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15

The last notes of Rhiannon’s song faded away in glorious crescendo. Watching from the side, Milya was filled with quiet pride at how well her daughter’s performance had been received. Though Rhiannon hadn’t instantly mastered the music that she’d been assigned, she’d steadily improved over the past week until Taelros, Colonel Hagrek, and the vocal coach had been satisfied with how she sounded. It had been tough for the girl, Milya knew, but she’d persevered and come through smiling. Rhiannon was a fighter, just like her parents, and just as strong-willed also. She certainly hadn’t let her handicap bother her.

As Rhiannon made her exit off to the wings where Milya was waiting, Milya stood quietly, feeding her daughter mental pictures of the surroundings so she could take in the sights of the Imperial Opera. Once Rhiannon was close enough, Milya embraced her daughter warmly.

“Good job, darling,” she said. “You did very well.”

Rhiannon’s unseeing eyes were shining.

“Did I really, Mom?”
“Of course you did. All of the other actors and the crew were dazzled by you.”
“Yay!” Rhiannon squealed. “I finally got it right.”
“Good thing, too,” Milya said. “The show is tomorrow night.”
“I know,” Rhiannon said. “I can’t wait!”

Milya smiled down at her daughter, brushing back some of Rhiannon’s tousled hair out of her face. The costume and coverup departments had, per Taelros’s instructions, made Rhiannon look the part of an Outer Rim orphan-she didn’t look that waifish, but her floor-length dress was a plain light brown and her hair had been left down, tousled and loose. All in all, it was probably the simplest costume in the entire show, which Milya did not mind at all. This being opera, the costuming was more stylistic than realistic, so Taelros had skipped the ragged look and coverup smudges. Rhiannon had enjoyed the whole process despite the challenges, and even though she was only in one song, Milya knew that her daughter felt as if the whole performance was resting on her. It was a feeling she herself had felt on many other occasions-except for Milya, it had not been an opera performance at stake. At any rate, the cast and crew that they’d met had been polite, professional, and courteous, and one of the sopranos had even helped Rhiannon. Altogether, show business hadn’t been nearly as bad as Milya had feared it would be. Nobody had tried to mess with Rhiannon or discourage her, nor had Milya seen any kind of open disdain. Then again, this close to the show, everyone was probably more worried about their own parts than with interfering with others.

As she brushed back some more of Rhiannon’s hair, Milya sensed someone approaching from behind her and knew it was Taelros. No one else in the cast or crew exuded that much nervous energy.

“So, I was thinking about Rhianya’s costume during the performance,” Taelros informed her.
Rhiannon,” Milya corrected the man once again. “And is she done for the day?”
“Yes, yes,” Taelros said absently. “She did wonderfully. I’m sure she’ll sing beautifully tomorrow, just like she did today. Anyway, about the costume.”
“What about it?” Milya asked. “It’s a plain dress, floor-length, with a thin shimmersilk band around the waist. Just like you wanted.”
“That’s just the thing,” he said. “I’m not sure I like it anymore.”
“Oh?”
“It’s too plain. It’s not flashy enough.”
“Taelros,” Milya said exasperatedly. “She’s supposed to be an Outer Rim orphan. She’s not supposed to be flashy.”
“Costuming in opera is stylistic,” Taelros replied dismissively. “For these sorts of things, interpretation is key.”

Milya sighed.

“Let me see the new costume idea.”

Taelros held up her datapad and Milya started in surprise at what she saw. The man had taken Rhiannon’s dress and added a few more frills here and there, but the biggest modification was that one side of the long floor-length skirt had been drawn up nearly to her waist. Milya gasped at the idea of having her daughter parade around like that with that much leg showing, in front of an audience of Imperial aristocrats. Over her dead body. Who did this Taelros Bac think he was, anyway? He certainly had a lot of nerve to try this.

“Absolutely not,” she said.
“What do you mean, absolutely not?” Taelros asked, obviously not used to being told no. “The modification to the costume should only take an hour or two. I didn’t change that much.”
That much turns this dress from respectable to needlessly risqué,” Milya snapped. “You will not put my daughter on display like some kind of street-walker, Taelros. She’s eleven.
“But . . .” he stammered.

Milya had had quite enough. In a flash, her arm had whipped around his neck in a professional headlock. Taelros’s face began turning red as she constricted the blood supply to his head. Once she was sure she had his full attention, she pulled him forward so she could speak directly into his ear.

“Let me make this very clear,” she said shortly. “You will leave the costume as is. And you will forget you ever had this idea. Do I make myself clear?”
“Ab-absolutely,” he stammered, clutching at his throat in wide-eyed nervousness.

She let him go and he straightened up, trying to catch his breath.

“That was most uncalled for,” he muttered.

An unsympathetic Milya did not dignify his huffy protest with an answer. Instead, she wrapped a protective arm around Rhiannon and started walking off. They were done for the day and she still had preparations to make before the show.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he told them. “Break a leg.”

Though it was a common expression for “good luck” told to actors before the show, Milya couldn’t help but interpret the expression literally.

“Same to you,” she called over her shoulder as she took Rhiannon and left the Imperial Opera.
Over Coruscant

The tiny freighter slipped its innocuous way through the space traffic over Coruscant, descending past the defense stations and security platforms without incident. Once in the atmosphere, the craft banked, weaving its ungainly way through the skylines. As the evening waned on Coruscant, the vessel headed for a seedier district of Coruscant. Formerly an industrial region, it was now home to hundreds of lawless denizens, most of whom were employed by one criminal cartel or another. Finding a landing pad owned by the occupants of the shuttle that was reasonably close to their destination, the freighter set down, just as sunset fell on Coruscant.

The cityscaped planet had no idea that its cargo and passengers were filled with insidious characters. Inside a small room in the shuttle, three of the underworld’s most notorious figures were gathered in hushed conference to discuss their next nefarious plot.

Their leader was Tyber Zann, criminal mastermind. While his fleet underwent repair at various illicit shipyards, the crime lord had launched the next stage of his plan. When Bossk had stolen the artifact from him over Carida, little had the Trandoshan known that Zann had anticipated his move and planted a tracer inside the device. Now, the tracer had led them to Coruscant. Besides Zann was his loyal partner, Urai Fen, but the third individual was a newer member of the Zann Consortium. Though the smallest person out of the three, she exuded the most sinister aura. Her choice of clothing-a revealing garment in red Dathomiri leather-showed off much of her pale white skin, which stood in stark contrast to the dark tattoos etched across her face. This was Silri, the Dathomiri Nightsister, a dark side Force user and one of the chief lieutenants of Tyber Zann. Neither of the other two completely trusted the witch, but she was powerful and hated the Empire. That much would do for now.

“This is the plan,” Tyber Zann instructed the other two. “The tracer on the artifact has revealed the location of one of Palpatine’s little storehouses. Our objective is the plans for the Emperor’s new warship, the Eclipse. Urai and I will deactivate the security system. Silri, I want you to wait in the Juggernaut transport to get us out of there once we have what we need.”
“As you wish, Tyber,” the Nightsister replied in a silky tone that neither of the other two fully believed.
“Is that a problem, Silri?” he asked pointedly.
“Of course not,” she replied in that same slippery voice.
“Good,” Zann countered. “If anything goes wrong, let that rancor of yours loose. That should distract the Empire long enough for us to escape.”

Silri insolently refused to answer that. Irate, Zann took a moment to glare at her, then continued.

“The museum will be well-guarded, so be ready to pick us up. Everyone stay alert-I don’t feel like being captured by the Empire today. Urai, are the MDUs ready?”

The MDU, or Mobile Defense Unit, was a multi-purpose vehicle that could deploy any number of equipment packages as directed. Zann had acquired them at great expense based on similar Rebel and Imperial models and modified them to suit his own purposes. They had already been deployed on several other of the crime lord’s missions and proven quite useful. As such, Zann had brought three of them to Coruscant.

“Yes. I instructed the crews personally,” the Talortai replied. “They know what to do.”
“Good work, Urai,” Zann said, drawing his long-barreled customized blaster and inspecting it. “Let’s go to work.”
Mandalore

Sarth and Cassi had just finished eating breakfast from a couple of rather tasteless meal packs on the Silent Surprise when they heard the chirp of a comlink. Sarth fumbled in his pocket for his comlink, but once he located the device, he found that it wasn’t going off. Remembering the one given to him by the Zannists the other day, he located it and found that it was the source of the noise. Picking up the comlink carefully, he activated it.

“Good morning, this is Skart Kraest,” he said politely.
“Good morning to ya too,” he heard the familiar scratchy voice of the Dug they’d met yesterday snigger.
“What do you want?” Sarth asked him, a little less politely than before.
“We found yer friends,” the Dug replied snidely.
“Where?” Sarth demanded.
“What is it, Sarth?” Cassi asked.
“They’ve found them,” Sarth told her, holding the comlink close to his ear.

The device beeped, indicating it had received a databurst transmission. Sarth checked it and found a set of coordinates glowing green on the data screen.

“Yer friends are in a little house thirty kilometers from Kedalbe,” the Dug informed him. “Looks like there’s a few people with ‘em. Guards, I think.”
“How many?” Sarth asked.
“Five or six, I thinks,” the Dug said. “What are ya goin’ ta do?”
“Thank you for your help,” Sarth said curtly. “I’ll make sure your help and that of your superior is noted the next time Kraechar Arms has dealings with your organization.”
“Are ya sure you don’t want some help? Me and the boys could . . .”
“I appreciate the offer, but that won’t be necessary,” Sarth said with forced courtesy. “Have a pleasant day.”

With that, he turned the comlink off then turned to Cassi, who had waited patiently during the entire conversation.

“They’re here,” he said simply. “Guarded, in a safe house not far from here.”
“What’s the plan?” she asked.
“We’re going after them,” he said simply. “Tonight, when it’s dark. We should rest until then.”

However, he immediately went over to the ship’s computer and began entering something, engrossed in his task.

“What are you doing?” Cassi asked.
“Tapping into a micro-sized surveillance satellite I deployed during our initial approach to Mandalore. I’m going to get some footage of the surrounding area. Spectre would call this battlefield recon.”
“Are you sure this is a good idea, Sarth?” Cassi asked. “If there are guards, then we’ll have to fight them off.”
“I’m not sure we have many other choices,” Sarth said. “The satellite’s in position and I’ve managed to get satellite footage of the location. There are two men outside the compound talking. Listen.”

He turned up the audio on the computer system. Cassi heard two men talking, both obviously male humans.

“So, what’s the news?” the first voice said.
“The boss is getting tired of these two,” the second one answered in a distinctly Coruscanti accent. “Says we don’t need them to keep the old man motivated anymore.”
“Time to wrap up loose ends, eh?”
“You know the drill. Tonight, at sunset. Take them out and take care of it. Make sure the bodies aren’t found.”

Sarth turned down the audio again.

“Looks like we’ll be meeting them near sunset.”
“Isn’t that risky, Sarth?” Cassi asked. “A daytime attack against a bunch of professionals?”
“Yes,” he admitted. “It’s very risky. I would never try this if I had another choice. But Shenna and Elizie are going to die if we don’t. We have to help them.”
“Okay,” Cassi said. “I just am starting to get . . .”
“Don’t say it,” Sarth interrupted. “Don’t say ‘bad feeling.’”
“Why?” Cassi replied, puzzled.
“Because I already have one,” Sarth said.
“Get some sleep,” Cassi said, coming up to kiss him lightly on the forehead. “We’re going to have a busy evening.”
“Will do,” Sarth said, setting the satellite to observe the safe house for the next several hours while he and Cassi did their best to rest.

It was going to be close.

Home One
“All pilots, report to your craft in thirty minutes,” the ship-wide intercom blared. “All pilots, report to your craft in thirty minutes.”

Hasla stirred and groggily opened one eye. The intercom sounded again and she was instantly awake. She quickly got out of bed, kicking away the sheets. The other figure on the bed rolled over as she did so.

“Come on, get up, Janson,” she told him.
“I am awake,” the other pilot mumbled.
“Good,” she said. “We have to be at our ships in thirty minutes.”
“I know,” he replied, getting out of bed himself. “I did hear the guy on the speaker.”

He walked up beside her to where she was pulling her flight suit off the floor and ran one hand down her smooth bare back.

“What are you doing?” he asked her.
“I’m getting dressed,” she said. “You don’t expect me to report to my squadron like this, do you?”
“Well, it would certainly distract any Imperial pilots who saw you,” Janson said, bemusedly.
“Very funny,” she said, shaking her head at his silliness.
“You can’t just go into combat like that,” he said, aghast.
“Oh?”
“Didn’t your mother always tell you to go into battle clean? You never know the next time you’ll get a chance to shower and all that.”
“I don’t have time for that,” she said. “There’s only twenty-seven minutes left.”
“You do,” he said with a smirk. “Trust me. We have plenty of time to shower and catch a bite before heading off to the hangars.”
“If you say so,” Hasla said, following Janson into the refresher.

Unlike most of the other squadrons on Home One, Rogue Squadron had solo accommodations for each pilot, which included their own refresher. The privacy afforded by the solo quarters had also been welcome in the last few hours.

Hasla didn’t know they managed it, but twenty-five minutes later, she and Janson were both showered and heading out of the mess hall to their respective hangars. As their ships were parked on opposite ends of the giant Mon Calamari cruiser, they stopped at an intersection for one last farewell.

“Good luck out there,” she told him.
“You too,” he said, serious for once. “Be safe.”
“May the Force be with you,” she said.

He turned to go, and just as she did, she slapped him on the butt for good luck. The startled Janson looked over his shoulder and grinned impishly at her.

“Fly well,” he said, then sauntered off to join his squadron.

A few minutes later, Hasla was strapped into her B-wing. Thoughts of Janson had been banished from her mind. She was in her flying mode now, utterly professional and in control. All systems seemed to be operational and as the countdown timer ticked down to the fleet’s reversion from hyperspace at the jump-off point, Hasla figured she was as ready as she ever would be. As her B-wing and a dozen or so other fighters strewn throughout the hangar powered up, the giant compartment was filled with the whining sounds of a hundred repulsorlifts. Everyone was keyed up, tense, ready to go. Final prayers were muttered, controls were clenched, and good luck charms clutched for reassurance. The entire Rebel armada watched as the final digits on the timer wound down to zero.

“All squadrons launch! All craft, rendezvous with your group,” the flight controller’s voice blared through her comm board.

Hasla followed the rest of her squadron out through the hangar door, forming up on the dilapidated freighter, the Millennium Falcon, that served as the lead craft for Gold Group, the formation she was assigned to. Wave after wave of Rebel fighters were around her-sturdy X-wings, vintage Y-wings, swift A-wings, and of course, a scattering of B-wings. One by one, the squadron leaders sounded off. Hasla watched as the Rebel fighter wave soared ahead of the lumbering larger ships. Then, one last jump into hyperspace, one last leap before what might be the final battle of the Rebellion. It was only a short jump, lasting less than an hour, but it seemed like forever.

Yanibar
“Master Kraen.”

Selu looked up from where he was sitting in the main tactical command center of the Yanibar Guard. Standing beside him was Master Daara, one of the senior Elite Guardians under his command.

“What is it, Daara?” he asked.
“We’ve just received word from Agent Redbird,” the red-skinned Twi’lek reported. “The Rebels are about to launch their attack. Coordinates are enclosed-they appear to be heading for a remote system called Endor.”
“So that’s where the Death Star is,” Selu murmured to himself. “That’s where the Emperor is hiding his new toy.”
“What are your orders, Master?” Daara asked.

Selu was silent a minute, his hands folded together as he contemplated.

“Carry on, Master Daara. Report any new information to me immediately.”

Daara looked disquieted at his reply.

“Permission to voice an opinion, Master?”
“Sure,” Selu told her. “I’m listening.”
“The Endor system is not that far from Yanibar. Our ships could arrive in time to assist the Alliance if we dispatched the . . .”
“No,” Selu said, cutting her off. “That’s not an option.”
“Why not?” Daara asked him sharply. “This may be the best chance the Rebellion has of defeating the Empire. What if our presence could make a difference? We should help them.”
“Daara,” Selu said gently. “It’s not an option.”

She stared at him expectantly. He sighed, his shoulders slumping.

“The battle is a trap,” he said regretfully. “I’ve seen it in my visions, just last night. I saw Palpatine cackling as the Rebel armada was ground to dust. The Death Star is operational and there’s a fleet of Imperial warships waiting for them. It’s too late to warn them-by now, the Rebel fleet is in hyperspace. There’s nothing we can do. I’m sorry. I really am.”

Daara bit her lip, as if holding back from saying something, then went ahead and said it.

“Master,” she said. “How do you know that we can’t make a difference? We could at least clear them a corridor to escape, to fight another day.”

Selu pondered that a moment, then answered slowly.

“This is not to be repeated to anyone, Daara. I’m telling you this because I trust you and because you deserve to know. A long time ago, before this colony was founded, I was given a choice. Based on my actions, the spirit of Revan warned me that any attempt I made to counter the Sith directly would result in everything I worked to establish would be destroyed or corrupted.”
“I see,” Daara said. “Do you believe this prophecy?”
“I do,” Selu replied. “That’s why I have refused to commit Yanibar Guard resources directly in the fight against the Empire. This colony-this refuge-our existence-everything that we swore to defend would be endangered if I ordered the Guard to battle at Endor.”
“I understand,” she said slowly.

She walked off quietly, and Selu couldn’t help but feel that she didn’t understand him after all. The weight of his choice, and the dark premonitions permeating his thoughts wore on him and he abruptly left the TacCom room a few minutes later. He needed to meditate.

Endor

The entire Rebel fleet decanted from hyperspace in the Endor system. The aquamarine, viridian, and white moon of Endor was ahead of them, a scenic backdrop for the space battle about to occur. And there, looming ever larger as they closed, was the malevolent sphere of the Death Star. With any luck, the deflector shield protecting it would be down and the Rebel fighters could rush in and overwhelm the Imperials.

Somehow, though, Hasla knew it would not be that simple. The Force was thick with the dark side and it smote her like a physical wave. There was something wrong here, something terribly wrong. However, she and the rest of fighters surged forward inexorably, carried along by some intangible momentum.

“Lock S-foils in attack position,” Commander Gavin ordered.

Hasla complied, flicking the switch that brought the B-wing’s starboard and port S-foils into position to give the craft its distinctive cruciform shape. Around her, X-wings and the few other B-wings followed suit, accelerating behind the Millennium Falcon. Hasla squinted at her sensor boards, trying to get a reading on the deflector shield. To her surprise, the board was covered in static. She slapped the board, but nothing happened. Then, another possible source of the static came to her mind. They were being jammed? Hasla felt a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. Before she could react, though, she heard General Calrissian’s voice on the fleetwide frequency.

“Break off the attack! The shield is still up.”

She started banking her craft even as another voice crackled through the speaker.

“I get no reading. Are you sure?” asked another fighter pilot.
“Pull up! All craft pull up!” the general ordered sharply.

Calrissian was more insistent this time and she abruptly threw her fighter into a break turn. Around, hundreds of other Rebel craft did the same thing, veering sharply away off their original course away from the Death Star. Some of the fighters, too slow or too late pulling away, crashed into the shield and Hasla, horrified, saw their ships explode on the invisible barrier.

“Force help us,” she whispered to herself. “It was active all along.”

Ahead of her, two B-wings, unable to maintain appropriate distance during their desperate maneuver, collided. Both ships were immediately vaporized and Hasla felt another pang run through her. The Rebels had barely arrived and they were already losing people. Just as she pulled out of the turn, her comm board crackled again.

“It’s a trap!” Admiral Ackbar, the Mon Calamari leader of the Alliance fleet, exclaimed.
“Fighters coming in!” General Calrissian alerted them.

Hasla looked straight at the incoming cloud of TIEs. At first, she couldn’t believe her eyes. A swarming mass of the Imperial fighters was approaching them at high speed, and behind them was a giant fleet of Star Destroyers. Ackbar hadn’t been kidding-the whole Battle of Endor was nothing more than a giant trap intended to destroy the Rebel Alliance. There was nothing left but to keep fighting now, try to take as many Imperials with them as she could. She gritted her teeth as she pointed her ship directly into the mass of TIEs and shunted all power to forward deflectors.

There were hundreds of TIEs that swept past the Ices as the Rebel and Imperial fighter formations exchanged volleys of red and green laser fire as they collided. All around her, starfighters on both sides exploded in messy clouds of fire and razor-edged shrapnel, and spun out of control. The survivors jinked and rolled, trying to nail one another. In such a large battle, as she’d seen before, the combat soon degenerated into a space brawl, with each pilot simply trying to stay alive and maybe get off a quick shot.

Hasla followed the rest of the Ices in weaving a complicated pattern through a persistent TIE Interceptor formation. The Force guided her motions, giving her brief snatches of clairvoyance that told her when to dodge, but her vision was clouded. Something, or someone was stifling her use of the Force, and she knew she wasn’t flying her best. Today, the day she needed to be at the peak of her game, she was falling sadly short. Her B-wing bucked and rocked from the near misses and laser grazes it was taking. She was flying by reflex now, not even thinking as she dodged and rolled, squeezing the triggers on her lasers and ion cannon. Her face and flight suit were matted with sweat and she could feel the adrenaline coursing through her system. She watched grimly as a good portion of the TIEs that had survived the initial clash swept through the Rebel waves, heading for the larger portion of the fleet. For every one she and her squadmates destroyed, there seemed to be ten more to take their place.

“Accelerate to attack speed! Draw their fire away from the cruisers,” General Calrissian ordered on the fleetwide comm again.

Hasla clicked her comlink in reply and brought her B-wing around to pursue a pair of TIE fighters, her gloved finger gently reaching for the trigger as she sighted in on them. It wasn’t over yet.

Coruscant

It was pouring down rain outside as the transport lurched to a halt in a dark alleyway leading to a service entrance of some sort. It was poorly lit and even the mighty Juggernaut transport didn’t seem too out of place amidst all the other sizable delivery vehicles. For the moment, it was literally a safe port in the midst of a storm. Outside, lightning streaks lit up the night sky, revealing an ominous wall of thunderheads behind them intent on soaking Coruscant’s upper levels with driving force.

Five individuals climbed out of the vehicle, walking to the back to stare at the damaged rear compartment. None of them were particularly happy about the rain and the smoldering engine. The difference was that two of them were nothing but common pilots, while the others were part of the top echelon of one of the galaxy’s most powerful criminal organizations.

“Well, I’ll be kriffed,” one of the pilots said. “The engine’s trashed.”
“Wonder how that could have happened?” the co-pilot replied.
“Probably the TIE fighters,” an irritated Tyber Zann snapped. “They weren’t supposed to catch us heading out of the storehouse. Nobody was supposed to know we were even in there.”
“The MDUs dealt with them swiftly,” Urai pointed out. “At least we are no longer being pursued.”
“For now,” Zann replied darkly. “Those TIE bombers that hit the MDUs could be back at any time now, blowing us and those access codes to—,”
“Not for the moment,” Silri interrupted, her eyes closed in concentration.

The Nightsister was obviously using the Force in an attempt to see how close their pursuit was. A few seconds passed before she opened her eyes again, but when she did, she had good news.

“We are safe for the moment,” she announced.
“Small comfort,” Zann said, brushing his long white hair, by now thoroughly rain-soaked, out of his face. “Where are we?”
“According to the street map, we’re at the one of the side entrances of the Imperial Opera,” one of the pilots said after consulting a datapad. “There’s a performance tonight.”
“That’s it, Urai,” Zann said. “You and I will acquire transport. Silri, we need a diversion.”
We need, Tyber Zann?” the Nightsister shot back. “What ‘we’ need got my rancor killed back there! Why should I help you?”

Tyber Zann did not take a threat lightly. Almost casually he turned on the furious Nightsister, his fingertips drumming the stock of his specially modified blaster while Urai dropped into a fighting stance beside him, his heavy arm blades at the ready.

“Let me remind you, witch, that it’s your fault your precious pet died. You were the one who went off on her own and got the beast killed. Now, either go distract security while Urai and I acquire a speeder, or I will kill you,” Zann replied coldly.

If looks could kill, Silri would have burned straight through him, but the Nightsister’s resolve buckled.

“Don’t worry, Tyber Zann,” she said. “Everyone’s attention will be on me. Hurry back with the speeder. I’ll meet you here.”

Silri stalked off through the pouring rain towards the Imperial Opera angrily.

“This isn’t over, Tyber Zann,” she muttered under her breath.

For the moment though, the Nightsister still needed the crime lord, and he still needed her. While their partnership was sure to meet an unpleasant ending, she now had a mission to perform. She had no intention of letting the Empire kill her, or Tyber Zann. She’d reserved the particular pleasure of watching him die for herself.

Reaching the sheer gray wall of the imposing Opera House, she pulled a pair of climbing claws from her utility belt and began scaling its slippery sides with almost effortless ease, her motions guided by the dark side of the Force. If Tyber Zann wanted a diversion to distract security, a diversion he would get.

The person in question had watched the angry Nightsister storm off into the rain with obvious suspicion.

“I think I upset her, Urai,” he remarked dryly.
“She is not trustworthy,” the Talortai answered. “Perhaps we should leave her here.”
“No,” Zann countered. “I still have uses for her. Later, perhaps, Urai, we’ll deal with our insolent Nightsister. Just keep an eye on her.”
“Understood,” Urai Fen grunted.
“Besides,” Zann continued. “She knows too much. If the Empire was to capture her, she’d be all too happy to divulge every secret she knows in order to bring me down. We can’t have that.”
“As you wish,” Urai assented. “She is nearly to the top of the wall. We should go.”
“Of course,” Zann said. “Time to find a speeder.”
“What do you want us to do, Lord Zann?” asked one of the pilots.

Zann turned to regard the pilots as if noticing them for the first time. A look of insincere regret washed across his face.

“I’m afraid you gentlemen have become something of a liability to the Zann Consortium,” he said.
“My lord? I don’t understand,” one of them stammered.

However, by that time, Tyber Zann had drawn his blaster and shot both of them dead.

“I hate loose ends,” he muttered, blowing smoke away from his blaster’s barrel. “Urai, dispose of the bodies. I’ll meet you and Silri back here with the speeder.”
“Understood,” his hulking henchman nodded, setting off to his task.
Mandalore

Mandalore was a pleasantly forested world once one got out of Kedalbe. The trees were dense but not overly so, and the predominant variety in this region seemed to be a stocky broad-leafed species that provided plenty of cover. As the planet’s sun began sinking into the horizon, the combination of thick foliage and dimming light was enough to conceal two figures that had clambered off of a pair of speeder bikes and begun to creep stealthily through the forest.

Sarth and Cassi had taken great care in their preparations for this little adventure. The Silent Surprise was already airborne, and thanks to some clever reprogramming of the autopilot, was cruising around the scenic Mandalore countryside at low altitude a dozen kilometers away, pretending to be on a joyride. They’d dropped out of its cargo hatch on the speeder bikes from several hundred meters in the air, an exhilarating ride to be sure, but almost completely undetectable. For their return, a simple command entered into its slave-circuit via Sarth’s beckon call would bring the yacht to their location at top speed in case they needed a quick egress.

Both Sarth and Cassi were wearing dark gray jumpsuits and equipment belts that sported, among other things, a pistol, their rarely-used lightsabers, glowrods, and a few other odds and ends that they’d obtained from a YGI infiltration kit. They’d even gone so far as to blacken their faces to dull the sheen on their skin. It was not their usual attire by any stretch of the imagination, but the occasion had demanded it.

Pistols at the ready, they crept through the undergrowth as quietly as they could manage, watching for any sign they’d been noticed. Their going was not as quiet as certain elite units of the Yanibar Guard could manage, but it had been reasonably innocuous. Every now and then, Sarth would signal a halt with one hand while he stopped to listen. However, he never heard anything but birdsong, insect chirps, and the leaves gently swaying in the late afternoon breeze, so they continued to make their steady way through the forest.

Finally, after half an hour of slow, measured progress, marked by frequent stops and careful vigilance, Sarth and Cassi caught the first glimpses of their destination. The house was a small ramshackle structure almost entirely lacking in windows, well nigh inaccessible except for a small dirt track that presumably led to a larger causeway elsewhere. There was a man standing out front, obviously surveying the surroundings.

Sarth crawled up behind a fallen log and peered through a pair of electrobinoculars that he’d brought.

“Looks like just one sentry,” he breathed. “Judging by the bulge in his jacket, he’s armed. We’ll go around back, see what we can find.”

Crouched down beside him in the undergrowth, Cassi nodded. The two continued creeping around the perimeter, until they were satisfied that only the only things outside the house were a dilapidated speeder and the lone sentry. They were dirty, covered in bits of leaves and dead grass, but neither cared. Their minds were entirely focused on their mission.

“Seems like a rather small setup for an Imperial prison,” Cassi noted.
“That’s what I’m worried about,” Sarth said.

Pulling a scanner off his belt, Sarth held up the device and activated it. Then, he slipped on a pair of goggles. The resulting combination showed him something far more insidious that had previously been hidden from their eyes.

“Ah, they do have a security system,” he said. “Combination of seismic sensors and thermal cams. We were lucky we didn’t get too much closer.”
“How do we get through?” Cassi asked.
“There’s a blind spot, right through this gully,” Sarth said, leading her through a shallow trench.

Cautiously, he crept forward, his S-5XS pistol in one hand and the scanner in the other. Cassi stayed right behind him, mimicking his every move. Although Sarth set a painstakingly slow pace, they soon managed to reach within ten meters of the house. A bead of sweat rolled down Sarth’s face. He could see the sentry’s back as they left the safety of the trees and moved out onto the open yard. He quietly willed the man not to move, even though Cassi had him covered. The crunch of his boots in the grass seemed agonizingly loud, but nobody noticed their approach. Sarth had chosen this vector because of the blind spot in the sensor coverage, but it was also concealed from the one or two windows they had seen, and had the advantage of being behind the sentry. A bit too convenient, he figured, but it was a chance they would have to take.

He signaled to Cassi to head for the back door by the speeder, away from the sentry. Hugging the house’s wall, Sarth rounded the corner, pistol at the ready, but nobody was there. Keeping low, he quickly shuffled up to the back door, Cassi constantly right behind him, checking their sides and in front of him. Sarth almost reached for the door, then thought better of it and pulled out the scanner. To his alarm, the latch he had almost reached for appeared to be wired.

Cassi gave him an inquisitive look, and he showed her the scanner. She nodded. There was no back door, but apparently the designers of the house had intended for possible intruders to think that there was. A careful infiltrator would slip through the sensor net, head for the back door and attempt to slice it open only to find that the handle and entire frame were touch-sensitive. This door, Sarth decided, was only meant to be handled from within. They would have to go through the front.

Doubling back the way they’d came, Sarth and Cassi soon were right up against the wall, less than four meters from the unaware sentry’s back. They would have to deal with him quietly and then get into the building fast. So much for sneaking in undetected. Unless all the Imperials were asleep, they would be noticed, if not now, then eventually. Sarth took a deep breath. It was time to do this, before the sentry turned around and noticed them. Raising his pistol, he sighted in on the man’s neck and, after just a second’s hesitation, squeezed the trigger.

A knockout dart flew through the air to bury itself in the man’s neck. He collapsed limply on the ground. The man would be unconscious for the next several hours. In a flash, Sarth darted forward to the front door and knelt down. Cassi covered him while he broke out a slicing tool and hacked into the door’s lock. It was quite a sophisticated model, but also one Sarth had seen-and broken-before, so in a few short seconds, the door hissed open. Sarth ducked back, waiting for a blaster bolt to come sizzling out the door but none came.

With that much welcome news, Sarth went into the house, pistol held in one hand and lightsaber, unignited, in the other. Cassi, behind him, kept a two-handed grip on her S-5XS. It was dark-none of the lights were on. It was sparsely furnished and only the front room had anything that resembled normal furniture. The rest of the rooms were empty, filled with layers of dust and cobwebs that indicated they hadn’t been occupied in some time.

“Clear,” Cassi said quietly.
“I know,” Sarth said dejectedly. “They should have been here.”
“Wait,” Cassi said. “I sense other presences.”

Sarth stopped, extending his mental perceptions to sweep the area.

“You’re right,” he said. “They’re beneath us. There has to be a hidden door here or something.”
“Second look?” Cassi suggested.

Sarth nodded.

“I’ll cover you.”

It didn’t take long for them to find it, a concealed hatch in the front room, complete with yet another alarm. Sarth bypassed it in ten seconds, but it was still locked.

“We need an authentication chip to get in,” he said. “I don’t have a generic one that will fit in that slot, or I’d just make a lock-slicer chip. It’s a non-standard model.”
“Is the hatch wired now?” Cassi asked.

Sarth shook his head.

“Not anymore.”
“Allow me,” she said.

Holstering her pistol, Cassi traded it for her lightsaber. Igniting it with a loud snap-hiss, she drove the blue blade into the hatch, slicing through the lock easily. Sarth gave her a bemused look.

“I didn’t think brute force was your style,” he said with a wry smile.
“Only on special occasions,” she replied, returning the grin.

He opened the hatch and she advanced down the stairs quietly, lightsaber ready. A second later, Sarth followed her down. To his surprise, the basement of the house was nothing like its ground floor. In place of musty wood and permacrete construction, the walls were a metallic dull gray, the floor underlit by glowing red slits. The architecture was decidedly Imperial, Cassi decided, and looked rather like a prison. Most probably because that’s exactly what it was.

It didn’t take Sarth long to find a computer terminal and tap in. Nor did it take him long to find what he’d been looking for. In seconds, he turned back to Cassi and gestured for her to take a passage that branched off to the right of the main corridor. She nodded and did as instructed. Their Force senses told them that there were two life-signs up ahead of them, but they weren’t human. If Sarth was right, they would soon meet Shenna and Elizie Magrody. Sarth paused and muttered something just as he came around the corner to the side passage.

“What is it?” Cassi asked.
“Just checking something,” he whispered. “Keep going.”

She soon found a locked door at the end of the hall and her senses told her that there were two sentients beyond it. Quickly, she beckoned Sarth forward.

“I’ve found them,” she whispered.

He nodded and headed up to the door. After making sure that it, too, wasn’t wired, he gestured to Cassi, who promptly cut it open with her lightsaber. Inside, she saw a frightened-looking Arkanian woman sitting on a bed clutching her daughter to her.

“Don’t be alarmed,” Cassi said, closing down her lightsaber. “We’re here to get you out of here.”

The Arkanians, petrified, stared at her.

“Mrs. Magrody,” Cassi told her. “We’re friends of your husband, and we’re here to rescue you, but we have to go. Is Nasdra here?”

The elder woman, Elizie, shook her head.

“No, he’s not. I haven’t seen him in months,” she said. “Who are you?”
“I’m Cassi, and this is Skart,” Cassi informed them. “Now, please, come along. We need to go before they see us.”
“Doctor Magrody isn’t here,” Sarth said quietly, ducking into the cell. “I don’t sense him.”
“Me neither,” Cassi said. “Skart, we need to go.”
“You’re right,” he agreed.

With the Magrodys behind them, Sarth and Cassi headed back up the passageway the way they’d came, unfortunately a bit noisier than they’d come earlier.

“Get ready,” Sarth murmured to Cassi under his breath.

She gave him a puzzled look, then noticed he was throwing a sidelong glance towards the ceiling. Her eyes followed his gaze, coming to rest on a concealed camera eye nestled carefully into the shadows on the ceiling. They had been watched all along!

Still, Sarth seemed to be playing it cool and so Cassi followed along. She and Sarth were about five meters from the main passage when suddenly the dim hallway lit up with blinding white glare as the ceiling glowpanels activated, bathing the four escapees in harsh light. As the lights came up, four men with blasters pointed at them rounded the corner.

“Drop your weapons,” one of them demanded.

Sarth complied, setting his pistol and lightsaber on the ground, as did Cassi.

“Hands up,” ordered their captor.

Again, Sarth obeyed, as did Cassi. Behind them, one of the Arkanians, probably Shenna, began to whimper.

“Ice of you to drop by,” Sarth called to the four men.
“What the-?”

The man’s calls were drowned out by a frosty white cloud that materialized out of nowhere. Sarth immediately stooped down and scooped up his weapons, but refrained from firing. Cassi did the same, and when the cloud cleared, she saw that their four would-be assailants, as well as the walls, floor, and ceiling around them, were encased in some kind of icy substance.

“Cryoban grenade. Voice activated,” Sarth said. “Four meter radius. They’ll thaw out in a couple hours with some nasty frostbite. Watch your step.”
“So that’s what you were doing when you came around the corner,” Cassi replied as she stepped over the frozen floor.

He nodded, helping the Magrodys navigate the slippery patch of ground created by the cryoban grenade.

“They’ve been watching us on their hidden secondary surveillance system the whole time. It’s time to run.”

With that, Sarth broke into a quick jog, followed by the two Arkanians, while Cassi brought up the rear. Whipping out his lightsaber, he lit it and stormed up the stairs out of the hatch, but no hostile fire greeted him. Beckoning to the others, they hastily poured out.

“The grenade must have caught them by surprise,” Sarth said. “We might just get away after all.”

Dashing out of the house, all attempts at stealth gone, the four sprinted for the cover of the treeline. They had almost made it when the first blaster bolt cooked the air right over Sarth’s head. Turning half-way, he returned fire with his pistol, letting loose several knockout darts in the general direction of the dark shapes pouring out of the house.

“They’re onto us!” he said. “Run!”

By themselves, Sarth and Cassi might have made it back to their speeder bikes. However, with Shenna and Elizie slowing them down, there was no way they could make it. The two Arkanians were weak and even more ill-used to sprinting through the woods than Sarth and Cassi were.

“We’re going to have to slow them down,” Sarth gasped.

Breathless, Cassi nodded, skidding to a halt.

“Look,” Sarth called to Shenna and Elizie as he activated the beckon call, programming something into it. “Head east, that way. There will be a ship hovering there with the ramp down. Get in, go to the cockpit and tell it ‘Clear skies.’ You hear me? ‘Clear skies.’”

Shenna and Elizie nodded dumbly.

“Good,” Sarth said, then waved them off.

They obediently broke into a run in the direction he ordered.

“What now?” Cassi asked. “They’ll be on us in ten seconds.”
“We get their attention,” Sarth said. “Head for the speeders. With any luck, they won’t have transportation. Then we escape.”
“Okay,” Cassi said. “But luck has not been with us thus far.”
“Sure it has,” Sarth said, pecking her quickly on the cheek. “We’re still alive and together, right?”

Then he crouched down by a rock and drew another small sphere out of a pouch on his equipment belt, tossing it ten meters ahead of him. Cassi saw what he was doing and ducked behind a tree, trying to catch her breath.

The first Imperial had just come into sight when Sarth stood and opened fire with his pistol. However, not being the best of shots, all his darts did was catch the man’s attention. A blaster bolt sailed past him to set fire to a tree. At that point, Sarth shouted, and the cryoban grenade two meters from the man’s feet detonated, flash-freezing him. Cassi gave a shout as well for good measure, appearing from behind the tree with lightsaber lit. They certainly had the Imperials’ attention now, and blaster bolts whined all around them. Their task completed, Sarth and Cassi took off running as fast as they could, bolstering their energy reserves with the Force.

From behind them, Cassi heard the low whine of a repulsorlift. Risking a glance behind her, she saw an Imperial on a speeder bike closing on Sarth, lining up its underslung cannon to blast him.

“Sarth, duck!” she shouted.

Instinctively, he dropped and the volley of blaster bolts aimed at his back sailed over him to hit a tree instead. The speeder bike roared past them to come around for another pass, but Cassi’s motions were guided by the Force. Her arm moved on its own accord, whipping her lightsaber blade around just as the bike passed her. The stroke was less than masterful, but managed to sever the driver’s left arm at the forearm. The resulting injury caused him to lose control of the bike, which slammed into a sizable boulder and exploded in a generous fireball.

Sarth scrambled to his feet and together they made the last hundred meter dash to their speeder bikes. Looking over his shoulder, Sarth saw a familiar blue thruster glow recede into the distance and knew that their efforts had not been in vain.

“They got away,” he said as he powered up his speeder bike.
“Good,” Cassi replied as her bike’s engine roared to life. “Let’s do the same.”

16

“Yeehaw!” Ice Twelve shouted.

The exhilarated fighter pilot decelerated rapidly, chopping back on the power and banking sharply. Slicing through where his B-wing had just been, three TIE interceptors shot past, caught off guard by his sudden maneuver. The Imperial were craft vectored past a long Mon Calamari cruiser when suddenly, a blister they were flying past exploded in a cloud of shrapnel and magnetized grenades. All three craft were instantly reduced to messy fiery splatters in space.

As the B-wings of Ice Squadron were ill-suited to the frenetic turning and twisting of dogfighting with TIEs due to their relative sluggishness, they had taken to a different tactic: luring Imperial ships to their doom. Prior to the battle, many of the Alliance’s vessels had been equipped with cluster traps, carefully camouflaged bundles of explosives set to release and detonate when large numbers of Imperial craft were detected. The Ices, sticking together so as to cover each other with their overlapping shields, would tempt an Imperial fighter squadron out to chase them. Once they were thoroughly pursued, they would swoop past a cluster trap and let it do its work by spitting a deadly cloud of metal and explosives at the Imperials. So far, they’d taken down nearly a dozen TIEs that way between the eight of them-they’d lost Ice Four in the initial wave of fighters, but the squadron had been lucky not be hotly engaged. Hasla was one of the last fighters to pull away from the Mon Calamari cruiser and the cloud of expanding gases that were the TIEs they’d baited into the cluster trap when the mammoth warship unexpectedly blew up.

Only her Force-heightened reflexes saved her, as she somehow flicked all power to engines and rear deflectors, riding out the shock wave. The frail little B-wing rattled and shook as it was slammed into by the concussion and debris. She was amazed. The ship had been fine a second ago, relatively undamaged. Moreover, capital ships typically didn’t explode in such violent fashion. Hasla visually checked around her and noted with dismay that only five members of Ice Squadron were left now, but the glowing fireball that had been the cruiser did nothing to explain how the ship had detonated. It took General Calrissian’s voice to do that.

“That blast came from the Death Star! That thing's operational!”
“Sithspawn,” Hasla swore under her breath.

The planet-cracking superlaser that the Death Star carried would easily vaporize any of the ships in the Alliance Fleet almost instantly. That was why the Star Destroyers, well over thirty of them, had remained off to one side, content to let the TIEs duel with the Rebel fleet. Palpatine had wanted to show the doomed Rebels just how badly they’d fallen into his trap as he vaporized thousands of them at one time with his giant superweapon.

Warning lights lit up her starfighter’s cockpit and she performed hasty bypasses of damaged systems and controls, all the while watching for approaching fighters. This time she saw the searing green blast just as it hit another of the big Mon Cal ships. The hapless vessel met the same fate as the previous victory-instant conversion into its constituent atoms.

“All craft, this is Gold Leader,” she heard General Calrissian’s cultured voice. “Engage the Imperial fleet. Get as close as you can and pound ‘em.”
“What?” Hasla asked, confused.
“You heard the man,” Commander Gavin replied. “Move in.”

Ice Leader put his words into action, rolling his craft over its own right S-foil as he set a course for the nearest Imperial Star Destroyer. Behind them, the whole Rebel armada did the same. Small explosions dotted the battle here and there as TIEs and Rebels continued to play their cat and mouse game. Opening volleys were traded between the big ships for the first real time and Hasla realized with dismay that she and her fellow pilots were caught in the midst of the firestorm. It seemed like all of space had turned into red and green turbolaser bursts, like a giant never-ending pyrotechnics display. Hasla grimly turned up the polarizer on her canopy to maximum and set shield strength to double-front while boosting more power to the engines. If she was hit by friendly fire, she was a goner, but she didn’t think she’d survive the next ten seconds anyway. All around her, the rest of Ice Squadron complied, urged on by the calm, controlled voice of Commander Gavin.

“Aim for the control tower,” he ordered. “Four torps each, Attack Pattern Delta. We’re gonna fly down her throat.”

Hasla clicked her comlink in acknowledgement and followed the order. The five B-wings roared straight up the 1.6 kilometers of the Imperial Star Destroyer. Green laserfire from point-defense batteries danced across her view, but she held course. Her shields took a hammering, but the B-wing remained intact.

“Fire and break at will,” Commander Gavin intoned.

The veteran pilot opened up with ion cannon blasts to weaken the shields but held his missiles until he was a mere two hundred meters from the control tower, barely enough time for the proton torpedoes to arm. Then, at the last moment, he loosed his weapons and veered away from the mighty Star Destroyer. His pilots, clustered into a deadly line behind him, followed suit, unleashing the destructive missiles at the warship and peeling off to regroup.

“Good work, Ices,” the commander told them. “She’s hit bad.”
“One down, thirty to go,” Ice Ten replied.
“Sorry, Ten,” Hasla said, “We’ll run out of torps after three more runs like that unless you have spares strapped to your wings.”
“That’s a great idea,” Ten piped up exuberantly. “I’ll suggest it to High Command after the battle.”

Hasla shook her head silently, too busy throwing her starfighter into a power turn to avoid a volley of concussion missiles to reply. Looking at her chrono, she saw that the battle had only been raging for less than an hour. That surprised-and worried-her. She was already getting tired, could feel her reflexes slowing down as exhaustion caused by coming off her adrenaline rush set in. She willed her tiredness away even as she pegged the TIE bomber that had fired those missiles at her. Her scarlet laser blasts tore into its fuselage and engines, but she, on a hunch, refrained from destroying it. Instead, the out of control craft slammed into the underside of the hangar of another Imperial Star Destroyer, or rather its shields. Hasla was rewarded to see them flicker as they tried to cope with the impact.

“Lead, this is Eight,” she said. “Did you see that?”
“I did,” he replied. “Ice Squad, form up on me. Target the hangar, maybe we’ll get lucky and bring the shields down.”

The other four fighters followed their leader into the blazing green crossfire that surrounded the Imperial Star Destroyer. This one was less engaged by other Rebel ships and more of its focus was directed on the five Ice pilots. Suddenly, a formation of A-wings appeared out of nowhere, roaring past the Star Destroyer while strafing it furiously. Immediately, the amount of fire directed at the B-wings dropped as the Imperial gunners traversed their weapons to hit the cheeky A-wings spraying them with blaster cannon fire.

“Ices, this is Meteor Lead,” a female voice crackled over the comm. “We got their attention, hit ‘em hard.”
“Much obliged, Meteor,” Commander Gavin replied. “Buy you a drink after it’s done.”
“Whyren’s Reserve,” the A-wing pilot said, referring to an expensive Corellian whiskey. “Sounds great.”

Their path cleared, the B-wings opened with their ion cannons and lasers, seeking to weaken the shields enough to punch through into the hangar. Hasla fired as fast as her weapons recycled, sending blue ion bolts and red laserfire streaking from her fighter.

“Stagger your torps,” Commander Gavin ordered. “We want as many to punch through as we can get.”
“I’ve picked up a tail!” Ice Ten shouted. “Some kinda advanced fighter.”
“Hold ‘em off, son!” Gavin growled. “Finish your attack run, and then we’ll deal with them.”
“He’s tearin’ me up!” Ten reported frantically.
“Meteor,” Gavin called. “Where are you? We could use some help back here.”
“Sorry,” the A-wing pilot called apologetically. “Ran into some trouble back here. We’re on our way.”

The B-wings surged relentlessly forward and with the targeting computer howling in her ear indicating a target lock, Hasla set her launchers to staggered fire and let loose another four torpedoes. Her fighter shuddered as the missiles left it. She watched as the sixteen other torpedoes from her squadmates accompanied hers in, converging on the same point. The first seven torpedoes were consumed by the shields, but the other nine rammed straight into the hangar, detonating in argent and crimson clouds of fire. A secondary explosion ripped through the mighty Star Destroyer, and then another. Whatever had been in the hangar, it was blowing up quite nicely. Hasla watched as a line of detonations ripped through the hull of the warship. The triangular ship rolled over on its side, spewing debris and fiery gases from its stricken side as a chain reaction of exploding fuel cells began tearing it apart.

“We got her!” Hasla called.

Her triumphant cry was broken off by a scream over her comlink. She turned her head to see Ice Ten’s ship explode into a ball of flame. There was no ejection. Aghast, Hasla quickly consulted her sensor board. Ten was gone, and Three had apparently been forced to eject after the last attack run, too. The squad was down to three members. As they roared away from the exploding Star Destroyer at full power, Hasla saw that there were still Imperial fighters trailing them, some type of advanced model that her sensor board, finally operational now that the Rebels had knocked out the main Imperial communications ship and its jamming, didn’t immediately recognize.

“Meteor . . .” Captain Gavin said. “We could really use some help here.”

Green laser fire from the pursuing TIEs began eating into Hasla’s shields, forcing her to put more attention into dodging. This was not good.

Coruscant

Milya Tayrce sat enraptured as she watched the opera play out. Ordinarily, she was not one for high culture, but she had to admit that Taelros Bac had done an excellent job. She had an excellent view of the unfolding drama, observing it from a special section of viewing seats close to the stage. Of course, that view had come with a price, as Colonel Hagrek had given her a thousand credits and instructed her to find a more elegant gown than the one she had worn on Eriadu, the one she had been going to wear to this opera until he’d caught her wearing it. Still, she didn’t mind dressing her finest on occasion-though throwing a sidelong glance at Colonel Hagrek, she wished the company were better. She wished Selu were here.

Her heart nearly jumped into her throat as she watched Rhiannon, wearing the original dress she’d insisted upon, walked out onto the stage as she’d been instructed to do. Force above, Milya thought. Was I ever that young? The girl’s face appeared angelic and Milya, peering through the opera viewers popular among Coruscanti high society, could see every detail. She’d already arranged with Taelros to get a recording of the show, and so was free to focus on every detail of the performance. Silently, Milya willed Rhiannon to sing her heart out, to do her very best, to win over the crowd, cheering her daughter internally.

Rhiannon came to a stop, the spotlight fixed squarely on her. Then, with an expression that was part mournful, part angelic, she placed a hand over her torso and launched into her song.

From the moment the first notes washed over her, Milya couldn’t help but be stirred as Rhiannon sang each note perfectly. The pure, innocent sounds of her child’s voice, picked up the amplification system in the Imperial Opera, echoed through the room in glorious vibrato. Behind her, the symphony played the score, a light song filled with strings and flutes that complimented the lone singer. Her daughter was singing for hundreds of people, important dignitaries, Imperial officers, and business magnates, and if Milya was any judge of character, many of them were visibly moved. The proud mother swelled with joy and pride. She was doing it! Rhiannon was singing each and every note perfectly, even better than she had in her best rehearsal. Milya could hardly contain herself as Rhiannon reached the final stanza of the song and, on this last chorus, her voice soared to the very ceiling as, in another tongue, she sang of the peace that would happen when the war came to an end, to the happiness that would return to the stars and meet everyone. Even as she was lost in the wondrous quality of Rhiannon’s voice, Milya couldn’t help but recognize the incredible relevance of the song that had been written for this piece. Whatever the case, the combination of Rhiannon’s voice, the inimitably talented Pan-Galactic Symphony underscoring it, and the ambience of the opera made for an incredible fusion of artistic beauty on a scale Milya had never experienced before.

When it was over, and Rhiannon began fading back into the wings, Milya was the first on her feet, clapping proudly. To her delight, though, the rest of the audience had joined her, applauding thunderously for the little soprano. The ovation continued even as the next scene, a fierce-and entirely fake-lightsaber duel between a female Jedi, the protagonist of The Frozen Princess, and her evil sister, started. Milya couldn’t confirm anything, but she thought she saw one or two tears. She knew there was certainly one rolling down her cheek. She did it! Rhiannon had done it! Milya was filled with euphoria, with blissful elation, as she seared this memory into her mind to forever cherish.

What happened next, though, ensured that this nanosecond was forever imprinted in her mind. With a loud crash, the high-vaulted skylight in the roof of the Imperial Opera directly over the stage shattered into a hundred pieces, raining shards of razor-sharp glassine down on the stage. Thankfully, there was only one actor in the middle of the stage where most of the glassine fell at the time—the protagonist. In the story of the opera, she was walking to her parents’ house on Corellia and straight into a trap just as Rhiannon exited. The terrified actor screamed in completely genuine fright as the lethal fragments landed all around her. It was only by pure luck that she suffered nothing worse than a dozen minor cuts and slashes. Down from the newly opened hole in the ceiling, a dark figure dropped down like a thunderbolt, cackling maniacally. It was a woman of sorts, armed with a glowing whip of some kind. Milya immediately sensed the ominous wave of dark side energy roiling off this malevolent intruder. She’d already been terrified out of her mind as the shards of glassine landed around Rhiannon, who had immediately dropped to her knees and cowered helplessly on the stage, and the new arrival had only served to intensify her fear tenfold.

The whole situation seemed surreal to her and possibly Colonel Hagrek, because they knew how the opera was supposed to play out. However, the very real and unexpected danger was totally lost on both the audience and the symphony. For their part, the audience oohed at the dramatic entrance, while the symphony struck up the imposing and prelude to the duel music.

The dark woman cackled again and thrust her hand up towards the ceiling again, clearing enjoying the attention. There was a ripple in the Force, followed by a loud crash, perfectly timed with the music, and more glassine rained down as more of the skylight shattered.

Colonel Hagrek uttered an expletive under his breath as the dark woman descended and immediately pulled his comlink. A quick check with an oblivious Taelros backstage confirmed that the entrance had not been the director’s idea. The Imperial officer immediately called for security-all available personnel-as the woman brought down more glassine on the stage. Just as he started to speak, he felt a strange rush of air currents at his side. Turning, he looked to see where Mrs. Tayrce had gone off to, but the woman had completely disappeared, leaving her opera viewers behind.

Silri watched as the glassine fell in a ring around her, each crystalline piece beautiful to her. She was sure that every eye in the entire opera was fixed on her-except one pair. The Nightsister turned just in time to see a leaping blur sail past her and slide across the stage. The Force roiled as Milya’s powerful light-side aura shone like a beacon against Silri’s darkness. Whirling around, the Nightsister cracked her lightwhip, swinging it towards the approaching woman with lethal intent.

Milya had immediately and without reservation leapt onto the stage as soon as the dark woman had smashed the skylight telekinetically, throwing as much Force power as she could manage into the effort, heedless of all other danger. She had had a brief flash of precognition that showed her Rhiannon’s bloody body riddled with glassine and that thought alone had been enough to catalyze her into action. Flying through the air feet-first in her impractically long evening gown, Milya managed to break one end off of the long erstwhile audio recorder she’d been carrying-except that it was no recording device. It was her lightsaber, carefully disguised as a formerly fully operational recorder. The silver blade came to life as Milya swept it in front of her, just as she passed through the ring of falling glassine shards. Though to everyone else, she was moving so fast she appeared like nothing more than a blur or a haze, time slowed down for Milya as she stared straight up into the rain of lethal fragments, sweeping the lightsaber blade in a protective shield over her body in a desperate defensive pattern. She felt her skin rupture where some of the pieces that had gotten through her guard sliced her open, mostly on her arms and legs. Then she was past, her leap carrying just under the vicious arc of a lightwhip. Milya’s feet hit first and she slid across the stage, knocking both of the heels on her high-heeled shoes clean off as they broke under the impact. She looked at the petrified actress just inside the other side of the lethal glassine rain and the Force told her that the woman would be dead in less than a second if she didn’t act. The Force also told her that she’d never reach Rhiannon if she saved the actor.

There was no hesitation. In slow motion, Milya threw out her free hand against the glossy stage, arresting her slide just enough for her to reach out and kick the other woman off the stage into the relative safety of the orchestra pit. In doing so, she watched horrified as a ten-centimeter long piece of glassine, jagged and menacing, buried itself in her calf. A scream of pain escaped her lips for a split second before she stifled it, fixing her eyes on her daughter, who was about to be impaled. A desperate attempt, to be sure, but Milya gestured and let loose with as much power as she could muster, sending Rhiannon flying back into the majestic backdrop of the curtain with a wild burst of telekinesis. Thankfully, the backdrop at that part was solid, made of a heavy cloth, and cushioned Rhiannon’s impact, else the girl would have broken bones. For the second time, Milya slid through a shower of glassine and for the second time, allowed the Force to guide her hands. Once again, the lightsaber wove its pattern, and Milya managed to escape lethal injury. Finally sliding to a painful stop, Milya caught the eye of one of the stagehands staring at her goggle-eyed from the wings.

“Help her!” Milya hissed plaintively, beckoning to Rhiannon.

The man nodded and began moving in her daughter’s direction, which was enough for Milya. Rolling to her feet, she blocked out the pain her legs were screaming at her and stood facing the dark woman.

Now that Milya was between the menacing figure and her daughter, she could focus on dealing with the threat. Her humming silvery white-blade held in guard, Milya stared coldly at the smiling woman.

“What are you doing?” Milya shouted at her, trying to figure out why the woman was endangering her daughter.

Silri merely bared her teeth as she struck out with the lightwhip. Milya only barely managed to block the lethal lash, not accustomed to such an unusual weapon. The sinuous coil moved like a whip, but had the energy of a lightsaber-and Milya had never faced one before. As the Nightsister drew the whip back again, Milya moved forward, only to be forced to skid to a stop and throw up another block against a second strike. The whip cracked as Silri brought it around again, and Milya realized she wasn’t going to win this fight with her usual defensive Soresu form. Her defense was out of sync against the unfamiliar weapon, and with only one half of her lightsaber operational, she couldn’t establish her routine. A real master of Soresu, one with experience against a lightwhip, could have pulled it off, but not Milya.

“Who are you?” Milya tried again.
“You don’t recognize me?” Silri said, feigning surprise. “I’m disappointed.”
“Sorry, I don’t keep up with low-life dark-side streetwalkers,” Milya replied, trying to delay the woman from attacking with banter, in order to buy time for Rhiannon to be carried to safety and for her to analyze the lightwhip to develop a counter for it.

However, as Silri snarled and drew her arm back, Milya’s danger sense tingled, and she realized her last taunt had gone too far. As Silri lashed out at her once more, Milya abandoned her previous tactics, taking to the air as she switched to the Ataru form. That too, would be a challenge though. Milya’s long gown impeded her motion and its two slender shoulderstraps and thin glossy material would be no protection against even a glancing blow. Milya leapt over the first strike, somersaulted over a second probing attack that tore away part of the already tattered skirt hem, and regained her footing just in time to parry away a blow aimed for her face by whipping her lightsaber around in an odd corkscrew pattern. Round and round they circled, whip lash seeking, saber defending. Silri stood her ground, content to let the whip move in dizzying, lethal arcs of fluid motion while dove and spun, leapt and bounced in a fight to stay alive. Her acrobatics, though she was vaguely aware of their crowd-pleasing nature due to the seemingly distant applause-were wearing down her energy, and she decided to change tactics once more. Saber held high, Milya charged, batting away two more whip strikes in quick succession, hoping to get in close, but the Nightsister was too swift and backed away even while snapping the whip into a vicious semicircle of light that Milya had to deflect in three places. One counterstrike was too slow and the edge of the lash just barely burned through her dress at the hip. Milya cried out, and the flesh wound was enough time for Silri to recover.

In the skilled hands of the Nightsister, the red lash of the lightwhip was a living animal, an angry predator that cracked, snapped, and hissed as it darted through the air. When it met the hum of Milya’s lightsaber blade, the two weapons crashed upon impact, filling the air with the booming percussion of the impact.

Meanwhile below them, the director of the Pan-Galactic Symphony, Wohns Jilliam, showed why he was an award-winning composer, musician, and director. Still thinking it was part of the show, albeit part incredibly different from the written score, Jilliam began conducting the symphony and chorus based on what he was saw. His hands wove masterfully through the air as he composed on the spot, following the rhythm of the battle. The chorus and symphony, their backs to the stage, were oblivious to what was going on, and were far too professional to not follow the guidance of their inspirational director, so the fight played over a background of a soaring classical masterpiece.

Milya backpedaled, her blade moving in a quick infinity loop to knock aside a rapid string of whip strikes. None of her Ataru tactics were helping her against the dark warrior. Driven backward even farther, a piece of glassine pierced her shoe and she stumbled backward to land heavily on the ground. She felt the rivulets of blood snaking down her injured leg to splatter on the ground, felt her shoe filling with more of the warm red liquid flowing from her wounds. However, all her attention was focused on the whiplash that Silri snapped towards her. Milya ducked her head to the side, and, as the lash struck through empty space and recoiled, wrapped it around her lightsaber’s blade and pulled. The result caused Silri to stumble forward, yanking the surprised Nightsister forward. Seeing her opportunity, Milya catapulted herself off the ground, lunging forward to drive an elbow into Silri’s face. She heard the other woman’s teeth click together from the impact even as Silri tried to wrest the lightwhip out from around Milya’s saber blade. Milya let her back away a step, then planted a kick squarely into the woman’s midsection, which earned her a grunt of pain from Silri. Joined together by the lightwhip lash both women were trying to control, they closed in, kicking, punching, clawing, and headbutting, while keeping the lash-still wrapped around the humming lightsaber blade-out to one side or over their heads.

The symphony’s director fed off the energy of their fight, and the music was roaring as Milya was yanked towards Silri. The Nightsister reached out one grasping hand, catching Milya’s throat in a viselike grip. Milya flailed, gasping for air as she felt Silri start to wrench both whip and saber away from her. With one last effort, she struck at the elbow of the arm choking her and the pop and pained expression that resulted told Milya she’d scored a hit. Before Silri could withdraw, Milya grabbed the injured arm and jerked the woman forward, landing a headbutt squarely into her forehead. Silri was not the least bit slowed, though. Lunging forward, she sank her teeth into Milya’s shoulder, eliciting a shriek from her opponent. Hooking her leg inside the Nightsister’s, Milya managed to sweep Silri’s right leg from under her, collapsing her foe to the floor. What she didn’t expect was the two booted feet to explode into her stomach, sending her flying back, lightsaber torn from her grip. Even though the wind had been driven out of her, Milya managed to call the Jedi weapon back to her even as she landed hard on the edge of the stage. Gasping for breath while the symphony’s viols wailed in her ears, she smashed the other end of the lightsaber into the stage, setting it free from the recording equipment and failsafes she had painstakingly attached.

Scrambling to her feet, she lit both ends of the saber, forming the saberstaff she was accustomed to.

“Amusing,” Silri offered, then closed in again.

However, Milya had her defensive routine down and five minutes of grueling melee against the lightwhip had given her ideas on how to counter it. This time, it was Silri who was driven back, unable to penetrate the whirling defense of Milya’s saberstaff. The score began to sound vaguely triumphant, its song layered with an undertone that would later be known as "Adena’s Theme", after the protagonist, while the audience watched enrapt as the beleaguered Milya won back some measure of advantage.

Saberstaff dancing back and forth, her feet darting from one stance to another with firm control, Milya deflected yet another failed attempt at counterattack from Silri. Snagging the whiplash around one of her blades, Milya pulled Silri forward again to unleash a devastating spinning kick into the Nightsister’s face, knocking a bloodied tooth loose. As Milya landed, neatly stepping over her own lightwhip-entangled saberstaff, she brought the weapon back up in a circular motion past her right side and across her body, dragging Silri closer. This time it was a side kick that Milya delivered, but even as Silri flew back to crash onto the ruined stage, the Nightsister jerked her whip away from the silvery-white blade it was wrapped around. As she hit the stage, Silri gestured with an angry snarl and a dozen shards of glassine flew at Milya, propelled by telekinesis. Milya’s eyes widened as she realized that she was at risk of being impaled for the third time that day. Her staff spun with inhuman speed, batting away and melting the glassine. She was mostly successful, that was until she felt a new sharp pain join the others and looked down to see another piece of glassine protruding from her leg.

Milya reached down and drew it out with a gasp of pain. Then, she hurled it back at Silri. The Nightsister struck out at the missile with her lightwhip, but Milya’s saberstaff reached the whip’s scorching red tip first, parrying it away. The shard buried itself deep in the Nightsister’s right arm, tearing the bicep wide open and leaving her in shock. The woman stared at it, making no attempt to attack further.

“You can surrender now,” Milya said coldly. “I don’t have to kill you.”
“Sorry, Jedi,” Silri spat back. “Play time is over.”

Milya saw what she was about to do and rushed forward with blade at the ready, but Silri had already crouched down on her haunches and sprung up into the complicated network of catwalks, light racks, and who knew what else that dangled from the ceiling of the Opera House. Milya made no effort to chase her as she felt Silri’s presence recede. Then, she became fully aware that she was the only person on the stage, with hundreds of people staring at her. She gave one last look upward, knowing security was about to gun her down.

“I love you, Selu,” she whispered silently to herself. “I’m sorry it had to end this way. I’m sorry I couldn’t protect Rhiannon.”

She closed her eyes and steeled herself for the blaster bolts burning through her body, but nothing came. Instead, she was greeted by thunderous applause as every member of the audience came to their feet and clapped vigorously. Thankfully, at that point, some unknown power caused the lights to blackout, allowing her to gather up her torn dress and hobble offstage.

Little did Milya know that none other than Taelros Bac had interfered on her behalf. The holopera director, after seeing the fight play out and one of the stagehands, who were trained never to go onstage while the lights were up, cross onto the stage and carry Rhiannon backstage, had known it was real. However, the fight, brutal and violent as it was, was pure beauty to him, pure martial prowess on display. He also knew that any interference from Colonel Hagrek’s security team would only cause casualties, as well as ruin the spectacle. The frantic director had hastily comm’d the colonel and told him not to interfere, explaining that it had in fact been planned, and while the colonel had been skeptical, not to mention irate, he’d let it pass. In fact, from his position backstage, Bac could tell that even the angry Imperial officer was on his feet applauding. Somehow, this unexpected hell of an onstage brawl had captivated the entire audience and, thinking it was the best choreography and special effects, not to mention music, they’d ever experienced, they were favoring him with a standing ovation. Bac quickly decided to proceed with the holopera, but instructed the actors to adapt, depart from the script if necessary, and play off the previous scene. He arranged for a blackout to have the stagehands clear the glassine shards and blood away. If he pulled the rest of it off, this might be the turning point of his career.

17

Across the battlespace, the Rebel Alliance armada closed in on their opponents. Costly victories were exacted from the Imperial fleet, and the point-blank brawl between the colossal Star Destroyers and Mon Calamari cruisers left both sides savaged. It was less one-sided now, no more shooting gooberfish in a barrel for the Empire and the daring of the Rebels in attempting such a hopeless fight seemed to have caught the Imperial crews off guard. The battle was a confused maelstrom of explosions, wildly maneuvering ships-a chaotic melee. In such times, small acts of individual courage and valor were simply done-on both sides. A Rebel doctor worked as fast as his hands would let him, cauterizing wounds and tying off arteries, until an explosion tore through his medical compartment, nearly killing him. An Imperial TIE fighter pilot, his damaged ship’s weapons down, saw a flight of Y-wing torpedoes aimed for the vulnerable bridge of his Star Destroyer, the Chimaera, and abruptly collided his fragile ship into the weapons. The explosion vaporized him and saved the Star Destroyer. A sharp-shooting Rebel gunner riding the most vulnerable position on one of the most fragile ships in the Rebel fleet-the bow gunner on a CR90 Rebel blockade runner-strafed concentrated laser-cannon fire across a pair of the most lethal starfighters in the Empire that were in hot pursuit of a trio of B-wings, destroying all of them. Little did the former farm boy from Agamar who’d learned to shoot after growing up with hunting rifles know that his targets were TIE Defenders, the most powerful starfighter fielded by either side, or that they were both flown by aces of the elite 181st Fighter Wing, one of the Emperor’s best. He was just doing his job-saving lives and fighting for freedom.

Nor was the battle just confined to space. On the surface of Endor’s moon, Rebel commandos and Ewoks, the diminutive fur-covered natives that inhabited the moon, clashed with Imperial stormtroopers. The little creatures had only a vague idea of what they were fighting for, but they knew that the forests they loved would be better off if they won. Despite the staggering death toll on their side, they played their role as cannon fodder well. The distraction they created allowed a very angry and devilishly cunning Wookiee to break into an Imperial walker. This allowed a rogue-turned-general to lure out several squads of Imperial soldiers, which allowed said general to capture them and destroy the bunker leading to the shield generator protecting the Death Star. Their mission was accomplished; all they had to do now was survive.

And inside the mighty battle station, a father and son, united by their common bloodline, divided by their ideology, dueled one another in clashes of red and green lightsabers, hacking away at one another. No punches were pulled now-this battle was to the death and the son swept perilously closer to the dark side with blow after furious blow. His anger resonated through the room even as he beat down the man he had come to save. Behind them, Palpatine-the Galactic Emperor, Sith Lord, destroyer of the Jedi, violator of the Republic, murderer, tyrant, the very embodiment of the dark side of the Force all rolled into one-watched with evil glee. Things were going according to what he’d foreseen.

Almost.

The destruction of the shield generator had immediate repercussions for the battle raging in the space over Endor. Cheers and a wave of temporary elation swept over the Rebel fleet as their sensor boards revealed that at least now they had a chance to hit back against the Death Star that had slain so many of their comrades already.

“The shield is down! Commence attack on the Death Star's main reactor,” Admiral Ackbar’s gravelly voice ordered.
“We're on our way. Red Group, Gold Group, all fighters follow me!” Calrissian acknowledged.

The earlier desperation in his voice was banished; he seemed almost jubilant now as he swooped in for the attack, heedless of the laserfire and exploding fighters around him. This was the moment the Alliance had been waiting for.

While a few dozen Rebel fighters-all that remained of Red and Gold Groups-dove towards the Death Star, three Rebel Mon Calamari cruisers and a swarm of fighters descended with a vengeance upon the Imperial flagship, the mighty Executor. The Star Dreadnaught was so large that it dwarfed any other warship on the battle plane, but that did not save it from the fierce scathing fire of the Rebel batteries. In the flagship-on-flagship slugging match, the smallest ships involved proved the most deadly. As a score of Rebel fighters skimmed the superstructure of the Imperial flagship, their weapons and the incessant Rebel bombardment knocked out the bridge deflectors temporarily. In that moment of vulnerability, a doomed A-wing pilot named Arvel Crynyd crashed his flaming fighter into the bridge of the Executor. As close as the behemoth was to the Death Star, even the momentary loss of control was enough to send it spiraling down in a fatal nose dive. The 17.5-kilometer-long Dreadnaught and its quarter million crew met a fiery and ignoble end as they collided with the Empire’s newest superweapon. As large as the Executor was, its detonation did little serious damage to sheer monstrosity that was the Death Star.

Hasla, however, was oblivious to the destruction of the Star Destroyer. Ice Lead and Ice Five, the other survivors of her squadron, had already expended their torpedoes, but she had two left. They’d broken off to join the attack on the Executor, as they didn’t have ordnance to target the Death Star’s reactor’s core, but she still doggedly flew her ship towards the shaft that would take her to the center of the battle station. Her B-wing was even more sluggish than it was before because she’d had to shut down one of her engines due to damage. As she and the assorted cloud of other fighters bore down on the enormous battle station, new squadrons of TIEs rose up to meet them, in addition to fire from the surface. Blinking against the starbursts of the explosions and laser blasts that nearly blinded her, Hasla once again immersed herself in the Force, relying on it to keep her safe in the midst of the cloud of Rebel fighters flying hell-bent for the reactor shaft.

Little did she know that at that moment, the balance of the Force had finally tipped against the dark side. Nor was she aware of the redemption of the most notorious Jedi killer in history, who at the last moment, felt a father’s love for his son sweep away his servitude to the dark side, to destroy the tormentor of his child. Hasla didn’t know that less than nine hundred kilometers from her, the most powerful Sith Lord ever was plunging to his doom down a reactor shaft, screaming impotently as he fell.

However, she felt the result. A titanic disturbance rippled through the Force and she nearly blacked out from as it passed over her. Something rocked her ship, sending sparks flying from an overloaded control panel. The feeling passed, and she felt as if a great weight were lifted from her mind. This newfound clarity and presence of mind brought no comfort, though, as her stricken fighter was wailing, blinking, and beeping at her. A quick glance at her sensor board showed a TIE interceptor just off her stern, hammering her with laser fire. Smoke trailed from another one of her engines and she realized that it had already overloaded her deflectors in the split second she’d been unable to think.

“This is Ice Eight! I’m hit bad!” she called on a fleetwide frequency so as to reach the other fighters near her.

Hasla took a deep breath, found the willpower she needed to make her choice, then followed through without reservation.

“This guy’s good! I’m going to peel off and draw him away, buy you time. Don’t turn back!” she shouted.

Then another impact rocked her ship and the comm board flickered and died. Her starboard S-foil was torn clean off, but she still managed to pull away from the Death Star, setting an outbound course even as the persistent TIE Interceptor kept chewing away at the damaged B-wing that just wouldn’t explode. Hasla fought for control of the bucking stick, trying to delay her death a little longer-not for herself, but for the other pilots making their assault on the Death Star. Streaks of brilliant green laser fire shot past her as she evaded the Interceptor’s fire once more. Looking at her hull readouts, she knew the next direct hit would be her last. The Interceptor closed on her helpless fighter, lining up the shot.

Hasla threw the B-wing into a last-minute maneuver, knowing that it wouldn’t work, just as the lasers began burning through her B-wing near the cockpit. Something exploded on the left side of the cockpit, filling her leg with white fire. The B-wing began spinning out of control and, with her inertial compensator failing, she began to feel the G-forces. She braced for the fiery doom, for her body to be blown to atoms, but all she felt was an increasing pain in her head. Leaning forward, she struggled against the forces that were straining to press her into her seat and caught a glimpse of her sensor board.

The Interceptor was gone!

Suddenly, a familiar-looking X-wing shot past her craft. She felt something buzz in her flight suit pocket. Grunting with exertion, Hasla managed to get her feet to the rudder pedals and slow her spin enough so that the G-forces eased off. Leaning forward, she retrieved the buzzing object-her personal comlink-from her pocket as the X-wing made a sharp turn and came back around.

“Ice Eight, this is Red Five,” the comlink crackled and she thought she recognized the voice as Janson’s. “Come in, Ice Eight.”

But that was impossible. The man was supposed to be attacking the Death Star now.

“Red Five?” she said. “Aren’t you supposed to be elsewhere?”
“Had other matters to take care of,” he replied jauntily, though his voice was faint due to the poor signal from their personal comlinks. :“Are you okay? I kept trying to raise you, let you know I was coming.”
“I’ll manage,” Hasla stammered. “I told you guys to let me buy you time! I told you not to come after me!”
“I know,” Janson replied. “I chose to disregard your instructions. Gold Leader and Red Leader made it inside, few others, too. They can have the glory this time.”
“You, giving up the glory?” Hasla asked incredulously.
“Gotta get my priorities straight,” Janson replied. “The Empire can always build another Death Star. There’s only one of you.”

She was silent for a moment, pondering his words, and they slowly flew away from the mammoth space station. She wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but she knew he was there to watch out for there.

“Emperor’s Black Bones!” Hasla heard Janson swear.
“What is it?” Hasla asked.
“We did it,” he said. “By all the brandy on Taanab, we pulled it off. It’s blowing up.”

Craning her head, Hasla managed to catch a glimpse of the Death Star exploding into a massive fireball. Then the shock wave washed over both of their craft, bathing them in a fiery storm of radiation repulsed only by their deflector shields and she lost consciousness as it knocked both of their fighters around effortlessly.

Coruscant

In the prolonged blackout of the stage lights, Milya made her pain-filled way backstage, looking for Rhiannon. Despite her injuries, she was still alert, on edge-looking for her daughter. She had to make sure Rhiannon was safe. She reached out with her Force senses, but there was some kind of great disturbance in the Force that swept over her, stunning her. She leaned against the wall, trying to clear the spots out of her vision, wondering how much of the sudden lapse in focus was due to the disturbance in the Force, and how much was due to blood loss. Better to hold off on the Force for now anyway-just in case some Inquisitors or Dark Side Adepts decided to visit.

As her search continued to be fruitless, Milya grew increasingly frantic. Where was Rhiannon? Recognizing the stagehand who she’d directed to rescue the girl, she strode up behind the man and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, slamming him into a wall. The fact that the burly stagehand outweighed her by one hundred kilos of muscle mattered little to Milya—she knew how to exploit his size to her advantage and she was anxious and mad enough that a little thing like breaking someone’s knee wouldn’t bother her much. Grabbing him by the collar, she made sure his full attention was fixed on her very angry face.

“Where is my daughter?” Milya asked fiercely, her lightsaber jammed into the underside of his chin. “Where is she?”
“Calm down, Mrs. Tayrce,” said a familiar voice from behind her. “She’s in the director’s room.”

Milya turned to see Taelros standing there.

“Now, please, let Narzes go. I told him to take your daughter there.”

Milya begrudgingly released the man, mumbling an apology.

“Thank you,” Taelros told her. “Sorry about that, Narzes. She’s a little on edge.”

The stagehand nodded and ambled off.

“Come with me and we’ll get you cleaned up,” Taelros said. “You’re making quite a mess.”

Milya looked and saw that she was leaving little splatters of blood behind her.

“I suppose I am,” she said.

Placing one of her arms over his shoulders, Taelros helped her to the director’s room, a private little office of sorts where he could rest and relax before the show and between acts. However, though there was a desk and chair off to one side piled high with datapads, datacards, and a small holoprojector, the room also had a calming effect to it. There were baskets of greenery hanging from the ceiling and a small fountain on a pedestal in the far corner and it served to make the room feel more natural. Once they were inside, he closed the door behind them and locked it.

To Milya’s great relief, Rhiannon was there, sitting on a couch, sporting a small bandage on her right arm and ankle, but otherwise seemingly unhurt.

“I’m fine, Mom,” Rhiannon told her mother. “Just got a little cut.”
“She’ll be fine,” Bac said. “A few cuts and bruises, but no major injuries.”

Milya nodded with exhausted relief as Bac helped her to a chair.

“However, I can’t say the same thing about you,” he said. “You’re hurt.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be worrying about your opera?” Milya asked him. “I imagine I managed to thoroughly ruin it.”
“Ruined? It was great! The next scene will go off as planned, as soon as the stagehands finish clearing the stage,” Bac told her. “They don’t need me for that-it’s always been perfect in practice and I trust my actors. More or less. Now, hold still.”
“We need to leave,” Milya said urgently. “As soon as possible.”
“Not like this you’re not,” Taelros replied firmly, surprising her with his forcefulness. “Hold still.”

For some reason, the normally flighty director seemed to be firmly in control of the situation now that it had reached crisis proportions. Milya supposed that was his instinct as director-to run around in a daze until people absolutely needed him, until his control was the only thing that kept something catastrophic from happening. And thankfully, he was avoiding his normal litany of questions.

Slowly, Taelros eased her bloody shoe off, revealing a sizable piece of glassine embedded in the insole of her foot. He shook his head.

“How were you fighting with this in your foot?” he asked.
“Trade secret,” Milya managed, fighting off the new and incredible waves of pain running up her leg.
“This is going to hurt,” Bac said.

Reaching over to the desk, he pulled a half-empty bowl of candy off the desk, dumped the candy out, and set the bowl on the floor. Then, he carefully reached up and tugged on the piece of glassine, extracting the blood-soaked piece out of her foot. For her daughter’s sake, Milya bit down on any number of fitting obscenities that came to mind as the jagged piece of glassine was yanked from her foot. Warm red liquid dribbled out of the wound, the rivulet running down her to splatter on the floor. She really was starting to lose quite a bit of blood.

“Kri-,” Bac started, until a sharp look and a nod towards Rhiannon from Milya silenced him.

It was already hard enough for Milya to avoid inadvertently teaching Rhiannon some charming new vocabulary words. She did not need Bac to worsen that particular front of parenting.

“I’m out of anesthetic,” Bac said. “And almost out of antiseptic. It’s a small kit, just enough for the occasional bump or cut on set; I hadn’t restocked the kit in awhile and Rhiannon was hurt, so . . .”
“Don’t worry about it,” Milya answered. “Just wrap it up, slow the bleeding.”
“Not quite that simple,” Bac said. “If I don’t clean the wound, it’ll get infected. Those floors are filthy. Ah . . . wait. I have an idea.”

The tone of his voice didn’t encourage Milya and she glared suspiciously at him.

“Am I going to like this?” she asked, glowering.
“No,” Bac said. “Probably not.”

Once again, the man reached over to his desk, this time retrieving a decanter of brandy. Milya’s eyes widened as she realized what he was about to do, but he gave her no time to react. Removing the top, he splashed a sizable amount onto the laceration while his other hand held her foot still.

“Hot stang!” Milya hissed as the liquid hit the fresh wound. “Kark you, Bac!”

In addition to the earlier pain of the wound itself, it now burned like she was holding a lightsaber to the injury. Her torn flesh protested, sending raw stabs of agony through her.

“Watch your language,” Bac said with a hint of a smile.

He was only getting away with it because she was in no position to kick his face in, Milya reminded herself. However, he took a clean linen bandage from an almost empty medkit and deftly wrapped it around her foot.

“Well,” he said. “It doesn’t exactly go with your dress, but at least it won’t be infected.”
“Can we hurry this up?” Milya asked through gritted teeth. “Because we really need to go.”
“Of course,” Bac said. “I can go faster. It will just hurt more, I’m afraid.”
“Are you okay, Mom?” Rhiannon asked, her little voice filled with fear and worry.
“I’m fine, dear,” Milya lied, filling her voice with far more happiness than any human being deserved to show in her state.

When this was all over, Milya promised herself in an incredibly un-Jedi-like fashion, she was going to kill Taelros Bac. Slowly. For the moment, though, she was begrudgingly grateful for the medical treatment she was getting as he wiped the blood off from her legs. Finding the piece of glassine that had been driven straight through her calf, Bac attempted to tug it out.

“Don’t you dare,” Milya stopped him. “Get the smaller ones, but leave the big ones in. If you pull that whole thing through my leg, you’ll cut a vein and I’ll bleed to death.”
“Yes, you’re right,” he said, his face pale.

He did as instructed, and after another dozen seconds of sheer torture, a few more bloody pieces of glassine clinked into the former candy bowl. Then, just when she was getting used to the pain from her leg, he splashed more brandy-colored liquid agony on the wound, reigniting the fire she’d felt earlier.

“How’s that?” he asked.
“It kriffing hurts,” she snapped, a bit ungratefully. “What do you think?”
“Sorry,” he mumbled. “There are a lot of smaller cuts on your legs. Do you want me to . . .”
“No,” she said. “Just fix up this shoulder and I’ll be good to go.”
“Okay,” he answered uncertainly. “What about your side?”
“It’s a flesh wound,” she glowered at him.

Helpful as his crude first aid had been, she did not feel like having this man’s hands on her hip just for a little whiplash burn.

“Whatever you say,” he said.

After her shoulder had been cleaned and bandaged where she’d been bitten, Milya rose to her feet slowly. Her bandaged foot protested, but she could manage the pain. They had to get out of here, to real medcenter. Or a safehouse. Now that he was done inflicting pain on her, she could feel a little more appreciative towards Bac.

“Thank you,” she said. “I’m sorry about all the trouble.”
“Not your fault,” he answered. “Besides, the audience loved it. This is the least I can do.”
“I’m afraid you’re going to have answer a lot of questions later,” Milya said. “Colonel Hagrek won’t believe for a minute it was a stunt after he takes a good look at what happened.”
“It won’t be a problem,” Bac replied dismissively, but Milya could tell he too was worried about that eventuality.

Suddenly, they heard some kind of pandemonium from outside.

“Excuse me,” Bac said. “I think I’m needed.”

Dashing to the door, he ran backstage to see what the matter was before Milya could get a word in. She shook her head. The man could have simply switched to the bank of holofeeds that was on his desk. Taking the opportunity, she pulled up a chair to the holofeed to see what was going on. The source of the chaos seemed to be the audience, as the entire audience was on their feet, obviously upset by something. She watched as khaki-clad security officers closed in on an intruder of some sort, who had apparently run into the Imperial Opera shouting and waving his arms. The man had climbed on the stage and was clearly trying to get their attention. She turned up the audio feed to hear what he was saying.

“The Emperor is dead! Palpatine is gone! The Rebels won!” the man was screaming.

Milya’s jaw dropped open in utter surprise. Was this man insane? Or had the Rebels actually pulled off their desperate attack? That might explain the disturbance in the Force she had felt, but she was completely unsure. She needed to confirm this report, needed to gather more intelligence. No—she reminded herself. Her first priority was to get Rhiannon and herself offworld immediately, and back to Yanibar. YGI had other operatives who could handle this. The sound of a blaster report startled her out of her reverie, and she turned to see the crazed messenger fallen on his knees, smoke pouring from a wound in his chest. The entire audience was in complete uproar now, with many of them making for the exits while the security guards vainly tried to keep order. There was no sign of the special guest, Imperial Vizier Sate Pestage, and Milya wondered how he would handle this if, in fact, Palpatine was dead. Bac came rushing back through the door.

“The entire audience is leaving!” he said wildly. “Somebody ran in shouting that the Emperor is dead, and then—,”
“Yes, I know,” Milya said. “I saw it on the holocam.”
“Oh,” Bac said. “Then you know the entire facility is in chaos. Quick, follow me!”
“Where are we going?” Milya asked.
“I’ll slip you out the backstage door in the confusion,” he said.

Milya eyed him suspiciously. This seemed to be a little too easy. Bac caught glimpse of her doubts and nearly wilted.

“Look, I don’t know who you are or how you did what did, but both you and your daughter saved my opera. I owe you this much,” he said. “No questions asked.”

Milya nodded and allowed him to drape one of her arms over his shoulder again.

“Come along, Rhiannon,” she said. “It’s time to go.”

The girl rose from where she’d been sitting quietly on the couch, picked up her silver cane, and followed obediently. She knew better than to protest or complain when Milya talked like this.

“An associate of mine is out back with a speeder,” Bac said. “Her name is Pooja. I called in a favor and asked her to go by your hotel and get all your things. Don’t worry, she’s completely trustworthy.”
“You better hope so,” Milya threatened, but she was feeling too weak to make much more protest at the moment.

She looked down and saw that the formerly white bandage on her calf was turning red again. She really had lost a lot of blood, and for the moment, both she and Rhiannon were almost entirely at Bac’s mercy. Of course, she still had her lightsaber, which meant she could cut him in half if she needed to, but that wouldn’t help much if they were surrounded by stormtroopers. However, they reached the backstage exit without incident, where a speeder was in fact waiting for them. The rain had stopped, but the patio was still wet, so Taelros took care to make sure Milya didn’t slip.

The hatch opened, revealing a striking dark-haired woman in street wear at the controls.

“Good to see you again, Pooja,” Taelros said to her. “These are the friends I was telling you about.”

The woman shook her head, then piled out of the speeder. Taelros embraced her lightly in greeting.

“Taelros, I hope this is not one of your silly games,” she said, her voice cultured and refined. “You called me away from a very important occasion. If it had not been for the favor I owed you after Metellos, I would not have done it.”
“It’s very important indeed,” the man said, obviously flustered. “But introductions are in order.”
“No, they are not,” Pooja said, her eyes running up and down Milya and noting her obvious discomfort with the idea. “I think we’re in a bit of a hurry.”
“Thank you,” Milya said gratefully. “I’m Milya.”
“Right. Hurry. Of course,” Bac said. “Get in, and Pooja will take you where you need to go.”

He wrung his hands nervously, and Milya knew that his role—remaining behind to fend off possible questions about the evening’s earlier happenings in the midst of mass chaos—might be the most dangerous one any of them would face. Despite what he had said, she owed him her life, assuming that Pooja wasn’t leading them to some sort of trap.

“Thank you,” she said.

He nodded a farewell to her, then crouched down and took Rhiannon’s hand.

“You sang like an angel,” he told her. “For four minutes, you had the attention of everyone in the audience. That is a rare and special gift. Cherish it,” he said.

Then he kissed her hand lightly.

“Good-bye, Rhiannon,” he said.
“Good-bye, Mr. Bac,” she replied.

Then Milya and Rhiannon climbed into the passenger compartment of the speeder, a fairly luxurious model with Corellian leather seats. The hatch sealed behind them as Pooja climbed back in, tossed a wave to Bac, and gunned the vehicle.

Outside, Coruscant appeared to be in some sort of delusion. Fireworks were dotting the skies and people were clustering around transmission stations, trying to watch some kind of news broadcast. They could hear faint sounds resembling cheering and bells. In the distance, some kind of giant gilded statue toppled over, a fallen symbol of oppression.

For her part, Milya was keenly alert, her lightsaber in hand, ready to activate and spear through the back of the seat into their driver. Glancing back through a mirror, Pooja must have noticed her agitation.

“I’m not taking you into a trap,” the woman assured them.

Oh really? I’ll be the judge of that, Milya thought.

“I know you have no reason to trust me,” Pooja continued. “You obviously don’t trust Taelros either, but let me just say that I’ve had past dealings with the Jedi. All this time, I never thought I would actually meet one, though.”
“Jedi?” Milya asked nonchalantly, knowing full-well just how ridiculous her attempt to play off the question sounded given the lightsaber in her hand.
“I used to be an Imperial Senator,” Pooja explained. “Senator Pooja Naberrie . . . from Naboo.”

The surname sounded vaguely familiar, and Milya tried to remember where she’d heard it before.

“My aunt was Senator Padmé Amidala,” Pooja added. “Is that name familiar?”

Milya nodded. Once, when he had been in a good mood, Selu had told her about a senator named Amidala saving his life in a battle on Coruscant. She also recalled vague senatorial records that showed Amidala had been a strong proponent of the Jedi before her untimely demise over twenty years ago. If this Pooja was related to her, there was a good chance that the woman wasn’t actually trying to trap them. All of her Force senses told her that she was telling the truth, so Milya lowered her suspicions slightly.

“Good,” Pooja said. “I was not sure if Aunt Padmé would be known to a Jedi as young as yourself.”
“I’ve heard of her,” Milya said. “Mostly stories.”
“Don’t worry,” Pooja said. “I won’t ask any questions.”
“Good,” Milya returned. “And . . .”
“And your existence is already forgotten,” Pooja finished for her. “You can use your Jedi powers to test my sincerity if you wish. This isn’t the first time I’ve been involved in . . . secretive activity.”

Milya somehow figured that secretive was an allusion for Rebel. Pooja certainly fit the bill for a Rebel sympathizer, and it was no secret that several former senators were high-ranking members of the Rebellion. She resolved to look up the woman’s YGI file when she got back to Yanibar—and if there wasn’t one now, there would be by the time Milya returned to Yanibar.

“Where do you want me to take you?” Pooja asked you. “Do you have a ship?”

Milya shook her head.

“We came on an Imperial diplomatic transport with Taelros,” she said.

Glancing up the mirror, Milya could see the woman arch her eyebrow as a wry smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. However, Pooja was disciplined enough not to ask the questions she had to be dying to ask.

“Classy,” was all she said. “I’ll take you offworld on my ship, then.”
“I hate to inconvenience you like that. I’ve already managed to bleed on the floor of your speeder,” Milya said apologetically. “You could just leave us at the nearest public spaceport. We can find passage offworld.”

Pooja gave the mirror a skeptical look.

“The floormats are specifically designed to be replaceable-that’s not a problem. And with all the confusion across the capital, you would be lucky to get offworld and even luckier to not go through an exhaustive security check. It would be better to come with me.”

Milya filed away the bit about the replaceable floormats as another point of evidence in favor of Pooja being a Rebel sympathizer. Either the other woman had an impeccable sabacc face, or this wasn’t the first time she’d moved wounded people.

“Aren’t you a former senator?” Milya asked. “No more diplomatic immunity, right?”
“No,” Pooja admitted. “But I have something better.”
“Oh?”

The woman smiled cunningly up at the mirror.

“Friends at spaceport control. They know my yacht well, and they won’t give us any trouble.”

Milya tested Pooja again with the Force, but, just as before, there was no indication that the woman was lying.

“Okay,” Milya said agreeably. “Your yacht it is.”

True to her word, Pooja got them to a small private spaceport used by foreign dignitaries not quite important enough for the grandiose Imperial Spaceport. Parking the speeder inside a hangar, she furnished a pair of long hooded cloaks from the trunk for Milya and Rhiannon to disguise themselves in. A pair of loadlifter droids grabbed their luggage, and Pooja quickly hustled the two into a waiting chrome-finished J-type star skiff, a small interstellar transport that Pooja told them had once belonged to her aunt. Clearance to launch was quickly obtained and there were no delays or difficulties getting into orbit, just as the former senator had predicted. Milya gave their destination as Chandrila, a Core World only a few short hours from Coruscant where YGI had a safehouse. Pooja laid in the course with no complaints and showed them to a cabin where they could rest during the flight. Milya and Rhiannon gratefully accepted the offer, though Milya chewed a stim-pill from her suitcase instead. Distrustful to the core, she still wasn’t entirely sure of Pooja, but she let Rhiannon sleep. The girl was obviously exhausted by the events they’d just experienced.

They arrived on Chandrila without incident, and Pooja took them to lunch at a small, classy restaurant near the spaceport. The other woman had taken time to dress herself up and where she had been striking before; she was absolutely gorgeous now in a silver halter-top dress accentuated by several sparkling pieces of jewelry. Milya had been too tired to care overly about her appearance, but had taken the opportunity to swap out her bandages for fresh ones and exchange her ruined formal dress for a suit that was still classy without being too attention-getting. The glassine shards still in her leg throbbed mercilessly, but Milya endured it silently, adopting a friendly exterior to mask the pain. For the better part of an hour, Milya, Rhiannon, and Pooja were able to put the concerns of the war and flight behind them and just pretend to be three friends out for lunch. The food was good and the conversation was light and chatty; not a word was mentioned about the Empire, Palpatine, or the Rebels. Milya found herself enjoying the experience, so much so that she almost regretted slipping the ylannock compound into Pooja’s tea.

They parted ways from the restaurant, with Milya and Rhiannon heading for the safe house and Pooja returning to her ship. The former senator had seemed to have developed a slight headache, and Milya had graciously excused her from needing to take any further pains on their behalf. This particular ylannock blend she’d mixed up wouldn’t completely wipe her memory, but there was enough in there to make the past eight hours or so pretty blurry. It was a pity-Milya was pretty sure she liked Pooja-but she liked living free of pursuit a lot more, and she hadn’t done so for so long without stepping on a few toes. She promised herself to make it up to both Pooja and Bac-eventually. Of course, Bac hadn’t been hit with a ylannock cocktail, but it was too late to worry about that. For now, she focused on getting to the safe house and real medical treatment, and then on getting herself and Rhiannon home.

Mandalore

The trees whipped past Sarth as the speeder bike’s powerful engine roared beneath him. Squinting his eyes against the onrushing wind, he checked over to his shoulder to make sure that Cassi was still there. She was, her bike tucked in just behind him, hanging on for dear life. Together they raced through the forests around Mandalore, hoping to make it back to Kedable. Just a few more minutes and they would be back in Kedalbe, where they could hide in the city.

As he focused on his driving, Sarth’s danger sense flared and rolled his bike onto the side. Just as he did so, a solid stream of crimson blaster bolts flashed past him. He sideslipped, flipping his bike back up so he was once again flying perpendicular to the ground, but the blaster bolts kept coming. Behind him, he saw there were five speeder bikes chasing them, all sporting underslung blaster cannon. Not good. Sarth pulled out his last grenade, armed it, and dumped it off behind him, hoping to get lucky.

He was partially successful. An Imperial flew right through the cryogenic cloud as the grenade released, freezing his control surfaces and engine, not to mention the pilot. Sarth was rewarded the messy sound of a speeder bike explosion behind them, but this only served to aggravate the others. A blaster bolt chewed away at the stern of his bike as they zeroed in. Pulling his pistol, he let the Force guide his piloting hand while he fired blindly over his shoulder. Unfortunately, due to the fact that the S-5XS fired both silent and practically invisible ammunition, he couldn’t even get a suppressing effect, nor were his Force abilities honed enough to let him aim and fly perfectly at the same time. And since not flying well meant certain death, Sarth relented and put up the pistol. All around him, trees and shrubs ignited as they were singed by hot energy, and he felt his bike take several more grazes. He was keenly aware that one direct blaster bolt to his unprotected back would kill him almost instantly, and wished devoutly that Selu, Milya, or Spectre, or Nate, or anyone he knew more qualified to lead a rescue mission were here. Or all of them at once. However, his wishing was useless, so he shoved it off into a separate compartment in his mind where he could sort it out later.

Up ahead, Sarth could see the buildings of Kedalbe peeking over the treeline. They were almost there.

Just as he and Cassi roared through a clearing less than a kilometer from the city, he felt a mental spike from Cassi. Whipping his head around, he saw her bike was trailing smoke, losing speed rapidly. It had been hit badly and he could tell the control vanes were damaged as well by the way its nose was starting to spin in a rapidly destabilizing spiral. Sarth knew enough about control surfaces to know that instability of that type would only worsen exponentially.

“Jump!” he shouted back into the wind, not knowing if Cassi could hear him.

Cassi complied, leaping off her speeder bike into the ground. Sarth couldn’t leave her, but turning around would take far too long. Jumping backward off his bike, he somersaulted through the air, lightsaber in hand and lit to deflect blaster bolts. However, he over-rotated as he fell through the air and realized, horrified, that he was going to land head-first. Sarth quickly snapped off the lightsaber and tucked his head down as he landed in a painful shoulder roll. All the air left him as he landed and rolled awkwardly. If he’d had any breath left in him at that point, he would have sworn profusely at his inability to make a controlled landing. Any apprentice could do that. Kriff, he was out of practice.

Looking up, he realized that the speeder bikes were about to bore down on him. Jumping to his feet, he ignited the lightsaber again, stood over Cassi protectively, and began batting away the oncoming blaster bolts awkwardly.

“Cassi, get up!” he said under his breath.

She moaned, and Sarth’s heart began racing even faster. She must have landed pretty hard. He blinked back worries about his wife, shoving them into another detached compartment of his mind. If he didn’t defend both of them, any injuries she had would be a moot point. As the speeders roared in, Sarth set himself, readying to slice through any bike that got too close. However, they were wise to his tactic and split up. He saw with dismay that they were going to approach from different vectors, more than he could block at once, chewing both him and Cassi to pieces with their cannon.

Sarth drew on the Force even more as the hostile speeder bikes whipped around, cannon pointing square at him, each from a different angle. He was prepared to sell his life dearly in their defense. They would not take him without a fight. To his surprise, though, the bikes slid to a stop, well out of range of his saber, and still capable of blasting him. At least they weren’t firing.

“Lower your weapon,” one of them barked.

He stared back at them fiercely.

“Lower it, or you die,” the man repeated.

The man meant business, and Sarth knew it. His fist clenched, Sarth reluctantly de-activated his lightsaber and tossed it in the ground.

“Help her up,” their captor said.

Sarth glowered, but he reached down to help Cassi up. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a spear of green light pierced the throat of the leader. There was a quick flurry of blaster bolts, and in a flash, all four of their assailants were down. Sarth scooped up his lightsaber quickly, but the blasterfire stopped as the Zann Consortium Dug they had met before, accompanied by his companions, emerged from the woods.

“Fancy meetin’ ya here,” the Dug said nonchalantly, his blaster still smoldering.
“Thank you,” Sarth said. “I thought they had us.”
“Well, I talked to the big boss yesterday after ya left, and he didn’t seem ta want the Empire ta get their hands on ya. Told us to keep an eye on ya.”
“Once again, thank you,” Sarth said, helping a groggy Cassi up.
“Don’t thank me just yet,” the Dug said with an evil chuckle as he flicked a switch on his blaster. “The boss wants ya all for himself.”
“What?!” Sarth shouted in surprise, reaching for his lightsaber.

It was too late, though. The goons opened fire, nailing both him and Cassi with stun bolts. As the incapacitating current washed through him, Sarth dropped on his back, unable to move, his consciousness rapidly fading away.

“Heh,” the Dug said, approaching them cautiously. “Whaddya know, a lightsaber. Looks like the Kraests here are some kinda Jedi. Get me a speeder, boys, and ring up the boss. He’ll want to know about this.”

The diminutive alien rubbed his forelimbs together with wicked delight. As soon as he had reported the first appearance of the defense company head and his wife, the regional Consortium boss had ordered them tailed. They’d lost their trail after the Silent Surprise had released the speeder bikes, but the sounds of blaster fire and the burning trees left in the wake of the chase had been enough to put the Dug and his companions back on the Kraests just in time to deal with their little Imperial entanglement. Word had just come through that morning from his boss shortly after he’d called Skart and Cassi that plans had changed, that the Kraests were wanted. As for their ship, the Dug hadn’t bothered with that. If they were aboard it, the Arkanians were not of general interest, but the Kraests were supposed to be invited for some business discussion. He grinned at the term. Business discussion with the Zann Consortium usually meant extortion. He didn’t know what exactly the regional boss had wanted with Skart and Cassi Kraest, but he just knew that his two unconscious prisoners were about to be the source of new fortunes and an elevated position within the Zann Consortium for him.

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