Return of the Empire

Return of the Empire

by David Pontier

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Prologe

The alley was dark, and the man didn't know he was being watched. He was wearing black pants with boots that went up past his ankles and disappeared beneath his clothes. His shirt was dark, but the exact color could not be determined in the limited light - perhaps a dark blue or even black. His attire was such that seen in this dark alley it was obvious that he was trying to remain as invisible as possible, but not so out of the ordinary that it would draw attention to himself on the street in daylight. As was the case here, in the dead of night, he was obviously trying to remain unseen by as many people as possible. Luckily for him, he wasn't totally invisible.

"Sting?" The man stiffened visibly at the name, but recovered quickly, not wanting his unseen contact to know how much he had startled him. "Sting?" the voice said again, and he was able to locate the general direction of the speaker. He stared into the darkness intently and nearly jumped backwards when a form emerged from the shadows only two meters in front of his nose. "Sting?" the man asked for a third time.

Sting swallowed the hard lump of fear that had jumped into his throat, and took a second or two to insure his voice wouldn't crack. He didn't know why this young man struck fear into him so quickly and completely, but the simple way he had hide himself in the shadows so near to him, unnerved Sting to no end. "Blade, I assume?"

"Blade" nodded. He hated the sound of the name, but if they were going to use names like "Striker" and "Sting" then he felt entitled to one too. Besides, his real name wasn't important.

Sting looked down at the hard, leather satchel in Blade's right hand. "I also assume that that is the package we are expecting." Blade nodded again, not wishing to waste words in response to such a stupid question. "You have done very well. May I?" he added gesturing toward the satchel.

Blade scowled in the dark at his associate. He didn't appreciate being treated like a kid, having to be told he had done well. In appearance his 27 years seemed to be closer to 17, yet in reality, he had enough experience in life to warrant the addition of another decade rather than the subtraction of the ten years. Blade held the case in two hands at chest level so that Sting could open it. Sting paused only briefly before opening the satchel, making sure the light level in the alley was sufficiently low and that no unexpected headlights would illuminate the dead end in the near future. The five kilos of spice inside the case were usually sold by the gram, and the whole batch would be ruined if they were exposed anything more than a dim glow. Blade watched as Sting showed even less control than the delivery boy had expected and nearly drooled with excitement. Quite inappropriately, Sting's greedy fingers snatched up one of the four-gram pouches, opened it, and pinched himself a small sample. Blade watched as the undisciplined man put the small portion of the drug on the middle of his tongue and closed his mouth slowly. Sting gritted his left rear molar and a small flash of light illuminated his closed cheek. Blade watched the man's eye's roll back in pleasure and then glaze over as the drug took control of his every sense, heightening them to his surroundings.

It was then that Blade remembered of the drug's empathic abilities. With the security of his mission at stake, Blade tried to focus his thoughts on one thing. A slow smile spread across Sting's lips as the drug began to wear off, and his senses slowly climbed down the ladder on which they had been previously so precariously balanced. "You'll get your money," Sting said, reading his supplier's mind, "and for this batch, maybe a bonus."

Blade closed the satchel and returned it to his side. He was glad his superiors had trusted him enough to supply him with the real thing instead of the colored sugar they had originally prepared for him. It was the possibility of this kind of preliminary tasting of which he had been able to convince them, and thus, saved his own skin from detection.

"This being your third act of service for our organization, the chief thought it best if he gave you the payment himself." Blade's professionalism allowed him to keep every ounce of excitement that he felt inwardly from showing. "However, security is always a big deal, so, if you'll follow me, I'll take you there."

Blade understood what his associate meant by security when Sting led him to an air car that was parked several blocks away. The two men got in the back of the vehicle, and Blade found that all of the windows were opaque from both the outside and the inside. The driver of the air car had a separate compartment up front, and as soon as both men were in the car, he took off.

Blade had an incredible sense of direction and thought he had the general directions figured out each time the car made a turn, but he had no idea how fast they were going. After ten minutes of ridding in silence, the car began to slow down. Blade prepared himself to disembark, confidant that he knew the general location of this secret base. Instead of coming to a halt, Blade felt the car climbing a minor gradient into an enclosure that amplified the outside engine noise. The car came to a stop, but Blade had a feeling that the ride wasn't over. Within seconds a new form of motion made itself known to Blade's sensitive inner ear.

"We're going up?" Blade asked his silent companion but got mere indifference as a response. Blade gave up trying to follow this new motion path and tried to evaluate his traveling companion. He was definitely just a peon, thinking that he was more important than he was. Blade had a good guess that if this Chief found out that Sting had taken a sample of spice prematurely, Sting would find out just how high he ranked in this organization. Unfortunately, four grams in a batch of five thousand, was not likely to be missed.

Blade had worked for a month to gain a slight bit of trust from this organization, and in the past few weeks he had bent more than a few rules of his own organization to keep it. Blade's superiors, however, tended to view all of Blade's assignments in a purely pragmatic light, knowing that the over aggressive youth had his own tactics, and they didn't want to change something with a hundred percent success rate. Now, a month and a half after initial contact, he was going to meet with the big cheese. His superiors had expected three months minimum.

The new craft they were in began to slow noticeably, and Blade's stomach told him they were descending. The landing lasted only a few minutes, and the air car backed out of its transport, allowing the two occupants to exit. The wind was a lot stronger than Blade had remembered. A quick look around at his new surroundings gave him the answer immediately. They were on an island surrounded by water as far as the eye could see. The wind forced the waves into pounding surf that ricocheted spray off the large rocks surrounding this side of the small island. Blade hazarded a look up to check the stars, but there was heavy cloud cover. For all he knew, they could be on the other side of the globe, save for the fact it was still night.

"Come with me," Sting said as he began walking toward a large building on the other side of the island that Blade only now noticed. The building was about eight stories high and shaped like an offset pyramid. The side of the building nearest the water on the far side climbed straight up while all three of the other sides sloped inward as they went up. It was a design, Blade saw at once, which explained to everyone in the organization how the power ladder worked. The bottom of the building was large, and as you moved higher in the organization, the altitude of your position in the building changed accordingly. The way the building was shaped showed everyone that there was only room for one at the top. Blade looked at the top of the building, sure that that was their eventual destination. The front of the building had a very elaborate entrance made up of neatly shaped shrubs and tall, spindly trees that made the building seem very ominous as it rose up and away from the entrance. It looked like a snake coiled back, ready to strike. The storm brewing in the sky behind it did nothing to diminish this image. The inside of the building was purely functional. Visitors did not come here to be pampered, they came to make money or loose it. Blade was ushered unceremoniously down a side corridor to a turbo lift that ran up the side of the sloping building.

Blade looked out the glass lift as they rose quickly up the side of the tall structure. The back of the island seemed to be devoid of rocks and might actually serve as a beach in warmer times. Blade had little time for sight seeing, as they arrived at their destination quite quickly. The doors parted, and Sting led Blade into the chief's private office. Blade paused briefly at the word "office," seeing that the only item in the room that validated that definition was a large wooden desk. The carpet was a very deep, rich green, that almost swallowed Blade's feet as he stepped onto it. The walls were made entirely of glass, but that conclusion was only reached after close examination. The windows were heavily tinted to reduce the sun's glare, and against the black backdrop of night, they could have been easily mistaken for opaque durasteel. The furniture in the room was all about plush softness. Couches and chairs littered the floor in a strategic arrangement, and in the corner a small bar boasted several of the finest drinks, both legal and illegal, in the system. The occupants in the room doubled upon Sting and Blade's entry. The chief was obviously the older, large man, reclining dramatically in a large chair behind the desk while another henchman stood in front of the desk as the two men entered.

"Well, well," the large man said in greeting, "this must be our special guest. Please do come in and have a seat. I understand that you bring gifts."

Blade smiled at the man. "Correction, sir. A gift is something that is given out of good will with no intention of anything in return."

The large man laughed heartily, leaning back even further in his chair. "Boldness. I like that." The chief brought his chair back square with the floor and got up, surprising Blade with the ease in which he moved his large frame. "I am sure you are referring to your payment." He produced a matching case to Blade's own and placed it on the desk in front of him. Blade got up and walked over to the desk, forcing the other man standing there to retreat slightly. He placed his drug filled case down next to the monetary laden one, and the exchange was made. "I'm sure you will find it is all there like we agreed upon." Knowing that he had to make a good impression, he opened the case anyway and examined the stacks of credit chips.

"Seven hundred fifty?" Blade asked as he closed the case.

"Grand," the big man said, completing the figure. "You don't take anything for granted do you?"

"They say you can only take two things for granted in this life," Blade said as he slid the heavy case off the desk, "death and taxes. And I plan on avoiding both."

The chief laughed again as he plopped back down in his chair and beckoned Blade to return to his. "Harvin, would you be so kind as to get our esteemed guest here a drink." Everyone in the room could tell that it was an order, with the question mark at the end simply forgotten.

"Corellian blood on the rocks," Blade said to the other man who had been in the room. As he ordered the drink, he couldn't help but gaze toward the rocky shoreline, even though it was indistinguishable.

The chief caught the look and understood it's meaning. "Do you have Corellian blood in you?" Blade shook his head. "Then I think you have nothing to fear."

"Should I be worried if I did?" Blade asked as he received his drink with a nod of thanks.

"Do you mean, have others before you met their fate with their blood on the rocks below? Do I detect a little apprehension in a future commitment toward this organization? I assure you, I have yet to throw my first body from this room. And if I may say so, from what I can tell of you so far, you have nothing to fear, that is, unless you jump on your own free will." The chief took a sip from a glass that he had sitting on his desk before continuing. "If not Corellian blood, then what have you?"

"I believe my lineage can be traced back to Coruscant."

"Capitol of the New Republic. A despicable organization if you asked me. I hope you are from a generation before their reign."

Blade understood the concern. His age was slightly less than that of the New Republic itself. "No, I hail from the Empire."

"Now there was a time to do business. The only rules were to stay out of their way, and you could make as much money as you wanted. Now there is a widespread crackdown on smuggling, and the lists of illegal cargo are longer than those of legal cargo. The only way a man can survive is to operate out here on the edge of explored space where the pretentious fingers of democracy are yet to take hold."

As Blade swirled the red liquid of his drink around his glass, he couldn't help but like this guy. He took his first sip and watched as a small light illuminated itself on the big man's desk. The chief pressed a small button in response. "Yea." He paused as he listened to a voice only he could here. "Excellent." . . . "No, bring her up." Blade sat in silence as the big man across the desk drained the last of his glass, patiently waiting for an explanation, if one was forth coming.

The chief got up from his chair and walked around to the front of his desk. "Let me tell you something about this business, Blade: you always want to be the victor. Do you know why?"

"Why?" Blade humored him.

"Because they get all the spoils."

In answer to Blade's next question, the turbo lift opposite the one he had used to come up opened to reveal two more members to add to the party. A third henchman was toting a very reluctant woman. Correction - a very reluctant girl. Upon closer examination Blade could see that she wasn't quite out of her teens. However, with curves like hers, only a blind man would confuse her for anything but a woman.

"Sonya, now why did you have to go running off like that?" Blade was quickly growing sick from the look the much bigger man was giving the beautiful young woman. Blade could tolerate and even condone many things the laws couldn't, but this wasn't one of them. "Didn't you know that on an island of this size there are only so many places you can run to. Next time Stellen might not be so gracious as to bring you back uninjured."

Sonya was wearing a tight fitting long sleeve sweeter that didn't quite make it all the way to her waist, around which was tied a knee high skirt. Blade watched in controlled horror as the chief made his way slowly to the terrified woman. The big man's fingers were visibly aching to reach through the thin fabric of Sonya's sweater. Blade looked around at the three other men in the room and saw that they were quite content to watch their boss "go to work."

"Ahem," Blade cleared his throat rather loudly. The chief looked up from his prey, now only a few feet away. His face showed first confusion and then anger at this youngster's interruption of his fun. "Is this how you treat your guests? Where I come from, when it's time for desert, the guests are served first."

The anger left the boss's face, but the confusion remained. "To the victor goes -"

"Ah," Blade interrupted as he stood from his chair and hoisted his credits into the air, "but are we not both victors today."

The chief's face melted away into all smiles now. The other men in the room were appalled at this newcomer's boldness but the headman backed away graciously. "I beg your pardon." Blade noticed the other men's reactions and wondered what the world was coming to when men could react adversely to someone attempting to stop rape while they were gladly willing to watch it. "I guess it should be: 'To the victors go the spoils.'"

We'll see just who's victorious in a minute, Blade thought to himself, but now he focused on Sonya - beautiful, young, scared Sonya. As Blade walked the short distance between them, he took his time and stared deeply into the girl's eyes. All the fight had been taken out of this one, but he could see that it had taken a lot effort to remove that fire. Blade stood right in front of her, nearly a foot taller, and he felt his whole body undergoing the strengthening. He didn't really know what else to call it. He had this ability to calm his body so entirely right before any type of physical exertion that it seemed to not only strengthen his own motions, but slow down everyone else's. He looked deep into Sonya's eyes, his own blue orbs penetrating hers and transmitting some of his calm into her. His hand moved slowly across her forehead and drew a wayward piece of brown hair away from her face, tucking it behind her ear. He moved his hand gently down her cheek and cradled her chin in his hand. He could almost feel the chief's breath on his back as the huge man looked on from behind. He could also feel that Sonya was now very docile. "I have two words for you," Blade said quietly, "stay down."

Without warning, Blade moved his hand from Sonya's chin to her chest and shoved her to the floor. At the same time he pivoted on his left foot and brought his right boot back hard into the chief's throat. The big man gagged violently and went to the floor. Blade didn't wait for the others to figure out what was going on, and as Sting tentatively left his chair to join the fray, Blade sent his credit briefcase flying fast into the henchman's forehead forcing the man back into his chair.

Blade leaped over the large desk easily as Harvin, who had only been standing ten feet away, drew a blaster. Harvin's first shot missed as he tried to hit Blade flying over the desk. Blade landed and heaved the large, but relatively light, office chair at the gunman. Harvin's second shot went high as his arms flew up to protect himself from the awkward projectile. He went down, but not out.

Blade turned to find Stellen, the third henchman, right behind him with his own blaster raised. Blade let his right leg fly in a sweeping kick that disarmed the man almost as fast as he had drawn the weapon. Without pause, the thug produced a vibro-blade in his other hand. Stellen wielded it with obvious skill, but his two thrusts and large swipe seemed very slow and clumsy to Blade's hyperactive senses. The younger man grabbed the attacking wrist and yanked the knife wielder past him, kneeing him hard in the stomach and flipping him over the desk. Blade turned to watch Stellen fly right into Harvin who had been struggling to rise from under the chair, and they both went down in a heap. Blade also saw that the chief was getting up with his blaster out.

Blade dropped smoothly to the floor behind the large desk as two quick shots seared the air that his head had just vacated. Under the desk Blade could see the big man's ankles, and the younger man performed a perfect sweep kick, knocking the chief to the floor. Blade squeezed himself through the foot high space between the desk and the floor and found himself lying next to Sonya. The calm that he had imputed into her moments ago had long since vanished. "Stay down!" he screamed as he leaped to his feet.

All three of his remaining enemies began to encircle him. Sting was unmoving in his chair, and Blade could see blood dripping from his forehead. Harvin and Stellen moved in together from Blade's forward right and left. Blade attacked the air in between them, and they both moved a little wider apart. Feeling confident they had him surrounded, Stellen and Harvin moved in quickly, only to each receive a heard elbow to the head.

As Blade watched them stumble away, he was encased in a tremendous bear hug from behind. The trapped fighter could literally hear the huge man growl as he tried to squeeze the life out of his smaller opponent. Blade pushed off the ground hard, trying to execute a back flip while still encased in the bear like arms. The sudden change in momentum caused the chief to stumble backwards and trip over the fallen office chair. He had to let go of Blade to brace his fall, and the more nimble fighter completed his flip, landing with his feet next to the big man's head. Blade hesitated only briefly over the prone boss's form and delivered a vicious chop to his neck.

Blade looked up from his unconscious victim and saw that Harvin was scrambling for his gun. Blade took two running steps and leaped at the henchman. Harvin's hand closed around the weapon, but Blade's flying tackle sent him headfirst into the glass wall, and he slumped against it. Blade ripped the gun from the limp thug's hand, turned, and fired just as Stellen had recovered his gun. Stellen's shot went just high over Blade's shoulder, but he took Blade's shot full in the chest.

Blade gave the room one last look before he allowed himself to relax. He ran over to Stellen and recovered his weapon. He examined both weapons briefly, set them to self-destruct-overload, and tossed them into the middle of the room. "Let's go!" He shouted at Sonya. The girl was still in shock from what she had just witnessed, but managed to find enough strength in her legs to stand. He rushed over to her, scooped up his credit case, and yanked her by the hand toward the turbo lift. As they ran to the lift, Blade saw that it was already on its way up. A quick check on the other lift in the room showed the same thing. Blade glanced up into the corner of the room. "Cameras! I should have known."

"What are we going to do?" Sonya spoke for the first time.

Blade ran back toward the desk and accidentally kicked the chief's gun. He bent over and picked it up. The whine from the two blasters he had set on overload was becoming shriller every second. "Do you remember which side of the building the water is on?" Blade asked as he eyed both translucent walls perpendicular to the turbo lifts.

Sonya paused for a minute. "That one," she said, pointing to one of the walls.

Blade turned his back to the wall and fired five quick shots into the opposite bank of windows. "I hope you're wrong," he said as he dropped the weapon and grabbed her wrist. They sprinted toward the shredded glass wall, and Blade swung his case in front of them, shattering the glass as they jumped out into the night air.

The two turbo lifts opened almost simultaneously, and four men from each poured into the room, their eyes transfixed on the cascading glass from the wall and the two falling forms disappearing into the night. They also became aware of an intense screaming sound just a few moments before the whole top floor of the building exploded.

Blade and Sonya rode the buffeting winds far out into the night, and as they fell, the fiery explosion expanded above them. Blade had thought they would make it, when the explosion unexpectedly traveled down the entire height of the building, consuming the whole structure in an enormous fireball. What had simply been two level-three grenades had turned into a full yield sub-atomic eruption. Blade was thrown out to sea and lost his hold on both Sonya and the case, as he tumbled through the air. He hit the water much harder than he had expected and was shocked by its incredibly frigid temperature. His head came back to the surface just in time to see Sonya splash down thirty feet away.

Blade burst through the rough waves toward her and dove deep into the chilly waters. His hand passed through what he thought was her hair and then against one of her trailing arms. He managed to lock a grip on her forearm and hoisted her back to the surface. She gasped desperately as her head broke the surface, but she took in more water than air. Fighting against the wind and the waves, Blade managed to tow his limp companion to the shore. The beach was covered with flaming shrapnel, but Blade managed to find a relatively baron spot to lay the young woman down. A quick check told him that she wasn't breathing. He straddled her prone form, depressed her chest cavity twice, and was rewarded by having a lung full of water spewed into his face. Sonya gasped again, and this time got exclusively air.

"Are you okay?" He asked with genuine concern in his voice. Sonya nodded her head slowly, her breath finally coming in controlled amounts. "Are you sure?" She nodded again, though curious as to his persistence. "I mean, I am trained in mouth to mouth resuscitation, but only if you need it."

"Mouth to mouth?" Sonya asked, a sly smile creeping into her voice.

"I am actually an expert at it."

"Well maybe I do have a little more water stuck in my lungs." Blade bent low and their lips brushed against each other. "Or a lot."

To the victor go the spoils, Blade thought, as he fell on top of Sonya. The pair was soon totally oblivious to their surroundings, most of all to the several rescue ships that were circling the island.

Chapter 1 "Imperial Employment"

The Super Star Destroyer, Dark Fist, floated through the fine spray of space dust like a giant ship gliding through the water. The small bits of asteroid powder flared briefly as they struck the ship's particle shields, futily attempting combustion in the vacuum of space. The ship stayed away from the bigger rocks that orbited in a never-ending pattern around a medium size sun several trillion kilometers away.

At a great distance (the only kind of distance recommended for viewing a Super Star Destroyer) the small ship that left the docking bay on the underside of the ship was barely visible and only with the aid of microbinoculars could the identity of the fighter be discerned. Even then not many would recognized the age-old ship with its new design. Inside the cockpit of the small one-man fighter, Ward Leonce flexed his fingers slowly, not yet touching the controls of his ship. A small blue light blinked several times informing him that the autopilot controlling his departure was just about to disengage and that it was time for the young pilot to begin his training run in the modified TIE.

Ward took the flight stick in two hands and flipped the autopilot off with his index finger. His foot reached forward under the flight console and began testing the power modulating levers. The slightly nervous youth depressed the center pedal to the floor, sending all available power to the engines as he pulled the double yoked throttle backward. The small ship hurtled forward into the asteroid field and the new Imperial pilot testing grounds.

Ward took a brief second to remove his right hand from the throttle and whipped beaded sweat from his brow. Ward took a slow breath and forced himself to stay calm. It's just like the simulator, he told himself, and as he looked out his view screen, he couldn't help but wonder if his superiors hadn't just walked him down into the docking bay and put him inside a simulator in the shape of a TIE. The sims had become very realistic lately. Ward pulled the throttle back and felt himself lean back hard in his seat. He shook his head slowly. This was real. The sims still could generate an adequate acceleration sensation like the real thing.

As Ward neared the edge of the belt, he worked his foot back to the center three pedals and eased a little weight on the outside left one. The young ace couldn't help but smile at the irony of his actions as he transferred some of the ship's energy into the shields. Shields in a TIE? He still couldn't get used to the idea. Ward was young enough that his flying hours weren't those of a veteran, but he had flown enough of the old TIE's to know that shields were not an option that came standard with anything that the Empire made.

Ward felt a little of the power leave the engines, and he slacked his hold on the throttle. His feet moved wide and found the altitude controls. This was new too. Before the TIE pilot had all of his controls on his stick: push forward to brake, pull back to accelerate, pull back and down to curl up, back and up to dive down, and left and right controlled the turns. The laser canons were located under the thumbs and torpedoes (if you had any) were under the middle fingers. Thinking back on the old design Ward realized that it was just too much to ask of a pilot. It was a small wonder that the X-Wings had such a good record against the smaller craft.

Ward let the asteroid in front of him fill the forward view before he flipped the bracket between the doubled yoked flight stick, turning it into two, independent control rods. Ward took a fraction of a second to remind himself that right was up and left was down as he depressed the right pedal and pulled the left stick back. The TIE rolled up and to the left, following the contour of the asteroid as if it were a chisel carving the rock out of its original boulder.

TIE stood for Twin Ion Engine and until only recently that name had meant that the fighters would create a horrific scream as they passed, the double engines combining for sonic pulse half a step out of sinc with each other. Now that title truly had meaning as each engine was controlled independently of the other. Ward leveled the two sticks together and let up on his right foot turning the ship back square with the infinite void of space.

The next few asteroids were avoided with the young pilot's usual skill, and soon Ward was in the heart of his training run. Two large rocks came spinning toward him and he watched as the only path ahead was between the rotating rocks. He watched in the shorts seconds before encounter as the distance between the asteroids fluctuated. As before, Ward pulled his left stick back and depressed the right pedal, telling his ship to roll on its left, only this time he followed the action by pulling his right throttle back as well and slamming his left foot to the floor. This second command emphasized his earlier actions and sent the small craft into a tremendous corkscrew. The width of the ship changed with the gap it flew through asteroids, like three gears meshing together, and Ward soon found himself safely past the obstacle.

The corkscrew was ended by a reversal of the earlier commands only to find that an enormous asteroid loomed directly in front of the apparently doomed craft. With Ward's present speed, no move whether up, down, left, or right was capable of moving the ship out of harm's way. The only safe direction was backwards. Ward yanked his left stick back while pushing his right forward. The TIE spun around like a top without changing its forward momentum in the slightest. It took about seven micro seconds for the TIE to complete the turn and when done, Ward pulled both sticks back and jammed the right pedal to the floor as he moved his left foot to the middle pedal, transferring all available power to the engines.

A normal ship wouldn't have been able to spin itself around with a zero turning radius, and even if it could, its engines would rip themselves to shreds if they tried to engage at full throttle while the ship was going in the opposite direction. Even if a ship was capable of changing its flight path by 180 degrees in a split second, the sheer force of acceleration would turn the pilot into a quivering film of flesh.

As Ward executed the maneuver perfectly the ship shuddered only briefly as the engines fought against the ship's tremendous momentum. After three nanoseconds the advanced flight computer realized what was happening and it engaged the hyperspace inertia dampers. The TIE fighter was still far too small to contain a hyperspace engine, but the actual engine was only a small part of the whole hyperspace package.

In order to travel safely through hyperspace you needed the engine, which was a large fusion engine that fed off the speed of the ship, drawing in matter and sending it out as energy - essentially just a large fusion reactor that was fed at the speed of light. Of course that meant that the ship had to be accelerated to light speed before the engines would be effective. This required hyperspace boosters that engaged only for a few microseconds during the jump. The ship also needed a hyperspace computer to calculate a safe path through space.

Perhaps the most important part of the entire device was the most overlooked. In order to reach light-speed fast enough to not burn out the hyperspace boosters and to activate the main hyperspace engines, a near infinite acceleration had to be obtained. For this extreme acceleration to be possible a ship needed to have an inertia damper. When a ship jumps to hyperspace it appears to elongate as the front of the ship accelerates and the back remains stationary. At the completion of the jump the back of the ship appears to snap forward, and the entire ship is slung into hyperspace.

Actually, instead of the ship elongating, the inertia damper compresses the space in front of the ship. In essence, it accelerates the space around the ship instead of vice versa. It is like standing still on the top of a land speeder. You are stationary relative to your immediate surroundings, but the wind is rushing past you at an incredible speed. If you jump off the speeder you will hit the ground at whatever speed the speeder had plus the speed you gained by jumping. When a ship enters hyperspace it activates its boosters to escape the compressed field and hits normal space with an incredible initial velocity. Since it gains the velocity instantaneously, the acceleration is infinite, but the acceleration felt by the occupants of the ship is only that of the boosters.

All of the technology involved was lost on Ward as he executed the maneuver, but the ship knew exactly what was going on. The space in front of the TIE compressed toward it, bringing the two asteroids Ward had just maneuvered through dangerously close, the field lasted only a few microseconds as the TIE accelerated through edge of the field and swung up and over the asteroid that was now behind it. The TIE flew inverted over the large asteroid at near light speed, but since it didn't have any hyperspace engines, it wasn't able to keep the speed and the inertia damper quickly decelerated the ship in the same way that it had accelerated it.

Though it was nice to be able to achieve high velocities instantly, it was rather unsafe to do so inside an asteroid field. The entire move, from start to finish, took 1.57 seconds. Ward was barely able to regain a normal speed before he was faced with avoiding three more asteroids. His left foot moved to the shield pedal, while his right gave the weapons systems some juice. Ward spun around the first asteroid and shot down the other two. The third asteroid exploded abnormally, sending an enormous chunk of rock at the small ship. The asteroid struck the protective shielding, and the whole ship shuddered, teetering on the edge of destruction. The entire future of the Imperial navy hung in the balance as the shields of the small ship fought against over-loading the system with their first true test. The TIE spun away from the collision with its shields all but gone. Ward stopped the random spinning and dodged beneath another asteroid that would have surely gotten through the depleted shields.

On the Star Destroyer two men stood on the bridge watching an enlarged view of the training run. The TIE fighter was now through the thickest part of the asteroid field and both men had no doubt that the skilled pilot would now make it through the rest unscathed.

"Well, what do you think?" Snotzenexer turned to the other man.

"There's no doubt that he is the best pilot we have, Admiral. The question we need to ask now is 'How many of him do we have?'"

"There are 86 of his clones in Imperial service. Three serve on each of the 27 Imperial Star Destroyers and there are five on this Super Star Destroyer, or there will be when he returns."

"What station does he hold?"

Snotzenexer turned from the view of the training run as it had just ended. "He was simply a tech hand in the cargo and docking bay. He worked on TIE's and other Imperial machinery. While he was obviously the best person for the position, he hadn't shown any incredible skill before, but then we had never tried to get him to pilot before. I think it's time to pull the rest of his brothers off their normal duty and begin training immediately. I assume they all have experience in old TIE's so the transition should be just as smooth for them as it was for Lieutenant Leonce. Can you think of someone you can get to train them, Commander?"

"Well, I could get a few of the pilots to stop their current assignment of upgrading the rest of the TIE's, and maybe some of the lieutenant -"

"I was thinking of Ward."

"Excuse me, Admiral?"

Snotzenexer smiled. "I know it's not protocol for a man with no command experience to be put in command of men who he doesn't out-rank, but these are strange times." Snotzenexer turned away from the puzzled commander. "Get a group of five authority figures, put Lieutenant Leonce in command of the training group and get my pilots ready for combat in less than a month."

Commander Pearson swallowed as he watched the departing Admiral stroll down the central walkway in the bridge of the Super Star Destroyer. He was mentally trying to think of five people he could find who would be willing to take orders from a tech hand. Pearson knew that Snotzenexer was supposed to be a mental giant on the order of Thrawn, but that just made it harder to follow his commands. With a lesser commander, he would have been able to convince himself that his superior was wrong.

* * *

"One hundred twelve!! Were you out of your mind?!"

"Bu-"

"Absolutely no buts!" The commander tried to compose himself enough to sit back down in his seat but failed miserably and began pacing instead. "Our scanners were able to detect 112 different strands of DNA that can be linked to sentience, not counting yours and that girl you rescued. That is 112 people in one building of an organization that we assumed to contain no more than 100 people total. Now we have to believe they are bigger than we predicted and might still exist somewhere else. No problem, right? We'll just interrogate one of the gang members we apprehended when we stormed the island you located for us." The enraged man paused and hit his forehead sarcastically. "Oh, wait. There are no prisoners. They were all blown to kingdom come!"

"Sir," the young man started, "if you'll let me explain-"

"Let me guess it was the girl, right? What was her name - Sonya?"

"She was in danger."

"Danger, huh? Just like that girl in Krongan Square?" The young man slumped in defeat at the mention of his previous assignment. "What was she in danger of? Buying a faulty shirt? You were simply supposed to watch the exchange of weapons, take down some serial numbers, remember some faces, and maybe get close enough to get some positive ID's. Instead you run over to help some pretty girl shop in the nearby market."

"Hey, I got her number."

The pacing older man found himself next to his desk, and he slammed his hand down on it. "Did you get the numbers on the heavy transports used in the exchange? I'm not joking around here."

"I got them, didn't I?"

"You missed the exchange, so instead of letting them get away, you tracked them down yourself and destroyed both gangs, the weapons, and a pretty big portion of the city of Krongan to boot. What about the Illians?"

"That was different; she was part of it."

"Yes, my over-aggressive fellow, she was part of. She was their leader for Sith's sake. You knew that the leader of the Illians was a woman, yet some how that slipped your mind, and you let her get away."

"Yea, but I got the rest of them, didn't I?"

"Yes, you did, and now there is no one to question as to the where-abouts of they're lovely leader." The commander finally calmed down enough to sit back down behind his desk and face the man across the room with a level gaze. "Eranadis - or should I call you Blade?" The young man flinched at the ridiculous code name he had been forced to use. "Eran, I am faced with a tough decision. The Association has been giving you a long leash - a very long leash - but this latest botched mission has broke the bantha's back."

"In all seriousness, chief, I didn't mean to destroy the whole building like that."

"Let's take a slight pause and try to think what that building might have been holding. They were a terrorist slash smuggling group. They specialized in explosive demolitions. I wonder where they kept all of these high explosives? For that matter, where did they store all the fuel for their countless transports? If you had lit a match in that building in the wrong place, you would have gotten the same result.

"Back to my tough decision about you future. You see the Association wants to see you gone. They want to shove a few pocketfuls of credits at you and say 'thanks for everything and try not to let the asteroid belt hit you in the rear on your way out of the system.' On the other hand, I have the Spoyels praising you endlessly for bringing them their daughter back safely. They happen to be a very prominent family, hence the reason their daughter was taken."

"Excuse me," Eran interrupted, "what did you say their name was?"

"The Esteemed Spoyels? Don't tell me you live in such a haze that you don't even know whom you rescued? By the way, out of curiosity, how was it that their daughter was found on the island without a shirt?"

"Funny things happen to clothes when you jump away from an exploding, eight story building into freezing water," Eran said with a straight face, his mind working out something else. To the victor goes the Spoyels.

"Well, anyway, they want to give you an award in a public ceremony. I can't very well turn around, fire you, and keep face. You will accept the reward with grace that you shall have to find somewhere, and then you will take a very long vacation to think about what you have done." The commander finished his lecture as if addressing a four year-old. "Is that clear?"

Eran nodded mutely and started to rise. "By the way," his boss stopped him one last time, "were you able to recover either the money or the spice?" Eran shook his head and walked out the door. A few minutes later he was outside and took a deep breath of the fresh air.

"Nice day, isn't it?"

Eran spun around, surprised that this person had been able to so easily startle him. She was leaning against the building he had just left. Her shoulder blades and left foot was her only supports as her arms and other leg were crossed casually. She looked to be near forty, slender, but with a very physical presence that made it look like she would be a tough person to intimidate. Eran had developed a very extensive study on female attractiveness, and this new comer fell into the "easy to look at" category. Her age was a small deterrent, but Eran could imagine her twenty years younger, and except for her stern eyes, she hadn't changed much.

"I said, 'Nice day, isn't it?'"

Eran watched as she effortlessly propelled herself away from the wall with a shrug of her shoulders and walked over to him. "Not bad," Eran said cautiously. He was quickly realizing that this wasn't just a casual conversation, but this strange woman had a definite agenda. "Not bad at all. A bit too much sun though. We could do with a few more clouds."

She smiled at his sudden openness. "I disagree, the sun is just perfect. If I wasn't so busy talking with you, I might try to find the spare time to do a little sun bathing."

Eran gawked at the out of place statement, but immediately realized that the images that were floating through his mind concerning this stranger sun bathing, were put there to put him off balance. She was a clever one. Eran took a moment before answering to examine her a little more closely. She was wearing navy blue pants that showed signs of pressing, but were crease free at the moment. A mid arm black coat was unbuttoned down the middle revealing a plain white T-shirt underneath. It looked to be military, but Eran couldn't tell what kind. "Not a bad idea. I might have to join you."

The woman smiled at this comeback and took another step away from the wall. Eran decided to test the stability of the conversation by starting to walk down the sidewalk toward his air car parked around the corner. She followed. They walked in silence for a few seconds. The traffic beside them sped by and reflected flashes of sunlight at the pair that made it difficult to concentrate on the situation.

"Maybe you were right," the woman said. "A few more clouds wouldn't be-"

"All right lady!" Eran said, pulling up in the sidewalk to address his mystery companion. "What's up."

"I want to employ your services," she said, cutting to the chase.

"Employ my services as a what?"

"That depends. What do you consider yourself? An undercover agent? A special operations commando? A misguided youth?"

"Give me two good reasons to continue this conversation."

"You're unemployed, and we pay well?"

"What do you mean I'm unemployed, and who is this 'we?' A moment ago you said 'I want to employ your services.'"

The woman sighed. "'Long vacation' doesn't sound like a promotion to me. I'll tell you who the 'we' is if you promise to hear me out to the end."

Eran considered this for a moment. The fact that she knew about his planned vacation from the Association didn't escape his attention. How she knew about this wasn't as big a concern to him as the simple fact that she knew it. She definitely had connections somewhere. But were they the kind of connections that he wanted to get tied into? "OK, I'll listen, but first I want a name - preferably yours."

"Sanson," the woman replied, paused, and then continued, "Admiral Sanson of the Imperial Navy."

"Wow, hold everything. The Imperial Navy? Is this the same Imperial Navy that was at Endor? Or is it the one that was at Bilbringi? Or, what was this latest crushing blow - Danzig 359?"

"I was at Danzig 359," Sanson said quite calmly.

"No you weren't. The news reports said that-"

"The news was wrong. I left Danzig 359 in the Super Star Destroyer, Dark Fist. Presently it and almost 30 Imperial Star Destroyers are hiding in the asteroid belt past the third planet of this system. The Empire is very much alive."

"You want me to assassinate leaders of the Republic, don't you? You want me to help you start a war. I'm not interested."

"The war is already started. It has been going on now for longer than you've been alive. And no, we don't wish you to kill anyone."

Eran took serious pause before answering. He had just heard, what would be considered in military terms, highly classified information. He knew that Imperial Admirals don't just throw that kind of information around for fun. He suddenly had the sinking feeling that if he tried to refuse this offer, his life would be forfeit. He tried to chuckle at the idea of the Empire trying to kill him. So many people had tried and no one had come close. But any laughter that came from the idea was forced. Still, regardless of the consequences of not taking the job, what ever it turned out to be, there was the promise of good money.

Despite what he had told his boss, he had managed to salvage the money case from the shore of the island, and was not short on cash, but that didn't mean he could simply retire. He considered his loyalties for a moment, only to realize he had none. He had definite plans of becoming self-employed and the galaxy under the New Republic's rule, made easy money hard to come by. By the same token, he didn't like the way the old Empire had run things. He hadn't been around, but he had heard stories. Of course that was the old Empire. The new Empire was standing before him.

"Okay," Eran said tentatively. "I will listen to what you've got to say, but I'm not making any guarantees."

Sanson smiled at him. "That's all we were expecting, Eranadis Palpatine."

Chapter 2 "Information Distribution"

"C'mon Dad! Are you getting slow with old age?" Jacen mocked him as he ran past his father.

"I don't call it slowness," Han replied as he reached out and poked the ball away from his son as Jacen drove past him. "I like to call it caution."

The ball rolled away from the pair and they both watched as Anakin went to retrieve it. During the pause in the action Han searched for a few answers. "So Luke taught you this game?"

"Not really," Jaina spoke up as she and her mother walked toward the pair. "We kind of made it up, basing it on a Jedi exercise that Uncle Luke had us to do back at the Academy."

"Uncle had us through rocks into a small barrel to try and hone our physical skill and make them mesh with our Force skills. We would have to throw over twenty stones into a bucket at a distance of over a hundred feet."

Han glanced at the bucket that was hung about ten feet high in the palace's rec room and then at the humble size of the rec room. "Over a hundred feet, huh. So this is pretty easy for you, isn't it?"

Anakin was returning with the ball. "It would be if we were using our Force ability," he said as he casually tossed the ball over his shoulder. "But we're not," he added as the ball dropped cleanly through the hoop.

"But what about all this other stuff?" Leia asked. "How did rock throwing turn into this?"

"We thought it would be more fun if we turned it into a competition," Jaina explained. "If you had to put the rock in the basket past someone else, it made it a whole lot harder."

"It's the stupid dribbling that I hate," Han added.

"We had to make it harder to move the ball, Dad. Or else it would just be too easy." Jacen walked over and picked up the ball from where Anakin had thrown it. "I believe it was out on you."

Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin were playing against Han, Leia, and Chewie, and so far the teams seemed to be pretty evenly matched. Jacen passed to Jaina, who tried a quick head fake on her mom and drove to the basket. Chewie was the only reason the parents were able to hang with the young Jedi, and he stepped into the lane, using his big body and long arms to stop Jaina's move. Jaina found Anakin relived of his defender and tried to pass around the harry giant. Chewie had blocked Jaina's vision, and she didn't see her father streaking toward the passing lane.

Han picked off the pass with a delighted chuckle and passed out to his wife who was waiting on the wing. Leia had turned into a pretty good jump shooter in the short practice session they were having, and quickly gave her team a one-point lead. Jaina recovered the ball and walked back to the top of the court to restart.

As Jaina walked past her mother, she gave her a dirty look. Most of Leia's sudden success at the game had come because her conscious had allowed her to delve into her Force skills to augment her performance, something that the kids swore they weren't doing. Jaina passed the ball to her youngest brother, who found that the only way to play against the two-meter monstrosity that was Chewbacca was to bring him away from the hoop.

Jacen tried to post up his father, and Anakin passed him the ball. Jacen made a quick fake to his right and then flummoxed his father with a spin to his left, laying the ball up and in.

"I believe that ties it now," Jacen said as Han grabbed the ball and headed back up to the top of the court. Han passed to Leia, but Jaina wasn't going to let her mother make another one of her Force-shots, and had her hands up in a swarming defense. Leia struggled briefly with the ball until she lobbed it in Chewie's direction. Anakin tried to jump up desperately, but the wookiee simply plucked the ball out of the air. Chewie still hadn't learned the finer points of the game and brought the ball down after catching it. Anakin made use of his quickness by batting the ball out of Chewie's hands. The ball hit the floor, and a mad scramble ensued. Chewie howled at being stripped of the ball, reached amongst the combatants, and snagged the ball with his claw enhanced hands. Unleashing all of his frustrations at the game at once, the wookiee, pivoted, leaped in the air, and slammed the ball into the hoop as hard as he could.

The ball and metal hoop both came crashing down on Chewie's head, and his ferocity quickly turned to sheepishness as he realized what he had done. The other five players were beside themselves with laughter and Chewie soon began to see the humor and joined in.

"I guess the games over," Jaina finally said.

"We won," Han was quick to point out.

"No, I think it ended in a tie," Jaina corrected.

"What do you mean? We have more points."

"We are assessing your team a one point penalty for destroying the equipment."

This time the laughter was broken up by a seventh person. Wedge strolled into the rec room, took a few moments to regard the situation, shrugged his shoulders in his inability to comprehend what he saw, and walked toward the Solos. "Leia, you are needed in the conference room."

Leia took a towel from a rack on the wall and wiped the perspiration from her face. "Thanks, Wedge. Can I have a minute to visit the refresher?"

"Sure, the meeting doesn't start for another twenty minutes. Can I ask what you were-"

"No," Leia said, keeping a straight face, "you can't."

Wedge watched the chief of state walk briskly past him, he shrugged his shoulders again, and started to follow her. Wedge drew up suddenly and turned to regard the remaining occupants in the room. "Oh yea, there is someone here who wants to see 'someone important,'" Wedge said, making quotation marks with his fingers.

Han had gotten himself a towel too and looked at Wedge. "You don't qualify, Admiral Antilles?"

Wedge shrugged his shoulders a third time. "I guess not. I think she had a select few people in mind, and I wasn't one of them."

"She?" Han asked. "Do we know this esteemed guest?"

"I believe you do. She said she'd be here for about three days. She's staying in the guest wing. Room 113 I believe. Oh and she says to make sure that I don't send that 'blasted Corellian.'" Wedge turned and left.

Han turned to regard Chewie. "I have a bad feeling about this."

* * *

Mara Jade paced her room methodically. She wasn't waiting for anyone in particularly, but she had nothing better to do than to test the integrity of the palace's carpet. So far it hadn't failed.

The door chimed and brought Mara back to the present. She had been remembering all of the times she had led others to the guest quarters, and now she was staying here. "Come in."

The door slid back and Han made his way cautiously into the room, not sure if the former assassin had any booby traps ready for unwanted visitors. Mara's face fell visibly when she saw Han enter. "I told Antilles that I wanted to see someone important," Mara said, making sure that Han wouldn't be able to tell if sarcasm ran with the comment.

"I know," Han replied, not missing a beat, "that's why I brought Chewie." As if on cue, the tall wookiee walked into the small room. Han ignored Mara's look of total abhorrence, and proceeded to make himself comfortable in the one chair in the room. "So what brings Master Smugl-, uh, Master Trader, Mara Jade to Coruscant?"

Mara threw him a facetious, disgusted look before answering. "I have legitimate cargo, Solo - food for the local university. Jade's Fire has a unique ability among smaller ships to keep perishable items, and I like to take advantage of the high prices of food out of season. Moving food from a summer climate to a winter one can be quite profitable."

"Is this why you wanted to see someone important? To share, with our under-educated government officials, your vast expertise on trade, so that we can boost our yearly income."

"Hardly," Mara replied. She took a seat on the bed, noticing that Chewie was eyeing it up for a possible respite. "I have some news about the Empire."

"Oh," Han raised is eyebrows. "What Empire?"

"You know, Han, I was hoping to talk to Leia or maybe even Luke. If you don't want to hear me through, I'm sure they will." Mara paused for a while to give Han a chance for some sort of apology, but none came. "You have become way too complacent since you defeated Thrawn."

"Recently, or twenty years ago?" Han asked, referring to the incident they had just been through.

"Both. The Empire will never truly be dead. Another thing you should start to realize is that the officers that survive usually do so because they are the best. You know: 'Survival of the Fittest.' Luck has little to do with it anymore. You can't just sit back and brag that you have a bigger navy and control more territory so you are therefore impervious to any outside attack. The Empire knows that it can't fight you head on any more, so they will hit you slowly and in vital areas.

"When you first started your rebellion almost thirty years ago did you ever try to pit your navy against theirs, straight up. Of course not! You wouldn't have lasted five minutes. You performed concentrated attacks on key locations because you knew that was all you could do. When you fight a powerful enemy, you know that they aren't going to be sneaking around. You are going to go toe to toe and slug it out until someone falls. It is now when the Empire is small that you need to protect your borders and hold fast to your valuables."

"Oh, I see," Han began, "you've come to share your military knowledge with us as well as your trade knowledge." Mara stood up with a vicious scowl on her face. Han bit his lip hard, wishing to take back the last comment. This time he did apologize. "I'm sorry. Do you have news or rumors?"

Mara calmed visibly and sat back down. "What's the difference?" Han knew what she meant. In a populated galaxy this large, the news tended to be very slight and always slanted toward the government in power. Word of mouth from eyewitnesses was a much quicker, and often, more reliable means of information. "In three days I'm going to be leaving for the Varion system. My ex-copilot managed to tell a few people about my itinerary and they told me that there was reported Imperial activity in the system."

Han paused in thought. Han understood that the copilot was now an "ex" because he leaked the information. Mara seemed to go through copilots like an army medic went through bacta packs. More often than not they were young men who imagined that Mara was still a smuggler and wanted some excitement. Han wondered what he would have done thirty years ago when he was a young, cocky pilot if Mara would have strolled into him looking for a copilot. Despite his obvious skill, he was sure that Mara would have found some fault with him and dumped him like a load of contraband in restricted space. "What kind of activity?" Han asked, returning to the subject.

"Someone told him that they had a friend who had seen several Imperial class Star Destroyers monitoring the asteroid field."

"Several?" Han asked skeptically. "Are we talking two or twenty?"

Mara shrugged. "I don't know. I just figured since I was here and I knew something I should tell you. I know that some ships got away from you in your last attack, and I thought that this might be them."

Han rose, and Chewie stirred restlessly in the corner, realizing that this was the end of the meeting. "By the way," Mara asked, "where's Luke? Antilles said that Leia was in a meeting and that you were the only other 'important' person that he had tabs on."

"Why do you want to know?" Han asked with a slight mischievous look on his face. He knew that there was nothing between the two right now, but he also recognized some strange bond between them. Getting no reaction from Mara, Han answered. "He's over at the Academy trying to clean up the mess and supervising the new construction."

"Oh yea," Mara responded as her eyes rolled back in her head, obviously trying to locate some stored piece of information. "I remember hearing something about the Academy getting destroyed. Was it really bad?"

"It was essentially totaled. Luke decided to build some more modern structures to replace the shattered pyramids. I think it was a good idea. Now when I visit, I won't have to stay in those dank stone dwellings anymore. It will be nice to have a room with conditioned air, especially since the whole moon is a jungle to begin with."

"I might visit him," Mara said absent mindedly, her thoughts some where else for the moment.

"Might not need to make the trip. He's been back and forth between Coruscant and Yavin IV quite a few times in the last thirty days, for supplies and stuff."

Mara didn't answer but sat on her bed pondering. Han took this opportunity to leave, and he and Chewie walked out of the room ahead of the sliding door.

* * *

Leia just finished straightening her shirt as she hurriedly walked into the meeting room. No one had told her what this meeting was about, so when she saw the varied assortment of personnel in the room, her mind raced through the different possibilities. Wedge was there, of course, which meant the security of something was involved, or there was to be a decision that had to be made involving the navy. She saw that Senator Belsiphvin from the planet Encoust was sitting right beside Wedge. She was a relatively young and very attractive senator and had been voted to be the representative for the senate during contacts with new members. So this might have something to do with a potential addition to the Republic, but those were usually proposed in the senate in front of everyone. Leia looked at the third person in the room and it took her a moment to recognize the science officer. Lieutenant Commander Ransig had recently been promoted to the head of the Republics astronomics department after his involvement with the Dark Ring. That meant that some type of physical anomaly in space was involved. A black hole? A super nova? A worm hole? Leia looked at the final member in the room and now she had more questions than ever. Senator Trent was a very old man from the planet Verillee. He had no special rank at all in the senate. Leia had a very good memory and ran through the committees he was in: exploration, religion, and equal rights among lesser races.

Wedge motioned Leia to have the fifth and empty chair. The chief of state sat down quickly and immediately recognized that it was her job to start the meeting. Leia wondered how many people at the table understood that she had not yet been briefed as to why this meeting was being held. Wedge came to her rescue and opened. " As you all know," he started, giving Leia a wink, "we have received a distress call from the Denorid system."

Leia searched her knowledge of explored and charted space. The Denorid system was a long ways away, a few thousand mega kilcks outside the edge of the Danzig system. The Danzig system! They had received a distress call from Hastrin a few months ago, which was also on the edge of the Danzig system. That request said there was reported Imperial activity in the Danzig system and the Hastrins feared for their safety. That request had been handled in the senate and it had been decided that Han and Luke should go to ensure security and to begin negotiations for Hastrin's acceptance into the Republic. Though the distress call had been a hoax, the Imperial activity in the Danzig system had been a very real threat. Was this distress call the same thing? The Denorid system was on a different side of the Danzig system, but the Imperials might have moved. But then all the imperials had been killed - hadn't they? Leia then remembered that a few ships had escaped.

"Since the destruction of the Dark Ring, the Danzig system has been anything but stable," Wedge continued.

"But then it was never really stable to begin with," Ransig jumped in. "The Danzig system has always been as stable as a stack of sabaac cards. It's fine as long as no one touches it, but the slightest perturbation, and the whole thing will go down the refresher."

Leia knew little about the Danzig system. She knew that it was the largest known system in charted space, and was only called a system because no one had thought of a better name for the oddity. The Danzig system contained over 400 hundred stars and no life. Leia also knew that since the destruction of the Dark Ring there had been a lot of activity in the system.

"Since the destruction of the Dark Ring," Ransig said, speaking Leia's thoughts, "there have been five novas and countless orbit changes. From all my calculations the worst of it appears to be over, but if any kind of uniformity is reached again, it will be even more precarious than before. All it would take to set it off again is for a comet to streak through the system."

"Excuse my ignorance," pleaded Trent, "but what was the initial cause of the instability? I know that the Dark Ring was destroyed, but how does the destruction of one star base start this type of chain reaction?"

"When we fought the Dark Ring it projected an enormous interdiction field," Wedge explained. "Now a normal interdiction field causes a slight gravity field that restricts movement through hyperspace, and therefore makes any kind of fast escape impossible. How this happened exactly is unknown, but the interdiction field somehow became locked on, and as Danzig 359 began to go nova, all of the released energy was absorbed by the Dark Ring and was funneled through the interdiction field. What happened was that the interdiction field became so strong that it not only restricted motion in hyperspace, but all motion in normal space was also halted."

"If this had happened throughout the entire system," Ransig jumped in, "then there would be no problem. Everything would have stopped and been frozen in time, and then would continue as normal when the Dark Ring exploded. However, the Dark Ring was not centrally located in the system, and even if it had, it didn't have enough power to freeze the entire system. What happened was that about seventeen or eighteen stars were halted, while the other 400 odd stars kept moving. Stars don't move that quickly, and they definitely don't move very far in only a couple hours, but they do move. So after the Dark Ring was destroyed and the frozen stars began to move again, they found that they were in a different location with respect to everything else. Therefore, all of the gravitational pulls were off by a few degrees and the result was chaos. In most cases, a few orbits changed, and everything went back to normal. But as with Danzig 6, some of the stars lost all direction and simply went haywire."

But what does this have to do with the Denorid system, Leia wanted to scream. "The Denorid system contains three planets with life," Belsiphvin spoke for the first time. "They are not an advanced race and they have a very superstitious background. What little technology they have is simply left over equipment from when the Empire was in command there. Being so close to the Danzig system has made them very conscious of the sky. I hear that night and day are almost unrecognizable on two of the three worlds. I spoke with one of the planet's leader and they are very scared right now. Their astrologists are predicting destruction and chaos.

"You see, they follow the constellations and use them to basically run their entire lives. They have the Mighty Hawk that patrols the nights of the winter months. The winters on all three of the planets can be fierce, and they look to this constellation of a bird to protect them. Well two weeks ago the Mighty Hawk's eye went nova. Now the people are terrified that this coming winter will bring storms like they've never seen because their protector is blind."

Belsiphvin paused as she looked at her notes. "Most of the other stars that died were also members of important constellations. But even without a star exploding, just the slight shifting of the stars has reeked havoc on their star charts. What was formerly thought to be one big star is now two small ones. Appendages on certain creatures have morphed into unrecognizable shapes, and in some cases, joined other constellations. Frankly, they are a very frightened people."

Leia felt that the discussion was now entering the real phase, with the preliminary explanations out of the way, and she felt safe asking a question. "So, I guess the only question is 'Why did they contact us?'"

Belsiphvin looked Leia directly in the eyes and said in her most calm voice, "They want us to fix it."

"What?!" Leia screamed. "But-"

"They feel that we are the ones that caused all of the damage in the Danzig system," Wedge spoke up, "so they feel that it is in our power to undo what we have done."

"Is it in our power?" Leia asked, already knowing the obvious answer.

"Hardly," Ransig answered, as he was the only one at the table with the credentials to do so. Wedge threw the science officer a distasteful glance, telling him that his answer was rather lacking in this formal setting. "For starters," he continued, "it is totally impossible to bring back into existence a star that has been destroyed. If we had that kind of power, well, frankly, the Dark Ring would have been a walk in the park. To move a star is also nearly impossible. I say nearly because it was obviously done, however it took the energy of a supernova to do it. And in reality, the pumped up interdiction field didn't really move anything, but held things still, and then releasing them into a different environment, and thus only changing their original motion, not creating any new motion."

"I understand that they hold the stars in reverence, but how willing will they be to accept our explanation that nothing can be done?" Leia asked, looking at no one in particular.

Senator Trent had been watching the entire discussion with out speaking up to this point. Leia had begun to wonder what the man was doing here. "If I may say so," the old senator spoke up, "I don't think they will understand at all. On Verillee, my home planet, we are a very religious people and our beliefs stem from our forefathers who held all of nature in awe. They saw the stars as the eyes of the gods and the forces of nature as the displayment of their power. After we found out that the stars were simply super dense balls of continually combusting gasses, and that the lightening was simple electricity, and wind was the results of easily measured pressure fronts, we began to understand that we were wrong in thinking that these were the gods themselves, however it strengthened our belief in them. Although they were not physically present in our world, they were obviously physically represented.

"The people of the Denorid system seem to be where my people were two hundred years ago. You won't be able to convince them that what they think is history displayed on a 180 degree black canvas is really only the void of space specked with globe infernos."

"But we have to be able to tell them something," Leia pleaded. "What do they think of their sun? How do they compare it to the rest of their sky?"

"They don't see the need," Trent explained. "The stars come out at night, while the sun is only visible during the day. To them I'm sure that the idea that their sun and the stars are evenly remotely the same thing has not even crept into they're thinking." Trent paused while thinking of a good example. "Imagine if I told you that the Force is actually only the ability to alter a matter's potential energy by turning it into kinetic energy. And that this ability came from the use of brain wave frequencies. Not everyone has the same brain wave frequencies, so not everyone has the same ability."

"I would say that you are completely ignorant," Leia said, understanding Trent's point perfectly.

"And you would have every right to say so. Why? Because you have not only seen your brother wield the Force, but you are proficient yourself. But suppose for a moment that my earlier statement was correct and that the Force was simply the altering of energy states. You still wouldn't believe me, but eventually, when you found out for yourself, you would come to see the truth.

"Right now I am assuming that the people of the Denorid system have very limited space travel." Trent looked over at Wedge for confirmation, and the Admiral nodded. "They don't want to leave, because the constellations would change and they would be spiritually lost. Eventually that will change, and some brave soul will travel. Maybe this whole situation will provide the urge to travel into the stars, to meet with the gods and see for themselves what is wrong. But until they figure this out, all we can do is offer our condolences."

Leia looked at Wedge and Belsiphvin, and they both nodded. Leia looked at Ransig. "Are you sure that the Danzig system provides no danger what-so-ever to the people? The last thing that I want is for me to promise them safety and then have some unseen meteor shower rain down on them."

"As far as we can tell," Ransig said, "only one thing has left the Danzig system and that was Danzig 6. The fact that Danzig 6 beet the odds and actually did hit something is irrelevant. Space is so vast and the percent that matter takes up is so small that the only accurate numerical representation of it is zero. I don't need to explain to you the odds of throwing a ball and trying to hit something on a wall when that something takes up zero percent of the wall. The Denorid system is also blessed with a large sun, so that if anything did come close, the sun would draw it in."

Leia sighed, realizing that she was the one that was going to have to reason with the Denorians, and she was not looking forward to it. "Well," Leia said as she rose, "I guess that is just about it, unless anyone has anything else?" Everyone shook their head slowly. "Senator Trent, I would like you to write up a few ideas for me on how I can address this problem when I speak to them. I don't want to disgrace their religion in any way when I try to tell them that they're just stars." Trent nodded, and they all left the room.

* * *

"Master Skywalker."

Luke turned around slowly, still looking at the landscape in front of him. He had been looking at the old temples and pyramids and as he turned he saw the torn trees and tumbled stones left from the Imperial attack. Past the wreckage the construction efforts involved in building the new Academy facilities were well under way. Luke momentarily looked over the shoulder of the student who had addressed him as he surveyed the progress. "Yes, Jenstim?"

"Uh, sir, I think you better come have a look at what we found."

"Did you find another body," the student's master asked as he followed Jenstim down the rock pile. Luke carried a cane and still had a slight limp from the injuries he had received escaping from Hastrin. Luke hobbled slightly down the uneven terrain as he listened to Jenstim's answer.

"We found a body, but he has been dead for a while, and looked to have died on impact." While cleaning up the mess that the imperials had left behind, quite a few bodies were found with the wreckage, even three survivors. The Empire apparently didn't care much for their fallen in battle. Some things never change. "It's not the body that has caught our attention, though." Luke already knew this had to be the case. Every ship or walker that hadn't exploded had contained a body or two in it, and finding another body didn't warrant the attention of a Jedi Master. "The ship had apparently taken some large shrapnel through the cockpit that took out the pilot, but didn't destroy the ship. Some how the TIE managed to skim the treetops and land relatively unharmed. All of the computer records are still intact." At the sound of this, Luke tried to quicken his pace.

The Empire for all their stupidity in the design of their faulty fighting equipment had managed to do something right along the way. Whenever a ship was damaged to the point of disrepair, the computer records erased themselves, leaving any enemy that captured the doomed craft with a worthless piece of metal. Luke understood that there wasn't going to be much on the ship's computer, his own E-wing carried little more than star charts, but something would be better than nothing. A few months ago the Empire had been thought to be all but defeated, and then with a distress call from Hastrin and the disappearance of a Republic scouting fleet, the Empire had suddenly become a major power again. The Republic had had no warning, and with the destruction of the Dark Ring, the threat seemed to be over.

Luke knew that fleet strength didn't happen over night, and that it didn't disappear with the destruction of one star base, no matter how impressive that base was. If there had been that large of a fleet just waiting to attack the Republic, there might be more out there, and if Luke could find out a few possible locations, all the better.

Luke soon noticed that Jenstim wasn't taking him to the crash site, but to one of the new buildings that had just been completed. The interior of the building made Luke think he was back in Coruscant instead of on the jungle moon. It hadn't taken Luke long after the destruction of the old temples to realize that the Empire had really done him a favor. The initial idea of setting up an Academy away from all the distractions of technology and information was a much greater hindrance than accepting those things as a part of life. Besides, if you wanted to get away from it all, just step outside. You're still in a jungle.

The computer room had two other people in it, both of whom quickly and respectfully got away from the computer at which they had been pounding away. As Luke sat down in front of the terminal, he couldn't help but notice the glance that went between Jenstim and the two female students. That Jenstim didn't like the fact that Angelina and Angelic had been using the computer was obvious. Jenstim was old for his class, and he often thought that that age warranted him more authority than others. It was that attitude, Luke thought as he began to access the data chip that was recovered from the TIE that was keeping him back.

"There isn't too much there," Angelic said as star charts began to scroll down the screen.

"Yea," Angelina, Angelic's twin sister, agreed. "We have most of those star charts on record already."

Luke agreed with their assessment of the information, but he also saw a pattern to the charts. Luke had immediately saw by the size of the data chip that this TIE didn't have a tenth of the data storage capability that his E-wing had, but he also noticed something about the star charts that neither of the students had. The twins weren't pilots, and they had never used a computer to calculate a hyperspace jump. The star charts were listed in a very particular order. Luke scanned through them again and saw that they drew a straight line from the Danzig system to the Yavin system. Luke also understood the Imperials fleet tactics from long conversations with Han. While the TIE's didn't make the hyperspace jump themselves, the pilots were given the information in their TIE's so that if they got separated from the fleet, they would not be lost. By taking the data chip, all they had to do was commandeer a hyperspace ship, and they would be able to get back home.

Luke soon saw that the only information on this chip was information dealing with the attack on Yavin IV. There were the star charts, a brief battle plan, and the objectives. The last bit of information was an authorization code consisting of the name of the command ship, its code, her captain, and his code.

"Dark Fist SSD195EE6T, Commander Snotzenexer 1C2TZ57," Luke read the last section aloud. He turned to the three students. "Are any of you familiar with Imperial code?" All three shook their heads. "What is this universe's school system coming to?" Luke sighed to himself, knowing full well that he was their teacher. "I can't tell what the entire code means, but I do know a few things. First of all, the SSD in the Dark Fist's ID code stands for Super Star Destroyer, and if I'm right, I think that we only encountered two different Super Star Destroyers in the battle at the Dark Ring, so this was a pretty important ship, and therefore a very important Commander, uh," Luke glanced back at the screen, "Commander Snotzenexer."

Luke's mind began to race. He knew that one of the Super Star Destroyers escaped the destruction of the Dark Ring. There was a fifty-fifty chance that this was the same ship. Which also meant that there was a chance that this Commander Snotzenexer was still at large. All of the survivors that they had found at the Academy had been brought to Coruscant to be treated for their injuries and then put in prison. They had all undergone interrogations, but had revealed nothing, and with the Dark Ring destroyed they hadn't been pressed too hard. Now Luke knew they might have served directly under the highest ranked remaining Imperial officer who was also in command of a Super Star Destroyer. Although none of the men had cracked yet, none of them had been questioned by a Jedi Master. A trip to Coruscant was definitely in Luke's immediate future.

Chapter 3 "First Impressions"

Snotzenexer was walking around the bridge of his Super Star Destroyer, not able to help but feel a sense of pride with his possession. He tried not to puff his chest out too much as he strode from station to station, checking to make sure that each of the officers were executing their tasks to the best of their ability.

Snotzenexer felt the vibrations in the bridge deck as someone walked up behind him. The admiral could feel the sharp click of the officer's heels through the floor, and he kept the man at attention a little while longer as he gazed at the short-range radar. After twenty seconds, but before the man had a chance to clear his throat in a respectful trumpeting sound, Snotzenexer turned to face him. "The asteroid harvest is completed just as you ordered, sir," Commander Pearson said sharply.

"You have gathered at least seventy-five rocks, each weighing no less than fifteen hundred tons?" Snotzenexer questioned the commander's report.

Pearson looked slightly wounded at the admiral's distrust, but he didn't let it show in his reply. "Yes, sir. The explosives are being attached as we speak."

Snotzenexer paused, and decided not to query as to if they were being attached correctly. He figured that his wife would question these men to death in the next few days, as she would accompany them on their mission. Of course Sanson didn't know that yet, and Snotzenexer didn't really want to tell her.

On the far side of the bridge a turbolift opened and Eranadis and the afore mentioned Admiral Sanson exited, escorted by two storm troopers. Snotzenexer wondered what the troopers were for, but he figured that Sanson didn't totally trust their visitor. However, if everything Snotzenexer had heard about this man was true, two storm troopers would be a far cry from an adequate deterrence. Eranadis was looking about the bridge with none of his awe and wonderment hidden. Snotzenexer smiled at his almost childlike appreciation of his ship, but also realized that it was as much a show as anything else. It was more likely that Eranadis wanted them to take him for a kid who hasn't been around the block and who was impressed by just about anything. More than likely, he was fighting extreme boredom.

"You must be Admiral Snotzenexer," Eranadis said when he drew close. The young man extended his hand in a form of greeting that wasn't quite as respectful as a salute. Snotzenexer shrugged off the formalities and took the offered hand, appreciating the firm grip. "Admiral Sanson has spoken highly of you," he added as he turned back to look at his chaperone.

"It is a pleasure to meet you, Eranadis. I have heard much ab-" Snotzenexer paused as he watched Eranadis do a slight double take as he looked back and forth between the admirals.

"You-" he stuttered. "You . . . You are, aren't you?" Eranadis asked Snotzenexer, a sly smile spreading across his face.

Sanson was totally lost, but Snotzenexer simply smiled and nodded his head. "The different names are only there to stay away from confusion and keep it under wraps." Eranadis nodded, soaking in this new information, about which Sanson was still in the dark. She was about to inquire as to the inside conversation, but the other admiral cut her off. "Perhaps we should go to a private room so we can talk."

"Sounds good. Oh, and please call me Eran."

"You may call us admiral," Sanson said sharply, and turned to walk toward the nearest meeting room. Snotzenexer pulled up beside her as Eran trailed behind slightly, looking at the bridge. "What was that all about?" she asked in a fierce whisper.

"He knew that we were married."

"How?"

Snotzenexer shrugged his shoulders. "I told you that he has some Force sensitivity."

Sanson looked over her shoulder and saw him fiddling with the long-range scanners. Eran abruptly ceased his fidgeting and quickened his pace when he noticed the female admiral's eyes on him. "I don't like him," she said as she turned back to her husband.

"I knew you wouldn't."

* * *

The three people sat at one end of the large conference table, a table that was designed to seat about five times the present attendance.

"Okay," Eran said, stealing either admirals thunder by opening the meeting before they had a chance, "let's assume that I know nothing-"

"A valid assumption," Sanson said under her breath.

"-and have no clue as to why you brought me here," he finished, paying no notice to Sanson's comment. This one would be a hard person to impress, he thought to himself.

"I have a better idea," Snotzenexer spoke before his ill-tempered wife had a chance to. He realized that while this young man was very strong and sure of himself, and that those were the skills they needed from him, they were also skills that would reduce his efficiency in taking orders from superiors. Snotzenexer didn't really care about the lack of respect that Eran was giving them, he had never been a big fan of formalities, but he also knew that most of those formalities were in place to teach underlings to respect their commanders. That respect then translated into obedience; and the obedience into efficiency. "Let's assume that you know everything, and that we only need to remind you of the task we have planned for you."

"In other words," Sanson interjected, refusing to be kept quiet, "you're on a need to know basis, and we'll let you know what you need know."

Eran remained impassive through this rebuke, thinking that he may have over stepped his bounds a little. He still didn't see any evidence that this new Empire was anything to be feared and respected. They didn't have a Vader or an Emperor. Eran took pause at that thought. He knew what his last name was and what the Emperor's last name had been. He also knew that he didn't have any of the skills of the old dictator. He wasn't even sure of his lineage. Eran looked at the two admirals seated next to him. Did they want him to be the next Vader? Did they want him to walk around in black pajamas, choking everyone he saw?

"We want you to perform an operation on Coruscant," Snotzenexer said, ending Eran's private conversation with himself. "We will provide you with a inconspicuous ship that will allow you to pose as a legitimate trader. We even have a shipment, for which you may keep the payment. The cargo is elaborate material and exotic fabric from the planet Fintron. Most of them are in the form of furniture or rugs. The Republic has finally gotten around to replacing all of the Imperial decorations in the older sections of the palace that are now finding use in the government's continual growth. They want to hang new banners and place more modern furniture in these rooms and want the best material possible. The wing being restored is mainly guestrooms and small meeting chambers, but it used to be the wing in which the Emperor kept all of his financial advisers. When the New Republic took over they seized all of the Emperor's funds and kept their own records on file on the same system the Emperor used.

"Now that they are turning that wing exclusively into living quarters, they are in the process of transferring the records to a different section of the palace. I want a copy of those records. I don't think you will be able to copy them without detection, so it might be wise of you to take as many things as possible to make it look like a simple robbery where the thief wasn't exactly sure what he wanted and just took everything."

"We don't want anyone killed or anything blown up," Sanson added, knowing the youth's destructive tendencies. "The Republic has too much on their hands to chase after a petty thief, but they might allocate a little more attention toward a murderer."

"How you plan on getting into the palace is your problem. If I understand their security procedures, all the doors will lock themselves and out going air traffic will be held up until the security problem is resolved." Snotzenexer looked at Eran, expecting the man to end his fast of speaking anytime.

"What of my pay."

Sanson looked furious, but Snotzenexer raised his hand, stopping any forth-coming verbal onslaught. Eran thought that she looked much different now than when he had first met her outside his former employer's headquarters. "In addition to the payment you will receive from your shipment and what you manage to pilfer from the palace," Snotzenexer paused, looking hard at Eran and telling him that this should be plenty, "you will receive one hundred thousand credits on your return."

"Fifty thousand up front and you have a deal."

"One hundred thousand," Sanson said, her voice as cold as the outside of a Star Destroyer, "all after a successful return, and I won't through you out of an air lock."

Eran managed to swallow the lump in his throat without too much sound. You don't bargain with these people. "Sounds good to me. And if I don't return successful?"

"May what ever god you believe in have mercy on your soul," Sanson replied with all sincerity, "because I won't."

Snotzenexer ended the painful silence. "Your ship is in docking bay seven. It should not be hard to find. It'll be one of the three ships that looks nothing like an asteroid."

Eran tried to let the oddity of that last statement slip by his inquisitive mind and rose from the table. "Well, I guess I'll be on my way then. See you guys in a week." With that, he left the room, eager to leave Sanson's presence.

The door had barely slid shut before Sanson turned to her husband. "He is an overblown, half-cocked, egotistical, -"

"He's also the best one man army in this sector, dear." Snotzenexer hoped the endearment went a little ways to calm his enraged spouse, because he had hoped her to be in a better mood than this when he told her of his plans.

"He better not screw anything up. If he even slightly alerts the Republic to our presence or involvement, I'll beat him so senseless, he won't even remember his last name." Sanson paused, remembering now the significance of Eranadis Palpatine's last name.

Snotzenexer saw and understood her pause and remembered that he had never really explained this young man's relation to the late Emperor. "The Force is hereditary, you know this. There is nothing special about its transfer from parent to child, and it acts like every other kind of hereditary gene. There are numerous accounts of Force strong parents who give birth to Force inept children and vice versa. The Emperor was seized by the Sith when he was only a child, leaving behind a brother and a sister who had no Force potential at all. It took me a while to track down all of the offspring of these two siblings and I mostly just found normal people living normal lives. When I came across Eranadis, the grandson of the Emperor's brother, I found a special operations expert working for a section of the government that deals with terrorist activity. Eranadis had never been wounded in the line of duty, and had a perfect record, if not a colorful one. To me it was obvious that the Force had remained dormant in his father and grandfather, only to come to fruition two generations removed.

"He won't become a Lord of the Sith as Vader was, and I don't even expect any kind of minor Jedi skills out of him. As far as I can tell, the Force simply augments his already impressive physical prowess." Sanson seemed to accept this explanation and she was visibly calmed from her previous disposition. "There was something else that I wanted to talk to you about, and I'm afraid you're not going to like it." Sanson looked at her husband with feared anticipation, for she had an idea what was coming. "I want you to accompany the Dark Fist to the Danzig system."

Sanson slammed her open hand on the table. "I knew you were going to do this to me!" Though they both had promoted themselves to admiral, they had also made a private decision as to the ranking between them. Even though Snotzenexer had been a commander and Sanson a captain in their previous campaign, they both knew that those ranks had been haphazard at best and Tallon and Thrawn had paid little attention to them. Sanson and Snotzenexer knew each other's strengths and weaknesses. Snotzenexer was a far superior strategist and planner, while Sanson possessed the technical mind and the ability to command a fleet. Since the rebuilding of the Empire had required more planning and less fighting, they had both agreed that Snotzenexer would be the one in superior command. Still, Sanson had the right to argue, though she knew she had no way out.

Snotzenexer already knew all of her complaints, and didn't want to have to go through the verbal recantation of them. "The Empire has a very repetitive history of giving inept commanders important assignments which they in turn screw up. The former leaders of the Empire thought that simply having the punishment of death hanging over their personnel's heads was enough to deter them from foul ups and insure success. When you attack a problem with the sole purpose of not wanting to fail, you are sure to also not succeed. I am not saying that Commander Pearson is not capable of this job, but I know that you are ten times more capable and I would have a certain measure of security knowing that the job would be done right."

Sanson listened to the speech, knowing everything thing that was saying to be true. "Pearson won't like it."

"I'm not trying to make friends; I'm trying to win wars."

Sanson smiled at the comment. "What will you be doing?" She knew that her husband had everything all planned out months in advanced and she was content to watch it unfold before her as it happened, trusting Snotzenexer's intellect.

"I plan on doing a little banking."

* * *

Leia sat in front of the monitor wearing her royal Alderaan robes and her hair done in an elaborate braid. She tried to keep her face calm as the monitor might turn on any moment, displaying her face to the Denorid system representative. Leia had a data pad in front of her displaying a list of suggestions from Senator Trent and she tried to commit them to memory while also trying to keep her eyes on the monitor.

A few moments later the face of a middle-aged man appeared in front of her and Leia smiled warmly toward him. "Let me introduce myself," the man said, "I am President Carn of the planet Trewist, the fifth planet in the Denorid system. I am pleased to speak with you President Leia Organa-Solo, so that we might discuss the matter at hand. We will be glad to assist you in any way possible, as long as the uniformity of our sky can be replaced."

Leia tried to not let her frustration show. Apparently when he had spoken to Senator Belsiphvin, he must have received the idea that the Republic would have to meet in order to decide the best way to fix the problem as opposed to whether or not to even attempt it. "I am also pleased to speak with you President Carn, and I want to let you know that if there's anything we can do to make this transition smoother for you, we will be glad to lend assistance."

Carn seemed puzzled by this comment. "I believe that the best course of action would be to simply return the stars to their God-given position as we had discussed earlier. Do you not agree?"

This wasn't going to be easy. "I know that this must be a very troubling time on your worlds, but you have to believe me that everything that can be done will be."

Carn was more than a little troubled at Leia's evasive diplomacy. "So the sky will be set aright?"

He's going to make me say it, isn't he. "I am afraid that the sky has been changed forever by the Empire, and that both of us will have to learn to live with these changes." Leia was using all the tricks she had learned. Let them think that you are going to be hurt just as much as they are. Blame everything on someone else. It didn't seem to be working.

"President Leia, I don't think you truly understand what has happened," Carn was managing to keep his voice calm. "The Mighty Hawk is blind and winter is only one two moons away. My people have lived and prospered under the same sky for many centuries and we will not allow any government to tell us that we must change our ways because of some minor explosion in space."

Leia couldn't begin to fathom his ignorance of the situation. The Dark Ring was hardly a minor explosion. "President Carn, I assure you that no harm will come to your people because of this. Our scientists-"

"Your scientist are mistaken. Have you ever seen the sky from the Seronid Peak on a clear night? Of course you have not. You can not know the beauty and wonder that the sight inspires. Now you are telling us that you will not fix it - refuse to fix it!"

"It can't be fixed!" Leia said, a little too loudly. "You must realize that if anything could be done we would do it, but we don't have the ability. It's not that we don't care, but-"

Carn had heard enough. "I understand completely. You think that because you are big and powerful that you can fly your huge ships anywhere, blowing things apart, but refusing to fix them when you are finished. And if some small, backward system gets hurt in the process, so be it. President Leia, I regret to say that our meeting is over. If anything happens to our peaceful way of life, I will hold you personally responsible." With that, the screen went blank.

"That could have gone better."

* * *

The ship dropped out of hyperspace, and visibility went from poor to worse. When traveling through space at speeds as great as or greater than that of light, visibly is poor simply because by the time you see something, you've already past it. Normal space is obviously more optically friendly, however it has it's own vision barriers.

"Great, you dropped us right in the middle of a nebula."

Vince ignored his friend's complaints and checked the charts. "It's not on the map."

"If you'll notice, Hastrin is on the map," Jon said, "but I bet you're not going to find it anywhere."

"I beg to differ," Bep spoke up from the back of the cockpit. "I'd care to wager that we are flying through what is left of Hastrin."

"I though that an exploding planet left a field of small rocks, not this kind of pea soup."

Vince examined the nebula they were floating through and then the statistics the computer had on Hastrin. "It says here that over two thirds of Hastrin was covered with ocean. Where do you think all that water went? Danzig 6 blew the planet into a fine dust and vaporized the oceans. The water molecules attached themselves the dust and are now floating around reflecting light."

"So it's kind of like walking through fog?"

"Yea, Jon, only I don't recommend stepping outside for a stroll."

The ship moved slowly through mist, heading toward prespecified coordinates. The ship was almost unrecognizable from its former self. The ship used to be an Old Republic carrier, but it had seen better days and was scheduled for the scrap heap, before Vince and Bep managed to convince the techs to let them have it. All of the circuits had been shot and none of the computer systems were within three decades of current, but the two pilots had simply wanted the frame. They would have replaced all of the innards even if it had been brand new, preferring their own workmanship to something someone else had built.

The resulting ship resembled a pregnant bird. They had elongated the front of the former boxy ship and made it not only more attractive, but also more battle worthy. They had decorated the front of the ship with salvaged turbo lasers from captured Star Destroyers. When Vince and Bep had shown the plans to some of the techies that helped them refit the ship, they had laughed and said that no ship that size could support the batteries needed to fire turbo lasers. True, batteries were huge cumbersome things that took a lot of maintenance. Vince had designed a type of energy flywheel, which spun anti-mater in a magnetic field. The lasers are fired by routing the hyperdrive through the weapons system and drawing the anti-matter out of the containment field with the inertia damper, and thus accelerating the anti-matter to light speed, propelling it though the laser cannon. When the anti-matter leaves the containment field it looses stability and dissolves into pure energy. The result was an energy source that lasts just as long the large batteries, but took up a one-thousandth of the room.

Increasing the livable space in the military ship had decreased the cargo room of the ship. The trio had their ships in the flight bay, and had added a very small tech shop for quick adjustments and repairs.

"I still can't believe this is how we are spending our vacation," Jon complained for the fifty-third time. "If we wanted to help the Republic, couldn't we have gone to Gensifery and helped with the clean up there?" Gensifery was a world with an enormous tropical region due to its almost non-existent tilt. The Imperials had bombed the planet from space as part of a trap for the Republic fleet a month ago. The three friends had spoiled that trap, but had to rush off to continue the fight against the Empire and had been unable to give a full effort to helping the clean up of the world.

Vince also wanted to help some of the victimized worlds, but he had an inkling that if Jon found himself on the tropical world, he would do more sight seeing than sight rebuilding. Vince also knew that the Republic had many different teams going to the ravished worlds, and he felt this private assignment a little more exciting. "Come on," Vince challenged Jon's complaint, "you can't tell me that you don't want to find out where those Imperials ran off to?"

"Sure I do," Jon said. "I haven't downed near enough of their TIE's yet, but what chance do we have? We were here over three weeks ago, surely the trail has gone cold by now."

"Coordinates don't change, my friend," Bep put in. "The Imperials left here in hyperspace, and our sensors got a clear read of those jump vectors. Chasing a fleet through hyperspace is impossible because they can make multiple jumps and have their computer calculate those jumps out ahead of time, while the pursuing fleet has no idea where the fleet is going after the first jump. However, if you can take your time, you can make a reasonable tracking effort."

"For example," Vince said as he was working with the nav computer, "we've reached the last known coordinates of the Super Star Destroyer, and along their hyperspace jump route is an asteroid field only a few giga klicks out."

"Which means they must have just made a micro jump out of system and then jumped somewhere else," Bep reasoned.

"Great, they could have jumped anywhere. There's no way that hyperspace residue will remain."

"True," Vince admitted, "but their choices are more limited than you think. For example, they didn't turn around, and they couldn't keep going in the same direction, because the asteroid field was blocking their path. Plus the Danzig system takes up at least three octants of the sky for light-years in any direction, and I seriously doubt that they ran back to the Dark Ring, so that just leaves three octants to pick from."

Jon's mood seemed to brighten at this information. "Well what are we waiting for, let's go!" The transformed carrier elongated and snapped into hyperspace.

* * *

"Hey kid! How are you doing?"

"Han . . ." Han listened as the reply hung in the air. Han was expecting some kind of age clarification or Jedi Master announcement, that usually followed Han's juvenile references to his thirty year friend, but Luke just shrugged his shoulders in indifference. "Hi."

Han was standing on the landing pad as Luke stepped away from his E-wing and gave the pad crew directions on where they could put his ship and for how long he thought he would be staying. Chewie and Leia were there as well, and brother and sister hugged and kissed a greeting, but Luke had only a handshake for the wookiee. "What brings you back so soon?" Leia asked. Luke had been to Coruscant three days ago for supplies and electronic equipment for the one finished building on Yavin IV, and while the eight hour hyperspace trip wasn't that long, Luke had come in his E-wing, which meant he didn't plan on bringing much in the way of supplies back with him.

"I have some information for Wedge and want to do a little research concerning it," Luke responded.

"Nice cane, Luke," Han said, and Chewie voiced similar mock praise towards the handicap. "Is this a new thing for Jedi Masters?"

"You mean something Yoda taught me?" Luke asked with a grin, but then realized that he was the only one that had seen the stooped, hobbled Master. "No, I'm just letting this heal on its own."

"He's human!" Han screamed, but immediately started to laugh. The group made their way down the hall from the landing pad and exchanged idle conversation. "I almost forgot," Han spoke up. "There's someone here that wants to see you." Luke stopped is forward limp a moment to look at Han questioningly. "She came in yesterday and said that she wanted to talk to you."

At the feminine pronoun, Luke knew exactly whom Han was talking about, and the Jedi Master rolled his eyes. He and Mara had been through a lot together, from the days when she wanted to kill him, to now when they were involved in this make-believe romance that everyone was in on except the two people most affected, namely: Luke and Mara. Luke still didn't know how to look at her. Was she a possible student, a former enemy, a friend, or just a simple trader? Luke checked that last item from his list. If Mara was anything, it wasn't simple.

* * *

"So what do you have?" Wedge asked. The fleet admiral walked into Luke's room and saw the Jedi Master was hard at work at the computer station.

"I see you have changed all the codes on me," Luke responded, looking up at Wedge for an answer.

Wedge smiled at Luke's frustration for a moment. "Don't tell me you're having problems with a computer? Just tell it to cooperate. Surely you can use your vast Jedi skills and get it to respond."

Luke smirked at his sarcasm but decided to humor him. He turned back to the counsel and said in an eerie voice. "No, my access is not denied. Yes, 'Owen' is the password you are looking for." The computer gave him a negative beep again, still waiting for a correct password to let in "Unknown User: Luke Skywalker."

Wedge chuckled that the most important person in the Republic was being denied access to simple records. "Here, let me help you."

"Pray do," Luke said, allowing all of his impatience to shine through the statement. Luke watched intently as Wedge entered his name and password. Luke tried to catch the last part, but Wedge curled his wrists as he typed, and Luke missed it.

"We can get you hooked up again, if you want," Wedge said as he stepped back. "We are doing some house cleaning and decided while we were at it that we might want to change the age old security system while we are at it."

"What kind of house cleaning?" Luke asked, moving his chair back in front of the monitor that Wedge had vacated after gaining access.

"The Emperor had set up an entire wing of the palace that was designed to handle all of his financial dealings. This consisted of all of his advisers and accountants. You wouldn't believe the kinds of things he did with his money. He had literally millions of spies, informants, smugglers, assassins and the like on payroll. He kept it all, as well as the enormous tax income, organized in this wing. Well, when we took over, we seized his holdings and simply kept his system up and running. It was a few years after we moved in and finally cracked his codes that we realized payments were still being made to over half of the Emperor's henchmen. Ever since we've been trying to reshuffle the mess into something useful. The result is that we now use less than a hundredth of the computers and filing systems to organize our financial holdings. It was decided that the other ninety-nine percent of the computers could be better used elsewhere, and we decided to just evacuate the whole wing and turn it into guest quarters. In fact, that's where Mara is stayi- Did anyone tell you that Mara is here?"

Luke nodded. "I know. And I already heard that she wants to see me."

"Well we thought that our computers would be vulnerable to hackers during the transfer, so we upgraded our system before. We gave everyone a new account. And as each qualified person made a trip to Coruscant, we upgraded their account. I guess you got lost in the shuffle. Do you want your old password?"

Luke wasn't listening anymore, as he had finally found what he wanted. "Wedge can you tell me the difference between these signals?" Wedge bent down to look over Luke's shoulder to see what he had on the screen.

"Those are all of the messages we intercepted from the Imperials during the battle at the Dark Ring. What do you want to look at this for?"

"Can you tell me what the difference is between these messages?" Luke asked again, ignoring Wedge's question and pointing to two different messages.

"Yea. This one is a narrow band signal, meaning that it was aimed at a single ship or a group of ships. This one over here is a wide band that sends the message out in all directions. They're all gibberish because we don't have the transponder codes to translate them."

"I have a code from one of the Super Star Destroyers. Is there a way for you to input the code and see what if any of these messages came from that ship?"

Wedge thought for a short while. "Sure. I'll just create a dummy location on the net and have the computer send each of these messages to that location. The computer should automatically search for an identification of the sender, just like in all of our ships. It will scroll through all of the known passwords, and, not finding the correct one, will prompt the user to enter the password."

Luke backed away from the console. "She's all yours."

After a few moments Wedge had the transfer set up and activated it. After the computer searched for a translation, it asked for the ship code. "You got that ID on you?" Wedge asked. Luke handed Wedge the data pad to which he had transferred the information on the TIE memory chip. "It looks like you need both the commander's code and the ship's." Wedge entered the ship's code and then the commander's. The message beeped negative. Wedge reversed the order with the same result. He spent the next few minutes entering as many different possibilities as he could think of, all coming up negative. "It's possible, in fact very likely, that this message isn't from the Dark Fist," Wedge said, looking at the name of the ship. "We intercepted over a hundred different messages." Wedge hit cancel and moved onto the next message. With all of the combinations Wedge had entered stored in the computer, the system automatically cycled through them. "This could take a while," Wedge said as the next message also came up negative. "How's the cleanup going?" he asked, turning away from the computer as it continued its automatic loop and changing the topic of conversation to the academy.

"It will be a while before we get over the losses," Luke replied. "We lost quite a few of the records, and three students. Over the past few years we haven't exactly had a huge list of enrollment applications. I guess we'll get back on our feet again, but it will take some time. What about the fleet?"

"We are fast healers. After every big battle there is always willingness to join the military. I mean everyone wants to be part of the winning team. We lost quite a few ships, but they are being replaced as we speak, and our resources are very vast."

The two old friends lapsed into silence, but were startled by an unfamiliar beep from the computer. Wedge spun around in his chair. "Well, it looks like you're in luck. We have a match. Wouldn't you know it's the last message."

"What does it say?"

"Not much really. It is an order for a mandatory hyperspace jump to specific coordinates."

"Can you identify those coordinates," Luke asked.

"It looks like Hastrin," Wedge said after a few moments.

"When was this transmission sent?"

Wedge looked at the time stamp on the translated message and did a few mental calculations as he realized what Luke was getting at. "It was sent just a few moments before the heavy space hit."

Luke's mind was racing now, trying to sort through everything he knew. "So you are trying to tell me that the commander of this Super Star Destroyer ordered a full retreat during a route, and before the star went nova."

"It looks like that, doesn't it."

"There is no way he could have figured out what you had been up to, could he?"

Wedge thought about all that had happened and started to shake his head. "There were a few minor things that later analysis might have been able to turn into a hypothesis as to our game plan, but I have no idea how this," he paused as he looked at the data pad in his hand, "Commander Snotzenexer could have figured it out in the few short moments he had."

"Well this is definitely the ship that made it away from the Dark Ring and then again from Hastrin," Luke said. "It looks like we might have another Thrawn on our hands. From all appearances, this commander has a very quick mind, is in control of a Super Star Destroyer, and has about thirty Imperial class Star Destroyers at his disposal."

"Actually," Wedge piped in, "I don't even think that Thrawn was that well equipped."

"The security increase was a good idea, Wedge, but I think you are going to have to over-haul everything. With the Republic as big as it is, we are definitely vulnerable."

"I agree totally."

Chapter 4 "Hostile Takeover"

Admiral Snotzenexer walked down the sidewalk underneath a glowing sun, which reflected pleasantly off of the surrounding structures. He was on Iom, the smallest and most densely populated planet in the Varion system. Snotzenexer looked up at the sun and then of to the east and the ominous storm clouds that were approaching. He smiled to himself, glad that the weather was so accurately predicted on this planet where nature was so chaotic.

Life on Iom had only become commonplace in the last two hundred years, and already its infrastructure rivaled that of Coruscant. Snotzenexer laughed at the ludicrous comparison. Sure, Iom rivaled Coruscant the same way the moon rivals the sun for the brightest skylight. It might be one of the closest competitors, but it was still a long way off. Iom had only three or four distinct layers of construction covering most of the planet, while they had lost track of the number of Coruscant layers a long time ago.

In a galaxy where exploration was a continual process, rich planets become a commodity. At first people thought that it was profitable to mine the recourses on a newly discovered planet and then bring them back home where life had been around for a millennia or two. Granted, the weight of a cargo matters little in the gravity-less vacuum of space, but because the recourses were most often used for planetary construction, it was soon decided that it was easier to bring the people to the recourses than vice versa.

This was the case with Iom. It was the smallest and most distant planet in a solar system that boasted twelve satellites in constant orbit around a large sun. Originally two of these twelve planets had a breathable atmosphere, and Iom was not one of them. It wasn't until a permanent colony had been settled, that it was discovered what a truly rich planet Iom was. It had no air and little atmosphere because it had no water on the surface. However on the first deep drilling expedition the dry exterior was pierced and then the superheated water that had been kept under constant, extreme pressure exploded from the ground, rupturing a hole in the surface several hundred kilometers across.

After morning for the loss of the drilling expedition members, the true benefit of the water was discovered. Beneath the surface, the water had remained pressurized, but as soon as the magma seal was broken, a geyser of steam shot up into the stratosphere. The hydrogen and oxygen in the water joined the already present nitrogen, and in a mater of hours, the planet was livable for several of the galaxy's less prolific life forms. After five more months and seven more drills, settlers no longer had to build domed colonies. Ten years later, farming was being done.

Snotzenexer looked around at the endless sight of buildings, seeing that the wide-open farmland was a pleasant, but distant memory of this planet. Once the metal ore that had made Iom interesting in the first place started to be extracted, buildings rose like Encharion roots in the spring. This planet was now the political and economic hub of the five neighboring systems. Snotzenexer was walking toward the reason for Iom's economic authority: The Varion Imperial Bank.

The admiral couldn't help but chuckle at the name. He had done his research well to discover the history of this planet, and he had found that at no time did the Empire ever have any influence in this system. Snotzenexer knew of other such organizations with "Imperial" in their name and soon came to realize the cleverness behind the misleading titles. The Empire was so all encompassing when it was in power that it often lost track of its vast holdings. In the event that they should stumble across the Varion system, the residents wanted to let the oppressive government think that they had already gained control of this system and move on. Well, the Empire never did have control of the system but it was Snotzenexer's job to change all of that.

As the Imperial admiral walked through the large double doors of the huge banking complex, he took one last look at the sky to see that the dark clouds were almost on top of the tall building. One thing that covering the entire surface of a planet with metal and power wires did was that it played havoc with the weather systems, especially the electric storms. Coruscant had faced the problem too, but their solution to the problem was rather crude: build above the weather layer. Iom was still not quite to that level, but they had found other ways to deal with the problem.

Snotzenexer looked at the impressive lobby to the intergalactic bank and was impressed. The huge chandelier suspended from the ceiling was the size of a TIE bomber and the lighting surrounding the crystal suspension was incredible. The interior of the room was done in all wood, or at least would paneling, and looked far more inviting that the normal, dull, durasteel that dominated the decor of most other establishments. This building obviously wanted you to feel safe, and thus, in turn, wanted you to feel that your money would be safe as well.

Snotzenexer was dressed in a fine suit that tried to look as civilian as possible, so it startled him a little as the first person he talked to referred to him as sir. "Sir, may I help you?"

"Yes, I'd like to open an account. I've just arrived in system and I'd like to get myself dug in, so to speak."

"Are you an investor then?" the attendant asked, leading Snotzenexer through an entryway and into a large collection of desked tellers.

"I guess you would call me entrepreneur of extreme proportions."

"May I inquire as to the amount of the account you'd like to open?"

"How is that important?" Snotzenexer asked. "You advertise to treat all customers equally, regardless of their financial status."

The man smiled at Snotzenexer. "Ah, yes, well we might treat everyone equally, but that doesn't make them equal, does it?" He knew that he wouldn't be insulting Snotzenexer with that comment. "I have a hunch that you might be needing more attention and information than a simple deposit warrants."

Snotzenexer mentioned a sum. The attendant had been prepared for multiple digits, but he gasped slightly as he tried to work out all the commas in the number Snotzenexer had mentioned. "I guess I was right."

Snotzenexer noticed that the man now hurriedly made a straight line for the furthest desk at the end of the long room. The admiral saw that he was now on the top of everyone's list as far as priority and he liked it that way. The attendant spoke briefly with the teller before taking his leave.

"Good afternoon," the teller said, rising from his seat and extending his hand out over his desk. "Smillen tells me that you wish to set up an account with us, uh . ." the man paused in search of a name.

"Snotzenexer. Alex Snotzenexer," the admiral responded, grabbing the man's hand in a firm handshake.

"Well, sir, my name is Harvin Sherd. You may call me Harvin."

Snotzenexer recognized the name from his research and knew that this was no simple bank teller, but one of the two assistants to the president of the bank. "Alex is fine," Snotzenexer replied, though it pained the military leader to do so.

"I'm told this will be a long term establishment. How did you want to deposit the funds?"

"I have recently sold several plots of land off in the Ewrien system, and am suspending payment until I have an account to which I can have the funds wired. I also have several other accounts in systems that I no longer plan to frequent. I plan on closing those accounts and wanted to set up an efficient way of transferring the records and interest rates on some of my long-term holdings. I also have quite a bit of hard currency that I wish to-" Snotzenexer paused as the lights flickered slightly in the building. Someone not as alert as the Imperial Admiral might not have noticed the ever-so-slight fluctuation in brightness, but Snotzenexer had been waiting for it. "What was that?"

"What was what?" Harvin asked, truly perplexed, but a quick glance at his computer screen told him the answer. "Oh, did the lights flicker? I never notice it anymore. We are having a lightning storm outside. We get them quite often."

Snotzenexer tried to look worried. "Is the bank safe? I mean is there any danger of loosing records from the strikes?"

Harvin saw that he was going to have to quell this wealthy, yet cautious investor's doubts quickly or risk loosing business. "No, everything is quite safe. The power goes off for half a second, and then goes back on. We have most of the smaller systems, like the lights, switch to back up power. I'm surprised you even noticed the flicker."

"But what about electronic break-ins? When the system is down, aren't you vulnerable?"

"Someone would have to have incredible reflexes or be able to predict the strikes, because our system is down for less than a second, and then reboots in about two seconds. No one can get in while the system is rebooting because it is off line. In order to get in in that fraction of a second is really quite impossible. Besides, the timing of lightning is purely random and no one could guess it, every computer in the building goes down during that time, and there is no outside lines into this building."

Outwardly Snotzenexer sighed and relaxed. Inwardly he glanced at his watch and hoped that Harvin would be proved wrong in about seventeen seconds.

* * *

High above the bank, deep inside the ominous storm, an indescribable void filled the center of the cloud. If any birds had been dumb enough to fly about in the storm, they would have taken serious pause at this unexplainable hole in the otherwise very dark interior. There seemed to simply be a large area that had been cleared of everything. This storm cloud appeared to be hollow, with a very placid center. If the birds looked more intently, they would have seen that this hollowed out shape looked an awful lot like a Star Destroyer.

Aboard the cloaked ship, the commander was getting ready to discharge the first of his many planned "lightning bolts." The shield generators had been modified to set up a highly charged static field, which could be discharged to the building below at any time. "Ten seconds," a lieutenant stated, as the computer was taking care of the countdown. The entire lightning display was pre-programmed into the ship's computer, and with everyone's chronos synchronized, the entire bank unit knew precisely when each bolt would strike.

A few meters above the bank, a second cloaked ship hovered. The transport held twelve men ready to take over the entire bank. Four gunners had their sights trained on the four, rooftop cameras. The computer was controlling the firing mechanism of each weapon, and once the gunners had locked their sights on the rotating cameras, the aiming was automatic. At exactly 2 minutes and 27 seconds past the hour, lightning struck the huge lightning rod and all four guns fired at the cameras.

* * *

"Blast it!"

"What is it Griel?" the young man asked as he turned away from his security screen.

"That last blast took out the roof cameras. You know what that means, Jearr?"

"We get to file a report about the inadequate equipment the bank is using," Jearr said. This was the third time in five storms that the cameras had gone down.

"I wish. No, it means that yours truly and the rest of the tech staff get to replace them. You just wait till you've been here for a few more months and you'll get to join us."

"Hey look at the bright side," the youth told his older co-worker, "at least they let you guys wait until the storm is over before they send you up there. As big a stickler as this place is about security, you'd think that they'd have you run up there now."

"No one's going to try and break in to this place through the roof during a storm. That would be suicide," Griel said.

"I guess you're right. It'd be a nice time to try it though."

* * *

"Why don't I show you the vault?" Harvin had managed to notice that last light flicker and he thought that he should show this potentially valuable client the whole workings of the bank.

"I'd like that," Snotzenexer replied, and got out of his seat to follow the man. "On the way, could you inform me as to the power structure in the bank. I mean who is responsible for keeping this place running?"

"It's funny you should ask," Harvin said as he stood before the doors to a turbo lift, waiting for it to arrive at their floor. "The president of the bank is the Honorable Serint Frosch. He has two assistants: Reckin Younst and myself."

"Only three people to run a bank that controls the majority of the credit transfers for five systems?" Snotzenexer asked skeptically.

"It is not that difficult," the man said. "We only rule in the major operations of the bank, such as dealings with the eight governments that we operate under, the two dozen mega businesses, and the manipulations of the bank's personal holdings such as stocks and bonds. All of the individual banking takes place through tellers and clerks who are connected by an enormous computer network that controls everything. Everything is under the careful eye of the almighty microchip. We just supervise."

"Are all three of you in the bank at all times?"

"We each have living quarters here, yes, and none of us have any family. This bank is kind of like our family." The turbo lift arrived and both men stepped in after the opening doors.

"Kind of sounds lonely," Snotzenexer said. "Do you ever get away from it?"

"Actually Reckin is on a little vacation in the Tristoff sector. I think he said he was going to try his hand at some of the gaming establishments out there. He also mentioned something about getting in some hydro skiing."

Snotzenexer nodded in faked amusement as if this was news to him. Actually, he had already planned for Reckin to have a very unfortunate boating accident that would cut both his vacation and his life a little short.

* * *

Two of the dozen men that poured out on the rooftop of the bank ran quickly over to the satellite dish that sat on the corner of the roof furthest from the lightning rod. They had only about five minutes before the next planed strike and had a lot to prepare. The communications wire that came out of the back of the dish was soon exposed and the insulation removed. To most people the swarm of wires looked like a nest of multicolored snakes, swarming over each other in a rainbow of confusion. To Fren and Werlimp it all made sense. Snotzenexer had managed to steal the construction plans for the bank from the city planner. While Fren began stripping certain wires and organizing cables, Werlimp was getting out a portable module that would simulate a bank security computer.

Fren produced a small metal box from his pack and began feeding the bank's wires into one end, while Werlimp fed his computer's wires into the other end. The box had a small liquid crystal display on it, and the duo watched as the countdown slipped under five seconds. When the timer reached zero, the box would splice the two groups of wires together instantaneously, sneaking into the net when the power was down. The rest of the group was also paying attention to their own chronos and took adequate cover for the next strike. Six seconds later, Werlimp's computer rebooted with the rest of the bank's systems.

The next strike was due in 39 seconds, and Fren scrambled to get another one of the wire connectors out of his bag. He hastily found the six wires he needed and fed the bank's heat, motion, and security cameras, for the turbolift shafts and ventilation ducts into one end of the box. Werlimp prepared his end of the box and after the next strike, they controlled the security devices in all the crawl spaces of the bank.

Werlimp made a thumbs-up sign to the ten other men who were poised over the vertical shaft of a lift that was undergoing repairs. It had been sabotaged earlier in the week.

* * *

In the security room, a small mouse that the computer had been tracking in an air duct on the fifteenth floor, disappeared from the computer. Normally this would send off alarms all over the bank, but Werlimp's computer was smoothing things over, and Griel was paying too much attention to the security camera in the lobby, eyeing up a beautiful young woman who had just entered the building.

* * *

The lift opened and Snotzenexer looked at the vault room. There were two guards standing at ridged attention right past the exit and two more standing by the vault. The room in front of them had an eerie atmosphere and Snotzenexer could immediately feel all of the sensors that existed here. The temperature was no doubt regulated and the were motion sensors all over the floor as well as vibration sensors. Snotzenexer took his time looking around, realizing that he was a little ahead of schedule. He was supposed to have suggested going to the vault, but Harvin had made the suggestion for him, and now they had another seven minutes before the next scheduled strike.

"It's quite impressive," Snotzenexer said after several moments.

"I'm glad you approve. This is the most secure room in any direction for one hundred light years. There are always four guards on duty during bank hours and the camera system operates all the time. After we close, the room is monitored by temperature, motion, sound, and vibrations. Actually," Harvin grinned, "it is probably much safer to try and rob the bank during broad daylight. This place is basically impenetrable during the night. All the systems down here are run off an independent power source that can't be disconnected or tapped into, and we are one hundred feet underground with only two turbo lift shafts leading to this room."

"Two?" Snotzenexer asked, looking back and seeing only one door.

"There is another shaft behind the one we rode down in. The lift is shut down right now for repairs. Do you want to see the inside of the vault?"

Snotzenexer didn't have to answer and simply gestured for his guide to lead the way. They had remained on the landing that existed right after the exit to the turbo lift in between the first pair of guards. Now they descended the two short steps leading down to the tiled floor that was the preamble room to the vault. Snotzenexer felt the weird texture of the sensitive floor through his boots and believed that he could feel the prying eyes of the hidden cameras as the two walked the thirty feet toward the front of the vault.

Behind the two men and the alert guards four men had reached the sub level of the bank through the unused turbo shaft. They moved carefully, trying to be as silent as possible regardless of the nonexistence of the electronic security. They knew Snotzenexer and Harvin would distract the guards in the vault area, but that didn't mean that the senses of the professional guards could just be ignored. Each man kept this in mind as they crept into four of the six ventilation ducts leading into the vault area. These ducts were abnormally large in order to keep the area at a temperature of zero degrees during off-hours. It was much easier to detect the heat of an intruder if the temperature was substantially low, especially with countless cold blooded sentience that would be thrilled to get their sticky appendages on the stacks of credits stored behind the mammoth vault door.

Snotzenexer and Harvin now stood in front of this door, and the admiral had to swallow his anticipation as he listened to another explanation of the bank's security measures that the supreme strategist had already researched. "This door is made of three feet of trillium. It would take an industrial strength diamond blade to make a mark on it, and you would wear out over 300 of those blades before you would be able to cut all the way through it. The door has a hollow layer in the center that is filled with vexon gas. Are you familiar with vexon gas?" Snotzenexer nodded, though no one was truly familiar with the volatile gas. It was discovered accidentally when a scout ship flew through a nebula of the stuff. Vexon gas could eat through anything save high carbon durasteel alloys and the few metals that ranked higher on the integrity chart. What it did to flesh was nothing short of catastrophic. In its liquid state it made human flesh look like ice in boiling water. In its gaseous state, it ate the body inside and out by using the respiratory system to augment its potential surface area. Needless to say, anyone who was foolish enough to try to drill into the vault wouldn't have enough time to realize their mistake when they hit the middle of the door.

Snotzenexer didn't need to glance at his wrist to know what the time was. His mental clock was usually good to about five seconds, and he knew without looking that the next strike was coming in about a minute and a half, but he looked anyway. Harvin noticed the gesture, and understood it for what it was meant to be taken as. "On a tight schedule?"

"Always."

"I understand," Harvin said. The man walked right up to the door, performed a retina scan and entered a seven-digit code.

* * *

Up on the roof, Werlimp's computer notified him that Harvin was opening the door. Werlimp traced the eye scan as the computer cross-referenced the retina pattern with a small, encoded database. Snotzenexer had been able to obtain Harvin's retina pattern by breaking into the very low security computers at the local optometry. It was amazing how easy information was to come by if you knew where to look. With Harvin's encoded retina pattern and the uncoded one, Werlimp's computer was easily able to crack the encription and immediately translated the seven-digit code. With the code broken, the Empire now had access to the database and could edit it at their leisure.

* * *

"Good afternoon, Chief Harvin Sherd," an unseen speaker said as the vault door swung open. Harvin glanced at Snotzenexer with a poorly hidden smile. "I spent some time in the Empire many years ago," he said in answer to the unspoken question regarding the title with which the computer had addressed him.

The admiral tried to look impressed with the lowly military title, but failed miserably. The time was fast approaching when Snotzenexer would no longer have to treat this man with respect. Snotzenexer stepped into the vault quickly, not wanting to tempt fate with delays. Both men were completely inside the vault before Snotzenexer took the time to regard the interior of the huge room.

The bank apparently liked to flaunt its wealth. The vault was large enough to contain three chambers. The first and the one that held Snotzenexer's attention at the moment was by far the most impressive. Jewels, diamonds, and the largest chunks of precious metals that the veteran of the Empire had ever seen littered the walls that were mysteriously transparent. Each of the some two hundred items was imbedded in a wall, which appeared to be made entirely of glassine. Snotzenexer knew better though, and decided that the walls were most likely made of a high grade of transparasteel, if not for anti-theft reasons, than for protection against potential vexon gas.

The room was uniquely lit, with the light from below and above. With the floor and ceiling also transparent, there were lights imbedded in each. The lights above were dim, and there merely to illuminate unsightly shadows on the ceiling, but the effect on the displayed valuables was impressive. The display resembled the eerie presentation that putting a glow rod under ones chin at night around a campfire yields.

The second chamber contained about a thousand individual safe deposit boxes in which esteemed members of the bank could keep valuables. The third room held massive amounts of credit chips of every size and value.

As soon as both men were fully in the vault Harvin turned around and closed the huge door. "Do you mean to lock me in?" Snotzenexer asked with a light-heartedness in his voice that denied the accusatory statement. Harvin smiled back, not knowing the irony that would be played out in a few minutes.

"The door needs to be closed for the computer to reboot. It is much safer to close the door manually, not knowing when the lightning may strike. You wouldn't want to get caught leaving the vault when the door suddenly decides to swing shut." Snotzenexer nodded, though he disagreed with part of Harvin's assessment of the situation. The admiral did know when the lightening was going to strike. The next strike would come in about forty-two seconds and then another one fifty-seven seconds later. At least that is what Snotzenexer had planned. He would only find out later that almost everything fell apart on the next strike.

* * *

Up on the roof, Werlimp was busy recording fifty-seven seconds of the motionless vault guards. The room had to be empty, and the vault door had only just closed a few moments ago, giving him sixty-three seconds to work with. Werlimp had begun recording as soon as the door had sealed itself and was thinking through what he needed to do during the last six seconds. He needed to play back the recording at the next strike, as there would be a lot of action in the room that they didn't want the security personnel to know about.

* * *

One hundred feet underground four men were poised right inside the air conditioning vents. Each of them had their modified blasters trained on one of the guards. All the guards in the bank had small transmitters that they wore to keep track of their life signs and location. Seeing as how the guards were going to be unconscious in a short while, each of the four members of the strike force had identical transmitters that were programmed to activate at the next strike. Werlimp had long ago discovered each of the guard's transmitter frequencies and standard life sign patterns and had imputed that information into each of the transmitters the men carried.

Their modified blasters would also fire automatically at the next strike. The blasters had been altered to send out an ion pulse that would not only short out the guards' transmitters, but also their neurological pathways, putting them in a temporary coma. The one problem that the Empire had anticipated was that when the lightening struck and the blasters fired, the real guards' transmitters would be disabled and the new ones would be activated, placing each one of the guards inside the wall. The four members crouched in the vents knew this, and they also knew that while the power fluctuated for only half a second, it took anywhere from one and a half to two seconds for the security computers to come back on line. They each hoped that would be enough time to spring from their hiding places and assume the old guards' positions so their transmitters wouldn't disagree with the camera's motionless representation of the men.

* * *

Back on the roof Werlimp had just finished recording the fifty-seven seconds and quickly programmed to intercept the real images from the vault cameras and send ins- lightning struck.

* * *

"What was that?!" the commander of the Star Destroyer in the clouds yelled. That strike had come fully three seconds early.

"It wasn't -" the lieutenant wasn't able to finish as another bolt streaked across the sky. This second one was right on time, and the commander realized what had happened. Lightening struck whenever the electric difference between the sky and the ground became so great that it had to discharge. When the huge ship had been discharging earlier, it had been doing so so frequently that the sky never had a chance to build up a charge of its own. But this last time in between strikes was so long that a natural strike had found its way into the mess.

* * *

Werlimp's fingers froze up for a second. His mind didn't want to believe that his fellow officers had screwed up. As his mind continued to wander, his fingers finished their task just in time as the second and correct strike nailed home.

* * *

Around the vault, the eight men were oblivious to the lightening outside. On the second strike, the four guns hit their targets and three of the men came bursting out of their vents to assume the correct positions. The fourth Imperial paused ever so slightly. He had been paying too much attention to his target. Right before he had to fire, the guard had been scratching his back. The gunmen knew what was going to happen, and he knew that the guard hadn't been scratching his back when Werlimp had recorded him, and it would look very odd to whoever was watching if the guard instantly ceased his scratching right as lightning struck. This concern made him slow out of the vent, but in reality saved him. He arrived over the guard half a second after the security computers finished booting up.

* * *

Jearr was watching the guard scratch his back, and started to turn to Griel to comment on this unprofessional behavior when the lightening struck. Griel was already half turned away from the screen when he saw that the guard had resumed his posture almost instantly in the half second that it took for the picture to come back. He also saw motion from one of the guard's motion detectors. His mind immediately told him that there was nothing wrong. The guard had moved quickly and the motion detector had even detected it. It was just a coincidence that it had happened right as the lightening struck. Jearr's mind was just a little too dull to catch the fact that the motion from the transmitter had come half a second after the still image on the screen had resumed its rigid posture.

* * *

The storm was clearing now and the cloaked Star Destroyer had to move a little further away from the bank to keep its strange blank void covered by clouds. It had one more lightening bolt to discharge, and it needed to be relatively close to the bank to do so. After that, the huge ship would return to the asteroid field as fast as it could. The small scout ship that had deposited the twelve men on the roof earlier was planning on sticking around though. After the next strike it was going to put down on the landing pad on top of the bank.

* * *

In the vault Snotzenexer smiled that none of the alarms had gone off in the bank. He knew that that meant everything had gone smoothly and the bank was now his. All he had to do was take it. He had to wait another fifty-seven seconds for the four men outside to stash the unconscious guards in the ventilation shaft and reattach the vents to the wall. Snotzenexer sincerely hoped that the men would remember to leave their transmitters on the floor while they moved the bodies. It was a silly concern, the admiral knew, but this close to victory, it was stupid mistakes that cost lives.

Snotzenexer thought that he somehow sensed the last strike, and gave an audible sigh of satisfaction that the task was complete. The cameras outside the vault should now be showing four motionless guards of similar build and identical uniforms to the previous four guards. Also, at several other places throughout the building groups of old guards should now be replaced with his own officers.

"I think I've seen enough," Snotzenexer said suddenly. Harvin looked at him curiously. He had just been in the middle of an explanation about the security measures taken with deposit boxes when Snotzenexer had cut him off. "Can we go now?"

"Uh, sure." Harvin didn't really know what to make of this sudden rudeness that his potential client was showing. He tried to think of what he must have said wrong as he walked up to the door and bent low to allow his retina to be scanned. Harvin didn't even notice that his eye hadn't been recognized as he entered his code, and therefore was quite surprised when the door didn't open. "We must have just had a strike and it is rebooting," Harvin offered. He tried again, this time paying attention to what he was doing and to the results he was getting. "That's odd."

"Perhaps if I gave it a shot."

"No," Harvin replied, not realizing that the admiral had been telling and not asking, "it is only programmed to respond to certain bank personnel. There is no way that it would rec-" Harvin didn't get to finish has Snotzenexer forcefully pushed the slightly overweight man out of the way.

Harvin didn't have an immediate response to this very unusual behavior, but simply watched as this strange patron tried his luck with the retina scanner. Snotzenexer entered the seven-digit code that had been agreed upon earlier, and the vault swung open.

"Good evening Admiral Snotzenexer."

Harvin gawked at the computer's response. "I too have spent some time in the Empire's service," Snotzenexer responded.

Harvin knew immediately that this man was not here to deposit the imaginary sum he had previously mentioned, but had more devious ulterior motives. "Guards! Stop him!" Harvin ran out of the vault to watch the guards carry out his order, but instead saw the four men saluting the admiral.

"Good evening, Admiral."

Snotzenexer returned the nod and looked back at Harvin. "I think you should come with me. We need to pay your boss a little visit." Harvin was speechless. On closer examination he could see that he didn't recognize any of the guards in the room. Harvin was too surprised to do anything but follow Snotzenexer back to the turbo lift.

Once inside the lift, Snotzenexer reached for the top button. "You can't go there," Harvin said. As the lift computer beeped at Snotzenexer, requiring a code to enter the restricted area of the bank, Harvin seemed to get a measure of his confidence back. Snotzenexer deflated that misplaced feeling by smoothly punching in a five-digit code, which the computer readily accepted.

"What's going on?" Harvin asked. "Who are you?"

Snotzenexer turned to look at him, wondering how much, if anything, this man needed to know. "I have just taken over your bank. It will all be made official in a few minutes. Don't worry, I don't plan on replacing you right away. I will need someone on board who knows how all the little things work."

"What are you talking about? You don't have control of the bank." Harvin slowly began to understand what this stranger was talking about. "Emergency stop code alpha seven oh four." The lift kept moving. "Security alert authorization Harvin five nine two." The lift kept moving and the alarms remained silent.

Harvin kept quiet for the rest of the trip. He knew where they were going, and this stranger was going to have a much tougher time than he expected. The lift came to a stop, and the two men stepped out. There were two guards stationed in front of the door to President Frosch's private quarters, but before Harvin could issue them a command, they were already saluting the admiral at his side. How had this man replaced all of his security officers with his own without setting off one alarm? There were over fifty security personnel in this bank. Many of them were in high traffic areas. His respect was mounting for this Admiral Snotzenexer as they walked right up to the president's door and opened it.

* * *

Serint Frosch was sitting behind his desk staring out the window at the storm. The doctors had told him that his stroke last week was due to stress. Serint didn't want to believe them. His blood pressure was fine, and he loved his job. He also loved his health, and he thought that if spending more time off his feet and away from the chaos that was the bank would help him, then he was going to try it.

Watching a storm always seemed to calm the president of the huge money regulating facility, and this was a particularly volatile one. A few minutes ago two lightening bolts had struck in quick succession, lighting up the sky quite impressively. Due to the fine construction of the bank and its walls, only slight rumbles could be heard, but the engineers and architects haven't yet gone so far as to eliminate light from the outside as they had sound. This storm was just like the others though. Lot's of wind and lightening, but no rain.

Serint missed his home back on Garinth. He had a house on the beach where he could watch the storms come in from the sea. The whitecaps broke spectacularly on the beach while the first big raindrops hit the sun-bleached sand, splashing the white powder as if it too were made of water. The wind would pick up, and the rain would come down in sheets. With no geographical landmarks to hinder its progress inland, the storms usually passed quickly, leaving behind small river deltas all over the beach. As a boy he would run out into the mud despite his mother's wishes, seeing no reason why he couldn't have at least as much fun in the sand as the storm just had.

The old man sighed. Those days were long gone now, and play was something of the past. He needed to get cracking on the Illyan portfolio. Serint swiveled his chair away from the window and began to sort through the jumble of papers on his desk. The door opened suddenly and Serint jerked his head up at the very uncharacteristic entry. "Harvin," the president managed to say, recognizing one of his second in commands, "what is the meaning of this? Did you forget to make an appointment for this client?"

Harvin couldn't think of anything to say, and Snotzenexer relieved him from the discussion by stepping in front of him, placing him in a position to take command of the situation. "I am here on important business."

Serint wasn't impressed with this man. He seemed to be well dressed and his posture and facial expression seemed to hold some sort of air that was common among the more elite in a society, but his physical stature was not imposing. Serint prided himself on being mentally, financially, and physically fit. "This is a bank," he said flatly. "Is there any other type of business?" The president rose from behind his desk, noticing for the first time that the two guards that stood outside his door had entered also. Serint had made it clear that he didn't want guards, cameras, or any other security device placed in his office, and knew immediately that something was up.

Harvin threw his boss some interesting looks as he walked toward the quartet that had invaded his privacy. "What is so important that you have to come up here without an appointment?" Snotzenexer knew that tone of voice and that style of walk. The admiral figured that the bank president took him for a rich, stuck-up, brat who always got his way and refused to be shut out of the president's office simply because he hadn't made an appointment.

"I plan on buying the bank from you," Snotzenexer said in sincerity.

Serint had been planning on pushing this small man around, but this statement took him off guard completely.

"I'm sorry," Snotzenexer said with a smile on his face, "I meant to say that I wish to buy the presidency from you. How much?"

"It's not for sale," Serint replied, puffing himself up slightly in front of the admiral. The punch came quickly, and everyone in the room save Harvin reacted to it. Both of the guards raised their weapons to protect their admiral, but held their fire as Snotzenexer had reacted first. It was true that the admiral was not physically imposing, but he had been trained well in hand to hand combat and was lightening quick.

Snotzenexer had seen the right hook coming five minutes ago, had even prepared for it when setting up the plans for the take over. He stepped inside it now, throwing his left arm up to deflect the blow out and down so the big man's forearm collided harmlessly with Snotzenexer's shoulder. The admiral then lashed out with his right elbow, catching the larger man in the throat. The president staggered back and Snotzenexer kicked his feet out from under him, sending the big man to the floor.

Serint looked up from the floor at Snotzenexer whose easy demeanor had not changed, then at Harvin who was astonished, and finally at the two men with weapons trained on him. It was at this time that he realized that he didn't recognize either of them. "I will say again," Snotzenexer began with Serint still on the floor, "I am here to buy the presidency from you. I am not concerned with whether or not you feel that it is for sale. Your feelings do not come into play here. I am Admiral Snotzenexer of the Imperial Navy. I have thirty Star Destroyers at my disposal and one Super Star Destroyer. I have total control of your bank already. All I require now is the paper work to make it official."

"And if I refuse to produce them for you?" Serint asked, furious that his voice was scratchy from Snotzenexer's elbow.

"Then I write them up myself. I simply thought that you would like to play a part in the operation. Your presence is not necessary. You are disposable."

"You can't possibly have control of the bank," Serint said, back on his feet with his voice back to normal. He reached to his side for his personal communicator. "Security!" he called into the device. "Security this is an emergency. I need available personnel to the president's office now." Serint paused, realizing that his message wasn't getting through. He examined the instrument and saw that something was jamming the signal. He walked quickly over to his desk and reached for a button that would set of every alarm in the bank. Silence. "What have you done?"

Snotzenexer sighed at the man's continual denial of the situation. "In a system that is fully automated, he who controls the system controls the bank." In truth Snotzenexer's control over the bank was very shaky at best. He had control of a few cameras and had replaced only a fraction of the security personnel. Werlimp had control of the communications from the president's office, but only because Serint had insisted on having an office devoid of security measures. If anyone decided to check the network and notice that an extra computer was wired in, the whole game would be over. Snotzenexer knew this, and he also knew that the bank's system ran a full diagnostic every half-hour and it was now twenty-one past the hour.

The next nine minutes went smoothly. The two guards restrained Serint, and Snotzenexer sat behind the president's desk. He had total access to all of the bank's records through the manipulation of the database. He accessed an account he had set up in another system several weeks earlier, and wired a significant sum (more than enough to make the transfer of power believable) to Serint's personnel account. The computer printed out the forms necessary and Snotzenexer filled them out quickly. At the end of the five-page document, two signatures were required. Serint had been watching silently and ginned widely. "I will not sign it. There is no way you can forge my signature unless you have-"

"-have a laser faximilator," Snotzenexer finished for him, producing the small hand-held device from his pocket. Serint's smile disappeared as a short search of the cluttered desktop produced a document that Serint had signed earlier that afternoon. Snotzenexer placed the rectangular device over the penned name and watched as the laser traced the handwriting exactly. He then placed the device over the documents he was forging, and the faximilator reproduced the signature.

Snotzenexer searched the drawers of the desk to find a seal for the document. With a presidential seal on them, no one would question the origin of the papers. He placed the rolled document in the shoot in the wall, and it was whisked to the bank secretary for processing. Snotzenexer, finished with the job, turned to look at Serint. "You have a shuttle waiting to take you to retirement. My guards will escort you to the roof where they will take you to the planet of your choice."

"You won't get away with this. I won't let you. Everyone will know those documents are false when I tell them what happened." The man kept shouting as the two guards ushered the man to his own private turbo lift in the corner of his office that led to the roof and the waiting Imperial shuttle.

"He's right you know," Harvin said, a little confidence restored to him by the words of his boss. "There is no way you can get away with this. There are too many people who know how this system works to let this transfer slip by unnoticed."

"Oh, don't worry," Snotzenexer responded, "I have no intention of keeping this secret." Snotzenexer leaned back in his new chair and spread his hands out in the air in front of him as if laying out the headlines for the next day's newspaper. "'Stress finally gets to President Serint Frosch. After suffering from a stroke five days ago, the president of the Varion Imperial Bank on Iom yesterday sold his ownership of the head office to a foreign investor. President Frosch said that the stress had gotten too much for him and he decided to suddenly step down after careful consideration. Sadly, the former president's assessment of his situation turned tragically accurate as he had another stroke upon leaving the bank in a private shuttle. Serint Frosch was pronounced dead upon arrival at the-'"

"What are you talking about?" Harvin interrupted. "You can't possibly predict- You don't know if- Unless you are responsible for-" Harvin didn't want to finish his train of thought.

"You would be surprised what a little poison will do to the human heart." Snotzenexer looked intently at the man in front of him, trying to let him know the severity of the situation before him. "How many people really know what goes on up here?" Snotzenexer didn't need an answer. "Only three, right?" Snotzenexer leaned back in his chair again and resumed his news reporter's voice. "'In an unrelated incident, the Varion Imperial Bank was dealt another tragic blow as First Assistant to the former President Frosch was killed in a boating accident while vacationing in the Tristoff sector, leaving only First assistant-'"

"Me," Harvin said, realizing for the first time what position he was in.

"You are important to me. You already explained everything that you do, and I will need a little guidance as to how to manage both this bank and all of the other duties that I have. However, you are also the last evidence of what has happened here today, so you are also in a very precarious position. You better watch your step."

Harvin thought he was going to be sick. Two more of Snotzenexer's guards walked in and led Harvin to the private turbo lift, en route to his private quarters. As the men left Snotzenexer alone in his office, a small light blinked on his desk. "Yes," Snotzenexer spoke as he depressed a button next to the light.

"Uh, sir," a female voice came through a desk speaker, "is President Frosch there?"

"No, this is Alex Snotzenexer."

"Oh, I see," the woman said, obviously recognizing the name. Unless Snotzenexer was wrong (and he was never wrong) this was his new secretary. "I really need to talk to Pres- uh, former President Frosch."

"I'm afraid that he has left already. Perhaps if you come up here I might be able to answer a few of your questions."

"Uh, yes, sir. I would greatly appreciate that, sir."

This was the part that Snotzenexer had feared the most, yet it also promised to be the easiest. If he could get a few key people in his new staff to trust and like him, this would go very smoothly.

Chapter 5 "Incomming"

The huge Super Star Destroyer dropped out of hyperspace like a black bat emerging from its cave in the dead of night - totally invisible. Admiral Sanson looked out of the windows on the bridge of the cloaked monstrosity into the chaotic swirling gasses amidst the complex web of gravity wells. She was in the Danzig system again and was not happy to be there.

"Navigation," she barked in a voice that would never be questioned, "set a course for the Denorid system using the coordinates that are preprogrammed into the computer and reenter hyperspace when the course is calculated." Sanson turned away from view in front of her and walked back toward her normal vantagepoint at the back of the bridge. She tapped her wrist communicator and spoke again. "Commander Pearson, have you finished your work yet?"

Sanson waited for the pause, knowing that the commander was hard at work. "We are just about finished, sir. We've only got a few-"

"Will you be finished with the asteroids in two hours?"

"Yes, sir," Pearson responded, though Sanson could hear some doubt in his voice.

"You better hope so, Commander. You will stay in the shuttle bay until you have finished. The bay doors will open in exactly two hours. If your crew isn't finished at that time than you will simply join our rock collection in its flight through the vacuum of space. Am I understood?"

"Perfectly. Commander Pearson out."

Admiral Sanson smiled at the image of the commander relaying her threat to the rest of her crew. Her husband had given her strict orders at the beginning of this campaign that as few officers as possible should be killed. Admiral Snotzenexer had stated that manpower was a luxury that they couldn't afford to waste. However, Sanson had no intention of backing down on her threat of asphyxiating members of her crew. She knew that Pearson and his men knew this, and it would no doubt redouble their efforts to make sure that in two hours they were safely breathing inside the ship as apposed to gasping at the airless void of the Danzig system.

One hour and fifty five minutes later, Admiral Sanson was standing in the observation lounge looking down into the main shuttle bay of the huge Super Star Destroyer. The sight was an odd one. The bay was huge and ninety-nine percent of the time the space was merely wasted on small shuttlecraft and pointless honor receptions. The bay had been designed to be large enough to hold just about any size ship in existence. Reports were that about twelve years ago one ambitious, rogue Imperial Captain had gone so far as to disable one of his own Victory class Star Destroyers, bring them into the bay of his Super Star Destroyer, had the ship boarded, and every crew member killed as a show of discipline.

Right now the bay contained about eighty asteroids, each weighing no less than fifteen hundred tons and some as much as three thousand. The artificial gravity in the bay had been turned off and Admiral Sanson could still see two groups working on the last two asteroids. Each of the rocks had explosive devices on them with a solar sensor on the opposite side.

"You have three more minutes," Sanson said into a microphone that broadcasted her voice into the bay. She watched as both groups quickly checked their work and scrambled to get out of the room as fast as possible. She already began thinking of ways that she could punish Commander Pearson for his laziness. She was sure that in their haste a few of the rocks had their explosives connected poorly or some of the solar sensors weren't exactly opposite the explosives.

All of the groups made it out of the room with thirty seconds to spare. A short while later everyone watched the bay doors open. The starlines of hyperspace were visible for a brief second before the huge rocks began to shoot out of the doors as the suction power of space evacuated the entire bay. Sanson could also see several pieces of valuable equipment that hadn't been secured properly shoot out after the disappearing asteroids. Sanson walked over to Pearson, who was still out of breath from his last second escape. "We laid out a time table in advance that everyone agreed upon. It was well with in your power to have completed this job yesterday. We do not wish to fall behind schedule. Any further delays will not be treated with such leniency. Imagine how easy it would have been to open the doors a few minutes early."

Pearson's breath came no easier to him as the powerful admiral walked away.

Outside of the huge ship the engineless asteroids began falling out of hyperspace. The rocks were not able to keep up the tremendous rate of speed on their own, but when they reentered normal space, they did maintain an incredible velocity. Essentially they were a moving asteroid field on a direct course with the Denorid system.

* * *

The call rang in clearly through the noise of the shower. "Han!" Leia yelled, sticking her head out from behind translucent curtain. "Could you get that? It's probably Aakbar. Tell him I'll be done in a few minutes."

"Sure thing, dear," the old smuggler said and walked over to the wall to respond to the blinking and beeping screen. "Yes?"

"Uh, hello General Solo. Where is Lei- uh, President Organa-Solo?"

"She's in the shower," Han responded to this very un-Calamarian looking man. Han thought he recognized the uniform the man was wearing as one that belonged to the military but wasn't sure. Han had been retired for some time now, a fact that this man didn't seem to know. "May I ask who's calling?"

"This is Lieutenant Commander Ransig. Do you know when I can speak to her? This is very important."

Han sighed. It seemed that everything that Leia did was "very important." Han had decided to retire from the military and stay home as much as possible to ease the load from Leia's seemingly tireless shoulders, but she was still bombarded with countless requests for her presence at every manner of meetings and social gatherings. "She will be done taking her shower when she feels that she is sufficiently relaxed. I will have her call you wh-" Han stopped is speech when he saw Ransig's eyes focus on something behind him. Han turned around to see his wife wrapped modestly in a bathrobe, furiously toweling her hair.

"Oh," Leia said to the screen, "it's you Ransig." Han noticed that the young lieutenant commander seemed ill at ease at the sight of the head of the Republic in a bathrobe, but Leia's nonchalant attitude took a lot of the nervousness from the science officer. "What is it?"

"A few moments ago our sensors picked up a group of asteroids leaving the Danzig system."

"I thought you said that the Danzig system had regained its stability?"

"I was sure that it had. I really don't know where these have come from. When I have time, I plan on back tracking them as far as possible. They simply emerged from the sensor shadows created by one of the larger suns in the Danzig system. I'm not sure yet where they came from, but it is possible that our sensors were blocked for quite a while."

Han watched Leia absorb this information and saw that there wasn't an enormous amount of concern on her face and thought that this officer had simply over-reacted when he found out that some secret asteroid belt had been found. All of those brainiacs in the science department were the same.

"Thank-you, Ransig. Look into it further and make sure that this was a freak accident and that there aren't more instabilities in the system."

"I will when I have time but right now we have a much bigger problem. The field of asteroids is on a collision course with the Denorid system."

Han now watched as Leia's face went pale, her knees went weak, and she sagged visibly in her stance. "But you said- But I promised them-" Han rushed over and helped support her. She recovered quickly. "I want you to examine the situation for another half hour and prepare a report for the same group that met earlier."

* * *

Forty-five minutes later Senator Belsiphvin, Senator Trent, Admiral Antilles, Luitenent Commander Ransig, and Leia were seated around the same table they had sat at a few days earlier. Ransig was standing in front of a large screen mounted inside the wall and started to show what he had found.

"Only an hour ago a relatively small asteroid field was detected emerging from a large sensor shadow inside the Dansig system. There appears to be a little less than one hundred asteroids in this group. The smallest of these is about the size of a freighter while the largest is about the size of small war ship. They are headed for the Denorid system. I am not sure exactly why we weren't able to detect this field much earlier. Looking into the Danzig system is much like looking into a forest. There are a lot of trees blocking your vision, but you can still look between them. But like a forest, you can only see so far into it before every line of sight is blocked by at least one tree.

"I do have some good news. It appears that all three of the life bearing planets in the system are safe from any type of collision. The chances they would be hit by anything at all, as I said before, were slim to begin with." Ransig turned to the screen, which showed a view of Denorid system. "The orbits of the three planets are relatively parallel, so it is pretty easy to show them here on a two dimensional display." Ransig hit a button and off to the bottom of the screen a small clump of dots appeared moving slowly toward the sun in the Denorid system. "The three planets, Forinad, Denor, and Trewist are shown here with the positions they will be in when the rocks reach the system." Forinad was the nearest planet to the sun and it was a little up from directly left of the star. The other two planets were almost directly above the sun on the display.

"The asteroids will approach the sun on the right side like this." The people in the room watched as the asteroid's flight path started to curve slightly as it neared the sun. As the rocks flew closer, a few of them began to curl dramatically toward the sun. "As you can see, the sun will pull almost all of them in." As he spoke, dot after do began to disappear into the bright spot on the screen. Everyone noticed, however, that not all of the dots were pulled in by the large sun. "A few asteroids, maybe ten, will escape the gravity of the sun, but they won't hit any of the planets." The video sped up and some of the rocks hugged the sun closely, slinging around it and changing their course ninety degrees. These rocks then flew toward Forinad, but passed underneath it. The other rocks that were a little further away from the sun altered their courses by forty-five degrees, passing between Forinad and the two northerly planets, Denor and Trewist.

"How long will this take?" Wedge asked.

"At their current speed, the asteroids will reach the Denorid sun in about five days. After the rocks pass by the sun, they will pass Forinad six hours later. The other rocks will leave the system about twelve hours later."

"How long does it take to reach the Denorid system by hyperspace?" Wedge asked another question. Leia began to understand Wedge's line of questioning.

"It takes about four and a half days."

"If a ship were to leave in about six hours from Coruscant," Leia piped in, "when would they reach the Denorid system relative to the asteroid's flight time?"

Ransig fiddled with the data pad he was holding for a few seconds before replying. "Somewhere in between twelve and fifteen hours before the asteroids reached the sun."

Now everyone in the room knew what Wedge and Leia were thinking. "I would strongly recommend that we bring this in front of the senate, or at least the ruling council," Senator Belsiphvin said.

Leia thought for a while. They had not mentioned anything about the Denorid system to the assembly yet because of the ludicrousness of the original request. It was a big galaxy and the Senate could not be bothered with every little request from every backward world that came along. Leia did agree that sending ships into the Denorid system was a military act, and that needed the Senate's approval, but not only was there no time for the long drawn out procedure that that entailed, but they were only going to war against a group of about eighty asteroids. Leia shook her head. "There isn't enough time for that. You know how long those types of proceedings take, and you just heard what kind of time constraints we are dealing with here."

"Then I suggest that we do nothing," Belsiphvin compromised.

"Will the rocks ever be visible to the people?" Wedge asked.

"The sun should block them before they reach the system," Ransig said, "but I imagine that the surviving rocks would be visible about an hour or two after they past the sun."

"So the people will see these things flying across their night sky?" Leia asked, not liking the prospect.

"Oh, no," Ransig said quickly. "These are way too small to be visible with the naked eye. Even the asteroids that pass by Forinad will require some type of telescope to be seen. You must also remember that these asteroids will approach the planets from the sun. They won't be visible at night until they pass the planet."

Leia's face brightened. "You mean that there is a chance that they won't even know that the rocks are there?"

"No," Senator Trent said suddenly from the corner. Leia knew the old senator's reputation as a silent one, but she also knew that when he decided to speak he usually had something very important to say. "They will see these asteroids. They will see them within five minutes after they become visible. I know what these people are like. Their eyes are always to the sky. Especially now, so soon after the Dark Ring's explosion, they are trying to find some type of order in the chaos. They will see the asteroids and they will be scared."

"What do you suggest that we do?" Leis asked, not knowing if she was going to like the answer.

"I agree with Senator Belsiphvin. We should bring this issue in front of the whole assembly, not to send ships to blow up the asteroids, but to send a diplomatic team down to their planets to try and arrange an agreeable solution to this tension between us. You can't just expect to remove the asteroids from the sky and solve the problem. The problem is much bigger than that. They don't want a quick fix, they want a long term solution."

"No," Leia responded, "that's just it. They do want a quick fix. That's exactly what they asked me to do. They want me to fix their sky. Poof! Just like that."

"They don't know what they want," Trent said. "They are too confused to reason out what they are asking. They aren't thinking rationally, like you."

"What?!"

"You're correct that they asked for their sky to be fixed, but they didn't ask you. They asked the Republic. I think that you are over stepping your bounds as the Head of the Republic. You have to remember that you only represent the Republic."

Leia didn't enjoy this at all. "I know what I'm doing!" she said a little too loudly. "I'm not suggesting that I go to the Denorid system by myself and play smashball with the asteroids using my lightsaber. I am proposing that we send a Republic group to do exactly what they asked us to do: protect them from the Danzig system."

"You can't cover this up forever, Leia" Belsiphvin said.

Leia recognized the senator's tone of voice and didn't miss the fact that she had addressed her using her first name. They were both skilled diplomats, and Leia knew the tactics used in dealing with hostile representatives. She also knew that she was getting pretty steamed up. "Cover what up?" she responded, a little more calmly. "This isn't a conspiracy. I am trying to do what needs to be done."

"Are you going to tell them?" Trent asked.

"Tell who?" Leia asked, but then realized whom the seasoned senator was talking about. "Tell the Denorians? I hadn't thought about it. Probably. Why?"

"If you are going to tell them," Belsiphvin put in, picking up for Trent, "then why are you going to blow up the asteroids? We already know that there is no danger to the people what-so-ever. Wouldn't it be safer to just let them fly through the system and let the Denorians see for themselves how harmless they are? Maybe then they will start to realize how random the universe is and start to come to grasp with what is happening in their sky. How do you think they will respond to you when you tell them that you have just blown up a hundred asteroids that were hurtling toward their homes? They are a paranoid people. They won't see any reason in you blowing them up except if they were a threat."

"They don't trust you now," Trent said. "If you do this and then tell them that the asteroids were simply harmless, they won't believe you for a second."

Leia heard the advice, and she wanted to go along with it, but she had her instincts, and they were telling her to destroy these rocks however possible. If that meant she had to do so against the will of the senate and keep it secret from the people of the Denorid system, then so be it. She had learned a long time ago from her brother not to ignore her instincts. "I understand what you are saying, but we don't have a lot of time to decide what to do. I agree that we need to develop a better relationship with these people in order to bring them through this hard time, but that will take time. What happens if we ignore these rocks and they don't fly as predicted." Leia walked over to the screen that Ransig had used. The display was frozen with the asteroids passing just underneath Forinad. On the screen it looked to be only a few inches, but she knew it to be several hundred klicks. "Would you allow one of your children to have a paranguat shot from their head by a skilled marksman? Of course not. You know down deep inside that the gunner won't miss the fruit, but what if he does? What if you're child flinches and jumps? What if the shooter sneezes? The universe is not predictable. A few days ago Ransig swore that the Danzig system was back to normal. Well it isn't. What if a comet streaks in front of the asteroids? What if a solar flare redirects the rocks as they pass the sun?

"My father taught me a long time ago not to play with fire. We don't want to get burned here. These aren't pebbles," she said pointing at the dots on the screen. "They are huge chunks of space rock that will decimate a planet if they hit it. I think we have a responsibility to make sure that doesn't happen." Plus I have this feeling that these asteroids aren't what they seem, Leia added to herself.

Leia could see from the senators' faces that she hadn't convinced them, but that they would go along with her on this one. "I understand your concern," Trent said, "and I agree that we should do something about these asteroids, but I am not willing to let this be a quick fix. It will take four days for any ships that you send to reach the rocks. By that time I would really like for you to find some way of presenting this to the assembly."

Senator Belsiphvin nodded her head at this, and Leia gave in. The five people began to disperse quietly, knowing that they would have to fight some more about this later. Leia approached Wedge as he had lingered in the room. "Do you think I'm doing the right thing?"

Wedge nodded. "I think you are making the right decision, but not in the right way. You are too used to the days in the Rebellion where important decisions - life or death decisions - had to be made on the spot. We had to prepare for attacks in a matter of hours and had to interpret information in a matter of minutes. You were good at that kind of decision making. Now you have to realize that while you might be able to see the correct path to follow right away, you won't always be agreed with, and you have to let the decisions flow through the correct channels. It's at times like these, where we only have a few hours to make a decision that your old instincts come back. You just have to have faith that when everyone else around you has had enough time to analyze the situation, they will come up with the same decision that you arrived at right away. Don't worry," he smiled, "they might be slow, but they'll come around eventually."

"Thanks, Wedge."

"Anytime. Oh, and don't worry about those asteroids either. I have a few ships here at Coruscant that are dying for a little excitement. I'll take care of it."

* * *

"Not on your life!"

"Come on, Mara. It's not that outrages. It's a long trip, you might get lonely."

The trader stopped walking for a moment, looked up from her clipboard, and turned to look Luke straight in the face. "If I was worried about getting lonely, I'd sooner ask Chewie to come along, he's at least used to taking orders as a copilot, and I wouldn't have to put up with constant talking."

Luke dodged out of the way as a dock-worker nearly ran him over with a anti-grav sled loaded down with electronic equipment. Mara intercepted the wayward sled. "No, you idiot! I want that loaded into the right side of the ship. It's lighter, and I want to balance the load." Mara shook her head with disgust at the incompetent driver and did a quick check of the inventory on the sled. She looked back down at her clipboard, crossing off a few items.

"There were only a dozen splicing half-wave rectifiers on that sled," Luke said. Mara turned around sharply, finding the Jedi Master hovering over her. She looked back at the sled, saw her mistake, and erased the check she had put next to the inventory listing of twenty-four of the rectifiers. "See, you need me."

Mara didn't say anything, but moved to the back of the ship where they were loading some of the provisions she needed for herself on the long flight. "Take a look, Jedi," She said, knowing without looking that Luke had followed her. "How much food do you see? Not enough for two people is there?"

"I don't eat much," Luke said. "I can put myself in this trance an-"

"What do you need to go to the Varion system for, anyway?"

"You said you saw Imperial activity in the system, and I have inf-"

"I didn't say that."

"But Han and Wedge sai-"

"They're lying. I haven't been to the Varion system for over a year."

"Your ex-copilot! It was your ex-copilot who sa-"

"You really need to get your stories right, Skywalker." All the while she spoke, Mara was walking back and forth under her ship, checking off this and that, making sure everything was in good order, and basically trying to make the Coruscant docking crew hate her as much as possible. "Why can't you just take a shuttle or something." Mara paused, rubbing at a little scuff-mark she found on the underside of her ship. "I'm sure if you asked nice they'd lend you an entire Calamarian Cruiser, you being a Jedi Master and all."

"What's wrong?" Mara finally turned to look at Luke in response to the odd question. "I mean," Luke started to clarify, amazed that Mara was actually letting him finish a sentence, "why do you hate me so mu-"

"I don't hate you, Skywalker. I just dislike you a great deal. There is a difference, trust me. Now Han, I hate him."

Luke didn't quite know if Mara was kidding or not, he had never really figured her out. He didn't get the chance to ask her either because she was already walking away from him, hurrying to scream at another group of workers who were trying to squeeze a box in the ship with the "this side up" arrow pointing clearly to the side. Luke hurried after her.

"Why my ship?" she asked, when she knew that he was back behind her.

"It's inconspicuous. Everything we have here has 'Republic' emblazoned across it, if not in name then in meaning. I can't very well fly a X-wing into an Imperial infested system and not draw attention to myself."

"I'm going to Iom," Mara said, watching as the last few pieces of computer networking pieces were being loaded. "I am delivering computer networking, digital video recorders, and radio broadcasting equipment to some big organization. I plan on arriving at night, meeting with the head of the organization the next morning, and spending the rest of the day unloading and helping to install the equipment. I then plan on staying on Iom an extra four days while I have the Jade's Fire's hyperdrive over-hauled and its defense systems refitted at an excellent space dock that I've heard of. At no point do I plan on leaving the planet, and I have no intention of going anywhere near the asteroid belt where these supposed Imperials were seen. What would you - if I let you tag along - do?"

Luke was kind of amazed that she had told him so much; but then, who was Luke going to tell? "I, uh, don't kn-"

"That's what I thought." She snapped the cover closed over her clipboard, stored it under her arm, and began walking toward the hangar.

"I don't know," Luke yelled at her, "but I'd think of something." Mara paused in her retreat to turn and regard him. She couldn't help but feel slightly sorry for the pathetic begging form of the Jedi Master. "I always do."

"If you can fit you personal belongings into the passenger cabin, and store any extra rations you want in the pantry, you can come." Before Luke could run over and kiss her (and it looked like he just might), Mara held up her hand. "First I want three things perfectly clear. I am the captain aboard my ship. What I say goes. Second is that I plan on staying there for five days and no longer. I have a schedule to keep. If you do anything to jeopardize my reputation or to ruin this run, I will heed the Emperor's not so forgotten command and kill you. Lastly, if you so much as pretend to start talking about the Force, I will put you in an escape capsule and shoot you back in the general direction of Coruscant. Is that clear? And get rid of that stupid cane!"

Chapter 6 "Making Allies"

The modified carrier carrying the three members of the 185th fighter squadron was entering the orbit of a small little known world called Gaouick.

"So you're saying that the Empire is held up here?" Jon asked, quite disappointed.

"Not quite," Vince said, checking his flight computer for some information on the planet. He couldn't find a thing. "I don't even think the Empire knows of this planet."

"So we've decided to call it a planet?" Bep asked. He was looking at all of the sensor readouts he could find. "That place down there is more a kin to a sewer than any planet I've ever seen. From what I can tell, its climate is a constant muggy eighty degrees with overcast skies and drizzle. And it looks like that has been and will be the forecast forever."

"People actually live down there?" Jon asked, peering out the window, attempting to have his gaze penetrate the perpetual haze that covered the planet.

"People, and I'm hoping computers," Vince said, though he knew that such a climate did not treat electronic components well. His hope was becoming more like a desperation as he had been sitting in orbit for over ten minutes now and no one had tried to contact him.

"Maybe they just don't have any flight control," Bep offered, knowing what Vince was waiting for.

"Or maybe they're just hoping that we'll take a hint and leave."

Neither was the case. "Unidentified ship please identify yourself and make your intentions known."

"Gaouick, this is Hawk in Labor requesting permission to land. We are looking for some information. We are from the Republic." The group didn't really know if it was a good thing to say this far from Republic space, but they had decided earlier that they didn't want to try and pull off this operation under cover.

It had been a good thing to say. "The Republic?!" the flight controller asked with obvious enthusiasm. "We've wanted to get in contact with you for some time. We feel that we would be good addition to your government. Don't let our looks fool you. We have a lot to offer. For example our wine is excellent, and we have some of the most extraordinary medicines here that you-"

"That might be so, sir," Vince said cutting him off. "Maybe we could better appreciate your planet's riches if you would allow us to land."

"Oh, of course," the excited voice said with controlled glee. "If you follow these coordinates you will find a landing platform waiting for you."

Vince fed the coordinates he received through the transfer into the auto pilot, not trusting himself in the unknown climate and poor visibility. The ship entered the atmosphere, smoothly cutting through the thick air. The trio kept waiting to break through the thick cloud cover, but the dull gray seemed to last forever. Finally they saw the blinking lights of civilization. At first the group thought that they were looking at the tops of buildings that extended up into the sky, but a look at the altitude gauge told them that this was the landing pad - at ground level.

"No planet has this kind of cloud cover," Vince tried to disagree with the reality around them. As the ship settled down onto the platform, they began to pick out shapes through the mist. The nearby hangar was visible through the haze because of its lights and there appeared to be some kind of radio communications tower next to it.

The ship finally stopped its descent with a sharp hiss of hydraulics as the ship's repulsers eased the weight of the large ship onto its five pilons. "There has to be a party waiting for us, if the radio controller was any kind representation of these people's attitude," Vince reasoned.

"That means that we can't stay here in our nice conditioned air," Jon followed the reasoning.

"I guess we should get this over with," Bep finally said.

"Maybe we should leave through the airlock," Jon said, "so we don't contaminate the ship."

"Try and remember that this is these people's home, okay."

The trio walked to the exit and braced themselves as Vince pressed the button to open the gangway. All three of them almost gagged at the putrescence that flowed up at them. The air was so thick that you had to chew just to breathe. "It smells like something died," Jon muttered under his breath.

"Only one thing?" Bep responded.

Vince tried to keep his posture sturdy, as his knees wanted to buckle under the weight of the atmosphere. He walked out ahead of his complaining friends towards the ground of the platform. As he stepped off the ship's rubber gripped walkway onto the mold-slicked platform, he nearly fell flat on his back. His arm shot out for the gangway's lift piston and steadied himself has he tested his boots' traction on the slimy surface. He found he could manage, but the premacrete was unforgiving at best.

"Welcome!" A voice shouted at them from the edge of the platform, and Vince almost lost his balance again as the voice startled him. "Watch your step. I'm afraid that we don't keep the landing pads as clean as we should. We don't get that many visitors, you see."

Vince could understand as he walked toward the voices of the people who were still invisible to his eyes that were still trying to adjust to the soup he was trying to see through. He dared not lift his feet and sort of shuffled to edge of the platform, finally being able to make out the forms of two people waiting for him. Vince and his three friends were abnormally tall, and were used to towering over people they met, but the way Vince looked down at the people in front of him was almost comical.

After Vince carefully navigated the few steps that led him down to the level that his hosts were at, he could better see them. They were both male and appeared to be no taller than five feet, with squat builds and very wrinkled skin. Their complexions were milky white and their hair was dark. They basically looked like a people who didn't see much sun.

"A picture of strength and youth," one of the men said, looking admirably at Vince. Vince thought the comment odd, as if it were something someone looking at an art piece would say. Vince managed to nod in response, not really knowing what to make of the compliment. "We have waited to meet with representatives of the Republic for a long while now."

Vince swallowed hard as he heard his friends shuffling in from behind. He didn't really know how he was going to break it to these people that he was only here to see if they had any record of a fleet passing by in hyperspace. He knew for certain that if the Republic ever planned to send a delegation to a new member, he and his two odd friends would be the last choices. "I'm glad to meet you as well." Vince had no idea what to say.

"Where are my manners," one of the men scolded himself. "My name is Theeble and this is Chorbin."

"My name is Vince, and these are my two companions, Bep and Jon." The two groups paused, wondering what the acceptable means of greeting was, until finally six handshakes were distributed among the five people.

"Let us go inside," Theeble said. "You will be surprised to find how well we have done for ourselves in this climate."

At least they know that it isn't a good climate, Vince thought. Most races that lived in these types of environments came to believe that they are in a paradise and all other climates are despicable. Jon trailed the procession, not at all happy with his friends' choice of landing sites. The young pilot thrived on action and adventure, and this mission had so far been just an exercise in academics. It wasn't that he couldn't follow his two friends' reasoning or understand their lofty conversation topics concerning the inner workings of the ships they designed, he would just much rather be using them than talking about them.

There was a long stretch between the landing pad and the next building they approached. At least it seemed like a long walk to the sightless boys. Vince wondered if their hosts were as helpless in this fog as they were.

"How long have you been here?" Bep asked as they walked. Vince thought the question odd. It was kind of like asking someone on Coruscant how long there had been people there. History has its limits as to how far back it went.

Bep had already reasoned that these people had been placed here, confident that nothing sentient could have evolved on such a planet. "Our people were exiled here by the Empire about two hundred years ago," Chorbin answered solemnly. "It was very difficult for our forefathers to get started on this mud hole, but they managed. They were mostly Imperial criminals, at least criminals in the twisted eyes of the Empire. We wouldn't have survived at all if it weren't for the plentiful phorsm gas on this planet. The gas is very flammable and with it we were able to have fire. There isn't enough metal ore here to produce ships, but we were able to make a few electrical appliances and we have done quite well."

As the group neared their destination, Vince saw that the building was made entirely of mud blocks. He was becoming concerned that what they might consider as "doing very well" would fall well bellow their normal standards. The group walked through the doorway, which consisted of a specially treated wooden door and into a dimly lit anti-room. The room was very small and the three tall fighter pilots found that the ceiling wasn't designed with their height in mind.

"This will only take a second," Theeble said as soon as they were all inside and the door closed behind them. With out warning a cool white fog filled the room from six different jets. None of the visitors could identify the odd smelling vapor, but as soon as it dissipated, they noticed that the smell and mugginess that had until recently surrounded them, was gone. "This way," their guide needlessly instructed as he opened the door out of the cramped room.

All three boys just stood and stared. Jon even turned around to see if they had walked through a dimensional portal. The sparkling whiteness of the room hit them first. Then it was the size of the room. Then it was the technology. "Yes, we've done pretty well for ourselves."

The main room was fifty feet tall and there were six balconies that ringed the open chamber. Vince marveled at the beautiful chandelier that hung in the middle of the cylindrical room. There was a very impressive concentric pattern on the floor, focusing into the middle of the room where a small fountain played carelessly with a few dozen gallons. There were plenty of people milling about the complex, most of them in the balconies, walking in and out of the many hidden rooms that the building contained.

"It's very . . ." Vince struggled with the right word, "clean," he finally finished.

Theeble and Chorbin chuckled at the comment, knowing what their three guests had expected.

"How did you do it?" Bep asked, still quite amazed.

"If you'd like, I could give you a tour and a brief history," Chorbin offered.

Bep looked at Vince and the unvoted leader shrugged. "You go ahead, Jon and I will see what we can find." Bep needed no further encouragement, and he and Chorbin walked off together, exchanging questions and answers.

Theeble looked at his two remaining guests. "So what brings the Republic to Gaouick?"

"We aren't actually representatives from the government," Vince admitted.

"But you told our flight controller that you were?" Theeble said, disappointment showing through his voice.

"We told him that we were from the Republic, and we are, but we aren't diplomats, and we don't represent our government. We are conducting an investigation for our military." Vince watched the short man's face fall visibly. "However, we do have the ability and authority to bring a request to our government regarding your eagerness to join the Republic. Believe me, from what I've seen, you shouldn't have a hard time being accepted."

At this, Theeble's face regained much of its lost luster. "Well, what can we do to help you?"

"We want to know if you keep records of your long range scanners," Jon said, deciding to join the conversation.

"We do as a matter of fact. There isn't much to do out here, so our people take great pride in trying to see as much as possible of what goes on around us. If you follow me I'll show you are radar control room."

After an hour of searching, Vince turned up exactly what he was looking for. Several weeks ago a very large group of ships passed through the edge of the system. Vince borrowed a data pad and recorded their trajectory. He couldn't wait until he got back to his ship to check it out though and calculated their destination using the computers before him.

"They went to the Varion system," Vince said at last.

"What's there?" Jon asked.

A heck of a lot more than here, Vince thought to himself. "There are two, no, three inhabited planets and a very large population," Vince turned from the screen to look at Jon, "perfect for hiding in."

* * *

Snotzenexer looked across the table at the people sitting there. The meeting reminded him of the meeting he had had in Thrawn and Tallon's campaign just a month or two earlier. The people at this meeting were a bit more distinguished though. Each planet in the Varion had its own government, and each of those governments was represented here by at least two people. Iom's governor and vice governor were both present, as well as the head of the planet's special forces which acted as a the means of law enforcement on the small, yet over populated planet. The other two planets had high-ranking senators from their more prominent provinces, but no substantial leaders.

Snotzenexer had been hoping that each of the planets would heed his invitation with at least one member of the executive branch, but only Iom had so graced his request. Snotzenexer half expected that Iom's enthusiastic response was due to suspicion that the admiral's new position had been gained illegally. There was absolutely no evidence to make such a claim, Snotzenexer had been sure about that, but that didn't keep General Crog, the head of Iom's special forces, from giving the diminutive admiral forceful glares.

Snotzenexer also noticed something else about the gathering. They were all trying to hide their eagerness to hear what he was going to say. The day before Snotzenexer had pulled what people were still calling a financial miracle. The first executive act that the admiral had taken was to sell all of the bank's stock in a huge entertainment industry located in a distant sector. The entertainment industry had been one of the bank's biggest money makers for five years in a row and everyone scoffed at the new bank manager, calling him a buffoon. The news reports ridiculed him, saying that Serint's corpse could operate a bank better than he. Snotzenexer's defense had been that there was some civil unrest growing on the industry's home planet, and he felt that if a civil war broke out, that the controversial entertainment facility would be an inviting target. People understood what he was talking about. The government was regulating everything that the industry put out, most of which was heavy propaganda. There was unrest as well, and all of the social analysts predicted an uprising, but they also said that it would be crushed quickly.

Because the Varion bank had been one of the major holders in the mammoth business, the stock took a sharp dive after Snotzenexer had sold. Instead of suffering, the entertainment industry boomed when investors scrambled to buy the sold stock at a bargain price. In the confusion that ensued, more stock was bought back than had originally been sold. The heads of the entertainment world were laughing long and hard at the Varion Bank President, only to have their head office building blown to bits by a terrorist attack the next day.

Before the reporters were able to question Snotzenexer as to how he had known what was coming, he had already invested the money received from his sell into a very small and suffering propulsion company in the Varion system. The company was being shoved out of business by a much larger and more powerful star ship construction yard, the Varion Construction Yard. Before the news reports could compliment Snotzenexer on his apparent brilliance concerning the entertainment industry, they found it necessary to deride him again for this ridiculous move. The people who had held stock in the fading company, now took advantage of the admiral's apparent mistake by selling their suddenly valuable stock as fast as possible, putting the company right back where it had started and reducing the bank's stock in value by twenty-five percent.

Instead of the company folding, though, the Varion Construction Yard, in a very surprising move, decided to purchase all of its mining fields and manufacturing plants, adding the small industry into their monopoly. This not only saved the jobs of the several thousand people employed in the smaller company, but it also turned the bank's practically worthless stock, into incredibly valuable holdings. With the addition of this new stock to the stock that the bank had already held in the construction company, the Imperial Varion Bank suddenly found themselves as part owners in the Varion Construction Yard. Amidst the mockery, Snotzenexer had managed to double the bank's earnings over the past two years in the time of two days.

The news reports now had nothing but good things to say about the bank president, but still wanted more information as to how he had predicted the turn of events so accurately. Snotzenexer simply said that he had been following a hunch. His hunch had earned all of his bank employees a substantial raise, and earned him the respect he had needed to make the transition of power necessary. He had, of course, had the entertainment industry blown up by some of his special operatives and had also privately met with the head of the Varion Construction Yard promising him that with the bank as part owner, he would more easily be able to invest large amounts of money into the business. But no one would ever find this out.

Despite what the newsreels said about him, most of the people at the table still didn't trust him. Most of that distrust simply came from the fact that each of them had worked very hard to attain their position, and this man seemed to have become a god over night. Snotzenexer was looked upon favorably by two of the members at the table. Senators Gwen and Jaralin were from the planet Knilerhn where the propulsion company that Snotzenexer had saved was located. Not only were many jobs saved, but also there was now expansion planned.

"I think I speak for the group," Senator Gwen said, her eyes darting around the table at the other members, "when I say that we are all eager to hear what you have to say."

Snotzenexer paused, taking a short second to smile at the elderly woman. "I know you all had a rocky relationship with President Serint, and I am hoping that I might find a more favorable position with you now that he is gone."

"Perhaps if you bribed us with some of your new found riches," General Crog said, getting a chuckle from the four senators present. Snotzenexer though, understood it as much more than a lighthearted comment. The unsaid conclusion to the statement, "isn't that how you make all your friends," hung in the admiral's ears, and he understood that the three people from Iom would be a tough crowd.

"How much would you like?" Snotzenexer asked pleasantly, making no indication that he understood the General's threat. The comment brought even more laughs from the senators, and Snotzenexer could tell that he was fast winning their approval. "Perhaps you could simply raise taxes and squeeze it out of me that way." Only the three members from Iom appreciated that comment, knowing how they had held the commercially successful Iom in a fierce, financial strangle hold for the past century.

"Though I wish to improve relations between the bank and the governments in which it resides, I fear that the issue that drove them apart for the past twenty years is going to be one of my pet peeves as well."

The faces of the four senators fell uniformly (the three members from Iom had never had anything but scowls on their faces). Neither of the senators from Knilerhn wanted to speak against Snotzenexer so Senator Loft of the second inhabited planet from the sun, Vario, broke the silence. "We all remember well President Serint's obsession with wanting to join the Republic. He felt that we were too vulnerable out here near the core systems, but we have never had any problems with the Empire, and since the incident in the Danzig system, I really don't see any reason to be concerned."

Snotzenexer didn't say anything for a while, hoping that someone else would figure out his motives. He thought he had made them pretty clear by all of his actions thus far, and he hoped he was dealing with people competent enough to figure it out. Governor Taimmen from Iom answered the admiral's wish. "From what I've seen so far, President, you are a man who was born to make money. I might add that you also seem to be very good at it." The words "too good" some how managed to remain out of the governor's speech. "What vast financial benefit do you see by joining this Republic."

Snotzenexer really enjoyed the way the governor had spoken the last two words. He said them almost as if he had been cursing. Snotzenexer would have to practice that. He also realized that when the time came, Governor Taimmen and his minions would probably be the easiest ones to convince of his plans. "I agree that the way the Republic runs right now, joining wouldn't help you; in fact it would probably hurt you. The Varion system is rich, not as rich as some, but rich. All the members in the Republic are treated equally. But you know, as well as I do, that just because you treat people equally, that doesn't make them equal, does it? If you joined now, you would be treated the same as any other two credit planet out there, getting none of the special privileges you deserve."

Senator Jaralin, the other senator from Knilerhn, who had been one of the biggest opponents to the old president's proposal and now one of Snotzenexer's biggest fans, liked what he was hearing. "That is exactly correct. Everyone knows that the Republic requires no tax from its members, but to compensate, they insist on some type of contribution to their on going war effort. We have one of the largest construction yards in the galaxy, even larger recently." Snotzenexer couldn't help but smile at the shameless plug. "We would obviously be quite a catch to the Republic, but what would we get in return? Nothing. They would take our ships as a sort of taxation and treat us in return no differently from the planets that provided them with worthless wheat or pointless pilots." Jaralin looked rather impressed at his unplanned alliteration. Snotzenexer too smiled realizing that while this man was good at reading politics, he was a mental midget and would also fall into place when the time came.

"If all this is true," the fourth senator, Oprank from Vario, spoke, "and you agree to it, why do you still wish a merger?"

"I sense the winds of change."

"Another one of your hunches?" Crog asked skeptically.

"Yes, but as with all of my hunches, they are based on rock solid facts. There is a time coming, not so far away, when the Republic will be turned upside-down and the rules for the strong will no longer be made by the weak. The government on Coruscant will slowly be changed into what it once was in the early days of the Empire before the clone wars."

"Please enlighten us," Vice Governor Paragn spoke for the first time. "Some of us weren't around during the time period of which you speak."

Snotzenexer managed to produce a smile for the sarcastic leaders of Iom, though his store of such grins was running low. "It was simple. The strong systems made the rules and the weaker systems followed them. That picture seems very harsh to you because you only know of the recent implementation of that policy by the late Emperor. He was not a good leader. He ruled by fear instead of by power and wisdom. What I am talking about is almost identical to what you have right now in this system. The powerful businesses have a definite control over the weak ones, and once that power is established it is almost impossible to remove it.

"In the near future, the galaxy will look to the strong for support. They will find it too. The Corellia system will be there as well as the Calamari and the Vaxorians. Heck, even the Hapans might try to make a move. With Iom being the economic hub that it is, and the Varion system controlling most of the commerce in a six system sector, you have a chance to be there as well."

"Are you trying to say that we should pursue this so we can become the rulers of the galaxy?" Senator Loft asked in all sincerity.

"I'm not saying anything like that. The new system of government that emerges from this mess will last a very long time. It will be much more far-reaching and powerful than anything that has preceded it. It will be a time of peace and prosperity. You have to make a decision of whether or not you want to be part of the ruling government or part of the serving public. You can easily sit back and enjoy the ride, or you can take the reigns and enjoy it all the more. Understand that you won't be alone at the top, and you might be as far down as fourth our fifth, but you will be there. The only problem is that you have to be part of the band wagon before you can try for the drivers seat."

Everyone was silent after this. They understood what he was saying and it all made perfect sense. There was only one problem, a problem that Snotzenexer knew was there from the beginning and a problem that he knew would be uncovered. He even knew who would uncover it.

"It all sounds well and good," Governor Taimmen agreed, "but you must remember that we are taking this all on a hunch of yours. Maybe if we had some proof that this changing of the guard in the Republic was actually going to happen we would be able to go along with your plan."

Snotzenexer's smile was genuine this time. He held the trump card of course. He actually held several of them, but that is what comes from stacking the deck. "Are you aware of President Organa-Solo's position with the general assembly?"

His question drew blank stares from most of the group, but Jaralin, the political expert, came to the admiral's rescue. "She has been meeting more and more opposition every year. Frankly she is to bull-headed and rash to rule over such a large group. She was much better equipped to be a rebellion leader than one during peace time."

"You are correct. Though she still has the support of the majority of the senate, she has been falling out of favor quite steadily. Even though this is the case, it will take a dramatic event to push her over the hump. All I wish to say is keep an eye on the Denorid system. President Organa-Solo is involved in a cover up right now that will infuriate quite a few people."

"What kind of cover up?" Senator Gwen asked.

Snotzenexer had known that he would have to reveal more information, he had just wanted for them to ask for it. "Remember that none of this leaves the room. The president recently had strong words with a representative from the Denorid system. If you are unaware of that system's location, it is right outside the Danzig system. They had asked for assistance in dealing with the chaos that had been left in the wake of the battle that the Republic had with the Empire in the Danzig system. President Organa-Solo flatly refused them, saying that it wasn't their fault and promising the people that nothing was going to happen to them. Now there are asteroids flying toward the system as a result of the chaos in the Danzig system. The president of the Republic has responded by sending a small fleet to intercept the asteroids even though on their current trajectory, they won't do any damage. Through all of this she hasn't notified the senate as to what is going on. When they find out, and they will, she will be removed from office.

"President Organ-Solo is still well liked among many of the charter members of the Republic and there will be internal bickering which will result in the power structure I mentioned earlier."

"How do you know all this?" Senator Oprank asked.

"I have my sources." Snotzenexer could see that this was not well received and decided to elaborate with a lie. "The Denorians are not advanced technologically and their communiqué with the Republic was transmitted on a wide unsecured frequency. Anyone can track the asteroids and ships. I just put one and one and one together." Snotzenexer chuckled. "You don't get to be president of the Imperial Varion Bank by sitting on your hands.

"I'm not asking you to do anything right now. I'm not even asking you to be prepared to join the Republic. All I'm doing is informing you as to what is taking place so that you will better be able to handle the situation, and my bank, in return, will be existing in the most secure situation possible. That is, after all, my goal." Snotzenexer rose from the table, declaring that the meeting was over. It had gone well.

Chapter 7 "The Arsonist"

Luke rolled over, wishing he could stay in bed just a little bit longer. He glanced at his chrono, wondering why he had woken up in the first place. Five minutes later he was limping across the landing pad, shoeless and shirtless. Mara was standing outside the ship with hands on hips, scowling at the tardy Jedi Master. "What is this world coming to? I almost left without you."

Luke looked at her, catching his breath. He was holding the rest of his clothes in his arms and one or two other items he thought he should bring for the trip. "You wouldn't have left with out me," he replied, though if he had truly thought that he wouldn't have raced out to the landing pad half dressed.

Mara continued her routine system checks as Luke went inside. A few minutes later he emerged more composed and helped his captain with her inspection. "You two weren't going to leave without saying good-bye, were you?" Both of them looked up to see Han and the twins standing at the edge of the platform.

"I'd sooner kiss a wookiee," Mara replied, though scolded herself immediately afterwards. The insult that she tossed around so freely everywhere else didn't fit so well since Han could produce a wookiee in a second to call her bluff.

"How long are you going to be gone?" Jaina asked.

Luke paused, wondering for the first time how he was going to get back to Coruscant after he had finished his business in the Varion system. "I don't know. Probably three weeks tops."

"Behave yourself you two," Han said with a mischievous grin. He didn't let them respond to the statement by turning around and leaving, content with his farewells. Jacen and Jaina stayed a bit longer and watched the ship take off into the rising sun. The sun always looked nice rising on the uneven city landscape of Coruscant, and more so with a ship disappearing into it.

Jaina looked at her brother staring at the disappearing ship. "You still have a crush on her, don't you?"

Jacen blinked the sun out of his eyes and returned his sister's stare. "She's old enough to be our mother." Jaina didn't respond, protesting that her question wasn't answered adequately. "It's more like a fascination," Jacen admitted. "She lives like Dad used to. Flying from one planet to another, seeing the whole galaxy and getting paid for it."

"That's hardly the life that Dad led, to hear him tell it," Jaina responded. "I don't think that Mara has to worry about random boardings or shooting her way off a planet."

"Still," Jacen argued, "it's better than hanging around here."

"I don't know if Uncle Luke would be too proud of you if you put your skills to use as a trader."

"Maybe not, but there's got to be something I can do during peace time." Jaina knew what her brother meant. Now that they had all but eradicated the Empire, she and her brother had no one to protect. All of the Jedi on record had spent almost their whole life fighting the Dark Side. That war seemed to be won. The only life style known for Jedi was fighting or solitary. Jaina and Jacen didn't like either.

The twins turned to head back inside and catch some breakfast when they saw two of the docking crew coming out of the hangar to their right. Jacen recognized one of the men as Jerry Switchen, the chief of the palace dock crew. "Another ship coming in?" Jacen asked, turning his head back to the horizon and picked out a small ship with his advanced vision.

"Yea," Jerry responded, "and the first shift doesn't start for another hour, which means I'm a little short on man power. I don't suppose you two want to give me a hand."

Jacen looked at his sister and shrugged his shoulders. "Sure, we got a little extra time on our hands. What's the ship got?"

"Oh, some new furnishings for that wing they are restoring. I think the stuff originates from Fintron. It's some young punk pilot. I'll probably have to pay an arm and a leg for the stuff." Jacen knew what the veteran dockworker was talking about. These days, the chief paid the pilot directly, allowing the Republic hierarchy to reimburse the chief in lump sums instead of having to deal with each trade ship that came in.

The ship glided in gracefully and alighted gently on its pilons in the center of the concentric circles marked on the pad. After a few short moments, Eranadis Palpatine walked out of the ship holding a small data pad. The Imperial operative seemed to not notice the four people standing ready to unload his ship, but was intent at what was written on the pad. "Which one of you is Chief Switchen?" Eran asked without looking up.

Jerry looked at Jacen with disgust, telling the young Jedi what a lifetime of dealing with pilots had done to him. "That'd be me," the chief responded. "What can I do to help you sir?"

Eran finally looked up, but his eyes met only those of Jerry, apparently discounting the others for underlings. "Who do I have to see about payment?"

"That would also be me."

"I don't know what your policy is, but I'd like to work out the payment before unloading. It's just so that I don't have to worry about damage during the unloading."

"I understand."

While Jerry and Eran looked at his cargo and worked out an acceptable price, Jacen was trying to think about how much he already disliked this guy. His attitude was one of total superiority toward everyone else, and Jacen could tell that this guy only thought about the money and really cared nothing for the quality of his work. He looked at his sister to see if she was getting the same response, but was rather startled to see her reaction. He was startled by the sly smile on her face. Jaina had seen through Eran's act right away. She could also tell that he was new at this job and he tried to eliminate any potential communication problems by going right to the head of the operation. Underneath the act she could see that he was just like she and her brother, just a member of the younger generation trying to find their niche in a galaxy that was just regaining some stability after chaos. Of course on of the main reasons that Jacen and Jaina were looking at Eran differently was because there was a certain chemistry that was possible with the latter pairing that wasn't quite accepted between the former.

After a few minutes Jerry motioned to the three people waiting on the edge of the platform that they were ready to start unloading. Jacen led the group toward the ship with the actual dockworker pulling an anti-grav sled taking up the rear. Jacen walked right past Eran, giving him the cold shoulder. Eran didn't seem to notice as the Jedi removed an entire sofa from the back of the ship by himself. Jacen walked back toward the palace holding the long couch by one armrest, performing an impossible balancing act with the length of the sofa sticking out away from him. When Jaina walked past the Imperial agent, Eran's icy demeanor changed instantly.

Jaina began to struggle with a relatively small loveseat that she normally could have handle as easily as her brother had carried the huge couch. "Here, let me help you with that," Eran said, brushing past Jerry as if he wasn't there. The pilot stuck his data pad into his back pocket and helped Jaina get the couch out of the ship. The two stood still, one at each end of the short piece of furniture, looking at each other over its cushions. "You gonna walk?"

"Sorry," Jaina quickly said, and set off at a pace that nearly sent Eran falling over backwards as his back was to their destination. His coordination saved him and he got his feet under him in time to save his ego. "How'd you get stuck with a shipment like this?"

"What do you mean?" Earn asked.

"I mean usually this type of stuff will be shipped directly by the company who manufactured it. You know, to insure that it arrives uninjured."

"Are you trying to say that I don't look competent?" Eran's smile betrayed any malice that might have other wise accompanied the question. Eran dodged the topic of his unusual cargo with a question of his own. "So how does a young woman like yourself get stuck working as a dock hand?"

"Oh, I don't work here, I'm just giving Jerry a hand because he's short on workers this morning. Usually ships don't come in this early."

"I guess I'm not used to Coruscant's time clock. This is my first visit."

The two were just arriving at the door to the inside of the palace when Jacen emerged. Jacen gave the two people with the loveseat a quick glance and scowled at his sister's flirtations. Jaina gave him a mirrored look. Eran didn't miss much and he saw the exchange. "He's my brother," Jaina said before Eran could ask, although after a quick glance at the two, Eran had already figured that much out. "He thinks I'm being lazy."

Eran was going to ask what she meant, but from his vantagepoint walking backwards he saw Jacen remove a cabinet from his ship that three normal men would have struggled with. Jaina saw the look on Eran's face and realized what Jacen must be doing. "We're Jedi," she said, adding a hint of mischievous to her voice. "I think he likes to show off."

Jaina's comment reminded him that he was working for the Empire right now and needed to be careful. He also remembered that he had a mission to perform. As the couple entered the palace, Eran kept his eyes open for any hint of security or any suggestion of what his best course of action would be.

They wove their way through the halls of the palace for half a minute before they encountered their first guard. "Good morning, Jaina. Who's your moving partner?"

Jaina smiled at the guard and Eran was immensely glad he had hooked up with her. "He's clean, Fren. I promise we'll just be in and out. Do you know where they're putting all this stuff for the new wing?"

"Haven't a clue, princess, I just work here. My best guess is to place it next to the sofa your brother dragged in here a moment ago." Fren paused while he opened the door for the couple.

"Might just want to keep it open," Jaina said when she saw that the door lock required both a code and a card for opening. "We'll be in and out a bit in the next fifteen minutes. We have a whole ship load of stuff to unload."

"I don't know," Fren said storing a grin right behind the frown. "That sounds like a breach of protocol, princess."

"If you get fired, just send 'em to me."

The two exchanged a laugh as the guard locked the door opened and moved aside for the two to pass. Eran looked at Jaina carefully when they were through the door and out of earshot. "Princess?"

Jaina laughed. "Yea, it's a nickname that most of the palace staff made up for me. I guess when I was younger, I was sort of a terror and gave them all headaches. Now that I'm back they all treat me with mock respect. I guess the name stems from my mom."

"Then your Jaina Solo," Eran calculated.

Jaina bowed as much as the loveseat allowed her. "I'm afraid that you have the advantage. I don't even know your first name.

"Eran, Eran Plap-" Eran pretended to choke on something and coughed, "uh Eran Palpoin." His last name wasn't really appropriate in the current situation. Jaina didn't notice his slip and the pair continued down the hallway at a leisurely pace.

The pace was all too leisurely for Jacen who was following the group. Not only was this pilot a stuck up prick that was too good to recognize simple dockworkers, but also he was an extremely slow worker. Now to top it off, Jacen was sure that he was trying to hit on his sister.

Eran and Jaina finally made it to a lounge area and saw the couch that Jacen had carried in. The carpet in the room looked very elaborate and was covered with an assortment of old style light fixtures, shelves, end tables, and other antique furniture. "Going for the old fashioned look in this new wing." Eran walked over to one of the tall, electric light fixtures standing next to the far door and turned it on. "Hey it actually works."

"It's not a new wing," Jaina said as they sat the loveseat down, "it's actually quite old. It used to store all the financial records for the republic, but we're transferring them to another part of the building." Eran looked over to the corner of the room and saw a group of two non-descript computers. The records were just sitting there, right out in the open. Jaina saw what he was looking at. "They are a little behind schedule in the other part of the palace. Or maybe they're just ahead of schedule here. I don't really know, but they're storing the records here until their ready for them where ever they're taking them." Jaina laughed a little. "I guess I really don't know much about it."

"Break time's over," Jacen said as he put down the huge cabinet he had hauled the incredible distance. Jaina gave him a sarcastic scowl, but Jacen returned a sincere one.

"What's wrong with him?" Eran asked quietly in Jaina's ear.

"I don't know," Jaina responded loud enough so that Jacen could hear. "I guess he thinks we're getting paid per hour or something."

As they left the room, Eran gave the lounge on last quick glance. He had his plan all worked out. Before they were even out of the palace, they met Jacen coming back in with his third piece of large furniture. He didn't miss his chance to sneer at them again, but Jaina didn't waste a response on him. Eran, however, locked eyes with the upset Jedi and they transmitted something between them at a level that Eran hadn't experienced before. Eran blinked away from the confrontation and shook out the chill that had crept into his spine. He had a bad feeling about that one.

Eran ran a few steps to meet up with Jaina outside, deciding not to say anything about his little encounter with her brother. "So what kind of stuff do you usually cart around?"

"Oh, you know, a little bit of everything. I've transported food, electronic supplies, some rudimentary building supplies, and even animals once. I don't think I'll do that again though. One of the gundarks got out of its cage, and I nearly crashed."

Eran climbed into the back of the ship, when they got back to it, as all of the stuff at the edge of the exit was taken already. Eran pretended to fuss with another large sofa, but only managed to knock off one of the cushions. "I think we better leave this one for your over-aggressive brother." Jaina laughed at the comment and didn't see Eran slip a small fuel cell under the cushion as he put it back on the couch.

Eran moved over to a smaller dresser. "I think this is more our size," he said. He took his time inching it over to the edge of the open door, and was rewarded when Jacen made it back to the ship. "Hey, buddy," Eran addressed him for the first time, "we left a nice heavy one for you." As he spoke, he was careful to avoid eye contact, not wanting the same confrontation.

Jacen too was wary of this strange pilot, for he had felt just as unnerved at the meeting a few minutes ago. All of his warning bells were going off in his head, but he couldn't think on how to act on any of them. Instead, Jacen took the couch that Eran had pointed to and left in a huff.

"You two are striking up quite the friendship," Jaina said, helping Eran ease the dresser from the ship. "You'll have to come back someday so you can get to know each other better."

"I just might," Eran said with a wink. As they walked back across the landing pad together Eran managed to pivot the front of his foot in a large grease spot that he had seen earlier, getting a fair amount of the oil on his foot. The two of them maneuvered through the palace again, Eran consciously walking on the outside of his foot, not wanting to track the grease on the spotless floor. When they reached the lounge, Jacen was just putting the couch down, and just as Eran had figured, the area was pretty much filled.

"It looks like we'll have to go to another room," Jaina said. Jacen had set the couch down right next to and parallel with the narrow walkway. Eran and Jaina walked toward the far door in the room, barely fitting the dresser through the small gap that Jacen left. Eran gauged himself from the light fixture that he had turned on earlier and placed a large grease smudge on the carpet. Eran glanced at the couch Jacen had put down and saw that the cushion with the fuel cell under it was almost right next to the grease spot.

When they got to the door, Eran faked clumsiness and tried to rearrange the dresser so it would fit through the doorway. In his fit of movement, he managed to knock the electric light backwards. He hurried forward after the dirty deed, hoping that he had hit his mark. The hallway passed the lounge are took a sharp turn and Jaina was already moving down the perpendicular passage when the bare light bulb hit the floor, exploding right on Eran's grease spot. Eran had performed all of the actions rather fluidly so that any camera that might have been watching was oblivious to his guilt. The hallway Eran and Jaina were moving down now was pretty long, and they walked for almost two minutes before they got to another room where they could place the dresser.

As they walked back down the hall Eran smelled smoke long before Jaina said anything. "Do you smell smoke?" she asked. "There can't be a fire. Not in the palace." Jaina's walk turned into a jog, and as smoke began to billow down the hall, she broke into a sprint. When Eran turned the corner, he was rather pleased at his handiwork. Almost all of the mostly wooden furniture was on fire, and smoke and flame filled the room completely, allowing zero visibility. "We'll have to get through it. There's no where to go backwards."

"You go first," Eran said. "I'll be right behind you."

Jaina nodded and ran down the narrow flameless passageway. Eran silently ran over to the computer corner, only to find that one of the carts was already in flames. He remembered where he had seen the data chips and reached blindly through the smoke next to one of the consoles. His fingers closed around the five circular chips, each no bigger than his palm but storing tons of data. He wasn't really sure that these were what the two admirals wanted, but he didn't have the luxury to check. He slipped them into his back pocket, and leaped toward the door, traversing a wall of flames to do so. Eran landed in the hallway, rolling to the floor to put out any fire on his clothes. He had left the room only five seconds after Jaina, and she had no idea that he had taken a slightly different route.

"Are you okay?" Jaina asked, seeing that he had gotten a but singed.

"Fine," he coughed, "you?"

Jaina nodded. "We need to contact someone about this thing." One step ahead of her, five men with chemical tanks raced down the hall toward them. Jaina and Eran scrambled out of the way as the men went to work, spraying thick white foam into the room.

Eran and Jaina stood up and watched from a safe distance. Neither of them could think of anything to say. "Step away from him Jaina." They both spun around and saw Jacen standing in the middle of the hall. "Step away from him," he repeated.

Jaina had seen that look on her brother's face before and recognized his body position. He was ready to fight. Jaina shuddered. There was no one in the galaxy that could match Jacen in a fight. Even Anakin, their incredibly Force strong brother could only fight him to a draw, and that was when Jacen only used one lightsaber. Jaina saw that both of his weapons were still dangling from his belt. "What are you talking about?"

"He lied to us," Jacen said. "He's not from Fintron where his supposed shipment came from. You know where he is from?"

"I never said I was from anywhere," Eran said calmly though his mind was racing.

"He's from the Varion system, at least that's what his ship's log reports."

"You went looking through my ship," Eran said, not having to fake the disgust in his voice.

"That doesn't mean anything!" Jaina said, seeing that the tension that had been building between the two was about to explode.

"You don't understand," Jacen said back. "The Varion system is where Uncle Luke just went with Mara to check some reported Imperial activity. I don't believe in coincidences."

"Are you trying to say I'm an Imperial agent?" Eran said, trying to make the statement sound as preposterous as possible. Inwardly he underwent his calming routine.

Jacen felt the strength grow in his foe and drew one of his lightsabers. "How'd you start the fire? What'd you do, knock over that light you turned on?"

"Jacen!" Jaina yelled. "It was an accident. Besides, he was with me the whole time. He didn't do it!"

"Come on Jaina, open your eyes. No fire burns that fast." He turned back to Eran. "What'd you do, hide a fuel cell in one of the couches I brought in?"

Eran tried to shake off all of the direct hits and blew Jacen off with a shake of his head. "This is crazy. I'm leaving." He tried to walk past the Jedi, but Jacen ignited his lightsaber and blocked the path. Eran had never seen one of the fabulous weapons before, but immediately recognized its strength and perfect balance. He took a few steps back. Eran was quick to notice that there was another of the weapons dangling from Jacen's side.

Eran took another measured step back and turned back and to his right toward Jaina as if to ask a question. Instead he spun back around, his right foot sweeping in front of him at waist level and knocking Jacen's right, sword hand wide. He executed the move so fluently that Jaina didn't even see him kicking, only Jacen's reaction. Jacen was so startled by the kick, that he couldn't get his defenses in place in time for Eran's follow up attack. With his back now turned to the Jedi after the spin, Eran continued his spiral motion bringing his left elbow into Jacen's stomach as his right grabbed for the other lightsaber.

Jacen collected himself instantly after the attack. He still blocked the hall, but now Eran had a weapon. Eran had not yet ignited it, but his thumb was hovering over the trigger. "I'm just a pilot with a little combat training," he said calmly. "I'm sorry about the fire, but I didn't start it. I don't want to hurt you, I just want to get back to my ship."

Jacen had heard enough. He didn't buy any of what the Imperial was saying. He already had all the proof he needed when he had watched Eran's facial reactions to his earlier accusations. "Jacen, please, step aside," Jaina pleaded.

Jacen outwardly relaxed, but Eran didn't buy it and as the Jedi exploded into motion, Eran had his stolen weapon activated and parrying before the strike arrived. They sparred furiously for fifteen straight seconds, all the while Jaina was screaming at them. During that span, Eran made a complete diagnostic of his opponent. Surely this was the most experienced fighter he had ever faced, but he had one glaring weakness. Jacen had been trained by Luke, not in himself an exceptional swordsman. Luke relied on his Force skill to allow him to anticipate and react. Obi Wan had been able to teach him most of the textbook strikes and parries, but there was no real skill there. Because of this, Luke had only been able to pass on the most simple of moves and routines, knowing that his students' Force skill would augment those moves far past of what they were normally capable. Jacen had even been an exception to the rule, working hard on his own to invent new moves and styles of fighting. He went so far as to introduce a second blade into his routine. But among all this training and talent one thing was missing: improvisation. When Jacen started a low thrust, the move finished as a low thrust. When he attacked high in a slash, it would always be blocked at the shoulder with a vertical blade. Eran noticed that every once in a while Jacen changed the location of his strike, but the move was still the same and the parry likewise only changed in location and not style.

Eran had been taught how to fight as a kid by a street gang leader. He had never been to a formal school and was taught only how to improvise, to keep your opponent guessing. He had learned all of the text book moves when he had to fight off nobles who had caught him stealing from them.

The fifteen-second routine that Eran absorbed from Jacen now was almost identical to every opening flurry he had intercepted before except Jacen's attacks came much harder and faster. Instead of parrying them with the normal combinations, Eran used risky moves to counter the attack, not wanting Jacen to get into a familiar rhythm.

Eran found room to attack at the end of the flurry and swung low for Jacen's knee. The Jedi swung his weapon down perpendicular to the ground for the usual parry, as Eran knew he would. Instead of following through with the swipe, Eran turned the blade down so it grazed the floor and didn't come close to Jacen's legs. The Jedi's block met air, and he move to his left, off balance. Eran swung his blade up and around, coming in high and from Jacen's right. The off balanced fighter had to bring his blade all the way across his body to block the attack, but Eran simply rotated his blade up this time, sending his blade tip across the ceiling. Jacen had been leaning left and threw all of his momentum to the right only to meet air again. Eran ended the serious of fakes by bringing his blade down in front of him and extending his arm out as if he meant to skewer Jacen on the end of his blade. Jacen was already leaning back from his last move and now stutter stepped backwards on his heals, waving his lightsaber frantically in front of his chest to ward off the thrust.

With three simple fakes Eran had put the skilled Jedi severely off balanced and totally out of position. If Jacen had been able to make contact with Eran's blade at any time during the routine, it would have stopped Eran's flow, and immediately restored the equilibrium in the battle. When you made contact with someone, you knew where they were and where they were going. With Eran's fakes, Jacen could only guess.

Eran removed all of that guess work by pressing his clear advantage. He swiped in hard from above repeatedly, recognizing that his backpedaling opponent was already having a hard time getting his feet under his center of gravity. One of Eran's attacks went extra high, and Jacen, thinking it another fake, didn't bother to parry the sword as it cut through the unnoticed light fixture hanging over Jacen's head. His Force heightened senses allowed him to jump to the right as the decorative, glass ornament fell. As Jacen flattened himself against the wall, Eran shot past on the left.

Jacen was quick to follow after the light had finished its shattering dance on the floor. A few hallway turns later, Eran ran through the open doorway where the guards had been stationed. Both guards were absent now, no doubt because they were fighting the fire. As the hurried young man ran past, he swung the lightsaber back into the locking mechanism, releasing the hold on the door. Jacen had been following close and ran headlong into the door. He fell backwards hard, and took a moment to shake the cobwebs out of his head before he got up and attacked the door with his lightsaber.

Eran made it to the landing pad and was relieved to see that Perry and the other dockworker had finished unloading his ship. Eran was also glad that he had been paid before he unloaded. Perry was more than a little startled to see the pilot running toward them at full speed carrying a lightsaber. The chief didn't try to stop him as he leaped into his ship, started the engines, and began to take off with the back door still open. Moments later Jacen came running out of the palace but saw only Eran's thrusters fire as he jumped away from the pad.

Jaina was quick out of the palace following her brother. She didn't know if she should be relieved to see that Eran had gotten away. She was thinking that it might be better if Jacen had been able to defeat Eran and bring him to face the made-up charges so that everyone could see that he was innocent. Now Jacen would likely be brooding. Jaina didn't really understand what the incident had done to Jacen.

Ever since Jacen had returned from Hastrin he had followed his younger brother's advice - Justice instead of Revenge. He had walked the streets of Coruscant, daring a criminal to make a move against anyone. In reality, he was using this new outlet to vent his penned up hatred. Jacen hated what the Empire had done to him and his sister, and he knew outwardly that that anger was bad for him, but inwardly he couldn't bring himself to the calm that his sister had been able to reach.

Now he had found an emissary from the remnants of the Empire that had captured and tormented he and his sister. Eran had also beaten Jacen in a straight up fight, something that no one else had ever done since he had reached his prime. The fact that Eran had done so quite easily only added to the wounded pride that fueled Jacen's anger.

Jaina saw the barely controlled rage in her brother as he turned his gaze from the glow of the departing ship's repulsers, his eyes almost as red. "Just because he beat you doesn't make him evil."

Jacen spun on his sister, and she actually shrank back from him. "You just don't get it do you? Have your hormones made you blind to the truth? Just because he might be cute and charming doesn't make him good. He started that fire back there. If you'd open your eyes you would see that as clearly as you see me."

"Why?" Jaina asked, seeing a definite chink in Jacen's armor.

"Why does the Empire do anything? Why did they turn us into killing machines for their every whim? They are evil, Jaina. They are the dark; we are the light. Only this time it's the darkness that gets snuffed out." Jacen spun back around, and strode away with a definite purpose.

"What do you mean to do?" Jaina asked the question though she knew the answer. "You're going after him, aren't you? You're heading down a Dark path, Jacen?" Her words didn't slow him in the slightest. "Revenge does not become a Jedi."

"I'm going to go get my lightsaber back."

Jacen disappeared into the palace, leaving Jaina standing on the pad. She knew where he was going, but she had to tell someone before she followed him. "Anakin," she said to herself. Her brother would surely have felt Jacen's anger by now. Though he trailed in years, both she and Jacen recognized him as the superior mind when it came to the Force. She ran into the palace and almost instantly ran into her brother.

"What's happened to Jacen?" Anakin asked.

"He's going off to chase down one of the pilots who just delivered a shipment of furniture to the palace. He has it in his mind that he is an Imperial agent. You have to tell Mom and Dad that we are going."

"We?" Anakin echoed. The young Jedi had felt Jacen fighting earlier and then the rage when Eran had escaped. Anakin knew that if Jacen caught up to him he would kill him. Or maybe the other way around. Jaina began to walk past her brother, but Anakin grabbed her arm. "Be careful."

"I know. I'll bring him back."

"Not Jacen," Anakin corrected, although they both knew that dealing with Jacen would require great care. Anakin had felt something else.

"Eran?"

"He is not all that he seems."

"Is he bad?" Jaina asked, not wanting to believe that Jacen might be right.

Anakin shook his head slowly, trying to sort through his feelings. "Not in the same way that the Empire is bad, but powerful. There are different levels of the Force."

"He's a Jedi?" Jaina didn't want to believe the amazing coincidence.

Again Anakin shook his head, but couldn't think of a response. Instead, he let go of Jaina's arm and let her go chase their brother.

* * *

The scavenger stood in the hangar.

"I'm leaving now."

"Very good, Jacen," one of the techies said. "I'll see if I can get you clearance. You should be able to lift off in about fifteen minutes."

"I'm leaving now."

Something in the young man's voice told the worker that this was not a suggestion or even a request, but a statement of the utmost truth. "You need to get clearance from the fli-" his voice was cut off as he gasped for air.

Jacen walked past the man as he collapsed to his knees. The Scavenger wasn't much to look at. Made from bits and pieces that he, Lowbacca, and his sister had gathered (or scavenged) from the forest around the academy, the ship resembled a pile of used parts. Though the outer shell was quite old and unsightly, the interior, and more importantly, the engine and computers were quite new and in stupendous working order.

Jaina ran into the hangar as her brother entered the underside of the ship. "Jacen!" The scream got no response, and she ran toward the ship. She nearly tripped over the tech as he lay by her feet. He groaned as he sucked in huge amounts of air. The fact that the fallen man was rubbing his neck told Jaina all she needed to know about how close to the brink, or how far over the brink, her brother was.

She raced up the gangway just as it started to close. "Get off my ship!"

"Your ship?!" Jaina screamed back at the voice that had greeted her. "I had more to do with the construction of this hunk 'o junk than you did."

"You're not coming with me, and that's final."

"Oh, yea," Jaina said, as she walked into the large cockpit, finding her brother already seated behind the controls preparing for take off, "who's going to stop me - you?"

Jacen leaped out of his chair and spun around. This time Jaina didn't back down, but stared back hard at her brother. The battle they held right there was intense, more intense than any physical struggle they might have had. They fought wills, each trying to impose themselves on the other, trying to win out by deflating their centers of concentration.

Jacen finally slumped, realizing that as twins, they were equal in many respects, Force strength being one of them. "You can come," he said, his voice very much subdued, "but realize that I am going after him for one reason - justice."

"We can't have the Empire running in and out of the palace at will, can we?" Something in Jaina's tone betrayed the sincerity, but Jacen ignored it, waving his sister into the copilot's chair. Five minutes later they entered hyperspace on the same course settings that Eran had jumped out with.

Chapter 8 "Race Against Time"

Deep on the edge of inhabited space eighty asteroids came hurtling out of the Danzig system. They had been heading for a distant sun which had only appeared as a bright blur as they had traversed through countless gas clouds and nebulas, hindering their vision of what was ahead. Now as they emerged from the chaotic system in which they had originated their flight of destruction, the sun in front of them, still a little less than four days away, was a bright glowing furnace. The space rocks had had an initially stupendous speed, but due to the swirling gravity wells that they had been forced to cross, their speeds had been reduced considerably.

Each asteroid had a small electric timer on it that finally counted down to zero. The elapsed timer armed the explosives and connected the circuit between the solar sensor and the explosives. The two devices were supposed to have been connected on the exact opposite sides of the huge boulders so that when the solar sensors on the rotating asteroids faced the sun, the explosives in the rear would ignite. This happened successfully on sixty of the eighty asteroids. Seven of the rocks didn't explode at all, and the other 13 exploded but since the explosives weren't exactly opposite the sensor, they were sent off course. The successful wiring jobs resulted in not only accelerating the sixty asteroids, but also blew each of them into at least ten smaller rocks, each a few hundred tons in size.

These new, smaller projectiles now where flying along the same course only at about twice their previous speed.

* * *

Leia was relaxing in her family's living quarters. It had already been a stressful morning. She had governed a special senate meeting this morning to address some of the trade problems that the Republic had been having. The meeting had no potential stumbling blocks from the outset, just some tariff disagreements that had to be ironed out, but some of the members of senate had raised a stink. It was always the same section of the senate - the old Imperials. Leia hadn't liked allowing them into the senate back several years ago when they started to come pouring in. She had folded under the pressure, realizing that it was impossible to gather in former Imperial worlds without also gathering in former Imperials. So far none of them had shown the craving for power that had drove Palpatine to his prominence, but they were still a hassle.

The Republic was virtually tax free with regard to trade, not wanting relations with other worlds and governments to be strained. Other worlds were often not as kind. This meant that when trading with another government, the Republic had to pay a load of tariffs on imports, but got no compensation on their exports. It didn't make good business sense to spend more than you took in, but the Republic had been willing to live with it this long, as a very preferable alternative to the taxation that the old Empire had placed on its people. Some of the senate members didn't see it that way. They didn't remember the old Empire as a tax burden, but as a time of financial prosperity.

Leia sighed and sunk deeper into her chair. How hard would it be to resign? She didn't need to stay in command any longer. The threat from the Empire was over, wasn't it? What had Wedge said? "I think you are making the right decision, but not in the right way." Maybe he was right. Maybe she still was living in the days of the Rebellion where it was only her, Ackbar, and Mon Mothma. It had been easy to see what to do, and they had done it with success. Now maybe it was time to step aside and let some one else take over. The only thing that stopped her from doing so was that she was waiting for the Imperial members of the senate to come around. She had nightmares of the time when she would step down, and the whole assembly would breathe a collective sigh, "At last." They would waste no time in electing one of the Imperial senators she despised the most and within a week he would have transformed the Republic into a mirror of what the Empire had been. Short of a new Rebellion, Leia would be powerless to stop it.

Leia shrugged her shoulders and tried to burrow herself even deeper into her chair. There was another senate meeting after the noon meal and then it was meetings with several of the committees that wanted to propose more bills. At night there was another senate session to close out the day. Leia could already tell that this day was going to test her strength.

The chime on the door was the last thing she wanted to hear, but after reaching out with her little used Force sensitivity, she knew who it was. "Come."

Anakin walked through the open doorway a second later and immediately saw that his mom wasn't in the mood for any company, but his information couldn't really wait. "Rough morning?" His mother didn't reply, but tried to make her eyes resist their urge to roll back into her head. "I'm afraid that I have information that won't make it much better. Jacen and Jaina just left."

"Where'd they go?" Leia asked, knowing there had to be more to the story. Her kids ran off all the time, they were grown-up after all, so there had to be more to make it bad news.

"Jacen is convinced that the fire in the renovated wing wasn't an accident and is chasing the assumed culprit." Leia slumped as she remembered the latest addition to the bad morning. The palace had paid a pretty credit for most of the furniture. The third and final shipment had just come in this morning, and more than half of it had gone up in flames. "Jaina went with him, convinced that the accused is innocent. Jacen is rather fired up and might do something rash."

Leia had heard Luke tell her that her son had a small temper problem, but she had also been told that Jaina had always been there to keep him in check. She had to have faith that this trend would hold true. The door chimed again, and Leia responded.

Quite unexpectedly, Ransig walked through the door with a severe look on his face. "Why do I get the feeling that you have bad news?" Leia asked, though she had no idea how bad.

Ransig wasn't one for clever replies or he could have cushioned the blow some. "The asteroids heading for the Denorid system have altered their course. They will hit the populated worlds."

Leia was glad that she was sitting because her body became suddenly very weak. She had decided that she wasn't going to tell the Denorians about the asteroids for a while. She had to address the senate in two days, and she was pretty sure that she could convince the senate that with the Denorians as naive as they were concerning the happenings of space, they wouldn't understand what the Republic was doing, in fact they might even think that they were attacking their gods. At the same time they should send an emissary to the system to try and improve relations and educate the people to the truths about their sky at which time they would be able to tell them what the Republic had been doing to protect them. With that explanation Leia hoped the senate would understand that the ships she had sent to destroy the harmless asteroids were sent to protect the Denorians. Now it would look more like she was trying to save her own hide from lying when she told the representative from the system that there was absolutely nothing to worry about.

"What am I going to tell the senate now?" she said out loud. "When our ships intercept the rocks they will no longer be simply removing an annoyance but saving the lives of hundreds of people. That kind of relief aid has to be decided by the senate."

Ransig swallowed hard, and Leia could tell that more bad news was forth coming. "Actually, the asteroids have undergone an explosion and will no longer reach the planets in the same time span I had predicted."

"When?"

"Two days and six hours."

"How long until our ships reach the system?"

"Three days and fifteen hours."

"Is there nothing we can do?"

Ransig shrugged his shoulders. "It takes a little over four days to reach the Denorid system and we don't have anything closer. I am afraid that those rocks will hit the planets of the Denorid system. At their current size, they will cause mass destruction like the people of that system have never seen."

"Can you be ready to make a complete presentation, similar to the one you made yesterday, in about three hours?"

Ransig thought for a while. "I think so. Do you want me to address the special council again?"

"No," Leia said, "the whole assembly."

"Bu-"

"Mom." Ransig wasn't quite sure how to voice his complaint to the request and Anakin's interruption came at a good time. As soon as Anakin had heard the time constraints that were going to cost lives he had made his way over to computer mounted in the wall. Leia turned to look at her son and saw that he had been looking at star charts. "I think I can get a ship there in two days, four hours, thirty-seven minutes, and twelve seconds."

"You can't do tha-"

Leia cut off the science officer with a wave of her hand. She knew all about Anakin's amazing skills with computers and his uncanny ability to make complicated calculations quickly and accurately. Both Leia and Ransig walked over to the screen showing Anakin's proposed route. Hyperspace routes were never a straight line. The shortest distance between two places in space almost always traversed a planetary system and while it was often possible make it through the system without hitting a sun or planet, there was far too much space debris in populated systems to account for. A ship's sensors couldn't possibly account for all of the interplanetary travel that existed, or for that matter wouldn't be able to detect the countless satellites and probes that existed. It had been decided a long time ago that when calculating hyperspace jumps all computers would skirt around any and all planetary systems. Since you couldn't make sharp turns at light speed, this required long, looping routes.

There were two lines on the screen that Anakin was using. One was a long curved line that went around the two systems between Coruscant and the Denorid system. The other was a line that wavered only slightly. The line passed through the first system without any problem and some of the newer navigational computers might have picked that route, but the second system would have set off alarms in any computer ever invented. The line seemed to pass through both the system's sun and the second planet. "You can't do that!" Ransig said, pointing to the two astral bodies that were almost in-line with each other.

Anakin picked the location on the screen and magnified it. Once zoomed in, the three observers could see that the line passed neatly in between the two spheres. "The gravity wells would tear you off course and probably directly into the gas giant," Ransig said, referring to the third planet in the system.

"Actually, there is a seventeen hundred thirty two meter channel that is safe."

"And how in the world do you plan on hitting that channel in hyperspace?" A channel of that width was hard to hit at sub light, much less at hyperspace speed.

"All you need to do his enter the coordinates accurate to twelve decimal places."

Ransig almost laughed out loud at the ludicrous nature of the statement. "And where, my young friend, are you going to find a computer that will do those calculations in less than a day?"

Anakin told him the coordinates to twelve decimal places. Ransig seemed very flustered. He didn't know immediately why. It was either that this boy expected him to believe in the numbers he appeared to have pulled out of thin air, or this boy had just performed a mathematical miracle. Ransig looked at the flight plan on the screen. He could agree with the integer parts of the coordinates, and the first two decimals seemed like a reasonably good guess, but as for the rest of it, neither he, nor anyone else on Coruscant could confirm the numbers.

Leia didn't need to have the coordinates confirmed, already having total faith in her son. She walked over to the communications console in her living quarters. She quickly entered a call to Wedge's quarters, sincerely hoping that the admiral was in. A few minutes later she was rewarded with his face on the screen. "What is it?" Leia told him. Wedge's face went into a look of horror, understanding immediately what all of this implied for Leia, the Republic, and most of all for the people in the Denorid system. "What can I do?"

"Do you have any more ships available?"

"Most of our ships are being refitted, but I do have one space worthy cruiser, although she doesn't have a full crew and is minus one fighter squadron."

Leia didn't think that sounded too bad, but she had no idea that that one missing squadron was the 185th. "Anakin has a hyperspace route that can get you there an hour before the asteroids hit if you can leave in about a half hour."

Wedge shook his head. "It will take at least an hour to get the engines on line."

"Best case scenario - when can you leave?"

"Best case? An hour and fifteen minute tops, but more realistically more than an hour and a half."

"I'm sending Anakin up to the ship. You need to have that ship leave in less than an hour and a half."

"Send your son to my personal ship in hangar bay eight. I'll go with him."

Leia turned around, but Anakin was out the door. She looked at Ransig and shrugged. She was playing with fire again. She had just pulled the last space-worthy ship away from Coruscant, ordering yet another military maneuver without the senate's approval.

* * *

Eran looked at his sensors and saw that the ship that had followed him from Coruscant was slowly gaining on him. He had a big lead, but it would be gone in a day. Chases in hyperspace were rather strange. You might be able to catch up with someone but what could you do. You can't conduct combat in hyperspace. If you fired a weapon, you'd run into it before it cleared your ship. The only time that the chases ever turned into anything is when the ships dropped out of hyperspace.

Eran was headed to the Varion system, but he knew very well that he couldn't return there with a trail in tow. At the same time he needed to get this information back to the admirals or Sanson would throw him out an airlock. He flipped on the communications controls and briefly examined the decryption options. Eran was no slouch when it came to dealing in code, and he knew a good encryption when he saw one. There was no way that anyone would intercept this, and his trails would have no clue as to where it was headed. Admiral Snotzenexer had left instructions in the ship in case of an emergency and had given Eran the location where he could be reached. Still not having looked at them himself, Eran inserted each one of the data chips into the ship's computer and uploaded them to the given location.

* * *

Jacen stared intently, trying to think through the numbers involved in calculating the distance between the ship. His mind was too clogged with other thoughts at the moment and the result wouldn't come to him. "We'll catch them. We are faster."

It was a stupid thing to say really. Hyperspace was more like a place than a speed. If you went any slower you would be in normal space, and if you went any faster you would cease to exist as a finite, transient, three-dimensional object. But the principals involved were the same - their ship would get them where they going quicker than Eran's ship would. It just didn't have anything to do with speed. The nav computer programmed the hyperspace jump according to the strength and nimbleness of the engine. If it were a strong engine, the computer wouldn't skirt gravity wells as much as normal. If the engine could handle sharper turns, then the computer wouldn't make the path around a system as loopy. The scavenger was just better than Eran's shuttle.

"We'll catch up with him in about twenty hours, but then what?" Jaina knew well the pointlessness of chasing someone while both of the parties stayed in hyperspace. "He is apparently heading to the Varion system, but we'll beat him by an hour. If he is Imperial then we will jump into the middle of the Empire. If he isn't then we will have caught an innocent man far from home."

Jacen hadn't really thought through everything, he just wanted to catch the little, Imperial arsonist. Jaina looked at her brother remembering the countless warnings that their teachers at the Academy had given them. They had each predicted that Jacen's obvious skill in fighting was going to get him into trouble one day. Jacen had, until an hour ago, never lost, and Jaina could tell that it really got to him. It was almost as if he felt that he had failed as a Jedi, the protector of peace. His reckless actions now only gave Eran the advantage if they ever met again. Jaina just hoped that Eran would be gentle.

Chapter 9 "Chapter Eleven"

Han walked into what remained of the lounge and looked at the two men trying to clean up. They were both off in the corner fiddling with what was left of the two computers. "I suppose you wouldn't be able to tell if anything was missing, could you?"

The two men looked severely startled as Han spoke. Neither of them had even realized that he had entered. "Why would anything be missing?" one of them asked as if it was a totally absurd question.

"Well, my son has this notion that this fire was set on purpose. I've looked around the room and all I can see is furniture and those two computers sitting comfortably in the corner. I thought to myself, 'Self, why would anyone want to set this room on fire? It can't be because they wanted to burn the building down, because there was no way that the fire could have spread. So it has to be something in this room. Since the person who is suspected to have set the fire brought in the furniture, it doesn't make sense that that was his target, considering the fact that he could have vented it into space without any witnesses. Therefore, the only reason for the fire is the existence of those two computers.' So I'll ask you again, is anything missing? Because if there is, then we have a suspected thief as well as an arsonist; however, if nothing is missing, then we simply have someone who wanted to destroy two computers."

The two men looked at Han, not really catching all of the sarcasm that he lent into his explanation, but understanding the last little bit. "Well, you see, it's all pretty melted. The screens are both blown out and the terminal cases are both destroyed. The keys on the keyboard have all melded into one key. Even the data chip box was rui-" he stopped. He was holding a very warped container, yet at the same time, a very empty container. The man swore violently under his breath.

Both men looked at Han, and he got the strange feeling that he was in the wrong place. "Who started this fire?"

Han gave them a blank look. "All I know is that some pilot delivered some furniture to this new wing and left with two of my children hot on his trail."

"Who else have you told about this?"

"No one. Why? What's going on?"

"This is a major security breach and we can't discuss it with you."

"I'm the husband of the chief of state. I'm no security risk."

Both men looked at Han, recognizing him for the first time and also realizing who the children he spoke of were. "Where is you wife?"

"She just left for a senate meeting. I'm afraid she will be gone for most of the evening at different meetings."

"Then she will have to cancel them. What we have to tell her is of the utmost importance."

"Just tell me. I can relay the message."

The men regarded the former smuggler as if he had grown another ear. "We will wait in your quarters until your wife returns, at which point we will tell her what we need to."

"Okay," Han said, not thrilled about having these two weirdoes in his quarters. "She should be done with the senate meeting in about an hour or two." With that, the men followed Han back to the Solo wing.

* * *

Ransig stood in front of the computer screen, explaining again the flight of the asteroids. There were a few things different with his demonstration this time. First of all the screen he was in front of was taller than he was, the asteroids were no longer harmless projectiles, and instead of an audience of four, he spoke to a crowd numbering closer to four hundred, and that didn't take into account all of the people watching it on holo-vid.

"As you can see, from the increased speed that the asteroids have attained, the majority of them will no longer fall into the sun. About half of them will hug the sun closely and fly towards Forinad. The rest, and majority of the rocks, will fly right past the sun, altering their course only slightly and the wide spread will hit Denor and Trewist."

The senators and aides sitting in the assembly chamber were silent for a while. "How much destruction are we talking about?" a voice asked from the crowd.

Ransig swallowed. "We're not exactly sure how many small rocks there are, but the largest ones are a few hundred tons in size. When a rock that big strikes a planet with as much speed as these rocks have, the result is devastating. I would guess that the largest rocks would produce a one hundred-kiloton explosive blast. On the outset that doesn't look so bad until you realize that there are over six hundred of these things."

The chamber was instantly filled with chatter and commotion. The huge switchboard that controlled the senators' microphones did so with a priority status, always giving the most senior senators the chance to speak first. Since everyone was hitting their microphone switch, only one man could be heard, and it was the most prominent member of the senate. Senator Haln was also Leia's least liked senator. He was the Imperial senator that annoyed her the most. He was old and had no intention of taking Leia's spot. He was neither rash nor impractical like so many of the younger, former Imperials. It was his quiet demeanor that annoyed Leia. He had a way of making everything he said sound so right, Leia had to look hard to see that he was saying the same thing her more volatile opponents were, only in a much more convincing fashion. "How long did you know about this disaster?"

Leia's mic was always turned on. She, Senator Trent, and Senator Belsiphvin were up front along side Ransig. Ransig decided it was time he took a back seat and let Leia answer the question. "We were informed about the asteroids a little over a day ago. They were originally believed to be harmless and it was thought best that a small detachment should be sent to dispose of them as to not alarm the people of the Denorid system."

"Was the decision unanimous?" Haln asked.

Leia took a breath. There was no sense in lying. "No it was not. Senators Trent and Belsiphvin were in disagreement to the decision initially."

"So you stood alone on this?"

"Admiral Antilles was also present and he agreed with the plan."

Haln took his seat. Leia knew what he had done. It was his job to remain calm. He had neatly opened the door for his younger associates to start yelling. The yelling didn't come right away. Senator Jaillim, a supporter of Leia spoke next. "Senator Trent, why were you opposed to the plan?"

The old man cleared his throat before answering. "I thought that because the asteroids presented no immediate danger that they did not require our attention, and we should address the senate with the decision before proceeding further."

"And you, Senator Belsiphvin?"

"When the Denorians first contacted us, they asked that we 'fix' their sky by putting the stars back in their rightful places. I decided the nature of this request was not in keeping with the urgency that usually dominates the senate meetings and should be handled in committee. We decided we would refuse this offer with the idea that we didn't want to lie to the people of the Denorid system. Since we decided to not offer our assistance, the harmless asteroids were none of our concern. If we wanted to change our strategy and begin to lend substantial aid to the people, then this was now something that should be brought in front of the entire council and not just dealt with in committee."

Leia looked stunned. She had not heard that argument before. It was obvious Belsiphvin had been doing some thinking on the matter and was no longer on Leia's side. Leia looked out into the assembly to see who the next speaker would be and took a deep breath when Captain Quenthor stood up. The former Imperial officer insisted on retaining his military tittle. "I agree with you, but you allowed President Organa-Solo to make the decision herself, instead of bringing it in front of us?"

"We had no time," Leia said, trying to intercept the senator's comments that were meant for her but aimed at someone else.

"I beg to differ. You had plenty of time. These asteroids posed no threat to the people. As I can see it, there was no need for immediate action. I believe you over estimated the situation."

"But there is need for concern," Leia said urgently. "Those asteroids are now very harmful and need to be stopped."

"I understand that," Quenthor replied, "but your initial response is doing nothing to stop that, is it? It has only needlessly pulled ships away from their patrol. Regardless of whether or not the asteroids changed course, the ships served no purpose. They were meant to destroy harmless asteroids, and now they will simply arrive late. You seem to forget that we are no longer at war with anyone, and you can't just deploy our fleet whenever you want."

Leia could feel her loosing control of this session quickly and was relieved to see another one of her supporters, a young female senator. Senator Kellie was incredibly bright and Leia suspected she knew exactly what her comment was going to be related to. "No one has asked how or why these asteroids suddenly changed course. Does anyone know?"

Ransig found that he had to leave the safety of the shadows he had been hiding in. "We don't really have any explanation. The only plausible reason for the explosions is an artificial device."

"Are you trying to say this was done on purpose?!" Leia looked toward the speaker and winced when she saw that another one of the former Imperials had been allowed to speak.

"Have you considered gronst?" Kellie asked.

Leia had no idea what the young senator had asked but she could see a small light go on in Ransig's head. The science officer looked at Leia with sincere apology on his face. Leia's ignorance of the situation showed profoundly on her face, and Ransig decided to explain. "Gonst is a gaseous substance that is not all that uncommon in the Danzig system. The gas is for the most part inert, but when it undergoes rapid temperature changes, it becomes explosive. If the asteroids contained pockets of gonst then it is possible that when they faced the sun of the Denorid system, the gas heated up, and when they rotated away from the sun they cooled down. As the asteroids neared the sun, the temperature difference between hot and cold became so great that as they cooled, the gas exploded."

Senator Haln found himself able to speak again, and Leia began wondering who was controlling the switchboard. "What we have here are three distinct examples of poor decision making. The first is the idea that the Dazing system was harmless and the Denorians did not need our protection. The second is that the initially harmless asteroids needed our attention. The third is that the asteroids were harmless at all. Each one of these misconceptions would have been handled correctly if they had been brought to the attention of the senate instead of handled individually. I think that this situation provides serious question as to President Organ-Solo's leadership ability."

The following commotion was so loud and fierce it took several minutes to finally regain some semblance of order. During the next twenty minutes only former Imperials and other anti-Leia senators spoke. Each of them recounted as many instances as they could think of to discredit Leia and her abilities as a leader. They went so far as to call accuse her of treason and demand the immediate removal of her as chief of state. Leia actually thought she was going to be very unofficially voted out before one of her supporters found his way into the circus.

"Fellow senators I must remind you that this is not the topic of discussion. You all have your complaints about the president, and you are entitled to them. I also admit this situation was handled poorly, but we are here to determine the proper course of action concerning the Denorid system. The chief of state can not be deposed by a majority vote at just any time. If you looked at your handbook you will see that an investigation must take place and formal charges be brought against the offending leader. But that is for another time."

The assembly seemed to calm somewhat, but Leia could tell there would definitely be an investigation. Leia thought it might be best to resign right now, but she felt an obligation to the people of the Denorid system and she couldn't step out now. But she had no intention of letting formal charges be brought against her.

The rest of the session went relatively smooth and it was decided to send a large group of medical and industrial aid to the planets of the Denorid system. Leia still hadn't told anyone about Wedge and Anakin's mission. With any luck they had only just left within the hour, though she knew she wouldn't be able to keep that a secret for long.

* * *

Leia was tired and wasn't looking forward to the meetings she was going to have to attend that afternoon. Just a quick stop back at the apartment, she thought. Han will have watched it on the holo-vid and is sure to have some encouraging words. Leia opened the door to her residence and did indeed see Han sitting in a chair waiting for her, but there were also two men she didn't recognize standing beside him patiently.

"I'm sorry," she said to her unknown visitors, "I have meetings all afternoon. I am only stopping here for a bite to eat and am heading right back out. If you need to talk we can set up a meeting tomorrow afternoon sometime."

Leia knew something was up as she saw her husband shaking his head slowly. The gesture was familiar and Leia knew that Han had already probably tried repeated methods of getting rid of the men and failed. "You will cancel your meeting this afternoon. After that session, I'm sure everyone will understand. What we have to say takes precedence over anything else."

Leia took serious pause before replying. They had just admitted to watching her crucifixion only half an hour ago, so they both knew what kind of situation she was in and how important that situation was. If they still thought their information was more important, then it might be. The only thing that made her think twice about listening to what they had to say was that she was sure it was more bad news. "Okay. Give me a minute or two to cancel my meetings, and I'll be right with you."

"Don't bother," Han said from his chair, "they already took the liberty."

Han's comment reminded the two visitors of his presence and one of them turned to regard him. "Thank-you for allowing us to wait in you home, but you must go now while we talk to your wife."

Leia could see the incredible reluctance on Han's face as he slowly pried himself from his chair. "Wait," Leia said suddenly, "what is the nature of your information?"

"Financial."

"Han stays." Both of her visitors looked like they were going to protest but Leia raised a hand immediately. She was constantly being shown that her education on Alderaan had been lacking in some areas of government leadership and the financial realm was definitely one of them. "Han knows everything I know, and there is no secret I keep from him. Either he stays and hears it now, or I tell him later."

Both men shrugged as if they really didn't care and began to expound upon their information. "First of all I am Kerik and this is Drexin. We are the two members of the Republic that deal with its financial status, or, as you're about to see, the lack of such status." Drexin opened a briefcase that was sitting on the floor next to him and handed a small stack of papers to Leia, who had taken a seat on a couch next to her husband. "These are the last fifty transactions the official Republic account has processed."

Leia took the papers and began scanning them, looking for something familiar. Han leaned over her shoulder and managed to make a little more sense of the figures and statements than his wife could. "Is this a joke?" Han asked. "It says here that the Republic has a standing balance of 55,763 credits. I have more than that stored under my mattress."

"I'm afraid that those documents are not meant to be humorous in the slightest."

"But this just can't be possible," Han insisted. "Where's the purchase of the furniture we just bought?"

"That furniture was not bought by the Republic. The palace purchased it. The Palace Development Committee is separate from the official Republic account."

"What about all the ships that are being refitted right now on the moon? Where are all those parts coming from?"

"The Coruscant Naval Yards are separate from the official Republic account."

"What is the official Republic account?" Leia asked.

"Exactly what you see in front of you. The account consists of 55,763 credits."

"What is it possibly useful for?" Han asked as he leafed through the records of the transactions. "All I see here a small payments for worthless items. Here," Han said as he separated one sheet from the stack. "Seventeen hundred credits for a new radio transmitter. Two hundred credits for five compressed fuel cells. Where are the income statements?"

The two men stopped looking at Leia when they spoke, realizing that despite their long wait, the person they were going to end up addressing had been waiting with them. "The official Republic account has not had one income statement in its twenty-six year existence. It is what you might call a non-profit organization."

"It is more like what I would call a non-organization organization. What in the galaxy is it for?"

"It is the official Republic account."

"Are you trying to tell me that this huge government that spans over a hundred systems, close to two hundred planets, and quadrillions of citizens doesn't have enough money to buy an X-wing? This is a rich government. Maybe not as wealthy as the old Empire was, but it is still growing. And we have all this without-" Han stopped what he was going to say, realizing that what these men might be saying was true.

"Without what?" Leia asked.

"Taxation," Drexin and Kerik said together. Drexin continued alone. "It is a strong symbol, built on the foundation of unity between all of those systems, planets, and people you mentioned earlier, but I'm afraid the actual centralized government is very small. What we live in is the only type of establishment of its kind ever created in history. Never before has a true republic, a rule by the people, been created. Always before it has been found necessary to create a representative republic where the people elect leaders to rule for them. These rulers would then set up a centralized government that controlled the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government. They made the laws and the people would follow them."

"But that is what we have here," Leia said.

"I'm afraid not. The Republic does not rule over each of the quadrillion citizens in its domain; that would be foolish. There are so many different races and cultures that exist that any ruling you make would never be able apply to all of the people without drastic conflicts. Instead the Republic rules over the people by viewing each of the planets as a single entity. And since you have one senator for each of the planets, your entire ruling populace is present at all times. Because of this, there is no need to support a centralized government."

"But where does all the money come from?" Han asked, not really caring for the political make-up of the Republic.

"Everything is privatized. When the Empire ruled here on Coruscant, they had their fingers reaching into everything that went on. There wasn't one business or enterprise that existed on this city world that didn't answer to the Empire."

"When we arrived," Leia jumped in, beginning to see what they were saying, "we liberated them from the Empire's hold, and everyone privatized everything, anxious to continue business before this new government could get a finger hold. Han," she said turning to her husband, "you visited Coruscant many times while the Empire still held it."

"Everything was government owned," he agreed. "When you wanted to ride on the mono-rail, you had to ride on the Imperial Mono-rail. When you wanted to by a pair of boots, half of what you spent went directly into the Emperor's personal account."

"It's not like that now," Leia said. "Everyone owns their own business and they keep everything they make." She turned back to Drexin and Kerik. "That's the way we wanted it. Sure, when we took over Coruscant we were still too busy fighting the Empire to worry about taking hold of the Empire's financial establishments, but we had no intention to anyway."

"But that isn't the only way the Empire made money," Kerik said. "They had stiff taxation on every world that they ruled. The Republic's main selling point was that it had no taxation from its members."

"We had to sound more appealing than the Empire," Leia said. "We were in the middle of a war, and we were asking them to help, if we demanded taxes of them, we would have been just as oppressive as the people from whom we were trying to liberate them."

"This all well and good," Han said, "but it doesn't answer my original question. Where does all the money for ships and buildings and furniture come from?"

"One of the first things we realized," Drexin explained, "was that if we had no means of income, we could not afford to have any expenses. The military was the first and biggest concern but it took care of itself. Almost every world we stole from the Empire had a small military of their own to keep their space safe from pirates, smugglers, and other ambitious worlds. The Empire only protected those worlds that it felt were valuable while leaving the other worlds to fend for themselves. Now the Republic protects everyone equally, and each of the worlds found they no longer needed an army of their own, instead they sent their sons and daughters to serve in the Republic's main army. This means that each of the officers is supported financially by their home planet. It's the same way with all the ships and supplies. Since each planet no longer needs to support their own navy, what they would have spent on their own ships, they now spend on one large collective navy. The result is that the combined efforts of all the worlds has produced a much stronger and more unified military than could have ever been produced by one government."

"Everything else simply fell into place," Kerik continued. "If it was found the government needed something else, then one of the worlds would take the initiative and the others would join in and support it. There is no centralized government that controls anything."

Leia and Han both began to nod their heads, understanding what the two men were saying. Han was the first to realize the problem with this set up. "So when the Republic co-signs a loan to a war impoverished planet as the defaulter, where does the Republic get the credit statements to back up the transaction."

"We make them up."

"What?!" Leia shouted. "You make them up! You can't lie about financial records. Whose idea was that?"

"Originally? Mon Mothma's. She was the first leader of the Republic, and she saw that although we had a lot of money after we seized the funds left behind by the Emperor, we had no income and therefore, no means of giving good credit to back anyone else. She had to make a choice. She knew that in order to expand we were going to have to help all of the formerly occupied worlds rebuild. The only way we could do this was to establish a good credit base so banks would be willing to give the worlds support with us as the default. There was only two ways to establish this credit: create taxation or lie about it. Since we didn't have any involvement in the workings of the businesses that had restarted independently on Coruscant, we would either have to create a huge tax on the worlds to make up for it, or take the businesses away from the people of Coruscant by force. Lying about it was much preferred."

"I know it sounds bad," Drexin said, "but in reality it doesn't hurt anyone. What you don't know can't hurt you. Every moneylender believes us to be very financially secure and everyone we have backed so far has never defaulted. If you asked someone to walk across a fifteen-centimeter stripe down the center of a bridge, any sober person would be able to do it, no problem. Then if you flipped a switch and revealed that the entire bridge, except for that fifteen-centimeter strip had been an illusion and asked them to do it again, they wouldn't be able to. Why? Absolutely nothing has changed. They walked across the narrow strip before with nothing to catch them if they fell; why is it so different now that they know? It just is."

"But I still don't understand what difference it makes?" Leia asked. "If we have the wealth of the combination of hundreds of different worlds, why do we have to lie about something that doesn't exist. Why can't we just present the wealth of all those planets as the official Republic account? Surely that would be larger and more greatly respected than anything you could make up."

"Two reasons," Han replied, before either of the visitors could speak. "The money that belongs to the worlds is their own, and they will only spend it on what can help them. I'm sure that there is only one or two of the worlds that would willingly bail out another when the action wouldn't help them in the slightest. The other problem is that there is no official Republic account. I say that because there really is no Republic to have an account."

Drexin nodded, glad that Han was finally beginning to understand what the situation was. "He's right. There is no government. All you have is the ruling pubic which makes its own rules. Since each of the planets rules themselves, there is no higher power to answer to. The only reason that they work together is because they realize that the combination is greater than the sum of its parts."

"There is no dictator or executive branch to keep them together," Kerik continued. "There is no organization which can claim the wealth of the combined worlds other than the individual worlds themselves. One could call you," he said pointing at Leia, "the centralized government, but in actually you are the senator from Alderaan. Even if you were the centralized government," he gestured to the papers she and Han held, "there is all your money."

"Can't you find a way to create an income?"

Drexin shook his head. "What can we do? The only kind of income that would be helpful is a large profit endeavor. Since everyone thinks that we have a lot of money, no one would see the need to help us get it started. With only fifty-five thousand credits, there isn't much we can do to get it started other than reveal to everyone our situation, and then we are back to flipping the switch to remove the bridge."

"You said that you seized the funds of the Emperor," Han said. "Don't you still have them?"

"I'm afraid you are looking at everything we have left. The money disappeared very quickly in the early days of the Republic."

Leia nodded slowly, realizing that if she had been in Mon Mothma's position, she would have decided to lie also. "So why are you telling me now? Now that I know there is no bridge to catch me when I trip, aren't you scared it's going to affect my judgment next time I have to cross a canyon?"

"The fire this morning apparently was not an accident. We think the data chips containing a history of the official Republic account transactions were stolen."

Leia gasped sharply. "This means I have to tell the general assembly about the financial status, don't I? I might as well resign now. It'll save time."

"Your husband tells us that your children are chasing the suspected thief. If he can be apprehended before he has a chance to use the records he's stolen, then everything should be okay."

Leia closed her eyes and hoped that Jaina and Jacen would succeed in what ever they were doing - for her sake if not the Republic's.

Chapter 10 "Enlisting Volunteers"

Eran checked his sensors again, still searching for somewhere he could leave hyperspace safely. His lead had shrunk dramatically since he had left Coruscant and while he was safe in hyperspace, he knew that if the ship trailing him ever got in front of him, it could very easily rip him out of hyperspace with an interdiction field. Eran had no idea how big the ship that followed him was. For all he knew it could be the largest ship in the Republic. He had no idea how successful Jacen could have been in convincing his superiors of Eran's guilt. As it was, the Scavenger was far to small to carry an interdiction device, but Eran didn't know that.

What Eran needed to do was to find a spot where he could leave hyperspace, change course and reenter hyperspace. He had a few problems. He knew the ship that followed him had a much better hyperspace computer than he had; therefore, their ship would be able to calculated the jump faster than his could, and all the maneuver would achieve would be to lessen the distance between them. Also, the distance between them was so close now that he wasn't sure that he could rejump before his pursuers caught up with him.

Right now he was approaching the edge of a bi-solar system. His route brought him near one of the suns, but kept a safe distance. If his route had been a little closer, the sun's radiation could have cloaked him for a while, allowing him to change direction without detection. As it was, his ship's engine wasn't strong enough to allow the shorter route. Wait, his pursuer's ship's engine was surely strong enough. In fact they would probably pass right next to the huge nuclear sphere.

Eran quickly changed his destination by entering the coordinates that corresponded to the point on his path closest to the sun. Thirty seconds later he dropped out hyperspace, and the huge sun hung menacingly to the right of his ship. He ignored it as much as possible, feeling its heat through the glassine forward view. He realized he hadn't picked up an alternate location and quickly scanned his charts for the nearest populated planet. He punched the planet into his nav computer, and forty-five seconds later his ship swung left and downward, stretching out reality and snapping into lightspeed.

* * *

Jacen and Jaina watched as their sensors slowly filled with static until the small blip they had been chasing for the past fifteen hours was nearly invisible. Their ship wavered slightly as they neared the large gravity well. Jacen looked at his sister, knowing that she was responsible for programming the computer. "You sure know how to cut it close, don't you?"

"You want to catch him, don't you?" Jaina replied rather indignantly. "Though, I really don't know what for." Jacen refused to reply but instead stared at the sensors as they clouded over from the radiation. He had spent the whole trip so far arguing with his sister and didn't want to continue the pointless exercise. "What are you going to do when you catch him? Kill him?"

"I just want to know what he knows. He is taking orders from the Imperials, and I want him to tell us what they're up to."

"You really haven't thought this through, have you? If he is guilty then he will deny any of your accusations. If he is innocent he will do like-wise."

"I can tell if he's lying."

The conversation ceased as the ship reached the peak of its reaction to the solar interference. Due to the Doppler effect, the interference ended much quicker than it had begun and the sensors cleared almost immediately after they passed the sun. "Where'd he go?!" Jacen screamed as they sensors cleared. The blip had disappeared.

"He wasn't traveling close enough to the sun to get sucked in," Jaina said, her mind racing. She wanted to catch up to Eran almost as much as her brother, only for entirely different reasons. She quickly swung the sensors back toward the sun and saw a ship streaking away from the sun on a perpendicular course to the one they were on now. "Clever." Jaina took control of the ship, bringing them suddenly out of hyperspace. She calculated the ship's destination quickly and then programmed an intercept course.

"Where's he going?"

"It looks like Aldertain," Jaina responded. "It's a heavily populated world that is almost entirely one large rest stop for hyperspace travelers. It is a swarm of different races and cultures. The perfect place to disappear."

Jacen stemmed any comment as their ship jumped into pursuit.

* * *

The constant, low thrumming of the engines greeted Luke as he slowly opened his eyes. The Jedi wasn't exactly what most people would consider tall, but the bed he had just slept in wasn't exactly what most people would consider long. As the master stretched his limbs he wondered if Mara hadn't picked up the ship from one of Yoda's relatives. A few cramps grabbed a hold of his muscles, and he winced, as he was too groggy to fight off the pain with the Force. He managed to make it through the experience, keeping most of his motor skills and hobbled over to his still unpacked suitcase. He pulled out one of his fashionable robes and draped it over his sleeping attire.

Luke wandered out of his room, needing some sort of caffeine or stim drink before he even tried to remember who he was, where he was going, or why. Mara was a much better morning person and had a pot of stimsuline steaming away above a ring of small blue flames. Luke walked into the galley, grabbed a mug, and poured himself a generous portion. A few seconds later, he burned his mouth wide-awake, and the rest of his body was soon to follow as the drink seared its way to his stomach.

"Are you okay?" Mara asked, keeping her sarcastic comments locked firmly behind a fake, concerned look. She wondered if this was the way the most powerful man in the universe always started his days.

Luke nodded toward her as he slurped down some more of his cup, a little more carefully this time. "I'll be fine, yourself?"

"I was up an hour ago," Mara said, double-checking her appearance to see if the comment had a meaning behind it or if this was Luke's attempt at small talk. "Are you always like this in the morning?"

Luke was just about back to what people would normally call consciousness. His hair was unkempt even by his usually ruffled standards. His face sported stubble that was so uncommon on the Jedi Master's face that Mara tried to convince herself it was dirt. And his robe was only half-heartedly tied around his waist, exposing chest hair that looked like it desperately wanted to turn gray. "This is just a little experiment I'm performing."

"Alcoholism?"

Luke was awake enough to give that comment a smirk. "No, I like to call it naturalism. I don't know if you know what I've been through recently, but I had thought I had the Force removed from me. It turned out the For-" Luke stopped remembering what Mara had said about talking about the Force. "Well I just decided to see what living without it was like for a while."

"You mean you are stepping off your pedestal to see how the rest of us little peons live?"

"Yea, something like that," Luke replied as he got up and went in search of some solid food.

"That would explain the limp," Mara said under her breath, though loud enough for Luke to hear. "You know even us mortals can spend an hour or two in bacta treatment."

"There are no scars," Luke said, finding a package of instant fimps. He put some water on the heating pad and lit the flames underneath.

Mara felt that the conversation, or lack thereof, was suffering slightly. "If you promise not to preach at me, you can say the "F" word."

"The limp will go away in about a week or two, but while it's with me it reminds me of how fragile life really is. We Jedi are just a focusing tool for the power of the Force, but that doesn't mean that we are anymore indestructible than anyone else. I need to remember that." The water came to a boil quickly, and Luke poured the liquid over the fimps. He stirred the mixture into a thin paste and went back to the table.

The two of them just sat there, not really knowing what to talk about. They both had a lot to ask each other, but nothing really to say.

"Have you ev-"

"How do yo-"

They both said at once. Mara was a little less eager to ask her question and motioned that Luke could go ahead. "How do you manage to stay content in this life style? I don't mean to belittle your profession, because I know how important trade is to the survival of the Republic, but it doesn't fit my image of you."

"And what exactly is your image of me?" Mara asked, truly intrigued.

"You grew up as a trained assassin for the Emperor. You then worked for Kardde during a time when what you're doing now was called smuggling, and the Republic was eager to end it. To me that screams of someone who has always lived on the edge and wouldn't be happy unless they knew that there was excitement around each corner."

"You think I'm a thrill seeker? That's funny because I've always had the feeling that 'thrills' had a certain prerogative to seek me. I've never consciously looked for danger, but unlike others, I don't go around it when I confront it. You're right in a way. This job lacks the danger that has been a trademark of my previous employments, but that's why I drop by Coruscant every now and then. You guys always seem to stir up enough excitement to last me a while."

"What can I say? It runs in the family." Luke had finally stirred his hot cereal into a more moderate temperature range and took a spoonful. "What was it that you wanted to ask?"

"Oh, it was nothing."

* * *

The woman walked into the head office building of the Varion Construction Yards and seemed to be unaffected by the various displays of antiquity that were showcased around her. Usually people were quite surprised when they first entered the building as they came face to face with two very large turret guns. The old automatic firing machines were placed in flanking positions on either side of the entrance with ammunition strands dangling from their barrels. They were both so out of date that most mechanics refused to even admit they had ever had a date.

Next the visitor walked over a highly polished, transparent floor witch served as a viewing window for an enormous display case beneath. There were countless models of the evolution of the space craft from the most humble of flying apparatuses that many believed to be myth, to the first hyperspace ship that was one percent cockpit and ninety-nine percent engine. All the models were done in such intricate detail that visitors often spent many minutes just standing over the display looking downward.

If neither of the previous displays had managed to impress, the jet hanging from the ceiling always managed to succeed. The plane, that any one of the yard workers would promise you, could actually fly. The triangular plane was limited to atmospheric travel but was the top of that particular evolutionary grouping. Two large rocket thrusters in the back powered it, with deadly missile packs strapped under each wing.

Admiral Sanson walked past these items with her eyes unwavering, neither side to side at the guns, down at the models, or up at the jet, but straight ahead at the front desk secretary. "How may I help you Miss?"

Sanson was never one for pleasantries. She could play the game as well as anyone, but it was just that - a game. "I'm here to talk with President Loyran."

"Do you have an appointment?"

"I believe that my husband has made one for me."

She looked down at her books for about half a second. "I don't see any appointments listed here. What is you name?"

"Admiral Jill Sanson."

The secretary was not impressed with the tittle. They had a lot of would be military leaders come into their ship yards demanding this and that, but they were all just blow hards. "I'm sorry I still don't see a listing for you. What did you say your husband's name was?"

"President Alexander Snotzenexer of the Varion Imperial Bank. Perhaps you've heard of him."

The secretary was taken aback slightly, not because she in any way believed this "admiral" was the wife of the president, but because of the boldness of her lie. She couldn't have picked a more important voucher unless she had named President Loyran himself. "Do you have an identity card with you?" This was always the stumbling block. The secretary had heard the lines such as "Oh, I left it in my transport. Just let me in and I'll get it for you later." or "I have one, but it is bent and your scanner won't read it."

Sanson used neither of those excuses, but instead produce the requested form of ID. The secretary hesitated slowly as the card was offered to her, waiting for the trick to come any time. After waiting to the point of embarrassment and beyond, the flustered woman took the card. She scanned it slowly, giving the machine ample time to detect any forgery. The machine triple-beeped an affirmative ID check and named Sanson as the wife of Snotzenexer, part owner of the Varion Construction Yards. The secretary wasn't convinced still, knowing that it was possible to steal such a card, though the picture of the admiral matched the reality standing in front of her.

"Could you please take a retina scan?"

Sanson sighed audibly though she had suspected she would have to prove her identity some other way. She bent over toward the hand held device and experienced the odd sensation of the laser scanning across her pupil. The second triple beep left no doubt as to the identity, and thus the importance of this unexpected visitor. In reality they both knew Snotzenexer had made no appointment, but the bank president was on a list of about five people who needed none. The list had just increased to six.

"I'm sorry admiral, you weren't expected." Sanson shrugged off the apology, making it clear that she didn't wish to engage in idle conversation but wanted to meet with President Loyran. "If you go down that hallway to the second turbo lift on your right, someone will take you to his office. I will make sure he knows who you are so you won't have to be questioned."

"Thank-you," Sanson said as she walked away. As soon as she was out of sight, the secretary quickly called as many people as she could think of to make sure the quick-tempered admiral's path would be as smooth as possible.

An attendant whisked Sanson up to the top floor of the building and showed her where the president's office was. The door to the office opened before the admiral got there and the president was all smiles as he welcomed her on this "most unexpected visit" and "they were honored by her presence."

Sanson begrudged the president a smile as she shook his hand and took a seat in front of his desk. She even went so far as to accept the drink offered her, though she made no attempt to drink it. "If you don't mind my asking, what are you the admiral of?"

Sanson realized that small talk was not going to be avoided, but she did plan to minimize it. "I was a member of the Imperial Navy."

Loyran knew a few things about the Empire. He knew about the crushing defeat in the Danzig system and that was probably the reason for the past tense "was" in the admiral's last statement. He also knew that women were not prominent members of the old Empire. "I hope you're not here to try and take over my operation?" the president chuckled.

Sanson forced a smile to keep her cover. If you only knew, she thought. "No, not today. What I need is some repair work done on some ships of mine."

"What kind of ships?"

"I have a fleet of about thirty Imperial class Star Destroyers hiding in you asteroid belt. All of them have crippled shields and have not been properly maintained for some time."

Loyran knew about the ships in the belt. He'd known about them from the hour they had entered the Varion system. But he also recognized their significance and he didn't want to make any enemies, so he had let their presence seem to go unnoticed. "You said 'hiding in the asteroid belt.' You aren't planning to continue your fight against the Republic, are you?"

That's none of your business, she wanted to bite back, but Snotzenexer had asked her to keep her calm. "You'll also notice that I said 'was in the Imperial Navy.' The war with the Republic has been over for a long time. The mistakes by my former colleagues in the Danzig system only show that. I have been cut off from the Empire for a long time now."

"Then why repair the ships?" the president asked, knowing he was getting some top grade information.

Sanson didn't mind giving out the info, knowing that most of it was just a lie anyway. "You know about my husband's predictions, I'm sure. You have your connections with the local governments."

"He thinks the Republic is going to collapse on itself, re-emerging as a much improved version of the old Empire."

"He also thinks that if the Varion system gets a hand in the game, you can be a major player in the galaxy. If the Varion system joins the Republic, you will need to have more of a presence than just a senator. With my fleet the Varion system will be able to bolster a slightly suffering Republic fleet and gain not only respect but power."

The president soaked it up like a Garnian bread lizard in a pond. He also saw an opportunity to make friends with Snotzenexer, and all three of the planetary governments, not to mention improve the Varion position in the upcoming galactic events. "I will of course pay you handsomely for your repairs-"

"I doubt that will be necessary," the president held up his hand to keep any further comments at bay. Sanson shrugged, outwardly appearing to dislike the charity, but inwardly laughed at the president knowing there was no way he would ever have seen any of her credits. "We have a very large facility. I think I can arrange the use of eight refitting stations for you. Each should be plenty large to accommodate one of your Star Destroyers."

Sanson nodded her thanks and rose from the chair, letting the president know that that was all she had wanted. "I hope you can find your way back."

"I think I'll manage."

* * *

"What do you want buddy?"

"I need your help Lando," Han said to the image of his long time friend.

"What is it this time? You get yourself into a high stakes game and lose the Falcon or something?"

"I wish," Han said. The two words were spoken without any hint of humor and told Lando more than any pleading could have. There were few things that ranked as high as "worse than losing the Falcon."

"Is it the Imperials again?" Lando asked, though he didn't believe it. He was pretty sure they had seen the last of them for a while, and besides, Han hardly needed Lando's help when the Republic had the largest fleet known in existence.

"It's hard to tell right now, it might be, but that is only a superficial problem. The real problem can't be discussed over this line."

"It's secure," Lando insisted.

"I know, but not secure enough. Listen what I have to tell you could tear the Republic apart quicker than a fool's array can change to bust in a game of random sabaac."

"That's quick," Lando said, trying to add some humor to this conversation. Han didn't respond. "Can you at least tell me what kind of information it is and how you know that I'll be of any help at all?"

"It has to do with financial matters. Financial matters that are far too complex for a simple smuggler to figure out. Financial matters that are far too classified to go to anyone outside of our circle. I thought that you might to be able to see a safe way out of this mess."

Lando loosened up a little, hearing some of the old Han talking again. "Well you know that I'm working on this asteroid out here to try and provide your Republic with industrial strength crystals, but I guess my crew can survive for a while with out me, if it's that important that I come and visit you."

"Believe me, if you want to keep the Republic as a buyer, you might want to get your butt over here."

"Just like old times," Lando said under his breath. "I'll leave tonight, okay? That should get me to Coruscant in a couple days."

"I'll be waiting."

* * *

Admiral Snotzenexer read the list of the Republic's transactions with an ever-growing smile spreading over his face. He had originally decided to release these records to some of the local news networks under an anonymous name, but the Republic was worse off than he had thought, and no one would ever believe the records. This of course meant that he would have to change his strategy slightly, but that was okay.

"President Snotzenexer," the admiral's secretary said over the speaker on his desk, "You have some very important visitors who wish to see you."

"Who are they, Alicsia?"

"They are the governors from the three planetary governments, sir," she said rather calmly, introducing the three most powerful men in the system.

"Could you please show them up personally?"

"As you wish."

Governors Quanip, Buscar, and Taimmen, from Knilerhn, Varia, and Iom respectively had no doubt seen the broadcast of the past few senate meetings from Coruscant after Snotzenexer's prediction, and they wanted to now act upon that prediction. The admiral was pretty sure as to what they were going to ask him, but he wasn't positive.

Alicsia, Snotzenexer's pretty, young secretary (the admiral couldn't wait to introduce her to his wife) led the three important men into the office, and all three thanked the woman as she left the men to their meeting. The office usually had two chairs in front of the president's large desk, but Snotzenexer had had another one brought up here expecting the meeting to happen, although he had honestly expected it to come yesterday. The men took their seat and Snotzenexer made himself the adequate host, supplying each of the governors with the beverage of their choice.

Snotzenexer finally seated himself behind his desk, allowing the meeting to start. "I assume that you have seen recordings of the Republic senate."

"We have," Taimmen spoke. Snotzenexer eyed the big man, remembering the hostility he had shown on their last meeting. If the admiral had judged his character right, he would now see Snotzenexer as a means to expand his power to encompass several systems. Taimmen was the governor of Iom, and while Vario lent the system its name, Iom was the head of the three planets. If the Varion system should join the Republic and achieve a position of power, then he stood to gain the most. "We also agree with your assessment that the current president is on her way out, but we are not so sure that anything will really change. In our eyes, we just see Organa-Solo being replaced by someone else and the Republic continuing as it already is."

Snotzenexer didn't believe that was what the three politically inclined governors had really gleaned from the senate meetings, but he also saw that they wanted him to tell them what he thought before they revealed their own hand. "Can't you see that it's not just Organa-Solo that's on the way out," he said acting like he really believed what Taimmen had said, "but the whole idea of one president presiding over the whole assembly. The position has too much power associated in it. They have tried to create a pure Republic, a rule by the people, but even with Organa-Solo at the helm, a non-power hungry person by nature, the president holds too much power. I agree that they will probably appoint a intermediate president while they try to reinvent the system. But the reinvention is going to look to the powerful systems for advice and support. They will probably create a ruling council of about six to eight people to preside over the main assembly to try and prevent the ability of one person to usurp the power. I sincerely hope that you don't lose your opportunity to ge-"

Governor Buscar raised his hand and chuckled slightly. Snotzenexer hoped that he had not over done the act. "Don't worry, we were just sort of testing you. I hope you don't mind, but we needed to know if you were going to stick to your earlier prediction and not change your mind because we had disagreed with you. We have been watching you," the man said, glancing at his associates, "and we really respect all of your decisions so far. You have been president of this bank for only a week, but have already made a name for yourself and in the process saved a small business that provided a lot of good jobs to our people, improved the bank's image to the surrounding systems, and in return, the entire system's image as been strengthened."

Snotzenexer felt very insulted by all this. They were trying to make him feel like a student that was receiving the watchful teacher's praise. At the least, the roles should be reversed. "What we really like," Governor Quanip added, "is your ability to accurately read a situation, see exactly what is going to happen, and not be afraid to act upon it." Snotzenexer nearly laughed out loud. It wasn't that hard to predict what was going to happen in a book if you were the one writing it. "We would like to employ your services as a representative for this system."

Taimmen cleared his throat, and Snotzenexer thought it only appropriate that he should be the one to tell him. "We have unanimously decided to heed your advice and join the Republic. We have also decided that you would be the best one to initially represent us in the senate."

"We want to get into the ruling party quickly," Buscar said, "so we don't want you to sit on your hands. You will best be able to analyze what is going on if you are directly involved with the proceedings. When the time is right, we want you to report back to us as to which one of us would be the best one to fill a spot on the ruling council. We also understand that you have received a lot of criticism in the past for some of your moves that were misunderstood by the uneducated as stupid, but turned out to be quite brilliant and almost obvious. For this reason we don't want you to report to anyone but us as to what you think is going on and the best way that we can react to it."

Snotzenexer sat quietly behind his desk. He had no intention of declining. He already had is bag packed, so to speak. "You know that I'm the head of the largest bank in the entire sector, and it's not a job you can just walk away from."

"We aren't asking you to quit your job as president," Quanip said. "We will need a strong minded person like you to control the financial dealings of the sector after we have taken a seat on the ruling council. We are simply asking you to take a long vacation. We don't suspect that it will take any longer than a week or two for the investigation committee to bring their charges against Organa-Solo and then maybe another week to elect a replacement. We can't see the realignment of the authority structure taking longer than another month or two. All said, you only need to take off, at the most, half a year."

Snotzenexer nodded slowly, trying to let them think that he was thinking as to how to respond. "I can't leave right now. I have someone in mind who can take over in my absence, but I need at least three days to tie up some things before I can leave."

"Take your time. We haven't yet contacted the Republic to let them know that we intend to join. We'll give you four days if you need them."

"I do have one major concern."

"What's that?"

"I think it is important to keep my role as a senator private from the public in the Varion system. My effectiveness would be greatly diminished if I had to answer to the media for all of my actions. Like you said before, I have been criticized for many of my moves before but they have turned out for the best. I think the best way for me to approach this new appointment would be one of a low-key representative. You will of course have to notify the ruling assembly on Coruscant, but I don't think the general public needs to know yet. There has been little to no talk of joining the Republic in the system, and I think that the sudden appointment of myself, a controversial figure at best, to the initial senate position might not go over well."

The three governors looked at each other with blank stares. They hadn't considered this part of the issue, but everything Snotzenexer said made sense. "What do you suggest we do?" Buscar asked. "We can't exactly keep the public in the dark forever."

"You said that I should follow the proceedings and decide when it would be best to get one of you three on the ruling council. I think that would be a good time to tell the public what has happened. Telling the people of the Varion system that they were suddenly represented in the elite ruling council of the largest galactic government ever compiled would be better received than if they were told that you have simply sent a senator to the Republic and the Varion system is now simply going to join the government as a common member. After that, you can allow the events that are taking place now to come out. I'm sure the people will be able to view them in a pragmatic light."

The governors didn't have much to say to the well thought out plan other than to nod their heads in agreement. Snotzenexer rose from behind his desk and extended his hand toward his guests. "I'll do my best to try and improve our collective position in this quickly changing galaxy, though I can't promise miracles."

"We understand," Taimmen said as he shook the admiral's hand firmly.

You don't understand anything, Snotzenexer thought as the three men left. There will be no ruling council. It won't take longer than one month, and I will be in charge of the entire galaxy, with no one to answer to - Snotzenexer swallowed hard - except maybe my wife.

Chapter 11 "The Rain of the Gods"

Wedge looked out at the streaks the starlines made in his vision. He knew they were really only pin pricks of light, and it was the fact that the only way faster than light speed was possible was if you coexisted in several points at once. The result was you traveled from A to Z by hitting several letters at one, instead of taking them one at a time, and therefore, reducing the time of travel immensely. Still, to Wedge it felt like the ship was crawling. Leia had given him a time window, which he had missed. He had left over an hour after the time limit.

Wedge had still not sufficiently calmed down from his encounter with the techs that had been refitting the cruiser. Wedge had been told the ship would remain space worthy throughout its refitting, and could be ready at an hour's notice. It became quite evident to Wedge that he and the techs had different ideas of space worthiness. All of the shields and weapons had been taken off line so they could be upgraded. It wouldn't have been that bad if the power supplies had simply been replaced, but they had removed the actual laser cannons and shield generators. The B, X, and E-wings that were stored in the ship had almost all been removed to be upgraded, and only four ships, three X-wings and a B-wing, that hadn't seen recent combat had remained. Wedge had been mad at these changes, but that isn't what delayed his departure. They had also taken the hyperdrive engines off line. They were planning to install a fifth engine to the four that already existed and had to remove two entire engines to make room for the fifth. Wedge was actually surprised it had only taken them one hour to reinstall the two engines. They had been brought back on line only to find out there was no nav computer program available to operate them. The old program had to be trashed because it wouldn't handle the five engines as efficiently as a new one would.

The techs seemed to remember having an old version stored somewhere in the yard's computer and they uploaded it into the nav computer. The program proved its age when they tried to enter Anakin's coordinates. The computer specialist on hand spent five futile minutes trying to get the program to cooperate, but it had too many out of date safeties to break through. Wedge had been just about ready write off the Denorid system when Anakin had removed the "specialist" from his spot in front of the computer like he was an over-sized pillow and plopped himself down in front of the stubborn nav-com. Two minutes later they were streaking through hyperspace.

The ride was hardly uneventful. They were undermanned and simply keeping the ship in hyperspace took their entire effort. Wedge was still trying to think of what he could do when they reached the Denorid system. He had planned on blowing the rocks out of the sky, but he had no weapons. The only offense they had were the four fighters in the bay. They would be flown by the four best fighter pilots on board. The best three were easy to come by. He and Anakin could probably out fly anyone else in the fleet and Captain Tremon, the leader of the ship they were flying, was no slouch in a fighter either. After that the skill level dropped off dramatically. All of the fighter pilots had been given leave and none of them could be rounded up on short notice. Wedge knew that this ship normally carried the 185th and he would have felt a lot better if they had those three pilots on board. As it was, it turned out that one of the engine room technicians had logged about twenty hours in a simulator and five real life hours before he had decided to change occupations.

Wedge hadn't been able to contact Ransig before he had left because the science officer had been in the assembly hall, but what he gathered from Anakin's assessment of the situation they would be arriving in system about half an hour before the asteroids began to assault Denor and Trewist. One and a half hours before that, the planet of Forinad would be bombarded.

Wedge glanced at the ship's chrono that displayed the flight time remaining and cursed every tech at the ship yard as he saw that 1:32.45 remained. After his silent profanity, he changed gears dramatically and said a little prayer for the people of Forinad.

* * *

"Any idea what it could be?"

The junior observation officer stared at the radar screen and shook his head slowly. "I've never seen anything like, Urdgen. It looks like netting almost, but that can't be right, can it?"

Urdgen had his head sticking out of the hole in the floor, and he let go of his ladder with one hand and shrugged that shoulder. "They just told me, 'Ask Lawrence, he knows everything. He'll figure it out.' So I'm here asking you - what is it?"

Lawrence smirked at his companion's reply, but didn't speak right away. They were on a pretty small observation station in orbit around Forinad. Lawrence looked out the window in the direction where his sensors said something was coming. His eyes could only see inky blackness above the beautifully colored world below. Looking back at the sensor display, he began to grow frustrated. His people were a domestic race who enjoyed their little corner of the galaxy and were quite content to remain reclusive. Because of this, little effort was put forth into the fields of space technology, and Lawrence was feeling those shortcomings in a big way at the moment. His sensor array was little different from the ones used down on the planet to track the jet traffic. No one realized that in space everything was different. The radar system depended on a sonic echo for accurate results and there was no sound in the vacuum that surrounded the observation station, so the echo received, if at all, was very faint. Also, the array was set up for the confined area of an atmosphere and couldn't come close to coping with the infinite reaches of space.

Because of all these technological faults, the sensor array only detected the asteroids fifteen minutes before they would reach Forinad. Lawrence had no idea of his peril partly because the radar wasn't able to gauge their speed or direction accurately. Also, since there were so many of the space rocks, the array couldn't hope to pick out each individual one and simply represented them has a mesh.

"I think it's moving," the science officer said.

"Yea," Urdgen responded, "that's what the guys downstairs thought too."

"Could they tell where it's going?"

Urdgen shrugged his shoulder again. "I don't think so, they basically just want to write it off as a glitch in the system."

"It is shaped like a static cloud, but I was sure that I grounded the system last week."

Urdgen made an effort not to laugh. He wasn't technically inclined at all, but was only on the station as a cook and janitor of sorts. "How can you ground anything up here?" he asked. "Don't tell me you have a cable running back to planet."

"Yea, something like that," Lawrence, not wanting to explain it to his friend. "Regardless, it looks like I'm going to have to go out there and fix it again." Urdgen started go when Lawrence grabbed his descending arm. "While I'm out there, why don't you check with the planet to see if they see anything. They have telescopes down there and I tend to trust light waves a little more than what ever this piece of junk works on," he concluded as he slammed a fist half-heartedly against his sensor screen.

Lawrence enjoyed going outside. There was something about the weightlessness that gave him a rush. Every kid dreams of being able to fly, and when Lawrence was outside, all of those dreams seemed to come rushing back to him. He was out of the airlock five minutes after Urdgen had left. As he allowed his thrusters to propel him along the side of the station he did the last minute checks on his suit that he rarely even bothered with anymore. He had been in the vacuum of space so often that it had lost its scariness, and all of the safety precautions that his supervisors insisted upon seemed quite pointless. Still he checked his oxygen and saw that he had enough for over three hours, though he doubted he would be outside for any longer than half an hour.

The station was pretty small on the inside, only seven rooms. There were two bedrooms, which housed eight people, a galley, a social room, his observation room, and two other larger science rooms that he knew little about. All told, it was much more cramped than his house back on the surface, but on the outside, the station looked enormous. There were so many computers built into the station and so much pipe and electrical work that from the outside the structure appeared huge.

Lawrence worked his way along the countless handholds set in the outside of the station. It just so happened that his sensor array was located right next to the window into the social room. Lawrence took a quick look inside and saw Urdgen sitting in front of the communicator. There were two other science officers reclining on the couch playing a card game. Lawrence made a mental note to hurry up so he could get back inside and yell at those slackers. He approached the array and was careful not to touch the circuits remembering the charge he had gotten last time he had adjust the ground. It had shorted out his suit's motivators, and he had had to manually pull himself back into the station. Instead he checked the ground cable to make sure it was properly connected. He located the thick black cable when he heard a taping sound. No, he corrected himself, he felt the tapping sound - this was space.

Lawrence felt a quick cold shiver that always came to him when something unexpected happened and he was outside. He quickly calmed himself when he glanced down and saw that Urdgen was at the window. He looked like something was really bothering him, and Lawrence lowered himself so his face was level with the window. Lawrence wasn't too good at reading lips, and Urdgen wasn't exactly speaking slowly, so the space walker didn't quite catch that, yes, Urdgen had gotten hold of the observatory down on the surface, and no, it wasn't static, and it was almost right on top of them, and he had better-

Lawrence had not made out one word, but Urdgen had suddenly stopped talking and was looking past him. Lawrence turned his body and followed Urden's stare out into space. The chill returned to Lawrence's spine in full force. As the asteroids flew toward him, Lawrence found it very difficult to think. The rocks were traveling so fast that he couldn't keep his eyes on any one of them for long. One particular asteroid managed to release his mind from its frozen state as it was heading right toward the station. His reflexes saved his life, because if he would have paused to think about it longer, his space training would have never allowed him to launch himself away from the station as he did. His legs pushed as hard as he could and he found himself floating away from the safety of the station and into the middle of the asteroid storm. The particular asteroid that had awaken him barely nicked the edge of the station, but had enough momentum to put the station in a slow spin that would last for the rest of its existence.

Lawrence couldn't stand looking into the flying rocks. Something deep inside of him told him that if he was going to die, he didn't want to be able to see it coming. He used his thrusters to rotate his still floating body around and was just in time to see a second asteroid smash into the station. The rock was very small, only a couple hundred pounds, but it was going so fast that it treated the station as if it was made of wet paper. Lawrence watched as the asteroid pierced the heart of the structure that had been his home for the past three weeks and shredded it. The last conscious sight Lawrence saw before his body went into a shock-induced coma was Urdgen being sucked out into the vacuum. The cook's face was frozen in an oxygen searching expression, as his chest was crushed against the unforgiving pressure of a vacuum.

* * *

Snotzenexer wasn't the cold unfeeling monster that Leia would later think him to be. He didn't enjoy killing innocent people, but he understood what had to be done. He wasn't like former Imperial leaders who killed as many as possible, but only killed as many as was necessary to achieve his goals. He had planned the asteroid attack on Forinad carefully. He knew all about Jedi's' ability to calculate hyperspace jumps and he was aware that it might be possible for a ship or two to reach the Denorid system early; however, he was pretty sure that they would not be in time for Forinad. He also knew that no one could be blamed for Forinad since it was impossible to reach it in time. But, Snotzenexer also knew about the status of the ships being overhauled at the Coruscant Ship Yards and was pretty sure that if they arrived in time for the two other planet's bombardment, they would be pretty helpless to stop it. Since this is where the blame would be placed, it was more important to kill people on those planets than on Forinad. But that didn't mean he didn't plan on doing some damage when he had the chance.

Forinad consisted of five continents that existed almost exclusively in the Western Hemisphere. The two smallest and most heavily populated continents straddled the equator and existed almost solely in the temperate zones. In between these two continents was a large scattering of tropical islands where some of the best vacation spots in the system were located. West of these continents were two pretty desolate land masses that lay next to each other like a pair of spoons. In fact, when viewed from space, it was very evident that the planet of Forinad had originally existed as one continent until some huge geological event had torn it into five. On the east lay a huge continent that stretched nearly to each pole. Because all of the land existed on one side of the globe, there was one grand ocean that took up fully two fifths of the planet by itself. The weather patterns over the ocean dictated that all the precipitation drifted west onto the large eastern continent. The ocean was bordered by a very impressive mountain range that ran along the continent and remained snow capped all year round. The rivers that ran off the mountains as well as the large amount of precipitation that snuck through the mountain passes created a very lush jungle along the belt of the continent at the equator. Because the precipitation off the ocean went one way, the spooned continents were very dry with the northern and southern extremities tundra covered, and the central regions were dusted with dessert.

In the mountains, far from civilization, is where the Forinians placed their telescopes. In a society that relied heavily on the astronomers and astrologers, these outposts were very important and as advanced as their technology allowed them to be. The society was cut into for types of people: the political leaders, the religious leaders, the general public, and the scientists. The political leaders and general public absorbed what both of the other two groups said, but the scientists and religious leaders were always at each other's throats. There wasn't a more stark difference between the two than in these mountain installations, because both astronomers and astrologers shared the same view tube into the sky. And there couldn't possibly be a more controversial event than this meteor shower, being something that had two very different interpretations.

"We have to alert the public. It shouldn't even be a question."

"You will do no such thing! This is the wrath of the gods and you will not interfere."

Yern exhaled slowly, trying to mentally count to ten, but realized after the first few numbers that the rest of the population didn't have the time for him to count. "Listen," he said in a controlled tone, "if the gods are sending punishment, why are they sending it to us? We didn't do anything."

"That is right," Priest Vyrin replied, "we have done nothing to repair their homes and that is why we are being punished."

"There is nothing we could have done. The Republic wasn't lying when they said they couldn't do anything. Nothing can be done."

"You scientists are all the same. With you it is always impossible. You have been blessed with abundant recourses that you can't possibly explain with your pathetic minds, and yet you say with certainty that nothing can be done. How do you know that you have used the materials at your disposal to the best of their ability? You have wasted what has been given to you. I see now more clearly than ever before that our wealth in recourses was given to us for this very reason, so that when the gods underwent this hardship, we might aid them. We have failed. We must now face punishment."

Yern saw that he was not going to win this argument. He glanced at his sensors and saw that in less than a minute it would be a mute point. Punishment or natural disaster, it was going to take place, and Yern and Vyrin had front row seats.

The Grand Ocean, as it was called, was virtually unexplored. No one had any reason to traverse it except for thrills, and the Forinians weren't thrill seekers. Because of this, there was no one to watch the incredible display that the first few space rocks presented. The scientific term for the phenomena changed from asteroids to meteors as the glowing chunks of ore streaked through the atmosphere of the planet. The planet's gravity played no role in the flight of the rocks as they were already traveling at speeds far greater than that of terminal velocity on this relatively small planet. Instead the air resistance the meteors encountered served to heat them to an incredible temperature. The ocean was deep, but the splash down was so violent, that each rock hit bottom before the water had a chance to close in over it. Each meteor displaced billions of gallons of water in a microsecond and created waves that made the mountains on shore seem remarkably small.

Rock after rock flew into the ocean, vaporizing water on impact and sending the rest in an enormous wall of destruction. After the brief pummeling was over, over seventy-five percent of the water was either evaporated or traveling above sea level in one of the tremendous tsunamis.

The mountains received their share of hellish rain as well, only with vastly different results. Before the waves had a chance to wash over the shore, the huge peaks were treated much like sandcastles underneath a hailstorm. If Yern wasn't on the range he would have enjoyed the sight as red-hot meteorites slammed into the mountains, blowing them apart in an incredible display of power. The ground was rent asunder as each summit was reduced to a humble stump, its previous bulk blown apart like the shell of a nuclear weapon. None of the observatories survived, in fact, all living things with in sight of the event were rendered lifeless. Long sleeping volcanoes were brought back to life and added to the general chaos as they spewed their own fire in protest to the sky's cruel treatment of the landscape. Millions of tons of snow were evaporated in seconds from the heat, and an enormous cloud covered the sky, adding to the soot, ash, and rock that had already been displaced into the stratosphere.

The jungle basin below was not in the line of fire as the asteroids flew parallel to the ground, past the side of the planet, but the mountain range provided enough turmoil to change the jungle forever. Rivers of lava flowed into the formerly fertile greenery, drying and scorching the foliage. Huge waves of ash and rock rained down upon the trees in a minor replay of what had just plagued the mountain range. All was brought to a sudden halt when a several mile tall wave came crashing into the coast. The mountains, had they retained their impressive height, would have done little to stop the waves. As it was, the water pretended to not even notice the rocky rubble and covered half of the continent like a huge bed sheet. The huge amounts of lava turned immediately hard and, in turn, evaporated much of the water, sending more steam into the air. Each successive wave grew smaller and soon the geological torture session was over, leaving behind a mud and ash soaked wasteland that would not produce life again for a millennia.

On the other coast, the violence was much more subdued. The few meteors that rained down on the dessert, created dust clouds that turned day into night and enormous craters that were the result of removing so much sand so quickly. The waves that washed over these two continents could have been helpful if they were a millionth in size. With the craters, lakes could have been created, and a barren land could have been fruitful. Instead, a barren land became non existent, as the mostly sea level dessert was swept into oblivion.

For the most part, the devastation stayed away from the populated sections, though a few big waves sneaked through the spooned continents and quakes were felt over the whole planet, but nothing compared to the cloud cover that enveloped the entire globe. All contact to the outside world was cut off as communication depended on radio transmitters powered by weak generators, which could not penetrate the cloud.

The people of Forinad had no where to go and no means to cry for help. They had received no warning, and had no way of knowing what had happened. Now they had to just sit and wait. For the populated regions it was night, and the only clues they had to what had occurred were the few asteroids that had missed and appeared to be shooting stars streaking through the night. Minutes later, their sky was blotted out by a blanket that the dawn would not remove.

* * *

Anakin sat in the X-wing, prepping the ship for flight. It was an old ship, too old to still be in use, but it had gained fame in the early days of the Rebellion and because of men like his uncle and Antilles, who was prepping the ship next to him, the craft would never truly be retired. Tremon had opted to take the more heavily armed, but less nimble B-wing leaving the third X-wing for the fourth member of their squadron, a Lieutenant Binzley.

When Wedge had been informed that the sub-light engines had also been taken of line and all the ship was capable of was full impulse, he wondered if the cruiser was going to be anything more than just a over-glorified carrier. They weren't going to drop in right next to the asteroids, and they would need to locate them and track them down. The asteroids would be traveling faster than full impulse, and if they jumped in behind the rocks, the cruiser would be useless. Its only contribution to the plan would have been to try to use its tractor beams to redirect the asteroids. It was more than likely that with the old software that had been loaded into the computer at the last second, the sensors wouldn't be able to handle the multiple targets, and the beams wouldn't have been able to do anything anyway.

Anakin watched his wrist chrono tick down under a minute remaining in their hyperspace flight. He knew that one of the planets had already received their dosage of rock-rain, and he also understood that what Forinad had undergone was mild compared to what lay in store for Denor and Trewist. Forinad had received the asteroids that had slingshot around the sun. The only asteroids that would have done that were the smaller ones with less momentum to keep them on a straight path. The ones that were heading for the other two planets were probably, on the average, twice the size of the Forinad asteroids.

Anakin sensed the ship drop out of hyperspace, and the bay doors in the hangar immediately opened. Anakin, Wedge, and Tremon were out of the cruiser's hangar in a flash, while Binzely was slower and hadn't prestarted his fighter.

Wedge was the squadron leader (of sorts) and had his ship looking for the asteroids as soon as they left the sensor shield that was the cruiser. "I'm picking up some blips about fifty thousand clicks away toward Denor."

"Copy that," Tremon said. His B-wing had the best sensor array, and he could actually get an estimated count of the rocks. "There's close to four hundred of them. This won't be easy."

"No one said it would be," Wedge said, trying to eliminate the negative comments from the get go. "Anakin, you just about ready?"

They had preplaned their strategy and had decided that since they had Anakin's abilities at their disposal, they would make a micro jump to get to the asteroids as quickly as possible. The nav-coms wouldn't allow such a calculation to take place do to the numerous safeties built in, but Anakin had no safeties built into his mind.

"I'm sending the coordinates and jump duration over the com channel link now," the Jedi responded.

A few seconds later all four ships flashed out of real space, only to flash back in a second later. All four pilots gasped slightly at the sight before them. The huge collection of rocks wasn't that unnatural to an experienced pilot who has been around an asteroid field or two, but never had so many traveled so fast and in the same direction.

"The field is seventy-five thousand klicks wide and half of it should hit Denor within the next thirteen minutes," Tremon reported, examining what his sensors were telling him, "and the other half will proceed past the planet most of which will be caught by the gravitational pull of Trewist in about forty-five minutes."

"What about Forinad?" Binzely asked.

"We're not going to worry about that," Wedge said. "We don't have either the time or the mental luxury to worry about their well-being. Tremon, I want you to try and determine where the cut-off point is in the asteroid field. Try and figure out which asteroids are going to hit which planet. We need to take care of the Denor asteroids first. You try and make a line and come over from the middle. Binzley, you start on the far side and work in. Anakin and I are going to fly inside and work our way out. I don't want either of you other two attempting to fly inside the field. It's far too dangerous, and if one of us goes down, we loose a fourth of our fire power."

All four ships knew their tasks and departed toward the moving field. Anakin wasted no time diving into the field taking shots at each rock that entered his scope. Wedge had been out of the cockpit for a while, but as the situation presented itself, all his skill came flooding back, and he plunged in after the Jedi.

Anakin was quickly wishing that he had his E-wing with him. The battery on the newer ship was much more powerful and could last a lot longer. After thirty rapid fire shots, the X-wing's battery was depleted, and Anakin had to wait about ten seconds in between shots. Trusting in his skill as a pilot, Anakin lowered his shields to give more power to the weapons, but it helped only a little.

Thirteen minutes was just not enough time to destroy two hundred asteroids. The problem with most of the rocks was that after you blew them apart, most of the pieces were still large enough to cause serious damage. All four ships had the critical size for an asteroid to burn up in the atmosphere, and any rock that was small enough to ignore, the sensors regarded as unviable targets.

The planet of Denor loomed large in the view screens of the four pilots, and as it became obvious that mass destruction was inevitable, Tremon and Binzley pulled away. Anakin and Wedge, still inside the asteroids, stayed with the projectiles, following them into the planet's atmosphere. "You two go see if you can't do something about the other asteroids," Wedge said over the com.

"I'm detecting many large cities on the coast," Anakin said. "If you can, try and circle the coast and get any of the big ones that come close. I'm going to see if I can't do something about the waves."

Wedge didn't reply, but flew hard and fast toward the most hospitable coastline he could see. All around him asteroids were streaking into the planet's surface, causing enormous explosions. Wedge wasn't used to the sound of explosions echoing through his ship during a battle since every fight he'd ever been in took place in the vacuum of space. As the several hundred-ton rocks slammed into the ground beneath him, the shock waves not only hurt his ears, but also shook the entire ship. As Wedge blew one asteroid into smaller fragments, he watched in horror as another he wasn't able to get to pulverized a residential section of the city, leveling twenty square miles instantly and treating the ground as if it were water, sending a shock wave that crumbled even more houses. He then saw the shrapnel that he had created turn several skyscrapers into confetti as they ripped through the large buildings. Wedge flew the best routines of his life, only to watch the ground and people beneath him turn into molten carnage as the rain of fire came down all around him. Soon the sky was so filled with smoke and ash that Wedge was flying blind. He knew that he needed to stay around as long as possible but also knew if he got hit by one of the now unseen asteroids, he would be of no use to the people of Trewist. Wedge, very reluctantly, turned his ship to the sky and let his sensors find a clear path for him through the falling rocks.

Anakin flew far out over the vast ocean where the blazing hot rocks made steaming entries into water, creating an incredible wake. Anakin knew exactly what that wake would become when it reached the shoreline. Out in deep water, tidal waves didn't look that impressive. They were simply pulses that were caused by some compressive force. Usually it was the wind; this time it was huge kiloton rocks. The pulses moved through the water very quickly, but as the pulse approached the shoreline and the depth got shallower, the bottom of the pulse slowed, pulling the top, and still quickly moving part, out of the water. As the wave entered increasingly shallow water, the top of the wave grew taller and taller, threatening to topple over because of its lagging base, until finally the whole thing fell over. Normally since the wind is only able to affect the water a few feet deep, the height of the pulse isn't very big, and it isn't until the pulse reaches the shore that it stands up. In this case, the pulse was the entire depth of the ocean, and would likely be several miles tall when it reached shore. The shear speed of the pulse would prevent it from breaking until it ran out of water.

Anakin followed the first of the pulses as it headed toward shore. He hoped that the other shoreline that he was neglecting wasn't as heavily populated as the one he was going to try and protect. As soon as the wave began to rise, Anakin swept down in front of it and flew parallel to the quickly growing wall of water. As soon as the wave peaked above a hundred feet, Anakin brought his X-wing down right alongside the base of the wave and activated his tractor beam. He couldn't possibly hope to be able to get a lock on the intangible liquid, but he let the pulling force trail him as he sped along base of the wave like a surfer. Unlike any surfboard used on Gensifery, the X-wing's tractor beam created a huge resistance against the forward progress of the water, and behind Anakin, the wave began to break over on its self. Anakin finished his sweep at the estimated length of the coastline and observed his handy-work. He had in no way stopped the wave, but he had stolen a lot of its speed. As the pulse began to build up its height again, it was hit from behind by another pulse from one of the other meteors. The result was an instantly tall wave that nearly took Anakin out of the sky. The wave had no balance and immediately came crashing down. Then a third wave came crashing into the turbulence and a fourth and a fifth. Soon an enormous pulse with very little speed, but a ton of momentum was moving out of the mess towards the coast. Anakin followed the wave toward the shore, having to bring it down prematurely three other times before it made it to land.

When Anakin reached the shoreline, he almost wondered if it had been worth saving. The entire coast seemed to be burning or crumbling. There didn't seem to be any direct hits from large asteroids, but the Jedi could see many small pockmarks and further inland, there was evidence of huge earthquake activity that no doubt had played a part in the carnage below. The wave came in and wiped the entire coast clean of landmarks. The wave was thorough, much more thorough than it would have been had Anakin left it alone, but it only reached a mile or two inland. It would have stretched its destruction almost a hundred miles left unchecked. When the wave rolled back, Anakin saw only bare ground as if no one had ever even built a shack there.

With a huge sigh, Anakin pointed his X-wing toward the sky and headed toward the other asteroids.

* * *

Leia read the report with mixed feelings. Forinad had escaped total destruction with a death count that didn't even reach a thousand, but it was going to endure a long nuclear winter that the planet might not be able to handle. It and Denor might both enter an ice age, though for Denor it didn't really matter. The destruction on that planet had been complete. Unlike Forinad, the more heavily populated region of Denor had been facing the hellish downpour. There wasn't one square mile of the world that hadn't in some way been affected by the meteors, whether it had been a slight tremor or the instantaneous evaporation of every strand of DNA within fifty miles. Over three fourths of the planet's population had been killed, and many more would die before the relief that the Republic had sent the day before could reach them.

Trewist was a different story. Wedge had reported that they had been able to reduce almost all of the rocks into debris, which could be burned up in the atmosphere, but this turned out to spell doom for the planet anyway. Trewist had been the industrial hub of the Denorid system being the source of almost all of the system's natural resources. Because of the countless factories that existed there, the ozone layer was very fragile. Several domes had been erected on the planet to try and filter out the impurities that were belched into the sky constantly, but the ozone layer was always on the brink of destruction. The burning up of megatons of space rock, was more than enough to totally collapse the protective shell. Now, while the other two planets prepared for an ice age, Trewist had to get ready for immense global warming.

Leia tried to take this information with a grain of salt. Two out of the three planets were saved, at least the people were. They weren't in any immediate danger, and if necessary, they could be relocated. Though this was a dismal outcome, it was far better than total destruction for all three worlds, which would have been the outcome had she done nothing.

Chapter 12 "Money Matters"

"You seem to have lost your limp."

Luke didn't say anything as he walked into the cockpit and sat down in the copilot's chair next to his captain. Mara didn't comment further and returned to her controls. They were nearing the Varion system, and Mara was making sure that everything was checking out okay. Iom was very particular about the ships they let land, not wanting too many unsavory types clogging up the layers of population like the lower levels of Coruscant.

"You wanted to ask me something," Luke said, not looking at Mara, but staring straight ahead. After a few seconds without a response, the Jedi Master turned to face her. "At breakfast the other morning you started to say something, but didn't finish. Plus Han said that you wanted to talk to me back on Coruscant, and I don't think you wanted to invite me on this joy ride."

"Have you ever heard of the Zorian?" she responded with out looking up from her gauges and readings.

"The what?"

"That's what I thought. I knew you would have absolutely no clue."

"Surely you have some context to which you can relate the word," Luke said, not wanting to be proven worthless. "I mean you just didn't randomly open the dictionary and point to the first word you found."

Mara looked up finally. "If I did that, I hardly think I would end up with a word starting with 'Z.'" Mara went back to her checking. "No, I remember the word from a dream I had two months ago."

"What was the dream?"

Mara sighed. She had decided against bringing it up earlier because she knew that Luke wouldn't know, but she would have to explain everything anyway. "Okay, you want to play psychologist? In this dream I was standing on a windswept barren planet. The curvature of the ground was really extreme, so I think it was more like a moon, but the gravity seemed normal."

"You can remember what the gravity was like in your dream?" Luke asked incredulously.

"You, of all people, should understand what I'm talking about. Don't tell me you've never had a dream of the future and remembered every little detail."

"Is that what you think this was? A Force dream of the future?"

"If you let me finish without interruption, maybe we could get there. I was standing on this planet, for lack of a better word, and the sky was really stormy. There was no water or vegetation in sight, just rocks and sand. Lightening was ripping through the sky, and the wind whipped the dark clouds in dizzying, swirled patterns. Anyway, Palpatine was there in front of me. For all I remember of the planet, I can't really remember how the he got there. It was kind of like he was always there, but I only saw him when my dream progressed to a certain stage. I can't remember if it was just his face or his whole body or what. All I remember exactly is what he said. 'You have failed. The Zorian is coming, and I shall complete the job.' After that I woke up."

Luke paused in thought. He had never been to a planet like the one Mara had described. Luke definitely thought it to be a planet, and a breathable one at that. There were certainly oxygenless planets out there with lightening storms, but the clouds looked nothing like storm clouds that Mara had ever seen before, and the wind wouldn't be mild enough for anyone to endure, even in a dream, especially a Force dream.

"Now, there is only one task of his which I have failed."

"Killing me," Luke answered the trivia.

"Exactly. I thought that since this Zorian is going to help him kill you, you might know who or what it is. To get back to your dictionary example, I did look it up, but it took a galactic library to produce a definition. It is an ancient word from a language that used to be the common tongue before Basic. It means 'the return' or 'to return.'"

Luke swallowed hard. He didn't need to have the significance explained to him. This meant that the Emperor was going to return, if not in person, then in spirit. The actual Zorian could be anything. It could be a person in whom he was capable of imputing his power, or it could be an event the Emperor could shape to his liking.

"You don't know what it means, do you?" Mara asked, not expecting a positive reply. Getting no reply at all, she understood this for a negative. "Figures."

Luke had time to worry about this Zorian some other time, right now he was more curious about Mara's attitude. She had been overly negative this entire trip, more so than her sarcastic norm. "Your jealous." Mara looked up from the work to which she had returned at the odd statement. "That's what's eating at you, isn't it?"

"Jealous of what?" Mara decided to humor him.

"Of me, of Leia, or of us, meaning everyone, in general? I don't really know, but I can definitely tell you're jealous about something."

Mara looked at Luke for several seconds, wondering if this man really wanted to know what was on her mind and then if she wanted him to know it. "It's not jealousy, and if it were, it's not of you. You think I want to be a target? You realize that is all you are now, don't you? No more bad guys to fight, so now you have to sit around and wait for them to come to you.

"No, it's not jealousy. For what I feel they haven't created a word. It's a mixture of despise, regret, indifference, and maybe a little envy. Whatever it is, it's not aimed at you or any other one person. Have you ever thought about what you, your sister, Han, and all you other 'heroes' have accomplished? You overthrew the most powerful government in history with almost no major casualties. That is a statistical impossibility."

"What about Alderaan?" Luke countered. "I wouldn't exactly call that a light casualty."

"I mean in battles. You never attacked with more than a handfull of ships and therefore had nothing much to loose. Now, while you and a handful of people might have worked very hard to overcome the Emperor, on the outside, everyone else only sees one miraculous victory after another. For all you've gained, you never actually earned it; it just came to you. Because you never had to pay the cost for your victories, you don't know how valuable they are. If you don't see the true worth of something, you won't go out of your way to protect it."

"Are you trying to say that we aren't holding the Republic together, and that it will fall apart any day?"

"All I'm saying is that I know what the Emperor and Darth Vader went through to gain their power. They had to fight off countless rebellious worlds, the senate, and most of all the Jedi. Now, while you might not agree with what they did, you have to appreciate how they did it. It was never easy, and because of that, they protected what they had. They refused to grow soft, building ship after ship, Death Star after Death Star, trying to secure their holdings as best they could so they wouldn't disappear.

"I'm not saying the Republic should rule the galaxy with an iron fist. I believe the saying goes, 'The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers," or something like that. What I am saying is that the Republic is built upon victories that weren't earned, and because of that, the entire government is capable of collapsing with the same ease and suddenness with which it was created."

Luke sat for a long moment, trying to see if there was any credence to Mara's claims. The first death star was destroyed with one shot. The second one was destroyed after Vader had killed the Emperor. All the other battles seemed to have been won, if not easily, than at least not difficulty. Worlds had just decided to join. They didn't need to be forced, and no effort was made by the Republic to keep them as members. Things just sort of happened, and now Luke could see that things could just as easily un-happen.

"Now, if you don't mind," Mara said, interrupting Luke's thoughts, "I'll see if I can't get the strict Iom flight control to let us land."

Luke hadn't even noticed they had left hyperspace, but sat back and listened and watched as Mara ended their trip.

* * *

Mara stood in front of the secretary feeling quite embarrassed. "It says here that your appointment was scheduled for 9:00. It's 11:30 now, and I can make no guarantee that you will be seen today. You might have to reschedule."

Mara sighed. She had left the hotel she and Luke were staying at with plenty of time to get here, but she had been thoroughly confused by the monorail system. After she had figured that out, she had been mugged, or at least two men tried to mug her. She had disposed of them quite easily, but then found that she had missed her train. She had finally arrived at the huge office building two and a half hours late. "I know I'm late, but I have a very valuable shipment of computer software and hardware that I'm sure your boss is eager to get a hold of. If you could just call him, I'm sure he can make arrangements to see me."

"I'll see what I can do," the young woman responded. She was wearing a small earpiece connected to a microphone positioned in front of her mouth. With a press of a button on the console in front of her, she dialed up the president's office and waited. After several moments she said, "I'm afraid he's not in his office. It is very near his lunch hour. He probably left already."

"Actually, I'm on my way out."

Mara and the secretary turned to see a man walking toward them from the back of the room. Mara looked at the man who she instantly knew was the president. She had expected him to be much older, but he seemed to be very nearly her own age - mid to upper forties - perhaps a year or two younger. He was well dressed, but didn't flaunt his wealth with any fancy chrono chains or stupid frills. He wasn't physically intimidating, but maintained an aura of confidence that was almost contagious.

The secretary ended the identity suspense by turning to speak. "President Snotzenexer, this woman had an appointment with you over two hours ago. Should I reschedule her appointment?"

Snotzenexer regarded Mara closely, or appeared to. He had already studied her with the security cameras when she had first entered. He had noticed a very slight bulge under her arm toward the front of her torso that was meant to look like part of her figure, but Snotzenexer was sure it was a blaster. He wondered how the men he had sent to hold her up had faired. "I don't think that will be necessary, Alicsia." He turned to look at Mara again. "We can have the meeting over a meal, if you like. I have a table reserved at the finest restaurant on Iom. I'm buying." Mara hesitated. She didn't want to get involved with this guy, she just wanted to drop off her shipment, get her ship overhauled, and leave. "Don't worry," Snotzenexer said, noticing her slight apprehension, "I'm married."

Snotzenexer's smile evaporated Mara's reluctance and she agreed. The trip to the restaurant was an uneventful, the conversation mostly consisting of idle comments about the weather and the complexity of the Iom monorail system. The restaurant itself was huge. It spanned several floors, and spared no credits on its lavish interior. The host led Snotzenexer to his table on the upper level of the restaurant, which, Mara saw immediately, was reserved for only the most prominent guests at the restaurant.

Seconds after being seated their waiter arrived at their table. "And how are we this afternoon?" The man asked with the kind of accent that you could only find in expensive restaurants.

"We're fine, thank-you," Snotzenexer said. "I will be having the usual, of course, but might you wait a few minutes so that the lady has a moment to glance at the menu."

"Certainly, sir."

"Excuse me," Mara asked in the same style of sickening politeness that Snotzenexer and the waiter were using. "May I inquire as to what the 'usual' is?"

Snotzenexer motioned to the waiter, giving him the honors of reciting the order. "On this particular day of the week, I believe that the president enjoys dinning on a twelve ounce tender loin nerf steak done medium rare, marinated in Tranion nectar, and garnished with breaded gorguanut slices. To drink, I believe he takes our fifty-year Varion dinner wine, with an olive. Desert consists of a rippled Bolian cream tort with chilled Goyan berries."

Mara decided that the intent of this meeting was to intimidate her. She really couldn't understand why the head of one of the largest banks in the galaxy would want to unnerve a simple trader, but that was what appeared to be happening. She didn't plan on going quietly. "That sounds good. I think I'll have the same, only could you change the steak to a sixteen-ounce medium well. Oh, and could you change the gorguant slices from breaded to sautéed. And could you exchange the local wine, though I'm sure it's excellent, with a sixty-year Alderaanian port."

With the last alteration, the waiter glanced quickly at Snotzenexer for confirmation. The admiral could barely keep his smile back at Mara's boldness and nodded at the waiter. Since Alderaan no longer existed, its wines, which were in high demand before the Death Star made a demonstration of the planet, were now considered the finest anywhere. With the rarity of the wine, there came a much-inflated price. Mara's small glass of wine cost as much as the rest of her meal and Snotzenexer's combined. Mara actually had about twelve cases of the wine stored away in very secluded part of Yavin IV, just waiting for the price to become astronomical.

"Oh," Mara added, pretending not to notice the exchange between the two men, "I've never been a huge fan of cream tort, even Bolian, but the chilled Goyan berries sound good. If you could find a way to put them in a crumb pie topped with vanilla creamed-ice, I'd be grateful."

"I'm sure I can arrange it, Madam." After waiting a brief while to see if Mara would make any other requests, the waiter disappeared, only to be replaced a few seconds later by a young serving waitress and their salads.

Snotzenexer was glad for Mara's choice of wine. When one thought of Alderaan, the Death Star comes to mind. When one thought of the Death Star, the Empire came to mind. When one thought of the Empire, the Rebellion came to mind. When one thought of the Rebellion, the Republic came to mind. "You just came from Coruscant, if I'm not mistaken, tell me, what do you think if the Republic?"

Didn't I just have this conversation with Luke last night? "It seems to be strong," she said carefully as she choose a dressing from the relish tray that came with the salads, "but I feel that if it ever underwent any kind of difficulty it would fall apart, or at least reshape itself. Why do you ask?"

Snotzenexer pretended to ignore the inquiry. "Are you aware of what is going on in the Denorid system?" The admiral's question drew a blank stare from his dinning companion. "Do you know where the Denorid system is?"

"I'm afraid not. Should I?"

"Yesterday all three inhabited planets of the system were hit by a large meteor shower that all but destroyed the ecosystems on all three planets and killed over three billion people. The Republic had been warned that the three planets were in danger but they decided it was in their best interest to ignore the cry for help. It was only when the essence of the danger became known that they did anything, and by then it was too late. Right now a lot of dissension is going through the ranks of the government and this could very well be the 'difficulty' you mentioned in your analysis."

Mara almost choked on her lettuce. "Are you saying that even while we are eating the fabric that holds much of the galaxy together is coming apart?"

"Not really," Snotzenexer said with a smile that would comfort a charging bull. "It is more or less changing the guard."

"Like you said earlier, I just came from there and I heard nothing."

"It was kept secret until the morning you left. Since then the current president is undergoing some heavy scrutiny."

"I wonder if Luke knows," Mara said under breath.

"Luke who?"

Mara scolded her self silently at her extreme carelessness. It didn't matter too much considering that it was only a harmless bank president, but what if people were listening or Snotzenexer talked to someone. Luke was supposed to be incognito. If there were Imperials here and they knew that Luke was here, he would be in definite trouble. "Oh he's just a fellow trader I know. Kind of an old friend. He has ties to the Republic. What is the general reaction to the events?" Mara asked, trying to change the subject.

"The public at large hasn't found out yet. I have special sources that give me the news before it hits the networks. I assume that the public will be confused as to why and how this could happen, but that will change to either sorrow or anger depending on what slant the non-Republic networks put on it. They could call it a terrible tragedy where nature decided to rain fire and brimstone, or they could call it carelessness on the part of the Republic and an accident that could have been avoided."

After he was done with his speech, their food arrived. After a few bites of the succulent steak, Snotzenexer seemed to remember something. "Are you familiar with the Coellant Ore Refinery?" As he spoke he pulled out a modified data pad.

"Who isn't? I've ran shipments for them a few times. What do they have to do with anything?"

"Are you aware of their fanatical religious beliefs?"

"Yea, the whole company is run by a bunch of monks who had decided to live a life among the stars to be with their gods. They settled on an asteroid field and quite accidentally discovered the richest deposit of natural ore in the known galaxy. Since then they run the largest durasteel and titanium production facility anywhere."

"Because of their fanatical religion," Snotzenexer said, "they have always looked out for the more primitive races who still hold to their beliefs that the gods live amongst the stars. Because of this I'm willing to bet that they are going to halt their production for the Republic. Who's their biggest customer in the Republic?"

Mara saw that Snotzenexer was beginning to call up some figures on the stock holdings of the bank. "You're not going to make a stock trade right here, are you? I mean don't you need to confer with some of your colleagues?"

Snotzenexer chuckled a little. "They call me a president, but it's actually more like a dictatorship. They let me do what I want. So what is the largest ship producer in the Republic?"

"The ship yards at Kalinthorp does a lot of the construction on the fighters. The biggest large ship manufactures are located at the Coruscant Ship Yards, Borcance Hull Construction, and the Engine Complex on Garrent."

"We only have stock in the Borcance Hull Construction Yards. To be honest, I've never even heard of the Engine Complex."

"So you think that the monks are just going to stop sending durasteel to the Republic because of what happened in the Denorid system? That doesn't sound like a very safe bet to me. I mean the Republic is in need of ships right now because of their losses at Danzig 359. If anything, I would invest in the ship companies."

Snotzenexer was surprised with Mara's knowledge. Almost everyone knew about the fight in the Danzig system, but only a handful outside of those involved knew exactly around which star the battle had happened. "You have to look at it from their perspective, the monks I mean. They can sell their durasteel to anyone, and they are very fanatical. If they feel that their product is being wasted on a government that doesn't answer pleas of help from fellow brothers of the faith, then they will find another buyer to ease their conscience. The only question I have is to whom are they going to sell their durasteel now. I mean durasteel isn't as plentiful as it used to be, so they will have no problem finding a different buyer, but since almost a fifth of their business is with the Republic, some other company is going to be able to receive literally tons of metal at bargain prices."

A light went on in Mara's head. "I heard about a company off in the corporate sector that has a few very good architects and engineers working for them. They specialize in huge cathedrals and really elaborate opera houses and such. Each year they get hundreds of projects presented to them and can only accept about twenty because of the shortage of natural resources in the corporate sector. If they could get their hands on some more material, they would be able to double their profits in a year. I've seen some of the buildings they've put up, believe me, they are works of art."

Snotzenexer had had a few companies picked out already, but this wasn't one of them. He usually never deviated from his path once he had decided upon it, but this move was basically only part of his plan so he could hurt the Republic more. He could really care less where he reinvested the returns from the sold Republic stock. But this idea of Mara's could work. "That sounds good, I'll have to look into it." Snotzenexer put his data pad away, keeping his stocks where they were for now, but making a mental note to get in contact with this company in the corporate sector.

As the deserts came, they finally got down to the business that had brought Mara to Iom in the first place. "Where is your ship docked?"

"It's actually almost on the other side of the planet. They told me it would cost me a bundle to dock anywhere else."

"I'll tell you what, you can park it in my personal hangar right next to the bank. That will make unloading a lot easier than having to use transports in between the bank and your ship."

"That's sounds good. I'll have to wait for my copilot so he knows that I'm moving the ship and doesn't get lost."

"Got a new guy working for you?"

For some reason Mara didn't feel that the question was that odd, but on later reflection, knowing what was going to happen in the next two weeks, she would feel that the question was a little out of place. Why would President Snotzenexer care about her copilot? "Yea, I picked him up on Coruscant. I have no idea how long he'll last. He's got a wild streak in him, though you'd never know it by looking at him."

Snotzenexer knew exactly who it was.

They talked for a little while longer, deciding on a price that Mara was very pleased with, and upon finishing the meal, they parted ways.

* * *

Lando leaned back in his chair. "Wow! I suppose you have documentation to support this outlandish story." Han threw him the papers that Drexin and Kerik had given him plus some more he had manage to beg out of the two "financial experts." "I can't believe that the Republic leaders would allow this to happen. I mean this is incredible."

"Well look at their alternatives," Han said. "I don't think a huge taxation will solve this problem. What we need to do is wipe the slate clean and just start over."

"Either that or invent a time machine so we can go back and show Mon Mothma the balance thirty years in advance."

"This whole thing wouldn't really be a problem if we had remained small and not sucked in all the ex-Imperial worlds. I mean if something should happen that would reveal the financial state of the Republic, nothing would come of it if the member worlds acted together, but I know that the Imperials are just waiting for a chance to jump all over Leia and depose her. It would divide the senate right down the middle."

"Now you're telling me that these records were stolen a few days ago and you want me to come up with a solution to avoid chaos when the thief makes his findings public?"

"I don't know if you can exactly solve the problem, but we need to find a way to keep everyone calm when it does hit. We have to be able to convince people that absolutely nothing has changed. Everyone was doing fine when the money wasn't there and they didn't know about. Now that they do know about it, if they acted ignorantly, everything will still be fine."

"And you want me to . . ." Lando started, wanting Han to fill in the rest.

"Prove it with a bunch of cool financial mumbo jumbo. Not too many people know you as a former military man from the Rebellion days. They would just see you as a businessman who has just as much to loose as everyone else. If you can convince them that they won't HAVE to loose anything if they don't want to, we would be able to avoid a big problem." Han looked at Lando for his reaction, but saw that his friend was absorbed in the papers in front of him. "Yo, Lando, are you listening?"

"Did you look at these things?"

"Yea, they're just a bunch of numbers and percentages. I really didn't understand much of it. I don't think anyone really can."

"I can," Lando said, "and you're right, it doesn't make any sense. Come here and look at this." Han got up from his chair to see what Lando was looking at. "When you took control of the Emperor's stocks and sold them, you were charged for retroactive taxation on the stock's earnings. But look here, the recorded earnings of the stocks you seized doesn't match the corresponding taxation."

"What do you mean?"

"Look, the Coruscant bank at the time you took over charged a seven percent flat tax on all profits, but what you were charged is a lot more than that. That means that the Emperor's stock profits were greater than those of the ones you seized."

"Meaning that the Emperor had more stocks than the ones we seized," Han said, catching on. "Do you think they are still out there? I mean it's been a long time. Don't you think that someone at the bank would notice that we missed some?"

"Not if they were bought under a dummy name and controlled by a computer that was programmed to fiddle with them every once and a while to keep them active."

"So how do we get them?"

"Not so fast, I think there's more. I once was given an account number of the Empire's to withdraw some funds. I don't see that account here among the ones you seized."

"When were you in the employ of the Empire?"

"Hey, Vader promised me a pretty credit for selling you guys to the Empire back on Cloud City. I never did cash in that voucher. Now that I think about it, I'm sure it wouldn't have worked. Vader double crossed me so many times, he probably had the account triggered to alert officials to my presence and come and arrest me."

Han managed to smirk at the unpleasant memory of being frozen in carbonite. "Out of curiosity, how much did a man make for selling his friends to the highest bidder twenty-some-odd years ago?"

"Not as much as you might think," Lando said back, refusing to enter the playful bickering that Han had hinted at. "Regardless, I brought up that not-so-pleasant memory for a reason. Vader gave me an account number, and I don't see it listed here."

"Are you trying to tell me that you actually remember the number from that long ago?"

"I don't remember exactly what the number was, but I remember what the format was like, and I don't see it here. There are different types of accounts for different purposes, Han. You have your bonds and CD's that you can't touch until a certain date. There are accounts that are set up for the sole purpose of transferring them to others - kind a way of setting up a payable account for upcoming purchases. I personally have an account that is linked to my credit voucher so I can withdrawal from it any time I want. The account that Vader had given me was similar in fashion, but it was complex enough to put a limit on the amount of and number of withdrawals - perfect for paying people for services rendered without having to worry about the transfer yourself.

"I am assuming the Emperor and Vader had many of these accounts set up to pay people such as bounty hunters, Jabba, Xizor,-"

"-yourself," Han interrupted, not letting the crime be forgotten.

"Yes," Lando gave in, "and me. Anyway, these were obviously meant to be kept secret from the public, seeing how it was mostly blood money." Han held back the urge to mention whose blood. "I don't see any of those accounts here."

"So what you are saying is that there are a lot more accounts of the old Empire sitting around that we haven't taken. I don't think so."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean," explained Han, "we have been over the computer records up and down, back and forth, and there is nothing there that we haven't found already. If there was some secret credit stash somewhere, we would have found it."

Lando shook his head slowly. "You don't understand yet. This account I had was set up to be accessed from outside the palace and, most of the time, outside of Coruscant. There are no inside lines to the computers that control this account. You can only access the account from the outside with one of the numbers that are given to the people who are aloud to access it. If we could get someone to try to access the account from the outside and monitor all the receivers on the roof, we could tell which one was wired to the account."

"Couldn't we just test all the antennas with random numbers until we stumble on it?" Han asked.

"Have you ever looked at the roof top? There have to be over a thousand antennas up there. If I remember correctly, the account number that was given to me was over fifteen digits long. I'm not going to insult your intelligence by telling how long it would take to cycle through fifteen digits over a thousand times. Don't forget that each of the antennas have a purpose, and I'm sure that they each have some code or frequency that would gain us access to something. Being able to tell what that was would be next to impossible."

"Okay," Han submitted, "so where do you keep your account number?"

"That's the catch, isn't it?" Han didn't need to be told that Lando had lost it. "Don't worry, I think I know how we can get a hold of someone who still has a number. Heck, he's still probably drawing funds."

"Do you know how we can get a hold of this former, Imperial employee?"

"I think I know someone who can find him for me. I have a Jedi working for me who I think is a little sick of the mines."

Chapter 13 "Finding Yourself in a Crowd"

The Scavenger touched down rather abruptly on the landing pad. Jacen was running out of the ship even before Jaina had shut it down. The twins had just received clearance to land on the landing pad of the flight controller's choice, despite the vehement arguing of Jacen to put them down next to the trading ship that had landed twenty minutes earlier.

Jaina walked out of the ship after it was properly shut down and locked against any possible thefts, although the patchwork outside did not invite much attention from ship thieves. She glanced around the hangar as a roof began to close over the landing pad. She finally saw her brother about a fifty meters away at the nearest computer console. She knew that he would be searching the flight records of recent arrivals to try and find out exactly where on this small planet of Aldertain Eran had landed. Jaina also knew that on a planet such as this that served as a large rest stop for ships and pilots, they would have a very detailed record, but not likely open to the public.

Jaina walked up behind her brother just as he was about to draw his lightsaber and excavate the information manually. "Mind if I try?" Jaina asked.

Jacen turned around, his face flushed with rage at his incompetent attempts to extract the info from the terminal. Jaina quite calmly found the passwords, and codes she needed to enter the system's archives almost instantly and brought up the listing that Jacen wanted to see.

"He landed on almost the opposite side of the planet!" Jacen screamed. "He could be anywhere. He could have even taken off again."

"I don't think so," Jaina said, trying to calm her brother. "It says here that the ship is still on its assigned pad, and there are no unauthorized takeoffs in the past twenty minutes."

"Is there a mass transit somewhere near where we can get around this hunk of rock?" Jacen asked, relaxing a little.

"It says that there is a magno-suspension jet service about half a mile from here. We should be able to circle the globe pretty quickly on one of those. If you have any credits on you," Jaina added, catching Jacen flat-footed. He had been in such a hurry to chase down Eran, that he hadn't even packed an extra set of clothes. Jaina held up her own credit voucher, sending Jacen a look that this was not going to be a solo mission (despite their last name), but a unified effort.

* * *

A smart person would have put as much distance between themselves and their ship as possible upon landing, knowing that they were being followed. No one had ever mistaken Eran for smart. He wasn't stupid, but very few of his actions were based upon much thought, and he tended to operate purely spontaneously.

Eran really wanted to know who was following him. If it were just a few Republic security police, he was going to dispatch them, knowing they wouldn't be missed too greatly. He really needed to get back to Iom, and he couldn't be followed anymore. If it were someone more important, like he feared, he would have to figure out some other method of evading further pursuit.

Eran's fears were proven correct an hour after he had landed when Jacen came streaking into the hangar. Eran was hiding behind a few drums of propellant in the corner of the large room, and scoffed at the over-anxious Jedi from his vantagepoint. Did Jacen really think that Eran was dumb enough to still be hanging around his ship? Eran paused a while at the stupidity of the thought he had just had.

Jacen ran over to the trading ship to make sure that it was the same one he had helped unload on Coruscant. Eran was beginning to wonder if there was any way he would be able to evade the temperamental Jedi without killing him when Jaina walked into the hangar. Eran let out a sigh, not only because he was glad to have a chance to talk with Jacen's beautiful sister once more, but also because the level-headed female seemed to be the counterbalance to Jacen's temper.

"He's not here," Jacen spoke the obvious, not turning away from the ship but sensing that his sister had entered.

"Did you really think he would be dumb enough to hang around here with us chasing him and this being the first place we'd look?"

From Eran's hiding spot, Jaina's logic sounded impeccable, and the Imperial agent wondered if he hadn't made a mistake by waiting for them. Jacen turned around slowly. "He was here," he paused, his eyes looking for the answer that his mind was searching for. "In fact he was here very recently. I wouldn't be surprised if . . ." his voice trailed off, as he appeared lost in thought, his eyes slightly glazed over.

Eran cursed himself out violently. He should have known who was following him and that he wouldn't be able to hide from a Jedi only a few dozen meters away. Eran's violent emotion did him in as both siblings turned suddenly toward the barrels at the emotional disturbance fluttering through the Force. Jaina had heightened her senses at her brother's words, and now both of them walked slowly toward the corner where Eran was hiding. Jacen detached his lightsaber from his belt, and Eran knew he would have to run or fight. Neither option was very promising but one was far more agreeable than the other.

Though both Jedi sensed something behind the fuel drums, they were quite surprised to see Eran rise up from behind them and bolt for the door. The shock wore off on Jaina first, but Jacen made the first move of pursuit, sprinting after the offending arson. The magno-suspension jet the twins had gotten off was still unloading outside the hangar, and the swarm of people heading to their respective landing pads gave Eran a little cover as he plunged into the pedestrian mass. Jacen didn't need visual contact to track his prey. With Eran's emotions as riled as they were, following the Imperial agent was a kin to tracking a golden droid in a crowd of ewoks.

"Jacen!" Jaina screamed after the pair, but her voice was lost in her brother's haste. Jaina gave a fierce sigh at the inability of her brother to keep anything under control and reluctantly gave chase to the two irresponsible men.

The planet of Aldertain was a rest spot for the weary, an oasis in the dessert of space, or, more likely, a tourist trap. Above all, it was an excellent place to loose yourself. The astrographical positioning of the planet couldn't have been better if planetary repulsers had placed it there. In hyperspace, there are very few trips that are a straight shot. Though, as implied by its name, space is mostly empty, the small amounts of matter that did exist in its vastness created enormous gravity wells, necessitating curved hyperspace paths.

Aldertain was the exception. It had a straight path toward over twenty different systems including Coruscant, Corellia, Calamari, and even the Hapan cluster. Though the shortest routes between these planets usually bypassed Aldertain, the rest stop was often only half a day out of the way and turning a six day trip into a six and a half day trip with a planet stop in the middle was often more desirable. Because of this, the planet was always crowded and consisted of nothing other than restaurants and shops. There were no industries on Aldertain that didn't deal directly with furnishing the travelers with everything he/she/it could possibly want or need.

Neither Eran nor the twins had paid the planet much attention since arriving on the globe, but now as Eran looked for cover in the crowd that was shrinking as people dissipated, he found that his choices were endless. Opposite the jet landing was a long strip of inter-connected shops and small eateries catering to the widest range of clientele Eran had ever seen. The Imperial agent ducked into the first shop and disappeared from view. Jacen waded through the sentient sea of beings and came to the last spot he had seen Eran. A quick survey of the surroundings dictated the most likely path for his prey, and the Jedi made fast to follow.

* * *

Borng Zefny had been on Aldertain for over thirty years and was very well respected among the slue of shop owners in the province. He was serving his tenth straight year as chairman of the provincial council, and it was widely thought that the prosperity of his province as well as much of the eastern continent was due to the policies that he had managed to institute. Borng was, above all else, strict on crime. He was determined to make sure that Aldertain didn't turn into the dives that so many of the trading moons had become. Without solid residential, industrial, or governmental areas, it was very easy for outposts like Aldertain to turn into hideouts for criminals and a haven for bounty hunters. Unlike most of the moons that had earned a criminal reputation, Aldertain was a planet and the immense size made it harder than ever to maintain order without a prominent government.

One of the first things that Borng had insisted upon was instituting an official provincial police force. Before, so-called "do-gooders" would fight against the criminal elements that existed on the planet and then demand repayment from the businesses that they had protected. Often, the unsatisfied "protectors of the peace" caused more trouble than the criminals did. Borng had immediately recognized the old system as a lousy one and had a police force put in place. Since there was no overseeing government to control the police, the law enforcement was quick, brutal, and final. Due to the extreme measures taken against crime, the unsavory types quickly left in favor of the less rigorously controlled moons.

Even though Borng disagreed with the idea of having individual local law enforcers, he was quick to recognize a galactic protector of the peace. Jacen came running into his shop about ten seconds after Eran had. Something about the young Solo struck the old shopkeeper immediately. Jacen was wearing a green cloak that wasn't as long or encumbering as it first appeared, black pants, and a light green button-down shirt underneath. It wasn't the attire that tipped Borng off, though it was very out of place. It also wasn't the deactivated lightsaber that he was holding in his right hand, though that clinched it. It was the look in the Jedi's eyes. Borng could see the power and, right now, the fury that was contained within the hazel orbs.

Jacen met the keeper's gaze almost at once. There seemed to pass some kind of unsaid understanding between them. Without speaking, Borng lifted his left arm and pointed toward the side exit Eran had used. Jacen nodded his silent thanks and left the shop. Everyone else in the shop seemed to be oblivious to what had just happened.

As soon as Jacen left, Borng motioned to the next customer in line to wait and reached under his counter for his communicator. After dialing the head of the police force, he waited several seconds for an answer. "Yea, Jornik? We have a small situation."

* * *

Eran didn't bother looking behind him as he jumped in and out of stores. He knew that he had a big enough lead that Jacen wouldn't be directly visible, and if he waited to see if the Jedi was still there, he would be dead in the water. The strip mall was only so long, and soon he was back out in the open. Across the street he saw a city park and headed toward it. Now that he was out of the stores, he could see Jacen behind him.

The park was filled with families. It was a little after noon on the planet, and lunch was in session among the traveling families. The children were spread out on the various pieces of play equipment including a few jet-swings, a repulsed-go-round, and one or two even-overs. Eran watched the throng of people carefully as he approached the park at a full out run. The last thing he wanted to do was take out some innocent kid.

There was a fairly wide stream cutting the park in half bordered by sparse trees and sandy embankments. Eran made his way toward the bridge, which was covered with young children. Eran glanced over his shoulder and saw that the Jedi was making much better progress than he was and had already halved the distance between them. The stream looked like a huge roadblock, and he was sure to be caught if he didn't cross it. The stream was over ten meters across, and the stone bridge contained at least five children clogging the top. Eran examined the one and a half meter-wide bridge with its meter-high walls that the children's arms were hanging over as they dropped various objects into the slow moving water, awing at the splash patterns they made.

Eran took five running steps up the steep bridge. Any parent who happened to be watching gasped as his sixth step placed his right foot on the stone railing and his seventh sent him hurtling over the small cluster of children, landing smoothly on the second half of the bridge, not missing a step. The motion caught the attention of almost everyone in the park and as Jacen approached the stream, everyone watched intently. Jacen ignored the crowded bridge and leaped over the water directly, his flight path almost exactly mimicking the curvature of the stone bridge.

Jaina wasn't too far behind the pair, and all the children recognized her as the third person in the incredible parade and swamped her before she could follow her brother's routine. "Can you jump the stream too?" "Can you do a flip half-way over?" "How about a double flip?" Jaina sighed heavily as she waded slowly through the mob, looking into the distance and seeing that her brother was almost on top of Eran.

The far end of the park was more heavily forested with a narrow path that led back into the commercial section of the city. Eran charged ahead through the gap in the trees to emerge on a nearly barren street. He pulled up quickly as he saw why the public had been evacuated. Borng had contacted the police, and five of them stood in a semi-circle waiting for him. None of them had drawn their weapons yet, but they each had a holstered blaster on one hip with a shock stick on the other. Eran spun around, realizing that now was not the best time to stop and dove to the side as Jacen came charging past him.

The trained warrior came up in a roll and now faced all six of his adversaries. Jacen had turned around and walked toward him slowly, staying in the middle of the police's semi-circle. "What has he done, Jedi?" Eran noticed that if Jacen was startled by the cop's recognition of him, he didn't show it. "If it is a crime against the people or property of this province, he belongs to us."

Jacen's gaze never left Eran. "I will deal with him."

"Come on, Jacen," Eran tried to talk with him. "I had nothing to do with anything, and you know it. You came a long way for nothing." Eran could see that he wasn't going to be able to reason with the ill tempered Jedi at this moment, so he tried a new tactic. "Besides, you can't beat me in a straight up fight."

Jacen still held his lightsaber in his hand, and he ignited it. Eran was wearing a loose fitting, animal-skin jacket and pulled Jacen's stolen lightsaber out of an inner pocket. When the police saw that Eran had a lightsaber as well, they stepped back a little, thinking that Eran must be another Jedi. "You may not kill him here!" one of the cops yelled. "We have strict laws and regulations regarding criminal punishment, and you are in our jurisdiction now."

If Jacen heard them, he didn't show it. Eran's eyes were skipping around, looking at Jacen, the cops behind him, and over his own shoulder, wondering what had happened to Jaina. Jaina was currently leading a small troop of curious children towards the edge of the park. When she saw what was happening, she stopped suddenly and tried to convince the children to stay away from the action.

Eran's mind was racing as he tried to see a way out of this tight spot, but as he realized that he was going to have to fight, his body became suddenly relaxed as he felt himself strengthening. He used his outward, skittish appearance to mask his sudden offensive attack and charged at Jacen. Jacen was more than ready for the attack, but also remembered their last encounter. Not wanting to be fooled by a fake attack, the Jedi sidestepped the charge at the last second and swung into Eran's passing back. His opponent's attack wasn't a fake, and Eran sensed the attack coming toward his back as he passed the evasive Jedi. He continued his swing past his side and intercepted the weak swing behind him. Keeping the blades in contact he spun around and swung the swords wide.

Both men circled slowly, trying to form some sort of strategy. Jacen was eager to finally end his pursuit, yet at the same time cautious for all of Eran's tricks. Eran, on the other hand, would very willingly surrender himself over to the police that were slowly surrounding the pair than fight against this Jedi for a second time.

Jacen made the first move, not characterized as an attack, he simply started twirling his blade in front of his body, stepping in and out. Eran saw the routine as more than just the fancy display that the cops appreciated it as, and knew that the complex routine could lash out into a very effective attack or parry sequence. It did the former a few seconds later. Eran barely got his blade in position as the strikes came in low and high, from the right and left.

Sparks rained down on the asphalt surface as the two fighters moved in such a dizzying pattern that Jaina's eyes blurred over as she tried to pick out one fighter from the other. Eran realized that they had fallen into a rhythm that was very common to any trained fighter, except it was now being executed at an incredible rate of speed. Eran didn't like to be in any routine, knowing that while it didn't hurt him, it didn't give him the same kind of advantage that a chaotic fight did. Seeing an opening in the flurry, he decided to make his move.

Jacen sensed the opening as well and had learned from his mistakes on Coruscant. As Eran lifted his blade straight to block a high swing from Jacen, the Jedi was already tensing his legs to jump. Half way throughout the swing, Eran dropped into a crouch, and as his opponent's blade went over his head, he used his vertical weapon to swing at Jacen's exposed legs. The Jedi was already flipping forward over both the swipe and his opponent. As soon as Jacen's feet touched down behind the Imperial agent, he flipped back over Eran as the crouched fighter had anticipated the move and swung back behind him.

Jacen had played the move perfectly and swung down on Eran's prone figure as soon as he landed. With his blade behind him, Eran had to scramble to get it up for the parry and was off balance as Jacen lashed out under his attack with his foot. The Jedi's boot struck Eran solidly in the shoulder and sent the shorter fighter rolling backwards onto his back. Jacen scrambled on top of him, leveling his blade at Eran's chest. The Imperial agent was far from finished and swiped the offending sword side to side twice, rolling left as the deflected blade went right.

Eran scrambled to his feet, bringing his lightsaber up to his left expecting an attack. Jacen didn't come directly in, wanting his victory in the last scramble to settle in a while longer. The Jedi side-stepped slowly back in front of his opponent, glaring at him with a look that told the flustered agent that this was not the same fighter he had beaten in the palace. Eran began to sweat a little realizing that he no longer had any kind of advantage.

In a desperation move, Eran stepped forward quickly, swinging in from his left. Jacen recognized it immediately as one of Eran's fake attacks and made no initial move to block it, remembering how off balance he had become attempting to block the earlier phantom attacks. Eran hadn't intended on finishing the attack, but when Jacen offered no parry, he passed the point of no return. When it became apparent that the move was going to be completed, Jacen spun fast and hard to his left, sending the weak attack out wide. Eran's attack hadn't been an intentional one, and Jacen's violent parry sent his arm out to his left. Jacen spun completely around bringing his blade in from his left and Eran's exposed right. With no weapon in position to block the vicious attack, Eran dropped down into a crouch again and received a hard kick in the face, sending him back to ground.

Eran tried to roll backwards, but he had didn't have the momentum, and it looked more like an uncoordinated tumble. He tried desperately to get in position to block an expected attack, and his weapon was almost yanked out of his hand as he blocked Jacen's swing from his knees. Using the momentum from this parry he was able to roll away from his attacker and come to his feet. Jacen was on him in an instant with relentless blows that were easily parried, but forced Eran to stumble backwards.

Eran failed to notice the shadows on the ground and was completely startled when he backed solidly into a tree trunk. Thinking quickly, he rolled his back along the trunk, using the wooden pillar as a shield. Jacen's swing from the left dug three-quarters of the way into the trunk, with the remaining fourth of the tree's base saving Eran's life.

Jacen had full command now. The Jedi had always felt at home on Yavin IV, and while the few trees at the edge of the city park were no jungle, he faired much better than Eran, who tripped over every other root in his path as he back-peddled. Eran managed to get a tree in between the two of them and made a dart back towards the open area outside the park. Jacen used the Force to rip a large branch of a nearby tree and tossed it at the retreating fighter. The branch entwined itself between Eran's legs, and he went sprawling, his lightsaber skittering five meters away on the pavement.

Eran got his hands under him and as his feet started to move him forward, Jacen kicked them out from under him, flipping the prone figure over. Eran managed to get his hand on the branch Jacen had thrown, but Jacen blasted the pathetic weapon in half as Eran swung it while lying on his back. Jacen looped his weapon up high and poised it for a deathblow.

Jaina had watched the entire battle, and reflecting upon it later, she didn't think that Jacen would have actually killed Eran, but she never got a chance to find out for sure. Three stun bolts slammed into the Jedi's chest, as his weapon was poised over his head. Jacen's expression was frozen in shock. His arms went slack, and the lightsaber fell from his hand, deactivating automatically. His eyes were unfocussed as his legs began to fail, and he stumbled backwards until he made contacted with a tree and slumped into a sitting position.

Eran glanced up from his position on the ground, looking at the five policemen, all of whom had their weapons drawn and pointed at Jacen. He didn't bother to thank them for their action, but leaped up from the ground and made for the cover of the trees. "Freeze! Don't move!"

Yea right, Eran thought in response to the command. A few stun bolts peppered the ground around him, but he was weaving, and after pausing briefly to scoop up Jacen's fallen weapon, he was in the cover of the trees. Two men went in after him, but from her vantagepoint, Jaina knew that they had no chance of catching Eran.

Jaina ran over to her brother, retrieving the weapon that Eran had lost before the police could get their hands on it. "Step away, miss," she was ordered by the chief.

She turned on the man in charge. "What did you do that for?!"

The two other men were moving into flanking positions around Jacen who was still staring straight ahead, the stun bolts finally taking effect. "He is under arrest for attempted murder."

"What?! He wasn't going to kill him!"

"I'm sorry, miss, but I have four police witnesses and myself who will say different."

"But they were fighting, you can't-"

"His opponent no longer had a weapon, but was lying helpless on the ground. We have rules on this planet about such things. This wasn't self-defense. He will have to wait in jail until his case come to court."

"But do you know who he is?" Jaina asked, grasping at straws.

"Jedi or no Jedi, we have laws on this planet that apply to everyone. I will not make an exception in his case. I would be just as harsh on one of my one men if they were guilty."

Jaina thought for a moment about taking on the three remaining men. She had no doubt that she could take them down in about ten seconds without causing anyone of them bodily harm, but the people who had been removed from this street before were coming back and there were over a hundred witnesses.

As the two underlings put cuffs on their immobile prisoner, the two men who had gone after Eran came back, breathing heavily. "He got away," one of them said in between gasps. "He lost us in the crowd. We think that he slipped onto the monorail."

The chief turned to Jaina. "For what reason was this Jedi after him?"

"Jacen," she motioned toward her brother, "thought he had caused a fire back home." Jaina thought it best if she didn't say exactly where home was, not wanting to drag the Republic into this mess.

"Did you have any proof?"

"Not really," Jaina replied, realizing that after this story, there would be no way to get Jacen off legally, "Jacen was going on a hunch." She didn't bother bringing her own opinion that Eran was innocent into the conversation.

"Are you trying to tell me that this Jedi was willing to kill someone over suspected arson, and all he was going on was a hunch?" The chief almost laughed out loud, but his professionalism prevented it. He turned to the two out of breath officers. "Let him go. Most likely he's innocent anyway." He turned back to Jaina. "If you want to see your friend, he'll be staying in the luxury accommodations of the maximum security wing in the provincial prison."

Jaina just stood there, watching them carry her brother off to prison as twelve children crowded around her, begging her to do some kind of trick.

* * *

"Where is he?"

"He is still in the infirmary. There is nothing physically wrong with him. When we found him, his suit still had enough oxygen for another hour, but he's been in a shock-induced comma for over six hours. I thought you might be able to do something for him."

Anakin shrugged his shoulders and followed the doctor, willing to see what he could do. The medical section of the Calamarian cruiser had also been in the process of being remodeled, but with the hour layover that the engines had caused, Wedge had made sure that they had crammed as many medical supplies into the ship as possible. They were still far from being able to handle all of the people that needed help, but the fleet that had left initially would be arriving in about a day, and then the fleet that had been officially sent by the senate a few days later.

Anakin followed the doctor into a small room containing a bed, a patient, and one monitoring device that recorded solid life signs. The man appeared to be resting comfortably. "We gave him some muscle relaxants," the doctor explained. "We didn't know what the strain on his muscles would be if they remained tensed until he woke up. Plus, we couldn't stand staring into his open eyes."

Anakin moved to the side of the bed and knelt down next to the patient. The Jedi closed his eyes and placed his hand gently on the young man's temples. It took a while for Anakin to sort through all the jumbled images, but he was soon looking at a small space station. It was obvious to Anakin that he was seeing what this man had seen before the comma had occurred. There was another man behind a window, trying to communicate to him and pointing behind him. Anakin wanted to turn around to see what it was, but had to wait patiently as the spacesuited comma victim made the turn slowly.

Anakin made an audible gasp as he saw the asteroids streaming toward him. The next few images were jumbled as they happened so quickly, but the last few images seemed to occur in slow motion. An asteroid collided with the station, sending it into a slow spin. A few seconds later, it was pierced by a small rock. Anakin watched as the oxygen flooded out of the structure along with several pieces of furniture and some tools. As soon as the man who had been at the window came out of the hole in the station, the events slowed down to a near stand still. Anakin watched as the comma victim focused in on the doomed man's face as he tried to breathe in the vacuum that was pressurizing his body. Instead of breathing in, Anakin watched as the vacuum turned the man's lungs inside out. His cheeks inflated as his eyes bulged in their sockets. Anakin was about to break contact, to avoid the grizzly scene, but the picture froze, as it was the last image the young man had seen.

Anakin went to work, removing the last few scenes from the man's memory, attempting to soothe the mental connection between the man's brain and his senses. His mind had separated itself from reality in an effort to escape what his eyes were showing him, but as Anakin went to work, consciousness began to slowly creep back into the young man.

As Anakin opened his eyes, the patient on the bed began to stir. His eyes didn't open, but he curled up into a fetal position, trying to ward away the chill that the mental images Anakin had removed had left behind. "He'll sleep it off," Anakin said as he stood up. "When he wakes up, you might want to have someone here to talk to him. He's going to have a lot of questions and he'll need gentle answers."

Chapter 14 "Unclear Motives"

Luke walked into the room and was quite startled to see that Mara didn't notice. Luke was always surprised at the former assassin's skills of observation and awareness, but as he entered through the hotel door quietly, she kept her head buried in the data pad she was reading.

Luke cleared his throat to get a reaction, and Mara looked up quickly, just as surprised that she hadn't noticed his entrance as Luke had been. "Yes?" she asked.

"I was curious if you were going to bring your ship in for repairs or not. Didn't you say that you were going to get the hyperdrive overhauled?"

"Yea, something like that," Mara replied, not paying attention.

"That would mean we would have to change hotels, wouldn't it?" They were staying right across the street from the bank now, with Mara's ship docked in one of Snotzenexer's private bays. "The check-out time is right around the corner. If we stay for another hour then we'll have to pay for another full day. I thought you might want to move closer to the repair facility."

"There's no need," Mara said. "I managed to fit the overhaul bill into the payment for my shipment, and the bank is going to take care of it for me." Without elaborating further, Mara turned back to her data pad.

"So what are you reading?" Luke asked, trying to start some pleasant conversation. He had spent the past day wandering all over Iom, trying to find some method of renting a ship to scout the system and had failed.

"Oh, just some news reports from the past few weeks." Luke could tell that Mara wanted very much to elaborate, but was holding back, wanting Luke to ask the next question. It didn't happen. "I'm reading about, perhaps, the most intelligent man I've ever met."

"Really," Luke asked, "what does it say about me?"

Mara disregarded the comment. "I met with him yesterday for lunch, and I didn't realize what he has actually accomplished."

"Who is it?"

"The president of the bank. He only took over about a week ago but has already produced the highest earning totals the bank has ever seen. You should see some of the stock moves he's made. The news reports are up in arms about where he gets his information, but he always seems to be right on. This morning he made a stock move on a company that we talked about yesterday. I thought he was just striking up idle conversation, but it appears that he took my comments to heart and made a million-credit transaction. I find it amazing that the reporters are still criticizing each of his moves even though they always turn out to be profitable. You might have to worry about him though; he made a move against the Republic, which will likely be mimicked by others who follow his every move. This guy has the ability to make huge swings in the galactic stock market because everyone figures that he has the inside track, and they don't want to be left holding stock in a sinking company."

Mara kept on singing the man's praises, but Luke stopped listening. Something about what she was saying was really bothering him. He couldn't figure out if it was exactly what she had said, or his Jedi senses detecting something amiss. "What is his name?" Luke asked, interrupting her.

"It's uh," Mara looked at the pad, "President Snotzenexer," she read, not fully confident in her pronunciation.

Everything clicked in Luke's head at once: Imperial activity in this sector, the bank president making a move against the Republic, and the name. It was the same name of the commander of the Dark Fist who had attacked Yavin IV and had escaped from Hastrin. This couldn't possibly be a coincidence. The name didn't sound that common. Luke tried to think about who knew of him. As far as the Jedi knew, only he and Wedge had seen the report from the salvaged TIE computer.

Mara noticed the expression on Luke's face. "What is it? Do you know him?"

"I think I do, but I have to be sure."

"You can't just go and see him. I had to make an appointment a week in advance. I'm sure a man like him is booked solid. You need an appointment."

"Oh," Luke said, his facial expressions disagreeing with Mara's observation, "I think I'll manage."

* * *

"I'm sorry, sir," Alicsia, Snotzenexer's secretary said, "you need to have an appointment."

Luke looked around the bank's reception area, trying to look all of the security cameras full in the face. He had disguised himself as a young pilot yesterday, but now he wanted to be recognized for who he was. He figured it was the only way that he would be allowed to see Snotzenexer. "Can you at least tell him that I'm here?"

The young woman looked annoyed, but she gave in. She touched the earpiece she was wearing. "Sir, there is a Luke Skywalker here to see you. He doesn't have an appoi . . . Are you sure? . . . Yes, sir, right away." Alicsia looked at Luke with a disappointed expression. "The president can see you now. Just follow that hallway to the turbo lift at the end and take it to the top floor. I'll remove the security restraints for you."

"Thank you." Three minutes later, Luke was standing outside the door to the presidential office. He took a deep breath, calming his body and making sure that his lightsaber was hanging loosely from his belt under his cloak. The door opened, and Luke was more than a little startled to find that there was only one man in the room. Luke had expected there to be guards or storm troopers or something.

"Please come in," Snotzenexer said, rising from his chair. "It's not often that I get famous celebrities for guests. Would you like something to drink?"

When Luke heard him speak and saw his face, his memory instantly told him where he had seen Snotzenexer before. He had been the prosecutor at the kangaroo trial that Luke and Han had been subjected to back on Hastrin. There was no doubt that he was an Imperial officer now.

Snotzenexer, though, didn't seem to notice that his most powerful enemy had just walked in the door. "How about a fruit drink? It's still pretty early in the day for an alcoholic beverage."

Luke had taken a few steps into the room but was still standing rigidly, waiting for some hidden attack to come when Snotzenexer brought him his drink. With nothing better to do, Luke took the drink. "Where are my manners?" Snotzenexer said, appraising Luke's posture. "Please, have a seat."

Luke was very out of place during this whole encounter and followed the request, seating himself in front of the large desk. "Now, what can I do for you?" Snotzenexer asked, placing himself behind his own desk.

Luke decided that the best way to sort out this meeting was to play along. "Well, President Snot- or should I call you Commander?"

"Actually," Snotzenexer said, smiling, "I'm an admiral now, but president will do just fine."

"What are you doing?" The question sounded odd to both men, but Luke couldn't think of a better way to get things moving. "I mean, you don't expect me to believe that you are simply going to settle down here and forget about everything that happened in the Danzig system?"

"I don't see why not," Snotzenexer responded. "What happened between our governments is ancient history, as far as I'm concerned."

"You destroyed my Academy and killed several of my students!" Luke blurted out. "Do you expect me to just forget that?"

"I'm sorry, but I don't know what you're talking about. More fruit drink?" Luke hadn't even touched his glass yet and was more than a little ruffled at this man's casual denial to the heinous crime. "Look, Skywalker," the president continued, "regardless of who commanded that attack, our governments were at war. You can't take revenge against me for things that happened during a war. If I recall, your people killed millions of Imperials at Danzig 359." Before Luke could counter with the expected comment, Snotzenexer jumped back in. "Don't even bring up that trial. That wasn't my idea. If I had been in command, I would have just executed you and Solo and be done with it. But all that is over now. We were at war, and you won. Now we can live in peace together, I hope."

"What about all of the stock moves you are making against the Republic?"

Snotzenexer smiled. "I see you've been talking to Miss Jade. I only sold stocks in one Republic affiliated company, the Borcance Hull Construction facility. I did so on a hunch that the Coellant Ore Refinery might withhold steel from your government after what happened in the Denorid system."

"What happened there?"

Snotzenexer chuckled to himself. "You really shouldn't be jumping to conclusions about things that you haven't properly researched. I assure you that I have no hidden agenda. Now what are YOU doing here? Please don't tell me that you came here to kill me, because I am very busy and can't afford any inconveniences."

What was Luke going to do? Either this man was telling the truth and he believed the war to be over, or he, as Mara had said, was the smartest man around and very good at hiding his motives - or both. Luke remained silent, taking the first sip from his glass. "Well if that is all, I'm glad I could clear up your worries, but like I said before, I'm busy and need to finish packing for a trip I'm taking. If you have any more questions, I'll be out of system for a while to clear up some business, but you can leave a message with my secretary, and I'll try to get back to you." Snotzenexer got up and offered his hand to the Jedi Master, and Luke, seeing nothing better to do, took it.

* * *

Luke sat in the bar, sipping his beverage, wondering what he could do next. If it was true that Snotzenexer had decided to leave the Republic alone, then what could Luke do about it? He was right, you couldn't very well hold anyone responsible for murder during a war. Luke himself had killed far more people in battle than Snotzenexer ever had. The reported Imperial activity in this sector was obviously the fleet that Snotzenexer had brought in with him, but it hadn't made any reported moves against anyone. At the same time, Luke really wanted to check it out to see for himself.

"That's impossible! There's no way anyone could ever get that high of a score!"

The shouts came from the corner of the large establishment. Luke looked over and saw several young pilots crowded around a machine. Luke was once again disguised with the Force, making himself look twenty years younger and wearing clothes that he had found in Mara's ship, left behind by one of her ex-copilots. If Luke wanted to get back into space, he would need to hook up with someone with a space ship. Luke downed the rest of his drink and walked over to the four young men.

As he approached, Luke could see that it was some type of video game. There was a helmet that the player wore as he sat in a mock cockpit. Luke didn't recognize the cockpit from any fighter he had ever seen. There was a screen on the outside of the cockpit where observers could watch the player's game. Right now the pilot who had just finished his tirade at the person who held the top score was about to throw the helmet across the room, but common sense caught up to him and he merely tossed it back into the seat.

Before Luke could make his greeting, one of the other pilots beat him to it. "Hey I know you?" Luke was more than startled. As far as he knew he looked like no one else in existence. "You came in two days ago with that hot number in the red ship."

Luke smiled at this pilot's reference to Mara as a "hot number." "My names Luke Dern," he said, offering his hand.

"Good for you," the young man responded, making no move to accept the offered appendage.

Luke shrank back from his social mistake. He wished he had grown up like Han so he knew how to act around these people. "What's the game?"

"Only the most unfair device in the known universe," the man who had just finished playing responded.

Luke read the side of the machine where it said, "The Ultimate Piloting Challenge." "Come one," Luke said, "it can't be that hard."

"Oh, no," the pilot said, his voice ringing with sarcasm, "it's just that someone scored more points than the Iom bank has credits. It's probably a fake name that the programmers put in just so no one would be able to beat the top score."

"Maybe you just lack the skill it takes," Luke responded, deciding the best way to talk to these guys was to assume the cocky-pilot attitude.

"And I suppose you have that talent?"

"Why don't you step aside and find out."

The complainer backed away from the machine, bowing slightly and gesturing his arm towards the cockpit. "Please be my guest, Luke Dern. Or should I say, Wedge Antilles."

Luke tried hard to hide his smile at his friend's apparent fame as he slipped into the seat. He inserted two credit chips into the machine and placed the helmet on his head. The machine was basically just a juiced up flight simulator. Something Luke had used numerous times before.

Mission 1: Death Star

Luke nearly fainted as he found himself in the council room on Yavin IV while Mon Mothma stood in front of a group of pilots giving instructions. Luke had heard it all before, and was surprised to find out how accurate it was. After a transition scene, showing the X-wings and Y-wings taking off from the moon, Luke saw the distantly familiar scene of the Death Star in front of him. Though it looked a little different in virtual reality, it was basically the same.

His com channel began to chatter away as TIE fighters came streaming in, and the squadron leaders began to organize an offensive. Luke reached out with his hands and grabbed the controls in front of him, testing the ship's responses. Luke spent a short while trying to protect his companions, until he remembered that this wasn't real. He managed to save a ship that he was sure had been Biggs' but he obviously couldn't be positive.

After weaving his way through the mass of TIE fighters and X-wings, he and two wingmen approached the trench, only to have to turn away as five TIE's came screeching in. One of his wingmen bit it, while Luke took out two, as did his other wingman. Before the fifth TIE could make another attack run, Luke and his lone wingman dove into the trench. Luke set his targeting computer to get a fix on the exhaust port as he punched his accelerator to full throttle. His wingman declared his concern about Luke's speed, and the Jedi could almost here "Luke, at that speed are you sure you can pull out in time?" His wingman tried to mimic Luke's flight path, but the computer didn't simulate him with as much skill as Luke had, and the unfortunate computer player crashed into a protrusion of scaffolding.

Luke was just about to the port, his computer counting down the distance, when his sensors told him of three pursuers. Luke knew who they were without looking. "Hello, Dad," Luke said under his breath. Unfortunately, Luke didn't think that Han would be saving his butt this time. The trench wasn't much longer, and if he pulled out now, he would have to fly back down the length of the trench in order to get another lock. He hadn't needed a lock thirty years ago, and he surely didn't need one now.

As the advanced TIE behind him fired, Luke pulled his X-wing up and out of the trench, finding that the simulation gave the out of date ship way too much maneuverability. Luke was able to flip all the way around, coming back into the trench behind his former pursuers. Three quick bursts from his laser cannons evaporated Vader and his wingmen, and the X-wing shot through the explosions. The end of the trench was right in front of him with no time to get a lock. Luke closed his eyes, reached out into the computer programming, found the target, and fired. The X-wing pulled out of the trench mere meters before the end. As he flew away from the end of the trench, he could hear the scoffing of the pilots who were watching the view screen on the outside.

"There's no way he hit that."

A few seconds later the screen proclaimed a direct hit, which shut the observers up.

Mission 2: The Kessel Run

Luke read the mission briefing carefully. He had never been on the Kessel Run, but had heard plenty of stories. He had to carry his cargo through the Imperial blockade and then out run the TIE fighters in the Kessel Run.

Luke made it through the blockade with a little trouble, taking a few hits on his shields. His X-wing would have been toast, but the computer had given him a much more powerful freighter to fly on this mission. When they got to the Run, Luke spared nothing. There were four TIE's on his tail, but he had no intention of letting them keep pace with him. The maw loomed ominously near his course and Luke knew that in real life the black hole cluster was a chaotic mess of gravity wells, but he figured that the simulation would be a more systematic approach. Sure enough, Luke found by inspection that the edge of the cluster had a definite pattern to it, and by scouting out with the Force, he was able to skirt the edge of the maw while the computer made the TIE's follow a much safer route, falling way behind.

Luke could hear the pilots behind him chattering in awe. Luke couldn't help but feel proud of himself until he saw his score. The computer said he had done the Kessel Run in 12.75 parsecs. Han had done it in 12.

Mission 3: Beggar's Canyon

Luke was beginning to wonder who had programmed this game. The simulator changed into a swoop for this part of the challenge, and Luke saw that he had three fellow swoops racing with him. Luke was sure that he knew Beggar's Canyon better than almost anyone alive and was also sure he could easily defeat the three computer players. Luke started the race by taking an early lead in the beginning. In the upper right part of his view, the computer showed the suggested route to the finish line, but Luke knew of a few short cuts. As Luke turned down a very narrow canyon, he found that one of the three swoops had followed him. Luke didn't think it was fair that the computer wasn't following the suggested path, but then that was probably how it insured that it would win.

Luke also noticed that his swoop didn't have any weapons, but the one behind him was armed to the teeth. Almost as soon as he made his observation, the swoop behind him opened fire. Luke dove under a low, natural, stone bridge and watched it explode above him, as he shot by underneath, just ahead of the falling rock. His trail had to go above the bridge and lost precious time as Luke was able to take a narrow corner at the base of the canyon, while his follower had to go around a high out cropping.

Luke let up a little on the accelerator, allowing the swoop behind and above him to pull even. They were in a narrow canyon with plenty of irregularities in the walls, that made the path that the other two computer players were taking, much easier and safer. Luke pulled up level with his opponent, so they were flying abreast of each other. The upcoming gap wasn't big enough for the both of them, and the computer-controlled swoop began to push Luke out of the way, Luke pushed back, and both of them were on a collision course with the side of the canyon. At the last second, Luke shot up and over the narrow section of the canyon. The other swoop shot to the side with Luke no longer there to oppose his motion and crashed into the side of the canyon.

Luke had to slow way down in order to get back in the canyon and realized that he had lost precious time. He punched his throttle back to full as soon as he reentered the canyon and maneuvered the course like he had done so many times in his youth. He took a particularly sharp corner around a turn to cut down on time and found himself on a collision course with an unexpected outcropping half way through the turn. Luke was too startled to do anything about it and smashed into the rock, exploding into a fireball and ending his game. He was still speechless as the computer replayed his death from a third person point of view.

Luke slowly started to take off his helmet. "That outcropping doesn't exist!" he said finally.

"See, I told you that it cheats."

"No, I mean I've been there before. They had everything else right, but that piece of rock just doesn't exist."

Luke started to climb out of the machine, but one of the pilots stopped him. "Wow, man. You got a high score. You kicked my butt, maybe you beat that top guy."

Luke put his helmet back on and watched as the computer highlighted his game, showing him his kill ratio and average speed for each mission. Finally they listed the high scores, and Luke saw that he had accumulated over three and a half million, but was still only second place to someone who had scored close to ten million. Luke couldn't imagine anyone doing that much better than he had, seeing that all of the other scores were under a million. He was about to agree with the other pilot's observation that the top score was a made-up identity, until he looked at the name listed next to the score. "Jon Poncho," he read allowed. Out of curiosity he called up the details of the tall pilot's score. He had over twice as many kills as Luke had had during the Death Star run, had done the Kessel Run in 11.5 parsecs (Luke would have to tell Han that), and had finished the Beggar's Canyon run in a time that Luke had never achieved in his five years of flying back on Tatooine. It also gave details for the next five missions that Jon had finished, but Luke didn't understand the statistics since he hadn't played the missions. What interested Luke the most was the date on the game. The 185th member had put that score on the machine yesterday.

Luke stepped out of the game as another pilot scrambled to take his place, eager to try and mimic what the Jedi had just done. "That was incredible, Luke!" the pilot who had played before him said. "Too bad about that fake name on there, or else you would have the top score."

"I don't think it's a fake name," Luke replied.

"What do you mean?"

"I know a person by that name, and besides, the date next to the score says it was put on yesterday."

"Really, I was here yesterday. What does he look like?"

Luke could only think of one detail to describe the pilot. "He's really tall," Luke said, holding his hand a few dozen centimeters above his head. "He'd probably be hanging out with two other guys about the same height."

The pilot he was talking to began to nod slowly. "Yea, I saw them, didn't know they were pilots, but I saw them."

"Do you have any idea where I could find them?"

"I heard them talking about the hotel they were staying at. They were complaining about the beds being to short, or something."

"Do you know where this hotel is?"

The pilot gave the address. Luke thanked him and left the bar. Before he walked out he glanced over at the corner and saw a TIE had already killed the person who had jumped into the machine after Luke. "That's not what he did! Let me show you." Luke smiled to himself, realizing that they would dump an incredible amount of credits into that machine before they would get passed the Death Star.

* * *

Leia walked back from the main assembly chamber with something less than a hop in her step. She had been through several days of hell now, and things weren't looking up. They had appointed a special council to investigate the whole matter with the Denorid system, and she was sure they would find or make up something before the ten-day deadline. So far all they had on her was misuse of power and poor judgment. Leia she was sure that if she could get one of her supporters to act as her attorney, she would be able to show that with the information she had had at the time, she had made the right decision.

The problem was again with the former Imperials. They were trying to blow this whole thing into something much more than it was. This was the second day in a row that Leia had to listen to people accuse her of treason. She was one of the founding members of the Republic, and if it hadn't been for her, her brother, and husband there would be no Republic.

Leia was also having nightmares about the financial situation of the Republic. She had reoccurring dreams of a bank canceling credit to one of the worlds they were supporting. She could see everyone in the council accepting the news calmly, not understanding that the Republic didn't have one one-hundredth of the money to cover even the smallest lone that they had cosigned.

Leia sighed as the door to her apartment opened. Han and Lando were there, still working on what ever it was they were doing to try and fix the problem. Han had begun to explain it once, but Leia couldn't understand what he was saying and could also tell that Han hadn't really understood it when Lando had originally explained it. As long as they got results, Leia would be happy. With a small wave to her husband, Leia went into her room and collapsed on her bed, exhausted from the day's events.

* * *

Snotzenexer had just finished storing everything he was going to take with him to Coruscant in the back of his private shuttle. The ship had no Imperial markings on it so no one on Coruscant would think him a former member of the extinct government. He had appointed one of his captains to sit in his office while he was gone, which was the extent of the authority he had given him. He was allowed to occupy the chair while Snotzenexer was away, but he wasn't to make one move without Snotzenexer's explicit command.

Snotzenexer had received the three governors' "go-ahead" earlier that day. They had contacted Coruscant and had expressed a desire to join. They had also told the Republic representative that they were going to send a senator immediately.

There was still one thing that the admiral wanted to do before he left. Sitting in front of one of the bank's numerous holo-coms. He placed a call to one of the sister banks in which Snotzenexer had recently invested a considerable amount of money. A few moments later the bank secretary came on line. She recognized Snotzenexer immediately. "Good afternoon, sir, let me get the bank president for you."

A few seconds later an older man's face appeared on the screen. "Good afternoon, President Snotzenexer, how can I help you?"

"I'd like to inform you that I will be away from my position as president for a while. I just wanted to reiterate that I have invested a large amount of my resources in you and want to make sure you don't slip up." The man on the other end of the line didn't know what to make of this. It sounded like Snotzenexer was almost threatening him. "I won't be able to check the market for a while, and I want to make sure that all of my holdings are secure before I leave. Is my money secure with you?"

"Yes, sir," the other president said, managing not to let his voice crack. "You can count on us to accumulate only positive interest in the next quarter."

"Thank-you," Snotzenexer responded, "that is what I wanted to hear."

As Snotzenexer closed the connection, the other bank president, Jawell Overn, breathed a heavy sigh. He didn't need this kind of pressure. He watched the market closely and knew what kind of influence the president of the Iom bank had. His latest move was perhaps the most strategic of all. About seven hours ago, the Coellant Ore Refinery had put out a memo that they were no longer going to provide steel to the Republic. This had come at a time when the Republic was trying to grow and expand. Snotzenexer had sold his stock in the Borcance Hull Construction Yards the previous day, and now everyone knew why. President Overn had sold out of the Borcance Hull Construction Yards soon after Snotzenexer, as had a few other trusting investors. Now everyone was jumping ship, no pun intended, selling all the stock they could in each of the Republic's ship building facilities.

Overn had tracked down Snotzenexer's transaction and saw that he had reinvested his sold profits into a little known architectural company in the corporate sector. Overn had of course done likewise and labeled the company as a "hot stock" in the bank's newsletter. After the feverish investment in the almost unheard of company, they were now predicting record earnings for the upcoming year, nearly doubling any other year.

This was only one of many examples of the kind of power that Snotzenexer had. In normal circumstances, after the Republic underwent a crises, such as a shortage of resources, they would issue a memo stating that everything was under control and that everyone's investment's were secure. Usually they were right, but now, they didn't even have the opportunity to quell everyone's fears, as the Republic's stock had been dropped like a hot lowantnut.

President Snotzenexer had to be careful what he did from now on. Any little activity he engaged in might be interpreted as the result of some inside information, and what was really just an innocent stock trade, would be magnified by millions of investors, causing a crash that had the ability to bankrupt any company. President Overn knew this more than anyone. Being the president of one of the few banks that the Iom bank had interest in, he knew that if he ever lost Snotzenexer's confidence, and the powerful president sold, the ensuing landslide would bury him and his bank. On the other hand, Overn also knew that if Snotzenexer were to increase his holdings in the bank, the ensuing influx of money would make his bank the biggest in ten sectors. He had to be careful.

Chapter 15 "Insufficient Security"

In a nearby system to that of President Overn's galactic bank, a very small planet orbited an equally small sun. The planet's name was Xentin, and it was one of the smallest known inhabited planets. It had two main continents; one was very flat with rich, fertile plains, while the other one was very mountainous and rocky. For a small planet, it had a very large population and an economy that boasted in the fact that they required no imports but maintained a steady export. It was the mountainous region of the planet that made it famous. Because of the very low gravity on the planet, mining had become very successful. In most conditions, the hardest part of excavating a mountain was the inability of the machinery to handle the immense weight of the mountain into witch it was digging. On Xentin, the gravity was half that of most planets and the problem of weight was greatly diminished.

The ease in which the people of Xentin could mine would be pointless if they had nothing to dig up. The core of Xentin also boasted one of the hottest temperatures in the galaxy for its size. This huge temperature created enormous thermal, and therefore pressure, gradients in the mountainous region. This immense pressure created some of the finest diamonds, crystals, and other gems in the entire sector.

A small transport circled the planet until it was given clearance to land on the mountainous continent. The ship's trip though the atmosphere of the small planet was a short one, and it was soon resting serenely on its designated landing pad. A representative of the Mining Corporation of Xentin waited patiently as the gangway to the small ship lowered down onto the pad and then as a man walked slowly and carefully down the steep embankment. Twice, the man nearly toppled forward as he fought against the low gravity. He tried to use the two bags he was caring to balance himself but found that he was used to his foot falling faster than it was. He soon found that he walked best if he slammed his foot down with each step.

"Greetings," the native Xentinion said. The visitor looked up (and up) at his host. The man stood just under two and a half meters tall, and towered over the shorter guest. "My name is Yewijk, you must be the representative from the Varion Imperial Bank on Iom."

The guest put one of his bags down to shake the hand of his host. "My name is Loits. Interesting planet you have here," he added, hopping up and down a few times. His half-hearted leaps sent him almost a full meter into the air, and he managed to look over his tall host. The mountain range he was facing was magnificent.

Loits put both bags down and took a small stroll around the upraised platform to examine all the surroundings. The landing platform was only a hundred meters from the coastline and Loits marveled at the open sea. With the extreme curvature of this small world, the horizon seemed very small, giving him the appearance of incredible size.

The surf crashed into rocks down on the coast, and the ocean spray hung in the air much longer than normal, caring the salty smell all the way to the platform. There were several kilometers of flat, forested land before the mountain range started. The vast ridge spanned the entire continent north to south.

The mountains did more than just dominate the landscape - they defined it. The purple, snow-capped tops of several of the peaks disappeared into the clouds of the low ceiling, while the rest of the mountains made an impressive wall, cutting off the other half of the continent. The sight was so beautiful that Loits almost regretted the assignment Snotzenexer had given him.

Loits looked back at Yewijk and saw that he was offering him to circlets. "These are gravity anklets," the tall host said. "They should make it easier for you to walk in our low gravity."

Loits kind of liked the weightless feeling but realized that he would probably be better off with the weight compensators on. He took the devices, put them on, and then calibrated them for his comfort. Afterwards, walking seemed almost normal except that his arms didn't hang right. They seemed to feel more natural up and away from his body than hanging straight down. It was almost as if he had to exert a force to keep them down.

"If I understand correctly, you are here to make an appraisal of our operation to report back to your boss. Is that correct?"

As he spoke, Yewijk led Loits down the stairs from the raised platform, and the shorter man still had a lot of trouble going down the stairs. He found that even with the weights on his feet, he still moved forward faster than he fell down, and if he wasn't cautious, falling down was exactly what he'd be doing. "Yes, President Snotzenexer is always looking to expand the bank's holdings, and we understand that you are a relatively new operation."

As they talked, Yewijk led Loits toward a small air car parked near the landing pad. "We aren't actually new, but reborn. We had been in operation for close to a hundred years when twenty years ago we had a serious accident." The tall host motioned for Loits to enter the car. As he did, the visitor looked back toward the landing pad. He watched the top of his ship disappeared from view as the middle section of the platform lowered into the huge hangar below. The landing pad was actually built on top of the hangar. Inside there was a huge magnetic crane that would move his ship to a designated docking bay. It must be nice, Loits thought, to move heavy things like ships around as if they weighed nothing. A crane on any other planet would never be able to store ships like items on a shelf.

Loits slipped into the passenger seat of the air car and found that he had an enormous amount of legroom. The reason why became obvious as his tall host slid behind the wheel. "It has taken all these twenty years to get our funding back on line." The air car sped forward. When they reached about 100 kph, wings pivoted out from the side, and even at the slow speed, the car started to rise up into the air - yet another marvel of low gravity.

"What kind of accident?" Loits asked, trying to play the part of the concerned investor.

"In order to create diamonds and crystals, you need immense pressure to compress the carbon," Yewijk explained. "On most planets this pressure is created by the constant shifting of fault lines and continental plates. We aren't blessed with a lot of weight, so it would be next to impossible for us to get compressed carbon that way. Instead, the core of our planet creates an incredible amount of heat for its size. With the heat comes pressure, and with pressure comes crystals. Unfortunately, we can't have our torry biscuits and eat them too. The pressure also creates a danger factor. Twenty years ago we didn't understand the depth of that problem, and we had a volcanic explosion.

"An eruption in this type of atmosphere with low gravity is catastrophic, and it shut down the whole operation. It took us two entire years to clean up the mess, but we have learned our lesson. Now we have a special division of our operation that deals exclusively with measuring the heat and pressure gradients throughout the mountain range. The chances of another explosion are highly unlikely."

"But they are there?"

Yewijk smiled slightly, catching the humor in Loits voice. "Yes they are there, but your employer knows that every investment involves an element of risk. We like to tell investors the benefits far out way the risks. We have only been operating with adequate funds for about three years now and are still only about one third of our old size. So you can loose everything or triple your money, and there is about five thousand to one odds that it will be the latter."

"Why did it take so long for you to get back up and running again?"

"Once you have an accident, even though it was only one in a hundred years and now that it happened, it is over twice as unlikely to happen again, you still have to wait a long time to rebuild your credit. There wasn't a bank willing to back us with a consistent credit supply. We were operating on investors' money for most of the twenty years, and our production even then showed the banks that we could be trusted. It still took over sixteen years until the Galactic Bank of the Detsgor system granted us a credit line, and that was only because the Republic agreed to back us."

The air car was skimming over the trees now, and Loits could see a small city at the base of the mountains. "I'll drop you off at the hotel in which you'll be staying and then we can go take a short tour of the facility if you like. Tomorrow you are scheduled to meet with the executive board and receive our earning statements. Two days from now we can show you the full tour and answer any questions you might have."

"That sounds satisfactory," Loits agreed. The car cleared the trees and entered the clearing. As it did, Yewijk lowered it back to the ground, and retracted the wings. The trip to the hotel was brief, and Loits stopped only long enough to drop off his two bags and remove a few pieces of equipment.

When Loits came back to the car, Yewijk took special interest in the items he had with him. Loits noticed his glances and decided to explain. "President Snotzenexer wants a full report. That includes pictures," he hoisted the image replicator that hung around his neck, "and notes," he finished, pointing to the data pad and electronic scribe he had placed in his pocket.

"I'll warn you now," Yewijk said, "security is very tight at the mines. I'm sure you won't have a problem, but you will have to submit your devices to a scanner."

Loits shrugged as if he didn't mind, but inwardly he fretted the possibility that he would be found out. He just hoped that the Imperial technicians knew what they were doing when they had put his image replicator together, or else he was going to be left holding the bag. "If it's okay with you, since we only have time for a short tour, I'd like to see the main operation."

Tour groups weren't usually allowed in the main mines, but seeing as how the Varion Imperial Bank would be their biggest supporter if Snotzenexer signed on, Yewijk was sure he could make a few exceptions for the sake of impressing. "Sure, that should be no problem. Just to be sure, let me call ahead to see if they're going to do any blasting." Yewijk had a short conversation in which he learned that they were going to blast in three hours, giving Yewijk and Loits plenty of time to look around.

The air car flew up into the mountains, and Loits saw that they were headed to the tallest and most central peak in the chain. As they neared the mountain, Loits could see a few small buildings nestled in the valleys that surrounded the central mine. Instead of heading to the base camp, Yewijk steered the car towards a small cave opening in the side of the mountain. What had appeared to be a small opening from the distance, became a large landing platform leading into a cavern. Yewijk expertly set the small car down on the pad and the two passengers disembarked.

The air was crisp this high up in altitude, and Loits inhaled deeply before following Yewijk into the cave. As the tall guide had promised, there was a security station. Loits tried not to act nervous in the slightest as he surrendered his data pad and image replicator to be scanned. "This device has a powerful energy source inside," one of the extremely tall security personnel said almost instantly.

"It's the battery pack for the IR," Loits said innocently. He took the device from the security guard and ejected the battery. He held up the long, narrow, black box. "See, it's nothing out of the ordinary."

The security guard shrugged, and found nothing wrong with the data pad. Loits placed the image replicator back around his neck, and slipped the data pad into his back pocket. Yewijk didn't bother to offer an apology but tried to act embarrassed for Loits sake. The two men made their way to the end of the entry hall where a turbo lift waited to take them into the center of the mountain.

"I'll show you the operation from the bottom up," Yewijk said and pressed the last button on the lift. As the lift shot down, Loits felt the motion even more acutely than normal. The feeling of your stomach being left a few floors up was normal when gravity made it feel like you were falling slower than the lift, but when you actually were falling slower than the lift, the feeling was twice as bad.

The lift began to slow, and Loits actually thought that he felt his feet slam back into the floor of the lift. A few seconds later, all downward motion stopped and the doors opened at the bottom. The cavern that they entered was very dimly lit, and from the dust on the floor, Loits could see it was rarely visited. "This is the danger zone," Yewijk said. "You can feel the heat down here, and if you look over here at the end of this short corridor," Yewijk moved down the path a couple long steps, "you can see a large crack."

This was exactly what Loits wanted to see. He positioned himself between Yewijk and the crack, and bent over to take a picture. He lifted the IR to his face and snapped a picture of the wide crack, from which steam was rising. As Loits brought the device back down, he flipped a switch, ejecting the battery pack into his hand. Yewijk couldn't see the move because Loits' back was in the way. Palming the slender object, he reached his arm into the crack. He could feel the crack narrow and wedged the black box as deep as he could. The heat at the base of the crack was quite immense, and Loits' arm was moist from the steam when he removed it. "It's pretty warm down there," he said, looking at his guide with an immature grin.

Yewijk shook his head in disbelief, not wanting to accept the fact that this short man had to stick his arm in the crack to confirm the heat when the steam was rising visibly. "If you're done here, we can go up a few levels to where they are excavating new tunnels."

Both of the men made their way back to the lift and the door closed behind them. "Our scientists our working on ways to try and relieve the pressure beneath this mountain so we can go deeper than we are now, but it is a difficult project. I mean how can you leak the air out of a balloon without popping it?"

The doors opened again and the two men entered a much better lit area where there were actually other people working. Yewijk took Loits around the area, showing how they placed the explosive devices and how they ensured that the blast wouldn't crack the rock any deeper than they wanted.

The next few levels they visited contained the actual crystal harvest. Huge grinding machines bore away at the wall until a sensor on the machine detected a crystal. Then there was the painstaking process of chipping it out of the wall by hand. All of the harvesting layers were actually huge caverns because they had been ground away so much. Yewijk explained how careful they were to leave enough rock to keep the mountain standing. He also explained that in the future, after they had safely removed as much of the inside of the mountain as they could, they would be able to collapse the remaining rock, and start over.

Loits tried to remain interested in the entire process, but the truth was he wanted to leave as soon as possible. When Yewijk gave him the choice of continuing the tour or heading back toward the hotel, Loits tried not to sound too enthusiastic about ending the tour. The pair made their way to the air car, and the supposed financial investigator tried to remember to take a few photographs of the operation, keeping his actions inside his cover.

The two security men gave curious glances at Loits and his image replicator, wondering if it would be taboo to check him again. Loits breathed a sigh of relief as they past the men without incidence and gave them a friendly wave to hide his discomfort.

"They are going to blast in a half hour," Yewijk said suddenly, bringing Loits away from his encounter with the security guards. "I thought we would wait across the way," he pointed to a small plateau three kilometers away, "so you could witness the event. It would be a confidence builder for you if you could see that there is no danger of us ever puncturing the core of this world."

Loits didn't see any easy way out of this one. It was very proper suggestion that would be accepted by anyone else. He looked at the plateau, seeing the distance of the observation post as a safety measure and prayed that it would be far enough away for what he had planned. "That would be fine." He hoisted his image replicator. "Maybe I'll even take a picture of it for the boys back home."

The ride out to the observation station was uneventful, mostly due to the fact that Loits was too nervous to start any conversation. He had strict rules to follow. He was to activate the bomb under cover of a blast. He was also supposed to take the very first opportunity made open to him, time not being on the Empire's side.

Ever since Yewijk had told him when the blast was coming, Loits was constantly glancing at his wrist chrono, counting down the minutes and then seconds until the blast. There was a small hut erected on the plateau where tourist groups could wait during blasts and where small little trinkets were sold. As zero-time approached, Loits took a deep sigh and raised his image replicator. His index finger searched out the shutter trigger while his thumb flipped off the detonation safety. Loits mentally counted down under five seconds, closed his eyes, pretended to bring his device into focus and depressed the button.

Just like a small hole in a space vessel can tear a gash the entire length of a bulkhead, the explosion in the base of the mining facility ripped a hole in the ground two kilometers long. The accident twenty years ago had been just that, an accident. It was a miscalculation that had released too much pressure in the inner construction of the cave, causing a large section to crumble and crack the base of the mountain. The result was a single explosion no more powerful than an ordinary volcano. Now the explosion was due to a deliberate terrorist attack in the most sensitive section of the mountain. This explosion was, as a result, much bigger than it had been before. There would be no recovery this time.

Loits and Yewijk were thrown violently from their feet, the low gravity seemingly forgotten. Loits watched in terror from his propped-up sitting position as a huge wall of fire rose up before them like a giant lava tidal wave. The gravity was suddenly realized as Loits watched the debris flying toward their observation post in freakish slow motion. Loits had finally convinced his subconscious that he would be safe moments before the explosion. He had been gravely mistaken.

The wall of lava was only four hundred meters high and came pathetically short of the observation post, but the entire mountain had also been blown into the air, and numerous rocks rained down on the plateau, shredding everything. Loits didn't live long enough to signal Snotzenexer that the job had been completed, and he wouldn't receive the five hundred thousand credits that had been promised him on completion of the job. The last thought that went through his head before a seven-ton rock removed it was that at least he wouldn't be caught and tried for terrorism.

The explosion rocked the entire continent and even caused some minor tidal waves in the nearby ocean. All of the mining operations had been built up around the main mine, growing outward in a spiraling fashion. Therefore, all of the mining operations were either destroyed or rendered unusable for an indefinite time. Lava swept its way through the valleys, washing away anything that stood in its path. Practically all of the mines were flooded full and then hardened over. Thousands of people died in the mountains, and severe earthquakes rocked the few towns that skirted the range and ash showers fell several meters deep. This was definitely the end of the Mining Cooperation of Xentin, and the accident came only a few days before the next pay period on their bank loan.

* * *

Police Chief Zornik stared long and hard at his visitor. The young woman was talking to the two guards standing at the entrance to the station, and the chief took the time to sit up straight on his stool behind the raised desk and make sure there weren't any cake crumbs on his uniform. The woman was apparently done with the guards and made her way over to the main desk. Zornik seemed hypnotized by her graceful walk, as her mini skirt did nothing to hide her long, high-heeled legs. She was wearing a white, soft blouse covered by a business vest. Her brown hair was done in a loose bun, with a few strands of springy, curled hair hanging tantalizingly over her forehead and ears. She was carrying a small vinyl briefcase and had a definite professional look about her.

"What can I do for you Miss?" the chief asked when she got close.

The woman pretended not to notice that she was being looked at much in the same way that a vornsker would eye up a nerf steak. "You must be Chief Zornik." The woman extended her hand. The chief nearly vaulted off the stool, his gut pressing firmly against the desk as he reached for her hand, eager to touch some part of her body. "My name is Catheroll Lonnen. I'm a reporter for the Provincial Review." Catheroll realized that while she was talking to his face, his eyes were focused a little lower and starting to glaze over. Trying to get command of the situation, she squeezed her handshake a little too tightly. "I understand that you have taken a Jedi as a prisoner."

Zornik felt his hand being crushed, and was yanked out of his fantasy as he pulled free of the handshake. He looked down at the still extended hand, wondering how the finely manicured fingers could have produced such a grip. Catheroll repeated her question. She wasn't dressed like she was to try and remain unnoticed, yet at the same time, she couldn't have police chief talking to her chest and legs throughout the entire visit either.

"Uh, yea, we did," Zornik respond to the second phrasing of the question. He managed to compose himself and looked Catheroll in the face as he continued talking. He was glad to find that she was just as attractive above the neck as she was below. "As a matter of fact we did. We are holding him on a charge of attempted murder."

Catheroll was glad to see that she had managed to regain his attention while still maintaining a slight infatuation. "That must be pretty dangerous," she tried to make her voice sound as naive and innocent as possible. "I mean aren't Jedi supposed to be extremely powerful? How did you manage to apprehend him, much less imprison him?"

Zornick was truly wishing he had been in on the capture, but he could still brag for those who were. "We are professionals, Miss Lonnen. We can handle Jedi. They are not as powerful as they have been reported to be."

"Or at least not in comparison to you," Catheroll helped the inept chief brag. "I would very much like to hear of how you captured him and, if possible, see where you are holding him."

"Well," the chief wavered, "we are holding him in maximum-security," Catheroll cocked her head to the side with a child-like expression, "but," she shifted her briefcase so she was holding it with both hands behind her waist, pulling her blouse tight, "I'm sure we can make an acceptation this once."

Zornik made his way from behind his desk and led the reporter to the door in the back of the main entry room. As he punched in the security code, he began recounting the story of Jacen's capture. Catheroll was sure most of it was made up, in fact she knew it was. She already knew exactly what had happened, but was impressed by what this police chief expected her to believe. The trip was short, and they didn't pass anything of interest on the way to the maximum-security section.

"The Jedi is our only prisoner in maximum security at the moment, so you don't have to worry about any unsavory types. Lots of times we have some real psychos down here, and they don't always treat women very well."

Catheroll tried to act relieved, but instead had to choke back laughter. If the chief only realized how ironic that statement was. The big man obviously didn't realize how his eyes were treating her, and undoubtedly every other attractive woman that walked into the police station, or he might feel the need to speak differently.

The security guard on duty at the entrance to the maximum-security division was much younger than the chief and very close to Catheroll's age. To give him credit, he remained professional throughout their encounter. "Sir, where are you going?"

"I am taking Miss Lonnen to see our prisoner."

"That's against regulations, sir."

"Don't worry, sergeant, she's been cleared. Besides, she is with me. Open the door."

The sergeant shrugged his shoulders with the idea he was no longer responsible, having said his scripted piece. The door in front of them opened, and Catheroll was presented with a very white, clean, short hallway. The hallway was made of thick permacrete and contained four cells on the left, with a blank wall on the right.

"The Jedi is in the last cell."

"Do you know his name?"

"I believe it's Jacen," the chief remembered correctly.

Catheroll looked at the cells as she passed them on the right. Each room was three meters square with four-meter ceilings. There was no visible door and only a small slit looking into the cell through a thick wall. From the small viewing slit, Catheroll thought she saw a simple cot and a waste hole in the middle of the floor. When they arrived in front of Jacen's cell, they saw that the Jedi appeared to be sleeping.

"Wake up! You have a visitor."

The chief's voice boomed in the small hallway, and Jacen rolled over on his cot reluctantly. Suddenly he sat up straight, looking around his cell like an excited animal. All four of the white walls stared back at him without answer. He finally located the slit in the wall and saw the reason for his arousal. "Jaina!"

"Catheroll" was happy that her brother recognized her instantly, but was a little disappointed that he hadn't also seen her obvious disguise. "Jaina," she responded, thinking fast. She turned to Zornik, "It is a greeting in my home world's ancient language. Apparently he recognizes me as a Yavinite," Jaina said, hoping that the chief hadn't heard of the gas giant with four moons.

"Oh," he said in response to her explanation, and then to Jacen, "speak Basic."

Jacen scolded himself for his mental slip, but quickly recovered. "I'm sorry. What can I do for you Miss . . ."

"Lonnen. Catheroll Lonnen. You can call me Cathy." The chief looked hurt that he hadn't received the nickname that his lovely companion had just given to his prisoner. "I was wondering what you are doing on Aldertain?" The questions were meaningless. The twins were actually conversing much faster and more efficiently through telepathy. She asked him how he was being treated and where the door to his cell was. He told her fine, and that there was a door in the ceiling that they had lowered him through. The door was uniquely locked, and he could feel an enormous weight above it.

They continued the questions, both verbal and mental for about three minutes. When the Q and A session was finished, Jaina turned to Zornik. "What kind of security measures to you use to keep a powerful person like him locked up?"

"There is only one way in or out of the cells, and that is through the ceiling. The doors are locked from the outside and are covered with a large durasteel slab. All of the walls of the cell, accept the front one, are a meter thick. There are cameras in each cell and three out here in the hallway." Jaina looked around, but couldn't see any of the security monitoring devices. "Trust me," Zornik said, witnessing her fruitless search, "they're there."

Jaina thought for a while, communicated mentally with Jacen, and then expressed her desire to leave. "Thank-you chief. I'll be sure to include high praise for your facility in my article. I think the people have nothing to worry about with you looking after their safety."

Back in his cell, Jacen was almost doubling over with laughter at his sister's phony act. The police chief led his companion back to the front desk and realized that she was about to leave. Jaina could see the man was desperate for some way to keep her there longer, but was coming up short. "Uh, are you doing anything for dinner tonight? I mean, if you want, I could give you a more detailed description of the whole process we plan to take with trying and convicting this Jedi."

Jaina smiled back at the large man, while inside she was squirming with revulsion. The man was at least twenty years older than she was. "You know, I'm busy tonight, but tomorrow night looks free."

The chief nearly fainted at Jaina's acceptance of his proposal. Little did he know that she planned on leaving the planet well before tomorrow morning. "I know a really good restaurant."

"I'll call you, okay?"

The police chief just nodded his head. Jaina gave him a wave, turned toward the outside doors, and walked away from the still stunned police chief.

* * *

The night was full of motion. The wind blew rather unpleasantly through the trees, ripping off leaves that had lost their grip due to the lateness of the season. Rain came down in sheets, accompanied by the occasional click of a hailstone on the pavement. Air cars were traveling far too fast for the inclement conditions, but the safer speeds that were suggested for a storm meant that any potential traveler would have to stay outside far too long for most people's liking. There was no one dumb enough to be outside on foot - well, almost no one.

Jaina crouched behind the thick tree trunk, looking at the outside shape of the police station. She had long ago gave up in her effort to keep herself dry in the weather. It was a safe guess that she wasn't going to be able to multi-task her Force ability in these extreme conditions. She wished she had a little more strength in the nature aspects of the Force like Jacen.

Although Jacen would be more than helpless in quieting this storm, he would probably be able to keep them drier than she had been able to. As it was, her black, flight-tech jumper hung heavily from her body, with her under shirt clinging very uncomfortably to her body. The jumper was supposed to be waterproof, protecting against the coolant and oil spills common around a tech shop, but she was sure that the thick material had never been tested in these conditions. She would have to remember to make a stink to her grease monkey friends back home about the junk they had sold her.

Despite the fact that she weighed a good twenty pounds heavier due to the water logged jumper, there were still obvious advantages to the outfit. The black suit made her almost totally invisible, and with a little help from the Force she was sure that she would remain unseen if she so desired. Though she was wet, she felt nearly no wind through the thick material and the few hailstones that fell around bounced harmlessly off her. The two enormous pockets on her hip each contained a lightsaber.

Jaina made a quick check of the road that ran between her and the station, saw no immediate traffic, and ran through the storm toward the large building that held her brother. She had hoped to enter through the front doors, but because of the storm, the guards were more alert than their normally lethargic state. Instead, she circled around to the side of the building where she had earlier scouted out an alternative entry point. The building was a squat two stories with modest security. They had never had much trouble with prisoners escaping, and therefore didn't go out of their way to spend extra money on unnecessary security measures. Jaina saw a few motion detectors and security cameras, but neither was very accurate in this weather, and she knew how to get around such devices.

A Force added leap brought her up to the roof and she quickly made her way to an old service door. As she approached the small protrusion on the roof, she withdrew her lightsaber from her right pocket. As she ignited her weapon, and the invisible blade failed to light up the night, she shuddered a little as memories flooded back to her. When she had been an assassin for the Empire on Hastrin, the Imperials had altered her lightsaber by shifting the formerly purple blade outside of the visible spectrum. The result was a slightly weaker weapon, but that was its only drawback. Even though every time she used it, she remembered all of the awful things she had done with it, it was still far too useful to change back.

She took a swipe at the two security locks on the door, and the ancient durasteel pads fell away to the rooftop. Jaina deactivated her invisi-blade but kept it in her hand as she slowly turned the knob on the old-fashioned door in front of her, not knowing what to except on the other side.

The room behind the door was full of wiring and hoses controlling the heating and air-conditioning systems throughout the building. Jaina didn't bother examining the circuitry that swarmed the walls around her, confident that the engineers who designed the station wouldn't have been foolish enough to put sensitive, security equipment in such a volatile and easily accessible location. As she stood there searching for the stairway down, she noticed that she was making a considerable puddle on the floor. She took off the jump suit, having no more need for the black uniform. Holding the jumper in her hands away from her body, she was startled how heavy it actually was when the weight wasn't distributed over her entire body. She quickly hid the jumper underneath a large dehumidifier where she was sure it wouldn't be found for a while. Looking at the tracks she was still making on the floor, she removed her boots and socks as well.

She almost left Jacen and her lightsabers in the discarded pile of clothes, but retrieved it before she continued her search for an exit. She was now barefoot with a white tank top and mid-length pants. Her legs had managed to stay relatively dry, as she had been hunched over most of the time she had been outside, but her top was soaked. She thought for a moment about removing it too, not caring too much about modesty and realizing that the wet, white material didn't really provide that much privacy anyway. Instead, she removed it momentarily, wrung it out a few times over a wet spot on the floor, and put it back on. Now it was wet, see-though, and wrinkled but was no longer dripping.

The floor was cold to her bare feet as she scampered around, finally finding the stairwell down. As she descended the steep steps, she kept her ears keen, listening for anything that might have become alerted to her presence. There was a door at the bottom of the stairs, and when it didn't open automatically, she realized that she was going to have to do something with her brother's lightsaber. Since she had rid herself of her jumper, she had lost all her pockets. Standing in front of the door with both hands full, she wished that her pants had some type of pouch or that she had worn her utility belt. Instead, she tucked her brother's weapon into her pant's waistband in the back. Feeling the instability in the set up, she pulled the pants' drawstrings tight in an attempt to make sure that both the lightsaber and her pants stayed where they were supposed to be.

She pressed the keypad at the side of the door with her now free left hand, and the door slid open in front of her. She found herself standing in the back of the station's kitchen. There were a few service droids shut down in the corner of the kitchen, obviously recharging for the night. Jaina knew that often times these types of droids had security systems in them to detect excessive noise and she made her way as quietly as possible across the linoleum floor.

The next room was the mess hall, and Jaina froze when she saw a security guard sitting at the end of one of the four tables. The lighting in the station was very dim due to the fact the only illumination came from the occasional security glow rods positioned over each door. It took Jaina a few moments to see that the form sitting at the table was in fact slumped on the table. He had apparently not wanted the midnight snack that sat beside him as much as the nap he was now taking. Jaina spent a few moments in concentration, ensuring that the light snooze that was occupying the man would keep him busy the rest of the night.

Jaina walked slowly through the halls of the building, not really sure where she was. She had told Jacen to stay awake so she could find him easier, and while she could feel his presence and in what direction he was, the hallways didn't always lead in that direction. Jaina had avoided opening any doors not knowing what kind of security the station had connected to them. She had been able to sense and defeat each security camera that she had passed thus far, but that was only because she had a lot of practice dealing with such devices and she knew how they worked. She had no idea what would happen if she opened a door that was supposed to remain closed.

Jaina finally made it to the end of the hallway and had been everywhere that open doors could lead her. She was now standing in front of a door that she was sure led her towards her brother. The Jedi took a deep breath and opened the door. The door slid aside and revealed a groggy looking security guard.

Bearn had had a rough night. He usually liked to sleep in between his patrols, but the steady pounding of the wind and rain against the lobby doors had stolen that comfort from him. Serves me right, he said to himself, they don't pay me to sleep. The only comfort he found was in thinking about the attractive reporter who had visited the station earlier that day. Her long legs kept walking through his mind, and as he started his hourly patrol of the station, he was more than a little surprised to find his dream woman standing half-naked and soaking wet behind the first door he opened. He thought that the image was just a result of not getting enough sleep until his fantasy lashed out with her leg, kicking him solidly in the chest.

Bearn gave out a startled yelp as he stumbled backwards and tripped onto his back. The other security guard, Killeroy, who was stationed in the lobby permanently, could sleep through the worst storm but slowly woke up as the noise from the encounter reached him.

Bearn was coming out of his sleepy state quickly. He saw that his opponent was holding something in her right hand, and in the darkness, the guard couldn't see exactly what it was, but wasn't willing to bet it wasn't a blaster. Bearn reached for his holstered weapon, still lying on his back. He heard a snap his from in front of him and wasted no time, firing at point blank range. Bearn watched in amazement when his bolt angled away from Jaina with a spark as the fake reporter twisted her wrist slightly. Struggling up into a sitting position, Bearn brought his gun up for another try, but Jaina's invisi-blade cut it out of his hand. A split second later, she lashed out with her foot, connecting solidly under the prone guard's chin, nearly flipping him over backwards and sending him into a peaceful slumber in which his fantasy reporter was sure to be less violent.

By this time, Killeroy had come to his senses and had his gun trained on the still distant Jedi. "Don't move! If you so much as flinch, I'll blow you in two." Jaina watched him slowly reach for a communicator. She couldn't afford that yet and made a full charge at the guard who was standing behind the front desk. Killeroy considered this to be a little more than a flinch, brought his hand back to his gun, and fired.

Jaina didn't even slow as she deflected the shot, and the startled guard wasn't able to compose himself for another shot. Jaina knocked the extended blaster out of his grasp with her weapon and cut viciously into the desk against which Killeroy was leaning. A huge section of the fine wood fell away, and Killeroy toppled on top of it. He lay face down at Jaina's feet and started to roll over when she aided his turn with a kick to the head.

After checking that he wasn't seriously hurt, Jaina left the unconscious man to look behind the desk. She quickly located the security camera controls, and in a few seconds had the recorded past half-hour playing over the broadcast. Now who ever was watching would be looking into the past with no idea of what was happening presently.

Jaina knew where to go now and made her way to the door that Chief Zornik had led her through earlier that day. She ran down the hall and paused as she approached the entry to the maximum-security hall. A quick Force check let her know that the guard on duty was sleeping. She didn't have the time to put him under for good, but simply let him be as she worked on the security pad in front of the door.

Electronic codes had never been a problem for Jaina, especially now when she had seen the young guard who had been on duty that day punch in the numbers. The door slid open and Jaina stepped into the short cell area. She didn't bother walking down to her brother's cell, but composed herself as she began to hide Jacen's presence to the security cameras. She pulled the lightsaber from her back and tossed it down the hallway. She watched it slow its flight as it approached the last cell and then float smoothly through the slit, disappearing from sight. A few seconds later, an audible snap-hiss could be heard and then the amazing sight of Jacen attacking his cell wall. Within a couple moments, Jacen had cut a sufficient doorway for himself and was walking toward his sister.

"Dressed for the occasion, I see."

"Can it," she replied, and both of them knew that the conversation could wait till later. Jacen had kept his original clothes, minus his cloak and belt and was attired in a forest green shirt with a pair of loose black pants. He still held his ignited lightsaber in his hand and waited patiently as Jaina used the security code to get them back out of the hallway and stepped through the door. She was met in the hall by five security guards with weapons firing. Jaina barely got her weapon up in time to deflect the unexpected attack, and didn't get all of them. Two shots ricocheted of her invisi-blade, one hit the wall next to her head, while the other two hit her in the thigh and skimmed her side. Jaina leaped back through the open door just before the second volley came, ripping apart the wall where she had just stood.

Jacen grabbed his wounded sister and tried to steady her. Jaina could hardly put any weight on her wounded leg and was quite surprised when Jacen threw her to the floor and spun around with his weapon raised. Jaina watched as the blank permacrete wall right in front of her brother emitted two quick blaster bolts. Jacen deflected the bolts expertly and attacked the wall. Instead of the powder explosion that was normal when you attacked a permacrete wall with a lightsaber, Jaina heard the tinkling of glassine, a shout, and then silence. She quickly saw that there had been a window there that was covered with a permacrete hologram so the guard on duty could look into the cell hall without being seen. As Jacen stepped back to Jaina, she could see the guard slumped in his chair with a bloody forehead, but no permanent damage.

"We better get out of here quick," Jacen said.

Jaina felt too much pain to formulate a sentence but motioned to the door that had just closed and would likely be the entryway for the five guards who were coming down the hall. Jacen hit the control pad with the tip of his saber and reduced the pad to a sparking fire hazard.

Jaina tried to rise but found that her leg was seriously hurt and whimpered loudly as she crumpled back to the floor. Jacen didn't have any time for healing now, but picked his sister up gingerly, suspending her over his shoulder. He began to walk back to his cell, but paused in thought. He wondered if they kept the huge slabs of durasteel over the unoccupied cells. He walked to the cell that had been next to his and began to cut a doorway.

"Jacen," Jaina squeaked, "they're coming."

Jacen turned slightly and saw that the disabled door was taking a punishment from the opposite side while a few clever guards had moved to the on duty post and began firing through the broken window. Jacen couldn't both, block fire, and cut into the cell at the same time. He turned toward the fire and let Jaina finish the monotonous labor. When Jaina finished, Jacen backed slowly into the cell until the guards at the window no longer had an angle to fire. He gently set Jaina down and tossed his weapon at the door in the ceiling. The lightsaber cut through the lock and as the unlatched door swung open, an impressive waterfall came down with it. After all the standing water that had been on the roof drained, the downpour receded to that of just the outside rain.

The twins heard the door in the main hall blow in and the pounding of feet. Jacen grabbed his sister, hugged her to his chest, and jumped up through the hole in the ceiling right before the guards rounded the corner. One of the five guards walked slowly into the cell until the rain was just falling in front of him. He looked up at the high door, not believing everything he had just seen. The two Jedi had blocked countless blaster bolts, shredded the thick cell walls and leapt a height of four meters. The guard just shook his head slowly. This was the first and would be the last breakout in the prison's history.

Chapter 16 "Revealing Encounters"

The sun shone brightly on Gensifery. The tropical planet had suffered mass destruction as a result of Imperial bombing in the days leading up to the battle at Danzig 359. Though the bombardment had left the surface of the planet severely scarred, it had only affected one hemisphere. It was on the other side of the planet that the sun was now shining, the relief efforts across the globe taking the night off for a well-deserved rest.

"Here is your drink, sir." The young woman walked over to the seated man and placed his drink on the short table next to him. She was dressed in a conservative, blue, two-piece swimsuit with an aqua sash tied around her waist.

"Thank-you dear," the man said, his hand quickly catching hers as she set the glass down. She felt the strong grip and looked at the face of her customer. "You should really sit down and enjoy this view with me."

"I'm sorry," the woman said, "but I have other people to wait on." She tugged earnestly at her secured wrist, and he released her.

"Maybe after your shift is over."

"Perhaps," she said with a tone that told anyone who was listening that she wouldn't give the offer one second of thought. She walked back to the bar quickly, and the man took a long swig from his drink as he admired her flustered form. He sighed audibly and extended his legs onto the padded footrest that stood in front of his chair. He surveyed his surroundings, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the oceanfront.

Gensifery's belt of islands a little north of the equator boasted the most tropical coastline for many light years in any direction. The plethora of beautiful people scampering on the beaches could keep any sightseer busy for hours, without even noticing the surroundings in which the beautiful people scampered. The water was a clear blue in the shallow regions, reflecting the immaculate sky above. The beach was a perfectly bleached white that turned into tall shade trees, which leaned toward the water as if they were put there for the sole purpose of having people relax beneath them. As you moved further from the coast you ran into civilization, but the boardwalks did their best to leave the natural beauty of the setting as unspoiled as possible. If you got too far away from the water, you ran into towering hotels and expensive restaurants. It was on the back edge of a large patio of such a restaurant that the man now relaxed.

The traffic of people walked along the boardwalk a meter below the man's elevated position and he tried not to imagine how they'd look through the scope on his sniper rifle. He'd been out of the business for a while now. Ever since the Republic had relaxed the grip the Empire had maintained on the businesses of the galaxy, there had become less need to operate outside the law to make a profit. With less crime, people made fewer enemies. With less personal grudges, no one hired hit men to take out the enemies they didn't have.

The man sighed, glad that the lack of work didn't mean poverty. He had stored away enough credits in various locations to last the rest of his life and several generations after him - not that he planned on having kids. Although . . . He tried to look for the pretty young drink girl, but his eyes met someone else walking toward him. The man - young man - had a confident swagger about him and seemed cool and relaxed despite the fact that he was wearing a dark, blue, cotton shirt, long, black pants, and a black robe in the hot sun.

Alarm bells began ringing in the seated man's mind, but he had no way to make any move whether offensive or defensive, so he decided to let this man make the first move. There was virtually no one in the entire galaxy that knew what he looked like outside of his occupational attire, so revenge wasn't a concern. The dark clad new-comer walked to the left side of the seated man, making sure that the bright sun was directly behind his head as he stood above his target.

"Have a seat young man. Surely you have had a hot day so far?"

"You are Robobart Fettern."

It was more a statement than a question. Fettern did his best not to squint at this knowledgeable youth who stood before him. He thought of several answers, but none of them seemed appropriate.

"You are to come with me."

"Who-" but Fettern stopped as he noticed the cylinder hanging from his visitor's belt for the first time. The black handled weapon was nicely camouflaged against his pants. "Who are you?"

"My name is Trince Alinter, Jedi Knight."

"And what does your master want with me," Fett asked, thinking that he already knew the answer.

"Master Skywalker has no need for revenge, Boba Fett, but if he had," Trince tapped his lightsaber, "only half of you would still be sitting there."

"Don't tell me that you are in need of my services, because I'm retired, son."

"My employer has told me to contact you, bring you back to my ship, and then make contact with him."

"And if I resist?" Trince didn't answer the stupid question, both of them knowing the answer. Maybe if Fett had his armor and multitude of weapons he would be able to stand up against the Jedi, but only then for a few moments. "May I at least know who your employer is? Have we met before?"

"Yes, I believe you have. On your last meeting I think you gave him a COLD shoulder."

Han Solo, Fett thought, great!

* * *

The shuttle put down gently on the Coruscant landing pad. All marks that had been imperial had been removed, and now all the emblems proclaimed the ship to belong to the Varion Imperial Bank. Snotzenexer walked down the inclined ramp of the ship, looking at the skyline of the city planet for the first time in his life. Senator Belsiphvin was there to great him and she beamed with her hand forward as she walked toward him.

"Welcome Senator Snotzenexer, I have been eager to meet you. I must say that you have made quite a name for yourself, and we are currently in need of men like yourself who can see profitable ways out of tight situations."

Snotzenexer took the hand of the pretty senator. "First you must consider whether the situation is only tight because you are trying to fit too much into it. Often the best course of action is regression. Forging ahead into the unknown is foolish when the outcome is unpredictable."

Snotzenexer's belongings were being unloaded and routed to his apartment, allowing him to walk with Belsiphvin as she led him into the palace and towards the adjoining Senate chambers. "I don't think I understand."

"This government has moved very quickly in the past few years," Snotzenexer explained. "You have moved down the tunnel of your destiny without bothering to check to see if the light at the end was a beacon or a super nova. Right now you are suffering from, as you said, 'a tight spot.' It seems that your tunnel is collapsing when actually, you are simply growing too fast. You need to take a step back, slow down, and maybe even decide on a wider tunnel before continuing."

Belsiphvin laughed lightly. "Is there no end to your picturesque speech?"

"If a picture is worth a thousand words, then picturesque speech has to be the most efficient way to communicate."

The pair moved through the halls of the senate chambers, Belsiphvin introducing the Imperial Admiral to each senator they met. After a five-minute trip, "Here is your office. You'll find that there is a schedule for your orientation meetings, a list of the committee's that we believe would fit best into your expertise, although you are free to choose from any, and already a listing of senators that would like to meet with you. I must admit that we have never had a new member that so many people were interested in before."

* * *

Three hours later Snotzenexer was standing in front of the special investigating council. He had spent the time since Belsiphvin had dropped him off contacting as many people as he could, trying to find out exactly who was running the show and how things were progressing with the case against Leia. To be blunt, Snotzenexer was very disappointed with the council's pathetic ability to gather evidence against Leia. They could have at least tried to make something up.

"Good afternoon, Senator Snotzenexer, how can we help you?" Senator Quenthor had spoken, and Snotzenexer looked at the man, trying to discover if his limited research on the man's career had been accurate. It had been. The man had such a false sense of strength about him that it was almost comical. This was the man who was heading the investigation. He was a former Imperial Captain, and Snotzenexer was glad that the word "former" was in that title.

"I was wondering how the investigation against President Organa-Solo was coming? If I am going to serve in this government I want to know under whom I will be positioned."

"So far we have little but a history of bad decisions and actions that go beyond the scope of the president's allotted power."

"I'm afraid that those sound more like findings whose interpretation is opinion based as opposed to factual. They probably won't stand up in a trial, or even go to trial, Captain."

Snotzenexer's negative comments coupled with the reference to Quenthor's title had the desired result. Having the truth of what the senator already knew driven home by Snotzenexer's intelligent analysis put the Captain off balance. The reference to his military career made him do a double take, and he tried to cope with the situation by reevaluating the man who stood in front of him. Snotzenexer's posture was impeccable and his feet were at the perfect pose of attention. "You a military man?"

Snotzenexer nodded his head. "I was."

"My curiosity begs to know what rank a man of your intelligence could gain before retiring to a civilian lifestyle."

"Though modesty should permit my revelation, I was an Admiral."

Quenthor nodded in appreciation, though figured Snotzenexer to have been a member of a two-credit army. "May I ask the government with which you were affiliated?"

"I regret to say that it was the same Imperial Navy with which you ended your career."

Quenthor was truly shocked now. Imperial admirals were rather rare especially ones that had managed to retire of their own free will as opposed to having the frailty of life force it upon them. As much as he was impressed, he was puzzled at Snotzenexer's choice of words. "You regret?"

"I regret only that we were both forced to end our careers because of the lack of leadership in the Empire. I would have liked to still be in command of my Super Star Destroyer, but it is not so. If only our superiors had seen further into the future, not wasting all their efforts on pointless ego building missions, we might still be employed. I only hope that in the near future when the galaxy is looking for another leader that we do not miss our chance by appointing someone who is too narrow minded to restore the former glory."

Snotzenexer's words were as close to treasonous as were likely to be spoken on the whole of Coruscant, but Quenthor ate them up like a starving rancor. "If only that time should arise. As it looks now, we might have to suffer through a few more years of narrow-minded rule before Organa-Solo can be removed. She hides her actions far too well."

"But that is why I'm here," Snotzenexer said, pulling a data chip from his pocket. "I don't suppose you have a recording of the transmission that took place between the president and the Denorian representative?"

"Those exchanges are not recorded for political reasons," Quenthor said though he figured Snotzenexer already knew that.

"What would you say if I told you the Denorians broadcast on an unsecured channel, and an ambitious news station had intercepted the exchange?"

Quenthor separated himself from the rest of the special council and walked toward the admiral, eager to grab the data chip out of Snotzenexer's upraised hand. "I would say that it might perhaps quicken the coming of the time of which we earlier spoke." Snotzenexer handed Quenthor the chip. "That is, if the recording shines a negative light on the current president?"

"You might be surprised," Snotzenexer replied. You might be even more surprised how little I had to doctor the recording, Snotzenexer decided not to say aloud. "Just remember that when the time comes for someone to pick up the pieces that Organa-Solo has left behind, it would be a shame to appoint someone who is just as careless at dropping things."

Quenthor understood. He didn't really know why he understood but was just satisfied that he did. Snotzenexer would never drop anything.

* * *

The light blinking on Snotzenexer's console when he returned to his office told him that he already had a message despite only arriving a few hours ago. He walked over to the screen set in the wall and hit the play button. He was a little startled to see the face of his wife before him. "Hello dear. I hope you are settled in nicely. I seem to be having a little trouble with a fox prowling around in our yard." Snotzenexer interpreted their code word for Skywalker. "He seems rather intent on the rock pile." He's looking in the asteroid field. "He also seems to have three pesky crow friends who follow him everywhere. They gave us trouble before, if you remember?" Bird friends? Fighters? They gave us trouble before. The three ace pilots who had accompanied the Falcon at Danzig 359. "I was wondering if they were worth the trouble to catch, or if I should just hire an exterminator? Hope this doesn't come at a bad time. Hope to hear from you soon."

Snotzenexer was sure that Skywalker hadn't completely fallen for the lies he had given him back on Iom, but Snotzenexer didn't want to take anything for granted. The admiral had a plan that he wanted to follow and it definitely involved having Skywalker as an enemy. If the Jedi Master was a little curious as to the true intentions of the fleet still stationed in the Varion system, Snotzenexer thought it best not to leave Skywalker hanging.

The senator pressed the reply button, declined the live transmission, and waited for the beep to inform him to start recording. "Don't worry about bothering me dear, it's always a pleasure to here your voice. About the fox, there is no use killing him, you know how our neighbors would react to that. But make sure you let him know that he isn't wanted in our backyard. As for the crows, I believe we have a friend who specializes in falconry. Perhaps we should just let them fight it out. Who knows, it might be fun to watch. Hope to talk to you again soon."

* * *

"Well, what do you think?"

Luke Skywalker looked long and hard at the huge Super Star Destroyer in front of him. His senses were telling him that he was looking at the same ship that had destroyed his academy and had escaped from Danzig 359, but he had to prove it explicitly. The Jedi Master turned to Vince, who had spoken. "We need to make it send out a signal on a wide band frequency so we can check its transponder codes with the ones I recovered from the crashed TIE we found on Yavin IV."

"In order to check the codes," Bep piped in, "you'll need to make the ship send a coded message. If it just tells us to get lost, it won't use the code."

Luke looked at the three pilots in front of him. He knew what Bep was getting at. The 185th wanted to start some trouble. He couldn't blame the pilots. They were the best fighter pilots in the fleet and had worked hard to become so. After the battle at Danzig 359 it appeared that the war was over, and that put them out of a job. Now it looked like the Empire was still alive and kicking. Not only alive, but also strong. At the same time, if what Snotzenexer had said was true, these ships were simply hiding because they didn't want to be mistaken for hostile. Luke realized that no one ever truly wiped out an opponent. They had won the war against the Empire, but there were still Imperials, and even though they weren't going to fight anymore, that didn't mean the Empire had to destroy all of their surviving ships.

At the same time, Luke had this sinking feeling that these ships were waiting for something. Snotzenexer hadn't told him the entire truth. Luke could tell that the admiral had been lying to him, but was hard to tell how much and what had been a lie. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the fleet's existence, Luke still felt that he needed to know if this was the same ship that had attacked his academy. "Okay," Luke said finally, "go out there and get their attention, but remember, we aren't at war with these guys anymore. Just get them annoyed at you. From what I remember of your fighters, they don't have any distinguishing marks that would identify you as part of the Republic fleet. Just act like a bunch of cocky pilots who happened to stumble upon a fleet hiding in the asteroid belt."

"Will do, Master," Jon said, giving a cocky salute. The three tall youths disappeared from the crowded cockpit, leaving Luke to look at the ships in front of him. They had spent the last few days searching the asteroid belt. It wasn't exactly a small field, spanning a large orbital pattern around the Varion sun. It had been hard for the sensors to pick up the metal of the ships amongst all the ore-rich asteroids, but Luke had been able to pick up the life signs of a few patrolling TIE's, and the Jedi had been able to follow them to the main cluster of ships. Luke counted about thirty Star Destroyers, with the one Super class sticking out as the most prominent member of the starry landscape.

Luke looked at the closed circuit camera that monitored the small flight bay of the modified carrier. Vince, Bep, and Jon were in the process of boarding their unique ships. Luke sighed, hoping that this little encounter wouldn't have the opposite effect that they wanted. All he wanted was the Super Star Destroyer to send out some kind of coded message to the rest of the ships. Whether that message was to ignore the three fighters or to attack them, Luke just needed the message. He was confident that the 185th members could get out of there fast enough to avoid any type of severe conflict.

* * *

Sanson looked at the sensor display on the armrest of her command chair at the back of the Dark Fist's bridge. The sensors had spotted the modified carrier as soon as it had micro-jumped to the asteroid behind which it was now hiding. As three small fighters emerged from behind the rock, Sanson smiled to herself, realizing that her visitors wanted to have some fun.

Admiral Sanson had received information from her scouts that the ship had been scouring the asteroid belt for the past two days. It hadn't taking much tracking to find out that Luke and the three young aces were flying the carrier. She now had information on what to do with the trespassers, so she had uncloaked and had her TIE fighters on stand-by. The admiral reached for the com switch on her chair. "Lieutenant Leonce."

"Yes," the intercom responded.

"We have three incoming fighters that have an ETA of two minutes. These are the fighters that we talked about earlier. Am I safe in believing that you know what to do?"

"You are, sir."

Sanson closed the connection, feeling that no more needed to be said.

* * *

Ward Leonce exhaled slowly. He had been training on the new modified TIE's for the past month. He had also been put in command of training the rest of his clone brothers. They had only been training for about two weeks, but, like him, his brothers had been quick to pick it up, and most of them already had flight experience.

"All right men," he shouted to the group of ten pilots that had been chosen for this mission, "it's time to go. I want all of you in space in two minutes. Let's go!"

The crowd of identical faces moved in a well-practiced routine, boarding their TIE's and activating the preflight engine start up. One by one, the ships left the hangar, and the Lieutenant was the last ship out of the bay.

Back on the bridge, Admiral Sanson sent an order to the rest of her fleet to move into flanking positions and set up an interdiction field.

* * *

A light on the communications console lit blue to tell Luke that the modified carrier was receiving a coded message. Luke had already programmed the security passwords into the computer and therefore not only got confirmation as to the identity of the Super Star Destroyer, but was also able to read the transmission.

"Guys," Luke said over the private com channel to the three fighters, "I got confirmation, now get out of there. The other Star Destroyers are moving in to enclose your position."

* * *

Out in space, the members of the 185th were three quarters of the way to the Dark Fist when Luke's message came through. They hadn't needed the command because their on board sensors had already detected the encircling tactics of the much larger battle ships, not to mention, also telling them that eleven TIE fighters were bearing down on them with incredible speed.

"Mission accomplished fellas," Vince said over the com, "let's send it back home before these guys decide that they want to play."

All three ships pulled up into a vertical one-eighty degree turn and punched the accelerator, retaining their cruising speed that had only seconds ago been propelling them in the opposite direction. "Question," Jon announced, "why haven't our solar paneled friends contacted us?"

"What do you mean?" Vince asked back.

"I mean, isn't it protocol to tell us that we are trespassing in restricted space before they send the cavalry out to get us?"

"I agree," Bep put in.

"Regardless," Vince rationalized, "we'll out run them in a coup-" he was cut off as a rear explosion rocked his ship. "What?!" Vince's rear shields were now in the red after a direct from a torpedo. "My sensors didn't detect a lock!"

"That's because they fired without one," Bep said. He and Jon had each gone into evasive maneuvers as soon as they saw Vince get hit. Not a full second after their movement, two torpedoes sped through the space that the ships had just evacuated. Vince was now too taking evasive measures, but his ship was feeling slightly sluggish as his generator tried to restore the power that had been expelled to repel the torpedo attack.

"We need to micro jump out of here."

"What are you talking about, Vince?" Jon asked. "There's only eleven of them, besides they attacked us without provocation."

"Vince is right," Bep put in, "Skywalker said he didn't want us to get involved in a battle. We're supposed to be at peace here."

"But they attacked us!"

"Sending the jump coordinates now," Vince said, ignoring Jon's pleas. Each of them continued their strategic evasion, making sure that each of their ships were pointing toward the asteroid that their carrier was hiding behind as the nav com countdown reached zero. Each of their engines made a fast revving noise, screamed in protest, and then clunked out.

The three fighters hung listless in space for a few seconds before laser fire from behind them brought the pilots back to their senses. "What happened?" Bep screamed.

"There must be some kind of interdiction field surrounding us. It looks like we are going to have to confront them."

"Can't we out run them still?"

"These guys are far too close," Bep said. "Even if we do out run them, they will have our backsides to shoot at for far too long."

"Right," Vince agreed. "Go through them, but don't fire. I'll see if we can't get out of this yet."

All three W-Wings turned about and flew directly at the swarm of ships that opposed them. The scattering of TIE's seemed far too organized to Vince. He was used to seeing the pod ships stumble about when they scattered, sometimes crashing into each other in their haste. As he passed the nearest of the ships, he noticed that these weren't the TIE's he was used to seeing. They seemed to have severe modifications done to their engines as well as attachments to their solar panels that looked suspiciously like shield modulators.

"Vince," Bep said over the com as they passed through, "are you seeing what I'm seeing?"

"These aren't your typical TIE fighters," Vince concurred. As both groups of fighters turned about to face each other again, Vince took the time to try and resolve the situation peacefully. "This is Vince Trimpo," he said over the com, making sure it was tuned to all frequencies, "there seems to be a small misunderstanding. We didn't mean to trespass. We were just curious. If we can go now, I can assure you we won't make the same mistake again." Vince's response was an incessant beeping from his flight computer, telling him that three of the TIE's had obtained a missile lock on him and that two more were trying.

Bep and Jon, were also being locked onto, and suddenly all eleven TIE's fired at the three ships. The pilots had a warning this time and were able to avoid initial contact, but the missiles circled around for another pass. The W-Wings turned their attention to the offensive projectiles, and in a few moments each of the eleven torpedoes were evaporated. Vince had been correctly identified as the leader of the three-some and had been forced to avoid five of the torpedoes, while his companions had shared the remaining six. Vince hoped that their impressive display of skill would help convince the TIE's that they weren't novice pilots and avoiding a fight was in everyone's best interest. It had the opposite effect.

The eleven ships came screaming toward the three W-Wings, spewing fire that cascaded off the strong shields of the custom made crafts, but it wasn't a punishment that they could take for long. "Okay, we fight," Vince finally said, getting fed up with their situation.

Jon had already begun his offensive, not waiting for Vince's approval. He sent his ship into a tight pursuit of two TIE's, preparing to trade fire for fire. Quite unexpectedly, the two broke formation, forcing Jon to choose one or the other. Usually the stupid Imperial pilots would fly in formations of three, thinking that big groups increased the strength of their small fighters, when in actuality, they only made them easier targets. Jon fired a stray shot at the one turning left, and veered right, staying close to the other ship.

The pursued TIE began a sharp climb that Jon followed, the centrifugal force pushing him back in his seat. Suddenly the TIE spun around and changed directions by one hundred eighty degrees. Jon was so surprised at the impossible maneuver, that he didn't pull his ship out of the tight, arced climb, and as the TIE flew in an opposite, tangential path to his climb, Jon's W-wing's under side was exposed. The TIE sent several blasts into the weak under-shielding, rocking the fighter severely and sending it spinning.

Jon's pride was injured instantly. He had never been hit so hard in his life, and he had flown on countless missions. To his credit he recovered quickly and was able to pick out the offending TIE in the swarm of fighting that surrounded him. The ship was diving up and down corkscrewing left and right, but all the skill in the galaxy wasn't going to get him out of Jon's sights. Jon depressed his trigger and watched as he led the speedy fighter just right. The two laser beams landed solidly on the back of the TIE, and it shook violently, ending its corkscrew.

"Shields?" gasped Jon. "On a TIE?"

Shields or no shields, the young pilot refused to let this TIE out of his sight. The TIE was only slightly wounded, but its maneuvers came a little slower now. It turned itself up into the same curved climb it had done before, but pulled out ninety degrees into it, continuing in a tangential path, only to then turn ninety degrees to left.

Jon was watching the strategy of severe turns and dives, knowing that the Imperial pilot was setting him up for something. The TIE made another very sharp turn, this time, reversing his momentum before the move, tying to get Jon to shoot past him. Jon was on top of it though, and hit the brakes well before he got to the almost stationary TIE. Thinking his trail to have flown past him, the TIE pilot continued his turn, heading off in the way he had come. Jon watched as the doomed craft turned directly into his sights. He pressed the triggers again, this time not letting up. The first two blasts shook the small fighter, as the second and third pairs robbed the ship off all its shield, allowing the fourth and final pair of laser bolts the pleasure of destruction in the form of a subdued fireball.

Jon was so pleased with himself at his success that he failed to notice that in the process of slowing down to avoid the TIE's feeble attempt at trickery, he had become a near stationary target for the rest of the TIE's who had been following him. His W-wing convulsed unnaturally as it was fired upon from three different directions. Jon quickly retained his normal combat speed, trying to evade his new enemies.

The other two members of the three-man fighter squad were having similar difficulties. Vince and Bep could get off one or two shots on their opponents but never enough to deplete the shields fully. At the same time they were trying to zero in on one target they had to evade four others.

Luke saw the struggle from his hiding place, but also realized that he couldn't do too much. The dog fighting was taking place just outside the bulk of the asteroid belt, with Luke hiding right on the edge of the field. He wanted to join into the fight, knowing that the three pilots had equipped this carrier with a very powerful weapons system, but he also knew that the large, bulky ship had terrible mobility. Luke watched a pair of TIE's sticking to Vince's tail not falling for any of the pilot's expertly executed dives or spins. Vince's ship was taking a beating. Luke moved the carrier from behind the huge rock and creeped toward the battle, giving him a clear view of the deadly chase between Vince and his tails. Luke closed his eyes and reached out for the weapon controls. He could see the fight through the Force, and as he reached out to the two trailing TIE's, he fired. The powerful turbo laser lanced out from the carrier and quite miraculously dipped down at the last second as the two TIE's did a drop spin to counter a move Vince made. The blast tore through both ships as if they were made of paper.

All four Republic members had forgotten about the Star Destroyers in their concern over the vastly improved TIE's, and now that the carrier had decided to enter the fray, the larger Imperial ships felt that they too should join the action. Four ion cannon blasts from the surrounding Star Destroyers hit the carrier at once, shorting out all the systems and throwing Luke away from the console as the control panel in front of him exploded in an array of sparks.

As soon as the attack had taken place, the TIE's broke off their attack and headed back to the Super Star Destroyer. Vince had just figured out where the life saving shot had come from when he also noticed the Star Destroyer's reaction. He now also realized that he and his friends were surrounded by terrible odds.

"Guys, it looks like we'r-"

"Tractor beam!" Jon yelled, interrupting Vince's comment.

Vince didn't respond, feeling the telltale jolt in his craft as a beam locked onto his ship right after Jon had spoken. He then felt another and another lock on. "They're not taking any chances," Vince said.

"At least we still have our weapons," Jon said. No sooner were the words out of his mouth then a shower of ion fire rained upon them. Five seconds later all three ships were floating listlessly in space. The tractor beams had released after the ion cannons had done their job.

"Nothing like tying someone up to shoot them," Bep mumbled into the helmet com.

"At least they want us alive."

"Yea," Jon said, "but where do they want us?"

As if to answer the pilot's question, the Super Star Destroyer moved into the ring that the smaller ships had created around the fighters. The huge ship loomed over the three fighters, and Vince noticed that their carrier with Luke inside was also being tractored underneath the enormous ship. The huge bay doors on the under side of the ship opened slowly and all four ships were pulled inside. The doors were closed beneath the new arrivals, and the ships came to rest on the closed hatch.

Vince, Bep, and Jon looked at each other through their cockpit canopies, and shrugged. They had been inside a Star Destroyer's hangar before, but then they had been on the offensive with their ships in prime condition. It had also not been a Super Star Destroyer.

Luke was also curious as to what was going to happen now. He didn't know if the Imperials knew whom they had captured, but he really wondered what was going to happen when they realized that they had reeled in a Jedi Master. He and the 185th had killed three TIE's, but the Imperials had definitely initiated the attack, even if the three fighters had been trespassing. All four ships were oriented in the same direction and could see the main entrance to the hangar. Luke watched as a woman walked into the hangar, flanked by two solders. Storm trooper armor was absent in the room and all the officers and solders were decked out in black pants and mid-length gray shirts. Luke could tell by his Force augmented vision that the woman had a rank of admiral.

Women did not rise to any type of rank in the old Empire. Luke began remembering what Snotzenexer had told him. The Empire had changed. Maybe when they found out they had captured a very important member of the Republic they would apologize and let them go. Luke watched the woman's slow determined approach. Yeah, right, Luke thought in response to his earlier thought. She knows exactly what she has done. They had been taken alive, which meant imprisonment. Luke couldn't feel any ysalamiri present, which was good news for once.

The 185th members also watched the approach of Admiral Sanson, wondering what kind of execution they were going to get. Sanson paused as she neared the ships. She looked at the two different makes between the large carrier and the smaller fighters. Sanson knew what these fighters had done in the past to TIE fighters and had watched the prowess of the fighters and pilots from the battle that had just taken place. She was a mechanic at heart, always basing her battle strategies on the technology of her own ships and of her adversaries'. These three fighters and even the carrier might prove very useful in advancing the fighting capability of her fleet.

Admiral Sanson walked slowly in between the fighters, making both her own officers and the four men in their ships, wait for her orders just a bit longer. She looked with great interest at the engine compartment of the W-wings, noticing how they were installed directly in line with the weapon system. The shield generator also drew off of the engine department. The torpedo bay was slung beneath the main fuselage and the swept forward cockpit gave the pilots very good vision in battle. It was a perfect design, combining the strengths of the X-wing and the E-wing into one ship, and then attaining the mobility of an A-wing.

Sanson turned from her examination of the ships and spotted her second in command, Commander Pearson. "Commander, open these ships."

"Yes, Sir." As Pearson directed traffic, Sanson moved away from amongst the ships, letting the men do their work. Huge magnetic cranes that were suspended from the ceiling came down to lift up the ships. None of the pilons in the electronically shorted out ships had activated, so the Imperial techs attached electronic actuators to the landing gear, and soon all four ships were resting well balanced on their pilons.

Next the techs worked on the hatch to the carrier. Two men attached the electronic actuators while ten soldiers leveled their blaster rifles at the hatch door. Pearson gave a signal and the techs activated the hatch. As the door lowered, each of the soldiers cocked their weapon. The ramp-way into the ship was empty, and after a brief pause, Sanson watched as the men filed into the ship two at a time. A short while later, they returned with Luke Skywalker in toe. He was shackled with his hands behind his back. One of the officers was holding his lightsaber and gave it to Pearson. Pearson nodded at the man, and the rest of the crew ran over to work on the W-wings. Person led Luke over to Sanson while several soldiers always kept their weapon trained on the Jedi Master.

Sanson had told Pearson who this man was, but she didn't know if the soldiers knew. She scoffed inwardly at the power the five men with riffles felt that they had over the prisoner. She knew that he could easily wipe out five time their number, all armed with blasters. At the same time, she realized that Luke was pretty much powerless against all of the officers present, and it would only be a lesson in futility if he tried to fight against each of the one hundred men in the room. If Sanson knew anything about Jedi, she knew that they valued human life far too highly to take on such a pointless venture.

The three fighter pilots weren't a tenth as able as the Jedi in combat, but they seemed that fraction inverted as willing to fight. Sanson laughed at the irony of the situation as one of her officers was forced to slam the youngest member of the squadron in the back of the head with his riffle to put him into submission. The three pilots were cuffed and brought to stand next to Luke.

"Do you know who we are?" the one who had been hit shouted at the admiral.

"Shut up, Jon," the tallest of the three pilots said.

Sanson looked up at the three youths in front of her - up and up. They were not your typical fighter pilots and she knew that if they were going to be of any use to her, she would have to do some serious work with them. She looked each on of them in the eye, trying to get them to back down. She had little success, but stopped on Jon, who was still squirming slightly. "Do you know who I am?" she asked, but used the tone of voice to which only fools responded. "I am the admiral of this ship and this fleet. I can have all of you executed at the snap of my fingers. I think I deserve an answer as to why you four find it necessary to trespass in restricted space." As she said this last statement, she turned her attention to Luke, who was more at her eye level and, as any ignorant observer could tell, was holding up to this sudden imprisonment the best of the four.

Luke looked back at her, and his facial muscles didn't twitch once as his mind worked out the puzzle of the admiral in front of him. "You know exactly who I am, don't you," Luke finally said. "You know who I am, and then obviously why I came here. You have also answered my question."

"That being . . ." Sanson asked, not showing any anger at Luke's cavalier response.

"What is the Empire's political position after the incident at Dansig 359? Do they still want war with the Republic, or are they willing to surrender once and for all, sparing the rest of the galaxy a lot of unnecessary war and hardship? Basically, do you still want to rule the universe?"

Sanson turned away from the Jedi Master and walked a few paces with her hands clasped behind her back before she turned and responded. "I don't know if it is so much that we want to rule the universe as it is that the universe needs someone other than your sister at the helm, and we just happen to be the best people for the job."

Vince, Bep, and Jon finally realized what the two of them were talking about when Sanson made the casual reference to Leia. This admiral did know that she had captured Luke Skywalker, and the Empire was planning another attack of sorts on the Republic.

"I don't think that if it came down to a vote, the galaxy would decide to put you back in charge, regardless of what Leia does."

Sanson laughed out loud, showing the officers around her that their commander did have a sense of humor, much in disagreement with the current rumors that had been circling the ship. "I understand that you have met President Snotzenexer. What did you think of him?"

"He is a very clever man who has a knack for making people believe what he wants them to believe. But he is in over his head. There is no way you or he will be able to revolt against the Republic with what you have hidden away in this asteroid field."

"Do you know where President Snotzenexer is now?" Luke didn't answer. "I'll give you a hint. Right now your sister calls him Senator. I believe that it will come down to a vote, and frankly, I'll be quite surprised if the galaxy doesn't elect us back into power."

Luke was frozen in shock. He had talked with Mara, and she had told him that Leia was having some severe trouble with the senate and that there was a formal investigation underway to depose her. If Snotzenexer was there, pushing the investigation along with the sole purpose of taking over when Leia went out, then the Republic was in real danger. Luke looked around the hangar, evaluating for the first time what his chances of survival were if he tried to escape. He decided upon "not good." Not only did he have to worry about over a hundred armed Imperials, he was responsible for the lives of the three pilots he had dragged into this mess.

Sanson saw his flirtive looks around the large room. "Don't worry, we'll lock you up nice and tight. We've been preparing a cell for quite some time." She looked at the three pilots. "You three will be a pain in the neck for a while, I imagine, but we'll soon see how useful you are to us alive." Sanson turned away from the prisoners and nodded to Commander Pearson. Pearson in turn motioned to three officers who stood in front of the prisoners. They lifted their weapons and fired. Vince, Bep, and Jon just flinched, but Luke was preparing to redirect any beam that came their way. The guns didn't produce a beam, but a very unblockable stun ray that encompassed the whole group of four, knocking them into blackness.

Chapter 17 "Know Thine Enemy"

The lightning lit up the sky, tracing its jagged finger across the black cloud background. The wind whipped across the barren ground searching for a grain of sand or a loose pebble to toss around, but the surface was composed of one solid rock. Despite the lack of rubble, the surface was anything but smooth. Huge canyons and shear cliffs were distributed with a generous hand all about the landscape.

The woman stood on the highest peek of the chaotic surface, her hair the wind's to do with as it pleased. She wore a thin shift against the elements but didn't notice the temperature. The sharp, rocky ground beneath her should have cut her feet, but she hardly noticed. The air had no moisture at all which only seemed to make the lightning storm feel more eerie. The view of the setting was the only thing that caused her any discomfort, sending a deep chill down her spine. Whether she was wearing a Hoth environment suit or her simple nightgown, she would have felt the same chill.

Suddenly she was no longer on the highest peek, as if the vision had thought she had had enough of the view, fully understood where she was, and it was time to move on. She was now looking up at a ledge that towered above her. Lightning struck the pointed peek, extending down from the sky in slow motion, as if to burn the image in her mind. The explosion wasn't one of light but of darkness, eliminating the triangular summit.

The woman found herself thrown to the ground, suddenly aware of her surroundings. The rock cut into her hands and feet as she tried to scamper backwards away from the globe of darkness that had been placed on the excavated ledge. The wind was suddenly very cold and caused her arms and legs to shake violently as she occasionally lost her balance and fell to the ground, letting the rock cut through her thin chemise and into her legs. Scrambling backwards on her hands and feet, her eyes stayed focused on the darkness in front of her.

Unexpectedly, her back slammed into an unseen outcropping behind her. A particularly sharp edge semi-impaled her in the base of her spine. Her upper body went rigid, frozen from pain and cold, while her legs continued to scrape themselves uselessly against the jagged ground. She wanted to scream out against the pain, trying desperately to gain control of her body as it assailed itself against the unforgiving surroundings, but all of her attention was focused on the ledge in front of her.

The darkness seemed to take on shapes, looking like a huge bird and then a four-legged creature and then a human figure, all the while remaining perfectly spherical. The woman's eyes began to pick out swirling patterns in the infinite blackness, mesmerizing and hypnotizing her so that she no longer noticed or felt the pain that was being afflicted upon her.

-You have failed me-

The words were not heard or read. Some how the woman simply knew they were there.

-The Zorian is coming, and I shall complete the job-

The darkness seemed to grow larger now, consuming the entire peek on which it had resided. The globe began to grow exponentially, expanding its outer edge toward the petrified woman. She suddenly wished her legs would again tear themselves apart against the ground, even though she was still backed up against the outcropping, but all her limbs were frozen with fear. The spherical edge of the darkness was very close now. She found that she was able to draw her legs toward her chest, and she hugged her body into the tightest ball she could. Daring a peak, she saw that the darkness was only a couple inches aw-

"Mara."

Mara's eyes were yanked open. She was covered with sweat, her body curled up into a ball, lying in the middle of her bed. Her sheets were nowhere to be found. It wasn't for a few seconds that her body remembered to breath, and when she did, it came in a huge gasp. It took a few moments to get her body under control. Her breathing came back to normal, and she straightened her legs, working out the cramps that had attacked her with the brief hyperventilation. It was then that she remembered what had awakened her.

"Mara Jade."

The voice wasn't exactly audible, but she was definitely "hearing" it and not making it up. Mara suddenly got the feeling that she wasn't alone in her room. In a normal situation, she would have reached for her blaster, which she kept next to her bed, but she was feeling very vulnerable, and instead reached for her sheets, which were lying on the floor. Under her nightgown her skin was very moist from sweat, and a cool draft from the hotel's air-conditioning system made goose bumps stand up all over her body.

The bed was in the corner of the room, and she brought her back up against the wall, crouched on the bed with her covers wrapped around the front of her shivering body. She had enough presence of mind to not respond to the voice until it identified itself. Then she saw it. There was a figure standing in the opposite corner of the room. The door was still locked and latched from the inside, and none of the windows were opened. Mara began to relax a little, realizing that this visitor was not from her dream and if it was a thief, she could handle it.

"Mara?"

Relaxed, Mara was better able to understand the voice. It wasn't sound, but it was registering in the same part of her mind that normal noise would, simply bypassing the eardrums. It was transmitted through the Force. Mara relaxed entirely, reorienting her legs into a crossed sitting position and dropping her hands into her lap and on top of the bed sheet. "Yes, Skywalker."

The figure stepped forward slightly, as if uncomfortable with its surroundings. Mara noticed that it was slightly transparent, which explained why she wasn't able to see it right away.

"Did I scare you?"

"No," Mara replied, which wasn't a lie, but her body was still covered in sweat with her hair matted freakishly to the side of her head. Also, her posture, back up against the wall and covers clutched in her lap, didn't speak too highly of confidence. Mara examined Luke's figure as he stood about five meters in front of her bed. His eyes seemed to be staring past her, as if looking at something on the wall. "Can you see me?"

Luke shook his head. "Not really. I'm not actually there, or here, or where ever you are. Why do you ask?"

"Well," Mara responded, thinking quickly, "we women don't always sleep fully dressed." It wasn't a total lie, but Mara was sure that Luke had seen her in less than the nightgown she was wearing now.

"Well, don't worry. All I'm doing is projecting my image to you. You are the only one who can see me if you're not alone."

"I suppose I should tell Markus to go back to sleep then?"

"Uh,-"

"I'm kidding, Luke. I'm alone. Now, for what reason do I deserve this visit? If it's just to tell me that you aren't showing up tomorrow, don't worry. I was planning on leaving without you anyway."

"Actually, I don't see anyway that I'll make it tomorrow morning."

Mara caught the hidden meaning in his voice. "Where are you?"

"Right now I am locked inside a maximum security cell on the Dark Fist, a Super Star Destroyer hidden in the asteroid belt."

"So I guess you want me to send your stuff via Imperial shuttle," Mara said lightly, hiding the fact that she was totally surprised.

"What I need you to do is get in contact with Leia. Don't worry about me. I have a feeling that they don't want me dead. I need you to relay a message to Leia. Tell her that Senator Snotzenexer is an Imperial who is only after the presidency of the Republic so he can revert the government back to the ways of the old Empire."

Mara looked skeptical. "That sounds pretty outrageous. Remember that I met Snotzenexer. He isn't a senator. He's the president of the bank here on Iom, and there is no connection between him and the Empire." She paused. "You said you were on a Super Star Destroyer; who do they have commanding it?"

"I don't know her name, but she's an admiral."

"A female admiral?!" Mara sounded incredulous. "No one is going to believe this story. I don't even believe it."

"Do you think I'm lying?" Luke asked, not believing that Mara wasn't going to help him out.

"I don't think that you're lying, but that doesn't mean that you weren't lied to. Think about it, Luke. Let me guess; you were caught trespassing on or near an Imperial Super Star Destroyer, right? You aren't exactly on the Imperial's list of people to be nice to. What if this female admiral simply lied to you so that you would loose credibility? The Empire is done. They have nothing. Those ships will probably join the Republic in a few years, but if they can make you look bad in the mean time, then more power to them."

Luke was silent for a while. "Can you at least tell Leia where I am and what I think?"

"I'll do that," Mara wondered what Leia's response would be, but she'd find a way to tell her. "Now, I have a busy day tomorrow. Why don't you try and break out of your cell and let me get some sleep."

Luke smirked at her. "Thanks, Mara."

* * *

Anakin stood on the cliff and surveyed his surroundings. The cliff was only such because half of the mountain had been sheared away by one of the many meteors that had slammed into the mountainous coastline on Forinad. The rest of the coastline was pockmarked with almost more craters than the young Jedi could count. The water that hadn't receded had been collected into large lakes, filling up the indented ground. The water filled area might look fertile at first, but Anakin knew that because of the immense volcanic ash in the area, the water was so acidic that it would kill any fish in seconds and destroy any boat in a matter of hours.

Anakin turned his attention to the sky. The blanket that covered the planet couldn't even really be described as clouds. The immense amount of steam, combined with the enormous volume of ash that had been thrown into the atmosphere had created almost a mud shield against the sun. No sunlight or heat was able to get through to the planet's surface. The only difference between night and day was that during the day, the sky had an eerie, soft glow to it that was still darker than most normal nights. During the night, there was no light to speak of.

On a planet where the stars were worshipped, this was the worst kind of punishment imaginable. Just wait till the nuclear winter sets in, Anakin thought. Already the air was crisp and cold. In only a week it would be below freezing everywhere on the planet. In a month, the oceans would start to freeze, and then the glaciers would start their long, laborious trip across the continents. Life on this planet would come to an end, and it wouldn't start again for another thousand years.

Work was already in progress to try and limit the severity of the nuclear winter. Ships were in orbit trying skim as much of the soot and ash out of the atmosphere as they could. The problem they kept running into was that they couldn't take the bad without stealing the good. Each time they removed a section of the atmosphere, they took the ozone layer with it. Plus, the ships could only orbit in the outer atmosphere for so long before their shields over heated.

Anakin was ready to start his own method of correction. Standing alone in the darkness of the planet, he closed his eyes and concentrated on the air around him. There was little moisture in the cold air and the lack of humidity made it easier to deal with. Anakin started slowly. He levitated off the ground a couple feet and began to spin. The air was reluctant, but as Anakin threw himself into the Force, the air around him began to spin. Faster and faster the Jedi twirled until he was nothing more that a blur. The air too began to pick up speed. Suddenly, Anakin lifted his arms out straight. The sudden change in momentum should have ripped his arms off, instead Anakin used the Force to transfer the shock into the surrounding air. The result was an enormous inverted cyclone.

The tip of the funnel penetrated high into the sky above and almost at once ash began to rain down all around the spinning Jedi. Anakin began to spin even faster now, using centrifugal force to send the ash to the outside of the cyclone. He was standing on a narrow, elevated peak, and all around the base of the peak, dirt began to pile up in enormous mounds. Soon the ash was piled so high that Anakin's previous perch was no longer visible and his spinning feet were only a couple centimeters above the growing mound. The spinning Jedi saw the growing mound and his concentration was shattered as images of him being buried alive under tons of volcanic ash sprang to mind. His spinning slowed, down and he descended onto the top of the ash beneath him. The ash had been packed so hard by the Force induced cyclone that Anakin only made slight indentions on the dark pile under his feet.

Now that he was finished, the Force flowing out of him, he felt extremely fatigued and was forced to crumple into a sitting position. Anakin looked up to the sky and saw a faint glow of light where his inverted cyclone had vacuumed out several tons of ash. The glow that came through was faint, and even now, the pressure of the surrounding ash clouds were pressing in on the area, crushing it out of existence. Anakin sighed as he watched the last bit of his efforts fade away into blackness. There was over millions of times as much ash still in the sky as the amount he had removed, but he knew that it was a start. He might be able to perform this cleaning cyclone again in about six hours when his stamina had built back up, but a million six hour periods was 685 years, his quick math mind told him. This world would become unlivable in a matter of months. Anakin needed to have more Jedi here. He would have to make a call to the Academy and bring in some reinforcements.

* * *

Boba Fett sat in front of the screen waiting for the connection to be made. He tried not to glance nervously behind him, not wanting to seem anxious, but if the truth be known, he hadn't dealt too much with Jedi, and after seeing what Skywalker had done to Jabba, he had kept clear of the Force crowd. Trince could sense Boba's uneasiness and enjoyed it. He didn't know why Han and Lando wanted him, but was glad they had chosen him to round up the old bounty hunter.

The screen finally flickered to life; Lando was grinning cunningly on the other end. "Calrissian?" Boba asked. "I thought Solo wanted to speak with me."

"Oh, I'm here too, old buddy," Han said from off the screen. He walked into the communicator's video range and appeared leering over Lando's shoulder.

Boba smirked a hello at the two men. They weren't really enemies. The roles at Bespin could have very easily been reversed if the Rebellion had been the high payer. But as it was, he didn't think that the two men on the other end had many warm, fuzzy feelings about the ex-bounty hunter. "What do you to want?" Boba asked, not really having a clue what it could be.

"We need you to access your Imperial credit line," Lando said, cutting right to the chase.

"Which one?" Boba asked in all seriousness.

"The one here on Coruscant," Han said, irritated with Boba's reply, not realizing that he was being serious.

Lando knew that Boba probably did have several credit lines and put his hand on Han's arm to calm his friend. "We need to find a way to access the hidden accounts in the palace, and we can't find any links inside the computers here, so we figured that the only way to get into it was to trace a call from the outside."

"I'm so sure," Boba replied, this time he was sarcastic. "More like you want to pin me as a former Imperial employee and hold it over my head for vengeance's sake."

"Fett," Han said, loosing his patients quickly, "we don't need any proof against you. We have one of the galaxies best-trained fighters standing a meter behind you. If we wanted, we could dictate how many more times you drew breath. I don't think we'd need this elaborate scheme to take you down."

"In reality," Lando, the reasonable one, said, choosing his words carefully as to not give away the precarious financial situation of the Republic, "we want to liquidate the funds in the Emperor's remaining accounts. Han and I only recently discovered that the Republic had missed some of the accounts in their initial seizure."

"I see," Boba said. "You want me to access my account so you can take all my money."

"Blood money!" Han screamed. He would know because it had been his blood. "Take all your money out for all I care."

Boba thought for a minute and then shook his head. "I can't do it."

"Why not?" Lando asked before Han could get a word in.

"It's too risky. You have to look at it from my point of view. There is a reason that I still have money in that account. Anywhere that I try to remove it, I'll get caught. It's not tough for a bank to figure out from where you are withdrawing funds. The Empire has been on the black list ever since you guys took power. I'd walk into the bank to make my credit transfer and be arrested two minutes later as an Imperial agent."

"You have two choices," Lando said. "You can refuse to make the withdrawal, and we will have our Jedi Knight brainwash you for the information, or you can make the withdrawal with Trince at your side in case anything goes wrong."

Boba Fett looked back at Trince for the first time to see his reaction to being asked to play bodyguard to a character such as himself. The Jedi's face was impassive, and as Boba met his gaze, the Jedi smiled congenially at him. Fett didn't like his position, but he knew that Lando wasn't bluffing and wouldn't hesitate to have the Jedi get the information out of him manually. That was definitely not an option. "Okay, Calrissian, but I better not get busted for this, or we'll meet again real soon."

* * *

An hour later, Trince and Fett strolled into one of Gensifery's galactic banks. The old bounty hunter was casting glances all over the bank's main foyer, scouting out the security measures. There were two exits: the main entrance through which they had entered where two guards were posted, and a smaller side exit that required remote access. Other than the uniformed guards at the entrance, there didn't seem to be much in the way of offensive security. Fett was sure that there were several cameras in the building.

The pair walked up to one of the open bank tellers, and Fett leaned his right arm on the counter so the small blaster he had strapped to the inside of his arm was hidden in the relaxed flow of his loose fitting shirt. "Good afternoon, gentlemen. How may I help you?"

"I'd like to close out a remote account please," Fett asked very politely.

"We have a five percent transaction fee for anything under fifty thousand and a two percent charge for anything over."

"That will be fine."

"The fee will be waved if you open an account with this bank for the transaction."

"I think I'll have it on a credit voucher if you don't mind," Fett said, handing over the account card for the transaction. The teller took the card and inserted it into her machine. After a few moments, she looked up at Fett with a little concern. Trince noticed the look and wondered what it meant. If Fett understood how the card worked, it would be informing the teller that her computer was preparing to make a transaction call to Coruscant.

"Do you have the transaction number, sir?"

Fett didn't like the tone of her voice. She asked the question almost in fear. It was the kind of voice a hostage would use to ask the terrorist if she could use the refresher. Fett spoke the twelve-character code from memory, which did nothing to ease her mind.

The computer beeped a few seconds after she entered the code and the teller's face paled slightly. "Uh, sir, this transaction is rather large, and I'm afraid that I'll have to get the manager to approve it."

Fett could do nothing but nod as his mind raced for a way to get out of the situation. The account should have been something around two hundred seventy-five thousand, unless the Emperor had instituted a very generous interest rate that Fett hadn't known about. Regardless, banks regularly transacted amounts twice that high.

"We're leaving," Fett said to Trince under his breath without moving from his leaning position on the counter. He was watching the teller and the manager exchange words, but at the end of the exchange, the manager didn't head in their direction, but instead spoke into a hand held communicator. "I am going to take out the man on the right, and you will take the guy on the left, okay."

Trince had no idea what the bounty hunter was talking about. Fett watched as the teller walked back to them with a false smile plastered on her face. Out of the corner of his eye, the alert bounty hunter saw that the two guards at the entrance stiffened as they received orders through unseen communications devices.

"On the count of a silent three," Fett said to the still confused Jedi. Trince hadn't even noticed that the guards were walking up behind them, both with their hands poised over their weapons. As Fett mentally counted to two, he smoothly pushed away from the counter in a natural motion and then turned quickly, dropping into a crouch and snapping his right arm forward. His hidden blaster shot down his sleeve into his waiting hand.

Trince still had his back turned to the danger behind them when Fett fired his first shot into the guard on the right. The targeted security personnel had just gotten his gun out of his holster when the shot took him in the chest. Fett saw immediately that Trince was not, in fact, going to take out the one on the left, and the bounty hunter rolled forward and to his right as the other guard fired into the floor where Fett had been.

Trince was now turned around and watched Fett come out of his roll and smoothly hit the other guard with his second shot. The area behind the counter was a buzz as everyone dropped to the floor. Fett saw that there was an automated weapons system that was being activated and three mechanized gun barrels were being aimed at him from behind the counter.

So far, the security in the bank, whether it be human or electronic, was only focusing on Fett. Trince was about to change that. The Jedi called on the Force, and everything began to slow down. He noticed the glance that Fett gave towards the area above the counter and felt the surge of power coming from that area. Trince's lightsaber was out faster than the human eye could follow, and as the first few shots came from the row of automated weapons aimed at the prone bounty hunter, the Jedi stepped in front of the barrage and successfully blocked each bolt.

With some of the attention now focused on Trince, Fett was able to scramble to his feet and head for the smaller back exit. The automated weapons took a fraction of a second to realign at their new target and fired. Trince timed is movements perfectly and stepped forward underneath the fire from above. The guns readjusted again, but the deadly accurate lightsaber made short work of them, reducing the entire bank of weapons to sparking wires.

Trince turned around to see what had become of Fett, and saw the bounty hunter ineffectually firing his tiny blaster at the reinforced security door. The Jedi ran over to him, pushed him aside, and slashed the glassine door open with a flick of his wrists. Alarms sounded all over the bank and both of the offenders knew that not only were all of the bank officials aware of their actions, but likely the local authorities would be after them as well.

The two fugitives ran out into the afternoon sun on the tropical world and noticed that the crowd of people who had gathered outside the bank to inspect the alarm recognized them as the perpetrators. It was a lot harder to disappear into the crowd if the crowd knew you were there.

"Jedi," someone yelled from the crowd, "if you're not part of this, then back away from him, otherwise, put your weapon down and come peacefully."

Both men turned to look at the speaker. The police officer was in uniform and flanked by three other men, all holding blaster rifles pointing at the pair. The officers were on Trince and Fett's right. Fett looked to his left and saw that a matching trio had them boxed in. The bank was directly behind them with the crowd and ocean front property in front of them. Fett thought he could see a few officers working their way through the crowd, but he wasn't sure.

"Well, Jedi," the bounty hunter grumbled under his breath, "they want to know if you are with me or against me. I want to know too."

Trince heard the statement, but didn't give it too much attention. He was looking for a way out of this situation. They hadn't done any real damage yet. Fett had fired at the two security guards in the bank, but the blaster he had was far too small to be anything less then a stun gun. They might be able to surrender and talk their way out of it. Then again, this planet had just been bombed to pieces by the Empire, and if they thought that Fett and he were members of the extinct government, they might not be given the opportunity to talk.

He glanced back at the bank they had just exited. It was a one-story building, and Trince eyed the flat roof mischievously. "Well, Jedi?" Fett prompted him. Trince didn't reply vocally, but grabbed Fett's arm, turned around, and leaped high into the air. Laser fire strafed the ground where they had stood, and a few beams followed their leap onto the roof. The pair landed hard on the permacrete roof and kept low as the rifle bolts streaked over their heads.

When the fire subsided a little, Trince and Fett sprang to their feet and ran like crazy for the far edge of the building. Trince helped Fett with the leap over an alley onto the roof of another building, and the two fugitives made their way halfway across the city by leaping from one building to another.

Ten minutes after their escape, Trince slowed down their run and allowed Fett to catch his breath. Amazingly to the Jedi, the old bounty hunter wasn't nearly as winded as he had expected him to be. "I suppose that this is where you leave me," Fett said, not giving away whether he was pleased for the parting or still wanting a mild sense of protection.

"I think you can take care of yourself," Trince replied, walking to the edge of the roof they were on and dropped gracefully down four meters into an alley. Fett walked to the edge of the roof and wondered if the Jedi was still aiding him. He dropped in like fashion to his partner, but his decent was not Force aided, and it was only his coordination and ability to roll with the fall that prevented him from breaking a leg.

Fett was eager to part company with the Jedi, but he had to walk with him to the entrance of the dead end alley before they could part ways. Nothing was said as the two men walked in opposite directions, but Trince cast a glance over his shoulder occasionally to make sure that the bounty hunter wasn't following him.

* * *

On Coruscant, Han watched Lando typing furiously as he tried to track the transaction Fett had initiated. Lando had identified the antenna that had received the incoming signal and was in the process of tracing the signal along the immensely complex wiring network of the ancient palace. "Come on, baby," Lando said under his breath, "stay open a little longer." After a few more furious clicks on the keyboard, "Got it!" Lando shoved away from the desk, pointing at the computer screen in triumph as his wheeled chair rocketed backwards.

Han moved in front of the vacated terminal, trying to make sense of the numerous and odd schematics that covered the screen. "Got what?"

Lando scrambled to roll his chair back to the computer so he could show his friend what he was talking about. "Right here," he said, pointing to a collection of symbols, "is the mainframe that stores the hidden accounts of the Emperor."

"Great," Han replied. "So you can tap into it, right?"

"No," Lando said, looking at Han with an expression that said, "haven't you understood anything I've told you." Out loud he said, "You can only access this thing remotely from an outside line. It isn't connected to any wiring in the palace."

"Then how did you track it?"

"When a wire carries a current it produces a electromagnetic field," Lando started, feeling like he was standing at the head of a classroom. "When that field comes in contact with other wires, it induces a current in them. I was able to pick up traces of current along a path that led to the main frame. It's kind of like tracking an animal. You might not be able to see every paw print it leaves, but by catching small glimpses of tracks, you can make a good guess as to its course. Then when you stumble upon the beast's den, you know you've been going in the right direction."

"So now we know where it is. How do we get to it?"

"We can't access it from a line in the palace because it isn't wired to any, but we can extract the information we need manually. We just need to go to this main frame, tap into it with a hyper-interface card, and then - PRESTO - we're in."

Han thought that Lando was just a little too excited about this whole thing. Han wasn't quite so ready to go along yet. His subconscious was screaming at him that there was a catch somewhere. "Great, so where is it?"

"That's the good part," Lando replied. "It says that it is here in the Imperial palace. It says: Imperial palace, level 2, record room, Ecormics section."

There's the catch, Han thought. "Are you sure that it doesn't say 'level 200?'"

It was Lando's turn to look confused. "No, it says level 2. What's the problem?"

"Of course the Emperor would keep everything important down there," Han mumbled under his breath. "Do you know what level 2 is?" he asked Lando. The old gambler shook his head. "Let me give you a hint. Level 1 is ground level."

"Ground level?" Lando asked incredulously. "By ground level, do you mean dirt level?" Han nodded his head. "Coruscant has dirt?"

"Not that anyone sees it," Han said, agreeing with Lando that the statement was a bit odd. "Here on Coruscant, we don't throw away our trash, we just build on top of it. We are kilometers above the ground right now."

Lando breathed in sharply. "How many levels are there?"

"They stopped counting. Up in the populated levels, there is so much variance in the construction making it impossible to identify individual levels. Some are over thirty meters tall, others are only two. The point is that the furthest down I've ever been is about level 40, and I still have nightmares about it."

"Well, we don't have to go outside to go to level 2 in the palace, do we?"

Han nodded his head. All of the lower levels in the palace have been closed. It's like being in a skyscraper during a flood. As the waters rise, you have to go up and close the floors beneath you. In order to keep from getting buried, we have to constantly build on top of ourselves. Granted, the construction has slowed down, and there probably haven't been any vertical additions to the palace in almost fifteen years, but hundreds of years ago when Coruscant was in the heat of construction, this palace grew faster than a Fornkian grass shoot."

"Well, can't we get through the closed sections anyway?"

"Closed means closed, Lando. The vermin down there have no doubt overwhelmed the lower sections of the palace. In order to keep them out, we have to keep us out as well. I'm afraid that in order to get to the lower levels of the palace, you need to go down outside. And you will be going down alone."

"Come on Han. It can't be that bad. You've been on some pretty crummy planets during your smuggling days. Besides, we wouldn't be doing this for thrills. The economic future of the Republic is at stake."

"The Republic has survived pretty well so far. It's been well over a week since that furniture guy stole the records. If he had sold them to anyone, it would have come out by now."

"Have you heard from your kids yet?" Han shook his head. "I'm not saying anything bad has happened to them," Lando was quick to put in, "but maybe this guy is better than you think. He could just be waiting for the right time. I mean have you ever thought about how opportune a time he chose to steal them in the first place. This guy knows what's going on."

"Maybe if we had a Jedi, I'd go down," Han compromised, "but even then, you'd have to drag me."

"I still have two of them in my employ. Yova is pretty busy in the mines, but since Trince is done with Fett, I'm sure I could convince him to come down here."

Han didn't say anything for a while. He understood that the future of the Republic could depend on this, but he also knew that there was just as good a chance that the stolen records would never resurface. "I'll tell you what. Why don't you call your Jedi friend down here. It'll take a few days for him to get here. If nothing happens by then, you guys can go back to your diamond asteroid together. If something does happen, then, well, I guess I'll think about going down there."

"It must be pretty bad."

"You have no idea, buddy."

* * *

Jaina was sitting in the copilot chair, wincing every time the ship made a jolt

The ship was jolting because Eran had led them through a huge nebula and the hyperdrive was finding it hard to cope with some of the denser regions of the cloud. They had already fallen out of hyperspace four times. Eran's ship had a weaker hyperdrive and he had fallen out seven times. The difference was that each time the Imperial had fallen out, he had been able to change course, thus forcing Jacen to exit hyperspace and change course also.

Jaina was wincing because in the twin's haste to leave Coruscant, they had forgotten that the medical supplies on the Scavenger were very low. Both blaster shots that Jaina had taken in the escape from the police station had been serious. The shot that had hit her in the side had done the least damage, but caused the most pain. It had burned a small hole in her torso about ten centimeters up from her waistline. It hadn't taken any muscles or bone with it, but every time she moved or breathed she could feel the wound wanting to rip open. Her leg was very serious. The shot had hit her almost straight on in the thigh, burning away an enormous patch of skin, a fair amount of muscle, and fracturing the bone.

Jaina was fortunate that blaster wounds didn't bleed due to the cauterizing effect of the bolt, because she would have probably bled to death during the trip from the jail to the ship. Jacen had done his best job to clean the wounds and soothe Jaina mentally so that she could initiate a Jedi healing trance, but he hadn't been able to do a complete job because he needed to get away from the planet before the authorities found their ship. The dirty rainwater had infected both of Jaina's wounds and she was just now getting over the fever.

Jacen had been torn between getting aid for his sister and chasing Eran. Jaina was the one who had told him that she wasn't in life threatening danger and made up his mind. Even though they were both in agreement with the continued chase, neither one was in a very good mood about it.

They had both been wounded. Jaina's wounds were obvious, but Jacen's hurt ego was harder to see. He had been arrested for attempted murder, and he wasn't exactly sure that he wasn't guilty. The moment of decision kept flashing through his waking dreams. He always saw himself poised with his lightsaber held high over the fallen form of Eran. Half of his dreams ended with him deactivating the weapon, and rendering his opponent unconscious through a variety of means. The other half of the dreams ended with him decapitating Eran.

Jacen had never lost a lightsaber battle before the incident at the palace almost two weeks ago. That fight had been short and not a very good judge of talent, but he had lost. The more recent battle between combatants was a more accurate judge of skill and Jacen had won. While the Jedi had been victorious, he had a feeling that he might not be if they fought again. It was this thought that haunted him during his dreams. The times when he deactivated his lightsaber were the times when he felt that he has sufficiently proven his superior skill. When he still feels that Eran might be better than him, then he kills him.

Is it that important? Jacen kept asking himself. Do I need to be the best fighter ever? At no point in their last fight had Eran had the upper hand. There was a reason of course: Eran hadn't wanted to fight. All he had wanted was to get away. The easiest thing to do would have been to surrender to the police. Jacen, on the other hand, had felt he had something to prove and fought with a purpose.

Jacen looked over at his sister. She had her leggs propped up and was fiddling with the straps on her leg splint. She had spent the past two nights in deep trances and was pretty sure that she would be able to walk on her leg in about three more days.

Jacen wondered what drove her. Everyone he knew had some type of goal in life. Everyone had a purpose. His mother led, his uncle taught, his brother yearned for knowledge, his father was born to fly, and he seemed destined to fight. Jacen didn't see any real goal that Jaina had set forth upon. Half the time he thought that her lot in life was to make sure that he didn't get into any trouble. If that was the case, then she had the biggest task of everyone.

Jacen laughed at that idea, but still seriously wondered what her motivation was. The Scavenger was finally emerging from the nebula and Jacen was furious to find that Eran had gotten an enormous lead. He had had about twelve hours on the twins when they had left Aldertain, but they had closed that gap to within two. Now it seemed to be back up to twelve. It was just as well because Jaina needed the time to rest and Jacen needed to sort out his feelings before he and Eran met again.

Chapter 18 "Pocket Change"

The morning sun on Iom was bright and warm. Mara had a bag slung over her shoulder and was standing in front of the Varion Imperial Bank. She had thought about what Luke had told her and had decided she should at least check it out.

The secretary recognized Mara from her visit a few days earlier. "I'm sorry, but President Snotzenexer isn't in right now. He did tell me to tell you that the electronic equipment you delivered is working very well, and he hopes to do business with you in the future."

Mara smiled politely at the compliment. "Could you tell me when he is getting back so I could set up an appointment? We might be able to set up a credit line for future deliveries."

"I'm sorry miss, but he is gone on vacation, and I don't know when he'll be back."

"Can you tell me where he went? I might be able to get in touch with him."

"I'm sorry, but I'm not at liberty to give you that information."

Mara tried to act depressed, but she knew the tone of voice the secretary had used. It was more likely that the secretary hadn't been told where Snotzenexer had gone. "Thanks," Mara said in parting and walked down the hallway that led toward the hangar where her spaceship was docked. If Snotzenexer had gone to Coruscant, why hadn't he told anyone? As far as Mara knew, the Varion system wasn't a member of the Republic, so if Snotzenexer went to Coruscant as a senator, then he would be the initial representative for the whole system. You'd think that he would have told someone, or that it would have made the news networks.

As Mara waited for the turbo lift, she began to change her line of reasoning. If Luke was right and there was an Imperial tie to the bank president, that would be the only reason he would keep his mission as a senator secret. If someone in the Varion system knew about the Imperial connection, they could inform the Republic. While it wasn't illegal to be a senator while also being a former Imperial, if Snotzenexer was pretending not to be an Imperial, then it showed he had something to hide.

Mara stepped into the lift and pressed the button for the lower hangar level. A female admiral had Luke prisoner on a Super Star Destroyer. If Mara could somehow connect that admiral to Snotzenexer, then Luke's story would have some believability.

The door to the turbo lift opened, and Mara walked right into the person who had been waiting for the elevator. The woman who Mara ran into had been holding a stack of about seven data pads, and they all went flying. "Oh," Mara exclaimed, "I'm so sorry. Let me help you."

"It's no big deal," the woman said, though Mara could tell that she was holding back her frustration at the inconvenience. As the two of them crouched to pick up the pads, the door to the turbo lift closed and whisked upward as someone else had called it.

Mara felt extremely guilty at having made the woman wait for the lift to come back. As she handed back the four pads she had collected she noticed the make of the pad. Mara had become an expert in electronic equipment during her trading days, and this was a very old brand. She had seen it once before, though. Mara had used one of those data pads when she had worked for the Empire.

Mara was now standing next to the woman while she stared at the closed doors of the lift. "I'm really sorry," Mara said again. "Maran Gale," Mara introduced herself, extending her hand.

The woman turned away from the lift, realizing that in addition to having run into her, Mara was also going to make herself a nuisance. "Pleased to meet you." The woman shifted the stack of pads to one hand to accept the extended appendage. "I'm Jill Sanson."

"You haven't seen anyone else around the hangar, have you?"

"I've seen quite a few people. Anyone in particular?"

"Of course," Mara giggled, playing the part of the fool as she looked around at the countless techs that were working on ships in the hangar. "I mean my copilot. He's about this tall," she held her hand up, "sandy blonde hair, and about our age. His name is Luke Skywalker."

Sanson had begun to stare at the lift doors again, but her head snapped around at this. Mara smiled at her cleverly laid trap and then at Sanson's feeble attempts to cover up her surprise. "The Luke Skywalker? That's quite a copilot."

"You might think so, but I disagree. I'm supposed to leave in an hour, and he's nowhere to be found."

"Well, I'm sure he'll turn up somewhere."

"Maybe your right," Mara said, beginning to turn away from the conversation and walk into the main section of the hangar, "thanks for your help, Jill."

"I didn't do much, Mara. I hope you find him."

"Maran."

"Excuse me," Sanson said, puzzled.

"You called me Mara. My name is Maran."

"Of course it is," Sanson said with a smile on her face. The admiral stared a few extra seconds at Mara before turning back to the lift doors.

* * *

Two hours later Mara was staring at the computer screen in the Jade's Fire. She had moved her ship to a public hangar for fear that Admiral Sanson might come looking for her. Right now she had other things on her mind. Mara was staring at the order document she had received for the shipment of electronic equipment she had delivered to the bank. When she had received the order a little less than a month ago, she had jumped at the opportunity to transport the expensive equipment and hadn't given the actual request document much thought. Now that she looked at it, it was all in order with one exception.

An Alex Snotzenexer had given the authorization for the document. Nothing was wrong with the authorization other than Snotzenexer hadn't been the president of the Varion Imperial Bank a month ago. He had just become president within the last two weeks. At the time of the transfer of power, every news network called the move outrageous and ludicrous. They insisted upon foul play and demanded to know why the president would sell the bank without any warning to anyone. Snotzenexer had been able to silence the criticism by making the bank a ton of money and by showing no sign or evidence of foul play.

Mara still couldn't get past the date disagreement. If the transfer between Snotzenexer and the former president had been an expected thing, planned out long in advance, then she might be able to understand the authorization on the order form. But even then, it was still proper business to have the president at the time of the order authorize the purchase. This order didn't have that, and if Mara checked with the financial records of the bank, she was willing to bet she would find the bank never made the request, and Snotzenexer had forged the document.

Too many things were falling into place too quickly for Mara to sort out all at once. From her former standpoint that Snotzenexer was innocent, nothing made sense, but if she changed her views it all fell nicely into place. Snotzenexer had planned to take over the bank. In order to pull off such a large theft he would have to make sure he didn't leave any loose ends. With a little extra research she found out that one of the presidential assistants of the bank had died in a skiing accident, while the bank president himself had died from a heart attack only an hour after Snotzenexer had taken control from him. The papers at the time had taken this to mean that the stress of being bank president had finally gotten to him, and it only supported his spontaneous selling of the presidency. To Mara, his and the assistant's deaths were far too coincidental. With these two deaths and the silencing of the second assistant, Snotzenexer had essentially removed all human evidence.

The bank security system was tight with a ton of safeties. In order to pull off the hostile take-over, Snotzenexer would have had to disable or break into the security system. If the admiral had broken into the bank security, then there would be a record of it in the security logs. If someone were to check those logs, Snotzenexer would be found out. The only way to correct that would be to replace the equipment, thus erasing all evidence of the break-in. That was where I came in, Mara thought. He needed the equipment as soon after the takeover as possible. That meant he had to order it far in advance. He couldn't risk the chance that someone would get too curious about the take over and check the security records. If he had waited until he had been president, it would have taken too long.

Then there was the whole deal with Luke. Why me? Mara thought. Was it just a coincidence that she, someone who had a lot of experience with both the Empire and the Republic, would be called in to take part in this whole fiasco? If Mara believed in anything, it was that there was no such thing as coincidences. She had gotten information through the circuit that there was Imperial activity in this sector. From all she knew of Snotzenexer, it seemed very clumsy of him to let his ships be seen, unless, of course, he wanted his ships to be seen.

Everything made sense now. Snotzenexer allows a rumor to get around that there is Imperial activity in the Varion system. He then buys electronic equipment from Coruscant to be delivered by someone who has ties with the Republic. She hadn't told anyone else this, but the real reason that she had arrived on Coruscant without a copilot was because he simply hadn't shown up when she was ready to leave. She had waited three hours, but there was no sight of him. If Snotzenexer had ordered him to be taken out, that would have given Luke the perfect cover for the trip to the Varion system.

Mara thought back to the meal she and Snotzenexer had eaten together. For some reason he had asked about her copilot. Now it made sense why. Wait, Luke had come looking for a specific Imperial officer - the one who had commanded the attack on the academy. It just so happened that the commander had been Snotzenexer. Could the bank president have known that Luke was looking for him? Mara wanted to say no, but everything was falling into place so well that there were no room coincidences. Mara almost wanted to laugh out loud at Luke and her secrecy about his presence here. Luke had used a false name while disguising his appearance with the Force. All the while, Snotzenexer not only knew that he was here, but had arranged the trip.

That had to be the answer. How else would Sanson have known who she was? She had called Mara by her real name on accident. Snotzenexer must have told her that Mara Jade was going to be accompanying Luke Skywalker. That was the connection that Mara had needed between the president and the admiral. Sanson had known something that only Snotzenexer had access to.

Now she had to worry about what she wanted to do with Luke. She had a ton of information, but it was nothing that she could explain to Leia over a transmission. Plus, Luke had fallen into a trap that had been set for a definite purpose. If what Snotzenexer had planned required Luke to be out of the picture, the best chance she had of throwing a hydro-spanner into the works was to get Luke out.

* * *

President Overn stared at the document through steepled fingers. The bank president had been in this position for over half an hour now. The paper on his desk forced a decision out of him that he had hoped he could have put off for a couple more days. There wasn't anything unexpected printed on the paper. It was just simple request for a renegotiation of the loan agreement between his bank and the Mining Corporation of Xentin, MCX. The request was bogus, both parties knew. There was going to be no negotiations. What had happened was simple. There had been a terrible disaster on Xentin and there was no way that the MCX was going to pay any time in the next hundred years. The request for negotiations was just a nice way of saying they were not going to be able pay.

The normal thing to do was to take the loss. Galactic banks, like Overn's, were used to dealing in multi-billion loans, and the cancellation of a small loan like this one was not as big a deal as it could be. Planetary banks would never be able to function by letting people declare bankruptcy, but galactic banks, under unique situations such as natural disaster or accidental death, had a tradition of not stomping on someone when they were down.

This did not mean that the banks threw their money around. It had taken a lot of time for the people at MCX to convince Overn and other bank officials to grant them the loan. Risks were part of the deal, and while there was always a default cosigner, it was only used if the bankrupt company was at fault, which was the most common case.

In the past, Overn had two similar instances happen over the ten year span in which he was president. Once a shuttle crash had killed all the top executives of a major ship building company. The irony of the crash was lost when the company went under. It was a very tragic thing that destroyed the economy of the entire planet. Overn had taken the loss. The other time it was a large petroleum company that had three of its four platforms destroyed in a seaquake. In either case, calling upon the defaulter to pay only puts a blemish on everyone's record. The bank agreed to make a loan to someone who went bankrupt. The company itself is officially declared bankrupt. And the third party is marked as someone who cosigned with a bankrupt company. Most of the time it was necessary to penalize someone who had bitten off more than they could chew, but this was different.

It would have been different, that is, if it weren't for Snotzenexer. The conversation that the two bank presidents had had right before Snotzenexer had taken his leave of absence really bugged Overn. It was almost as if he knew what was going to happen. Or if not what, at least that something was going to happen. Regardless of what Snotzenexer had known, he had made it clear what he expected of Overn and his bank. If Overn let this whole thing slide, it would take its effect in the stockholders' earnings. It would be a very minor set back, and compared to the overall earnings the bank would make its investors, not one person in a thousand would even bring it up. Snotzenexer was one in a million.

Overn was really curious what the more famous bank president would do in this situation. For all Overn knew, Snotzenexer would probably find a way to rebuild the company from scratch. What ever he would do, Overn was sure that it would not be to simply take the loss and move on. The real question was: "What would Snotzenexer do if Overn let it slide?" Would he understand the whole situation and agree with Overn's move, or would he pull out and find another bank that respected his money. If Snotzenexer did that, everyone would follow suit, and that would be the end of his precious bank.

It basically came down to two simple facts. If he collected the owed money from the defaulter, who in this case was the Republic, Snotzenexer would have no reason to pull out. If he didn't, there was an off chance that Snotzenexer would pull out.

Sandie Hollins, Overn's secretary, walked into the president's office and saw that the document was sitting exactly where she had left it in the middle of Overn's immaculate desk. "I'll file this with the rest of the MCX stuff." She walked over to his desk, noticing that her boss hadn't moved yet. "Do you want me to type a memo to the stock holders explaining this issue?"

Overn still had his fingers steepled and now laced the three lesser ones, leaving his thumbs under his chin and his index fingers on his forehead. "Sir?" Sandie prompted.

"How much did they still owe?" he asked through his fingers.

"A little more than two hundred forty million on a four hundred million loan at four percent yearly over ten years," Sandie's unwavering memory told him.

Overn sighed audibly. He opened his hands and rubbed his temples back through his thinning hair, clasping his hands behind his head. Two hundred forty million was pocket change, but still . . . "We're, going to collect," he said finally.

For her credit, Sandie's knees only buckled slightly. "Excuse me?" Overn didn't reply to the semi-rhetorical comment. Sandie was pretty quick and figured it out faster than most would. "This is about President Snotzenexer, isn't it?"

Overn nodded slowly. "What do you think about him?"

"He's brilliant, good looking, in good health, is filthy rich, and has more power than anyone else alive. He has the ability to bankrupt anyone he wants. At the same time he can breathe life into anyone and they instantly become the most profitable business of the entire quarter. No one should be allowed to have that kind of power."

"You didn't answer my question. Do you think I'm doing the right thing?"

"For Snotzenexer, yes. For the bank, no. In a way though, they are interconnected. As one goes, so goes the other. To answer your first question, yes I like him. With all the power he has, there isn't any of it that he hasn't earned. Also, he hasn't abused any of it yet. Unfortunately," she smiled at her boss, "he's married."

As Sandie turned to go she called one last comment back over her shoulder. "I'll contact the Republic and tell them what has happened. I'll try to break the news to them gently. Hope they don't go bankrupt on us too."

In his office, Overn chuckled, "Yeah, right."

* * *

Leia watched as the formalities of inducting new members to the senate were going on. She usually played the role of MC, but in her deflated state, Senator Belsiphvin was doing it. The young senator was handling the proceedings with her usual grace and charm. There were two new senators that had entered during the week. There was some important bank president and a freakish alien at which Leia still hadn't gotten used to looking. It had three eyes that weren't quite semetric, and they made you constantly shift your head, compelling you to believe the fault was your own angle of observation. It was a dark blue color with skin dryer than Tatooine. It was about 1.8 meters tall and had two rows of very sharp teeth.

Despite the alien's odd appearance, the bank president was getting most of the attention. Apparently he had done some amazing things in stock market trading in the resent weeks and was receiving very high praise from many different senators. Leia had heard that not only were the long time senators talking highly of him, but he also seemed to be a big hit with the former Imperials. Maybe this was the kind of person that the Republic needed in leadership. Leia tried to chuckle at the irony that flew through her mind. If they only knew about the Republic's financial state, they would probably jump at the opportunity to replace her with this bank president. Leia tried to chuckle, but failed.

Belsiphvin had finished the swearing in and motioned to Leia to start the session. Leia walked over to the platform and glanced down at the agenda. "Uh, Senator Belsiphvin," Leia said out of the mic before the other senator left the raised platform. "You might want to over-see this first item."

Belsiphvin looked questioningly at Leia, but understood when she saw the first item. It had been decided that Leia wasn't to preside over the proceedings that dealt with the investigation against her. "First up on the agenda," Belsiphvin said to the assembly, "is the first piece of evidence against President Organ-Solo, brought forward by the special investigation council." Belsiphvin looked toward Senator Quenthor's usual seat and saw that the former Imperial Captain was already walking toward the podium.

Quenthor mounted the steps and walked slowly and purposefully to the microphone. Snotzenexer and the other new senator had seats up front for today, and Quenthor nodded and smiled at Snotzenexer as he approached the podium. Snotzenexer wished that he had a blaster to blow the stupid Imperial's freakin head off. Any perceived connection between the two men would only make his job that much harder.

Before Quenthor spoke, he slipped a data chip into a slot in the podium. "We have received a recording of the first conversation between President Organa-Solo and President Carn of the Planet Trewist, the fifth planet in the Denorid system." As soon as he had finished there was harsh whispering all over the assembly floor. "I know that these conversations are not supposed to be recorded, but this is definitely a special case."

Snotzenexer was sitting on the edge of his seat. He was almost sure that Quenthor was going to be dumb enough to say from whom he had gotten the recording. The bank president did not enjoy having the fate of his future career rest in the hands of the mental midget up on stage.

"We received this recording from a news network that requested to remain unanimous. The Denorians do not broadcast on a secure channel and it is very likely that several recordings were made." Before too much more argument could be made, Quenthor began playing the recording. The members of the assembly couldn't argue any more as the Republic emblem that appeared on the huge screen behind the podium was replaced by a split view of both President Carn and Leia.

"Let me introduce myself," Carn said first, "I am President Carn of the planet Trewist, the fifth planet in the Denorid system. I am pleased to speak with you President Leia Organa-Solo, so that we might discuss the matter at hand. We will be glad to assist you in any way possible, as long as the uniformity of our sky can be restored."

Leia was watching the video from her seat up on the raised platform, sitting next to Belsiphvin. She was really wondering what in the world Senator Quenthor expected to get out of this recording. She remembered that the exchange had not gone smoothly, but Leia had acted in the expected matter. Snotzenexer was also watching the video in wonder. He had seen the recording in its original form and then after the changes had been made. The changes had looked very convincing on the small screen, on which he had previewed it, but now Leia's lips were two meters across on the big screen and if there was even the slightest mistake, the assembly would see the recording as a fake

"I am also pleased to speak with you President Carn," Leia's image replied, "and I want to let you know that if there's anything we can do to make this transition smoother for you, we will be glad to lend assistance."

Carn seemed puzzled by this comment. "I believe that the best course of action would be to simply return the stars to their God-given position as we had discussed earlier. Do you not agree?"

"I know that this must be a very troubling time on your worlds, but you have to believe me that everything that can be done will be."

"So the sky will be set aright?"

"I am afraid that the sky has been changed forever, and you will have to learn to live with these changes."

The whole assembly gasped at Leia's harsh response. Snotzenexer was even more pleased than he expected. Not only had the editing proved flawless, but the removal of some key words, added an edge to Leia's speech that hadn't been in the original.

"President Leia, I don't think you truly understand what has happened," Carn was managing to keep his voice calm. "The Mighty Hawk is blind and winter is only two moons away. My people have lived and prospered under the same sky for many centuries, and we will not allow any government to tell us that we must change our ways because of some minor explosion in space."

"President Carn, I know that no harm will come to your people because of this. Our scientists-"

"Your scientist are mistaken. Have you ever seen the sky from the Seronid peak on a clear night? Of course you have not. You can not know the beauty and wonder that the sight inspires. Now you are telling us that you will not fix it - refuse to fix it!"

"It can't be fixed!" Leia said, a little too loudly. "You must realize that if anything should be done we would do it, but we don't see the need. It's just that we don't care."

By now, the whole assembly was screaming at the screen. Carn too had heard enough. "I understand completely. You think that because you are big and powerful that you can fly your huge ships anywhere, blowing things apart, but refusing to fix them when you are finished. And if some small, backward system gets hurt in the process, so be it. President Leia, I regret to say that our meeting is over. If anything happens to our peaceful way of life, I will hold you personally responsible." With that, the screen went blank.

Leia was in shock. The screams that were aimed in her direction failed to register in her ears as she tried to comprehend what she had just seen and heard. Had she said those things? Had she really lost her poise like that? Leia desperately wanted to say no, but the whole memory seemed like a blur and the words she had just heard were far too familiar.

Quenthor let the screaming go on much longer than he should have before he pounded the electric gavel for silence. After the assembly had calmed somewhat, a single cry could be heard from the back somewhere. "The recording is a fake!"

This started the commotion all over again. Quenthor's confidence took a little dip as he pondered this accusation, not having considered the possibility before. He searched for Snotzenexer in the front row, but the admiral refused to meet his glances. Quenthor finally restored order and tried to see how to proceed. Someone from the middle of the assembly helped him out. "Let the president speak for herself."

Leia stood where she was. She wore a portable microphone and cleared her throat. Her knees were a little unsteady. "I don't know what to say," she confessed.

Leia's hesitance returned a large measure of Quenthor's confidence. "Can you tell us if that is how the conversation went? Was that you on the screen?"

"It must be, bu-" what ever else Leia was going to say was drowned out in the ensuing chaos. Leia had no way to cope with these drastic changes of events, and she knew that her days as president had just come to an end. Even Belsiphvin looked at her with a sudden lack of respect.

Quenthor had no idea how to restore order. He again looked for Snotzenexer for guidance. This time, amongst all the confusion, Snotzenexer felt it was safe to answer. The admiral mouthed the words "a vote" to the idiot on stage.

Quenthor pounded the gavel as hard as he could. The next fifteen minutes saw Leia ousted from the presidency, and some semblance of order restored. After the whole issue was settled, Quenthor stood at the front of the assembly as if he thought there might be more. Belsiphvin walked over to him and advised him to take his seat. "If it is possible to continue, I suggest that we move to the next item for today, though I doubt it will be as meaningful now." She couldn't have been more wrong.

Senator Caylon, walked up to the podium to present his information to the rest of the assembly. Caylon had not been a huge supporter of Leia, and he had an extra bounce in his step. "Agreeing with Senator Belsiphvin, I don't think that my news will be that important, but it is notable. I was contacted today by the secretary of the Galactic Bank in the Detsgor system, my home system. She informed me that there has been a terrible accident on Xentin involving the Mining Corporation of Xentin. The accident resulted in the total destruction of the corporation. MCX had a loan with the Detsgor bank and, if any of you have forgotten, we had agreed to be the cosigners of that loan as a part of Xentin's admission into the Republic. The bank secretary told me that they need to collect the remaining amount of the loan for tax reasons and called on us to fulfill our signed agreement."

Leia had assumed a crumpled form in her chair during the past twenty minutes, but now she sat rigid, her eyes wide with horror. "What kind of accident was it?" Leia asked, thankful that no one had turned off her microphone yet.

Before anyone could protest Leia's interruption, Caylon answered the question. "It was a volcanic eruption set off by a faulty detonation device. The eruption wiped out the entire mining complex. Several hundred people died. Why is that important?"

Leia just knew that the accident had to have been planned. It had happened too soon after the Republic's economic records were stolen from the palace to be a coincidence. Of course Leia had no proof at all, and she wasn't about to bring up her wild claims in her current position of disfavor.

Seeing that Leia wasn't going to give him an answer to his question, and not really wanting one, Caylon proceeded. "The amount that we owe is about two hundred fifty million. I have the exact number here, but I don't think it is that important for the general assembly. I don't think we've ever had to address this type of financial situation before, so I'm not exactly sure on how to proceed. I guess if the head of the financial committee comes forward, I can give that senator the information."

No one in the assembly said anything. No one was even sure if there was a financial committee. Leia saw the mass confusion and knew that she had to do something. The Republic might not survive this crisis if it was handled wrong. The survival figures weren't even that good if it was handled right. "I need to speak," Leia said privately to Belsiphvin. Something in Leia's face transmitted the urgency that Leia felt, and the younger senator nodded.

Leia walked slowly over to the podium, and all eyes were on her, wondering what the former president had to say on this seemingly menial topic. "I know that I have no position in this assembly any more," Leia started, "but this situation is a very serious matter." Leia didn't know of any pretty way to say this. "The Republic does not have two hundred forty million credits at its disposal. We do not even have two hundred and forty thousand. The Republic has 55,763 credits."

The response was one of total laughter from all but two people. Leia remained stoic under the ridicule, and Snotzenexer admired her poise. The laughter continued, but it soon became forced as the people saw Leia's placid demeanor. After all noise had ceased, a deathly still had dropped over the entire assembly. "Anyone who can name one source of income for our government please step forward." Half of the senators were already thinking along these lines, but now that Leia spoke the words, many of them began to see what Leia was talking about. "I do not understand the full ramifications of this financial situation, but I know that several of you are educated in finances and might see a way out of this.

"I suggest that we end this session now and call a special council to address this problem. I can provide two individuals who will be able to explain everything. I also suggest that anyone who has any advanced knowledge concerning these matters should attend."

* * *

Half an hour later, Kerik and Drexin, the two men who had originally explained the situation to Leia, were standing at the head of a long table filled with very angry senators. The two keepers of the Republic's fortune were standing in front of a large screen, having just explained everything in about ten minutes.

There was no really good way to conduct this meeting and it showed as everyone tried to talk at once. The chaos continued for about ten more minutes before the doors to the council room opened and one more person was added to the meeting. Almost everyone noticed Snotzenexer enter, but few paid him any attention. The bank president stood quietly at the foot of the long table, not bothering to take one of the open chairs. He instead took in all the noise, catching a few of the comments as they were thrown into the mix.

"Let the banks try and collect their money. What are they going to do? We don't have it!"

"We do too! How much do you think a Calamarian cruiser is worth?"

"How much is our net worth?"

"Do you really think someone would want a battle cruiser to repay a loan?"

"How much do you think we owe?"

"We owe a little over seven hundred quadrillion credits," Snotzenexer said loud enough for everyone to hear. That comment ended the conversation for a moment.

"How do you know that?" someone asked him.

Snotzenexer merely gestured toward the screen on which the figures were plastered. Nowhere on the screen did a number appear that even closely resembled seven hundred quadrillion. All that existed was a listing of standing loans, according interest rates, and the time over which each loan was to be repaid. Drexin was frantically pounding away on his data pad, trying to confirm the number. He finally announced his result, "It is exactly seven hundred eight quadrillion, six hundred twelve trillion, four hundred seventy-nine billion, five hundred six thousand,-" Drexin paused as the entire number didn't fit on his display.

"-three hundred twenty seven credits," Snotzenexer finished for the economist. Drexin looked up, quite amazed at Snotzenexer's apparent mental calculation. Snotzenexer had of course computed the number before he had entered the room, in fact that was why he had been ten minutes late. He wasn't about to tell anyone else that. "I do not believe that the Republic owns enough merchandise to cover this amount or even a hundredth of it."

"It looks like your move on the Borcance Hull Construction Yards was a good one. The Republic is definitely a sinking ship."

Snotzenexer looked at the well-informed senator, glad that educated people were present. "Actually, if I knew the Republic was in such a dire situation, I wouldn't have sold at all," Snotzenexer lied. "The Republic needs money right now."

"What do you suggest we do?"

Those who knew who Snotzenexer was and what he had done respected him deeply. Those who didn't know him, were finding out from whispered inquires to those around them that they should listen to what he has to say. "I am here to try and solve your problem. I am willing to put the weight of the Varion Imperial Bank behind the Republic."

Everyone at the table gasped at this statement. Those who didn't fully comprehend how much weight the Varion Imperial Bank possessed gasped the loudest, feeling that their inadequate knowledge would best be compensated for by acting the most impressed.

"I will not lie to you by saying that I have seven hundred quadrillion credits at my disposal, or that I can even pay off a hundredth of the loans to which you have cosigned, but I'm sure you know that's not what the issue is."

"We need to restore confidence in our financial capabilities," someone agreed. "We need to show them that we are indeed capable of providing a safety net for accidents like the one on Xentin."

"That looks good on paper," someone else said, "but what if people see us as doomed ship caught in the pull of a black hole. If everyone starts scrambling for the escape capsules, with over seven hundred quadrillion people on board, you're going to run out of escape capsules pretty quick."

Snotzenexer couldn't help but smile at the clever analogy and decided to run with it. "We need to convince everyone that the only chance this ship has of escaping the gravity well is to maintain its total mass. All seven hundred quadrillion people need to stay on board in order for us to save everyone. Granted, the first few banks that try to cash in will be successful, but when the well runs dry, the rest of the galaxy will be out of luck. Not only will the banks be out of their money, but each planet or major corporation who was the recipient of the loan will suffer tremendously. Everyone will suddenly have bad credit, and no one will have any money.

"Right now the entire galactic economy is based on seven hundred quadrillion credits that don't exist. That is enough to send the entire galaxy into a depression. Once the banks understand this, there will be no chance of a major move against us."

The heads around the table began to nod in agreement to what Snotzenexer was saying. It all made perfect sense, largely because the Imperial admiral had planned it all out in great detail a month before. "I feel that it is also very important to start a means for the Republic to provide for itself. If there isn't a financial committee, I suggest that one be formed. We need to set up an income. This will mean that a tax rate will have to be put in place. There are several ways this can be done without a major burden to the people."

"Could you name a few?"

Snotzenexer kept his smile hidden deep inside. This is exactly what he wanted. There were probably ten different men in this room who were capable of doing what he was doing. The difference was they had all been caught so off guard by the situation, that they hadn't been able to compose their thoughts. Snotzenexer had been the only cool head and reasonable thinker. Because of this, he was now in total control of the situation, with everyone turning to him for answers. "I think this should probably be discussed in the soon to be formed financial committee."

"A committee of which you will be in charge," said a strong voice. The statement was made as if there was no other choice in the matter. "I think that we have somewhere to go with this crisis now, and, largely due to Senator Snotzenexer's help, we have a good chance of surviving it."

"There is a lot of paper work that needs to be done for this to work," Kerik said, speaking for the first time since his explanation of the situation earlier in the meeting.

"I will give you as much assistance as you need," Snotzenexer said. He had already prepared much of the information that would be needed and planned on having his senatorial secretary handle most of it. Snotzenexer didn't want to have to be bogged down with too much extra work. Things were moving along exactly as planned, and Snotzenexer needed to keep his schedule open to accommodate the many visitors he expected.

The admiral left the council chamber, after having been appointed as the chairman of the newly created financial committee, with a quick hop in his step. When he reached his office, he found that there was a video message waiting for him.

"Good afternoon, dear, or whatever time it is there," Sanson's image said. "I thought you might like to know that I caught the fox and all three birds are safely in cages. I hope that you are feeling well. Oh, I almost forgot. I ran into an old girlfriend that I had back when I went to the university. You remember Alice, I'm sure. She's the one who always wore green." Girlfriend? Always wore green? Mara Jade. "She sounded pretty intrigued about the fox we caught, and I think she might drop in to see it. Well, I hope I haven't taken up too much of your time. I know how busy you are. Try to see if you can come home sometime soon. Love you, bye."

Snotzenexer thought a while before recording his response. "I remember Alice. I'll tell you what, if she wants the fox, let her have it. Don't give it to her for free. I mean make sure that she pays for it and knows what it's worth. Wasn't Alice the one who tried to flirt with me all those years ago? I wouldn't mind seeing her, now that you mention it. Make sure that she knows where I am in case she wants to drop buy for a visit. Who knows, she might even bring the fox. Well, I have to get back to work now. Make sure you're careful with those birds. If they prove to be untamable, you might have to feed them to the cat. Talk to you soon."

Chapter 19 "The Great Escape"

The overall clad man was wiping some axle grease off his hands as he slid out from underneath the huge machine, his anti-grav creeper gliding smoothly over the stained permacrete. As his waist came out from underneath the vehicle, he extended the hydrospanner he was holding up and back. "Hey, Gerin, could you take this for a second." Moments later it was removed from his hand. "Thanks." The tech reached his now free hands up and grabbed onto the deck railing of the large ship lift. With one gigantic heave, the well-muscled man made his body vertical. With a practiced gesture, he kicked the creeper out from under him and his feet found solid ground.

"I'm glad we got that job over," he said as he turned. "Don't you agr-" his comment was cut short as Mara clubbed him over the head with the hydrospanner she had relieved him of only moments before.

Gerin was lying slumped against the tool cabinet where the former assassin had placed him. The assistant weighed over two hundred fifty pounds, and Mara had wanted a pair of overalls. She had decided to take her chances with the man under the four-wheeled mammoth, and it had paid off.

As she stripped the tech of his overall, Mara eyed up the big machine he had been working on. It was called a ship mover, and for good reason. Mara was in one of the huge tech hangars owned by the Varion Construction Yard. This hangar was located in their branch on Iom. This was where much of the very expensive and vital components of the huge ships the construction company produced were put together. Iom was very rich in much of the valuable resources needed to produce this equipment, but because of the huge over population of the planet, there were very important size restrictions placed on the expansion possible.

Mara was actually in a smaller section of the Iom complex. The engine factory and reactor containment cell construction facility were located on the other side of the Iom branch. She was in a small fighter and personal yacht repair hangar. The ship mover in front of her was used to move most of these ships from place to place inside the hangar. The beast of a machine had solid rubber tires that were a half a meter taller than she was and was powered by one of the clean fusion engines produced a kilometer away.

Mara finished zipping up the overall and was pleased to find with the cap that went with the outfit hiding her hair and the baggy fit of the overall, her identity was well concealed. She quickly hid both unconscious techs under the ship mover and hoped that no one would take it for a spin before the two men woke up.

Mara strapped on a tool belt and picked up a data pad to fiddle with as she idly roamed the complex. She figured that she had about a half-hour before her first two victims woke up and she needed to get off the planet somehow. The next big hangar in the complex manufactured some very large and complex electronic equipment. There were rows of tractor generators, weapon batteries, and repulser stabilizers stored on rows upon rows of reinforced durasteel shelving. Off in the corner of the hangar floor was a ship that was being manually loaded by two men.

Mara checked a clipboard hanging on a nearby bulletin board to see what the outgoing shipments for the day were going to be. After a quick examination of the lists, she saw that a shuttle with parts for ISD 17 was due to leave in about fifteen minutes. Mara had done a little research last night in one of the local eateries and found that with a little alcohol and tight clothes, she could get any tech to tell her what she wanted to know. It just turned out that everyone employed at the Varion Construction Yards was working over time trying to overhaul about thirty Imperial class Star Destroyers. ISD 17 sounded like exactly what she was looking for.

From her vantagepoint, Mara could see that the two men were trying to figure out how they were going to load a two hundred fifty kilogram shield modulator onto the ship. "We better get the tractor-lift."

As soon as the men departed, Mara raced over to the ship, checked to see if anyone was watching, and ran up the loading ramp. She hid herself behind a bin of conduit fittings and underneath a small tarp that was covering a few oily pieces of equipment. In short order, the two men returned, and Mara watched them levitate the huge generator with the use of the tractor-lift. They positioned it in the middle of the ship and far from where Mara was crouched.

She didn't have to wait too much longer before the ship started its engines, and she heard the foreman of the tech hangar giving the pilot some information. "Now when you get in range of the ship, you will receive a transmission asking you for your clearance code. The switch for the code is right here." Mara wanted to risk a peak at where the foreman was pointing but wouldn't be able to see the cockpit from where she was hiding anyway. "If they accept the code, they will proceed to lock onto you with a tractor beam and bring you in automatically. The ship is cloaked, so you won't be able to see it."

"Am I going to have to help them unload the ship," a female voice asked, "or do I just stand by and watch?"

A female pilot, Mara thought, thank goodness.

"No, you're not expected to do anything. They seem to be pretty secretive about everything, kind of like they don't want anyone else to know what they're doing."

"If they didn't want anyone else to know about it," the pilot asked, "then why did they hire the most talkative group of techs anywhere to help them with the repairs."

The foreman chuckled a little. "You've got me, Carrie. I guess they believe us when we tell them that we'll keep our mouths shut." They both laughed for a few seconds. "You've got to get going now. Try not to be too rough in the air. Most of those things back there aren't strapped down."

Mara tried to run through her game plan as the ship took off and made its way into the outer atmosphere of Iom. She had two weapons hidden on her in locations where she felt they were pretty safe in a pat down. Strapped to her inner thigh, underneath a pair of navy blue loose fitting pants, was a small blaster that she usually carried under her arm. Lying over her sternum, held in place by her figure, was a lightsaber that she never used. If any Imperial ever found either of those weapons in a search, he would have crossed a line that no one crossed with Mara and lived.

After the ship was in space and the pilot set the controls to auto pilot, Mara tensed for action. The female pilot got up from her chair and stretched, giving Mara a good idea of how tall she was. The two women were far from twins, but Mara felt that the uniform the pilot was wearing would fit her well enough to be convincing.

Mara watched in between piles of boxes, as the pilot moved to the refresher unit stationed right before the cargo hold. The former assassin crept out of her hiding place when she heard the door to the small room click closed. She took a moment to make sure there was no surveillance equipment on board and stationed herself right in front of the door to the refresher. It only took a few minutes before Mara heard the latch to the door begin to open. Mara positioned herself as out of view as she could, right next to the door as it slid open. The pilot walked out, oblivious to the assassin standing right next to the exit.

As soon as the pilot left the room fully, Mara sprung. Her right arm wrapped around the pilot's neck, and her hand latched on to the crotch of her left arm. Her left arm was bent in a ninety-degree position over the pilot's left shoulder, her left hand securing the top of the victim's head. The sleeper hold was like a vice, and Mara's grip was too tight around the pilot's throat for the weaker combatant to even make a sound, other than the initial gasp. The pilot's hands flailed backwards, trying to pry off Mara's grip, but the Force strong woman was far too powerful. Mara forced her opponent to her knees, and soon felt her body go slack as she passed out. Mara checked to make sure the pilot's vital signs were still strong and proceeded to tie her up.

After quickly changing clothes and storing the unconscious pilot in the refresher, Mara sat down in the cockpit behind the controls of the transport ship. A quick glance over the controls told her the auto pilot was going to bring her in range of the Star Destroyer and Mara wouldn't have to do any flying. Mara also remembered the foreman had told the former pilot that the ISD was going to want a clearance code and the switch for the code was somewhere on the control console. She searched for several minutes and finally had the choice narrowed down to two suspicious switches located underneath the main console.

There was about five minutes left in the short trip, and Mara could make out the asteroid field in the distance. The former assassin began to formulate how she could get away from her ship once it landed. She was going to an Imperial class Star Destroyer, but Luke had said that he was captive on a Super Star Destroyer. Mara would have to not only get away from the Imperial grunts, but also then find a way to get transportation to the SSD. Mara's mind went fluttering about the different possibilities before her as her eyes swept the cockpit and hold for clues as to what a good plan might be. Her eyes found the tarp that she had hid under and the greasy parts beneath.

She ran over to the pile of parts and smeared a bit of grease on her face and arms.

"Unidentified shuttle, you are entering restricted space. Please identify yourself or change your present course." Mara looked up from her grotesque make-up job as the intercom from the cockpit sounded. She ran back to the pilot chair, glanced at the two switches she had found earlier, shrugged her shoulders, and simply flipped both of them on.

Mara waited nervously as she absently wiped her dirty hands on her stolen clothes. "Shuttle 47 your are free to proceed. You may also shut off your landing lights. We will take you in by tractor."

Landing lights? Mara didn't remember turning on any lights. She glanced down at the two switches, which were still in the "on" position. Still not knowing which was which, she flipped them both off. Mara felt the tractor beam lock on and switched off the auto pilot, not wanting to strain her engines against the much more powerful tractor beam.

The shuttle was being steadily drawn toward a ship that was still invisible to Mara. As her forward motion slowed down and the ship began to move more vertically, Mara finally saw where she was headed. Above the shuttle, a small slot in space appeared and slowly widened as the cloacked bay doors opened. Mara enjoyed looking at the oddity in space. From her perspective it looked like a doorway to another dimension was opening. From the side, the two dimensional opening would be invisible, and even beneath it was hard to see because all the lights in the shuttle bay had been turned off. The doors opened only wide enough for the shuttle to slip through, and closed again as soon as Mara's ship was inside.

Mara rose as her ship nestled down on the closed doors and the interior lights in the shuttle bay turned on. She quickly checked her stolen attire to make sure that both her weapons were still hidden to casual observance. The former pilot of the shuttle, Carrie, Mara remembered, had been broader in the hips, chest, and shoulders, which helped in concealing her weapons.

As several men approached the ship, Mara looked around for a data pad or clipboard containing the inventory. She saw what she was looking for hanging on a hook over the vacant copilot seat. She walked into the hold, made sure that everything looked normal, and opened the loading ramp. Mara walked down the ramp before any of the men had a chance to walk up. "Here you go," Mara said and handed the clipboard to the man who looked in charge.

The Imperial looked at Mara for a while, sizing her up and then took the clipboard, pausing just long enough in the procedure to let her know that he was prepared to operate on his own time schedule. "Name," the man said instead of asking.

"Carrie Rodgen," Mara replied, hoping the pause between names didn't sound suspicious and that the name wasn't on the clipboard.

The Imperial looked down at the inventory for a while and nodded. "Okay, we'll unload it. Just stay out of the way."

"Do you mind if I find a refresher while you work? I'd kind of like to get some of this grease off of me, Captain." Mara recognized the uniform and tried to sound semi-respectful, though she didn't feel it. Before the captain answered, Mara thought she saw a smile start to spread across his face. She must look worse than she realized.

"Sure," he responded. "Drent," he called to one of the men, "come over here." As Drent walked up next to the captain, the higher rank whispered a couple of sentences to the underling.

Drent nodded at the end of the instructions and walked over to Mara. "Come with me." Mara didn't comment and merely fell in step behind the man. As the pair walked through the vast shuttle bay Mara noticed that the majority of the staff on hand was made up of clones. Mara tried to think of some way that she could impersonate someone else when everyone looked the same and a unique face would stick out like sore thumb.

As Mara and Drent walked away, Captain Edge blew out a sigh, allowing the smile that had threatened his face to show through now. He had his orders from Admiral Sanson herself and had nearly blown it. He glanced down at the clipboard once more and tapped the name written there with his forefinger. Carrie Welton. At least Jade had gotten the first name right, he thought to himself. He had been supposed to offer the refresher to Mara, but had forgotten. Almost as an after thought, he tapped his communicator twice, and continued with unloading the ship.

* * *

Drent stopped in front of the first female refresher that they came to outside of the shuttle bay. No words had been exchanged between the pair, and the young Imperial didn't say anything now as Mara walked past him into the room. There were two other women standing in front of a line of sinks one fixing her hair in one of mirrors while the other was washing a pile of brass bars. Neither paid Mara much attention but continued the conversation they must have been involved with before Mara had entered.

"So she is making you go over there just to discipline you?"

"Yea, apparently Sanson thinks that it isn't proper for a female officer to wear what I had on even though I was off duty."

"What a witch. So you have to go to the flagship just so she can berate you? Talk about an ego trip."

"It's all about intimidation, but I can stand up to her. I got to be at shuttle bay three in ten minutes. Sanson can't be kept waiting."

"Well good luck." With that, one of the women left the room.

Mara was busy washing off her arms in the sink, trying to pretend not to listen to the conversation, but couldn't help but imagine her luck. This woman was apparently going to the flagship, which had to be the Super Star Destroyer. Looking out of the corner of her eye, Mara eyed up her potential fake identity. The woman was a little shorter, but was the same approximate age and build. Mara's hair was, of course, red while this woman had brown hair, but Mara could pull it off.

The woman was done with her washing job and began to leave the refresher. Mara needed to follow her. She was probably going back to her quarters to pin the bars onto her uniform. Mara watched the woman leave, went over to the door, and paused. If the young tech hand that had brought her down here was still outside waiting for her, she would have a tough time convincing him to let her go after the other woman. Mara took a deep breath and activated the sliding door.

Drent was busy talking to the first woman who had left the refresher and both conveniently had their backs turned to Mara. Mara didn't bother to contemplate her luck, but walked quickly after the other woman. The corridors were mostly empty, and Mara's pilot uniform was not that far from what the Imperials used. Mara was relieved though when the brown haired woman's quarters turned out to be just a minute's walk from the refresher.

Mara paused outside of the door to the private quarters, hoping that the woman had not locked the door. Accessing little used Force skills, Mara concentrated on the woman's emotions behind the door. As soon as Mara felt confident that the woman was concentrating on something away from the door, she pressed the door panel. The door was not locked. Mara didn't pause to thank luck, but scampered inside quickly, allowing the door to close behind her.

Once inside, however, Mara took great pause at what she saw. The woman was standing in front of a mirror with her back to Mara adjusting what was clearly a wig. The hair not only moved abnormally on the woman's head, but there was a spare wig residing on a ceramic scalp next to her on the dresser. That wasn't the real reason Mara had paused, though. The woman was standing in front of a mirror that had a clear view of the door, but the woman had not even flinched as Mara entered.

As soon as the slightest hint of doubt crept into Mara's mind, everything that had happened so far clicked. The ease in which she had been allowed to use the refresher; the coincidental fact that this woman had mentioned that she was going exactly where Mara wanted to go in the short time the two of them had been together; the fact that Drent and the other woman had been conversing with both their backs to the refresher; and now the fact that this woman wore a wig, allowing Mara to hide her telltale red hair. All of this coupled with the fact that the woman was apparently ignoring an obvious intruder spelled trouble.

The woman finally turned around and seemed to notice Mara for the first time, though now that Mara knew the game, the acting was poor. "You saw me as soon as I entered. You had to. What is the game?" Mara asked.

The woman said nothing but reached for a communicator that was resting on the dresser next to her. Mara was faster, calling the small device to her with the Force. Mara also saw a holstered blaster sitting on a desk not too far from the woman and called that to her as well. Mara caught the blaster and leveled it at the woman before she could make any more attempts at alerting her authorities.

The blaster was being held with a calm assuredness that promised proficiency with the weapon, and the woman did not enjoy playing the part of the target. Mara motioned with the barrel of the weapon toward the bed against the side of the room, giving clear directions that Mara wished the woman seated. The woman was standing about five meters away from Mara and slowly made her way to the bed, keeping her hands out in the open.

As soon as the woman was seated in the middle of the bed, Mara relaxed, but only slightly. "What's the game?" she asked again.

"I don't know what you're talking about."

Mara flipped the weapon's power setting with her thumb so that it was at minimum stun and shot the woman's leg. The prone figure yelped as the stun bolt hit her under her bent knee and made the whole leg go limp. The woman looked up furiously at Mara but toned down her glare as she was staring right into the barrel of her own weapon. "If I've got this right," Mara said slowly, "Sanson told you that I was going to try and steal your identity, so you must have prepared to be knocked unconscious or stunned. Whether I do the stunning one limb at a time or all at once is purely decided upon how well you cooperate with me. Now tell me if I'm right."

The woman nodded slowly, trying to think of some way she could play both sides of this odd game. "Sanson guessed that you would be coming for Skywalker, and she wanted to make sure you succeeded."

"Is this part of it too?" The woman looked confused at Mara's question. "Me figuring it out," Mara explained. "Is that part of it too? I mean if not, you guys did a poor job of hiding your intentions."

The woman shrugged her shoulders. "All I was told is that you were going to come after me and I should put up a decent struggle, but let you win."

Mara looked at the woman and wondered if she understood that she was talking to a former Imperial assassin, and Mara didn't need anyone to let her win. Although, breaking onto a Super Star Destroyer became a lot easier with help. "What's the catch? This is some kind of trap, right? You let me and Skywalker escape and then blow us out of the sky when we are flying away."

"Why bother with the charade?" the woman asked. "Why not just kill you as soon as you came on board and Skywalker as soon as we had captured him?"

Mara accepted the logic. "If you want me to succeed, what happens if I forgo your identity and just board the shuttle for the Super Star Destroyer as is? Are they going to stop me or blatantly ignore me?"

"If you want to look a gift rancor in the mouth, go ahead."

Mara considered her situation. If she did as she had just said, they would certainly have to apprehend her to keep some credibility, yet at the same time, Mara never liked to have anything without earning it. "If you want to know what I think," the woman started, "you should just go rescue your boyfriend and throw both of yourselves out an airlo-"

Mara shot her full in the chest, and the woman fell back on the bed, unmoving. After a few moments' thought, Mara changed into the uniform that was hanging next to the dresser and quickly donned the wig. Before leaving the room, she tried to use the Force to mask her identity, and succeeded slightly.

* * *

Admiral Sanson watched the security screen in front of her as Mara secured the wig and left the room. Sanson had wondered if Mara would figure it out and was glad that she had decided to go ahead with the rescue. Everything from this point on was pointless. Both sides knew what was going on and were only pretending not to for show. Sanson knew that Snotzenexer had wanted her to make the rescue attempt difficult while still ensuring its success, but Sanson wasn't about to risk the lives of her men for a stupid game. Besides, how in the world was she supposed to just allow one person to waltz into a Super Star Destroyer, rescue someone from maximum security, leave, and then make it look believable to the people involved. Sanson would much rather just demoralize Mara by mocking her efforts.

* * *

The shuttle settled down gently in one of the hangars of the Super Star Destroyer, the Dark Fist, and Mara began to wonder what she was doing. The pilot had readily agreed that she was who she pretended to be, which happened to be Lieutenant Shelby. Now Mara was going to have to sneak around the corridors of this Super Star Destroyer, all the while knowing that she was probably being watched by several different security devices. Neither side could let on that they knew what was going on, or else they would have a reason to kill each other.

Mara walked down the ramp of the shuttle and was quite surprised to see Admiral Sanson standing there waiting for her. Mara nearly fainted from shock when she saw that Luke was standing next to her. Neither woman said anything for a while, but both knew that the insult was fully understood.

"It seems that I found your copilot for you after all, though I think he wandered off a little more than you had guessed."

Mara was furious and couldn't find the proper words for rebuttal. Instead she only tried to avoid eye contact with Luke as the cuffed Jedi was transferred to her care. "Oh, by the way, the pilot you stored in the refresher unit in your ship is going to be fine, though she was a little embarrassed to be found by a bunch of tech hands in her underwear. Her last name was Welton, just in case you were curious."

Mara managed a smile back to the Admiral, but felt sorely defeated in this encounter. "Feel free to use this shuttle," Sanson beckoned toward the ship Mara had just disembarked, "if you didn't want to stay long. Just fly it to the bank and I'm sure it will find its way back to us some how."

Mara nearly killed Sanson right there. She was pretty sure that she could get her lightsaber out if its hiding spot before any of the guards could react, and at the distance of three meters that they stood apart, Mara would be able to cut the cocky admiral up into tiny pieces before anyone stopped her.

Luke tried not to look confused through this whole encounter and somehow managed to figure out that they were fighting about something. It appeared that Sanson was just going to let them go and Luke wasn't about to question the show of generosity. "What about the three pilots who came with me?" Luke suddenly remembered.

"I'm afraid they will have to stay with us a while longer," Sanson said. "Unless your female counter part wants to try her hand at an actual rescue." As if on cue, twelve of the guards who were standing behind Sanson raised and activated their blaster rifles.

As Mara looked at the dozen weapons trained on her, all control left her. "One day, in the near future, we will meet again," she fumed, "and when we do, you'll wish that you had killed me now." Mara wanted to say more, but she felt stupid threatening an Imperial Admiral on her own ship and in front of a squad of armed troops. Instead of continuing her verbal tirade, Mara spun on her heel and reentered the shuttle. Luke paused a while, still not wanting to accept that Sanson was just going to let him go.

"Go ahead, Jedi Master, we're at peace remember."

* * *

On board the ship, Luke and Mara were sitting as far away as possible while the pilot chauffeured them back to Iom. Mara had removed the wig and the lightsaber she had been carrying. Luke had spent a few moments taking the shackles off his wrists and looked at the lightsaber lying on the table, remembering that the Imperials still had his.

"Go ahead and take it," Mara said. "I never use it. Besides, wasn't it your father's? You should have it anyway."

The lightsaber leaped off the table and into Luke's hand. He examined it a while before speaking. "What was all that about back there?"

"The Admiral just wanted to make sure that I knew where I stood in the power structure of the universe, that's all."

After a pause, "You know I didn't mean for you to come and rescue me."

"Don't worry," Mara steamed and stood up, "if you recall, all I did was pick you up." She started to storm out of the room but stopped. "What do you plan to do now?" she asked, somewhat calmed.

"I need to go back to Coruscant and stop Snotzenexer from taking power in the senate. The Imperials were kind enough to let me watch the senate meetings from my cell."

"Don't you understand, Skywalker?! That's what they want you to do! They wouldn't have just let you go if you could thwart their whole plan by a trip to help out your sister. They have something else up their sleeve."

"Do they?" Luke asked with a tone of voice that suggested he had given it some thought too. "It's like a game of Flamtok. When your opponent makes some ridiculous, sacrificial move you immediately think that they're crazy. I mean why would anyone sacrifice their empress for no apparent benefit. Then you look at it again wondering if they have some trick planned. You can't see any, but you know that you are playing against an experienced player so instead of taking the piece, you make an entirely different move. All the while your opponent had nothing special planed other than hoping that you would think that they did. This allows them to press their supposed sacrifice into an advantage. It's a bluff, but a bluff that is hidden well enough that when you see it, you don't think it obvious."

Mara thought about this for a while. "And if there is a catch . . ."

"Can you see one?" Luke asked. "Honestly, how could they benefit from letting me go?"

"Then why did they do it?" Mara asked, still not convinced. "We keep coming back to the point that they must have something planned to get rid of you for good."

"Or they just want us to think they do?"

Mara was getting sick of this conversation, seeing that they weren't getting anywhere. "What if they knew that you would think that they would want you to think they had something planned. There is no end to this line of reasoning. Just do what ever you think will be best, but remember that with Snotzenexer at the helm, everything that they do has a good reason behind it."

* * *

The door opened and blaster rifles led two officers into the cell. Admiral Sanson strolled in after the armed guards and had two more men behind her. She really didn't expect too much trouble from her prisoners, but one could never be too cautious. She had thought about keeping the three members of the 185th in separate cells but she decided that she wanted them to discuss things a bit before she presented them with her proposal.

Vince, Bep, and Jon rose from their respective cots, which were far too short for their long frames and returned Sanson's level gaze. None of them even gave the guards and their weapons a second look, knowing that Sanson had them by a very tight leash, and she would be the source of any action. Vince was the elected leader of the group, and he moved to the front of the trio, constructing a crude triangle. Sanson did likewise with the two men who had been in front of her and the two remained silent for some time.

"I just let Skywalker go free," Sanson broke the silence.

Vince was a little startled by this. He had thought that Luke had been the main reason they had been captured. She wants us to believe that we are their main concern, Vince thought to himself but said nothing.

"You, of course, do not have to cooperate with us, in which case I plan on ending your lives as quickly as possible. I assume you three plan to stand up to any type of torture or interrogation sessions that we prepare, so we feel it would be useless to try to extract the information we want through such superficial means. It is simple, you will tell us how all of the advanced technology on your ships work or we will kill you. I'll have you know that I am no novice with mechanical and electrical systems and probably know much more about it than you do, but your ship design is so haphazard that it makes very little sense. Oh, don't worry, we'll figure out the system in time, and have in fact got a lot of it dissected already."

Vince looked at her with an unchanging face while inwardly trying to figure out an easy way to get out of this. The easiest way would be to lie about everything and hope that the Imperials were as dumb as they had always been. Looking at Sanson, Vince knew that she wasn't bluffing and her technological knowledge was far too advanced to fall for any lies they might be able to concoct about their ships. The true question was: "Is the technology worth dying for if it only kept the Imperials from it for a short while?"

Sanson looked Vince over and saw that she wasn't going to get a definitive answer from the intelligent youth. Instead, she looked back to the other two members of the group. From the monitored conversations that the three had had in the cell over the past day, Sanson had a good idea of the power structure in the group of three. Vince was the leader, Bep was the level headed figure that kept Vince and Jon from tearing each other's throats out, and Jon was the cocky pilot who accounted for the majority of the group's battle success. While all three were technologically inclined and all better pilots than anyone Sanson had at her disposal, they each had their strengths. Vince was the mechanical wizard, while Bep worked with the computer components of the ships. Jon helped some with both but excelled in the actual flying.

"What do you think, Jon boy?" Sanson asked, picking on the weak link in the logical group.

"I think you should give us a chance at escape too," he said quite readily. "How about a little one on one? You and I fight. If I win, we get to leave with our ships. If you win we have to spill our knowledge."

Sanson laughed at the cocky youth and decided to take him up on his challenge. "Okay, Jon. You want to fight, step up."

Jon walked to the front of the group and Vince paused only slightly as Jon past him. Vince wanted to stop him, but at the same time, he wanted to see what Sanson was going to do. If she played foul, it would ruin her stance of absolutism, yet at the same time, he couldn't see how she would win other wise.

Jon stood a meter in front of the much shorter admiral, wondering what he was supposed to do. The woman in front of him was close to half a meter shorter and probably barely weighed half as much he did. Sanson looked up at him and smiled. She put her pathetically small fists up in front of her as if she expected to exchange blows with her opponent. Jon did likewise, almost laughing at the woman in front of him.

Sanson came on quick and furious, but Jon merely brushed the harmless punches away with his hands and arms. A few of the frantic punches landed on him, but Jon barely noticed. Jon was trying to decide if he should actually punch back when Sanson's left knee came up hard and fast into the outside of Jon's thigh. The tall pilot hadn't been ready for the move, and the admiral's narrow knee gave Jon a very deep bruise upon impact.

Sanson kept on the attack by turning to kick the inside of the wounded leg just above the ankle. Jon's leg had buckle slightly from the pain of the first blow, and he had to widen his stance to stay on his feet. During the turn to the left, Sanson brought her right fist up in an explosive punch aimed right at the bottom of Jon's rib cage. Her target was at shoulder level for the smaller fighter, and she felt a bone crack as the punch landed home.

Jon grimaced under the pain and decided that it might be okay to strike a woman this one time. Both of his fists swept in front of him in an attempt to either punch or grab his opponent. Sanson had been ready for the move and leaped backward, deftly avoiding the lumbering move. As soon as Jon's fists passed in front of her, Sanson stepped back in, lashing out with her booted foot in between Jon's wide stance. The tip of Sanson's boot landed solidly, and the other six men in the room winced for Jon's sake. The tall pilot's weak leg couldn't handle this latest blow, and Jon fell to his knees. Sanson had been waiting for her taller opponent to come down to her level and executed a trained spin kick aimed at Jon's head. The heel of her military boot struck Jon's temple, and he fell like a tree, out cold.

Sanson stood back from the unconscious pilot, regarding the other two captives in the room. She knew that she wouldn't be able to take either of them in a fight, nor would she be able to beat Jon again, her element of surprise gone in a flurry of witnessed prowess.

Vince looked at his fallen friend, and realized that other than the cracked rib, he was not seriously hurt, and there was nothing he could do for him now. "How about a compromise?" Vince asked.

Sanson wasn't one to deal, but since she figured that the worst case scenario - them choosing to die rather than part with their knowledge - would still provide the Empire with the knowledge, only a little later, a compromise would likely add something to the deal that they didn't already have. "I'm listening."

"We get to look at your technology, and then tell you how to improve your current ships up to the level of ours. That will allow you to achieve our level of fighting ability without having to build yourself a whole new fleet. Anything you see on our ships, we will try to implement on yours. Whether they turn out to be the same design is immaterial if they perform the same. In exchange, we earn back our lives and our ships."

Sanson saw what Vince was getting at maybe even before Vince did. By designing the improvements on the Imperial ships, Vince and Bep could also implement flaws that only they would be able to see, resulting in Imperial slaughter during the first encounter. At the same time, if she let these boys do all the work, and then simply disposed of them anyway, she would gain whatever legitimate improvements they had made, plus still have their ships at her disposal if she wanted to make further changes.

"Okay, I'll give your combat challenged friend here a day to recover and then you guys can go to work." The admiral gave one more look at the small squadron and left the cell, giving the boys time to try and think up a way to get themselves out of this mess.

Chapter 20 "The Snotzenexer Miracle"

Lando and Han looked at each other across the stimsuline table in the Solo living quarters. Trince had arrived about an hour ago, and Han had finally come to grips with the fact that the trip down into the lower levels of Coruscant was going to have to be made. "It'll just be us three?" Lando asked.

"We can't really bring an army down there, Lando."

"What about Chewie's life debt?"

"We finally convinced him that he was relieved of that a long time ago," Han said as he took a sip from a mug of stimsuline and placed it back on the table. "Besides, he's got fur. That might not mean much to you now, but once you get down to about level 30, you'll realize that Chewie would have to shave himself bald to remove the smell he would get after five minutes."

"What are we talking about exactly?" Trince asked for the first time, realizing that he was going along because of the danger involved.

"Where we are going makes a sewer look like a mansion. There will be little to no lights, a constant odor, and water, or some type of liquid everywhere. The occupants of the lower levels are more predator than human. I believe that some of them haven't seen the light of day their whole lives. Aside from the human population, there are actual beasts down there that are some of the most vicious territorial creatures anywhere."

"Sounds like home, right Solo?" Trince, a fellow Corellian, asked jovially.

"Hardly. You must have grown up in Corin Province."

"Well, this job won't finish itself," Lando said, getting up from his seat on a couch. Han sighed deeply and rose also. He and Lando had searched for an hour to find clothes to wear. They had finally found some of Han's old smuggling disguises, full of secret pockets to hold knives, picks, or small blasters. They had given Trince a similar outfit, though the taller youth didn't wear it well. Lando carried a small bag over his shoulder that carried some of the electrical equipment they would need to access the mainframe. Han had made sure that they were tightly sealed in plastic coating, not knowing what the elements down bellow would do to the equipment. Together, the three of them made there way out of the palace and to the first lift they found and headed down.

* * *

The financial activity in the galaxy was a little frantic to say the least. After the senate hearing that had revealed the Republic's monitory position there had been some very worried investors. All of the private citizens who had stock in organizations related to the Republic began to make a move to jump ship. Large farming complexes that operated for the Republic found that they had gone from large profit organizations to bankrupt in a matter of hours.

The newscasts reported what had occurred though they failed to capture the true nature of the problem. The farming complexes, ship building facilities, infrastructure companies, and clothing producers might have the Republic's name in their title, but in reality, their financial stability was entirely separate from that of the government. There were no private investors with money in the actual government. The only actual influence that this revelation had on the financial structure of the galaxy was the way it influenced the money lending that had occurred with the Republic, its off-shoots, and the banks who had lent the money.

The Galactic Bank in the Detsgor system with President Overn at the head had been the first to make a move against the Republic, and a few of the other banks followed suit because of the concerns of nervous investors. Most of the larger banks held off due to the fact they realized the money they wanted to collect wasn't there. What many banks did was cancel credit to those borrowers who had signed with the Republic as their cosigner.

Many of the banks might have continued the run on the almost fifty-six thousand credits that the Republic had, but Snotzenexer put an end to that. The first move that Snotzenexer made in the crises was to remove all stock he held in any bank that canceled its loan with the Republic. The reaction to the move was two-fold. All of the intelligent investors (the only ones that mattered) realized that Snotzenexer had put up his bank's considerable financial weight behind the Republic and if anything, investments in the Republic were more sound than ever. By selling his stock in the banks, Snotzenexer was able to make his presence in this whole mess known to all involved.

The second reaction concerned the fact that everyone knew a bank in Snotzenexer's disfavor, was not a bank to have stock in. The result was that each of the unfortunate banks who had canceled their loans with the Republic, were suddenly so deep in debt to their stock holders, as a result of having to pay off so many withdrawals at once that many of them dissolved into paperwork. It was rather ironic, Snotzenexer thought, that the reward he gave President Overn and his bank for doing exactly what he wanted was to put them out of business. President Overn took it rather well. He was found the next day with the back of his head blown off from a blaster under the chin.

Making his second move of the crises, Snotzenexer proceeded to reinvest his money back into the banks he had just destroyed. With the heads of most of the organizations cut off, Snotzenexer soon owned over fifty percent of stock in each of the banks and immediately merged them with his own enterprise which was now growing faster than anyone could have imagined possible.

What had at first been a run on the Republic, now became a scramble to see who could jump on to the growing financial superpower. Stocks that had been sold for a few thousand credits were now being purchased for tens of thousands. The industries that had gone under during the initial moments of the crises now found themselves getting financial attention from sectors that hadn't known of their existence a few hours earlier.

Of all the miracles that Snotzenexer had pulled off earlier, this one would go down as the biggest move in the history of galactic banking. After it was all done, Snotzenexer had actually created over two hundred trillion credits out of thin air. The banks that had canceled the credit line with the Republic had turned what had been an imaginary debt into a reality. By merging all of those unfortunate banks with his own, Snotzenexer had essentially removed that debt from existence. The Republic's financial structure, which was now actually the Varion Imperial Bank, had owed all of these banks the two hundred trillion, but now they owed it to themselves, thus removing it from existence, and relieved the actual borrowers from the burden of continual payments. Some people could argue that the debt was still there as an internal loss, but with all of the gains Snotzenexer was obtaining, the internal losses were lost in the shuffle.

Something else that was lost in the shuffle was that Snotzenexer now controlled almost a twentieth of the entire galactic financial system. As Sandie Hollins, former President Overn's secretary, had said, he had far more power than any man had the right to posses. The problem was that the rest of the galaxy was pleased to give it to him. Also like Sandie (who now worked for Snotzenexer) had said, he hadn't abused the power, which would have been very easy for him to do.

The final result of this was that the Republic had received over fifty new applications for membership. There was one thing left to be done, and everyone simply assumed it to be formality. In truth, Snotzenexer was not only the president of the Varion Imperial Bank, but also of the Republic and, likely, the galaxy.

* * *

The senate chamber was packed. The floor was reserved for the senators but there were also balconies that surrounded the chamber for spectators. Usually only about fifty to one hundred people filed those balconies, and most of those were members of the local university who wished to go into law upon graduation. Today, the security found that they had to sell tickets for admission. The building supervisors found that they had to set up repulser supports to keep the balconies from collapsing under the weight of the throng that packed the standing room only crowd.

Many of the observers were from other sectors that had flown in simply to see the man who had changed the entire structure of the galaxy with a few simple moves. The senators themselves were in a unique situation. There had only been one transfer of power in the history of the Republic and that had been between Mon Mothma and Leia. That had been back when the Republic was called the New Republic and had been considerably smaller.

Normal procedure that had been set up in preparation for a time like this required nominations to be made for a replacement. There would then be several elections and a rigorous selection process before a new president would be installed. The entire senate realized that they didn't really have a whole lot of choice in the matter of whom they could elect. The public would probably riot if anyone but Snotzenexer was chosen as Leia's successor. The one thing that made this an easy pill to swallow was the fact that almost all of the senators thought he was the best choice regardless of what the public thought.

Senator Belsiphvin, Senator Trent, Senator Garrinj, and Senator Snotzenexer sat in the small council room with the din in the adjoining assembly hall very audible through the thick council room walls.

"We are in a unique situation," Belsiphvin started, not really knowing how else to begin this brief meeting. "You are going to be elected as the next president of the Republic, the question we have for you is, 'Do you want the job?'"

Snotzenexer smiled at the question. "Do I have a choice?"

Senator Garrinj, one of the older and most respected senators while also being a former Leia supporter cleared his throat before speaking. "Not really, although you do have a choice in how you serve as president. You can decide to make this position temporary, or permanent. You can decide to be simply be a figurehead and have a ruling council, or you can hold the same position that Organ-Solo held. It's up to you."

"I feel up to the challenge," Snotzenexer replied. "I feel that I can take the Republic out of the confusion it has existed in for the past month so we can better structure the government to meet the needs of the galaxy."

"Good answer," Senator Trent said. "You would do well to always promote the future as opposed to the here and now. Everyone will want to now how you did what you just did, but you should try to focus more on what we will do."

Snotzenexer was surprised by this old man's wisdom, and outwardly nodded his head in agreement. "We just wanted to meet with you privately before we entered the public spectacle that exists out there," Belsiphvin said. She went on to explain some of the proceedings that would take place. Snotzenexer nodded in all the appropriate places and interjected when necessary. After all the details were handled, the foursome made their way into the main chamber.

It took a long while to quiet all of the people in attendance, and Belsiphvin was finally able to start the performance. "We are meeting here today to elect a new president of the Republic." Yelling of Snotzenexer's name floated around the chamber and Belsiphvin requested one of the building supervisors to erect the electronic sound barriers over the balconies to try and deaden the noise they were producing. There were plenty of speakers in the balcony sections so the proceedings could still be heard by the audience but not vice versa.

"We will start this procedure by accepting nominations for the presidency."

The senate floor remained quiet for a while. This was the key moment, for if no one nominated Snotzenexer, then it would be quite impossible for him to be elected. Senator Haln stood up and was allowed to speak. "I nominate Senator Belsiphvin of the planet Encoust in the Enco system."

This was expected. "Is there a second to that nomination?" Belsiphvin asked. A few people spoke up. "Nomination is accepted by the Senate. Are there any more nominations?"

Senator Quenthor stood up with a lot of unnecessary bravado. "I nominate Senator Snotzenexer of the planet Iom in the Varion system."

Behind the electronic sound barrier, a cheer came from the balconies. "Is there a second to that nomination?" About eighty people spoke up. "Nomination is accepted by the senate. Are there any more nominations?"

The senate chamber was deathly silent. Several people expected Trent or even Leia to be nominated, but no one else spoke up. Belsiphvin waited to the point of embarrassment, and then closed the nominations. Snotzenexer had been sitting in the front row, but now made his way to the front of the hall.

"I would like to start the nominee selection process," Belsiphvin said once Snotzenexer had arrived next to her, "by declining the nomination given me." The crowd's reaction was subdued. This was, after all, expected.

Snotzenexer exchanged places with Belsiphvin and adjusted the microphone for his slightly taller frame. Everyone in the hall was on the edge of their seats, eagerly awaiting for what most people felt was the most important moment in the Republic's short history. "I accept the nomination offered -" was all he could get out before the hall erupted with noise, sound barriers or no sound barriers.

It took a while for the chamber to regain its order before Snotzenexer continued. "I realize that this process lacks some of the formalities required by the senate's regulations, so I would like to make this time open for senators to ask questions regarding my future as president."

The first question was slow in coming. "Senator, how are you going to ensure that the financial crises that struck the Republic recently won't happen again?"

Snotzenexer briefly played with the idea of answering the questions he was going to receive truthfully. He quickly decided against it. He didn't think that an answer such as, "Well, since I created the first crises, and I don't plan on repeating the action, . . ." wouldn't be too well accepted. "Several things will keep the past in the past. The first is that the public is now much more informed as to the causes and effects of what almost happened. Second, by implementing new policies, such as reduction in military and increase in trade, coupled with the creation of a modest tax rate will ensure that the Republic will never again have a balance that even remotely resembles what it is now, or was. Also, as of yesterday, the Republic holds a new position with the banks of the galaxy and loans in the future will be given out by the Republic and not for the Republic. Having a government as a cosigner on a loan was a bad idea from the start."

"Senator," a new question came, "you mentioned creating a moderate tax rate. There are probably over a trillion future citizens in attendance and watching at home who will have to fork over that tax. Could you please explain what you meant by moderate?"

"Right now, the Republic operates without a tax rate. Because of this lack of income, they rely one hundred percent on donations from members with regard to food, ship construction, and other necessities. By incorporating these industries into the actual government, instead of keeping them privatized allows the government to no longer have to rely on support from its members. This lessens the load for everyone involved and frees a lot of resources that were formerly tied up. By taking a small fraction of this created excess as taxation, the burden for the people will actually be less than it is now."

"Senator, you said that you want to deprivatize the businesses in the Republic. Does this mean that you want the government to seize everything?"

"Not even remotely," Snotzenexer answered. "Right now the ship yards that construct the Republic's shuttles are not actually part of the government. The organization that controls the grounds here on Coruscant is not even pat of the government. There are organizations out there that were designed to support the Republic but actually hurt it, because any profit that is made is never seen by the government. These are the businesses that I am talking about deprivatizing. Businesses that never had any right to be privatized in the first place. Who ever heard of a government that didn't even build their own ships?"

"Senator, you stand to make a lot of money by becoming president, don't you?"

"Yes, I do."

The brevity of this response startled the crowd. A few people even began to wonder if Snotzenexer wasn't taking on this presidency for personal gain.

"Senator, could you please explain to everyone here what you meant by your last answer?"

"Gladly. By implementing the changes I have suggested, mainly incorporating certain industries into the government, reducing excess waste, and increasing trade, the economic growth in the galaxy should increase dramatically. With an increase in the economy comes a more ready willingness to invest new found riches, which in turn means that there will be a larger cash flow through the stock systems which can only help the banking industry, of which I am a member."

"So, Senator, what you meant to say was that not only you are going to make a lot of money, but in general the effects of your implemented policy will increase personal income throughout the galaxy."

"That is correct, but that was not what was asked of me. I apologize for answering a poor question in a misleading manner."

This brought a small wave of laughter to the senate floor. A few more questions floated up to Snotzenexer, all of which he answered flawlessly. After about an hour of questions, the actual election took place, and much to everyone's total lack of surprise, Snotzenexer was easily elected to the position of President of the Republic.

* * *

Anakin Solo sat in front of the monitor, waiting patiently for his long distance call to connect. When it finally did, Master Streen was seated at the academy's computer. "Greetings Anakin. I hope everything is going well for you. How may I help you?"

Anakin quickly filled in his teacher on what had transpired in the Denorid system and how he thought it was possible to lessen the impact of the destruction done to the fragile worlds. "What I need," Anakin said, finishing his request, "is more Jedi here to help me."

"You know that we are busy rebuilding the academy," Streen countered though inwardly he was already making a mental list of all the capable students that he could send to help Anakin. He just wanted to see how the young Jedi would respond to reluctance.

"Yes I know, but this is exactly the type of situation for which Master Skywalker had been preparing when he built the academy. The lives of many people as well as their homes might be saved if we are able to act quickly."

"I agree," Streen replied, surprising Anakin with his sudden turn-about. "How many students do you think you need to help you?"

"As many as can be spared that you feel are up to the task," Anakin replied eagerly. Teacher and student continued to discuss the possibilities until they had settled on eight students who would fly immediately to meet Anakin in the Denorid System.

* * *

Leia paced nervously in her apartment as the palace droids worked around her. The droids were busy packing up her and Han's belongings so that the two of them could move out of the presidential suite they had been living in. The senate had told Leia that she no longer had a claim to the luxury accommodations, and if she no longer wished to be a senator, she would have to find permanent residence somewhere else. She had thought that with Han retired and the kids off doing their own thing most of the time, the two of them could go somewhere nice to live out the rest of their lives together, ignoring the Republic entirely. Leia knew that Han had a heap of money saved away for just this type of situation.

Leia thought that they could go to Corellia and purchase a large chateau on the coast. Thoughts of lounging on the beach under the sun were very comforting, and simply the idea of having nothing to do with the government was very relaxing.

Maybe it was for the best. Leia had been over-stressed lately and the workload was far in excess of anything she could have predicted when she had taken the job from Mon Mothma. Besides, Snotzenexer was perhaps the best person for the job, and Leia felt the government was in very safe hands with him at the helm.

At least that was how she had felt ten minutes ago. Since then, she had read a very disturbing message from Luke. Her brother had told her that he was coming immediately to Coruscant because something terrible was happening to the Republic. He said that he couldn't elaborate in the message because the information was far too sensitive, but Leia had already begun to guess what was happening.

Snotzenexer had been from the Varion system, the same system where Luke had been checking on the rumors of Imperial activity. By all appearances, Snotzenexer was what he said he was. He definitely acted like an important bank president and had shown no interest in controlling the military like any good Imperial would have done. Still, there was this twinge of doubt in the corner of Leia's mind that told her Snotzenexer was not all that he appeared to be.

In addition to her worries about Snotzenexer, Leia was scared stiff about Han. He had left the previous day when it appeared that the Republic was on the brink of financial ruin. If he had waited another six hours, he would have been able to witness the "Snotzenexer Miracle" as people were calling it. Leia didn't fully understand what had happened but she knew that Han, or at least Lando, would have figured it out and seen that there no longer needed to be a trip down into the lower levels of the city. She just hoped that they would be all right.

* * *

"Why didn't you tell me it was going to be this bad?" Lando asked for the tenth time that morning.

The trio had found a place to sleep the previous night around level fifty, which was the last level that Han had still felt some level of comfort in. There had been no express elevator to take them all the way down to the bottom, in fact, the elevators hadn't taken them very far down at all. Han remembered the last time he had ventured down into the bowels of the city over thirty years ago. Then he had been able to jump from elevator to elevator to evade the imperial troopers. Since then, the Republic had made an effort to restrict travel in the lower levels and no lift or elevator went below the civilized levels.

Right now they were about ten or fifteen levels bellow the rat hole of a hotel where they had slept, and Lando found that this was the same level of altitude in which the clouds existed. The clouds hung in the air like an annoying fog, covering everything with moisture. The dripping noises where without end and the resulting mold from the lack of sunlight made it feel like they were in a rain forest rather than a massive durasteel maze.

"I mean if you had told me it was going to get this bad I never would have come."

"Just shut up, Lando," Han replied to his friend's complaints for the first time. "Not only did I tell you that it was going to get this bad, but it will get much worse."

Trince tried to keep is laughter inaudible, but found he had to cough to cover his mirth. The three of them were walking through the dank corridors alone. There didn't seem to be anyone else in the deep recesses of the underworld. Han had told them otherwise, claiming that there were countless vagrants hiding in the darkness of the beaten paths, waiting to jump lost tourists or fellow residents. Trince had kept his senses alert, knowing that it would be up to him to warn them of an unseen attack.

To pass the time as they continued to search for quick ways down, Trince more thoroughly examined their surroundings. Each one of the levels that they passed through had once been the top level of the city, and each of them showed signs of having been open to the sunlight. There were buildings that had been built several stories tall that were now surrounded by levels that went up in the same increments as the floors in the building, giving every floor in the former skyscraper access from the walkways. Since there had not been doors fashioned into the upper floors of the buildings, the local residents had found it necessary to create their own, leaving gaping holes in the long abandoned buildings. They were long abandoned by the companies that had erected them, but by looking through the holes in the walls, signs of depraved life could be seen.

The actual levels were built with varying height with many different styles. Many of the lower levels had the same height as the buildings around them so that the whole system was the same, but several levels that had been built to allow large open spaces within the city. For example, the trio had run across a huge cavity that had previously contained a sporting arena and now simply supported a large battleground for opposing gangs.

Most of the construction was made of durasteel, but some levels had thick permacrete pillars for supports. The floor was also a durasteel/permacrete mix that did not hold up well under the moldy conditions. As soon as the levels had begun to pile up on each other, it had become apparent that a lighting system would be needed. The remnants of such an electrical networking was still visible in most of the sections, but few were salvageable and even fewer worked.

Han had made sure that they had brought glow rods down with them, knowing what kind of lighting conditions, or lack there of, they would be facing. He also made sure that they never used them, not wanting to highlight their passage through the underworld. The glow rods would be saved for an emergency.

For the most part, the trio was left alone. Their relatively clean clothes and well-fed frames painted them as obvious intruders, but their tall, confident statures also painted them as not your average lost tourist. It wasn't until they dropped bellow level twenty that they encountered their first emissary from the underground. By now all natural light was gone and small flickers of flame or some kind of artificial flight could occasionally be seen through the chaotic structured surrounding them. Everything was now covered with moss, mold, or slime, and all of the adventurers were soaking wet with putrid water.

Trince first spotted the young boy, as the Jedi was the only one whose eyes could function adequately in the dark environment. He motioned the youth's position to his companions, and both Han and Lando were keen enough to pick out the boy once he was pointed out. The boy too was no novice to surveillance and knew when he had been seen and simply made himself disappear. Even the Jedi couldn't decide which way the youth had gone.

"We should be getting visitors soon," Han said just loud enough to be heard. Lando understood what he meant. They were far too deep to still be mistaken for lost tourists. They were now entering the arena of very territorial animals. It was okay to think of the residents of this underworld as animals because when they appeared in a group of four a few minutes later, that was the first parallel that came to Lando's mind.

The four "men" stood about one and a quarter meter, but might have been closer to one and a half if they would ever straighten their bent spines. They gave the appearance of old men hunched with age, only their movements where quicker than the eye could follow. They had simply appeared in front of the visitors without so much as a sound, each one carrying a small knife that failed to glint in the small lights they carried. Lando wondered if the effectiveness of the weapons came from the cuts they would produce or the diseases they would transmit.

Their faces were hidden beneath the shadows produced by the small lights they carried under their chins. Their clothes were made of some patchwork animal skins that looked to have come from some large, mutant rat. They wore the same skins on their feet. Though their faces were hidden, their eyes seemed to glow with a soft red light as if the inhabitants of this dark world had developed some type of infravision.

One in the group, and the largest of the thin-limbed creatures, stepped forward cautiously. Han couldn't really tell if the motions were due to caution or if the man had crept around these surroundings so long that he knew of no other way to move.

"Vat duu yooo vant?" the man said in barely understandable basic.

Han decided to take charge of the group. "We want to pass through unharmed."

"Ooooooh, is dat awl," the man chuckled and turned to his companions, saying something quick and incomprehensible. "We dinks yooo pay fiwst."

"What do we have that could possibly be of value to you?" Han asked, knowing the answer to his question as one of his blasters was pressing snugly to his side.

"Yooo have weepons."

Han lifted his hands away from his side and shook his head in a convincing gesture. "We can takes dem off yooo copses as well as yooo can give dem to us." At this threat, Trince moved to stand next to Han.

Han felt a measure of assurance with the Jedi in close proximity and didn't back down from the hunched over man in front of him. "And we can just as easily walk past your corpses as you can let us pass."

The leader of the gang flipped his wrist and threw his knife so fast that Han could barely detect the motion, but his tuned reflexes had him dodging to the side from where the knife would have flown past. Instead, Trince reached his hand out and snatched the knife from the air. The eyes of all four hunchbacks were glued to the Jedi as he slowly broke the blade from the handle in the same hand with which he had caught the knife.

The leader of the gang had produced another knife as soon as he had thrown his first one. "Dus yooo vant to fight?"

"We want to pass," Han repeated.

The small man leaped forward, halving the six meters that had separated the groups and came up short in his charge as he found a lightsaber leveled at his throat. The blade looked extremely ominous in the dark environment, and the light went quite a ways toward hurting the attacker's eyes. The leader tried to bat the weapon aside with his knife, but Trince held his blade rigid with the Force, and the knife was sheared in two. This second attack on the integrity of the band's weapons gave the leader pause. He backed up a couple of steps.

Trince didn't let him gain any maneuvering room and walked forward with him. "Will you let us pass?" The lightsaber lit up the man's head and Trince could see the animal like fear through the scratchy hair that covered the man's face. The fear looked so genuine, that Trince didn't see the third knife coming from the leader's pants. Nor did the Jedi see it fly through the meter that separated the pair. But he did feel the pain as the blade sunk deep into his side.

Han wished that the cocky Jedi hadn't been so bold, but now he could tell that only one group would walk away from this encounter in tact. The other three members of the gang surrounded Trince as the wounded Jedi tried to orient himself for battle. Han and Lando found that they were being ignored and quickly pulled their blasters. "Stun?" Lando asked, as he thumbed his weapon to the said setting.

Han shook his head, "You won't be able to stun them." Han fired at the leader, his bolt flying past Trince, through the surrounding group, and taking the leader directly in the face, blowing it off his shoulders. The three remaining under-dwellers were shocked to see their leader taken down so efficiently and Han took the opportunity to dispatch another one. Trince was right behind the attack slicing up a third enemy. Lando was the last one to catch up to the action, taking out the last member of the attacking squad.

Han didn't bother evaluating their kills, but walked over to Trince to see how serious the wound was. Lando had become respectable over the years since his gambling and smuggling days, and though the violent times of his past were still remembered, he shuddered as he stepped over the bodies. Trince had removed the knife from his side and was concentrating on stopping the blood loss. Han scrambled in his pack for some disinfectant while he told Lando to keep an eye out for reinforcements.

The Jedi winced as Han applied the medication but the process didn't last long and Han had it bandaged quickly. "You guys are fast healers, right?" Han asked, referring to Trince's Force skills.

Trince nodded his response as he labored to stand. He hopped up and down a few times testing his legs for a pulling sensation on his side and found that he could walk with moderate pain. "I'll be okay," he said finally.

"How are we supposed to know what level we are on?" Lando asked as they begun walking, alert for another attack.

"Haven't a clue," Han replied. "I left a transmitter in the palace, and I thought that once we got this far down we could follow its signal back to the palace. Granted we will be a kilometer or two below the transmitter, but once inside the bowels of the palace I thought it would be easier to find the second level."

"Well, we better hurry," Trince put in, picking up the pace slightly.

"Why is that?" Lando asked.

"Because whoever we killed back there has friends and they are coming after us."

"I'm sure they will be," Lando said, "that is why we are-"

Han raised his hand to silence his friend. He strained to hear in the distance and could make out very faint running noises. In the underworld, silence was a necessity to survive, so noise could only mean one thing. "They're coming now," Han said, realizing that Trince must have detected their approach through the Force.

The three began to run. Han tried to make sure they ran in the general direction of the palace, but as long as they evaded their pursuers, any direction was acceptable. They occasionally found the opportunity to move down a level and gladly took it. Soon they could hear animal sounds behind them and were beginning to realize that in this putrid environment, any tracking animal would be able to pick up their unique scent with ease.

Ten minutes into the chase, they hit a very slick patch of mold and Trince went down hard. Han stopped quickly, almost taking a spill himself and helped the Jedi up, but Trince wasn't moving fast enough. "Come on! They're coming!"

"Something's . . .wrong," he gasped. He had been running on adrenaline and the Force, but the sudden fall had broke his concentration. Now, since his pulse had increased, the vile liquid from the knife wound had had a chance to circulate through his entire body and Trince was struck with near paralysis.

Lando pulled up short a couple meters ahead, turning back to see what was keeping his companions. "What's wrong?"

As if to answer his question, the noises that had been following them ceased and there was a deathly silence around the trio. Han was concerned about the Jedi, but had to ignore him for a moment while he pulled his blaster and surveyed their surroundings. It was very dark, but Han's eyes had adjusted to the low light and could see that they were in what had once been an old industrial factory with large pieces of machinery all over the place. Han couldn't hear, but could sense the motion around him. He felt eyes looking in on him from all over. Then he saw the eyes. Pairs of red eyes began appearing all around the three men. Han was still crouched over the fallen Jedi with Lando standing over the pair.

The eyes came out of the shadows and revealed the rest of their bodies to the doomed individuals. From their mouths, Han could definitely see that they were canine in nature, but that was the only defining mark on them. Each creature had six legs and fur instead of normal dog hair. The fur itself was matted and bare in places, giving each animal a sick, rabid look about them. Unlike most unruly animals, these beasts did not drool. They kept their jaws together, letting the victims imagine for themselves what kind of teeth lay behind the snarled lips.

The animals didn't need teeth to make their facial visage menacing; the infrared eyes were enough. Han felt that not only were the dog beasts seeing his body heat, they were stealing it. Han also knew the futility of trying to shoot his way out of this. There were at least twelve of these animals surrounding them, all of which were only a couple leaps away from pouncing on them. Even if Han and Lando could take out four of the things quickly, that would leave eight of the animals to finish off the trio. As it was now, the animals seemed content to wait for their masters to catch up. That didn't take long.

Figures, much like the ones Han and company had killed earlier, emerged from the darkness behind the dogs. This time each of the hunched men carried some type of projectile weapon with them, whether it be a blaster, slug thrower, or crossbow, each man was better prepared to face the three dangerous men.

The men came forward and disarmed two very dejected captives. One of the under-dwellers flipped Trince over onto his back to check his condition and found that he was passed out and hot with fever. He also had a blaster on him, which was removed. The hunchback noticed the muck-covered lightsaber and, deciding that it might be of some unknown value, took it as well.

The captures spoke quickly and in an obscure language, making several gestures toward the fallen Jedi. Han noticed that the dogs regarded Trince with apprehension. His high body fever must make him look like some sort of heat demon through the beast's infravision. Finally, the under-dwellers decided to simply leave the Jedi to die and took Han and Lando as prisoners.

The two long time friends were bound tightly and were prodded many times with knives to cooperate. Before they left the old factory building, Han glanced back at the fallen, sick Jedi wondering if he would get to die from fever before some scavenger beast ate him. If Han had known what was going to happen, he would have shot Trince in the head, before his blaster had been taken away from him. Now he would die in agony. Wondering about agony, Han dared to think if either he or Lando had a chance of ever seeing the sunlight again.

* * *

Snotzenexer stood in front of the military committee wondering how to begin. Everything had gone so smoothly for him so far that he felt the timetables he had set out in advance would be met with little trouble and he no longer had to put forth any effort. He had expected to have to campaign a little more than he did for the position of president. The unsuspecting senators had simply given him the position on a silver platter.

Now, as he stood in front of the military committee of which he was not a member, he thought that all he would have to do was to tell them he was going to bring a former Imperial admiral and almost thirty of her ships into the Republic to augment the depleted navy, and they would say yes. The way things were going they would agree it was a splendid idea without out one negative vote. Instead, he decided to deliver his pitch as he had planed it all those weeks before.

"As you know, I have made the point several times that one of my ideas for saving the Republic's money is to reduce the size of the military. I know that all of you are worried that after your last battle with the Empire your navy is too small as it is. I assure you that I have ways to remedy that situation as well as continuing with my plan to lessen the money put into the military."

"That is an apparent oxymoron, president," one of the senators said. "I hope you can adequately explain yourself."

"First, I would like you to know that I have connections with former Imperial members and they have all but given up the fight to restore their lost power. After your battle in the Danzig system, the last big Imperial outpost was destroyed, and the remaining scattering of the Empire can be counted on the fingers of one hand. I am not saying that you should dismantle all of your war ships and throw a victory celebration, but I do think that you no longer need to stay at war readiness."

"I do have a few problems with this, president," one of the senators spoke up. "One of the major selling points of our government is that we promise to protect our members from all threats. Now, while what you say about the Empire being extinct might be true, and we all hope it is, that doesn't relieve us from protecting our members. They need to see our military strength as a sign of security and confidence."

"I agree and to answer that concern I will attempt to address what I said earlier about increasing the size of our fleet. I am surprised that none of you asked about my Imperial contacts. Well, it just so happens that in my home system of Varion, there is an Imperial fleet in hiding. They have been there for a long time with moral running extremely low. They were just about to make their presence known to you, when the whole incident with the Empire in the Danzig system cropped up. The admiral of the fleet has spoken to me on several occasions expressing her wishes to defect to the Republic, but not knowing how to do it."

Snotzenexer looked about the room as the senators were giving him mixed responses. "How can we be sure that this is not another Imperial trick?"

Snotzenexer tried to look hurt. This is where he needed to play on their awe of his intellect. "I assure you that I would not have brought this matter before you if I had thought it to be an Imperial trick. I have researched this fleet as much as I have researched anything else I have down, and I am telling you that they wish for nothing more than to end their exile and rejoin a functioning government. They are willing to agree totally to unconditional defection where in you will gain control of their ships which will greatly increase your fleet strength, and they will be allowed to live in the Republic as members."

"That sounds like an incredible offer, but how will we be able to man these ships in our depleted sate?"

"I suggest that as part of the agreement, you require that some of them stay on to run the ships until you can recruit enough replacements. As for the Admiral, I suggest that you let her retain some of her rank, for she is an excellent tactician and would be able to provide you with volumes of information about Imperial tactics."

Snotzenexer surveyed his audience again, noting that most of the faces were now grinning in a positive way. The fact that Sanson was female played perfectly into this lie. It was well known that females were not respected in the old Empire and it made sense that a female admiral would hide rather than try to contact her fellow Imperials for fear of loosing her command. The members of the committee asked Snotzenexer if they could be given time to talk it over. The former admiral nodded in understanding, knowing inside that there was no way they would turn down this offer of free ships.

Snotzenexer's plan was coming together nicely. There was only one more piece of the puzzle that needed to be put into place for his take over to be complete, and Skywalker should arrive on Coruscant sometime tomorrow.

Chapter 21 "Rematch"

Jacen and Jaina walked slowly through the crowded streets of Mos Eisley, trying not to pay too much attention to the scenery around them of which they had heard so many stories, but instead kept an eye out for Eran. They had followed him to Tatooine, found his ship and had disabled it. They both realized that the reason for this planet stop was that with all of the space traffic that went in and out of here, it would be very easy for Eran to find another way off of this planet.

The twins had never been to their uncle's home planet, and they weren't sad that they had missed out. Tatooine was one big sand trap. The suns were far too hot and the wind much to brisk for the amount of sand it had to toss around.

"Which way?" Jacen asked eagerly.

Jaina had been able to locate Eran's presence in space a few times in their chase when the elusive Imperial had changed course and found that he must have some sort of Force strength that aloud the young Jedi to track him. "Over there," she pointed at a crowded drinking establishment.

Jacen and his sister made their way into the saloon, Jacen keeping his tall head above most of the patronage, trying to pick out his enemy. Eran was sitting in a side booth having a very heated discussion with an interesting alien across the table. The instant that Jacen made a positive identity check, Eran swiveled his head around, engaging the Jedi in an intense stare across the crowded room.

Eran looked back quickly at the alien, who had managed to draw a blaster with Eran's attention distracted. Eran paid him no mind and chopped his open hand down on the creature's neck before the stunned alien could pull his trigger. The unfortunate pilot slumped his head to the table and Eran relived him of his ship license.

As the Imperial agent hurried out of the bar through the back exit, he glanced at the license and the parking voucher attached to it. This ship was on the opposite side of Mos Eisley and much too far to get to while staying ahead of the sibling team that was following him. Instead he saw a row of swoops belonging to a local gang that was inside an adjacent bar.

There was one member of the gang who had drawn the coveted job of watching the beloved vehicles, making sure that no one tried to steal the powerful machines. Eran pretended to ignore him and proceeded to board the nearest swoop. The guard didn't even bother to give a warning, but fired at point blank range. As soon as Eran had hopped on the bike, he had rolled off it, drawing his lightsaber, and leaping over the next row of bikes to confront the guard. The surprise at Eran's unique choice of weapons made the guard hesitate before he fired again, which he never actually got to do because Eran had already lopped off the end of his blaster. Instead of firing the weapon, when the startled gang member pulled the trigger of the destroyed blaster, it blew up in his hand. Eran dispatched the guard in the same manner in which he had taken out the alien in the bar and returned to the swoops.

Eran always carried around a universal actuator that his former employers had forgotten to relieve him of. He clipped the actuator onto the starter cable of the nearest bike and activated it. The bike roared to life and Eran sped away just as Jacen and Jaina emerged from one bar and the swoop gang emerged from the other.

The Jedi ignored the cries of the gang as they hopped onto one of the remaining swoops. Jaina placed her hand on the console of the bike, concentrated for a second, and the machine started with a thunderous ignition. Jacen, meanwhile, found himself fending off a few poorly aimed blaster shots while his sister accelerated away from the gang.

The bikes had been parked on the edge of town, and Eran now headed out away from town and toward a rocky out-cropping a few kilometers into the dessert. The out-cropping was pretty large, and Jacen could tell that Eran's plan was probably to loose them in the rocks and then double back to town where he could try and locate the ship of the unconscious alien. Jacen thought it a poor plan because with their swoop weighted down with two people, Eran's best chance of escape was to try and out distance the Jedi. Instead, Eran appeared to want to try and out maneuver them, and Jaina had to be four times the driver that Eran was. The Imperial would only loose ground if he entered the rocks.

Eran was thinking something else entirely. He was sick of running. This gundark and mouse game had been going on long enough, and he wanted it over. Eran was willing to face whatever trumped up charges that Jacen planned on bringing against him. But first, he was going to make the Jedi beat him in combat. It was a duel that both men wanted. Neither one of them had been satisfied with either of their earlier performances and wanted a final battle to determine just who deserved the title of best fighter. It really wasn't about the title though. Eran wanted to get rid of his pursuers, and Jacen wanted to finally catch Eran. For either to achieve his goal, he needed to beat the other. Eran was just glad that he could pick the field of battle. He was only a couple seconds away from the rocks now, and he slowed a little to make a turn in between two cliffs.

Jaina saw Eran's deceleration and decided to gain some ground by merely making the turn wider. She swung the swoop out wide and cut it in sharply where Eran had turned moments before. They entered the small gap between rocks and in a flash of light their swoop was spinning out of control. Both Jedi leaped safely from their perch, landing on the rocky dessert sand. Jacen rolled quickly to his feet and cast a questioning look back at the entry to the rocky island. Eran stood calmly with his stolen lightsaber drawn and the front of the twin's decapitated swoop lying at his feet.

"Let's end this," was all Eran needed to say and Jacen was running toward him with his lightsaber drawn.

The initial encounter was fast and furious with neither opponent giving ground nor letting up at all. Jaina watched from a safe distance, wondering how this would turn out. She heard the roar of engines coming from the entrance to the outcropping and saw that the rest of the swoop gang had shown up. The members took one look at the two fighters and decided to hold off on any retribution until the fight was over.

If either Jacen or Eran noticed the arrival of the swoop gang, neither showed it. The fighters had ceased their fury and were now fighting at saber length apart, using their long blades and quick feet to their advantage. Jacen was the bigger and taller fighter, but Eran was more nimble.

The floor of the fighting arena was mostly sand, but as they neared the rock faces, the sand became lumpy until it evolved into an uneven staircase up the side of the outcropping. Eran skirted the fringes of this rocky stairway as he tried to fend off his taller opponent. Jacen attacked Eran's elevated foundation a few times only to have his quicker opponent leap to a new position.

Soon both of the fighters were on the rock piles, finding that they not only had to worry about where their opponent's attacks were going to land, but also where their own feet were going to land. Each step on the loose rock was an adventure, and any slip was an opening for the other.

Jacen was the first to falter as his boot settled on a deceivingly solid rock that rolled from underneath his weight. The Jedi had to put his hand backward to brace his fall and needed a quick look to locate a firm placement for his appendage. Eran pressed the advantage by stepping in above the bent backward Jedi and attacking from on high. The blow was aimed at Jacen's head, and was very easy to block in his precarious position, but it was simply an attack to bring the Jedi's weapon up away from his legs where Eran's second attack went. It was a good move on the Imperial's part. Under normal circumstances, the defender would have to fall flat to the rocks and roll away to dodge the blow, giving Eran an even bigger advantage. But Eran forgot that he was fighting a Jedi who was capable of acrobatic acts of incredible strength. Jacen flipped backwards on his anchored left hand, bringing his feet up and over his head, landing them on higher, more secure ground.

Eran took only a brief second to gape at the move before he charged up the slope, hoping to catch the Jedi off balanced after his flip. Instead, Jacen had secured higher ground and pressed Eran back with a series of vicious blows that would have crumpled a lesser opponent. Eran quickly circled to Jacen's side, so the fighters were once again on even ground - as even as the rocky foundation could provide.

Eran was getting desperate to end this fight, seeing that the longer it lasted, the calmer his Force strong opponent felt. He faked a slip on the rocks and fell backwards just as Jacen had done earlier. Instead of actually falling, Eran had found a loose rock and pretended to roll on it. In the act of falling the nimble fighter managed to roll the small rock onto the toe of his boot.

As Jacen charged in, Eran lifted his lightsaber to draw the Jedi's weapon up and away from his body and kicked up with foot. Eran's kick launched the rock right into the Jedi's charging chin, and Jacen was stunned for a moment. Eran quickly gathered his feet beneath him and lashed out with his boot at his dazed opponent. The kick sent Jacen falling from their elevated position, tumbling upon the uneven rocks below. The Jedi had enough sense to slice into the rock slope with his weapon as he fell, so when Eran tried to follow the falling Jedi, he stepped on the weakened slope and copied Jacen's tumbling act.

Both fighters endured nasty bruises during the fall, but came up quickly, wary of each other and any more tricks. They swung a few half-hearted swings at each other that were violently batted away. Soon the half-hearted swings became more frequent, and they were once again joined fully into battle.

This time Jacen decided to make the first daring offensive move. He circled around until Eran had his back to the slope they had both tumbled down moments before. He gave a few hard swings, and the Jedi had his adversary right were he wanted him. With a small prodding with the Force, a few rocks came rolling down the slope. Eran heard the noise but didn't dare look down to see how the falling rocks would affect his footing as he was fully engaged with Jacen. Instead he merely risked the chance the he might step on a rolling rock as he tried to flank his opponent out of their position.

Jacen swung in hard from his right as Eran tried to go to his left, and the Jedi brought few more rocks rolling down the slope. This time Eran had to hop back to his right to absorb the blow and landed on one of the moving rocks. His feet slipped out from under him and his back fell on the forty-degree slope behind him.

The next scene happened in slow motion, at least it did to Jaina who would see it in her dreams for weeks to come. Both fighters attacked without regard to what their opponent was doing. Jacen saw Eran fall backwards with his lightsaber thrown wide to his right from blocking Jacen's attack. The Jedi brought his weapon up high and swung down hard, hoping to make Eran roll to his left or right, giving Jacen a better opportunity to disarm him. Eran saw that Jacen was going to come in hard and swung his lightsaber out and away from him from right to left to force the Jedi backwards.

Eran's blade struck home first. The Imperial couldn't even really see what he was doing, as his eyes were squinting against the sun's glare, but when his blade met resistance he muscled his swing through, thinking to be pushing Jacen's blade aside. He rolled opposite his swing when he was finished and came up to face his opponent. Jacen was gone. All that remained was his deactivated lightsaber and a pile of his clothes.

Eran had no clue as to what had happened and searched frantically around for his opponent, fearing another Jedi trick, but Jacen was truly gone. It wasn't until he made eye contact with a very shocked Jaina that he realized what had happened. Jaina's mouth was wide open and her knees gave way, sending her into the sand where she knelt, frozen in grief. She had watched Eran's blade pass through her brother's torso, and then he had just disappeared into thin air.

The swoop gang decided as a group that they would begrudge the loss of two of their bikes rather than face the likes of Eran and left the two remaining thieves alone.

* * *

Five minutes after landing on Coruscant, Luke was standing in his sister's quarters only to find that they were empty. Not just empty of people, but all the furniture was gone too. "Excuse me," Luke grabbed one of the passing palace staff, "what happened to the presidential suite?"

The cleaning lady looked at Luke oddly. "We cleaned it out for the new president."

New president?! Luke thought. "Where is Leia?"

"I think she has temporary residence in the senatorial quarters."

"Thanks," Luke said and raced down toward the senatorial wing. Luke had no idea what room his sister was in, but a moment of concentration revealed her presence in the Force a few floors up and down the hall. Luke added a quick step to his walk because of what he had just felt in his sister's thoughts. Things were definitely not as they should be and Leia's mental condition was not a stable one.

A few minutes later Luke entered Leia's quarters and found the two droids, Chewie, and Leia sitting in a nervous silence. One look at Chewie's snarl told Luke that nerves were on edge in this room. "What's wrong Leia?"

Leia was slow to answer, and her red eyes told the Jedi Master that she had been crying for a long time. "Something's happened to Jacen. I . . . I felt him shudder and then disappear."

"Disappear?"

"I can't really explain it. I don't always feel their presence, but now it is like I was shown his presence long enough to see that it was removed and now I can't get it anymore."

Luke hadn't felt anything, but then he didn't have one tenth of the connection with the twins that Leia had. "What about Jaina?"

"She felt the same thing I did, I think, because when the ripple went through me, I felt that she had the same feeling and went into shock."

"How long ago was this?"

"A couple hours," Leia said, "but that's not all. Han is gone and they are kicking me out tonight."

"Kicking you out?" Luke asked incredulously.

"With the new president and fifty new senators and their staff coming tomorrow, they are short of space and since I no longer have a position in the senate, they can't afford to keep me here anymore."

"Can't afford it? Are you kidding? The Republic is loaded. Surely they could put you up in a hotel for a while. But where is Han?"

Leia looked at her brother in the face with a half-hearted attempt at a smile. "A lot has changed since you left. The Republic doesn't have a lot of money. Han and Lando went down to the lower levels of Coruscant to try and access some old files in the Emperor's financial holdings. But that was before the new president fixed the financial problems."

"Who is this new president?"

"It's some important bank president from the Varion system."

Luke nearly fell over. "Admiral Snotzenexer?!"

"He's not an admiral Luke," Leia said.

"How long has he been president?"

"Three or four days, I can't really remember, why?"

"Good, there is still time."

"Time for what, Luke? What's going on?"

Luke put a reassuring hand on his sister's shoulder. "You have everything packed in the Falcon, right?" Leia nodded a response. "Okay, just go to Yavin IV. It's only a day's trip away. I have some stuff I need to take care of. I'll try to get Han too. Don't worry, things will be okay, you'll see." He gave Leia a quick kiss on the cheek and left the room.

* * *

Ten minutes later found Luke nearly sprinting through the area above the assembly chamber toward the presidential office. He needed another meeting with Snotzenexer. The admiral would tell Luke what he wanted to know one way or another. The Jedi Master wouldn't accept any of Snotzenexer's stupid half-truths this time.

Luke slowed his pace as he neared the office doors and noticed that there were two guards stationed at the door. "I need to see the president." Luke said, not wasting time with words, but using his perfected Jedi mind trick on the pair.

"You need to see the president."

"The president is busy."

Luke was startled at the split decision almost as much as the guards were. No one should have been able to withstand his mental suggestion with out a lot of concentration or preparation. The answer to Luke's wonderment was given to him when he saw the reaction of the guards. Realization dawned on both of their faces as to what had just happened, and Luke knew that they had been warned of his coming.

"The president is busy, Skywalker. You need to make an appointment."

Luke didn't have time for this. If Snotzenexer had only been in power for three days, then he wouldn't have had enough time to employ any of his underhanded tactics yet. Luke reached out toward the two guards with the Force and watched, as the guard on the left became weak at the knees as his neurological pathways began to shut down. The other guard struck this weaker one who had also been the one to succumb to Luke's mind trick.

Both of the guards drew their blasters and Luke took advantage of the lesser willed one by yanking the weapon out of his grasp with the Force. The other guard fired at Luke, hitting him solidly in the chest, but the ringed stun bolt had little effect on the Jedi Master. Luke took out the man he had disarmed and turned his blaster on the other guard. Luke watched in horror as the man had just thumbed his weapon to maximum power and fired.

Luke wasn't in a position to block the blast, but rolled to the side as the now deadly bolt whisked over his head. Luke had dropped his blaster on the floor during the roll and came up on one knee with Mara's lightsaber in his hand. He deflected the next two bolts into the floor and played with the blaster he had left on the floor.

Unseen to the guard, who was focused on Luke, the blaster angled up slightly and seemed to fire itself, striking the guard in the chest and sending him into blackness. Luke began to relax, when his instincts told him to roll. He did so, just as a blaster bolt scorched the air he had just occupied.

Luke contemplated slashing the office door in front of him open, but could sense that there were probably guards waiting for him on the other side of the door. This is what Snotzenexer had decided. He needed to kill me, Luke thought, but if he had done so in the Varion system, word would have gone out that I had died while inspecting Imperial activity and his cover would have been blown. Now he can claim that I died while fighting the palace guards in an attempt to force my way to see the president.

Luke was angry that he hadn't seen the trap Mara had tried to point out to him. Two guards were running down both ends of the hall toward him, while he was pressed into the cubby that held the door to the presidential office. Luke leaped out into the middle of the hall, splitting the distance between the two pairs of guards who were still ten meters from the office and twenty from each other. The startled guards each fired, and Luke dropped to the floor.

The short sighted guards each realized Luke's trick the moment after they fired and dove for cover from their own bolts. One of the guards took a shot in the arm while the others avoided contact. Luke leaped the ten meters between him and the injured guard, using the distraction the dodging men had given him. Luke landed next to one of the remaining three guards, while the fourth lay in agony at his feet. The Jedi smacked the standing guard with the handle of his lightsaber, sending him to the floor. With both guards next to him on the floor, the guards down the hall began firing again.

Luke sprinted down the corridor as bolts flew past him into the wall and ceiling. Turning a corner, Luke found himself running head on into a group of three men, each with a blaster. He didn't have time to think. It came down to kill or be killed, and he didn't want Snotzenexer to win. Luke slashed out with his weapon at the guard on the left, tearing his weapon from his hand, and taking a good portion of the hand with it. He turned his body as he swung, making the other two men miss. As they turned to bear, Luke lashed out with his foot at the near one and spun back again, avoiding the third man's shot.

Luke had kicked the gun out of the grasp of the second guard, but now faced the third at point blank range. Luke threw his lightsaber at the man, slashing him through the chest as his bolt slammed into the wall next to Luke. In the heat of battle, Luke didn't give the death a second's thought, but called his weapon back to him and continued around the corner as the men behind him caught up.

Around the corner, five more men were waiting at a distance of twenty meters, each with a gun leveled at Luke. Luke stopped cold. He could get past these men, but how many would he have to kill to do so? He had just killed a palace guard. A Republic Palace Guard! That had been Snotzenexer's plan! Luke was now guilty of treason and there wasn't a thing he could do about it. Luke sighed as he accepted his fate, wishing he had more thoroughly thought out Snotzenexer's plan.

All five men in front of him fired, but the shots were ringed stun bolts. Luke didn't have time to comprehend the sudden shift in intentions, but took four of the five shots in the body and crumpled into a heap.

* * *

Snotzenexer exited his office and looked at the two stunned men leaning against opposite walls of the recess in front of his door and sighed. It was all two easy. He leaned over the first body and pulled a hidden blaster from inside his coat. "I'm sorry," he said to the unconscious man and shot him in the chest.

* * *

Luke looked at the senate chamber with a sickening feeling in his stomach. The resemblance to the courtroom that had been on Hastrin was almost sickening. Here he was, on trial again, and to be prosecuted by the same person. This time it was different. This wasn't an Imperial kangaroo court, but his own government was bringing charges against him. Charges of which he too thought he was guilty. He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Snotzenexer had set up the whole thing and also knew that Snotzenexer was an Imperial from head to toe, but Luke didn't see anything he could do about it. He had no proof that wouldn't sound like grasping at straws, and now with his situation being what it was, all of his credibility had been stolen. It would have been next to impossible for him to convince the entire senate and populace of the known galaxy that Snotzenexer was a fraud without having committed treason, but now it was beyond impossible.

Leia had left already, and Luke was glad. He didn't want her to have to see this.

Snotzenexer pounded a gavel to gain silence. The senate chamber was just as full as it had been a few days ago for Snotzenexer's inauguration. It would have been more crowded, but you can only fit so many people into one building before you created a spacial anomaly.

The sound barriers were put in place from the start and the atmosphere behind the electronic restraints in the balconies was quite unique. It was amazing how quickly hidden feelings came to the surface when it was no longer taboo to hold such feelings. There had been a lot of people who had secretly disliked Luke and the Jedi Academy he had started. The misunderstood were often feared and most people saw Luke and his Jedi as spoon benders who were just after power. They had god-like powers to most people, and the old adage "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely" had held true with the Emperor and Darth Vader, why should these new Force users be any different.

Snotzenexer looked at the hostile crowd in the balconies and smiled. The ironic thing was that right now Snotzenexer held more power than either the Emperor or Vader ever had. Not only was his empire bigger than the old Empire had been, but he also held the entire financial galaxy in his grasp, and unlike the Emperor, people enjoyed having him in power. But even though he had this power, no one had even begun to fear him like they did Luke. It was very simple. The people had given the power to Snotzenexer by respecting his financial prowess and legislative skill. He hadn't forced anyone to mimic his every stock trade, but they had anyway. He hadn't seized the presidency by force, but had had it handed to him.

The senators in the crowd were a mixed bunch. The newer members who had been reluctant to join in the past because of their dislike for the haphazard way in which the New Republic had been run, saw this as the end of that New Republic and the true beginning of the present Republic. The Imperial members showed professional restraint, but would secretly like to be up in the balconies with the rest of the rowdies. It wasn't that they still held traitorous ideologies like Snotzenexer was harboring, but they saw this as the final end of the Rebellion, something which every Imperial, whether reformed or not, had to take a little pride in. The remaining senators were the ones who had been loyal to Leia and her brother. They were basically hanging their heads in shame for Luke's sake. They couldn't deny the charges brought against their former hero, and could only hope that the rest of the senate would be gracious as to the sentence they passed.

"This special assembly is here to pass judgment against Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master, and former hero of the New Republic. The charges that have been brought against him include high treason and murder. The evidence for these charges is self evident in the following video." With that, Snotzenexer proceeded to play the security camera recording of the incident the previous day.

The large screen behind Snotzenexer came to life and revealed Luke walking up to the two guards and the scuffle that ensued. Luke stole the weapon from the guard on the left and fired. The audience, and especially Luke, gasped when the bolt that came out of his stolen weapon was not a stun bolt like Luke had actually fired. The guard slumped against the wall with an ugly blaster burn in the middle of his chest that shouldn't have been there from a stun blast.

The remaining guard had already struck Luke in the chest with a stun bolt. The security camera showed the man adjust the power setting on his weapon, but you couldn't exactly see to what level. Luke was not at all surprised to see that the second bolt the guard's gun produced was still not lethal but instead was a maximum stun.

The crowd "oooh"ed and "aaaaah"ed at Luke's technique in evading the stun bolts, but grimaced when Luke used the blaster on the floor to kill the other guard. Luke realized that it didn't take much to doctor the security tape to make the stun bolts look like killing ones and vice versa. The bolts only appeared for a fraction of a second as they exited the blasters and then only briefly again as they exploded in the chest of the victim.

Luke watched the rest of the video with resigned acceptance. All of the bolts fired at him were shown to be stuns instead of killings like they had been. The idea was simple: the guards had used non-lethal force while Luke had not. Even after Luke had supposedly killed the first two guards, they still used stun bolts.

The crowd became hostile again at the gore of Luke's first real kill, and now even some of the older senators were showing some vocal disdain for the Jedi Master. Perhaps they had been wrong to support the members of the Rebellion. Their confidence in Leia had been shattered a week previous, and now Luke's credibility was fading like the heat on Forinad.

At the end of the video the cameras showed Snotzenexer leaning over each of the guards outside his office, apparently grieving for the lost. In actuality, Luke realized, Snotzenexer was placing the vicious blaster burns on the two guards. Marks that had been used earlier in the video to make it look like Skywalker had killed them.

When the video was over, Snotzenexer turned to look at Luke, any smugness that he might have wanted to show in this situation was absent from his face, but Luke could read his thoughts through his eyes. Luke had won the first encounter by escaping from Hastrin, but Snotzenexer wanted the Jedi to know that this was the battle that mattered because there wouldn't be a third one. "Luke Skywalker, how do you plead to the charges brought against you?"

Luke took a long pause before answering, causing many in the audience to nearly burst with suspense. He played around with a variety of answers, but only one answer would allow him to retain the little dignity he had left. "I would like to enter the plea of guilty as charged."

The crowd was silent. They had been preparing to boo a "not guilty" plea, not believing that the Jedi Master would give up without a fight. "I think that I speak for everyone present when I say that I am very surprised by your actions. I think that all of us who looked to you for leadership in the past, would like to know why you did what you did."

Luke looked hard at Snotzenexer, tempted by the Dark side more than he had ever been before. It would be easy to kill him right now. It would only take a moment's thought. Snotzenexer wasn't going to make it easy for Luke to bow out with anything that even closely resembled dignity. Of course he couldn't say why he had done what he had done. He would sound like a mad man, flinging mud at anyone he could to take them down with him. "I offer no explanation for my actions and pray for your forgiveness."

Snotzenexer was a little surprised by this plea for mercy. He had planned on showing the Jedi mercy anyway, that is, if the senate allowed him. In reality, he wanted the Jedi dead. He was still mad they hadn't been able to kill him on Hastrin. There were few times when you could kill someone as powerful as Luke Skywalker without drawing unwanted attention to yourself. Hastrin had been one of those times; now was another. The problem with now is that he still had a few people who were loyal to Leia in the senate and although he had given these people no reason to hate him yet, he had also given them no reason to like him either.

"The normal penalty for treason is death," this brought the audience in the balconies back to life, "but I would like to caution the senate as to such a sentence. Luke Skywalker, though he as committed grievous crimes, has done more for the stability and unity of this Republic than anyone else alive. At the same time, regardless of what he has done in the past, these crimes can not go unpunished. I suggest exile above the death sentence."

These comments sent a buzz through the senate chamber. There had been two sides of the senate, one who wanted to sentence Luke to death and another that wanted to see him live. The side that wanted him dead was scared that there wouldn't be enough senators agreeing with them and they wouldn't get a clear majority. The same held true for the other side. This compromise appealed to both sides. It was a way to remove Luke from the Republic without killing him.

The next twenty minutes saw a short debate take place at the end of which, Luke was exiled to Hoth. Snotzenexer ended the proceedings with a pound of his gavel and a smile toward Luke. Everything had gone according to plan. He had control of the political arena, the financial arena, and, as soon as his wife came with her ships, the military arena. He also had removed the only person that could have upset the turn of events, and he had done so with the help of the senate. The rebirth of the Empire was only days away.

* * *

Mara was sitting stunned in her ship. She had just finished watching the court proceedings on her holo-viewer and still couldn't believe what had transpired. Sure, she had warned Luke about a trap Snotzenexer was probably setting for him, but even she hadn't expected it to be as thorough a trap as it had been.

Mara's ship was flying in hyperspace toward her next pick-up point in keeping with her rigorous trading schedule. She got up from her comfortable couch and made her way toward the cockpit when something dawned on her. Now that Luke was exiled and Leia was banished from the political scene, she was the only one who knew what Snotzenexer's true motives were. Despite all of her talk about independence, she wouldn't be caught dead trying to work under an Imperial government. Besides, if Admiral Sanson was going to have a part in the up-coming takeover, Mara had a personal score to settle. The master trader dropped out of hyperspace, sent a message to her previous destination about how she wouldn't be able to make it, and set a new course for Coruscant.

To be continued . . .

The End