What if Vader didn't turn back to the light side at Endor?
"Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny." --Yoda, Jedi Master
"I'll never turn to the dark side. You've failed, Your Highness.
"I am a Jedi, like my father before me."
Were it not for the pain and exhaustion he felt, Darth Vader might have been amused by his son's foolish words. A Jedi. His father is no Jedi, the Dark Lord of the Sith thought vaguely as he tried to shunt away the pain that enshrouded his senses. He called on the dark side, tapping into the enormous anger that filled his mind and soul.
He heard the Emperor's response. "So be it . . . Jedi." The rage that accompanied these words was palpable, and Vader knew that his son was teetering on the brink of destruction. Luke's stupidity heightened the feelings of anger; Vader used these feelings to begin to resuscitate himself. So much potential, and now he refuses to use it?
The Dark Lord moved his gaze to his right arm, and the frayed wiring that was all that remained where his mechanical hand had been. He remembered well when the tables had been turned, and it was Luke whose hand and lightsaber were sliced neatly off and sent falling into an abyss. But this time his son had come with such power, such fury. The fear Vader had felt when he realized he was outmatched had been accompanied by a swelling of pride. The son of the chosen one. Of course he is powerful. So why must he turn his back on the great power that is at his fingertips?
"If you will not be turned," the Emperor, Vader's master, cackled, "you will be destroyed." With that, a tremendous surge of Force lightning leapt from the Sith Lord's withered fingertips and slammed into Luke. Vader felt anger rise against Palpatine for harming his son, but knew that he could not overcome his master, not now. And the anger he felt against Luke for being such a fool was greater still.
The injured Dark Lord struggled to his feet as the lightning barrage continued. "Young fool . . . only now, at the end, do you understand." Vader looked at Luke, writhing under the assault, and wondered if his son, even now, did understand. The might of darkness was obvious . . . but Luke seemingly refused to accept it.
"Your feeble skills are no match for the power of the dark side. You have paid the price for your lack of vision."
Luke's pain was unbearable. Vader could feel it. His gaze on Luke, he almost pitied his son as the young Jedi groaned. "Father, please. Help me."
Luke, you must help yourself. Give in to your hatred. You can still defeat him!
Vader did not know if his son heard the silent words. The Emperor, all but ignoring his servant, continued to cackle gleefully as he blasted Luke with the deadly bolts. Then the Sith Lord paused to speak. "Now, young Skywalker . . . you will die."
Luke looked pleadingly at his father. Use the dark side! His son showed no signs of doing so, lying there, passively awaiting death. The Emperor resumed his barrage with even more ferocity. Vader watched the currents arc over his son's body. He slowly moved his gaze to the Emperor, saw the malicious grin on his wrinkled face, then looked back to Luke. Son!
In a blinding storm of electricity, Luke's body finally became limp, and the pained screams ceased. Vader felt a sense of loss . . . but more than that, a burning rage that his offspring would waste his potential in such a pathetic manner and die without accomplishing anything worthwhile. He could have done so much. We should have ruled the galaxy together. But . . .
He does still have a sister.
Vader turned to face his master. The Emperor's disdainful gaze was still on Luke's now lifeless form. Finally he met Vader's mask-covered eyes. "Come with me."
The Emperor effortlessly called his cane into his hands from somewhere in the large chamber and then moved slowly toward the turbolift adjoining the throne room. Vader paused, struggling to use the Force and at last managing to retrieve his fallen son's lightsaber, before following.
The TIE Fighters came on relentlessly. With grim determination, Wedge Antilles piloted his X-wing fighter through the narrow tunnels of the Death Star II's unfinished superstructure. Behind him, a couple of his fellow Rebels split off to head back to the surface, and they managed to draw a few enemy craft with them. But several red blips still showed up on Wedge's sensors.
At the Battle of Yavin, Wedge had been forced to break off and return to the base after his snubfighter had been damaged. That was not an option here. The long, winding tunnel seemed to close in on his X-wing from all sides as he spun and maneuvered past countless thick beams. The strong power source that was the reactor core drew nearer . . . but so did the TIE Interceptors in their hot pursuit. And these Imperial pilots seemed to fight with both more hunger and greater precision than the ones at Yavin.
Laserfire streaked in behind Wedge, turning parts of the structure into slag. He was not in much danger of being hit, as the Millennium Falcon flew between his craft and the enemies. Lando, however . . . "I'm taking damage," the Rebel general said over Wedge's comm. "I can't shake these guys." This was followed by a high-pitched exclamation from Lando's Sullustan copilot. The bright green blasts intensified, and Wedge began to wonder whether they could make it to the core before being overcome by the Imps.
I've got to think of--
"Hold on back there, Lando," Wedge said. "I'm going to try something." He set a single torpedo to delayed detonation. Furrowing his brow in concentration, Wedge fired it and watched as it streaked forward and then stopped amid a tangle of metal. He increased his throttle, counting down the seconds in his head.
"Wedge?" came Lando's voice. "Our shields are--"
A sudden explosion ripped through the tunnel. Lando cursed before letting out an excited whoop. "That got 'em," Wedge muttered. Sensors showed just one TIE left, and the core dead ahead.
As the massive reactor finally came into view, Wedge turned to port and cut back on his throttle. He watched as the heavily modified YT-1300 freighter owned by Han Solo shot out of the tunnel and into the core. It was followed by a sleek Interceptor--which drifted directly into Wedge's sights. He smiled, unleashing a crimson barrage, and the pursuing craft was destroyed.
"Thanks, Wedge," Lando said. "Now go for the power regulator on the north tower."
Wedge lit his engines back up and quickly acquired a lock. "Copy, Gold Leader. I'm already on my way out." He dumped off a pair of torpedoes toward the power regulator and then aimed his X-wing toward another tunnel that would take him back to the surface. As he re-entered the tight superstructure, he noticed that still more TIEs were coming. . . .
Wedge focused in on the task at hand: making it out of the giant, doomed station alive. He cut power from his weapons, putting it into his shields and engines as he raced through the tunnel. This one did not seem quite as congested as the one he had entered through, fortunately enough. Several TIEs remained on his sensors, but would not come into range before he was clear of the station.
Wedge ducked his fighter under one last beam, then smiled as a starfield filled his viewport. He roared out into space, trying to get as far away from the Death Star as he could. Its explosion could come at any moment.
As Wedge zoomed away from the station, he noticed an Imperial shuttle flying ahead of him, a bit above and to starboard. Something about it looked unusual. He closed the range, and his targeting brackets moved over its engines--
A flash of green light momentarily blinded the Rebel pilot. Alarms lit up his cockpit, and he dove away from the incoming fire. More beams lanced toward him but missed. That was no ordinary shuttle! He wondered who was in it, just as an enormous yellow-orange light appeared out of the corner of his eye. There went the Death Star! For the second time, Wedge was witness to the destruction of an evil, planet-destroying Imperial station. It was a satisfying feeling.
He checked his sensors and sighed with relief as he saw the Falcon flying toward him. Then he looked for that odd shuttle with its overpowered weapons. He caught sight of it moving away with incredibly high acceleration. Soon, it had disappeared into hyperspace, along with most of the remnants of the Imperial fleet.
Oh well. Mission accomplished, thought Wedge, smiling as he turned his fighter toward the green moon of Endor.
"Luke wasn't on that thing when it blew."
Leia Organa, looking into Han Solo's eyes, could see the mixed emotions there. Foremost among them was hope, hope against hope that somehow their friend had escaped the Death Star before it was destroyed.
But he hadn't escaped. Leia, even though she had no tangible means of knowing what had happened up there, knew this to be true deep within her heart. "Leia?" Han prodded, worry creeping into his voice.
"He's gone," she said, looking to the ground as tears began to form in her eyes.
She could feel Han's horror. "I--I know how you felt--" he began.
"Luke . . . he . . . was my . . . brother," Leia finally managed to choke out. She looked back up into Han's eyes. "I never even knew until last night, and now . . ."
Her voice trailed off, and she buried her head into Han's shoulder. He had the good sense to remain silent as he held her and gently stroked her long hair. Even in the warm embrace of the man she loved, Leia had never felt so empty. Luke!
She had heard somewhere that dead Jedi could communicate with people who had been close to them from beyond the grave. Perhaps his spirit, at least, was still out there somewhere. Luke, she cried desperately. Hear me.
But there was nothing.
Darth Vader stood on the bridge of the Imperial-class Star Destroyer Avenger, staring out through the large transparisteel viewports as he awaited his master's orders. The sky was vast, dark, and filled with stars. Deep in interstellar space, no large objects were visible save for the warships of the Imperial fleet.
A dozen Star Destroyers had escaped Endor intact. By far the largest of them all, the Executor, hung in the middle of the fleet. It dwarfed its companion vessels, but black scars on its hull bore witness to the heavy damage it had taken when the Death Star exploded and the Super Star Destroyer had been within the blast radius. The Executor would not be in combat condition for several months . . . but that would not stop the mighty Imperial Navy from crushing the remaining Rebels.
Vader moved his gaze from the viewport down to his gloved right hand. It was new, although there were no visible clues to that fact. A mechanical hand, hastily attached to his mechanical arm, to replace his old mechanical hand. He clenched the hand into a fist as his thoughts wandered back to--
The sound of a holo-communication system being activated entered Vader's ears, followed shortly by Admiral Piett's "My lord?"
At last. The Dark Lord of the Sith turned to face the oversized hologram showing the cowled visage of Emperor Palpatine. "Lord Vader," the rasping voice began. "I must return to Imperial Center. You will take the fleet back to Endor and eliminate any Rebel scum that remain in-system. Do not fail me."
"As you wish," Vader replied, feeling a smile appear beneath his mask as the holographic image disappeared. Chances were that his daughter, the Princess Leia Organa, would still be on Endor with the rest of the cursed Alliance. And his master would be parsecs away, unable to interfere.
"Admiral," he said. "Set a course for Endor, and prepare the fleet for the jump to hyperspace."
The celebration was loud, raucous, cheerful. Rebels and Ewoks danced in the torch-lit night as the drumbeats and voices of the small Endor natives filled the air. Starfighters streaked overhead, lighting off fireworks that exploded into bursts of color. All the noise only served to give Leia a massive headache.
She could not share in the joy of her friends. The Death Star was gone, but that hardly mattered when Luke was too. And no one had actually confirmed that Palpatine had been aboard at the time of the space station's destruction.
Leia sat off to the side on a large log, along with Han and Chewie. Occasionally someone would come by to congratulate them, but her two companions had little trouble convincing these well-wishers that the sentiments were not welcome here. Leia held her head in her hands, rubbing her temples, trying to drown out the cacophony that filled the forest. Trying in vain to sense her brother's presence.
A nudge from Han caused her to look up. Lando Calrissian and Wedge Antilles were making their way through a large crowd, all the members of which seemingly wanted to give them handshakes or pats on the back. The two pilots brushed off the other celebrants and came to stand before the sitting trio.
Lando's usual charming grin was absent from his face, and the Corellian starfighter pilot beside him looked even more grim. "I . . . wanted to express my condolences," Wedge began. "Luke was a great friend, and probably the best pilot I've ever known. I never thought this would happen . . . it's a tragedy."
Leia nodded. "Thank you," she said, knowing the words were heartfelt, even if they did little to improve her condition. Lando began to speak, when a cold chill ran up Leia's spine.
She looked up into the sky, searching for something that was not there but . . . would be all too soon. And with a shock of realization, she knew--"We have to get out of here. Now."
Rebel transports and starfighters streaked upward through the Endor sky. Aboard one of the shuttles, Leia stood by a viewport and watched the Sanctuary Moon recede behind her ship. The fires of celebration in the Ewok village became faint points of light against the green before disappearing completely. Soon, she knew with a horrible feeling in the pit of her stomach, the entire forest might be set ablaze.
The other Alliance leaders had listened to her plea and agreed with it, even if they did not necessarily understand how she knew that leaving was so urgent. Not that she completely understood either . . . I have much to learn, that's for sure. But it was certainly logical that the Empire would strike back quickly after its defeat.
A growl from Chewbacca took Leia's eyes away from the shrinking moon. "Good point, Chewie," Han, standing beside her, said. "What is going to happen to our furry little friends?"
"I don't know," Leia replied in a mournful tone. "We simply don't have the means to evacuate them in the time available. We tried to bring a few of them with us, but they seemed confused and frightened by the idea of leaving their world, and now--well, I can only pray that the Empire will have mercy."
Chewie, a former Imperial slave, snorted loudly at that.
"If they are killed," said a middle-aged, bearded Rebel commando who sat in an acceleration couch on the other side of the compartment, "the situation could be used to our advantage. Think about the sympathy that would be generated to our cause if that race were wiped out."
"Yeah, they're cute, aren't they," Han muttered.
The man's argument was valid, Leia knew. But a part of her was sickened by it. If the Ewoks were slaughtered, and the Alliance did make an effort to get the news out, would they be doing so to make sure that the Endor natives' sacrifice was not in vain? Or would it in reality be a cold, uncaring method of using another race's suffering to their advantage? It was hard to say--
Leia suddenly felt as if a hydrospanner had been smashed into her skull. She spun to see a fleet of Star Destroyers appearing mere klicks away from the fleeing Rebel ships. And then a deep, powerful voice entered her mind. Leia.
Luke, is that you? she thought desperately. This odd voice did resemble Luke's somewhat; perhaps the difference was due to his no longer being physically alive.
The power of the Force is within your grasp, continued the voice, and Leia realized that it was not her brother. But who? She stared at the Star Destroyers, which had opened up with their scores of turbolaser batteries. The green energy beams lanced in, but the Rebel ships' acceleration was already too high. They were safe, for now.
"We're about to go to hyperspace," called the pilot from the shuttle's cockpit. Leia prepared for the jump, looking again to the forest moon--then hanging her head at what she saw. The Star Destroyers were already beginning a heavy orbital bombardment.
The celebration of the Death Star's destruction would be short-lived. Especially for the Ewoks.
Leia was greeted by the familiar face of Mon Mothma, accompanied by Admiral Ackbar and General Crix Madine, when she stepped out of the shuttle and into the bright docking bay aboard Home One. "Welcome, Leia," Mothma said with a smile. "We're relieved to see you with us . . . and you, General Solo," she added as Han followed Leia down the transport's ramp.
"Thank you, Senator," Leia replied, still using Mothma's now non-existent title--perhaps out of hope that it would one day be restored.
"We will be making another jump shortly to avoid any possible pursuit," Ackbar said. It was a good idea. The Imperials could have tracked the Rebels' escape vector out of Endor's system, which would give them a line on which to search for the fleeing fleet. Another jump on a different heading would make finding the Rebels all but impossible, at least temporarily.
Mothma then nodded at the bearded human who stood to her left. "And now General Madine has something to say . . ."
"Yes." Madine led the group over to a computer terminal as he spoke. "An interesting work of fiction has just been put up on the Holonet News." He entered a few commands at the terminal, and a glowing, bold-faced headline appeared on the screen.
EMPEROR PALPATINE ESCAPES REBEL SABOTEURS
Leia rolled her eyes. As usual, the Alliance was made out to be the villains, even though it was the Empire that had been constructing another planet-destroying battle station. Her eyes moved down to the sub-headline, which read: Cowardly attack causes trillions in damage.
"So how many trillions in damage were done when they took out Alderaan?" Han asked sarcastically. Chewie growled his assent.
Leia had not had a whole lot of time to just think about things in the past hours, but now her mind turned to those who had been responsible for all the horrible events. Such as . . . her father.
It would certainly not be difficult for Leia to hate Darth Vader. He was responsible for the deaths of millions . . . billions even. Alderaan. Grand Moff Tarkin had ordered the destruction of her homeworld, but in Leia's mind the blood was equally on Vader's gloved hands. And now Endor, and Luke. Her brother had thought that there was still good in their father, but he had been wrong, and he had paid for that error with his life. Vader was pure evil; Leia did not doubt it. But now that she knew the awful truth about her lineage . . . could she truly bring herself to kill the man who had brought life to her?
Emperor Palpatine, on the other hand, she would feel no inhibitions against killing. It was he she despised most of all--Palpatine, she felt sure, had made her father into the evil thing he was, and now he had destroyed her brother as well. She knew that he was powerful. He ruled the galaxy with an iron fist, and it seemed that his power in the Force matched his political might. But if Leia could learn about the Force . . . her father, her brother, they were strong with it . . . maybe, just maybe she could gain enough power to somehow overthrow the galaxy's tyrannical ruler.
"I know very well what the Empire's propaganda machine can do," General Madine was saying. Leia shook away her thoughts and plans for the time being, noting that, as a previous defector from the Imperials, Madine did know what he was talking about. "But both sides can play this game. If we spread the word about what happened at Endor, many throughout the galaxy should sympathize with our cause."
"We are in major need of resources," Mon Mothma admitted. "We will begin the efforts as soon as we arrive at our next destination."
"Good," Madine replied with a nod. Then--
"Mistress Leia!" a familiar voice called. What now? Leia thought, turning to see the golden protocol droid C-3PO coming toward her with his mechanical arms waving wildly. He was flanked by two short figures, R2-D2 and--Leia gaped at the sight of an Ewok, taking cautious steps forward and staying close to Threepio. And it was a familiar Ewok, at that; she recognized the short, furry creature as the first one of his race she had encountered.
"He says his name is Wicket," Threepio put in. His astromech companion added a few beeps, and the protocol droid admitted, "Artoo found him. He was hiding out in one of the transports!"
Holy . . . Leia stared down at the Ewok, hardly believing what she saw. In his eyes she could make out both confusion and fear--then those eyes locked onto hers. The Ewok sprang from Threepio's side, raced toward Leia, and grabbed tightly onto her leg.
"Looks like you've got a friend," Han said. She could not stop herself from glaring. Of course, she could not blame this poor little creature, but after all that had happened to her, did she really need this?
Wicket spoke in his primitive language, and Threepio translated. "He says . . . he wants to stay with you."
"Great," Leia muttered. Maybe he's supposed to be a replacement for Luke? The universe must hate me.
The others in the group all looked fairly amused at this turn of events. General Madine spoke. "Perhaps this little guy could be useful to us."
"Perhaps," Leia said with an exasperated sigh. "How about if you take him for a while." Right now, all she wanted was some time alone.
Emperor Palpatine sat alone in his throne room, high in the Imperial Palace on the galaxy's capital planet. Large transparisteel windows gave an exquisite view of the neverending durasteel cityscape and the various ships and speeders that traveled the skylanes of Imperial Center. Palpatine's mind, however, was focused on a subject not so close at hand. Lord Vader . . . and his blasted children.
The Emperor had been surprised when, after the Battle of Yavin, he had learned that the pilot of that X-wing that fired the killing shots was in fact his apprentice's son. Vader had been equally surprised, and immediately seemed to want to make up for those lost two decades. Palpatine had allowed Vader his obsession, secretly hoping that he would gain a new, younger and stronger apprentice to replace the aging, machine-bound Dark Lord. At Endor, it had seemed that that would finally happen--but young Skywalker's foolish, unbending loyalty to the light side had astonished Palpatine. There had been no choice but to kill the boy.
Another startling revelation had come out during that fight on the now destroyed Death Star II. Vader had two offspring, twins, and Luke's sister was the ever-annoying Princess Leia of the shattered world of Alderaan. Palpatine had failed to turn the son; he did not want to waste time on the daughter. But now it seemed that Vader's obsession had already shifted to his other child. The Emperor would not play this game any longer.
My Hand, he sent through the Force. Then he waited, watching the ever-changing scene outside his throne room. So many vessels flew by, so many beings traveled in them--and all those beings bowed down to none other than Palpatine himself. The thought brought a smile to his wrinkled face.
He sensed Mara Jade, the Emperor's Hand, entering the spacious room, and slowly rotated his throne to face her.
"My master," the young woman with the striking red-gold hair said, bowing before him.
"I have a mission for you," Palpatine said. "You will seek out the Rebel Leia Organa, and you will terminate her."
Mara nodded. There was no need for him to tell the whys of the mission, and he knew that his Hand was well aware of this fact.
"All pertinent information will be loaded into your ship by the time you board it. That is all."
"Yes, my master." Mara turned, and Palpatine watched her exit the large room with her usual cat-like grace. His finger moved to a comm button on the arm of his throne. The order to transfer the information to his Hand's personal transport would be carried out quickly.
And then, with any luck, it would be only a matter of time before the nuisance of the Skywalker children was wiped completely from the universe, once and for all.
Mara sat in the cockpit of her ship, named, appropriately enough, Emperor's Hand. She intently reviewed the information that had been given to her. There was little to go on at the moment. A search had already been carried out to find the ships that had escaped Endor, with no success. All she could do right now was put in an order to be informed of any Rebel sightings, then travel to the Outer Rim near Endor and bide her time.
Organa was known to hang around the smuggler Han Solo, Mara noticed. Solo's ship, the modified YT-1300 freighter Millennium Falcon, was a notorious one. It was possible that Organa would be traveling with Solo. Mara added an order to be notified of YT-1300 sightings along that section of the galaxy and to be sent sensor readouts of the sighted vessels. Then she initiated the startup sequence for the Hand's powerful engines.
Leia lay on her bunk in her small cabin aboard Home One, staring at the ceiling with unfocused eyes. She had not moved for some time. She had had a lot to think about--and she'd finally come to the inescapable conclusion that, with Luke and his teachers gone, the fate of the galaxy had to rest on her shoulders.
This was not an easy thing to accept. Leia had always dreamed of changing the galaxy, ever since she was a little girl on Alderaan, but she had intended to do it as a politician. When that hadn't worked, she had been willing to fight for her people's freedom as part of the Rebel Alliance--but never, in her wildest imaginings, had she thought that she would do this as a Jedi! As perhaps the sole Force user actively opposing the Emperor's rule? It was ludicrous! Unfortunately, that did not change the fact that she had to do it. . . .
And how could she even learn how to be a Jedi? Luke had had Obi-Wan and the mysterious Yoda; both were gone now. Maybe she could find some ancient Jedi writings, teach herself from them. But where? If only her brother could give her some sort of guidance. Leia closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and called out, Luke!
She blinked, startled, then looked up to see Han framed in the cabin's doorway. With a sigh, she got up off the bed and went to him. "What is it?"
"The Alliance leaders have just gotten word from spies on Coruscant that Palpatine really did escape Endor alive. I thought you should know."
"Thanks," Leia said, although the words were only a confirmation of what she had already known. "So . . . what's the plan now?"
"I guess they're trying to get the word out about the Ewoks and what happened. There's no way we can actually strike again, at least not for a few months. I saw they were making some vids with your little friend."
"Wicket." Leia shook her head. Now that her emotions had had some time to settle, she could not help but feel sorry for the Ewok. "I wonder if he has any idea what it is he's gotten into."
"I doubt it. . . . So, Leia, what are your plans for right now?" Han asked.
"Actually, I was thinking it would be good to take a short leave of absence from the Alliance. This may sound crazy, but I think I want to visit . . . Tatooine."
Han looked puzzled at this. "Why?"
"I'm hoping that I can find something there. But I guess that can wait a short while . . . no need to get started immediately." Impulsively, Leia reached out and grabbed Han. His eyes widened before their lips met in the beginnings of a passionate kiss. Leia pulled Han with her as she took a step backward, briefly freeing one of her arms to shut and lock the door.
You came in that thing? You're braver than I thought. Leia almost smiled as she remembered her reaction at seeing Han Solo's beat-up old freighter for the first time. She had soon learned that both the Millennium Falcon and its owner wore deceiving facades. The Falcon looked like a piece of junk, but its souped-up engines and weapons systems had allowed many an escape from danger. And Han--behind his cocky exterior there were more heart and courage than in the vast majority of men Leia had known in her life. Now, as she prepared to head off once more on the familiar ship, she thought wistfully of those fast-paced, dangerous, adventure-filled days of . . . just a couple of years ago, although it seemed a lifetime.
Han and Chewie stood together by the Falcon's lowered boarding ramp in the Home One docking bay. "We're all set for departure," Han said, giving Leia a quick kiss as she reached the ship. "As soon as the droids arrive, it's off to Tatooine."
Han's tone gave Leia the impression that he wondered why the droids were accompanying them. Threepio, in particular, had always annoyed him. But both had capabilities that could be useful on this quest. Han, Chewie, Leia, Threepio, and Artoo blasting off together in the Falcon. It would be just like old times--with one very noticeable exception.
At that moment, the two droids stepped out of a lift and entered the docking bay. "Mistress Leia," Threepio called; then, without warning, Leia was hit by a tiny, blurred furball.
She recovered quickly, reaching down toward Wicket as he hugged her legs. "He insisted on coming with us," the protocol droid moaned. "I could not find any way of dissuading him! The Rebel leaders all agreed that it would be all right--they have finished filming the vids and are already beginning to disseminate them over the nets. I do hope that you do not mind?"
Leia sighed. "It's all right, I guess." She gave Wicket a halfhearted but affectionate pat on the head. "You couldn't possibly hurt matters, right?" The Ewok did deserve her sympathy. After all, he had suffered a loss perhaps even greater than Leia had when Alderaan was destroyed. It was hard to think about the emotional needs of others with Luke's absence hanging over her head, but she could not let her personal hurt dominate her mind forever. Thanks to the Empire, billions suffered like that every day.
"I guess it wouldn't be a problem," Han agreed. Wicket apparently understood to some extent, for he began to babble excitedly.
"Wonderful!" Threepio exclaimed. "He is quite pleased."
"Great," Han said. "Now how about let's get this show on the road."
Chewie led the way onto the ship. Han took Leia's arm, and they were about to follow, when another voice interrupted them.
"Han, Leia!" It was Lando Calrissian. "You were going to leave without saying goodbye to your old buddy Lando?"
"Sorry. We were both a little distracted," Han said, shaking his friend's hand.
"I understand," Lando replied, more serious now. "I wanted to wish you good luck."
"Thank you," Leia said.
"And don't let anything happen to my ship!" the former con man continued, smiling once more.
"Hey, buddy, we've been over this a thousand times. . . . " Han said, grinning.
"I know, I know." Lando jokingly raised his hands as he replied.
"So what's next for you, Lando?" Han asked. "Going back to business?"
"I'm going to stay here for a while, do what I can to help the Rebels. They need all the help they can get." Leia saw the fire in Lando's eyes, burning at the memory of betrayal at Bespin. He certainly had reason to hate the Empire, just as she did.
"I'm glad," she said. "The Alliance leadership should be as well."
"I guess this is it, then. . . . May the Force be with you."
I certainly hope so, Leia thought as, at last, she boarded the ship. Wicket slowed her down slightly, but soon she was back in the familiar cockpit. Han and Chewie took their seats and began to fire up the Falcon's engines.
"You're absolutely sure this will be safe?" Han asked, his hands still on the controls as he turned to look at her. "The Empire could be on the lookout for us. We don't want to take a big risk for--"
"This is important, Han, I feel it. And the Empire has its own issues to deal with for the time being."
"All right." Han returned his gaze to the forward viewport. "In any case, we'll be running under the name Corellian Comet."
It was a rather bland name, Leia thought. Han was from Corellia, but so, of course, was the ship itself. Inconspicuous. It'll do.
Leia braced herself as small vibrations ran through the floor, and the "Comet" roared out into space.
The remaining ships of the Endor fleet hung in orbit above the blackened forest moon, awaiting orders, just as they had been doing for the past twenty-five standard hours. Lord Darth Vader, standing by a viewport on the Avenger and gazing down at the charred world, had passed the time seething with silent rage and frustration. Those hours had been torture to him. He had touched Leia's mind for a heartbeat; then she and her pitiful friends had escaped into hyperspace and beyond his grasp. In that oh-so-brief period of time, he had felt the potential within his daughter. He knew that she could become a powerful Jedi--or a powerful Sith--with the proper training. There was only one person in the galaxy who could give her that training. I must find her. She may resist at first, but with time, without her friends or my master to interfere, she will turn. And then, together, we will create a new galaxy. But before that could happen . . . he had to find his daughter!
"Admiral," Vader spoke, not moving his eyes from the viewport.
Admiral Piett quickly stepped up behind him. "Yes, my lord?"
"Have the probe droids discovered any sign of the Rebels?"
"I'm . . . afraid not, my lord." Afraid. Yes, Vader could sense the fear in his subordinate. It had been there ever since Piett had received his early promotion to the rank of admiral, immediately after witnessing the foolish Ozzel's death. Fortunately, Piett was vastly more competent than his predecessor, and did not let that fear get in the way of his attention to duty. And he had nothing to fear at the moment--there was no one to blame for the failure of the probes; it would have been an incredible stroke of luck if they had found anything. For the Rebels would not be on a planet this time. They had countless cubic light-years of space to hide in.
These thoughts did not ease Vader's frustration. "Dispatch more probes, then," he ordered.
"Yes--" Piett began, but he was cut off by a call from the other side of the bridge.
"Sir!" This time Vader turned away from the viewport, following Piett to the technician who had summoned the admiral. "We've just picked up a strange recording circulating on the nets."
"Show me," Piett said, and the tech obeyed. A holographic image appeared, a very familiar image at that--it was the forest moon of Endor, pre-orbital-bombardment.
"This is Endor, a large, forested moon on the Outer Rim," narrated the voice of a human male, which was accompanied by the soft strains of idyllic music. "It is a beautiful place, covered with lush, green vegetation." The camera zoomed in toward the planet, and thick forests were shown. "Its inhabitants also include much animal life, and one primitive but intelligent species, the Ewoks." One of the damned furballs was shown in a close-up; then the camera pulled back and panned to show an Ewok village. "These creatures live in peace among the tall trees--or lived in peace . . . until the Empire arrived."
The overdramatic narration was accompanied by overdramatic music, now loud, militaristic, and harsh-sounding. Beneath his black mask, Vader rolled his eyes. It seemed that the Rebels had learned something of propaganda.
The vid continued, showing the beginnings of orbital bombardment. "Enough," Vader cut in. The young tech gulped, then shut off the recording.
"Rebel slicers must have . . . uploaded it somehow," the tech said. "It appears to be spreading throughout the galaxy . . . like a virus."
"Can we track the recording to its source?" Vader asked.
"We've tried, but . . . no, we can't."
Damn! The source was surely the Rebel fleet. Not finding them now was not a major problem; the destruction of the Rebellion was inevitable. But finding the Rebels would mean finding Leia.
Darth Vader was becoming ever more frustrated by his inability to do just that.
"Shall we attempt to shut down the circulation of this recording, my lord?" Piett asked.
"Of course, Admiral," Vader growled. Then, without another word, he stalked away in the direction of his private quarters.
Merita Kendalzor's head snapped up at the sound of her son's urgent cry. The planetary governor of the Imperial world of Sennix-4 looked to the wide, ornate doorway connecting her study to the adjacent vid room where little Jaxon was watching his afternoon shows. She could not see him, but she heard his loud, high-pitched voice continue. "Mommy, come here!"
Merita saved her work, then swung out of her comfortable chair and ran into the next room. Jaxon, five years old with thick blond hair, was--completely all right, she saw with relief. Her son wore a grin on his face as he pointed at the vidscreen. "Mommy, I want him!"
She moved her gaze to the screen to see a furry, bear-like animal, a stuffed toy of some sort. It was very cute, naturally appealing to young children, and she was not surprised that it had caught Jaxon's eye. "Don't you like your Billy Banth--" she began, but then her voice trailed off. That was not a stuffed toy; it was a living creature!
"How do you feel, now that the Empire has taken away your home, your friends and family?" asked a warm, benevolent voice coming from off-camera. This was followed by the voice of a protocol droid speaking a strange, primitive-sounding language, and then the animal replied in the same tongue. Words appeared on the bottom of the screen: Afraid... lonely... I don't understand why this is happening.
What was this? The Empire had taken away his family? "Jaxon, where did this come from?" Merita asked sternly, gesturing toward the screen.
"It just came on when I was watchin' Stormtrooper Advenshure Hour," her son replied, seemingly puzzled over his mother's serious tone. "What's goin' on?"
"I'm not sure." Merita picked up a control and entered the command for auto-playback. The vidscreen showed an orbital view of a green, forested world. Merita watched . . . and was horrified by what she heard and saw. Is it true? she wondered. Did the Empire really do this? Part of her did not want to believe it. The Empire had always been good to her, allowing her to govern as her people wished in spite of its frequently sexist policies and keeping things safe on her homeworld. She led a life of comfort and ease, largely thanks to the galactic government. But she had always had nagging feelings of discomfort about the Imperials. Rumors she had heard . . . about horrid misdeeds and atrocities. Nothing officially acknowledged, but could all the rumors be false? On her own world, she had been exposed to the callous methods of the military. No one had been killed, but her citizens often complained of mistreatment. And now the extermination of an entire sentient species. It did seem plausible, she had to admit.
"Go back to watching your shows," Merita said, pressing a button that would transfer the contents of that recording to her computer. Jaxon seemed to forget about the whole thing within moments, returning his rapt attention to the continuing adventures of Captain Courage and his stormtroopers. Imperial propaganda was everywhere, Merita realized--was it being used to cover up a truth this horrible?
If this tale of slaughtered Ewoks was indeed true, she could not stand to let the Empire rule any longer. Returning to her desk, she immediately began working on a top-priority message to the members of her advisory council.
The five faces surrounding the table that Merita Kendalzor sat at the head of all wore carefully guarded expressions, but it was clear that none could hide completely the shock they felt at her news. But was that shock caused mainly by the Empire's actions at Endor, or by her suggestion that the planet Sennix-4 not stand for the reported massacre? Merita peered into the eyes of each of her advisors, trying to get a sense of what they might be thinking. All five were humans, as were eighty percent of Sennix-4's five-hundred-million-odd inhabitants. The sparsely populated world based its economy on agriculture, and was also the home of a small but productive manufacturing industry. It was Merita's hope that the world would not be of too great concern to the Empire, and that a declaration of allegiance to the Rebels would not lead to disaster. And if more worlds followed her lead, the tide of the war might begin to shift. It was also her hope that her advisors would see things the same way. They had been chosen by the people of her world to assist her in ruling, and over the few years she had worked with them the dealings had always been smooth. But there had not been any major conflicts to deal with . . . before now.
Jep Varner, a graying man in his sixties who had long been a staunch supporter of Palpatine's reign, was the first to break the silence. "With all due respect, Governor," he said, not sounding very respectful, "I am appalled by your suggestion. First of all, I do not see how changing the galactic government could possibly be of benefit to us. Secondly, attempting to do so would be a fool's gambit. And lastly, we do not even know that this report is true!"
Merita met Varner's cold glare. "Our analysts have done all they can to find signs of forgery in the recording," she replied. "They tell me that it appears to be the real thing."
"Even if it is, why should we care?" Varner shot back. "I do not like to say this, Governor, but by simply calling this meeting you are approaching treason. If you are not very careful in what you say and do within the next few minutes, I will have to report you."
"I am aware that there is a danger here. But which is more important, saving our own skins or saving entire worlds full of thinking, feeling people?" Merita shivered as she remembered vividly the images in the recording, the turbolasers setting acres of forest on fire and the pathetic words of Endor's sole surviving native. "Think of the mass suffering caused, friends lost, children orphaned . . . I do not see how we can morally let this pass without taking action against it."
"Perhaps," Karmyn Olsun, the council's youngest member, put in. "But it would also be immoral to take such action without the support of the people you represent. I do not believe they will be so enthusiastic when they hear of your plans for rebellion. You may have the authority on this planet, but you have an obligation to act in the best interests of Sennix-4's citizens, not on some wild whim of your own."
I should have expected this response, Merita thought. "Our citizens may not know what their own best interests are. Imperial rule has--"
"And you do know what those interests are?" Varner cut in harshly.
"Better than you!" Merita said, and instantly regretted the loss of temper . . . and of control of this meeting.
"I will not stand for this treason any longer. Emperor Palpatine is the ultimate authority over this planet, not you, Governor. I suggest that anyone still loyal to the true government of this galaxy leave this room now." Varner rose from his seat. He was soon followed by Olsun, then Endiel Numeneen and Sid Inder, and just like that the meeting had broken up. Merita lowered her head into her hands. Now what? They'll probably call in the stormtroopers to arrest me. . . . But not if--
She pulled out her com-link, and was surprised to see Wilf Axxon still sitting at the table. "Governor?" he said. She gestured to wait, while she called her personal guards.
v "Detain the four citizens who have just exited the advisory room," she said, quietly so that Axxon would not hear. She received an acknowledgment, then put away the com-link and turned her gaze to the one remaining council member.
"Just what do you think you're doing here?" he asked.
Merita let out an exasperated sigh. "I had hoped that your staying was a show of support for me."
Axxon did not respond for a moment. She looked closely at his thoughtful face--and was surprised to see tears forming in his gray eyes.
"It was," he admitted. "This is horrible, I agree with you, we cannot let the Empire get away with it. You remember my daughter Indigo?"
Merita remembered very well. Indigo Axxon had gone off-world to a university a couple of years ago, but never returned. She had been brutally murdered before her first semester was up. The governor nodded, silently wondering what had prompted the change in topic.
"Then you remember when she was killed," Axxon continued. "Well, when that happened, I felt that there was something . . . strange about the whole thing. I did some investigating, and it turned out that her murder was not a simple act of violence. She had been reading some pro-Rebel material circulating at the university, and . . . the Empire executed her for it."
Merita's jaw dropped. No wonder Axxon felt willing to support her. If the Empire ever did anything to little Jax . . . "I'm so sorry," she said.
Axxon nodded. "I had always hoped for an opportunity to get back at the Empire. Now I know that I cannot wait any longer. Had you thought about how you would get in contact with the Rebels after you made this decision?"
"No, I hadn't. Now that you mention it, I guess that might be a problem. . . ."
"It won't be," Axxon declared. "During my investigation . . . let's just say that I met a few people."
Leia felt emotions surge within her as the sandy globe of Tatooine filled the Falcon's viewport. The first time she had come here, she had had no idea that her brother lived on the planet below, or that the man pursuing her was her true father. If she did not know of the Force's existence, such events would seem far too coincidental to be real. Perhaps the strange energy source of the Jedi had somehow been guiding events back then. Now she could only hope that the Force would guide her to discover on this world . . . something that could help her become a Jedi herself and defeat the Emperor.
She had been searching for Obi-Wan Kenobi, a ghost from the past, when she arrived here on the Tantive IV. And now it could be said that I'm literally searching for ghosts. Will I find any?
As the Falcon continued its approach, Wicket scurried past Leia and crawled up into the lap of an amused-looking Chewie, apparently to gain a better view of the desert world. Leia, watching the Ewok, noticed an orange light flashing beside him on the ship's console. "What's that?" she asked, pointing.
"We're being scanned," Han explained. "System patrol craft." He placed his right index finger on a red dot on the freighter's tactical readout. It was stationary, and as the orange light stopped its flashing the patrol craft still showed no sign of making a move toward the Falcon. "Looks like you were right. We're safe."
"Good," Leia replied.
Now buildings were becoming visible as small dots on the planet's surface. "There's Mos Eisley," Han said. "Where to, Princess?"
"To start, let's see if we can find the old Lars homestead."
The Emperor's Hand dropped out of hyperspace on the Outer Rim, far from any star system, and the Emperor's Hand herself quickly went about checking her status. There was one particularly bright celestial object dead ahead. Mara knew that it was the star that Endor orbited, approximately one light-year away from her ship. That was where her master had recently managed to escape death at the hands of the treacherous Rebels, and where those same Rebels had likewise barely escaped after the vengeful Imperial fleet returned to the system. Now Mara was tasked with finding one of those Rebels, Leia Organa, and killing her. She had probably faced tougher jobs in the past, but tracking down Organa could prove difficult.
Mara moved her attention to the incoming message display on her ship's control panel. She opened the first message, and found that it was from her master--and very brief, at that:
Do not go to Endor's system.
Okay, that didn't seem to be a problem. The Rebels had left Endor; she had no reason to go there. Next Mara brought up the reports of YT-1300 sightings along this region of space. There were quite a few. She skimmed through the list, chuckling at some of the names: Idiot's Array, Viraxo's Wrath, Spice Mine . . . The YT-1300's reputation as a favorite of gamblers, pirates, smugglers, and general riff-raff seemed well-grounded in reality. None of the reports caught her eye, however. The Millennium Falcon was absent from the list, and she did not get any sort of feeling that one of the freighters was actually Solo's running under a false ID. Mara sighed, wondering what she should do now--then she saw a wide frequency message marked very important.
Might as well give it a look, she thought. It could have something to do with the Rebels. She opened the file, and saw that it was in fact a holovid recording. She quickly recognized the first image shown. It was Endor from orbit.
Mara leaned back in her chair, watching the pictures and listening to the words in the message. It soon became obvious that this was a piece of Rebel propaganda. Naturally, her first reaction was to feel skeptical. She had seen many such hoaxes, and had even been responsible for eliminating the creators of some of the more convincing ones. But then she thought back to that message from her master. Why does he want me to stay away from Endor? He never said anything about this bombardment; is he hiding it from me?
He probably just doesn't want me interfering with the fleet, and vice versa, she answered her own query. The holographic image changed from one of the forest moon to show a small, furry creature, one of the Ewoks. "Wicket," he was supposedly named. Mara laughed out loud; this was truly pathetic. But as she read the translated words and looked into those large soulful eyes, she found that, to her horror, this little Ewok's story was touching something hidden deep inside her. His family had been taken away from him . . .
My parents. Mara had only the vaguest of memories of the man and woman who had brought her into the universe. They had been taken from her when she was very young. Palpatine had never told her what had really happened to them, and it seemed to her now that perhaps there had always been something missing from her life. Palpatine was her master, but he was no father. And a part of her, even if it was a tiny part, yearned for the love only parents could give. Astonishingly, she had something in common with this primitive being!
This is silly, she thought. It doesn't matter. I should be above feelings like that. And even if this story is true, the need for order in the galaxy is justification enough for the fleet's actions.
But is it really? Maybe I should go to Endor anyway, even if my master ordered me not to!
The tone indicating an incoming message interrupted the battle beginning to rage in Mara's mind. She saw that a new list of YT-1300 reports had come in. This one was fairly short . . . but this time one did catch her eye. The Corellian Comet . . . sighted arriving at Tatooine.
Tatooine was Luke Skywalker's home world. In fact, Mara had recently been sent there to assassinate Skywalker. She had been unable to carry out the mission, but now the Jedi was dead anyway, slain by her master at Endor. Somehow it made sense to Mara that Organa would want to return to that world. It was near the edge of her search peripheries, but the Millennium Falconwas a fast ship and could have reached the desert world in the time available. Mara had been taught to obey her instincts, and now they were telling her that that was where she should go.
The Emperor's Hand gave one last look at the bright star of Endor before bringing up the hyperspace coordinates for Tatooine.
Mon Mothma did not possess what one might deem a commanding physical presence. But as she spoke, Lando Calrissian noticed yet again, the Rebel leader easily held sway over the entire crowded Home One briefing room.
"Our efforts at spreading the word about the events at Endor have already proven fruitful," Mothma began. "Through trustworthy sources, we have been relayed a message from one Merita Kendalzor, the planetary governor of Sennix-4. She wishes to declare loyalty to our cause, and requests assistance in dealing with the Imperial presence in her system first. Sennix-4 is located on the Mid Rim, but on the other side of the galaxy from our current location. It is not one of the more important worlds, galactically, but it would still be capable of providing us with much-needed resources. And if one Imperial planet can successfully secede from the Emperor's clutches, more should follow."
Lando, sitting near the front of the crowd, gave a few glances to those who were sitting near him. Mothma's words appeared to be bringing hope, if cautious hope, to their faces. "And now General Calrissian, who will lead the mission to Sennix-4, will present further briefing."
General Calrissian. Lando rose, thinking as he made his way toward the center of the room that the title still sounded very strange to his ears. Now the Alliance was putting him at the helm of a capital ship and in charge of an important mission. They must be getting desperate.
"Thank you, Senator Mothma," he said, then moved his attention to his audience. "The target world is lightly defended." Lando brought up a holographic image of Sennix-4, and a red dot appeared near the center of the planet's largest landmass. "The Imperials have a single garrison, on the outskirts of Senna City, the capital and home of the governor. Two fighter squadrons are housed there. There are no orbital defenses.
"The light cruiser Seaspray, under my command, will jump to within two light-years of the target system. It will then launch several assault shuttles full of troops, along with the X-wings of Red Squadron and the Y-wings of Gold Squadron." Lando briefly met the eyes of Wedge Antilles as he said this. Wedge would be Red Leader, of course, and he would have to fly with a good number of new squadron members to replace those killed at Endor. The Corellian pilot had suffered another loss at that battle--Lando knew that Luke Skywalker had been one of his closest friends. Wedge looked on intently, his face betraying no emotions as the briefing continued.
"Those fighters and shuttles will make the short hyperspace jump to Sennix-4, arriving on the night side of the planet when the capital will be shrouded by darkness. We hope that they will avoid immediate detection. Gold Squadron will take out the Empire's ground defenses, with Red Squadron providing support and dealing with the enemy fighters. Then the assault shuttles will land, and our troops will secure the garrison and the governor's palace. Once everything is under control, the Seaspray will enter the system to accept Sennix-4's pledge of allegiance to our cause.
"That is all, for now. Red and Gold pilots should transfer their fighters to the Seaspray immediately. We depart at 2100 hours."
It's so lonely. The Falcon had set down without incident several tenths of a klick from the old dwelling of Owen and Beru Lars. Leia had been to Tatooine before, but never visited Luke's home until now. As she approached the homestead, the one thing that stood out most to her was how truly isolated her brother had been. The endless desert sands stretched to the horizon in every direction. Only some scattered moisture 'vaporators broke up the monotony; no other structures were visible beyond the homestead itself. And Tatooine was a planet far removed from most galactic events. That was why Obi-Wan had gone into hiding here for those long decades. Who would think to look for the old Jedi on an Outer Rim planet not known for anything? Luke had mentioned that his childhood had been rather dull, and now Leia could see why.
A small, domed building grew closer--and with a jolt, Leia noticed the heavy blast scoring that marred the off-white surface of its walls. The Empire did this, she knew. Evidence of the attack had faded, weathered away by the sands of time, but was still readily apparent.
Moments later, Leia received another jolt.
Two human-sized mounds lay side by side in the sand. She could think of only one possible explanation for their presence. The same stormtroopers responsible for the blast scoring on the building had murdered Luke's caretakers, yet another example of the atrocities committed in Palpatine's name. Leia glanced back at the droids, who followed behind over what must have been familiar ground to them, and shivered. But at least someone found the bodies and gave them some sort of proper burial, Leia thought, looking to the mounds once more. That was something that would never be possible for the people who had raised her.
"So this is where Luke grew up," Han said as they reached the entrance. "I've seen better . . ."
Chewie interrupted with a growl. "But as Chewie points out, I've seen a lot worse too."
"Yeah." Leia nodded, not having much else to say in response. She led the group through the arched doorway, then down a tunneled staircase, before emerging in a large, circular pit that appeared to serve as a sort of courtyard for the homestead. Several doors led off from the courtyard; she decided on one and went through it. Wicket was the first to follow. The Ewok looked around, sniffed the air, and went off exploring, out of sight. "You be careful," Leia called, before turning her attention to the room she was in. It appeared to be a kitchen/dining room. Several appliances, utilitarian in design, rested on a counter. A table, surrounded by three chairs, took up the center of the room. Although a thin layer of sand covered the floor and most other flat surfaces, there was an almost pristine quality about the place. Leia wondered why none of the desert's inhabitants had scavenged the homestead in the past few years. Perhaps the events that transpired here keep them away.
Leia's eyes lingered on each of the three chairs, and in her mind's eye she could see a teenage Luke and his aunt and uncle eating a meal together and conversing about the day's events. If she used her imagination, she could sense the warmth and caring that must have pervaded this place--marred by sudden terror. Was it her imagination?
Her eyes swept the room one more time, then rested on Han's. "There probably won't be much of use to us in this room," she said.
"Probably not," Han agreed. "So what exactly are you hoping to find?"
"Books, datacards . . . maybe just inspiration. Search the place, and look for anything relating to the Jedi." She turned to the droids, who stood framed in the entranceway. "Any ideas, you two?"
"I am sorry, Mistress Leia, but in my short time here I do not recall seeing anything that would be of help to you," Threepio said, then translated his companion's response, "Artoo agrees."
"All right, then, let's see what we can find." Leia made her way down a curved hallway. She first passed a refresher, then came to a room with a bed against one wall and a floor cluttered with junk. Luke's room, she realized with a chill. She entered slowly, almost reverently. The room looked like the living space of a typical teenage boy, or so she imagined. The bed was unmade, and a set of clothing had been hastily piled onto it. This must be just the way Luke left things before running off with General Kenobi! The junk on the floor consisted of spare parts and a couple of half-completed model ships. On the walls, there were several holos. One showed a group of teens standing against a sand-colored wall--Leia recognized Luke and Biggs Darklighter among them. There were also images of starships, as well as one holo of a scantily clad young woman. Leia would have laughed--if only Luke were here to share her amusement.
She made her way over to the shelves that ran along one wall. These contained more clothing, some fully-built models, including an X-wing, and a large pile of datacards. Leia felt tense with excitement as she began to go through them. Could there be something here?
The first titles she saw, however, did not look promising. A few were nonfiction or educational, such as Landspeeder Repair and Elementary Astrogation. Most looked to be entertainment titles. Pirates of the Unknown Regions, The Invaders Saga, Beyond Hope . . . she paused at Adventures in the Force, but found that it was another low-grade drama. Luke, of course, would not have known when he was a fan of these stories that he was destined to become a star player in the greatest drama of all.
Death of a Starship Captain . . . Attack of the Clones? "Who comes up with this stuff?" Leia muttered.
She went through all the datacards and found absolutely nothing of interest. Hopefully the rest of the homestead would yield some discovery, but for now, Leia sat down on the edge of her brother's bed and simply thought.
Luke's childhood had been about as different from Leia's as was possible. Coming here drove home that point in a way no amount of talking and sharing past memories could. Back at the palace, I had a closet bigger than this entire room! Leia had certainly lived a life of luxury compared to her brother's, although the Larses and their adopted nephew had not been impoverished. Luke had had to work hard, but his life had been good enough . . . except that he was always dreaming of the unreachable stars. Leia, on the other hand, could have simply relaxed in her position as a viceroy's daughter, but would never have been content with that. It was apparent that ambition to do great things was a family trait. Anakin Skywalker must have had similar feelings as a child . . . but he was a monster now. As for their mother, Leia could only wish that she knew more.
What would my life have been like if I had grown up here? How might things have turned out differently?
Would Luke still be alive?
Leia shook her head. It was pointless to speculate on such matters. Leave it to the historians.
She happened to be staring at the doorway when Wicket came racing into the room. "Have you found--oh." The Ewok held a model ship, a Skyhopper, in both hands. He produced zooming noises to the best of his vocal abilities as he made a circuit of the room, then came to a screeching halt at Leia's feet. Wicket's eyes, gleaming up at hers, took on a sudden look of sadness.
Leia reached down to rub the Ewok's furry head. "I know how you feel."
Han, accompanied by Chewie, entered the Larses' garage to find Leia searching through it for what must have been the second time. She quickly noticed his arrival, and when she turned to face him he caught a hint of exasperation in her features. It pained Han to see the woman he loved in such distress. But what had she really hoped to find here?
"We went through the whole place," he began, "and . . ."
"Same here," Leia admitted, frowning. "I guess it's not a surprise. I mean, Luke didn't have any idea that he could use the Force until after the last time he left his home."
"Right." So why come? Han added silently.
Leia looked at him sharply, then said, "Still, coming here wasn't a complete waste. I think it was good for me to get a glimpse of Luke's early life. And now . . . there is another place nearby that might offer more of use to us. General Kenobi's home."
Now that actually made sense to Han. Not that he truly understood anything about the Force or the Jedi, but . . . "I'd wager that that old wizard had some interesting things in his house."
Leia nodded. "Then I suppose it's time we got going. Let's find the others."
The group had been here for quite some time, that was for sure. Han had not wanted to disturb or rush Leia. He knew that this was very important to her. "Chewie, you've got a good nose," he said, as the pair exited the garage. "See if you can find our Ewok friend."
The Wookiee growled and headed off down a side passage. Han made his way back to the main courtyard, where Artoo and Threepio were already waiting. "Oh, there you are. Master Han, if I may ask . . ." the golden protocol droid said, "Do you believe that something is bothering Mistress Leia?"
"Aren't you the observant one," Han said, rolling his eyes. "Don't worry, she'll be all right." I hope.
"If you say so, sir. Oh! Here come the others."
The rest of the group entered the courtyard, and Han led the way back up to the entrance and out onto the desert sands. The Falcon was parked straight ahead, and they all took off at a fairly brisk pace in that direction. Before long, Han noticed some humanoid shapes skulking around the base of his ship. Artoo bleeped something loud, and Threepio exclaimed, "Oh my! Tusken raiders! They can be very dangerous, as my own experience has--"
"Shut up, Goldenrod." Han drew his blaster as he continued to walk toward the Falcon. When he had caught the Tuskens' attention, he muttered, "Scram," and fired off a warning shot.
The blaster bolt whizzed past the group of raiders and impacted the sand beyond the ship. The Tuskens began to chatter in their odd language, but showed no sign of leaving. Beside Han, Chewie drew his bowcaster. Roaring loudly, he launched an explosive quarrel at the Tuskens' feet--and the raiders quickly scattered.
"Nice work, Chewie," Han said. Finishing the trek to the ship, he found that it had not been damaged in any way. Simple desert raiders. Even if they were trying to mess with the Falcon, they'd have had no luck.
Han, Leia, Chewie, the droids, and Wicket boarded the freighter, and they were soon off to the desert abode of Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Mara piloted her ship down through Tatooine's dry atmosphere above the spaceport of Mos Eisley. She set the Hand's powerful sensors to scan the area, searching for any sign of the Millennium Falcon. At the same time, she reached out with her rudimentary skills in the Force.
A faint glimmer, just at the edge of her awareness, was evident. Was it Organa, or--
Mara recoiled at the sudden intrusion into her mind. The sensation was familiar; her master did it frequently when she was out on missions. Why did it now feel unwelcome? Do I no longer trust him? She quickly shielded the thoughts, listening to the words from the far-off Emperor.
Excellent, my hand. The presence you feel is your target. Eliminate her.
v Yes, master. As abruptly as it had come, the mental contact ended. Mara looked at her sensors--and there was a YT-1300 heading for the ground not far away. She would make a high-altitude flyby, get a visual reading, then land several klicks away and approach on her speeder bike. And then Organa would be hers.
The group moved slowly and carefully over the rocky terrain. The trek was not an easy one--General Kenobi's home had clearly not been built with ready access by starship in mind. The afternoon suns beat down harshly, and drops of sweat ran down Leia's face. She rubbed her eyes before coming around a bend. Far below, she could see the Falcon resting idly in a wider section of the canyon. Then she turned her head to the left, and there, near the edge of a cliff, sat the dwelling place of the deceased Jedi Knight.
Leia's pace quickened now, and she soon reached the small hut. She looked back before entering to see Han, Chewie, and Wicket a few steps behind her. The droids had been slowed considerably by the terrain, and lagged a bit farther back. "Here we are," Leia said.
Han nodded, coming to a stop beside her and before the entrance. "Ladies first?" he said, gesturing to the door.
Leia hesitated. I'm afraid that I won't find anything, she realized. This is it--I don't know where else I could look! She sent a silent prayer to the Force that she would discover something useful here. Then a memory came to her of words spoken what seemed so long ago--Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope. As she entered the last hiding place of the great General Kenobi, for the briefest of moments Leia smiled.
It did not take long to survey the room she stood in. She had thought that the Lars homestead was rather lacking in luxury compared to her own childhood home, but these were truly meager accommodations. Of course, General Kenobi could have had more if he had wished to. For whatever reason, he must have decided to make do with a simple hermit's life. Fortunately, this place too appeared untouched since that fateful day when Luke left Tatooine.
The rest of the group crowded into the old abode. "This shouldn't take too long," Han remarked. He went over to the far end of the room, followed by Chewie, and began to examine some items on the wall. Leia moved to take a seat near a window. She picked up and put down a few objects. They were nothing more than old, worthless trinkets, as far as she could tell. If this journey was all for naught . . .
What's that? Her eyes came to rest on a wooden box that sat near her on the floor. She picked it up, set it on the ledge in front of her, and brushed off the thin layer of sand that covered it. The box bore no markings. Slowly, perhaps afraid she would break something, Leia lifted up the hinged lid.
Inside was a very uncommon sight. A book--not a datapad, but a real, leatherbound book. Leia had seen a few in her foster-father's library on Alderaan. She could not recall ever coming upon one elsewhere. This book must be ancient, she thought. Certainly pre-Empire. She picked it up and looked at the cover inscription with eyes wide. The script was strange, unreadable to her. "Threepio!" she called.
The protocol droid shuffled hurriedly over. "Yes, Mistress Leia?"
"Can you read this?"
"I am fluent in over six million forms of communication," Threepio said, peering down at the book. "That is an older script, used primarily for writings of great ceremonial significance. It says Jedi Ways."
Leia felt excitement surge through her. "Han!" she yelled, leaping from her seat and spontaneously wrapping him up in a fierce hug.
"I heard," he said, grinning back at her. He returned the embrace warmly. "But--don't get your hopes up too high, huh?"
"I won't," Leia replied. He was right; she didn't know what was actually contained in this ancient text.
Returning to her seat, Leia examined the book more closely. A metal strap kept it shut, and there was no apparent way of unlocking it. Leia placed her right hand on the strap--and it suddenly snapped open.
This was what she had been searching for, she knew it. The journey had not been in vain. This was what she needed to bring down the Empire!
She turned to the first page, and sighed in relief to see that the text was Basic. It would have been quite a pain to have Threepio translate the entire book. She was about to start reading, when Wicket jumped up onto the ledge in front of her. Then Artoo let out a sudden squawk, Wicket stepped toward the window with one pointing arm outstretched, and the sound of a high-powered blaster going off rang through the air.
Leia instantly dove to the floor. Han and Chewie were already running past her, heading outside. "Wait!" she said, but they showed no sign of doing so. Leia waited for sounds of more fire, but several seconds passed and she heard none. She picked herself up from the floor, pulled her head up above the ledge that the book rested on--and was met with the sight of Wicket's charred body.
Mara had had Organa in her sights, had squeezed the trigger and fired the killing shot--but at the exact same moment, the blasted Ewok had jumped into the window frame and taken the bolt. Her target was out of sight now, safe for the moment, and Mara had lost the element of surprise.
She let off a quick shot as the smuggler, Solo, came bursting out of the doorway. It missed by centimeters, and his return fire caused her to duck back behind a rock. More blaster discharges followed, slamming into Mara's cover but not harming her. Then a Wookiee roar and the sound of a bowcaster firing informed her that she had best get out of this place quickly.
Not taking time to aim, Mara fired her blaster, then dove from her hiding place and went into a sprint. She was exposed for a split second, and she shuddered as the heat of a blaster bolt sizzled past her left arm. She raced around a bend, and now a rock wall gave her plenty of protection. What next? The Emperor's Hand had hoped to make a clean killing of her target, but it did not seem that she would be able to accomplish that here and now. If she got to her ship and returned before Organa was gone, however, she would be able to take out the Princess anyway, albeit in a somewhat less satisfactory manner.
Mara came to her parked speeder bike, hopped on, and revved up the engines. As she dove into the canyon below, her thoughts returned to the Ewok she had mistakenly killed. Supposedly the last remaining member of his kind, cut off from all those who loved him . . .
Put him out of his misery is more like it. The speeder bike roared through the canyon, sending dust flying in its wake.
Han looked disappointed as he re-entered the house, holstering his blaster. As he extended a hand toward Leia, his expression instantly shifted to one of concern. "You all right?"
"I'm fine," Leia replied. "But Wicket . . ."
Han's eyes went wide as he saw the Ewok's blasted corpse. Chewie let out a mournful sound. "Oh, shavit," Han muttered. "You're lucky, you know. That was a professional assassin. We tried to stop her, but she got away. Human female, red hair . . . I only caught a glimpse. But I'm sure she won't be giving up."
Leia, her gaze on the floor, returned a small nod. Then Han continued, "We'd better get out of here."
"I guess we have what we came for." Leia picked up the still-opened Jedi Ways. A small bloodstain had set in on the first page. She shivered as she snapped the book shut. "What about--" she gestured at Wicket.
Chewie growled and gingerly picked up the body. "We can give him a proper burial later," Han replied. "Now let's go."
"We have to hurry!"
Leia took the lead as the group raced the last hundred meters over the rocky floor of the widening canyon. She was receiving sensations that could only be coming through the Force, and they felt disconcertingly similar to those she had felt on Endor before the return of the Imperial fleet. Clutching the old Jedi book in her arms, she sprinted onto the Falcon's ramp, then turned back to check the others' progress.
Han, carrying his blaster in his right hand, was just behind her. Chewie followed, cradling Wicket's body. The Wookiee roared, prompting Han to cock his head toward the sky. "That's a ship," he growled, and Leia could hear the distant sound of engines growing louder. "Get your metal bodies in gear, you two!" Han added in a yell, "Or we'll be forced to make our departure without you!"
Threepio, a good twenty-five meters away, waved his arms in response. "Oh, please don't!" he cried. "I have already spent quite enough time on this dreadful world!" Han and Chewie were off to the cockpit, while Leia waited at the top of the boarding ramp. The engine sounds were turning into a loud, high-pitched wail. The ship, almost certainly the assassin's ship, sounded fast and dangerous.
"Are the droids aboard?" Han's tense voice came over the ship's comm system.
"Hold on . . ." Leia replied. Seconds later, Artoo rolled up onto the ramp with a worried-sounding electronic squeal. Then, at last, Threepio was aboard. "Now!"
"Ramp up," she heard Han say; then, before the freighter was fully closed, "Punch it, Chewie!"
Leia could hear and feel the Millennium Falcon's engines come to life. She knew they were running well outside the recommended specifications. Just before the ramp closed, she was able to see the desert terrain falling away--and to catch a glimpse of a sleek ship rocketing toward them. "Oh dear!" Threepio commented.
"Leia!" Han shouted. "Get to the top turret!"
"Got it." At top speed, Leia made her way to the ladder that ran up and down to the YT-1300's twin quadlaser emplacements. She experienced the disorientation of shifting gravity, but quickly got over it as she took her seat at the top guns.
A laser blast rocked the Falcon. Outside Leia's bubble, the sky became darker as the ship raced toward outer space. She could not see their pursuer--then Han executed a half-roll, and the assassin's ship was in her sights.
Leia fired off a shot, but missed. Green lasers streaked in from the streamlined black vessel. These failed to hit their target as well. The Falcon's engines must have been going all-out now, but the other ship was not lagging back in the least. Leia squeezed down the firing triggers several more times, swiveling in her chair, but her enemy's evasive maneuvers were too effective.
She remembered Luke--Luke! --speaking of the Force aiding him when he flew his X-wing. Could it do the same for her? She closed her eyes, attempted to feel . . . something . . . and held down the triggers.
A hard jolt several heartbeats later caused Leia's eyes to snap back open. "What's going on up there, Princess?" Han said harshly over the comm.
"Sorry," she replied, embarrassed. The Falcon rolled to bring the pursuing ship back into her sights, and she could see that it had not been hit at all. Another stream of green lasers came in, and several more hit. Leia's return fire continued to do absolutely nothing. "We in trouble?"
"No problem," Han replied confidently. "We're about to make the jump to hyperspace."
Leia could not help but think back to the numerous failures of this ship's modified hyperdrive. As she attempted to line up a good shot on the assassin, she felt the vague sensation of someone attempting to . . . break into her mind. She stared at that sleek dark vessel--
Then she felt relief as it disappeared and was replaced by the mottled sky of hyperspace.
Like a swarm of deadly insects, the twenty-four starfighters of Red and Gold Squadrons zoomed through space toward Sennix-4 and their unsuspecting prey--the Imperial garrison housed on that planet. Wedge Antilles led the way in his X-wing, with the rest of Red Squadron in a tight formation about him and the dozen gold-striped Y-wings a couple of klicks back. Not far off, several Rebel assault shuttles waited to do their part in the attack.
As the planet came nearer, its mass blocked out completely the light of the Sennix system's yellow sun. The Rebels would be striking at night, hoping for a better chance to catch their foes off guard. Wedge peered down at the spherical shape below him, seeing lights scattered across its surface. There were none directly in his path, however--thick clouds covered the sky above Senna City, the planet's capital. The Rebel fighters' target was on the outskirts of that city.
"Be careful flying through those clouds," Wedge spoke into his comm. "Watch your velocity." Atmospheric entry was seconds away when the voice of Tycho Celchu, flying Red Five, sounded urgently in Wedge's ears.
"Lead, I'm picking up some--"
At that moment, bright flashes of green lit up the sky as a squadron of TIE fighters came shooting up out of the clouds. Apparently the Rebels had been detected, and the Imps were trying to turn the tables on them by surprising the attackers. The tactic might have worked, except that the TIEs had opened fire several seconds before entering weapons range.
Wedge picked out a target, followed it with his sights for a few moments, squeezed down on his firing trigger, and blasted it to pieces. Then he went into evasive maneuvers as the enemy fighters screamed right past the X-wings. "Come back around to re-engage," Wedge ordered. His X-wing briefly dipped into a large cloud bank before swooping back up toward the TIEs.
"We took out three on that pass," Tycho reported. "Lost Red Ten."
Wedge grimaced. Ten was one of several newbie pilots who had been added to the squadron after Endor. Killed in his first real combat engagement. Then the TIEs were back in range, and Wedge's focus was turned completely to the action. X-wings and TIEs flitted through space, attempting to lock onto each other, while the Y-wings of Gold Squadron did their best to avoid engagement and get to their targets on the ground. Wedge made a quick decision--"One Flight, move to escort Gold Squadron. Two and Three Flights, keep these guys occupied. Try to keep them from getting below the clouds."
A series of acknowledgements came over the comm. Wedge turned his craft back toward the planet, watching as a group of Y-wings disappeared into the cloud bank. They still showed up on his sensor readouts, of course. As Wedge, too, entered the clouds, he noticed that he had picked up a TIE on his six. The enemy fighter let off several rounds of laserfire, but Wedge managed to avoid being hit. His maneuvering, however, did little to get the TIE off his tail. Wedge continued to fly downward, and soon was out of the clouds. He briefly glimpsed the bright lights of Senna City before going into a hard starboard turn. "Two, fly out a klick, then face the sky. I should have a target for you."
"Copy," replied Wes Janson. Wedge was back in the clouds, easing his X-wing into a lazy 360-degree turn. The TIE stayed after him, continuing to fire its lasers but still not hitting anything. Hopefully he's not paying too close attention to his sensors, Wedge thought as he flew into open air once more. The TIE followed--straight into a laser barrage from Janson's X-wing.
"Good flying, Two," Wedge said.
Wedge checked his sensors, and saw that all twelve members of Gold Squadron were still in action and heading down toward the planet below. No TIEs were currently in range. "One Flight, escort formation," he ordered. "Watch for more enemy fighters."
Below, a thick cluster of light marked the location of Senna City. Glowing dots became more widely dispersed over the surrounding area. South of the city, there was a patch of darkness with a lighted strip running through it, leading to a smaller lighted area. As Wedge sped down toward the surface, he could make out the square outline of a large complex with box-shaped buildings inside it. "There's the garrison," he said. "Gold Squadron, prepare to launch torpedoes."
Suddenly, the air was filled with green as lasers flashed to life at all four corners of the complex. "Break off, then approach at lower altitude!" Wedge ordered--
But not before a panicked voice cried, "I'm hit!" One of the Y-wings, its engines engulfed in flames, went spiraling downwards and lit up the ground in a fiery crash.
Wedge and Janson flew with half of the Y-wings, banking to port into a looping descent before going back into the attack run. "Target those gun emplacements," Wedge ordered. The lasers continued to fire. It appeared that they were designed to ward off both aerial and ground-based attacks, but they were clearly having difficulty hitting such fast-moving, low-to-the-ground targets. The structures of the Imperial base loomed closer--
"Enemy fighters!" Janson exclaimed.
Wedge immediately picked up two TIEs accelerating upwards from one of the base's buildings. Must be the main hangar. The Imp fighters began to orient themselves toward Wedge's group, but he and Janson did not give them time to even get their bearings. Both X-wings tore into their targets with bright red lasers, and the two TIEs exploded. As Wedge zoomed in over the base, he let loose a single torpedo. It flew directly into the large hangar's open door before detonating. The remaining ten fighters of Sennix-4's second and last TIE squadron would not get the opportunity to launch.
More torpedoes streaked past Wedge as he left the base behind him for a moment. Coming back around, he grinned at the sight of massive explosions arising at each of the four corners of the garrison complex. "Good work, Gold Squadron."
"Lead, this is Five," came Tycho's voice. "We've eliminated all targets up here. No further casualties for the good guys."
Just like that, the Imperials on Sennix-4 had lost all ability to defend against aerial assault. "Great going, everyone," Wedge said. He switched to a different comm frequency before adding, "Assault shuttles, move in now to secure the garrison and the governor's palace."
"Copy, Red Leader."
Twenty-four TIEs and four ground-based laser cannons down, next to two losses for the Rebels. Not bad. . . . But I think it's safe to assume that these were far from the Emperor's best troops. Sennix-4 was anything but a major planet. Even the smallest contribution, however, could help the Rebel cause in these grim times.
Wedge was flying a wide circling pattern above the crippled base when a movement below caught his eye. He focused in and saw that three armored speeders were gunning their engines, fleeing toward the road that led to the capital city proper. "We've got contacts on the ground." As Wedge moved to acquire a lock on one of the speeders, Janson's X-wing came up alongside his. Wedge switched to a general comm frequency, then said, "Imperial speeders, this is the commander of the Alliance forces. Shut off your engines and surrender at once."
The response to this was a barrage of laserfire. It missed, but Wedge doubted it would have been strong enough to penetrate an X-wing's shielding anyway. "I repeat, surrender--"
A red flare suddenly shot up from one of the speeders--a missile. Wedge shoved his control stick to the left to dodge; this turned out to be unnecessary as Janson blasted the warhead out of the sky. The three speeders continued to move.
"Hey Lead, you want me to try out my awesome powers of persuasion on them?" Janson asked.
Wedge chuckled, but before he could reply another X-wing roared down from the sky and launched a torpedo that completely obliterated the lead speeder. "When diplomacy doesn't work," came the voice of Hobbie Klivian, "there's always brute force."
"Right, Nine," Wedge said. The other two speeders came to screeching halts, and several Imps poured out of them with hands raised.
"See?" Hobbie said. "I was right."
"You never gave my persuasive powers a chance," Janson put in.
"All right, guys." Wedge couldn't help but smile, although he wondered how much longer he would be able to take all this--especially Janson's constant antics. Oh well. Shifting his attention to sensors, Wedge saw that the assault shuttles were nearing the ground. Soon they had landed. The X-wings flew a standard patrol as the ground-based portion of the mission was undertaken. Within ten minutes, the signal came that the garrison was secured. Two minutes later, the palace had likewise been taken.
As Wedge prepared to signal Lando on the Seaspray, he could not help but shake the feeling that this had been much too easy.
Just as he had done some eight hours earlier, Wedge piloted his X-wing downward into Sennix-4's atmosphere. The Rebel commander kept an eye on his sensors, but found himself stifling a yawn as he went--there had been no time to catch up on sleep after the night attack. Fortunately, any pilot with a mere modicum of skills would have no trouble handling this job. Wedge, along with Janson, Hobbie, and Tycho, flew in a formal escort around the Lambda-class shuttle containing General Lando Calrissian. The descent was much slower, and much less hazardous, than the one leading up to the recent assault.
Wedge blinked as the Sennix system's yellow sun appeared blazing over the horizon. The sky was clear now, unlike the past night, and the towers of Senna City were easily visible up ahead. Wedge could also make out a thinning cloud of gray smoke rising up from the no-longer-operational Imperial garrison. He knew that the surviving members of the token Imp force there were now residents of their own detention block, for the time being.
Bright sunlight glinted off the durasteel facades of Senna City's buildings and illuminated the fields that stretched from just outside the city off to the horizon. When Wedge's targeting computer indicated that the governor's palace was five klicks away, he spoke. "Okay, boys. We're to do a flyover of the city center at an altitude of fifty meters, then loop back and escort the shuttle to the palace landing pad. Take it easy."
The four X-wings leveled off their flights at the proper altitude, leaving the shuttle slightly above them, and slowed to the velocity specified to give the most impressive flyover possible. Their path led down a narrow corridor between the city's tallest buildings, but it was not narrow enough to provide any trouble. Wedge glanced down to the streets below--
"Look at how popular we are!" Janson's jocular voice came over Wedge's comm. "All those people came out just to see us . . ."
"I hear Lando's quite the charmer," Hobbie pointed out. "They could be here to see him."
"Nah, look at those signs," Janson countered. "I'm pretty sure they say We love you Wes."
Indeed there were throngs of people filling the streets--especially the plaza in front of the governor's palace--and some of them actually were holding signs. There was no way they could be read from this vantage point, though.
From near one of the signs came a sudden red flash. "Was that what I think it was . . ." Wedge said slowly.
"If you think someone just fired a blaster at us," Tycho replied, "then yeah."
"Nice." Wedge sighed as the X-wings roared past the plaza and over the palace. "Now let's bring 'er in."
Morning sunlight filtered through the large windows of Merita Kendalzor's office. The planetary governor of Sennix-4, standing in front of her desk and staring out one of those windows to the large courtyard below, found herself drawn to the image of the rising sun. An appropriate symbol, Merita reflected. "This is the dawn of a new day," she murmured aloud. "For my planet, for my people--and for the galaxy."
The voice came from behind her. A bit reluctantly, Merita turned away from the window and her vision of hope. "Oh--Wilf, you've arrived." Wilf Axxon, the only member of her advisory council to remain loyal to the governor after her decision to declare loyalty to the Rebel Alliance, stood before her. "Good, the Alliance representative should be landing shortly. And--you can just call me Merita now. May as well."
"Right . . . Merita." Axxon proceeded to pull out a datapad and switch it on. "Have you seen the crowds outside?" he asked.
"How could I not?"
"And are you aware that some of them may be hostile?"
Merita nodded, her expression cold. "I may be idealistic, but I'm not naive. Of course some of our citizens don't like this--but in the long run, they'll be better off. I promise."
"Anything would be better than the Empire," Axxon agreed. For a moment, deep emotion--memories of his daughter, no doubt--appeared on his face. Then he pointed to his datapad and continued to speak. "Early poll results about the populace's reaction are already coming in. We're reading forty-three percent in favor of your actions, thirty-eight percent opposed, and the rest either don't know or don't care. If that margin of approval doesn't widen, we'll be in for some very tumultuous times."
"Is the Endor footage being shown widely?"
"Yes. Every channel, at least twice an hour, just as you--"
Axxon broke off and looked up to the ceiling as a rumbling sound filled the palace. Merita, too, glanced upwards. "That must be the Alliance arriving." As she said this, her son Jax raced into the room and wrapped his arms around her legs. She looked down to see his gaze was past her, on the window. "It's okay, Jax." She gave the five-year-old's hair an affectionate tousle as she led him toward the window. "The people I told you about are coming--the ones who are going to help make our planet a better place."
"Wow!" Jax exclaimed, as a gleaming white shuttle became visible. It was accompanied by four small fighters, which were gone from view in the blink of an eye. The shuttle descended slowly, coming to a smooth stop on the landing pad at the center of the courtyard. Merita watched as a ramp lowered, and several men walked down it to meet the Rebel troopers already standing on guard by the pad. They exchanged words, and then the group moved as one in Merita's direction.
"You stay around here, Jax," she said. "These men will keep you safe." She pointed to the two Rebel troopers who stood on silent watch by the far wall of her office. They wore stony expressions--but compared to the stormtroopers and their disturbing masks, the Rebels' faces looked downright friendly.
"Okay." Jax tightened his grip on her for a moment before letting go. "Good luck, Mommy!" he called as he raced off to his toys in the next room.
Merita turned back to Axxon, just as the doorbuzz sounded. "Well, this is it . . ."
"Indeed it is," the other replied. Merita walked to the closed door that was opposite Jax's playroom and keyed it open. On the other side stood five men--two Rebel troopers, two officers of rather ordinary appearance, and a third officer, obviously the leader. The dark-featured man was well-decorated, and immediately flashed a bright smile as he caught sight of Merita.
"I'm General Lando Calrissian of the Rebel Alliance," he spoke in congenial tones. "Governor Kendalzor, I presume?"
"Yes, I am Governor Kendalzor. Welcome to Sennix-4. Are you ready to proceed with the declaration?"
"Certainly." Calrissian produced a sheet of archaic paper, the kind used for events such as this, and a writing tool. Merita took them in her hands, noting the large words at the top of the paper: Declaration of Sennix-4's Loyalty to the Alliance to Restore the Republic. "Whenever you're ready?"
"I would like to proceed with the signing on the balcony overlooking the plaza in front of the palace, so that my people can witness what I am doing."
Merita gestured to Axxon, who stepped up to the group. "This way," he said, and, flanked by a pair of troopers, led the procession to the balcony.
The destination was reached less than two minutes later. Merita moved to the front of the group. Taking a deep breath, she pushed open one of the ornate doors and stepped out to survey her people.
A roar immediately arose in the plaza. The governor scanned the crowd before speaking, seeing faces full of joy or hope--and just as many full of anger or hatred. The few nonhumans she could pick out all appeared pleased, although admittedly she was not as skilled in reading their reactions. Some of the crowds' members were holding signs--For Freedom, said a large one with simple, brightly-colored lettering.
Death to Traitors, said another.
Rebel troopers stood on the outskirts of the crowd, all equipped with blaster rifles. "This could get messy," Merita said, just loud enough for General Calrissian to hear. "Are your troopers prepared? If one of them slips up and kills one of my people, it's all over."
"They're the best we've got," Calrissian replied. "Don't worry."
Merita stepped to the front of the balcony, and years of practice brought her politician's smile to her face as she spoke. "People of Sennix-4, today you will witness a historic moment for our planet and for the entire galaxy." Her voice was amplified throughout the plaza for all to hear. "We will throw off the Empire's tyranny here and now, and we will say to the people of all star systems that there is a better way. Our declaration of loyalty to the Alliance to Restore the Republic is a declaration of freedom and hope, and support for a just cause that is in dire need of support right now. It will be the turning point, I promise you--years from now, when historians look back to the Empire's downfall, they will point to this day!"
Merita paused for a few heartbeats. "Long live the Emperor, long live the Emperor!" She shuddered as this chant entered her ears, taken up by many in the crowd below--but it was soon drowned out by the general roar of thousands of dissonant voices.
"This is General Calrissian of what is popularly called the Rebel Alliance," she said, and her voice echoed over all the noise. "He will accept my signature on this declaration, and Sennix-4 will join the beings of the galaxy who wish to be truly free!"
Merita held up the paper, then placed it on a pedestal that stood beside her. Fingers shaking, she lowered the pen to the document. She had signed her name countless times in her life, but never had it been so difficult. Governor . . . Merita . . . Kendalzor . . .
There! Once again, she held up the paper, and the roar grew even louder. General Calrissian stepped up beside her and took the declaration--then shoved her to the ground.
A blaster bolt whizzed overhead. It would have missed easily, but this did not stop Merita's heart from skipping a beat. She dove to the open door, listening intently for more blasterfire. There was none, but angry screams filled the air. She pushed herself up as she re-entered the palace interior. Glancing back outside, she saw that several brawls had already broken out in the crowded plaza. Rebel troopers tried desperately to get the incipient riot under control. Please, she prayed silently, just don't let anyone be killed!
But that situation was out of her hands for the moment. "Well . . . I guess that's that," she said calmly. The normally composed faces of Axxon, General Calrissian, and the other Rebels all looked back at her with varying degrees of shock. None said a word in reply.
A Jedi's strength flows from the Force . . . only when he is calm, at peace, can a Jedi fully harness the Force's power . . .
If I am to be a Jedi, Leia thought, sitting cross-legged on the bed in her bunk in the Millennium Falcon, I must first learn to tap into the Force at will. This seemed to be a pretty basic concept, but it was not so easy to grasp for someone who had never even suspected she was capable of using the Force until a few days ago, and who had no teacher save an inanimate old book . . . so it was with a certain amount of trepidation that Leia began her first true attempt to immerse herself in the mysterious energy field.
Calm, at peace, she silently repeated the apparently very important words she had read. At peace . . .
Leia let her breathing slow and let her eyes stare blankly past the empty surface of the far bulkhead. I am at peace, she decided. So now to feel the Force . . .
She did not feel anything. Several seconds passed, and nothing happened. Hello? Is anyone out there . . . anything?
There was no response. What should she be expecting? What, indeed, was the Force? Supposedly it was some sort of energy field that she should be able to draw on because her . . . brother . . . and her . . . father . . . had been able to. The book said that it would control her actions and obey her commands at the same time. Did that mean it was sentient? Could the Force think, or was it simply energy?
What did it feel like to touch the Force?
Leia took several more deep breaths, striving to feel any sort of unusual sensation. Still, there was none. Luke, why couldn't you be here to help me with this! Abruptly, Leia pushed herself up off the bed and strode to the far wall, hands clenched tightly. She nearly smashed one fist into the metal bulkhead, but stopped it some centimeters away. At peace! she reminded herself, spinning back toward the bed--Back to the book. She picked the old leather-bound thing up from where it lay on her pillow and flipped through a few pages before settling on one of the passages that she had come across before and dismissed without much thought. A particularly puzzling Jedi axiom: Do or do not, there is no try.
At first glance, this had made no sense whatsoever, but after trying to feel the Force Leia found that she could perhaps decipher its meaning. What if she had been putting too much conscious effort into the action? Thinking back into the past, she realized that there had been times when she must have been in contact with the Force . . . and in each case it was a completely unconscious doing. At Bespin, she had known, somehow, where Luke was and how to save him. Now that she knew the truth about her family, the only explanation was that she had been connected to her brother through the Force. If only that connection could have saved him at Endor . . . she lamented, or barring that, if it could continue after death!
Stop! Dwelling on her sorrow remained a useless activity.
More recently, there had been the odd sensations of danger she had felt through the Force. She had never been trying to touch the energy field when she received those warnings. And looking farther back, perhaps there were other cases still . . . on the first Death Star, she had resisted torture to a degree she would not have honestly expected was possible. Could the Force have increased her strength of will without Leia herself even knowing it?
Do or do not, there is no try.
Leia set the book back down and returned to her cross-legged position. This time she closed her eyes, breathed deeply, and focused on absolutely nothing. It was difficult to do, but she managed somehow . . . to completely clear her mind of conscious thought, leaving a blank slate ready for etching. The only sensation she felt was air slowly cycling through her, the only sound her long, smooth breaths. After several seconds, an odd tickling appeared at the back of her mind. She instantly reached out for it--and it was gone.
Again, Leia relaxed and cleared her mind. But the tickling did not come back. She remained motionless for long seconds that stretched into longer minutes, and felt nothing. Nothing!
How will I ever be a Jedi at this rate? How will I ever destroy the Emperor?
Leia sighed as she went back to the book once more. Soon another line caught her eye. Life creates it, makes it grow. If the Force was created by life . . .
What am I doing here? On a spaceship with one other human, a Wookiee, and two droids, adrift in deep space, Leia could not have much less life in her immediate vicinity. The Force was supposed to run throughout the galaxy--the universe, even, although no Jedi had come close to exploring its bounds--but if the Force was based on life it seemed logical that being near large quantities of life would increase the magnitude of the energy field and thus increase one's ability to touch it. So what she needed was someplace full of life, not an empty sector of space. If she went to a planet, her chances of being found by the strange assassin would increase somewhat, but surely she could find a planet safe enough for a brief stay. So what planets came to mind when she thought of life . . .
Alderaan. She had spent hours in its beautiful gardens, surrounded by plants and singing birds . . . but Alderaan had been destroyed by the Empire.
Endor. Its massive forests stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions, including upwards . . . but Endor too had been ravaged by evil. The Ewoks, an entire sentient race, were extinct now that Wicket had been shot. I must put an end to this evil! Now where else to go . . .
Yavin! Yavin IV, the moon where the Rebels had made their base, was covered with lush jungle. It would be perfect for her purposes! This world, too, had nearly been destroyed by the Empire, but it had narrowly escaped Alderaan's fate . . . thanks, of course, to Luke.
Leia shook herself. To Yavin it is, then. She keyed open the door to her bunk and entered the Falcon's corridors in search of Han. She found him alone in the cockpit, looking at some data from the Holonet. "Han?"
"Leia," he replied, looking up. "I was wondering what you were up to. There's some big news--"
"I want to go to Yavin IV," Leia interrupted. "I want to study the Force there. I think it would help me."
"Hold on," Han said. "A Mid Rim planet--Sennix-4, it's called--just went over to the Rebel side. It's all over the nets. The Alliance might want you back--they could use your skills right now."
"Wow," Leia muttered. The news did surprise her . . . but would not alter her decision. "That's great, but . . . right now I have to focus on developing skills in another area. In the Senate, I fought against the Empire's atrocities, and accomplished nothing. With the Alliance, I never managed to do enough. But as a Jedi . . . I can bring the Emperor down. That is how I will help the Alliance, and right now the best path to doing that lies on Yavin IV. I feel it."
Han looked skeptical. "What happens in the next few weeks or months could make or break the--"
"Han, please. I can't expect you to understand, but please trust in what I feel and what I tell you. We will return to the Alliance in due time, but not before I have taken strides down the Jedi path. Luke wanted me to be a Jedi, and with him gone . . . there's no one but me. I must do this."
Han glanced at the Holonet readout, back at Leia, then at the display screen once more . . . and finally his eyes settled on Leia's. "All right." He switched on the comm, before adding, "Chewie, get in here! We're . . . we're going to Yavin IV."
"Thank you, Han." Leia leaned down to give him a kiss, and silently hoped that she really was doing the right thing.
"I assume, Lord Vader, that you are aware of the . . . situation at Sennix-4?"
Even though the wrinkled face before him was nothing more than an oversized holographic image projected across hundreds of light-years of space, Darth Vader could feel the rage pouring off it. His master did not take kindly to insubordination, as countless beings had learned in the past . . . and all had, sooner or later, come to regret that knowledge. "Of course, my master," the Dark Lord finally replied.
"And what are your feelings on the events there?"
Interesting . . . very interesting, had been Vader's initial response to hearing the news. The Rebels had come out of hiding, at least some of them. And this could do nothing but increase his chances of finding Leia, although she herself was surely not at Sennix. "Obviously, this treachery cannot be tolerated," he spoke. "We must dispatch a fleet to put the insurgents back in their places."
"Indeed," the Emperor agreed, and now his pale lips curved upward into an eerie grin. "You, my friend, will take half the Endor fleet, and depart at once for the Sennix system. Teach the Rebels a lesson they will never forget."
If it were not for Vader's black mask, his face would easily have betrayed the shock he felt at the orders. He knew going to Sennix would be a waste of his time, time he could better spend--"My master . . . the Endor fleet? Surely others must be closer to the target."
The Emperor took on an exasperated tone, as of one lecturing a foolish, unworthy student, as he explained, "Dispatching ships from nearby would leave other systems vulnerable to attack. But what purpose does having such a large fleet at Endor serve now?" Anger and frustration at the loss of another Death Star were briefly evident, but the Sith Lord quickly went on. "Your fleet is the one most suitable for the task, and you, Lord Vader, will carry it out."
"Yes, my master," Vader replied. The reasoning seemed sound . . . but the giving of the orders had been accompanied by too much not-so-subtle glee for the Dark Lord's liking. He's hiding something.
Something related to Leia. The mental connection was perhaps not entirely rational, bit it had the weight of the Force behind it. By the time the thought was complete, the hologram of the Emperor had already faded to nothingness. Vader growled as he rose, and still seething strode forcefully from his quarters to the Avenger's bridge. "Admiral Piett?"
The admiral rose from his chair and came to stiff attention. "Yes, milord?"
"Signal the five other Star Destroyers most ready to see action, then set coordinates for the Sennix system. We depart immediately."
Mara Jade tapped her fingers on her ship's control panel as she read through the latest news, hoping for some sort of lead . . . or inspiration, or sign from the Force, or anything. She had followed the smuggler's ship into hyperspace, but had had no luck tracking Organa and her cohorts. Afterwards, she had contacted her master. After giving her a well-deserved chastisement for her failure, he had told her to continue the search for her quarry--and not to fail again. Now Mara was right back where she had started.
After the first jump, Solo could have gone in any direction. Mara had no clues as to where to look, and she felt nothing in the Force either. Perhaps she was even worse off than when she had headed out toward Endor at the beginning of her mission. Endor. The image of that pitiful Ewok jumping into her sights at the last minute and being knocked back by the bolt replayed itself in her mind for what must have been the dozenth time--
What's this? An urgent piece of news had just appeared on her display screen, telling her that . . . the Mid Rim planet Sennix-4 had declared rebellion against the Empire! And representatives of the Rebel Alliance were present, meaning that there were people there with links to Organa. It was a tenuous lead, but it was a lead nonetheless . . . and now a plan began to form itself in Mara's mind.
If she went to Sennix-4, and managed to infiltrate herself into the Rebel forces there, then she would be able to find Organa in no time.
It might work. It might very well work.
With renewed determination, the Emperor's Hand punched in the coordinates for the Sennix system and blasted off into hyperspace.
"This is Captain Kanares of the freighter Freeflight, requesting permission to enter Alliance-controlled space."
Lando Calrissian regarded the holo of the young, brown-haired man a moment before replying. "Permission granted, Captain."
Kanares wore a broad grin as he saluted. "Thank you, sir." The holo disintegrated away, and Lando found that he himself had to smile at the enthusiasm displayed by the freighter captain. It had been like that with all the ships he had given permission to pass freely into the Sennix system today. Those ships' captains had seemed unusually intent on following formalities, and most had taken what seemed to be mild glee from the proceedings. Alliance-controlled space was undoubtedly the key phrase. That the Alliance had actually gained authority over a new system, even one so minor as Sennix, was cause for celebration in these dark times.
Lando let his gaze drift to the main viewport of the Seaspray, where Sennix-4 was framed, illuminated brightly by the system's sun. A stream of space-going vessels stretched out from the Seaspray to the planet, ships becoming tiny dots before disappearing out of sight as they descended toward the surface. These freighters, some owned by the Alliance and others the property of independent contractors with Rebel sympathies, were key to the Alliance's receiving aid from its new ally. Sennix-4 would provide important manufactured goods, as well as foodstuffs, to the Rebellion at reduced prices. The discounts would not unduly harm the planet's economy, as those supplies had previously fallen under the Empire's heavy taxes. Now the same supplies would be used, hopefully, to help bring down the Empire.
The holocomm came to life again, and Lando turned to greet yet another freighter captain. But as he opened his mouth, he saw that this was someone of greater importance. "Governor," he said.
"General Calrissian." Merita Kendalzor, Sennix-4's planetary governor, smiled. "Are things going smoothly up there?"
"Very smoothly," Lando replied. "And on the surface?"
"The situation is still under control." Lando knew that the tension on the planet would not go away soon, as many of its citizens were vehemently opposed to siding with the Rebellion. There was a distinct possibility of the situation suddenly spiraling out of control. "The first freighters are loaded, and ready for takeoff. They request escort out-system."
"Very well." Lando pressed a button to activate another comm channel. "Red Leader?"
"Right here." The X-wings of Red Squadron were currently flying patrol in the space around Sennix-4. Lando would have preferred a somewhat larger defense against possible incoming threats, but he would take what he was given.
"Wedge, the first freighters are ready to head out. Could you send an escort to accompany them to the jump point?"
There was a few seconds' silence, in which Lando guessed that Wedge was wondering why an escort was necessary. The freighters did not have far to go before they cleared Sennix-4's gravity well, and they would be heading almost straight toward the Seaspray and its fairly formidable defenses. Formalities, again . . . seeing a flight of red-striped X-wings flying with you can't be bad for morale.
"No problem," Wedge finally responded.
"Thanks, Wedge." Lando switched off that frequency, and returned his attention to Governor Kendalzor. "They're on their way."
"Good." The former Imperial smiled again. "I am sincerely glad to be of service to your cause, as are my people."
"The Alliance is glad as well," Lando said. "Thank you, governor." Politicians, he added silently--but he did not doubt Kendalzor's sincerity.
"If other worlds follow our example," Kendalzor went on, "we will restore freedom to the galaxy. I know it."
Lando nodded. If.
The green blur below gradually resolved itself into a mass of lush plant life as the Millennium Falcondescended into the jungles of Yavin IV. Leia leaned forward, peering down and examining the familiar landscape. She had nearly lost her life to the Empire here . . . but unlike so many things that the Empire had taken away, she was still in possession of her life, and while she had it she would do everything she could to fight back.
The Force must be strong here, Leia mused. It was certainly with Luke . . . and the book said life creates it. You couldn't pack much more life than this onto a moon! The vegetation stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions, interrupted only by the occasional small body of water and by the ancient stone temples that rose above the trees. She and her companions were headed for one of those temples, the Great Temple--the building that had once served as the Rebel command center. It was as good a location as any, with both ample space to land the Falcon and good shelter.
Han gingerly piloted the freighter as the ground grew near. The stone-gray mass of the temple appeared before Leia's eyes, filling the viewport, and seemed to rise upward as the ship slowly dropped. With a touch of repulsorlifts, Han set the Falcon down in a grass clearing, then activated the controls to lower the ramp.
Chewie quickly rose from his co-pilot's chair, checking his bowcaster as he headed for the exit. "Well, here we are again," Han said, getting to his feet and grasping Leia's hand. Giving it a squeeze, he added, "Let's hope the Force is with you."
Leia smiled. "Han, I'm glad you're with me." She gave him a quick kiss on the lips. "Now let's see what's outside."
The pair made their way to the Falcon's exit and walked side-by-side down the ramp. "Artoo and I have decided to stay with the ship," Threepio called after them; both ignored the droid. A warm, humid mass of air hit Leia at the same time that her feet hit the soft ground. The jungle had an odor, thankfully not an unpleasant one, that Leia vaguely remembered from her previous time here. Her ears were filled with the sounds of birds calling and other wildlife, sounds she had not heard since--Endor. Chewie was standing about ten meters away, facing the thick jungle. Leia took a few steps toward him before the Wookiee turned, growled, and walked back toward the ship.
"He says it's safe," Han translated.
Leia nodded. She had picked up the general gist of the statement herself--a certain amount of Wookiee language had rubbed off on her in her time spent with Chewie. The Wookiee walked up to Leia and, not breaking stride, continued past her and back onto the ship. "What's he up to now?" she asked.
"He went to get something," Han said, a bit puzzled. "I'm sure we'll find out soon enough." Han slowly surveyed the clearing, then looked upward. Leia followed his gaze to the bright red-orange sphere of Yavin that hovered above the jungle moon. "You know, if it weren't for him," Han said, gesturing back into the ship, "I probably would have just left with the money, made the jump to hyperspace and gotten out of here. And then . . ."
His voice trailed off. "Luke would've died over three years ago, and I'd have gone with him," Leia finished. "Maybe it would even have been better that way."
"For you, anyway. You would still be free to go gallivanting around the galaxy. You wouldn't have been stuck in this mess."
"Leia, come on. I could never go back to that. I have you!"
"I'm sorry," Leia shook her head. "It's just so hard . . ."
"You don't have to do this to yourself," Han said. "I'm here for you, so is Chewie, and the Alliance . . ."
"But I have no choice. If I want to stop the Emperor, I have to become a Jedi. There is no other way."
"But Leia, you could at least try to . . . I dunno, stop dwelling on the negative so much?"
Leia sighed. "I know, you're right." It seemed like almost everything in her life was negative right now, but she had to stop spending half her waking hours drowning in woe. She had to focus on the task at hand. "There's Chewie," she said, as the Wookiee reappeared at the ship's ramp. He was carrying something in his arms, a furry something--Wicket's body.
Chewie let out a series of impassioned growls, to which Han replied, "Yeah, he does deserve a proper burial. I guess this should be a good location." Chewie led Han and Leia over to the edge of the clearing, then carefully placed the Ewok's body on the ground and produced three digging tools that he must have gotten from the Falcon's supplies. Han took one of the tools, then glanced at Leia. "We can handle this; you don't have to help."
Leia grabbed the third tool. "But I will."
Without another word, the trio attacked the ground next to Wicket's body. Leia went at it with particular ferocity, tearing up grass and sending dirt flying into the jungle. Soon the combination of climate and labor had her drenched in sweat. The task was a fairly mindless one, but a good way of burning off energy. Dig . . . dig . . . dig . . . The hole grew deeper and wider. Leia continued to work, focusing solely on the shovel and the ground below her. Then she noticed a strange sensation--a buzzing at the back of her mind. It was like the life around her was calling to her, pulling her into a web of energy. Where had the sensation come from? It was as if it had snuck up on her as she dug, and now it filled her with an incredible feeling of power that she had never felt before. Leia paused in her digging, and stared at the loose dirt below. They were about halfway done with the grave. Leia reached out with her trembling free hand, gestured at the hole--and suddenly a mass of dirt rose from the ground and sailed off into the jungle. Then she moved her concentration to Wicket's body. It floated upward to hover over the grave, then slowly down into the perfectly-sized hole. Han and Chewie looked on with unblinking eyes as Leia pointed to a pile of loose soil, which swirled up off the ground before settling down to cover Wicket's body. Leia gasped before dropping her digging tool--then fell to her knees before the Ewok's grave.
"Leia?" Han asked, staring at her with his mouth hanging open.
For a dozen rapid heartbeats, Leia just knelt there, panting. Then she looked up at him through suddenly teary eyes. "I did it! I--I used the Force!" Of course, Leia knew that she must have touched the Force before--but never had she actually employed it to affect the physical world. Until now, she had hardly even believed she could do something so incredible!
"That's--that's great!" Han stooped down to enfold her in a hug, while Chewie roared his approval. But then Leia got to her feet and gestured for silence.
"We must now pay our respects to a very brave being," she intoned solemnly. She bowed her head and clasped her hands together, while Chewie and Han did likewise. The three formed a circle around the dirt patch on the ground. In the silence, Leia forced her racing thoughts to turn to memories of the slain Ewok. Wicket had seemed an annoyance at first, but his courage for such a small creature had quickly impressed her. He had suffered such tragedy, losing the rest of his species to the Empire's tyranny. And then he had been killed as well, and had saved Leia's life in the process. She would not forget him.
It was somewhat ironic, Leia thought, that here at the site of the Rebellion's greatest victory they were now burying a symbol of the Rebellion's greatest failure. An entire race was dead, because the Alliance had only partially completed its mission at Endor. . . .
I will avenge the Ewoks, Leia silently vowed. And Alderaan. And Luke.
Mara pulled back on the hyperdrive lever, and the mottled sky of hyperspace before her briefly turned to starlines before reverting to a view of normal space. This view was dominated by the sphere of Sennix-4, Mara's destination. The Emperor's Hand let her eyes rest on the fairly normal-looking planet for a few seconds before turning her attention to a tactical display.
There was only one large vessel identified as a threat within her sensors' range. It was a light cruiser of Mon Calamari make, the Seaspray, clearly a Rebel warship. It was parked just within Sennix-4's gravity well. If her plan was to succeed, Mara would have to find a way to get herself unnoticed onto that ship. When it inevitably returned to the main Rebel fleet, she could then find Organa and eliminate her. But flying right up to the Seaspray and trying to dock would obviously not be very effective. Mara needed another way aboard, and she already had one in mind. There would certainly be Rebel troops on the planet's surface. She would simply land on the planet, find a suitable group of Rebels, and hitch a ride with them when they transferred back up to their command ship.
Landing on the planet, however, could present a problem. The Rebels were probably on high sensor alert, and an unidentified ship coming in would surely arouse suspicion. As Mara looked over her sensor readouts, she saw what might provide a solution. Dozens of freighters, of all shapes and sizes, were currently flying to and from the planet. All were concentrated in one area, near the Seaspray. If she could sneak into the mess of ships and simply go with the flow, she would be able to make her landing without any unwanted attention. The Emperor's Hand was a bit small to be mistaken for a freighter, and the proximity to the Rebel cruiser might make things hairy, but running in high stealth mode she'd be able to pull it off. No problem.
Mara aimed her ship toward the line of freighters, which appeared only as tiny points of light at this distance, and increased throttle. At the same time, she shut down all active sensors and punched in the stealth settings. It would take several minutes to reach the freighters. Mara leaned back in her pilot's seat, but kept a hand ready on her flight control stick.
I wonder what my Master intends to do about this, Mara thought, as she neared the rebelling planet. She had not been in contact with His Imperial Majesty since just after her failure at Tatooine. As long as her plan was running smoothly, and he had no more instructions for her, there was no need for him to enter her mind from afar. Surely, the Empire would not allow Sennix-4 to continue its insurrection indefinitely, but Mara doubted that a suitably strong response would be very feasible right now, due to the loss at Endor. And that was fine by her, as it would better suit her plans to infiltrate the Rebellion.
Mara was about ninety seconds from the nearest freighters, and there was still no sign of her having been detected, when a new set of threats appeared on her display. Enemy fighters, four of them--and they were coming closer. The fighters were identified as X-wings. They must be on patrol, Mara decided, and hoped fervently that they would not notice her.
The range to the lead X-wing continued to drop, then began to level off--then, suddenly, the decrease accelerated. "Shavit!" Mara's first instinct was to go into evasive maneuvers, but she held her course. She still might be able to get through this.
"This is Alliance-controlled space," a voice crackled over her comm system. "Identify yourself now."
"I, ah, am making a delivery to Governor . . . Kendalzor. Classified business."
"On whose orders?"
Whose orders? Great. "I can't say."
"Not likely. Identify yourself now, or we will open fire."
So much for not attracting attention. Mara grimaced as she pushed her engines to full throttle, switching off her comm at the same time. She pressed a button to activate her rear-firing cannon, and opened up with a barrage against the enemy X-wings. A heartbeat later, space around her ship was filled with scarlet light. She took several hits to her shields before jerking her control stick around to evade. More enemy laserfire passed wide. Mara got the planet in her viewport and headed toward it, randomly varying her flight path to avoid being hit. This was not completely effective, however, while her return fire did nothing against the X-wings. And it did not look like she would be getting out of range any time soon.
Another hit took Mara's shields down to fifty percent. All right, let's try something they're not expecting. She pushed her control stick all the way to the right and held it there, going into a hard turnaround to directly engage the X-wings. The maneuver caught two of her pursuers completely off-guard. She soon had one in her sights, and let loose with a bright green torrent. The X-wing exploded in a fiery ball. Its partner dove out of her sights, and another X-wing came at her from her starboard side, pounding her shields with its lasers. She pushed her stick up, then down, then cut back her throttle and turned to port to find that X-wing's engines in her viewport. She managed to get a hit in, but could not destroy the ship before its wingmate was on her.
Mara increased throttle again. She saw one of the X-wings was flying straight toward her from a slight angle. She turned to meet it. Red light flashed in her viewport. She dipped her ship down as the X-wing came into point-blank range. It zoomed overhead, and she triggered a barrage from the rear cannon. Mara grinned as the X-wing blipped out of existence on her display.
Two left. The X-wings regrouped, and came at her with guns blazing. Mara returned fire briefly before concentrating on evasive maneuvers. Sennix-4 momentarily loomed before her, and she noted that the dogfight had brought her closer to the planet. Then a hard jolt demanded her full attention. A red light began to flash, indicating that her shields were out. Mara evaded with all the skill she could muster, but now one of the X-wings was stuck on her tail. Blast after blast from her ship did nothing to drive it off. Another jolt shook her--her hull was slightly damaged.
The planet grew in her viewport. Mara maneuvered desperately, but could not shake her pursuer. Stang, this guy is good! She was hit again; then a much larger blast sent her flailing in her seat.
Alarms filled the cockpit. Her engines were damaged, and there was a hull breach in the aft compartment that was rapidly being sealed off. She had lost much of her maneuvering capability. A couple more hits, and she was dead.
Mara gritted her teeth as she sent her full concentration to that pursuing X-wing. She felt the Force flowing through her as she adjusted her ship's trajectory before triggering a desperate barrage back toward the enemy fighter--and it hit! The X-wing was not destroyed, but it was heavily damaged. As for its partner--
A new alarm sounded. The Emperor's Hands control system had just failed. Mara could not maneuver. She was headed directly for Sennix-4's surface. She might be able to pull off a crash landing, if the other X-wing--
Mara breathed a sigh of relief as the undamaged X-wing looped back to see to its wingmate. They must think I'm done for. I sure hope they're wrong.
The Emperor's Hand plunged into Sennix-4's atmosphere. A golden crop field grew ever larger below. Mara started up the crash cycle, closed her eyes, and braced herself for impact.
"You okay, Wedge?"
Wedge Antilles shook himself. He was indeed okay, but that had been close--very close. "I'm with you, Janson," he replied, his eyes still poring over the data on his X-wing's status. It was not good. His shields were out, his hull integrity was down to eighty-five percent, his engine power was at sixty percent, and only two of his four laser cannons were functional. At least he had survived, unlike half of One Flight.
Janson's X-wing looped around and slowed to match Wedge's speed. "We'd better take you back to the Seaspray," Wedge's young wingman said. "And hope that that ship was alone. I wonder what it was trying to pull, anyway?"
"Good question." Wedge sent his fighter into a lazy turn to port and oriented it toward the Rebel command ship. "Whoever was flying that thing, she was very good. I wouldn't be at all surprised if it's an Imp."
"Well, there's no way she survived," Janson replied. "If the damage to her ship wasn't enough to kill her, I'm sure the crash did."
"Yeah . . . in any case, we'd better report this to Lando. Hold on." Wedge switched to another comm frequency, before noticing that--"Okay, you'd better report this to Lando. My comm's a bit damaged."
Wedge flew on in silence, his eyes moving over the line of freighters that rose from Sennix-4's atmosphere. That ship had been heading for those vessels. Had it been attempting to disrupt the Rebel supply line? Or might it have been up to something more sinister?
Soon, the Seaspray grew large in Wedge's viewport. "We're supposed to land in the main hangar," Janson reported.
The two X-wings decelerated, and side-by-side passed through the magcon field and lowered themselves onto the hangar's polished floor. Wedge popped open his cockpit cover and climbed out of his fighter to find Lando waiting for him.
"Looks like you had a rough time out there," the Rebel general said, looking over the charred hull of Wedge's ship. "Any idea who that was you encountered?"
"I'm afraid she gave us no clues to her identity, except that by her voice she appears to have been a human female," Wedge replied. "But my instincts say she was an Imp, or at least working for them."
"My sentiments exactly," Lando said. "The Empire can't ignore us here forever. And it would be nice if we had a bit more in the way of force. Now our fighter patrol is even more insignificant than it already was."
"If that was an Imp," Janson said, coming up beside Wedge to join in the conversation, "at least it's one we don't have to worry about any longer."
Pain. The first thing that struck Mara when she regained consciousness was the pain. She didn't know where she was or how she had gotten there. She could barely sense her surroundings; her vision was blurry. All she knew was the pain, the aches in her thighs and neck, the shooting pain in her left arm, the soreness in her chest and back, the throbbing headache that seemed to grow ever worse as she pulled herself back toward full awareness. I crashed. I . . . was shot down. Knowledge returned quickly. She was on Sennix-4, on a mission to infiltrate the Rebellion and kill Leia Organa. Some pesky X-wings had gotten in the way. A golden field rushing toward her was the last thing she remembered.
Her vision cleared. She was still in the cockpit of her ship, although it was in much worse condition than it had been the last time she saw it. Outside of the cracked canopy--
Someone was staring right at her.
Mara sprang upright in her seat, and groaned as she was pushed back by crash webbing. She quickly freed herself, then released the cockpit cover and regarded the blond-haired man who stood among the tall crops. He looked back at her with wide eyes. "Who are you?" she snapped.
"I would ask the same of you," he replied. But he wore a look of concern on his young, tanned face, and his voice softened as he continued, "Are you all right? I thought for sure no one could have survived that crash."
How much does he know? Mara wondered. And how much has he reported? Behind the man, a boxy landspeeder hovered, pushing down the crops below it. The speeder would be the perfect way to get from here--wherever here was--to a city. But this man was an obstacle, one she would simply have to deal with.
"I'm . . . okay," Mara said through gritted teeth. She added a little moan, which did not take much acting.
"You look like you could use some help," the man said, cautiously approaching.
Mara nodded. "I guess I could." He climbed up onto the front of her ship, steadied himself, then bent down and reached out with both hands--while Mara reached for her belt. As he grabbed onto her, a purple blade sprang to life, shooting through the man's chest. He gasped before collapsing, lifeless, into Mara's lap. She deactivated her lightsaber, which she had not even needed to detach from her belt. It was a weapon she rarely found the need to use, but in this situation it was easier to let the man impale himself than to aim a blaster in her current cramped condition. She wriggled out from under the man, grunting at the pain that shot back through her as her adrenaline dissipated. She reached out to the Force to ease that pain, but knew that her skills were not advanced enough to get rid of it completely.
Mara retrieved a few supplies from within the ship, then returned to the cockpit and hauled herself over its side, landing in a crouch on the ground. She turned to survey the results of her crash landing. The ground had been torn up and blackened in a line stretching a good ways behind her smoking vessel. The Emperor's Hand, for its part, would clearly not be taking off again. Mara was surprised to feel a sense of loss for her ship, but shrugged it off. She could get another just like it.
Satisfied with what she saw, Mara walked over to the speeder and climbed aboard. The controls were quite simple. From her heightened elevation, Mara took stock of her situation. The crop fields stretched on endlessly in all directions. There were no cities in sight. There were, however, individual buildings standing at intervals among the crops. Mara pointed the speeder toward the nearest structure. Before gunning its engines, she tossed a detonator back into the Hand's cockpit, where the corpse of the unfortunate man who had tried to assist her lay. Her departure from the crash site was accompanied by an explosion. No one would be able to determine what had happened to that man, nor to the ship's pilot.
Mara arrived at the building in half a minute. She hopped out of the speeder, shaking off the pain as her feet hit the ground, and jogged into the building. It had two stories, and was full of displays and control panels. She entered a few commands at one panel, and was quickly able to bring up a glowing map. It showed that Senna City was one hundred twenty kilometers away, to the southwest. Won't be too long. She copied the city's exact coordinates, and the coordinates of her current location, into a datapad. She was about to return to the speeder when a comm system caught her eye. Perhaps the answers to her questions of how much that man knew and how much he had reported could be answered.
She found that she was in luck. There was a record of outgoing and incoming transmissions. Mara pulled it up. The most recent message sent from this station was, Some kind of ship just crashed less than a klick away! I had better go check it out . . . although I doubt there are any survivors. Looks pretty bad. There was no reply.
Chances are no one knows I'm alive! Mara grinned. That would certainly make things easier. Now she did return to the speeder, and set it on a course for Senna City. She put the engines to full throttle and leaned back in her seat. Just as the speeder got up to top speed, a voice entered her mind.
Mara's eyes went wide. Master?
What are you doing on Sennix-4?
The contempt in her Master's voice tore into her mind. But why--what was wrong with her being on this planet? I learned of the Rebel activity here. My . . . my plan is to infiltrate the Rebel Alliance, so that I can find and eliminate Organa.
An adequate plan, but it is an unfortunate coincidence that it brought you to this world. Let me suggest, Mara Jade, that you move with utmost speed. Things will soon get rather . . . violent in the Sennix system. And do not delude yourself into thinking you are indispensable to me. Organa is far from my primary concern.
Yes, Master. The presence seeped out of her mind, leaving behind it a feeling of danger to add to the pain she still felt. The speeder raced over the crop fields of Sennix-4, but now she wished it could go faster.
The morning air was cool when Leia awoke. She yawned, blinking sleep from her eyes, and reached out toward Han's warmth--but instead, her hand found a cold stone wall.
That's right, Han is sleeping in the Falcon. As for Leia, she was alone in a small room in the Great Temple. She thought it best to avoid any distractions--such as Han--while she attempted to train herself in the ways of the Force. In fact, Leia had found a passage in Jedi Ways that said that romantic relationships were forbidden for Jedi. But that idea seemed somehow wrong to her. Of course, to produce Luke and Leia, their father must have broken that code. And look what happened to him. Maybe I should avoid romance altogether. . . . But I could never give up Han!
Leia shook her head. First, she had to become a Jedi. Then she could worry about matters like that one.
She pushed the sheets down and sat up in bed, feeling the cool air against her skin. Outside the Temple, the temperature was surely rising already. Leia got out of bed and dressed in simple, light clothing. She stretched her arms above her head and took a deep breath before heading out into the empty Temple corridors.
Leia's thoughts turned to the last time she had been here. The Rebels had begun the evacuation the day after the Death Star's destruction. Their celebration had been short-lived, but not for as horrible a reason as at Endor. . . . Leia quickly choked back the emotions that threatened to overwhelm her. Calm, at peace.
The book said that in addition to ability with the Force, it was important for Jedi to maintain their physical well-beings. Leia had decided that perhaps a morning jog through the jungle would be a good idea. In addition to the physical benefit, it might also put her in a similar state of mind to the one she had achieved while digging Wicket's grave. Actually moving solid objects with the Force had been so amazing! Afterwards, however, Leia had found that the accomplishment was not easy to duplicate. She needed to reach a point where she could tap into the Force at will before she could hope to challenge the Emperor.
Leia emerged from the Temple into air that was rather humid, but not yet too hot. The Falcon sat before her, showing no signs of life. She looked upwards into a blue sky. The massive red-orange ball of Yavin hung overhead. Leia admired the view for a moment before moving off toward the jungle. A dirt path, somewhat overgrown but still evident, ran off from the clearing near Wicket's grave. A flat stone now marked the Ewok's final resting place. Leia paused to bow her head as she stood over the stone, then picked up her strides as she moved into the jungle.
The vegetation was tall and thick, making things rather dim, but not so much so that it was difficult for Leia to see her way. The sounds of all kinds of life--insects chirping, birds singing, other animals calling, trees swaying in the breeze--filled her ears. Life creates it, she remembered, and found that the myriad sounds were encouraging. As she jogged deeper into the jungle, she began to concentrate more on the repeating sounds of her own breathing and footsteps. The rhythm was soothing to her senses. She felt her mind begin to open--
The familiar buzzing sensation returned! She felt the life around her, the energy flowing everywhere. She jogged on, letting the Force surround and flow into her body. She truly did feel calm, at peace, and now she felt a quiet power growing inside. She saw a fallen branch in the path ahead. Not breaking stride, she reached out her right hand and pointed. The branch trembled for a second, then rose into the air and glided into the jungle. Leia smiled. Now she picked up her pace a bit as the feeling of power increased. She could do this; she could become a Jedi! The path curved to the right, and she spotted another fallen branch up ahead. This time she did not grab the branch with the Force, instead opting to bound over it as she ran. She cleared the obstacle easily--in fact, it seemed that she had perhaps jumped a bit higher than she ever had before. The energy continued to flow through her now sweating body. She felt as if she had been blind her whole life, and now was finally gaining the ability to see. She was beginning to understand what Luke must have felt. It was hard to believe that so recently she had had no idea she could use the Force at all!
Leia had probably run for about two kilometers when she came to a small clearing in the jungle. A circle of stones went around its perimeter. Leia slowed her pace and stopped at the center of the clearing. This was interesting. . . .
She took a few long breaths before reaching out her arm toward one of the stones. It rose, slowly but surely, until it was floating before her. Then she moved her attention to the next stone in the circle. This one rose more slowly--the first stone dipped, but she steadied it--the second stone continued upwards and joined its partner. Leia looked to a third stone and reached out to it with the Force. It began to tremble--then the first two stones clunked to the ground.
Leia frowned. Don't get frustrated, she immediately reassured herself. This is a good start.
Danger! She recognized the sensation very well now. Danger was imminent--but what was the source? Leia felt fear creep into her body as she slowly turned around, peering out into the jungle. Then a high-pitched scream rang through her ears. She gasped, diving forward and in the same motion rolling onto her back to see a fierce-looking animal flying toward her from out of the trees. Without thinking, she reached out a hand. Three rocks shot up from the ground and slammed into the beast. It was knocked to the side, unconscious--or dead. Leia was frozen for several seconds; then she noticed that her heart was pounding. She tried to take calming breaths as she pushed herself onto her feet. Thankfully, she did not feel any more danger. All the same, I think I'll head back to the Temple.
Leia regarded the animal's unmoving form for a moment before starting back the way she had come. In that moment of fear, she noticed, she had touched the Force more easily than ever before. Her emotions had taken over, and she had successfully warded off a sudden and unexpected attack. This could be a valuable lesson.
Leia emerged from the jungle and came to a halt, putting her hands over her head as she slowed her breathing. The run had been quite invigorating, her unexpectedly quick progress in using the Force more so, and now she felt ready for a productive day of training. She walked forward slowly, regarding the Falcon. It was just as she had left it, with one difference--the entrance ramp was down. That meant at least one of her traveling companions was awake.
She entered the ship quietly, trying to reach out with the Force for any signs of activity from within. But her senses were not yet that well attuned. The energy flowing from the jungle surrounded her, but she was unable to perceive any individual presences--
An angry Wookiee roar echoed down the freighter's corridors. Leia, halfway up the ramp, bounded the rest of the way up and ran to the source of the disturbance--where she found Han and Chewie sitting at the ship's game table.
"Oh, stop whining, you big oaf," Han said, gesturing to the holographic creatures on the table. "You can't win every single time!" Then Han noticed Leia's presence, and turned to her. "Good morning."
"Good morning, Han," she replied. "Enjoying your game?"
"You bet. I'm actually beating the big furball, for once--" Han was interrupted by an accusatory growl from Chewie, something along the lines of Cheater! "Wookiees don't like losing," Han explained, rolling his eyes but grinning. "So what are you up to now?"
"I think I'll grab some breakfast," Leia said, and allowed a mischievous grin to appear on her face. She extended her right hand toward a shelf that held some food supplies, and focused on one of the packets. Several seconds passed. Leia imagined the object moving toward her, just as she had moved the rocks in the jungle.
Absolutely nothing happened.
"Uh . . . you do that," she heard Han say. A tiny spark of anger rose within Leia. It brought with it a surge of power, and suddenly the packet flew into her hand. She turned back to an amazed-looking Han. He was silent for several seconds, his face frozen in a look of mild shock, before he muttered, "Not bad."
"I'll see you later," Leia said, moving toward the exit.
"Wait." Han rose and walked over to her, and Leia could tell that he was expecting a good morning kiss. She gave him a quick peck on the check and gently brushed him off. "I'm going to the Temple to have my breakfast and then meditate and study. I guess I'll see you again this evening, or tomorrow maybe. Have fun . . . with your games."
"We will," Han said half-heartedly, his face showing obvious disappointment. "And good luck with . . . whatever it is you're doing."
"Thanks. Thanks for everything, Han. I really mean it." Leia smiled at him for a moment, then turned away once more and exited the ship. She had a lot to learn, and no time to waste.
Night had fallen by the time Mara reached Sennix City. The journey from her crash site had been uneventful, and might almost have been relaxing, except for her Master's warning echoing in her mind. The tremendous pain she had been in upon regaining consciousness had faded to a few dull aches. And a good thing that is, because I have work to do.
She abandoned her stolen landspeeder on the outskirts of the capital and continued on foot toward the center of the city. The streets were dark and seemed completely deserted. Mara wondered if that was normal, or if it was due to the Rebel occupation. Surely there would at least be a few Rebel troopers on patrol. She would find some, and then--
She had originally planned to make a careful study of the Rebel activities on this world, and then come up with some clever scheme to infiltrate the Alliance. But now things had changed. Things will soon get rather . . . violent in the Sennix system, her Master had warned. She had no time for anything elaborate. She had come up with the bare outlines of a plan in the time it had taken to reach the capital, and soon she would have no choice but to put it into motion.
Mara had come within a few blocks of the governor's palace when she heard footsteps nearby. Two pairs of feet, wearing boots, she decided. This could be it. Ducking behind a building, she listened as the two beings approached.
"Sure is quiet around here," sounded the voice of a human male.
"Sure is," a human female agreed.
The only sound for several seconds more was the two's footsteps. These people rival stormtroopers as conversationalists, Mara thought. She ran a hand idly through her hair, which she had dyed black before entering the city on the chance that someone might recognize her. Then her ears perked up as the first voice spoke again.
"I heard an interesting rumor today."
"Word is," the first voice went on in softer tones, so that Mara had to strain to hear, "that Princess Leia and General Solo have gone on vacation from the Alliance."
Mara's eyes widened. Vacation? Does anyone know where they went? she asked silently.
"No one knows where they are," the first voice finished.
"What are they doing?" the second voice asked, sounding disgusted. "Vacation, at a time like this? How's that for leadership?"
"Maybe they've got the right idea," the first voice replied. "You know, I could use a vacation myself right about now. I've got a bad feeling about this mission."
For good reason Mara thought grimly. So, Organa is away from the Alliance. That could complicate things. But someone must know where she is. And if not, well, she can't stay away forever. Mara decided quickly that her best bet was to continue with her current plan.
"Yeah . . ." the female trooper's voice trailed off. Mara crept around the corner of the building, and saw the two Rebels walking away from her. She followed them, silent as a Noghri, slowly coming closer. No other beings were in sight, but she still didn't want to risk firing her blaster. She was about two meters away when--
"Wait," the first trooper said. He began to turn, but was stopped in mid-motion by Mara's lightsaber slicing into his midsection. His partner gave a cry and reached for her blaster. Mara kicked out and her foot impacted solidly against the trooper's hand. Then Mara sprang forward, deactivating her saber at the same time, and wrapped her arms around the Rebel's neck. The trooper gasped, and within seconds slumped down unconscious.
Mara looked in all directions down the dark streets and sensed no one nearby. Not wasting time, she reached down to the corpse of the first trooper and dragged it back the few meters to her hiding place. She did the same with the still living but motionless second trooper and began to strip off the woman's clothes. She found herself wishing that the Rebel troopers followed their Imperial counterparts' fashion sensibilities, so that her face would be hidden, but decided she would have to make do with what she had. At least the Rebels didn't follow a strict policy of employing only human males for their ground troops, and surely there were enough of the soldiers about that an unfamiliar face wouldn't draw too much suspicion.
After changing into her new costume, Mara drew her lightsaber and held the metal hilt pointed downward directly over the still-unconscious trooper's chest. With barely a moment's hesitation, she ignited the violet blade. Then a thought struck her. Where would she keep the weapon when she went to the Rebels? In her current guise, it would look rather out-of-place hanging from her side. Perhaps she should abandon it . . . it was unlikely she would really need to use it soon. But no, that felt wrong . . . finally, she attached the weapon horizontally to the back of her belt, where the vest of her borrowed uniform would at least partially obscure it, and hoped it wouldn't be too noticeable.
Mara grabbed the second trooper's com-link, switched it on and, putting panic into her voice, cried, "We've come under attack!" A few seconds passed; silence was the only response. "Please! Does anyone copy?"
At last a gruff voice asked, "Who is this?"
"We've come under attack!" Mara repeated. "Two troopers are dead!"
"They're what?" came the incredulous reply. "What's your loca--oh, shavit." Mara could hear muffled shouts in the background. "You're going to have to hold on there, soldier. We've just picked up an Imperial fleet entering the system!"
Darth Vader stood on the Avenger's bridge, hands clasped behind his back, helmet just centimeters from the main viewport, staring down at the half-orb that grew before him. With one hemisphere in hues of blue, green, and gold, and the other shrouded by night, Sennix-4 looked so tranquil from this distance--no one would ever guess that it had come under attack by the Rebellion just days ago. But soon, this world would burn, like Endor before it.
Vader found that the thought of the imminent destruction was not accompanied by any emotions. He could now make out the small dots of Rebel ships near the planet, but found that this too brought no feelings, none of the familiar anger or hatred. This was unusual, but not surprising. The Rebels were here, but there had been no reports suggesting that Leia was here with them, and he felt certain that his daughter was far away, light-centuries across the galaxy. He did not care about the pathetic Alliance at this moment; their inevitable final defeat could wait. Right now all he wanted was Leia. As his fleet bore down on Sennix-4, the one emotion Vader did feel was a supreme frustration.
The sound of footsteps behind him interrupted his thoughts. The footsteps stopped, and Vader waited several seconds before, not turning, he spoke. "Admiral."
"My lord, we are approaching Sennix-4," Admiral Piett stated the obvious. "We have detected a small Rebel force led by one Mon Calamari cruiser, along with a heavy concentration of transport craft. The fleet awaits your orders."
Behind his mask, Vader scowled. "You have been briefed on this mission already, Admiral. It involves nothing that a junior officer of the Navy could not adequately handle. The fleet is yours to command."
"Y--yes, my lord."
The sound of Piett's hasty departure to the aft end of the bridge faded away. Vader continued to stare at Sennix-4, silently cursing both Rebellion and Empire.
"We've got trouble, boss," Janson's voice crackled over Wedge's comm.
"I see them," Wedge replied. Six Imperial-class Star Destroyers, along with a contingent of smaller capital ships, bore down on Sennix-4 and the large group of vessels--most of them almost completely defenseless--in the space around the planet.
"Wedge?" That was Lando, on the Seaspray. I'd hate to be in his shoes right now.
"You're to escort as many transports as you can to safety. Try to slow down those Star Destroyers while you're at it."
"What about the planet itself?" Wedge wondered.
"We're going to do all we can to protect it," Lando replied. "We have no other choice."
"I copy." Wedge left it unsaid that defeating the incoming fleet with the comparatively miniscule amount of firepower the Alliance had in-system was clearly an impossible task. He gripped tightly on his flight controls as he switched over to another frequency. "Red Squadron, form up. We've got fighters incoming--and lots of them."
The boom of the explosive device Mara had left by the dead troopers' bodies echoed behind her as she jogged up a street to a side entrance gate of the governor's palace. A fresh-faced young Rebel awaited her there, clutching his blaster nervously. "What was that?" he shouted.
"We're under attack," Mara replied grimly as she came to a halt before the gate.
"I know we're under attack from space, but there's no way the Imps could have reached the planet yet! . . . Right?" Even with her meager skills in the Force, Mara could sense the fear emanating off this man.
"Two troopers are dead in the streets a few hundred meters from here," she explained. "I don't know what hit us--I just barely managed to escape myself."
"But--but--if the Imps are already down here . . . this is even worse than I thought!"
"You're damn right it is." Mara stared directly into the young trooper's wide eyes as she spoke, and they grew wider still. "Now can you let me in? I think I'd best report to someone a little higher in the chain of command."
"Right. You--you should do that." The trooper keyed the gate open. Mara nodded curtly and walked by him. The gate groaned as it began to close. The sound was accompanied by a small gasp--I've abandoned him to face the unknown terrors in the streets, all alone. On impulse, Mara turned back and placed a hand on the trooper's shoulder.
"Good luck," she whispered.
She saw what might have been longing in the other's eyes as he looked back at her. "Thanks," he muttered. "And may the Force be with us all."
Mara pulled away her hand, the gate clanged shut, and for some reason she found herself chuckling as she ran across the palace courtyard.
The space around Sennix-4 had devolved into utter chaos. Freighters and transports of all sizes fled in every direction, while scores of TIE Fighters and Interceptors danced among the less agile craft and peppered them with green laserfire. Imperial Star Destroyers, frigates, and corvettes charged into the most densely occupied area of space and unleashed their turbolasers in all directions. Lando's fleet of Rebels returned fire in desperate fashion. And into it all, the nine remaining X-wings of Red Squadron flew.
Moments after the nearest enemy fighters came into range, Wedge acquired a lock on a TIE, fired, and watched as the Imperial ship went spinning out of control. Two other TIEs exploded in bright fireballs, brought down by Wedge's squadmates, but the Rebels were so vastly outnumbered that the battle might be over before they could take out a significant chunk of the enemy's forces. As the X-wings entered the thick of the fray, Wedge spotted a trio of Corellian freighters clawing for safety from the hell that the Sennix system had just become. "Janson, with me. Let's got those guys out of here."
"Copy, Lead." The two X-wings moved to follow the freighters, at the same time that a quartet of TIE Interceptors did the same. Wedge cut his throttle, and the first Imp went howling past him, only to run into a crimson barrage. Nearby, Janson looped back, drawing two Interceptors with him. Wedge pulled back on his control stick, went into a barrel roll, and came out of it directly behind one of his wingman's pursuers. He blasted the TIE to pieces, then dove away to evade the TIE behind him. Janson pulled off some fancy maneuvers to take out that guy, Wedge managed to score a hit on the fourth TIE--and the two X-wings came out of the dogfight to find that another four Interceptors were incoming.
"Freighter Starshine," Wedge said into his comm. "How much longer do you need?"
"We'll be in hyperspace in ten seconds."
Wedge nodded. As the enemy fighters approached, he fired a few shots to attract their attention. There was a moment of hesitation, before one of the TIEs went into a hard turn toward him and the rest continued after the freighters. Wedge blasted his foe out of the sky, and as he flew through the disintegrating fighter he saw the other three Interceptors opening fire--and hitting nothing. The freighters had disappeared.
The TIEs began to loop back, but for the time being they posed no threat to anyone. "Good work, Two," Wedge said.
"You too, boss," Janson replied. "So what's next?"
Wedge surveyed his sensor readouts for a moment before giving the orders. "Looks like we're almost in range of the nearest Star Destroyer. Hang on, while I give Lando a call."
"Concentrate all fire amidships on the nearest Star Destroyer," Lando ordered. "Let's see if we can punch a hole through their shields."
As acknowledgments came in, both from officers on the Seaspray and from other ships over the comm, Lando regarded a tactical display of the battle. Six large red dots traveling in formation dominated the display. They were arrayed in a rough V that seemed to be pointing directly at the green dot indicating the Seaspray. Other green dots moved toward the red, the rest of the Rebel fleet bringing its weaponry to bear on the Destroyers. A loud whoop pulled Lando's attention from the display. "Their shields are dropping fast!"
This was followed by another, less enthusiastic report. "Our shields are taking damage."
"Turn to point-three-five," Lando ordered. "Keep up the fire." He found himself pacing back and forth along the bridge as more reports came in. Finally, the one he had been waiting for arrived.
"We're detecting a hole in the Destroyer's shields. . . ."
"Target it," Lando called. "Wedge. Now!"
Outside the viewport, the target Star Destroyer was visible, and now a group of blue streaks joined the red laserfire pouring into it. Turbolasers raised licks of flames from the warship's unprotected hull. Then the torpedoes hit.
Explosions ripped across the gleaming white hull, and the giant vessel shuddered visibly. A second volley of torpedoes followed the first, doing even more damage than their predecessors. Cheers went up on the Seaspray's bridge as the Star Destroyer began to break in two. "Save your enthusiasm," Lando said. "There's still five more of them."
He returned his attention to the tactical displays, and saw that the battle was going as might have been expected--very badly. Many Rebel freighters were escaping, but just as many were being annihilated. For those on the ground, there was no time to escape. They just had to pray that the Rebel fleet could pull off a miracle--Lando shook his head as his eyes focused on those five red dots, and the rapidly disappearing green dots amongst them.
"Our shields are at fifty percent and dropping," a bridge officer reported.
"We're now being targeted by two Star Destroyers--wait, make that three," another melancholy voice said.
Lando shook his head glumly. "Turn to point-seven. Focus return fire on the nearest enemy ship."
"Shields at twenty-five percent . . . twenty . . . our engines are taking damage."
"Redirect engine power to shielding," Lando called, as if that could do anything but prolong the agony.
"We've got a hull breach in aft section five!"
"Sir, we've got multiple hull breaches!"
As Lando Calrissian stared out at the green flashes of light that filled the bridge viewport, he realized that his vaunted luck had finally run out.
"I had already gotten out of there by the time I heard the explosion, sir," Mara explained once more. "I don't know what caused it, or how many people attacked us, or even whether or not they were Imps. It all happened so fast!"
The Rebel captain considered her words in silence for a few moments, a contemplative look on his face. "I suppose it's possible that the Imps had agents here in advance, waiting to attack at the same time their fleet arrived. Jinkens!" he called to another Rebel trooper. "Double our perimeter defenses!"
"Now then . . . what was your name, soldier?"
"Private Saria Iras, sir," Mara replied. I hope this works.
"Iras . . . I don't recall ever seeing you before, or hearing your name. Curious . . ."
"Well, sir, I just shipped in the other day."
"Still, I thought I would have--"
"Sir!" a technician cried. "We're getting reports from the battle--it's not good." The captain walked over to a display screen, leaving Mara to breathe a sigh of relief. She looked over at the display herself and saw that things were indeed not good for the Alliance forces.
The captain stared intensely at the readouts, not speaking--until he let out a sudden loud curse. "The Seaspray's been destroyed. We're going to be in quite a mess here, people."
"We're picking up Imperial assault shuttles entering the atmosphere now," the tech reported. "Two dozen of them, at least."
Groans were audible from several of the room's occupants, but the captain silenced them. "Let's head out. And remember what we're fighting for here."
As Mara walked briskly to the room's exit, she heard one of the troopers mutter, "What are we fighting for?"
"On this planet?" another replied. "I'm not really sure."
Before long they were outside the palace, and it was there that she saw her ticket off of Sennix-4 and to the rest of the Rebellion. A shuttle sat on a landing pad, ready for takeoff. Mara headed for it immediately.
"Where are you going?" the trooper standing by the shuttle's ramp demanded, holding up his blaster.
Mara raised her voice as she replied, "I'm getting the hell off this rock. Anyone who wants to come with me is welcome."
"What was that, private?"
The captain took long strides across the landing pad. Mara turned to regard him coolly. "There's absolutely nothing we can do here, except get ourselves killed for no reason." She tried to put the weight of the Force behind her words, even if it was not very heavy. "And think about it--the more resistance the Imps face here, the worse they're likely to treat the people of this planet after they've re-claimed it."
The captain bristled in anger, but another trooper stepped up beside Mara. "She's got a point, you know." Then a second trooper joined Mara, and three more came after him. Maybe the Force is with me.
"Could be that she does," the captain said. "But I won't act a coward, and I don't want the people under my command to do so either. Now stay here, or--"
"What are you going to do?" Mara asked, as several other troopers came to her side. Report me for insubordination? If he stays here, he's dead.
The only sound for the next five seconds was the cool night wind. Then a faint, high-pitched roar joined it, growing louder by the moment until, one-by-one, recognition dawned on the faces of the Rebels--"TIE Fighters. Let's get out of here," Mara declared. She spun on one heel and marched up the shuttle's ramp. Almost the entire contingent of troopers followed her.
The entire Rebel fleet was already gone. Destroyed by the Imperial onslaught, save for one modified corvette. That pitiful vessel had given up and managed to limp into hyperspace. Perhaps twenty transports remained in Sennix space, along with the starfighters that doggedly clung to their escort duties. The naval battle was essentially won; now focus turned to the ground. Darth Vader looked on as Admiral Piett received a holocomm transmission from the commander of one of the Avenger's assault shuttles.
"Sir, we are preparing to land outside the governor's palace. No resistance has been encountered since we entered the atmosphere."
"Very good," Piett replied. "Remember, Kendalzor is to be taken alive."
The holographic image faded out, and Vader spoke. "You have not disappointed me thus far, Admiral. The Emperor should be pleased."
Vader moved his gaze to the main viewport. Sennix-4 loomed large now, most of the planet in shadow. Some Rebel freighters were visible, maneuvering desperately as they were hammered by the Imperial fleet and its starfighters. Vader reached out to the Force and felt the overwhelming fear shared by all those aboard the freighters, along with--
A disturbance in the Force. It was faint, yet there was no mistaking it was there. And it was familiar. Jade. What is the Emperor's Hand doing here?
Vader considered this for a moment, then, without a word, strode from the Avenger's bridge and headed for the bay where his personal fighter was docked.
The Alliance shuttle raced out of Sennix-4's atmosphere, a swarm of TIE Fighters close behind. Whoever was piloting the shuttle was clearly quite good, for its wild maneuvering had kept it from suffering any significant damage in its frantic flight. Now the six surviving X-wings of Red Squadron converged on the shuttle and its pursuers.
The TIEs must have been concentrating too hard on their target, for Wedge vaped one before it showed any sign of being aware of his presence. Red lasers lanced out from all the X-wings, ripping the Imperial fighters to shreds. "Good work, boys," Wedge said half-heartedly. Small victories were nice, but after the loss of the Seaspray and its entire fleet it was rather difficult to get excited about the survival of a single shuttle. And that survival was not guaranteed, Wedge saw, as a half-squadron of Interceptors was now rushing in. "Form up."
As Wedge brought his fighter around, he noticed that the lead TIE was not, in fact, a standard Interceptor--and felt a chill run up his spine. He had seen a TIE like that just once before. It had nearly ended his life above the first Death Star. If intelligence reports were correct, there was only one person who could be flying that ship. Wedge did not relish the thought of going against Darth Vader a second time.
"The shuttle must be taken intact," Vader ordered. "Disable its engines."
The Interceptor pilots acknowledged the commands. An instant later, one of those pilots was dead, shot down by a Rebel X-wing. Vader paid no mind to the loss. He dodged the incoming fire effortlessly, sending a few blasts back at the enemy snubfighters but keeping the bulk of his attention on the rapidly fleeing shuttle--and the woman who piloted it.
Mara recognized the dark disturbance immediately. Vader's presence was so similar to the Emperor's in some ways, yet so different in others--My master. Apparently he did not think it necessary to inform me that Lord Vader would be leading this attack. Mara shrugged it off. She needed to concentrate fully on her piloting. With an escort of X-wings to help her, she had little to fear from normal TIE pilots, but Vader was a different matter entirely.
A few tentative shots impacted against the shuttle's shields, and Mara gritted her teeth. Then she felt a sudden, malicious incursion into her mind. She tried to fight it off, but before she could do so her thoughts turned to Leia Organa and her mission to kill the Princess.
Mara shuddered as she was hit with a massive explosion of anger.
Along with the anger, an inhuman growl rose through Vader and was violently released. "My lord?" his wingman's filtered voice crackled.
"I'll handle this."
He held nothing back now as he opened fire. Leia! So his master had sent Jade to kill Vader's daughter. If the Emperor's Hand died while in a Rebel shuttle fleeing this battle, that would just be an unfortunate accident. Vader sent shot after shot into the back of the shuttle, decimating its shields. An X-wing swooped in from his starboard side and took out his wingman--Vader ignored it. He could sense that he was running out of time. A shot broke through the shuttle's shields, doing damage to the fuselage. The X-wing momentarily interspersed itself between Vader and his target. The Dark Lord roared as he unleashed a full barrage. The X-wing exploded--and before he could get one more hit in on the shuttle, it was gone into hyperspace.
Wedge squeezed down hard on his firing triggers and dealt a glancing blow to Vader's TIE. Before he could follow up with another shot, the bent-wing fighter had spun out of his sights. Seconds later, it was zooming out of range. Wedge slumped back in his seat, his mouth hanging open. He could feel tears welling up in his eyes. Losing Lando, the Rebel fleet, and Sennix-4 in a matter of minutes had been devastating, but Wedge had had no choice but to put aside the pain as he fought on. Now, to lose Tycho as well . . .
"Wedge?" Janson. "Are you . . . are you there?"
Wedge shook himself. "Tycho died a hero. Now let's get out of here."
A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.
That was what the ancient book said, at least. But for what purpose was Leia learning to use the Force, if not to attack the Empire? Sitting here on Yavin IV, just gaining knowledge and defending herself if necessary, would accomplish nothing. She had to strike out against the Empire to defeat it. She had to use the Force in her attack, or she would have no way of overcoming the Emperor and his legions.
Defense. Attack. Defense. By attacking, she would be defending the galaxy and its people. The Empire had initiated this fight, with its policies of terror and oppression. The inhabitants of Alderaan and Endor had had no defenses. Leia had to stop the people of other worlds from suffering the same fate. Sometimes defense required offensive action. The Jedi of the Old Republic had been guardians of peace and justice. Surely they had used the Force to attack evil at times. And hadn't Luke used the Force to attack the Death Star above this very moon, at the same time defending the Rebellion from destruction? Yes, it made sense.
That, however, was not the passage that Leia found most troubling.
The dark side of the Force: anger, fear, aggression . . .
Right now, Leia was perfectly calm, sitting cross-legged on her bed in the Great Temple, the open book floating in place at arms' length. At a glance, no being would suspect her guilty of anger, apparently one of the cardinal sins for a Jedi. Leia knew differently. The anger was not absent, merely buried deep down inside her. It could flare up at a moment's notice. In her current meditative state, she was calm, at peace . . .
She had every right to be angry. The Empire had taken away almost everything she held dear. Her home world had been destroyed. Her adoptive family had gone with it. As for her real family, the Empire's despotic leader had turned her father into a monster, and was undoubtedly responsible for her mother's death. Her brother was dead too. Luke, please! she cried for the millionth time, knowing she would get no response.
And that was just the personal losses. The Empire had brought terrible suffering into the lives of billions of other sentient beings. It had wiped out an entire sentient race. With each passing day, the terror grew. She had every right to be angry. Indeed, how could she, or anyone in her place, not be angry?
Anger . . . the dark side . . .
Leia clenched her fists into tight balls. What did the book know? It was countless years old. The Jedi Order was gone. It had failed! And if any Jedi of old had been put in her place and did not feel angry, then he must have been incapable of any emotion. Only a droid could go through what she had experienced and not feel angry. Leia glared at the book, and just like that it was flying toward the room's far wall at high speed--
What am I doing?!? She reached out a hand, and Jedi Ways slowed, but she could not stop it in time. It bounced off the wall and hit the ground with a thud. Leia sprang from her bed and knelt down to examine the book. To her horror, she realized that a large tear had appeared in the first page, which had already been marred by an Ewok-blood stain back on Tatooine. The archaic paper looked like it would fall to pieces if it received much more abuse. But the book remained intact. She could still use it in her studies. And that's what's important, right?
Anger. Leia took a few deep breaths as she picked up the book and gently placed it on her bed. She would follow the Jedi ways where they took her, she decided, but if using her anger was the only way she could destroy the Emperor--what other choice would she have?
"The Rebels have been completely crushed," Darth Vader, kneeling before an oversized hologram of his Master, reported. "Sennix-4 is fully under Imperial control."
"Excellent." The Emperor grinned cruelly. "Has Kendalzor been dealt with?"
"She will be shortly."
"Very well. Remember, the civilians of the planet are not to be harmed." A pause, and the Sith Lord's expression became even more malicious before he spat out, "Lay waste to their factories, and set their fields ablaze. We will teach these insurgents, and any others in the galaxy pondering the same path, some much-needed respect."
Vader dipped his head lower. "As you wish."
"Now, my friend," the Emperor went on, "I sense that something is troubling you."
Vader instinctively heightened the wall around his mind as he replied, "No, my Master."
Palpatine nodded slowly. "Do not forget where your loyalties, and those of all people of the Empire, must ultimately lie." Leia was not mentioned. Neither was Mara Jade. There was no need. Vader remained silent. "You wonder, now, what your next orders will be."
"Yes, my Master," Vader admitted.
"Remain in the Sennix system for the next several days, and see that everything proceeds in an orderly fashion. Then you will take your flagship, leaving the rest of your fleet, and return to Imperial Center. I look forward to your arrival."
With that, the hologram began to dissolve. Once it had disappeared completely, Vader brought up a clenched fist, and the holocomm transmitter shattered into thousands of tiny pieces.
Mara could feel some of the tension leave her body as the door slid shut behind her. In the last day, she had survived a crash landing, killed several people, infiltrated a company of Rebel troopers, countermanded an order from a superior officer and led those troopers off a planet under Imperial assault in an almost defenseless shuttle, flown that shuttle against a swarm of TIE Fighters and Darth Vader, escaped to the Alliance fleet, and been assigned quarters on the Rebel flagship Home One while managing to avoid arousing the suspicion of her enemies. It was enough to give even a highly skilled special agent quite a bit of stress, and she hadn't even gone through debriefing yet. That would come "later," she and her fellow troopers had been told--exactly when "later" was had not been specified, but in the mean time, she had work to do.
Mara eyed the room's soft bed yearningly, but instead took a seat in front of the computer console. It took some effort, but before too long she was able to break through the lowest security levels of the Alliance network. She uploaded a personal information file into the personnel database, along with a current image of herself, black hair and all. Saria Iras, the name under the picture read. Included in the file were the entries Homeworld: Alderaan and Living relatives: None. The information would hold up against all but the greatest scrutiny. Satisfied with her accomplishment, Mara played around with network security for a little while longer, but found that she was unable to break into any higher levels. She sat back in the chair and let out a long breath. Perhaps it's time I contacted my Master. She closed her eyes and reached out to the Force. . . .
Emperor's Hand, came the reply, after she had initiated the mental communication. I see you have escaped Sennix-4 alive. What progress have you made?
I have successfully infiltrated the Rebellion, Mara declared. I am currently in private quarters aboard Home One.
Good. Now tell me the coordinates of the Rebel fleet so that I may destroy them once and for all.
Mara found herself taken aback by the abrupt command. The fleet entered hyperspace shortly after I arrived, she explained. Its current coordinates are known only by those with highest security clearance. I have not been able to access the information.
Keep trying. Was that a hint of annoyance in the voice in Mara's head? I take it Organa is not with the fleet.
No, she is not. Some say that she and Solo are on vacation from the Alliance.
The Emperor's disdainful laughter echoed over the parsecs between his throne room on Imperial Center and Mara's quarters on Home One. The fools. But I am sure they will not stay away forever. Wait for Organa's return, then kill her as soon as the opportunity arises. In the meantime, transfer any valuable information you come across to me.
Yes, Master. The contact was broken. Mara stared at her viewscreen for a good dozen heartbeats, finally deciding to look up the latest news on the Holonet. Not surprisingly, there were reports on the Battle--as if it could really be called that--of Sennix-4, as well as its aftermath. Mara opened a recent video, and leaned back in her seat as it began to play.
The woman's face was fearful, yet defiant. Mara had seen that face before. It belonged to the governor, or ex-governor, most likely, of the Sennix system. Throngs of people looked on from the packed plaza behind her. A harsh male voice, sounding like that of an Imperial officer, came from off-screen. "Merita Kendalzor, you are a traitor to the Empire. Now pay for your crimes."
Kendalzor glowered silently at the speaker. Time seemed to stand still--then she was knocked back by a barrage of red blasterfire. Cheers arose from the mob. Kendalzor's blackened body slumped down, then out of the picture--and behind her, in the front row of the crowd, Mara saw a little boy with thick blond hair, his face frozen in horror. Kendalzor's son, she realized, sure it was true even as she was unsure of how she knew. The child began to wail as the masses roared--
Suddenly, Mara felt nauseous.
"I'm not sure how much more of this I can take."
Janson looked up from his cup of caf, a quizzical expression on his face. "What do you mean?"
"The death," Wedge replied. "Luke's gone. Now Lando and Tycho are too. We've lost so much, I've lost so many friends . . . and for what?"
Wedge cut his wingman off. "What has been accomplished, really, by their deaths? We're in no better shape now than we were before Endor and Sennix-4. If anything, we're even worse off."
In almost any situation, it seemed that Janson had some funny comment to make. Maybe I hope he'll have one even now, Wedge admitted morosely, but the young Rebel, for a change, was completely serious. "We're fighter pilots, in a war," Janson said. "We both know that we're going to suffer a lot of losses. We have in the past, you more so than me. What brought this attitude on?"
"It's just--" Wedge shook his head. "You weren't with us back at Yavin. We lost almost our entire squadron. Biggs, Porkins, everyone . . . only Luke and I survived. But we struck a huge blow against the Empire. We had new hope. The people who died, we knew that their deaths weren't in vain. But now I'm the only survivor from that battle, and after Sennix . . . I don't know if there is much hope left. I feel old."
Janson let out a grim-sounding chuckle. "Old? Maybe compared to the kids who are flying with us, dying for us, these days. But you are a survivor, and you'll keep on surviving and fighting. You have to--we have to. We can't give up, or the Empire will just continue to make the galaxy an even worse place to live. I say it's better to risk dying than to go on like that."
"I appreciate the encouragement, but still--" "Wedge, you of all people can't give up." There was a strange intensity in Janson's eyes as he stared across the table. "If you don't keep on fighting, how can I possibly do it? How can anyone?"
Wedge's eyes widened. He could feel the brutal honesty of his friend's words. It bit into him deeply. If I give up . . . "I won't give up," Wedge spoke. "Not yet." I just hope that I don't lose Janson too.
Defense. Left foot forward half a step. Crouch slightly. Saber held at an angle across the chest.
It wasn't a real saber, of course. Using spare parts found on the Falcon, Leia had managed to put together something that at least resembled a training sword. Standing alone in the jungle, she tightly grasped the blunt weapon's metal hilt, and recalled the words she had read in Jedi Ways.
Focus the Force within yourself.
The Force flowed readily now. Leia did not have full control over it yet, but judging by descriptions she had studied of a normal Jedi's path from learner to Knight, she had made incredibly rapid progress. Luke had said that the Force ran strong in his--their--family. . . .
Reach out to your surroundings.
The air was calm. Birds sang cheery tunes. There were no enemies nearby, certainly none who could engage Leia in a duel. She knew, however, that if she were to become a Jedi and defeat the Emperor she would have to learn how to wield a lightsaber effectively. She had decided that it was time to start that learning, and had read through the book's description of swordsmanship exercises. Various Jedi had been adept at a multitude of saber styles and techniques. Leia focused on the most basic.
Defense. Block high and horizontal. Block middle, diagonal. Step back, catch the incoming blow.
Leia went through the moves slowly and precisely.
Block low, then middle. Lean in, parry.
She would have to acquire a lightsaber of her own somehow. A real saber would cut through this plasteel rod like a hot vibroblade through flesh.
Two steps back. Block left, block right. Step forward, horizontal swing.
The book contained instructions on the building of lightsabers. Leia had skimmed through the plans. It seemed to her that constructing a saber herself would take far more time than she had at her disposal.
Parry. Downward swing.
She would have to find a lightsaber, then. With the Jedi extinct, that would appear to be a very difficult task--but Leia remembered from her long-ago time in the Senate a certain visit to the Emperor's private museum. A number of the ancient weapons had been on display there.
Back on guard. Rotate blade down, block, rotate up.
If she could somehow manage to sneak into that well-hidden and protected place . . .
Now, change momentum. Attack! Lunge forward. Swing left, right, left.
Leia accelerated her motion as she went on the offensive, her blade flashing through the air as it caught a ray of sunlight filtering through the jungle canopy.
Strike high, then low. Jump, land, strike again. Duck. Launch up and forward, flip--
Leia gasped as she did so, and grinned fiercely as she stuck the landing.
Spin one-hundred eighty degrees. Fast horizontal slash. Reverse it. Push ahead.
The Force surged within her as her heart began to pound.
Strike, lunge, strike, parry. Push hard left. Overhead swing!
Leia grunted as she drove her sword into the ground. The energy swelling within her was suddenly released. For several seconds, she remained bent over with hands on the weapon's hilt. Sweat dripped from her brow; her breaths came rapidly. The workout had been tiring, but she felt good. She felt confident. She felt--like she was being watched.
She looked up to see Han standing among the trees a few meters away. "Looking good," he said, a grin passing briefly over his face before his expression sobered.
Leia felt alarmed. "When did you get here?"
"Just a minute ago," Han answered, stepping toward her. "I have bad news."
Leia stood up straight and brought her breathing back under control. "What is it?"
"You remember Sennix-4? The planet that declared support for the Rebellion?"
It took a moment before the name clicked, and then Leia nodded.
"The Empire has reclaimed its property. They completely wiped out the Rebel force there, executed the planet's governor--"
Leia felt anger grow in her. She kept her expression stony.
"And it gets worse," Han went on. "They've also bombed the factories and burned the fields. They're trying to send a message here, and it's not a good one."
"And . . . am I supposed to do something about this?" Leia asked calmly.
Han looked stunned. "What do you think?" he snapped. "The Alliance needs you!"
"Of course they do--"
"They need your leadership . . ."
"They need me to be a Jedi," Leia explained. "And that's not yet something I can claim to be."
"But they also need you now, Jedi or not. I bet that half the Rebellion is wondering where you've disappeared to."
"I'm not ready yet!"
Han's eyes widened, and he took a step back from Leia. There was an extremely awkward silence, before, "Look, I don't . . . I know I don't understand the Force or the Jedi, but . . . can't you continue your training back at the Fleet?"
Leia sighed. "I need to concentrate fully on my training. I need to be here. Just give me a little more time, another week . . . I know what I'm doing."
Over the next dozen long seconds, it appeared to dawn on Han that it was no use arguing with her. "All right," he finally spoke. "I sure hope you do . . ."
Yeah, Leia thought. So do I.
Mara was surprised to hear the sound of her door's buzzer. Why would anyone be visiting me? she wondered. She had already gone through debriefing, and managed to keep it fairly uneventful. No one on this ship knew her; she had no friends here who might drop by to say hello. Curious. Not hurrying, she exited out of the Alliance network, got up from her seat, walked over to the door and keyed it open. A dark-haired man wearing the casual dress uniform of a fighter pilot stood outside.
"Saria Iras?" "That's me," Mara replied.
The man smiled--somewhat wearily, Mara noted--and extended his right hand, which Mara took. "I'm Wedge Antilles," he said, releasing the handshake. The name was familiar to Mara. "Commander of Red Squadron. I thought it might be interesting to meet one of the few heroes of the Battle of Sennix-4."
"Heroes?" Mara frowned. Was this Antilles really just paying a social visit, or did he suspect her of something? "I wouldn't call myself that."
The Rebel looked down. "I know the feeling."
The two stood silently in the doorway for an increasingly uncomfortable period of time. Mara glanced past Antilles into the empty hallway. Best to play it casual, she decided. "Where are my manners? Here, come in." She pulled her chair away from the wall console and gestured toward it before sitting down on the edge of her bed. "As you can see, they don't give us enlisted soldiers a whole lot of living space."
Antilles chuckled as he took a seat. "No, they don't . . . well, you might be wondering what brought this visit on. I just wanted to say that I was really impressed by your piloting skills in that shuttle. You saved a lot of good soldiers there."
Mara put a shy smile onto her face. "You're not bad yourself." And that's the truth. Leader of Red Squadron--it's quite likely that this guy almost killed me. She suppressed a shudder as memories of her crash landing came rushing into her mind's eye.
"Thanks," Antilles said politely. "Now . . . I have to admit that I didn't just come here to pay you a compliment. Have you ever flown starfighters before?"
Of course Mara had. Her personal ship, the Emperor's Hand, had been too large to be considered a fighter, but it was nearly as agile as one. And several of her missions had required her to pilot true starfighters. "Maybe once or twice," she replied.
"An X-wing, by any chance?" Antilles asked hopefully.
Mara shook her head. "Z-95." Headhunters were outdated, but still common throughout the galaxy.
The Rebel commander took on a thoughtful expression. "The T-65 is not all that different from the Z-95, in fact. What I'm trying to say is . . . we have a lot of openings in our squadron, and I thought you might be fit to try out. We've . . . lost a lot of people recently."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Mara said, knowing full well that she herself had been responsible for a couple of those losses. The galaxy's at war and you're fighting in that war, of course you've lost a lot of people, she thought . . . but a small part of her actually felt sympathy for the Rebel's plight. She instantly pushed that frivolous emotion out.
Antilles nodded. "So . . . what do you say?"
The offer was intriguing, Mara had to admit, but becoming a fighter pilot would certainly not help her in her mission to kill Organa. "I'm afraid not. My place is with my fellow troopers. But thanks for asking."
"I understand." Antilles rose slowly from his seat. "If you change your mind, just give me a call. I guess I'll be going now."
Mara got up too and shared another firm handshake with the Rebel. She held his gaze for longer than was probably necessary, and found herself staring at his back and then at the blank wall on the other side of the corridor as he exited the room.
It took a good minute of kneeling before the throne, framed against the blood-red sky of Coruscant sunset, made its slow half-rotation to reveal the galaxy's ruler. "Welcome home, Lord Vader," the Emperor spoke, a sly grin on his face. "You have won a great victory. Soon the Rebellion will be no more."
Vader's posture was obsequious as he replied, "Yes, Master. Shall I continue my pursuit of the Rebels?"
"That won't be necessary . . . no, I am sure that the Rebels' location will be revealed soon enough." Vader bristled silently, and a look of false surprise appeared on his master's wrinkled countenance. "My friend . . . you seem unduly upset. Your emotions . . . your thoughts dwell on your daughter."
My--Vader's mask hid his startled expression, although the feelings behind it were surely not hidden to the Sith Master. Palpatine had not broached this subject before. But if he insisted on doing so . . .
"If she could be turned--"
"No." Palpatine was suddenly furious. "Trying to turn her damned brother was enough. Now leave me, friend . . . go, and meditate. I will inform you when you are needed again." The Emperor's throne turned less slowly this time to once more face the darkening cityscape. Vader rose and retreated from the spacious chamber. Rage boiled inside him as he stalked past two crimson guards and into the wide halls of the Imperial Palace. He so wanted to overthrow his master . . . but he knew that he could not do it alone. Palpatine was too strong with the dark side. I need Leia!
Vader wandered aimlessly for some time, gradually descending through the palace, before finding himself at a familiar doorway. The Emperor's private museum . . . only a very select few knew the code to open this door. Vader was one of them, and he did so, revealing a dimly lit room. This place had seen almost no visitors in recent years. It was more a storehouse than a museum. The door shut behind him, and Vader proceeded through the dark to the most important display section--the Jedi artifacts.
Brown robes were just barely visible hanging from the walls. A few strange-looking objects sat in cases. But the Jedi display was dominated by lightsabers. Lightsabers, of all designs imaginable, the vast majority not having been used in years. Vader recognized many of the weapons as coming from Jedi he had personally slain. Most of all, he recognized the one new addition to the museum. Luke's.
Vader picked up the metal hilt in both hands and regarded it for a moment before pressing the ignition switch. A green glow filled the room as the blade sprang to life. He moved the weapon through a few careful arcs. It was a well-constructed lightsaber. Much effort had clearly gone into it. So why had his son thrown it away? What had possessed Luke to give up at the moment he was beginning to reach his full potential? The questions had haunted Vader since his escape from the second Death Star. Always, he had pushed them aside. There was no use in thinking about his son when his daughter was still out there. Now he pushed the questions aside yet again. He switched the saber off, and for a split second the room seemed pitch black. Still clasping the weapon in one hand, Vader closed his eyes and . . . meditated.
The galaxy swirled around him, tiny dots of light in the all-encompassing darkness. The energy of life and death filled his mind and soul. But something was different; something was new. There was a disturbance in the Force--and he knew instantly that it was his daughter.
It was unlike anything he had felt before. Not sickeningly pure like a typical Jedi, not overwhelmingly dark like a Sith, the presence was above all else conflicted. Perhaps he had known a being like this once before, Vader realized. He himself, in his last days with the Jedi.
Leia was growing stronger. Her progress was incredible! A thought hit Vader then--had his master felt the disturbance? If so, did he realize the potential there? Luke had only crossed the line between light and darkness for the briefest of moments, but Leia was already skating along just centimeters from that line. She could be turned easily, and then father and daughter would destroy the Emperor and rule the galaxy together, as the Skywalkers had been chosen by the Force to do. They would succeed where Palpatine had failed, and create a true New Order spanning all the stars in the sky. It was a glorious vision.
Vader felt Leia's power swelling--but there was one problem. He had no idea where his daughter was.
He opened his eyes and returned to the physical world. Luke's weapon weighed heavily in his hand. He stared at the cylinder for a few of his long, mechanical breaths before replacing it on its pedestal. Then Vader turned and strode darkly from the dim room.
The jungle was a blur as Leia raced along the overgrown path. No obstacle could stand in her way. She ducked under high branches, leapt over fallen ones, swung from vines . . . rocks went flying out of sight at a wave of her hand . . . a small, furry animal screeched and dove into the vegetation . . . faintly but noticeably, Leia sensed its startled presence, then felt it fade into the overwhelming lifesense of the thick jungle.
The Force was with her to a greater extent than it had been even two days before. She ran faster than her normal pace, but did not feel tired. The energy surged from her mind into her heart and through her legs. She accelerated to somersault over a thick log, barely breaking stride upon landing. How had this great power remained hidden inside her for so long? She did not know, but now it felt as if anything was possible.
She saw a patch of sunlight ahead and slowed. A clearing--a familiar clearing. Small rocks formed a ring around its edge, a few of them out of place. Leia stopped at the center. She glanced at the rocks, and--where was the body of the fierce animal she had encountered here? It had been dead, she was sure of it. The jungle must have reclaimed it already. The creature was no longer a distinct entity in the Force, but Leia knew its energy lived on in the flora and fauna around her.
She wondered briefly what had happened to the great energy possessed by Luke when--
Leia's breathing slowed, and she stretched out her arms before letting them fall limp at her sides. Then she raised her right arm and focused on the rock directly in front of her. It shot up a meter into the air, seemingly no effort required. She moved on to the next rock. It rose just as easily, as did the third, fourth, and fifth. Leia spun at the center of a growing circle, adding rock after rock until all dozen in the clearing were in the air. Then she stopped her movement and let the rocks begin to spin around her. She closed her eyes. The rocks continued their movement; she could sense them as well as the disturbance they created in the air. She imagined that the spinning circle created a vortex in the Force.
Then she let herself fall into it.
The sensation was unbelievable. When Leia had been elected to the Imperial Senate, she had thought that she was entering a position of power. But now she understood that what she had had then was nothing compared to the power of the Force. She let it both soothe and energize her at once. She was almost ready. Yes! Soon I will leave this place . . . the Rebellion needs me, the galaxy needs me, and I won't keep them waiting any longer. But just as the words entered Leia's mind, she was hit by a strange feeling. It clawed simultaneously at the back of her mind and the pit of her stomach. Danger? No, this was unlike anything she had ever felt before. She was in no immediate danger, of that she was sure. But what was this odd new feeling? She reached out for it but could not get a grasp. It seemed to tease and pull at her, never allowing itself to quite get within range. Leia reached for it harder as a spark of anger arose--and the feeling retreated completely.
Leia opened her eyes and gently guided the rocks back to the ground. She had accomplished today feats easily surpassing anything she had done before. Yet as she started along the path back to the Temple, she felt more than a bit unnerved.
Leia collapsed into bed. She was completely exhausted. Over the past week, since Han had delivered the news about Sennix-4, she had worked harder than she had ever worked in her entire life. With her single-minded intensity, she had hardly noticed the amount of effort she was expending while she was running through the jungle or practicing her saber skills--but now, all at once, the fatigue hit her. She desperately . . . needed . . . sleep . . .
The garden was beautiful. Well-groomed trees displaying milky white flowers rose to either side a meter above her head. Their lowest branches just barely grazed her thick brown hair as she walked tall below them. Soft grass tickled her bare feet. She paused to kneel in the grass and enjoy the scent of a big red saffor in full bloom. Nearby, the stream that ran through the center of the garden burbled gently. She tilted her head to look up from the flower. Off in the distance, a full moon rose over the ivory walls of the palace. A contented smile came over her face. Everything was so calm, so peaceful, soperfect.
She sprang to her feet and spun away from the view of the palace to see--"Luke!"
Leia raced to her brother, her arms held out wide. She reached him, and enclosed him in a hug--
Her arms came together, holding nothing. Her brother still stood there, a meter away. "Luke?" Something wasn't right here . . .
Luke's gone, and . . . Leia looked around her, and felt a sudden horror. My father's garden is certainly gone too! What was going on?
"Leia," Luke repeated. She returned her gaze to his blue eyes. "Beware the dark side."
"Luke?" she said numbly.
"Calm, at peace," Luke recited the mantra.
Leia looked down. "I try . . . I really do . . ."
"Do what you are doing because it is right, not because you want to avenge my death."
Leia met her brother's eyes again. "But I know that fighting the Empire is right. And it's more than your death . . ."
"If you give in to anger, the danger is on more than just you now." Does he hear what am I saying? she wondered. "Leia, you--"
"Luke!" A black, shapeless thing was moving toward her brother. She could sense the darkness easily, but Luke seemed completely unaware of the threat. The thing ignited a red lightsaber. Leia reached for her belt; drew and activated her own green blade. The red saber swung at Luke's back--
"No!" Leia sprang forward to intercept the attack. She gritted her teeth, angry that this evil being would try to destroy her brother. The thing swung its weapon again. Leia parried, saw an opening, and plunged her weapon into her foe. The faceless monster vanished in an instant. Leia exhaled and turned to face her brother.
Luke had disappeared as well.
She awoke in a cold sweat. "Luke!" she cried instantly. It had only been a dream . . .
Luke? Might that truly have been her brother, speaking to her through the Force? Or had the dream been nothing more than a construct of her restless mind?
As the vision faded, Leia realized that she felt terribly sick to her stomach. And that strange feeling she had had in the clearing was back.
What's happening to me?
Whatever it was, she decided then that first thing in the morning she would go to the Falcon and tell Han that she was ready to leave.
"You know, this reminds me of . . ." Han's voice trailed off.
"Of what?" Leia prodded.
Han shook his head. "I'm sorry . . . it's . . . well, Luke was doing something just like this, right here, when we were in hyperspace on the way to Alderaan. Maybe I shouldn't have brought it up?"
"It's okay," Leia said, not entirely truthfully. Luke and Alderaan. Those are two subjects I most definitely don't need to be reminded of.
Han nodded, then held out the small sphere with a questioning look on his face. "I'm ready," Leia confirmed. She took a step back and brought her practice saber up into a guard position as Han pressed a button and released the ball.
A training remote was a tiny droid that hovered in the air and fired relatively harmless laser blasts at targets. Leia had read that remotes were often used by Jedi in lightsaber training, beginning at very young ages. Non-Jedi made use of the devices at times, and it happened that Han had one aboard the Falcon. Now that remote buzzed meters in front of Leia, propelling itself in tiny bursts from side to side, seemingly waiting for an opportunity to attack.
Leia studied the remote intently, at the same time reaching out to the Force. Now! She brought her saber a few centimeters down, and was rewarded with a successful block of the first blast. She spared a glance at her blade, and saw a tiny black mark where the laser had struck. A real lightsaber would certainly be preferable. . . .
She moved her saber high, then low, to intercept the next two attacks. The little droid paused a moment before unleashing three more blasts in rapid succession--all of which Leia blocked.
"Not bad," Han called. "Not bad at all."
"I concur. A most impressive display, Mistress Leia." Threepio. The protocol droid had been in storage aboard the Falcon in standby mode for most of the stay on Yavin IV. Leia hadn't missed the sound of his voice.
Focus. She shut off all the outside distractions, and concentrated solely on the remote, her practice saber, and the Force. Another barrage came in; she turned it aside. The remote jetted itself in a semi-circle, forcing Leia to turn, before attacking again. This time, she stopped five consecutive blasts. It seemed that the droid's buzzing was taking on a tone of frustration. Leia chuckled at the thought, then quickly swung her blade down to block a blast aimed at her shin. She had to move even more rapidly to defend herself against the shot at her shoulder that followed immediately after, but she managed that too. The remote fruitlessly unleashed a trio of shots at her midsection before taking a longer pause to maneuver itself for the next strike. Leia was beginning to sweat now, but her concentration did not falter. The Force guiding her blade, she continued to meet each new challenge with ease, until . . .
Leia had lost track of time. She was sweating heavily now. She intercepted a pair of high blasts, then brought her blade down--
"Ouch!" A sharp stabbing pain entered her left thigh. In one fluid motion, she converted her missed block into an attack and swatted the remote out of the air. It went sailing across the room, and Leia looked on in surprise as it clanked off a squealing Artoo. She hadn't even been thinking when she struck the ball, merely acting on instinct--
"Oh, do shut up, Artoo," Threepio interjected. "I'm sure that your thick metal shell provided quite adequate protection to your rusty innards."
Han picked the remote up from the ground, deactivated it, and walked over to Leia. "I think you picked the wrong career, Princess," he said with a lopsided grin. "You should be a pro smashball player . . . except, I wonder if using the Force is considered cheating?"
Leia gave a sheepish smile in return, glad for the moment of levity. Then she glanced down at her practice sword, and her eyes went wide at the sight of a full decimeter of the blade, near its tip, charred completely black. "So . . . how long was I going at it?" she asked.
"Quite a while," Han replied. "In fact, we're about to arrive at the Fleet. I'd better head to the cockpit." He did so, and Leia followed, with Chewie right behind her. Before leaving the Alliance, they had gotten codes that could be used on the nets to find the Fleet's current location. Leia held on to the back of Han's seat as the transition was made. The codes had worked; the Rebel Fleet appeared out the front viewport. It was not, Leia reflected grimly, a terribly impressive sight.
Han guided the Millennium Falcon deftly toward the largest vessel, Home One. "Falcon, is that you?" a voice called over the freighter's comm system.
"You bet," Han replied. "We're bringing the Princess back in."
"Set 'er down in the main docking bay."
The landing was smooth. The group wasted no time exiting the Falcon, and found a good-sized reception party waiting at the bottom of the freighter's ramp. Mon Mothma stood at the group's head. "Welcome back, Leia, General Solo, Chewbacca," she spoke. "I hope that your leave of absence was productive."
"Thank you, Senator," Leia replied. "It most certainly was."
Mon Mothma's eyes seemed to pause at each member of the newly arrived group, including the droids. "If I may ask, where is the Ewok who was accompanying you?" "He didn't make it," Han said. "And if I may ask, where's Lando? I thought he'd be anxious to see his old ship back."
Leia knew before any spoken reply came, and her mouth opened slightly in horror. "Sadly, General Calrissian was lost . . ."
A tidal wave of anger and despair washed over Leia, originating not within her but from another. She had never felt anything like it. Surely she had been in the presence of beings experiencing such emotions before, but never when she had had such depth of perception through the Force. The feeling was quite disturbing. She reached out a hand to place on Han's shoulder, but pulled it back when he shot a glare in her direction. Does he think it's my fault, because we were away from the Alliance when it happened?
"That's . . . Lando . . . shavit, no!" Han exclaimed. "Why did this . . ." The despair overcame the anger now, and Han fell silent. Leia shivered, for she could feel the despair of the man she loved beginning to take root inside her as well. After all that had happened, this was the last thing they needed . . .
"I am deeply sorry, General Solo," Mon Mothma said, in a voice that Leia found too calm. "But now, we have business to attend to. You arrived not a moment too soon. We are in desperate times. We must strike back against the Empire before all is lost. A mission is being planned, one that we hope to carry out in the near future."
"Good," Han growled.
"You may go to your quarters now, but expect to be summoned to a vitally important meeting within the next twenty-four hours," the Alliance's leader finished.
Han turned back toward the Falcon, probably to retrieve their supplies from the ship. As Leia followed, she felt the anger now fighting to win out over the despair. She reached out to comfort Han, and was relieved when he accepted the gesture. His anger, she sensed, was not directed toward her. It was directed right where it should be--toward the Empire.
The rumor had spread like wildfire through the Rebel flagship. Mara had quickly confirmed its truth--Organa had returned. The Millennium Falconhad arrived just hours ago. It had not been difficult for Mara to obtain the location of Organa's personal quarters aboard Home One. Now Mara crept around a smooth corner and into another white hallway. This hallway, however, was special, for near its end was the door behind which her target lay.
Organa's presence in the Force made it obvious that the Princess was indeed in her quarters. Mara reached out to briefly concentrate on that presence--and was awestruck by what she felt. When she had encountered her target on Tatooine, Organa had appeared only faintly in the Force. Now her presence was possessed of far more power than any other Mara had come into contact with, besides her master's and Darth Vader's, of course.
And, she realized then, Luke Skywalker's. In fact, Organa's presence reminded Mara somehow of Skyalker's, as if--What? She did not know what this might mean. But in any case, Organa's newfound strength in the Force meant that killing the Princess might not be such an easy task now. Silently, Mara cursed the blasted Ewok that had prevented her from finishing the job weeks ago.
As she approached the door, Mara put a hand instinctively on her blaster, then pulled it away. If she wanted to escape alive, she had best make sure the door was closed behind her before she drew the weapon. Organa's room was just ten meters further now. Mara took a quick peek back over her shoulder; the corridor was empty. She returned her gaze to--
Stang! A human male and a Wookiee, both all too familiar to Mara, had just rounded a corner up ahead. Mara quickened her pace slightly and continued past Organa's room without so much as a glance at the door. She walked right past Solo and the Wookiee, her eyes straight ahead. Just as she expected, the pair of Rebels slowed in front of Organa's room. They just had to pick this time for a visit, Mara thought bitterly. The completion of her task would have to wait a little while longer.
"We believed that, after Endor, the Empire would not be ready to strike so soon and with such force, especially not at a planet as out-of-the-way as Sennix-4." Mon Mothma's eyes swept over every occupant of the briefing room, pausing briefly to meet Leia's. The room was full of both civilian and military leaders of the Alliance. Wedge Antilles, Leia noted, was probably the lowest-ranking person present--except for Chewie, who was at the meeting practically by default due to Han's being there. Then her attention was captured fully by Mothma as the Rebel leader continued. "We were wrong. You all know what happened there, and now . . . I am afraid to report that no other systems are willing to openly support our cause. Many are sympathetic, but none are willing to risk sharing Sennix's fate. The Alliance is in most dire straits."
Leia nodded somberly at Mothma's words. She had expected as much--and now she knew that the fate of the galaxy weighed even more heavily on her own shoulders.
"We believed that we had won a great victory by destroying the second Death Star before it could menace any innocent beings." Mon Mothma paused, looking down sadly. "Again, we were wrong. It is clear now that the most important target at Endor was not the Death Star--the most important target escaped the battle alive. Emperor Palpatine sits safely on his throne on Coruscant, holding the galaxy in thrall. The destruction of his ultimate weapon was a large blow, but in the grand scheme of things, it was not all that significant a loss. His fleet, as it demonstrated at Sennix, is still quite capable of enforcing his reign of terror. The Empire is simply too powerful to openly oppose--and Palpatine holds all that power in his hands.
"We have discussed this matter to great lengths in the past week, and have come to one conclusion. We have just one hope now, one possible course of action, one way to bring down the Empire. Cut off the head, and the body dies." A murmur ran through the room. Leia could sense the uncertainty there, but for her, the words were little more than a confirmation of what she had already decided on her own. "Some may question our methods, but recent events prove that Palpatine must be killed before his Empire will topple. Then a power vacuum will be created, one that we will fill. It is the only way. Now, General Madine?"
General Crix Madine stepped forward to take Mon Mothma's place at the head of the room. "We are still finalizing our plan, and still waiting for some intelligence reports to come in, but we hope to set things into motion soon," the bearded general spoke. "Here, I will present a general outline of the proposed mission.
"A multi-pronged attack will be used to heighten our chances for success. First, a strike team will sneak onto Coruscant, using public transport. The team will meet with some of our agents on the capital to obtain the necessary equipment--blasters, detonators, etcetera--then descend into the bottom levels of the Imperial City and enter the sewer system several klicks from the Imperial Palace.
"The palace is at the center of a large, open plaza." Madine gestured to a holo of the prodigious building from which the Emperor ruled. It was a beautiful and foreboding piece of architecture, and Leia recalled from her visits there that the interior was quite opulent as well. A shame that such a place must house such evil. "The plaza is mostly surrounded by Imperial garrisons. We currently have agents investigating the plaza and preparing for the upcoming action.
"The attack will have one other prong, this one aerial. A freighter will be loaded with twelve X-wings, and these X-wings will be packed in a special material we've recently developed that will fool scanners. This freighter will follow a flight path taking it near the edge of the protected airspace around the palace." Leia glanced at Wedge, who stared toward the front of the room, his face grim.
"When the time is right, our agents on the ground will set off a riot in the plaza in front of the palace. The Imperials will surely respond, and then the X-wings will burst out of the freighter and launch an attack on the garrisons around the plaza. Meanwhile, with all the attention focused on the front of the palace, the strike team will break into the building on the opposite side. Our intelligence has provided us with certain times of day when the Emperor is always, without fail, in his throne room. The strike team, after entering the palace, will storm the throne room and carry out its mission. No attempt at hostage-taking will be made; the target must be killed.
"We hope to avoid significant damage to the palace itself, but we may have no choice. If failure is imminent for the strike team, they will transmit a code to the X-wings. This is a last resort, but it will be used if necessary--the X-wings will then proceed with bombing runs on the throne room. The Empire will not expect a strike at its heart so soon after Sennix, but if we do not succeed here our enemies will thereafter be on their guard. So we must succeed."
"Thank you, General." Mon Mothma raised her arms to her sides, palms outward, as she retook control of the meeting. "Well, there you have it. Are there any questions?"
Leia had one, and she spoke up immediately. "Has the roster for this mission been compiled yet?"
"No, it has not."
"Then I request that when it is, I be placed on it."
Mon Mothma looked at Leia questioningly. It doesn't matter what she, or anyone here thinks, Leia knew. Without me, the strike team has no chance of success. "General?" the Rebel leader asked.
"The Princess has shown herself to be a more than capable fighter," Madine said. "She would certainly be allowed a place on the mission if she wishes it."
"Then I'm in too," Han said, and Chewie growled his agreement. Just like Endor, Leia thought. Except no Luke . . .
Suddenly, she could feel her heart pounding in her chest. The opportunity to test out her new powers, and to face and destroy the Emperor, was coming sooner than she had expected. Do what you are doing because it is right. . . .
I will do, she vowed, what needs to be done.
Mara let out a frustrated sigh as the door to her room slid shut behind her. Her inability to find an opportune moment to finish off her target was becoming quite irritating. It had been three days since Organa arrived at the fleet. Mara had kept a close eye on the Princess's activities in that time, but to no avail. During daytime hours, it seemed that Organa was more often than not in meetings. And when she wasn't in meetings, Solo and the Wookiee hung around her like obnoxious parasites. Organa spent the nights--by ship's hours, of course; there were no true days or nights out here in interstellar space--alone in her quarters. But her door was locked during those times, so entering unannounced would prove difficult. And any unknown visitor in the middle of the night would surely arouse suspicion on Organa's part. If a better opportunity did not come up sometime soon, however, Mara just might have to take that risk. These blasted meetings can't keep up like this forever!
The meetings . . .
Mara took a seat in front of her computer terminal and quickly pulled up the Alliance network. There did seem to be an inordinate number of meetings going on, especially ones involving high-ranking Rebels like Organa. Perhaps it was just because Organa had been away for so long, but Mara found herself doubting that. In the past couple days, she had picked up a strange sort of buzz running through the ship, like an anticipation of something. Something big. She had expected the Rebels to lie low for a while after the disaster at Sennix, but it could very well be that they had an entirely different strategy in mind.
In the abundant amounts of free time between her own arrival at the fleet and Organa's, Mara had made several more attempts at cracking the higher levels of Alliance security. She didn't want to be too aggressive, though; if the intrusions were detected she would have a lot of explaining to do. Her attempts had been unsuccessful, but she still had access to quite a bit of useful information. She first brought up a list of recent capital ship assignments. It was--completely empty. It appeared that the Rebels were not planning for any upcoming fleet engagements. That was wise on their parts. Next, Mara examined some shipping records. Activity there had decreased recently, which was not surprising. She did not find anything unusual.
Mara moved on to recent personnel assignments. She skimmed through a few pages of mundane tech duties, before--Sabacc! Her eyes lit up at what was clearly a roster for an upcoming mission. Included on that roster were the names Han Solo, Chewbacca--and Leia Organa. And attached to this roster was a list of fighter pilots, Wedge Antilles among them, who would apparently be flying support on the same mission.
Mara entered commands furiously into her console, looking for any plans or objectives related to this mission. She ran into a durasteel wall. The mission roster was at a relatively low level of classification, but the information on the mission itself was hidden behind the highest level of security on the network. There was no way she would be able to access it.
So, Organa will soon be leaving the fleet again--and I have no idea where she's going or what she's going to do there. Mara scowled. She could not let her target slip away once more. She would just have to finish the job very soon, risks of capture be damned, or . . .
There might be another way. Mara returned to the roster and studied it intently. It appeared that the file had been finalized just a little more than an hour ago. Many of the names on it were those of simple enlisted soldiers, ordinary Rebels of the exact same rank as Saria Iras. She entered a low-level security override and smiled at her rapid success. Private Qivvrin Bybenas was now unavailable for the mission; Private Saria Iras took his place. She would go with Organa wherever this mission took her, and when the opportunity arose at last, the Princess would be taken care of once and for all.
Recalling the last order she had received, Mara reached out to the Force. Master.
The reply came several seconds later. My Hand. What have you to report? I sense that your objective has not yet been completed.
No, but I have come across some . . . valuable information. The Rebels appear to be planning some sort of important mission for the near future.
Interesting. Mara could feel that her master was at least a bit surprised by the news. When will this mission commence?
I am unable to access that information, nor do I know what the plan for this mission is. But Organa is on the roster--and now I am too.
Very well. Report back to me once you know the plan. Or, preferably, once Organa has been terminated. I grow tired of waiting for her death.
The conversation was over, and Mara returned her attention to her computer. There she saw that she had just received an important notice. She opened it and read the brief message.
Saria Iras was to report for the upcoming mission in sixteen hours.
Leia awoke feeling sick to her stomach.
It had been several days now since the nausea started, back on Yavin IV. Leia had no idea what the cause could be. She had no history of such problems; she hadn't eaten anything strange. The sickness came and went unexplainably. A couple of times, she had called on the Force to counter the feelings, with some degree of success. But now, again, they returned.
Leia grimaced as she sat up in bed, alone in her cabin aboard Home One. Was it a case of nerves? There was no lack of sources of stress in her life right now. She took a deep, calming breath--and was hit by another sensation that had recently become familiar.
It was the odd feeling she had first experienced in the jungle clearing with the circle of rocks, the feeling that she had tried to get a grasp on but failed. It, too, had been recurrent over the past few days, but it had always fled before she could figure out what it was. Could it be related to the sickness? That seemed possible, but did not answer the question of what the root cause was. With all that she had to focus on right now, these new uncertainties were not at all welcome. She could not allow them to continue--she had to figure out exactly what was wrong with her, and do something about it.
Leia called on the Force and heard it answer. The first time she had made a serious effort at touching the mystical energy field, in deep space aboard the Falcon, she had made almost no progress. It was only after going to the lush world of Yavin IV that she was truly able to immerse herself in the life-created energy. But fortunately, she had found that after becoming familiar with what it felt like to touch the Force, she was still readily able to do so back in deep space. She let the Force surround her, then closed her eyes and looked deep inside herself.
She did not reach out directly for the strange feeling, instead skirting to its side. She sensed the energy in her soul, as well as the billions of teeming cells making up her body, and the bothersome ache in her stomach. Leia calmly processed the feelings emanating from inside her, seeking out anything malignant that could be the root of her problems. She found nothing. Her mind, her heart, her lungs, everything was fine. As far as she could tell, she was in perfect health, the strongest she'd been her whole life. But the unshakeable feelings . . .
Leia moved her focus to that odd sensation, the one scratching at the back of her mind and the pit of her stomach. She approached it tentatively, hoping against hope that it wouldn't flee this time--and it didn't! She felt it changing somehow. It was no longer frightened away by her attention. It seemed to huddle in a corner, still a bit fearful but at the same time . . . curious, inquisitive. Leia continued her cautious approach--and now, little by little, the feeling reached out to her, as if it was trying to figure out the identity of this intruder. It was weak, but growing stronger. Leia reached back to it, and suddenly it was pulling away again. No, she thought urgently, but then she realized that it was not running from her but instead leading her to something. Something down near her stomach. Something that was . . . growing inside her.
Something is growing inside me?
What was this strange presence that glowed with the light of the Force, this . . . new . . . being . . .
Leia's eyes snapped open as it hit her.
She was with child.
I--But how could this be? Am--When had it happened? With--She knew immediately that it must have been before Yavin, but hadn't she been taking necessary precautions against this? Child? Had those precautions failed? That was never supposed to happen, yet she knew without a doubt that despite that fact she was now pregnant. She stared down at her belly in disbelief and more than a little horror. What wonderful timing, too. She did not need another distraction of this magnitude, especially not now.
Han. How will he take the news? she wondered, but then she realized that there was no way she could tell him, not yet. She couldn't tell anyone. They would never let her go on the mission if they knew.
The mission. For the first time since waking up, it entered her conscious mind that the mission to Coruscant was to begin today. Leia could feel herself shaking as she got out of bed. A few days ago, she had felt confident in her abilities and ready to take on the Emperor and his evil powers. Then the strange feelings had begun, and now--now, with the mission looming over her and a new life looming inside her, she felt just as uncertain as ever.
If you give in to anger, the danger is on more than just you now. The words from her dream rushed without warning into her mind. Had Luke been referring to this, admonishing her that she could somehow poison her unborn child by touching the dark side of the Force? He had been about to tell her something else before that evil thing had appeared, and then, seconds later, Luke had just been . . . gone.
Leia shuddered. The strike team was set to depart in just under seven hours. She could not delay her destiny--whatever that destiny was.
At precisely 1500 hours ship's time, Mara strode into the Home One docking bay, a light duffel slung over her right shoulder. The bay's walls were a bright white, and the floor shone with polish--she half expected to see several ranks of stormtroopers standing at attention. The beings who did occupy the bay looked nothing like what one would see on an Imperial cruiser, however. Most wore ragtag clothes, and many were nonhuman. The large, beat-up transport sitting near the center of the bay seemed perfectly fit for the group of beings congregating around it. Mara headed in that direction and came to a smooth stop in front of the one uniformed officer present. "Private Saria Iras, reporting for duty, sir!"
The man examined her, a look of slight puzzlement on his face, and pulled out a datapad. He entered a few commands on the pad before nodding slowly. "You're on the roster, all right. Step over there, with the rest of the group. Departure's in fourteen minutes."
Mara joined the other Rebel troopers who waited by the transport. They were dressed in civilian clothing, as was she. The plan was apparently to take this ship somewhere that they could board a public transport, which would take them to their final destination. Where that final destination was, Mara still did not know.
She stood idly for a few moments before a voice sounded behind her. "Hey, aren't you . . ."
Mara turned. "Yes?"
"You flew that shuttle out of Sennix!" the young man said. "Wow, you . . . you might have saved my life."
"Glad to be of help," Mara replied.
"So . . . you know where we're headed on this mission?" the other asked.
Mara shook her head. "I guess we'll be finding out."
"It's something important, though . . ."
"Seems that way," Mara agreed.
"Then I'm glad to have you along."
Mara nodded and turned away as a bemused grin came over her face. I wonder what my master would think if he knew I was becoming a local celebrity among the Rebels. She pondered over this for a short while--then her eyes narrowed as three familiar figures entered the bay.
Leia Organa, along with Solo and the Wookiee--of course--walked toward Mara, apparently completely oblivious of who she was approaching. Organa had never been so close, but there was no way that Mara could kill her here and now. She seethed in silent frustration as the trio stopped to report in and joined the rest of the group.
"All right, it's boarding time," one of the Rebels said, a tone of authority in his voice.
Mara turned toward the ship, then glanced back at the sound of another voice. "Mistress Leia, Captain Solo, Master Chewbacca!" A golden protocol droid rushed into the bay, with a blue-and-white astromech rolling along beside it. "Artoo and I wanted to wish you all good luck on this mission. I do hope you come to no harm!"
Mara rolled her eyes. Why anyone would want a droid with a personality like that was beyond her. "Thanks, Threepio," Organa said, her voice sounding a bit tired. Mara glared at the back of her target's head for a moment more before walking up the transport's ramp. She tossed her duffel into storage before taking a seat in a rather crowded room. Organa, Solo, and the Wookiee entered the ship last. Solo looked around the room warily, and his eyes actually made contact with Mara's for a moment, but they did not stay there long.
Within a few minutes, everyone was in place, and with a rumble that Mara could feel through her seat the transport's engines came to life. The mission had begun. Hopefully, her true mission would be coming to an end very soon.
"I don't know," Leia said. "It's just--a feeling that something is wrong with the mission."
Han moved his gaze from the view of the mottled hyperspace sky to Leia, his expression somewhat harsh. The two were standing near the back of the transport's cockpit as the vessel made the journey to Ord Mantell, the jump-off point for the flight to Coruscant. "I'd say there's a lot that could go wrong with the mission." That's for sure, Leia thought, her eyes shifting momentarily down at her abdomen. "A lot has gone wrong with a lot of missions lately. Do you have anything more specific?"
"Not really, but . . ." Leia closed her eyes and reached out for that elusive feeling. "It's possible that the danger is something on this ship."
"On this ship," Han echoed, his voice doubtful but his face showing signs of worry. "Would you say it's something . . . or someone?"
Leia shook her head. "It could be either, I guess. It's hard for me to focus directly on whatever it is that's bothering me. Maybe my ability in the Force just isn't advanced enough . . ."
"Maybe. How about if we go back to the rest of the ship, have a look around?" Han suggested.
They exited the cockpit into a narrow hallway. Leia examined her surroundings closely as she walked, both with her eyes and with the Force. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary. The ship was old and exhibited many signs of use, but as far as she could tell--not that she was an expert--it was running just fine. They made their way to the sizeable but crowded common room in the transport's aft section, where most of the Rebels were gathered. Leia scanned the room slowly, pausing to key in on each individual present with the Force. She could pick up only vague sensations, but--
One presence had something different about it. "Han," she whispered. "Far left corner, woman with black hair."
"Yeah?" he asked casually.
"I think she might be hiding something--and she might have the Force too."
"What?" Han led her back into the hallway, out of sight of the woman, and continued, still in hushed tones. "What do you mean might?"
"I'm not sure," Leia replied. "Her presence, it seems a bit stronger than normal. That's the best way to put it."
"And she's hiding something?"
"Well, I wouldn't say that with one-hundred percent certainty, but--yeah, there's a good chance of it."
"Then what's she hiding?"
"I can't read minds or anything," Leia said helplessly. "It's just a feeling."
Han nodded, then took a few steps in the direction of the common room and gave an indifferent look around before turning back to Leia. "You know, I've seen that woman before."
"Probably just in passing on Home One . . . but for some reason, I get the feeling I've seen her somewhere else too."
"Somewhere else," Leia prodded.
"It's just a feeling," Han said, flashing a grin.
"I see . . . well, we should keep an eye out, and see if she does anything suspicious. She's probably just an ordinary soldier, but . . ."
"Better safe than sorry," Han said. "Right. I'll tell Chewie too."
You've got to be kidding me.
Mara had to fight to keep the disbelief from appearing on her face as she stared down at the boarding pass she had just been handed. Departure: 2200. Transit time: 33 hours.
Destination: Imperial Center.
What were the Rebels thinking? She had been surprised to learn they were planning any sort of important mission so soon after Sennix, but this . . . this was absurd. They were going to strike at the heart of the Empire? How could they possibly hope to win a victory on the most heavily defended planet in the galaxy? There were more Imperial troops on the capital than there were sentient beings on many worlds. Had Organa's new powers in the Force caused her to lose her mind?
Or was she more powerful, even, than Mara could sense?
Her target was about twenty meters away, engaging Solo in what looked like idle chatter while the Wookiee stood silently, glaring at any passersby. The Princess and the smuggler had joined Mara in disguising their appearances--their faces, Organa's especially, were quite well known to Imperial law enforcement. Looking quite disheveled, they fit right in with the crowd at the grungy Ord Mantell spaceport. But though the place was hardly a beacon of law and order, there was an Imperial presence here. Mara considered calling for security forces, but decided against it. She would complete this mission herself.
"All right. You three, this way."
Mara turned to see one of the Rebel officers on the mission gesturing for her and two others to head toward a boarding queue--a queue, she noticed with a grimace, that was on the opposite side of the wide thoroughfare from the one Organa was by. She glanced back to see Solo leading his trio toward the appropriate line. That ship was headed for Imperial Center as well, and the whole group would apparently be meeting up there after arrival. Still, she did not like to see her target slipping out of her sight yet again.
But there's nothing I can do about that now.
She moved forward, handing the ticket to a Devaronian who smiled and wished her a pleasant journey. "Thanks," she muttered, before walking through a doorway and receiving her first glimpse of the ship that would be taking her back to the planet that, if any could be called as such, was her home. It was a massive passenger freighter, and looked just as beat-up as the transport on which she had arrived at Ord Mantell. On this trip, at least, she would have some space to herself--a two meter by three meter box, maybe, but it was better than nothing.
Mara walked up the ship's long ramp and turned down a crowded corridor, heading immediately for the lift that would take her to the floor her quarters were on. The lift groaned as it moved, but took her to her destination quickly. Two human males were waiting when the lift doors opened, and they looked appraisingly at Mara as she stepped out into a dimly lit hallway. She ignored the pair, turning to the right and glancing at the numbers on the frequent metal doors. Three-two-one, three-two-three, three-two-five . . . here we are. She used the stub from her ticket to key open the door, stepped inside, tossed her bag into a corner, and sat down on the cot that took up a good third of the room as the door slid shut. Then she closed her eyes and called out to her master.
My Hand, came the reply. Organa lives.
You have learned the plan for the Rebels' foolish mission?
No, but I have learned their destination. We will arrive at Imperial Center in thirty-three hours.
The surprised feeling from her Master was larger than it had been during their last conversation. His initial reaction at learning just where the Rebels were headed seemed similar to Mara's, but it was quickly replaced by a cruel glee. This could be quite entertaining. I pray, though, that you will not return to me with your mission still incomplete.
Now tell me, you are departing for Imperial Center from . . .
Ord Mantell, Mara supplied.
And how long was the journey to Ord Mantell?
Fifteen hours, give or take--
Excellent. The Emperor's glee seemed to grow, and Mara felt herself shiver ever so slightly. This could prove most useful, her master went on. It will be interesting to see which comes first--Organa's demise . . . or the Rebel Alliance's.
The chill wind of night in the Imperial City whipped at Darth Vader's cloak, but the Dark Lord stood perfectly still at the edge of the rooftop. The cold did not penetrate his thick black shell. Before him, the cityscape stretched off into eternity. Night here was not so dark--lights sparkled everywhere, most of them artificial. Only the brightest of stars joined the countless starships and airspeeders that filled the blue-violet sky. Below him, too, the speeders traveled the skylanes. Lines of vehicles, moving as if controlled by droids, though only some of them actually were. Vader reached out to the thousands of minds occupying those vessels, felt the familiar monotony.
Very few of the beings he touched had any remarkable characteristics whatsoever. They were merely tiny cogs in the machine of the Empire. They went about their day-to-day routines with little control over their fates, whether they were aware of this fact or not. Slaves? No, but they might as well have been. Only a few sentients rose from the morass to achieve greatness. The Emperor, at the heart of all Vader surveyed, had certainly done so. Billions could live or die at a word from his crooked mouth.
But which category did Darth Vader fall into?
Had he ever controlled his own destiny? From his days with the damned Jedi, and even further back, though his childhood was now shrouded within his mind, he had always taken orders from someone. Now he continued to obey his master. He despised Palpatine, yet he remained subservient. Why could he not take his fate into his own gloved hands?
If only he was not limited by this cursed half-machine body . . .
Yet even if he were not, could he match the Emperor in the Force? It was difficult to say, and pointless to consider. Vader was not strong enough, but with an ally--
Leia continued to grow stronger. He did not even have to go into deep meditation to feel her presence anymore. It was there, palpable, with the smallest effort. He reached out to it now, and smiled at his daughter's power. It seemed to wax with the passing of seconds! But try as he might, he could not ascertain her location, nor initiate a mental communication with her--
Suddenly, the presence swelled to fill Vader's mind entirely. He had felt nothing like this since--Endor, and the Rebel's pathetic attempt at trickery upon their arrival in that stolen shuttle. Luke's signature in the Force had given them away easily. Now Leia--
Leia was in this very star system! It seemed impossible, but Vader knew it to be true. She had just dropped out of hyperspace in a starship, and was approaching Imperial Center. And now Darth Vader looked upward to the skies, and called out desperately to his daughter.
The deep voice announced itself in her mind just seconds after the transition to normalspace. It was a familiar voice, she realized; she had heard it in the moments leading up to their escape from Endor. This time, however, Leia knew the speaker's identity. "Oh, no," she muttered.
Han looked to her with immediate concern. "What is it?"
Leia, hear me!
Father. It was impossible to shrink away from the persuasive presence. Leia made an effort to at least hide the smaller presence that dwelt inside her. "I'm putting the mission in danger!" she answered Han. How could she not have considered this possibility? Hadn't Luke said nearly the same thing as they passed by the Executor on the way to the forest moon of Endor?
"What do you mean, putting the mission in danger?" Daughter. Come, join me.
Leave me, father. "I can't explain--" I want nothing to do with you.
I know what you do want, Leia, the voice in her mind went on. I yearn for the same thing. But he is too powerful for either of us alone, strong as you may have become.
Leia's jaw dropped as the implication of what she was hearing began to sink in. Father?
Only together can we destroy the Emperor.
Darth Vader's presence faded from her mind, but the voice echoed on. Together we can destroy the Emperor. Together. Together . . . Somehow Leia doubted that was the last she would be hearing from Vader.
Han took hold of her by the shoulders and looked deep into her eyes. "What is it, Leia?"
"It's nothing," she replied. "I was mistaken. We're not in danger."
"This is one of those Jedi things, isn't it . . ."
Leia nodded. "Now let's get going. We'll be landing soon."
It had been an uneventful flight, and now Mara descended the transport's ramp and set foot on Imperial Center. She was not actually on the ground, of course--far from it--but nonetheless she had returned to the galaxy's crowded capital world. Mara paused to soak in the familiar sights and sounds of the endless city before heading to a doorway that led to the interior of the spaceport. In all her travels across the galaxy, no world she had encountered could possibly compare to this one.
Her most recent journey, which had started with her departing this planet in her since destroyed personal vessel, had been quite a whirlwind. And now she was back, and her mission remained incomplete.
Mara entered the large building and looked around. This was by no means a luxurious spaceport, but it was certainly more clean and orderly than the one the transit had begun in on Ord Mantell. Stormtroopers stood guard in scattered pairs, oblivious to the Rebels walking right under their noses. Ahead of Mara was the automatic customs scanner. She watched as her temporary allies walked through it, setting off no alarms. She brought up the rear of a long line. She would have nothing to worry about from the scanning machines, of course--
Except that the lightsaber in her bag might be considered rather suspicious. The last thing Mara needed was for her to be detained while the rest of the Rebels went on without her, but she had nothing to worry about. When it was her turn to pass through the scanner, she nonchalantly pulled a tiny card from her pocket and swiped it in front of the device. It gave her clearance to pass through without being scanned; the machine would report nothing out of the ordinary.
Wordlessly, Mara joined a few of the Rebels as they walked out of the spaceport. The wide exit led to a row of speeders for rent. Her group made its way to a boxy orange vehicle and, minutes later, was off into the skylanes. It was night, and lights sparkled everywhere, both on the buildings that rose hundreds of meters above her head and on the myriad craft that passed by. Most of the huge skyscrapers here were quite grand in their designs, and several types of architecture were on display. Some of the buildings were things of beauty; others had clearly been constructed with intimidation in mind. As the speeder flew on, the high-rises became even more majestic. Then the realization struck Mara. The Rebels were growing bolder still--they were flying right into the heart of the Imperial City!
But before the governmental complex came into view, the speeder began a steep descent. The lighting became more colorful and fluorescent as they passed by some of the expensive clubs that catered to the wealthy who were drawn to the power at the heart of the Empire. Further down, there were seedier-looking establishments, but the speeder passed even those by. The descent continued, and now the lights began to grow dim. Peering over the side of the vehicle, Mara imagined that she could almost see the distant ground! Then she spotted a small landing platform where a few other speeders were already parked. The one she rode in joined them, coming to a smooth stop.
The Rebels exited the speeder and were ushered through a door and into a large, dank room. Mara instantly spotted Organa sitting at the room's opposite end. Mara exhaled softly in relief; she had not lost track of her target. But at the same time, she clenched a fist in frustration. She would have to put off her attack for a while longer, yet again.
Once everyone had taken their places, a large human male with slightly graying hair stepped to the front of the room. "We've reached Coruscant safely," he said, clasping his hands together. "And now the hard part begins. You were all chosen for this mission due to your exemplary records in our struggle against the Empire, and I'm sure most of you are wondering just what exactly we plan to accomplish here. Well, now is the time where all will be explained. Our mission--is to do whatever it takes to kill the Emperor."
As the officer launched into the details of the mission, Mara found that she hardly knew what to feel. Won't my master be amused when he hears about this!
"Are we all set, boys?"
"Red Two, ready," came Janson's reply.
"Red Three, standing by."
"Red Four, set to go."
"Red Five . . ."
The voices, too many of them unfamiliar to Wedge's ears, went on until all dozen X-wing pilots had checked in. Red Squadron was not, in fact, preparing for an immediate engagement. Right now the starfighters were loaded into an old freighter sitting in deep space, far from any civilized system. The X-wings were on special racks, with two rows of three facing outward on the freighter's starboard side and another half-dozen mirroring the arrangement on the port side. Wedge was in the top middle of the starboard contingent. Before him was a vast field of stars; he savored the view, knowing it might be--
"It will be about a six-hour jump to the Coruscant system, then another one to two hours until we're in position," Wedge said. "Use the time to rest, and to review the mission briefing. We have to be at our best here."
In all honesty, Wedge did not truly want to head out on another mission of such danger. But he would be at his best, he promised himself. If the Rebels succeeded here, all their losses would be worth it. If they failed . . .
Well, if they failed, it was very likely that this would be Wedge's last flight. And though the idea of not flying into battle again did seem appealing at times, the circumstances that would make that idea reality in this situation were certainly not.
"Captain?" Wedge called.
"Yes, sir?" the freighter's pilot replied.
"Let's do this."
A heavy durasteel plate slid down just a meter beyond the nose of Wedge's fighter, blocking out the view of the stars until they were gone completely. Moments later, a white, foam-like substance began to fill the space around the X-wings. This was the material the Alliance had developed that would, if all went according to plan, fool the customs scanners in Coruscant orbit into thinking that the freighter contained ordinary goods rather than a squadron of heavily armed snubfighters. It did not take long for the foam to completely cover Wedge's view. If not for the dim lighting in his cockpit, he would have been unable to see anything at all.
The next time his view would change, he would be entering battle in the skies of the galaxy's most populated and most heavily defended world.
A faint rumbling ran through the X-wing as the freighter's hyperdrive came to life, and Wedge sat back in his pilot's chair. Here we go again.
The sewers beneath the Imperial City were not among the more pleasant places Leia had been in her life.
Come to think of it, she knew of very few less pleasant places.
It was dark. It was damp. Her boots were covered with muck. And the pervading odor was not at all agreeable to her senses. At least I don't have a Wookiee's nose. Chewie seemed even more offended by their surroundings, periodically wurfing quiet comments of disapproval or disgust from behind Leia. Han walked beside her; the three were roughly at the center of the line of Rebels that stretched through the darkness of the sewer system. The Alliance strike team had journeyed about three kilometers through the large tunnel so far, and was nearing the halfway point in the trek to the bowels of the Imperial Palace. They had departed from the meeting point a good hour ago, after going over the plan and being stocked with supplies from the local agents who were in charge of the lower-level hideaway. Leia and her companions were now lower still, by several hundred meters, but perhaps the strangest thing of all about these sewers was that they were still well above true ground level. It was possible that millennia ago the tops of skyscrapers had occupied the murky space Leia was now in.
"So," a whisper came from her right. Leia turned to peer into Han's eyes. "Do you sense anything . . . any danger?"
"Not at the moment," Leia replied. "But that's bound to change once we near the palace."
Han nodded, and they continued on in silence. His comment, however, had reminded Leia of something. Focusing ahead, she could barely make out the dark-haired woman whom she had sensed might be hiding something. As usual, the woman was going about her business as if nothing was out of the ordinary, walking forward in time with the rest of the troops. Chances were that Leia's suspicions had been unfounded. Han and Chewie hadn't noticed any unusual activity either. But Leia had learned to trust the Force, and something still seemed wrong. She reached a hand toward her blaster, wishing she had a lightsaber instead, then relaxed and continued to trudge on. She was quite sure that there was no immediate danger. . . .
Leia's eyes widened, but she kept her stride steady.
I sense you are coming to me.
Leia, too, could feel Vader's aura grow stronger with increasing proximity. It was a dark presence in a sea of darkness, but it was a familiar dark presence. Eerily, she sensed the connection between her father and herself, and recoiled from it.
You do not need to fear me, daughter. It is the Emperor your emotions must be directed toward. You hate him.
It was true. Leia tried to hide it, but--
Unleash your hatred, and he will be destroyed.
Just as in their prior contact, Vader's presence abruptly faded. Unleash your hatred . . .
That was not the Jedi way! Luke would never approve! And what about the possible consequences for her unborn--
But Luke had failed to defeat the Emperor. What if her brother had unleashed his hatred? Would this war already be over?
Leia shuddered. It was useless to think of such things. The war was not over, but soon she would have the opportunity to end it.
The group finally came to a halt upon reaching a ladder of metal rungs protruding from the tunnel's wall. The ladder rose up to the ceiling of the tunnel, where it was interrupted by a circular blast door of little more than a meter in diameter, set horizontally. General Zavison, the man who was in command of the strike team, pointed upward at the blast door. "The Imperial Palace is directly above us," he spoke. "This ladder will take us to the sub-basements, where we'll lie low until it's time for the attack. Now, someone toss me a detonation pack."
"No!" Leia exclaimed.
The general looked to her with surprise. "What's wrong?"
"I don't think that's a good idea," Leia replied, walking forward to stand at the base of the ladder. At the suggestion of detonating the blast door, the familiar feeling of danger had flooded her senses. She looked up at the door, reaching out to it with the Force, and closed her eyes. The source of danger was something above the door. . . .
"Leia?" she heard Han say faintly. She fell deeper into the Force, shutting off all other sensations, and grabbed onto the metal door with her mind. It was held securely in place. She pulled on it, gently at first but then with increasing power. The door did not want to budge. She took a deep breath and reached up, straining on the energy that surrounded the door--
The sound of metal breaking echoed through the tunnel as the blast door was ripped out of place. Leia stepped to the side and let it clatter to the ground at her feet. She opened her eyes--to see that all other eyes in the place were on her.
"Princess Leia," General Zavison gasped. "I didn't know you were a . . . a Jedi!"
"You learn something new every day, don't you," Han quipped. Leia was already looking upward, into the now-exposed tunnel that the ladder continued through. Just above the hole where the door had been, a circle of red glowed in the dimness.
"Sensor field," Leia said, pointing. "If you had blown up that door, it would've been set off."
"Then it's a good thing you stopped me," Zavison said, shaking his head in bewilderment. "Any ideas on how to get past that?"
Not replying, Leia grabbed onto the ladder and ascended a few rungs. She peered up into the tunnel--and there, two meters above the sensor field, was a panel with a large button on it. It would be impossible to reach it without setting off the sensors. Again, Leia reached out to the Force, and this time had little difficulty pushing in on the button. The glowing red circle disappeared. She looked down to the amazed group clustered below her. Han was already moving to follow her up the ladder. "Let's go," she said, and, not waiting, began to climb.
The tunnel was cramped, and even darker than the one they had been trudging through for kilometers. It took over a minute before Leia reached the top. There was another blast door here, but no accompanying sensor field, and the button to open the door was reachable without the Force. Leia emerged into a room lit just as dimly as the long sewer tunnel. Pipes ran along the walls and ceiling, and a few machines were scattered about. It did not look like any living beings had been here in ages. Leia waited as the rest of the Rebels clambered out of the tunnel and into the room. When the whole group had gathered once more, General Zavison spoke. "We'll stay here until we get the signal to strike, which should be in two to three hours, dependent on how long it takes for the freighter to get into position. We will have to pass by some . . . more security systems to enter the palace proper, but by then the Imps will already be under attack. Now, I'll review our plans for storming the throne room. . . ."
This was the opportunity Leia had been waiting for. She edged her way to the back of the group. Behind Zavison, she could see a box of supplies sitting on top of some machine. A gentle nudge through the Force sent the box crashing to the floor. For the next few seconds, all attention would be focused in that direction. Swiftly and silently, Leia exited the room.
She traversed the maze of dark hallways without much difficulty. Within minutes, she came to what she knew was the place she was looking for. Or, to be precise, the place immediately below the place she was looking for. The ceiling here was thick, and there was not a door she could pull down with the Force. Leia reached out to what lay on the other side of the ceiling. She felt an object that seemed somehow infused with the Force, and concentrated fully on that object, setting it into motion--
A glowing blue beam emerged from the ceiling. Leia moved the lightsaber in a circle, just as she had moved those rocks in a circle around her on Yavin. It did not take long to cut a hole cleanly through the ceiling. She let go of the lightsaber, which fell deactivated to the floor above her, and grabbed onto the circular slab, setting it down gently. Then Leia jumped several meters into the air and landed, crouching, inside the Emperor's private museum.
She considered the weapon she had used to gain entrance to this place, but left it on the floor. The lightsaber that she took for her own use had to be the perfect weapon for her. What did that mean? I'll know when I see it. Leia stood up and moved her gaze around the dimly lit chamber. What she saw sent chills running through her body. The robes of fallen Jedi hung from the walls, other artifacts sat in display cases, and the lightsabers. There were so many of them! When she had come here once before, Leia had never truly appreciated the significance of what she was seeing. Now, having studied Jedi Ways, having felt the Force herself, she was awe-struck and horrified by the evidence of the fallen Jedi order, once so proud. Palpatine--and her father--had obliterated them. Two Dark Lords, versus thousands of Jedi, and the dark side had prevailed. Most of the weapons on display in this room had been wielded in battle only to have their owners meet with destruction. So much destruction, and not just the Jedi . . .
It ends today. Some twenty meters away, Leia saw a pedestal standing alone, a single cylindrical hilt displayed on it. She walked forward slowly, drawn to the weapon and its glowing presence in the Force. This was the lightsaber for her, she knew without a doubt. This was the lightsaber that was--her brother's!
Yes, it was unmistakably Luke's weapon, the one he had used when he rescued her from Jabba's vile clutches, the one he had taken with him when he went to confront Vader. Now Leia would take up the same weapon and finish what Luke had started. Standing a few meters short of the pedestal, Leia reached out with the Force and called the hilt into her right hand--
And in the same heartbeat, ignited the green blade and spun to block the blaster bolt aimed directly at her head.
"You!" Leia cried. There she was, the dark-haired woman who, clearly now, had indeed been hiding something. Leia's suspicions had not been unfounded after all.
The woman remained silent, and fired off two more shots from her blaster. Leia turned them aside easily, just as she had defended herself against bolt after bolt fired by the training remote on the Falcon. The woman advanced a few steps before unloading another barrage. Each shot impacted against Leia's emerald blade; the last one caused her assailant to duck as it sizzled right back toward her.
The assault ceased. Leia regarded her foe coolly, wondering what the other woman would do now that she had apparently realized her effort was futile. But there was no panic in the other's features. The woman let her blaster fall to the ground, then reached behind her back--and drew and ignited a lightsaber of her own.
A violet glow joined the green radiating from Leia's blade. She tried to hide her surprise at her attacker's new choice of weapon, but perhaps she should have expected it. Leia had, she recalled, sensed that this woman might have some ability in the Force. She knew of very few beings who carried lightsabers, however. The only living one she could think of, prior to this moment, was Darth Vader. So what was this mysterious woman? Some sort of renegade Jedi?
More likely she's a secret apprentice of the Emperor's, Leia decided.
The woman took a few steps forward, then, suddenly, went into an all-out charge. The first swing came in high and hard, and Leia had to scramble to meet it. None of her saber practice had truly prepared her for real combat! The woman followed with a swift combination of blows that forced Leia backwards. A low strike went immediately into an upward lunge that nearly fooled Leia, but she managed to turn the attack aside. Violet blade clashed repeatedly with emerald in the darkness as Leia settled into a defensive posture. Although she had no experience to make any comparisons by, it seemed to her that this woman was not a true master of the sword either.
After Leia successfully warded off a rapid series of four blows toward her middle, the other woman took a step backwards. Her gaze shifted momentarily to look past Leia, and--Move!
Leia launched herself into a forward flip as another lightsaber came hurtling toward her back. She landed behind her opponent and spun to see the other woman likewise turning, now holding a blue blade in addition to the purple. The woman continued her spin, and Leia jumped up over the blue saber held in the left hand before ducking below the other, held in the right. This maneuver must not have been what her foe was expecting, for the woman's momentum took her around another half-turn, exposing her defenseless back to Leia. The green blade came down hard, but not in time; the woman dove away and into a roll. She came out of it holding only the purple saber, having tossed the other aside. The two stood still for a moment, staring at each other from a few meters' distance. Leia glanced around the room, considering all the artifacts on display. Two can play this game, she decided, and with a wave of her hand a trio of blazing lightsabers were converging on her enemy.
The dark-haired woman's eyes went wide; then she sprinted forward as the sabers flew through the air, now behind her. With Leia's concentration on the Force-propelled objects, the quick attack took her off guard. The first swing just barely glanced off her green blade. The second, harder swing sent Leia's weapon flying out of her hand.
Leia groaned as she fell back onto the hard floor. Eyes burning, her assailant went into an overhead blow clearly intended to be the finishing move. Leia reached out desperately with the Force, and another green blade, not Luke's, rushed into the space above her chest. She was not physically holding the weapon, but she pushed it upward with the Force and was successful in stopping the attack. Leia scrambled backwards, taking hold of the saber and calling Luke's into her other hand while regaining her footing at the same time. The woman advanced and swung hard and downwards again. Leia crossed the two green blades in front of her, catching her foe's violet saber between them. Then Leia kicked out her left leg and connected squarely with the other woman's stomach.
Leia tossed her extra weapon at her enemy, but the woman recovered from the kick with amazing speed and went into a backwards roll, the green blade passing harmlessly above her and clattering to the floor. Leia went on the offensive now, swinging left then right, then down at her opponent's thighs. Each blow was blocked in turn. Leia pulled back for a second before unleashing a powerful blow. Her saber crashed into her opponent's, and the violet blade was pushed back, but the other woman held even as Leia increased the power of her attack. Her opponent returned the pressure, and now the two sabers were locked. Each combatant pressed forward with equal determination and might. Leia glared into the other's bright green eyes above the sparks of the clashing blades. Her enemy's face was contorted with exertion, but Leia, too, was beginning to feel exhausted. The emerald and violet blades remained stuck together, neither giving up a centimeter. Sweat streamed down Leia's face and glistened on the other's. Leia had no idea how long they remained with sabers locked, each trying in vain to gain the upper hand with all the physical strength they could muster. At last, she decided to attempt a new tactic, and reached out to the Force to push her enemy away. This took more effort than she had expected, but it worked; the other stumbled backwards. Leia moved to continue the attack--but in mid-swing, she, too, slumped back, panting. She had expended too much energy. She looked into her enemy's eyes, saw the weariness there--and gasped.
For in that moment, the combatants' minds were open to each other, and suddenly, amazingly, Leia felt that she knew this woman, this . . . "Mara Jade," Leia spoke.
"Why are you trying to kill me?" Organa demanded.
She knows my name, Mara wondered, but then she realized that she too knew far more about her foe now than she had known just moments before. In their mutual exhaustion, the thick mental shields each carried had dropped, and they had somehow been given access to each other's innermost thoughts and feelings. The only person Mara had ever felt such a connection with before was her master. It was--"Why are you trying to kill my master?" Mara finally countered.
"He's responsible for the deaths of billions," Organa shot back. "I think that's reason enough. Now, why are you trying to kill me?"
Mara's mouth opened, but she realized that she had no words; she did not know the reason that the Emperor had instructed her to kill this woman. Organa was a high-ranking Rebel, of course, but that in and of itself was not an adequate explanation for the Emperor's Hand to be specifically tasked with her death. And then Mara realized something else, something that stunned her. "Lord Vader . . . is your father?"
"Is that the reason?" Organa cried. "Or do you even know whether it is? You seem surprised at the knowledge of our . . . relationship . . . horrified, even," she finished in softer tones.
"Well . . . yes," Mara admitted.
"I was too, when I found out. But you . . . you never knew your real parents either."
"That's true." Why is she saying these things? Mara wondered. Why am I saying these things?
"Which is worse? Not knowing who your parents were, or knowing that your father is the most feared and hated man in the galaxy?" Organa's expression was pained, and the Princess's lightsaber--Luke Skywalker's--her brother's lightsaber, Mara knew--hung at her side from a limp right arm. Mara could probably finish her target now if she struck quickly enough, if she found the will to do so.
"I . . . can't say," Mara answered. She stared into Organa's troubled brown eyes, and knew then that there was something else related to the subject of parenthood that bothered the Princess deeply. "You're pregnant," Mara said, gaping.
Organa nodded silently. "Does Solo know?" Mara asked. The other shook her head. "But he is . . ."
What does it matter? Why are we even having this conversation? We should be trying to kill each other!
"It must be frustrating," Organa said, her voice barely above a whisper, "having had this assignment to kill me for so long . . . and still being unable to do so."
A spark of anger arose in Mara, and she drew her violet blade up . . .
Slowly, Organa moved her own weapon back into a guard position . . .
The spark disappeared. Mara looked into Organa's eyes for another long moment. Then the Emperor's Hand turned and fled the room.
Leia watched as Mara Jade raced out of the museum, her violet lightsaber dancing up and down in the darkness and then disappearing around a corner. I should stop her, Leia thought, but she made no move to do so. Mara would undoubtedly report back to her master, and the Rebels' hopes for a surprise attack would be ruined. But for some reason, that didn't seem important right now.
As Mara's presence faded, Leia shut off her lightsaber and clipped it to her belt. She started to walk toward the hole in the floor through which she had entered the museum--then stopped as she felt another presence drawing near.
Leia, Darth Vader called.
Father. Communicating through the Force seemed an ordinary practice to her now.
I knew you would come to me, daughter. You are so close now, and the Emperor's defeat is just as close, if you simply join me. Give in to your hatred.
The voice was tempting. Leia's eyes swept the room, taking in once more all the evidence of the evil done by Palpatine. The Emperor had to be destroyed, whatever the cost! Leia's shoulders heaved now with each breath. The voices of the dead seemed to be calling to her. So much pressure, from all sides; she felt like she would be crushed. Her father's presence threatened to overwhelm her mind--her gaze finally settled on the weapon that hung from her belt. The vision of Luke in the palace garden rushed into her mind, a light amidst the shadows. Beware the dark side.
Luke. How could you let Luke die? she cried through the Force. How could you let Alderaan be destroyed? How could you--
I feel your anger, Leia. We will destroy him. Join me!
Leave me alone! Leia silently shouted, and amazingly, the dark intrusion disappeared from her mind. She jogged over to the hole in the floor and dropped through it into the room below. Vader was still near; how near, she was not sure. She continued to move at a brisk pace, back the way she had come to get to the museum. What if Vader followed her to the hidden Rebel strike team? She reached out to his presence--no, he was not following her. He was waiting. He knew that she could not avoid a confrontation with him. Leia shivered, but slowed her pace. That confrontation, and the confrontation with Palpatine that would accompany it, would arrive all too soon after her battle with Mara. She needed to rest, to replenish her energy, in the scant hours between. She forced her breathing to slow, filling her lungs with cool air and letting the Force permeate her body.
Leia made her way through the dark hallways of the Palace sub-basement, and had nearly reached the other Rebels when she ran straight into Han.
"Leia!" he exclaimed, immediately wrapping her up in a hug. "Where the hell have you been?"
She gave him a quick kiss before extricating herself from his embrace. "I had some business to attend to," she explained, unclipping her newly acquired lightsaber and displaying the deactivated weapon in her right hand. Han looked down at the cylinder in awe.
"That's Luke's . . ."
Leia nodded. "And you know that woman I thought was hiding something? She tried to kill me."
"She what? Oh, shavit," Han muttered, pounding a fist into the open palm of his other hand. "I just remembered where I saw her before. On Tatooine--she was the assassin at General Kenobi's house! I only caught a glimpse of her face, and her hair was a different color, but . . . yeah, I'm sure that was her. I wonder how she managed to--"
Leia cut him off. "The important thing is we don't have to worry about her now."
"Did you . . ." Han's voice trailed off, and his gaze moved to the weapon still in Leia's hand.
"She won't be bothering us anymore," Leia said, sensing that the words were true--even if she didn't understand why.
As Mara Jade entered his throne room, it seemed to Emperor Palpatine that she was almost a different person from the one he had watched walk gracefully out of this chamber not much longer than one month ago. The first, obvious difference was that her hair, previously a bright red-gold, had been dyed black. There were other changes as well, however, less obvious and not so superficial. His Hand had always been a confident woman, going about her business with a cool and deadly precision. Now that confidence was gone. Something had shaken her deeply; he could see it on her normally calm face, and it was even more obvious through the Force. Mara was afraid.
And well she should be, Palpatine decided. "My Hand," he rasped. "You have returned to me, and Organa is not dead. I warned you against this."
"I am sorry, Master," she replied, bowing her head low. "I attempted to dispose of Organa, but failed. Her ability in the Force is considerable, greater than mine."
Yes, Palpatine had sensed the disturbances radiating through the palace during the clash between the two young women. He, too, had been surprised by Organa's Force skills--her background made the potential obvious, but to make such quick progress when by all accounts she had had no Jedi training of any sort as recently as Endor? Perhaps his Hand had a valid excuse for not terminating her target, but that did not change the fact that she had failed. "Are you prepared to suffer the consequences of your failure?" he asked harshly.
Mara's head drooped even lower. "Yes, Master, but--"
"But?" he cried; his Hand immediately took several hasty steps backward. Palpatine glared down at her in silence, until at last she looked up into his eyes. "I pray that this but is of great importance," he continued deliberately. "Now, go on."
"Y--yes, Master." Mara was shaking as she spoke. "During my confrontation with her, I learned that Organa is--she carries a child within her."
Palpatine leaned back in his throne, eyes widening momentarily, and he could sense his Hand's relief that her explanation had not brought on another outburst. Leia Organa, pregnant! This was a most interesting development indeed. Palpatine's mind whirled with the implications. He had already vowed to waste no more time on the cursed Skywalker offspring, hence his assigning Mara with Organa's death. His first instinct was to treat this grandchild of his apprentice in the same way and let it die with its mother. But the thought of controlling a Skywalker from birth--
This child would have no attachments to anyone once its mother was destroyed. It would have no one to pollute its mind with foul Jedi teachings. It would have no memories telling it that life could be any different from what it knew. Palpatine would be able to twist and shape it exactly as he pleased, bend it to his will, inculcate it with the ways of the dark side from birth. And if it was as gifted in the Force as the rest of its family--a descendant of the Chosen One, fully molded by Palpatine's powers--this child would be the perfect Sith apprentice! The idea was simply too appealing to let go, and now the Emperor smiled as he gazed down at his anxiously silent Hand. "Perhaps your failure was fortunate," he finally declared. "Organa's child could prove most useful. You have done well to bring this news to me, and I will not punish you--for the time being."
"Thank you, Master."
"Now, I believe the Rebels will be setting their foolish plan into motion shortly?"
"Then come, my Hand, stand by me, and prepare to witness a most entertaining spectacle." Mara did as was commanded, and then the Emperor reached out in the Force to another of his underlings. His Hand's receptiveness to mental communication from across the galaxy was unique, but with Vader's current proximity it was no trouble for Palpatine to contact his apprentice through the Force. Lord Vader.
It took several seconds before the Dark Lord, lurking somewhere in the Palace, replied. My Master.
Join me in my throne room, Palpatine ordered, and then added a mocking tone to his Force-projected voice. Your daughter's destiny is at hand.
He could sense Vader's anger, but knew his apprentice was too weak to act on it. Already, Palpatine's mind was moving to the upcoming confrontation. Organa would fight, he knew. She would have no chance of defeating him, however, and inevitably she would overexert herself to the point where she would be easily subdued. The other Rebels joining her on this idiotic mission would die quickly. The Princess would be held, sedate, until her child was ready to be birthed, after which time Palpatine would do with her as he pleased. Organa had been a thorn in his side for years, and he would take great pleasure in her death--perhaps he would even let her infant child witness the historic event. But that could be decided later. For now, he cackled gleefully with the knowledge that soon he would have a new Sith apprentice in his hands, one to surpass all Sith apprentices come before.
"The plaza's coming into view now," the voice of the freighter's pilot came over the ship's internal comm system. "It's jam-packed. I'm picking up weapons discharges."
"Good," Wedge replied. He, of course, could see nothing of the plaza, but from the freighter pilot's words everything was going as planned. Most of the beings filling the area around the Imperial Palace were actually there to participate in a pro-Imp rally scheduled for today, but Rebel agents scattered throughout the crowd had played the first card of this fool's gambit by instigating a riot among the demonstrators. Now it was time for Wedge and his squadron-mates to up the ante.
"Ten seconds to release," the voice continued. "You boys will have about a three klicks' flight to the palace. Five seconds . . . three, two, one--"
Suddenly, the foam filling the space around Wedge's X-wing was rushing outward through the gaping hole in the freighter's side where a metal plate had been a moment before. Wedge gunned his engines immediately and was first out of the transport vessel, roaring into the bright Coruscant day. Enormous buildings glistened in the sunlight as far as the eye could see. Out of the corner of his eye, Wedge saw another freighter veering off in surprise at the sight of starfighters disturbing the peaceful sky. Immediately in front of him, however, there were no ships at all, for he was entering the protected airspace around the Imperial Palace.
The other five X-wings that had shared the freighter's starboard compartment with Wedge quickly formed up around his craft; the six from the port side were not far behind. Wedge angled his fighter slightly downward, and the plaza came into view. It was filled to the brink with sentient beings, who grew larger in appearance by the moment. The imposing structure of the palace, at the plaza's center, dominated the view, while the boxy shapes of Imperial garrisons on all sides of the plaza also provided an effective display of Imperial might. Already, Wedge could see white-armored soldiers rushing out of those garrisons.
"Remember, boys, be careful here. Try to avoid hitting the plaza itself. But don't hesitate to knock those garrisons to the ground. Now, here we go."
Wedge buzzed the top of a skyscraper, and then the ground opened up below him as he zoomed over the plaza. The turmoil down there only grew with the arrival of the Rebel fighters. Wedge aimed his targeting reticle over the middle of one of the garrison structures and released a proton torpedo. The warhead streaked away from his ship; he followed it on its course, watching as it exploded against the side of the building in a massive fireball, then opening up with scarlet lasers on the stormtroopers milling in front of the garrison. Wedge over-flew the garrison before looping around to make another flyby. Now green lasers lanced upward as the garrison's defenses kicked into gear. He threw his fighter into a series of jinks as he squeezed down on his firing triggers to attack the Imps on the other side of the plaza. As Wedge made his second turnaround, a beeping brought his attention to a cluster of red dots that had just appeared on his tactical display. "We've got TIEs launching," he announced. This fast? he added silently. The strike team had better be on top of its game, or we're in trouble.
The muted echoes of blaring alarms filtered down into Leia's ears, accompanied by pounding footsteps above. The attack outside the palace was on; it was time for action.
The Rebels were crowded into a duracrete stairwell with a blast door at its top. Beyond that blast door was the lowest level of the Imperial Palace that actually saw everyday use. The throne room was quite a ways up from there, but once the strike team passed through that door the chances of their meeting resistance increased exponentially. Leia reached out to the Force. She could sense the fear and confusion of many of the palace's occupants; these emotions only added to the pervading darkness. She focused her attention on the space immediately beyond the blast door. A pair of fearful minds came closer, then quickly receded as they moved to another part of the palace. Eventually they faded into the general chaos. Leia waited another two seconds before declaring, "It's all clear." A Rebel trooper stepped forward, holding an explosive, but she waved him off and drew her lightsaber.
The blast door melted under the intense green energy, and it did not take long before Leia had carved out a man-sized hole. She led the way as the Rebels filed through it. "There's the lift," she heard General Zavison say, and glanced back to see him gesturing toward the end of the sparsely furnished hallway, some thirty meters away. This was the first of multiple lifts they would have to ascend in before reaching the throne room. The group jogged down the hallway and into the lift, which took them up several floors to the palace's main level. Leia was not surprised when her danger senses began to flare. "We've got enemy soldiers nearby," she warned, as the lift doors began to slide open, revealing a hallway much more lavishly decorated than the one below. In the distance, she could hear panicked shouts and more alarms.
"Be on the ready," Zavison said. "Take a right here."
Her lightsaber still ignited, Leia stepped out onto the patterned stone floor, turned--and was met by two stormtroopers staring right at her. They hesitated just a moment before raising their blasters and opening fire, but Leia had to deflect a mere three shots before the troopers were felled by the Rebels pouring out of the lift behind her.
The group reached the next lift without further incident. When the doors slid open, a pair of well-dressed dignitaries stepped out, then froze at the sight of the armed Rebels. Leia could feel the intense fear radiating off the two men. "Let them go," Zavison ordered. The dignitaries wasted no time in dashing off down the hall as the strike team entered the lift.
It was another short ascent to a hallway even more sumptuous in appearance than the previous one. Expensive artwork from across the galaxy lined the walls. "Take a left here, then a right at the next intersection," Zavison said. "The lift to the throne room level will be at the end of that hall."
Leia reached the intersecting hallway first and rounded the corner--then jumped back as blasterfire exploded in front of her. A score of stormtroopers guarded the lift, some fifty meters away. Tersely, she explained the situation to the rest of the strike team.
"So much for a surprise attack," Han said, gripping his blaster tightly. "Now what?"
"Princess Leia," General Zavison said. "Do you think you can take the lead and hold off their fire?"
"That many? I'm not--we're in trouble!" Leia exclaimed, a sudden chill coursing through her body.
"What do you--"
Zavison's words were cut off as a barrage of blasterfire erupted from behind the Rebels. Leia looked past the rest of the strike team to see another score of troopers charging down the hallway toward them. "Move!" the general shouted, and Leia did so, even as she felt several of her companions dying behind her. She raced around the corner, lightsaber held at the ready as the stormtroopers in front of the lift opened fire. Most of the Rebels followed her, while a few remained at the corner to provide a desperate rear guard. Leia blocked a bolt on her left side before bringing her blade across her body to block a barrage on her right. "Thanks," she heard Han mutter, and realized she had just saved him from being blasted.
Despite Leia's defensive efforts, the Rebel strike team was being ripped apart by the attack from both sides. It seemed to her that the stormtroopers were trying to avoid firing directly at her. Perhaps they were overestimating her ability to stop a full-scale barrage--or perhaps there was another reason. In either case, it looked like the strike team would consist of little more than Leia by the time it reached the lift.
She had been here before. That lift was not the only way up to the throne room level. "Stairs to the left," she yelled over the blasterfire. "Take them!"
Leia reached the base of the stairs and stopped to provide cover as the Rebels ran past her to temporary safety. The number that made it brought a grimace to her face. Han and Chewie were the first onto the staircase, and three more came after them, but that was it. General Zavison and most of his troops were already dead.
Something else the Emperor will have to pay for, she decided. Now the stormtroopers were charging the stairwell. Leia ducked back out of their sight, turned to her five remaining companions, and pointed her lightsaber upward. "It's three flights to the throne room level. Go!"
Red Squadron was heavily outnumbered, and becoming more so in a depressingly rapid manner.
"I'm hit!" another panicked cry filled Wedge's ears, and was abruptly cut off. He glanced down at the displays in his cockpit to see that Red Seven had just been destroyed. The no-fly zone around the palace was now filled with dozens of starfighters, almost ninety percent of them Imperial. The TIEs spewed their green lasers at the dwindling force of X-wings, seemingly taking no regard for the safety of any beings or buildings in the vicinity save the palace itself.
Wedge dove and went into a barrel roll mere dozens of meters above the plaza, catching a momentary glimpse of the throngs there. The crowd was now pushing forward, toward the palace, where white-armored troops were being over-run. But reaching the Emperor was a far more difficult task than reaching the palace, and Wedge again found himself praying silently that the strike team was doing its job and with speed.
One of the garrison buildings loomed in his forward viewport, and Wedge let go another crimson barrage before pulling back hard on his control stick and shooting upward into the sky. "Nooo--" a desperate cry from one of his squadmates ended, and now over half the Rebel fighters were gone.
"Janson?" Wedge called.
"Still with you--look out!"
Wedge jammed his control stick to the right at Janson's words, just as a pair of TIE Interceptors came screaming in with guns blazing. The Imp fighters streaked toward the palace as Wedge went into a tight banking loop. He came out of the maneuver facing the Interceptors, and the enemy fighters initiated a head-to-head run. His X-wing's shielding gave Wedge an advantage here, but two-to-one odds did not. He squeezed off a few shots before ducking his fighter down and to starboard. The Interceptors buzzed past again, and Wedge brought his fighter back up--just in time to see a third Interceptor heading right toward him. He squeezed down on his trigger, blasting the Imp out of the sky--
Wedge didn't even see the fourth Interceptor until it was too late. Green laserfire exploded against the back half of his X-wing, sending alarms blaring through his cockpit. "Wedge!" Janson cried.
"I'm okay," he replied, knowing that in a few seconds that would not be true. His engines were all but gone, and with another direct hit on his ship he would be gone as well. The Interceptors were coming around for another pass. Wedge desperately nursed all the power he could from his dying ship, aiming it toward one of the garrisons on the far side of the plaza. Behind him, a TIE exploded as Janson came to his aid.
"Wedge, eject!" his wingman said, unnecessarily, for that was clearly the only option. Wedge shuddered as an emerald energy beam shot past his cockpit, missing by a meter at most. He keyed in the ejection sequence, and the fighter's canopy ripped away. A second later, Wedge followed it, his seat launching upward--
At the moment he ejected, a TIE got in a glancing hit on his burning X-wing, and he was sent spinning as he flew into the air. He caught a glimpse of Janson's fighter below, doggedly battling a swarm of TIEs against the backdrop of thousands of milling people. Then he saw his own ship crashing into a gray garrison structure.
Then he saw Janson's explode in a storm of green light.
The next minute was all a blur. The sounds of battle that filled the plaza hardly reached Wedge's ears as he floated through the air. The guttural roar that escaped his throat was caught up in the heavy wind that pounded his suddenly tear-streaked face. He began to descend, too fast, he knew, but what did it matter? It was all hopeless. The Rebellion was doomed; he was doomed. No sense in delaying the inevitable. He saw a duracrete landing field rushing up toward him--
At the last moment, something possessed him to engage the repulsorlifts on the underside of his seat. He landed roughly, but intact, and quickly freed himself from the restraints before falling to the hard duracrete surface in a ball. He lay there shivering for a few seconds, hugging himself tightly, unable to move his bruised body from the ground. . . .
The sound of heavy footsteps reached his ears.
Wedge looked up to see a pair of stormtroopers approaching. Surreptitiously, he reached for his blaster pistol and removed it from its holster. The Imperial soldiers slowed as they neared him. "Hands where I can see them," one ordered.
Wedge shot him in the head, and did the same to the second trooper before the Imp could react.
About thirty meters away, a Lambda-class shuttle sat with its boarding ramp down. Wedge pushed himself to his feet and ran toward the shuttle with all the speed he could muster.
Leia raced down the wide, sun-lit hallway, her feet landing softly on the plush crimson carpeting. The rest of the remaining Rebels were falling behind her, and she could hear the sounds of their firefight with the advancing stormtroopers, but she did not look back. Her destination was within reach.
The door to the throne room was flanked by two royal guards, their body armor a brighter version of the carpet in color. Leia skidded to a halt a few meters away from the guards. Each dropped into a combat stance, their pikes held at the ready. She knew that the soldiers making up the Imperial Guard were highly skilled in the arts of combat--but they did not have lightsabers.
Leia feinted forward before hurling her green blade at a slight downward angle. She immediately locked onto the lightsaber with the Force and sent it into a tight spinning arc. Both guards were cut down at the knees, and the saber returned to Leia's hand.
She strode forward to stand between the collapsed guards and paused to examine the keypad embedded in the stone wall next to the door.
To her surprise, the door slid slowly open through no action of her own.
Leia felt the fear rising in her as she entered the vast throne room. Calm, at peace, she told herself, pushing the negative emotion down. Emperor Palpatine sat in his throne on a raised dais at the other end of the room, seemingly very far away. The throne was framed against a circular window latticed with an irregular, somehow sinister pattern. Mara Jade stood to the Emperor's right. Her eyes latched onto Leia's from across the room for the briefest of moments; then the other woman looked away.
Standing alone, halfway between the Emperor and Leia, was the dark, hulking form of her father.
Leia, Darth Vader called into her mind.
"Princess Leia of Alderaan," the Emperor spoke aloud at the same time. "How nice of you to join us."
Leia did not reply to either, but took two steps forward, brandishing her lightsaber.
"As you may have discerned, your Rebellion's foolish attack here has failed," Palpatine went on. "Your strike team and your pitiful force of starfighters are lost." The Dark Lord paused to grin cruelly. "It may interest you to know that soon the entire Rebel Alliance will share that fate."
He's lying, Leia told herself, moving forward another two steps.
"It was, in fact, your strike team that led me to the Alliance," the Emperor declared. Leia's gaze flitted over to Mara, who stood expressionless. Leia had to fight to keep her own face calm as she realized that Palpatine's words might be the truth. "As we speak, my scouts have discovered your fleet's exact location. Its destruction is imminent."
"No," Leia said, advancing two more strides. Inside her, a small pool of anger was growing, accompanied by a voice--
Use your anger, Leia. Destroy him.
"And what do you hope to do about this, pray tell?" Palpatine cackled. "Destroy me? Your pathetic Jedi skills--"
"I will destroy you," Leia said, moving forward steadily now. Vader loomed in her path, but if she attacked . . .
Yes. Release your hatred!
No. Don't give in! Leia counseled herself. I must attempt to do this the Jedi way!
His daughter continued to advance, calmly but resolutely. Vader found himself amazed, appalled, even, that Leia could exude such calm in the face of Palpatine's taunts. But within his daughter, Vader sensed the conflict brewing. Her resistance to the dark side would not last. The Emperor, with his mocking words, was unwittingly sowing the seeds of his own destruction.
Vader took a few careful steps backwards, bringing himself closer to his master. When Leia struck, he would turn to join her, and their combined strength would prove too much even for the most powerful man in the galaxy to handle. The presence of Mara Jade complicated things, but the Emperor's Hand was relatively weak in the Force. She would not be able to save her master. Nothing would.
Leia paused a moment, scant meters away, and glared past Vader. "What are you waiting for, Princess?" Palpatine inquired scornfully. The anger grew. . . .
Give in to your feelings, Vader sent. Take him now!
And at that moment, a new voice echoed through the chamber. "Leia!"
Damn him! Vader roared silently as Han Solo burst into the throne room, the smuggler's growling Wookiee accomplice on his heels. Just as his daughter was about to give in to the dark side, this fool had to interrupt--
With lightning speed, Solo drew up his blaster pistol, aimed it at the Emperor, and pulled the trigger. Vader brought his lightsaber to life in an instant, moving it up to block the bolts. He would in fact be overjoyed to see the shots hit their target, but Palpatine would be able to protect himself easily with the Force. Best to keep up the appearance of loyalty for now.
The first three red bolts were scattered to the side of the chamber. Just as the fourth was about to impact Vader's weapon, a subtle yet powerful force altered the angle of his blade ever so slightly.
He heard the Emperor laughing wickedly as the bolt was nonetheless deflected.
It took Solo in the chest.
The scream transformed into an inhuman cry as Han's body crumpled onto the stone floor. Anger and pain exploded inside Leia. Consumed by rage, she sprang forward, drawing her lightsaber back over her shoulder in preparation to let loose a powerful swing. Her vision seemed tinted red, but she could make out Vader easily enough. The shock she felt emanating from him passed through her unnoticed beneath a wave of fury. She brought the green blade down--
Vader sidestepped, and she stumbled past him. Leia, his deep voice forced itself into her mind. Use your anger on the Emperor.
"After I kill you," she spat out, turning to bring her blade down again. This time, Vader's red saber was there to block.
Daughter, please. He killed--
"I hate you, father." Leia's saber moved faster than ever before, the hands that held it fueled by the strongest emotion imaginable. She rained down blow after blow on Vader. High, low, left-right-left--yet each was deflected. Vader was forced backwards by her assault, but his defense was impenetrable.
Leia's anger only increased.
The green and red blades clashed again, and then Leia went into a forward flip, swinging her saber down at Vader's helmeted head as she passed over him. This blow, too, was stopped. Leia landed and was immediately turning to unleash a fast horizontal slash. Vader pushed her saber down with his; she let the motion continue into a three-hundred-sixty degree spin that culminated in a downward strike--again, one that met her father's red blade. She grunted as she hacked downwards three, four, five more times. Vader deflected each attack with ease. He was retreating in the direction of the throne now. Leia moved forward, never pausing or stepping back from the battle, her green blade crashing into her father's red again and again and again.
A vague awareness that her father was a far superior swordsman to her began to creep into the back of Leia's mind, but she did not care. The rage would not dissipate. Her furious attack went on.
Mara stood, motionless, mesmerized by the titanic duel unfolding before her eyes. Only on the rarest of occasions had she felt such anger as she felt from Organa at this moment--occasions when her master had been extremely displeased. The Princess pressed on in her relentless attack despite the obvious fact that Vader's skills with the saber surpassed hers in every way imaginable. The Dark Lord seemed content to defend himself, however. A few carefully placed blows and Organa would be cut limb from limb--but those blows did not come. Vader backed away from his daughter, slowly but steadily, in the direction of Mara and her master. Organa followed just as steadily, her green saber swinging ceaselessly. The Emperor had said that this would be an entertaining spectacle. It was a spectacle, all right, but to Mara it was less entertaining than--
Disturbing. But why? The Emperor's Hand had witnessed numerous fights to the death during her career, been a part of more than a handful. She had never given a second thought to such occurrences. What was different here?
"An impressive display, Princess," the Emperor cackled. "You have lasted longer than I expected. Perhaps you are not so weak as your foolish brother."
Organa snarled, and the fury of her futile attack seemed to double. Her brother . . . Luke Skywalker. And Vader . . . the realization still stunned Mara. Lord Vader . . . is your father?
Organa had been separated from her family, just like--
Just like the Ewok. A stream of images and memories abruptly rushed into Mara's mind. The little, furry, Ewok, the only survivor of the Empire's bombardment of Endor. The sad, wide-eyed, lonely Ewok. The Ewok Mara had killed--put out of his misery.
And just like the little blond-haired boy, Merita Kendalzor's son, looking on, terrified, as the governor faced the firing squad. Wailing as his mother's body hit the ground.
And just like--
Like Mara herself. How young had she been, when her parents had been forcibly removed from her life? She felt--an emptiness, one she was rarely aware existed. Yet it was there. She had never known love--she suddenly longed to run to a warm, caring embrace, to forget her troubles. . . .
And here Organa was finally reunited with her father, yet there was no love. Everything was wrong. Father fought daughter in a storm of hatred and rage. All because--
Mara's gaze flickered over to the far end of the room, where the Wookiee slumped mournfully over Solo's corpse. She had felt the disturbance in the Force just prior to the bolt burning its way into the smuggler's chest; she knew who was responsible for his death--
Solo. The father of Organa's unborn child. And what would happen to that child, if it ever saw the light of day? Its father was gone, and its mother--what fate awaited it?
A fate like Mara's, most likely. She shuddered. Yet another being, ripped away from its loved ones, all because--
No. She was deluding herself to think that this child would share her fate. His fate will be far, far worse than mine. She knew it--and at that moment, she began to understand--with an awful feeling in the pit of her stomach--just what it was she had to do. There was one root cause to all this separation and suffering. Mara's trembling hand moved to her lightsaber.
Before she could reach her weapon, an incredible, ear-wrenching scream emerged from Organa, followed an instant later by--
Mara was knocked backwards by a colossal shock wave in the Force. She landed hard, gasping for air against the dark, heavy waves of anger that filled the room. She attempted to push herself up, but failed. Pain coursed through her back. She was too weak to move. The darkness pressed down on her like a suffocating blanket.
I must fight this! Mara gritted her teeth, driving the pain away. I must regain my strength! But she felt so weak. . . .
Desperately, Mara closed her eyes and reached out to the light of the Force.
Leia finally halted her attack to look down in amazement at what she had just done. Frustrated by her complete inability to get through her father's defenses, she had tapped ever deeper into her anger and hatred, then released the emotions in a surge of dark side power that acted as a physical blow to slam Vader hard to the stone floor. Still broiling with fury, Leia pointed her green blade down at his black-armored throat.
"Most impressive." The Emperor's harsh voice entered her ears. She glanced up to see that Palpatine had not been visibly affected by her assault.
"You're next," Leia growled before returning her glare to Vader's masked face. Green light danced on the shiny black spots that hid his eyes.
"Leia," her father choked out. "Don't--"
"Don't give in to my anger?" she cried. "A little late for that!" Leia drew her weapon back. The dark side coursed through her as she prepared to deal the killing blow, and she reveled in the power. At last she would have revenge for all the wrong Vader had done to her, to her friends, to her people, to the galaxy. Her sword began its descent--
The green blade stopped a millimeter from Vader's chest. A voice, from . . . somewhere, sounded in the back of her mind. Leia felt her shoulders slump. What am I doing? Her saber shook with her hands, but descended no further. Her anger--somehow it no longer held sway. She stared down at her fallen father, and for the first time truly saw what was there. He had let the dark side consume his life, but it had not empowered him. It had enslaved him. Now he was but a sad shell of the man he had once been.
Suddenly, Leia no longer hated her father.
She pitied him.
"Leia," he croaked again.
Leia took two steps backward. Calm. At peace. She moved her gaze up to the Emperor on his throne. "No. I will not give in to darkness."
Palpatine merely laughed. "Then you mean to throw away your life . . . like your brother?"
"No," Leia said again, with even more determination. "I will not give in to darkness--but I will not let you cause any more suffering. It must end now." She moved Luke's glowing green blade into a guard position, and felt a wave of calm fill her, give her strength.
"Oh really," Palpatine muttered, and now his yellow eyes were filled with madness and fury. He rose from his throne and descended slowly from the dais, wrinkled hands held before him. The Emperor stopped perhaps a half dozen meters from Leia. Vader lay between them.
The Dark Lord's fingers curled. Leia could feel darkness gathering--
White-hot lightning shot from Palpatine's hands into her father, arcing across his largely mechanical body. Leia sprang forward to place her lightsaber above Vader, now, unbelievably, to protect him. Another lightning bolt surged forth. Her saber could not contain it all. She reached for that inner calm to send out a shield--and gasped as the dark energy assaulted it.
The shield held.
The Dark Lord of the Sith felt his entire body contort with rage as, defying all possibility, the cursed Princess deflected his attack. This was impossible! He looked at her, at that calm face, those strong brown eyes--the rage that had been displayed there just minutes ago now seemed transferred to him. Palpatine felt the dark power pooling within. Organa was pregnant--
Damn her, and her father, and her unborn child! The Princess had to suffer now. Palpatine brought his hands together. Sparks danced between them, an immense storm brewing. Organa would not withstand this attack. He raised his hands, pointing them toward her maddeningly composed face--
He was about to release the storm when a warning rang in his mind, a tiny voice beneath the fury. Danger . . . from behind.
Emperor Palpatine turned just in time to catch a glimpse of the glowing violet blade that spun into his face.
A blinding explosion of blue energy.
Reaching for the light.
A familiar presence dying.
A distant voice calling.
Echoes of pain.
A less familiar presence, soothing.
Surroundings coming back into focus.
Green eyes glowing with concern.
A voice, nearby.
"We have to get her out of here."
A worried growl.
Alarms ringing in the distance.
Strong hands lifting her up.
A warm, furry embrace.
"I'll try to raise some--allies on the comlink, and . . ."
Everything fading again.
An urgent whisper.
"Stay with us!"
Fading . . .
The world returned in a deafening roar. Leia found herself beneath the bright, clear Coruscant sky and the blinding sun. She was weak, exhausted--Chewie supported her, and she realized she would not be able to stand on her own. She looked out over the thousands upon thousands of beings crowded below, and her eyes widened. I know this place!
Leia was on a balcony overlooking the plaza outside the Imperial Palace, near the throne room. She had been here before, given a speech once from this high vantage point. In more recent times, she knew, only Emperor Palpatine and his compliant lackeys had been permitted to address crowds from this balcony. But now Palpatine--
He was gone! She remembered now. Desperately defending against his lightning attack, until--
Leia glanced to her right, and there was Mara Jade, staring at her with a look of absolute compassion on her face. This was the woman who had tried to kill Leia, multiple times? "You'll be all right," Mara murmured.
Leia nodded slowly, and returned her gaze to the crowd. Chewie must have carried her here, after they had left the throne room, but--
Han! "No," she gasped. "No!" But the awful image that now filled her mind did not lie. Leia began to sob. How could she go on . . . Chewie stroked her hair gently, and let out a sad cry. "You'll be all right!" Mara said, more insistently. Leia shook her head. The father of her child, gone before the child was born-- Just as Leia's father was gone now too. So much death . . .
"Everything will be all right," Mara declared, placing a hand on Leia's shoulder. "Everything will be better now. The galaxy--"
Yes, the galaxy was free of its tyrant ruler. Palpatine was gone. And that . . . that was the important thing! Han's death, the deaths of all the Rebels; they were not in vain. But the deep ache inside Leia was hardly lessened--
I have to go on. I have no choice!
She pushed herself forward, out of Chewie's grasp, and stumbled over to the black metal railing at the edge of the balcony. Countless eyes looked up at her, fearful, hopeful . . . she looked down at them; her eyes swept the entire, endless throng . . . and she spoke, into the tiny microphone that was used to amplify speeches given here.
Her voice came out strong.
"THE EMPEROR IS DEAD!"
Leia's cry echoed across the entire plaza, and the roar of the crowd increased tenfold. Then she slumped forward against the railing. Hands, both human and Wookiee, rushed to grip her shoulders. Another roar arose to drown out the roar of the crowd. Leia looked up, to see a gleaming white Imperial shuttle descending to hover over the balcony. Its ramp lowered. Standing at its top was a man in the orange jumpsuit of an Alliance fighter pilot.
Mara and Chewie half-supported, half-dragged her as the trio made its way up the ramp. Leia recognized the man as Wedge Antilles. He stood in wide-eyed silence for a moment, before turning to dash to the shuttle's cockpit. Leia was escorted to an acceleration couch, and she collapsed into it as, beneath her, the ship vibrated, its engines straining against inertia and gravity.
The shuttle raced upwards, away from the palace, past the roaring crowds, toward the cold sanctuary of outer space.Epilogue
After all that Leia had been through, the pain of childbirth seemed like nothing in comparison.
Now, some hours later, she sat in a grassy field with her back to a tall, blossoming tree, her newborn son in her arms. The sky was blue, and a pleasant breeze carried the sounds of birds singing to Leia's ears. The green grass stretched out for some distance in front of her before it was interrupted by a shallow stream. Beyond the stream was a forest. It was all so peaceful, so beautiful--
Leia looked down into her son's blue eyes. The infant gurgled softly, and a smile appeared on his tiny lips. Leia smiled too. For a moment, she felt truly happy.
It was a strange feeling, one she had not experienced in many months.
The happiness fled as her thoughts turned back to Han, and Luke, and all that had happened . . . Leia herself was lucky to be alive. After the escape from Coruscant, she had fallen terribly ill, presumably an aftereffect of her encounter with the Emperor. It took weeks before she recovered fully, but miraculously, the baby had not been harmed. She had fled to this quiet, backwater world with three companions; without each of the three it was quite probable that she would never have left Coruscant alive. The three were still with her. Wedge Antilles, Mara Jade, and Chewbacca stood nearby, their silent gazes on her and her child. It would appear to be a strange little group to most. But here we are. The only survivors . . .
The news of the Alliance fleet's destruction had reached Leia some time after the fact, but it had not come as a surprise. Mon Mothma and all the rest were dead. The fleet had probably fallen within hours of Palpatine's demise. Against all odds, Mon Mothma's plan to kill the Emperor had succeeded . . . but the Alliance leadership had not survived long enough to fill the power vacuum that was created. The Empire had splintered into multiple warring factions. No one had yet been able to bring any order or unity, and there was no end to the fighting in sight.
Fortunately, the violence had not reached this little world.
Leia looked up to her three companions and sighed. Mara stepped forward then, a warm smile on her face, and Leia once more found herself in awe of the profound change that had come over the other woman during the furious battle in the Emperor's throne room. The former Emperor's Hand had been a bottomless well of caring and support during Leia's sickness and pregnancy, seemingly nothing like the cold killer who had hunted Leia for over a month.
On one occasion, Leia had managed to ask the other woman just why she had changed so much, why she refused to leave Leia's side in her moments of despair. "You saved me, Leia," Mara had replied, her voice soft yet strong. "I owe it to you."
And something else was different about Mara now as compared to the Mara of the infiltration of Coruscant--her hair was no longer black; it had returned to its natural fiery red-gold.
Much like the galaxy, Leia thought, immediately realizing what an odd comparison that seemed--but it was appropriate. The galaxy had escaped from the black shroud of the Emperor's rule, only to be consumed by the fires of anarchy. What news reached this world suggested that the situation was beginning to improve, but it would be a long time before peace held sway. Perhaps, for the next few years or even decades, there would be no galactic government. And perhaps that was not such a bad thing. It's certainly better than Palpatine's reign.
"So, Leia," Mara began, a note of hesitation in her voice.
"Have you . . . decided on a name?"
Leia bowed her head for a long few seconds, staring down at the baby's face, feeling his strong, glowing presence in the Force, before returning her gaze to Mara's. "Yes, I have." She had pondered possible names to no avail in the last few months of her pregnancy. After the boy's birth, however, a name had suddenly come to her, accompanied by a very strong feeling that it was right. "I will name him Lucius. And one day, I sense . . . he will bring light back to the galaxy."
Mara nodded somberly. Wedge stepped up to stand beside her. "A good name," the pilot spoke. Chewie moved to join the other two, and growled a decisive sentence--he vowed to protect Lucius' life with his own.
"Thank you, Chewie," Leia said. "Thank you deeply." She knew that the Wookiee had been affected by Han's death just as much as she had, if not more so.
For some time, the only sounds were birds calling and trees swaying in the breeze. Then Leia looked, in turn, to Wedge and Mara. "So . . . what's next for you two?"
Wedge placed an arm around Mara, and the two turned their faces to each other for a moment before looking back at Leia. "We've gotten to know each other well over the past few months," the pilot said. "I think we've both had enough of fighting."
"I know how you feel," Leia agreed.
"We've decided to settle down here," Mara said, and then looked to Wedge with a sly grin. "Maybe we'll give little Lucius a few playmates."
Leia smiled. She sensed the two would make a good match . . . and she was very glad that they would be staying here with her. It would likely get rather lonely with just Lucius and Chewie to provide companionship. This planet did have other inhabitants, of course--there was a village nearby--but Leia doubted she would ever fully integrate herself into the society here. She would concentrate on raising her son, at least until he reached young adulthood, and then--who knew what the galaxy would be like by that time? She could only wait and see, and hope for the best.
Her eyes went wide. She sensed--
"What is it?" Mara asked.
"Don't worry, there's no danger," Leia replied. "I just . . . I'd like a little time to myself."
"All right," Mara said. She and Wedge walked away together. Chewie lingered a bit longer, growling a warning to be safe.
"I will," Leia reassured him with a small chuckle. The Wookiee strode off in the same direction as Wedge and Mara, and Leia was left alone with Lucius.
But only for a few seconds. Then a familiar form coalesced into shimmering existence before her eyes, and Leia could not keep the wide grin from appearing on her face. "Luke!"
"Hello, Leia," her brother replied, smiling back at her.
"Oh, Luke, you--"
The expression on Luke's semi-transparent face quickly became more serious. "You wonder why I have waited so long to come to you in this way."
Leia nodded; it was true. After her brother's death, she had clung to the hope that, as a Jedi, his spirit had lived on and would somehow be able to communicate with her. That hope had slowly faded. Only once, in her sleep, had Luke spoken to her--and even then she had no way of knowing if it was truly her brother, or if it was merely a dream.
"It took some time for me to adjust to my new state of being," Luke explained. "I was not prepared to move on when I did. I could not contact you immediately. And when I did finally begin to try, I was not sure whether you heard me or not. Your presence, your mind--Leia, you were clouded by darkness. You came perilously close to falling."
Leia found herself blinking back tears. She had nearly struck down her father--their father--in a fit of rage! "I'm so sorry, Luke. I wanted to save the galaxy, but . . ."
Her voice trailed off. She could not find the words to express the awful feelings inside her.
"But whatever you did wrong, you found the right path in the end," Luke said emphatically. "Leia, you are clear of the darkness. When it really mattered, you passed your test. And I am so glad that you, and your child, are safe."
Tears flowed freely down Leia's cheeks now, and she wasn't quite sure which emotion it was that brought them on. She was certainly pleased by her brother's words of reassurance. "Luke, I--I'm just so happy to know that you're--you're still out there somewhere--and not . . ."
"Leia, believe me, I would much prefer not to be out here." Leia felt a twinge of guilt. "I wish I was still there, with you, and--" Luke shook his head. "I thought I could bring our father back from the dark side, but I was wrong. And I died for that mistake."
"There was still good in him; I believe it to this day. But it was buried too deeply. Perhaps there was no hope of redemption at all."
Redemption. "You have a question, Leia?"
"Yes," she admitted. "I just wonder why . . . Vader couldn't be redeemed, but Mara was able to turn to the good side."
"I wondered the same thing," Luke said. "I know what happened on Coruscant, and I've talked about it with Ben and Yoda." Leia was surprised to hear that, but she supposed it made sense that, if Jedi spirits could contact the living, they could converse with one another as well. "It seems that Mara was not nearly so immersed in the dark side as our father. Vader was deep into darkness for so long, he became a slave to the dark side and to his master. The remnants of the good man he once was could not break through the bonds that held him. It was very brave of Mara to turn against the Emperor like she did. Our father could have done the same thing. . . ." Luke looked down sadly. "But he could not find it in himself to do so. He had a destiny, and he chose not to fulfill it."
"Then after he died," Leia said, "did you ever . . . talk to him?"
Luke's shimmering countenance became even sadder. "No. He was lost forever to the darkness. Even up to the moments before his death, he could have made the right choice that he had failed to make for so long . . . but he did not. And the longer he failed to make that choice, the more suffering was caused by his failure."
Leia shivered, despite the warm air. She knew well the suffering her brother spoke of. Alderaan, Endor . . . Han! So much death and pain, and it could all have been prevented if one powerful man had made the right choices in his life. "I'm so sorry," she said again. She knew the depth of compassion Luke had had for their father far surpassed anything she had ever felt for Vader. Even if that compassion had led to her brother's death, a part of her admired him for it.
Luke's gaze met hers then, and it appeared that her brother was steeling himself against the pain. "Leia, our family was both gifted and cursed. Gifted with incredible strength in the Force, and cursed with the very difficult task of being the galaxy's saviors. Now you and Lucius are the only remaining Skywalkers. Your son has inherited that gift and that curse."
Leia looked down at Lucius, who was sleeping peacefully now. She herself had already sensed that great things were in store for the boy, but now the thought of so much weight placed on such tiny shoulders--Leia shuddered.
"Leia." Luke's voice took on a commanding tone. "The Force wanted you to have this child."
Leia's eyes widened. Wow, she thought, gently stroking the top of her son's head. Did you hear that? Then she looked up to her brother, and with a grim resolve, spoke. "Then I promise I will do all I can to raise him well--to prepare him so that our family's destiny will finally be fulfilled."
Now Luke favored her with a warm smile. "And I promise I will be here for you, and for your son," he replied. "The Force is with you, Leia, and I will be with you too. Always."
Slowly, Luke's image faded away. But as she gazed down at Lucius, it seemed to Leia that she could still see her brother's face.