Chapter 1

Disclaimer - the characters and situations used in this story are the property of Lucasfilm Ltd. My thanks to Mona for her work in getting this ready to post along with Aria and JT.

Ash

Hidden Force

Chapter 1

Raithal Imperial training Facility, Core Region - time ANH

The gut wrenching fear stopped her in her tracks as she sped along the corridor. Faltering she slowed as she searched around her for the location of the vague feeling of unimaginable horror that waited.

Maija took a deep breath and counted several blocks of carved and gleaming marble before her world abruptly tilted and darkness claimed her. She came to moments later with a bone-jarring shudder as her impact against the polished flooring made itself felt. Focusing shakily on a pair of enormous boots made her head jerk upwards in shock and then wish that she hadn't as her world spun crazily around her again. The huge face belonging to a large bulk of a man sporting a military haircut peered down at her.

"You okay, little one?"

The kind face of Cadet Franjeer Nerano stared down before pulling her to a seated position and resting Maija against the polished marble wall.

"I slipped, I was running…"

"Cadets should always march in a dignified and orderly manner," he recited in a parade ground tone. "Little one, you could have come a real cropper there."

He surveyed the girl. Small for her age with a thin, plain white face which showed off sharp cheekbones and enormous dark eyes. They seemed to be old, those eyes. There was a wary watchfulness and the hint of a burden too great for such slender shoulders. Maija Darklighter was the youngest cadet ever to have been accepted at the Raithal Academy. At this present moment, being smaller and lighter than her peers she suffered in the physical education parts of the course. But put her in front of a machine or let her talk her way around intergalactic protocols, it was a completely different story. She didn't draw attention to herself in any way if she could possibly help it, but he liked her. Although he was good at feats of strength and endurance, when it came to the things that showed your breeding as an Imperial officer, galactic history, music, art - things like that, he was at the bottom of the pile. So they helped each other. Maija liked to call them beauty and the brains and Nerano had laughed, taking away the brutish look he had. Maija already knew that appearances could be deceptive and was using that to her advantage. Still, Nerano admitted to himself there was a lot about herself that she kept hidden. Even in their psych evaluations Maija revealed what she wanted you to know and then skilfully evaded all probing questions. When they'd tested on low-level narcotics during an exercise, to see how they would hold out in the eventuality of capture and possibly torture and interrogation while drugged, the transcription of her tape had been remarkably bare.

The commanders had chuckled to themselves. She hadn't lived much of a life to have things to tell.

Nerano shook his head, the action strangely at odds with his fierce appearance. "You take care. There are enough nasty things out there, like terrorist rebels, without you doing yourself in. This shiny white stuff is hard on the head. As I said - you could have come a real cropper there."

She grinned suddenly and her face lit momentarily into a startling beauty. "It's Erindan quartz." She indicated the greenish stone. "And this is Alderaani white marble. It might come up in one of the tests."

"I hope so, now. But seriously, little Darklighter, are you sure you're okay?"

"Yeah, I think so. Go on – haven't you got a class?"

She watched as he walked away and she closed her eyes in relief. One of the flight instructors walked past with a curious look and Maija bent to pick up her scattered belongings. A data pad here, a couple of info-chips there. She picked them up and moved dazedly to her tiny room in one of the hostels.

The feeling of unnamed dread stayed with her all day. Perhaps her father would know what it was, but he was on Alderaan working at the High Court in the service of the Viceroy.

Very few Alderaanians attended the Academy, something the Empire was aware of. Maija frowned - she had picked up some feelings of disapproval on the holonet about the behaviour of the Organa family. Maija hoped that the Empire would never find out that the Organas were founders of the Rebellion and that her own parents were those accursed terrorists Nerano had spoken so lightly about.

***********************************

Maija pulled on her sleeping shift and climbed wearily into her narrow sleeping pallet. Closing her eyes she eased carefully into sleep, but her sleep was a troubled one. Visions of apocalyptic terrors and lights vanishing from the sky, rivers of blood fading into nothing but the starry sky itself.

Maija had transferred to the Raithal Academy from an accelerated learning programme in Anchorhead. Her high scores in the galactic tests had given her family no choice in the matter. It had never occurred to them that she should do badly so that she would remain with her family. Life at Raithal had been bleak for the girl, but it was acceptable. She was too young to fit in with her peers and therefore she threw herself into her work. But her aim was to learn enough to fight against the Empire, not for it. Living on the rim had opened her eyes to how little the Empire cared and the tales of cruelty were more openly circulated out there. Nerano had done a little to assuage her loneliness, but she couldn't really trust him. If he'd known what she had done to help an enemy of the Empire escape, he would have been appalled. Maija wondered after all this time how the woman was.

About a year ago she had met and warned Mon Mothma of an attempt on her life. Mon Mothma had been, at one time, an influential Senator from the planet Chandrila. But, unhappy with the Emperor's activities, she'd had become one of the leaders in the fledgling rebel alliance and her life had been in danger. Maija, on a secret tip off from her parents who were acting under orders from the Viceroy, had helped Mon Mothma disappear from Raithal. The rebellion was growing and her parents had become heavily involved. Young as she was, they had never hidden anything from her. If her father had thought Mon Mothma was in danger, then she was and Maija owed it to them to help. She knew the risks. Maija had met and warned the woman and had managed, by hacking into the main computer, to find out what had been done to sabotage the ship. Mon Mothma had disappeared into hiding. Maija hoped she was still alive.

Maija knew from computer reports she had had managed to see and from the basic common sense trait of observation, that cadet entries into Raithal had been heavily increased. Raithal was the best training school in the Core Regions and produced the brightest and best ready to serve the Empire and its Emperor. Now they were needed to save that Empire. So it wasn't just quality they wanted – it was quantity. The Rebellion's actions must be starting to hurt the Empire. Her mouth firmed slightly; she had no option but to do what she could.

The next day dawned bright and clear, but a strange watchfulness hung in the air. Something had happened - she just knew by her sense in the Force. She slipped the unitech patch into her pocket and moved into her seat in the computer lab.

'I'll only be able to use this once just now and if I'm caught it's the end of a promising Imperial career.'

The unitech patch was a small piece of slicing equipment that, when it was applied to a computer system, re-routed any security so a break in could not be detected. The problem was if anyone became suspicious and started sending enquiries to the 'patch' it couldn't cope. Her mother had obtained for her the last time she'd been home. Maija had managed to smuggle it onto the campus. However it would get her past the security protocols for now and that was all she needed. She wasn't going to be with the Imperials any longer than she could help.

An hour later she sat stunned and pale at what she'd learned. The Senate disbanded, Princess Leia Organa reported killed from an unexplained mishap to her ship and there were rumours of some big catastrophe. Nothing concrete had come up in the reports. She rubbed a clammy hand over a chalk white face and closed her eyes.

Princess Leia Organa was the daughter of Bail Organa, Viceroy of Alderaan, and one of the youngest Senators ever to have been appointed. Maija had a sneaking admiration and regard for the young woman because she argued so strongly in the Senate for what she believed in, whether it agreed with the official view or not. Lately it had been more 'not'. The criticism of the Organas had been slowly building in loyal Imperial press. Was Leia Organa so dangerous that the Empire had killed her? Maija knew with a stomach churning certainty that had been the case. If she weren't yet dead she soon would be.

The Rebellion had been in operation for as long as the Emperor had been on the throne but lately, as the Empire had grown more corrupt and its methods more cruel, the rebellion had increased its efficiency and bettered its organisation. Things were happening.

"Uh oh," she muttered quietly as the display began to flash erratically in front of her eyes and turn into unintelligible gibberish. Someone had caught on to her digging. She'd tripped one of the alarms hidden in systems like these. 'Better get out fast, Maija' she told herself and bent her head as she quickly moved to clear any hint of her location from the system. The unitech had its limitations. Her mother had said she would know when to use it. She hadn't said that she would like what she had learned.

Her mother - she would never see her again.

Maija's blood ran cold. Her fingers shook and her face whitened even more if that was possible. She had to get out of here and it had to be now. Grabbing the patch she logged off and ran from the building.

Maija kept walking, her face set, until she reached her favourite hiding place in the well-designed ornamental gardens kept for show. Curling up into a little ball, she sought her inner strength, but it wasn't enough and the tears fell.

'How could I know this? I don't understand, but I know and it has something to do with the big catastrophe.' But deep inside her head she did know and instinctively and unconsciously closed her mind, snapping it shut around her most precious essence. It would be too dangerous to use the gift she'd inherited. The gift of the Force.

* * * * *

The main lecture theatre was crammed full and the Commanding Officer in charge of the Raithal training facility - Commander Andrei Ryyklas - stood with his head bowed. He was unable to believe that the information he had to impart to the cadets was really true, but the Emperor, himself had broadcast the news to his Empire. He took a deep breath, his face grave.

"We are here to mourn a great tragedy. One of the brightest and most beautiful of the Core Worlds has destroyed itself. Unknown to us, Alderaan had been experimenting with a dangerous weapon and due to a build up of toxic gasses eventually blew itself apart. It is rumoured the royal family had links with the Rebellion. It is criminal that such people could have doomed a whole world to total oblivion. Our hearts grieve for the lost world of Alderaan and for its tragic people."

He stared at the sea of shocked faces before him. It was hard to believe that the notoriously pacifist Alderaanians had practised such duplicity. He would have to check the records, but he didn't think they had any cadets from Alderaan training at this time and then his mood hardened. At least the rebel sympathisers had perished.

Maija crushed her hands into fists. 'No!' she thought. 'It's a lie. I know it didn't happen that way, Alderaan had no weapons. The Empire has to be behind this. My poor, poor parents. Mother would have told me… I can't stay here any longer. I can't stay and be a part of something which destroys life.' The Empire had dealt the rebellion a crushing blow. Alderaan had secretly been aiding the rebels for many years, equipping and organising it and the Emperor had suspected this but had had no proof. Now he'd gutted the life from the Rebellion. The Organa family had been that life.

'Whatever happens, whatever I do, I will continue to serve the light.' Maija had no idea where her words had come from, but they were good and strong and she needed them so badly. 'I will continue to serve the tradition of the Rebel Alliance from inside the belly of the beast. I will do what I can to help people like my family. The Empire will pay.' There was the sound of a chuckle in the wind and the sigh of an old man and the scent of the desert in the early morning. How she missed it.

"Cadet?"

The voice broke into her pained thoughts.

"Cadet Darklighter?"

"What!" Maija jumped to her feet. "Sir?"

She followed Lieutenant Vordan's gaze as the rest of her year group filed out. Maija had been left sitting in her own private pain.

"My parents…."

Vordan was an older experienced officer, liaison and councillor to Maija's year group. He'd been wary of accepting such a young person and a girl at that into his group, but she was coping well with most of the work and outstandingly with the rest.

"Cadet Darklighter," he tried again. Something was obviously wrong. "Dreaming on a mission could get you killed."

For all her mental strength even Maija sometimes forgot she was a child. She'd never really had the chance to be one and that was the part that was hurting now.

"My parents were on Alderaan. They worked for a communications company."

"You're Alderaanian?" He tried to remember where she'd come from – there were very few Alderaanians at the Academy.

"No, from Tatooine."

"Oh, Outer Rim. Cadet, you've come a long way."

"It was my test scores, Sir. They were too high to remain in the school I'd been at. They didn't know what to do with me." She was babbling. Vordan was no more interested in that bit of news than he would be if a bantha took flight.

'Of course', he mentally reviewed her file.

"But my parents…" She brushed a tear quickly, lest it be considered a weakness. "I lived with them on Aldera until I returned to stay with my Aunt and Uncle on Tatooine. I haven't seen my parents for nearly a year… and now I'll never see them again." Her voice broke a little.

"You're relieved of classes for the rest of the week. Is there anyone at home you want to contact? Your cousin? Didn't he attend the Academy last year?"

"My Aunt and Uncle, sir. It's too far to travel home, but I'd like to talk to them if I may?"

"Permission granted, Cadet."

"Sir, I'd prefer to attend classes. I feel I can do more for the Empire that way. My parents would wish it."

"A notable attitude, Cadet. The Empire will not forget your devotion to duty."

"Thank you, Sir." Maija turned, her straight back stiff, and walked slowly from the room.

***************

"I need a secure frequency to Tatooine," she mumbled to herself. "I have to speak to my aunt." Maija tapped into the location and then attached a small device to the console. If anyone were monitoring conversations today, they would lose this one. There could be no witnesses to a conversation with her aunt. Not this conversation.

The picture of her aunt was fuzzy, but Tatooine was a vast distance away. Maija could still tell she was crying. "I want to come home…"

"NO! It's not safe." Kendra Darklighter's face stiffened in horror.

"What?"

"There are things happening we don't understand. Your Grandfather has disappeared. Owen and Beru Lars were murdered by sandpeople and their nephew Luke has disappeared too."

"Mother and Father?" she asked but she knew anyway. She had felt the death knell.

"Alderaan has been completely destroyed. They were building illegal weapons and the planet blew itself apart."

"That's not true. I just know it's not true."

"What does the Force tell you?"

"I don't know. I can't feel it anymore. It's gone."

"Maija, it's your gift."

"How can it be a gift if it gets the people I love killed?"

"Your parents didn't have the Force and you didn't get them killed."

"No, but grandfather did have it," Maija gasped. "He's dead, but the boy is still alive."

"The boy?"

"The boy he took with him." Maija asserted.

"Luke Skywalker. He was with your grandfather?"

"He wasn't with the others when they were found. If he had been, he would have been a burning corpse too." Maija's eyes widened. "How could I know this? You're wrong, Aunt. This is not a gift - it's a curse." Maija slammed some barriers in her mind and a strange blank numb feeling remained.

Her aunt blinked. Her niece had uncanny abilities, but how she could know about Owen and Beru… "Maija…" Kendra murmured helplessly. They were so far away "Your grandfather… There's no proof that he's dead. He's vanished without a trace - that's all. Beru and Owen – all that are left of them were the burning corpses. Your uncle and some of the other settlers saw they had a decent burial. How do you know the old man is dead?"

"I don't know." Maija tentatively contacted the part of her that instinctively told her what she needed to know. For the first time in her life she felt nothing. Stunned she covered her mouth with a slim hand. "I cannot use my gift - I can't feel it. It's gone. I knew when the planet blew. I felt the people crying in my head. I saw the burning bodies and I felt his pain. But since then – nothing. Perhaps I've no longer got it. I wished for it to be gone and now it has."

"Be careful, Maija. I think it's just a reaction. When you are calm and at peace you will touch it again." Her aunt's wise words echoed in her ears but she didn't really hear.

"I'm not going to use it. Anyone with that ability disappears. I've seen it happen. But I want to come home. I need to see the two suns, smell the breath of the desert wind. I need to be with you."

Merdom Darklighter replaced his wife on the screen. "You're safer where you are, wokling. We've got other things to worry about too."

"Other things – what's happened?" Maija's tone darkened. What weren't they telling her?

"It's Biggs…" He choked a little and even with the distorted picture Maija could see all the strain and the worry her Uncle was trying to hide.

"Biggs – he's not…?"

"We don't know. Your aunt and I are expecting a visit from the local Imperial bureau investigator within the next few days. Biggs defected to the Rebellion. His father is beside himself with worry."

"Biggs did?" she whispered quietly, a feeling of dread gnawing at her stomach.

"Yeah, he jumped ship with several of his comrades and hasn't been heard from since. Your aunt is sick with worry and so am I."

"He'll be all right. He's good." But as she tried to reassure her family a sinking feeling of dread told her the truth.

"Yeah, wokling, he is - one of the best."

She pictured her handsome older cousin piloting his speeder round Anchorhead with the Skywalker boy. Merdom and Kendra had spent a lot of time with Biggs after his mother had died and because Biggs hadn't been close to his father, he had been very close to Kendra and Merdom. But Uncle Huff did love his son very much and had been so proud of him when he'd graduated from the Academy.

"So I have to stay here?"

Merdom sighed. He hated that she was so far away and so young, but she was safer in the core of the Empire than she was in the heart of her family and at a time when she needed them most. She was only fifteen and now orphaned because of the power games people liked to play.

He watched with a breaking heart as her little face turned to pale stone. No emotion showed, but if you searched for secrets in her eyes, they told you she'd seen more than she ever wanted to and had lost more too.

Then just for an instant the façade cracked. "I love you both," she whispered and a tear ran down her cheek and she was their little niece again. The Darklighters blinked and the child vanished to be replaced by the cadet. They strained to see her as the picture vanished until she was totally gone from sight.

"Little One, you'd better get that thing you've got flashing away out of here. Lieutenant Bracxias is heading this way. That thing looks illegal."

"Franjeer, you scared the life out of me." Maija jumped in shock. Normally she'd been able to sense people, but she'd not felt a thing. Then it was as she'd thought. With the death of her family, the ability had gone. Perhaps it never was real in the first place.

Maija cut the link and turned warily to face up to her friend. The familiar faces of her relatives vanished and the scrambler vanished quickly into her pocket.

"Are you gonna tell me what that was?"

"Tell you what?" she returned smoothly.

"That little flashing thing which disappeared into your pocket there?"

"Oh, that little thing…. No, I'm not telling you. I think you know."

"Why?"

"Do you think I'm a traitor? I have no access to the internal secrets of the Empire. I'm only a cadet. Who's going to believe you?"

"I didn't say I thought you were a traitor, nor was I going to shop you to the authorities. I just want to know what you are up to. You have a devious little mind, Darklighter."

"It's not little."

"It's devious."

"We cannot talk here unless you are going to report me to Lieutenant Bracxias for having in my possession an illegal piece of equipment."

"No, I won't but I'd like to know."

"Fair enough," she conceded and led the way back to her quarters, all the while thinking up what she could tell him that he would find convincing.

Maija perched on her bed, her feet curled up underneath her and tried to give her friend a plausible explanation. It wasn't that she didn't trust him. She didn't trust anybody.

"My parents were on Alderaan and they worked for a communications firm. My mother gave me this little scrambler just in case I ever needed to contact the family urgently."

Nerano frowned a little. "But you could have contacted them without it. You had nothing to hide and were given permission."

"I just like to think that my business is my business. I wanted to speak to my aunt and uncle without being monitored. I've just lost my parents."

"I realise that and I'm sorry."

She was very calm. If he hadn't known her, he might have said she was unaffected, but there was a little tremor in her voice and her hands trembled slightly.

Maija could see that he was unconvinced, but she didn't want him knowing things that could endanger them both.

"Listen Nerano, every communication we make outside the Raithal Academy is listened to. We could be sending top secret details of the training regime."

"You weren't?" The big man looked horrified at the thought.

"No. My aunt and uncle live on Tatooine. Who's interested in training regimes there?"

"Where is Tatooine?"

"Outer Rim."

"No, I suppose not."

Mara gave her large friend a bitter smile. "Now you should know where Tatooine is. It would improve your scores in galactic history. But I'm glad I used the scrambler. My family have given me disturbing news. This mustn't get out for it would ruin my chances of getting a decent posting." Maija winced inwardly at her words, but he mustn't suspect she was not totally committed to the Imperial cause.

"Look, I'm only telling you because you saw…." She jerked her head. "You mustn't tell anyone."

"Okay," Nerano shrugged.

"My cousin has defected to the Rebellion and I have no love for the rebels, Nerano, but I can't risk my place at this school."

He understood that sentiment.

"Your cousin?"

"My cousin, Biggs Darklighter."

"He was one of the top graduates only last year."

"He was. But inside him there must have been a flaw."

She thought about the big man as she closed her door on him. He was a good man, but he was an Imperial first and he would hesitate about informing on her. Eventually he would do it if he had to.

Maija pulled out a holo of her family and ran her fingers gently over the strong smiling face of Petros Nethwan Kenobi. Or as he was known on Alderaan and Tatooine – Petros Darklighter. Her mother's beautiful determined face smiled at her husband warmly, their hands clutching the thin shoulders of the small child who squinted bravely into the camera. Her face already showed a wary watchfulness. She could not risk her family being investigated or her loyalties questioned. She had to be one of the best in the Academy, but not the very best. That also got you noticed. It was a fine line you had to tread.

Maija stared out the window into the gathering gloom and let down her guard. The pain of loss gripped her small frame and she gave into her grief.

When the storm of weeping had passed, she lifted her small sharp chin with a defiant sniff and stared herself down in the reflector. Maija didn't know how young and utterly defenceless she appeared, her face white and blotchy and her eyes red. But in her eyes the knowledge of too much pain was already there.

"I will not cry. No more of this. I have to be strong for my parents' memory."

And the barriers continued to build around her fragile emotions blocking off her feelings.

Barthol Prime

The small planet of Barthol Prime was so unimportant and poverty stricken that the Empire had largely overlooked it. They maintained a small garrison, but so little happened on Barthol Prime that they had considered pulling out altogether. The native population were dirt-poor farmers only interested in scratching out some form of a life for themselves. It also boasted a small rebel cell. Barthol Prime was the third planet in a system revolving round a dying star. Eventually it would become uninhabitable but still the people clung to the hope that something could be done. The Imperials were so unimpressed with the place; they considered the planet too lowly even for rebels to bother with.

Mon Mothma, the leader of the Rebel Alliance, sat tensely waiting for news. She'd been flown off Yavin IV as soon as the news of the approaching Death Star had been reported. With only time to quickly embrace Leia, she left, pausing to frown at the blonde young man in the desert clothes. He seemed so out of place - just a boy who should be at home with his family or hanging out with friends, not involved in a conflict that would surely get him killed. One more reason the Empire had to be stopped. They had sent too many young people into battle to die for nothing.

General Rieekan came running into the room, tears streaming down his face. "They did it. Somehow they did it."

"Did it?"

"The Death Star – destroyed." His voice dropped to a whisper. "It's gone."

"Whaat!" She was on her feet and crying with him in amazement and relief. She could hear the cheering and the shouting from the rest of the base.

"I just had a transmission from one of our scout ships."

"Isn't that dangerous?"

"With what's just happened? I don't think so."

"When did this happen?"

"About four hours ago." Carlist Rieekan's face held the look of someone afraid to believe the good tidings.

"I must go and speak with them."

General Rieekan sighed. "They already know. I blurted it out in front of a couple of the pilots - the talkative ones. The com's down, I'm afraid, although with those characters around you don't need a com system. But you will be able to – soon."

"How?" Mon Mothma looked at her hands and they were shaking. "How did they manage…?" She wet her dry lips. "I need some water."

Carlist Rieekan brought her a cup of water and sat down across from her. He rubbed his forehead. "This is only the beginning. We've won a battle, but are still a long way from winning the war."

"Tell me," she demanded. "How did they manage to destroy that planet killer?"

"Princess Leia was brought to Yavin by a smuggler by the name of Solo and a youth from the planet Tatooine. The boy's family had bought droids to use on their farm. They were the droids in which Princess Leia had hidden the complete schematics to the Death Star. Somehow he managed to contact..."

"The boy?"

"Yes. Somehow he got off Tatooine and they set off for Alderaan. Instead they ended up on the Death Star and got the Princess out. The boy volunteered to fly a fighter and scored a direct hit on the thermal exhaust port. This set off a chain reaction which destroyed the Death Star."

"The boy did? That was him in the white desert robes?"

"As I said, he volunteered to fly a fighter." The general held his hand up and continued. "They put him in a simulator first. They've never seen test scores that high – ever."

"Ever!"

"Yes, apparently he comes from a line of crack pilots. "

"From Tatooine? I may be overcome here, but…" her mouth twitched. "Tatooine has produced some excellent pilots, but not children. That boy looked as if he should have been in schooling somewhere, not out blowing up Deathstars."

"His name is Luke Skywalker."

Mon Mothma stopped in shock. "Skywalker?"

"So the name is familiar to you too?"

"It's not a common name. I only ever heard of one other. A Jedi with the given name of Anakin and that was a long time ago."

"The boy had been living on Tatooine with his aunt and uncle. Imperials murdered them and he met up with Obi Wan Kenobi."

"Obi Wan?" Her voice hushed in shock. "Obi Wan is still alive?"

"I'm afraid not. He died so that Skywalker and Solo could get the Princess off the Death Star."

Mon Mothma's brow furrowed. "You don't just meet up with a Jedi Knight, Carlist."

"No, perhaps not. But such speculations will have to wait. We cannot rest now. We will have to leave Yavin – the Empire will send the rest of the fleet there to destroy us."

"Here?"

"Too far away from anywhere. It takes too long to get here even in hyperspace. It's a stopgap for the moment, but no use for staging hit and run sorties into enemy territory. The sooner we pack up and leave here the better satisfied I'll be. I'm not convinced of our safety here."

"If I remember rightly, Obi Wan Kenobi's apprentice was called Anakin Skywalker. Things are making sense. Could Anakin have fathered a son?"

Carlist Rieekan shrugged. "I don't know; still, it's possible, but not important just now."

"Mona Mothma cleared her throat, still too shaken by the unexpected survival and victory of their forces." She peered up at the tall grey-headed soldier. "What of our quest to find spies?"

"I'd like to introduce you to a young man." The General went to the door and beckoned.

A nondescript man of medium height, with average facial features - in fact, with average everything - wandered into the lounge.

"This is Lieutenant Cullen Page."

"Ma'am," the man said. "I believe you are familiar with my father. He was a Senator from Corulag."

Mon Mothma's jaw dropped. She did indeed remember and dislike his father. Her mouth opened and a strangled sound of protest emerged.

"I see you are acquainted with the old man. Pleasant isn't he? My father and I don't get on very well these days - if we ever did. He and I like to differ on our political and moral philosophies."

General Rieekan offered Page a seat, before seating himself. "Cullen here is one of our best undercover operatives and has just been assigned to General Cracken's new Intelligence unit. He has been looking over the information you gave him just over a year ago."

"The tip off which led me to finally drop out of sight."

"Yes."

"It was unusual because it was given by a child. But she was correct in her information."

"A child? Did you find out her name?"

"No. But it must be possible because they don't normally allow children onto the campus at Raithal."

"Who knew where you were?"

"My itinerary wasn't well known for security reasons, but it had been announced that I was speaking at Raithal and the date was known."

"I believe I have an idea," the grey-eyed Page announced calmly. "We had operatives on Alderaan who had a daughter in Raithal. They died when the planet was destroyed."

"Can you contact her? Would she be willing?"

"I can find out."

"Do it." Mon Mothma said firmly. "Things will get worse before they get better."

"This is true, Ma'am," remarked Page. "We may have vanquished a Death Star but our fight is not going to end there. They will want their revenge."

Raithal Imperial Training Academy - six months later

Maija looked at the devices laid out in front of her as the tutor illustrated some of the finer points of encrypting and decrypting Imperial messages. They had been given several of the old codes to work on as exercises. Maija had broken them easily over half an hour ago.

"Cadet Darklighter!" The stentorian voice rang down the lab. "The Empire does not pay its cadets to dream. Carry on with your work."

"But Lieutenant, I finished the exercises."

"Oh?"

"I'll patch them to you now."

The Lieutenant's eyebrows disappeared into her hairline. "Very good," she said, surprised.

"Could I examine the a/e unit."

"Certainly."

"Maija moved carefully to the front and inspected the device. It was quite large, but if reports were correct it could really help. The analysis/encoding computer could take a file, open it, analyse the data and then recode it. Maija's expression grew intent and, seeing the girl's face, Lieutenant Bracxias thawed sufficiently to give her a demonstration.

"It was getting very difficult to keep one step ahead of the child", she confided to one of the commanding officers later that evening. Because she was on an accelerated programme, as soon as she turned sixteen she was to be given a posting. The Academy had trained her as far as they were able to in her field. He shrugged and looked at her file. She had stated an interested in the diplomatic course, but they only took candidates who had spent time in the field.

"She'll be posted somewhere to get her experience and if she's not killed in action, she will go to Coruscant and enter the training centre."

"It seems wrong somehow. No childhood."

"But what a great experience fighting for the glory of the Empire."

Lieutenant Bracxias supposed it was and left. Being a woman in the New Order did not give rise to a glorious career.

Lieutenant Cullen Page pulled his Imperial Uniform down a little and checked his appearance in the mirror. Changing hair and eye colour had subtly altered his appearance and now, dressed in Imperial grey, he decided he would do just fine. He only hoped he wasn't well remembered from his own time there.

He pulled the Command rank strips and attached them to his chest. Flicking a switch on the com unit, he sent through a message to the Academy office. He would be a visiting dignitary come to stay for a few days. Hopefully he would have time to see the person he was after. Something told him there was far more to her than met the eye.

Franjeer stood stiffly to attention in the entrance hall waiting for some Commander or other. He'd just spent a humiliating afternoon in art appreciation class and his face was still burning at the feeling of utter helplessness he'd felt. Maija had been unable to help him like she normally did because she'd had to spend time in the simulators to hone her flying skills. He guessed they were going to off load her soon and that would be why she was running round the campus like a panicked womp-rat or whatever the rodents from her home planet were called.

"Chin up, Nerano," her light voice teased as she ran past him.

"Darklighter," he called and she stopped and turned. "I need help or they'll fail me. I'll be cannon fodder. I want to be an officer."

Maija's eyes turned hard and a strange expression crossed her face. "Do you, do you really?"

He nodded and her face cleared.

"Okay, I'll see you later. Why are you here anyway?" You don't normally hang around the hall."

"My turn for escort duty."

"Who is it this time?"

"I think this is him now."

Maija turned to look and stopped. The man wandered down the hall, but Maija saw through the layers. "Imperial Intelligence," she whispered.

"Nonsense." He double checked. "Are you sure?"

"I'm pretty sure."

"Why do you think that?"

"He's got the kind of face you would forget. A useful trait to have. I'd better go."

Cullen noticed the small figure dart out of sight, but left it for the moment. Things had worked out perfectly. The real Tonan Cram was safely in a stasis chamber on Rylnat III. If he wasn't mistaken the first person he'd seen on entering the facility was the person he was looking for.

"I am Commander Tonan Cram," he announced in his best imitation of an Imperial at a parade ground voice.

"Cadet Nerano, at your service, Sir," the young man responded instantly. "I am to escort you to your quarters, then give you a tour of the facility."

"There is no need of the tour. I did attend this establishment myself, you know." Page let his words drawl in exactly the same way the real Commander Cram would. "Show me where I am to sleep then bring me to Ryyklas. After that I'll have a wander round on my own. It's good to visit old haunts."

"But, Sir!"

"You were told to escort me. Do so and then you may go. I'll clear it with your Commander. Don't you have to spend time in a flight simulator or something?"

Franjeer grinned boyishly. "I'm not too bad at that, Sir. It will be the Art History classes. It's also a pity they don't do basic diplomacy for beginners. I could do with that. But I'm failing at the level three course." He sighed. "One of my classmates is helping me with these."

"And what do you help him with?"

"It's a her and she needs help with her fitness regime. I train her to cope with the physical demands. She's very young, Sir, and not fully grown I think."

"A worthwhile exchange of ideas, Cadet. I'm impressed. Most resourceful and between you and I, Cadet, I didn't like art appreciation classes either. But as an officer, you must have knowledge of all things. You'll find art appreciation isn't high on the list." He lowered his voice in a man to man fashion. "But the ladies like it."

Page exited the Commander's office, his lip unconsciously curling into a sneer. Ryyklas was no fool, but he was arrogant. He was to interview cadets for possible postings in the Imperial navy. There was only one person he was interested in, but you never know.

"I'll escort you to your quarters, Sir." Nerano remarked pleasantly. "A meal has been prepared for you and delivered there. The Commander completely understands your fatigue."

"Where are your quarters Cadet?"

"Third hostel, Sir."

"Aah, the one before mine. I'll say goodnight."

"Yes Sir."

Nerano smiled and entered the building. Page watched him depart. His target would be in there with any luck. He had had an interesting time with Commander Ryyklas. The man was sharp, but Page was better and he knew it. Pleading tiredness after a long journey he retired to the quarters he'd been given and pulled out a small communicating device. Linking it to the console in his room, he started pulling files on female cadets, younger than the norm, possibly with parents on Alderaan.

He sat back in satisfaction. "Easy."

The following day Maija was working on breaking a rebel code she'd been set. It was an old one and was now no longer in use, but it was thought that practising on the old codes gave you an idea of how the criminal mind must work.

'The white bird bids you fly'.

Maija blinked and checked her screen again. The words were there. They sat on her holo screen. They had nothing at all to do with what she'd been working on.

'I cannot fly, my wings have been clipped.'

Maija tapped the words in quickly keeping an eye open for any of her tutors. The truth was they didn't know what to do with her so they assigned her old exercises to complete, working from real codes. It wouldn't be long before they had her on the real stuff. However, this was like no code she'd ever experienced.

'There will be a place to land when the summer comes.'

Maija swallowed her little sob of shock. That had been one of the phrases her mother had used. But her mother was dead. There was no way the Force could lie to her. She tried to stretch out, to see what she could sense, but it remained closed to her. There was nothing. The words vanished and Maija was left tracing the aurebesh with her fingertips.

'When the summer comes,'

The phrase scanned again but this time in Bocce, a language uncommon even on Tatooine these days. Once it had been used but less and less now. This was not a training exercise. Someone was trying to contact her and in ways that no one would know. Who knew Bocce these days?

Mara excused herself from the tutorial and headed out towards the main complex.

"Cadet Darklighter!"

"Yes, Sir?"

"Commander Tonen Cram is interviewing today. If you are free now go to room seven."

"Yes, Sir." Maija saluted smartly and marched away, her back ramrod stiff. She was halfway down the corridor before her mind could wonder why.

The door com chimed. "Cadet Darklighter to see Commander Cram."

"Enter."

The door slid aside and Maija walked carefully inside. What she didn't expect to see was the Imperial Intel man perched on a chair, running a detector along the walls of the room.

"Come in, sit down." He waved the detector at her body.

"What are you doing?" she asked torn between amusement and outrage. "Sir."

"Checking for listening devices." He looked up and grinned.

Maija realised he was younger than she had at first thought. Something wasn't right about him and then it clicked. Imperial Intel men didn't grin at you.

"You're not Tonan Cram, are you?"

"Now what a thing to suggest, Cadet. For the purposes of this visit, I am Tonan Cram. Who else could I be?"

"But…" She shook her head. "There are no devices in this room. If you'd gone into eight, now that would be different."

"Why?"

"I put them there myself last week as a training exercise. I make it a policy never to answer questions in a room I've bugged myself."

The man snorted - a sense of humour - this was even better. "Your profile said you were quiet."

"My profile!"

"I read the profiles of all the cadets I'm interviewing today. Most of them deadly dull. Yours on the other hand is interesting

Commander Cram got off the chair and placed his military issue booted feet on the floor. "Who do you think I am?" He shifted aside a wooden packing crate and waved a sensor device at the bookshelves.

"Imperial Intelligence?"

Page choked a little in surprise. She was sharp, this one - very sharp. "Wrong."

"Then I don't know, Sir." It struck Maija that she was bordering on the insubordinate, but there was just something about the way he was quizzing her. "You've the look of an Intel op. You could blend into any situation easily. But I've nothing to tell." Her voice was cold, untouched by emotion. The almost humour had disappeared from her voice.

"Oh I don't know. I think you do."

Maija narrowed her eyes. This man couldn't know anything. He was bluffing she would just have to play the game back.

"I'm sorry, sir. I've been training here for several years. I have little experience."

"You've dealt with Intel people before?"

"No, not that I know of."

Page couldn't help but be impressed. She was exactly what they were looking for. It was time he applied a little more pressure. "Yes I am involved in Intel, but not Imperial." He stared very hard at her, grey eyes intent. "I know who you are."

Maija went still, her dark eyes blank. "What do you mean?"

Page narrowed keen eyes. Any one else might have missed the tiny flicker of shock. Not a lot fazed this one. He found the idea oddly unsettling in one so young. He trusted his instinct and made a decision. "Mon Mothma got to safety thanks to you."

There was a silence before Maija croaked carefully. "She did?"

Cram nodded.

"This is a good thing?"

"Yes, it's a very good thing."

"Who's Mon Mothma?"

Page grinned again. A little late with the save, but she was young yet. In time she would learn. "Look Maija - can I call you that? – I'm with the Rebel Alliance Intelligence. My name is Cullen Page and I'm a lieutenant in General Airen Cracken's Intelligence division."

Maija gaped at him, her mouth hanging open in amazement. But there was no doubt on her face - she believed him. He paused and gave her a compassionate glance. "I was sorry to hear about your parents. They were good people."

"You knew them?"

"Not well, but I met them once or twice on Alderaan. They also worked for General Cracken from time to time. You're very like your Mother. She was beautiful."

"I resemble her, yes, but I will never achieve her talent or her beauty. She was special."

"She was, but you are too. Mon Mothma doesn't know your name, but will attest to your abilities. Because of you, she is alive." He smiled at the memory he had of his meeting with the Chandrilan woman. "Commander Ryyklas tells me that you will graduate early. How early?"

"I'll be sixteen next month."

Cullen Page blinked in shock. Mon Mothma said a child had helped her. Luke Skywalker was only a boy at eighteen himself, but this girl was even younger. He shifted with momentary disquiet. She was too young, far too young, but the weariness of a seasoned campaigner shadowed dark eyes. What was it about this war that brought the young into it so early? Too early, in his opinion, but with the people they loved killed, they had to channel energy somewhere. He had to smile at himself. 'Like I'm a grandfather compared to them?' Page was only twenty-four.

"You shouldn't be here. You should be at home with your family."

"You forget, sir," she drew herself stiffly to attention. "The Empire has killed most of my family. There are very few of them left."

"I'm sorry." Cullen's eyes turned bleak. They had all lost friends or family in this conflict and the young woman in front of him was barely hanging on to her composure. Her wounds were still too fresh and raw.

"I'm due to leave and I've sat all the exams I need. I still have to work on my physical strength, but it has improved a lot recently. I grew three inches last summer. I can fly most types of combat craft. I know how to encrypt and decrypt. I have a working knowledge of galactic customs. I hope to head into the diplomatic service. If there is ever a time when this conflict ends I want to be able to do some good." She wasn't going to blab about her Jedi background. She had no Jedi background. Her grandfather had deliberately had very little to do with her because he would endanger the whole family.

At first Maija had thought that the strange man had known everything about her, but then he'd said that he'd known about Mon Mothma's escape. If the Empire ever found out about her part in it, that would be enough. But the rest of her background had to remain secret. Only her aunt and uncle knew and that was the way it had to remain.

"Why are you here? Not to inform me on the current health of Rebel Alliance leaders." She raised a calculating eyebrow.

"I'm here because of you."

"Because of me?"

"How would you like to spy for the Alliance?"

"Are you mad?" She subsided onto the upturned packing crate Cullen had so carelessly kicked aside. "Do you always recruit people for the Rebellion in the middle of an Imperial military training establishment?"

Page looked grim. "If I have to."

"You don't. I was recruited a long time ago."