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It was over. The shattered hulks of dozens of warships-Rebel, Imperial, and Zannist littered the aftermath of the battlefield. The Kuat system was devoid of combatants aside from the crippled Imperial fleet that had been protecting it until forced to withdraw to the far side of the system. Its defenses sorely battered, the valuable shipyards would be operating on reduced production capacity while the damage was cleaned up and repaired. Thousands had perished in the grueling battle, and those that were left, entrusted with picking up the pieces, were demoralized and defeated. While they retained control of the system, they had lost much. In fact, if it was a victory, there wasn’t a single member of the Imperial Navy in the Kuat system who would agree with that statement. Their ships just now moving back to retake shipyards so recently seized and then abandoned by the Consortium, to pick up the pieces of the ravaged defense force.

Admiral Delvardus was not immune from the effects of the battle. His fleet, hastily scavenged together from his command, had been ravaged, though not as badly as the late Admiral Gaarn’s or the other ships stationed at Kuat. He could not have anticipated that the Rebels and the Zannists would attack at Kuat simultaneously and initially allied. That temporary truce, though it had been broken in the middle of the raging fleet engagement, had allowed their combined fleets to destroy three powerful stations and given the Zannists the opportunity they needed to briefly board and capture the partially-completed Eclipse, one of the newest and largest vessels constructed for the Empire. They’d used its devastating firepower to obliterate warship after warship, only to strangely abandon the ship and flee Kuat with the remnants of their armada. Moreover, after wiping out a significant portion of both the Rebel and Imperial fleets, the Zannists had escaped his grasp once more.

The worst part of it was that Imperial High Command seemed to be in complete chaos. Previously, such a defeat would never have been remotely possible, but over a quarter million Imperial personnel were now reduced to collections of letters on a casualty report. Impossible. Unthinkable. Delvardus was frustrated and tired. His uniform was sweat-soaked and dirty from having been on the bridge so long, and now his superiors were incapable of something as simple as communicating to him with new orders. Surely they should be mounting a full-scale fleet effort to hunt down Tyber Zann and make him pay for this slaughter. Sure, there were dozens of destroyed Zannist ships lying around, but the criminal had bloodied the Empire and was seemingly getting away with it! The lack of response from the highest tiers of the Imperial hierarchy was infuriating and kept feeding a thought that had been growing in his own mind, that the Empire was falling apart. The loss of the Emperor and the subsequent power vacuum that had set in was tearing it apart.

The only news that Delvardus had received from above was that Moff Kaine was supposed to be moving his forces to defend the New Territories out towards the Rim. Delvardus considered that a fool’s errand; it was obvious that Seswenna Sector, High Admiral Vey’s command, was far more important strategically due to the Hydrian Way and Rimma Trade Route running through it. Given the current fractured state of the Empire, Delvardus wondered how much retribution he would experience if he simply stayed in Seswenna. Perhaps he could even establish his own authority there—his homeworld, Eriadu, was in Seswenna, and if anyone could seize control from Vey over Eriadu and the sizable fleets in the sector, it was him. Once he’d dealt with Vey by arranging the admiral’s death in some accident, he would have command of the entire sector and could deal with the Rebels from there.

The desire to reach the top, to accomplish his goals was ingrained deeply inside Delvardus, and he knew that the Empire could no longer help him accomplish those goals. Not after seeing the carnage at Kuat, when one of the Empire’s leading shipyards was ravaged by a bunch of scruffy Rebels and lowlife criminals. The Empire was irrevocably lost without effective leadership to marshal its forces and deal with such threats. It was time for their paths to separate.

“Captain Marquart,” Delvardus called softly.

The man was loyal and unflagging in his dedication to him. He was also, Delvardus knew, a good judge of the crew’s sentiments.

“Sir?” Marquart responded, approaching and throwing a weary salute.
“How is the crew’s morale?” Delvardus asked.
“We’ve suffered a setback,” the captain replied. “They know it wasn’t your fault, though. You weren’t properly supported, just like what’s happened for the past several months, sir. They’re with you, Admiral.”
“The Empire as we know it is gone, Captain,” Delvardus said wistfully. “We have lost our way.”
“Sir?” the puzzled Marquart answered.
“This chaos, this utter disarray of Imperial forces would never have been tolerated before,” Delvardus said, gesturing at the wreckage floating past the viewport. “The Empire as we knew it is gone.”
“We can still rebuild,” Marquart insisted. “We can recover.”
“Only with a strong new leader,” Delvardus said. “Which does not seem to be forthcoming.”
“What are you saying, sir?” Marquart asked.
“I’m saying that we have been victimized for far too long, Captain!” Delvardus said heatedly. “It’s time we take our fate into our hands.”
“Sir, that’s treason,” Marquart said.
“The only rule I recognize is one that can be upheld by force. I am done with the Empire, and if anyone is going to protect our worlds from the Rebels and the Zannists, it might as well be me,” Delvardus said coldly. “Are you with me, Captain?”

Marquart took in the resolute expression on Delvardus’s face, the iron determination within the man. He had served under Delvardus for years now and knew that though the admiral could be temperamental and vain, that he was also a leader who gave him some measure of confidence, which was more than he had in the Empire in general right now. The more he thought about it, the more he knew that Delvardus was right, and that his own thoughts and goals were more in line with the admiral than with the Empire in general, which had recently been utterly incompetent.

“I am, sir,” he said.
“Good,” Delvardus said, grinning with evil pleasure at the thought of ruling his own empire. “Muster the fleet. We are leaving.”
“Are you going to tell them, sir?” Marquart asked.
“I will, Captain,” Delvardus said. “But first, you and I have some things to discuss.”
“Where will we go?” the captain inquired.
“We are going to pay a visit to Eriadu, to Admiral Vey,” Delvardus said. “I think it’s time he had an unfortunate accident in which I’ll be forced to assume command after his demise.”
“Is that wise, sir?” Marquart asked, risking an angry outburst from Delvardus.
“Vey will fall, Captain,” Delvardus said. “And his fleet will join us, strengthening our numbers. If an idiot like Zaarin can go rogue and survive for months while Palpatine was still alive, we are in no danger. . Moff Kaine is headed to the other side of the galaxy; that fool can’t touch from there—he’ll be too busy with his own dreams and Vey is a dead man. Come, Captain.”

With one hand on the other officer’s shoulder, Delvardus headed off to the briefing room to plot his new vision of conquest and independence. Little did he know that by becoming one of the first Imperial warlords, he was only fracturing the already reeling Empire further. Such concerns were beneath him, though. He had made his decision to stand apart from the Empire rather than continuing to throw away lives in a vain quest to stamp out the enemies of a government that ceased to function effectively. Now, he would create his own miniature empire, one filled with order, one that embodied the true ideals that the Empire had once stood for. The Zannists and Rebels would not be tolerated in his new domain—he would stamp them out even as other discontented Imperial fleets and worlds joined him. The galaxy needed a strong new leader and while Delvardus didn’t think his position strong enough to try and seize Coruscant and claim the mantle of galactic rule, he was certainly capable of starting a new regime centered in the Seswenna Sector with more capable leadership and enforcement. His service to the Empire as a whole was done; Delvardus sought to see it reborn in his own image. The line had been irrevocably crossed, and Delvardus’s ways had split from the greater tale of the Empire. From now on, Sander Delvardus would tell his own story.

Endor system

The starboard auxiliary hangar bay on Home One was as crowded as it ever had been. This time, it was with personnel, not with the starfighters that often occupied the deck space. Hundreds had gathered for the long-delayed Endor memorial service, to commemorate those that had fallen in the Rebel Alliance’s costly and desperate but ultimately successful attempt to destroy Palpatine. In fact, this wasn’t even the main event, but a smaller ceremony dedicated only to Gold Group. Still, hundreds of Rebels, some fighter pilots, but many crewbeings from Home One and other officers had assembled to pay their last respects to the fallen.

General Calrissian, again wearing his dress uniform and cape, stood at a small podium at one end of the hangar. Behind him was the starfield and occasionally another ship of the Rebel fleet, giving a perfect backdrop to his speech. Unlike most occasions, he was solemn and subdued, his easy smile nowhere to be seen. After a glance at his chrono to check the time, he leaned against the podium and began addressing the assembled personnel.

“We are assembled here to remember those who we left behind at Endor, those who sacrificed their lives for the sake of freedom,” the general began. “In this ceremony, we are also here to commemorate several others of our number who saw our ultimate victory at Endor but perished in the defense of freedom at Bakura and Endor.”

The general hadn’t had a chance to continue when a junior officer strode up to the podium and whispered something into his ear. The general’s face took on a concerned expression and a brief, hurried conversation ensued. When it was over, the officer dashed off again, leaving Calrissian standing there looking like he’d been struck in the stomach.

“And it has come to my attention that another name needs to be added to this list,” he said slowly. “A brave pilot who was gave her life for the sake of freedom at Bespin.”

Those words echoed quietly across the room, reinforcing the grief carried by all of the Rebels. A ripple of sadness traveled across the assembly, but for one man, it was if he’d heard his own death knell. Wes Janson stared horrified at the podium as Calrissian uttered the words, feeling his heart sink down to his feet. He opened his mouth to shout, to demand an explanation, but no words came. Janson remained in that same catatonic state all through Calrissian’s speech, through the roll-call of the names of Gold Group’s fallen, even though the unit had been temporary. Even when Hasla’s name was spoken, confirming his fears, he did not react. He couldn’t. He was paralyzed, not even at the stage where he could deny what he’d heard. The ceremony continued with a salute to the fallen and a launching of the few caskets they had into space. Hasla’s body was not present. Janson vaguely recalled his hand moving automatically up to salute, but not much else.

After they were dismissed, most of the pilots headed to the forward lounge for drinks and toasts in honor of the fallen. Not Janson. Instead, he headed back to his quarters by himself. His strange behavior was certainly noticed by his squadmates—Janson was normally the life of the party—but he ignored their calls, escaping to the physical sanctuary of his quarters before one of the others could flag him down. Plopping down on his bed, Janson was still unable to even voice or express how he was feeling. His normally merry demeanor had deserted him and he was, to say the least, choked up. Even several long pulls from the flask of Taanabian brandy couldn’t lighten his mood any. He wasn’t depressed, wasn’t going crazy—he knew that, and knew he would survive, but that did not diminish the feeling of being shot through the heart. He’d even felt his chest to make sure that wasn’t the case. However, no solution, no means to make the pain of Seirla’s death disappear presented itself through his mind, which seemed to prefer flashing images and memories of her through his subconscious instead, intensifying his grief. Janson took another swig of the brandy, letting the fiery liquid slowly trickle down his throat. Maybe the alcohol would dull his emotions, let him slip away from the freshly inflicted wound of her death.

The door chimed. Janson looked up at the door, then ignored it in favor of more brandy. It chimed again, persistently and Janson glared at it, irritated. No doubt it was Tycho or Wedge or even Hobbie come to check on him. Well, he’d come out when he felt like it. Right now, he was hurt and surly, nursing a perfectly good flask of brandy, and didn’t feel like talking to anyone.

“Wes, open up,” a voice said.

He arched one eyebrow. That was impressive. Apparently the others had been so concerned about him that they’d managed to scare up Luke Skywalker himself to talk to him. Reluctantly, he staggered to his feet and hit the door control. The sandy-haired Jedi, clad in black, walked in, followed by Wedge.

“I look that bad that I rate both of you, eh?” Janson asked in surprise, swigging more brandy.
“You’re not exactly your normal self,” Wedge said. “Mind if we sit down?”
“Hehe, that’s a good one, Wedge,” Janson replied bitterly, a hint of the intoxication starting to set in. “Sure, I don’t care. What can I do for you?”

He threw himself on his bed again, sitting there limply.

“We’re here to see you,” Luke said reasonably. “I know Seirla’s death is fresh and very painful, Wes. If you want to talk, we’re here for you.”
“You know, I appreciate that, Commander,” Wes said sarcastically to the Jedi. “Out of curiosity, can the Jedi raise the dead?”
“No. Believe me, I’ve wished a thousand times that I could.” Luke said earnestly. “My aunt and uncle . . . Biggs . . . Porkins . . . my father.”
“That’s too bad,” Wes said. “I’m afraid you can’t help me a whole lot right now then, unless you have more brandy.”
“Wes,” Wedge said. “She left something for you.”

The dark-haired Corellian pilot leaned forward, pulling a datapad from his flight suit pocket.

“Commander Gavin turned it over to me just a few minutes ago on our way to see you.”

Janson sat up instantly, taking the datapad from Wedge, setting it on the dresser next to his bed.

“If you’d like us to leave . . . ,” Luke offered.
“You can stay,” Janson said hoarsely, activating the device.

A hologram of the woman he knew as Seirla flickered into view, the low-quality projection filled with static and rough at the edges. Still, it was her, and a sob almost escaped his throat before he clamped down on it. She was in her flight suit, her helmet tucked under one arm, and though it was nothing special, Janson thought it was among the most beautiful things he’d ever seen.

“Wes,” she said slowly. “If you’re seeing this, we’re either having a good laugh together while watching this message, or I’m dead.”

Janson stared blearily at the hologram as she paused, collecting her words, sipping more brandy.

“You encouraged me to write this letter before the battle, when you sought me out. I have no family, but you’re the one person that I want to leave a few words to. I want you to know that I love you, Wes. Never forget that. I don’t know if I was just another girl to you, but you weren’t just another fighter pilot to me. Every memory, every laugh, every time I slapped you—it was all worth it. If given the choice to do it again, I would do it. I’m going to do myself the honor of thinking you’ll be saddened by my death, but I don’t want you to stop serving the Alliance because of that. I want you to keep on going, to keep flying for the cause of liberty. You can’t stop because I’m gone. The Alliance needs you and someday, when it’s all over, we’ll meet again in the next life and nothing will ever take us apart. If I’m gone, you need to keep going, Wes, to move on with your life.”

She paused again, as if blinking back tears, but covered the motion by brushing back an errant lock of her silvery hair.

“I don’t want to waste your time, Wes, and I’m not very good with words. Remember me and cherish what we had, but keep your head forward. And know that you carried this fighter girl’s heart inside you, however short our time together was. I only regret we could have had more time to spend together, laughing, flying, anything. You’re a great pilot, a great lover, and a great man. I love you and the may the Force be with you as much as it has been with me.”

She smiled at him, that secret smile he’d never seen her give anybody else, the one that sent an electric thrill down his spine, then the message ended.

Janson couldn’t help it now; the tears were falling freely down his face. Wedge leaned forward and placed a hand on his shoulder.

“It’s okay, Wedge,” Janson said. “She was just another girl, right?”
“No,” Luke replied. “And you don’t believe that.”

Janson looked forlornly at the Jedi, but words nearly failed him.

“You’re right,” he said. “I don’t, and now she’s dead.”

He buried his face in his hands, trying to keep the others from seeing his moment of weakness. Tomorrow, he would be fine, and he’d probably even be able to drink to Seirla’s memory in a few hours, but right now, he needed this emotional release. His friends, one a Jedi and one a fighter pilot, stayed by his side the whole time. They said nothing, just let him weep, but their presence meant more to Janson than he was willing to admit. They’d both seen him saddened before, and he knew that they were there for him in the midst of his loss. He had to get through this—for her sake. It took an hour before he was in control of himself again, but though his eyes were red-rimmed, he could speak, barely, and could keep from embarrassing himself further. Lifting the brandy flask, high, he pronounced a toast.

“To Seirla,” he said miserably. “And to the memories of her and others like her who have passed on in the cause of freedom.”

He took a long pull on the brandy, then passed it to Wedge and Luke in turn so they could take a sip.

“It’s going to be okay, Wes,” Wedge said, trying to comfort his friend. “It’s going to be okay.”

Somehow, though, looking at the bleak expression on Janson’s face, he doubted that it would be anything like okay for awhile.

“If you want,” Luke said. “You don’t have to go to Corellia with us, or even on ground patrol for the next few days. Take some time off if you need it.”
“Thanks,” Janson replied. “I’ll take a day off, but I’m going to Corellia.”
“Are you sure?” Luke asked.
“I’m sure,” Janson said, reminding himself that it was what Seirla had wanted him to do. “I can’t let the Rebellion go on without me. She wanted me to keep going.”
“Okay,” Luke said.

Wedge cleared his throat.

“There’s a group of us in the forward lounge. We’ll probably be toasting the memories of the fallen for some time. You’re welcome to stay here, but if you’re feeling up to it, come join us.”

The two other pilots rose and left, leaving Janson there for a moment. He closed his eyes and swallowed, trying to get rid of the lump in his throat. The ache in his stomach was still there, but he knew that if he stayed, he’d just wallow in despair and replay her message over and over again. She’d told him to keep going, so he would, despite how much it hurt. He’d do it for her. Then he rose to his feet, pulled on his jacket, and stopped the door from closing behind them.

“Wait for me,” he said. “I’m coming, too.”
Orbital defense station Yanibar’s Helm

Selu was startled out of the temporary guest quarters that had been given to him while he was on the space platform by a shrill ringing alarm. Instantly awake, a quick brush of the Force across his groggy mind cleared the fogginess of sleep from his head. He snatched up his comlink, threw on his uniform tunic, and as soon as his feet were back in his boots, took off down the corridor to the bridge.

“What’s going on?” he asked as he entered.
“Unauthorized transmission, sir!” the lieutenant on duty replied. “We’ve already tried to cut it off.”
“Jam it,” Selu ordered. “Manually override and terminate all external communications.”
“Done, sir,” the lieutenant replied as the order was carried out.
“What was the source of the transmission?” Selu asked.
“Looks like someone sliced into the ghost terminal, sir,” the lieutenant replied, scanning the reports scrolling up to him on his command chair. “They were trying to pulse off a hypercomm message.”
“Isolate the source and dispatch security,” Selu said.
“Already done, sir,” the lieutenant replied. “We traced the origination point to a terminal near the medical wards. Two squads of troopers are moving in now.”

Selu’s face paled as he heard about the medical ward. Milya was still there, as was Rhiannon, as the medical staff had wanted to keep them both under observation one more night. Moreover, they were in separate rooms. Not good.

"Get me the security team commander now,” he said tersely.
“Aye, sir, patching it into your comlink,” the lieutenant replied, but Selu was already out the door of the bridge, headed down to the medical ward.
“This is Master Kraen,” Selu barked, folding out an extension from his comlink and sliding it into his ear. “Report.”
“This is Lieutenant Kalbasi,” a young-sounding male voice, probably human, replied.
“What’s going on, Lieutenant?” Selu asked.
“Sir, the whole medical ward is locked down. I have teams at all the entrances and exits. Wait . . . we have a situation, sir.”

A chill ran down Selu’s spine as he heard those words. Dread filled him and his hand reached for the lightsaber at his belt. Fear, lots of it, accompanied by several needles of anger and aggression stabbed through him via the Force, but the emotions only caused him to barely break stride. He was a man on an urgent mission and wouldn’t be slowed. A new voice came over his comlink.

“I’ve superseded Lieutenant Kalbasi and taken over the situation,” a cool female voice said.

It was Hasla.

“Talk to me, Elite Almani,” Selu said as he approached the medical ward, referring to her by her rank in the Elite Guardians. “What do we have?”
“One intruder, cornered. Twi’lek female, armed. I’m pretty sure she’s the source of the transmission,” Hasla replied. “She has a hostage.”
“Understood,” Selu said.

Hasla looked over at the dim silhouette of the Twi’lek intruder. The ship’s lighting in the medical wards had been switched over to dark red lighting, in order to make intruders stand out better in the infrared vision carried by the Yanibar Guard. The medical ward was completely locked down, the airtight blast doors sealed. There was no escape for the Twi’lek, and the computers had been likewise rendered inaccessible by a single command. She had to know she was trapped; she’d be desperate, like a cornered animal. The sight of the two Yanibar Guardsmen in their battlesuits, S-2C rifles raised, would only unnerve the intruder further. Still, attempts at dialogue had to be made. Hasla reached out with her Force senses to touch the Twi’lek’s mind and that of her hostage, who seemed to be a Human female.

“Let her go,” Hasla called.

The Twi’lek answered with a storm of profanity. That was obviously a negative. Hasla pulled up her infrared goggles and saw that the Twi’lek was armed with a pilfered S-1 blaster pistol. It almost certainly wasn’t set on stun.

“Let the hostage go,” Hasla said, taking a measured step forward past the Guardsmen. “We can talk about this.”
“Stay back,” the Twi’lek called fiercely. “I’ll kill her!”

Hasla zoomed in on the hostage and what she saw took her breath away. Numbly, her fingers found her comlink.

“Sir, hostage’s identity is confirmed. It’s your daughter.”

No sooner had she said that than both Milya and Selu appeared behind her, both looking worried and angered, lightsabers in hand. Both looked as if they’d just woken up and were dressed rather like it, too. Hasla knew that they wouldn’t want to hear what she had to say, but there was no point in leaving them out of a loop they would be ultimately responsible for handling.

“There’s a gun to her head, sir,” Hasla told him.
“I see,” Selu said tersely, peering through the reddish glow of the low lighting. “Keep negotiating.”

His heart rate had jumped tenfold as soon as he and Milya had heard the truth about their daughter. Selu knew that his wife had to be equally worried, especially after her harrowing ordeal on Coruscant. They were both concerned for her and Selu’s promise to himself to never knowingly place her in danger rose through his mind. However, he knew he would need to concentrate, to be calm. Shunting away his anxiety, he focused on the situation at hand, because it was the only thing he could do to help Rhiannon.

“What do you want?” Hasla called to the Twi’lek. “We can cut a deal.”
“Sure,” the Twi’lek snarled. “I want off this station and out of the system. Then I’ll release the girl.”
“Let me talk to my superiors,” Hasla pleaded. “I’ll need to get their approval.”
“Do it fast,” the Twi’lek cackled. “My trigger finger’s itchy.”

Hasla turned to Selu and Milya, but not to relay the request. They had heard well enough on their own.

“Sir, I have an idea,” she said.
“Let’s hear it,” Selu replied, tension thick in his voice.
“I’ll take Rhiannon’s place,” Hasla said. “She can have me.”

Selu and Milya exchanged looks, but it was clear that both of them preferred that idea, however loathe they were to admit it.

“I’ll do it,” Hasla insisted. “I want to do this. Trust me.”
“Okay,” Selu said, nodding. “Be careful. No tricks.”
“Hey,” Hasla called, turning back to the Twi’lek. “I want to negotiate a hostage swap.”
“But why?” the Twi’lek replied mockingly. “Me and this little schutta are having quite a fun time.”

Hasla swallowed nervously.

“Take me instead,” she said. “I’m a high-ranking officer in the Yanibar Guard. I’m worth more to you than she is.”
“Quit stalling,” the Twi’lek scoffed.
“I’m not stalling,” Hasla said. “Let me take her place.”

The Twi’lek considered, and Hasla unbuckled her utility belt, dropping it to the ground, and then raised her hands.

“Look, I’m unarmed,” she said, taking a step closer. “And I’m a more valuable prisoner.”

The Twi’lek said nothing, so Hasla took another step.

“I won’t struggle,” Hasla said. “Just let the girl go. She’s just a child, she has nothing to do with this. Leave her out of it.”
“Fine,” the intruder spat from where she was huddled in the corner, her body crouched down behind Rhiannon’s. “You’ll make a better shield, anyway.”
“Okay,” Hasla said, trying to placate Rhiannon’s captor. “I’m coming, nice and slow. My hands are raised.”
“Keep ‘em that way,” the Twi’lek ordered.

Slowly and steadily, Hasla made her way over to where the Twi’lek was holding Rhiannon tightly. A bead of sweat trickled down her face as she watched the muzzle of the intruder’s blaster track her approach. However, she made it down the hall to the Twi’lek without incident.

“I’m here,” Hasla said. “Now let her go.”
“Fine, fine,” the Twi’lek sneered, shoving Rhiannon away roughly and whipping an arm around Hasla’s neck.

Hasla gasped, but did not struggle as the Twi’lek kept one arm encircled around Hasla’s neck, constricting her air supply somewhat. The Twi’lek momentarily lowered the blaster and slapped a pair of purloined stun cuffs on Hasla’s hands, tucking them behind her back, keeping her from doing anything.

“There’s just one problem with your little noble gesture,” the Twi’lek hissed harshly in Hasla’s ear.
“What’s that?” Hasla asked, afraid of where this was going.
“There’s nothing to stop me from killing the girl anyway,” the intruder replied wickedly.

Hasla’s Force senses prickled as she received a precognitive flash. Two vague haze marks that had been following her, hidden by her walking up to the Twi’lek seemed familiar, and she knew what to do. The Twi’lek’s blaster came up, sighting in on Rhiannon’s back, and Hasla knew that the woman’s finger was cracking the trigger. She had to act, and hope her hunch was right.

The blaster discharged, sending a brilliant purple bolt of energy lancing out at Rhiannon. Hasla had suddenly launched herself into motion. Quick as chain lightning, she simultaneously stomped on the Twi’lek’s foot as hard as she could while wrenching her neck and head out of the Twi’lek’s grip. Hasla ducked down in time to see a brilliant green lightsaber blade appear out of nowhere to intercept the blaster bolt, deflecting it into the floor as Selusda Kraen shimmered back into view, crouched down, his body and lightsaber defending Rhiannon. Standing straight behind him was Milya, a pistol in her hands. The startled Twi’lek had just started to swear when Milya fired. The stun bolt knocked the intruder backward into the wall away from Hasla, drilling deep into her shoulder and leaving her unconscious.

“Get her to the brig,” Milya ordered. “Interrogation is in one hour.”

Several Yanibar Guardsmen rushed forward to secure the prisoner. One of them stopped and deactivated the stun cuffs and they fell from Hasla’s wrists.

“Who is she?” Selu asked as Milya holstered her pistol and began walking Rhiannon away from the scene.

Hasla took a look at the Twi’lek’s tattooed arms and deduced the answer.

“One of our freed slaves was a plant, sir,” Hasla said. “She came in on the shuttle with the others.”

Selua grimaced.

“The Zannists figured out the pattern of the raids and set one of the slaves up. They were counting on us to take her back with us, and we did exactly what they wanted.”
“I’m afraid so, Master,” Hasla said.

Her comlink chirped and she saw it was the bridge.

“Go ahead,” Hasla replied.
“Please, please, tell me we stopped her transmission,” Selu said.
“Most of it, sir,” Hasla told him, a sinking feeling filling her gut. “The bridge tells me that 2.24 seconds got through.”
“And what did those 2.24 seconds contain?” Selu asked, dreading the answer.

Hasla looked him squarely in the eye.

“The spy must have known we’d intercept the transmission pretty fast, sir,” Hasla told him. “All of the important information was first.”
“What was in it?” Selu asked again.
“A data transmission containing a recorded conversation between you, General Kraen, and Director Kraen,” Hasla said. “Along with the coordinates of the planet, a recent sensor log of the surrounding space, and two words.”
“What two words?” Selu inquired.
“They’re here,” Hasla told him.

All of a sudden, that sinking feeling in her stomach had gotten a lot worse.

Selu leaned heavily against a wall, suddenly weary and devoid of energy. He stared listlessly down the hall. Hasla’s report had driven a dagger through him. Yanibar was now in mortal danger. The Force exile refuge he’d so carefully built and defended for nearly twenty years was imperiled by a ruthless foe. He closed his eyes and tried to wish it all away, hoping beyond hope that this was all a nightmare he would soon wake up from. But he knew that wasn’t true.

“Sir,” Hasla said, walking up to him.

Selu opened his eyes fractionally.

“Yes?” he asked her.
“They won’t get us without a fight,” Hasla told him earnestly. “If you’re still willing, sir, I accept the command.”

A trace of a smile creased Selu’s face.

“Thank you, Hasla,” he said. “You’re right.”

Then he was back on his feet again. Hasla’s words had reminded Selu that he had no time to mope about worrying about how close his daughter had been to dying or worrying about how the security of Yanibar had been compromised. The Yanibar Guard would need strong leadership in order to withstand the incoming assault that would surely follow. He would have to provide it and the thought that there were still matters of vital importance to the defense of the colony galvanized him into action, driving out his momentary despair.

“You’re now in command of Paladin Squadron, effective immediately,” Selu told Hasla. “They’re stationed here. Head down to the hangar bay as soon as possible.”
“Aye, sir!” Hasla said, snapping smartly to attention.

They exchanged salutes, then she strode off. Selu pulled out his comlink and activated it.

“Bridge, this is Master Kraen,” he informed them. “I want this entire ship swept for listening devices or other spying devices our visitor might have left behind. Then place me on the emergency Yanibar Guard command channel.”
“Aye, sir,” the lieutenant replied.

In a moment, Selu’s order was carried out, and his comlink was routed to the secure command channel used only by high-ranking members of the Yanibar Guard in emergencies.

“This is Master Kraen,” he said into the speaker, taking great care to enunciate his words.

He would not be repeating this message. He would not have time to.

“At this time, we are now at Impending Threat Level,” Selu said, referring to the second-highest level of threat rating ordered by the Yanibar Guard. “The security of the colony has been compromised and our location divulged to the Zann Consortium, along with sufficient reason for them to attack this world. We can expect a general attack in the next week or two, though it could come at any minute. All leave is cancelled until further notice. All forces are to prepare for an attack and all communications monitored and restricted. No ships will be permitted to leave the system without authorization.”

Selu paused, trying to come up with some more appropriate words to communicate the gravity of their predicament.

“Our very existence is at stake here. May the Force be with us all.”

Selu clicked off the comlink and thrust it back into his belt. He would meet with Spectre and Admiral Slayke and begin setting up a defense plan immediately. For the foreseeable future, he was through with being idle.

Merciless

The setting was more familiar, its subdued bronzes and golds welcoming him back to his private sanctum on the mighty destroyer. The Merciless was a relief after all that stale, angular Imperial architecture and stench. With the data from the Eclipse loaded into its memory banks, the warship was several parsecs from Kuat, surrounded by the remnants of the Zann Consortium Fleet. Here, at a safe distance, the fleet would lick its wounds and wait for a contingent of Mandalorian warriors and their two valuable prisoners to arrive.

Now that he was back aboard his own flagship, Tyber Zann was feeling more pragmatic. The intoxicating headiness of seeing the foundation for his organization’s future growth and expansion had faded somewhat, though he could still see that splendidly extensive list of the vault’s contents when he closed his eyes. However, for the moment, there was one other item on his mind, one that filled him with anger.

Standing in his usual conference room, Zann paced around the table, occasionally looking at a holographic report floating in transparent blue hues above the table from a projector mounted in its middle.

“Are you sure about this, Urai?” he asked at last.

The Talortai emerged from his corner of the room.

“I’m sure,” he said. “Our agent managed to get several valuable pieces of intelligence to us before her transmission was cut off.”

He pressed a control and the hologram flickered, starting an audio playback.

“No. We prefer selling our products to blowing them up. Better for business,” Zann heard the voice of Matrik Tenzor say.
See that it stays that way,” Zann heard his own voice. “I’d hate for this partnership to come an unpleasant end.
“This is the conversation I had with Matrik Tenzor not two days ago,” he said.
“It is,” Urai agreed. “This is from a listening device placed in the next room. You’ll be interested to hear what was said after the conversation.”

Zann leaned in to hear the garbled and scratchy audio feed better-the listening device had only managed to pick low-quality sound, but it was better than nothing. His eyebrows furrowed with anger as he listened intently.

What a charming fellow,” Tenzor remarked. “I think every other word out of his mouth was a threat of some kind.
Probably a force of habit,” another male voice said. “In the crime world, threatening people is probably some kind of art form.
The good news is that he didn’t mention Sarth and Cassi,” Tenzor stated. “Which means he doesn’t have them, or know they were on Mandalore.
Or he just hasn’t heard from his underlings on Mandalore yet,” a female voice suggested. “The Consortium has a pretty extensive network there, but depending on where Sarth and Cassi were and what they were doing, word might not have reached Zann’s ears yet.
I hope you’re wrong,” the other male voice said. “I don’t even want to think about Zann getting his hands on them.

It was this next statement, though, that elicited a reaction from Tyber Zann. Up until now, he had been perfectly calm as he listened to the transmission. Now, his eyes bulged with rage, his hands forming two tightly-clenched fists.

“Especially if he finds out we sent him into a panthera trap at Kuat,” Tenzor said. “He’ll be quite angry to know that we led the Rebels and the Empire to meet him there.

There was a loud bang as Zann slammed his fist down on the table and swore profusely.

“There is more,” Urai said.
Force willing,” the female continued. “He’ll be free-floating atoms the next time we hear of him.
“That is a Jedi expression,” the Talortai pointed out. “There are others who use it, but it was once common among the Jedi. It appears that Kraechar Arms is in league with some remnant of the Jedi and that they were plotting your demise.”

Zann remained in stony silence for some time, staring at the hologram. When he straightened, his face was dark with wrath. A terrible scowl was etched across his face and Urai could sense the urge for revenge emanating from the furious crime lord. Out of all of his enemies, he had never suspected, or been so abused, by a pathetic arms company like Kraechar Arms, nor been played so easily before. The treachery was a slap in the face to him, an insult to his reputation and his organization. He could not rest until it was avenged, nor the perpetrators killed. He could not believe they had had the audacity to attempt to destroy him in such an underhanded way, or that they could have thought him that easily defeated.

“They will pay for this treachery,” he said icily.
“Our agent also enclosed a sensor log and the coordinates of the planet Yanibar,” Urai added. “That was all we got before we lost her transmission.”
“What kind of defenses?” Zann asked.
“Nothing our fleet could not handle,” the alien warrior told him. “We would have better chances if our ships had time for repair and reinforcement.”
“No!” Zann thundered sharply. “We are leaving as soon as the Mandalorians get here with more soldiers and those two Jedi prisoners. Instruct all available troops and any warships we can spare to meet us at . . . this planet. Set up a rally point, Urai, and get it done quickly.”
“As you wish,” intoned Urai Fen, not daring to brook an argument with Tyber Zann when he was in this state. “The prisoners are being brought onto the Merciless now.”
“Good,” Zann said. “They’re no doubt the same Sarth and Cassi referred to in the transmission. That similarity is no coincidence.”
“Indeed,” agreed Urai Fen. “Also, Silri left on a mission of her own.”
“Did she?” Zann mused. “She didn’t say what?”
“No,” Urai Fen confirmed. “I suspect she plans a betrayal. She found something on the Eclipse.
“Hmm. Let me know when she gets back, and keep an eye out for a trap. In the mean time, I’m going to pay our Jedi guests a visit,” Zann said evilly. “Those treacherous idiots on Yanibar didn’t want to think about me getting my hands on them, did they? I’ll certainly prove them right on that account!”

21

The angular Zann Consortium transport set down on the barren, rocky surface of the uncharted Outer Rim world. All around for kilometers on end, the only sights in evidence were desolate cliffs of pale gray stone. The planet was virtually devoid of life and had it not been for certain specialized knowledge, the occupant of the transport never would have come to this place. Nor would anyone else for that matter; the dusty dry world was almost totally uninteresting in every sense of the word. Almost.

The ship’s engines whined to a halt in the thin atmosphere as its boarding ramp lowered, disgorging a single dark figure. The Nightsister Silri strode confidently out of the transport, walking across the dusty plains to a console. The device had apparently been randomly placed out there at first glance-that was until one saw the massive doors built into the rock next to it. Silri walked up to the console and punched in a code she had obtained from the Eclipse. She did so, and the doors rumbled as ancient machinery was activated.

Slowly, they slid open, revealing a cavernous chamber beyond them. Silri cackled triumphantly as she made her solitary way inside. The Sith holocron had led her here, told of her of what she would find, and now it was hers. The place was dusty and aged, with a thick layer of fine dust indicating that nobody had entered this place in years. The entire vicinity was suffused with the dark side of the Force, enthralling the Nightsister. The room was packed with row upon neatly organized row of carbonite slabs, each still blinking with some kind of indicator light. And inside each slab was an armored trooper, carefully preserved inside the carbonite encasing. There had to be hundreds, no, thousands of identical slabs. Silri smiled evilly. The prize she had sought was here.

Exploring the chamber further, she found other rooms loaded with equipment and transports, no doubt stored away for the future use of some ancient Sith Lord, judging by the engravings. However, he and his kind were long dead, leaving this place for her use and hers alone. She continued to wander, reveling in the neat stacks of armaments-battle droids and antiquated tanks, along with fighters. Best of all, there was even a dozen sizable transports in one monstrous cavern, buried away to transport the army. After hours of exploring, Silri returned to the antechamber at the entrance with the hundreds of troopers. This time, she walked to the front of the room, where a sizable statue of an ancient Sith stood. There were three more carbonite slabs here, set apart from the others and, gazing at the figures frozen inside of them, they were different.

Instead of the full body armor and rifle that the other slabs contained, the dull gray surfaces of these carbonite pieces had contours that could only belong to humanoid females, wearing some kind of robe. Silri smiled again, pleased that these females had been obviously been leaders. That was how it should be, how things were done among the Nightsisters. They would be her lieutenants, carry out her bidding in the new order she would create. Reaching up to each of the three slabs in turn, she found the controls and set them to thaw out the three females.

The carbonite soon heated up and began peeling away, freeing the three from their centuries of hibernation. Soon, the women emerged, collapsing to their knees, unable to stand after years of muscular atrophy in the carbonite. They were dressed in dark robes cut in odd fashions, and each one bore a lightsaber. Silri sensed the dark side flowing through them, knew they were skilled in its use and delighted in wielding its power, just as she did. They did not bear the trappings and amulets of true Sith, nor did they exude the mastery she would expect in one, but they were certainly Dark Jedi. Powerful lieutenants indeed.

“Welcome,” Silri purred. “I trust you slept well.”
“Where are we?” one of them asked, holding a hand to her eyes. “Who do you serve?”
“You are in the treasure vault,” Silri said. “I am Nightsister Silri. I serve nobody.”
“Then the Sith Lords do not roam the galaxy still?” one of them, a tall woman with flowing dark hair asked.
“The Sith are dead,” Silri said. “You will serve me or I will kill you while you are still disoriented from the carbonite.”
“The carbonite will not affect us long,” one of them said, smaller, with shorter black hair.

She held up her hand and something purple began glowing above her palm. She applied to her head and then immediately sprang to her feet. The others did the same, and Silri realized they’d somehow rid themselves of effects of hibernation using the dark side of the Force. An intriguing technique indeed, and one which nullified a major advantage she’d had over them.

“We are the servants of the True Sith Emperor,” she said, igniting her red-bladed lightsaber. “But if he is dead, then we are not bound to his will anymore.”
“You will serve me,” Silri told them, though she was inwardly unsure of her odds against three foes equipped with lightsabers. “And together, we will be unstoppable.”
“You do not seem like a Jedi,” the tall one said. “You have considerable power in the dark side, but you are no Sith.”
“And you are?” Silri asked, wondering if asking that question was wise.
“No,” the tall one returned. “And we will serve you, Nightsister Silri. You released us from our long sleep, brought us back to the living. We owe you our allegiance.”
“Good,” Silri said.

Such strong and capable lieutenants would prove useful, provided they were kept on a tight leash. She was full of questions, yet words escaped her for the moment. She didn’t want to reveal how truly ignorant she was of this place; she only knew there had been an ancient Sith army here, ripe for the plucking and ready to serve whoever unleashed its force. However, the three Dark Jedi filled in the silence by introducing themselves.

“I am Lexa,” the tall one said. “I am the senior.”
“And I am Nylad,” the short black-haired one told her.
“I am called Elitana,” the third one said, her Basic spoken with a distinctive Tarisian accent.
“We are entrusted with ensuring this army is used properly,” Lexa informed Silri. “Our master, the Sith Emperor, chose us because we were both willing servants and . . . uniquely talented.”
“Palpatine?” Silri asked.
“Who?” Nylad inquired. “No, that is not his name.”
“Then he is certainly dead and has been for many years,” Silri informed them. “The last Sith to rule the galaxy was Palpatine, and he is dead, too.”
“Tell us more of the current state of things,” said Lexa, sidling up to Silri in a manner that made even the hardened Nightsister uneasy.
“Not so fast,” Silri ordered, halting Lexa in her tracks. “All in good time. First, tell me of my new army.”

Nylad smiled with malevolent pleasure at Silri.

“There are 30,000 Sith troopers here, a whole legion, at your disposal, Nightsister Silri. They are fully armed and equipped, with ships to take them offworld,” she said.
“And they are loyal?” Silri asked.
“They will obey our commands,” Lexa said indifferently. “And by extension, yours, Nightsister.”

Silri allowed a sinister smile to crease her face as thoughts of revenge on Tyber Zann filled her head, on teaching him the lesson on what power, power imbued with the dark side of the Force, meant. First, though, there was one other matter to deal with.

“Excellent,” Silri said. “We have work to do.”
“What is your bidding, my master?” Lexa asked, bowing low.

Being the senior, she seemed to serve as a kind of spokeswoman for the others, especially Elitana, who spoke very little.

“A Jedi did this to me not long ago,” Silri said, showing off the scar that had been left on her right arm where Milya had speared it with a glassine shard on Coruscant. “She will die for this.”
“The Jedi have long been a nuisance to the Sith,” Lexa said. “We would gladly help you rid the galaxy of one.”
“Good, for you have no choice in the matter,” Silri admonished her, trying to assert her authority. “The Jedi has no doubt returned to her hideout by now.”

She closed her eyes dreamily as the dark side led her away from the planet to follow the trail of blood. Her blood. It was an arcane talent of the Nightsisters to use their own blood to mark their prey, to stain the individual with a smear that could only be erased by the Nightsister’s death or possibly a use of the Force. An ancient magic it was, and meant that anyone who’d touched a Nightsister’s blood could be tracked through the dark side. Even now, the tangy metallic smell of fresh blood filled Silri’s nostrils, quickening her senses as she reached out through the dark side to follow the cloying aroma across space, to see where her elusive quarry had gone.

“I sense her . . . the memory of my blood calls to me,” Silri said. “She is with other Jedi.”

The three Dark Jedi stood quietly by, waiting for their new leader to give them instructions. They were not familiar with the Nightsister blood trail, but they did not ask questions. Silri remained motionless for several minutes, reaching out through the dark side of the Force to discern the location of the Jedi she had marked, back on Coruscant in a bloody brawl. A Jedi who, though Silri didn’t know it, was named Milya Kraen. What Silri did know was that she was going to personally kill her, make sure that the woman suffered and died for the injury she had dealt to the Nightsister.

“I know where she is,” Silri crowed triumphantly as the blood trail communicated the location she sought through the dark side. “We will thaw the army and seek out these Jedi. When we reach their planet, we will crush them.”
“Surely, my master, not all the army is needed for this mission,” Lexa pointed out. “Only a few Jedi would not pose a great problem for one such as you.”

Silri sniffed. Lexa, used to exerting some measure of influence, would have to be watched carefully for a rebellious streak. Silri could sense the ambition running through the woman, her carefully concealed discontent at serving her new master. However, the Nightsister wasn’t quite ready to have her killed just yet. If she kept up taunts like that one, Silri was more than ready to reconsider. At present, Silri would need all three Dark Jedi to combat the Jedi; her last encounter hadn’t been nearly as one-sided as she would have liked, and the Jedi had been at a disadvantage.

“They will have to be thawed eventually anyway. They should awaken and accustom themselves to fighting again,” Silri said, disguising her concern over facing several Jedi at once. “Killing Jedi will prove their quality to me.”
“It shall be as you wish, Nightsister Silri,” Nylad said demurely. “Come, sisters. There is a great deal to be done.”

The three headed off towards the control consoles, leaving Silri to contemplate her new army and holdings, as well as her new lieutenants. Truth be told, she was not completely comfortable with them and feared a betrayal, but Silri told herself that her skill with the dark side was superior to any of theirs. She would demand their obedience and acquiescence to her will, and would have it, or else. In the mean time, she would observe them carefully and ensure that her orders were carried out. At the surface level, at least, they acknowledged her rule.

As for her army, their equipment was old, but if they were as loyal and dedicated as the Dark Jedi assured her that they were, she would be able to exert a great deal of influence. The first order of business was to deal with the renegade Jedi. Then, she would kill Tyber Zann and his subservient alien minion Urai Fen. The mere thought of doing so gave Silri a wicked thrill, and she resolved to prolong his death. After she’d taken over his organization, she would take its fleet, go to Dathomir, her homeworld, and free the rest of her sisters from an Imperial blockade. With a galactic organization and a horde of Nightsisters, she could spread threads of dark side power across hundreds of worlds, threads that would interlace into a web of dominion. Now that the three mysterious and vaguely unsettling Dark Jedi were out of sight, Silri allowed herself to lapse back into brazen confidence and laughed again, a dark twinkle filling her merciless eyes. The galaxy at large had no idea of what had just been unleashed on it, but it soon would, Silri promised herself. Her very name would inspire fear and awe in millions. She was sure of it.

Yanibar
“May the Force be with us all,” Master Kraen’s voice echoed through the comlink that Nate held in his hand.

The transmission clicked off and he gazed at it quietly, regretfully, before thrusting it back into his pocket. He knew what he would have to do when he returned to the other room, knew how painful it would be, but he had no choice in the matter. Slowly, he turned around and retraced his footsteps back into the nursery he and his wife had painstakingly furnished for their new child.

It was decorated in pastel colors, mostly blues and reds, and equipped with anything a child might need. There was even a bed there, for use of parents wishing to catch a few winks of sleep while still being close to an upset or restless child. His mother had suggested that particular touch, and it was on that bed that his wife Ana was now lying.

She looked a bit unkempt and somewhat tired, the locks of her chestnut brown hair tousled and fanned out around her head on the pillow on which she was reclining. The white gown she was wearing was loose and far from formal. However, she was healthy and happy, wearing a broad smile on her rosy face as she cradled their newborn boy, Zeyn. He had dark skin and short curly black hair like his father, but there was something about his nose and eyes that reminded Nate of Ana. A wave of affection welled up inside Nate as he looked upon his beautiful wife and the wonderful new life they had created together. Their son. His son.

Nate said nothing, not wishing to prolong the inevitable. Ana had only moved back here to their home yesterday from the medcenter and he’d had precious little time to spend with her and Zeyn alone there. Now he was being called away again. He sat down in a chair at her bedside, leaning in to look into the baby’s wide eyes. Zeyn gurgled, smiled, and reached one stubby arm out for his dad’s nose.

“I think he likes you,” Ana said teasingly.
“I should hope so,” Nate replied with a small grin. “I am his father after all.”
“Nate,” she said coyly. “Something came in today while you were out working on the broken sink.”
“Is it important?” Nate asked, not sure where she was going.
“Zeyn’s midi-chlorian count is in,” Ana said. “He’s strong in the Force.”
“What?” Nate replied, astonished. “There’s no Force-sensitivity in either of our bloodlines.”

She shrugged.

“Spectre has told me that it can appear at random in children,” she said. “Isn’t it wonderful?”

Nate was at a loss for words, but he was indeed pleased.

“Of course I am,” he said, kissing her lightly on the cheek. “Our child must have been so special that the Force had no choice but to be strong in him. Probably due to his mother’s influence.”
“You’re such a tease,” Ana said, rolling her eyes.
“No,” Nate replied, leaning in close to softly plant a string of kisses along her neck. “I’m in love with my beautiful wife and our wonderful son.”

Ana kissed him back as he made his way up to her mouth, an expression of the love they held for each other and their marriage. Nate had missed that taste since he’d been on Nar Shaddaa for months and, if he had had his way, wouldn’t have gone back to the Yanibar Guard until he was thoroughly re-acquainted with it. However, that was not the case, and even as that thought entered his mind, he knew that some minute trace of it had to have been displayed on his face, because Ana pulled back and gave him a searching expression.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

Being half-Lorrdian, a subspecies of humans known for their intrinsic understanding and mastery of nonverbal communication and body language, Ana could read Nate better than almost anyone else could. Even a subtle shift in his body weight, or a flicker of an eyelid out of its normal rhythm was enough to tip her off.

“I suppose there’s no use hiding it,” Nate admitted. “I’ve been recalled to duty.”
“Duty?” Ana asked, bewildered. “But you’re on . . . we had . . .”
“I know,” Nate said apologetically. “I’m sorry. I really am.”

Ana took a moment to compose herself. It was not easy for her to hear, especially since she’d been looking forward to Nate’s return and the week and a half they’d had left after Zeyn’s birth together. However, she was a Yanibar Guard wife, and was somewhat used to—and resigned to—Nate’s short-notice disappearances. She just hadn’t expected another one so soon.

“Why?” she asked, obviously crestfallen. “If you can tell me.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Nate muttered, vainly trying to cover the seriousness of the situation.
“Force above, Nate,” Ana said, even more alarmed by his attempt to cover it up. “What’s wrong?”

Nate only made assurances like that when something was incredibly wrong. She had detected it instantly, and something in the brittle tone of his voice had told her that this might be worse news than anything she’d heard before in their short year and a half of marriage.

“The colony is in danger,” Nate said bluntly, even as he gently ran one smooth hand over Zeyn’s head. “There’s a serious risk of invasion.”
“Stars in space,” Ana breathed. “What should I do?”
“Stay calm,” Nate assured her. “If there is a danger, we’ll take care of it. My mother will be over shortly; she’ll stay with you and Zeyn.”
“I’m scared, Nate,” Ana, suddenly instilled with fear by his dreadful news.
“Don’t be,” Nate replied, gently caressing her face. “Everything will be just fine.”
“Be safe,” Ana said. “I want to grow old with you.”
“I will be,” Nate promised her.

He kissed her again, and somehow it was sweeter because they both treated it like it would be their last. The same desperation, the same quiet pleading for his safe return was there, just like how she kissed him each time before he left. He held her in his arms, enfolding her in a warm embrace, one that she’d told him made her feel like nothing in the galaxy could touch her as long as he was there. She leaned into him, her chest pressed against his and he could hear her heart beating. That alone made the homecoming worth returning to. Nate gently stroked Zeyn’s head one more time, then he kissed the top of his baby’s head. With a parting, lingering kiss from Ana, he bid her goodbye.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he said. “Keep the bed warm for me. We haven’t had a chance to fully celebrate my last return.”

He winked mischievously at her, a gesture designed to mask the cold worry seeping through his system.

“I love you,” Ana told him.
“I love you too,” Nate said sincerely, but slowly extracting himself from her embrace. “And Zeyn too. I’ll be back soon.”

Then he turned and left, leaving those last words to echo in the nursery as Ana listened to his footsteps recede as he grabbed the bag that was always kept packed and ready at his bedside and left the house without looking back. His face was resolute and grim, his mind cleared and already thinking about his next course of action. Nate was off to war again.

Ana looked after him longingly, willing him to return safely, just as she always did. She couldn’t distract him now—she knew he needed to be strong and undistracted out whenever he did whatever it was he did in the Yanibar Guard. Also she could do was hope for his safe return and prepare a lavish homecoming. That didn’t stop a silent tear from trickling down her face, nor did it stop her from protectively hugging Zeyn tighter to her breast. The worst part was the waiting, she knew, but she couldn’t get her mind off anything else. Nate was off to war again.

Merciless

Sarth and Cassi awoke to find themselves unceremoniously slung over the shoulders of two hulking Trandoshans and carried through the decks of a ship. The scratchiness of the reptilian aliens’ shoulders was intensified by the aliens’ stalking gait, which jostled them uncomfortably with each step. It was, to say the least, not the best wake-up call they’d experienced. Their wrists and ankles were bound and, judging by the stiffness in their limbs, they had been restrained for some time. After several minutes of bouncing along as their captors plodded through dimly lit corridors, they entered a larger room complete with a long table and chairs.

The Trandoshans roughly dumped them into a half-sitting position in two of the chairs in the room then backed away. Squinting against the dim light as they tried to recover from the disorienting effects of the sedative, Sarth and Cassi tried to examine their surroundings.

“Welcome,” said a distinctive male voice from across the room. “I apologize for the conditions of your visit here, but it couldn’t be helped.”

A servant droid entered the room with a tray containing two liquid-filled glasses and what looked like a type of flatbread. At a nod from the figure at the other end of the table, the droid set it down in front of them.

“Uncuff them, Eff-Seven,” the man ordered.

The droid did as was instructed, loosening the metal binders from their wrists and ankles. Sarth and Cassi gratefully rubbed their chafed limbs, trying to ignore the prickling sensation of a thousand needles as circulation returned to them. Their vision was beginning to clear, and they could see they were in some sizable starship. However, to his dismay, Sarth had no problems recognizing the long-haired man at the end of the table as Tyber Zann.

“You must be hungry and thirsty after your trip,” Zann said. “Eat.”

Sarth’s knee and ankle were still throbbing in excruciating pain, and he was tired, filthy, and hungry, but he knew something was wrong with the food. He sniffed it suspiciously.

“I’m not going to poison you,” Zann said with a low chuckle. “I’ve gone to far too much trouble to bring you here to do that.”
“Not . . . hungry,” Sarth muttered.

Zann rolled his eyes.

“Do you really have to persist on being so difficult?” he asked.

Walking up to them, he sipped from both of the cups and ate from each piece of bread.

“See?” he said. “Harmless.”

Sarth couldn’t believe his luck. Zann was alone, standing right in front of them, obviously unaware that he was vulnerable to two Jedi—he’d even removed their binders. He tensed, ready to spring on him, but knew he would need Cassi’s help. Knowing that he didn’t have a second to spare, he didn’t turn to look at her, but reached out in the Force to see if she was thinking the same thing he was.

He sensed nothing. As in, he couldn’t sense Cassi, couldn’t even sense Tyber Zann. Sarth’s eyes widened as he realized that his Force senses had been completely cut off. His moment of opportunity and chance to attack Zann gone, he turned to Cassi and saw a similarly bewildered expression on her face.

“Problems, my Jedi friends?” Zann asked knowingly, a wicked smile on his face as he walked back to his end of the table. “Can’t use any of your little tricks?”

Sarth looked concernedly at Cassi, realizing that the crime lord had somehow managed to neutralize their advantage, their ace-in-the-hole. That meant that any plan involving jumping Tyber Zann would no doubt fail; they were too weak to overpower him without the Force. He decided to test it again, trying to concentrate on the Force and levitate a piece of bread. Once again, the simple exercise of reaching out to the Force was gone; he could not touch it at all and the piece of bread remained motionless.

“You might as well eat,” Zann told them. “You have a busy day ahead of you.”

Sarth and Cassi saw no reason not to comply and began wolfing it down hungrily. They would have to trust the fact that the crime lord had already sampled the fare since they couldn’t use the Force to detect or neutralize any foreign substances. Immediately, though, they realized their mistake as a wave of chemicals flooded their system. Their minds immediately went foggy and without the benefit of the Force to bolster their reserve and clear the drugs, they were vulnerable. It took great concentration to exercise any will over the drugs, because they felt strangely like they needed to answer anything Zann said without reservation. Sarth blinked, trying to focus, a difficult exercise in his current battered state. Zann laughed cruelly at the sight.

“Oh, and by the way, I already took the antidote,” he said. “Now, I want some answers. Who are you?”
“I’m Skart Kraest,” Sarth said woozily. “This is my wife, Cassi.”

Zann stormed up to Sarth and backhanded him across the face, snapping his head back.

“Don’t lie to me,” he ordered sternly. “I happen to know your real name is Sarth.”
“Is it now?” Sarth murmured, trying to buy time and keep Zann’s attention away from Cassi, who looked pale and sick from the drugs in her system.
“Your attempts to resist the drugs aside, it’s useless to play this game,” Zann said bluntly. “I will simply up the dosage and try again. You will tell me everything I want to know.”
“I might tell you more if you stop hitting me,” Sarth replied.
“Fine,” Zann said, raising his hand as he prepared to slap Cassi instead. “I’ll hit her instead.”
“Wait! Wait!” Sarth called. “Don’t.”
“Then tell me what I want to know,” Zann grated.
“I . . . can’t think clearly,” Sarth said. “I’ll try, but I can tell you more without the drugs.”
“Don’t play stupid with me, Sarth,” Zann snarled, looming menacingly with him.
“No, really,” Sarth said pleadingly. “Let me clear my head and I’ll tell you what you want to know.”
“Fine,” Zann spat. “We’ll play this game a little longer. Eff-Seven, take them to one of the holding cells and inject them with the antidote. Make sure there’s another ysalamiri cage nearby. In three hours, bring them back here for another little chat.”

The droid nodded, and hit a signal on the door, cueing the two Trandoshans to return and pick both Sarth and Cassi one more time.

“You will tell me everything I want to know by the time we reach Yanibar,” Zann threatened them as they were hauled to their feet. “Or else.”

The shocked look shared between Sarth and Cassi at Zann’s mention of Yanibar was not missed by the crime lord. He had intentionally let the name slip in order to gauge their reaction.

“That’s right,” he said. “I know where your little hideout is. And you’re going to give all the information I want about it.”

He waved dismissively to the Trandoshans, who proceeded to march out the door back to the holding cell with their cargo. Sarth moaned as the painful ride started anew. Things had gone from bad to worse.

22

Selusda Kraen paced the bridge of the Orbital Command impatiently, just as he had been doing for the last three hours. Unable to sit in the command chair that was technically his station, he’d been pacing relentlessly; to the point where he was nearly driving the other members of the bridge crew mad by doing so. Spectre was on the ground, preparing the Yanibar Guard Army for an assault, while Milya was—against her will—at home with Rhiannon, on strict orders from the doctor to stay off her foot for the next two days. Selu doubted that order would last two hours once the battle started.

He stopped and glanced at the threat board again; it was still the same as before. The Yanibar system, by his own order, was devoid of all activity except for Yanibar Guard Fleet vessels. The threat board showed six Niman-class cruiser-carriers, the Carrack-class cruiser Plooriod Bodkin, and the newly commissioned Yoda floating in loose formation only a few kilometers away from the space station. Around them were clustered another six Makashi¬-class frigates and a dozen Ataru-class gunships—practically the full strength of the Yanibar Guard fleet. The fragile Shii-cho-class and Wan-Shen-class transports, escorted by another pair of frigates, had been carefully herded into the Kraechar Arms shipyard, which was hidden behind another Force illusion on the far side of the planet from likely hyperspace corridors the Zannists would use. Selu had also used the Force to conceal the assault fleet also, hiding them inside a bubble of Force energy until it was time to strike, but he had left the orbital station uncloaked. The Zannists might suspect a trap if they detected no defenses in orbit at all.

All the simulations had been run, all craft inspected, all drills carried out. All ships could be made ready for battle in three minutes or less. All they could do now was wait and hope that Tyber Zann’s fleet was more in line with the optimistic estimates of its strength. Everyone was on high alert, at maximum threat level, waiting for the hostile fleet to arrive. There was a quiet tension in the bridge as every Yanibar Guard officer watched and waited. It was the final calm before the storm.

Selu closed his eyes, sinking into the currents of the Force once more. His mind’s eye sought to look across space and time, to sense the incoming fleet, to see how much time they had. It was a task he had attempted on multiple occasions in recent hours, but his efforts had been fruitless thus far. Then, there was a ripple of a disturbance across his metaphysical senses, a discontinuity composed of anger and grim determination. That emotional pinprick was enough for Selu to zero in on, focusing his senses. They were close. Very close. His eyes shot open.

“All fighters stand by to launch,” he ordered. “Shields and weapons on standby status. I don’t want them to know we knew they were coming.”
“Sir, the scope is clear,” reported a confused sensor officer.
“Not for long,” Selu replied, keeping a vigilant watch on the tactical threat display.

Not two minutes had passed since his remark when a cluster of red symbols began lighting up the threat board as long-range stealth surveillance probes received information. Immediately the silence on the bridge was broken, transformed into a cacophony of relayed reports.

“Cronau radiation detected. Ships coming in!” called a lieutenant from where she was monitoring the subspace emissions in the system.
“Hyperspace reversion in Sector Seven! Multiple contacts!” the sensor officer reported.
“I see them,” Selu said grimly, eyeing the new glowing red dots. “Get me more info.”
“Vectoring probes Aurek-Five, Six, and Eleven in now,” the officer replied.

In seconds, each glowing contact had been resolved into a ship class with pertinent details. Thanks to YGI investigations of known Consortium ship classes, they had a decent database of sensor profiles, making identification of each ship type fairly easily. Selu frowned as he realized that Zann had brought a powerful force. There were two Kedalbe-class battleships and two Aggressor-class destroyers formed into a loose diamond formation. In front of them was a wedge of five Vengeance-class frigates, reinforced by another six smaller Interceptor frigates and at least ten anti-starfighter Crusader-class corvettes. Selu ran the threat assessment numbers in his mind and didn’t like what he saw. They were outgunned and by a considerable amount. Those battleships alone gave the Zannists a sizable advantage in fleet strength and Selu had been briefed about the destructive capabilities of the plasma cannons of the Aggressor¬-class.

Returning to his command chair, he pulled up a glowing 3-D hologram version of the threat board. Retrieving a stylus, he dragged a line from the main Yanibar Guard fleet to a point that would place them on the flank of the Zannist fleet just as the Consortium ships reached firing range. Silently, he concentrated on a set of coordinates, reaching out with the Force to touch the mind of Master Daara, who was standing on the bridge of the Yoda besides Admiral Slayke to relay his orders. Due to the fleet’s Force-based concealment, Selu could not transmit anything to them for fear of compromising their camouflage or betraying their existence to the approaching Zannist fleet.

“They are coming into firing range of the orbital space station,” the sensor officer reported, referring to the hostile warships.
“Shields to full. Launch all fighters,” Selu said. “Droids first.”

The order was carried out and wave after wave of Vulture droid starfighters was disgorged from the battle station’s cavernous interiors, forming up in neat ranks of metallic weaponry. There were eighty of them, grouped into four squadrons of twenty. While Selu certainly had misgivings about sending living beings into combat, even in defense of Yanibar, he had no problems with treating the Vultures as considerably more . . . expendable.

“Zannist starfighters are accelerating to screen the fleet,” the sensor officer reported unnecessarily.
“Order the droids to attack,” Selu replied. “Time to thin their numbers. Use torpedoes on the corvettes. They might actually take down a few of those.”
“Aye, sir,” replied the chief droid controller.
“Also,” Selu said. “Launch all other fighters from the station. Have the B-wings launch all ordnance from maximum range.”

Selu left it to others to see that the order was carried out. Meanwhile, he watched, fascinated, as the tiny swarms of green dots representing the Vultures clashed with the Zannist starfighters and into the ship. Their numbers rapidly decreased; nearly half were destroyed in the initial pass. Here and there, he sensed tiny sensations through the Force as Zannist fighters were destroyed and their pilots killed.

“Sir, droid torpedo telemetry indicates that most of them are being picked off before the missiles reach their targets,” a droid flight controller, a female Duros, informed him.

Selu swore under his breath. The Zannists must have some type of missile defense system or other countermeasure to defeat the torpedoes. With each droid only carrying two, their primary method of damaging larger ships had already been countered. That didn’t mean he was out of options for the droids, though.

“Very well,” he said calmly. “Order all remaining droids to ram into the corvettes. Our remaining fighters are going to need all the help they can get.”

The mindless war machines did as they were told, and though less than twenty of them survived to carry out the order in the face of the order, Selu was pleased to see four of the antistarfighter corvettes disappear from the threat board.

“Zannist fleet will be in firing of this station in one minute, sir,” the sensor officer told him.
“Launch all remaining fighters,” Selu said.

Then, he closed his eyes and focused on two words, hoping Master Daara could read the thought even through the tangled, frenetic wave of emotion that cluttered the battlespace.

Stand by, Selu thought. Just a little closer.

Hangar bay

As soon as the order came to launch, the four engines of Hasla’s B-wing were lit and operational. She had already gone through her pre-flight checklist and the new fighter had reported all systems functioning at 100%. She raised her craft off the deck on its repulsorlifts and cruised out of the crowded, tubular hangar of the Orbital Command Station, followed by another eleven B-wings every bit as new as hers.

When she had first taken command of Paladin Squadron, Hasla had almost wept for joy at seeing that many B-wings lovingly maintained and in such pristine condition. The Alliance had rarely been able to accomplish such a fate due to being spread across the galaxy with limited resources. She’d also cracked down on her pilots in the few days they’d had together, doing her best to impart the lessons of a dozen successful missions in combat in that particular starfighter model. Force willing, they’d absorbed what she said. And if the Force was feeling particularly gracious, the Paladins would come out of this alive.

As soon as her squad was clear of the station, Hasla switched her shields onto double-front and toggled her communications switch.

“Paladins, this is Lead. Report in,” she said. “Arm weapons and set S-foils to attack position.”

One by one, the pilots called in until all twelve had confirmed operational status as they resolved into a flying box formation of three by four ships. Looking at her sensor board, she saw that two squadrons of Shotos had formed up around her squadron, and, off to her port, she saw another identical mixed formation of B-wings and Shotos.

“Paladins, Cavaliers, this is Command,” identified a controller on the fleet frequency. “Fire all ordnance from maximum range.”

Hasla clicked her comlink in reply.

“Accelerate to attack speed,” she said. “Fire as soon as your indicator says you’re in range.”

Hasla put action to words, kicking the thrusters up to full power. As the numbers on her rangefinder scrolled down, she gently stroked her missile trigger. A few seconds later, her B-wing shuddered as she fired off all sixteen missiles in its magazine. All around her, the sensor board indicated that the rest of her squadron had followed suit. Then the weapons disappeared from the sensor board, indicating that they had gone to passive mode as they were programmed to.

“Good work, Paladins,” Hasla said, cracking a faint smile. “Our job’s done, let’s head home.”

Hauling back on her control stick, she banked sharply as she brought her fighter around on a heading back towards the station. She kept the thrust at maximum until the last possible minute, chopping back and cruising into the hangar bay where she’d launched from only a few minutes ago. However, though she landed her B-wing in its docking bay, she did not power down. Instead, she watched as a gaggle of techs and loadlifter droids raced towards her fighter with a fuel line and racks of heavy-hitting proton torpedoes. As the rest of her squadron followed her example, she watched other crews scramble to refuel and rearm their craft as well. As soon as the crews were finished, she and her squadron back out to space and join the battle.

She didn’t get to see the results of the sixteen weapons she’d fired, or the other 368 identical weapons launched by the B-wings. However, up on the bridge, Selu Kraen could see their tracks on his sensor board as they closed in on the Zann Consortium fleet. The missiles were not reporting their locations, nor were they even accelerating towards the Consortium fleet. Instead, they were relying entirely on their inertial velocity at launch to propel them, which meant that the calculation of their location at any given time was a relatively simplistic problem and certainly not difficult at all for the complex computers aboard the space station. And in fact, the term “missile” was something of a misnomer in this case, Selu reflected. A more appropriate description would have been space mine. A type of space mine designed and painted to be well-nigh invisible unless activated. Now, all he had to do was make sure the timing was right.

“Stand by Nighthawk missile tubes,” Selu instructed the fire control officer.

His eyes were still closed, and he was still concentrating on the words “stand by” so that Master Daara would detect his signal. He sensed she was receiving the thought he was sending through the Force and that reassured him. Selu watched intently as the Zannists closed in on the mines, obviously unaware of the approach. Just as their red dots intersected with the invisible cluster of lurking explosives, he changed his mental message.

Now!

“Trigger the mines!” Selu ordered. “Launch all Nighthawks!”

A single concentrated thought from Selu broke the Force shield protecting the Yanibar Guard Fleet as they emerged, all weapons blazing in a furious flank assault. Purple volleys of turbolaser fire slammed into opposing ships while argent red and fuchsia streaks of fire from proton torpedoes homed in to explode violently against shields and hull. Cyan ion cannons sent tendrils of energy dancing across hulls, shorting out electrical circuits and control systems.

The Zannist fleet was caught completely by surprise by the sudden appearance of the ships. They had been preparing to bombard the troublesome space station when the cloud of mines had activated and begun exploding. The other Aggressor-class destroyer besides the Merciless had even fired off its main weapon, sending a giant plasma bolt surging through space to impact on its target. However, that ship, right at the focal point of the Yanibar Guard sneak attack, took the most damage, shuddering under the withering hail of fire.

“Admiral Slayke,” Selu said into the communications console. “The fleet is yours. Make it count.”
“Understood, Master Kraen,” the gravelly voice of Admiral Zozridor Slayke replied. “Time to teach Tyber Zann a bit about space warfare.”

Selu didn’t hear him though. Closing out the sights and sounds of the bridge at battle, he had sank deeply into the Force, shutting himself off from the physical world. The stars expanded around him as his mind was transported out into space, looking down at the battle. Selu allowed his presence and will to diffuse, affecting each individual on the battlespace in the arcane Jedi talent known as battle meditation. This technique emboldened and reinforced the will and determination of Yanibar Guard personnel while sapping the morale and resolve of their opponents. Save for a few scattered pockets that he couldn’t touch, its effects were already becoming evident, Selu realized, judging by the devastation that was being wrought.

Merciless
“Where did those ships come from?” demanded Tyber Zann angrily as the Merciless shuddered from the impacts.

His flagship, relatively insulated on the far side of the formation, had only sustained a few glancing hits, but other Zannist ships closer to the brunt of the surprise ambush hadn’t fared nearly so well. In particular, the three Crusader-class corvettes on that flank had been utterly destroyed in the opening volley and other ships were accumulating damage rapidly. The Merciless rocked again as a stray concussion missile hit it near the bridge. Zann was furious; he hadn’t planned on being attacked nearly this fast. Instead, he had planned on holding position at a distance from Yanibar while he extracted information from his two prisoners. His initial instinct was that they’d somehow tipped off this fleet, but he quickly discarded the possibility. They had been well-guarded and constantly kept in the Force-nullifying bubble of the ysalamiri cages. No, this had to be some sort of prepared defense, set up when they’d detected his fleet dropping out of hyperspace. Someone’s long-range sensors were better than his tacticians had predicted. They would pay for that, but even their failings did not explain how the hostile fleet had managed to approach his armada undetected until they’d started firing.

“They must have been cloaked, sir,” one of his bridge crew told him, an obvious possibility if it wasn’t for the fact that cloaking that many ships was tremendously expensive.

For the moment, it didn’t matter. Instead, Zann returned his focus to the battle, to defeating these irritating ships.

“Main plasma cannon is charged and ready to fire, milord,” his experienced gunnery chief ordered.
“Hit the nearest target of size,” Zann said. “I want them to watch their ships explode. Order the fleet to engage at will, protect the transports.”

Zann’s command was swiftly carried out as the Zann Consortium ships turned to counterattack. The battle for Yanibar had just begun.

Orbital defense command

Selusda Kraen’s mind was floating through space, and he saw himself standing in the midst of the raging battle in miniaturized scale. His mental projection through the Force gave him the perception that he was walking among the ships, each scaled down so his mind could absorb the full picture. The Yoda was no larger than his desk to him and though he knew that the battle was taking place in space, he had no sensation of floating. It was in his mind anyway, but Selu had to admit that, if it wasn’t for the dozens of deaths he could sense on both sides, the sight was breathtaking.

Coherent bolts of light and missiles were soon exchanged as each fleet sought to batter the other into submission. Starfighter formations wove and spun through the chaos of the battle, seeking out their counterparts to engage, or joining up to make bombing runs on larger ships. The batteries on the larger ships opened up with a blistering volley of high-powered weapons fire, turning the battlespace into a confusing, deadly maze of firing lines. The Merciless fired its main weapon, sending a plasma bolt the size of a freighter into the Plooriod Bodkin. The resulting blast pierced the shields of the Carrack-class cruiser and ripped into its hull. The sturdy little warship fell out of formation and began drifting, out of control. A bevy of escape pods shot away from its stern section, and then the ship exploded.

On the side of the Yanibar Guard, Admiral Slayke watched as his former flagship succumbed to the tremendous impact of the plasma bolt, while Tyber Zann smiled with glee as the ship blew up. His only regret was that his order to his gunnery crews hadn’t instructed them to hit a larger target.

Unfortunately for the Zann Consortium, the combination of mines and the initial strike had left the other Aggressor badly damaged, its shields failing and explosions erupting along its hull. The YGF ships pressed the attack, sending in a formation of Valkyrie starbombers to unload a total of forty concussion missiles into the stricken warship. Mortally wounded, the proud destroyer rolled over, trailing burning atmosphere and leaking engine plasma. A few escape pods were jettisoned from the ruptured hull as the ship started breaking up, torn apart by internal detonations.

The Yanibar Guard ships pressed the assault, slicing through the Zann Consortium fleet, both starboard and port batteries firing as they knifed through, leaving a smattering of messy debris clouds in their wake. One thing the Zann Consortium hadn’t expected was the arrival of the Nighthawk missiles. The salvo of twenty missiles launched from the Yanibar Guard space station had been fired too late, and now the warheads were somewhat indiscriminately detonating among both Yanibar Guard and Zann Consortium vessels; while they were smart enough not to actively seek out YGF ships, they were also not maneuverable enough to whip past ships that their guidance programming had not accounted for.

Even as the Yanibar Guard ships unloaded vicious broadsides into their opponents, the Zann Consortium fleet responded in kind, closing in on the wedge formation of their opponents in an attempt to encircle and enclose them. The battle degenerated into something of a brawl as gunners tried to prioritize in a target-saturated environment. The Merciless, its recharge cycle completed, unloaded another glowing plasma bolt, this time into the Yoda. The new Fleet Defender’s shields flickered, but barely withstood the assault. However, the heavy plasma cannon was not the only weapon in Tyber Zann’s arsenal, and the combined turbolaser, ion cannon, and mass driver fire of both Kedalbe-class battleships soon wore through its shields, scoring its hull. Even flanked by the Niman-class cruiser-carriers, the flagship of the Yanibar Guard was being heavily pummeled.

Fleet Defender Yoda

Admiral Slayke picked himself up from the deck where he’d been hurled bodily by a near-miss on the bridge. The aged officer had, as usual, neglected to wear any kind of restraints on his seat and had paid for it. Not two meters away, a console exploded in a shower of sparks, eliciting a scream from the Zabrak crewman unfortunate enough to be caught in it.

“Get a medical team up here,” Slayke growled, pulling the injured Zabrak away from the overloaded panel.

The previously pristine bridge of the Yoda, all brand new in its shiny pale gray paneling and blinking tactical displays, was rapidly becoming a mess. Several leaks of some kind were blowing smoke through the ship and Slayke noticed a ceiling panel was sparking. Glancing at the mottled red-yellow-and-green damage board for his ship, he doubted the rest of the Yoda was doing much better.

Slayke struggled back to his command chair and pulled up the overall fleet status. Wiping away a trace of blood from a busted lip on his sleeve, Slayke grimaced. His fleet would not last much longer at this rate, despite the damage it was inflicting. Even the late arrival of another six starfighter squadrons from the space platform wouldn’t be enough to decisively smash Tyber Zann’s fleet. In fact, now that the element of surprise had been lost, the Yanibar Guard ships were vulnerable to Zann’s hideous superiority in firepower. In particular, the monstrous Kedalbe¬-class battleships had proved equally adept at soaking up and distributing damage, and the two mammoth warships seemed ready to slice through his fleet in a mirror of their own earlier maneuver. Slayke stared grimly at the threat boards. Though he had no problems with taking his ships into the nine Corellians hells, he would only do so if he knew he could get them out, or if it was for a really good reason. There was no point in prolonging an engagement that would cost him the entire YGF when he could withdraw and fight Zann later.

“All ships, prepare to retreat to the defense platform,” he barked, coughing from the smoky air on the bridge. “Helm, get us out of here at flank speed. Maintain formation. And somebody vent that smoke!”
“Aye, sir,” came a chorus of replies.

The mighty Fleet Defender vectored away from the battle rather than plunging back into it, and the school of YGF ships around it followed suit, still spraying weapons fire back at their adversaries. Dogfights between starfighters continued, but gradually, the Yanibar Guardsmen began drifting away in a carefully controlled retreat, ensuring that each ship was covered by at least one other during the withdrawal from the firestorm of pitched battle.

Merciless
“They’re withdrawing,” Zann said incredulously. “They swooped in to hammer us, then they flee at the first sign of trouble. What cowards.”

He snorted in disdain as the Yanibar Guard fleet turned tail and began its retreat.

“It is a wise tactic on their part,” Urai Fen pointed out. “They know they cannot win against our ships. If they can replicate their earlier sneak attack, they can do considerable harm to our fleet if they catch us by surprise again, possibly even destroy this vessel.”
“They obviously don’t know we have our two hostages,” Zann said. “Or else they’d be trying to board us.”
“It could be that they don’t care about them,” Urai suggested as a trio of B-wings made one last torpedo run on the Merciless before withdrawing.

The Merciless shuddered; its shields had been down and the torpedoes had blown out a turbolaser battery, but no severe damage was done. Point-defense fire from the destroyer swatted one of them out of the sky on their breakaway. Good. The gunnery crews were still sharp on their anti-fighter drills.

“Not likely,” Zann replied. “Anyone that unwilling to risk the lives of their fleet would be equally unwilling to endanger their own if they were captured.”
“True,” Urai agreed. “Perhaps you should explain the situation to the defenders after they finish withdrawing. Our numbers have been rather diminished in this attack.”
“Yes, Urai, but I’m not quite done yet,” Zann said, then turned to his chief weapons controller. “How long until the plasma cannon is ready to fire again.”
“Just a few more seconds, milord,” came the reply.
“Good,” Zann said with malicious delight. “Pursue at flank speed and target their flagship. Get close enough that we can’t miss. I’ll teach those fools for daring to attack Tyber Zann.”
Aayla Secura

Captain Destra Starkellos Zel of the Aayla Secura grimaced as his precious ship took another volley of hostile weapons fire. The Zelosian captain clutched his command chair as alarms wailed through the bridge. His Niman-class cruiser-carrier, bringing up the rear of the Yanibar Guard formation, had been savagely bombarded by two of the Consortium’s Vengeance-class frigates, overloading even the sturdy shields of the Secura and tearing into its internal structure. He called up a holocam view of his rear quarter and, since he’d already seen the damage readouts, was unsurprised to see it being chewed apart by a withering storm of viridian turbolaser blasts and solid metal mass driver rounds.

“We’re losing starboard engine power,” his executive officer informed him.

That made sense; those were the closest to the majority of the Zann Consortium fleet, near the most exposed quarter of the Secura’s aft. It also meant that it was unlikely his ship would be able to escape at reduced speed. If the other ships of the Yanibar Guard slowed down to keep pace with his limping cruiser-carrier, they would be chewed to pieces.

Captain Starkellos Zel chewed on his lip, a habit he had developed from living among Humans. He knew that Admiral Slayke would try and preserve the Secura, even if it meant endangering the rest of the YGF. He also knew that the Zannists would exploit that weakness and pick off the rest of the fleet piecemeal if they didn’t retreat immediately. He stared at his flickering tactical screen as his ship continued to take fire, trying to find some way to alter the quandary that the YGF was heading towards.

Then, he saw it. Something in the positions and vectors indicating direction and velocity of the respective fleets gave him a spark of inspiration, causing his emerald green eyes to glow excitedly. The Secura lurched again, shaking as an Interceptor frigate detonated nearby, washing the cruiser-carrier with the shock wave. The captain ignored it, leaping back to his command chair and hastily triggering the comlink.

“All hands, this is the captain. Emergency evacuation of starboard wing decks. Repeat, evacuate all starboard wing compartments immediately!”
“Captain?” inquired his executive officer. “What—?”

Starkellos Zel held up a hand, silencing him.

“On my mark, give me full reverse thrust. I want an emergency stop!” he snapped. “Standby port thrusters!”

His navigational crew—what was left of it—was too well disciplined to not obey. They quickly implemented the necessary commands, causing the Secura to slow even further. A hologram of Admiral Slayke’s grizzled face appeared on the projector of the young captain’s command chair.

“What the blazes are you doing, Captain?” Slayke demanded.
“Buying you time, sir,” the Zelosian replied. “Prepare to receive escape pods.”
“Explain yourself!” Slayke said insistently.
“No time, Admiral,” Starkellos Zel told him. “May the Force be with you.”

He switched off the holoprojector, heedless of proper protocol. If he survived this crazy stunt, he could deal with the insubordination charges. His eyes were fixated on the main tactical board, watching the Zannist fleet surround his slowing ship as it continued to fall into their midst. Then he saw it, the golden opportunity.

“Now!” he shouted.

The Secura shuddered, a painful sound reverberating through the tortured hull as the braking thrusters were fired, drastically chopping back on its velocity. The result carried the battered Niman-class cruiser-carrier straight into the trajectory of the Merciless. They were too close not to hit; the only question was how direct would the impact be.

“Fire starboard directional thrusters, ten percent,” Starkellos Zel shouted. “All hands, prepare to abandon ship. Use portside and ventral escape pods only.”

The bridge crew looked at him as if he was crazy, but he only clutched the armrests of the command chair after securing his restraints. Keying in his command code, the captain hastily activated the ship’s auto-destruct. If he was going to lose the Secura, he would take some of them with him. The stern holocam, just before it was blown away by a last-second flurry of laserfire, showed that the Merciless was right on top of them.

“Brace for impact!” he called over the ship’s intercom, watching the Merciless frantically attempt to vector out of the path of oncoming ship.

Collision was unavoidable. The starboard wing of the Niman¬-class cruiser-carrier slammed into the nose of the Merciless, disintegrating into a hail of burning metal shards even as it carved a deep score into the port side of the Merciless. A streak of explosions tore across both vessels as the Secura side-swiped the Zann Consortium flagship. Hull plates were shredded and tossed into space effortlessly as bulkheads blew, venting atmosphere. Alarms wailed on both ships as crewmembers were knocked to the deck by the impact. Audio pickups recorded a loud screech of metal as the two metal juggernauts collided. Even the glancing impact had been enough to devastate the affected sections of both ships.

The Merciless was trailing a line of leaking plasma and debris from the deep scar on its port side, running from just behind the nose of the destroyer to three hundred meters back. As for the Secura, it had been reduced to little more than a hulk. Just that slight scrape had been enough to tear off forty meters of wingspan.

A flurry of escape pods shot from the doomed cruiser-carrier, heading through the storm of fire to reach the other Yanibar Guard ships. Some of the lucky ones made it. Many of them were destroyed by Zannist gunners looking for revenge. One of the ones that did escape, though, contained Captain Destra Starkellos Zel. The ship’s reactor feeds had been too badly damaged to initiate the auto-destruct, even though they were buried at the core of the cruiser-carrier, and his crew had practically dragged him into an escape pod. He watched the storm of weapons fire flying between the ships, and was disappointed to see the Secura fail to explode in the middle of the Zannist formation. While he loved the old girl, as he referred to his command, and part of him was glad she could still be salvaged, the captain had known it would mean saved YGF lives if it had.

In short order, the remaining escape pods were collected by other YGF ships. The Zannists, however, made no further attempt to pursue after the injury done to their flagship. Having apparently exhausted their will to fight, they were falling back to regroup. A few last parting shots were fired in an attempt to score a lucky hit, then both fleets separated, heading in opposite directions to lick their wounds and plan their next move. It wasn’t over yet.

Merciless

Tyber Zann stalked furiously through the corridors of the Merciless, finally leaving the crowded command bridge where he’d been for all forty minutes of the unexpectedly swift space battle. Having given the order to withdraw away from the vicinity of the battle and effect repairs, his mind now turned to other matters now that he was no longer preoccupied with orchestrating a pitched fleet engagement. Matters such as his two Jedi prisoners. As he walked, a lieutenant half-jogged to catch up to him.

“Lord Zann, I have the damage reports for the Merciless,” the man stammered.
“And?” Zann replied gruffly.
“I regret to inform you that the collision with the hostile ship damaged the main plasma battery severely. It needs extensive repair before we can use it again.”

Zann glowered. That news was not what he had wanted to hear. He turned sharply and shoved the cowering underling into one of the metal walls.

“And the rest of the ship?” he asked impatiently.
“Minor damage to the rest of the primary systems,” the hapless lieutenant said. “There are crews already sealing off and restoring the ruptured forward compartments.”
“Good,” Zann said. “Now get me my cannon back online.”
“My lord . . .” the man started to protest, only to be cut off by a fierce glare from the crime lord. “It shall be done.”
“What of the rest of the fleet?”
“Also damaged, milord. There were heavy losses.”
“Get out of my sight,” Zann snarled. “Don’t let me see you again until the cannon is repaired.”

He released the man, who quickly headed away from his wrathful overlord.

“And one more thing,” Zann called after him. “See that the fleet is ready to deploy again in three hours. Have all ground troops prepare to land.”

Urai Fen had been silently following Zann’s lead as the angry crime lord had strode through the corridors of the ship. However, this new order was enough to instigate him to speech.

“So soon?” Urai asked. “Our ships may not be ready.”
“Neither will theirs,” Zann countered. “They have the advantage of a short supply line while we are out here with no support. We must strike quickly.”
“What are you planning?” Urai inquired.
“They don’t have a shipyard or any sizable facility other than that space station in orbit,” Zann pointed out. “That means there must be a facility on the ground somewhere below the station.”
“Our scans detected nothing from orbit . . . you think it is concealed?” Urai replied.
“If they can conceal a fleet, they can conceal a base,” Zann said. “I want to know exactly how they do it and where to find them.”
“The prisoners,” Urai realized.
“Yes, Urai. I’m about to hold this Sarth person to his little promise. He’s going to tell me everything I want to know.”
“The Jedi are traditionally quite resilient to interrogation,” Urai pointed out. “That may prove difficult.”
“Without the Force, they’re nothing,” Zann scoffed. “And I have something much more . . . insidious planned.”

Reaching his destination, he swiped one hand over a door-scanner, admitting him to the prison cell where Sarth and Cassi were, followed by an entourage of Urai Fen and the two Trandoshans.

For their part, Sarth and Cassi hadn’t known what was going on through all the lurching and shuddering of the ship. Their prison cell was fairly spacious, but lacked restraints, so they’d been tossed around the metal deck. Sarth had speculated that the Zannists had come under attack by the YGF and had half-expected the ship to blow up around them at any point, but the Merciless had apparently survived. Sarth knew that meant the return of Tyber Zann to collect on his promise. Trying to get some rest for what he knew would be strenuous questioning, he had curled up alongside Cassi on the hard metal shelf that served as a crude bed. All too soon, though, Zann had entered the room and the hard, wild light in the crime lord’s eyes informed Sarth that he could expect even less in the way of mercy this time.

“Get up,” Zann told him.

Wearily, Sarth stood, trying to avoid putting too much weight on his weak leg.

“You knew this would happen, didn’t you?” Zann snarled accusingly.
“Knew what would happen?” Sarth asked, confused.

Zann’s reply was to kick Sarth’s injured knee. A gasp of pain escaped Sarth as he crumpled to the ground, clutching the freshly aggravated injury.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he managed to say through the waves of fresh hot pain shooting through his kneecap.

Zann mercilessly picked up Sarth bodily and slammed him into a wall. He leaned in so his face filled Sarth’s vision, ensuring that the other man was cognizant of just how irate the crime lord was.

“You mean to tell me you didn’t know your little fleet was going to attack us right when we dropped out of hyperspace?” he said softly.
“I didn’t know what their plans were,” Sarth told him hoarsely. “I’m just an executive; I leave the defense planning to Matrik Tenzor.”
“You’re a kriffing liar!” Zann shouted in his face, throwing him to the ground.

Angry, his chest heaving with exertion and face red with apoplectic rage, Zann stood over the hapless Sarth. The desire to inflict pain welled up within him and he gladly gave in to that urge, stomping on Sarth’s injured ankle next. Something snapped and the cry of anguish he received was music to his ears.

“Listen up,” Zann said to Sarth, pitching his voice to a low growl. “You are going to give me the location of the Kraechar Arms facility on the surface of Yanibar. Then you are going to tell me everything there is to know about the defenses both down there and in space. And lastly, you’re going to tell me about your Jedi friends.”

Despite lying in a crumpled heap on the ground in agony from the abuse to his ankle and knee, Sarth found it within him to defy Tyber Zann one more time. He would not betray Yanibar, no matter what. Pulling himself into a reclining position, he made as if to spit in the face of the hunched over Tyber Zann. He almost made it, too, but Zann recognized the motion and punched him in the gut, driving the wind out of Sarth and doubling him up.

“I should have known better than to believe you,” Zann snarled.
“You should have,” Sarth forced out. “I’ll never tell you anything.”
“Yes, you will,” Zann countered.

Signaling the Trandoshans, he had them bring in a specially modified hoverstretcher into the prison cell. As soon as the battle was over, he’d had his medics add several thick leather straps to it at key points. It was now time to put his sadistic device to use.

“Pick her up,” he ordered the Trandoshans.

A struggling Cassi was bodily hauled from her half-dazed position on the metal bed. Weakened as she was, she had no chance of overpowering the reptilian strength of Zann’s enforcers. They roughly dumped her on the stretcher and began strapping her down at the ankles, wrist, and across the neck.

“Now,” Zann said, smirking at Sarth as he slowly walked over to the hoverstretcher. “Here’s what I’m going to do. You and your friends have done a fair amount of damage to my operations on Nar Shaddaa, and elsewhere, I suspect. I’ve lost a lot recently thanks to you, and it’s time to relieve some pressure.”

Standing beside the hoverstretcher, he smiled cruelly down at a frightened Cassi. Reaching out, he stroked her face with one finger, noting her instinctively recoil from his touch.

“You’ve got quite a pretty wife, Sarth,” he commented, still looking at Cassi.

He paused, drawing out the moment for dramatic impact.

“Hope you don’t mind sharing.”
“No!” Sarth called, trying to clamber to his feet only to have a Trandoshan plant a massive clawed foot on his back, pinning him to the floor. “You wouldn’t!”
“Oh really?” Zann asked facetiously.

He leered down at Cassi, savoring her helplessness. She stared back at him with a combination of fear and loathing.

“Sarth, I think I am going to enjoy this,” Zann said, stroking Cassi’s face again.

This time, his hand continued downward from her face and neck, drawing an enraged blush to her cheeks. She was trembling, and Zann knew this was the true meaning of power. Her life was in his hands, and even if she hated it, he knew that she realized he was in control. However, still she continued to defy him.

“Sarth! Don’t tell him anything!” Cassi shouted desperately, trying to strain her neck against the restraint to make eye contact with him.
“You’ll think differently soon,” Zann assured her, a dark twinkle in his eyes. “You’ll be begging him to spill everything in between screams. Make no mistake. I will kill you.”

Sarth stared at the scene unfolding before him with abject horror. A tear ran down his face as he realized what Cassi was about to be subjected to. He closed his eyes quietly, knowing that he could not consciously put her through this. He would never be able to live with himself. At the same time, though, he would be betraying everything he, Selu, Cassi, Milya, and Spectre had labored to create. That thought was not very strong, though. It was his search that had brought them to Mandalore, his decision to not fight off the Consortium thugs there, and now it had been his choice to play stubborn with Tyber Zann. He could not let it be his choice to watch his wife be violated in front of him.

Zann ignored the conflicted and contorted Sarth, focusing his attention on Cassi. Zann opened the closures on the jacket she was wearing, revealing the dirty, stained tank-top she had on underneath, a garment which had once been white. He smiled viciously.

“My, my, what have we here?” he asked aloud, relishing the pained look on her face as he prepared to . . .
“Stop!” Sarth cried desperately. “Leave her alone!”

Zann stopped.

“Why should I do that?” he asked, turning towards Sarth.
“I’ll tell you,” Sarth said brokenly. “I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”
“Will you?” Zann asked wickedly. “And why should I believe that?”
“Sarth, no!” Cassi breathed, but she was suddenly stifled by Zann clapping one of his hands over her mouth.
“I give you my word as a Jedi,” Sarth said miserably. “Just don’t hurt her.”
“Very well,” Tyber Zann said.

He slowly backed away from her, favoring Cassi with one last smirk. Sarth breathed a huge sigh of relief, but Cassi was pale with worry and despair.

“Urai,” he said quietly to his Talortai henchman. “As soon as Sarth tells me everything, I want you to give her as the reward to the most efficient repair crew to do with as they please.”
“That is not advisable,” Urai rumbled.
“What?” Zann said angrily.
“It is neither practical nor honorable,” Urai countered.
“I have no use for her once I have the information I need,” Zann sneered. “And I don’t give a damn about honor.”
“I do,” Fen said, his eyes glittering coldly. “He gave his word as a Jedi in exchange for her. He will tell what you want to know. Leave her alone.”
“And why should I do that?” Zann asked. “Let the crew have their fun. I would greatly enjoy watching her suffer.”
“He gave his word,” Urai grated. “And you will ruin their value as bargaining chips later.”
“I’m not going to bargain with these people, Urai,” Zann said heatedly. “I’m going to kill them.”
“She may prove useful later,” Urai countered. “If these people do care about their own that much, there could be multiple uses for a valuable hostage.”
“Fine,” Zann growled huffily. “Have it your way. She will remain unspoiled—provided Sarth tells me everything I want to know.”

Urai bowed his head in quiet acknowledgement and said no more.

“Bring him to my conference room,” Zann ordered to the Trandoshans.

They obeyed dutifully, scooping Sarth up from the ground and dragging him roughly out the door behind Zann. Urai Fen lingered a moment, walking up to the hoverstretcher. The alien warrior loosed the straps holding Cassi down, then headed for the door.

“Thank you,” Cassi said quietly, having heard the entire conversation between him and Zann.

Fen said nothing, but grunted in reply and walked out, leaving Cassi to quietly contemplate what had just happened.

She pulled herself off the hoverstretcher and closed her tattered jacket back up protectively. Then, she curled herself into a ball on the metal bunk and let the tears flow freely. She felt dirty, and while she was physically filthy, Zann’s attempt to violate her left her feeling emotionally soiled. She knew Sarth had only acceded for her sake, but the fact that he’d had to betray the Yanibar refuge compounded her misery. She’d begged him aloud not to say anything, but the truth was that she would have given anything to get Zann away from her. She felt as stained as if she’d been the one to betray Yanibar. For the first time since leaving Yanibar, Cassi felt alone, helpless, and isolated. For the first time, the flicker of hope within her spirit began to wane and fade, leading her to despair. The tears continued to flow freely as she huddled, arms wrapped around herself, seeking solace that was not forthcoming.

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