One Missed Strike
The New Jedi Order
The slightest change can alter the flow of the universe in unimaginable ways. Every day, decisions and chance events large and small send the universe into divergence, millions of parallel realities where, because one small thing goes differently, the entire course of history changes and life continues in radically altered ways on diverging paths.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, two men fought one another on a small volcanic planet.
Those men were Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader, who had until the previous day been known as Anakin Skywalker. The planet was known as Mustafar.
Kenobi and Skywalker were the greatest heroes of the Clone Wars, formerly Master and Apprentice, and up until that day, they were the best of friends, close as brothers.
Because of a Sith Lord named Darth Sidious and his own fear and anger, Anakin Skywalker, Jedi Knight, fell to the Dark Side of the Force and became Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith.
Kenobi and Vader fought a vicious duel around the small facilities at Mustafar, surrounded by flowing molten rock. At the end of their duel, Kenobi managed to get the high ground and gain an advantage over his former apprentice. Vader advanced anyway, and in one universe, paid the price for his hubris with the loss of three of his limbs to Kenobi's blade and his skin and lungs to the fires of Mustafar. He became as a painter gone blind, a composer gone deaf, encased in a walking coffin in a terrible half-life where every day was filled with pain and his only purpose in life was to do his master's will.
But this is not the story of that universe.
Though neither of them knew it, Kenobi's final strike in the duel at Mustafar was a point of divergence. The universe itself split in that moment, following dual paths born from that one fateful instant.
In this universe, Kenobi missed the final strike of the duel, and so Darth Vader escaped Mustafar unscathed. He went on to slay Darth Sidious and claim the Empire for himself, and so he ruled the galaxy for more than twenty years as Emperor. A Rebellion was ignited, and for the last few years of Emperor Skywalker's reign, he fought a bloody civil war with the Rebel Alliance, which ended in a tremendous battle above Naboo, where Grand Admiral Thrawn and the crew of the Executor fought alongside the Alliance against the mutinous armada assembled by Ysanne Isard. Simultaneously, Vader fought a duel on Korriban with Darth Nova, his treacherous Sith Apprentice.
When the battle was won and his apprentice destroyed, Darth Vader took his flagship Executor and left known space, leaving behind a message to his family that he felt that he had done too much to be forgiven, and so would trouble them no longer.
Baron Soontir Fel, commanding the Imperial superweapon Eclipse, turned the tide of the Battle of Naboo in the Alliance's favor. When the battle was over, he was instructed by Lord Vader to prepare the remnants of the Empire for the war they both knew was coming with an invading force known only as the Far Outsiders. After a brief but furious war with the remnants of Isard's conspiracy, Soontir Fel assumed the mantle of Emperor, and under his leadership, the Empire settled into an uneasy peace with the New Republic, the government formed by the Alliance.
The Jedi Order was rebuilt by Luke Skywalker, his wife Mara, his sister Leia, and Malysa Kolos, who were, at the time of the Battle of Naboo, the last remaining Jedi in the galaxy. Over twenty years, their numbers bolstered by many former Sith and potentials discovered all over the galaxy, Luke Skywalker's New Jedi Order gradually swelled to over a thousand members, restored as guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy.
The Treaty of Alderaan marked the beginning of a period of relative stability in the galaxy. No major wars were fought for more than twenty years, though the New Republic and the Empire both had their share of crises to deal with, and civilization prospered, catching its collective breath.
But beyond the borders of civilization, a war is brewing, a tremendous conflict the likes of which the galaxy has never seen. For those same twenty years, men, women and aliens have fought and died by the millions in the vast, unexplored area of space called the Unknown Regions against an enemy so different from any fought before that they are almost incomprehensible.
And gradually, as the numbers of the enemy swell with each passing year and each new arrival of more of their enormous worldships, the defenders are being pushed back.
The line can no longer be held. Twenty-one years after the historic Treaty of Alderaan, war is about to come to the galaxy once again…
(The End of Peace)
Ex-Gal Outpost 4 on Belkadan seemed an unlikely place for a battle. Designed as a listening post in hopes of discovering life outside the galaxy, Ex-Gal 4 was mostly a quiet, serene place to work. The scientists there went about their work in peace, never suspecting any kind of trouble.
That was why Danni Quee, nominal leader of the scientists gathered on Belkadan, was so badly startled to find a Super Star Destroyer in her sky when she awoke one morning.
Danni ducked back inside her quarters, leaving her dropped caf mug on the ground outside, and ran over to the comm unit. "What's going on?" she asked, calling the main installation.
"We don't know!" came the panicked reply from Lysire Donabelle, one of the scientists there. "It didn't even show up on sensors until it entered orbit!"
Danni frowned, pushing some of her loose blonde hair back behind her ear. "How is that even possible?" she asked incredulously. "It's a Super Star Destroyer, not a stealth fighter!"
"Well, don't ask me!" Lysire replied. "I don't know what's going on, either!"
"Have they sent us any messages?"
Danni looked out of the window at the monstrous dark shape draped across the early morning sky. "I'll be right there."
When Danni arrived in the main building, she found it filled with white-armored Imperial Stormtroopers all holding blasters on the scientists.
"You there!" one of the troopers barked, swiveling towards her. "Get over there with the others!" He stepped forward, grabbed her by the sleeve of her tunic, and shoved her towards the rest of the scientists.
"Have they said anything about why they're here?" Danni murmured to Yomin Carr, a tall human man standing next to her.
"Nothing," Carr replied. "They have only asked how many of us there are, and where the others are at this time."
"Quiet!" the commanding trooper snapped. "Keep your hands where we can see them!"
"Listen," Danni said, looking over at him, "I don't know who you think we are, but this is a scientific outpost. No one here is a spy. All our equipment is for monitoring the edge of the galaxy."
The commander walked over to her, his blaster rifle still up and raised. "What part of 'quiet' don't you understand?" he growled. "When I want you to speak, I'll ask you a question."
Danni fell silent, her hands still raised, and looked around at the others. The rest of the scientists seemed scared and confused, all except for Yomin Carr, who just seemed angry.
The stormtroopers may as well have been statues, remaining perfectly still with their blasters held on the group of scientists. The monitoring room fell completely silent, the only audible sounds the breathing of the scientists and the occasional rustle as someone shifted position.
Finally, the silence was broken by the sound of heavy, forceful footsteps approaching. Danni glanced up as the sound of armored boots drew closer, and gasped involuntarily at the sight of the ominous figure that strode through the door.
He was huge, nearly two meters tall, and completely encased in black armor with dark gray highlights. A long, wide cloak hung from his shoulders to the floor, made of some heavy fabric so black that it seemed to drain the light from the air around it. But what held Danni's attention was the helmet, a nightmarish death's-head, from which echoed deep mechanical breathing.
"This is everyone?" the enormous armored figure inquired in a deep basso rumble.
"Yes, my lord," the stormtrooper commander replied. "Preliminary scans reveal no other sentient life aside from this outpost."
"So, they have not yet arrived here," the black-armored giant said thoughtfully, swiveling his skull-like mask to regard the group of scientists. Black lenses hid his eyes, but Danni could sense an immensely powerful will behind the dark stare he passed over them. "What of the unusual readings we recorded in the atmosphere?"
"The effect is not yet widespread, my lord," the commander said. "It can still be reversed."
"Good," the dark figure rumbled. "We may only have to deal with a small scouting party."
Next to Danni, Yomin Carr had been slowly lowering his hands. His teeth were clenched, and she was startled to recognize pure, burning hatred in the glare he fixed upon the black-armored man. She had never seen such an extreme emotion in the normally reserved man before, and she found it more than a little frightening.
The death's-head suddenly snapped back over to look directly at her. For a long moment, Danni and the armored man locked eyes, the only sound his deep, regular breathing. She felt as if a tremendous burning furnace, with all the roiling fury of a sun, shone upon her mind, laying her bare to her very core. Only when he broke eye contact did she realize she was trembling.
"That one," the dark man said, pointing a gloved hand at her.
"What are you doing?" she gasped as two stormtroopers grabbed her arms and pulled her away from the group. "Let me go!"
She struggled, but the armored troopers calmly kept their grip, holding her back.
The dark man's black cloak shifted around his heavy boots as he slowly walked forward, passing his masked gaze over the rest of the scientists. Yomin Carr trembled also, but with barely controlled fury.
Without any warning whatsoever, the dark man lashed out with one gloved hand and struck Carr with a balled fist, knocking him back against the wall.
The others gasped, pulling back away from the dark man, but Carr had already leaped to his feet, screaming unintelligibly in a language Danni did not recognize.
The armored giant calmly sidestepped his charge, moving with surprising speed, and snatched a gleaming chrome cylinder from his belt. With a loud snap-hiss, a sky-blue blade of shining energy flared into being.
Carr reached into his tunic and pulled out what at first appeared to be a coiled whip, but when a head full of fangs stirred from one end, Danni realized it was some kind of snake-like creature she'd never seen before.
The armored man raised his left hand, and from his fingertips surged a stream of crackling purple-blue lightning that impacted Carr with enough force to knock him back off his feet.
Danni's mind whirled. What was going on here?
Carr snarled something else in the foreign language, but the silent black specter only lashed out with more lightning, knocking him back to the floor. Yomin's skin seemed to ripple under the sparking onslaught, shifting over his bones, and, unable to help herself, Danni screamed.
"What are you doing?" she shouted at the dark man. "We haven't done anything!"
"This man is not who he appears to be," the dark man said grimly, continuing to pour lightning from his fingertips into Yomin Carr's body. The dark mask swiveled to regard her for a moment. "Observe."
As Carr lay helplessly twitching on the floor from the lightning, the dark man reached down and pressed one gloved finger into the area beside Carr's nose.
Danni watched, horrified, as Carr's skin rippled and shifted, then split entirely away and shifted down into his collar. But underneath it was a second skin, grayish, and covered with tattoos and scars, the black hair coarse and cut short.
"What… what is that?" Danni gasped, pulling back reflexively.
The dark man trod on the shifting flesh-colored blob that pooled on the floor next to Carr's body, sending another bolt of lightning into it. "His people call it an ooglith masquer," he said, his deep voice still oddly calm but for a slight note of disgust. "It serves as a disguise."
As Carr stirred, the dark man flicked his shining blue lightsaber down and almost casually thrust the tip into his heart. Danni and several of the other scientists screamed.
The dark man stepped between her and the body, hiding the corpse behind his sweeping black cloak. "Are you frightened, girl?" he said darkly, leaning forward slightly to bring his death's-head mask closer to her face.
Danni could only nod frantically. She could see her reflection in the black lenses, and it struck her that she looked even more terrified than she felt.
"You don't know what fear is," the dark man rumbled. "You think me a murderer?"
Danni nodded again, slower this time.
"Believe me when I say this man would have slaughtered every one of you without a second thought." The black-armored man straightened, the dim glowpanels overhead reflecting in the gleaming black curves of his helmet. "He was not a man, but a monster. Look again."
He stepped aside, and Danni saw again the horrific scars and tattoos covering Carr's face. The basic structure of his face was the same, but his true face looked more fierce, almost… bestial. Despite her horror, Danni's inner curiosity made her wonder what Carr had used as a disguise, if it was a living creature or some form of technology she had never seen before.
"What are you going to do with us?" Lysire asked, fear in both her eyes and her voice.
"I will let you go," the man replied, surprising Danni. "You may report this to whatever government sponsored this expedition."
"What about Danni?" asked Jerem Cadmir, one of the other scientists.
The obsidian-black helmet turned to fix the man with a cold stare. "She stays here."
"Play the message again," said Mara Jade Skywalker, leaning back in her chair in the cockpit of her ship, the Jade Sabre.
Her apprentice Jaina Solo leaned across the control console, some of her long dark brown hair slipping over her shoulder as she did so, and keyed the distress signal they had picked up a few minutes ago to play.
"…ysire Donabelle of Ex-Gal-4.…per Star Destroyer, no expl…illed one of the scientists, Yomin Carr, but Danni says they're…bolasers. Request imme…Repeat, this is Lysire Donabelle of…"
"Did you get any more out of it that time?" Jaina asked, looking over at her aunt with her brandy-brown eyes.
Mara shook her head. "Too much static. All I caught was something about a Super Star Destroyer and turbolasers; I can't tell what the Imperials are doing there."
"Me, neither," Jaina agreed. "But, we're the closest Jedi to Belkadan; we can be there in only a few hours."
Mara made her decision. "Our mission can wait. Plot the jump. I'll get a message ready to send back to the Temple before we leave."
Jaina nodded once as she bent to her task.
When they were both finished, as the sleek Jade Sabre leaped into hyperspace, Mara turned to her niece. "So what do you think the Imperials are doing this far out of their territory?"
"I'm not sure," Jaina replied. "Belkadan is almost on the complete opposite end of the New Republic from the Imperial border. What I want to know is how they got a Super Star Destroyer this deep into our space without us knowing about it. They aren't exactly known for their stealth capabilities." She drummed her slender fingers on the hilt of the lightsaber at her side. "And what are they even doing sending a ship that big into New Republic space, anyway? I thought our government was on good terms with Emperor Fel right now."
"Maybe Emperor Fel didn't send it," Mara offered, looking over at her apprentice. "There are still a few rogue warlords running around here and there." She frowned. "Though last I heard, all Super Star Destroyers were accounted for and under either Imperial or New Republic control. That's not the kind of ship you let your average would-be conqueror run around the galaxy with."
"I can think of one that's not accounted for," Jaina said, her voice oddly subdued.
Mara felt her mood sink, as well. There was indeed at least one Super Star Destroyer whose whereabouts were unknown, one that hadn't been sighted in civilized space in more than twenty years.
She glanced sidelong at Jaina. "You want to say it, or should I?" she said wryly.
Jaina nodded, the smallest of smiles quirking one corner of her mouth. "I've got a bad feeling about this," she said with only a trace of humor.
In the quiet master bedroom of his family's apartment in the Royal Palace on Alderaan, Han Solo groaned sleepily as he rolled over in bed and slapped blindly in the general direction of his nightstand before finally activating the insistently buzzing comm.
"Whoever this is, you should be glad I don't sleep with a blaster under my pillow anymore," he growled, rubbing his eyes with one hand.
"I'm sorry to wake you, General Solo, but this is important."
"It better be," Han said, blinking slowly. He squinted at the tiny figure on the comm's screen, barely visible in the soft glow. "Well, out with it already."
The New Republic comm officer shifted nervously. "I've been instructed to ask you and Master Solo to report to the Chancellor's office as soon as possible. There's a possible… situation concerning the Empire…"
"Say no more," Han said, considerably more awake now. "Nobody ever calls us this early with good news about the Empire. We'll be there in half an hour at most." He reached over and terminated the connection.
He turned to wake Leia, but even as he did, he felt her weight shift on the bed, then heard her soft footsteps crossing the carpeted floor towards their closet.
"Are my pants over there somewhere?" Han called as he dropped back against the pillow, well used to these early-morning panics after twenty-odd years in the military and government.
Leia replied by lobbing them over so that they landed directly on his face.
"Very funny," he said as he sat up and tossed the pants on the sheets next to him. "I thought Jedi Masters were supposed to be dignified," he said playfully over his shoulder as he stood up.
Leia leaned around the closet door with an equally playful smile on her face, her long brown hair swinging out with the movement. "Only if they're not married to scoundrels," she said with a grin.
Han grinned back. "Then I guess you're in real trouble, sweetheart." He pushed the fingers of one hand back through his unruly hair, looking around for his boots. "Do you think you could use your Jedi mind powers to get Anakin to start a pot of caf while I'm in the shower, or is that too much to ask from a teenager?"
"I don't think even the Force could wake him up at this hour," Leia said, ducking back into the closet. "Let him sleep."
"Lucky him," Han said as he padded toward the 'fresher.
"Is there some kind of Jedi trick to never looking like you just got dragged out of bed?" Han quipped to Luke Skywalker as they met him in the hallway outside the Chancellor's office several levels down in the Royal Palace.
The kid looked entirely too perky for this hour of the morning, bright and alert in tan and brown robes, his wavy sandy-blond hair no more mussed than it usually was. At his side, Han's eldest son Jacen was similarly entirely too composed, dressed in robes of a darker, earthy brown and forest green. Luke smiled at Han's comment.
"Here you go, Dad," Jacen said, producing a steaming mug of caf from a low table that had been hidden behind him by the drape of his outer robe.
"You're a good son," Han told him as he accepted the mug. He took a long drink and sighed happily; Jacen had even added the spices he liked. "You're definitely my favorite."
Jacen grinned, and it was almost like looking at Han's own reflection thirty years ago. How was he eighteen already? "You're only saying that because Jaina and Anakin aren't here," Jacen said, absently flicking a lock of his tousled brown hair out of his eyes with his thumb.
"Nah, Anakin's right out," Han said before taking another sip. "He never gets me caf in the mornings, and Jaina never puts in enough sugar." He grinned over the rim of the mug.
Jacen chuckled, but any reply he might have made was cut off by one of the Chancellor's aides opening the door and saying, "She's ready for you now."
Han filed in behind his wife, son, and brother-in-law, heading right for his favorite chair in front of the carved-wood desk at the rear of the large, sumptuously appointed room. As could be expected, Chancellor Amidala maintained her office in the style of her home planet, Naboo. As a result, everything was large and ornate but surprisingly comfortable.
Sitting at her desk, perusing a report on her datapad, the Chancellor herself wore a reserved but probably expensive dark blue gown, her hair as elaborately arranged as ever - which meant she had either never gone to bed, or had the galaxy's fastest hairstylist.
Leia, dressed as usual in white robes, lowered herself gracefully into the next chair in front of her mother's desk and patiently waited for her to finish.
It still seemed odd to Han how similar and yet different his wife and her mother looked. Due to the bizarre circumstances of her revival, Padmé and her daughter appeared to be roughly the same age, but even Han had to admit that was hardly the strangest thing about the Skywalker family.
After only a moment's pause, Padmé looked up at them and smiled tightly. "Thank you for coming at such short notice," she said. "I've just finished my preliminary briefing by New Republic Intelligence, and it looks like we may have a major situation in the Tingel Arm, near the Corporate Sector. A Super Star Destroyer has been spotted in that sector, and its forces have invaded at least one planet. Director Drayson has more details."
Han hadn't even noticed there were other people in the office as he entered. He took a sip as he turned to watch the head of NRI move to stand next to the Chancellor's desk. Also here was Admiral Ackbar, Supreme Commander of the Republic fleet. Though the Mon Calamarian admiral was getting on in years, he still looked as sharp-eyed and dignified as ever.
Hiram Drayson, a trim Chandrilan man in his mid-sixties, set his datapad on the edge of the Chancellor's desk and activated the desk's built-in holoprojector, which flared to life to display a grainy, long-distance image of a Super Star Destroyer in orbit above the night side of a planet.
"This image was sent to us three hours ago by subspace from Lando Calrissian's mining colony on Dubrillion," Drayson began, "along with a description of the circumstances of its capture. This unidentified SSD appeared in orbit above Belkadan three days ago and captured the outpost there. The Imperial commander let all but two of the scientists go, and they fled to the nearest subspace-capable outpost to report it."
"Belkadan?" Han said. "Never heard of it."
"Unsurprising," Drayson replied. "The only thing of note there is an Ex-Gal research station."
"What use could the Imperials have for one of their monitoring stations?" Jacen said, frowning thoughtfully. "All their equipment is meant for looking outside the galaxy for other civilizations. It would take extensive recalibration to use it to spy on the New Republic."
Leia nodded in agreement with her son. "Besides, Emperor Fel has no reason to send a ship of that size on a mission like that. He's never shown any interest in what happens on this side of the border unless it concerns the Empire. I don't think he's responsible."
"I agree," Drayson said with a quick nod. "We're most likely dealing with a rogue officer. What concerns me most is how this commander got a ship of that size across the New Republic without anyone noticing." He looked over to Luke. "Also of concern is this report by the scientists that the commander of the ground troops used a lightsaber. He was also described as wearing black armor, including a helmet that completely covered his face." He consulted his datapad. "It says here that one of the scientists described the helmet as having 'a face like a black skull', obviously designed to intimidate."
"A Sith?" Luke said in surprise. "But I didn't think any of the ones who left had managed to take any Super Star Destroyers with them."
"They didn't, and he probably isn't a Sith," said Drayson. "The scientists said his lightsaber was blue, not red."
"So he probably isn't an Imperial Knight, either," said Luke. "All of them carry silver lightsabers, even the officers."
Drayson nodded. "Also, the only person he or his troops killed was one of the scientists who was apparently some sort of alien masquerading as a human. This alien attacked the commander, and so the commander killed him."
"Alien?" Jacen said, his expression suddenly going very serious. "Did the scientists say what this alien looked like?"
Drayson looked at the datapad again. "Humanoid, with grayish skin and black hair. He was covered with tattoos and what appeared to be ritual scarring, and also had in his possession some kind of ophidian creature that he used as a weapon."
"It's called an amphistaff," Jacen said grimly. "The man this rogue Imperial killed was a Yuuzhan Vong agent."
Drayson peered at him sharply through the floating image of the rogue Imperial ship. "You are sure?"
"I've made the information my father left for me on the Far Outsiders required study for upper-level students," Luke said. "Like my father before me, I've been preparing for the Yuuzhan Vong invasion for a very long time."
Drayson sighed. "To tell you the truth, Master Skywalker, I had been hoping to myself that you were simply being over-cautious. I have to admit I didn't think the Vong would ever actually show up."
"Well, now we know who this lightsaber-wielding Imperial is," Han said, reaching forward to place his now-empty mug on the edge of the desk.
As he leaned back in his seat, it became apparent to Han that everyone in the room was staring at him.
"Oh, come on!" he said, spreading his hands. "Who else do we all know that has a lightsaber, stormtroopers, a great big Star Destroyer, and would have no hesitations about poking them around in Republic space without asking first? Do I gotta spell it out for you?"
The room remained silent for a few moments longer as the Chancellor exchanged glances with both her son and daughter. Jacen did not look up when Han looked over at him, instead remaining quiet with one hand on his chin, deep in thought as he stared without seeing at the top of his grandmother's desk.
"If that is the case," Chancellor Amidala said softly, obviously focused on keeping her composure, "we will have to proceed very cautiously."
An aide quickly entered the room, heading straight for the desk. "Madame Chancellor," the young woman said, "we've just been relayed this message from the Jedi Temple. Master Horn said we would want to see it."
"Play it," Padmé said, gesturing to her desktop.
The blonde-haired young woman keyed in something on her datapad, and the holoprojector display switched from the mysterious Super Star Destroyer to the head and shoulders of Mara Jade Skywalker.
"This is Master Jade Skywalker," she began. "My apprentice and I have received a distress signal from the Ex-Gal outpost on Belkadan, and we are putting our mission to Telos on hold to investigate. Our next report will be within eighteen Standard hours. Jade Skywalker out."
"This was just received by the Temple?" Drayson asked the aide.
"Yes sir, just a few minutes ago," she replied.
"Then Mara's already in hyperspace," said Luke. "We won't be able to contact her and Jaina until they arrive."
"Even if we could, I would have her do exactly what she's doing," said Ackbar, moving forward to stand next to Drayson. He looked at Luke. "This is an excellent development, Master Skywalker; your wife can scout out the system for us while we organize a task force to deal with this situation."
"I don't mean to step on your toes, Admiral," Han said, leaning forward in his chair, "but sending half the Third Fleet to Belkadan may not be the best idea, especially if this SSD belongs to who we think it does."
"You would suggest a different strategy, General Solo?" the Mon Cal admiral asked curiously, swiveling his fish-like eyes to regard Han.
"Maybe something a bit smaller," Han answered. "Even with all the ships we've got in range of that sector, I'd think twice about taking on a Super Star Destroyer - particularly if it's that one, which more than likely has some backup." He gestured to his wife and brother-in-law. "I suggest we take a fast, heavily armed ship like the Falcon that can get out of the system in a hurry if we need to, and can back up Mara if she needs help. Don't get too many of our people involved until we know for certain what's going on."
"I agree," said the Chancellor. "We'll make it a Jedi mission; Master Skywalker will command." She looked over at her son. "You have until Master Jade Skywalker sends her next report to gather your team and any necessary supplies. I want you ready to leave as soon as she checks in or within eighteen hours, whichever comes first."
Luke stood and inclined his head in acknowledgment. "Yes, Madame Chancellor," he said.
In the hallway outside as they left to go begin preparations, Luke drew up beside Han as they neared a turbolift. "Off on a mission together," he said with a slight smile. "Just like old times."
Han frowned as they stepped inside. "Think it's gonna go that bad, do you?"
"No," Leia said with a wry smile, glancing up at both of them as she waited for the doors to close. "It'll be worse."
Han shrugged. "That seems to be the way Skywalker luck runs. There are days I wish I didn't know you people." He grinned teasingly at Leia.
She reached up to kiss Han's cheek, then slipped her arm through the crook of his elbow and rested her head against his shoulder. "There are days I wish I didn't know us, either."
A few hours later, the Jade Sabre dropped smoothly out of hyperspace on the edge of the Belkadan system, well out of range of the Super Star Destroyer's sensors.
Mara concentrated on her instruments and on the Force, positioning her ship for just the right angle of entry. She intended to loop around the system's sun and so approach Belkadan with the star behind her, preventing her ship from showing up on the Imperial vessel's sensors through all the radiation emanating from the roiling stellar furnace.
But all her plans faded away as she felt the powerful Force presence emanating from the planet, one she knew only too well. And she knew from the twinge in the Force that, despite the extreme distance, her arrival had not gone undetected.
From the look on her niece's face, Jaina had felt it, too. "Is that coming from just one person?" she said incredulously.
Mara nodded silently, trying to think of what to do now. If he knew they were here, what would he do? Would it be best to just turn around and leave now?
"It feels sort of like Uncle Luke," Jaina went on. "Only… not as controlled. More… fierce."
"Darker," Mara said grimly, noting that the Super Star Destroyer was launching fighters.
She leaned back, deciding to stay. She could easily evade the fighters with the agile Jade Sabre, but the Force had guided them here for a reason. Much as she didn't want to, it appeared it was time for Mara to face her old master again.
Mara looked over at Jaina. "That's what Luke would feel like in the Force if he didn't keep himself under control," she said. "If he used the Dark Side."
Jaina's eyes widened. "You mean that's…"
Mara nodded resignedly. "After twenty years, Darth Vader has finally returned."
Author's Note: This is where the fun begins! I've been working on this for over a year now, and it's finally ready to start posting. Updates may be a little slow at first, since I have another large story I've been putting off finishing to work on this, but once I get going I intend to maintain a steady pace of one chapter per week. I have all kinds of awesome stuff planned for this story, so I hope you guys are ready. :D
This is a sequel to my earlier AU retelling of the Original Trilogy, 'One Missed Strike' Parts I-III. Whereas those stories were somewhat short - we'll say movie-length - consider this more akin to a TV series, with every four chapters forming one 'episode'. Thanks for reading!