A/N: Apologies for the delay ... I've been pretty uninspired with SWars since I made the horrible, horrible mistake of looking at the plans for the latest Del Rey multi-book series which disgusted me all over again. It's got to the point now where I've begun questioning whether I'm actually a fan of the franchise anymore. RL has also taken a nose dive for me lately, so that's complicated things a lot.

One section of this chapter was heavily inspired by Matthew Stover's excellent Revenge of the Sith novelization (I liked it a lot better than the actual movie), and my emulation of certain passages is intended to be a homage, nothing else.

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Chapter 5

HE had to smile at the sight before him.

Once, the wide, oblong room Talon Karrde stood before had been little more than unused storage space, but in the months since he had moved the headquarters of his operation to this planet, Shada had worked hard to transform the empty chamber into a physical training facility. Doubling as a gym and an obstacle course, the room had quickly been dubbed by Aves as 'Mistress D'ukal's House of Pain' due to Shada's insistence that every employee undergo rigorous exercise. Initially, Karrde had been hesitant to enforce her desire, but the commando raid at Korriban – and his own lack of endurance during the various firefights there – had convinced him otherwise.

The recent installation of several dozen tall poles, however, was what caught Talon's eyes and caused him to smile. Of varying heights, each of the posts was just wide enough to balance on, and thick mats covered the floor around them. The resemblance to the Jedi training ground they had seen on Kamparas was unmistakable.

"Mara will never let you live this down," Karrde called out to Shada as he stepped into the training center. She grunted, but made no other reply as she continued her slow circuit around the base of the poles, pausing to test the stability of several. Dressed in exercise clothes that clung to her body like a second skin, she was a vision of hard muscle and dangerous grace.

It took every gram of Talon's willpower to tear his eyes away from her.

"Dravis complained about the regimen you've put him on since he got back," he said as he glanced at the crewmembers running upon the nearby treadmills.

"Of course he did," Shada replied. She crouched before one of the columns to readjust the mat pressed against it and Talon's eyes instinctively followed the curve of her buttocks. He wet his lips and forced himself to look away again. Damn her, he groused to himself. "He got fat and lazy on Kuat," she continued in reference to Dravis, standing in a smooth, easy motion. "He'll stop whining once he starts to get into shape again." Abruptly, she frowned and pinned Karrde with narrowed eyes. "And speaking of people who are out of shape," she said ominously, "you haven't been in here for over a week."

"I've been busy," Talon said quickly, knowing it wasn't a good enough excuse. The frown she gave him was proof that she wasn't buying it, and he gave silent thanks when his comlink buzzed. He snatched it off his belt. "Yes?"

"Sir, we've got an unidentified ship on approach vector," Shirlee Faughn's voice sounded from the small device. Karrde frowned and exchanged a quick look with Shada – there weren't any scheduled arrivals for the next two days. "It looks like a Delta-class JV-7 escort shuttle."

"Scramble the blastboats," Talon ordered sharply, "and put the facility on alert."

"Yes, sir." A klaxon began sounding almost instantly, and Karrde was gratified to see how quickly the exercising crewmembers reacted. "We're receiving a transmission, sir," Faughn said a moment later. "It's Wookiees, sir. They're asking for you by name." Talon blinked in surprise, then inhaled sharply as he realized who must be aboard.

"Platform two," Shada suggested, and Karrde nodded.

"Blastboats to escort them to platform two," he instructed, "and stand down from alert."

It took Talon less than five minutes to reach the open doorway leading to the landing platform. With Shada at his side, he waited patiently as the escort shuttle broke through the cloud cover and descended toward them, flanked by a trio of Skipray Blastboats. Karrde watched the shuttle with a slight frown, noting the distinctive Wookiee glyphs painted upon the exterior hull of the craft. With an audible thump, the transport landed, its ramp lowering even before the ship was fully settled. Engines rumbling, the three blastboats peeled off and retreated to their landing sites.

As Karrde expected, Chewbacca loped down the ramp, an air of tightly controlled fury surrounding him. Solo's towering friend was heavily armed, with two bandoliers, a half dozen vibroknives, and at least three blasters of varying sizes strapped to a thick belt.

"Welcome to Tanaros," Talon said by way of greeting. He gave the battered but heavily armored transport a quick once-over, his frown deepening as two more Wookiees descended the ramp. A half-step behind them, a pair of Noghri followed, moving so silently they might as well have been ghosts. Karrde swallowed. "While I'm curious how you found my new base," he said with a forced smile, "at the moment, I'm far more interested in why you're here." Chewbacca growled something, and Talon silently cursed himself for never learning the Wookiee language.

"He wants to borrow Ghent," Shada translated. She was watching the five newcomers with wariness in her eyes. Chewbacca instantly shifted his attention to her and began explaining in low barks and snarls. "Can you slow down?" Shada asked with a confused expression, and the Wookiee growled a response. "They pulled the raw data from the Ambrian satellites," she told Karrde, "and have found some discrepancies that are beyond their abilities to decipher."

"Ghent!" Talon bellowed, knowing the slicer would be monitoring the situation from a terminal somewhere.

"Yeah, boss?" the young man's voice answered over a speaker hidden just above the door.

"Get down here," Karrde ordered. "And bring your rig!"

"On my way, boss," the slicer responded. Chewbacca gestured, and one of the other Wookiees darted back into the shuttle. A moment later, he reappeared, carrying several holo-cubes. With a growl, Chewbacca addressed Shada once more.

"He wants to know how much this will cost," she translated. Karrde made a face.

"You're going after whoever killed Solo?" he asked, and Chewbacca nodded slowly, his mighty hands opening and closing in what seemed to be an reflexive gesture. "Then this is on me," Talon said. "He was my friend too. Get me a list of what you need," he added, "and I'll make it happen."

"One of those Blastboats would be most helpful," the foremost Noghri declared flatly. Karrde nodded.

"Done," he said. "Shada, have Aves coordinate with…" He trailed off, unsure of the diminutive alien's name.

"Mobvekhar," the Noghri offered, "of Clan Hakh'khar." He half bowed at the waist. "I thank you, Talon Clan Karrde."

"You can fly a Skipray, right?" Shada asked as she gestured for the two Noghri to follow her. At Chewbacca's gesture, one of the other two Wookiees fell into step behind her as well.

Ghent appeared at the doorway several moments later, his portable computer slung over his side and both of his hands encased in mesh sensor gloves. He shot Talon a quick look before placing the rig on the deck and powering it up. The built-in holo-transmitter flickered to life, and Ghent held out his hand for the datacubes. He slid them into the computer before stretching his fingers and rolling his head around in an attempt to get limber. As the holo-images began appearing in front of him, the slicer grinned and reached into the transmission with his gloved fingers. Like a musical maestro, he began manipulating the holos with careful precision and skillful dexterity.

"Huh," he remarked mere seconds later. "There's some odd coding in here." Chewbacca replied instantly with what sounded like a noise of agreement, but the slicer gave him a blank look. "Uh … what?"

[This coding is why we sought yourrr talents,] the other Wookiee announced in surprisingly easy to comprehend Shyriiwook. [We werrre unable to identify what it was.]

"It's altered data," Ghent announced in a distracted-sounding voice. He looked at the Wookiee who had just spoken, but his fingers never stopped moving. "I can actually understand you," he said with a grin. "That's neat."

[I suffer from a speech impediment,] came the instant reply. [You may call me Ralrra.]

"I'm Ghent. Pleased to meet you."

"Altered how?" Talon interjected before the kid could get distracted again.

"Portions of the data have been wiped," Ghent said. He nodded to a nearby holo-transmitter and, an instant later, it activated. An image of the Millenium Falcon tumbled into the atmosphere of the planet, the hull of the freighter pitted and marred by damage. "This is the data extract as it appears." He input another command, and the holo changed slightly. A contrail shot away from the Falcon, and Chewbacca growled a comment or question. "And this is how it appeared before the data purge," Ghent continued as if the Wookiee had not spoken.

"An escape pod?" Talon wondered aloud, and the slicer shrugged.

"Can't tell," he answered. "The resolution of this extract is pretty bad, so it could be a pod, or a missile, or even just debris from the ship." His fingers paused, and he blinked. "There's also a data mask on another sector of this recording."

"In Basic, Ghent," Karrde said.

"Here," the slicer replied. The image changed to a different angle of the planet, and Ghent pointed to an otherwise empty area of space. "There's a starship here," he said as he continued to work his magic. "Whoever sliced this data," Ghent added, "knew they couldn't delete all traces of this ship, so they dropped a mask over it to keep it from being detected."

[Can you rrremove this mask?] Ralrra asked in a low grumble.

"Yup," Ghent replied. He made several gestures with his hands, as if he were peeling the skin away from a citrus fruit. Slowly, an image began to appear. "Kappa-class troop shuttle," the slicer identified. "They lurked, landed, and then bugged out a couple of hours later."

[Going wherrre?] Ralrra demanded on top of Chewbacca's ominous growl. The two Wookiees loomed over Ghent, their attention focused entirely upon the holographic display; neither seemed aware of the nervous looks the slicer was giving them as he rotated his left hand within the transmission to fast forward it. Moving faster than was actually possible, the shuttle darted planetside, then raced back into space before vanishing.

"They went to lightspeed about three hours after the crash," Ghent said.

"We can calculate possible destinations along that trajectory," Talon remarked, "but there's no guarantee they didn't just make a couple of micro-jumps to cover where they're going." Chewbacca snarled something that didn't sound happy.

[These sentients are involved,] Ralrra said, [or know who did. Give us the information, and we shall determine the truth of the matter.]

"Do it," Karrde instructed Ghent. "And see if you can pull a transponder ident-code for that ship." He addressed his next comments to Chewbacca. "I'll disseminate it throughout my organization. If this ship shows up on the grid, you'll be the first to know." The Wookiee nodded in silent thanks before turning back toward the shuttle, his hands still opening and closing. Talon wondered if Chewbacca was envisioning what he would when he finally tracked down those responsible.

[Yourrr assistance is grrreatly apprrrreaciated, Talonkarrrde,] Ralrra stated.

"Ghent," Talon said quickly, "set them up for private com-codes."

"On it, boss."

"You'll be able to contact me anywhere," Karrde continued, "as long as you're within range of a holo-array. If you need anything – anything – let me know." The Wookiee responded with an opened mouthed growl – Talon suspected it was supposed to be a smile – before moving to flank Chewbacca.

"Noghri and Wookiees working together," Ghent murmured, shaking his head slightly. "I sure wouldn't want to be the poor bastards they're after."

"Maybe we should give them a bucket," Shada said as she rejoined them. "For the remains." Talon gave her a sidelong glance and she responded to the unspoken question instantly. "Aves is setting Mobvekhar up with Blastboat Three. We're loading supplies on it now." Karrde nodded.

"Any word on Mara?" he asked.

"Nothing yet," Shada replied. "She's a professional, Karrde. Unless the situation requires it, she's going to maintain her cover."

"No excuses," Talon said sharply. "Skywalker needs to know about the Solos." Shada gave him a look before frowning.

"I'll have Dankin gear up," she said. "He can take a crew with him aboard Blastboat Two and head to Tatooine." Karrde frowned.

"Make it happen," he ordered.

And so saying, he turned away.

She turned away from the sight before her.

Tears prickled her eyes, and Leia Organa-Solo fought to keep them from falling as she clung to the last scraps of her self-control. When General Cracken had commed her with the news that the wreck of the Falcon had arrived, she had thought she was prepared to look upon it. The truth, however, was entirely the opposite.

Seeing the damage in a hologram was nothing like seeing it up close.

Breathing deeply, Leia forced her pain down, locking it away in a mental box so she could deal with it later, and turned back to the scarred superstructure that had once been a Corellian YT-1300. The cockpit was gone, obliterated in the crash, and the entire outer hull was ravaged with scars. All of the escape pods were missing, though the damage in the entire aft section made it impossible to tell if they had been jettisoned or destroyed by weapons fire.

Leia desperately ignored the growing fear that it was the latter.

For just a moment – the span of a heartbeat, no more and no less – she was transported back to Alderaan and the eve of her first official mission for the fledgling Rebel Alliance, an intelligence gathering operation that used her status as an Organa as cover; more importantly, it had been the first such undertaking that she and Winter masterminded together. Her father's voice, strong and proud, echoed in her ears as he accused them of being fearless, even in the face of possible death and failure. Even then, Leia had scoffed at his compliment because she knew the truth.

Fear lived inside her every day, gnawing at her soul and threatening to leave her whimpering in a corner.

Sometimes, Leia thought of the terror trying to consume her from the inside as a dragon. The myths of Alderaan spoke of such legendary beasts inhabiting the stars, devouring themselves for eternity until there was nothing remaining. Even as a child, Leia had been drawn to those legends, though she was never able to comprehend why; when things were at their darkest and all hope seemed lost, she would imagine that one of the beasts lived within her breast, waiting to swallow her whole. When she saw her homeworld obliterated by the command of a madman, the dragon had whispered furious words in her ears, and on Hoth, when Han and Luke were believed lost, it had growled with her pain. Again, on Bespin, with Chewbacca's hands on her shoulder, the dragon had roared its cry as Han vanished within the freezing chamber.

Now, it thundered its cry once more. Bleak, mocking, painful.

But this time, Leia could not block the sound out of her mind.

"What will you do with it?" a voice asked, breaking into her train of thought. Dressed immaculately in purple and scarlet, Viqi Shesh approached slowly, her eyes studying the barely recognizable hulk that had once been the Millenium Falcon with poorly concealed distaste. Leia reached forward to lay her hand upon the outer hull of the freighter and closed her eyes, willing the dragon to silence.

It did not listen.

"Rebuild her," she said in answer to Shesh's question. "Han loved this ship," Leia added softly, "and so did I." Memories flooded into her mind's eye – all of the times they narrowly escaped certain death because of Han's piloting skills and the Falcon's endurance. It didn't seem right to not put the effort in restoring the aged freighter.

No matter the cost.

"It would be far less trouble to simply purchase a new craft," Shesh stated, and Leia shot her a dark frown.

"No," she replied coldly, "it wouldn't." The Kuati woman's eyes widened fractionally at the venom in Leia's comment and frowned. "Is there a reason you're here?" Leia asked, making a conscious effort to ameliorate her tone.

"You asked to be informed the moment Intelligence sent us their report," Shesh said. She offered Leia a holo-disc. "I am sorry, Chancellor," the Kuati senator added, "but there is no indication that any escape pods were jettisoned. There were no survivors."

A sharp pain stabbed through Leia's chest, and she turned her face away from Shesh so the other woman would not see the agony there. My babies are gone, Leia wanted to howl. Han is gone.

My heart is gone.

The dragon screamed its silent fury.

"There was a discrepancy in the satellite data," Shesh continued remorselessly, her voice suddenly sounding exactly like the growl of the beast within Leia's breast demanding to be unleashed. "A Kappa-class landing shuttle was in-system," The Kuati woman said. "We're still trying to isolate its transponder code." A flicker in the Force caused Leia to pin the other woman with narrowed eyes.

Shesh was concealing something.

"And?" Leia asked ominously. When the Kuati senator hesitated, Leia took a step closer. "Spit it out," she ordered.

"It may mean nothing," Shesh said cautiously, "but most of the destinations along their exit vector are in Imperial space." Leia clenched her fists together as her dragon once more screamed its rage. She could already imagine how this information would be received among the vocal minority of Republic citizens clamoring for her to immediately declare war upon the Second Imperium to enact revenge for Han's death. And to think, Leia reflected darkly, I thought I could negotiate with these Imperial monsters.

"Contact Tavira," she instructed with far more calm than she felt. "Push up the date for our face-to-face. I want her here within the week." Shesh's surprise rolled off of her like a wave.

"Is that wise?" the woman asked. "The Ruling Council is already worried that you are too emotionally wrought to make logical decisions," she continued, "and I have little doubt they will press to limit your authority should you continue in this vein."

"With you there to lead the way, no doubt," Leia retorted. "I haven't forgotten how quickly you abandoned Fey'lya when it suited you, Madame Senator," she said tightly. Shesh's already difficult to read presence in the Force vanished entirely as she retreated into her White Current training, but the expression on her face revealed much.

"He acted the fool," the Kuati woman said, her voice hard, "much as you do in this moment." She gave Leia a withering look. "I stand for my world," Shesh reminded her, "not with you or any other senator. Forget that at your peril, Chancellor." She stormed away, purple silks flying.

Leia watched her go, wondering at the sudden unease swimming in her stomach. Her distrust of Shesh flared, causing her to once more question the wisdom of appointing the Kuati senator to the vice-chancellorship. It had seemed a good idea at the time but now, it looked to be a liability. Leia harbored no illusions that Shesh was intimately involved in the Ruling Council's push to unseat her.

"When you hold a serpent to your chest," Bail Organa had once said of Palpatine, "never forget that it will strike when you least expect it."

And Leia knew that Viqi Shesh was very much a serpent.

"May I be of assistance, Lady Solo?" Cakhmaim asked, his gravelly voice interrupting Leia's musings. He stood silently, studying her with sad eyes.

"No," she replied softly, placing her hand once more on the pitted hull of the Falcon. "No one can help me anymore," she added under her breath. Cakhmaim grunted softly, and Leia frowned as his Force signature quivered. She turned to face him, a questioning look on her face. The Noghri sighed.

"I wish to beg your leave, Lady Solo," Cakhmaim said, "to conduct my own investigation. I am … dissatisfied with the results of the New Republic."

"That makes two of us," Leia muttered.

"This attack on the Millenium Falcon was too calculated," the Noghri continued. "It required information that they could not have had."

"You think they have an operative here on Coruscant," she guessed.

"I do," he admitted. "To be in position as the attackers were," he added, "one would have needed to know Lady Winter's travel schedule."

"Which would require an inside man." Leia glowered at the floor. "Conduct your investigation, Cakhmaim," she ordered. "Find this traitor." The Noghri bowed and started to turn away before hesitating.

"And when I do?" he asked cautiously.

Leia blinked.

And, in that moment, the dragon pounced.

"Use your best judgment," she said. "Alive, preferably. Dead, just as good." The Noghri gave her a toothy smile, and Leia could feel his approval at the answer.

"It shall be as you say, Lady Solo," he hissed.

A moment later, he was gone, leaving Leia alone – excepting the three Guardsmen and six Noghri scattered around the hangar in defensive positions, of course. She faced the Falcon again.

"Don't worry, old girl," she murmured as she stroked the ruined hull. "We'll get you back together soon. I promise."

But silence was her only answer.

He wanted answers.

Face set in an angry scowl, Gilad Pellaeon slowly paced along the length of the balcony overlooking the holo-pit below him. Buried deep within the bowels of the Triskelion, the War Room was alive with activity – comtechs hurried about their duties, ignoring the immense realtime galactic hologram that dominated the massive room. Every surveyed and known system in the galaxy was represented within the glittering holo, each color-coded to represent their affiliation: red for the Imperium, blue for the Rebels, and yellow – an apt color, in Pellaeon's opinion – for those who straddled the fence. Fleet movements could be tracked from here as well, and Gilad tried hard not to frown at how few battle groups he had at his disposal. Equally important were the flashing images that represented Rebel fleets, though it was distressing how similar in size they were to the Imperial units.

At the moment, however, Pellaeon was less interested in the big picture than he was an ongoing operation. Only minutes had passed since he had been alerted that the Defiant, a Strike-class cruiser on Outer Rim patrol duties, was responding to a high-level alert originating from an unremarkable system deep within the Danlun Corridor. A dead world that had once been the site of a mining colony over a millennia ago, Apatros had been abandoned once its resources were depleted several hundred years earlier, though it had been rumored to be the site of pirate shadowport over the last century. A scan of Imperial databases revealed no indication of a base ever having been constructed within the system, and yet, Defiant had received the urgent plea for aid using an obsolete AT3 directive code. The use of this cipher made it impossible for them to not investigate.

Even if it felt like a trap.

"Defiant ETA in two minutes," one of Gilad's adjutants – a ground major by the name of Tierce – declared. The younger man was half a step behind Pellaeon, one hand constantly touching the com device in his ear while his other hand gripped the sidearm at his waist. Recently recruited from the stormtrooper corps, he had been thoroughly vetted and tested for any possibility of Force abilities. Thus far, Gilad had been quite satisfied with the job the ex-stormtrooper had done, especially in regards to Consul Tavira. It hadn't surprised Pellaeon in the slightest that Tavira had taken the major to her bed, but Gilad had been pleased when Tierce revealed that he had planted a number of eavesdropping devices in the woman's personal quarters. They wouldn't remain undetected for long – Tavira was far too efficient for that to happen – but those devices still gave him key insight into how she thought.

He just wished such subterfuge wasn't necessary in the first place.

"Maximize the viewer," Pellaeon ordered as he leaned over the balcony's edge, bracing himself upon the deceptively strong railing. A heartbeat later, the holographic display of the galaxy appeared to zoom into the Apatros system, though at the moment, they only had the basics statistics – local star, planetary bodies, and satellites – at hand. "What other assets do we have in the quadrant?" he asked.

"Not many, sir," Tierce replied. "This entire sector has been listed as NEO," the major continued, pronouncing the acronym as if it were a single word. Gilad frowned: not essential to operations indicated that there was little of interest for the Imperial war machine, so very little effort was spent in policing it.

"Then why was Defiant in-sector?" Pellaeon demanded. Unconsciously, his eyes darted around the war room, double-checking that the stormtroopers bearing ysalamiri were in place at their assigned positions. In a room this size, nearly a dozen were necessary, but Gilad considered the logistical problem a minor problem providing it kept him safe from Force users. Involuntarily, he shivered as the memory of Torul's psychic grip upon his mind surged forward.

Never again, Pellaeon silently promised himself.

"Deep-space mapping, sir," the major answered. "One minute to arrival."

"I want everything we have on Apatros transferred to this station," Gilad snapped, gesturing to the computer panel integrated into the balcony's rail. Tierce obeyed instantly, and several brief seconds later, data began crawling across the tiny screen. There was astonishingly little available. "Has this been cross-referenced with all known Intelligence operations?" he asked as he reached the end of the document, no more enlightened than before.

"Yes, sir," Tierce replied. The major frowned. "We're finding new black projects every day, though," he said. "If we had assets there, or the Emperor was running something from Apatros, it may not be in the system yet."

Pellaeon cursed softly. Since beginning his audit of all Imperium operations months earlier, he had been disgusted to discover how much money simply vanished into the singularity that was covert operations, and only rarely was it worth the price. Gilad had already terminated hundreds of ridiculous projects, ranging from a small, one-person fighter theoretically capable of surviving a trip through a star (though the results weren't encouraging thus far), to an even more insane plan of mounting a superlaser upon a stripped down Executor-class hull. The money pouring into those senseless programs exceeded the hundreds of trillions, more than enough to purchase a dozen new battleships and destroyers.

"Defiant should be in-system now, sir," Tierce abruptly announced. "Attempting to establish a connection with her now." Gilad nodded and watched the flickering hologram with growing discomfort. His instincts were telling him that something wasn't right and, before he knew it, he was drumming his fingers nervously atop the balcony ledge. Impossibly long minutes passed before Major Tierce suddenly tensed and took a step closer. "Sir," he said softly, voice pitched only for Pellaeon's ears, "we have a problem."

"Define problem," Gilad growled. Reaching past him, the major typed a rapid code into the computer panel before Pellaeon. The Apatros system document displayed upon the small monitor vanished and was quickly replaced by what looked to be gun camera footage. A heartbeat later, Gilad realized his error as a flash of light momentarily blinded the optics of the camera; spinning dizzily, the emergency alert capsule raced away from its origin point, rapidly leaving behind the Defiant in a desperate attempt to get clear from the already crippled Strike-class cruiser to beam the ship's final message across the Holonet. Faster the capsule moved, and Pellaeon was able to make out the horrific damage inflicted upon the warship: great gaping holes exposed Defiant's superstructure and the bridge section had been utterly obliterated. Explosions of fire, oxygen and scorched metal erupted from the exterior of the starship as an unseen foe poured kilojoules into the dying craft. Suddenly bracketed by hostile fire, the alert capsule shivered and vibrated, its angle of escape altering rapidly. And in that moment, the attacking warship came into view.

It was the Resilience.

Pellaeon's breath caught as the small image of the errant star destroyer continued to pound away at the already ruined Defiant and the alert capsule. Brilliant emerald turbolasers flashed toward the camera, and the image abruptly terminated with a flash of static.

"Can you confirm the identity of that ship?" Gilad asked softly. Tierce nodded.

"Already done so, sir," he replied. "That was Commodore Lennox's destroyer."

"Contact Daala," Pellaeon said flatly as he replayed the short-lived flatvid. "Give her all the pertinent data, and instruct her to relocate her battle group to Apatros at once."

"Rules of engagement?" Tierce asked, and Gilad gave him a dark scowl.

"The Resilience is to be considered hostile," he snapped. "Neutralize if possible, destroy if necessary, but I want Lennox removed as a threat." He drew in a steadying breath. "Inform Daala that she has full discretion."

"Aye, sir." The major retreated from the console, leaving Pellaeon alone with his black thoughts. He replayed the last transmission of the Defiant a third time, fighting the urge to scream out his fury and confusion. Xamuel Lennox was a patriot, not a would-be warlord.

Nothing made any sense.

It didn't make any sense.

Bodies were everywhere – clones, stormtroopers, and technicians – and Kyle Katarn blew out a frustrated breath at the sheer amount of destruction. Most of the damage appeared to have been caused by lightsaber blades, but a fairly significant amount seemed to have come from blasterfire or grenade shrapnel. This was the sixth facility in the last two weeks that his team had discovered that had already been hit before they even arrived.

Not for the first time, he questioned the wisdom of agreeing to conduct this operation for Skywalker in the first place. When Luke had originally approached him several months earlier with a wild tale about Sith Lords and Jedi clones, Kyle had agreed to investigate, fully expecting it to require only a couple of weeks to deal with, after which he could return to his regular schedule. Instead, weeks rapidly turned to months, and there appeared to be no end in sight. Apart from several random encounters instigated by their investigation, his team always seemed to be one step behind their unseen opponents, showing up days or even just hours after the mystery Sith had left. Kyle was beginning to get frustrated.

He hated being frustrated.

This latest facility had been concealed within the mouth of a dormant volcano on the dusty world of Onadax. Under normal circumstances, it would have been nearly impossible to locate the base – a cloaking shield powered by the planet's geothermal activity ordinarily concealed it from sight – but the damage inflicted before the Vornskrs had arrived left the facility visible to the naked eye. Upon insertion, they had discovered it to be another shattered mess. This time, however, there was something different, something out of place, though Kyle wasn't entirely sure what.

"There's something not right here," Kam Solusar murmured as he weaved his way through the bodies scattered around the wide chamber. He was fingering his blaster rifle and studying the carnage with a dark frown. "These clones," he said, pointing to a cluster of bodies, "were fighting each other."

"What about the stormtroopers?" Tyria Sarkin questioned. Wearing blackened body armor shaped for her distinctive contours, she almost looked like a feminine storm commando.

"They came later," Solusar replied. "Probably while the clones were fighting with each other." He crouched alongside one of the armored corpses and rolled it over. "Novatroopers," he identified, pointing to the distinctive black and gold coloring of the protective gear. "That means they were here to capture someone."

"Do you ever get the feeling," Tyria wondered aloud, "that we don't have the full story about what's going on?"

"Every damned day," Kyle growled. He glanced in the direction of the entrance as Kirana Ti and Tionne entered together. "Where the hell is Horn?" he demanded sharply.

"Friend Corr-Ann has taken his droid-machine to the hardframe," Kirana answered.

"Mainframe," Tyria corrected absently. "How do you know they were after someone?" she asked of Solusar.

"That's what novatroopers do," Kyle interjected quickly.

"It's a lot harder to capture someone than it is to kill them," Kam added, "so they only send elite units for it." He looked up at Katarn. "I don't think the troopers were working with either group of clones."

"Neither do I," Katarn said. "Three different factions, all converging on the same place. It can't be a coincidence."

"Four, if you include us," Sarkin remarked. "What do you think, Tionne?" she asked as the other woman wandered around the room.

"Will Yun be joining us?" Tionne asked out of nowhere. She was looking at Kyle – or more accurately, looking through him – with those silver eyes of hers, and he couldn't quite restrain a shiver.

"Who?" he asked reflexively, wondering how she knew the name that came from both his past and his future.

"Your son, of course," she replied instantly. "Or is he off gallivanting around the galaxy with Ami again?" Tionne shook her head in bemusement. "I swear," she commented with a wry smile, "it's a wonder you haven't already gone gray with their exploits."

"Uh," Katarn said hesitantly, "I don't know anyone named Ami."

"You will," came her instant, cryptic response. She smiled distractedly, and ran her hand along the surface of an overturned computer bank. "After all, she's going to be your daughter-in-law one day."

"Ti," Kam said patiently. "You're doing it again." She frowned, as if confused, and then sighed deeply.

"I am?" she asked with a distraught expression. "I'm sorry, Kyle," she said sadly. "Sometimes, I get confused over what will happen, what might happen, and what could happen."

"There's a difference?" Katarn asked with a sour look. Tionne nodded.

"Yes," she said before sighing again. "I just wish I could tell them apart."

"Sorry about that," Solusar remarked as Tionne wandered off to stand alongside Kirana Ti.

"Has she always been like this?" Tyria asked. She was eyeing Tionne carefully.

"Ever since I first met her," Kam replied. "She has her good days and bad days, like everyone else." He frowned. "Historically," he added, "Jedi seers have always been a little odd. In her case, she's hampered by her limited Force ability." He grimaced as his eyes followed the woman in question. "The visions overwhelm her to the point she can no longer tell the difference between now and tomorrow."

"It's interesting how much you know about Jedi seers," Kyle commented. Throughout the months since Katarn had recruited him, Solusar had made a number of comments that implied greater knowledge of the Jedi Order, though he always closed up when pressed on this fact. Now was no different.

"I watched a holo once," Kam retorted before striding away to join Tionne.

"Ah," Tyria murmured, "the joys of working with crazy people." Kyle shot her a disbelieving look.

"Says the woman who served in Wraith Squadron," he grumbled. She smiled.

"I never said I wasn't one of them," Sarkin said with a smile, "though I am hurt that you didn't let us know that you and Jan had decided on a name."

"Need to know," Katarn remarked with a tight smile that he didn't entirely feel. It was disconcerting to discover that the decision he and Jan had made only days earlier concerning her unexpected pregnancy was evidently something Tionne already knew.

"I wonder if Kell wants kids," Tyria mused softly, her words obviously not intended for Kyle's ears.

"You should ask him," he told her. She blushed and shuffled a step away from him. Katarn fought back a grin.

"Colonel," Horn said as he entered the room. "You need to see this."

"Please, tell me you've got some good news for me," Kyle muttered.

"Hardly." Corran stepped out of the way to allow his astromech to enter. "There's a dead man downstairs," the Corellian began as he waited for Whistler to maneuver in place.

"Look around," Tyria sniped, "there are plenty of dead men here too." Corran ignored her as the droid began projecting a holo of a male corpse.

"This is Andur Tuloni," Horn said. "He topped CorSec's Most Wanted list for three years straight."

"Who was he?" Kyle asked.

"A terrorist," Corran replied. "He specialized in the development of bio-weapons." Horn's Force presence quivered with anger and worry. "After we caught him," he revealed darkly, "the Empire demanded that we turn him over."

"For what reason?" Kirana asked. Corran's reply was harsh.

"So they could put him to work." Kyle frowned

"What are you thinking, Horn?" he asked.

"I'm not thinking anything, sir," Corran replied. He offered a datapad. "Tuloni was carrying this." The Corellian's expression was bleak. "The Imps were here to get test subjects, sir." Horn looked up and pinned Kyle with a horrified gaze. When he spoke next, Corran looked to be on the verge of being sick.

"Test subjects that can use the Force."

The Force flickered and danced around him, hinting at important matters still unseen, but in his current mood, he wasn't able to focus on even attempting to comprehend its meaning.

High overhead, the twin suns burned, gleaming like a pair of sinister, remorseless eyes. Waves of heat climbed into the sky, blurring the horizon with a searing haze that caused any hint of moisture on the desolate planet to evaporate almost instantly. Blistering wind rolled across the endless dunes, scattering fine crystals of sand and leaving no landmark untouched or unmarred. Even breathing was painful, feeling as if one was inhaling fire.

Luke Skywalker had come home.

Crouching before the featureless stretch of sand that once been his home, Luke blew out a deep breath and tried once more to wrestle his unruly emotions under control. Despite the years that passed, the pain of loss still stabbed through him, as if his aunt and uncle had died only a few days ago instead of over twelve years earlier. He closed his eyes as he hefted a fistful of hot sand and let it slowly trickle through his fingers. Sense memories assailed him – the stench of smoke and burned flesh; the sound of fire slowly consuming what had been home; the taste of death hanging in the air; the sight of two skeletons scorched beyond recognition – and he fought the urge to scream, to howl, to vent his despair over lost chances that would never come again.

"Are you well, Master Skywalker?" Olmahk asked softly. The Noghri stood directly in front of the speeder bike Luke had acquired so many months ago on Mytus, a concerned look upon his face.

"I've certainly been better," Luke replied. He was silent for a long moment as he studied what little remained of his childhood home. Only fragments of the tech dome remained, broken and fractured by a combination of the harsh Tatooine weather and Jawa scavengers. The living pit was gone – without the deflector screen to protect it from the storms that routinely swept across the planet's surface, the pit had undoubtedly been packed with debris and sand less than a week after he left the planet.

Warmth suddenly washed over him, though it wasn't a physical sensation, and Luke glanced up from the ground. A moment later, he was able to hear the distant whine of a starship engine, and the Second Chance appeared upon the horizon mere seconds later. Mara's Force presence burned brightly, though her mental shields were stronger than ever. He could vaguely sense her emotions as she drew closer – anger, despair, guilt, sadness – churning just below the psychic barrier she had erected to protect her innermost thoughts, but made no effort to decipher their meaning. If she wanted him to know what she was thinking or feeling, she would tell him.

The Chance made a single overhead flyby, as if Mara was verifying this was the correct spot, before banking softly and landing lightly some ten or fifteen meters away. Olmahk said nothing as he instantly began pushing the speeder bike toward the freighter, and Luke returned his attention to the stretch of nothing before him. His questing fingers found something in the sand and he pulled it free. A jagged slab of pourstone, he recognized it as having come from the fractured tech dome.

Mara was silent as she joined him, and if it wasn't for the Force whispering her presence to him, Luke doubted he would have even heard her approach. He could sense her eyes on him, could tell she was struggling with powerful emotions, but decided against pushing. More than anything else, he didn't want to fight with her right now, not while standing upon such hallowed ground.

"They would have liked you," Luke said without bothering to stand. He smiled, momentarily lost in pleasant memories of his youth. "You would have intimidated them," he continued, "but they would have liked you, I think."

"That's … nice," Mara replied. She stepped into his line of sight, taking up a position a meter or so to his side. Luke tried not to sigh at how far away she stood from him; just days ago, she wouldn't have thought twice about invading his personal space, and he hadn't realized until this very moment how much he took that for granted.

Or how much he really wanted to feel her touch in this moment.

"We've got to go," she started to say, but Luke held up his hand as he rose to his feet and turned to face her.

"I need to apologize first," he interrupted. "I said some things to you that I never should have said, and I'm sorry."

"It takes two to tango, Skywalker," Mara retorted. She couldn't meet his eyes. "I'm as guilty as you are."

"That doesn't make it right," Luke countered. "First and foremost," he said, "you are my friend, Mara. I had no right to lash out at you like I did." She shifted awkwardly, glancing back in the direction of the Chance, and Luke felt his hopes for a positive reconciliation begin to fade. Her mental shields were still up, blocking any hint of insight he might had gleaned from her Force presence, but the discomfort on her face told him everything he needed to know.

He was going to lose her.

"We can talk about this later," Mara said, and Luke frowned as he shook his head.

"No," he replied more calmly than he felt, "we need to talk about it now. If we put it off, we'll keep putting it off and never actually talk. I don't want this to ruin this … us." Luke shied from referring to their relationship as such, though it was mostly because he still didn't know what Mara felt about him and he didn't know how to ask her without sounding like an idiot. "I just want to make sure you understand how sorry I am for the things I said." He grimaced. "And you were right. I was hiding from the past instead of dealing with it."

"Luke," she began, but he stepped closer to her and placed the fingers of his left hand against upon her lips. There wasn't any real pressure, and he knew she'd break his hand if she felt he was trying to intimidate her, but her moment of surprise gave him the time he needed to speak again.

"Please," he asked softly, "let me finish." He continued before she could reply. "I hate this planet," Luke said, sensing her slight surprise at the non sequitur. "I always have, even when I was young." Shaking his head in disgust, he began to pace. "Growing up, all I ever wanted was a way off this rock, a way into the stars and the adventure I just knew was out there waiting for me." He blew out a frustrated breath. "After my aunt and uncle died," he said, "I buried the pain and did everything I could to not think about it." He laughed bitterly. "Even when I came back to rescue Han, I stayed as far away from this place as physically possible."

"You buried your past here," Mara offered, a knowing expression on her face. "I've tried to do the same." Luke nodded.

"Coming back here," he said, "and seeing this place … it reminded me of everything I've tried to run from, everything I lost to get my adventure." He spat out the last word with as much contempt as he could manage. "Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Naberrie may have been my biological parents," he said sadly, "but my mother and father died right here trying to protect me." With a wan smile, Luke looked into her emerald eyes. "I didn't think you were unworthy of coming here, Mara," he told her, "I felt like I was unworthy."

"They would be very proud of you," she said softly. She stepped closer to him, placing her hand upon his arm in a comforting gesture. "Never think otherwise."

"Thanks." Luke exhaled deeply and felt a decade of grief ease. Only fractionally, of course; he doubted it would ever really go away, and, for that matter, he didn't think he actually would want it to. "I'm sorry for hurting you," he said, ignoring her almost instinctive bristling at the intimation that she could be hurt, "but I understand if you can't forgive me." She broke eye contact, glancing once more in the direction of her ship, and Luke grimaced. "If you think we need some time apart," he said, "I'll respect that decision." Her eyes snapped back to eyes.

"Is that what you want?" she asked almost hesitantly.

"No," Luke said instantly. "I never want you to leave," he admitted, the words tumbling from his lips before he realized what he had said. Her eyes widened slightly, and she wet her lips with her tongue.

"This … thing between us," Mara said a moment later, her voice thick with emotion, "this … relationship? It scares the hell out of me." Luke gave her a startled look, and she continued. "I don't like feeling vulnerable," she admitted. "All my life, I've had it pounded into my head to never let anyone get too close to me because it was dangerous." She gave him a smile that was half-affectionate, half-sour. "And then you came along and screwed everything up."

"I'm not going to apologize for that," Luke told her with a soft smile of his own.

"Not asking you to," she retorted. Her good humor faded and she closed her eyes. "I'm just … worried that you want something I can't give you," Mara murmured.

"If this is about children," Luke started to say, but she held up a hand to forestall any assurances.

"It isn't," Mara replied too sharply for him to entirely believe her. She looked away, suddenly looking so much like a lost little girl that his heart went out to her. He wondered if she realized how sad she always looked when the subject of children came up. Unconsciously, her left hand dropped to her stomach, and Luke knew she was tracing the scars there.

The revelation she'd made weeks earlier about her inability to bear children thanks to a near death experience continued to haunt him … and confuse him for reasons that didn't entirely make sense to him. There was a sense of wrongness to her tale, as if something was still hidden despite his conviction that she was telling him the absolute truth. She had shown him the medical records from her most recent visit to a medical facility and Luke had seen the evidence of her destroyed ovaries.

And yet, somehow, Luke felt that the matter wasn't entirely closed. Mentally, he shrugged and focused his attention entirely upon the face of the woman who had come to mean so much to him.

"I'm talking about your emotional needs," Mara said a moment later. "I'm a mess, Skywalker," she pointed out, still looking anywhere but at him. "You deserve someone better than me."

"I don't want someone better than you," he retorted, wincing almost the second he spoke. "That really didn't come out right," Luke muttered as she gave him a sidelong look. Mara pursed her lips and Skywalker felt his own burden lighten at the half-amused glint in her eyes. "We deserve each other, Mara," he said. "I'm just as screwed up as you are," Luke added as he stepped closer to her. When she didn't retreat from his invasion of her personal space and instead gave him a soft smile, he felt relief wash through so intensely that he nearly flinched. "Maybe together," he said hesitantly, "we can be a complete person."

"Been waiting long to use that one?" Mara asked, her trademark smirk resurfacing. Luke grinned.

"All day, actually," he replied. "We still need to talk," he said a moment later. "I don't want to lose you."

"Lose me?" she repeated before shaking her head. "I'm not going anywhere, Farmboy."

"Promise?" To his surprise and secret dismay, Mara glanced in the direction of the Chance and her good cheer faltered. She returned sad eyes to his face before reaching for his hand. A chill crawled up his spine. Something's wrong, he realized as Mara visibly struggled to find the right words.

"Luke," she said slowly, taking both of his hands as she spoke. "GNN is reporting … they're saying … dammit!" She closed her eyes in frustration.

"Just tell me, Mara," Luke instructed despite his instincts shouting for him to run, to hide, to find some deep, dark cave and stay there. She drew in a deep breath, and he could feel her drop her mental barriers.

"It's about Solo," Mara said with despair in her eyes, "and the twins. They're gone."

And in that moment, Luke knew.

PhantomKnight88: Glad you approve of Tendra's inclusion; while I loathed the Lando/Mara thing KJA implied in his terrible JA books, I am very much a fan of Lando's, and wanted him to see some good things happen (as opposed to the usual "failed" ventures and random womanizing we generally see.) And I've got big things planned for Governor Calrissian.

Skyhanhunter: Stele actually showed up in Tyranny Reborn - he was the pilot who Corran fought at Byblos, though they ended up really screwing each other up. As to where he vanished to, I dunno...

wbsaw: Babylon 5 is probably one of my favorite sci-fi shows ever,so you've missed a really great show. And surely you recall my reference of Darth Vidious back in chapter 12 of Tyranny Reborn, right?

Kelly: Welcome aboard! I strongly recommend you check out the original Zahn trilogy (Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, The Last Command), and the X-Wing books by Stackpole and Allston. Beyond them, though, I can't actually recommend any of the other SW books though, especially once Del Rey took over the franchise (starting with Vector Prime). Besides, those are the only books that are entirely in my continuity...

Blacknblue: More importantly, I FUBARed the Millenium Falcon! That's like heresy, isn't it?

Deja: It's gonna get a lot darker before it ends...

Kyuubi123: So many questions! :P

Elemarth: I think you meant "Tycho," not "Talon." And don't forget Meewahl...

EternalE: "Tears of pure love." Heh. That does sound pretty lame.

Admiral: I wouldn't say it's "one big Luke/Mara fest" - yeah, their relationship is a big part of the story, but it isn't the only element. I do understand your concerns about Solo - he's one of my favorite characters too - and hope you'll give me the benefit of the doubt. Besides, the general consensus in the various feedbacks (here & at TFN) is that "no body = no death," so surely I wouldn't kill Han off, would I?

But you'd be okay with "Darth Leia" if I did, huh? Interesting...

superninjamonkey: Dude! I love your name! And welcome aboard!