STAR WARS

 

In Search of Knighthood

 

 

 

The story of the rebellion against the Empire has been told many times before and the names of the Heroes of Yavin will never be forgotten, but the rolls of the rebellion were as vast as the thousand thousand worlds that comprised the Empire itself. Most of these rebels fought and died as unrecognized as they lived. It was the sum of their individual sacrifices that led to the events that resulted in the death of Emperor Palpatine and the overthrow of his vile Empire. This is the story of a handful of those anonymous rebels and their part in the sum of victory.

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

 

 

"Wake up Lon-Chi, it's time for practice." Said Carek Argonaut shaking his still groggy room mate awake.

"I guess this four o'clock in the morning wake up stuff is supposed to build character." Said Lon-Chi as he yielded to Carek's insistent rousing and rolled out of his bunk. "While it is my firm belief that four A.M. is a great way to end a day, it is my further belief that it is definitely not a way to start a day."

"You knew going into this, that becoming a Jedi would require some sacrifices." Carek laughed and turned for the door. "You've got five minutes to get to the meditation room, or when Master Havsoltek is through with you, you'll wish that you had stayed an apprentice mining supervisor on Essowyn. I'll see you there."

Lon-Chi Wilks watched his room mate exit their spartan quarters. "It's just not fair, he comes from an agriculture world, he's used to this getting up before the sun stuff." He sighed heavily. "I've got to get me a roomie that understands the fine art of sleeping in."

The would-be Jedi dressed quickly and regarded himself in the mirror. He didn't possess the solid, beefy build of most miners, being only a hundred and seventy-four centimeters tall and a sparse seventy-three kilos. His lips and nose were too strong for him to be considered handsome, but the twinkle that shone in his deep set green eyes, showed the kindness of his heart and despite his size, he had been a cherished member of his mining crew for his uncanny ability to locate deposits of ytterbium and more importantly for his "premonitions." Not a single member of his crew had ever been injured in a cave-in while Lon-Chi was working, his "premonitions" always steering them clear of trouble. It was a "premonition" that had brought him to the starport city of Lyndon on Chanlot and to Master Havsoltek.

He took an extra second to smooth his tunic before he noticed the time. "Burning stars! Thirty seconds to get downstairs!" Lon-Chi took off at a dead run, knowing full well the consequences for being late.

The Jedi temple of Yevgenny Havsoltek, was a split level sprawling structure that had started out as a plantak processing plant. The tall native plantak grass was, when properly processed, a highly sought after designer fabric that was as comfortable as it was strong. The plantek craze had reached it's peak several years ago, and many of the smaller companies had gone out of business. Havsoltek had purchased the old factory in the outskirts of Lyndon's industrial area for a pittance. He had the upper floor offices converted to austere living quarters for the six aspirant Jedi and himself. The cavernous main floor of the warehouse had been turned into the training area. Meditation room, obstacle courses, library, and gymnasium. Lon-Chi raced down the stairs taking them three at a time, certain that he would be the last to arrive. He took his place in the circle of aspirants and glanced at his fellow students, to his right was Philla Kalrendis, a tall, striking, brunette with the lithe build of a dancer. She had been a nursing student before coming to the temple less than six weeks ago.

Next to her stood Conrad Davies, a ruddy, big boned, bull of a man as solid as a ferrocrete piling, his face was a series of crags and angles that only a mother could love. He had become Havsoltek's first student, when the Jedi Knight had sensed his potential after he had been subdued by Havsoltek during a factory workers revolt that the Jedi had been called in to mediate.

Jenall Cadson was to the right of Davies at the head of the circle, a wiry youth from the sere steppes of the desert world Seracco, Cadson was small of frame and big of heart. He was deeply tanned and kept his long black hair braided in an elaborately tied top knot.

Wilk's room mate Carek Argonaut was to his immediate left. Carek was of medium height and build, A handsome man with dark brown hair, grey eyes, and a winning ready smile. Carek of the House of Argonaut was his formal title, but to Carek it always sounded so pretentious that it bordered on being pompous. He was the second son a a minor noble on the agricultural world of Beaufort, he had left his home to follow his lifelong dream of becoming a Jedi Knight.

The last of the students was Oos Felorren, he was the only alien at the temple. A Ho'Din, Oos was tall for his race and considered quite handsome.

Still winded from his mad dash, Lon-Chi began calming his breathing, he was still exhaling his second breath, when Master Havsoltek entered and took his place at the head of the meditation stone completing the Jedi circle.

"I see you're still pushing the envelope Mister Wilks." Said the Jedi Knight. "You've been here long enough to know that. Even though the Council of Masters is no longer available to grant me the rank of master, I still expect you to abide by the letter and the spirit of the rules I have established for your training. Since you seem to have a problem with rising in time for our four A.M. work call, for the next week you will rise at two A.M. and stand in contemplation here at the base of the meditation stone, where you will have time to reflect upon the Force and your decision to become a Jedi."

Lon-Chi could only wince and nod in silence.

"Today's training will consist of the Gauntlet, repulsor field gymnastics, and the first lightsaber cadence. Kalrendis, Davies and Argonaut will run the gauntlet. Wilks and Felorren will go to the gymnasium and conduct two hours of calisthenics with the repulsor field set at 1.4 Gee. Cadson you will remain with me and perform the first cadence. You have three minutes before we start."

The aspirants split up to head to their assigned training.

Enroute to the intense geomorphic obstacle course that had been dubbed "The Gauntlet" by Davies, Philla broke the silence that had followed Havsoltek's pronouncement. "I wonder how he's got it configured this time?"

"I know one thing for certain," Davies replied. "no matter what you have in mind, it will not be what you suspected and it will be more difficult than you imagined possible."

"That last part goes without saying." Added Carek. "When I first got here I foolishly thought that, after my first time through, the Gauntlet would get easier. Flaming Suns and Comets was I wrong about that! The sad thing is, that mistake was only the first in a series of miscalculations about becoming a Jedi that I've made in the six months that I've been here."

"Carek my friend, we've all found that there's more to becoming a Jedi than any of us bargained for." Said Davies stopping before the door that led to the dreaded Gauntlet. "Who's first into the breech?"

"Well tradition says 'ladies first.'" Quipped Carek.

"Well you can stuff that 'tradition' where ever you got it from. Carek of the house of Argonaut." Keyed up by the pending test, Philla responded sharper than usual. "I say we flip a credit chip, odd man goes first."

"I was just kidding, Philla. Coin toss is fine by me."

Carek was the odd man and rather than prolong the inevitable, he plunged through the door and right into the thick of the Gauntlet. At one minute intervals, Philla, then Conrad followed.

 

Hours later, Carek and Lon-Chi were using Jedi meditation techniques to unwind from the exhausting physical and mental regimen that had, in the last few weeks, become the routine fare at the temple of Master Havsoltek.

"I think I've finally figured out his plan Carek." Said Lon-Chi massaging a particularly stubborn cramp in his left calf.

"Oh really, well would you be so kind as to share your epiphany with me?"

"It's all quite simple really, he runs us ragged for a year, anyone that survives the process, become Jedi by default."

"That's unusually cynical even for you."

"Sorry, I guess I'm just venting."

"I don't blame you for that, I've recently found myself wondering, if I might have failed to think this Jedi thing through enough."

"Look at us." Said Lon-Chi pouring himself a hot cup of Rendis, a beverage made from the bark of a Hazalroot tree, Rendis was known for its soothing effect to tired muscles and more importantly, for its ability to restore minor damage to muscles and blood vessels. "I've been here five months, you've been here six and for most of that time, our training has been demanding, but well within reason. Now that Master Havsoltek moves us to the next phase of our training we start whining like a couple of lonely Ghandel birds."

"Well, this must be another of those tests of character that he's always springing on us. We've just got to suck it up and endure."

"That's seems to be the only option we have, aside from quiting and I'm not about to do that." Lon-Chi looked at his chronometer. "I hate to have to end this thrilling philosophical debate, but as you know, I've got an early start tomorrow, so I'm going to turn in. Good morrow to you friend Carek." He said slipping into the formal speech of Essowyn.

"Peace to you friend Lon-Chi." Responded Carek with the formal reply. "I'm going to go see if any of the others are still about. I'm just too keyed up to sleep. See you in the morning."

"Right."

Carek found that the day's training had been difficult for everyone, the only other aspirant that hadn't already gone to sleep was Philla, whom he found pacing cat-like in the long hallway that led to the meditation room.

"I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one too wired to sleep." She said when she spotted Carek. "I don't know how much more of this pace I can stand Carek, running the Gauntlet almost killed me today."

Sensing that she was nearing the end of her tether, Carek reached out to his friend and cradled her gently.

"Come on now Philla," He said softly. "I know you're stronger than that. You took a pretty mean hit from that stun staff, but you have more strength than you give yourself credit for, we've all had set backs, you just have to trust in the Force to show you the way."

Wincing from both the physical pain of rotating her shoulder and the memory of the day's training, Philla suppressed a shudder. "Carek, I never saw that stun staff coming. Usually I can sort of sense when an attack is coming, I'm not saying I'm good enough to parry everything that comes my way, but even if I fail to parry, I have enough warning to roll with the blow. Today I didn't even know it was coming."

"Don't be so hard on yourself Philla, I couldn't believe how tough the Gauntlet was today. The stun staff that hit you was concealed in a tree in the middle of a holographic forest and it ambushed you while you were already under attack by a pair of practice droids that had you flanked."

"You got past it okay."

"Philla, I've been here six months, you've only been here six weeks, I only avoided that trap by vaulting between the droids. If I had tried to fight my way through them, I'm certain I would have been hit too."

"So, it was one of those 'find the least line of resistance' tests."

"See, I told you, you were smarter than you give yourself credit for."

"You said stronger."

"Stronger, smarter, what's the difference? All I know is you'll make an excellent Jedi one day if you can learn to trust in the Force."

"You haven't been here long enough to be able to see the future."

"True. However I do know people, and you are one of the smartest, strongest, and kindest people I've ever met. And if that isn't the very definition of a Jedi, then I don't know what is."

Philla canted her head as she thought about what Carek had said, then her face that had been tight with anxiety, softened and she smiled. "Thank you Carek. I think I might just be able to sleep now."

"The House of Argonaut stands ready to be of assistance at any time, M'lady."

"Now don't go getting formal on me." She laughed. "See you in the morning Carek."

"That you will."

 

When his chronometer's alarm went off at one-thirty the following morning, Lon-Chi cursed and rolled out of bed, moving quietly so as to not disturb Carek. He got dressed and took his place at the base of the meditation stone five minutes before two.

"Okay, I know there must be some hidden test, or message that I'm supposed to get out of this." He said to no one in particular, his gaze sweeping the room and coming to rest on the meditation stone.

He knelt down and idly ran his hand across the face of the obelisk.

"I don't suppose you can tell me something?" He was about to make a scathing comment about losing his mind for talking to a rock, when he felt the stone begin to resonate, caught by surprise he was unable to comment on the phenomenon before being gripped by a powerful vision.

The room melted away and Lon-Chi felt himself being swept into a maelstrom of brilliantly colored lights that quickly resolved itself into a vast metropolitan vista that could only be Coruscant. The perspective changed from bird's eye to that of someone standing on the highest ramparts of the Imperial palace. Lon-Chi was swept into the palace at breath taking speed and into a small side chamber. Lon-Chi felt his pulse quicken when he recognized two of the three occupants in the room. One was the hulking, black cloaked Darth Vader. The second was the aging form of the Emperor himself! The third man could only be a Jedi Knight, his ragged clothes and disheveled appearance could not hide his regal calm and demeanor.

Lon-Chi's vision began to cloud, but he could faintly hear the Emperor snarl a single word. "Submit." The Jedi Knight responded in a voice as peaceful as eternity itself. "I can not." Even through the mist that had all but completely obscured the scene, Lon-Chi could see the visage of the Emperor twist with hatred. The vision ended with the sight of jagged bolts of blue lightning striking the Jedi Knight and his horrible scream.

Lon-Chi was over come by the all encompassing blackness that followed the pain in that scream, a blackness that continued long after Lon-Chi knew that the vision had ended and he was once again in the relative safety of the meditation room. He managed to break physical contact with the stone before he collapsed from the awe inspiring power of the vision.

When Lon-Chi's eyes fluttered open, he was looking into the concerned face of his Master. "M-M-Mast...Master. I didn't..." He half croaked, trying to explain what had happened.

"I know Lon-Chi, I know you didn't fall asleep. I had hoped that you would attempt to further yourself and experiment with the stone, unfortunately there is no way of knowing what visions that you will be shown. I didn't mean for you to come to any harm, or for you to see so grim a version of our future. You need to relax for few minutes, I'm here and you are going to be okay."

After the room stopped spinning Lon-Chi asked "W-Who was that Jedi?"

"His name was Locean. I only met him once, years ago, but he was a good man and he deserved far better."

"Could we have helped him?"

"You still have much to learn Lon-Chi. The Force can show you things that have been, things that are, and things that will be. What the Force just revealed to you, occurred six weeks ago."

"If the Emperor is hunting down the Jedi, aren't we in danger?"

"The way of the Jedi has always been fraught with danger. You have chosen to enter an honorable profession at a dangerous time. It is not your fault that the Masters allowed themselves to dwindle and to become reclusive and isolated. Our teaching tradition was once one of enlightened knowledge, freely shared at a number of venerated Jedi academies. Now our ranks have sunk to the point that our formal training program has collapsed. Is it any wonder that the evil that the Jedi have held in check for millenia, is taking full advantage of our weakness to try and eliminate us once and for all?

"Palpatine is but the latest in a long line of Dark side champions that have tried to turn the Jedi to the Dark side and I'm sad to say that he will not be the last. We do however, face our greatest threat since Exar Kun seized the title of Dark Lord of the Sith four thousand years ago. Greater, as we do not have the infrastructure that we had then. And even with that intricate support system and mass of experience, it took the full might of the Jedi to stop Kun. So you need not blame yourself for the times we live in, or for events that have been building since the time of the Clone wars.

"I know this will be difficult after what you have just seen, but I want you to calm your mind and use your remaining time, before the others rise, meditating on meaning of what the Force has revealed to you."

"Yes Master."

"Excellent. I will see you in a hour."

 

Lon-Chi stood at his place in the meditation room and smiled as he watched the other students file in. He smiled for today was the last day of his week of penance. "It has also been a week since you let Locean die too." Some dark portion of his mind intruded, causing his smile to fade instantly.

"Now where did that come from?" He thought as he played back the dreadful day of his vision in his mind.

Although he was still reeling from the implications of what he had seen, Lon-Chi had managed to calm himself enough by the time the rest of the students arrived, that he was able to keep his vision to himself and to somehow make it through the day's training. He had ultimately chosen not to reveal what he had seen and despite the unease that vision had caused him, he had continued to use the meditation stone to try and fathom the vision's significance. However, the Force had only seen fit to show him mundane images that even he could see were of no consequence.

Master Havsoltek took his place and gazed slowly at each of his students.

"I want you all to know that I am very proud of all of you. The pace of training has been difficult and you have all met that challenge without wavering and without complaint. In the past month you have all noticed an increase in the intensity of the training and I think it is a testimony to your character that you have all continued to persevere in the face of such adversity. Today's training will consist of the Gauntlet for all of you, except for Argonaut who will execute the first cadence.

"I want you to be aware that today, the Gauntlet has been configured to be a test of teamwork. Oos Felorren will be team leader. You have one minute to prepare yourselves. Mr. Argonaut come with me."

Havsoltek spun on his heel so abruptly, that Carek had to trot to catch up. When they reached the duelling circle, Carek was surprised to see that the candelabrum had actual candles with wicks, instead of the usual ball bearings atop a wax cylinder.

"This is a low tech version of the standard cadence." Said Havsoltek before Carek could ask. "The object is instead of destroying a ball bearing, you must light the candle without damaging the wax. The wicks are larger targets, but lack the uniformity of size of the bearings and thus, this version is just

 as difficult to execute as the more modern version."

"Master, may I ask why the change?"

"I have always preferred this version as it is more aesthetically pleasing, but it is more advanced the the standard ball bearing test. You have all progressed to the point that it is time to begin with this version. Now, no more delays. Begin."

Carek brought himself to the ready position and ignited his blade.

 

"That's it Carek, let the Force flow." Said Havsoltek. "Shut off the conscious part of your mind and let the Force guide your hand."

Carek completed the cadence, closed his lightsaber down, and turned to face Havsoltek.

"You did very well with that last exercise, I think you're ready to move to the next stage of your training. Now, I want you to repeat the exercise left handed."

"Yes Master." Carek replied, shifting his lightsaber to his off hand and looked glumly at the task before him.

Havsoltek could clearly see the doubt on his student's face.

"You can do it Carek, just trust in the Force."

"Yes Master I will do my best."

"That's what I expect from you at all times. You do know how important it is for you to complete your training don't you?"

"Yes Master I do." Was what Carek replied, inside he thought. "Actually I have no idea why you're driving us so hard."

"Let's hope that you do. Begin."

Igniting his lightsaber, Carek began the exercise again.

"A great darkness has been set free to feast on the galaxy and precious few will survive it's grim harvest." Havsoltek thought as he watched his student and let his mind drift. "The death screams of the Jedi slain by Vader and Palpatine have slowed to a trickle and I fear that the visions that have tormented me of a galaxy bereft of Jedi may come true. The events of the future are never set until they have happened, but for now, the days of the Jedi are clearly numbered. I may not be able to stop the darkness that is upon us, but as long as these young Jedi can carry the spark of our order, then there will always be hope that the Jedi can be born anew. I can only hope that the other remaining Jedi Knights are doing the same to keep the flame from going out, so that some day, somewhere, some one will rise up and end this madness."

The still morning was suddenly shattered by the distinctive double sonic boom of at least two ships making a very fast re-entry.

"Who in the blazes is that!" Carek exclaimed as he halted in mid swing. He turned and saw his Master standing with his eyes unfocused, his face grimmer than Carek had ever seen.

"Carek! Round up the rest of the students and bring them here!"

"Master, tell me, what is wrong?"

"The Empire has arrived. NOW, MOVE!"

Carek raced out of the meditation room and up the stairs, calling for his fellow students.

Havsoltek turned and walked calmly to his meditation stone. The huge engraved stone platform was two meters square and a half meter thick. It had been carved at the ancient Jedi academy on the planet Ossus from a solid block of Valardine, a deep blood red stone found only on that world. The Jedi cherished Valardine above all other material for it's unique ability to absorb the psychic essence of someone it was in direct physical contact with, this property allowed the stone to become a focus to aid a Jedi when he called upon the Force. This stone had been a treasured heirloom of the Havsoltek family for more than a hundred generations and had been deeply ingrained with the Light side of the Force.

"Please forgive me this final self indulgence," Said Yevgenny as he caressed the fine runes that had been worked into the stone. "but I must know how my students will fair." The stone responded to his caress by gently starting to resonate.

"Light and Dark...Dark and Light..." Yevgenny gasped at the power of the vision. "a path of death and betrayal, but still one of hope..."

The clatter of feet on the stairs broke his concentration and forced him back to the here and now. He stepped clear of the stone and reached out with the Force. The stone slowly rose and revealed a narrow passage leading down.

"Hurry, there is precious little time." Said Havsoltek.

"Master what is going on?" Asked Lon-Chi. "Just before Carek alerted us to come here, I caught a glimpse of an Imperial assault shuttle."

"Now is not the time. Go!" Havsoltek pushed Lon-Chi into the passage and allowed the stone to drop back into place.

The passage was dimly lit from some unseen source above them and led off in four directions.

"Follow me. I will explain as I go." Havsoltek said as he struck off down the leftmost passage. "You are all aware that, since the Clone wars, the Jedi have been in decline. Our numbers have fallen to an all time low. That is one of the reasons that you have been training with me, instead of with a true master and at a proper Jedi academy. The second reason that you aren't training with a true Jedi Master, is that there aren't any left to teach you."

The apprentice Jedi all blinked in disbelief then they all tried to speak at once.

"What!"

"How can that..."

"Master, you can't be..."

"I know you have been wondering why I have been drilling you so hard in the last few weeks, but none of you have had the time to progress to the point where you could sense through the Force the horror that has befallen the sad remnant of our order. The Emperor and his foul lacky Darth Vader, have systematically hunted down the remaining Jedi Masters and have forced them to either submit to the Dark side of the Force or be destroyed. It would seem that most of them chose to fight, as their death screams have rippled through the Force like shockwaves, but I have not felt one of them in more than two years."

"Master Havsoltek?" Kalrendis managed to croak, her voice thick with emotion. "I...I have been troubled by a recurring dark dream in which I can hear someone, I don't know who, crying out in agony, then the scream cuts off with a horrible finality. You mean I've been hearing the 'death screams' of Jedi Masters?"

"Yes Philla, but what has disturbed your dreams, have been the death screams of Jedi Knights. The Masters have all been eliminated, now the Emperor has turned his attention to us. I have been trying to complete as much of your training as I could, in the little time that I have remaining with you."   Havsoltek had been setting a crushing pace through the twisting maze of tunnels, but this last statement brought all the students to an immediate halt.

"What do you mean 'little time remaining?'" Said Felorren. "Where do you expect us to go, if not with you?"

"And where is this maze taking us?" Added Cadson.

"We've got to keep moving." Havsoltek answered, redoubling his pace. "I'm taking you to the starport. I have a friend there named Toris Mons, he owns a freighter and more importantly, he also happens to owe me a favor. If we can avoid those stormtroopers up there, we stand a decent chance of escaping."

"You didn't answer my question." Said Felorren. "Why did you say we didn't have much time remaining together?"

The students could see the play of emotions on their master's face even in the gloom of the storm drains.

"I have foreseen that my destiny is not to finish what I have started. I knew that when I began teaching you, but my goal was not to save the Jedi personally, but to spread the living flame of the Jedi. I can not say for certain what will actually transpire, for the future can be changed by the choices made now, but either way, You are to be my greatest legacy. If you remember nothing else that I have taught you, remember that as long a spark remains, the Jedi are not defeated. One day there will be a return of the Jedi."

The Jedi students were too stunned by the power of their master's words to respond, so they followed him through the dank tunnels each lost in their own thoughts.

The frenzied march lasted close to an hour, before Havsoltek reached the access hatch that he had been seeking. He paused and extended his senses with the Force to carefully search the area around the hatch, before he quietly eased the hatch open. The alley was deserted and the fugitives quickly exited.

"Mons is in docking bay twenty-two. The name of his ship is the Tigershark." Havsoltek said to his students. "We are just outside of docking bay nineteen, this is as close as we can get below ground, from here on we will just have to trust in the Force.

"The stormtroopers will have the starport under heavy guard. We should be able to blend in with the crowd as long as you don't give them any reason to be suspicious, just remember the calming techniques I have showed you and we will be okay."

Havsoltek waited until the exit of the alley was obscured by a group of passing pedestrians before he, coolly exited from their hiding place. However all of his precautions failed to account for just how throughly the stormtroopers had been briefed. As soon as Havsoltek rounded the corner, he was challenged by a squad of stormtroopers.

"Halt! You are under arrest!" Barked the sergeant.

"I believe you are mistaken." Havsoltek said calmly as he reached out with the Force to take control of the man's mind.

"I believe I am mistaken." The sergeant parroted.

"We are free to go."

Before the sergeant could continue, the rest of the squad snapped their weapons into firing position. Havsoltek had to release his control of the sergeant and desperately dodge the intense blaster fire, drawing his lightsaber as he evaded away from the troopers.

Conrad Davies burst from cover, lightsaber ignited and at the ready. "You have made your last mistake!" He said slashing the sergeant in half.

Havsoltek took full advantage of Davies' diversion the finish off the rest of the troopers. Havsoltek's attack was so thorough that the troopers were unable to score even one hit. But the damage was done, the troopers had managed to send a frantic call for help that had broadcasted the location of the fugitives to the Imperial commander.

"Run for it! It's our only hope!" Havsoltek called out as he rallied his students.

The Jedi had covered less than a hundred meters, when they spotted at least a company of stormtroopers approaching from three sides. One platoon blocked the corridor that led to docking bay twenty-two and it was against this platoon that the Jedi fell upon with desperation.

The Jedi were in such close proximity to their comrades that the disengaged platoons could not fire. The stormtrooper captain ordered half his men to close into hand-to-hand range and the other half to set their blasters on stun. The delay gave the Jedi time to shatter the blocking platoon and make a break for docking bay twenty-two.

"Conrad, you take point." Yevgenny hollered somehow making himself heard above the roar of the blasters. "I've got the rear! Everyone stay alert!"

The Jedi raced the last fifty meters to the huge bay doors.

 

Toris Mons was assisting his co-pilot Drex Dunhill make minor repairs on the Tigershark's lateral thrusters when the sounds of the furious blaster fusillade overpowered the din of the powerspanner that he was using.

"What in the moons of Nar Hutta is..." Said Mons wrenching off his safety goggles, his mouth dropping open in shock. "Yevgenny! I might have known." He added when he spotted his friend. "Drex close that panel! We're making an unscheduled lift!"

"Unscheduled lift he says." Drex responded cringing from the stray blaster bolts that had started to strike the ship, but the delay cost him his life.

The captain of the stormtroopers had realized that his quarry was about to escape, and not wishing to be assigned to a penal battalion, had called for reinforcements. As the students were sprinting for the Tigershark and as Drex rolled down from the top of the ship, a second company of stormtroopers arrived and the already intense volume of blaster fire doubled.

Drex was the first to die. He had reached the base of the loading ramp when he was hit by a volley of fire that tossed his broken body aside like it was a rag doll.

The student's were as yet unharmed due to the skill of their master. Yevgenny's lightsaber flashed through the air like a living thing, deflecting the deadly bolts away from his beloved students. However, even though the Jedi had decimated one of the platoons of stormtroopers, there were still more than two hundred and fifty of the Imperial shock troops firing on them and not even a fully trained Jedi Knight could deflect the mass of fire that they faced.

The students formation had become strung out in the mad dash for the docking bay. Davies was leading the pack by virtue of having been told to take point by Havsoltek. Close on Davies' heels was Jenall Cadson, who was taking every advantage of his upbringing as a Seraccan steppe runner to evade the deadly hail of blaster bolts. Oos Felorren and Philla Kalrendis were in the middle of the fleeing Jedi, while Carek Argonaut and Lon-Chi Wilks, with their master covering the retreat, brought up the rear.

When the initial volley from the second company of stormtrooper's scythed toward the Jedi, Yevgenny was forced to make the hardest decision of his life. He was helped by the fact that as he trusted to the Force, Davies and Cadson managed to board the Tigershark milliseconds ahead of the blinding wall of fire, making Havsoltek's job easier by one third.

"May the Force forgive me for not being able to cover them all!"

Unable to extend his protection to the two students farthest from him, Yevgenny concentrated on trying to save Carek and Lon-Chi. Yevgenny became a blur of motion and even though he stretched his Jedi talents to the limit, it just wasn't enough. Lon-Chi was hit square in the sternum and instantly crumpled. Carek somehow managed to catch his room mate, but took a bolt in his left shoulder doing so. Carek fought off the pain that threatened to engulf him and stayed on his feet and continued to move toward the Tigershark.

Unprotected by their master, and possessing no special training of their own, Oos Felorren and Philla Kalrendis were both hit immediately. Felorren was shot to pieces as he sacrificed his dying body in a final and futile attempt to save Kalrendis.

Facing the certain death of Carek and Lon-Chi, Yevgenny reached down to the very core of his being and where he had been a blur before, he became a ghostly apparition behind a wall of lambent light cast by his lightsaber as he closed on the nearest Imperials.

The stormtrooper captains didn't even notice the two wounded Jedi reach the battered old freighter, as both were too stunned by the sight of the lone figure charging into and completely annihilating a platoon of troopers. After a second of shock, they both ordered their entire companies to open fire on the deadly menace.

Toris Mons had to make a hard decision too. When he saw his friend charge into the Imperials, he knew what Yevgenny was doing and why, with tears streaming down his face, he began punching in the code that would over ride the safeties on the repulsor drives.

"Must make it!" Carek said with single minded intensity as he forced his body to cover the last five meters to the boarding ramp. He had to ignore the bodies of his friends Oos and Philla. He had to ignore the blood that flowed freely from the gaping hole in Lon-Chi's chest. He had to ignore the agony in his shoulder. Carek's life had become the boarding ramp. He could see Jenall waiting for him on the ramp, his subconscious mind even noticed Davies enter the Tigershark's dorsal turret and begin firing on the troopers.

Once both of Carek's feet were solidly on the boarding ramp, the Tigershark lifted. The unexpected movement caused Carek to pitch forward and both he and Lon-Chi sprawled headlong. Jenall pounced from where he had taken cover in the airlock and pulled Lon-Chi inside.

"NNNOOOOOO! WAIT! The Master isn't aboard yet!" Carek roared as he rolled over and looked back for the missing Jedi Knight. Toris Mons chose that moment to pivot the Tigershark around for the exit and the movement allowed Carek to catch sight of Havsoltek. The beleaguered Jedi Knight was surrounded by a mound of stormtroopers. Havsoltek's robes were in tatters from multiple blaster burns.

"Carek! Give me your hand!" Said Jenall from the airlock. "You've got to come in!"  Carek whipped his head around to face Cadson. "NO! The master is still alive. We've got to save him!"

"What's that damn fool's problem?" Snarled Toris Mons who had been waiting to engage the boarding ramp's closing mechanism. The comm system was pinging furiously and Mons saw the docking bay doors begin to close, knowing he was unable to wait any longer, he punched the close switch and slammed twenty-five percent above rated maximum power into the repulsor drive.

The sudden motion caused Jenall to stagger back from the airlock's hatch. The closing ramp caused Carek to slide toward the airlock. As he slid to safety, from the corner of his eye, he saw Havsoltek stagger. The Tigershark was pulling, thanks to the safety over ride, five Gs and Carek had to fight to keep the sight of his master in focus, but the last thing he saw before the hatch closed, was Havsoltek's empty robes collapsing upon themselves.

"Th-Th-That can't be." He stammered as Jenall pulled him out of the airlock.

"What can't be?"

"Didn't you see what happened to the master?"

"No. I was too busy getting Lon-Chi into the rec room. What did you see?"

"Nothing. I...I guess I'm just seeing things. Is Lon-Chi going to make it?"

"I'm sorry Carek, Lon-Chi is dead. He died saying something about joining someone named Locean. Whatever that means. You, however are going to make it as soon as I can get a medpac on you."

"What are we going to do?"

"That my friend is an outstanding question."

 

"Five minutes to realspace children," The intercom crackled. "you'd better strap in. I'm pullin' an old smuggler's trick and usin' a sandstorm to mask our arrival from approach control and I can guaranty it's goin' to get rough."

Carek and Jenall were sitting in the Tigershark's tiny lounge contemplating their now uncertain fate. Carek looked at his chronometer as he strapped in.

"Five days. Can it really only be five days since...since..." He started, but could not finish. The pain was still too new, too sharp to face straight on.

"I know Carek." Said Jenall Cadson. "I can't believe that our master is gone either."

"I've known for a long time that Jedi didn't have a place in the Emperor's the New Order, but I just couldn't bring myself to believe that the Purge was real. I guess there's no doubt about that now."

"Where's Davies?" Jenall sneered, contempt for his ex-comrade plain to see.

"In the cockpit I suppose, after all he is the new co-pilot for this old tub."

"I still can't believe that he would betray everything the Master stood for so easily, he was the Master's first student and was with him longer than any of us. Davies should have been the first to suggest joining the rebellion."

"I know Jenall, but he's made his choice and there is nothing we can do about it."

Jenall started in again about betrayals and loyalties and that made Carek sigh deeply. He had had this discussion with Cadson several times since Davies made his stunning decision that he would be replacing Drex as Mons' co-pilot and that he was forever

renouncing becoming a Jedi. Jenall just could not accept Davies' decision and the two had very nearly come to blows when Davies first announced his decision.

Davies had entered the cargo hold where Carek and Jenall were practicing the first lightsaber cadence with a crude facsimile of the candle and ball bearing test they had managed to construct. Davies asked to borrow Cadson's weapon, who although mystified by his friends request, agreed. Davies tossed his own lightsaber into the air and sliced it into three pieces.

"I've agreed to become Toris' co-pilot. If you two have any sense, you'll find yourself some out of the way, loser planet and become a nerf herder."

"I never had you pegged as a coward Davies." Cadson responded quietly, his hands flexing rapidly open and closed.

Davies stopped and looked at Cadson with eyes as hard as flint.

"If you knew anything about my life before I met Havsoltek, I would break every bone in your scrawny body. Because we were once friends I will remind you this just once, I am no longer bound by the Jedi code. You had better remember this if you ever choose to accuse me of being a coward again."

Davies walked out of the cargo bay and had not spoken to Jenall, or Carek again.

The two remaining Jedi were so stunned by the revelation that the man they considered their leader would not lead them, that it was up to Toris Mons to give them direction again. Short on ideas at the time of the rapid departure from Chanlot, Mons had chosen to make contact with a mutual friend of Havsoltek and his, a Twi'lek by the name of Dag Caltare who lived on the remote planet of Tatooine. Dag was an information broker and Mons figured that, if anyone could find a home for the two young Jedi it would be Dag.

When Mons explained this to Jenall and Carek, Jenall perked up for the first time since they entered hyperspace.

"Does this Caltare have any contacts with the Rebellion?"

"Uh...I'm...not sure." Mons replied, clearly holding something back.

"Please, Captain Mons I beg of you. We have just lost everything we owned and most of what we believed in." Jenall said with eyes bright with tears. "I have to get in contact with the rebellion. They are the only ones that are trying to stop that maniac Palpatine. I owe it to Master Havsoltek to take up the fight he couldn't be here for, please help me do what's right."

"Son, danged if'n you don't want to go from the black hole, straight into the super nova. You're already wanted for bein' a Jedi, why would you want to hook up with the only other people that are as high on his majesties wanted list."

"I owe to the Master."

"We owe it to the Master." Added Carek with a determined nod.

"Okay, okay. If'n you two are so fired up to jump down the Sarlacc's throat. Yes, Dag can get you in contact with the rebellion. We'll look him up in the Mos Eisley cantina as soon as we get there."

The rest of the flight to Tatooine had been an exercise in boredom. Carek and Jenall had spent a fair portion of the journey trying to figure out how they had escaped from Chandlot so easily, after the intensity of the attack they had to endure to get to the ship.

"Well I'm not too sure about how we pulled that off either. I was certain when we broke orbit, we were about to make the final jump." Said Mons when the two Jedi eventually came to him for the answer. "I made as much use of Chandlot's southern pole's magnetic interference as I could, but that's an old, old trick. I guess that the captain of that Dreadnaught cruiser must not have had any anti-smuggler patrol experience. He had his fighters at the wrong latitude for an intercept. I dropped straight down off the galactic plane until we were free of the planet's gravity well and hit the jump sequence for lightspeed. I guess we just got lucky."

The Tigershark began to vibrate and a violent shudder shook the entire ship as Captain Mons fought with the raging, winds that tossed the ship about with a jolt that brought Carek out of his revelry.

"And I thought our departure from Chanlot was a wild ride." Jenall grunted as the ship pitched down alarmingly, almost righting itself, then rocking violently from a huge explosion.

"ABANDON SHIP!" Mons managed to make himself heard above the scream of the dying ship. "Get out and get out now! The repulsors have failed and we're going down!"

Carek and Jenall looked blankly at each other, then they each punched the quick release on their safety harness.

 

In the cockpit, a quick glance at the status board told Mons all he needed to know. The sandstorm's negative ionic charge had caused the primary repulsor field coil, which unknown to Mons had microfractured from his earlier over load, to depolarize and shatter. The resultant explosion had caused a fire that activated the safety shut down of the main fusion reactor, cutting power to the ship's sublight drive and thrusters. Re-initiating the reactor would take longer then they had time for, the Tigershark was going to crash.

Mons turned to face his new co-pilot, and found Davies staring at the rapidly approaching surface of Tatooine.

"WHAT ARE YOU WASTING TIME FOR? GIT!"

"Not without you. I've already lost one mentor this week. I'm not going to lose another."

"Look Conrad, The inertia dampners are offline. If someone doesn't hold the old girl steady, centrifugal force will keep anybody from reachin' the pod. Now, I'm givin' you an order. Get to the pod!"

The look on Conrad's tormented face made it clear what he thought of that order.

"It's okay son. I got us into this mess and I'm going to get you out of it."

"If anyone can do it, you can sir." Said Davies as he finally turned and raced for the pod.

Once he was alone, Mons rerouted power from the life support emergency backup battery to give him partial maneuvering thrusters.

"I'm not goin' to be needin' life support where I'm goin' and it'll give me just enough control to save those young'uns."

 

In the main cabin, Jenall and Carek had freed themselves and were struggling for the pod. As they fought to keep their feet, an automated abandon ship siren started to sound, triggered by a ground proximity sensor, a strident voice burst over the intercom.

"WARNING! IMPACT WITH SURFACE OF PLANET IMMINENT! IMPACT IN TEN SECONDS. TEN. NINE. EIGHT..."

Despite Mons' efforts to keep the ship stable, the wildly careening deck was making it all but impossible for the scrambling Jedi to reach the pod.

"SEVEN. SIX..."

Jenall had had the fortune of being closest to the escape pod when the evacuation order came over the intercom and once again, his years as a steppe runner aided him. When he reached the pod, he looked back and saw that Carek was a good five meters from safety and was not going to make it.

"FIVE. FOUR..."

  Knowing that Carek outmassed him by twenty kilos and that he would never be able to pull his friend aboard the pod in time, Jenall made a decision.

"THREE. TWO..."

In the cockpit, Mons could see the ground clearly and knew it was time to play his last sabacc chip. He rolled the ship slightly to starboard, so that the escape pod, which was mounted on the port ship of the ship, would be able to blast high and clear. The roll however, put the exposed cockpit closest to the ground. Mons knew this, as it also ment that cockpit would absorb the initial impact and give anyone who didn't reach the pod a very slight chance of surviving the "decelleration trama" of the crash.

"ONE..."

"There's only one way to handle a heavy load..." Thought Jenall as he spun around and grabbed Carek's arm, using the momentum of his pivot, and adding his full wiry strength, he swung Carek into the pod. "...you put your back into it." The natural reaction from his swing, caused Jenall to be flung away from the pod. Jenall stabbed at the lunch control and watched it seal and blast free. He had less than a second to register Davies' strangled gasp behind him and to savor the priceless look of surprise on Carek's face, before the Tigershark impacted with bone crushing force and everything went black.

 

"Jenall how could you..." Carek croaked from the escape pod's tiny viewport. "you were safe. Why would sacrifice yourself for me?"

Carek did not actually see the crash of the Tigershark, when he reached the viewport, the ship had already flipped on it's back, exploded and was completely engulfed in flames. The pod was caught by the fringe of the sandstorm and by the time Carek and the autopilot gained control, the dark plume of smoke that marked the passing of the Tigershark, was no longer even visible.

Alone and far from help, Carek had to make the toughest choice of his life. The pod did not contain sufficient supplies to mount an overland trek into kilometers of trackless desert, Carek's only viable option was to head for the nearest settlement.

The Tigershark had gone down just ahead of sunset and the twin suns had sunk below the horizon, bathing the bleak landscape in twilight. Carek had gathered the survival gear he would need for the fifty kilometer hike to Mos Eisley. He stood silently and faced the first of the stars that had begun to sprinkle the vast open sky.

"Davies. Felorren. Kalrendis. Wilks. Cadson. Havsoltek. I will never forget you. I will honor your memories by never giving up the Master's dream of keeping the spark of the Jedi alive. I don't know why I have been chosen to carry on your legacy, but by the Force and all that is right in this galaxy. I swear, I will see the return of the Jedi!"

Guiding on the distant glow of Mos Eisley, Carek began his journey.


  "I'm looking for Dag Caltare." A foot sore Carek asked the grizzled bartender of the bizarre Cantina.

The man looked Carek up and down, shrugged and nodded towards a lone figure sitting a table in the center of the room.

"Thanks." Said Carek and flipped the man a ten credit piece, which the bartender deftly caught and pocketed.

Carek had to wend his way though a crowd that contained more aliens than he had ever seen in his life. He tried to be discrete, as he all but stared at the bewildering array of creatures that were assembled in the smoke filled room. Carefully avoiding a tall, insectoid that staggered into his path, Carek reached the shadowed figure which had resolved itself into a cloaked Twi'lek.

"Excuse me. Are you Dag Caltare?" Carek shouted above the din of the crowd.

"Whom is wishing to know?"

"My name is Carek. I am...was a friend of Toris Mons."

"What are you to be meaning, was?"

"His ship the Tigershark crashed in the desert two days ago. I was the only survivor."

The Twi'lek's brain tails twitched and Caltare's yellow eyes bored into Carek's grey eyes, looking for signs of a lie.

"This is news of the worst sort. Please to be having..."

Before Caltare could finish, there was a loud commotion at the Cantina's front entrance. Carek glanced that way, only because anything that could make a commotion loud enough to be heard over the constant roar of the patrons was worth noting. When Carek saw what had caused the problem, his blood froze.

"Stormtroopers! How could they have found me so fast?" Carek gasped.

The four troopers were holding their rifles at port arms as they forced their way through the crowd. Carek certain that he had been tracked down, looked about desperately for a means of escape. The stormtroopers, however ignored Carek and leveled their weapons at Caltare.

"I don't know what you've done my friend, but if you were a friend of my master," Carek called out to Dag as he whipped out his lightsaber, "then, I will not let them take you without a fight!"

Carek opened himself to the Force and lashed at the nearest trooper. Caught completely by surprise by the flashing blade, the trooper was down before he realized he was dead. Carek stuck at the next of the troopers, who was cut down while still in the middle of reacting to this unexpected threat. Carek became aware that some people in the crowd were firing on the remaining troopers. Caught in a crossfire and facing Carek's lightsaber, the last two troopers fell without getting a chance to fire.

"We must to be going." Said Caltare pressing something into Carek's hand. "Thanks I am owing you." He added as he rushed out the door. "That's actually a lightsaber." Said a mousy, little man that Carek recognized as one of the shooters. "You can't really be a Jedi. They're all dead."

"We don't have time for 'let's admire the antique' Jarrus, we've got to get out of here." Said a stocky black haired man. "I'm Rex, Captain of the Wandering Bantha. This is my engineer Jarrus. I saw Dag slip you a data disk, that disk holds the coordinates to our rendezvous. I can only guess that you're here for the reason we all are." He said indicating four other men that had joined him.

"And that reason is?" Asked Carek trying to maintain some form of control on a situation that was rapidly approaching meltdown.

"Don't play games with us kid." A burly man wearing bounty hunter armor said harshly, then dropping his voice to whisper. "We're all trying to get in contact with the Rebellion and that data disk is where we have to go. Now either you're in, or hand over that disk!"

"I'm in." Carek said without hesitation. "Where's your ship?"

"We got trouble." Said a bald man with an oddly tattooed face. "More troopers inbound."

"Out the back. Now." Yelled the bounty hunter over his shoulder as he reached the exit.

The rest of the would-be rebels raced after the hunter and between using the crowd for cover and Rex's intimate knowledge of Mos Eisley's twisted alleys, they gave the stormtroopers the slip. Carek and the others were very fortunate that Rex had parked his ship in the nearby docking bay eighty-six and they reached the Wandering Bantha well ahead of any pursuit.

"I never got your name kid." Said Rex as they dodged across the last bit of open ground before the docking bay doors.

Carek hesitated as the weathered paint of the huge doors had given him an unwelcome touch of deja vu of the last time he raced for a ship with stormtroopers in pursuit.

"Uh...Carek. Carek Argonaut."

"Oh by the way, good work with that antique."

"Antique?"

"The lightsaber. Never actually seen one in use before. I guess they live up to the legend." Rex reached the access panel and entered his security code. While the boarding ramp lowered he added. "Okay, all aboard that's going aboard. You all better strap in, this is going to be a bumpy ride." He turned to Carek. "Give me the disk kid. I've got to start the plot."

Carek thought of the events that had brought to this point and with no one else left to trust, he decided that it was time to trust again.

"You got a gunner?" He said handing over the disk.

"Just you. Follow me. Leland, why don't you come along, I'm going to need a co-pilot."

"You got it slick." Said the scruffiest looking of the men from the cantina detaching himself from a safety harness, following Rex's lead.

"This is the turret access Carek." Rex said indicating a small ladder leading upwards. "The Bantha only mounts twins. I haven't had the ship long enough to make the sort of modifications I would like make."

"Twins are better than nothing, Rex. Clear skys." Said Carek scrambling up the ladder and into the gunner's seat. "I hope I don't end up looking like a fool." Thought Carek stepping through the twin laser's power up sequence. The Bantha had lifted by the time the laser power indicator shifted from stand by to ready. Carek activated the targeting scope and got an immediate return.

"Carek to Rex. I'm tracking four TIE fighters inbound angels twenty-seven."

"Roger, Guns. Weapons free. You need to keep them off us for..." Rex paused and was obviously talking to Leland. "Thirty seconds. Good hunting. Rex out."

"Thirty seconds! I've never..." Carek stopped himself. "I've never struck anyone down with a lightsaber before today either. Okay Argonaut, your big mouth got you here, it's time to deliver."

Carek began tracking the closest TIE, his mouth as dry as the Tatooine desert. The TIEs began firing as soon as they reached long range. Carek spasmodically pulled the trigger when he saw the red flashes of laser fire darting toward the ship. Rex rolled sharply to port and the deadly streams passed on either side of the ship.

"Twenty seconds to lightspeed." Rex barked over the intercom.

"I know. I know. I'm doing my best!" Carek shouted back in frustration and this time taking careful aim before firing.

The Bantha jinked hard, then pulled up in a steep climbing turn to the right. The maneuver had the desired effect of causing the TIE's fire to go wide, but it also caused Carek's carefully aimed burst to miss as well.

"Flaming suns and comets! I had him that time." Carek hissed and realigned for another shot.

"Ten seconds."

"Oh shut up."

The superior speed of the TIE fighters had allowed the Imperials to close to short range with the Bantha. Carek calmed his mind and this time let the Force guide his hand. He saw the lead TIE swell in the targeting reticle and gently squeezed the trigger. Carek watched twin green bursts from his lasers strike the center of the TIE fighter's cockpit and with the detached part of his mind, he saw the TIE become a flaming ball of hot gasses. At that point the stars stretched into starlines and the remaining three TIEs were left far behind.

As Carek climbed down turret access ladder, he was met by Rex and Leland.

"Good shooting Carek!" Said Leland. "How do you feel about getting your first kill?"

"He was just misguided. I take no joy in his death.'

"You've got a lot to learn." Leland replied pushing past Carek and heading for the ship's lounge.

"You'll have to excuse him," Said Rex. "he's kind of hyper. Come on, you haven't had a chance to meet the others."

With the danger behind them now, the crew and passengers of the Wandering Bantha had a chance to meet and exchange their reasons for wanting to join the rebellion.

Kyle, had the build of a bounty hunter, he was nearly two meters tall and massed an even hundred kilos. He kept his black hair long, to keep his rugged square face in shadow. His black eyes never seemed to rest and never missed a thing.

He wanted to meet with the rebellion for retribution on a crooked Imperial Moff. He had been sent to capture a scientist with a legitimate bounty for the Moff and Kyle had delivered the man to the Moff alive, as the bounty required, then instead of payment, the Moff ordered his stormtroopers to "eliminate this jackal." Kyle had had to shoot his way clear and escape via his jetpack, but it had been far too close. Kyle felt that if the Empire could no longer be trusted, it was time to link up with the people trying to eliminate them.

Leland Archimedes was an enigma, he was 180 centimeters tall and a solid eighty kilos, with sandy brown hair and languid blue eyes. He claimed that he was just looking for a job. His employer had died unexpectedly while on Tatooine. Afterwards Leland discovered that his boss was deeply in debt, to salvage his boss' reputation, he sold what was now his own ship to pay the debt. This left Leland without a ship and without a job. While selling the ship, a contact of a contact had mentioned Dag. "I'm the best pilot there is and while I ain't no crusader, I need a job bad enough to go where the jobs are, and if that means working for the rebels, then as long as that's the only game in town, then I'm in. But just remember, if something better comes along, I'm leavin' faster than a scalded Mynock."

Jarrus Schnellman could best be described as mousy. Small of frame and a quiet manner, he had the type of face you would never see in a crowd and even if you spoke to him directly, you wouldn't remember either his name or his face five minutes later. He was an unlikely candidate for joining the rebellion, but if you mentioned the Empire, he would wax eloquent on how Palpatine was a tyrant and how he must be resisted in any way possible.

Physically, Lazarus Maxenties was the most interesting of the lot. He was a near human who had evolved on a world that rarely saw a day above five degrees. At a glance, you would think he was an albino, his skin was that pale, however his violet eyes and hyacinth hair showed that he was not a true albino.

His story was a sad one. He was a droid repairman, and a good one, with no reason to get involved in the affairs of the galaxy. Until an Imperial star destroyer, by way of a precision orbital bombardment, showed his home world "a demonstration" to those who would consider not paying their proper taxes. The "precision" of the demonstration, of course included a small amount of collateral damage. Lazarus explained that the "collateral damage" included his entire family killed when his shop was destroyed by an errant turbolaser salvo.

Ardent Belial Mo'duaglozen looked every bit of the mercenary warrior that he claimed to be. His odd last name was actually the clan that owned him. His initiation into his clan had left him with a shaved head and a distinctive set of tattoos that ringed his left eye and marred his left cheek.

His world was only at the steam age of developement, when the Empire made contact with his clan leaders and began contracting whole regiments to fight for the Empire. Ardent's regiment had been wiped out when Imperial reinforcements failed to arrive. One of only a handful of survivors, Ardent wandered about near penniless in a society far in advance of his own, until being abandoned on Tatooine by a freighter captain that no longer had need for a strong back and a weak mind. Ardent had heard of the rebellion during his wanderings and decided it would be an excellent way to strike back for his regiment being betrayed.

Rex, the owner of the Wandering Bantha, was a rakishly handsome man of twenty-five with short black hair, brown eyes, and that certain something that just made you want to like him. As the captain of a free trader, he would normally not be involved in a losing deal like the rebellion, but an Imperial customs official had had Rex's co-pilot killed right in front of him, for no other reason than to make a point about keeping maintenance records up to date.

They were an eclectic lot, as different as you could ask any seven people to be.

 The coordinates that Dag gave Carek were to a base in the Candotti system. The Bantha was allowed to dock at basestation Heracles only after Carek mentioned that they were friends of Dag. When the Bantha landed they were met by a large security detachment led by a woman who would have been considered pretty if not for her somber demeanor. The woman stepped up to each would-be rebel and placed her hand on their temple for a few seconds, Carek recognized this as a Jedi mind search technique. The woman seemed satisfied.

“I am Ehrinn Challis the base commander,” She said.

“follow me to your quarters. I will tell you your assignments as soon as I have a chance to check your qualifications.” Then as an afterthought she added. “welcome to the Rebel Alliance.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

 

 

"We've just received a coded message for you Commander Maldamon." Said the young Imperial lieutenant, his voice a study in carefully practiced neutrality. He had learned the hard way, that the Empire's anti-alien policies did not apply to Dark Jedi. He had also learned the hard way, that this alien was to be shown the greatest possible respect at all times.

The alien in question was a tall, black and white furred biped that easily massing a hundred kilos. He had large pivoting ears and even larger tarsier-like eyes to mark his nocturnal and arboreal ancestry.

The brooding figure did not acknowledge him.

The lieutenant assumed the position of attention and waited. On his first day of duty, the lieutenant had made the mistake of looking down his nose and sneering his disapproval at having to deliver a message to an alien. It had taken three operations for the ship's surgeon to rebuild the lieutenant's leg from the telekinetic rending that the Dark Jedi had inflicted. The lieutenant knew better now, and he was prepared to wait until he was acknowledged, be that in an hour, or be that next week.

When it became obvious that the once arrogant human would not be foolish enough to earn another session of 'special instruction,' Maldamon finally answered. "Who is it from?"

"The code header indicates Lord Vader. Sir."

"I'll take it here."

"As you command sir."

Once he was alone, Maldamon activated the holotransmitter. A short burst of multicolored light resolved itself into the grim form of the Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader.

"There has been a Sighting." Said the expressionless black armored form.

Maldamon inhaled sharply. A Sighting was an Imperial euphemism for the detection of an unturned Jedi. The purge had been so effective, that a true sighting had become a very rare occurrence. "May I ask where my Lord?"

"Out on the rim, on a backwater planet known as Tatooine. A group of rebel sympathizers stopped a detachment of stormtroopers from arresting a suspected rebel informant. Only one of the troopers survived the attack, however, he was most emphatic when he was debriefed, that one of the rebels attacked them with a lightsaber.

"You and the Predator are the closest to Tatooine. You will proceed there immediately. You are now detached from all other duties until this young one has been turned. Do not fail, the Emperor is watching."

The transmission ended as abruptly as it began.

"A Sighting! And the singular honor of turning him had been given to me!" Maldamon smiled an evil smile as he savored the moment. He knew that since Lord Vader was not pursuing the Sighting himself, that it could not be a true Jedi Knight that had been located, only some lesser student with pretentions of being a Jedi. But, the chance to turn another Jedi to the Dark Side was still the greatest honor that one who served the Emperor could be given. He smiled again as he remembered his mentor's comment that the Emperor was watching. "No. My Lord Vader I will not fail."

He reached for the intership comm, then stopped himself. Instead he crossed the lavishly appointed captain's ready room that he had claimed for himself and entered the bridge.

"Navigator, plot a course for Tatooine. Minimum time, no mistakes. Helmsman, execute when ready." He pivoted and returned to his ready room.

Once alone, Maldamon allowed himself to luxuriate in the moment. "The chase is on little one. And one way or the other, you will be mine."

The Victory class star destroyer Predator gathered herself and lept to hyperspeed moving five percent past her top rated speed. The chase, was indeed, on.

 

The would-be rebels had to wait for three days before Challis was satisfied that they were not Imperial spies. She joined them in their spartan quarters to tell them their new assignment. While Leland had the lofty dream of being assigned to an X-wing squadron, The rest of them just hoped for positions in the Rebel army.

It turned out that they would be assigned to work together aboard the Bantha. Their primary function would be to run supplies, taking full advantage of the Wandering Bantha not being affiliated with the rebellion.

The team proved itself to be more than cargo haulers on their very first mission. During, what was supposed to be the simple pick up of a shipment of weapons from a cyborged human gunrunner named Arcturus. Team Bantha ended up capturing a passenger liner and turning it over to the rebellion, after turning the tables on a band of pirates that had hijacked the liner that Arcturus was smuggling the weapons on.

It was while inspecting the modest one hundred and fifty passenger liner that Challis stopped thinking of them as supply runners and began thinking of them as a candidates for a special operations team.

 

"How certain are you of what you reported? Your life depends on its accuracy" Maldamon said with his huge yellow eyes boring into the terrified human before him. It had been eleven days since the Tatooine sighting and the trail was of course cold by the time the Predator had arrived. Maldamon's systematic search had not yielded anything useful and that had forced him to call on less savory means to find his prey.

While it was a well known fact that the Empire had spies and informants everywhere, what was not as well known, was that the Empire paid a handsome bonus for a confirmed sighting of a Jedi. That description included anyone that exhibited Jedi-like powers, to include using a lightsaber.

The small, nondescript human that stood trembling before the Dark Jedi had reported in with the first lead since the initial sighting. "Ab-Absolutely certain, sir." The informant quavered. "Information is my life, sir. Accuracy is vital to my livelihood. My orders were to follow Arcturus the cyborged human gun runner and report on his activities. The liner that we were on was hijacked by a pirate group known as the Starwolves. Things got confusing during the seizure, but, I am certain that cyborg was not involved in the hijacking.

I could not observe Arcturus during the time that the pirates were running the ship, as initially, we were confined to our quarters. However, just prior to a scheduled rendezvous with a stock light freighter, a few passengers were allowed out of their quarters to lend credence to the 'everything is okay' ploy the pirates tried to pull off."

"What type of ship was it?" Maldamon asked neutrally.

"A Corellian YT1300. I couldn't get her name." The informant answered instantly. "I'm not sure how they figured it out, they looked like tauntaun fodder to me, but somehow they made the pirates. The pirates made the mistake of trying to take them down and all conflagration broke out. They may have looked like fodder, but sir, they knew how to fight."

"Was that when you saw the man wielding a lightsaber?"

"Yes sir. I've never actually seen one in action before, but I'm certain of what it was. The pirates were caught offguard by the intensity of the rebel's initial attack and they never managed to recover."

"How did you escape?"

"I wasn't given a choice. All the passengers, except for Arcturus, were placed in escape pods and ejected. They must have signalled the local customs patrol before they jumped, as we were picked up less than three standard hours later."

"Very good. You have served me well. Go now I have much thinking to do."

The informant nodded once and breathed a sigh of relief as he left.

"Do you believe him sir?" Asked Maldamon's assistant, Lieutenant Hudek Rahos of the Imperial Security Bureau.

"Yes. If he had lied to me, he would not have left my ready room alive."

"So that confirms the Tatooine Sighting sir."

"Yes it does." Maldamon looked out of his ready room without really noticing the splendor of the Damascine Nebula that bathed the Predator in a soft red glow. "I'm going to have to set a trap for this upstart. I think it's time to welcome the fly to my parlor."

"How can you be sure that the Rebels will send the Jedi sir?"

"The two sightings occurred within F'ek'tok sector, a area of space known for its desolation. It is thus a perfect location for a rebel base. My parlor is less than five days travel from the F'ek'tok sector. Were I in the rebel commander's place, for a prize as valuable as the one which I will offer, I would have to send my best operatives to insure its safe acquisition and transportation.

"The rebels still worship the memory of the Jedi and it is certain that the rebel commander will have great faith in this neophyte, no matter how weak he may actually be. I am positive that this young one will be sent. Even if only for luck, he will be there."

"You have forseen this sir?"

"No I have not. I am well aware of the status of aliens in the Empire. I have studied human behavior in order to gain the advantage, where I otherwise would have none. The rebel commander will send his Jedi cub. I want you to handle the necessary signals personally."

"All will be ready sir."

"Leave me, I must prepare. I want it made clear I am not to be disturbed for anything less than a message from Lord Vader or the Emperor himself."

"As you command sir."

Maldamon watched his assistant leave. He then turned back toward the transparisteel viewport and the Damascine Nebula. He noted the departure of the informant's shuttle, then he began focusing his mind. He flexed his hands open and closed once, then he reached out to the Dark Side of the Force, his most powerful ally. The harmonics generated by the crewers of the Predator assaulted him. He could feel it all, from the tension and fear that immanated from the nearby bridge officers just beyond the blastdoor, to the less well defined anxiety of the rest of the crew.

Maldamon was pleased. The Dark Side fed on fear and his presence had generated enough fear for the Dark Side to return that power tenfold. He reached for the Jedi training remote on his desk. He activated the remote and tossed it into the air, calling his lightsaber to his hand from across the room. He smiled as he easily blocked the the remote's first shot.

Maldamon was certain of two things at that moment: One, it would be the Jedi cub that responded when tha trap was set, and Two, the cub would be no match for him.


 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

 

 

 

"Our first real mission." Thought Carek as the Wandering Bantha settled on the landing field. In order to evaluate them as special operations candidates, Challis had sent team Bantha, less the newly commissioned Rex who was attending command school, to the planet Tauntara with two technicians to verify the Tauntaran's claim that they had invented a practical cloaking device. "If we can actually bring back a working cloaking device, that ought to show Challis that we can do more than run supplies."

The incognito rebels were met at the landing strip by a large landspeeder and four security men. As the speeder came to a stop outside the facility, one of the security men jerked violently and collapsed in a heap. Half a second later, the rebels heard the blaster's report.

"What the blazes!" Carek exclaimed as he spotted the attackers and dived for cover. "There was nothing about terrorists or whatever these guys are in the briefing."

The remaining guards began returning fire. That they were under fire was becoming routine, but what made this experience unique, was that the bolts from the Tauntaran blasters were invisible to human eyes.

Ardent and Leland had spotted the attackers and took off in the speeder to outflank them. Carek noticed a stairway that looked like it had access to the roof top and using the rest of the team's fire for cover, he cut across the open ground to join the pursuit.

Lazarus, Kyle, Jarrus and the surviving security men managed to get the techs inside when the attackers, sensing the pursuit, retreated across the rooftops. The pursuit then became a mad steeplechase. The attackers however, knew the terrain too well and successfully escaped.

Lazarus, Kyle and Jarrus were waiting at the door to the technical facility when their fellow rebels returned.

"Any luck?" Asked Lazarus.

Leland replied. "Not when the bad guys can run like bloody tauntauns and know every bloody centimeter of the city. They made us look like a bunch of amateurs."

"The techs are already inside." Lazarus said as the team entered the building. "The security chief is waiting for us. He had a royal fit over the 'dastardly attack on our most welcome persons.' He couldn't apologize enough. You should have heard him try."

"Well its nice to be cared for. I guess." Said Leland.

The rebels entered the technical facility and were met the Tauntaran security chief.

"Greetings travellers. I am W'helohsk. If you will permit me, I will show you our humble facilities before we show you the device you came to see."

"That would be fine. Please lead on." Answered Carek.

W'helohsk led them on a complete tour of the facility. When it was over, Leland thought. "I don't see how it's possible for anyone with technology at least ten years behind the Empire is supposed to have come up with a cloaking device."

The team was led into a large room with blast doors in each wall. As the blast door closed behind them, Carek felt a disturbance ripple through the Force.

"Something's not right, I've never felt such a tremor before." Before Carek could voice this thought, The doors to their front and both sides opened to reveal an ambush! The Tauntarans had sold them out to the Empire.

 

The team faced a full stormtrooper squad to each side, the three remaining security escorts and W'helohsk behind them, an Imperial officer and a Tauntaran that had to be the source of the disturbance in the Force-a Dark Jedi-to the front.

"Surrender now rebel dogs there is no escape" Said the officer. Outnumbered twenty-two to six, the situation seemed hopeless.

"I will not yield to a Dark Jedi." Was Carek's only thought, he trusted to the Force and hoping that the ambushers would be caught off guard, he charged the troopers on the right.

As Carek closed on the troopers, the room came alive with blaster fire as the rebels desperately tried to fight free of the ambush.

"Take that 'most unwelcomed person!'" Leland shouted as he paid back W'helohsk's treachery with a heavy blaster bolt. He then opened up on the three security men.

Ardent's blaster spoke simultaneously with Leland's dropping the dumb-struck Imperial officer, who, had belatedly, attempted to draw his own blaster. Ardent's second shot was deflected by the Dark Jedi.

Rebel blasters had felled three of the stormtroopers firing on Carek by the time he made it into lightsaber range. Carek slashed into the troopers cutting down three more. Kyle, Lazarus, and Jarrus then had to shift fire to the troopers on the left.

Things might have gone badly for the rebels had not Fate intervened. Lazarus was wounded by a blaster and staggered into a control podium causing the louvered floor to open, dumping all eight of the left side squad of troopers, the three security men, plus Lazarus, Leland, and Jarrus into the shaft below.

Kyle jumped clear of the pit, but he landed badly, tripping over W'heohsk's body. He struck his head on a support beam and was knocked unconscious.

Ardent flailed wildly and caught the narrow catwalk that remained. He was in a most precarious position and to make matters worse, the Dark Jedi, who had stood in silence as his ambush came apart at the seams, began to advance on him.

Carek's charge had taken him past the louvered part of the floor and into close quarters with the squad on the right. The only troopers not to fall into the pit were so disorganized by the sudden change in the odds, that Carek was able to cut them down before they could react.

Carek ran for the control podium fearing the worse. However, when he reached the edge of the pit, he found that the shaft had been rigged with a safety net some five meters down and that had broken everyone's fall.

Leland took a quick look around the pit, then grabbed onto the net. "Hang on." He yelled to his companions, he then blasted a hugehole in the net.

Leland's tactic had the desired effect of dropping all eleven of the ambushers that were caught in the net to their deaths, but Lazarus and Jarrus were also caught off guard and they too began to fall. Leland made a desperate grab and caught Lazarus. Jarrus' piercing scream cut short after he fell fifteen meters onto a catwalk and lay very still.

The Dark Jedi was approaching too fast for Ardent to climb out of the pit. Desperate, Ardent began a steady stream of fire at the Dark Jedi and prepared to die.

Carek raced along the catwalk and prepared for his first lightsaber duel. "Sweet merciful Force help me this day." He thought, fighting to calm his mind.

The Dark Jedi had closed on Ardent. "Behind you." Said Ardent, as he saw Carek approach behind the Dark Jedi. The Tauntaran actually laughed at the old ploy, until he heard the snap-hiss of a lightsaber.

When the Dark Jedi turned to face Carek, Ardent opened fire. The Dark Jedi was well trained in the use of the Force, and was still able to deflect his shots. He responded by trying to push them from the catwalk telekinetically.

"This guy is much better trained than I am," Carek thought grimly as the Dark Jedi ignited his own lightsaber. "I am the student of the Jedi Knight Havsoltek, I am a servant of the Force and it is my ally. I will feel no fear. I may not be able to stop this man without help, but I will stand before the Dark with my very life."

Carek unleashed a furious attack sequence, but the Dark Jedi parried easily. Ardent crawled to safety and continued pour fire at the Dark Jedi. The three figures stayed locked in combat with neither side able to gain an advantage.

Kyle groaned in agony as he rolled back to his feet. "Wh-Wh-What is th-that infernal buzzing?" He croaked, forcing his blurred vision to focus on the wildly flashing glare that stabbed at his eyes. His vision cleared, his eyes widened and he went for his blaster.

Carek parried a lightning fast strike and pivoted away from the edge of the pit that the Dark Jedi was trying to pin him against. He fought the fear that was the call of the Dark Side. "You know that I can help you," The Fear said. "just tap into that wellspring of power that you know you have. It will make you stronger than he is."

"I will not summit to you, anymore than I will summit to him." Carek yelled back to the Fear. "Don't bother me, I'm busy right now!"

Carek feinted low, checked his swing and then slashed laterally. The attack was again, easily parried and he suddenly found his lightsaber nearly knocked from his hand by the Dark Jedi's reposte that struck with quicksilver speed. The Dark Jedi went on the attack and Carek was driven back toward the pit.

Ardent could see his friend being herded by the Dark Jedi and he began firing faster and faster in the hope that he might cause a distraction that Carek might exploit. The Dark Jedi continued to almost casually deflect every shot he made. It wasn't until Kyle added his steady stream of fire, that the Dark Jedi's attack was stopped.

It took the combined attack of the three of them to overcome the Dark Jedi's defense, Kyle firing the shot that wounded and knocked him into the shaft. Carek grabbed for Dark Jedi as he went over the

edge, but this Jedi needed no help, he used the Force to pull part of the blasted netting to him and swung down to one of the lower catwalks, disappearing through a side corridor.

Carek used his lightsaber to cut through a conduit and dropped the exposed cabling down to the team members still in the shaft. Leland climbed down to where Jarrus had fallen and applied a medpac to the seriously injured engineer, before helping him out of the shaft.

"That wasn't one of your better ideas." Jarrus slurred angrily when he climbed out of the pit.

"Well it basically worked," Insisted Leland. "next time when I say 'hang on.' you should take me seriously."

"Someone's coming." Kyle called out from his lookout post before Jarrus could respond.

The team prepped for the worst.

"Don't shoot! We're here to help!" A voice cried out from the hallway.

"Who are you?" Leland yelled back.

"We're the local resistance."

"Okay, I'm willing to buy that. Step out into the open and don't make any sudden moves."

"You've got a lot of explaining to do." Said Ardent when he recognized the Tauntaran standing before them as one the locals that had fired on them outside the building.

"Don't go getting hyper on me. My name is R'totsh, I'm the cell leader. I'm sorry about the mix up, but we weren't informed that you were coming until after our attack. You were never in any real danger, we were only trying to capture you. Just let me explain..."

While the Tauntaran spoke, Carek played the attack back through his mind and realized that the only people fired on were the security men.

R'totsh's story convinced them that there had been a simple decoding error and that the locals had actually shown great restraint.

R'totsh said. "Now that we're all friends again, we've got to get out of here. Follow me."

"Lead the way." Carek replied.

  R'totsh led them out of the research facility and to the speeder he had parked outside. Leland lept behind the controls and R'totsh guided them through the city's backstreets to the docking bay where the Imperial shuttle, where the two techs were being held. Enroute Carek asked about the Dark Jedi.

"That would be Maldamon." R'totsh sneered. "He is a disgrace to us all."

They reached the port quickly, but they found that the shuttle was guarded by a squad of stormtroopers.

"I've got a plan." Said Leland accelerating the speeder straight at the shuttle. Leland's plan consisted of driving the speeder directly into the shuttle's open cargo bay. The stormtoopers were caught completely off guard and Leland succeeded in flattening six of the eight troopers. As the rest of the team finished off the disorganized survivors, Carek ran forward to the command deck and captured the two pilots, who were then kind enough to release the two techs.

The locals took charge of the prisoners and all of the trooper's blaster rifles. It turned out the Tauntarans see further into the infrared spectrum than humans and could see their weapon's blasts,

however, the Tauntaran weapons were weak by Imperial standards and the rebels could use the added firepower.

When the team was ready, R'totsh said. "Thank you for these weapons, they will aid us in our struggle with those of our government that have sold us out the Empire."

"May the Force be with you." Replied Carek.

R'totsh gunned the speeder and vanished into the spaceport traffic.

"I want this shuttle." Leland said and began the preflight check.

"Makes sense to me. Who rides where?" Asked Lazarus.

Kyle, Ardent, and Jarrus ended up taking a transport tube to the Bantha. While Leland, Lazarus, Carek, and the two techs stayed to prep the shuttle.

The two ships cleared the planet without problem and then docked, As Leland was the only one really qualified to plot the course back to base station Heracles, docking allowed Leland to slave both nav computers together so that he could plot both ships at the same time.

Leland was nearly finished with the computation when a flight of TIE fighters was detected on an approach vector.

The rebels split up and ran for hyperspace with each ship drawing two TIEs. Carek manned the shuttle's turret and Lazarus manned the shields, as Leland began some of the most inspired flying Carek had ever witnessed. Carek's gunnery skills were not impressive and he failed to score any hits, but his frantic firing helped throw off the TIE's aim. The Bantha being a much better ship than the shuttle, easily outdistanced their pursuers and jumped to hyperspace when the wounded Jarrus finished the computation.

With only one target to vent their frustrations on, all four TIEs began blasting away at the shuttle. Leland could not hope to duck all of their shots and the shuttle began to take damage.

The bigger problem was Leland that could not finish the plot while evading the TIEs, which left them unable to escape.

"Lazarus take over the guns." Shouted Carek, as he jumped down from the turret and ran for the flight deck. "I'm not hitting anything and the shields have been shot away, I think I know a way to complete the plot and get us out of here."

"You THINK you know a way?" Said Lazarus. "Astronavigation is not my forte, but I do know that it's not something that you THINK you can do. Either you can do it, or you leave it alone."

"It will take too long to explain. You'll just have to accept that there is a way."

"Okay, you got it. I guess taking our chances on whatever you have planned has got to be better than getting blasted out of the sky by TIE fighters."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence."

Lazarus raced up the stairs to the gun well and Carek eased behind the astronavigation console and began trying to clear his mind. The ability to plot a course without using the nav computer was not a skill that Carek had ever tried to use before.

"I remember practicing instinctive astrogation back on Chanlot," He thought. "I only hope I can pull this off."

Lazarus brought them some breathing room by destroying one of the TIEs and that may have been the difference, for finally, after several tries, Carek managed to call on the Force and complete the plot. Just before they made their jump, Leland ran out of luck, and the shuttle was hit hard losing the lateral thrusters. Somehow the shuttle held together to make the jump, The stars stretched into starlines and they were safe. It had been altogether too close.

The techs managed to repair the shuttle inflight and they arrived at base station Heracles ten hours behind the Bantha. When they landed, they were met by Commander Challis, who informed them that Jarrus had died of his wounds during the return flight.

The team had expended all of their medpacs on Tauntara and Jarrus had had to heal naturally. Twenty hours into the jump, Jarrus collapsed. Ardent and Kyle tried everything they could think of to break the infection, but failed. Jarrus died in less than twelve hours later.

Relaxing in his quarters at base station Heracles after the funeral, Carek took some time to reflect on their first mission.

"We failed to bring back a cloaking device and I lost a member of the team, but we did escape an Imperial ambush and captured a shuttle, which once repaired, will be very useful for commando raids. And while no shuttle can possibly balance the tragic loss of Jarrus, the mission wasn't a complete loss."

Carek did not consider himself a philosopher, but his last thought as he went to sleep was, "Life in the rebel alliance may not be guaranteed to be very long, but it is guaranteed to provide no shortage of triumphs if you know how to recognize them."

 

"I am surrounded by idiots!" Maldamon raged at the stormtooper major standing before him. "How were six men armed with only blaster pistols and outnumbered four to one, able to defeat two full rifle squads?"

The major glanced nervously at the body of his predecessor, lying in a heap with its head twisted at an impossible angle.

"Sir, the colonel was not informed that the floor of the ambush site was louvered. It was the near human activating the floor mechanism, that caused the ambush to fail."

"It is a well that, that fool W'helohsk did not survive. Not only did he not mention that the floor louvered, he also failed to inform me of the presence of active rebels in the city as well. That failed attack outside the facility, must have put the rebels on guard." Maldamon spat. "When will Lieutenant Rahos be fit for duty?"

"He will be in the bacta tank for at least two days sir."

"Good. I don't have time to train another assistant. Did the fighters manage to plot the rebels escape vector, or did they botch that as well?"

"No sir, The rebel's course was downloaded to the navigation computer as soon as the fighters were recovered."

"Very well, have the navigator work up all the possible destinations based on their last known heading and have him report his findings to me. I'm certain that the rebels changed course immediately after they left the system, but you never know, they may have been rattled enough by the ambush to have made a mistake.

"One last thing. Since you are now the senior stormtrooper aboard the Predator, you are hereby advanced to the rank of colonel. I hope that you will learn from your predecessor's failure. Please remove his carcass when you leave."

"Yes sir!" The new colonel barked, pivoted about and scooped up the grim reminder, easily lifting the armored bulk to one shoulder. He departed the ready room without looking back.

Maldamon looked out the viewport at his home world below. He stood there for a long time, before moving to sit in the plush zaralope hide autoforming chair.

He reached into his pocket and removed a cred chip sized piece of valardine. He held the stone and used it to focus his rage at losing his prey. The stone began to resonate with a discordant hum. Concentrating on the stone, he felt his ready room fade away until he was once again in the sub basement of the Tauntaran technical facility...

 

"The rebels that chased after the attackers have returned empty handed sir." Rahos said with obvious disappointment.

"I agree lieutenant, it would have been the ultimate in ironies, if these rebels would have been responsible for capturing the local rebel cell. However, the local cell is W'helohsk's problem. I will deal with him later for allowing the locals to interfere with the timing of my plan. Do the rebels seem alerted?"

"No sir, W'helohsk has apologized profusely and seems to have allayed thier suspicions."

"Excellent. Where are the two technicians?"

"In custody. W'helohsk told the rebels that the techs are consulting with the designers in the sub basement and will meet the rest of the team there."

"All is in readiness," Maldamon activated the comlink to the two stormtooper squad leaders. "The targets will be here in eleven minutes. The rebel wielding the lightsaber is not to be harmed. Use stun setting only on him. Try to take the other rebels alive if possible. If they resist, kill them."

Maldamon watched the security pickups as the rebels followed security chief W'helohsk lead the rebels through the sham tour and into the sub basement. He motioned Rahos to open the blast doors and initiate the ambush.

As the doors were opening, Maldamon felt a tremor in the Force. "The cub has detected me!" He thought sharply. "He is further along in his training than I have been led to believe!"

The revelation of his quarry's capabilities had distracted him for a split second, leading Lieutenant Rahos to make his, soon to be proved completely inaccurate, threat. "Surrender now rebel dogs, there is no escape."

The rebels reacted faster than he had ever seen and with a blinding fury he would never have thought possible.

This part of the ambush Maldamon remembered with crystal clarity. It was the jumbled images after the room became a kaleidoscope of blaster bolts, that had led him to use the precious valardine seer stone to bring the rest of the debacle into focus.

In the vision, while he was in the process of drawing his own lightsaber, he saw the cub under the covering fire of his fellow rebels, charging the stormtrooper squad on the left. The vision allowed him to see W'helohsk be cut down at almost the same instant that Rahos was hit. He saw his lightsaber ignite in time to deflect the bolt fired at him by the tattooed human that had felled Rahos. As he fought for his own life, the cub felled three of the troopers. He then saw something that made his blood freeze with anger. The vision clearly showed the near human stagger back from a blaster hit and accidentally activate the louver control, which in turn, had caused the majority of the stormtroopers to fall into that thrice damned pit.

"AN ACCIDENT!" He raged, and outside the ready room the bridge officers involuntarily cringed at the explosive outburst. "MY AMBUSH FAILED BECAUSE OF AN ACCIDENT!" Maldamon lept to his feet and discovered that his lightsaber had somehow found its way into his hands. Blinded by rage, he slashed at his custom made greel wood control station repeatedly, until all that remained was a sparking ruin.

He stood there fighting the impulse to visit havoc on the rest of the ready room. After an eternity, he felt his control and reason return. He sat back down in his luxurious chair and made himself return to the point of the ambush where he could clearly remember the sequence of events without resorting to the use of the seer stone.

"There was a half second pause as we all came to grips with the sudden turn of events." He recalled." Aside from myself, the only other Imperials to avoid the pit were the two troopers that were direct contact with the cub. Of the rebels, only the cub had avoided the pit cleanly. The tattooed human had almost fallen into the pit, but had caught onto the narrow remaining catwalk. Another rebel had knocked himself out while diving to avoid the fall.

"Forced into action by the loss of the stormtroopers, I had resolved to bring the cub in myself, when suddenly the tattooed human started firing on me again. I was about to end his miserable existence right there, when the little freak actually warned me that the cub was approaching me from behind. I turned to face the cub and could see that the last of the troopers were down. As I came en guard, the tattooed freak began firing on me from behind. The cub was fairly good, but as I had predicted, he was no match for me. I could feel his fear as he fought me, but I also felt him master that fear without calling on the Dark Side. However, it was only a matter of time before I would have taken him if it hadn't been for that third rebel joining the fight.

"I guess I was so tuned into sounding out the cub's abilities, that I lost track of the rebel that had knocked himself out. I tried to herd the cub over the edge, but their combined attack finally got past my defenses, and knocked me over instead.

"It is also my responsibility for not having studied the layout of the facility in advance. By the time I found the turbolift, the rebels had fled. To add insult to injury, the rebels located the two techs we had captured, rescued them and stole the shuttle they were being held in. I was so certain of the ambush's success, that I failed to plan for a space intercept. The on-station TIE patrol failed in its attempt to intercept and both the rebel's freighter and the stolen shuttle successfully escaped."

Maldamon walked over to one of the secondary computer stations, his boots crunching on the debris of his once beautiful greel wood desk. He began writing his report to Lord Vader based on his own eye witness account and supplemented by what he had seen in his vision.

After completing the report, he stared at the last page wishing that there was someway to lessen the how bad it made him look. Total Imperial losses: thirteen stormtroopers and one TIE fighter pilot killed. One TIE fighter destroyed. One Kappa class shuttle stolen. One officer and three stormtroopers wounded. Collateral losses. Five Tauntaran nationals killed.

"I have been given an incredible opportunity and I have made a fool of myself." He mused. "This is one report I do not look forward to sending. I can only hope that after he reads this, that I am not reassigned to interrogating prisoners at the spice mines of Kessel."

Maldamon activated the hypercomm and moved to look out the viewport again. He watched his homeworld below and wondered if he would ever see it again.

     And for once, the Force gave him no insight on the answer.

 

 

 

Chapter Four

 

 

 

 

The team's next mission was back to running supplies to a rebel garrison. Their mission was complicated by the appearance of fierce virtually unstoppable raiders. After driving the attackers off, the team found  a freighter that had crashed on the planet. The captain had a cargo of alien medical artifacts that could restore life-of sorts-to the dead, and that the raiders were his semi-dead crew. The team destroyed the artifacts and escorted the captain off planet.

As a part of a sustained effort, the team had to return to what they had begun to call "the Zombie planet." The team was asked to investigate an outpost that had stopped reporting. During the investigation, the team discovered an unknown wrecked alien ship.

The aliens had subjugated huge whale-like living beings and were using them as ships. The ship also carried some form of rat-like creature when it crashed. The rat creatures escaped and reproduced so quickly, that they had over run the outpost and were now a threat to the entire planet. The team tried to stop the creatures by seeking out their nest, but the rats were highly intelligent, or possibly even sentient. The team was routed, and the rebels were forced to evacuate the entire planet to base station Heracles.

 

"You have failed." The mechanical voice wheezed to the figure kneeling before him.

The simple statement of fact cut Maldamon like a whip across his back. "Yes my Lord Vader." He heard himself reply.

"The Emperor is displeased."

Despite his best effort not to, the Tauntaran Dark Jedi shuddered. "Yes my Lord Vader." Again, his voice replied without his input.

Maldamon cringed at the quiet, deadly tone that Vader was using. He knew Vader only spoke that way when he was about to lose his temper, and Vader's temper was legendary. Since he received the terse "Return to Imperial Center at once." reply to his report he had filed after the debacle on Tauntara, he was prepared for the worst.

It was a long time before Vader continued. "I was the one who turned you to the Dark Side. You understood the opportunity that you had been presented and fully embraced all that the teachings of the Sith offered. In return I have guided your progress as a Jedi and provided you with the means to excel.

"Now I find myself in a most unusual position because of you. If I were to discipline you harshly for your failure, I look the fool for  choosing you for something so important as capturing a unturned Jedi apprentice. Yet, If I don't discipline you, I again look the fool for allowing such gross incompetence go unpunished. I WANT YOU TO UNDERSTAND THIS AS YOU'VE NEVER UNDERSTOOD ANYTHING IN YOUR LIFE. I DO NOT LIKE LOOKING A FOOL!" Vader's voice had slowly increased in volume until his voice filled the room with it's fury.

"The only thing that has kept you from a permanent assignment to Alpha Z-8 Prison on Veska, is that this is the first time that you have ever failed me. If you do not bring me that apprentice, I will personally sign the order sending you to Veska. Now leave!"

Maldamon left the palace as fast as decorum allowed. He personally flew his shuttle to the Predator and had the Predator in hyperspace less than five minutes later.

 

Base station Heracles had been very overcrowded for the past few weeks as the refugees from the Zombie planet were relocated to other bases. The team had ferried refugees and supplies all during the relocation and were just getting back to their regular schedule.

It was the first chance for a game of holochess in weeks and Carek had finally put his opponent Roberts, a one time pirate and new to the rebellion, in check, when he noticed an unfamiliar face run across the docking bay.

"Excuse me for a minute." He said leaping to his feet to follow the disappearing figure. "Paranoia just comes with being a rebel."

Carek managed to track the intruder to the main sensor control bay by boosting his natural senses with the Force. The access hatch was locked from the inside and neither Roberts who had followed him, or Carek could override the lockout. Carek decided to accept the reading of the riot act that, Challis the base commander would give him and cut through the hatch with his lightsaber.

As they searched, Carek sensed for life signs with the Force and found a human in the act of planting detonite charges!

"Don't come any closer or I'll kill us all!" The man snarled.

As Carek gathered himself to jump, Roberts snapped off a shot in the hopes of stopping the saboteur, he missed and the saboteur triggered the explosives.

The shock wave hammered outward, causing heavy damage to the base's sensors and blowing them offline. Carek was wounded and the saboteur was close enough to be incapacitated by the blast. Carek grabbed an extinguisher, doused the fire, then they headed for the sickbay dragging the unconscious man between them.

Enroute Carek notified control to launch the ready squadron, Carek told Roberts. "Someone has just gone to a lot of trouble to blind us and it would only be a matter of time before that someone attacks."

 

It turned out that, that matter of time was eighteen hours later. The main sensors were still offline and the base was running a standing patrol of six Z95 Headhunters on watch at all times. Leland Archimedes, Kyle, Roberts, and Carek were scheduled to take part in the next patrol and were prepping their Headhunters in the hangar bay.

The base station's klaxon suddenly began sounding.

"Intruder inbound. Pilots man your ships." The intercom crackled.

The rebels jumped into their fighters and prepared to intercept as the last two pilots raced into the hanger and began a rapid preflight.

When Leland got his comm set activated, he contacted Operations.

"Okay boss, what's going on?"

"We've just received a message from the on station patrol, they've detected a freighter inbound. The patrol is very low on fuel and is not in a position to intercept. When can you launch?"

We've got four fighters ready now. The rest will be ready in two minutes."

"Launch now."

"Rodger Ops. You heard 'em guys. Let's roll!"

The four fighters roared out of the hanger and raced to intercept the unknown freighter."

Lazarus Maxenties, Ardent Belial Mo'duaglozen, and Lazarus' girlfriend Melia also heard the alert and began prepping the Wandering Bantha for launch. The Bantha launched within seconds of the fighters and also moved in on the freighter.

"I just know I'm in way over my head." Said Carek more to himself then to anyone. "I've had some pilot training but, I don't know if I'm ready for ship-to-ship combat yet."

As they closed with the freighter, it launched a pair of shuttles and blasted the shields protecting the hangar bays with a very large ion cannon. It then turned to intercept the Bantha. Kyle and his wingman Roberts broke off to pursue to shuttles, leaving Leland and Carek to engage the freighter.

"Whoever these guys were they're phenomenal pilots." Thought Carek. "This guy is sticking like glue to the Bantha and has dodged every shot Leland, the Bantha, and I make."

The two shuttle pilots evaded Roberts' and Kyle's fire and made straight for the hangar bays of the command pod and auxiliary hangar pod. The shuttles gave every indication that they were going to board the base station.

The freighter was only firing the heavy ion cannon at the Bantha and seemed to be taking extreme pains not to do any permanent damage as if they were trying to capture her intact.

"I'm not going to be able to stay with this guy, he's just too good." Said Carek as the freighter continued to pull out of range. "I'm going back to Heracles, I know I can do more against boarders then I can against this freighter."

When Carek peeled off, that left Leland alone in his attempt to assist the Bantha. Leland tried everything he could think of to stop the freighter but, was having no luck.

"I know! I can ram him." Leland smiled. "There's no way he can  dodge that."

Leland set his proton torpedo launcher sequence on automatic and prepared to eject. He accelerated directly at the freighter, this might have been the last of his "great ideas", but fortunately for Leland, the freighter angled his shields in such a way that Leland's fighter bounced away sustaining severe damage in the process.

When the Z95-and his head-stopped spinning, Leland came to a quick decision. "I think heading back to Heracles and getting one of those X-wings might be a better idea than trying that again." He peeled off for Heracles and toggled his comm unit. "Don't give up guys, I'll be right back!"

 

As Leland and Carek chased the freighter, the two shuttles entered Heracles' two docking bays. Kyle fired a proton at the shuttle heading for the command pod, but despite causing severe damage, the heavily armored shuttle was still able to land. Roberts, in an attempt reduce collateral damage, limited himself to firing lasers and was only able to cause heavy damage to the shuttle heading for the auxiliary hangar pod.

Carek landed in the command pod in time to see the shuttles dismount three assassin droids each. As Carek slowed for docking, he had the satisfaction of seeing Kyle blow one of the droids apart with a well aimed proton. Carek's fighter bucked from the shock wave, but he was able to put it down safely. He dismounted quickly as the two surviving droids were beginning to cycle the airlock into the command pod.

"I don't even want to think about assassin droids getting loose in Ops." He said coiling himself to jump. "So, I've got to stop them!"

Carek made a Force assisted jump of fifteen meters to make it into contact with the droids before the airlock closed. He landed with his lightsaber ignited and in two clean strokes, destroyed both droids.

With the command pod secured, Carek made his way to a X-wing. Kyle landed his Headhunter and also got into a X-wing. While they were firing up the fighters, the shuttle no longer having any reason to wait, launched in an effort to escape.

Kyle and Carek were joined by Lieutenant Varlo, the X-wing's Red Leader and on his mark, they launched. Varlo cut the shuttle's escape short by crippling the shuttle and leaving it dead in space.

While Carek was fighting the droids trying to enter ops, in the auxiliary hangar pod, Roberts had lost control while landing and had  crashed. He crawled out of the cockpit in time to see Leland destroy one of the assassin droids with a proton, unfortunately the remaining two droids entered and cycled the airlock taking them completely out of the line of fire. Unable to be of any further assistance, Leland headed for the command pod and the waiting X-wings. The droids were now the problem of the security forces on the auxiliary hangar pod.

 

"Now's my chance to prepare a nice welcome for them." Roberts said as he carefully approached the waiting shuttle. He entered the shuttle and found himself in a fierce blaster battle with the shuttle's two pilots.

"What have I got myself into." He said diving for cover and returning fire. "There has got to be a better way to make a living."

Roberts was still fighting the pilots, when Leland caught up with Lieutenant Varlo, Kyle, and Carek. They paired up and raced to support the beleaguered Bantha.

Melia had gotten the hang of the Bantha's controls, and had begun to pull away from their pursuers. The freighter noticed the rapidly closing fighters and began firing both ion cannon and laser cannons with a vengeance. The Bantha immediately took heavy damage and soon ground to a halt when the freighter's ion cannon disabled the Bantha's sublight drive. Before the reinforcements could close, the freighter snared the Bantha with a tractor and began its run for hyperspace.

 

The auxiliary hangar pod's security and Challis had had their hands full with the droids. Challis was severely wounded destroying one of them, however, the rest of the security detachment was scattered allowing the second droid to reach its target: Rex the smuggler. The attack was a repo! Rex owed big credits on the Bantha and the loan was long overdue.

The surviving droid avoided the remaining security forces and tossed the unconscious Rex into the shuttle next to where Roberts, who had come off second best to the two pilots, lay wounded and hog tied. The shuttle launched and followed the freighter in trying to escape.

When the fighters of Red wing closed to firing range, the freighter's pilot once again displayed his phenomenal flying ability.

"I will not be denied this time!" Vowed Carek. "The Force will show me the way. R2 drop the aft shields and feed the power to the drive."

The X-wing lept forward. Carek made the most of the Force and scored two hits at long range causing severe damage. Before he could fire again, the freighter jumped to hyperspace. The fighters immediately turned to intercept the shuttle, but it too jumped to hyperspace. They had lost both the Bantha and the hostages.

"FLAMING STARS AND COMETS!" Leland thundered when the last the raiders disappeared.

"All ships retun to base." Said Lieutenant Varlo. "I managed to get a partial plot on their course. I need to run the info through a nav computer to narrow it down."

The rebels flew back to where the remaining shuttle lay drifting in space and took it in tow to the command pod.

The base was still in an uproar from the raid and having a tangible target brought all of the station crew to the hanger bay that were not otherwise occupied with the ongoing recovery operations.

The shuttle crew, which consisted of a Wookiee and a Jawa, did not try to resist when they saw the force Varlo had arrayed against them.

"Where did your comrades take my people?" Varlo asked the captives.

The two aliens stood mute. When it became obvious that neither of them would answer, Varlo had them taken to the brig to join the still recovering bomber.

"I want that shuttle torn apart. Get me some answers." Varlo barked to the technical chief.

"Aye sir. You'll have an answer fifteen minutes ago."

Team Bantha was in Ops when the technical chief called Varlo.

"You want the whole story or the blaster bolt?" The chief asked over the comm.

"The bolt." Varlo responded.

"She's a Epsilon class shuttle, once a mainstay of the Old Republic and at least thirty-five years old, but more importantly the nav computer indicates a probable course to Tatooine."

"Thanks Chief. Ops out." Varlo turned to face the remnants of team Bantha. "The shuttle's data is backed by the station's nav computer analysis of my partial plot. Based on the concurrence of the nav data, I will be assigning you an X-wing, and a pair of Y-wings. I will not be able to go to Tatooine with you. With Commander Challis severely injured in the raid, that leaves me as senior man at the station. You are to make best speed for Tatooine and bring your team mates home. Are there any questions?"

"No sir!" Carek answered and the three members of team Bantha moved out at double time.

 

While preping the Y-wing, that he had been assigned, Carek got word that Challis wanted to speak to him.

"She's found out about the hatch." He thought as he headed for sickbay. "I can't believe with all that's happened, that she has the time to chew me out over a hatch."

Carek entered sickbay so caught up in his fate, that he was startled by Challis' appearance. She was swathed in bandages and was as pale as he had ever seen her.

"Be at ease Carek," She said when she noticed his arrival. "you need not worry about that hatch, I would have done the same thing if I had been in your place. The reason I asked to see you is, that I know that you are dedicated to the Jedi code and can be trusted."

She handed Carek a disk with some astrogation coordinates before she continued.

"I have been using the Force to observe what may be. I must admit that I don't know their significance, or even to where this disk will take you. However, I do know that it is critical to your developement as a Jedi for you to have that disk."

Mystified Carek replied. "I will guard it with my life."

Challis said. "Enough of that. Get to the hanger bay, you've got a mission."

"See you soon and may the Force be with you." Said Carek as he sped for the hanger bay. When the door closed, Challis said very quietly. "Carek, I hope the Force is indeed with you."

 

"Okay, is everybody ready?" Asked Leland after confirming that his X-wing was fully operational.

"Red two, roger." Carek answered, squirming to get his safety straps comfortable.

"Red three, roger. Lets go bag us a Bantha." Kyle responded glibly.

"Ops, this is Red one." Said Leland. "Go ahead and download the data I plotted to Tatooine."

"Roger Red one, standby for download." Said Lieutenant Varlo. "Here you go. Clear skies Red flight. You're clear to launch."

Once the three fighters were on course, Leland activated his comm unit. "I wanted to arrive ahead of those repo pukes, so I shaved ten hours off the standard four day course."

"Do you think that will be enough?" Asked Kyle.

"I don't know for sure. I didn't want to push my luck and trim so much off the plot that we ended up inside a gas giant or something equally unpleasant."

"Why the caution Rammer?" Carek asked innocently.

"Don't call me Rammer! I didn't notice you coming up with anything better. In fact, I seem to recall that you had bailed out by then."

"Peace Leland, I was only kidding. I just hope ten hours is enough."

"Me too."

"Ready to jump?" Asked Leland.

"Lets go." Kyle responded, tensing as he always did before a jump.

The sleek, powerful fighters flickered with psudomotion and vanished into hyperspace.

 

It had been a very boring flight. Alliance fighters were second to none in the galaxy. Fast, hardhitting, and their hyperdrives gave them a tactical edge that was almost impossible to defend against. However, once in hyperspace, virtually everything was automated and controlled by their R2 units, leaving precious little for the pilot to do during an extended flight. "My father neglected to mention this part of being a fighter pilot." Carek reflected after fifty-seven hours in hyperspace. The cockpit did not allow for much movement and the minimal hygiene facilities had left him feeling decidedly ripe. "Still, I'm luckier than most pilots. This trip has given me time to practice entering a Jedi hibernation trace. I can't imagine what this has been like for Kyle and Leland."

His fledgling Jedi talents however, were not reliable enough for him to risk trying to make the entire trip in hibernation. He had had to limit his down time to shifts of just under twelve hours, that still left him with twelve hours fully conscious in the cramped cockpit.

He looked at his chronometer. "Three hours before I can stretch out in the luxurious ambassadorial suite. I can't..."

An abrupt stream of beeps and whistles from the battered R2K8 droid snapped him out of his daydreaming. He quickly read the translation of what the droid said.

"Good work Katie. I know I never would have noticed that signal, can you focus in on it any better?"

The droid made a positive sounding beep and the signal slightly improved.

"I still can't quite make that out. Try and hold the signal at that level katie, I've got something I can try."

Carek concentrated on the garbled sounds and allowed the Force to add to his natural hearing.

The first sound to become understandable was the steady pulse code of an escape pod's emergency signal. Riding on top of the beacon was a second signal. He then realized that the beacon had been modified to transmit a short message. And the voice was Ardent's!

"...ing Bantha...aught in a tract...eaded for...tooine..."

The message repeated itself and was obviously a recording. Carek continued to listen to the message, until Katie informed him that he had lost the signal.

As soon as he was certain that the signal had indeed been lost, Carek wasted no time in contacting the rest of the team.

"Are you sure Carek? My R2 didn't didn't notice anything." Said an obviously half awake Leland.

"I had my R2 running a full spectrum sweep of Alliance frequencies. Did you?"

"No I didn't." Said Leland stifling a yawn. "And why would you have your R2 doing that anyway?"

"I had...well, I just thought that someone should keep there ears on." Carek knew that neither of his companions gave much credence to the Force. He didn't want to let on that during his first trance, that in a flash of insight he heard Ardent speaking to him from a vast distance. He wasn't ashamed of his Force abilities, he just didn't want to have to argue about them right now.

Okay whatever. I believe you Carek. It is nice to know that we're on the right track. I only wish that we could be certain that we're going to get there first."

"Was there a time stamp on that message?" Asked Kyle.

"Negative. Voice only. Badly garbled at that."

"Does this change the plan, that is if there is a plan?" Said Kyle.

"No it doesn't. And I'll have a plan by the time we get there." Leland snapped.

"If you say so Rammer." Kyle shot back.

"I said-" Leland began, but was interrupted by both Kyle and Carek speaking simultaneously.

"-don't call me Rammer!"

"Very funny you two. If you're quite finished, I'm going to go back to sleep and I will have a plan by the time we reach Tatooine."

"Roger Red one. I can't wait." Said Kyle signing off.

"Yeah, whatever." Leland mumbled and tried to find the one semi comfortable spot that he had managed to find with the control seat fully reclined. "I'm going to have to talk to the guys at Incom about these blasted seats."

The three rebels settled themselves back into the rhythm that each pilot developed when on a long flight. Soon, the three men were again alone with their thoughts. It was hard to tell if confirmation of there course had settled, or unsettled those lonely thoughts.

 

The rescue party arrived at Tatooine without incident. Carek, with great trepidation, showed his fellow rebels the smuggler's trick of using a sand storm to mask there landing from Approach Control. They got their fighters hidden and after camouflaging them with the sensor scattering nets from their meager stores, They gathered around Leland to hear his 'plan.'

"First thing is to make contact with that Twi'lek that turned us on to the rebellion in the first place. He's an information broker, he's got to know if the Bantha's here and where it's hidden if it is."

"That actually is a decent idea Leland." Kyle said, enjoying his first full, unhindered, stretch in almost four days. "You know, we met Dag almost six months ago, but with what we've been through, it seems like years ago since we had to blast our way out of here."

"I know what you mean." Said Carek. "Time seems to have compressed and left us moving far faster than the rest of the galaxy."

"Is that more Jedi stuff?" Leland said, his eyebrow arched in amusement.

"No, just an observation. The last time I had to walk through these canyons, I was alone and even with the Force to keep the worst of the the heat off of me, I barely made it. We've landed much closer than where the Tigershark's escape pod put me down. Moving at night we should be able to reach Mos Eisley by morning. Get some rest. We've got about four hours to suns set."

"You seem to know what you're talking about, so I'll follow your lead on this one." Kyle replied and moved back to the shade of his Y-wing.

"I hope you know what you're talking about Carek, but I'm going to love the chance to get some sleep someplace other than in that stinking cockpit." Added Leland also moving to the shade of his fighter's wing.

"It's okay guys, I'll stand guard." Said Carek to the retreating men. "Somehow, I've been out maneuvered." He thought as he moved to a better lookout post. "I'm going to have to work on my negotiations skills."

Carek found a shaded spot and began his vigil.

When the rebels met up with Dag, it was something of an anticlimax. He reported that neither the Bantha, or a shuttle had arrived before them. He did however, know the loan shark that Rex owed and more importantly, he knew where his fortress was located. Dag agreed to drive Carek out to the fortress in his landspeeder to do a quick recon.

"Are you still to be wanting to be a Jedi?" Said Dag when they were halfway to the loan shark's fortress. "I am knowing of a Jedi enclave on Alderaan, and with you them I can put in contact."

Carek was stunned. "I have no way of thanking you for your help Dag,I owe you more than you'll ever know." He managed to reply.

"Considering what the Empire is to be doing to Jedi these days, you may not be thinking that way for long, but anything to help a friend."

On reaching the hulking fortress, Dag hid the speeder in the best cover he could find. Carek dismounted and scouted on foot. He carefully made his way completely around the fortress, taking special care not to be seen. Once back to the speeder, Dag drove back to where Kyle and Leland were waiting.

"I didn't see any obvious gun emplacements, or other signs of heavy weapons." Said Carek climbing out of the speeder and dusting himself off.

"Guns could be hidden." Kyle offered.

"True, so our job is to avoid any surprises." Said Leland. "How good is the cover out there?"

"Not as good as here, but there's enough to ditch three fighters." Carek replied after a short pause.

"That's all we need." Leland clapped his hands and turned to Dag. "Thanks once again for your help."

"I am pleased to be helping. Now I will be leave taking." Dag hopped into his speeder and sped off.

"There goes a good soul." Carek said watching the Twi'lek slip out of sight.

"That he is." Kyle added slapping Carek on the back. "Now lets talk this move through..."

The rebels waited until nightfall to move the fighters to a position where they could overwatch the fortress and set up an ambush. All they had to do now, was wait.

Two days later a heavily damaged shuttle made its re-entry and headed for the fortress.

In accordance with the plan that they had worked out in advance, the three fighters erupted from their hiding place as soon as the R2s, who were monitoring the sensors continuously, alerted the rebel pilots of the shuttle's arrival. Leland's X-wing peeled away and headed directly for the fortress. Roaring in fast and low, he fired a proton into the blast doors of the fortress, sealing them temporarily and preventing any reinforcements from interfering with the rescue.

Kyle and Carek managed to surprise the shuttle and hit it with ion cannons at short range. The attack crippled the shuttle and forced it to land. Kyle and Carek also landed, leaving Leland flying top cover.

The shuttle pilots, a Jawa and a Saurian, realizing how badly the tide had turned, dragged Roberts and Rex into the open and tried to use them as hostages.

"We'll give you one of the hostages if you let us go free." The Saurian hissed.

"You'll give us both the hostages and we'll let you go free." Carek hissed back. The Jawa was happy to comply, but the Saurian decided to fight. The Saurian pushed Rex out of the way and opened fire with a very

modified repeat blaster. Carek tried to try deflect the blast but failed. Rex managed to somehow, dive out the way on his own. Carek then reversed his slash and cut the Saurian in half.

Seeing what had happened to his bellicose partner, the Jawa surrendered without a fight. Carek disarmed him and moved to help the badly shaken Rex to his feet.

Kyle moved forward to untie Roberts. Just as he reached his fellow rebel, the last of the assassin droids burst from the shuttle with its built in laser blazing.

The rebels were forced to scatter to avoid the withering barrage. Somehow they heard the scream of the approaching X-wing and dove for cover. Leland's proton torpedo blasted the droid all over the desert. The shock wave of the blast rolled over the them, but they had all managed to find enough shelter for no one to be hurt. The kidnappers completely accounted for, they now had a Bantha to rescue.

 

The rebels had moved far out into the desert to maintain their passive sensor scan on the battered fortress. When the rebels had split up, Carek had moved over to gunner on Kyle's Y-wing, allowing Rex to fly the second Y-wing with Roberts as his gunner. It was three days before the freighter returned, but it had returned alone.

"Great Diety! What have you done with my ship!" Rex raved as the rebels raced to intercept. "All ships. Ions only. We need to someone to interrogate!"

The freighter spotted the fighters and immediately turned to fight.

Over zealous at the loss of his ship, Rex pressed home the attack too closely and was hit, taking heavy damage.

"I'm not going to go though this again!" Leland spat. "Kyle follow my lead and nail these buggers!"

"On your mark!"

"Mark!"

Leland whipped his fighter across the freighter's path drawing heavy fire, but easily spiralling out of the way. Kyle slipped in, and despite what Rex had ordered, tagged the freighter with a proton, and  leaving it drifting wreck.

"Blast you Kyle! I said ions only." Rex snarled.

"The majority of them are still alive. You've got plenty of people to interrogate." Kyle answered unrepentantly.

"I hate to break in on your little tiff guys, but we've got unwanted company." Interrupted Leland.

A quick look at the sensors showed that an Imperial customs frigate had noticed the fight and was moving to intercept.

"But the Bantha!" Wailed Rex.

"It's too late! We've got to go." Leland insisted.

"Roger that." Said Rex relenting at last.

Forced to flee. It was with a heavy heart that the rebels made the jump for Heracles.

 

The rescued and the rescuers were still being debriefed by the recovered Challis and Varlo, when Ops received a request to land from the Wandering Bantha!

The hijacked freighter gracefully entered the hanger and was met by nearly half of the station's crew. The loading ramp lowered and Ardent, Lazarus, and Melia slowly walked out, reveling the attention. The returning team members were hust-

led to the conference room to join the rest of the team's debriefing.

"May I be the first to congratulate you on your escape." Challis said calling the debriefing back to order. "I also very much want to hear the details of this feat."

The three escapees spoke among themselves for a moment and then Ardent rose. "There's not much to tell. First, Laz repaired the damage to the Bantha while they were in hyperspace. That took us almost three days. Second, when the repo freighter dropped out of hyperspace to repair its own damage two days later, we were waiting. We detached the tow linkage and ran for it. They were so surprised, that we made it into hyperspace before they could react." Ardent's expression became sheepish. "Unfortunately, we blew our initial plot. It took us the better part of a week to confirm our location and to make it back to Heracles."

"A gallant tale indeed." Challis responded with a ghost of a smile, the first any of the team had ever seen. "That will complete the debriefing. You are free to go."

The team members made straight for one of the station's cantinas. After the first rounds of drinks were delivered, Leland burst into laughter.

"What's so funny?" Asked Carek valliantly trying to keep a straight face.

"It...It only took you guys five days to escape..." Leland choked out. "But-But-But...it took you over a we-week to get home." He finally managed to finish.

That was enough to release the laughter that everyone had been trying to hold in check since they left the conference room.

Team Bantha enjoyed the heartfelt laugh and the rescue party lasted long into the night. Afterwards, Carek was very glad that the Jedi knew how to purge themselves of poisons, for everyone had had far too much to drink.

The following morning, Carek told the crew of the Bantha that he had been told by Challis to deliver some information to Alderaan. Carek knew that wasn't the exact truth, but Carek figured that an enclave of Jedi was just what the Alliance needed.

“The Jedi code is very strict,” He rationalized. “however, I guess there’s some room for interpretation.”


 

 

 

 

Chapter Five

 

 

 

 

"If you have not heard by now, Alderaan is the planet of peace. All weapons either have to be checked with customs, or secured aboard your ship. No exceptions." The customs official explained after their arrival on Alderaan. The rebels checked their weapons with customs and received itemized recepts for their property. Carek hesitated at leaving his lightsaber.

"I would like to speak with the customs chief." He said after a moments thought.

"Sir, If you have a problem with the rules, I sorry, but I said no exceptions. If you do not wish to check you weapons with me, you will have to secure them aboard your ship."

"As you wish."

 

"Finally a lead." Maldamon exclaimed as he read the coded message in his ready room. He stabbed the comm unit. "Navigator. Set a course for Alderaan. Engineer. I want this ship moving as fast as it can be made to move. Captain Gellen. There has been a confirmed sighting of our quarry. I want the capture team in place and ready to launch as soon as we enter realspace. There will be no mistakes." Maldamon ended the connection without waiting for a response.

He sat back and tried to still the rush of exhilaration that raced through him. It had been an excruciating ten weeks since the rebels had escaped him on Tauntara. Maldamon had activated every member of his impressive network of informants in an all out effort to ferret out some hint of the rebels whereabouts. The Predator had prowled the Rim with a vengence following up on each one of the few scraps and rumors that his network had produced since then.

The blood hammered through both his primary and secondary coronary loops. As he brought his pulse under control, he realized that the thrill of rediscovering the prey was tempered by the cost to his spy network.

"It will take me months to rebuild my web. I have burned the cover of virtually every mole and double agent in my organization." He reflected grimly. "And the infuriating part is, I didn't have to! The cub just shows up unannounced on Alderaan and is spotted by of all people, Imperial Customs! Fortunately, my agent on Alderaan was able to intercept the message and route it directly to me before anyone else had a chance to see it." He smiled for the first time since departing the palace. "This time young one, with my specially trained capture team in place, you will not escape me. And if some miracle you reach your ship, my agent has taken steps to insure that you not elude me again.

"With what you have cost me, I will take great pleasure in your capture. I can only hope that by capturing you, that I will have redeemed myself enough in Lord Vader's eyes, that he will allow me the honor of participating in your conversion to the Dark Side." His smile broadened at that thought until it became horrid, feral thing that would have frozen the heart of a battle hardened member of the Mandalorian Guard.

It took two days of pounding the pavement to find their contact that knew the enclave's location. It was with great sadness, that the old man told them, that the enclave had been betrayed three months ago by a Dark Jedi and wiped out.

Carek was bitterly disappointed, but the old man told them that the general location of the enclave was in a wooded area fifty kilometers north of the starport.

It took them three days of searching in a large forest to find the Jedi cave, which was so strong in the Force that it stood out to Carek like a torch. Entering the abandoned cave, was to Carek like desecrating a grave. The rebels had only been searching for a few minutes when Lazarus found a holographic wall. As the hologram faded, there stood the Tauntaran Dark Jedi whose ambush they had barely escaped from three months ago.

Over his shoulder, Maldamon turned and said. "I told you they would come Master."

It was then that a hulking vision, dressed in black robes and armor, stepped from the shadows and resolved itself as Darth Vader the Dark Lord of the Sith. The effect was immediate, everyone stampeded for the exit.

All except Ardent. He levelled his rented hunting blaster and opened fire.

Carek was as panicked as the others, but when he saw Ardent stand his ground, Carek checked his retreat and stood with him. "I will not leave so gallant a friend to stand alone." He thought, the fear that had led him to panic bleeding away.

Ardent's fire, to Carek's profound disbelief, cut down both of the Dark Jedi.

It was then that Carek realized that they had never been there at all, they were just the manifestation of the rebel's own fears, magnified by the power of the Force resident in the cave. Carek had heard of this sort of test in the later stages of Jedi training. He also realized that he had failed the test.

"How did you know Ardent?" Asked Carek, his eyes wide awe. "I'm supposed to be the Jedi, and I completely failed to see that vision for what it was."

"I didn't know anything about any vision. All I saw was a chance to take on that son-of-a-dewback Maldamon with my feet on solid ground."

"Well friend Ardent, you have earned my respect all over again and you have given me much to think about."

The rest of the team returned sheepishly.

"When we realized you weren't with us we decide to come back for you was going on so we came back." Said Roberts.

"What happened to Vader and Maldamon?" Asked Kyle carefully searching the corners of the cave.

"They were never here. It was a vision caused by the Force." Said Carek.

"Well normally, this is where I would say, that's a load of hooey." Said Leland. "But, since I saw it with my own eyes, I'll have to give you the benefit of the doubt on this one."

"That's mighty big of you." Carek replied.

"And here's one more thing. I have admit this cave is kind of creeping me out."

"Uh, can we get on with this?" Said Lazarus. "This place is creepy and I want to get out of here as quickly as possible."

"Sure thing Laz." Carek answered. "Just remember, the 'creepiness' that you feel, is just your own fears being amplified by the Force. The only thing in here is what we brought in. The only thing out of place here, is us."

The rebels carefully and respectfully searched the rest of the cave. Ardent checked beyond the holographic wall and found the Jedi living quarters. The only thing that that the search yielded beyond personal effects was a sealed metal box, that Ardent took charge of. Confident that they had overlooked nothing, the rebels left the cave and headed back to the Bantha.

The trek back to the spaceport was in near silence with each of the rebels deep in thought from the revelations of the Jedi cave.

Upon returning to the landing field and signing for their checked weapons, they were informed by the Alderaan customs agent, that an Imperial customs team had gone through the ship.

"Why did you let them do that!" Carek exclaimed and began running for the ship.

"What's with him?" Said the customs agent. "An Imperial customs team has the right to go just about anywhere it wants to."

"When did the team go through?" Said Kyle hastily strapping on his blaster and checking the charge.

"Not long after you left, so a little over three days ago."

"Thanks. Can you advise Depature Control that we will be leaving immediately." Said Rex hurrying to catch up with the rest of team Bantha in running for the ship.

Rex was the last one aboard. Kyle met him at the top of the boarding ramp. "They got to the weapons locker. Leland and Laz are getting the ship ready. Ardent, Roberts, and Carek are checking the rest of the ship for any other surprises they may have left us."

"I'm going to join Leland. You help search the ship, but I want you and Ardent in the turrets when we break orbit."

"I'm on it."

They split up and joined the frenzy of preparations.

It was with a heavy heart that Carek approached his cabin, for he knew what he would find, or actually what he wouldn't find. A quick search verified his assumption, his lightsaber was gone.

 

"One minute to realspace." Said the Navigator.

"Capture team shuttle standing by." Added Lieutenant Rahos.

"Tractor beams online. Turbolasers spun up and manned. All fighters ready to launch." Captain Gellen said, finishing the litany of checks that were standard operating procedure for a star destroyer about to exit hyperspace with a mobile target, that had to captured intact, waiting for it.

When the message that the Jedi cub had been sighted, the Predator was still prowling the F'ek'tok sector. Maldamon had driven the Engineering crew beyond reason to reach Alderaan in time.

As the Predator roared out of hyperspace, greatly upsetting the near space traffic controller, there was a series of coded messages waiting for Maldamon. The Communications officer handed the datapad over and stepped back. Maldamon scanned the messages, his brow ridges rippling with agitation.

"LAUNCH FIGHTERS NOW!" He howled at the captain. "We're too late They've already departed the surface!"

The ready launch TIE flight left the hanger before Maldamon finished speaking. The rebels detected the Imperial fighters and accelerated. The TIE flight leader heavily damaged the freighter, but not enough to prevent its escape.

The bridge crew tensed and waited for the inevitable eruption. Instead Maldamon actually chuckled. This was something completely beyond their collective experience.

"Communications. I want you to send out a omniburst signal based on the frequency that Lieutenant Rahos is about to give you. Sensors. You will soon be receiving a pulse code signal. You are to begin constant monitoring of this signal. Once you have locked in on this signal, you are to feed the course information to the Navigator. If this signal is lost the entire sensor crew will answer to me personally. Captain, you have the con. I will be in my ready room."

The bridge crew blinked in confusion, then began implementing their orders. The Predator recovered her fighters and lept back into hyperspace, again greatly upsetting Alderaan's traffic controller.

 

The departure from Alderaan was, from Carek's point of view, just a haze. He knew that they were nearly intercepted by a Victory class Star Destroyer. He was also aware that a flight of TIE fighters hit them and caused heavy damage before they could jump. But all of that seemed to be inconsequential compared to the loss of his lightsaber.

Once in the relative safety of hyperspace, Ardent opened the box from the Jedi cave and found that it contained a pair of lightsabers. He raced to Carek's quarters and showed him what he had discovered.

"Here you go Carek, A replacement and a spare." Said Ardent trying to cheer up his heartbroken friend.

"Thanks Ardent. I know you mean well, but a lightsaber isn't like a blaster. Each one is hand made and is a major component of a Jedi's early training. Those are beautiful, but they're not the one that I made."

"What should I do with them then?"

"Leave them with me. I'll take them apart so that they don't fall into the wrong hands."

You're going to destroy them? When you need one of your own, you're going to destroy two perfectly good ones?"

"You'll just have accept that it is the Jedi way. Once these have been unmade, I will began assembling the components to replace the lightsaber I lost on Alderaan."

"I'll never understand you Carek. Never."

"Well, where I'm from, your people's concept of warriors enslaved to a clan leader would be considered barbaric. So it's just a matter of perspective."

"I'll have to think about that one. Good night Carek."

"Good night Ardent."

After he was alone, Carek again thanked the Force that his master had deemed him worthy enough to show him the virtually lost art before he had been killed. He disassembled the two lightsabers, walked to engineering and slowly fed the pieces into the mass energy converter.

He returned to his quarters after scavenging various nonessential components from engineering to build his new weapon. "I now know how wrong I was to have misled my friends." He mused. "I paid a fearsome cost to relearn that a Jedi does nothing for personal gain and that a Jedi should know no fear. I also know how badly I failed at the cave. Master Havsoltek told many times, that a Jedi learns more from a failure, than he can from any success. And today, I have had much to learn from."

Carek sat quietly for a moment. "By the Force that's maudlin." He said shaking off his melancholy. "Tonight, I must meditate on today's failures, but for now, I've got a lightsaber to build." He then smiled for the first time in hours and went to work.

 

Three days later while Carek was putting the finishing touches on his new lightsaber, there was an explosion that shook the ship from end to end. Simultaneously the proximity klaxon started sounding.

"What the blazes." Carek muttered and rolled up off the deck. Fighting the wild pitching of the ship, he staggered out of his cabin and promptly collided with Rex, who was heading for the bridge, both men going down in a tangle of flailing limbs.

"Move you Danarian Goon Ox!" Rex fumed as he untangled himself and lurched to his feet.

"What happened?" Carek asked regaining his feet for the second time.

"That's what I'm trying to find out."

"How can I help?"

"First get out of my way. Second get to engineering and report."

Enroute to the engine room. Carek could hear angry shouts from the other cabins as the rest of the crew struggled to recover from the double shock of being rudely thrown out of bed and from being rudely awakened from a deep sleep.

Reaching engineering Carek slapped the door control. As the door opened, a blast of heat and flames rolled out and drove him back. He dodged clear of the raging fire and grabbed a nearby extinguisher. Pulling his jacket up to shield his face, he thrust the extinguisher out in front of him and began spraying fire retardant on the worst part of the flames.

Squinting to see through the heat distortion, he saw that most of the drive systems had already sustained heavy damage. "We must have misjumped and come too close to a planet's gravity well, causing the hyperdrives to overload. This is bad. Really bad."

Long before Carek reached engineering, Rex had come to exact same conclusion. The controls were offline and to make matters worse, they were not only on a collision course with a planet, they were already entering the planet's upper atmosphere. There was no time to effect repairs of any kind, there was only one course of action. The rebels had to man the escape pod immediately.

"Abandon ship! This is no joke!" Screamed Rex. "Get to the pod now, it's our only chance!"

There was a mad scramble as the rebels fled for their lives. Kyle, Leland, Ardent, Roberts, and Lazarus were waiting in the pod when Rex and Carek dived aboard. As soon as Rex landed, Leland fired the explosive bolts that sent them rocketing free of the stricken Bantha.

"I'm never going to get used to that." Said Carek recalling the far more costly escape from the Tigershark.

"It's never easy to have to standby helplessly, when something that means everything to you is destroyed" Replied Lazarus remembering an equally grim moment in his life. Once Leland had the pod stabilized, they all watched the Bantha make her re-entry. Rex took over the controls and steered the pod as close to where the Bantha went down as he could before they landed.

"What a flaming dump!" Leland said disgustedly, looking at the sere landscape. "Does anyone know where we are?"

"Near as I can figure, the Kiosk system." Rex replied wearily.

"How far to the ship? I'm not really constructed for long walks in the sun." Said Lazarus his pale skin already showing a hint of red.

"Twelve klicks." Said Carek. "Do you think that will be a problem?"

"I should be okay. Well, lets get a move on, the ship's not going to get any closer with us jawboning."

"Laz is right. Let's go." Said Rex, gathering up his portion of the survival gear and starting for the Bantha.

"What do we think we're going to find at the ship?" Kyle asked Carek when he was sure that Rex couldn't hear.

"Your guess is as good as mine, Kyle. I don't see how anything on the ship could have survived crashing at the speed that the Bantha was going when we lost sight of her."

"I'm more worried about how Rex is handling the loss of his ship."

"I guess time will tell on both of those questions."

They found the Bantha half buried at the end of a sixty kilometer long furrow in the desert. She was in surprisingly good condition, good in that externally, she still could be recognized as a ship. Internally, every system was offline and the hull had been breached in several places. A quick check told them that the repulsor lift and hyperdrives were completely wrecked and beyond their ability to repair. Their only hope was to try to get the communications back online and call for help. As this was their only option, they scouted the area, set up their survival shelters and began trying to put the comm unit back into some semblance of order.

 

The soft susurration of terse query and answer that issued from the crew pit of the Predator's main bridge was broken by a strangled gasp from the sensor officer. Captain Gellen turned from where he stood on the command walkway and saw the young officer blanch, his eyes wide with panic. The Predator had been holding position one parsec from where they had abruptly exited the Alderaan system for the last three days. Waiting for their prey to reach their, as yet unknown, destination. The crewers of the Imperial star destroyer had settled into the long wait and the sudden break in the dull rhythm that had developed startled everyone.

"Lieutenant Manda, what is the meaning of this outburst?"

"It...It's n-not my fault!" Manda stammered and rose shakily to his feet to face the captain. "The signal cut off at the source. There was nothing I could do!"

Before Gellen could respond, the blast door that lead to the ready room opened and the tall, black and white furred Maldamon entered. He walked to the edge of the crew pit. His huge yellow eyes stabbed Manda with a bone chilling stare.

"Am I correct in the belief that you have lost the homing beacon?"

Manda wilted before those huge, awful eyes until it seemed as if he would shrink away to nothing. He nearly lept off the deck when Maldamon spoke again.

"Explain."

The word was spoken quietly, but it echoed across the bridge like a blaster bolt.

Somehow Manda found his voice.

"Sir, the signal stopped transmitting. The rebels must have located the beacon and shut it off."

Maldamon focused that blood freezing stare at the captain.

"Is this an accurate portrayal of what occurred?" He said.

To his credit, the captain met that baleful gaze without flinching. "According to the sensor logs. Lieutenant Manda is correct. The signal was not lost. It was the beacon that stopped transmitting."

"Very well. Correlate all sensor data with navigation and match the location of all star systems within five parsecs of the beacon's last known position."

There was a flurry of activity, as the command crew complied with Maldamon's orders. In less than five minutes the navigator, Commander Thelnek reported his findings.

"Sir, the rebels entry into hyperspace was erratic, but, their basic course line is consistent with a destination somewhere on the rim. The beacon's signal was lost in the Haltek sector, which is an unusually barren area of this region of space. This is due to the gravitic disturbance caused by the triple gas giant cluster of the Cypryn system. There are two other systems within the designated five parsec sphere. The only system that fits in with the time frame of the beacon's signal delay to the sensor's detecting the loss is the Cypryn system."

"That doesn't make any sense, the Empire maintains a large orbital repair station in that system. The rebels wouldn't go there." Said Gellen.

"Normally that would be correct sir. However, I believe that based on their already observed erratic entry to hyperspace and the sudden loss of the beacon's signal, that the rebel pilot failed to account  or the system's gravitic fluctuations and their stop there is an unplanned event. I have taken the liberty of plotting a course for the Cypryn system. Our travel time is one hundred and four hours." Thelnek concluded.

"I can contact the system patrol and have them try and locate them." Said Gellen.

"NO! These rebels are mine. I mean to have them and I have just the plan in mind." Maldamon looked at Thelnek appraisingly. "Good work Commander. Very good work. Execute plotted jump immediately."

Maldamon dismissed Thelnek and motioned for Gellen and Rahos to join him in his ready room. He started speaking as soon as the blast door sealed.

"Now here's my plan..."

 

"Okay Laz, We're ready on this side." Kyle said, adjusting his makeshift syntherope harness so that it didn't quite bind his shoulders so much, then glanced at Roberts who nodded that he was ready.

"Ardent and Leland are ready too. Stand by for my signal. Carek?"

"Ready."

"Rex?"

"As I'll ever be."

"Alright then everybody, you know the plan. We only get one chance at this."

Lazarus cast one more critical look at the crude, but sturdy, tripod that the rebels had built from I-beams cut from the Bantha's hull with Carek's lightsaber and slipped into his own harness. The Bantha's subspace transmitter had survived the crash in good shape, but both the primary and backup emitters had been completely torn from the hull.

Not willing to accept that they were trapped, Lazarus had hit on the plan of using the main sensor's parabolic dish as a crude replacement. However, the battered ship had come to a halt on her left side in a nearly inverted attitude, pinning the sensor dish underneath the hull.

Undaunted by the setback, the rebels had taken two days to construct the tripod and rig syntherope pulleys to the hull. They were now ready for the most dangerous part of the plan. As the Bantha had skidded, a section of the Bantha's upper hull had peeled back and was now jammed against the sensor dish. Fate had again dealt the rebels a cruel blow in that, it was a support member from the damaged section of the hull that was all that was keeping the Bantha from rolling over completely.

The only way to free the dish would be to hoist the Bantha slightly, cut the I-beam, and move then it enough for someone to crawl down and remove the bolts holding down the dish. The rebels had been unable to figure out how to cut the I-beam in a way that would free it and yet leave it long enough and strong enough to keep the crawl way open.

Ardent, Leland, Kyle, and Roberts would provide the brute strength that would support the Bantha by means of the hoist and pulleys, while Carek cut, and Lazarus shifted the I-beam. Rex had volunteered for the dangerous job of freeing the dish. If anything went wrong, Rex would be killed and the dish would be crushed as well, leaving the rest of the rebels stranded. Lazarus was not exaggerating when he said that they would only get one chance.

"Okay we do this on my mark." Lazarus grunted and got a good grip on his harness. He looked toward the heavens and silently beseeched whatever diety that watched over the desperate. As his gaze fell back toward the task at hand, he noticed a plume of dust on the horizon. "The heat must be getting to me again." He blinked hard and shook his head. The plume was still there.

"Hey Laz! What's the hold up?" Leland's shout, broke Lazarus' revelry.

"We've got company."

There was a chorus of "What!" As the other rebels slipped off their harnesses and scrambled to where they could see the distant riders approach.

"What are they riding?" Asked Leland, who after shielding his eyes with his hand, had finally gotten a good look at the bipedal beasts the unknown men were riding.

"Cracian thumpers. They're like tauntauns without the smell." Kyle replied, his eyes never leaving the riders. "How do you want to play this, Rex?"

"As peaceful as possible. I don't want any misunderstandings, these guys are our ticket out of here."

The riders approached slowly. As they got closer, the rebel’s hopes of a quick rescue were dashed by the rider’s appearance. All their clothing and equipment showed a decidedly primitive motif.

  "I'm going to go out on a limb and bet these guys don't have a subspace transmitter in those saddle bags." Rex muttered.

The lead rider chuckled and approached closer. "Hello, my name is Dalen Nolu. My companions and I are Followers of the Natural Way. We voluntarily reject the technological trappings of modern society. We came to see if there were any survivors and to see if we could help." Dalen glanced at the tripod and pondered for a moment. "Lost both your Mossfield wave guides?"

   "Yes torn right off the hull." Lazarus blurted. "I was going to jury-rig our sensor dish to... Hey wait a minute, if you followers of the Natural Path."

   "Way. Natural Way." Said Dalen.

   "Whatever." Snapped Lazarus not to be deterred. "If you reject 'technological trappings.' How is it you know so much about subspace transmitters." The tension in the air was suddenly as thick as a pall of smoke, as both the rebels and the locals reacted to the edge in Lazarus' voice.

"You are again allowing appearances to deceive you." Dalen replied slowly, choosing his words carefully in an effort to prevent a potentially deadly misunderstanding. "I was not raised as a Follower. I was First Assistant Technician at Holo relay substation Delta One Gamma.

"That's in the Haldeen sector." Said Roberts.

"Right. And it's the busiest station in that sector. All of it major corporation and Imperial military traffic. Six years of that, and I'll bet you that your opinion on technology changes too. My wife stumbled onto the Natural Way while visiting her sister. I was so stressed, that I was an easy convert. I located their nearest colony just as soon as I could find one. I resigned and booked passage to the Cypryn system. I hired a shuttle to bring me here to Tosca. I met with the Followers and liked what I saw. I gave a message to the shuttle pilot for my wife to join me. She never showed up. I love the Natural Way, however..."

"As a Follower, you no longer had the means to follow up on what had happened to your wife." Said Carek, finishing up when Dalen trailed off.

"Very perceptive." Smiled Dalen. "When your ship's rather spectacular re-entry drew my attention, I thought I would find an operation transmitter when I reached your escape pod."

Rex looked sheepish as Dalen and the rest of the rebels fixed him with a curious gaze.

"I, uh, removed the transmitter to disable it's auto broadcast function."

"I see." Dalen replied with obvious disapproval.

"Okay, okay. I admit it was stupid. It's just that I've carried cargo into areas that are best avoided. If something went wrong, I didn't want the ABF to bring in unwanted assistance. I had planned to modify the transmitter and put it back, but then I had to replace a bearing in the port alluvial dampner. After that, the primary heat exchanger coil had to be repaired. One thing lead to another and I just forgot about the transmitter."

"Now I see why you're trying to salvage your sensor's parabolic dish." Said Dalen. "I hate to have to tell you this, but the throughput from a subspace transmitter is way too high for a parabolic to handle."

"I know that. I was going to reduce the signal strength." Lazarus replied defensively.

You would have to reduce it so much, that the background noise from the triple gas giants would completely drown out your signal."

"So you're saying we're trapped?" Rex said dejectedly.

"That depends on how badly damaged your Bantha is. Do you have any drives at all?"

"The sublights are at about thirty percent. The repulsors and hyperdrives are slagged."

"All right then. Let's get to work."

"On what?" Said Lazarus incredulously.

"On getting out of here. I may be being optimistic, but this is the closest thing to an operational ship I've seen in four years. I was hoping to hitch a ride to Cypryn four on the first ship leaving Tosca. Since you've got sublights, it's my intention that this wrinkled warrior here, be my ride. So lets get to work." Rex smiled for the first time since the Bantha went down and turned to his fellow castaways. "You heard the man. Lets get to work."

Maldamon stood in the center of the command walkway, exactly in the spot that Captain Gellen had favored. "I don't think the good captain will mind much." He smiled evilly, thinking back to the events that had transpired immediately after he had revealed his plan to capture the rebels stranded in the Cypryn system.

After sending a message to an ISB agent already in the system, there came the revelation that the Predator's hyperdrive coils had failed as the ship tried to jump to lightspeed.

"If you didn't insist on driving the engines over the rated maximum in the pursuit of those gundark spawned rebels, they never would have failed!" Gellen had spat, his vaunted composure breaking at last, Maldamon had ordered the chief engineer be brought to him in binders and Gellen had taken exception. "Commander Ropnar is one of the finest engineers in the fleet. I will not stand by and sacrifice an officer of Ropnar's caliber to one of your infantile tantrums. This time you are going to have to own up to your own mistake!"

The silence that had followed Gellen's outburst was as eternal and as cold as the vacuum of the space just beyond the bridge's main view ports.

Maldamon's smile spread as he remembered how the look of indignant outrage had turned to one of raw agony, when the unyielding invisible bands of the Force had shattered both of Gellen's knees. Crushing them as surely as if caught in a hydraulic vise.

"I have to give it to him though." He reflected. "He never grovelled as I crushed his vertibrae one by one. By the Dark Side he did scream, but there was fire in his eyes right up until his neck snapped. You've got to admire that kind of courage."

The chief engineer arrived just as the fire left Gellen's eyes. He stared aghast at the grusome sight and then came to attention before Maldamon.

"The captain advised me prior to his passing that you are one of the best engineers in the fleet. Is this true?"

"I...Yes sir!"

"Skipping the details and the excuses, answer this one question. How long until the drives are repaired?"

Ropnar took on the look of the doomed.

"Sir, the damage can not be repaired outside of a spacedock."

"Are you telling me that we will have to be TOWED?"

"No sir! The drive is funtional. It's efficiency has been reduced, but it will get us to the Cypryn system."

"It would seem that Captain Gellen was correct in his assessment of your abilities. How long to the Cypryn system?" Maldamon's huge eyes narrowed.

Ropnar noticed and swallowed reflexively. "Twelve days sir."

"TWELVE DAYS!"

"Sir. When the primary coil shorted, the feedback from the overload killed seventeen crewers, including Lieutenant Kiefen, who sacrificed himself to shut down the hyperspace field generator. If he hadn't, the

overload would have destroyed the ship."

"That's very commendable. Commander, but that doesn't answer why our travel time has just quadrupled."

"Sir. Although very localized, the damage to the drive was quite extensive. We had to use the emergency backup coil to stablize the primary coil's phase induction matrix. The emergency coil is just not designed to handle the stress of a class one hyperdrive. It is a testament of the engineering department's dedication, that we don't have to be towed in. I am prepared to accept my fate, but it is a miracle that the ship can move at all."

Maldamon looked long and hard at the man before he finally answered. "I will review the security log and see how much of what you have just told me is true. If what you say is fact, I will recommend your Lieutenant Kiefen for the Imperial Star of Coruscant." He turned to face Commander Thelnek. "You have your course and we have lost enough time already. Jump when ready."

"Yes sir!"

Maldamon turned back toward Ropnar, as the viewports lit up with the brilliant flash of starlines.

"Commander, I have one final question for you."

"Yes sir."

"What caused the primary coil to fail in the first place?"

Ropnar again took on the look of the doomed.

"Our recent sustained overloading of the drive caused the coil to microfracture internally. I ran a level five diagnostic yesterday, but it failed to detect anything. Sometimes a coil's lattice structure can cause a harmonic feedback that can fool the diagnostic scanners. The good news is, the orbital facilities at Cypryn can fully repair the drive in less than two days."

"Very good. Dismissed."

Maldamon slowly walked over to where Captain Gellen's tortured body lay in a twisted heap.

"Captain I guess I owe you an apology."

He then stepped over the remains and headed for his ready room.

Commander Thelnek waited until the blastdoor closed, before motioning for the on duty stormtroopers to remove the captain's body.

 

The repairs to the Bantha had taken longer and had required more work than even Dalen had feared. The first order of business had been restoring power. The Bantha's fusion reactor survived the crash with only moderate damage. It's output had been reduced to eighty-five percent and even that fluctuated under load, but it was a start.

After the power had been restored, the rebels, Dalen, and his fellow Followers, had to free the Bantha from the crevasse that she had created during the crash. Getting the Bantha on an even keel could only be done by back breaking manual labor. It took six days before the Bantha was as level as they could get her.

While the others leveled the ship, Dalen showed himself to truly be a technical wizard. He impressed everyone, including Lazarus, with his ability to repair, or jury rig even severely damaged components. The hyperdrive and repulsor coils had been wrecked beyond his ability to repair, but the rebels still considered themselves extremely lucky to have his assistance.

"Hand me the number four hydrospanner." Said Lazarus from under the Pilot's console, his feet the only part of him visible.

"You got it." Leland answered and glanced over to the navigation station where Dalen was fine tuning the main positional logic array.

"Hey Dalen."

"What can I do for you?"

"Are you sure you were only the First Assistant Tech at Delta One Gamma?"

Dalen laughed as he answered. "Yes I was only the First Assistant. It was one of the main reasons that I was able to accept the Natural Way so easily. The Chief Technician was a real kludge. I had to learn how to repair a wide range of technologies just to keep the station running. Chief Stapunch was a magician with a datapad, but he hadn't had his hands inside an access panel in years.

"Well, I'm glad you're here." Said Lazarus as he crawled out from under the console. "I thought I knew my way around a starship, but, you've shown me how to do things I didn't even know were possible."

"Glad to help." Dalen closed the access panel and turned to face Leland. "That my friend, is the last of it. We are ready to try to lift."

Leland was not quite ready to trust his ears after waiting to hear those words for so long. "Are you serious?" He asked with a wide grin.

"As a rancor with a tooth ache."

"What's a rancor?"

"Trust me, you don't want to know."

Leland moved to the co-pilot's seat and strapped in. "Laz? Would you tell Rex to come up here and have everyone else strap in back there. Lifting on sublights is never pretty and this take off is going to be uglier than most."

"I'll let them know. Just remember, that this time if it goes bad, we don't have an escape pod."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence."

"Just keeping you on your toes."

"Right."