Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi:
Apocalypse is a work of fiction.
Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2012 by Lucasfilm Ltd. & ® or ™ where indicated.
All Rights Reserved. Used Under Authorization.
Excerpts from Star
Wars®: X-Wing: Mercy Kill
and Star Wars®: Scourge copyright © 2012 by Lucasfilm
Ltd. & ® or ™ where indicated.
All Rights Reserved. Used Under Authorization.
Published in the United States by Del Rey, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
DEL REY is a registered trademark and the Del Rey colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.
This book contains excerpts from Star Wars®: X-Wing:
Mercy Kill by Aaron Allston and Star
Wars®: Scourge by Jeff
These excerpts have been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming editions.
Jacket design and illustration: Ian Keltie
To Sue Rostoni
It’s been a joy and a privilege working with you in the Star Wars
Expanded Universe. Have a blast on your next adventure!
About the Author
Other Books by This Author
Excerpt from Star Wars: Scourge
Introduction to the Star Wars Expanded Universe
Excerpt from Star Wars: X-Wing: Mercy Kill
Introduction to the Old Republic Era
Excerpt from Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan
Introduction to the Rise of the Empire Era
Excerpt from Star Wars: Outbound Flight
Introduction to the Rebellion Era
Excerpt from Star Wars: Allegiance
Introduction to the New Republic Era
Excerpt from Star Wars: Heir to the Empire
Introduction to the New Jedi Order Era
Excerpt from Star Wars: New Jedi Order: Vector Prime
Introduction to the Legacy Era
Excerpt from Star Wars: Legacy of the Force: Betrayal
Excerpt from Star Wars: Millennium Falcon
Star Wars Novels Timeline
Many people contributed to this book in ways large and small. I would like to thank them all, especially the following: Andria Hayday, for her invaluable suggestions and creative support; James Luceno, Leland Chee, Pablo Hidalgo, Keith Clayton, Erich Schoeneweiss, Scott Shannon, Frank Parisi, and Carol Roeder for their fine contributions during our brainstorming sessions; Shelly Shapiro and Sue Rostoni, for everything, from their remarkable patience to their insightful markups to their great ideas; Jennifer Heddle, for her contributions to Apocalypse and her graceful arrival in the final stages of a long and exciting series; Jason Fry, for our email brainstorming regarding the “Celestial overlap” in our two projects—I really wish that chapter had made it into the Essential Guide to Warfare!; my fellow Fate of the Jedi writers, Aaron Allston and Christie Golden, for being such a blast to work with; Laura Jorstad, for her usual attention to fine detail; all of the people at Lucasfilm and Del Rey who make writing Star Wars so much fun; and, finally, to George Lucas for sharing the galaxy far, far away with us all.
Abeloth; female entity
Allana Solo; child (female human)
Ben Skywalker; Jedi Knight (human male)
C-3PO; protocol droid
Corran Horn; Jedi Master (human male)
Han Solo; captain, Millennium Falcon (human male)
Jagged Fel; Head of State, Galactic Empire (human male)
Jaina Solo; Jedi Knight (human female)
Leia Organa Solo; Jedi Knight (human female)
Luke Skywalker; Jedi Grand Master (human male)
R2-D2; astromech droid
Raynar Thul; Jedi Knight (human male)
Saba Sebatyne; Jedi Master (Barabel female)
Tahiri Veila; former Jedi Knight (human female)
Vestara Khai; former Sith apprentice (human female)
Wynn Dorvan; acting Chief of State, Galactic Alliance (human male)
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.…
THE STARLINER SWUNG INTO ORBIT AROUND THE PLANET CORUSCANT, and beyond the observation bubble appeared the glittering expanse of a billion golden lights. Through a thousand centuries of strife, those lights had continued to shine. Nothing had dimmed their brilliance—not the Rakatan enslavement, not the tyranny of the Empire, not the chaos of civil war. And they continued to shine now, in this new age of creeping shadow, when enemy impostors ruled the Galactic Alliance and Sith Lords slept in the Jedi Temple itself. But all those gleaming lights made Jaina Solo wonder whether Coruscant’s trillion residents actually cared who won the coming war—whether it mattered that they were living under Sith rule, so long as those billion lights continued to shine.
The answer came to her almost instantly, in the form of a dark tinge in the Force that could only mean Sith. Jaina shifted her gaze to the interior of the starliner, where a teeming mass of passengers hung floating in their transit harnesses, tethered to the walls of the EconoClass hold. Floating down the central access aisle was a Coruscanti Immigration inspector, his zero-g motility pack emitting small hisses as he twirled in slow-motion cartwheels, demanding identichips and ten-credit “expediting fees.” Behind him followed a pair of Bothan escorts, their snouts wrinkling in disdain each time their superior solicited another bribe.
Jaina would have liked to believe the inspector was merely a greedy Sith Saber trying to line his pockets, but she knew better. Vestara Khai, newly defected from the Lost Tribe of Sith, had warned the assault teams to take nothing for granted. In her briefings, Vestara had emphasized that the Sith were not stupid. After insinuating themselves in the Galactic Alliance Senate, they would have moved quickly to take control of the Coruscanti Immigration Service and other key bureaucracies. They would expect the Jedi to be coming, and they would be on the lookout for infiltrators—and petty extortion was an ideal cover for someone trying to identify enemy agents.
The inspector stopped near a pair of human siblings in their late twenties. Both were slender and good-looking, with wary eyes and small expressive mouths. The sister’s hair was reddish brown, the brother’s merely brown. Their fierce loyalty to each other showed in the way they remained shoulder-to-shoulder when they turned to face the immigration team.
The inspector oriented himself to the same attitude as the siblings—head-down relative to Jaina—and studied the pair without speaking or reaching for their travel documents. The unexpected change of routine sent a cold ripple through Jaina, but she quickly let out a calming breath and forced herself to relax. Allowing her alarm to permeate the Force would only confirm to the inspector that he had found something worth investigating.
The siblings, Jedi Knights Valin and Jysella Horn, continued to hold their documents, doing a good job of looking like ordinary passengers who were a little bit nervous. The inspector narrowed his eyes and waited, giving them a chance to betray themselves by doing something foolish. Jaina would probably never learn exactly what had caught the Sith’s attention, but she did know that it pointed to the one weakness of the Jedi Masters’ attack plan. These Sith were both careful and capable, and they outnumbered the Jedi ten to one.
Finally, the inspector said, “Documents.”
Valin and Jysella extended their hands, each holding a small packet containing a fare receipt, a forged identichip, and the expediting fee. The inspector took Jysella’s packet, then slid her chip into a handheld reader and compared it with the point of origin listed on the fare receipt.
“You were born on Kalla Seven?” the inspector asked.
“That’s right,” Jysella lied. “My brother and I both.”
The inspector glanced at Valin, then asked him, “Is this a family trip?”
Valin shook his head. “No, my sister and I are traveling alone.”
“Is that so?” The questions were the mundane sort that customs officers all over the galaxy used to probe for story discrepancies. But the real test would be taking place on another level, Jaina knew, with the inspector searching their Force auras for the sour hint of a lie. “Then you’ve come to visit family?”
“No,” Jysella replied confidently. Like every Jedi on the assault force, she had spent weeks perfecting her ability to lie without betraying herself in the Force. “We’re tourists.”
“I see.” The inspector glanced at her fare receipt again, then spoke to Valin in a casual voice. “Four thousand credits is a lot of money to visit a few monuments and museums. You should have used the HoloNet instead.”
“And spend our lives stuck in lower management?” Valin retorted. “I think not.”
“If you haven’t been to Coruscant,” Jysella added, “you go nowhere at UHI.”
“UHI?” the inspector asked.
“Unlimited Horizons Incorporated,” she explained, managing to sound just astonished enough to imply that she thought everyone knew what the acronym stood for. “You know—the UHI that controls most of the pallodenite reserves in the Corporate Sector?”
“Ah …that UHI.” The inspector had clearly been put off balance by the tactic—just as Vestara had predicted. The Lost Tribe’s greatest weakness lay in their inexperience with the greater galaxy. Vestara had said that the quickest way to put a Lost Tribe impostor on the defensive would be to play on that ignorance. “There are so many.”
When the inspector pocketed the bribe and returned Jysella’s documents, Jaina finally began to breathe easier. She turned her gaze back to the observation bubble and saw that the Plain Lady was crossing the terminator line into Coruscant’s daylight side. It would not be long now, she knew, before she was on the surface, fighting to save her homeworld … again.
Bazel Warv was “Jade Masher,” a celebrated Ramoan float wrestler. Seff Hellin was his human manager, and Vaala Razelle was Seff’s Arcona assistant. The three had just arrived from a series of grudge matches in the Bothan system, and they were passing through the Galactic Center Spaceport on their way to a championship match at the Iblis Globe. All Bazel had to do was remember all that—and believe it. Belief was the key to defeating a Force-user’s ability to detect lies. As long as Bazel truly felt like Jade Masher—the newest, greatest rising star in the Pan-Galactic Float Wrestling Syndicate—he would have no trouble fooling Coruscant’s new immigration inspectors. His friend Yaqeel Saav’etu had assured him of that.
Bazel glanced across the sea of heads that were in Arrival Lobby 757 and found Yaqeel three lines over. She was already at her inspection station, standing alongside another Bothan Jedi, Yantahar Bwua’tu. Wearing the ash-gray tabards of businessbeings, the two Jedi Knights were at the front of a long line of passengers waiting to be formally admitted onto a planet that had once greeted visitors with open arms. So far, the Coruscanti populace seemed willing to believe that these new precautions were due to an influx of spice lords, and Bazel was glad. There was no need for the citizens of Coruscant to get hurt—not when the Jedi were coming to save them.
But first the Jedi had to get past the inspection stations, and that part of the plan wasn’t going well for Yaqeel and Yantahar. Their Duros immigration inspector had been joined by his captain, a narrow-eyed blond whom Bazel judged to be fairly beautiful for a human. She was firing questions at the Bothans faster than they could answer. Meanwhile, a squad of body-armored Galactic Alliance Security guards were standing ready at a nearby security post. Clearly, something was wrong.
Bazel cocked an ear in Yaqeel’s direction, consciously tuning out the general din of the lobby and opening himself to the Force. A cool haze of fear permeated the line a few meters behind him, but he had been sensing that off and on since debarking the starliner. There did not seem to be anything menacing in the aura, so he ignored it and focused on the conversation between his friends and the blond immigration captain. His thick hide began to prickle with the bitter margin of a dark side Force aura. Suddenly he understood why his Bothan friends were having trouble.
Ignoring the growing press of the crowd behind him, Bazel extended his Force awareness toward the security post. To his relief, he felt only the weak auras of non-Force-sensitive guards. The immigration captain was the only Sith in the area—probably just a Saber, assigned to keep watch on the arrival lobby.
“… all the way to Coruscant to place an order you could have filled anywhere in the galaxy?” the impostor-captain was asking. “United Hydrologic Institute is hardly the only Tibanna gas supplier in the Mid Rim.”
“But it is the only one with access to Hutt space,” Yantahar replied in his gravelly Bothan voice. “And since Nar Kagga will be the closest inhabited system to our operation, naturally we want to be certain of our supply chain.”
“And your operation will be …what, exactly?” the blond impostor asked.
“A trade secret, I’m afraid.” Yaqeel glanced around the inspection station, then added, “There are spies everywhere, Captain. I’m sure you understand.”
The Sith’s reply grew inaudible when Bazel’s human “manager” grabbed the huge Ramoan’s wrist and asked, “Masher, you awake up there?” Seff Hellin started forward, trying to pull Bazel into the gap that had opened in the line ahead of them. “We’re holding things up.”
Bazel paid no attention, for over at the station where his friends were being questioned, the impostor-captain was looking over Yaqeel’s shoulder toward the security post. When the Sith gave a slight nod, the guards drew their stubby Merr-Sonn Urban blaster rifles and started toward the inspection station.
Vaala grabbed Bazel by the other wrist. “Mighty Masher, sir.” The Arcona’s voice was soft and bubbly. “We really should keep moving.”
Bazel shook his head, then stepped through the cordon-beams that marked the edge of the queuing area. With matching sighs, Seff and Vaala stepped out of line behind him, each pulling a pair of expensive Levalug travel cases that were large enough for Vaala to sleep inside.
“Masher!” Seff growled, putting just enough frustration into his voice to sound like a weary manager at the end of his wits. “There’s no time for your temper right now. We have only two hours before the weigh-in.”
They wouldn’t be making the weigh-in, Bazel rumbled in his native Ramoan. He could speak Basic when necessary, but his large mouth had trouble shaping the common language’s delicate vowels and subtle consonants, and he needed to make himself clearly understood. Yaqeel was in trouble, he explained, and he was not going to leave until she was safe.
Seff groaned and carefully avoided looking toward Yaqeel and Yantahar. “Drawing attention to ourselves won’t help anyone, Masher,” he said. “Our friends can take care of their own problems.”
As Seff spoke, the GAS guards shouldered their blaster rifles and fanned out behind Yaqeel and Yantahar. The two Bothans reluctantly opened their tabards, and the Sith impostor-captain stepped forward to frisk them. Bazel knew the woman wouldn’t find a lightsaber or anything else to identify his two friends as Jedi Knights. The assault team’s equipment had been shipped ahead, and it would be returned to them later, by an operative from the Club Bwua’tu resistance society. But Bazel also knew the impostor wouldn’t be searching his friends at all if she hadn’t sensed that something was amiss. He had to find a way to distract her before she confirmed her suspicions … a way that wouldn’t seem like it was a distraction.
Vaala clamped a three-fingered hand around one of Bazel’s stubby fingers and quietly bent it back against the joint. “Mighty Masher, sir, we need to focus on our match.” She tried to lead him through the cordon-beams back into the processing line. “The, uh, championship is still on, even if a couple of competitors can’t make it to the arena.”
Balling his hand into a fist to stop Vaala from hurting his finger, Bazel remained where he was. If a pair of clever Bothans couldn’t make it past the immigration inspectors, he replied quietly, there was no reason to think he could. Besides, they didn’t know how many of their peers had already been captured, and if the Sith caught even two teams of infiltrators trying to sneak onto the planet, the Jedi would find themselves attacking without the advantage of surprise, and the battle would grow very big very fast. A lot of innocent civilians would get caught in the crossfire, maybe a million of them, and Bazel wasn’t going to allow that. He was going to find another way.
Seff exhaled in exasperation. “What other way?”
Bazel wasn’t sure. Maybe he could go on a rampage. That would draw attention away from Yaqeel and Yantahar.
“Don’t you think that would be a bit obvious, Mighty Masher, sir?” asked Vaala.
Bazel nodded. Tactical planning wasn’t his strong point, he reminded them, but he could tell that Seff and Vaala just wanted to follow orders, and that meant he had to develop his own idea. Maybe he could just bull ahead to the front of the line and try to push past the processing station.
“And get yourself arrested instead?” Seff lowered his voice to a whisper. “Do you really think you can outwit an interrogator better than a pair of Bothans?”
Bazel had to admit that was unlikely. What he needed was to present the impostor-captain with another reason for the anxiety she seemed to be sensing in Yaqeel’s and Yantahar’s Force auras. He thought for a moment, then turned back toward the line he had just left and opened himself to the Force.
Soon he felt the same cool haze of fear he had noticed earlier, a cloud of uncertainty and dismay centered on a small cluster of amphibious Ishi Tib who had clearly not been informed of the new security procedures on Coruscant. The three females were shuffling forward reluctantly, propelled by the pressure of the crowd at their backs, while their male escort was slowly swiveling his eyestalks about, trying to appear casual as he searched for a way to bypass the inspection station. All four carried identical luggage—large kaadu-hide traveling cases with matching satchels slung over their shoulders—and it was obvious by their reluctance to set their baggage on the floor that they were as worried about losing it as they were about being caught with the contents.
Bazel stepped back through the cordon-beam. Using the Force, he gently opened a path in front of him, then began to work his way toward the pod of smugglers. Seff and Vaala followed close on his heels, Seff grabbing for his sleeve.
“Masher, the inspection station is the other way.”
Bazel growled that Seff and Vaala should go on. He had a better plan.
“I’m not sure changing plans is a good idea at the moment,” Vaala objected. “The promoters are counting on you.”
The promoters were counting on them all, Bazel reminded her, and if he saw a way to save Yaqeel and Yantahar, he was going to try it. He came to an Aqualish couple who had taken advantage of the path he had opened to sneak forward. The pair glared at him defiantly, daring him to object. He merely shouldered them aside and stepped over to the Ishi Tib, who instinctively shied away and looked as though they were going to flee.
Bazel distracted them by raising his stubby-fingered hand in a calming gesture, then spoke in Basic, warning them about the security check ahead.
The male curled his eyestalks forward in confusion. “What?” he asked. “Check your head?”
“There’s a security check ahead,” Vaala clarified, stepping to Bazel’s side. She glanced up at him, silently signaling her reluctant acceptance of his new plan. Then she turned back to the smugglers and put a little Force energy into her voice. “You should allow our friend to take those packages across for you.”
The Ishi Tib let their beaks gape in surprise. “You’re with …them?”
“Did you think they would leave a shipment this big to chance?” Seff asked, also joining them. As the line continued to shuffle past, he lowered his voice and pointed at Bazel. “You need to hand over the cases now.”
The male’s eyestalks quivered slightly, and he turned to his three companions. “We need to hand our cases over.” He gave his traveling case to Bazel, then took the satchel off his shoulder and passed it over, as well. “Now.”
The three females were all too happy to obey, and within moments Bazel had four satchels slung over his head and four heavy cases tucked beneath his arms. Seff watched as the much-relieved Ishi Tib melted back into the processing line, then looked up at Bazel.
“You’re sure about this?”
Bazel glanced across the lobby toward Yaqeel and Yantahar. They had already removed their outer tabards, and now they stood with their fingers interlaced behind their heads while the imposter-captain searched their pockets. As soon as the Sith found something to use as an excuse for an arrest, she would turn his friends over to her superiors for “questioning.” Yaqeel and Yantahar could withstand any kind of normal interrogation, Bazel knew, but nobody could withstand Force torture. Under that kind of pressure, even Yaqeel would start to reveal important details about the Jedi plan—how Nek and Eramuth Bwua’tu had been running a secret intelligence network, for instance, or how many Jedi Knights had landed on Coruscant. She might even reveal how much the Jedi truly knew about what was happening on the planet.
Bazel nodded. He assured his companions that he would meet them at the original rendezvous point, and then he began to work his way across the lobby toward his friends. Although it was impossible for a being his size to cut across so many processing lines without drawing attention, Bazel attempted to do exactly that, sliding into each line from the side and shooting a menacing glower at anyone who appeared to object. By the time he reached the target line, the impostor-captain and her GA Security guards were frowning in his direction.
Continuing to hold the Ishi Tib’s traveling cases beneath his long arms, Bazel looked away and pretended not to notice that he was being watched. Of course, the act didn’t fool anyone.
“You there!” the Sith barked. “Step forward.”
Bazel continued to look at the ceiling, pretending to study one of the giant sparkle balls that provided illumination for the lobby.
“You, the big green one!” the Sith called again. “Come forward.”
Bazel turned his head away, then heard the clatter of two GAS guards shoving through the crowd. He started to move away, the line now parting before him to avoid getting caught in a fight.
A reedy Rodian voice ordered, “Halt!”
“Don’t make us use the shock net, big fella,” added the second guard, a human male. “There’s nowhere for you to go.”
Bazel dropped his chin and let out a long, lip-flapping moan, then slowly turned to face the two guards. The human was aiming a big-barreled netgun at him. The Rodian had shouldered his blaster rifle.
“You are talking to me?” Bazel asked in his rumbling Basic. “Sorry—I didn’t know.”
The guards scowled at his thick accent, then the Rodian motioned him toward the inspection station. “Captain Suhale wants to see you.”
“You are taking me to the front of the line?” Bazel forced a nervous grin. “Thank you.”
He walked a dozen paces to the front of the line, taking pains to be obvious about trying to avoid the eyes of both the Sith female—Captain Suhale—and the two Bothans she was questioning. Suhale let him continue until he was almost past the station, then spoke in a voice so cold it sent a shiver down his back.
“I will have them open fire, you know.”
Bazel stopped and slowly turned to face her. This close up, the Sith was more intimidating than beautiful, with cold lavender eyes and cheekbones so prominent they looked like stone. He glanced toward Yaqeel and Yantahar, who were doing a good job of concealing any alarm they might be feeling, then looked away so quickly he could almost feel Yaqeel cringing at his ineptitude.
“Thank you,” Suhale said. “Now, why are you keeping a watch on these two Bothans?”
“Bothans?” Bazel made a point of not looking in Yaqeel’s direction. “I don’t know any Bothans.”
Suhale’s eyes flared. “You’re lying,” she said. “And I want to know why. Shall we have a look inside those traveling cases you’re carrying?”
Bazel shook his head and clamped the cases more tightly beneath his arms.
“I wasn’t asking.” Suhale nodded at one of the guards, and the Rodian pressed a blaster muzzle into the small of Bazel’s back. “Place them on the table.”
Bazel exhaled loudly, then glanced toward Yaqeel as though looking for permission.
Yaqeel frowned in obvious confusion, then demanded, “Why are you looking at me, Green Thing?”
“I was just wondering the same thing,” Suhale replied. She crooked a finger and motioned Bazel forward. “Come now. Matters will go very hard on you if I am forced to tell you again.”
Bazel reluctantly placed the traveling cases on the inspection table, then removed the matching shoulder satchels from around his neck and placed them on the table, as well.
“That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Suhale motioned to the first case. “Open it.”
Bazel stood the case upright, then leaned over the latch … and saw the weakness in his plan.
Confident that his thumbprint wasn’t going to deactivate the security mechanism, Bazel thought for a moment, trying to recall his lectures on spice smuggling. Finally, he held his huge thumb above the tiny scanning pad and shrugged.
Suhale scowled. “What do you mean you can’t?” she demanded. “They’re your cases, aren’t they?”
Bazel turned to Yaqeel. Her narrowed eyes suggested that she had finally begun to understand his plan, but she merely curled her lip and snarled, “Like I said, why are you looking at me?”
“Because the cases are yours, obviously,” Suhale said. “Open them. Now.”
“You open them,” Yaqeel retorted. “They’re not mine.”
“Or mine,” Yantahar added before Suhale could look in his direction. “I’ve never seen them before. Not the big green thing, either.”
“Very well,” Suhale said, pulling a vibroknife from her equipment belt. “I’ll open them.”
Before she could activate the blade, the original inspector’s blue hand shot out to catch her by the wrist. “Captain, you might want to reconsider that.”
Suhale shot the Duros a scowl that suggested she was considering using the tool on him instead. “And why would that be, Inspector?”
The Duros seemed genuinely surprised. “Spice smuggling, ma’am. The containers may be rigged to keep the couriers from stealing the cargo.”
“Spice?” Suhale turned back to Bazel, the disappointment in her voice a clear suggestion that she was there to catch Jedi, not smugglers. “Is that what you’re carrying?”
Bazel dropped his gaze and tipped his head toward Yaqeel. “Ask her.”
“You’re dead, Ramoan,” Yaqeel rasped, taking her cue from Bazel. “You know that, right?”
Suhale smirked, though without enthusiasm. “I do believe that sounds like a yes.”
She placed her thumbs over the scanning pads. Bazel felt a slight stirring in the Force, and the latches popped. The Duros inspector cringed openly—then drew a look of open disdain from Suhale.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of, Inspector Modt,” she said. “It wasn’t locked, after all.”
The Duros—Inspector Modt—stepped back anyway. Confident that Suhale had used the Force to disable the explosives before she unlocked the case, Bazel remained next to the inspection table as she spread it open. The interior was filled with clothes in the glistening materials favored by sea species—sleeveless zhoopsuits in teal scalara, shimmersilk blouses in every color beneath the water.
Suhale pulled out a short orange dress and held it up between her and Yaqeel, then frowned. “Not really your style.”
“Do I look Ishi?” Yaqeel replied quickly.
“That’s hardly relevant,” Modt said.
“Why not?” Suhale asked.
Modt studied her for a long time, his raised chin betraying the contempt he felt for a “superior” who obviously did not have the slightest experience catching smugglers. This ignorance of galactic culture was, Bazel knew, a great part of the reason the Jedi were going to defeat the Lost Tribe.
Finally, Modt said, “It’s a common technique.” He reached over and pulled the Ishi Tib clothes out of the case. “Smugglers establish inconsistencies so that if they’re caught carrying contraband, they can claim the luggage belongs to someone else.”
Modt ran his long Duros fingers along the inner edge of the case, then tore the lining away from the top, near the latches, and pulled out a detonator wire. He removed a detonite charge large enough to blast the entire inspection area back to protons and electrons, then used a laser scalpel to carefully cut away the travel case’s interior panel. Packed into the space between the panel and the outer shell was a thin layer of blue paste, its surface sparkling with millions of microscopic yellow crystals.
The Duros touched the tip of his smallest finger to the paste, then shuddered and jerked his hand away. “Neutron pixie,” he gasped. “Pure!”
“Pure?” Suhale glanced at the other three cases, though she still seemed disappointed at having caught nothing more than a few spice smugglers. “It seems we have made quite a haul, then.”
“You could say that,” the Duros confirmed. “After it’s cut, this much pixie would have to be worth ten, maybe twenty million credits.”
“That much?” Suhale grew thoughtful, then said, “You seem to have caught a team of smugglers. Perhaps you should take them into custody.”
“My pleasure, Captain,” responded the Duros.
He signaled for the GAS squad to make the arrests, then closed the traveling case and motioned a couple of agents forward to seize the evidence. Bazel was not surprised to see Suhale raise a restraining hand.
“The security team is going to have their hands full with the prisoners, I think,” she said, eyeing Bazel’s mountainous form. “I’ll bring the spice along later.”
The Duros’ eyes narrowed in suspicion, but he did not attempt to object. There was a new order on Coruscant, and it did not like to be questioned.
A pair of GAS agents pulled Bazel’s arms behind his back and slapped his wrists into a set of oversized stun cuffs. As they spun him toward their security post, Yaqeel caught his eye, then nodded and flashed a barely perceptible smile. Bazel almost winked. They both knew the hard part was behind them. All they had to do now was escape a security detail, and that was not going to be a problem.
* * *
The hologram of a human newscaster was floating above the boarding berth, a huge female face with pouty lips, amber eyes, and a radiant complexion. The few passengers still lingering in the area seemed transfixed by her silken voice, which rolled across the platform in a steady, hypnotic patter that Luke Skywalker recognized as a Force technique designed to lull listeners into a receptive state of mind.
“Citizens are advised to avoid confronting members of the Jedi Spice Cartel,” the newscaster was saying. Intelligence reports from Eramuth Bwua’tu identified her as Kayala Fei, a Sith Saber who had been planted on the staff at the BAMR News Network. “All members are known to be trained assassins, and most have a documented history of violence.”
Fei’s image was replaced by one of Luke himself, and her lilting voice continued, “In other news, rumors persist that the overlord of the Jedi Spice Cartel, Luke Skywalker, has returned to Coruscant. Citizens are ordered to report all possible sightings of Skywalker—either to the nearest GAS agent, or through normal emergency channels.”
The hologram switched again, this time to an image of a dark-haired male. As handsome as Fei was beautiful, he had a coppery complexion, violet eyes, and a thin face with sharp features.
“GAS Superintendent Vhool continues to investigate the full scope of the Jedi spicerunning operation,” Fei’s voice said. “Vhool believes the Jedi are running spice to finance their own covert operations, including attempts to subvert the abolitionist organization known as Freedom Flight. Senior officers have suggested that their intention is to destabilize the Galactic Alliance by overthrowing legitimate governments along the entire galactic rim.”
Luke looked away in disgust. The Jedi were no more attempting to subvert Freedom Flight than they were running spice, but BAMR was such a tool of the Sith that it did not even bother to pretend its propaganda had any basis in fact.
On the opposite side of the half-empty platform, Luke saw two members of his infiltration team, Doran Tainer and Seha Dorvald, trying to catch his eye. Dressed in the festive, rumpled clothes of vacationers returning home from a trip packed with more dancing and gambling than relaxation, the two Jedi Knights were almost indistinguishable from the handful of passengers between them and Luke. The one difference was how alert they seemed, how unaffected they were by the hypnotic lies rolling from Kayala Fei’s shapely mouth.
Once it grew clear that they had caught Luke’s eye, Seha’s gaze slid away, as though her attention had shifted. Doran tipped his head toward the back of the platform, where a long pedramp descended from the arrival lobby of the Manarai Heights Spaceport.
For a moment Luke thought they were trying to draw his attention to the tall, broad-shouldered male just stepping onto the top of the pedramp. His face was decorated with a web of dark, awl-shaped lines radiating outward from an angry gaze. At first glance, the fellow appeared to be a member of the Lost Tribe attempting to follow Luke’s assault team in full vor’shandi face markings. But as the man descended, it grew apparent that his chiseled features were much too weathered and rugged to be those of a Sith from Kesh, and that the face markings were, in fact, permanent tattoos. Still, there was a darkness in the man’s Force aura that Luke found troubling, and he continued to think this was the object of Doran’s attention until the tattooed man suddenly met Luke’s gaze and nodded toward the other side of the pedramp.
Ascending the up-lane was a squad of GAS guards who had arrived on the last levtram. Their ill-fitting uniforms and bellicose demeanor identified them as new recruits, many of whom Chief of State Kem had rushed into service shortly after assuming office. Their sergeant was at the rear of the squad, his handsome face showing in profile as he scrutinized a teenage couple descending the other side of the pedramp.
Luke saw no reason for the scrutiny, no mistakes in disguise or behavior to suggest that Ben Skywalker and Vestara Khai were anything other than the two young lovers they were clearly becoming. Their arms were entwined around each other’s waists so tightly they seemed joined at the hip, and the affection they felt for each other was a bright heat in the Force. Both were dressed in the latest teenage fashion—sparkling capes over black exercise suits. They had even dyed their hair the same shade of yellow, and they wore it in equally outrageous styles, Ben’s gelled into double head-fins and Vestara’s lacquered into a straight fall that just brushed her shoulders.
And yet the GAS sergeant continued to stare as the pedramp carried them closer, his attention locking on Vestara. She did a good job of pretending to be unnerved by the scrutiny, allowing her gaze to continually drift back in his direction to see if he was still watching her. Then, when they had drawn to within a few meters of each other, she finally turned on him with a withering teenage sneer.
The sergeant merely smirked and held her gaze.
She looked away almost instantly, and Luke cursed beneath his breath. The recognition had been as plain to see in Vestara’s shock as it had been in the sergeant’s smirk, and that could only mean they knew each other from her time as an apprentice in the Lost Tribe of the Sith.
Luke glanced back toward the tattoo-faced stranger and found the man’s gaze resolutely locked on the BAMR news holo above the platform. Whoever he was—perhaps one of Club Bwua’tu’s more sinister operatives—he clearly had no wish to involve himself any deeper than he already had.
And that was fine with Luke. He used his eyes to signal Doran and Seha back onto the pedramp, then began to drift toward the rear of the platform, feeling more frustrated by the turn of events than alarmed. All of the other teams had reported a flawless infiltration, and now an unlikely coincidence threatened to eliminate the advantage of surprise. It reminded him of one of Nek Bwua’tu’s favorite maxims: No battle plan survives the first ten minutes of battle.
As Luke drew near the pedramp, he unleashed a powerful burst of Force energy. The hologram of Kayala Fei dissolved into static, and every comlink on the platform began to chime for attention. In the same instant the Sith sergeant whirled around with narrowed eyes, obviously searching for the source of the tempest he had just felt in the Force. Then the overhead illumination panels began to sizzle out, and the sergeant’s gaze found Luke just as the entire waiting area was plunged into darkness.
Luke felt the sergeant—the impostor-sergeant—reaching for him in the Force. He allowed the Sith to grab hold—then pulled, jerking the man off the pedramp. The sergeant let out a muffled cry of surprise, then activated his lightsaber in mid-flight.
The lightsaber was a big mistake. Totally unaware of their sergeant’s true identity, one of the GAS recruits cried out in alarm, and another yelled, “Jedi!”
Blasterfire began to scream out from the pedramp, turning the darkened platform into a blinding storm of color and flashes. The impostor began to bat bolts back toward the GAS recruits, and shrieking passengers raced about in the dark, slamming into walls and one another.
Then the impostor landed less than two meters away from Luke. He whirled into a shoulder-high slash, simultaneously batting bolts aside and trying to behead Luke. With his own lightsaber still waiting for him at the rendezvous point, Luke could only drop to a crouch and spin into a sweeping heel kick, which the Sith avoided by leaping back out of range.
A gurgle of pain and astonishment suddenly spilled from the sergeant’s mouth, then his lightsaber dropped to his side and deactivated. An instant later his body thumped to the platform, and he began to wail in agony.
“Everyone okay?” Vestara asked, using the wailing of her victim to mask her own voice.
“Yep,” Ben answered. When he spoke again, his voice was moving closer to Vestara. “Are you?”
“I’m fine.” Vestara’s voice was warm. “How about you, old man?”
“Not a scratch,” Luke said, more surprised at Vestara’s quick reaction than he should have been. How many times had she saved his life? And Ben’s? “Thanks … again.”
“My pleasure,” Vestara said.
More blasterfire sounded from high up the pedramp, followed by the snap of breaking bones and the thud of bodies being thrown into walls. In the flashing light, Luke caught a glimpse of two athletic shadows—Doran and Seha—leaping over the separation barrier onto the down side of the pedramp.
“A levtram should be arriving any second,” Luke said. “You two go ahead and board.”
“You coming?” Ben asked out of the darkness.
“Right behind you.” Luke reached out in the Force and found the boiling cloud of anguish that was the wounded impostor’s Force aura. He hated the idea of killing any enemy in cold blood—even a Sith. But he couldn’t take Sith prisoners, and leaving the man alive was not an option. He had recognized Vestara Khai, and if he survived to report that to his superiors, the Lost Tribe would realize that the Jedi had arrived. “I need to take care of something.”
A soft female hand touched his arm. “No, you don’t,” Vestara said. “He’s not going to tell anyone what he saw.”
The lights of a levtram appeared in the transit lane, and Luke felt Doran and Seha reaching out to him as they scurried past. They were pouring reassurance into the Force, letting him know that the fight had been obscured by darkness. And that meant it would be difficult to confirm that Jedi had been involved. After all, no matter what the GAS recruits thought they had seen, anyone the Sith sent to investigate would quickly realize that the only lightsaber involved belonged to a member of the Lost Tribe.
Luke breathed a sigh of relief, then glanced toward the levtram boarding berth. In the brightening glow of its headlamps, he could already see the silhouettes of dozens of passengers lining up to escape the chaos on the platform. He turned back toward Vestara’s voice. The recruits might not have anything useful to tell their superiors, but their wounded leader would.
“Go,” he ordered her. “I won’t be a second.”
“No,” Vestara replied. “Trust me. He won’t live long enough to tell anyone anything.”
Something small and glassy shattered on the platform at her feet, and Luke realized why the impostor was still screaming in anguish. Vestara had attacked him with a shikkar, a glass stiletto used by members of the Lost Tribe to express disdain for the victim of the assault. After stabbing an enemy, they would snap off the hilt and leave the blade buried deep in a vital organ, condemning the victim to a death as certain as it was painful.
“I had to use his own shikkar against him, so the High Lords will assume this is a vendetta killing.” Vestara tried to pull Luke toward the boarding berth. “But it won’t work if we’re still standing over the body when the lights come on.”
“We won’t be.” Luke pulled his arm free. As much as he admired Vestara’s quick thinking, there was a ruthlessness in her casual willingness to prolong the man’s anguish—a coldness—that made him wonder if she would ever be capable of becoming a true Jedi Knight. She still didn’t seem to understand that the way a person won a battle was far more important than whether she won it. “But there’s no need to make him suffer. Dead is dead.”
Luke reached out in the Force and found the sensation of burning cold that was the shikkar buried inside the Sith’s torso. It seemed to be only a few millimeters below the throbbing fire of the man’s heart, a placement likely to kill him a bit more slowly than Vestara believed. Luke touched the blade in the Force and tipped it upward just a millimeter—then heard the impostor gasp as it sliced into his heart.
Vestara’s hand tightened on Luke’s arm. “What happened? You didn’t—”
“It will look like the blade shifted,” Luke assured her. “Even the High Lords will never know why. Who was he?”
“An old friend of my father’s,” Vestara said, sounding a bit sad and disappointed. “Master Myal.”
“I see,” Luke replied.
The levtram arrived at the boarding berth and opened its doors, and panicked passengers from the platform began to push inside without giving anyone on board a chance to debark. Luke took a moment to look around, then—when he did not see any trace of the tattooed man from the pedramp—he and Vestara pushed into the panicked crowd.
As they entered the glow from the lights inside the car, Luke was surprised to see that there were tears welling in Vestara’s eyes.
“What did he do to make you hate him so much?”
“Hate him?” Vestara looked up to meet Luke’s gaze. “I didn’t hate him. He was always very kind to me.”
Luke frowned. “Then you used his own shikkar because …”
“Because I didn’t have mine, and we have a war to win.” Vestara rose onto her tiptoes and whispered into his ear. “I did it for the Jedi cause, Master Skywalker.”
SHE CAME TO HIM IN DARKNESS, AS HIS TORMENTORS ALWAYS DID, A cold malevolence waiting at the foot of his cot. Wynn Dorvan did not move, did not change his breathing, did not even test the restraints holding his limbs splayed and immobile. He merely closed his eyes and willed himself to escape into sleep.
“Come now, Wynn.” The voice was female and familiar, a voice he had heard before. “You know you won’t be rid of me that easily.”
The cell grew bright as the illumination panels activated overhead, and Wynn squeezed his eyes shut against the brilliance. It was impossible to mark the passing of time in the ceaseless darkness between torture sessions, but the pain stabbing through his head suggested it had been many days since his last interrogation.
“Wynn, you mustn’t keep me waiting,” the voice said. Something cold and slimy slithered around his bare ankle. “Not your Beloved Queen of the Stars.”
Wynn’s eyes popped open, filling his head with an explosion of pain and light, and he raised his head. Standing at the foot of his cot he saw two silhouettes, one a female human and one … something else.
“That’s better.” The voice seemed to be coming from the silhouette on the left—a hideous, sinuate thing with tentacles instead of arms, with blazing white stars where there should have been eyes. Abeloth. “I was afraid you were going to make me summon Lady Korelei.”
The memories of his recent Force torture only grew stronger as time passed, and the mere mention of Korelei’s name sent an electric bolt of fear shooting through his body. He ignored it—just as he ignored the inner voice telling him to scream and beg for mercy. The slightest hint of weakness would only bring Korelei back all the sooner, to pry from him the few secrets he had not yet surrendered—his most important secrets, the ones he was determined to carry into oblivion with him.
And so Wynn said the only thing he could say, the one thing that just might get him killed before Korelei returned: “Are you real?” He let his head drop back to the cot. “You can’t be real. You’re too blasted ugly.”
The silhouette remained silent for a moment, and had Wynn been a Jedi, he was fairly certain he would have felt her anger building in the Force. But when Abeloth spoke, her voice remained cool and in control, and Wynn knew he would not escape his torment so easily.
“I am very real, Wynn—more real than you can know,” she said. “And I grow weary of your tricks, as do the Sith. Lady Korelei is ready to employ the necromantic option.”
Wynn managed a sort of nod. “Let her.” As he spoke, the light started to grow less painful, and when he glanced toward the silhouette it began to seem less hideous and sinuate—more substantial and vaguely human. “If Lady Korelei could get truth from a dead man, she wouldn’t be wasting time trying to extract it from a living one.”
“So you have been lying to her?”
“No one can lie to a Sith Lord,” he said. “That’s what she keeps telling me.”
“You might be an exception,” the woman said. “You are certainly not telling her what the Sith wish to know.”
Now that Wynn’s vision was clearing, he could see that his visitor had changed from the hideous tentacle-armed Abeloth into an elegant, blue-skinned Jessar female. There was a slight bulge to her eyes, and her face looked as though it were starting to peel from a bad sunburn. But anyone with access to the HoloNet would have no trouble recognizing her as Rokari Kem, Chief of State of the Galactic Alliance.
“You might suggest that she ask nicely,” Wynn said. “Really, who wants to cooperate with someone who keeps blasting Force probes through his mind?”
“Then perhaps we should try something else,” Kem suggested. “How would you like to be released from this cell?”
Wynn raised his head as high as was possible. “You must know how very silly that question is.”
Kem’s only response was a series of soft clicks as the cuffs around Wynn’s wrists and ankles fell open. The tension vanished from his arms and legs, and when he tried to pull his pain-numbed limbs in toward his body, they actually moved.
More suspicious than surprised, Wynn struggled into an upright position and was finally able to get a good look at Kem’s companion. Dressed in the gray jumpsuit of a GAS prisoner, the woman had blond hair, narrow eyes, and a hard, familiar face that Wynn knew he should have recognized, but could not quite place in his current condition.
He shifted his gaze back to Kem. “Well, that was easy,” he said. “What’s the catch?”
“Catch?” Kem asked. “Ah—what I want in return. That would be your help.”
“My help?” Wynn echoed, still trying to work out the second woman’s identity—and what she had to do with his own captivity. “To do what?”
“Help me rule,” Kem replied simply.
Now Wynn was surprised. “You want me to help you rule the Galactic Alliance?”
“You would help me run the government, yes,” Kem confirmed. “You would be saving lives, Wynn—a great many lives.”
Keenly aware that there had to be a trap—with Abeloth and her Sith, there was always a trap—Wynn fell silent and did his best to sort through priorities with his torture-raddled brain. His most important goal was to protect the informal intelligence network he had been operating with Admiral and Eramuth Bwua’tu. By now, the two Bothans knew of his capture, and they had undoubtedly taken precautions to protect themselves. But the network itself would be vital to the Jedi when they returned to liberate the planet, and so far he had managed to avoid revealing its existence to Lady Korelei and her assistants.
But Wynn knew he could not put that off much longer. He had run out of unimportant details three sessions earlier and begun to feed his tormentors small scraps of more valuable information. Now they were beginning to put together a more complete picture of the secret workings of the Galactic Alliance government—a picture that was leading them closer to Club Bwua’tu all the time.
“Is it such a hard decision, Wynn?” Kem asked. “You can save lives and escape your torture. Or you can condemn thousands to die … and remain here to feed Lady Korelei’s appetites.”
Of course, it wasn’t a hard decision at all—and that’s what made Wynn hesitate. Rokari Kem—or Abeloth, or whatever she called herself—was not only the new leader of the Galactic Alliance. She was also the secret leader of the Sith, and Sith cared nothing about the lives they took or the harm they caused. They cared only about their own power. If Abeloth was willing to forgo the secrets that her torturers were slowly prying from his mind, then it could only mean she saw a more valuable way to use him—a way that would allow her to do even more damage to the Galactic Alliance.
But Abeloth didn’t know everything, and one of the things she didn’t know was that Wynn just needed to buy time—time for the Jedi to arrive before he broke. Finally, he looked up and met Kem’s gaze.
“You’d move me out of this cell?” he asked. “And keep me away from Lady Korelei?”
“Of course,” Kem assured him. “As long as you continue to serve me, you’ll be safe from Lady Korelei.”
“I won’t be your mouthpiece,” Wynn warned. His demands, he knew, would mean nothing to her—but he had to make them, or she would grow suspicious of his true motives. “And I won’t feed you the names of beings who stand against you.”
“I expect nothing of the sort,” Kem assured him, smiling broadly and warmly. “I have enough names to last a standard year.”
Wynn allowed his discomfort at the assertion to show in his face, but asked, “Well then, what do you expect from me?”
“Nothing but what you gave Chief Daala,” Kem said. “By all accounts, you’re an excellent administrator and a capable adviser.”
“You want my advice?” Wynn began to think he was hallucinating—that he had finally broken under Korelei’s attentions and lost his mind. “You can’t be sincere.”
“But I am … so very sincere.” Kem reached for the arm of the woman she had brought along, then pulled her forward to stand next to the cot. “I’m sure you remember Lieutenant Lydea Pagorski?”
Pagorski—of course. She was the Imperial intelligence officer who had perjured herself at Tahiri Veila’s murder trial. Wynn nodded and turned to the woman.
“I do,” he said. “I’m sorry to see you here, too.”
Pagorski’s face grew even paler, and she cast a nervous glance toward Kem.
Kem merely rolled her eyes. “There’s no need to feel sorry for the lieutenant,” she said. “The Empire wants her returned, and I’d like to know whether to grant their request.”
“You’re asking me to make the decision?” Wynn asked, more suspicious than ever.
“To give me your opinion, yes,” Kem said. “You won’t be making any decisions yourself.”
Wynn began to feel a little better about the arrangement. Kem and her Sith were, after all, practically strangers to the galaxy at large. It made sense that they might need someone like him to help sort through the thousands of diplomatic petitions that came through the Chief of State’s office every day.
“What did the Empire offer in return for Lieutenant Pagorski’s release?” he asked.
Kem frowned. “Nothing.”
“Not even a task force port call?”
“Nothing at all,” Kem said. “I’ll deny the request.”
Wynn shook his head. “You should grant it.”
“I should grant it, when they offer nothing?” Now that the possibility of payment had been raised, Kem seemed offended that none had been offered. “And if they had offered something, what should I have done? Taken only half?”
“No,” Wynn replied. “You should have refused to return the lieutenant at all, then moved her into a military interrogation facility before they could assassinate her.”
Kem looked truly confused. “Because the offer was an insult?”
“Because it would have meant that Lieutenant Pagorski was valuable to them,” Wynn explained. “And before you even considered releasing her, you would want to know the nature of that value.”
“And because they offer nothing, she has no value?”
“That’s right—the request is merely routine.” Wynn turned to Pagorski. “You have family on Bastion, don’t you? Someone important?”
Pagorski’s eyes widened. “My father is an admiral in Fleet Provisions,” she said. “How did you know?”
“He’s putting pressure on the diplomatic corps,” Wynn replied. “They made the request so they could tell him they’re doing something.”
“I can’t grant such a request,” Kem objected. “It will diminish my stature.”
Wynn shook his head. “You’re forgetting your public persona,” he said, surprised that the leader of the Sith would make such a mistake. “You’re supposed to be Rokari Kem, a wise and compassionate leader from B’nish—not Rokari Kem, a greedy and power-hungry Sith overlord.”
“Yes, I see your point,” Kem said, her eyes flaring at the terms he had used to describe her. She sighed and turned to Pagorski. “I cannot allow you to return to the Empire knowing my true—”
“I won’t tell anyone!” Pagorski interrupted, clearly terrified. “I give you my word as—”
“If your word had any value, you wouldn’t have been in a GAS detention center in the first place,” Kem retorted. “But there’s no need to kill you. I’m just going to use the Force to wipe away some of your memories.”
Relief flooded Pagorski’s face. “I understand,” she said, visibly relieved. “Feel free.”
“I wasn’t asking, Lieutenant.”
Kem placed her hands on the sides of Pagorski’s head, then looked into the woman’s eyes and locked gazes. For a moment, nothing seemed to happen, and Wynn thought the mindwipe might be as painless as it was mysterious.
Then the air between the two women began to shimmer. Pagorski’s eyes opened wide, and her face twisted into a mask of horror. Rokari Kem’s fingers grew long and thin, and suddenly her arms dissolved into gray slimy tentacles, and in the Sith’s place stood the hideous thing that Wynn had glimpsed on waking, a slender sinuate form with coarse yellow hair and a mouth so broad that it reached from ear to ear.
Pagorski’s jaw fell open in a wordless scream. The tentacles shot down her throat, into her ears and nostrils, and began to pulse. Horrible gagging noises erupted from her mouth. Her entire body went limp and hung, convulsing, by the ropy tendrils that had been inserted into her head.
Finally, Pagorski’s expression went blank. Her complexion grew so pale and translucent that Wynn could see the tentacles throbbing inside her face, pumping something dark and viscous into her sinuses and her ears and down into her trachea. He began to scramble back, pressing himself against the wall behind him so fiercely it seemed to yield. The cell reverberated with a loud, growling howl that he did not recognize as his own voice until he found himself crouching in the corner, gnawing at his knuckles and banging his skull against the durasteel.
The thing turned its gruesome head toward Wynn’s corner, then fixed its blazing white eyes on him and smiled a grin as deep and dark as the Maw itself.
“Now that you’ll be serving me, you should know this about your Beloved Queen of the Stars,” Abeloth said. “She is so much more than a Sith.”
FOR THE TENTH TIME IN AS MANY MINUTES, BEN SKYWALKER GLANCED at the chrono hanging on the wurlwood panel across from him. The liberation of Coruscant was scheduled to begin … well, now, and he and Vestara were still sitting in the pages’ closet outside Senator Suldar’s office. Hovering before them was a float pallet bearing a large crate wrapped in glitterfilm, and in her hands Vestara held a silver tray bearing a small envelope addressed to MY DEAR FRIEND KAMERON.
“You have a hot date waiting?” Vestara asked in a taunting voice. Dressed in the dark blue robe of a Senate page, she was wearing a custom-built disguise that would convince even the most sophisticated facial recognition software in the galaxy that she was a Falleen adolescent. “The way you keep checking the chrono, she must be a real dazzler.”
Ben smiled. The only date he had was after the battle … with Vestara herself. “She’s quite beautiful—for a human.” Also dressed in the robe of a Senate page, Ben was disguised as a male Twi’lek. “But the party we’re going to, you can’t be late for.”
Vestara arched one brow. “Then maybe she should go alone. If you don’t like human girls, she’d probably have more fun without you anyway.”
“I don’t think so,” Ben said, still smirking. “She’s fallen for me pretty hard. I think it’s the head tails.”
Vestara rolled her eyes. “Typical male—one little smile, and you think it’s love.” She turned her gaze toward the back of the closet, where a tall man in the red cape and golden armor of the Senate Security Force stood next to a wurlwood door leading to the Senator’s inner sanctum. “In any case, watching the chrono isn’t going to change the Senator’s schedule. He’s the chair of the Galactic Alliance Senate, after all. He’ll see us as soon as he can.”
“I hope so.” Ben cast a meaningful glance at the crate. The battle for Coruscant would be won or lost in the next half hour, and the outcome could depend on getting that crate into Suldar’s office before the Sith knew they were under attack. “If we’re still here in five minutes, I’m going anyway.”
Vestara exhaled in exasperation. “Hold this.”
She passed the silver tray to Ben, then rose and walked to the security guard. The man was lean and good-looking, with a square jaw and the flawless grooming that Ben had learned to associate with the vanity of Lost Tribe Sith.
“Excuse me.” It was impossible to see Vestara’s expression because she was facing away from Ben, but he had heard that particular voice quiver often enough to know she would be flashing a smile that appeared more nervous than it really was. “Have you announced our presence?”
The guard glared at her for a moment; then his brows came together, and he glanced toward Ben. “I have.”
The nervousness vanished from Vestara’s voice. “And have you mentioned that the gift is a peace offering from Senator Wuul?”
The guard’s eyes widened just enough to suggest that he knew more about the feud between the Senators Suldar and Wuul than any true security guard should have.
Vestara leaned a little closer. “I mean, I’d hate to think of the Senator in there, trying to line up support for a Tibanna tax increase, when Senator Wuul is ready to give in.”
“You know this for a fact?” The guard’s eyes narrowed. “How?”
Vestara shrugged. “Pages have ears, the same as security guards,” she said. “We know a lot of things we shouldn’t.”
The guard considered this for a moment, then glanced back toward Ben. “Wait here.”
He depressed a hidden latch, and a gap appeared in the boiserie behind him. Pulling one of the panels open just far enough to squeeze through, he slipped into a hidden corridor beyond, then closed the panel behind him.
Vestara glanced back and cocked a brow. Ben rolled his eyes, but he had to smile and give her a grudging nod of approval. Her knowledge of the Sith and their vulnerabilities had proven invaluable in planning the liberation of Coruscant, and now her presence was turning out to be just as crucial in executing the operation. Only a former Sith could truly understand how a mind steeped in the dark side worked, how to appeal to their greed and vanity without revealing the trap. Ben was glad she had persuaded the Masters that her presence on Coruscant, during the battle itself, would be crucial to the success of the initial assault.
But Ben also knew how difficult this particular operation had to be for Vestara. She loved him as much as he loved her, he was sure. But choosing him and the Jedi meant turning her back on her people and her home, never again breaking bread with childhood friends, and he would have been a fool to think she had made her choice with no regrets. There would always be a part of her that remained Sith, that longed to return to Kesh, and she had once confided to him that she hoped someday to do just that—to return home at the head of a Jedi peace delegation, so she could teach her people that there was no need to conquer the galaxy to live in it.
She was being atypically naïve, but she had given up so much already that Ben could not bear the thought of depriving her of this one dream—and that was why he had persuaded his father to stop pressing her for Kesh’s coordinates. The hard truth was that redeeming an entire tribe of Sith was about as likely as stopping a nova, but this was a conclusion Vestara needed to reach herself. And when she did, Ben knew, she would be a true Jedi.
Vestara returned and held out her hands. “Get ready,” she said. “We’ll be inside in less than a minute.”
Ben returned the plate and stood. “You seem pretty sure of yourself,” he said. “So why did he scowl?”
“He scowled?” Vestara asked. “When?”
“Right after you approached him,” Ben said. “When you asked if he had announced us yet.”
“Oh, that scowl,” Vestara said lightly. “I don’t know—maybe he isn’t accustomed to pretty pages smiling at him.”
She flashed him a playful grin, and Ben had to admit that she could be pretty disarming.
“I can see how you might have unsettled him,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean your charm is going to work on the Senator—not from out here.”
Vestara rolled her eyes. “Come on,” she said. “What politician is going to put off accepting a surrender?”
By politician, Ben knew, Vestara meant Sith. Kameron Suldar, chair of the Galactic Alliance Senate, was actually High Lord Ivaar Workan of the Lost Tribe of the Sith. Ben and Vestara were there to set him up for a surprise attack. They had to be inside the office before the battle began, holding the High Lord’s attention so he wouldn’t sense the rest of the Skywalker team coming to capture or kill him. Ben didn’t like being part of what would probably end up being a targeted killing. But there was a war under way, and he and his fellow team members were commandos sent to destroy the enemy’s command-and-control structure. If they could do it quickly and quietly enough, the Sith invaders would be leaderless before they realized they were under attack. And that would save thousands of civilian lives—perhaps hundreds of thousands—by preventing the fight from spilling over into the general population.
The wurlwood panel swung open again, and the red-caped guard emerged. He was followed by a stunning redhead with the striking features of a HoloNet star and the calculating eyes of a seasoned political operative. She crossed the closet in a few quick steps and took the envelope from Vestara’s tray.
“ ‘My dear friend Kameron,’ ” the woman read drily. She returned the envelope to the tray, then looked to the float pallet. “What’s all this?”
“A cafasho steamer,” Vestara said. She leaned closer and spoke in a confiding tone. “Senator Wuul has observed that Senator Suldar has a certain fondness for the drink, and he thought Senator Suldar might enjoy having a steamer of his own.”
The redhead studied the gift for a moment, then turned to the guard. “Has the package been screened?”
The guard sneered, obviously offended. “Of course. Them, too.”
“There’s no need for your concern,” Vestara assured the redhead. “I have the impression that Senator Wuul is looking for a graceful way to capitulate.”
The woman considered this for a moment, then looked to Ben. “And what about you, Twi’lek?” she asked. “Do you have the same impression?”
Ben nodded. “It’s definitely a cafasho steamer,” he replied. “We were instructed to set it up and teach Senator Suldar’s staff how to use it.”
The redhead narrowed her eyes, then suddenly turned toward the back of the closet. “Very well,” she said. “The Senator will see you now.”
“Thank you,” Vestara replied. She looked over at Ben and cocked her brow, then followed the redhead into the secret passage. “I can’t tell you how excited I am to be meeting the Senator in person.”
All across Coruscant, Sith impostors began to receive their final warnings, a simple message that said:
SURRENDER OR DIE. DECIDE NOW.
—THE JEDI ORDER
Sitting in the backseat of his armored limousine, GAS Superintendent Jestat Vhool snorted at the arrogance of the Jedi fools and snapped his datapad shut … and then recalled the unexplained hesitation he had felt the last time his pilot had engaged the repulsorlift drive. A shiver of danger raced down his spine, and a single thought filled his mind: Bomb!
Vhool flung open the door and Force-leapt from the limo onto the nearest balcony. He landed in a diving roll and used the Force to counteract his momentum, then returned to his feet, lightsaber in hand. He ignited the crimson blade and slipped into a combat crouch, eyes sweeping left and right.
An instant later a fast-descending scaffold dropped from the floor above and crushed him flat.
The maintenance man who had been operating the scaffold—a green-eyed human whose chin sported a tuft of graying beard—stepped off the scaffold and found nothing but a blood-soaked arm protruding from beneath the heavy equipment. He took note of the GAS insignia on the sleeve cuff, then checked for a pulse and found none. When he glanced down the skylane and saw the GAS limo decelerating, he hurled himself over the balcony railing.
The maintenance man landed on the back of a two-seat swoop bike, piloted by a golden-eyed Arcona named Izal Waz.
“Welcome aboard, Master Horn,” Izal called over his shoulder. “No surrender, I gather?”
“Scratch target one,” Corran confirmed. “Let’s try number two.”
Izal swung the swoop bike down an access lane and accelerated hard. Behind them, the limo never did explode.
Kayala Fei was delivering BAMR’s midday newscast, halfway through a kicker story about Jedi healers conducting medical experiments on Chandrilan younglings, when a peculiar message appeared on her holoprompter: SURRENDER OR DIE. DECIDE NOW.
Fei did not hesitate, did not even blink. She simply used the Force to send her chair rocketing away from the anchor desk, toward the holographic skyline being projected at the rear of the stage. The instant the chair began to tip, she was on her feet, her lightsaber flying into her hand from a holster concealed inside her stylish knee boots.
The space her head had just occupied now had a stage light swinging through it. Affixed to the bottom end of a broken support batten, it had crossed the anchor desk and was coming toward her. She ignited her lightsaber and pivoted to the side, cutting the batten at head height to keep the heavy lamp from catching her on the return trip.
But there was a broken cable snaking down behind her, and that Fei had no chance to avoid. By the time she identified the hot sizzle rushing through her body as electricity rather than her own danger sense, the cable was wrapping itself around her neck. Its bare end snapped down and caught her just above the heart, pouring so much current into her chest that a smoking hole appeared in her shimmersilk tunic.
Fortunately, the relief producer was up to the emergency. She had been called in after the normal production crew had been served a bowl of spoiled thakitillo, and she was the type who kept her head. She typed a new message into the holoprompter, then activated the studio’s PA system and instructed Fei’s co-anchor to move to the auxiliary anchor desk.
The new anchor, a jowly man with an oversized nose and a baritone voice, looked at the speaker above his head and asked, “You want me to go on?” He glanced toward the back of the stage, where Fei’s body was still hanging from the cable and continuing to convulse. “What about Kayala?”
“The Emdee droid is on his way,” the relief producer said. A tall, dark-haired woman with a commanding presence, Jedi Master Octa Ramis knew how to take control of a chaotic situation. “And we still have four minutes of newscast to fill. Move! Read!”
The anchor jumped up and raced ten paces to the auxiliary desk, then sat down and began to read from the holoprompter floating above the active cam.
“Uh, we apologize for the technical difficulties we have just experienced.” His voice returned to its smooth baritone. “We are sorry to report that BAMR anchorwoman Kayala Fei has suffered an untimely death in a freak accident. The incident occurred only moments ago, during a live holocast in front of billions of viewers …”
Octa Ramis removed the sound bud from her ear and tossed it on the mixing console, then turned to her three Jedi assistants. “And that’s a wrap,” she said. “Let’s move on to our next target.”
When the alarm began to blare down from the coffered ceiling of the High Court Chamber, Grand Justice Tela Rovas did not reach for the lightsaber beneath her robes. She simply unfolded the flimsi that her clerk had just passed her, read the ominous note, and frowned at the signature line—THE JEDI ORDER—then turned to her fellow High Justices, seated beside her along the elegant hamogoniwood bench.
“It seems the alarm is genuine,” she announced calmly. “Court is adjourned for evacuation.”
The chamber erupted in panic, with spectators and litigants alike boiling toward the exits. Rovas, in contrast, calmly rose from her seat and started toward the justices’ private exit, all the while shielding herself from attack by drawing her fellow judges into a tight knot of conversation around her. As they crossed the threshold, she took the arm of Justice Robr Selvi and pulled him close, being careful to keep him between her and the sliding door.
Jaina cursed beneath her breath, then reluctantly released the hidden trigger that would have sent the heavy door shooting out to crush the pair. Corrupt as he was, Selvi was no Sith—and that made him safe from the Jedi. Jaina glanced across the broad central aisle to her two companions and nodded toward the exit.
Valin returned her nod and rose instantly, but Jysella—carrying a datapad and wearing her brown hair in a tight bun—scowled.
“We’re just going to let her GO?” Jysella asked. She was speaking in a Force whisper so soft that her voice was a mere rustle in Jaina’s ears. “A Sith Lord?”
Jaina shrugged and nodded toward the exit more firmly. Their orders were clear: No attack until the target reaches for a weapon. And no civilian casualties—even if it means letting a Sith Lord escape.
By the time Vestara and Ben were finally ushered in to meet High Lord Ivaar Workan—better known to the Galactic Alliance as Senator Kameron Suldar—there was no longer enough time to set up the cafasho steamer. Only two minutes remained before the first attacks of the battle were scheduled to begin, and that meant they had drifted completely into the sphere of combat improvisation. That was just fine with Vestara. She had been trained to be unpredictable when she fought, and sometimes the only way to do that was to toss the plan aside.
Vestara was surprised to see the Senator’s private office furnished sparely but elegantly in blatant Keshiri style, with sculptures of ropy glass resting on display tables throughout the room. The pieces were done in a new style known as flying storm back on Kesh, and they usually depicted a hurricane or cyclone rolling over an alien landscape.
To the initiated, at least, the conquest symbology was clear, and Vestara found herself shaking her head at its open display. It was the kind of arrogance that would be the Sith’s greatest vulnerability in the coming war. Her people simply did not understand how dangerous the Jedi truly were—or how determined the Masters were to destroy the Lost Tribe of the Sith.
Workan’s redheaded assistant motioned Vestara and Ben toward a clear spot in the center of the room, then followed close behind as Ben pushed the float pallet forward. When two more red-caped guards stepped out of a corner and fell in behind them, Vestara knew it had been her ploy—the silent I’m Vestara Khai she had secretly mouthed to the guard in the pages’ closet—that had finally won them admittance. She was taking a terrible risk exposing her identity like that, but she wanted to be sure that Luke Skywalker killed Workan, and that meant getting herself and Ben into the High Lord’s office.
Ben stopped the float pallet at the indicated location, then drew his shoulders square and stood at attention. Workan studied the pallet from behind a large glass desk at the far end of the room. He was a distinguished-looking man with dark hair and darker eyes. Though Vestara had not revealed this to the Jedi’s mission planners, she had met the High Lord once before, back on Kesh when she had been summoned to become Lady Rhea’s apprentice. He had struck her as a cunning and observant man, and the venom in his gaze suggested that he had seen through her disguise and confirmed her identity for himself.
Finally, Workan gestured toward the tray in Vestara’s hands, using the Force to summon the small envelope she was carrying. Ben let out a gasp of surprise that managed to sound spontaneous enough to be credible. Had Workan and his fellow impostors not already known that they were looking at a pair of spies, the act might have fooled them. As it was, two of the High Lord’s bodyguards were on Ben before his mouth closed, one holding the heavy, curved blade of a glass parang to his throat while the other pressed the emitter nozzle of an unlit lightsaber to his back.
In the same instant, Vestara felt the sharp tip of a shikkar pricking the flesh over her left kidney. “Not a word, traitor,” the redhead warned. “Don’t even flinch.”
Vestara obeyed, watching in silence as Workan inspected the envelope for signs of poison. By now, Luke Skywalker would be starting across the visitors’ parlor with the other two members of the assault team. It would take them less than a minute to overpower the sentries in the outer office and reach the security door. Yet even thirty seconds was a long time for Vestara and Ben to survive as unarmed captives, and the safe thing would have been to abort the operation back in the pages’ closet, when it grew apparent they weren’t going to be admitted before the Jedi surprise attack began.
But aborting the operation would have meant allowing Workan to live, and allowing Workan to live was not an option. Vestara had realized back on the Sith world of Upekzar, when she had sacrificed Jedi Knight Natua Wan to the ancient Dream Singer in order to save Ben, that she would not be able to hide among the Jedi forever. And as a High Lord, Workan was bound by Sith custom to hunt down and slay Vestara for daring to kill High Lord Sarasu Taalon on Pydyr. Therefore, Workan—like all of his fellow High Lords—had to die before Vestara could safely leave the protection of the Jedi Order.
Finally satisfied that the envelope was not a death trap, Workan read the exterior salutation aloud. “ ‘My dear friend Kameron.’ ”
At this point, less than a minute remained before the first Jedi assaults began and Workan started to feel Sith dying across all of Coruscant. Vestara and Ben were supposed to be serving cafasho, doing whatever it took to hold the High Lord’s attention while Luke and the rest of the team stormed the outer offices. Well, they might not be serving cafasho now, but Vestara was pretty sure that they had captured Workan’s complete attention.
Workan removed a folded flimsiplast from inside the envelope and read that aloud, too: “ ‘Did you truly think I wouldn’t know who you are?’ ”
A ripple of alarm rolled through the Force as Workan’s subordinates grasped the significance of Wuul’s message. The High Lord himself looked almost as though he had been expecting such a note, merely cocking a thin black brow and looking at Ben.
“Is this some sort of joke?”
“Not at all.”
As Ben spoke, muffled voices began to sound in the outer office. Knowing the next few moments would determine whether Ben lived or died, Vestara started to address Workan in an attempt to distract him … and felt a tiny stab of pain as the shikkar broke the surface of her skin.
If Ben noticed, he showed no sign. “Turn the note over,” he said. “I think that will explain things.”
Workan did as Ben instructed, then read, “ ‘Surrender or die.’ ” His face grew crimson, and he read the second part. “ ‘Decide now.’ ”
The High Lord lifted his eyes to glare at Ben, but before he could speak, the muffled voices beyond the security door gave way to cries of alarm. The sizzle of clashing lightsabers began to sound outside the door.
“If you’re going to surrender, I’d recommend doing it soon,” Ben said, clearly trying to hold Workan’s attention inside the room. “You don’t have much time.”
Workan’s eyes narrowed. “I am not the one with a parang to his throat.”
A hint of cockiness came into Ben’s voice. “No, but you are the one who drank two cups of cafasho in Senator Wuul’s office yesterday morning,” he said. “You’re already dead, High Lord Workan.”
The lie came so smoothly that even Vestara did not sense it in Ben’s Force aura, and she knew it was a fabrication. The cafasho steamer had only been a ruse to get Ben and Vestara inside Workan’s office, but the High Lord wouldn’t realize that—not if he was relying on the Force to tell whether Ben was lying. He glanced again at Wuul’s note, and fear began to blossom across his face.
The sound of the fighting beyond the door began to subside even sooner than Vestara had expected, but Workan’s attention remained fixed on Ben.
“I see.” The High Lord rose from behind his desk. “If Wuul has already poisoned me, why go to so much trouble to tell me? Gloating is hardly the Jedi’s style.”
“Neither is killing in cold blood,” Ben said. “As the note says, you do have the option of surrender. There’s an antidote.”
Workan glanced back toward the flimsiplast, and—not for the first time—Vestara found herself in awe of Ben’s quick thinking. He was using the High Lord’s abilities against him, making Workan question his own common sense by hiding an obvious lie in the Force. The trick wouldn’t work for long … but it wouldn’t need to.
A loud thud sounded from the security door, and a guard said, “Milord, perhaps we should kill the prisoners and—”
“That door is hatch-steel,” Workan said, waving the man silent. He started around his desk. “This antidote—is it in the cafasho steamer?”
“Shall I take that as a surrender?” Ben sounded far too cocky for his circumstances—and Vestara had to admit she kind of liked it. “Your people will need to lay down their—”
“Enough.” Workan pulled a lightsaber from beneath his robes. “We are done playing games, Jedi.”
And that was when a compression wave blew across the room.
Vestara did not wonder what had happened or wait to hear the blast. She simply spun away from the shikkar, using one hand to trap the redhead’s wrist and the other to slam a palm-heel into the base of the woman’s jaw. She glimpsed an orange flash and heard the sharp clap of a detonite explosion, then brought her knee up beneath her foe’s arm—and saw the glass dagger float free.
She continued her attack anyway, snapping the elbow across her thigh. The woman cried out and used the Force to send the dagger flying toward Vestara’s throat.
Why did Sith always overreach? Vestara pivoted aside, easily dodging an attack she could never have avoided if the woman had settled for a leg attack, then grabbed the redhead by the chin and killed her with a Force punch to the throat.
Recognizing Ben’s voice, Vestara dropped. A crimson blade flashed past a meter overhead. Her gaze followed the blade to the lightsaber, the lightsaber to the arm, and at the other end she found the guard from the pages’ closet. She glanced at the float-pallet hovering behind him and reached for the cafasho machine in the Force.
The guard pivoted away—straight into Ben, who shoved the shikkar that had almost killed Vestara into the man’s neck.
The guard collapsed, and Vestara saw a second gold-armored figure stepping toward Ben. She sent the cafasho machine flying in that guard’s direction. He activated a crimson lightsaber and cleaved it apart before it hit him.
By then she was snatching the lightsaber from beneath the dead redhead’s robes, and Ben was taking another from the impostor he had just killed. Vestara sprang to her feet, then stepped away from Ben so they could flank their new opponent.
She glanced toward the door and found it standing next to a smoking hole that had once been a wall. Seha and Doran were just rushing through the breach, angling toward the last guard, while Luke and Workan had already joined battle in a whirling tempest of color and smashed office furnishings. With only three Sith left, there was no question of the final outcome—even a High Lord could not overcome those odds, not when Luke and Ben Skywalker were on the other side.
Vestara sprang to the attack, swinging high to prevent the guard from leaping into a Force tumble. He blocked and spun, bringing his blade around in time to deflect a leg slash from Ben, then glanced toward a display table near the wall. Guessing that a glass sculpture would already be flying toward her head, Vestara dived into a forward roll, then locked her lightsaber into the ON position and tossed it at her attacker’s legs.
The guard dropped his own blade to deflect the one flying toward his thighs—then simply divided along the spine as Ben’s lightsaber cleaved him from collar to belt. The body did not fall so much as peel apart, and the sculpture crashed to the floor three meters away.
Vestara called her own weapon back into her hand and then looked up to find Ben stepping across the body toward her.
“So,” she said, glancing down at the dead Sith. “I guess you do care.”
“Of course I care.” Ben smiled and reached down to take her hand. “Good teammates are hard to find.”
“And you two certainly make a good team,” Doran Tainer said, joining them. He studied the three Sith they had killed. “Did you even have weapons when this thing started?”
“A Jedi is always armed,” Vestara said, quoting a maxim that was a favorite of the Sith as well as the Jedi.
She held Ben’s hand for a moment, enjoying its strength and warmth—and knowing that one day soon, she would have to turn her back on his touch. Finally, she allowed him to help her to her feet, then turned toward the battle between Luke and Workan. A swath of shattered glass and smoking furniture marked the path their fight had taken to the rear part of the room. It seemed clear from the crooked route that the fight had been both desperate and well matched, but now Workan was finally being forced to retreat past his desk. With Seha Dorvald rushing to join the fight, he would eventually be pushed into a corner and perhaps even taken for interrogation.
And that, Vestara could not allow—not after the trick she had used to get them into the office in the first place. She thought for a moment, then pulled a blaster pistol from the holster of a dead guard.
“Something’s wrong!” She started toward the back of the room. “We’ve got to stop him.”
A large hand caught her by the shoulder. “Stop him from what?” Doran demanded. “Luke wants to take Workan—”
Vestara shook free. “Look at where he is—he’s trying to get to his desk.” She raised the blaster pistol and began to fire into the combat, not so much trying to kill Workan herself as to force him away from the desk—and onto Luke’s blade. “He must have a detonator switch back there!”
Doran released her shoulder, and a moment later two more streams of blasterfire joined Vestara’s.
“Dad, trap!” Ben yelled. “Back off!”
“Seha—you, too!” Doran added.
Both Jedi dived away at once, leaving a badly confused Workan struggling to bat aside the storm of blasterfire coming his way. Already exhausted and wounded, with one arm hanging limp and a smoking slash across his chest, he was no match for three attackers trained to coordinate their fire to overwhelm his defenses. It took only six shots for Ben to burn a hole through his head.
“Quick thinking, Ves.” Ben squeezed her arm, then added, “And thanks. You just might have saved us again.”
THE PLANET OSSUS HUNG LIMNED IN FIRE, A GIANT GRAY PEARL FLOATING between the orange globes of two suns. It was gray because the entire world was covered in clouds. It was covered in clouds because, twice each year, Ossus passed directly between its two stars. Blasted by radiant energy from opposite sides, it went several weeks without night. Planetary temperatures skyrocketed, changing most of the surface water into atmospheric vapor.
Allana Solo knew all that because she had read it in the Intelligence Ministry briefing file, along with a warning that conditions were so steamy during this period that pilots departing the surface would be flying blind until they reached space. But to nine-year-old Allana, staring out at the world from the Royal Stateroom aboard the Dragon Queen II, it seemed like Ossus was trying to keep the Jedi young ones home, to prevent the Jedi academy from being evacuated even if it meant the death of every last student.
“There’s no need to worry.” Allana’s mother came to stand in the observation bubble next to her. “Your grandparents have been doing this sort of thing since before I was born.”
Allana nodded and glanced at her mother’s reflection in the transparisteel. Wearing a gray flight suit with a rancor-tooth lightsaber hanging from a belt across her hips, she looked more like a Jedi Knight than the Queen Mother of the Hapes Consortium. It was a style of attire that Tenel Ka wore only in private—and a rare glimpse, Allana knew, into the life that one of the most powerful women in the galaxy wished she could live.
When Allana did not reply, her mother took her hand. “They’re going to be fine. If anyone can do this, it’s Han and Leia Solo.”
“I don’t think you can promise that,” Allana said, continuing to study the cloud-veiled planet in front of them. “Even Grandpa and Grandma don’t usually fly into the middle of a Sith ambush—at least not on purpose.”
“No, not usually,” her mother allowed. “But … that’s why we’re here. With a Hapan battle flotilla waiting to pounce, the Sith might decide not to attack at all.”
Allana rolled her eyes. “Even I understand the Sith better than that, and I’m only nine.”
Her mother chuckled. “Well, perhaps it was more of a hope than a belief,” she allowed. “But we both know what a mistake it is to underestimate your grandparents.”
Allana started to agree, but stopped when her pet nexu, Anji, growled a warning. Allana glanced toward the interior of the stateroom and saw her mother’s cousin and confidante, Trista Zel, approaching. Knowing that Trista would not be interrupting unless it was important, Allana silenced Anji with a hand signal, then stepped aside to make room in the little observation bubble.
Trista flashed an apologetic smile. “Sorry to interrupt, cousin,” she said. Had anyone else addressed the Queen Mother so casually, they would have been banished to the Transitory Mists. “But you wanted to be informed when the Sith make their move.”
Tenel Ka raised her brow. “Already?”
Trista nodded. “The scouts have spotted a wing of Skipray twelve-jays entering the atmosphere on the far side of the planet.”
“Twelve-jays?” Tenel Ka echoed. “Where’d they come up with something that old?”
Trista shrugged. “We’re still working on that, Majesty,” she said. “What’s important is that TacCon thinks they’ll use the cloud cover to hit the convoy as it leaves the academy. Commander Skela recommends launching two wings of Miy’tils to support Vhork Squadron and protect the convoy.”
Tenel Ka thought for a moment, then nodded. “Inform the Solos—but send four wings instead.”
Trista’s eyes widened. “Four wings?”
None of the Queen Mother’s other advisers would have dared to question her judgment, but Trista and Taryn Zel—and Jedi Knight Zekk, too, now that he and Taryn were a couple—were members of something called the Lorellian Court. Allana suspected that the Lorellian Court was an ultra-secret unit of Hapan Security. But she knew only three things about the organization for sure: First, she was forbidden to mention its existence, even to her grandparents. Second, she could trust anyone who flashed the secret face-code. And third, she would be introduced to that court on her eighteenth birthday.
When the Queen Mother did not immediately reply, Trista said, “Majesty, four wings is half the task force’s fighter complement—and those twelve-jays are older than we are.”
“Those twelve-jays are being flown by Sith pilots,” Tenel Ka said. “Until we understand their capabilities, I want to err on the side of caution.”
The tone of command in the Queen Mother’s voice was unmistakable.
“Four wings it is.” Trista inclined her head, but made no move to leave. “I also have a message from Lady Maluri.”
Tenel Ka gave a weary sigh. “Must I?”
“I’m afraid so,” Trista said. “She asked me to relay her concern that risking Hapan lives to protect Jedi younglings is a flagrant misuse of royal authority.”
Tenel Ka rolled her eyes. “Please remind Lady Maluri that the Sith attempted to assassinate her queen,” she said. “Inform her that if she is not willing to punish such an affront to Hapan sovereignty, then I will replace her with someone who is.”
“With pleasure, cousin.”
Trista bowed and started to withdraw, but Tenel Ka raised a finger to stop her.
“And see that this is the last time Lady Maluri needs to be warned about the astonishing lack of affection she displays for her queen,” Tenel Ka added. “Tell her I threw something.”
Trista smiled. “I’ll make the situation clear, Majesty.”
Tenel Ka nodded, and Trista departed.
After she was out of earshot, Allana caught her mother’s eye. “You’re risking a lot to help Grandma and Grandpa evacuate the Jedi academy,” she said. “Lady Maluri can’t be the only noble who doesn’t like helping the Jedi.”
Her mother thought for a moment, then nodded. “Yes, that’s correct. I am risking a lot—my life, and probably even yours.” She looked out the observation bubble again. “And what reason would I have for taking a risk like that? What is the only reason I would risk your life?”
Allana did not need to ponder the answer—it had been drilled into her since she was old enough to remember the phrase. “To protect the realm.”
“That’s right,” her mother said. “Had the Sith succeeded in their assassination attempt on me, there would have been a war of succession—a war that you’re not ready to fight.”
“I know,” Allana said. Sometimes it seemed like her life was just one long lesson. But she always did her best to pay attention, because she knew that someday trillions of lives would depend on her decisions. “And while our people were fighting one another, the realm would have been an easy target for outsiders.”
“For the Sith,” her mother corrected. “Whether Lady Maluri and her friends care to admit it or not, the Lost Tribe is already making war on us. All I’m doing now is lining up allies.”
“And nobody is a better ally than the Jedi,” Allana agreed. She turned back toward the cloud-swaddled planet hanging beyond the transparisteel. “Which is really good, because the Jedi are our friends. And Grandpa always says that you have to stick by your friends—no matter what.”
“Your grandfather is very wise,” her mother agreed. “And he’s right. Even if the Sith hadn’t attacked me, we would have found …”
But Allana was no longer listening, for a small hole had just opened in the Ossan clouds. It started to expand rapidly, growing from the size of her fist to larger than Anji’s head in the space of two breaths, and suddenly Allana felt her stomach rising. The hole swelled to an enormous black pit, and she realized she was falling, plummeting into a darkness deeper than space. A damp, fetid smell filled her nostrils, and the rush of passing air whispered in her ears.
Except it wasn’t a whisper. It was more of a hiss, like the sound of an angry Barabel, and Allana realized she wasn’t falling at all. But she wasn’t standing on the Dragon Queen II, either. She was in a dark corridor beneath the Jedi Temple, peeking through an open hatchway into a murky room filled with a huge nest of rodent bones.
Peering out among the bones were dozens of tiny heads. They had stubby snouts and long, flickering tongues, and their slit-pupiled eyes were shining with fear and anger. They began to pour from the nest, leaping and screeching and clawing. Allana backed away—and found herself trapped against a wall.
The young reptiles never reached her. A storm of blaster bolts erupted behind her, pouring through a durasteel wall to send the little creatures flying back into their nest, charred and smoking and dead.
Allana screamed, calling for Tesar and Wilyem to return to their hatchlings. But the Barabels never came. The nest vanished in the murk, and Allana realized she was back aboard the Dragon Queen II, locked tight in her mother’s arms. Pressed flat to the observation bubble was Anji, growling and clawing at the transparisteel.
“Allana?” her mother gasped. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
Allana glanced around, her confusion only growing as she recognized the familiar opulence of the Royal Stateroom. “Mom, I have to talk to Master Sebatyne—now!”
Her mother cocked a brow. “Master Sebatyne?” she asked. “But she’s on Coruscant—in the middle of a battle, most likely.”
“That doesn’t matter. They’re killing the—” Allana stopped herself, realizing she couldn’t say more without breaking the promise she had made to Tesar Sebatyne, that she would never, ever reveal the existence of the Barabel nest beneath the Jedi Temple. “Someone is blasting my friends’ young ones!”
“My friends on Coruscant,” Allana said. “They need our help!”
“And we’ll get it to them,” her mother assured her. “But we can’t help anyone until you calm down. Now, start from the beginning and tell me everything.”
Allana took a deep breath and held it briefly, using a Jedi relaxation technique to clear her mind and drive away the panic. Because panic was the enemy—her aunt Jaina was always telling her that. Panic had killed more people than all the blasters in the galaxy, and it would go on killing, even after there were no more wars.
After a couple of breaths, Allana felt calm enough to explain what she had seen—how she had been looking out at Ossus when a hole opened in the clouds, and how she’d fallen into it and found herself standing in a darkened corridor deep in the basement of the Jedi Temple.
“But that’s all I can tell you,” Allana said. “I promised to keep the rest secret.”
Allana scowled. “Mom! We don’t have time for the Grees Gambit,” she said. “Hatchlings are being killed.”
Her mother’s expression grew more patient than concerned. “Allana, you know you weren’t actually in that corridor, don’t you?”
“I … I know,” Allana said. “It was another Force vision, like the one I had on Klatooine.”
Tenel Ka considered this, then said, “You’re clearly very strong in the Force. That’s two visions in less than six months.”
Allana didn’t know whether to be overjoyed—or scared to death. Her father was Jacen Solo. She had not known him well, but she had read enough about his life to know that Force visions had led to his downfall, and she certainly didn’t want to follow him to the dark side. But she also knew that Grand Master Skywalker had Force visions, too, and that he seemed to accept them as guidance from the Force.
Neither of which told Allana what she should do. “If it’s a Force vision, then I’m supposed to make sure it doesn’t happen, right?” she asked. “Like I did when I saw the burning man with you?”
Her mother’s eyes flashed in alarm, but she didn’t tell Allana she was wrong. Instead, she merely turned her palms up in a gesture of helplessness.
“I wish I knew,” she said. “Every vision means something different. All I can say for certain is that this one means you’re strong in the Force.”
Allana considered this, recalling something she had overheard Luke Skywalker tell her grandmother, that Jacen had turned to the dark side because he thought it was his destiny to change what he saw. The last thing she wanted to do was make the same mistake—but she couldn’t ignore what she had seen happening to the hatchlings, either. Letting them die seemed even worse than trying to change the future.
After a moment, Allana frowned up at her mother. “Mother, that’s not much help,” she said. “How am I supposed to know what the Force is telling me to do?”
“Maybe it wasn’t telling you to do anything,” her mother said. “Force visions aren’t commands, Allana. They’re just glimpses of a future that’s always in motion. The most important thing about them is what you do after you’ve had one. That’s what determines who you’re going to become inside—and who you become is far more important to the future than any one choice you’ll ever make.”
“Grandpa calls that Lando’s Dodge,” Allana said, none too happy with her mother’s advice. “He says people use it when they don’t know what to tell you.”
Her mother smiled. “Well, the truth is that I don’t know what to tell you. You have to decide for yourself. That’s the way the Force works.”
“But what if I choose wrong?”
“Listen to your heart, and you won’t,” her mother promised. “No one can see the future, Allana—not even Grand Master Skywalker. But we shape it every day with the choices we make. All you need to do is listen to your heart. Your heart tells you what is right and just. If you do that, the future will take care of itself.”
Allana did not need to listen long. “That’s pretty easy,” she said. “I can’t turn my back on my friends. I’ve got to warn them about the danger to their young ones.”
“Then that’s what we’ll do,” her mother said. “Do you think you can warn Master Sebatyne through the Force?”
Allana thought for a moment. She could usually find her mother in the Force, even across all of the light-years that separated Coruscant and the Consortium. And sometimes she could find her grandmother. But she had never been able to locate Barv, or even Jaina, and she knew them a lot better than she did Master Sebatyne.
Finally, she shook her head. “I don’t think I can.”
“In that case, we would have to use the HoloNet,” her mother said. “And if we do that, the Sith might intercept the message. Would that matter?”
“That would be very bad,” Allana said instantly. So far, she had heard nothing to indicate that the Barabel nest had been discovered. But if the Sith intercepted a message warning Master Sebatyne of the danger to the hatchlings, they would be certain to mount a thorough search. “It would ruin everything.”
“Then maybe we should wait until after the evacuation is finished,” her mother said. “As soon as your grandparents return, we’ll ask Princess Leia to warn Master Sebatyne through the Force. Will that be okay?”
Allana thought for a moment, then nodded. “I think it has to be.”
THE GRAY MIASMA THAT FILLED ACADEMY SQUARE WAS MORE STEAM than fog. It condensed on the climate-controlled coolness of the Falcon’s flight deck canopy and ran down the transparisteel in long shimmering runnels, and it was impossible to see anything outside clearly. Woodoo Hall, just twenty meters away, was a crooked gray box, and the long line of beings emerging from it were shapeless swirls in the fog. The rest of the convoy—eleven Olanjii Sharmok-class troop transports arrayed at various points around the parade ground—were not visible at all.
It was going to be a tough run—maybe the toughest run Han Solo had ever made. The Sith were going to send the best pilots they had, and in the dense fog their Force abilities would more than neutralize the Hapan advantage in equipment and training. The sooner the convoy ran for the safety of the Battle Dragons’ turbolaser umbrella, the better its chances of survival would be.
Han activated the intercom and opened a channel to the Falcon’s rear freight ramp. “Are we loaded yet?”
The din of a hold being loaded quickly came over the cockpit speaker, then Leia said, “Almost, Han.”
“That’s what you said ten minutes ago.”
“Ten minutes is almost,” Leia said. “We’re working as fast as we can back here.”
“Well, work faster,” Han said. “I don’t like this fog. Things can hide in it.”
“Things like us, Captain Solo,” a silky Hapan voice said. “Will you stop worrying? You’re beginning to show your age.”
“Sweetheart, you’re confusing age and experience again,” Han replied, deliberately using a term that would rile a proud Hapan woman like Taryn Zel. “And my experience tells me that if you don’t get moving back there, we won’t have a chance to hide. We’ve been on the ground thirty minutes already.”
Leia’s voice came over the speaker, sharp as a vibroknife. “Han, how many students are we collecting?”
“Three hundred and twenty-two,” Han replied. He had been over the logistics of the operation a hundred times, trying to convince himself they could get it done before the Sith arrived from their not-so-secret staging base in the Colsassan moons. “But that’s only twenty-six point eight students per transport. It shouldn’t take—”
“And how many family members do they have?” Leia interrupted.
“Nine hundred and twenty-three,” Han said. “It still shouldn’t take—”
“And support staff?”
“Twelve hundred, give or take,” Han said. “But they were supposed to be—”
“And how many thousands of tons of matériel are we loading?”
“Don’t talk to me about the matériel,” Han said. “I wanted to vape that stuff.”
“And replace it with what?” Leia demanded. “The academy is moving—perhaps permanently. People are going to need a place to sleep. The students are going to need training equipment. The technicians are going to need tools and parts, and we don’t have the resources—”
“All right, all right,” Han interrupted. He knew Leia’s side of the argument as well as his own. With the GA government in the hands of the Sith, the days of unlimited funding were gone. The Jedi Order was going to need everything it could carry off of Ossus. “I just wish we didn’t have to take everything.”
“It wouldn’t be a problem if you hadn’t insisted on waiting until the last minute,” Taryn pointed out. “Commander Luvalle wanted to start this operation four hours ago.”
“What she wanted to do was spoil Luke’s play on Coruscant,” Han retorted. During the planning session, he and Luvalle had butted heads repeatedly, with the commander arguing that thirty minutes on the ground wasn’t enough time, while Han insisted they couldn’t begin the evacuation until after the Jedi had launched the attack on Coruscant. “How sure are you she isn’t Sith?”
“Quite sure, Captain Solo.” There was a coolness in Taryn’s voice that suggested she had better things to do than defend the commander’s reputation. “If you don’t mind, we’re busy back here. Princess Leia will inform you when the cargo is stowed.”
A sharp pop sounded from the speaker, and then the intercom fell silent. Han’s jaw dropped, and he spun around in the pilot’s chair, looking toward the back of the flight deck where R2-D2 was monitoring the comm station.
“Did you hear that?” he demanded. “She deactivated me!”
R2-D2 spun his dome toward the front of the flight deck, then emitted a long series of urgent whistles.
“What’s wrong?” Han demanded. C-3PO was out on loan, helping Raynar Thul figure out exactly what Abeloth was—and, with any luck, where she had disappeared to—so Han didn’t have anyone to translate the little droid’s beeps and whistles. “If she used a blaster on that intercom station, she’s riding out of here in a strut well!”
An alert chime sounded from the main display, and Han turned around to find a message from R2-D2 scrolling across the screen. THE NEWS IS WORSE THAN THAT. VHORK LEADER REPORTS THAT A WING OF SKIPRAY BLASTBOATS HAS RECENTLY EMERGED FROM HYPERSPACE.
Han’s heart began to pound ferociously, but he forced himself to remain calm. Vhork Squadron—named for a giant Daruvvian hawk that took a dim view of airspeeders encroaching on its territory—was the best starfighter squadron in the Hapan Royal Navy, and that was why they were flying top cover for the mission.
“Okay,” Han said cautiously. “So Vhork Squadron is moving to engage, right?”
R2 gave a negative chirp, then followed it with an explanatory note: INTERCEPTION FAILED. THE ENEMY ACTIVATED A JAMMING DEVICE AND DROPPED INTO THE ATMOSPHERE. VHORK LEADER REPORTS THREE TARGETS ELIMINATED, BUT THE OTHER BLASTBOATS ESCAPED, FORTY-SEVEN SECONDS AGO.
“And they’re just telling us now?”
VHORK SQUADRON IS ATTEMPTING TO REACQUIRE THE ENEMY, AND HER MAJESTY HAS DISPATCHED FOUR MIY’TIL WINGS TO SUPPORT THE EFFORT.
“Okay, plot a launch vector and have the starfighter wings assemble at the other end. We’ll bring the Sith to them.”
R2-D2 gave a confirming tweedle, then Han slapped the activation switch on the Falcon’s comm unit and opened a channel to the rest of the convoy.
“Listen up …” He relayed the details of the report he had just received. “My guess is we’ve got about five minutes before those blastboats pop out of the rift valley and start vaping anything with an ion drive. So get your cargo stowed, your hatches secured, and launch …”
Han checked his primary display for the vector.
“… local north at a seventy-degree climb. Don’t stray out of that ascension corridor, or you’ll be entering the free-fire zone.”
“What free-fire zone?” a Hapan pilot asked. “No one mentioned any free-fire zones in the briefing.”
“Plan B,” Han said. “Our fighter cover is going to zone defense.”
“Plan B called for us to drop into the rift valley and wait for an escort,” a second pilot reminded him.
“This is the new Plan B,” Han replied. “Trust me, the last thing you want is to be down in that valley with a bunch of Sith hunting you in the fog.”
Han tried to raise Leia again on the cargo hold intercom, but all he got was dead air. “Blast!” He turned to R2-D2. “Take a holo.”
The droid spun his dome around until the cam lens was pointed in Han’s direction. When the red RECORD light activated, Han began to speak.
“Leia, we’ve got a bunch of blastboats on their way. We need to be locked down and launched in five minutes. And while you’re at it, reactivate the intercom back there!” He paused until the RECORD light darkened, then addressed R2-D2 himself. “Show that to Leia—and don’t let her ignore you. Get in her way if you have to.”
Another alert chime sounded from the main display, and Han turned to find another message from R2-D2.
FIVE MINUTES CUTS THE ESCAPE SAFETY MARGIN TO ZERO.
“I hate to break this to you, Artoo,” Han said, “but we never had a safety margin.”
UNDERSTOOD. EVACUATION PROCEEDING AS PLANNED.
The droid retracted his interface arm and started down the access corridor toward the main cabin. Han began to prep the Falcon for a hot launch. The fusion core was already on standby, so he slowly began to feed it more fuel, trying to preheat the inner housing to minimize temperature stress when the big laser cannons began to suck power. At the same time, he brought the targeting computers online and engaged his active sensors. The Sith would be using the Force to find their targets anyway, so he had nothing to lose by pinging electromagnetic signals off their hulls. Finally, he activated the ion drive and brought the throttles up until the Falcon dropped her nose and began to rock and shudder on her struts.
Beyond the viewport, the blocky gray shape of a departing transport began to move through the fog on the invisible cushion of its repulsor drives. A few hundred meters ahead, a trio of blue circles flared to life and began to glow more brightly as a second vessel activated its ion engines, preparing, like Han, for an emergency launch that would turn a wide swath of Jedi academy grounds into a kilometer-long furrow of charred dirt. Given the tons of Jedi equipment that the convoy would be leaving behind on the parade ground to be captured, Han wished he’d thought to instruct all of the transports to make emergency launches—but it was already too late. The gray rectangles of two more transports began to rise through the fog, and another set of ion engines flared to life off to port.
An alert buzzer chimed from the Falcon’s control panel, and Han glanced over at the tactical display to see a line of jamming static rolling out of the nearby rift valley. He hit the general-quarters alarm—and that was when he saw Taryn Zel’s reflection in the viewport.
“Captain Solo.” She bustled onto the flight deck, with R2-D2 close behind. “We’re doing the best we can back there. If you think you can—”
She was interrupted by the distant thunder of accelerating ion engines. Han activated both sets of upper shields—forward and aft—and was still pushing the control glides to FULL when the fog grew crimson with shrieking cannon bolts. The Falcon reverberated with the crackle of shields taking hits, and the lights dimmed as power was diverted to the shield generators.
“Stang!” Taryn gasped. She spun and started back down the access corridor, already yelling back toward the main cabin. “Zekk, get those ramps up and take the belly turret. I’ll take top.”
“No, stay here and take the copilot’s chair.” Han had to yell loudly to make himself heard above the battle noise. “Have Leia take top turret. Artoo, hook yourself into the tactical net.”
Taryn paused two steps down the corridor and turned to meet his gaze in the viewport reflection. “But the Princess is—”
“A Jedi. And the Force is going to work a lot better than a targeting computer when our sensors are being jammed.” Han pointed at the copilot’s seat. “So sit.”
Taryn’s reply was lost to the deafening crackle of half a dozen simultaneous hits, and the entire flight deck strobed gold and white with dissipation static.
Taryn merely nodded and yelled something into the main cabin that Han could not hear, then hurried into the copilot’s seat and strapped in. Han checked the tactical display and found that the wall of jamming static had advanced to the edge of the academy grounds.
“Do we have everyone aboard?” he asked, still yelling to make himself heard.
Taryn shot him a tense look. “I hope so.” She fixed her attention on the ramp indicator lights, then finally nodded. “We must. The ramps are up, and I can’t imagine Zekk or Princess Leia leaving any Woodoos behind.”
Han activated the intercom again and was relieved to hear the voice of a young Jedi issuing orders in the cargo hold. There was still too much noise to make out exactly what he was saying, but he seemed to be giving orders rather than shouting in alarm, and that was good enough for Han.
He opened the shipwide channel and said, “Grab something and hold on back there. This is gonna be a very rough ride.”
As he spoke, two columns of boiling blue ions appeared in the fog and shot skyward. A heartbeat later a dozen Sith-piloted blastboats opened fire on the fleeing transports, their efflux tails curving sharply as they turned to pursue. Han checked his tactical display and saw only one Sharmok left on the ground. It launched before his eyes, vanishing from the screen, then streaked past so low overhead that it left the Falcon rocking in thrust-wash.
Han pulled the yoke back and slammed the throttles forward. The Falcon leapt after the departing convoy, though not quickly enough to prevent a dozen blastboats from slipping into line between them and the last Sharmok.
“Taryn, retract the struts and bring up the belly shields,” Han ordered. “Leia, you and Zekk clear those Skiprays off that—”
A cacophony of lock alarms screeched to life, and a series of sharp thuds reverberated through the hull as cannon bolts stitched a line of hits across the Falcon’s belly armor. Taryn hissed something angrily in Hapan, then the cabin lights flickered as the lower shields finally began to absorb damage.
Han resisted the urge to blame Taryn for being too slow and settled for a muttered curse instead.
“Not my fault, Solo,” she said anyway. “You’re the one who said retract the struts first.”
“You hear me complaining?”
“As a matter of fact, yes,” Taryn said. “What is a three-fingered shenbit wrangler, anyway?”
“Seven fingers too slow,” Han replied. “Shift seventy percent of power to our rear shields, then arm the concussion missiles. See if you can get a heat-lock on one of those blastboats.”
As he spoke, all eight of the Falcon’s big laser cannons began to chug, and the blastboats ahead started to blossom into fireballs. At the same time, the crackle of stressed shield generators began to reverberate through the ship. Han held a steady course, giving Zekk and Leia a stable firing platform that allowed them to destroy eight blastboats in as many breaths.
Finally, the load meters on both rear shields shot into the danger range, and Han knew they had run out of time. He rolled into an evasive helix, then activated the aft landing cams. He was not at all surprised to find a swarm of blue rings—blastboats silhouetted by their own exhaust plumes—glowing in the fog behind the Falcon. The gunners were obviously using the Force to aid their targeting, as his corkscrewing climb was doing nothing to diminish their accuracy.
“Can we take this kind of damage?” Taryn asked, clearly looking at the same thing Han was.
“Sure, no problem,” Han assured her. “As long as the shields hold—”
Both rear shield-overload alarms began to buzz.
Han started to pull the throttles back in an effort to trick his pursuers into overflying them—then recalled that the blastboats were being piloted by Sith, and they would see through that maneuver just as easily as their gunners were anticipating his evasive rolls.
“Okay,” Taryn said. “So what happens if the shields don’t hold?”
“Did you get that heat-lock yet?”
“Don’t get testy, old man.” Taryn said. “I’m working on it.”
“Well, stop,” Han said. “Set a pair of fuses for half a second and dump two missiles without—”
“Igniting their propulsion units,” Taryn finished. Her voice assumed a note of admiration. “You were a pretty good smuggler once, weren’t you?”
Before Han could answer—or add on my mark—he felt the drag of the Ossan atmosphere rushing into the open missile tubes. He shoved the throttles past the overload stops, then heard the muffled bang … bang of the launching charges expelling two missiles from the weapons bay.
Han did not even hear the detonation. The steering yoke simply pushed itself back into his lap, and the Falcon went into a slewing, almost-vertical climb as the vector plates were lifted by the shock wave. Damage alarms began to ring in all corners of the control panel, and Leia’s voice came over the intercom.
“Han? How bad is—”
“We’re fine.” Han began to slap the damage alarms silent, looking at each indicator just long enough to be sure that the Falcon hadn’t taken any catastrophic damage. “I think.”
“Captain Solo had me dump a pair of concussion missiles on our pursuers,” Taryn said, smiling across the flight deck at him. “You did well when you chose him, Jedi Solo. He’s quite an asset in a bad situation.”
“He does have his moments,” Leia agreed.
A deactivated damage alarm began to chime again, and Han saw that they were losing pressure in the number two sleeping cabin.
“All right, enough with the flattery.” He eased the yoke forward again—and was alarmed to feel more resistance than he should have. “We didn’t come through that exactly untouched, so keep those blastboats off our tail.”
“What blastboats?” Zekk asked. “I don’t see any down here.”
“And there aren’t any above us,” Leia added. “I think you must have gotten—”
The viewport went crimson as a pair of cannon bolts blossomed against the underpowered forward shields, and then the golden light of dissipation static began to strobe through the entire flight deck.
“They’re up here!” Han yelled, trying to figure out how the blastboats had managed to get ahead of him so quickly. He shoved the sluggish yoke forward, forcing the Falcon into an unstable dive, then glanced over and saw that Taryn was not nearly as good at reading his mind as Leia was. “What are you waiting for? Shift power to the forward shields. Launch some concussion missiles!”
A negative tweedle sounded from the comm station behind him, then a message from R2-D2 scrolled across Han’s display. HOLD YOUR FIRE. THE ATTACK IS A MISTAKE.
“A mistake?” he echoed. “Who makes a mistake like that?”
A flurry of blaster bolts flashed through the fog, missing the Falcon by more than a dozen meters, and Han realized that whoever was shooting at them didn’t have the Force—and if they didn’t have the Force, they couldn’t be Sith. He opened a hailing channel.
“Miy’til squadron, hold your fire!” he said. The blue dots of a dozen starfighter engines appeared in the fog ahead, growing larger and brighter as they approached. “We’re the good guys!”
There was a short silence, during which time the blue dots resolved themselves into blue rings, then the icy voice of a Hapan officer replied, “How do we know that?”
Taryn activated her mike and said something in ancient Lorellian.
Another pause followed, and then the woman responded in a chastened tone. “We apologize for the misunderstanding, Millennium Falcon, but you did stray into the free-fire zone.” The squadron veered away. “Continue climbing on your former vector. You’ll be clear of the sensor jamming in a minute, and then you can catch the rest of the convoy.”
“So they made it?” Leia asked. “All of them?”
“You’re number ten,” the officer replied. “So far.”
Han’s heart sank. “We were the last to launch,” he said. “If you haven’t seen the other two, that means they’re in trouble.”
The officer fell silent for a moment, then said, “We outnumber the enemy four to one, and we’re flying the latest Miy’tils. If anyone is still down there, we’ll find them.”
It was Taryn who asked the obvious question. “What if you find them too late?”
“Then the Sith will pay,” the woman said. “That I promise.”
STARING OUT ACROSS FELLOWSHIP PLAZA, WYNN DORVAN SAW LITTLE evidence that war had come to Coruscant. Pedestrians still wandered through the Walking Garden, inhaling the sweet scent of lycandis and blartree blossoms. Tourists still lingered at their tables in Wenbas Court, enjoying a leisurely lunch in the shadow of the Jedi Temple. Children continued to float in the air above Mungo Park, laughing and squealing as they turned somersaults above the giant negrav trampoline. Everywhere he looked, beings were out enjoying themselves, blissfully ignorant of the hundreds of little battles secretly raging in every corner of the planet.
And Wynn intended to keep it that way—provided, of course, he could convince his Beloved Queen of the Stars that letting her capital world slip into open warfare would not win the hearts of her subjects.
Without looking from the window, the Beloved Queen said, “I do not like all these Jedi on my planet.”
To everyone else, she appeared to be Roki Kem, an elegant Jessar female dressed in a formal white gown. But Wynn saw her in her true form. To him, she was Abeloth, a tentacle-armed monster with eyes as tiny as stars and a mouth so broad it could swallow a human head.
The Beloved Queen turned away from the window, facing a tall Keshiri woman with dark lilac skin almost as blue as Roki Kem’s. “How many of the creatures have infested us, Lady Korelei?”
A glimmer of fear showed in Korelei’s long oval eyes. “That is difficult to say, Beloved Queen,” she said. “The Jedi attack us everywhere, and yet we have not been able to find them anywhere.”
“Because you are on their world, Lady Korelei.” Wynn forced himself to meet his torturer’s gaze as he spoke, then could not quite suppress a shudder as he turned to address the Beloved Queen herself. “There can be a few hundred warriors at most. The whole Jedi Order numbers barely more than a thousand, and that includes the students they removed from beneath the Lost Tribe’s guard at Ossus.”
The Beloved Queen’s tentacle-arms rippled with her displeasure. “And yet they have slain how many Sith, Lady Korelei?”
“Less than a thousand, Beloved Queen.” As Korelei spoke, her gaze remained fixed on Wynn. “The number remains uncertain.”
“But near enough to call it a thousand?” the Beloved Queen clarified. When Korelei nodded, she continued, “Still, that leaves you five thousand Sith. I would think that would be enough to clear the problem by dawn tomorrow.”
The Beloved Queen’s words were, of course, less a question than an order. But that did not stop Korelei from dropping her chin in shame. “That I cannot do, Beloved Queen.”
“You cannot?” Her voice turned as sharp as a Sith shikkar. “I fail to see the problem.”
“The Jedi have intelligence on us.” Korelei raised her chin again. “They know our secret identities, and we know nothing of them. It gives them a permanent advantage of surprise.”
“And you have done nothing to nullify that advantage?” the Beloved Queen asked. “Surely, you have captured one?”
Unable to force herself to answer, Korelei merely looked away.
“I see.” The Beloved Queen stared at the Sith just long enough to make the woman grow pale, then asked, “What are you going to do about that?”
Korelei fixed her gaze on Wynn. “There is much that your adviser has not told us.”
“How can that be? You had more than a month with him.” The Beloved Queen turned on Wynn and studied him for many moments, until he could see nothing but the silver pinpoints of her gaze. Cold tentacles of fear began to snake down inside him, and still she did not look away. Finally she said, “Yes, there is much he has hidden from you. But if you could not get it from him in a month, you will not get it from him tonight—and by tomorrow it will be too late.”
Korelei’s slender face went gaunt with fear. “Then we have only one option, Beloved Queen,” she said. “We must reveal ourselves to the people of Coruscant. We must tell them that they are now ruled by Sith.”
Wynn’s chest tightened. “Why would you do that?” he asked. “So the entire population of Coruscant will rise against you?”
“The people of Coruscant will rise against nothing,” Korelei retorted. “They will suffer and obey—and we will know the Jedi by those who fail to tremble beneath our lash.”
Wynn’s pulse began to pound so hard it felt like his temples might burst. There was a cruel simplicity to the Sith’s plan—and one that just might succeed. If the invaders began to behave brutally enough, the Jedi would be forced to reveal themselves—to step onto the field and fight in the open, no matter how bad the odds.
The Beloved Queen smiled, her gruesome mouth stretching wide. “It will not work quickly,” she said. “But it will work.”
Wynn could tell by the excitement in her voice that it was more than Korelei’s plan his Beloved Queen liked. He had accompanied her into the undercity several times in the past day alone, and he did not need to be a Jedi to recognize how she fed on the fear and the suffering down there. It literally seemed to flow into her, making her stronger and healthier—and the more she drank in, the more she seemed to want. Korelei’s plan would give her an endless supply of fear and pain, and the entire planet would become her feeding grounds.
And that, Wynn Dorvan could not allow.
Taking a deep breath, he asked, “Beloved Queen, is this what you really want? To win the battle … and lose the war?”
The Beloved Queen’s eyes blazed white. “Lose how? The people will obey the Sith.” She turned to Korelei. “Is that not so?”
Korelei dipped her chin. “We will make it so.”
Wynn shook his head. “The people will fight,” he said. “And they won’t stop until they’re dead.”
“Then we will oblige them,” Korelei said. “They will stop fighting when we have killed enough of them.”
Wynn was not surprised to see the Beloved Queen scowl in disapproval. She was a being who fed on fear and anguish, not on death, and anything that reduced the population of Coruscant also reduced her. He stepped to the viewport and peered out across the crowded plaza, trying to think of a way to use her dark hunger to prevent all those innocent beings from being drawn into the secret war between the Jedi and the Sith—or at least to keep them ignorant of it for a while longer.
“Those beings are Coruscanti,” Wynn said, touching a finger to the transparisteel. “They’re accustomed to being the masters of the galaxy, not its slaves—and if Korelei does not understand that about your subjects, she understands nothing.”
Korelei’s expression did not darken, nor did she hiss a curse or telegraph her attack by stepping toward Wynn. Her shikkar simply slipped from its sheath and sailed toward his belly in a glassy gleam so fast he barely had time to go cold inside.
But one of the Beloved Queen’s tentacles was already curling through the air in front of him, and in the next instant Wynn was not crying out in anguish, or gasping for breath—he was, in fact, still standing on his own two feet, not even bleeding and hardly even shaking.
He forced himself to meet Korelei’s hate-filled eyes. “You need to add some new problem-solving strategies to your repertoire, Lady Korelei,” he said. “Silencing the opposition is not always the best solution.”
Korelei’s face grew stormy, and she started to raise a hand to hit Wynn with some sort of Force blast.
“Not yet,” the Beloved Queen said, stopping Korelei’s attack with a glance. “If Chief Dorvan has a better idea, I wish to hear it.”
“I do,” Wynn said, forcing himself to breathe again. He and the Bwua’tus had discussed many times how to save Coruscant from the Sith without destroying it, and it had always come down to keeping the battle confined, to setting the fight someplace from which there could be no withdrawal … for either side. “If you want the people to remain docile, Beloved Queen, you must defeat the Jedi quietly. The people must never know what you have done.”
“That’s impossible,” Korelei protested. “The only way to kill the Jedi is to find them, and the only way to find them is to flush them into the open.”
“Forgive me, but you’re wrong.” Wynn glanced down at the shikkar still hanging in the tentacle in front of him, then turned to the Beloved Queen and said, “There is only one way to find the Jedi, and that is to bring them to us.”
“To us?” the Beloved Queen echoed. “Inside my Temple?”
“Exactly,” Wynn said. He waited for a dozen heartbeats as the shikkar continued to hang in front of him—then finally sighed in relief as the tentacle withdrew and returned the weapon to Korelei. “The Sith must withdraw into the Temple—and force the Jedi to come inside after them.”
THE MILLENNIUM FALCON SAT SHUDDERING IN THE HANGAR, A MILKY drop of durasteel resting on a deck so dark and expansive it looked like a drift of open space. The vessel’s rear corner sagged over a collapsed strut, her white hull armor was pocked from cannon strikes, and the ion drives were jetting hot coolant. Yellow smoke kept billowing from the exhaust vents, and every few seconds the upper turret would shake as though the power core were about to blow. And still, the battered transport was the most beautiful thing Queen Mother Tenel Ka had seen in a long time. It was hissing, pinging, carbon-scorched proof that Han and Leia Solo had survived another close call, that they had cheated death yet again and escaped an ambush that should have left their atoms flying in the Ossan winds.
Emergency sleds and fire carts started to float out of the hangar’s dark corners, and passengers began to stream down the ramp beneath the Falcon’s hull. Several were limping or holding their arms, but no one seemed seriously injured or in a hurry. Finally, the Solos themselves emerged from the ship, Han turning to speak to the service crew and Leia bending down to say a few words to the Jedi younglings, and Tenel Ka finally began to breathe again.
“I don’t see why you were so afraid,” Allana said. She had not left Tenel Ka’s side since Aegel Squadron had reported damage to the Falcon. “You said it would be a mistake to underestimate Han and Leia Solo.”
“As it would.” Tenel Ka flashed her daughter a reassuring smile. “But of course I’m still concerned. You know how fond I am of the Solos.”
Before answering, Allana glanced across the salon toward the command center, where Trista Zel was helping Kam and Tionne Solusar assemble a report on the evacuation’s outcome. Tenel Ka was fairly certain that both Masters had deduced her daughter’s true identity long ago, but no one had said as much to Allana herself, and so Allana continued to play the Solos’ adopted daughter even in their presence.
Seeing that both Masters were busy taking reports over their headsets, she took Tenel Ka’s hand. “Grandma and Grandpa worry about you, too,” she whispered. “And so do I.”
A pang of loneliness shot through Tenel Ka’s heart, and she found herself wishing she had not been born the daughter of a Hapan prince, that she were free to raise her own daughter in her own modest apartment. But any attempt to abdicate her responsibility would only get them both killed. Anyone taking Tenel Ka’s place would not feel secure on the throne until her agents had eliminated every possible rival—especially the child of a former Queen Mother. So there was nothing to be done except what Tenel Ka was doing, and that meant continuing to pretend that her daughter was someone else’s child until Allana grew old enough to defend herself from the daggers—political and actual—that were so much a part of life in the Hapan court.
Tenel Ka squeezed her daughter’s hand. “Thank you,” she whispered. “But you don’t have to worry about me. I have a whole army of secret friends keeping watch over me.”
Allana cocked an eyebrow. “Like Trista and Taryn?”
Tenel Ka nodded. “That’s right.”
A soft swoosh sounded from the back of the salon, and Tenel Ka turned to see Han Solo stepping out of the lift tube. He paused just long enough to scan the room and locate Allana, then spread his arms and started across the salon.
“See?” There was a forced cheerfulness to Han’s voice that betrayed the concern Tenel Ka sensed in his presence. “I told you we’d be fine!”
Allana stepped into Han’s hug and squeezed him hard. “I knew you would. I was just afraid that without me to keep watch on things, the Falcon would get all banged up.” She released him, then put her hands on her hips and turned toward the viewport. “And it looks like I was right!”
“You certainly were,” Leia said, joining them. She leaned down and kissed Allana’s cheek. “The way Han wobbled in, we’re lucky we only broke one strut.”
Han flashed a scowl, but it was more of a forced grin than a true frown. “Hey, after you let all those blastboats potshot us, I was doing good just to land right-side up.” He turned back to Allana. “Isn’t that right?”
“Sure,” Allana said, smiling. “If you call bouncing across the hangar deck a landing.”
Han dropped his jaw in feigned dejection, then returned her smile. “You got me there, kid. We did come in a little rough.” He ruffled her hair, then turned to Tenel Ka and allowed his expression to show the concern she had already sensed. “So, how bad is it?”
“The Masters Solusar only arrived a few minutes ago, and they are still assembling reports,” Tenel Ka said, pointing toward the command center. “I’m sure they would be happy to give you a preview.”
Han nodded and started across the salon, but Allana caught Leia by a handful of robe and held her back. “Can you find Master Sebatyne in the Force?”
Leia stopped and said, “I can certainly try. But you know she’s probably very busy right now.”
“This is important,” Allana said. “You need to warn her about something.”
“Then of course I’ll do my best,” Leia said. “What am I warning her about?”
“The Sith. They’re going to find Tesar and the others.”
Leia’s expression grew confused. “What makes you think that?”
“Because I saw it happen,” Allana said. “In a viewport.”
Leia glanced at Tenel Ka, clearly looking for a hint.
“Another Force vision,” Tenel Ka explained. “Apparently, she saw Tesar and the other Barabels being discovered inside the Temple.”
A flicker of understanding came to Leia’s eyes. “I see.” When she turned back to Allana, there was a calm acceptance in her expression that suggested some stray bit of information had just fallen into place for her. “But you know I can’t actually talk to Master Sebatyne through the Force, right?”
Allana nodded. “That’s okay, as long as you make sure she understands.”
“I’ll do my best,” Leia said. “But we’d have to use the HoloNet to be sure.”
“No, we can’t do that,” Allana said, shaking her head. “The Sith might intercept the message, and that would only make what I saw happen sooner. It would be like I made it happen.”
“Well then …” Leia glanced toward a pair of luxurious nerf-hide chairs flanking a low beverage table in the salon’s near corner. “I’d better see what I can do.”
“We’ll give you some quiet,” Tenel Ka said. Sensing a burst of joyful surprise in the Solusars’ Force aura, she took her daughter’s hand and started toward the command center. “Perhaps you and I should check the evacuation after-reports while Princess Leia reaches out to Master Sebatyne.”
“Okay,” Allana said, allowing herself to be drawn along. “But I already know the after-reports are good.”
“Because you felt it in the Force?” Tenel Ka asked.
“That,” Allana said, “and I haven’t heard any Corellian curse words.”
And good news it was. As they approached, Kam Solusar looked up from his station and touched a button on his headset. His face was as chiseled and ruggedly handsome as ever, but the wounds he had suffered defending the Jedi academy during the Second Civil War had left him a little thinner than before.
“We’re doing well,” Kam said, smiling. “We haven’t lost anyone so far.”
The news was even better than Tenel Ka had hoped—especially considering the difficult circumstances of the mission, and the enemy’s cleverness in attacking under cover of the Ossan fog.
“When you say anyone,” she asked, “do you mean transports or people?”
“Both,” Tionne clarified. With her silver hair and white eyes, she remained a woman of ethereal beauty—despite the subtle imperfections of the prosthetic arm and leg she wore in place of the limbs she had lost during the same incident that had wounded her husband. “Sharmok seven-eighteen took some heavy damage and has lost communications. But Volgh Squadron is escorting her in, and the leader is relaying visual now. It looks like seven-eighteen will make it, too.”
Tenel Ka smiled. “That is very good news.”
“It is.” Tionne’s face grew more somber. “Though I’m afraid your Miy’til pilots have taken some casualties, and two squadrons remain engaged.”
Tenel Ka felt her stomach knot, but nodded. “We expected that,” she said. “But this is more than a rescue mission, Master Solusar. It’s a chance for the Hapan Royal Navy to assess the enemy’s capabilities.”
“I’ll bet that wasn’t an easy sell with Lady Maluri and Ducha Luvalle in the room,” Han commented. “So thanks—and I mean for everything.”
“The Consortium appreciates your gratitude, Captain Solo,” Trista Zel said, looking up from her data display. “But I assure you, the Queen Mother has no need to sell anything.”
Han raised his hands as though to apologize, then scowled and suddenly turned back to Tionne. “Did you say seven-eighteen?”
She nodded. “That’s correct.”
“And we didn’t lose any other transports?” he asked. “You’re sure?”
“We’re sure, Han,” Kam said. “We’re Jedi Masters. We can count to twelve.”
“Yeah—but it shouldn’t have been this easy.” Han circled around to the back of the crescent-shaped console, then leaned over Trista’s shoulder to study the data display. “It was a mess down there, and seven-eighteen got jumped in front of us. She got jumped hard.”
Trista craned her neck to look up at him. “Captain Solo, are you suggesting—”
“I’m not suggesting anything. Seven-eighteen launched ahead of the Falcon. Now she’s the straggler.” Han stabbed a finger at the display. “And it looks like she’s making for the flagship. You figure it out.”
Trista spoke into her throat-mike, then her face paled as she listened to the reply. A second later she began to snap orders.
“Have Volgh Leader signal seven-eighteen to veer off now,” she said. “And no excuses. Warn the pilot that if she’s still on this vector in sixty seconds, she will be vaped.”
“Vaped?” Allana looked up at Tenel Ka. “But she’s carrying academy students!”
“She’s supposed to be.” Tenel Ka extended her Force awareness in the transport’s direction, but there were fifteen Battle Dragons and close to a dozen clusters of Jedi students in the area, and it was impossible to tell whether the presences she sensed were aboard Sharmok 718. “But her behavior is suspicious. Something is very wrong.”
Tenel Ka stepped around behind the console, and her heart fell when she saw the display. One of the screens showed a close-up image of a Sharmok transport gliding through a starry drift of space. With a line of scorch holes angling up her stern quarter, a pair of jagged rings where the cannon turrets used to be, and a hull crumple behind her main hatch, the vessel had clearly seen some savage close-quarters combat.
A dot of white light appeared against the flight deck viewport and began to blink on and off in the staccato rhythm of the Hapan military’s flash code.
“Any sign they were boarded?” Tenel Ka asked.
“None reported,” Trista replied.
“There wouldn’t be,” Han said. “Sharmok air locks use a standard two-stage touch pad, right?”
Tenel Ka considered the hull-crumple behind the hatch and, realizing that it looked more like collision damage than a missile strike, saw what Han was saying.
“You’re suggesting the Sith used the Force to open the air lock?” She glanced at the identification strip at the bottom of the display and saw that the image was coming to them from the battle cam of Volgh Leader. “I must agree. Trista, instruct Volgh Leader to open fire on Sharmok seven-eighteen’s ion drives immediately.”
Tenel Ka felt the Force shudder with the shock of her companions, but the precision of the command left no opportunity to question its wisdom. Han gave her a quick, tight-lipped nod, and Trista spoke into her throat-mike, relaying the order. The Solusars merely exchanged a wide-eyed glance—no doubt checking with each other to see if either thought Tenel might be overreacting.
“But what if there are still academy students aboard?” Allana objected. “They could be killed!”
“That’s why Volgh Leader is targeting the ion drives.” Han took Allana by the shoulders and pulled her close. “If that Sharmok is being flown by Sith, no way can we let her get near the flagship. So we’re going to disable her and send a boarding party to take control.” He looked back to Tenel Ka. “Right, Your Majesty?”
“Correct.” Tenel Ka smiled a silent thanks to Han, then checked the tactical display to find the Battle Dragon closest to the transport. “Trista, have the Daphoros execute a tractor beam capture of Sharmok seven-eighteen as soon as the engines have been disabled, then send a boarding company to retake—”
“If I may, Your Majesty,” Kam said, interrupting as politely as possible. “Given the Sith involvement, it might be wise for me to take some Jedi along.”
“Excellent point, Master Solusar,” Tenel Ka said, feeling a pang of regret that she could not join the Jedi Knights going to fight the Sith. “Trista, inform the Daphoros that Master Solusar will be joining the boarding company as its commander. And suggest to the Lady Commander that she send her best assault team on this mission.”
As Tenel Ka spoke, she kept one eye on the tactical display, watching as Volgh Leader and her wingmate came in for their attack run. Rather than dropping back behind the target and risking an engine detonation by firing directly up the thrust nozzles, the Miy’tils were swinging in from the flank. For a moment, as the Sharmok continued toward the Dragon Queen II without altering her vector, Tenel Ka began to think Han might be wrong, that perhaps 718 had merely lost her Hapan crew and was now being piloted by some terrified Jedi apprentice.
But half a second before the Miy’tils opened fire, the transport’s designator symbol jerked left as the pilot took evasive action. The first Miy’til symbol flashed white as the starfighter opened fire, then shot past without a hit. The wingmate opened fire in the next heartbeat, and the Sharmok’s color changed to yellow, for “damaged.” Sighing in relief, Tenel Ka switched her attention to the visual display and saw only whirling stars as Volgh Leader wheeled back around toward the target.
“Report,” Tenel Ka ordered. “Did they disable the engines?”
“Patience, Majesty,” Trista said. “They need time to evaluate.”
Taking her cousin’s gentle chide in stride—someone had to keep her humble, after all—Tenel Ka fixed her gaze on the visual display, hardly daring to breathe as stars whirled past. Finally, the Sharmok’s ion tail drifted into view, flickering and flashing as her sublight drives flamed out. By the time the entire stern appeared, the last engine had stopped, and the image showed only a trio of red-hot exhaust nozzles.
Tenel Ka let her breath out—and the screen went white with a detonation flash. She felt a terrible ripping in the Force and heard her Jedi companions gasping in shock—then she heard a small, frightened cry and knew her daughter had felt it, too, the searing pain of three hundred lives coming to a single end.
Tenel Ka pivoted around and knelt before Allana, folding her into her embrace. “Come here.”
Allana remained limp in her arms. “I felt them end,” she said. “I felt them—”
“I know, sweetheart.” Tenel Ka resisted the temptation to tell her daughter not to think about it, because she knew that was impossible. No one could feel the deaths of several hundred people and simply forget about it—especially not a nine-year-old girl. “The Sharmok’s ion drives must have taken a critical—”
“No way,” Han said from behind Tenel Ka. “That was no engine blast. Engine blasts don’t take out whole starfighter squadrons.”
“What?” Tenel Ka craned her neck, but did not rise to look. Allana needed to be held right now. “We lost Volgh Squadron? How much of it?”
“All of it,” Han reported. “The blast radius was three kilometers. They don’t make ion drives big enough to cause that kind of blast. Had to be baradium—a lot of it. That ship was rigged.”
Allana looked over Tenel Ka’s shoulder. “You mean the Sith did it?” she asked. “They blew everyone up because we wouldn’t let them aboard?”
Han’s face grew sad. “Yeah, sweetheart, that’s what I mean.” His gaze shifted from Allana to Tenel Ka. “That bomb was meant for the Queen Mother.”
Allana’s posture grew rigid. “They were trying to trick us?” She slipped free of Tenel Ka’s embrace and looked her in the eye. “Again?”
Tenel Ka nodded. “That’s what Sith do,” she said. “That’s why we need to be so careful around them.”
As Tenel Ka spoke, Leia approached from the corner of the salon. Her expression was calm, but the concern in her Force aura suggested that she had felt the deaths as clearly as the others. She took one look at the somber faces gathered around the console and dropped her gaze in sorrow.
“How bad is it?” she asked.
“They captured Sharmok seven-eighteen.” Tionne’s voice was filled with grief. “It appears they were trying to use it to sneak a baradium device aboard the flagship … to eliminate Queen Mother Tenel Ka.”
Leia’s eyes flashed, and she could not help glancing in Allana’s direction. Like Tenel Ka, the Solos had been warned by the Skywalkers about what had happened at the Pool of Knowledge, when a Sith High Lord had seen an image of a Jedi queen sitting on the Throne of Balance. Obsessed with preventing the vision, the Sith believed Tenel Ka to be that queen, and their mistake had resulted in a series of misguided assassination attempts. It was a burden she gladly carried in order to protect her daughter.
After a moment, Leia said, “We should certainly count ourselves fortunate they didn’t succeed.” She stepped around the console and began to study the tactical display. “But I can’t help thinking of the passengers—of all those students and their families. Do we know for sure they were aboard?”
“Yeah, we do,” Han said. “Seven-eighteen was just ahead of us when we launched, and it wasn’t far behind when we landed. The Sith didn’t have time to off-load three hundred prisoners—even if they had wanted to.”
Kam nodded. “My guess is the whole blastboat attack was designed to cut a transport out of the convoy and conceal a bomb on it,” he said. “Still, there were over two dozen students aboard who were old enough to put up a fight. The Sith would have needed a sizable force to capture their target so quickly, and we don’t actually know who died on that Sharmok.”
“Right. The bomb might have been Plan B.” Han paused and glanced in Allana’s direction, then apparently decided there was no need to spell out the possible alternative—that the Sith’s Plan A had been to land an elite boarding company and capture the Dragon Queen II for their navy. He turned to Tenel Ka and said, “It wouldn’t hurt to have someone check along seven-eighteen’s trajectory to see what they find.”
“Are you trying to be clever again?” Allana asked, looking at Han. “Because I know what you’re saying—that they might have dumped the passengers out an air lock.”
“It’s certainly worth checking,” Tenel Ka said. She nodded to her cousin. “Trista will see to it.”
Trista acknowledged the order with a quick nod and began to speak into her throat-mike. When Tenel Ka turned back to her daughter, she found Allana looking more worried than ever.
“There’s nothing to fear,” Tenel Ka said. “That Sharmok was never going to come aboard. That’s why we have Royal Protocol.”
“I’m not worrying about us,” Allana said. “It’s the Barabels. The Sith just killed almost thirty Jedi and their families, and pretty soon they’re going to kill Tesar and his—”
Her eyes went wide, and she ended the sentence without finishing the thought. Instead, she turned toward Leia. “Does Master Sebatyne understand about my vision?”
Leia’s expression grew apologetic, and she shook her head. “I don’t think so. She seemed to be, well, hunting, and when I tried to make her think of Tesar, she just withdrew. I was trying to reach her again when …” She finished with a glance toward the console, then added, “I don’t think it’s going to work.”
“It doesn’t sound like it,” Allana agreed. Her face grew serious, then she said, “I guess I have to do this myself.”
Leia’s brow rose. “Do what yourself?”
“Go to Coruscant,” Allana said simply. She turned to Han. “How soon can you have the Falcon repaired?”
Han scowled. “Never, if you’re expecting to fly to Coruscant in it,” he said. “Haven’t you heard? The place is crawling with Sith.”
“We won’t be there long,” Allana said. “All I need to do is find Barv. He can warn Tesar.”
Han looked relieved. “Why didn’t you say so? I can find Barv. What’s the message?”
“That I need to speak to him,” Allana said. “Aboard the Falcon.”
Han shook his head. “No way,” he said. “You’re wasting your breath, kid. The message or nothing.”
Allana scowled at Han for a moment, then exhaled sharply and turned to Leia. “He doesn’t understand,” she said. “This is about the Force. I have to warn Tesar myself.”
“Isn’t Tesar hiding inside the Temple?” Leia asked.
Allana looked more worried than ever. “I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t have to,” Leia said. “It’s rather obvious, now that I’ve had a chance to put everything together.”
Allana looked crestfallen. “You mean I let their secret out?”
“Not at all,” Tionne said. Her voice was warm and comforting, and Tenel Ka could tell she was using the Force to help calm Allana. “The Masters have suspected there’s a nest for quite some time.”
“And that has nothing to do with you,” Kam assured her. “Tesar and the other young Barabels disappeared months ago, and Master Sebatyne has been very touchy about the subject. We’d have to be fools not to figure it out.”
“But only you and Barv know where to find the nest, right?” Tenel Ka asked. “So you haven’t betrayed the Barabels’ trust at all.”
“She’s right, Allana,” Leia said. “And we’ll make sure Barv explains that when we sneak him into the Temple to warn the Barabels. No one will be angry with you, I promise.”
Allana frowned. “What if you can’t find Barv?”
“We’ll find him,” Han said. “We’re good at that sort of thing, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“What if Barv is dead?” Allana countered. “The place is crawling with Sith, and he’s fighting them—probably a lot of them, as big as he is.”
Han’s face went blank, and Leia looked at him with a she’s-got-you-there expression.
“You see?” Allana insisted. “Bringing me is the only way to be sure.”
Han’s expression only hardened. “Then we’re just gonna have to gamble,” he said. “Because you’re not coming. That’s final.”
Allana rolled her eyes, then turned to Tenel Ka. “Tell him,” she said. “It’s my Force vision, and that means I have to decide what to do about it.”
“Perhaps, but it’s Captain Solo’s ship, and that means only he decides who flies on it,” Tenel Ka said. “Why don’t we give your guardians a chance to handle this? I really do think it’s for the best.”
Allana gave Tenel Ka such a look of betrayal that it made her heart ache, and then the little girl turned to Leia with beseeching eyes.
Leia merely shrugged. “Han said final. You know what that means.”
“Yes, I do.” Allana fixed an exasperated glare on Han, then said, “It means he’s being a ronto-head.”
“Fine,” Han retorted. “I’m a ronto-head. And you’re still not coming.”
“Fine.” She spun away from him and started for the chairs in the corner. “But don’t blame me if Tesar bites your arm off. He doesn’t like ronto-heads, either.”
LUKE STOOD WATCHING THE OLD BOTHAN LIMP BACK AND FORTH across the grimy floor of the undercity industrial hangar. The Bothan was addressing three brigades of elite space marines, explaining why he had asked them to volunteer for a mission to overthrow the Galactic Alliance’s current Chief of State, Roki Kem. Whether human, Bothan, or another species, all of the soldiers had the steady gaze of veterans who had seen too much to doubt their commander’s incredible story of infiltration and deception. Their shoulder patches represented units from a hundred different vessels stationed near Coruscant, and their average age skewed ten standard years older than that of a typical combat unit. And they all had at least two things in common: they had all served aboard a ship personally commanded by Admiral Nek Bwua’tu, and when he had commed to ask them to help him save the Galactic Alliance, they had all answered with an unwavering yes.
“… the enemy has retreated into the Jedi Temple with seventy-five percent of its forces.” The admiral’s words seemed to reverberate from every corner of the hangar as a small mike in his tunic collar relayed his voice to a network of speakers spaced throughout the formation. “This withdrawal is certainly a trap, designed to lure our Jedi friends into an ambush against a superior Sith force …”
Luke turned to another Bothan standing at his side, Admiral Bwua’tu’s dapper uncle, Eramuth. “To tell the truth, Counselor, I’m not sure why you waited for the Jedi to return,” he said quietly. “Club Bwua’tu seems to have the war well in hand without us.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t figured that out by now, Master Skywalker,” Eramuth replied, maintaining a straight face. “We needed the cannon fodder.”
“Cannon fodder?” Luke echoed, almost taking the old Bothan seriously. “You couldn’t have hired Mandalorians?”
The Bothan shook his gray-furred head. “Of course,” he said. “But they didn’t manage very well the last time they tried to storm the Temple.”
“I see,” Luke said. “It’s nice to know you have more faith in the Jedi Order.”
“There’s that.” A crooked smile snaked along Eramuth’s muzzle, then he added, “And you do work for free.”
Luke cocked a brow, then chuckled and turned back toward the marine brigades. He knew as well as Eramuth did that the vast majority of today’s casualties would be space marines—and that the admiral had made the danger clear before asking anyone to volunteer. That so many had accepted his call to overthrow the Galactic Alliance Chief of State—a mission that was, at first glance, an act of treason—was a testament to the soldiers’ faith in the honor and ability of their beloved admiral.
“… are going to turn Roki Kem’s trap against her,” Bwua’tu was explaining. He stopped pacing and turned to face his space marines, and the corners of his long mouth rose into a cunning grin. “We’re going to launch simultaneous assaults against the Temple at thirty different points, with the objective of forcing Kem to redeploy the bulk of her forces to the Temple perimeter.”
Bwua’tu stopped and extended his new prosthetic arm toward Luke. “Grand Master Skywalker will brief you on the rest of the mission.”
Luke activated the mike on his own collar and stepped to the admiral’s side. “First, I want to thank you all for volunteering for this mission. As Admiral Bwua’tu has explained, it’s not just the Jedi Temple we are liberating. The Lost Tribe of the Sith has infiltrated every level of the Galactic Alliance government, and our victory today will prevent them from achieving their goal of dominion over the entire galaxy.”
A barely audible rustle rippled through the brigade as the space marines shifted their weight from one foot to another, and Luke realized these soldiers were no strangers to assignments in which the fate of the galaxy hung in the balance. He took a deep breath, and then continued.
“Your objective is to draw the Sith forces to the Temple’s outer shell. Once you have succeeded, I will be able to deactivate the Temple shields and open the blast doors from a central location. When that occurs, Admiral Bwua’tu expects the Sith to stand their ground and continue fighting. Assuming he’s correct, the Jedi will launch a series of attacks from the Temple interior, driving the enemy out onto the Temple exterior, where they will be exposed to fire from your assault carriers’ heavy weapons.”
Sensing a tide of uncertainty rising inside the minds of the veteran soldiers, Luke opened his palm and motioned for patience, acknowledging their questions before the first one could be asked.
“If they don’t do as the admiral anticipates—”
“They will,” Bwua’tu interrupted, drawing a chorus of good-natured chuckles. “Of that, you may be certain.”
Luke smiled, then shrugged. “Of course the admiral is right,” he said. “But if the Sith do fall back, make sure that your Jedi liaison makes contact with a Master before dismounting to press the attack. Whether we push the Sith out of the Temple or into it, our goal is to trap them between the fist and the wall.”
Luke illustrated the remark by bringing his fist down into his open palm. He sensed another question rising in a marine standing near him, a Duros female in the third rank. Before she could request permission to speak, he pointed to her.
The Duros’ eyes widened slightly, then she smiled and asked, “How certain are you that you’ll be able to bring the shields down and open those blast doors?”
“Not as certain as I’d like to be,” Luke admitted. “But if the first attempt fails, we’ll keep trying.”
Luke grew somber. “Until we can’t anymore,” he said. “And if that happens, there’ll be a baradium strike.”
“After I call off the Temple assault, of course,” Bwua’tu clarified. “If I order a withdrawal, waste no time before obeying. We won’t be giving the enemy time to escape, so the missiles will be on the way as I speak.”
The hangar reverberated with the crump of thousands of boot heels cracking together, and Bwua’tu nodded in satisfaction.
“Good.” The admiral turned to Luke, then said, “I think we’re ready to assign the liaisons.”
Luke nodded and turned toward the hangar wall, where a line of fifteen Jedi stood at attention. He motioned to the first Jedi Knight in line, Admiral Bwua’tu’s young nephew Yantahar, then turned back to the space marines.
“Your commanders have already been briefed on this, but you should all know that a Jedi Knight will accompany each battalion into battle,” Luke said. “Their role is strictly advisory, but I urge you to pay attention to their advice. You’ll be fighting in a Force-heavy environment, and they will be able to sense many things you cannot—including the location of the Jedi Order’s own assault teams.”
Yantahar presented himself at Luke’s side, standing tall and straight in a Jedi robe over light battle armor, then executed a formal bow to the marines.
“Yantahar Bwua’tu,” Yantahar said, using the Force to project his voice across the hangar. “At your service.”
The admiral beamed at him for a moment, then called, “Brigade one, Battalion One!”
“Here, sir!” answered a dark-skinned human female in a colonel’s uniform.
Yantahar went to stand next to the woman. Luke called out the next Jedi Knight in line, another Bothan named Yaqeel Saav’etu, who presented herself in the same manner and was assigned to the next brigade. But when the time came to call out the third Jedi Knight in line, Bazel Warv, Luke skipped ahead to the next Jedi.
Immediately a wave of confusion and concern rippled through the Force, and Luke regretted that there had been no opportunity to speak with the big Ramoan before the briefing began. He caught Bazel’s eye and raised a finger, signaling him to remain patient, then introduced the rest of the Jedi liaisons.
When there was only one Jedi left, Luke turned to Admiral Bwua’tu. “I’m afraid your liaison hasn’t arrived yet.”
Bwua’tu frowned and glanced over at Bazel, who was watching the exchange with the lips of his huge muzzle curled into an expression that seemed caught halfway between eagerness and puzzlement.
“Is there some reason that Jedi Warv is unavailable?” Bwua’tu asked. “My nephew says that Jedi Saav’etu holds him in high regard. Apparently, he’s quite resourceful.”
“That he is,” Luke agreed. “But I’m afraid something has come up that will prevent him from taking part in the battle.”
Luke had barely uttered the words before a wave of disappointment rolled through the Force, and he knew without doubt that Bazel had been eavesdropping on the exchange—despite the fact that his big ears had been turned toward the sides of his enormous head.
“That’s too bad,” Bwua’tu said, offering his hand to Luke. “Perhaps I should allow you to go explain the situation. He seems quite disappointed, and we both have a lot to do.”
“Very true, Admiral.” Luke shook Bwua’tu’s hand. “I’ll send Jedi Dorvald to replace Jedi Warv soon. May the Force be with you until we meet again.”
“You’re the one who’s going to need it, my friend,” Bwua’tu replied. “All I have to do is sit in the command post and watch.”
“All the same,” Luke said. “You know how to contact Master Sebatyne, if the need arises?”
“Certainly,” Bwua’tu said. “Just watch for Sith falling out of the sky.”
Luke smiled, fully aware that the admiral was only half joking. Saba was keeping the pressure on the Sith who had not retreated into the Temple, leading Izal Waz and a small team of younger Jedi Knights on what she called “the never-ending hunt.”
“A comlink will work, too,” Luke said. He started toward the grimy durasteel wall where Bazel Warv stood, at the same time drawing his comlink and opening a channel to Ben. “Is Jedi Dorvald still with you?”
“Affirmative,” Ben replied. “We just got the speeder locked down. But this is a rough neighborhood, so Doran is staying behind.”
“Good,” Luke said. “Bring Seha with you when you join me.”
“Affirmative,” Ben said. “See you soon.”
As Ben signed off, Luke reached the wall where Bazel stood waiting. The big Ramoan was standing next to a doorway, which opened into a dark corridor that led out to the docking balcony. He looked dejected, his huge green shoulders sagging so far that his knuckles hung next to his knees.
“Did I do something wrong, Master Skywalker?” he asked in his gravelly voice. “I just want to—”
“You did nothing wrong.” Luke reached up and placed a hand on one of Bazel’s huge biceps. “But I’ve received a message from the Solos. They’re on their way here to see you.”
Luke nodded. “Yes. They need you to do something for Amelia.”
Bazel’s long ears went out sideways from his head. “For Amelia?” he asked. “What?”
“I was hoping you could tell me,” Luke replied. “They said they couldn’t explain it over the HoloNet, but that you were the only one who could do it.”
Bazel’s ears swung back flat against his head, and his big bulbous eyes shifted away from Luke.
“Bazel,” Luke asked, putting some durasteel in his voice, “what do they want?”
The Ramoan spread his huge hands. “I don’t know,” he said. “How could I? They’re not even here yet.”
“You have an idea,” Luke pressed. “What is it?”
Bazel let out a sigh that felt like a hot breeze against Luke’s face. “It must have something to do with the secret.”
Luke’s heart rose into his throat. “Amelia’s secret?” he asked. “How did you find—”
“The other secret, Master Skywalker!” Bazel interrupted, shaking his big head from side to side. “Not her secret name!”
“You know her real name?” Luke asked, stunned. “How?”
Bazel’s voice grew soft. “Master Skywalker, I can’t tell you that right now.”
Realizing that Bazel was no longer looking at him, but over him toward the doorway, Luke scowled. He, too, could sense a trio of presences coming through the doorway behind him—and if Bazel knew enough about Allana’s secret to be that careful with it, he probably knew who Allana really was. Fighting to keeping his alarm from bleeding into the Force, Luke pivoted around to see his son stepping into the hangar.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Ben said, stepping aside to allow Seha Dorvald’s lithe form through the door. “But I said we’d see you soon.”
“No problem, son.” Luke nodded to Seha, but continued to watch the door. “Is Vestara—”
“Right here, Master Skywalker,” Vestara said. She entered the room, being careful to avoid looking in Bazel’s direction. “I hope we didn’t miss anything important.”
THE ASSAULT WOULD SUCCEED, VESTARA KNEW, FOR ONE SIMPLE REASON: the Jedi knew their ancient Temple better than its Sith occupiers ever could. Within the hour, the Jedi would penetrate the immense structure in force, and the Circle of Lords would come to understand how badly they had underestimated Luke Skywalker. By the time Skywalker was finished, there wouldn’t be a High Lord left alive on Coruscant, and any survivors back on Kesh would be too busy worrying about him to even think about hunting her down.
At least that was Vestara’s hope. If the Jedi attack proved successful enough, she might even consider sending a message to the surviving High Lords, promising to reveal Kesh’s location if she so much as smelled a Sith looking for her. Such a threat would work only if the High Lords were truly frightened of Luke and his Jedi—and after today, they would be.
A dull clang echoed through the crowded pumping station, and the large bypass pipe in front of Vestara trembled with an internal pressure change. The upper half rotated away, exposing the damp interior of a water main roughly one and a half meters in diameter. Ben and his cousin Jaina hoisted a maintenance capsule into the main, then opened the hatch. Inside the capsule was a cramped passenger cabin, complete with dual couches and a pilot’s yoke. Ben activated the control panel and waited while it ran a two-second systems check, then put a foot on the access step and turned to Vestara.
“As ready as I’ll ever be.” Vestara touched the empty lightsaber hook on her hip. “I just wish I had a weapon—even a blaster.”
Ben’s face fell, but before he could speak, Jaina stepped forward.
“Sorry, Vestara. That’s the way it has to be.” Her voice was firm without being combative. “If being without a weapon worries you, you can always stay behind.”
“Not really,” Vestara said, putting a hint of understanding in her voice. “I need to prove my loyalty.”
Ben shook his head. “Ves, you shouldn’t take—”
“Please don’t, Ben,” she said. “I understand why the Masters find it hard to trust me. Truly, I do.”
“This isn’t just about the Masters,” Jaina said, taking another step closer. Vestara began to have the unpleasant feeling that Jaina understood her game better than she did herself. “Not everyone in the Jedi Order has spent time with you. For a lot of us, it’s hard to trust a Sith.”
“A former Sith,” Ben corrected. “Come on, Jaina. Her own father tried to kill her.”
“Okay, a former Sith,” Jaina said, barely glancing at him. “I’m serious, Vestara. If going into battle unarmed bothers you, then stay here.”
“And how will the Jedi know who the High Lords are?” Vestara asked. “How will they know when they have found the Grand Lord?”
“We’ll get by,” Jaina replied.
“Or blame me when something goes wrong.” Vestara climbed the step and placed a hand on Ben’s hip. “You’re not going anywhere without me. I need to be there to watch your back—even if I don’t have a weapon to defend it.”
An impatient tweedle sounded from the pumping station’s interface panel, and the R9 unit plugged into the dataport began to flash its projection lamp at them.
“I guess we’d better get in,” Ben said. “We’re holding things up.”
Vestara climbed into the capsule and stretched out on the passenger’s couch, then waited in the antiseptic-tinged air as Ben slipped in beside her and pulled the pilot’s yoke up between his knees. The hatch sealed automatically, and a soft green light filled the interior. As soon as Vestara had strapped in and brought the navigation display online, Ben activated the control thrusters.
A muffled thump sounded behind them as the droid opened the pipe again, then a loud gurgling echoed through the capsule, and Vestara felt her stomach rise as they slowly accelerated. Ben’s gaze went straight to the navigation display. It showed nothing ahead but a long stretch of uninterrupted pipe.
Vestara allowed an uncomfortable silence to hang between them for the first hundred meters of travel, then asked, “So, where are we going? Besides the Jedi Temple, I mean.”
Ben didn’t reply for a moment, keeping his eyes on the display and obviously struggling over how much to tell her.
“Oh, right. I’ll find out when we get there.” Vestara turned her gaze back to the padded hatch cover hanging just a dozen centimeters above her face. “And I’ll be sure to tell Jaina how careful you were to keep me in the dark.”
Ben sighed. “It’s not that, Ves,” he said. “I’m just not sure how to explain it to you.”
“It’s okay, Ben.” She pulled her arm away from her side, so that it was no longer touching him, and folded it across her stomach. “I understand.”
“Look, all I know is that it’s Level One-seventy-five, Sector Twelve, Twenty-two North Eighteen,” Ben said. “Does that mean anything to you? Because it sure doesn’t to me.”
“Level One-seventy-five?” Vestara asked. “That’s pretty high up, isn’t it?”
“Sure—if you’re a granite slug,” Ben scoffed. “But it’s still farther down than I usually go. It’s one of the mechanical cores, I think.”
“Core?” Vestara echoed. “As in, central core?”
“Yeah, Ves,” Ben replied. “That’s where the ‘core’ usually is. In the center.”
“I suppose so,” Vestara said, allowing some of her growing—and very real—fear to seep into her voice. “Maybe I should have listened to Jaina.”
Ben glanced over at her, his brow arched. “What makes you say that?”
“I don’t think the Masters have thought this through,” she said. “Ben, I come from a planet with tens of thousands of Sith. And half of them are probably right here on this planet, hiding inside the Jedi Temple.”
Ben dipped his chin, trying to conceal a smile. “That’s kind of what we’re counting on, Vestara.”
Vestara’s stomach went hollow. She had expected their team’s objective to be the capture of a cargo dock, so the Jedi would have a bridgehead from which to invade the rest of the Temple. But this sounded like they planned to emerge well inside the Sith perimeter and attack outward—and if that was their intention, it could only mean that the Jedi knew a way to disable the shields and open the Temple remotely.
“The Jedi have a secret override, don’t they?” she asked. “You’re just going to open the doors and let all those space marines come in shooting?”
“Something like that.” Ben looked over at her, his eyes soft with concern. “Does that bother you?”
Vestara hesitated for a moment, then nodded. “Yes, I guess it does.” It would have been useless to say anything else; Ben would have sensed the lie in two heartbeats. “There’s not one Saber in there who wouldn’t ignite a lightsaber through the back of my head, so I know it shouldn’t. But …”
“But they’re your own people.” Ben nodded. “You wouldn’t be human if seeing them killed didn’t bother you.”
“Thanks, Ben. I’m glad you understand.”
“No problem,” he replied. “I know it’s not easy.”
An alert ping sounded from the navigation unit, and a Y-intersection appeared on the screen ahead. Ben’s knuckles paled as his grasp tightened on the steering yoke, and Vestara saw him begin a silent count as he prepared to make the turn into the Temple. She found herself trying to imagine a life with him that didn’t involve being a Jedi or Sith, just two regular people trying to make their way in the galaxy. Of course, they would never be too regular. But she could see them being happy as professional gamblers, or even a husband-and-wife bounty hunter team—providing, of course, that she could persuade Ben to use the Force for something other than saving the galaxy.
Ben’s gaze locked on the navigation screen, and he eased them through the turn, bouncing off the pipe wall just once before he brought the capsule back under control. Almost instantly another intersection appeared at the bottom of the display, along with a small inset schematic showing a tangled network of navigable conduits.
“It won’t be long now, I guess,” Vestara said.
“Only a couple of minutes,” Ben answered. “We just crossed into the Temple.”
“Ben?” Vestara asked. Her dream of making a life together outside the Jedi Order was as much a fantasy as had been those letters she had written to an imaginary loving father, but she had to know—to be certain—before the battle began. Ben deserved that much. “Have you ever thought about not being a Jedi?”
“Sure,” Ben said, surprising her. “But not since I was a kid.”
“You didn’t want to be a Jedi when you were young?”
Ben shook his head. “Not at all.” He rolled the capsule up on its side, preparing to enter a riser pipe they were approaching. “I was in Shelter when Abeloth contacted the younglings.”
“And you weren’t affected?”
“Only because I withdrew from the Force.” Ben’s gaze remained fixed on the display, and he seemed to be only half listening. “I don’t remember a lot about it.”
“What about now?” Vestara asked. “Can you see yourself doing something else?”
Ben tipped the steering yoke away, his brow furrowing in concentration as he swung them into the riser.
“Why would I?” A knell rang through the capsule as it slammed into the pipe, then it hit the other side, and Ben cursed under his breath. “I need to concentrate on piloting this thing. Can we talk about this later?”
“No need,” Vestara said. “It was a silly question anyway.”
She had her answer—and it made her feel like a black hole inside.
Vestara could never be a Jedi, not in any true sense of the word. Ben could be nothing else. Their love had been doomed from the start—from five thousand years before they were born—and now all that remained was for her to accept reality and find a way to survive without the Jedi to protect her from the Lost Tribe’s vengeance.
Fortunately, if it came to it, Vestara would have something to trade. At first, she had not understood the significance of the conversation between Master Skywalker and Bazel Warv. Most young girls had secrets, so it had taken her a moment to grasp the significance of Amelia Solo’s “secret name.” But Master Skywalker’s reaction—and how quickly he had ended the conversation when he realized they were not alone—had certainly suggested to Vestara that Amelia’s secret was one the Jedi themselves took very seriously. The final confirmation had been the wave of alarm she had felt when she rounded the corner and stepped through the door with Ben, when Master Skywalker—and even Ben, to a certain extent—had realized what she had just overheard.
After that, it had been a simple matter for Vestara to complete the puzzle. At the Pool of Knowledge, she had glimpsed enough of the face that High Lord Taalon had seen on the Throne of Balance, and that glimpse had been enough to know the Jedi Queen was a redhead who bore a striking resemblance to the Hapan Queen Mother, Tenel Ka. It was well known that Tenel Ka and Jacen Solo had been classmates at the Jedi academy on Yavin 4, and the gossip media suggested they had remained “friends” until Jacen set fire to Kashyyyk.
It was a fact that Tenel Ka had given birth to a baby girl name Allana, whose father she refused to identify. Allana had reportedly been killed during the Second Civil War, when Moffs attempted to assassinate Tenel Ka’s entire family with one of their nanoviruses. At about the same time, the Solos had adopted a Force-sensitive war orphan of the same age.
But most telling, now that Vestara thought back, was the day she had seen Han and Amelia together in a hologram. She had been aboard the Jade Shadow when Han Solo commed to report that Leia had been arrested, and Amelia had been in the holo with him. Vestara had suggested that Han take the child along when he went to seek his wife’s release from Chiefs of State Padnel Ovin and Wynn Dorvan. At the time, she had thought she was merely reacting to how cute Amelia was. But now she realized it was more than that—she had been reacting to a family resemblance.
Amelia Solo had Han Solo’s eyes and mouth. Even more telling, there was a hint of a crooked grin in Amelia’s smile. Vestara closed her eyes and looked back in her memory, using meditation and the Force to sharpen her recall, to bring every detail of the little girl’s head into clearer focus—and she saw the last bit of proof.
Amelia’s hair was not naturally black. It had red roots—golden-red, as a matter of fact. And golden-red was the color of the Hapan Queen Mother’s famous tresses.
So Amelia Solo was destined to become the queen whom Lord Taalon had seen in the Pool of Knowledge. The Skywalkers knew it. Bazel Warv knew it. And now Vestara Khai knew it, too.
For the time being, she would keep the knowledge to herself. Until she knew the circumstances of her new life, there was nothing to be gained by revealing it to anyone, and she owed it to Ben to hold the secret—at least until she could trade it for something very important.
Like saving her own skin.
They banged through a dozen more intersections, then the entire display flashed yellow and Ben eased back on the throttle. He slipped the capsule into a bypass line and came to a dead stop. A liquid squeal reverberated through the hull as the control valves were adjusted, and the water began to gurgle away.
Ben unbuckled his restraint harness and glanced over at Vestara. “Ready?”
Vestara nodded. “You have no idea how ready,” she said, unbuckling her own harness. “After today, no Jedi will have any doubts about me. I promise you that.”
A look of concern came to Ben’s face. “Don’t do anything reckless, Ves,” he said. “Just point out the High Mugwumps. You don’t have anything to prove.”
Vestara forced a smile. “Not to you, maybe.”
The muffled clang of a shifting access panel sounded from above, then the capsule’s hatch broke its seal and hissed open. Ben let his gaze linger on Vestara and whispered, “I mean it—be careful,” then climbed out.
Vestara followed a moment later and found herself standing on the bypass platform next to Ben and the Horn siblings, Valin and Jysella. Valin extended a hand to Ben.
“Thanks,” Ben said. “It’s good to be back.”
Jysella eyed Vestara as though considering whether to offer a similar greeting, then simply gestured toward the inspection capsule.
“Come on,” she said. “Help me pull this out of the way.”
Vestara extended a hand toward the crane hook affixed to the rear end of the capsule and used the Force to lift it out of the bypass pipe. Jysella did the same with the front, and together they stowed it atop a growing stack of capsules piled at the far end of the platform.
“Thanks.” Jysella turned to Ben and pointed toward the front of the murk-filled chamber. It was packed with filtering units, pump motors, and purification tanks. “Your father’s somewhere in front. He said to see him for assignments as soon as you arrived.”
Ben acknowledged the message with a quick nod and motioned for Vestara to lead the way. Instead she remained where she was, slowly expanding her Force awareness out into the gloom. Something felt wrong, but she could not quite decide what it was.
The room was the size of a starfighter hangar, but so packed with equipment, cabinetry, and spare parts that it felt more like an underground labyrinth than the huge chamber it was. Everywhere she looked, dripping pipes ran from one processing unit to another, then climbed into the overhead darkness in bundles as big around as tree trunks. Some pieces of equipment were the size of cargo sleds, and the noise level was loud enough to make her wish she had a pair of sonic dampeners handy. The conditions were ideal for hiding a sentry or a spy. Considering the importance of the room—and the direct access to it from outside the Temple—Vestara could not believe the Sith would have failed to take such a basic precaution.
When she did not sense any dark presences lurking in the area, she asked, “How many guards did the first Jedi Knights kill in here?”
“None,” Jysella replied. “The place was empty.”
Vestara turned to look at her. “And that doesn’t strike you as strange?”
“Master Skywalker did have a team search the entire room, just in case,” Valin said. “But right now, there are Jedi-led companies of space marines outside the Temple, assaulting thirty different entrances. Master Skywalker thinks the Sith have moved all their sentries to the exterior doors and down into the underlevels.”
“That was the plan,” Jysella added, flashing a half smile. “And sometimes, plans actually work.”
The joke did little to lift Vestara’s heart. If Master Skywalker’s assault team met a disastrous end here, her life expectancy would drop by a factor of ten—and she had learned enough about the Temple defenses to realize that a determined host of Sith would be able to hold off the space marine assault indefinitely. And even if they could not, the High Lords would have plenty of time to escape alive. Vestara needed Skywalker and his team to succeed and succeed quickly, so they could disrupt the Circle of Lords and make possible a life for her other than pretending to be a Jedi hopeful.
She took Ben’s arm and started toward the far end of the platform. “We need to have a look around,” she said. “The Sith understand diversions as well as the Jedi, and they wouldn’t make the mistake of leaving this room unguarded.”
“Master Skywalker’s orders were clear,” Jysella called after them. “You’re to report at once.”
“Thank you, Jedi Horn,” Vestara said, speaking over her shoulder. “We understand.”
She led the way down a short metal staircase to a durasteel deck grating suspended about a meter above the true floor, which was covered in some sort of dark membrane. Vestara was confused about its purpose, until she noticed that the entire floor sloped toward a depression in the center of the room. Apparently, leaks and flooding were enough of a concern that a central drain had been installed.
Ben stepped off the staircase and stopped at Vestara’s side. “Ves, we need to follow orders. I’m sure they checked the place over.”
“I’m sure they tried,” Vestara said, starting toward a speeder-sized pump motor. “But something is definitely wrong here. Don’t you feel it?”
Ben fell quiet and began to look around, no doubt expanding his own Force awareness into the dark recesses of the room. Finally, he shook his head.
“No, I don’t feel anything,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean much one way or another. I’m sure most Sith know how to hide their Force presences as well as we do.”
“That’s not what I’m saying. It’s just too calm …” Vestara let her sentence trail off as she finally realized what was missing. “Where are the droids?”
Ben frowned. “Droids?”
“You can’t walk a hundred steps on Coruscant without running into a droid,” she said. “And you’re telling me the Jedi didn’t use any to run this place?”
Ben’s brow rose. “I see your point.” He glanced around again. The room was too packed with equipment to see all the way to the front, but that was where Jysella had told them his father was waiting. “Let’s check with Dad anyway. Maybe there’s something he forgot to tell us at the briefing.”
“You go ahead,” Vestara said. “I’m going to have a look around.”
Ben caught her arm and started her toward the front of the room. “Ves, come on.”
Catching the note of warning in his voice, Vestara allowed him to pull her along. “Why, Ben?” As she walked, she continued to reach out in the Force, searching for any hint of the sentry that had to be somewhere in the darkness spying on them. “So the rest of the team won’t grow suspicious of me showing some initiative?”
“Because Jedi obey orders, too,” Ben said, picking up the pace. “Especially in battle situations.”
Vestara started to remind Ben that he had once urged her to think for herself—then felt the deck grating wobble beneath her foot. Normally, she would not have given the sensation a second thought. But her Master, Lady Rhea, had taught her to pay attention to everything going into a fight, to remember that even the smallest detail could save her life, so Vestara dropped her gaze.
She saw the weapons first, a pair of blasters and a trio of lightsabers, all partially hidden in the fold of a black robe or the crook of a dark elbow. The people holding the weapons were on their backs, resting two abreast with their faces wrapped in dark scarves. Their eyes were squeezed to mere slits to prevent the whites from showing, and they were remaining absolutely still to avoid attracting attention.
Vestara glanced away, trying to act as though she hadn’t seen the figures beneath the grating. But she had noted at least half a dozen in a mere glance, and there was no reason to believe that was the entire force. The Jedi were walking into an ambush—and that could only mean the Sith had known they were coming.
Vestara had no idea how her people had learned of the Jedi assault plan, but she did know who would be blamed for it—provided she was lucky enough to live that long. Sith were nothing if not first-rate assassins, and this ambush appeared to be a variation on the Quiet Return. When they expected the target to be alert and wary upon entering the killing zone, Sith assassins preferred to remain somewhere else until the victim relaxed, then return via a secret entrance to launch the attack. She was guessing that this group had come from the chamber below, through a hole cut a few hours earlier, and hidden beneath the drainage membrane.
Vestara continued to walk at Ben’s side, trying to figure out how the ambush affected her. The Sith would be watching her more closely than any of the Jedi except Grand Master Skywalker, so it would be impossible to disappear before the attack began. Besides, she needed the Jedi assault force intact to make her own plan work.
“Ves?” Ben asked. “Wake up, will you? We’re about to go into battle.”
“Oh yes, the battle,” she said. Now that she knew where the ambush was coming from, she just wanted to reach the control panel as quickly as possible. “You’re right, of course.”
“I am?” Ben asked, turning his head to look over at her. “What happened to change …”
His sentence faded into an unexpected silence—as did the sound of their footfalls, and the swishing of Vestara’s robe. But when she glanced over at Ben, she saw that his mouth was continuing to move as though he were still hearing his words inside his own head. Someone was using the Force to quiet the air and prevent it from carrying sound waves—and that could mean only one thing.
Vestara reached out to Master Skywalker in the Force, flooding her presence with alarm, then grabbed Ben by the arm and spun around to find a ten-meter section of deck grating flying toward them. A blast wave of shock and confusion raced through the Force as Ben struggled to comprehend what he was seeing, and Vestara knew he would never react in time. She slammed her forearm across his chest and kicked his heels out from beneath him, then flung her own legs out in front of her.
They landed side by side on their backs an instant before the grating slashed past, passing a handbreadth from their faces. Ben’s eyes bulged wide and his mouth opened in a soundless cry of surprise—then Vestara began to slide across the grating back toward their attackers. She raised her head and saw a wall of dark-cloaked ambushers leaping from their hiding places, blasters flashing and lightsabers ignited.
Suddenly Vestara stopped sliding. She glanced back and saw Ben’s hand extended toward her, holding her in the Force, trying to drag her back.
A ferocious ache began to throb through her hips and shoulders, and Vestara felt as though she was coming apart. Then she realized she probably was. She screamed in pain and shook her head, yelling at Ben to let her go.
Whether Ben actually heard her above the battle din—the screaming of blaster bolts and the growling of lightsabers—Vestara could not tell. She simply started to slide faster than before.
Behind her, Ben snapped his lightsaber off its belt hook and sprang to his feet, then quickly dived into a somersault as a flurry of blaster bolts burned into the grating around him. For an instant, Vestara thought he would ignite the blade and get them both killed by attempting to fight his way toward her.
She should have known better than to underestimate Ben Skywalker. He simply continued to somersault, using the Force to trace a zigzag course across the deck. When he came up, his weapon hand snapped in her direction, flinging his lightsaber toward her. Vestara reached for it in the Force, at the same time looking back toward the ambushers.
The first Sith were already charging past, using their crimson lightsabers to bat aside the torrent of bolts coming from a group of Jedi charging back from the front of the room. Ben’s lightsaber landed in her hand. She thumbed the activation switch, then rolled to her belly and swung the sizzling blade through two sets of running legs. When a cold shiver raced down her spine, she continued the roll and brought the weapon up to block.
A shower of sparks erupted as Vestara’s blade clashed with another, and she glimpsed a lavender Keshiri face snarling down from the other side of the blazing cross above her. The two blades locked, and Vestara lay beneath her attacker, struggling to keep the woman’s lightsaber away. The crump-crump of detonating grenades began to sound somewhere near the front of the room, and in the back of her mind she realized the Jedi were being attacked from two sides.
Vestara relaxed her arms a little, and the Keshiri woman’s lightsaber began to descend toward her face.
“First, I take your beauty,” the woman said. “Then I—”
Vestara hit her with a Force blast and sent her flying back into a rank of Sith climbing up through the missing section of grating. The Keshiri’s blade, still ignited, sliced one warrior in half, and her body knocked two more off their feet.
Beyond the tangle of limbs and blades, Vestara glimpsed Valin and Jysella Horn still up on the bypass platform, Valin using his lightsaber to defend Jysella from Sith blaster bolts while she leaned through an open access panel. Vestara traced back the stream of bolts until she spotted a Sith warrior firing from between a pair of pump housings. She sent him tumbling with a Force shove.
That was all the respite Valin Horn needed. He leapt off the bypass platform in a flying cartwheel. Beginning to think she and the Jedi just might survive this ambush after all, Vestara sprang to her own feet—and heard a deep voice behind her.
The base of her skull exploded into dull throbbing pain as something hard and heavy—the hilt of a lightsaber, no doubt—struck. She spun and caught only a glimpse of black cloth as her attacker moved behind her.
The hilt descended again.
Her knees buckled, spinning her around, away from her unseen attacker. Her vision began to narrow, but fifteen meters away up on the water main bypass platform, she saw a small female Jedi climbing out of an open access panel. The woman ignited her lightsaber, then came leaping over the platform’s safety rail, brown hair flying and violet blade whirling, and Vestara knew the battle was on.
Jaina Solo, Sword of the Jedi, had just arrived.
A FORK OF FORCE LIGHTNING FLASHED PAST BELOW JAINA’S CORKSCREWING body, so close that the sting of its heat penetrated the thin molytex armor beneath her robes. She twisted into another whorl, her wrists turning almost of their own accord as she swung her lightsaber around to catch the next bolt, and then she sensed the floor rising up beneath her. She brought her feet around and landed hard, the durasteel deck grating shuddering beneath her boots as a dozen dark-robed figures spun to face her, their wide eyes betraying the confusion and alarm they felt at seeing a Jedi Knight deliberately jump into the heart of a Sith mob.
How a mission could go sour so fast, Jaina had no idea. The Sith were everywhere, crawling beneath the deck grating, dropping down from the pipes, darting out from between the filter cabinets and pump housings. Clearly, the Jedi had walked into an ambush, and their battle plan had fallen into chaos.
No problem. In a situation like this, Jaina thrived on chaos. She became chaos.
Jaina leapt over an incoming leg slash, then dropped her attacker with a quick snap-kick to the temple. She blocked a strike at her neck and, still in the air, turned her jump into a cartwheel. She shifted to a one-handed grip and swung her free arm in an arc, using the Force to sweep two more Sith off their feet. Landing in their midst, she stomped on the throat of the first and jammed her lightsaber through the chest of the other, then pulled a concussion grenade off her combat harness and thumbed it active.
She dropped it at her feet and began to count. One.
The melee went still. All eyes dropped to the grenade, noted the absence of a safety pin, the arming light blinking red. The Sith looked at her with wide eyes, then spun away and tried to hurl themselves beyond the blast radius.
Jaina’s count reached Two. She caught the grenade on the toe of her boot and kicked it toward a missing section of deck grating, where a fresh stream of Sith warriors were climbing into view.
Her count reached Three, and Jaina dropped.
The detonation hit her like a hoverbus, rolling her across the deck, flinging flesh and durasteel through the air above her. Why the Sith had sprung their trap so early, Jaina could not imagine. The largest part of the Jedi assault force had not even reached the killing zone, and while dozens of Sith were already in the room, they seemed almost as confused and poorly positioned as their targets. Maybe Luke had sensed the danger and forced the issue—or maybe he had been their true target all along. Perhaps they feared Luke Skywalker just that much.
And that was a mistake.
Luke Skywalker was not the Sword of the Jedi. Jaina was, and now the Sith had trapped themselves inside a locked Temple with her.
Jaina stopped rolling and raised her head, trying to decide who to take on next. Strewn with overturned equipment and severed pipes, the chamber was too tangled with streaking bolts and sweeping arcs of color for her to see anything clearly. The floor was littered with bodies, some motionless, more writhing, too many with faces she recognized as fellow Jedi. Her droid, Rowdy, had managed to extract himself from the inspection capsule and descend the stairs from the bypass platform. Now he was working his way toward the computer interface at the front of the chamber, where the original plan had called for him to contact the Temple’s central computer, ordering it to lower the shields and open the blast doors.
Off to one side of the battle, Vestara lay unconscious between a flocculation mixer and the adjacent sedimentation basin. Standing over her was a tall, slender Sith Lord wearing a black cape atop black blast armor. His thin lips were sneering as he spoke into a throat-mike. Luke and Master Horn were nowhere to be seen, but Valin and Jysella Horn were atop a narrow pipe, fighting back-to-back while standing three meters above the floor.
And Ben … Ben seemed to think he was invincible, Force-tumbling through the air toward Vestara, dodging blaster bolts and Force lightning with no lightsaber to protect him. He extended an arm, hooking his elbow around a small transfer pipe that crossed the room about two meters above the deck, and allowed his momentum to swing him downward just in time to avoid a fork of blue Force lightning. He came arcing back up, one hand sending a Force blast back toward the woman who had attacked him. She went flying into the gloom, and Ben released his arm and went arcing away, corkscrewing and somersaulting until he dropped out of sight behind a settling tank.
Three Sith were already leaping up onto the transfer pipe to take the woman’s place, and Jaina had her next set of victims. She used the Force to launch herself off the deck grating … and was still in the air when her targets sensed their danger. The leader jumped off the pipe—another woman, her long red hair trailing behind her as she raced to intercept Ben. The two men, one with a dark beard and one clean-shaven, spun to defend themselves.
Jaina’s lightsaber was already coming down, severing Dark Beard’s sword arm at the elbow. She used the Force to send the limb and lightsaber flying in Ben’s direction, then glimpsed the crimson arc of Square Chin’s blade curving toward her lead leg. She flipped her own weapon down to block the attack … but, before she could Force-stick her boot in place, she felt her foot sliding across the transfer pipe. In the next instant Jaina was plummeting toward the deck, with one Sith screaming in pain below her and the other jumping down from above.
Jaina shoved off in the Force, sending Square Chin floating back toward the transfer pipe—and pushing herself in the opposite direction. She slammed down atop Dark Beard, driving her elbow into his ribs and snapping her head back into his face. She felt his nose shatter, then rolled to her side.
Square Chin was dropping toward her again, his eyes narrowing as she extended her sword arm, pushing the tip as high into the air as she could. He brought his own weapon around to block, and Jaina used the Force to spin him backward, making his parry impossible.
The tip of her lightsaber caught the Sith just below the shoulder blade, then he was sliding down the blade to land atop her, as heavy and limp as a sack of gravel. Jaina’s breath left her in a pained gasp, and her chest felt like a rancor had stomped it. But she had no time to wonder about broken ribs. She deactivated her lightsaber and, using the Force to boost her strength, flung the body off.
The silver arc of a glass parang was already slicing toward her from the direction of Dark Beard’s belt, held in the invisible grasp of the Force. Jaina reactivated her lightsaber, intercepting the weapon—and barely altering its trajectory as her blade melted through it. The two halves flashed past her face, so close they stung her jaw before they shattered against the deck grating.
Jaina brought her lightsaber down across the Sith’s torso. The stench of charred flesh grew overwhelming, and only adrenaline kept her from gagging. She jumped to her feet and raced after the red-haired Sith who had gone to attack Ben.
She needn’t have worried. Ben had collected the lightsaber that Jaina had sent flying his way, and now he was using it to press his attack, combining strength and speed to push Red Hair back. Jaina extended a hand, hitting the Sith with a Force shove that sent her stumbling into Ben’s lightsaber.
Ben staggered, then quickly finished the woman by flicking his weapon up through her torso. She seemed to peel away from the blade, dropping to her knees and collapsing backward onto the grating. He kicked her weapon aside, then gave a quick salute with the crimson lightsaber in his hand.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Glad to help,” Jaina said. She pointed down a narrow aisle between two nearby settling basins. “Let’s go.”
Ben turned in the opposite direction. “They have Vestara.”
He started to add something else, but Jaina stopped listening when a tall figure in a dark robe dropped onto an evaporation cabinet behind him. By the time the Sith raised a hand to launch a Force attack, Jaina was leaping to her cousin’s defense.
Ben must have sensed his danger, too, because he was already moving. They bumped shoulders as he pivoted around, then a deafening crackle split the air and Jaina found herself flying backward on a bolt of Force lightning. She slammed into the wall of a settling tank and remained pinned there, teeth grinding, nerves burning, limbs paralyzed—until Ben shoved his crimson lightsaber into the dancing fork of energy.
Jaina collapsed to her knees, muscles throbbing and quivering and generally useless. Her attacker let his lightning sizzle out and reached for his lightsaber, but she was already grabbing him in the Force. She jerked him off the cabinet and down into the aisle. The Sith was still crying out in shock when her cousin finished him off.
Ben took a heartbeat to check for other attackers, but the battle had progressed from the initial “confusion-and-carnage” phase to the “hidden-death” stage, and there were no longer any Sith out in the open. Even the din of the battle had dwindled to sporadic outbreaks of thunder, shriek, and sizzle.
Ben stepped to Jaina’s side. “You okay?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
Jaina tried to stand, but her still-quivering legs wouldn’t obey. She extended her hand for help—and felt her entire shoulder erupt in a fiery ache unlike anything she had ever felt before.
“Just a little shaky,” she added. “Get me up.”
Ben pulled her to her feet, then cast a furtive glance back toward the basin where they had last seen Vestara. Her captor had retreated deeper behind cover, but one of Vestara’s feet could still be seen lying against the wall of the mixing station.
“Hold on, Ben.” Jaina slipped an arm around Ben’s waist, then grabbed a handful of robe and put more weight on him than was really necessary. “You’re not going to help her by getting yourself killed.”
“Who’s going to get himself killed?”
“Who do you think?” Jaina demanded. “We’re outnumbered ten to one here, and that guy with Vestara looks like he’s in charge.”
“So that makes him at least a Lord, and probably a High Lord,” Jaina said, realizing her objective had changed from killing the enemy to keeping Ben from being killed by the enemy. Battles were unpredictable like that. “Are you really ready to go after a Sith High Lord? Because I’m not—not when he has all the advantages.”
Ben sighed, but continued to look toward the basin. “What if it was Jag?” he asked. “Would you leave him behind?”
He was right, of course. If it had been Jagged Fel back there, Jaina wouldn’t be wasting time talking about it. She would be working her way toward the mixing station to rescue him—or to die trying.
But it wasn’t Jag. It was a Sith girl who had betrayed Ben half a dozen times already, who had been working her way into the Skywalkers’ confidence for months—and who might actually be waiting for a chance like this one to deal a body blow to the entire Jedi Order. Unfortunately, Jaina couldn’t say as much to Ben. He was a teenager in love, and teenagers in love did not like to hear that their sweethearts might be lying, cheating assassins.
“You have a point,” Jaina said, pretending to consider his argument. “But if that were Jag, he would want me to do the smart thing and not get myself killed while attempting an impossible rescue.”
She turned away, trying to get Ben started in the opposite direction.
Ben stayed where he was. “I didn’t ask what Jag would do. I asked what you would do.” He tried to free himself from Jaina’s grasp, but she clamped down hard and pulled him back. He scowled and said, “I thought you were shaky.”
“I’m getting better,” Jaina said, grabbing a handful of molytex armor through his robe. “And whatever I might do, it would be smart. So I wouldn’t charge in without a plan, and I wouldn’t get someone else killed with me.”
Ben frowned. “I’m not asking you to come.”
“Right,” Jaina replied. “And you expect that to square me with your father? That you didn’t invite me to walk into an obvious trap right along with you?”
Ben stopped pulling, and Jaina knew she had him. He might be willing to throw away his own life on a lost cause, but he wouldn’t take her with him.
“Trap?” Ben asked.
“Think, Ben. The Sith commander alone, Vestara lying unconscious at his feet? It’s too much temptation. He wants you to go after her.” Jaina tugged him toward the circular wall of a sludge tank. “Come on. We need to find the others and regroup. Then we’ll figure out how to save Vestara.”
Ben reluctantly allowed her to pull him along. “You’d better mean that, Jaina. I’m not going to abandon her.”
“Ben, I can’t promise we’ll save her,” Jaina said. “You know better. But we’ll do what we can, okay? We just need to be smart about it.”
Taking care to keep their heads beneath the top edge of the tank, they crept around to the other side—and found themselves facing a metal ladder affixed to a large feeder pipe rising into the darkness above. A narrow catwalk ran between the ladder and the chamber’s forward wall, about eight meters above their heads. Kneeling at the near end were two black-robed figures, one holding a long-muzzled version of a Verpine shatter gun, the other wearing a pair of night-vision goggles. The sludge tank had prevented them from seeing the area Jaina and Ben had just departed, but both Sith were scanning the killing zone in front of Vestara’s still-motionless feet.
Jaina glanced over and saw that Ben’s face had gone pale. He clearly understood what he was seeing—a sniper nest waiting to attack anyone who tried to reach Vestara. Jaina started to pull a frag grenade off her combat harness, but Ben touched her forearm and shook his head, signaling her to move on. He knew as well as she did that taking out a single sniper nest was unlikely to defang the Sith trap. And even if it did, as soon as Vestara’s captor realized what had happened, Vestara would change from bait to liability, and her likelihood of being killed would rise tenfold. If they wanted to rescue Vestara alive, they needed a plan—and now Ben knew it, too.
Jaina motioned her cousin to follow, then slipped away from the settling basin and began to work her way toward the front of the chamber. Their best hope of saving themselves—and Vestara—lay in giving the Sith something else to worry about. The best move was to complete their mission and get the Temple’s blast doors open. To do that, they would have to find her droid, Rowdy, and get him plugged into the computer interface panel—then keep him in one piece long enough to convince the Temple computer to override the lockdown command.
The interface station came into view. A meter-wide panel with a display screen and a keyboard located above a row of droid-accessible dataports, it had two rows of status lights running down one side. Most of the lights were blinking or glowing in colors ranging from red to amber, but there was nothing on the display screen to suggest that Rowdy had already contacted the Temple computer.
“At least it’s been activated already,” Ben observed. “Now all we have to—”
The sentence came to an abrupt end when a brilliant flash lit the chamber. The deafening crackle of a thermal detonator filled the air, and the chamber grew instantly damp and cold. Then the deck grating started to vibrate beneath their feet, and the muffled roar of a waterfall began to rise from the direction of the bypass platform. They ducked behind a pump motor, then carefully raised their heads high enough to peer back over the top.
Shooting into a hole where the platform used to be was a column of water two meters thick.
“No more reinforcements,” Ben observed. “A break like that’s going to trigger gate shutdowns all the way back to the main.”
Jaina nodded. “It’s just as well,” she said. “We can’t bring in enough Jedi to outnumber them, so a large force only makes us easier to locate.”
As she spoke, a shiver of danger sense chilled her spine. She reached for Ben’s collar and ducked back down—only to hear his lightsaber already sizzling to life. She activated her own weapon, barely bringing it around in time to catch the fork of Force lightning that came dancing her way. At the other end stood a lavender-skinned Keshiri female, flanked by a cadre of human Sith, six on each side. Their crimson blades snapped to life as one, and they began to fan out, cutting off all hope of slipping past.
“Go your way, Ben,” Jaina ordered, still fighting to hold the Force lightning back. “Now!”
“Can’t!” Ben said. “We’ve got a dozen Sith here.”
He put his back against Jaina’s, but making a stand was the last thing she wanted to do. She glanced over at the pump and, seeing that it was still running, came up with a different idea.
“Ben, follow me!”
By the time Jaina said this, a trio of glass parangs were flying in her direction. She reached out to Ben, making sure he sensed where she was going, then dived toward a twenty-centimeter outflow pipe that exited on her side of the pump.
As soon as her blade tipped down, the Force lightning blasted her in the leg and sent her spinning. Concentrating on keeping her fists clenched around the hilt of her weapon, she allowed the lightsaber to slice through the outflow pipe where it turned to pass down through the deck grating.
Water sprayed in all directions, and the Force lightning died away. Ben brushed past behind her, amid the tingling of shattering parangs. Jaina rolled onto her back, bringing her blade around until it was above her head. She slashed through the outflow pipe again, this time closer to where it left the pump housing. A meter-long section of pipe exploded outward, riding a jet of water as big around as Jaina’s leg, and went spinning toward the Keshiri woman.
The ear-piercing cracks of two grenade detonations sounded from the far side of the pump, announcing that Ben had been busy himself. Then Jaina’s entire body began to prickle with danger sense. Shouting for him to come along, she sprang to her feet and executed a series of Force flips more or less following the column of water toward her first attacker.
Having just redirected the flying pipe, but still struggling to keep her balance in the water jet, the Keshiri was in no position to defend herself. Jaina beheaded the woman on the way past, then felt the invisible punch of a concussion wave as a Sith grenade exploded back at the pump.
Jaina tumbled through the air, completely out of control, ears aching and head spinning, then crashed down on a hip. Her entire leg exploded in pain, and she continued to roll, sometimes sideways and sometimes over her shoulders, until she finally slammed into the curved wall of some sort of settling basin.
She was still trying to orient herself—and find Ben—when she felt something ping off the basin wall next to her head. She spun away and came around in a crouch, searching for the source of her attacker. A spark flashed off the deck where she had been sitting, and a dent appeared in the grating.
The shatter gun.
Jaina rolled again, and this time, she came up looking back toward the sniper nest. The shatter gun barrel was swinging in her direction.
Where was Ben?
Jaina backflipped away, keeping her hand extended, and felt the air whisper as the pellet passed beneath her.
The sniper was good.
Then Jaina came around again and saw the barrel trying to follow her, and this time it was the Sith who was slow. Jaina grabbed the shatter gun in the Force and jerked, hard. The sniper pitched forward out of his firing crouch, following his weapon toward the sludge tank below. They hit the edge and broke together.
Jaina had no time to look for her cousin. A wall of Sith was charging in her direction, their crimson lightsabers dancing in their hands as they ran. Hoping to find some hint of what had become of Ben, she reached for him in the Force, then crouched down below the edge of the settling basin—and felt Luke reaching out to her, urging her to leave the cover of the basin and turn toward the interface panel.
But there remained no sign of Ben.
Jaina paused just long enough to take one last look back toward the pump motor. Half a dozen glass blades came flying in her direction. She swept them aside with a Force blast, then turned and sprinted for the interface panel, dodging and somersaulting as Force lightning and blaster bolts streaked into the gloom ahead.
Then she was only a step away from the interface panel, with only two places to go—right toward the main door, or left down a small service aisle flanked by two banks of equipment cabinets. She felt Luke pull her to the left, and so she charged down a passage so narrow she would have almost no hope of dodging anything after she entered.
Jaina managed three steps before her spine grew icy with danger sense and fear. She dropped to her belly and felt the heat as a flurry of blaster bolts shrieked past overhead. Then she rolled to her back—and saw Ben somersaulting down the aisle toward her, just three steps ahead of the Sith who had opened fire.
Jaina sprang up, using the Force to launch herself high enough for Ben to tumble past beneath her, then ignited her lightsaber—and barely managed to catch a fork of Force lightning on the blade. She yelled for Ben to keep going and started to advance on her attacker.
She felt Luke touch her in the Force again, gently tugging her down the aisle. She retreated as quickly as she could, running backward and pivoting from side to side, pressing her back and shoulders flat against the equipment cabinets whenever blaster bolts and Force-hurled parangs went sailing past.
The aisle opened up into a comparatively small storage room cluttered with stacks of enormous spare valves and pipe fittings—most over a meter in diameter. Luke continued to draw Jaina onward, so she kept dodging and retreating, and an instant later she was one step from the back wall, standing at Ben’s side. They were trapped, with nowhere to go.
Then Luke and Corran Horn emerged from behind a stack of giant valves, igniting their lightsabers and stepping forward to ricochet bolts toward her attackers. Instead of charging directly to the attack, the Sith began to spread out again, hoping to outflank the Jedi and attack from all sides at once.
Jaina glanced over at the two Jedi Masters. Both were watching the Sith with smug expressions on their faces.
“Thanks for coming,” Luke said, speaking in a Force-enhanced voice. “I’m Luke Skywalker, Grand Master of the Jedi Order. And I’m only going to say this once: drop your weapons.”
Most of the Sith looked confused or worried, but their apparent leader—a stocky blond man with a dagger-shaped beard—glared in open hatred.
“I don’t care who you are.” He raised his hand, preparing to wave the others forward. “You can’t be that good.”
“I thought you’d say that,” Luke replied.
He glanced into the darkness above the enemy’s head—and drew a scornful snort from the Sith.
“Come now, Master Skywalker,” he said, raising his hand to wave his warriors forward. “If that is the best—”
His retort was cut short when a pair of figures in dark molytex armor dropped out of the gloom above the narrow aisle. The snap-hiss of igniting lightsabers sounded behind the band of Sith, and startled voices began to cry out in pain.
Jaina did not wait for Luke to order the attack. She simply leapt forward, Force-hurling the closest Sith into the one behind him, bringing her blade down in a vicious overhand slash that he managed to block despite the confusion. He spat at her eyes in a desperate attempt to blind her and then, as she leaned away, drove a knee into her ribs so hard it rocked her up on one foot.
Jaina swept her other foot across in front of her, hooking his ankle just as he shifted his weight back to catch his balance. His foot flew out and he went down on his side, trying to twist around so he could bring his lightsaber back up to block.
Jaina planted her boot on his hip, driving him into the deck face-first. At the same time, she whipped her lightsaber up to block a strike from a dark-haired woman stepping forward to take the spitter’s place. Still standing on his back, Jaina pivoted around and snapped her foot up sideways, catching the woman at the base of the chin. She felt the sharp crackle of shattering jawbones, and the Sith flew backward off her feet.
Not even taking the time to lower her foot, Jaina flipped her lightsaber down and drove it into the man upon whom she was standing. She whipped the tip around inside—just to make sure the Sith was done fighting for good—then brought her leg down and turned back to the dark-haired woman.
A blue lightsaber was already protruding from the Sith woman’s sternum, slicing down toward her hip. The anguish in her eyes faded to emptiness, then she collapsed and landed in a heap on the deck. Behind the corpse, standing shoulder–to-shoulder with Valin Horn and staring at the dead body with an expression halfway between horror and relief, was Jysella.
Jaina dipped her head in acknowledgment, then spun to meet her next attacker—and found Luke picking his way toward her. His lightsaber was already deactivated, and his expression was serene, as though fighting Sith at three-to-one odds was only meditation for him. Following a step behind him was Ben. The young man looked a bit awestruck, but he was spattered with enough blood to suggest he had not been idle.
In the opposite direction, Jaina found Corran coming to join them. His nose was wrinkled at the stench of so much death, but he seemed no more troubled by the fight than did Luke. Jaina deactivated her own lightsaber and turned back to Valin and Jysella, who must have cut their way through at least four Sith before reaching Jaina’s side.
“Nice work, guys,” she said. “Even I didn’t feel you hiding up there.”
Jysella smiled. “It’s easy to be stealthy when the enemy is focused on you and Dad and Master Skywalker.”
“Not that easy,” Luke said. “You did well. Both of you.”
Valin beamed, but distant boots could already be heard running in their direction. More Sith.
“We’d better get going,” Luke said. “The way Rowdy has been acting, he’s going to leave without us.”
Jaina’s brow shot up. “You’ve seen Rowdy?”
Luke nodded, then waved them toward the back of the storage area. “We managed to hold the computer interface long enough for him to learn that it’s been disabled.”
“Disabled?” It was Ben who asked this. “But it looked active when we saw it.”
“It certainly did,” Corran replied. “And I think we know what that means.”
“They had time to plan this ambush,” Jaina said, not quite able to keep from glancing in Ben’s direction. “A lot of time.”
Ben scowled. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “But it couldn’t have been Vestara. She didn’t even know where we were going.”
“And you know that how?” Corran asked.
“Because she asked me about it while we were in the capsule,” Ben replied. “About two minutes before the ambush.”
“Questions are not always what they seem,” Corran said. “You’re a good enough investigator to understand that.”
“And I’m good enough to know that assumptions aren’t facts,” Ben replied. He turned to his father. “Vestara is not the one who betrayed us. You know that.”
Luke remained silent for an instant, then shrugged. “All I know is we’re going after a Sith Grand Lord. Whatever we think we know, we’re probably fooling ourselves.” As he spoke, muffled Sith voices began to sound from the far end of the aisle. “We’ll sort that out later. For now, we just need to keep moving.”
He motioned to Corran and Valin, and the two Horns quickly moved a two-meter stack of valves and pipe elbows away from the wall. Behind it, at the end of a short aisle, a freestanding lift tube emerged from the floor and vanished into the gloom above. A crude portal about one and a half meters high had been cut into the wall of the tube, revealing a sporadic flow of canisters, crates, and soft-sided bags rising inside it. Next to the opening stood Rowdy, rocking back and forth and trilling impatiently.
“A cargo tube?” Jaina asked.
“Rowdy seems to think it will take us to another interface station,” Corran said, glancing back to Jaina. “At least, I assume that’s why he had us cut a big hole into it.”
Rowdy gave an affirmative tweedle, and the voices grew louder and more urgent as Sith began to come down the aisle toward them. A heartbeat later the first blaster bolts started to ping around the storage area, ricocheting off pipe fittings and equipment cabinets.
“It’s got to be better than staying here,” Jaina said. Worried that Ben would do something foolish, she turned to find him staring back down the aisle. “Ben—”
“I know,” he said. Ben’s Force aura began to sizzle with frustration and anger, then he waved a hand and sent a control valve tumbling down the aisle toward the Sith. “We have to go.”
HOW THE SCOUTSHIP HAD MANAGED TO SLIP INSIDE THE BLOCKADE, Head of State Jagged Fel could not imagine. He had a thousand Sienar Sentinel picket boats watching all approaches to the planet Exodo II. He had six Star Destroyer task forces crowded into an area of space barely a thousand kilometers in diameter. He had a hundred turbolaser crews pouring fire into the cluster of sunlit megaliths that had once been Exodo II’s moon Boreleo, and he had three sensor crews monitoring every cubic meter between the target zone and the cordon perimeter. And yet there it was on the bridge display: the golden sliver of a KDY Star Ranger, slipping into a dark chasm between a trio of kilometer-long moon fragments.
The most likely explanation for the infiltration was also the most alarming: that someone had deliberately allowed the craft through. His siege of ex–Galactic Alliance Chief of State and would-be Imperial Head of State Natasi Daala was about to enter its second month, and Jag was acutely aware that his power was hanging by a thread. Every Moff in the Empire was mobilizing his private fleet, and there had already been several border clashes as old enemies took advantage of Jag’s distraction to make star grabs. His spies reported that the Moffs who were not attacking one another were as likely to join the fight against him as to support him against Daala. The Imperial Navy itself could not be trusted, either. In fact, Jag had been forced to dispatch entire fleets to the most remote corners of the Empire, for fear that their officers would side with Lecersen or Vansyn rather than Jag, the legitimate Head of State.
And now someone in the Home Fleet was letting blockade-runners slip through the cordon. He had no doubt that they were messengers, carrying offers of support that Daala and Lecersen would eagerly accept, no matter what they had to promise in return. If Jag did not end this insurrection soon, he was going to have a civil war on his hands. Perhaps he would have something even worse, with the Empire collapsing into anarchy and the Moffs turning on one another.
As Jag pondered the difficulties of keeping the Empire together, a dozen turbolaser beams flashed across the bridge display, targeting the Star Ranger as it entered Boreleo’s debris field. Stone sprayed everywhere, then the screen went white with luminous overload, and the image of the Star Ranger vanished before it grew obvious whether the little scoutship had been destroyed.
Jag waited, staring at the screen. When it did not clear after a couple of seconds, he turned to the task force commander, Admiral Vitor Reige, and cocked an expectant brow.
“I’ll have a report for you as soon as possible, Head of State.”
Reige, a tall, hook-nosed man with dark hair and piercing blue eyes, shot a glance toward his aide, who started across the bridge to relay the inquiry to the Bloodfin’s captain. It was a frustratingly slow way to get a simple answer, but in the military, chain of command was all.
“Thank you, Admiral Reige.” Jag was fairly certain that the admiral remained loyal to the Empire’s legitimate Head of State. But Reige’s mentor had been Gilad Pellaeon himself, and it was impossible not to wonder what kind of effect the friendship between Pellaeon and Daala was having on the admiral’s judgment. “And you might ask for a tracking report. Whatever the Star Ranger’s fate, I’d be very interested to know how it slipped through our blockade.”
“As would I, Head of State,” Reige said. “At the moment, all I can think of is that the craft has been outfitted with stealth technology.”
“Sorry, Admiral—I only wish that was it,” said Tahiri Veila.
Standing at Jag’s shoulder on the side opposite Reige, she was unarmed and wearing bright red confinement bracelets around both wrists. Though Jag had every confidence that Tahiri intended to honor her promise to stand trial for murder, the brig gear was an overt statement of her status as an Imperial prisoner—and her idea. It had been aboard this very ship that she had killed Gilad Pellaeon. So Tahiri had offered to wear the restraints as a concession to the feelings of Vitor Reige and the many others who had loved Pellaeon as a father. Thus far, the strategy seemed to be working. There were plenty of sour looks and muttered insults, but the crew seemed to accept that she was merely on parole until a proper trial could be organized.
After a tense silence, Reige grudgingly acknowledged the comment by turning his head in her direction. “I take it you have another explanation, Prisoner Veila?”
“The Force,” Tahiri replied. “A powerful presence has entered the debris field—one I haven’t felt here before.”
“A powerful presence?” Reige scoffed. “And that would mean what, precisely?”
“Sith,” Jag said, trying to ignore the cold knot that had begun to form in his stomach. He turned to Tahiri. “Is that what you’re suggesting?”
Tahiri hesitated, her eyes fixed on the bridge display as the image returned to normal. Two of the kilometer-long massifs had been reduced to a collection of red-glowing boulders, and there was nothing of the Star Ranger to be seen.
Finally she said, “I certainly feel a darkness, but whether it’s Sith …” Her gaze shifted toward the forward viewport, beyond which the shattered moon appeared to be little more than a tiny ball of flame at the convergence point of a steady stream of turbolaser strikes. “All I can say is that whoever’s out there, they are strong in the Force. Very strong.”
“And still alive.” The remark came from directly behind Tahiri, where Jag’s Chiss aide and bodyguard, Ashik, was standing. “You feel that, as well?”
Tahiri nodded. “I do.”
“Most impressive, prisoner Veila,” Reige said drily. “With you aboard, one wonders why we need sensor crews at all.”
“I was wondering that before the prisoner spoke, Admiral,” Jag said, putting a little durasteel in his voice. He could understand Reige’s indignation at having Tahiri walking free aboard the Bloodfin, but her Jedi abilities were too useful at the moment to leave her locked in the brig—and it was time for Reige to recognize that. “Had she been sitting at a sensor station, perhaps she would have spotted the infiltrator before it was silhouetted against the debris field.”
As Jag spoke, Reige’s aide returned and whispered something into the admiral’s ear. The look of puzzlement that came to Reige’s face quickly changed to one of vindication, and he turned back to Jag with a look approaching defiance.
“I doubt it would have made any difference who was at the sensor stations, Head of State.” Reige pointed to a holopad in the fleet admiral’s salon at the back of the bridge, then said, “The Star Ranger seems to be using a new form of jamming technology. If you would care to join me, I’ll explain.”
By the time Jag and the others had retreated into the salon, the tactical hologram of the Exodo II planetary system was already on display. The image portrayed an outer shell of designator symbols beginning with the letters ISS—for “Imperial Sienar Sentinel”—surrounding a mottled green-and-black sphere. Save for the lack of clouds, the planet looked identical to the world Jag saw every night outside his stateroom window. The task force, hanging in orbit where the moon Boreleo used to be, was a knot of designator symbols too tangled to read.
Reige nodded, and his aide pointed a remote control at the holopad. A moment later a circle of perhaps thirty ISS symbols dissolved into static.
“The time scale has been compressed a thousandfold,” Reige explained. “Every second on the holo represents a little over a quarter hour in real time.”
The static circle continued to expand for a couple of moments, then quickly began to shrink and elongate in the direction opposite Exodo II’s spin. Within three seconds—about three-quarters of a standard real-time hour—the circle had narrowed into a short, slender band that was traveling around the planet toward the task force.
“The static resulted from an energy flash that traveled along this route, temporarily blinding sensors,” Reige’s aide explained. “At the time, the reconnaissance officers attributed it to a solar flare and didn’t worry about it.”
“Which is a very bad mistake, and one they had better not make again,” Jag said. He turned to Tahiri. “Would you care to explain what we’re seeing?”
“Of course, Head of State.” Tahiri’s gaze remained fixed on the holo. “It’s a Force flash.”
“A Force flash, prisoner Veila?” Reige said. “I’m afraid you’ll need to define the term for those of us who aren’t on intimate terms with members of the Jedi Order.”
“It’s a countersurveillance technique,” Jag said, doing the explaining himself. “The Jedi use it to temporarily blind security cams and intrusion alarms. On the vids, it looks like a minor glitch.”
Tahiri nodded. “Exactly. But this one …” She fell silent as the hologram changed scales to depict the inner cordon of the blockade, and then she turned to face Jag. “This one is very powerful. Even Grand Master Skywalker isn’t strong enough to blind a picket boat’s sensors at those kinds of ranges.”
“If you’re trying to tell us it was no Jedi piloting that Star Ranger, there’s no need,” Jag said. “I have it on good authority that the Jedi like Daala even less than I do at the moment.”
This drew a polite laugh—no more—from the staff officers.
But Tahiri’s expression remained serious. “Actually, Head of State Fel, what I’m trying to suggest is that the pilot can’t be Sith, either.”
She pointed at the hologram, which now showed the designator symbols of six destroyers and thirty escort vessels arrayed around the shattered remnants of the moon Boreleo. Fully half of the vessels were engulfed in static.
“Not with enough strength to blind that many starships.”
Jag saw the fear come into her eyes and knew what she was thinking. “Go ahead and say it, Tahiri,” he said. “Admiral Reige will need to know.”
“Very well.” Tahiri swallowed, then said, “I think we’ve found Abeloth.”
OUTSIDE THE CHIMAERA RAGED A SILENT STORM OF TUMBLING MEGALITHS and flashing turbolaser strikes, a hell of Daala’s own making erupting inside the shattered pieces of the moon Boreleo. Vansyn’s flagship, the Wyvard, hung only a few kilometers away, blocking the mouth of a semi-permanent passage and venting black smoke from the cavity that had once been her bridge. Long streams of bodies and flotsam were jetting from the melt holes in her forward hull, and hundred-meter tongues of flame were shooting through the splits in her sagging midsection. And still Fel’s Chiss allies continued to pour maserfire into the flagship’s lifeless hulk, trying in vain to blast her out of the way so they could at last enter the heart of the debris field and attack the Chimaera.
But at the moment, Daala’s attention was not on the battle. Instead she was sitting in her command salon, where an Imperial News Network report was playing on a pop-up display at the end of the conference table. The report was a day old, but with Fel’s fleet jamming all transmissions into or out of Exodo II’s vicinity, it was the first newscast she had seen in a nearly a month—and the closest thing to an intelligence briefing she had received since taking refuge inside Boreleo’s remnants.
“… the Moffs are seizing this opportunity to settle old scores,” reported an intelligent-looking woman with an oversized nose.
Her image was replaced by the flashing web of a turbolaser battle in deep space.
“When Moff Garreter mobilized his fleet to assist Head of State Fel, Moff Woolbam attempted to annex Rimcee Station. Garreter was forced to divert to protect the integrity of his holdings. The situation is the same across the entire Empire, with Moffs skirmishing over border systems that have been contested since before Palpatine was Emperor.”
The newscaster’s image reappeared, this time with a chart of the modern Empire hanging above her right shoulder. Red starbursts began to dot the map as she continued.
“Battles and invasions have been reported in more than a dozen systems. Imperial fleets are being forced to intervene in the Vexta Belt, Entralla, Dactruria, and Tovarskl. At Muunilinst, a three-way fleet battle rages among forces loyal to Head of State Fel and Moffs Woolbam and Callron the Younger.”
The newscaster’s face expanded to fill the entire display.
“The instability has caused turmoil in financial markets in every sector as investors brace for a descent into chaos. Unconfirmed reports suggest that two fleets of the Imperial Navy have been approached by powerful Moffs attempting to buy the loyalty of their commanders.”
“Pause report,” Daala said, bringing the newscast to a temporary halt.
She shook her head in dismay, unable to believe how badly her plan to liberate the Empire was floundering. Had she foreseen the stalemate between herself and Jagged Fel, she would never have attempted to unseat him. As bad as it was to leave the Empire in the hands of a Jedi puppet, even that would have been better than allowing it to disintegrate into anarchy. And truth be told, Daala was not merely allowing it to happen—she had caused it when she had failed to remove Fel.
To be fair, though, she was guilty only of bad timing. Fel simply wasn’t up to the job of ruling a dynamic civilization like the Empire.
Sooner or later, the Moffs would have sensed his weakness and rebelled anyway. Daala took a calming breath, then faced the young Star Ranger pilot who had risked her life to deliver the report.
“This is madness,” Daala said. “The Empire is sinking into barbarism.”
“Exactly.” The young woman had narrow blue eyes and a wide mouth that seemed just a little too large for her face. “That’s why I felt I had to come to you, Admiral. Head of State Fel is not up to the job of holding the Empire together.”
“That shouldn’t surprise anyone,” Lecersen observed. Seated in the chair next to Daala, he looked on the verge of cracking himself, with purple circles beneath his eyes and skin as gray as a fleet officer’s uniform. “And that’s all the more reason we need to find a way to slip out of here—now.”
Daala answered without taking her eyes from the young lieutenant. “Escaping is easier said than done, Drikl.”
“If Lieutenant Pagorski can sneak into this rubble pile, I dare say we can find a way to sneak out.” Lecersen stood. “And the sooner, the better. We need to get back out there and take charge.”
“Take charge of what, exactly?” As Daala spoke, she continued to study Pagorski, trying to figure out why a young woman who had only recently been released from a Galactic Alliance prison would risk her life to join the remains of a cornered, badly battered fleet. “The Final Fall of the Empire?”
“Not at all,” Lecersen insisted. “I have friends—a great many friends. And as soon as they learn of my escape, they’ll rally to our cause.”
“Assuming we do escape.” Daala locked gazes with Pagorski. “Assuming that Lieutenant Pagorski’s miraculous infiltration of a very tight blockade isn’t just a ruse to avoid a bloody assault by luring us into a foolish attempt.”
The look of puzzlement that shot through Pagorski’s eyes lasted just long enough to appear sincere, then the corners of her wide mouth lifted into an approving smile.
“I knew I was right to come to you, Admiral Daala,” she said. “No one understands how the Imperial mind works better than you.”
“Your flattery is duly noted, Lieutenant,” Daala replied. “It won’t, however, lull me into a foolish decision. If Head of State Fel didn’t allow you to slip through the blockade—one that even the Rebel Alliance could have kept sealed tight—how did you manage?”
“Isn’t that obvious, Admiral?” Pagorski answered immediately. “Jagged Fel didn’t let me through. Someone else did.”
Daala cocked her brow, impressed—but not certain yet whether it was with Pagorski’s coolness under fire, or her resourcefulness in accomplishing a goal.
“And does this someone have a name?”
“Not one that I’m going to share with the next Supreme Commander of the Imperial Navy,” Pagorski said. “You’re a woman who values duty as much as she does loyalty, and I wouldn’t want a black mark placed in his file for doing me a favor.”
“Of course not,” Daala said. The lieutenant was smarter than she looked, for that was exactly how Daala would have reacted to someone betraying his commander and his ship. “But if you’re not here trying to lure us into a trap, why did you come?”
“To deliver a situation report,” Pagorski replied simply. “Which I’ve done. The rest is up to you. You’re the admiral.”
“Be that as it may, you still made it alive,” Lecersen said. “I assume you have a plan for leaving in the same condition?”
“I’m afraid that would be a poor assumption.” Pagorski’s gaze shifted toward the main viewport, where the Wyvard’s lifeless hulk could be seen drifting backward under the steady maser barrage. “As I’m sure Admiral Daala has surmised by now, my arrival did not go entirely unnoticed. In fact, it appears I may have caused them to come after you. My apologies.”
“Don’t flatter yourself, Lieutenant,” Lecersen said. “You’re the last reason Fel is coming after us now.”
A twinkle of wry amusement came to Pagorski’s eyes. “Is that so?”
“Absolutely,” Lecersen said. “It’s the chaos in the Empire forcing his hand. Fel is desperate to turn his full attention to the Moffs.”
“Who are probably carving off pieces of your sector as we speak,” Daala pointed out. “And no doubt making a crippled mess of the rest of the Empire, too.”
“All the more reason to be certain that one of us escapes to take charge,” Lecersen said, turning toward the exit. “I’ll be returning to the Empire Maker to make my attempt now, Admiral Daala.”
Daala shook her head. “Not yet.” Even were one of them to survive the escape attempt and convince a few of the other Moffs to rally around them, it would only turn the current crisis into a full-out civil war—and one far more likely to result in the Empire’s final disintegration than her own victory. “It’s too early for that.”
“I’m afraid my mind is made up, Admiral,” Lecersen said. “I wish you the best of luck in your own attempt.”
“I said not yet, Drikl.” She shot a commanding glance toward Pagorski, and the lieutenant had a hold-out blaster in her grasp so fast that her hand did not even seem to move. Daala caught herself staring and turned back to Lecersen. “Perhaps you could give me another half an hour?”
Lecersen eyed the blaster for a moment, then said, “I don’t see how I can refuse.”
Daala smiled, quietly relieved that Lecersen had not forced her to have him killed. She was beginning to see an opportunity in the Empire’s current situation, and if her idea developed into a full-blown solution, she was going to need Lecersen to serve as her puppet.
“Thank you, Moff Lecersen.”
Before she could motion him back to his seat, the voice of the Chimaera’s captain came over the intercom.
“Admiral Daala, it’s time. The masers are beginning to push the Wyvard back.”
Daala activated the TRANSMIT switch. “Very well, Captain. We’ll be right there.” She rose and motioned for Lecersen and Pagorski to follow her. “You’ll want to see this.”
She stepped out of the command salon onto a bridge acrid with the smell of fear and exhaustion, then led the way to her command post. The Chimaera’s captain stood at the combat information console, three days of gray stubble on his face, his bloodshot eyes bulging with caf overdose as he looked out over the frenzied discipline of a ship’s bridge in full battle.
“Captain Remal, how do our chances look?” Daala asked.
“We’ll know in a minute, Admiral.”
Remal pointed at a tactical display that showed a ten-kilometer pocket of empty space surrounded by tumbling boulders. The remnants of Daala’s battered fleet were scattered around the makeshift redoubt. At the center of the formation was the cruiser Kagcatcher, her projection crews keeping the pocket more or less stable by carefully modulating the ship’s four gravity-well generators. Lecersen’s flagship, the Empire Maker, was positioned along the back wall, ready to attempt a desperate escape through a hundred-kilometer maze of shifting megaliths. The derelict Wyvard was still blocking the entrance tunnel, slowly drifting backward under the maserfire pouring into the molten mess of its bow.
Not shown on the display were two dozen smaller vessels out in the labyrinth maze, operating independently and doing whatever they could to harass the attacking forces. Daala doubted the ambushes would actually repel Fel’s assault, but they would at least extract a heavy price in ships and lives.
Finally, the Wyvard was pushed completely out of the passage. Twenty starfighter squadrons appeared on the display, their designator symbols going active as they broke away from their mother ships and swarmed to defend the redoubt. They had barely arrived before Imperial squadrons began to pour out of the tunnel, and the mouth vanished into a swirling cloud of designator symbols.
“Admiral Daala,” Lecersen said. “I really must insist that you release me at once. The time has come to take our chances and hope one of us survives this mess.”
“And that will serve the Empire how, Moff Lecersen?” Daala asked.
“By providing a figure for the Moffs to rally around,” Lecersen said. “So we can organize and counterattack.”
“And turn chaos into cataclysm.” Daala shook her head. “An Empire at war with itself is as weak as an Empire in anarchy, and I have no interest in ruling an empty shell.”
“Ruling an empty shell is better than dying here,” Lecersen retorted.
“For you, perhaps,” Daala replied. “But I’m beginning to see another way to defeat Head of State Fel—a way that won’t destroy the very thing I’m trying to save.”
As Daala spoke, the maserfire resumed, pushing the Wyvard farther back. She shifted her gaze from the display to the viewport. She could no longer even see the wrecked Star Destroyer, only a long pillar of flame shooting ever deeper into the redoubt.
“So what do you propose?” Lecersen demanded, paying no attention to the battle outside. “At this point, the only way to prevent a civil war is to surrender so Fel can turn his full attention to the Moffs—and surrender has never been my style.”
“Nor mine,” Daala said, almost absently. She turned to Remal. “I believe the time has come, wouldn’t you agree?”
The captain nodded. “I would,” he said. “It’s a pity we don’t have sensor data in there, but they’ve got at least one of the Chiss Star Destroyers coming through. That should be enough to make them think twice.”
“Very well, Captain,” Daala said. “You may commence Operation Crate Crusher.”
“Commencing Crate Crusher now,” Remal acknowledged.
As the captain opened a channel to the Kagcatcher, Daala turned to Lecersen and continued her conversation. “You’re wrong about surrender being the only way to prevent a civil war,” she said. “Very wrong.”
Lecersen frowned, his gaze drifting toward the viewport. “You’re saying you have another way?”
“There is always another way, Drikl,” Daala said. “I learned that from the Jedi.”
As Daala spoke, an excited murmur began to build on the bridge. She glanced back toward the viewport and saw the entrance tunnel to their redoubt collapsing. Two of the huge megaliths were swinging together as the Kagcatcher used its gravity-well projectors to pull the third out of alignment. As the gap closed, the maserfire grew more intense—then finally ceased in a single blue-white flash as the two pieces of moon came together.
A rousing cheer shook the bridge, and Daala gave an approving nod to Remal. “Well, done, Captain. How many squadrons of enemy starfighters do we have trapped inside?”
“Close to twenty,” Remal replied.
“Excellent,” Daala said. “Any pilot willing to surrender his craft to us will be offered a comfortable cell or an officer’s commission in my fleet, his choice.”
“Very good, Admiral,” Remal said. “And for those who prefer to fight on or destroy their craft?”
“They will be left to die in their vac suits,” Daala replied. “Make that very clear when you hail them.”
A hard smile came to Remal’s mouth. “As you command.”
Daala turned back to Lecersen. “Now, where were we?” she asked, motioning him to follow her back to the salon. “As I recall, discussing how neither of us intends to surrender.”
“Destroying one of the Empire of the Hand’s big toys is hardly going to turn the battle in our favor, Admiral,” Lecersen said. “And if you’re thinking it might buy us a truce—that is surrender. Fel will only use the time to consolidate his power.”
“Not a truce, Drikl.” Daala stepped into the command salon ahead of him. “I was actually thinking of an election.”
“An election?” Lecersen stopped at the threshold behind her. “Why in the blazes would Fel agree to that?”
“For the same reason I would,” Daala said. “Because he doesn’t want the Empire to dismantle itself—and because he believes he will win it.”
“And he will,” Lecersen said, finally following her into the salon. “He has more resources than you do—and he is the current Head of State.”
“A Head of State appointed by a Jedi,” Daala reminded him. “Nothing is more unpredictable than an election, Drikl—not even a battle.”
“In this case, I must disagree,” Lecersen said. “You seem to be forgetting the low esteem in which the Moffs hold women—myself excluded, of course.”
“What makes you think I’m forgetting anything?” Daala asked. “With you standing at my side, the Moffs will be persuaded to overcome their prejudice. Between your planetary resources and my military assets, we’ll clearly be a strong candidate.”
“But strong enough?” Lecersen asked. “Moff votes are bought, not earned—and Fel can deliver now. We’ll have only promises.”
“Which is why you should suggest a general election, Admiral Daala,” Pagorski said, stepping forward. “Then you wouldn’t have to settle for sharing the throne, since most Imperial commoners think more highly of women than they do Moffs. Moreover, a general election would appeal to Fel’s democratic inclinations. He might even prefer it over a military victory, because it’s the kind of reform he would like to bring to the Empire anyway.”
“A general election?” Lecersen scoffed. “The Moff Council will never approve that.”
“The Moffs are too busy clawing at one another’s throats to stop us,” Daala said, growing even more enthusiastic. She nodded to Pagorski. “Well done, Lieutenant. I like it.”
“You? Beat Jagged Fel in a popularity contest?” Lecersen shook his head in disbelief. “That will never happen.”
“But it will,” Pagorski said. “I can guarantee it.”
Lecersen shot her a withering glare. “I suggest you remain silent, Lieutenant. Your delusions are becoming an embarrassment.”
Pagorski’s eyes flashed white. “They’re not delusions, Moff.” Without looking away, she asked, “Admiral, would you permit me to prove it?”
“By all means,” Daala said. “I’d welcome it.”
“Thank you.” Pagorski’s smile grew wide, and then her hand slithered up to rest on Lecersen’s shoulder. “Moff Lecersen, you may prostrate yourself before your new Head of State.”
“Prostrate myself?” Lecersen demanded. “On your command?”
“It’s more of a suggestion.” Pagorski squeezed his shoulder, her fingers digging in so hard they seemed to actually sink into his flesh. “For your own good.”
As she spoke, Lecersen’s eyes widened and his face paled. A cold sweat began to pour down his brow. After a few breaths, he finally collapsed to his knees and placed his palms at Daala’s feet.
“That’s better.” Pagorski smiled, then shifted her gaze back to Daala. “We can win this, Admiral—I promise you.”
DOWN ON LEVEL 351 OF THE JEDI TEMPLE, WYNN DORVAN STOOD pressing himself into the corner of the computer core decontamination chamber. This was not because he objected to being misted with a dust fixative, but because he was trying to keep his Sith escorts from noticing his excitement. Directly ahead, the grip of a hold-out blaster was hanging out of the sleeve of a Sith Saber, as though the weapon were ready to fall from its secret holster.
The accessibility of the hold-out blaster was almost certainly a trap, of course, designed to test Wynn’s loyalties. But there was a slim chance that the weapon had simply been jarred loose, and that its owner did not realize it had become visible.
And Wynn was ready to take that chance. When he had suggested that Lydea Pagorski be released to build goodwill with the Empire, the Beloved Queen of the Stars had destroyed the poor woman and taken over her body. When he had tried to trick her into playing into Admiral Bwua’tu’s hands by suggesting that the Sith withdraw into the Temple, she had used her strange Force powers to anticipate the Jedi battle plan and arrange a devastating ambush. Abeloth was something beyond Wynn’s understanding, a monster of unimaginable power and capable of unthinkable evil, and he had been a fool to think he could play her.
There had never been any hope of stopping her, Wynn could see that now. And there was no realistic hope of escaping her and the Sith alive, either. The best Wynn could hope for was to avoid the same fate Pagorski had suffered—to end his unwitting collaboration, one way or another, before the Beloved Queen of the Stars decided to push her tentacles into his head, too.
All he had to do was get his hands on that hold-out blaster.
The inner door slid aside, and the Beloved Queen of the Stars stepped out of the crowded decontamination chamber into some much cooler space Wynn could not see. He started to ease forward, angling toward the hold-out blaster—then had to draw up short when the entire group stopped just one step later.
“Chief Dorvan and I will be fine here alone,” the Beloved Queen said, speaking in the voice of her Roki Kem manifestation. “The rest of you may return with Lady Korelei to prepare the ambush.”
The Sith in front of Wynn—the one with the loose blaster—said, “Beloved Queen, allow me to stay, I beg you.” He turned to glance back at Wynn, his eyes smoldering with contempt. “There is something amiss with your adviser today. I can feel a lie in his aura.”
Wynn steeled himself to make a lunge for the hold-out blaster, but the Beloved Queen’s voice stopped him.
“That is of no concern, Master Tsiat,” she said. “I have no need to fear Chief Dorvan.”
Wynn felt the cold pressure on his face, and though he could not see past the shoulders of the Sith in front of him, he knew the Beloved Queen was looking in his direction.
“Do I?” asked the Beloved Queen.
“Not from me,” Wynn said. Even as he spoke, he felt sure that she knew he was lying—that she could hear it in his voice and sense it in his aura. “I’m simply not capable.”
“Everyone is capable, Chief Dorvan.” It was not the Beloved Queen who said this, but Lady Korelei, the Keshiri High Lord who had been Wynn’s torturer. “All one needs is courage.”
“I fear that’s one quality I lack,” Wynn said. His heart had climbed into his throat, but he was enough of a sabacc player to know the time had come to gamble everything. “I’m an administrator, not a warrior.”
“Then our Beloved Queen will be safe with you, I am sure.” A faint smile came to Lady Korelei’s lavender lips, and she motioned to the Sith standing between Wynn and the exit. “Let him pass.”
Wynn was more certain than ever that his captors were trying to test him, but he was determined to take his chances. Even dying would be preferable to what awaited him as Abeloth’s servant. He nodded to Korelei.
Wynn stepped forward, deliberately tripping over a nearby heel. He cried out and went sprawling, grabbing the first sleeve within reach to prevent himself from falling. Of course, that sleeve belonged to the Sith with the hold-out blaster, Master Tsiat.
Tsiat roared in rage and used the Force to fling Dorvan back into the corner. “Clumsy ugwum!”
Dorvan wailed and cowered, curling into a ball—to hide the little weapon he had just stolen. “It was an accident!” He slipped the blaster into the sleeve of his tunic. “I apologize!”
He heard a boot step toward him, and then Tsiat’s foot slammed into his ribs. “Apology accepted.”
The foot drew back as though to kick again, but Lady Korelei’s voice split the rising din. “You’ve made your point, Master Tsiat. I’m sure Chief Dorvan will be more careful in the future.”
Wynn felt himself rising off the floor, and he continued to rise until he was above the heads of the Sith. When he glanced back, he found Korelei’s oval eyes watching him with the same cold emptiness he had often seen in those of the Beloved Queen. His stomach began to churn with a queasy terror as a pair of silver flickers appeared in the depths of her gaze. Her smile grew as wide as her face. All her teeth suddenly seemed to be fangs, and a relentless tide of despair welled up inside Wynn. He knew what he was seeing.
The Beloved Queen of the Stars had taken a third body.
Now Abeloth had three manifestations—Roki Kem, Lydea Pagorski, and Lady Korelei. Wynn grew so cold that he started to shake, and he did not recognize the sensation as despair until he found himself praying that he was hallucinating, that he had finally lost his mind under Korelei’s torture and escaped into the oblivion of insanity.
Because even madness would be better than three Abeloths.
Wynn stopped descending, and he found himself hovering in the air before the Roki Kem manifestation, fighting hard not to burst out wailing, too frightened to meet her gaze and see, written in the cruel truth of her face, the pitiful futility of his resistance.
“Chief Dorvan, will you please put your feet down?” the Roki Kem manifestation asked. “Or do you expect Lady Korelei to continue holding you there for the rest of the day?”
Wynn put his feet down and was a little surprised to feel a solid floor beneath his shoes. His fear had grown so strong that he was starting to doubt his own perceptions, and it occurred to him that perhaps this was how Abeloth invaded minds, by terrifying and confusing people so badly they finally went insane.
“Thank you,” said the Roki Kem manifestation. Waving a dismissive hand toward the others, she used the Force to pull Wynn a few steps forward. “Chief Dorvan and I will continue alone.”
Wynn heard the decontamination chamber hiss close behind him, and then he found himself standing in the Jedi Temple’s computer core, staring at Roki Kem’s back … at Abeloth’s back … with a hold-out blaster up his sleeve.
Wynn experienced no sudden wave of relief. The situation had the stink of a trap to it, like having a sabacc hand that was nearly the best possible and an opponent happy to call any bet. It felt too good to be true, and it probably was. The blaster might well have a depleted energy cell or a disabled XCiter chamber, but he was determined to play the hand he had—and that meant staying patient until he knew which card he was holding up his sleeve: the Legate or the Idiot.
So Wynn followed the Kem manifestation forward into the computer core. It seemed to be a vast, spherical cavity filled with drifting clouds of radiance and flashing streaks of light. He and the Beloved Queen were on a transparisteel service balcony that protruded about a dozen meters into the chamber. At the forward end of the balcony sat several banks of display screens and interface consoles. There was no sign anywhere of the systems administrators who had once used the equipment to communicate with the Temple’s computer core.
The Kem manifestation went to the primary equipment bank and took a seat in a swiveling chair, the middle of a trio.
“Don’t lag, Chief Dorvan,” she said. “You have no reason to be frightened. You’re still much too valuable for me to kill.”
“I’m not frightened, just confused,” Wynn lied. He continued forward until he was standing at the arm of the chair adjacent to the one the Beloved Queen now occupied. “Might I ask what am I doing here?”
“Remaining available,” she said. “I will need your advice again soon.”
“You will know when I am ready for you to know.”
“My apologies,” Wynn said. Either the Beloved Queen was lying about needing his advice, or she did not yet know what kind of advice she would be seeking. “I didn’t realize you were unaware yourself.”
A pair of silver points began to burn deep in the Queen’s eyes, and for a moment her arms seem to writhe like tentacles. “I said you were too valuable to kill,” she warned. “Now be silent.”
Wynn remained standing, confident that the blaster was no test. The Beloved Queen had a habit of covering her weakness with a threat whenever she felt vulnerable. And the only time she ever seemed vulnerable was when she entered one of her revelatory trances. He had no idea where her mind went during such episodes, whether she was flow-walking like Jacen Solo had done or simply spying on her enemies through the Force—but he did know that while she was away, she was oblivious to her surroundings.
Wynn waited as the Beloved Queen’s breathing turned shallow and her eyes grew distant and glassy. And then he continued to wait, counting to a hundred and watching for any movement that would suggest she was not deep in her trance.
When he saw none, he asked, “Beloved Queen?” He waited another twenty heartbeats, then spoke louder. “Beloved Queen!”
She remained motionless, her blue Jessar skin as smooth as stone and her gaze fixed somewhere beyond the chamber. Wynn stepped behind the chairs, then pulled the hold-out blaster from his sleeve and checked the energy cell.
He checked the gas canister. Full.
He glanced over his shoulder at the decontamination chamber door. Closed. Wynn pointed the blaster at the chair, and the Beloved Queen did not stir. Was it really going to be this easy?
Wynn pulled the trigger, and an energy bolt screamed into the seat back. He pulled the trigger again. This time, the bolt shot completely through the chair and through her body, then vanished into the darkness above the equipment bank.
He smelled scorched flesh and began to hope that it really was that easy. He circled to the front of the chairs and saw the Beloved Queen slumped in her seat, her hands hanging over the armrests, her chin on her chest, and a smoking hole through the center of her torso. Clearly dead.
Still, better to be sure.
Wynn stepped closer and pointed the blaster at her head.
A low animal groan rumbled up from her chest, and then blood splashed his face and tunic. He heard someone screaming and realized it was him, and he pulled the blaster trigger again. A screaming bolt burned through her forehead just above the eyes. Her head rocked back, fell forward again, and then rolled to the side.
Wynn pulled the trigger one more time and sent another bolt burning into her head, this time through the temple. Her head did not move, and he stumbled back, away from the smoke and the smell and the oozing gore.
For a moment, he stood there. Waiting.
The Beloved Queen was dead, and Wynn had survived. He couldn’t really believe it.
He felt the equipment bank against his back and realized he was still backing away. He stopped and shifted his gaze toward the decontamination chamber, remembering the dozens of Sith who were setting up their ambush out in the corridor. He had no idea what to do about them. He hadn’t expected to survive the assassination attempt, so he hadn’t thought that far ahead.
A voice behind him, cold and familiar, said, “You will never slip past them, Chief. There is no escape.”
Wynn sprang away from the equipment bank, moving faster and leaping farther than he would have believed possible, and landed beyond the chairs. He spun around, already knowing what he would see … and he saw it: a face of pure radiance, the size of a bantha and as wispy as a cloud, floating out in the darkness of the computer core. She appeared vaguely human, with a long cascade of coarse yellow hair and tiny, deep-sunken eyes that shone from their sockets like stars at the bottom of a well. She had a nose so small it was almost absent, and a large, full-lipped mouth so broad that it reached from ear to ear
“Yes,” she assured him. “Your Beloved Queen of the Stars.”
Wynn shook his head. “You’re no queen of mine.” He raised the blaster pistol and pressed the emitter nozzle to the side of his head.
“And you’re wrong. There is an escape.”
He pulled the trigger in the same instant he felt his hand jerk. A blaster bolt screamed past above his temple. He felt searing heat across the top of his skull and smelled his own singed hair, and Wynn knew he had failed. He had survived.
“I am never wrong,” Abeloth said.
The blaster twisted free of Wynn’s hand and went flying. Then a blast of Force energy hit him in the chest, and he went flying, too.
“There is no escape … for any of you.”
CARGO DID NOT NEED LIGHT OR FRESH AIR. IT DID NOT GRAY OUT DURING high-g accelerations, nor did it suffer ringing ears every time it shot through a grav-control halo. Cargo did not feel its gorge rise when the transfer tunnels took an unseen turn, and it did not grow dizzy with dehydration as it sailed through the stifling heat of a repulsor-driven freight-handling system.
But Ben did.
And that made the journey from the water-intake plant a real test of endurance and courage. For what seemed an hour, Ben sailed through the sweltering cargo tube, lurching and turning through the darkness, consumed by his growing fear for Vestara. He could only imagine the agony she would suffer at the hands of her Sith captors, the punishments she would endure for killing so many of her own kind—especially High Lord Taalon and her father. But it was more than just fear eating at him. It was anger, too. Everyone had been so fast to blame Vestara for the ambush … and no one faster than Corran Horn. Considering how his own children had betrayed the Jedi while under Abeloth’s control back on Nam Chorios, Master Horn ought to have known better than to pass judgment based on nothing but a guess. Vestara deserved better than that.
A spine-jamming deceleration jerked Ben’s thoughts back to his own situation, and he felt the air stir ahead as a freight canister sped through an unseen intersection just centimeters from his head. He hung there motionless for a few moments, listening to surprised groans and involuntary grunts echoing through the passage as his five companions endured their own sudden stops and unexpected accelerations. Then he felt his face beginning to stretch as he shot forward again, and once more he was flying helplessly through the darkness.
The worst part was the control rings. Every hundred meters, Ben would pass through one of the repulsorlift control rings that lined the shaft. If he was lucky, the ring would be on standby, and he would suffer only a moment of unpleasant queasiness as he passed through a wafer-thin antigravity field. But as he approached an active ring, a crashing roar would fill the tunnel. There would be a moment of silence as he passed through, then an excruciating pop deep inside his ears, followed by a maddening ringing that made his whole head ache.
So far, Ben had passed through fifteen active rings and endured more twists and turns than he could track. His stomach felt like he had been practicing wingovers with a deactivated inertial compensator, and he was so thirsty that he was almost ready to start sucking the sweat out of his own robes. And he had no idea how much longer the journey would last—or what they would find when they finally reached the computer interface located at the other end.
Ben felt his stomach flutter as he passed through an inactive control ring; then the muffled thump of a shifting guidance door sounded in the darkness ahead. A moment later his spine bent backward as he was drawn upward into a vertical shaft. A cloud of blue light appeared above his head and rapidly brightened into a reflection on the interior wall of another bend in the tube—this one back to the horizontal. Ben barely managed to spin around before passing through a final pair of control rings. He decelerated so hard his kidneys ached, and then he was spat out of the freight tunnel and dropped onto the padded bed of a receiving bench.
A bar of brilliant white light appeared a few centimeters ahead and started to glide along the pad toward Ben. He rolled away, only to find himself trapped on his side, his back pressed against the guide-rail on the far side of the bench. The beam swept across his face, bright and blinding as it shone into his eyes, then continued toward his feet. As his vision began to clear, Ben saw that the light was being projected from a saucer-shaped silhouette sitting atop the squat, blocky torso of an STK-CLR stock-keeping droid.
The subtle whine of a pneumatic motor sounded from the droid’s shoulder and waist areas, and four telescoping arms extended toward the guide-rail. Ben rolled beneath them, then swung his legs around and dropped off the bench to stand next to the droid.
It spun around its head-disk so that the projection slot was facing Ben. “Your universal stocking code is not evident,” it said, speaking in a deep, clattering voice. “Please display it for proper shelf assignment.”
Ben shook his head. “I’m not a stock item.”
“Of course you are,” STK-CLR responded. Another whine sounded, and before Ben could react a set of servogrips closed around his wrists and ankles. “You came through the freight system.”
“Not everything that comes through the freight system is a stock item.” When Ben tried to pull free, the droid’s arms suddenly extended farther, and he found himself hanging spread-eagled in the gloom. “Put me down! And that’s an override command.”
“Stock items are not authorized to issue override commands,” STK-CLR countered. A small panel opened in the droid’s chest, and a slender hose ending in a tiny nozzle shot out and sprayed a bar code down the front of Ben’s robe. “You have been marked DEFECTIVE UNIT. Present yourself to the routing station on the far side of the delivery portal for return to your supplier.”
Rather than continue the argument, Ben simply hung his head. “Sure, whatever you want.”
“Good.” The droid lowered Ben to the floor. “And relay my displeasure to your manufacturer. This is the Jedi Temple. We have acceptance specifications.”
As soon as his boots hit the floor, Ben pivoted around and tripped the primary circuit breaker in the back of the droid’s neck. A surprised squawk sounded from the STK-CLR’s vocabulator; its arms retracted into their sockets, and its frame hissed down to settle over its legs. Ben pushed the droid away from the receiving pad, then snapped his lightsaber off its belt hook and turned to see if he could figure out where the freight-handling system had deposited him.
He was not surprised to find himself in a dimly lit warehouse filled with row after row of high, gloom-swaddled shelves. The Jedi Temple had at least a hundred such rooms, devoted to storage for laboratories, armories, fabrication shops, communications centers, even routine maintenance functions necessary to keep any building of its size in good repair. But this room smelled faintly of Tibanna gas and hyperdrive coolant, and it was reverberating to the muffled thunder of artillery strikes crashing against the shields outside a nearby chamber.
All of that told Ben that he was in the parts locker of a spacecraft repair bay. Judging by the size of the locker, and by the steady battle rumble he was hearing, it was a repair bay that served an extremely large and busy hangar.
The muffled growl of activating control rings sounded deep within the freight-handling system and grew instantly louder, and Ben looked back in time to see the meter-long silhouette of an astromech droid shooting out of the delivery portal. It decelerated almost instantly, then settled gently onto the receiving pad.
Ben used the Force to lift the little astromech onto the floor next to him. “Rowdy?”
The droid responded with an indignant tweedle.
“Sorry,” Ben said. “Not much light in here.”
A ceiling lamp activated, illuminating the vicinity in a cone of brightness—and leaving no doubt about the identity of the battered little unit in front of Ben.
“Turn that off!” Ben ordered. “We’re trying to stay hidden here.”
The lamp remained on, and Rowdy whistled a question.
“From the Sith, of course,” Ben hissed. “I can’t believe you brought us to the Main Operations Hangar! There are probably a couple hundred Sith manning the cannon batteries—right out there!”
Rowdy tweedled in agreement. Then, without deactivating the lamp, he dropped his third tread and began to roll along behind the shelving units. Ben followed along until they reached the eighth row, at the far end of which he saw another cone of light shining down on his father and Corran. The two Jedi Masters were twenty meters away, standing next to a computer interface panel, but staring over the parts counter out into a massive repair bay as brightly lit as it was empty. Given their lack of caution, it seemed apparent that Ben’s fear of discovery was unwarranted. The Sith were simply too busy defending the exterior of the Temple to worry about what was in the parts locker behind them.
“Okay, Rowdy. Sorry.” Ben pointed toward the interface panel. “You obviously know what to do. I’ll go back and let the others know the situation.”
Rowdy replied with a good-natured trill, and Ben returned to the receiving area, where Jysella Horn stood peering into the delivery portal with her lightsaber in hand. Her jaw was set, her feet were braced, and her Force aura was humming with anticipation.
“There was a lot of blasterfire behind me,” Jysella said as Ben approached. “I think Jaina and Valin have been trading bolts with the enemy the whole way.”
“Blasted Sith.” Ben vaulted over the receiving bench, then turned to face the delivery portal. “Don’t they recognize a desperate escape when they see it?”
Jysella shrugged. “Maybe they’re just as desperate to catch us.”
The sound of activating control rings began to growl up from the depths of the freight-handling system, and an instant later Jysella’s brother, Valin, came shooting out of the delivery portal. His attention was fixed behind him, and he was holding a blaster pistol with a pinging depletion alarm.
Ben began to have a very bad feeling. “Valin, is Jaina—”
“Jaina’s in trouble,” Valin interrupted. He rolled off the bench toward Jysella, then ejected the blaster’s energy cell, popped in a new one, and holstered the weapon. “She kept calling for cover, but it’s hard to fire past someone’s head when you keep taking g-loads. I might have hit her a couple of times.”
“If she was still firing herself, you did great,” Ben assured him. “ ‘In trouble’ is better than ‘dead’ any day.”
“I’ll feel better when she tells me that herself,” Valin said. He snapped his lightsaber off its hook and took a position at Jysella’s side. “But this is going to get even messier. It sounded like there were dozens of Sith in the tube behind her.”
“It doesn’t matter how many there are,” Jysella said. She stepped over to the control panel on the side of the delivery portal. “Not if they never get here.”
Ben smiled. “I like your thinking.” He looked toward Valin. “But we have another problem. There must be a couple hundred Sith out in the Main Operations Hangar, and this storage locker is a dead end. We need an escape route.”
Valin nodded and started for the back corner of the warehouse. “I’ll cut a bolt-hole.”
Ben activated his comlink and opened a channel to his father. “We’ve got Sith following us through the freight system,” he said. “We’re trying to strand them, but no promises. How are you and Rowdy coming with the interface?”
“If stranding them doesn’t work, try to buy some time,” Luke replied. “Rowdy is plugged into the droid socket, but he can’t find the computer core.”
An angry whistle sounded over the channel as Rowdy objected to the characterization of the problem, but the groan of control rings was already building down in the cargo tubes, and Ben began to hear the muffled squeal of blasterfire.
“Okay,” he said. “We’re about to make a lot of noise back here, so be ready to turn back reinforcements. Let us know as soon as you get those blast doors open.”
By the time he finished speaking, the blasterfire had grown louder and more distinct. Ben activated his lightsaber, then positioned himself within easy reach of the delivery portal and drew in a deep breath, trying to clear his mind before the combat began. He still felt angry and frightened for Vestara—and he had to put that aside. Fear led to mistakes, and anger led to … well, someplace he did not want to go.
Ben was still trying to center himself when Jaina shot out of the delivery portal. She stank of singed molytex and charred flesh, and she was firing back into the delivery portal even as the freight system dropped her onto the receiving bench. Ben gathered himself to leap up beside her, but her eyes snapped in his direction, and she shook her head.
“Stay clear!” Jaina rolled off the other side of the bench, yelling, “Grenade!”
Ben reacted instantly, his hand rising as he reached out in the Force. He caught something heavy and fist-sized as it shot from the delivery portal, then swept his hand toward the far wall and felt the tiny orb go sailing.
In the next instant a yellow blast seared the side of his face, and he felt himself slam into the nearby shelves even before he realized he had been sent flying. His ears were ringing and his ribs ached, but he could still feel all of his limbs—and one of them was holding a lightsaber. He extracted himself from the toppled shelving, then turned back to find a Sith warrior already jumping off the bench toward Jaina. Two more—one with a pointed dark beard and the other with an old scar across his nose—were turning to face Ben. Their eyes shone with the anticipation of an easy kill.
Ben didn’t care for their attitude.
He Force-blasted Scarnose back across the receiving bench, then leapt at Pointed-Beard. The bearded Sith pivoted forward, whipping his lightsaber around, and their weapons met in a spray of sparks.
Guessing what would come next, Ben launched himself into a cartwheel over their locked blades and watched Pointed-Beard’s Force-hurled glass parang spin harmlessly past. He came down behind his foe and pivoted hard, dragging his lightsaber through the Sith’s shoulder and torso.
The man collapsed, screaming and stinking of charred flesh, and Ben found himself looking down on Jaina from his perch on the bench. She was standing over the corpses of Scarnose and the third Sith, her shoulders heaving as she struggled to catch her breath. For a moment, Ben thought she was just tired from killing two Sith in the three seconds it had taken him to kill one.
Then he noticed the large circle of blood-soaked cloth on the side of her robe. At the center was a deep, thumb-sized burn hole.
“Jaina, are you okay?”
Ben’s ears were still ringing from the grenade blast, and he could barely hear his own words—much less Jaina’s reply. But the alarm in her eyes was plain to see, and when her gaze slid toward the delivery portal, he realized what she must be hearing: the growl of activating control rings.
Ben glanced toward the control panel and found Jysella holding her lightsaber with both hands, dragging it back and forth as fast as she could. He pulled a thermal detonator off his combat harness.
“Jysella!” Ben could barely hear his own voice, but it was loud enough to make Jysella look in his direction. He tossed the thermal detonator to her. “Blow it!”
Jaina suddenly leapt onto the bench, her lightsaber igniting barely in time to intercept a fork of Force lightning that came crackling out of the delivery portal. Ben spun to the other side, activating his own blade and moving in for the kill as their Sith attacker shot out into the open.
Ben did not strike.
The Sith was too familiar, a tall slender Lord with thin sneering lips, wearing a black cape over blast armor. His hands were extended in front of him, continuing to pour Force lightning into Jaina’s flagging guard even after the freight-handling system dropped him facedown on the receiving bench. Ben waved his blade past the Sith’s eyes to catch his attention, then lowered the tip to within a few centimeters of the man’s temple.
“Surrender or die,” Ben ordered. “Decide now.”
Jaina’s outrage hit like a Force blast, but Ben did not care. This was the Lord who had taken Vestara prisoner—who had been trying to use her to lure Ben into an ambush. If Ben had any chance at all of rescuing her, it lay with this Sith. So even when the man was slow to stop attacking Jaina, Ben did not kill him. Instead he placed a boot in the center of the Sith’s back and repeated his order.
“Surrender or die.”
The Lord let his chin drop, and the Force lightning fizzled out. He turned to look up at Ben.
“What is it you want, Jedi?” The words would have been soft under the best of circumstances. But with the ringing in Ben’s ears, he had to stoop down to hear them clearly. “A trade?”
Ben nodded. “The thought had crossed my mind.” It appeared it might be easier to strike a deal than he expected. “Your life for—”
Ben had no time to wonder who had called out, or even to wonder why. He simply sensed a blast of alarm, then felt Jaina grab him in the Force and Jysella reaching for his attention. In the same breath, his leg exploded in pain, and Ben looked down to see a finger-length shikkar lodged in his thigh.
The Sith used the Force to snap off the hilt, then took advantage of his victim’s shock to roll away from the lightsaber hovering at his temple. Ben lunged after him, but stopped when Jysella clutched at him through the Force.
“No, Ben!” This time, it was clearly her voice. “Detonator!”
Ben glanced over to see her backing away from the smoking control panel, one hand held above her head with two fingers raised. She lowered one finger, then flung herself away from the delivery portal. By the time he turned to do likewise, Jaina had already grabbed him in the Force and hurled them both away from the freight system.
They hit together, crashing into a shelf full of heavy boxes just before a blinding white flash filled the room. There was a thunderous crackle that seemed to last forever, and the heat grew so intense that Ben feared they had been caught inside the blast radius.
That particular fear vanished an instant later, when he dropped to the floor and drove the shikkar against his femur. His entire leg erupted into the kind of anguish that made weak men wish they were dead, and he felt his mouth open to scream.
Jaina landed at his side, her hand already clamping his mouth. “Quiet!”
She used the Force to pin him down, then raised herself up just enough to look back toward the detonation site. Shooting from the flaming delivery portal was a fountain of blood and bone—all that remained of their Sith pursuers after they passed through the wrecked deceleration rings.
“We don’t know if that mugwump cleared the blast,” Jaina said. “He might still be alive.”
Ben nodded and swallowed his unvoiced scream, then reached up and gently pulled her hand away from his mouth. “I wasn’t actually going to scream.”
Jaina eyed him doubtfully. “If you say so.”
She grabbed his leg above and below the wound, then used the Force to start extracting the glass blade. The pain grew even more unbearable as the jagged top began to tear through muscle and sinew. Ben clamped his jaw shut, drawing on the Force for strength.
Jaina’s expression was devoid of sympathy. “You deserved that, you know.” She kept her voice low, but her tone was harsh. “What were you thinking, trying to capture a Sith Lord? In the middle of hand-to-hand combat?”
Ben couldn’t answer without risking a scream, but he had been thinking about Vestara, of course. The Lord had been using her as bait, so he probably knew what had become of her. Ben only hoped the Sith had other uses for her, too, or she would soon be dead.
Jaina continued to draw the blade out slowly, deliberately prolonging Ben’s anguish—or so it seemed to him.
“You’re lucky,” she said. “A little to the left, and you’d be dead.”
The blade slipped free with a final pop of tendon. The pain faded from the unendurable to the merely excruciating, and blood started to flow out of the wound, fast and dark. But Jaina was right. Had the shikkar penetrated a few centimeters to the left, it would have severed his femoral artery. Frankly, Ben could not understand how that had failed to happen. The Sith Lord had struck from an ideal angle, he had been using the Force to guide his shikkar, and he’d taken Ben completely by surprise. By all rights, Ben should have been watching the last of his life’s blood spurt out in a long, bright jet. The fact that he wasn’t could only mean one thing: the Sith had not wanted to kill Ben, either.
“He didn’t miss, Jaina,” Ben said. “He didn’t want to finish me.”
Jaina shook her head. “Don’t kid yourself, Ben. Sith don’t play nice. You shouldn’t, either.” She pulled a clean bacta patch from a belt pouch and pressed it over his wound, then took his hand and placed it on top. “Pressure.”
Ben did as she instructed. “He wasn’t being nice,” he said. “I think he wanted to take me prisoner. That’s why he went for my thigh, instead of my heart or my abdomen.”
Jaina remained silent as she secured the patch with a self-snugging bandage, then finally nodded. “Okay, you’ve got a point,” she said. “You’re Luke Skywalker’s son. You’d make a pretty good hostage.”
She slipped an arm under his shoulder and helped him to his feet. They were still looking back toward the gaping hole where the delivery portal had been, and as they watched, the familiar growling of activating control rings sounded down in the freight-handling system. A muffled scream came next, followed by a fountain of pinkish ooze that had once been a living being.
“You guys took out the deceleration series,” Jaina said. “Nice thinking.”
“Jysella’s idea,” Ben admitted. “I’m not sure she thought about goo geysers, though.”
Jaina shrugged. “It buys us enough time to join your dad and the others,” she said. “That’s what counts.”
But instead of starting forward again, Jaina paused at the edge of the aisle, no doubt looking for any sign of Ben’s attacker. Ben extended his own Force awareness into the surrounding area, searching for any hint of danger that would suggest the Sith was lying in wait for them. It certainly seemed possible that Jaina had guessed correctly about wanting to take Ben hostage, but something did not feel quite right about that. The Sith had hurt his own odds of surviving by failing to eliminate an enemy when he had the chance. And back in the waterworks, he had also taken a big risk by dangling Vestara as bait. Together the two ploys seemed like a deliberate plan, and Ben was starting to feel hunted.
Ben and Jaina were still searching for any sign of the missing Sith Lord when Jysella poked her head out of an aisle on the other side of the crater. “You’d better hurry,” she called. “They’ve got problems at the interface station.”
In the distance, an exchange of blasterfire could be heard. Evidently, the Sith out in the hangar had finally realized they had trouble in the parts locker and launched an attack.
“Be right there,” Jaina called. She slowly withdrew her support from under Ben’s arm. “Can you move on your own?”
Ben took his own weight, calling on the Force to fortify his injured leg—and using a Jedi meditation technique to handle the pain. When his knee did not buckle, he removed his arm from her shoulders.
“I’m good.” He gestured at the blaster burn in her side. “How about you?”
Jaina glanced down at the hole. “A little trouble breathing,” she said. “But not much blood loss. I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure?” Ben asked. “Because if you’re having trouble breathing—”
“I’m fine,” Jaina insisted. She gave him a look that suggested she might be talking to a five-year-old. “I’ve been doing this a long time.”
With that she nudged him forward, and together they limped cautiously around the crater. When no Sith Lords emerged from hiding to attack them, they fell in behind Jysella and went forward to the interface station. Luke and Master Horn were crouched behind the service counter, ducking Force lightning and trading blasterfire with a rapidly growing contingent of Sith warriors out in the repair bay. Rowdy was still plugged into the data socket, tweeting and chirping and rocking back and forth on his treads in what looked suspiciously close to frustration.
As they drew near, Ben and his two companions began to add their own fire to the storm of flying bolts, and Ben went to crouch next to his father. He fired blindly over the counter three times, then dropped out of sight as a flurry of bolts came streaking back over his head.
“Problems?” he asked.
“You could say that,” Luke replied, almost yelling to make himself heard over the screeching torrent. “Rowdy seems to think that all of the interface panels have been disabled.”
“So?” Ben popped his head up and saw a white orb sailing toward the parts locker. Trusting his aim to the Force, he opened fire and was rewarded with an orange fireball as the grenade detonated twenty meters from the counter. “It’s not like we can get out there to use another one anyway.”
“No,” Corran said, dropping back behind the counter with a pinging depletion alarm and ejecting his useless power cell. “You’re not understanding. It’s not just the hangar stations that are disabled. It’s all of them—in the entire Jedi Temple.”
Ben’s heart sank, but it was Jysella who asked, “Then how are we going to lower the shields? And get the blast doors open?”
No one spoke for a moment, then Ben said, “There’s only one way, at least if we want to open them all at once.” He turned toward the corner of the parts locker, where Valin Horn was still dragging his lightsaber blade through the durasteel wall, just putting the final touches on the bolt-hole. “Rowdy needs to talk directly to the Temple computer.”
His father nodded. “We need to enter the computer core itself.” Luke signaled Ben and Jaina to lead the way toward Valin’s bolt-hole. “And you can bet the Sith will be expecting us.”
THE PILLARS STOOD SCATTERED ACROSS THE FACE OF THE DISTANT mountain, their pale shafts cropping out of the blue-gray slopes like cliffs. Their columns looked a hundred stories tall, but the mysterious edifice they had been erected to support remained buried beneath a kilometer-high mound of silt. No road crossed the endless sweep of scrub-dotted plain that surrounded the dust-mountain, and no craft could be seen streaking across the orange sky above it. And yet the pillars were the sole hint of civilization in the Reo system—in the whole Maraqoo sector—so this had to be the place.
Raynar Thul eased the landspeeder forward. Though he had played an important part in several recent Jedi missions, he did not feel ready for this one. Master Skywalker had asked him to return to the Killik Colony he had once led as the Joiner UnuThul. But Raynar had literally not been himself back then. He had been a wounded combat survivor who had allowed himself to become lost in the shared mind of a Killik hive—to become a Joiner. It was an experience that had totally destroyed his sense of identity and left his mind a shattered wreck, and Raynar continued to feel tenuous and incomplete in his recovery.
But now the Jedi were facing an enemy as enigmatic as she was powerful, and their only hope of survival was to coax some answers from the jumbled hive-minds of the Killiks. Someone had to convince them to reveal everything they knew about the mysterious Celestials they had once served, and Raynar was the only Jedi who could do it. So he had accepted the assignment and promised to succeed … even if it meant losing the mind he had spent eight long years trying to reassemble.
As the landspeeder drew closer to the mountain of dust, Raynar saw that the giant pillars were decorated with reliefs of winged beasts and horned fiends. Twined around the feet of these figures were ropy shapes that might have been serpents or vines.
Lowbacca, two and a quarter meters of Wookiee, hunched in the front passenger seat with his knees in his chest, growled the opinion that the vines were a good sign.
“I quite disagree, Master Lowbacca,” C-3PO said, speaking from directly behind the Wookiee. “In this context, the tendrils are symbols of inevitable destruction. If the ruins weren’t so obviously deserted, I would suggest that we turn around immediately and erase them from our memory chips.”
“I think Lowie means that we’re in the right place,” Tekli said. Sitting in the passenger seat behind Raynar, the furry little Chadra-Fan was probably the only one in the crowded landspeeder who was even remotely comfortable. “The vines suggest that we’ve finally found a hive with a direct association to Abeloth. But the winged figures are something new. Is there a record of ophidian grotesques appearing with other symbols?”
“Not in my data banks,” C-3PO assured her. “And I have cached every available reference to the subject. In fact, I have available two point three million articles and seven point one million images—”
Lowbacca interrupted with an impatient rumble.
“No, I would not prefer to ride on the stowage cover,” C-3PO replied. “Do you have any idea what all that dust would do to my servomotors?”
Lowbacca rumbled again.
“I am not experiencing a problem with my vocabulator, Jedi Lowbacca,” C-3PO answered. “And even if I were, I assure you that more dust would only make it worse.”
Raynar chuckled, glad to have his friends along to keep his mind off his fears. Officially, Master Skywalker had assigned Tekli and Lowbacca to the mission as its medic and technical officer. But Raynar was pretty sure their most important duty was to keep him sane—at least, he hoped it was. C-3PO was on loan to serve as a translator, so it wouldn’t be necessary for Raynar to risk becoming a Joiner again just to communicate with the Killiks. Whether it was part of Master Skywalker’s plan or not, the droid had also acted as a constant annoyance—and a diversion. The three Jedi had been living in close quarters for over a month now, and C-3PO had given them a handy place to redirect any irritation they felt with one another. It was a job at which the droid had never failed to excel.
The landspeeder was still a kilometer away from the mountain when dark specks began to appear in the spaces between exposed pillars. At first, the flecks seemed to be some sort of decoration, but as the companions drew closer the shapes grew more squarish, then swelled into distant window openings. A path appeared in the dust at the base of the mountain, running through a narrow channel toward a tall black arch that looked a lot like an open gateway.
Deciding the black arch was a gateway, Raynar turned toward it … and felt a cold prickle of danger sense race up his neck. He expanded his Force awareness and sensed something much nearer, a huge hungry presence moving toward the landspeeder almost as fast as the landspeeder was moving toward the mountain.
The sensation made no sense. There was a steady breeze blowing across the plain, raising a thin veil of smoke-blue dust that hung about a meter above the ground, but visibility was still close to three hundred meters, and the presence was a lot nearer than that. Raynar brought the landspeeder to a halt.
“I feel it, too,” Tekli said. “Something is eager to get at us before we reach the mountain.”
Lowbacca groaned a question.
“Well, I can’t see anything except the back of your enormous and furry head,” C-3PO answered. “Perhaps I would be of more use if you didn’t insist on making the droid ride in back.”
“I don’t think it’s an illusion,” Tekli said, ignoring C-3PO and replying to Lowbacca. “It can be sensed only through the Force. And any illusion that can be sensed only through the Force won’t turn away many threats.”
Lowbacca moaned his agreement, and the hungry presence continued to draw nearer. Raynar popped the canopy latch on his side of the landspeeder—then saw the soil settling and understood. He put the landspeeder in reverse and pushed the throttles to maximum.
Twenty meters ahead, a giant pair of serrated pincers burst from the ground and spread apart, revealing a slimy red maw about twice as wide as the speeder. The maw led into a long sinuous throat lined by concentric rings of spines. Out of the depths of this cavern shot a spray of gray, ropy tongues that slapped down on the front end of the vehicle. The pincers snapped shut, burying their tips deep in the side panels.
The landspeeder started to slide forward. Raynar pushed the throttles past maximum to overload, clear to the end of the lever guides. The vehicle continued to slide toward the fang-filled maw.
“Out!” Raynar yelled.
Lowbacca popped the latch on his side. He exploded from his seat so swiftly that he caught the canopy bubble on his neck and shoulders, snapping it off at the hinges. Tekli yelled that she was also free. By then, Raynar was already pushing off the steering wheel, using the Force to send himself tumbling out of the landspeeder.
When he looked back, the maw had engulfed the landspeeder almost to the passenger compartment and was dragging it down into the dusty pit from which it had emerged. Still in the back, C-3PO was leaning away from the ropy tongues, waving both arms at Raynar.
“Jedi Thul, why are you just standing there? Please do something quickly!”
The landspeeder passed over the edge of the pit and tipped forward.
C-3PO pointed down into the pit. “I suggest that you kill it immediately!”
Killing the creature was out of the question—and not only because of its size. Instead, Raynar extended a hand and used the Force to lift the droid out of the landspeeder—then found himself struggling against Lowbacca, who’d had the same idea.
Raynar released his Force grasp. C-3PO went sailing, then hit Lowbacca in the chest, bounced off, and landed in the dust at the Wookiee’s feet.
Lowbacca dropped his chin and studied the droid for a moment, then moaned a question.
“I could not possibly know that yet,” C-3PO replied. “I’m still running my diagnostics!”
Lowbacca shrugged and set the droid on his feet, then growled and rubbed his chest.
“It’s not my fault my elbow gave you a bruise,” C-3PO said. “I was merely trying to minimize my own damage.”
The shriek of folding metal sounded from the pit. Raynar stepped to the edge and, through a veil of blowing blue dust, saw a huge heart-shaped head poking out of the bottom. It was rolling the crumpled landspeeder around in its mandibles, using its mouth to tear off pieces and crush them into meter-wide spheres—which it quickly found unpalatable and spat out.
A small hand grasped Raynar’s arm and tried to pull him away from the pit. He pulled back just hard enough to stay where he was, and Tekli stepped to his side.
“Raynar?” Tekli whispered. “Is it really wise to stand where that thing can see you?”
Raynar shrugged. He wasn’t sure what that thing was—but there was a reasonable chance it was a Killik. He took a deep breath, both calming himself and filling his lungs, then raised both forearms in greeting.
“Thuruht?” he called.
The insect stopped chewing and pushed its head another meter out of the pit, revealing a huge bulb that was probably a vestigial eye. The ground trembled beneath Raynar’s feet, and he felt a faint rumbling deep in his stomach.
“Oh, my!” C-3PO said, speaking from three meters away. “She would like to know who is asking—and why you are disturbing her work.”
Raynar smiled as much as the flesh of his burn-scarred face allowed. “Tell her I’m an old friend,” he said. “UnuThul needs help.”
“Jedi Thul, I’m not sure that’s wise,” C-3PO said. “Killiks rarely cooperate with liars, and you haven’t been UnuThul for quite—”
Lowbacca growled, warning C-3PO to be careful about what he said.
Raynar glanced over at the droid. “Tell her, Threepio.”
Before C-3PO had a chance to obey, the ground trembled again.
The droid cocked his head, then said, “As it happens, that won’t be necessary. Thuruht comprehends Basic quite well. She has invited us to the Celestial Palace.”
Raynar looked into the pit and dipped his head. “We’re grateful.”
As the ground trembled in reply, Raynar led the way around the pit and started toward the palace. The air was arid and choking hot, and with a haze of blue dust obscuring everything below their waists, it was difficult to find the best path across the plain. Twice, Raynar sank to his thigh when he inadvertently stepped into another pit.
Several times, he glimpsed a ridge rising in the dust ahead as one of Thuruht’s giant guardians burrowed across the plain to greet him and his companions. Usually, the greeting consisted of little more than coming alongside them and emitting a subterranean rumble so deep they felt it in their stomachs. But about three hundred meters from the palace, a huge head burst from the ground, blocking their way and clacking its mandibles.
It had been a long time since Raynar had been part of a Killik hive-mind, but he didn’t think the creature was trying to threaten them. He motioned his companions to lower their weapons and stepped forward. Keeping his prosthetic arm at his side, he raised his flesh-and-blood hand in greeting. The insect responded by dipping its head and rubbing its worm-like antennae across his forearm. Then it emitted a soft, muffled boom and withdrew.
As soon as the creature vanished into the ground again, Tekli stepped to Raynar’s side. “You’ll be coated in pheromones now,” she observed. “You still have your nasal filters in place, yes?”
Raynar sniffed hard. Finding it difficult to draw air, he nodded. “No worries,” he said, starting toward the palace again. “No one who’s been a Joiner wants to become a Joiner again—including me.”
Lowbacca observed that no one ever wanted to become a Joiner in the first place. The pheromones just made it happen.
“We’ll be okay,” Tekli assured the Wookiee. “Even if the filters overload, the counteragents will give us enough protection to get through a week of exposure.”
Lowbacca turned to Raynar and growled a question.
“Hard to say,” Raynar answered. “But a week is probably long enough.”
“And if it isn’t, I have more counteragents aboard the Long Trek,” Tekli said. “We can always return and take another injection.”
Lowbacca glanced over his shoulder, looking back toward the distant ridge where they had landed the scoutship, then grumbled unhappily.
“I quite agree,” C-3PO replied. “That’s a very long walk, indeed. My actuators simply won’t tolerate it.”
“You won’t need to,” Raynar said. “Pheromones don’t affect droids. You can just wait with Thuruht.”
“Alone?” C-3PO objected. “I’m quite sure that’s not what Princess Leia had in mind when she offered to send me along.”
“Probably not,” Raynar agreed.
As they entered the channel at the base of the dust-mountain, Raynar realized the scale of the place was even larger than it had appeared from the landspeeder. The channel stretched two hundred meters to the gate, and its walls were easily seventy meters high. The archway at the far end was large enough to accommodate a Lancer frigate, and the enormous support columns flanking the entrance rose a hundred meters before vanishing into an overhang of wind-packed dust.
The figures on the pillars were largely hidden by the dust. On the left-hand column, all that could be seen were two sharp-taloned feet dangling beneath the overhang, tangled in the coils of what was either a serpent or a tentacle. On the right-hand column, even less was visible—only a single wing dipping out of the dust, wrapped in what was a length of either vine or rope.
The air grew dank and humid as they drew within a couple dozen steps of the archway. Raynar sensed the fused Force presence of a group of Killiks loitering in the passages near the entrance, and his pulse started to pound in his ears.
“Don’t worry,” Tekli said, stepping to his side. “We’re here with you.”
Lowbacca added his owned reassurances, promising to drag Raynar out by his feet at the first hint that he was becoming a Joiner again. The words were offered in kindness, but Raynar found them to be of little comfort. There was something to fear. If becoming a Joiner again was the only way to learn what Thuruht knew of Abeloth and the Celestials, then become a Joiner he would. And he knew the same was true of Lowbacca and Tekli. The Order needed the intelligence they had been sent to gather far more than it needed them.
The trick, of course, would be making sure that at least one of them stayed sane enough to report back to the Jedi Council.
Together they stepped through the archway into the cool darkness of the ruins. Raynar heard the clatter of approaching insects, and a moment later he began to feel their antennae brushing over him, paying particular attention to his real forearm. They were careful to avoid the prosthetic, however. Killiks did not like artificial body parts. The devices blurred the line between living being and droid, and Killiks did not understand droids. Droids were alien and never to be welcomed, because droids never became Joiners.
As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, Raynar found himself facing a trio of Killiks with mottled-blue exoskeletons and four delicate arms. They had the same heart-shaped heads as their giant hive mates outside, but they were only about a meter and a half tall and lacked the huge mandibles of the guardians. When they saw Raynar studying them, all three folded their arms against their thoraxes and dipped their heads.
“Ruur ubb unuwul burur,” said one. “Uru rur rruru bub.”
“Thuruht welcomes the wise UnuThul and his followers to the Celestial Palace,” C-3PO translated. “The hive is honored that he has chosen to rejoin the Kind through them.”
Lowbacca let out a quick growl, informing Thuruht that they weren’t there to join anything.
“Are you certain you wish me to translate that, Jedi Lowbacca?” C-3PO asked. “You’re actually being rather—”
Thuruht interrupted with a short thrum, and the droid turned to face the insect. After a moment, he looked back to Lowbacca.
“Thuruht says it doesn’t matter why you came, the hive will be honored to have you.” He shifted his attention to Raynar. “We are asked to attend the queen in her chamber.”
Had his burn scars permitted it, Raynar would have raised his brow. Modern Killik hives were no longer organized around a queen, but he supposed it only made sense that Thuruht’s social structure would reflect its great age. He inclined his head to the blue insects.
“If you’ll show us the way.”
All three turned and led the Jedi and C-3PO up a stale-smelling passage that ascended along the outer walls of the palace. The climb was steep and lonely, rising in a rough spiral that felt five kilometers long.
They frequently passed through musty-smelling areas where a side tunnel led into the depths of the palace. The few insects they encountered seemed to be wandering about aimlessly rather than executing the business of the hive. Most of the time, the balls of luminescent wax hanging along the walls were too dim to see much more than the silhouettes of the three guides ahead. Every so often, however, they would pass one of the huge windows they had seen from outside, and the light would spill in to reveal archways decorated with bas-relief carvings of plants and animals from a thousand different worlds.
But it was the panels between the arches that put a flutter in Raynar’s stomach. The images depicted the grandeur of deep space, always with some peculiar twist that seemed unlikely to occur in nature. There was a supernova exploding in only one direction, a ring of nine planets circling their sun along a single orbital path, a nebula hanging like a curtain between two star systems. Finally came a scene that looked all too familiar—a system with five planets orbiting the same star in very similar orbits, with the third and fourth locked in a tight twin-planet formation.
Raynar stopped. “What’s that picture?”
The insects answered without stopping or looking back. “Urrub.”
“Our work,” C-3PO translated. The droid paused, waiting in vain for a more thorough explanation, then said, “I’m sorry, Jedi Thul, but Thuruht doesn’t seem to be in a very informative mood right now. Perhaps they’ve been offended by Lowbacca’s rudeness.”
Lowbacca moaned a halfhearted apology.
Thuruht continued to ascend the corridor. Raynar remained where he was and called, “Is this one the Corellian system?”
The insects stopped five meters up the passage, then reluctantly turned around. “Buurub uu ruub ur ru ub.”
“Thuruht wouldn’t know what it is called by lesser beings,” C-3PO translated. “But to Thuruht, it is known as Five Rocks.”
Tekli stood on her toes, reaching up to wipe the dust away from the third and fourth planets—the twins—then asked, “Does Thuruht know why the system was constructed?”
The insects turned and walked on.
“Thuruht said ‘yes,’ ” C-3PO translated. “May I suggest we follow? They seem to be growing impatient with us.”
Lowbacca shrugged and started up the passage. Raynar and Tekli fell in behind the Wookiee. A few minutes later they turned toward the center of the palace, traveling down a long hall even larger and more ornate than the one they had just ascended. The air grew warmer and more humid, and the glow-balls started to shine more brightly. Dozens of workers began to appear, scurrying in and out of side passages, carrying tools and bales of a stringy yellow fungus, or waxy orbs of golden membrosia, one of the Killiks’ favorite nourishments. Raynar started to feel thirsty, and he noticed Lowbacca eyeing a membrosia bearer as she crossed the corridor ahead.
“That I miss about being Taat,” Tekli said. Taat was the hive she and Lowbacca had inadvertently joined years before, after Raynar had summoned them to help the Killiks fight the Chiss. “It will almost be worth the trip to have some again.”
“They sell it in Restaurant Galatina on Coruscant, you know,” C-3PO offered helpfully. “I understand the Horoh is especially fine this year.”
“And a thousand credits a liter,” Tekli said. “I’m a Jedi Knight, not an investment banker.”
They reached the end of the hall, where two huge guards stood to either side of the corridor, their long mandibles locked across an entrance ten meters wide. They looked much the same as the one that had eaten the landspeeder, except there was nothing vestigial about their eyes. The pair glared at the procession as it approached, and Raynar began to fear that he and his companions would not be permitted to enter the queen’s chamber.
Then a deep drumming sounded from the interior. The guardians lifted their mandibles, and the guides led the way into a vast chamber containing hundreds of empty floor pits. In a healthy hive, the pits would have been filled with incubation cells. But the deep drifts of dust in the bottom of these cells suggested they had not been used in centuries. Unlike the rest of the palace, the room was well lit, with the sun’s orange light spilling in through a transparent membrane stretched across the vaulted ceiling.
The guides stopped a few steps inside, leaving Raynar and his companions to continue down a large center aisle toward the queen. Almost as large as the entrance sentries, she lay stretched across a massive dais, with six sturdy legs curled against a bantha-sized abdomen and a mouth flanked by a pair of multijointed mandibles. Standing on the floor in front of her were four guardians identical to those outside the entrance.
Closer to the dais were a pair of floor pits filled with the familiar comb of incubation cells. Raynar saw no more than thirty compartments, and only three nursery Killiks to attend them. The hive wasn’t quite dead, but it wasn’t thriving, either.
As Raynar and his companions passed the last nursery pit, the guardians shuffled away from the center of the dais, revealing a wide set of stairs. The queen’s abdomen rippled, filling the chamber with a long, low rumble barely audible to human hearing.
“I must say, this is quite unexpected,” C-3PO said. “The queen is inviting Lowbacca and Tekli to groom her.”
Lowbacca emitted an uncertain groan.
“It means you remove her external parasites,” Raynar explained. Lowbacca and Tekli’s old hive, Taat, had been much more egalitarian in social structure, so they had probably never participated in the ritual. “It’s an honor. Yoggoy used to groom me—”
Lowbacca huffed in disgust.
“Just think of it as a medical procedure,” Tekli whispered. “And remember why we’re here.”
The Wookiee sighed and dropped his head, and the group ascended the stairs. An attendant emerged from behind the queen, appearing atop her giant abdomen with a bucket in one hand and a cloth and a bottle of antiseptic spray in two of her others, then motioned for the groomers to join her. As former Joiners themselves, Lowbacca and Tekli had enough experience to realize Killiks weren’t shy about crawling over one another, so they scrambled up to join the attendant.
Raynar watched them ascend, then stepped over to present himself to the queen. Her head was small compared with the rest of her body, but it was still half the size of Raynar himself, with eyes as big as shock-balls and slender mandibles the length of a Wookiee’s arm. Raynar raised his flesh-and-blood hand in greeting. In return, the queen dipped her head, then rubbed a feathery antenna along his wrist.
“Wuur uu rur uu,” she thrummed. “Ubub ruub uru.”
“Thuruht welcomes you back to the Kind,” C-3PO translated. “The hive will be honored to have you.”
Raynar felt a nervous flutter in his stomach. Lowbacca had clearly stated they had not come to join the hive, yet Thuruht was speaking as if it were already fact. All Killiks had a tendency to confuse belief with reality, so the queen might simply be saying she believed the three Jedi would eventually become Joiners again. But her tone was insistent, and it struck Raynar as an assertion of will—a warning that Thuruht would not be defied.
Raynar continued to hold his arm aloft until the queen withdrew her antenna. Then he said, “You know we are not here to join the hive.”
The queen lifted her head above his, clapped her mandibles together, and let out a short rumble.
“ ‘Yes, but it will happen,’ ” C-3PO translated. “She seems quite sure of it.”
Raynar let out his breath, taking a moment to calm himself, then looked into the queen’s nearest eye. “That can’t happen,” he said. “You remember last time, when I became UnuThul.”
The queen dipped her head a little and let out a series of soft booms.
“ ‘You won’t make the same mistake again,’ ” C-3PO translated. “ ‘You have grown in years and in wisdom.’ ”
“It doesn’t matter,” Raynar said. “The Chiss wouldn’t like it. They would go to war.”
The queen’s reply grew a little softer.
“ ‘What the Chiss don’t know will never hurt us,’ ” C-3PO said.
“They already know.”
A low rumble sounded from the insect’s thorax, and C-3PO translated, “ ‘You told them?’ ”
Raynar shook his head. “No, but they have spies everywhere.” As he spoke, he was trying to figure out why Thuruht seemed so determined to have him as a Joiner. Visitors became Joiners after they had been exposed to Killik pheromones for enough time. But hives rarely engaged in deliberate recruitment—not unless they were in need of something a new Joiner could provide. “If I don’t return to the Galactic Alliance soon, the Chiss will mobilize for war—and they will attack the Kind.”
The queen studied him for a time, then tipped her head and rumbled a question.
“Thuruht asks why you came, if your presence is such a danger?”
“Because a greater danger threatens the Galactic Alliance, and we need Thuruht’s help to defeat it,” Raynar explained. “We need to know everything Thuruht can tell us about the Celestials—and a being who calls herself—”
The queen’s entire body shuddered. “Ruur ub?”
“It seems we’re in luck, Jedi Thul,” C-3PO said. “She asks if the name is Abeloth?”
Raynar nodded. “Then you know who Abeloth is?”
The queen gave several short, nervous booms.
“Indeed she does,” C-3PO responded. “Thuruht is the one who imprisoned her.”
Raynar’s heart began to pound. “Good. The Jedi need to know everything Thuruht can tell us about her.”
Raynar needed no translation. “Because Abeloth has escaped,” he said. “And we don’t know where she went.”
The queen raised her head and let out a rumble so thunderous that Raynar’s own torso began to reverberate. Workers started to pour into the chamber from all sides, some bearing orbs of membrosia and others rushing to clean the dust from the cell pits in the floor. The nursery attendants dropped into the nearest clean pit and began to exude wax, creating a comb of fresh incubation cells.
Raynar turned to C-3PO, who was watching the sudden flurry of activity with an attentiveness that suggested a major portion of his processing power was engaged to make sense of it.
“Threepio,” Raynar shouted, trying to make himself heard above the rumbling queen. “What’s all the booming about?”
“I’m afraid it makes no sense, Jedi Thul,” the droid replied. “I must be misunderstanding.”
“Tell me anyway,” Raynar ordered.
“Very well,” C-3PO said. “Thuruht keeps saying that the hive must prepare.”
“Prepare?” Raynar asked. “For what?”
“That’s the part I must be misunderstanding,” C-3PO answered. “Thuruht seems convinced that the galaxy is about to perish. She keeps saying that the end of time has come.”
OUTSIDE THE AIRTIGHT DOOR OF THE COMPUTER CORE STOOD TWO Sith sentries, both holding their lightsabers in hand. Wearing black robes over black torso armor, they were scanning the long access corridor and speaking frequently into their headset comlinks. Clearly, they would not be easy to surprise.
Jysella watched the two guards on her screen for a moment longer, then thumbed the control-ball at the base of the remote display unit. The two Sith seemed to shrink and pull away as the tiny spy droid widened its angle of vision. Around the perimeter of the screen, a bright green border continued to flash, indicating that the unit’s molecular sampler was still finding traces of detonite—a prime ingredient in most antipersonnel mines.
She smiled. The mines weren’t going to be a problem.
Jysella studied the screen a moment longer. There wasn’t much else to see in the wide-angle view, only the white corridor that led to the decontamination chamber outside their objective—the Jedi Temple’s computer core. Once her team breached the core, the battle was—for all practical purposes—won. Their droid, Rowdy, would plug into a data socket and convince the central computer to lower the shields and open the blast doors. Three brigades of Jedi-led space marines would storm the Temple. The battle would be bloody and costly, but the Sith had no place to run. They would be found and eliminated.
Jysella switched to thermal imaging. The two guards smudged into bright yellow man-blobs. The corridor itself turned medium blue, with the orange stripes of electrical conduits running through the walls. Behind the stripes, she could make out the red ghost-shapes of another twenty Sith warriors, hiding in the cramped cavities behind the wall panels.
Sith were patient, she had to give them that. It had been thirty-six hours since her father and Master Skywalker had decided to break into the computer core, and the ambushers had probably been hiding behind the walls for most of that time. With any luck, they would be groggy and slow from the ordeal, and it would be easy to trick them—at least, as easy as it ever was to trick Sith.
Jysella opened a comlink channel to Master Skywalker. “No change.”
She wasn’t concerned about being overheard. She and Ben and Valin were hiding inside a closed room, more than a hundred meters from the nearest Sith. Jysella wasn’t sure where her father and Luke and Jaina were hiding, but she knew it would be where they, too, could not be overheard.
The comm channel itself was even more secure, encrypted using the Jedi’s own unbreakable logarithms. The strike team had been using their comlinks to coordinate with Admiral Bwua’tu and his staff. Once, during a rest break, Jysella and her brother had used the channel to let their mother, Mirax, know they had survived the disastrous ambush in the water treatment plant. Jaina Solo had even managed to link to the HoloNet so she could talk to Jagged Fel—in the Imperial Remnant.
Alone in here, they were not.
After a few seconds, Master Skywalker acknowledged, “Copy, no change. All clear?”
“You’re good to move,” Jysella confirmed. “May the Force be with you.”
“And with you, too,” Luke answered. “If something doesn’t feel right—”
“Don’t worry, Dad,” Ben said. He was standing next to Valin behind Jysella, watching the remote display over her shoulder. “No heroes here.”
The voice in Jysella’s earbud changed to that of her own father. “You three are already heroes, just trying this,” he said. “What we don’t need are dead heroes. Understood?”
“That goes double for you guys,” Jysella said. “Now can we please get this done? It’s been ages since I had a decent sanisteam.”
An awkward silence fell over the channel—mostly because no one really wanted to sign off. After nearly two days of nerve-racking evasion, heavy fighting, and rushed healing trances, the entire team was feeling a little punchy.
The silence continued until Jysella finally sighed. “Joke, okay?” She shook her head, then added, “See you in a few.”
“Yes,” Jaina replied from the other end. “See you in a few.”
The channel went silent again. Jysella slid a control glide down, and the blobby images of the Sith ambushers began to diminish as the spy droid retreated. The droid was barely the size of a flitnat, but she was careful to keep its speed down to avoid drawing attention to it. This was their last chance to make the Temple assault work, and if it failed, the best they could hope for would be to die fighting rather than have the Sith take them alive.
Still, Jysella would not have wanted to be anywhere else. When she and Valin had volunteered to enter the Temple with the first wave of Jedi, Master Skywalker himself had said that he would be proud to have the Horn siblings guarding his back—despite the Abeloth-induced psychosis that had caused them to betray him and Ben on Nam Chorios. And if Luke Skywalker could show that kind of loyalty to them, then Jysella could sure as the Void do the same for him.
After a few seconds, a trio of yellow ghost-shapes entered the thermal image and began to advance up the corridor. The two sentry-blobs guarding the computer core stepped to the front of the decontamination chamber, then vanished behind the white-hot brightness of ignited lightsabers.
Jysella reactivated her throat-mike. “Seven meters,” she said, estimating the distance to the antipersonnel mines the spy droid had detected. “Stop there.”
All three figures—one small and female, the other two large and male—stopped. The taller male extended a hand, and Jysella barely managed to switch back to conventional imaging before a Force-generated pressure wave triggered the first mine. A cone of orange fire shot up to mushroom against the ceiling, then a second one erupted, and a third, and a fourth. The image on the display deteriorated into a wild blur as the shock waves sent the spy droid tumbling.
“Trap defanged,” Jysella commented. She glanced back at Ben. “Good plan. Let’s hope the rest works this well.”
“It wasn’t mine alone,” Ben said.
Ben’s original suggestion had called for him and Jysella to draw the ambushers off, but their fathers had believed the Sith would be more likely to fall for the ploy if they knew where both Masters and Jaina were.
“But it will work,” Ben said. “You can count on it.”
No sooner had he spoken than the muffled crack of Force lightning sounded from the computer core. Jysella used the thumb-ball to resume control of the spy droid, then reoriented it until they could see the Sith ambushers. All twenty appeared to be racing down the corridor behind a rolling storm of blasterfire and Force lightning. There was no sign of either Ben’s father or her own, but Jaina’s small form could be glimpsed up near the ceiling, Force-tumbling through the air as she batted colored bolts back into the pursuing mob.
Jysella rotated the spy droid back toward the computer core. On her display screen appeared a smoky, blast-pocked corridor showing stretches of exposed conduit and ductwork. Six bodies—all Sith—lay scattered along the passage. The heavy door that guarded the decontamination chamber stood sealed but unguarded, the control panel keypad casting a faint green glow into the battle haze.
“Too easy,” Jysella said. “Even your plans aren’t that good, Jedi Skywalker.”
“Another trap,” Ben agreed. “No sentries, and that’s a lot of bodies for three people to leave behind while running in the other direction.”
“That wasn’t just anyone running in the other direction,” Valin reminded him. “It was the Sword of the Jedi and two Council Masters.”
“All the same.” Ben reached over Jysella’s shoulder to tap the screen. “Run the droid past and see which ones are faking.”
Jysella elevated the droid’s auditory sensors to maximum and did as Ben suggested. They heard a lot of crackling and hissing from broken conduits and breached ductwork, but nothing that sounded remotely like a heartbeat—not even a weak one. She stopped the droid a few meters from the computer core.
“We’re just going to have to accept it,” Valin said. “Our dads are awesome in a fight.”
“Jaina, too,” Jysella added. “But let’s play it safe—I’ll scout ahead.”
Before Ben or her brother could object, Jysella hit the door control and stepped out into the corridor. Twenty seconds later, she entered the smoke-filled passage that led to the computer core. She paused at the intersection, then slowly extended her Force awareness toward the door and sensed nothing—not even a tenuous sign of life.
And that was when she heard the soft whir of droid wheels approaching behind her. Jysella glanced back and found Rowdy following a few meters behind. Whether the little droid had misinterpreted an instruction or slipped away from Ben and Valin on its own was impossible to say, but there was no question of sending him back. They didn’t have time, and even issuing the instruction would draw more attention to them than she cared for.
Motioning Rowdy to wait behind her, Jysella pulled her blaster pistol and advanced up the corridor to the first body. A Sith male with a blaster hole still smoking in his forehead, he was obviously no threat. She put two more bolts into the corpse, hoping to encourage anyone playing dead to reveal themselves now.
When no one moved, Jysella continued to the next corpse and found that this one, too, had a blaster hole in the center of his forehead. So did the next one, and the one after that, and the last of the six. She tried to tell herself it was only natural, that with the Sith wearing armor beneath their robes, the only place to hit them was the head. But no matter how she looked at it, that was amazing marksmanship for someone on the run.
Jysella was just a few steps from the computer core when a soft whir sounded behind her again. She spun, igniting her lightsaber and bringing it around less than a centimeter above Rowdy’s dome. The little droid gave an alarmed screech and rocked back on his treads—then suddenly extended his welding arm and started to roll forward again, shooting sparks in Jysella’s direction.
“Stop that!” Jysella pointed her lightsaber down the corridor toward the intersection. “Didn’t I order you to wait back there?”
Rowdy ignored her and rolled under the sizzling blade toward the computer core. He exchanged his welding arm for an interface arm and went to work slicing the lock.
Jysella took the chance to comm Ben. “Are you missing something?”
“Rowdy.” Ben sounded exasperated. “He went out the door about ten seconds after you did, then started to make too much noise when I tried to haul him back. In the end, Valin and I decided it was safer just to let him follow.”
“I guess it worked out,” Jysella said. “There was nothing in the corridor, and I would have needed him to slice the decontamination chamber lock anyway. I’ll let you know how it feels once I’m in the core.”
“Okay,” Ben replied. “We’re moving up for support now.”
Jysella closed the channel, and five seconds later she and Rowdy were standing inside a small chamber being air-blasted and coated with a dust fixative. Once the decontamination ended, the inner door opened, and Jysella found herself looking out into a huge, spherical chamber lined by flickers of blue current.
A semicircular service balcony extended about fifteen meters into the chamber, supporting several display banks and interface stations. Just beyond the balcony rail, constellations of holographic status indicators hung twinkling in red and green and yellow; in the distance, the soft blue glow of memory clouds floated between the crackling orbs of processing clusters.
Jysella’s heart began to hammer as she realized how close they were to achieving the mission. All they had to do was cross a dozen meters and plug Rowdy into a computer interface console. The droid clearly realized the same thing, for he emitted an excited chirp and rolled out onto the balcony floor.
“Not so fast, Shortstuff.” Jysella used the Force to draw him back into the decontamination chamber. “This feels too easy.”
The droid whistled in protest, but Jysella ignored him and began to expand her Force awareness into the room. There was a weak, anguished presence floating somewhere above her, near the entrance. But there was also a dark presence in the chamber, diffuse and powerful and everywhere, as though the computer core itself had become Sith.
Unable to use her comlink inside the mag-shielded confines of the computer core, Jysella reached out in the Force and found Ben and Valin close by, coming up the corridor toward the decontamination chamber. She filled her presence first with a sense of accomplishment—to let them know she had entered—then with uneasiness. She felt her brother’s presence respond almost at once, cautious and worried. Ben added patience, and she knew they wanted her to wait.
“No arguments there,” Jysella said aloud.
Still not leaving the chamber, she reached over Rowdy toward the control panel. He emitted a disappointed chirp and sank onto his treads. Then, as Jysella pressed the button to close the airtight door, the little droid emitted a taunting buzz and shot out onto the balcony.
Jysella barely had time to dive through the opening before the door snicked shut behind her. She landed just outside the decontamination chamber and rolled to her feet in a fighting crouch, alert for the faintest prickle of danger sense. She felt only the anguished presence above and behind her, weak and barely alert, and beyond the balcony railing, the same miasma of dark energy she had detected before.
Rowdy continued forward. His goal seemed to be a trio of swiveling chairs that sat facing the primary interface console. On the back of the middle chair was a star-shaped scorch, surrounding a dark hole about where the heart of a seated human would be. Jysella pressed her back against the door of the decontamination chamber and again expanded her Force awareness. She still felt no hint of an impending attack.
When Rowdy reached the primary administration console and plugged into the droid socket with no hint of trouble, Jysella decided she could risk looking away from him for a moment. She stepped away from the door and turned back toward the decontamination chamber.
A familiar figure was hanging a few meters away, suspended upside down and watching her from a pair of eyes that had been blackened by a severe beating. His face was bruised and swollen almost beyond recognition, and one of his shoulders was jutting out from the socket at an impossible angle. But there was no mistaking the conservative cut of his short brown hair or the reserved style of his gray business tabard.
“Chief Dorvan?” Jysella gasped. She resisted the urge to rush to his aid, preferring instead to remain where she was until she had some idea of what had happened. “What happened?”
“She … she underestimated me,” Dorvan answered. A crease that might have been a smile crept across his swollen face. “Everyone does.”
“Who?” Jysella asked.
Dorvan’s gaze shifted toward the primary interface console, where Rowdy was still at work—and where the chair with the scorch hole was located.
“Who?” Jysella asked.
“Her.” Dorvan looked as though he wanted to point, but it was impossible in his position. “Look.”
Jysella spent a moment debating the possibility of a trap, then finally decided that whatever had happened there was already over. Being careful to stay alert to Dorvan’s presence, she advanced until she came to the primary interface console, where Rowdy was blinking and beeping with the computer core.
She turned to inspect the administrators’ chairs. Two of the seats were empty, but the one in the center was occupied by a blue-skinned Jessar female. There was a blackened scorch hole in the center of her chest, another between her eyes, and yet a third in the side of her head.
“Be … careful.” From this far away, Dorvan’s voice was so weak and filled with pain that it was barely audible. “She’s not dead.”
Jysella turned back to the man, whom she was beginning to think had lost his mind to Sith torture. “Did you kill Roki Kem?”
“I told you!” Dorvan snapped. “She’s not dead! And that’s not Chief Kem.”
Before Jysella could reply, Rowdy interrupted with an urgent whistle. She raised a hand for Dorvan to wait and turned back to Rowdy.
The droid emitted an impatient tweedle, then a display screen above the interface station suddenly snicked to life. The image was dark and fuzzy, but it looked to Jysella as if the droid was showing her a corridor. Judging by the dim lighting and the curtains of corrosion and moss clinging to the durasteel walls, it was probably deep in the depths of the Jedi Temple—or possibly even in some other building.
“Don’t be fooled,” Dorvan called from the back of the balcony. “That isn’t… Roki Kem!”
“Okay, if you say so.” Jysella did not look up as she replied, for she already knew what Dorvan probably wanted to tell her—that Roki Kem was a powerful Sith impostor. Still looking at the display screen, she asked Rowdy, “What am I supposed to be looking at here? Does it have something to do with the shields or the blast doors?”
A message began to scroll down one side of the screen, next to the image of the corridor. I FOUND VESTARA KHAI. As the words appeared, so did a small female figure dressed in a Jedi robe, running along the passage from the screen bottom toward the top. SHE IS FLEEING INTO THE TEMPLE SUBSTRUCTURE, CURRENTLY ON LEVEL 30 CORRIDOR N300X.
“The substructure?” Jysella echoed. “What the blazes is she doing down there?”
Even before she had finished asking the question, a dozen Sith warriors appeared on the display, racing up the corridor in pursuit of Vestara.
RUNNING FOR HER LIFE, Rowdy replied.
“So I see,” Jysella said. “Okay, keep an eye on her if you can—Ben’s going to want to know what happens to her. But our priorities are the shields and the blast doors.”
She felt Valin reach for her in the Force, puzzled and concerned. Clearly, he and Ben had entered the decontamination chamber and were alarmed not to find her there. She replied with a short burst of frustration—Rowdy—followed by a feeling of calm.
The exchange came to an abrupt end when a pained screech erupted from the wall where Dorvan was suspended. Expecting to see something more horribly wrong than what was already hanging there, Jysella looked—and was surprised to see that it was merely the tormented bureaucrat, trying to get her attention.
“You’re playing into her hands!” Dorvan cried.
“Whose hands?” Jysella motioned at Kem’s corpse. “Hers?”
“Yes!” Dorvan replied. “Don’t you see? She’s manipulating you!”
Jysella looked at the body. Finding it still dead, she decided that Dorvan’s mind had clearly snapped.
“Chief Dorvan,” Jysella asked in a deliberately calm voice, “I already know who Chief Kem really is.”
Dorvan’s eyes widened in fear. “You do?”
Jysella nodded. “Yes. She’s a High Lord of the Sith.” As she spoke, Rowdy tweedled for attention. She motioned the droid to wait a moment, then added, “She might even be Heir Grand Lord on Coruscant.”
The fear in Dorvan’s face changed to terror. “No.” His complexion went gray, and it looked like he might be going into shock. “You don’t understand!”
Rowdy asked for attention again, this time with an urgent screech. Deciding to focus on her mission rather than a prisoner’s shattered mind, Jysella reached out to Dorvan in the Force.
“I do understand, Chief Dorvan,” she said, bathing him in a heavy flow of the same soothing Force energies that she used to make any kind of Force suggestion. “Everything will be fine.”
Dorvan’s voice trailed off into incoherence—which was close enough to calm for Jysella’s purposes. She turned back to the display above Rowdy’s interface socket. Almost immediately, words began to scroll across the screen.
THE COMPUTER CORE IS MALFUNCTIONING. SHE INSISTS THAT SHE IS THE MASTER OF THE JEDI TEMPLE. SHE INSISTS THAT SHE IS THE BELOVED QUEEN OF THE STARS, AND SHE INSISTS THAT SHE HAS LOCKED ALL SHIELDS AND DISABLED EVERY BLAST DOOR IN THE JEDI TEMPLE.
Jysella began to have a sick, hollow feeling inside. “The Beloved Queen of the Stars?” Her voice was a mere gasp, so low that even she barely heard it. “Ask the computer for her name.”
A gout of flame shot from the interface socket, and Rowdy shot across the balcony trailing sparks, smoke, and the acrid stench of melting circuit boards. He continued until he slammed into the balcony safety rail, then toppled over and began to ooze molten metal and extinguishing foam from every seam in his casing.
An attention chime sounded from the display, and an answer to Jysella’s question scrolled across the screen.
YOU KNOW WHO I AM.
And Jysella did know.
The Jedi had come for the Sith—and found Abeloth.
Jysella’s entire body went cold. Her thoughts grew sluggish and her emotions became muddled, and she began to tremble. Abeloth had taken her mind once already. She could not let that happen again—would not. She snapped a thermal detonator off her combat harness and disengaged the safety, then began to back toward the air lock …
… and remembered her brother and Ben.
They should have been standing at her side by now, lending her strength and courage and helping her decide what to do. But she had heard nothing yet—not even a distress cry in the Force.
Jysella spun around and saw that the light above the air lock remained yellow. The exchange pumps were still engaged, filtering air—or simply removing it.
She reached for them in the Force—and found only a single presence, too weak and near death to tell whether it was Ben or her brother.
Jysella set the thermal detonator’s fuse to one second, then turned back toward the computer core … toward Abeloth.
“Open the air lock …now.”
To Jysella’s surprise, the door slid aside at once, emitting a loud, hissing pop that suggested the air lock had already been depressurized. Ben was nowhere to be seen, but her brother’s body lay motionless on the floor. She reached out to him in the Force and, finding that he was still alive, started to shake him.
“Valin! Wake up!” Still holding the detonator in her hand, she stepped into the air lock and knelt at his side. “Where’s Ben?”