Yoda." She was startled when the little wizened creature gave her a sly wink and an admiring once-over.
"Good taste in women you have, young Skywalker," Yoda said matter-of-factly to Luke.
"What?" said Luke. "No, she isn't - Halla is just a friend," he protested, amused. This was a side of Yoda he hadn't seen before, but years ago, an old woman named Mother Rell had warned him about it on Dathomir.
"About the Sith," said Luke, changing the subject. "Am I doing the right thing in going alone to create a truce with them?"
Yoda turned serious. "Many challenges have you faced, Luke. Often have you defeated the dark side. This time, your struggle is not for victory." Yoda leaned intently towards Luke. "Luke, the dark side and the light side are both part of the Force. Necessary are they. Both sides need expression in living beings. And find it they will. The dark side hungers for domination, but the Force will find a balance. Between the Sith and the Jedi, a balance there was, long ago. Once, they lived apart and were not in conflict. Then grew the power of the Emperor. Destroyed the balance, did he. And so, strong was your destiny to restore it. And recreate the Jedi you did. But now, a new balance must be found, with the Sith."
"I think I understand," said Luke. "But Master Yoda, can I trust the Sith? I know avoiding war is something to strive for, but what if this is all a lie, or a trap?"
"Decide you must for yourself, what the truth is," said Yoda calmly. "Already know you, that which you need - the Force is your ally. And so is the crystal. Its master are you...use it well, Luke. Help you it can!"
"Its master?" Luke protested. "I don't even understand it!"
"That matters not. Tested you, it has. Now, it is yours. It answers your need, in the dark time ahead. Need it you will, to succeed."
"Tested me?" Luke asked. "What do you mean?"
"In the Temple of Pomojema," said Yoda patiently.
"In the Temple..." Luke frowned, remembering. "Master Yoda, there are things I still don't understand about that day. The strangest thing about it was that I faced Vader in that Temple, and...I won. I beat him. Later, I interrupted my training and left you to confront him so confidently because I'd beaten him before. But when I faced him again on Cloud City, he seemed almost like a different person. He was too strong for me. He could have killed me, like he tried to do on Mimban, but he didn't. Instead, he told me he was my father, and asked me to join him. I've never been able to reconcile those two times we met..."
"The cave," Yoda prompted. "Remember your failure at the cave on Dagobah."
Luke turned his thoughts inward. Finally, his face filled with understanding. "In the cave..." he said softly, "I let my aggression take over and I fought Vader...and killed him. But it wasn't real. It was a test. So the fight at the Temple of Pomojema wasn't real either? It was another test? The crystal's test?"
Yoda only nodded.
Luke looked at the crystal, pulsing in Halla's hands. "The crystal tested me. It created Vader out of my own mind to test my strength. That's why Vader was so different. He was just the way I imagined him at the time. Wanting revenge for the Death Star, arrogant, ready to kill me, but in the end, weaker than I was. So I beat him. I conquered my own dark side."
"No, Luke," Yoda corrected him. "That challenge came later. In the Temple, you mastered the crystal. Mastering yourself was the greater task."
"So," Luke said, "I'm to take the crystal with me, to face the Sith? Well, at least I'll have a way to defend myself, alone among my enemies."
"You will not be alone," said Yoda, smiling slightly. "Two people will you take with you. Confronted the new Dark Lords have they, in the past. Much can they tell you. You will need them to succeed as well. Find them you must."
"Who are they, Master Yoda?"
"Already do you know them, hmmm...Tank and Shally Boma are their names..."
Luke looked glumly at the neatly kept little house on the orderly residential street, so typical of the peaceful planet Balfor. Seeing the evidence of Tank's domestic bliss merely reinforced his depressed mood. Suddenly, his own ascetic lifestyle on Yavin, living in a stone temple in the jungle without a wife, seemed empty and primitive. Tank and Shally had a good marriage and a happy life - why couldn't he? Luke opened the front gate and went reluctantly up the path to the house. His feet seemed to drag; the momentary joy he had found in contacting Yoda's spirit had left him as soon as the sprightly ghost had faded away. Luke had said his good-byes, and taken the crystal from a bewildered Halla, who was relieved to see it go. Hiding the gem inside Artoo Detoo's storage compartment, he had flown his X-Wing to Balfor, thinking all the while that he couldn't have an unlikelier ally in this than Tank Boma.
Sure, they had grown up knowing each other on Tatooine, but they hadn't been friends. Tank's possessiveness of Biggs had led to a lot of friction between Tank and Luke. It was only made worse by their different backgrounds and value systems. Tank had grown up on his own as a street thief, taking on Biggs as a reluctant, belated father figure, while Luke was strictly raised by Owen Lars as a hard-working moisture farmer. By a strange twist of fate, both Luke and Tank had flown in the Battle of Yavin. Tank's grief at Biggs' death had been evilly manipulated by a dark spirit, almost certainly Exar Kun, and Tank had blamed the loss on Luke. Accusing Luke of betraying Biggs to his death, Tank had kidnapped Luke and tried to take him to Darth Vader, a potential disaster that was narrowly avoided.
In the aftermath, Luke and Tank had come to understand one another enough, if not to become friends, then to cease being enemies. They had gone their separate ways to fight for the Rebellion, and Tank soon fell in love with his pilot partner, Shally Edrin. At her invitation, Luke had officiated at their wedding. He knew that both of them had gone on to accomplish brave missions for General Cracken's Intelligence team, including the discovery of an AT-AT factory, and the liberation of three Mon Calamari Star Cruisers from an Imperial blockade. They had even flown their Y-Wing in the Battle of Endor. After the formation of the New Republic, they had continued to serve NRI, both rising to the rank of Commander while ferreting out the schemes of the remnants of the Empire. All that was very impressive, and Luke knew Tank and Shally must be highly competent, but he just couldn't imagine what use they would be against the Sith.
Luke pressed the signal key next to the door and waited. It slid open, revealing a tall, serious looking woman in her late thirties. Her long brown hair had an odd streak of white to one side, adding an unusual touch to her mature beauty. The woman's gray eyes widened in surprise, and her thin lips parted in a small gasp.
"Tank, honey?" she called. "You'll never in a million years guess who's here."
A short, thin man who looked a little over thirty came up behind her. He had large dark eyes below a thick mop of black hair, and a nose like a hawk's. His jaw dropped as he saw Luke. "You're right," he said. "I see it, and I still don't believe it!"
Tank's credulity was strained even further when he learned why Luke was there, and saw the message from the Sith Lords.
"You want us to do what ?!" Tank shouted, as Shally cringed. "I don't believe it! Luke, you've got to believe me when I say I never wanted to see those two again. That woman tortured me! She came this close to killing the both of us. I'd be crazy to go anywhere near her! And how did you find out you needed our help again? A little Jedi ghost told you? Shally, we're going to have to have our names taken out of the afterlife directory. That's the second mission from beyond we've gotten this week-"
"Calm down!" Shally said firmly, glaring at her husband. "Luke knows what he's talking about. Remember, this is the man who defeated Darth Vader and the Emperor, and who brought back the Jedi."
"Okay," said Tank. "Luke, I'm sorry. Seeing that image of Lumiya really did something to me. I just overreacted."
"Then I did come to the right place," said Luke. "You have encountered both of the new Dark Lords before. You have to realize that you two may be the only ones who have. I need to know what you know about them. I know it's a lot to ask, but I really need you to come along with me on this mission."
"Luke, we've been on dangerous missions before," said Tank seriously, "but never anything like the time we ran into these Sith. The Empire, I can handle, but the dark side of the Force? I don't know how you manage. It's like the worst times in my life were because of the Sith. The Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader, killed Biggs. And you told me it was a Sith spirit that took over my mind at Yavin. And during the siege of Calamari, these new Sith tortured us and tried to kill us."
"Don't forget, Tank," said Shally, "one of them saved our lives and let us go free."
"Maybe you'd better tell the story then," said Tank. "I'm a little too worked up over this."
Shally put a comforting hand on his shoulder and related their meeting with Flint and Lumiya. Eight months before the Battle of Endor, Shally and Tank had infiltrated an Imperial blockade of the Mon Calamari shipyards, in an attempt to sabotage the Imperial ships and let the newly constructed Rebel Star Cruisers escape. Their mission had seemed to fail when they were captured, but the worst was yet to come. Commanding the blockade were the mysterious Lord Flint and Lady Lumiya. They interrogated Tank and Shally with drugs and torture, and discovered information in Shally's R2 unit that exposed weaknesses in the Rebel shipyards' defenses. But the information had been planted for the Imperials to find. The shipyards were a trap, complete with decoy cruisers whose detonation destroyed the Imperial blockade. The real cruisers, constructed in an undersea shipyards, escaped into space, but Shally and Tank had to face the wrath of their captors. The deadly cyborg, Lumiya, had tracked and cornered them in a section of the crippled Star Destroyer.
"It was awful," Shally said quietly. "She used some kind of power on us, reducing us to helpless terror. We were at her mercy, and she had none. Just before she could kill us, Flint came and stopped her..."
"Flint," Lumiya called out uncertainly. "I have the Rebels that escaped. The ones that caused this to happen to us."
"No, Lumiya," said Flint. "We did it to ourselves. They simply gave us the means to defeat ourselves. I can't let you kill them. You have to let them go, and give up your hatred of the Rebellion. They're not the ones who destroyed your life. I did that. But I can save your life, if you let them go, and come with me now."
"Are you going to fight me to stop me from killing these two?" Lumiya demanded angrily.
"If you force me to, Lumiya," came his calm reply.
"So be it, Flint."
"The two of them fought like they could have killed each other, but suddenly Flint got the upper hand. He told us to get in the escape pod and go. That was the last we saw of them. I guess, seeing the message, that she decided to go with him. At the time, I remember I almost felt sorry for her, if you can believe it. Tank told me what made her the way she was, and I found I understood. I guess Slaughter, the person I used to be, and Lumiya had something in common. She and I both almost died in Starfighters, and we both wanted to use what was left of our lives for revenge. Fortunately, I had Tank to help me find something better."
"Shally, I can remember who she used to be, too," said Luke. "She served at Kulthis base as a pilot when you and Tank were there. When I was there with Wedge and Rogue Squadron, I spent some time with her. Her name was Shira Brie, wasn't it?" Shally nodded. "So how did she get to be this Lady Lumiya?"
"She told me, Luke," Tank spoke up. "And this is something you really ought to know before you go on this mission -" Shally gave him a kick under the table. "- before we go on this mission, all right. Don't kick me," he sulked. "She told that you destroyed her life, Luke. She said you shot down her TIE fighter during the evacuation of Kulthis Base. The Empire saved her body and turned her into a cyborg, but she hated herself from then on. She used to be an undercover agent for Imperial Intelligence, and she blamed you for taking it all from her. I'd watch out for her, Luke. She really wants you dead. Maybe that's why they invited you there in the first place."
Luke sat silently, digesting this troubling news. The story of Lumiya reminded him of his experience with Mara Jade, and he certainly didn't want to go through that again. "I had no idea," Luke said softly. "I remember that battle. We were in stolen TIE fighters, attacking Vader's strike fleet. We were using a special frequency to tell our own pilots from the Imperial ones, but they caught on to that and jammed us. Most of our pilots decided to jump for hyperspace at that point, and there was a moment..." Luke paused, trying to remember. "There was a moment when a TIE fighter was coming for me, and the only way I could decide whether to fire on it or not, was to use the Force. I wasn't a Jedi yet, but I was able to sense the other pilot's mind - an Imperial, an enemy. I fired, and the other ship spun away, shattered. It must have been Shira. If she was really a spy, then that explains it....And now she wants revenge..." "Don't be too hasty in judging her, Luke," said Shally. "Remember, it's not just Lumiya waiting for you. Flint is with her, and he's had twelve years to moderate her. I think, as Dark Lords go, he can be trusted to do the right thing. He wants this truce, not your death starting a war with the New Republic. Besides, twelve years is a long time. Maybe her hatred has faded by now."
"You see, that's what I need you there for," said Luke, taking Shally's hand. "I need you both to evaluate Flint and Lumiya. Help me decide if they can be trusted to keep the truce." Luke put a hand on Tank's shoulder as well. "And I need you to watch my back." Luke looked steadily at each of them in turn. "Master Yoda said I would need you. I trust him, and I hope you'll both trust me."
"I'm with you, Luke," said Shally, smiling at the Jedi Master. She looked at her husband.
Tank sighed, and nodded. "Biggs would never forgive me if I didn't watch your back. But I have to say, I've got a bad feeling about this..."
An X-Wing and a Y-Wing drifted in space, alone, at the coordinates specified by the Sith message. Luke, Tank, and Shally had been waiting for about four hours for someone to meet them. There was little to do except talk, and Luke was glad to do so in order to take his mind off their mission and his doubts about it. Not that his doubts weren't valid. There they were, one Jedi, depressed, and two civilians, both reluctant to face the Sith they feared, sitting in two snub fighters in deep space with no idea what was coming. It just didn't help to dwell on it. However, when the conversation somehow turned to Luke's relationships, he began to wish for the wait to end quickly. But Tank had been so curious, and Shally so supportive, that piece by piece, the story had come out.
"Let me get this straight," said Tank over the comm. "You actually fell in love with a disembodied spirit, living in a computer. But she was able to enter the body of a student of yours who wanted to die, so she could be with you. Then you found out her Jedi abilities were completely blocked. And there was no way to fix it, but she couldn't live with that. Then she realized she could use the Force, but only the dark side. She felt she just couldn't be close to you, so she left you with only a good-bye note, even though you told her you loved her the way she was...Damn it, Luke, that really burns! I don't blame you for being upset. I'd be biting blaster bolts if it was me. I mean, what does she want? How many Jedi Masters will she find out there? Who does she think she is, dumping the hero of the Rebellion?"
"Luke," Shally stepped in hastily, "From what you've told me, Callista must truly love you. Through the Force, you were as close as two people could ever be. She knew how wonderful you are, and she knew you deserved the best. She must have felt she couldn't give you the best part of herself until she overcame her problems. She said she'd come back to you, and I believe she will. If I were her, I'd want to come back as soon as I could. Have faith, Luke..."
Luke sighed. He was beginning to feel somewhat better, thanks to the distinctively masculine and feminine support of his companions. He was grateful to have them with him...until Tank broke the spell.
"Wouldn't it be horrible," Tank asked, "if we found Callista out there with the Sith?"
An uncomfortable silence settled over them all.
The X-Wing's long range sensors picked up an approaching vessel. Artoo emitted an excited warning and brought up the data on Luke's onboard computer. It was an old Imperial Star Galleon, a large, boxy ship well adapted for both cargo hauling and battle. The new arrival came up slowly alongside the two fighters. Abruptly, Luke's and Shally's cockpit comm units boomed with a deep voice.
"Master Skywalker. This is Savuud Thimram of the Sith. You may land your ships in our Star Galleon. Then we will jump to hyperspace and proceed to Thaarn. I will await your company in my quarters. We have much to discuss..." the voice concluded with a trace of dark humor, "former Supreme Commander Skywalker."
Luke shuddered at the blunt reminder of his service to the Emperor. So, the Sith had at least one of the Emperor's adepts among them. He set his jaw grimly. There was no turning back now. For good or ill, the Sith had arrived.
"Tell me, Savuud Thimram," said Luke, "why you're here with the Sith now." The Jedi Master leaned back in his chair, regarding the powerful adept across the table.
The adept's long eyes narrowed in hostility above his pug nose and stiff, tiny mouth. Thimram also leaned back and placed a leathery four fingered hand on his pointed chin. "You have some curiosity as to my poor fate, I take it? Well then. Perhaps we can exchange information of interest to each of us."
Luke nodded, his expression neutral. "What is it you want to know?"
"It's been a long time since the days on Byss when we were both in service to the Emperor," said Thimram. "I had the Master's trust, then, no small thing to accomplish. He was a great teacher, wasn't he, Master Skywalker? He taught you much about the dark side, didn't he? Do you share these things with your own students?"
Luke didn't answer.
"No? What a waste. Perhaps some of them would find them...interesting." Thimram leaned forward, clasping his hands together, his brown triangular face shadowed in the dimly lit cabin. "I understand you were there when he died at the hands of your small group of Jedi. I want to know how he died."
"There's not much to tell," said Luke, his discomfort growing. "He came for my sister's child, wanting to live in his body. He would have been defenseless as an infant, I thought, but he was insane, suffering from clone madness, and he was dying. Han and Leia were desperate to stop him in any case. Your Master was shot with a blaster...his energy form was released from his last clone, and a dying Jedi took it into himself. That Jedi died in the light, and took your Master with him, forever."
"An ignominious end, for the Master and for Byss," said Thimram, looking away. "I was off planet when it was destroyed by the Master's own weapon. When I returned...there was nothing to return to. We lost a great deal, that day. Most of the Emperor's adepts, his Sovereign Protectors and Sentinels, the Citadel, countless Imperial forces, many of the Emperor's books, his laboratories and creatures, even his Grand Vizier. And, I should add, the entire resident population of the planet, innocents all. The Rebels took a terrible toll in lives for the light side, did they not?" Thimram watched, pleased, as Luke's discomfort showed. "The survivors, such as myself, were beaten and close to hopeless. Some of us held out hope for Palpatine's miraculous return, but I suspected it was not to be. Once, he needed physical proximity to his clones to transfer to them, but as his power grew, he was able to enter them from across the galaxy. If he was going to return, he would have done it quickly. But now I know why he could not, and that he never will. Now, I can leave the past behind."
"How did you become part of the Sith?" Luke asked again.
"Lord Flint and Lady Lumiya came to us," replied Thimram, "ready to pick up the shattered pieces of the Dark Empire and build them into the new order of the Sith. They were to be the Dark Lords, of course, but by then, most of us didn't care about who had the most power. We only wanted shelter from the storm. And Flint and Lumiya were strong. They were Vader's students, heirs to the Sith way. We joined them willingly. But we were still few in number, and without a home. That was when I remembered Thaarn."
"That's where we're going now?" asked Luke, his pulse quickening. "The world of the Sith?"
"The homeworld of the Thaarnian race," said Thimram, "but being part of the Sith suits them. They've always been prone to strong aggression, quick anger, and deep fear. They have a long history of wars, mistrust, and struggling for survival. At some point, Force sensitivity manifested in them, but their racial tendencies led them to tap into the dark side exclusively. They believed that talismans and magic books were needed to release their powers. Very primitive, don't you think? But the Magian tyrants, the adepts among them, organized and civilized the people. Their harsh laws kept whole populations in line. They still had wars, but they resolved them through contests between the Magians themselves."
"What kind of contests?" asked Luke.
"Force battles, one on one, often to the death," replied Thimram, smiling darkly. "The winner extended his or her rule over the loser's territory, and the loser was killed or exiled from Thaarn."
Luke had the distinct impression that the adept wanted to engage him in just such a contest.
"It was because of one such exiled Magian," Thimram continued, "that the Emperor discovered the Thaarnian homeworld. His name was Urn Zelotes."
"I remember that name," said Luke, "from when I was...on Byss. People said it in fear, as if he had done something horrible."
Thimram grimaced. "Four years before your arrival, Zelotes and ten other adepts nearly succeeded in murdering the Master. Their punishment was...memorable. Because of his exile, Zelotes was consumed by a need to restore his power. He sought out the Master's teaching in hopes of going back to Thaarn and retaking his territory from Jarra Latinek, the Magian who beat him. But he never returned to challenge her. Once he saw how powerful he could be in the Dark Empire to come, he abandoned such petty plans. It was the failure of that dream to become reality that pushed him over the edge. So, Zelotes became infamous back on Thaarn, when his assassination attempt was cited as the reason for a ban on any subsequent Thaarnian emigration. Any of their race was to be killed on sight within Imperial space. Their whole world was exiled from the Empire. "But after the fall of Byss, I realized that Thaarnian beliefs about the Force could be easily blended with the Sith way. The Sith, too, used artifacts like swords and medallions, books and scrolls, to access and amplify their power. Flint and Lumiya agreed with me, and I gave them the location of Thaarn. They contacted the Thaarnians with the news that the Emperor was dead, and offered the remaining Magians partnership in creating the new Sith Order. It would be a new era of Sith knowledge, created out of Darth Vader's heritage, the lore of Byss, and Thaarnian magic alike."
"With Lumiya and Flint in charge of it all. Not a bad arrangement for them," Luke observed.
"They created the new Sith," said Thimram firmly. "The right to rule is theirs."
"No wonder the Emperor liked having you around," said Luke.
"Just so," replied Thimram. A call came over the cabin's comlink, the thin raspy voice of a Thaarnian announcing their arrival in the Sith System. "Come to the bridge and join your companions as we approach Thaarn," Thimram said, standing.
"One thing, before we go," said Luke, still sitting. "I'm wondering why one of the Emperor's most powerful adepts is sitting here talking with me rather than taking his chance at revenge for the Emperor's death?"
Thimram's eyes were cold as he looked steadily down at Luke. "Lord Flint wants this truce to happen. Don't delude yourself concerning the depth of my goodwill. Another time, another place, and we would see, you and I...but for now..."
Luke's eyes were equally hard as he met Savuud Thimram's stare and slowly nodded.
The creepy Thaarnians running the ship around them were making Tank and Shally very nervous. To the humans, the lizard skinned aliens looked cold and cruel. They generally had wedge shaped faces with wide, bald, bony heads tapering to grim pointed chins below lipless mouths. Their eyes were the most chilling thing about them. These were heavy lidded and set within deep folds of flesh, a pair of milky orbs that seemed to perpetually squint in an evil glare. Each Thaarnian wore distinctive flowing robes in a variety of colors and styles, from which their grayish arms emerged. They worked the Star Galleon's controls with long claw like fingers, saying few words not necessary to pilot the ship. Tank and Shally were deeply relieved when Luke came to the bridge, safe and sound after his encounter with Thimram. Tank had been sure he wouldn't see Luke alive again. He forced aside his fears as he saw the Jedi Master enter, and tried to revise his beliefs about the Sith. So far, they hadn't been hurt. Unless, of course, a suitably sadistic death was prepared for them on the Sith homeworld. Tank held close to Shally and smiled a little to show Luke that they were all right. Behind Luke, Savuud Thimram entered and began checking the navicomputer. The adept was apparently satisfied, and he faced the three humans.
"Esteemed guests," he said in his deep hollow voice, "Welcome to the Sith system." The main viewport behind him now displayed the vast curve of a planet. Also visible was a distant orange star. "It's not a very pleasant world, compared to what you're used to," commented Thimram as the ship descended. "Most of the surface is an arid wasteland, barren, cracked, uninhabitable. Those bodies of water you can see are concentrated salt seas. The Thaarnians live in the fertile valleys of the seven major mountain ranges. It's not a lot of habitable land and resources, so as you might guess, there have been a lot of wars to control it over the centuries. In the beginning, it was valley against valley, but the Magians were able to conquer larger territories...until the deserts stopped them from ruling over more than one mountain range. Below us now is the mountain State of the Magian Orl Lettow. You'll met all the Magian rulers once we dock at Sky City. There the Sith rule the planet from on high, above all the former mountain States, part of no single territory. That's important to the Thaarnian Sith. They're very competitive to say the least."
Tank carefully observed the Thaarnians as Thimram talked on. They seemed to ignore the adept standing in their midst discussing them. From their subtly subservient body language, Tank decided that they were probably afraid of the adept, and didn't dare to comment or interrupt him. As a race, they certainly seemed to know their place. Were they just tools of the Sith, to be used for whatever Flint and Lumiya were plotting? The thought of this grim race as an army in the hands of someone with the ambitions of an Exar Kun disturbed Tank a great deal.
The appearance of the majestic Sky City in the viewport did little to calm him. The orbiting atmospheric Sith sanctum was enormous, and was shaped like a trapezoidal solid. It looked too massive to be up in the air at all; if there were any propulsion systems, they were cunningly hidden, giving the impression that the structure had been lifted up by magic and set in the sky to rule those below. The top of Sky City was equipped as a modern spaceport. Each sloping side of the building, however, was designed like a great temple, with row upon row of heavy columns parading past recessed corridors open to the air.
Tank imagined that the interior was crowded with torture chambers and prison cells. As the Star Galleon moved in to dock, he wondered if he'd ever see the outside of the Sith stronghold again. His best guess was that truce or no truce, Lumiya wouldn't let him and his wife out of her hands a second time. But he was doing this for Luke, and he had to trust Luke to make things come out all right. Tank would have to do his best to evaluate the Sith for the Jedi Master who trusted him, even if every instinct cried out to start shooting his way out of this place. He felt he owed it to Luke, for all the things Luke had done to help the New Republic come to be. If a hero like that needed help, you had to give it to him. Besides, somewhere, Biggs was watching, and if Luke went in where Tank feared to tread, the old King of Beggar's Canyon would never let him live it down.
Lumiya watched as Luke Skywalker entered the negotiating chamber, keeping her expression calm, but seething inside. There he was, after all those years. The one who had taken her old life and left her with a painful existence as a cyborg, half a woman and half a cold, shining droid form. She felt Flint's eyes on her, but she showed no sign of her turmoil. She had hidden it from him for long years, and now was not the time to betray herself, not when her revenge was so close. At one time, she had almost believed Flint that her need for vengeance would naturally fade over time, but it hadn't happened. Every day, she suffered a constant stress, an eternal, low pain from the flawed interface between her cyborg systems and what remained of her flesh. When it inevitably became too much for her, and she had to slump in pain alone in her quarters, her thoughts were inexorably drawn to the one she held responsible. Luke Skywalker. Even the name filled her with hatred. It had been a challenge to hide her feelings from Flint as the truce drew near. She did love the gruff, handsome Dark Lord, and it was hard to fool him like that. It made her feel terrible to destroy the plans he had worked so hard on, but if the truce depended on Skywalker living, the truce would have to go.
The need to kill the Jedi Master was like a living thing inside her. At times, she worried that that part of her might not be entirely sane when it whispered that if she ever wanted her pain to go away, she had to return it to the one who gave it to her. She knew that sounded mad, but after all this time, she desperately wanted it to be true. After Luke was dead, at least some of the pain would surely go away; whether the mental or the physical, she didn't care.
Lumiya wondered if Flint would still love her after she did what she had to. She hoped he would. Over the years, as they worked together to rebuild the Sith, she had come to value his companionship greatly. In time, she had even overcome her physical self-loathing. Flint's patient support had carried her past her sorrow that no physical relationship was possible between them, and shown her that a deeper bond was possible through the Force. Even now, Flint must be probing along that bond, concerned for what I might do, she thought. Thankfully, Vader taught me the same mind- screening techniques he used on the Emperor. Let him wonder. Let him suspect. I'm sorry, Flint, but there's nothing you can do. The scales must be balanced. Pain for pain, a life for a life...
Luke walked solemnly down the wide steps to the large stone table, trying to take in all the details he could before the talks began. The decor of the great hall revealed much about the new Sith order. Like the rest of Sky City, it was primitive and warlike in style, with an emphasis on majesty. Thick columns lined the walls, and ornate weapons hung between them. Tapestries depicting the violent history of Thaarn were prominently hung. Clearly, the Thaarnian heritage was allowed to take center stage instead of the old Sith history. Flint and Lumiya evidently did want to start over with a fusion of the old and the new, and because this was the Thaarnian homeworld, it was only fair to honor their culture in this fashion. Seated at the table were the living embodiments of that culture, the ruling Thaarnian Magians. With their colorful, many layered robes and tall staves topped with glass globes, the stony faced leaders looked like they belonged in the fantastic setting. Luke recalled their alien names as told to him by Savuud Thimram: Ahz Granicus, Tuster Monduth, Jarra Latinek, Serl Chathos, Orl Lettow, Mov Ondos, and Jeth Sandage. He suppressed a shiver as their sunken eyes turned slowly to study him with reptilian coldness.
The legacy of Palpatine was not found in the decor, but in the persons sitting with the Magians at the giant table. Luke saw Savuud Thimram next to his old rival, Gwellib, an alien adept with a porcine nose set in a withered face below milky, pupil-less eyes. He also recognized Jappi Qaff, a dwarf darksider with a tall cylindrical hat, and Zenick Fesi, a tall, skeletal being with an impossibly long face crowned by a black skullcap. There were a few others he recalled from Byss, like Wim Joct, Deg Zorze, and perhaps a dozen more of the Emperor's former students in the dark side. Thimram had been correct. It was a pitiful remnant, compared to what had flourished on Byss. But they're still dangerous, Luke reminded himself. Especially against just one of me.
At the head of the table stood the new Sith rulers, Flint and Lumiya, the disciples of Darth Vader and the heirs to the secrets of Exar Kun and all the other Dark Lords of the past. Flint was wearing his black plate armor and blue cape, with his mirrored helm on the table in front of him. A long sword was belted to one side of his belt, a lightsaber to the other. Luke met the man's somber blue eyes and found himself surprisingly reassured by the big warrior's rough-hewn, open visage. His strong first impression was that Flint was unusual. There was something almost noble about him. Suddenly, Luke's expectations realigned themselves. Perhaps there was hope for this meeting, after all.
Then Luke shifted his gaze to Lumiya, and he felt his hopes sink. She met his stare with a look of piercing hate. Luke almost stumbled when he saw it. So, he decided, it's to be vengeance after all, and Flint doesn't know it. Luke forced himself to look steadily back at Lumiya, taking the opportunity to study her. She wore no mask, and her long red-brown hair fell free around her beautiful but arrogant face. The left side of her face was marred by a network of deep scars, running from her high forehead to her proudly defiant, jutting chin. Lumiya's cyborg body was composed of sleekly shaped sections of gleaming durasteel, cunningly fitted to blend into a smooth yet stark representation of the female form. The area of her stomach and thighs displayed complex circuits and controls, destroying the illusion that she might simply be wearing armor. From her modular belt hung a device Luke didn't recognize, a long cylinder, larger than his lightsaber, from which emerged a number of coiled metallic strands. Luke looked into her eyes, and sent out a mental message through the Force. Lumiya, he said silently, I don't want to fight you. I know you blame me for what happened to you, but I never did it on purpose. I didn't know it was you in that fighter. I couldn't have known what would happen to you later. Whatever happens here between us, I wanted you to know that.
There was no reply.
Flint watched Luke Skywalker and his companions file in, followed by their two R2 units, one green, one blue. He was impressed by how calm Luke seemed, walking steadily in his long brown Jedi robe, surrounded by the Sith. Flint wondered if he could be so calm if he was walking alone into a Jedi stronghold. Flint met Luke's eyes and held them for a moment of understanding, perceiving that the Jedi Master was committed to this mission. Flint breathed a sigh of relief. If Luke was going to cooperate, then all he had worked for was worth it. All the favors and persuasion to convince the survivors of Byss, all the promises made to the Thaarnians, and all the delicate work of winning over Lumiya. With this Jedi Master's help, a new and better future could be created for both of the orders to survive in.
Flint turned his gaze to Luke's companions. He was startled to find that he knew them. These were the very same Rebels that he had stopped Lumiya from killing twelve years ago, on the Star Destroyer Guardian. He couldn't recall their names, but he was certain of who they were. Yet, their presence puzzled Flint. He had expected Luke to bring powerful Jedi with him, not two normal humans. It was good for Flint that Luke had not brought Jedi, for no doubt his fellow Sith would feel less threatened and more cooperative. But why this particular choice? Flint wondered if it might be for some kind of subtle psychological advantage. These humans had handed Flint and Lumiya a humiliating defeat back then. Perhaps they were here to remind the Dark Lords of their own fallibility.
Luke and his friends sat down at the table, with their droids close by, and Flint decided it was time to begin. He rested one gauntleted hand on the hilt of his ancient Sith sword and raised the other high in the air. All eyes turned to him. "My fellow Sith," said Flint, "I ask you to welcome Master Skywalker to our assembly. He comes at my request to negotiate a truce between the Jedi and the Sith."
Luke stood up from his chair. "Thank you. These are my companions," he said. "Representing the New Republic, Commanders Tank and Shally Boma, from the planet Balfor. They're here to evaluate the Sith to determine if the New Republic needs to be concerned about you. Even though I am a Jedi Master, I cannot speak for my government. These Commanders are authorized to create a report for the Chief of State, Leia Organa, on whether the Sith are a military threat."
Flint saw the dark-haired man, Tank, give Luke a perplexed look, then Luke continued. "I am here to speak for the Jedi. I'm ready to hear your terms of peace."
Flint glanced at Lumiya. She seemed withdrawn, self-absorbed. That was good. At least she wasn't trying to kill the Jedi or his companions. When they had come to sit down, Flint had caught a flash of hate from Lumiya like a sliver of ice in his gut. He had almost expected her to leap over the table and tear into the Rebels who had shamed her and move on to finish off Luke as well. Flint resolved to watch her carefully throughout this whole thing. He loved her, but he knew he'd be lying to himself if he said he fully trusted her.
Facing the Jedi Master, Flint began his rehearsed speech. "The terms I propose are simple, and will not require long and detailed negotiations, because the issue at stake is simple. Survival. The great Sith War of four thousand years ago, and the destruction on Ruusan one thousand years ago, have had grievous effects on the Sith. By the time of Emperor Palpatine, there were but two Sith in all the galaxy. This was enough for the Emperor, who planned to live for a very long time. He made Lord Vader his lowly servant, and Vader lived with that shame for years. Finally, the spirit of Exar Kun contacted him and convinced him to train a new generation of the Sith. Lumiya and I were his students. We kept the legacy of the Sith alive. But it is not a legacy we blindly follow. We do not embrace the rapacious nature of Exar Kun, or the Imperial Warlord's power of Darth Vader. We do not plot the destruction of the Jedi or the New Republic. Instead, we wish to coexist, independent, but at peace. It was my initiative to create a truce. I knew that if the Jedi and the Sith were to encounter each other unexpectedly, there could be misunderstandings, leading to destructive conflict, and our mutual downfall. It would be like the Emperor's purge all over again. I decided to make us known to you before that could happen, and appeal to the Jedi code. The Jedi have always claimed to favor peace over conflict. I propose a simple mutual non-aggression pact. The Sith will remain localized to this system, and the Jedi will not interfere with the development of our order. What do you say to this, Master Skywalker?"
Luke seemed to pause in thought, then gave a steely reply. "So the Sith pledge to forgo aggression. The Jedi have no need to pledge that. Violence on our part is always defensive. We need no formal agreement to express our commitment to peace. On the other hand, the dark side has a poor record for trustworthiness. What assurances are there that the Sith will keep their word?"
"Always defensive?" said Lumiya sharply. "What hypocrisy is this? The Jedi have been infamously destructive of followers of the dark side. Need I remind the great, pacifist Jedi Master about the Emperor? And the last Dark Lord of the Sith, his own father? And the Darkside Warriors of Byss? And Master C'Baoth? And the entire planet of Byss itself? Do you call that non-aggression? There is a great deal of death on your hands, and on those of your followers. And you ask for assurances of our good behavior. It is you who should assure us of your changed ways, Master Skywalker!"
Flint stepped in to calm things down. "Very well," he said loudly. "It is obvious that neither the Sith nor the Jedi can prove that they will honor the truce in the future. But think about this. The reason I called for the truce still exists. We still hold each other's destruction in our hands. If we only follow common sense, neither of us will break our agreement."
"Do the Magians favor this truce?" Luke asked abruptly.
In response, one of the Thaarnians stood. He was gaunt and robed in the color of dried blood. His bald head had a cloth covering, from which two long strips hung past his perpetual frown. His eyes glared out from beneath his shadowing brow, giving the unmistakable impression of power, ready to lash out at any time. "I am Orl Lettow," he rasped, just loud enough for Luke to hear. "The people of Thaarn joined with the Sith for their own betterment, not to attract destruction from the fleets and the Force users of the outer Galaxy. We favor this agreement if it will allow our world to go on as it has, unmolested."
Luke gave a small bow to Lettow, and the Thaarnian sat back down. Then the Jedi Master faced the Dark Lords. "I need to have a few minutes alone with my companions, before I give you my answer," Luke said.
"Of course," replied Flint. "Take all the time you need."
"What was that about Leia Organa and our report?" asked Tank once they were alone.
"I thought if I made you official," said Luke, "they'd be less likely to harm you."
"I can tell this situation has really got you rattled," said Shally, "but you're holding up really well."
"Thanks," said Luke. "Now what are your impressions about Flint and Lumiya?"
"Flint is just like I remember him," she said. "Despite what side he's on, I think you can trust him to keep his word."
"I agree," said Luke.
"But Lumiya's a different story," Shally continued. "I had hopes that she'd have changed, but I have to say, when I saw the way she looked at you, I knew she'd only gotten worse. She doesn't seem to care about Tank and me any more, but I think she wants to kill you."
"I know, Shally. And with the two Dark Lords divided against each other, no agreement we make will be worth anything. I need time to think about this, time to try to work things out..."
"Okay, Luke," said Tank. "I have an excuse we can offer to buy some time. It's something that's been genuinely bothering me, anyway. The Dark Lords and the Emperor's old cronies, they're kind of a known quantity. We know what we can expect from them. The real unknown here is the Thaarnians. We don't know much about them, and they're half of the Sith. I've been wondering where they really stand in this order. Are their people really being helped by the Sith? Or are they just tools? Maybe dangerous ones that can be used against us..."
"I see your point, Tank," said Luke. "What can we do?"
"Well, the only way to find out the answers is to go down to the surface and look around. That should give you the time you need, too."
"I knew there was a good reason I brought you along," Luke smiled.
Back in the great hall, Luke addressed Flint and Lumiya once more. "Dark Lords of the Sith," he began, "as it stands right now, I'm in favor of the truce. But," he said, raising one hand, "before I make my final decision, I need to satisfy myself about something. You've pledged that aggressive Sith rule wouldn't be extended to other parts of the Galaxy, but I need to see that Sith rule isn't aggressively destroying this system. I need to see that the Thaarnians really benefit from this arrangement. Unless I know that, I cannot, in good conscience, create a treaty with potential oppressors." Luke turned to Orl Lettow. "I request that I be given a tour of your state, Lord Lettow, so I can see your people where they live, and put my concerns to rest."
Luke saw Lumiya begin to form an angry retort, then inexplicably refrain from commenting. She did continue to glare at him.
"Is this acceptable, Lord Lettow?" asked Flint.
"I will tolerate it," said the Thaarnian dismissively.
"Then we will make arrangements for a tour," said the Dark Lord.
"Thank you, Lord Flint," said Luke, bowing.
Lumiya watched Luke from her chair, staring at him obsessively. She was memorizing his face and imagining how it would look bloodied in death, lacerated by her light whip. The Jedi Master's plan to go down to Thaarn served her well. She knew a place there where she could trap Luke away from anyone else. Then he would be hers, and hers alone. Right up to the end. Smiling coldly, she began to construct her plan...
The next morning, Luke gathered early with his companions on the landing platform of Sky City. The morning sun bathed the clouds in delicate orange as the three humans conferred alone, before the arrival of their guides.
"Tank, Shally, I'll need you to help me watch Lumiya while we're down there," Luke said. "I think she'll try something today. If that happens, I'm going to need Artoo Detoo by my side. I have something hidden inside him that Yoda told me I'd need to see this through." The little blue droid rolled over and softly bumped his Master on the leg.
"No, not yet, Artoo, but thanks," Luke said, patting Artoo's dome.
"We'll do our best, Luke," said Tank, "you know that." Both he and Shally put a hand on Luke's shoulders.
Artoo Beesix chirped and rolled over to the little group as well.
Shally smiled down at her droid. "Of course we'll need you, too," she reassured him.
"Here come our hosts," said Tank. Walking towards them were Lord Flint and Lady Lumiya, followed by the dignified Magian, Orl Lettow. Flint's deep blue cape and Lettow's rust robes billowed softly in the morning wind. The Sith leaders greeted their guests formally. Tank watched Lumiya carefully, but the cyborg seemed calm. If she was planning anything, it didn't show.
They all boarded a shuttle, and lifted off from Sky City. Soon, they were descending towards the high mountain peaks of the State of Lettow. They flew over sparkling mountain lakes and shadowy valleys. The closely populated lowlands seemed clogged with the evidence of civilization. The lower mountain slopes appeared to be used for terrace farming, but the highest areas remained a cold wilderness. High on the slopes of the tallest mountain was a complex of impressively large buildings. As they passed over what looked like a palace, Orl Lettow informed them that this was his former seat of government before the Sith came. It was fitting to the Thaarnians to have their rulers literally above them. Now, however, it was a mere household, as Lettow ruled from Sky City as part of the Sith.
The shuttle dropped smoothly down into a dimly lit valley that contained an apparently typical Thaarnian community. They disembarked into the steamy air and were immediately assaulted by the sounds and movement of a bustling crowd streaming around the simple landing area. Everywhere they looked, the streets were thronged. Thaarnians hurried in all directions, their long robes turning the scene into a riot of color. One odd thing Tank noticed was that, unlike in cities like Mos Eisley, there was no jostling or colliding. Every Thaarnian seemed to keep his distance from every other, despite the crowded conditions. That would, he reflected, make it hard to be a street thief around here. The buildings Tank saw were primitive, made mostly of wood and stone, with an occasional metal structure. Transportation seemed to be strictly on foot, so the group stepped out into the flow of pedestrians. Tank wasn't surprised that Lord Lettow was given an extra wide berth by the common people as he strolled along carrying a tall staff with a smoky glass ball on top. Magians were evidently well respected, or at least feared, by the populace. Even so, Tank's instincts were on edge. He sensed an undercurrent of contained hostility in the seeming order of the teeming aliens. It was not long before he was proven correct.
As they walked, Tank was suddenly distracted by the beginning of a conflict on the other side of the square they were in. He grabbed Luke and pointed as the crowd instinctively recoiled from the center of the disturbance. One running Thaarnian had slammed into another, seemingly by accident, sending them both into a humiliating crash as they fell into a fruit stand, collapsing it. One of the aliens clambered out of the wreckage, wiping at the smeared fruit on his clothes. As far as Tank could tell, he was loudly proclaiming that it was a mistake, but the second alien wasn't listening. He struggled to his feet with an unreasoning anger contorting his face. He lunged at the clumsy offender, who managed to duck away. Surprisingly, the first Thaarnian didn't fight back; facing his attacker with his arms at his sides, he backed slowly away. But the second Thaarnian had taken up a heavy piece of wood from the fruit stand, and was using it as a club. It whistled through the air, barely missing the head of the first alien, who ducked and fell to the ground. As the enraged Thaarnian moved in to smash his victim, he was suddenly stopped in his tracks. His arms were lifted up and pinned to the air as the club flew from his wrenched open fingers. A wild fear filled his eyes as he struggled, hanging on nothing, while his victim scrambled away. Four yellow-uniformed Thaarnians ran up to him and secured his arms behind him. The desperate alien fought crazily against them, twisting and kicking in an attempt to get free.
Then Tank saw Orl Lettow step forward, raising his hands toward the violent captive. The prisoner seemed to go slack suddenly, hanging loosely in his captors' arms. Without further disturbance, the four Thaarnians in yellow held up their left hands to Orl Lettow in a kind of salute, and hustled the criminal from the square.
Luke was staring at the Magian in angry surprise. "You stole his life energy, didn't you? I felt it. It was what the Emperor's adepts used to do on Byss!" he accused.
Flint quickly faced Luke and hastened to explain. "Don't judge too quickly, Master Skywalker. We haven't recreated the Emperor's world here. Yes, the adepts of Byss taught the Magians how to take life energy from others, but they only use it to calm the aggression of those who cannot follow the law. It serves a purpose here, not like on Byss, where they leeched the life from the population just to feed their own dark side power and prolong their own lives."
Luke was silent for a moment, then he nodded, and reluctantly faced Orl Lettow. The Magian was glaring at him, irritated at his outburst. "My apologies, Lord Lettow. I'm the alien here, and I don't understand your ways yet. It won't happen again."
"Very well," said Lettow after a long moment of discomfort.
"I imagine it must be difficult to keep order, with such a concentrated population," Luke said, trying to change the subject. "Savuud Thimram told me earlier that you have a history full of wars, but you seem to have overcome that. Despite what we just saw, it seems to be under control here..."
Lettow's face showed a flicker of pride. "You were told the truth. Our history has been a bloody one. But even before the Sith arrived, we had instituted rule by the Magians, and overcome many of our more unfortunate traits. Without the order brought by rule through the Force, my people would still be uncivilized and brutal, engaged in war or murder. But now you have seen our Force-sensitive police, as well as the effectiveness of our law."
"What are your laws like, Lord Lettow?" asked Luke.
"You can see them written in many places. Here, over on this stone pillar, for example. Constant reminders of the law help to keep the people in line."
The group clustered around a tall obelisk with lines of writing chiseled into the polished surface. "Here are the basic commandments of our society," said Lettow, translating the alien script for the Jedi Master.
"These things shall be punished by death: committing murder, intentionally committing or inciting violence outside the arenas, committing theft or destruction of property leading to violence, the possession or use of any weapons outside the arenas -"
"Pardon me, Lord Lettow, but these laws seem rather harsh to me," interrupted Tank.
"You, too, have the perspective of an alien, human," said Lettow.
"The common people must fear the law more than they fear one another, for there to be any order here. If this were not so, the incident you just witnessed would have resulted in two executions, instead of just one."
"Lord Lettow," said Luke, "I see you have a functional system here...but how has the coming of the Sith improved things?"
"I can answer that, Skywalker," Lumiya spoke up, "since you're so concerned about the welfare of the Thaarnians. Sith rule is better than rule by individual Magians because when the Magians used to kill each other over who ruled which States, the loser's people were usually made into slaves. Now that the Magians are part of one order as equals, they don't have to try to do away with one another to keep their power. Lord Lettow here killed seven rival Force users to win his State. Now, instead of such waste, all those who show Force sensitivity are trained in an academy. The most powerful ones can become part of the Sith. The rest are used throughout society in useful roles like the police. I mean no offense, Lord Lettow," said Lumiya with a hint of condescension, "but your race still had a long way to go when we got here. There was still a lot of uncontrolled aggression and deadly violence, even with your great laws."
Lettow gazed with subtle menace at the Dark Lord. "Let us move on to an important aspect of our society," he said, giving Lumiya one last hard look before turning away. "The arenas."
As they walked, Lettow explained that when wars were eliminated, the soldiers and their combative natures were channeled into violent games and team sports. These took place in enclosed arenas, where the fighters could duel to the death singly or in groups, for the benefit of a large audience. These contests soon became an important part of the culture, focusing and venting the aggression that would otherwise savage the cities. The ultimate expression of these contests was the maze combat between two opposing Magians. To determine who would be the victor, and who would be killed or exiled, the dark side rulers hunted each other through a labyrinth of death traps, trying to slay each other with all of the Force powers at their command. Lettow led the group to one of the giant buildings constructed for this purpose, unused in recent years since the maze combat was phased out by the arrival of the Sith. A great stone archway covered an open tunnel leading into the towering vault like structure.
Tank peered into the darkness inside the tunnel. "Can't see much," he muttered. "I wonder what kind of death traps they have in there...?" But Orl Lettow was already leading the group away to take them to a public fighting arena several blocks away. Reluctantly, Tank turned his back on the intriguing old building and hurried to catch up. Dodging the crowding aliens in his way, he rejoined his wife. Then Tank noticed two things in the same instant. One was that both Luke and Lumiya were gone. The other was that a massive door had dropped down into the giant archway behind him with a thundering boom. Luke's R2 unit let out an electronic wail and raced to the door, only to smack into it with a pitiful clang. The droid began beeping frantically as it drew back and rolled into the door, again and again. Tank and Shally raced to the door and held the droid back while Orl Lettow stood his ground in confusion. The door looked immovable and impregnable. Tank and Shally beat on it in frustration. "Blast it! Luke was afraid this was going to happen," Tank grated, "and now Lumiya's got him trapped in there!"
Flint ran up to them, his own face full of anger. "I knew she was going to do something like this! But I wasn't able to stop it! Don't waste your energy trying to get past this door. Lumiya chose her battleground well. The only way to get to Luke is from the other side of the maze."
"The other side of this building?" demanded Shally.
"No, the other side of the city," said Flint, scowling. "The maze goes underground for miles. There's a system of natural tunnels down there. They open out way over at the central plaza, where the winner used to come out and claim his new slaves. We'll never get there in time to stop Lumiya."
"Wait a second," said Tank, "you're going to help us?"
"Of course," said the Dark Lord, glaring down at Tank. "I want a successful truce with the Jedi, not a dead Jedi Master and a war on my hands. Do you think Luke's sister would take kindly to that? We'd have the New Republic sending Sky City down in flames before you could say 'Exar Kun'."
Tank nodded slowly in amazement. Flint, he decided, really was sincere, against all his expectations. With the Dark Lord's help, they just might be able to save Luke. After all, Flint had beaten Lumiya once before to save Tank. If he could just pull it off one more time...Tank looked around hurriedly, and was dismayed at the futility of fighting the imposing crowds milling all around. Then his eyes rose a little higher, to the rooftops. Of course! When he was a boy in Mos Eisley, the fastest way to escape the police was always the roofs. "Can't we go over the buildings?" he demanded. "Use the rooftops to get over the crowds?"
Flint and Shally both lit up at the idea. "That could work!" said Flint. "Who's going with me?"
"Tank, you go with him," said Shally. "Watch Luke's back, remember? I'll stay here with Lord Lettow. He knows this maze. Maybe there's a way to get this door open somehow..."
"All right," said Tank, looking at her longingly. "You just be careful, do you hear me?"
"I'll be careful? You be careful. You're the one going after that crazy cyborg. Promise me you'll come back in one piece."
He stepped into her arms and held her fiercely. "I promise."
Lord Flint was removing a small box from a compartment on his belt. He opened it carefully and removed a bright crimson crystalline splinter. He removed his left gauntlet and put the shard onto his naked palm, closing his fist on it so tightly that the sharp ends had to be piercing his flesh.
"What's that?" asked Tank.
"Something I've been saving for an emergency," Flint said through gritted teeth. He seemed to hunch over with pain for a moment, then he grimly straightened. The Dark Lord raised his left fist and shouted to Orl Lettow. "Do what you can to help this woman. I'm going after Lumiya!" Then, Tank and Flint rose slowly into the air, leaving Shally and the droids gaping at them in astonishment. The Dark Lord brought them to roof level and set them down.
Below them, Artoo Detoo was shrilly whistling, and Tank suddenly remembered something important. "Luke's R2 unit, the blue one - we need it!"
Flint looked skeptically at Tank.
"I'm serious! He said he'd need it to beat Lumiya! We have to bring it with us!"
Flint's expression seemed to say he knew there wasn't time to argue. He raised his left fist again, and Artoo Detoo rose up to join them, whistling excitedly. Artoo Beesix warbled a good-bye and good luck from the ground below, then turned his attention back to scanning the giant door. Tank waved once to Shally, then turned with Flint and began to race across the rooftops. He turned to look for Artoo Detoo, and was surprised to see him sailing along in the air behind the Dark Lord, keeping pace with them through the Force. Grinning like a kid again, Tank gathered himself for the leap to the next building. Hang on, Luke, he thought as he flew across the gap. If you can hear me, help is on the way!
Luke had been about to turn and leave the entrance to the Magian maze, when he was halted by a clear voice in his mind. The tormented tones of the cyborg, Lumiya, were meant for his hearing alone. Luke, she said, come to me.
He turned and saw her standing deep inside the tunnel behind the arch, waiting. Luke hesitated. The moment was upon him, but it was his choice to make. Suddenly, Luke wasn't afraid. He felt as he had when he had gone to meet his father on Endor, certain inside that he was doing what he must. The Force had ordained that moment, years ago, and it had ordained this one, too. Yes, the Force was with him, as Yoda had said. He was a Jedi Master, and facing Lumiya was part of what he had come to Thaarn to do. His clinging depression and doubt fell away from him and vanished. He had something important to do, something that would shape the future of the Jedi and the Sith. Next to that, he realized, his own sorrow over lost love was insignificant. Losing Callista hadn't changed who he was. He was still Luke Skywalker, the man who had walked unafraid into the hands of Darth Vader. Strange that it had taken Lumiya to remind him of that.
Calmly, Luke walked beneath the arch and into the shadows where the Dark Lord waited to kill him. He looked back once, out into the light, and called Artoo to join him. Yoda had said he would need the Kaiburr Crystal to succeed, and it was hidden inside the little droid. Bringing it into the midst of the Sith had been a risk from the beginning. He couldn't touch it without creating a huge disturbance in the Force that the entire Order of the Sith would perceive. Then it would be a struggle over the possession of the crystal, with Luke alone against all the Sith. Luke wasn't sure he could survive that...but then, what if the 'success' Yoda referred to, and survival, were not the same thing?
Responding to his summons, Artoo rolled towards Luke. That was when the unbelievably thick and heavy door crashed down between them, leaving Artoo and the crystal out of reach. Luke stood in the pitch blackness that followed, dismayed. He suddenly wondered where Lumiya was. He concentrated on all his other senses besides sight, trying to detect her. He couldn't hear her, or sense her through the Force; perhaps she was screening herself. Thinking furiously, he stared into the inky nothingness all around. He needed some light, that was obvious, but would a light merely pinpoint his position to Lumiya? She definitely had the advantage here. She could lie in wait for him anywhere; she probably knew the layout of the maze very well. But Luke didn't. And Orl Lettow had said the place was full of death traps. Luke had no choice. He ignited his green-white lightsaber blade, starkly illuminating the stone corridor around him. Luke considered trying to cut his way back out the door, but he had glimpsed its thickness. He would have to tunnel his way through it, leaving himself vulnerable to Lumiya's attack. The only way to go was straight ahead. Luke began to walk carefully down the tunnel.
Deeper inside the maze, Lumiya heard the faint sound of the lightsaber being activated. So, he was coming, just as she had predicted. And all she'd had to do was call to him. She had judged his personality correctly. He was the kind of man who lived up to his own responsibilities. Skywalker was responsible for creating her, and now he was dutifully marching forwards to deal with his mistakes.
Let him come. She was ready. Lumiya placed a gold jeweled medallion in the shape of a blazing sun over her head, to hang from its chain upon her breast. The Sith artifact would multiply her power, making her more than a match for poor Luke. Next, she took a small dagger, extensively carved with Sith letters, from its sheath. A yellow gem glowed softly from the end of its hilt. Cradling it in her hands, she moved off silently into the darkness. If an organic heart had remained to her, it would have been hammering in excitement.
Luke walked warily through the descending corridors, hugging the walls as he went. He picked his path at random, hoping that chance would delay his confrontation with Lumiya until he could retrieve the crystal. So far, he had survived three primitive death traps. The first had been a giant blade that suddenly swept out of the wall at the level of his stomach. Luke had been grateful for his lightsaber, for one swift blocking stroke had severed the blade near the wall, sending it harmlessly clattering to the stone floor. The second trap had been in a stretch of natural tunnels. The floor had unexpectedly dropped off into a steep slope strewn with small rounded pebbles. Luke had begun to slide helplessly towards a deep crevasse, but his Jedi agility had saved him. Switching off his lightsaber, he had leaped ten feet into the air to clasp onto a stalactite. From there, he had swung over the chasm to land on the other side. The most recent trap had been back in the halls of carved stone. Only a tiny grating sound had alerted him to it in time. Luke had rolled out of the way as an immense block of stone fell down into the corridor behind him, raising a choking cloud of dust and shaking the floor under his feet. Luke had gazed at the block with an odd satisfaction. If Lumiya had been following him, she'd just have to find another way around.
Now Luke was moving steadily down a long, straight corridor, by the light of his Jedi weapon. He hadn't seen a trace of Lumiya since he had entered the maze. Perhaps she was content to let the traps take care of him for her. Well, he wouldn't give her the satisfaction of taking the easy way out.
His strained ears picked up a sound in the distance. It was a barking sound, very faint. No, a lot of barking sounds. Some sort of dogs? He hesitated as the sound of the unknown creatures drew nearer. What kind of animals were they? Should he run, or stand his ground? The ferocious barking reverberated from the stone walls, making it sound as if it was coming from all directions. Luke fought to calm his instinctive fear. Then he saw them. A pack of huge, razor toothed Dire Wolves, surging down the corridor from where he had come. The shaggy lead animal was four feet tall at the shoulder, and its red eyes shone in the dark above its slavering wide open jaws. Behind it, Luke guessed that there might be a dozen more. He ran.
But even as he sped down the corridor, he seized on a sudden doubt. What would a pack of Dire Wolves be doing in a place like this? How could they live? Lettow had said the maze had been unused for years. The Wolves, he decided, must not be real. And if they were an illusion created by Sith magic, what was the point of the attack? Illusions couldn't hurt him. But, he realized suddenly, barreling down the halls of a maze full of death traps could. Luke suddenly halted, spinning to face the creatures. He held his lightsaber defensively in front of him as the first of the Dire Wolves leaped, seemingly ignoring the blazing bar of light.
To Luke's immense relief, the animal passed right through him, as did the rest of the pack, vanishing into the darkness behind him, yapping wildly as they went. Now Luke proceeded carefully after them, step by step. He found it had been a close thing. A few meters down the corridor, his probing foot encountered a pit, hidden by an illusion of the floor. He scooped up some dirt from the filthy stones, and cast it ahead of him. It vanished into the floor. But ten feet away, another handful of dirt and pebbles clattered on solid ground. Luke smiled grimly, and gathered himself for the leap. Gracefully, he sailed over the hidden drop and continued on his way.
Tank and Flint continued their frantic run across the low stone buildings of the Thaarnian city. Tank was winded, but Flint seemed unaffected, despite his heavy armor. It must be a Force thing, Tank decided, panting. "Flint," he gasped, as they pelted across a long, flat roof, "how tough is Lumiya? Is Luke in trouble?"
The Dark Lord spared him a glance. "I'd say they were evenly matched in power. The problem is Lumiya's light whip."
A sudden memory of being helpless in front of Lumiya came to Tank. She had been wielding a devastating weapon that had looked like long supple bolts of lightning, striking like a fistful of venomous snakes. "You mean that energy weapon she had? With the long strands all blazing away?"
"That's the one," Flint replied. "It was designed by the Sith a long time ago, just for the purpose of defeating a Jedi lightsaber."
"Luke's in trouble," said Tank, running even faster.
The cyborg Dark Lord of the Sith waited in the darkness for Luke to approach. In her hands was the dagger, which she called Heart Seeker. Its blade was full of Sith poison. She meant to use it to paralyze the Jedi Master and torture him to death at her leisure. Standing silent and motionless, she waited as the hum of Luke's lightsaber drew closer. Concentrating on the Force, she channeled her will into the yellow jewel on the weapon, so that it would be unerringly guided on its flight. The gem pulsed softly in response, filling with power.
Now she could hear Luke's footsteps. He didn't suspect she was there. Good. Crouching, she held the dagger's blade in her metallic fingers, readying the throw. The footsteps slowed, then stopped. Abruptly, the green glow of the lightsaber vanished as the blade was turned off. Lumiya frowned. Something was wrong...did he suspect? She strained, listening, but heard no retreating footsteps. So, he was waiting for her to make a move. Her frown became a cold smile. No matter. Heart Seeker would find its target just as easily in the dark.
Lumiya crept forward, exerting all the control of her cyborg systems not to make a sound. She drew back her arm. Here's a little gift for you, Luke, she thought. It's payback time. With a powerful thrust of her machine arm, she threw the Sith dagger.
Luke had been alerted by a minute yellow gleam in the distance, and so he extinguished his light and froze, waiting to see what would happen next, closely attuned to the Force. The attack came in the form of a small rush of air, some projectile aimed straight at him. Reacting on pure instinct, Luke's fingers brushed the activation stud of his lightsaber. The pure green blade returned in an instant, held vertically in front of his heart. The Sith dagger's blade struck the energy blade squarely, melting against it in a shower of sparks. The hilt struck an instant later, bringing the ancient yellow jewel into contact with the burning green Jedi weapon. The Sith jewel exploded, releasing its power into the air. Luke was knocked from his feet and dazzled. He sat up groggily, and heard the sound of running feet, moving away down the corridor. It had to be Lumiya. Suddenly Luke was tired of this game of evasion. Shaking his head and blinking his eyes, he stood up and called after her. "I'm coming, Lumiya! It's time to finish this." His lightsaber held firmly in his hand, but a little unsteady on his feet, Luke went down the corridor after his opponent.
Flint and Tank dropped from the last rooftop into the crowded central plaza. Thaarnians pointed at them in surprise, as Flint levitated Artoo Detoo to the ground beside them. Just ahead was another towering stone vault with an arched entryway, the twin of the building Luke had vanished into. Flint led Tank through the press of aliens to the stone tunnel opening. Beyond the arch, the corridor angled down into blackness.
"We have to go in there, huh?" asked Tank, his earlier enthusiasm fading rapidly.
Flint looked impatiently at Tank and firmly gestured towards the maze. "Do you want to save your friend?" he demanded.
Tank swallowed hard. Now that he actually faced going into the dark after Lumiya, he hesitated. But there was truth in Flint's words. Tank really did think of Luke as a friend after their adventure in the Sith system together. A long time ago, he and Luke had been enemies, but the past was the past. It was over and done. Now it was time to make sure they had a future to start over in. "Wait just a second," he said to the Dark Lord. "I've been thinking about Lumiya's weapon." Tank hastily scanned the crowd until he spotted a wealthy looking Thaarnian with a tall, sturdy walking staff. He ran up to the alien and placed his hands on the wood. "Excuse me, Sir, but the Dark Lord of the Sith over there needs this. Would you mind letting him borrow it?" Not waiting for an answer, he yanked the staff out of the Thaarnian's clawed hands and hustled back to Flint. The Thaarnian started to protest, enraged, but one glance at the Dark Lord made him turn away in a pragmatic retreat.
"What the hell are you going to do with that?" demanded Flint scornfully, as Tank went past him with the staff.
"I'm going to save Luke's Jedi skin," Tank shouted back as he jogged down into the dark. Artoo rolled quickly down the smooth slope after him, activating a brilliant spotlight that lit up their way.
Lord Flint rolled his eyes and followed them.
"You're right, Luke," said Lumiya as the Jedi Master came out of the tunnels and into the big dead-end cavern. "It's time to finish this. But maybe not in the way you'd like."
Luke glanced around the room. He could dimly see that they were in a large open space with a high roof and a level floor. Some twenty feet from the entrance, the cavern was bisected by a huge crack running from one wall to the other. It appeared to be a rather deep chasm, yawning hungrily after its long fast alone in the dark. "You don't have to kill me, Lumiya," said Luke reasonably. "I didn't follow you to try to kill you. I wanted to resolve this another way. Isn't the truce more important to you than your revenge? Think about what Flint would want. He loves you. I could feel it. Don't destroy his dream. There must be something I can give you, besides my life, to make up for what I did so many years ago, in self defense." Luke was surprised to see that Lumiya was crying. But they were tears of rage at his words.
"Yes, there's something you can give me, besides your life," she choked. "There's your pain!" The cyborg clasped her hand around her jeweled golden medallion and shut her eyes.
Luke staggered as a wave of emotion not his own swept over him. He felt overwhelming fear and confusion as the dim cavern around him wavered and vanished, to be replaced by the cramped cockpit of a TIE fighter. He was caught up in a perfect illusion, all his senses deceived. Though he was aware of that fact, there seemed to be no way to break free of it. He looked around in a panic, peering out the viewport into the midst of a chaotic space battle. It was the Battle of Kulthis all over again. He was in a stolen Imperial fighter, wreaking havoc amidst Darth Vader's strike fleet to give Kulthis base time to evacuate. Explosions and laser flak burst all around him as he gripped the controls. His fear made it hard to concentrate on piloting. Suddenly another TIE fighter loomed up in front of him, its weapons ready to blow him into a fiery cloud. Luke's hands scrambled instinctively over his firing buttons, trying to get a lock on the enemy ship. It was too late. Searing green bursts of energy flew at his face across the void, and his world shattered. The heavy transparisteel window broke into large shards that sliced into his chest and arms. Below his feet, the weapons systems exploded, buckling the hull in and crushing his legs. The pain was all-consuming, taking thought far, far away, leaving only a pulsing terror. His only release would come with death...and Luke realized he would die, illusion or no illusion, if he could not make it stop. But instead, it just went on and on.
Yet, a small part of him remained stubborn, unwilling to accept the reality of his injuries. He hadn't died in the Battle of Kulthis. He had gone on to defeat the Emperor and redeem his father. He realized he was experiencing the death of Shira Brie, but even that was not being truly recreated as it happened. In reality, Luke had been in the other TIE fighter, and Shira had tried to kill him first. His sensors had detected her firing lock, he remembered, and his Force probe had identified her as an Imperial enemy. If he hadn't fired on her, he would have been shot down himself. Luke began to fight back, filling his mind with images of his loved ones...Leia... Han...Callista...Jacen...Jaina...Anakin...even Tank and Shally. For their sakes, he couldn't give up. You can't do this, Lumiya, he screamed in his thoughts, fighting the agony. It isn't real! It's all a lie. You can't do this to me...
Gradually, the pain began to fade, and to Luke's immense relief, the cockpit of the ruined fighter faded away as well. He was still standing in the cavern, holding his lightsaber. Lumiya was on her knees, shaking, with her head in her hands. Luke started to go towards her, when she stood up suddenly and unhitched the long cylinder from her belt, letting the metal coils unravel from it.
"I don't know how you broke free, Skywalker," she said in a hollow, gasping voice, "but I'm not finished yet. Only one of us gets out of here alive!" Lumiya activated the mysterious weapon and swept the coils through the air over her head. It was like a whip with multiple lashes. Burning white energy poured out into the cords, arcing and snapping with raw force.
With a merciless grimace, she swept the fiery coils at the weary Jedi Master. Luke barely lifted his lightsaber in time to defend himself. But there were too many strands to deflect at once. Some of the lashes of the light whip sliced through his robe and cut deeply into his chest and arms. One lash bit into his forehead, sending a stream of blood pouring down into his eyes. The rest, he deflected with the lightsaber, forcing them away as he staggered in pain and surprise. The strands weren't cut by his light blade, but merely slid crackling off of it.
Luke was half blinded by his own blood. He wiped at his eyes and forehead as Lumiya, her stance wide, drew back the whip with inhuman speed and lashed out again. Luke stumbled back, desperate to avoid it, holding his lightsaber overextended to protect himself. The energy lashes struck the hand and arm holding the saber, wrapping around the green blade with uncanny precision. With a skill honed by years of practice, Lumiya swept Luke's lightsaber from his hand. It clattered onto the stone floor and deactivated, leaving only the hellish glare of the light whip to illuminate the cyborg's victory. Luke huddled over his slashed arm, backed to the edge of the chasm.
Lumiya drew back to strike a third and final blow, when a bright light appeared across the chasm. On the other side, from another tunnel, emerged Luke's Artoo unit, followed by Tank, then Flint. Oh no, not this time, Flint, she thought. No last minute rescues. She swept the light whip up over her fiery red hair.
Flint immediately saw what he had to do. He ran to the edge of the chasm that divided him from Lumiya and drew the long gray Sith Sword. He clutched tightly to the red crystal shard, feeling the surge of the Force flow through him. Flint drew back the sword and struck with it, just as if Lumiya was standing next to him. A powerful telekinetic blow drove Lumiya back and away from Luke. Flint swung again, and she staggered against the cavern wall.
Then Lumiya looked up and across at Flint, clutching her sun- shaped medallion. Flint felt the full force of her anger hit him like a fireball. It was too much. The sword fell from his hand, and he went to his knees, stunned.
But Tank was already moving. He ran up to the chasm's edge, crying "Luke! Catch!" He hurled the wooden staff like a javelin across the gap.
The stricken Jedi Master looked up and caught it, gaping in amazement at Tank and Flint. Then, a crackling sound alerted Luke to his renewed danger, and he turned to see Lumiya coming after him in a murderous run, the light whip sweeping grandly towards his battered body.
"The staff!" shouted Tank. "Use the staff!"
For a moment, Luke seemed too tired to do anything. But he was marshaling his last strength. In one continuous, smooth move that Tank would remember for the rest of his life, the Jedi Master reached out with the staff of wood and caught the lashes of the light whip around it. Then he dodged aside and heaved on the strands, forcing the charging Lumiya off balance from her own momentum. Luke continued to turn with the staff as Lumiya fell past him, bringing the other end of it completely around to crack against the back of her head. The light whip flew from her fingers, and with a look of horror, she pitched forward into the chasm and fell screaming into the darkness. A moment later, there was a metallic crash, then silence. Luke shook the coils of the whip free of the staff and used it to keep himself from collapsing.
Flint staggered to his feet and looked around. Tank was staring into the chasm where Lumiya had fallen. The little R2 unit rolled over to Tank and aimed his bright light down into the crevasse. Flint peered down into it and was crushed by what he saw. Lumiya...his Lumiya, was lying some fifty feet below on a bed of jagged rocks, unmoving. Her slim cyborg body was twisted in several places, and her red hair mingled on the rocks with a spreading pool of crimson blood.
Luke looked down as well, and his face filled with despair. "No..." he murmured. "It wasn't supposed to end this way..." He looked at the grieving Dark Lord across the chasm. One glimpse of Flint's stunned and miserable face brought back vivid memories of how Luke had felt when he thought Callista was dead. "It can't end this way," Luke said firmly. He reached inside himself for a little more energy. He held out his hand, palm down, and shut his eyes. He felt the Force flow into his wounded frame, lending him the strength to do what he needed to do. To succeed.
Beeping in surprise, his dome spinning around, Artoo Detoo rose into the air and floated across the crevasse to land gently at Luke's side. Then, the broken body of Lumiya rose slowly out of the chasm, hanging limply in the air, cradled by the light side of the Force. She, too, settled gently on the stone at Luke's feet.
"Come here, Artoo," Luke said, reaching to open a panel on the droid's back. As he moved aside the small white door, a rich red light immediately spilled out and dispelled the shadows around the cyborg's still form. Luke drew out the Kaiburr Crystal. It felt so warm to his touch that he smiled. The glow from the crystal intensified, bathing the entire chamber in its living luminescence. Then the light was in motion, running swiftly up and down Luke's limbs and over his face. Where it caressed him, his wounds healed, sealing and vanishing as if they had never been there. A vast feeling of refreshment came over Luke, giving him a sense of peace and control. Then, leaving Luke, the crystal's radiance shrank down again, to dance closely around the crystal's facets.
Luke looked at Lumiya in sorrow, wincing at the sight of her shattered face. He closed his eyes, and the red glow emerged from the crystal once again, climbing up his arms to halt at his elbows. With the fantastic light shimmering on his hands, the Jedi Master gently touched Lumiya's mortal wounds. The glow seemed to be absorbed into her, penetrating her body to search out deep, hidden injuries. For long moments, Luke was poised motionless with his hands blazing brightly over the cyborg, channeling the crystal's power into her. Lumiya's form flared brightly, her body lost in the glorious radiance, then just as suddenly, the living light receded back into the gemstone, dimming the cavern once more. Luke sat back, breathed deeply, and set the crystal down. For the second time in his life, he had the strange sensation that he had just been reborn. He looked at Lumiya, gratified to see that she was restored and breathing. With a shock, he realized that even her scars were gone, leaving her beauty untarnished. The cyborg Dark Lord slept peacefully at his side.
Luke looked across at Flint, who was staring back at him in unabashed wonderment. "She's alive," Luke said to the armored Sith Lord.
"The Kaiburr Crystal brought her back to you. It's a powerful talisman for healing."
Flint opened his left palm and held up the glowing crystal sliver.
"All this time, I've had a piece of it, Luke. It amplifies the Force, doesn't it? The dark side, the light side, it doesn't matter which, does it?"
"It's true," Luke admitted. "I didn't want to reveal its existence, because I was afraid the Sith would try to take it by force."
"But you gave up your secret to me in order to save Lumiya," said Flint, wondering. "You're a very interesting man, Master Skywalker. It's too bad we're not on the same side. But you don't have to worry about me. I owe you a debt, for saving her. Consider this the repayment...your crystal is safe." Flint gazed at Lumiya with profound relief. "If she had died, I'm not sure if I would have let you leave here alive..." He met Luke's eyes. "That would have been a shame, because I still think the truce can work out between our orders. I wouldn't want to destroy that for the sake of stealing your talisman."
Luke let out a long sigh of relief, smiling at the honorable darksider, something he once thought was an impossibility.
Tank Boma, who had been uncharacteristically quiet and subdued, spoke up softly, "Now that that's all over with, what do you say we all get out of this miserable pit. Shall we?"
Luke, Tank, and Shally gave the final checks to their fighter craft as the setting sun painted the Sky City spaceport in warm tones. The two R2 units were lowered into their respective sockets, as Tank wandered over to Luke.
"That's it," said Tank. "We're ready to go home. And I, for one, have no regrets about leaving."
Luke looked up, closing an access panel on his X-Wing, and smiled with satisfaction. "We can go home proud, Tank. The truce has been formalized, and the Jedi and the Sith can look forward to a new era without strife."
"Yeah, until the next time it all falls apart," said Tank cynically. "Uh oh, here comes trouble..."
Flint and Lumiya approached the fighters, walking side by side. Neither one appeared to be armed.
"Relax," said Luke. "They're just here to see us off."
The Dark Lords of the Sith stopped in front of the Jedi Master. Flint smiled slightly. "Have a safe journey home, Master Skywalker. You've done the right thing here, and I promise you won't regret it." He turned to Tank and Shally. "Commanders, I hope your report to your Chief of State will be a favorable one."
"I think so," said Tank smoothly. "The system you have here does seem to work for the Thaarnians. The New Republic doesn't have to worry...for the present."
"I'm glad to hear that," said Flint. "It would seem that I've been more than amply repaid for that time I saved your lives."
"You remember that, huh?" said Tank. "Listen, speaking of saving lives, does Luke have to worry about...um..." Tank faltered under Lumiya's sharp stare.
"If you're attempting to ask if I'm going to try to kill Luke again," she said sternly, "then no, you don't have to worry about that." She faced Luke. "You can go free, Master Skywalker, without fear. The scales are balanced between us. Once, you took my life away. Now, you gave it back to me. And more," she said, touching her smooth face where the network of scars had vanished. "For a long time, I lived with constant pain. It kept my hate alive, almost drove me mad. But now it's gone. That crystal of yours seems to have healed the interface between my organic and bionic parts. I...I'm grateful for that. I don't think I'll ever understand why you did what you did, but..."
"If it helps, Lumiya," said Luke, "I did it for the sake of the balance. It's something my teacher told me. The dark side and the light side both need expression in living beings. I'd rather it be through you and Flint, than someone like the Emperor. Of course, I know things can change...the dark side has its price, and it can change people, even destroy them."
Flint spoke up. "I'm willing to pay that price, Luke. The Sith can be more than what they once were. I won't change so much that I won't be able to guide them in the necessary direction. I want to be around to groom my successor. We both know what could happen if someone with more...ambitious tendencies takes over."
"I know that if the Sith decide to move out into the rest of the Galaxy, the Jedi will be ready," Luke said seriously.
Flint simply nodded, knowing what Luke meant. The Jedi would have the Kaiburr Crystal for their defense.
"If it was up to me," said Lumiya, "You might not walk out of here with that crystal so easily. But Flint promised, didn't he...You're lucky the Magians don't know about it. We told them the huge disturbance in the Force they felt when you used it to heal me, was really from our battle. They think we fought to a standstill, and are parting as respected enemies. The Thaarnians tend to be impressed by that kind of thing."
"Thanks," said Luke, "I think. Anyhow, it's not far from the truth. I do respect you...as an enemy." Luke paused, then looked to Flint. "It's time to get back to my students," he said. "But I just wanted you to know, I remember that time on Belderone, and I'm sorry I turned you away. You would have made a good Jedi."
"Hmmm. Is that a compliment?" asked Flint gruffly. "I tend to believe in destiny, don't you? I think it was probably necessary to bring all this about...Good-bye, Master Skywalker. And...may the Force be with you."
With that, the Dark Lords of the Sith turned and walked away together, Lord Flint's hand resting comfortably on Lady Lumiya's shoulder.
Good-bye, Flint, Luke thought. I wish you luck. You're a darksider who treads close to the light, as I have walked close to the darkness... "It probably makes a big difference that they have each other," said Shally, watching them go. "This could all work out."
"It made a big difference to me that I had you both with me, that's for sure," said Luke, stepping between Tank and Shally and putting an arm around each of them. "Tank here even saved my life. I guess that evens things up for that time you kidnapped me, right?" Tank started to sputter, but Luke continued over him. "Listen, what would you say to a nice vacation on Yavin Four? I have to go back there, but I don't want to say good-bye to you both so soon."
"Are you okay, Luke?" asked Shally. "About Callista, I mean."
"I think so," he said. "I still miss her, but I know I have my life to live while she's gone. I know when she comes back, I want to be the kind of person worth coming back to. But that's not why I want you to come back to the Jedi Academy. You've done a great service to the Jedi. You deserve a hero's welcome, both of you."
"Yeah, Tank is a hero, isn't he?" teased Shally. "And a good husband. He's come a long way from the selfish kid you used to know."
Tank shot her a defensive look. "Hey, I wasn't so bad. Luke, tell her about the time when I saved Biggs from those Tusken Raiders when he was too injured to fly his Skyhopper home-"
"Oh, yes," Luke said to Shally, "Biggs told me about that one. Tank did save his life. I'll admit that the hero in Tank did occasionally show through back then."
"Occasionally!" Tank challenged, and Shally smiled, enjoying the setting sunlight of the Sith System.
A week later, Luke took the crystal from its new hiding place in an upper floor of the Great Temple on Yavin Four. Carrying it wrapped in a soft cloth, he rode the turbolift to the uppermost level, where, years ago, the victory of the Battle of Yavin had been celebrated. The vast open room with its tall, vine covered pillars and beautiful shafts of sunlight, was Luke's favorite place to meditate. Peacefully, he sat down on the ancient stone steps and unwrapped the Kaiburr Crystal. Bathed in its warm glow, the Jedi Master closed his eyes and opened himself to the Force.
"Master Yoda," he called softly. Luke felt the presence of the old spirit, and opened his eyes. He smiled to see the wizened, gnomish image, glowing softly with bluish radiance upon the steps at his side. Yoda's face was weary, as if he had been exerting himself mightily.
"Luke... difficult it is to return, once I have joined with all that is," he said, looking with gentle sadness at his former student. "It may be that speak again we do not."
Luke gazed at his mentor with infinite affection. "I'll miss you, Master. It's been so hard, sometimes, trying to bring back the Jedi when I knew so little. Seeing you again really made it easier."
"Luke, you are the Master now. Great success have you had, with the Jedi, and the Sith. You will not need me. Already know you -"
"- that which I require," Luke finished. "I know. And with the crystal to study, the Academy will grow and prosper, calling in Jedi students from all over the Galaxy. I've got a lot of work ahead of me."
"Hmm. When for eight hundred years you have taught Jedi, then you may speak to me of work. Humph."
"Master Yoda," Luke asked hesitantly, "Will the truce with the Sith endure?"
"Oh - the future. So certain are you that you wish to know? Enough of a miracle it is, that it came to be at all. A narrow path did you walk, to make it so."
Luke looked speculatively into the crystal's aura. "If I had died, or if Lumiya had died, things would have been very different. I suppose I don't want to know the future, even if I could see it for certain. There's more than enough trouble to go around for the present."
"Taught you something I have, then," said Yoda with a wrinkled smile, "for that is the wisdom of a Master."