Chapter Six

 

 

 

 

     "Cypryn Approach Control, this is free trader Wandering Bantha. Request docking instructions. Over." Carek said and hoped that he had managed to keep his voice professionally neutral.

     "Bantha this is Control. If you don't mind me asking, what happened to you?"

     "We ran into a problem getting past Tosca."

     "Problem? "What problem?"

     "We ran into Tosca."

     "Hyperspace misjump?"

     "That's it in a Grandel nut shell."

     "Understood Bantha. You're not the first. You are cleared to dock in repair bay twelve. Control out."

     "Copy bay twelve, but, we will require a tractor as our repulsors are offline."

     "Frankly Bantha, I'm amazed that you're moving at all. Stand by for tractor."

     "Roger Control."

     "Well that sure went a lot easier than I would have guessed." Said Rex. "I guess we must look worse than I thought."

     "Let's just count our blessings for once and get her docked. The starboard lateral thrusters are not responding, and the primary heat exchanger is about to shut down from trying to compensate for the reactor's power fluctuations." Said Leland, who was obviously weary from struggling with the barely functioning flight controls.

     "Roger that." Rex replied.

     The battered ship gave a slight lurch.

     "There's the tractor. We've made it." Rex could not hide the joy he felt at the prospect of reaching a place that could restore his beloved ship to its former glory.

     The flight from Tosca had taken eighteen hours to complete the three hour trip. The take off from Tosca had been far uglier than Leland had dreamed possible. Rex and he had had to use every piloting trick that they knew to get the crippled Bantha into orbit.

     The worse moment had been when the port sunlight engine had imploded from the strain. For a moment Leland was certain that they were all going to die. However, in a brilliant piece of improvisational flying, Rex fired all the starboard thrusters and wrenched the Bantha into a tight corkscrewing turn, using the ship's centrifugal force to sling shot the faltering Bantha out of Tosca's gravitational field. Once she broke orbit, the Bantha had, more or less, cooperated and had limped slowly towards Cypryn four.

     The Bantha gave a final shudder and landed with a heavy thud in the cavernous repair bay. Carek looked at his chronometer, did a quick calculation, and realized that it had been twelve days and six hours since they fled from the Alderaan system. He unbuckled his safety harness and stole a glance at Dalen, who leapt to his feet and clapped Lazarus on the back. The rest of the rebels joined in on the round of

backslapping and bear hugs that their deliverance had engendered.  Carek used the celebration as a cover to grab Dalen in a bear hug and while they were slapping each other on the back, He reached out with his rudimentary abilities with the Force to try and find a reason why Dalen made him so uneasy. Carek was not normally the suspicious type, but there was just something about how Dalen carried himself that had put him on his guard.

     "The Force has not been kind enough to show me a solid premonition, and I just can't sense anything substantial, all I've got is a hunch and that's not enough. I'll keep my theory to myself for now, but, I'm not letting Dalen out of my sight."

     Rex had burst out of cockpit and was the first one off the ship. He raced over to the group of techs that had gathered around outside, and were staring at the Bantha with open mouthed disbelief.

     "I would not have believed it possible for a ship in that condition to be capable of getting the reactor to stay online, let alone fly." Said a tall, thin man wearing a set of coveralls with the sleeves cut off.

     "I'm seeing it. But I'm not believing it." Replied an older stooped man with an unlit cigarra clamped between his teeth.

     "Well sir, seeing is believing. I'm Rex, owner of the Wandering Bantha.

     "What she 'wander' into. A partially operational trash compactor?" One of the other techs shouted, causing the rest of the techs to burst out laughing.

     "Yes she's seen better days, but I'm certain that among you esteemed gentlemen, that I can find someone capable of restoring my Bantha to showroom condition." Rex insisted.

     This was met with silence, until the man with the sleeveless cover-alls spoke up. "I can fix your Bantha, but it's going to cost you."

     "And you would be...Mister?"

     "Saldane."

     "Ah yes, Mister Saldane. Just what would your fee be?"

     "Twenty thousand."

     Rex blinked not quite sure he had heard correctly. "I could buy a ship for that."

     "You're absolutely correct Mister Rex. I know I speak for all the rest of the local techs. You have pulled off the closest thing to a miracle that I've ever personally witnessed by getting here in that thing. I know how attached to your ships you free traders get, but you have to face facts, your ship will never fly again."

     The rest of the techs nodded their heads in agreement to what Saldane said, and several of them started to leave.

     "Wait! It is not hopeless. The Bantha will fly again!"

     "Only if you've got twenty kay. Otherwise, I'd suggest that you sell her for scrap and book passage back to wherever you call home and try starting all over again." Saldane looked at the Bantha again and shook his head. "I don't mean to sound cruel, but it is over." Saldane and the other techs then turned and left.

     Rex stood in silent rage until, the rest of the crew joined him.

     "They said she was done for. They want almost as much as she cost when I first bought her to put her back together." He said softly.

     "We obviously don't have that kind of money with us," Said Lazarus. "so I suggest that we pool what money we do have and book a flight to Her-"

     "To see our wealthy aunt." Carek interrupted, mindful that Dalen was with them. "She may be a tough customer to bargain with, but I think that she'll front us the money."

     Lazarus gave Carek a funny look, then nodded his head in slow comprehension. "Yes our wealthy aunt might just do that. Does anyone else have a better idea?"

     "I think you've hit on the best course of action." Said Kyle.

     "So where do we book passage?" Asked Leland.

     "I think I may be of help there." Dalen replied. "I can look up the pilot that flew me out to Tosca. He should know if there's a ship for hire. I can also find a subspace transmitter and send a message to my wife."

     "It seems that we owe you another debt of gratitude. Mister Nolu." Carek smiled gravely.

     "You don't owe me anything, I'm just glad to be able to help."

     "Where will we meet you?" Said Leland.

     "As I recall, I met my pilot friend in a nice little place called the Vinos' tavern. It's in Atnos, that's the capitol city, on Melbar Road. I suggest we meet there at eighteen hundred, that should be plenty of time for me to locate a ship."

     "Excellent. See you at eighteen hundred." Carek smiled again.

     The rebels waited until Dalen was well out of earshot before anyone spoke.

     "Okay Carek what gives?" Said Lazarus.

     "I don't trust Dalen."

     "What? You saw how hard he worked to get us here. What makes you think you can't trust him?" Lazarus snapped, having worked with Dalen more than anyone, Lazarus had gotten fairly close to him and didn't like the way the conversation was going at all.

     "I'm with Carek." Kyle answered. "I can't put my finger on it, but I don't trust him either."

     "Very well. What's the plan?" Lazarus replied, still unconvinced.

     "We book our own passage out of here." Said Carek.

     "I'm staying with the Bantha." Said Rex, coming out of his revelry.

     "Are you sure? I don't know if that's a good idea."

     "I don't care what you think Carek. This is my ship and I will not abandon her." Rex all but snarled.

     "What about Dalen? Are we going to meet him?" Said Leland.

     "If he's not to be trusted, then, we will almost certainly be walking into a trap." Said Ardent, speaking for the first time since they had left the ship.

     "I agree. I think we should book a ship and slip out before Dalen even knows we're gone." Said Carek after a moments thought.

     "I disagree with the last part." Kyle added. "I think it will be a trap too, but I want to see who Dalen is working for."

     In the end, after hours of, at times, vocal arguments, it was decided that, Rex would indeed stay with the Bantha. The others would book their passage independent of Dalen, and they would meet with Dalen.

     Booking passage turned out to be easier than they thought. Lazarus tapped into the local newsnet and found a ship that was for hire. The six rebels then caught the shuttle ferry down to the Atnos starport. There they met with and paid the captain of the free trader Carthesian Hawk a fifty percent deposit to insure that the ship would be available for immediate departure. After securing their escape, the crew of the Wandering Bantha caught a robohack and headed for Melbar Road.

 

     "Message from Cypryn four sir." The communications officer said to Maldamon.

     "Go ahead."

     "Approach Control confirms that the target has just docked. Their ship is a hopeless cripple and is not hyperspace capable."

     "Excellent. Dismissed. Commander Thelnek, have my shuttle and the capture team shuttles prepared for immediate launch."

     "Aye sir." The Predator's acting commander spoke softly into his comm pickup issuing the necessary orders.

     "Lieutenant Rahos."

     "Sir!"

     "I want you to remain here on the bridge. You are to execute your hyperjump into the Kiosk system in exactly two hours. I want you on the ground with the interrogation teams within ten minutes of exiting

hyperspace."

     "Aye sir."

     "Commander Thelnek, you have the bridge."

     "Aye sir."

     The tall Dark Jedi swept the bridge with his huge yellow eyes, then strode into the turboshaft. When the doors closed, an almost audible sound whispered across the bridge as the crewers relaxed for the first time in nearly two weeks.

     "Helmsman start your timer from Commander Maldamon's mark."

     "Already started. Your course is plotted and laid in."

     "Good. Well Lieutenant Rahos, this time the enemy is ours."

     "And after the trouble they have caused us, I can't wait to introduce them to the interrogation droids."

     The two men shared a smile at that thought, then turned to watch the timer's relentless countdown.

 

     The rebels exited the robohack a few blocks from their destination. They cast an experienced eye all around the area looking for signs of an ambush. The pedestrian traffic was very heavy, but, the streets were otherwise clear.

     Lazarus led off by taking point. Kyle, Ardent, and Roberts spread out; far enough to cover Lazarus, and to keep an eye on their flanks. Leland and Carek let the others move out, then took up rear guard.

     Lazarus had taken point for the simple reason that he was convinced, that for once, the others were being paranoid. Dalen was okay. And he was going to prove it. "I can't believe the guys are letting a little pressure get to them like this." He thought, moving through the crowd. His eyes alert, even though the larger part of his consciousness was wrestling with trying to reconcile his own opinion of Dalen with that of his normally reliable best friends.

     It was that small portion of his consciousness still keeping track of his progress, that caught the flash of white. The screaming alarm shut down the Dalen debate and caused his blood to run cold. "Great Deity! Stormtroopers!" He choked. He managed to send his fellow rebels

the hand signal for enemy in sight, but he took too long to find cover himself. "Oh I don't need this!" He thought, when he saw the troopers snap their weapons up into firing position. Lazarus rolled behind one of the plascrete planters that lined Melbar Road and began to return fire. The ionic charge from the blue concentric stun bolts making his hair stand on end.

     The sudden exchange of fire caused a near stampede among the large group of pedestrians that found themselves caught in the crossfire. Roberts, Kyle, and Ardent each used the distraction to find cover and began hammering the trooper's left flank with a relentless stream of fire.

     When Carek saw Lazarus' signal, he crouched low and circled to the left. The team's fire, had killed three troopers and forced the others to shift their positions, leaving the right flank unguarded and allowing Carek to slip past. Carek had felt a familiar tremor in the Force just as Lazarus signaled, and was determined to reach Vinos's tavern.

     Leland made the most of the panic stricken crowd and found cover behind a row of parked land speeders. "Holy Hopping Horndogs! What a mess! Man what I wouldn't give to have my hands on a starfighter right now." He thought. "Carek's Force was right on the credits this time. Not that I would admit that to him."

     Leland was as brave as any of the rebels assigned to the Bantha, but he knew all too well, just how limited his skills with a blaster were. He non-the-less popped up from behind the stylish Hyperfoil 1000 that he was using for cover and snapped off a quick shot, missing badly.

     The shot was enough to draw the notice of the troopers and Leland was forced to take cover by the flurry of return fire.

     The Stormtroopers were hampered by their orders to take the rebels alive, and by the rebels vastly superior skill. The two squads that had initiated the ambush had been decimated. The surviving lieutenant, stunned by how quickly the tables had been turned against him, lost the last of his professional demeanor and screamed for reinforcements.

     The brief distraction caused by Leland, was all Carek needed to reach the door to Vinos' Tavern undetected by the harried troopers. As he approached, the door flew open and Carek found himself face to face with Dalen, four Stormtroopers, and, the familiar tremor in the Force that he had noticed moments ago, Maldamon the Dark Jedi.

     "I knew you for what you were Dalen. A zebok can't change its spots. No matter how well groomed it is." Said Carek, his lightsaber at the ready.

     Dalen deferring to Maldamon's presence, did not answer.

     Maldamon leaned his head back and slightly turned towards the stormtrooper sergeant. "Stun only on this one."

     Carek chose that moment to attack.

     Maldamon, expecting the attack, ignited his lightsaber and parried. What he was unprepared for, was the speed and precision of the strike.

     "Join the Dark Side young one." Maldamon crooned.

     Carek ignored that and continued his attack. The angry humming of his lightsaber offering his only commentary.

     Dalen's expression rapidly changed, from smugness, to fear, to raw agony as the blade struck him, then finally going blank as his bisected heart, beat for the last time.

     The Dark Side Adept struck back. Carek parried easily and used the momentum of Maldamon's attack to spin out of the Dark Jedi's reach, and cut down two of the Stormtroopers. He feinted to the left, leapt over Maldamon's counter attack, rolled past the Imperials, springing to his feet behind them. The troopers pivoted desperately, but neither man completed his turn before Carek cut them down as well.

     "Very impressive young one." Said Maldamon. "I am gladdened by your progress, but now it time for you to embrace the Dark Side and join in the service of the Emperor."

     "I will not serve evil." Carek shot back, his voice utterly calm.

     "Then I will kill you."

     "You're going to have to work for that!" Carek then launched into a complicated series of attacks.

     Maldamon parried each attack, but, he knew he was only just barely turning the attacks. "Sith Darkness! This young one has improved!" And for the first time, he began to know fear.

     "You have improved, young one." Said Maldamon, frantically trying to distract Carek's timing.

     Carek remained completely focused. "The better to fight evil with." He replied through clenched teeth.

     Carek felt completely at one with the Force. He remembered his failure on Alderaan and, in an instant, he knew how that mistake had prepared him for this moment. Reaching deeper into the Force than he ever had before, he slashed low, feinted lower, and then reversed his strike in mid-swing and struck upwards.

     "Foolish young one, I have you now!" Maldamon hissed, after seeing the classic double low strike. He readied a riposte that would end this fight in one blow. So intent on his counterstrike, that he failed to see the second half of the double low strike curve upwards until it was too late. His parry was a fraction of a second too slow in coming. He felt the blade slice deeply into his side, just above his left hip flexor joint.

     Maldamon's world exploded into a multicolored kaleidoscope of blinding agony. He crumpled to the ground and tried to focus his rage in a desperate attempt to remain conscious, but there was too much pain. He felt his primary heart loop shut down and then every thing went black.

     When Maldamon dropped to the ground, the only thought that crossed Carek's mind was pity. He looked down at the being that had dogged his trail for so long, and could only feel sorry that the Emperor had managed to cause the death of yet another Jedi.

     The lightsaber duel had taken all the concentration that Carek could muster. As the adrenalin from the battle drained away, He became aware of the sounds of the battle raging around him. Carek looked around and saw that only a half a dozen of the original troopers still remained. He took one more at the body at his feet and saw Maldamon's lightsaber roll free from the Tauntaran's grasp. He reached down and clipped the Dark Jedi's lightsaber to his belt. As he did, he realized that his failure at the Jedi cave on Alderaan, had come full circle.

     A flash of motion in the corner of this eye caught his attention. He saw a squad of reinforcement Stormtroopers, approaching in two groups of four racing in behind his comrades. He wasn't worried until he saw how heavily armed the troopers were. Each of the new troopers carried a light repeat blaster mounted in a stabilized harness.

     "I know trouble when I see it, and these guys are major trouble." He muttered. He broke into a sprint, in the hope of cutting the troopers off before they could reach his friends.

     The reinforcements spotted him and opened fire. Carek soon found himself pinned down, dodging wildly and deflecting the bolts that he was unable to dodge.

     Leland had also seen the troopers approaching. "Burning stars! Look at the size of those blasters. I'm not going to try and draw that kind of fire. This Hyperfoil 1000 wouldn't withstand two hits from..." His voice trailed off as he got an idea. "I know the Hyperfoil won't stand up to them, I wonder if they can stand up to the Hyperfoil?" He fished through his pockets for something to over ride the speeder's security. Finding nothing, he used the only tool he had. He shot the lock off with his blaster. "Not exactly the way a booster would do it, but I don't have the time to be delicate."

     Leland slid in, ran the speeder through it's power up sequence, and soon had the engine just below redline. It turned out that the Hyperfoil 1000 relied entirely on the complexity of the door locks. The main ignition was unguarded.

     "I'll have to drop a line to the good people of Tion Industries and let them know about a serious flaw in the 1000's anti-theft package." He grinned and punched full power to the hover engine lifters.

     The Hydrofoil 1000 was a mixed drive speeder, using standard repulsors and hover generators. The hover drives allowed for silent operation, and enabled Leland to catch the nearest quartet of troopers completely by surprise.

     The Leland plowed though the troopers at a hundred and fifty KPH, killing three troopers outright and shattering both legs of the one trooper that came closest to dodging. The impact caused the speeder's nose to dig in and flip over in a bone jarring stop. Leland shook his head for a moment to clear the ringing and crawled out the shattered windscreen of the now thoroughly ruined sports speeder.

     The spectacular crash of the speeder gave Carek the chance he needed to close in on the remaining fire team. Once in contact, he felled two of the troopers before they could react. The two survivors motivated by a higher than normal self preservation instinct, and blessed by an extra four meters of distance from their fallen comrades, swung their repeat blasters around and fired point blank at the young Jedi. Carek managed to deflect one of the bolts, with a last ditch desperate parry. The second bolt however, struck him squarely in his lower right side. Carek fell backwards into absolute blackness. "By the Force, I'm still alive." Was his last clear thought, before the darkness engulfed him.

     Ardent saw Carek fall and was consumed by anger. In a blind rage, he broke cover and charged, firing with the same blind rage. The troopers stood their ground and returned fire. Unclouded by raw emotion, the two Imperials began covering each other. One kept the remaining rebels pinned down, and the second, calmly hit Ardent with a well aimed burst of blaster bolts.

     "NOOOOOOO!" Leland raged from beside the speeder wreck. "Laz, Kyle, Roberts! Cover me!" He yelled.

     "You got it! You get Ardent! I'll take care of the Jedi!" Kyle yelled back.

     Roberts opened up with a furious barrage at the last three of the initial ambushers. Lazarus did the same at the two troopers with the repeat blasters. The Stormtroopers, who had been emboldened by felling of two the rebels, were not ready for the sudden volley of fire. The two rebels firing in perfect counter point, sent fire scything through the troopers. killing three of the five remaining almost instantly. By the time the Kyle and Leland reached the two downed rebels, the last of the troopers were dead.

     As soon as he heard the coving fire, Leland started his sprint. He covered the twenty meters of open ground, snatched up the crumpled Ardent and dashed back to cover, his face choked with grief. He had gotten a good look at the extent of Ardent's injuries and he knew that his friend was going to die.

     Likewise, when Roberts and Lazarus began firing, Kyle ignited his jet pack. Kyle flew in a graceful arc and landed next Carek. "Don't you even think about dying on me Carek!" He said, quickly checking for a pulse. Finding a thready heartbeat, he turned to fire his jet pack again. Just before he lifted, he noticed his friend's lightsaber.

     "I've been meaning to learn how to use one of these," He said to himself. "I don't think the Jedi will mind."

 

     Leland was only seventy meters away, but he might as well have been back on Tosca. He had seen a pair of scout walkers in the distance, and he knew he could never reach Kyle and the others before the walkers arrived. The last thing he wanted was to be caught in the open carrying a grievously wounded man. The approaching walkers had forced him to take Ardent back to the shelter of the twisted speeder.

     "Come on you tattooed freak. Stay with me." Leland said, placing the medpac on the worst of Ardent's wounds, but the damage was severe, too severe for one medpac to handle. The LEDs all strobed red, as the auto injectors worked overtime cycling and firing dose after dose of pain killers, coagulants, and stimulants.

     Leland glanced at the patient status LEDs again and saw them all indicate a steady red.

     "No. No. No. NO! NO! NO! You won't die! I WON'T LET YOU! I WON'T LET YOU." Leland gathered up his friend's mangled body and ran to find help. Any help.

 

     When Kyle was at the top of his return arc, his mouth dropped open in shock, when he caught sight of the scout walkers. He landed next to Lazarus and passed him the wounded Jedi.

     "We got trouble" Said Kyle.

     "Tell me something I don't know!" Lazarus snapped back, applying his medpac to Carek's still smoking wound.

     "I am telling you something you don't know. There's two AT-STs headed this way. We've got to clear out!"

     "Scout walkers! We've got more than trouble, we got no chance." Roberts wailed.

     "We've got a chance, because, I'm going to make us a chance. Get the Jedi to cover and stand by. Wait for me to make my move, then I need you to hit the walkers with everything you can." Kyle said with grim determination.

     "How much time do we have? I've got to get Carek stable before we try to move him." Said Lazarus, adjusting the medpac, so that the auto injectors could work more efficiently.

     "Less than a minute."

     "We've got to move." Said Roberts.

     "Not until I say so!" Lazarus snarled. "I've...almost...There!" The status LEDs all blinked green. "He's ready!"

     Lazarus and Roberts each grabbed an arm and lifted the Jedi in a smooth motion. They placed Carek out of the line of fire, then found decent cover for themselves and waited for Kyle's signal.

 

     Leland ran through the streets of Atnos, eyes wildly searching for any sign of a medical facility. He could hear the faint sounds of blaster fire and the heavier, deep throated reports that marked the walker's weapons, fading in the distance.

     "Help me! This man was a bystander wounded in the fighting. Please help me!" He shouted to a stunned group of pedestrians.

     The citizens of Atnos had lived under the shadow of the Empire for far too long. They all kept their distance, or closed and locked their doors as he approached.

     Leland had stopped at an intersection, when he heard the medpac give a strident warble, then shut off. "No, Ardent No." He half whispered.

     Leland stopped and lowered his comrade to the street. He didn't need to see the readouts to know it was over. Ardent's rib cage was damaged enough for Leland to see that his friend's heart had stopped beating.

     "Ardent...I...I..." Words failed Leland and he could only weep at the passing of his friend.

 

     When the walkers reached the small city square, they stopped at the edge of the trees that lined Melbar Road. It was that hesitation before entering the open, that Kyle had bet on and was waiting for.

     "That's it my little pretties, come to papa Kyle." He leered as he applied full power to his jetpack and flew at the closest walker.

     The covering fire from his fellow rebels was right on time, allowing him to land on the top of the walker unharmed.

     "Like I said. I don't think the Jedi will mind if I borrow this for a minute or two." Said Kyle, activating the fallen Jedi's lightsaber. The coruscating blade sliced through the lock and hinges of the walker's access hatch, before the occupants had a clue what was going on. Shorn of their protection, like an oyster out of its shell, Kyle calmly blasted both of them, then dropped inside of the walker.

     "Now lets see, this should be a breeze." Said Kyle, unstrapping the body of the driver and taking his place at the controls.

     The second walker had been so distracted by the storm of fire that Lazarus and Roberts had laid down, that it's operators didn't know something was amiss with their partner, until Kyle opened fire.

     Lamed by that first shot, it was never a contest. Kyle fired twice more and blasted the second walker to pieces. Kyle moved over to where the other rebels had taken cover and waited for them to board.

     "Where's Leland and Ardent?" Asked Kyle.

     "I'm over here." Leland replied as he boarded the walker.

     "Great Deity!" Gasped Lazarus. "Look at all that blood!"

     As soon as Leland had climbed aboard the now very crowded walker, Kyle got the walker moving for the spaceport.

 

     "Ardent is dead." Leland rasped. "I tried to save him, but I just didn't know what to do. He was hit so bad." He then buried his face in his hands and wouldn't say anything more.

     The rest of the rebels were too stunned to say anything either.

 

     An Imperial walker, even an otherwise lowly scout walker, demanded respect. Enough respect, that the lone walker went unchallenged by local authorities. It wasn't until the AT-ST strode on the flight line of the Atnos starport, that someone made an inquiry.

     "Sir, I've got a perimeter violation in sector four." Said the lead sensor officer in departure control.

     "What kind of violation?" The tower director Kennian Tosk replied.

     "An AT-ST sir."

     "Oh now that's just too much. get me the Imperial ground commander."

     "Yes sir. Colonel Helpac is on the line."

     "Colonel. I understand that your security requirements supersede my own sir, but I protest this detaining freighters right on my active flight line."

     "What are you talking about Tosk? I'm very busy right now." The Imperial colonel snapped.

     "One of your scout walkers has just come across my security perimeter, strolled onto my flight line and has started an impromptu inspection of a stock light freighter. Have you initiated a new policy without tell-"

     "Listen to me closely Tosk." Kennian interrupted. "Both our careers depend on this. Stop them! Do anything within your powers to stop them now!" The base commander shouted, but it was too late for ground based forces to do anything for the stock light freighter in question, had just lifted without authorization.

     The look on Tosk's face told Kennian what had happened.

     "We can only pray that the Predator stops them before they reach hyperspace." Kennian muttered and blanked the comlink.


Chapter Seven

 

 

 

 

     "...pain...pain...and more...pain." The tortured entity groaned. "There used to be...some...thing...I used to do at...at...AHHHH!" The man, he remembered that much, had moved slightly and the resultant wave of pain had broken off all other thoughts.

     "Lets try this...again." The pain wracked man breathed deeply and gathered his thoughts. "There is no emotion...there is...there is...

peace? Where do I know that from?" He took a deeper breath and concentrated on a half formed memory. "A Jedi knows no fear! I am a Jedi! No wait. No, no I'm not. I'm a Jedi in training. A Jedi can find strength in the Force. The Force is with me and I am its servant."

     The pain was just as intense as it was when consciousness found him, but, now that he remembered his powerful ally, the pain began to fade. His breathing evened out, as he no longer had to fight to breathe. He began to remember recent events and his eyes snapped open. He was in a cabin on a starship in hyperspace, but not the cabin he remembered. He sat up and saw his lightsaber on the room's small counter and the rest of his memory flooded back.

     "I am Carek of the House of Argonaut!"

     The door to the tiny cabin opened. "Well, look who's finally rejoined us." Said Lazarus, grinning from ear to ear.

     "How long?"

     "Thirty-two hours."

     "What ship is this? Where's the Bantha?"

     "We're aboard the ship we chartered, the Carthesian Hawk. As to the Bantha...you need to follow me."

     Carek rose slowly and followed his friend out into the hallway and to the ship's small lounge. Kyle, Roberts, and Leland, all jumped up and all tried to embrace him at once.

     "Whoa fellows, one at a time." He smiled and hugged each of his comrades in turn. "Where's Ardent and Rex?"

     The silence that followed answered his question for him. Carek felt the room spin for a moment, as the shock caused him to lose control of that portion of the Force that held his pain in check.

     "Carek..." Leland started, but stopped when the young Jedi waved him off.

     It took him a few moments to regain control, of both the Force, and of his feelings. "There is no emotion, there is peace. There...is...no...emotion, ...there...is...peace." He said aloud, focusing the Force and reestablishing his center. "How?"

     "When you were hit," Leland said softly, agony in every word. "he charged the troopers that shot you. He...He couldn't have been thinking clearly. He didn't tell anybody what he was doing, or even wait to get any covering fire..."

     "He didn't make it twenty meters." Kyle added, shaking his head. "He took an autofire burst right across the chest."

     "I...tried, Carek. I tried..." Leland choked and couldn't continue.

     "This is all my fault." Carek said almost inaudibly.

     "It was the Empire's fault, Carek. Never forget that!" Lazarus hissed.

     "No it is my fault. I have a confession to make." Carek said slowly, searching for the words that would somehow convey what he had to say, and yet, not cost him his best friends in the entire galaxy. No test that his master Havsoltek had ever given him, had been harder than the task before him now. "When I said that Commander Challis had told me to deliver information to Alderaan, I wasn't telling the truth."

     "What exactly do you mean Carek?" Said Lazarus, steel edging his voice.

     "When the Bantha was hijacked, we got enough of a fix on your course that we were able figure out that you were enroute to Tatooine. We met with Dag Caltare to see if he had any information on the Bantha, or the loan shark that Rex owed." When Carek said Rex's name, his blood suddenly ran cold. "Wait a minute you never told me what happened to Rex. Please don't tell me he's dead too."

     "We don't know." Said Leland, his eyes boring into Carek's. "When we blasted out of Atnos, our original intent was to head for the orbital platform, grab Rex and jump to hyperspace. But, when we broke orbit, we were intercepted by our old friend the Predator and a flight of TIE fighters. Captain Hawk wouldn't risk his ship any more than he already had. He could have just shut it down, turned us over, and claimed that we hijacked him. The bounties on us are enough to make anyone at least think about turning us in, but he didn't do that. He just dodged the TIEs and got us out of there."

     "So we don't know what happened to Rex. He may have been killed, or may the Force spare him, he may have been captured." Carek said, hanging his head in abject sorrow.

     "Right. And we've lost the Bantha for good." Said Lazarus. "Now if you don't mind, would you go back to the point that you lied to us."

     "While talking to Dag, he mentioned that he knew of a Jedi enclave on Alderaan and I figured-"

     "-That you could get free Jedi training. I thought you were an honorable man Carek, but this is beyond contempt. If we hadn't suffered so much grief already, I'd kill you where you stand." Lazarus raged. His hands clenched tightly into fists.

     The other rebels stepped back from Carek, the anger in their eyes smoldering at the betrayal.

     "No wait! For the love justice, please hear me out!" Carek implored.

     "Make this good Jedi." Leland said, twisting the word Jedi around as if it was the vilest epithet he knew.

     "I admit that I desperately want to complete my training, but I did not just want to find those Jedi for selfish reasons only. We all know how badly the Alliance needs help, and I thought that nothing could be of more help, then a group of fully trained Jedi.

     "I beg your forgiveness for having misled you. I was wrong not to have trusted you with what Dag told me. I can never repay, or atone enough, for what I have done."

     Carek trailed off as words failed him. He looked to his friends, in the hope of finding a glint of something other than contempt. Lazarus' eyes were twin pits of blazing ice. Kyle's eyes held a deep sorrow and something akin to pity. Roberts, who hadn't known Carek as long as the others, couldn't meet his stare. Leland met Carek's gaze for a moment, then, he looked away.

     "We can't blame Carek for everything, I'm the one who screwed up the jump out of Alderaan. If anyone's responsible for what happened to the Bantha, it's me." He rasped, joining the misery that was all too abundant at that moment.

     "I think, the only person to benefit from all this fault finding is the Emperor." Kyle said gravely. "We have just suffered our worst set back ever. Emotions are running high and we all need a breather before something gets said that can't be unsaid."

     "That's very profound for a bounty hunter." Said Carek.

     "There's nothing in the bounty hunter's handbook that says a hunter has to limit his study to weaponry." Kyle replied. "I'm by no means a philosopher, but I do understand human nature. We're all shaken by the loss of two of our friends. We can either, pull together and become stronger from the experience, or we can pull ourselves apart and make the Empire stronger."

     "I for one, do not wish to do anything that helps the Empire." Lazarus added. He turned to Carek and extended his hand. "Carek, I apologize."

     "As do I my friend, as do I." Carek replied, first returning the handshake and then pulling his friend into a crushing bear hug.

     The rebels reconciliation was interrupted by a man unknown to Carek. He was of medium height, with sandy brown hair, high cheekbones, and a friendly smile. He wore spacer's coveralls with a belt full of tools and an oversized datapad.

     "It's good to see you vertical Mister Argonaut,  I was beginning to wonder if you were going to sleep through the entire trip. You've been sleeping for almost two days." He said.

     "Oh, I forgot that you two never had a chance to meet. Carek this is Rathbone Loegin, he's the engineer of the Hawk." Said Leland.

     "From what I hear, we owe you a tremendous debt of gratitude." Said Carek shaking hands with Loegin and noting the firm grip.

     "You don't owe me anything. It was the Captain's call."

     "Well, I thank you anyway." Carek turned as he heard movement behind him. The master of the Carthesian Hawk and a young boy of about twelve standard years, entered the now crowded lounge. "Captain Hawk. I don't know how to thank you."

     "My friends call me StJohn. And since my ship and crew are now wanted for aiding and abetting the Rebellion, I guess you and your friends are the only friends I have left."

     "We've gone over this before Hawk," Leland started.

     "I know, I know. You're going to set me up with a steady cargo run for your base. You'll have to forgive my lack of enthusiasm at having to run cargo for the most wanted people in the galaxy."

     "Aw come on StJohn, it'll be a challenge, you're always complaining how bad business is." The young man said, he then noted Carek's attention. "Hi, I'm Andre Trelldouwegan."

     "Nice to meet you Andre, I'm Carek."

     "Is that really a Lightsaber?"

     "Yes it is. I'm impressed that you could identify lightsaber, that's very unusual for someone so young."

     "Andre is my ward," Said Hawk. "his parents were arrested for sedition. They were educators who refused to delete the history of the Jedi from their curriculum. Ernst Trelldouwegan and I went to first school together. When I heard he and his wife had been arrested, I managed to get to their home and escape with Andre, before COMPNOR could get hold of him and brainwash him. I'm no professor, but I've tried to give him the best education I could. And that included as much information on the Jedi as I could remember."

     "You seem to have done a fine job." Carek replied, smiling at Andre.

     "Carek? Will you show me how to use your lightsaber?" Said Andre.

     "Lightsaber training is only taught after an apprentice Jedi has had the time to learn the awesome responsibility that comes with being a Jedi. As you know, the Empire has tried very hard to destroy the Jedi. My own master was killed by the Empire before completing my training. I'm afraid I can't train you, until I can find someone to train me. I'm very sorry Andre."

     "I understand. You think I'm too young."

     "No. In fact, you're the age that proper Jedi training is supposed to begin. I just don't have the skills necessary to train you, even if you were sensitive to the Force."

     "Can you at least let me watch you use your lightsaber?"

     "That you may. Next time I practice, you may watch."

     "Thank you very much. I have to go now. StJohn gave me some physics homework. If I don't get it done, I won't be able to watch anything."

     "Nice kid." Leland muttered after Andre left.

     "You don't have to worry about Andre, Archimedes. Your opinion about children aboard starships has been noted." StJohn snapped.

     "What's our ETA to the Candotti system?" Carek asked, changing the subject.

     "Five days sixteen hours." Rathbone said without looking up from his datapad.

     "Do you think you lost the Imperials?" Said Carek.

     "We'd better have!" Leland said sharply. "We made three full changes of heading before setting course for Heracles. There's no way the Imperials know where we are, or, where we going."

     "After what happened in the Kiosk system, it will be a long time before I underestimate the Empire again." Carek said, a wistful expression crossing his face.

 

     On the bridge of the Predator, silence reigned. After spending two days in a bacta tank recovering from the wounds given to him by the rebel Jedi's lightsaber. The Dark Jedi had become an unholy terror upon returning to duty. He had executed the four TIE fighter pilots that had failed to stop the escaping rebels, as well as the TIE wing commander, and the only Stormtroopers officer to survive the rebel's deadly fire. The already hushed crewpit commands had become curt and monosyllabic, as none of the bridge crewers wanted to be the next to feel Maldamon's wrath.

     Maldamon stood at the main viewport and stared at the dock workers busy repairing the Predator. He turned when he heard the turboshaft doors open. Lieutenant Rahos entered the bridge, spotted Maldamon, walked over, saluted and began his report.

     Rahos didn't waste time with pleasantries. Ever since the rebels eluded him, Maldamon had dispensed with all conversation beyond the minimum required to conduct business.

     "Sir. Commander Ropnar reports that the repairs will be completed in twenty three hours. The ship is otherwise ready to depart."

     "The Collector?"

     "She departed an hour ago."

     "Prisoner status?"

     "Already aboard your shuttle and awaiting transit to Rezick's Loft Detention Facility."

     "I want you to accompany the shuttle and oversee the interrogations personally."

     "Sir?"

     "You have your orders Lieutenant. Dismissed."

     "Yes sir!" Rahos turned to leave, stopping when Maldamon unexpectedly continued to speak.

     "I have felt a stirring in the Force and I know that the young one is at heart of it." The Dark Jedi said grimly. "It is well for me that Lord Vader is otherwise preoccupied with the Death Star project and the interrogation of Princess Leia, or I might be the one enroute to Rezick's Loft in binders.

     "The Dark Side has spared me and given me another chance to pursue this Jedi pup. Capturing him is not enough now, I have failed twice in a row and one Jedi will not be enough to appease Lord Vader this time.

     "After having seen him in action twice, I am convinced that he has a Master. He showed too much control this time, to have faced me without having had additional training. I will track him to this disturbance, capture him, and though him, his Master. I will then present both of them to Lord Vader. In this way I will atone for having twice underestimating my foe.

     "Now that the Death Star has gone operational, we will soon see the end of these mongrel rebels. I want someone I can trust conducting the interrogations. Dalen failed me. If he had succeeded in gaining the trust of the rebels, they never would have escaped. You are now the only member of my web that I have any faith in anymore. I need you at Rezick's Loft. Go. Report when you arrive."

     "Yes sir! I will not fail you sir!" Rahos saluted and reboarded the turboshaft.

     Maldamon watched Rahos leave, then turned back to the viewport and the silent ballet of the dock workers.

 

     The Carthesian Hawk dropped out of hyperspace at the boundary of the Candotti system. The five rebels that comprised her passenger list, could barely contain their excitement at returning home. A quick sensor scan showed them that, for a change, there weren't any surprises waiting for them.

     Captain Hawk brought the ship into the docking bay smoothly and shut the ship down. "Well, for better or worse, we're here." He said to Leland who had co-piloted during the six day trip from Cypryn four.

     "Don't worry StJohn, we'll get you set up with the Commander. You'll have a steady run in no time." Said Leland.

     "I'll believe it when I see it."

     As the rebels and the crew of the Hawk disembarked, they were met by Ra'gnayrr, the Quarren civilian administrator of base station Heracles.

     "I guess the reports of your demise were a bit premature." He said, his facial tentacles wavering in the Quarren equivalent of an open mouthed disbelief.

     "What are you talking about, Ra'gnayrr?" Lazarus replied, his own eyebrows arched in surprise.

     "Haven't you heard? Alderaan has been destroyed. It was presumed, when there was no contact from you for so long, that you had been killed there."

     Ra'gnayrr's news was like a physical blow, shocking them all deeply, but, it was Carek who seemed the most effected by the report. His face blanched completely white and his hands trembled visibly.

     Kyle noticed his friend's distress. "Are you going to be alright Carek?" He said, moving closer to the stricken Jedi.

     "I-I'm o-okay. It’s just that I've realized the significance of a tremendous gasp in the Force that occurred two days ago. It was if a great wrongness had taken place. Now that I know what it was, it overwhelmed me for a moment."

     "How was a whole planet destroyed?" Said Rathbone speaking for the first time. "Nobody has that kind of firepower."

     "The Empire has deployed a massive new battlestation called the Death Star." Ra'gnayrr replied. "It apparently has more than enough."

     "Where is Commander Challis?" Asked Leland. "I've got someone she needs to meet."

     "The Alliance is in great disarray. She and the others have all fled, I don't know where."

     "I knew a steady run was too good to be true." Lamented StJohn.

     "Why no forwarding address?" Said Kyle.

     "You can't be forced to tell what you don't know. Besides, as I mentioned earlier, we thought you were dead. Which leads to a question of my own. Where have you been for the last three weeks?"

     "I'll field that one." Said Carek. He quickly related the events that the rebels had had to endure during their absence, and ended with the introduction of the crew of the Hawk.

     "It's very nice to meet all of you. I am sorry that I can not offer you the cargo run that you desired." Said Ra'gnayrr.

     "You don't need to apologize, I didn't expect it to happen." StJohn replied dejectedly.

     "I think the biggest question before us, is what do we do now?" Said Leland.

     "I have a suggestion, but considering how my last suggestion went, you may not like it." Said Carek.

     "We don't have enough choices for you to be cryptic Carek. What have you got?" Replied Lazarus.

     Carek pulled a data disk out of his pocket. "Commander Challis gave me this prior to our departure to Tatooine. She said she had been Farseeing with the Force to foretell what might be."

     "What might be?" Said Lazarus.

     "The future is not set until it happens. Trying to accurately judge the future is unreliable at best."

     "And you want us to rely on this?" Lazarus insisted.

     "I said up front that you might not like it. She said the disk holds coordinates for an area of disturbance in the Force."

     "If it's a disturbance, why do you want to go there?" Leland added.

     "Challis seemed to think it was important, it is also the only place I can come up with for us to start looking for her."

     "There's something you've all overlooked." Said Roberts. "How are we going to get there? We used all our credits getting here?"

     "You don't have to worry about transportation, or credits. I'll take you at no charge." Said StJohn, his jaw set in a firm line.

     "You don't have to do that StJohn. You've fulfilled your obligation already." Said Carek.

     "No I haven't. At least not in the big picture I haven't. I have always steered us clear of the Rebellion, figuring it was none of our business. But, Alderaan changes everything. I know I speak of Andre and Rathbone as well. The Emperor has finally gone too far." He looked to each of the rebels. "Which one of you is the senior officer?"

     Carek started. "I hadn't thought about it, but with Rex gone. I am."

     "Well then Mister Argonaut, I formally request to join the Alliance against the Empire. I further offer you the service of the Carthesian Hawk." StJohn said extending his hand.

     At a loss of words, Carek decided on the simplest answer. "Welcome to the Rebel Alliance." He replied as he clasping StJohn's hand in his own.

     "The first thing we have to decide is, do we have any choices other than Carek's mystery disk." Said Lazarus.

 

     After two hours of intense debate it was decided that the datadisk was the most logical starting place. The debate also gave Ra'gnayrr's support staff time to refuel and restock the Hawk.

     As soon as their course had been decided, the eight rebels reboarded the Hawk.

     When all was in readiness, StJohn began inputting the information on the disk into the Hawk's navcomputer. He immediately ran into trouble. After four tries, he gave up in disgust. "Are you sure the data on this disk good? The navcomputer won't take these coordinates."

     "Can you display the data on the disk?" Said Carek, trading places with StJohn at the astrogation station.

     "Sure."

     Carek stared intently at the jumbled readout, then closed his eyes. After a few moments he smiled. "StJohn, I'm going to have to ask you to trust me." He said, his expression thoughtful.

     "I've already offered you my ship, what else could you possibly want?"

     "Go ahead and get us undocked. I'll have to do the astrogation."

     "This will probably be the only time you ever hear me say this, but you're the boss."

     Once clear of the station, Carek closed his eyes and began entering commands into the navcomputer.

     "How does he do that with his eyes closed?" StJohn said staring unbelievingly.

     "I stopped trying to figure out how he does stuff like that a long time ago." Laughed Leland. "I don't really believe in this Force he's always talking about, but he's got to be using something to succeed in the stunts he pulls."

     Carek sat in silence for several minutes, then he opened his eyes and said. "Now."

     StJohn looked at Leland uncomprehendingly.

     Leland understood what his friend wanted and casually he reached

over and activated the hyperdrives.

     The Hawk leapt into hyperspace with the familiar burst of starlines. There was a moment, or two of normality, then the ship began to shake. StJohn and Leland each ran though their checklists to see what had happened.

     "Something's wrong. We're going too fast!" StJohn exclaimed. "I'm going to abort the jump." He threw a look a Carek that could melt reactor plating. "What have you done to my ship?"

     "I know this is new to you, however, you have to trust in the Force. I don't exactly know what's happening, but I do know we're not in any danger. There aren't any alarms on the status board and I know Commander Challis would not steer us wrong."

     StJohn looked closely at the indicators and could not dispute that fact. The only thing that was out of place was the reading on the hyperspace velocity indicator, which was indicating that the Hawk was moving through hyperspace at fifteen times her rated maximum. Yet, there was no sign of engine strain, or reactor overload. Somehow, the ship was violating the laws of physics.

     "I don't like this, I don't like this at all."

     "The Force is more powerful than you can know. We will be okay."

     "I'll hold you to that Jedi!"

     "I expected you to. I'm absolutely certain that I plotted our course correctly, even if I don't know our destination. All we can do now is wait."

     The Carthesian Hawk soared through hyperspace, blithely unaware that she was doing the impossible. In fact, she continued to accelerate right up to the point that she dropped back into realspace fourteen hours later.

     StJohn, Leland, Carek, and Lazarus were in the cockpit when the Hawk exited hyperspace. There was a collective gasp as first, the reentry wasn't accompanied with the comforting burst of starlines, then, there was the shock of seeing the reddish colored mist outside, instead of the familiar black starscape.

     "Carek. Where are we?" Leland finally managed to say, after a long pause.

     Carek unbuckled his safety harness and stood up, clearly as stunned as the others. "I don't know!"

 

     After the initial shock wore off, his years as a tramp freighter captain took over. StJohn began issuing orders to prepare the ship for a jump back to Heracles. After he was certain that the ship was ready, he stood up and moved over to the astrogation station. "You'll excuse me if I prefer to plot our return course myself." He said, a little sharper than usual.

     "Not at all StJohn. In fact I'll go to the back so you'll have more room to work."

     "Thank you."

     Carek had only taken three steps, when he heard StJohn begin a long string of inventive curses.

     "What's wrong?" Leland said, reaching the livid pilot before Carek.

     "The thrice flamed navcomputer has been erased!" StJohn fumed.

     "Excuse me?" Leland replied.

     "The galactographic database is gone! And since there are no stars outside to plot our current location, we have no way to figure where we are. If this is where your Commander Challis has gone, we'll have to run into her to find her."

     StJohn stood up and shook his head in disgust. "Trust in the Force he says. If Ernst Trelldouwigan didn't swear by the Force of yours, I would have you spaced!"

     "Now look here StJohn..." Leland began.

     "It's alright Leland. I think StJohn has a right to be upset." Said Carek, trying to prevent a major confrontation.

     StJohn spun around to face Carek.

     "Upset! You don't know the half of it. You want to explain what we're going to do now?"

     "I don't want to sound facetious, but I guess we're going to have to try the 'run into her to find her' plan. We should start a concentric active sensor search."

     "As you have left us with no other choice, I agree."

     "What's the...Burning comets! Where are we?" Rathbone said as he entered the cockpit and had noticed the red nothingness outside.

     "We were just on our way to the lounge to explain the situation. Follow me." StJohn replied.

     Once the rebels were together, Carek and StJohn briefed them on what they knew and the plan to search the mist for Commander Challis. Short on alternatives, the rebels agreed that Carek's plan offered them the best chance of success.

     It turned out that their search lasted less than six hours.

 

     All during the search, StJohn had been steadily fuming at the turn of events that had lead to their current situation. His steady stream of curses showed no sign of losing steam, until Leland yelped from his post on the sensors and began feeding power to the ship's sublight drive.

     "What?" StJohn exclaimed when he saw the sensor read out. "How in all the moons of Nal Hutta did an Imperial customs frigate get out here?" StJohn exclaimed when he saw the sensor read out.

     "I have no idea I..." Leland began and changed in mid-sentence.

"Blast it all, they've seen us!" He toggled the intercom. "Kyle man the turret. We've got unwanted company. Everybody else strap yourselves in, it’s going to get rough."

     "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" StJohn thundered, still too stunned to have moved from beside the sensor display. "We can't outrun a customs frigate, or have you forgotten that they were built specifically to chase down and destroy stock light freighters?"

     "You better sit down, shut up and fly!" Leland snarled back, never taking his eyes from the sensor read outs. "We've done this before."

     "Not on my ship you haven't! We don't stand a..."

     WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! WHAM!

     The Carthesian Hawk had tried her best, but she simply wasn't the Wandering Bantha. The salvo of lasers slammed the Hawk sideways and into a violent spin. Leland, and StJohn, who had heeded Leland's advice to sit down, managed to cancel the spin. However, the frigate had succeeded in crippling the Hawk's sublight drives. The rebels watched helplessly as the frigate rapidly closed.

     "Are all rebels insane?" StJohn raged in frustration. "First, that half-baked Jedi dumps us in the middle of nowhere, and now you think you're Ridge 'Never Die' Aramnon or something! I might have been able to talk to them. Now we're in it for sure."

     "Unidentified freighter, standby to be boarded. Any further resistance will result in your destruction!" The Comm panel offered uninvited.

     "Aramnon is only a holovid myth and you know it!" Leland spat, completely ignoring the Comm panel. "It's not my fault this tub maneuvers like a ruptured garbage scow!"

     "HOW DARE YOU INSULT MY SHIP!" StJohn replied, his eyes flashing in pure, undistilled fury.

     "I'm glad to see you're both okay." Said Carek from the cockpit entrance."

     "We're just fabulous!" Snapped StJohn.

     "Save that head of steam you've built up for the Imperials StJohn. We've only got thirty seconds to prepare for boarding."

     "Prepare what? A nice bottle of fuzzyglug on ice?"

     Leland drew his blaster and checked the charge. "That's not what he means." He said sharing a grim glance with Carek.

     StJohn's had a sudden insight into what the rebels had planned and his jaw dropped open before he could stop himself. "You can't be serious."

     "Welcome to the real Rebel Alliance." Said Leland.

 

     When StJohn reached the main airlock he was still in a daze. There was a heavy thump as the docking ring engaged. He found Kyle, Lazarus and Roberts already under cover, blasters at ready. The airlock begin to cycle and he watched in total fascination as Leland and Carek took up positions on opposite sides of the airlock. Then he noticed Andre and Rathbone hovering to one side. Andre's eyes wide with awe as he watched the rebels prepare to defy Imperial authority.

     "They're going to do it. They're actually going to fight." StJohn thought, half flushed with excitement, half weakened by fear. He noticed Rathbone waving frantically to get his attention. StJohn glanced at the airlock's timer and used the remaining few seconds to dash over to his engineer.

     "Captain, these lunatics are going to get us all killed." Rathbone whispered, his eyes glued to the timer.

     "I know Rath. But, I guess when you're a member of a rebellion, it’s kind of expected that you fight the representatives of the government that you're rebelling against."

     Rathbone’s reply was cut off by the airlock opening.

     "In the name of the Emperor. You're under..." The customs officer never finished, as both he and his companion were cut down by a brief hail of fire. Leland and Carek rolled out from behind their cover and were in the airlock before the two Imperials had hit the floor.

     "Leland. Kyle. Roberts. You secure the bridge." Barked Carek. "Lazarus. Rathbone. Follow me, we'll take engineering. StJohn. Andre. Stand fast. Guard our backs and this airlock."

     Rathbone hesitated, his eyes darting from StJohn, to Carek, to the bodies, and back to StJohn.

     "Go Rath, its our only chance now. We're in this for the full measure."

     "Right."

     Carek turned right as he exited the airlock and headed aftwards, Roberts following close behind. Rathbone shrugged and ran to bring up the rear.

     On reaching the hatch that led to engineering, Carek signaled for his friends to halt.

     "I'll go first." Carek said tersely. "You two use the frame of the hatch for cover. If they don't surrender, don't hesitate, shoot."

     On hearing that last part, Rathbone looked up a found Carek staring directly at him. "I know what to do. You don't have to treat me like a child."

     "Sorry Rathbone, I'm just as tense as you are."

     "You wouldn't know it to look at you."

     "This never gets easy Rath." Carek said with a quiet intensity that Rathbone has never seen. "And if it does, you are in deep trouble. Okay let's do this."

     Carek tightened his grip on his lightsaber and slapped the control that opened the hatch. Leaping though as the hatch opened Carek landed directly in the middle of the small elevated platform used by the engineering crew.

     "In the name of the Rebel Alliance you are all under arrest!" Barked Carek stealing a page from the now deceased customs officers.

     Five of the Imperials recognized a hopeless situation and started to raise their hands. However, the sixth Imperial, Carida born and bred would not accept defeat. As he drew his blaster, Rathbone and Lazarus opened fire. The remaining Imperials thought, with good cause, that they were being summarily executed, decided to die fighting and drew their weapons.

     Carek, caught in the middle of the sudden crossfire, found himself in a desperate fight for survival. Closest of the Rebels and with the poorest cover, he was the target of choice. With his initial attack, he slashed through two Imperials and saw Lazarus drop another before they could finish drawing their weapons.

     Carek's attack turned him away from the Carida Imperial and blocked Lazarus' line of sight, giving the Imperial time to draw his blaster.

     "Carek behind you!" Lazarus shouted as he blasted a second Imperial.

 

     Carek pivoted instantly, but it was too late. Carek could already see the blaster bolt heading for him. He tried to parry the bolt, but he was slightly off balance from his pivot and could not get the blade up in time.

     "Only one thing left to do." He thought and reached deep down into the Force. He imagined the bolt as just an intense form of sunlight, he waved his hand and easily batted the bolt away. Both the Imperial and Carek stood opened mouthed, dumbfounded by what they had just witnessed, giving Lazarus time to clear his field of fire and stun the Imperial.

     "If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't have believed it. How in all the flaming suns did you do that?" Said an incredulous Rathbone. "That's just not possible."

     "Er...it actually was a first for me too." Carek replied slowly. "I... uh... well it was a variation on something I have done before. We should check on the others." He said moving absently for the bridge.

     "Come on Carek. What gives?" Added Lazarus. "I haven't even seen that trick before. Are you telling me you can now block blaster fire at will?"

     The rebels moved quickly through the frigate, finding the violent evidence of their fellow rebels passage in the form of crumpled bodies in Imperial uniforms.

     "N-no Laz I can't. The ability to block excess energy is a basic Jedi skill, but normally it's only used to reduce the effect of sunlight and that sort of thing." Carek seemed to lose his train of thought for a moment. "I had to reach very deep into the Force to shield myself. It was a selfish and unworthy use of the Force."

     "Are you nuts?" Lazarus exclaimed. "You mean it would have been better to have taken a bolt straight to the chest? I'd give just about anything to be able to protect myself like that"

     "It's hard to explain. the Force is supposed to be used to advance others. I was the only one to benefit from my actions, so it was selfish. I don't expect you to understand-"

     "Did you guys get lost?" Leland called from the hatch leading to the bridge.

     Thankful for the interruption, Carek changed the subject. "How are the others?"

     "Kyle and Roberts are locking the four survivors in their own brig. You know what a wiz with a blaster those two are. The crewers never stood a chance. I think it was the helmsman that got off that shot." He chuckled and pointed to a blaster burn on the overhead above main entrance to the bridge.

     "Great news." Carek grabbed his comlink. "StJohn? You and Andre can join us on the bridge. We've got to decide what we will do next."

     The crew from the Hawk entered the bridge and found most of the boarding party standing around Roberts, who was checking the ship’s log.

     "Well according to this," He said after several tense minutes. "this is the Imperial Customs frigate Collector and they were sent here ten days ago were told to look for a specific energy pattern. They'd been searching for a week when they spotted us." He scrolled to the next log entry, abruptly gasped, then jumped up and let out a vile oath in Huttese. "They are supposed to rendezvous with the Predator in three days!"

     Leland rolled his eyes. "Don't they ever give up? We're outside of known space and they're still after us."

     "No time for whys, the question is what are we going to do?" Kyle asked as he pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to shake off the fatigue he suddenly felt.

     "I don't know about what the rest of you are going to do." Rathbone replied as he turned to leave the bridge. "But at least it looks like I have enough time to get the Hawk operational again."

     "Wait a minute Rath." Carek snapped. "Since you're the one that pointed it out, we have time to make a plan. Is there anything else in the log Roberts?"

     "No. The last entry is 'We have detected a freighter.'"

     Leland smacked his forehead. “Holy hopping horndogs! How stupid can I be? I've got a great idea! We can use this ship to reprogram our galactographic database!" He moved quickly to the navigator's station and activated the navicomputer. "Damn it. Damn it. DAMN IT!!!"

     "Let me guess..." Carek started.

     "...their computer is blank too" Leland finished.

 

“Moving to sector one-oh-four” Said an obviously weary Lazarus.

“Oh joy. I’m sure this will be just as exciting as the last hundred and three sectors.” Replied an obviously even wearier Leland.

“I’m up for suggestions flyboy.” It’s been two days of this and I’m about fed up with the red mist too.”

“Don’t you think if I could think of one, I would have by now? This blind charting is about to push me over the edge.”

“It’s getting to the whole crew.” Kyle added from the entrance to the Collector’s bridge. “I think even Carek is starting to get frustrated.”

Kyle walked to one of the view ports and stared at the blank red void in front of him.

“If it would change I guess it wouldn’t be so bad.”

“Kyle would you spell me at the helm?” Asked Leland. “I need to hit the fresher and I’m sure you can handle the stressful maneuvering we’re doing.”

“It just frosts you to no end that after capturing this thing, we haven’t had a chance to fight something with it, doesn’t it?” Chuckled Lazarus.

“Yes it does!” Leland shot back. “Look the whole idea when we decided to leave the Carthesian Hawk hitched to the docking ring and mount our concentric search from here in the frigate, that the better sensor’s would get us out of here faster, so we could turn this thing over to the rebellion.”

“With you as captain no doubt.” Lazarus added, barely able to contain his laughter at how red Leland’s face got.

“Yes with me as captain!” Leland fumed. “I’m the best qualified. Look at it this way, it’s either use this ship which can fight, or wallow around in the ‘Hawk, which has already proved herself to be no combatant?”

Lazarus raised his hands in mock surrender. “I yield. I yield. I was only kidding Leland.”

“I know Laz, but it’s so infuriating to finally have a ship that we can really stick it to the Empire with and not be able to use it.”

Before Lazarus could answer, the sensor panel emitted a soft beep. Everyone was so stunned, that no one moved for so long that the sensor panel beep again louder. This time the three rebels almost knocked each other over moving to read the display.

“I don’t believe it we actually found it!” Leland exclaimed as he triple checked the read outs to make sure he they had really found the correct energy pattern.

Kyle moved back to the Collector’s viewport and pointed off the port bow. “I see it! It almost looks like a Denarian Thundercloud.”

Lazarus joined Kyle, frowning as he peered into the ever-present red mist. “Kyle my friend you have amazing vision. Even looking where you are looking I can only just see that thing. What do you think it is?”

“I don’t know. I only hope it will get us out of here.”

“All hands, this is the bridge.” Leland spoke excitedly into the shipwide intercom. “We have found the energy pattern. I suggest the rest of you get up here so we can figure out what to do next.”

“Hey look it’s moving!” Lazarus shouted.

 

Carek was halfway to the bridge when the felt a powerful shiver in the Force. He had to catch himself as the tremor knocked him off his stride.

“Flaming stars and comets th-that g-got my attention.” He stammered and shook his head. “It was strong, but it doesn’t seem like a threat.” He thought as he tried to analyze the experience. He hadn’t really come to a conclusion when what seemed like a cohesive portion of the Void’s red mist entered the hull. The mist coalesced for a moment and there was now a man-sized hole in the outer hull of the ship.

“YIPE” He exclaimed and leapt back from the bulkhead he was leaning against, his right hand was still flailing behind him for the control that would seal the corridor from the breech, when it dawned on him that the ship wasn’t decompressing.

“Now there’s something you don’t see every day.”

Puzzled he moved closer to the breech. He closed his eyes and opened himself to the Force. He immediately sensed the approach of several of his comrades, but caught in the grip of this almost physical manifestation of the Force, he ignored them and stepped forward into the mist.

“Such power!” Carek gasped. “I’ve never felt a place so strong in the Force. I can sense others so easily here, which is good because I otherwise can't see or feel anything."

He suddenly noticed he wasn’t alone. He saw there were thousands of tiny lights that flitted freely throughout the cloud. He reached out to try and contact the lights as he floated in this non-corporeal realm, but try as he might, the ethereal lights ignored him.

Resigned to not being able to communicate with the mysterious lights, Carek began focusing on his surrounding. He could clearly sense that Roberts; Lazarus; and Andre had followed him into the cloud, and that they were beginning to panic from sensory deprivation; all except for Andre.

     “Andre actually seems more fascinated than distressed."  He thought as he reached out to reassure his friends. Carek concentrated on his young friend and recoiled thunderstruck. “Sweet merciful bantha droppings. Andre has got Force potential!"

     Astounded by this revelation, Carek fell silent and floated for weeks, days, years, hours, or millennia in that place without time. There was no way of knowing how long it had been before one of the lights approached and resolved itself into a kindly-looking old man.

“I was once known as Obi-wan Kenobi." Said the man.

     “General Kenobi!" Blurted Carek. “Jedi knight and hero of the clone wars? Where are we and what do you mean 'Was known,' sir?"

     “This place is for those of the light that have crossed over from mortal form and it is not for the living." Obi-wan explained. “It is not your yet your destiny to be in this place. Go and do not return until it’s your proper time. Return to your friends that need you, for evil has come here and it must be expunged."

There was a sudden sensation of motion and the drifters found themselves aboard the Carthesian Hawk.

     “What was that place Carek?" An awestruck Andre whispered once regular space/time reasserted itself.

Carek simply looked at Andre, his left eyebrow arched, his expression unreadable.

     “We’re drifting." Shouted Lazarus as he leapt to his feet.

     “Drifting on what?" Roberts replied slowly as he contented himself by simply sitting up. “Man, I never knew how wonderful gravity was until I spent-" His voice trailed off as he shook his chronometer. "This thing can’t be right."

Never mind what time it is, we’re on the ‘Hawk and it looks like the other are in trouble." Rathbone replied from the starboard viewport.

What kind of trouble?" Asked Roberts rolling to his feet and joining the engineer at the viewport. His jaw dropping open once he saw for himself.  

Despite the omnipresent red mist, Roberts could see the Collector flying full evasive from a dozen TIE fighters. Further back the Predator loomed out of the mist, visible only due to the mass of explosions wracking the entire length of her hull.

I’ll take engineering." Lazarus gasped and raced aft.

I’ll pilot." Roberts responded, racing forward.

Strap in Andre." Said Carek sharply.

But Carek I can help."

Do it!"

The young would-be rebel stood his ground for a moment, then lowered his head. Yes sir." As he strapped in muttering. I never get to have any of the real fun."

Carek raced forward and jumped in the co-pilot’s seat. What have we got Roberts?"

Which do you want? The bad news or the bad news?"

Roberts we don’t have time for you to be coy."

When we first got here, the Collector was running from a dozen TIE fighters. In the time it took us to get strapped in, the Predator launched its second squadron. The Collector is holding it’s own only because the Predator seems to self destructing."

What in the moons of Nal Hutta could be causing that? Leland’s good, but he’s not good enough to shoot up a Victory class star destroyer with just a customs frigate."

Let’s ask." Said Roberts as he punched the comm unit. “Hawk to Collector. Hawk to Collector."

Leland’s withering reply scored though the comm unit’s speakers in a steady, creative stream of curses in fourteen languages.

Look!" Carek interrupted before Roberts could reply.

Outside the view port the tortured Predator suddenly lurched to a halt, rolled to starboard, and vanished in a brilliant explosion that caused the view ports to go completely opaque from the actinic glare. Only three TIE fighters survived the destruction of their mother ship and they were easily picked off by Collector.

WOW!" Was all Roberts could say.

Let’s head for the Collector. Hopefully Leland’s had a chance to cool off." Said Carek.

I don’t know how much of what he said earlier you understood, but you’ll have to excuse me if I ask you to board the Collector first."

I guess it’s just going to have to be one of those sacrifices I have to make on my road to becoming a Jedi." Carek grinned sheepishly.

The two ships docked quickly and true to his word, Carek was the first one through the docking ring. StJohn, Kyle, Rathbone, and Leland met them at the ring. Leland had his fists on his hips and his eyes blazed with fire.

And just where in the south side of Kashyyyk did you all run off to? AND HOW?" Leland fumed.

As to how, I’m not too clear on that one. Short answer is that cloud breeched the hull and we just stepped through the breech." Carek faltered at this point. Um... er... as to where, well that’s even less clear. We... um... um... were one with the Force.”

What the hell does that mean?"

How about you tell me what happened to you. Maybe by the time you’ve finished I’ll have an answer."

What happened to us? Well after finding four of our crew missing, we stayed on station and wrung the sensors dry trying to figure out what happened to you. You see we were so concerned about you guys, we ended up losing track of time. We realized that when we were hailed by the Predator. We prepared to fight, but..." He smacked his forehead. WITH HALF OUR CREW MISSING WE WERE TOO SHORT HANDED TO FIGHT!"

Uh maybe I should tell the rest of it Leland." Said Kyle stepping between Leland and Carek. We didn’t have enough people to man both ships and well you know how attached to the Collector Leland is, so we cut the Hawk loose and ran for it. Rathbone ran engineering, Leland and StJohn took the bridge, and I manned a turret. Leland punched it and we were off to the races."

The Predator didn’t have the speed to keep up with us and since the Imperials didn’t have an idea what was going on, they hailed us again." Added StJohn speaking for the first time.

You know the typical ‘heave to and prepare to be boarded’ stuff, which was pretty normal. What about spun me for the final jump was that it was Maldamon that hailed us." Leland joined in, in a far more restrained tone.

Maldamon!" Carek hissed.You mean I didn’t kill him?"

 Guess not." Said Leland. I can tell you I about jumped out of my skin when his face showed up on the screen."

Okay so far, but what happened to the Predator? Asked Roberts. You said you only had one turret manned and were running away. What took it out?"

The four men that did not enter the cloud shook their heads as one.

We don’t know." Kyle said very softly. I was in the best position to see from the aft dorsal turret and I still don’t know what happened. One minute I’m laying down suppressive fire, more to make me feel better than for all the effect it was having, and the next minute explosions started all over the ship. Maybe two seconds later you hailed us."

Yeah, right after Kyle told us about the explosions, you guys called." Said StJohn.

And speaking of you guys, let’s get back to where you guys went to and how you ended up on the Hawk. Carek?" Leland stared pointedly at the would-be Jedi.

Like I said Leland, somehow we stepped into the Force and became one with it. That cloud was the most powerful manifestation of the Force I’ve ever encountered."

You may have become ‘one with the Force’ Carek." Roberts interrupted. All I know was I floated in total nothingness for what my chronometer says was a year."

A year! That can’t be right. You were only gone for about eighteen hours." Said StJohn.

Look at your chrono Carek." Roberts replied, his arms crossed, his jaw set.

“It says he’s right."

Mine does too." Lazarus added looking at his timepiece as if it had turned unnoticed into a Rodian Pit Viper.

Only one way to know for sure." StJohn offered. The med bay scanners can tell us who is right."

Let’s do it." Agreed Carek.

 

That thing needs to be recalibrated."  Lazarus said with finality.

We’ve checked it six times Laz." An exasperated Rathbone replied. There’s no mistake. You have all aged a full year."

Lazarus scratched his head. I know what the scanner says, but it just doesn’t seem possible."

Well going by all the things we’ve seen in the week, this is actually pretty tame." Roberts added trying to be philosophical. He turned to face Carek. Do you have any answers?"

I wish I had an answer for you." Carek replied after a long pause. I just wish Master Havsoltek would just explain it to you. I... I..."

What’s wrong Carek?" Said Lazarus jumping down from the sick bed.

What do you mean?” Leland started, then stopped cold when he saw how pale Carek had gone."

Th-th-th-that’s n-n-not possible!" Carek gasped.

What’s not possible?" Demanded StJohn. I’m getting damned tired of hearing ‘That’s not possible.’ Half the things I’ve seen since we jumped from basestation Heracles have been impossible. What’s so special this time?"

Carek swallowed hard and took several deep breaths before being able to speak.

I..." His voice cracked and he had to try again.

I saw my Master in that cloud."

Didn’t you say the Empire killed him?" Lazarus asked quietly.

Yes." Carek answered even quieter.

Didn’t you say the Force shows you glimpses of the future? Isn’t it possible it showed you a glimpse of the past?" Asked Kyle.

No you don’t understand." Carek answered his voice finally steady. I didn’t just see him. I trained with him again. Just like on Chandlot before... well, before they killed him."

Oh please." Rathbone rolled his eyes. You’re trying to tell me you’ve been communing with a dead guy for a year?" He turned sharply and said over he shoulder as he departed. I’ve heard enough. I’m going back to engineering and do something constructive."

Don’t pay him any attention Carek." Kyle spat. He hasn’t known you as long as we have. He hasn’t seen the things we’ve seen." He motioned for his friend to continue.

Carek’s face frowned as he tried to pull back the wispy tendrils into actual memories. I don’t know how I could have forgotten seeing Master Havsoltek. He taught me..." Carek blanched white as a ghost again.

Holy Hopping horndogs Carek get to the point." Leland snapped. You’re acting like a Tenellian Courtesan on her first night in a Hutt’s palace."

Carek’s eyes flashed for a second before he put Leland’s comment’s out of his mind.

He taught me the final stage of Jedi training."

And what does that mean? You’re a Jedi Knight now?" Leland said impatiently.

Jedi training covers three distinct phases." Carek continued unfazed now by Leland’s sarcasm. In the first phase you learn how to control how the Force interacts with your own body. Master Havsoltek taught me this back on Chandlot. The second phase teaches the student how to sense the Force and how it interacts with all life. Commander Challis taught me this at basestation Heracles."
    
I’m with you so far and this third part?" Asked Lazarus.

The third phase teaches the student how to actually alter how the Force interacts with others."

Really?" Said Leland his voice dripping with sarcasm. I’m about ready to join Rathbone in engineering. What sort of proof do you have of this new talent of yours?"

Carek closed his eyes and concentrated on Leland’s blaster. Calm now. Find your focus or you’re going to look like an idiot." He thought. Then slowly Leland’s left his holster.

Wha-?" Leland grabbed for his floating weapon.

Carek reached out a caught the weapon and joined the rest of his beaming companions. All beaming that is, except for Leland, whose mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water.

Y-Y-You never... well... I... Well how about that."

They all laughed at Leland’s embarrassment until he joined in, releasing the pent up tension that none of them were even willing to admit was even present.

Leland walked over and slapped Carek on the back. Okay my friend. What do we do next?"
    
I met a-another Jedi Knight in the cloud."
    
Who was this guy? Darth Vader’s uncle?" StJohn chuckled.

Carek was about to snap back when he saw StJohn’s smile. Er... No. His name was Obi-Wan Kenobi and he was a great leader during the Clone Wars. However, that’s not important for the moment. Who he was isn’t as important as what he said."

And that was?" Leland quipped his head canted in mocking inquiry as Carek returned his blaster.

He said we don’t belong here and we had to leave."

Well there’s a newnet flash. That’s what we’ve been trying to do since we got here." Lazarus responded sardonically. And just how are we going to do this.?"

Don’t worry. Obi-Wan told me the way." Carek then turned for the bridge. Secure the Hawk. We’re going back to basestation Heracles."

Why there?" StJohn asked as he joined in along side Carek.

Ra'gnayrr the base administrator is a friend of ours and is the only person I know that would allow an obviously hot Imperial ship to dock and make repairs without asking questions.

Good enough for me."

Once the rebels were all strapped down, Carek moved to the navcomputer. He placed his hands lightly on the keyboard and let the Force guide his hands across the keys.

StJohn leaned over and whispered to Leland. You do know it was that trick that got us into this mess. Are you sure we should trust him again?"

He’s changed somehow. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but yes I do trust him."

Before StJohn could reply the ship leapt into hyperspace. StJohn let out a breath, that he hadn’t realized he was holding. He slowly opened his eyes, that he hadn’t realized he had closed and beheld the mottled effect of a ship in hyperdrive.

Carek smiled with a satisfaction he had never known before. A cheer went up around the bridge as he closed his eyes and thought. Master Havsoltek, I am by no means a Jedi Knight, but now that you have given me the means, I will make you proud sir. I will make you proud."

 

Chapter Seven


“I know you gentlebeings are very busy, but may I have a moment of your time?” Asked Ra'gnayrr from the brige entrance of the Rex’s Revenge.

     Leland and StJohn looked up wearily from the astrogation computer and sighed simultaneously. “Sure we could use a break.” StJohn answered. “This reprogramming is more tedious than I remember. It’s been years since I’ve had to cold program a galactographic database.”

     Leland stood and stretched, then noticed that Ra’gnayrr wasn’t alone. “Who’s your friend?”

     Ra’gnayrr stepped aside to let a golden furred Wookiee onto the bridge. “The closest a human can get to his name is Halasa and he is why I needed to speak to you. You’ll need to call the others of your group.”

     “Sure Ra’gnayrr.” StJohn replied his eyebrow raised in an unanswered question.

     If the Quarren noticed StJohn’s expression, he ignored it and waited for the rest of the crew of newly renamed captured imperial customs frigate to assemble on the now crowded bridge.

     “I’d like you to meet Halasa.” He said indicated his silent companion. “As you all know, I have a soft spot for lose causes.” His tentacles curling in the Quarren equivalent of a smile. “Halasa escaped from a rather stupid slaver and has been taking refuse here at Heracles. He would like to join you on your quest to find the Rebel Alliance.”

     The eight would-be rebels looked from one another not quite sure how to respond. Before the silence could become awkward, Carek spoke up. “Does anyone speak Wookiee?”

     “I know a bit.” Replied StJohn.

     “Me too.” Rathbone added.

     “I’m more than willing to act as interpreter.” Said Ra’gnayrr.

     “I’m sure you can Ra’gnayrr, but I’m thinking of what will we do after you’re no longer available.” Said Carek turning to face his comrades. “I’m fairly sure you all know what the Empire thinks of aliens and what the Empire is doing on Kashyyyk. I will put it to a simple vote, but I find it hard to believe any self respecting Wookiee would be an Imperial spy.”

     Halasa snarled at this, startling everyone.

     “He said he’s not a spy.” Ra’gnayrr answered.

     StJohn chuckled. “Er… he said it a little more colorfully than that, but that would be the polite translation.”

     The vote was unanimous to let Haslasa join team Bantha. On seeing that the rest of the group felt the same as he did, Carek walked over to offer his hand to Halasa. “Welcome to our group Halasa, we look forward working with you.”

     Halasa let loose a long stream of growl in response and Carek turned to Ra’gnayrr.

     “He asked ‘When do we start breaking Imperial skulls?’”

     Lazarus smiled. “I like the way this guy thinks.”

     “I have one more bit of information that Halasa asked me not to mention until you made your decision. As he wanted to be accepted on his own, rather than the simple expediency of having a skill you happen to need at the moment.” Said Ra’gnayrr.

     “Spill it squid face.” Laughed Leland.

     Ra’gnayrr shook his head in obvious delight. “Mister Archimedes let it never be said you don’t know how to get to the point. Halasa was a student at the University of Kashyyyk before the Empire enslaved his world. He majored in astrophysics and cosmology and would be the perfect person to reprogram your navicomputer.” “Thank the Great Diety!” StJohn shouted. “When can you start?”

      A short grunt and Halasa moved to the navigation console.

     “Even I understood that one.” Said Leland as he moved out of the way. “Ra’gnayrr I don’t know how to thank you.”

     “Find your friends and kill the Emperor is thanks enough.”

     “We’re working on it friend, we’re working on it.

 

     “Ready to undock.” Said Leland from the helm of Rex’s Revenge.

     “Clear skies and good hunting.” Ra’gnayrr replied from the control station of Heracles.

     “Thank you again Heracles, one day we’ll actually be able to pay you back for all your assistance.” Carek replied.

     “We’ll be here.”

     “Okay where to next?” Asked Leland from the helm of Rex’s Revenge.

     “Same place we always go for information. Tatooine and Dag Caltare.” Said Carek. “He’s always had the straight story.”

     A short growl from Halasa at the Navigation console let the rest of the bridge crew know the course was plotted and layed in. The ship jumped to Hyperspace and her crew finally had the luxury of relaxing.

The laborious reprogamming of the navigation computer had taken four long days and this was the first full test of the system.

     A long sigh drew Carek’s attention and he walked over to it’s source. Hawk. “We’ll get her back, don’t you worry.” He said slapping StJohn on the back.

     “I wish I had your confidence.”

     “I know its tough on a captain to be away from her ship, but once we hook back up with the Rebellion, we’ll need her.”

     StJohn ran his hand through his hair and sighed again. “I’ll take your word on that on Carek.”

     “If we had more…”

     “I know the argument Carek. We don’t have enough people to man both ships and this frigate is ‘worth more and the Hawk is no combat vessel.’ I was there for the whole debate and even though I accept the argument, I still don’t like having my ship out of my control.”

     “Okay StJohn, I’ll let it be. However, you’ll see I’m right. I KNOW we’re going to see her again.”

     “I’m never going to get used to those Force.”

     Carek grinned before he answered. “It’s taken me my whole live to feel comfortable with them, so I don’t expect you to be ready yet.”

     “Thank you for that reassurance.” StJohn replied sarcastically.

 

     The trip to Tatooine passed quickly and rather than have to bluff their way past the small Imperial garrison, the rebels used the cover of a sand storm to approach Mos Eisley undetected. Landing at night in a remote area to minimize chances of discover, Kyle and Carek hiked into the infamous space port.

     “This is impossible!” Dag Caltare exclaimed before hugging both of his dust covered friends. “You were on Alderaan dying.”

     “Well it was a close run thing, but dead we are not my friend.” Carek replied and then moved to a darker corner of the cantina. “Once again, we need your help Dag.”

     “Have it you have. What are you needing?”

     “Directions.” Said Kyle in his typical to the point way.

     Dag’s lekku twitched at this. “To where?”

     “As embarrassing as this sounds, we’ve lost contact with the rebellion. It seems you aren’t the only ones that thought we were dead. When they left Heracles, they didn’t leave directions on how to find them.”

     “Don’t know.” Dag shook his head sadly. “Where those of Heracles are to be going I was not informed. However, I am knowing an Alliance corvette will be making a visit to Dantoonie in…” He looked at his chronometer and did some mental calculations. “Fifteen hours.”

     “Fifteen hours!” Both Carek and Kyle exclaimed.

     “We’ll never make it.” Said Kyle.

     “We don’t have a choice, some how we’ll have to get there.” Carek said grimly and turned to the Twi’lek. “Thank you once again Dag, as you know we’ve got to get moving.”

     “Luck to you my friends.”

     “May the Force be with you.” Said Carek quietly.

      The two men raced back to the Rex’s Revenge and quickly briefed their friends. Leland, Halasa, and StJohn almost knocked each other over darting to the navigation computer.

     “It can’t be done.” Said StJohn gloomily.

     “If you can’t help get out the way!” Leland snapped. “Halasa?”

     A series of non committal growls.

     “Then let’s get working. This is going to be close. Rathbone I’m going to need your help.”

     “How?”

     “We’re going to have to push the hyperdrive pretty hard and you’ll have to keep a close eye on them.” Said Leland.

     Rathbone turned to Lazarus. “I’m going to need your help then. These engines are more complex than the Hawk’s and there’s supposed to be a crew of four back there.

     “Let’s do it then.” Lazarus replied over his shoulder as he headed for engineering.

     Rathbone looked a bit surprised and then rushed to follow Lazarus. “Do you think he can do it?” He asked once they were out of earshot.

     “Leland’s a typical cocky full of himself space jockey, but he is good and going by what StJohn told me about how good Halasa is, I think we better be ready.”

     “Then we will be.”

 

     “I’m ready with the coordinates, have got the calculation?” Asked Leland the whole bridge could feel the tension in his voice.

     Halasa emitted one sharp growl in response.

     “We’re as ready as we’ll ever be Carek.”

     “Bridge to engineering, full power,”

     “Full power aye.” Answered Lazarus.

     Carek at the helm, accelerated the sleek customs frigate to it’s maximum sublight speed and smiled when it held at five percent over it’s rated maximum.

     “When you’re ready Leland.” He said.

     Leland mumbled a short plea to what ever deity watched over spacers and activated the hyperdrive. The ship fairly lept into hyperspace and after opening his eyes he saw the mottled tunnel that was the signature effect of a stable hyperspace field.

     “Piece of cake.” He exhaled.

      “You’d never admit it if it wasn’t would you Rammer?” Said Kyle his eyes sparkling with mirth.

     “DON’T CALL…” Then Leland saw Kyle’s expression and started to laugh. “I fall for that one every time it seems.”

     “Yes you do.” Kyle laughed along with the rest of the crew. The tension released, the rebels could only wait for their arrival at Dantoonie to see if they would re-establish contact with the Rebellion.

 

     Deep in the Imperial archives on Coruscant, a man in an Imperial Security uniform was escorted to a secure terminal.

     “Here you go Lieutenant. Your clearance has been verified and the files you requested transferred to here. I must remind you that you are not authorized to download anything from this terminal.” Said the archive clerk.

     “Thank you for your assistance.” The lieutenant replied. Once the clerk departed he activated the surveillance scrambler to ensure his privacy.

“It took me three weeks to locate Maldamon’s backup copy of his personal files and I’ll be a sithspawn if I know how long it will take me to slice the encryption on them. But I will crack them and hunt down those responsible for the loss of the Predator and my mentor.” At that Lieutenant Rahos and made himself as comfortable as he could as he knew this was going to take awhile.


     The newly renamed Rex’s Revenge dropped out of hyperspace exactly on target and on time in the Dantoonie system. Her sensors reached out and found the Alliance Corvette Apocalypse right where it was supposed to be.

“This is Alliance special operations team Bantha. Please acknowledge. Over.” Said Carek from the communications station, his voice controlled but tense.

There was an ominous pause as they watched the Corvette bring her main battery to bear.

“If they don’t respond soon, going to go evasive. I’m not getting this ship shot up.” Leland hissed.

“We know Leland we know.” StJohn replied wearily pinching his nose bridge in an effort to quell the headache that had suddenly started pounding between his eyes. “Are they even listening?”

“As near as I can see. I’m sure they are checking up on the status of team Bantha.” Carek replied.

“Imperial vessel stand down your weapons and engines. If you resist in any way we will open fire.” A no nonsense voice barked over the comm.

“Great they think we’re Imperials.” Snarled Leland.

“What did you expect? The ship’s ID is still registered as an Imperial ship. We’re lucky they aren’t shooting already.” Said Kyle as he entered the bridge.

“Look at that.” Said StJohn pointing at the viewscreen. Everyone on the bridge saw two B-Wing fighters launch from the Corvette, then two more. The four fighters took up over watch around the captured ship, then the Apocalypse moved in closer to dock.

“I’ve never seen a Corvette configured as a carrier before.” Lazarus said slowly as he and Rathbone entered the bridge. The stand down order had been piped through the ship and to prevent any accidents, the entire crew assembled on the bridge to make it as clear as possible that they were not resisting. Everyone heard the muted clang of the Apocalypse’s docking ring connecting to the frigate’s airlock and the sound of footfalls.

Four Alliance security men entered the bridge by twos.

“Blink and you’ll die in the dark!” The sergeant growled as they moved to cover the would be rebels. Four more security entered the bridge and quickly disarmed the members of team Bantha. Once they were disarmed and in binders, a pair of officers joined them on now impossibly crowded bridge.

“I am Captain Arkin of the Alliance Corvette Apocalypse. Team Bantha was lost on Alderaan. You really should have invested more time in your cover story. Who are you? ISB? COMPNOR?”

“Carek spoke first. “Sir I am Sergeant Carek Argonaut. I know our last know whereabouts was Alderaan, but we escaped four days before it was destroyed. We had a hyperspace mishap and crashed in the Cypryn system. We were tracked and fought our way out of a vicious ambush losing two members of our team and our ship-”

“A convenient explanation for you being on board an Imperial ship.” Arkin said sarcastically.

“-we booked passage on another ship, encountered this ship, then turned the tables the crew when they tried to board us.”

“I see. Do you have anyway to prove this fantasy?”

“Are you always this big a jerk?” Asked Leland heatedly.

“Excuse me?” Arkin’s voice dropped to absolute zero.

“You’ll have to forgive Leland sir, he’s not much on formality.” Kyle deadpanned.

“Are you all trying to get spaced? I have no patience for levity or infiltrators. I don’t know who you fools think you are but, I’ve got the perfect place you to cool your heels while I sort this out. Take them!” Arkin snarled, spun on his heel and left abruptly.

The rebels were unceremoniously dumped in the Apocalypse’s brig and left to ponder their fate.

“Listen.” Rathbone hissed.

“To what?” Andre replied.

“The ship is firing.” Lazarus answered his head canted to one side as he concentrated on the faint sounds. “We’ve stopped firing. That was quick. What do you suppose that was all about?”

“I don’t know but I have a bad feeling about it.” Said Leland.

Before anyone could reply, they all felt the ship jump to light speed. Team Bantha got no answers to their questions and had no contact with the Apocalypse’s crew except for a droid that had obviously be programmed not to talk them that brought them food twice a day. It was three days before they saw a living member of the crew when Captain Arkin himself visited them.

“As much as I don’t like it, medical scans verify you are who you say you are. Except for you three.” He said indicating StJohn, Rathbone, and Andre. “There’s no record of you. So you will have to stay in the brig.”
     “Hey these guys saved our bruallkee on Cypryn!” Said Lazarus. “They joined the rebellion and even offered us the use of their ship. We can all vouch for them.”

“And where is this phantom ship of theirs? It amazes me how you manage not to have any hard evidence of your story.”

 “It’s stored at basestation Heracles. Our base of operations before we got separated from Commander Challis.” Lazarus replied a little too sharply.

“Again it amazes me how convenient it is that Heracles is too far from our destination for me to verify that.”

Carek sighed deeply and used the Force to calm his mind from the exasperation he felt at Arkin before he replied.

 “Sir these are good people that have given up everything to join the rebellion. It is our recommendation that you accept them as not being Imperial agents.”

Arkin’s eyes narrowed and hardened into flint. “If anything happens to my ship because of them or you. I will have you flayed.”

“Thank you for your support sir.”

The rebels were shown to austere quarters and pretty much told to stay out of the way. Few of the ship’s regular crew would speak to them, but through careful questioning of the droids, team Bantha found that the Apocalypse was going to conduct a fighter raid on the Kiosk system.

“Now’s our chance to show them what we can do!” Leland exclaimed as soon as he heard the news.

“I’m pretty sure they have all the pilots they need Leland. What makes you think Arkin will trust you on this mission?” StJohn replied in the same glum voice he’d had since leaving Heracles.

“Because I’m the best pilot on this tub and I’m going to prove it!” Leland answered hotly and stormed toward the hanger deck.

The rest of the team followed to see how far Leland would get before he got thrown back into the brig. He cornered the officer of the deck and began his pitch to go on the raid. To his credit the office let Leland finish before he started to laugh.

“I have to admit you’ve got a lot of nerve thinking you can pilot one of the horsemen.” He chuckled. “I suggest you get off the flight deck and let professionals do the flying.” He then turned and went over to make sure his fighters were ready.

Leland was so dumbfounded that he couldn’t reply. Kyle walked over and led him to an observation viewport that the rest of team Bantha had congregated near.

“I don’t think anyone’s ever laughed at me like that before.” Leland said quietly.

“It’s pretty obvious that Arkin has never smiled in his life and flat doesn’t trust us. I don’t know what we are going to do to gain his trust either.” Lazarus said sadly. “I think I prefer being shot at to being consigned to oblivion.”

“I agree.” Kyle added.

Team Bantha stood and watched the raid unfold from the view port. The four rider’s of the Apocalypse: Death, Famine, Pestilence, and War launched as soon as they exited hyperspace.

Their target was a lone Imperial Nebulon-B escort and they’d caught it completely by surprise. The heavy fire power of the modified B-Wings stripped the target of her shields and sub light drive on their first pass. Crippled and unable to avoid the ravening fighters on the second pass, a string of protons gutted the escort and left it a burning hulk. The third pass completely destroyed what was left.

     “Well that was brutal.” Said a stunned Carek.

     “Guess that’s the point.” StJohn replied.

     “See I told you I was better than those guys.” Said Leland pointing out the two fighters that were limping back damaged. “The other two guys seem to be okay, but I’m still the best.”

     “Do you ever get tired of telling your self that?” Asked Lazarus.

     “Why should I when it’s true?”

     The fighters were recovered quickly and the Apocalypse jumped back into hyperspace. The team was still at the view port when Captain Arkin entered the room. He looked the team up and down, then spoke without preamble.

     “I’ve gotten word from Alliance headquarters. They would not tell me when this Commander Challis of yours is located. Instead, they told me I could use a special ops team and that I was stuck with you. I know this pleases you about as much as it pleases me, which is to say not at all. Since I wasn’t given the choice, I want you to stay out of my way until I can figure out what to do with you.” He then spun on his heel and left without looking back.

     “And to think I thought Challis was hard to get along with.” Said Leland dejectedly.

     “For once Leland, I think we all agree with you.” Replied an equally dejected Carek.