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Spectre stepped into the ring slowly. It was illuminated barely from above and he was barely more than a silhouette to his opponent, who stood on the other end of the ring. He wore only a pair of light pants, and his hard, muscular torso was evident even in the dim lighting. As he moved, muscles rippled, highlighting the scars etched across his sturdy frame. Every step was purposeful, every motion determined. He stared resolutely across the ring at his opponent, boring his coal-black eyes into them. However, whether deliberately or not, his opponent refused to face him, refused to acknowledge his presence or the threat he posed.

At an unspoken signal, he darted forward, metal slapping into flesh as Spectre’s hands wrapped around the silvery hilt of a lightsaber. The golden blade sprang into existence, the sizzling energy blade scything through the air as he ran up to cleave his opponent from shoulder to spine. At the last instant, though, she turned to present a thinner profile to him, her dark auburn hair billowing out behind her. Instead of slicing through her, his blade narrowly grazed her back as she struck at the nerve cluster in his arm. He absorbed the hit and slid past her, whirling for a quick horizontal slash at her midsection. She folded in on her own spine, collapsing so again the humming lightsaber missed her by centimeters. She was not prepared for combat, he saw, wearing a long, flowing dress of some light blue, silky material that clung loosely to her body, and she bore no weapon.

Spectre landed lightly on the balls of his feet, recovering from his second stroke, and saw that she had backed off a few meters, set in a combat stance despite the cumbersome clothing she wore, but still unarmed. Her face, beautiful of appearance, was set resolutely, and he realized that his surprise assault had failed. Instead, he opened his mind to arcane powers, drawing on what most people might consider unnatural. Tendrils of power wove from his mind around her, seeking to lift her, hurl her across the room, but they met with a steely defense from her own mind as she channeled her own abilities into deflecting his attempts to use telekinesis. However, he poured Force energy into the attack, slowly breaking down her resistance. He could sense her trembling vaguely with the exertion and her left foot, planted behind her, started slipping. Suddenly, he broke through her will, strong though it was, and she flew back to tumble head-over-heels and skid roughly along the ground. The Force was with him once more, and he continued the attack, only to find she had somehow slipped out of the telekinetic grasp he had on her.

Changing tactics, he once again rushed her, blade at the ready, only to find something blocking the way: a silver-white lightsaber blade. Somehow, she had produced a lightsaber of her own, this one glowing at both ends with a pair of radiant pearlescent beams to form a deadly saberstaff, and blocked his blow again and again. The counter-attack came quickly, viciously at him, but he planted his feet and batted it away. For all her speed, he had more power, and he rained blows down on the whirling saberstaff, always driving her back, always on the attack. The Force guided his movements and he saw where she was going before she actually made the movement, and he welcomed its insights, its aid to his already formidable combat prowess. He pushed her back into a solid stone wall, his blade seeking her flesh, but always denied as the two lightsabers clashed, gold on silver, with the characteristic humming, crackling, and crashing sounds of lightsaber combat. She was infinitely cool, infinitely calm of expression, appearing almost distant, and that control was what he sought to break. He had to see into her mind, to understand how she thought, to defeat that unflappable defense, and suddenly, he knew how to do it. Even as their blades locked again, he released his left hand and gestured off into the distance. Out of nowhere, a small pottery fixture hurtled out of the darkness towards her, aimed at her head, but Spectre had left him open. She disengaged and worked her blade through a complicated Form III defensive velocity that would whip across his right wrist, except for one thing: Spectre had anticipated her move.

Even as she went into the velocity, Spectre had already dropped his telekinetic focus on the pot, and it fell to the ground with a clatter as it rolled across the ring. At the same time, he transferred his lightsaber to his left hand, held in a back-hand grip, and slashed it ever so lightly across her midsection. She gasped with pain and surprise as the heat of the blade hit her flesh, even the simple exhalation laden with disappointment and shock. Spectre backed off and thumbed his blade switch, causing his blade to disappear back into the hilt.

“You lose,” he said simply, sweat pouring down his glistening body.
“That I do,” the woman said, clutching at the wound.
“But a good match nonetheless, for both of you,” said a third voice out of the shadows.

A slight mental exertion later and glowpanels recessed into the stone ceiling flickered on, revealing the full training area and the equipment it held, as well as the previously hidden speaker, Selusda Kraen, as well as Sarth and Cassi, who had watched the duel silently.

“Are you hurt, Milya?” Selu asked.
“No, not at all,” she said. “Just a slight burn from the training saber, and not even that bad of one anyway.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Selu said, reaching through the rent in his dress to lay his palm on the burn.

The Force flowed through his fingertips, exploring and sensing the injury, but though it ran from hip to navel, it was less severe than he burns from the training sabers sometimes were-barely second-degree, he figured. It would heal quickly.

“No, nothing serious,” he said. “It’ll just sting for a little bit.”
“I told you,” Milya said, brushing a sweat-soaked strand of hair out of her face. “It’s just a slight burn. Just be a little gentler until it heals, okay?”
“I think I can handle that,” Selu said.

Straightening back up, he turned back to the others.

“Good match overall,” he said. “All things considered, I think you both did well.”
“Well?” Milya asked incredulously. “He beat me into a wall and then sucker-sliced me.”
“True,” Spectre said. “But don’t forget that you started unarmed, your back turned to me, and in a ridiculous piece of clothing.”
“How could I forget?” Milya said with mock indignation, holding up the shred of dress that had used to cover her belly before Spectre’s slice. “You utterly ruined my dress.”
“Good thing it’s scrap then,” Cassi put in wryly.
“He’s got a good point,” Selu said. “You were put at a dramatic disadvantage from the start, and you did okay. There is one thing that puzzles me, though. Spectre, this entire training session, you’ve been able to use the Force, but you told me otherwise during the battle.”

Spectre sighed and wiped his hand across his brow, looking around for an answer. However, the weights, gymnastics apparatus, and shelves of training equipment that lined the practice room did not offer up an answer to the perplexed ex-ARC. Given a problem, he would normally study it, break it down, and find its weak spots before attacking its source. However, this problem was intermittent, elusive, and seeming incorporeal, as he lacked a basis from which to commence his study of it. It was an enigma to him, and no amount of thought had afforded him any insight into it.

“I can’t explain it,” he said. “On that Star Destroyer, I felt like there was a blanket, a buzzing in my head, preventing me from touching the Force-but here, here I can use it without a problem.”
“Maybe it was the disturbances in the Force caused by the deaths that occur in battle,” Cassi suggested. “That could be it.”
“Possibly,” Sarth remarked. “But it could also be because of the generally stronger ambient Force aura on Yanibar.”
“I know,” Spectre said. “There just aren’t any clear answers to the problem. But this is what I know-if I can’t use the Force in combat, it’s not going to do me much good.”
“Nonsense,” Selu countered. “The Force is more than just a tool-,”
“Yes, yes,” Spectre said wearily. “What I meant is that combat is when I rely on it the most, for better or for worse. That’s when it comes down to life or death, to me catching the blaster bolt on my lightsaber or in the chest. I just don’t know.”
“It is a mystery,” Sarth admitted. “But we’ll figure it out.”
“I hope so,” Spectre said. “I’m not sure what else to think. I’ve placed myself through grueling Matukai training since we got back in hopes of reinforcing my connection to the Force, and if anything, I feel stronger in it than ever. I can lift objects with my mind as easily as I ever could.”
“That’s for sure. You owe me a flower pot,” Milya interrupted jokingly. “I think you cracked it.”
“Put it on my tab,” Spectre said with a wry smile, but then his expression and voice returned to their earlier grave natures. “But on that Star Destroyer, on certain other times when we’ve discreetly fought the Empire, I’ve felt almost blind to it, or at least smothered.”
“Cassi and Sarth could be right,” Selu said. “Or there could be some other explanation. There’s still Revan’s tower. You haven’t been back yet.”
“I know,” Spectre said. “I haven’t had time for that.”
“Is that all?” Selu asked. “I sense some unease in your response.”
“Leave it to you to not let the issue rest,” Spectre said with a sour look. “I just don’t want to go all the way out to Wild Space to hear ‘Sorry, your gift is leaving you slowly.’”
“That might not be the answer,” Cassi countered.
“She’s right,” Selu said.

Milya walked up to Spectre and laid her hand on his arm.

“Please,” she said. “Make the time. Talk to Revan and the others. Find out what’s wrong. For all of our sakes.”

He looked at her for a minute, and then relented.

“All right. I’ll go-but only after you get back from the trip,” he said to Milya. “Don’t want most of the Guard’s hierarchy to be gone and have Selu mess everything up.”
“Funny,” Selu replied, smirking at Spectre’s joke, but then he joined the others in laughing good-naturedly at the teasing.
“How long will you be gone?” Sarth asked. “I haven’t been keeping up with all the planning.”
“We’ll be gone for two weeks,” Milya said. “I know Rhiannon can’t wait to go.”
“It’ll be good for both of you,” Cassi said. “Mother and daughter, spending some alone together.”
“Yeah,” Milya replied. “Force knows I never have time for that around here, especially with Selu running me into the ground with all this training for the trip. You know, Selu, we’re not going on the trip to practice being assaulted.”
“Hey,” Selu answered. “I’m just trying to make sure you’re prepared in case anything does happen, Force forbid.”
“Nothing wrong with precautions,” Spectre remarked.
“Indeed,” Selu said. “Let’s go ahead and stretch down.”

Slowly, he led the five of them through a series of cooldown exercises and stretches designed to transition them from the high-intensity workout and sparring they had been doing for the past two hours, down to the normal heart rate and muscular activity of their day-to-day lives. They didn’t often get to train like this due to their schedules, but they had specially made time to make their way to the large training room underneath Selu’s and Milya’s house, connected to all of their houses by underground passageways.

Once they bid farewell to the others, Selu led Milya back up the staircase and through the thick blast doors-another security feature-back into their bedroom. A ten by six meter room, it was dominated by their sizable bed, but also contained wall-mounted storage units, a single dresser and a pair of desks, one for each of them. A small refresher station adjoined the room, as did a decently sized closet that contained a secret escape panel. Milya had decorated it after they had moved in, and Selu had had no objection to that. From his time in the Jedi Order, he had little use for personal possessions, with the few things he did possess resting largely on his stone desk.

“Strange,” Selu mused as he closed the door behind Milya. “Spectre had no problem using the Force. Did you sense anything differently about him during your match?”
“No,” Milya said. “There wasn’t anything unusual at all about him. He’s a little older and out of practice, so that might weaken him some, but he seemed as strong as ever, stronger since he started working with Adept Tashbed on those Matukai drills even.”
“I know,” Selu said. “That’s what’s odd. Yet he seemed so weak on the Star Destroyer . . .”
“We’ll figure it out,” Milya said as they entered the refresher station adjoining their bedroom.
“How’s your stomach?” Selu asked.
“Oh, it’s fine,” she replied flippantly.
“Are you sure?” Selu said, layering his voice with innuendo.

Coming behind her, he wrapped his arms around her slim body in a lover's embrace and buried his head in the disheveled mass of curly dark auburn locks as he spoke softly into her ear. “If you like, I could make it feel better.”

“In that case,” Milya said flirtatiously. “I think I’m in considerable anguish and anything you could do to relieve that pain would be greatly appreciated.”
“Well, first, I’m going to have to take a look,” Selu said, sliding his hands around her waist.

He pulled her close, pushing her hair out of her face as he did so. Their lips met of their own accord, and nothing in the galaxy could tear them apart. Milya’s arms snaked around Selu’s neck as they prolonged the kiss as long as possible. Her eyes closed with sheer pleasure as she savored his taste. Finally, they broke.

“How was that?” Selu asked softly, his lips still barely brushing hers.
“Pretty good,” Milya said. “I think I might need another dose, though.”

And then they kissed again, the expression of the pure and fully reciprocated love between them. Their marriage had endured for years but they still found new ways to express the passion that the other brought to their life. Milya had fully relaxed into the kiss, her eyes still shut, when slowly something started shimmering in her vision. She was vaguely puzzled at first, but refused to be distracted from the sensation of Selu’s lips against hers. However, the image swam more strongly into her mind, no matter how hard she tried to push it from her. Suddenly, involuntarily, she forgot all about Selu, all about their romantic moment, as her conscious mind was swept away to an entirely different setting, one that starkly contrasted with the intimacy she had been experiencing only minutes prior.

She was standing alone on a grassy plain that stretched as far as the eye could see. The slender brown stalks of grass were up to her waist and the landscape appeared largely desolate. The sky was a pretty blue color, but she knew it wasn’t Yanibar. It didn’t smell or sound like that world. It didn’t feel like Yanibar. She walked forward uncertainly, unsure of her surroundings, unsure of how her consciousness had been transported here. The wind blew gently across the endless steppe and rippled across the fields, tugging at her hair as she walked. It was strangely quiet otherwise, but Milya had the sense she was not unaccompanied. Acting on instinct, she turned to see a diminutive gray-skinned alien standing before her.

“Who are you?” she asked.

The creature said nothing, but gestured at her hand, as if wanting to see it. Milya looked uncertainly at it-him?-and again the alien gestured at her hand. The look in his eyes was one of curiosity, but yet she felt vaguely uneasy with him. Finally, as if perplexed by her refusal, the creature hissed, and then turned to look over his shoulder behind him. Milya’s eyes followed his gaze to find that the ominous black-armored figure of Darth Vader, the Dark Lord of the Sith and Palpatine’s main enforcer, had materialized to stand behind the alien, stretching out his gloved fist to offer an ebony-hilted lightsaber to the alien. As Milya watched, the alien bowed before Vader and then accepted the weapon. Vader, silent as a stone except for his artificially filtered stentorian breathing, then pointed in her direction. Horrified, she watched as the alien turned on her, its dark eyes glinting. The lightsaber blazed to life as he lunged, the crimson-red blade stabbing through her-and then everything began spinning into a vortex of darkness. Milya saw stars faintly and then total darkness.

When she awoke, there was something dark, warm, and heavy on her head. Fluttering her eyes, she looked up and realized it was Selu’s hand. She was lying on her bed and Selu was standing over her with an alarmed look on his face.

“What happened?” he asked.
“I’m not quite . . . sure,” she said, slowly at first as her mind tried to reorient itself from her dizzying experience. “I think it was a vision.”
“What did you see?” Selu inquired.
“I was on a planet, somewhere I’ve never been before. There was grassland as far as I could see, dull brown grass. And then there was this alien there . . .”
“What species?”
“I don’t know,” Milya said. “It was small, maybe a meter and a half, with gray skin. Bipedal for sure and probably predatory, but I can’t say beyond that.”
“What did the alien do?”
“He just stood there at first, gesturing at my hand. I couldn’t tell what he wanted. I don’t know how long he stood there, but then Darth Vader appeared behind him.”
“Vader?” Selu said sharply.

Having been at the Jedi Temple when Vader had begun his reign of terror as a Sith Lord, the name did not conjure up pleasant recollections for him.

“Yes. The alien looked at Vader, who gave him a lightsaber. He took it and charged me and then-then everything went black.”
“Was that all?” Selu asked gently.
“Yes, that was it. I’m sure,” Milya said. “How long was I out?”
“Just a few seconds,” Selu said. “I figured something was wrong when your eyes rolled back into your head and you went limp. You had me worried for a minute. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she replied. “Just a little dizzy. More worried about what that vision means.”
“So am I,” Selu affirmed grimly. “Please, please tell me this wasn’t Force-related. That it was just something you ate, or that it’s in the distant future.”
“I wish I could,” Milya said, shaking her head. “But we both know that’s not true. Why do you ask? You haven’t had problems with my visions before.”
“Well, you usually don’t see impending doom,” Selu replied. “And more disturbingly, while the future might not be fixed, you’re pretty good at sensing it. Must be that whole seer thing.”
“Is it that bad?” Milya said.
“It could be,” Selu said worriedly. “How urgent did your vision feel?”
“I’m not sure, Selu. It all happened rather fast.”
“It’s important. Could you get a reference time?” he said doggedly.
“No, I . . . no. I wasn’t wearing a chrono or anything and there wasn’t anyway to tell.”

Selu sighed, a hint of exasperation creeping into his voice. Exhaling deeply, he tried again.

“How did it feel? Did it feel urgent?” he said. “Don’t focus on the vision itself. Focus on how it made you feel. We know it’s in the future. The question is, how far?”

Milya closed her eyes again, trying to tap into the Force for insight. The threads of energy began weaving together in her mind, crisscrossing and interconnecting to form a complex pattern of emotion related to the vision. Her senses stretched out to sample the subtle flavors and currents of the Force, investigating and probing for more information, reaching out to reconnect to the sensations she’d felt during her vision. Then suddenly, she had it-the feelings she had experienced during her premonition-and what she felt sent a chill down her spine.

“It felt urgent,” she said slowly. “Very urgent.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of. That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“What does it mean?” Milya said, sitting up and sensing the worry in Selu’s voice. “What’s wrong?”
“It means we have to find that alien soon-before Vader does,” Selu said staunchly. “I’m sure of it.”
“Hold on, Selu,” Milya interjected. “The future isn’t fixed. I could be wrong about this. Maybe Vader won’t ever find this being. Maybe he won’t join Vader.”
“Maybe,” Selu replied slowly as he turned to look her directly in the eyes. “But I doubt it.”
“Why?”

The look in his face changed as he considered his answer; to Milya, he seemed to grow ashen, as if preparing to deliver news of an impending catastrophe or had been completely horrified. When he spoke, his voice was but a hoarse whisper.

“Because I saw the same thing not two days ago.”
Somewhere in the Outer Rim, near Bespin

The war fleet glided through the mottled starry blackness of deep space with quiet menace, seventeen ships in all. The formations lacked the rigid precision of that of the Galactic Empire, but this was no Rebel fleet either. No, idealistic vagabonds fighting against a tyrannical government were not to be found in their hard-bitten crews. The ships themselves were largely smallish affairs, but armed to the teeth and emblazoned with the same insignia. The thousands of tons of metal and machinery of those ships were instead guided by a mind devoted almost fully to selfish ambition, to the subtle twisting of worlds to suit his purposes.

That mind was filled with grand schemes and ruthless determination. It was known for undertaking suicidal missions with a cool air, and for an absolutely merciless attitude. Its owner was well familiar with the arts of persuasion, bribery, and fully appreciated the beauty of a subtle knife-stroke into an unsuspecting back. While its owner hadn’t always luxuriated in such a large and overt war machine, that mind had been strengthened, made more resourceful, by the hardships and challenges of lacking brute strength. It was a devious mind, a cunning mind, a mind seeking nothing further than to invisibly extend its threads of influence across the galaxy in a web of durasteel.

That mind belonged to Tyber Zann.

The leader of the Zann Consortium, Zann had styled himself as the reigning criminal of the galaxy for some time now, backed by his hulking Talortai lieutenant Urai Fen and, more recently, the Nightsister witch Silri, skilled in use of the dark side of the Force. Having secured his release from a miserable Kessel prison some time before, the crime lord was now secure in his power. With the aid of Fen, he built the Zann Consortium into an organization that rivaled the size of a Hutt cartel and even challenges Prince Xizor’s Black Sun organization. Since his release, he embarked on a quest of galactic domination-yet domination is not the right word, for Tyber Zann did not style himself as the next Palpatine. He did, however, wish to make sure that his organization is the biggest akk dog in the underworld.

Now, aboard a heavily modified Corellian Engineering Corporation Interceptor-class frigate, Zann plotted his next conquest from his sequestered lair on the cramped ship. The room was small, quiet, and dimly lit, filled with consoles that linked the crime lord to various databanks and operations across the galaxy. A simple rattan leather chair was sufficient to let him pore over his operations in silence, allowing him to concentrate. His holoscreen flickered as he scanned over hundreds of files, looking for the next daring raid for the Zann Consortium to undertake. His dark eyes, surrounded by long locks of silvery hair, darted back and forth across the display. At the moment, his mind was preoccupied with his chief rival: Xizor, the Falleen head of Black Sun. In Zann’s mind, any next step for the Consortium must include a way to somehow discredit or destroy Xizor and weaken Black Sun-preferably without looking obvious.

Entranced to the point of being fully engrossed by the display, he didn’t notice the entrance of a sizable alien warrior; not even the opening and closing of the door averted his attention.

“What is our next move?” the new arrival asked in a low rasp from the shadowy doorway.

His name was Urai Fen, a vastly experienced and talented warrior of the Talortai race and for reasons that nobody knew or dared divulge, utterly loyal to Zann. He was Zann’s chief lieutenant and stood by the crime lord’s side when no one else would. Their understanding, and even friendship, was such that they did not bother with honorifics, nor did they need to. Such things might be the way of hierarchical societies like the Empire or the despotism of Black Sun, but Zann had little use for them. Having been rejected by-or rejecting-the Empire years earlier, he had no love for them. Nor did he have much love for anything. That would take room away from the ruthless pragmatism thrumming inside his skull tirelessly.

“Xizor, in his never-ending cunning, has hired us for a little jaunt to Bespin,” Zann replied smoothly.

His voice was roughened with age and a hard life, but there was iron in it, an unquenchable resolution in all his words, coated with a smooth register that was deceptively innocuous.

“He hired us?” Urai inquired quizzically.

It was no secret among the elite of the underworld that Zann had no great love for Black Sun, and the feeling was mutual. In fact, Zann and Xizor, the Fallen prince of Black Sun, were constantly scheming against the other.

“No doubt it’s a trap,” Zann replied nonchalantly. “Or else, he is far too distracted playing power politics with the Empire to see our true nature.”
“That would be most unlike him. He has proven talented in the past,” Fen observed.
“Indeed, but not quite talented enough. Regardless of what his motives are, we’re going to set a trap for him this time. All we need to know is what he expects.”

The crime lord sat quietly, concentrating, and Urai gave no reply. The Talortai warrior knew from long experience that Zann would share his thoughts when he was ready to. He shifted his weight from one foot to another, patiently waiting.

“I have it,” Zann said, smiling with pleasure. “I know what Xizor’s plan is.”
“What is it?” Urai asked.
“He wants us to harm the Empire’s operations, so his own company, Xizor Transport Systems, will be asked to transport tibanna gas from Bespin while the Empire tries to recoup its losses. We’ll take the fall and subsequent Imperial retaliation, and he’ll take both the Empire’s business and the tibanna we steal.”
“How do we turn on the tables on him?” Urai asked, his eyes glittering in the dim light.
“Simple,” Zann answered after a minute more of thought. “We do exactly what Xizor once, except that we frame him for it. That way, when the Empire goes after him, we get the tibanna, and our payment. That’ll give us enough credits to acquire some real ships, not this undersized barge. Maybe our Mandalorian friends on Kedalbe can come up with something adequate.”
“What of Xizor?”
“In return, he gets the wrath of Palpatine.”

The Talortai chuckled.

“I suspect that he will know all too well what happens to those who cross the Emperor directly.”
“Indeed. I would imagine that, if his species experiences dread, he will cross new thresholds when he discovers what has happened.”
“If he finds out at all,” Urai remarked.
“Of course,” Zann said, smiling thinly. “Prepare a small force to head down to Bespin. We won’t need the fleet. Just a few soldiers, some vehicles. Make sure they can fit inside a few disguised shuttles.”
“It will be done. The Empire will have no idea we’re there until it is too late,” Urai replied, giving his longtime partner the Talortai equivalent of a smile.
“By the time you’ve finished picking the assault force, I’ll have come up with a plan for accomplishing all our objectives. We’ll need to be careful with this, Urai. One slip-up, and both the Empire and Black Sun will know what we’ve done.”
“Have I ever failed you before?”
“We both know the answer to that.”
“Then success will be ours.”

The Talortai gave Zann a curt nod and headed out the door. Once he was gone, though, Zann returned his focus to the glowing screens, pulling up details of Bespin’s Cloud City, formulating and fomenting ideas of conquest for hours at a time. By the time he was finished, he knew exactly how to approach the challenge. He smiled. Thoughts of victory always brought that expression to his face. In only a few short days, Black Sun would be utterly discredited and the Zann Consortium’s rise to power would be a few more vital steps along.

Tierfon Base

Hasla Almani gingerly eased her cramped and aching body out of the confined spaces of the simulator cockpit. An Arkanian in her mid-twenties, Hasla’s average height and slim figure helped pass her off as several years younger, but gave her looks occasionally described to her as attractive. Not that she cared right now. Having just finished a harrowing three hours in the sim, she was looking forward to a nice hot shower to remedy her disheveled appearance and then maybe find something to eat. Her stomach rumbled at her. Make that definitely something to eat.

Exiting the simulator, she pulled off her flight helmet to reveal her silver skin and pale gray chin-length hair, which was currently tied in a small ponytail behind her head. She loosed the tie holding the tangled mass together and her hair fell down loosely around her face, damp with perspiration.

Hasla headed back to her quarters-reasonably spacious since her usual roommate was in the infirmary with a mild case of the Balmorra flu. She walked purposefully through the pilot’s lounge, a moderately-sized room filled with tables and chairs for off-duty or soon-to-be-on-duty pilots to relax and wait. One end was dominated by a small bar manned by a pair of service droids where starfighter pilots could get various forms of liquid refreshment once they were done with flying for the day.

The walls were covered with bright posters to offset the dull gray walls. One of them had a pilot in full flight regalia superimposed on an image of Alderaan with “We Remember Alderaan!” splashed across it in red letters. Another had a grim-faced picture of the Emperor staring at a hologram of an X-wing, with a caption that read “He’s not laughing now!” on it. It was a place of camaraderie, of escape from the grueling and death-defying life of a starfighter pilot in the Rebel Alliance, on a base where quite often someone “didn’t make it back” and funerals were all too common.

As she walked, Hasla heard someone whistle loudly and conspicuously at her as she walked by. It wasn’t the first time someone had done that to her-female pilots were rather rare on Tierfon Base-but for some reason, she decided to play along. Somewhat bemused at how anyone would find a shapeless orange flight suit and utterly mussed hair attractive, she turned to regard the whistler, a Human male with dark blond hair wearing a flight suit and what he imagined was a suave expression on his face, flanked by a pair of his friends, also male Humans and evidently starfighter jockeys as well.

“What’re you whistling at, flyboy?” she asked casually.
“I couldn’t tell quite tell,” the man replied. “All I know was that it was beautiful and moving fast.”
“Is that so?” she answered, cocking an eyebrow at him and planting a gray-skinned arm on her hip.
“It is,” he replied seriously, before continuing in a conspiratorial tone. “However, if I could just get a little closer look, I’d probably have a much better idea of what it was.”
“I’m sure you would,” Hasla replied smoothly. “But then I’d be able to tell all the areas in which you’re lacking. Can’t say for sure, but it’s probably a lot of important ones.”

The pilot stopped and stared at her in shocked disbelief, as if he wasn’t prepared for or used to the sudden rejection and insult. Then, one of his companions, a fair-skinned man with a handsome, youthful countenance and dark hair grinned and offered his hand to her.

“Assuming you won’t bite it, I’m Wes. Lieutenant Wes Janson. This,” he said, indicating in turn to his two companions, a blond-haired man with a somewhat stern countenance and the dark-haired flirt, “is Tycho Celchu. We call him Tycho. And this ugly brute who’s still coming to grips with being insulted by a woman yet again is Derek Klivian. We call him Hobbie. Or ‘Hey, ugly!’ Don’t worry about him, he’ll get over it in a minute.”

Hasla took his hand in the proffered handshake, giving him a firm handshake.

“I’m sure it’s not the first time,” she said, referring to Hobbie. “I’m Seirla Trasani. Nice to meet you.”

She shook each of their hands in turn, even Hobbie’s, who grinned good-naturedly at her, taking the jesting in stride as if it were nothing out of the ordinary.

“Got a few minutes to waste with some poor X-wing pilots who’ve been wandering out in deep space and simulator missions for too long?” Janson asked.

Hasla thought about it for a minute, then smiled and sat down at their table.

“Sure,” she said. “But only if you cover the pretty girl’s lomin-ale.”
“Hobbie’ll get her tab,” Janson replied merrily. “He’s obliged to, since you’re making up for his homeliness.”
“Hey,” Hobbie retorted. “Speak for yourself.”
“So, you’re not going to buy me a drink?” Hasla interjected, her blue eyes sparkling merrily. “There goes your chances.”

Hobbie flushed red and ducked his head.

“I’ll cover it,” he muttered, signaling the waitdroid to bring her a lomin-ale.
“Good man,” Janson crowed. “At least some of the time. I take back all the mean things Tycho ever said about you.”

Hobbie shot Janson a betrayed look, but had no ready reply for that.

“What outfit are you with?” Hasla asked, accepting the foam-topped glass of lomin-ale from the service droid.

A smirk creased Janson’s face, as if he had been waiting for her to ask that question.

“Rogue Squadron,” he said, enunciating each syllable as if they had sacred importance.
“Rogue Squadron?!” Hasla said, choking on her ale and sending foam flying. “No way.”

From their laughing, she suspected it was a common reaction and that Janson had timed his response to perfectly coincide with her drinking in order to elicit precisely that reaction.

“The one and only,” Janson said gleefully. “Just got back from a classified mission to Koth-,”

Tycho shot Janson a warning look and the merry-faced lieutenant quickly altered his story.

“-somewhere else.”
“Sounds fascinating,” she replied, aware that he had been within microns of saying Kothlis.

She filed the factoid away for future reference; it might be useful.

“Oh, it was,” Hobbie answered. “We only came within micrometers of death a hundred times.”
“Is that all?” Hasla replied casually, belying how impressed she was.

To say that Rogue Squadron was a famous starfighter unit was only a mild understatement. The group had been formed by Rebel heroes Luke Skywalker and Wedge Antilles out of the survivors of the pilots who took down the Death Star, and had gained acclaim at numerous engagements across the galaxy with tales of their derring-do and accomplishment in the fight against the Empire. They were emblems of courage for the entire Alliance, and, Hasla admired them. Envied them sometimes, even.

“It was nothing,” Janson said. “How about you? Who do you fly with?”
“Ice Squadron,” she said. “B-wings.”
“Ah, that was you in the sim we were trying to kill,” Hobbie said merrily.
“The proper word being trying,” Hasla shot back automatically. “Wait. Were you flying the TIEs?”
“He and Tycho were,” Janson said. “Sometimes the planners like us to play the opposition and give us inferior craft. Helps keep us sharp even without all of our usual advantages. See the mission from the other perspective.”
“So, then all of you’re going on the mission tomorrow?” Hasla asked.
“That’s what it’s looking like,” Janson said. “We’re supposed to be flying cover assuming we don’t get sent off on some other mission.”
“Oh good. Then you can get shot at while we do all the real work,” she answered impishly.
“If you only knew,” Hobbie said dourly.
“Is it true that you’ve flown with Commander Skywalker?” Hasla said, excitement glimmering in her eyes.

Tycho and Janson exchanged looks.

“Yeah, we’ve both flown with him.” Janson answered.
“Is he at Tierfon Base now?” she asked.

Another exchange of looks.

“No, he’s not,” Tycho said. “He does a lot of special assignments and things.”

Hasla knew she wouldn’t be able to keep her obvious relief at that answer from being evident on her face, but managed to pass it off as disappointment.

“Too bad,” she said. “I would’ve liked to meet him.”
“Huh. Yet another Rebel heart falling for Luke Skywalker, Hero of the Galaxy,” Hobbie said, rolling his eyes.
“No,” she corrected him tritely. “I need to ask him how he puts up with you.”

Hobbie shot her a surprised and hurt look, but he had no ready reply. Tycho chuckled softly and Janson gave a low whistle, a gesture of admiration.

“Her, I like,” Janson said. “We should go ask Wedge if he can con her into our ranks.”
“I dunno,” she said. “I’m rather attached to Ice Squad. And the B-wing.”

Tycho snorted.

“What’s so funny?” she asked. “Don’t you have them in the Rogues?”
“Sometimes,” he said. “They’re not that great, though. It might look fancy, but it’s slower than a cargo barge. You were Ice Eight, right?”
“That’s me,” she admitted.
“I saw you fly,” Tycho said, leaning in to fully join the conversation. “You have the reflexes for something much faster. You should try an A-wing or X-wing. You’ll fly circles around TIE fighters in an A-wing.”
“That’s our Tycho,” Janson chuckled. “A speed maniac to the end. But seriously, we could talk to Wedge-uh, that’s Commander Antilles, I guess-for you. He’s an understanding guy every once in awhile.”

It was, she understood, an invitation into their ranks, a welcoming into their elite circle, and she almost regretted having to decline it. Even her kidding with Hobbie was only in jest and she inwardly wished she had the freedom to take them up on their offer. However, she had other obligations, to her squad and elsewhere.

“I’d love to take you up on that,” she said. “But my squadron needs me. They’d be broken-hearted if I abandoned them for some dashing X-wing jockeys.”
“Oooh, so we’re dashing now?” Hobbie said, perking up somewhat.
“Well, Tycho and Janson are. They make up for you,” she fired back good-naturedly.

They all had a good laugh over that one, except Hobbie, who ducked his head and grinned at the ribbing directed his way. Hasla glanced at her wrist chrono, and was startled to see that nearly twenty minutes had passed.

“Look at the time,” she said, draining her ale. “I’ve gotta run.”
“Aww,” Janson grumbled facetiously. “But you were doing so well with Hobbie here.”
“Maybe some other time,” Hasla replied smoothly, but with a tinge of genuine regret.
“See you around,” Tycho put in. “May the Force be with you.”
“It has been so far,” she said with a light shrug. “Same to you.”

With that, she sauntered off back towards her quarters. Inwardly, though, she was chuckling at the irony of her last statement. If they only knew.

Once she had made her way through the dizzying maze of corridors back to her quarters-conveniently near the starfighter hangars and placed underground to minimize damage from bombardment-she quickly ditched her pleasant-but-tired Rebel starfighter pilot demeanor and ran a quick but thorough sweep of her room for listening devices, cameras, or other surveillance techniques. Satisfied that there weren’t any, she turned on the shower just in case, in order to confound any audio scramblers.

As it turned out, Hasla Almani, alias Seirla Trasani, was not in the sole employ of the Rebellion. In fact, she was a member of the Elite Guardian, a small body of highly versatile, highly trained Force-sensitive individuals that operated outside of the generic Yanibar Guard structure. Trained in the ways of the Matukai since she was a child, her Force powers were not as strong as the Jedi had once been reputed to have been, but granted her a significant edge in combat and a natural acting ability had made her a natural for undercover missions. She had been attached to Intelligence for some time, owing to her friendship with the director and had volunteered for this mission, and although some sense of camaraderie had developed between her and the Rebels, she was still first and foremost an Elite Guardian. The mission came first.

Pulling up her datapad, she entered several random combinations of characters onto the screen, which pulled up a menu flashing “Insert key.” Carefully, she focused her mind on the Force, concentrating as hard as she could on a particularly incongruous patch on the inside of the datapad, a patch that could only be opened from the inside. It popped open, revealing a small wafer that she slid into a slot on the datapad. The device beeped, allowing her to access previously concealed information.

Her eyes browsed over various categories of information: schematics, general intelligence, journal . . . She highlighted the journal entry and pulled it up, entering in her activities and findings for the day. Once she was away from Tierfon Base, the analysts would go through it to see if there was anything interesting to be gleaned from her findings. Once she was satisfied with the entry, checking it over to make sure it was somewhat coherent, she decided to indulge in the shower and meal she had promised herself, but doubts about the next day’s mission plagued her.

Oh, sure, she’d been to the briefings. She knew how flawless it was supposed to be-a quick shoot ‘em up raid on the Imperial ships guarding the Abridon shipyards. Their distraction would be enough to allow the Rebels to land additional reinforcements in support of local partisans fighting against the Empire on the ground, and would hopefully cause some damage. Two squadrons of X-wings were supposed to fly cover for Ice and Giant squadrons, B-wing and Y-wing units respectively, while three or four larger Rebel ships launched assaults of their own in hopes of paving the way for capture of the shipyards. They wouldn’t be doing that tomorrow, though-just softening things up. They’d hit the Imps, distract them so the transports could land, and get out of there.

There was one catch, though. Hasla wasn’t supposed to be at that battle. Her mission had been to successfully retrieve the full schematics and technical readouts of the B-wing fighter, as well as get a pilot’s opinion of it, and she had done a good job of that over the last six months. Only a few days ago, she had managed to find a copy of the manufacturing model used to produce the starfighters, which was bonus, and get a full set of prints. The fact that she was now flying in one meant that she was supposed to disappear en route to a mission, allegedly due to a navicomputer error, and return to a rendezvous point to meet up with Yanibar Guard units for debriefing. It was a simple plan, and entirely negated her risking her life in battle.

However, the more and more she thought about it, the less she liked the idea of abandoning the Rebels and her unit. Sure, they weren’t on the same side entirely-at least not openly, and she had no love for Luke Skywalker after hearing about what his father had done and become-but they were people fighting for a cause they dearly believed in. Their determination was infectious, and moreover, these were people she had laughed with, cried with, and fought alongside. She’d been decorated twice for valor by the Alliance, but at the cost of several people she’d come to regard as friends. Leaving all that, admitting that it was all a lie, would be . . . difficult. Hasla recalled that one of the first instructions for an intelligence agent in deep cover was not to get emotionally involved and she ruefully realized she had broken that rule some time ago. How would her squadron react? They’d be surprised, confused even. Without her there, some of them might lose their nerve in combat. The mission might fail as a result-but it was not her mission. The fate of the Rebellion, of these people, was not supposed to be her concern.

Hasla continued to wrestle with the question through the shower, through her belated dinner and all through the night. She was thankful she had solo quarters-Tierfon Base was light on pilots right now-so she could argue with herself in peace. She finally decided that she should probably get some sleep for the next day’s flight, she managed to slip under covers and, after some time, drifted off to a sleep plagued with dreams of fallen Rebel pilots and comrades looking accusingly at her, all whispering the same word: “Faithless.

4

Red lightsaber blade met dazzling blue lightsaber blade. The two combatants circled around, regarding each other cautiously. They eyed each other with steely gazes, expressions intent and resolute. One, a male clothed in dark robes and with a pendant around his deck that glowed with evil power, wore an expression of focused rage, while his opponent, a blonde-haired female returned the gaze with a look of calm control. The weapons clashed again and again as the dark one launched a rapid-fire assault of heavy-handed power strikes at his opponent, who countered his Djem So style with nimble Ataru flips and dodges. Loud, climatic music played in the background, filled with strings and a chanting chorus. Suddenly, the whole scene stopped, the characters and music halted instantly by powers greater than their own. The woman glared at her adversary, but her lightsaber was frozen in place, unable to complete the slash she had been attempting to execute. Her opponent similarly snarled in return, but could not so much as twitch an eyelid, thanks to the sudden halt of their duel.

Cassi flicked the button on the holoprojector, pausing the drama she had been watching. She had been looking forward to watching a move with Sarth, relaxing on their nerfhide couch and watched the show play out in half-theatre size on hers and Sarth’s holoprojector, thoroughly enjoying the show while munching on a handful of roasted greksli nuts. However, one thing was missing: her husband.

“Sarth,” she called. “Are you coming yet?”
“Almost done,” he answered from across the room, from his perch at his desk. “I’ll just be a minute.”
“You said that twenty minutes ago,” she said exasperatedly. “Are you not coming to watch the show? I thought you like Taelros Bac flicks?”

Sarth finally met her somewhat annoyed expression.

“I’m sorry, Cassi,” he said. “I’ve just . . . had trouble with something.”

Cassi rolled her eyes. She knew what that meant: Sarth Kraen had a hard time thinking about anything else if there was an unsolved problem. Sighing, she pulled herself up from the couch and walked over to stand behind Sarth, her slippers making slight scuffing sounds as she walked.

“I thought you were just going to send a quick message to your old teacher on the secure Baobab HoloNet line,” Cassi said. “What’s the complication?”
“I was,” Sarth corrected. “The thing is, I can’t find him.”
“Did the ‘Net go down?”

The Baobab HoloNet was an alternative holonetwork used throughout the galaxy, and particularly the Outer Rim, by people who lost access to the faster-than-light communications provided by the standard HoloNet due to the Empire’s restrictions. At great expense, Yanibar Guard Intelligence had set up a quiet transceiver on an unknown location that was beamed transmissions from Yanibar through a number of routers and scramblers into the Baobab HoloNet. While certainly better than no HoloNet at all, it was a somewhat slow and unreliable process, one which Sarth had groused about. Of course, the military network operated by the Yanibar Guard was much faster, but that was restricted for official business, naturally.

“No, the network is running just fine,” Sarth answered. “I mean, I can’t seem to get a hold of Professor Magrody. He’s not at the Magrody Institute, and his secretary told me that he’s on indefinite leave.”
“Well, how long has it been since you contacted him?” Cassi asked practically.
“Awhile,” Sarth admitted. “Ten years, give or take.”
“No wonder you can’t reach him,” Cassi commented dryly. “Not everyone has your memory, Sarth. You know, ten years ago, Alderaan was a beautiful planet.”
“Thanks for telling me something new,” Sarth riposted. “But it’s just not like him to disappear like that.”
“Maybe that his secretary’s stock response for people she doesn’t recognize,” Cassi suggested. “A prodigy like him probably gets lots of unwanted calls.”
“Could be,” Sarth answered. “But I’m not quite satisfied with that. There was something wrong in how she said it.”
“Oh?” Cassi said, intrigued in spite of herself. “How did she say it?”
“Like there was an unpleasant memory behind the thought,” Sarth reflected. “Like she didn’t want to be reminded of Magrody’s name-there was almost a dread in how she said it.”
“Really?” Cassi replied, her hands on her hips. “Since you’re so good at analyzing body language, analyze this.”
“Hmm,” Sarth said, pursing his lips slightly as he glanced at her. “I think this is a textbook case of a slightly grumpy wife in bad need of a kiss from the love of her life.”
“Is that what it is?” she replied with half-sincere indignation.
“I don’t know,” he said, pulling her gently to him and kissing her fully. “Is it?”
“Mostly,” she answered. “But if you stop wasting away our holo night, I’ll be fully satisfied.”
“Fair enough,” Sarth said. “I was looking forward to The Frozen Princess, but do me one favor, Cassi.”
“What’s that?”
“Give me three minutes.”
She groaned. “I’m never going to distract you from that screen, am I?”
“No, no,” Sarth promised. “Here, I’m setting the chrono now. Just give me three minutes and help me figure out what to do next. I need your help.”
“Fine,” she said reluctantly.
“You’re the best,” he said, kissing her hand softly.

She pulled up a seat next to him and sat down. She and Sarth had done this before, many times. By bouncing questions and ideas off him, she helped stimulate his mind into putting the puzzle pieces of a difficult problem together into a coherent solution. Even if she knew nothing about the topic he was contemplating-and she often didn’t-a few well-placed questions from her were often enough to trigger Sarth’s thinking processes.

“Think it through,” she said. “Think about what you knew about your old professor. What was he like? What did he do? People are creatures of habit.”
“He had a family,” Sarth said. “A wife at least. He was married last I talked to him; had a daughter.”
“Where did he live?” Cassi asked.
“He worked on Corulag, at the Magrody Institute, so he probably lives, or lived there. If he’s not still there, there are probably people who know where he went who still are.”
“There’s a starting point,” Cassi said. “Now, how to reach them?”
“It’d be tricky to communicate with only the secure line,” Sarth said. “Tricky, and possibly suspicious. Not to mention I couldn’t slice into the institute’s computers from here.”
“So, what’s the next solution?”
“I’m thinking,” he answered.

He was silent for several moments, his dark eyes fixed on a point on the carpet that they had placed in their house. Cassi could see the wheels turning in his mind, knew he was contemplating various possible solutions quietly. She knew to let him think, and even though she would have far preferred to be enjoying her holodrama, she knew this was important to him-he devoutly hoped that Professor Magrody might have a solution to Spectre’s mysteriously random connection to the Force. Cassi wasn’t sure if the scientist would in fact have any idea of how the Force worked, but Sarth had said that Magrody was involved in some kind of research on brain waves that he, in hindsight, had recognized as being related to Force-sensitivity. While she would have preferred a less technical approach to the Force-the Force was more of a spiritual and emotional matter to her-she was willing to do virtually anything to help Spectre recover his normal level of Force-sensitivity. Even if that meant following Sarth around on a quest to find Nasdra Magrody and engineer some sort of scientific solution.

“We’ll have to go there,” he said finally.
“Go where? To Corulag?”
“It’s the only way,” he stated simply.
“I was afraid you were going to suggest that,” she said resignedly.
“You’re not objecting?”
“Of course I don’t think it’s a great idea. It’ll be mildly dangerous journeying all the way to the Core on something that might be a wild nerf chase. Even if we do find this Professor Magrody of yours, he might not be able to help us. We won’t be able to talk to Akleyn for awhile. But, if it’s the only way, then we have to try it.”
“You’re sure?” he said.
“I’m sure,” she answered. “We’ll just have to tell Selu that we’re taking a few weeks off to go visit an old friend.”
“And go through all the security,” Sarth said.
“I think Milya and Selu trust us,” she replied flippantly. “We won’t do anything stupid.”
“Mmhmm,” he mused. “When do we leave?”
“I can be ready to go in three days,” Cassi said. “I’m needed to teach a couple lectures at the university, but I can go after that.”
“Sounds good to me,” Sarth said. “I’m glad you’re with me on this.”
“Where else would I be? We’re inseparable,” she said. “Besides, you get into far too much trouble on your own.”
“Maybe,” Sarth said. “Now, you were saying something about a holodrama.”

She took his hand and gently walked with him over towards the couch. The warm smell of the roasted nuts filled the room as he took a handful and they plopped down on the soft upholstery. Cassi snuggled up against him as he took the control and restarted the holodrama. She had meant what she said about being inseparable-it wasn’t that Sarth was the only thing she ever thought about, but there was a bond between them that ran incredibly deep, and they both knew and appreciated that. They had been through good times and bad, through trial and danger and even near poverty, and it had strengthened them, as well as increased their dependence on each other. She leaned her head on his shoulder as the opening credits started, inhaling his soft scent, and he casually brushed her golden curls. As long they were together, nothing could go wrong, she thought, and she felt his mental reciprocation. For the time being, though, they put their worries and plans aside and simply enjoyed the moment of being together-moments that were all too scarce in their busy lives.

Eriadu, Imperial Navy headquarters

Imperial Admiral Sander Delvardus sat at the long obsidian black table, polished glassy smooth and unmarked except for a domed holoprojector, in the conference room, quietly sipping his kopi tea. The room’s expansive transparisteel windows afforded him a sizable view of the cityscape overlooking Eriadu City, a heavily industrialized conglomeration of buildings. As a key officer in the defense of the Seswenna Sector, the tall officer, marked by his cleft chin and bushy eyebrows that gave him a ferocious appearance when he was angry, it was his job to oversee the ships assigned to patrol the sector and prevent any hotbeds of sedition from acting up.

Unfortunately, his immediate superior, High Admiral Vey, was more inclined towards furthering policies that focused less on warfare and combating the Rebellion and more towards resolving internecine conflicts between some of the species native to the sector. Delvardus thought that was nothing short of ridiculous. He had tried to persuade Vey to pour more ships and troops into combating the spread of the Rebellion, but so far, to no avail. He tightened the fingers of his left hand into a fist and hissed in exasperation, glancing at the datapad in his left hand. High Admiral Vey’s command encompassed hundreds of warships, thousands of troops, but most of that strength was dispersed into defensive flotillas guarding what the High Admiral referred to as “key worlds” while other ships were stationed over various worlds across the Outer Rim to prevent what Vey called internal disputes. That, however, left Delvardus with only forty warships, few of them Star Destroyers, to form task forces to deal with any centers of Rebel activity. Admiral Vey could prove most intractable when it came to lending ships from his nicely formed defensive clusters to actually attacking the Rebels at their bases. While Delvardus would have enjoyed sitting at Eriadu, enjoying the comforts of his homeworld, there were other more important matters to consider, like the security of the Empire.

Furthermore, Delvardus was also assigned to use his task forces to contain illicit shipping and smuggling operations, such as those run by Black Sun or the Zann Consortium. While not as dangerous to the Rebels, the lawless riff-raff had long held sway over the Outer Rim. The Empire, however, had made suppressing their activities something of a priority, and while Black Sun was in disarray following the death of its chief on Coruscant, other groups were stepping in to fill the gaps.

The door at the far end of the room hissed open and High Admiral Vey entered. A tall, balding man with thirty years of politically motivated service in the Imperial Navy, Vey typically carried himself with a trace of a smug smile when dealing with his subordinates, a smile Delvardus had come to detest as much as news of Rebel insurgencies.

“Admiral Vey,” Delvardus said, rising properly and saluting as befitting military protocol.
“Have a seat, Admiral,” Vey said, waving to a chair as he pulled up one for himself.
“Yes, sir,” Delvardus answered, resuming his seat.
“What’s the bad news today?” Vey asked jovially. “More of the same? Rebel activity menacing us, smugglers and outlaws roaming the spacelanes because of your lack of ships?”
“Sir,” Delvardus ground out the word. “I resent reports of heightened threats to Imperial security in this sector being dismissed so lightly.”
“Then tell me,” Vey answered. “If these threats are so dangerous, then why are we sitting in a high-level conference room on the top of a sizable and ornamental command center instead of cowering in an underground bunker worrying about strafing runs? I’m not convinced all these threats aren’t the product of some over-reacting. I mean, dozens of worlds are kept safe by our fleets, and the Rebels don’t seem inclined to challenge us at any of them.”
“With all due respect, Admiral,” Delvardus said, having finally managed to get in a word in between Vey’s spiel. “The Rebels are gathering their strength for an attack of significant magnitude. And while our sector fleet does protect any number of strategic worlds from any foreseeable attack, our current deployments leave hundreds of systems under-patrolled or not at all. If I had just another-,”
“Hold on, Admiral,” Vey interrupted. “Let me stop you there while I try and sort through your reasoning.”

Delvardus fumed in silent frustration. No matter what he said, Vey would find a way to twist his words and make him sound like an idiot. The man had talent as a politician, a twister of words, but he had grown complacent, unwilling to risk his ships and men in battle. Delvardus had nothing but contempt for him-he was an armchair admiral, full of hot air and nothing more.

“You want me to take ships away from defending key worlds and disperse them out across the Rim for the Rebels to snipe off one by one? And then you want me to send Star Destroyers chasing after a handful of snot-nosed thugs? Admiral, you’re not making much sense today,” Vey said in that overly reasonable tone Delvardus hated so much.
“Sir, that’s not what I-,” Delvardus tried.

No such luck.

“I’m not finished,” Vey cut him off. “When I was taught how to wage war, we didn’t learn to scatter our fleets and dilute their strength, nor did we leave strategic locations undefended to hunt down outlaws. I’ve assigned you a reasonable force to handle that task, but it’s far better to concentrate our strength and wait for the Rebels to come to us instead of charging the Rim blindly looking for them.”
“The Rebels have grown in audacity and strength, sir.” Delvardus said. “Take a look at this.”

Delvardus handed Vey his datapad, narrating for him.

“The Victory Star Destroyer Suppressor was ambushed in the Drexel system two days ago. One of our scout ships just found the wreckage.”
“That’s one of your ships, isn’t it?”

Delvardus saw the pointed look he got, but there was no use denying it.

“It is, sir.”
“Hmm. Interesting. No survivors?” Vey asked.
“We’ve found some, sir, but none of them can remember the attack.”
“None of them?” Vey inquired dubiously.
“No, sir,” Delvardus admitted reluctantly. “Our medics have found traces of ylannock compounds in their bloodstreams.”
“And you think Rebels did this?” Vey asked.
“I do, sir,” Delvardus answered staunchly. “Who else could do this?”
“You tell me,” Vey said. “But first, I want to know why the Suppressor was out in possibly hostile space without proper escort. Standard fleet deployment calls for at least four more screening vessels.”

Delvardus stiffened.

“I don’t have enough ships in my command to utilize standard deployment, sir. In order to maintain maximum patrol coverage, we have to stretch the ships we have. Captain Niblim was confident that Drexel was not a major threat zone.”
“Obviously, he was wrong,” Vey said icily. “So you’re telling me you lost a Star Destroyer to an unknown adversary.”
“I believe it was the Rebellion, as I stated, sir,”
“Yes, I know. You’ve told me that already. However, it could have very well been the Consortium, or even one of the larger pirate organizations, if they were properly paid. After all, there aren’t any direct ties to the Rebels that I can see from this data. I think you need to be a little more open-minded in your threat assessments, particularly for your new assignment.”
“Sir?”
“Moff Kaine wants to speak with you,” Vey informed him dryly. “Apparently, you’re being moved to a new job.”

The senior admiral reached over and activated the holoprojector. In response, a quarter-size projection of the distinguished-looking Grand Moff Ardus Kaine, governor of Oversector Outer and a former officer in the Imperial military, appeared above the table. Delvardus swallowed, fearing the worst. Moff Kaine, as successor to the late Wilhuff Tarkin, was highly influential and was not only a gifted orator and politician, but a strategist of considerable renown as well. Intimidating and a hard man to please, he was also good friends with High Admiral Vey. Delvardus braced himself for a stern dressing down from the Moff, especially given Vey’s tiny smile.

“Good afternoon, Admiral,” Moff Kaine addressed Delvardus.
“Good afternoon, Moff Kaine,” Delvardus managed.
“Soldje’s been telling me that you’re not satisfied with our current levels of activity in combating the Rebels and the fringe elements. Is that true?” Kaine said, using the calm, measured manner of speaking he often employed when he wished to keep his intentions hidden.
“Yes, sir,” Delvardus managed. “I think we’re leaving ourselves open to an attack if we leave them to their devices.”
“Interesting,” Kaine said.
“I told you he would stand by his beliefs,” Vey put in.
“Indeed,” the Moff replied blandly. “As it turns out, Delvardus, Imperial Center tends to agree with you, and so do I.”
“Sir?” Delvardus said, incredulously.

He turned to look at Vey, who offered him a bemused half-smile.

“That’s correct,” Kaine said. “That’s why I’m taking personal command of a task force, dubbed Scourge Squadron, to deal with the Rebellion in this sector. It’ll be a one-hundred ship squadron centered around my flagship, the Reaper. Does that seem a sufficient force to deal with any major Rebel activities in the sector, Admirals?”
“You already know that it’s more than enough,” Vey said.
“Definitely, sir,” Delvardus put in, his emotions soaring. “More than enough firepower.”
“I’m glad you agree,” Moff Kaine said, though Delvardus was unsure of how sincere the man was being. “However, there’s also been a troubling rise in criminal activity in the Outer Rim, particularly due to the Zann Consortium. That’s where you come in, Delvardus.”
“What are my orders, sir?” Delvardus said.
“Imperial Center wants the Zannists dealt with, Admiral. And quickly. You’ve shown some talent for that, and I’ve been told you’re most fervent in pursuing our enemies relentlessly. You’ll head up a thirty-ship independent task force assigned to go wherever you need to in order to deal with Tyber Zann.”

Delvardus sat there, stunned. He had not at all imagined that this would be the outcome of the conversation. Here he was, practically being handed what he had been asking for all along. Finally, he, Admiral Delvardus, would have a chance to prove his worth to the rest of the Imperial Navy and especially Moff Kaine.

“What’s the matter, Delvardus?” Kaine asked. “Do you not accept the assignment?”
“No, sir,” Delvardus said. “I mean, I accept the assignment, sir. It would be my honor.”
“Good,” Kaine replied smoothly. “You’ll have further orders from me later. For now, I’ll have your aide brief you on the ships and mission when you get back to your office. You’ll leave in a few days.”
“Yes, sir,” Delvardus answered.
“That will be all, gentlemen,” Moff Kaine announced. “Good day.”

The hologram shimmered and disappeared, leaving Delvardus and Vey sitting there.

“Are you pleased with your new assignment?” Vey asked him.

Delvardus narrowed his eyes at the senior officer. Something in his tone betrayed foreknowledge of what he had just experienced.

“You knew?” Delvardus asked, suspicion coloring his expression.
“Of course I did,” Vey said blandly. “I was the one who recommended you for the job.”
“Is that so? And what do you get out of it, sir?” Delvardus asked darkly.
“Oh, nothing much,” Vey said. “My job is safe, and I’ll no doubt get an appointment to a Moffship in the near future. And you, you’ll get to bring the fight to the lawless side of the galaxy like you’ve been itching to do, and without having to go through me. We both get what we want.”
“Convenient,” Delvardus replied, not quite trusting Vey’s answer.
“Oh, it is,” Vey said, leaning forward to grin wickedly at Delvardus. “It was I who stood up for you when Kaine asked about your proficiency. He wanted to have you demoted and shipped off to join a mapping expedition in the Unknown Regions.”

A chill ran down Delvardus’s spine, despite the outrage and indignation he felt.

“Why are you telling me this, sir?” he inquired coldly.
“You owe me one, Admiral,” Vey said, smiling sweetly at him, a smile loaded with the knowledge that Delvardus was now seriously indebted to him. “And I won’t forget that.”

Delvardus’s blood boiled at how easily he’d been manipulated, but he kept his manner cool, despite the contempt he felt for Vey. It wasn’t easy. Here he was, having finally gotten a chance to lead forces against the enemies of the Empire, and now Vey was once more trying to exploit everything for political gain. Vey was, he decided, a most irritating adversary.

“I see,” he replied stiffly.
“Don’t take it like that,” Vey answered lightly “After all, we both got what we wanted. I just got a little more.”

Delvardus favored his superior with a cold glare, but kept his mouth shut.

“Well, I can see you’ve got a lot to work to do, so I’ll leave you to your duties. Good day, Admiral.”

Rising, the admiral straightened up and began walking out of the room, Delvardus’s eyes tracking him as he walked, filled with an icy anger at how he was now thoroughly indebted to a man he despised as a useless toady.

“Oh, and Admiral,” Vey called from the door. “Do try and be careful about losing your ships from now on. I’ve known Moff Kaine for a long time, and he isn’t very patient about commanders who let Star Destroyers get smacked around by unknown foes.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, sir,” Delvardus ground out.

With that, Vey departed, leaving Delvardus to sit there at the long polished table, stewing silently and thinking over his new assignment.

Yanibar

Milya walked into the upstairs study where Rhiannon was quietly playing a small stringharp that Sarth had purchased for her on her eleventh birthday. While she normally might have stood in the doorway before entering in order to silently listen to the simple melody being played, she was in a hurry today, striding in quickly. However, reminding herself of what she was about to say, she checked her haste somewhat, kneeling at Rhiannon’s side until she’d finished with the song.

“What is it, Mom?” Rhiannon asked, undoubtedly having detected the urgency in the sounds of Milya’s movements.
“I . . . I have some bad news, sweetheart,” Milya said quietly.
“What’s wrong?” Rhiannon asked, her child’s voice filled with worry.
“We’re going to have to put off our trip, dear,” Milya said, wincing as she broke the news. “Something’s come up.”
“But we planned this trip for months,” Rhiannon quietly protested.
“I know,” Milya acknowledged. “And believe me, darling, if I had a choice, I’d rather be off with you.”
“Is it for work?” Rhiannon asked.

Selu and Milya had done their best not to tell Rhiannon too much about what they did. For one, the girl didn’t need to know, and also, it helped preserve her innocence to think that her parents were some sort of law enforcement, keeping people around Yanibar safe. Which was sort of what they did, just without the militaristic context of their duties. Without the fact that her father often thrust himself into desperate hand-to-hand combat against trained opponents sworn to kill him. Without the details of Milya’s cloak-and-dagger intelligence work that often involved the metaphorical dagger as much as the cloak. Selu and Milya had also not wanted to let Rhiannon know just how often her parents placed themselves in mortal danger, and while it wasn’t a frequent occasion, there had been some missions, such as a near-disastrous raid on a Star Destroyer over Brentaal IV.

“Yes,” Milya admitted. “It’s for work.”
“Will it keep the colony safer?”
“Yes,” Milya said, slightly taken aback by the very adultness of Rhiannon’s question. “It will.”
“And there’s nobody else who can do it,” Rhiannon stated quietly.

It was not a question.

“No, not really,” Milya said. “How did you know that?”
“You want to go on our trip-you said so. If there was another way, you would have done it already. Right, Mom?”
“Indeed,” Milya said, smiling in quiet bemusement.

The accursed childhood illness that had robbed Rhiannon of her eyesight hadn’t affected her powers of reasoning in the slightest. Milya and Cassi had long since discovered that children were often sharper and more aware than many people gave them credit for being, and Milya and Selu had tried to instill the importance of thinking clearly to Rhiannon.

“Then you should go,” Rhiannon said seriously.
“Okay,” Milya said. “You’ll be staying with Aunt Sheeka while we’re gone. She’ll be here in about twenty minutes, so Jay Seven will help you pack.”
When will you be back?”
“I don’t know, darling. I just don’t know. But when I come back, we will take our trip.”
“Promise?”

Milya smiled gently down at her daughter, even though she couldn’t see it.

“I promise,” she answered. “We’ll go to Eriadu, see the symphony.”
“I can’t wait,” Rhiannon replied enthusiastically.
“I know,” Milya said. “I’m sorry to run off like this, darling. You know I wouldn’t unless it was really important, but Daddy needs me to keep him out of trouble.”
“I know,” Rhiannon said, then giggled. “Daddy gets in trouble?”
“All the time,” Milya confided with a wry smile. “I have to keep him out of trouble. Now, go on downstairs. Aunt Sheeka will be here soon.”
“Yes, Mom,” Rhiannon said. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” Milya answered, embracing her daughter lovingly.

Then she rose and went downstairs, grabbing a slim black bag from its resting place by the door and heading out to the landspeeder. Selu took his cue on her arrival and went in to say his own farewells to Rhiannon, having already loaded his own luggage onto the speeder. He returned shortly thereafter and slid easily into the driver’s seat of the landspeeder, a battered model that lacked many of the amenities of a luxury model but which served them well enough.

“How is she?” Milya asked.
“Better than might be expected,” Selu replied. “She’s disappointed, but I think she understands that sometimes our jobs come first.”
“I guess that’s okay,” Milya said. “I just really hate running out on her like this.”
“I do too,” Selu said. “But if your vision is right, this is important, crucially important for the survival of the colony.”
“I know,” Milya said, nodding. “But still . . .”
“Don’t worry,” Selu said. “We’ll make it up to her when we get back, pending any other galactic crises. You’ll go on our trip and have the time of your lives.”
“Is that what Rhiannon told you?” Milya inquired.
“It is,” Selu confessed. “Though she also mentioned something about you saying I get in a lot of trouble.”

Selu turned to give his wife a glare of mock indignation.

“You’re denying it?” Milya replied.
“Hey,” Selu protested. “I do a pretty good job of keeping everything running smoothly around here.”
“Of course you do, dear,” Milya said, rolling her eyes. “And behind every great male is an even greater female.”

Selu shot her another betrayed glance, but had no pithy reply for his wife this time. Soon enough, they arrived at the Kraen family’s private hangar-which was little more than a specially equipped and modified cave on the slopes of the Tusloni Basin that had been fitted to serve as a hangar to house their various ships. Fairly spacious, it had originally been a natural formation before Sarth’s engineers had widened it with explosives. Now, it was a fully functional launching facility and, most importantly, was practically undetectable from orbit or even by atmospheric sensors. Milya and Selu’s ship, the Hawk-bat, was there, the old freighter weathered but still serviceable. Loving maintenance had kept the broad-winged freighter in service years after she’d first been commissioned. Also parked there was Spectre and Sheeka’s ship, the Spindragon, an even older YT-1200 freighter that had also seen several refits in Sarth’s Kraechar Arms refit yards. Lastly, Sarth’s and Cassi’s customized Kraechar Arms yacht, the Silent Surprise. As Selu pulled the speeder into its berth, he was surprised to see Sarth and Cassi also in the hangar, loading their luggage onto the Surprise.

“Hey strangers,” Sarth called. “What are you up to? I thought you were going on a trip with Rhiannon, Milya?”
“I was,” she replied curtly. “Something came up.”
“What is it?” Cassi asked.
“We’ve both had visions,” Selu said. “Visions that indicate a threat to the colony.”
“From where?” Sarth asked, putting down the case he had been preparing to load into the cargo hold.
“I don’t know,” Milya said. “The planet and alien I saw doesn’t match anything I’ve seen before, nor anything in the records Intelligence has.”
“So where are you going?” Cassi asked. “Are you going to just blind jump and hope the Force leads you there?”
“Just because that worked once, doesn’t mean it’ll work again,” Sarth countered.
True,” Selu admitted. “That’s why we’re going to Obroa-skai, the library world.”
“That’s deep in Imperial territory,” Cassi pointed out. “How are you going to get through any patrols?”
“We’ve got disguises,” Milya said. “And I am the head of intelligence. That has to count for something.”
“If it’s that serious, we can go with you,” Sarth offered. “We weren’t doing anything that important, were we, Cassi?”
“No, not at all,” she said. “It’d be like old times.”
“Well, not without Spectre,” Selu remarked. “And thanks, but no thanks. That would complicate our disguise scheme.”
“What are you going as?” Cassi asked.

Milya rolled her eyes again, but Selu just grinned.

“You tell them,” Milya said. “If I have to be embarrassed, I’d prefer not to have to do it myself.”
“If you insist,” Selu answered gleefully. “She’s a Kuati princess, and I’m her telbun.

Telbun were individuals chosen out of the Kuati middle-class to serve as anonymous fathers for the children of Kuati nobility. They were expected to have no emotional ties or otherwise be involved with the nobles after the child was raised and assumed their adult role and title in the merchant class, but received considerable financial reward for their participation. They were traditionally looked down on by the aristocracy as little more than aides or an unpleasant necessity, but the heavy clothing they wore would allow Selu to carry all sorts of useful gadgetry while Milya attracted most of the attention by wearing clothing that would accentuate her natural beauty.

It was at times like these that Milya was glad that Rhiannon could not see; if the girl ever found holos over her mother dressed in such clothing, or rather, the lack thereof, she might question more than just her mother’s true occupation. Then again, Selu and Milya didn’t exactly plan on taking lots of holos to place in the family album on this trip.

Sarth chuckled.

“That’ll certainly be interesting. I almost wish I was going with you.”
“Where are you going anyway?” Milya asked.
“Off to Corulag,” Sarth said. “I haven’t been able to reach Professor Magrody over the last few days, so we’re going to go visit him. Maybe he’ll know something about Spectre’s problem, if we can talk to him.”
“Have a safe trip, then,” Selu answered. “Corulag’s even more Coreward than Obroa-skai.”
“So it is,” Sarth replied lightly. “But nobody’s going to suspect Skart Kraest, the brilliant but obnoxious head of Kraechar Arms, of being anything other than what he claims to be.”
“True enough,” Milya replied. “I don’t suppose I have to tell you both to be careful, though.”
“Don’t worry,” Cassi reassured her. “We’ll be careful. I suspect the most we’ll have to deal with is Spectre being lonely while we’re gone.”
“May the Force be with you,” Selu said.

They exchanged embraces, and then boarded their respective ships. The Hawk-bat took off first, cruising out of the cave on repulsorlifts, followed by the sleek Silent Surprise. The two ships slowly gained altitude, clearing the shield perimeters that protected the Yanibar colony, and then activated their throbbing sublight engines to soar high into the azure sky of Yanibar, bound for space.

Bespin, one week earlier

The whine of blaster fire accompanied by the sounds of shouts and yells greeted various parts of Cloud City as Zann Consortium raiding parties worked their way across the floating metropolis. Several looting groups of hard-bitten mercenaries had broken off from the main groups, who were assigned to retrieve valuable cylinders of Tibanna gas from Bespin’s storage facilities. These groups were little more than heavily-armed rabble, and had been sent to cause a diversion among Bespin’s business district. Shooting up storefronts and torching warehouses, they had made their way across the upper levels of Cloud City, wreaking havoc in the business district that was lined the top of Cloud City’s upper surface, just below the luxury hotels and resorts.

One commander of a squad of ten, a weathered Nikto, cackled as he left a shipping magnate’s Bespin office. It was rare that he and his ragged bunch were given license to rampage and pillage freely. The mercenaries had been ordered to leave almost all holdings of Xizor Transport Systems, a company run by the head of Black Sun, Prince Xizor, untouched, but aside from that, they were allowed to steal and destroy whatever they wanted to. He and his group had stolen several thousand credits worth of cash from the office, and utterly destroyed its furnishings by using them for blaster target practice. The three male employees in the back had been killed, while a lone Wing Guard body lay outside in the wide, open corridor, a sign of how helpless the city was in light of the depredations of the mercenaries. The Empire had drastically reduced the size of the Wing Guard in light of their takeover, but their own garrison had also not been sufficient to hold off the onslaught of the Consortium. No doubt it would be reinforced post haste, but that was not his problem.

Grabbing another firebomb off his equipment belt, the Nikto urged his group forward. This corridor was on the planned escape route for the head of the Consortium himself, Tyber Zann, whenever the chief was finished with some mission of his, and the commander wanted Zann to see that his orders to rampage had been carried out. The next shop was slightly recessed into a side corridor and had an attractive two-level front for its office, the lower wall decorated with mosaics of the corporate slogan and four curved bronze-colored metal shapes that reflected sunlight off their burnished surfaces, while the upper level featured glassine windows below a stylized roof design reminiscent of Alderaanian architecture. It would burn well. The Nikto led his group towards the front of the office, and pulled back his arm to throw the firebomb.

“I wouldn’t do that,” said a voice suddenly, startling the mercenary.

A tall, broad-shouldered man, armed with a blaster rifle and wearing a sizable backpack, had emerged from the shadows around the doorway of the office. The Nikto delayed launching his weapon momentarily to sneer at the human.

“And why not?” he asked in heavily accented Basic.
“Because I’ll have to kill you,” the man replied evenly.
“Hahahaha! Stupid human!” the Nikto cackled. “You die fast nownow!”
“I don’t think so,” the man answered in the same no-nonsense tone he had used throughout the conversation.

With that, the human pulled a trigger on the blaster rifle, sending a small cartridge flying from a launcher on the underside of the rifle into the midst of the mercenaries. The cartridge exploded into a cloud of noxious gas that burned the eyes of the mercenaries, leaving many of them incapacitated. The man then cut loose with the blaster, sending purple bolts of energy flying into the ranks of the mercenaries. A few of them returned fire, but their own energy blasts were harmlessly absorbed by the hazy blue field of a personal energy shield emanating from the man’s backpack.

Suddenly, the polished metal shapes on the wall lowered curved ramps down to the ground and released four wheels that proceeded to roll down them. The Nikto’s eyes widened in horror as the four metal wheels then unfolded into the deadly shape of droideka droids, merciless destroyer droids that were equipped with four repeating blasters and heavy shielding. The Consortium had been known to use a modified, up-gunned variant, but even these older models were deadly enough. The deployed killing machines sent volleys of lethal repeating blaster fire towards his troops, and the mercenaries wavered, and then fell back into the nearest cover. Furthermore, more purple blasterfire had erupted from the upper-story windows of the building, lancing out to drop two more mercs onto the blood-spattered corridor. Only a few short seconds after the fight had started, there were only two mercenaries remaining, including the Nikto. Although he and his compatriot had managed to toss enough detonators at one droideka to inflict enough damage that the machine retreated, the other three were still out there, blasting away at him and his companion. Permacrete and metal shards, superheated into glowing red-hot fragments, flew past his face as blaster bolts from the droids exploded against the fact of the pillar he was crouched behind. The pounding sounds of a full-scale blaster fight filled the corridor as hot blasts of energy flew back and forth.

“Sergeant,” his earpiece comlink crackled with the smooth voice of Tyber Zann. “We’ve dealt with the last security outpost and are inbound on your corridor now back to the ship. There are Imperial troops arriving here, so we need to be quick about this. What’s your status?”
“Not good, my lord,” replied the Nikto frantically, as a purple blaster bolt nearly tore one of his arms off. “There are droidekas here, pinning us down.”
“Droidekas?” Zann inquired, both curious and perturbed. “Why are you fighting droidekas?”
“They-they came out of nowhere,” the Nikto stammered. “We were just clearing the corridor when this mercenary attacked us.”
“And in your incompetence, you couldn’t handle the situation,” Zann summarized. “Very well. I will be there shortly.”

Tyber Zann closed down his comlink and returned to the situation at hand. He had a few armored vehicles in his Bespin strike force, but they were elsewhere at the moment. All he had with him at the moment was about twenty hand-picked mercenaries, and with a sizable amount of Imperial forces arriving, he knew it was time to get off of Cloud City. However, the news about droidekas intrigued him, specifically since there was more than one. That meant that someone else had a supply of droideka parts, and that would be very valuable to the Consortium indeed.

By the time he arrived to where the hapless Nikto Sergeant Rsyr’tisar had been pinned down, the Nikto was all alone; his companion was face-down on the metal deck plating that served as ground, lying in a pool of blood and slain by numerous blaster bolts. As the Nikto sergeant saw his boss approach from the far side of the corridor, he waved excitedly, intensifying his fire at the droidekas. Tyber, however, coolly ignored him. Instead, he pulled out his personal comlink, set it on speaker mode, and cranked up the volume as loud as he could.

“Hold fire!” Zann ordered, both to the Nikto and to the trigger-happy mercenaries behind him.

It was times like these that he needed Urai, but the Talortai warrior was busy supervising the final stages of the Tibanna gas collection stage of the operation. The Nikto’s fire slackened, then stopped, although Sergeant Rsyr’tisar turned from behind the ruined pillar to stare incredulously at his employer. In exchange, the return hail of fire slowed, but did not cease entirely.

“Cease your fire!” Zann barked out again, his voice picked up by the comlink and amplified to reverberate through the nearby vicinity. “We’re not going to shoot anymore!”
“Why should I believe you?” came the shouted reply from the shelter of the office building, its smooth surface now pockmarked with fresh scars from blaster fire.
“Because although these were my troops that attacked you, I did not tell them to do so. They’ll be severely punished for attacking civilians needlessly. Now, I’m asking you to stand down,” Zann explained with forced patience.
“I’m sorry. I’m not the trusting type today, and you’re not offering proof,” yelled the other man in response.
“Fair enough,” Zann replied smoothly into the comlink. “How about this?”

Leaning out, he pulled his customized long-barreled blaster out of its holster and fired three times. All three bolts hit a very surprised Sergeat Rsyr’tisar squarely in the torso, killing him instantly and toppling the Nikto over in a smoking heap.

“I told you, they were not supposed to attack you,” Zann shouted. “Now will you stop shooting? I’ve dealt with the one attacker left-I have no quarrel with you.”

And he didn’t, or wouldn’t unless this confounded delay left him trapped on the planet surrounded by angry Imperial troops. However, in response to his slaying of the Nikto, the man ordered his droidekas to stand down, but left them deployed in the street. Their blasters were pointed straight down the alleyway towards Zann, a faintly unsettling thought.

“Thank you,” Zann called. “Now, I’m in a bit of a hurry, but I’d like to talk with you for just a minute.”
“Forgive me if I’m not all that interested,” replied the man. “I’d prefer not to get shot under the table.”

Zann gave an exasperated sigh. Carefully keeping his blaster in hand, but out of sight, he walked out into the open corridor alone, fully aware that numerous blasters would aimed straight at him.

“Look,” he said ingratiatingly. “I realize we might have gotten off to a bad start, but I believe I have a business proposal that could be of mutual profit.”
“Not interested,” was the growled reply from the building.
“So you’ve said,” Zann answered, withdrawing a datacard from his jacket and setting it down on the ground.
“This card will be functional for several more minutes, and then its data will erase itself,” Zann explained. “It contains a holocomm code and times when you’ll be able to reach me, to discuss those droidekas of yours, and how you got them.”
“How do you know I won’t turn it in to the Empire?”
“You’re a Bespin businessman, which means you value your independence, and you own droidekas, which are highly illegal under Imperial restrictions. I’d hate to have to pass on that fact to the appropriate authorities,” Zann returned smoothly. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a ship to catch.”

With that, the crimelord turned and stalked off, signaling his mercenaries to follow him. If they were a little lucky, he figured it should be easy enough for him and his troops to reach the shuttles, link up with Urai and the droid bounty hunter IG-88, who had been contracted to get into the Imperial database, and depart the floating mining colony ahead of the advancing Imperial forces that were headed for Cloud City. And with a bit more luck, that businessman would take interest in the card he had left and possibly open up channels to acquire more droideka parts and droids for the Consortium’s growing assortment of black market technology. At any rate, his primary mission was already complete, in that the raid would serve to implicate Black Sun as guilty of the tibanna gas raid, bringing down the wrath of the Empire on his hated rival, Xizor. Zann smiled as the shuttle platform came into view. With the funds from this deal, the Consortium would be able to afford some real firepower. A real flagship, for one, fit for the galaxy’s greatest criminal mastermind. Yes, indeed, the Consortium’s fortunes were on the rise, and virtually all had gone well thus far.

Only after all the Consortium troops were gone did the man who had first challenged them speak again.

“Annita, are you okay?” he shouted upstairs to his wife, who was flattened against a blaster-marked wall, a blaster pistol clenched in her right hand, while her left hand was clamped against her right bicep.

A crimson trickle of blood snaked down her arm and her teeth were gritted in obvious pain; she’d been grazed by a blaster bolt apparently.

“I’ll live,” she answered.

Jorge made his way up the stairs while a pair of armored guards kept vigilant watch at the windows with S-2F blaster rifles for any returning Consortium mercenaries. Running over to Annita with concern in his eyes, he knelt beside her to examine the wound. His long brown hair was streaked with sweat and there was grime all around his dark eyes, but he didn’t care. Tearing off a strip from his shirt, Jorge carefully examined the gash on Annita’s arm, relieved that it wasn’t too serious. He wound the crude bandage around her bicep as he pronounced his diagnosis.

“Looks like it just tore the muscle,” he stated.
“I told you it wasn’t bad,” she replied.
“No, you said you would live. Not the same thing.”
“Sorry. Next time I get shot, I’ll be more specific.”
“Right, well, let’s get the medkit out and patch that up a little more thoroughly,” Jorge said. “Let’s not see how bad it can get by ignoring it.”
“Yes, of course,” Annita said, rising from her position slowly. “Anything for you.”
“Glad you agree,” Jorge answered.

Peering cautiously around the window, he saw that the broad walkway leading up to the front of the Bexpress Shipping office was still clear of hostiles. Smoldering craters on the walls and floor could be seen from blaster impacts and the crumpled heaps of dead bodies were strewn here and there. Not a pretty sight, but secure for the moment.

“Clear,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Crouching down to minimize their exposure through the windows, Jorge and Annita made their way downstairs to the back of the office where the medkit was, followed by one of the guards, who took up station at the front door, concealed in the doorway.

“Might want to get those droidekas back inside, sir,” the guard advised him. “Imperial forces will probably be here soon.”
“Good idea, son,” Jorge answered from the back office as he rummaged around in a storage locker for a medkit.

Having found the object of his searches, he handed it to Annita and, with a promise to her to return momentarily, went up to the front of the office and retrieved his personal datapad from a desk strewn with dust and wood fragments from the showers of debris that erupted when blaster bolts struck the walls. Activating the device, he keyed in a complicated code that sent the droidekas back into their wheel shapes and rolling back into their recessed concealments, safe from any curious eyes.

Jorge then returned to the back to find Annita seated on a table, the contents of the medkit strewn across the table as she clumsily dressed her own wound. Jorge walked up silently and helped her, applying antiseptics and coagulants to the gash inflicted by the searing blaster burn and gently rubbing a burn slave onto the scorched flesh of her arm. After he was done, he deftly retrieved a piece of syntheflesh from the medkit, which would cover the wound until it was healed and the natural skin replaced it, and placed it on the injury. Finally, he took a clean white bandage and wrapped that around her arm, tying it up with a piece of tape.

“Thanks, Jorge,” said Annita, wincing as pressure was placed on the wound.
“Any time,” Jorge said, sitting his large, lanky frame down beside her.

He gently caressed her cheek with one hand, his finger brushing her smooth skin and just barely touching a trace of her long brown hair, disheveled by combat.

“I nearly froze when I heard you scream,” he said, directing his eyes into her deep brown eyes. “I was so scared until you said you were okay.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It caught me by surprise.”
It’s fine,” he said. “I think I would have caught a few blaster bolts myself if that shield hadn’t stopped all those hits. I’m glad we had that military gear in.”
“Agreed,” Annita said, relief evident in her voice.

Jorge and Annita were the product of an incredibly unlikely match. Jorge, a Corellian, had long been a smuggler on the freighter Hawk-bat until the death of its former captain caused Jorge to take up ownership of a tapcafe on Commenor, turning over the freighter to Selu Kraen. Annita had been born and raised on Commenor and had known Sarth Kraen in her childhood; he’d saved her from an abusive father. In her adulthood, she’d joined the Commenorian Investigators. It was in this capacity that she’d been reunited with Sarth when he was pursued by vicious Mistryl Shadow Guard mercenaries, and Selu ultimately helped defeat the Mistryl while Annita and others fended off their attacks. After it was over, she’d met Jorge and quickly fell in love with him. The two were married only a year later, but Imperial entanglements had forced them to flee Commenor with the aid of the Kraens. They had set up a shipping company on Bespin, Bexpress Shipping, which was also used as a means to funnel trade to and from the Yanibar colony, and had resided on Cloud City since.

They sat there quietly for a moment, both catching their breath and coming off the adrenaline highs instigated by combat, but were distracted by a tall figure coming in, partially dressed in battle armor, including a slate gray helmet with glowing red viewsensors on its face where the eyes would be. Normally, there were several other pieces to a Kraechar Arms Battlesuit52, but when Jorge’s six guards had been alerted to the presence of possible intruders, the Yanibar Guardsmen had responded as well, even though they had just arrived at one of the loading docks. Grabbing blasters and throwing on as much of their armor as they could, they had quickly joined and taken charge of the defense.

“Area’s secure,” the man reported, resting his S-2F blaster rifle on his shoulder. “The squad reports that all hostiles were eliminated or fled. No casualties in my squad or among your guards. All our men are reconvening at our ship.”
“Thank you . . .” Jorge said. “Uh, I’m afraid I’ve not met you yet. You and your squad had only just arrived when we picked up the Consortium thugs approaching, but I appreciate your help.”

The soldier chuckled.

“This helmet does tend to muffle one’s voice a bit. I think introductions are in order.”

With that, the soldier pulled off his helmet to reveal a dark-skinned face with black hair that would have naturally formed tight, wiry curls had it not been cropped right up next to his skin. Strong cheekbones and features that were youthful but hard enough to be chiseled out of granite marked the man’s face, but his expression was amiable, his smile friendly.

“Sergeant Nate Kraen,” he said, extending his hand. “Pleased to meet you both.”
“Nate?!” Jorge said, rising to move past the hand and embrace the other man firmly. “I haven’t seen you in years, son. Look at you now, part of the Guard and all.”
“Not just any part of the Guard, either,” Nate said, beaming. “Special operations. Cresh Squad.”

Nate was the son of Sheeka Tull Kraen and an ARC trooper named Jangotat who’d fallen in love with Sheeka during the Clone Wars. Jangotat had died in battle on Ord Cestus, leaving Sheeka to raise him and her other children on her own. When Spectre had rescued her from the Empire and taken her off the planet, Sheeka had eventually fallen in love with her as well, and when they married, Spectre had adopted Nate as if the boy had been his own son. Years had passed since then, and he was fully grown now. Nate had decided to follow in his father’s and stepfather’s footsteps and serve in the army by joining one of the Yanibar Guard’s most elite units.

Tall, broad-shouldered, muscular, dark-skinned, and handsome, he looked as if he had just stepped out of a recruiting holo, particularly when he wore his uniform. His face still bore signs of youth, but there was an adult understanding in his dark eyes as well. For now, though, he was happy to be out of danger and enjoying the reunion with some friends of his parents.

“Look at you,” Annita said. “All grown up. Last time I saw you, you’d just graduated from secondary school and were headed off to training.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Nate agreed.
“That long?” Jorge asked. “I feel older already. That must have been what-five years ago?”
“Six,” Nate corrected mildly.
“Emperor’s Black Bones, that’s a long time,” Jorge muttered. “How’ve you been?”
“Better than I deserve,” he said. “I’m actually not only Nate Kraen, Yanibar Guard, but also Nate Kraen, married man and soon-to-be father.”
“Congratulations!” Annita exclaimed. “Who is she?”
“Her name’s Ana Vondar,” Nate answered. “She’s the daughter of some Corellian refugees who emigrated to Yanibar.”
“Can’t go wrong with a Corellian,” Jorge said with a wry lop-sided smirk at Annita.
“Of course not, dear,” Annita said to placate her husband. “How long have you been married, Nate?”
“A little over a year,” he said.

He started to elaborate further, but something inside his helmet crackled and he quickly slipped it back on. Nate stood there quietly for a moment, then returned his attention back to Jorge and Annita.

“Cresh Leader wants me back with the rest of the squad,” he said. “I need to go.”
“Will you be here in the evening?” Annita asked.
“I should be,” he answered uncertainly. “Depends on the mission.”
“What’s the mission?” Jorge asked.
“I’m sorry,” Nate answered regretfully. “I’m not authorized to say.”
“Fair enough,” Jorge replied affably, shrugging.
Anyway,” Annita interjected. “If you’re still on Cloud City by nightfall, you and the rest of your squadmates are invited to our place for dinner. We’d love to have you.”
“Thanks,” Nate said gratefully. “I’ll pass on the invitation and let you know. It’ll probably just be me. The captain will probably want the rest of the squad attending to mission preparations.”
“Well, stop by if you can,” Jorge said affably. “And pass on our thanks to your captain for having his men help defend the office and shipping complex. You guys helped a lot.”
“Just doing our jobs,” Nate answered.

Then, with a jaunty wave, he headed out back into the recesses of the Bexpress building to rejoin the rest of his unit.

“Wow,” Annita said as Nate walked off. “Time sure flies.”
“Yes, it does,” Jorge said, pulling off the Kraechar Arms personal shield unit he’d been wearing. :“And as much I hate to interrupt your nostalgia, we need to get ready for a possible welcoming party of some very helpful Imperial officials.”
“Indeed,” Annita said, shifting to a more business-like mode. “I’ll get some of the loadlifters to hide the bodies. What do you want me to do with the datacard Zann left?”

Jorge pursed his lips, contemplating the matter.

“Have a protocol droid bring it in,” he said finally. “We’ll take a look at it, or have the techs check it over, and then send it off to Sarth. They can decide what to do with Zann’s offer.”
“I’ll check it over. I was head of evidence for a sizable crime lab, you know,” Annita offered. “I bet I know the answer to whether or not Sarth actually calls Zann, to talk business though.”
“I bet I do, too,” Jorge agreed. “Especially after he hears that Bexpress was attacked and his step-nephew was placed in danger by the Consortium.”
“On the other hand,” Annita countered. “It could open a door for the Guard to do some damage to the Consortium.”
“Hold on,” Jorge interjected. “You can’t be serious. Buddying up with the Consortium is not a good idea for Kraechar Arms.”

Annita shrugged.

“It’s just an idea,” she said. “Sarth will know what to do with it.”
“I suppose,” Jorge replied. “Let’s get this place cleaned up.”
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