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Looking past the sizzling fire pit he was standing by, Selusda Kraen watched the ocean waves roll in, crashing their foamy crests on the beach in endless succession, one after another. Beyond the horizon, the star R’alla sank into the ocean in a searing ball of fire, illuminating the waves, scattered clouds, and the sky with glowing hues of crimson, amber, and orange. The sunset shone freely through the unpolluted skies and the last rays of the sun gently bathed the evening in warmth and heat. There was a breeze coming in off the sea, though, keeping the temperature from being excessive. The warm sand under his bare feet felt good and the smell of roasting meat filled the air. All in all, everything seemed just about perfect.

“This is the life, eh, Sarth?” Selu asked his older brother, Sarth, who was standing beside him.

Both men were dressed in light shirts and short pants suitable for wandering the beach, and Selu was wearing a broad-brimmed hat he’d found on R’alla and taken a fancy to. Reaching down to a metal grate suspended over the fire, he picked up a pair of tongs from a nearby rack and flipped over the skewers of meat that he was grilling.

“Indeed,” Sarth agreed, taking a long pull on the dark R’allan teawine he was drinking.

“When do you think the others will arrive?” Selu asked him, continuing to turn the meat so it would be thoroughly cooked.

“Oh, soon enough,” a third voice said. “Probably just in time for dinner.”

Selu and Sarth turned to see another man, tall, brawny, and with long brown hair, walking towards them through the sand carrying a tray piled high with metal-wrapped bundles. He was dressed similarly to Sarth and Selu, save that his shorts sported a riotous mess of orange, red, white, and green triangles.

“Well, if it isn’t the master chef,” Selu said with a grin. “What do you have there, Jorge?”

Jorgesoll Knrr, a former-spacer-turned-businessman, grinned wickedly as he showed off his creation. “Loaded tubers,” he said. “Spacer style.”

“Spacer style?” Sarth asked skeptically. “I hope they’re not all that way, Jorge. Akleyn doesn’t like . . .”

Jorge waved a hand at him dismissively.

“I know, I know,” he replied. “There’s a few in there that aren’t as spicy for those with weaker stomachs.”

With that, he crouched down by the glowing embers of the firepit and began placing the metal-wrapped bundles down on the coals. After he was finished, Jorge straightened and addressed the other two men.

“What are you two up to besides drinking teawine and grilling?” he asked.

“Watching the sunset,” Selu said absently, still engrossed in the natural beauty.

“Heh,” Jorge said. “Do you not have them on Yanibar?”

“We do,” Selu replied mildly. “I just don’t get to enjoy them very often. Not like this.”

“Well, enjoy it as much as you like,” Jorge said. “We’ve still got four more days here.”

“Thank you for setting this up,” Sarth told him. “This really is great.”

“Tell me about it,” Jorge replied, sipping on his own bottle of teawine and joining Sarth and Selu in watching the waves and sunset.

“Out of curiosity,” Sarth continued. “How did you get us five days at a giant beach-house on R’alla, anyway?”

Jorge shrugged.

“There were some people who owed me favors,” he said lightly. “I called one in. A few days, a few twisted arms later, here we are, basking in the beautiful weather, glorious sunset, and some of the best company a man could ask for.”

Selu rolled his eyes. Though Jorge was ostensibly retired from any illegal activities, he still couldn’t resist playing the role of the rogue spacer. Maybe it was just his attempt to try and match the Corellian stereotype, live up to the expectations of all Corellian spacers or something.

“However you got this, Jorge,” Selu told him. “You did an excellent job. I just wish . . .”

He trailed off, and the sentence was left unfinished as he suddenly turned pensive.

“That Spectre and Nate were here to enjoy it, too?” Sarth asked.

“Yes,” Selu said huskily.

Selu had known the ex-ARC trooper Spectre for over twenty years. They had first met on the battlefields of the Clone Wars as comrades, then been reunited through a strange set of circumstances to defeat a malevolent group of female mercenaries that threatened Selu’s family. He’d even been adopted into the Kraen family. Through everything—through the battles, through the establishment of the Yanibar refuge for Force-sensitives to hide from the Empire, through the good times and bad, Spectre had been there. That was, until a year ago, when Yanibar had been attacked by the Zann Consortium, a powerful criminal organization. With the battle raging, Spectre and his stepson Nate had undertaken a desperate rescue attempt to free Sarth and his wife Cassi from the clutches of the Zann Consortium. They had succeeded, but had themselves been lost. Both of them were sorely missed, and there wasn’t a day that went by that Selu didn’t think of the two widows, Sheeka Tull Kraen, and Ana Vondar Kraen, that had been left behind, or of Zeyn, Nate’s son, who at the age of two would grow up without knowing his father. One of the hardest things Selu had ever had to do was to explain to Spectre’s daughter, Jasika, who had been thirteen at the time, that her daddy wasn’t coming home again.

“Hey,” Sarth said, interrupting Selu’s introspection. “We all miss them. They wouldn’t want us to mope about it, though.”

“Exactly,” Jorge agreed. “Here’s to their memory.”

Three bottles of teawine clinked as they were hoisted aloft and gently touched together. After the toast had been completed, Selu turned the meat yet again.

“They’d better get here soon,” Jorge said, sniffing the fragrant aromas emanating from the fire pit. “Food’s almost done and I’m hungry.”

“Your two gluttonous boys are coming,” Selu said with a wry smile. “I can sense those walking appetites across a planet. We’d better hide the food before they get here.”

Selu was referring to Akleyn and Bryndar, the sons of Sarth and Jorge respectively, and their two parents favored him with scowls. However, Selu did have something of a point, as Akleyn and Bryndar, being nineteen and twenty, tended to have ravenous appetites and a penchant for consuming any and all food left unguarded around them. They had been out on the water, waveboarding, but the three men could see them in the distance, approaching the beach with the setting sun backlighting them as its bottom rim kissed the ocean waves on the horizon.

“Just wait,” Sarth warned. “You’ll feel our pain when Ryion gets that age.”

“I don’t think I have to worry too much about that for the moment,” Selu replied. “He’s only one.”

“Time flies once you have kids,” Jorge remarked. “I remember when I was bouncing Bryndar on my knee like it was yesterday.”

“You’re not getting old, are you, Jorge?” Selu wisecracked.

“Selu, you do remember what your daughter and your wife have been doing all day?” Sarth pointed out with a wry smile.

“Yes,” Selu said, glowering at his brother in mock indignation. “And I’d just as soon not think of it.”

His wife, Milya, and Sarth’s wife, Cassi, had taken Selu’s twelve-year-old daughter Rhiannon and Spectre’s daughter, fourteen-year-old Jasika, into a nearby town to do some shopping. When Selu had pressed Milya for details, she’d described their shopping trip as a chance to explain the “joys of womanhood” to the two girls and pick up some related things. Suffice to say, that had been enough to immediately and abruptly extinguish all of Selu’s curiosity about the trip. The very idea of his daughter growing up somehow disturbed him—in his mind, Rhiannon was still his little girl, and always would be, no matter much his rational mind told him that was an impossible fantasy.

“Scared of your kid growing up, Selu?” Jorge teased. “Scared she’s going to walk in one day on the arm of some boy who wants to marry her?”

“Not at all,” Selu retorted. “Milya is always happy to see volunteers for testing new interrogation techniques.”

Truth be told, Selu and Milya were fiercely protective of Rhiannon, in part because she was their daughter, but even more so because she was blind. They did not want anyone taking advantage of her impairment. Their situation was even more complicated because Selu and Milya were not only the overall head of the Yanibar Guard and Director of Yanibar Guard Intelligence respectively, but both parents were also trained in the ways of the Force. Rhiannon knew very little about their occupations and even less about the fact that her parents were Jedi. Sarth and Cassi, who, while by day, were a businessman and his wife running a defense company together, had continued to keep secret from Akleyn the fact that they too were Force-sensitive despite his own gifts. Even Jorge and Annita had somehow managed to hide the true level of their association with the Yanibar refuge and what it really was from Bryndar, who’d largely taken after his free-spirited father. Jasika didn’t know the full story about her father—her mother had decided not to tell her just quite yet. Out of the younger generation of Kraens and Knrrs present, only Ana knew who the Kraens really were, because Nate had told her shortly before they were married.

“Speaking of Milya, I think she and the girls are back,” Sarth noted, hearing the sound of an approaching speeder.

“Sounds like it,” Jorge said. “And I see Annita, Ana, and Sheeka walking back this way from their stroll. With Bryndar and Akleyn back from the ocean, that means we’re all here. Must be time to eat.”

Selu nodded, pulling the meat skewers out of the fire and setting them on a platter to cool. Jorge took the tongs from him when he was done and made as if to pull the metal-wrapped tubers out of the glowing embers, but stopped short as the tubers lifted themselves out of the fire pit on their own accord, floating through the air to pile on another platter. Jorge shot a look at Selu, who shrugged innocently. Jorge turned his sidelong glance at Sarth, who was smiling victoriously.

“Show off,” he muttered.

On occasions like this, Jorge felt vaguely outnumbered by being the only male on the trip who wasn’t Force-sensitive. However, while he didn’t begrudge their special gifts, that didn’t dampen his fiercely competitive nature one bit.

“You’ve been practicing,” Selu remarked approvingly to Sarth.

“Both Cassi and I have been,” Sarth said. “After that incident a year ago . . . we both figured it would be for the best to do more training.”

“By levitating tubers?” Jorge asked, snickering slightly.

Sarth didn’t favor him with a reply, and the three men’s conversation was interrupted anyway by the arrival of the rest of their families. Bryndar and Akleyn immediately headed for the food, standing over the steaming trays, smelling the cooking and all but visibly salivating. Annita, Ana, and Sheeka sedately finished their stroll and stood at the edge of the camp, still engrossed in their own conversation. And then there were the other women. All of the Kraens and Knrrs were here, all except Ryion and Zeyn. As young as they were, they wouldn’t really have enjoyed the vacation and so they’d been left with Selu’s and Sarth’s parents on Yanibar so that the younger Kraens could enjoy the trip.

“Daddy!” Selu heard from behind him.

He turned around to see Rhiannon running full speed right at him. His right hand was filled with a fire poker, he still managed to catch her with his left arm and sweep her up like he’d done ever since she could walk.

“Hey sweetheart,” Selu told her. “How was your trip with Mom and Aunt Cassi?”

“It was good,” Rhiannon replied. “Do you wanna know what we bought?”

Amid snickers from Jorge and Sarth, Selu shot Milya a dubious look as she walked up in a more adult fashion than her daughter.

“Not right now,” he said diplomatically, setting her down. “Right now, it’s dinner time. Go wash up at the sanistation.”

She went to do so, followed by Jasika, while Selu set the fire poker down and embraced Milya.

“I take it you had a good time?” he asked her.

“Of course,” she replied. “Even as much as I hate shopping, it wasn’t that bad. What have the menfolk charred for our dinner? Expired ration packs?”

Selu fixed an indignant expression on his wife’s face.

“Not exactly,” he said. “I grilled charraka on skewers and Jorge made loaded tubers.”

“And what did Sarth do?” Cassi, a petite blonde with twinkling azure-blue eyes, asked Selu.

“Sarth? Uh . . .” Selu said. “He supervised.”

This time it was Sarth’s turn to glower in mock indignation.

“I brought the drinks,” he said defensively.

After the line for hand-washing at the sanistation, a portable device that dispensed a general-use cleanser, had run its course, they all stood around, waiting for Selu to serve the food.

“Here’s how it’s going to work,” Selu said. “The food’s hot, so just get your utensils, have a seat, tell me what you want. It’ll come to you.”

They had all given him dubious looks, but Selu was insistent, so they did as they were told, finding a seat on the warm dry sand of the beach. He called on each person, two or three at a time, starting with Rhiannon and Jasika, and as he got their order, simply levitated each item onto their plate before sending it floating through the air to them.

“This is probably my favorite way to handle food distribution,” he said with a grin.

“You’re such a child at times,” Milya said, rolling her eyes.

“That would be hungry child,” Selu corrected, filling his own plate and sitting down to dig in.

Taking his knife, he sliced open the metal foil jacket that had been placed over the loaded tuber to see what Jorge had filled it with. The steaming inside yielded to the sharp knife, revealing that the inside had been stuffed with seashrimp, several kinds of vegetable, miniature Corellian fish-and-mushroom breadballs, all swimming in a rich brown gravy. Selu ate a bite and found that it was delicious, though Jorge had not been kidding about made “spacer style.” The gravy was fiendishly spicy, requiring a large draught of water to quench the fire it ignited in his mouth. However, Selu liked spicy foods, and didn’t regret his choice in the least. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sarth’s eyes watering and smiled; his brother’s mouth didn’t possess quite as strong a tolerance for foods doused in spices the way Jorge liked to make them.

They ate their meal slowly, enjoying the food and the company. It was not often they were able to enjoy doing so, particularly since Jorge and Annita lived on Bespin while the others resided on Yanibar. Evening drew on as they finished eating, and though the two girls were somewhat bored by the adults’ conversation, all of them sat around the glowing fire, chatting and occasionally sipping on a drink of their choice from a chiller unit Jorge, a connoisseur of liquid refreshment, always brought with him on vacations. Of course, he’d remembered to bring something for the girls too, fixing an exotic drink called hot chocolate for them. As the first stars appeared in the deep blue sky, the wind had picked up, and so they were grateful for the warm fire and, for some, the steaming beverages. However, few stars were in evidence that night, and the wind continued to pick up. Staring out across the sea, listening to its sounds, it was Cassi who first noticed the change in the weather.

“I think a storm might be blowing in,” she said.

Selu only needed a quick look at the black clouds that had crept up over the ocean and were now bearing down on them to confirm Cassi’s remark.

“She’s right,” he said. “Probably a good time to pack everything up and get it inside.”

“Awww,” Jorge grumbled. “Couldn’t you just wave your hand, use the Force, and make it all go away?”

Selu smiled. He had, in fact, some talent when it came to controlling storms—not an innate talent, but a skill taught to him by the spirit of a long-dead Jedi Master named Revan. In the early days of the Yanibar refuge, before they’d been able to afford weather control towers, he and some of the other more skilled Force-users had often been called upon to employ their gifts in order to curb Yanibar’s frequent and fierce weather patterns. However, as he’d grown older, wiser, and gained the deeper understanding of the Force that came with being a Jedi Master, he’d also learned that not every situation had to be handled with the most grandiose use of the Force; in fact, it was usually quite the opposite.

“I could,” Selu said. “But in this case, it’s probably better to let nature run its course.”

“Thank you for dinner, dear,” Milya said, rising and kissing him on the cheek. “The men did a satisfactory job with the meal.”

“Satisfactory?” asked Sarth, who’d overheard her remark.

Milya gave him a knowing smile.

“Satisfactory,” she repeated. “As in, good, but nothing compared to what the ladies are going to serve up tomorrow night.”

“No complaints from me on that,” Bryndar spoke up excitedly. “I can’t wait.”

“Now, son, quit trying to flatter Aunt Milya,” Jorge told him. “You didn’t know her when she was first learning how to cook, back on the Hawk-bat in her wild space years.”

Milya glared at him, but the wind had picked up even further, judging by the way it was blowing her dark auburn hair, as well as the hair of all the other women and Jorge’s as well. They quickly packed up all the dishes, cooking equipment, and other stuff, carrying it back into the beach-house they were staying in, where Selu’s and Milya’s protocol droid, J7, met them and helped carry everything into the house.

It was a large two-level affair, built mostly of local woods which gave it an old-fashioned nautical look, and featured lots of windows with which to enjoy the scenic vista of the surrounding beach and ocean. The main entrance led into a large common area with a great view of the ocean, while another wide pair of doors led straight back into a kitchen. On either side of the common room were a refresher, two bedrooms, and a set of stairs that led to another bedroom upstairs. The eight adults had split up the ground-floor bedrooms, with Ana and Sheeka sharing one, while the two girls and two young men were in the upstairs rooms. There was a deck of sorts between the upstairs bedrooms with some patio furniture up there that was excellent for romantic midnight strolls once the children—however much Bryndar and Akleyn resented being lumped in with the two girls in that category—were asleep.

They got everything inside just as the first raindrops began to fall. Bryndar and Akleyn, having been brought up to do so by their parents, took the dishes back to the kitchen to wash them, while Rhiannon and Jasika went upstairs to look through the new clothes and other purchases from their shopping trip. This left the adults to sit at a large wooden table that occupied most of the common area and watch the storm. There was a fireplace on one side, and though the beach-house had modern amenities, Cassi asked Sarth to build a fire. He had done so, using several blocks of wood that had been left on the hearth for such a purpose. At first, the eight adults watched the storm blow in, pummeling the beach with driving rain and high-speed winds that whipped and wailed through the night.

However, it was not long before Jorge pulled a packet of cards and randomizer from his pocket.

“Anyone up for sabacc?” he asked with a roguish smile. “Small ante, ten creds maximum on the bet.”

They had all joined in on the game, and were soon deeply engrossed into it as the pot grew steadily higher. Of course, none of the Force-sensitives used their talents to get an advantage-not only was that cheating, but they were sure to get called by one of the others. Jorge, an experienced player, almost took the pot the first time, only to try and bluff his way past his wife, who called. His hand had been terrible that round, while she’d hit twenty-three, the magic number in sabacc. She had collected that time with a triumphant smile.

“Never try and bluff a cop,” Jorge ruefully reminded himself.

“That’s former cop,” Annita corrected him as she raked the credit chits over to her side of the table.

By the time they were ready for the second game, Bryndar and Akleyn had finished with the dishes, so they too joined in on the fun. Rhiannon and Jasika had ventured down from their room to see what the laughter and good-natured shouting was about, but they were content to sit off to one corner, talking about subjects that would only interest teenage girls.

The next game dragged on for considerably longer, with all players hedging their bets and playing it safe. Jorge was the first to fold.

“It’s just not my night,” he lamented as he threw down his cards for the second time.

The game intensified further after he left, with Sheeka playing especially viciously, taking a two-hand advantage. Ana folded next, with Bryndar and Akleyn following suit the next hand.

“Gotta show these youngsters their place,” Sheeka said victoriously.

She’d smelled blood, Selu knew, as he dealt out the next hand, hoping he’d have something to counter her streak of swift victories. Picking up his cards, he stared at them in dismay. He’d somehow managed to draw Endurance, Balance, and Moderation, along with the Two of Sabres—three face cards with large negative values and a positive two. Altogether, he had a collective total of negative twenty-nine, well over the desired combination of either twenty-three or negative twenty-three. It was one of the worst hands he’d seen all game, and he stared at his cards, trying to not give away his disappointment with the atrocious hand he’d dealt himself. At this rate, he and Milya were just giving money away. Maybe, he hoped, some mysterious circumstance would interrupt the game, keeping Sheeka from collecting the largest pot he’d seen in one of these friendly games. And then, strangely enough, that was exactly what happened, though not in a way Selu would have wanted it.

“Something’s wrong,” Cassi interjected suddenly.

“Of course there is,” Milya joked. “We’re all losing lots of money to Sheeka.”

“No,” Cassi said distantly. “Outside. Do you sense that?”

“Is this some kind of Jedi trick?” Sheeka asked, her eyebrow arched inquisitively.

“It’s not a trick,” Cassi insisted. “Selu?”

Selu took in the serious look on her face and closed his eyes, reaching out with his formidable Forces senses. Out of the group, Cassi had the most empathy, was the best at reading and reacting to emotions and feelings. This gift meant that she was often capable of sensing someone’s emotions if they were particularly strong, even when not actively trying to do so. However, Selu’s own Force powers surpassed hers in almost every other area—he’d been born Force-sensitive, while the others had developed theirs later—and also unlike the others, had been raised as a Jedi from a very young age. As his mind’s eye went outside into the raging storm, he did sense something, someone. Their emotions were running wild, out of control, but Selu picked up a tremendous amount of fear. He opened his eyes quickly and saw that Sarth and Milya had sensed it as well, judging by their facial expressions.

“Someone’s in trouble,” he said.

The adults all scrambled to their feet at his announcement.

“Keep the pot,” Selu said to Sheeka, shoving the cash towards her. “You would have won anyway.”

She nodded.

“I’ll deal with it later,” she replied with business-like candor. “What do you want me to do?”

“You, Ana, and Jay Seven, stay here, please,” Selu told her. “Watch the children.”

“Hey,” protested Bryndar. “Akleyn and I aren’t children.”

“In the strictest sense of the word, you haven’t reached adulthood in the legal definition according to Yanibar law,” J7 told them. “That would technically make you minors, a word synonymous with children.”

“We know, Jay Seven,” Akleyn said to the droid, rolling his eyes.

Selu ignored him, grabbing a coat off the rack nestled in one corner of the room and moving towards the door. Sarth, Cassi, Jorge, Annita, and Milya followed suit, and the six headed out into the storm. They hadn’t realized how bad it had gotten outside until they’d actually ventured into the howling wind and sheets of rain. The sky was completely blanketed by pitch-black clouds which seemed intent on unleashing every last drop of water within them on the seaside. The waves, now close to two meters in height, crashed angrily on the beach, stirred up by the gales of wind blowing across them. The rain lashed at them even through their coats, making it difficult to see more than a few meters ahead of them. Sarth and Jorge had brought glowrods, but even their bright beams were having difficulty penetrating the virtual wall of water falling around them. Cassi pointed towards the foaming, tempestuous ocean.

“Over there!” she shouted over the rushing wind. “He’s in the water!”

She started to struggle out of her waterlogged jacket to jump in, but Milya stopped her, laying one hand on her shoulder.

“Selu and I are stronger swimmers,” Milya said. “We’ll get him.

With that, Milya whipped off her wet coat, kicked off her shoes, and waded into the water, letting the surf carry her out. Selu followed suit and soon they were battling the throes of the ocean’s angry waves.

“Hurry!” Cassi called. “He’s getting weaker by the second.”

Selu and Milya needed no encouragement, but they couldn't overcome the raging water. The current swept them this way and that and the undertow pulled them underwater just as they surfaced for air. The ocean in the midst of the storm was not just a majestic sight-it was terrifying to behold and even more so to be in the middle of it. Lightning illuminated massive waves while loud claps of thunder echoed across the stormy rollers. Their progress was slow—at least half of the time they were forced to fight against the current.

The sound of the water roared in Selu’s ears as he tried to both keep air in his lungs and move towards whoever was still out there. He devoutly wished he and Milya had brought their breathers, so that they would not have had to worry about air as much. His lungs burned and every time he came up to breathe, it seemed like a giant wave appeared out of nowhere to smack him in the face. Fighting the current was hard work, and he knew that Milya, with her lesser degree of control over the Force, had to be suffering more.

However, Selu was not a Jedi Master for nothing. Drawing more heavily on the Force, he applied a breathing technique that virtually doubled the amount of time he could spend underwater swimming. His pace improved and Selu drew upon the Force to gauge when to exert the most effort and make the most headway. Coming up for air after several minutes of swimming as fast as he could, he looked around, and saw Milya surface about ten meters behind him. She had just started to gasp for air when a mighty rolling wave smashed into her, burying her under a wave of water. Selu felt her mental gasp and immediately took a deep breath. Streamlining his body, he dove deeper, away from the turbulent currents on the surface and shot through the water towards her. She was flailing, out of air and trying to get to the surface, but Selu saw her leg had been caught in a strand of particularly persistent seaweed. Two more powerful kicks of his legs brought him to her, and he ripped the entangling vegetation away, heedless of its attempts to stick to him as well. Wrapping one arm around, Selu pinched her nose and placed his mouth on her, emptying half of the oxygen in his lungs into her. She nodded gratefully and kicked upward, with Selu following her back to the surface to catch a breath of air before moving towards their objective.

This time, they advanced together and made better progress. Selu reached the person they’d sensed first and soon discovered it was some kind of blue-skinned alien floating facedown on the water, wearing some kind of nondescript jumpsuit. Perhaps he’d been a crewmember of a boat? Milya caught up to him a minute later and the two Jedi flipped him over so his face was to the sky. They took turns alternately treading water while the other pulled on the alien and swam towards the shore. Laden as they were, the trip took twice as long, exhausting them further. Only the Force kept them going in the midst of the furious currents that threatened to carry them back out onto the raging sea. The wrath of the storm bore down on them, hammering them with driving rain that hit any centimeter of exposed skin like a hail of liquid pellets while the wind whipped the waves into a frenzy. They nearly slipped under several times, unable to keep going, until the other reached down and helped them surface again. Selu, with his superior breath control, did most of the swimming and pulling the alien, and so he got worn out just as quickly as Milya, who had to dive down and fish him back out. Selu had never realized how precious air was until he was forced to choose between saving a life and taking a breath. His entire body ached as he continued to push the limit of how far he could swim without taking a breath. Milya tried to help as she could, but the alien was fairly large and she was having her own difficulties. She saw what Selu was doing and shook her head even as she ducked underwater to help bring him back to the surface again, and she wished he wasn’t quite so willing to place himself in mortal danger for the sake of a stranger. She was growing weaker herself, her own reserves of strength ebbing, and didn’t know much longer she could keep this up.

Thankfully, the shore was only several meters away now, and Jorge and Sarth waded through the shallows to help pull them in. They took over carrying the alien onto the shore, while Selu and Milya stumbled out of the water, coughing and choking. As soon as the alien was laid on the shore, Cassi knelt down and pulled out the medkit she’d been carrying.

“He’s not breathing!” she shouted.

Cassi attempted to resuscitate the alien, trying to breathe life into him. Annita joined her, applying pressure in steady intervals on the alien’s chest while Cassi checked his pulse and blew air into him. The first repetition went by with no response.

“Come on!” Cassi said to herself. “Wake up! Again!”

She and Annita ran through the exercise again, hoping that the alien would come back to life, start breathing again.

“Here,” Sarth said, kneeling down by her side. “I’ll do this. Try using the Force.”

She brushed back her drenched hair and nodded. Closing her eyes, she placed one of her hands on the alien’s chest. A faint blue glow began emanating from her hand, a visual representation of the healing energy she was channeling through her own body into his. She frowned, shaking her head as she sensed his life slipping away. Sarth and Annita continued applying CPR, but there was still no result after the third repetition. Annita shook her head quietly as Cassi looked at her for an indication.

“Again!” Cassi shouted.

They did as instructed, and were rewarded with some faint signs of breathing, but Cassi, one finger on the alien’s wrist, sensed that his pulse was faint. Annita had noticed it too, knew the alien’s heart was failing.

“We need to defibrillate!” Annita shouted, trying to make herself heard in the storm.

“Not in the medkit!” Cassi replied, trying to imbue more of the Force into healing.

“Stand back,” Selu said hoarsely. “Let me try something.”

Cassi, Sarth, and Annita did as they were told. Selu stretched out one hand and poured some of the Force running through him into pure energy. A bolt of lightning, carefully controlled, arced through the space in between him and the alien, running up and down the unconscious being’s torso. It was a rare and somewhat controversial gift among Jedi to be able to use the Force in this way without drawing on dark side, but Selu’s Jedi Master, a Kel Dor named Plo Koon, had taught him the technique, known as Electric Judgment, years ago. He rarely used it, particularly outside of desperate combat, but now, it might actually save a life.

He let the Force continue to flow into the lightning bolt for one and a half seconds, then cut it off abruptly. The alien convulsed and writhed, but came to life, spitting up water.

“Easy there,” Cassi told, kneeling down at his side in the sodden sand once more. “You’re very weak.”

The alien’s eyes shot open in stark terror.

“Emp . . . ire,” he rasped hoarsely. “Did . . . to me! . . . Syl . . .”

Cassi felt his pulse. It was incredibly fast, and she realized the alien’s heart had been jolted into action abruptly. However, she also felt it weakening fast. His presence in the Force was even fainter than it had been.

“No!” she said, but her attempt to heal him was in vain.

It was too late. He died a minute later, still frozen in the same terrified expression, and there was nothing she could do about it.

“I’m sorry, Cassi,” Sarth said, laying a hand on her shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“I know,” she said, still staring at the body.

At that point, a flash of lightning lit up the night sky, the first they’d seen since hauling the alien ashore. Jorge, who’d stooped down to retrieve his glowrod from where he’d dropped it, turned just in time to see the alien’s face illuminated briefly. The glowrod fell from his nerveless fingers as he saw.

“Fierfek!” he swore.

Annita had seen it, too, but due to her former occupation, she was more inured to horrific sights than he was.

“Pick him up,” she ordered. “Let’s get him inside.”

The six of them were able to easily carry the alien’s body up the dozen meters to the beach-house, struggling through the still-raging storm. One of the women, either Sheeka or Ana, was waiting for them, watching through the window, but Selu ordered a halt just as they reached the door, even though it swung open.

“Get the children up in their rooms!” he barked. “Right now!”

There was a clatter of noise from inside, and then Sheeka’s face appeared in the window, nodding an affirmative. They carried the alien’s body inside, setting him on the now-cleared off table. Once everyone was inside, Selu closed the door behind them, turning up the lights so they could get a better look at the alien.

His entire head, including his face and the rest of his shaven crown, was creased and marked with angry red scars. Two large round ones pockmarked his head around the ears, while there was another double ring all the way around his skull. The wounds were barely healed, still oozing and swollen.

“Force above,” Sarth breathed as he saw the scars.

Selu opened clasps on the alien’s jumpsuit to reveal that his torso had similarly been ravaged, with two cuts on either side below the rib cage and one long slice running the full length of his body’s centerline. They were similar to the others, barely closed and still fresh. The flesh had healed poorly, scabbing over in giant layers of crusted blood topped by black necrotic tissue. It appeared infected, judging by the red streaks and oozing around the edges of each wound. Whoever this alien was, somebody had hurt him very badly before they’d ended up in the ocean.

“Those aren’t vibroblade wounds,” Annita said.

“Are you sure?” Sheeka asked. “They look like vibroblade cuts to me.”

“I used to be the head of a forensics lab,” Annita informed her. “I’m sure. Vibroblade cuts have distinct little jagged patterns along the edge of the wound where the vibrating blade tears into the skin. These are too clean to be a vibroblade and too neat and straight to be any other kind of blade.”

“They look like rather like surgical incisions,” Ana noted, walking up to get a better look.

Despite her young age, Ana was not the least bit disturbed by the sight of the mutilated body. Her parents, Corellian exiles to Yanibar, were both in the medical field and she herself was a trained nurse who worked at one of the hospitals on Yanibar.

“You’re right,” Annita agreed. “That’s exactly what they look like. A laser scalpel would leave a wound like this.”

“That’s some major surgery,” Milya said. “And if he’s a patient, how did he get out on the ocean like this?”

“I don’t know,” Selu said. “He said something about the Empire, though.”

“The Empire?” snorted Jorge. “R’alla is deep in the Corporate Sector and it’s a resort world. If there were Imperials here, I think we’d know about it.”

“Look at this,” Sarth spoke up, holding up the alien’s right hand.

As he held it up to the light, the others could see there was a tattooed set of numbers and letters on it.

“Aurek One-One-Three-Eight,” Sarth read. “Does that mean anything?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” Milya replied.

“What species is he, anyway?” Cassi asked. “He doesn’t look like any I’ve ever seen before. Wroonian, maybe?”

“Maybe,” Selu said doubtfully. “Wait. Someone’s coming.”

“Should we hide the body?” Jorge asked.

“Not enough time,” Selu said. “Just play it calm and pretend it’s not there.”

“Are you serious?” Annita asked skeptically.

Selu fixed a stern glare on her.

“Yes,” he said. “And let me do the talking. Pretend to be tourists, make some tea or something.”

At that moment, there was a knock on the door. Selu walked over and opened it, revealing two men in weatherproof overcoats standing there.

“Can I help you?” Selu asked. “Would you like to come in from the rain?”

“No, no,” the man replied. “We’re uh . . . coast patrol. Just checking up on you folks, make sure you’re riding out the storm okay.”

“We’re fine,” Selu lied. “Got soaked getting here-rain was coming down pretty hard by the time we got here, but we’re all here.”

“Good, good,” the man said distractedly, craning his neck as if trying to look past Selu. “By any chance, you haven’t seen an alien with blue skin running around, have you?”

A warning tremor ran down Selu’s spine, triggered through the Force, but he feigned innocence. The others were watching him intently, during their best to keep their eyes anywhere but on the dripping body still lying on the table.

“Alien? No. I thought this part of the coast was humans-only,” he said incredulously, pretending to be a xenophobic human tourist.

“It is,” the first man assured him. “We heard some reports earlier, wanted to keep it that way. A couple people up north of here said that there was a blue-skinned alien running around. He’s probably a dozen kilometers away from here by now, but let us know if you see him, okay? He’s not supposed to be here.”

“Will do,” Selu told him insincerely. “Anything else, officers?”

“No, that’s all,” the man said. “We’ll keep checking down the beach, just let us know if you see anything odd.”

“Take care, then,” Selu said with false cheerfulness. “Good luck with your search.”

The man nodded towards them, while his partner, shorter and silent, gave them one last suspicious glance before they left. Selu closed the door behind them, and then turned back to the others.

“Where did that body go?” Sheeka demanded.

“Force illusion,” Selu informed her. “Look.”

With a wave of his hand, the illusion disappeared, revealing the dripping body still lying on the table where they’d left it.

“Clever,” Annita commented. “Was it just me, or did those two have some serious holes in their story?”

“Oh, they did,” Milya replied.

“What do you mean?” Sheeka asked. “They rubbed me the wrong way, but I didn’t see them as sinister.

“I didn’t like what I sensed from them-they seemed deceitful,” Cassi commented.

“More than just deceitful,” Milya said. “They were lying. First off, they knew who the alien was and they didn’t say anything about those wounds. That implies that they were probably connected to whoever inflicted them, or they did it themselves.”

“There’s also nobody living on the beach north of here,” Jorge pointed out. “The beach ends about a kilometer from here, and it’s just rocks and cliffs for another fifty kilometers. This is the last beach house.”

“Also,” Annita said. “I talked to a couple of the shore watch today on our stroll. They wore the same coats as those guys, but they never called themselves coastal patrol.”

“And that accent was pure Coruscant,” Ana added. “He’s no local. His body language suggested he’s spent time in a military or police force or something.”

“I don’t like this,” Milya said. “Something’s definitely wrong here. The mystery man carved up like that was bad enough, but the two goon visitors means there’s something fishy going on.”

“There’s only thing we can do,” Selu said.

The others looked at him expectantly.

“Follow them,” he said. “Wherever they’re going, they’ll eventually head back to where they came—nobody is crazy enough to stay out here in this storm—and they’ll lead us to it.”

“Is that a good idea?” Annita asked. “They could have friends.”

“I’d be surprised if they didn’t,” Selu said. “We’ll just have to be careful.”

“Do you think the local Espos are involved?” Cassi asked.

“Possibly,” Jorge replied. “But I doubt it. If they were, the local patrol would have actually showed up instead of those two posers.”

“The locals might be involved, but what about the higher-ups in the Corporate Sector?” Sarth inquired.

“Just how high?” Cassi replied.

“Why do you ask?” Selu asked her.

“The villa up the beach is occupied by a Corporate Sector Authority official. She seemed quite nice when I talked to her. I think she said she was an Auditor-General,” Cassi replied. “Could she help us?”

“Heh,” Milya commented. “Auditor-Generals are like spies and internal affairs inspectors for the Corporate Sector folded into one.”

“What does that mean?” Cassi asked.

“It means it depends on who she is,” Milya replied dryly. “Did you get her name?”

“Fiolla something or other,” Cassi said. “I think she’s Lorrdian.”

“That would be Hart-and-Parn Gorra-Fiolla of Lorrd,” Milya corrected. “I know who you’re talking about.”

“How did you know that?” Ana asked, in awe of Milya’s recall.

“Please,” Milya said mildly. “I am the Director of YGI. I’d be pretty terrible at my job if I didn’t read and study the files of anyone interesting enough to have one who’s going to be on R’alla at the same time as my entire family.”

“So, can we trust her?” Selu asked.

“Aside from some deal involving a Corellian smuggler years ago—which she was never thoroughly investigated over—she’s got an impeccable record and a reputation for rooting corruption. She’s done several high-profile investigations that put away some higher-ups, things that she might not have done if she wasn’t honest. Seems legit to me,” Milya said, drawing on what she’d read about Fiolla before the trip.

“Sarth, Ana, and I will go pay her a visit,” Cassi said. “If she is Lorrdian, she’ll remember me, and she’ll know that I’m telling the truth.”

“Okay, you do that,” Selu said. “Just don’t let anything slip.”

Generations ago, the Lorrdians had been the slaves of a species that refused to allow them to speak. In order to communicate, they’d fostered an adroit mastery of nonverbal signals, cues, and gestures. This ability gave them what they called “kinetic communication,” and had allowed the ancient Lorrdians to free themselves. It had been passed on to subsequent generations, meaning that all Lorrdians were skilled at interpreting and passing on messages via nonverbal methods such as body language. Ana was half-Lorrdian herself, which had enabled her to read their visitors’ body language, though she normally used it to help her relate and understand her patients.

“We’ll be careful,” Cassi assured him.

“What about you?” Sarth asked Selu.

“Well,” Selu said. “Milya and I are going to follow our friends here.”

“’Nita and I are coming, too,” Jorge said.

“Sheeka,” Selu said. “I hate to impose, but would you mind . . .”

“Watching the children?” Sheeka asked knowingly. “Not a problem.”

“Thank you,” Milya told her gratefully.

“Okay, it’s settled,” Selu said. “Let’s put the body in the kitchen, out of the way, then we’ll get to it. Everyone has their safety bag, right?”

He was greeted by a chorus of affirmatives. Selu and Jorge picked up the dead alien’s corpse and placed it in the kitchen, then went to their rooms where the others had picked up their safety bags. Each safety bag had been put together on the recommendation of YGI and was made of a sensor-deflecting material, which, combined with decoys, was tough enough to withstand dropping from fifty meters and deflecting a typical spaceport scan. The contents of the safety bag varied from person to person, but they were intended to carry weapons and equipment one might need in case of attack or flight while offworld.

In short order, Jorge, Annita, Selu, and Milya emerged from their rooms, dressed in dark utilitarian clothes and armed. Jorge and Annita had blasters, while Selu had a lightsaber and a silenced S-5XS pistol. Milya also carried her lightsaber, but rather than carry a pistol, was also carrying her favorite vibroblade. Sarth and Cassi had also armed themselves, concealing their lightsabers inside their jackets, while their utility belts had holsters with S-1 blaster pistols. Sheeka, too, had a blaster pistol, while Ana, who didn’t have a safety bag, was unarmed.

“May the Force be with all of you,” Selu said. “Be careful.”

“Good luck,” Sheeka told them.

“You too,” Selu replied. “You should be safe, but if anything happens, tell J7 to go into defense mode. He can help.”

The droid nodded.

Then, Selu, followed by Milya, Annita, Jorge, Sarth, and Cassi, stepped out into the howling storm, locking the door behind them.

“Get the children up in their rooms!” Selu barked. “Right now!”

No sooner had he done so then Aunt Sheeka had very insistently shooed Rhiannon, Jasika, Bryndar and Akleyn up into their rooms and told them not to come down until called for. Though they recognized the tone in her voice and gone without protest, they had also not been happy about it either. Sitting on their beds watching the storm crash around them was not exactly exciting either, and they couldn’t get their minds off of whatever the adults were doing that was so secret that they couldn’t be privy to it.

A fork of lightning split the dark night sky, followed a minute later by a loud boom of thunder. Jasika yelped and dove under her bed, hiding on the floorboards.

“Jasika, are you okay?” Rhiannon asked, worried.

She couldn’t see where her step-cousin had gone, but she’d definitely heard her.

“You’re not scared of the storm, are you?” Rhiannon asked.

“No-no,” Jasika replied from under the bed as the wind howled over the beach-house. “What would make you think that?”

“You’re hiding under the bed,” Rhiannon said with a small smile. “Your voice sounds different when you’re down there.”

Then, there was another lightning strike, followed by an even louder thunderclap, this one so close that it shook the very walls of the beach-house. Both girls squealed and Rhiannon dove under the bed with Jasika, bashing her head on the bottom part of the frame.

“Ow!” Rhiannon said through gritted teeth. “My head. I must have hit it on the bedframe.”

“Are you okay?” Jasika asked her in a low whisper.

“Maybe,” Rhiannon said, feeling her forehead and finding something wet and sticky there.

She whimpered slightly.

“It hurts,” she said, biting back tears. “And it’s bleeding.”

Jasika’s eyes widened.

“I’ll get your mom,” she said, sliding out from under the bed.

“No!” Rhiannon replied, her non-bloody arm reaching out to seize Jasika by the wrist. “They said not to come down!”

“But you’re hurt!” Jasika countered. “And the storm is still all around us. Aren’t you scared?”

“Of course,” Rhiannon said. “But when my dad talks like that, it’s important.”

“How do you know that?” Jasika replied. “You don’t even know what he’s doing.”

“He doesn’t talk that very often,” Rhiannon said. “And only when he’s very serious and he or Mom needs me to do exactly what they say. There’s this urgency in his voice.”

“So, what do you want me to do?” Jasika asked.

Rhiannon thought for a moment, feeling on her forehead for more blood.

“Get the boys,” she suggested. “Maybe they can help.”

“The boys?” Jasika replied dubiously.

“It’s better than sitting here alone in the middle of the thunderstorm,” Rhiannon replied reasonably. “And Akleyn is in medical school.”

“That’s right,” Jasika said, rolling her eyes. “He wouldn’t stop talking about it all through dinner. Stay right here; I’ll be back.”

Clambering out from under the bed, she scooted down through the hallway to the boys’ room as quietly and quickly as she could. Jasika, even at fourteen, was not fond of storms, having seen more than her share of them growing up on Yanibar. Her fright might have been childish, but her younger years spent with her homeworld’s wild weather had left an indelible impression on her mind. Reaching the door she sought, she rapped it lightly.

“Who is it?” Akleyn called.

“It’s Jasika,” she replied. “I need you to come with me. Rhiannon’s hurt!”

Even over the rain, she heard an audible sigh from within the room.

“We’re coming,” she heard him reply with obvious reluctance.

A second later, he and Bryndar emerged from their room and, at Jasika’s description, filed back down the hallway after her into her and Rhiannon’s room.

“Where is she?” Bryndar asked as they entered.

“Under the bed,” Jasika said, whimpering as a particularly loud thunderclap shook the wooden house.

“Ah, for cryin’ out loud,” Bryndar groused.

“Easy,” Akleyn said. “Stow the griping for later.”

“Fine,” Bryndar muttered.

He knelt down by the bedside.

“Rhiannon,” Akleyn said. “I’m here. Come on out, and we’ll have a look, okay?”

She obediently slid out from underneath the bed, climbing up to sit on it.

“You’ve got a nasty little cut on your forehead,” Akleyn noted, sitting beside her and studying the injury.

“I bumped it on the bed,” she said. “It hurts.”

“I’m sure it does,” he told her soothingly. “The medkits are downstairs. Let me get some syntheflesh.”

“But Aunt Sheeka said . . .” Rhiannon protested.

“It’s okay,” Akleyn interrupted. “I’m sure she’ll understand.”

He slipped out of the room and walked over to the staircase. He was about to take his chances and descend when the conversation below halted him. His curiosity piqued, he decided to eavesdrop.

“What do you mean?” he heard Aunt Sheeka ask. “They rubbed me the wrong way, but I didn’t see them as sinister.

“I didn’t like what I sensed from them-they seemed deceitful,” his mother commented.

Now thoroughly intrigued, Akleyn spent the next several minutes listening in, until he felt a tug at his shirtsleeve. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Bryndar standing there expectantly.

“Hey, the girl’s still bleeding. Did you get the medkit?” Bryndar whispered to him.

“Uh . . . not yet,” Akleyn replied in the same hushed tone, abashed of having forgotten his original purpose. “I don’t think I can get to them right now.”

Bryndar rolled his eyes.

“Don’t get all dramatic on me, Akleyn,” he said.

“No, I mean it,” Akleyn persisted. “Something serious is going on.”

“For once, just once, can we just have a normal Kraen-Knrr vacation?” he groaned.

“Uncle Selu says that the universe has a twisted sense of humor when it comes to his fate,” Akleyn said with a shrug. “Come on, let’s get back.”

Jasika was not happy to see them return empty-handed for so long. She started to make a noise of protest, but Akleyn hushed her with one upheld hand.

“I can’t get to the medkits right now, but I’m going to try something my mother taught me,” he said.

“What?” Jasika scoffed. “Kiss it and make it better?”

Akleyn glared vibrodaggers at the impertinent teenager.

“Not exactly,” he said. “Now be quiet and let me concentrate.”

Taking the hand Rhiannon was holding on the bleeding cut, he pulled it back and laid his own hand there. He could feel the sticky wetness of the blood, but he closed it out of his mind and focused. Akleyn, like his parents, had the gift of the Force flowing in him, but his particular talents somewhat reflected more of his mother’s side.

“Whoa,” Jasika said. “Your hand is . . . glowing . . . blue.”

“All part of the process,” Akleyn assured her, pouring more energy into the Force healing, mentally encouraging Rhiannon’s cells to knit the skin closed and stop the bleeding.

“There,” he said after a minute. “All better.”

He pulled his hand away to reveal a completely healed wound, with not even a scab to mark its presence. The newly grown skin was a little pink, but otherwise, it was as if it’d never occurred.

“Cool,” Jasika said. “I bet that’s really handy.”

“You have no idea,” remarked Bryndar, Akleyn’s classmate. “Takes all the sting out of smashball injuries.”

“It tickles,” Rhiannon said.

“It usually does for a little,” Akleyn told her. “That’s just your nerves getting used to the new skin growth. You’re lucky it was such a small cut—it looked worse than it was. Head wounds are usually like that. Plus, with that Force healing, you might not have any more acne there for awhile.”

His last comment was punctuated with a teasing smile, one that was cut off almost a minute later as Jasika clobbered him with a pillow. Soon, both Rhiannon and Jasika were belaboring him with pillows. Akleyn feigned helplessness, lying on the bed as the girls attempted to smother him.

“Help! Hey! That’s not very nice of you!” he protested vainly. “I just healed you—ouch! Bryndar!”

His friend shrugged helplessly.

“I’m not helping you against little girls,” he said. “You’re on your own.”

“All right, all right,” Akleyn conceded. “You both win! I take it back about the acne.”

Satisfied, but still putting on the pretense of being offended, the girls ceased their cushion counterattack.

“Well,” Akleyn said, standing up. “I think our work here is done. Bryndar . . . I have something I want to talk with you about.”

They started walking to the door.

“What is it?” Jasika piped up.

“Hmm?” Akleyn asked over his shoulder.

“What are the adults up to?” Jasika asked.

Bryndar scowled.

“What makes you think we were talking about that?” he asked.

Jasika placed her hands on her hips and assumed a tone she’d undoubtedly learned from her mother.

“Woman’s intuition,” she said. “Now, are you going to tell us, or what?”

“I don’t think so,” Akleyn replied. “This sounds like pretty serious stuff.”

“I think we can handle it,” Jasika assured him.

“Oh, just tell them,” Bryndar said, then whispered in Akleyn’s ear. “They’ll never leave us alone until we do, and maybe it will spook them.”

Akleyn relented.

“They’re up to something,” he said. “There’s a body on the table, and we had two suspicious visitors earlier. I think the adults are going to investigate.”

“A body?” Jasika asked. “As in—?”

“Yes,” Akleyn confirmed. “The dead kind. Some kind of alien.”

“Oooooh, creepy,” Jasika said excitedly. “What are we going to do?”

Akleyn rolled his eyes. Giving the girls information had had exactly the opposite effect he and Bryndar had hoped for.

“You are going to stay here and do nothing,” he said. “We’re going out to take a look around.”

“And just how do you propose to get around whoever the adults have left here to watch us?” Jasika asked.

“That would be your mother,” Bryndar put in. “And, she can’t be that good.”

“You obviously don’t know my mom,” Jasika said smugly. “You’ll need a diversion and some sheets to tie together to form a rope so you can slip off the balcony while she’s not looking.”

“And I suppose you’re going to supply that?” Akleyn asked skeptically.

“Maybe,” Jasika said slyly. “But you have to take me along with you.”

“No way,” Bryndar shot back. “I’ll take my chances with Aunt Sheeka.”

“Okay then,” Jasika replied. “You better hope she doesn’t think you’re an intruder and just shoot you. My way, you get out of the house undetected. Your way, she’ll almost certainly know. There’s a sensor net around the house, you know.”

Akleyn turned to Bryndar and the two held a quick whispered confidence. The sensor net was news to them.

“I really don’t like the idea of bringing her with us,” Bryndar murmured. “She’s a kid.”

“No kidding,” Akleyn said. “But she’s also got a way to get us out of here. And I don’t feel like being caught. My Force skills aren’t up to hiding us or anything.”

“Pity,” Bryndar replied drily. “So, do we have to take her up on this?”

“I’m afraid so,” Akleyn told him.

“Fine,” Bryndar grumbled. “But she’d better be quiet and do exactly what we say.”

They turned back to a waiting Jasika.

“Okay, what’s your plan?” Bryndar asked.

Hart-and-Parn Gorra-Fiolla, more commonly known as Fiolla, lay back on top of the overstuffed bed in her suite, relaxing as she sank back into the small mountain of pillows behind her. Outside the windows of her bedroom, she could see the fierce, dark storm outside pouring down its fury on the seaside, but she ignored it. In fact, aside from a small glowlight on a nightstand next to her bed, she’d kept the lights purposefully dim. Reaching over, she pulled up a remote and flicked on the holoprojector. Fiolla purposefully skipped past anything that resembled work, business, or criminal investigations. She was on a well-earned vacation, paid for by the Corporate Sector Authority, and for once, she was going to enjoy it.

Lounging on the incredibly comfortable bed in an equally plush robe, sipping naris-bud tea and watching a suitably sappy romantic comedy holodrama, Fiolla was perfectly aware that this was a stark contrast from some of her more exciting adventures. But, just as her weariness had slipped away earlier in an hour-long soak in the hot tub, her usual concerns of investigating corruption and governmental irregularities were temporarily forgotten. If she was lucky, she could lay here all night long until her shining black hair—currently wrapped in a towel arranged in turban-like fashion on her head—dried, sipping tea and watching holodramas. In short, do nothing at all. If the weather was better, she might have considered a stroll along the evening beach, but there was no way she was venturing out in that storm.

Smelling the aromatic steam from her cup of tea, Fiolla settled in for an evening spent in a welcome respite. An hour later, she was drowsy; though out of halfhearted interest she lay awake, watching the holodrama. She was so engrossed that she didn’t notice the ringing of the door chime, nor the three figures that approached one of the several windows in the hexagonal room. Only after one of them tapped insistently on the window did she take notice, jumping with surprise. She considered ignoring them, or telling the servant droid to send them off, but they seemed persistent and she’d already powered down the droid.

Slipping off the bed, Fiolla scowled and pulled on her long trenchcoat from its rack in the corner, which contained her holdout blaster. Walking over to the window, she motioned the two figures to a side door that led directly into the bedroom, but stayed out of its line-of-sight. Her free hand strayed to her blaster’s grip. Activating the house intercom, she decided to find out just who they were first. Fiolla had survived too many attempts on her life to not be a little cautious.

“Who is it?” she asked.

“Fiolla, it’s me, Cassi,” she heard. “I’m staying at the house down the beach. We met earlier.”

“Yes,” Fiolla said slowly. “Who’s with you?”

“My husband Skart and my daughter-in-law, Ana,” Cassi said. “We need to talk to you.”

“About what?” Fiolla inquired.

“Something’s wrong on R’alla,” Cassi said. “We found a dead alien and then later two people pretending to be local patrollers asked us about it.”

Fiolla sighed. The woman seemed sincere enough and Fiolla did remember who she was, but this sounded suspiciously like official business—exactly the thing she’d been hoping and planning to avoid. However, her curiosity was somewhat piqued and she unlocked and opened the door.

“Come in,” she told them. “You must be soaked from the rain.”

“Thank you,” Cassi said, as the three rain-slicker-wearing figures filed in. “Is there a place we can put our coats so we don’t drip on your carpet?”

“Uh, sure,” Fiolla said. “Here, let me take them.”

Accepting the sodden garments, she quickly carried them off and deposited them on a drying rack. Returning to her unexpected visitors, she ushered them into her kitchen, filling three more cups with tea. After they were all seated at the small table there, Fiolla sat down, aware that she was still wearing a bathrobe, a trenchcoat, and a towel wrapped around her head. It was only slightly ridiculous.

“What can I do for you?” she asked, once everyone was settled.

Sarth and Cassi explained the situation to Fiolla, although they left out or modified a few key details. No mention was made of the Force, lightsabers, or Jedi, or the true occupations of Selu and Milya. Nor did they reveal how the body had been kept hidden from the two unsavory visitors. When it was over, the Auditor-General’s face bore a stern expression. She drummed her fingers lightly on the table, thinking.

“Something’s obviously wrong,” Fiolla said at last. “There aren’t supposed to be aliens on this part of R’alla. And something’s definitely suspicious about those two men. What are your friends, the other four, doing?”

Sarth and Cassi looked at each other uncertainly, unsure of how to respond, but Ana unexpectedly filled the gap.

“They went out along the beach to see if there were other survivors. They thought it might have been a shipwreck or something,” Ana said smoothly.

Fiolla frowned at her. There was something that was so deliberately intentional about the woman, the way she carried herself.

“You’re Lorrdian, aren’t you?” she asked.

“Half,” Ana said, drumming her fingers on the table in the exact manner as Fiolla had done a minute ago.

“Pleasure to meet you,” Fiolla said affably. “I’ll have to brew up some cha’klara later.”

“I’d like that,” Ana replied. “But first . . .”

“Yes, this situation,” Fiolla finished for her. “I suppose I could just entrust this to the local Espos, but I probably wouldn’t be satisfied with the results, and neither would you. Especially if there is CSA involvement somewhere up the line.”

Sarth, Cassi, and Ana waited silently for her to continue, and Fiolla was aware of the three pairs of eyes fixed upon her, quietly hoping to elicit her aid. She knew that, knew that she could very easily agree to investigate. The only inhibition restraining her was the fact that she was on vacation. She was supposed to be enjoying herself, not looking into mysterious dead bodies and impersonators. However, Hart-and-Parn Gorra-Fiolla of Lorrd hadn’t gotten to where she was by taking the easy road and only examining neat cases when it suited her. As much as the idea displeased one part of her, she was all but obligated to look into the matter by her own set of ethics and principles, regardless of her preference to not do so.

“Fine,” she said. “Wait here while I get changed. Then, we’ll get in my speeder and head down the beach.”

Selu, Milya, Annita, and Jorge carefully picked their way along the beach, heading south. Only a few hundred meters from their house, the beach turned to wave-swept rock piles, forcing them to scramble over and through large clusters of slick boulders. Behind them, an increasingly high sea cliff loomed ominously, its sheer sides worn down by the endless erosion of the waves hitting it. Between the spray from the stormy sea and the still-pouring rain, there was very little visibility and their rain coats were the only things keeping them from being completely drenched. Still, they persisted through the inclement weather despite their slow progress. Whenever possible, they stayed low, trying to keep hidden from any watchers even in the midst of the murky darkness.

They’d gone perhaps two kilometers down the beach when Selu suddenly held up a hand, signaling them to a halt. Clambering onto a large stone shelf, he crawled along it, peering down at something. Then, with a casual wave, he beckoned them forward. Soon, all four of them were looking at a break in the rocky shoreline formed by a sizable cove which led into the cliff face. The high seas just barely permitted them to see the top of its entrance, but it was clearly there, several meters wide and strangely foreboding.

“Fascinating,” Jorge commented. “I bet that’s not even visible at high tide.”

“Let’s take a look,” Selu said. “Make sure you have your breathers and stick together. There’s probably a nasty undertow.”

Inserting their breathers, which would extract oxygen from the seawater while filtering out carbon dioxide from their exhalations, into their mouths, the four shucked their raincoats and jumped into the tempestuous water. The current tried to alternately yank them out to sea and smash them into the rocks, but they made progress, swimming forward as fast as possible when they were pushed shoreward and resting on the seaward segments. The water swirled around them, threatening to pull them under, but they kept their breathers jammed in their mouths, supplying life-giving oxygen, so they were able to swim back to the surface without worry. Eventually, they made it inside the cove, despite nearly having their heads bashed against the low ceiling of the cove by the waves. Unsurprisingly, it soon sloped upward, leading to a rock tunnel. Gratefully, the four of them clambered out of the sea onto the damp stones of the tunnel. The rocks were slippery and rough, but they were solid land and a welcome relief from the constant tossing of the water.

The four explorers lay there for several minutes, resting and clearing the water from their noses. Removing their breathers, they looked around the dark cave, but did not activate any lights. After all, they didn’t know exactly what was in there. However, they’d all brought low-light goggles from their safety bags. Placing hers on her face and activating them, Milya soon noticed something through the green-tinted view provided by the goggles.

“There’s been humanoid activity here recently,” she said, examining a pile of grit and pebbles. “There’s a boot print.”

“Not just any boot print, either,” Annita noted. “That’s a stormtrooper boot.”

“Dare I ask if you’re sure?” Selu inquired.

The looks he got from both women indicated they were sure.

“We’ll be careful, then,” Selu said, pulling out his lightsaber.

Weapon in hand but not lit, he began stealthily advancing along one of the cave walls, heading deeper into the tunnel, with Jorge tucked in behind him, pistol at the ready. Opposite him, Milya and Annita were mirroring their actions. They advanced slowly, with Selu and Milya checking ahead of them for danger at every instant.

Detecting presences in the Force as the tunnel continued to slope upward, Selu held up a hand again, indicating a halt. Then, with a practiced exertion of Force power, he and Milya disappeared from view. Leaving Jorge and Annita behind temporarily, the two Force-sensitives reached the apex of the tunnel’s upward slope. To their surprise, it began descending again. After about fifty meters of descent, it bent to the left.

Rounding the corner, Selu and Milya weren’t entirely surprised to see four armed stormtroopers standing guard at a small outpost in front of a sizable metal blast door. Two pylons supported sizable glowpanels for illumination—and their glare served to hide the holocams tucked away into the corner of the cave ceiling. Several plasteel cylinders and containers were strewn around the sides of the passage, while a bored-looking officer in Imperial uniform stood watch over a nearby computer console.

“Great,” the officer muttered, perusing his console. “Subject 0049 is still unaccounted for. You idiots let him escape somehow and now look. We’ve got to comb the coastline looking for his body before the locals find him without tipping the locals off to the fact that we’re here.”

The stormtroopers remained silent, allowing the officer to continue venting his spleen.

“If he’s found . . . our quietly tolerated presence here will no longer be quiet or tolerated. And you, my quartet of incompetents, will be at the very best, reassigned to trash collection on Raxus Prime.”

Selu and Milya had heard enough. A secret facility couldn’t have that many guards and its concealed presence and lack of heavier defense at its front door indicated that secrecy was its primary defense. They exchanged dubious looks, then sprang into action. Selu telekinetically ripped the holocams from their mountings and hurled them into two stormtrooper helmets, rendering them unconscious. For her part, Milya came around the corner in the air, kicking out to catch the other two stormtroopers in their throats in a simultaneous attack. Both men collapsed, leaving her to finish knocking them out with a pair of Echani hand jabs. By that time, Selu had pinned the completely-surprised officer up against the wall, lightsaber lit and held against his throat.

“Do you know the very best thing that can happen to you from now on?” Selu asked him quietly.

The terrified man shook his head frantically.

“I’ll tell you,” Selu said. “The very best thing for you is to cooperate completely with us and join your friends here on the floor. It gets progressively worse if you don’t.”

“I’ll-I’ll tell you nothing,” he stammered.

Selu rolled his eyes, then turned to Milya.

“Shall I chop his fingers off, or would you prefer to?”

“Oh, let me,” she said. “I do it slower than you. Helps draw out the pain.”

“Fine,” Selu relented. “Just make sure he doesn’t bleed to death.”

“I will,” she assured him. “Stop him from screaming, though.”

She drew a vibroblade and advanced and that was enough to convince the officer.

“Okay, okay, I’ll tell you whatever you want,” he pleaded. “Please, don’t kill me. I have a wife and family!”

Selu frowned at his suddenly compliant captive.

“We’d probably be doing them a favor by killing you, but we’re beings of our word, so you tell us what we want to know, you get to live, mostly unharmed,” he said. “Just know that if you lie to me, you’re lying to a Jedi. Have you ever heard the old stories about the Jedi?”

“Yes-yes,” the hapless Imperial said.

Selu leaned in close to stare forbiddingly right in the man’s face.

“They’re all true,” he said. “If you lie to me, I’ll know it, and a mere thought is all it would take to make you regret it.”

“I’ll tell you anything!” the officer repeated in a hoarse whisper.

Selu backed off a little, but still stayed close enough to command all of his captive’s attention.

“First, what is this place?” Selu asked.

“It’s a research facility,” the man said.

“Could’ve fooled me,” Milya commented. “It looks more like a prison.”

“No!” the officer replied at an angry glare from Selu. “It’s a research facility aimed at investigating inferior species . . . mostly.”

“And the other uses?” Selu inquired.

The officer squirmed uncomfortably.

“Certain subjects were seen as more valuable when placed to other uses, some of which are . . . profitable.”

“Slavery,” Milya said, cutting through his euphemistic admission.

“Not in the strictest sense of the word,” the man started, but something in Selu’s expression cut him off.

“How many personnel are in this little hideout of yours?” Selu asked.

“No more than forty,” the officer said. “Fifteen guards, a few overseers, and the rest researchers.”

“Not too bad,” Selu said to Milya. “I can live with those odds.”

He returned to his interrogation.

“How many ‘subjects’ are there?” he asked.

“The number varies . . . I don’t really know,” the officer wheedled.

“Give me your best guess,” Selu hissed.

“Uh . . . fifty?” the Imperial managed.

“One last thing,” Selu said. “How do you open the door?”

“You need the passcode,” the officer said.

“Give it to me,” Selu ordered.

The officer hesitated.

“If you don’t give it to me, I’ll make you relive your worst nightmare over and over,” Selu threatened. “Jedi can do that.”

The man went pale, then divulged the information.

“Besh 15129 Yirt 75,” he said.

Selu nodded curtly to Milya, who punched in the information. The door groaned and slid open, revealing a waiting turbovator platform.

“Thank you,” he told him. “And good night.”

Without further ado, Selu whacked him over the head with the butt of his lightsaber, dropping the officer into an unconscious heap on the ground. Milya then administered ylannock injections to the five men to keep them unconscious and fog their memories while Selu went back to retrieve Jorge and Annita. He also sent a signal to J7 to be passed on to his ship, the Hawk-bat, to be passed on to another recipient down the line. In short order, Selu returned followed by Jorge and Annita.

“Well, well, what have we here?” Annita asked as she approached the door.

“Looks like a hidden Imperial research facility,” Selu told them. “Our friend over there was all too willing to talk after some adequate pressure was applied.”

“It’s a good thing he couldn’t tell we were lying,” Milya said. “He thought we were going to do horrible things to him.”

“Typical Imperial coward,” Jorge remarked. “What’s waiting for us down that turbovator?”

Selu shrugged.

“Probably a trap. There’s less than forty Imperials down there, if we believe that officer, but they’ve got fifty or so prisoners. Possibly more of those nonhumans.” Selu said.

“I think they’re using them as test subjects and slaves,” Milya said. “I can feel their pain in the Force.”

“So, what’s our next step?” Jorge asked.

Selu consulted his chrono.

“Sarth and Cassi may be here soon, but we can’t wait for them. The Imperials will know something is wrong once they realize the guards aren’t responding. We need to hit them now, before they’re ready.”

“In other words,” Milya said. “We spring the trap.”

Rhiannon padded down the stairs, clutching her shin. Hearing the noise of the girl’s descent, Sheeka turned to see her approach with a pained expression on her face.

“I hit my shin in the dark,” Rhiannon complained. “I think it’s bruised.”

“Let me take a look at it,” Sheeka said, rising to help the girl to a chair. “J7, get the medkit.”

While Sheeka examined the bruise that was rising on her leg, Rhiannon took advantage of her aunt’s distraction with her self-inflicted injury to “accidentally” bump the sensor net control. She’d already known where it was by the low humming sound it made, and it took little effort for her to flick a control on the discreet panel. Her part in the plan was done, and as long as Aunt Sheeka and J7 didn’t notice her subtle action, Bryndar, Akleyn, and Jasika could get away. Rhiannon was happy to help her cousins by providing them the diversion they needed. Being blind, she couldn’t have gone with them, but she could help them by putting on her most innocent face and distracting Aunt Sheeka. Despite the stinging sensation in her leg when Aunt Sheeka applied some kind of ointment to it, Rhiannon was giddy as knew Bryndar, Akleyn, and Jasika would be slipping down the sheet rope into the night. She hid a smile as her aunt completed her ministrations, knowing that she’d succeeded.

Outside, the three youths slipped quickly off into the night.

“I’m impressed,” Brydnar commented. “Rhiannon did her part—we got away.”

“Told you she could do it,” Jasika replied smugly.

“I suppose there are some benefits to being blind and insufferably cute to the extent that our parents feel the need to constantly fuss over her if the slightest thing happens,” Akleyn said drily. “Let’s go.”

Soon, they were picking their way along the shoreline. Their attire was somewhat suitable for the trip, as they were wearing utilitarian jumpsuits, but the rain soon drenched them. They’d also brought some other useful items-Akleyn had a fibrarope and small knife, Bryndar had a sporting blaster, multitool, and a hydrospanner and both boys had glowrods. Jasika had brought a compass, something which would prove useful if they got lost in the midst of the dark fog that was blowing in. The storm was passing and the rain lightened down to a drizzle, but there was a chill wind coming in off the sea, accompanied by a thick blanket of fog.

“It’s getting kinda cold,” Jasika said.

“Would you like to go back?” Bryndar asked pointedly.

“No,” she replied huffily. “I was just saying that it’s cold.”

They continued on, picking their way over the rocky outcroppings strewn south of the beach. The going was slow, as they were hampered by the fog, which seemingly consumed all the light emitted from the two bobbing pale blue glowlights. The murkiness was such that neither Akleyn nor Bryndar noted that Jasika had stopped to investigate something. They were a few meters ahead of her when she suddenly called out.

“Hey!” Jasika said. “Look at that!”

“What?” Akleyn asked, turning back to her.

“Look!” she repeated, pointing at the ground.

Both young men returned and examined the ground near where she was pointing, looking at the wet sand and pebbles in an attempt to determine what had drawn Jasika’s attention.

“I don’t see anything,” Bryndar noted after several seconds of looking.

She sighed and rolled her eyes.

“Look at the water,” she said. “It’s flowing towards that rock pile, away from the beach.”

“She’s right,” Akleyn said. “It shouldn’t be doing that.”

“What does it mean?” Bryndar asked.

“It means there’s some kind of cave, tunnel, or maybe a sinkhole back that way,” Jasika said. “Care to check it out?”

“Sure,” Bryndar said, then shook his head in disbelief. “Where did you learn how to do that?”

“My . . . my . . .” she said, suddenly at a loss for words.

“Your father taught you,” Akleyn finished gently.

She nodded and an awkward silence followed.

“Let’s go,” Bryndar said at last, gesturing towards the rock pile where the trickling water led. They investigated, and soon found a sizable metal grate discreetly tucked away under the rocks. It was half-hidden by loose stones, seaweed, and other detritus, but Akleyn and Bryndar cleared it away.

“I didn’t think this part of the beach was that artificial,” Akleyn remarked.

“It might be an air vent for some kind of underground facility,” Bryndar suggested. “Let’s get it off.”

“Is that a good idea?” Akleyn asked. “We don’t know what we’re dealing with here.”

Bryndar rolled his eyes.

“Come on, Akleyn, don’t be such a baby,” he said. “This is vacation and we’re on a coastline specifically meant for recreation. It’s not like we’re charging into Kessel with all guns blazing. We’re just going to take a quiet look.”

“I don’t know,” Akleyn said uncertainly. “I have a bad feeling about this.”

“As long as we keep quiet, there’ll be nothing to worry about,” Bryndar assured him. “Now, let’s take a look.”

He pried the metal grate off and peered down into it.

“It’s kinda tight, but wide enough for us to fit into,” he reported. “All clear.”

Without further aplomb, he dropped down into the tunnel. Somewhat reluctantly, the other two followed their headstrong companion into the access panel. Bryndar’s definition of “kinda tight” meant that they were crawling in single file through the damp metal tunnel. Jasika had an easier time of it than the two men, being smaller, but she was sandwiched in between them, making her going no faster than theirs.

They continued for several long minutes, descending into the underground. At the end, they reached a spinning fan blade, which was blocking the mouth of the duct.

“Hmmm,” Bryndar said, studying the obstacle.

He considered trying to stuff something into the fan blade, then decided against a more subtle approach. Instead, he pulled out his sporting blaster and shot the main shift. The fan sparked and then slowed to a halt.

“Great,” Akleyn said with a groan. “Now everyone knows we’re here.”

“Calm down,” Bryndar said. “I’m sure nobody heard that.”

Using his multitool, he quickly removed the fan from its mountings. Pushing it ahead of him with a loud screech against the metal floor, he shoved it out the mouth of the duct, then he clambered out, followed by the others. They were in a small room, apparently some kind of laboratory. It was thankfully deserted, but there were tables and desks loaded with scientific equipment—multi-spectral analyzers, genetic sequencers, centrifuges, microscopes, culture racks, cryochambers.

“Interesting,” Akleyn said, looking at one of the tables. “Someone’s been doing some serious genetic experimentation here.”

“Like what?” Bryndar asked.

“Let me take a look,” Akleyn said, sitting down next to a datapad. “Hmm, it’s encrypted.”

“Is that going to be a problem?” Bryndar asked.

Akleyn snorted.

“Please,” he said. “I am my father’s son and this is a fairly pathetic security system.”

In five seconds, aided by his near-perfect memory, the contents of the datapad were open to him, revealing hundreds of files. He began poring through them, much to the dismay of Bryndar and Jasika, who were left distinctly out of the loop and with nothing to do besides stare at the rows of mysterious equipment.

“Interesting,” Akleyn repeated suddenly.

“What?” Bryndar asked.

“This is apparently some kind of Imperial biogenetics lab,” Akleyn told him. “They’re performing various genetic experiments on . . . Force above!”

“Experiments on what?” Jasika asked as he trailed off.

Akleyn turned pale.

“They’re experimenting on Wroonians,” he said quietly. “Trying to introduce several genes into them.”

“Like what?” a slightly puzzled Bryndar asked.

“One group seems to be focused on rendering them sterile,” Akleyn said. “Another research group is trying to create a virus that will turn them human.”

“Turn them human?” Bryndar asked.

“Yes,” Akleyn said. “It seems that we’re in a laboratory aimed at forced genetic engineering. It’s essentially trying to mutate their genes to wipe out the Wroonian species.”

“Sounds to me like we’d better get out of here and find the adults,” Jasika said. “I don’t think this is safe.”

“I think she’s right,” Bryndar said hurriedly. “We’d better go and—uh-oh.”

“What?” Akleyn asked.

Bryndar pointed and Akleyn’s eyes followed a ray from the end of Bryndar’s finger to the ceiling, where a recessed holocam was hidden.

“There’s a good chance we’ve been spotted already,” Bryndar said.

“Not a problem,” Akleyn replied easily. “Let me slice into the base’s operating systems and have a look.”

Tapping keys on the datapad, he soon found what he was looking for.

“There are intruders reported,” he said. “The facility is on high alert, but . . . it’s not us.”

“What do you mean?” Bryndar asked.

“The security reports show four intruders entering through the front door, armed and incredibly dangerous. All personnel are to avoid them and let the stormtroopers handle it,” Akleyn read.

“Can you pull up a camera feed?” Bryndar asked.

“Sure,” Akleyn said, activating a nearby holoprojector. “A lot of the holocams are offline, but this security checkpoint seems to be next in the intruders’ path and the cams there are still working.”

A hologram of a corridor sealed off by blast doors shimmered into view. Upturned barricades and a full eight stormtroopers were there, all with blaster rifles pointed towards the far end of the room. Two automated turrets were present also, fixed to the ceiling, the muzzles of their repeating blasters also aimed at the far end of the room.

“Wow,” Bryndar said. “That’s a lot of security.”

“Look at the door,” Jasika said. “Something’s happening.”

As they watched in stunned fascination, a glowing arc began appearing on the door, cutting a long oval into it and leaving a deep gash of molten metal behind.

“Someone’s cutting through the door,” Bryndar said unnecessarily. “But that doesn’t look like a breaching charge.”

“Maybe a plasma torch?” Akleyn suggested.

Then, the oblong slab of molten door fell inward and a figure stepped through, wielding a green lightsaber in each hand. The stormtroopers opened fire with a flurry of blaster bolts, but the intruder batted away the blasts, stepping forward to admit a woman armed with a double-bladed saberstaff, which began whirling as the two intruders advanced steadily. Behind them, two more intruders, armed with blasters, entered the battered door, firing steadily from behind the two lightsaber-wielders.

“Stang!” Bryndar swore. “Those are my parents.”

“And Uncle Selu and Aunt Milya . . . with lightsabers,” Akleyn noted. “What in space is going on here?”

“That’s amazing,” Jasika breathlessly. “I never knew . . .”

They were all equally surprised to see their parents and extended family fighting in such a manner—that secret had been kept from them, as had many details of the adults’ past. Now, it was almost unbelievable for them to watch. However, Akleyn broke out of his astonishment first as an idea entered his head. He furiously began tapping into the keys as the skirmish raged.

“What are you doing?” Jasika asked.

“You’ll see,” Akleyn replied, his eyes riveted to the datapad screen.

Another two seconds passed, during which four stormtroopers fell to blaster bolts and one of the turrets blew up in a shower of sparks.

“There!” Akleyn said triumphantly. “Manual control!”

Bryndar and Jasika watched as the remaining turret swiveled and began blasting the unsuspecting stormtroopers. An instant later, they were all down, courtesy of the turret and the four Jedi.

“Did you do that?” Bryndar asked.

“I certainly did,” Akleyn said. “Now, we just need to get a message to them.”

The four intruders were standing there, weapons ready, looking quizzically at the turret. At a signal from Selu, Milya went over to check one of the consoles mounted to the wall.

“I left a coded message on that terminal,” Akleyn explained. “She should be able to figure out that it’s us.”

They watched as Milya began gesticulating frantically to Selu and the others, beckoning them over.

“Can they talk to us?” Bryndar asked.

“No,” Akleyn said with a frown. “They’d have to slice in, but remote access to those terminals is locked down. I can’t override it. They seem excited, though.”

“And they thought we couldn’t help,” Jasika crowed. “Akleyn, I have an idea.”

“What is it?” Akleyn replied.

“Can you download and send them a map of this place?” Jasika asked. “I bet it’d help.”

“Sure,” Akleyn said. “That’s easy.”

He entered in another series of commands.

“Why stop there?” Bryndar said. “Get them holocam views, sensor logs, whatever.”

Akleyn nodded, his fingers flying across the keys and buttons on the datapad.

“This is a little harder than it looks,” he said. “I’m being kind of sloppy here . . . I wish my dad was here. If this wasn’t an older system, I couldn’t get in at all.”

“Does that mean you can’t do it?” Jasika inquired.

“No,” Akleyn admitted. “It just means I’d like a little more acknowledgement.”

“You’re doing great,” Bryndar assured him while still peering at the screen. “I have just one last idea.”

“What’s that?” Akleyn asked.

“I’m looking at Security Checkpoint A-16. No turrets, just another four stormtroopers.”

“Yes,” Akleyn said distractedly.

“According to the schematics, there’s a power conduit at the end of the hall. Can you overload it?” Bryndar asked.

“I could, but that would cause . . . an explosion,” Akleyn realized aloud. “I see where you’re going.”

“Is that a good idea?” Jasika said. “Won’t people get hurt?”

“True,” Akleyn admitted. “On the other hand, they’re stormtroopers and, for whatever reason, our family seems to be battling them.”

“Which is really odd,” Bryndar said. “I knew Uncle Selu and Aunt Milya were Force-strong and in the Yanibar Guard and all, but I never knew they were . . . Jedi.”

“Me neither,” Akleyn said. “Which makes me wonder about my parents.”

“Tell me about it,” Jasika added. “Look, the conduit’s overloading.”

Akleyn switched the holocam view so that the holoprojector showed Security Checkpoint A-16. They watched as the power conduit, suddenly diverted into a feedback loop by Akleyn, overloaded and exploded in a flash of light and sparks. When the smoke cleared, all four stormtroopers were down for the count.

“Nicely done,” Bryndar said, impressed.

“Thank you,” Akleyn said. “I think we should go, though. If there’s anyone still paying attention to the computers, I’ve probably alerted them by now.”

Then, the door to the lab whooshed open, admitting four stormtroopers with blasters ready. Their white armor clattered as they rushed in, but the blasters they toted were held steady, fixed on the three young intruders.

“Freeze,” one of them ordered gruffly, his voice coming out flat and mechanical through his helmet’s speaker. “Hands up!”

Akleyn, Bryndar, and Jasika slowly raised their hands by their heads. “You know, Akleyn,” Bryndar growled under his breath. “You could have mentioned that a little bit sooner.”

Milya carved her lightsaber through a wall and into a hapless guard who’d been waiting behind it to ambush them. He fell in two steaming pieces on the floor. She shook her head.

“Amateurs,” she said.

“How many more are there?” Selu asked.

With Jorge covering her, Annita moved over to a console and consulted it.

“According to Akleyn, there’s a few scattered researchers here and there, but only two other clusters of stormtroopers,” she said. “He took out another group by overloading a power conduit.”

“Heh,” Selu said disapprovingly. “As helpful as this slicing has been, this was very stupid of them. Not to mention dangerous.”

“No kidding,” Annita said worriedly. “One of the stormtrooper groups is heading right for them.”

“Kriff it,” Selu swore. “Can you send them a message?”

“No,” Annita said. “This terminal is locked down. Hopefully they’ll get the hint and run off.”

“I’m not counting on it,” Selu said. “Milya, go check on the kids, please.”

“Fine,” she snapped, tension evident in her voice.

“What is it?” Selu asked.

“They’re slavers,” she spat out. “I hate slavers.”

“Hate is a strong word,” Selu cautioned.

“You think I don’t know that?” Milya replied. “But I can’t think of any other one that fits. I never told you, but my foster parents were killed over their refusal to join a slaving operation.”

“Really?” Selu asked.

“Yes,” Milya said bluntly. “And, after they were killed, their murderers tried to sell me into slavery.”

“Did they?” Selu asked.

She smiled thinly.

“Let’s just say their ship didn’t depart offworld as planned. I escaped, killed them all, retrieved my belongings, and left,” she said. “I had to ditch the ship later—it was too traceable. That was before I met any of you.”

“I’m so sorry,” Selu said sincerely. “I’ll check on the kids, then, and you deal with the slavers, but only if you promise me that you won’t hurt them if they surrender. No mad rampages.”

“I promise,” Milya said grimly. “If they surrender.”

“It looks like the rest of the stormtroopers and base personnel are in the main holding area,” Annita said. “We’d better go in case they start killing the prisoners.”

“All right,” Selu said. “Force be with you. Be safe.”

With that, Selu trotted off down the corridors, weapons in hand, leaving Milya, Jorge and Annita to advance on the main holding area.

Selu was halfway to the lab where Akleyn, Bryndar, and Jasika were when his earpiece comlink crackled.

“Come in, Mr. Green,” he heard Sarth’s voice.

Selu cracked a trace of a smile. Sarth was using a very old code, one corresponding to his lightsaber color. If it wasn’t for his own near-eidetic memory, he wouldn’t have recognized it. Of course, Sarth had probably counted on that.

“Green here,” he replied. “What’s your status?”

“I’ve got a local official here to help. We can get more help if you need it,” he said. “We’re at the entrance to the cove.”

Selu stopped at a nearby console to pull up the coordinates of the lab where Bryndar, Akleyn, and Jasika were. He repeated them to Sarth.

“Head to those coordinates,” he said. “We’ve got a possible hostage situation on our hands. If you can distract them, I’m en route.”

“Understood,” Sarth replied tersely. “Cassi and I will meet you there. Fiolla’s going to meet up with Ms. White.”

“Affirmative,” Selu said. “Out.”

The sensor log showed that the four stormtroopers were in the lab. He broke into a sprint. The currents of the Force flowed through him as he summoned its energy through his body, accelerating him. A slight mental redirection diverted some of that power into wrapping the Force around him like a cloak, causing him to disappear from sight.

In short order, he was near the lab where the young people were being held. Stretching out his Force senses, he sensed they were still alive, though a sudden sensation of pain from Akleyn told him that he’d been hit or given some other slight injury. There was a console nearby and Selu saw that Akleyn had, as a last act, made them all display the lab holocam view in hopes of alerting them to their plight.

Selu saw that the three prisoners were on their knees, blasters held to their heads, while one of the stormtroopers interrogated Akleyn. Something Akleyn said angered the stormtrooper, and he drove the butt of his blaster rifle into the young man’s stomach. A flare of anger rose in Selu at the sight, but he calmed himself. He needed to wait for Sarth and Cassi.

A minute later, his wish came true as the other lab door burst open and Sarth and Cassi entered, lightsabers held ready. The stormtroopers swiveled, blasters at the ready, but refrained from firing. A standoff. Selu closed his eyes and concentrated. Now that all the pieces were in place, he could act. However, the act of opening the door would alert the troopers to his presence, even as invisible as he was. Instead, he opened a Force meld with Sarth and Cassi, joining his mind with theirs until he could see through their eyes. He saw the blasters in the stormtroopers’ hands, wrapped his mind’s eye around each and every one of them. Then, once he was sure of his control, he sent a mental nudge to Sarth and Cassi and ripped the weapons out of the troopers’ hands, sending them flying across the room.

Immediately, Sarth and Cassi lunged forward, lightsabers at the ready, just as Selu opened the door and slid inside the lab in the confusion, still invisible. Sarth and Cassi were fast, dropping a stormtrooper who’d tried to grab for Jasika while stopping two others in their tracks. But they weren’t fast enough. One remained, his arm locked around Akleyn’s neck, dragging him backward behind a lab table. Akleyn’s face was red as he struggled to breathe, but the trooper kept him locked in a viselike grip.

“Drop the weapons, or I strangle him,” the trooper said menacingly.

Selu could see the worried and horrified looks in Sarth’s and Cassi’s eyes as they watched their son being held hostage. He could sense the frantic pulse of emotions running through them, their battle over resisting the order and their parental concern for their son’s wellbeing. Selu sympathized with them—he’d felt similarly when Rhiannon had been temporarily seized as a hostage a year ago. However, just like in that case, he was not going to sit idly by. Instead, he sent Sarth and Cassi a mental message that said “trust me” and closed in rapidly on the stormtrooper.

In half a second, he was there. A tenth of a second later, his lightsabers were lit. Selu skewered the stormtrooper through both shoulders and the man cried out in pain as the burning green energy blades stabbed completely through him to emerge from the front of his shoulder plates. He slid limply to the ground in shock, unable to move his arms, as Selu dropped his Force cloak.

“Akleyn!” Sarth and Cassi cried, rushing forward to their son while Selu kept an eye on the remaining stormtroopers.

“Thanks for coming, Mom, Dad,” he said. “I’m okay.”

He stood with just a little help, rubbing his throat.

“We’re all okay,” Bryndar assured them. “Thanks to you. How’d you do that?”

“The better question might be how you got out of the house and into this mess. I think your parents will have something to say about that,” Selu replied sharply. “And worst of all, you dragged Jasika into this, put her in danger.”

“I wasn’t dragged,” Jasika contested hotly. “I volunteered.”

Selu rolled his eyes.

“You are very much your father’s daughter,” he told her. “Sometimes, a bit too much.”

Tears sprang to her eyes at his casual mention of her father, so Selu relented and held her close to him with one arm even as he kept vigilant watch on the stormtroopers.

Meanwhile, Sarth and Cassi were having their own discussion with Akleyn.

“That’s ten years off my life, son,” Sarth said vehemently to Akleyn. “Ten years! I’ll be old and gray before you know it.”

“What’s he trying to say is that you scared us,” Cassi explained a bit more gently. “You could have been killed.”

“I know,” an ashamed Akleyn said. “We were just trying to help.”

“We’ll discuss this later,” Selu interrupted abruptly.

A wave of his hand, a slight exertion in the Force, and three darts hit the necks of the stormtroopers, dropping them.

“It’s time to go,” he said. “Sarth, Cassi, take the children back to the surface. I’m going to meet up with the others.”

“Of course,” Sarth said, discreetly swiping the datapad that Akleyn had been logged into.

With that, the reunited family left the lab behind, followed by Jasika and Bryndar. They were all safe again, for the moment.

Thanks to Akleyn’s slicing, the door opened easily and Milya entered cautiously, lightsaber ready, followed by Jorge and Annita, pistols at the ready. However, no blaster bolts greeted them. In fact, there was no hostile response at all.

They were in a long, dimly lit room. Its two side walls were lined with glowing magenta force fields separated into six blocks per side—holding cells for dozens of disconsolate and forlorn-looking Wroonians. The floor was stained and dirty, but the air carried a mixture of stale body odor and refuse combined with the clinical smell of a medcenter or laboratory.

In the middle of the room, there was a long operating table, surrounded by bright surgical lights and several other medical apparatuses and standing next to it was an Imperial officer holding a blaster pistol. There was a pair of technicians standing next to him, along with four stormtroopers, but they held their fire, through their blasters were at the ready. Milya saw a blanket-swathed figure on the operating table and realized that it was a distressed-looking Wroonian woman.

“Drop your weapons,” Milya demanded, striding forward.

The officer, a large, somewhat overweight man with a bald head and a bemused smile on his face, chuckled evilly.

“Perhaps you should drop your weapons,” he said. “You are outnumbered.”

“Hasn’t stopped us yet,” Milya said, taking another step.

Her eyes blazed as anger rose within her. This man was almost certainly the base commander, the despicable excuse of a being responsible for the misery and enslavement of the Wroonians. She wanted to make him pay, to start by beating him mercilessly. Only the last vestiges of her restraint and something in the tone of his voice stopped her from advancing and killing him.

“Oh, but this might,” he said, holding up a remote.

“And what’s that?” Milya demanded.

“This remote,” the officer explained chillingly. “Will release a nerve gas and kill every Wroonian in these cells. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”

That was enough to stop Milya, Jorge, and Annita in their tracks.

“Much better,” the officer said. “As it is, you’re just in time for our little demonstration.”

The Wroonian woman on the table moaned piteously and Milya saw that her belly was swollen. She was with child, and it was nearly time for her to give birth.

“You see,” the officer said, moving to the head of the table and stroking her long black hair. “Our first test has been successful.”

“What test?” Annita asked.

He smiled.

“We were able to successfully modify the Wroonian genetic code to be compatible with human DNA,” he said triumphantly. “This subject, Besh 161, was successfully implanted by myself after several unsuccessful tries with other subjects in earlier stages of the virus. The subject is nearly ready for delivery and her offspring, though still regrettably comprised mostly of Wroonian DNA, will provide the keys we need to finish our virus to convert this species to humans.”

“You raped her and now you’re going to use the child for lab research,” Milya snarled fiercely.

“You’re despicable.”

“Trust me, I did not enjoy the experience,” the officer said haughtily. “This creature’s very touch is repulsive to me. Soon, though, that will all be remedied when her kind embrace the wonder that is humanity.”

“She’s not a creature,” Jorge countered. “She’s a person, no matter who you think you are . . . whoever you are.”

“Colonel Ios Meongula,” the man replied proudly. “Imperial Department of Redesign.”

Milya shuddered. The Imperial Department of Redesign was a particularly loathsome and secretive group of twisted individuals dedicated to reforming, redesigning, and otherwise eradicating or mutating nonhuman species. Their atrocities were legendary and it did not surprise her to hear that they were now attempting to try and find a way to mutate Wroonians to convert them all to humans. And Meongula’s fanaticism certainly matched the mold of an insanely humanocentric IDR official.

“If you’re a shining example of humanity,” Jorge said hotly, a vein bulging from his neck with anger. “I think the Wroonians are better off staying the way they are.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Colonel Meongula sniffed. “They’re inferior creatures. They should be glad that we are bestowing this opportunity on them. And, once we’re done, our success here will be used with other species . . . Zeltrons, Lorrdians, Echani, they’ll all embrace the superiority of humanity!”

“You’re insane,” Annita said. “And, at the risk of sounding cliché, you’ll never get away with it.”

“I think not, my dear. You are powerless to stop me and I have connections in this world’s government,” the colonel said dismissively. “And if I’m branded as insane, I’m willing to make that sacrifice in the name of science and humanity.”

“Not so fast, Colonel,” said a new voice.

Jorge and Annita turned to see Fiolla storm into the room, blaster in hand and plenty angry. Ana followed a second later.

“Your little secret existence here is at an end. Thanks to them, I heard every word you said over the comlink,” Fiolla told him. “Your partners in the governor’s office and out combing the beach have already been arrested on my order and I have the authority to place you and all your accomplices under arrest.”

“And just who are you?” Colonel Meongula inquired.

“Auditor-General Fiolla of Lorrd,” she said. “One of those inferior creatures you’re intent on wiping out. It’s over, Colonel. You’re going to one of the most delightful prisons in all of the Corporate Sector to smash rocks for the next hundred years. That’s if I don’t just kill you and claim you were trying to escape.”

“You heard the lady,” Milya said, still staring unflinchingly at the officer. “I suggest you do what she says. I’d love for you to try something.”

Colonel Meongula stared aghast at the new arrivals, trying to comprehend how the fates had turned against him. He’d been on the verge of a breakthrough only to have everything suddenly ruined by these intruders. Several of them were human—how could they turn against fellow humans like this, especially given the nobility of his cause? Then it hit him—they must be Rebels or other miscreants. Even if his research couldn’t be completed, he couldn’t allow the valuable knowledge to fall into their hands. First, he triggered something on the remote, wiping the memories of all the computing devices connected to the facility’s dataframe. The two wall consoles near the door flickered and died. Next, he knew that he would have to terminate all the subjects, especially this one. He looked down at Besh 161 one last time, stroking its face. It recoiled from his touch and he smiled down at it. In its own inhuman way, the subject had been attractive. He’d have sold it on the slave market and fetched a winsome price for its winsome, shapely appearance, if he hadn’t been intent on using it for his own purposes.

He turned back to the Milya, Ana, Annita, Jorge, and Fiolla, adopting an attitude of sadness.

“It is with great regret that my orders do not permit me to acquiesce to those demands,” he said. “And it saddens me even more to have to destroy so much of what was accomplished in the names of science and humanity.”

Milya’s comlink clicked and she smiled grimly at him.

“Guess what?” she said. “Your little nerve gas trap is disabled. Some of my friends were able to slice into that and shut it down.”

“It’s too late,” the colonel replied, returning the same grim smile. “Fire.”

The stormtroopers opened fire at once, but Milya’s saberstaff came alive, batting away all four of the blasts. With their combined fire, Jorge, Annita, and Fiolla quickly dropped the troopers. Milya, however, was determined to have the colonel for herself. Even as she deflected blaster bolts, she pulled out her vibroblade and threw it. It caught Meongula right in the shoulder with a sickening thud, slamming him back into the bed, clutching at the wound and the blood stain beginning to show through his uniform around it.

“Hands up!” Fiolla ordered the technicians, her blaster muzzle unwavering.

They complied quickly as Milya stormed up to the injured colonel.

“Kriff you,” she said, then drove her knee into his groin.

He doubled over on the floor in pain, and she launched an Echani hand jab into his kidney.

“That’s enough,” Fiolla said.

“Not nearly,” Milya replied angrily. “I was just getting started.”

“She’s right, Milya,” Jorge interjected. “Easy.”

“Fine,” she relented unhappily.

Rolling the colonel over, she jerked the vibroblade from his shoulder with little care for how roughly she did so. She wiped it off on his uniform, gave him one last scathing look, then let him go.

“Look,” Annita said, pointing at the medical monitors.

Milya looked up and saw they were flashing red. A glance down at the bed told her all she needed to know. The colonel’s smoking blaster was lying there and the Wroonian woman had a smoldering hole in her torso.

“Sithspawn,” Milya swore. “He shot her. She’s dying.”

“Get out of the way,” Ana said unexpectedly, dashing forward. “Annita, help me.”

“Understood,” Annita said, following the other woman.

Taken aback by the normally reserved Ana’s sudden taking charge, Fiolla moved back out of their way as Selu entered the room. Annita and Ana ignored them, enrapt in a fast-paced stream of medical dialogue. A trained and experienced nurse, it was her instinct to automatically intervene and administer medical treatment in an emergency such as this, as instinctual as breathing. Annita, with her own training in biology, could be of assistance, but Ana was clearly in charge, doing the best she could to save the child.

“She’s flat-lining,” Annita said worriedly.

“I know,” Ana said calmly. “20 ccs of antishock. That cart should have some.”

“Done,” Annita replied, adding it to an intravenous line running into the Wroonian’s arm.

“Laser scalpel,” Ana stated, holding out her hand to receive it from Annita. “We’re going to have to do an emergency C-section. This won’t be pretty and this isn’t supposed to be done this fast.”

Annita nodded grimly as Ana went about her business as fast as she possibly could. Milya stood by the dying Wroonian woman’s bedside, out of the way, holding her hand.

“It’s going to be okay,” Milya assured her. “We got the Imperials. They can’t hurt you or your people anymore. Your child will be free.

“Thank . . .” the Wroonian managed, her eyes bulging with pain.

“Do you have a mate?” Milya asked. “Family?”

“Sylca,” the Wroonian managed in between labored breaths. “He ran . . . escape.”

Milya realized that the dead alien they’d found on the beach must have been this woman’s husband, or lover, or brother. There was clearly some relation.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “He’s dead.”

A spasm of pain racked the dying woman.

“Child . . .” she said.

“Yes?” Milya asked frantically. “Anything, I’ll do it.”

“It’s a girl,” Ana reported from the other end of the bed.

“Name . . . Ariada,” the Wroonian said, her eyes darting frantically under the bright glare of the surgical lights.

“Her name is Ariada,” Milya said. “I understand.”

Ana held up the squalling newborn for the mother to see. Her eyes lit up with pleasure and a smile creased her face, but suddenly, the monitors went even crazier and the Wroonian stiffened.

“No, no, no!” Ana said vehemently. “She’s not breathing!”

Moving up to the front of the bed, she placed her bloodied hands on the Wroonian’s chest and tried to resuscitate her, but despite several repeated attempts, was unsuccessful.

“Damnit!” Ana swore.

It was the most upset Milya had ever seen her. Even after her husband had been killed, Ana had always been quiet and withdrawn. Such outbursts were unlike her.

“Can we defibrillate?” Annita asked.

“No,” Ana said dejectedly, her shoulders slumping. “Her heart was grazed by the blaster bolt. She’s gone.”

“How’s the child?” Milya asked quietly.

“She’s healthy,” Ana said curtly. “She’ll be fine, if she gets the proper care.”

“I’ll see to it,” Fiolla spoke up from the corner where she’d been standing.

Meanwhile, Selu had been deactivating the force fields. He was successful and they collapsed, freeing the Wroonians.

“You’re free,” Selu said to them. “All of you. No more experiments. No more slavery.”

“What’s going to happen to them?” Jorge asked.

“To an extent, that’s up to them and Fiolla,” Selu said.

“I’m sure I can work something out,” Fiolla said to the astonished Wroonians beginning to file out of their cells. “Somebody owes you for this injustice. At the very least, we can arrange transport back to you homeworld once the investigation is complete.”

“There’s also another choice,” Selu said. “I hereby grant any Wroonian who wishes it asylum with us on our world.”

“Really?” Fiolla said skeptically. “And just what makes you think you have the authority to do so? You’re in the Corporate Sector and as much as I’m thankful for your assistance in helping, you could be in a heap of trouble, especially with those lightsabers of yours. You have no say in their fate.”

Selu gave Milya a bemused smile and whistled. On his signal, a squad of people armored from head to toe in full battle armor entered. Though they were armed, most of them were carrying medical supplies. Others, also in uniforms with matching insignia but not fully armored and bearing medpacs of their own, moved through and began checking the Wroonians for injuries.

“This is an infantry squad and medical team from a frigate I have hovering in the cloudbank overhead,” Selu told Fiolla simply. “I have shuttles standing by to ferry any Wroonians who are interested in my offer up to the frigate for eventual transport. I suggest you not get in the way.”

“What is it like, your planet?” an aged Wroonian male, his body creased with scars asked.

“It’s a free world,” Selu said. “One where you and your families can settle and never be bothered by the Empire or any other force that wishes to do you harm. It’s a prosperous world, one filled with caring people who won’t hate you for who you are. You can build a new life.”

A look of hope crossed the old one’s face and he began talking excitedly among the others near him.

“You see that, Auditor-General?” Selu told her. “Did you see that look on his face? I’m offering him and his people freedom and a new life, no strings attached. Can you give that to them?”

Fiolla thought about it for awhile. The Corporate Sector had directives for issues like this, but she also had some freedom to exercise them. And, despite her enforcement of those directives on a regular basis, this issue wasn’t quite as black-and-white. These people had risked their lives to free the Wroonians just simply because it was the right thing to do, and now they were offering them a new life she couldn’t match. Every action they’d undertaken had proven them to be noble, honorable, even if they were sneaky and deceptive. Their breaking of Corporate Sector regulations had been in order to save others. She couldn’t punish that, nor was she in a position to do so at the moment. The best thing for all would be if she simply cooperated—if these meddlers returned later, she could deal with them appropriately when there wasn’t a frigate looming over her head. She looked at Selu. Then, she looked back at the old Wroonian and pursed her lips.

“I see your point,” she said. “You’ll take them in?”

“We will,” Selu replied sincerely. “They’ll be well taken care of.”

“I don’t know why I should trust you,” Fiolla said slowly. “But for some reason, I do. This is the best thing for them.”

“Thank you,” Selu said.

“This is going to get me in a lot of trouble,” she told him. “My supervisors will be furious.”

“So, don’t mention it to them,” Milya said. “You received an anonymous tip about the insiders and the fake coastal patrol, but when you went to investigate the lab, it’d clearly been self-destructed.”

Fiolla considered the matter, then nodded her head in agreement.

“Sounds plausible to me,” she said. “I’ll do it.”

“Thank you again,” Selu said. “You’ve done the right thing.”

He turned to address the gathered Wroonians.

“Your freedom is yours,” he said. “You can return to your homeworld under Auditor-General Fiolla, or you can come on my ship. I only ask that at least one family here take in this child.”

“Dyriad and I will take her,” the old Wroonian who’d spoken up earlier said. “We want to go with your ship to the new world.”

Milya came up and whispered something in Selu’s ear and he nodded.

“The child has a special gift,” he told them. “You’ll be welcome there. The ship will depart in an hour; I’ll leave you to make your decision. If you want to go aboard the Djinn Altis, just let one of my people know.”

Then, he turned back to Fiolla.

“Thank you again for your understanding, Auditor-General. My people will make sure that you have what you need to corroborate your story. In order for this to work, though, we’ll need to keep the prisoners,” Selu said. “Any of the Wroonians that stay here will receive some medication to make their memory of this event rather blurry.”

“I understand,” she said. “I have enough evidence to deal with the others.”

“You’re a good woman, Fiolla of Lorrd,” Ana said. “A pity we didn’t get to share that cup of cha’klara.”

“I’ll be too busy for that,” Fiolla said regretfully. “Little incidents like this tend to require a lot of report filing and such. However, that said, there’s no reason the rest of you can’t enjoy your vacation a little longer.”

“Really?” Milya asked, her brow furrowing with suspicion. “And I’m supposed to believe that?”

“Suit yourself,” Fiolla said shrugging. “But since we’re pretending you were never here, there’s no reason for you to leave unless you want to. I won’t come after you, at least not tonight. You have my word.”

“Isn’t that illegal?” Selu asked.

“Not if you were never involved with this secret Imperial laboratory that somebody decided to cover up,” Fiolla said. “I’ll need at least until tomorrow morning to re-activate myself and start pulling together a formal investigation. That should give you plenty of time to enjoy your evening and get away. You have twelve hours. Besides, I can’t really report you with your people here anyway.”

“Thank you,” Selu said. “We’re indebted to you.”

“You want to pay it off, then stay out of the Corporate Sector from now on. You have no idea the hell this investigation is going to be,” she said. “Trouble seems to follow you even on vacation.”

“You have no idea,” he said, smiling ruefully.

Selu, Jorge, Annita, Ana, and Milya met Sarth, Cassi, and the others outside of the cove, ignoring the shuttles preparing to ferry some of the Wroonians up to the Djinn Altis, as well as the demolition teams prepping the facility for destruction. Sarth had already passed on his purloined datapad, meaning that the research conducted by the Empire was still intact, but safe from being used against others. It would be locked away in a YGI vault. Furthermore, the Imperial prisoners had already been transferred up under heavy guard, including a furious Colonel Moengula. That would be an interesting debriefing.

Once the family was reunited, they walked back through the rock field, heading back to the beach house. It was a quiet walk, as the three young people remained silent, knowing that stern words would be had eventually. They were also still enrapt by what the unexpected abilities of people they’d thought they knew so well. It was all still quite a shock to them and they were quietly brimming with questions.

They reached the beach house soon enough to find Sheeka, Rhiannon, and J7 waiting for them.

“Welcome back,” Sheeka said, one eyebrow arching up at the sight of Bryndar, Akleyn, and Jasika.

She looked at the sensor net display, then at Rhiannon, and frowned knowingly.

“So that’s what you were up to,” she said disapprovingly.

“I’m sorry, Aunt Sheeka,” Rhiannon said quietly, not bothering to deny the implied accusation.

“Let’s let everyone get out of their wet clothes, cleaned up, and dried off,” Selu suggested. “And put some things away. Meet around the table whenever you’re changed.”

“I’ll put on some hot tea,” Cassi added.

As he turned to go, Sarth caught Selu’s sleeve.

“We’re going to have to tell them everything,” Sarth told him quietly.

“I know,” Selu said. “It’ll take half the night, but it’s time.”

Fifteen minutes later, with everyone changed into fresh, dry clothes, all twelve of them were sitting around the table with steaming mugs of tea. The four youths looked apprehensive, suspecting they were in serious trouble. Once everyone was assembled, Selu addressed the group.

“First, let me say how glad I am that we’re all back here safe and sound.”

There were nods of agreement.

“Second, for you young ones, your actions are not excused. Each of you will have to deal with your parents, but the biggest consequence of your actions is that our vacation here ends in eight hours. We’re leaving, but first, I have something I want to share with you.”

The young people looked inquisitively at him, while the adults simply waited expectantly. By their silent assent, Selu had been picked as their spokesman.

“Some of you have seen some surprising behavior from the adults tonight,” Selu said. “So I want to tell you a little story that might explain some things. It all started what seems like a very long time ago, on a planet far, far away . . .”

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