The starship’s engines slowly whined to a halt in the dusty spaceport dock on Ord Cestus. A cloud of reddish-orange dust billowed around the scuffed and worn metal of the ship’s exterior as the sun beat down on the plates. It was a light freighter, one of a million that could be seen traversing the galaxy from the heavily populated Core Worlds to the fringe of the Outer Rim. These small independent shippers were often lifelines for the remote worlds, bearing vital supplies of food, medicine, and other supplies to distant colonies that lacked the influence to draw larger ships. A constant traffic of these ships to and fro a world indicated a healthy trade, at the very least.
Ord Cestus was nothing special as far as worlds went, a mostly desert world with sparse agricultural development far out in the Outer Rim. Far more developed than many others, it boasted a decent enough infrastructure supported by Cestus Cybernetics, the driving force behind the Ord Cestian economy. Centuries earlier, Ord Cestus had been a prison planet as offworlders had arrived to displace the native insectoid X’Ting, but its occupants had found that manufacturing droids was much more lucrative than running enormous incarceration facilities. Since their arrival, the offworlders had come to dominate Ord Cestian life at the expense of the natives; the same story that had occurred on dozens of other worlds. A bit of intrigue during the Clone Wars had nearly driven the planet into the arms of Count Dooku’s Separatists, but a pair of Jedi Knights had been able to avert such a disaster. Now, despite all the efforts of the X’Ting, Ord Cestus was an Imperial world.
However, it was still a pretty one. The architecture of the capital city, ChikatLik was neither obtrusive nor overdone, blending in well with the volcanic ridges on which it was built. Everywhere, the hustle and bustle of a busy populace filled the streets, the light railways, and the flight paths of ChikatLik. The morning sun cast a golden gleam over the buildings, causing trace mineral grains in some of the volcanic rock formations to twinkle in the radiance. The day promised to be hot, like virtually every other, but not unbearably so.
A boarding ramp hissed and slid open from the ship’s fore, which had a long neck protruding from a semicircular stern section. In fact, the freighter was designed to imitate a flying animal native to Coruscant, the galactic capital, and its elegant lines were homage to the sleekness of its namesake. As the ramp crunched softly into the dusty duracrete of the landing pad, three cloaked figures slowly descended from the ship, surveying the area around them. All three of them were human, two males and a female. Their clothing was typical of wandering spacers; neither overly affluent nor the rags of extreme poverty. Most unusual were the dark gray cloaks they wore and the vestments they wore, which marked them as religious pilgrims of some sort, devotees of the Thruskan Order, a wandering group of people who searched the stars looking for visions of an ancient prophet guiding them on a path to paradise. Pushing through the spaceport, they rapidly cleared the local customs office without incident, looking about. Passersby paid them little attention and even the vendors on the street hawking their wares barely gave them a second glance. The Thruskan Order wasn’t renowned for its wealth or its congeniality, although its adherents generally weren’t violent.
Of course, although the X’Ting and humans brushing by them in the street didn’t know it, couldn’t have known it, these were no pilgrims. All three of them were on Ord Cestus as part of a secret mission.
- “Any signs of a shadow so far?” asked the first, a man named Selusda Kraen.
At first glance, there was nothing special about him, the sort of nondescript man who blends well into crowds. His average height and breadth, tanned skin, black hair and dark eyes didn’t particularly stand out, though he was what people would have described as moderately handsome. While he appeared fit, he wasn’t overly intimidating or muscular, but did come across as imposing. However, to those who knew him well enough to call him Selu, he was a Jedi Knight, a remnant of the Order whose number had once been the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy. His companions were equally impressive. The female, relatively tall and deceptively delicate of appearance, her brown eyes setting off a face framed with dark auburn locks, had grown up among the Echani warriors and was also trained in the ways of the Force. The final member of the trio stood taller than both of them and was possibly the most formidable of the group. Tall and very muscular, his dark eyes constantly darted from point to point and his curly ebony-black hair was kept cropped short. He went by Spectre, that one name enough to identify himself, a carryover habit from his past. He had once been an ARC, an elite commando of the Republic during the Clone Wars, but a year ago, had experienced the transformation that came when one discovered the depths of the Force, and he too had begun learning its ways.
- “None so far,” the woman, Milya Tayrce, replied. “Do you see anything, Spectre?”
- “We’re clear,” Spectre affirmed.
- “Stick to the plan, then,” Selu said. “Stay sharp until we get to the hotel, though.”
- “Suits me,” Spectre said. “I’m looking forward to sleeping in a bed I don’t have to make.”
- “Don’t get your hopes up too much. I’m not paying for the Grand ChikatLik,” Selu replied, referring to the most luxurious hotel in ChikatLik.
- “Too bad Sarth and Cassi couldn’t have come,” Milya said. “Would’ve been just like old times.”
- “They couldn’t spare all of us,” Selu said. “Besides, Cassi does have her little one to look out for. By their reckoning, she’s already about three months along.”
- “True enough,” Milya agreed.
The three made their way through the crowds, walking casually, making no pretense of haste. They were blending in to the crowd, as inconspicuously as possible, yet as alert as a sentry droid. All three of them were enemies of the Empire, and while the Imperial presence wasn’t obtrusive, they knew all too well how quickly Imperial personnel could come boiling out of their hidden garrisons if a disturbance presented itself.
Passing through the spaceport district, they walked past numerous docking ports, all busy with spacers and locals performing the myriad tasks that came with landing a ship on a world: repairing, bargaining, loading, unloading, refueling, buying and selling. Ord Cestus, being primarily an exporter of droids, did enjoy a brisk trade with a number of nearby worlds willing to buy small amounts of droids.
- “Wait a minute,” Spectre stiffened. “That’s odd.”
- “What is it?” Selu asked softly. “Have you found our friends?”
- “No,” Spectre said. “I did sense something though.”
- “Where?” Milya asked.
Spectre looked around; searching for whatever had tripped his senses, set him alert. He wasn’t quite sure what it was, but years of practice had honed his perceptions to the point where he generally knew when he was the subject of someone’s attention.
- “Over there, to the left,” he said, careful to avoid looking at his subject.
Instead, Selu and Milya paused a moment and casually glanced over in the direction Selu indicated.
- “It’s a woman,” Selu said. “Dark-skinned, late forties. Dressed like a ship pilot.”
Sure enough, the individual Selu had described was staring at Spectre like she had seen a ghost. The combination of several things-perhaps it was her short full-bodied black hair or slender figure or gentle curves-added together to give the woman an altogether attractive appearance. Selu couldn’t get a sensation from the Force of what she was so curious about with all the people around, but her eyes were certainly riveted on the ex-ARC. Spectre discreetly risked a glance and she immediately averted her gaze guiltily, as if she knew she had been caught staring.
- “Never seen her before,” he said.
- “It could be your rugged good looks she’s eyeing,” Selu joked, a wry smile on his face.
- “Could also be a coincidence,” Milya said. “You’re not exactly the most unique-looking person in the galaxy.”
That was true enough. As a clone of Jango Fett, millions of other men around the galaxy bore the same face, the same genetic code as Spectre. Most of them were still serving in the Imperial Army in some form, but it had been eight years since they were first introduced to the galaxy on the blood-soaked sand of Geonosis. It was possible that the mystery woman had seen or met clone troopers before and had recognized Spectre as one of them.
- “One problem with that,” Selu remarked. “I don’t believe in coincidences.”
- “So, the alley up there?” Milya replied.
- “Read my mind. Spectre, just look casual. If she follows you, she’ll pass by that alleyway over there.”
- “Copy that.”
Spectre continued to walk forward, but Milya and Selu stopped at a street vendor’s stall, inspecting the earthenware and pottery that the X’Ting had for sale. It was all native Ord Cestian, a local curiosity of little value elsewhere, but one never would have believed that from the fevered sales pitch they were given. Casually begging their leave of the vendor in hushed tones, they continued forward. Sure enough, the woman had discreetly followed Spectre, timidly venturing forward then stopping again to make sure he didn’t notice him. However, to Milya and Selu, it was apparent that her attention was still fixed on Spectre, and she wasn’t even aware they were waiting for her as she walked passed a shadowy corner and the alley it concealed.
Suddenly, Selu’s arm shot out and grabbed her, hauling her back into the alley as he clamped his hand over his mouth to stifle any screams. She struggled, squirming, but Selu held her tightly. Nobody came after her or even peeked into the alley.
- “Hold it,” he said. “I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to ask you some questions.”
She looked up at him, her eyes wide with fear, but she relaxed and Selu gingerly lifted his hand from her mouth.
- “What do you want with my friend?” he asked.
- “I-I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she stammered.
- “You’re lying,” Selu responded flatly.
- “Did you get her?” Spectre asked as he ducked into the alleyway.
- “We got her,” Selu said. “Now tell me, why were you staring at my friend? I’m not going to hurt you, but answer the question.”
- “He-he looked like someone I knew,” she replied, her voice shaking and Selu sensed she was telling the truth.
- “Who was that?” Selu asked.
- “A man, a soldier,” she said, a tear forming in her eyes and trailing down her cheek. “He died several years ago.”
Selu reached out with his Force senses and sensed tremendous emotion boiling up inside the woman. There was pain and love and longing and several other feelings. She wasn’t a threat, he decided, releasing her.
- “I’m sorry to have troubled you,” he said. “We’re just a bit jumpy after the problems on our last port of call. Can I get you something to drink for your trouble?”
She looked at them a bit uncertainly before finally nodding. They followed her to a nearby establishment, that while dingy enough, seemed clean and fairly reputable. Plopping down at the bar, they gratefully eased into the building’s cool interior while Selu signaled the bartender.
- “Give me something local, not too sweet and no intoxicants,” Selu said, and the bartender nodded gruffly as the others made similar orders.
- “So, who are you anyway?” the woman asked Spectre. “What did you do during the war?”
Spectre gave the woman a quick appraisal. While small and delicate of features, she looked tough and determined enough to be an inhabitant of a frontier world. Her hair did a rather good job of framing a dark-skinned face that still retained much of its youthful vigor, beauty, and good humor, he decided. She was altogether attractive.
- “I was an ARC-that’s Advance-,” Spectre said.
- “-Reconnaissance Commando, I know,” she said. “That’s not what I asked, though.”
- “I was at a number of places during the war. Hypori. Boz Pity. Many others,” Spectre said, careful not to go into too many specifics lest she or someone else listening in correlate the battles to the names and determine his identity.
- “Were you ever here?”
- “No, first time,” Spectre replied. “Why?”
- “I knew one of your kind,” she said. “Back during the war.”
- “Who was he?”
- “His name was Jangotat, though I suppose you would have known him as Alpha-98.”
- “Actually, we all started picking up names shortly after the incident here,” Spectre said, his mouth curving up in a small smile.
- “Did you?” the woman said with genuine surprise in her voice. “I’m surprised-but glad. It was the least they could have done for you.”
- “Since you asked me, who are you?” Spectre asked.
- “The name’s Tull. Sheeka Tull.”
- “Mom!” called a voice-male, juvenile. “Mom, are you in here?”
- “Yes,” Sheeka said, turning to look over her shoulder. “What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be in school with your brothers and sisters.”
- “We’re out for lunch,” said the source of the voice, a young boy about seven standard years of age said. “I came to see if you needed any help with Spindragon. Who’s this?”
As the boy spoke the last words, his coal-black eyes looked up to dart back forth from Sheeka Tull to Selu, Spectre, and Milya.
- “These are some old friends of friends,” Sheeka replied. “We’re just getting acquainted. Don’t worry about the ship for now, Nate. I’ll take care of it later.”
- “Okay, Mom,” he said, but there was suspicion evident in his voice.
Spectre looked down at the boy and something piqued his interest. The nose, the lanky black hair-that was all from his mother, he decided, but the eyes and facial structure staring back at him were decidedly familiar. They were his.
- “What are you looking at?” the boy asked impertinently.
- “Apparently you,” Spectre replied. “Is that a crime?”
- “No,” the boy said saucily. “But if you try anything with my mom, I’ll kill you myself, even if you have a weapon.”
- “Don’t worry, Nate. I have no intention of doing anything of the sort. Observant little fellow, isn’t he?” he said, smiling lightly and addressing his final words to Sheeka Tull.
- “Yes,” she said. “He takes after his-I mean, he’s very gifted.”
- “You meant to say that he takes after his father,” Spectre said.
- “Yes,” she said, dropping her gaze. “That’s right.”
Spectre looked down at Nate again, his voice grave.
- “Son, I appreciate what you’re trying to do for your mother. Look after her. Take care of her. She’s more than some men will ever have.”
- The boy nodded, still eyeing him suspiciously. “All right. What’s that you’ve got in that pouch on your belt?”
Spectre stopped, momentarily taken aback by the boy’s all-too-keen observation. Ruefully, he realized he shouldn’t have been surprised; this boy was heir to Jango’s legacy too. Some things just ran in the blood.
- “Ssh, Nate. It’s not polite to ask people about their belongings. Run along now and quit bothering-,”
- “Spectre,” he answered. “You can call me Spectre.”
Selu gave him a quizzical look, wondering why his friend had given the woman his real name.
- “Quit bothering Spectre,” she finished. “He doesn’t have to explain why he’s carrying a lightsaber.”
That bombshell completely took all three of them by surprise and they tensed up immediately. How had she noticed the weapons, so cleverly and painstakingly concealed inside their cloaks in hidden pockets? Was she an Imperial agent sent to flush them out? Selu immediately leaned in towards Sheeka, glaring vibrodaggers at her while Milya checked the exits for any sign of danger. For his part, Spectre simply sat there dumbfounded, completely at a loss for words.
- “His what?” Selu said icily.
- “His lightsaber,” she said. “I saw its shape when you reached out to take a drink. There’s not much else that shape worth concealing like that.”
- “Care to explain that?” Milya said, glowering.
- “It’s rather simple. If it was contraband, it makes more sense to store it somewhere else-in a boot or a pouch. The way it’s placed on the cloak, it has to be a weapon for easy reach, and there’s only one weapon I know that’s shaped like that,” Sheeka replied casually, as if pleased with her observation and utterly oblivious to the danger that the three people next to her posed.
- “What do you know about lightsabers?” Selu asked sharply.
- “Aren’t you the paranoid one?” she replied. “Calm down, please, but this isn’t the best place to talk about it. If you insist, I’ll explain everything, but at my ship, Spindragon.”
- “This better not be a trap,” Selu said. “Or you’ll be the first to die.”
- “No trap,” she said, shaking her head.
As she did so, Spectre’s eyes followed the gentle bounce of her hair, the way it fell around the softness of her neck.
- “She’s telling the truth,” Spectre said.
- “We’ll follow you then,” Selu said begrudgingly. “But don’t try anything.”
- “This way,” Sheeka replied, leading them out of the tapcafe.
The three followed her back to the spaceport to a battered-looking suborbital YT-1200 freighter. The ship looked serviceable enough and the ramp lowered easily as Sheeka entered its activation code. Entering Spindragon, Selu, Milya, and Spectre found the ship to be mostly functional on the interior, with only little odds and ends for decoration. A utilitarian vessel, to be sure, but workable.
- “Well,” Selu said. “We’re here. Why don’t you tell us what you wouldn’t back in the tapcafe?”
- “Okay,” she said slowly. “You might think I’m crazy, but the reason I know about lightsabers is because I knew a pair of Jedi Knights, back during the wars.”
- “Do tell,” Selu said, taking care to keep his voice and facial expression neutral. “What were their names?”
- “There was a Nautolan, Kit Fisto, and a Human, Obi-Wan Kenobi,” she said.
- “That makes sense then,” Selu said. “You must be the operative mentioned in their report, their local contact.”
Selu had been one of many Padawans assigned to analyze reports during the war, and a mission to Ord Cestus had been one of the many he and several others had examined during the Clone Wars. It had originally been a diplomatic mission led by Master Kenobi designed to prevent the Cestians from selling lethal combat droids to the Confederacy. However, Master Fisto had taken a small team of clone troopers and with the aid of a local contact—apparently this Sheeka Tull—to set up a contingency plan to launch a guerilla war aimed at sabotaging the droid production in case negotiations failed, which they did. She had been mentioned as serving honorably in the conflict that had resulted thanks to Separatist manipulation and had a criminal record expunged as a result. The Republic had ultimately won out on Ord Cestus, with the two Jedi Masters surviving an encounter with Dark Jedi Asajj Ventress and the threat of the droids revealed as a Separatist fraud.
- “That’s what I was,” Sheeka admitted. “More or less.”
- “I’m sure the Republic and the Jedi were grateful,” Milya said.
- “They held up their end of the deal, if that’s what you mean. But how do you know about the report?”
- “I used to be a . . . reporter,” Selu replied. “Before I found enlightenment, I worked for HoloNet News during the war.”
- “Yeah, right,” Sheeka replied, like she didn’t buy his story at all. “Fine. I don’t have to know what you’re up to.”
- “That’s right,” Milya said. “You don’t.”
- “There’s no call to be rude,” Spectre said, a hint of protest creeping into his voice.
- “I’m not being rude. If you’ll excuse me, ma’am, it’s probably better that you don’t know,” Selu replied, addressing his last remarks to Sheeka.
- “That’s fine with me,” Sheeka said. “I won’t tell anyone-least of all the Empire-that three Jedi were in ChikatLik snooping around.”
- “Snooping?” Selu said indignantly. “I think I’ve been insulted.”
- “Definitely,” Milya agreed.
- “It was a rather harsh description,” Spectre put in.
- “Much too harsh,” Selu continued, dragging it out.
- “Whatever, have it your way. Walking around,” Sheeka said, rolling her eyes. “Stop being so juvenile.”
- “Well, with that, I think we’ll be going,” Selu said. “Wouldn’t want to bore you with our juvenile antics.”
- “Suit yourself,” Sheeka replied flippantly, shrugging her shoulders.
- “Thank you for everything,” Milya said, a bit unnecessarily since the woman hadn’t given them anything.
- “It was a pleasure to meet you,” Spectre said as they took their leave.
They were silent all the way back to their hotel, being sure to watch for anyone following them again. However, this time, their trip went without incident. No sooner had they checked into their hotel suite and examined it for listening devices than Selu immediately began complaining, albeit in hushed tones to avoid being overheard.
- “Well, that went splendidly. Not even onworld for six hours and we’ve already been identified as Jedi. Next time remind me to send a notice of our trips to the nearest Imperial stormtrooper legion.”
- “Selu, it was your idea to go and grab her,” Milya reminded him.
- “She never would have seen the lightsaber if we’d just ignored her,” Spectre pointed out.
- “And she might have followed us all the way to the hotel, as obvious as a screaming gundark,” Selu countered.
- “It doesn’t matter. What’s done is done,” Milya said, trying to avert an argument. “Let’s start thinking about the mission.”
- “Right,” Selu said tiredly. “The mission. This intelligence-minded spying stuff is harder than I thought.”
- “If it was easy, everyone would do it,” Spectre said.
- “True,” Selu admitted. “Milya, have you got any sense of the Jedi?”
- “Somewhat. It’s hazy. Almost like they don’t want me to find them.”
- “Well, I can’t fault them for being cautious,” Selu said. “Take some time alone and just concentrate on the Force, like we’ve practiced, if that’ll help.”
- “Okay,” she said. “I’ll give it a try.”
Rising, she left, headed back for the second room of the suite, a smaller room equipped with a holoprojector, dresser, and a sleep couch as its only furniture. Selu closed the door behind him and sat down on his and Spectre’s bed with a sigh. It had been a trying day so far. For his part, Spectre had retrieved his blaster pistol, a Kraechar knockoff of a DC-15s, from its hidden compartment in his luggage and was methodically cleaning it, going over each part of the weapon lovingly.
- “Selu, can I ask you a question?” he said without looking up.
- “Sure,” Selu replied. “Is it about the same thing that you asked about the last time you started a conversation like this?”
Spectre managed a tight smile.
- “I suppose you could say that.”
- “Let me guess: Sheeka Tull?”
- “You know me well,” Spectre said. “She was very close to Alpha-98. Very close. I could see it in her eyes, the longing she’d had for him. For some reason, I just wanted to fill that emptiness.”
- “You mean, for some reason beside that she’s smart and good-looking,” Selu said.
- “There is that,” Spectre replied, then he finally met Selu’s eyes. “I felt a bond with her, though, like it was my duty to take care of her.”
- “I can understand that,” Selu said. “It’s natural for a man to want to protect a woman, to keep her safe.”
- “Strange, though. I never would have understood that emotion back in the army. Protecting civilians, sure. But not on a personal level.”
- “It’s all part of being human,” Selu said. “You’re experiencing something most every man feels at some point or other. And while it seems to be so vital, such a deep feeling, the sad truth is that it doesn’t often last.”
- “It’s lasted for you and Milya for a year,” Spectre answered.
- “Well, it’s not exactly like that,” Selu said. “And believe me, we’ve had more than our share of ups and downs. I understand part of why the Jedi didn’t allow this type of relationships, and it’s because, well-when you know someone as deeply as Milya and I know each other, it’s very easy to use that knowledge to inflict pain during a fight without even thinking about it.”
- “Yet you’re still together,” Spectre remarked wryly.
- “By luck or the will of the Force,” Selu said. “I still feel it’s worth it, most of the time. I’ve made the choice to break with the Jedi Order’s rules on this, and I’m living with that decision. But believe me, relationships can be painful things. I don’t want to see you hurt just because this Sheeka Tull catches your eye and had a kid with one of your brothers.”
- “It’s not just that,” Spectre protested softly. “There’s something to her that-that makes me want to see her as part of my life.”
- “I hope so, Spectre,” Selu said. “I wouldn’t count on it, though. She might have already forgotten about you.”
- “No,” Spectre replied bluntly. “I don’t think she could have forgotten me any more than I can forget her.”
- “If you’re right, old friend, then I’m certainly happy for you and I’ll do whatever I can to help you, but there is one thing.”
- “What’s that?”
- “The mission comes first,” Selu said, his eyes narrowing ever so slightly. “The last time we let other things come first . . .”
- “I know,” Spectre said. “I still have the blaster scar. Don’t worry, chief. We’ll finish our job here and I’ll come back later if I have to-assuming I can borrow a ship.”
- “Of course you can borrow a ship,” Selu assured him. “You can use the Hawk-bat.”
The two sat in silence for several hours, with Spectre and Selu spending much of the time checking and cleaning their gear; it was all part of a pre-battle ritual. While they didn’t expect to find combat on Ord Cestus-or at least hoped not to-it was always a possibility any time they walked out of their front door, back on Yanibar even. After they had finished, Selu found a datapad and began scrolling through local news reports and maps while Spectre took a nap, falling back on the old military adage of sleeping whenever one could wherever one could. Selu briefly left the room to get them something to eat from the hotel’s restaurant for lunch, but other than that, they remained in their room, waiting for Milya to emerge.
She finally did, just as the golden rays of the setting sun were glinting off the rooftops and streaming into their window. Walking back into the main room where Selu and Spectre were sitting, Milya looked haggard but triumphant, like she had just run a distance race and won. Both men glanced up at her as she entered.
- “Did you find them?” Selu asked.
- “Yes,” she said. “They’re on the outskirts of the city, and I think I can pin them down. There’s something else though.”
- “What is it?” Selu asked.
- “Danger,” she said, swallowing hard. “I sensed terrible danger.”
- “What kind of danger?” asked Spectre.
Milya stood trembling for a moment, her lips puckering as she tried to force the words out. Something had clearly troubled her, and Selu got up and put his arms around her, trying to comfort her.
- “It’s okay, Milya,” he said. “You’re fine. What did you see?”
- “A black shadow-and a red blade,” she replied, a genuine tremor in her voice.
- “Another one of those Dark Jedi the Empire’s got up its sleeve,” Spectre said darkly.
- “We’ll be extra careful then,” said Selu sternly, then he returned his focus to Milya, softening his tone. “Milya, are you going to be alright?”
- “I’ll be fine,” she said, recovering her voice somewhat. “It’s just-it was disturbing, what I saw.”
- “I’m sure, and you can tell me about it later,” Selu said empathetically. “But it’s over for now, until we’re done on this planet. Let’s go get something to eat, and we can use the cover of darkness to get to their safe house.”
The others agreed and they meandered over to the hotel restaurant. Sitting down at the table, they all ordered a variety of local specialties, most of which revolved around a sort of mushroom pie that tasted surprisingly like a meat pie. Fungi served in various forms dominated the meal’s main courses, with smaller dishes of vegetable and a thick soup complimenting them. The only exception to that rule was some sort of roasted avian-imported according to the menu-which proved to be quite tender, the white meat falling cleanly off the bones. While seasoned differently than what they would expect back on Yanibar, they found it delicious. After they had eaten enough to satisfy their hunger but not to point where their full stomachs would hamper them, they paid and returned to their suite, collecting their gear while Milya checked her own supplies over.
Exiting the hotel, they emerged wearing the same Thruskan cloaks, belts, vests, and pendants they had worn earlier. However, this time they were outfitted with a variety of gear that very few Thruskans ever would have worn: datapads, earpiece comlinks, glowrods, lightsabers, a blaster for Spectre, lockpicks, a vibroblade for Milya, and other various sorts of gear useful on such missions. They were careful to let none of it show, though now that a rather pleasantly cool dusk had fallen over ChikatLik, the issue of someone seeing their gear was diminished. However, they still kept their new accoutrements out of sight, as there never was any telling if some species-possibly even the native X’Ting-could see beyond the visible spectrum and pick out their weapons and other tools.
Picking their way through the flickering glowpanels hanging over the mostly darkened streets, the three were one of the few out and about at this particular hour. Most of the workers had already returned to their homes, and while some people were walking about, they were scattered and few-a marked difference from the bustle of earlier, during the busy workday. Milya led them, following her senses to where she had detected the presence of other Force users, and Selu and Spectre followed her quietly. Their hotel had been midway up the ridge that ChikatLik was built upon and they found themselves descending the unevenly sloped streets to get to their destination. The streets became increasingly narrow and twisted, turning into narrow unpaved tracks the further they descended. Overhead lighting went from being occasional to almost non-existent, and many of the buildings and houses they passed were shabby and dilapidated. The sun had fully set by the time Milya came to a stop, the dim ochre glow of sunset giving way to a deep blue sky filled with stars and wisps of high-altitude cirrus clouds.
- “They’re close,” she said. “Very close.”
Once again, Selu and Spectre followed Milya as she traced a path that led them beyond even the darkened slums of the city into the wild outskirts near the edge of ChikatLik. Houses, if the ramshackle buildings or caves could be called that, were scarcer here, and each inhabitant was afforded a greater sense of privacy than could be found in ChikatLik, albeit at a substantial loss to quality of life. Only the very dregs of society or isolationists lived out there, grubbing a meager existence from begging or doing the most menial of jobs in the slums. Amenities such as speeders or running water were nonexistent, as was any type of centralized power. A scavenger rodent of some kind waddled across the path in front of them, sniffed the air, and scurried off as they approached.
- “Odd place for a hideout,” Spectre remarked.
- “Well, it is isolated,” Milya pointed out.
- “True,” Spectre said. “But it’s also not very defensible. No way to slip out in the chaos of a messy urban fight and no way of escape.”
- “Jedi think differently from most people,” Selu reminded him.
- “And they seem to be in that cave over there,” Milya said, wrinkling her brow and closing her eyes in concentration. “I can finally sense their presences.”
- “Great,” Selu said. “Let’s go then.”
However, internally, he felt some trepidation of his own. How would the Jedi react to his arrival? What if he had disturbed their hiding or if they felt he was a traitor for the actions he had taken in setting up a refuge on Yanibar? Would they agree to come with him anyway? He wasn’t sure, and the fact that he almost certainly didn’t know any of these Jedi bothered him. At least if he had known one of the Jedi here, they would remember his face. He didn’t know any of the names of the fugitives hidden on Ord Cestus though, or even how many there were.
Suddenly, they were distracted by the roaring of spaceship engines and a disturbance in the Force. Six ships were flying into the spaceport, the blue ion trails of their engines barely visible against the night sky.
- “Those are Imperial shuttles,” Spectre said, squinting.
- “There it is again,” Milya said distantly. “That dark shadow. It’s here.”
- “I was hoping you wouldn’t say that,” Selu said. “I bet our informant turned all his information over to the Empire as soon as he got done talking with us for double pay.”
- “No takers,” said Spectre. “He was a shifty little Chadra-Fan.”
- “Change of plans,” Selu said. “I’ll go in and talk to the Jedi, but one of us needs to get back to the Hawk-bat and fly it over here.”
- “I’ll go,” Spectre said. “I can fit in with any stormtroopers that show up and I won’t need to rely on the Force to get me by them.”
- “May the Force be with you then,” Selu said.
- “Isn’t it always?” Spectre said, the corner of his mouth curving upward in a wry smile.
Then he was off, walking back up the path swiftly but not so fast as to break into a run or attract unnecessary attention.
- “Let’s do it,” Selu said, turning back to the cavern.
Swallowing hard, he walked up to the entrance of cave, which had a tattered blanket of some kind suspended across the entrance as a kind of door.
- “Hello in the cave,” he called somewhat hesitantly.
Several long minutes passed as he and Milya waited there expectantly. Finally, they heard a shuffling and scraping from within the cave that grew steadily louder. Abruptly, the blanket was yanked aside to reveal a rather aged-looking Human male standing before them, his face partially hidden by the stringy long gray hair hanging from his scalp. He was dirty and gaunt, having obviously seen better days.
- “What do you want?” he asked, a bit rudely.
- “We’re friends,” Selu said calmly.
- “Don’t have any friends,” the man replied, and Selu got little sensation of Force power from him.
Could Milya have been wrong? Had they come to the wrong cave? The man turned and began to close the crude curtain.
- “Wait,” Selu said.
Stretching out with his mind, Selu located a torch that had been sitting a bucket of some flammable liquid near the mouth of the cave and lifted it almost effortlessly with telekinesis. Bringing an ignitor from his belt floating through the air to it, Selu activated the device and the torch flared to life. Upon hearing the sound of the flame, the man turned to stare at the torch suspended in mid-air, his gray eyes widening in fascination.
- “So,” he said slowly. “We aren’t the last survivors.”
- “Never,” Selu said. “My name is Selusda Kraen. I’m a Jedi Knight. This is my companion, and you might say apprentice, Milya Tayrce.”
- “Come on in then,” the old man said, his voice suddenly changing from a harsh rasp to a resolute voice, one that carried calm and authority only a Jedi could have known. “I’m Master Djinn Altis. Let me take you to the others.”
Plucking the torch from the air, he waved them forward, clearly ecstatic to see them, chuckling quietly to himself. Selu and Milya followed, though they did exchange somewhat askance looks at Altis’s eccentricity.
For his own part, Altis regarded the two visitors quietly. Having two other Jedi drop in hadn’t been entirely unexpected and he had known his path would cross with that of these two Jedi for some time, but he hadn’t quite expected them at this very instant. He and the others that had fled here with him were just now getting secure in this crude shelter, so very different from their ordered and happy shelter on Belsavis, abandoned frantically after an Imperial attack a few years back. That had been a wonderful place, full of green and growing things, and the laughter of children. He and the other Jedi Master there, Plett, had been content to teach the younglings and Padawans there what they could about the Force. The loss of the Jedi Order hadn’t affected them as much as it did most Jedi-while they were saddened, the Order had always treated them as outcasts, but still the Empire had caught up to them and apparently viewed them as a threat.
They followed the narrow cave path, which had likely once been an old lava tube, before reaching a large open area where perhaps two dozen people were sitting. Their ages ranged from true younglings maybe a few years of age to youths a few years younger than Selu. Strangely enough, Selu didn’t recognize any of them, though the fact that only flickering torches and campfires lit the room might have had something to do with that. An aged green-skinned Ho’Din, tall and lanky, but bent with age, walked up to greet them.
- “What did you find, Djinn?” asked the Ho’Din pleasantly, in much the same tones as Altis save for the Ho’Din’s unique accent.
- “Fellow Jedi who came to seek us out,” Altis replied.
- “Indeed,” replied the Ho’Din, whom Altis introduced as Master Plett.
- “Younglings! Padawans!” Altis called, his voice booming through the cave. “We have friends here to visit us. This is Selusda Kraen and Milya Tayrce, both Jedi Knights from far away.”
That attracted the attention of virtually everyone and Selu was sure that every eye in the room was watching him attentively. Twenty-six senses, twenty-six different minds washed over him, and he recognized that they were sensing him with the Force. However, Milya’s vision reminded him of their need for haste.
- “Masters,” Selu said urgently. “I would be honored to meet all of your friends, but we have to hurry.”
- “The Empire is here,” Milya spoke up. “We saw ships arriving, and I sensed a dark presence in the Force.”
- “I sensed it, too,” said Plett, nodding. “She’s right, Djinn. We need to go.”
- “Very well,” Altis said. “Plett, get the children ready to go. I’m ready as I am, so I’ll stay here with our guests.”
Plett nodded and moved off, beginning to corral the various young Jedi into action. From the looks of it, there weren’t many preparations anyway.
- “I have transport for maybe half your group,” Selu said. “Do you have a ship?”
- “Used to,” Altis said. “We were forced to sell it shortly after we arrived here. It was too recognizable and we needed the funds. I have six fighters left.”
- “Fighters?” Selu asked.
- “Modern starfighters that some of us liberated from the Koensayer yards several years ago. They’ve proven invaluable, but we lost many over Belsavis four years earlier and our numbers have dwindled since then.”
- “What happened?” Milya asked.
- “Belsavis was our home, our peaceful refuge away from prying eyes. The people respected us and left us alone,” Altis said, sadness tinging his voice. “They found us, though. One of my Jedi Knights and her lover found a massive Imperial ship on its way to destroy us and decided to stop it. We never heard from them again, but the ship never arrived. Instead, the Empire sent a group of their own starfighters to attack us and we were forced to flee our refuge there, even though we defeated their craft.”
- “Then you came here?” Milya inquired.
- “No, we’ve moved around a lot over the last few years, always on the run from the Empire, always worried about them finding us.”
- “Wait,” Selu said, as something Altis had said finally dawned on him. “Her lover?”
- “Yes, that’s what I said,” Altis replied. “Ah, you’re from Coruscant, aren’t you?”
- “That’s right,” Selu said. “I didn’t think the Jedi Order allowed that type of relationship.”
- “I was never really aligned with Coruscant,” Altis said. “I trained there, but after I passed my trials, I disagreed with a number of their tenets-tenets which I found were only implemented after a series of dreadful wars with the Sith-and I took up teaching the Force in my own way on a ship over Bespin.”
- “That explains why I don’t recognize any of your people,” Selu said.
- “It would indeed, though we do have some young survivors from the Temple raid here,” Altis said. “Eh, I hope you don’t view me as a heretic or anything.”
- “Certainly not,” Selu said. “The place I’d like to take all of you to is based on unity and respect for other traditions of studying the Force. We have Matukai, Jal Shey, Zeison, and Jedi gathered together so far. I was afraid you would think of me as a heretic, actually.”
- “Why ever for?” Altis asked, incredulous. “You’ve done a tremendous thing, bringing all four of those groups together. What Jedi could hold that against you?”
- “Well, there are other things,” Selu said, glancing at Milya.
- “I don’t think that’ll be a problem,” Altis said knowingly. “In my studies, I found that an ancient Jedi said that it wasn’t love that led to the dark side. Makes sense, doesn’t it? How could love lead to the dark side, after all? It was uncontrolled passion that led to the dark side, he said, and I’m inclined to agree with him.”
- “Fascinating,” Selu said. “What was his name?”
- “Jolee Bindo,” replied Altis.
Selu and Milya exchanged knowing looks and Selu’s mouth twisted upward in a knowing smile.
- “Do we have a story to tell you,” he said.
- “But later,” said Milya. “We need to go.”
- “Very true,” Altis said. “Plett, are the children ready?”
- “Yes, they are,” the Ho’Din Jedi Master replied from the main cave.
- “Time to clear space,” Selu confirmed. “We’ll head towards ChikatLik. There aren’t enough Imperials to blanket the city, so we should be able to make it. Tell your fighters to wait until we signal them to launch.”
- “It will be done,” said Altis, relaying the order.
Breaking into a brisk walk, the gaggle of children and adolescents made their way out of the cave, with Selu, Milya, and Altis in the lead and Plett bringing up the rear. Stealing out into the night, they kept a low profile as they made their way back into the dingy slums of ChikatLik. However, that was much more difficult; as well trained as the children and adolescents were to keep quiet and as much as they tried to stay out of sight, a group of twenty young people wandering the streets at night couldn’t help being conspicuous. Also, despite Selu’s and Altis’s attempts, there was no way to camouflage the wake in the Force left by so many Force-sensitives. The dark side presence that Milya had sensed couldn’t help but pick up on them. Depending on his level of skill, he would track them down and encircle them in an impenetrable ring of Imperial brawn, something Selu knew he had to avert at all costs. The only thing of higher priority to him was not compromising the refuge on Yanibar-which was why he hadn’t named the exact location to any of the Jedi so far.
- “I hope Spectre reached the Hawk-bat safely,” put in Milya.
- “Me too,” Selu said. “I’d feel a lot better if he was around.”
Spectre had crept quietly through the shadows of ChikatLik’s alleys with a pace that would have startled most. Though he had less than a half standard hour’s head start on Selu, Milya, and the others, he had the advantage of being unencumbered by a group of slow-moving children, and was able to more effectively blend in to the surroundings. His falsified identification had already withstood a cursory look-over by a pair of Imperial Army soldiers who looked like they preferred blowing things up to checking IDs like a police force.
However, the spaceport was a different matter. Apparently, whoever was in charge of this little Imperial party had decided to focus on locking it down-which made sense, given the limited manpower the Empire had at the moment, even after calling on the local garrison. Heavily armed stormtrooper patrols moved through the landing bays and loading docks, securing and searching ships one by one. The intimidating muzzles of their blasters meant that little resistance was given from spacers who might have ordinarily been more belligerent. Spectre checked the docking bay number for the Hawk-bat and was relieved to see that the troopers hadn’t reached it yet and wouldn’t for some time. There were far too many troopers on the main approaches, so Spectre opted for the high road.
Clambering up a garbage receptacle onto the roof of a docking platform, he crawled along the edge of the roof, taking care to ensure that his shadow stayed safely out of sight. While the bay was mostly open, its outer walls were thick enough to merit a small overhanging roof, particularly on the side with the refueling mechanisms. At any rate, it was enough for Spectre to creep along. The first bay had already been secured by the troopers and was once again darkened, making his passage easy and completely undetected. At the edge of the wall, he straightened up and, just barely letting the Force flow through him enough to guide his trajectory, launched into the air and went flying over an alley to the next roof of the landing bay. He almost missed it, landing hard into the top of the wall, but his fingers caught the edge and he hauled himself up just as four stormtroopers rounded the corner into the alley. Spectre flattened himself against the limited cover of the wall’s top, but they apparently hadn’t noticed him. He breathed a sigh of relief at the close shave and moved on. Once again, he made his way around the rim of the landing bay’s wall, his progress slowed even further by the fact that a group of stormtroopers was currently searching and securing the bay. They had activated its glowpanels and he was extremely careful to avoid being caught in their glare or silhouetted against one. He devoutly wished for his suit of armor, but knew that the demands of their mission had forced him to leave it behind on Yanibar. Furthermore, he couldn’t allow himself to fully use the Force, for fear of attracting the Dark Jedi Milya had warned of. Still, his progress was steady and unchecked, even it was slow. He faintly heard the filtered voices of the troopers as they questioned the ship captain, preparing to enter his ship.
Suddenly, his ears perked up. The captain’s voice sounded awfully familiar. Taking a risk, he took a peek around the corner of a glowpanel and recognized the speaker’s voice immediately. It was Sheeka Tull, and a look at the ship occupying the landing bay confirmed that at once-it was clearly Spindragon. Her voice was raised and she was clearly upset, judging by her body language. Silent as a stalking predator, Spectre leapt from the wall’s edge onto the top of Spindragon’s hull, crawling across the top of the freighter to get a better look.
The troopers were demanding that she open the ship for inspection. Sheeka had apparently been in the midst of explaining that she already received clearance to leave and was on an important flight, but the troopers weren’t buying it. From his perch on top of Spindragon, Spectre could see the episode unfolding clearly. She tried to backpedal and open the ship, but it was too late; their suspicions had been aroused. One of them shoved her backwards and she landed sprawling on her backside. The trooper then drew his sidearm and indicated for her to come with them for further questioning. Spectre winced as he contemplated that thought. The Empire, and particularly the Stormtrooper Corps, wasn’t nearly as aboveboard in its methods as it had been when it was the Grand Army of the Republic. Probably had to do with them letting in non-Fett clones, Spectre figured. And if the Intelligence spooks got involved, well, Spectre had seen “obtained” imagery of what an Imperial interrogation could be, and the thought of Sheeka Tull being subjected to that savagery made his skin crawl. There was only one option if he was to save her, but he had to consider the mission. Could he rescue this woman and still complete his objectives? Was she worth it? For the thousandth time, he reminded himself that were he still in the army, his choice would have been instantaneous: complete the mission. Even though he was now the head of three hundred militia members on Yanibar, this was different. Selu encouraged him to think things through, to weigh his decisions, before acting and he now found himself faced with a choice.
As the scene unfolded before his eyes, Spectre quickly considered the options and weighed the possible outcomes, his neurons firing at the speed of light as the wheels of his mind turned. The result was simple, the conclusion reached in less than a second. His mind and heart were in one accord, so he immersed himself fully into the Force and jumped.
Each of his feet hit the two troopers dragging Tull to her feet squarely on the back of their necks, breaking them instantly. His lightsaber was already out and blazing as he landed, carving through one of the other troopers as he tackled the last one to the ground. A quick stab with the yellow blade, and that trooper was down also. The whole action took less than a second to complete, the Force allowing him to move faster than humanly possible, his motions a blur to everyone else. Spectre quickly doused his lightsaber and tentatively stretched out with the Force, searching for any possible reactions in the Force but found none. To his great relief, his quick takedown of the four troopers had gone completely unnoticed-for now.
Turning, he extended his arm to help an astonished Sheeka Tull up to her feet.
- “Sorry about that. I’m horrible at giving advance notice for my rescues,” he said deadpan.
- “Don’t worry about it,” she replied. “Where did you come from?”
- “I was in the neighborhood, but that’s not important,” Spectre said. “You need to get your family out of here, before the Empire discovers my handiwork.”
- “They’re already onboard the ship. I just got permission to leave when these goons arrived. I can lift off in two minutes.”
- “Do it,” Spectre said. “Get offworld.”
- “Can’t do it,” she replied. “I’ve been saving up to get a hyperdrive for Spindragon.”
- “You don’t have a hyperdrive on that?” Spectre asked in disbelief.
- “Oh, I have a hyperdrive,” she said. “That’s already installed and everything. It’s the navicomputer I’m missing.”
- “Don’t worry about that,” Spectre said.
Spectre halted, biting down on the words that nearly rushed out of his mouth in an attempt to stop and think things over. Some part of him felt an attraction to Sheeka Tull-perhaps it was because she seemed to understand it. Perhaps it was because he liked the way her hair rested against the smooth lines of her neck. Whatever it was, he couldn’t fully explain it, but he felt its power, and knew that he was going to ask her anyway, despite his hesitation. In an ideal time and place, Spectre would have asked Selu or Sarth for advice, but here and now, he only had his instincts to rely on, and they were all saying the same thing. Gathering his wits togther, he once again assumed an air of casual friendliness and picked up where had left off.
- “This is a bit rushed, but given the circumstances, I hope you’ll understand. Sheeka Tull, would you and your family like to come with me and my friends to a safeworld to live?”
She stared at him, completely at a loss for words.
- “I know it’s a hard and abrupt decision, but if you stay here, the Empire will find you and hunt you down. If you have other family members, we can return and evacuate them later.”
Sheeka regarded him quietly for a moment, staring at the man who had abruptly crashed into her life out of nowhere. She couldn’t help but be reminded that was exactly what had happened between her and Jango, as well as Jangotat. Completely out of nowhere, they had all just arrived. There was something more in Spectre that reminded her of Jangotat, somehow. An individuality, an independence-it was more than just a face. She tried to calm herself, and get her mind working logically again, and partially succeeded.
- “Are you asking me that because you killed those men and got me into a world of Imperial entanglement?” Sheeka finally replied, the underlying shakiness of her voice belying the casual air she assumed.
- “Partially,” Spectre said. “But partially because I’d like to get to know you a lot better than I do right now.”
- “Oh really? That’s forward. Kids and all?”
- “Well,” she said, turning her back on him. “Work on that advance notice thing the next time you decide to make a girl an offer like that.”
- “So there’s going to be a next time?” he asked, not quite sure if she was inferring what he thought he was.
- “If you’re up to it.”
- “You have my word,” Spectre said solemnly.
- “You know, when you said that, you looked just like-well, never mind. Let’s get going.”
- “Go ahead,” Spectre said, handing her a spare comlink. “I’ll meet you in orbit. I need to catch up with my friends.”
- “Okay,” she said. “See you upstairs.”
With that, Spectre turned and broke into a run for the far side of the hangar. Sheeka Tull watched the mysterious man who reminded her so much of Jangotat disappear into the shadows and smiled after him. Despite all she had lost, her earlier relationships with Fett and Jangotat, fate had chosen to offer her the closest thing to a third chance that she’d ever had. Not quite sure what to make of the last few minutes, she walked back up the boarding ramp of Spindragon, allowing her hands to walk her through the automatic steps of her preflight checklist even as her mind wandered elsewhere, to the scarred visage of a man she had and would always love, a man who had just walked back into her life out of nowhere.
Spectre clambered up the wall and began moving towards the Hawk-bat’s berth at an accelerated rate, sacrificing some of his stealth for speed. It was more important than ever that he move quickly, as it was only a matter of time before the four bodies were detected. Slipping down off the wall next to the Hawk-bat's landing bay, he was breathing heavily from the exertion, sweat soaking his clothes, but he had arrived completely undetected, a trying deed for an ARC, but not nearly as difficult as it might have been with the Force as his guide.
Just then, his earpiece speaker crackled.
- “Ghost Two, this is Ghost One,” Selu’s voice said. “What’s your status?”
- “Two, One,” Spectre replied. “I’m near the ship. Lots of white hats though. No way we’re getting everyone past all this.”
The coded talk was to ensure that the Empire couldn’t immediately interpret their identities. Their comlinks were encrypted and scrambled, but that didn’t always guarantee immunity. Eventually, if someone poured enough time and resources onto it, their codes would be broken.
- “Copy that,” Selu said. “Can you get the ship out and pick us up?”
- “Not without looking really obvious.”
There was a pause on the other end and Spectre knew Selu had to be contemplating his next option. Their fallback plan was for Spectre to escape with the Hawk-bat and lurk in the asteroid fields near the system. The ship had concealed compartments that were packed with specialized intelligence gear that Milya and Sarth had devised, including heavier weapons and a pair of speeder bikes. Then, Selu and the Jedi would hide out until the Empire left or until the Hawk-bat could swoop in and extract everyone. However, that plan grew rapidly less successful by the hour, and Selu almost had a better chance of fighting his way to the ship. Unfortunately, they hadn’t planned on having this many Jedi, and certainly not most of them being younglings. Another alternative, where Selu camouflaged himself and one or two others and escorted them to the ship over several trips, would take too long and Selu wasn’t sure he could handle a prolonged effort for the amount of time it would take to move everyone.
- “If we had some kind of diversion, I could get some of us out of here,” Spectre reported.
- “Oh?” Selu replied.
- “Remember our contact from earlier? They’re joining us for the party, and we might be able to hitch a ride.”
- “If they’re willing to serve our kind, go for it,” Selu said. “I’ll bring as large of a group as I can with me. Give Ghost Three a place to meet.”
- “Will do,” Spectre said, shutting off that frequency and dialing in to the one he had given Sheeka Tull. “Miss Tull, it’s your old friend. On your way up, would you mind picking up some of my friends? They seem to have misplaced the directions to their ship . . .”
Selu gathered four of the older children next to him as he detailed the rest to stay with Milya and wait for Spectre’s friend to arrive from a light railway station which would do as a temporary landing platform.
- “Master Altis,” he said. “Would you ask your fighters to give our friend an escort away from Ord Cestus?”
- “Milya, can you take care of things here?” Selu asked.
- “I got it,” she replied, rolling her eyes. “It’s just babysitting kids, Selu.”
- “Let’s hope so,” he replied tersely.
Selu leaned in and gave her a quick kiss.
- “Be careful,” she said.
- “You too.”
Then he was all professional again, steeling himself for what was coming next.
- “Masters,” he addressed Altis and Plett. “Let’s go for a walk.”
As they casually walked towards the spaceport, Selu explained to the Jedi about his ability to utilize Force camouflage and illusory techniques. To his relief, Plett had some skill in the creation of illusions, which was good. Linking hands with one of the teenagers, Selu instructed them to do the same and let the Force flow freely instead of hiding it, as they had been doing. If their minds were receptive, he would be able to draw on their own powers and get a better feel of their essences, allowing him to cloak them more easily. As they drew near the spaceport, Selu drew in a deep breath and let himself be drawn into the realms of the Force. Frowning in concentration, he went through the mental steps Revan had taught him, first drawing over a shroud of visual camouflage, then infrared, then ultraviolet, then sonic, then finally, he encased each member of the group in a bubble of Force energy, hiding and diffusing their presence. Then, he slowly opened his eyes and began walking forward steadily, his head throbbing with the effort of maintaining such a vast illusion over moving, living objects. Static, inanimate objects were always easier to cloak with the Force, but the more complex the organism, the more difficult it became to hide them, especially with strangers.
Steadily, the seven of them-Selu, Plett, Altis, and the four adolescents-walked up the street toward the Hawk-bat’s berth. Patrols of troopers passed them by, rifles held at shoulder arms, but they paid no heed to the invisible Jedi. Selu sensed a quiet bit of mental influence from Master Altis and was glad-the camouflage technique didn’t extend to things like boot prints in the dust. Thankfully, they were sticking to well-traveled paths. Twice, they flattened themselves against a wall to avoid being run down by the troopers, but so far, things were going well and they were about four hundred meters from the Hawk-bat. The intersections were the worst, he decided. Usually, they only had to worry about traffic from one direction, but they always had to hurry through crossroads to avoid being run down by Imperials, either technicians and army soldiers or white-armored stormtroopers.
As they progressed, Selu began tiring, but he felt he could keep up the cloak until they reached the ship. He wished he could walk faster, but the mental strain was enough to keep from maintaining more than a moderate pace most of the time. Looking down, he saw his hands trembling lightly, and he decided that Spectre could pilot the ship up to orbit. The inside of his camouflage bubble grew hot from the heat he was containing and sweat began forming on his skin. He was sure the others were experiencing the same thing, but couldn’t help it if they were to avoid any infrared sensors. It was almost over, though.
Meter by meter, they approached the docking bay, to the point where Selu could see the glowpanels over the doorway of the bay marking the entrance. Only one intersection to go and then a short dash to freedom. One last crossroad and they were clear. As he walked, leading the group of Jedi, he felt a growing chill on his spine and all the hairs on the back of his neck stood straight on end. As he entered the intersection, he saw the source of Milya’s dark vision, no less terrifying in person than in absentia. Selu couldn’t quite tell what it was in the dim lighting, but it was tall and seemed to be wearing black full-body armor. A harsh rasp of a respirator was heard faintly in the distance and Selu definitely noticed the silver and black hilt of a lightsaber dangling from the warrior’s belt. Its very body language bespoke menace and darkness. Selu’s palms began sweating even more as they crossed the intersection less than twenty meters from the dark warrior. Even though he knew he was invisible, the very prospect of being caught by the armored figure shook every fiber of his being. Selu reached out just a bit more, sending tendrils of his mind out to probe the black warrior, trying to get a little more information, and the depth of evil and darkness swirling around in the other’s aura was astounding. It was more than just a Dark Jedi lackey such as Count Dooku had used during the Clone Wars, Selu realized. It had to be a Sith. Nothing else he had ever sensed had felt this way, except for seeing the murder on Anakin Skywalker’s face in the Jedi Temple as blood dripped from his hands. A prophecy he had heard many times immediately popped into his mind unbidden-if you confront the Sith, you will lose everything you have sought to build. Just from the faint hints he was getting through his barely active senses, Selu felt immense dark side power in the armored figure-certainly more than he could hope to stand and fight. While Plett and Altis might have been helpful in a confrontation, Selu hadn’t worked with them long enough for them to be an effective teammate. Furthermore, the four teenagers would only prove a distraction, getting in the way. There was no chance of victory here in a straight fight.
Then, the man stopped. Selu frozen, wondering how in space his subtle mental probe had been noticed. Worry gripped him as he wondered if, in the midst of his doubt, he had not been totally diligent in covering the wake his presence left in the Force. He sensed the Sith’s own senses reaching out, probing the surrounding area, now on guard. One black glove slid to the hilt of the lightsaber and Selu stared hopelessly at the dark man, the rest of his group coming to a stop behind him. He knew it was only a matter of time before either his group, or Spectre, or Milya were discovered, and then the hunt would be on, and it would not be a long one. The Empire surely had warships in orbit, and if it was somehow Anakin in that armor, Selu had no doubt that the Hawk-bat would fight very bravely and explode very quickly.
- “What is it?” one of the teenagers asked, but Selu couldn’t manage an answer, being too enraptured by the Sith.
- “Move!” Altis hissed suddenly. “Don’t look back.”
Suddenly, Djinn Altis and Plett broke free of the camouflage bubble, emerging into plain sight and charging out to meet the Sith, lightsabers flaring to life in flashes of blue and green light.
- “Your time is up, Vader!” Altis shouted as he ran forward.
- “What are they doing?” Selu wondered aloud.
- “Buying you time,” came Altis’s voice in his mind. “Lead them out of here.”
Selu stared incredulously as the two Jedi Masters crossed blades with the Sith, then finally Altis’s words sparked him into motion. Gathering up his courage, Selu broke into a trot and the others followed him across the intersection towards the Hawk-bat’s docking bay. It took the last shreds of his willpower not to turn and run to the flaring nexus of light, where blue, green, and red blades were meeting over and over again in a roiling clash between the light and dark sides of the Force. He felt Altis fall back, felt Plett take a lightsaber graze on his forearm, but all Selu could do was grit his teeth and keep pushing towards the ship while maintaining his camouflage bubble. They dashed through the entrance to the hangar bay to find a pair of stormtroopers standing guard over the ship, but two quick strokes of Selu’s lightsaber felled them as the five remaining Jedi raced onto the Hawk-bat. Selu quickly joined Spectre on the bridge and Selu hurriedly settled into the captain’s chair, preparing the ship for a hasty liftoff.
- “Everyone’s onboard, but how are you going to slip past the Imperials?” Spectre asked over his shoulder.
- “Same way as I got the five of us this far,” Selu replied.
- “Selu, didn’t that trick exhaust you to the point of physical injury the last time you used it?” Spectre asked pointedly.
- “It gets easier with practice.”
- “I hope you’ve been practicing then,” Spectre replied.
- “You’ll see,” Selu said with a wan smile. “You’ll have to do the piloting, though.”
- “On it, taking off now.”
Selu had dropped the visual camouflage as soon as the Jedi had entered the hangar bay, but now he reformed the bubble around the Hawk-bat, surrounding the ship in an invisible blanket of energy, shielding it from unfriendly eyes. The Force poured through him, its energy coursing through his veins as he channeled it into the effort of making the illusion to hide the ship. The Hawk-bat lifted off on its repulsorlifts, rising silently into the air with only a swirling cloud of dust to mark the takeoff.
- “Spectre, can you see Altis?” Selu asked, his own eyes closed in focus.
- “There’s still three people fighting down there,” Spectre reported.
- “Swing down and see if we can-,” Selu said.
- “No,” Spectre cut him off.
- “Why not?”
- “They made their decision. Don’t you think Djinn and Plett knew what they were doing? That they knew they were going to die? If you want to honor them, then we leave now,” Spectre said sharply, but his voice was quavering. “Or else we’ll all die.”
- “But-,” Selu tried to interrupt.
- “It’s the only way, Selu,” Spectre said firmly.
Selu exhaled slowly, reaching out to the Jedi for affirmation. An instant later, he received it and he knew what he had to do, however much it pained him.
- “You’re right. Get us out of here,” he said.
Selu continued to maintain the bubble of Force energy around the Hawk-bat even as the ship took off and began climbing. Although he was nearly carried away by the currents of the power flowing through him, Selu’s senses reached out to the duel down in ChikatLik. As the ship soared through the scattered clouds and into the skies of Ord Cestus, he could sense what was happening down below. Beads of sweat glistened on his skin as he continued to drive more and more Force energy through his body to maintain the shroud and sense the duel simultaneously. The effort grew increasingly difficult and the dull ache in his head was replaced by a sharp pain shooting through his temple. Spectre turned, alarmed, to see Selu faintly glowing from the extent of the Force he had drawn into himself, but said nothing, returning to the controls. There was nothing he could do.
Selu’s head spun as he tried to both comprehend what was happening threescore kilometers below and keep the Hawk-bat hidden from unfriendly forces. His heart pounded within him and he eventually realized he was breathing heavily. He tried to calm himself with a Jedi breathing exercise, and while it helped slow his heart and breathing rate, his mind was still racing. His eyes flew open as a searing pain shot through his chest, and he knew Plett was dead, stabbed through the heart. The effort was too much for him and the camouflage bubble dissipated, but by then they were high enough that any Imperial ships wouldn’t be able to tell where they had taken off from. It didn’t matter anymore. A minute later, his right hand began tingling, and then his neck, signaling Altis’s death. They were dead, both of the Jedi Masters, gone, having made the ultimate sacrifice to let the others escape. The dark lord’s wrath sang in the Force as he triumphantly walked over the corpses of his two vanquished foes. For his part, Selu could hardly believe it-two Jedi, whom he had hoped would aid him in continuing his studies of the Jedi path-gone, not two hours after he had met them. Once again, he was alone, with no one more learned than himself to ask for counsel. A tear started beading up in his eye and he wiped it away angrily, hiding his face in his hands to keep from letting his grief show.
- “What is it?” Spectre asked, looking back.
- “They’re gone,” Selu said through clenched teeth.
- “Both of them.”
He nodded fiercely.
- “We’ll honor them when we get back,” Spectre said. “As heroes.”
- “That they were,” Selu agreed glumly. “Once again, I’m all alone again.”
'Never alone, Selu. Selu sat up. He could have sworn he had just heard Altis’s voice in his mind, but the Jedi was dead. He had to be-he’d felt the master die. Shaking his head, he sat back in his chair and tried to re-focus his mind as Spectre brought the Hawk-bat alongside Spindragon and its escort of starfighters. They identified themselves as “Y-wings” and Spectre had figured they were the Jedi fighters Altis had told them about, which they were.
- “Spindragon, this is the Hawk-bat. Meet us on the edge of the system at these coordinates. Bring your friends, too,” Spectre said, sending Sheeka Tull coordinates for a rendezvous point.
- “Sure thing. I’d hate to miss the party,” replied the other pilot lightly.
The bridge was quiet as Spectre flew the ship at a safe distance away from the Imperial Star Destroyer floating over Ord Cestus. Selu was content to sit in the captain’s chair, pensive and brooding, pondering something deep within the realms of the Force. The bone-white arrowhead of the Star Destroyer would have signaled doom to their mission, but thankfully its batteries didn’t traverse to follow them, nor did its hangar bays spew fighters after them. They were free.
At the rendezvous point, the Hawk-bat and Spindragon docked, their pilots goosing the thrusters to bring the ships together. Spectre hand-delivered a hyperspace course to Sheeka Tull while most of the Jedi were transferred to the larger Hawk-bat for the trip to Yanibar-partly to prevent the Empire from intercepting the transmission, but partly because he wanted to see Sheeka Tull again. As he made his way towards the docking port, Spectre ran into Milya, who was walking forward to the bridge.
- “Hey, Spectre,” she said, smiling perkily in greeting. “We made it.”
- “That we did,” he replied. “Mission accomplished.”
- “Where’s Selu?”
- “Up on the bridge. I’d give him some space; he’s in one of those moods again.”
- “I’d better go talk to him then.”
- “Maybe you should.”
Spectre let her pass and continued towards the hatch. Moving through the collar that connected the two ships, he found Sheeka Tull lounging in the pilot’s chair of her own ship, bemusedly watching the transfer of human cargo. Her eyebrow cocked in surprise as she saw Spectre enter the cockpit.
- “Do you always ask the nearest lady to haul a bunch of kids around?” she asked.
- “Not always,” Spectre said earnestly. “Only if it’s important.”
- “So,” she said. “We’re off Ord Cestus. So where to next?”
- “A place called Yanibar,” Spectre said. “It’s not an easy world, but you’ll be among friends there.”
- “Yanibar,” Sheeka said, as if she just wanted to say the word herself. “Well, if you’re there, it can’t be too horrible.”
- “It’s not,” Spectre assured here. “At least, not in comparison with some other places.”
- “You know,” Sheeka said insinuatingly. “You could tell me and the kids more about it if you stayed with us for the flight.”
- “I’d love to,” Spectre said.
The comm board crackled to life as Selu’s voice, tired and ashen, but still alive came through.
- “Spindragon, Hawk-bat here. Are you and your escort ready to get out of here?”
- “We’re good to go,” Sheeka affirmed. “Don’t worry about Spectre. He’ll be staying with me for the trip.”
- “Okay,” Selu said. “Detaching now.”
Ordinarily, Selu would have been very curious about how Spectre had managed that particular turn of events, but for now, he let the matter slide. He’d badger him about it back on Yanibar, when he was feeling more up to it.
The two ships detached, their hulls breaking free as the collar holding them together was withdrawn. With the six Y-wings forming up around them, the two freighters came about, vectoring towards their intended jump point. They shuddered ever so slightly as the six ships built up thrust, blue trails of ion flux trailing behind them as they accelerated. Then they jumped to hyperspace simultaneously, bound for Yanibar and home.
As soon as they had jumped, Selu rose from the captain’s chair and made his way aft to his cabin. Milya, who had entered the bridge earlier but refrained from saying anything while he had been preparing to enter hyperspace, stopped him, though.
- “Are you okay?” she asked.
- “I’m fine,” he replied, but the distraught tone of his voice betrayed his emotions.
- “Are you sure?”
- “I’ll be okay. I’m just a little tired from the camouflage,” Selu said.
Milya thought about persisting in questioning him, but decided against it. She and Selu had had to learn to respect each other’s boundaries and not push each other, even when they felt it was the right thing to do. She decided to bring the matter up again when he was rested and feeling better, not immediately. It wouldn’t be good for him to shoulder whatever burden he had picked up for long. When Selu wanted to talk, she would be ready to listen and help him deal with whatever it was that was bothering, but only if he wanted her to. Anything else would come across as intrusive and disrespectful, and they had already had numerous arguments over similar issues. Instead, she turned her to mind to the lighter matter of what Spectre was doing. Imagining what he would look if he married Sheeka Tull, she tried to picture him bouncing an infant on one knee and nearly burst out laughing at the incongruity. The idea of a tough warrior like Spectre playing with children struck her as entirely incongruous and she continued to replay the scenario over in her mind, remaining thus distracted for some time. It was better than staring into the nauseating view of hyperspace or worrying about her boyfriend.
Selu walked into his cabin and sealed the door behind, flopping listlessly on his bed. He was tired, but it was more than that. So many of his expectations regarding this mission had been disappointed. He had expected to find a handful of Jedi Knights or Padawans, but half of the people had found couldn’t even have been old enough to be taken as an apprentice. He hadn’t expected such a large Imperial presence, but an entire Star Destroyer and a Sith Lord had arrived. And then, just as he had gotten used to the idea of having a pair of Jedi Masters around, they had run off to get killed saving his life-another thing he was still getting over. Though the principle of self-sacrifice was an important part of Jedi philosophy, an act like the one performed by Plett and Djinn Altis was a stark reminder of how much self-sacrifice could cost, and it wasn’t pleasant. He even felt a little guilty-when given the choice, he had chosen to preserve the life of Milya, his love, over a path of self-sacrifice, but one that might have led to the defeat of the Sith. Best not to think about that too much, though, he reflected. That kind of remorse led to despair, and despair was of the dark side.
He wasn’t aware of it at first, but slowly, a hazy blue figure appeared in front of him, walking over to sit on the bed next to him.
- “What’s bothering you, Selusda?” the figure asked.
Selu turned to stare at the translucent figure next to him. It certainly looked and sounded a lot like Djinn Altis, but not only could Selu see through him, but he was supposed to be dead. He blinked, wondering if his mind was playing tricks on him.
- “Your mind isn’t toying with you,” Altis’s spectral form assured him. “I am indeed dead and you’re not seeing things.”
- “I’ve encountered spirits of Jedi before,” Selu said. “But they were millennia old. I thought that technique had been lost.”
- “It was for some time,” Altis confirmed. “I rediscovered it, though, when I was meditating on the Living Force.”
- “I see,” Selu said.
- “So tell me, what’s bothering you?”
- “A lot of things, I suppose. No offense, but what I found on Ord Cestus wasn’t at all what I expected, and now, without you and Master Plett. . .”
- “What do you mean?” asked Altis reprovingly.
- “Master Altis, I now have two dozen students who will be looking to me for training in the ways of the Force now that you two are-well, gone. I’ve never even trained a Padawan. I am not a Jedi Master!” Selu protested.
- “Hold it right there,” Altis countered. “Sounds like you’re afraid.”
- “Well, a little,” Selu admitted after a moment’s silence.
- “And where does fear lead?” the aged Jedi Master asked, knowing the answer full well.
- “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering, and suffering leads to the dark side,” Selu said, the phrase sliding from his lips by rote memory.
- “Uncertainty is part of life,” Altis said. “But as for the challenge of teaching the students, Plett and I will certainly be there to help you for awhile, and so will the four Knights you rescued. They’re young, but they can do much of the training.”
- “That’s a relief,” Selu said. “I don’t know how I could handle it otherwise, Master.”
- “Nonsense,” Altis scoffed. “You would have come through, just as you did for Quinlan Vos back on New Holstice, and just as you did back on Ord Cestus. That’s right, I’ve been watching you, from a distance. You’re stronger than you think, Selusda Kraen.”
- “If you say so,” Selu said doubtfully. “I’m only strong because I have to be.”
- “And that’s the key to your success,” said Altis. “Do you think Yoda really needed that staff he was leaning on all the time for walking?”
- “Well, no.”
- “He was strong when strength was called for and he was gifted in knowing when that time was. You may be called to lead from the front most of your life, Selu, but you’re not omnipotent and you don’t need to be. No Jedi ever is, or ever will be.”
- “Of course not.”
- “What you should be is prepared to meet any challenge, any time. The Force is there to guide you, so let it.”
- “Yes, Master,” Selu said, ducking his head as if his own Master, Plo Koon, had been lecturing him like he had once done years ago.
- “And one last thing-about this never having trained a Padawan rubbish-didn’t you tell me you trained your friends in the ways of the Force?”
- “That’s right.”
- “And that doesn’t count?”
- “Well, they’re not exactly Jedi Knights yet,” Selu said.
- “Why not? Are they not ready to face the trials?”
- “We have seen some tough tests,” Selu said slowly, relecting on their past battles and challenges.
The more he thought about it, the more he realized that their past experiences had served as tests, test of their spirit, their courage, their flesh, and their purity. All five of the Hawk-bat’s crew had each faced their own internal and external struggles and overcome them. At that point, Selu realized that they had already passed their trials-the quest to unite the Force groups together in one body, and its inherent difficulties and tests-had served in place of the traditional Jedi rites. It wasn’t at all uncommon for Padawans to their trials waived for their extraordinary conduct or accomplishments, and Selu just now realized that was what had happened to his friends. A bit ruefully, he confided this revelation to the spirit.
- “We’re all different people now. I suppose that you could say we’ve all come through some sort of trial in our own way.”
- “Then confirm them in the rank they are due, true Jedi Knights, if you are sure of their deeds and hearts,” Altis said.
- “I am,” Selu said.
- “In that case,” Altis said. “By the will of the Force, I promote you to the rank of Jedi Master, Selusda Kraen.”
- “Are you sure?” Selu asked, at the risk of sounding rude. “I don’t think I’m quite ready for that.”
- “On this side of things, Selu, one’s foresight is much clearer. You were already a master in all but name before I met you. I’ve trained many students myself, and I know a Jedi Master when I see one. Now, don’t let your anxiety trouble you any more. Face each day ready for whatever comes.”
- “I will,” Selu said resolutely. “Thank you, Master Altis.”
The old man’s image started fading.
- “Where are you going, Master Altis?” Selu asked.
- “I must leave you for now. It takes effort to stay in this realm for too long,” Altis said. “But the Force will be with you, always.”
As the bluish spirit of Djinn Altis faded away into oblivion, Selu emerged from his cabin with a confident note to his stride, returning to the bridge. The grief and despondency that had hung over earlier had been banished, replaced with surety and steadfastness. His spirits lifted from his talk with the Jedi spirit, he was ready to handle the challenges and trials life would throw at him. The Force would be with him.